Saturday, September 29, 2007

RiyadhCam: Shopping Oddments

Just as was thinking I should lighten the mood a little bit after all that ranting about Ramadan, I found a bunch of forgotten photos on RiyadhCam: some taken before I went away to UK/US and a couple taken since I got back, but all interesting in their own quirky way....

Here's the pop-out pocket map of San Francisco that I mentioned in an earlier posting. Didn't stop us getting lost, useless thing! I think I was dazzled by the offer of the built-in compass and pen with light, none of which delivered on their promise.

Here is a clock tower in the Diplomatic Quarter. Up until recently the tower had a traditional analogue clock face on each side, but these were suddenly and inexplicably replaced by giant LED digital watch lookalikes. What were they thinking?

This poster is on the wall of the changing room in Sapphire Tailors, where Elliot and I had our suits made. One look at this reassured me that we were indeed in a Mecca (sorry!) for the fashion-conscious. If you look closely you can see my car keys hanging on the hook.

And now, a short series of odd items for sale in our local supermarket. I bought a tray of these, but after several days of necking the delicious Ginseng beverage I still don't look like the Adonis on the label. Perhaps you're supposed to wear the white headband while you drink it?

It is somebody's job to sit in the stockroom and scribble over pictures of exposed female flesh in black marker pen so that Saudi standards of decency are preserved. I wonder if this kind of work is restricted to immigrant workers or whether the young Saudi men working the checkout aspire to be promoted to "Marker Pen Guy". I know one or two blokes who'd do it for nothing!

They're a little behind the times when it comes to cosmetic treatments.
"Holy Facelift Batman! Who is that woman in the Gimp mask?"

...and my personal favourite. "Aaahh, that's better, I can sit down now."

Finally, some Ramadan decorations in the supermarket...

...and in Kingdom Shopping Centre.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I offer up the following as a personal perspective, and before anyone says anything I acknowledge that this is my own personal opinion, is based on partial experience and does not represent a rounded view: being neither a Saudi nor a Muslim I am not privy to the family gatherings, celebrations, worship and soul-cleansing that are supposed to make Ramadan so important in the Islamic calendar, so all I can report on is what I experience as an external observer.

Ramadan changes life in Saudi in ways that I've never experienced anywhere else, and I guess the main point of this post is to illustrate to you how the country puts Islam above all else and that, while Saudis may feel the benefit, the expat resident seldom sees any positive indicators of the Ramadan Effect.

So, to begin let's cover the basics of what Ramadan is, and is about. The Holy Month of Ramadan occurs at the same time each year in the Islamic Hijri calendar, but because the Hijri calendar is based on lunar months Ramadan appears to "shift" eleven days earlier each year to those of us who use the Gregorian (solar month) calendar. As I write we are roughly halfway through, and it is expected to finish on or around October 11. Ramadan represents the time when the Qu'ran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, and the festival is intended to bring Muslims closer to God (or Allah), which is supposed to be achieved by fasting during the hours of daylight, while also abstaining from other activities such as smoking and sexual relations. During the day then, the Muslim is free to contemplate Allah and become more "God-conscious". At sunset, families congregate for Iftar (Breakfast), followed by prayer and more dining. They stay up late, and rise very early to partake of a pre-dawn meal to help them get through the daylight hours. During this month Muslims are also encouraged to be extra kind and charitable.

That, in a nutshell, is what Ramadan is about. It is observed in every country that has a Muslim population, both in democracies with Muslim communities such as the UK and also in Islamic states such as Pakistan, but nowhere is it so strictly observed (and enforced) as in Saudi Arabia. As the home of "The Two Holy Mosques" at Mecca and Medina, Saudi is Islam's Holy Land and the guardian of Islamic ways.

As a non-Muslim expat living in Riyadh I am therefore disconnected from the private, spiritual and family aspects of Ramadan. I read about them and I know what is supposed to go on but I can't see it, so I have to assume it takes place and is meaningful to people. Instead, all I see are the practical, real-world differences that make many expats choose this month for a foreign holiday....

