Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Community Event"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community event. What a great mutawa-distancing euphemism!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall in Dhahran

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

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

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

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

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

Tsingy's Obsession

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

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

She's a very silly cat!

Saturday, October 16, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 08, 2010

Dogs Just Wanna Have Fun

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

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

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

Here is a link to the online album. Enjoy!

Flora and Fauna

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

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

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

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Things I Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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