Wednesday, March 15, 2006

From one salt lake to another

It's the month of March, and if you work for Novell that can only mean one thing: it's BrainShare time again.

BrainShare is Novell's annual technical conference and takes place over five days in Salt Lake City, Utah, attracting around 7000 customers, partners and employees. Salt Lake City is so named because it is close to a guessed it... a salt lake, rather like the one I swam in at the weekend.

This will be my eighth BrainShare and I have to say I'm quite looking forward to it. I'll miss Karen and the children as I always do, but this will be the first time I'll have interacted face-to-face with anyone else from Novell since coming out here so it'll be a good opportunity to catch up with some friends, and learn about all the new products we have coming out.

Anyway, don't want to bore you with work stuff but I posted this to explain why I probably won't be posting much over the next couple of weeks. I'll be back at the end of the month and will tell you all about it then.


Dealing with baggage

No, I'm not talking about making peace with my emotional baggage (that's still on my ToDo list, along with making a will and reading the Quran). No, I'm talking Heavy Baggage.

When you get posted overseas by the Foreign Office your belongings go in three different groups:-
  • Personal luggage - this is your regular luggage that you take with you; stuff you need in the first two weeks
  • Unaccompanied Air Freight (UAF) - a larger amount of luggage (the rest of your clothes and other short-term items) that go by air with a courier company like DHL - this takes about ten working days. In here you pack the stuff you need for the first couple of months
  • Heavy Baggage = everything else (apart from furniture, which doesn't go at all). So in other words, all the rest of your personal effects, which are loaded onto a container and sent by sea to Dammam, then by road to Riyadh. The Heavy Baggage left our house in Langley on January 3rd, and we only took delivery of it last Saturday, March 11.
So there I am, just back from a relaxing weekend full of massages, mudbaths, gin & tonics and fillet steaks, feeling really chilled out, when there's a "ding dong" on the doorbell, signalling the arrival of 91 - yes, 91! - cartons of our stuff.

I'm making a bit of a meal of this story because I didn't have to physically unload any of it myself, but I did have the challenging task of standing by the truck and marking off the carton number on a sheet of paper each time one was carried into the house, and I got writer's cramp so it was no picnic I can tell you!

I had them put all the boxes in the lounge (we have a big lounge) and when the delivery men had left I must've stood there staring at this mountain of boxes for a good ten minutes, wondering where the heck to start.

Next time we're going to travel a LOT lighter. All the stuff is ours and it's things we want, but to be honest there is a good proportion that could have stayed in UK in storage somewhere, as we really don't need it here.

  • Stuff I do need though, and am glad to be re-united with:-
  • Computers (the big ones, we brought a couple of laptops with us)
  • Plasma TV and DVD recorder

  • Bose Acoustic Wave CD player
  • My mountain bike

  • Music CDs, books, board games, video games
  • Pictures (hanging on the wall type, family photos etc.)
  • Toolbox
  • My "magic" remote control!!

Karen and the children got stuff they'd been missing too; for Karen it's her craft materials (she makes fantastic greetings cards), and for the children it's musical instruments; keyboard for Abigail and Elliot's electric bass guitar.

One of several casualties :-(

So you can see from the pictures the jungle of cardboard we're currently living in, but the place feels more like home with every box we open.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Dead Sea Weekend

We've been in Riyadh for two months now - time to get away for a couple of days!

Karen - for those who don't know her - loves health spas and all the massages, facials, and "lotions 'n' potions" they offer (and I have to admit she's starting to convert me in a small way, although I've yet to have my first facial... who just said, "you need one"???). So we found the perfect solution in the Marriott Jordan Valley Resort & Spa,

a five-star complex right by the Dead Sea in Jordan and with everything we could want in a relaxing two-day getaway.

Dead Sea "101"
The Dead Sea is actually a lake, approx. 50 miles long and 11 miles at it's widest point, and lies between Israel and Jordan.

There's a good Wikipedia entry on it that'll tell you more, but here's the "for Dummies" version:-

Q: Why is it called the Dead Sea?

A: Because nothing can live in it (no fish etc.)

Q: Why can nothing live in it?

A: Because its so salty - about seven times saltier than the ocean

Q: Why is it so salty?

A: Because it's so low. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, with the surface of the Dead Sea being 417m below sea level.

It is this depth that gives the Dead Sea it's unique chemical mix of salts, magnesium chloride, bromide, and many other minerals and elements I can spell but otherwise know little about. And it's this chemical formula which has made it famous as a health resort - the area has a number of health benefits, from the mineral content of the water, to very low pollen levels, reduced ultraviolet radiation from the sun (you can sunbathe here without burning), and higher atmospheric pressure.

OK, lesson over.

We arrived at Amman airport on Wednesday evening, courtesy of Royal Jordanian Airways. With most of my travel hitherto being with European and American airlines, I was quite surprised to be served a full dinner on what was after all only a 2-hour flight. One other funny thing happened on the flight out; the flight left Riyadh airport from gate G12, and I was in seat 12G. The result of this was three other passengers mistakenly claiming that I was in their seat during boarding and then getting mildly embarrassed when I (diplomatically - I'm a Diplomat now after all) pointed out their seat number instead of the gate number on their boarding cards.

