Sunday, January 29, 2006


I mentioned before that the shops close during prayer times. There are prayers at midday and again around 3pm, for half an hour each, so in reality most shops close at 12 and then re-open at 4pm, usually staying open til around 10pm (the Saudis are late-birds).
So, we deliberately planned our stop-off at Starbucks to coincide with prayers, so that we could sip our coffee in peace knowing that we weren't missing out on quality shopping time. After prayers at around 12.30 only a handful of shops in the Mall re-opened, but one of them was a sporting goods store, so in we piled!

Joy! They have good quality adult rollerblades in stock!

I've been quietly forming the idea of getting my own in-line skates ever since buying Abigail hers last week; be good to be able to go skating with her, and good exercise for me - I need to get some exercise, plus with the Super Phillips currently off the road with a flat front tyre I need alternative transport.

It'll be great, I'll learn it in no-time; looks easy doesn't it?
The shopkeeper tells me there's 15% off everything in the store, and when I mention I'm from the British Embassy he increases that to 20%... nice!, so I kit myself out: skates, dorky helmet and pads all for under £40, and quite good quality too.

One of the things I like about going to weddings is the opportunity the reception affords me to embarass my children by what I consider to be OK-for-a-bloke-dancing, but what they call "Dad Dancing".

Well guess what? Good news for all you dads out there; you no longer have to wait to be invited to a wedding to embarass your kids. Just buy a pair of in-line skates and have a go at Dad-skating! The embarrassment factor's just as high but you get the added advantage of being able to do it outdoors, in broad daylight!
The technique's fairly simple, just try to skate and the Dad-skating will flow. I managed to get 200 yds in about 20 minutes, holding on to the railings the whole time, until I collapsed from exhaustion and gave up for the day.

The London Skaters website has a page on Top Ten Gumbie Mistakes and I'm proud to say I think I covered all ten in my first outing, including the aptly named, "Windmill of Death". This happens when you don't bend your legs enough and overbalance backwards, so you flail wildly with both arms in an attempt to regain your composure.

I've had another couple of practices since then and I am getting slowly better, but it's exhausting, I'm in agony with my legs and acutely aware that I look a bit of a wally, but none of that's going to stop me (well... not yet anyway).

Weekend - shopping/driving

Decided to borrow an Embassy car and get out and about again this weekend. Riyadh is a big city but we're getting our bearings and finding our way around. If you know the names of the main arteries and use the two towers as reference points it's actually quite hard to get totally lost!
Just next to the school is the Granada Centre - a huge, brand new shopping mall with Carrefour hypermarket. It even has a small amusement park inside complete with rollercoaster!
Most public amenities - cafes, restaurants, swimming pools, buses etc. - are segregated with separate seating sections for men only or for families. We had our first experience of this at Starbucks in the Granada Centre, where we stopped off for a quick Latte. The main counter/area is pretty sparse - more a takeaway booth than a proper seating area, but when you go round the back to the Families Entrance you find about twelve private booths, each with a floor-length curtain across the opening to protect your privacy;

we actually found it to be a nicer experience than Starbucks in the West, where you have much less personal space and there's generally more noise and you're more aware of all the other customers around you.

Riyadh is not a good place for the avid people-watcher. The women are covered from head to toe in black specifically to stop you looking at them, and nobody does anything out of the ordinary, but on the plus side it's a very peaceful atmosphere and you don't get groups of hoodie-clad youths throwing litter and swearing on street corners.

We also had our first go at driving in Downtown Riyadh on a Thursday night. Remember, Thursday is our Saturday so we're out and about after dark on the busiest night of the week - VERY SCARY! I don't have any photos because we were all hanging on for dear life. Olaya Street - one of the major shopping roads - is four lanes in each direction, the traffic lights stay red for ages so all four lanes were packed with stationary vehicles all seeing how close they can get to you without actually touching your car. Nobody was happy with the lane they were in. Cars in the left lane want to turn right at the next junction, cars in the right lane want to turn left, cars in the middle have no idea where they want to go, and so on. Then the split second the lights turn green the air is filled with the car horns of impatient drivers itching to get going. It's like Wacky Races!

