Monday, February 27, 2006

Time with the Georges

As I write it's Sunday evening, and we said goodbye to Mary, Laura & Lucas last night after their five-and-a-bit-day visit. Both Mary and Laura said that their experience of Riyadh was memorable and better than they were expecting. Lucas was his own inimitable self - those of you who know Lucas will know what I mean; he wasn't about to change just because he was visiting "Sloughdi Aradio".

So, what did we get up to? Well, you asked for it...

Day by the pool that I told you about last time

The girls don their abayas

for the first of several visits to a shopping mall (Riyadh's main family activity), the mall in question being the Sahara Mall on the junction of King Abdullah Rd. and Old Airport Rd. Sahara is quite large and is almost entirely full of ladies shops - clothes, shoes, cosmetics. Very little to interest the blokes in the group, so Elliot, Lucas and I spent the time in "FunLand".
FunLand is a mini funfair that occupies most of the upper floor in the Mall. This is quite a common thing in Riyadh, with most large malls having a mini amusement park upstairs, roller coaster, dodgems, carousel and all. All the machines are swipe card operated, so you start off by getting a plastic card and "charging" it with real money at the cash desk, then you can swipe 'n' play until your credit's gone. Some of the arcade machines give out tickets for a high score, and you collect enough tickets to trade for a cuddly toy at the Redemption desk. It's all very nice-looking and obviously geared towards smaller children, but Lucas clearly didn't get that particular memo, as he turned his nose up at pretty much every ride and machine there.
I guess maybe my expectations were too high - he is only five after all, and even small roller coasters must look pretty daunting at that age. Anyhow, with Lucas saying No to everything and me with my newly charged 50 Riyals' worth of credit, it was up to Elliot and me to spend it - as the look on the cash desk attendant's face was not that of a man used to giving refunds. Elliot and I had some fun on the machines, and we finally found a ride that Lucas liked. It was one of those big slides that are several lanes wide and have humps on the way down, and you sit on some sacking to slide down them. To my surprise Lucas shot straight to the top of the stairs and slid down - twice - without any nagging. Elliot had a go too but it gave him a sore bottom (as I'm sure he'll LOVE me telling you).
Just before our rendezvous with the girls I bought a pair of Hugo Boss sunglasses at an opticians, 75% off! Only cost around £20. The girls bought stuff but all I can remember was three handbags, Guess ones for Karen and Laura and a Radley bag for Abigail.
After lunch at home and an afternoon chilling out (and me doing some work of course!), we were back out, this time to the Kingdom Centre. The Kingdom Centre is a three-floor mall in the base of the Kingdom Tower, and after dinner at Planet Hollywood and some shopping some of us went up to the Sky Bridge, which is the cross-piece at the top of the tower and a mere 300m above the ground.

Mary doesn't like heights, so Karen stayed down with her while the rest of us got our tickets and queued up for the first lift, which takes you to the 77th floor 180m above, in about 50 seconds. Then it's out of that lift, past the entrance to Spazio's Japanese restaurant and into the second lift, which takes you the rest of the way to the 99th floor and the Sky Bridge. There's not much up here (inside), but the view across night-time Riyadh is spectacular,

and you can actually sit on the bottom of the angled windows and look straight down beneath you at the tower.

