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.