Friday, 31 May 2013

Wedding Anniversary

It's our wedding anniversary today.  32 years.  Not a bad innings.

Of course, I didn't remember it was our wedding anniversary.  Hubster had to remind me, as he does every year.  I remember one year in Melbourne walking to the train station to meet him after work, and there he was striding down the road with a big bunch of flowers.  'Did you hock those from work', I said.  He gave me a look, you know one of those 'you've just insulted me' looks and handed over the bunch with 'Happy Anniversary'.  My follow up comment showed how truly thick I am.  'What anniversary?'

Sometimes, I don't know why he bothers with me.

Today he was busy making a shelf in our laundry and happened to mention it was our wedding anniversary.  I was on the couch playing '4 pics 1 word', and looked up.
'Is it?'  I said.
'What should we do?'
His reply.  'Seeing as you can't even remember the occasion I don't see why we should do anything!'

I gave him a look.  He gave me a look back.
I chuckled.  He shook his head and disappeared into the laundry to drill a couple more holes.

Perhaps we'll go to compound coffee shop for a cuppa later.  Given that on our previous anniversaries we've popped down to McDonalds for a burger and fries, a cuppa at the cafe is about on par for our wedding anniversary celebrations.  Except for the time we went to the Ritz Carlton here in Riyadh - now that was a major exception, obviously not about to be repeated today.

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Anatolia Turkish Grill

Anatolia is a fabulous Turkish restaurant just off Tahalia St. If you did'n't know it was there you wouldn't know it was there.  We had the most delicious meal at Anatolia.  I would have loads of pictures, but I was far too interested in eating.  Here's a few shots I did get.

The Menu.  Very colorful.

Smiling Staff

Opening Hours, very important.

One of the many dishes we shared.

Dessert with shay on Turkish tiles.

Anatolia is bright and open with a great menu, excellent food and good service.  (Ok, so I can say that because we went at normal eating hours, not Saudi eating hours and were the only ones in the Family Section for quite some time).  Finding it behind Tahalia is your only issue, but once you do, you'll be back.  There is also a branch of Anatolia Turkish Grill in Granada Mall, though I prefer the one here, at Tahalia.

Directions to Anatoalia Turkish Grill, Tahalia St.

View Dining Out In Riyadh in a larger map

Ka Kite,

Monday, 27 May 2013

Saudi Pulse And Women's Rights

The Arab News has a section called Saudi Pulse for local journalists to have their say.  One item in particular caught my attention the other day.  Saad Aldorasi wrote, 'Lets get to the root of the problem'.   He talks about Saudi  women’s rights, protection against domestic violence, abuse and sexual harassment and gives his take on where the problem comes from and how best to prevent it. 

The article didn't catch my attention for what he said.  What he said is glaringly obvious to anyone caring to look.  What did surprise me was that he said it.  Plane, frank, no beating around the bush.  That in itself shows the changes happening in Saudi.

It's heartening to see that media (and Arab News is considered as one that tows the government line) is allowing Saudi's to voice a good hard look at themselves while, at the same time. offering up possible solutions.

Enjoy the read from this weeks Arab News, Saudi Pulse.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Wild Isodora

I found this while surfing the net.
Love it.  A little internet research was needed to find out who wild Isadora Duncan was.

Isadora Duncan was a dancer born in the US in 1877 but, from the age of 22, lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union til her death, aged 50, when her scarf apparently got caught  in her car's rear wheel and strangled her.   

Her life was considered 'scandalous' probably owing to the married lovers she had and the children she bore from those liaisons.  Given that all her children died very young, I would say her life was more tragic than disreputable. 

She learned ballet at a young age but, at some point, decided to break out and create her own interpretive style with more natural movements, earning credit as the creator of modern dance.  

If you're interested, this YouTube vid is apparently the only film that exists of Isadora dancing and there is a 1969 movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, called simply Isadora - here is a clip from the movie 

Isodora Duncan voiced a number of quotable quotes and you can find a list of those here.  The actual phrase related to this post is 'You were once wild here, don't let them tame you', however the folks who put this pic together obviously took a little poetic licence and made amendments.  I do love the pic they chose though and have stored it on my computer as Wild Isadora.

