Friday, December 24, 2010

Adventures Part 7: France--Weather and Food

"If I'd known we were going camping, I'd've brought a different wardrobe."

I had rented an old stone farmhouse in south-central France for three weeks. DSL and I were pretty excited about staying there. It really sounds romantic, doesn't it? Spending weeks in the French countryside. Cows in the pastures. Hills dotted with small stone houses. But like most fuzzy, romantic idylls, this one didn't quite live up to expectations.

Limousin cows. Hardy buggers.

As most of you know, in early December of 2010, western Europe was hit with the coldest, snowiest early winter storm in recorded history.

That storm of course coincided with my and DSL's stay in the farmhouse in La Cote, France. La Cote is a blip on the map south of a slightly larger blip called Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre.

The farmhouse? Shoddily restored, falling apart, leaky plumbing, dark, moldy, filthy from top to bottom. Oh, and unheated.

I suppose it all depends on how you define "heating." There was a fireplace. There was an electric radiator (wheels falling off) and a small electric blower, smaller than a dinner plate, with only half of the heating coils working. And that was it. DSL took the radiator into her bedroom and I took the noisy blower into my room (think hair dryer only less effective).

We spent our evenings around the fireplace and our nights buried under two layers of down duvets in our cold, dark, musty bedrooms.

We lasted ten nights in the hovel, each colder than the last. The persistent rain that followed us from Germany to France gradually turned to ice, then snow. Each morning we scrambled to bring in wood in the hopes that it would dry a little bit before we needed to start the fire in the evening. On a warm day, the temperature got up to around 2C. Our last night there, the outside temperature dropped to -6C.

We took this on our way out. We had cleaned the parts of the farmhouse that we used, cleared the snow off the car, packed it, and took a few seconds to take this last pic. Hovel in the background.

Yeah. No heat. It was a downright picnic, I'll tell you.

This is the one-lane road to the next village. I took this pic the morning we decided we'd had enough and that it was time to head north.

I braved the frigid kitchen each night to make us a nice meal and DSL braved it to do the washing up. By the time we left, it was colder in the kitchen than it was in the fridge.

DSL keeping an eye on the fire. I decided to move all of the candles in the hovel to the mantle and light them, partly for light and partly for the illusion of heat. The duvet piled on the couch to her right was one of a pair of them on bunk beds upstairs. We wrapped up in them in the evenings then carted them upstairs and put them on top of the other duvets already on our beds.

Our world collapsed further each night until by the end we were huddled in duvets in chairs positioned scant inches from the open fireplace (mentally praying that no sparks would shoot out and ignite the duvets; because we decided to keep the glass door on the fireplace open to maximize the heat we could get out of it, we totally trashed the wool rug in front of the fireplace with scorch marks from cinders popped from the fireplace). DSL worked out a system by which she positioned an array of logs all around us so we only had to dart out an arm from our blankets and select the next one for the fire.

I took this photo with a flash so the amount of light is greatly exaggerated. This room was never this well lit even during the day. By about the fourth or fifth day we had abandoned the couches for the chairs which we could pull up much closer to the fire. You can see iPads on both chairs (more on this in the next post) and two decks of Uno cards on the little table. I brought the table down from my bedroom as there was no table of any kind in the den area.

We ran out of firestarters the second or third night. We managed to get the fire started that night but the next day it rained all day and we were really struggling with the fire. I said, "We need some accelerant! Hey! There's some 2-stroke engine oil in this cabinet here!" We got the fire started with oil-soaked wads of cardboard that night but the next night they failed to do the trick; the wood was too wet even for petroleum products. Plus I was kind of worried that using the motor oil was dangerous.

So in a fit of frustration, I threw myself in to the car and drove not to St-Laurent-sur-Gorre--no, because that blip of a village wasn't large enough to have a market open after dark--and not even to the next village, Sereilhac, but all the way back to Aixe-sur-Vienne which was large enough to have a market open late (late for rural French village markets is about 8:30pm or so). I rushed into the store, went right up to a woman stocking some shelves, and in my horrible, fractured, pidgin French, said, excuse me, madam (never forget to be polite with the French), do you have "starting for the fire" which is of course total grammatical nonsense but "firestarter" wasn't in my dictionaries. She looked at me, and said, "le feu?" And I said, oui, oui, le feu! She took me right to the shelf of the things. I bought three boxes and rushed back home, hoping that DSL hadn't frozen in place in the time I was gone.

By the end of the first week, my eyes were gritty and red and I could hardly breathe from the smoke that filled the house every night. The smell of wood smoke and mold permeated everything in my suitcase. I am still washing some items in attempts to get the smells out.

I was talking to my mother a few days ago and told her that I was ready to walk out the first night we arrived. The place was that dirty and cold. At any point, if DSL had thrown up her hands and said, "I can't take another minute of this squalor!" I would have had the bags packed and in the car before you could blink. But she never did that! And I figured we weren't going to freeze to death as long as we could get the fire started every night.

[Note added 12/25: DSL reminded me on the phone last night that while we didn't have heat, we did have plenty of very hot water. We could take parboiling showers each morning--even if we did step out into a bathroom that was colder than your refrigerator when we finished. There's no way we would have lasted as long as we did without hot water.]

Yeah, it's a bit staged, but this is me enjoying a brief post-prandial stupor in front of the fire. I am utterly thrilled that I tossed my favorite fleece hat in my suitcase at the last minute. I don't think I could have braved the freezing kitchen every night without it.

What went wrong, you might ask? Well, in the first place, even though the absentee landlord of the hovel, a silly British woman, was a total ditz, it's still a case of caveat emptor. Lessons learned: cheaper is not always better, and if the ad says the place is "heated," you would be advised for winter rentals to ask how.

Cooking Under Duress

I've had plenty of experience cooking on whitewater rafting and backpacking trips so I know how to make good use of limited materials and equipment. But what I dealt with in the farmhouse was a challenge even beyond that. The food wasn't the problem, of course. I planned every menu and we shopped for fresh ingredients each day during our regular sightseeing trips out of the hovel. We ate very well indeed (and polished off by my count around 20 bottles of wine in 11 days, the evidence of which we dutifully recycled like good citizens).

Fresh field mushrooms that we bought at a "salon gourmand" in Sereilhac from the local boys who probably collected them.

The only knives that had an edge were two 2-inch paring knives. All of the glasses had greasy finger- and lip-prints on them. The pots were blackened lumps, none with lids. There were no staples in the kitchen, not even salt and pepper. We had to buy all of that--even a wine opener (I continued to use this handy device during the rest of my own trip so it wasn't a bad investment).

DSL with a container of local greens.

