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?