Thursday, May 27, 2010

Photos! T3i! Desert Flora!

I have about an hour before I have to start getting ready for my classes today. I realized that I haven't been posting many photos lately and I have a few on my camera so I thought I would get some of them up.

First is a photo of young Saudi geologist and geophysicists working on a core examination activity that I arranged as part of the Flagship course I taught a couple of weeks ago.

The young women normally wear abayas but I told them that abayas and thobes (the white dresses the men wear) were not permitted in the Core Lab for safety reasons. This was a major test of the constant tension between cultural restrictions/norms and the goal of providing a real training program. The young women certainly rose to the occasion with a compromise of western clothes that weren't loose or hanging but that still covered them. I permitted head scarves (I knew from the outset that was not a battle I could win) but told them they had to tuck loose ends into their over-shirts.

Next up is a series of photos of dog toys. Yes, T3i is back in action! That's "Terrier Toy Testing Institute" to the uninitiated!

Here's a photo of the two stuffing-free foxes that Mother sent for Harry and Mimi. Mimi managed to remove the nose of her fox (the one on the right) and chew a hole in its head so she could extract the squeaker. These precious toys live on the top of my dresser or they wouldn't have lasted this long. Still, they are well made and hold up to some tough tugging. T3i rates these an 8.

Here's another Mimi special. She finally managed to chew a hole in this one and in the process of removing all of its body stuffing, she turned the body inside out. The head is still stuffed and looks sadly up from the limbless torso. It sort of looks like a fuzzy sea creature. Despite all of this, the toy lasted for several months (but it did spend most of that time on the top of my dresser). T3i rates this one a 5.

DSL sent along two more chicken toys to replace ghastly chicken elf, who finally met his demise earlier this spring. Unfortunately, Earl and his son didn't fare too well with Mimi. She chewed Earl's toes off during one play session when I turned my back on her for maybe all of 10 seconds. Even though he no longer squeaked, she still enjoyed playing with him.

But the final blow came when I tried to grab Earl from her one day and she held on to Earl and I yanked a little too hard...and pop! his head came right off! So I immediately grabbed Earl's son, the surfer dude chicken. Mimi learns quickly and managed to pull surfer dude chicken's head off in less than a minute. I was a bit surprised to see some sort of esophagus affair come with the head--I thought these chickens were fairly empty inside.

I laughed my ass off as I surveyed the chicken carnage. T3i gives these two a 4 for silliness.

Harry is not a perfect angel. Maybe it was the corrosive action of dog spit over a period of months, but Harry managed to pull Bear Baby's arm off yesterday. Here is a photo of Bear Baby lying face down on the stairs where Harry dropped him later that evening. Note the missing right arm!

Why face down? Harry usually carries Bear Baby around by the crotch or the back. T3i gives Bear Baby (and his cousin Frog Baby) a 9, but only if Harry plays with them. If Mimi gets involved, the rating drops down to a 5.

Before I took the dogs to the kennel this morning where they will spend the week while I am out in the field, I took them out for our usual morning walk in the jebels.
I know most of these jebel pictures end up being pictures of Harry's butt, but he's usually out front leading the way.

We got up really early before it got windy and hot. I am amazed at how hot it has been, above 40C every day by midday. It doesn't feel that hot. I mean, it is obvious it is hot but I would not have guessed it was that hot. It is extremely dry here now with humidity less than 20%. The dogs have adjusted well to the temperature but I am careful about when I take them out and how long we stay out. And I always take water on our jebel trips even though we are never more than half an hour from the car.

One thing the dogs have not adjusted to are these gigantic burrs. I call them "camel's heads," a pun on the name "goat's heads" that we called regular old grass burrs when I was a kid.

