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a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!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!)

Getting out and about again…

Al Midhnab heritage village in Qassim Province

Hello and greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!

With lockdown restrictions easing in Saudi Arabia we have been venturing out a little more in recent days. Saudi has moved from a strict 24 hour lockdown at the outset of the pandemic response, through various different stages, to the point where there are currently no restrictions on movement within the Kingdom.

Daily life is pretty much back to normal. Schools however will not reopen for the start of term in September. The Ministry of Education has announced that online learning will continue for the first seven weeks of the new term, when the situation will be reviewed.

Saudi’s borders also remain closed. There are still no commercial flights in or out of the country. There are repatriation flights (one way) to the US and Europe and there are some chartered flights bringing staff back who work on the mega construction projects. Naturally there is a lot of speculation about when flights will resume, but there has been no official announcement and so we wait…

So, after 6 months of living and working from home in the compound, punctuated only by weekly mall/supermarket visits, we (my husband and myself) decided it was time to expand our horizons…

State-of-the-art train station in Riyadh

We joined a tour organized by a local company (Insta: @hayatour) to the town of Al Midhnab in Al-Qassim Province (about 350km north west of Riyadh) for a day of sight-seeing, finishing off with a trip to the local date market – and we travelled by train!

The train service is still quite limited in KSA, but a northern line from Riyadh to Hail opened a couple of years ago. It is an extremely modern, efficient service. We live very close to Thumamah railway station in Riyadh, but we didn’t even know it was there until we decided to take this trip. On arrival it resembles a mini airport – we even had to show our passports to check in.

On board the sleek new trains there is generous seating and the carriages are immaculately clean. We were greeted on arrival with a cup of Arabic coffee and a date (the traditional Saudi welcome), followed by a breakfast box:

The train took 2.5 hours to reach Al-Qassim traveling through the desert. We saw istrahas (semi-permanent tented camps in the desert where people go to relax, hang out with friends and get back to basics), and the odd herd of camels.

When we arrived at Al-Qassim station we were met and driven by coach to Al-Midhnab (about 1 hour away). It is a rural town whose economy is traditionally based on date farming.

First stop was the heritage village which has been beautifully preserved as an example of traditional living:

Original mud brick built houses in Al Midhnab heritage village.

From there we went to a private garden and aviary followed by a visit to the town’s very impressive new cultural/convention centre.

We finished the day off with a visit to the town’s famous date market. The region is renowned for its red sukkari dates (sukkari means sugary in Arabic). The annual date harvest begins in late August and the dates are brought straight from the farms to be sold wholesale at the market. Auctioneers sample the dates and set the price.

People ravel from all over Saudi Arabia for these dates because they are so prized for their taste and sweetness. The market is held in purpose built structure with plenty of cooling fans on the go!

There were deals to be done!

After the date market, loaded up with boxes of dates, we headed back to the station to catch the train back to Riyadh.

It was a really interesting day out and a great way to experience a little more of this vast Kingdom.

I’m off to tuck into some dates!

Until next time,

Stay cool and stay safe!

Anne :0)

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)

Follow me on Instagram: anne.mcgrath248

My favorite TV and film viewing during lockdown…

Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun!! It’s hot, hot, hot!!

So as we swelter in the heat of a desert summer Saudi Arabia is emerging from its strict Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Over the past 15 weeks we’ve had a range of curfews including, overnight, 3pm – 6am and 24 hours. Schools were closed, working from home became the norm, all shops and services were closed except supermarkets, pharmacies, laundries and banks. All flights (domestic and international) were suspended, travel within the Kingdom was banned and the borders closed.

Now, like elsewhere, things are beginning to open up. The curfews have been lifted, people can travel within the country, shops and services including hairdressers, beauty salons and gyms have reopened. People are beginning to return to the workplace (slowly), however WFH looks set to be a feature for the foreseeable future. Borders and international flights however remain closed/suspended until further notice. Face masks and gloves are mandatory everywhere.

So, while we’ve been locked down, like everyone else I’ve been indulging in a bit more TV viewing than usual. I have a list of programs/series I’ve watched, am currently watching and two old favorites I have re-watched which I thought I would share.

