Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Breaking News: Riyadh Woman Caught Driving

Who says you don't get hot news scoops from The Veeds of Arabia blog?

VOA News
Dec. 23, 2009, Riyadh, KSA
— A woman was stopped for driving a car here yesterday, according to a reliable eyewitness who viewed the incident outside the Ministry of the Interior on King Fahd Road.

According to our exclusive source the incident occurred on December 22. The woman, estimated to be approximately 35 and wearing Western-style clothing without an abaya, was apprehended while driving a green car.

The witness, a Saudi veterinarian driving behind, speculated that the woman is most likely a newcomer, possibly working at either the nearby King Faisal Specialized Hospital or a neighboring dental clinic. The Intercontinental Hotel is also nearby. It is believed that the woman was cautioned and let go without further punishment.


Friday, December 4, 2009

A trip to the mini-mart

The great thing about the mini-marts -- or what I call a mini-mart; they fancy themselves "Super Markets" -- in the ethnic Malaz district of central Riyadh is that they're situated about every block or so. Locally known as a bakkala, the mini mart is essentially just a step up from a souq (which you may spell as you please).

Now, don't be looking for no fancy cheeses, chunky chicken & vegetable soup, fresh strawberries or gourmet coffee.

But if you're in need of milk, OJ, a cold Barbican apple beverage, ice cream, electrical outlet adaptor, crackers, one of three kinds of cereal or household cleaning products, this is the place to go.

Don't need a full dozen eggs? Just pick 'em out yourself and load up an egg tray with what you need.
No need to bother with your ATM card either. These are strictly cash and carry Mom & Pop operations. Well, Pop anyway.

And while the clerk is ringing up your purchase, don't be surprised if another customer simply comes up, places his stuff on what passes for a counter and forks over some riyals. Line queueing is not a highly practiced custom in the kingdom.

(I would like to take this moment to thank the proprietor of this shop for kindly allowing me to take pictures inside and out.)
The first thing you notice, of course, is the cramped quarters with one-person-at-a-time aisles -- and sometimes apparently no-person-at-a-time -- and goods stacked up to the ceiling.

But here, let me shut up for a minute while you browse...

One of the fun things about shopping at the mini-mart is when you come to the end of an aisle and see that there's barely room to make the turn.

Yes, that is a right turn you see below.

Unlike an American convenience store, the mini-marts here are relatively inexpensive. But, like a Circle K or 7-11, they're easy-in/easy-out.

I'm not quite sure how the clerk keeps track of what the various customers have brought, since the counter is clogged with every imaginable gimcrack and gewgaw, rendering it literally invisible.

So picture our genial host below with, say, three customers all piling their goods up on the several-layers-deep counter area and trying to make change for them all.

This is aided a bit by the fact that there are, practically speaking, no coins to deal with in Saudi Arabia. It's all paper money in 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 riyal denominations*. (One riyal = about US $0.27) If by some inadvertent stroke of chance you happen to get a product priced in a fraction of a riyal, the clerk is likely to simply hand you a pack of gum as your change. But this is a rare occurrence in any store since products are invariably priced in whole denominations. And since there is no sales tax, what you see on the price tag is what you pay.

I refused the gum one day and the owner reluctantly dug into his cash drawer and proffered a couple quarter-riyal coins ("halalahs"**). I really just wanted to see if there even is such a thing.

Not all mini-marts offer exactly the same goods. At some you can get light bulbs, others offer mobile phone re-charging cards (mobile phone service is generally pre-paid on an as-needed basis) and still others have household knicknacks.

And, like every other store in the kingdom, they're closed for prayer times so it's a good idea to check your mobile phone prayer time scheduler before you head out for a milk run.
*Technically there are also 20-riyal notes, but I've never seen one.
Update: I have since come into possesion of a few. Unfortunately, they leave my pocket almost as soon as they enter.
** One halalah is a hundredth of a riyal. "petrol" runs about 60 halalahs/liter (including full-service pumping), which I reckon works out to about 60 cents/gal -- but then, I've never been known for my math.
Originally published 12/24/09; updated 1/22/10 with various notes.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Don’t try this at home

I’m not saying this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

On the other hand, it’s certainly not up there with remembering the principal products of Brazil in 4th grade or deciding not to see if my dad’s Lincoln Continental could do 120 mph on a Pennsylvania country road.

Picture the scene.

I’m walking down a side street from my apartment in an ethnic neighborhood in central Riyadh heading to a small laundry run by a Bangladeshi. It’s about 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon. I’m holding three sizeable bags of laundry ranging from bedsheets to shirts, so picture the bags pretty full and formless.

About a block and half away I see an SUV fishtailing out of a parking spot, or maybe another side street, and heading in my direction.

Now, I’m not sure I can explain why the next thing happened. Let’s just say that having been here approximately two months now, I’m feeling like I have certain rights to walk safely down the street like any other resident. Let’s also say I was in a cranky mood and hadn’t had my afternoon nap.

What I do is I step out in the middle of the street and start waving my laundry bags in the air…at the approaching SUV driver.

In truth, unlike certain governments who don’t like to see major industries fail, I cannot say I had a bail out plan. All I know is that I’m waving these three white plastic bags and yelling down the street some kind of gibberish like “Hey, what are you doing driving like that, you madman!” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a question so I’m not going to bother putting the correct punctuation there.

