Wednesday, December 30, 2009

T3i Report, December 2009

We got a little christmas package in the mail yesterday! My mother sent these four cheerful dog toys. Good thing, too, because all of the toys I brought with me are now stinky shapeless rags, hardly recognizable even as dog toys.

Mimi has now squeaked them a total of 1, 000,732, well, make that 1,000,752 times. She and Harry and I played with all four of them last night--and again at 5am this morning at their relentless insistence--and she's been running around tonight in a frenzy with santa.

Mimi killed the squeaker in the gingerbread man in about 100 squeaks (it still makes little clicking noises which Harry likes) but I think both dogs love the floppy shape of this toy as he is still otherwise intact. He's a solid 5 on the T3i rating scale. The reindeer now has only one antler, almost no stuffing, and the squeaker is under a piece of furniture somewhere. T3i would have to rate him a 3 though because he did last 24 hours!

Here's wishing you all a happy new year!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Annual Holiday Baked Goods Incident

I seem to have the worst luck with smooth fox terriers and holiday baked goods.

This run of bad luck started way back in Christmas 1999 with Harry and Iz. My friend Julie was visiting me in Salt Lake City. We found ourselves in a domestic mood and baked some pies and bread using fresh pumpkin. I left two 2-pound loaves of bread on the washer to cool while Julie and I left on some errand. It was Christmas Day, I believe (this could have taken place over Thanksgiving too--the main point is that is happened on a primary holiday day). When we returned, to my horror Harry and Iz waddled up to the door to greet us, guts visibly swollen. Bread pans: empty. Foil: licked clean. Fox terriers: couldn't even move.

We rushed them to the emergency clinic where they were injected with something to make them vomit. It was extremely successful and rather fast acting. The smell of fresh pumpkin bread soon filled the room as both of them started vomiting up globs of orange bready goo.

You'd think I would have learned then that a determined fox terrier can easily get onto a standard kitchen appliance. But time does dim those specific bits of information.

Last night, I returned from a shopping jaunt into Khobar with friends to be greeted at the a waddling fox terrier! Harry somehow pulled a fresh pecan pie that I had bought here on camp just yesterday off the stove and onto the floor. Based on the size of his swollen gut and his moaning all night, I think he ate most of it. I had only had one piece of it myself so it was pretty much a complete pie! Mimi is certainly no innocent--she had a very full belly too!

She was so amped up on sugar that she was bouncing off the walls, the furniture, and me as I walked around cleaning up the mess.

When I left for work this morning, Harry was back in bed sleeping it off.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Water Sports

Aramco waters everything in camp with reclaimed waste water. It smells faintly like sewage and I've been told not to walk in the grass in sandals if I have a cut on my feet. Eww. Even with all the watering they do, they still have extra waste water. They don't collect it and treat it over and over. They dispose of the extra waste water in spray fields--flat spaces in the desert south of camp peppered with gigantic rainbird-like sprinklers.

When I took the dogs out for their regular weekend jaunt in the desert on Thursday, one of the spray fields was active. Because this is waste water after all, they don't do much maintenance on the sprinklers and you can see in the photo below that some of them are broken and simply shoot vertical geysers of water in the air.

There is a lot of extra vegetation in the spray fields, far more than would normally grow in the desert. That's what gives the field that dark-grey-green color.

Anyway, the dogs love to play in sprinklers and when Harry saw those giant jets going in circles, he just went crazy, running around and around. The water comes out at a high velocity--it has eroded the sand around it like a moat and flattened the plants in a radial pattern. Harry can personally attest to the force of the water--it only took one good shot and he stayed behind the jet after that!

Mimi had to get into the act too. I managed to stay out of the stream and keep my camera dry while she played in the water and mud.

Fun has its price though. Both dogs got baths when we got home!

Life on the Porcine Edge

The holiday parties have been amazing and fun and totally exhausting.

While that is all well and good, I've got an even better story for the blog--today I smuggled pork into KSA!

On the way back from today's luncheon in Bahrain, I had my driver stop off at the Pork Store. It's really a normal grocery store, well, normal for a Persian Gulf state, with an alcove way in the back where they had a glorious display of every pork product known to non-Muslim mankind.

See that kilo of "grilled turkey breast" on the left? That's bacon. Mmmm, bacon. The "corned beef" on the right? That is two lovely boneless center cut pork chops. Mmmm, pork chops.

Here's how you do it: you select what you want then tell the special "pork store" counter guy, who is not a muslim, that you are taking it to KSA. He removes the original label and repackages it as you see above. He sticks the original label on a bit of plastic and they scan and ring that up at checkout, not the bar code you see above. You then toss the original label and you are good to go!

I've gotten word that my shipment is scheduled to arrive in Dammam port on Dec 28. In that shipment is a brand new gas grill. I will celebrate getting my stuff by cooking those yummy chops on my new grill. My stuff will be in customs for at least a week, possibly two, so I've got a while to wait.

In case you were wondering, if I were to get caught by Saudi customs at the causeway inspection station, they just make you throw it away. We were coming across right before the 5pm prayer time and they were all anxious to head off and pray so the inspection they gave the car was perfunctory at best. But along with hair conditioner (yes, I found some in Bahrain), nice fresh tomatoes, and dog treats, the "grilled turkey breast" wouldn't even have raised an eyebrow.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Dance Card Is Full

I've been leading a whirlwind social life lately.

Last week was the big holiday party thrown by my office mate and her husband, old hands who have been here for 17+ years. Lots of food and alcohol being consumed by other western (white) Aramcons who have been here for the same length of time. Mostly Americans with a sprinkling of Canadians.

I've come to the conclusion that there are far too many westerners here in Dhahran who should have gone home years ago. Someone suggested that it was because they were too used to the service economy here: houseboys, maids, cooks, gardeners, guys to wash your car, drivers, Aramco services to take care of maintenance and security...the list goes on. The price for these services is a fraction of what it would cost in the US and it would not be possible to duplicate this lifestyle back home. So they stay, becoming more poisonous and cynical with each passing year.

On Sunday, our group's main admin, a Brit named Tess, invited me to a caroling party that night. I wasn't quite sure I was up to caroling but she assured me I could "mime"--brit for lip synch. The other attraction was the offer of mulled wine. Hmm, I thought, that might improve both the local product and the prospect of lip synching to carols. So I went along and had a wonderful time. I decided to call this party the Commonwealth Love Fest: it was packed with Irish, Scots, Brits, Canadians, even a few Aussies and Kiwis. As it turns out, I was the sole American there! After a few mulled wines or three, the stories and grumbling about the "fookin' Americans---oh, sorry, luv, not you!" would begin. I would laugh and assure them that making derisive generalizations about other groups were not restricted to just them. This group was quite friendly and full of energy and holiday spirit. And the mull definitely improved the local whine.

In fact, these folks were so friendly that when they found out I was by myself for the holiday, I got invited to two more parties on the spot!

As a side note, I discovered that in general, Commonwealth folks don't mix much with Americans, the Eastern Europeans tend to stick together, you NEVER see French people out in public, the Asians tend to clump up by country of origin--not much mixing at all, at least at private social events.

This week, one of the women in our group had a luncheon at her house for all of the other women. I generally hate these affairs because I am always the lone technical professional amidst all the secretaries and admin staff and it just isn't my scene. I'm not being elitist--I just have different priorities than those women tend to have. But we have quite a few professional women in our group at work as well as a good mix of cultures: Saudi, Lebanese, American, Brit, Irish. So for the sake of getting along with my new group, I went. Amilia cooked a wonderful lunch for us and it was a nice break in the middle of the day.

Tonight Tess is taking me to THE holiday party, THE one party that everyone talks about for the rest of the year. I don't think we are talking Animal House here but I've been told to expect an adult party with lots of alcohol.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm off to attend a small private BBQ with some of the Commonwealth folks. And Friday, Christmas Day, I'm heading to Bahrain to join about 20 others in a fancy group luncheon.

