Friday, April 30, 2010

Dhahran Weather

According to the old Aramcons, the weather in Dhahran this spring has been ferociously strange and unusually cool.

The Eastern Province often gets shamals at this time of year. Winds blow sand from the mountains of Iran across the top of the Arabian Gulf and down the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula. The sand is uniquely reddish in color. The sand clouds can extend hundreds of meters above the ground and can reduce visibility to mere inches. Shamals typically last for a couple of hours. Planes are grounded. Traffic is halted, usually by multi-car and -truck pileups more than common sense.

But we have not yet had a true shamal. Instead we have had crazy, strong wind storms that bring in some moisture but mostly very fine tan clay that sticks to everything. This is a picture that I took from my office window of this kind of storm. From my office I can sometimes see the Arabian Gulf about 10 km to the east. On this day I couldn't even see to the other side of the parking lot.

The wind in these storms comes from the west, not the north. It is almost impossible to stay outside in these storms. Your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears quickly fill with fine grit. It is painful to blink and probably not very healthy to breathe.

A couple of weekends ago, I woke up to a deep orange, glowing sky. There was not a breath of wind blowing and camp was blanketed in this orange fog. This picture was taken looking from the back of my building towards the golf course.

A few minutes in this stuff and you find yourself blinking and swallowing grit, apparently a common thread in the weather here. The orange was the typical shamal color but the very fine suspended grains were unusually small for a shamal. And the absence of wind made it all quite eerie. The clay fog lasted for about six hours before finally blowing away.

We continue to get rain every few days. Large rain systems don't form here--perhaps the temperature distribution or the currents in the atmosphere makes it hard for big cloud systems to build up. When it does rain, the rain fall pattern is extremely patchy. For example, it often does not rain all over camp at the same time. This is a picture I took last winter but it is an amazing shot: rain dripping off the roof onto my porch.

The rain storms are a welcome break between the clay storms and clay fogs. If there is enough rain, it washes the dust and salt off the plants. Here is a nice shot of a pink and a white oleander taken the morning after a particularly heavy rain. The blooms are a bit past their prime but the leaves are clean and green.

I think the spring of odd weather is drawing to a close. It was 104 F yesterday and only expected to get hotter.

Mon Bear Baby, J'adore!

For almost a week, Harry has been offering me his frog when he wants me to play with him. I wondered about his change of allegiance since Bear Baby is always his first choice. The frog toy is constructed on the same body plan as the bear, the texture is the same, they are the same size, but Harry has always preferred the bear.

It seems that Bear Baby got swept up in the sheets I took off the bed last week and has been lurking at the bottom of the laundry basket. I found him yesterday as I was loading the sheets into the washer.

Happy to be reunited with his favorite toy, Harry slept with him last night and has been carrying him around all day today!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


So I know you are all on pins and needles for news from the dog training class. The class started on April 15. We meet for an hour once a week.

The class is full with 10 dogs enrolled. Some dogs come with more than one handler so it makes for quite a crowd!

I'm not dealing with a completely random population, of course. A filter has already been applied--the filter that separates people who are willing to live and work in KSA from those that would never consider it. But the owners span the range of totally clueless ("But I already have a good relationship with my dog!" said as she drags her dog behind her on the leash as he's trying desperately to poop) to informed and proactive (Aris is very reactive to other dogs and Jeanette has spent FIVE YEARS working with him so that she can calmly walk him around the neighborhood; she lives across the street from me and when Aris met Harry and Mimi in one of the communal grassy areas, it was a non-event).

