Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Walk in the Desert

Mimi and Harry, south end of Dhahran camp, January 2010.

I decided not to go on the hash today so I took the dogs for a long walk in the desert/trash tip south of camp. I try to do this at least once every weekend; this weekend we made it out there both mornings. Today we wandered around for almost two hours--the weather was fine, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere else we needed to be. I collected a geode, not a particularly amazing feat as there are millions of them out there. But you usually find them already broken so I thought it worth keeping when I found an intact one. Of course I broke a corner of it off to make sure it was nice and sparkly inside!

There is a large jebel in the southwest corner of camp that we climb regularly. This photo was taken from the top looking back north into the Hills housing area.

Harry, King of the Jebel. January 2010.

Here is a funny picture of Harry's poop (his is the fresh brown specimen on the left). He has started pooping on top of things: rocks, bridge rails, bushes. The higher he can get his poop, the happier he seems to be. He isn't the only dog that does this--there are certain bushes in the trash tip which are festooned with turds of all sizes.

The ADSL is a great improvement over the phone-as-wireless-modem setup. A post like this with several photos would have taken me over an hour to prepare--each photo would have to be cut way down in resolution and then it would take as long as five minutes each to load each photo one at a time. Now with the ADSL connction, I loaded all of the photos at one time and it took about 30 seconds for the lot. Plus I will be able to save a lot of money--the unlimited internet plan for the phone was costing me SR 300 per month. The ADSL is only SR 40 per month--about USD 10.

I close with a picture of the chocolate sheet cake incident. It needs no further explanation!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yeah Baby!

I now have ADSL at home!

That means video will be returning to the blog!

It also means we can TALK ON MY VONAGE NUMBER! No more watching the minutes, counting the riyals! Give it a try (after you check the time here)!


Tip of the Day: Most mobile phones and PCs have widgets that will display clocks for different times zones. I am GMT +3, in the same time zone as Riyadh (barely). My PC at work shows me two clocks, one for local time and the other for US East Coast time. My phone has half a dozen clocks going at once.

In other news, Harry ate most of the remaining 2/3s of a chocolate sheet cake last night when I was in class. He vomited most of it up today (I got a worried call at 11am from Upul: "Ma'am, someone threw up on the carpet, the small carpet by the door." Me: "Um, that would be Harry. He pulled food off the stove last night when I was in class." Upul: "Was it chocolate cake, ma'am?" Me: "Um, yeah, that's exactly what it was. Just toss the rug outside and I'll clean it when I get home tonight." Bless his heart, Upul carted the rug to the outside hose and rinsed off most of the yuk.) Harry is still recovering--hardly enough chocolate in a Betty Crocker sheet cake to be a problem but it sure was a large volume of food. He will be on short rations for a while until his system clears out. I've now got a large sign on my door with this question: Is there food out on the stove or counter?

And I must brag a bit. Last night Madame Hella, my French instructor, had the class give me an ovation (accompanied by a "superb!" from her) for my pronunciation of the conjugation of the verb etre (to be): je suis, tu es, il est.... I have been practicing and practicing those horrendous French vowels. I probably sound truly retarded most of the time because I sound out the words, even the simple ones, so slowly. I'm trying to build muscle memory for the darned oo's and ee's and all those crazy nasals. Madame Hella later said, oh, you have taken French before, I think. I said, yeah, THIRTY FOUR YEARS before.

I was brought up short today by a comment a coworker made. We were discussing our frustration over the lack of progress in our current projects--but then he said, wait, we've only been in charge of these projects for what, four weeks? We've actually made tremendous progress! Then I realized I've not even been here for 3 months. Everyone seems amazed at how quickly I settled in both at home and at work.

Part of that is sheer cussed stubbornness. Part of it is, well, what the hell else would you do? If you lurk in your apartment and never do anything, you'll hate it here and leave in six months. But I've just thrown myself into this adventure--taking French lessons, buying a car, dancing at parties--and it seems like I've been here for months and months already.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bittersweet 2: Gracie and Connie

Denise Lodge took this photo of lovely Gracie, probably in Keller, Texas in August 2008.

