Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Impression #10 - The Inside Scoop

(Here's a photo I took this evening. You can see Faisalia tower on the left, the pointy one, and towards the right, Kingdom Tower, with it's crescent shaped top)

So I got into this taxi the other day and the driver spoke good English. He was Pakistani and most of the Pakistanis do. (Thank you colonial Great Britain, for leaving behind an education system that allows even the poor to learn a second language.)

I'd say about half the taxi drivers are English.

Well, this fellow, seeing I'm American, right away starts talking about the home country and what's going on there.

"Osama bin Laden didn't die in that attack in Abotabad."

I raise an eyebrow, "Oh really?"

"Yes, I am from Abotabad. I lived there. There are many men there that look like him."

"Oh, I see."

"No, Osama Bin Laden died 2 years ago from kidney failure."

"I heard he had weak kidneys or something. That much was in the news in America. But I had no idea he'd died."

"Yes, it's true. Definitely. He died 2 years ago."

"Very interesting."

I sort of waggled my head in loops, like a "yes" and a "no" at the same time. It's a gesture I've seen a lot of Pakistanis and Indians use. Maybe it's body language for "yo".

Anyhow, by now we'd arrived at my office. I thanked him for the interesting information and headed out into the sun.

(Remember, you read it here first. Osama did not die last May in Abotabad. You got the truth almost direct from the taxi driver in Riyadh. Now aren't you glad I'm here to share these amazing revelations with you?)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Inner Englishman - Impressions #9

Today I decided to contact my inner Englishman and go for a walk in the noon day sun. Bad idea. Even the mad dogs were inside. (Actually I've seen quite a few cats but not a single dog since I arrived in Riyadh.)

This is the way it happened. It's the weekend, you see, and I slept in. Then I got up, washed my face, went back to bed and slept in again. By 11am I was beginning to feel ridiculous, like I really shouldn't be spending my precious weekend hours lying in bed in a stupor. I should be conscious and enjoying myself. And besides, I did have one important errand to run, a visit to the apartment manager's office to find out when my apartment will be ready for me to move in.

So I got myself up again, had my corn flakes, got my water bottle, put on my hat, and went for a walk.

It was hotter than yesterday and yesterday it was 112.

I wended my way across the dusty streets, hugging the building walls against the sidewalks, trying to stay in the 3' of shade, dashing across wide, sunstroked roads when there were breaks in the traffic.

My errand was done. I got my answer. "Next week." ... It's been next week for the past 2 weeks.

On the way back I made a serendipitous discovery. At the back of a large sunbaked parking lot, like the colorful mirage of an oasis in a sandy desert, a building rose up. Emblazoned across the top of it in bold colors was the word, "SAFEWAY". In my imagination it said "SAFEWAY!!!" but in reality it had no exclamation points.

It was all I could have hoped for and more. Never in my life have I been so happy to find myself in a Safeway. There were piles of fresh fruit and vegetables. There were California Avocados! I even found instant oatmeal. In the paper goods section there were large signs on the toilet paper that said "Imported from America". I guess we Yanks have a worldwide reputation for excellent in toilet paper manufacture. I also noticed, in the section for pet products, there was indeed dog food available. So there are dogs out there somewhere.

Well, I stocked up on the necessities and a few luxuries, put my hat back on and braved the sun once more.

Now I'm back in my hotel room, freshly showered and re-hydrated. I'll stay inside for the day and enjoy all the goodies that I bought.

Tomorrow I'll take a walk again. But I'll get up at 6am and take my walk early. Then I'll do my sleeping in during the afternoon.

Sorry, no photos today. Maybe tomorrow.

love to all my family and friends


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Impressions #8 - Buy Pizza Hut stock!!!

Riyadh is growing by leaps and bounds and Pizza Hut is right there with it! No matter where I go around this city, it seems I'm never more than 5 minutes from a Pizza Hut. They seem to be doing huge business. They're extraordinarily convenient and the veggie pizzas actually have real fresh veggies on them.

Saudi Arabia's population is growing. Family sizes are large here. So it's real internal growth. Greater Riyadh is expected to more than double in population and size over the next 20 years. In the course of my work duties recently I had occassion to visit the ArRiyad Development Authority. They're in charge of planning major infrastructure works around the greater city area. They have some very ambitious looking plans for building a light rail network around the city. That's something this city really needs, a decent public transportation system. Given their ability to plan large scale projects, I have a feeling the authorities here are going to do a good job of it.

An article about it

Friday, June 17, 2011

Impressions #7 - Beating the blues in Riyadh

Okay ... for a start ... I've got to explain that I woke up this morning in a real funk and it got worse as the day went on. No need to go into details. We all have our black moods once in a while. But I had to do something to get out of it. So I turned to YouTube and looked up a bunch of Hoagy Carmichael videos. That lifted me from black to just blue.

