Sunday, 20 October 2013


This Eid we decided that India would be our holiday destination of choice.  Hubster wanted to go to the beach, in Goa  To get there, we had to go through Mumbai.  Now, I admit that India was never on my bucket list of trips, but living in Saudi, the South Asian Continent is so close, it seems a bit silly not to give it a look in.

Our trip to Goa was a rather last minute arrangement.  As such, we hadn't had to time to apply for a visa through the usual channels.  I explained to Hubster, (again), that Kiwi's can get an On Arrival visa in India provided we entered the country through one of the major city airports.  Hence, I had organised a two day stop over in Mumbai.  Hubster was not happy.  He wanted to go straight to the beach, not hang around a crowded Indian city.  I offered a few suggestions on sight seeing - cycling the city in the early morning before it got really busy, a boat trip to a nearby island or even a slum tour.  He pooed pooed those ideas.  He had no intention of setting foot about the place any more than necessary, thank you very much!  (Hubster prejudice?  Never!!)

The flight path into Mumbai takes you over the slums.  It can't be helped.  They are everywhere. Blue tarpaulin, pulled tight over what is obviously a hole in the roof, was the only color we could see on the settlements below.  Hubster thought the bloke who makes tarpaulin must be making a mint in Mumbai!

We'd been warned that getting our On Arrival visa's could take hours.  Turns out, it didn't take that long at all, probably helped by the fact we'd arrived early on a midweek afternoon and the airport was quiet.  The people assisting us with the visa were very nice folks.  Hubster's hard exterior melts with nice people.  Before long he was shaking hands and saying thank you's all over the place.

Our taxi ride to the hotel was where we first came face to face with the real Mumbai, and it was an assault on my safely guarded personal space.  Traffic is everywhere.  Tuk tuks and scooters swerve in and around other vehicles, horns blare and roundabouts are a complete mystery in that people actually get round them!  I can see why Riyadh traffic is as it is, with so many drivers on Saudi roads being from this South Asian continent.

As requested by the husband, our hotel was close to the airport, his theory being we could do whatever we had to do and then get out of there.  He hadn't realised that the area near the airport, as one colleague familiar with the place described it (after we'd booked, of course) is a shit hole!  The condition of the people in this part of town was quite confronting.  Young girls, no more than 12 with babes in arms, come tapping at the taxi windows pleading for money.  Men, looking tired and unwashed, sit about in shack looking shops plying their various trades, while women, looking old and frail, sit in the dust behind small piles of fruit or vegetables hoping to glean a few rupees from passers by.

And sitting, obvious yet mysterious, just behind the shakily built roadside facades, connected to the street by narrow passageways that every now and then disgorged its residents, its contents spreading onto the roads as washing hung on busy intersection corners, are the slums.

The hotel, once we arrived, was an oasis of quiet and familiarity where we could try to come to terms with what we'd seen.  It was disconcerting knowing that, outside the hotel gate, just across the street, was obvious poverty and struggle.  The whole set up is mind boggling!  In the safety of our hotel, over numerous glasses of beverage, we could debrief and keep the rest of Mumbai at bay, so long as we didn't look out our hotel window.

I don't know about you, but one of the first things I check once in the hotel room is the view.  Our room looked straight into a high rise apartment complex, it's exterior looking dirty and unwashed, most windows were without curtains and clothes were hanging from every spare piece of terrace railing.  That evening, I went to close the curtains in our room and could see families sitting together on the floors of their spartan, barely lit lounges, sharing a meal.  It seemed so normal, so human, so fragile, so unlike the beast out in the streets earlier that day.  That view helped calm my nerves more than any beverage had.

The next morning, at breakfast, I again broached the subject of Mumbai activities and was informed Hubster would be working all morning.  (Our holidays are never really holidays for him).   So, I headed up to the rooftop infinity pool to read, swim, take photos and generally lounge around, before going for a massage at the spa.

