4 September 2017

Expat Stopovers - Sri Lanka

It has been a long time since my last post, the summer is not conducive to blogging!  We have had a busy few months from the children’s school break up mid June to their going back in a week’s time.  Part of that time included a two week holiday in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
At just over 4 hours flight from us it makes for an ideal expat stop over.  Mr EE and I have long wanted to visit the island and the children were won over with the many photos of elephants.  Other than a few short breaks and trips back to the UK we have not had a family holiday for some years and so we thought we deserved a good break.

Viharamahadevi Park
Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo
Sri Lanka certainly delivered that, from enjoying time just walking around the beautiful Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo to the many friendly people we met on our journeys round the island it was a relaxing and enjoyable break.

Elephants at Ude Walawe
Elephants at Ude Walawe
Colombo is not the most enticing of capital cities but we had to spend a few days there to sort out car hire and driving licence validation.  The rest of our holiday was spent driving around the island.  We stayed mostly in Air BNBs as we find these suit our large family and holiday style more than a hotel.  We had only one negative experience, a villa in Kandy that we had rented as a whole house and turned out to be a private room stay that was owned and managed by a different person to the one who managed it on Air BNB.  The website refunded our monies almost immediately and we found a different place to stay via a web search.

After Colombo we went to Ude Walawe for an elephant safari.  This was, hands down, our favourite day of the trip, we came close enough to these wild giants to almost touch them.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to see them in the wild, living their normal natural lives.  Another highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see the Buduruwagala Buddhas, a frieze of 7 Buddhas the tallest at 16m carved into a rock face in the middle of nowhere.  These spectacular carvings are at least 1,000 years old and are still a site of worship today.   From there we drove to the mountains near Ella, staying in Bandarawela in the mountains stopping at the spectacular Ravanna falls for a cooling paddle and a bite to eat from a stall along the way.  This is a highlight for many people but while we enjoyed visiting the tea plantations (including a wonderful tour at Halpewatte that  allowed us to go onto the factory floor) and the botanic gardens at Hakgala (originally a cinchona plantation) we were happy to move on. 

Ravanna Falls
Ravanna Falls
Other than Ude Walawe our favourite destination was Habarana, here we stayed at a lodge near a water tank, set in a plantation we were able to sleep out in the open, the children loved it.  We used this as a base for our visits to the 5th century citadel at Sigiriya and the abandoned monastery at Ritigala.  Sigiriya sits on top of a huge rock projecting from the plains, my telephone told me that we climbed the equivalent of 74 flights of stairs to get there.  It was worth the climb!  We took it in turns, Master EE climbed with me while Mini EE, being too old for a carrier and too young for the precipitous stairs, remained below with Mr and Miss EE.  We swapped after our return to the ground where Master EE and I were more than happy to enjoy a drink of water and wander round the water and rock gardens at the base of the hill.

Sigiriya - the citadel is on top of the rock.

The final climb up the lion paw staircase

Rock gardens at the base of the citadel
Ritigala monastery, built in the 1st century BC and abandoned to the forest was another fascinating day.  A walk of approximately 2km into the forest took us past a huge water tank, along a paved walkway and through courtyards and raised meditation platforms.  We got the impression that the accessible areas form only a minute percentage of the actual site.

Ritigala monastery ruins are in the middle of the forest

Resting mid walk

The walk is long (2km in each direction) in the heat
but relatively easy, even for little feet.
While in the region we also visited the Dambulla cave temples, another vertiginous and lengthy climb.  The temples with their many many paintings and statues of Buddha were beautiful but not a patch on the many spectacular temples we had seen (and lived close to) in Ipoh, Malaysia. 
Our final destination on this tour was the ancient capital of Kandy, home to the Temple of the Tooth.  The temple is the most important religious site on the island and as such is the premier tourist destination.  Other than Sigiriya we had had most of the sites we had visited to ourselves (a perk of going in low season) but the Temple was very busy.  We nevertheless enjoyed our time there, the temple itself is beautiful (and has been restored seamlessly following the terrorist attacks in years past).  Kandy itself is a bustling city and while there we enjoyed a local dance show (at Miss EEs request), visited a local factory to see how local wooden masks and other items are made and visited some of the many gem shops.  Sri Lanka is famous for its gems, sapphires in particular and the many shops selling beautiful jewellery are well worth a look round. 