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Waterfall Picnic

A couple of weeks ago we decided to take advantage of the break in the rain that had been intermittently pouring down in Riyadh, to get out of town and find a waterfall to picnic beside.  

A video of a huge waterfall just outside the city had been posted on YouTube.  Admittedly, the image looked more like a torrent of sand but it made me realise I had never considered there would be waterfalls near Riyadh after a decent rain.  Lakes I knew about.  But waterfalls?  One doesn't tend to associate 'desert' with 'waterfall'.

We'd hired a Toyata Land Cruiser for our Tiki Tour which took us, first, to the growing town of Muzamiyah to assess Lake Kharara for signs of a waterfall (you can read about that at my post Lake Kharara Brings Sight Seers) and, finding lots of water but none falling, we headed to outback Nisah which, I'd heard, had taken a drenching with the rain.

It'd been a while since we'd come out this way and there's a huge amount of road works being done.  Another sign of the money being spent on the country's infrastructure.  Anyone who says the current government is keeping all the money for themselves obviously hasn't traveled much through Saudi.  Almost every small town we've come across is having work done of some description.

Anyway, signs that a tonne of water had been flowing through the Nisah area were in abundance.  Though only two days since the winter deluge, the water had started to dry up leaving dirty grey, slug looking trenches in its wake.   And around each water filled gash were picnicking Saudi's.  I would have got a snapshot, but Hubster wanted to keep moving.

Our Waterfall Mission took us past the red dunes and the Riyadh Cement Company.  The cement plant looks like a fortress out of Lord of the Rings, rising tall and strong above barren desert cliffs.  Obviously it would never pass as an evil fortress, there aren't enough sharp and pointy bits.  Evilness always comes with sharp, pointy bits I reckon.

I was busy telling The Husband about my theory on the housing choices of evil types, and he was busy not really listening, when we came across our little waterfall.  "There it is", I hollered as he, in his own little world of 'Ignore Wifey and Her Ramblings', went zooming on by.  Brakes were hit.  A U-turn executed.

The Waterfall was just off the road and I was so darned excited!  A stream was trickling it's way through a mish mash of hardened rock slabs and cascading down onto a weathered plate before wandering off into the rock strewn valley.  While women were picnicking further downstream, a couple of young men had stripped to their underwear to play about in the water.

Of course, I didn't immediately get that they were in their underwear.  There was no sign of sexy Calvin Klein boxers or colorful pouch fronted jockeys decorating the...ahhh, well, finer parts of finely chiseled, muscular, tanned torsos with a white stallion waiting impatiently in the wings, which is what one might find at an oasis waterfall when one lets their imagine run wild.

No, these blokes were in white T-shirts and long white pants, garments typically worn under thobes.  And here was I, barreling over with camera in hand while they were calling out something akin to 'Nooooo!!!'   Mid-stride it occurred to me something wasn't right.  Then it clicked - they were bathing.  Ooops!  About face!  Quick march the other way.  A respectable distance was maintained till they had dressed themselves behind a nearby tree and Hubster gave the all clear along with a look that suggested there are times he thinks he married an idiot.  What can I say, I have blonde moments!

Clambering over a few rocks was required to reach the water spilling from the top.  Oh, it was bliss taking my shoes off and splashing about in water that was still relatively cool despite the warmth of the day.

Not long after we arrived, numerous other vehicles began pulling up.  Word had spread and having your photo taken atop a waterfall (even a small one) became a popular thing to do.

The Blokes weren't the least bit fazed by a barefoot, cap headed, abaya covered, barefoot, shin flashing Kiwi wahine paddling about in what we all knew was a temporary waterfall.

Eventually, the blokes made their way down to the base of the waterfall to capture shots of themselves splashing about in its falling coolness and, after Hubster offered to take a couple of shots for them on their cameras, we headed back up to the car.  The waterfall had gotten busy.  Families were starting to arrive.  One young man came over to say hello.  He'd been to Ireland to study English but was back and in need of practice, so took our presence has an opportunity to have a chat.  He also said we could take a picture of his friend and the youngsters with him down by the water.

