Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dubai Trek: Part 3

Wednesday morning, and I lope zombie-like into the kitchen to find Gerard sat at the table with a bowl of cereal and his head in a book. The book is "U.A.E. Off-Road": a collection of wadi and desert treks and challenges that has Gerard licking his lips in anticipation. He has his eye on Wadi Asimah -- a place he's been to before, which reassures me a little. We're planning to set off from the house at 9am, Gerard leading in his white Nissan Patrol, me in my gold Prado behind and Dave bringing up the rear in his rented, ancient, dark green Jeep Grand Cherokee. Gerard and I have GPS units, but his is the only one with the off-road stuff marked on it, so he needs to be in front. He's on his own, I have Elliot & Abigail in my car and Dave has wife Ros and girls Megan (5) and Emily (3) (hope I got that right!). Gerard's wife Rachael is working and boys Charlie (9) and Oliver (7, I think) are at school. We even have walkie-talkie communications between the three of us; Gerard has four handsets total and I have two, and they all talk to each other when set to the same channel so we can stay in touch en-route.

We finally set off around 10am, Dave and I having earlier paid a visit to the local supermarket to pick up some provisions, and things begin to go wrong about ten minutes later. There's a large roundabout leading to a motorway off the 3rd exit, essentially a left turn off the roundabout. The approach roads are controlled by traffic lights, which predictabely turn red immediately Gerard has gone through them, so he's merrily going round the roundabout and setting off down the motorway to the left, while the rest of us are sat at a red light, totally dependent on the rear of his car as a beacon. Said rear is rapidly driving out of sight as we watch, helpless. The lights finally change after what seems like ten minutes, and we set off down the motorway after him, all the while trying to hail him on the walkie-talkies and calling his mobile, but the walkie-talkies are now out of range and his mobile is redirecting to the Novell Dubai office, whose Receptionist kindly informs me that Gerard is off work today. I just manage to stop myself shouting "I know!" back. We catch up with him about ten minutes later, where's he's pulled over having finally realized that we're further behind than he thought, and we set off in convoy once more.
The wadi is about an hour's drive outside Dubai, but halfway there Gerard pulls off the road and down a steep (to me) bank of shingle, and to a halt, simultaneously announcing over the radio that he has a proposition for us. We pull over and get out of the cars, and Gerard tells us of a desert challenge mentioned in the book that is just around the corner, and if we took it we could cut a corner off our journey to the wadi, the whole enterprise lengthening our outbound journey by no more than thirty minutes. Dave and I agree, I because I don't want to seem a wimp and Dave because he's a rally driver in his spare time and has been eyeing the dunes hungrily all morning. A couple of kilometres later we pull off the road onto sand, and prep for the dunes.

"Watch out desert, here we come!"

Dave and family in the Jeep

You prepare your car for desert driving by deflating the tyres to around half their normal pressure. This gives you a larger "footprint" for each wheel and reduces the chances of getting stuck in soft sand. Next step is to engage four-wheel drive. Some cars are permanently 4x4, but the Prado has selectable modes, with two-wheel drive being the default for road driving, so I have to shift my other gear lever forward to engage the centre differential (wow, getting technical aren't I?). Final part of prep is to switch off the air conditioner and open the windows. The A/C uses quite a lot of power, which you really want to have available to the driveshaft for those steep dune climbs. We've done plenty of desert driving in Saudi so I'm used to all this and feeling pretty comfortable, since the dunes here look pretty small. We set off across country and have a fun thirty minutes following Gerard as he tries to navigate to the next waypoint programmed into his GPS. The whole area is remarkably green for a desert, and reminds us more of African Savannah than desert. A little while later we decide to stop in a tree-shaded area for a rest.

My very own "Ship of the Desert"

A nice, quiet spot where we take a drink of water and eat some fruit while the children run up and down the dunes. Gerard takes the opportunity to show off his latest contraption: a garden parasol that he has modified to plug into a metal receptacle on his roofrack, thus providing a mobile sunshade. I'm thinking he's got too much time on his hands.

Talk about Mad Dogs and Englishmen!

