Christmas in the Kingdom

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Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas. By the time you actually read this, it will of course be late on boxing day, but I have a good excuse for being a bit behind. I’m in the magical Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and have better things to be doing than blogging all the time. However, I can’t seem to help myself. When everyone else has gone to bed, or whenever I can steal a few minutes, I try to fire up the old computer machine and try to dash off a few lines, which brings me to this post. I wanted to get this fired up and online before we left for some internal trips for the next week. We’ll be away from Riyadh, and I’ll be unable to do any blogging while on the road. So this post will have to keep you entertained until we get back here to the Diplomatic Quarters. However, I can assure you that this will be a great little post, as we did some pretty unique things on Christmas day over here. Last year, I found myself at an all day cricket test in Auckland, NZ, and this year, I have a similar experience to share with you all, but you’ll have to read on to find out exactly what it is. You might also want to just check out the pictures on flickr that were put up from the day!

As you may have already surmised from any number of places, Saudi Arabia, and in particular Riyadh, is not a place that puts on any sort of excitement to celebrate Christmas. In fact, as it is a strict Muslim country, Christmas is technically illegal. As such, you might think that there would be nothing to do on that day over here. You’d be wrong though. There is always something going on to check out. Especially when you’ve never been to this part of the world. As Christmas falls on a Thursday this year, it made things sort of nice, because that meant it is part of the Muslim ‘weekend’ which is Thursday and Friday. So just what exactly did we manage to do? Well, how about a trip to the camel souq (market) and to the horse races at the Riyadh racetrack which is basically across from the king’s favourite palace (he has many palaces)? Yup, that’s what we did, and it was a splendid full day of fun.

First up, the camel souq. After a leisurely breakfast and bumming around the house a bit, we made our way out of town along the highways to get to the camel souq, which is pretty much always open. This is where Saudis come to buy, sell, and trade camels (and by extension, accessories I suppose). The first thing we noticed on the way were that as we got closer, there were trucks parked along the road selling things like camel feed and hay, as well as a random group of ‘merchants’ selling all the wares you’d need to build a camel pen. The other thing we saw plenty of on the roads were the ubiquitous Toyota pickup trucks with camels laying in the bed of the truck. Odd thing to read about, even odder thing to see. We saw one pickup with 3 camels loaded in to a regular 1/4 ton truck. I couldn’t snap a picture though, as there were several men around it at the time, and I didn’t want to offend.

Once into the actual market, we literally just drove around checking out camels. This ‘market’ is unlike anything you might imagine. Picture something like the land occupied by several Scotiabank Places (including the parking lots), with no discernible organized roads or anything, but just row after row of various camel pens. Some of the pens were really rundown, while others had newer looking fences. There were brown camels, white camels, black camels, gray camels. You name it. Babies, mommas, poppas, healthy, sick, etc. etc. Some were wearing fancy ribbons and such, other just laying on the ground. We didn’t have to get out at all, just slow down and snap picks as we wanted. There were lots of very friendly men all around, waving at us. I think they all realize we were unlikely to actually purchase a camel, but were nice just the same. I should point out these were not Saudi Arabians, but predominantly ex-pats. I’d also like to point out that in spite of my stated desire to buy a camel for Helena (they’re her favourite animal), I didn’t follow through. There just wasn’t room in the car 🙂

The most exciting part of this camel souq would have to be the pair of camels that were, errr, umm, stacked on top of each other. We’re still not 100% certain of their actions, but it was rather comical and also rather disturbing. I’ll let you all decide once the video is finally posted (too big to upload from here). Once we’d had our fill, we drove around a bit longer trying to find our way back out of the maze. After Patrick got his bearings back, we kept driving to the Riyadh racetrack for the next part of our adventure. We had reservations for the 3rd level, where they serve a delicious buffet while you can watch the races. Right off the bat, let me just assure you that just as alcohol is illegal, so too is gambling, so the atmosphere is likely not the same as going to Woodbine, but it was still cool.

