Thursday, 28 November 2013

Showjumping at NOFA

The King Abdullah Showjumping Festival is currently being held in Saudi Arabia at the Nofa Equestrian resort just outside of Riyadh.  We had the opportunity to go as Lovely Lady, who is back in Riyadh, was organizing a busload of friends and family to support her husband who was taking time out from work to compete.

Nofa is about 95kms out of the city along the Jeddah Highway hidden behind an unassuming fence and hedgerow.  Quite frankly, if you didn't know it was there, you wouldn't know it was there.  In order to reach the equestrian arena it is necessary to drive through the resort, past the golf course and race track and numerous stables.  The busload of new found friends were impressed with the size and quality of the facilities they could see out the bus windows.

The tents that the public had access to were set up along one side of the arena and afforded an excellent view over the competition area.  It was possible to spend the entire evening in the tent, browsing through the buffet on offer, however Lovely Lady is a passionate supporter of her husband and her enthusiasm is infectious, so we took up positions on the cane seats and carpets available in front of the tents to better appreciate the horsemanship on display while waiting for Nassar to jump.  It didn't hurt that the evening was beautiful, if not a touch cool.  We were all given T-shirts so there was no mistaking who we had come to support (and they also helped to keep the chill factor down).  Our rousing cheer after his round, the loudest of the evening, was acknowledged with a smile and a wave.

One of the things I've always been surprised about, but totallyappreciated with the show jumping events I've attended, is that access to it is free.  Though this year the festival is further out of town (usually  the showjumping we attend is held at the center in Malaz), it is still an affordable family affair.  If the children got bored watching the competition, then a play area had been set up for them with football, a bouncy castle, a huge slide I would have loved to try and a dedicated team to look after them so the parents could chill out.

For the adults, a temporary Arabian village had been erected, with tents selling traditional foods and handmade goods and a bloke singing traditional songs.  And of course there were also camels available to sit on.  After the showjumping event the men got together at the village to perform a traditional sword and drum dance, much to the delight of a number of our group who've had limited exposure to such things.

There was a quality to the whole event that is often missing in Saudi Arabia.  It was a relaxed, enjoyable, well organised, stress free evening where one could easily have forgotten they were in Saudi Arabia.  All the staff in attendance, from security through stewards to waiters were pleasant yet professional and it was absolutely fabulous to see so many women acting as stewardesses at the event, working happily alongside their male counterparts and engaging with the attendees (women only, of course).

After Nassar had finished his round, Lovely Lady had a word with the stable hands who were happy to have our group head over to the stables to see the horses.  A couple of ladies even got to ride Hopes Are High while the youngsters learnt how to feed sugar cubes to the other horses.  I never fail to be in awe of anyone, owner or stable hand, who can work so closely with horses because, though I think they are beautiful, I have a healthy respect for their size and strength, an attitude borne out of unfamiliarity, I'm sure.

I went to Nofa twice last weekend.  On Thursday night with Lovely Lady and again on Saturday night with Hubster and Mr UK as Lovely Lady's husband had jumped his way into the final.  The return trip was just as pleasant as the first, though on the Saturday, after chatting with Nassar, the boys didn't stay to check out the stables.

The championship and festival run for a month, so if  you are interested in seeing an excellent equestrian event in quality surroundings that the family can enjoy, visit the Nofa website and register to get your tickets.  You only have two weekends left, I suggest you make the most of them.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 25 November 2013

Riyadh Drama

Although living in Riyadh could be considered a drama in itself, and is full of a number of drama queens, that is not what this post is about.  No, this post is about expat amateur drama clubs in Riyadh of which there are two (well, that I know of anyways).

Drama used to be quite popular in Riyadh, according to one bloke I spoke to who has been here for nearly twenty years.  There were a number of Community Theater Groups acting their little hearts out, and it was possible to keep yourself quite busy wowing audiences with your talent if you were a budding actor, or keeping the show running as a backstage hand. Then a war started in a neighboring country, expats left in droves and drama of the acting kind stopped.  (Hubster told me drama of the war kind was quite scary.  Choppers with injured were being flown into Riyadh hospitals constantly during that period).

Over the last year or two, since foreign embassies have decided it is safe enough for families to return to the country, a number of expat run clubs have got themselves kick started again (or are working on expanding) to cater for the expat penchant for socializing over hobbies.  That includes the drama clubs.