You can see the size of these things. They are flat on the bottom and the spines are thick, strong, and very sharp. The dogs get these stuck on their feet all the time. They usually stop in their tracks and wait for me to remove the camel heads. I've learned where these particular plants grow and try to route the dogs away from those areas. Still, they blow around in the very stiff winds we have here and can show up anywhere in the jebel area.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Neoproterozoic Field Trip

There are some really old rocks in the Arabian Shield in the western part of KSA. I'm attending a week-long field trip to map and describe them next week. Scorpions will be the least of our problems. Temps are already reaching 45C by 2pm, and once we leave the Eastern Province, we enter extreme Wahhabi-land. It should prove to be an adventure in all ways.

I'll post photos when I get back next weekend.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dhahran Dog Club

The title of this post comes from a Yahoo group site I set up for people in camp taking the dog training classes. I will do anything for my dogs, including training people and dogs so that I can set up some sort of competitive game that my dogs can play.

The first session of DOG-101 will end in two weeks. The second session will finish a couple of week after that. The classes have been quite an experience but are exhausting to teach. To my surprise and pleasure, most of the people are making an honest effort to work with their dogs. I've seen amazing improvement in some of the dogs--all it took was convincing their owners to pay attention to their dogs and "magically" a lot of annoying behaviors disappear!

I do have a couple of people who are not working with their dogs outside of class. They were easy to spot because by week 6 we were leaping forward on a set of foundation behaviors. Those handlers didn't have the foundation and couldn't do the exercises that week. I feel bad for those people and their dogs but I know there is nothing I can do. They will choose to train and play with their dogs or not. All I can do is show them some new ways to do that. They keep showing up so I hope that something clicks for them (pun intended...?).

By some random quirk, the two classes are radically different. The first class is full of boisterous dogs, any one of which I can select to demonstrate a new skill to the class. The second class is full of soft, anxious dogs. Even after three weeks, some of them still won't let me touch them. Finding a dog in that class to use as a demo dog can be difficult! Those of you who know me know that I am not the softest handler in the world but even when I tone it way down and way back, I'm still too much for some of the super-soft dogs. I do make an effort to connect with each dog though. A tube of squeeze-cheese has helped a lot!

I think that I am a good instructor. I have had a lot of experience speaking to different groups for different purposes. Plus, I'm not shy about sharing my opinion. So the act of teaching itself isn't much of a problem for me. But the dog classes have presented new challenges in terms of time management and especially attention management. I have to make decisions on the fly about who to spend time with--at the expense of others in the class who might also need some help. Every class is an hour-long balancing act.

Word got out quickly in camp about the classes and I've been contacted by lots of people who want private lessons. I'm pleased that many of those folks were referred to me by people in my two classes! I'm even getting something of a reputation. I will be introduced to someone new with the comment, Denise teaches the dog classes. The new person will say, oh, so you are the dog trainer!

Sheesh. As Miranda Lambert sings, "everybody's famous in a small town"!

The classes have given me an opportunity to think about the larger philosophy of dog training--and people training! I've been reading books and articles about training and learning with a fresh eye. And I'm trying out those new ideas on my two bad dogs, to Mimi's delight. She is a training monster. She'd be happy training every waking minute. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that one of my training games is to work them together. I teach them new skills one at a time, then once they learn them, I have them perform them at the same time. The best ones right now are "beep beep" (back up) and having them lift their left paws and wave "bye!" They do these tricks in unison. Hilarious.

After the summer break, I will teach two classes again in the fall, another class of basic obedience (DOG-101) and a new class called Introduction to Rally Obedience, which I've dubbed DOG-201. I think that by the start of 2011, we can begin to have some rally competitions here in camp (can't call them trials, really). I've even got my eye on a couple of people who I want to train as judges. That way I can get Harry and Mimi out there too!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Our Little Foxy Friend

I've mentioned that I take the dogs out several times a week to the jebels at one edge of camp. It's a fascinating if austere landscape.

Since January we've been crossing paths with a female red fox. Red foxes in Saudi Arabia are more greyish-tan with black tipped fur than they are red in color. But they have that distinctive white tip to their tail and other markings on face, chest, and feet that are consistent with the red fox species. They do have somewhat larger ears and smaller bodies than red foxes I've seen in the US. While there are two or three other species of fox that live in Saudi Arabia, including the desert fox, they all live in habitats west of the Eastern Province. (Two good links about red foxes are here and here.)