We were glad to get home.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Bike & skate shopping

Gulam - another of the Embassy's drivers - picks me up at 9.30 this morning to go shopping. I asked for them to send a car capable of transporting a bicycle, so Gulam turns up in an ancient Toyota Landcruiser pickup truck, which is a testament to the reliability and longevity of Japanese automotive engineering. Gulam knows somewhere I can buy both a bike and some in-line skates so we set off, paying a quick visit to the travel agents on the way to pay for some plane tickets (we're planning a holiday and trip home at Easter).

Last weekend we found inexpensive bikes on sale for around £70 at both Saco World and Carrefour, so I'm expecting Gulam to take me to either a superstore like this, or a bike specialist downtown somewhere. But instead he takes me to an old suburb south of the city called Sumesse (spelling?). I ask him why we're ending up in this rather dilapidated part of town and he says he always takes people here for bikes; who am I to argue?

We park on the street and there are three bike shops in a row, each looking decidedly dodgy to a Western city slicker like me, but I take a deep breath and follow Gulam into the first shop. The place is full of bikes, must be around a hundred, and every single one different in some way from all the bikes I've seen for sale in the UK. It turns out that they're all cheap Taiwanese bikes; everything from adult mountain bikes to little kiddy trikes, to a chopper-style bike branded "Harley".

I take out from the display a 21-speed mountain bike and enquire about the price, which is 250 Riyals or about £38. Amazed at the price I deduce that the quality is probably not that great, and start thinking that if the bikes are thrown together in a factory in Taiwan, and returning a faulty bike for service/exchange would require a return trip to this shop in Gulam's boneshaker of an old pickup, so I decide that the fewer gears the bike has, the less there is to go wrong, so I discard the mountain bike and pull a smart-looking red and blue no-gears bike from the display. The brand is, "Super Phillips"; ah yes, that well-known and renowned manufacturer of quality cycles! But it looks servicable enough, has chrome mudguards front & rear and even a little luggage rack above the rear wheel; just the thing for those daily trips up to the corner shop to buy sour milk and bruised fruit.
"How much is this one?" I ask Gulam, who translates my question for the shopkeeper. It's the princely sum of 150 Riyals, or about £22. I didn't know you could buy any new bike this cheaply, let alone a Super Phillips, and I don't want to offend Gulam by asking to go to a nice brightly-lit superstore in a more civilised part of town, so I'm sold.
It's going to take them a few minutes to "prepare" the bike for delivery, which they do on the step outside on the street; tightening nuts, straightening handlebars and so on. While they get on with that I go to the other side of the shop to look at in-line skates for Abigail. They don't have any here so Gulam and I go the next shop down where he has plenty - only one type but a pair in every size. It's 55 Riyals (about £8.50) for a pair of in-line skates in a bag, complete with helmet, knee and elbow pads, and a set of four orange plastic cones that you can use to set up a slalom course. The price is actually 60 Riyals but Gulam manages to negotiate 5 Riyals' "Embassy discount" for me - good lad!

Both deals done, it's time to lash my new bike onto the back of the pick-up and set off for home (via a supermarket to buy some sour milk).
Gulam's from Pakistan and his English isn't great, but on the way back through Riyadh's heavy - and quite scary - traffic, we have a converstation about which car I should buy.

He's a bit of a 4x4 expert, pointing out to me, "there is Land Cruiser", "there is Prado", "there is Mitsubishi Pajero". When I've got all my documents I'll be going out for a day's 4x4 shopping to all the major dealerships (and possibly the Car Souk), and Gulam wants to be my driver that day.

"So Gulam, which 4x4 is the best to get?"
"Depends on money. If you have money, Land Cruiser is best. If no money, Pajero. Pajero is also good"
"Oh, and what car do you have?"

Gulam has a Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun in the UK), that was already 8 years old when he bought it for 20,000 Riyals (£3000) in 1995. It's now nearly 20 by my reckoning, and he swears blind it's never given him a day's trouble. Good track record, but my last car was a Mitsubishi so I fancy a change, and I think my heart is set on a Land Cruiser.

Gulam drops me off at home and I excitedly rip the bubble wrap off my new Super Phillips and take it for it's inaugural ride. The first thing I notice is that one of the pedals is loose and the two pedals are not opposed in a straight line, then I find that the handlebars move when I pull on them; not good. I paid good (£22) money for this! I can't make any adjustments at home because my tools are still en route here in our Heavy Baggage, so I "get on my bike" and go round to the Embassy to borrow some spanners from the workshop. Once there I meet Bernie, the Embassy's mechanic. Bernie's a really nice chap from the Phillipines who services all the Embassy's cars, and - he tells me - all the staff's bikes in his spare time. Bernie whips both pedals off, diagnoses the problem as a faulty pin, implements a temporary fix with a larger washer and ten minutes later I'm back on the road, thanking Bernie profusely for his help.

