Saturday, 23 March 2013

Small Towns and Tall Towers - All in a Day in the Desert.

Some days in Riyadh are good, others are not.  

On a bad day I open my email first thing in the morning to find that there is still no reply to the chatty note I sent a friend last week. Or the internet is down and the skype call I was planning no longer possible.
I end up feeling miserable and sorry for myself, because it hits me that I'm so far from home. I realise how dependent I am on things like skype and email to keep myself feeling positive and in touch. 

On a good day I get a whatsapp from my daughter forwarding a photo of her most recent scan. I look at the perfect little profile with its small hand clenched in the left corner. We exchange messages, marveling at creation and the mastermind behind it all.  I’m so thankful for the strong emotional connection that distance can’t sever. 

Another day a friend and I head out to Al Musmak with our cameras. I’ve organized a car and a driver who will pick us up from our respective compounds, wait and then return us home. We’re going to take photos of the old fort, making the most of the morning light. It's a long trip and not cheap, but what's so good is the simple experience of being out on our own as women, doing something together that we both enjoy.

Last week I had an unexpected call from a friend asking us to join her and her husband on a  weekend trip to the desert. It was a good start to the day. 

That was Friday and today is Sunday. The things we saw and did were a world away from New Zealand. 

In one small town, an oversized Arabic coffee pot and cup...  
 And over the road, a  typical sleepy Friday morning - shops shut and everything quiet, just three men chilling outside. 
In true Robert Frost style we took the way less travelled, going for smaller local roads and passing lesser known villages. We travelled north to Ar Raghbah and Ushayqr, stopping along the way for a picnic. It's times like this that I realise there's a huge plus to my life - there's so much I'd never see or do if I wasn't living here. 

Here's what I mean.   

At Ar Raghbah we walked around the old village but the the real challenge was the 22 metre high Al Marqab Watchtower. 

My husband climbed first. He said that it became increasingly claustrophobic the higher he climbed. He’d not enjoyed it. Undeterred, I decided to see for myself. I was convinced that the view from the top had to make it worthwhile. Dispensing with my abaya – they’re not designed for climbing – and with my camera dangling around my neck, I passed the graffiti at the bottom and set off, or rather up.

The first difficulty was that the steps were dangerously uneven and worn. (No health and safety regulations here.) The second was the very few, very small windows. (You can see them in the photos.)  They afforded only brief shafts of light between patches of total blackness. Scary. But the third, and most significant difficulty, was that as I got higher and higher the stairwell became narrower and narrower. When my right shoulder was touching one wall and my left the central core, claustrophobia finally and irrevocably overwhelmed me. 

I turned round and came down.

 View from the top of the tower. Sadly not my photo. 
Beyond Ar Raghbah, we turned into a side road. We'd passed date farms and poultry farms earlier but here was something different and quite unexpected. Ponds of underground water were evaporating in the sun, exposing their salty residue. Beside them, piled high, was the bagged salt. 

At Ushayqr we wandered down winding paths in the heritage village and climbed  more uneven and worn steps to overlook palms and desert-brown buildings.

That's some name!
A little later we walked to the local museum. We passed homes and a couple of small shops selling everything from bottled water to clothing.

I can't imagine that the motor bike belonged to this gentleman.  Thobes and motorbikes... not a likely combination. 
For sale : a splash of under-abaya- brightness. 
Looking back now I wish I'd bought one of these baskets, or even the colourful chest...
It was Friday afternoon and there were families and people milling about. A young Saudi lad struck up a conversation with me. He wanted to know where I came from. Then he told me he’d gone to Ireland to study English, but had found life there very boring. Ushayqr was much more exciting. I must have looked surprised, so he explained that nowadays in the evenings he liked driving into the desert with friends. In Ireland there was nothing to do after dark.

I though of an Irish friend ours, who’s recently returned home after a lengthy Saudi contract. I wonder how he’s coping with the boredom and lack of opportunities for *desert drifting.

Next time we skype I must ask him.

*Desert drifting, a popular Saudi pastime for young lads. 

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