Abandoned Mud Hut Village - Saudi Arabia
Actually my parents were living in Riyadh whilst I attended a boarding school in Surrey. However I was lucky enough to visit Saudi during the summer and Christmas breaks. My parents had a home leave in England over Easter. Desert trips were the main sort of entertainment and spiced up with motorbikes, quad bikes, sand yachts and activities such as archery.
Abandoned mud hut village
House in Riyadh 1977-80
The house was very comfortable and designed in typical Saudi style. It was surrounded by a 15 foot wall and closed with an enormous iron gate. This was for privacy rather than security because crime in general, and theft in particular, was virtually unknown. There was an outside staircase leading to the upper floor, where the women in a Saudi family would live. The men would reside downstairs and the outside staircase would ensure that they didn't have to meet. Our family occupied the lower floor and the upper floor was turned into a bachelor mess for unmarried men on the project. Water was delivered by truck and dumped into an underground reservoir in the garden. We regularly used to pump it into a second tank on the roof to feed the taps in the house. It was unnecessary to heat water in the summer as the roof tank would be heated to piping hot by the hot desert sun. We would turn off the water heaters in summer and as these were located inside, in the bathrooms, they would then give us cool water! Drinking water was delivered separately in large bottles which fitted on a water cooler. There was no air-conditioning, but the house was kept comfortably cool and humid with desert coolers. These were a rush cubes which had water dripped down each side. A fan would draw air through the water, which would cool and humidify it, and blow it into the house. It worked very well but is only really practical in very dry climates. There was a large walled roof area where you could sleep out under the stars in total privacy, or in our case play manic games of five-a-side football. The first western style compounds were built during our stay but they were stark concrete blocks more reminiscent of prison camps than luxury residences. We witnessed a few other firsts in Riyadh: The first supermarket, English language television (in black and white!), the first western style hotel (Al Khazama), the opening of Riyadh Intercontinental Hotel and Al Marai opened the first dairy farm which gave us fresh milk. The Saudi Airline, Saudia, was just getting going and we regularly travelled from London to Riyadh on brand new, but empty, Boeing 747s. The skyline of Riyadh was filled with large cranes engaged on massive construction projects. New roads, underpasses and flyovers would appear every week.
Swimming Gala Socialising by the Pool
Social Life Another Desert Trip
Saudi did not have any cinemas, night clubs, social clubs, live music and anything considered entertainment. Consequently we had to make our own fun, including swimming galas and sports events and spent much time reading and socialising around swimming pools.
Friendly Bedu Woman Abandoned Mud Village
Saudi locals were very friendly and incredibly welcoming. Their hospitality is legendary and quite incredible when you consider the gulf in cultures between us. It was a routine event to be greeted by complete strangers in the desert who would then happily share their food and drink with us - despite our lack of reciprocal language and very different dress codes. Saudis were importing western expertise, with their new found oil wealth, in order to modernise their economy. As such westerners were a relatively new phenomenon. At this stage western women were expected to cover the shape of their bodies but not to wear the black Abaya or to cover their hair.
Easter in England Prize Giving 1978
My parents returned to England for Easter holidays and special events such as Prize Giving at my boarding school. I was lucky enough to win the prizes for highest O' Levels, Economics and the senior prize for sporting and academic achievement.
I also managed to get summer holiday jobs to earn some extra money. This included some desert work as a mechanic's assistant. We would drive into the desert in the middle of summer, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest road, to service vehicles left at desert camps which were abandoned during the hot summer months. We would start work at dawn and had to finish by 10.00am due to the intense heat. By this stage we had to put our tools in buckets of water so they didn't burn our hands. There was little shade and we would sleep under the truck until mid-afternoon when we could resume work until dusk. More often than not we would be guests at a local Arab encampment for dinner each evening. During the nights I have particular memories of the awe inspiring constellations and unwanted guests such as scorpions and camel spiders (which grow to the size of dinner plates). I can personally attest to the fact that sand-vipers and side-winder snakes are not shy of human company and don't avoid human camps. My experience is that they are very curious animals. Another myth about the desert is that it gets very cold at night. It did get a little chilly at dawn, particularly when camping on sand, but did not get anywhere near freezing in the summer.
My Mother Driving in Saudi... ....and my nine year old sister.
Women cannot drive on the roads in Saudi but absolutely anybody can drive off-road. Consequently we all learned to drive in the desert including my nine year old sister.