The children come home at 3pm and after Abigail has finished her homework she puts on her skates and we go out together; she to try her skates and me to see if I can get to the end of the road and back without something falling off the bike.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Fresh Food, Transport, Guitar Lessons's all related, honest!

Fresh food isn't the same here as in the UK; either the fruit & vegetables are organic, or imported, or both, but basically it tastes good but doesn't' last very long. Likewise fresh milk usually has a "best before" date only a couple of days ahead; it's obviously not treated the same way as milk in the UK. Yesterday I bought a litre of "fresh" milk from a big Hypermarket here, and when I poured it into my tea in the evening, it was sour!
Since I'm a bit of a house-husband here (Karen working at the Embassy and me at home), I'm currently doing most of the food shopping, and because I can't buy a week's worth of fresh stuff at weekends I'm making regular trips to the "corner shop" in the DQ. Flippin big corner though, it's a 20 minute walk away! So for that reason I'm going into town tomorrow to buy a bicycle. I have my own bike coming in Heavy Baggage, but that won't be here for a few weeks, so I'll buy a standard bike that all of us (possibly apart from Abigail)can ride, and we'll share that til mine arrives. Elliot's also dropping hints about buying Barry's quad bike when he returns to UK in the Summer. I'm thinking about it - but not too hard.

We got a letter from school the other day about music lessons; guitar, violin, flute, piano. Before we left, Elliot was learning guitar and Abigail was just starting with flute and was also having informal piano lessons with my Mum every Sunday, but the lessons are much more expensive here and that's put us off going ahead for both of them right away, so we're going to go ahead with Elliot's guitar lessons for now because he's doing really well with it, and review the Abigail situation in a couple of months. As a consolation prize I'm going to buy Abigail the rollerblades she keeps asking for tomorrow when I'm out bike-shopping.

So, stay tuned for the bike-and-skates buying trip story (and photos) tomorrow.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Walk in the Park

Saturday and it's back to school for the children and back to work for Karen and me. My working life is a little strange at the moment, since my weekend is different from the rest of Novell's, but I think it will work out quite well. Monday to Wednesday are the working days we have in common, so I use those mainly for human interaction (phone calls, conference calls, instant messaging etc). Then Thursday & Friday (my weekend) I check email and voicemail periodically and am available on the mobile for anything urgent, and I use Saturday and Sunday (when I'm the only Novell person working) for solo work; writing documents, building demos, email etc.

Anyway, I'm straying from the point of this post aren't I? I mentioned before that the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) where we live is beautifully landscaped, and it is, but it is also very, very quiet. You do see other people from time to time but it's not at all unusual to go for a walk and be the only pedestrians around. There's a large park just down the road from the house where I went for a walk at dusk yesterday with Elliot & Abigail, and we were amazed by how well kept and attractive it is, but above all how empty.

It is a large park as you can see from the photos but we were the only people in it. We did see a few cats - even a cat fight; did I tell you there are stray cats all over the place?

The park has cloisters with climbing plants, fountains, a wide, open area full of palm trees, and a children's playground with slides, rickety bridges, fireman's poles and the like.

It's also next to one of the many Mosques in the DQ, from where we can hear the call to prayer several times a day.

On the way back we stopped off to peer through the gate at our still-being-refurbished permanent house. Latest estimate for moving in is mid-February.

Hmmm, maybe I'll get a car like my neighbour's...

Friday, January 20, 2006


Friday morning, and we're going quad-biking in the desert with the DHM and his three sons, and their two friends. Some of the sons and the friends also go to the same school as our two. We leave Riyadh around 10.15 in the morning and head Southwest on the Jeddah highway in two 4x4s. The weather is bright, sunny, blue skies but only around 16c, and as we leave the city and the landscape gets more desert-y I'm surprised at how rocky it is. I wouldn't call them mountains but there are rock formations everywhere, and along the sides of the highway we see Bedouin tents and herds of camel at regular intervals.

