Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas in Riyadh

Christmas Evening in Riyadh -  Gees I could've done my hair.
I was hoping to regale you all with tales of Christmas in Riyadh.  What we did, who we saw, where we went.  All that.  Instead, I was sick with a flu, or something, which has been going around.  Grrreat!

What are the symptoms, because as I write I am still undergoing some of them?  Chills, shakes, body aches, major headache, zombie head, loss of appetite.  I know I told the universe I don't want to get carried away on food this Christmas, and if this is the universe manifesting my desire  I guess I should be happy - but really! 

Being sick was certainly not what I had planned for my first ever Christmas Eve in Riyadh.

This is what I had planned:  A lunch time get together on another compound with some expat-bloggers living in Saudi who I've met online.  That soiree was to be followed by an evening dinner at our compound coffee shop with fellow compound dwellers who were, for whatever reason, also spending Christmas in the magic kingdom.

And it is magic.

Though rumours abound of negative Big H messages being sent forth to the masses via loud speaker (as I don't understand the Arabic I cannot confirm this rumour.  Lots of little birdies twitter out there about it, but none I know personally and I'm not going to believe just anyone) the Saudi people I know send me texts wishing me a happy Christmas and a wonderful day.  They do that of their own free will and, though I'm guessing at their reasons, I would say their rational goes something like this: we are friends, they are wonderful people.  Now isn't that magic.
Whats the big H Kiwi?  When the kids were little there were a couple of words that were banned from their vocabulary.  One was the Big H.  Hate is a word attached to very strong, intense feelings with horribly negative tones that spring from deep seated plain old nasty...not nice-ness.  Use of the word willy nilly, as far as we were concerned, was unacceptable.  Thesaurus allowed them other words they could use to express their discontent or antipathy of a situation or person should they need to - ' intensely dislike' was a favourite phrase. 
Yep. That was the Christmas Eve plan.
I didn't get to do any of it.
At least Glenn got to enjoy it all, which is a huge difference to how he has spent the last two Christmases in Riyadh.  Working.

I would have asked him, when he got home, how things went, but I was in 'pass in, pass out', mumble 'tea please', zombie brain mode. 

Glenn rang the children when he got home from his festive activities to wish them a great day and to have a word with the grand kids.  He left the loud speaker on so I could hear (11.30pm our Christmas Eve was early morning their Christmas Day).  Aren't kids awesome at Christmas.  They were so excited.  Our granddaughter told us all about Santa eating the cookies and drinking all the milk she left out.  And the reindeer ate the carrot.  Our grandson told us about his new green undies, cos his old blue ones are too small.  Sooo cute.  As our daughter said, Christmas is much more fun with kids - until they know you buy the presents and aren't the least bit appreciative.  Then it's time they got a job.

I, unfortunately, was in no state to contribute to any conversation.  Never mind - I heard it. 

So, now it is Christmas Day in Riyadh and Glenn is currently at the function that was planned for our Christmas Day.

Oh he did work today.  Christmas Day is not a day off in Saudi although apparently a number of Saudi's were perfectly happy to take a day off because they presumed that all westerners would be absent so their own attendance at work wasn't required.  What the??

But after work he headed off to spend the evening with the tennis crew and friends enjoying a meal, a secret Santa and a few beverages (You know ginger tea, stuff like that. Yeah whateva Gae!) that, had I been there, would have taken us well into the night singing Christmas Carols. 

How did my Christmas day pan out?

Once the fever broke (last night) I've spent today with lessening, but not gone headache, return of appetite to nibble on apple slices, a bitch of a cough that does my head in and seriously hurts my chest, which is bunged up, and the pièce de résistance (I had to look that up to see how to spell it) - the runs. Grrrreaat.  How can I have the runs - I haven't eaten anything!!!

I have recovered enough to type into my blog between dozes.  Since about 10am sleeping has been difficult because the rumblings of my bowel have me heading to the bathroom at frequent intervals - a real test on those butt muscles, which I have to say, are rather slack!  (Even coughing lets a few squitters escape - I'm on to my third pair of knickers for the day.)  Awweeesuume!

I have to say, one thing I did not miss in the lead up to Christmas in Riyadh was the commercialism.  'Buy this, they'll love you'.
'No, buy this - you'll be the only one of almost every other family that has it'.
'Jingle Bells your pay away because advertising says this is what Christmas is about'.
No, I don't think I missed that at all.

I did miss a few carols.  Not the constant stream you get forced through your eardrums at shopping malls from the start of the day till the end.  That is overkill.  Nope.  Didn't miss that.  But sitting round a piano with a few friends singing a few carols would have been nice.