After this stop we're soon back on the road and heading for Wadi Asimah. A wadi is a dried-up river bed, and when we get there it turns out to have been a very rocky river bed. Gerard leads the way once more as we try to find a safe way down the steep bank of loose rocks to the smoother and inviting gravel of the river bed below. Once down there we realise it's not as smooth as it looked from the top of the bank, and we bump and rattle our way along the wadi for about ten minutes before making our first stop, in a rocky gorge with dark, stark, jagged rocks rising up all around us.

This is what 4x4's are made for!

Emily enjoying the rocky gorge. The chocolate helped.

In the middle of all this is a small spring of clear water, and we can see tadpoles swimming around in the little rock pools. Gerard (he's such an Action Man!) catches a couple in his hand for the children to look at, and Elliot and Abigail are clambering all over the rocks (First the Hard Rock Cafe, now the hard rock gorge!). I'm worried for their safety but try not to be too anal about it, instead reminding myself to trust their own common sense.

"Elliot! Get down from there!"

After a few minutes we carry on to another stop, and another sheer wall of jagged rock that attracts the flip-flop-shoed children like a magnet. I stay at the bottom, ostensibly to take photos but really so that they have something soft to break their fall.

Rather them than me!

Elliot, Abigail, Megan and Emily with Gerard "Mad Dog" McDonnell

We leave the wadi to head back to the house at around 4 in the afternoon, a great day out and everyone back safe and sound. I have renewed respect for the Prado, that had reached places I never imagined it could go.

In the evening Abigail stays at the house to help the housekeeper with baby sitting, and the rest of us make our way to the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre to see Roger Waters in concert. I never got to see Pink Floyd play live, so this was the closest I was going to get. Waters split from the band in the mid-'80s: I won't go into it here but if you want to know the details check out this Wikipedia entry.

The concert was just awesome! The first half included Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Wish You Were Here, Sheep, and In The Flesh from The Wall. He also performed some newer material I hadn't heard before, and I liked that too. It was a large band, with at least four guitarists, two keyboard players, a sax, three backing vocalists and a drummer. Waters himself plays bass guitar and did most of the vocals. There was a huge screen behind the stage of the outdoor amphitheatre that showed video, stills, and psychedilic lava lamp-style effects, in concert with the song playing, and there was a large TV screen on each side of the stage. Most of the crowd were standing on the grass in this natrually sloped space, with a gantry of VIP seats along the back, but these were only half full.

The second half was given over to a performance of The Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety, and it went down a storm. Every song was performed meticulously by the unarguably aged but all-the-more-professional-for-it musicians, and the crowd went wild. It was the best performance I've seen for many years. After Dark Side the band went off, then returned for encores a couple of minutes later. They did Vera and Another Brick In The Wall Part 2, finishing off with the majestic Comfortably Numb, all from The Wall, which is Waters' masterpiece and undoubtedly his own personal favourite of the Floyd's albums.

The concert ended just in time for Elliot and me to drive to the airport to pick Karen up, finally getting back to Gerards, around 1am. Elliot still talks about the concert all the time and is learning to play some of the songs on his guitar.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dubai Trek: Part 2

Well actually this is the real Part 1, since yesterday's was just a trailer, so to speak.

I love my Toyota Land Cruiser Prado even more today than I did this time last week. For five days last week it was our principal hang-out, and performed admirably through a variety of challenging environments while at the same time keeping the family in safety and comfort.

We'd been invited to a desert trek in Dubai by friends Gerard and Rachael, to include a night camping out in the desert, so it was for this reason that we drove to Dubai -- a place that ordinarily we'd fly to as it is 1100km away from Riyadh. This long drive was on my mind early last Monday morning, as I loaded up the car with all our camping gear, a suitcase of clothes for five days, some food for the journey and a selection of electronic gadgets to keep the "are we there yet?"'s to a minimum. Karen couldn't get time off for the whole trip so the children and I did the drive down, with Karen to follow by air on Wednesday evening.
Once I'd got the children in the back seat my last prepatory ritual before setting off was to smear the entire front of the car with Fairy Liquid; a common precautionary measure in these parts against the erosive effects of sandstorms on the bodywork, which I first encountered on our first ever trip to Bahrain back in April.

Click to enlarge. Our route is highlighted in yellow.

