Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hazardous Occupations #23: Optician

A funny thing happened today.

I've been visiting quite a few Riyadh opticians recently. The reason is I have a pair of fancy folding wraparound sunglasses with rubber sleeves on the arms, and through various instances of misuse (most involving a swimming pool) these rubber sleeves have become torn and frayed at the edge. So, being designer glasses 'n' all I've been scouting around for replacement sleeves. Boring so far I know, but the scene needed setting....

At the weekend I went into Magrabi Optical in Hayat Mall on Old Airport Rd. This was around Optician's Number Ten on my quest, so by now I was used to negative responses. I was greeted by a young male (they all are) Receptionist and the eventual answer was indeed negative, again, but what struck me about this young man was that he had a very odd bruise on his forehead. It was like a horizontal stripe of a bruise, about three-to-four inches long, right in the middle of his forehead. I found it hard not to look at it, but refrained from asking him how he'd got it. They didn't carry spare Carrera rubber thingies in stock, but he suggested I try their branch in Sahara Plaza mall, because that's where their workshop is so they'd be likely to have a larger stock of spares.

I finally got around to this next stage of the quest this morning, and when I entered the shop I found that it was indeed several times larger than the first branch. Any thought of actually getting my spare parts disappeard in a puff of smoke, however, when I saw the young man sat at Reception. He had the same kind of bruise on his forehead! I know what you're thinking, and NO -- it wasn't the same bloke on a temporary transfer, but a completely different young male bruised Receptionist.

When I told Karen the story this afternoon (she already knew about bruised Receptionist #1) she made me laugh by suggesting that they'd got them from that eye testing machine where you have to rest your head against a padded bar to look into the patients' eyes. How we laughed, speculating that perhaps you were relegated to Reception if you had performed clumsily in your Skillful Use Of Eye Test Machine test. Or perhaps, when it's quiet in the shop, like it is most mornings, they relieve the boredom by having eye test machine races to see who can sit-look-run around-sit-look-from-the-other-side the fastest.

We'll never know.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Last Trip To Dubai

Now that we've gotten the embarrassment of The Gym Incident out of the way, I can relax and tell you about the trip itself.

Since this was to be our last visit to Dubai for the foreseeable future we wanted to do it in style, so booked two rooms at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. This strikingly-original 5 star deluxe hotel is part of the large beach-front Jumeirah complex that also houses the 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel, the Wild Wadi, two more hotels, and the Madinat Jumeirah -- itself a complex of dozens of bars and restaurants all sited around an indoor/outdoor "souk" or market, and surrounded by a network of waterways, on which you can travel around the resort by powered gondola. The Jumeirah Beach is expensive at the best of times, and, being October half-term, this was the worst of times. The bank balance is still recovering but we had a ball.

The wave-like Jumeirah Beach Hotel from the Marina

The hotel building looks like a giant wave with its slanting walls and curved design. Our rooms were on the 17th floor out of 25, and every room has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the beach, marina, and ocean.

Great for views like this:

Yes, this was taken through our hotel room window!

...but not so great when the window cleaners come to call!

I don't think they could see in... at least I hope not!

The room level we had also gave us access to The Executive Pool: an exclusive pool and beach area for the JB's favourite guests, and guests of the Burj Al Arab.

With that kind of exclusivity you'd expect to get a better class of sun worshipper wouldn't you? Not a bit of it. Every morning when we went down, most of the sun loungers had been "reserved" by guests coming down with their towels before breakfast, and they were English, not German! This kind of thing really annoys me. It never actually inconvenienced us because there were still other loungers "available", but a few times I saw large families swanning in late morning and getting annoyed because their "reserved" loungers had been taken by someone else. "Serves you right" say I. I hate this kind of selfishness. Then, to cap it all, we saw a woman come in with her own airbed, already inflated, and with the name and room number written on it in marker pen. I might as well be at Butlins (sorry if that doesn't mean anything to my non-English readers). All of these uncouth shenanigans were oddly contrasted by our surroundings, with the majestic Burj in the background, and high-rolling guests arriving and departing by helicopter throughout the day.

