22 June 2017

Sweet Sixteen

Bessie celebrated her 16th birthday a short while ago. Very few dogs live to see such advanced age, she was born so long ago that we did not even have a digital camera at the time.  The few, precious, photos we have of her as a put are in albums in our storage container.  After our long separation and her health worries last year we never thought she would not see her next birthday.  When she arrived in Jeddah in December last year we thought she had joined us only to say goodbye.  Since then she has shown how strong she is, she lives for the moments when the family are together and she can be with us all, she visibly deteriorates when people travel abroad, perking up again as soon as they get home.

People who see Bessie now see a dog that is bent and bowed, who has hardly any fur and whose skin sits in wrinkles on her hunched and skinny frame.  She was a beautiful dog in her prime and to us she is beautiful still.  Our honeymoon puppy, the dog who has followed us around the world  and who has helped to care for all our children.  Happy birthday to the very best dog in the world.

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The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets

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29 May 2017

Riyadh Rambles - Masmak Fort

Riyadh is not the first place you think of when you talk about a romantic break.  Mr EE is not someone to do things the easy way, however, and nor, really, am I.  A few weeks ago, during the school holidays, he had an evening meeting/social event scheduled in Riyadh and I had been asked to attend as well.  The date was close to my birthday so we decided to make a break of it.  The meeting was in the evening and not child friendly so we arranged for someone to stay at home with the children and pets and left the house at 3am for a romantic break in the most conservative capital in the world.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort, Riyadh.  Where the Third Saudi State was born.
Jeddah is, by Saudi standards, very relaxed and cosmopolitan.  Life here is pretty easy going but we had heard that Riyadh was much more buttoned down.  When we canvassed opinions of what to see and do we got a mixed response.  Half of our friends (local and expat) said we would be wasting our time, the other half have us a list of must see places.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The walls of the fort are made of Adobe
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Interior of the Fort
Mr EE had been a few times before, but as is typical of business trips, had seen practically nothing of the city.  The city itself reminded me very strongly of Astana.  Set on a flat plain in the middle of nowhere with futuristic buildings.  Even the dry climate was very evocative of Kazakhstan; with a spring temperature in the mid 30s it reminded me of Astana on a mid summer day.  That is where the resemblance finishes, however.  Astana is a young city in every sense of the word and exudes an air of fun that was missing from Riyadh. As always first impressions start when you step off the plane and into the airport.  Riyadh airport was swanky, particularly compared to Jeddah (which was voted last year the worst airport in the world although to be fair I have been in much, much worse).  The atmosphere, however, was very different, much more restrained.  I had packed my most sober abayas in consequence but did have to laugh as I was approached a few times by women who wanted to know where they could get something similar, I am clearly a fashion trend setter! 

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Some of the interiors are decorated in traditional style
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Others have museum displays.  Most have detailed information.
This one was a bit of an (amusing) let down with the 'small, medium and
large cannon balls'
 We went straight to the hotel for breakfast and a sleep.  After midday everything shuts down until about 4pm anyway (very civilised in my opinion) so we didn’t feel bad taking the time to rest after our horrendously early start.  Refreshed we took a cab to the Masmak Fort.  This compact mud brick fort was built by the Al Rasheeds who had taken control of Riyadh from the Al Sauds in the late 19th century.  In 1902 the future king, Abdulaziz Al Saud took control of the fort.  This was the start of the fight to establish the Third Saudi State.  These days the fort is a museum, entrance is free but certain times are restricted to men only so you have to check in advance to make sure that entry will be permitted to families (ie women).

Doors Masmak Fort RiyadhMasmak Fort Riyadh

Masmak Fort Riyadh

 The doors in the fort are heavily and beautifully decorated in typical Najd style.

The museum is self guided and if you follow the ‘tour’ it takes you through most of the ground floor.  The information is detailed, well laid out, and provided in both Arabic and English.  We spent a happy two hours learning about an event in history about which we knew almost nothing beyond the bare bones.  One of the real treats of expat life is learning, not only about the culture that hosts you, but also about the history of the country you call home, something you might otherwise never do.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The interiors are cool, dark and mysterious.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The Cafe is sparse but comfortable

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The fort was served by a well, allowing it to resist sieges. 
There are number of artefacts, mostly weapons and armour, on display and almost all the doors are sumptuously decorated in typical Najd style.  The museum also hosts a small gift shop and a café area.  By the time we had finished looking around we had hit Maghrib prayers so, rather than looking round the adjacent souk (no different to the ones in Jeddah) we used the time to take a few pictures of the sunset before taking a taxi onwards to our next destination.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The evening light gives a beautiful warmth to the walls.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort at Sunset

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Ersatz Expat

24 May 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Ramadan

We are coming up to the start of Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims worldwide.  