I see the black SUV coming toward me, but he’s stopped fishtailing and the next thing I know is…he’s come to a stop, about three-quarters of a block away.In my mind’s eye of memory, I believe I saw the vehicle as though it were out of some Ferdinand the Bull episode, with the SUV sort of paused, snorting, preparing to disembowel me and leave bedclothes and button-down shirts scattered amongst the stray cats and poorly parked cars.

I am now replaying that memory as a reality check to see if what happened next really happened. I’m pretty sure of it.

What happened was that the driver executed a neat right-hand turn, slowing down as he did so, smiled and…flashed me the Hawaiian “hang loose” gesture.

I could see that it was a 20-something Saudi in Western-style dress—that’s how close I was.

I flashed him a hang-loose in return and off he went.

I guess the laundry is mightier than the sword.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Wipers up!

As I meander up the various side streets of Riyadh each day from the Fortress of Solitude where I live to the Institute where I teach, I’ve been noticing an awful lot of cars with their windshield wipers up, or rather, one wiper blade up.

Then suddenly, it came to me.

In a place like Riyadh, which is essentially a city of 5+ million people in the middle of a bunch of sand, car washing is second only to feet washing (OK...and making U-turns).

Consequently, there’s a sort of cottage industry of entrepreneurial car washers. A bunch of them hang out behind the Obeid Specialty Hospital but you can find them all through the neighborhoods.

I guess this won’t be much of a breaking news story to locals, but apparently the car washers lift the wiper blade up to signal to the owner that the car has been tended to.

Wiper up, car clean.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How about just saying "Hi"?

Allow me to step aside for a moment from the usual hard-hitting, ripped-from-the-headlines sort of concise and insightful reports you've come to expect from Veeds of Arabia -- oh, wait, that was a completely different place -- and extend an invitation to the variety of anonymous readers who regularly visit this site.

I know a teensy bit about you from the site-meter. For example, I know you're from Finland and The Netherlands and the U.S. and Canada and France and Germany and Saudi Arabia and Australia and a host of other far flung nations. But that's about it.

I'd love to at least know who you are. Why not say "hi"?

If you'd just as soon not broadcast yourself to the teeming millions, feel free to jot a note to me privately at:

Your secret identity is safe with me.


Veeds of Arabia
Your man in the sand

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Riyadh pedestrians need rearview mirrors

Why drive on the street when you can take the sidewalk?

1) Driver of SUV, having politely honked me out of the way, proceeds up the sidewalk to the intersection.

2) Driver pulls off the sidewalk, neatly bypassing a long line of traffic on King Abdul Aziz Rd.

3) Driver snags a parking spot at the corner, just barely clearing the intersection itself (but behind the crosswalk, which in Riyadh is mostly theoretical anyway)

Nice work...and it's only 7:15 a.m.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A long way to Tipperary...and Riyadh

I saw an ad on the Saudi Expat message board, illustrating the age-old copywriter’s maxim: “Spend 80 percent of your time on the headline, 20 percent on the copy.”

While this works better for ads than Internet message boards, a lot of time and trouble could have been saved if the writer would have spent a little more time thinking about his headline.

It goes:


The particular item that caught my eye was a printer/scanner/copier combo for a mere 100 riyals (about $26).

I called the number listed and the guy and I agreed that since I don’t have a car, he would meet me somewhere and we’d go to my place to fire up the system before purchase. He had all the cables and discs.

At the risk of revealing the Veeds Of Arabia super-secret Fortress of Solitude, I can say that it’s near several prominent city landmarks — to wit, Al Yamama Hotel, the King Abdul Aziz University Hospital and the Radisson Hotel. Cabbies all around town know at least one of these so I figured this guy would too.

We arranged to meet the next day at the Al Yamama. He would use his GPS to locate the hotel.

Now, I’m wary of GPS navigators but I’ve used them before and sometimes they work just fine. But sometimes all it takes is a wrong left turn to throw you off. Sometimes it’s simply a question of GIGO — Garbage In/Garbage Out.

We connect by cell phone as planned Sunday. He says it should take him about 30 minutes, but he’ll call when he’s near the hotel rendezvous.

The Al Yamama Hotel, once the jewel of Riyadh, has faded in its glory, but it still has excellent tennis courts, a big pool and some vestige of tainted elegance in its lobby. Most of all, it’s a well-known landmark in this part of the city and it’s a 7-minute walk from my apartment. I get a call from the guy — we’ll call him “Ramesh” — an hour later and he says he should be there in about 10 minutes. I hurry out the door and arrive 7 minutes later. No Ramesh.

The circumstances become a little cloudy in my head at this later point in time because there were numerous calls back and forth, using up my precious mobile phone minutes but, after all, Ramesh is going to the trouble of driving so I’m figuring it’s a fair trade-off.

Despite, or perhaps because of his GPS, he keeps getting lost. Finally, 40 minutes and a hotel lobby catnap later, there’s a final call: he’s now hopelessly lost and can we regroup tomorrow when he’s had a chance to study a map and check the three landmarks?

We can.

I’m savoring the addition of a scanner to my electronic arsenal at the Fortress and if I’ve learned anything in the Kingdom, it’s that nothing goes right the first time.

