I'll never qualify as a Saudi driver until I can drive while holding my cup of coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, while talking on my mobile and holding the steering wheel between my knees. Heck, seems I can't even manage the coffee part.
I was driving back home from Starbucks yesterday with the children, and went to retrieve my Latte from the cupholder in the centre armrest by grabbing it around the top like one of those fairground cranes. A manouevre I've done many times before but this time the plastic lid came off and a frantic twenty seconds ensued, during which I was trying to steer with my left hand, holding the cup up in front of me with my right, yelping, braking, looking in my mirror, scalding my groin, splashing coffee all over the steering wheel and instrument panel, and my groin again, and trying to stop without colliding with anything.
Elliot and Abigail thought it was quite funny but I can assure you my groin was not amused, and now the whole car smells of coffee.
Right, I have two objectives this hot and sunny Saturday morning: to finish off our Malaysia holiday by showing you some snaps of Langkawi, and to get that hideous dog off the top of the page (it's amazing what surprises an internet search can dig up).
I know this has taken a while and other stories have gotten in the way but I thought splitting the Malaysia stuff up a bit would make a nice change from last August when you got nothing but Thailand Thailand Thailand from me for about a month.
So, our second Malaysian location was the islands of Langkawi, off the west coast of the mainland and a one hour flight Northwest of KL. The Pelangi Beach resort is one of those hotels where the rooms are built as a "village" of small houses along the beach, with lush, landscaped tropical gardens and lots of palm trees. Each house contained four or eight rooms, depending on its size.
It's hard not to have a great time in a place like this, and I won't bore you with all the luxury of it. Suffice it to say we loved it and returned to Riyadh refreshed, chilled, and thoroughly rested.
And now some piccies...
Our "front garden"
The smaller of the resort's two pools
...which we had almost to ourselves for a week -- wonderful!
How nice! A little flag to wave whenever you fancy a drink or a bite to eat poolside.
Trip to Bird Paradise on the other side of the island
...which apparently also incorporates Rabbit Paradise.
There's a 30-minute steep uphill trek over rough terrain to get to this waterfall. Minutes after I took this, Abigail slipped on the rock and went in the water up to her chest!
Abigail in her element.
No, not another free cocktail! Oh well, if I must...
Pick a card...
Overall a fantastic holiday which I would recommend to anyone. Great as it was though, my heart still belongs to Thailand.
While writing the previous post I did a Google Image Search on the word "Mobily" to find a copy of their logo, and on the first page of hits I found (the logo and) a REALLY SERIOUSLY freaky picture. It's so freaky I'm scared to go to bed because I will have nightmares about it.
I will post this picture here tomorrow. Stay tuned!
There are only two mobile phone networks in Saudi Arabia: Al Jawal is "the Daddy", in that it is owned by Saudi Telecom and is by far the larger of the two, and then there's Mobily, which started off at about the same time we arrived here less than two years ago. Mobily is the new young hopeful, and probably the faster growing of the two.
Mobily tries to project a young, modern image, and goes to great lengths to attract young Saudis in its advertising, come up with attractive price plans and so on. I must have been wooed by their marketing because I chose Mobily for the childrens' phones, and therefore I get two bills from them every couple of months (the price plans here are for two months rather than monthly -- I've never understood why). The problem with these bills is that they are in Arabic, so I can't read them. I've asked Mobily to send my bills in English several times, and if you look up my customer record in their database it says "Requested Bill Language = English" on the screen, but when the bills arrive they're still in Arabic. Oh well, I can always go into one of their stores to pay, and the helpful staff will tell me how much I owe.
One thing that amuses me about these bills is the little advert they always stick in the envelope. Every time there's an A4 sheet advertising something or other -- I can't tell what -- but the pictures are often quite funny. Take a look at the latest one for example:
click to enlarge
Ad Exec #1: What image can we come up with to tell our customers that the whole Mobily team is here to support them, and that they'll always have our power behind them? Ad Exec #2: Erm.... I know! Let's use a Formula 1 theme! #1: Formula 1.. what's that? #2: They have it in Bahrain and now Abu Dhabi too. It's a car race. We can have a picture of a pit crew. #1: A what? #2: A pit crew. It's a gang of technicians whose job is to refresh the car's fuel and tyres as quickly as possible. Some of them can do it in under seven seconds! #1: I'm not quite following you. What does that have to do with mobile communications? #2: Well, nothing directly, but it's a glamorous, fast-paced world that our young customers will want to be associated with. #1: Maybe, but I'm not sure they'll get the message from a picture of a racing car. #2: No no, you don't understand. That's just it! We'll brush out the car and replace it with a man in a thobe sitting in an office chair surfing the net on his laptop. #1: What's that guy with the big hose doing? It looks like he's about to spray petrol over the guy's foot! #2: Umm, well... er... that hose... could symbolise the information superhighway! #1: Brilliant! Let's do it!