Temple of the Tooth
Entrance way, Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth
Temple of the Tooth, all bomb damage repaired

Traditional Kandyan dancer
Sri Lanka was a very friendly destination, the children, Mini EE in particular, were welcome everywhere.  In fact Mini EE was taken off our hands for cuddles, fuss and treats pretty much as soon as we arrived anywhere.

Good to know

Remember to get visas before you travel.  These are available online and generally come through within a few hours although they can take up to two days.

Most visitors prefer to hire drivers.  Despite a bad reputation the driving on the island is easy and relatively safe, in fact the only really bad drivers are those in the tourist mini busses.  If you want to drive yourself make sure you have an IDP, if you don’t (ours had expired a few weeks before we arrived) you will need to get a Sri Lankan driving permit, easy enough but time consuming.

Don’t use Waze, no matter the settings it will always try to send you down a narrow field roads and tell you to take the least direct route possible.  Google maps proved more reliable.

More suited to a TukTuk than a car....
If you want to buy gems make sure you have the time to have them checked by the Assay office in Colombo before you buy. 

Sri Lanka is good value but it is not cheap compared to a lot of south Asia.  Foreigners pay significantly over the local price to enter sites of interest. 

Sri Lanka is, despite the monsoon, a year round destination.  European summer is monsoon season on the west coast but dry season over on the east, this means you can plan your trip accordingly.

While famous the Elephant Orphanage at Pindawala seems to be running itself more for the benefit of the tourists who flock there than the Elephants who live there.  We wish we had not gone.

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Ersatz Expat

22 June 2017

Sweet Sixteen

Bessie celebrated her 16th birthday a short while ago. Very few dogs live to see such advanced age, she was born so long ago that we did not even have a digital camera at the time.  The few, precious, photos we have of her as a put are in albums in our storage container.  After our long separation and her health worries last year we never thought she would not see her next birthday.  When she arrived in Jeddah in December last year we thought she had joined us only to say goodbye.  Since then she has shown how strong she is, she lives for the moments when the family are together and she can be with us all, she visibly deteriorates when people travel abroad, perking up again as soon as they get home.

People who see Bessie now see a dog that is bent and bowed, who has hardly any fur and whose skin sits in wrinkles on her hunched and skinny frame.  She was a beautiful dog in her prime and to us she is beautiful still.  Our honeymoon puppy, the dog who has followed us around the world  and who has helped to care for all our children.  Happy birthday to the very best dog in the world.

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Posted as part of the fabulous Animal Tales Linky


29 May 2017

Riyadh Rambles - Masmak Fort

Riyadh is not the first place you think of when you talk about a romantic break.  Mr EE is not someone to do things the easy way, however, and nor, really, am I.  A few weeks ago, during the school holidays, he had an evening meeting/social event scheduled in Riyadh and I had been asked to attend as well.  The date was close to my birthday so we decided to make a break of it.  The meeting was in the evening and not child friendly so we arranged for someone to stay at home with the children and pets and left the house at 3am for a romantic break in the most conservative capital in the world.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort, Riyadh.  Where the Third Saudi State was born.
Jeddah is, by Saudi standards, very relaxed and cosmopolitan.  Life here is pretty easy going but we had heard that Riyadh was much more buttoned down.  When we canvassed opinions of what to see and do we got a mixed response.  Half of our friends (local and expat) said we would be wasting our time, the other half have us a list of must see places.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The walls of the fort are made of Adobe
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Interior of the Fort
Mr EE had been a few times before, but as is typical of business trips, had seen practically nothing of the city.  The city itself reminded me very strongly of Astana.  Set on a flat plain in the middle of nowhere with futuristic buildings.  Even the dry climate was very evocative of Kazakhstan; with a spring temperature in the mid 30s it reminded me of Astana on a mid summer day.  That is where the resemblance finishes, however.  Astana is a young city in every sense of the word and exudes an air of fun that was missing from Riyadh. As always first impressions start when you step off the plane and into the airport.  Riyadh airport was swanky, particularly compared to Jeddah (which was voted last year the worst airport in the world although to be fair I have been in much, much worse).  The atmosphere, however, was very different, much more restrained.  I had packed my most sober abayas in consequence but did have to laugh as I was approached a few times by women who wanted to know where they could get something similar, I am clearly a fashion trend setter! 