The list includes comedies, thrillers, dramas, documentaries and one guilty pleasure – I think you will be able to spot that one! ;0)).

Films

I have two film recommendations for the mix, both 2019 British releases and recently available on digital: Days of the Bagnold Summer and the Personal Life of David Copperfield. Days of Bagnold Summer is a sweet, gentle film, while the Personal Life of David Copperfield has a huge ensemble cast, and a storyline which bounces along like an enthusiastic Labrador puppy!

Days of Bagnold Summer

A subtle English coming-of-age comedy set in suburbia and follows the relationship between a single librarian Mum and her teenage metalhead son over the course of a summer. Poignant and beautifully observed it captures the changing dynamics of the mother/son relationship.

The Personal Life of David Copperfield

A modern take on Charles Dickens’ masterpiece. It’s brimming with gloriously eccentric characters and Dev Patel is the embodiment of David Copperfield. It’s a really wonderful adaptation by Armando Iannucci – pure escapist enjoyment.

TV series I’ve watched:

Below is a quick recap of the TV series I’ve indulged in. I’ve only posted short one line reviews as you’ll either already be familiar with them, or a quick Google search will reveal all you need to know:

Netflix – uncomfortable viewing but proves truth is stranger than fiction.
Netflix – Michelle Obama wowing everyone on her book tour.
Netflix – Series 2, poignant, affecting, gentle comedy.

Currently watching:

I am currently working my way through The Morning Show, Series 2 of Ozark and have recently become addicted to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills starting from Series 1 back in 2010… and on the recommendation of a friend, and because I really enjoyed the Oscar winning film Parasite, I am also going to continue with My Mister, a Korean language drama exploring an unlikely friendship between a young woman and an older man who are work colleagues:

Rewatching:

The Night Manager (BBC)

My all time favorite series over the past couple of years has been The Night Manager (2016), a six part BBC series based on the the spy novel by John Le Carré starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman – I must be on my 5th watch by now. It’s about a small MI5 unit trying to bring down an international arms smuggling ring. Tom Hiddleston is the embedded agent who oozes charm. It’s stylish, glamorous, tense and clever. The casting is amazing and the locations are breathtaking. It’s absolute perfection! I might even have convinced myself to give it a sixth go…

Cold Feet (ITV)

Finally, I am working my way through the box set of Cold Feet, a UK comedy drama which follows the lives and loves of three couples in Manchester. It originally aired from 1997 – 2003 when it was more comedy than drama, but it came back 13 years later and just as the cast ( and viewers!) have matured so too has the series which is now more tilted towards drama than comedy, and it’s even more enjoyable.

(Fun fact(s): I have met Fay Ripley the actress who plays Jenny and she doesn’t have a Mancunian accent!! She is also married in real life to the actor Daniel Lapaine who was the South African swimmer in Muriel’s Wedding.)

And that’s it for my lockdown TV and film viewing. I hope I might have suggested something new for you to try.

I’ve gotta dash – I’ve got a date with The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills to keep ;0) !!

Happy viewing!

Anne :0)

My top 9 KSA lockdown reads

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! The thermometer is just nudging 46 degrees these days, so it’s early morning swims and then staying indoors with the AC on until sunset!

In this new Covid-19 era when staying in is the new going out, I thought I would add my list of books, TV shows and podcasts to all the recommendations which are already out there, starting with books. Over the next couple of days I will add TV shows and podcasts.

This is just my personal list of books from the past 15 (!) weeks or so, I didn’t select them for any reason other than they appealed to me – and it is only when I look at them that I realize they are all women authors – bar one. I am not sure what that says, but obviously female authors are writing the novels which attract me the most!

Also, given the Black Lives Matter movement I am aware there are no black or minority authors in my recent reads, and so with that raised awareness I will be adding novels which address more diverse themes to my future reading including:

Overall, I haven’t read as much as I thought I would during lockdown, I think I’ve just been reading and watching a lot of news, but the books I have read are all very different in terms of style, approach and theme, and I would be hard pushed to choose a favorite – but I think if I had to, it would be Where the Crawdads Sing.

I’ve written a short review of each one below. I hope you find some inspiration, or at the very least a book which you haven’t come across before. I read most of them on my Kindle which I would be lost without and which I probably should have included in my previous blog: Top 10 essentials for desert living .