On my way back from Bahrain just before we get to the causeway (remember that Bahrain is an island nation), I'm planning to have the driver stop off at a special grocery store. Called Alosrah, it caters to British expats, carrying for example every chutney known to mankind. But tucked in the back behind a the Pork Store. Here you can buy bacon, pork hot dogs, even hams. You can ask them to repackage it, label it "chicken", and when your car is searched as you re-enter KSA (Saudi border guards always search every car coming back from Bahrain), nobody is the wiser. Besides the glamorous products in the Pork Store, I also plan to shop for hair conditioner and dog food.

And Tess, who does seem to be quickly becoming my social secretary, is taking me into town (Khobar) on Sunday with three of her girlfriends for shopping and dinner. The dogs will get short shrift that night and I do feel a bit guilty about that but...well, if she keeps inviting me out she can't find me too tiresome yet.

As a new hire, you get lots of advice. You keep some, you toss the rest. One of my rules of thumb is to ask five people. After five versions you can get a pretty good idea of how to get something done. Anyway, one piece of advice that several people offered was that during my first few months here, I should attend every social event I was invited to. That way I will learn what I like to do and find a circle of friends to do it with. I'm doing my best to take that advice!

But I do hope that my experience tonight with more brown on the rocks won't spoil me for the real thing in Bahrain on Friday!

Friday, December 18, 2009

I'll Drink To That

For most westerners here in KSA, alcohol is a perennially interesting topic. Outside of Dhahran camp, it is strictly forbidden to possess, make, sell, buy, transport, or even drink alcohol in any form in the Kingdom. But inside camp, in the usual through-the-looking-glass twist, westerners can possess and drink alcohol. The twist is that we can't buy it. So how can we possess and drink it if we can't buy it? Westerners can legally make alcohol in Dhahran camp.

Identity purposefully hidden. He's holding a decanter and glass of spirits that he distilled himself.

This situation is a relict of the days when Aramco was an American company and Dhahran camp housed only expats. These particular rules were negotiated by Texaco and Chevron with the Saudi royals and over time have became codified. The matawah (religious police) don't like it one bit but there is little they can do about it. They've had some influence though: selling or even giving alcohol to Saudis can have particularly dire consequences--you can be fired and deported from the country in less than 24 hours if caught.

Every single house on camp, even the 500 square foot apartments, have special rooms with vents, extra electrical power outlets (usually a couple of 220V outlets along with extra 110V outlets), and floor drains: these are the still rooms. Still as in moonshine. Still as in distillation.

This is a photo of a particularly elaborate still room in one of the larger houses on camp. The still is vintage 1955 or '56. There are many stills of this age that are passed from one expat to another. These old stills require a lot of TLC: tubes get plugged, welds go bad, some parts simply wear out with time. If not carefully monitored, they can also explode and burn houses down--this actually happened over the eid holiday a couple of weeks ago.

The usual method for making "spirits" is to create ethanol by fermenting yeast and sugar, a natural process that can create a solution with 14-18% alcohol. A single distallation run of that solution can up the alcohol content to around 40% (while reducing the liquid volume by 75%). A second distillation produces a more typical 80-85% alcohol content--another 75% reduction in liquid volume. You can see that you need to start with large volumes of yeast and sugar-water.

The commissary sells sugar in 50-lb bags and yeast in 2-lb packages. The yeast is not the more potent brewing yeast but it seems to do the trick. There are very strict regulations on bringing in yeast and Saudi Customs keeps a particular eye out for this. You can get into quite a bit of trouble if you try to carry brewers yeast in and get caught.

The result of this distillation process is what is called "white." To make its cousin "brown," you need to add smoked oak chips or some other tannin source. These chips are commercially available in the US and EU and people generally bring them into the Kingdom by putting them in personal luggage. You can add other flavorings such as juniper berries to white to make gin. Without some flavor, white is more or less the equivalent of plain vodka. Brown can taste like whiskey or even mid-range scotch if the guy is a real artist.

When you go to parties where alcohol is served, you have your choice of white or brown and the usual mixers: water, ice, soda water, cola (to my horror, lots of people here mix brown with diet Coke!), twist of lemon, etc. And that is how you order it: "Give me brown on the rocks with a lemon twist please."

That ordering part? Big parties are catered, staffed by mostly Philippino waiters who carry around food and make your drinks for you. If they were to drink themselves and then get caught while inebriated, the westerner who hired them could be fired and deported. You've got to wonder what they hell they think about these crazed, drunken westerners.

People do make "wine" by fermenting grape juice. The commissary sells grape juice in very large containers. I've found both the white and red varieties to be fairly nasty in large part because the grape juice that begins the process is often adulterated with additional sugar and chemicals and is not pure juice. But if you are jonesing for "wine" it can be had with a bit of effort.

Fortunately for me, I've always been a fan of brown spirits.

These are 5-gallon glass jugs full of brown, waiting for the holiday party circuit to begin.

I plan to set up a still for myself to make my own supply of brown. I am going to see if I can bring a new still in to KSA. I'm going to start with this cheap plastic still. If that gets through Customs in one piece, I've got my eye on this spiffy stainless steel baby. That one may require a little more creativity in transport. I plan to carry it in myself rather then trust Saudi Customs.

A round of brown for everyone! Cheers!

Postscript: Hops and similar things used to make beer are considered contraband drugs. Getting caught bringing them into Kingdom can result in the death penalty. Needless to say, they are not available except perhaps at high risk and high cost on a black market. I haven't come across a single person that attempts beer or any of its alcoholic cousins. Your choices: white, brown, or manky whine.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Day in the Life

4 am--The alarm rings. No matter what time zone you live in, this is early. Best plan: slap the snooze button and curl up with the dogs for 9 more minutes.

4:09 am--The alarm rings again. I get up and change clothes, then head downstairs. If the dogs aren't up by the time I take my daily pills and potions (it's 50-50 whether they are or not), I go upstairs and roust them out of bed. I have had to actually pick Mimi up and put her on the floor--she's a real slug-a-bed. I take them outside for a quick pee. Harry doesn't need to be leashed anymore for these short trips but I always put Mimi in her halter and leash. Back inside for breakfast for everybody.

4:30 am--We set off for our morning constitutional. It's a short walk, 15-20 minutes, but it wakes everybody up. It is completely dark except for a few street lights (some parts of camp are flood lit 24/7 but they are farther from the residential areas). The first day's call to prayer happens during our walk.

5:10 am--I jump into the shower.

5:50 am--Dressed and ready for work, I take the dogs for another quick walk, this time to a large grassy area across the street. Mimi and Harry both are now on the routine and take this opportunity to pee. I linger for a few minutes and let them eat sticks and sniff around.

6:22 am--The dogs each get a treat (we are currently working on sit stays). I walk outside to catch the bus which stops right in front of my building. The majority of Aramco employees do not take the bus despite the convenience. I understand this completely--it is impossible to get a taxi during the day, even for an internal camp trip, unless you have reserved it in advance. There are so-called circuit buses but they do not run very often, perhaps every couple of hours. If I know that I will need to run an errand during or after the work day, I drive in. Either way, I am in my office by 6:40 at the latest.

7 am--The work day officially begins. I'm still sorting out how best to describe what I do, mainly because I'm still sorting out what exactly I am doing. But I've been busy since I started work at the beginning of November. I am enjoying the work and find every day brings challenges.

11 am--Upul comes to the house to walk the dogs.