Monday comes bringing Ramesh’s call about 4 pm. He thinks he’s got it solved. I hand the phone over to a colleague who’s lived here for 10 years and knows the city well. He gives very clear directions and guidelines. He reports to me afterwards that it doesn’t sound like Ramesh knows where he is coming from.

Ramesh is now on his way to the Radisson Hotel, well-known as the former Hyatt and also as the headquarters for General Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War. I head over.

Ramesh’s next update comes 20 minutes later. Yes! He’s pulling in now and would I come outside so he can verify that he’s at the right place? We don’t see each other and our descriptions of the building don’t match. He concludes that his GPS has led him to the wrong Radisson. Grrrr. He will recalibrate and go the correct one.

Back inside to the lush lobby I think: Why not ask the reception desk for help?

The clerk confirms that the hotel is indeed on King Abdul Aziz Road, known as the Old Airport Road, etc. etc. I ask where the other Radisson is. He says, “There is no other Radisson, sir.”
Ramesh calls back and says he’s confused about the Radissons and why his GPS isn’t directing him correctly.

I estimate that counting yesterday’s driving and today’s he has now wandered aimlessly up and down various highways with a printer/scanner for which he will receive about $26 for about four hours work. The cost to me is mobile phone minutes and some time spent catnapping in hotel lobbies.

Our final conversation goes like this:

Him: “Ok, I must have gone to the wrong Radisson. I’ll have to recalculate my position and get to the other one.”
Me: “I just talked to the hotel clerk. He says there is only one Radisson in Riyadh.”
Him (pausing): “Riyadh?”
Me: “Yes, only one Radisson in Riyadh.”
Him: “I’m in Jeddah.”

See? It pays to pay attention to your headline.
Note: Riyadh and Jeddah are 525 miles apart, approximately the distance between Phoenix, Ariz. and Salt Lake City, Utah. It's a long long way to Tipperary too, I wonder if they have any scanners?

Photos by author.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pinned down at McDonald’s on the Muslim equivalent of Friday night

First off, as many of you no doubt know, Wednesday night in Saudi Arabia is the start of the weekend for Muslims, so my hiking buddy and I weren’t too worried about staying out and, in fact, were up for whatever fun a couple American guys on a tight budget in a fundamentalist country can have. The plan was to treat ourselves to McDonald’s and then hit a popular bookstore on what is known as “Pepsi Street” where women are known to gad about without head coverings.

We had also received text messages from a couple compatriots who had an expedition planned for one of Riyadh’s landmark sites, so we were figuring out how to plan our trip for an optimal mix of walking and cab rides.

Except…we hadn’t checked our cell phones for the evening prayer time.

Fortunately we had made it into McD’s in time, but halfway through our Filet o’ Fishes and fries, the manager came over and very politely indicated that it would be a wonderful thing if we would move to a particular dark corner not easily visible from outside…”in case the police see us.” It was actually quite a pleasant alcove, and with the store lights outside turned off and the lights inside dimmed, one might even say it was preferable to the ordinary fast food ambience. The only problem was we were locked in for the duration of the prayer.

For those not familiar with this custom, all shops must close during the five prayer periods each day. The morning prayer, Fajr — currently at 4:28am — is not a problem since you’re not usually out and about then. The evening prayer, Ishaa, for this date was pegged at 7:12pm.

For most small stores, also public buildings like the museums or the Masmak fort site, the owners simply shoo everyone out and re-open about 20 minutes later. Very large markets like the big supermarkets — Carrefour, Best Buy, Tamimi, the malls, etc. — just close down the registers, but allow people to continue going through the store.

Restaurants have a special problem: their customers are consuming the product in the facility. You can’t really shoo someone out in the middle of a meal. Yet if you stopped serving everyone long enough before the prayer call to allow them to finish before the loudspeakers start blaring, you’d have to turn people away 30-40 minutes before the call and then be closed an additional 20 minutes during the prayers. So at McDonald’s we were simply asked to move out of sight of the window overlooking the busy Siteen Street.

And this is how we found ourselves sequestered for 15 minutes in a lovely little low-light McDonald’s while cars lined up for the drive-through and tardy patrons waited outside.

Hmmm...I wonder why these people aren't at prayer?


Friday, September 25, 2009


I organized a group of guys to go on a museum expedition to the Masmak (Qasr al-Masmak قصر المصمك).

The fort was originally constructed in what is now central Riyadh about 1865 under the reign of Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Rasheed who had taken control of the city from the rival Saud clan. The young Amir Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Faisal Al Saud (the name rolls trippingly off the tongue…if your tongue is Arabic), who had been living in exile in Kuwait, led a force to capture the Masmak fortress from its Rashid garrison in January 1902. The event, which restored Al Saud control over Riyadh, is now legendary as the symbol for the unification of the Arabs and the founding of Saudi Arabia.

The taking of the fort is pretty well documented in photographs and reminds me a bit, oddly enough, of Tombstone, Arizona — a documented, historic event that has accumulated a thick patina of myth and reconstruction along with the core facts. The fort offers a short and fascinating video chronicling the events, filmed to give a mock black & white documentary look.

The fort itself has been reconstructed numerous times. At first several of us thought we might be seeing original materials since the various reconstructions used what looks like actual baked clay and mud brick construction methods, but it soon became clear that the current building has been carefully reconstructed.

The surrounding area is very hospitable and consists of a large courtyard, leading to other public spaces. When our small troupe arrived there were elaborate preparations underway for celebrating National Day, Sept. 23.