Glenn enjoyed this Christmas because, even though I wasn't in attendance at planned events (which he says just weren't the same without me there - awww, what a sweetie), at least this year I was in the country.

Glenn has just texted.  He is on his way home.  No doubt he will have a chinwag about the evening.  I have some good news for him too.  I can pass wind now, without any extra accompaniments. Oh the small, yet wonderful things we rejoice in.


It's boxing day.  I fell asleep soon after Glenn arrived home with pressies and left overs - I nibbled the roast potato, a bit of kumara and a little surprise I wasn't expecting.  Very nice.
I may have missed wishing all a Merry Christmas, (and I certainly hope your day was festive, fun and family and friends filled), but I figure there's plenty of time to recover so I can be ready for bringing in the New Year.

And I'm looking forward to my next Christmas, which may or may not, be in Riyadh.

Ka Kite,

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Riyadh to Germany: Christmas Market Tour: Part 2

We've flown from Riyadh to Germany and totally enjoyed a day in Frankfurt, now it's time to start the Christmas Market Tour.

Day 1:
We met Greg, our tour guide, and said a quick hello to our other fellow travelers as we joined the rest of the German Christmas Market crew on the bus.  Our first stop was Heidelberg Christmas Market. Cute. I love the cobblestones in these towns. A bit wobbly underfoot, especially with ice, but I can imagine the clip clop of horse drawn beer kegs – for some reason Germany is synonymous with beer.

The ruin on the hill, Heidelberg.

On the walking tour - Entrance to the bridge

No idea...but was I there?  Yes I was!
Craftsmen, Heidelberg
I envisaged I would find lots of arty crafty types making their own Christmas related goods on a Christmas Market Tour.  Not quite.  It was fairly repetitive merchandise and mainly useful as Christmas tree decorations - not terribly popular back in Saudi.  You had to search for the true handcrafted creations, but once you found them, you usually weren't disappointed.  These were the only two I found early on the tour making their own goods.

I met a lovely German family while I ate my Kartoffelpuffer – a German potato pancake with apple sauce on a wafer. Rather nice on a cold day. And the obligatory cup of Gluwein. We decided to start a Christmas cup collection – at least one per market.

Oh - TrinkHalle, not Beer Drinking Hall
On to Baden Baden – a spa town with well heeled types wrapped against the cold browsing the stalls.  After being told all about the spa’s in Baden Baden it would have been nice to experience a mud wrap. But alas, it was not to be.  Instead, we got led on a walk to the ‘Drink Hall’, which ended up not being what we thought. It’s basically the’ Trinkhalle’, a pump room housed in an impressive building fronted by large pillars and lovely artwork that accommodates some healing water that you pay 50c to sample. We followed it with Gluwein.

After a quick look around and a bite to eat it was back on the bus and we headed off to Triberg, a little working town in the black forest, with a stop to take photos of a house size cuckoo clock.   It's a pity it was dark.  It would have been nice to have a closer look. 

Gunther, our driver, had to back us down the hotels' long driveway - not an easy feat given the snow everywhere, the rather steep drop off to one side and the narrow space he had to work with.  Claps and cheers all round once we arrived.  That evening we enjoyed a welcome dinner at the hotel, looking out at the snow falling while we were snug, warm, well fed and wined.

Day 2:
Next morning, we woke up to snow covered, hillside beauty and went out to take pictures of candy floss topped hedges (snow looks so light and fluffy when it’s new - have I already said that?) and steep, snow covered roofs huddled into the valley – very quaint and Christmas looking.

The snow shovel was out, the automated and manual variety, to clear the bus.  We grabbed the manual one to have a go.  There is no doubt that clearing snow off paths and driveways is a great way to keep skinny over winter.
Sludge and my Caterpillars
Back on the road, there was a slight change of plan due to weather conditions.   It had started to rain and that fluffy snow was turning to sludge, I was glad I bought Caterpillars before I left Saudi.   We had a potty stop by Lake Constance and one of the many churches in Germany.   Then on to Lindauer for lunch – the markets, unfortunately, were closed.  While Gregg was talking history a huge dump of snow fell off a roof and landed on the bonnet of a car parked below with a heck of a thud.  We moved the group into open spaces – better to be wet than dumped on. 

Oberammergau was our next stop – a real Christmas town. The famed Kathe Wohlfahrt shops were here. Actually, I discovered, they are everywhere. It’s amazing what you could waste your money on under the excuse of “Christmas”. Here’s just a few samples of what was on offer in the shops:

Witches???  Xmas???

