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.

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