As the positioning of the sun had moved to "Lunchtime" we took our vehicle across country to find a picnic spot.  Drinking mint tea and snacking on turkey, tomato and mayo baguettes out the back of a 4WD near a babbling stream was our idea of a perfect picnic lunch on another beautiful blue sky day in Saudi.

Our Waterfall Picnic mission had been a success and, as we ate, we contemplated the beauty of the desert, the simple pleasures that can enjoyed in this country that suffers a lot from bad raps, and our next move. After all, have Land Cruiser, will travel.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 20 May 2013

Kerosene Fly Spray and Saudi

Have you noticed how fly spray in Saudi Arabia smells like kerosene.
Or is it just me?

The fly spray we have on our fridge, and that Hubster just sprayed on the midgies, mozzies and fruit flies spinning around our unit, absolutely reeks of the stuff.  And it doesn't work either!  All it does is leave a film of oil on the floor once it falls, fairly rapidly, out of the air and it's giving us both a petrol sniffing headache!

Sure, they can make cheap as chips petrol around here, but turning it into kero and sticking it in fly spray?

I have to say, we've rarely had the need for Fly Spray.  Most of the year our place is devoid of flying buggy things, and the compound sends a bloke round every few weeks to spray our drains for any insect type that might be habitating down there.  But, for the last few days the bugoids have decided to make a come back, and Hubster was not in a flying insect friendly mood.  He grabbed the can, and sprayed.

The stench of Saudi Fly Spray is quite thick in our flat 'cos when The Hubby sprays flies, he sprays thick - everywhere. The nozzle is practically tied down as he chases buggy varmints into every nook and cranny.

His method leaves splotches of Fly Spray crap all over our furniture and, when a more quality product is used, a thick bug killing mist hangs in the air for ages that I'm fairly certain is not good for human health. When he's in a fly spraying frenzy, it pays to cover everything and leave the house for a while!.

No matter how many times I tell him his method is somewhat overboard, he cannot be reasoned with. Till now. With his current headache, and standing amid the ocean of Saudi Fly Spray residue, he's admitting he may have got a bit carried away.

So affected was he by the spray that the can had to be marched to the bin, all the while being subjected to Hubster muttering under his breath things like, 'Hopeless' and 'Never again'.  And, to punctuate the Fly Spray's demise, it was biffed in the big green bin outside.  The kitchen bin simply wouldn't do!

Hubster's little quip, after dealing thoroughly with the offensive kerosene filled Fly Spray can, that we're sharing Saudi oil reserves cos' it's all over our floor, met with a steely gaze. We'll be heading out shortly in search of a more quality product.  I'm presuming one can be found.  It's time to wipe out a few bugs.

Ka Kite,

Cafe Lenotre

Looking for an outdoor venue for my coffee, I dropped into Lenotre, in Centria Mall.  Lenotre Family Section has a large outdoor balcony which, on a glorious winters day is a great place to sit beneath large shade umbrellas and enjoy a selection of breads before tucking in to whatever main course you may have ordered.

The deck affords a view of the tip of Faisaliah Tower peeking over the new Narcissus Hotel construction and, if you go there often enough, you can watch the progress of the GOSI buildings being erected across the road, though the noise can interrupt your lunch a little.

Indoors the decor is elegantly simple though, admittedly, I rarely dine there because of the access to the outdoors.  Lenotre is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Owing to it's name I presumed the menu would be French though it tends to lean toward a broader palate.

Lenotre has a shop section where you can purchase very prettily dressed plates of dates and other date related products to take home.  They also create the most delicious little ice creams, great to hand out for dessert when you have guests around for the evening.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 18 May 2013


Ketchup is another eatery on the strip after turning right at Mussah ibn Nasser.  The first time I went, which was a while back, I thought it was a little on the pricey side, however they currently have a rather tasty looking menu,
one of their 'Signatures' being New Zealand lamb.

It's the only place I've found Pear Salad in Riyadh.  A few too many greens were piled into the plate for my liking, but I admired them for the concept.  And it's one of the first (and few) places I found that offered Kumara (that's sweet potato to you other fullas) chips.  They were quite more'ish.