These are popular
We were a few weeks late for the Passion Play that won’t be around for another 10 years – interesting story that one. Lots of paintings on buildings in this town tucked away under the mountains.  I love how artwork is everywhere in Germany - Inside buildings, outside buildings. I love the old buildings and architecture. I actually really enjoyed Germany.
Fussan night lights.
We spent the night in Fussen, another cobble stoned cute town.  Our attempts to find the recommended local brewery were to no avail.  Instead, we wound up in a nice little eatery, with a few others from the crew who also failed in brewery finding endeavors, where I tried Liver Balls and Sauerkraut.  There's no point being in a new country and not trying the local dishes.  Despite the title, it wasn't bad actually.  Washed it down with a local beer that started with ‘A’.  (A beer? Alcohol?)

Off to mad Ludwigs castle – Neuschwanstein - a nice little walk up the hill.  Ludwig II built this castle as an escape from the throngs, and he never finished it. What was completed, however, had all the latest mod-cons of the time – central heating, automatic flush dunny, running water. I quite liked the kitchen and could imagine myself a cook of the time, ordering peeps about with loads of firewood stoking the stoves.

View from one castle to the other
Lunch was coffee on the bus and left over breakfast. German breakfasts, we decided, were perfect for bus tours. They have loads of meat – sausage and ham – with rolls and eggs, tomatoes and Danish treats. I’d eat Bircher Muesli with fruit for brekky and make a packed lunch out of everything else. Brilliant!

The scenery of the alps provided a stunning back drop as Greg regaled us with the history of the area, Bavaria, and the Prince-Bishops in charge.  Potty stops, there were two, were a monastery (another OTT decked out church) and a rather large summer residence, Nympenburg, with an iced over pond that one of the crew decided to stand on. Wayne whipped out his video because if the ice had cracked he wouldn’t have wanted to miss that, now would he?

We traveled on to Munich and were unloaded at the Christmas markets with the promise of seeing the glockenspiel in operation. Nope! It only goes at lunch time. Never mind, Gluwein got me over that and the fact the we had lost one of our trio in the crowds. The place was quite busy.

Munich had my favorite hotel of the entire tour with central heated bathroom floor and a huge triple room.  We had time to change for dinner and off to a beer house we went. The Lowenbrau was walking distance up the road, and we couldn’t possibly leave without scoffing a pork knuckle and a few brews.
I quite liked Munich and would love to go back to see the museums - actually I’d like to see the museums and galleries at a few of the cities. Sounds like an art and museum tour is on the cards too!

The rest of our journey took us to Salzburg,  Nuremburg and back to Frankfurt.  It was a whirlwind trip and I have to say, I quite enjoyed it.  This was my first ever bus tour and it did what it said it would - took us to all the Christmas Markets on its route through Germany.  There was little time for self-exploration of the towns or meeting the locals which was something I was wanting to do as time drew on and my passion for shopping began to wane.  But there was plenty of time in the evenings to get to know fellow bus travelers and the end of the trip saw a lot of email and facebook swapping with promises to stay in touch.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 18 December 2010

From Riyadh to Germany: Christmas Market Tour

Last week, three Kiwi ladies, myself, Margaret and Michelle, flew out to Germany for a six night, seven day Christmas Market tour.  It was brilliant.  Margaret organized the tour through Blue Danube Holidays – basically she said I’m going, I said, can I come, she said I'll send you the link.  All I had to do was fill in the form and stump up with the money when the request arrived.  Headache free planning on my part.

I’ve never flown Lufthansa before – loved it.  We had the 2am flight (yay) but the rear of the plane was empty so I scored a row of seats for a 5 hour kip.

Margaret’s friend Ken, who moved to Germany 30 years ago, picked us up from the airport and, after we had dropped our bags at the hotel, he whisked us off to his place, a good hour out of town, to meet his wife, Liz, and spend the day.

We were lucky, the temperature the day before was -15C. Today was only -5C. Snow was everywhere. Brilliant!  I haven’t spent much time in snow.  Taumarunui had snow if you went up the mountain, but to have snow falling while you’re shopping is a novelty, and I was like a kid on her first holiday – ‘Look at that’, ‘look at this’, ‘can I get a photo’, ‘Oh that looks soooo German’ - I couldn’t get enough.  I didn't realise they grew so many grapes in Germany - there were kilometers of vineyards.  A summer time wine tour must be on the cards!

We passed through small villages down in gully’s that were so picturesque with their pitched snow covered roofs and narrow streets. In between were snow covered fields, some being turned so the brown sod was a contrast to the whiteness.

