Thursday, March 31, 2011

Desert Escapes

When you think of the desert, you probably imagine long stretches of tan-colored sand without much variety to speak of. But after living in a desert country for a year, I now have a much greater appreciation of the desert's own unique beauty and variation. From rocky escarpments and grooved canyons to grey pebbles or fine, red sand, the Arabian desert is a fabulous place to explore.

In February, we squeezed in two more desert trips, trying to take advantage of the weather before everything heated up. Each time we head into the desert, we are very glad we did. These photos below are from a spot called Al-Thumamah, which is probably the most popular camping spot for Saudi families in Riyadh. Part of the area is for camping, while part is reserved for a national park which can be entered only with a permit. We went with the desert-outing group to the campsite area - and we were treated with the most beautiful scenery we have seen yet: rocky crags, valleys chock full of climbable rocks and shrubs, and beach-white sand.

As you can see, Misha loved climbing over obstacles as much as Sebby loved exploring the sand, nooks, and crannies. I am sorry for the delay in my blog posts; I have many, many great pictures to upload, but our internet connection is often so unreliable that I don't make much progress. So, I'm taking advantage of the better internet at work to bring you these photos.

Let the photo fest begin:

This is the desert?

Dare-devil climber

Ready, set, jump!


Pure joy

The cave entrance frames Sebby and me in sunlight

Daddy and Misha

Yes, it's real greenery!

Up goes Misha ...

Josh enjoys the view after his climbing adventure.

Can I fit in here?

Amazing view

The kids :)

A sign of animal life - a spotted beetle.

More beetles! These type move slowly with legs that look far too long for them.

The next batch of photos is from another area of beautiful red sands, this time with the white rocky bones of the mountain poking through.

Another insect, with its footprint trail behind it.

The setting sun quickly cools the desert air.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thunder and Helicopters

Saudi Arabia as a country pretty much believes itself to be paradise on Earth, a place where Muslims are free to practice as they were meant to. Since so many people believe this, it's hard to imagine very much happening here as far as anti-government protests are concerned, especially when the government binds itself so tightly to Islam.

I was surprised when I first heard of Saudi Arabia's planned "Day of Rage," which was set for Friday, March 11 and planned through Facebook and Twitter. As the day crept closer, anything political or religious about any of the Middle Eastern countries became an off-limits topic in our academic circles. This caused great speculation and curiosity on the part of all the teachers, but we honestly weren't expecting too much, especially considering the general admiration of the king that abounds here. As a case in point, Josh's students told him that the greatest honor they could imagine would be the king coming their house.

As if to counter the effects of the planned event, Misha's kindergarten had a big celebration in honor of King Abdullah. Huge posters like this one were plastered everywhere in his school:

Children were encouraged to wear green and white (the colors of the flag), T-shirts with the king on them, or traditional costumes, like this classmate of Misha's who is passing out cupcakes.

The cupcakes, of course, had green frosting and little pictures of the king on them! After this, all the kids had green-smeared faces (and hands, and shirts ...)

The children sat in a circle on the carpet to eat their cupcakes, and when they finished, their teachers encouraged them to come up to the front of the class to sing a song of their choice. Several children did and were rewarded with doughnuts! Misha even sang a song for the class - his favorite Arabic song about the numbers. The teachers gazed at him with complete adoration in their eyes while he sang. Since I managed to pop into his class briefly during their party, I got to enjoy seeing his class and his teachers. I was especially happy to see how his teachers spoke Arabic to everyone, including Misha, and Misha understood just fine.

By Wednesday night, we noticed that police cars had already stationed themselves in several locations in the city center. They continued their patrol on Thursday (the first weekend day), and by Friday, the supposed day of the event, police were everywhere. We could spot five from our balcony alone. Several were roaming the streets while others were stationary in intersections. On King Fahd Road, the main North-South street in Riyadh, the streets were full of police with flashing lights. To add to the strange feel of the day, Friday arrived with haze and fog. The unusual quietness of the city was broken only by the sound of helicopters flying overhead, making the day even more eerie. In the afternoon, five huge military buses unloaded in the parking lot just down the street from us, and we watched the camouflage-outfitted soldiers mill around the area, stopping for prayer break to kneel on their mats.

A police car mans the quiet, foggy side-street near our balcony. Kingdom Tower shimmers in distance.

Military buses patrol the lot.

By late afternoon, a storm was definitely in the air, matching the general uneasy atmosphere of the day. Rumbles of thunder tried to produce rain for what seemed like hours until finally, a few drops started to fall. Suddenly, the wind came alive and whipped sand into our mouths and eyes as the rain started to pour down. Since we were at the compound playground, we grabbed our toys and headed for home, trying to carry everything and cover our faces at the same time. Once at home, we watched the storm from our balcony and were amazed when little pieces of hail plinked onto our patio. The sudden storm created such a fog mixed with dust that we couldn't see beyond the buildings across the street. But as suddenly as the storm had started, it ended, and within five minutes, the view was once again clear.

The huge show of police and military was enough to deter any protesting on March 11. There was a statement just prior to that day threatening to cut off the fingers of anyone who took to the streets in the March 11th protest. The day before, protests occurred in Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, mainly by the small Shia population (about 10 percent in the Sunni-dominated country) demanding the release of political prisoners held without trial. The Qatif protest resulted in harsh action, namely, police opening fire on protesters and beating them with batons, injuring three. Two days after March 11, police flooded the streets of Riyadh again, and we later learned that there was a small protest here, also demanding the release of prisoners. On March 14, one thousand Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help their fellow Sunni leaders violently quell protests against the government. Bahrain's population is actually 70% Shia, in contrast to its ruling elite. The island of Bahrain has seen incredible damage since Josh last visited its beautiful palm-lined streets.