I find Hubster up by the pool.  He's amazed by the view over Mumbai's shanty town, swims a few laps and then announces that he's going to organize a tour of the city.  He says he's found the place quite fascinating and wants to see more of it.  Bloody bullet head!  I give him the names of the guides I've been researching online (Reality Tours and Travel chosen because they give back to the local community through Reality Gives)  but, being a pain in the butt, he doesn't fancy them.  Nope, he just hires a driver via the front desk, with a list of the usual tourist sights from the hotel guide book.  (He grudgingly admitted later on that my tour ideas probably would've been a better plan.  Difficult sod!)

Laundry at night
So it was, we headed out into the Mumbai late afternoon with a lovely young man at the wheel.  'Twas the same bedlam as the afternoon before.  We made our way to a famous laundry, stopped at a couple of local toilet facilities (one of us had the touch of the squitters), drove by the racecourse, counted the streets at 'the seven roads intersection', and headed off to Marine Drive, saw the Gate of India, and went in search of a restaurant recommended by a friend and found it hidden in a backstreet location typical of 'Dan's Dodgy Dinner Destinations'.

The food was very nice and a bowl full of rice dealt with the squitter issue, then we drove off to see the home of Bollywood actors, the new bridge and to do a night time drive through the more drive-able back streets on our way home.  That bit was an added extra in answer to Hubster's question 'are the slums safe?' and our drivers emphatic response of 'yes, very safe!'

Our driver for the night
The back streets were quiet, settled and empty with only a couple of people walking about at this late hour, while the main road was not only hectic with traffic, but whole families were lying on the sidewalks and centerpieces, settling down for the night directly on the pavement or with only a piece of cloth separating them and their babes from the hard, dirty ground.

The Mumbai we saw is a place that runs you through the gauntlet of emotions in one day, one hour.  At one point I found, to protect myself, it was best to separate myself, to close the car window in an effort to keep my distance, step back, disconnect from the scene.  Simply observe.   And I doubt we even went to the heart of this part of Mumbai!  We could have, as Hubsters friend suggested, stayed somewhere a bit more up market and, if we'd spoken to her sooner, probably would have.  But, in hindsight, then we would have missed out on the other half of Mumbai, the real half, the half where people are doing whatever it takes to survive.  Sure, it's scary and confronting and daunting and emotionally draining when you first come across it.  But to ignore it, now that's a sin!  To know what to do about it?  Crikeys...I have no idea!

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Tuwaiq Palace

The Tuwaiq Palace sits regally and, to my mind, somewhat lonely, near the edge of the Diplomatic Quarter overlooking Wadi Hanifah.  A walking path crosses the road near it's front gate and I have often wondered what sits beneath the huge white sails adorning the external walls.  Well, this week, I found out.

Haya Tours offers a number of inner city excursions for those wishing to get up close and personal with the city of Riyadh, and a new addition to the season's itinerary was a tour of Tuwaiq Palace.  Twenty six ladies and a couple of blokes gathered at our meeting point, and were quickly whisked down the highway to the DQ.  Finding the entrance to the Palace wasn't quite so straight forward as the DQ, for the uninitiated, can be a confusion of curved, criss-crossed, similar looking streets with no identifiable landmarks to highlight the way.

Once parked at the Palace we were told abaya's need not be worn.  Oh, how quickly we western women shed that all covering garment - except for the ones who weren't wearing anything substantial underneath, that is.

We were met by a couple of thobed gentlemen who would be our guides. Tuwaiq Palace has a reputation of being something of an architectural wonder and, if I was an architect I might have been able to appreciate the finer details of construction.  However, only ever having built a chook house out of corrogated iron, the finer details, though impressive, were lost on me, so, I simply enjoyed soaking in the ambiance.

The palace is, basically, a huge, curved stone wall, hollow in the center for hallways and rooms we humans require for comfort, with a total of five rather large tent like structures clinging to its outer surface - three being the large white ones visible from a distance.

