Monday, 29 July 2013

Ramadan Quiet in Riyadh

It's 6.20 p.m. and the usual hustle and bustle behind the hospital on King Fahad is non-existent. The Riyadh roads are almost empty. Nurses who, having finished their shift, are trudging to waiting buses are the only people about, save one expat Kiwi woman who's decided to walk home from the office.  The only cars are taxi drivers hunting for a fare in the quiet of Ramadan just before Iftar, cruising the street looking expectantly at the lone pedestrian, moving on slowly when ignored.

It's an eerie quiet.
Like a city on hold.
The quiet of Riyadh in Ramadan.

Sent from Kiwi's iPhone

New Taxis In Riyadh

There's a bunch of new taxi's cruising in Riyadh these days. I've caught a few. The smell of plasticky newness hangs in the cars internal air. And plastic still covers their seats.

Most of the cars are Hyundai's. They are a pleasure to ride in because the drivers, happy to have a brand spanking new car, drive them carefully wanting to preserve their newness.

Mr Noor tells me that it is law that taxi companies must renew their cars every five years, and apparently that time has come. Mr Noor is waiting eagerly for his new taxi. So am I. His current vehicle, the one he was handed on his return from Pakistan, is looking a bit jaded on Riyadh streets.

Sent from Kiwi while she's out and about.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Photographs of Saudi Arabia

What should I do with the hundreds of photographs of Saudi Arabia that I have on my computer?

There are so many things we have seen and done and so many snapshots that have been taken on my point and shoot Canon camera with the intention of publishing it all on my Kiwi In Saudi blog - well, the best shots anyway which, given my complete amateur photographic skills, wouldn't win any prizes.

There's our trips to RawDhat Khuraim and the qahwah shared with the local people we've met as they picnic next to pools left by rainy days.  There's the Quad Biking with friends, the Bar-B-Q and dancing in the desert with Mr Noor and his fellow taxi drivers, the desert camping with Saudi whanau, the numerous photo's of food, sunsets at the camel trail, Saudi national day pictures, motorbike rides into the yonder, Safari Resort visits, following hand drawn maps to find motorcycle parts hidden in back alleys and so much more.

All of these were taken with the intention of showing people where and how we spend our time in this intriguing desert city.  If I was organised I'd update my blog as soon as I get home from an outing with my camera. Unfortunately I wasn't blessed with a highly disciplined gene.  I got the 'she'll be right, lets leave that till another day' chromosomes.

I admit I started a site called 'Snapshots of Saudi', but it fell by the wayside because the photo's took ages to load, which drove me nuts, plus one Saudi blog is enough at this point and quite frankly, I'm lazy.  Then someone suggested Flickr.  So I started a Kiwi In Saudi Flickr site but I don't get to it as often as I imagined I would.  Plus load times are slow on that as well and I don't have time for SLOW on the internet.  Slow internet creates a feral animal that throws her head back and clenches her hands into witchy claws while making guttural, growly noises.  I know you know what I mean!

Anyway, when I do get back to the computer and scroll through the myriad of pictures currently taking up space on my laptop and I feel slightly overwhelmed and am left wondering, What the heck shall I do with all the photographs of our life in Saudi Arabia?

Ka Kite,

The Secondhand Motorbike Warehouse.

So, one day a bloke who worked at our coffee shop and who rode a scooter to work like one of these...

...told Hubster and Mr Finland that he knew a warehouse that sold second hand motorbikes.  Big ones.  Like these...

Hubster and Mr Finland, being men who love bikes, were intrigued.
Are you sure? They said.
Oh yes, Bloke said.
Where is it? They said.
It's a long way, Bloke said.  It too hard to explain.
Draw us a map, They said.  So he did.  This is it.

Deciphering this map took days, Nay weeks.  Even after asking The Bloke more than once to explain his cryptic graphic, H & Mr F were still not sure they exactly understood, possibly owing to The Bloke's accented English, delivered in rushed spurts accompanied by excited gesticulating.

The map was given to Mr Noor, our reliable and experienced taxi driver, as well as repeating what we felt were pertinent pieces taken from The Blokes verbal instructions.  OK says Mr Noor.  I think I know, and off we set.

