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Merry and Bright!

17 Nov

In the build up to Valentines day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, there is a city-wide ban on the sale of red flowers, especially red roses. The muttawah (religious police) make regular checks on florists and flower sellers around this time and confiscate any contraband they may find. Valentines Day is not recognised in Islam and I think that the authorities also believe that it may encourage men and women to mix in situations where they are not permitted to. My opinion though, not something that I know to be absolutely true and correct.

I relate this piece of information regarding Valentines Day festivities not because I wish to find fault with Saudi Arabia. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that our time there holds a very special place in my heart, it was a great experience for me. The reason I bring the matter up is simply to try to help my readers to understand how completely gobsmacked I was when we discovered this 2 nights ago…

christmas trees lining the pavement in front of a store! We had heard that there existed a shop that sold Christmas paraphanalia and were keen to see what they might have. We certainly didn’t expect…wait for it…an entire store dedicated to Christmas. 

Row upon row of wreaths, tinsel, nativity scenes, wrapping paper, Santa’s and even pillar candles with pictures of Jesus. We have just left a country that would probably lock you up if you were found in public with so much as a Christmas bauble in your handbag whereas in Qatar we find ourselves walking freely amongst revolving plastic Christmas trees.

    I remain, as always, continually amazed.


Another City, Another Souk

3 Dec

Whilst we were in Oman recently, we paid a visit to the Muttrah Souk. It was not a very long visit as a toddler with impending flu is not a fun companion on such excursions! Having a bit of a thing for souks, I would have loved a couple of child-free hours exploring Muttrah. It was heaving with people, both locals and tourists, as evening approached. The tourists  buying the kitsch souvenirs and the locals sitting on benches in the alleyways drinking tea and watching them.

The actual building housing the little shops is beautiful. With well-worn, uneven paving and the most wonderful ceiling made from a combination of woven matting, carved wood and stained glass it felt very old-world and traditional.

As is the case in most Middle Eastern souks, one could furnish and decorate a house, clothe an entire family and find enough paraphernalia to keep you entertained for years in the souk. From the traditional khanjar: the Omani dagger, to frankincense, myrrh or plastic toys that you know will be broken before you have even left the souk there is something for everyone. Here are some of the things I loved:




Muscat – A Beautiful City

21 Nov

During our stay in Muscat, Oman we had the opportunity of being driven around the city by our good friend, Toby. We met Toby when we were living in Doha, Qatar and have managed to travel to a country that he is living and working in for the past 2 years, at exactly the same time of year. Last year we met up with him in Abu Dhabi, when Olaf and I went to watch the inaugural Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. This year we visited Oman and lo and behold Toby was there. We wonder where next year will take us in our quest to keep up the new tradition.

Muscat is a beautiful city and although it is very clearly a city in the Gulf it is also very different to many of the other Gulf countries we have visited. Being situated on the coast, Muscat gets very humid and I expect that summer must be tough. But over this time of the year it is glorious. The little towns along the coast have a distinct beachy feel, the crisp white buildings set against the jagged granite mountains with beautiful blue skies above. Amazingly, Muscat is not very dusty at all so the colours are vivid and bright and due to  lots of rain and water from the high-lying mountainous areas it is also quite green.

The architecture, though still possessing many of the same characteristics of other Arabic countries, also has a slight mediterranean feel. I couldn’t get enough of the crisp white buildings sans the dust we have become used to. It was simply dazzling.

The city is also very well manicured with vast green open spaces and well-tended gardens along the roadside. It was the 40th anniversary of the reign of Sultan Qaboos and so celebrations were underway whilst we were there with many visiting dignitaries insuring Muscat was in ship-shape. However, according to Toby it is generally a well-kept city.

Below is a shot over the harbour just before sunset. The sea is very calm in this part of the world and in the harbour it is like a lake. You just feel like jumping in and going for a swim, I tell ya.

The Grand Mosque is situated in the modern part of Muscat and is quite beautiful, especially when lit up at night. We passed by it on our way in but it was 2 in the morning and I just couldn’t grab my camera fast enough. I got this quick pic whilst flying past on our drive.

Incidentally, I got that shot of the hole in the rock that I discovered whilst kayaking (mentioned in my previous post). Luka and I discovered that we could actually walk around the mountain during an early morning walk before breakfast which means it wasn’t quite as secret and hidden away as I thought aawww! But beautiful none the less.