  • "Auditions and call for volunteers!!‏"

Just last week I received an email regarding auditions for an upcoming play.   Also requested were volunteers to help with props and various other backstage necessities.  If I had a useful skill I would probably volunteer, but I don't, so that's that, and I'm not about to kid myself re:my acting ability.  The best I could do was to forward the e-mail to a fellow Kiwi who would be perfectly capable of assisting because she can sew and create and do all that stuff I never quite mastered.

Someone asked me if Saudi's were allowed to attend the play when it opens.
Why they thought I might know is beyond me, and I advised that they contact the organizers.

The question did get me wondering, though, about theater for Saudi's and a quick Google brought up some interesting, and not completely dated, reading.

In a nutshell, here's what I found out:
Drama Clubs do exist for Saudi's, usually at universities.  I gather Saudi drama involves a lot writing and poetry and other culturally relevant activities as well as plays.  Naturally gender mixing at any of the clubs is frowned on.  Nor, apparently, is the opposite gender welcome at any of the performances.  In fact, according to one article I read, (dated 2008, so not that long ago), the men don't even write female characters into a play because that would require a man acting as a woman which, as far as I could tell, is a No Go Zone.  (It's a bit weird pretending women don't exist, don't you think?  Mind you, IKEA did it in that infamous 'Photoshop out the females from the Saudi sales magazine' hiccup in judgement late last year, something they'd prefer people forget, so I probably shouldn't dwell on it.)

The women, however, seem perfectly happy acting as male characters in their plays.  (Hardly surprising as females do tend to have more of a handle on the real world.  I think it comes from knowing that, of the two genders, we're the only ones who will wind up pushing a baby out our nether regions - I've always found that thought rather sobering and real world'ish.  Men push things like lawnmowers and broken down cars, and not out their butt either.  And, lets not forget, most Saudi men are even excluded from that activity - they flog a Bangladeshi bloke to push their mechanical things, broken or otherwise.)

Anyway, apparently, there is an annual drama festival in Saudi and this years was not without controversy with two countries pulling out due to bans on women and music.  (No prizes for guessing who stuck their Fun Wrecking Fingers in that pie!)

While reading these articles it occurred to me that never would an expat drama group put on a production with a Saudi club, (or vice versa), which is kind of sad.  If they did decide to combine their talents either the Saudi hierarchy would have to lighten up on, or the expats would have to be happy with, the gender segregation rules.  I can't really see it going either way.

Like I said, there's always drama in Riyadh.  If you consider yourself an actor/actress of such caliber you know the expat folk of Riyadh just have to see you in action, or if you have a hankering to release your creative genius on props and backstage preparations, I suggest you volunteer for one of Riyadh's theatrical groups. (I can give you the contact details for one of them).  And if you just aren't the volunteering type, perhaps you could buy a ticket to a performance instead.  Keep your ear to the ground, I'm sure you'll hear the next show being advertised soon.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 18 November 2013

Love London

Do you love London?  I've decided, I do.  We were there a couple of weeks back.  Hubster had a conference and a trip to the UK sounded like an excellent idea.  This was my third time in London, but the first where I can say, 'Yep, I really enjoyed that'.

Our first trip to London, in 2007, was for two reasons - the rugby world cup and visiting my sister who lived in Warrington.  London was the stopover point.  We stayed in budget accommodation overnight and it was gross.  Grimey, mouldy, creaky, small and on the third floor.  It's the first accommodation where I've ever checked for bed bugs!  Anyway, after a quick look around the local area to get an idea of where we were, we returned to the boarding house to find yellow police tape across the door and we were denied entry.  Apparently there had been an argument and a man was thrown from the top floor and died.  That was our intro to London.  Lovely!!

I returned to London again last year.  Once as a day trip down from Oxford as my friend and I came to see a show (The show was great.  Wicked - if you get a chance, go see it.  And if you have Athan on your phone, remember to turn it off before taking your seat.  I forgot and part way through, the only segment mind you that was a quiet, reflective monologue, the call to prayer went off.  And being aging and hearing challenged, I had the volume on my phone turned right up, didn't I), and, before I returned to Riyadh, I spent a day with my niece who had recently moved to the UK.

So this is my third trip to the UK and London and this time I had time to enjoy it, and I loved it.  We had done the main touristy stuff our first time round (Big Ben, a Palace or two, that type of thing) so I wasn't so interested in those activities for this trip.  I had people to see, things to do and places to go.