We wound up driving through a whole bunch of warehouses, out past a whole bunch of narrow, crowded, backwater streets, whose corrugated iron doors were open so we could peer inside as we slid on past.  There were carpet warehouses, furniture warehouses and whiteware warehouses.  The warehouse with the scooters at the door got us excited till we went in to find nothing but scooters.

Eventually, Mr Noor asked a couple of blokes who seemed to be doing very little at all standing outside their warehouse, if they knew the place we were looking for.  They directed us down the lane and round the corner and we wound up here...

To this day I doubt we were in the right place.  If we were, The Bloke had failed to tell us that most of the bikes were in bits.  Obviously his version of secondhand differed ever so slightly, from ours.  By the looks of things, the men working at this warehouse (though they stopped working and spent more time qawking when we rocked up) pulled bikes to pieces and, occasionally, put a few back together again.  We found a couple that looked in OK nick.  This one...

... and this pink off roader that I took a fancy too purely because of its girly color.  (On further inspection Hubster decided it was 'a bit rough' which is his nice way of saying 'no way'.  As he has taken apart, and put back together, a number of bikes in his relatively short life, I defer to his better judgement in all bike matters).

We had enough of a roam around to decide that, if we ever needed spare parts this might be the place to come, but for today it was not what we had in mind given The Blokes excited descriptions and gesticulations.

So that our journey would not be completely wasted, we asked Mr Noor if he knew a place that sold motorbike batteries as the one on Hubsters Vintage Californian Motoguzzi had given up the ghost.  Noor guided the taxi back through the narrow, crowded, backwater streets to find such a place.  By the looks of the looks we were getting in these streets, white folks and La Femmes are not frequent visitors to the Riyadh boondocks.

While waiting to be served at the Battery Shop we eventually found carrying the type of battery required, Mr Finland took the downtime as an opportunity to pose... He's like that.

We all pulled a few faces, and stepped back a few paces, as we watched The Battery Shop guy prep the battery - pouring acid and banging contacts with a little mallet all the while talking (quite loudly as I have gleaned Arabs are wont to do) with a phone pressed between shoulder and ear.  Hubster happened to mention something about New Zealand having all sorts of Health and Safety issues with regard to prepping batteries while I hoped not to see or smell acid burnt flesh.  However, The Battery Shop guy was obviously quite adept at this activity (he  probably got that way from working in a shop selling batteries) and nothing untoward happened.

I'm not sure what Hubster and Mr Finland said to The Bloke about the secondhand motorbike warehouse he'd sent us to when he was seen again at the coffee shop, but I believe it went something along the lines of, 'Huge waste of time'.  I was not so harsh on The Bloke as, every now and then, he'd give me his key so I could nip about the place on his scooter.

Ka Kite,

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Riyadh Airport Taxi Shinanigans

Have you heard the latest taxi shinanigans at the Riyadh airport?
An Irish friend who recently flew in told us this one.

Basically, a Saudi Taxi driver will, upon capturing an unsuspecting traveler in the car, ask for a ridiculous amount of fare to be paid in advance.  The passenger will likely hand over the cash (unless he's averse to being ripped off, in which case he will go find another taxi).

The Saudi will then drive about two miles down the road and pull over where another taxi, driven by a non-Saudi is waiting.  The passenger will then be transferred, whether he wants to or not, to the waiting taxi.
The Saudi driver will hand a few SAR to the new driver, pocket the rest of the cash, then turn around and return to the airport.

Why, you may ask, does the non-Saudi driver wait down the road?  Why not just pick up a passenger at the airport?  Because non-Saudi drivers are not allowed to pick up passengers at the airport, that is only the realm of Saudi drivers which means that any trips non-Saudi taxi's make out to the airport are dry runs back to the city.

I guess someone figured this latest idea was a win-win for all concerned.
- Saudi taxi driver does least work and gets reasonable pay.
- Non-Saudi does most work, gets paid.
- Passenger gets delivered.

Do you think this entrepreneurial?
Or is this yet another good reason to regulate taxi companies in Saudi Arabia?

