Sunday, January 01, 2023

A Camel Beauty Pageant and Saudi Coffee Customs

The fun tour about to unfold began at the meeting point at a strip mall.

While we waited I reflected on the amusing predicament of a kingdom that doesn't grant visas to Americans and yet is awash in American food and culture.

We don't even have a Raising Cane's in Seattle. I think the closest one is in Portland.

When the tour van pulled up they immediately won Lydia's heart by passing out snack packs. Our tour guide took us up into her office to use the restroom before leaving. She talked a lot of shop while we were there. She talked of rising competition in the tour industry. She said people would come for tours and learn everything and then just create their own. She also mentioned how hard it was working in Saudi as a woman.

A couple of our tour companions were American women, and when we revealed our own sacred American-ness she commented "oh I haven't seen you at the Embassy". I thought that was an awesome comment, implying that we had done such a fantastic job winning to cool kid traveler game that the only other Americans she'd met in the country worked for the US Embassy. One was named Maureen and the other... was not. We had great conversations with them and they had so much awesome insight on the country I was bugging the hell out of them. They said the opening of the country and developing the tourist sector was a play hedging against the oil industry not lasting forever. That seemed smart to me. Maureen said that one of her duties was to be on call on the Embassy emergency line in case anything bad happens to an American in the middle of the night. Well she said around here that is a pretty easy assignment due to the fact that no one can drink alcohol. Takes a lot of the fun out of that job if you ask me.

I also sort of embarrassedly told them of my dream of someday fundraising my way into being appointed a US Ambassador. They actually said they knew someone who did that and had a very specific number for how much they thought it would cost: $720k. I better start saving my money and not spend it all on dates.

Things were about to get real camely.

I mentioned the large police presence to our guide and she said it was to protect the camels. While on the drive staring out at the vast desert our guide told us that you can hunt for shark teeth out there. Sounds like fun.

Behold! The King Abdulaziz Camel Festival!

Our guide talked our way into the VIP tent. It was pretty impressive. There were lots of fancy businesses with booths in here, including a bank.

The VIP camel viewing area was impressive as well.

My theory is that in countries that lack alcohol they have to come up with other creative ways to serve luxury.

Lydia got some coffee.

And some more snacks.

Khuzama the camel was the most beautiful in the Gulf. Her owner received offers to buy her which he refused, and soon after the camel died. Our guide said many suspected foul play.

There was a falconry booth that we visited. The birds kept their little helmets on the whole time.

This was cool. The largest booth of them all was for the Ministry of Culture. They have cool camel petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia too, just like the ones we saw in Jordan's Wadi Rum.

In the desert there's nothing to tie your camel to so they sort of tie it to itself.

I wanted to buy some camelicious milk but there was none to be had.

I was informed that "camels here have one hump. They have two in Mongolia."

Then the dancing sword guys came out.

Lydia said that Ernie the Fetus was enjoying this performance as much as we were, and was kicking to the beat.

I got a pic with the swordsmen.

Our embassy friends encouraged Lydia to pop over for a shot with us and it didn't go great. A couple of my swordsmen walked away.

For some reason it was like Omani day at the festival. There was some Omani government fancy man in attendance apparently. Anyway there was a traditional dance from Oman performed. Instead of swords these guys were waving around sticks.

I didn't know until today that Oman has a bagpiping heritage left over from British rule.

We caught some of the bagpiping outside. All of this Oman culture fondly brought me back to my time visiting the Sultanate of Oman, which Lydia has not been to. Very sad.

Maureen took a camel ride. We were offered more than once but had quite enough camel riding recently in Jordan.

You can sort of see here that they make female camels with babies wear these bra things to restrict when the young can nurse. Why they do this I do not know.. maybe so they can be moved on command?

The first part of the show was sort of a beauty pageant for camels. I guess there are other days where camels are judged by themselves but today they were being judged as a pack? a herd? a caravan? Our guide said that so much money is on the line with these beauty pageants that owners were caught using lip filler injections to make the camels look better. Who can blame them with those luscious, luscious lips.

The camera crews were happy to put images of our group of foreigners on the jumbotron. I made it up there but wasn't fast enough to take a picture. Sad.

On occasion the screen would show/interview who I assume are the owners of the camels.

We grabbed some fantastic wraps from a little restaurant near the action called Manshood. We got the "shawarma zaman: zaman bread stuffed shawarma chicken, garlic sauce, french fries pickled".

There was another event after the beauty pageant that was fun and reminded me of the rodeo. They would tie up a camel's legs then walk away and see if the camel would stay put.

There was some sort of herding event as well which I did not completely understand.

I think my favorite part was the high pitched yelling at the camels.

One of the embassy ladies stood awfully close to the angry-seeming mother camel and miraculously walked away with all of her fingers.

After all of that camel action it was time for our group to eat on its way home. We of course ate camel! After seeing their beauty on display for so long it was only natural for our mouths to water wondering how they might taste.