Business / Commerce
Because people are up late and rise early (to eat), and because they cannot eat, drink, or smoke during the day, they tend to be, shall we say, not running on all cylinders where work is concerned. Many businesses allow employees to keep shorter hours, service levels are allowed to slip, and many already-woeful work ethics take another downward step. As you know, I flew back into Riyadh last Thursday (with Saudi Arabian Airlines), but my luggage didn't make it with me. I guess that was to be expected given that I checked it all the way through at Salt Lake City airport, but had to exit Heathrow Terminal 3 and re-enter in order to check in (sans luggage) for the Riyadh flight (this because the London agent has to check my visa).

King Khalid International Airport

So, I waited until the baggage carousel stopped and all the other passengers had picked up their bags and left, then I walked over to the Baggage Services desk to report it. The guard there had me fill in a form and he gave me a case number and a phone number, and told me that they would call my mobile as soon as my luggage arrived.

"Will that be tomorrow?" I asked.
"Yes, tomorrow Insh'Allah or after tomorrow."
"Ah, OK thanks."

No word came the next day or the day after, so on Sunday morning I called the number he gave me. In all I tried calling that number five times over Sunday and early Monday morning, and each time there was either a busy signal or simply no reply. So by mid-morning on Monday I decided to drive up to the airport and enquire in person. Once at Terminal 2 I had to go through the usual airport security check before being allowed into the baggage hall. The disinterested security guard waved me through the metal detector, which immediately went off. I have done this before and last time they completely disregarded it's bleeping so this time I had my phones etc. on me. The guard called me back and said, "Metal, metal.", so I took out my two mobile phones, car keys, and coins and went through again. It bleeped again, probably due to my watch and/or belt, neither of which would set off a Heathrow detector. I looked back and again he said, "Metal metal." I waved my wrist at him to indicate my watch, he shrugged and smiled and I was on my way. Throughout all this he remained reclining in his chair.

I couldn't find a picture of the baggage hall on the internet, so this one of the (only) nice part of the terminal will have to do.

Once in the baggage hall I went over to the desk with my claim form, Diplomatic passport and ID card in hand. There was no-one there and the lights were off. There was a small office to the side with its door open, so I gingerly stuck my head in looking for signs of life. A guard was lying on a row of chairs with his shoes off, fast asleep. I coughed politely and he woke up, saw the piece of paper in my hand, and then called a Pakistani porter in a green boiler suit to open up the luggage store. I went in with the porter and immediately found my two bags, which had probably been in there for three days. I brought them back to the desk and signed a piece of paper which the bleary-eyed guard had pushed at me. He never checked my ID.

Some shops remain closed during the day until around 4pm, and some open but with different hours than normal, and each shop follows its own rules, so if you want to know when a certain shop will be open you have to go there and read the sign on the door. Once open in the evening all shops stay open very late, usually until one or two in the morning. Food and drink establishments like McDonald's and Starbucks do not open at all until after sunset. Having recovered from the "rigours" of their working day and with a now-full stomach, most Saudis spend the evening shopping like there's no tomorrow. Shopping Malls heave, traffic is fierce, and every restaurant in town is bulging at the seams. Many (although I'm sure not all) expats avoid the evenings like the plague, as the stress just isn't worth it, but of course there's very little shopping to be had during the day either, so for us, Ramadan = no shopping, and remember: shopping is the only thing to do here.

The Religious Police are out in force during Ramadan to make sure all the restrictions are being observed, and anyone -- including us -- caught eating or drinking in public during daylight hours will be arrested and may be jailed or deported.

Ah, my favourite subject: driving in Riyadh (search the blog for other stories). Riyadh driving is often a dangerous, seat-of-the-pants affair. It's dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. You have to have eyes in the back of your head, clean mirrors and plenty of power in reserve to accelerate out of danger, and good brakes. Young Saudis treat the roads like a demolition derby, overtaking and undertaking takes place at the same time, new lanes are invented when they get bored of the marked ones. Now imagine all that, only now with starving, nicotine-deprived, irritable and tired drivers all racing to get to Iftar, and Riyadh's roads in the afternoon are a battlefield. Karen and I went out yesterday and narrowly missed collision several times. The air is thick with angry horn blasts, and we even witnessed a Road Rage incident with two thobe-clad Saudis fighting by their cars at the traffic lights and causing an even worse traffic jam.

Talk about Good Will to All Men.