(Thank you, Big Brother, for not blocking the content of YouTube)

Ole Rockin Chair's Got Me

Once I was feeling just blue I was able to get myself up from the sofa and face the city. I knew I needed some movement, so I braved the heat and dust and walked the mile or so back to Mena Hotel, where I was staying until a couple days ago. It's a really nice place and I highly recommend it to anyone needing a place to land in Riyadh. In addition to the excellent breakfast buffet it has a lovely lobby where you can sit, anytime of day, even on a Friday in the middle or prayers, and get something to eat.

So, I made it as far as Mena Hotel and landed in a cushy chair. I knew the perfect cure now, to get me from blue to reasonably cheerful, that classic English remedy, Afternoon Tea! Within minutes I had a large pot of tea, milk, sugar and a delicious slice of cheesecake with blackberries offering itself up to me for my delectation.

Oscar Wilde wittily remarked once, "I can resist anything except temptation." Well, I'm no Oscar Wilde and there are some temptations I can resist, but afternoon tea is not one of them.

Once the tea had watered my soul and the leaves of my spirit had ceased to droop I noticed that there was an entire menu of edibles available. I found the perfect sandwich, which arrived with an unwilted salad of young Romaine lettuce leaves, an unexpected treat.

I only wish I'd brought a book to read. Next weekend you'll find me back there again, enjoying another tea and meal, but this time I'll have a book with me and I'll plan on a couple hours of relaxing reading in that quiet, elegant atmosphere where even the air is fresh.

On the walk back, which I admit, seemed a little longer than the walk there, probably on account of my full stomach, I came across a grocery store that was open. So it seems some of the stores DO open on Friday, the holy day of the week. Now I've got a refrigerator stocked with the basics and I'm ready to face another week.

p.s. I didn't take the photos myself. I stole them from other websites ... sssshhhhh ... I'm still not in the habit of taking my camera when I go out. But next weekend I'll make sure to take photos of my own.

love to all my family and friends

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A few photos - impressions #6

I flew from San Francisco to Dubai, non-stop on Emirates. It was 15.5 hours and went over Greenland. I flew economy class and was impressed with the quality of the flight crew. Very pleasant experience considering how long it was. Here's a photo inside the airport of Dubai. I was there a few hours. Then on to Riyadh, which was a 2 hour flight.

For the last 3 weeks I've been staying at the Mena Hotel, medium sized and very comfortable place with an excellent breakfast buffet. Here's my room. You know how it is when traveling. One bed is currently serving as my dresser.

Here are a few views of Riyadh. The authorities look askance at taking pictures out and about. So I won't be taking many. In Riyadh there are important government buildings scattered around the city. Many of them are inconspicuous. The authorities absolutely don't want people photographing them. Since they're not always obvious you have to exercise a certain amount of common sense and observation to make sure you're not photographing something you shouldn't. They've got perfectly justifiable reasons for their concerns. Given the situation across the Middle East with terrorism of various kinds, they don't want the wrong people conducting surveillance on their government facilities. I respect that. Their caution is the main reason this is the safest place to live in the Middle East, and certainly a great deal safer than Chicago.

Well, here are a few photos. I'll start with a typical neighborhood mosque.

I should also mention that it's not polite to take photos of people without asking their permission. So that's why you'll see few in my photos. Next up is a typical street view. This is Olaya Street, one of the main boulevards through the city. Note the typical Saudi style landscaping at the left of the photo. I say typical, because this is what you see all over the place. They are definitely capable of doing much better. The diplomatic quarter is quite beautiful. But that's definitely not a place to wave a camera about. My hotel is just out of the frame to the right.

This is the view directly across from my hotel. There's a big bunch of construction mess in the foreground. The whole city is under construction. Two block beyond is the Faisaliah Tower, the second tallest building in the city and wildly inventive in its geometry. I haven't yet had a chance to go inside. I believe there is a luxury restaurant in the gold sphere near the top.

A view down Olaya Street, looking towards Faisaliah Tower at night.

Here's a view from near my office, looking across town. At the left is the Faisaliah Tower. Faintly visible on the right is Kingdom Tower with its instantly recognizable crescent shaped top, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia.

As I mentioned above, I won't be taking a lot of photos. But when I move into my apartment I'll take a few of that for you all. It just occurred to me, something I haven't seen here in Riyadh, busloads of Japanese tourists with Godzilla sized camera's hanging from their necks... hhhmmmmmm

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A few peculiarities of Riyadh traffic - Impression #5

You may have read my post on Creative U-turning. That is certainly one of the more obvious oddities of Riyadh traffic. But oddities and peculiarities by no means end with U-turns. Here are a few more items of interest.