We set off at 8am on Monday morning, allowing my SatNav system to decide the route, having been instructed to find the quickest way there. The first leg took us out of Riyadh to the North East on the Dammam Highway, then turned off after about an hour to the road for Al Hufuf. I should point out that the scenery for the entire Saudi part of the journey was pretty much the same: desert. Long, straight roads cutting a swathe through the sandy wilderness stretch out to the horizon in the bright sunlight. It's a pretty boring vista when you're trying to stay alert, but the lack of traffic and uncluttered roadsides made for relatively stress-free driving, so the two cancelled each other out pretty much. There were occasional road signs and petrol stations, and lots of camels, but that was about all there was to see apart from sky above, and sand to left and right. Oh yes, and pylons. Lot of pylons. The main nagging concern throughout is, "what if I break down out here in the middle of nowhere? No mobile phone signal and 200km away from the nearest town." So as I cruise along I'm keeping an eagle eye on the road surface for any debris that might puncture a tyre, and listening out for any unusual noises coming from the engine.

We arrived in Al Hofuf after about three hours, and stopped for petrol and a toilet break. The petrol station's toilets are best left undescribed! Al Hofuf is a pretty large town; large enough to be taken seriously, but small enough to retain a more provincial character. Onward again, this time towards Salwa, which we skirted rather than entered, then Southeast along the Qatar border and the Gulf Coast before reaching the U.A.E. border another three hours later. We were averaging 100km per hour including stops, border crossing etc., so it was easy to monitor progress: six hours = six hundred kilometres, so well over half way.

Once into the U.A.E. things brightened up considerably. The roads were in better condition and were better tended and decorated, we were driving along the coast road so had sand only to our right, and now ocean to our left. Even the petrol stations looked more inviting. The allure was short-lived however, when I found that petrol costs twice as much here as in Saudi, this time costing me a full £15 to fill my tank -- criminal! We had also put our watches forward an hour by this time, as there is a timezone change at the border.

Another three hours and we skirt around Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, before driving the last 150km leg to Dubai. Coming into Dubai along the massive Sheik Zayed Road we hit our first and only traffic jam of the trip. Sheik Zayed Road is either a quick expressway through the centre of Dubai or the World's biggest car park, depending on how close to rush hour you are.

The Sheik Zayed Rd. "Car Park"

Still, crawling along in first gear at least gives you the chance to check on the Burj Dubai's progress.

The Burj Dubai, currently at just over half its final height, already dominating Dubai's skyline. When completed it will be the World's tallest building, by a long way.

By the time we arrived on Monday it was dark, so these were actually taken later in the week.

We finally arrive at Gerard's house (he's putting us up) at 7.30pm, ten and a half hours after setting off. Another family -- Dave (another Novell-er), his wife Roz and their two young daughters are also staying at the house, and we all unwind with a couple of cold beers and by watching Pink Floyd's Pulse -- truly a legendary concert that we decided to put on in preparation for going to see Roger Waters play live on Wednesday night!!!

Tuesday is our lazy, creature comforts day, because things are going to get rougher and sandier from then on. I take the children to the Mall of the Emirates where we mooch around the shops in this truly massive mall, amble past the ski slope (with real snow), and then we go to the cinema to see The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith. A bit overlong but a very moving and inspirational true story that made me shed a tear at the end. We finished the evening off with dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (the children's favourite) before heading back to Gerard's and falling into bed.

The Hard Rock Cafe

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dubai Trek: Part 1

Just got back from a great trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Five days of driving, shopping, driving, movies, driving, rock concert, driving, camping, driving and driving. There was quite a lot of driving, not all of which involved a road surface.

We did so much -- driving the 1100km each way, "wadi bashing" (4x4 driving in a rocky, dried up river bed), seeing Roger Waters live in concert, and camping in the desert -- that I'm going to split the story into smaller pieces to make it easier to read (and write!).

A memorable week of mixed emotions from euphoria to abject terror, so I want to do it justice and include lots of pictures. I originally wanted to kick it off today but I'm too tired after yesterday's ten-hour drive, so you'll have to make do with this little introduction for now.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the journey down, and our cushy day in Dubai on the Tuesday.