I am not wishing to disrespect anyone's Religious choice (noting that Saudis do not, in fact, have a choice), but I am glad that this is the last Ramadan I will have to endure for a while.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

He Talks!

While in our Provo offices last week I was given the opportunity to give an interview for Novell Open Audio.

The folks at Novell Open Audio keep an eye (or should that be an ear?) out for anything and everything cool going on at Novell that our user community might be interested in, and then they drag in the people responsible and get them to talk about the cool products, technologies, and projects that they're working on.

So, if you're interested in hearing about what I do for a living, or if you're just curious to hear how I sound, click here. The interview is, by its nature, technical and some might say a bit geeky, but I know there are more than a few geeks among my readership, so I expect for every one of you that gives up trying to understand what we're talking about after five minutes there'll be another who sticks with it to the bitter end.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sunday: Zion National Park

We stayed Saturday night at the Crystal Inn in Cedar City. Nice, clean, and comfortable, and we spent an amusing evening in the Shakespearean-themed Bard Eating and Drinking Establishment that was part of the hotel. The menu listed the wines as "Mead", and the beers as "Ale", and we ordered The Bard Burger and Ye Olde Fish & Chips.

Sunday morning and time for the last leg of the trip: a visit to Zion National Park before driving the final 250 miles to Provo.

The view on the way to Zion

Zion is around 20 miles south of Cedar City, and there are three very different ways to enter the park. The West Entrance is the first one we came to but we drove past on the advice of the hotel clerk, who had told us the South Entrance was by far the best. Once we got there we realised that the advice was good. The West and South Entrances are not linked by road inside the park, so whichever one you go in you have to go as far as you can and then retrace your steps out again.

If you're interested you can get a nice map and guide at the National Parks Service website.

The South Entrance in Springdale

The South was better because there is a small town called Springdale, with lots of nice hotels and shops, and further up the road takes you into Zion Canyon: the central and most popular part of the park. The road into Zion Canyon is open only to the shuttle buses that run every 5-6 minutes, so you have to park at the Visitor Center and ride up the rest of the way. Before we did that we drove along the road leading out via the East entrance, because half way along the road becomes a tunnel cutting right through the huge mountains, and we wanted to go through it just for fun.

The tunnel is around a mile long and quite narrow, so if large vehicles like RVs or buses want to go through the rangers have to stop the traffic at the other end.

After the tunnel we stopped for a break short of reaching the East Entrance and then went back the way we had come, back through the tunnel and to the Visitor Center, where we parked and got the bus to Zion Canyon.

The road to the East Entrance. This was our turnaround point.

The view on the road back down to the Visitor Center. The mountains have a stunning range of colour: pink, yellow, brown, blue, orange, purple all mixed together in some places.

The main activity in the canyon is the hike up to the Emerald Pools: a series of three tiered pools that feed each other via waterfalls. The signs warned of dangerous precipices and strenuous hikes to the middle and upper pools, but that didn't scare three hard cases like us. Indeed, we had missed out on seeing a waterfall in Yosemite so that spurned us on past the warning signs.

The bottom of the canyon and the start of the Emerald Pools hike.

We got to the lower pool to find it almost dry, and fed by a pathetic trickly of water from the wall above. It turns out these falls also dry up in Summer, fed as they are by melting winter snow.

What should be a tumbling waterfall drips disappointingly down to the lower pool.

But by now we were halfway up so we soldiered on to the top. It was a hot day and my water ran out as we neared the top, but the atmosphere at the top pool was calm, quiet, and cool, so we had a good long rest there before starting back down.

Stunning scenery along the trail.

We left the park around 3.30pm and it took us another four hours driving to reach Provo, where it was time to put our work heads back on :-(

Zion National Park is a beautiful place and I hope to return one day in the early Spring to see the waterfalls and pools in full flow. Ooh... BrainShare's coming up in March... !

Friday, September 21, 2007

Saturday: Nevada Desert

After our day in Yosemite we'd spent the night at the Austria Hof Lodge in Mammoth Lakes CA. A ski lodge which had a great bar and restaurant but which failed to deliver on the basics, like in-room coffee and hot water.

Saturday's agenda was always going to be a tough one: over 400 miles across the wastes of the Nevada desert.