11:15 am--There are little food kiosks/coffee vendors tucked into every stairwell and unused corner on just about every floor of the buildings where I work. I stop by one regularly and pick up some lunch which I eat at my desk. I've been to the camp dining hall a couple of times and I've eaten at the dining hall beneath the Exploration building once. They are noisy and very crowded. The food is decent, far better than you might expect for the cafeteria-style setting, and the prices are heavily subsidized. You can eat yourself into a stupor for less than USD 5. After I eat, I do some personal web surfing. Officially, lunch is from 11:30 to 12:30.

3:58 pm--I log off my computer, think about cleaning up my desk then decide to leave that for tomorrow (there is always a tomorrow), and head for the bus which leaves promptly at 4:15 pm. There is a fairly regular group that rides the bus most days, including my friend Martin the geologist, so we chat about our day.

4:35 pm--I am greeted by this view every work day as I enter my porch:

Shelob at the window.

4:50 pm--I try to get in a rousing game of baby with the dogs after I change clothes. I usually play until both of their tongues are dragging! I might spend a few minutes cleaning up around the house but we usually head out for our daily long walk by 5:30 at the latest. We walk for an hour, doing an out-and-back. The loop around the golf course also takes an hour but about half of the path is adjacent to busy roads. Mimi doesn't like car traffic so I stick to the half that is nicer. These walks are entirely for the dogs so I stop as often as they want.

6:30 pm--Dinner time for puppies. None of my dogs are picky eaters so this task is completed in just a couple of minutes, including measuring food, eating food, and cleaning the bowls! I'll then eat my own dinner. I'll watch TV for a while then read until bed time. I've got one dog draped on top of me at all times if I'm sitting down. It's a rule.

The 4:30 to 7 pm routine gets compressed if I am going to the gym or planning to attend some meeting or other event. The biggest change is that they get a shorter version of their daily long walk but no matter what, they still get a walk after they eat.

And sometimes I work in another game of baby before bed, usually only if I know my next door neighbor is out for the evening because there is a tremendous amount of thumping and bumping as they leap around chasing down their toys.

9 pm--Sad to say, this is when I go to bed. Rather, this is when I brush my teeth, put on my sleeping clothes, and get settled in bed. I usually read for another half an hour or so but nearly always fall asleep and either whack Harry or whack myself in the head with my book.

4 am--It starts all over again.

Yes, those are long days at work (I'm gone from home a full 10 hours) but there is plenty of leisure time remaining in each day because of the minute commute. I think the routine helps the dogs feel settled. I've done some spot checking on them and they aren't barking and howling during the day which is a huge relief.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mimi and the Chicken Elf

This video is rather hideous because I had to cut the resolution down to "dial up" to get my rinky dink internet setup here at home to accept the darned thing. Just can't push any bandwidth through the phone-as-modem. Sigh. At least the sound came through fairly intact.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Musings and Maunderings (2)

Yeah, I know, it's been a week since I last posted. I didn't find any topic that really inspired me this past week although I've got half a dozen interesting things going on at the moment that might end up as good blog stories.

Here's another collection of musings about the oddities of life here in KSA.

The commissary sells nearly every major brand of shampoo that you might want...but they don't sell any conditioner. Not a single bottle. They do have "hair oil replacement" products. Even with the harsh salt water that we shower in, the idea of adding oil to my hair is kind of off putting.

Most Saudi women wear their hair very long and tuck it, roll it, braid it, and otherwise confine it most of the time since they cover their heads if not their faces too when out in public (I've even seen some women who are fully veiled driving on camp--YIKES!). I know they wear their hair long because when they use public restrooms they often remove their abayyahs, scarves, and veils. All of the women's restrooms I've been in are thoroughly festooned with hooks on all the walls and stalls for these purposes. Nearly all expat women, perhaps in some conscious or even unconscious protest, wear their hair short. I am not sure what to make of this.

I was told several stories, surely apocryphal but they are all of a theme, about women and their veils and how ingrained the behavior has become. Here are two such stories. Take them with a grain of salt but you will get the idea.

A guy is driving along the street when he suddenly notices a small child dart out into the road, mother in hot pursuit. She looks up, sees the strange male in the car bearing down on her child, turns and runs into the house to grab a dishtowel to cover her face before running back outside to grab her child. First priority: prevent strange male from seeing her face. Saving her child ranks a distant second.

A male doctor in the hospital is going to visit an elderly female patient for a post-surgical follow up. He enters her room where she is in a wheelchair dressed in the typical backless hospital gown. She is alone in the room (her husband is not present). When she sees the doctor, she proceeds to throw her gown over her head, thus exposing her naked body. First priority: prevent strange male from seeing her face. Protecting the rest of her aged but undoubtedly wily feminine charms ranks a distant second.

Next to the hair oils in the commissary is an entire section, top to floor, of skin lightening products. It took me a while to figure out what they were. Saudis have a wide variance in skin color but I suppose those bad messages about lighter skin being better (whitesome and delightsome, to paraphrase the Mormons) have crept in.

Not too surprising, on the other side of the skin lightener shelves is an entire section of acne treatment. If they put oil on their hair and grease their skin up to bleach it, it's not a stretch to predict that they are going to have some skin problems. I mention this because I have oily skin and use acne products daily. In the US, acne products are often tucked away in lower shelves or odd corners. Instead, the displays there are dominated by moisturizers and age-defying products. Those are notably absent here, along with hair conditioner.

There are three gyms on camp. One is for men only. One is for women only. The other has fixed times for men and women but most of the times are for men. I went to the women only gym today. It was filled with very clean, modern equipment and plenty of it. Stationary bikes, treadmills, stairclimbers, a full complement of weight machines, a full set of free weight equipment, yoga mats and balls. There's a sauna and a women only pool (of a size suitable for lap swimming) staffed by female lifeguards. The sign on the outside even says "no men allowed".

I like working out in gyms. I have been a sporadic weight lifter for 15+ years. I've been in some pretty grotty places as well as brand new 24Hour facilities. But I've never been in a women only gym. It was....well, it was different. I don't want to incite you folks too much but working out with men has always created some stress for me. I have always felt a tiny bit judged and deemed lacking when I go to regular gyms. Not that this stopped me but that feeling was always there. So you go in a place where there are no men present, no men expected to show up later, and frankly it did feel different.

It rained here three days last week and again this morning. I decided to put a weather gizmo on the blog--click on it and you should get the Dhahran camp forecast. Also, when it is 50deg C here come July, I want independent verification of this fact. I'll post more on weather later.

P. S. I got my care package with pepto-bismol and dog treats! Thanks!! DSL sent THE MOST ANNOYING squeaky toy--a frightful chicken-elf. Mimi is in love with it to the point that I have to take it away from her after a while. She does this odd chattering motion with her teeth so that she can make it squeak/squawk pretty much endlessly. Then she'll grab it by its elf-hatted head and start shaking vigorously. It truly sounds like a dying chicken. She is enchanted! Oh, and the plastic ball with Santa faces on it? Mimi has already surgically removed one of the Santa faces, apparently agreeing with conservative Muslims about the sinfulness of representative art. Or else she just hates Santa.

Now that I've got enough dog treats to last me for a while, I can start doing some training again!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Wild Dogs

Over the holiday when I was out with the dogs in the desert area early in the morning, I spotted this feral desert dog watching us. We've been having a bit of a cold snap and it has been in the low sixties F in the mornings. This particular morning was no exception. The dog was curled up next to a bush, facing the sun, presumably to warm up a bit. This is a crop of a zoomed photo; we were at least 50-60 yards from the dog. You can see that it is mostly white underneath and a light tan on top. It is also pretty good sized.

In contrast, here is a picture of my two desert dogs enjoying a sunny afternoon on my porch. I dragged one of the lovely Motel 6 chairs out there and read for a couple of hours while the dogs napped. The gardener usually sprays the grit off my porch every morning but he was taking a couple of days off for eid so a good layer of dust had accumulated. Not that Mimi cares much about that!