Off for an early night now... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I'm going away on a trip for few days, so won't be posting anything until Saturday probably. When I get back there'll be plenty to tell I'm sure, but in the meantime why not catch up on older posts you may have missed (see the Blog Archive section at the side of the page), or get to know my other blog Bloody Marvellous.

Of course you could just ignore me completely and get on with your life...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Wedding #2

We're getting used to it now...

Remember last December when Karen performed her first marriage ceremony? Well last week we had a second wedding ceremony in the house. This time the happy couple were Eddie and Melanie.

Eddie & Melanie

Eddie is an engineer for a shipbuilder (who'd have thought you'd get a job doing that in the middle of the desert?) and Melanie is a nurse.

Karen with the happy couple

They were joined by a few close friends for the brief ceremony, which made their marriage official in UK law (they had already gotten married in the Philippines).

The Wedding Party

Karen's getting good at marrying people and I'm starting to settle in to my role as unofficial wedding photographer!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

I don't know if the Saudis have arranged marriages like in some Asian countries, but I do know that everything -- and I mean everything -- to do with courtship, engagement and marriage happens behind the closed doors of the family home, and at no time are any public displays of affection or romance tolerated.
That's why the Muttawa (Religious Police) see to it that any Valentine's cards are removed from store shelves, and why I couldn't buy Karen one this year. (Abigail got one from her boyfriend though. He said he'd got it from a department store in town -- must be lying!)

I saw this cartoon on the website of The Arab News today. Not sure what they're trying to say with it but it seems unnecessarily hostile to me.

Click image to enlarge

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Car Park Of Doom

Almost every time I leave the Diplomatic Quarter to venture into the city I wonder if I'll make it back in one piece. In personal exchanges I have found the locals -- Saudis and Expats alike -- to be polite and conservative, just as the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia" says, but... and it's a big BUT... put them either in a queue or behind the wheel of a car and all bets are off.

I've covered the insane driving here several times before, so let's not get into that again now. Assuming you have reached your destination still alive and with no more dents and scratches on your vehicle that you set out with, it's time to turn your mind to the other main aspect of motoring that takes nerves like Indiana Jones'. Parking.

In much the same way that old Indie took his life in his hands every time he walked out the front door, how you fare on a drive into Riyadh depends almost totally on your own reserves of patience, bravado, arrogance and sheer nerve.

In case you hadn't heard I'm a bit of a gadget freak, so my favourite shopping mall in Riyadh is Al Akaria because it has lots of Hi-Fi, electronics, and camera shops all together. The problem with that is that Al Akaria Mall is also home to Riyadh's worst parking experience. The mall is a scruffy, dirty, old shopping centre in the middle of the city and housed in a large drab building with several floors of offices above the ground-floor shopping level. Put all the office workers and shoppers together in an old building, in a city with no public transport, and you've got parking hell. I decided to drop by there this morning on the way back from renewing my car insurance (see Bills), to enquire if the tripod case I had ordered had come in yet. I did my usual two circuits of the outside of the building looking in vain for a parking space on the street, and as usual every inch of the building's perimeter was occupied by a parked car, with another line of parked cars outside them, blocking them in. I circled anyway in vain hope; you really don't want to descend into the murky netherworld of the underground car park unless you have first exhausted all other possibilities.

After two circuits I realised it's no good, time to bite the bullet.