Our hotel was at Canary Wharf, central to Hubsters working needs.  My first morning in London I woke early and did something I can't do in Riyadh, freely.  I went for a walk.  No abaya. No headscarf.  No worries about being told to cover up.  No concern about being hassled, followed or stared at by randoms.  It was a real pleasure even though the wind was blowing a bit of a gale (this was the morning of the day of The Big Storm).  One can't help thinking, when one is walking... (Ahhh... Now maybe that's why walking is frowned on for females in KSA - too much time to think!)...that a country that denies the female half of the population such small, simple delights is a weeny bit screwed.

After my walk I bought a day ticket and jumped a train, just to jump a train.  Is that sad or what?  The train system in London is fabulous.  Londoners might complain, but they should try living in New Zealand (our public transport system sucks) or Saudi ( their public transport system currently looks like this...

Appreciate your tube Londoners - it's fabulous!  Downloading the free Tube Map app was a very good idea and stood me in good stead for navigating the underground for the rest of the week.  While tripping around on the train that day I stopped off to visit St Pauls Cathedral and the Museum of London (just to get my cultural fix).

That evening a young lady from the US, who taught in Riyadh for a couple of years and is currently studying for her masters in London, came around for a most excellent catch up dinner.  Much Washington State wine was drunk over the most delicious steaks I've had in a while.  I swear, if you want premium steak and excellent wine go dine at Goodman Restaurants at Canary Wharf!

The next day I was off to Brighton to visit another friend and, while there, decided to hire a car.  Unfortunately, like a nincompoop, I left my drivers licence in Riyadh, Duh!!  It's not much bloody good there is it!  (Was kicking myself for that for days...).  Friend K, however, decided hiring a car was a great idea and stepped into the void, eventually taking us on a drive over to Beachy Head, infamous as a suicide spot and also as the last sight of the homeland for a lot of young men heading out to a number of battles that were fought off its coast.  Though the wind was still up after The Storm, it wasn't enough to keep folks from strolling the grass covered, chalky hillside.  (These are not the white cliffs of Dover - they are further around the coast another 73 miles or so).  We finished off that visit with a very late pub lunch made later by the fact their service was snail paced.

My last morning in Brighton was wet and rainy and we decided to eat breakfast at a local hotel.  While scoffing back bacon and eggs with coffee I was imparting words of parenting wisdom when, really,  I should have just shut the heck up!  (Occasionally I have running at the mouth issues.  This was one of those occasions.  Sorry K, will do my utmost to zip it in the future - though don't take that as a promise, I also have promise keeping issues!)  Anyway, the trip back to London on the train was so quick that, once again, I marveled at England's wonderfully efficient transport system.

The Husband & Co were picked up from Canary Wharf later in the afternoon, and we all headed in to Leicester Square.  We had show tickets to buy.  Thanks to advice from the bloke at hotel reception, we discovered that website statuses re:ticket availability for shows isn't entirely accurate.  Which means, if the website says 'No more seats', then go to the theater itself, which we did, and picked up four tickets to Book Of Mormon for that night.  (My London based niece was joining us).

This is a satirical musical written by the creators of Southpark.  If you don't like satire, you don't like Southpark or you are easily offended by sarcasm, crassness and over the top non-pc jokes, then don't go.  However, if you love wit, humour, clever lyrics and and taking the piss out of almost every segment of society you can think of (which is pure Southpark, isn't it?) then you'll love this show.  We did.  It was a great evening.  We're recommending it to everybody who cares to listen.

Mr Associate was keen to visit Bicester Village for some brand outlet shopping so, the next morning, that's what we did.  He, and I, thought the place was a complete and utter waste of a twenty pound fare.  The Husband, however, bought a stack of new shirts and is looking very swish in them as he goes to work these days.

That evening we took in show number 2 - Jersey Boys.  This is also a great show.  It's a different style to the previous night with numerous scene changes as the story, told through music and narrative, moved about through the years, locations and characters.  As I wasn't familiar with the Fankie Valli  story I learnt a lot at that show including how many Four Seasons songs I actually know!

Halloween happened to fall on the weekend we were in London, so after the show, before hitting the casino (Mr Associate ended up winning so he bought the after Casino pizza), we did a spot of people watching.  With clubs giving away free entry, free drinks and prizes for the 'Best Dressed' there were a lot of young adults proving they hadn't grown up yet (in spirit anyway, in body some of them were very brave wearing what they wore!)