I think I mentioned the lovely beef ribs that I got for the dogs at the commissary a week or so ago. I asked today for more bones and the guy brought out a tray stacked high with lamb bones and bits--more than 2 lbs of them for a whopping SR 6 (about USD 1.50). This particular lamb was imported from Australia although we do get local lamb. Some of the pieces were as large as Harry's head and were loaded with meat and fat and other good bits. This is the haul after I rebagged everything for the freezer, minus the two giant hunks I gave the dogs for their dinner. You can see how much meat is left on some of the pieces. Their teeth have never been so clean and white.

I'm glad to be able to get these for the dogs because the dog food available from the vet is terrible--the first AND third ingredients are corn. Bleah.

The funny part is that when I put the lamb hunks down on the porch, Mimi immediately starts to work on hers, gnawing off bits of meat right away. Sometimes most of the hunk will disappear in her mouth at one time as she tries to chew off a choice bit. Harry will stare at his lamb hunk for a while, then lick it, pick it up, turn it over, lick the other side, until finally he will begin to delicately chew on it. Harry would make a terrible desert dog, I'm afraid.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Okay, you folks are a bunch of jokers! That photo on the beach was staged! Purely the result of having Martin there to take the pic for me. And as long as I am tall and fair and relatively light haired, I'll never be invisible here. But remember, it's all about the illusion of invisibility, not the actual super power itself.

In other news, I went to Bahrain today. Total anticlimax. Can't see much reason to return since most of the same stores are in the expensive Al Rashid mall in Khobar. And all of them full of things I have no desire to purchase. Well, I can drink alcohol and eat pork, I can drive, and I can wear whatever the hell I want in Bahrain so it may have some small redeeming qualities. Regardless of these charms, I had to leave KSA to activate my multiple exit visa so that is now mission accomplished.

Re the title of the post: I checked a couple of bird books out of the camp library. That lovely, exotic little bird with the thin bill and head crest I mentioned a couple of posts ago? That is a hoopoe. They usually migrate across the Arabian peninsula from Africa to India but apparently some have set up permanent homes here in Dhahran. On a warm, sunny morning and again around sunset, I've seen as many as 8 or 10 around my apartment building. They aren't terribly afraid of people but they are small and hard to photograph. Here's my best attempt. Once you see them, you never mistake them for anything else. Striking markings.

I've also got some photos of the Aramco beach at Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf. Ras Tanura is an Aramco camp like Dhahran but very small, only a few hundred people. It is located about 10-12 miles north of Khobar which is basically right outside Dhahran camp. The beach is restricted to Aramco employees only (note the restriction in the photo below on slaughtering sheep, which is apparently a common practice on the public beaches...ew). There are Aramco buses that run between DHA and RT daily. Based on our view of the trash-draped scrub on the other side of the fences, the RT beach is somewhat reminiscent of Disneyland. Still, it was a nice place to spend the morning. Martin and I decided that we'd like to return--with flip flops, a good book, and a cooler of juice drinks.

Aramco beach rules...NO slaughtering sheep.

My friend Martin.

Looking back down the Ras Tanura camp beach to Khobar in the far distance.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Me and My Shadow

Around camp, I can dress pretty much as I would at home: shorts, Tshirt. I wear mid-calf-length skirts and loose, long-sleeved blouses to work. Nothing much different than I would wear to work in the U.S.

But when you leave camp, it's an entirely different situation. If you aren't wearing an abbayah, you might be the only woman not doing so. In fact, you attract far more attention if you are not wearing one than if you are.

The wife of one of my bosses lent me one the day I started work. She is shorter and smaller than me so the thing barely fit and was far too short. I made do with it for a couple of weeks until another boss and his wife took me into Khobar one evening, ostensibly for me to simply accompany them on their errands. I mentioned that I really needed an abbayah that fit me, and Lynn proceeded to drag me around this crazy, crowded souk, urging me to try on dozens of the things until we could find one that fit and that was simple enough to satisfy me. She is an aggressive bargainer and got the price down to SR 65, a very good deal by all accounts.

I was now the proud owner of my very own shadow.

I can definitely understand the benefit of these garments, although I am being generous to suggest that there is much design that goes into the basic ones. They are barely more than polyester cloaks. And always, always black. Mine snaps up the front--easy to put on and take off. Still, there is some simple black embroidery on the cuffs and down the front closure so it is a tiny cut above the plain black ones.

High class Saudi women have abbayahs and matching head scarves with amazing insets of colorful cloth, handsewn beads, sequins, and other decorations at the cuffs and perhaps along the front and bottom hem. Expensive abbayahs made of silk with these types of decorations can cost upwards of SR 1000. I've seen abbayahs made of very shiny material and abbayahs that are dripping with seed pearls and enough embroidery to almost be quilted.

These abbayahs oddly challenge the original intent of the garment: to not be seen. Women clothed head to toe in black with only their eyes showing become negative components of a scene. They are there but not there. Your eyes drift over them but are not to linger on them.

An abbayah that drips with decorations is an abbayah designed to attract attention. You can't help but look.

Some of the younger women also puff their hair up with rollers, combs, and other devices so that their head profiles are positively gigantic when covered with the black scarf. Again, this is a deliberate mistranslation of the purpose of the garment. They want to be noticed.

If I were go to into Khobar without an abbayah, I would have to wear pants or a work skirt and a long sleeved, loose shirt. And it's hot and humid here! Who wants to wear pants when it is 100 F? Instead, I shove my abbayah in my purse, jump in a cab or friend's car in whatever comfortable shorts and Tshirt I have on, and pull the abbayah on when we arrive. A handful of quick snaps up the front and I can walk around with more ease than I would if I were dressed in western clothes. This is the irony of the abbayah: the black cloak that turns women into negative spaces in public also gives them a sense of freedom.

Don't get me wrong. This freedom is entirely an illusion created by the reality of the non-person status that women in Saudi culture are assigned. Saudi women will only experience real freedom when they can walk around in public wearing whatever they want. However, even fake freedoms have some value here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Fox Terriers Settle In

C'mon, let's play!

The dogs are adjusting pretty well when you consider the changes I have asked them to undergo. I'm sure they would prefer to still be in that large fenced yard full of soft, clean, nanochigger-free grass and have the leisure to poop and pee at will. I wonder if Harry misses flyball or Mimi misses agility class. I know I miss all of those things.

I've been trying to establish new routines with them. We go for a 20-minute walk each morning at 4:30 am after they eat and before I shower. Every day sometime after I get home from work and usually before their dinner, we go for an hour-long walk. Harry, who is much more tuned in to such things, is already starting to anticipate our usual turn-off points. I let them stop and sniff as much as they want on these walks. It is their only time outside the house.

I also try to play some fetch games with them twice every day. We do this upstairs in the bedroom because it is carpeted. Until I get some nice carpets, the tile floor downstairs isn't a good place for them to run. The picture above show Mimi and Harry at the top of the stairs, waiting for me to come up and start a game with them.

When I was in the commissary last weekend, I stopped by the meat counter and asked the guy if he had any beef or lamb bones. He brought out a styrofoam tray of these giant beef ribs with plenty of meat and yummy bits still attached. When I expressed surprise, he assured me that they had already removed the meat. I asked him if he could cut them all in half, which he did. Total cost: SR 1.53, or USD 0.40, for six large pieces of beef rib, about a pound. You can hardly see the bones in the photos below there is so much meat still on them!


Each dog had their assigned half of the patio.

Post-dining stupor. Despite it taking up so much room in my E box, I am very glad that I decided to put this dog bed in there.

Sorry for the poor quality of this picture. When I was home sick, Upul came over to walk the dogs. Here's a crappy photo of him with Harry.

