Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A New Gadget

For some weeks now, I've been playing with a new acquisition--an iPad. My phone is a Nokia, a nice one to be sure, but I only use it as a phone. I bought the iPad at the Rashid Mall in Khobar.

I mainly got the iPad so I could do my French lessons more comfortably (and thus more regularly) anywhere in my tiny house that my fancy took me. The modems that we get from Aramco give each of us a wireless network at home. I had to wait more than three months for that precious ADSL connection and the modem, and I pay USD 40 each month for the service, but it is worth every cent (not to mention the 24-hour tech support that Aramco provides for free--and it really is 24-hour service because I called late on a Friday and was sorted out in no time).

So I loaded up the iPad with French language lessons, a French-English dictionary, a French verb reference and quiz app, France24 news (all of the articles and the videos are in French) ... why stop there?

I have some cool GPS software for France, Michelin real-time traffic updates for France, global weather and maps, currency converter, and a world clock. I even found a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in French. (I got the English version too. Even though I have read it more than a half dozen times, the story never fails to delight and the language sparkle.)

My iPad is the WiFi + 3G version so I got a microSIM from Mobiliy, the Saudi telecom company I use for my cell service, to test that out as well. (Slow but it works to check email. Forget video.)

Games? I have one solitaire app. That's it. Computer games bore me. To me, this expensive toy isn't a toy at all but a useful thing that will help me achieve some specific goals.

In fact, I'm cooling my heels in a hotel room in Frankfurt (literally as I have the window open) waiting for DSL to arrive, doing French lessons, checking news and email, and writing this quick blog update. Useful activities all, far more productive than games.

I know I returned to the US twice this year but something really struck me this morning when I arrived at the Frankfurt airport: eye contact. People make eye contact with each other. Or rather, I mean men and women make eye contact with men and women. That just isn't done in KSA. For starters, women are never looked at directly even by other women. We aren't supposed to exist so I have become accustomed to being looked through, not at. It was a weird moment of disorientation to glance up and meet someone's eyes and they respond with a smile or a greeting.

Woohoo! I'm not in Saudi Arabia now!

Monday, November 15, 2010

My First Repat

Tonight (Wednesday), I fly out of Bahrain on my first repat. By law, I have to leave the country for 14 consecutive days each year--that's usually considered the repat trip (repat is short for repatriation). When we put in our leave request, we get an extra repat payment with the amount based on the location from which we were hired. The payment is intended to cover travel expenses to and from to that location. We even get extra travel days for the repat. It's a generous addition to an already generous leave policy. (When I return to Dhahran in December, I'll have taken a total 50 days of vacation in 2010. Sounds good? Too bad I have to live in Saudi Arabia to get it.)

I'm spending my repat in Europe, a few days in Germany with my mother and her husband then most of three weeks in France. One of my best friends, DSL, will be traveling with me. Our adventure begins when I meet her in Frankfurt this coming Thursday morning.

I've got a lot of preparation yet to do--finalizing notes for Upul, who will be staying with the dogs again; packing; getting the house in order. (There was a last-minute vet crisis as usual but I'll save that for another post.)

The farmhouse where DSL and I will be staying in St-Laurent-sur-Gorre doesn't have internet connection so unless we can find a cafe with WiFi in a nearby village (not a complete stretch as Orange, the largest French telecom company, has free WiFi [free if you have an Orange data plan, which I intend to acquire tout suite] in cafes and hotels all over France). But the point is, we won't be online at home so our updates will probably be sporadic until we return to civilization.

She and I are seeking an immersion experience. We've both been working on our French, and while my skills are still pretty primitive, I'm willing to give it a go.

We'll take pictures and I'm taking a notebook to record things the old fashioned way.

A revoir!

Nature Walk

As much as I hate living here, I can't help my interest in the flora and fauna, limited as it is. Since Dhahran is landscaped a lot like Disneyland (and heavily irrigated), our jebel jaunts give me the most "natural" perspective on plants and animals in Saudi Arabia--even though the jebel landscape has been extensively modified for the past 80 years and the animals that are there probably wouldn't be there if Dhahran, a giant source of food and water, wasn't nearby. Probably the only thing in the jebels would be a few foxes, lizards, and camel spiders.

Our weather noticeably changed about 3 weeks ago. Sure, the days have been getting shorter as you would expect, but the biggest change has been in the temperature. Several times in the past couple of weeks as I left the house at 4:30am to take the dogs on their first walk of the day, I actually considered going back in and getting a long-sleeved shirt! Really! But after a second's thought, I decided, nah, it wasn't worth the trouble. It actually dipped below 60F last weekend for a brief hour or two. But it is still shorts and Tshirt weather here. The heaviest thing I wore last winter was a sweatshirt--with shorts!

Still, we've gone from highs exceeding 110F for hours each day to highs in the low 90s, even high 80s, for just an hour or two each day.

And the changes to the plant life in the jebels over the past three weeks has been astonishing.

It hasn't rained here in 8 months. For 8 months, the dogs and I have been walking around in a landscape of tan sandstone and brown sticks. Suddenly, vistas in the jebels are sort of green, well, greenish. Okay, there are spots of non-brown!

Some plants even have flowers, barely bothering to toss out a few leaves first.

I started wondering what was driving the incredible changes in the plants. In particular, where in the hell are they getting the water from?

At first I thought it might be a slight rise in the water table caused by changes in atmospheric pressure associated with the change in high and low temperatures. But this theory was tossed when I realized that even plants on top of the jebels where the water table doesn't exist are still sprouting and flowering.

I've decided that it is caused by the dramatic change in temperature (and probably change in length of day and change in angle of the sun). And the water? I think all of these different plants store it. They manage to keep it in their tissues, probably their underground parts, during the scorching hot summer.

