At some point during my last trip, following the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but before I found the Amersfoort Happy Shop where I purchased a nutritious tin of magic mushrooms, enjoyed on a bridge next to a medieval fortress (afternoon tea, back at the busy hotel, educational business courses galore, was far out, up and beyond the limbs of the forest opposite, bent here there and everywhere by the gale) I woke up and discovered this photo on my camera, thus proving that digital photography is now so advanced it’s possible to take photos when you are asleep.
The image clearly illustrates planet earth as a simmering cauldron and is a poignant symbol of the state of the world’s environment. On the right
is a Poplar tree, representing oxygen, and on the left is a vehicle on fire, burning oil - man’s dirtiest and most used and abused fossil fuel - an icon of the destruction of planet earth. The black background pleats are clearly the north face of Ayers Rock
, Australia's spiritual desert symbol that has somehow provided food and water for the past 10,000 years or so. The picture as a whole is the sun setting on the world’s final day.
It’s amazing what happens when you’re not looking, isn’t it?
PS. The photo reminded me of the Cree Indian prophecy that needs to be read and remembered every now and then:-
Only when the last tree has been cut down;
Only when the last river has been poisoned;
Only when the last fish has been caught;
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
Margaret Thatcher was booted out of office a year before I graduated; main reason being that she was a power-crazed battleaxe with no regard for society, sold the nation's assets to the already rich and firmly believed that she was never wrong, much like religious fundamentalists, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Thankfully the British have a system which makes it possible to get rid of unsavoury characters, unlike, say, Syria, China, Egypt, Russia, Bahrain, etc, where corrupt dictatorships will blast their own people to kingdom come for daring to want (peacefully) to replace them. Nevertheless, Thatcher wasn’t averse to setting the police loose on dissenters either, vis-à-vis the miners and print workers and poll tax protestors.
Thatcher had made her name in British politics when, as Minister for Education, she scrapped the free mini-bottle of milk given to every primary schoolchild each morning. No doubt she felt the kids hadn't earned it and would have sent them down the coal pits if she hadn't already hatched plans to close them; and, after all, those schools cost the state a lot of money too! Who did those socialists think they were, bringing a sense of justness to the world and preventing the fat cats getting fatter?
After graduation, Mrs T out to grass, alongside the cows, udders bloated and sagging, I found it hard, like most people, to find a decent job thanks solely to the Iron Lady’s legacy of a bust economy and huge unemployment, a situation she deemed perfectly acceptable because the bankers were drinking champagne every evening.
At the time I thought that was good enough for me – on your bike, you old bag; put her on the dole and see how she likes it – but the euphoria of the moment clouded the fact that her policies of the previous 13 years were so entrenched, so vice like, the minds of her ‘followers’ so warped towards avarice that the aftershock continues to be felt, much as that earthquake in Iran the other day made the bits and bobs on my desk wobble but destroyed the lives of so many closer to the epicentre.
Greed is now the name of the game, and, in this game, the scum most definitely floats to the top.
Ten years later, when I was offered a job on a newspaper in Jeddah, another world leader stepped in to screw things up, namely George Wanker Bush, who decided to invade Iraq to give his oil and arms dealing henchmen a bit of business in exchange for the blood and gore of innocent people they knew nothing about and cared nothing for: collateral damage a pesky inconvenience in the way of profit.
The Arab World duly went ballistic and westerners on the streets of Saudi were being shot in retribution. This wasn’t a good time to have a white man in the office, or even the sand, and so I left the region and forfeited a decent job thanks solely to a pillock in power in a far away place.
It didn't end there either, because a few years after that, on a whim, I opened a bar in the Czech Republic. Not long after, Vladimir Putin turned off the gas supply (the fuel which heated the pub) to eastern Europe and turned it back on three weeks later with a 20% hike in price. Across a long Czech winter the gas payments would have wiped out any profit – my means of existence – and so I closed the pub.
These fuckers are following me about!