This was our view most of the day

I'd had it worked out that we'd drive on the Extraterrestrial Highway, to the North of the "test area" otherwise known as Area 51, and reputed hiding place of secretly captured alien spacecraft. Our car's SatNav, however, had different ideas, and our female Australian-accented guide kept telling us, "A better route is available". Foolishly we listened to her, and before we knew it we had gone considerably off course and found ourselves headed towards Las Vegas. We pulled over at a junction by a small building that at first we hoped was a gas station, but which on closer inspection turned out to be the Cottontail Ranch brothel, long-since closed down judging by the boarded up windows.

Damn! If we'd only we gotten here five years earlier, the brothel might have been open for business.

We decided to turn left instead of right towards Las Vegas, in an attempt to return to our original route: we were hoping to see something of Area 51, or get buzzed by some F-111's, or at least see a diner with some ET cuddly toys for sale. By this time we were low on petrol so the left turn was a bit of a gamble, but Kevin was driving and his logic was that, the faster we went, the quicker we'd get to a gas station, and he bombed along for around an hour at, although I won't go into details, considerably faster than the speed limit. I questioned the sense of this but not strongly enough to effect any change in our plans, so instead I sat in the back and quietly fretted about how we would survive if we were to run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere.

My worries were unfounded, as it turned out (although Kevin had no way of knowing that! -- how annoying.), and around 70 miles later we cruised into a small town in the middle of the desert called Tonopah Station, and we gave our trusty Chevy Trailblazer a well-needed drink of petrol.

Check out the sign: only in Nevada!

Our tank refilled, BP took over the driving as we turned right onto Extraterrestrial Highway. Three things happened within the next two hours: we didn't find any sign of either Area 51 or an Area-51-themed diner, I fell asleep, and BP was done for speeding.

There's no justice is there? There's Kevin, bombing along for around an hour at, let's say, slightly over the speed limit, then BP takes over and almost immediately gets copped. We were cruising along when a police patrol car passed us in the opposite direction, flashing his lights. We thought we'd got away with a warning, but one glance in the rear view mirror was enough to convince us that yes, he had turned around and was now chasing us. It was unusual to see anything coming the other way, let alone a patrol car.

When we finally pulled over the officer sauntered up to our window and told us that he'd clocked BP doing 84mph in a 70mph zone. Our revelation that we were British and on our way from VMworld in San Francisco to Provo, Utah drew interested oohs and aahs from the officer, and for a while we thought we'd charmed him into letting us off with a warning, but then he returned to the driver's window to inform us that he was writing BP a citation, but citing 80mph rather than 84mph in order to reduce the fine. BP was given a ticket for $87, to be paid to the Alamo County Court. He called them some days later and ended up paying $90, including a $3 surcharge for paying by credit card.

BP's citation

We spent the rest of the day driving at exactly 70mph.

The SatNav's trip computer. Note the maximum speed (Kev?), and the current, post-citation speed.

Nevada is great and all, but the scenery is a bit... well... flat. It's no wonder we'd tried to "speed" through it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Way Home

I'm sitting in The Three Bells cafe/bar at Heathrow's Terminal 3. My United flight from Chicago landed at 6am and the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Riyadh doesn't leave until 12.30, to I have over six hours to kill at the airport. Luckily there's wireless internet access here so I've got no excuses for not posting a blog entry have I?

Almost home now, after what will have been just under three weeks away from the Magic Kingdom. I land at around eight forty pm local time tonight, and as Karen has just reminded me we're in the midst of Ramadan, so I'm not likely to get anything to eat or drink during the six-hour flight. Good job I've got plenty of stored fat to live on.

On Friday of last week we began our road trip from San Francisco to Provo, Utah via two national parks and the Nevada desert. First stop was Yosemite National Park, which is just under two hundred miles east of SF. Beautiful place with stunning views, quiet, clean air -- a great place to visit. We were particularly looking forward to seeing Yosemite Falls: one of the world's tallest waterfalls, but when we got there we learned that it dries up in Summer, so all we saw was a tall rock with a stain down it. Oh well, never mind.

Some photos of Yosemite:

Lots of winding mountain roads and great weather. Made me wish I was cruising on a Harley, but then where would all the suitcases go?