The dogs are quite a variable group too. There is a very large, blonde male labradoodle, more poodle than lab for sure. He's still a pup and quite a handful. There is a tiny mix about the size of a chihuahua--she is shy and doesn't like the clicker sound much so I'm having her owners use their voices as markers instead. There is a dog that I would swear is a kelpie-saluki mix--his ears stand straight up like gigantic radar dishes but he has the classic saluki body. He is extremely anxious and usually doesn't take food in class but his owners report making progress at home. Stitch is a very sweet dog and always greets me with a tail wag. There is a fat JRT with a rather nasty disposition and a couple of "Min Pin-Boston Terrier" mixes who were bred on camp (totally against the rules). They are both darkly brindled like staffordshire terriers but are about the size of tallish Bostons. They have the round Boston head and funky round feet but otherwise don't look like bostons at all. They certainly don't look like Min Pins. They are pups and totally full of life and joy. Then there is Diesel, the Lhasa Apso. He is a turnip on legs--the dog is a total lump. I am sort of wondering why his owner put him in the class because he has no behavior issues. He has no behaviors to speak of all, really. He doesn't react to food or toys. He just wants to stretch out on the cool floor by his owner.

The class is being held in a very large room, about 60 x 50 feet. Two walls are lined with tall windows so there is plenty of natural light. The floor is new grey linoleum--easy to clean and good traction for the dogs. There are even some sinks so I don't have to carry in water for the water bowls.

Most of the people taking the class have never tried to train a dog before but probably half of them picked up the concept of the clicker right away and are really giving it a good try.

There is quite a bit of interest on camp about the class. I've gotten calls and emails from people wanting in the class (it was full in only 3 days of registration) or wanting private training for their dogs. I was even contacted by a group of owners in Ras Tanura, an Aramco compound on the beach that is about an hour's drive from Dhahran. I told them I probably couldn't help them out since transportation is so difficult.

I did do a private lesson for three women who had smuggled three black lab puppies over from Bahrain. Yes, smuggled them at 9 weeks of age under their abayas over the causeway from Bahrain in a taxi. They paid the taxi driver big bucks to go along with this. I am amazed he would agree because he would have been in really big trouble if he had been caught by the Saudis, probably deported. The pups are too young to put in class with adult dogs and I thought if I could work with all three of them together it would be relatively efficient. The pups are not pure-bred labs even though the Americans the women bought them from said they were. The Americans even gave them "papers"--not AKC of course. It only takes one look at the pups to see they are cross bred with something else. But I didn't say anything to the proud owners--and wasn't going to until I heard that one of them was planning to breed her bitch puppy. Yikes! I may try to find a way to encourage the women to fix all three of those pups.

Because of the strong interest in the class, Community Education started a waiting list. When it reached half a dozen people, they contacted me at the beginning of this week and asked, would I consider running a second, concurrent session? I thought about it for a day and told them that I would. But I limited enrollment to 8 dogs--turns out 10 is too much--and I told them I wanted half an hour break between the two classes which will be held in the same room. Two of the women on the waiting list are in my book club and it seems they had been pressuring Community Education to ask me for the second session (I never told them about the class but they heard about it and asked me a lot of questions at the last book club meeting). They are amongst the Commonwealth Contingent on camp, Canadians to be exact, and are quite funny.

I plan to take Mimi with me today and work with her during that half hour between classes in that wonderfully large room. She may not be too happy to have to wait in her crate during class but she'll just have to get over it. Better than sitting at home with Harry. I probably try to take him next week although I expect she will eat the furniture in a fit of pique when we leave.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Parles-tu francais?

I'm teaching the dogs French. If I can learn French, then they can too. I figured it would help me practice speaking more naturally and fluidly, even if what I say to them is pretty simple.

Some phrases are easy. "Who's hungry" becomes "Vous avez faim?" or "Qui a faim?" Come and go are simple, straight translations: "Venez" and "Allons" (the latter actually means "Let's go").

Mimi has already learned that "donnez-moi" means "give (it to me)."

And I can praise them, telling them they are "tres bons chiens".

After they eat or when we come back from a walk, I ask them "Ca va?"--"okay (is it/are you good?" "Faisons de la marche" means "Let's go for a walk!"

One of my favorites is "Ca suffit." Mimi gets to hear that one a lot. It means "knock it off!"

And of course after we play a game of baby or ball, they have learned that "Ca fini" or "C'est tout" means we are done.

I've made translations of sit/down/stay/wait but I think they might be too awkward. I need to learn some more idioms or slang to make these commands simpler.

But I'm keeping the dogs busy with the handful of commands they are learning so far.


