Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Last Day at School

Today is Abigail's last ever day at the British School. She and Elliot will be moving to a boarding school in the UK in September, and Elliot is working at the Embassy at the moment so had his last day at school already. How Karen and I feel about being separated from the children from September is stuff for another post nearer the time (I'm trying not to think about it).

We held a farewell party at the Embassy yesterday for them to say goodbye to around 35 of their friends. Elliot handled it better than Abigail did, her face was red with tears at the end. I expect it'll look the same when she gets back from school in around half an hour's time.

We're off on holiday this afternoon: ten days in Malaysia, can't wait! If it's even half as good as our Thailand holiday last year it'll be a trip to remember. Don't know if I'll post here while we're away. depends on how chilled out I get :-)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

RiyadhCam: Cover-up

Following my last post about conservatism gone mad, I found this poster in a mall this morning, in the window of an Abaya shop (Abayas are those black robes that women here have to cover themselves in). Not content with covering them in black apart from their eyes, once again the eyes are pixel-masked out.

Do they really think we'd be able to recognise these women by their eyes alone? And even if we could, what's the big deal?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Saudi Conservatism

If you do any amount of research on the Saudi people and their customs you will quickly learn that they are a conservative society that values privacy and the sanctity of the family. Nothing wrong with that in itself, however the manifestations of this attitude appear strange to the foreign visitor, are inconsistently applied, and sometimes verge on the ridiculous.

It is well known that women in Saudi must be fully covered at all times when in public, and that restaurants and cafes -- even Starbucks and McDonalds -- have separate Family and Men Only sections with the Family Section usually consisting of private curtained booths. There is also a ban on any exposure of female flesh in the media, and it is a common sight in book and music shops to see magazine pages or CD album covers "censored" by having any bare female arms, legs, and midriffs scribbled over in black or red marker pen.

I thought I'd seen this taken to its ridiculous limit when I passed a clothes shop in a shopping mall recently. The shop window was decorated with large posters of small children -- toddlers -- modelling the outfits, but some over-zealous official had ordered their eyes to be digitally blurred behind a pattern of pixels, in the same way they do when interviewing witnesses in crime documentaries on TV. I didn't see the point but accepted it with a resigned shrug and moved on. The next children's clothes shop I passed bore no such signs of censorship, proving that it all depends on whether the guy with the rubber stamp is having a bad day or not I guess.

Well believe it or not I've topped even that:

Who could these mysterious characters be, hiding behind their pixel-masks??

Pigeon News

The pigeon worriers among you will be delighted to know that our baby pigeon who fell from his nest into our atrium about a week ago has somehow made it back up there. He must have mustered the strength to fly up the four metres to the nest on an upstairs window ledge.

Mother and baby doing well

Sorry for the poor picture quality: taken with my mobile phone through the flyscreen on my bedroom window. Mum is easy to spot but baby, sitting in the nest, requires closer scrutiny (click to enlarge).

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Dead Star Live!

Finally managed to sort out my video gremlins, so here are a couple of excerpts from last week's Dead Star concert. These are taken from their final song, Sweet Child O' Mine.

Apologies for the poor sound and lighting, but then I'm sure we've all been to gigs like that haven't we? :-)

Formats available: Quicktime (.mov)

Formats available: Quicktime (.mov)

Dead Star's Last Hurrah

Riyadh in June is very much a time of farewells and au revoirs among the expat community. With the end of the school year looming, families are jetting off to spend the summer with family and friends, or to take a holiday in a cooler climate, returning as the temperature in Saudi starts to return to a more tolerable level and the new school year begins.

For Elliot & Abigail the goodbyes are final, because they are leaving the British School to continue their education in the UK.

The other Year 11 members of Dead Star, the school's rock band, are also leaving the Kingdom for new schools, so last Wednesday the staff helped them to organise a farewell "gig" in the Sports Hall during the lunch break. Thanks to the time flexibility my job with Novell gives me I was able to go along and record their swan song for posterity. I shot video as well as stills but am currently having some technical challenges getting the video imported onto the computer. Will update the blog when/if I succeed.