(Most animals that scrape out a living in the desert are smaller than their counterparts in greener, wetter areas. The sparrows here are simply tiny and I've mentioned how the feral cats are also small. This is due of course to limits on food resources and extreme heat in the summer even though all of these animals make a comparatively decent living in and around the edges of camp.)

The fox terriers found Foxy Lady's first den rather easily. She was in it at the time (I could bend down and see her in there) so the dogs were just over the top with excitement. For weeks after their discovery, Mimi tried to pull me bodily back to that spot.

This discovery was the tip of the iceberg for the terriers. They suddenly realized that creatures in the desert live in holes! Who would have thought such a thing was so! They now are quite thorough in investigating all holes, cracks, depressions, any sort of feature that could hold something of interest. I can tell when they find an occupied hole. I let them sniff and paw around for a bit then pull them off. They are surprisingly systematic in rechecking holes. They've found places where wild bees build hives along with the usual suspects of lizards, snakes, small rodents, and probably large beetles. Once they found a crack occupied by a terrified feral cat. I have no idea how it squeezed in there.

Anyway, back to Foxy Lady. I knew she was a female because I saw her squat to urinate. We were sighting her at least once a week for a month or so and I noticed a dramatic increase in fox poop in certain locations. We also started finding remnants of her kills, usually the stupid ring-necked doves and once what I thought was probably a lizard. The dogs would spend a long time sniffing these spots.

I would often see her one or two jebels over. At that distance she was never in a huge hurry to run away. However, one afternoon we took a new scrambling route up the side of a jebel, reached the top and walked straight over to the cliff on the other side to look into the wadi (the dogs seem to enjoy gazing out across the distance like this). Just as we came to the edge, I looked down to see Foxy Lady taking a luxurious sand bath, rolling in a patch of sand about 10 feet below us. It was a very windy day and she didn't hear or smell us coming. But the second our heads popped over the edge, she shot away down then across the wadi and up and over the next jebel. Mimi almost came unglued with excitement and Harry managed to climb down to the ledge in chase before I called him back.

Despite all of these close encounters, we continued to spot her about once a week. I noticed that she looked a bit thicker in March and suspected that she was pregnant. It was about this time that the dogs decided that her first den was no longer occupied. They still like to nose around it but they know it is empty and are quickly ready to move on.

About three weeks ago, the dogs stumbled across her new den. It was an old hole in the side of a wadi--we all knew the hole was there, but there were fresh signs of occupancy. I managed to restrain the dogs long enough to get a look at the tracks going in and out. Based on the dogs' behavior and the size of the hole and the tracks, I was pretty sure we had found her den. It was in a much better location than the first one so I didn't let the dogs mess around with it.

The dogs and I were out again this last weekend, a lovely early morning trip on Thursday. Even by 6am it is now getting rather hot and the sun is well up. I was toodling along and casually thought to myself, hmm, I haven't seen Foxy Lady in a while. Then I turned to see her silhouetted on the top of the next jebel. The dogs didn't see her. I called Harry a little closer to me and turned Mimi away from that direction. Good thing I did. As soon as I moved, Foxy Lady shot over the top of the jebel away from us.

And suddenly two light tan fox kits took off from the ledge just below her, leaping and skidding their way down the cliff into the wadi below! When they stopped, I literally couldn't see them--they blended perfectly with the rocks.

Fortunately, neither dog saw any of this. I was able to watch the kits until they dropped into the channel at the bottom and out of sight.

In retrospect, I think Foxy Lady was in her second den with the kits when the dogs found it three weeks ago. That would explain why they became even more excited than usual.

Based on the information in the two links above, it appears that red foxes adapt well to living among humans. I have asked around and it doesn't appear the foxes are getting into people's trash but it seems likely that they are foraging in our trash bins nonetheless even if they aren't dragging trash bags down the street.