For our first night (of which I will tell more in another post), we had bread and sausage and cheese and wine. But after that, I pulled out all the stops. Here are most of our menus (we had leftovers a couple of nights):
  • Potato and leek soup with crusty bread and butter
  • White bean soup with carrots, onions, garlic and Cranberry-Orange "muffin tops" (I'll explain)
  • Sauteed blood sausage and spinach on pasta (not one of my better efforts)
  • Pork chops (not just any old chops but meat from free-range noirs cochons, the big black pigs they raise in France, bought from the guy who raised and butchered those very pigs) with field mushrooms sauteed in butter (bought from a couple of French Jim Bobs who very likely picked the darned things) and green salad with homemade dressing
The chop and 'shroom dinner. This photo was a bit staged as of course we never ate at the table in the kitchen. Far too cold in there. We ate in front of the fire every night.
  • Daubiere paysanne a la Denise (baked pasta and goat cheese) and green salad with cranberries
  • Baked chicken and haricots verts with crusty bread
  • Cheese omelettes (another failed effort, I'm sad to say)
  • Pasta with melange of cheese (all the remaining bits of the half dozen cheeses we'd purchased over the previous 10 days, to be exact), sauteed onion, and the remnants of the baked chicken
DSL looking forward to dinner.
    The "muffin tops" (christened thusly by DSL) were supposed to be cranberry-orange cookies, made with fresh clementines and dried cranberries. Baking soda is sold in pharmacies in France, not in grocery stores; the acquisition of that little box was an adventure unto itself. The problem was that I didn't have any measuring spoons. So I put in a little bit too much baking soda and those cookies got pretty darned puffy. They did look just like the tops of muffins.

    The cheeses were of course fabulous and I had quite a good time buying all sorts of crazy kinds just because I liked the way they looked. I have decided that Morbier is my favorite. That bit of mold running down the center gives it a nice bite. 

    We'd come in after a day of sightseeing of one sort or another, change clothes, and DSL would start the fire. I'd lay out the ingredients for dinner and pop open our wine (white for DSL, red for me). I learned that it was best to begin dinner right away because if I sat in front of the warm fireplace for even just a few minutes, the prospect of that frigid kitchen became more and more depressing.

    DSL with a glass of wine in front of a warm fire.

    Bad decisions make good stories.

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Adventures Part 6: Trier, Germany

    Wow! It's been a full month since I last posted. I got back from my trip just a few days ago. The dogs were ecstatic. I thought Mimi was going to explode in a puff of white fur. And Harry wouldn't stop squeaking and squeaking. They jumped and crawled all over me for several minutes, Mimi even sneaking in a few licks even though she knows I hate that. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the storm of doggy greeting was over. Tsingy has obviously figured the dogs out, strolling into the living room to greet me in her turn only after they had calmed down.

    I called Upul every few days. It was a fine balance between having him think I was checking up on him and me wanting news of my dogs and cat. There were no major incidents.

    Since I abhor the solipsistic, navel-gazing nature of social networking "status updates," I deliberately chose not to post while I was traveling. I don't want the blog to become a commentary on the quotidian because frankly I find that kind of blogging boring and tedious to read. I want each post to have some sort of purpose (murky or stupid but purpose nonetheless). I thought I would give myself some time to digest the adventures I had on the trip and pick out the choice bits for you. And there are plenty of bits to choose from!

    I spent 17 days of the 26 days I was traveling with my friend DSL from Virginia. As you will learn, some of our adventures became the sort that either destroy or strengthen a friendship. She had the most amazing positive attitude through the worst of it and I am really happy that we could travel--and survive--together.

    It all began in Frankfurt where I met DSL at the airport on November 18. None the worse for wear for her trip out, we hopped in the rental, a sturdy Renault Scenic diesel, and headed west for Trier where we were to meet my mother and her husband.

    This short trip (four hours or so) established one of the themes of our adventure: navigation. I had my iPad loaded with GPS but wanted to hold out for an Orange microSIM, which we could of course only buy once we got into France (Orange is the largest telecom company in France; I did end up getting a prepaid Deutsche Telekom SIM for my phone so I could call Upul). All I had to get us from the Frankfurt airport to Trier were some woefully inadequate printed Google maps. DSL did a magnificent job as navigator even with such limited resources. The fact that we circled downtown Trier three or four times looking for the hotel certainly was not her doing. I told her, don't worry, I've got tons of maps for us to use in France, digital and paper. As it turned out, even good resources don't help much if you don't know where you are supposed to end up.

    It was cold and wet, either threatening rain or drizzling for our entire four-day stay in Trier. Here's a picture taken from my hotel room balcony.

    View to the northeast towards the Dom Cathedral. Note the slate roof tiles. Our hotel was next to the south end of the Roman wall that surrounded the town, near the Ponta Negra, an original gate in the wall.

    I didn't know at the time but this was really the calm before the storm. The literal storm. Weather quickly became another theme of our trip.

    One day, the four of us piled into the Renault for a short road trip to the old part of an old town called Bernkastel-Kues. We went there to see their Christmas market. The hot mulled wine was sticky, sickly sweet and I drank a couple of glasses because it was warm, certainly not for the taste! Our route paralleled the Moselle River, which is lined with vineyards that extend up the steepest parts of the hills and cliffs on either side. Here is a picture of a vineyard that was snugged right up to the town:

    The Moselle River is between the far hills and the town.

    I didn't take any pictures of the market. I think DSL did so perhaps I can add a link to her photos if she gets them posted on a public site. I found it a bit twee (but I am such a cynic anyway). I was expecting more food and crafts. But it was fun to wander around the narrow streets and window shop.

    One of the funniest events during our stay in Trier happened when DSL, my mother, and I went out to dinner. The small restaurant served a hearty northern German cuisine. Each of us really enjoyed our meals (I had venison). But the real surprise was the table of half a dozen Chinese and a German guy off in the corner. They were putting away white wine like it was water, emptying 5 bottles during the time we were there (clearly not their first bottles). And one of the Chinese guys was already down for the count, so drunk he was barely able to sit up on his own. They shuffled him off to another table and plopped a cup of tea in front of him. It was the usual laughs and such you'd expect from a group of drunk people...until one of the Chinese guys pulled out a harmonica and they all started singing (the German couple at the table next to us Were Not Amused although the three of us got the giggles immediately). I managed to capture "Jingle Bells" and a Chinese folk song. Unfortunately, I didn't get the highlight of the evening, "O Tannenbaum," which in drunken Chin-English came out as "O Tanneball."

    The cloud of disapproval from the German couple combined with the drunken singing of the Chinese group and the bemused look on the young waiter's face all made for a very fun evening.

    Trier is an old Roman town so DSL and I spent a day wandering around looking at walls, ruins, and museums (I'd highlight that as another theme but I figure you would know that walls, ruins, churches, and museums are a given when you are traveling in Europe). Here's a couple of pictures of the baths, which were never finished (which means, I guess, that they looked like ruins in Roman times too!). Still, with the grey sky and the rain, they looked suitably atmospheric and crumbling.

    The baths were integrated into the north end of the wall that surrounded the town at that time. DSL and I ate in a cafe, adjacent to the Roman history museum (highly recommended), that was built around and integrated part of the old wall.

    Another view of the baths.

