Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Dangerous Driving, Saudi Diet-watchers and Anyone Misplaced an Apostrophe?

For Christmas a year or so ago, I was given a book called Eats, Shoots and Leavesan amusing commentary on grammatical correctness. It dealt with the confusion that can result when punctuation is either left out or added incorrectly. In an entirely readable manner, it explained such things as the Oxford Comma, making it seem as plain as the nose on your face to those who had either never heard of it, or just never grasped it.

I often think of Eats, Shoots and Leaves as I’m driving round and about Riyadh. In particular, it’s the errant possessive apostrophe which makes me smile. Take this for instance.

A college for just one teacher? Surely not. Moreover if there’s a grammatical mistake made on the front of a building which purports to be a model educational infrastructure - training teachers for goodness sake – what does it say about the standard of literacy within? Best not  to think about it, I tell myself as the lights in front of us turn green and we drive on past this grim façaded building.

Friday, 26 September 2014

National Day in Riyadh - Two Perspectives

Tuesday was Saudi National Day. National Day’s a public holiday celebrating the 23rd September 83 years ago, when King Abdulaziz created the independent state of Saudi Arabia. Green flags wave cheerfully along the sides of motorways and people converge on streets and in parks for promised festivities and fireworks. Generally speaking, it’s something families enjoy and celebrate together

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Five Things You Can Do On Holiday That You’ll Never Do in Riyadh

This is really only part of what I wanted for my title but my original idea was so long, it would ever have fitted in the space. It was, ‘five things you can do on holiday that you’ll never do in Riyadh, but five things that come a pretty close second.' Confusing? Best then, that I just get started and let things make sense as I tell the story.

1.  In Spain we climbed the winding stone staircase of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. We were on a 'Walk the Rooftop' tour. At the top the door opened out onto ancient granite roof tiles, which led us like steps up to the ridgeway and then down the other side. We stood perched on top of the world and took in the sweeping views of Santiago and the countryside beyond.

Well, it goes without saying that there are no cathedral roofs to climb here. But what comes a pretty close second is the old Najd village of Ar Raghbah, northwest of Riyadh, and its ancient watchtower. When we visited we climbed the narrow, uneven steps to the top and looked down on a completely different village and landscape vista.

2.  In a small village in Portugal we came across a procession of religious icons. These were carried through the main street on a carpet of flowers by men, women and even children. 

It’s certainly not something you’ll ever see in Riyadh, and the nearest I can think of in terms of colour and festivity is the annual Janadriya festival. It’s a very different celebration but has the same cultural components. We’ve seen processing musicians, sword dancers and even classroom reenactments of young schoolboys learning from the Qu’aran.

3.  One day we drove through the Picos Europa in Northern Spain, a beautiful national park with stunning mountains and lush greenery. The scenery reminded me of New Zealand, first the Remarkables in Queenstown and then the Southern Alps of my hometown, Christchurch. That was until a roadside sign flashed past and I realised that really this was nothing like New Zealand and we actually were a very long way from home.

I smiled and thought of our weekend excursions in Riyadh. We’d travel out to the Red Sands, climb the dunes, look for fossils and then drive home past very different roadside signage.

4. There’s something special about the colour and energy of early morning markets. I love the just washed, still wet flagstones, the soft light, the lilt of an unfamiliar language and the array of fresh produce. I watch as shoppers discuss what they want, make a choice and then sometimes wait as its cleaned and prepared.

Probably the nearest I’ve come to this in Riyadh is walking through the old part of Deira Souk, Al Zell. Instead of fruit, cheeses or fish, I’ve seen frankincense weighed and sold, and then passed shop owners sitting out in the open air reading and chatting.

5. Souvenirs. Around the Cathedral in Santiago there were hawkers with the usual collection of tourist trivia.

I bought nothing but remembered the bazaars I’ve attended here. They’re usually held in compounds and sell a different but often equally trivial range of merchandise. As in Spain, I’m not usually tempted. However to every rule there’s always an exception.

There just may be one of these on the front of my fridge in our Riyadh kitchen. That would be because it made me smile at the time, and on a quiet day when I’m back home and the holiday’s over, it still does. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Religious Festivals, Rocketry and Anyone Fancy Sardines for Lunch?

The first skyrocket sounded at 7.30 this morning. Yesterday it was 8.00 and tomorrow’s schedule says it’ll be 7.30am again.