 Small animals and lizards like this plant because each plant makes a large clump. You can see burrows and tracks underneath and around these plants.

I call this the pickle plant. Each little leaflet is shaped like a fat pickle. The largest get about 0.5 cm in length. As they age, they turn purplish. You can see that the young stalks are a purplish color. The pickles exploded into existence in a matter of days.

 This was a bundle of dry brown sticks a month ago.

This bush is a particular nemesis. Each plant has very long, thin, light colored branches covered in very sharp thorns. The branches are very hard to see because they blend in so well with the ground. Even Mimi won't push through a group of these plants. I nearly always come back from a good jaunt with bloody scratches on my legs from these things.

Imagine how surprised I was this morning to discover tiny green leaves and even tinier purple flowers on them!

This plant doesn't have leaves. It adds greenish bits to the ends of the dry stalks it already has.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I don't think they realize it, but many of the expats working in KSA become hoarders. Some types of goods are not available here. Other goods are available but are of poor or questionable quality. Either way, we find ourselves shipping in multiple bags, bottles, and boxes of the things we think we can't live without.

Food is another matter. At first I thought the commissary managers were simply capricious in their buying and stocking decisions. One week we have canned tomatoes, the next week only tomato sauce. One week we have unscented laundry detergent, the next week it's as if it never existed.

With time, I realized there were some larger forces at work. For example, in the week preceding Valentine's Day, the mutawas didn't let customs agents approve any shipments of red food. Seriously, I'm not making this up. Red food could be used to, gasp, celebrate a pagan holiday specifically designed to encourage "mixing of the sexes," the phrase used by the mutawas to refer to any social interaction between unrelated males and females of any age. Mixing of the sexes is the thing most feared by the Wahhabis and is in fact the justification they use for not letting Saudi women drive or work, among a long list of other restrictions on social and cultural behavior for both men and women. Anyway, in February, red fruit, vegetables, and candy sat rotting on the docks at Dammam for a couple of weeks until the customs and delivery pipelines were able to start back up again.

For similarly bizarre and usually completely opaque reasons, Saudi customs will simply not let some items in. If there is a whiff of any company or product having been involved with a Jewish person or company, or Israel in general, even if they let the same goods in the week or month before, the rumor alone is sufficient for Saudi customs to deny a shipment. Sometimes, there is no reason at all. That pallet of clumping cat litter? Not getting in this time. Why? Because it's not getting in. Not even Alice would be able to navigate this wonderland.

The end result is more hoarding. I don't care for scented laundry detergent and I really hate the heavy scents they put in everything here. So when I see the unscented stuff on the shelf, I buy three big bottles. It might not be there the next time I go in. I like unsalted, unflavored canned tomatoes. I buy a dozen cans when I find them on the shelf. I prefer tuna packed in water, not oil. I buy a dozen of those too. That's enough laundry detergent, canned tomatoes, and tuna to last me months. And I don't have enough room in my crappy dollhouse kitchen cabinets to store even a normal amount of food so I end up stacking cans and bottles in a corner of the living room.

Hoarding. We slip into it without thinking. Living here changes us in ways I would not have predicted.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Iz by Jody Whitsell

In 2008, I discovered Jody Whitsell at the Reliant Cluster of Dog Shows. I was there with Dogz Rule! to do some flyball. Only Harry was running--Iz was back in Dallas in a specialist vet hospital slowly dying. It was emotionally very difficult for me to be there in Houston, wanting to be back in Dallas and knowing that there was nothing I could do that weekend but wait. I only made it through with help from my friends in DR! and from my friend DSL. She was in Houston for some work meetings and rearranged her flight schedule to spend a couple of days that weekend at the tournament with the club.

She and I wandered past Jody's booth--and came to a screeching halt because hanging on the wall was a magnificent oil painting of a black and white smooth fox terrier! I couldn't afford the oil but left with a beautiful print of the painting.

Earlier this year, I asked Jody to paint a portrait of Iz. I sent her an email that I hoped wasn't too wordy describing all of the wonderful things that Iz had accomplished in her short life and attached 10 photos.

Jody ended up doing two original oil paintings for me. A scan of one of them is now on the front page of the blog. I totally love it and I hope that you do too.

I encourage you to visit Jody's website and her booth if you happen to see her at your next big tournament. Her style is bold and colorful and she always seems to capture the unique spark of each of her subjects.

Tsingy's Obsession 2

Tsingy is such a strange little cat. Partially deaf, she can meow at ear-splitting volumes, especially if she thinks she will expire from starvation before I roust myself from bed in the morning.

She occasionally sleeps in the bedroom with me and the dogs. Never on the bed, no, the fox terriers would never allow that. She chooses different places depending on her whim. A couple of weeks ago I snapped this pic of her bed of choice.

Yep, that would be Tsingy curled up in the dog toy box in the bedroom. And yes, I would imagine that it is indeed quite lumpy and smelly--not all the toys are plush and some have been reduced to sticky, ragged shadow of their former glory.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about Tsingy's cardboard obsession. She has reduced a box that I'm using to store office supplies to a lacy network with her regular, vigorous scratching.

Thankfully, my mother included a sisal scratching post in the latest dog/cat care package.

Tsingy immediately transferred her scratching obsession to the post, although you can see her cardboard scratching tray peeking out in the photo below. She still uses that every day--but the post with the feathery toy on top gets her quite wound up in the mornings. 


November 1 is a special date--it marks when I started working for Aramco. Yes, the dogs and I managed to survive one year here in Saudi Arabia.

In honor of my first-year anniversary, and assuming my cyberstalkers gave up their stalking sometime in the past 12 months, I am once again opening up Circus K9 to the world. No more logins required! No more invites!