Ka Kite,

Friday, 19 July 2013

Saudi Retail: Big Boys v The Corner Store

An article I was reading recently in  MEED, Middle East Business Intelligence, about the Saudi retail sector made me ponder about the possible demise of the corner store.  It wasn't the article itself that caused the ponderance.  It was the information gleaned from it in combination with and a piece in the Arab News, read not 15 minutes later, that got me thinking.

Not being a business wiz I have no idea if these two concepts are as connected as I thought (the only reason I was scanning through these articles was because they were on the coffee table of the waiting room I was lounging around in) but here is what sprang to mind...

Basically the MEED article said something along the lines that, currently, Saudi retail is mostly driven by the small corner store operation and there is lots of room for consolidation.

If you're one of the Big Boys I guess there's nothing wrong with that idea.  In theory, closing your small operations in preference for bigger 'everything under one roof' shopping barns helps reduce costs and supposedly gives the consumer better prices due to the Big Boys buying power.

However, consolidation also, unfortunately, gets rid of the small, local 'corner store', taking away the shop owners (and highly likely, their families) livelihood and tends to help the rich get richer, leaving the little guy wondering WTF!  Let's face it, that is exactly what has happened everywhere else around the world and quite frankly, down in Kiwiland, it hasn't been a good thing.  (I wonder how you say WTF! in Arabic?).

The piece I read in the Arab News was about Saudi Arabia's high unemployment and possible strategies for dealing with it.  The hierarchy in Saudi have, to paraphrase the article, made the following call to the local masses - 'Start your own business!  Don't wait for cushy government jobs or highly competitive private sector employment.  Get out there and be independent business owners'.  And to help them out the Government is cleaning expats out of the corner stores so that young, motivated, hard working, business savvy yet currently unemployed Saudi's can take their places.

The articles made me wonder who's going to come out on top in Saudi retail.  The Big Boys.  Or the independent business owner operating the local store.

Given that Saudi seems to be following global patterns in its 'westernisation' and that only a small few hold the reigns to, well, everything (and seem to like it that way), I don't hold out high hopes for any future independent Saudi business owner.

That's what I was pondering that day in the office.
Of course, if I'm way off base, please enlighten me.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Airport Farewell

It's 7a.m. The taxi pulls in beside the path and I take a deep breath to prepare for the chaos so common at the international terminal that makes up Riyadh airport.

Sweet wrappers litter the curb and men of South Asian extraction lie about on a number of boxes piled atop the pavement.  It occurs to me, in that fleeting half thought lost in the mists of time sort of way, that there aren't as many people or boxes as usual, perhaps because of the time of day.  I pay the driver and the men stare at the western woman exiting the taxi, then turn away when her husband jumps out of the car too and grabs the bags out of the boot.

I'm prepared to wave off the men in green who usually run up too close for my comfort, jabbering and pointing in the direction of my suitcase wanting to take it from me and wheel it into the terminal.  Their presence is only useful for people who are too pathetic to wheel their own luggage, or those who have packed their bags to over-bulging, overweight and can't lift them onto the scanner.  Today though, there are no Green Men and it starts to sink in, as I look up and down the terminal entrance exhaling a pent up breath, that the airport is unusually quiet this morning.

The doors to the terminal stand closed, uninviting, their frosted panes covered in tattered, aging stickers warning non-travelers to stay outside.  Another deep breath is consciously taken before heading through the doors that, for all their visual unpleasantness, slide quietly and smoothly open.

Inside I stop and look around in surprise.  The airport is empty.  No lines of worker expats waiting to be allowed to check in, their plastic wrapped or rope tied belongings piled high beside them.  No throngs of black abaya's clustered around white thobes.  I look at my husband who, still in his own 'Riyadh Airport Attack' mode, is striding over toward the baggage scanning.  I quick march to keep up.

I thought there would be hordes of illegal expats trying to get home - that's the impression all the newspaper reports have been giving of late. Perhaps the new extension to 'The Grace Period' has eased their panicked exit from the country.  Or perhaps the early days of Ramadan has kept everyone at home.

With so few people traveling, check-in is quick and easy before lining up in front of the customs booths.   An Indonesian maid is being handed her tickets by a bearded Saudi man and is directed to follow us in the queue.  Her Bearded Saudi then stands by one of the large silver pillars disappearing into the high terminal ceiling, watching as the line inches towards the customs desk and, every now and then, rearranging his headware.