I've not mentioned Gracie for many months. That's been on purpose. Giving her up was very difficult and I miss her. She has to be the happiest, sunniest smooth fox terrier I've ever met. But it was for this very reason that I knew she would be easier to rehome--and find it easier to settle into a new home--than Mimi, who is moody and flighty. If I could have found a way to keep both sisters, I would have. But this was not the best option for Gracie or for me. So last summer I began what turned out to be a many-week search to find Gracie a new home.

I had just a few criteria for Gracie's new home. She simply had to continue to compete in agility, preferably AKC and USDAA. During the difficult summer of 2009, I continued to train and trial her and it became very clear to all who saw her in the ring what an amazing agility competitor she already was. The sky is the limit for her agility success and I was adamant that she be able to continue.

The hidden corollary to this requirement was that Gracie's new owner needed to have the financial resources to train and trial her. That's difficult to state openly but all of you agility and flyball freaks know exactly what I'm talking about. These are expensive hobbies.

I thought that she should be placed in a home with other dogs and cats but preferably not other terrier bitches. I wasn't completely sure that her problems with Mimi were solely the result of two relatively strong-willed terrier bitches always at odds because it could have been as simple as competition between two closely related terrier bitches. That is, Gracie might have been perfectly fine with another terrier bitch who wasn't Mimi but I didn't want to take chances.

Even thought their dad Jack is a bit of a doofus, his daughters have wills of iron. As I said, Gracie is amazingly happy and upbeat but she is a true terrier through and through. I wanted to place Gracie with an owner who had some experience training and handling terriers. I don't want to get carried away talking about breed differences because I simply do not buy into excuses such as "my dog won't do X because he's a terrier"--it is a simple fact that the working terrier breeds (not the lap dog terrier breeds, mind you) do see the world in a certain way that is subtly different from the way a herding dog sees the world but this doesn't mean they are untrainable, just that they do have certain hardwired behaviors and responses that we owners and handlers need to understand going into it. Whew. A long-winded way to say, Gracie needs a firm, consistent home and training environment to be a successful companion and competitor.

I sent out emails and posted flyers at local trials. There were quite a few false starts and false leads. It was hard not to take it personally or as a judgment on the quality of this amazing little dog that she wasn't getting snatched up right away.

But at last, when I was at an agility trial last summer, I got a phone call from a woman named Connie who lives in San Antonio. She'd heard about Gracie through a trainer friend who'd gotten my flyer via email from someone else. Turns out that many of Connie's friends were at the same trial and they got to see Gracie in action. After spending several hours on the phone with Connie during the weekend and interviewing her friends there at the trial, I thought that perhaps Connie might be the right person, that she might have the right home, that it might be the right place for Gracie.

Connie has a rat terrier named Louie who is just a few months younger than Gracie. She lives very close to a training facility. She was already actively completing in agility and seemed to enjoy it enough to want to continue doing it. And she sounded like she was very interested in adding a second dog to the mix. Just a few short weeks after we first made contact, Connie met me in Austin and took Gracie back to San Antonio with her. Even now, I cry when I think of that afternoon.

Connie and Louie and me and Gracie, Austin, Texas, September 3, 2009.

And here is the reason this post is titled "Bittersweet 2". Connie sent me an email last week to let me know she at last got that third Open Jumpers Q and her first AKC title for Gracie! Connie says it best herself:
Our first class on Saturday, FAST, was a total bust with both dogs because one end of the ring opened up to the outside and the smell of horses and frying quesadillas at the concession was just way too interesting. We kind of muddled through it and I wasn't expecting anything special when we next had Open Jumpers in the other ring. Gracie surprised and gratified me with a lovely run, watching and following my every move. She popped the weaves and when we re-tried I thought she had popped again so went on. Even so, I was close to tears of joy because she ran with me so well even if we didn't Q. But when I went to check her time, there was our titling Q and a 2nd place.

In FAST Sunday morning she ran the whole course happily in the smelly interesting ring doing everything I asked except that she bailed the teeter and I miscalculated the time, missing a Q by 1 point with lots more time left on the course. I chose to run Open Jumpers again rather than moving her to Excellent because I wanted to relax with her out there rather than raise the criteria. This time our run was spotless with everything perfect.
Connie, I've got plenty of tears of joy to go around! You are running as a team with Gracie and I couldn't be more proud of both of you! Treasure that feeling of success and teamwork. I know this is just the beginning of what you and Gracie can accomplish together.

