Category Archives: riyadh

two silly ways riyadh could be better for us.

March 28, 2016

It’s that time of year. The weather is gorgeous here in Saudi Arabia–just warm enough during the day that swimming sounds like fun, but not hot enough that you feel like you’re roasting in an oven when you step outdoors. It’s the kind of weather that makes people sit outside in their hosh and bake in the soothing sun while simultaneously lamenting, “Oh…summer is coming.”

And along with the gorgeous summer weather comes the urge to escape…because there are certain things that you just can’t do here. (At least, not in most places.) A few nights ago, Mr. Mostafa, whose work schedule has been about a thousand shades of crazy lately (you know, he’s an accountant, and it’s “the season”), was tossing around the idea of taking a weekend trip to Bahrain soon for some sun and relaxation (even though we just went–somewhat disastrously–a few months ago). “We’re both so stressed,” he said. “I think we need a little vacation.”

I don’t know if we’ll get around to a Bahrain trip soon. But I understand what he’s saying. And last week, I got a Whatsapp message from a friend here in Riyadh, another American married to a Saudi, letting me know that she and her kids were heading to Dubai for the week. “We haven’t left the country since September,” she said. “We need a break. Husband is going for a business trip. Kids and I are going for the pool.” Complete with laughing face emojis, of course. As though an explanation were actually necessary.

We all get it. Even most Saudis get it. Although I find Saudi Arabia much more livable than most Westerners can believe, we all need breaks from it. On long weekends and school vacations, the causeway that connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia is jam packed with Saudis crossing the bridge for some time in Bahrain. And every time I get home to Riyadh from a trip to Bahrain or Dubai or someplace like that, I find myself thinking that there are some simple things that Riyadh could change that would probably keep a whole bunch of its own citizens within the borders on weekends and holidays, spending money and pumping up local economies. Obviously, I’m not Saudi, but I am married to one, and I can safely say that there are only a few things that we really notice the loss of whenever we get back. But they are important things.

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science!

February 12, 2015

On last Saturday, Mr. Mostafa and I decided to check out the Saudi Science & Creativity Festival that was going on at the Riyadh International Convention & Exhibition Center. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and Mr. Mostafa didn’t know much about it, either (“It’s like, a science fair type thing?”), but we figured hey, why not?

Turns out the festival hosted a large number of displays and learning activities for students, from elementary school age onward, including presentations from the California Science Center and Mishkat Interactive Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy, which is located right here in Riyadh but is only open to educational groups (I’ve been there with my sister-in-law and her students, and it’s a very cool experience. I had a blast right along with the kids).

The festival also hosted science competitions. There was the National Olympiad for Scientific Creativity, the national science fair in which, according to Arab News, 382 girls and 380 boys entered projects to compete for 700,000 Saudi riyals in prizes (that’s over $186,000! Hey, can I enter the Science Olympiad next year?). There were also two competitions hosted by SABIC, the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation: the SABIC Ideas Award and the SABIC Growth Fund, both of which invite competitors to submit their ideas for innovations related to the field of plastics. The Ideas Award is a cash prize and the Growth Fund gives the winner the opportunity to collaborate with SABIC and have access to SABIC resources to bring the idea to fruition. These competitions offer cash prizes up to 10 million Saudi riyals (that’s over 2.6 million US dollars. Yeah, I missed the boat when I decided I hated science in school).

So we got to the festival early on a Saturday morning.

the science festival hashtag.

Right after we arrived, we had to register in a large tent outside the convention center, where we got printed nametags like the guy on the sign is wearing in the picture above.

lavender's new boots.It was a big day for Lavender. Not only did she get her own cool nametag, but she also got to wear her Hello Kitty cowgirl boots for the first time; we brought them back from the States last fall, but she’s just now growing into them.

the entrance tent.

Because we were among the first visitors early on a weekend morning, the entrance tent was mostly empty. But there was a short film you could sit and watch in order to learn about the different displays and competitions.

the science festival logo.

Once inside, we discovered booth after booth of great activities for students, being presented by scientists and teachers.

girls building.

These girls are learning about…um, building? I guess? I don’t know, but it looks fun.

the saudi dinosaur.The animatronic dinosaur was a big hit.

science presentation.

Not sure what this guy is presenting about, but I think he works for the publishing company that has set up the display behind him.

learning about blood.These girls are learning about the role of blood in the human body.

science caravan.

The Science Caravan is another program sponsored by SABIC; it just launched and it tours the country visiting different cities to offer interactive workshops and experiments in chemistry, math, and astronomy.

california science center visits riyadh.The California Science Center presentation was a hit with the kids. It was all about air and the things it can do.

our big helper.Lavender was a big helper and pushed her stroller with her dad.

sabic science caravan.We caught one of the awards presentations going on at the Science Caravan.

outside the science festival.