The concept of the Palace derives from the shape of the desert rose, hence its curved form, as well as reflecting two symbols of Saudi's architectural heritage, the fortress and the desert tent.  What makes it an architectural wonder is not only the wall but also that fact that, back in the day when the palace was built, there wasn't the same level of technology as today, so getting the details right took some effort and major calculations.

Protected in the center of the serpent like wall is a beautiful garden, and it's here that we started our tour beneath a pavilion of hand painted glass, with a cooling pool at its center.  After meeting our guides and hearing an explanation of the pavilion and the Palace we headed indoors.

The foyer to the palace is one of the smaller tents, though you wouldn't know it unless you were paying attention to proceedings.  It's a very roomy entrance with the stone wall winding through the rear looking cool, strong, pale and quite beautiful in the natural light coming through the windows above.

We were shown through two of the large white tent structures.  One is a reception hall, the other a three leveled dining hall that can seat up to 300, with a small stream running through its base and a number of smaller, private conference rooms off to the side.  There is a lot of room beneath these tents and also a lot of natural light due to the white ceiling and the huge glass panels spanning the entire outer perimeter.

The other smaller tent is another large hall and, like the foyer, the ceiling is a mass of timber boards shaped so that they curve away from the glass windows up into the ever present wall.

Our tour took us outdoors where we wandered past beautiful flowering bougainvilleas, adding a splash of color to the swimming pool that was undergoing some maintenance and a couple of tennis and basketball courts.

The original purpose for the Palace was to be a sports club for the residents of the Diplomatic Quarter.  There would be swimming pools, a bowing alley, tennis, basketball and squash courts and a gymnasium.  However, it didn't work very well as a sports center, so is now used more as a conference or wedding reception center, with guest rooms available for diplomats and royalty.

One of the other features of Tuwaiq Palace is the walkway that runs the entire length of the wall.  There are some lovely views from the walkway, either over the wadi, out toward the city or down into the Palace gardens.  From here it's easy to see the tail of the wall curve around another set of swimming pools, providing privacy from the rest of the garden.

We ended our morning tour of Tuwaiq Palace where we started, seated under the garden pavilion drinking qahwah, munching on dates, discussing all those things women talk about when on tour together.  All in all, it was a lovely way to spend a Saudi Arabian morning and many thanks to Salwa, from Haya Tour, for arranging it and also to the Palace staff for looking us.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Congratulations Mr Noor.

He arrived a couple of minutes late this morning, pulling up beside us as we waited in the shade cast by a whitewashed wall, with the biggest smile spread across his face.  I presumed he'd been racing - he often smiles when he's managed to break a few speed records getting to us on time, thereby maintaining his middle name of 'Mr Reliable'.

But no.
That wasn't the reason.

Fifteen minutes earlier he had received a message.
His wife had given birth to his first child.
A girl.
Mr Noor was a Daddy!
Now that's something to smile about, isn't it.
He was told mother and baby are doing fine.

Having just received the news himself Mr Noor was unable to provide the answers to my questions, you know the things we women like to ask when a baby is born and that you men seem to find a bit detailed.  Like, how heavy was she?  How long did labour take?  Was it natural birth or cesarean or any variation of?  That kind of stuff.

And of course, the big question - Have you decided a name?

Then, once the serious questions are over, the banter begins.
"You're going to have to work even harder now Noor - you have a family to support."
And, "You're going to have to work even more now Noor to build up her gold stocks for when she gets married"
"No doubt you'll have a party won't you Mr Noor?"  Of course ma'am.
"We're fairly certain you'll invite us, isn't that right Mr Noor?"  Ummmm...............(subject change!)
That kind of stuff.

Mr Noor may not get to hold his daughter for another two years.  That's when his next trip home is due. That knowledge evokes an emotion I struggle to find words for.  Sad, doesn't quite cut it.  It's a situation that Noor, and thousands of other expat men living and working in Saudi Arabia, accepts as par for the course.  There are so many things I could say about it.  But I won't.  Critical analysis (aka whinging) can wait for another day.  Today is a celebration.

Congratulations Mr Noor.
She's beautiful.

Ka Kite,

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