The family section is up top.  Ketchup bottles hang suspended from the ceiling as you traipse up the stairs and there's a huge red tomato at one end of the restaurant continuing the saucy theme.  The red lighting over the window seats gives the place a pinkish hue.  The windows are nice and large too, affording quite a view of the street if you have a mind to stand up and gaze out that way.   Its quite open a upstairs.  Lots of read and white decor.  And there's a tiny outdoor verandah too, though it's not for dining on.

Along with the Pear Salad I ordered a Pizza.  The lamb would have to wait for another day.  The pizza was quite delicious.

Not many people were in the restaurant this week night, though I believe on weekends they get quite busy.  Although Ketchup is close to home, we usually walk past it to the main drag.  They have toned down the 'dramatic' red colour that used to make the place shine out like an ambulance siren and which, I have to admit, is one of the things that turned us off going there for quite some time after our first experience.

This time was much better, though there is still something cool about the ambience that I can't quite put my finger on.  Ketchup to me says warmth and fun and spice and good times, tucking into left overs with your mates and making mums Roast Beef into huge tomato and meat sammies.  (Actually, Watties Tomato Sauce has those connotations - can't help it, I'm a Kiwi).  Ketchup just seems to have missed the mark for me, at the moment.

If, of course, you don't care about ambiance and want to try Ketchup for what's on the menu, then ignore anything I've just said and give it a go.  Will be interesting to hear what you think.

Directions to Ketchup

View Dining Out In Riyadh in a larger map

Ka Kite,

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Lawn Mower

Fingers are dancing their way across the keyboard, eyes focused on the words that materialized in the wake of each fervent rush of taps, a black trail of prose across a white and waiting canvas.  The 'whish whish' of the washing machine was busy in the background, its familiar sound ignored by the woman staring intently at the screen of the computer balanced purposefully upon her lap as she types and reads, types and reads. 
The typing stops as the woman tilts her head, her eyes no longer held by the tale she is weaving for an audience she imagines exists, and a frown creases her once young brow.  She listens to the sound that has snuck its way under her veil of concentration like the wafting scent of another woman's expensive perfume.  A low rumble is reverberating its way through the closed, lightly curtained windows.

As the noise grows to a roar, the metal door that separates the baking heat of a Saudi summer sun from the air conditioned cool of her one bedroom apartment, begins to emit a metallic 'twing', something it has never done before. 
The woman sits back, and lifts her eyes from the computer screen  'Is that a lawnmower?' she wonders.
She whips the computer from her lap and stands to gaze through the netted curtain, browned by the ever present Saudi dust and in need of another wash.  'OMG', she whispers to herself, a smile of disbelief tugging at the corner of mouth, her unplucked eyebrows raised in astonishment, 'it is a lawnmower! 
The contraption was snarling it's way over the patches of grass huddled between flower beds that would be bursting with healthy colour if the petals weren't limp and leaning under the blazing, orbed sun.  Smoke was pouring from the machines carriage, cloaking the green body driving it in a petrol fumed haze.  'OMG', she says again, exhaling a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding.  'It's a lawnmower!'

That was last year.
I couldn't believe it.  A lawnmower had arrived on the compound.  It was a crappy old thing in need of a spark plug clean among other things.  And the blokes obviously weren't used to it.  They were having trouble maneuvering it between the numerous landscaped tree trunks and clay brick bench seats that adorn our outdoor common areas.

That fact that progress had come to our patch of Saudi real estate in the form of a lawnmower made me chuckle a little to myself.  At the same time, I wondered what would happen to the Bangladeshi guys that had been arriving en masse each week to hand cut our ever green, well watered grass with hedge clippers?  They would creep over the lawns in little huddled groups, crouched on the ground in their dark green overalls, the only sound a snip, snip of clippers or a word spoken to each other in a language I didn't understand.

These days, the hedge clippers are saved for those hard to reach places the mower can't get to.   I'm wondering when they are going to rock up with a Whipper Snipper, retiring the clippers from lawn maintenance duties.