The courtyard area is a popular spot for locals who visit the cafe or simply hang out.

I tried to cue the flag for some dramatic waving-in-the-wind action but had to be content with a nice crescent moon.

Rooftop Telecoms Outpost

Since the semi-reliable Internet connections in our building have now become fully defunct, the Veeds Of Arabia website has temporarily moved its headquarters to the 7th floor rooftop venue, sometimes known as the Camp Swampy Internet Cafe.

Needless to say, the exact coordinates of the building are super-secret, but here's a look at our current setup.As long as we're up here with our camera, we thought you might like to see a nice view of Riyadh by night. This is looking northwest toward the Kingdom Tower, about 11:30pm

Not bad for a camera braced on a high building ledge for long-exposure, eh?
(2.5-second exposure, F:5)

Monday, September 21, 2009

No fat cats In Riyadh

...but they seem to be doing OK for themselves. They favor car roofs and hoods by night, sometimes lined up five-in-a-row, giving a sort of The Birds look to a street scene. Never the beggars, they dine at dumpsters—where the shops never close.

I haven't seen any clipped ears (the sign that a stray has been neutered and re-released). But, frankly, I'm not inclined to get that close.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A visit to the American Embassy (yawn)

I took a little jaunt over to the American Embassy the other day.

And when I say “jaunt” I mean a 20-minute cab ride (25 riyals) to the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) and a 10-minute search for the actual embassy.

Getting to the DQ is easy. Finding the actual Embassy sees us meandering around lush country club-like circular drives lined with palm trees and little directional signage. Outside the DQ is hardcore desert.

I’m not too concerned about the time because we negotiated a flat rate with our cabbie and he’s burning his own petrol now.

The cabbie eventually spots it in the distance and proceeds to the guard station. He gets out and opens the trunk, advises the guard that we’re two Americans and is allowed to proceed. We then weave back and forth through a winding course of about 10 concrete barriers over a quarter-mile, passing small tent ramadas with mounted anti-artillery guns and numerous sandbag fortifications until we stop, about 300 yards away from the building in front of what looks like an empty parking lot. But it’s really just an open buffer zone that was probably a parking lot at one time. We get out and hike through the space and find the walkway to the entrance.

I don’t like to use the “T” word, but here’s just a personal observation. I’d think that true well-bankrolled terrorists would have no problem finding the Embassy so all the barriers and fortifications are just keeping out the amateur banditos and crazy Timothy McVeighs driving trucks. It seems silly, at least from my naïve point of view, not to at least have an address listed on the website. Like I say, it’s not like anyone who wants to find you bad enough couldn’t locate the place. But why pretend you’ve got an unlisted address?

Update: I've since learned that many, perhaps most of the locations in Riyadh simply use a PO box. Some public institutions, such as museums just give a street name. Needless to say, it takes a bit of navigating to find anything

Of course, all the best compounds have the concrete barriers and other security devices and warnings so I'd expect the Embassy itself to be, as Andy Taylor would say, "extry good."

Anyway, we arrive at the entrance guard post, having seen no discernible Americans yet, where we go through a typical airport x-ray-and-search drill.

(Side note: The Embassy website makes it absolutely clear that you are not to bring cell phones, PDAs, cameras and the like up to the Embassy. The website is very specific: leave ‘em in the car. But Eric brought his and simply checked it at the guard station with no fuss a’tall.)

As foretold, all the employees seem to be Saudis or other Gulf folk. I could be wrong…maybe they’re naturalized citizens. In any event, we can see the façade of the Embassy itself past a nice outdoor fountain and are led into a doorway that goes down a nondescript hallway. We didn’t really have a plan when we set out, though Eric figured he’d take the opportunity to register. I had registered the day before online. When they asked whether we had an appointment or who we needed to see we just kinda shrugged and said we had some questions and wanted to register. We were directed to the “consular section.”

Here’s the American Embassy in a nutshell:

It’s like a cross between a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles and a small branch bank.

We were led to a small waiting room with about 50 cafeteria-style chairs. There were three windows at one end, numbered in English and Arabic: 1, 2 and 3. Each window was like a bank window with a big piece of glass and a scooped out tray where materials could be passed back and forth. The employee behind the glass has a microphone and you speak to him through the glass. When we got there, there was one American woman with hair uncovered, wearing a nice abaya (long black robe), a group of small children with their father in Arab thob (man’s formal robe), ghutra and agaal (head scarf and head rope) and a woman in fully covered mode sitting in front of him. A couple Arabs were filling out forms at a side-counter. After a while the American woman removed her abaya to reveal business-casual-wear.

We waited while various names were called, but usually no one answered.

Finally Eric and I just went up to Window 2 and talked to the guy. He indicated that the 2 pm appointment hadn’t shown up yet and seemed willing to talk for a moment. I had a few questions prepared.

I could have just asked some of the local expats, but I wanted to hear what the actual American Embassy person had to say. After all, it’s officially and specifically their job to be experts on Arab culture and Saudi laws and culture. What one may hear in bull sessions around the apartment could be tainted with all sorts of misinformation and lore.

We asked if it were possible to see an actual embassy consul of some type and maybe be allowed to see more of the building but were very courteously informed us that since it was the last day before the holiday period, they were short-staffed and would not be able to accommodate that request.