No visit to any country is complete for me until I have sat on a bicycle.  What can I say, I love cycling.  So early the next morning Hubster was dragged out of bed and onto a Barclay's bike (although I think Londoner's call them something else).

As in Paris, these bikes can be found all around London's inner boundaries and you can hire and return them to various points about the city.  They are fabulous.  I had no idea you could do so much cycling in London!  I downloaded a map off the internet and, despite The Husbands initial protests (he always does that, no idea why!) we spent the morning thoroughly enjoying ourselves.  We rode our way over to the Borough Markets (with a couple of tiki tours down a few side streets on the way) to meet my niece and enjoy a pork roll and a pint.

This was our last day in London and we had one more visit out in London's outskirts, to an Aussie friend for dinner.  It took frikken ages to get there, we should've left an hour earlier than we did.  We had no idea London's outskirts were so far away!  We got over it once we caught up with James and his wife.  They have a nine month old baby who has just learned to maneuver himself around the floor, a bit like a mop really, and was an absolute cutey drooling and baby chatting his way around.  It was good to see them, and the journey back didn't seem nearly as long as the trip out.

That, in a rather long blogging nutshell, was my recent trip to London.  And like I said at the start, I loved it and am hoping a return stint isn't too far away.  I was reminded (at the end of our trip of course, isn't that always the way) that my cousin's son also lives in London, so will be putting 'getting in touch with whanau' on the return to London itinerary.


Saturday, 16 November 2013


I love my email.  It's been with me since the internet exploded on the human race.  I've worked hard to keep it safe from fruit cakes, fruit loops and scurvy internet predators who love to send all sorts of nastiness and Spammy, virus ridden messages to my email address in the hope that I'm an idiot and will open them!  (OK, so, in the early days, once or twice, I might have been an idiot - but I wised up real fast!)

In fact, for a long while, me and my email were cruising along quite nicely with unsolicited advertising of the seedy, saucy, begging and otherwise unasked for kind, kept to a minimum.  It has probably helped immensely that most companies the world over, even the little ones, have learnt the value of protecting consumer info instead of palming it off, for a fee, to third party rabble.

Yes, all was going fine with my email down in Kiwiland.  And then I moved to the Middle East.

It seems that companies over here are happy to sell out my information in a heartbeat.  And that sucks.

On arrival in KSA it did cross my mind, for a fleeting moment, that perhaps I ought to be xtra wary (as usually I'm always wary) who I hand my email to in this region.  But I shrugged the thought off presuming, wrongfully so, (obviously), that companies world wide were hip when it came to protecting client information.  The assumption I was dealing with companies with integrity was a bit naive too, I guess.  Integrity in business isn't really a catch phrase in this part of the world is it?

Now, when I open my junk mail to check for valid messages that I haven't yet identified as worthy of freely accessing my emails inner sanctum of safety, I can't believe how much crap is in there!  It's like being back in the 90's!  And it's starting to turn dirty. Disgusting scumbags!  Getting Horizontal For Free - my adaptation on their words, so you can guess what they were saying - is what I married my husband for, not what I expect to find advertised in my email!  (My email has been so clean for so long that I actually forgot how dirty spam can get.)

Over the years I've kept, and dumped, a number of temporary email addresses, purely used to sign up for things I'm interested in and might like to receive more information about.  If they are an honorable business, the address won't get spammed and I can, eventually, if I feel the urge, change my sign up details to my proper addy.  If they aren't, well, it's easy to see.  So I dump the address, and the company, and go find the interesting information someplace else.  I'm having to do that again, here in Saudi, as protection of my information from third, fourth and probably fifth parties has proven to be somewhat lax.  Oh the lengths one must go to, to get Spam off the radar and feel safe online.  I thought all that was behind me, but no.  Here we go again!

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Hello, Hello Food

Have you seen Hello Food?
Have you tried it?
If you have, what do you think of it?
I can tell you, I'm impressed!

I'd noticed HelloFood ads popping up on Facebook and, apart from registering the fact that someone was doing a persistent advertising campaign, I didn't pay them much attention.  That is until an email landed in my business inbox asking if I'd heard of them.  'Well', I had to say to myself, 'yes I have'.

