absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

One Night in a Tent Outside Riyadh

Playing cards with Saudi men in a tent outside Riyadh

Dear George,

Another story from my travels before I forget too much of it:

I used to visit Saudi Arabia about twice a year, mostly just to Al Kobar, Jeddah and Riyadh with work. The first time I was really nervous, I think because I had no idea what it would be like: a seemingly quite closed and very conservative society with little or no cultural influence on my life so far. I soon realised I didn’t need to be worried and that like most of the world, people are just trying to get on in life and are generally nice to one another. One or two unnerving things happened, like almost being run over by a quad bike on the pavement, but generally it was relaxing place to visit full of soft drinks and late night sheesha smoking in cafes.

On my second visit I met up with a contact who was intent on showing me what Saudi could be like and keeping me entertained. We hired a big jeep (a Toyota FJ Cruiser), filled it up with fuel (¬£4.30 for a 65 litre tank – the cheapest petrol in the world) and headed out to the desert to do some dune bashing. There were herds of camels being walked through the flat plateau by shepherds¬†shielding their faces from the sand-filled wind and just miles and miles of nothing. Riyadh sits on a rock plateau that falls away into rolling dunes and as we headed down through the rock my friend told me that Tony Blair had visited there only two days before to take in the view. He had just started his role as Middle East envoy. We reached a flat-ish part of the dunes where all sorts of vehicles had also stopped in preparation for their own dune bashing. We let air out of the tyres to get a larger surface area, engaged 4WD and revved the engine. My friend went first and absolutely gunned it towards the loose sand and up the dunes, sand flying everywhere and me gripping hard onto the hand rails. It was an amazing feeling, especially when you get over the top of the dune and are faced with a roller-coaster drop the other side. Wheels spin round, the car slides sideways and just when you are sure it is going to roll, one flick of the wheel and you straighten up and can hit the accelerator again. A real rush. We nearly collided a couple of times when other jeeps blind jumped over dunes we were on – so reckless – but just exhilarating. And then you get stuck. We probably got stranded about 5 or six times and once we needed a tow out of deep sand. The locals there were great though, stopping to help dig us out and jumping in the driver’s seat to try themselves.

Dangerously close to tipping over

Prayer time before Dune Bashing - it worked and we didn't die

We eventually tired and started to head back – we had a dinner appointment in a tent to make!

Some friends of my contact had invested some of their cash as a consortium to buy a piece of the desert on the edge of the Riyadh plateau where they had erected a large tent, complete with small holding out the back of goats and camels. When I arrived, they all came out to greet me with handshakes and kisses, I took off my shoes and entered the tent, complete with traditional carpets, stoves and pillows for comfort. They poured coffee, made me sit down and started asking me all about myself (through my friend who translated). I’ve never felt so welcome. Everythin that was being offered out – dates, spiced coffee, sweets – was offered to me first and it was amazing.

They had killed a goat earlier for us to eat for dinner and ushered me outside to show me how we were going to cook it. They had sunk a barrel into the ground, which had been modified to have an airtight removable lid. Charcoal was lit at the bottom of the barrel and then the goat was put into a basket, head and all. This was then placed over another basket full of rice, so when the goat cooked it seeped juices onto the rice and made it moist and flavoured. Once the lid was sealed they wanted to take me out onto the plateau to see the view. We jumped in their pick-up and head out at dusk. We saw a black camel roaming on it’s own. About a mile later we were flagged down by a rugged-faced man in a bashed up jeep. He spoke to our driver in Arabic, gesticulating wildly and then went on his way. When I asked what he wanted I was told, “He is looking for his favourite camel”! It was the Saudi version of a Welshman losing his sheep.

The stars were bright as we got back to camp and the goat was pulled out of the make-shift oven. The baskets were carried inside and then poured out onto huge round dishes that were placed on the floor, where we sat and ate with our hands. Again I was offered everything first and my plate was constantly being refilled before getting emptied. I was then offered the tongue (which is reserved for the poet of the group – I was obviously talking too much) and some of the brain, which tasted like cold, sloppy liver. It was actually really delicious.

After dinner we had more coffee, played cards and the old men moaned about their work and their wives. It was the Middle Eastern version of a night in the local pub. I left with a full belly, a big smile and a reassurance that most people in the world want others to be welcome and comfortable.