I'll end this post with some fun pictures.

Connie working with Gracie on the dreaded teeter, October 2009, San Antonio Texas.

Taken a few days after Gracie entered his home, Louie is trying to entice her into playing with him. She isn't quite sure she's cool with this--but it was just a matter of time. September 2009, San Antonio, Texas.

See? Just a matter of time. Gracie and Louie wreaking havoc on the bed. October 2009, San Antonio, Texas.

Um, more of the same! October 2009, San Antonio, Texas.

Aww! Such innocent looks! But looks are usually deceiving! October 2009, San Antonio, Texas.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Settling In

Mohammed, my private driver (well, he's not really just my driver as he has about 50 clients but I am counted amongst them) called me up a couple of nights ago and wanted to know if I wanted to do some shopping this morning (Thursday morning, our weekend). That's not his normal operating procedure but I had unsuccessfully attempted to schedule a trip to Khobar with him last week so he knew that I had some things I wanted. I called my hapless Brit geologist friend Martin and with minimal arm-twisting had him come along too. He and I each had a list of items that we needed but hadn't been able to find so far. It was a nice coincidence that our lists, while completely different, could be almost 90% covered by stopping at one store!

This morning I scored floor mats for my car (we went to a special Indian-run car floor mat shop where Mohammed's friends gave me a good deal), a ceiling fan, screws, ceramic pots for plants, a bag of potting soil (to encourage my gardener to swipe some more plants to put in my new pots), a cooler (so I can make a proper contribution to the hashes), a set of patio furniture (for only SR 429--a glass-topped table, four chairs, and an umbrella!!--to be delivered next week), and most exciting of all: propane gas canisters for my grill.

Here's Mimi staring longingly at two lovely boneless pork chops sizzling away on my lovely new Weber Q200 gas grill that I had shipped over with my other things. It fired up at the first click of the electric starter and cooked an unbelievably tasty meal. That red cylinder sticking out the back is the gas canister. I am planning to get an adaptor hose to hook up the standard 20-lb propane canisters. But this set up will work just fine for now. Word to the thrifty shopper: you can get these grills at Home Depot but Amazon's prices are much cheaper.

I promised Martin a grilled meal outdoors next weekend when my patio furniture arrives.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I started my French classes last night. There is a selection of adult education courses taught here on camp similar to what you might find at a small community college. Nothing too technical, nothing particularly applied. Mostly languages, sports (tennis, yoga), graphic arts (painting, photography, etc.), that sort of thing. They have four levels of French. Each class lasts for about 3 months with 3 hours of instruction a week. I paid about USD 120 for the first module. The woman teaching it is Arab but not Saudi.

I may have to repeat either this module or the second one because my pronunciation is going to need a lot of work! My lazy American tongue is struggling to wrap itself around all those crazy French vowels.

Why French? Keeping my eye on the prize, folks, eye on the prize.

Friday, January 15, 2010


My friends in Dogz Rule! emailed me to let me know that the plaque for Harry's ONYX title had arrived. In that NAFA region, handlers usually write a brief story about their dogs who earn those big titles and it gets put up at the next tournament on a big poster board.

If you click on the jpg above, you can read Harry's ONYX story.

When I emailed it to Lauren today, I told her that I hoped it wasn't too mushy because I got a little teary at the end.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Unpacking Update

Sorry for the delay in posting. I'm really busy at work and evenings have been taken up with moving boxes around and tending to the dogs. Since I get up at 4am during the week, I go to bed by 9pm most nights (I read in bed and almost always whack myself briefly awake with my book around 10pm, just awake enough to turn off the light). I really only have luxury of time on the weekends.

Yes, indeed, in reply to comments from the previous post, we have been drowning in packing paper and boxes. I gave up on photos. It's just been chaos. 800 square feet now contains what I formerly spread out over 2700 square feet (more or less--I didn't ship any furniture over here). When I started unpacking, I piled and repiled boxes so I could find a few key items (like closed shoes--I only brought sandals and my feet have been freezing!). I was able to move into the second phase last night and today and started opening every single box based on which one was closest to me.