There are no 1-way streets. Signs suggesting otherwise are decorative only and can be ignored.

About 1 in 20 cars does not turn on its headlights at night. This includes taxis and even police cars.

Police cars, on the other hand, often drive down the street, at normal speed, not apparently in pursuit of anybody, with their colored lights flashing. Perhaps they do this to add a colorful, festive quality to the traffic.

All drivers add to the festivities by a constant tooting of horns as well. No reason is needed for a good toot. Just feel free to express yourself. Don't like the color of the red light? Try tooting and maybe it will change. Actually, it works every time if you keep tooting long enough.

About 1 in 4 cars has multiple dents. I'm told that no one drives in Riyadh for more than 1 month without getting in an accident. I intend to keep taking taxis as long as possible.

This may be of special note for my female readers. If you should find yourself walking down the street here in Riyadh, you will, no doubt, be honked at by many passing cars. It would be a mistake, however, to assume these honks are intended as crude comments on your figure. In fact, they are just passing taxis checking to see if you want a ride. This town is absolutely crawling with little white taxis and that's how they let you know they are available. It's a great system actually, once you get in the habit of ignoring the honking when you don't want a ride.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Question of Toilet Paper - Impression #4

Gentle Reader,
If you, like so many travelers of the western world, including your humble Author, have considered traveling to the Middle East, but were uncertain about the question of whether it is necessary to pack toilet paper, and if it is, then how much should be packed, the Author hopes to answer your questions on that subject once and for all.

The short answer is, no.

To expostulate a little further:
In the Author's limited travels, so far confined to the airport in Dubai, a 5-star hotel in downtown Riyadh, and a modern, recently built office building, the Author has found that toilet paper is in generous supply. Whether this condition also applies to less urban parts of Saudi Arabia or other countries in the Middle East, the Author is humbly unable to answer.

To go into the question much further, one comes up against the larger issue of whether there are any of "life's necessities" that the western traveler should consider packing when traveling to this distant and exotic location.

There is in fact one vital necessity that the Author highly recommends packing, something that is indisputably necessary to those of us accustomed to western mores and traditions, though, unexpectedly, something that it seems the natives of these parts and many of the inhabitants who hail from other Muslim lands do not seem to need at all.

That necessity is air ... oxygen ... something to breath.

Upon descending from the airplane at King Khalid International Airport and attempting to inhale for the first time in Riyadh, one is immediately struck, rather forcefully, by the lack of oxygen in the air. There seem to be many varieties of particulate ranging from sand to cigarette smoke to diesel exhaust available for inhalation. But these various particles displace the oxygen and associated gases that one becomes accustomed to, living in the West. Surprisingly, the natives and other residents seem to be perfectly adapted to inhaling this atmosphere, to the extent that they often add to it by smoking large numbers of cigarettes while gathered in groups.

Therefore, the Author suggests, Gentle Reader, that you consider packing several oxygen tanks and a portable fan powered air filter with a washable/reusable filter element. This will assuredly make your visit to Riyadh far more pleasant and may even enable you to return to your home, when that happy day comes after long travels, where your feet feel the familiar earth beneath them and your eyes feast on the happy sights of pleasant memory, alive.

Friday, June 10, 2011

a cool driving trick - Impressions #3

Howdy Folks!

Here's a trick you might (or might not!) want to try next time you're out driving ... but first a bit of background information.

My hotel's right off one of the main drags through central Riyadh. Down the street is one of the fancy new shopping malls. On the third level, overlooking the street, there's a food court where I've been eating most evenings. From the tables by the windows there's an excellent view down to the street, a large intersection with a signal light. The view provides endless entertainment.

So, here's the trick.

You know how when you're driving up to a red light the far right hand lane is often empty because the people wanting to make right turns have already made their turns? Well, why waste an empty lane, especially if there's a big back-up in the other lanes and you want to make a U-turn to park or shop on the other side of the street. So, this is what you do. While the light is red against you, drive over into that far right lane, then make a sharp left turn so you're driving along the pedestrian crosswalk. Then when you pass the median strip, make another sharp left and .... presto! ... you've just made a left hand U-turn from the far right lane on a red light.

By the way, if you're worried about hitting pedestrians you needn't be. First of all, there aren't very many. Second, they're very good at getting out of the way.

I've made a crude little sketch of the trick. The red line indicates the path of travel of the adventurous driver doing the U turn. The little rectangles are cars. You'll find it attached to this email.

I'm probably going to start doing these impressions as a blog instead of an email. But I'll continue to send you all a note when I've put up a new entry.

love to all my family and friends,
Mister Tony, as I'm known around the office

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Call to Prayer - Impressions #2

Greetings to my family and friends,

Here's a little something that's been on my mind the last few days...