Around 10am we're off to the souqs (markets) in Deerah (sp?). There's a gold souq and other souqs selling carpets, furniture, clothes, and lots of other things. One of our friends showed us around there two weeks before and I had the foresight to program the location into my handheld GPS unit, so today we are able to drive their ourselves and find it quite easily.
The souqs are next to the Muttawa Headquarters (Muttawa are the Religious Police) and therfore also close to "Chop Chop Square", where the public executions take place on Friday mornings. We've been told by several people that you should avoid Chop Chop Square on a Friday if you're a Westerner, because the locals will push you to the front of the crowd and force you to watch the beheadings. But, this ain't Friday, it's Thursday, so I swing my new Prado (did I tell you I've got a new car?) into the car park without giving our location a second thought. The car park looks pretty empty but immediately on entering I'm being marshalled into a particular spot by an Indian man wearing blue overalls. There are several other similarly-clad Indian men sitting around too, with buckets and cloths by their feet... Oh I get it!
So it must be this particular blue-suited man's turn to "get" the next car and he's waving me into his space like a man possessed. As soon as I open the door he's offering to wash the car while we're shopping (actually, sounds just like Slough or Bracknell doesn't it?). I tell him no thanks, the car's clean (sort of), but he keeps on so I ask how much, and he says, "only 20 Riyals. I do very good job and I watch car too". I say, "I know you'll wash the car" and he says, "No, I wash, do good job, and also WATCH. No-one touch car, no bomb-bomb". Right, so for 20 Riyals he'll not only wash the car but he'll also mind it for me til we get back and it sounds like he's prepared to fight off all of Al Qaeda to earn his money, so I give in.
Our objective at the souq is to buy three persian carpets for the house. We've got a very big lounge with a tiled floor, so we've figured we need one small, one medium-sized and one large to break up the space nicely. I've brought SR3000 with me in cash (about £450), which I think should be enough for three rugs, and I've got my haggling head on too so I'm ready for action.
We go into Abdullah's carpet shop, where we'd been introduced by our friend two weeks before, and Abdullah immediately recognizes us and starts unrolling carpets on the floor.

Of course he gets the best stuff out first and I'm quite taken aback at the initial prices; the large rug is over £1000! When he gets an idea of my budget he starts bringing out the cheaper rugs, but the difference in quality is obvious (like Abdullah says, "If you want to buy gifts these are fine, but for you, only the best blah blah blah".. I'm thinking of hiring him to work in Sales at Novell).
Either Abdullah is very persuasive or I'm a man of excellent taste, because I end up spending SR3250 on just the small and medium (best quality) rugs, and decide to leave the large one for another day. It's more than I wanted to pay but these are going to stay with us for life as reminders of our time here and we're only going to buy stuff like this once, so we go for the best ones. All this time the others are watching proceedings, and at one point Abdullah disappears and returns with bottles of water for each of us. Lucas is getting admiring glances wherever we go too - he's good at that.
The carpet buying takes longer than expected so after a stop at a souvenir shop where Laura buys Lucas a toy camel (Humphrey),

we collect the rugs and head back towards the car via the gold souq, where Mary buys a pair of earrings and Elliot buys a matching earring and pendant set for his girlfriend's birthday.
Finally back at the now spotless and - thankfully - bombless car I pay the man his 20 Riyals, plus another 5 tip.
"Remember me next time" he says.
"I will, what's your name?"
"Number 17!" he says proudly, pointing to the badge on the breast pocket of his overalls.

The evening is spent at a barbeque at a friend's house in the DQ, which was very nice but Lucas and I nearly caused an incident when we went out to the wadi to look for Elliot, who was playing out there with the other children. We didn't find any of them (they were in the house the whole time!) but we did manage to get lost and our host was at the point of sending his security guards out to look for us when we finally found our way back to the house.

The ruins of the original capital Old Diryah lies just a few clicks to the Northwest of Riyadh

and is now an archeological attraction that is open every day including Friday, according to Riyadh Today (2004 edition). Upon arriving on Friday morning for a look around we find the gates locked and a sign warning that trespassers will be prosecuted; good old Riyadh Today!

There is an outer wall and mosque that we can walk around though, and we got some quite nice photos.

We set off back to the DQ early

so decide to explore it a little and try to find our way down into the wadi. The DQ is built around a large wadi (dried up river bed), and when we finally get down there we find that it has been turned into a very nice park

full of palm trees and there's even a river running through it (probably man-made, but still nice to have).

There's also a garden centre and a riding school down here, so we've made quite a find. There's a red&white pole style barrier across the road entering the park but it's in the up position and there's no-one manning it, so I figure it's OK to drive in. We park up and I take advantage of the nice surroundings to take a show-off photo of the Prado

- nice isn't it? Lucas is fast asleep in the car so Mary's hovering by it in case he wakes up, but the rest of us are strolling around, spotting wildlife

(beetles and toads) and taking photos

when out of nowhere appears a Saudi policeman on a motorcycle. He very politely explains that this parking area is for security vehicles only, and understands when I say I'm from the British Embassy and there was no sign or person to tell us we shouldn't drive in, but nevertheless it's time to go.
We still have an hour to kill before lunch (Fish 'n' Chips at the Embassy's Wadi Club!), so we decide to explore the escarpment, which is a large hill at the entrance to the DQ, with a stone staircase punctuated by floor lamps winding it's way to the top. We trudge up (Lucas gets carried) and enjoy the view.