Ken explained that all the farmers lived in the villages.  The government didn't allow housing on farmland because it was used for farming, so the only buildings on the land were sheds, and small ones at that.  I quite like that idea. It worries me sometimes that New Zealand has allowed our farmland to be cut up into lifestyle blocks. Soon we’ll run out of that green grass Destination NZ likes to promote.

In this part of the globe Kiwi's are well known for our milk and lamb (You’re from New Zealand, you guys make Anchor milk!) Once the life-stylers get sick of the life style New Zealand will have major urban spread as the blocks get subdivided and built on. I like the adage ‘more grass, bigger cows’. It will be a sad day when NZ has to start raising our sheep and cattle indoors because the green pastures got gobbled up by housing.  It's an absolute fact that, in comparison to produce from other countries, NZ milk, cheese, butter and lamb all taste better, I’m certain because of their outdoor life – or maybe I’m just Aotearoa biased.

Anyway, moving on. I totally enjoyed our ride to Kens little village. The roads lined with snow covered trees were Christmas card picture perfect - I used to think they made those images up!

On the way Ken asked what we’d like for breakfast. “Bacon!” was the chorus. We bought two packs. We ate them both, along with eggs and some lovely German Danish and a Custard Round, home baked in the local village bakery, that was delicious. We couldn’t find another like it on our whole tour.

The supermarket really drove home that we were in Germany.  In Riyadh we are used to chaos, utter chaos and dust and noise and clutter.  The German supermarket was clean, with wide aisles and washed vegetables and not a sign of rot anywhere.  Germany is very organized.  Honestly, we were blown away by the supermarket – and it wasn’t even a big one.

After breakfast, Ken took us on a tour of neighboring villages. They are cobble stoned and winter cute. I’m glad we had the chance to visit smaller villages with someone who knew the place and in such a relaxed fashion, because we didn’t get the opportunity on the tour.  Ken took us up the hill for a snow walk – guess who landed on her butt?  Fresh fallen snow is so fluffy. And everything, everywhere is so white. With the sun out you actually forget it’s cold.  Real cold.

Lunch was bread and various sausages and meat followed by Gluwein – warmed red wine with a few spices thrown in.  Lovely. We had a lot of Gluwein in the next few days. It certainly warms the cockles.

Later in the afternoon, Ken took us back to the hotel. We had a light meal for dinner and headed off to bed early. Our bus tour started the next day, and we were a bit tired from our early morning flight.

Ka Kite,

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Darker Side of the Desert

I haven’t really written about the darker side of Saudi Arabia. I don’t know why not.  Maybe I’m being PC – don’t rock the boat.  Maybe I’m being chicken – big Arab brother is watching every word I write (that’s the rumour anyway). Maybe I’m not sure if you’d believe it, because sometimes even I don’t believe it.

What is the darker side of Saudi Arabia?  Where does one begin?
Maid from Indonesia.  
I could talk, again, about the hell life that maids live in this country. There are umpteen stories of maids being spoken to unkindly, being locked away, or their wages withheld for months on end, of beatings, rapes, torture and murder.  If you want to spend an evening feeling horrified just Google Saudi Maids.

There are very few stories of perpetrators ever being brought to trial for these actions. Why? Because, in many cases, they are Saudi, good, pious, blameless Islam practicing Saudis, while the maids are slaves with no legal rights.  None. The labour law specifically cuts maids out of any protection. 

Instead there are cover ups, lies, outright denial or complete ignoring of the issue. Or reverse blame – the maids cut, beat, raped, tortured, burnt or nailed themselves.

At the malls we watch the maids trailing behind the women as they shop, often loaded down carrying the kids and the many shopping bags. It is, we have noted, very rare to see a maid smile. They look worn, tired, and downright unhappy.

In the few cases where maids do reach out to tell someone, anyone, about their plight and their embassy makes an application to the Saudi authorities to rescue her from an abusive situation, they are told, ’Sorry, it’s the start of the weekend. We aren’t at work. You’ll have to wait till Saturday, and apply again’.

Yes, I could talk about that – but would you believe it.

I could talk about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI's)  in Saudi. STI’s picked up by Good Muslim Men who have averted their eyes from Good Muslim Women and focused them squarely and lustfully on women of less repute from the rest of the world.

Good Muslim men who visit outside the country specifically to take partake in ‘entertainment’. Good Muslim men who seriously believe that outside Saudi boundaries the rest of the world is one big whore waiting to satisfy their desires, while their wives wait at home.  And for those Good Muslim men for whom sex outside marriage is an issue, Saudi rule has come to their aid so they can relieve their pent up tensions while out of town – they can have temporary marriages, anytime from 1 day (sounds like 1 night stand to me) upwards. While their wives wait at home for them to return.