The necessary shuffle of Aramco furniture out and my stuff in was a bit of a pain but it is now done. I can't tell you what a luxury it is for me and the dogs to stretch out on a queen-sized bed again. I know they are much happier with the extra space.

My brand new fridge fit into its allotted space--that is, the height and width were okay. Depth, not so much. Couldn't open the door to the closet housing the dollhouse-sized washer and dryer. Instead, the new fridge has to be tucked into a corner of the living room. Since the dollhouse cabinetry will only hold food or dishes but not both, I'll have some shelves built in the former fridge space to make an open pantry. The dishes remain in boxes because there is no place to put them. I did pull out my good pots and pans and left the Aramco offerings outside in a bag for the gardeners and other workers to fight over.

Speaking of washer and dryer, my lovely LG front loaders remain swathed in packing material, stored in a corner of my office room until I can move into a bigger place. I stacked all of my suitcases on top of them. Not the most fabulous decorating theme but it will have to do for now.

I am going to see if I can get a gas cylinder for the grill tomorrow night. I'll take a shopping bus in to Khobar and try the Dhahran Mall. I haven't been to that one yet so I don't know if the right store is in it but it's worth a trip down to find out. I've got two pork chops that I bought in Bahrain that I plan to grill for the first meal.

I haven't unpacked any of my pictures yet. I assume most of them made it here in good condition. I've only found two items broken so far, neither of which were valuable in the least.

I thought that I did a pretty thorough job on the ship/store/sell/give away/throw away process but I have unpacked a few items that I now know that I have no use for whatsoever. I've been putting those things out for the workers too.

Now I can say that I'm in the third phase of unpacking. I've still got a lot of clothing to deal with, and of course all of those pictures to unwrap and hang. And I have to get all of my technical books to work and into my office. Still, those are details--I've worked out all of the big issues like how to fit all of my stuff into this small space.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

My Stuff Is HERE!

My shipment will be delivered tomorrow! I get a paid day off--won't cut into my vacation time either--to oversee the unloading and unpacking.

I plan to take plenty of pics to share the excitement.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Stuff!

In the little jpg above, you can read the entire saga of my shipment. I got an email each time an event was logged with the story progressing line by line.

Best of all, it has now cleared customs--I hope to see all of my things next week!

Conspicuous Consumption

So I bought a car. There are used cars for sale on camp but I was warned by quite a few people, including Saudis, not to buy a used car driven by a Saudi. Surprisingly, used car prices are rather high considering the difficult conditions here--many cars are never parked in a garage so the finish is gone in just a few years, rubber bits quickly dry and crack, and batteries never last more than 2 years (and that's if you are lucky).

Quite a few women have mini cars. Toyota, Chevy, Suzuki, Kia, and others all make teeny tiny little cars that are indeed suitable for camp driving. While quite cheap, none of these cars have airbags or ABS and just don't seem safe to me. Plus, I had trouble getting into a couple of them--they aren't designed for tall American frames.

I ended up buying a 2009 Tata Indigo. Tata is an Indian company whose reputation has been based for decades on their heavy equipment: bulldozers and dump trucks and the like. Just a few years ago they branched out into passenger cars.

The Indigo is a mini-crossover sort of thing kind of like a Subaru Forester, only not as nice. It has a hatchback opening, four passenger doors, easily seats 5 adults with room for luggage. But best of all, the rear seats fold over and nest up against the front seats, leaving the entire rear cargo area open. You can get an idea of that space from the pic at the top of the blog.

I decided that I needed a car that I could easily toss the dogs into--and it has proven to be an excellent choice for that. The dogs love their nice carpet in the back and they like being able to look out the windows.

But I selected this car for another reason. If the shit really comes down, I can drive this car to the Emirates or even Kuwait to the American military bases there. It is large enough for me to safely navigate the highways--the mini camp cars would not provide this option. Like other expats, I plan to prepare food, water, and fuel and keep it ready. Many left this way in 2001 and again in 2004 when bombs were dropping less than a kilometer from camp.

Ed. Note: The business in 2004 was not connected with the business in Iraq.

Okay, okay, don't get all wound up. Saudis beefed up security significantly since 2004. Saudi military armed with automatic weapons are posted outside camp while all camp gates are manned by security guys wearing bulletproof vests and guns. I was wrong when I initially said camp was not fenced--it is entirely fenced with 10-foot high, electrified, razor-wired fencing with cameras and lights every 40 feet or so. I've walked along the fenceline in my forays with the dogs.