This pic is near the Yosemite Falls that weren't... falling, that is. I guess I should have taken a photo of the dried up falls but I didn't for some reason. I'll ask Kevin and BP for one of theirs.

I'll cover the Saturday in Nevada and Sunday in Utah when I get back and have caught up on some sleep.

PS today is our 21st wedding anniversary. Happy Anniversary Karen xxx

Monday, September 17, 2007

The End Of The Road

Sunday, September 16 (late)...

We have successfully completed our road trip San Francisco - Yosemite National Park - Mammoth Lakes - Nevada Desert - Cedar City - Zion National Park - Provo. The trip took us three days and was around 1100 miles long.

I'm too tired to cover it in full right now, but wanted at least to let you know we got the end in one piece and had a good time (although BP is $87 poorer: story to come).

We had sparse internet access and rarely any mobile phone signals along the way, so this is the first real chance I've had to post anything. I've got lots of photos and stories to tell, but like I said I don't have the energy tonight.

Tomorrow we start our two days of meetings at the Novell office here in Provo. I will try to post again before we leave.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Final Day in SF

It's Thursday and the VMworld conference is over. Very enjoyable -- if you like that sort of thing. Kevin had booked a rental car for the next leg of our trip with a 6pm pick up, so at 5.30 we set out to walk to the Hertz office to collect it. We arrived at 6.01 to discover that they close at 6pm on the dot. The staff were coming out of the office and refused to let us in to collect the car. After some remonstrating and pleading with them we realised that we weren't going to get anywhere, so we went around the corner and a couple of blocks along to Avis in hopes of picking up a car on spec, knowing that if this didn't work out we could still go back to Hertz on Friday morning. Annoying but still do-able.

Luckily enough Avis are open til 7pm and the very helpful lady behind the counter was pleased to provide us with the same type of vehicle. BP had planned to drive out of the city to visit some friends, so he took the wheel and we pulled out of the garage and turned right into the street, only to narrowly avoid a collision with a BMW and a very embarrassing incident: crashing one of Avis's cars right outside their showroom. Panic over, and BP dropped Kevin and me in Chinatown and went on his merry way.

Kevin and I wandered through Chinatown and found a(nother) camera shop, this one offering 50 - 70% off all lenses. Just for a laugh we went in and enquired about the price of the Nikon 70-300 zoom: the lens BP bought from Kenny on Monday for $215 (discounted from $299). This guy's price was $199, but when I said I was asking on behalf of a friend he said, "Tell your friend he can have it for $169." We still haven't decided whether to tell BP or not!

We had a very fine chinese meal at the Imperial Palace restaurant in Chinatown, but that was three hours ago and now I want another one.

Tomorrow sees the start of the second leg of our U.S. trip: the Road Trip. We have a team meeting at Novell's Provo Headquarters next Monday & Tuesday, and rather than bum around for three days and then fly to Utah we have decided to drive.

Our 981 mile trip starts tomorrow morning at 8am. We will head East out of SF and drive to Yosemite National Park (camera gear at the ready). We'll spend the day in the park and then spend the night at a nearby hotel. Then on Saturday we drive around 400 miles across the Nevada Desert into southern Utah, past the notorious "Area 51" military testing site and rumoured location of captured alien spacecraft. I'll post pictures of some flying saucers here if you (and I for that matter) are very lucky. In reality I don't expect we'll get anywhere near it. Then on Sunday we visit Zion National Park in soutern Utah before driving the final leg to Provo, when it'll be back to work.

Our route. We must be mad!

I don't know if I'll get an internet connection until we hit Provo, so there may or may not be updates for the next three days. You can count on a story, and pictures, by early next week though.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Out and About in San Francisco

Hi, sorry for not posting anything for a while but we've been busy. The VMworld conference is in full swing and we're mingling with the 10,000 other attendees to discuss embedded virtualization technologies, server consolidation, and datacenter automation: requests on a postcard please if you would like to hear more about these fascinating topics.

We're staying at The Palace Hotel. Here's where I have breakfast.

We had a free day on Monday before the conference to acclimatise, so Kevin, BP and I thought we'd do some exploring around the city.

The Apple Store: first stop for any self-respecting gadget freaks.