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my list – any recommendations for future reads please let me know!

Books:

Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens

Follows the life of Kya growing up in North Carolina. Let down and abandoned by everyone, it is a story of the human instinct for survival and connection. A coming-of-age story with a twist, the wild, natural setting provides the perfect backdrop, drawing us in and sweeping the reader along.

Daisy Jones and the Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid

Story of a fictional 70s rock group in California called The Six who are joined by the charismatic Daisy Jones. Told in a TV documentary style with band members reflecting on their rise to fame. Reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.

Adventures in Morocco
Alice Morrison

Adventurer Alice Morrison takes us on a journey of discovery across Morocco from the teaming cities, to the peaks of the Atlas mountains and the endless sands of the Sahara. Her love of Morocco shines through in her description of the people she meets, the culture and the landscape.

So Lucky
Dawn O’Porter

An all-female cast, the two main characters are dealing with different inner turmoils which affect their everyday lives. A journey of discovery for both, we know they will cross paths at some point. Written against the backdrop of social media and the illusion of the perfect instagram life, it examines the complexity of life and the anxieties which can hold us back.

The Dry
Jane Harper

A murder mystery set in the crackling heat of the Australian outback during a severe drought. It follows the investigation into a disturbing triple murder which has rocked a small town and keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I raced through this one!

Small Great Things
Jodi Picoult

An African American midwife, Ruth, a white supremacist couple and their newborn son. When the baby dies unexpectedly Ruth is charged with murder. The book centers around the murder trial with flashbacks into the lives of the main characters including Ruth’s defense attorney. A thought-provoking and moving novel which addresses the issues of race and power. Keeps you hooked to the last page.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies
John Boyne

Charts the life and times of Cyril Avery, adopted from birth into an eccentric, wealthy family in Dublin. Cyril is at the mercy of fortune and coincidence, growing up against the backdrop of a conservative, economically depressed post-war Ireland. He struggles to find himself, but eventually finds peace and contentment, as Ireland also moves towards a new more confident future. John Boyne also wrote the best-selling novel: The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas.

The Lido
Libby Page

An uplifting, feel-good read. It charts a (fictional) campaign by a community in Brixton to save their local outdoor swimming pool from developers. Led by two women from different backgrounds and generations Kate and Rosemary form a friendship which opens up new experiences and opportunities for them both.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Reid Jenkins

The life and times of fictional Holywood actress Evelyn Hugo, from humble beginnings to becoming one of the biggest stars in Tinseltown during its hey day. Evelyn relates her story, including chronicling her seven marriages, to a rookie journalist who she has asked to write her life story. Evelyn reveals her one true love and exposes the reality behind the newspaper headlines, awards and failed marriages.

And that’s my top 9 lockdown reads (so far!). I hope you came across a book you haven’t heard of, or maybe have even been inspired to pick one of them up. I’m off to download my next!

A new blogpost with my top TV lockdown recommendations should be coming soon, until then stay safe and happy reading!

Anne :0)

Top 10 essentials for desert living

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun. It’s been a while since my last post in March, just days after everything changed for us all.

We are currently in week 11 of lockdown in Saudi Arabia, although the strict conditions are due to begin easing from next week. I am planning to write a post about our experience so I won’t go into detail now, other than to say I am glad things are beginning to open up a little!

I thought for this post I would avoid the whole topic of coronavirus and instead list the top 10 things I have found essential for living in the desert – something I have been compiling in my head for a while. This is just my list, other people might list other things and it is definitely not sponsored lol!

The weather in Riyadh is hot and very, very dry. Currently it is 42 degrees with a low of 27 overnight – and it’s only due to get hotter as we head into June and July. Other well known places in the region eg Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jeddah and Muscat are hot and humid (unbearably so, up to 100% humidity at times), but in Riyadh, as we are in the middle of the Arabian peninsular, the air is arid dry which although it is easier to live in, plays havoc with your skin and hair. The constant search for moisture is real, which brings me to Number 1 on my Top Ten list:

1. Moisturizer

Moisturizer is an absolute necessity. Skin becomes snake-like in texture without vast quantities of moisturizer. The air is so dry it sucks all the moisture out but there are lots of good body moisturizers out there – this one is good because it is non-greasy and glides on easily. I would also include eye drops here because even eyes dry out in heat. And the desert dust also irritates the eyes, some are more susceptible than others, it makes mine stream, so I always have some soothing eye drops to hand.