When it was announced that Thatcher’s funeral would cost 10 million pounds of tax-payers money, I shake my head in disbelief, from a non-tax paying distance, and, if I were in the UK, I’d have joined the street party in celebration of her shuffling off this mortal coil, by all accounts in misery - a misery similiar to that which she inflicted on so many millions of others - with only the fires of hell to look forward to.
As they say, these things always come in threes, so hopefully that is it for me, but when I finish my present job, I plan on visiting the USA for an extended period and I wonder what Mr Obama has up his sleeve.
After a while the following scene appeared, staring me in the face, and by 8am it had become a Jimi Hendrix Montage.
may have introduced Italians to China's spaghetti, Ibn Battuta
may have a mall
named after him in Dubai and Captain Oats
may have said he may be some time in the Antarctic, but I bet none of them took this trip.
Immediately below is a photographic walk through one of the world's least discovered trips. Below the photos is a more detailed, written account of the route.
It was a clear sign that I needed a break when the Afghanistani bakery near my house re-opened after a six month hiatus due to poor standards of hygiene.
Regardless, I still hurried eagerly over for some, now clean, tameez (a flat bread, like a pizza base) and fool (mashed fava beans and tomatoes) and as I entered, the eyes of the baker burst wide open with undisguised lust. He was soon informing me that he was Pakistani Taliban and the only country he didn’t love was America, all the while playing with his pants’ package, tugging at it and jiggling it about in his hand, weighing it up with a big smile on his face. Mental note: buy airline ticket, quick.
To make The Magnificent Journey That Not Many People Know About
possible you have to get to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam under your own steam, because that is where it begins. Don’t worry - it’s a global hub.
My getting-there trip was a 3pm taxi to al-Khobar then a 6pm limousine service (bog-standard Toyota, albeit with tinted windows) to Bahrain Airport all provided by the airline, KLM
Impatient to leave the sand, as well as to escape from gay religious fanatics, we got in the limo, drove 50 metres down the road to a mosque where the Pakistani driver stopped, got out and went for sunset prayer. I stood about on the street, smoking.
When the driver had finished winding me up, we got underway, again, and were soon crossing the causeway, calm waters below, free of cars as the Saudis awaited their salaries, spare cash immediately blown on Devil’s Island the moment the last paycheck had arrived. End of the month blues meant an easy crossing.
We zipped through immigration and were therefore early. So I drank Guinness and whisky in Diggers’ Bar, downtown Manama, not a riot in sight, got irritated by the scrum of desperado Chinese hookers (there must have been 3 women to every man in there), met up with the limo driver, who had been internetting with his family, and then whizzed off to the airport in Muharraq, the driver giving me an expert, matter-of-fact account of the island's sex trade on the way. I drank some more in the airport's Sky Bar and staggered on board at 10.30pm.
Abetted by this cunning sleeping device, I snored through the flight and stepping off, vaguely refreshed at 6am, the journey truly began when passport control (magic new, fast-track self-scanning machines for EU citizens) was cleared, then outside to cool, fresh North Sea air and the sun coming up alongside coffee, croissant and cigarette.
From there, it's an escalator ride to the platforms and only 15 minutes to Amsterdam Centraal on frequent trains. Fields were frozen, trees encased in frost, sparkling in the dawn, beneath the mist; temperature minus five without chill factor. Mental note: buy gloves.
It is indescribably pleasant to stretch the legs in Amsterdam, especially at that spacious time of day, through the tunnel, past Moonflower florist’s, out onto the big grey concourse, due south across the tram tracks, over the canal bridge and into Damrak, where 70 metres down, on the right, past the Victoria Hotel, you turn into Haringpakkers Steeg, with the pink bicycle on the corner, where neon-lit Prix D’Ami coffee shop will almost bump into you and will pull you in at journey’s end.
Enjoy! Some time or other!
PS. An hour later, as I sat there, gawping at space, the cafe slowly filled up and this song came on ...
"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart." -- Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)
It may sound odd, but it is possible. Some people give up smoking - I've given up driving.
My faithful Huffy bike, of three years standing, has carried me the lengths and breadth of the city and desert, aided by a generous stretch of blissfully car-free corniche (aka. promenade or boardwalk).
