Roads no longer lead to Batha on weekends for  OFWs  

    Many former overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) keep tender memories of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was once their “home  away from home”.

    To some Filipino old-timers who experienced difficulties before working in the Kingdom, Riyadh was home, especially for those who arrived there during the 1970s construction boom until the first decade of the 21st century.

   But while working in the Kingdom benefited them financially, they were gripped by sadness for being away from their loved ones 8,092 kilometers away in the east.

    To overcome the sadness, they used to go to Al-Batha (or Batha for short) on weekends, Saturday to Sunday, to forget their homesickness. Weekend was later changed to Friday and Saturday.

    It was common for OFWs to say, “All roads lead to Batha on weekends.” 

    Batha is the equivalent of Balad in Jeddah in the west or Ramaniyah in Al-Khobar in the east.

    It is a thriving trading and commercial district near Sinaiyah or the Old Industrial Area known for car workshops and spare parts sellers.

     Batha, one of the oldest districts in Riyadh, is known for many things such as the gold markets towards which  many women of various nationalities, including OFWs, gravitate.

    As soon as the sun rose in the old days, city residents who had planned earlier what to do or where to go the following day, made a move.

    Filipinos took a quick breakfast of coffee and a loaf of bread or “pandesal”.  Bakers have added other ingredients like cheese or butter to make tastier what the famed writer NVM Gonzales referred to as salt bread.

    Then the Filipinos rushed out of the house and walked briskly as if they were on a mission, heading towards the bus stop. They took a Coaster or bus operated  by the Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO). Fare was SAR2 (a little over P30), long before the cost of oil per barrel rose exponentially.

   If they could not wait for the bus, they took a taxi and shared  the SAR10 (almost P152) fare. Those who had cars drove to Batha,  which was not really far for one who stayed, for example, in the Malaz district.

    Virgilio “Bebot”  Bello Lumicao, first page one editor of Riyadh Daily, used to walk from where he stayed in Malaz to Batha for exercise. 

  But roads no longer lead to Batha these days as the number of OFWs and other expatriates from South Asia and Africa going there has dwindled, making former and current OFWs feel a sense of loss or nostalgia for what it used to be.

   The change is not difficult to explain. In fact, it was expected because of the need created by the demand of modern times.

    With the Kingdom awash with cash, the government has implemented various projects in consonance with its Vision 2030, under which it veers away from an oil economy and develops its downstream industry that includes agriculture, plastic, wheat, fertilizer, among others.

    These projects include parks and malls that have attracted  city residents who were Batha habitués.

    The old Riyadh air base in Suleimania, for instance, has been converted into the King Salman Park equipped with modern facilities. It boasts of a neatly manicured 18-hole golf course.

    “Riyadh’s golf enthusiasts, who are the Saudi capital’s elite golfers, flock there on weekends or whenever they have the time for a round or two,”  Robert G. Fernandez, quality manager at Al Babtain Contracting, said when he took a vacation earlier this year.

    A number of air-conditioned sprawling malls and modern hotels have also been constructed with the participation of the private sector that came up with their own projects featuring big shops offering high-end products, grocery items, gold jewelry, stereo sets, etc.

    City residents gravitate toward these to pass time, buy what they need or to talk about business instead  of going to Batha where they would sweat profusely due to the hot weather.

    One thing more that discourages visitors from going to Batha is the lack of parking space. Office and residential buildings now occupy wide vacant lots where they used to park.

    Many still visit the old district on weekends but for purposes other than those they had in the past, primarily to  forget  their longing for home, buy their basic needs or eat native food at their favorite Filipino restaurant.

    But for meeting friends, buying branded products or simply window shopping, they now prefer the malls where they can talk over a cup of coffee in a relaxing ambience.

    Other Filipino journalists who stayed with Bebot  at the accommodation  provided by the Al Yamamah  Press Est. off Sitteen Street were Chito P. Manuel, sports editor, and this writer. Other editors—Jay Gotera and Guillermo C. Franco – stayed in another company-provided accommodation.

   Other Filipino newsmen  who joined the newspaper later were Rey Virgilio Lachica and Dennis Urlanda, also sports editors, and two others from  a local national daily and Nueva Ecija.

   Rey is the current Philippine Sportswriters  Association president and Tempo sports editor. 

    Now based in Hong Kong as editor, Lumicao  promotes hiking for physical fitness among OFWs in the  former British colony, calling to mind the times when he walked long distances in Riyadh.

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