Goodbye Saudi Arabia (for now)

A repatriation flight home…

King Kahlid International Airport Riyadh

Hello, and greetings from Belfast where it is (unexpectedly) another day of sun!! We are basking in an Indian summer and making the most of the late summer sunshine.

So, as you can probably surmise we have left Riyadh for a while. We recently flew out on a repatriation flight and I thought I would document our experience. There are still repatriation flights going, even though commercial flights are (hopefully!) due to start opening up again soon over Saudi airspace.

For those who don’t know, a repatriation flight is a one way flight out of a country to your home country. Saudi stopped all domestic and international flights on March 22 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the only way for people to get home has been on a series of repatriation flights. They are flown by a reduced number of airlines and are announced a couple of weeks in advance. Initially you had to register and book through your embassy, but now there are so many flights going you just book directly with the operator.

We didn’t have to take a Covid-19 test before we travelled, but we did have to fill in an exit form for Saudi and a passenger locator form for track and trace in the UK before flying.

Riyadh International airport was very quiet when we arrived and we were surprised that our temperature wasn’t taken even though every mall, supermarket and restaurant now checks your temperature as a matter of course …

The only flights were repatriation ones:

There were only a couple of flights going so thankfully there was basically no queuing for check-in, and after passing through security we got ourselves a coffee while we waited.

To pass the time I also had a browse around Duty Free – which has dramatically increased its range of goods and which was also having a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!

Fancy a date??

Camel milk chocolate anyone?

We travelled on a Saudia flight – and there was no shortage of planes to choose from…

Saudia Airline planes parked up…

Boarding was by row. The flight was seven hours to Heathrow and we wore our masks throughout the journey. On arrival on the plane we were each given a comfort pack which included a disposable mask, a pack of tissues and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. There wasn’t the usual on-board meal service, instead we were given a paper bag snack pack with a sandwich, a bottle of OJ and a bottle of water. More water and extra sandwiches were also on offer. (The sandwiches were not the best!! Top tip, bring your own snacks!!)

On arrival at Heathrow we disembarked again by row which was much more organised and dignified than the usual mad scramble! The airport was busy, but not nearly as busy as it usually is. About half the shops and restaurants in Terminal 2 were closed and of course everyone was wearing their masks.

No one asked for our passenger locator form although the website had said we had to show either a printed version or a completed version on our phone to gain entry. Again, we didn’t have our temperatures taken and there were no announcements or information about the need to quarantine. No one even asked us where we had come from…

We grabbed a quick bite to eat in a terminal restaurant. It had socially distanced procedures, the staff were all wearing masks, the menu was online, there was sanitiser available and we were time-limited in our seats. It was our first experience of the impact of Covid-19 in the UK – but it was good to be back!

Then it was time to board the next flight to Belfast:

Hello Aer Lingus!

Again we wore our masks throughout and there was no service. The evening plane was full which was a surprise, but again it was boarding and disembarking by row which helped with social distancing.

And then, before we knew it. we were seeing the lights around Belfast Lough, landing at George Best, Belfast City Airport and off to start our 14 days of quarantine!

The green, green grass of home! George Best, Belfast City Airport.

So, we made it back. It was a very different travel experience from before the outbreak of Covid-19. The new measures offer some reassurance but overall the journey was something to be endured. It was good when it was over.

The lack of checking or advice on entering the UK was surprising, but we’re just glad to be home in Belfast for a while.

So while we’re here the blog will take a little break, but we hope to resume Our Big Arabian Adventure in the New Year and then the blog will resume!

Until then, stay well, stay safe!!

Anne :0)

Instagram: anne.mcgrath248

Goodbye KSA (for a little while!)

Birthdays Saudi style!

‘From our birthday until we die, is but the winking of an eye’

W.B. Yeats

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun, currently the thermometer is nudging 41 degrees and it’s due to get warmer later in the week with the daytime temperatures due to hit 49. However, we did have a surprise shower of rain last week. There were a couple of dust storms followed by a sudden downpour. It was very unexpected, but very welcome as it dampened the swirls of dust hanging in the air.

Anyway, for this blog I am going to feature birthdays! I recently celebrated my birthday in Riyadh, which got me to thinking about birthdays in general and how they are celebrated (or not) in different parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia.