Elliot on guitar and backing vocals during Stockholm Syndrome

Evan rocking out on vocals

The school's PA system struggled to bring out the individual instruments in some places and the lighting was disappointing but despite that the band played a tight, well-rehearsed set of famous rock covers:
  • Stockholm Syndrome by Muse
  • Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
  • Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin
  • Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
  • Sweet Child O'Mine by Guns 'n' Roses

Elliot with the new guitar he got for working hard to finish his GCSEs

For Seven Nation Army the band swapped roles. Here you can see Elliot on vocals, JP on drums and Evan on rhythm guitar. Versatile!

JP doing the solo in Sweet Child O'Mine

Metal Axeman in the making.

An impressive line-up of songs that demonstrates their talent, dedication and hard work. Elliot is determined to be a Rock Star and, judging by this performance, I think he might just make it.

Dead Star: Luke (drums), JP (lead guitar), Elliot (rhythm guitar), Aldrin (bass), Evan (vocals)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

UK 'in Afghanistan for decades'

Our former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now HM Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, was interviewed recently by Radio 4's Today programme.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles in Afghanistan

Here's an extract from the BBC story:

The UK presence in Afghanistan will need to go on for decades to help rebuild the country, British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has said.

"The task of standing up a government of Afghanistan that is sustainable is going to take a very long time," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He added that the Afghan people wanted the UK presence to help resist the Taleban and develop the country.

Extra diplomatic staff are being deployed to Afghanistan this year.

"The message we are getting, the message I had only last week down in Helmand from the people of the villages there, was, 'Please protect us from the Taleban,'" said Sir Sherard.

You can read the full BBC News story by clicking here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mum To The Rescue!

Our stranded baby pigeon has been spotted by his Mum, who must've returned to the now empty nest and figured out the rest. She visits several times a day to feed it, so I'm happy to watch and wait for him to spread his wings.

Formats available: MPEG4 Video (.mp4)

Proud Dad

I never won much (anything) at school, and neither did Karen, so we're wondering where Abigail gets it from.

At yesterday's annual prizegiving ceremony at the children's school Abigail was awarded Year 7 Student of the Year. I felt so proud as I watched her climb the steps to the stage to receive her award from the new British Ambassador, Mr. William Paty.

See for yourself!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Guest in Distress

We have a stranded baby pigeon in our atrium.

Elliot noticed it this morning. It looks like it's a few weeks old (guessing wildly here), has soft, downy brown feathers (the adult pigeons are brown here, unlike the grey ones we're used to in London) but it hasn't learned to fly yet. We looked up the atrium walls and for the first time noticed a nest on one of the window ledges. The bird had obviously gotten too near the edge and fell down.

On the floor of the atrium

See the nest on the window ledge?

I went upstairs to look at the nest more closely through the closed window and found another baby there about the same size, but as I watched that one flew up to the roof and away.

It doesn't seem hurt but I'm not sure what to do with it. Since it can't fly it'll die if it doesn't get any food. I don't want to pick it up and let it go out in the garden becuase the stray cats will undoubtedly kill it. Our maid Gina put some uncooked rice down for it but that hasn't been touched. I put out a small tray of water and scattered some of Dougie's rabbit food on the ground, which it has pecked at but not much. Next I tried a piece of bread, dry at one end and dipped in the water to soften it at the other, but he/she/it hasn't touched that.

Not eating

About an hour ago an adult pigeon flew down into the atrium and landed a few inches away. At least its Mum knows where it is. I wonder what she'll do: abandon it or bring it some food back?

Anyone got suggestions for what to feed it?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Happy Birthday Elliot!

I can't believe it. My little boy is sixteen years old today. Kids grow up so fast. I remember 3am feeds, holding the bottle and watching American Gladiators to stay awake. Now he's taller than me and he's got a girlfriend and an electric guitar (although not necessarily in that order!)