We can see the DQ security checkpoint from here so I tell Elliot to be careful where he points my camera. We've only been up here a few minutes when blow me down but the same policeman appears out of nowhere on his motorbike, right on top of the hill!
"Not you again!" I said jocularly. He laughed.
It turns out the checkpoint have spotted us and radio'd him to see us off, which he does. As it happens it's nearly lunchtime now so we're not too bothered, but it did make me wonder why they provide the illuminated staircase and seats at the top if people aren't allowed to walk up there.

Finally it's lunchtime, and a catered lunch of Fish, Chips and mushy peas by the pool - lovely!

We end up hanging around the pool most of the afternoon woth some other families

and the children entertain themselves by shooting each other with BB guns.

It's the last day of the George's visit and the first day of our working week, so while the children go off to school and Karen to work I entertain our guests by - yes, you guessed it - taking them to another shopping mall. This time it's the turn of the Granada Centre, a huge new mall with Carrefour Hypermarket attached, and also the mall where I bought my skates.
Once again I leave Mary and Laura to their shopping while I entertain Lucas in the Fun Oassis on the upper floor by the food court. I know by now that there's no point trying to persuade him to go on the rides, so we charge up a card and head towards the other amusements. The tickets-for-prizes system seems to be working here (At FunLand earlier in the week it was publicised but no actual tickets were forthcoming from the machines), and Lucas and I soon rack up a grand total of 24 tickets from a combination of video fishing, basketball, and "whack the shark on the head with a hammer". Our efforts are wasted however. The smallest prize available at the redemption counter costs 57 tickets, so I tell Lucas we need to save the tickets up for another time. He doesn't seem too bothered by this, probably because he had no clue what the system was about in the first place, and that was probably because I didn't explain it to him. All I revealed to him was that tickets were good and we should collect them. We leave the Fun Oasis and do a bit of shopping, including buying an inline skate rucksack so that I can take my skates with me to Salt Lake City next month. I'm still learning the whole shopping philosophy here; the assistant tells me the bag costs SR155, to which I respond, "I'm from the British Embassy - can I have a discount?", and he immediately gives me 15% off. It seems that all prices are discountable and to get the discount all you have to do is ask. I'm sure I'd still have got the 15% off if I'd omitted the British Embassy bit. Still... bargain!
Lucas and I have a little row at this point; he's asking for a basketball and a Batman scooter and I'm saying no, because he'd not stayed in bed the night before (he's still learning the whole daytime awake, nighttime asleep thing), and our agreement was that he would only be bought something if he did.
We rendezvous with Mary and Laura at 11.30 and go to Starbucks for coffee and very nice, very large, very fattening cakes, just getting out and back to the car as midday prayers start.
In the early evening we try out Scalini, which is an Italian restaurant actually in the DQ, so not only is it walking distance from home but also the ladies don't need to wear their abayas.
The dinner is nice, quiet - we're the only people in the restaurant, and uneventful, aside from Lucas eating uncharacteristically well and me embarrassing myself by asking the waiter to put the music back on during prayer time.
Back home, the Georges' flight takes off at 0155 on Sunday morning, which means we need to leave for the airport around 11.30pm. The children have school the next day and Karen has a teambuilding event, so they say their goodbyes at home and I drive the Georges to the airport, arriving around midnight. I demonstrate my intimate knowledge of King Khalid International Airport by walking them into the wrong terminal, but we still get to the bmi check-in desk in plenty of time and I wave goodbye at passport control.
The following morning we find Lucas' wash bag including tootbrush, and teddy bear still in the house; they always leave something behind for us to remember them by.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Our first visitors

Last night Karen's family arrived for a 5-day visit. We picked up Mary (Karen's mum), Laura (sister) and Lucas (nephew) at the airport around 6.45pm and drove them the 40km back to the Diplomatic Quarter, where we got back home to Elliot & Abigail at around 7.30.