The quad-biking place is about 40 mins' drive out of the city. I didn't know what to expect but I had in my mind an image of a building with a reception desk, toilets, cafeteria etc., and maybe a marked track across the sand dunes to keep everyone going in the same direction... WRONG!

What we found was some Bedouin in scruffy clothes, a few tents by the side of the road (they don't just work here, they live here), and about 50 tatty, battered quad-bikes all lined up and raring to go. Behind the bit by the road with the tents and bikes is a large open area of quite small sand dunes. The "staff" don't speak English but luckly the DHM speaks Arabic so we soon negotiate a price and the kids don their helmets and those who have been before just shoot off and pretty soon are out of sight. It's the first time for us Neals and I'm feeling a bit nervous about the children whizzing up and down the dunes on unfamiliar vehicles.

My worries are vindicated within the first 30 seconds, as Elliot crashes into a bush and Abigail nearly runs into the DHM's car.

Elliot gets the hang of it after a couple of minutes and Karen's well away, but Abigail finds the bike difficult to steer, so I tell her to get on the back with me and we go off in search of the others.

The dunes are not that big but they can drop off quite suddenly, so you have to careful going up a hill because you don't know til you get to the top whether the other side is a gentle slope down or a sheer drop; I found several of these and we landed on the front wheels with a thud. The sand is a deep reddish-orange colour and looks fantastic, but there's also lots of litter around which spoils the scene a bit. The kids are off in the distance somewhere so I just have to assume they're OK and I carry on with Abigail on the back and Karen on her quad.

Abigail's getting a bit upset because she wants to be off with the others but couldn't control the bike, so Karen and I find an open area where there's no-one around (and no peer pressure) and put her on Karen's bike to have another go. This was a good move because this time she got the hang of it quite quickly and had loads of fun shooting up and down the dunes.

When the other kids finally came back at the end of the hour I find out that Elliot had a "prang" - he couldn't stop in time to avoid hitting a big rock and was thrown off as the quad rolled over onto its side, but he wasn't injured and quite enjoyed telling the story.

All in all very good fun, and when we got back to the DQ we finished off the morning with a trip to Starbucks (yes, they're everywhere!).

Parties & Driving

Blimey, I don't post anything for a couple of days and I get loads of email asking me if the novelty's worn off - can't get a moment's peace! (but I'm glad so many people are checking here for new stuff) :)

Anyway, I told you last time that I had a busy weekend coming up, with two dinner parties, my first go at driving here, and then quadbiking, and that I'd tell you all about it, so here we go....

On Wednesday and Thursday evenings we attended two "do's"; one at the Consul's house (about 30 people, including the Ambassador and his wife), and the second at the Deputy Head of Mission (DHM)'s house; about twelve adults and eight children. The first was a buffet style indian meal (delicious) and the latter was a sit-down dinner party (again very nice). Both events gave us a good chance to meet other embassy staff and their partners, and we spent most of the evening picking their brains about life in Riyadh. Also, because both houses are just a few minutes' walk from ours I could have two lemonades instead of the usual one ;)

Had my first taste of driving here on Thursday. Riyadh has the highest road traffic death rate in the world, and the standard of driving is very, very bad. People never indicate, ignore lane markings, get in the right-hand lane at traffic lights then turn left without indicating, etc.
Having been duly warned to "be careful out there", I borrowed a Land Rover Discovery from the embassy (you have to pay so it's sort of hiring the car only cheaper) on Saturday morning and steeled myself before venturing beyond the sedate streets of the DQ.
First job was to fill up with petrol. The tank showed 1/2 full when I rolled onto the gas station forecourt and told the attendant to fill 'er up. He put in 50 litres of petrol which cost me SR45 - about £7. Petrol's almost free here!
We then left the DQ and hit the highway, choosing the quiet weekend roads for our first trip out and sticking to the freeways for the most part.
First stop was Saco World, which is a huge new home improvement store (bit like B&Q), and where I splashed out on a pack of 5 plastic coat hangers for each of the children; they must've known there was no need to thank me, because they didn't.

Next stop was Jarir Bookstore, which sells everything from books (obviously) to computers (less obviously), and where the children bought silicon "skins" for their iPods. The skins are about £20 at the Apple Store, but we paid about £4 each (not the genuine article but just as good).