His favourite presents:

iPod Video

Wario Ware: Smooth Moves (game for Nintendo Wii)

This game takes the paradigm of the Wii Remote to new heights, and as you progress through the game you learn new "stances" in which to wield your "form baton":

The "Form Baton"

"The Umbrella"

"The Handlebar"

"The Waiter"

"The Elephant"

You adopt a different stance for each "microgame". Microgames only take about five seconds and come in quick succession, so playing Wario Ware is pretty hectic and keeps you on your toes. In just a few minutes' play you can return a ping pong ball, drink a pint of beer, hit someone on the back with a stick, put dentures in an old woman's mouth, swat a fly, balance a panda on a beachball, cut fingernails, sweep up some leaves and perform an alien abduction of a cardboard box.

Hours of fun for the whole family. Oops! Better get on with some work now!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Clustrmaps User Of The Month!

You see my little map thing on the right that shows where all you lovely readers live? Well, I found out recently that Clustrmaps offer a "Clustrmaps+" service, which for a modest fee will give me extra features, including the ability to "zoom in" to individual continents. Sounded good, and good value, so I signed up last week. Since then I've been checking it every day but nothing had changed, so I emailed the folks at Clustrmaps -- not to complain, but to politely ask when I could expect to see my new features working.

The nice people there not only responded quickly with an apology (apparently they're upgrading their servers right now and are having a few glitches), but they also refunded my money but kept me as a "plus" customer, and then the next day made me one of their Users Of The Month for providing them with feedback.

I'll let you know once it starts working.

Thankyou Clustrmaps!

Monday, June 04, 2007

More Weather Woes

Despite having just survived "Operation Desert Storm", Elliot and I went off to the desert again on Saturday afternoon.

This time we set off in three vehicles with some of Elliot's friends and a few adults to go quadbiking, at our usual place -- about halfway to the point where we almost camped the other day. We got there in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat but it was still 40c as we selected our ATVs and haggled over the price with the Bedouin "staff".

Just as the teens mounted their bikes and motored off towards the dunes a strong, hot wind blew up from the high dunes to the distant Southeast. Over the next sixty seconds it built enough strength to lift the sand off the ground and before I knew what was happening we were all lost in a fierce sandstorm. I tried to motor on in the direction the others had gone but that was sraight into a horizontal rain of sand. I was wearing wrap-around sunglasses but even they didn't protect my eyes enough to allow me to carry on. I turned the bike around, kicked it into Neutral and just sat there for several minutes with my back to the storm and my hands cupped around my face to keep the sand out.

This is the view with my back to the storm, so you can't see the sandstorm too well. Taking photos in any other direction was impossible.

Eventually I decided to try and make it back to the cars where the other adults were waiting and, no doubt, worrying. I couldn't see further than ten yards in front of me but set off in what I judged to be the right direction, and made it back to the road a few minutes later. I jumped off the bike and into the car for some protection and water.

"Reception", taken from the car

I had no idea where the other riders were, whether they were stopped or moving, together or separated. The only mobile number I had was Elliot's and knew he can't get a signal out here. Unable to do anything to find them all we could do was wait and hope that their own stinging eyes and gritty mouths brought them back too. Sure enough, about five minutes later we saw some faint headlights bobbing towards us through the "fog", and shortly after the cars were full of spluttering, thirsty teenagers and surrounded by abandoned quadbikes.

The quadbiking centre consists of around twenty tents like this, but in this weather this and the one above were the only ones I could see.

We sat there watching the storm for a while, wondering how much we'd have to pay the Bedouin if we decided to bail out. We had just decided to abandon the venture when the wind started to drop and visibility improved a little. Within two minutes more the wind had dropped to a light (but still hot) breeze and the skies were clear, so we jumped back on the bikes and made the most of the time remaining.