Even though I take the dogs out for long walks to the jebels nearly every day, I felt that I wasn't getting the cardio exercise that I needed. I've not been making it to the gym as often as I would like. Perhaps I could use some peer pressure or somebody telling me what to do? So last week I went to a step class.

I've never been to a step class before, never been to any sort of organized exercise class before, but I had a good idea of what was involved. It seemed like it might be what I was looking for.

There's just one little problem: I have the grace of a turtle on its back. I've been this way all my life. Step class? What the hell was I thinking?

The instructor would call out "basic right, basic right" and you could put money down that I'd be stepping left instead.

I noticed that everyone would put their arms down when their knees went up. I tried to do this and could sometimes manage to do it once or twice, never multiple times in a row. I gave up and just flapped my arms around the way they seemed to be able to go. Yes, flapping.

There was a step called "the superman" where you step up onto one end of the step on one foot, extend your arms and push up onto your toes with that foot while extending your other leg behind you--something like a suspended leap. Surrounded by all of these tiny Asian and Arab women, I felt like a lump and knew I looked totally ridiculous.

For a few minutes I started to get frustrated. I can do all of these complex choreographies on an agility field or in a flyball lineup with my dog but I can't figure this out? Then I realized that it doesn't matter. That wasn't the point of my being there at all. I didn't know anybody there and it doesn't matter what I look like, that I'm stepping with the wrong foot. Nobody was keeping score. It wasn't a competition. There was no test afterwards. I realized that as long as I kept moving, I could catch up most of the time for a few counts.

In the end, I sweated my ass off for an hour. It was an hour of flailing limbs to be sure. At least I never tripped over anything. I could hardly walk from the building to the car afterwards. It felt great!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Help

I just finished reading "The Help" by Katherine Stockett. It is by turns hilarious, sad, and sometimes so painful that I had to put it down for a while. I passed the book on to Jenny, my friend and officemate, who was thrilled because it was on her list. She is part way through it and convinced we have to have the book club read it too.

The book takes place in the late 1950's-early 1960's in Jackson, Mississippi, and is about relationships between white people, mostly women, and the black women they employed as domestics--house cleaners, cooks, caretakers of children. Katherine Stockett, a white woman, manages to give a voice and physical presence to more than one black woman and does so without being maudlin, mocking, or disrespectful.

I found many parallels between that book and the situation here on camp with the maids and houseboys. These people, who come from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, do all of the same things those black women did back in 1960-era Mississippi.

Two buildings over from me there is a Saudi family, husband, wife, three kids. They have a Filippino maid who lives in their apartment with them--and their apartment is the same size as mine, 810 square feet. Where does she sleep? Who knows? I've never seen the wife interact with the children at all. It's always and only the maid who is outside with them. I see the wife float along the sidewalk in her abaya heading to the car so I know she exists. I've heard stories about people (both Saudis and westerners, nobody gets to claim the moral high ground) who make their maids sleep on the floor of the kitchen or on a blanket on top of the washer and dryer or on the floor in the children's room or even the garage. Houseboys, all of whom are adult men, have a separate camp within camp. It is not very nice--crowded, the apartments are little more than closets with one tiny window A/C unit. I think they put more than one guy in each. It is heavily fenced and gated, a little houseboy ghetto inside the residential part of camp.

This social structure which relies so heavily on what can only be described as indentured servants has always bothered me. The more I learn about it, the less I like it. The houseboys and maids must have a Saudi sponsor. The sponsor can keep their passports, preventing them from leaving the country. The sponsors often only let them return home every other year. There is nothing to prevent abuse. The whole system stinks of trafficking.

Yet I'm not without my helpers: Upul who walks my dogs every day at 11, Renza who washes my car every weekend, Mohammed who drives me around and helps me with my car, my little gardener who rinses off my porch every day and steals plants for my pots. All of them have sponsors and a primary job but all of them moonlight, providing services on the side for people like me. The cash that I pay them gets sent back to their families. It is a tiny amount to me but proportionately makes a huge difference for them. The really enterprising ones who have humane sponsors can make quite a lot of money this way.