Muscat is the most beautiful city that I have visited in the Gulf, by far. I would return again in a heartbeat.



Need a camel, anyone?

9 Nov

In the event that you may be in search of a good, healthy, strong camel, I know just the place. It may, in fact, be one of the best places in the world to procure such a glorious creature. It will involve a trip to The Land of Sand but I can tell you it will be worth all the effort as these guys breed some beauties. Camel breeding is a BIG deal in Arabia. The fact that a ‘top of the range’ camel can fetch upwards of a million US dollars is proof of just how big the camel trade is here.

We popped into the camel souk on our way back from our recent camping trip to the Edge of the World. It is situated on the outskirts of Riyadh along the side of the highway so one just needs to pull over on the side of the road and pick out a camel that captures your heart and budget. You’ll be spoilt for choice, there are thousands to choose from.

I cannot promise that it will be the most glamorous shopping trip that you have ever been on. It’s dusty, smelly and hot. The men may chuckle at you walking around checking out their camels if you are female. You will also dirty your abaya which can be a little inconvenient plus it’s best to wear a pair of sneakers which don’t look great with abaya’s. All in all, very unglamorous. And that’s what I love about it.

Once you have made your purchase, your camel will have it’s back legs tied up and it will be loaded into the back of your pick-up with a crane. Be prepared for a very unhappy camel, there is something about being tied up and suspended above your previous dwelling that they just don’t appreciate. They can be incredibly noisy during the entire saga.

You may be able to score a 2 for the price of 1 deal if you visit the maternity section. This section can be identified by the obviously big-bellied mother camels but you can also just look out for the only enclosure where all the camels are lying down.

If I were in the market for a new camel on the day we visited, I would have chosen this guy (or girl).

Judging by his (or her) size, he seemed to be around the teenage years. And the big bonus… he seemed to be the responsible sort as it looked like he had been placed in charge of a group of young ‘uns. A babysitter of sorts. Now a camel that can double up as a babysitter seemed a good buy to me. We could go out in the evenings knowing that Luka was well taken care of at home and not even have to pay anyone to do it! Olaf was not so sure about the idea, something about the cost of keeping it fed in a country with very little grass. I dunno, I think it may be worth a try.

Should you need any other camel paraphernalia once you have made your purchase there is even a camel accessories shop right at the souk so you can leave with everything that you need. It’s a one-stop-shop so to speak with everything from the essentials to the bling.

In my quest for our very own teenage camel, I even suggested to Olaf that I could use the camel for getting around Riyadh during the week. We would just need to buy one of these saddle bags…

and I could do the grocery shopping on Saturday mornings without the use of a driver. Imagine Luka and I cruising down the streets of Riyadh with our teenage camel packed to the hilt with the weekly grocery requirements. The only thing I need to inquire about is the camel parking policy at Tamimi, our grocery store of choice, before we make a final decision.


Putting Honey On My Lips

18 Oct

A few days ago we were heading back from a trip to the airport when Olaf asked me if I would like a drink from Starbucks on the way home. As it was 4 in the afternoon I thought a choc-chip java frappuchino would hit the spot perfectly. We decided to pop into a Starbucks located in a mall close to home. My drink of choice was not available as the branch we had chosen was about  to close down for a month for renovations and they had run out of chocolate chips. Fortunately, the mall has another Starbucks branch so we thought we would get the drinks from there as we were in no particular rush.

Before we left Olaf asked the chap behind the counter to phone the other branch just to make sure that they had choc-chips before we walked across the entire length of the mall. The chap leaned back and spoke to someone in a passage way behind the counter, out of sight of us, and then told us that he would not need to call branch number 2 as a man who worked at the branch that we were heading to was currently in their shop and could assure us that they had stock of choc-chips. No-problemo.

We arrived at Starbucks branch number 2 only to find it closed. As most shops reopen at 4 and it was just after 4 we decided to wait for 10 minutes before calling it quits and heading home. Presently a man in Starbucks uniform came strolling along, pushing a trolley with milk, cheesecake and a couple of other Starbucks products. Putting 2 and 2 together I figured that it had to be the man who had been in the passage way of the first branch we had been in and that he had been collecting stock for his shop. I chucked to myself thinking how strange it was that he did not pop his head out as we left the previous shop and tell us that he would be a little late.