I gritted my teeth and turned right into the car park entrance (actually there are two entrances but the other one is for Families Only). Two young, undernourished, bored-looking security guards in maroon uniforms looked blankly at me as I rolled past them and began down the ramp to the waiting blackness. I slowed down towards the bottom of the ramp, partly to take my sunglasses off and switch my headlights on, and partly to take heed of the scratch marks on the concrete lintel just an inch above the roof of the car. This was a no-no apparently, as the Saudi in the car behind explained with his horn. I ignored him and began to cruise around the first level, looking forlornly for a space. The dark, dirty, low-ceilinged parking area was totally packed with cars, and the later arrivals, on seeing all the marked spaces already taken, seemed to have made their own by parking on corners or against the opposite wall. All this made an already narrow lane even narrower, and as I snaked cautiously around the car park I received a second, longer burst on the horn from the car behind. Giving up on Level 1 I turned onto the down-ramp to Level 2, and saw in my wing mirror not just one but three cars behind following me. I got two more honks for driving down the dark ramp too slowly, then a third, possibly for loitering below 50km/h as I scanned row upon row of parked cars. At the end of the next row I spotted a space! Well, not a real space but an "extra" space in the driving lane and against a kerb. However it was on a bend and by the time I'd spotted it I'd gone too far forward to turn into it in one movement, which was all I felt my "fan club" would allow me, so I drove past it. Once onto the straight of the next lane the Saudis behind me decided they'd had enough of this namby-pamby Western Diplomatic (they could tell by the green number plates) driver and each one overtook me with a rev of the engine and a screech, lights off, sunglasses on, and giving me the Saudi equivalent of The Finger as each drew level. Relieved to have them in front of me at last I resumed my search. I went down a long lane only to find that someone had parked at the end, in the middle of the turn, completely blocking my path. There was nothing for it but to put the car in reverse and back slowly all the way to the previous junction and hope that nothing came up behind me. Having survived that manouevre I set off again, only to find myself at another dead end a few minutes later. This time it was a down-ramp to another part of the car park, but one that was apparently not being used, as there were closed barriers blocking the top of the ramp, on both sides. Another car was already parked nose against the barrier of the up-ramp so, having had enough by now, I pushed the nose of the Prado up against the other barrier at the top of the down ramp it was blocking me from using, switched off the engine and set off to find the lift to the shopping level.

I returned to Level 2 about fifteen minutes later (empty-handed: the case had not come in yet) to find the barrier in the up position and an irate-looking Saudi in a Land Cruiser waiting at the top of the ramp to come up, his car and mine nose-to-nose about six inches apart. I didn't make eye contact but got into the car as quickly as I could, wound down the window and started reversing all the way back down the lane to a junction where I could turn and drive forwards again. He followed me closely all the way, lights on full, as if he were trying to push me along faster with the beam. I finally reversed past the junction and he turned into it before me, and at the same time an undernourished but now less bored-looking security guard in a maroon uniform came up to my window shouting, "Mishkila Mishkila!" (meaning Problem). I put my sunglasses on and shouted back, "Mafi Arabie!" (don't speak Arabic), and sped off towards the welcoming daylight.

So next time you curse the inventor of Pay 'n' Display, think yourself lucky.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


I wish bill payment were as easy here as in the UK. Direct Debits and on-line payment facilities are positioned on Saudi Arabia's technological radar roughly where hovercars and "Jaunt Belts" (who else remembers The Tomorrow People?) are on yours and mine.

I expect you pay your mobile phone bill by Direct Debit, you may have a standing order on your bank account for the annual home insurance premium, and for several other things you can rely on the Post Office's payment collection services -- luxury.

I suppose I'm not helping matters by continuing to use a UK bank account while I'm here. I have opened a Saudi account, but trying to transfer money to it from the UK is a financial quagmire of forms, charges, and restrictions. Far easier -- but alas I fear, more expensive in the long run -- is to simply withdraw cash from my UK account at an ATM, and then use that to pay my bills.

I received a letter about my car insurance the other day, which is now due for renewal as it is a year since I bought the Prado and took out the policy. Their offer of accepting payment by bank transfer or cheque is no use to me, as my Saudi account never has anything in it, so it's the good old fallback of hard cash once again. So now I have to phone the person who wrote to me from the insurance company, arrange a date and time for me to visit, obtain directions to their offices in Riyadh, then go at the appointed time with my cash and sit across the desk from a man who will take about thirty minutes to scrutinise my policy details, the letter, my money, my face, the weather outside, and his mobile phone (for texts from his mates), then finally send me on my way with new insurance documents for the second year, and at least two hand-written receipts each with three rubber stamps. I may spend all day tomorrow on this.