Here are some pictures of the dogs totally absorbed in our fetch game. Playing tug and fetch with two hyped up terriers at the same time requires quite a bit of stage management. Thankfully, each dog chooses a separate toy and I can toss them in different direction to reduce collisions. I never play this game with balls as both of these dogs are far too obsessed with balls to behave themselves.

Mimi chose the squeaky innard pouch from a toy as her choice. I'm holding Harry's toy in my hand as I snapped the photo. You can tell that both of them are poised to explode.

Here, Mimi is tossing her little squeaky pouch off the bed so that it will land in front of me.

Harry has carefully positioned the bear baby on the edge of the bed, crotch up (Harry usually carries these toys around by their crotches; Iz did this too), waiting for me to throw it.

Adventures in Social Communication

I've been having some camp adventures and meeting new people.

I've mentioned Martin, the geologist who came in at the same time I did. He's going to have me and the dogs over in a day or two for dinner. I want to keep up that friendship because he is a nice guy and it's helpful to have a guy to go into town with.

There's the single female geologist who lives in the apartment behind mine. She has two cats and adopted a young feral who started hanging out with her cats. One of that little one's litter mates started hanging around last week so I think she adopted it too! She rides the same bus to work that I do so I've chatted a bit with her.

My office mate is a reservoir engineer. She came over here as a single woman in the late 1980's or early 90's. Talk about a trail blazer! She met a chemical engineer here, they got married, left, got some degrees in the U.S., had a couple of kids--and came back! She's been a veritable font of great information. Best of all, she gave me the number of the private driver she uses. He's taking me to Bahrain on Monday, the first business day after the e'id holiday. I have to leave the country to activate my multiple exit/re-entry visa and most people do so by heading to Bahrain for the day. Jenny also invited me to join her book club--all women, most of them working professionals. They are going to be a wonderful source of information, I'm sure. The first meeting is in early December. Jenny gave me a copy of the book: Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley. Interesting but I wouldn't encourage you to rush out and buy it.

Yeah, I know. A book club. Those of you who know me well know that I'm not a joiner. But I've already discovered that the best way to get information (where to get your hair cut, how to get to Bahrain, etc.) is to keep asking people. In fact, I've found that after I ask three or four people about the same thing, I've got a pretty good idea of how to buy it/cook it/find it/get to it. And the best way to find people to talk to is to join some of these groups. The book club is the tip of the iceberg as you will see.

The wife of one of my bosses invited me to the November meeting of the Dhahran Outing Group. We listened to a guy give a fun talk about his family's trip this year to Pamplona (of running bulls fame). Members of the group organize high quality group trips such as 10 days in Kenya or 2 weeks cruising the Orkneys. The trips aren't cheap but are an excellent way to visit a new place without having to do a lot of the logistical work. I joined this group.

After the holiday, I plan to join the Saudi Aramco Employees Association. They are putting on a New Year's Eve ball in Bahrain, heavily subsidized by Aramco, that will simply be flowing with food and drink (of the adult kind). Not that I give a shit about balls or even New Year's Eve, but again--another place to meet people.

Two of my co-workers are members of the local theater group. That group did a week of performances of Mamma Mia! and Peyton was in the chorus while David was one of the stage managers. Peyton encouraged me to get a ticket, so I did, and none too soon. They sold out a 500-seat theater for 6 evenings and one matinee performance. And for community (that is, all volunteer) theater, it was a wonderfully amusing production. I would NEVER go see a play or a musical in the U.S. Not interested in that sort of thing. But life is different here. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And get this: I joined the Dhahran Women's Group. It is a very old club on camp that was originally for nonworking spouses but with the increase in working single women, they are having more evening meetings and events. Just this week, they sponsored an evening trip to a local furniture/carpet/art store in Khobar called Desert Designs. We had finger food, tea, and some nice discounts on the goods. They bussed 50 (!) women to the store where we had two hours to look at the exhibits, finger the carpets, and spend some money. On that trip, I met three very fun women who, like everyone else, have a ton of advice and information to share about any topic you'd care to mention. Diane in particular was quite fun and invited me and the dogs to join her and her dog Sprout (a very cute yorkie-maltese mix) for a stroll around the circum-golf course path this morning. We then went back to her place where we had a yummy breakfast of fresh bread, fruit, and tea. Her husband, John, is a geologist and he and I made plans to meet up during the holiday and talk some shop. He said he'd put me in touch with some other folks I could meet at work as well.

Just to be clear, I don't live for shopping and I find genealogy jaw-droppingly boring (it was the topic of this month's Women's Group meeting, which I passed on), but I think the time I spent at the Desert Designs trip was pretty successful. I met some friendly people who have already helped me with all kinds of advice and information.

No, I'm not a joiner but I'm trying to act like one!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

H1N1 and Maunderings


Whatever you do, don't catch this virus. It's an ass-kicker. Been down with it since Thursday. Still have a fever after four days! I slept most of the past 24 hours and it hardly blunted the viral fury. Bleah.


Nanochiggers could be anything since nobody has seen them. They aren't flies (no see'ums are tiny flies, I think). They hop around in the grass (consensus is they live in the grass). They bite some people a lot too, just like Meems. But I am pleased to say that the orange peel-ethanol spray does work. Not 100% but what do you want from homemade? She has just a handful of bites on her and is not scratching all the time.

G has requested pics of oleanders. When I feel a bit better I'll take the camera on one of our walks. We have white and pink varieties. They can get quite large. I recall that California uses them as highway centerline plantings. Eucalyptus grows well in California and I was wondering if it would do well here too.

I have been looking around carefully and want to add to my flora and fauna lists: chocolate brown ants that are at least 1 cm long (huge), itty bitty bees (which means there are more moths than I've probably seen too but they are nocturnal most likely), and how could I leave off palm trees? They are the quintessential plant that grows in salty, hot, poor soil conditions. They are by far the largest plant out here.

The satellite dish installer came yesterday--at 9pm! We have a long holiday (called e'id) coming up, four days off from work plus the weekend, and stores close during this time--I wanted to have the installation done before then so between TV and the camp library I wouldn't go crazy. Most expats leave the country during both of the e'ids (this one comes after Hajj and the other is after Ramadan). I hauled myself out of bed to watch him get everything set up. He ran through a bunch of instructions with me but in my fever-addled state I forgot them at once. I've never in my adult life had cable or satellite TV so this will be all new for me.

I got my multiple exit/re-entry visa on Saturday morning (first day of our work week, remember). I have to leave KSA to activate it so I'm tentatively planning a trip to Bahrain to do some shopping and people watching on Nov 30. It's still e'id then but the stores re-open. More on this adventure as the planning unfolds.

My first paycheck should be deposited in about 5 days. I already got the detailed paystub via email from Payroll. My rent for November is a whopping USD 130. I have been stretched terribly thin and have been living on credit most of this month. Having cash flow again will be a relief. I have debts to pay off (DSL, I'm looking at you! And the rest of you know who you are too!).

Upul just came to walk the dogs. I'll try to snap a pic of him when he returns. The dogs are settling in wonderfully. Mimi still pees in the study in the afternoons but I've started putting down paper towels for her and she pees on those. Not a perfect solution but we are taking baby steps. I got to see how the dogs react to Upul (I usually don't see him at all) and they seem to think he's just fine. He told me that Harry brings him a toy to play with almost every day! Aww!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Birds, Chiggers, and Grit

It's too bad Mohammed wasn't more into natural history because the Saudis themselves might be more interested in the world around them as a result. Like all nomadic groups, the Bedouins of course had to know about the plants and animals around them but only a relatively small percentage of Saudis are of true Bedouin heritage, they did not have a strong tradition of writing down their history and cultural knowledge, and there are not any truly nomadic Bedouins left anymore anyway. (Oddly, while many Saudis admire and romanticize the Bedouin lifestyle and history, the ruling family has some Bedu blood but not much. Some Bedouin sheiks hold positions of significant authority, but they don't sit at the tops of ministries.)