I hope Foxy Lady and her two kits continue to survive. It's nice to know that the dogs and I can share that little corner of camp with her.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Speaking in Tongues

French class is moving forward at a reasonable pace. I am not looking forward to the summer break because I really enjoy going to class. I am getting even more out of it now that it is usually me, a westerner named Clark, and Mme Hela. Clark and I are about the same age and have no problem competing with each other to answer questions or waiting quietly while the other one struggles through a reading.

Clark has mentioned his family so I asked him last week why his wife wasn't taking French. She IS French, he said. She doesn't want to teach him so she sent him off to the classes. A very wise woman, I told him.

Oddly, quite a few Saudis ask me when I will start to learn Arabic. This is somewhat at odds with what I read before coming out here. Those commentators suggested that Saudis don't care much for Westerners who learn Arabic because they like to maintain a cultural distance.

Even though the official language of Aramco is English, I am surrounded by written and spoken Arabic. As in any foreign country, the observant visitor quickly pick up the social niceties: yes, no, thank you, greetings, basic verbs (I have/don't have, want/don't want, know/don't know, etc.).

On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke my first word of Arabic to a group of young Saudi geologists I am teaching. We had spent all week together, the first week of a two-week course that I designed and am delivering for the first time. The material has proven to be challenging and the exercises seem to be engaging them.

Wednesday finally rolled around and I was wrapping up the day. I came to the end of what I needed to say, looked around the room, raised my hands, and said "Halas!"

By context I had seen that this word can mean "enough, stop, that's it"--like my favorite phrase for Mimi, "Ca suffit!"

Anyway, after I said "Halas" they all burst out laughing. I somewhat anxiously asked them, did I use it right? Oh yes, yes you did, they all said. They seemed enormously pleased with my puny little effort. It was the right word at the right time.

The Help (3)

When I arrived here and learned about houseboys and maids, I mentally swore that I would never have someone else clean my house. There is something about the idea of having another person dealing with my mess that I find distasteful. I think it's a combination of my discomfort with the class system implied by that situation and my embarrassment at knowing what my dirt looks like: hair in the sink, dirty socks on the floor, knives half-licked clean of peanut butter in the sink.

And I mentioned in the post before this that I knew that I wasn't paying Upul enough to walk the dogs. But the new amount I offered to pay him was far more than just walking the dogs was worth as measured by the shadow economy here in camp. He will not simply accept money from me--it can only come in exchange for a service.

As a result, Upul is cleaning my house on Wednesday afternoons.

Wednesday is the last day of the week here, our equivalent of Friday. I come home tired, hot, looking forward an evening at home and the weekend ahead. And I walk into a house with no dog snot on the windows, no dog hair on the dining table, no dust on the pictures, a sparkling bathroom, vacuumed and mopped floors...the place not only looks clean, it smells clean. I look around my clean house, marveling.

And I feel so insanely guilty.

My house is so clean!

Then the guilt kicks in again--should I really enjoy it so much?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Help (2)

When Jenny helped me arrange for John to take the dogs out for their daily potty break during Upul's absence, she told me that she paid John SR25 an hour.

Based on that, I realized that I have not been paying Upul enough. He's been far too polite to say anything. But when he returned and came by to pick up the keys, I told him that I had not been paying him enough and that starting in May I would pay him SR 400 for the month. (I had been paying him SR 120 per month.) He hesitated, then said, okay, but if you pay me that much per month, I must do something else for you.

Upul said that he has a couple of hours free on Wednesday afternoons. He said he would clean my house for me every week in addition to walking the dogs every work day. After my experience with John, I realized that I wasn't going to "win" any argument on this point. In order to pay Upul a fair amount for his service, I was going to have to let him do more for me.

I thought that I keep the house pretty clean. It's so small that I vacuum every day and keep things picked up and put away--otherwise I'd become buried in sand, dog hair, and clutter. But when I got home from work on Wednesday, this place was sparkling! He had dusted! I only do that once a month or so. He'd cleaned Mimi's snot off the glass door. Upul had cleaned my bathroom. He even cleaned the water spots off the hand mirror on the counter. I immediately felt a little guilty for enjoying it so much...but it sure was nice to walk in and find happy dogs and a clean house.