Then it was on to Carrefour hypermarket for food shopping. the place is pretty big and I deliberately timed our arrival so that we'd be inside shopping when the call to prayer started, because all the shops here close for prayers several time a day but if you're already inside they lock you in and let you carry on shopping until it re-opens about 25 mins later. I won't bore you with what we bought, but we did see some intersting things. For example, there was a good selection of shoes and the clothes were VERY cheap, if a bit asylum seeker-ish in fashion. We also saw our first evidence of censorship: Saudi culture is very conservative - all women are completely covered in black when in public and displays of female flesh are not allowed - so the authorities censor certain images coming from the West - in magazines etc. Here it was in the music CD section, where you could buy a Britney Spears or Mariah Carey album, but their bare shoulders and legs on the cover photo had been covered with black marker pen.

On the driving front: we did see some crazy antics by others but never felt in danger ourselves. It was more amusing than anything else, but I expect I'll feel differently when I first experience downtown Riyadh in the rush hour.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Busy Weekend

Here's where we're going tonight:

...and here's where we're going tomorrow night:

Tomorrow morning I'm going to borrow an Embassy car and we'll get our first taste of driving in Riyadh. Imagine a city-sized Dodgem ride and you'll get the idea! Then on Friday we're going quad biking in the desert with the DHM and his family.

I'll tell you all about it when I get back, assuming I don't have a nasty typing finger accident.

Mobile Phone Shopping

The Embassy has a team of drivers who are available to people who don't have their own transport (mainly women - who are not allowed to drive here, and newcomers like me who don't yet have the required ID documents to buy their own car). They'll take you shopping, they also do the school run every day. Our favourite driver of those we've met so far is Saleh. He's very nice and since he does the afternoon school pick-up every day he's got to know the children and gets on great with them.

Anyway, we want to make sure we can contact the children while we're out here so decided to buy them a mobile phone each. I mentioned this to Saleh last Saturday and he offered to take me to the mobile market in town, where his mate has a shop and he can get me a good price, so we arranged to go on Monday morning.
Once were in the car and on our way, Saleh said we'd stop off first at the new Carrefour hypermarket so that when we get to the market we can compare prices.

As we're walking into the supermarket Saleh started rubbing his chest and complaining of a burning pain. I said it was probably heartburn, which I get regularly so I know whereof I speak, and that he should get some Gavilast or Zantac or something. Unsurprisingly, he shook off this advice, probably because indigestion tablets here are called something completely different and he didn't know what I was on about.

Carrefour has a fair-sized mobile section and I quickly found the "budget" section for tight****s like me, and after some tyre kicking I settled on the Nokia 6030 in black, which Carrefour was selling for SR409, which is about £65. I thought it was an OK price, but Saleh - still rubbing his chest and with the facial expression of one who has just eaten a live worm - insisted that we should go on to the market, as the price will be better there.

The mobile market is a few miles away and is basically just a parade of scruffy shops, each housing about six mobile phone sales units: one or two men and a couple of display cases. We parked the car right outside the shops and started walking along the shopfronts, me feeling conspicuous as the only Westerner in sight and Saleh still pulling a face and moaning about his indigestion.

I need to digress here for a moment and explain how the mobile business works here. Phones and SIM cards don't come together from the network operator or their dealer, like in the UK. Here you have to buy your SIM-free handset (new or secondhand) from wherever, then get yourself a prepay or postpay SIM card direct from the network operator.

Back in the mobile market with Saleh and his heartburn, and after browsing a couple of shops and checking prices of the Nokia 6030 (would you believe, about 30 Riyals MORE than in Carrefour!), we end up at his mate's stall, where after some haggling I am offered two 6030s for SR420 each, including a 3-year guarantee. It's' still not as good as Carrefour but by now I feel obliged to Saleh for bringing me out here so we do the deal. Saleh says he wants to buy something for Abigail so he spends a few Riyals on phone accessories (neckstraps, bling bling attachments, that sort of thing; he's very nice and I thank him profusely.

Then it's off to Saudi Telecom for SIM cards. STC operate the Al Jawal network, and until recently were the only player in town. That is, until Mobily came along. Mobily are the new kids on the block and are doing lots of advertising and making sure they are more competitive than Al Jawal to win customers. I know there's a Mobily shop in the DQ, but first we check out what's on offer at Al Jawal. They charge SR70 (about £10) per month, but all calls and texts are extra. I know that Mobily have a tarriff at SR65 per month that includes 100 minutes of calls, so Saleh drives me back to the DQ and leaves me at the shopping centre, where I get the SIM cards sorted. This Mobily deal is so much better than Al Jawal, there must be a catch....