2. Lip balm

Lip balm is really a subsection of moisturizer – lips dry out really easily and then they get chapped and crack so a ready supply of lip balm is essential. I have tried all kinds of and these two are my favorite – I keep a tube close to hand at all times!!

3. Hair care

Hair dries out the same as skin, especially if it has been colored – taming a dry frizz is a daily battle! The water is also desalinated and seems to strip the hair of its natural oils. It’s worth investing in products which protect against sun and chlorine damage with a built in UV defense. I also get a deep moisturizing treatment from my hairdresser when I am back in Belfast (big shout out to Linden at Keith Kane Hair and Beauty!!)

4. Playing footsie!

Dry feet – everyone suffers from it. Never a problem I had before! Feet and especially the heels are prone to becoming very dry so moisturizing and filing is a must. (Elbows also get very dry).

5. Waterproof mascara

Waterproof mascara is the only way to go and for me, this Lancome ‘Monsieur Big’ is the best. If you don’t use a waterproof mascara it tends melt in the heat and smudge under eye – this one stays put, and you can wear it in the pool without it streaming down your face and scaring the children!

6. Facial spritz

Ooo the delight of spraying a cool fine mist on your face – I never realized the benefits of a facial spritz before living in the heat of the desert. Good ones have a really fine mist which don’t leave your face dripping wet. They are so refreshing and light, also good to use on planes to perk up tired, jet lagged skin and can be used to set makeup – so a really good versatile investment! (Another good brand I would highly recommend is Omorovicza).

7. Re-usable water bottles

Hydration, hydration, hydration! The climate might sap all the moisture out of the body, but the one sure way to keep it replenished is to stay hydrated with a constant supply of H2O – and of course in these environmentally aware times we all have our re-usable water bottles. Never leave home without one!

8. Humidifier

This was something new to me – there being no real need for humidifiers in Ireland! But they are really great to have in the bedroom to keep some moisture in the air and I think they help you sleep better too.

9. Water dispenser

Another piece of household equipment which is not so common in Ireland (unless there is one built-in to your fridge) – the stand alone water dispenser. It works out much more economical and environmentally friendly to have one of these than buying packets of plastic bottles of water. All the water in KSA is desalinated so you can’t drink what comes out of the tap – and we don’t use it for the kettle or cooking food with either. One of these 5 gallon bottles (if you get it refilled) costs less than €2.

We also have a bottom loader model which means we don’t have to wrestle a 5 gallon bottle on top of the dispenser, and ours also has the option of chilled or hot water as well as just regular temperature – very handy!!

10. A.C.

Finally, the one thing no one can live without – and the cause of friction between nearly every couple we know (!) – A.C. or air conditioning. A.C. is non-negotiable. I don’t know how people lived in the desert in temperatures of up to 50 degrees + without it!!

The constant battle is finding the sweet spot which keeps the temperature at a happy medium – and of course that is different for everyone, which leads to friction – he wants it colder, you want it warmer, and vice versa! Personally I think a medium temperature of around 24 degrees is just about perfect… ;0)

And that brings this list of top 10 essentials for living in the desert to an end. I hope if you are thinking about moving to live in hotter climes it has given you some tips on what will help make life more comfortable and bearable. Please let me know if there is anything you think I should have included!!

Apart from that, stay cool, stay well and stay hydrated – until next time!

Anne :0)

Covid-19 lockdown in KSA

I am starting off this blog post on a positive note by sharing some happy rainbows drawn by the children in our compound #magicrainbows:

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun – albeit a completely changed world. We are in the grips of a Covid-19 pandemic, and self isolation and social distancing have become established parts of our daily lives, wherever we are in the world, including Saudi Arabia.

We have been watching the news like everyone else and following Covid-19 as it has spread across the globe with its horrifying daily statistics. However we’re OK and I hope you are too.