Another Helipad departure. Unfortunately it wasn't LiLo Woman.

Right, rant over now, and we did have a great time by the pool despite the "great unwashed" and their cheeky ways.

"Alright, who had baked beans for breakfast?"

Ibn Battuta Mall & Cinema
Dubai's two best-known shopping malls are The Mall Of The Emirates and Ibn Battuta Mall. MOTE is very close to the hotel and also home to Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort with real snow. The mall is huge, and great but usually very busy, so for a change we got a ride further out of town to Ibn Battuta Mall. If you ever go to Dubai I recommend a visit here. The mall is (again) huge and has several sections or "courts", each one themed after different parts of Middle East and Asia.

Egypt Court

Starbucks in Persia Court

Can't Remember Court

There's China Court, India Court, Persia Court... you get the idea. This makes for a very pleasant shopping experience, as all the big name shops you want are there, but in a very pretty setting.

The cinema in China Court

While Karen and Abigail got their nails done Elliot and I finally saw The Kingdom -- the new action movie set in Riyadh and starring Jamie Foxx. Although a 15 certificate in UK, here it is an 18 Plus, so Elliot had to stand up straight and put on his deepest voice to get past the ticket counter.

I went in with very low expectations of this movie. I had read several reviews and they were all bad, but all in Middle Eastern papers. The other thing that had made me cynical was my knowledge that, set in Riyadh or not, there ain't no way any part of this film was actually shot in Saudi Arabia, the authorities would never allow it. Most of the city shots were actually of Abu Dhabi in the U.A.E., with the Kingdom Tower "Photoshopped in". Despite this I have to say I enjoyed the film a lot. They captured the compound atmosphere quite well, and some of the city shots were similar to Riyadh's nicer parts. The story was pretty far-fetched but action-packed, and overall the film had more integrity than I was expecting.

The Kingdom Trailer

On Monday night we went to see a live show called Stomp!, in the Madinat Theatre close to the hotel. Stomp! has been in London's West End and on Broadway too. It's basically a percussive dance show, with the eight performers dressed in scruffy overalls and beating out catchy rhythms in a combination of tap dancing, clapping, and drumming with a variety of things you might find in an alley: brooms, dustbins, old newspapers etc. A really good show with great performances, it had humour, audience participation, and made you want to stomp your feet. My only criticism was that -- at an hour and a half with no interval -- it was about 15 minutes too long, and towards the end I was starting to get a headache from the boom boom booms.

Abigail showing off her new phone and handbag at dinner.

Burj Al Arab
No visit to this part of Dubai is complete without a nosey around the inside of the Burj Al Arab: the world's only seven star hotel. Designed to look like a billowing sail, the Burj is over 320 metres tall and very luxurious. Every room is a duplex suite and the public areas are glamorously decorated, with really impressive dancing fountains, and gold everywhere. It's actually a little too brash and borders on the vulgar, but I guess it's OK in a "if you've got it (wealth), flaunt it" way. Here's a shot of the Burj at sunset, taken from the JB's Marina:

The sticky-out bit at the top (not the Helipad, the other bit) is the Sky Bar and Restaurant on the 27th floor.

As Jumeirah Beach Guests we were allowed into the hotel, which can only normally be accessed either by helicopter or private road with security checkpoint. We looked around the reception area and shops for a while, and then went up to the Sky Bar on the 27th floor to check out the view. We couldn't stay here for a drink because it's over-21's only, so we got a couple of photos and went back down to the Lobby Bar.

Our hotel from the Burj Sky Bar.
It doesn't look this high from the ground!

I didn't think I'd get away with ordering one Coke and four straws, so I splashed out on a drink each, but after one look at the prices on the menu I whipped it out of the childrens' hands and said, "Coke or Lemonade?". My Good Lady Wife, of course, could have whatever her heart desired (as long as it wasn't expensive).