Though we couldn't ask any questions, I got the feeling that people were relieved that nothing happened on the 11th. My students mentioned that the weekend felt "strange" and "scary" and that they were frightened by the helicopters. I don't see protests gaining momentum in Saudi Arabia - at least not now. Last week, the king announced a second huge benefits package for his people totaling 300 billion Riyal ($93 billion), plus another national day for all government employees. (Another day off from teaching!) Unlike in Libya and Egypt, the leaders of Saudi Arabia share their wealth with their people, giving them free education (in fact, the students earn a stipend if they attend university), substantial housing help, and study abroad opportunities. However, the very fact that the government and/or conservative religious elements don't want certain things discussed limits people in a fundamental way, and maybe someday that will matter to them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Always Growing

It's hard to believe, but it's been nearly a year since we've come to Saudi Arabia. In the life of a child, a year is a long time - so much growing happens in just one spin of the earth. Misha has the same desire for learning that we've always seen, and his recent obsessions are Harry Potter and chess. He has high hopes of playing a real game with Grandpa this summer!

And Sebby just keeps getting cuter and more communicative. He always makes us laugh, whether he's climbing up onto the little coffee table to dance on his "stage" or trying to copy Misha's sommersaults by scooting around with his forehead to the floor and his bottom in the air. His vocabulary has mushroomed since his first expressions of "ju" and "uh oh" last summer. Now he knows several phrases, including "Where'd it go?", "There it is!", "Whatzat?" "I want that," "I want eat," and "I want shoes." He loves the water and at the slightest suggestion of bath-time, he demands, "I want bath!" while running to the bathroom and trying to take his shirt off. He knows a plethora of words related to his daily routine - up, down, all gone, look!, wadi (for water), turday (for turtle), no, yesh (for yes), come, book, car, poop, baby, and again. His most recent word is "shirt" - but as he cannot pronounce the 'r', the results are very amusing!

If Dad steps out of the apartment for a bit, Sebby nods and affirms, "Coming," knowing that he'll be back soon. When he rides his car down the compound sidewalk and finally sees the park ahead, he shouts, "Yay... whoo hoo!" He can go down every slide by himself and is now learning to appreciate the baby swing. When he finds something of wonder (which happens several times a day), he exclaims "WOW!" And he calls his big brother "Sha."

Josh and I have been learning, rather ironically, to salsa dance during our time here in Riyadh. We get together with a few other friends and have fun, informal lessons plus food. The kids join us, of course, and they love the music too!

Misha has been doing great at school. He is proud of how much Arabic he has learned, and his teachers coo over his excellent accent. He teaches me phrases he has learned at school -- "Mommy, do you know how to say 'Don't hit?'" says Misha before teaching me. He also knows how to say "bad boy" ("ghalad!") and "close your mouth" - of course, he says these are not directed at him. ;) He often comments on the rowdiness of the other kids. Boys especially tend to be quite aggressive. Besides those classroom management words, he knows lots of other vocab (for family, food, the home) but his specialty is singing Arabic songs.

One day after I picked him up from kindergarten and we sat outside the building where I teach, a little girl about his age (the daughter of a security lady) crept ever closer to Misha until she was right next to him. "Ya walad! Kaif hal? Esh ismik?" she asked. (Hey boy! How are you? What's your name?" Misha, focused on eating his treat, mumbled back, "Misha." Eventually a couple of the security ladies joined us on the benches and we had a brief Arabic conversation about his school. I said that Misha knew a lot of songs, and the security woman started to sing a popular kids' song, which Misha joined in singing immediately. She was thrilled. She sang another and Misha sang along. She belted out a third, with the same results. She must have sung 10 songs and Misha knew every one! She was duly impressed - "Mashala!" she kept saying - and so was I. I have recorded Misha's songs onto my iPod, and when I play them for my students (who are always asking about my kids), they exclaim that he sounds just like their little brothers.

Occasionally, Misha even gets homework - he has now moved on to writing not just single letters but actual Arabic words. This page shows his efforts writing the letter "ba" (on the right) and the word "beit" (meaning house, using the three letters ba, ya and ta from right to left). He is always eager to finish his homework for the next day.

Often at home, Misha will say things to Sebby in Arabic. Little things, like "Shuf, shuf! La, hinna!" (Look, look! No, here!)

Sebby is quite used to waving to faces inside the computer. I swear I even heard him say "Grampa" yesterday. Here he is saying "hi" to Grandma and Grandpa in SD, and he likes to chat with Grandma Kate in NM too.

Peekaboo! He is at that cute age where he can hardly contain himself when we ask "Where did Sebby go?"

This is another one of those classic mall haircuts several weeks ago. The red dye took weeks to come out!

Prayer time at the mall means all the men disappear into mosques within the mall and all the women sit around on benches and squeal at how adorable our children are while they wait for the stores to open again.

Panarama Mall has the best indoor play place I have ever seen. All four of us are allowed to enter and prowl through the tunnels, climb up the stairs and go flying down the huge slide. Six levels of entertainment!

An interesting photo: Just another day at the mall. When it's not crowded, we take Misha's scooter with us and he enjoys cruising through the smooth hallways. Many children rollerblade in malls as well.

Like Misha, Sebby has a fondness for drawing and now for painting.

However, painting on paper quickly turns into .... face-painting.

Bubbles for brothers

After a busy day, it's bedtime at last!