You see we're in the Portuguese countryside, not far from the border with Spain, and very close to a little village called Vila de Punhe. Vila de Punhe is currently three days into a six day religious festival. From what we’ve seen and heard, rockets, which are generally followed by church bells, are a very important feature. Today’s festival schedule was brought to us with breakfast. It doesn’t just say rocketry at 7.30. It also says fireworks at 16.30, and fireworks with dancing waters again at 24.00. This latter sounds more romantic than accurate and I’m guessing it’s the translation from Portuguese to English that renders everything quaint and enigmatic. For instance, at 10.00am this morning, my schedule reads mass of the emigrants with a pilgrimage to the cemeteries to the sounds of clarins and a fanfare. And in fact as I write this, I hear the church bells pealing and looking at my watch, it is 10.00 am.

Yesterday we wandered down the valley to the village to see the Marching Bands and what was translated as a Gathering of Academies and Confraternities. In the afternoon we revisited for an ethnographic procession. I looked up ethnographic in the dictionary beforehand to try and grasp just what it was we might be seeing. It did help. Lots of floats to do with local customs and culture.

But first there was the waiting before hand. The procession, which was meant to start at 16.00, didn't actually get moving until 17.00. 

This woman had two live hens: spot their red combs in her basket. Once the procession started she carried them on her head.
Eventually things got underway. The humdrum and the ordinary were transformed into colourful and interactive floats. I think the 'doing the washing display' was my favourite. 

 This was very obviously an agrarian community.

And last but not least, at the very tail end of the procession...the men with rockets!

We came to  this particular remote part of Portugal expecting we'd have a week of total peace and quiet before heading back to Riyadh. Well, it's certainly not shaping up to be that. There’s far more excitement in the air than we could ever have anticipated. There’s a Solemn Procession and something theatrical we think we might go to this afternoon, and then tomorrow a Twilight Procession. All accompanied by yet more fireworks and church bells, of course.  

But standing on the grass yesterday watching the floats go by was an experience quite out of the ordinary. It was the very best kind of fun. The kind of fun you remember and smile about together, long after the holiday’s over.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Five Days in Spain, Five Stories to Tell

1. Cow bells
There is something very pleasant about waking to the sound of distant cowbells. We’ve just done that in a small country hotel in the Asturias region of Northern Spain. After flying from Madrid, taking the high speed train to Santander, and then driving to the village of La Pedrera, their gentle morning wake up call was a perfect start to our holiday.
In the countryside and off the beaten track. Perfect. 

2. Spanish siesta
I’ve always known that these two words go together and that they refer loosely to the Spanish belief in an afternoon nap. However there’s more. I now know that in the interests of siesta, all shops, including supermarkets and restaurants, shut at 2.30 and then open again at 8.00ish.  Consequently, if you want a late lunch or an early dinner, you are dead out of luck. Which is why one of us has now started referring to our holiday as the Spanish Diet Plan.

3. Fortuitous finds
Beautiful Potes nestled among the mountains of the Picos de Europa.
 Market day and local cheeses for sale 
I love discovering things unexpectedly, for instant a market day in a small village square, such as the one we came across in Potes. Or the really extraordinarily unexpected, such as the exhibition we came across, also in Potes, housed in the fifteenth century Torre del Infantado. It was entitled, somewhat enigmatically, The Cosmos of Beatus of Liebana and included among other things, illuminated manuscripts covering John’s apocalyptic messages from the book of Revelation.

Now I’d like to read more about the Apocalypse, because I’ve realized how little I know. Perhaps there’s a potential Christmas present in there somewhere.

4.  Lovable oddity
One of my favourite books is Prayers from the Ark by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold.  It's a collection of small poems, each one written from the point of view of an animal on the ark.  So for instance, the elephant talks about being “embarrassed by his great self” but then also reflects on his need to rejoice “in the lovable oddity of things.”

We’ve had a few “lovable oddity” moments ourselves. Yesterday in Aviles, for instance. We heard the bagpipes before we saw them. It was a street procession with a difference.

I'd thought it odd when I came across Saudi bagpipers at Janadriyah a couple of years ago, but now I’m wondering if assuming bagpipes to be the exclusive domain of the Scottish may be a major error of judgment. 

5. Déjà vu
We’ve also had some déjà vu experiences. In the Museum of Altamira, we looked at an exhibition featuring Palaeolithic cave art from the surrounding Iberian coastal area. 

As part of the exhibition, we saw a map displaying examples of cave art worldwide.  And there, marked in the area of the Middle East was the very same cave art we’d quite literally walked past when we visited the Nabatean tombs at Madain Saleh two years ago. 

Seeing it here, in so significant a context, felt quite extraordinary.

We've another five days in Spain and then a week in Portugal.  I’m guessing there’ll be more extraordinary moments to come.