I jumped in the shower as soon as we got home, and by the time I got out the bottom of the bath had a layer of reddish-brown sand in it. Sudden weather changes like that are no uncommon here. If you have the protection of a vehicle it can be quite exciting to witness but I wouldn't fancy living out in tents in the desert like our friends at Rent-a-Quad.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Operation Desert Storm

We decided to camp out in the desert last Thursday night. Friends of ours who will be leaving soon had their teenage son over for half-term so it seemed like a good opportunity to have a last party in the desert before things get too hot (you really don't want to be in the desert in Summer). So, three families met up at our house on Thursday afternoon and we spent a good fifteen minutes standing beside our fully-loaded 4x4's pointing at the sky and tutting. Despite several days of intense heat and unrelenting sunshine Thursday's sky was looking mean and moody and for a while we were close to calling the trip off, but in the end we decided hell, we've packed the cars anyway, and what's the odd light shower between friends? A little rain would be refreshing! So off we went.

Our chosen spot in Red Sands was about an hour-and-a-half's drive, during which we drove through two quite heavy rain showers, peering up at the sky in the hope of spotting some blue between the black clouds as we went. By the time we got off the road and into the dunes the rain had stopped but the wind was picking up, and we spent around thirty minutes driving around, trying to find a suitably protected dip with dunes high enough to shelter us from the wind. Eventually we picked a spot: still not ideal and not great shelter, but by now the light was starting to fade and we needed to pitch tents 'n' stuff. Karen, Elliot and I

(Abigail is away on a school trip to Paris. We miss her terribly but get regular texts such as this morning's, "Bonjour! Had ham for breakfast Yay! Going to Eiffel Tower this morning.")

got busy putting our tent up while the others put off that task in favour of getting a fire going and setting up the tables and chairs. Our tent is one of those very lightweight ones with a built-in groundsheet: very easy to erect under normal conditions but flipping impossible in a blowing gale. We each stood there, holding a corner each with both hands and wondering what to do with the fourth corner, all the time unable to let go to reach for things like pegs and mallets for fear of the thing taking off into the storm. Each time we did manage to hammer a peg into the sand the wind ripped it out again. Just as we were wondering what to do Mother Nature gave us our answer by whipping up a quick sandstorm. In the distance we could clearly see a tornado-shaped swirl of sand spinning towards us, and there was nothing for it but to run for cover: Karen, other Karen and me diving into our half-erected tent (at least our bodyweight will keep it on the ground), and all the others more sensibly jumping back into their cars. I could feel the sand whipping around my legs (which were sticking out of the tent), and grains of sand stung my face and eyes until I'd managed to zip the tent flap down as far as my knees. The three of us sat/stood there in what amounted to a giant Nylon bag, pouring drinks and spitting sand out of our mouths for the next few minutes until the sandstorm passed. At one point I left the tent and jumped in the car so I could get a couple of photos:

Karen taking shelter and keeping hold of the tent at the same time

"Does my bum look big in this?"

After that the evening's preparations continued: fires were lit, steaks were unwrapped. Before the sandstorm I had parked the car right next to the tent to try and shelter it further from the wind (didn't work), but Adrian helped me out by tying the tent to the car's roof rails with one of the guy ropes. At least now the two Karens could evacuate the tent without it taking flight.

"Don't fancy sleeping in that!"

The children take advantage of a lull in the weather to do some climbing.

It may be windy but we sure know how to pick a campsite: this one even has separate Ladies' and Gent's facilities!

As we got on with the picnic there were two or three light showers, which we sat out in, and as it got dark I began to wonder whether we'd actually end up sleeping in our tent-mess or if we'd choose the relative comfort of the Prado when the time came.

"Those bangers ready yet Dad?"

A good time was had by all -- for a while at least

Neither was necessary, because a little while later poor Ali accidentally stepped on the charcoal fire with no shoes on and badly burned her foot. We sat her in the back of the car and the girls bathed it and cleaned it as best they could, but it quickly became obvious that she needed to go to hospital, so we promptly dismantled everything and threw all the gear into the nearest boot and headed home. I don't know if there is a Guinness World Record for the quickest de-camp ever but we must have been close. The drive back (over rough sand dunes and unlit roads in the dark and the wind and rain) was not fun, but Ali got the attention her foot needed and we all got to sleep in our own beds.

Being a Brit I'm used to changeable weather but Saudi has the UK beat when it comes to sudden and extreme change.