The nametags were everywhere! Outside the convention center there was a box on which people could stick their nametags after exiting the festival. It made for a pretty colorful objet d’art.

So, yeah. That was our experience at the Saudi Science & Creativity Festival. It was a good time, and I’m sure it will be even more fun when Lavender is old enough to participate in some of the cool learning workshops!

what’s in the water in riyadh?

January 15, 2015

So, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll have read about how here in Riyadh, we don’t drink the tap water. No one does (hence the endless references to our drinking water dispenser in my last post). Throughout the house, we use the tap water for washing dishes, for showering, even for brushing our teeth…but not for drinking or cooking. I’ve never really questioned this–everyone told me not to drink the water, so I didn’t drink the water. But I’ve always been curious as to what exactly is in the tap water that makes it so unsuitable for drinking. I mean, I’ve been told that the water is very hard, and that’s not difficult to confirm–Riyadh showers will really do a number on your skin and hair, at least at first. But as for drinking…I’ve asked, but no one ever seems to know why the tap water should be avoided for drinking or cooking. It just should.

When we were in the States in October, I mentioned to Mr. Mostafa that I was going to look for a water testing kit to take back with me to Riyadh, so I could do some experimentation and find out exactly what is in the water from our sink.

He nodded. “Sounds good,” he said. “I’ve never seen a water testing kit. Do you guys use them a lot?”

“No, I’ve never used one,” I admitted.

“Then how do you know the faucet water here is safe?”

“Well, we know when it’s not safe. Like when there’s a boil order or something.”

“A what?”

“A boil order. You know, like when they say on the radio, ‘There’s a boil order in effect today from Johnson Street to Thayer Avenue in West Plains…’ Or something like that. So we know they’ve been working on the pipes or something and the water might not be safe to drink for awhile. So if you want to drink it, you have to boil it on the stove first to make it safe.” Pause. “They don’t do that in Riyadh?”

“Nope. Never heard of that happening in Riyadh ever.” He shook his head, and then he nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I think this is a great idea,” he said. “Except you should get two kits. Test the sink water and the drinking water. Let’s see if they’re really that different.”

Well, duh. Why didn’t I think of that?

So I went on a search for home water testing kits. Walmart didn’t carry them, and neither did any of the local hardware stores. I looked at the two nearest Lowe’s stores, an hour and two hours away, respectively. Although Lowe’s had a home water testing kit listed on its website, neither of my two closest stores had them in stock.

So I gave up and turned to good ol’ Amazon. I ordered two testing kits, but they didn’t arrive before we left to go back to Riyadh. My mom shipped them to me a few months later, in the boxes of Christmas goodies she put in the mail to us during the holiday season.

(A few side notes: if you’re an American planning to ship something to Saudi Arabia via the U.S. Postal Service, make sure they process the package with the zip code in the correct country. Our boxes finally made it to us, but not before they got misdirected to a place called Carle Place, New York…because apparently, Carle Place has the same zip code as our P.O. box here in Riyadh. Also, for the expat bakers out there, my mom shipped me a bottle of pure vanilla extract and a bottle of peppermint extract–both of which are difficult to source here because they contain alcohol, although they do occasionally pop up on store shelves around the city–and both made it through customs just fine.)

I got super excited when I cracked open the water test kit boxes. Vials! Test strips! I’m a scientist, y’all! The kits tested for eight potential contaminants: bacteria, lead, pesticides, nitrate, nitrite, pH, hardness, and chlorine. These levels were evaluated with the kits using five different tests. Some of the tests gave a result with a number range, while others gave a simple indication as to whether or not the water sample exceeded the limits recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So without further ado, let’s get to the results!

The first test was to detect bacteria in the water. There was a bit of gray powder in the bottom of the vials when I took them out of the boxes. I had to fill the vials with water about three-quarters of the way, put on the lids, shake up the vials for several seconds, and then let the vials sit for 48 hours for the final results. If the water turns purple, that means there is no harmful bacteria in the water. But if the water turns yellow, that indicates that there is potentially harmful bacteria present.

bacteria.As you can see, the water for both samples is decidedly purple. (The sink water sample may look a smidge darker, but that’s just because there was a bit more water in that vial.) The water actually turned very purple in both vials within a few seconds of me shaking up the water with the powder, but I went ahead and waited the 48 hours, as directed, thinking maybe it might change over the two days (like, maybe the powder was some kind of bacteria food and the bacteria needed two days to grow enough to show up?). But nothing changed. Totally purple.

The next test was to detect lead in the water. I had to put a small sample of water in a designated vial, just enough to cover the arrows at one end of the test strip. After 10 minutes, I had to check the test strip for the two blue lines.

lead.If the top blue line (the line nearest to the 2) is darker or equally as dark as the bottom blue line (nearest to the 1), then the test is positive for lead. But on both test strips, the line nearest to the 1 is by far the darkest (the top line is just barely visible on both). So no lead in either sample.