We have lived in many majority Muslim countries and in most, business continues as usual for the month.  In some fasting is a matter of personal conscience, in others a legal requirement for all Muslims.  In Saudi Arabia fasting in public is obligatory for all, even non Muslims.  Children are, of course, allowed to eat and drink during the day but for everyone else the fast is mandatory, not even a sip of water is allowed (until you reach the privacy of your own home).  

Life in Saudi changes completely during Ramadan.  Working hours are curtailed, roads are busy (and the driving even more erratic) in the hour leading up to Iftar and then uncharacteristically empty as families gather to break their fast. Charitable obligations are taken particularly seriously during Ramadan with many people donating food packages to those in need.  

Ramadan lanterns Balad Jeddah
Shops and homes are decorated with Ramadan lanterns.
Life becomes nocturnal.  Restaurants do not open until after the Maghrib prayer and then remain busy all night, supermarkets and some shops are open during the day to allow people to get the food needed for the evening but only really come to life after Isha and Taraween prayers.

The night is full of life, from the corniche to the streets of old Balad or the precincts of the modern malls.  The schools close (national exams were moved forward to before Ramadan to accommodate it) and families aim to spend as much time as possible together.  Our children go to an international consular school and therefore are not impacted by the closures although their days are shorter.

Even as non Muslims, Ramadan here in Saudi Arabia has a big impact on our lives.  Day to day we still have to be up for work/school and this means that the children have to go to bed at their normal time.  The result of this is that although Mr EE and I can go out and enjoy events around the city in the evenings or join in any Iftar celebrations we are invited to, there is very little we can do with the children; they are in bed and asleep before anything is ready to start.  Pretty much every attraction is shut during the day, last year we did take them on some walks but while the children were ok Mr EE and I really felt the lack of water in the heat.  We will stick to the compound and spend most of their weekends in the swimming pool.

Ramadan is an important time for our Muslim friends and colleagues and we wish them all Ramadan Kareem.

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Ersatz Expat

6 May 2017

Balad Historic Festival

I have written about Jeddah’s UNESCO heritage site of the old city of Al Balad before and with good reason, it is one of the most interesting parts of the city and one of our favourite places to go for an evening out.  A few weeks ago the city municipality had arranged a historic festival to take place over a few nights so Mr EE and I decided to go down to investigate.
Bait Naseef Jeddah
Bait Naseef
Due to the festival the traffic, typically horrendous on any evening, was truly atrocious and it took us over an hour to get down to the old town.  We walked up the Souk Al Alawi historic path to the Mecca Gate, the route taking us through a rather modern looking underpass and into the centre of the old town proper.  There is a lot of reconstruction work going on in an attempt to preserve some of the more important historic buildings before they crumble into nothing.  A lot of progress has been made in the year we have been here, however, and it is good to see the municipality looking to preserve rather than to build new.

Bait Naseef Jeddah
Bait Naseef
Walking up the historic path brought us to the ‘gun square’ presided over by the Bait Naseef, (once a Royal residence of King Abdul Aziz and worthy of a post in its own right) and a neem tree reputed to be the oldest tree in Jeddah.  As part of the festival a beautiful vintage fire truck had been parked by the side of the square, I meant to get a photograph of it but decided to wait until we walked back.  A mistake that I now regret.  What I did photograph, however, were the light projections onto the façade of the house.  Changing every few minutes from one pattern to the next the designs were quite mesmerising.  While we were in the square the mosques started the Athan, the call to prayer which is such an integral part of life here.  Shopkeepers hurried to close their doors and people started making their way towards the nearest mosque while others congregated on the street to make their devotions, public prayer mats provided for the purpose.  We walked on, moving from the square down one of the side roads towards the Al Shafi mosque.

Balad Historic Festival 2017

On the way we came across a courtyard filled with artists.  This courtyard, dilapidated and tumble down is usually nothing special, something we have walked past numerous times and given it no more than a casual glance, had been transformed with ribbons and lights, into an open air gallery.  We wandered from stall to stall, some of the art was amateurish, other items were good in and of themselves but not to our taste.  One artist really impressed us, we bought one of his oil canvasses and will look out for another piece that he has not yet finished.  I have no idea if the piece really is any good or not but we are over the moon with it and it will provide us with a wonderful memory of that evening for many years to come.  

Balad Historic Festival 2017

Moving on we came to the Al Shafi mosque itself.  The mosque, dating from around the 13th Century, is said to be the oldest in Jeddah.  Made from mud and coral it is designed as an open square with a single minaret.  The mosque was restored relatively recently and is therefore in excellent condition.  Mr EE and I, as non-muslims, are not allowed inside but from glimpses through the doors have seen that it is very beautiful.  As we were outside during prayers we did not, however, look in this time opting instead to enjoy the light shows playing over the walls and minaret.

