Friday, May 28, 2010

Life with Two Boys

I'm not sure I can speak for Josh, based on his frequent pitiful moanings of "Why did we have two kids?", but I for one am still glad that each boy has a brother to play with. That being said, they do keep us from doing things that we would otherwise be able to do - like take off for a weekend trip to Bahrain, like our friends from the compound did, or even jump in the car for a fast and easy trip to the store without the hassles of car-seats and diaper bags. And of course, we miss having grandparents around to take the kids off our hands every now and then! Misha misses his weekly sleepovers and playtime with the grandparents too.

Misha is as active and creative as ever. I could hear him yelling to me from the kitchen one day, and I entered just in time to dissuade my little Spiderman from taking a giant leap off the counter top. He's always building with Legos, coloring, cutting and taping, playing cars, or arranging his toys for circus. And while sometimes he is good at entertaining Sebastian, most of the time Misha sees his brother as a "wrecker" of all his things. I guess you can't blame him too much, because Sebastian is at the age where he excels at wrecking things like Legos and paper projects.

Sebastian is taking after his brother and becoming an active little monkey as well. We bought Misha a step-stool to ease his access to the sink, but the stool has created more problems than it solved. After more than enough dashes to the bathroom to rescue Sebastian from the top step (as he bounced happily away, oblivious to what would happen if he fell), we ended up folding up the stool and stashing it away. Misha, meanwhile, has found other methods to brush his teeth, namely, climbing on the bidet and walking across the bathroom counter. Good grief.

Despite teething and the colds that come and go, Sebby is a happy and curious baby. He is getting so smart now! His latest favorite thing to do is put small toys into a bowl, dump them out, and put them in again. It's great for everybody, as this can occupy him for hours. He can also stack Legos four high now. Maybe soon he will help Misha build instead of demolishing his buildings...

He has also started saying a word - "uh oh!" It's so cute, and he even says it at appropriate moments, like when he drops something or when we're changing a messy diaper. :)

Whenever we're outside, like at the pool, Sebby always attracts lots of attention, especially with that fluffy light hair of his that never lies flat. We've met several people in the compound now with Sebastian's help!

Sebastian his this cute little "laptop" toy that speaks in Arabic, saying things like "Ana uhibok!" (I love you) and "Anta sadiqi!" (You are my friend).

Misha, smiling smugly, shows off the robot he built by looking at the picture that came with his Legos.

Misha in KFC. I include this only because it is the tiniest, oddest little KFC I have ever seen. We resorted to KFC, wanting to stay close to our shopping destination. The outside has two doors - one for single men, and one for families. A cement wall divides the two sections. The family side has two booths, with just barely enough room to walk by to get to the counter to order. I assume the singles section is very small as well. The KFC chicken tastes quite like I remember it, but sadly, all of my favorite sides (mashed potatoes, biscuits) do not exist here - although they do provide french fries and hamburger buns in their stead. Hum.

Misha with his new dream catcher. Thanks, Great Grandma Mary!

Bathtime is done; now it's time for bed. Goodnight, boys!

Masmak Fort

Most weeks keep us so busy that by the time the weekend comes, we squander it lounging around at home, sleeping in, and relaxing, venturing out only to stock up on our weekly stash of groceries or to eat somewhere. So last weekend, we decided it was high time we actually did something in Riyadh.

We went to Masmak Fort, one of the most famous sites in KSA because it represents the birthplace of the country. Built of mud, clay, and grass, it has thick, strong walls and a watch tower at each of four corners. It was built in about 1865 under Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Rasheed, a ruler from the north who took over the Riyadh region from the al-Saud clan. In 1902, the al-Sauds regained control when the famed Abdul-Aziz conquered the fort, thereby unifying Saudi Arabia and becoming the first king. (His full name, in case you wanted to know, is Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman ibn Faisal Al Saud.)

Josh, Misha, and Sebastian hang out on the street in front of the fort.

Misha and I pose before entering the fort.

The inside has many triangular-shaped windows that allow ventilation from room to room and circular windows to the outside that give a glimpse of how thick those walls really are.

The inner courtyard has a well

and a cannon on display.

Misha looks out the little windows to the outside. The walls are probably over five feet thick. Misha thought the fort was great - he dashed from room to room, peeking into corners. In this watch tower, however, his exclamations of "This is cool!" turned into "This is dumb!" as he realized that visitors are not allowed to climb the ladder to the top layer of the watch tower. Alas!

This model of the fort shows what it looks like in its entirety.

And this model shows the walled city of Old Riyadh. The walls are now torn down, but one of the gates to the city still stands.

After visiting the fort, we stopped for some cold, refreshing orange juice before continuing our adventure in the mid-day heat. We walked the streets of the "old quarters" of Riyadh, peeking into markets to find souvenirs and old money collections.

Misha walking near Dira Sooq. (Sooq means market, or bazaare.)

Dira Square near the fort also goes by the name of Justice Square, or to expatriates, the more ominous "Chop Chop Square," as it is the place where public executions are carried out.

Dira Square.

Adjacent to Dira Square.

A little side street full of vendors selling traditional handicrafts.

This little clock tower is a famous landmark in the narrow streets of the old quarter.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Socializing Saudi-style

Last weekend, we had a great opportunity to spend the afternoon with a Saudi family. Here we are with Akhmed, sitting down to a feast of khubsa - creamy rice with chicken and salad.