The procedure for testing for pesticides was exactly the same as testing for lead.

pesticides.

On the pesticides test, the upper line (the line nearest to the 2) was a bit more pronounced than on the lead test, but the lower line was still significantly darker than the upper line. So, no pesticides.

Next was the nitrate/nitrites test. I had to collect a sample of each type of water and dip the test strip into each water sample for a few seconds, then take them out. After one minute, I had to compare the colors of the pads on the strips to the color chart that came with the kits. The pad closest to the end of the strip gives the total nitrate/nitrite level, while the pad closer to the middle of the strip gives the nitrite level only.

nitrate and nitrite.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest with you and tell you that I have no clue what a nitrate or a nitrite is (or even if it’s supposed to be a countable or non-countable noun), nor do I know how their presence in drinking water is detrimental. I do know that according to the literature that came with the testing kit, there should be less than 1 ppm (part per million) of nitrite in the water, and less than 10 ppm of total nitrate and nitrite. But I guess it doesn’t matter, because there were neither nitrate nor nitrite in either sample. Zero. Zilch. Stay away, nitrate and nitrite! We don’t want you here!

The final test strip gave levels for pH, hardness, and chlorine. As with the nitrate and nitrite test, I had to dip the strip in the water samples for a few seconds and remove them…except for this test, I had to read the results after 15 seconds, rather than one minute.

ph hardness chlorine.This is the only test where I got a significantly different result. Also, this is the only test where I got a result that exceeded the EPA recommendations.

First of all, the chlorine tests, the squares nearest to the long end of the strips, were both negative, so that was the most important thing; they stayed white, which indicates that there is zero chlorine in the water.

Then there was the middle square, which measured total hardness. The brown color of the test pad indicates that the hardness level of both samples is 120 ppm, while the EPA recommended limit is 50 ppm or less. As I mentioned earlier, this wasn’t really a surprise, and there aren’t any known risks of consuming hard water.

The third square, the one nearest to the end of the strip, was the only test where there were definite, noticeably different results. The light orangey-pink result of the drinking water test indicates that the pH of the sample was 6.5, and the EPA recommends a range between 6.5 and 8.5. However, the bright pink result of the sink water test indicates the pH of the sink water sample was 10, and that’s well above the recommended limit. But according to what I could find (thanks, Sheikh Google!), a high pH indicates hard water, but generally isn’t in itself a problem. (Some people even claim water with a high pH is actually good for you because of its alkalinity, but I wouldn’t go that far.)

So, yeah. Those were my Riyadh water testing results! In the end, it seems the sink water is not so different from the drinking water, after all. I should point out that I’m not sure if these results would be replicated with water from faucets in different places in Riyadh (or different jugs of drinking water, for that matter), and, as anywhere, test results from a particular building will depend on the quality of the plumbing that serves said building. We still plan to keep the water dispenser for drinking water, just because we prefer the taste. But I’m pretty sure we’ll be using the tap water more. Stuff’s gonna get cooked in water from the kitchen sink from now on!

najdi village.

November 26, 2014

If you visit Riyadh, you’re going to eat at Najdi Village. I mean, you can just take that as a guarantee. You will go to Najdi Village and you will like it. (Okay, so I don’t exactly know if you will like it, but I know you should.)

What is Najdi Village, you ask? An excellent question! First, you should know that Saudi Arabia is divided up into regions. The central region, where Riyadh is located, is the Najd region. So if your family is from that region, you’re Najdi. (For the record, Mr. Mostafa’s family is not Najdi. Although Mr. Mostafa’s parents have lived here for the entirety of their married life and all their kids were born and raised here, they’re Hijazi–from Hijaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia.)

So, with this information, I am guessing you can conclude that at Najdi Village, you eat good ol’ fashioned Najdi food. And you eat it in the traditional Najdi way–on the floor. And it rocks.

Having spent pretty much every waking moment for the last six years in companionship with a certain Saudi male, I’ve reached the point where traditional Saudi food has become comfort food to me, alongside such American delicacies as Kraft macaroni and cheese and my mom’s Crock Pot beef tips and rice, which is the best rainy day dinner ever–oh, and my mom’s white gravy. (Seriously, my San Francisco-raised mother makes the best white gravy you will ever taste–it’s like she was born and raised in the Ozarks. She’s basically the Pioneer Woman. Slap that gravy on some mashed potatoes and man, you’ll be in heaven. Heck, I can just eat it by itself with a big ol’ spoon). And if you’re going to go out to eat for Saudi comfort food, I’ve yet to find a restaurant that will fix you right up better than Najdi Village.

