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a huge sale – maybe trying to sell leftover stock from when the commercial flights were suspended, before it goes out of date!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