New Year in a New Country

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Greetings, and Happy New Year to one and all. This blog post of course is a little after the new year, but what can I say, I’m still playing catch up. Believe me when I say that everyone near and dear to me was in my thoughts as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s eve, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t be with everyone to celebrate. However, this did mark yet another year where I would be ringing in the new year in another far off land. Last year saw me turning the calendar over in one of the earliest areas to change years, New Zealand, and this year, I was spending that time with family in another part of the globe, Saudi Arabia, and specifically, Jeddah. How cool is that? I think I should make this a new tradition if at all possible. Although I do like to be close to friends on this most auspicious of days, it’s also pretty cool to be able to experience a new place. However, I’ll have to admit that Saudi Arabia may not be the most ideal of places for New Years. For starters, they don’t follow the Gregorian calendar, which means that they don’t consider that date New Years. Secondly, as a very strict Muslim country, There is absolutely no alcohol to be found or consumed. Besides those minor details though, it’s a great place to be 🙂 Read on if you’d like to hear a little more about how we celebrated.

After Jody and I had finished our day of scuba diving, we were driven back to the hotel at no charge by the manager of the dive shop. Isn’t that nice of him? Very much so, I should say! Although we were a little tuckered out, we knew that we’d have to stay up till at least midnight, just to say that we did. Andrea and Patrick had taken a pretty relaxed day for themselves, or at least as much as they could with Helena to watch over. They had given a little thought to what we might all do, and the best any of us could really come up with was to find a nice restaurant to do to. Also, they had decided to find a sitter for Helena for the night. This sitter came in the form of a Bellhop of all people! But not just any bellhop. This gentlemen had just recently been cleared to immigrate to Canada, and would be heading to a Tim Hortons in Edmonton where he would be working in a month or so! How odd is that? He was very excited, and had volunteered to watch Helena on the basis that we were Canadians. The strangest of things happen when you travel all over the world, and this was definitely one of those things. His job would be pretty easy though, since Helena would be in bed sleeping by the time we actually left.

The restaurant was another challenge. Although in most of the world this night would have been very difficult to find a restaurant to eat at that wasn’t fully booked and charging crazy sums of money, the problem over here was slightly different. No restaurants had anything going on, but it was a “Muslim Friday” night. That is, a Thursday. Our attempt to make reservations didn’t work out at a few places we’d heard good things about. In the end, my sister decided she had a hankering for Sushi / Japanese, so we booked in at a Benny Han place. Obviously wouldn’t have been my first choice, but what can I say, I’m a nice guy, and I knew everyone else was keen to go. So off we went. It was a pretty funky place. A real cool meal experience where the chef does his thing at your table on a big grill. What made it even cooler was the fact that we were with women, so we were of course shown to a ‘family’ seating area, which in effect meant we got our own private room with closing doors and the works. I’m sure in N.A., that would cost extra for the privacy, but here, it was actually the only option 🙂 too funny. We ordered heaps of food and ate till our bellies nearly burst let me tell you.

Although we did our best to draw it out, we were basically out the door by around 11, giving us an hour to kill before the official new year. We did something most Saudis wouldn’t dream of doing. We went for a stroll. This is made rather complicated by the fact that there are very few sidewalks to speak of in this country, nor are there really all that many destinaations to walk to. We did our best and ended up walking into a music store, which we were all allowed to enter (can’t take that for granted either, with women) and browse for a bit. Afterwards, we walked by a few cafes with patios, but again, women wouldn’t be allowed to sit there, so we just wandered aimlessly for a bit before hopping back in a cab to return to the Hilton. Once returned, it was about 15 minutes to midnight. Andrea and Patrick headed up to relieve the babysitter, while Jody and I ducked in to the adjoining Waldorf Astoria to see how the other half live. What a crazy place. Basically, the whole place seemed gilded in gold. Everything from fixtures to even the wall receptacles. We had a gander at a most amazing 3 story chandelier no doubt worth more than I’ll ever see in my life.

