Monday, July 6, 2009

The end of another adventure

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go ...

Time to move on to another adventure. I don't know where we are going next.

I haven't had much to say of late. My life has been swallowed up with work, and there are so many restrictions on taking photos and even what I write. Took the shine off it really.

There were some posts that I wrote where I showed photos of some of the girls from behind, or just their hands, and I was ordered to take them down because people might be able to identify them.

When we were recruited, before we came here, we informed the recruiter that, although we had the experience of teaching for more than 15 years, at the time when we completed 3 full years of training in Education (back in the '70s), a degree was not awarded nor considered necessary. He took that on board, and hired us anyway. And then, when we arrived at the University, we were each asked to 'coordinate' the courses on the two sides. As time went by we discovered that this was more of a 'Director of Studies' position.

Anyway, there is always a political involvement in higher education. With the shifting of power in the higher echelons, one by one the sackings started, many of them for no good reason. It was not just faculty members, but also administrative staff, even the HR manager himself, and even the Rector of the University was forced to leave. When it came to our 'turn' - by the end of the year in our positions we clearly knew too much - we were an easy target as it was suddenly announced that we were not even qualified.

In some ways, it was a relief ...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Where the desert meets the sea!

Some people have commented that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is like an endless beach. Well, eventually, at the end of the beach, there has to be an ocean!

There was to be a conference, over there on the East Coast of this great sandy country.

Sally wanted to go, and Nicole (in the window!) and Adam. Peter and I needed the break more, and Wayne (Sally's husband) was keen to hire a car and drive across the desert.

[It's a funny thing with driving cars here. Us ladies (of course!) can't have licences, and therefore can't drive at all. While he had a business visa Peter was fine to drive on his UK licence. But now that he has an Iqama (resident's visa) he needs to have a Saudi licence to be covered by the insurance. Wayne doesn't have his yet, so he had to drive.]

Anyway, the four of us set off in our rented Camry, out into the desert ... you know what a desert is, right?

There were flat parts, and slightly rocky parts, sometimes the sand was sand-coloured, and sometimes it was reddish ... but mostly it was just, you know, desert. Four hours of desert, pretty much like you'd expect, around 40 degrees, going up to 44 in the red section.

Here and there we saw hilly parts, where the endless wind had ripped away the softer portions. And then there were really odd things, like an amusement park (still under construction) way out there ...!

And here and there we saw camels, and wondered what they found to nibble on.

The road was entirely fenced, with only a rare "Desert Access" road. But in places the desert had overtaken the fence and was encroaching on the road - valiantly being held at bay by an occasional bulldozer.

There were, of course, the usual petrol stations along the way, and we stopped at one. It had petrol pumps, and the usual little shop, and a mosque - that's where the toilets always are. We went into the shop to buy some drinks ... out of the car air-conditioning (and wearing our black abayas!) it was very hot.

I was kind of amused in the shop to find all the trappings for one's camel, right there next to the cans of beans!

So what's it like at the other end of the desert, next to the sea?

Lots of these little tent encampments, outside the city of Al Khobar, a few metres from the water.

They make a living out of hiring out quad bikes to ride like crazy up and down those soft dunes. And usually there is a tired-looking camel or two sitting around. Some of them have hundreds of bikes, all sizes. Obviously this is not the right time of year for that, or maybe we weren't there at the right time of day ... there must be times when the dunes are crawling with quad-bikes.

So Sally went off to PMU for the day, for the conference.

Funny looking place! They like their odd architecture. Can't help wondering, though, how long it can last with the desert crouching there right outside the wall.

We were staying in a private resort. Most of the hotels in the area have swimming pools - for men. But Sally managed to find the Holiday Inn resort where they not only have a swimming pool (for the men) but also a little lagoon where the women are permitted to dip.

This is the view from our bedroom window! The pool is in the foreground, the lagoon beyond it, and beyond that the actual sea.

We took a little look around Al Khobar town, and went down to what is famously known as "The Corniche."

There was supposed to be water flowing through here - we picked the one (?) day they decided to clean it.