Likewise I travelled to the local Mobily office this morning to pay the childrens' mobile phone bills. I haven't seen either bill. Instead I am informed that the bill needs paying by Abigail telling me she can no longer send text messages. Luckily there is a Mobily office in the DQ, so just a couple of minutes by car. As I sat across the desk while the clerk, in full Arab dress, got on with his scrutinising, my eyes wandered around the showroom/office at all the advertising posters and leaflets (I had actually brought a book with me in anticipation of a long wait, but thought it rude to open it at this point). A couple of things interested me. First, the image of a smart-looking laptop on his desk calendar showing Mobily's website had clearly been doctored.

The laptop was an Apple Macintosh Powerbook -- chosen no doubt because of its elegant silvery looks, yet the screen was a shot of Windows XP, Start button 'n' all. A good example of an Ad Dept.'s desire to show the most attractive image they can; a sleek laptop showing a familiar screenshot, regardless of its technical innacuracy and misrepresentation. The other thing that made me smile was this flyer:

Since images of women (and often children too) are banned here, leaflets like this that would otherwise help to sell their wares by radiating female beauty are instead covered with hairy blokes chatting with each other on the phone.

The clerk's eagle-eyed attention to customer service was a credit to him. He'd noticed me turning the desk calendar over in my hands, and as he gave me my six receipts he also produced another desk calendar for me to take home, and as an added bonus threw in a Mobily wall planner. Of course by now -- wall planner, desk calendar, six receipts, the flyer, my book -- I needed a Mobily carrier bag to lug it all home in. Not only do they make you travel to them so that you can pay them, they send you out a walking ad campaign!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bahrain Weekend

Ah, that's better! Fresh from a weekend getaway in the nearby Kingdom of Bahrain our batteries are recharged, and we're ready to take on whatever Riyadh has to throw at us.

Life here is very nice: there's a great social life, nice shops, and although we face an ever-present threat from terrorism the threat that I feel most regularly is from mad motorists. As I've said before, overall we feel safer living here than we did in the UK.

Having said that, life for an expat in Saudi does have its difficulties and restrictions (I've written about many of these before: shop opening times, lack of entertainment, restrictions on women's rights and appearance etc.), and every few weeks we feel the need to get away to -- from our perspective -- relative normality. Bahrain is the perfect oasis for such a retreat, being the closest country to Riyadh at a mere four hours' drive away, and managing to remain an Islamic state without the harsh restrictions of Saudi Arabia. A couple of days spent moving freely, not wearing an abaya (that's Karen, not me) shopping all day, drinking alcohol in public (but only in hotels and certain restaurants), and even eating pork are just as refreshing and renewing for us as a weekend at a health spa.

Oh the cinema! I've always loved going to the movies, and now that I only get to do that a few times per year each visit is precious. We saw Night At The Museum, with Ben Stiller. A pretty silly, formulaic romp but very funny and entertaining nonetheless. Weird casting though: Ricky Gervais as the Director of the Museum of Natural History in New York, and Steve Coogan as a miniature Roman Centurion? I think this is Ricky and Steve calling in a few favours to get a leg up the Hollywood ladder. Still, I don't want to put you off, and it is jolly good fun.

Highlight of the weekend was brunch at the Ritz Carlton: a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. "All You Can Eat" makes it sound very Berni Inn, but that's the deal. The food is excellent and freshly cooked. There are friendly and eager chefs dotted around to prepare your omelette/fresh pasta/deep-fried shrimp/crepe whenever you fancy, there was a sushi mountain and a chocolate fountain, and a bottomless well of sparkling wine -- it was wonderful.

Lowlight of the weekend came, predictably enough, as we reached the Saudi border on the causeway at the start of our homeward journey. We seemed to have arrived just after the problem started, as we were third in a queue of traffic that ended up about twenty cars long by the end of the two-hour wait. "System is down" was the only explanation we received, and the officials didn't seem to have -- or want to use -- any kind of manual backup for the computerised passport checking system that had just decided to crash. And we were in the VIP Fast Track lane for Diplomats; I shudder to think how long the queue in the regular check point was getting, although we could hear their horns blaring clearly enough from the other side of a block of buildings and a row of palm trees. Having finally got the PC going again (they'd probably just upgraded it to Windows Vista!) all we had to do was survive the four hours on the motorway through the desert in the dark while avoiding the young Saudis hurtling past us at 180Km/h on both sides.

Can't wait til next time!