The goat coming out of the oven

I’ve got some more stories from Saudi for another time, but it is past midnight here in Hong Kong now and I’m going to bed.

Love,

Dad

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Business lounging

Dear George,

I’m sweating in Emirates business class lounge in Dubai airport and it’s not pleasant. It’s a huge place in one terminal solely dedicated to one airline. Despite not being more than a year or two old, it already seems at capacity, with almost every seat taken, queues for everything and not enough staff around to clean up after the hordes. My headache is not being done any favours by it and I’m feeling a bit short tempered – not the usual placid state I like to be in when travelling. I left you with your Grandma yesterday afternoon before a car came to pick me up for the airport, and you gave me a kiss and waved goodbye with a big smile. You have just turned one. My heart basically broke into pieces and fell out of my chest right there. Anyway, I am not feeling good about leaving you behind. This trip is just over a week long and hopefully it will fly by. This time it is Hong Kong, Beijing and the UAE on the way back.

All this travelling over the past few years has provided quite a few experiences for your old man, but I haven’t kept a diary of them. I thought I’d try to get some of them down in this blog whilst I haven’t forgotten them, but I know a lot of the detail is already lost to my appalling memory. Where shall we start?

A hash run in Lagos:

Nigeria is a challenging place to work. The infrastructure is terrible, so just getting around is a hellish experience of traffic jams, arguments, bribes and overheating. When I first went the organisation that had arranged my transport greeted me with a minibus and a security guard brandishing an AK47. His uniform was three sizes too big and he looked half asleep. I figured that he would be more likely to run away than fight if we were hijacked and probably didn’t know how to turn the safety off (or on!) on his automatic weapon so wasn’t filled with confidence. Every time afterwards I insisted on not having security – a guy with a gun just attracts attention and an ill-trained guy with a gun is just an accident waiting to happen. To begin with I found the mayhem a novelty and would quite happily play along with it all. I enjoyed the pantomime of having to bribe a guy to get my bag onto a plane in Kano and being stuck on Victoria Island bridge watching hawkers try to sell TV aerials/inflatable crocodiles/any old shit to the traffic jam. After a few trips however this all wears a bit thin and turns to deep seated frustration, especially as it makes working difficult. More than anything, as a white guy in Nigeria you cannot blend in or be treated normally: you are a walking dollar sign which attracts attention at every turn. The urge to do something normal became overwhelming and so I agreed to go on a run around Lagos one evening with a group of expats and locals known as the Hash House Harriers. The HHH is a running club that is run throughout the world in true eccentric British style. Almost every city has a club that meets weekly or monthly to mix running with orienteering and drinking beer. Someone goes out with a piece of chalk and marks out a route using various symbols to tell runners where to go, and then the pack tries to navigate. It is interesting if the rain has washed it away or you lose the trail! So in 32 degrees centigrade we set off at a light pace around the streets and dirt tracks of Lagos and to be honest, I was a little apprehensive. People simply stopped and stared (I don’t think jogging is up there on most Nigerians’ list of recreation activities), pointed and scratched their heads. Who were these strange people jogging in the heat, jumping over open sewers and ducking in and out of alleyways? It was actually very liberating for someone who had been cooped up in a hotel for several days and I saw a whole new face of the city – people going about their business, whether it was buying meat, chatting on corners or literally doing their business on the roadside! A guy in no more than a loin cloth stopped as I ran passed and frowned. He turned heel and started after me, eventually catching me up and I wondered what he was up to. He bounded alongside me, then his frown suddenly turned into a huge grin and he shouted, “Run white man, run!”. I laughed politely and kept on jumping obstacles. It was exhausting, but a lot of fun and eventually, after about 90 minutes and four pints of sweat we finished at a local ‘pub’ where the club issued drinking penalties and rugby club style drinking games ensued. Not a very easy thing to stomach when you have just sweated out half your body weight, but a great experience (one guy walking around and force feeding beer to people from a water pistol!) and it carried on into the night, me eventually stumbling away light headed but happy.

Right, my flight is about to be called. I’ll write on the plane or when I am in Hong Kong, one of my favourite places to visit.

Love,

Dad x

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