I thought I would suspend the blog while we all deal with this new reality, but then I thought it might be worth sharing how Saudi Arabia is coping with the pandemic and what it’s like to be here during these unprecedented times, this is not a blog I was expecting to write…

Currently we are in effective lockdown. Saudi Arabia took decisive action early on and suspended all international air travel. Since then all domestic flights have also been grounded and the borders sealed.

The schools are now in week 3 of shutdown and working from home (WFH) is in week 2. All restaurants, cafes, cinemas, malls, etc were ordered to close over a week ago. The most recent development was the introduction of an overnight curfew, which, as I am typing has just been extended to begin at 3pm and remains in force overnight until 6am the next morning. All movement in and out of the cities of Riyadh, Medina and Mecca has also been suspended. This is expected to last for a minimum of 3 weeks.

Our apartment overlooks a busy-ish road and it is so eerie when it falls silent when the curfew starts each day. Usually we hear cars all through the night. The roads around us are notorious for drifting, ie crazy high speed driving, weaving from side to side, hand brake turns etc (even though it is illegal), so we are used to being lulled to sleep by the sound of squealing tyres … so we are not missing that.

I think the Saudi authorities acted so quickly to enforce a lockdown, even before they had 100 confirmed cases, because they have experience of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), a type of coronavirus which came from camels and was first diagnosed here in 2012. MERS is also a respiratory virus and has an extremely high fatality rate, so they understand the need to act with speed.

Saudi government advice includes: #StayHome, #AllOurResponsibility, #YourhomeYourgym and #AloneTogether which are also trending on social media.

So what are we doing to keep ourselves safe, positive and healthy while effectively locked in and locked down in Saudi Arabia?

Besides working from home and getting to grips with Microsoft Teams like everyone else, the children on the compound have been busy drawing rainbows to spread a little happiness. It definitely brought us a lot of joy when we received ours left outside our front door as a surprise gift and we have it proudly on display in one of our apartment windows.

I am also doing a daily yoga session #DownwardDog and am enjoying Rufus Wainwright’s #Quarantunes #RobeRecitals #SongADay on Instagram – check it out for a musical treat!

Global Citizen in partnership with WHO has all kinds of musicians taking part in their #TogetherAtHome performance series including John Legend, Niall Horan, Hozier, One Republic, Common etc, as well as WHO info on Covid-19. Follow them on insta: GlblCtzn

And I join Holly from The Freedom Method (Belfast based personal trainer on Insta) for her Magic Movement series and a daily injection of cardio.

I am also really enjoying daily cooking sessions with @lisafaulknercooks and @johntorodecooks for some cooking inspo, and tonight we’re making their no yeast pizzas #yum. I also see that Queens Film Theatre has lots of films to rent so I will definitely be doing that and maybe joining one of their watching parties!!

We also take early morning walks around the Wadi (park area in our compound) while the weather is cool and I’ve been busy baking – muffins and fifteens at the moment – (reason for all the walks lolz!), reading – thank goodness for my Kindle and definitely on target for the ’20 in 2020 Goodreads Challenge’, indulging in Netflix and of course lots of noodling around on the internet.

And that brings this installment of Our Big Arabian Adventure and life in KSA under Covid-19 to its conclusion, I hope it has painted a picture of life in the Kingdom during these unprecedented times,

So until next time, stay safe, stay home, stay healthy and stay positive,

Anne :0) x

A visit to the gold souq and a UNESCO world heritage site

Hello and welcome to another day of sun in Riyadh. Since the last blog there has been a major sandstorm and yesterday there was a dust storm where the sky above us looked blue, but the dust underneath covered everything in a beige haze, reduced visibility and made it v unpleasant to be outside.

Anyway, today has dawned bright and sunny and I am just back from a swim in the pool!

Also since the last blog we were lucky enough to go with some friends on a visit to At-Turif a UNESCO world heritage site in Riyadh. It is the site of a city founded in the 1700s which is the forerunner to modern day Riyadh and was once home to the first members of the royal Al Saud family.

