First Days in Riyadh

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Hello everyone! I figured it was time to give you all an update on the happenings of me over in Saudi Arabia. As you likely pieced together from the last couple posts, we had a very smooth arrival in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the Internet connection from here is rather slow, making it difficult to fire off too many emails or do other things. In spite of this, I’ve still managed to post quite a few pictures on our flickr page, so feel free to head over to our sets page and check out the latest while we’re over here. I will also attempt to give a little insight into our first few days over here in Riyadh and the Diplomatic Quarter. I’ve decided that although these are the same physical place, life is much different in the DQ than in Riyadh. Namely, I am on ‘Canadian soil’ when I’m at the embassy and in the house here, so we have a lot more breathing room in terms of what we can do while here compared to traveling around the city. I’ll try to keep this post on the short side, as we are leaving shortly for the camel souq and the horse races, and I’ve only got a little time to sort out my thoughts. Read on for the details.

We’ve now been here for over 2 days, and there has seldom been a slow moment. There has been a remarkable amount of things to see and do here in our short time, although admittedly most of it is car-based, but there is a lot to see in Riyadh and the nearby areas. Jody and I arrived on Monday evening, with very little in the way of complications or concerns at customs. In fact, the fellow that checked over my papers performed the most cursory of inspections, stamped my passport and waved me through. Not a single question! Amazing. The same can not be said for many other people waiting in the customs areas. Some ex-pats coming from other countries such as India or Bangladesh may have to wait days there, as they need to be allowed in by sponsors. In general, certain races are very clearly ‘picked on’ and have many more hassles not just getting in to the country, but also when travelling around, such as at road-side checkpoints. However, as white North Americans, and especially in our vehicle with diplomatic plates, we travel pretty much worry free. It’s a little strange to see things happening the way they do sometimes.

After clearing the customs, we were met in the baggage area by an embassy driver who was picking us up, Atta, an Eritrian gentlemen. He was the only person allowed in this area, as Andrea and Patrick had to wait in the main arrivals hall. He helped us with our bags, and once again, we were whisked through another security checkpoint, where they screen all our bags. I suspect our embassy-issued visas and nationality helped us here too. On the other side of the doors, we walked along the arrivals area where there were many men waiting to recieve people. This was the first chance to see how very few women are out in public. I’m sure several were very surprised when Andrea ran up and gave me a big hug there, without having her head covered or anything! When in public, Andrea and Jody do need to wear the Abaya (body covering), but are not expected to put on the head covering. In not time, we were in the embassy van trundling along to the diplomatic quarters. To this point, I had not dared take out my camera, but as you can see on flickr, I’ve since taken a lot more risks, some stealthy, some not so much.

We got into the DQ, and Andrea and Patrick’s house around 10:30pm. We caught up a bit, then decided to turn in and get an early start the next day on our exploring. Andrea would be working, but Patrick had taken time off and would be our chauffeur.

The next morning came quickly, and I tagged along with Andrea to the embassy first thing in the morning. We were driven there in an armored car. The bullet/bomb proof glass was the most impressive thing to me. At the embassy, I popped around to the back, where the ‘social’ areas are. Here, a nicely heated pool awaited me. Although the air was only 14 or so, the water is kept at a very warm temperature. So much so that steam was rising from it. Andrea showed me the Maple Leaf Club, the tennis court / road hockey rink, and the change facilities, then went to work while I swam for about 45 minutes. After that, Patrick, Jody and Helena met up with me on foot. We strolled back through the DQ to their house to get ready for some area exploration.

Next stop, a drive out to the desert proper. To get there, we were following the Makkah highway, the main road leading East to Mecca (Makkah). Riyadh itself is actually on a plateau, and at one point, we followed a very steep incline down to the desert floor. During this part of the ride, we got a great impression of the escarpment, with it’s very impressive cliffs and vistas. Further from the escarpment, you could see the red sands. This is an area of the desert which, as you might guess, has very red sand. At one point, we turned off the highway onto a very rough gravel road heading randomly into the direction of the desert, but then… Poof!… we were back on a ‘random’ paved road again. Very odd, but apparently rather indicative of the way projects are executed here. One second you’re on 4 lane highway, and suddenly it stops, and you’re on 1 lane. But I digress.. off to the dunes.