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Some of the interiors are decorated in traditional style
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Others have museum displays.  Most have detailed information.
This one was a bit of an (amusing) let down with the 'small, medium and
large cannon balls'
 We went straight to the hotel for breakfast and a sleep.  After midday everything shuts down until about 4pm anyway (very civilised in my opinion) so we didn’t feel bad taking the time to rest after our horrendously early start.  Refreshed we took a cab to the Masmak Fort.  This compact mud brick fort was built by the Al Rasheeds who had taken control of Riyadh from the Al Sauds in the late 19th century.  In 1902 the future king, Abdulaziz Al Saud took control of the fort.  This was the start of the fight to establish the Third Saudi State.  These days the fort is a museum, entrance is free but certain times are restricted to men only so you have to check in advance to make sure that entry will be permitted to families (ie women).

Doors Masmak Fort RiyadhMasmak Fort Riyadh

Masmak Fort Riyadh

 The doors in the fort are heavily and beautifully decorated in typical Najd style.

The museum is self guided and if you follow the ‘tour’ it takes you through most of the ground floor.  The information is detailed, well laid out, and provided in both Arabic and English.  We spent a happy two hours learning about an event in history about which we knew almost nothing beyond the bare bones.  One of the real treats of expat life is learning, not only about the culture that hosts you, but also about the history of the country you call home, something you might otherwise never do.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The interiors are cool, dark and mysterious.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The Cafe is sparse but comfortable

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The fort was served by a well, allowing it to resist sieges. 
There are number of artefacts, mostly weapons and armour, on display and almost all the doors are sumptuously decorated in typical Najd style.  The museum also hosts a small gift shop and a café area.  By the time we had finished looking around we had hit Maghrib prayers so, rather than looking round the adjacent souk (no different to the ones in Jeddah) we used the time to take a few pictures of the sunset before taking a taxi onwards to our next destination.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The evening light gives a beautiful warmth to the walls.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort at Sunset

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Ersatz Expat

24 May 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Ramadan

We are coming up to the start of Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims worldwide.  

We have lived in many majority Muslim countries and in most, business continues as usual for the month.  In some fasting is a matter of personal conscience, in others a legal requirement for all Muslims.  In Saudi Arabia fasting in public is obligatory for all, even non Muslims.  Children are, of course, allowed to eat and drink during the day but for everyone else the fast is mandatory, not even a sip of water is allowed (until you reach the privacy of your own home).  

Life in Saudi changes completely during Ramadan.  Working hours are curtailed, roads are busy (and the driving even more erratic) in the hour leading up to Iftar and then uncharacteristically empty as families gather to break their fast. Charitable obligations are taken particularly seriously during Ramadan with many people donating food packages to those in need.  

Ramadan lanterns Balad Jeddah
Shops and homes are decorated with Ramadan lanterns.
Life becomes nocturnal.  Restaurants do not open until after the Maghrib prayer and then remain busy all night, supermarkets and some shops are open during the day to allow people to get the food needed for the evening but only really come to life after Isha and Taraween prayers.

The night is full of life, from the corniche to the streets of old Balad or the precincts of the modern malls.  The schools close (national exams were moved forward to before Ramadan to accommodate it) and families aim to spend as much time as possible together.  Our children go to an international consular school and therefore are not impacted by the closures although their days are shorter.

Even as non Muslims, Ramadan here in Saudi Arabia has a big impact on our lives.  Day to day we still have to be up for work/school and this means that the children have to go to bed at their normal time.  The result of this is that although Mr EE and I can go out and enjoy events around the city in the evenings or join in any Iftar celebrations we are invited to, there is very little we can do with the children; they are in bed and asleep before anything is ready to start.  Pretty much every attraction is shut during the day, last year we did take them on some walks but while the children were ok Mr EE and I really felt the lack of water in the heat.  We will stick to the compound and spend most of their weekends in the swimming pool.

Ramadan is an important time for our Muslim friends and colleagues and we wish them all Ramadan Kareem.

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Ersatz Expat

6 May 2017

Balad Historic Festival

I have written about Jeddah’s UNESCO heritage site of the old city of Al Balad before and with good reason, it is one of the most interesting parts of the city and one of our favourite places to go for an evening out.  A few weeks ago the city municipality had arranged a historic festival to take place over a few nights so Mr EE and I decided to go down to investigate.
Bait Naseef Jeddah
Bait Naseef
Due to the festival the traffic, typically horrendous on any evening, was truly atrocious and it took us over an hour to get down to the old town.  We walked up the Souk Al Alawi historic path to the Mecca Gate, the route taking us through a rather modern looking underpass and into the centre of the old town proper.  There is a lot of reconstruction work going on in an attempt to preserve some of the more important historic buildings before they crumble into nothing.  A lot of progress has been made in the year we have been here, however, and it is good to see the municipality looking to preserve rather than to build new.