At-Turaif

The area includes the remains of Salwa Palace built in the 18th century, a grand mosque, a souq and the houses of the surrounding city:

They have been carrying out a huge restoration program at At-Turaif in recent years and have included a number of interpretive museums including the Museum of the Horse, a living village demonstrating traditional crafts and a visitor centre. At-Turif was opened to visitors during Diriyah Season which ran at the end of last year but is currently closed again for further work to be completed. We were lucky enough to be invited along on a private visit which was a real treat and I am so pleased we had the opportunity to tour this important heritage site.

I also recently paid a visit to Taiba Souq also known as the Gold Souq, or the Kuwait Souq, or the Ladies Souq – but whatever you want to call it, it is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of treasures!!

Entrance to Taiba Souq

There has been a souq on this site for a long time – the current buildings date back to the 1960s making it the oldest ‘mall’ in Riyadh – although it is nothing like a modern day mall. It is a maze of narrow walkways radiating out from a central mosque crammed with tiny shops and market stalls. And although there are shops selling all kinds of things, his is the place to come to barter for gold – and there are SO MANY shops selling gold:

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As well as gold you can also pick up fragrances, abayas, kaftans, toys, make up, toys and all kinds of household goods.

It’s unlike any other market I’ve been to because there is no shouting ‘come and look’, ‘looking costs nothing’, ‘please madam, look’ etc… you are welcome to browse, but only if you want to. The women at the clothes stalls or the make up stalls might ask ‘Can I help you’ , but then again they might not…

There also appears to be a gender divide with women running the open air stalls and men serving in the gold shops. Gold is sold by weight and each piece is weighed before the price is calculated and it fluctuates depending on the worldwide cost, apparently it has gone up recently and I would have got more bang for my buck a few months ago. And of course bartering is a must!

The market opens 4pm – 1am every day and gets much busier at around 7.30pm after the final prayer for the day. There is almost a stampede back to the shops from the mosque to get the shutters up and get trading again at the end of prayers – no one wants to miss the opportunity for a sale!

Oud stall…
Niqabs – the black veil some Saudi women wear to cover their face.
My favorite – coffee pot shaped bags – so tempting, but I resisted…

Did I invest in a piece of jewellery? Maybe I did… am I tempted to go back again? Maybe I am! It was a really fun experience. I went with my friend who speaks Arabic and who knows her way around which was a great introduction. Speaking the language definitely helps – especially when you’re bartering hard on prices. But it’s perfectly fine to go on your own too – and if there is a language barrier it’s amazing how the desire to secure a transaction can overcome any language problems!!

And that’s all for this blog on International Women’s Day. (I went to an event in Riyadh where we heard from a panel of inspirational women including one who campaigned for women to be allowed to drive in KSA in the early 1990s and was subsequently banned from working for 3 years).

Anyway I hope you have enjoyed this blog.

Until next time – stay cool!

Anne :0)

Saudi houses, traditional shopping and Gift Week!

Family home in central Riyadh under the auspices of Kingdom Tower.

Hello and welcome back to Riyadh where it is another day of sun, although the nights are much cooler at the moment – tomorrow night it is expected to drop to one degree (don’t tell himself but I am planning to put the heating on again ;0) !!).

I thought for this blog I would focus on Saudi houses. It’s always interesting to know how other people live! We live in a compound in a large residential area in the north of Riyadh called Quortuba. It has been built up rapidly over the past couple of years as Riyadh has expanded over land that only a few years ago was just desert on the way to the airport. In general Saudi houses are VERY BIG compared to the red brick terrace houses in Belfast. They are also surrounded by high walls so that you can only see the upper stories from the road. The windows are small – probably, I think, to keep to the heat out in the summer when the windows are like radiators and to keep the heat in, in the winter. Small windows also work because Saudis are very private and it’s very much part of their culture to be very reserved with life taking place discreetly behind high walls and closed doors.

Typical new-build Saudi houses in Riyadh.

The houses are big because they will have two reception rooms – one for men and one for women. Only immediate family members will mix – if uncles, male cousins or male friends come to visit they will only meet the men of the house in the mens’ only reception room – the same for females. Until recently Saudi families were also big (they are smaller now) and most households also have staff which can include: a housemaid, nanny, cook and a driver – in any combination or multiples of!

It is also common for extended families to live in compounds or groups of houses built beside each other. However, all Saudis do not live like this – many live in apartments and the government also provides housing for those who need it.