     The Romans made bricks out of the local sandstone. You can see bits of the red sandstone in the mortar too. They also used large pieces of natural sandstone to build the baths as well as a church built by Constantine in 326 AD.

    We also visited some old churches. I find the trappings of Catholicism bizarrely inexplicable but some bits are fairly photo-worthy.

     Not sure I'd want this gruesome thing on my tomb for centuries to come.

     DSL marveling at the pipes of the organ which were suspended from the ceiling of the Dom Cathedral.

    Here is DSL taking a picture of the pink confection known as the Elector's Palace, started in 1615 and finished a few decades later. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we passed by. The interior is supposed to be even more raucously rococo.

    DSL and I stayed in Trier until their Christmas market started up on November 22. We spent the morning wandering around the booths, had a quick sausage and roll lunch, said farewell to my mother and her husband, and began our trek to southwestern France.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    A New Gadget

    For some weeks now, I've been playing with a new acquisition--an iPad. My phone is a Nokia, a nice one to be sure, but I only use it as a phone. I bought the iPad at the Rashid Mall in Khobar.

    I mainly got the iPad so I could do my French lessons more comfortably (and thus more regularly) anywhere in my tiny house that my fancy took me. The modems that we get from Aramco give each of us a wireless network at home. I had to wait more than three months for that precious ADSL connection and the modem, and I pay USD 40 each month for the service, but it is worth every cent (not to mention the 24-hour tech support that Aramco provides for free--and it really is 24-hour service because I called late on a Friday and was sorted out in no time).

    So I loaded up the iPad with French language lessons, a French-English dictionary, a French verb reference and quiz app, France24 news (all of the articles and the videos are in French) ... why stop there?

    I have some cool GPS software for France, Michelin real-time traffic updates for France, global weather and maps, currency converter, and a world clock. I even found a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in French. (I got the English version too. Even though I have read it more than a half dozen times, the story never fails to delight and the language sparkle.)

    My iPad is the WiFi + 3G version so I got a microSIM from Mobiliy, the Saudi telecom company I use for my cell service, to test that out as well. (Slow but it works to check email. Forget video.)

    Games? I have one solitaire app. That's it. Computer games bore me. To me, this expensive toy isn't a toy at all but a useful thing that will help me achieve some specific goals.

    In fact, I'm cooling my heels in a hotel room in Frankfurt (literally as I have the window open) waiting for DSL to arrive, doing French lessons, checking news and email, and writing this quick blog update. Useful activities all, far more productive than games.

    I know I returned to the US twice this year but something really struck me this morning when I arrived at the Frankfurt airport: eye contact. People make eye contact with each other. Or rather, I mean men and women make eye contact with men and women. That just isn't done in KSA. For starters, women are never looked at directly even by other women. We aren't supposed to exist so I have become accustomed to being looked through, not at. It was a weird moment of disorientation to glance up and meet someone's eyes and they respond with a smile or a greeting.

    Woohoo! I'm not in Saudi Arabia now!

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    My First Repat

    Tonight (Wednesday), I fly out of Bahrain on my first repat. By law, I have to leave the country for 14 consecutive days each year--that's usually considered the repat trip (repat is short for repatriation). When we put in our leave request, we get an extra repat payment with the amount based on the location from which we were hired. The payment is intended to cover travel expenses to and from to that location. We even get extra travel days for the repat. It's a generous addition to an already generous leave policy. (When I return to Dhahran in December, I'll have taken a total 50 days of vacation in 2010. Sounds good? Too bad I have to live in Saudi Arabia to get it.)

    I'm spending my repat in Europe, a few days in Germany with my mother and her husband then most of three weeks in France. One of my best friends, DSL, will be traveling with me. Our adventure begins when I meet her in Frankfurt this coming Thursday morning.

    I've got a lot of preparation yet to do--finalizing notes for Upul, who will be staying with the dogs again; packing; getting the house in order. (There was a last-minute vet crisis as usual but I'll save that for another post.)

    The farmhouse where DSL and I will be staying in St-Laurent-sur-Gorre doesn't have internet connection so unless we can find a cafe with WiFi in a nearby village (not a complete stretch as Orange, the largest French telecom company, has free WiFi [free if you have an Orange data plan, which I intend to acquire tout suite] in cafes and hotels all over France). But the point is, we won't be online at home so our updates will probably be sporadic until we return to civilization.

    She and I are seeking an immersion experience. We've both been working on our French, and while my skills are still pretty primitive, I'm willing to give it a go.

    We'll take pictures and I'm taking a notebook to record things the old fashioned way.

    A revoir!

    Nature Walk

    As much as I hate living here, I can't help my interest in the flora and fauna, limited as it is. Since Dhahran is landscaped a lot like Disneyland (and heavily irrigated), our jebel jaunts give me the most "natural" perspective on plants and animals in Saudi Arabia--even though the jebel landscape has been extensively modified for the past 80 years and the animals that are there probably wouldn't be there if Dhahran, a giant source of food and water, wasn't nearby. Probably the only thing in the jebels would be a few foxes, lizards, and camel spiders.

    Our weather noticeably changed about 3 weeks ago. Sure, the days have been getting shorter as you would expect, but the biggest change has been in the temperature. Several times in the past couple of weeks as I left the house at 4:30am to take the dogs on their first walk of the day, I actually considered going back in and getting a long-sleeved shirt! Really! But after a second's thought, I decided, nah, it wasn't worth the trouble. It actually dipped below 60F last weekend for a brief hour or two. But it is still shorts and Tshirt weather here. The heaviest thing I wore last winter was a sweatshirt--with shorts!

    Still, we've gone from highs exceeding 110F for hours each day to highs in the low 90s, even high 80s, for just an hour or two each day.

    And the changes to the plant life in the jebels over the past three weeks has been astonishing.

    It hasn't rained here in 8 months. For 8 months, the dogs and I have been walking around in a landscape of tan sandstone and brown sticks. Suddenly, vistas in the jebels are sort of green, well, greenish. Okay, there are spots of non-brown!

    Some plants even have flowers, barely bothering to toss out a few leaves first.

    I started wondering what was driving the incredible changes in the plants. In particular, where in the hell are they getting the water from?

    At first I thought it might be a slight rise in the water table caused by changes in atmospheric pressure associated with the change in high and low temperatures. But this theory was tossed when I realized that even plants on top of the jebels where the water table doesn't exist are still sprouting and flowering.

    I've decided that it is caused by the dramatic change in temperature (and probably change in length of day and change in angle of the sun). And the water? I think all of these different plants store it. They manage to keep it in their tissues, probably their underground parts, during the scorching hot summer.

     Small animals and lizards like this plant because each plant makes a large clump. You can see burrows and tracks underneath and around these plants.

    I call this the pickle plant. Each little leaflet is shaped like a fat pickle. The largest get about 0.5 cm in length. As they age, they turn purplish. You can see that the young stalks are a purplish color. The pickles exploded into existence in a matter of days.

