Monday, March 26, 2012

Riyadh and the Desert

Flying off to Riyadh, was just another week-end excursion. I can pack an overnight bag blindfolded! Lesley was still recovering from appendix op, so I looked like a Filipino maid with our luggage. Not an uncommon sight here!

Arrived on time in Riyadh, but sat in the plane for 45 minutes waiting for something to happen... Nothing new!

Driving into town at night was as nice as I remembered. The city is lit up at night and everything looks bright and sparkly – a city alive. It is the capital city of Saudi, chosen by the king because of ancestral ties to the area. Highways are superb. Buildings impressive. Shopping malls to get lost in (but only if you have the money). And the cars don’t look anything like the fucked-up antiques we see in our part of the kingdom. Here the sight of a Porsche, Ferrari, Camaro is not at all uncommon. Even on campus, because that is where members of the extended royal family study.

William met us at the airport. In Jeddah I have Douglas and in Riyadh I have William. You will look far to find better hosts anywhere in the world. I know, I am totally spoiled. I seem to gravitate towards men who can cook! Evening meal was Moroccan lamb dish with carrots and sweet potato and all the spices required! In the morning we had kiwi, mango, grapes, banana... a health fanatic’s dream!

William had gone in to his office whilst Lesley and self had Kingdom Towers and the Sky Walk on our agenda. We stepped out the door, and immediately had a taxi pull up. Clearly indicated. Smart car. Meter running! Everything you can’t find in Abha! We got dropped off at the Mall and felt like royals ourselves. The building is 99 floors high, and a sky bridge joins the two towers at that height. We had to pay for the ‘privilege’ of going with a lift (no other option available) – equivalent of R70 each. To find.... nothing. An ugly sight of Riyadh by day. Grey and drab as the rock and sand. It didn’t look spectacular, it wasn’t scary, there was no revolving restaurant awaiting us, .... nothing. At that point I felt that Riyadh was totally fake and that we had perhaps wasted our money. 

We went down to a floor known as the Ladies Kingdom. Only women allowed, so that the head covering (face cover) can come off. We saw many westerners. We no longer stood out. This time we were staring at them, rather than the other way round. Faces! These Arab women actually have faces! We sat down to have coffee. We would have had to pay R60 a cup! We smiled and walked out. Hell man, let’s go make some nice coffee at home! 

We had gotten into a taxi at home, but had no idea how to describe ‘home’ to the taxi driver upon returning. Here’s the text from William which will explain why we were ‘lost’

Drive down Olaya str towards Faisaliah but make u-turn at Tahlia str in front of Centrea Mall to reach Ya Mal Asham (which is slightly down from Jarir Bookstore but on opposite side)

For lunch we went to an authentic Sushi restaurant. That was Lesley’s request. Riyadh is the diplomatic centre, so almost anything can be found there. It was so good, that we even ordered take-aways. Our Filipino waiter goes by the name of Khalid. I asked him why he was wearing someone else’s name badge. He said it was the name he had taken when he had converted! Apparently they get offered money to convert! Then a Saudi man walked in, sat down and asked the waiter if they had anything other than sushi on the menu! Hello, it is clearly a sushi restaurant and no hamburgers or pork served!

After that, off into the sunset. Road trip I – to the Edge of the World, about 70 k’s outside Riyadh. Very dull countryside. No colour. No nothing. Even when we left the main road and went onto the gravel and into the desert proper, it was still unimpressive. Bumpy ride. No soft sand. Was quite hard on our patient. Once we hit a bad bump and when William asked her: “Lesley, are you okay?” Her response was a chirpy “I’m fine. I’m still in the car!” We started seeing camels and made William stop. He even veered off the road to get us closer to them. We saw more and more and it wasn’t such a big deal any more. That is, until we spotted a lonely one who seemed to be watching over something.  We were about to drive pass when I noticed the baby trying to get up and realised what it was. Instant u-turn! Close up. Baby must have just been born. It could smell its mother’s milk and was trying to get up. First the front legs. Then they buckle. Then the hind legs. And they buckle. This went on for quite some time. We took enough pictures and even a video. It was so awesome I really felt like crying. I was so touched by what we had witnessed. How special is that? Unique. Privileged. Blessed. We moved on because the Edge was awaiting us.

Nothing could have prepared us for the scenery ahead. We stopped, got out and scrambled up the little hill.....

I was speechless. I had seen photographs of William’s. I kinda knew what it looked like. But the reality is simply beyond description. It has to be experienced. Awesome, awesome, awesome. And unspoilt.  We had the place to ourselves.