Street life.

I haven’t been inside many Saudi homes but the ones I have are similar. Reception rooms are large with tiled floors covered in rugs and sofas around the edges of the room. The furniture is ornate and there is generally no art on the walls but elaborate swagged curtains decorate the windows:

Another aspect which (to me) seems particularly Saudi, is that they don’t seem to mind what the state of the area is like outside their house – take the house below as an example. It looks like a miniature palace. It is huge, gleaming white stone with ornate pillars and domes and is obviously very expensive…

But this is the view directly in front of it:

The area is covered in building rubble – there might even be laborers living in the tent and it is like this in so many parts of the city. The outside aesthetic does not appear to trouble the householders whereas at home this would definitely not be acceptable. Generally at home the more affluent the houses the leafier and more manicured their surroundings. I think in Saudi they are more focused on the internal and the external is largely irrelevant…

More neighborhood street views.

So, apart from walking around our area taking photos of houses I also managed to squeeze some shopping in. We went with a Saudi friend who helped us buy some traditional, handmade leather Saudi sandals and a shisha pipe:

Traditional Saudi sandal shop. These used to be in every neighborhood, but demand has dropped as people favor plastic sandals and now the traditional shops are few and far between which is such a shame.
So much choice!…

And finally, it is Valentine’s Day on Friday. Until two year’s ago anything to do with St Valentine’s Day was effectively banned in practice, if not in law, in Saudi (St Valentine is a Christian saint). The flower shops had to close for the day and gift shops removed any red products in the days leading up to Feb 14. However, in recent years there have been small moves towards marking the day. While not overt and definitely with no mention of St Valentine, displays of artificial red roses appeared in some of the supermarkets last year along with red teddy bears. This year a local date company has already promoted a healthy present alternative for ‘Gift Week’ as it is being called and one shop has already put on this amazing display!

So happy gift week to you all! I hope you have enjoyed this edition of the blog,

Until next time – stay cool!

Anne :0)

A trip to the Edge of the World

Perched on the Edge of the World

So this is the first blog of 2020 – a Happy New Year to you all!! We spent Christmas in Abu Dhabi and were back in Riyadh for the New Year. We saw in the new decade with some neighbours, but because Jan 1 is not a holiday in KSA and everyone was working the next day we celebrated at 11pm – same time as Dubai and were tucked up in bed by midnight!

For the first time ever Riyadh celebrated the new year with a firework display – they follow the Islamic Calendar, so celebrations according to the Gregorian calendar are not recognized (hence the no holiday on Jan 1), but as the country is opening up and with the arrival of a new decade I think they wanted to join in with the rest of the world. I saw some pictures of the fireworks over Kingdom Tower and it looked v impressive!

(Image from Riyadh Connect on Instagram)

Anyway welcome back to Riyadh where it’s another day of sun. We have had some rainy days recently and the temperature is down to (a cool!) 18 degrees today, but it’s still sunny and because it’s not so dusty it’s really pleasant sitting here at the dining room table with the windows open and the sun streaming in :0).

Recently we went to a place called The Edge of the World which is two hours drive north west of Riyadh:

We went with a tour company called Haya Tours (find them on instagram). The Edge of the World is where the plateau that Riyadh is built on plunges into the flat plains below that stretch 100s of kilometres to the Red Sea. For those that have been think of the Cliffs of Moher but without the sea, and to give some sense of scale the Tuwaiq Escarpment which forms the dramatic cliffs runs 700km through central Saudi Arabia. The whole of Saudi used to be under the sea (hence the oil from the ancient fossilized sea creatures) and all along the escarpment you can find fossils of shells, coral and star fish.

We followed the trail the whole way out to the far pillar

We had a picnic of mildly spiced camel stew and rice overlooking this stunning view cooked over a campstove by our guide and it was the perfect place to try camel for the first time (it was very like beef).

Picnic-ing at the Edge of the World

The views were spectacular from the Edge of the World – and you can really appreciate where it gets its name from – it does feel and look like the edge of the world. It was a great day trip from Riyadh and the top recommendation for places to see/things to do. And then it was time to head home…

And that’s all for this blog – more to come in 2020.

Until next time, stay cool!

Anne :0)