I point him out to my husband.  Whispering in hushed, manly tones he tells me that Saudi Sponsors must make sure their charge leaves the country without any issues when on Final Exit, which requires personally delivering them to the airport and watching till they are gone.  A thin smile tugs at one corner of my mouth as I lose myself in imagining Saudi Sponsors as comic characters running to and from the airport to farewell the thousands of expats who have decided to leave recently.

 The line moves forcing me out of my own head and, once we have shuffled forward, I turn to take another look at  theBearded Saudi waiting patiently.  He doesn't look like the Saudi Sponsor in my imagination.  His demeanor is quiet, calm.  He makes me wonder when our Final Exit day will come and who will escort us.

Two more maids are soon ushered into the queue, their Saudi's not as as reserved as the first, making a rowdy show of handing over tickets and papers.  The newly arrived Saudi's then speak to one of the airport security men who are directing passengers, pointing out the two maids and obviously asking the guard to keep an eye on the women who are looking lost and overwhelmed from too much fuss and too many instructions in an unfamiliar place.

Then the Saudi's disappear. I search the near empty terminal to see where they have positioned themselves, like the first Saudi, but they are nowhere to be seen.  'Perhaps these women aren't on final exit', my husband responds to the question in my raised eyebrows.  Or perhaps the Saudi still standing by the terminal pillar takes his role more seriously than the showy two who are not seen again.

A conversation comes to mind between myself and a friend, a Muslim woman, who, on her husband accepting a job in what they believed to be the exalted home of Islam, was so excited.  Once they arrived, however, their excitement was replaced with a disappointed at the reality of the place.  People are people, I remember telling her.  Everywhere.  Including Saudi Arabia.  It didn't help her.  She remained disappointed and, hardly surprising, her husband soon found another job, in another country.

At the customs counter our visa's are checked and our passports stamped.  I load my hand luggage onto the second baggage scanner and walk through the thick curtains that hide the area for scanning ladies, where I'm wanded and directed out the other side.  My husband has his satchel over his shoulder and is waiting for me.  As I pick up my belongings, the  Indonesian maid who was behind us in the queue is loading her bags on to the scanner.  I look over toward the silver pillar.  Her Bearded Saudi has gone.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Sighting the Ramadan Crescent Moon

Monday evening all eyes will be on the Saudi sky - well, Muslim eyes anyway, attempting to spot the crescent moon signifying the start of Ramadan.

We were talking last night about the need to sight the moon when, after centuries of astrological study and using latest technology, it should be possible to pinpoint exactly when the moon in its crescent form will appear over the horizon after the sun has set.

But the moon must be sighted.
Actually seen.
Not imagined behind a cloud.
Whether by the naked eye or through binoculars (I have no idea if binoculars were around in the early Islamic days, though it is perfectly acceptable to use them now).

The latest weather forecast is a bit of a worry though.  Dust storms for the next three days might make spotting anything in the sky a bit difficult.

Hubster and I will be staying in Riyadh for most of Ramadan.  Many expats choose to leave the country when Ramadan is imminent.  Granted, it can be tough for non-Muslims who remain here as we're expected to be respectful of the Holy Month and implement a number of changes to the our daily routines and behaviors so as not to offend.

To be honest, the only thing that is really challenging for this non-Muslim is remembering not to eat or drink anything, not even water, when out in public during daylight hours.  Not that there is any reason to be out and about during the day - almost everything is closed or on an extreme go slow.  It's common knowledge among expats to get all your visa applications lodged, and returned, long before Ramadan.  Official working hours for the Public Sector this year are 10 a.m til 3 p.m, though in reality everybody considers those hours a guideline only.

As expats need to be mindful of their actions even in the workplace, Hubster usually takes a packed lunch to work and eats discreetly behind closed doors.  Restaurants are closed during the day, though supermarkets open for a few daylight hours so families can get the shopping done in preparation for the long awaited evening meal.

The first Ramadan I was here our compound cafe closed out of respect, the sign taped to the door said, for Ramadan.  It didn't really bother me, I have a Nespresso at home.  The other non-Muslims, however, weren't very impressed.  After all, they said, we live in this space to deliberately separate ourselves from the 'craziness' outside these walls.  So, ever since, our cafe has been open during Ramadan and I admit to going there, though mostly to use the free WiFi.