So that's Goodbye to Dubai. An odd but interesting place: in many ways still Middle Eastern but in others just like Las Vegas. It's growing at a phenomenal rate and gets tackier as it gets bigger, but you won't find anywhere else like it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Gym Incident

Monday morning after our first night in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai. I am roused, bleary-eyed by Karen's entreaties to accompany her to the gym. Now, obviously an Adonis like myself has no need of further muscle-toning but Karen doesn't want to go alone so I leap out of bed and tag along to keep her company. Anything to make her happy. And it did make her happy, but not in the way originally intended.

The hotel gym is in a separate building called the Pavilion, and is accessed from the rear of the hotel down twisting, tree-canopied paths snaking between designer swimming pools, and then along a beach-front path. Simply getting there is a mini-workout in itself.

Inside there were several Latex-clad, headband-wearing women jogging, cycling, stepping and ellipting(?), and a few men about my age, all of whom were sweating at the same time as going through the aforementioned exertions. And who says we can't multi-task? I strode up and down the ranks of waiting machinery like a General inspecting his troops, looking each one up and down to pick the lucky contraption that was to have the honour of lifting me another rung up the ladder of physical perfection. I finally selected a vacant treadmill in between two jogging goddesses, and Karen chose an elliptical trainer (machine that can't make up its mind whether to be a stepper or an exercise bike) in the row in front of me, and we began our workout.

Karen began by starting to exercise. I began by taking my iPod and headphones out of my pocket, connecting both, and selecting a suitably rocking album to accompany my impending Power Walk. Naturally my rotating thumb slowed to a halt at Rammstein's "Mutter", and with a sly grin of anticipation I clicked Play, rested my iPod on the narrow shelf in front of me and selected an exercise program on the computer. I kept pace as the rubber conveyor belt under my feet began to move and pick up speed.

As the machine revved up a gear so did the music. "Mein Herz Brennt" gave way to "Links-2-3-4" which in turn made way for "Sonne" & "Ich Will". By the time the wailing sirens of "Feuer Frei" invaded my ears the machine and I were marching along in top gear. As I marched, my arms started to swing more energetically, with the headphone cable too swinging in time between my head and the chest-height shelf holding my iPod.

Then several things happened in quick succession. My swinging arm caught the headphone cable, the cable popped out of the iPod's socket, and the iPod in turn leapt off the shelf and fell to the floor between my feet. I instinctively bent down to rescue my favourite gadget, afraid that I'd broken it, there was a thud, and I was conveyed, backwards, on all fours and at speed, to the waiting laminate wood floor behind, which I hit with another loud thump. All of this happened in about two seconds. Ignoring the pain in my left hand and right knee I leapt up and back "into the saddle" in an attempt to minimise my embarrassment. The woman to my right did not react at all, leading me to suspect that she hadn't heard anything through her own headphones, and the woman to my left turned to me, without breaking her stride, and asked if I was OK. I wasn't sure whether to be offended at her unconvincing show of concern or relieved that my clowning had gone largely unnoticed. I said Yes Thanks, and continued to Power Walk (only with a slight limp now), while trying to clean a black rubber mark off my poor iPod.

Afterward, Karen confessed that she had heard thump #1, and had turned in time to see me flying backwards on my knees and making thump #2. She said she hadn't said or done anything further at the time to save my blushes, but that she'd finished her own workout with a fit of the giggles. I left the gym no fitter, no lighter, and with a bruised knee and a scratched iPod. Middle-aged people everywhere be warned: physical exercise can be hazardous to your health.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Back From Dubai

We got home last night after a fabulous, decadent, and extravagant four days in Dubai. I have lots of stories to tell and pictures to show. but that will have to wait for now as we are currently hosting a bunch of Elliot and Abigail's teenage friends for a last get-together before they leave Riyadh -- for the last time -- on Saturday night.

The barby is lit, the chips are cooking, and my culinary skills are being called for.

More about Dubai soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Cruel Desert

Yesterday we joined several other Embassy families for a trip to the desert for a picnic. As this was to be Karen's and my last desert trip I was hoping for an experience to remember. We've done lots of such trips during our tour here, and each one was memorable in its own unique way. This one would be no exception, as the desert had one last trick up her sleeve....