Saudi men eventually do return home to their waiting wives and they dip their wick and spread their disease without care, without second thought.

Should the wife divulge to her husband the condition she has contracted, once she learns the shocking news, what will he say?  Will he apologise?  Will he accept fault? Will he go out of his way to get her the best care possible and will he change his wick dipping ways?  Not on your Nelly. Not in this patriarchal “man is god’s favored one” part of the globe. Nope. He points his finger at his good waiting wife, the women who can’t move from her home unless he gives her permission to do so while he’s out spray painting the town with his oats, and spits - Whore! Yep, I don’t know how, but the disease he picked up and brought home to share with her, is all her fault.

I find it bemusing that the latest public discussion on STI's  and Saudi women (and you won't find many) also lays blame squarely at the women's feet by saying they don't know how to protect themselves, they need education. 

How does a wife protect herself from a husband who is entitled to bed with her anytime he wants, whether she's in the mood or not,  after a weekend away with the boys and some questionable activity?  What education are you going to provide to help her with that situation.  I'm not so naïve to think all Saudi girls are innocent flowers - hymen repair surgery is a fact.  But I believe the majority of Saudi wives are innocent.  They are one-man ladies. 

What will happen to this faithful women?  She is disposable. She’ll be discarded on the scrap heap and replaced by another eye averting, potential disease receiving receptacle.  It’s best for her to say nothing.  How do I know?  Talk to the expat nurses working in this country who deal every day with heartbroken, horrified, sobbing, fearful wives.

We were in a café once, relaxing in our closed door cubicle, with Saudi women ensconced in the cubicle next door, talking in low tones. Then the crying started.  Low at first, under the breath, between the words. Soon the emotions couldn’t be contained in a low cry and there was sobbing, with words gasped out between heaving cries.

We could only imagine what must have affected this young woman so – and she was young, there was no doubt, crying on the shoulder of an older confidant. Maybe she was a good waiting wife who had averted her eyes and got shit in return.

Yes, I could talk about that – but do you really want to hear it.

I could talk about the child marriages that take place in this country far too frequently. Girls as young as 10 years of age being married off to old men.

Want to spend an evening feeling sick.
Google Saudi Child Marriages

Young girls, who have no idea they are being married, are taken from their homes and raped by their ‘new’ husbands - men who are little more than pedophiles. Young girls, whose fathers enter into marriage agreements - in Saudi all marriages are arranged by the females guardian, usually the father, though in his absence (death) this can be their brother or significant other male - so they can illegally take their dowry and buy themselves a car.  What a trade.

As I understand it, a Saudi man must pay a dowry to marry, and that dowry is supposed to go to the bride. In the case of child brides, it often doesn’t. I find it so appalling that it is un-Islamic to take your daughters dowry, but perfectly fine to marry your 10 year old child to a filthy, twisted, sick (can’t think of enough adjectives but you get the picture) excuse for a man – they must be perverted because decent men, real men, wouldn’t even consider for a millisecond marrying and having sex with a child.

Marriage celebrants, (a purely western term I’m applying to those in Saudi with the power to ‘marry’) say they have no choice but to perform the marriages, even if they don’t want to, because there is no regulation in Saudi that sets a legal age limit for fathers to marry off their girls. (The Powers That Be have apparently been working on this for the past year – how hard can it be to think up a two digit number, preferably starting with a 2? People working for The Powers That Be can count, right?) Marriage celebrants say they have to perform these marriages because according to Islam, in Saudi anyway, father knows what’s best for his little girl.

Yes, I could talk about that – but do you really want me to.

The underbelly in this country of ridiculous wealth is dripping with hypocrisies and inhumanities all apparently springing from a religion of peace.  It would be nice if someone with balls could stand up and say ‘Enough……for God’s sake, enough’.

But, it seems, most of the balls in this country have turned soft sitting out on side walk café’s after a hard day pretending to work.  The balls belonging to the pedophiles and woman haters aren’t about to change anything - they like life here just the way it is.  And the good guys…hell, sometimes I wonder if there are there any!  But that’s being pessimistic.  So, yes there are good guys, but they are either waiting for change to happen slowly, without having to upset anybody, or they have left the country.

Why don’t I write much about The Darker Side of the Desert aka Saudi Arabia?  Because like the dark side of any country, it sucks!

Ka Kite,

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