Al Shafi Mosque, Balad, Jeddah

Al Shafi Mosque, Balad, JeddahAl Shafi Mosque, Balad, Jeddah

Al Shafi Mosque

We walked from the mosque towards the Bab Makkah.  This was once the start of the last and most difficult part of the pilgrimage to Mecca.  In the old days Jeddah was surrounded by city walls punctuated by garrisoned gates.  The walls have long since collapsed but the gates remain standing.  Pilgrims would make their way through the city and, as they went through the gate, would see nothing but desert stretching out in front of them.  Old pictures give a real sense of just how stark the contrast was.  These days the city has expanded a long way beyond its initial limits and the Bab Makkah is nothing more than a traffic island where boys play football and some unfortunates find shelter for the night.  

Bab Makkah (Mecca Gate), Jeddah
Bab Makkah Once the edge of the desert, now a traffic island.
The real joy, however, of a trip up to the Bab Makkah is the fruit and vegetable souk along the way.  Crowded with carts selling every type of produce you can imagine the street is heaving and cheerful.  The odd (brave) driver inches through the crowd but by and large this is a pedestrian zone of organised chaos and a good place to buy a bottle of water and banana or orange to refresh energy levels that almost always sag in the night time humidity.

Balad, Jeddah
Fruit and Vegetable Souk near the Bab Makkah
Leaving the souk we made our way through the quieter back streets towards the festival area again.  We found more open air art galleries where ruined buildings were transformed into showcases, a dance and music display and, rather incongruously, a Toyota stand promoting their latest models.  Further on there were stalls selling a range of antiques from old keys and locks to bicycles and ancient record players.  Everyone wanted us to stop and chat, a chance for a sale of course always in their mind but also a desire to talk, to find out why we were there, what we thought of their city.  There was more, much more, to the festival but by this stage we were exhausted and made our way home for the night passing recreations of old fashioned pilgrimages on the way.  

Balad Historic Festival 2017Balad Historic Festival 2017

I doubt people who have not lived here would imagine Saudis enjoying festivals like this, gathering together to celebrate history and culture and welcoming visitors into their midst at the same time.  While it is hardly an every day occurrence festivals like this are not unusual here (there was a food festival running concurrently and nearby towns had flower and rose festivals at around the same time).  Jeddah has a reputation as a rather dull posting but, when you start to really look for things, there is a lot going on.

Balad, JeddahBalad, Jeddah

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Ersatz Expat

27 April 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Compounds.

There are two options when it comes to  choosing accommodation in Jeddah, you can opt to live on a walled compound or chose to live ‘In Arabia’.  

The former is, naturally, more expensive than the latter, not least because the houses typically come unfurnished and when they say that they mean it.  Friends living outside have to provide their own kitchen units and white goods and even AC units as well as meet the more typical furniture expectations.  Houses in a compound cost more to rent but come furnished.  As well as meaning that new arrivals do not need to find a budget for kitchen units the costs cover provision of security, corner shops and exercise/relaxation facilities as well as all utility charges.  When we arrived we moved straight into Mr EE’s predecessor’s house to make things simple.  It gives us a base for the first 6 months which will allow us to look at the different housing options available to us.  We have since moved in to our own, larger, home complete with a bedroom for each child and a garden for the pets.

While I would normally prefer to live away from other expats in a private home in a more local district that choice is not really practical for our life here in KSA.  As I cannot drive I would have to take a taxi to and from school every afternoon to collect the children, I would need to wear an abaya just to step out of the house, could not send the children to collect last minute essentials from the corner shop and not be able to swim to my heart's content in a public swimming pool.  The latter issues are, of course, minor but the driving and transport was the deciding factor for us.  Most of our friends who live off compounds have no or older children and so are not limited in the same way.

Our compound is attached to Mr EE and the children’s school.  This makes for an easy 2 minute commute for Mr EE in the morning and means he can pop home for supper and to see the children before going back to work again in the evening.  Given the proximity of the school and home we also allow Master and Miss EE to go to and from school by themselves and one can do after school clubs while the other comes home and vice versa, they are not stuck waiting for eachother.  This independence is fantastic for them and it means that they are learning to be responsible for their own timekeeping.  Mr EE drops Mini EE off at her crèche every morning and I pick her up just before the older children get home.  The school run in our last posting took up a significant portion of my day, at one stage Master and Miss EE had different pick up times so I would spend 3 hours on collection duty just in the afternoon.  If Mr EE was away and unable to do the morning drop off I had another hour.  I find that I am so much more productive here because of this.