The garden blokes are well versed in the use of a lawn mower now.  It's not a old crappy thing any more, and it doesn't smoke either.  It even has a catcher!

It's funny the things that can capture your attention, isn't it.  Lawnmowers powering their way over back and front yards is a regular occurrence in NZ, and most other places around the globe I presume.  You hardly pay them any notice, except when you have to turn the telly up because the rip of the lawnmower right outside the lounge windows is disrupting you viewing pleasure or wayward blades of grass wind up in boot shaped splotches on the kitchen floor when the lawn mower pusher trudges his (or her) way indoors for a well earned glass of iced water.

The sight and sound of a loud, beaten up lawnmower that the Old Lawmower Club would probably be proud to give a home (I bet you didn't know there was an Old Lawnmower Club did you?), made me feel a little homesick when it arrived that day, a year ago.  Now, of course, the sound of the mower echoing between the compound walls affects me a little less emotionally though, some days, I wouldn't mind getting my hands on the thing and cutting a few strips in the lawn myself just to make me feel normal again in this, oft times, surreal country.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

That Passport Is Mine, Thanks

Travelling to other countries in the northern hemisphere is one of the perks of living in Saudi Arabia, especially for we antipodeans from New Zealand who were bought up so far from the rest of the world.  When we expat friends get together chatter often turns to places we have been and places we are planning to go.  If nurses are in the group discussion invariably turns to the added difficulties of planning trips because as part of the vacation application process, they have to ask to be given back their passports.  In Saudi, employers, aka sponsors, keep employee passports.

Apparently there is no Saudi law that says employees have to hand over their passports to their sponsors, which makes the practice not only a human rights violation but also illegal.  Yet it is accepted common practice.

Protecting Investments
The sponsors claim they keep passports to protect their 'investment'.  They somehow believe that holding passports will prevent their employees from running away.  One has to wonder why an employee would want to run away from his work place?  And where the heck would they run too?  Certainly they can't go home.  Saudi is the only country I know of that you can't get into without an entry visa, nor can you leave it without an exit visa, both of which your sponsor has to agree to have issued.

In reality, the keeping of passports by most sponsors is little more than a way for them to maintain control over employees.  Usually control is via unscrupulous means - largely bribery, both monetary and mental or emotional, and sometimes through physical abuse.

The Saudi rational is a stupid and baseless claim because a worker can go to his embassy and get a new passport issued without needing any other documentation.  All the embassies here are well aware  how badly treated many workers are in this country.  It's a pity they don't, or can't, do more about it.  The Saudi sponsor is simply hoping workers are not au fait with their working, human or civil rights - and many of them aren't when they first arrive - that's why they still demand the keeping of passports.

If Saudi sponsors really wanted to protect their 'investments', they'd be nicer to them.

Good Sponsors and A'holes
In my mind there are two types of sponsors - Real and Fake.  There are also three sub-categories of sponsor - Good, Bad and Downright A'hole.  Every sponsor relies on an agent located in the workers home countries to find, and sign up, the employees.  From what I've heard, agents have two classes - Greedy and Greedy A'hole.

Real Sponsors and Key Holding Henchmen
Real sponsors actually do need workers and go through the legal process to obtain them, which along the way does require them to pay fees and things to have their workers bought over here.  The Real Good sponsors will treat their employees well - paying them on time, not extorting money out of them, not flogging them with unreasonable demands re: work hours, and adhering to contract terms regarding benefits and vacations and and so on.  Why they keep the passports in this case is beyond me.  Perhaps they think it will make them work harder?  (Quite frankly, if I knew a boss was going to make it ultra-hard for me to go home and see the fams on a regular basis, I'd slow my work rate to the bare minimum.  Wouldn't you?)

Often times, especially for larger companies, once the worker lands, it is not the sponsors themselves who deal directly with the workers but administrators employed by the sponsor.  Suffice to say, their role can really go to their heads and quite often it is this over-inflated ego sitting at an office desk that can stuff up a workers life.