We gave him a few minutes to get things up and running in his store before heading in to order our drinks. I ordered a drink for Olaf and then my choc-chip java frappuchino to which he replied: “Sorry mam, we do not have any choc-chips in stock”. SORRY, WHAT???  BUT YOU JUST SAID…

What else can you do in this situation but laugh.

I do not, for a moment, believe that anything was lost in translation during this little choc-chip saga but I do believe that the Arabic saying: “You are putting honey on my lips” rings true in this case. Olaf taught me that Arabs use this saying when they think that someone is telling them an untruth just to appease them and to avoid dealing with the repercussions of the actual answer not being a positive one. In other words, sweet talk to keep you from getting angry because of non-delivery.

Honey on my lips as a replacement for choc-chips in my drink was certainly not quite as tasty as I might have imagined.

Tourists in The Land of Sand

3 Oct

A day after arriving back from our holiday in France we received two special visitors: Kyle and Mikhaela Brinkmann

Kyle and Mikhaela live in Cape Town with their Mum. They are Olaf’s eldest children and visit us as often as we are able to organise it. We generally spend time with them in South Africa though and this was their first visit to the Land of Sand. At the age of 19 and almost 17 we thought that it would be okay for them to finally handle an international trip on their own. It was a daunting prospect what with a connecting flight in Abu Dhabi to deal with and King Khaled International Airport to negotiate at 3 in the morning when they arrived but after a strict set of instructions about what to do where and when (Olaf’s German heritage kicks in really strong during times like these) they managed magnificently. Mikhaela was less than thrilled with the prospect of Dad greeting her in the wee hours of the morning with an abaya straight after exiting passport control but she did the necessary and learned to live with it after a few days (although she constantly reminded us of how hot it was).

As Olaf  was expected back at work, I was designated tour guide for the 10 days of their visit, except over weekends when Olaf was able to join us. Our first outing was to the Kuwaiti Souk. I needed to buy some sewing things for a little project that I’m working on so I dragged them out of bed and into the market for a few hours. I absolutely love the souks, I can’t tell you how much they excite me. All manner of household necessities are sold at this one from cutlery to furniture to shoes.

Souks are not the cleanest places to shop and you have to walk down dark alleys and between strange (sometimes slightly scary people) but they are full of wonder and mystery. Although it is cooling down it was still about 37 degrees when we were there at 10 in the morning so you have to be prepared to sweat. But it is fun! I love it. The teenagers  began complaining within 5 minutes of exiting the air-conditioned taxi about the heat but I think that these experiences are part of the reality of living in the Middle East and have to be experienced and at the end of the day I think that they enjoyed the outing in a sweaty kind of way!

It has been fun being a tour guide in Riyadh and I have all our adventures and experiences to share over the next few days so stay tuned if you a would like to see some more of this interesting corner of the globe.

Our Weekly Grocery Shop

23 Jul

Reason for this post, on what would be a rather mundane subject otherwise: Grocery shopping can be classified in the category of ‘normal’  in The Land of Sand, just look and see.

Saturday marks the beginning of the work week in the Land of Sand. It is a strange concept to adjust to initially but one does, eventually. Anyhoo…it also marks the day we do our grocery shopping. We being Luka, myself, our friend Madele and over the holiday period her daughter Sune joins in the fun.

It is a quick, well-organised and swiftly executed affair, just how shopping for food supplies should be. Salaam fetches us at 9am and we are back home just after 10. I HATE grocery shopping and the quicker I can get it done, the better. I must also say that I am fully aware that there are many people in the world who would give their eye teeth to be able to shop for food and I am always grateful that we are able to buy whatever our heart and stomachs desire. However, it is my least favourite housewifey chore.

We dress in normal clothes, just like you:

and then we cover them up, unlike you

We drive in a car, just like you…except  of course that we have to book a driver to take us as we are not permitted to drive.

Our grocery store, Tamimi, is in a large air-conditioned mall, with ATM’s, helpful, friendly staff and plenty of people to assist if you need your trolley pushed to the car or groceries unpacked at the till point.

Our shops are filled with a wide array of foods, not always the same thing every week but certainly enough choice to ensure that we have variety and decent-quality produce.

Salaam even carries all our bags into our house for us when we get back. It would be safe to say that grocery shopping here is pretty similar to most countries I’ve been to and with just a few minor inconveniences, it’s all rather easy considering how difficult some other things can be.