Thursday, 8 May 2014

Hofuf: Highlights and Adventures

I loved taking my school children on camp in New Zealand. The bus would drop us at the Governor’s Bay hills just outside Christchurch, and we’d follow a track downhill to our campsite.  We’d have a busy two days and then, before returning, I'd ask the children to reflect on their time away. They had to complete a list of defining moments. These were experiences that crossed a range of emotions - the scariest, the most amusing, even the most delicious.  They were always good to read and, when shared back at school, would make us all smile as we relived some of our experiences.

I’ve just spent two days with some friends on a farm a little way out of Hofuf. Like my children at camp, we covered a lot of ground in two days. Among other things, we visited an old fort, a souk, a museum, a cultural centre, a traditional pottery and the Hofuf caves.  

As we drove back yesterday it occurred to me that the same ‘defining moment’ way of reflecting on all we’d done would make an interesting post.

So here’s my list.

1. Most amusing moment
The moment that springs to mind was when we were welcomed to a small private museum in Hofuf.

It was jam-packed full of artifacts and memorabilia housed in such a way as to tell the story of life not so long ago.  Among the plethora of objects were gramophones and old records. Here’s a picture of the one that caught my eye and made me smile.

2. Most delicious moment
This was definitely the fresh farm food that covered so much of the table at every meal. I loved the goats’ cheese we had for breakfast that was somewhere between ricotta and cottage cheese. Then there was the fresh farm honey, farm dates, the oven-roasted lamb that melted in our mouths and baked chicken with its delicious cracked wheat stuffing. All so good!

3. Happiest moment
There were many happy moments, but the one that I remember most strongly was walking to breakfast under a lush boungainvillea-covered walkway and hearing a bird singing just above me. For just a minute, I was back in New Zealand and the song I could hear was an early morning tui in the bush. 

4. Greatest fun
On our first evening we visited a cultural centre and watched young girls reenacting a wedding celebration.

Afterwards the children danced and clapped as the women sang and kept a beat going on an improvised drum. It wasn’t long before we were dragged up by little hands to join in. 

5. Most awe-inspiring
This would be the Hofuf Caves, and standing looking up at the rock formations with occasional shafts of light breaking the darkness. Outside the noonday sun was relentless, but inside it was cool, quiet and very beautiful.

6. Best Arabic coffee and dates moment
I wish I’d counted the number of times we were welcomed in this way. So many, but the one that stays in my mind was the coffee shop in the Old Souk. It had an eclectic, not-exactly-spotlessly-clean ambience. It was so different to the sterile sameness of a typical Riyadh Mall coffee shop.

7. Best retail moment
After the caves we visited a traditional pottery. 

I looked at row upon row of pottery urns and vases and thought of transporting something like this back to New Zealand. I mentally shook my head. I could just see all the broken pieces. However I did find something. Hidden in a basket among a collection of peculiarly quirky and non PC Saudi figures, I found a toy that will make a great gift for a little someone when I next visit London. And at only 15 riyals, if it really doesn't matter if it doesn't last. 

8. Worst retail experience
Outside the old souk coffee shop was a shop selling antiques. As we browsed the cluttered shelves, one of my friends nudged me. “Look,” she said, and picked up a small tin bowl painted brightly in shades of yellow and green. “This is 350 riyals.”
“No,” I said confidently, “it can't be. That’s 3.50 riyals.” Not convinced, she asked the shop-keeper. She was right. The asking price was SAR 350 for one small bowl with Made in Slovakia stamped on the bottom of it. We moved on.

Spot the small antique bowl to the very left...
8. Least comfortable moment
On the way back to Riyadh yesterday we asked the driver to find us the next available comfort stop which he did.  But it really wasn’t. Toilets in Saudi – the less said the better.

9. Happiest memory
The hospitality and generosity of our host. Evening meals outside, sharing anecdotes, laughing and developing friendships across different languages, religions and backgrounds.

That was the very best of all. 

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