     This was a bundle of dry brown sticks a month ago.

    This bush is a particular nemesis. Each plant has very long, thin, light colored branches covered in very sharp thorns. The branches are very hard to see because they blend in so well with the ground. Even Mimi won't push through a group of these plants. I nearly always come back from a good jaunt with bloody scratches on my legs from these things.

    Imagine how surprised I was this morning to discover tiny green leaves and even tinier purple flowers on them!

    This plant doesn't have leaves. It adds greenish bits to the ends of the dry stalks it already has.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010


    I don't think they realize it, but many of the expats working in KSA become hoarders. Some types of goods are not available here. Other goods are available but are of poor or questionable quality. Either way, we find ourselves shipping in multiple bags, bottles, and boxes of the things we think we can't live without.

    Food is another matter. At first I thought the commissary managers were simply capricious in their buying and stocking decisions. One week we have canned tomatoes, the next week only tomato sauce. One week we have unscented laundry detergent, the next week it's as if it never existed.

    With time, I realized there were some larger forces at work. For example, in the week preceding Valentine's Day, the mutawas didn't let customs agents approve any shipments of red food. Seriously, I'm not making this up. Red food could be used to, gasp, celebrate a pagan holiday specifically designed to encourage "mixing of the sexes," the phrase used by the mutawas to refer to any social interaction between unrelated males and females of any age. Mixing of the sexes is the thing most feared by the Wahhabis and is in fact the justification they use for not letting Saudi women drive or work, among a long list of other restrictions on social and cultural behavior for both men and women. Anyway, in February, red fruit, vegetables, and candy sat rotting on the docks at Dammam for a couple of weeks until the customs and delivery pipelines were able to start back up again.

    For similarly bizarre and usually completely opaque reasons, Saudi customs will simply not let some items in. If there is a whiff of any company or product having been involved with a Jewish person or company, or Israel in general, even if they let the same goods in the week or month before, the rumor alone is sufficient for Saudi customs to deny a shipment. Sometimes, there is no reason at all. That pallet of clumping cat litter? Not getting in this time. Why? Because it's not getting in. Not even Alice would be able to navigate this wonderland.

    The end result is more hoarding. I don't care for scented laundry detergent and I really hate the heavy scents they put in everything here. So when I see the unscented stuff on the shelf, I buy three big bottles. It might not be there the next time I go in. I like unsalted, unflavored canned tomatoes. I buy a dozen cans when I find them on the shelf. I prefer tuna packed in water, not oil. I buy a dozen of those too. That's enough laundry detergent, canned tomatoes, and tuna to last me months. And I don't have enough room in my crappy dollhouse kitchen cabinets to store even a normal amount of food so I end up stacking cans and bottles in a corner of the living room.

    Hoarding. We slip into it without thinking. Living here changes us in ways I would not have predicted.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    Iz by Jody Whitsell

    In 2008, I discovered Jody Whitsell at the Reliant Cluster of Dog Shows. I was there with Dogz Rule! to do some flyball. Only Harry was running--Iz was back in Dallas in a specialist vet hospital slowly dying. It was emotionally very difficult for me to be there in Houston, wanting to be back in Dallas and knowing that there was nothing I could do that weekend but wait. I only made it through with help from my friends in DR! and from my friend DSL. She was in Houston for some work meetings and rearranged her flight schedule to spend a couple of days that weekend at the tournament with the club.

    She and I wandered past Jody's booth--and came to a screeching halt because hanging on the wall was a magnificent oil painting of a black and white smooth fox terrier! I couldn't afford the oil but left with a beautiful print of the painting.

    Earlier this year, I asked Jody to paint a portrait of Iz. I sent her an email that I hoped wasn't too wordy describing all of the wonderful things that Iz had accomplished in her short life and attached 10 photos.

    Jody ended up doing two original oil paintings for me. A scan of one of them is now on the front page of the blog. I totally love it and I hope that you do too.

    I encourage you to visit Jody's website and her booth if you happen to see her at your next big tournament. Her style is bold and colorful and she always seems to capture the unique spark of each of her subjects.

    Tsingy's Obsession 2

    Tsingy is such a strange little cat. Partially deaf, she can meow at ear-splitting volumes, especially if she thinks she will expire from starvation before I roust myself from bed in the morning.

    She occasionally sleeps in the bedroom with me and the dogs. Never on the bed, no, the fox terriers would never allow that. She chooses different places depending on her whim. A couple of weeks ago I snapped this pic of her bed of choice.

    Yep, that would be Tsingy curled up in the dog toy box in the bedroom. And yes, I would imagine that it is indeed quite lumpy and smelly--not all the toys are plush and some have been reduced to sticky, ragged shadow of their former glory.

    A couple of weeks ago I posted about Tsingy's cardboard obsession. She has reduced a box that I'm using to store office supplies to a lacy network with her regular, vigorous scratching.

    Thankfully, my mother included a sisal scratching post in the latest dog/cat care package.

    Tsingy immediately transferred her scratching obsession to the post, although you can see her cardboard scratching tray peeking out in the photo below. She still uses that every day--but the post with the feathery toy on top gets her quite wound up in the mornings. 


    November 1 is a special date--it marks when I started working for Aramco. Yes, the dogs and I managed to survive one year here in Saudi Arabia.

    In honor of my first-year anniversary, and assuming my cyberstalkers gave up their stalking sometime in the past 12 months, I am once again opening up Circus K9 to the world. No more logins required! No more invites!


    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    "Community Event"

    You think the US has an unhealthy obsession with political correctness in the context of multiculturalism...well, I certainly do (don't even get me started about the US's fear of, god forbid, offending Islam or Muslims; and don't kid yourself, it is fear, not respect, at the heart of it). But KSA can top any of that stupidity with room to spare.

    Aramco is always in a difficult position with respect to Western holidays and events, particularly if they have any whiff of other religions about them. Legally, technically, other religions do not exist in KSA. Even though Aramco occupies a special bubble of rarefied air, they still have to dance around a bit to keep the mutawas at bay.

    There are more than half a dozen church, I mean, friendship groups, that meet every Friday. The Catholic Philippino population alone is so large that they bus them in from Khobar and hold four masses on Fridays.

    We celebrate the December "holiday season". Items that depict the baby Jebus, angels, and other Christian symbols are strictly forbidden and are rarely displayed even in private homes, certainly never where they can be seen through windows. But people do sneak in Santa, reindeer, snowmen, christmas trees, etc.

    I got the email below this afternoon. Had to read it twice before I figured out what it was going on about--then I burst out laughing!

    Note the time restriction! And the crazy detailed instructions for what to do if you "choose not to participate," i.e., are a Saudi who thinks the whole idea of Halloween is grossly distasteful.

    Community event. What a great mutawa-distancing euphemism!