I also like to think that I've started a trend, because when I first got into the saddle I never saw any fellow cyclists, other than kids, but now they are quite a common sight.
A couple of guys have tried to run me down - a local pastime - and one of them once missed my back wheel by about 5 centimetres, went into a 100 metre skid then smashed his brand new sports car into a palm tree, steam hissing from the bonnet. I checked to see if he was alive then rode home. Poetic justice doused in good karma.
Young lads on their mini-bikes also attempt the hilarious stunt of skidding to a halt right in front of me. Yeah, hilarious huh, Abdullah? That is until my much bigger vehicle ploughs straight through them and then it's boo-hoo time and cries of "fuck you!" from his delightful friends. A middle finger in reply, as I head off into the sunset, sends them into paroxysms of rage.
My old friend and buddy Huffy is used on an almost daily basis for exercise, trips to the shops, the dentist, the bank, the post office, Lebanese take aways, etc, and below is a record of places regularly visited.
Yesterday the BBC
reported that it was International Women's Day
, a celebration of the role played by women in the life of the world. Here, here! Otherwise it would just be like living in somewhere like Saudi Arabia. But, anyway, the news made me recall the photo below of two very young Nepali girls (maybe 10 years old?) at sunset, carrying wood they had gathered from the forest. Not recorded in the photo are the groups of unemployed men loitering in front of village shops, standing around playing cards, picking their noses and staring into space. In this respect I thought of the symbolism caught in this image.
I kind of made the picture when I was playing around with my camera, and, such is the power of digital photography, I could crop the above shot from the original picture below.
So God bless women around the world ...
... and for all the chauvanistic men out there, no need to imagine how awful life would be without women, because I can show you ...
An entirely apt name.
Having briefly, somewhat treacherously, forgotten all about Dutch coffee shops, they flew back into my mind today as I plan my route out of the sand come June.
It all started when the boss came into my office this morning and asked, "Do you want a new contract in the summer?"
"No," came the immediate answer.
He looked a bit upset, like a jilted girlfriend.
There was no need to even consider it, and, when he'd gone, my fingers went into a manic www.skyscanner.net
frenzy. Quickly finding a suitable midnight flight from Dammam, I suddenly remembered the awful Dutch proposal to ban foreigners from using their coffee shops, so, with fingers fluttering once more, I soon found the following: http://www.amsterdamstay.com/smokingnban.html which prompted me to leap out of my seat, exit the building and run around in the sand, punching the air shouting "Yippee!" and "Halleluleya!" The gardeners didn't know what the hell was going on and would never have understood even if I'd tried to explain because landing at Schipol then taking a train to the Prix d'Ami is one of life's pleasures that just has to be experienced.
So, thank you Mayor Eberhard van der Laan! Thank you Dutch cops! Thank you Amsterdam! And see you soon! Hasta la vista, baby!
It’s got to be said that 5am isn’t the greatest time for a flight, especially when you’ve spent the night in a pub. So, after getting pissed in an astonishingly dull Irish pub, then in the airport bar, I flew direct out of Bahrain remembering nothing until I was woken 25 minutes from landing in Kathmandu by a stewardess who scolded me with, “You’ve been asleep all the way from Manama!”
“Yeah?” I rubbed my eyes, wondering where the hell I was, and then finally sussing it, “Any chance of some breakfast?”
My aim was the unmissable Shamba Ling Hotel in Boudha, a north-eastern suburb of the city, home to the holiest Buddhist stupa in Nepal, and one of the world’s largest, protected by UNESCO, so I guess the UN is good for something.
I was boosting my good karma, man, and to help that I stopped off on the way, in Thamel, a few Ozzy Osborne types drifting about, minus the bling, grimy and unhealthy, for a meet-up with my old friend and buddy Rads who had the goods, and, while he wolfed down a plate of momos (stuffed dumplings), barely chewing, kind of sliding them down like oysters, I slunk off to the karzee to roll up.
