Adventure Among the Ruins

Despite what my earlier posts might indicate, I didn’t come to Saudi-Almighty-Arabia to go to Chili’s, or Applebee’s (pft-pft kiss-fingers cross-yourself), or Tamimi (Safeway), or Saco (True Value), or even IKEA. No, I came for an Exotic Adventure. Well, if you’re going to get technical about it, I came because I’m married to guy with a job in Saudi Arabia, but if I’m going to be here, so help me, I’m going to have an Exotic Adventure. I’m living in SAUDI ARABIA, for heaven’s sake. I should be able to drub anybody’s cocktail-party Mexican vacation story in zero flat, right? Telling about how no one has vanilla because of the alcohol isn’t going to get the job done.

Enter the Good Fun Fairies, Evan and Cheryl.

As you might surmise, they’ve been here a while. (Contrary to appearances, no, Evan is not Saudi himself. He gets that a lot.) And this weekend they put out a call for anybody who was interested to join them on a trek into the desert northwest of Riyadh to explore ruins. Now few terms get my attention as quickly as “ruins.” Well, “cheese” might be another. Or “fresh bread.” Or “funny.” And “TV.” Oh! And “Bachelorette meltdown.” So maybe there are a lot. But “ruins” is way up there.

Heading out for a day of adventure in Saudi Arabia involves some preparation. Step 1, take water. A lot. We haven’t seen daytime highs below the 104 since I’ve been here. (The teenage girls of an Australian family with us complained about it being “fifty” outside the same way we’d say “a hundred and twenty.” Exactly the same way. An exaggeration, which makes it a joke I get only after using a metric converter.)

Step 1a, load the car with everything else you can imagine you might ever need. Should you get stranded (breakdowns, stuck in the sand, whatever), you’re on your own out there, folks. The highway patrol ain’t comin’ by. Ever. We stopped on the way home when we saw a man wrestling with a tire on the side of the road. The treads had come off, and that sucker was shredded like nothing I’d ever seen. Picture yarn wrapped around a donut and then pulled loose by a cat. I didn’t know tires could do that. Fortunately, our hosts traveled with a tire iron, steam iron, waffle iron, pump, jumper cables, corduroy jumpers, cable-knit jumpers, and an old coffee can of magic dust. We wound up giving the guy a ride to the next town, and learned Evan works with his brother. I’d say Evan’s job is pretty well set for as long as he wants it. All because they know not to go into the desert without EVERYTHING you might possibly need.

Step 2, dress appropriately. Now “appropriate” here does not mean the same thing that it does anywhere else. It doesn’t mean functional. Hiking in a long black gown makes no sense in anybody’s world. The Saudi solution: Don’t go hiking. The expat solution: Hold your abaya in one hand and your camera in the other.

Exploring at Sadus

And refer to Step 1, have water, because it’s a mite warm in there. But less of an issue than you’d think.

“Appropriate” also does not mean “fashion forward.” A dress hem touching the tops of running shoes is absolutely, empirically, universally offensive. But appropriate. My mortified feet, ladies and gentlemen:

Outdoors in an abaya

Step 3, move into a guarded relationship with your GPS. Kind of trust-but-verify sort of thing. It’s not as if the roads leading out of Riyadh are new, but Garmin doesn’t seem to believe anybody will be on them, and therefore doesn’t think about them very hard. Road signs are often only in Arabic, and roundabouts may or may not be signed in any language. So in every town ask somebody where you are. Never hurts to check.

And you have to ask because every one of these small towns has ruins. When concrete block came along, folks just build new houses across the road from the old ones and moved out. Lacking stone, Arabs built their homes (those that didn’t live in tents, that is) out of mud brick, which erodes and slowly collapses so that new homes had to be built often. None of the ruins we saw were probably any older than a hundred years. But they were also no different from the ones being built 5000 years ago.

Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

I know, RIGHT? Now we’re having an Exotic Adventure.

Our first stop was Sadus (remember, spellings can be anything you want, so you might see Sadis, Sadas, Sudis…), which looked like this:

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

I stumbled into somebody’s kitchen and found this stove:

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

Reigning over it all was this colonnade:

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

And underneath, this extraordinary hall:

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

I was intrigued by this little still life:

Sadus, Saudi Arabia

Last dinner for creature, or last dinner of creature?

When we stopped along the street for some more pictures, a group of Saudi boys approached us, eager to discover what the Westerners were all about. The goal seemed to be to sling an English word or two, talk to women, and laugh a lot. One stuck his hand out to me, then started laughing when I took it, then didn’t let go or stop laughing:

Meeting the locals in Sadus, Saudi Arabia

This little playah’s brother got his own (or his dad’s) phone out and handed it to one of the men, who started to line up a picture of the kid with one of the other men. No, he indicated, shaking his head and pointing at me. That one. Smooth. It quickly turned into a group shot.

Meeting the locals in Sadus, Saudi Arabia

The father of some number of these kids came over soon, too, and promptly invited us all to his home for tea. Or coffee. Or anything we wanted. Please come. It’s just over there. No problem, no problem. We excused ourselves by saying we had far to go, but I left wishing I was that free with my own hospitality.

From there, we went to Al Qassib, where the ruins are being actively restored and the project manager showed us around. If you’re into doors, it was a gold mine:

Old door at Al Qassib, Saudi Arabia

Old door at Al Qassib, Saudi Arabia

Old door at Al Qassib, Saudi Arabia

Old door at Al Qassib, Saudi Arabia

And this Old Testament view:

View over Al Qassib, Saudi Arabia

Finally, the Ushaiga Heritage Center north of Shaqra, where the site is being actively managed, maintained, and rebuilt, complete with museums. Your typical Saudi-on-the-street doesn’t think much of these ruins, much less of preserving them, so I’m incredibly grateful that somebody does. The museum, I admit, has a way to go on achieving international status with their signage:

Display at Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

I’m dying to know what that contraption is, but won’t anytime soon. The curation is also a bit quirky. In the jewelry and clothing room, in a six-foot case of elaborate jewelry, we find this:

Jewelry case at Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

But they also have this, a ladies’ camel saddle, complete with curtains to keep the lady shielded from prying eyes:

Ladies’ camel saddle, Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

And refreshments:

Snacks at Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

To the right is a cracker of some sort. To the left is dried camel cheese. The cheese is formed into rounds and the cheesemaker rolls a palm across the top, so the ridges you see (look at the piece just right of center, a little past 2:00) are finger imprints. You remember how I feel about cheese, right? Well, assuming you do, too, I’ll tell you how to replicate the experience without traveling to Saudi Arabia yourself: Take a piece of chalk and roll it around in milk. Allow it to sit out for a couple of days, just enough so the texture of the chalk gets a little coarser and the taste a little more sour. Eat it. You’re there. The candies in the foreground (“lollies,” as the Australian kids called them and which I’m now going to, as well) are to clear the taste out of your mouth, so make sure you have those handy, too.

We would not be similarly duped into eating wild watermelons growing along weedy vines on the ground, but no one could resist the purely obvious shot of women holding melons:

Desert melons at Ushaiga Heritage Center, Shaqra, Saudi Arabia

Low, certainly, but exotic, right? A genuine Exotic Adventure. That’s what I’m talking about.

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