The structure itself was not a super-huge facility, but it was definitely impressive to me. I’ve never actually gone to horse races, so I was quite excited to be there. They buffet room was pretty much full to max (apparently you need to book weeks in advance to get in). However, in the general seating, it was very sparse. Just a couple handfuls of spectators. Apparently most of them just watch it on television. I saw numerous camera operators around, and I think they also had a live studio on site to broadcast the races.

In spite of gambling being illegal, there is certainly prestige involved, as many princes, as well as the king, own horses, and these are of course Arabian horses, which are magnificent creatures to watch. Seeing them thunder by, and seeing the muscles rippling on them was quite a sight to see. Sadly, we weren’t actually able to get close to the horses to pet them or anything, but I had binoculars, and I saw lots of neat stuff. Including heavily armed royal guards, but again, that’s par for the course around here. Word is, most police and guards are fairly poorly trained, so they’re more for show than anything, but with the weapons they pack, I’m still not risking it!

Anyway, I’m talking about the process, right? Well, there are still race cards, and you can read various stats about the races, like who are the horses, their records, the prize purse, the jockey, the weight, the trainers, owners, etc. Probably not as many stats as in N.A., but still a fair bit of info. Just for fun, we tried to set up our own little pools for the races, but it was just in good fun to keep things interesting. For the record, I definitely had the highest win percentage, by accurately picking the winning horse in 2 of 7 races (with about 15-18 horses per race). Each race was a different length, with different prizing and types of horses (experienced vs. new ones). Final race of the day even had a car as the first place prize. Between 2 of the races, we had to stop for the obligatory call to prayer, but it didn’t really interrupt the flow of the races.

By far, the most interesting aspect of the day for many is no doubt the buffet. This is a full-course buffet prepared very impressively and stretching the length of about 30meters. There was a huge selection of food suitable for pretty much everyone. It ranged from breads and salads, to beef, chicken, lamb, shrimp, lobster, etc, right to the richest and most delicious deserts you could hope for. All of it tended to by a fleet of servers ready to help you be served. This buffet was flanked by a couple beautiful ice sculptures as well, rotating around. At the tableside, they were quick to ensure that we always had adequate supplies of water, Saudi Champagne (sparkling apple cider) and tea or coffee. All in all, this experience left us feeling pretty special. Although we were indoors, we had access to a great balcony to view the races, an with every race, we’d head outside to see and hear the race, with the finish line on the track below and in front of us.

The whole race outing ran from about 3pm to around 6:30, and our little group shut the place down. It was surprising how fast things cleared out once the last race was won. I guess that’s what happens in a country where public gatherings are also illegal! Belly’s full, and a sense of happiness one can only get from a unique day of experiences, we headed home. However, for Patrick and I, the day wasn’t quite done. Andrea and Patrick had decided to treat themselves to a new DSLR for Christmas, so we were off to a mall to try and secure a good deal on one. I was coming along to actually help barter for it, as Patrick is apparently not big on that sort of thing, and Andrea and Jody decided to just stay home. That in itself was a fun experience, and I think we managed to get a reasonable deal from the man at the store. I use all my classic techniques for haggling, including walking out, explaining that the model he wanted to sell us wasn’t actually the one we wanted, and so on. Once the deal was concluded, the important thing was that we were all happy with the deal, and Andrea and Patrick now have a fancy new camera for our upcoming trip.

Well, that pretty much sums up Christmas Day for Jody and I over here in Saudi Arabia. We certainly hope that you and yours had an equally fun day doing whatever you chose to do, and just hope that whatever it was you did, you shared your day with loved ones like we did, and had a smile on your faces. As mentioned earlier, this will be the last post in about a week, but no worries, all is well, and it looks like we’ll be in good hands the whole time. Take care, and be sure to check back in a week’s time for what will hopefully be a pile of great posts and pictures for you to check out!

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