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    Fall in Dhahran

    We've been having the most amazing weather the past couple of weeks. It's been in the low 70's in the early mornings with a light breeze. As I write this at 10am, it isn't even 90F yet and all of the windows in the house are open. It still gets up to 100F in the late afternoon but only for an hour or so. The dogs take every chance I give them to lay out on the patio in the warm sun--there is nothing as relaxing to look at as a dog taking a nap in the sun.

    The trees here are desert or tropical species and their foliage doesn't change color. Still, you can squint and pretend that there is a hint of fall in the air.

    To go along with the seasonal changes, I tried a sparkling whine recipe I got from a woman in my bookclub. You start with bottled sparkling grape juice (in glass; sold in the commissary bulk store), add a few grains of yeast to each bottle, loosen the caps, and let them sit for a week. Most people mix white and red grape juice to make sparkling pink. Then you decant it off into plastic Coke bottles (has to be coke; the plastic bottles made by other manufacturers aren't strong enough), tighten the caps, and let those sit for a week. You have to loosen the caps twice a day to let the excess CO2 out or the bottles will explode. Then you put them in the fridge. In a day or two, the fermentation process stops and the yeast forms a paste at the bottom. Gently pour into a wine glass and enjoy! The recipe makes a pretty-colored and refreshing drink with just enough alcohol to notice.

    Making whine takes weeks (months, really, if you include the time it has to sit before you can drink it). So I think the sparkler recipe is a decent compromise--you get drinkable product about two weeks after you start the process. Oh, you detest bubbly wine? Well, beggars can't be choosers. I would never buy this kind of thing back home. But not only do we not have many other options, it's a bit of a challenge to see what we can make for ourselves given the limited resources we have.

    So this evening I will make pad thai with fresh shrimp from the Arabian Gulf and drink a glass or two of pink sparkler on my patio, watching the sun set while I eat.

    Tsingy's Obsession

    Tsingy has an obsession with paper and cardboard in all forms. She expends a tremendous amount of energy ripping any cardboard she finds into tiny pieces. She loves her cardboard scratching box but that isn't enough. Here is a photo of her next to her latest work: a storage box in my office located conveniently next to her bed. She rips on this box every morning after she has her breakfast and a run around the house.

    A few weeks ago, I bought two bags of cat litter and left them in the office, planning to store one there and use the other that weekend. Well, paper, cardboard: it's all good to Tsingy. I was on the phone with my mother when I heard a commotion in the office. And this is what I found:

    She's a very silly cat!

    Saturday, October 16, 2010


    We just completed the fourth week of DOG-101. It's going very well. There are 10 dogs in the class--and nobody has dropped out yet. Eight is the ideal class size for me to manage but I suppose I can't say I want anyone to drop out just to make it easier for me. They are all working very hard with their dogs. I managed to get photos of 7 of the dogs.
    This is Peaches. She's a small poodle mix. Very sweet. She doesn't have any particular behavior issues other than the common small dog habit of jumping on people for attention. Her family just wanted to learn how to train her. I can usually pull her out for a class demo.

    This is Yankee. He's very probably an Eskimo mix. Cute but rather nippy. Last week he showed some rather nasty aggression towards another dog so he does have some issues. His owner doesn't work quite as hard as I would like at the training but they are doing okay.

    This is Moe, one of three labs in the class. Moe is a rehomed K9 unit dog so he's already pretty well behaved. Moe's big problem is that he doesn't know how to be a pet. He's a very friendly, calm dog. He seems to enjoy the training and class environment.

    In the background of this pic is Charlie, the BC. Charlie has some major issues with the other three big dogs in class. He becomes frantic with barking at just the sight of them. After doing some research, I came up with a rather involved plan to try to nip this little habit in the bud. Charlie and his owner did have to spend most of the last class behind blanket-draped chairs. She was prepared to squirt him with water if he barked but we never heard a peep out of him. She also C/T when he was quiet and did some simple TTouch petting at the same time. She was totally amazed at the success!

    This is Nellie, another lab. She is also a rehomed K9 unit dog. She's quite a bit more boisterous than Moe (that's probably why she flunked out of K9 unit school) but she's a typical goofy lab. She got a bee in her bonnet with all of Charlie's barking and stink-eyes and spent most of the third class trying to outbark him. Last week, we were prepared to squirt her with water too. But by keeping Charlie quiet and out of stink eye range, Nellie was quiet and focused on her handler for the entire class.

    This is Macy. She's another poodle mix of some sort, a rescue from the Bahrain animal shelter. Her biggest problem is that she found just about everything on the planet more interesting than her family. I've been working on them a lot to "be more interesting than dirt" (and worms and dead pigeons and cat poop and....) and we are starting to see an improvement in her focus and attention on them.

    This is Ido. She's a Saudi street dog, rescued by her family from some Philippino workers when she was a few months old. All feral Saudi dogs look a lot like this. She's probably a mixture of Saluki, Canaan, and god knows what else (GSD, lab, retriever, dobe...). For a variety of reasons (I can share my theories on this in another post), these dogs are paralyzed with anxiety and fear when they are outside their homes. Some of them act out with extreme aggression, attacking other animals and people. There are unfortunately too many of those dogs on camp. They aren't allowed in the DOG-101 class. Thankfully, a good number of them are like Ido. She has yet to take any food during class in four weeks. She wouldn't even come in the classroom the first week--her owner carried her in the room. The second week, Ido came in the room but slinked along the wall to face a corner. The third week, she came in the door under her own power and sniffed around my things a bit, then stood or sat the entire class next to her handler, ears down or back, tail tucked. That third week, I introduced the concept of using a mat as a "safe place" or "calm place". Her owner takes copious notes, does all of the exercises as home, and introduced Ido to the mat--with quite a bit of success! Last weekend, she came in, put down the mat, and Ido promptly sat on it. During one of the exercises (a recall exercise), her owner managed to get Ido off the mat, asked for a sit, Ido sat, then she told Ido to go back to her mat. Ido stretched out on her mat, front paws crossed, and calmly watched the rest of the class. Her tail was stretched out behind her and her ears were pretty much up as they should be. It's the most amazing thing to see these dogs come out of their shells. This is now the fourth dog of this type I've been able to work with. It is so satisfying to see these dogs become more calm each week and to see their owners be so proud of their accomplishments. Sure, sure, Ido still isn't taking food in class or doing the exercises. But we have to use a different metric for each dog--it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, dog training. If Ido will do a sit in front of the entire class by week 8 and take a treat for it, I'll consider that a training success.

    Friday, October 08, 2010

    Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun

    The Hardmans invited me and the dogs to the Ras Tanura beach today. It was our second outing with them. My pics of our first trip there didn't come out at all. But this time it was a beeyootiful day, the camera was cooperating, and the dogs had a wonderful time.

    Technically, we are still within the boundaries of Ras Tanura, which is an Aramco compound like Dhahran, but we are on a separate beach fenced off from the main beach, which is maintained in a Disney-like pristine state. On the dog beach, we can let the dogs run around as much as they like (well, except for Hurricane Mimi, of course).