In addition to all of that, heavily armed F16s, positively bristling with missiles, take off from the airbase south of camp, fly low over camp, and head for the Yemen border every day.

Through the looking glass.

But back to the car. It is new, has a warranty, and the dealer is in Khobar so I can easily get parts and service. The price was right--and I paid cash for it so it is mine, all mine.

I had been renting a car and quickly learned the truth of advice I'd received from quite a few people: without a car, it is hard to have a social life. Since the commissary, library, gym, vet, and other amenities are in main camp and I live in the Hills, even taking care of basic tasks is now so much simpler. I am not tied to the bus and can drive in to work on days I know I need to stay late or run an errand during the day.

Sure, the car is cheap and plasticky. It didn't even come with floor mats. There are small motorcylces with larger engines than this car. But it should do the job for several years!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Dog Training Again (At Last!)

With the infusion of dog treats that I got at the beginning of December (thanks to my "dog treat fairies" in the US), I've reestablished a regular training program for the dogs.

Every morning I have 10-15 minutes between their last trip outside to potty and my walk to the curb to catch the bus to work. It's a perfect time to work with them. They are alert, fed, pottied but not frenzied like they are when I get home from work.

I've got several training projects going at the same time. Harry is getting the lion's share of the attention right now. I'm working on fast sits and teaching him to sit by my side in a heel position, two different but related behaviors that started out as separate tasks but are slowly fusing into one. He wants to face me or sit far away from me but I want him to pop into that heel position sit--on either side per my direction--with the same command I use with Mimi: "get ready!" She usually leaps straight up into the air first, turning mid-leap, and lands by my side in the correct position--it's a real crowd pleaser and hardly even a trick for these dogs. I'm also working on having him take treats gently.

Harry was my first smooth fox terrier and when I trained him initially I never worked on any of these skills. For one thing, I lacked the experience to recognize why they were important. But I didn't train him too thoroughly then because I just didn't know how to do it. Harry didn't need any of these skills for flyball! But now that he's retired (but still ever so awesome!), I think he needs a bit more self control and manners.

He even has to sit for his meals now, which is causing him quite a bit of consternation. I stand there holding both bowls and say "sit!" Mimi of course has her butt on the ground before I even say the word. Harry stands there wagging his tail, looking up at me with those wide brown eyes. I stand there and wait...and gradually it dawns on him that I'm still standing there holding the bowls. He slooowwly drops into a sit, still unsure about the entire thing.

The other training project is for both dogs. I am teaching them how to "honor" the other dog. By this I mean that Mimi has to sit--quietly--while I work Harry. I may work him next to her or across the room but she still has to sit in one place calmly while he and I move around and he gets treats and praise. No wiggling, no getting up. Same rules for Mr. Harry--he has to honor Mimi when she is working. The second part of this skill is to ask both dogs to sit then move away, call ONE dog, and have only that one dog get up and come to me.

Now I know that for some of you this whole honor thing sounds sort of lame. But, people: terriers! I'm talking about two resource-guarding, food-obsessed, bite-the-other-dog-at-a-moment's-notice, hyper fox terriers! This is crazy mad difficult for them! Self control! Delayed reward! Patience! Ack!

The first time I tried to get one dog to sit while I worked with the second dog, it was total chaos! Dogs were whirling around everywhere. As soon as I would get one dog in a sit and even twitched towards the second dog, the first would pop back up and try to muscle in for the goodies.

I decided that I needed to make the sitting part more special. It couldn't feel like punishment but part of a game. So I designated a chair as the special "sit and wait" spot.

Because both dogs are already pretty savvy about training, I can skip some steps like having to make the chair special by rewarding them in it. I only have to point to something and both dogs are on top of it in a flash. The trick was to just have one dog jump up at the time but that was easy to sort out with some practice on my part (my hands, clutching treats, were flapping about which was distracting both dogs). I'm not even using a clicker for this, just simple verbal commands both dogs already know. I'm not shaping new behaviors, you see, just changing some external parameters and duration of existing ones. With time they are becoming new behaviors but they are built from familiar things like "sit".

