Monday, 6 June 2011

Eastern Misadventures With A GPS (Part 1)

There are very few old things left in Khobar city.  It used to be just a sleepy little port along the Persian Gulf; the end point for frankincense-carrying camels travelling from Yemen across the Saudi desert.

The discovery of oil in the 1930s changed all that. Almost overnight, Khobar became the centre of Saudi’s booming oil industry and the fastest growing city in Arabia.

From camel to Chrysler and from souk to skyscraper, all in one generation…

Our GPS had successfully led us from Riyadh to Khobar, but then it directed us to a narrow little street crammed with a higgledy piggledy assortment of shops. “You have reached your final destination,” it insisted. We were not convinced. All around us, men and women crowded the footpaths, moving like black and white checkers in a game.  Every shop window was full of stunningly ugly evening and bridal wear – more flounces, frills, lace and glitter per square centimetre than a desert oasis has palm trees.  

But no hotel.

No surprise then that we only found it after we’d turned off the GPS and resorted to that well-known method of asking someone for help.

We’d planned a rough itinerary prior to the weekend. First thing Thursday morning, we headed to Tarut Island. Khobar, Dammam and Dhahran are three satellite towns, so sprawling they spill over into each other. Tarut Island is linked to the mainland by a causeway near Dammam.

We were looking for an apparently well-preserved fort built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. But just when we seemed to be almost there, life suddenly got too hard for our GPS. Shrugging its metaphorical shoulders, it advised, “Map data is not available from this point. Please make use of local information.” An indication perhaps that we’d fallen off the edge of the known world?

We never did discover our Portuguese fort. Instead, we found a fishing harbour called Darain on the south side of the island. Traditional dhows floated on blue water, and the sea breeze wafting along the corniche tempted us to leave the air-conditioned comfort of our Nissan Armada, if only for a brief leafy stroll. It was very pretty.

But keeping to our itinerary demanded we continue onwards. Off to Dhahran, to visit the Aramaco Exhibit. We’d been told it was one of the best museums in the country.

We weren’t disappointed. There was everything here to do with the oil industry and some interesting related exhibits on Arab science and technology. Amazingly, this state-of-the-art museum was near-silent. Empty of local visitors, and bereft of the quintessential gift shop, we were left to browse the incredible range of exhibits at our leisure, totally alone. Such a sharp contrast to the rest of our trip.    
Next stop: Half Moon Bay, some 30km from Khobar.

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