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.