For example, nurses have told us that if they have a holiday planned getting their passport back isn't usually a problem provided the man holding the key to the cupboard storing all passports isn't away sick or on holiday himself the day a nurse is allowed to collect it.  (It seems worker's passports are held in such low regard by companies they aren't even kept in a metal safe for safe keeping.  Just a cupboard that can be burnt to the ground with all its contents if there ever was a fire.)

Yes, the employers and their Key Holding sidekicks are such control freaks that they like to make employees wait till the very last minute before giving them their passport.  (At least the Key Holders at the hospitals our nurse friends work at are like that).   Of course, nurses aren't just given their passport.  No, to get it they have to hand over their iqama, or residency card.  (The iqama states who you are, who your sponsor is and is required identification for expats residing in the country that you are expected to carry on your person at all times).  On your return from holiday, the nurse goes back to Mr Key Holder, hands over the passport and he gives back the iqama.

If Mr Key Holder is away the day the nurse is permitted to collect her passport (and yes, they can be away the day that's been organised to go see them) the nurse can find herself in a bit of a pickle.  Being Key Holder is a powerful position.  Arabs don't really like sharing their power with anyone else so, generally speaking, there really is only one key holder.   And according to the peeps we know, their Key Holders don't give a rats bottom if they bugger up someone else's vacation plans by not handing The Key to a proxy Key Holder when he (or she) is going to be absent from the work place for a while.   We've had more than one nurse friend panicking about what to do if Mr Key Holder doesn't get back into the office on time for them to make it to their booked flight.

Bad To The Core Sponsors
The Real Bad sponsors can really be bad to the core.  These type may not give a shit what lies the agents say to trick workers over here. They don't care that A'hole agents are preying on the sad and desperate situation of the disadvantaged, lying about absolutely everything and charging unsuspecting, naive families a fortune for the mistake of dealing with them.  I've heard workers say things like, 'I finished my hospitality study and was told by the agent I'd be working in hotel management, but instead I'm working as a waiter and have another five years before I will have paid back the sponsor what he says I owe him so I can get out of here!'

This type of sponsor feels he is owed by the employee.  He wants to squeeze as many hours work out of his worker as possible or else he doesn't think he's getting value for money.  From the accounts of workers who are stuck in this situation, (and if you talk to enough workers they don't hold back telling you), these sponsors tend not to pay on time (if at all), they expect you to work unreasonably long hours day and night doing things you never signed up for, they certainly don't think you deserve to go home for any reason and they do believe they own you.  Stories abound from this group of employee who hail largely from the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa or Philipines, about not getting home for two to three years or more, partly because the wages suck and it takes that long to save up any cash, but also because the sponsor holds on to their passport and won't give it back.

Take our taxi driver for example.  He wanted to go home for his wedding and had given his sponsor plenty of advance notice about his upcoming nuptials but he had to keep putting the date off for weeks because the sponsor would not give him back his passport.  And one of our security guys has been here for five years and still hasn't been home to visit his family in Sudan.  Even after being told on one occasion "Book your ticket you can go, we'll give you your visa and passport", the company reneged and, as these guys don't get paid enough to buy the flash airline tickets where you can get refunds or change your flight dates, he lost his money and was very upset - but what could he do?

Fake Sponsors
Fake sponsors are those who are selling the 'Free Visa', a name that is completely contrary to the actual process of getting one because it can cost workers on average about 15,000 SAR to get.  As I understand it, to sell Free Visa's the sponsor first has to defraud the Ministry responsible for issuing visas by overstating the number of worker visa's his company requires.  Heck, I've heard some sponsors lie about actually having a company at all.  Once they get the visa's they engage a middle man to sell the visa's.

Many workers, those who have been around the traps a while, prefer the Free Visa.  It means when they get here they are pretty much their own boss.  All they have to do after buying the visa is find a job and ensure they pay their sponsor the regular monthly stipend he demands for getting them into the country.  To make sure they pay, he keeps their passports.  The Fake Good Sponsor (if there is such a thing) and his Middle Man agent are completely up front with the Fake Employee about the whole process and everybody is happy.