Our plan was to hit the desert North of Riyadh, beginning at "Pyramid Dune", and do a little desert driving, or "dune-bashing" before stopping for a nice, leisurely picnic lunch, then bashing our way out again.

Pyramid Dune was "shut". Someone must have seen the kind of damage a convoy of Diplomatic 4x4's can do to a sand dune and decided to protect it from further abuse by erecting a concrete barricade.

With Pyramid Dune closed for business we had no option but to follow the line of the barricade, and that's when we discovered how soft the sand was in this area. The desert is constantly changing: varying degrees of hardness depending on how tightly packed the sand is, how long since the last rain came, and drifting and shifting in the wind. So whenever you go driving in the desert you have to go equipped to deal with your vehicle getting stuck. Most of the nine cars in our convoy had some sort of "unsticking" equipment, ranging from shovels and sand ladders to tow-ropes and winches. This is one of the principal reasons you should never attempt such a trip in a lone vehicle: you always need at least one unstuck vehicle to help you out of a jam.

The sand on this particular day was very soft, and it was not very long before the first vehicle got that sinking feeling, with clouds of sand billowing from its spinning wheels. I wasn't first to get stuck, but I was second.

Me, waiting for my crew to get their act together.

To rescue a car from this situation you dig out the sand around the wheels then put down "sand ladders": short metal ladders that give the tyres something to grip. If that doesn't work, you get your towrope and tow the car out. On this trip we had to do both together.

The Ambassador gives me a push too.

Free at last!

Ahhh, Terra Firma! ...and the more Firma, the less Terra! -- badoom tish!

In the end we had to have sand ladders, towrope, AND people pushing to get my car free. Having gotten mobile again the convoy set off once more, only for someone else to get stuck about ten minutes later.

Now this may LOOK like my car again, but it isn't. Ray has the same model and colour as mine, that's all!

After about two hours of this, with just about every other car getting stuck at least once, we decided to pitch camp in the lee of a very small dune and have our picnic lunch.

It's the Ambassador's shade we crave rather than his charismatic presence.

"Flippin' Eck, I'm glad to get out of that bumpy car for a bit!"

"Yeah, Chris is my Mr. Mayaki when it comes to Poker. What do you mean 'Who?'? Oh come on! You MUST have seen The Karate Kid. 'Wax on, wax off'?"

Lunch over and we pack up all the gear and set off in search of that most welcome of sights: a road. The shifting sands had not finished with us however, and it took us another two hours of getting stuck, shovelling, digging, towing, and pushing before we were reunited with the blessed tarmac.

Yes! The Ambassador's turn to get stuck, and MY turn to give HIM some advice on which gear ratio to select.

With the temperature in the high 30's, the sun beating down, and being over 900m above sea level, this was thirsty, tiring work.

We did eventually find the road, and everyone got home safely. We all filed into the Diplomatic Quarter and gladly accepted the Ambassador's invitation to the Residence for some refreshments and a well-earned sit down.

This is the image of desert driving that I want to remember.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

They're Back

Elliot & Abigail landed safely in Riyadh this evening, after a short delay to their flight. It's great to have them home again and since we picked them up they haven't stopped talking about school and all the teachers and new friends they've made.

Yay! We got our kids back!

So now we're repacking cases for the trip to Dubai tomorrow morning. I will try and post the desert trip story while we're away.


We had a very eventful day in the desert yesterday, and I started writing an entry about it but gave up early in. The children are winging their way to us and we'll be leaving for the airport to pick them up in an hour, so I'm finding it difficult to think about anything else.

Can't wait to see them again, and looking forward to the Dubai trip too. Have got some interesting photos of the desert trip and will complete that posting while we're away -- if I can find a quiet hour.

Meantime will post a photo of our reunion later tonight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, this week is pretty busy for me. To begin with I'm quite busy work-wise at the moment -- Yes, it's true... I have been known to do the odd bit of work now and again. On top of that there's leaving stuff to think about. We've set a date for our Garage Sale and this weekend (that's tomorrow since Thursday is our Saturday) we're going to start piling up all our crap excess treasures so that our Filipino maid Gina and I can start pricing things up on Saturday.