It wouldn't surprise me to see the job of Advertising Manager for Mobily in the Situations Vacant section of tomorrow's Arab News.
We're all Harry Potter fans in our house. Well, Karen and the children like it more than I do. I used to be into it all when we first discovered him, and when the film series started, but now I feel a bit jaded by the HP "machine", and am looking forward to the new movie and the new book with growing indiference.
However, I'm also a Dad and a bit of problem solver, so while I'm not going to lose any sleep over how long I have to wait for my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I still want to do the right thing by the rest of the family and ensure we get hold of it as soon after the launch as we can. But how soon? Remember we're in Saudi Arabia, the strictest Islamic country in the world, so we're not likely to see it on the bookshelves here anytime soon. In fact there is only one retail chain in Riyadh that sells English books (Jarir Bookstore), and their selection isn't usually that great.
So, Superdad to the rescue! I know, I'll pre-order a copy on Amazon.co.uk. We only get one postal delivery a week from the UK so it will take at least a week after launch before we get our hands on it, but that's the best we can do here isn't it? Wait, I can go one better. Let's order TWO copies, then we can all get it read that much quicker.
Early last week I received an email from Amazon.co.uk telling me that they were "preparing your order for dispatch". How exciting! On Saturday morning (Launch Day) I told Elliot and Abigail that our two copies would soon be on their way, and felt quite good about myself for about three hours, until Abigail's friend Ellie arrived in the afternoon for a sleepover. She walked in with a large book under her arm. "What's that you've got there Ellie?" I ask "Oh, it's the new Harry Potter." she says casually. "I got it from Jarir this morning."
I never used to like going to the dentist. Probably a symptom of my childhood dental treatment, of which there was a lot and it was nowhere near as sophisticated (or painless!) as it is today. I even remember being put to sleep with a gas mask over my face before having teeth extracted. So even though I know today's dentistry is little more than mildly uncomfortable, I still dread the approaching appointment as if I were ten years old again.
Our local dental surgery is the Gama Dental Clinic. Well, I say local... it's a twenty minute drive away and we go past at least three others to get to it, but it's the one the Embassy recommended to us. It's a large surgery with at least ten treatment rooms. All the dentists are either South African or Indian and all the assistants, receptionists and hygienists are from the Philippines.
Gama Dental Clinic on Old Airport Rd.
I'm in the middle of some treatment at the moment to have a couple of crowns and to replace some old metal fillings that are starting to expand and crack my teeth. (that just brought back a memory of swilling clear pink mouthwash and spitting bits of metal into a steel bowl, while you struggle to detach the last stringy drip of mouthwash from your numbed lip and end up having to wipe it off with a tissue. They don't have those bowls, or the mouthwash, any more do they? I haven't seen them for years). In fact the treatment I get here is the least painful I've ever had. It could be the same in UK now, but here they have a pink anaesthetic gel that they rub on your gums which numbs them from feeling even the main anaesthetic injection. Does your dentist have that? I'd never seen it before coming to Riyadh.
I went last week to have a crown done, and I go back tomorrow to have the temporary crown removed and the new permanent one fitted. This will be a shorter visit than they think, because the temporary crown fell out this morning as I was driving along the Northern Ring Road at 140km/h (think I'll leave the chewing gum alone for a few weeks til it's all over).
While I'm in "Dentist Mode" I decided to take Abigail for a check-up, partly because she's got an adult canine coming through and the loose baby tooth below it is refusing to give way, and partly because -- with Karen and Elliot working at the Embassy and Abigail off school -- we've got nothing else to do. The dentist offered to remove the loose tooth but Abigail politely declined, preferring to wait a week or so for nature to take its course. But, our dentist also spotted some decay and promptly gave Abigail her first and second fillings. We weren't expecting that, as she has very good teeth, but this was a sobering reminder to her to keep them clean and cut back on the sugar. I sat with her during the treatment, so of course got bored and started snapping photos with my phone.
Waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in
This was the first time Abigail had felt that numb feeling in her mouth and she quite enjoyed the experience, until it started wearing off of course.
Blogging about the dentist is quite therapeutic. I don't feel worried about tomorrow anymore.
Took all three of these photos in a single shopping trip. Shopping here is a curious mix of the familiar and the downright strange. At least that's how it felt at first. We're used to the strange bits now but still sometimes have to do a double-take to make sure we just saw what we think we just saw.