In the above case, once the worker finds a job even the Eventual Employer is happy because, one, he didn't have to pay to bring the employee in and, two, he can pay him less because he's here illegally and is happy to take what work he can get.  Loads of construction companies hire Free Visa workers because the blokes need the work and will do the hard labor jobs.  (It's common knowledge round here that you won't find a Saudi doing hard yakka work on a construction site these days.  That type of work is too far below them, though I think they're afraid of breaking a real sweat or getting blisters).

Keep Your Passport
When fellow expats contact me saying they are coming over I make a point of telling them, 'Keep your passport.  Don't let the employer take it.  It's not a legal requirement of your employment to have to part with your passport.'  Granted, most people who contact me via the blog are western blue collar types who wouldn't think twice about standing up for their rights.  I get the impression the laboring and service staff fraternity would be given utter shit for refusing to hand over their passport when asked.

Hubster has never handed over his passport to the employer.  Someone did ask once.  He said no.  When he says no he does it with this 'You want to mess with me, go ahead, make my day' kind of look.  The first time we did have to hand over passports to the admin guy to get our iqama's and exit visa's, we were a little nervous they may not come back.  Thankfully they did.   But no-one as ever asked for him to relinquish his passport to his employer for 'safe keeping' again.

Ka Kite,

Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Dairy Farm In The Desert

Al Marai is 'the largest integrated dairy foods company in the world'.  They also run the largest dairy farm in the desert.  (Al Safi used to have that honor, but I think they got tipped of the title).

When I first heard there was a diary farm just outside of Riyadh, I didn't believe it.  Who, in their right mind, would raise dairy cows in such a dry, barren place?  But, this is Saudi Arabia.  Anything is possible.   So, there are not one, but two, company's raising cows, south of Riyadh.   Al Marai, which apparently means 'green pastures' in Arabic, is the one we had the chance to visit.

The establishment of Al Marai is credited to two Irishmen (of course the Irish would think cows in the desert is a great idea!) and Prince Sultan bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer back in 1976.  Who knew that a crazy idea to process fresh milk and laban, and access to money, would result in the huge company that Al Marai is today!  Not only do they run one of the most technologically advanced farms in the world with umpteeen thousand cows heading off to milking four times a day,(not to mention the other 27,000 or so calves reared to join the milking herd) they also run a bakery, a poultry farm and are entering the infant nutrition market.

Visiting Al Marai Farm has been on my list of 'things to do in Riyadh' ever since I heard about it.  I wanted to know how well the cows were cared for, after all, the Saudi desert can hardly be considered the best place for bovine types to live happily.  I had visions of cows swooning in the summer heat even though Hubster assured me they probably lived indoors.  Hmmmm....

Not to mention cows need a lot of food and they drink gallons of water.  Everyday.  It's hard enough keeping the human populace fed and watered in Saudi, much less thirsty cattle.

Rumours regarding the water usage at Al Marai are the reason I first learned of the farm.  It popped into a conversation we were having with some other blokes about the issue of a desert nations water supply (or lack thereof).

Al Marai Farms (because they have six at last count) are located on the outskirts of Al Kharj.  Beneath Al Kharj are numerous underground waterways, and that most precious resource makes its way to the surface via natural, and man-made, wells, which is why the area was renowned for its gardening and greenery.  Rumour has it that the dairy farm depleted those water reserves, though al Marai disagrees.  I gotta say, having been around a cow or two on the farm and seen how much they drink,  the idea doesn't sound totally improbable, given the size of Al Marai's herds - over 135,000 Holstein cows, apparently.

A few of the girls, chasing after us as we drive past on the bus. 
Common sense wonders why huge camel milking farms haven't been set up.  After all, it's an animal adapted to the climate, there's plenty of them, the milk is very good for you and it tastes pretty good too. ( I've tried it a few times now, heading to the camel markets for camel milk).   Though if they'd done that, then I couldn't say I've been to a dairy farm in the desert, could I!

A number of Kiwi's work for Al Marai (being the fabulous farming nation we are) and every one of them has said what a great outfit Al Marai is and how well run they are and, more importantly, how well cared for and healthy the stock is.  With those kind of raps I was looking forward to this trip.