Must be quite specky normally. It seemed like a nice town.

Not a whole lot of graffiti! We were a bit puzzled about this water tower

that seems to be in the process of being turned into a resort. Classy.

There were some places where families (but not bachelors) could hang out and play by the sea - a few shelters, a bit of a playground.

A bit desolate looking this time of year.

But our little bay was great!

The hotel management assured us that we were quite free to dress as we pleased within the resort. So we were delighted to slip into our bathers and splash around while the other women chose to swim in their abayas.

We found that the water was extra salty and therefore incredibly easy to float around in.

While you're laughing at the boys floating around,have a look at the folks in the background. Spare a thought for the ladies in their abayas sitting on plastic chairs in the edge of the water.

And the covered ladies paddling around in the boats, and on jet-skis - quite a sight.

Did we have a relaxing time?

Now THIS is how we like to relax! Outside with a gentle breeze and a good book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dusty Day

Today was the NCAAA visit (the National Commission for Academic Assessment and Accreditation). Inspection Day! We had all been working frantically for the last few days, getting ready, and now it was all done and I was sitting at my desk waiting to be called for my interview.

I opened my office window, and a delicious breeze was blowing in - like an English summer day ... The phone rang, and I jumped (I always do!) - would I please come upstairs to talk to the Inspectors.

The Interview was quick and easy, and as I returned to the main foyer area, I became aware of the strange colour of the ambient light.

It doesn't really show in the photo - it was really orange. That seemed odd, as the foyer is lit from a skylight in the roof of the third floor. Us Aussies expect there to be a bush-fire around when we see this kind of light, only this was far more orange.

As I approached my office, I caught sight of the outside world - all orange. (And, again, the photo doesn't come close to the right colour.)

It just got weirder and weirder ... and then I remembered I had left my office window open! Oops!

I stood at the window watching cars mysteriously appearing and disappearing in the street, wondering why there were no crashes. A few of the cars had their hazard lights on. Most were clever enough to know that you don't put headlights on in a sandstorm because it just reflects off the sand and makes it harder to see.

The female students were all spooked, and desperately wanted to go home. We heard that schools elsewhere were closing and people were taking their kids home, which made the traffic much worse. The girls were all calling their drivers who came and took them home. Classes were cancelled.

Sally said she saw it arrive (I was in my interview at the time, remember) and she saw something like funnels along the horizon, moving around.

I can still taste it and smell it, everything is gritty.

After a few hours the light changed from orange to grey, and the dust slowly settled on everything instead of being in the air (inside the college). The place looks like it has been unused and shut up for months, except for our footprints as we made our way out to catch our ride home.

We saw it on the World News. They say they don't remember ever having a dust storm like this one in the city of Riyadh.

This as a photo off the Internet of today's dust storm enveloping Riyadh.

Friday, March 6, 2009


In February we went back to Australia for the first time in a year and a half, and had a lovely 12 days with our children and grandchildren. A flying visit ... and then it was time to get back to Riyadh and get ready for second semester. University classes would start on the Saturday, so we left Perth on the Monday.

It was 3 am Monday morning in Perth, but it was 9 pm the night before in Riyadh, when we started our journey. The passport check chap in Perth couldn't read Arabic, so he stared at our visas for a while, and then shrugged and handed them back. The passport check guy in Dubai could read Arabic, and studied our passports for a long time, showed them to several other people, and then shrugged and let us through.

After the long, long journey, we were very relieved to get off the plane in Riyadh after about 24 hours of travel. It was evening time in Riyadh.

We joined the passport queue, went to the counter together and confidently handed over our passports which each contained a series of visa renewal stickers.

The man shook his head, and called someone across to take us into the little room, the visa inspection office. Not good ...

There were discussions (in Arabic) and our passports were handed around to various interested parties. Peter quickly got on his mobile to the HR chaps at the university. He then handed his phone over to the Captain in the office so that he could talk to our man and sort it out. Meanwhile I slid down in my hard plastic chair, leaned my head over the back (most uncomfortable!) and drifted off for a bit. The Captain found this amusing, as I realised when I suddenly popped my eyes open to find him laughing, but it didn't win us any sympathy or help our cause.