We have made excellent progress: each dog will now honor the other--for a limited amount of time but I'm working on that. I can have the working dog do several things for several treats then go over and jackpot the sitting dog. I'm now able to designate random "sit and wait" spots, not just the same chair every time. And I can now have both dogs sit, walk away (the current limit is about 8-10 feet), and call one dog and have that dog come for a treat while the other dog remains sitting.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Celebrating the New Year in Dhahran

Happy New Year! Even though I am in Saudi Arabia, I somehow drank myself totally stupid two nights in a row, first at a happy hour after work on Wednesday with a bunch of people from other KSA compounds and the second at a great party on New Year's Eve thrown by the South African contingent. I know I lost some brain cells over the weekend.

I learned at the Wednesday happy hour what raw white tastes like--that shit could be used to remove paint. Whew. You can cut it and cut it with soda and it is still basically moonshine right out of the still. It stings your nose if you get a whiff of it straight.

The local term for brown and white is siddiqi. People say things like "did you try the white sid?" I'm sure the American expats back in the '40's had something to do with the ironic fact that siddiqi means friend in Arabic.

Anyway, I seem to have hooked into a social circuit of sorts and have been invited back to that happy hour next month (she has them the last Wednesday of every month).

Some of my lovely new Brit friends invited me along to the South African party on New Year's Eve. I stopped at their house (the Brits' house) for a few glasses of champagne first. Yes, champagne! Val and Bob are quite the connoisseurs and make some excellent wine products. The champagne was dry and crisp and very bubbly--and served in lovely little champagne flutes.

The South African party was the best one yet--a DJ, lots of fun dance and club music, liquor literally flowing nonstop, plenty of decent food to nibble on. The South Africans hang out with the usual Commonwealth contingent but they also include Americans and the odd European or two. My head and stomach couldn't face any more sid experiments so I stuck with the red whine, which turned out to be quite good. But take that with a grain of salt--I stumbled home sometime around 2am absolutely hammered--after an hour or so it all probably would have tasted "good". I even danced--yes, I know, that simply does not compute for those of you that know me well, but hey, it seemed the thing to do at the time. At midnight, I kissed and was kissed by a bunch of people, half of whom I didn't even know. The Commonwealth contingent is a friendly bunch for sure.

The next day I managed to drag myself up and out of bed and make it to the hash at 2pm.

Wherever there is a group of expats or even former expats, there is usually a hash. I've heard of hashes but never attemped one before. The Dhahran Hash House Harriers (DH3) were going to the desert south of camp on Friday, New Year's Day. When I found out I could take the dogs, I made sure I got the info about where and when to meet.

We had a lovely time!

The run was a "live" run--we chased the hare over a trail he made up as he went. Up and over dunes, dodging bushes and soft sand pits. Harry was in utter heaven.

About half of the hash is spread out in front of us. Some people run, some walk and run (that would include me), and some just stroll along, taking as many shortcuts as possible. Those are electrical pylons in the distance; there is a large electrical power plant run off natural gas out there.

It was very windy and cold for the season, in the low 60s F. Mimi's ears are blowing back! You can see Harry turned back waiting for us. The hare is way off at the top of the dune in the distance.

Hashing is as much a social event as it is an actual run. Having food and drink at the end is typical. The orange cooler in the pic below is filled with homemade beer (I found out they make beer by fermenting things like O'Doul's which solves the hops problem). You can see that Harry is ready to help out with the cheese and smoked salmon at a moment's notice!

The random clothing is also part of the hash. The odder you dress, the better. Most clubs have an annual "Red Dress Hash"--including this one! Everyone, even the guys, runs the hash in a red dress. Some do it in heels as well! It's a spring event--I can't wait!

Once the sun went down, we built a fire and hung out drinking beer and watching the full moon rise over the dunes until about 7pm when we all got too cold and decided to head back home.

I can't play the "newbie" card for too many more months but I am still regularly asked how I'm settling in. I always tell the truth: I am Alice and I've gone down the rabbit hole! Potions to make me tall, the Red Queen and her chess game, mimsy borogroves and walruses by the sea--it's all here in some form or another. I thoroughly hate my motel 6 apartment but my job is amazing--and I'm meeting all sorts of interesting, amusing people and doing things that I would not have done back home.