Then I read they were a food delivery website.
I've always wanted to start a food delivery business, so clicked over to take a look.
They deliver takeaways.  (Or Home Delivery as the folks in these parts like to call it!)

Now, it just so happens that, a couple of weeks back, Hubster and I were discussing, yet again, the need for someone in this country to take the current home delivery service by the neck and give it a good shake up. And Hello, what do ya know, it looks like someone had the same idea.

Any non-Arabic speaking expats who have ever ordered home delivery in Riyadh know what I'm talking about.  It's a bit of a process.   Here's how things usually go for us...

Home Delivery Saudi Style
If we don't have the contact details of the particular restaurant we fancy ordering from saved in our mobile, or their brochure isn't stacked in the kitchen sideboard with the rest of the food menus, then we have to look the place up online.  Chances are the home delivery numbers are not apparent on the home page.  (What's with that!).  So, being persistent types, we dig into the depths of the website and, Hey Presto, there's a phone number.  But, Unpresto, it's the number for head office.  (Saudi's love advertising Head Office for some reason.)  
Obviously, Head Office doesn't answer their phone around dinner time! 
Finding the right number is only the beginning of the 'Saudi Home Delivery' saga.  Then, we have to hope whoever answers the phone speaks a smidgen of English.  Or understands our very badly pronounced Arabic, and speaks slowly.  
(Note to Arabic speakers answering phones - when we say 'Arabi shway shway' - that means PLEASE SLOW DOWN.  We have no idea what you just said in your rapidly spoken native tongue.  Work on the premise we are imbeciles.  Go - one - word - at - a - time.  Not one sentence at a time.  One WORD at a time).   
Of course the process isn't helped when Hubster, who knows not to ask for anything outside the square, because communicating it can be excruciating, always does!  (I just roll my eyes...) 
 We have discovered that the English speakers at the other end of the line have usually only learnt the English for the menu they are responsible for.  Outside the square requests result in 'One minute', silence, a click and then 'Your order please' - meaning, the operator is starting from number 1 on the 'How To Take An Order' checklist he/she has in front of them.
And that's only for places that utilize dedicated call centers with a script. Many don't.  Usually you're just talking to the guy at the counter, busy with other customers and sounding harrassed.
Once you've ordered the food, you then have to explain your location.  The larger food franchises have a system in place for identifying repeat callers and their addresses. 'You live The Compound?' 'Yes, we live The Compound'.  Fabulous. Issues only arise when we aren't calling from The Compound and instructions for a new delivery address have not only to be given, but understood!
For smaller companies, Caller ID is non-existent and getting our message across is a real art...or extremely frustrating depending on which one of us has the phone! But we are nothing if not persistent, so persist we do. Orders are made, words repeated, and repeated again, and corrected and, when the phone is hung up, we wait to be surprised by, and pay for, what actually arrives.  (Yes, we do pay if the order isn't quite right because we have chosen to live in this country, to not become proficient at the language and to order takeaways over the phone - so who's fault is it really, if weeny bits of information are lost in translation!)  
When the delivery guy is close he gives us a missed call, we call him back and, if he's at the gate, delivery is achieved, payment is handed over and that is Home Delivery, Saudi style. 
Occasionally though, things just don't go to plan.   
One night, after two hours, we gave up waiting and calling to see where our food was and walked up the road for a burger.  Our ploy to get Arabic speaking neighbors on the phone didn't work this time either as, not only did the guy on the other end not understand English very well, neither was he too hot at Arabic!  
The final call was the last straw.
What number? he asked, when I called again.  I repeated it, again. 'Where you live?  he practically shouted down the phone.  I told him, again, with what I believe to be perfectly clear, pigeon English/Arabic instructions.   'Coming' he said.  Fifteen minutes later, I get a call on my phone from someone I presume to be the Delivery Guy (woohoo), only to be sweet talked by some Arab bloke who stopped sweet talking and muttered something about 'delivery' the minute I handed the phone to Hubster who, not surprisingly, bellowed down the line.  (Companies who give out my phone number to their desperate and dateless mates won't be getting our patronage again!)

So it was, with that checkered history of home delivery in Riyadh on my mind, that I examined the HelloFood website with interest, and was impressed enough, hungry enough and lazy enough, to try it. And OMG! It's simple. It's stress free. And it works!

Basically, with Hello Food you order your takeaways online (or you can use their app), no fuss, no hassle, because they contact the diners and restaurants.  Their website is extremely simple to navigate and there's a huge range of restaurants participating, most preferring cash payment once the food arrives.  It's a bit of a wait (about an hour they reckon), however, the process is seamless.