Frankly, I had no expectation of that happening, but figured we paid our $6.65 cab fare to get here and the worst they can say is ‘no.’

Eric, who has some experience with American embassies abroad, assures me that we’re getting relatively royal treatment.

We then traipsed around the other side of the building to visit the gift store sporting a somewhat anonymous entry with no markings except one sign that says “Entrance.”

It was filled with really great t-shirts, golf shirts, caps and other clothing paraphernalia — all unfortunately brightly emblazoned with “U.S. Embassy” and logo. One can only wonder where you might wear that.

There were American style candy bars, lotions, soft drinks and other mini-mart supplies. But the motherlode is a huge collection of videos and tapes for rent.

Back in the parking lot we wondered if there would be any cabs to take us back. We were tramping out to the entry station when a car pulled up alongside and asked if we needed a ride. We said we were going to central Riyadh…and was he a taxi? He said he was not, exactly, but would take us for a fee. I had been warned about such freelance cabs but since we were two people, and at 6’5” Eric is an imposing presence, we negotiated a 25R ride. The man, an Egyptian who works as a driver for a different embassy, apparently makes a side-living as a freelance driver. He gave us a very efficient and smooth ride back.

Actually, my primary goal, other than to simply to see what the Embassy looks like was to obtain a business card from someone official. I had heard that if one ever gets in some kind of minor trouble and you’re looking for whatever small edge you can manage, it could help to reach in your pocket and have an official-looking business card to flash.

Mission accomplished.

Later, when we got back I was asked what the Diplomatic Quarter was like.

I said, “It’s like Palm Springs with sandbags.”


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Riyadh: First with photos

First of all, as one can well imagine, the image of the kingdom as one imagines it through blogs, forums, e-mails and anecdotes, while accurate, doesn't really give the ambiance of Riyadh, aka, "City of Tile and Concrete," aka "City of Roads with Metal Plates," aka "City of Stray Cats," but perhaps most of all..."City of Graciousness."



One pesky one in my room right now who is about to meet his maker.

As one might expect in a city of 5 million or so, building and road construction is omnipresent. For buildings, there seems to be almost no wood-framing -- everything is concrete and tile, from the poorest to the richest sections (not that they let the likes of me into the latter). The public art projects are stunning.

I anticipated bright sunny skies, a la Arizona, and superhot temperatures. The temps are equivalent to my hometown of Phoenix, but the sky by day is more of a blueish-slate gray. I'm told this is the effect of dirt and desert in the atmosphere...along with car exhausts.

Streets and traffic
The major streets are beautifully blacktopped and very smooth. Lanes are indicated by bumps, which drivers tend to straddle more or less at random. Traffic is not quite as perilous as I was led to believe, though pedestrians are certainly at risk, particularly at intersections where traffic seems to proceed more or less at the whim and amusement of the drivers. Walking is an adventure in guessing where the sidewalk will be. Walking at night after the last prayer call during Ramadan is like signing your own death warrant.

The side streets, however, particularly in my neighborhood -- roughly the section from Al Yamama hotel to King Abdul Aziz Hospital -- are something else again. Most of them are torn up in odd places as the city strives to install water mains and other kinds of construction. Concrete boulders and traffic barriers are everywhere, dirt is everywhere and walking down a street is a matter of dodging on-and-off makeshift sidewalks while avoiding drivers in and out of lanes. A driver thinks nothing of simply whipping over across 2 lanes to make a right turn. There are metal plates covering construction holes everywhere and drivers often have to make 90-degree turns onto mini-bridges of metal plates to reach what can only generously be described as side-roads.

In the 5 full days I've been here, I've only seen one accident scene.

Big, spacious, gorgeous with breathtaking architecture, inside and out...but oddly un-airconditioned, or minimally.

1) I was out on a walking expedition to buy a cell phone and was working my way back. I knew I was within a few blocks of my humble abode but had gotten my internal GPS screwed up. On foot it's extra frustrating because if you head the wrong way, you pay by having to continually backtrack. I saw a man outside a house loading up his SUV for a trip, so I reckoned he was a local and begged his pardon, but could he help direct me to 26 Bijad? He couldn't figure it out from my scant hints...but then he just said "Please, get in the car and we'll look." I asked whether he could afford the time and he just said, "Please, we'll find your place." I felt like a dunderhead for being lost just 3-4 blocks from home at 10pm but he drove me up and down. I said, "The street is torn up in front, which didn't help much since all the streets are torn up. I said, "There are a lot of stray cats." I'm not sure if that did the trick but we found the building within a minute.

2) I was looking for directions to the Radisson Hotel for an errand, leaving my institute, and stopping at the guard house to sign out, about 9pm, decided to see if the two guards could help. They spoke only the most minimal English but were up for the task. First I was invited to sit on the floor with them and have some tea and a few pastries. I was brought water. They looked up the Rad on the Internet and provided hand-signal directions. We finished our tea and I was on my way.

3) On another night-time walking expedition, I was making my way down a major roadway on an on-again/off-again sidewalk. I was a bit tired and a lot thirsty and was taking my last swig of water when I spotted a sort of impromptu shack on a raised wooden a guard shack, except it was out in the middle of nowhere, guarding nothing. There was a mile-long concrete wall behind it and the roadway in front. Curious, I looked inside and made out that there was a man and a big commercial-size water jug. I'm guessing it was a way station for construction workers by day, but it could just as well have been an imaginary city oasis set down by the jinn for passersby in need. I sort of peered in at the window and the guy inside, wearing what looked like camouflage pants and shirt, looked out and then simply offered me a glass of water.