The children come home from school and are delighted with their new phones, and Karen and I spend the rest of the day listening to all the very pleasant and not-at-all annoying ringtones the Nokia 6030 has in its repertoire! They also like the straps and dangly tie-on things that Saleh bought them and I remind them to thank him when they see him the next day.

I tell Elliot that, although he doesn't get any text messages bundled per month, they're only 4p each within KSA and 8p international, so he can text his UK buddies within reason. He texts a friend and 45 mins later she informs him on MSN that she hasn't received it yet, so I call Mobily customer services in order to hear about "the catch". Because they're a new operator they don't yet have agreements with all international networks, and right now the only UK network they can send texts to is T Mobile. And of course T-Mobile is regarded as "a bit naff" among teenage brits, so he's stuck with either calling them or sticking with MSN.

Tuesday morning comes and it's not Saleh in the school car but Ahmed - not unusual, so I remind them again, "remember to thank Saleh this afternoon when he picks you up.". I take a walk up to the shops, and on the way back I bump into Sue, Brian's wife.
"Morning Sue, how are you?"
"Fine thanks, but did you hear about Saleh? He had a heart attack this morning!"


Saleh is OK. It was a minor attack - a blood clot in a vein or artery near the heart which has been treated without surgery, and he should be out of hospital in a couple of days.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Two Towers

No, it's not Lord Of The Rings (although they DO look the part!).
Riyadh has only two skyscrapers but they're both spectacular and their isolation makes them stand out all the more, so I figure they deserve to be added to the Links section of my blog (see right-hand side of page).

The Kindgom Tower - which at 300m high completely dominates the Riyadh skyline - is challenged only by the 2nd of Riyadh's two skyscrapers; The Al Faisaliah. The tower forms part of the Kingdom Centre, which includes shopping malls, offices, apartments, and The Four Seasons Hotel. I haven't visited it yet but I'm looking forward to going, not only for the shopping but I also want to see if I'm brave enough to travel the two elevators up to the Sky Bridge and lie facing down on the diagonal windows overlooking the ground 300m below!

The Al Faisaliah Hotel and Centre also houses both a hotel and shopping mall, and has a restaurant and observation deck within the 3-story globe at the top. I'm told the restaurant rotates; I look forward to being able to confirm that from personal experience! ;)

View from my desk

Thought I'd share a couple of pictures of what I can see from my desk. Well... it's actually the dining room table rather than a desk.

Study Buddies
First up, Elliot & Abigail being very studious and doing their homework in the afternoon, right across from me:-

The school day is 0750 - 1430, so they're home by 3.15pm and we make them get straight down to it while their still in studying mode (Ha!). Plus, because of the time difference between here and UK (we're 3 hours ahead in Winter, 2 hours in Summer) they prefer to get their homework done first, then go on the internet later, when there's more chance of their UK pals being on-line on MSN Messenger.

My Birthday Present
Here's what Karen got me for my birthday:-

It's the Logitech MM50 portable speaker system for iPod, and it's brilliant! Here's why:-
  1. it sounds great
  2. it feels great - very sturdy but without being too heavy; the front grille is metal
  3. it has Lithium Ion rechargable batteries, so you can use it anywhere
  4. when it's plugged in to the power outlet it also charges the iPod
  5. it comes with a remote control and travel case
  6. it has an iPod dock connector on the back, so you can even sync your iPod with iTunes without taking it out of the speaker dock!
I love it!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Light at the end of the dial-up tunnel

Quick update for the nerdy - my abysmal dial-up internet performance has been upgraded to "OK but it's still dial-up" thanks to the following:
  • disabling Windows auto update (my PC was downloading loads of Windows security patches without telling me, and that crippled my browsing and everything else
  • a comment from Evil Zen Scientist (aka Martin Buckley), who suggested I copy my GroupWise caching mailbox from my Linux laptop to the Windows one, then use caching/remote mode: thanks Martin, worked a treat. ...NB: I would have thought of this myself eventually... honest!