The American Community in Riyadh organised this get-together.  Hubster was dragged along complaining that he had lots of work to do. (We're still working on his work/life balance).  At the end of the day, he had to admit he enjoyed his time.

Our first stop was the bakery.
I hadn't realised Al Marai had a bakery, but they do.
They also had loads of give aways.  We do love give-aways.

Biscuits and bread were on the conveyor belts the day we visited.  I have to say, for a bakery there wasn't a flake of flour dropped on the floor anywhere.  The place is extremely clean, which is something the head honchos at al Marai pride themselves on.

On one side of the bakery blokes were prepping dough for one product...

... while down in front of us cookie dough was being cut into shapes and then run through an oven...

...and out the other side came bikkies, baked and ready to be packed.

While over yonder in another area bread was going up the runway.

It was all very interesting, and the kids had fun.  There was a whole corridor of things to play with.  But we had come to see cows, so back on the bus we hopped with as many free croissants, pastries and biscuits stuffed into my bag as I could get in anticipation of the next stop.

At the farm gate we were disinfected... the office door we were put into white coats...

...then off to the cowshed we headed.  Of course, they call the cowshed a parlour.  The best kept cows in the country wouldn't be milked in anything else, would they?

As we rounded the corner to the cowshed I did a deep inhale.  Ahhh, the smell of a milking shed!  It's hard to describe.  It's fresh milk, electric pumps and huge milk vats mixed with cow dung on concrete floors and a hint of earth carried in from the farm.  It brings back memories of carrying the billy down the dirt race, climbing over the cowshed railings and watching Mr Reeves and the boys washing udders, slapping on milking suction cups and hearing the regular pump and hiss as cows stand patiently (usually) waiting to be released.

The blokes working in the Milking Parlours at Al Marai were surrounded by interested spectators, eager to find out how this place ticks, asking numerous questions and taking even more pictures.  I was struck by how streamlined and automated the milking process was, and how clean, almost clinical, the shed  parlour was.

One thing was for sure, being fed top quality food (they told us it was top quality because they grow a lot of it), and milked so often each day, the udders on these girls were bursting.  As with everywhere else on the farm, everything is closely monitored.  Computers can ID each cow and tell how much milk they give.  These Holsteins can average 13,000 litres a year.  Given the human population being fed totals 26 million (or there abouts) the girls have to be kept at the pump!  I presume there's a knackers nearby for those who don't make the grade.  And no mention was made of cows kept on antibiotics for their health, but then, nobody asked.

After we'd had our fill of watching cows being milked, it was back onto the bus for a drive through the, I was going to say paddocks but these girls are housed under shelters.  Our trip was in January, which is not the hottest time of the year in Saudi, but it was still a warm day.  Even under mist sprayed and fanned shelters it must get terribly hot for the girls in the height of summer.

The farm is very organised with areas set aside for milking cows, cows to be impregnated, birthing cows - we passed a labouring cow with a couple of hooves sticking out her rear end who was being closely watched, from a reasonable distance, by one of the workers (and there were lots of Oh Wow from city folks).  It's all very organised.  Young calves, taken from their mothers soon after being born, were housed in rows and rows of individual calf pens.  Females to be reared for milking in one area while males, who aren't much use on a dairy farm, are kept off to the side.  As I wasn't keeping up with the commentary I'm not sure where the boys get sent.  That knackers down the road probably.

It's easy to feel sorry for something that looks so cute and you know should be frolicking in a grassy field with her mates, but the folks at Al Marai know what they are doing.  Al Marai is a huge business and it wouldn't be as successful if it's systems weren't top notch and those systems include maintaining a healthy herd.

After looking at the farm we were transported to a processing plant where, on one side, flavoured milk is packed into cartons and, on the other side, fruit juice is made.

Then, after taking a couple of selfies out front...

... it was back on the bus and I thought we were heading home, but no.  We were treated to the most fantastic feast.  That just topped our day.  If you get a chance to go have a squiz at Al Marai do so.  It's a fascinating place, especially if you're missing the farm.  You can either hook up with one of the expat groups going or, to organise your own tour of Al Marai's desert dairy farm and processing factories, visit the Al Marai website for all the contact details.

Ka Kite,

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