Kevin couldn't resist playing with Photo Booth.

I always said he was a Big Head.

Next on the agenda was to catch the cable car from Union Square to Fisherman's Wharf. San Francisco is famous for its cable cars, which can climb the steep hills by gripping onto an underground cable moving at a constant speed. The driver stands in the middle of the car and accelerates, brakes and stops by dextrous use of two big levers: grip the cable to go, let go to coast, and the other lever to brake.

He's not messing about: he always looks like this.

The car stopped at a crossroads, so I quickly jumped off and took this pic then jumped back on again before it took off again. As you can see, when the seats fill up you have to stand on the side platform and cling on for dear life.

Pic courtesy of Kevin. Less than perfect composition, but when you're hanging out the side of a cable car (see Kev's other arm above my head) it's a case of point, shoot, and hope for the best.

Uh-oh! Another car coming towards us. Breathe in everybody!

One of SF's less pleasant claims to fame is that it has more homeless people per capita than any other U.S. city.

If you look closely you'll see a ginger cat sleeping on top of the pile. There's another one under the blue towel.

You see sights like this on every street.

We alighted at Fisherman's Wharf and walked along the parade of shops leading to the sea front.

We made the mistake of entering Kenny's camera shop. BP only went in for a filter and came out an hour later with a zoom lens (and a filter). Some salesman, Kenny.

Kenny just never gave up. He was very entertaining, telling us about when he lived in South Kensington years ago and maintaining that his photos of London (which he had in a wallet behind the counter) were better than BP's.

BP thought he'd negotiated a really good discount on the lens, but Kenny doesn't look too unhappy as he writes out the receipt.

Time to try out the new lens, so we walked to the end of the pier to get a close-(ish) look at Alcatraz.

The Rock.

The famous prison island has been decommissioned for many years and is now a tourist attraction. I went there the last time I was in SF and took the opportunity to be locked in one of the pitch black Solitary cells, but only for around 30 seconds. Not sure I could have handled a longer stretch.

A line of Pelicans flying across the bay.

We walked all up and down the various piers, and after Alcatraz we walked right down to Pier 39 almost a mile away to see the Sea Lions sunbathing.

I wish I'd taken a video here so you could hear the deafening noise of 200 Sea Lions all making Sea Lion noises at once.

After all that walking we needed some sustenance and a nice sit down so we had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe at Pier 39. Then we hopped on a tram to travel across the city from the North end to Castro in the South West. Another SF claim to fame is its large LGBT population (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender), and as it turned out Castro is Gay Central. We kind of knew this in advance but didn't know what to expect.

Hmm.. I wonder where he's headed?

When we got there it was like we'd wandered onto the set of the Village People's latest pop video. I think the only one we didn't spot was the Red Indian.


We marched briskly and manfully past the gay book shops and erotic art boutiques on our way to our next stop: Haight Ashbury. Haight, according to my handy guide book complete with pop-out maps, compass, and built in pen with light, is the Mecca for hippies old and new. I knew from the pop-out map that Haight was a few blocks North of Castro, so I led the way with Kevin and BP following on. Kevin had his Bluetooth GPS receiver linked to Google Maps on his Blackberry (geek) and BP likes to follow his instincts, a system we like to call BPS. What could go wrong in such company?

We'd walked from the horizon to where I shot this picture before realising that we were actually going South, and had actually sweated up steep hills for the last 30 minutes in the wrong direction. Don't ever ask us for directions.

Having been given our correct bearings by a helpful local we waited, panting at a bus stop and then rode back the way we had come. After leaving the bus we had another half mile walk to find Haight St. Oh my poor feet!

Haight St. delivered on its promise: a line of decidedly groovy shops selling everything from Grateful Dead T-shirts to hubbly bubbly pipes. It's your one-stop place for outlandish apparel, piercings, and hard drugs.

We wisely decided against going in here.

I did find a really amazing music store. It was an Aladdin's Cave for any guitarist, with electric guitars new and vintage covering every wall. It was a good job I didn't have Elliot with me: I may never have gotten out again.

Jealous, Elliot?

With our throbbing feet refusing to go any further we decided to call it a day and caught the bus back to the hotel. My legs are aching now just thinking about it. Still, at least I got some exercise.