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!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Adventures Part 1

I've been back home for almost 3 days now. Part of that hardly counts--once I got home, showered, and unpacked, I fell into bed and slept for almost 24 hours straight, getting up only to let the dogs out now and then. I went into work for about 3 hours on Wednesday. Aramco has arcane leave rules and I had to "work" that day in order to satisfy some of those rules.

It is now the eid festival after Ramadan so the next several days (three of them are work days) are holidays. Plenty of time for me to get myself sorted out before work begins again in earnest.

The dogs? Oh, yes, they were ecstatic to see me. Upul seems to have survived Hurricane Mimi with minimal damage.

And that Economy Plus deal with United? The deal that cost an extra USD 178 each way over my regular fare? That was totally worth it. The seat spacing was like it used to be in economy class back in the old days.

Instead of a relatively civilized Bahrain-Heathrow-Dulles itinerary (most of us American and Canadian expats have bailed on British Airways for the time being), I chose to fly with United on an itinerary that took me from Bahrain to Kuwait, a short 45-minute hop, and Kuwait to Dulles, an interminable 11 1/2 hour slog. The plane was nearly empty for the Bahrain-Kuwait legs in both directions, but on the way to the US, the plane filled up in Kuwait with Americans associated with the military in one form or another heading home.

On the way out, I only slept for a few hours and ended up wandering back to the galley at the back of the plane. While having some juice and coffee, I started chatting with some of the military guys back there. One of them accidentally spilled some coffee. Without missing a beat, the flight attendant whisked into the nearest bathroom, came out with a sanitary pad that he proceeded to stick onto the bottom of his shoe, using it to wipe up the spill up in no time. I was amazed. That is when I learned from a tank repair engineer that they are in fact never without KY jelly and tampons, as those can be used in a variety of emergency tank repair scenarios. It all made perfect sense after 10 hours in the air.

I mailed a string of packages to myself during my trip to the US: two from SLC, one from Nashville, and one from VA. The first two boxes have already arrived--it's like Christmas and birthday all rolled together! I expect the other two will arrive after the eid. Saudi Customs always opens boxes like that (they usually don't mess with commercial shipments from vendors like Amazon or Lands End) and the government is closed for the eid. (Interestingly, Customs opens the boxes from the bottom. I'm not sure why but perhaps they want to avoid messing up the labels that are usually on the top of the boxes.)

I also brought back a soft-sided dog crate and a Dyson vacuum cleaner. I checked those boxes as luggage. Ended up getting them here safely and for much less money than if I had tried to ship them. The stressful dance of dealing with so much luggage and the rental car turned out to be a bit messy but it all worked out in the end.

Before I launch into various tales of my adventures, here's a transportation summary. In two weeks, I was in Utah, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia (twice). I had three rental cars (the Kia Sorento in particular stands out in more ways than one as you will see) and traveled in seven different planes (not counting the two I rode in to get to the US and back).

I had a great time. Thanks to all of my friends who drove me around, spent hours shopping for the stuff on my list, organized activities, and shared plenty of laughs. It was so good to see all of you again!