We headed just a little way into the deset to get a sense of it. I was impressed. The views were quite spectacular. We got out and walked around a bit. Helena seemed completely at ease out there, and was pulling up plastic bags and such, having a grand time. We snapped some ‘Arabian sands’ shots, and piled back into the Land Cruiser (yup, gas it dirt cheap, and it makes much more sense to have a big SUV due to the driving conditions). From here we followed another road to get to a quarry site, which is nestled in an area known as the hidden valley. Again, here we were rewarded with great views of cliffs and canyon walls. Reminded me alternatively of places like Utah or Northern Argentina. I love the landscapes here, but the dryness and heat in the summer would probably do me in. After our tour, it was time to head back to home so that Helena could have lunch and take a nap. The nanny was working that day, so for the afternoon, we’d leave her at home to do more exploring.

The afternoon stuff included a more extensive visit to Riyadh itself, with Patrick acting as our tour guide and pointing things out such as the various palaces (yep, there are lots), as well as the private residences which look like palaces to me. In Saudi Arabia, there are literally thousands of princes, so palaces are pretty common, and seeing or meeting a prince is generally not that exciting, unless it is a really important one. Numbers seemed to be in dispute, but upwards of 7,000 princes seemed reasonable. We also drove to older parts of the city, where all the ex-pats from places like Bangladesh live. Quite a contrast to the palaces and large homes of many Saudis. He also pointed out for us things such as the home of the Minister of the Interior, where the Secret Police are, and the old palaces in the central area. We also ended up directly outside the Mutawa (Religious Police) headquarters when a call to prayer came out. Pretty neat. I should mention that there are calls to prayer 5 times a day, at every single Mosque, which are located at most a couple kilometers from everyone. There is currently a plan in place to have a mosque located within 600m of any inhabited place. Crazy! That’s Islam and Muslims for you. Lots of praying and devotion.

For a special treat later in the day, we were heading up the Globe Tower, which is one of the only two tall buildings in Riyadh. Of course, each one was built by a prince, each one trying to out-do the other. They are both beautiful and unique in their own right. As the pictures show, this particular building has a big geodesic globe, like Epcot, on the top, and within this glass globe is a restaurant, shops, and a cigar lounge on the top level (it’s 3 levels total). Before this though, we were peckish, and had stopped at a local shawarma shop for some amazing cheap eats. Yum. I decided I could eat there every day. Thought I should mention that 🙂 We eventually picked up Andrea from work, then made our way back to the globe for our evening fun. We traveled up a couple elevators to pop out in this amazing lounge with a 360 degree view of Riyadh. The view is even more impressive because although we were about 40 stories up, all other buildings are maximum 5 floors or so, so the views are completely unobstructed. Of course, the fact of the matter is that there isn’t much to see. The dry land extends seemingly endlessly in all directions.

We stayed up there for a couple hours, enjoying milkshakes, other beverages (non-alcoholic of course) and a meal while the sun quickly dropped below the horizon. The funny thing is, there really wasn’t much of a sunset. There are no clouds, no humidity, and not many particles apart from dust to create the brilliant sunsets we see. The sun just sort of dropped behind the horizon, and it got dark. Very strange. Once done there, we headed out on a little shopping excursion to nearby malls. Saudis do love one thing, and that’s shopping. They have basically every brand you could imagine (which of course is always covered by robes or abayas, but that’s a different story), and love to be shopping. It’s one of the few places where you might see women out, and where people can sort of congregate. After all, public gatherings are illegal as well. At any rate, it was a fun excursion, and at the end, we were ready to head back for a night cap and back to bed to rest up for another fun day. I’ll stop here, and pick back up in another post for our second full day, since this is getting long. Till the, hope you’re having a great holiday!

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