The call to prayer ...

I'd understood that the theory was that you pray 5 times a day, in order to keep your mind on God rather than the sin provoking distractions of daily living. I can see some sense in that. Five times a day, stopping whatever you're doing and meditating on God's grace bestowing power should have some kind of an effect at putting other things in perspective.

What I find a bit surprising is that there does not seem to be any generally accepted time where each of these 5 pauses occurs. In theory it is sunrise, midday, late afternoon, sunset, late evening. Everywhere you go, there are loudspeakers where muezzin make their calls. Of course, there are the obvious mosques all over the city. But also the shopping malls have mini-mosques in them. The office buildings as well. Wherever you go you are bound to be within earshot of a muezzin, usually several. Since there doesn't seem to be a standardized time for the calls to prayer, you don't get 5 calls a day. You get about 25. It seems like every hour there are several muezzin picking it up, like long echoes.

The result is that it all sort of blends in with the background noise of the city. Nobody seems to pay the least bit of attention. It's a bit like the muzak you hear around the USA. I have yet to see anybody stop what they are doing and make any sort of sign that they're praying. Even the most traditionally dressed Saudis go right on with whatever is occupying them. The women in black that congregate in the shopping malls with their surprising number of children go right on with their shopping, buying their gold sequined blouses and 4 inch heels. The men continue to stand immobile, their weight on their heels, arms limp and relaxed, stomachs protruding, puffing cigarettes and chatting with each other.

Theory confronts reality.

Reality wins.

Well, there you go, Impression #2.

love to you all,


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Impressions #1

First impressions, in no particular order...

insane traffic! (extremely selfish driving behavior is the cause)
Anyone born here would not know that the sky is blue. Here it is yellow.
When not in their cars people are polite and quiet.
There is fine, sandy dust everywhere.
Where I am used to seeing women I now see black spots.
There are very few black spots on the streets.
The air-conditioned shopping malls are full of black spots.
All the sidewalks in the city are torn up and construction is booming. It looks to me like an unsustainable bubble.
It's hot.
It's very hot.
It's even hot at night but the low 90s is a relief and I enjoy talking a walk.
My office is air-conditioned and I must remember to bring a sweater to work tomorrow.
The people I work with seem like good folks and I have a positive impression of their work and the work environment.
I am happy to discover that the company is a very important player in the engineering industry all across the Middle East and is designing many high profile projects.
The project I am working on is massive and it's going to be a majorly big feather in my cap to be able to say I played an important role in it.

A little more about my impressions on the situation of women...
It's actually not as bad as I expected. I guess that goes to show the value of holding very low expectations.
Burqa, the complete ensemble of enveloping robe, head covering and face veil seems to be worn only by Saudi women, but is worn universally by them when in public. I have seen other women wearing only the robe. A few wore scarves that only partially covered their hair, leaving their faces fully revealed. A few wore not even a head scarf, letting their lascivious hair drape seductively over their shoulders (except the 2 black women who had hair cut to about 1/2 inch long). All these women appeared to be foreigners and it seems to be completely tolerated here in Riyadh. Incidentally, I was told that Riyadh is the most conservative of the large cities. So that suggests that the other large cities such as Jeddah are less restrictive still. I haven't seen this first hand but I understand that in Jeddah women are starting to work alongside men. Apparently wild orgies are not breaking out in the offices.
I have seen no evidence here in Riyadh that women must be accompanied by men when in public. The vast majority I have seen in groups, not singly. I often see 2 women in burqa walking down the street together. I've only seen a very few individual women in burqa on the street. But I saw no sign that they were being bothered about it by anyone.
There was an article in yesterday's paper about a woman who tried to register to vote in a local election. Women have the right to vote, but only in certain specific elections. This election was not one of them. The woman attempted to register and was turned down. She did this many times, as a kind of non-violent protest. It seems to have garnered some attention and there does not seem to be a great deal of support for the election officials. You may have heard about a woman a few weeks back who was protesting by driving a car. I think the country is gradually moving in favor of giving more freedom to women. It's like a very slow moving river. It is indeed progressing, flowing inevitably towards the ocean of modern standards. Everybody knows it and nobody wants to call attention to it. The idea seems to be that it's best not to call attention to it, so as not to alarm the religious conservatives. I think what will happen is that certain rights will become established legally. Even the wearing of the burqa, I believe, is NOT a legal requirement but simply a social norm. With these rights established by law, it will become harder and harder for conservative men to dominate the women. I have an optimistic view, though I expect it will be another 10 years before the changes become obvious.

Well, that gives you a little sense of my first impressions. I haven't gotten around to taking any photos yet but when I do I'll make sure to send some.

Love to all my family and friends,