Private Sector companies, if they can, change their operating hours completely.  Nighttime simply becomes daytime.  For example, at the ladies gym down the road the Ramadan hours are 9 p.m. - 2 a.m.  I have no idea who actually goes to the gym at those hours.  I certainly don't!  (Most gyms with annual subscriptions offer one month free, with Ramadan in mind).  

Riyadh city comes alive in the evening after Iftar when families are together, gifts are exchanged, prayers are said and the fast is broken.  And the food....Most hotels put on huge Iftar feasts every night for an entire month and if you want to go, it pays to book!
All Malls open after Iftar too and, if you go up to the Globe in Faisaliah or the Sky Bridge in Al Mamlaka Tower, you can watch the constant, unbroken chain of headlights backed up on every road into town as people emerge from their homes to enjoy the night life of Riyadh, such that it is.  

Mosques also ramp up their activity during Ramadan as the faithful gather to hear Imams read the Quran in its entirety over the course of the month.  

If you're a Muslim, no doubt Saudi Arabia during Ramadan is a great place to be.  In fact, the non-Saudi Muslims I know love being in Saudi for Ramadan, not because they are particularly pious, but because Saudi has shorter daylight hours so they aren't fasting as long as Muslims in say, the UK.  Plus the entire country stops for Ramadan which is extremely supportive, as opposed to other countries who couldn't give two hoots about your fasting, or the temptation to eat that is everywhere, and where forgiveness for your exhaustion and crankiness due to hunger is unlikely to be forthcoming.  

Signs for Ramadan started appearing about town a couple of weeks ago.  This one at Tamimi was one of the first.  No doubt, when that crescent moon makes its appearance on the Saudi horizon many a Ramadan Kareem will be said.

Ka Kite,

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Mr Finland

Mr Finland.
He has been part of our lives for over three years.
His love of sight seeing in Saudi was sparked by a couple of Kiwi expats who lived downstairs and who, taking advantage of his boredom on Saudi weekends, often easily talked him into driving miles into the desert to suss out Saudi sites of interest.

By the time he left he was a lover of things Lebonese (especially big watches), quality cigars, El Chico's Mexican diner and an appreciator of E-kyptions, (No amount of effort got him to change that pronunciation).  Mr Finland will be sadly missed by Hubster and I.  And maybe Florian and Abdullah.  And possibly Sweet Cheeks.

Mr Finland has gone to back to rule his Kingdom on Suomenlinna, well has much of it as his wife will let him anyway.  Here's a few pics of our life and times with Mr Finland.

The Al Kharj Trip

The Sneaking Into Dilapidated Mud Village Behind the Police Station

The Wadi Picnic

Our Dirab Golf Excursions

Fabulous Hospitality in Mr Finland's Homeland Trip.

Trips To Random Places Within Riyadh where posing came naturally.

Numerous trips to the Harley Davidson Shop on the Northern Ring Road

The Pools of Sha'Hib Luha Trip

The Quad Biking In The Red Sands

The Trip To Find The Camel Trail

The Search for The Secondhand Motorbike Souq

Numerous walks down Tahalia St, usually to El Chico's.

The Trip to Ushaiger Village

The Trip to See Rock Art

And the numerous motorbike rides.

Mr Finland has left behind him a coffee shop that isn't the same now he's not in the prime realty spot, a number of Swedish shirts the maintenance guys are wearing around the compound, residents who have more food now Mr Finland (a.k.a the Stray Cat) no longer turns up at dinner time and a mixed nationality group of expats who can almost sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Finnish.

We will miss you Mr Finland.
Enjoy your time at home until your next big move.

Ka Kite,

Monday, 1 July 2013

No More Maids On Our Compound

Hubster received this message regarding the employment of maids from our compound manager and passed the information to me.  Not that I needed to know, we don't have a maid.  We live in a one bedroom apartment that I am quite capable of keeping clean myself.

However, the response to the notice from others in the compound, who are largely not western, was 'What are we going to do now?' and 'How does the management intend to help everybody out with this situation'.

The management is contemplating their options.