    The two black dogs are Michele's Portuguese Water Dogs. There are other people in the pics--those are Doug's father, sister, and her husband. The brother-in-law drove my car, doing me a favor, actually, as it needed to be taken out on the highway.

    Here is a link to the online album. Enjoy!

    Flora and Fauna

    I found these tracks a couple of weekends ago in the jebels. I have no idea what made them--mammal? reptile? Judging by the tracks, it's a fairly good sized animal with a much wider body than the dogs have. Hedgehogs make delicate little round tracks. Foxes make tracks that looks kind of like cat prints. Lizards usually have a tail track down the center of their path. So what could this be?

    These aren't strictly speaking local fauna but I realized that I have accumulated a rather large population of the "roadkill" dog toys. The T3i rating of these toys has inched up to the coveted 10 points. Both dogs love these toys!

    Harry's collection of bear babies is looking a bit sad: one is just a brown rag and the other is missing an arm. He loves his froggy too but you can see that Mimi tried to get to his brains through his throat, removing the squeaker pouch for bonus points.

    Saturday, October 02, 2010

    Things I Miss

    Besides friends and family, there are some things that I really miss. The gigantic lifestyle changes that I had to make require all sorts of adjustments, substitutions, and even just doing without. Still, here is a short list of what I miss the most. You'll see that most of my list is comprised of food!

    Breakfast food with meat. The Saudis and the huge South Asian population that serves them have pretty limited breakfast options: flat bread with zataar or flat bread with cheese (or labneh). I'd fall on a McDonald's Sausage Egg McMuffin like a starving dog if you offered it to me.

    Pork. Sure, visiting the Pork Store in the Al Osrah grocery in Bahrain does get me pork. But the selection there is limited. I miss pork sausage the most (see Egg McMuffin above). Some days I'd even eat bologna if you offered that to me.

    Fresh mozzarella. Some stores carry a great selection of imported cheeses but I have yet to see mozzarella in any form. The commissary carries 8 or 9 different kinds of feta, a relatively paltry selection compared to stores in town. But feta just ain't cutting it.

    Plain, unflavored, unsweetened yogurt. Getting a hold of good, plain yogurt is nearly impossible. If it has any fruit flavoring at all, the first ingredient on the label is sugar. Labneh is yogurt but they add sugar to it. Why? Why?

    (The Saudis have among the highest, if not the highest, rates of diabetes and kidney disease in the world. Do you see the connection? Because apparently they don't.)

    Whole grain bread. For that matter, add whole grains to the list (because I can already hear you saying, why don't you make it yourself? I would if I could.) Bread labeled as "whole grain" is mixed with white flour and loaded with sugar.

    Soymilk. You can find it in all of the big grocery stores but Saudis don't drink it (maybe it's too healthy?). It's very expensive, around USD 6 for a quart of the stuff. Sometimes I buy it as a special treat but it just ends up making me sad that I can't drink it more often.

    Stores where you can shop for toilet paper, bedding plants, a hammer, and towels all under one roof. If shopping in Khobar were more of a European experience, I could probably make do. But Khobar is...well, it's a third world mess. Most streets have either no name or three names and buildings don't have addresses (you'll get directions based on major landmarks or well known streets). There are "pharmacies" but they don't carry rubbing alchohol or ibuprofen. There are "bakeries" but they carry flat bread and sweet bread marketed to the gigantic Philippine population. There are "butchers" but after confronting a few goats hanging headless by the door (accompanied by lots of flies), I think I'll stick to the grocery stores. Anyway, the local butchers only sell goat and lamb and don't carry other meat or fish. There are "hardware" stores that sell crumbling cardboard boxes of nails but no hammers or devices to use the nails. There are electrical stores but those are useless to me. A legacy of the American origin of Aramco is the 110 voltage on camp. The rest of KSA is 220 volts. There are plant nurseries but they are on the highway to Ras Tanura and not on any shopping bus route. I'd have to hire a driver to get to them. There are stores that sell things like sheets and towels but the quality is surprisingly poor. I've tried to find clothing (shoes, sports bras, shorts, even just Tshirts) here but even in Bahrain I can't find items in my size. The chaos makes sense when you consider the culture. There is little for Saudi women to do but shop (their maids take care of their children; their only responsibility there is to have them) so there is no demand for efficiency in supply of goods. Sometimes I go to Ikea (yes, we have an Ikea in Khobar--the Saudis love it, the place is packed cheek to jowl on weekend evenings) just to walk around and look at the array of goods organized so neatly on the shelves, everything clean and sparkling.

    Wine. Our attempts on camp to make do with grape juice and yeast are pretty pathetic. But I'm on the bandwagon now. I expect to bottle my first batch of red in a couple of weeks (I decanted it off the yeast yesterday and it's settling now). It might be drinkable when I return from repat in December! I've got a second batch going that I'll bottle just before I leave in November. I plan to experiment with a sparkling rose (got a great recipe for it at the book club meeting last week) and I'll attempt to make some pink whine using white grape juice with a liter or two of red. My rate limiting factor now is green glass bottles!

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Catching Up

    It's been a crazy couple of weeks at work. I've got a thousand things to post about but here are some highlights:

    The bee eaters are back! These birds have remarkably bright feathers that are hard to miss in the tan landscape we have here. And boy are they noisy! They migrate from Europe to Africa, using Dhahran as a winter stopover. I've only seen then up close twice; usually I spot them in the evenings flying very high across camp, going to wherever it is that they sleep at night. It seems that I always see them in pairs or groups, never just one by itself.

    My dog classes have started. DOG-101 is overfilled with 10 people but I suspect a couple will drop out in a week or two, leaving me with the 8 that I wanted in the first place. And my DOG-201 Rally class is underway with just 5 of us. I'm happy with that since teaching rally is a new experience for me. I'm definitely going to post more on this later.

    Even though I just got back from visiting all of you in the US, I'm already preparing for my next trip out. This one will be my repat, my very first one. Aramco gives us a repat payment equal to the price of a roundtrip ticket from Dhahran to our point of origin (in this case, mine is Dallas, Texas). We are required to be OOK for 14 consecutive days every year. I get four extra vacation days just to use for the repat. I'll be spending most of my four weeks in France.

    Upul survived Hurricane Mimi with minimal damage. He's even agreed to look after the dogs while I'm out on repat. For the August trip, I borrowed a twin bed from a friend and pushed it up next to mine in my bedroom. Didn't leave much room up there but I thought that Upul could sleep on the twin bed and the dogs could sleep on my bed.

    Well, the dogs had other ideas. By the second night, they were snuggled up next to poor Upul on the twin bed. He was surprised but I think that he got used to it after a while. Not that he had a say in the matter.

    When I was discussing my repat dates with him, I said, Upul, no matter where you sleep, the dogs are going to sleep with you. So I think you should just sleep in my bed in November. You'll have more room, the dogs will be happy, it should work out better. Oh yes, he agreed. That will be better.