It was really lovely to see them again, even though we've only been apart about six weeks it's the longest we've gone without seeing them.
We didn't go anywhere last night, just stayed in and talked. Mary brought us some Christmas presents from my Auntie Julie because we hadn't seen her over the Christmas break; thanks for the pressies Julie! She also brought Karen some magazines, and sweets for everyone to share.

Lucas was only in the house for 30 minutes when he decides he wants to take a shower,

so that's him making himself at home then!

It gets to 11pm and thoughts turn to turning in. We've got two spare bedrooms in the new house (I know I owe you some photos of the house; it's on my list!), so we had Lucas upstairs next to us and gave Mary and Laura the downstairs bedroom, so they could have a break from Lucas' night-time antics - nice aren't we?
I began to regret it though at about 0130. Lucas doesn't "do" sleep, at least not when you want him to - Karen got up to him the first couple of times, then I spent from 1.30 to 3am putting him back into bed, taking him to the toilet, etc. He went off around 3am and slept til 7.30, so that wasn't too bad. Remember he'd just lost three hours in the change of timezone so his body clock was thrown out a bit - no excuse for throwing ours out too though! I'm sure he'll be better tonight.
We got up late this morning and mooched around (well most of us - Karen went to work), then late morning we got changed into our swimming things

- Lucas' costume is particularly fetching - and I took them up to the Embassy to show them the pool and club area.

We took advantage of the nice weather today: 25c and sunny - and spent most of the day by the pool.

Lucas was straight in and really enjoyed it.

At lunchtime we took our custom to Tony's Top Tucker. Tony is the partner of one of the women at the Embassy, and he's set up a cottage industry making freshly prepared sandwiches, salads, and the odd burger for the staff. It's fresh, delicious and very good value!
After lunch there was more swimming and then we played tennis, until Karen knocked off work around 3.15pm.
As I write it's late afternoon and I'm the only adult awake - Elliot's doing his homework, Abigail's doing her email and the ladies and Lucas are all having a nap in preparation for our trip out into town tonight for dinner. I'm supposed to be working but thought I'd let you all know what's going on here first. I'll give you an update on their visit later in the week. Off to get on with some work now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Joon Trading Company

The Ambassador's wife has a falcon, and another family at the Embassy has a parrot that they bought here, all of which led us to start thinking of getting a pet bird of some description, with a parrot being the favourite choice.
We'd been told about a large pet shop on the Khurais Rd that has a dinosaur skeleton in the window; not the best advert for a pet shop but a good distinguishing feature. Being still new around here I thought, "we'll never find that on our own" ... how wrong could I have been?
This happened weekend before last - told you I'd been sitting on some stories without posting them. It was Wednesday evening (that's Friday to you), and we went out to Fuddrucker's for dinner. Fuddruckers - for those who don't know it - is an American chain of burger restaurants. We'd never been to one before but from the full-page advertisement in "Riyadh Today" we were expecting something along the lines of TGI Friday's (or TAI Wednesday's as it would be called here). Instead, what we got was something halfway between McDonalds and something not much better than McDonalds. You have to go to the counter to place your order and pay in advance, but then sit down and they bring the food to you. As usual here, there are separate sections for Men and Families, and the Family section consists of curtained-off booths.
Anyway, the plan was to have dinner then venture further South on Takhasussi St. (or Everything St., to use its nickname) in search of Wheels, the famous bicycle shop. So, after a very large burger and chips, plus 2 bottles of No-alcohol Budweiser and two free desserts because they forgot to deliver our onion rings, we set off in he car in search of Wheels, which Riyadh Today says is also on Takhasussi St.

It's not.

We drove around several times and there was no sign of it; we concluded that our copy of Riyadh Today must be an old one. I later found out that Wheels is nowhere near Takhasussi but I still haven't found it yet. What we did find however, was the pet shop with the dead dinosaur in the window aka Joon Trading Company.