Here's how our Hello Food home delivery went, last Tuesday.
At 19.20 I signed up online and placed my order - I know because they sent an email, in English, telling me that's what the time was.  (When you sign up you get to choose your language - Arabic or English). 
At 19.23 I received a phone call from a very well spoken, pleasant chap who introduced himself and laughed at my obvious surprise that, one he spoke English very well and two, he'd responded so quickly.  He was checking the address, and directions to it, that I'd written on the form.  (One gets used to giving directions with ones address when one has lived in Saudi long enough to know that one should).  
At 19.29 a text message told me that the company whose food I'd requested was aware of my order, and would be at my door in about an hour.  
At 20.53 said company delivery guy gave a missed call.
I responded and Hey Presto - Dinner!  Delivery was a bit longer than the hour stated, and I was about to give them a call to say, 'Hey, what the?, but fortunately the food arrived before such a measure had to be taken.  And it was still hot! 
It sounds ridiculous, but tonight when it crossed my mind to order in again, I actually sighed a huge sigh of relief thinking, 'Crikey dicks, I can do this the easy way' - no boning up on my Arabic, no attuning my ear to thick accents, no guess work at all.  And over I clicked to the HelloFood page to peruse their Home Delivery options.
If you think I sound like I've become a fan overnight, you'd be right.
Try Hello Food.
See what you think.

Ka Kite,

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cave Swimming in Riyadh's Ain Heet

We went back to Ain Heet Cave this weekend as Mr Noor, who went the other weekend with a few mates, said the swimming was spectacular.  Really, seriously, are you sure?  Oh yes, he assured me.  It's much better than the first time we found Ain Heet Cave.  He was right.  And I have to admit of all the things there is to do in Riyadh, this is one of my favourite.

This weekend we took a newcomer to Riyadh (we'll call him Mr UK) who has been staying on our compound for a few weeks.  He has the car.  (I know, we're bludging!)

Before departing the compound Mr UK was a bit concerned about what attire to wear in the pool having heard that it's best for expats to be in long sleeved shirts and pants when out and about.  He was assured that swimming trunks would be perfectly acceptable in the cave itself as it was highly unlikely there would be Saudi's down there. Apart from the fact the thobe and abaya are completely inappropriate attire for mountain scrambling, most of the locals aren't what I would call, ummmm....physically adventurous.

We reflected how the situation was a rather good analogy about Saudi's and their attitude to, well, anything requiring effort.  Real effort.  The dig deep and do whatever it takes, suffer through pain, difficulty and adversity, character building type of effort.  You know what I'm talking about.  (In case you don't, let me clarify...Saudi's love reward. They do.  However, they only want to make minimal effort (if any) to get that reward.  [Not that they are the only people in the world with this type of thinking - I know a few relatives back home with a constant hand out...but that's another story].  So, swimming in a cave might sound fabulous, really exciting and fun, but most would prefer that the cave pool be brought to them on a platter.  They aren't that interested in climbing down a difficult path to reach the reward, and, sure as sheep, the effort required to climb back up after the reward would seem rather silly.  Stereotypical generalizations I know, but not a lot of folks  who live and work here would argue the point!).  Which is not, I'm fairly certain, the attitude that Saudi of old had else they would not have survived life in the desert.  Ahh...the new generation these days.  Such a soft bunch!

Anyway, on the way to our destination we were regaling the story of our first trip to Ain Heet Cave.  On that trip there was only us and Mr Noor and we didn't swim.  As we approached the cave this time we were surprised by the number of people present.  Obviously it was Filipino Day Out, and good on them I say!  Life here can be sucky for many of the workers, so it's great the folks can get out for some relaxed fun and socializing.  

After Mr UK parked the car and he and Hubster commented on being the only white people around,  we surveyed the steep descent under the mountain.  It was full of folks making their way, like a trail of ants, scrambling up and down through the fallen rock.  We also studied the mountain overhead as Hubster, once again, reminded us we'd likely be crushed by any rocks that might decide to detach themselves from the mountainside.  (We swept the thought wasn't very helpful!)