But to the point, in many publications that originate here, you'll find a brief statement like this: "There are small birds in the interior oases." That pretty much summarizes the general view of the wildlife.

But I am a natural history buff. Until I get my hands on a good birding guide (and there are some out there published mainly by the Brits that I've put on my Amazon wish list), I've developed my own short list of the birds and the plants that I see. Keep in mind that this list applies to this short fall season and my observations in the summertime may be different.

The plants that grow on camp are not characteristic of what can grow here in KSA. They have been artificially selected because they need to have a high saline tolerance. All of the green landscaping on camp is irrigated with raw water. So there are some species of euphorbia (a type of succulent) that are native to parts of KSA but that can't be grown on camp unless you protect them from the raw water irrigation (i.e., grow them in pots on your patio, not planted in the ground) and hand-water them with sweet water.

What does grow here? Acacias, oleanders, frangipani, some type of green hedge that gets 20-30 feet tall that can get little fragrant white flowers on it, petunias, marigolds (where will marigolds not grow?), impatiens, geraniums, bougainvillea (I've seen orange, pink, and white varieties), many types of agave, at least half a dozen different types of bunch grass, and lots of small unidentified shrubs with tiny leaves. There are at least two types of trees that I have not yet identified at all. The grass is some sort of zoysia. I've been told that St Augustine grass will grow here but I've not seen any yet.

The camp is crawling with feral cats. None of them are very large so I think that either very few reach full adulthood or they are just naturally small (pressure from poor resources and extreme heat in summer, perhaps). They obviously reach sexual maturity because they are everywhere. The food resources are probably decent because our communal trash areas contain open barrels. This means there are more of them than should actually be supported by normal resources. I was told that every few years Aramco arranges for a culling of the ferals. Trap, neuter, and release is not an option here. It is not within the cultural mindset to do something like that on a large scale. I noticed that Khobar is also crawling with feral cats so this is not just a camp problem.

I mentioned the wild dogs. I've never heard anyone talk about them coming into camp but they are widely known to live in the desert areas fringing camp. In the early mornings, I can see tracks and trails in the sand made by small critters such as jerboas and the like. Those seem sort of small to support something the size of those wild dogs that I saw but perhaps they snack on a few straying feral cats as well.

Most of us have geckos that live on our porches but I've not seen any other lizards or snakes or even what I would recognize as a lizard or snake track in the sand. Probably the feral cats and dogs keep the snake and lizard population around camp artificially low.

I have yet to see a spider despite being assured by an expert that you are never more than 10 feet from a spider no matter where you are in the world (except the ice caps). I suspect that the spiders here don't spin large webs. Webs take a lot of moisture resources. Desert spiders in the US often dig holes so maybe that's what some of them here do as well.

There are lots of scorpions in the desert but I haven't seen one yet. As in the US, these are almost certainly nocturnal.

Mimi is covered with bites. Not fleas, as there are none here. It was either something in the grass or the sand. Harry has a few of the same type of bites but I have none. Poor Meems is a mass of tiny itchy scabs. I know from past experience that she is relatively sensitive to insect bites so some of her situation is an overreaction of her histamine system. Anyway, after asking around, we decided the problem was nanochiggers in the grass. In desperation, I brewed up a natural insect repellent made from orange and lemon peels and some mint. Mixed with isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle, this stuff is non-toxic and would hopefully give Mimi some relief by repelling, not killing, the biting insects. Rubbing alcohol is not available in KSA so I ended up using some ethanol instead (yes, that would be drinking alcohol; long story for another post). It seems to be working. Mimi hasn't had a new bite in two days although her shoulders where she can't lick it off later are a bit sticky and she smells orangey.

I haven't seen wasps or bees or butterflies and only a few very small moths. None of the flowering plants around here produces a lot of nectar so some of these pollen and nectar eaters would find a poor living here. Making nectar uses up precious water resources and probably isn't a workable solution for this climate.

As a result, I haven't seen any birds that I'd say are nectar eaters either. The great majority of the birds that I see eat bugs from the grass and seeds from the ground. There are doves, sparrows, a tiny sparrow-sized version of quail, some odd, very talkative birds that remind me of a cross between a redwing blackbird and a mynah with white neck rings, and these really cool birds with crests on their heads and super long narrow bills that you'd think would be just perfect for pushing into a flower but instead I only see them hunting bugs in the grass. There are white egrets that stalk around freshly watered grassy areas, and I did see what I thought had to be some sort of falcon or buteo soaring high in the sky the other day. That list isn't terribly long, is it?

It is fall here now so the temps are starting to cool off. Mornings are particularly fine. When I arrived, lows were still around 80 F and highs were around 90-95 F. Now one month later I believe lows are around 70 F and highs no more than 90 F (I really need to acquire a nice digital thermometer for outside; maybe that will be my first test of the US Postal Service delivery here to Dhahran). I am amused to see some people walking the circum-golf course trail in the morning in long pants and sweaters! I am still in shorts and Tshirt. It will take quite a while before I think 70 F warrants a sweater!

We are only a few miles from the Persian Gulf so the humidity can be very high during the summer. In this fall season, humidity will spike for 12 hours or so then it gets dry again. The horizon-blurring haze that is present all the time consists of small amounts of water vapour and mostly very fine dust. I've seen some SEM photos--the dust grains are about 1-5 nanometers across. The dominant regional weather pattern here in what is called the Eastern Province is comprised of strong winds that blow the dust down from Iran.

Keeping the apartment clean is an exercise in grit management. We don't track in sand because there really isn't true sand here. The grains are too small. We live in a sea of silt and dust.

Through the Looking Glass (2b)

Gosia posted this comment on my post of the other day:

You need to understand that time flows differently in the middle east. It's like you have entered a different time space continuum. Your internal clock and timing have to make the adjustments.

I thought I would expand on this a bit because I wasn't posting about the different pace of life here. I've been fortunate to have done a lot of international travel so dealing with different time/cultural flows isn't a big deal. I think I've adjusted quickly to the schedule here on camp.

But consider these two very important facts:
  • Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country in which it is mandated by law that shops must close during all five prayer times.
  • Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country in which is is forbidden by law that women can drive.
These two facts completely bound any normal task that you might need to complete. Let me give you an illustration.

I finally arranged to have cable installed in my place. I was setting up my new flat screen TV this morning prior to the arrival of the cable installer--only to discover that the electronics store gave me the 220V model, not the dual-voltage model. Aramco houses are wired for 110V.

Because today is Thursday, the weekend, I might, just might, be able to get a taxi into Khobar to exchange the TV. But I would not be able to ask the taxi to wait because it is a peak business time for them so my return trip might take place hours from when I arrived, even though my only errand was to exchange the TV. I would be stuck at the electronics store, which is out on the edge of town, not near the city center, with a large flat screen TV and no transport.

If I want to reserve a taxi, I need to give them at least 24 hours notice. But even if I reserved a taxi for tomorrow, they still would not be able to wait. Friday is just as busy as Thursday. So the same problem exists for that return trip.

Therefore, I postponed my cable installation until Sunday. I will call tomorrow and reserve a taxi for Saturday night after work, between prayers of course, to take the TV in and exchange it.

My previous post was about the unbelievable PAIN IN THE ASS that this kind of thing represents.

This coming US weekend, every time you get in your car to run a quick errand, to buy an item of food or clothing, to visit a friend, to go to a dog show, I want you to think about what you would do if you could not drive yourself, if you could not get reliable round trip transportation, if you had to plan every one of those trips 1 or 2 days in advance. That kind of logistical fuckwittery has nothing to do with cultural time flow. It has everything to do with Saudi Muslim fundamentalism and its attendant fuckwittery.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Most Aramco housing was built in the 1970's and 1980's. The general architectural style is kissing cousins with Communist Europe grey concrete, but the sand turns the concrete here brownish red. The salt water forms large cancerous rotting patches on the older buildings.