We've got to get most of that done tomorrow because on Friday we're going on a desert picnic with other Embassy families. Another "last": our last trip to the desert.

Then Elliot & Abigail arrive on Saturday evening, Sunday morning we're off to Dubai, then when we get back there's going to be a mega-sleepover at our house for E & A and their Riyadh buddies, and so it goes on.

These days I find myself wide awake around 5am; not something I'm used to at all. Must be all the stuff buzzing around in my head.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bye Bye Bahrain

We got home yesterday evening after a lovely long weekend in Bahrain. As we're approaching the end of our Saudi tour we wanted to make our last Bahrain weekend a memorable one.

Regular readers will know (just search the blog for "Bahrain" if you don't believe me) that the Kingdom of Bahrain is a favourite weekend getaway destination for people who live in Saudi Arabia, Ex-pats and Arabs alike. A couple of days break, away from Saudi restrictions, in relative normality (for a Westerner) can be a great battery recharger. Women do not have to cover, they are allowed to drive (Heaven Forbid!), you can drink in public (well, in hotels and restaurants), and you can even go to the cinema. We didn't on this trip, because the film choice was pretty dire. We were hoping to see The Kingdom -- the new action movie based in Riyadh and starring Jamie Foxx, but it has been banned in Bahrain. We hear that they're showing it in Dubai though, so maybe we'll see it next week. Yes, the cat's out of the bag now isn't it. We're off on another jolly next week, taking the children to Dubai for five days. It'll be expensive, but as with Bahrain, this'll be the last time we'll visit Dubai in the foreseeable future, so we want to say Goodbye in style.

Anyway, back to the weekend just gone. The drive to Bahrain from Riyadh is just under 500km, 400km of which is through desert, so with scenes like this:

"I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with S"

...for four hours you'd better have some quality in-car entertainment. Enter Karen with her podcast-laden iPod, and we while away the journey listening to Jonathan Ross's Radio 2 show and Mark Kermode's movie review show from Radio 5 Live, with Simon Mayo. Karen was an avid Radio 5 listener when we lived in the UK, and when she got her iPod last Christmas was pleased as punch to find all her favourite shows available for download from the BBC. Makes me wonder what she'll do when we return to the UK: podcast or radio proper?

We finally made it to the King Fahd Causeway, and I thought I'd better grab some photos for posterity.

Half-way over the first half of the causeway. In the distance you can see the midway island that constitutes the border between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Left lane for us: Fast Track!

Being a Diplomatic Spouse has its advantages.

The famous "The Fun Starts Here" sign on the Bahrain side of the causeway. It's usually after dark by the time we reach it, so here's a rare daytime photo.

We stayed at the Movenpick Hotel near the airport. We'd been told that the famous Friday Brunch was cancelled this week because of Ramadan, and when we checked in on Thursday Ramadan was indeed still in effect.

Nice place.

The hotel pool with it's "infinity edge" and the sea beyond. There's actually a grassy bank and a short beach between the two, but approaching from the hotel lobby the pool seems to go on forever.

The pool next morning. The "sea" is in fact a man-made lagoon. When the tide is in (see previous pic) the water is only about six inches deep, but at low tide the lagoon empties completely, leaving a much less attractive large sand flat.

On Friday morning we read in the local paper that Eid was officially upon us, as Saudi authorities had officially confirmed a sighting of the New Moon the night before, so from then onwards it was back to life as normal. Too late, alas, for the brunch, but never mind.

Obviously this guy on stilts was in the Mall as part of Eid celebrations. Less obvious was the reason all the young Arabs were running round and round him like a Maypole.