We decided that place was a little out of our league, and turned around. After all, one of the door people seemed to be shadowing us around anyway. We headed up our elevator to the room, just in time to with the family a happy new year and have hugs all around. We’d all made it to midnight, but just barely. As there was no reverie or champagne, we just opted to all turn in for the night. Earliest new years for me in a long time.

The next day, we were slated to fly back to Riyadh, but we’d also booked transfers to head to a ‘western-style’ beach the next morning, where we’d heard there would be good snorkeling, as well as food, little huts, and plenty of relaxing. However, before we’d be going there, I had made a plan to get up bright and early and head out for a run along the Red Sea. After all, far away back in Ottawa, a few of my friends had signed up for the Resolution Run 5k, and I’d be missing it, so I had assured them I’d run in Saudi Arabia. True to form, although tough to drag my butt out of bed, I headed out before the sun was up and did about 8km by myself, soaking in the different world over there, and seeing the sun rise to light up the Red Sea. I was extremely glad that I’d done it, and even managed to create a little map for you of the endeavour! So there you go Kev, Dave, and Grant, I did my part. I didn’t win any speed records, but it was a great way to start 2009.

To carry on the fun of New Year’s Day, we then all met up for our breakfast buffet. We’d had to pack all of our stuff before that as well, since we had to check out. We’d be leaving for the beach by 9am, and not back till 3pm, which is after check out time. It all went pretty smoothly, and before I knew it, we were off to the beach. While I’d expected a bunch of people on a shuttle bus, it was just our crew, and we were put in to a huge SUV instead. At least we rode in style. Upon arrival at the beach, which was located even further than our dive shop had been, we were greeted by a rather messy construction site, and a gatehouse fellow who informed us towels wouldn’t be available till 10am. This property was associated with the Sheraton, and he just told us to head to the beach and they’d bring us towels later.

Well, walking into the property and to the ‘beach’, we were once again a bit disappointed. The place didn’t quite live up to the billing (or price). The beach was actually more like a jetty or wharf. There was no sand. Only concrete with steps or ladders into the Red Sea. The sand that was there was for playing or walking in, but not leading into the ocean. Also, there was no one there at all, and the place was pretty much walled in on one side. There was however what appeared to be a dive shop, a restaurant, change rooms of some sort, as well as little cabana-type dwellings with loungers, as well as some play structures for kids. However, upon watching Helena start to play and explore, I think we all decided it would be fine, as she was having a blast.

The other saving grace showed up a little later. Specifically, it was the snorkeling. As there was little else to do, I put on all my gear, and jumped in the sea. It was another overcast day, and actually not all the hot, but the water was nice. However, once under the surface, it was absolutely spectacular! The sea life that we saw under there was comparable to what we’d seen during the scuba diving the day before, but completely accessible to all. Check out some of my pictures. Plus, there was coral as well. Everyone in the group had the chance to explore, and for Andrea and Patrick, who had never done any snorkeling, it was an absolute treat. They are definitely hooked and said they’d also like to get PADI certified now. After that experience, the desire to complain and ask for refunds all but vanished.

The only real blight on our day was that during out lunch, poor Helena, during some of her rather rambunctious exploration, took a rather nasty fall, which resulted in some rather market head trauma. The poor girl had to be iced for quite some time, which she didn’t really enjoy, and the end result was some rather nasty bruising and swelling that persisted well after we left the country. However, I guess these things happened. While momma and poppa took care of her, Jody and I started getting our stuff re-organized for the return shuttle to the hotel.

Once back to the hotel, we decided to head to another mall for some shopping and a bite to eat before catching our flight back to Riyadh. Off all things, I managed to find a Taco place (Tako Hut), as well as a New Zealand ice cream shop to have some food. Also checked out a cool Saudi outdoor store with Patrick, but more on that in another post. From there, back to the airport, and an uneventful flight back to Riyadh. Helena slept most of the way, and even I dozed a little bit, which is almost unheard of! We were snug as bugs in rugs before midnight, and ready to cap off our trip with the final couple days in Riyadh, which I’ll save for one final post before this trip is done. Till then, stay cool, kids!

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