The time has finally come where I got myself to sit down and write about the one road trip I was on in Riyadh, which is now several months back.
It was one of those days when we had guests from abroad and as we all know, guests want to be entertained and are all excited about seeing something of the place where they just landed.
Even though I have lived in Riyadh for a little while now, I was just as curious as the newcomers. As much as I like this place, what is there to show people?
Well, several kilometers and palm trees later, I knew at least part of the answer.
On our way to a place called Diriyah, we passed by something that looked very much like some archaeological place with very old leftovers of buildings.
Trying very hard not to fall over the hem of my abaya, I got out of the car and held my camera ready. Just in that moment I noticed a board, letting me know that stepping onto that ground was not allowed. So the rest of the group and me took some quick pictures and were ready to get back into the heavenly air-conditioned car, when one of the people I was with, was addressed very friendly by a group of young Saudi men in white and brown thobes.
They did not pay much attention to us women but treated all the males like they have been the closest friends for decades and have not met just a second ago.
“I am an archaeology student”, said the one with a camera around his neck. “Don’t you want to come along and take a look at this? We will show you.”
“What about the prohibition sign?”, asked our guide.
“Oh no worries…it just stands there but nobody cares really.”
And so, we got a guided tour through this small part of Riyadh, somewhere on the highway, surrounded by beautiful and ancient mosques.
After a couple of minutes, a few more Saudis joined us and this time with a group of little kids. The children greeted us with bright smiles and enthusiastic handshakes, talking at us in Arabic. All we could do is smile back, not understanding anything they were saying. But there is one quite amazing thing about children, they don’t really care where you are from or what language you speak, somehow they still manage to communicate with you and have a lot of fun doing that.
It reminded me of my first few months in Germany as a little girl, when I met another girl on the playground. She spoke German and all I knew was Russian and a few bits of English but we still became quite good friends for the day, Esperanto or not.
By the time we saw everything there was to see, the Saudis wanted to invite us to have tea with them. I feel like they may have been a little upset when we kindly denied the offer, continuing our sight-seeing trip.
But as it turned out, we still got our tea a few more palm trees later.
Several kilometers northwest from Riyadh, we reached a reconstructed village called Diriyah, which used to be the capital of the first Saudi dynasty and is now, believe it or not, a UNESCO heritage site.
Just as we parked our car and were ready for a walk among the ancient buildings, we were noticed by some locals. As it seems to be the norm here, we were immediately invited to join them for coffee and dates and this time it was quite uncomfortable to reject, so we followed them into what I would call a typical Saudi style house made of stone.
We found ourselves inside a large, cool room with a red carpet and pillows on the ground. In Saudi Arabia, you have your tea or coffee not at a table but, after taking off your shoes, while sitting on the ground with everyone else.
First we were served Arabic coffee, or qahwah, a yellow and thick substance with cardamom and all that in a small cup. Out of politeness, I forced myself to finish it off in one, fast gulp. Then came the two types of dates, the dry and the not dry ones, then the tea and water. Every time I finished my cup of coffee, I was served another one immediately and I hardly spit out the core of a date, when I was handed the full box again.
“So where are you from?”, asked one of our Saudi hosts, who spoke some bits of English.
“We are from Germany.”, said one of the people in our group.
No matter how bad a Saudi’s English is, the word Germany will always be understood and welcomed with visible excitement.
“Ah Germany! Mercedes!!”, said another Saudi.
A man who has been standing in the background for a while and didn’t speak anything but Arabic, pointed his finger at the ceiling, visibly all happy to show us Germans something we must approve of. By looking closely we saw an energy efficient lamp. Yes…Germany has spread its roots certainly everywhere…
By the time we felt like we would explode from all the coffee and dates, our hosts decided to show us around the house.
Forget about Western architecture. This was something completely different from the family houses or even apartments in Europe or the United States. Everything in this house was probably constructed by hand and of stone. The few furniture items seemed quite antique as well, except for the fridge and leather made water bottles tha looked a little like small bags hung down from the ceiling.
But the highlight of this place was waiting for us in the next room, the date oven.
If any of you were wondering how dates were made, they are stored to dry in one of those “ovens” like the one above. Depending on how long dates are stored, they can either end up tasting dry or a little more juicy.
After we had to promise to come back for a visit as soon as possible, we said our farewells to the Saudis and continued our hike in the November sun, which was quite warm given the fact that it was fall and my black abaya, absorbing all the heat it could get, did not make it any easier to survive without an AC.
The place was nearly empty and we were the only Westerners in this big open air museum. Looking at empty rooms that used to be schools or served living purposes, we passed by several men in thobes and women in burqas, some of them looking at us like we belonged in a museum ourselves.
So at the end of the day, not being able to look at dates anymore, I again learned the lesson that there is always something interesting about a place if you only look close enough.