Last month I took a trip to the Shaybah Field located in far SE Saudi Arabia just on this side of the border with UAE.

I am working on a much longer post about this field but I haven't posted many pictures lately and almost never post any of myself anyway. Since I had this one, I thought I'd slap it up for your viewing pleasure.


French class continues to move along at a reasonable pace. The attrition in this second level class has really surprised me. We went from 5 to 2 students from week 2 to week 3. It is like getting a private lesson from Madame Hela for an hour and a half twice a week. We still only know two verb tenses, present and past (passe compose), because of late she's been focused on having us speak French more. We are not allowed to ask questions in English anymore and when she introduces new vocabulary, Madame Hela tries to give the definition in French. That can certainly be confusing but since her English isn't all that great (as she herself admits, she isn't an English teacher!) it more or less evens out in the end. We also have to do a lot of readings. My pronunciation has really improved. Even my R's get the nod from Madame now. What I can't seem to get is French spoken at normal speeds when I can't see the speaker. Madame plays recordings and I get maybe one word in five. Actually, that's being too generous. One word in ten is more like it. And those words are usually the nouns. I can't "hear" the verbs when they are spoken. I've got some podcasts but have the same problem with them. Can't figure out a damned thing they are saying. If they talk really slow and I can replay it, I can figure it out. If I can read a script while listening to a recording, I can figure it out (still need to replay it a few times). But just straight listening? Not so much.

Ah well. I've been told that levels 3 and 4 of the French classes are taught by a different teacher and involve a lot more conversational exchanges. I suppose I should focus on grammar and vocabulary and let the rest come as it will.

All of this was put in a new light by a training class I attended last week for work. I am going to be teaching a geology flagship class to new Saudi geologist starting Saturday. They were selected back when they were in high school and sent to the US, UK, or Australia to get bachelor's degrees. Therefore they can speak English but it isn't their first language. During our training class to prepare us for teaching these courses, I was teamed up with a colleague, a Chinese guy, a petrophysicist, who will be teaching the petrophysics flagship. He and I thought it ironic that we had a weakness in common: language. His accent is extremely thick and you have to listen to him carefully to understand him. I speak American English at light speed and drop word endings and vowels liberally. When speaking formally I can avoid colloquialisms but I probably won't be able to keep that up for two weeks, the duration of the course.

Communication. Language. Being a teacher and being a student. These concepts have been occupying my thoughts the past few days.

Toxic Stew

I know that I've mentioned that there are two types of water piped into the Aramco houses: sweet water and raw water. Raw water is more or less directly from water wells. It is clear in color but sometimes smells a bit musty and is very salty. It can be drunk but I wouldn't recommend it. Sweet water has been desalinated and filtered and tastes okay.

In all Aramco houses, there is one sweet water tap in the kitchen (that's the swan neck faucet in the photo). All other faucets, the dish washer, the clothes washer, and the shower are connected to the raw water lines.

It costs money to make the sweet water and Aramco monitors the pressures of the lines carefully. It is a termination offense to tap into your sweet water line.

So we wash our clothes and bathe in salt water. I'll tell you, even the smallest cuts sting like crazy when that salt water hits them in the shower. My hair never feels clean.

I think I've also mentioned that soap and shampoo don't work very well in the raw water. I recently discovered that this problem goes quite a bit further than just a failure to lather.

A couple of weeks ago I opened up a new bar of Kiss My Face olive oil soap that I had brought back with me in February. I've used the soap before and like it.

Within two days I was covered in itchy, red pustules. They were particularly bad on my chest, back, neck, and ears. I could barely stand to put my head on the pillow at night. The soap had reacted with the raw water to produce some sort of toxic stew that burned my skin!

I tossed the soap. The pustules went away on their own in about a week. Hydrocortisone did nothing. I did get some calamine lotion at a pharmacy but it was a bit messy and I could only use it at night. Still, it helped a little although it was really time that solved the problem.