Amidst all the madness that was the week leading up to an Antarctic Christmas, I was where they don't celebrate Christmas, in Saudi Arabia, discovering all that is Riyahd and the people that live there. After two long flights (leaving Australia 6pm Monday and arriving in Saudi 7pm Tuesday 21st) and a 6 hour stopover in Singapore I finally arrived but my flight was so early that there was noone there to meet me. Thanks to the wonderful Sinagpore Airlines employee that I got the attention of prior to Immigration and who escorted me through to the luggage hall where Justin's Dad, Brian met up with us. Minor freak out over, we headed out of the airport and in to Riyahd, albeit it in a 3-tonne armoured vehicle. A unique experience in itself.
Brian and Bronwyn (Justin's Mum) had been invited out that evening, and the invitation had been extended to include me also. I perfected a quick change, slapped on some make up and we were back out the door to Jim and Jenny Tanner's. Jim is Head of the Brits in the Saudi National Guard. We stayed for a couple of hours, chatted to some very interesting people and enjoyed some good food. The Tanners were the perfect hosts and everyone looked to be having a great evening. After the two hours though things were starting to get very hazy for me as the jetlag started to kick in so we called it a night and returned to the compound.
I slept like a baby and after starting the day with an email to Justin, was collected by Idris, an embasssy driver, and taken to pick up Louise, a long time resident of Riyadh and close friend of The Chambers'. She had offered to act as tour guide which I can't thank her enough for - who wouldn't know that the places she took me existed or that as a 'tourist' you could go there. It's hard to know what you can and can't do as a woman... but I did learn straight up that you can't drive and you must wear an abaya in public.
Louise and I headed first to the Kuwaiti Souk where we spent a long time in the most wonderful Aladdin's cave of Haberdashery shops! The place was a crafter's dream. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, room by room, every imaginable item you could think of was crammed in to this shop. I could have walked out of there absolutely weighed down by all things beautiful but took the approach of if I didn't know there and then what I would do with it, then I wouldn't buy it. It staved off all purchases, knowing I already have boxes of things I bought for that 'maybe one day' use.
We also visited a couple of abaya shops at the souk where I found one that I liked and purchased. I know I was only there for a week but decided that if I had to wear one, it might as well be one that I felt good wearing. And hey, it doesn't matter what you wear underneath so no staring in to the depths of the wardrobe for hours contemplating the day's attire. We didn't wear the hijab (head scarf) to cover our heads, but we did have them draped around our necks in case we encountered the Mutawa, Religious Police, who would insist we 'cover, cover, cover, cover'. (The Mutawa's role is 'the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice'.)
|Fabrics, Royal Mall, Riyahd|
From the souk we headed over to the Royal Mall where the locals go to buy fabrics for the over-the-top ornate dresses that they wear to Saudi weddings. And yes, they do get to be seen as the men and women separate after the ceremony and therefore the Abaya's are checked at the door, so to speak. The range of colours, designs, fabrics and decoration was quite mind blowing. The woman clearly go to a lot of trouble when it comes to dressing for an important occasion.
From there we headed back to Louise's part of town and her hair salon. It is open from 12pm-10pm and as soon as that roller door goes up, the local women are queueing up for their little piece of pampering. Due to the wearing of the abaya, it is important to the women to keep the things that can be seen beautiful... eye brows and nails, and to have only the best in bags and shoes. We had a hair wash and blow dry - those girls know what they are doing - and then we were back on the street and straight on to the chicken shop, purveyors of excellent chicken and rice. We took that back to Louise's apartment and enjoyed a tasty lunch followed by tea and mini cupcakes - beautifully decorated and equally as yummy.
Louise went to work (2-10pm) and I was delivered to the NZ Embassy to drive home with Bronwyn and Brian. We had a quiet-ish night at home with fellow Embassy employee, Vernice and her husband Graeme, who also live on the compound - which is well cared for and security strong. (I'm talking vehicle checks, razor wire and machine guns.)
My education in Saudi has begun.