Rads had organised his mate, a taxi driver, to give us a lift and we got there in 15 minutes but it took us another hour to find the freaking hotel.
The 1920s art deco Shamba Ling may not have had any heating but it did have an electric blanket, as well as a welcome ceremony during which the receptionist gently placed a scarf around my neck according to Himalayan custom, and a porter, very smart in woolen waistcoat and hat, handed me a hot drink, steaming from a glass. Namaste all round.
“Is that alcoholic?” I asked, with unintentional optimism.
It was lemon tea, but did remind me to pop down to the shops for a bottle of Scotch.
There were chambermaids in green dresses skipping around the roof, from washing line to wicker basket, dancing amid the laundry fluttering on a beautiful breeze as I looked out onto the Boudha stupa, bright orange in the sunset.
The best of the Shamba Ling was still to come, because their trump card stood in the form of Binod: tall, thin, moustache, dressed for the fifties, like a Hungarian; waiter extraordinaire. When he arrived at our table out on the patio, rain splattering heavily on the roof, I thought, ‘This is Basil Fawlty Junior’ and then he fired off his opening salvo.
“Should I ask, sir, if you would like a drink, sir? Or should I ask if you would like to wait for a drink, sir?"
There was a pause. I’ve got a feeling it was a pregnant one.
“Should I ask about the drinks, sir? Should I ask you for your preference, sir? Should I? Should I really, sir? Or should I not?"
“Right … erm …”
I’d been sampling Rads’ large lump of hash on the balcony, so this was proving a bit tricky.
“Should I come back, sir? Should I come back when you are ready, sir? Should I do that, or shouldn’t I, sir?”
“Yeah. Good thinking. Got a menu?”
“A menu, sir? Should I fetch it, sir? Should I?”
“Well, this is a restaurant, isn’t it?”
Cue manic laughter, bent at the waist, clutching a tray, knuckles white, mouth stretched tight, as if in agony, so wide open I could see straight down his throat.
“Hahahahah, sir. Should I say you are being humorous, sir?”
“I should say and you should get the menu, I’m starving.”
“Hahahahah, sir. Hahahahah! I should, sir. Yes, sir. I should not delay, sir, should I?” And with that he scurried off.
I couldn’t work out if he was taking the piss or not. When he reappeared, rigid in movement, stepping across the wet grass, then squirming on the spot, dry washing his hands, Basil-like, I decided he was being serious. He really believed that this was the way English is spoken.
“Should I ask if you are from Great Britain, sir? Or should I say that you are from the United States, sir?”
“You should say I’m from Great Britain.”
“Should I, sir? Should I really?”
“Yup, that’s the question, Binod.”
There were pork chops on the menu and therefore no case of ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ to answer: pig it would be, delicious with mashed potato and gravy. Enjoying the freshness of the garden after rain, the peace was interrupted by a cough and a question.
“Should I ask, sir, if I should take the plates away, sir? Or should I leave them on the table, sir?”
It was time to retire; Binod had worn us out, and time to pray that the electric blanket worked.
The next day, after a 'should I/shouldn't I' breakfast, wandering through alleyways to the stupa, storm clouds brooding above, saffron and crimson robed monks walking about, one of the Buddhists saw me, wide-eyed, and he smiled broadly and let out a jolly “hi!” It was a lovely start to the day.
From a rooftop café I sat back and enjoyed the rain, extra special after the parched desert. Thunder rumbled through the valley, like oak barrels pounding a wooden floor, and the white stupa was glistening after the downpour, turning duck-egg-blue in the weak sunlight before settling the day with a delicate yellow-orange tinge bringing the kids out into the streets, patting a shuttlecock back and forth, badminton replacing the October swings. Soldiers patrolled past them, armed with short, lacquered sticks.
Nepal is a country which really makes you want to walk, hence the copious trekking industry, and my feet were itching when we set off, tipping Binod well before we left the hotel, yet hoping to win it back in a wager we'd made. He'd gone down in my estimation when he had revealed himself to be a Chelsea fan - the English football club synonymous with boneheads, racism, violence, and, nowadays, money swindled from the Russian people - and we'd bet 100 big ones ($1) on that weekend's match - Arsenal lost, so I lost. Binod will have to wait for pay day.