The walk to the bottom wasn't quite as difficult this time, as a path of sorts had been laid among the boulders, plus a rope has been anchored half way down the decline for those needing something to hang on to.  In saying that though, it's still necessary to crouch and clamber, so my thighs were starting to sing a little even before I got to the bottom.  I knew the body was gonna pay for the effort again the next day (and it is!)

As predicted, once at the bottom, Saudi's were few and far between (I counted 1 and he was a dark skinned bedu which, to some of the Saudi I know, doesn't really count, which probably makes them snobs or racists, or both!).
Everybody else, though, was there in abundance.
And they were having a blast.

We found a spot to set down our bag and shoes and the boys stripped to shorts and jumped in.  I had bought shorts to wear for the swim too, and turned to the bloke behind me to let him know I was gonna be doing a quick change if he wanted to look the other way.  (Have no idea if he did or not, cos I just got on with it - I was on a swimming mission).  Once the knee lengths were off and the shorts on, I clambered in barefeet the short distance from our chosen spot down to the water.  It was lovely.

Near the edges you had to be careful of submerged rocks but out in the middle the pool was deep.  It's amazing lying on your back, looking up at the roof of the cave and remembering there's a mountain above you.  One also has to wonder where the water has come from.  Perhaps the inclement weather in other parts of Saudi has filled the underground water table, sending fresh water up the aquifers, one of which feeds this cave.  I'm sure a geologist would know.  Hubster was surprised the water was warm, he was expecting aquifer cold.  And it was a lot clearer than our first visit.  (It did concern me, just a little, that the water might be run off from Riyadh Recycled River, but we'll brush that thought aside too, cos it's not very pleasant).

We spent a bit of time swimming about, watching others jumping off rocks or attempting to climb the back wall (which is covered in tagging by the way) and took a few photo's before drying off and starting our ascent.  The climb back up didn't seem as difficult this time (maybe I'm a bit fitter) though three quarters of the way up, the thigh muscles were telling me if I didn't do some decent stretching at home, tomorrow was gonna be a stiff day!  (Heeding good advice, even my own, is a bit of a challenge for me, hence the legs are still stiff today).

The number of people at the top had thinned considerably by the time we got there.  I'd packed a picnic, so we lay our carpet in the shade of the car, (it's winter in Saudi but when the afternoon sun shines it's still warm), and enjoyed turkey salad sandwiches and tea while appreciating the result of our climbing efforts.  Hubster reckons the picnic is always the highlight of a desert drive.  I don't know - this time I think the swimming eclipsed the food.  If you would like to swim in a cave just outside of Riyadh, here's a map location.

Map Location of Ain Heet Cave

It's interesting that, just this morning, Mr UK sent me a message, 'What's the name of the place where the cave pool was?'  He'd shown the pictures to folks at his workplace and one of the young Saudi's didn't believe it was in Saudi.  On one hand I'm always amazed how little the locals know of their own backyard.  On the other I'm kinda glad, otherwise the really cool places would be closed down!  Maybe I'm going through a pessimistic phase in these slowly changing times (I was seriously hoping that women would be driving by now, really!), but it would be just like the Bearded Ones mentality to close Ain Heet Cave and the physical and social activity that cave swimming provides, even though none of them could acutally be bothered climbing down to see it.

Ka Kite,

Thursday, 7 November 2013


"It's 2.30pm in the afternoon and I am at Baga Beach, in Goa, India.  To be more precise, I'm at Jamies cafe scoffing the fluffiest pancakes I've had in a while.   It's nice to be at the cafe, seated behind its low cane fence fringed with green foliage climbing out of terracotta pots, beside a quietly whirring fan, taking time out from the hectic activity on the road not two meters away."
I wrote that in my mobile diary, to remind myself what I was feeling on my Goa holiday.  We had been at Goa a few days and had decided to ride our scooters further up the coast to visit one of the more popular beaches.  The hectic nature of India's roadways meant that, every now and then, I had to stop, withdraw and take a breath!  Breathing over coffee has always been therapeutic for me.

The first time I heard of Goa was in Saudi.
The people recommending it were saying how beautiful it was, and that it was a tourist mecca on the Indian coast.  Having been to a tourist mecca or two, I was envisaging something along the lines of the Gold Coast.  That is absolutely not what Goa is like.  In fact, I would describe it more as Waiheke Island back in the late sixties when the hippies moved in!  The roads are narrow and rough.  The buildings have a definite lived in look.  Many of the shops are cram packed with trinkets.  And most food joints look basic and suspect.  Once you add the Goan people, the myriad scooters whizzing about, the local buses and trucks honking their way through the crowd, and the cows lazily lounging in the street to the mix, Goa, though definitely not a five star place in the hotel industry sense of the word, is certainly unique.