Bait Naseef Jeddah
Bait Naseef
Walking up the historic path brought us to the ‘gun square’ presided over by the Bait Naseef, (once a Royal residence of King Abdul Aziz and worthy of a post in its own right) and a neem tree reputed to be the oldest tree in Jeddah.  As part of the festival a beautiful vintage fire truck had been parked by the side of the square, I meant to get a photograph of it but decided to wait until we walked back.  A mistake that I now regret.  What I did photograph, however, were the light projections onto the façade of the house.  Changing every few minutes from one pattern to the next the designs were quite mesmerising.  While we were in the square the mosques started the Athan, the call to prayer which is such an integral part of life here.  Shopkeepers hurried to close their doors and people started making their way towards the nearest mosque while others congregated on the street to make their devotions, public prayer mats provided for the purpose.  We walked on, moving from the square down one of the side roads towards the Al Shafi mosque.

Balad Historic Festival 2017

On the way we came across a courtyard filled with artists.  This courtyard, dilapidated and tumble down is usually nothing special, something we have walked past numerous times and given it no more than a casual glance, had been transformed with ribbons and lights, into an open air gallery.  We wandered from stall to stall, some of the art was amateurish, other items were good in and of themselves but not to our taste.  One artist really impressed us, we bought one of his oil canvasses and will look out for another piece that he has not yet finished.  I have no idea if the piece really is any good or not but we are over the moon with it and it will provide us with a wonderful memory of that evening for many years to come.  

Balad Historic Festival 2017

Moving on we came to the Al Shafi mosque itself.  The mosque, dating from around the 13th Century, is said to be the oldest in Jeddah.  Made from mud and coral it is designed as an open square with a single minaret.  The mosque was restored relatively recently and is therefore in excellent condition.  Mr EE and I, as non-muslims, are not allowed inside but from glimpses through the doors have seen that it is very beautiful.  As we were outside during prayers we did not, however, look in this time opting instead to enjoy the light shows playing over the walls and minaret.

Al Shafi Mosque, Balad, Jeddah

Al Shafi Mosque, Balad, JeddahAl Shafi Mosque, Balad, Jeddah

Al Shafi Mosque

We walked from the mosque towards the Bab Makkah.  This was once the start of the last and most difficult part of the pilgrimage to Mecca.  In the old days Jeddah was surrounded by city walls punctuated by garrisoned gates.  The walls have long since collapsed but the gates remain standing.  Pilgrims would make their way through the city and, as they went through the gate, would see nothing but desert stretching out in front of them.  Old pictures give a real sense of just how stark the contrast was.  These days the city has expanded a long way beyond its initial limits and the Bab Makkah is nothing more than a traffic island where boys play football and some unfortunates find shelter for the night.  

Bab Makkah (Mecca Gate), Jeddah
Bab Makkah Once the edge of the desert, now a traffic island.
The real joy, however, of a trip up to the Bab Makkah is the fruit and vegetable souk along the way.  Crowded with carts selling every type of produce you can imagine the street is heaving and cheerful.  The odd (brave) driver inches through the crowd but by and large this is a pedestrian zone of organised chaos and a good place to buy a bottle of water and banana or orange to refresh energy levels that almost always sag in the night time humidity.

Balad, Jeddah
Fruit and Vegetable Souk near the Bab Makkah
Leaving the souk we made our way through the quieter back streets towards the festival area again.  We found more open air art galleries where ruined buildings were transformed into showcases, a dance and music display and, rather incongruously, a Toyota stand promoting their latest models.  Further on there were stalls selling a range of antiques from old keys and locks to bicycles and ancient record players.  Everyone wanted us to stop and chat, a chance for a sale of course always in their mind but also a desire to talk, to find out why we were there, what we thought of their city.  There was more, much more, to the festival but by this stage we were exhausted and made our way home for the night passing recreations of old fashioned pilgrimages on the way.  

Balad Historic Festival 2017Balad Historic Festival 2017

I doubt people who have not lived here would imagine Saudis enjoying festivals like this, gathering together to celebrate history and culture and welcoming visitors into their midst at the same time.  While it is hardly an every day occurrence festivals like this are not unusual here (there was a food festival running concurrently and nearby towns had flower and rose festivals at around the same time).  Jeddah has a reputation as a rather dull posting but, when you start to really look for things, there is a lot going on.

Balad, JeddahBalad, Jeddah

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Ersatz Expat