We were met a Queen Alia airport by Omar, the travel agency rep who was to drive us the rest of the way to the resort. Omar led us through the throng and through what I have to say is a very dreary and depressing-looking airport; looks more like a large gloomy train station. Waiting in the people-carrier outside is Ishmail - the driver, and once we're all aboard we set off on the one-hour drive which - since Amman is about 1km above sea level and our destination over 400m below - is all downhill.

The hotel is really lovely and the staff very helpful and pleasant.

On checking in we realize they've made a mistake with the accommodation, which results in us getting upgraded to an Executive Room with direct pool access: good start! I'm a Marriott Rewards member so that helped too. Because of our late night arrival we didn't have much chance to explore, so after a quick walk around the three outdoor swimming pools we retired for the night.

Next morning and the weather's looking decidedly dodgy; overcast, fog, wind.

Thursday is our only full day here and the main event is the treatments Karen and I have booked at the spa; Aromatherapy Massage and a facial for her, Swedish Massage for me. We've booked our treatments at separate times so that the other of us can keep the children entertained. Abigail LOVES the water and cannot see a pool or a stretch of open water without getting in it - regardless of temperature, so by 9.30 in the morning on a pretty cold and gloomy day Elliot and I are sitting on poolside sun loungers wrapped in towels to keep warm

while Abigail enjoys the large pool - which needless to say she has all to herself.

We also take a walk down to the beach but it's very windy and there's a red flag signifying No Swimming :-(

Come the evening and Karen and I are smelling nice and feeling relaxed after our massages. We have a Gin & Tonic in the bar (Gin & Tonic! Bar! luxury!) before sitting down to a nice relaxing dinner (I had a particularly fine Australian Angus fillet steak) and an early night. We were quite tempted by the hotel's two private cinemas, where you can select a movie from a list they'll put it on for you, but once dinner was over all we wanted to do was sleep - relaxing is actually quite tiring isn't it?

Friday morning and our last chance to take a dip in the Dead Sea before we leave at lunchtime. An early walk down to the beach confirms the red flag is still flying although the weather has improved considerably, but we are told by an attendant that we can paddle. "Better than nothing" we thought so we returned to the room to get changed, towels etc., then went back to the beach about half an hour later to see several other people milling around and... no red flag! Elliot is not a great fan of swimming, particularly swimming in the sea, so he takes on the role as official photographer/videographer for this auspicious occasion.

There's already a large middle-aged man in the water, looking perfectly at home. "I bet he's either South African or Australian" I think to myself, since in my perception those two nationalities have more of a natural affinity with the elements, the outdoors, and this kind of physical activity in general than us Brits, and a hardiness that makes me feel a little inadequate. I say "Good Morning" from my position on the beach and the "G'Day" that comes back confirms my suspicions and further embeds my neurosis.

Time to take the plunge, so after selecting and donning ill-fitting sandals from a communal box

"How to fit size 8 feet into size 6 wet sandals"

we march down the shingle to the water.

I am surprised by how warm it is. There are lots of people watching by now so I'd already psyched myself up not to be a wimp and to manfully stride in no matter how icy cold the water may be, so the relatively warm water is very welcome.

The great thing about swimming in the Dead Sea is that you don't have to swim; the water is so bouyant that you can just relax and float around (just don't get the water in your eyes - Ouch!). It actually takes considerable effort to return to a standing position from lying "on" the water. The traditional "proof shot" for a Dead Sea swim is to have your photo taken reading the paper whilst reclining in the water. I think I had been aware of this before but it completely slipped my mind when it most mattered - as usual - so I don't have a newspaper with me. Needless to say, "Bruce" does have one and is having his "paper shot" taken by a family member. I sheepishly ask if I can borrow his paper when he's finished, for my shot. I don't like to ask, and I'm still annoyed with myself for not thinking of it beforehand, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I bite the bullet. "Bruce" says, "Sure, you can keep it". I don't actually want to keep it, just use it as a prop for a couple of minutes, but I guess disposing of a paper that I forgot to bring down is my end of the bargain.

The Paper Shoot over, and it's mud time! We step out of the sea and up the beach to a bucket full of Dead Sea mud, which you're supposed to rub all over your body and then wash off in the sea; good for the skin etc.... ask Karen she knows all about this stuff.

I'm pleased though because we're the first to notice the mud bucket and so become the trailblazers of the group, showing the other families what to do and they duly follow us like sheep and we're all standing there in the wind and the cold rubbing mud on our flesh.

"Bruce" comes up a minute or two later with his family and I now feel on equal terms, the Man-Points balance having been restored since, of course, finding the mud bucket and being the first to use it has the same power as being first in the water and remembering to bring a paper.