Prayer times and Ramadan
Most of the day for a non-Muslim seems to be spent consulting the daily prayer schedule to see when stores will be open and when one can dine out. My experienced colleagues get the daily report on their cell phones. (As I understand, prayer times are tied to sunset/sundown so they change slightly every day.) But during Ramadan, the city essentially turns upside down as stores are often closed during the day and everyone comes out at night. Traffic at 10pm is like rush hour in an American city...except that it's more like walking through the Dodge Em Car attraction at an amusement park.

As most of my acquaintances know, the less I say about food, the better considering that my specialty entree is "Fried Bologna Surprise." I did have a very nice, filling dinner at a Turkish restaurant, Al Fares, for the equivalent of about $8 US. They loaded us up on liquids as soon as we sat down beginning with a thick apricot juice (quick energy for those breaking fast), lemonade, water, lentil soup and Turkish coffee. Last night I stopped by a fresh produce market about midnight and picked up a kilo of pears, bananas and peaches for 5R ($1.30 US)

Bottled water is pretty cheap, 1 riyal for a regular-size bottle -- about 26 US cents. Most people get water in bulk. The local tap water appears to be reasonably good tasting but I'm told it's very high in mineral deposits. During Ramadan, one doesn't want to be seen drinking water but I "carry" and sneak a sip when I'm not in public view.

American Embassy
I had been advised that it's good to stop by there and make an official hello. However, I find that their "public hours" are 1:30-3:30pm and they observe both American and Saudi holidays. Nice.

I'll have more on this later.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Riyadh at last

Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Arrived Riyadh literally within seconds of the posted 1:40pm arrival time. The 11.5 hour (elapsed time) flight on Saudia from Washington D.C. was smooth and a flight should be. Meals were excellent, movies about what one might expect and flight attendants delightful. Interestingly, every movie was image-manipulated to blur out key parts of the female anatomy, whether on actual actresses or simply in the background, as on newsstands, for example. Thus, a woman wearing an otherwise modest dress or shorts appeared to have no legs.

Getting through customs wasn't quite so smooth. Actual time of processing, including agent checking passport, scanning handprints and taking photo: about 2 minutes. Actual time with agent: about 12 minutes. Actual time waiting in line: about 50 minutes.

See, the agents don't just do one patron at a time. They get interrupted, or interrupt themselves, or deal with stray passengers who "just need a minute" about every 20 seconds. No kidding. The agent doesn't deal with the person in front of him and then go to the next person. My handprint scan, for example, had to be re-done four times, with each hand. I can't be sure, but it seemed that the scan worked each time (I could see the little light go on and a soft chime), but the agent's attention had been called away in the 10 seconds it took for the scan to be processed and he had to continually do it over.

Once through customs, I gathered my three boxes, somewhat battered but since they were mostly clothes, no worries. I managed to obtain the most right-steering cart in the universe but was too stubborn to try re-loading all my gear onto another one.

I was met outside the luggage area by a driver sent by the school I'll be teaching at who spoke no English. At first I thought he wanted "cash" but it turned out he was suggesting I change my U.S. dollars to ryals at the small bank branch at the airport. I may have committed a faux pas by taking a quick swig of water while I was adjusting my cargo -- since it's Ramadan, most people have been fasting all day and it's considered rude to eat or drink in front of them.


I haven't quite figured out whether this is a queuing society or not. As I was standing at the bank branch to exchange money, my driver indicated I should stand in line for one window. But it turned out there was a queue already formed that was not obvious. In the meantime, two other men had got in line. I went to the back of the line and no one offered to give me cuts. Fair enough. But then two stylish women (all covered up, but it was clear they were fashionable) sort of sashayed up to the window area I had vacated and, in effect, cut in front of someone else who had been queued up. I'm not sure if they realized that the queue was in effect...or didn't care.

I'm told there is a custom of saying "I only have one item" when you're in a store and would like to bypass the person in front. I then heard a story about a guy in a grocery who was holding two items and received such a request from a man. I didn't ask if he let the guy through.


I was told that Saudi traffic is just awful, but I found that the roads (at least the ones not under construction...OK, that would be about 10 percent) are in immaculate condition. The drivers on the main highway into the city more or less stuck to their lanes, demarcated by small raised white bumps. My driver seemed to like straddling the line marker, as evidenced by the sound of tire meeting bumps but he eventually picked a lane and stuck to it. Traffic itself, while not orderly as in the States, was not as chaotic as I was led to believe. I'd say city traffic is similar to Paris, with lots of lane changing and horn honking but no one crashing.


Coming from Phoenix where temperatures are about the same and there is only about 7 inches of rain per year and virtually no clouds on any given day, I was anticipating a bright sunny day. Instead, the sky has a sort of Soylent Green cast to it, almost science-fictiony in its somber hues. Someone told me it's from the desert dust.

Riyadh means Garden...

...but I'm thinking it should be renamed "Cit of Stray Cats." Oddly enough, no dogs. In the 2 1/2 days I've been here, I haven't seen a single dog. However, I have seen dozens of stray cats. Some lounge in groups of four or five on car roofs and hoods (cooler) or inhabit dumpsters. I can't say they've been a problem, but it does give a sort of The Birds ambience to the part of town I'm living in.