On the phone our guys at the University were telling the Captain that MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) had assured them our visas were valid. But his response was, "I am the Captain, and I say it's not OK. So it's not OK!" And that was that.

They kept hold of our passports and took us through the airport to the baggage claim area where only a few bags were still going round and round. They pulled our two cases off and then we and our bags had to all go through security again.

We noticed there were very few women in Riyadh airport, and the few we saw were, of course, covered. So they have a special system to take women through the security check. I had to go through a curtain, and then another curtain (can't be too careful) into a cubicle where a robed police woman waited with one of those wands. She was very busy on her mobile, so she waved the wand generally in my direction and waved me on through.

The man who was holding our passports then led us, along with the man who was towing our suitcases, to one of the gates where a plane was about to depart for Dubai ... the one we had just arrived on! He dragged our two cases so roughly on their tiny wheels, that one of them flopped over onto its side. Its little protest went unnoticed and he dragged it the rest of the way on its side. The rest of the luggage had already been stowed, so they put our bags in the cabin somewhere, and we were given the last two seats - right in the middle of the centre section of four seats.

Back to Dubai

When the plane landed in Dubai we had to wait for the official who was holding our passports to once again lead us through the airport, and we had to sit and wait in office after office as our passports were handed around from person to person. Finally a group of white thobed young men (who were sitting around in an office playing on their phones) handed our passports back to us (at last!) and with a yawn we were told "Welcome to Dubai!"

"What now?" we asked.

"You are free to go. Get your luggage, and go!"

Ahhh! Our luggage! We had asked repeatedly, at every stage and every office, where our luggage was, and the reply was always "don't worry!" In our short time in this part of the world we have found that when those words are uttered there usually is a problem.

Of course it had been hours, it was now about 1 am, and no luggage was on the carousel. So we had to go to another couple of offices, fill in forms, answer questions, get them started searching for our luggage.

Finding a Hotel

We asked several people for advice about finding a hotel, and the only help we got was - ask a taxi driver. So, with only our hand-baggage and our laptops, we got into a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a hotel.

He asked if "4 stars" would be alright, and we said that would be great, so he said we would go to a hotel belonging to a friend of his (oh ohh!). It was 2 in the morning, we had been travelling for 30 hours, we just wanted a bed somewhere.

"Zain International" is not a 4 star hotel - that was immediately obvious! Dingy, stinking of cigarette smoke (despite the signs saying it was illegal to smoke there), with a night club that blasted noise every time the sound-proof door in the foyer opened a crack. They wanted us to take a look at the room (the only available one) and they kept our bags in the boot of the taxi while we did so - this made me incredibly nervous. The room was small and smelly, but I just wanted my stuff out of the taxi and somewhere to lie down. I went to attend to the bags while Peter went to negotiate with the front desk. They wanted about $300 ... so we said were going elsewhere. Then they reduced it to $200 - still way over the top, but we were desperate enough.

They wanted our passports - the man said he had to scan them, and held up the big parcel of many different coloured passports he already had. After a long argument we were once again beaten by our tiredness and handed over our passports - he promised to scan them and send them straight on up to our room (at 2 am? yeah, right!)

So we went to the room, which had not really been serviced since the last unfortunate resident. Someone came in and hurriedly emptied the mini-bar and took away the couple of sachets of tea and coffee (you have to pay extra to have that available). There was no toilet paper - although a bidet took up half the space in the bathroom - and only one towel between us. The bed seemed almost clean, but every time I put my head on my pillow my nose would block up from the dust etc.

We slept a mere four hours, just enough to get us going again. We went downstairs and demanded our passports - explaining that we were in Dubai in order to get visas put into our passports, so we needed our passports. They demanded that we pay another $200 to get them back ... or else check out!

So we had breakfast (another whole story! bleh!) and got out a tourist map and started searching for real 4 star hotels. The taxi driver was right, most places were all booked up because there was some business expo in town. But we found that the Marco Polo had one room available for one night - well, one day at a time. So we checked out, grabbed our passports, and went there.