The checkout at Marks & Spencers. I'm sure the westerners in the posters are the same in every M&S branch internationally, only here they've got those pointless pixel-masks over their eyes.
"I'll have a grande low-fat triple Latte and a teddy bear please."
"Ninja Barbie" at Debenhams. Even the dolls are prohibited from exposing their flesh in public. I wonder if they're only allowed to play with male dolls from the same factory?
Still covering our Malaysia holiday in dribs and drabs. You can tell my brain's in a bit of a mixed up state at the moment can't you?
Readers of the recently retired Bloody Marvellous! will know that I've had my eye on a particular watch: the Omega Seamaster GMT. Trouble is it's a bit pricey so while I'm saving up I thought I'd try to find an imitation one in one of KL's most famous night markets.
Jalan Petaling's night market
The night market on Jalan Petaling in Chinatown is renowned for having cheap copies of just about any designer accessory you'd care to mention. It's a huge, bustling, noisy, cramped labyrinth of stalls, a real pickpocket's paradise, and there's me with my Nikon digital SLR slung nonchalantly over my shoulder! And talk about the Hard Sell; at least twice a frustrated stall owner physically held on to one of us when we started to walk away without buying anything and Karen had to use her Foreign Office Voice to effect a speedy release.
The KL branch of CrapWatches "R" US
Just about every watch stall (and we visited a few!) had a "Nomega" GMT, and all were asking around 280 Ringgit, which is about £40 Sterling. Not too bad when you consider the original costs around £1500, but still this was "before discount" and just like in Life of Brian you're expected to haggle. I started at 100 Ringgit and gradually upped my offer to 140, whereupon the "salesman" gave me a sob story about his cost price and how he wasn't going to make any money. We finally agreed on 150 Ringgit, or just over 20 quid, and I thought I'd got a pretty good deal considering he would also adjust the bracelet into the bargain.
The Real Thing
My new watch stopped working two weeks later. I've tried shaking it (that's how you're supposed to charge it up) and it'll go again for a while but then stop when you most need it not too, which is all the time. I've done a little TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) calculation and my £20 watch that lasted two weeks has cost me £10 per week of use. Now, the real Omega that costs £1500 should conservatively be expected to work properly for five years at the very least, so even with a pessimistic view the cost per week of use would be around £5 -- half as expensive as the cheap copy.
The Fake Thing
There. That's the cost justification argument wrapped up. Now all I need to do is to secure budget approval from my Financial Director.
The film tie-in marketing campaigns regularly employed by global brands like McDonalds and Chevrolet don't quite work in a country with no cinemas, but do they tailor their marketing strategy to suit the local culture? Of course not, that would reduce profits!
Want a Shrek the Third Happy Meal? No problem. Want to see Shrek the Third? Problem!
I wonder how many Saudis recognise this giant yellow robot from the new Transformers movie.
My Crocs are the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. The trouble is they look a bit dorkish. Very dorkish truth be told. A plastic, oversized clog that looks designed for Lego Men. Still, it's a beach shoe. You can wear them in the sea and not cut your feet on small stones and broken shells, so that's good.
Mine aren't pink! They're a butch Army Green.
Originally I regarded them as a slipper replacement. What could be better? All comfy and cosy at home in my crocs with no-one to see me except my family, who gave up on my appearance years ago. But then I started wearing them to go to the Embassy DVD library, to nip up the shop for a loaf of bread. Later I began wearing them to go to the supermarket. They're easy to put on see? You don't have to bend down or lace them up, you can just step into them on your way out the door.
Then the worst thing happened. As you probably know it gets pretty hot here in Riyadh: 45 - 50 degress is normal in the Summer. It will probably also come as no surprise to learn that bare feet in plastic shoes in 50 degree heat tend to get sweaty. Very sweaty. I've almost fallen over a couple of times, slipping in my own plastic squelchiness. It was then that I had the idea of.... socks.
What a perfect solution! A thin, soft barrier between my skin and the plastic wall of the shoe. Sweat: Be Gone! Socks also make Crocs even more comfortable, something I thought impossible. Of course this combination does have a disadvantage which I'm sure you don't need me to spell out. It's a look only professional standers can get away with: nurses, dental assistants.
But what am I showing the world with this forsaking of image and style to worship the God of Comfort? An enlightened being at a level of maturity who transcends the phoney, shallow fads of modern living to find spiritual calm, or a grumpy middle-aged man on a slippery slope to senility and sennapods?
I sort of care which, but not enough to take my socks off.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Malaysia's independence from British Rule, and everywhere we went in KL we saw this logo:
Considering this occasion we decided to follow one of the recommended walks in our Lonely Planet guidebook, which took us around some of KL's older, more colonial buildings. The walk began in Merdeka (Independence) Square: a large, open grassy area flanked by colonial buildings that at one time formed the centre of Malaya's Government.
