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.