On Friday evening we had a reservation at a restaurant we'd read about called Bam-Bu! (the exclamation mark is part of the name), in Adliya District. The Movenpick has its own fleet of luxury cars, so when you order a taxi you get one of these for a fixed price which you pay at Reception in advance. A little more expensive than regular taxis but not much, and way more stylish. All well and good, except it took the car 15 minutes to turn up, making us late for our reservation. The restaurant wasn't busy so it didn't matter in the end, and the Audi A8 which finally swept us off was very nice. I mentioned in the last posting that Bam-Bu! advertises all the Chinese food you can eat, and all the Stella you can drink for a fixed price. Made it sound a bit chav, but when we got there we were pleasantly surprised. The restaurant was tastefully decorated and nicely lit and with both indoor and outdoor dining areas (although why you'd want to sit out and eat dinner in 80% humidity is beyond me). Their tag-line had led me to expect a buffet at best, and a feeding trough at worst, but not a bit of it. This is an à la carte Asian restaurant serving a fusion of Chinese and Thai dishes. Everything is cooked to order in a spotless kitchen, visible through a large plate-glass window, and only the freshest ingredients are used, with no MSG in sight. In short the food was really good, and all beers and wines are included in the price, so you can spend several hours leisurely sipping wine, ordering the occasional dish to share, and chatting, all for BD13.500, which is around £20 per head. Wish we'd found this place earlier!

Karen enjoying herself at Bam-Bu! Sorry for the poor picture quality but RiyadhCam is not good in low light.

We returned to the hotel for a nightcap in the bar, where a live band (well, boy-girl combo: he on keyboards and laptop backing tracks, she on vocals) were playing, and very drunk Arabs were tottering across the dance floor on their way to and from the toilets. I would've got RiyadhCam out but it was a bit too dark, and I didn't want to get into a fight.

We had a large breakfast on Saturday morning then headed out to the pool, with the intention of spending all day there and skipping lunch. Ah, what little we knew.... It got to mid-morning and we learned that the hotel was doing "Intercontinental Lunch". Guess what that is? Yep, Friday Brunch, but on a Saturday! Yippee! (oh dear, we're already full from breakfast). Quick, let's do another few lengths to work our breakfast off, then get showered and changed and back down!

Yes, I'm afraid to say we partook fully of the brunch, which was superb as always (and the free-flowing bubbly always helps). Considering this was a last-minute thing we actually adapted our plans pretty well, and finished brunch just in time to take another hotel taxi (BMW 750i this time, for which they tried to charged me BD7 instead of BD5 because the other, lesser vehicles were 'not available'. I gave them one of my looks, and they relented) to The Warbler -- a sports bar inside another hotel where they were showing England v Estonia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Just what I needed, two hours in a smoky bar drinking pints of Tetley Bitter and watching England on the big screen with a pub-full of England-shirt-wearing Brits (where do they all come from?). When we got back we went straight up to the room for some Rennie and a lie-down. Karen had to take another lift because there was no room for her with me and my stomach.

Sunday morning and after a final couple of hours by the pool we check out and set off for home, and another four hours of straight, featureless road through the desert. Glad I'll never have to do this drive again.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eid Mubarak Again

It's official: Ramadan is over and Eid has begun. We read in the paper this morning that, although there have been no official sightings of the New Moon reported in Bahrain last night, there had been in Saudi Arabia, and that was good enough for the authorities here.

Eid's status was further affirmed this morning when the poolside bar opened! That means we have two 'normal' evenings here instead of the feared one.

Having spent the morning at the pool we're now going shopping, and tonight have a reservation at an Asian restaurant called BamBu, where for BD11.500 you can eat all you want and there is all the Stella Artois you can drink -- classy!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eid Mubarak!

This is a day or two early but we're going away so I thought I'd get it done now....

Ramadan is about to end: should be either tomorrow or Friday, depending on the sighting of the New Moon. Immediately following Ramadan is a short public holiday called Eid ul-Fitr, and Karen and I are taking advantage of the long weekend (the Embassy will be closed Saturday and Sunday) to pay Bahrain a final visit before we leave the Middle East at the end of November.

"Eid Mubarak" means Happy Eid (pronounced 'Eed'), essentially, and is how you should greet any Muslims you may meet over the next four or five days.

We'll be staying at the Movenpick, which we chose because of its legendary Friday Brunch, but only after booking did we discover that brunch this week is off because of Ramadan :-(

Still, I expect we'll find other things to do: like lying by the pool all day with a cool drink and a good book. I may or may not blog while I'm away, and I may or may not take a camera along for later blogging purposes: depends how the mood takes me.

