This begins a series on our expatriate life in Saudi Arabia (from late 2000 to mid-2004) through a series of e-mails and notes.
E-Mail: April 12, 2001 (Thursday)
We hope that this message finds you well, and encourages you to keep in touch with us, as we love hearing from our family and friends “back home.”
Our time here in Saudi Arabia continues to be a wondrous and “eye opening” experience. Some of our more remarkable times have involved trips to the desert. These trips have included visits to the “Red Sands,” “Hidden Valley,” and “Edge of the World.” The “Red Sands” is an area just outside Riyadh, and as the name implies, encompasses a wide expanse of red sand and dunes, which seem to stretch out endlessly. We went with our newly formed friends, who on our desert trips have generally included wonderful people from Canada and Poland, and of course, our two pooches. It was great being able to experience the spirituality and stark beauty of the Arabian desert! These expat trips are always done convoy-style, no less than three four-wheel drive SUV’s, with a driver in the lead vehicle who has GPS, and knows the various landmarks, as there are no directional signs. Everyone brought food for a picnic lunch (including KFC chicken, the makings for grilled shish kabobs, tabouli, homous, Greek salad and brownies).
The “Red Sands” dunes are phenomenal. We trekked through the sand and along the dunes for several hours. Bishara and I (along with our pups and several children in tow), climbed to one of the highest dune points we could find, in an attempt to experience a more panoramic view. What a terrific jaunt – -“our babies” loved scampering through the sand, especially since we were able to let them loose from their leashes for some period of time. It was such fun to watch our pooches rolling, sliding, and digging in the dunes, managing to not only cover themselves in sand, but us, as well. . . . And, Bishara and the kids (human-kind, that is) had an exhilarating time, as well, coasting and rolling down the dunes. Bishara said it reminded him of when he was a kid!
“Hidden Valley” is an area approximately one and a half hours to the west of Riyadh, and has an eerie resemblance to the U.S. southwest. “Hidden Valley” is quite similar to “Monument Valley,” which straddles northern Arizona and southern Utah, with its huge buttes (made famous in American cowboy movies) rising from the desert floor. Some of our companions took a nearly two mile hike to caves along the ridges and others looked for fossils. Our Canadian friends actually found a couple of fossils with seashell imprints on them. They remarked that the fossils were likely millions of years old in this area that was once covered by the sea. We laid out blankets and pillows for our picnic lunch under a large Acacia tree near a dried up riverbed, and grilled beef, chicken and lamb shish kabobs and vegetables on a portable grill. There was also much music – Arabic and western – dancing (primarily belly dancing), singing, sheesha (huka) smoking, and tabla (drum) playing by Bishara, of course.
Towards the end of our lunch, a Saudi gentleman, a Bedouin, in his mid-60’s sporting a scraggly gray beard, thick silver eyebrows, and dark weathered skin approached our group. The man wore a charcoal colored thobe, a red and white checkered ghuttra with an igal (black coil), old tennis shoes, and a bewildered expression. We were all wary about what this stranger wanted from us, particularly since we could not understand what he was saying. Bishara jumped up from the picnic blanket, told me to hold the pups, and approached the man asking him in Arabic how we could help him. It turned out that he needed assistance in moving his disabled truck, which had stalled out. Bishara, with his Arabic was able to translate, and after he and others provided assistance, this benevolent stranger invited us all to a camel feast as a way of thanking us. He was actually going to give up one of his camels for us! We had to pass on the invitation, though, as it was getting late and many of us had to work the next day, but we were all most impressed with the generosity of this gentleman, which the desert Bedouins are known for. (I will be including more information on this story of the kind Bedouin in a future blog post.)
When travelling to the “Edge of the World” we drove for the first hour on a paved road, and through the desert for the final hour. Along the way we saw camels, Bedouins, and Bedouin tents, as well as goats and goat herders, seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Our pups became so excited when they spotted a camel, or groups of camels; we wonder if they thought they were big dogs! On this particular trip there was some greenery here and there, sprigs of grass and delicate desert flowers, which is rare we hear, and was due to recent rains. The ride through the desert is bumpy most of the way – since “the edge” has become pretty popular, there is a worn car path through the desert that becomes like “a washboard” for much of the trip. Also, there are points at which you travel over jags in the desert that are part of dried up streams and riverbeds. Expats use landmarks in the desert, like boulders or large rocks (sometimes painted), old tires, or signs on trees, to guide them to specific locations.
You don’t realize you’ve reached “the edge” until the lead driver signals the trailing cars to slow down and park. Before this you’re travelling along a great desert plain with the occasional limestone form protruding from the ground. When you finally park your car and get out, just feet away, you come upon this dramatic and sheer drop; the earth just seems to stop. There is a massive cliff with rock formations jutting from the tops of the cliffs, and beyond, in the valley, a sweep of desert as far as the eye can see. There were opportunities for all of us to climb down to the bottom of the cliffs, as well as to the top of rocky bluffs at higher elevations than our parked cars. The views from these elevated vantage points were simply fantastic; it reminded us somewhat of the Grand Canyon.
We have also had barbecues with expatriates from all over the world, as well as with a remarkable Saudi family from here in Riyadh. We spent an amazing evening, which turned out to be all night, with this particular Saudi family just recently. We arrived at around 8:00 PM to a home that was like a fair-sized palace. After meeting the entire family, seven sisters, two brothers, plus a couple of uncles, we were served mint tea, cardamom coffee, and the best dark chocolate. The barbecue meal outside in the courtyard by the pool, which was cooked by four helpers and several family members, was served at 12:30 AM. Even the pups were presented with lamb and rice on fine china. We did have a scare at one point that night when Callie, our younger pup, went missing for several hours; it turns out one of the sons had taken Callie to McDonalds, treated her to a Big Mac, and driven her around to the homes of friends “who had never seen a dog like this.” From about 1:30 AM until close to 5:00 AM we sang and danced to Arabic and western songs. It was wonderful fun!
Both Bishara and I are quite busy at work, but enjoying our jobs and the people we work with! Look forward to hearing from you!
Michele, Bishara, and our pups (Mish Mish and Callie)