Salt water? Yes. Water injection is a method used to extract additional reserves as well as increase or maintain pressures in reservoirs. In the bad old days, Aramco, then still an American company, injected clean groundwater into their oil and gas wells. Until they started running out of that clean water.

Our sinks, showers, washing machines, and outside taps run with "raw water," lightly treated ground water. It is potable, but just barely. It is so salty that it will burn chapped lips.

The sweet water spigot is the tall swan-neck affair on the right.

We all have a second spigot in our kitchens that runs with "sweet water" that has been desalinated. That water is used for drinking, cooking, ice trays, washing vegetables.

There are severe fines for cross-tapping the sweet water line into the raw water line, even the threat of losing your job (which means automatic deportation here).

Yeah, it's a pain. Soap, shampoo, laundry detergent don't quite work the way you expect in such super hard water. But everyone on camp has to deal with this so there is little point in complaining.

Back to Aramco housing. The size of house that you are eligible for (total square feet and number of bedrooms) is determined by your marital status, pay grade, and the length of time you've been here, in that order. There are some houses that are detached but most are duplexes or townhouse style. In two years, I will be able to "bid" on available houses that meet the criteria for my status and pay grade. Until then, I live in a place that I was assigned to. Because I am classified as "executive single female" the list of potential competitors for the available housing list is small (not that many single women at my pay grade; most single women work at the hospital and I've found when meeting new people that if they find out I am over here by myself before they find out anything else, they always assume I'm working at the hospital; I do not let them labor under that incorrect assumption for long). From what I've been told, I can easily get into a standalone with a backyard (with grass), patio, garage, on the order of 1000-1100 square feet, after my two year wait period is up. It can't come soon enough.

As a result, I don't plan to do too much to the current place I'm in. Still, I've felt like I've been living in a cheap hotel for the past month. I'm sure I'll feel more settled when my household goods arrive (now projected for late December).

This 1970's-era Motel 6 aura is enhanced by the thoroughly hideous furniture that Aramco supplies. After four months, I start paying rent on all of these lovely items, including stove, fridge, and washer/dryer, which is really a token amount, as is the rent on the apartment. They deduct these items directly from my paycheck.

I did cave quickly on the issue of a couch, though. The one in the apartment was grotty, stained, stinky, and hard as a rock. I got a new leather couch at Ikea my first weekend here.

Before. Eewww.

After. Aaahh.

I am in a townhouse with neighbors on both sides and one directly behind me. They mix up floorplans in the buildings so there are small places next to larger ones. In the "cluster" style of housing, there are 12 units per building. My behind neighbor has a floorplan identical to mine. My next door neighbor has a 700 square foot unit. You get the idea.

Here is my 810-square foot floorplan. It doesn't show my patio, which is perhaps another 100 square feet and L-shaped.

My building is on the left. See the bit sticking out to the right? That's my study with my patio surrounding it.

Looking out my bedroom window across the top of my living room and study.

The other direction out my bedroom window. The building on the other side of the sidewalk is identical to mine with 12 units of the same size and floorplan. I am not entirely sure but it seems that only single women live in my building and only single men live in the building across the way.

I'll have more to say on the housing later but I thought I'd close this post with a couple of photos from our short desert stroll this morning.

Something smells interesting!

Enjoying the view.

I really had to work to keep the dogs from trampling this before I could get the camera set up. These are raindrop spatters in the sand. It does rain here but not in a collected or regional fashion. It was really windy last night so this bit of rain fell sometime very early this morning (I was out there at 6:30 am).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Through The Looking Glass (2)

Going shopping for any item not available on camp is not a trivial exercise. In fact, it's a bit of an ordeal and has to be treated like any major expedition: check lists for materiel, personnel, victuals, transport.

I've got a new friend named Martin, a geologist who arrived in KSA the same night I did. We went through our orientation together and ride the same bus to work in the mornings. He's a Brit, about my age, a super nice guy if a bit hapless. He's a perfect companion on these expeditions we must make to get ourselves settled into our jobs and our new homes. I figure two of us can muddle our way in and out of problems just as well as one. Because we are geologists, although working at very different pursuits within Aramco, we do speak the same technical language.

We also share similar outlooks on life. Martin sees the absurd as often as I do, another reason he's fun to do these things with. So here are two stories of the absurd. Martin got adventurous and bought a bag of local flour at the commissary only to discover after the second usage that it had a bunch of tiny beetles in it. He took it back to the commissary, telling the guy, this bag of flour has beetles in it! Martin said, the guy replied with a total deadpan face, oh, how were they? Martin said all he could do was laugh.

In reply to his tale, mine was about my library card. You have to fill out a very simple form online to get a library card, which I did last week. But I never heard anything back from them. So I called yesterday and told the young Asian woman who answered (probably Saudi but you can't tell for sure) about this. She said it should have taken only one day. So I said, okay, I suppose I'll try the form again, maybe it will work this time. She replied, inshallah, and hung up! Obviously, after telling me "god willing" the form might work, the conversation was over from her perspective.

You can only laugh at this sort of thing. Otherwise you'll never make it here.

Anyway, Martin needed a phone. Not any phone but the absolute cheapest mobile available in the Kingdom. The commissary where I bought mine only has high end models. Far too pricey for Martin. Too many features, he said.

I needed a new camera, having messed up the optics in mine from dropping it once too often. Although my phone does take pictures, I like having a real camera to carry around in my bag.

Two problems, one solution: eXtra, a local outlet in Al Khobar of a company called United Electronics. Think of Best Buy conflated with something like Conn's, only in Arabic.

I knew about this store because my boss's boss and his wife took me there last week on an outing. They had errands in Khobar and I went along for the ride.

But I have a rental car which can't be taken off camp, and neither Martin nor I can drive off camp anyway (I can never do so and he doesn't have his KSA driver's license yet). So what to do?

Martin and I decided on the day (Sunday) and I checked the prayer schedule. If we left camp by taxi at 5pm, got to eXtra by 5:30pm, we'd have an hour to shop before they kicked us out for the long prayer at 6:30pm (or so). First thing on Saturday morning when I got into work, I called the main taxi company on camp and reserved a taxi for that day and time. I requested that the driver wait for us while we shopped. This is common and you pay a small fixed fee per hour of waiting time. The fee to and from Khobar is fixed too. Very civilized and easy to deal with. You can't have the driver wait if it is a busy time such as the weekend. Rather inconvenient if you ever want to get back home. We deliberately planned our outing for a relatively quiet time of the week.

Once we got to the store, Martin and I piled out of the taxi and proceeded to conduct some seriously tactical shopping. He had his SR 86 (USD 22) bottom-of-the-shelf Nokia and I had my spiffy new Canon camera in less than half an hour. I told him I was surprised that they even made phones that plain anymore. He said as long as it has a green call and red hang up button it was just fine. I said, well, you need 10 number buttons too! Yeah, he agreed, this was true.

Our driver had the taxi doors open for us when we exited, and we made it home in good time.

But what would have been a trivial errand in the States took two hours, advance planning, and a bit of cash (total taxi fee SR 65 + tip). Nothing is simple through the looking glass.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wish List

Despite the fact that I lugged five full suitcases (each ever so delicately packed to 50 lbs each, give or take) on the flight over, and despite the fact that I have 2100 kg of crap coming by the slow boat (new arrival date sometime around Christmas--woohoo!), there are several things I wish I had brought with me now or packed more of.