This is the first of three things that are making me panic about leaving preparations:
1. Weekend in Bahrain
2. Half term with the children (in just over a week's time)
3. Business trip to the U.S. mid-Nov

With those three things my remaining time to get the garage sale, packing etc. organised is woefully short, not to mention fragmented by said events.

Right, that's it then. We'll have a nice relaxing break in Bahrain and then next week I'll go full steam ahead on leaving preparations, so that we can relax again when the children come out the week after. Sounds like a plan...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Blogging Ambassador

As you know, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was the British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first half of our tour, and a regular companion of ours on several desert trips. As I mentioned here at the time, he left Riyadh in the early part of this year to take up his new position of Her Majesty's Ambassador to Afghanistan at the British Embassy in Kabul.

I was browsing the website of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office the other day (as you do; well... as I do) when I discovered FCO Blogs and saw Sherard among its contributors. Sherard writes regularly on this site about the situation in Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban, and, being the technophile I know he is, I was pleased but not surprised to find that he has started posting video clips on the blog to show us some of the country's interesting and significant sites.

A sample clip from Sherard's blog

Take a look. It makes very interesting reading. Maybe Sherard has set an example that other senior diplomats may follow, and we could soon be seeing similar video blogs (or "vlogs", as I believe they're annoyingly called) from other Foreign Office posts.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Children... What Children?

It just struck me that I haven't mentioned the children since they moved into their new boarding school a month ago, and that some of you may be wondering how they're getting on.

They're doing great; both enjoying life at "Hogwarts", as most of the boarders seem to call it. They're making friends and have joined the school choir. Elliot is impressing everyone with his guitar playing, and they are both taking part in the various weekend activities on offer. In the last month there have been trips to London, Cambridge, Stevenage, and Thorpe Park, and this afternoon Abigail is going Wakeboarding (I wonder if one can opt for Sleepboarding?).

We've had one or two teething troubles with bank accounts, cashpoint cards, and mobile phone top-ups, but apart from that they're having a great time.

I haven't mentioned them up until now because... well... we don't actually miss them half as much as we thought we would. That sounds terrible doesn't it, but it really isn't. We thought we'd have a really hard time getting used to life without them when we returned to Riyadh but it hasn't turned out that way. We do miss them of course, but we know they're being well looked after and that they're enjoying themselves. The flipside for Karen and me is that we've 'got our old lives back', so to speak. It's been sixteen years since we've had the house to ourselves and nobody else's lives to organise apart from our own. It's quite nice. Very nice actually. All of a sudden we've got time on our hands, we're free to socialise and keep whatever hours we like, and we've actually started talking to each other -- Gasp!

Elliot & Abigail are coming back out to Riyadh at half term, which is just two weeks away now, and we can't wait to see them again. We'll have a great week together and they'll be able to say a final Goodbye to their friends here, and then they and we will go back to our new lives once more.

It all feels kind of weird, but not in a bad way. E & A: if you're reading this, we do love you... honest!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

One Down, 99 To Go

I'm feeling pretty good this morning, because I found a buyer for the car at the weekend. Haven't actually done the deal yet; we've agreed to leave it until mid-November for reasons that suit us both, but we've agreed a price, so that's one big and potentially stressful line on my To-Do list that I can now cross out. Hooray!

As if we haven't got enough to do, I was reflecting on our time here over the weekend and I think I've decided that I want a traditional Arab outfit as a souvenir. So now, on top of everything else, I'm planning to go and get measured for my thobe, ghutra and various other garments. I had a conversation with some friends about this several weeks ago, and got the impression that it's quite common for Westerners to get "kitted out". They even gave me some tips on which shops to go to. I have no idea how many garments will be involved: I do know they have at least one undergarment on the top half, and I believe there are white trousers under the thobe too, but I don't have the full details -- yet. I also have no idea how much money we're talking about, but it'll be fun finding out all about it. I'll probably look like a complete wally in it, but it'll be a nice reminder of our time in Saudi, and I'll have an original fancy dress costume at the ready.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