“Should I say 'thank you', sir? Or should I say 'much obliged'?” was his parting shot.
It wasn’t long before countryside replaced suburb and we crossed the sacred Bagmati River that ends up flowing into the sacred Ganges in India, then an uphill leg-stretcher to the Hindu temple of Changu Narayan, exquisitely hand-carved with relics dating back to 3AD. There was peace there too, perched on a hilltop, overlooking the Kathmandu valley.
After another chilly night – no heating, no electricity, spent almost fully dressed under the covers, followed by an amazing dawn, mist like cotton wool soothing the landscape - we positively leapt out of bed.
At breakfast I found out that the red dot that Hindus sport on the forehead represents fire, while the hair is water, and there’s some other stuff that passed me by because I became preoccupied with wondering why the waiter wasn’t saying, “Should I pour the coffee, sir, or shouldn’t I?”
As we walked a long ridge, warmed by a January sun, the clouds parted and the Himalayas appeared, majestically, much as a movie star making an unexpected appearance among civilians. This was the Langtang range (not summitted until 1978), with Everest about 50 km further, deeper inside the Massif, where the snow was now falling in metres per hour and the rivers were iced solid. On a rocky cliff we basked like lizards, ate some lunch and smoked some hash, gazing in silence at one of the world’s most incredible sights.
A plantation of trees that I hoped were Pipals – the tree that Buddha meditated beneath – but weren’t, led us down to the hamlet of Dilkot and there we boarded a bus, transported up the final hill, sitting on a pile of potatoes, amusing the school kids in smart uniforms, with a Maris Piper up my arse, to 2195 metre high Nagarkot and the glow of the heated Club Himalaya Hotel. Yippee! After 3 nights under cold sheets, I stood in my underpants below the air-conditioner, wallowing in warmth, tinged with guilt at the thought of most of the nation shivering below. At some point a porter even turned up with hot water bottles. Or did I dream that?
Out in the sticks it soon becomes obvious that it’s the women doing the work – in the house, in the fields, collecting wood - while the men stand around gambling, playing board games, doing nothing, losing everything, not even noticing young girls staggering past carrying huge containers of water, barely spilling a drop. The Maoist government could start with rallying a peasant’s army, not for war, but to clean up the environment, which is littered with plastic, blighting the land that made Nepal’s name. But they don’t; they just sit in high office bickering and bitching with other male-dominated parties, doing nothing, getting Jack Schitt done.
Some places should be visited just for the name alone (should I, sir?) and The Hotel at the End of the Universe is one of them. On the way up the hill a small boy appeared from the pine forest and asked the usual question, “Where are you from?”
“The capital of England is London and the capital of the Netherlands is Amsterdam,” he continued. “This is my house. Do you want to see it?”
“Sure. You a tour guide?”
“Yes, I want to be.”
“You can practice on us, ok?”
It was a neat little one storey, one roomed mud hut with wonky corrugated roof and two holes for windows at the front, which, with the door in dead centre, made it look like a face. The tour didn’t take long around a dirt floor, two beds and cooking utensils stacked in a corner. The remains of a fire lay in a square bricked area on the floor.
“Nice place,” I said. “What’s your name, kid?”
“My name is Buddha,” came the answer. “Buddha Bika.”
I blinked and he showed me a shallow hole next to one of the beds and said, “Every day Jesus comes out of this hole at six o’clock in the morning. Never at six o’clock in the evening.”
“Oh yeah? Does he say anything?”
“No, he doesn’t say nothing. He smiles at me and my brother and my mother.”
“That’s good. Where is your mother?”
“She’s in the town. She will come home at five o’clock. That’s a pig,” he continued, remembering his tour guide duties, as a black-haired porker snuffled by, followed by a troupe of piglets.
“Mmmm,” I said, “Breakfast.”
“No, not breakfast. We don’t eat it.”
“What do you do with it then?”