The Marco Polo Hotel

Lovely! Bright, airy, big clean room with Internet access. Polite, friendly, helpful staff. And not a hint of wanting to keep our passports!

Free breakfast - one of those magnificent buffet arrangements with so many choices that you walk away with a full and aching belly! And

live sitar music to keep you calm and happy throughout the meal!

[So what would you pay for a delightful abode like this one? Originally they said they only had a suite for $625, and then they said they would give us an executive room for $350 a night. We accepted that, and despite the hotel being full we ended up being able to stay for the whole time. When we paid the bill, we had actually paid much less than that anyway.]

Finding our Baggage

Once settled in the hotel, we pulled out all the papers and things that had been hurriedly handed to us at Riyadh airport, and were surprised to find a luggage chit. Carefully examining the hand-written scribbles on it, we deduced that our suitcases had in fact been sent all the way back to Perth, Australia! (Are there frequent flier miles for luggage?)

So after a couple of days of unaccompanied travel, our bags finally returned to us in the hotel.

The Gold Souk

One of the many services offered by this hotel is a shuttle service to various attractions. We decided to take a few hours out of our busy email interaction with the college from our hotel room, and go to the Gold Souk. (A souk is like a market.)

There were a lot of little shops, some of them jewelers, selling all the tourist stuff - especially the ubiquitous "pashmina" scarves.

For a while now I have been trying to buy a nice big leather handbag, so this seemed like a good opportunity to look for one.

We walked up and down the little alleys, window-shopping in the little shops. As we walked by, men would step out and try to draw us into their shops, and tell us what they were selling. Finally one of them mentioned "handbags", and so we agreed to follow him. He went down a number of alleys, with several twists and turns, and finally entered an apartment block and up some steep stairs to a private apartment. (At this point we were beginning to feel a bit nervous!) He opened the door to an apartment which was in fact a shop full of handbags, and other customers.

'Home' to Riyadh at last

We had to get in touch with an agent because individuals can no longer make application for visas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the Embassy closing for the weekend (Thursday and Friday) and the agent being busy with other things, it took nearly a week to get our new visas put in our passports. And then we were finally able to return to our apartment and jobs.

This time we were careful to pack a few changes of clothes and necessary items in our hand baggage - just in case!

At the airport we zipped through passport control - no problems! - grabbed our bags and went out to find our new college driver, looking for a sign with our name ... or the college name ... or a familiar face ...

Oh, well, the flight was a tad earlier than expected, maybe he was late.

We spent the next hour and a half trying to find the driver and the college van. We phoned him, and he told us "I am waiting, sir, I am waiting ..." Where? "Here, sir, I am waiting ..." We walked up and down, inside and out, called him again and again.

Of course, he was at terminal 1 and we were at terminal 2. Despite being told. Finally we got that message through to him on the phone.

Now, to Top it all off!

Back at the apartments, our building guard put our two suitcases and two overnight bags into the tiny-shiny lift, and climbed in after them, to go up to the second floor. Peter went up the stairs, but I was tired and decided to wait for the lift to come back.

A moment later the lift returned and opened, and I noticed the hand baggage had been removed but the two suitcases were still there. I thought about stepping in and going up along with the bags, but, for reasons I cannot explain, I then had second thoughts and stepped back.

The lift doors closed and ... the lift died! It wouldn't go up or down, and it wouldn't open again. It was another full day before we saw our suitcases again!

Back at Work

So now we are back at work, starting the second semester. After Dubai, interesting though it was, the dust and rubble of Riyadh has a familiar homely feel.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Party Time!

Right after our last break - half a semester ago now - we had a party at Dar Al Uloom. It was to celebrate Eid - well, the holiday we had just had.

There was a (very big) cake.

Underneath that perfect creamy icing, half of it was chocolate and half was vanilla. It was a bit like Alice in Wonderland eating from two sides of the mushroom.