Having a live-in maid, who is also expected to be responsible for the children on top of her cleaning and cooking chores, seems to be considered essential in this county.  Almost like having air con and a frij.

Photo credit:

Expat discussions on the topic of 'Arabs and maids' (because its not just Saudi families who must have one) usually contain a hint of disdain along with the 'we raised three kids AND did our own cooking and cleaning WHILE holding down a full time job.  Why can't they!'  argument.

It actually doesn't bother me that people have maids.  After all, haven't you ever dreamed of winning Lotto.  I bet a housemaid was on the 'will get myself one of those' Lotto Winning List.  It was on mine.  In my Lotto Dreams I'd have a housemaid, a personal chef, a gardener, a chauffeur, an on call baby-sitter and a palace to house us all.  Hubster would have a king size garage with a Harley and a Ferrari.  He's so easy to please.  I guess folks in Saudi are just living the Lotto Dream.  Though the dream ought to stop at letting an unqualified stranger raise your children.  (Interestingly, I never had a nanny in my Lotto Dreams, just a baby-sitter to look after the kids on those evenings when The Husband and I flew our private jet to Paris for romantic nights out at top French restaurants).

What gets me about Saudi Arabia, is families using the maid to be chief cook, cleaner and child minder.  In my mind, maids assist with cooking and cleaning, nanny's are child minders and should be suitably qualified.

I know Saudi gets dusty and it's a pain in the derriere to have to dust everything every couple of days (OK, so sometimes I only make it round with the duster once a week), so, OK, if you live in a big villa it's nice to be able to palm that job on to someone else.  But I also know that it would annoy the heck out of me to have someone else who is not family living in my home 24/7.  I like to roam around our flat in my undies and so does Hubster.  (What a vision that is!)  In the neck of the woods where I live, young families with only one child and two bedroom apartments tend to have live-in maids!  To me, that would constitute over-crowding of my personal space.  I imagine the maids feel the same way.

It was bad enough having Hubster's Magic Maid turn up once a fortnight to clean our unit when I first arrived in Saudi. (Hubster was living here for 18 months before I made it into the country and he hired her because he was far to busy working to look after the home).  I wasn't sure where to put myself when she was on site.  And advice of friends to stay and watch her clean was, I decided, just crazy talk.  Why the hell would I sit on my couch to watch her clean?  Coffee out was always on my calendar when the Magic Maid called round.  We kept her services for a couple of months till I decided it was ridiculous that I had spare time all day, every day and we had a cleaning maid.

Perhaps it might be time for a whole population of people to have a slight shift in attitude towards 'the neeeed' for a live-in housemaid in Saudi.  Perhaps an astute, motivated person can start a 'Day Maid' service like we used in Australia.

In Oz, Hubster was studying full-time, I was working full-time and the kids were teenagers with school, after-school jobs, after school sport training and weekend sport.  In short, we were all busy.  Our house had an en-suite for Hubster and I, and a main bathroom and toilet for the kids.  As usual, the kids were given a job roster and expected to assist with household chores and keep their own spaces clean - including their bathroom and toilet  Assisting with chores was great.  Keeping their bathroom and toilet clean - well, that required This Mother being on their case.  They got a bollocking one day when, in desperation, This Mother ran into the Their Toilet and, upon seeing the state of it all greeny brown and dirty, her desperation took fright and left.  It was a great example of distraction psychology.

One day, being tired of my 'Dragon Mother on Bathroom Cleaning Mission' role, I sat the kids down (the 'kids' were 18, 16 and 15) and we discussed the problem, eventually nutting out a solution.

They hired a cleaner.
They also paid for her.

I contributed a small amount because I figured if a cleaner was coming once a fortnight I might as well have her do over the kitchen. (Frij and oven cleaning are a real procrastination points for me.)  The stipulation was, if they failed to have the envelope with the cleaners pay on the bookshelf by the door the morning she (her name was Shirley) was due, they were back to cleaning their own bathroom and toilet.  The envelope was never missing.

Yes, a well run day cleaning service might be a good business idea for Saudi because the idea of 'No More Maids' is upsetting a number of people I know, but the cost and responsibilities of sponsoring someone, which would be the legal way of getting your live in maid, aren't making them happy either.

Ka Kite,

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