I actually got lost walking back to my pad from the Radisson Hotel (where one buys one's cell phone) and was within a few blocks. I knew it was near the King Abdul Aziz university hospital and behind the Al Yamama hotel but I couldn't quite zero in. I asked a man who was loading his SUV for a trip if he could give me some directions. When he saw how clueless I was, this gracious gentleman asked me to get into his vehicle -- and remember, all he knows is that I'm lost and carrying a backpack -- and actually drove me around for 15 minutes. I told him the main landmarks were that the sidewalk was being excavated for a water line (we currently get our water from trucks)...and that there were an awful lot of stray cats. "Ah," he said...and we found my place within 2 minutes.

Earlier, I needed directions to the Radisson as I was leaving my school campus and stopped to ask the security guards...who spoke little English. We mutually stuttered along in sign language and were making progress when one of the men gestured for me to sit on the floor with them and have some tea. It was delicious, as well as the water they offered.

Graciousness is a hallmark of this great city, as near as I can tell so far.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dulles to Riyadh

Dulles International Airport

After an exciting night of packing, I've had a great trip from Phx to DC and am sitting at the gate for my flight to Riyadh on a Boeing 777.

My big thrill this morning checking in at the United desk was finding that my meticulous box-weight planning paid off. I had lugged all three boxes over to the UPS store yesterday to use their scale and had packed the boxes to a fare-thee-well of the 50lb limit. At one point I ran out of sealing tape and had to dig into the tool box for duct tape...which is significantly heavier than the plastic stuff.

Box 1: 49.5 lb
Box 2: 49.8 lb
Box 3: 48.1 lb

I got a nice attaboy from the ticket agent for hitting my weight limits so exactly.

Can't say I'm too fond of the Dulles WiFi system: it's easy enough to access but then you've got to pay one of their preferred providers $6 if you want to connect. Phx Sky Harbor is free to one and all.

The plane is scheduled to leave at 6pm and arrive tomorrow at 1:40pm.

Next stop: Riyadh

(Since I'm actually writing this retroactively, I'll just tell you that we arrived in Riyadh at precisely 1:40pm)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Final Week - A Trip Back Home

Hey, I'm back...miss me?

I leave for Riyadh tomorrow morning (Sept. 9) at oh-dark-hundred.
Just back from a week-long last visit to my family in Erie, PA and to attend my cutie-pie niece's wedding. She's the one in the wedding dress.

I took some time to visit my old grade school (top left), hung out with my mom (who loves crossword puzzles), had a cookout with my buddies by the lake and a slew of other things.

I don't particularly recommend planning back-to-back trips like this but my niece wasn't inclined to change her wedding date on my behalf.

In the meantime, my house is a mess as I'm in a simultaneous frenzy of cramming household goods and clothes into the attic to clear some space for the man who'll be renting the place for a year and packing my own stuff for the plane trip tomorrow.

I've got three boxes about 90% full and I'm busy weighing various items down to the half-pound to optimize weight. Each box can have 50 lbs and each ounce is now precious. I'll be trundling the boxes over to the UPS store later to get them accurately weighed before handing them to the mercy of United Airlines.

I got a nice piece of advice from my sister, a world traveler with a lot of experience packing a month's clothing into a week's suitcase. She says, "Wear your heaviest items--your bulkiest sweater, the heaviest shoes you can be comfortable in. Watch how the students do it!" The airlines weigh your check-in baggage and measure your carry-ons...but they don't care how much you weigh. A lot of travelers make the mistake of wearing flip flops because they're easy to slip off at airport security. But really, you're only doing that once or twice so why not save a couple pounds instead of paying exorbitant excess baggage fees?

I went back in yesterday and did just that, as well as eliminating about 10 golf shirts (I loves my golf shirts), removing DVDs from their cases and making hard decisions about a few other items.

I may have another blog entry before heading out but, inshallah, I shall be checking into the teachers' residence in Riyadh next time you hear from me.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Backpack or roller bag? Vote!

Had breakfast this morning with a friend who had spent two years teaching in Venezuela many years ago. I got a wonderful suggestion for my trip to Arabia. I have been trying to figure out how to maximize what I can take onboard the airplane as a carry-on and she said, "What about a backpack?"

Eureka. Why didn't I think of that? It will fit perfectly in the overhead compartment and still allow me to have my hefty laptop -- practically a suitcase in itself.

In the meantime, I ran across a perfectly sized mini-roller bag over at the Goodwill store when I was dropping off donations. I might have been able to live with the hot pink color, but it was emblazoned with a bright "Little Kitty" logo too. Fortunately, as I was driving home I found a parking lot rummage sale where I was able to score a conservative black mini-rollerbag.

Now I have to decide which one will hold more and /or be more useful. Remember, for carry on, weight doesn't matter here. I could fill it with bowling balls if I could yank it onboard. What matters is that the bag be 45 linear inches or less.*

Here are the candidates:

a) The black rollerbag measures about 38.75 linear inches, has a convenient pull-up handle, wheels and a front pouch. The front fabric allows for some bulging for last-minute items. Some of the interior space is used up by the hardware "ribs."

b) The green backpack measures between 35 and 36 linear inches, depending on how you count the front pouch. It has typical backpack straps, two main compartments and the front pouch has two handy compartments. The design allows considerable bulging for squeezing in last-minute items. It would be good for city trekking and going back and forth to school.