Being in the Dead Sea feels fantastic and is further improved by the mudbath; I heartily recommend it - whatever the weather.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Watch this space

Hi all,
This is just a quick note to explain why there'll be a little gap before my next post. We went away at the weekend (Thursday/Friday remember) to Jordan and the Marriott Jordan Valley Resort and Spa by the Dead Sea. There's one story queued up, then today our heavy baggage finally arrived; 91 boxes of personal effects on the back of a big lorry - there's another one.

So today I've been unpacking stuff and setting up my plasma TV and Macintosh computer - bare necessities!, and tomorrow I'm out all day on a business trip to Dammam, so there'll be some more stories soon but you probably won't see the first one til Monday evening.

...and if that excites you, you really need to get out more!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Missed birthdays

Karen may be very impressive at being able to land a job in the Diplomatic Service but she's rubbish at remembering important birthdays.
So our apologies to Sharon for missing the childrens' birthdays recently; Niamh most recently, Kieran next week and Aidan last month. We hope they all had a very happy birthday and that you're not broke after buying all those presents at once (bad planning in my view) ;-)

No comment

I've been wondering lately why there are so few comments on my blog. Each post has a "comment" link at the end that allow readers to... well... leave a comment, but up until now I haven't had as many as I would have liked.
Then last night I was playing with Blogger's settings and realized that I'd inadvertantly told Blogger only to allow registered users to comment, which was not my intention and which probably also explains the relatively low number.

Well, that setting is now switched off, so you can leave a comment whether you're a registered Blogger user or not, so please do! :-)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hidden Valley

Last Friday, and we're off for a day in the desert with two other families. The plan is to go quadbiking in the morning, then on to a place called Hidden Valley for a picnic in the afternoon. I have no idea what to expect at Hidden Valley, but the quadbiking is at the same place we went to the first time we did it, so on familiar territory there at least. This is also the first time we've been into the desert in our own car, so I'm keen to see how the Prado performs "off-road".

The last time we went quadbiking I posted several photos of the children in action on the bikes. I was a bit nervous about how they'd get on that time, so spent most of my time watching them and taking photos. This time however, all of us are seasoned quadbikers, so we spent the whole hour whizzing up and down the sand dunes at top speed, and all I could manage photo-wise was this shot of Karen and Karin by the cars - sorry, but I was having too much fun to take more :-)

After the hour was up and we'd paid the Bedouin for the bike rental, our three-4x4 convoy headed further south towards hidden valley, which Barry - the only one who's been there before - says he should be able to find easily. About 10k's past the quadbiking area there's a left turn which I'm expecting it to be a dirt trail - like last time - but there's actually a tarmac road which leads on for another couple of k's before turning to dirt. Barry's up ahead and blazing the trail, Andy's in the middle and we're at the back, and the other two are kicking up such a dust trail that I have trouble seeing where I'm going.

After a while Barry slows down; a sure sign that the going is about to get tougher, so I shift the Prado into diff-lock, low ratio mode (hark at me!) and I'm ready for anything. The narrow trail is very rocky and twists from left to right. At almost every turn there's what is either a large bush or a small tree, and on several occasions there's a scratching sound on the side of the car, just like nails down a blackboard that tells me I've gone a bit too close to the branches - I hope there's no permanent damage!

After what seems like an hour of this but was probably only about 15 minutes, we arrive at our destination. We're in a valley alright, surrounded on all sides by high slopes of very rough, sharp, rocky terrain. We all pile out of the cars and the area's a blur of setup activity; We three men are erecting a gazebo

to protect us from the sun and 35 degree celcius heat, the women are unfolding camping chairs and unpacking coolboxes. The children are nowhere to be seen in this effort however; they've shot straight up the nearest mountain

and before I even know what's going on they're almost at the top of what looks to me like a pretty dangerous climb. Elliot had the foresight to take my camera up with him so you can see what I mean about the climb and the terrain.

The adults bellow with one voice for them to come down NOW, and we settle down to a very pleasant picnic.

The children are soon off again though as soon as they've eaten, only this time they pick the hill to the other side of the cars, which is marginally less treacherous.

Despite the rocky terrain this is a very nice place for a social gathering. The weather was great, there was total silence (apart from the racket we made), and the scenery was spectacular.

We set off on the return journey and on the way back to the main road pass a herd of camels going the other way (presumably for a picnic at Hidden Valley, since there's nothing else in that direction). Some of the camels (presumably the male ones) have red "posing pouches" strapped to their nether regions. Perhaps they're holding "Riyadh's Sexiest Camel Competition" behind that hill over there!

We get back to the DQ late afternoon, and to the Embassy pool for the last hour of daylight, where Barry and I discuss plans for a joint skate around the DQ, I meet Barry again around 7.30pm and skate together to the other end of the DQ and back, with a break at Starbucks at the halfway point.

So hang on a minute... in one day we've quadbiked, climbed mountains, swam AND after all that I've skated across the DQ and back - I'm in danger of getting fit here!