KL's architecture, old and new
The family in Merdeka Square's gardens
At the North end of the square is a 100m-high flagpole that was erected to fly the newly independent country's flag. They claim this is the world's tallest flagpole but, just as with buildings, opinion on the internet is divided about this too.
World's tallest or not, it's flippin' tall!
Those who haven't seen Elliot for a while may be surprised at how much he's grown.
The following day we visited Lake Titiwangsa, a picturesque park just north of the city centre. To celebrate the anniversary they had "Eye on Malaysia": a London Eye- like ferris wheel of air-conditioned capsules that you could ride to get a good view of the city's skyline.
"Eye On Malaysia"
I would guess this one is about one third the size of the London eye, but then this is only a temporary installation for 2007, to celebrate the anniversary. The capsules were smaler but (thankfully) air-conditioned, and where the London Eye gives you only one (slow) rotation for your fare, the Malaysia Eye took us round about six times for only 15 Ringgit (£2) each.
The lake is also popular with courting couples
Nice afternoon for a bike ride
We'd got a taxi to the lake but there were none to be had back to the city, and in KL taxis are not allowed to stop for you anywhere but on official taxi ranks, a fact I discovered only after several minutes of failing to flag one down. In the end we had to walk to the nearest monorail station -- a twenty minute walk in intense heat and humidity running out of bottled water and sweat running down everywhere. Boy, were we glad to finally board the air-conditioned train!
This trip was always going to have big shoes to fill, as it would inevitably be compared with last year's Thailand holiday. Let's see how Malaysia fared in the competition...
I was going to do one big posting about KL, but what with work, social activities and jet lag I'm feeling a bit under the weather at the moment and have not been able to muster the energy. Instead let's break it up into smaller chunks so that you've got SOMETHING to read at least :-)
What's the first thing that comes into your head when you think of KL? I bet (assuming you've heard of KL before and seen pictures) that you just thought of the Petronas Towers didn't you?. These majestic spires are KL's most famous feature by far and they dominate pretty much every view of the city's skyline with their 452 metres. I'm not going to venture a ranking in the league of World's tallest buildings (there are too many opinions as to what does and doesn't qualify and how the measurement should be taken), but the Towers hold a healthy position in every top ten I've seen, so let's just say it's one of the World's tallest buildings and leave it at that.
The Petronas Towers as viewed from the Cocktail Bar in our hotel
So, while the Towers are a claim to fame for KL and undoubtedly bring in lots of welcome tourism revenue, they also kind of upstage anything else KL may have to offer and the city ends up only being famous for one thing, a bit like William Roach (Who? - Ed. Exactly! Perhaps if I said Ken Barlow instead you'd get my point.)
Even more impressive by night!
So, with the Petronas Towers dealt with we can look in the next couple of posts at some other cool things about KL.
We got back to Riyadh yesterday evening after a lovely holiday in Malaysia.
Before going on I feel I must apologise for that moaning last post; I was a bit tiddly and the heat had gotten to me a bit.
Despite the sticky heat the holiday was great and after both this and our Thailand trip last year I can recommend the two-centre approach. The combination of life in the capital city and a resort island gives you a nice contrasting view of the country. We did lots of fun things and got loads of great photos. I'll post some stories about the trip here in a day or two, after I've caught up with work emails and pared down my 300 photos to a more manageable number.
"Wisdom Lover" commented in my post about Last Day at School that he thought this trip would be twice as good as Thailand. Sorry to disagree with you Wisdom... whilst I found this year's holiday more relaxing I would still choose Thailand if I ever planned a return visit.
I'm really, really hot. We went to a place called the Lighthouse for dinner, sat on a sandy beach eating seafood curries. That would've been bad enough but I then decided to finish the evening with drinks in the hotel's main (non-air conditioned) bar, so here I sit half asleep, half-cut, drinking Harvey Wallbangers and writing this drivel. Why am I even bothering? Even typing makes me sweat.
About halfway through our holiday in Malaysia so I thought I'd better drop you a quick line to let you know how we're getting on.
Had a great three days in Kuala Lumpur, staying at the excellent Traders Hotel, just opposite the famous Petronas Towers. Service, Rooms and food were all superb. Highlight of this leg of the trip was the night market on Jalan Petaling, where we bought six watches, including a "Rolex" and an "Omega", and designer purse, bag, belt and sunglassed, all for a grand total of about £50. It's the fake capital of the world!
As I write we're finishing our third day on Langkawi Island and have just finished a day's drive around the island.
Having too good a time to write more right now but will fill in the details when we get back.