“It lives. It’s an animal. We can’t kill it.”
“How old are you, Buddha Bika?”
“I am 9 years old. I think you are 27 years old.”
I laughed at his assessment, almost 20 years off the mark.
“Thanks, Buddha Bika. Show us around the village, huh?”
It was an entertaining tour – “This is a shop. This is a hotel. This is a chicken. This is my friend" – that ended at The Hotel at the End of the Universe where a Scot was drinking whisky and staring at his phone, an Ozzie was sick while staring at a phone, and a Swiss girl sat mute, back to the mountains, no phone to stare at.
I guessed Buddha Bika hadn't eaten much that day so I treated him to lunch and he plumped for a chocolate and banana pancake, which he ate heartily, informing me between mouthfuls that the Maoist government had closed down his school so he studies at home by "looking at the tree and sky."
At 4.50pm he shot off to meet his mother at the bus stop and help her carry her bags to the house with a face that Jesus visits and Buddha watches over.
The days in Nagarkot passed in sun-kissed bliss, wallowing on the Himalayan balcony, smoking spliffs, and in the evening, when the delightful waitress Binita told us that she was afraid when she walked home at night, we accompanied her down to the darkened village, only to find the hotel gates locked on our return and it was a leg-up onto a wall and a climb back inside. When I told him, the hotel manager laughed, “You’re not the first.”
It was sad to leave that place but the downhill jaunt, that turned into a serious trek, thrashing back foliage with a stick, on the look-out for snakes, and, wistfully, tigers, to Bhaktapur took us past an army barracks and then a sub-tropical rhododendron then pine forest where we came across a hunting party with a huge shotgun, then, finding a road after 5 hours, a bus dropped us off next to a pond full of carp and turtles in the red brick, medieval town and it was another night in a heatless room, albeit with two hot water bottles.
Bhaktapur is one of those towns where the eyes don’t know where to settle. After the hustle of the cobbled streets; sacred cows; goats; Buddhist Mohicans; kids waiting nervously for exams; a clematis covered police station; drunken porters prostrate on the ground; stone elephants having sex; Chinese tour groups; a wedding procession with brass band; the preserved medieval core is a welcome patch of serenity with temples and shrines and squares galore, bathed, as ever, in orange light.
Not really a museum type of guy I was still fascinated by the National Art Gallery, empty other than us, swastikas painted on the floor (Hitler stole the symbol), and a collection of tantric sex paintings - early porno - dating back to the 12th century. After a thorough examination, it appears that not much has changed in the world of nooky since then. They even had condoms, of a sort.
Finally it was back to Kathmandu for a final night in Hotel Tibet and the nearby Yak Bar beckoning me in, and the next day, boohoo, a sad departure from a land that so many have fallen for. Shame about the government, although that can be said for most parts of the world.
Should I go back, sir …? Of course you should. I could/should spend years there.
Thursday was a momentous day in our town when an American-style supermarket opened only 500 metres up the road from my flat! Bonus! Everyone was there! And probably still are. The whole town came out to worship this emporium of food. Chaos ensued and the great day got even more exciting when I found a cluster of tinned grapefruit on a shelf and greedily stuffed the remaining six cans into my already overflowing basket.
Discounts galore, but the bio and gluten-free (no idea what that means) products had been flown in from the USA, at prices so high that these shelves would never have to be re-stocked. Yet, fighting gamely through the crowds, who were crashing trolleys, as they do cars, barging people aside, idling gormlessly, on phones, crowding the candy and potato chip sections, I did discover some pleasant surprises from home, such as Oxo, Colman’s English mustard, and Branston pickle. Yippee!
This was certainly the most exhilarating event in the history of the municipality and the desert in general, other than when a welder did his welding too close to a gas cylinder, sparks flying, and the subsequent explosion sent the roof speeding off on a one way trip into space, closely followed by five unfortunate Indians and a Saudi supervisor snoozing at his desk. Regrettably, none of them returned to earth, not even the roof.