It is an escarpment, which ends abruptly and falls down, almost vertical, to the valley below. You can see the future in the distance. Amazing rock formations. And somehow this used to be the bottom of the ocean at some stage and fossilised seashells can still be found. The highest point is reached by following a narrow foot path. About 15 to 20 minutes’ hike. Not really difficult. Very do-able. But have no fear of height or conquer it to conquer the peak. There are no safety barriers, no chains, no ladders. Not even a sign to warn you that you are doing this at your own risk. I thought I’d never ever have the guts to stand on the Edge. The fact that William was prepared to do it, had done it before and is not that comfortable with heights either, gave me the courage to say “Yes, let’s go!” I did not allow myself to think. Did not look around at the scenery to see how precarious it was. I kept my eyes focused on the next meter ahead. In my madness, I had left my running shoes in the car and was doing the hike in orange sandals. I never once stopped till I reached the top. Even then I was still staring straight ahead, looking towards the horizon, rather than down! But what a feeling!!! The moment was amazing. Awesome. Unbelievable. Incredible (fill in as many words as you like)

Then reality set in: What goes up, must come down, and going down, you can’t ignore the surroundings. Everything seemed higher, narrower and more precarious. It was my turn to be scared, but only for the briefest of moments, because there was no way round it but to descend. Pure adrenalin carried me through. My feet were firmly treading, but my soul was dancing.

Having reached the safety of open space and gentle slopes, I started looking at the rocks and stones. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate to find a fossil! And I did!!!!!!!!! And then William found one too, but he called Lesley over and made her ‘find’ it. What an unselfish gentleman!

It was almost dark as we started the journey back. (There was a song playing that I had wanted to remember. Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi. “If you could stay the night, it would last me forever.” It’ll come back to me later.) Have no idea how William managed to find and stay on the winding dirt track. If you miss a turn, you’ll continue into another wadi and another and another until you end up on the wrong side of some border! At some point one passes through a gate. We were alone in the wilderness. The gate had been locked! The gatehouse is almost a km further. As we were contemplating our next move, with Lesley getting excited about the prospect of spending a night out in the open, the Rangers arrived having spotted our lights. Freedom!

We were not done with the desert yet, only grateful to be on the other side of the gate. We found a nice-looking thorn tree to accommodate us. Made a fire. Ate take-away sushi. Saw a hedgehog scuttling along at one heck of a pace. Saw a genet. (muskeljaatkat) Enjoyed the full moon to its fullest and ended our day on a perfect note. It couldn’t have been more perfect!

Day two started bright and early. Coffee in bed at five, starting our road-trip at six. We saw the sun rise, but because of haziness, it wasn’t at all spectacular. I kept thinking it was the moon. This time the journey was shorter. Instead of going to the escarpment, we stayed at the bottom in the wadi (dry riverbed) We past modern day Bedouins and camels, camels and more camels. We stopped to take pictures. I guess it was feeding time and we looked familiar. They all came wandering towards us and were ever so loving and charming. Not smelly. No bad teeth. Soft and adorable. I fell in love! Next time someone offers camels in exchange, I will be much less offended. I will see the compliment for what it is.

We arrived at our destination, low and behold, yet another thorn tree. Not quite as spectacular and picturesque as the previous one, but William is good at spotting the right tree. Breakfast/picnic was set up in no time. Fresh fruit and yogurt. Of course, no picnic is complete without Kit-Kats. And then we just chilled big time, enjoying the quiet, the remoteness, the rock formation. Observing camels drifting pass. William reminded us that we could look for more fossils. We wasted no time. Scattering in different directions, eyes glued to the ground, we spent the next hour fossil-hunting, each returning with a bag full of treasures. (Okay, a handful!) It is an addiction once you start, simply because success is almost guaranteed.

By now it was 10 o’clock and it was starting to get a bit hot. It was time to leave. Reluctantly. In the car we drove with open windows and listened to “Going back West”. The setting was superb. The company was good. The atmosphere something to treasure. I am blessed. I know that for sure.

There followed another brunch, a siesta, a visit to Faisaliah building, and then the drive to the airport. We arrived back at Abha at 10 pm. Our transport arrived at midnight. For two hours we sat at this rural airport, irritating the Mutawa (religious police) because we were so visible and men were staring and taxi drivers were getting excited and we were laughing too much. What the heck, laugh I will. We would have to go back to work in order to recover. It will take about five days and we will be fit again for yet another exciting week-end in the kingdom.

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