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a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!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

Desert dunes at sunset…

Traversing the dunes, off-road somewhere between Riyadh and Dammam…

Hello and welcome to another day of sun in Riyadh!

Following on with the theme of getting out and about again post the lockdown restrictions, I recently joined some friends to watch the sunset over the desert.

So far, during our time in the Kingdom I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the desert’s iconic red sand dunes – those mystical, other-worldly landscapes which have inspired many tales of Arabian derring-do and romantic heroes.

Prior to our outing the only desert I had seen was rough and stony, dotted with scraggy bushes and stumpy trees, not the sweeping red mounds of majestic sand Lawrence of Arabia would have travelled over by camel!!

Jackson Bentley: What is it Major Lawrence that attracts you personally to the desert?

T.E. Lawrence: It’s clean.

Lawrence of Arabia

My friends and I set off late afternoon and drove around two hours due east of Riyadh towards the city of Dammam. It’s a very busy road with bumper to bumper trucks traveling both ways transporting goods between Riyadh and the Gulf city port. Two hours is about half way to Dammam and it’s also around here that the red sand dunes begin. The road was built through them and they had to be flatten the dunes on either side to prevent them creeping back and reclaiming the highway. I would imagine after a sandstorm parts of the road would probably still completely disappear under sand.

Anyway, after about two hours of driving we doubled back and pulled in off the highway. Driving over sand dunes is a skill. The car tyres have to be deflated, as reduced pressure provides more traction and disperses the weight of the vehicle preventing sinking.

The golden rules for driving over sand dunes are: drive straight up or down, keep momentum going and don’t stop on an incline.

Thankfully we had an experienced driver and I wasn’t in the hot seat!!

We drove just a couple of kilometres in from the highway and arrived just ahead of the sunset. The golden light illuminated the dunes, making the red sand glow with warmth, while in contrast the side away from the sun cast long dark shadows.

The view was stunning. The sand is powder soft and the dunes are molded by the shifting winds. There is nothing but sand, no other form of life to be seen, serene in their stillness and beauty.

We had a picnic as we enjoyed the view then grabbed some photos and packed up as the last lingering light was fading – we didn’t want to have to make our way back to the highway across the dunes in the dark!

We pulled out of the dunes to the side of the road just as the sun, in a blazing firey ball dipped below the horizon. We increased the tyre pressure and pulled back out into the crazy traffic racing back to Riyadh on Saturday night. First, but hopefully not last, visit to the desert done!

Until next time,

Stay safe,

Anne :0)

Sunset over
the road to Riyadh

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

The top 5 podcasts I’m currently listening to …

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun! So this is the last of my ‘What I’ve been reading/watching/listening to’ series and follows hot off the heels of TV and film viewing and top book recommendations.

I’ve always been a big fan of radio – ever since I discovered the Gerry Ryan Show on RTE 2fm one long school summer holiday. His programs were an absolute riot – back than he had two roving reporters (both called Barbara) and he sent them off on all sorts of madcaps adventures across Ireland. It was like nothing I had heard before – they were all having one big party on the airwaves – and growing up back then in Northern Ireland BBC Radio Ulster certainly had nothing like it!! Gerry was an incomparable broadcaster. When you heard his daily introduction ‘It’s Gerry Ryan with you on the radio ’till midday’ you buckled up for three hours of pure entertainment.

The other radio program I really loved was many years later when Richard Bacon presented a late night chat show on BBC Radio 5 Live. The half hour between 12.30 and 1am was called the Secret Half Hour (SHH) and you only knew about it, if you knew! Again it was like being the member of an exclusive club.

I was also lucky enough to work in radio for a number of years, working in newsrooms and also briefly presented my own show . It was supposed to be a ‘behind the scenes’ look at news stories, talking to journalists about their experience of reporting a story, or people with interesting stories or life experiences to tell but which didn’t really fit the news agenda, all interspersed with poppy indy music – think Travis, The La’s, Texas and The Divine Comedy etc… Sadly it didn’t last that long, I think if there had been more than just me working on it I might have enjoyed it more, but I found it quite stressful producing and presenting with no one to bounce ideas off. It had the potential to be good but it never quite got there… Maybe someday it will return!

Anyway, my love of radio has grown to encompass my love of podcasts.There is a podcast about every subject under the sun. What makes them so appealing is they can do a deep dive into a subject or an interview and there is no pressure of time because they don’t have to fit into a pre-determined time slot and of course you listen at a time that suits you.

The first podcast I listened to back in 2014 was Series One of Serial which investigated the murder of a high school pupil in Baltimore, US, 1999. It’s a typical ‘Who done it’? with episodes being edited weekly as new information came to light. It was a trailblazer and introduced a new form of innovative storytelling. To date has been downloaded over 100 million times worldwide.

I’m still a big fan of true crime podcasts and if you’re interested I would also recommend West Cork on Audible – the story of an unsolved murder in West Cork, (Ireland), and Teacher’s Pet – the unsolved disappearance of a young mum in the Sydney suburbs in the 1980s. Both are examples of strong investigative journalism which really immerse the listener in the local community, with the reporters (in some cases) having spent years researching and interviewing key witnesses. Serial and Teacher’s Pet are available from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Acast etc – wherever you get your podcasts from…

But the podcasts I have been most enjoying more recently and especially during lockdown are:

So, briefly, Grounded with Louis Theroux is a series of 10 interviews recorded during lockdown with people Louis has always wanted to meet. They range from comedian Lenny Henry to actress Helena Bonham-Carter and footballer Troy Deeney. I’ve always enjoyed Louis’s TV programs and these intimate interviews have the sense of eavesdropping on a conversation between friends.

The High Low is a weekly podcast presented by friends and writers Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes which covers high and low brow culture. They discuss pop culture and news stories which have been trending over the past week and recommend articles books, TV and podcasts. They also do one-off “meet the author’ interviews. Lots of breezy fun and keeps you in the loop so you know what’s been going on! (Only problem is it can be difficult to tell them apart – I still struggle and I have been listening since 2017!)

Today in Focus is a weekday 30 min podcast presented by Anushka Asthana from The Guardian newspaper. It provides analysis of the big news stories and hosts discussions with Guardian journalists on their exclusive features – giving a behind the scenes feel.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is an adaptation of Radio 4’s Book of the Week and the British Book Awards, Book of the Year. A funny and heartbreaking debut novel dealing with the relationships and racial justice issues faced by a young woman living in contemporary London. Available on BBC Sounds.

The Happiness Lab is a spin off from The Science of Well-Being , a course hosted by Yale Professor Dr Laurie Santos which investigates what really make us happy – and it’s not what you might think! The 10 week course has become the most popular class in the 317 year history of Yale University and is now available free online offering video lectures, quizzes, recommended readings and rewirement activities – so far 2.7million people worldwide have enrolled (including me!) It was really fascinating and the podcast, which is also hosted by Laurie Santos, shares stories and discusses the latest scientific research into the psychology of happiness. It’s a really good accompaniment to the course, or can easily be listened to without doing the class.

And that brings to a close this little mini series of ‘What I’ve been enjoying during lockdown’. I hope I’ve provided some inspiration, whether it’s something to read/watch or listen to.

I’ll be back with another blog in a week or two,

Until then stay safe (and if you’re in Riyadh stay cool!)

Anne :0)