Akhmed is one of Josh's students who is married and has three boys. (Most students are 18 or 19, but a few are older.) He invited us to meet him and his wife Sultana at the mall so the kids could play on the rides together. His older boys, 6 and 7, are just slightly older than Misha, so they quickly bonded over roller-coasters and slides. Since his kids went to an international school last year, they speak English quite well. Misha warmed up to them very quickly. While the kids enjoyed themselves, I had a chance to get to know Sultana, Akhmed's wife. She is very nice and speaks excellent English.

Josh and Akhmed: Josh almost didn't recognize his student without his thobe on and we very nearly walked right past him!

There's nothing like a roller-coaster to solidify friendships.

Don't rock the boat: the log ride.

Then, the family very sweetly invited us over to their villa for supper. I was allowed to take off my abaya and relax as I was accustomed to, but Sultana kept covered since both of our families were together most of the evening. The only time she took it off was when I was alone with her and her children. Her youngest boy, Rayan, associates his mother's abaya with going out, so he was quite excited at first, assuming that he was going to get to go out on the town! He is just slightly younger than Sebastian, so everyone had a friend to play with.

Rayan and Sebastian.

Their home, like the typical Saudi home, has two sitting rooms - one where the women congregate to talk and relax, and one where the men do the same. Each room has a long, connected couch that snakes along all four walls. It's very impressive! As soon as Misha walked into one of the sitting rooms, he exclaimed, "Wow! How can we get a couch like this?!" -- a comment which greatly amused our hosts. We drank fresh orange juice, tea, and Arabic coffee. This was our first taste of Arabic coffee. For us, it stands in stark contrast to what we think of as coffee; arabic coffee is green - made from green coffee beans - and quite bitter, so it is often eaten with dates and bakalava - both of which we indulged in.

The boys have a tradition of playing football (that is, soccer) in the house with their father. Misha had fun joining in.

All worn out after soccer, the kids scrunch together on one of the long couches to play something on the cell phone.

Then, it was time for the feast. They prepared khubsa, a traditional meal of rice cooked in chicken broth until soft and stirred with a bit of milk, served with chicken, salad, and a salsa-like topping. We ate comfortably on the floor, like in Kyrgyzstan -- although the kids preferred to eat at the table. The meal was delicious! Afterward, we sat on the roof and learned some Arabic phrases from our hosts while the kids rode bikes and scooters. Don't worry - villa roofs are perfectly safe, surrounded by a tall cement wall. It's sort of like a backyard - on the roof!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Architecture: Modern and Creative

Riyadh is full of daringly modern and creative buildings. There is, of course, the Kingdom Tower (or Burja Mamlaka in Arabic). I took this picture while walking around one evening in the area right outside our compound.

Other buildings in the immediate vicinity:

Just down the street is this construction reminiscent of a boat:

Other nearby buildings:

We found a cute little park just one block from us. Families often picnic here in the evenings.

Misha on the slide, with picnickers in the background.

Meanwhile, we have gotten a little scooter for Misha to ride around the compound. It's great - small, light weight, and easy to ride. The compound is the perfect place to ride it. As soon as we leave the compound, though, the traffic and occasional lack of sidewalks make for less-than-ideal scooter riding, so we have to leave it at home.

His other new toy is this great remote-control car with light-up wheels and flip-over abilities. It's amazing how cool and cheap these toys have gotten. It is so much fun that Josh couldn't resist buying a second car so that he and Misha could cruise around together!

Misha came home from preschool one day with his face painted. :)

Misha by a line of taxis outside the compound.

Mmm, hummus!

It does rain in Riyadh

Contrary to the norm, it has been raining quite a bit the past month. Everyone tells us that this is highly unusual, so we should enjoy it. It seems like it has at least sprinkled almost every other day. Normally when it sprinkles, the entire sidewalk never gets wet at the same time, because the raindrops evaporate so quickly off the warm pavement. However, it has actually poured a couple of times since we've been here, and last Monday Riyadh received so much rain in such a short time that the roads flooded and one of the princes declared a national emergency.

The rain started at the end of the school day on Monday, at which point the students started panicking and insisting that they be allowed to head home immediately. Though the weather situation turned out to be more serious than we foreign teachers thought, you have to understand why we always assume the students are exaggerating. It seems that almost every day they have some excuse why they must go home immediately. ;) The taxi ride home from work took extra long, as the roads were filled to the brim with people trying to make it back to their homes. The northern part of the city was hit with most of the rainfall, and traffic there was backed up for a couple of hours in some places.

Soon, the day's photogenic moments, including these, started circulating through e-mail:

The underpasses were especially dangerous. Since drivers hardly ever experience rain like this, many cars got stranded trying to plow through the underpasses! According to the English newspaper Arab News, the flooding caused two deaths and 275 car accidents, and 155 people were rescued by authorities.

The problem is that Riyadh, not known for rainfall, has no drainage systems to speak of. After this incident, the city has decided to pump 11 billion riyals into a new drainage project over the next two years.

The next day, all the schools were closed - so even though we still had to report to work, it was a very laid-back day with no students around.

Aside from all the trouble it caused, the rain did a beautiful job of cleansing the city of dust. The windows on all the buildings shone brightly and the air felt clean and clear.