By this time it was dark, and all eight parking spaces outside the shop were occupied. But, what luck! Just as I coast up, two people come out of the shop and get into a 4x4, and its reversing lights illuminate! I'm right behind where the space is, with my right indicator going, signalling that, "I hereby claim this parking space once the previous occupier has left". I get as close as I can to the reversing 4x4, because I know what the motorists are like in Riyadh; If I leave even so much as six inches between us someone will come along and occupy it with his front bumper. So there we are, my car the and other 4x4 locked in this dance of trying not to let anyone else in while at the same time letting the poor guy who wants to leave, out, when yes, the inevitable happens.
A large American sedan sweeps past both me and the exiting car, and turns right in front of the 4x4, into MY parking space... GAAAHHH!
I should have been angry, but all I could manage was stunned disbelief, mixed with faint admiration for his sheer audacity. The Arab driver gets out of the car and waves at me with a "You'll learn" smile.
At this point my disbelief and admiration sour into resentment, so I do what any Arab motorist worth his salt would do - I double park and block the guy in. I order the family to vacate the Discovery and look at pet birds, so into the pet shop we march, in the footsteps of our car space thief.

The shop is huge - for a pet store. As soon as you enter there is a circular checkout counter right in front of you, with a live falcon perching on each side. A sign informs me that there is a SR10 entrance fee, refundable on any purchase over SR20. That seems fair to me, particularly when I realise how much there is to see in here - cheaper than the zoo!
Joon Trading Company has, in stock:-
Tropical fish, rats, mice, ferrets, chipmunks, dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, tortoises, a Lynx, monkeys, Toucans, a fox, budgies, love birds, parrots, falcons, and hen chicks all dyed in fluorescent colours (something of a trend here apparently). there's a glass case full of chicks; lime green, pink, orange, purple, bright red. It's quite bizarre. On entering the shop I immediately regret not having brought my camera. I did snap the multi-coloured chicks with the camera on my mobile phone, but haven't yet worked out how to get the photo onto my laptop.
There are some Arab boys - about 10 years old - messing about at the back of the shop, they're running around a perspex pen containing two Rottweilers and deliberately annoying the dogs by banging on the windows, until the shopkeeper tells them off - YES! They were REALLY getting on our nerves.
Just then the parking thief comes up, speaking quickly and waving his arms about. I don't speak any Arabic, but being the seasoned world traveller that I am I instinctively know that he would like me to move my car so that he can depart. I comply with this request (but walk VERY slowly out to the car to get the last laugh).
By the time I get back to the shop Karen and the children are in the bird section admiring two beautiful red parrots sharing the same cage. They really are lovely to look at, so I ask the assistant how much they are.
Do you have any idea how expensive parrots are? I was expecting it to be £70, or maybe even £100, but the actual price was SR3,200, which is about £480!

"Ermmm, how much are the Love Birds then?"
They're about £80 each, and of course you need two.
"Um, what about a budgie?"

We still haven't bought anything yet.

Missing posts

Don't know what's going on here - I seem to have lost two postings to the blog! Stories that I wrote over a week ago are no longer shown in the list.

Will report it to the Blogger people in the hope that they can recover them from somewhere.

PS we moved into our permanent house yesterday! Photos soon...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wot, no stories?

I know I know, I haven't posted any new stories recently. That's not because we haven't done anything or because I can't be bothered, it's just that I've been busy and when I have had the opportunity I've been too tired.
More posts soon I promise, including:-
  • Joon Trading Company (unusual pet shop)
  • Desert Picnic
  • Moving House
  • New Car
  • Broadband
  • getting better at skating (and falling over)

Phew! That's tired me out! Off for a nap - see ya later!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Saleh's back!

I was sitting in the Embassy lobby yesterday morning when I saw Saleh walk in! After I'd shook his hand and welcomed him back, he told me he was feeling fine now, after having spent four days in hospital and then a week off work to rest. He's been told to exercise and avoid fried food, eat lots of chicken and fish etc.
We had a good laugh about my indigestion advice on that fateful day, and I said I'd felt guilty for not reading the signs and insisting he go to hospital.
Elliot & Abigail were very happy when I told them later, and they're looking forward to seeing Saleh on the school run later in the week.