Thursday, 1 November 2012

Don't Mess With The Meze; or, Exploring Istanbul

Leaving Riyadh for a holiday is always good. But when your destination is Istanbul it’s twice as exciting.

Friday, 31 August 2012

A Villa in Tuscany

As I write this, we’re on a train travelling to Florence. We’ll catch a plane from there to Frankfurt and then another to Riyadh. Back home.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Of Saintly Jawbones And Tear-Filled Eyes

I’ve seen the relics of St Anthony. Yesterday I stood in line and filed quietly past his jawbone, tongue and vocal chords in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. To be honest, I was in the queue before I realised where it was leading and it was only when I suddenly saw what looked like someone’s dentures that I realised what it was I was looking at.

My husband and I are visiting Italy at the moment, whilst Ramadan continues in Riyadh. Milan, Verona, and now Padua. Soon we will join my daughter in Tuscany.

Monday, 16 July 2012

One Day

If you, like me, were an expat woman living in a Saudi compound, this is what your day might look like.
3.45 am
It’s the start of my holidays, but for some inexplicable reason I’m woken by the day’s first call to prayer.  I bury myself in pillows and pull up the sheets to try and block out the sound so I can get back to sleep.

I’m still wide awake. I decide to get up.  It’s mid summer, and the daytime temperatures are hitting the high forties. But right now, it's a pleasant 27˚C.  Perfect for walking.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

A Rebellious Confrontation

Yesterday I had lunch with friends at Hyatt Mall. The muttawa (religious police) were there too. They were looking for vice. And I had my hair uncovered. 

Once I’d been spotted, the command was inevitable, “Excuse me, cover your hair.”

We were all a bit stunned by the ‘excuse me.’ The muttawa are not known for their polite manners. Words like “excuse me,” or “please” are not standard vocabulary for those who ruthlessly seek out moral corruption and degenerate behavior.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Music, music everywhere and not a string to play

Like a good tourist, I’ve bought all the Mozart memorabilia. I have a pencil with Mozart on it, an eraser with Mozart, a ruler, pencil case and even some notepaper. We visited the Mozarthaus museum this afternoon and I went a little wild in the gift shop.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Easter Outside Saudi

The world is very different outside Saudi. Well of course, you say. But this difference hit me afresh when we flew to Vienna yesterday

Thursday, 29 March 2012

No Ordinary Bazaar, or How Can You Say No To (Yet Another) Saudi Camel?

Every so often in Riyadh you’ll come across a bazaar. There was one last Friday in our compound. As is usual with these things, the vendors came, set up their stalls, displayed goods and then waited for us to arrive and spend much money.

As I wandered around with my camera I made a list. 

Things to buy at a Saudi bazaar...

(Or not, as the case may be…)

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Princess Souk (or, Are You Sure You Couldn't Fit Another Diamante On There Somewhere?)

Think flea market.

Think the world's biggest jumble sale. Anything and everything you can imagine on sale, out in the open and covered in a fine yellow layer of desert dust.  That's  Haraj bin Gassem, better known to many of us as the Princess Souk.

I visited last week.  I'd heard so much about the amazing Princess Souk gowns, I wanted to see it for myself. Despite the name though, Princess Souk has little to do with real live princesses.  As the story goes, it’s more about the dresses they might have worn once or twice, and then discarded. And as we made our walk past dress racks and over the general detritus that littered the ground, it became increasingly hard to imagine any self-respecting princess wearing some of the gowns on display. I suspect the story, and the gowns, have changed somewhat over time.

As well as gowns, the Princess Souk is a real mishmash of all kinds of clothing. Anything you can think of is there and more besides...

I’d never seen anything like it. There were gowns in racks, on mannequins, suspended from the ceiling, lying in piles on the ground. Most glittered with sequins, beads, and an over-abundance of decorations. Hardly surprising then, that this souq's also known as Saudi Gaudy.

We saw the whole gamut of female formal attire from wedding gowns to dresses for small princesses.