Birthdays are generally regarded as a time to celebrate another year of your life with family and friends, incorporating the traditions of presents, cards, a birthday cake with candles and a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.

The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.’

Lucille Ball

The earliest mention of a birthday was around 3,000 BCE in reference to a Pharaoh’s birthday in Egypt (not on their actual birth, but their birth as a God). The Greeks adopted the practice, celebrating their gods with tributes, including moon-shaped cakes for the lunar goddess Artemis, which they adorned with lit candles to recreate the glow of the moon. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was another way of sending a message to the gods.

The tradition was passed on to the ancient Romans who adapted the practice from celebrating the gods’ birthdays to also celebrating the common man’s birthday. But only men’s birthdays were celebrated – women had to wait until the 12th century before they got their birthday cake!

German bakers introduced birthday cakes as we know them today in the 1800s and two sisters who were school teachers in Kentucky U.S. wrote the original happy birthday tune in 1893 (it was then called the ‘Good Morning Song’) and in 1924 the Happy Birthday lyrics were added.

Today birthdays are big business, but they generally all follow the same format: a birthday cake, balloons, presents and cards. Parties can be wildly extravagant (think celebrities) or low-key and intimate.

However, birthdays and parties have not, until very recently, been a feature of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. In 2008 a cleric denounced birthday parties as an unwanted influence – they were ‘haram’, the Arabic word for banned. Celebrating birthdays with singing and parties was regarded as un-Islamic and an unwanted Western influence.

In 2015 the Saudi Ministry of Health instructed all public hospitals not to allow birthday celebrations after some nurses were reported to have celebrated Christmas in their hospital accommodations.

And as recently as 2017 a leading Saudi cleric said on TV that celebrating birthdays was forbidden because it led to squandering money on parties which is frowned upon under Islam.

The Saudi ban on birthdays was in line with the strict interpretation of Islam, although elsewhere in the Muslim world birthdays have been, and are, routinely celebrated.

In recent years however there has been an easing of the ban, although it is still almost impossible to find birthday cards (there is a very limited selection in some Virgin Megastores and some flower shops have some small cards). You can find cake candles in some of the supermarkets, but again the range is very limited.

Meanwhile, cakes are easily available. Saudis love cakes and sweet treats and there are a huge number of cake shops throughout Riyadh. For my birthday I ordered a delicious red velvet cake covered in white chocolate frosting from ‘Munch’ via the HungerStation app and it was delivered within 30 minutes – result!! You can also order balloon arrangements online and have them delivered to your door – everything and anything can be delivered.

While most Saudis who celebrate their birthdays probably do so at home, there is a growing trend to go out to cafes and restaurants for a birthday meal. I have twice seen a Saudi birthday celebration in a restaurant – a cake with candles is brought out and the staff gather round to sing happy birthday, but instead of joining in and clapping, with the person whose birthday it is looking slightly embarrassed, the Saudis all tend to sit impassively and it is impossible to tell who at the table is actually celebrating their birthday – I am not sure they really know what to do, and they are still not that comfortable with public displays of exuberance!

Another time we were at a quite fancy restaurant in Riyadh when the staff came over with a dessert and a candle. They duly sang happy birthday as we all looked on bemused because none of us were celebrating a birthday. Everyone was confused, the staff said it was definitely for our table. When they set the plate down we saw it actually said (in chocolate piping) ‘Happy Brexit’!! The Irish manager of the restaurant had been chatting to us earlier in the evening and had sent it over as a joke :0)

I had not intended to celebrate my birthday in Riyadh, but of course the pandemic hit and everyone’s plans for 2020 changed. As it happened, I had a really lovely time! I had a delicious birthday cake delivered which was a novelty, a beautician come to my home and gave me a manicure and pedicure and I went out for a birthday lunch to a downtown restaurant called Okku (Japanese) which was fabulous!

I also had two surprise Zoom calls with friends and my best friend from Monaghan somehow managed to have a HUGGEEE bunch of flowers delivered to me :

So I couldn’t feel any luckier and I really appreciated all the birthday love. Birthdays in Riyadh are not so bad it turns out and it is certainly a birthday I will never forget!

Wishing you all a happy birthday, whenever and wherever you might be celebrating!

Anne :0)

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