My helpers do help make things better for me but it still bothers me and I make sure that I pay them all well and pay them regularly.

This past Sunday morning, Upul called me in a bit of a state. His wife was having an operation, his sponsor was letting him go home for two weeks--and he was worried about finding someone to take care of my dogs because he was leaving on Tuesday. Yes, Upul was worried about me and my dogs on the eve of this trip. That is quite typical as you will see.

With Jenny's help, I found John, another houseboy who has been here on camp forever (more than 20 years) who has a reputation as a good hand with dogs. I met him at the house on Tuesday, passed the keys over to him, and introduced him to my crazed beasts. I told him that I would pay him the same rate that Jenny paid him (SR25 per hour, about USD 6.50) and that I would pay him for a full hour each day even though walking my dogs only takes 10 minutes. He was very concerned--he said, I've been here on camp many years, I can clean your house. I said, that's okay, it's really small. He said, what about the cat? I can clean the litterbox. No worries, I said, I clean it every morning. He was very upset that he wouldn't be doing an hour's worth of work for an hour's pay or that somehow I didn't trust him to do a good job. I assured him that knowing he was taking care of my dogs was worth a lot to me.

Today was John's first day to walk the dogs at 11. And it is clear that he wasn't satisfied with my statements the day before because he had washed and dried the dishes I had left in the sink!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dog Meatloaf

The homemade dog food experiment is going well. Harry has gained a bit of weight, Mimi has dropped some so I've adjusted the portions. They inhale this stuff!

Here's the recipe for Dog Meatloaf. Sorry it's a jpg; blogger won't put up anything but images. If you want a word copy of this, let me know.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Tsingy Update

Tsingy is much more comfortable around the dogs now. She regularly spends the evenings hanging out with us and has found a few spots she likes to nap in. I still haven't left her loose in the house during the day when I am at work, though. The dogs are just a bit sketchy sometimes.

G asked about the two-animal rule. That's widely ignored but there is a catch. You can't have more than two animals registered at the Kennel Club to one badge number. (I won't go into the details but married women and children are under the badge number of the husband/father so for them, it's two animals per household.) Paul and Lou-Anne had Simba and Tsingy when they got their little shy black one. He's registered under the badge number of a friend of theirs. Tsingy will remain registered under Paul's badge number. The KC knows that this is how people manage and doesn't bat an eyelash at it.

Here's a nice picture showing Tsingy's tail and rear leg markings, the limestone weathering thing.

Mother in VA sent a big care package for Tsingy, including this giant pile of booty.

I can't show you any pictures of Tsingy playing with her new toys. Mimi eats cat toys. Doesn't matter what they are made of, she crunches them up and eats them like they were mixed nuts. So Tsingy plays with her toys at night when we are asleep and she has full run of the downstairs. I come down and pick the toys up in the morning before Mimi gets to them.

But I can show you Tsingy's sparkly new collar.

And her new bed. How about that pink? She wasn't too sure about the bed at first but I left it in her room today with her tiger tucked up next to it. You can see from the pic below that she is fine with it now!

Of course, Mimi simply will not miss an opportunity to poach so as I was writing this I turned around to see her curled up in the new pink bed!

Mother didn't leave the dogs out--they got some cool new stuffing-free toys. I showed them to the dogs then took this picture as I was heading upstairs to play with them (I was holding the toys over my head). They were so excited that I thought I would never get them to hold still long enough to take the pic!

This picture is so typical: Harry is the calm eye at the center of the Mimi storm.

Friday, April 02, 2010

My Job

I haven't written much about my job. It's complicated and I have been thinking about how to succinctly describe what I do.

I am a direct hire of a new administrative unit in Aramco called UPDC, Upstream Professional Development Center. We are within the Exploration Division, the other large division in the company being Production, of course. Upstream refers to all of the activities that take place up to the point that hydrocarbons enter a processing facility. Upstream does include production but the Production Division is more concerned with all of the processing, manufacturing, and transport of products than in getting hydrocarbons out of the ground. It's a somewhat artificial division in a fully integrated, national oil company like Aramco.