    Turns out Upul learned the hard way not to leave food out on the counter. He left some plain crackers out and Hurricane Mimi consumed them. He said the bag was on the floor torn up but not a crumb of cracker was left. He was pretty surprised that the dogs could get to the top of the counter but I told him about the pecan pie and the chocolate sheet cake. They have no problem with it, I assured him. He thought about this for a second, then said, maybe you should put up a camera to see how long it takes them to do it!

    Ha!! I think he's really warming to my crazed beasts.

    I'm coming up on my 1 year anniversary with Aramco. It's not been an easy year. New culture, new country, giving up so many of the things that I loved most. But I'm trying to adapt and find joy where I can.

    Decanting my first batch of red whine tonight. It still has to sit for a few weeks to clarify but at least it is grape juice with alcohol in it.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Adventures Part 5: Nashville

    Next stop: Nashville to spend some time with Julie. It was a short visit, only two days, but we managed to talk about dogs plenty during that time! I had hoped to see Jack, who is living just south of Nashville now, but there wasn't time this trip.

    Julie was as always a great hostess. She even emailed me before I arrived to find out what I wanted for dinner the first night!

    Julie was also a trooper and helped me cross a few more important items off my shopping list. The big score was shoes for work! We found them at the last minute, too, when I was ready to give up.

    For the second night, Julie had arranged for three of us to visit the Chihuly Glass exhibit that was held at a botanical garden located in the middle of Nashville (the link is to a slideshow of the photos that I took).
    Dale Chihuly and his workshop craft the most amazing works of art from glass, which surprise and delight with their improbability, their smooth, shiny surfaces, their flowing organic shapes. Alien pods stuck in the ground or floating in ponds.

    We wandered around in the darkening park, marveling at the shapes and the colors. It was a very cool event. Thanks, Julie, for thinking of such a fun thing to do on a nice summer evening! Nothing like that is available to me here in KSA, which makes it all the more special to do with my friend.

    I suppose you could blame Julie in part for turning my attention to France. My visit to Paris and then the UK with her in 2002 (where we discovered Mr. Jack) got me thinking about living...somewhere else. Now that looks like it might very well be possible!

    Adventures Part 4: Austin

    I lived in Austin for 10 years when I was at university. The Austin of the 1980's is long gone but it still retains a lot of charm and atmosphere.

    Kim lives in south Austin, an area I gravitated to during grad school. Not anywhere near as pretentious as Austin north of the river, south Austin has a subculture of its own: more rebellious, more independent, less worried about fitting in, more concerned about having a good time.

    The morning after our Waco adventure, Kim and I managed to get up by 10am, load up her kayak and her JRT Trixi, and head to Town Lake to meet a friend for an afternoon of paddling. Duwain rowed his wooden dorry with his red BC Eris as his "bow princess." I rented a kayak, which did not come with a dog. Paddling around Town Lake (as the part of the Colorado River that runs through the center of town is called) is a fine Austin tradition. So is gathering for barbecued ribs and locally brewed beer afterwards. Mmm. That was a tasty lunch indeed.

    Duwain and Kim were the first two people I told about the Aramco job offer. I was certainly pretty desperate at that point. I hadn't worked in months. Worry about money and finding a job was eating me up mentally and emotionally. After the first shock of simply having an offer in hand began to pass, I started to consider what taking this job would mean. I realized that I needed some perspective so I turned to them. As expected, both of them had plenty of interesting and rational things to say.

    That evening, I headed over to Kathy and David's house for another fine tradition, a Dogz Rule! flyball club party. Good food and laughs as always. It was so wonderful to see my friends again. The club pulled me through some very difficult times in 2009--it's rare to find oneself in the middle of a group of such generous and kind people (money can never repay what you folks did for me, time and again. I can only say, thank you). Plus, Dogz Rule! is a rockin' flyball club!

    I got to play some flyball at practice the next afternoon. The club has been through some rough times in the past couple of years but they seem to have a fairly solid, if small, membership, some really nice young dogs coming up, and a new, indoor, air-conditioned place to practice each week. I didn't tell Harry that I ran Eris a few times--he'd be very jealous.

    Austin isn't my home any longer either but I have so many good friends there that my ties there are strong.

    Adventures Part 3: Partying with Bikers in a Cow Pasture North of Waco

    Remember I mentioned the Kia Sorento? That's the rental car that I picked up in Austin. Very nice car, by the way. I'd consider buying one. Roomy, dash was nicely laid out, easy on the gas consumption, and it turned out to be pretty sturdy too, as you will soon read.

    I flew into Austin from SLC. I tossed my bags in the back of the Kia and headed north. Why not just head to Kim's house? I more or less lived there for a couple of months last summer. It's like a second home. But Kim wasn't there. She's been hanging out with this musician, Joe King Carrasco, and he and his band had a gig that Friday night in Waco. Well, north of Waco. For those of you unfamiliar with central Texas geography, Waco is about 75 miles north of Austin. Kim and the band had to leave Austin before I landed. We had loosely planned for me to meet them in Waco. I gave her a call once I was on the highway.

    Despite their head start, they were still on the road. It seems that the gig promoter wanted them to wait in Waco where he would meet them and guide them in to the location of the show. Guide them in? That was certainly...unusual. Kim and the band had not even reached Waco yet. I carefully navigated the speed trap of Williamson County then decided to break a few speed limit laws. Kim called again when they reached Waco and were waiting for the promoter. I had narrowed the gap considerably--I was less than 20 miles behind them!

    The promoter showed up and the band's caravan went on the move. Now I was only five exits behind them! Kim called me back at every turn they took with crazy detailed directions (go 3.5 miles down this road, then turn right at this other road; go 5 miles and look for the house on the left with Christmas lights; and so forth). Everything was exactly as she described it.

    Each turn took us onto progressively smaller, narrower roads. From the interstate to a four-lane divided highway, we at last ended up on a one-lane county road. It was paved but barely. Their caravan was still a few miles ahead of me but I kept the Kia barreling down those dark roads. And they were dark, too. We were nowhere near any sort of town, having left Waco behind us as soon as we left the interstate. Few houses, no street lights--and the full moon was late to rise. Pitch black. I hoped that I wouldn't hit any critters or cows.

    Then Kim called with this update: where the road makes a sharp left, look for a triangular sign that says "music festiva". We are now turning right into a cow pasture, she said.

    Music festiva? Cow pasture? What the heck? Turns out I wasn't the only one thinking that. Joe King was in Kim's car, saying, we're going to be kidnapped and held for ransom. What other explanation could there be?

    The sign was indeed triangular. The words "music festiva" looked like a four-year-old had painted them. And that four-year-old just plain ran out of room for the L in "festival." And the triangle did point straight into a cow pasture. I turned the wheel of the Kia hard to the right and gunned it into the pasture. According to Kim who was on the phone full time with me now they were just ahead, but I still couldn't see their cars.