And then there were drinks

and lots of other yummy foods

even doughnuts, and Arabic coffee

and crisps for those who don't have a sweet tooth.

And everyone came (staff and students), and had a good time. But I can't show you any pictures of the party-goers.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gotta love Ikea!

I had never been to Ikea before (really!), although I was familiar with the ads.

Our students in Norwich had to do a project about it for their business studies. And I heard people in China telling of how lounging around in Ikea was a favourite Sunday afternoon activity, especially when the weather is unpleasant and home is not so comfortable.

But now I have been there, several times! There is a great restaurant, and it is generally an all-round interesting place to spend a few hours in this you-can't-walkabout-outside type of place.

Buying Furniture

Of course, buying furniture at Ikea is yet another adventure in itself. You walk around the "Showroom" part of the store and there are little pencils and pads for you to note down the numbers and prices of items that you fancy. Then you go down to the warehouse section and select a cardboard box that in no way resembles the item of furniture!

The price is "right", because when you get your cardboard box home there is still a fair amount of work to do and tools needed.

Peter is quite the carpenter and home handyman and has created furniture from scratch (and from scrap) in the past. But when Stanley (our Indian driver) caught sight of our cardboard box he became quite excited. Obviously when he was a little boy he always wanted (and didn't get) a Meccano set or even Lego!

So Peter was quite happy to sit down and let Stanley play. A chest of drawers is actually remarkably complex, I learnt, especially when it's a good one.

So how did it end up? Was it like one of Homer Simpson's spice racks??

Look at that! Perfect - just like a bought one! And the drawers glide in and out as smooth as silk.

So now that we are in the bedroom, why don't we take a little look around? In the UK we bought ourselves a "Kingsize" bed, and it was 5' wide. In Oz, of course, that is only "Queensize", and Kingsize is 6' wide. Well, here they like their beds BIG.

It's impossible to get perspective in a photo like this, but this one seems to be Royal Family Size.

And then, with our indoors lifestyle, we had to put aside the wiggy little TV that came with the apartment, in favour of a real TV. (It still looks small in this spacious room.)

(Yes, it's a Sony). And yes, all TV programs seem to come with Arabic subtitles.

With all this space and no outdoors, this is where we play our sports as well. It was really difficult to get a clear picture of Peter playing "Wii sports".

Now we have two sets of remotes so we can play together at the same time against each other. FUN!!

When you have to live indoors a lot you need two things - TV and Internet.

So here is our Internet setup.

That white thing with the aerials is our modem which picks up the Internet wirelessly, and then is connected by cables (lots of cables!) to our computers. We also have a modem in the sitting room supposedly picking up TV channels, but quite honestly there is rarely anything to pick up.

So - we are well set up, and comfortable, despite not being able to run in the park.

Moving Mountains

Yeeeessss I know it's been a while, but I've been very very busy. My job grew and I'm no longer just a teacher, so I don't get a lot of time for my favourite activity - writing.

Flat Riyadh - ?

Riyadh gives the impression of being a very flat place with no hills.

But it isn't entirely true. If you look closely.

That building in the distance that looks a bit like a bottle opener is the Kingdom tower in the city centre. And just in front of it to the left a little you can see the remnants of a hill.

In some countries we would build on the hill. But here the hills are dug away and the materials used to make the buildings.

Where we live we are surrounded by building sites.
The building next door on one side of our building is almost finished.

And on the other side there is a large vacant block.

And then early one morning we were awoken by a lot of noise out there on the empty block.

At first we thought, "Oh, no! Now they are going to start building on that block and it will be noisy all the time!'
And over then next few days the trucks just kept on coming and dumping dirt.

Soon the pile was higher than the first floor. And then they started adding rocks as well.

So now we have our own hill.

One morning I was startled to look out of our living room window and come face-to-face with a chap on a digger. (He looked pleased with himself, after all I wasn't wearing an abaya!)

Do you think I should run up and down it a few times??

So what is it? (I hear you ask). Well, they are building a new building down the road, and first they have to dig the foundations, basement etc. In the next street there is a very big hole, and they had to dump it all somewhere.