This is what the Evil Zen Scientist actually looks like (although not actual size)

Blimey, I'm almost back to my normal level of productivity!

.... Alright, who said, "Big deal" ?? :)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Back to school and back to basics

Saturday Jan 14 (Happy Birthday Laura!), and it's the first day back at school here after the Christmas break, so it's also Elliot & Abigail's first day at the British International School, Riyadh (see links section on the right for the school's website).
School starts early here (0750), and it's a 25 minute drive away from home, so all that meant getting up at 6am to be ready in time for our driver to pick us up at 0710 - not sure I can do this every day!
Got to school and the children were warmly received at Reception by their respective form teachers, and after a brief chat we waved them goodbye as they were led by the teachers off to their classrooms. Karen said she felt just like she did when a 5-year-old Elliot had his first day at primary school.

Karen and I got back home before 9am, and while Karen went off to her first day's work at the Embassy, I steeled myself to resume my battle with Saudi internet access.

Those non-techies among my readership can stop reading now, as the rest of this post is very geeky.

Broadband is available here but the maximum speed available is 256Kb, and that costs around £40 per month. I am ordering that but it'll have to wait until I can get it installed into our permanent house, so for the next few weeks I'm stuck with either dial-up at home, or trying to get on a wireless network in the Embassy grounds; both of which work after a fashion but each has it's own pitfalls and frustrations, and between the two of them I'm being driven slowly bonkers.
Commercially available dial-up is in the form of pre-pay cards: you buy a credit card sized plastic card at the supermarket in your choice of access time: anything from 10 hours to unlimited for a period of time.

I bought one month's unlimited access for the equivalent of around £15, and all you do is use the phone number and proxy server printed on the back of the card, and scratch off to reveal your userid and password.

The service is pants. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It's slow, unpredictable, prone to disconnection without notice, and several protocols are blocked or otherwise disabled by the Kingdom's filtering system. For example I can't use Citrix or NX client to remotely access demos or Windows apps, but I can use VNC (but if you saw how VNC works from here you wouldnt want to use it).

I later found out that the Embassy has free dial-up internet access, so I've switched to that now and it's quite a bit better, but still not great; roll on DSL!

Also, the modem on my Linux Thinkpad doesn't work, so I'm having to use a spare Windows XP machine, which I haven't used for email in over a year. That means I can't use the remote mode and have to operate in on-line mode because my local mailbox is way out of date and it would take WEEKS to re-sync on this connection.

So I switch between GroupWise on-line mode, WebAccess, and GroupWise on-line via a remote NODS session (in Dublin), depending on which one is working best at the time. On my own machine GW Messenger won't connect so if I want to do IM I have to do it via the NODS session.

All of which means I'll be a bit slow to read and respond to emails for a while, and only on instant messenger infrequently.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday (that's Sunday to you!)

Our first Friday in Riyadh, and funnily enough it actually feels like a Sunday. We went for a walk around the DQ this morning with Brian (Karen's new boss) and his wife Sue, who showed us the local amenities, including this very nice plaza,

which Brian assured us is often busy with families and kids skateboarding, rollerblading and the like during the week. The plaza has a small supermarket, a pharmacy, a couple of cafes and fast food places and various other small shops.

As you can see, today - being the Sabbath - everything was very quiet and all the shops were closed. We did find another mini market further along that was open, and took advantage of the opportunity to stock up on beef sausages and beef bacon - yum! We got ice creams for the children too.

Overall I like the DQ very much. It's beautifully landscaped, there are fountains all over the place and the architecture is nice and "arabian", but it's a little uniform; one street looks much like the next, so it makes it hard to find your way around.

After the walk we went to the embassy and had a look around the pool area. Around the outdoor, heated pool are the Wadi Club (and bar!), a gym, squash court, tennis court, and there's also a free video/DVD library. We had a quick drink here, then went back to Brian and Sue's for a cuppa before going home for lunch.

Abigail wouldn't stop going on about the pool (she loves to swim), so after lunch we went back to the embassy on our own and the children swam for about an hour, while I tried to get on-line via the Ambassador's wireless network (sort of successful).

Then it was back home for dinner: Friday Roast! Lamb, roast potatoes, carrots & broccoli, and a glass of red wine to wash it down with before baths and an early night before their first day at school tomorrow.

See? I told you it felt like a Sunday.