Friends had told us that we needed to bargain before buying anything. The general rule of thumb was that nothing should cost any more than 25 Saudi riyals. That’s about NZ$5.00!

Little wonder then, that the woman trawling through the rack beside me was looking for a school ball dress for her daughter in England. She found a long, flowing green gown and asked me if I thought a 16-year-old would like it. “The dry cleaning’s likely to cost more than the gown itself,” she added, with a smile.

And then there were the ones that were just overdone and eye-grabbingly awful. We saw everything from the 'pretty' to the 'pretty awful', the absurd, the eclectic and the OMG-totally-over-the-top-and-theatrical.

Many gowns looked as if they had taken hours of machine and hand sewing. There were more frills and flounce per square inch than a Cinnabon has calories. Not to mention yard upon yard of fabric of every imaginary variety: tulle, chiffon, silk, velvet, satin...

I was on the look-out for costumes that would do for a children’s drama production. I spotted one that looked workable. I needed something that would do for a child who was a small bird. This was blue and had a skirt made of strips of fabric that I imagined would flow and flit in a bird like fashion.

We paid 5 riyals. At this price, I thought, it really didn’t matter whether we used it or not.

At midday the call for prayer sounded. Some stalls covered their wares but many didn't bother. I'd heard that the muttawa (religious police) rigorously patrolled this area, but we saw none. I wondered how some of the clothing on display had avoided their attention. Given Saudi's conservative Muslim culture, there were things on display that just looked wrong!

My cell phone went and it was a friend. She had visited the souq before and wanted to make sure that I knew to watch my purse carefully. Apparently there were pickpockets everywhere. Ironically, at the exact moment she rang my husband had just discovered that his cell phone had gone missing: fortunately for him it turned up later. He’d left it in the car.

I’d heard many stories of the men who worked here and their perverted behavior. We were prepared for the worst and moved around pretty quickly from stall to stall. Thankfully we saw nothing amiss, but I accept that our experience was probably not the norm.

And then it was time to leave, away from all this colour and flamboyance back to the Riyadh where  women are covered in abaya and headscarf.  From tradition to modernity and from conservatism to haute couture; this had been a visit where I'd seen both the contrasts and contradictions in the way women here live.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Sri Lanka, Part Three: Ports, Plaques and Mass Invasions

Part Three: Galle

Galle was the last port of call on our whirlwind Sri Lanka trip. Quite literally a port, in fact; its strategic position on the southern coast of Sri Lanka once made it a very convenient stop for ships travelling from Europe to Asia.

The day we arrived must have been fish market day. Stalls lined the beach, and fresh fish were everywhere – piled high, then gutted, weighed and sold. 

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Sri Lanka, Part Two: Narrowly Avoided Trampling and Very Useful Dung

Part Two: The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

Along the Colombo road there’s a turn off that leads to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, a government-run sanctuary where orphaned or abandoned elephants are looked after.

Twice daily all 80 elephants are led down to a river to bathe. It seems like it must be the largest number of pachyderms anyone’s ever likely to see up close.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sri Lanka, Part One: Kandalama and Speedy Bread

When you live in Saudi, you often find yourself planning your next departure. Sand, blue skies and date palms might sound romantic, but they don’t quite make up for the restrictions of everyday life.

Six months ago we decided on a week’s holiday in Sri Lanka. We would start in Colombo, driving to Kandalama to see the ancient city of Sigirya. From there we would travel to the tea country of Nurawa Eliya, stopping on the way to visit an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala. We would finish our whirlwind tour with a visit to the ancient Portuguese settlement of Galle on the Indian Ocean coast.

Much travelling and much to see in a very short time!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

"A (Saudi) haaaaandbag?" or, Vital Secrets of An Arabian Bag-Carrier

In ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde, Jack Worthing breaks the astonishing news that as a baby he was discovered in a handbag.

“A handbag?” exclaims Lady Bracknell. Yes, says Jack, a very ordinary handbag.

 My Riaydh handbag is seemingly very ordinary; black and boring. But what’s inside is very important.

Here’s what’ll you’ll find.