I was a bit too naive in thinking something like Pepto-Bismol would be available here. I had diarrhea for TWELVE days--and I've only been here for 15 days. I had a vicious case of it too. They have fuck all in the way of such products in KSA. After living for several days on weak, sugared tea and crackers (which I just pooped right out anyway), a friend suggested eggs. Hard boiled eggs, he said, his mum's home remedy. I boiled some up and ate three that very evening. Sure enough, that worked--stopped me right up. I fasted the next day too and then tried some solid food this weekend. So far, so good. But the next trip home, I'm stocking up! Chewable tablets. Liquid. Different flavors. I'm going for the full selection of everything Pepto-Bismol has to offer.

Dog Treats
There are a handful of sad pet stores in Al Khobar with dismal handfuls of sad fish, sad birds, and sad turtles. People say, oh, you can find pet stores in Bahrain, like I can just hop in the car and drive over. First, I have no car (but see below). Second, I can't drive in KSA. Third, I am still waiting on my exit visa to be issued so can't leave the country yet. I think this can easily be solved by having one of you folks mail me some treats. But to get them through customs, you'll have to repackage them in ziplock freezer bags. They probably won't get in as "dog treats" and certainly not in the original packaging. BilJac liver treats are household favorites.

Dog Food
At the last minute, I decided not to bring the new bag of Avoderm I had packed in one of my suitcases. Good thing, because all of my bags were overweight until I removed that 35lb bag of food and redistributed everything. I brought a couple of weeks' worth of kibble in baggies tucked here and there in the suitcases. The Kennel Club (a grandiose name for the vet clinic on camp; mandatory annual fees to join) only has Royal Canin. The dogs seem to like it okay, but they are charging SR 120 for a 10 lb bag--that's more than $35 for that little bag. My dogs will rip through 10 lbs of food in no time. Along with the full line of Pepto-Bismol products, on my next trip home I'll bring empty suitcases and bring back as much dog food as I can.

My own car was too old so I would not have been able to import it anyway. And I had no time or money to buy a new one. But it sure would have been nice to show up with something, even a crummy little scooter. During our orientation, they said, oh, taxis, buses, no problem. Nonsense. Or rather, if you are a non-working spouse, as the large majority of women on camp are, you have all the time in the world to wait for taxis and buses. Anyway, my office mate put me onto the car rental place on camp, ironically run by the main taxi company. I didn't have my iqama yet but turns out I didn't need it. In fact, I didn't even have to pay them. Aramco badge number, solid gold. They gave me a lovely little Toyota Yaris that only had 743 km on it--brand new. It was spotless inside and out. But as I discovered driving it back home that it didn't have even a drop of gas in it. I was running on fumes! I had to laugh because that is sort of typical for KSA--total attention to cleaning the car but something sort of important like fuel, well, not much attention there. There is a gas station on camp. Gas costs about USD 0.10 per gallon. That's not a typo: ten cents per gallon. I initially got the car for a week but called them this morning and asked to have it for another month. Not cheap, but as a friend used to say, it's not a problem if you can solve it by throwing a bit of money at it. I needed some wheels to get around in camp, so problem solved for now. I will definitely have to buy a car but I need a couple of paychecks first.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dhahran Camp

For those of you that are computer-savvy and are willing to give Google Earth a try, you can see the entire camp there.

If you navigate to Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, you'll be close. Dhahran is halfway between and a bit west of Dammam and Al Khobar. These towns are on the Persian Gulf coast (east coast) of Saudi Arabia. If you get close, you can't miss the golf course.

Here's a fairly low-res screen shot of camp (low-res only because I dragged it into PowerPoint to add the annotation AND because the phone-as-wireless-modem setup is slow and chokes on large files).

Main Camp encompasses most of the original camp. There is only one original building left from the original camp that was established in 1938 and it is scheduled to be torn down in a couple of years. The Dhahran Hills housing area was built later and is about 20 years old, I believe.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Small Desert Adventure

On Thursday morning I took the dogs out to the edge of camp to see the desert.

In the desert, looking north back to the Dhahran Hills housing area in camp.

The southernmost road at the edge of camp. Looking to the southeast. Housing on the left, desert on the right.

Roads into camp are heavily guarded but as you can see, the camp is accessible from the desert by off-road vehicles. This isn’t quite the security risk it might seem because almost every transaction in and off camp requires that you produce your Aramco ID if not your iqama as well.

There isn't much trouble someone could get into on foot in camp. Most old camp hands leave their cars and houses unlocked all the time (I can't quite bring myself to do that and so lock my house when I leave for the day). Punishment for most crimes is death so the risk of theft or other mayhem of that sort is very low.

The guards at the security gates wear bulletproof vests and are heavily armed. There is a main set of gates at all of the roads leading into camp and a second set of gates and a fence entirely surrounding the “core complex”, the set of administrative, exploration, development, and engineering buildings where I work, and yet another set of gates at the entrance to the larger housing areas within camp. ID has to be produced at all of these and before you can get into the "core complex" admin area, you have to send your bags through a scanner.

There is a Saudi military base not far out from camp to the south as several large Aramco production and refining facilities. I can see the lights of these installations glowing at night.
But the housing area isn’t entirely fenced off and as I mentioned, the back end of it is open to the desert.

Looking north back into Dhahran Hills housing. Mimi on her tether.

[I discovered after downloading these photos that I’ve dropped my camera one too many times so you’ll have to excuse the quality. I’ll try to get into Al Khobar one night next week and get a new camera.]

Camp is heavily landscaped but wherever you see a living plant there is a drip or irrigation line running directly to it. There is even an 18-hole golf course glowing green as can be!

I took these next pictures on Friday morning. There is a paved walkway around most of the golf course that is just behind my building. I take the dogs out on it twice a day, half an hour in the morning and an hour every evening. About 10 minutes' walk from my building, there is a small jebel at the edge of the golf course. We climbed up it this morning to get the big view.

Looking north over the golf course. Main camp is on the other side of the golf course, Dhahran Hills housing is behind me.

Looking west along the boundary of Dhahran Hills housing which is to my left. You can see the path around the golf course with some housing to the left. My building is just around the curve in the path.

Looking south back into the center of Dhahran Hills housing. This housing area is separated from main camp by the golf course. You can see the circum-golf course path edged by rows of landscaping below then a main road, Rolling Hills Blvd, then the housing area. Beyond that is the desert area where we were on Thursday morning.

All of this lush greenery is watered with reclaimed water. They used to spray untreated water out into the desert in the “spray fields.” Now they clean the water up a bit, hopefully removing the nasty bits such as E. coli and other pathogens, and return that to camp for landscaping.

The former spray fields represent a wonderful place to take dogs, or so I was told. So I decided to check it out on Thursday morning.

We got there at 6am just as the sun was coming up. It is always hazy in the mornings because there is a lot of moisture in the air at night (no rain, so if native plants can't survive on dew they don't do too well).

Harry and Mimi investigating a pile of trash in the desert at sunrise. The Saudi military base is visible in the background. Taking pictures of things like that is strictly forbidden so I'm skirting the rules a bit with this picture.

Harry got to run free but I put Mimi on a 30-foot steel tether line (I would be embarrassed as a dog trainer to admit that she doesn't have a recall except that she's a 4 yr old fox terrier; that pretty much says it all). That cable tether still gave her plenty of running room. Here are some more photos.

Harry baptizing a little tiny jebel.

Running along a road in the former spray fields. Looking west.

I had been told there are wild dogs living in the desert and, to my surprise, I saw two of them on Thursday morning. They have the body plan of a saluki but have relatively short coats. Both of them were identical, light beige/tan on top, erect ears, longish snout, narrow faces, longish tail with some feathers, white bellies and white feet. They were pretty tall, maybe twice as tall as Harry, but not massive or heavy boned. Both of the ones I saw took off when they spotted us. I had also been told that they can be aggressive but I don’t want to test that theory at all. Sorry, no pictures, but I can probably get some at another time.

Blooming frangipani and agave.