I'm taking opinions. Vote for the bag of your choice.

*You figure linear inches by simply adding up the 3 dimensions: thus 20H +20W + 20L = 60"

Car plan revised

Minor setback with my car storage plan.

I had misunderstood my mechanic, thinking that the friend storing my car in the third-car spot in her garage would only have to start it up once a month, for about 10 minutes...and maybe run it up and down the driveway to keep the tires from always being in one spot.

Turns out it has to be started up once a week...for 20-30 minutes! This has the added complication that the car will need a gas fill up at least three times in the year. And I've not only cancelled the insurance but arranged to have the car de-registered with the state. I really can't ask my friend to add these extra duties, having promised her how easy it would be.

Fortunately, another friend, whom I just happened to be talking about on other matters, stepped up and agreed to everything. We owe each other favors so I'll be helping her with some marketing and writing stuff.

In the meantime, I'm tackling the business of packing now. I tested one of the 20x20x20 boxes with a load of t-shirts comes in at 40 lbs. If I had used a suitcase instead of a packing box that extra 10 lbs would have been taken up by the weight of the suitcase itself.

I also met with my renter for the coming year and we signed the agreement.

As I clear out my attic to make room for all the stuff I'm going to have to store, I'm running across all kinds of old photos, fliers, concert tickets (Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Tori Amos, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, James Brown, Better Than Ezra, ZZ Top), baseball games, basketball games hockey games, plays, scraps of phrases and a stub for a musical ("Rent") that I'm pretty sure I never even went to.

The stubs are all there, getting nice and aged.

Time to get some new ones, eh.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Da Shippin' News - 2

All righty then...think I'm getting a handle on this packing and shipping thing.

By way of preface though, I'm still just scratching my head at the dearth of information and good advice about how to do all this. I'd have thought that with numerous people arriving in Riyadh every day to live, the expats would have a system for how to get their stuff over there.

Here's the deal in case you're wondering how you're going to do it yourself.

There seem to be two options:

1) Use a freight forwarder or other shipper to send your stuff
2) Take your two free bags, two carry-ons and then simply add a third box as "excess baggage."

I chose #2. Yes, you pay dearly for the excess, but it's wayyyyy cheaper than the freight forwarder...unless you're taking a whole household of stuff, or have more than, say, 7 boxes.

I checked with a local freight forwarder (who lackadaisically took 10 days to respond, by the bye) and his quote was $1,500.

Since I'm traveling via two different airlines, I had to deal with both. What you'll find is you need to pack and budget for the more restrictive airline.

United (UA) allows two free pieces of checked luggage:
a) 50 lbs or less
b) 62" in total dimensions.
If your free pieces (or any piece) exceeds the 50 lb limit you pay $150 for overage from 50-70 lbs. (I didn't check beyond that.)

Each additional box or luggage item is $250, same restrictions.

Saudia (SV)
allows two free pieces of checked luggage:
a) 70 lbs or less
b) 62" in total dimensions or less (you add the three dimensions and it can't exceed 62")
Each additional box or piece is $138, with same restrictions above.

With this information, I knew that I had to go with the UA 50 lb limit, even though SV allows 70 lbs.

Doing the math, it appears that I need to keep my two free pieces strictly within the 50 lb/62" limit to avoid severe penalty.

I doubt I can get everything into two boxes, so I'm fixin' to add a third excess box, within the correct specifications and pay the $250. UA assures me that this takes me straight through to Riyadh.

Apparently, part of the cost for the freight forwarders is that your package has to be received or handled by one of their agents there to pass customs...or maybe just to be downloaded. Also, the package does not arrive when you could be before or later.

The trick, it would appear, is to get boxes as close as possible to the 62" space limit. I'm going to purchase three 20x20x20 boxes from the UPS store, though I could get them from U-Haul cheaper. But I think the UPS boxes might be a bit sturdier.

Tip: Although 20x20x20 only adds up to 60", the box specification refers to the inside volume. Thus, such a box really comes in more like 61" and some change. I'm not sure how fussy the airlines are going to be, but why chance it?

I considered using a very large suitcase, maybe buying one from Goodwill, but suitcases add about 5 lbs to the total weight, what with wheels, handles, zippers, dividers and so on. And I reckon that if you multiply that by 3 boxes, it could add up to 15 extra pounds of junk I can haul over.

My friend has a bag weighing device so I'm hoping to get that measurement pretty fine-tuned.

As a final option, if I get to either my two-box or three-box capacity and find that I have just a bit of overflow -- not enough to fill a full box, I can send a U.S. mail package which will arrive who-knows-when (probably 3 weeks) for what I'm surmising would be about $50.

Needless to say, I'll be packin' and storin' like crazy this weekend.

Other notes
1) These size/weight restrictions apply to these respective airlines' domestic and international flights. United may have different (more generous) limits for international flights.
2) If you're flying business class or better, you may be able to up your size/weight limits. Of course, your packing chores still have to conform to the most restrictive limit.
3) In case you're wondering, today's title comes from the 1993 novel by Annie Proulx, The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland. One of the characters, a Newfie, likes to pronounce the term as "da shippin' news." See? You get all sorts of fun information on this blog!