RiyadhCam Latest

Thank goodness for RiyadhCam, that's all I can say. It can be relied upon to provide material for the odd blog post at times when I'm stuck for something more important or interesting to write about. This is one of those times. We have so much coming up over the next few weeks that I'm sitting here in a rabbit-in-the-headlights (that a cliché?) -style daze, unable to focus on one particular thing. Between now and when we leave Riyadh at the end of November we've got to sell unwanted items (including the car), pack up our stuff, find a place to rent in UK for a while, and get the money out of our Saudi bank account before closing it. Not to mention all the farewells we'll be saying to friends over a lemonade or two. Also the children are coming out at half-term for their last visit to Riyadh. We'll spend some of the time here so they can see their friends but we'll also be having a short holiday somewhere else: not telling you where yet. On top of all of that there's Karen's birthday in November, AND I'm going to the U.S. on business for a week, and Yes, it's the same week :-(

So with all that swimming around in my head, it's hard to settle on anything particular to write about, and it's at times like these I'm very grateful to RiyadhCam with its ever-present library of odd photos of this interesting place....

In a country where the eating of Pork is forbidden and it cannot be bought in the shops, it's amusing to see that things like this slip through the net. No wonder it's on Special Offer -- they can't give the stuff away.

I came out of the Dentist's the other day and saw this scruffy old car parked outside the (closed) Pharmacy. Click to see a larger image and look at the sunshade in the windshield: must have been a promotional freebie. Wonder what else he got?

Nothing particularly funny about this shot, but it is Ramadan after all, so I thought you might like a picture of a mosque. This one is on King Abdul-Aziz Rd., or "Old Airport Rd" as it is more commonly known.

That last comment just reminded me that I haven't told you about the multiple names some of the roads have here. Must make a note to explain that more fully in another post.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The End Is Nigh

"The End Is Nigh"... I really must stop writing in clichés. Earlier today I was re-reading my Ramadan post and found no fewer than three in a single paragraph:

"...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..."

I was warned against this in my recent creative writing course. I guess it's a habit I'll have to work at, but there's something about them that attracts me. They're clichés because they're so often used, but the reason they are so often used is that they are good. Good descriptions/analogies/metaphors that get it said; that convey a feeling or an image successfully. Why would I spend time coming up with a brand new way of saying something that is so well established by a cliché? ... to be original I suppose. Perhaps the avoidance of cliché matters less when blogging about real life than it does to the novelist, but then if I want to become a novelist one day (which I do) then shouldn't I be training myself into better writing habits?

Enough. I'm sure you don't want to hear my internal bickering any more. What you really want to know is, why 'The End Is Nigh'? The end of what?

The end of our lives in Saudi Arabia, that's what.

It suddenly hit home to me the other day. We have only eight weeks left in "The Magic Kingdom" and then we're off for good, or, as the expats here call it, we're "Going Exit Only" -- meaning we exchange our Exit/Re-entry visas for an Exit Only one. Karen's tour is coming to an end and we have so much to do between now and the end of November I'm sure the time is going to simply fly by. Little everyday things are now starting to poke me into realising that the life we've grown accustomed to here is about to finish: I recently re-joined Not The Riyadh Choral Society after the Summer break they didn't have, but I won't be here for the Christmas Concert they're not planning. Folks at the Embassy are getting together to plan this year's Panto, but Karen and I don't attend the meetings because... well you get the idea.

It's all starting to overwhelm me -- thinking about what we have to do logistically but also beginning to reflect on our time here, the friends we have made, and the memories that will stay with us forever (is that another cliché? Sorry.)

From here on in you can expect our preparations for leaving to dominate the blog, as they will be dominating our lives. Am I even going to have time to write about Karen's next job, selling the car, trying to close the Saudi bank account (not to mention getting the money in it transferred to the UK), holding a garage sale to get rid of our junk pre-owned treasures?

I will also try to make time to review some of the highlights of the last two years and reflect on what this adventure has meant to us.

Better go and do some work now: Duty Calls! (Dammit!)