In a dramatic build-up, reminiscent of the Olympic opening ceremony in Hackney, powerful spotlights swept across the sky, inviting us in, and, man, did we do that! By 5pm the queue at the customer complaints desk was getting longer and longer, the manager was sweating in the coldest Middle Eastern winter for years, the microchips in tills overloaded and only cash was being accepted. Back to the souk.
There stood a solitary man on the delicatessen counter, in a red baseball cap and apron, who bravely ignored patrons’ loud demands as he chatted on his mobile phone, even laughing brazenly at a lady asking for cheese.
“Nuts, sir?” a Bangladeshi asked me as I perused his wares.
“I have lovely nuts, sir. Do you want to buy them?”
That was one of varied and dubious offers on offer.
As I wandered home, it dawned on me that it truly is a sad and sorry state of affairs when what you’re looking forward to at the end of the day is a tin of freaking grapefruit.
Just what we need!
Last week my clunky ancient laptop, as heavy as a breezeblock, kind of blew up in the middle of an episode of The Wire – the one where Keema gets shot. Damn inconvenient, I gotta say.
So, I walked 4 kilometres along the balmy winter coastline to buy a new one.
The ground floor of Jarir Bookstore is given over almost entirely to computers and associated bits and bobs (Christ, there is stacks of it), phone gizmos and cameras that do anything bar making a decent cup of tea. At the back is stationery and stuff for artists – easels, paints, canvas and the like, aimed, I guess, at women who sit at home all day bored to tears (i.e. 97% of them).
A sign of the times is that the computer section is always packed, while upstairs, where the books are kept, it is as dead as a dodo, other than the likes of me and a few women with dancing eyes leafing through Mills & Boon. Whenever I go up there, the Indian salesman leaps to his feet, brushes cobwebs from his specs and welcomes me as if his bosom buddy.
On Wednesday, in unfamiliar PC territory, I spent half an hour umming and ahhing before prayer time got us all kicked outside for a further half an hour. Out there, watching Bangladeshis round up trolleys for Panda supermarket, I smoked, ummed and ahhed a bit more, then went back inside and plumped for a slim-line, super-lightweight Netbook (whatever that means) whose price – cheap in the tax free sand - would be covered by the 1000 riyals a colleague had finally returned as part of a loan dating from June.
“I have to finance my wife,” was his baffling excuse. I didn't ask for details and won’t hold my breath for the remaining grand ($266), but hopefully it will arrive before I quit or get fired. Whatever comes first.
Back at home, feverishly unwrapping the box, like a kid at Christmas, packaging flying everywhere, I found out that it didn't bloody work – surely a pertinent metaphor for the territory as a whole.
The next day, back in the store, I found myself in a long line of people with similarly malfunctioning contraptions. Finally being attended to, I was told, as were the rest of the queue, that it would have to be sent to a service centre in Riyadh and that would take at least 2 weeks before being returned. For Christ’s sake, it wasn't even 24 hours old!
As a result, the weekend has been PC free, and, I have to say, all very pleasant – admittedly helped by fantastic weather. I rode my bike under blue skies, buffeted by a cool breeze; read a lot (Kipling’s Jungle Book); dug out a notepad and wrote on paper; laughed at the insanity of CNN’s news coverage; and got a haircut from a Turk doing a great impression of Mr. Bean with a moustache. He even trimmed my eyebrows.
For abnormally long periods I found myself staring out of the window at a tree; re-arranged my books; plucked nasal hair; and gauged how much stuff I’d take with me when I do get out of the freaking sand.
I also went to bed early and rose early, walking round the neighbourhood, engaged in stretching exercises. I even gave the flat a good sweep. If I’d had a computer, that chore would have certainly been ignored in favour of spider solitaire.
In fact I did get the old one fixed, not because of withdrawal symptoms but I had remembered stuff on there that I needed, and the clued up Philipino repair man told me that the average age of a PC is five years.
“But for many Saudis it is usually one or two months,” he added with a wry smile.
“They destroy them.”
“Yeah,” I thought, “Even before they’re out of the box.”
Avenue to Nowhere