We hired a couple of scooters and spent a few days riding around seeing what there was to see.  Tootling down the many side streets of town uncovers a number of hidden accommodation and dining options that I'd never seen on my trip advisor research!  Exchanging money got you a better rate if you did it downtown as opposed to at the hotel.  And of course we looked in at a number of shops, buying a couple of trinkets for the whanau.

The old fort is worth a visit, one of the many remnants of Portuguese occupation. Numerous boats are moored along the river, waiting for tourists for dolphin spotting or disgorging fish.  The petrol stations are something else...plastic drink bottles full of petrol sitting on a shelf on the roadside.  Awesome!

The beach is very easy to get to in Goa, and though Goa is a supposed beach holiday destination, the beaches aren't really that spectacular.  (Yes, I know I'm a spoilt snot whose been to many a fabulous beach).  In fact, as one young Indian lady told us, Goa is not the place to go if you expect pristine beaches and sparkling clear water.  The water rolling in on the tide is a murky brown and, I admit, because its India with it's less than reputable sanitary standards, I was a little suspect on where the color originates from! (Of course, if you rarely get to a beach, then the beach is fab!)

Jet ski rides, para-sailing boats and donut or banana boat rides can be found at the more popular spots along the beach and there was no shortage of tourists, many of the local kind, spending their holiday money on them.

Swimming on the beach, especially between the flags of life guarded beaches, is a non-event.  In fact, swimming is discouraged in favour of paddling.  We were only allowed into the water up to our knees, which didn't take us anywhere near the break in the waves.  If we tried to go too far, the guards whistled us back in again.  Why?  Because most Indians visiting Goa cannot swim!  Westerners heading out into the deep only encourages locals to follow, so in the interests of every ones safety, staying in the shallows is where its at.  In fact, over a span of two hours sitting at a Baga Beach shack (there are beach shacks all along the beaches where you can spend your time people watching while enjoying a beverage and delicious seafood) we saw two folks being rescued!  I'm guessing that if, as a tourist, you want a decent swim, you should go further along the coast to a more secluded beach where there are less people, or somewhere not flagged.

The only disconcerting activity I saw in Goa was what I call 'ganging'.  Groups of young (and not so young) Indian men would surround westerners sunbathing on the beach, (even western couples, not just women), and blatantly take their photos, ignoring pleas to move away until the tourists felt so uncomfortable they up and left.  It's not an unknown issue, there are articles about the practice in Goan local rags pondering over ways to stop it.  (The locals reckon most of those guys are from Delhi.  Delhi does not have a great reputation for safety.)

Away from the beach there is also plenty to see.  One morning we organised a driver to take us to old Goa, and its many churches, and a spice plantation where, after a short walk through a spice forest over rickety bridges, past washed elephants and accompanied by explanations of a number of the plants, we were given a sample of the local cashew based Fenni (considered country liqour, but actually is a lot like vodka), and treated to a spicy buffet.

Our trip to Goa was fairly well timed.  The monsoons had stopped and the tourist season proper had not yet started, so prices were reasonable and the streets not overly packed.  The activities I'd planned on doing hadn't started - swimming under a waterfall after a forest trek, canyoning - that type of stuff.  However, I loved the freedom of being on the bike - Saudi does make me crave being in charge of a vehicle  (any vehicle!) - and with so much else to see, do and get used to, I wasn't too bothered about missing out on a couple of action packed jaunts.

Our hotel, Vivata by Taj, was lovely.  Old, but lovely.  The buildings themselves might not have been five star, (lets face it, the place was built a long time ago), but the service certainly was.  And with a sister hotel just down the road with a spa, pool bar and extra options for dining, we could easily have spent our entire time at the hotel, though I'm glad we didn't.

Would I go back to Goa?  I know people who travel there every year, they just love it.  The forest, the beach, the people and the seafood.  The government apparently has great plans for Goa, developing it for tourism, and you can see some of the newer establishments already springing up and looking rather modern against the rest of the place.  I hope they don't overdo the development.  The world doesn't need another western style tourist mecca.  Goa's beauty is in its simplicity and Indian-ness.  That is what is worth going back for.


Ka Kite,

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