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A Pastey Girl’s Guide

Camels in Toyotas: A Pastey Girl’s Guide to Riyadh

SAUDI ARABIA | Thursday, 17 April 2014 | Views [776] | Scholarship Entry

The first time I saw a camel cruising along in the back of a Toyota pickup truck, face grinning into the wind, I wish I could have enjoyed the obvious humour more. However, I was far too busy being terrified by the dare-devil driving of the vehicles tearing down the 539 from the King Khalid International Airport to the city of Riyadh (where the Highway Code is but a dream). I was greatly in awe of my chauffeur for the day, Vijay, as he confidently weaved between blacked out four by fours and taxi cabs.

“Do you know you will see boys of 10 or 12 years driving in Saudi!” he laughs,

“How interesting,” I say, wondering if I should pray.

Despite this eventful arrival it came to be very fitting with the rest of this city of extremes, a metropolis sprung from the sand. Contrary to its ‘business only’ reputation I enjoyed many fantastically unique experiences.

Shopping in Riyadh is a must, from bartering in souks to watching the oil-rich spree the luxuries in impressive designer shopping centres. Downtown, the Souq al-Thumairi draws tourists and ex-pats; selling gold and colourful fabrics ripe for the haggling. There was a man here who called himself Ali Pashmina, with the best array of scarves the world has ever seen. If you are lucky he will make you a glass of Arabic tea at the small table in the back of his corrugated market stall.

Admittedly, adhering to strict local laws when 'about town' came as somewhat of a culture shock. Women must wear a black Abaya gown and have a head scarf on hand to cover their tresses. In many places, the fairer sex are asked to sit behind curtains in a separate quarter of restaurants and cafes, and it is quite an experience sipping a lonely latte behind heavy velvet drapery.

When all the Starbucks and Versace became too much, a visit to the old town ‘Old Dir'aiyah’ was a quiet and peaceful affair. Here you can wonder miles of dusty abandoned streets and mud houses, imagining how the long gone inhabitants used to live. I was glad I took a local guide when an elderly gentleman tried to persuade me to join his collection of beautiful (and numerous) wives. I regrettably declined.

Driving further into the ‘Empty Quarter’ desert we visited the aptly named Edge of the World, where the cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpment fall away at a dizzying 600 metres. Here you may pass the Bedouin crossing the sand in their red head dresses, and if you’re really lucky...you may even see a camel in a Toyota.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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