UPDC was created to build an industrial training program for all upstream technical professionals: drilling engineers, production engineers, reservoir engineers, petrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists, and facilities engineers. In the past, training was managed separately by each group. There was a lot of overlap, gaps, and inefficiencies. Getting all of those groups to agree on shared training objectives is a gigantic pain in the ass and fortunately I don't have to worry about that.

My job role is SME, Subject Matter Expert (my job title is Geologist I). I am responsible for working with representatives from the line organizations (mainly the various exploration and reservoir characterization geological groups) to help determine what training they want new hires to have and what courses could be built or bought to provide that training.

The new hires are specifically young Saudis who were selected when they were in high school to be PDPs. Those who are smart or whose families are royal or well connected are sent to universities in the US, UK, Europe, or Australia. Others are sent to one of the two KSA universities. They get bachelor's degrees in geology and return to KSA with a guaranteed job with Aramco. They need quite a lot of training to prepare them for their jobs--although this is a bit of a paradox since they could actually do fuck-all for their entire career and never get fired. One of our tasks besides training them is get them excited about actually performing their job duties, and to want to excel in their jobs.

UPDC has some particular requirements for its training courses--no "death by Powerpoint" or droning, hours-long brain dumps by experts. Courses have to be more than 50% activity or exercise based. All exercises have to use Aramco/KSA data. Sounds simple but that means that most commercial courses have to be Aramco-ized before delivery. And nearly all experts in and out of Aramco are used to the old school way of doing it: stand up and lecture for three or four days straight, then have them look at some data.

For the past several months I have been building the Geology Flagship, a two-week course that is the first technical course the PDPs will receive in their training program. I have literally been building this course from the ground up. It has been an immensely consuming effort. Some content I researched and wrote myself. For other modules, I got content from experts in Aramco and rewrote and built exercises for. And for yet other modules, I had experts build their own damned exercises. (Can you tell I'm getting tired of building exercises?) I will deliver most of the two weeks of material (starting May 8) but for some specialized modules, those carefully selected experts will deliver their own stuff.

For me to learn Saudi Arabian geology and find useful, willing experts throughout the company in only five months has been a tremendous effort. And this is just ONE course out of about 10 that need to be developed in the next few months. Thankfully, I only need to help build a couple of them and oversee the building of the rest.

With constant evergreening of courses and development of new ones as needed, there is work here to keep me busy for years.

Musings and Maunderings

I am two paychecks away from being 100% debt-free (that includes you, DSL!). That is an amazing shift from last summer when I spent many sleepless nights wondering what I could sell to make sure I could pay the electric bill. I had to give up my dogs and cats, the hobbies and activities that I love, and my friends, and move to Saudi Arabia to accomplish this. And my house was foreclosed on so my credit rating will be in the toilet for years to come. Still, there has to be some joy in there somewhere.

So if you advocate violence in the name of Allah you are a terrorist but if you do it in the name of Jesus you are a militia member?

Health insurance is not health care.

Tsingy's name comes from a word in an African dialect that refers to a type of fluted limestone feature caused by weathering. Paul's side hobby is Neoproterozoic geology (really old stuff, cratonic rocks more than 1 billion years old) and there's plenty of that in Africa. He and Lou-Anne travel there frequently (and plan to relocate there on retirement). The line made by Tsingy's black tail and the black stripe down her one hind leg reminded him of that weathering feature. Yeah, okay, that's kind of convoluted but geologists tend to be strange that way.

I thought the first batch of ginger beer was disappointing until I got some advice from a master brewer. I probably didn't let it ferment long enough before decanting into soda bottles, I needed a device to aid the decanting (could be made but amazingly I found one ready-made in the Mini-Mart when I walked over to get some cat litter), I probably used too much yeast and too much sugar, and I need to let the beer sit at room temp for at least a month before drinking. In short, the first batch may be redeemable but it is far too young yet to tell for sure. He gave me some great tips and I plan to forge ahead with a second batch, adding a hot chili for more bite.