Our compound has a small shop, some exercise facilities, a library, recreation room and 2 pool complexes.  It also provides a shopping bus twice a day so that it is easy to go and get groceries or run errands while private lift share cars such as Uber and Careem are allowed onto the compound to drop me at my door.  Some of the other compounds have larger shops, restaurants, travel agents, beauty salons and hairdressers etc  (some even have a bowling alley and one a vets).  They are, to all intents and purposes, small villages in their own right.  Each has their own character but while it might be nice to be able to pick and choose the reality is that almost all the good compounds have long waiting lists particularly for family sized homes so most people go where their employers put them.  

Because there are heavy restrictions on mixed social activities in KSA the compounds, alongside the consulates, become the hub of expat activity.  A quick google will make Jeddah seem like an activities and cultural desert simply because no one posts anything online.  Once you arrive, however, and start to get to know where to look, there are things to do everywhere.

The greatest upside and the saddest downside of life on the compound is that we are massively insulated from real life in KSA.  We live a life of luxury cocooned from the outside.  I think it would be possible for someone to come to live in Jeddah (or any other Saudi city for that matter) and never really realise what life is like in the city.  Of course many of our friends and contacts are other western expats and most of the organised social events are arranged with these interest groups in mind so we have had to make a particular effort to connect and become friends with locals and long term expats, to read the local news and try to stay in touch with what is going on outside the expat community.  This means we catch glimpses and hear snippets of what life is really like at both ends of the spectrum, the grinding poverty of the sub continent expat labourers and the nonchalant opulence of life for the super rich.  There are times we regret that circumstances force us into our bubble.   Then pragmatic reality reasserts itself and I am thankful for the short commute and the swimming pool.
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Ersatz Expat

15 February 2017

Jeddah's Fakieh Aquarium

We often spend weekend’s enjoying the atmosphere on Jeddah’s corniche.  We usually go to the middle corniche park but a little further north and closer to home there is another section of the which houses some restaurants a planetarium and Jeddah’s aquarium.  I heard about the aquarium on my first day in Jeddah, I was introduced to a very staid and polite member of Mr EE’s staff who shocked me by saying something along the lines of ‘F*** You’.  Shocked for a moment I was relieved to hear he was telling me I should take the children to the Fakieh Aquarium.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

Miss EE had been to visit on a school trip a few months ago and raved about her time there.  I had been quite unwell and the older two children had really stepped up, making their own supper, cleaning the house and generally pampering me so we thought they deserved a treat.  They chose to visit the aquarium. 

There are three different types of ticket available, one for the aquarium, one for the dolphin show and a combined one.  The tickets are SAR50 (about £10/$13) per person.  Miss EE had been to see the Dolphin show on her last visit, Mr EE and I are against these shows because of the potential for cruelty, we spoke to the children about the issues surrounding the use of Dolphins and Seals in this way and they agreed that they did not want to go and see it.  Before going into the aquarium itself we took the opportunity to sit by the water and enjoy the sea breeze while eating some rather delicious cakes.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

The aquarium itself is small but very well laid out.  It concentrates on life from the Red Sea and the big tunnel (all aquaria seem to have them these days) is modelled on the environment around Elphinstone Reef off the coast of Egypt, a dive Mr EE and I had done a few (more than 10!) years ago.  Sadly, like most of the aquaria we have been to recently, there is not a lot of information about the fish themselves, the signs concentrating on one or two species per tank.  We should look out our old Red Sea Fish ID slate.  All the favourites are there, sharks (mostly Black Tips), Turtles, Parrot Fish, Clown Fish, Eels, Seahorses and Jellyfish.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

At 21/4 and having ditched the buggy completely Mini EE thought the aquarium was the most wonderful experience.  She walked from tank to tank taking in the different fish and watching with a huge grin on her face.  She has been to some before, the spectacular KLCC Aquarium as a baby and the offerings in Dubai last year but this time she really took everything in.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

Half way through you have to walk through a sweet shop, beautifully designed to maximise pester power.  After many years’ experience Master and Miss EE know that any requests are futile but we did see a number of parents succumb.

Fakieh Aquarium Jeddah

After the shop there are some smaller exhibits including octopus, an eel garden and the (again now ubiquitous) illuminated Jellyfish.  There was also another huge shark tank with a number of impressive specimens including a rescued Bull Shark that looked like it had had a run in with a propeller. 

The aquarium tour over we took the chance to walk along the corniche and watch the sun set to the sound of the athan before grabbing a bite to eat when the restaurants opened up again.  

Jeddah Corniche

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Ersatz Expat

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