    I proceeded to bottom the Kia out in a trench deep enough to have hidden an entire cow. My suitcase in the back went completely airborne. Whump whump! I thought, wow, I hope the oil pan on this thing is protected. Then I thought, good thing it's a rental. Before I could slow the car down, I hit another trench--whump whump! again.

    I finally got the car under control and realized I could see dust ahead in my headlights. Dust from cars somewhere ahead of me.

    There were no lights. No signs. No track. The field had sort of been mowed in places to about a foot of stubble. I blindly navigated my way forward by looking for tire tracks in the dust and flattened stalks. Suddenly I came up over a small rise--and saw taillights! Kim said, we are at a tent. Tent? I couldn't see a damned thing. I came sliding to a halt in a cloud of dust behind the last car just as the guy at the tent (there really was a tent there) asked Kim, how many cars with the band? She looked back to see me pull in, and said, three! I got a wrist band along with the others and the caravan proceeded deeper into the cow pasture. (As an aside, you know that there is no way we could have actually successfully planned that I would meet them there. It was just one of those crazy convergences of events.)

    We continued forward into the pasture. Still no lights. There were places where the field wasn't mowed and the weeds were taller than the roof of the Kia. It felt like we were in a tunnel. We were driving so slowly that I opened the car windows. There wasn't any sound except the whispering of the wind in the weeds and the crackle of our tires on dirt and stubble. Suddenly, we came upon this open area with a few parked cars. We all pulled in, parked, and got out to get the lay of the land. As we rounded some trees, we saw...this gigantic, modern, high-tech stage (integrated with a semi-trailer, which is how it was brought in). Banks of LED lights timed to the music.

    And on stage were four thrash-rock head bangers, volume turned up to 11. The lead singer was yelling unintelligibly into the mic in between drags on his cigarette. We looked around. There were perhaps five people in the area in front of the stage. Five. People. Music festiva, indeed.

    At this point, I should tell you that Joe King plays tex-mex/tejano music. Accordion. Congas. Happy music. Not even in the same musical universe as thrash rock.

    The stage was perched on the top of a very steep hill. At the bottom of the hill were some trailers and what looked like vendors of some sort. Behind them was the Brazos river.

    Kim and I took a quick tour. One of the vendors was selling all manner of sex toys. Yeah, certainly not what I expected. The life-size, blown-up, blow-up doll they zip-tied to the entrance of their booth was also a bit of a surprise. In some of the trailers we could see people laughing and drinking. One of the vendors was selling homemade tacos and sodas.

    But no beer. What kind of festiva has no beer??!

    I told Kim that I had no intention of hanging out in a cow pasture next to the river listening to bad thrash rock all night without beer. Let's go back to the main road, find a gas station, and get some beer. She thought that sounded like a good idea. We checked in with the band--we had arrived late but there was still another crappy rock band scheduled to perform after the metal-heads before Joe King and his group could even start setting up. So Kim and I piled into the Kia and off we went, back along the trackless pasture, back to the "festiva" sign, back to the main road.

    At the quicky-mart, we grabbed 7 or 8 six packs of beer, some ice, a crappy styrofoam cooler, some gum, and other odds and ends. Then we headed back to the festiva. By this time I was starting to get the hang of the pasture and had no problem finding the tent (still no lights) or the stage on top of the hill.

    Joe King was setting up just as we arrived--excellent timing!

    And you know what, once he and his group started playing, all sorts of people started crawling out from under rocks and various nooks and crannies. It didn't take long before I realized that they were mostly members of some local biker gang (named, lamely enough, the "Booze Fighters"). Bikers and their chicks, maybe 30 of them. They'd been smoking pot and drinking all night but the happy music was too much too resist, so up the hill to the stage they staggered. I had been doing my best to catch up in the drinking department, it was past 11pm, and I was terribly jetlagged, so it was all quite an experience.


    I should let you in on a bit of a secret: I saw Joe King Carrasco perform live when I was an undergraduate at UT Austin back in the early 1980's. Dancing around in the cow pasture watching bikers stumble into each other while listening to Joe King and the Crowns perform classics such as "96 Tears" really took me back.

    (You can see in the second clip that the bikers were more interested in taking pictures of each other than the band!)

    I drank far, far too much that night (it took two drivers, neither of them me, to get me and my Kia home). We didn't get back to Kim's place in south Austin until 5:30 the next morning. But I sure had a good time! I kept telling Kim all night "This is great!"--and that wasn't just the beer talking! I was so happy that she invited me along on such a classic Austin adventure.

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    Adventures Part 2: Salt Lake City

    I hadn't seen G in almost 2 years (last time was December 2008 when I drove from Keller to SLC; there are some pics from that road trip in the blog). She and I go way back--a shared history of working together and playing flyball and agility. She also took my cat Bix when I left for KSA. He seems to have fit right into her busy household.

    G generously spent a day and a half shopping with me--not an activity either of us do often. But I was quite pleased that I was able to cross off quite a few items from my list.

    One of my acquisitions was a pair of hiking boots. I have a pair of full leather boots that I brought to KSA with me but after 10 months of walking around in the lunar terrane of the jebels, they are starting to fall apart. I prefer to wear boots instead of trail shoes because there are areas of loose sand and the boots are better at keeping the sand out. Plus I think the boots give me better footing in the areas where there is loose rock. I bought some lighter boots with fancy goretex this and mesh that.

    Jebels at NW side of Dhahran camp, KSA
    G and I broke in my new boots by taking a lovely hike at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. We started at Silver Lake, looped around to Solitude Lake, then crossed the 9600 foot saddle above Twin Lakes. (I now live at sea level so this was a bit of a workout.) I shipped the boots home with Wasatch Mountain dirt on them. They've been out to the jebels twice since I got home and are now covered with the local salty grit--but it was a symbolic gesture anyway.

    I got to attend flyball practice with the Utah Tail Blazers, the club that G and I started back in 2002. She's kept it running all this time! I was surprised how easy it was for me to step back into flyball mode. I helped run some dogs and call passes. It was bittersweet to be sure but I really enjoyed spending time with those folks.

    G took me to the local homebrew shop where I stocked up on a lifetime supply of all kinds of beer and wine yeast, tubing, and a couple of cool gadgets that should make decanting and bottling a lot easier.

    I picked up some hops (that's the stuff in the silver packages; it is pelletized like rabbit food). I'm still not sure exactly how to incorporate them since we don't brew beer here from raw grain. We start from canned non-alcoholic beer and don't actually boil anything. I'll ask around though. I'm sure there are some smart brewers who can set me on the right path. I plan to begin a batch of red whine tomorrow and give one of the fancy new yeasts a whirl.

    It was really great seeing G again. It was also nice to breathe cool, dry mountain air and feast my eyes on mountains and trees. I lived in SLC longer than I lived anywhere else in my life. The shape of everything was familiar and comfortable. Is it home? I don't think so, not any longer, but it was my home at one time and it was wonderful to return for a visit. G, this is a warning--I think my next trip to the US might involve a much longer stay out west!