We got a monster pile of rice and camel meat with some lemons and onions sprinkled on top. I think they wanted us to eat with our hands but we asked for some forks.

Kabsa is the rice mix and hashi is meat that comes from a camel between six months and one year old.

After the tour bus dropped us back off at the strip mall we began at we checked out a grocery store there. They had all the dates.

I appreciated this scenario because now I could read the names of the different varieties.

This road sign pointed to "Makkah" which can also be translated as "Mecca", the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

We made a stop at the Al Masmak Palace Museum. "The fortress played an integral role in the Unification of Saudi Arabia, with the Battle of Riyadh, one of the most important conflicts of the Saudi unification, taking place in the fort."

This was my favorite part of the museum:

"Saudi Coffee Exhibit

We present to you the significance of coffee to Saudi's culture by drawing on beautiful poetry written about coffee cups, how coffee takes a starring role in family gatherings, and the generationally inherited steps of coffee making. Coffee grows primarily in the southern provinces of Saudi on farms that have thrived for generations through inherited knowledge of planting, nourishing, picking, and drying. Although coffee is a popular drink in all regions of Saudi, its flavors and aromas differ from one province to another. These differences stem from the different environments and specific histories of each region. Coffee is poured from the dallah, a thermos of several types, all magnificent in form and each originating from parts of the Arab World. Some delal are used for preparing coffee and pouring it to perfection. For centuries, coffee cups and serving protocols acted as a language, sending social cues to those present at gatherings and strengthening a heritage of hospitality, honor, and chivalry.

The future of coffee seems bright on the horizon. Today, the Saudi's youth are taking an active part in keeping the coffee culture vibrant with innovation and creativity by meeting international quality standards that require dedication."

"Guest Cups Meanings and Moods

Al Haif cup is for the host and not for the guest. The cups reserved for guests have their own names and connotations. The first is the daif, meaning guest. It is the duty of the host to have this cup served to the guest unless there is enmity between them. Some guests delay drinking from the daif when they have a difficult request for the host and only drink the coffee when the host promises to fulfill their request. The second cup is called the kaif, meaning mood. This cup is served to enliven the mood and the guest is not obligated to drink this cup. If the guest drinks from the third cup, saif, meaning sword, it indicates that the guest will support the host throughout hardships and defend the host with a sword if necessary. The fourth cup is faris, meaning knight. This cup has its own peculiarity as the sheikh of a tribe gathers young men, pours coffee into this cup, and raises it high among them. The sheikh says "this is the cup of so-and-so bin so-and-so (this person has been wronged or killed by someone). Whoever drinks from this cup fulfills our revenge." Only a knight would drink from such a cup and goes to fulfill the revenge."

You shake your cup to indicate you are finished drinking.

Souq Al-Zal was amazing. It was like if cyberpunk movies like the Matrix had an Arabian influence instead of Japanese.

We had some issues at this point getting an Uber to pick us up. We were quite frustrated with the process until a friendly local woman walked up to us and asked if we needed any help. The people here were amazing. She told us about another local Uber-type app that ended up working for us.

It was New Year's Eve and I wanted to treat Lydia like a pretty pretty princess, so I took her to the friggin' palatial Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh. This place has likely ruined hotels for me moving forward as it was so opulent.

Obama and Trump have both been guests here. There were also a few unwilling guests:

"The 2017–19 Saudi Arabian purge was the mass arrest of a number of prominent Saudi Arabian princes, government ministers, and business people in Saudi Arabia on 4 November 2017 and the following few weeks after the creation of an anti-corruption committee led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There are three alternate hypotheses regarding the motives behind the purge: a genuine corruption crackdown, a project to gain money, or preparing to take over the crown.

The detainees were confined at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh (which had hosted the announcement for the planned city of Neom on 24 October 2017), which subsequently stopped accepting new bookings and told guests to leave. Private jets were also grounded to prevent suspects from fleeing the country."

This is I imagine is the pool that god swims in.

I was digging the decor of a Chinese restaurant that was currently closed.

We ended up at the Ritz's Italian joint: Azzurro.

Lydia's pregnancy meant that the lack of alcohol around here suited her just fine. They had a pretty serious mocktail list that we took advantage of. I had the "red grenade: raspberries, red wine, pomegranate juice, lemon, vanilla"

Lydia had a "Rosso Vivo: lychee juice, home-made almond syrup, rose water. raspberries, sparkling wine."

On the way back to the hotel we had a darling Uber driver. He was insistent that we go to this festival that I had seen advertisements for because he wanted us to see the New Year's fireworks. We had a very early flight so had to decline, but man did I want to see those fireworks. He didn't speak any English so we had a very amusing conversation with him via Google Translate.

Someone's fun Arabian shaped coffee pot sat in the hallway at our Aloft hotel. What a day.

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