najdi villageIn the family section, the eating areas are closed off into rooms. Some rooms have curtains that pull closed (like ours did on this particular visit), and others have big, colorful wooden doors–but they all close.

najdi village hallwayIf you are one of the folks who despises closed eating areas, as are common in the family sections of restaurants throughout Riyadh, you might not like Najdi Village at first –but the cool thing about it is, the rooms are big enough that you feel at home, because they’re modeled after a traditional Saudi living room. Which means that there are cushions on the floor all around the perimeter of the room, and that’s where you sit. And your food is served on a mat on the floor. And of course, shoes come off just outside the door.

family of shoes

The decor can best be described as vintage Arabia.

najdi village room

All of the dishes are meant to be shared. I suppose you could just decide that everyone will eat only what they order, but that’s no fun…and besides, each dish has a lot of food!

We settled into our room and picked out our dishes. (Many thanks to Mr. Mostafa, who missed his calling as a hand model.)

barley soup moqalqal goursan jareeshtawa breadThe menu has descriptions in English, for patrons who might not be readily familiar with what each dish entails. No, the English spellings aren’t consistent, but just go with it. It doesn’t matter. Really. And I say this as a former spelling bee queen.

So, yeah. We placed our order for our chosen dishes, along with drinks, including laban.

placing the orderThen we just got to chill in our room while we waited for our food to arrive. After playing with shoes for awhile, Lavender decided to chill and watch the scenes outside.

the scenes outside

The food was amazing, of course.

goursan jareesh tawa bread

By the way, I know the bread looks huge, but it’s actually hollow in the middle; once you tear it open to eat it, it deflates. Entertaining and delicious!

Oh, and the laban comes in a bowl, which is fun.

laban

Good stuff, Maynard!

bread

Kinda hard to deny the family resemblance here.

Arguably, one of the best parts about Najdi Village is that after you’ve stuffed yourself silly, you can lay right down and relax on the cushions on the floor.

time to rest

Mr. Mostafa obviously took advantage of this perk.

chatting

And so did Lavender. “Hey, there, Baba! I’m just going to chat with you for a bit…

stealing

“…While I steal your pen out of your pocket.”

So, yeah. Najdi Village. If you’re in Riyadh, go (it’s on Abu Bakr Road, and I know of at least one other branch that’s on its way up). And if you’ve never been to Riyadh but you plan to visit me someday, be forewarned: you’re going to go. (We took my mom there the first time  she visited.) And I reiterate–you will like it. Because I said so.

happy 84th birthday, saudi arabia!

September 24, 2014

National Day in Saudi Arabia is on September 23 every year. In Riyadh, this means lots and lots of celebration. There are festivals, fireworks, and just general revelry, with everyone wearing green and waving Saudi flags.

This year, we didn’t want to be out late and get stuck in the crush of celebratory traffic, but we did want to get out and about and see a bit of what was going on for National Day. So in the afternoon, we headed to historical Diriyah and walked around the festival grounds there. There wasn’t a whole lot going on at that point in the afternoon, but we enjoyed the scene anyway!

Lavender was rockin’ her National Day t-shirt.

saudi national day-12

There were about ten camels on the festival grounds, all decorated up for National Day. Some were resting, while others had riders on them and were walking around. Lots of pictures were taken of the camels. Yeah, it’s Saudi Arabia, but it’s actually not typical to see camels (especially highly decorated ones) walking around in the streets of Riyadh.

saudi national day camel photo

There were a bunch of classic cars and trucks parked around the grounds, too.

saudi national day-11

I was kind of amazed by this random legible footprint in the sand. Yeah, you can call me lame; it’s okay.

saudi national day-4

I like that red bag.

saudi national day red bag

There was some pretty serious sand castle building going on.

saudi national day-3

And I’m not exactly sure what this guy was building, but the mud he was using in between the bricks looked just like peanut butter, and it made me hungry.

saudi national day-9

Every kid had some sort of National Day decoration.

saudi national day-5

When we were there, they were still setting up for the parade through Diriyah that would take place later.

saudi national day

This is where that chair ended up–a whole roadside row of them. Mr. Mostafa guessed that the mayor of Riyadh would be in attendance for the National Day procession through Diriyah happening later in the evening.

saudi national day-13

Saudi Abbey Road.

saudi national day-6

I loved that baby’s ruffled, colorful little outfit.

saudi national day-7

There were horses, too! Mr. Mostafa said to me, laughing, “They don’t look much like your dad’s horses, do they?” Nope. They were smaller and skinnier–not unhealthy skinny, but thinner than the horses back home on the farm. That’s partly because Arabian horses are naturally a bit shorter and less stout than Quarter horses, but it’s also because my dad feeds our horses like they’re kings. And that’s one of the reasons I love him.

saudi national day-10

Happy National Day, everyone!