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.
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.
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.