Saturday, December 31, 2011

Agility in KSA: The Back Story

This is a post that is long overdue. I want to give you North American readers some idea of the issues and obstacles that make doing agility in KSA difficult.

Like my Basic Obedience classes, the agility classes are part of Community Education. There is a remarkable array of classes available nearly year-round through Community Ed: hair cutting, digital photography, cooking, intro to carpets, and of course language classes such as the French classes that I've been taking for two years. The classes target adults although in special circumstances and with permission of the parents, older children can sometimes register for them. All of the instructors are people like me, a member of the Aramco community who has a special skill or interest and who is willing to share that with others. We sign up for Community Ed classes online and payment is taken directly from our paychecks (in the case of non-working wives, the payments come from their husbands' paychecks!). And instructors who are direct employees are paid through an addition to our paychecks at the end of each trimester.

Offering the dog training classes through Community Education provides many direct benefits to me. First, they handle the registration and the money. That's a huge administrative hassle that I don't need to worry about. And for the basic obedience class, Community Ed arranges for us to use a very large air-conditioned room at the middle school, so the classes can be held any time of day and any time of the year.

But much more importantly, Community Education provides me an Aramco-approved cover for playing with dogs in public venues. With their blessing, we can pass through the school security gates. With their blessing, we can use school property on the weekends when it is not used by other groups. Community Ed's wasta gives us cover.

The venue of the middle school itself is also extremely valuable. First, there is a 10-foot high concrete wall around the entire school. Second, we can control which gate dog class participants use, and thus can keep a close watch on poop patrol. And third, for the agility class, the soccer field itself is fenced again (although with a dozen openings).

Why is it so important that we keep such a low profile? I can already hear you say, why not trot out into the desert or use a sports field that is only used in the evenings?

We expats that wish to have dogs are allowed to do so only by the thinnest level of tolerance. For example, for about a year, no dogs have been allowed into KSA unless their paperwork describes them as labs or retrievers.

A majority of Muslims believe dogs are unclean. The religious reasons are far too complicated for me to deal with here. But I will tell you that these opinions are based on interpretations of hadiths, which are "sayings" of Mohammed written down as late as a couple of centuries after his death. You can google "hadith islam dog" and do the research yourself. Saudis' fear of dogs is palpable. They will cross the street if they see you approaching with dogs. Women will move to the other side of their husbands. Children turn and run. And to be truthful, many Asians, both Christian and Muslim, are no better.

The country in which I reside is openly hostile to dogs, particularly the idea of dogs as companion animals. The official rules are designed to make it as difficult as possible to bring dogs into the country. The behavior of the locals is intended to make it as uncomfortable as possible to move dogs openly about in the community.

If a single Saudi were to complain about the dog classes, even if they complained for no other reason than they didn't like dogs, then that single complaint would be enough to end the classes, even with the wasta that Community Education possesses.

We walk a very fine line with our agility classes to be sure. You can't do agility with the dog on lead and yet it is a direct violation of Aramco rules to have dogs off leash. Now I hope you can see the value of tucking ourselves away behind the middle school fences and holding the classes at sunrise on the weekends. We can't offend if we can't be observed.

Having a dedicated dog park somewhere else on camp is something that Aramco doesn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole. The security and safety risks are overwhelming. Given the barely tolerated presence of dogs in the community, I hope that you can see that Aramco does not want to be involved in such as issues as:
  • who is responsible if your dog gets out and gets hit by a car?
  • who is responsible if your dog bites another dog in the dog park?
  • who is responsible if your dog escapes from the dog park and bites a person?
  • who is responsible for keeping the dog park clean?
  • who is responsible for making and enforcing poop pick-up rules?
  • who is responsible for deciding what constitutes an aggressive dog and for making and enforcing a rule of "no aggressive dogs"?
The short answer for most of those is that you are responsible and your dog will be put down if something happens. KSA is not a democracy. It does not have a codified legal system. There is no recourse to such decisions.

There is a vocal dog park contingent at community meetings who simply do not understand these safety issues. They are always the people who are known for not picking up their dogs' poop, or for never walking their own dogs (houseboys rarely pick up dog poop). There are certain streets in Dhahran which are literally lined on both sides with piles of dog shit (I never walk my dogs along those streets). A dog park would quickly become a sea of dog shit in this community.

The "dog parkists" don't understand how important it is to stay under the Aramco and the Saudi radar. They don't understand that it takes work and commitment to openly maintain the presence of dogs in such a culture and community. They would risk the privilege of owning a dog for the ease of not having to walk their dogs any further than the "dog park" in order for Fluffy to shit where he wants to, and where they don't have to pick it up.

The constant threat of the "dog parkists" has caused me to abandon all attempts to form a recreational dog training group. We can play our dog games and I can help a few dogs each year become good canine citizens by keeping our heads down and by staying under the protection of Community Education, who gives us a semi-official stamp of approval.

I am very thankful that Community Ed supports us and gives us a safe place for us to train. I am not a patient person and am still surprised that I managed to wait for two years before pushing the agility classes. I built up wasta of my own by holding so many basic obedience classes without incident and to such positive feedback from the community. It's all come together for now, but I am aware that our agility game could end at any moment. That's why each week, each class that we manage to hold, is a little miracle all by itself!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 10

Today was our last class for this session. I'm very happy to report that Community Education is going to let us run the dog agility class again starting in late January for another 10 sessions! Even better, I've arranged to move it to Fridays so that I can reclaim my Thursday morning shopping time in Khobar. At last report, I have 7 handlers signed up for the agility class. I'll teach the basic obedience class again on Thursday afternoons; registration for that class filled in about a week.

MH and I planned a very special set up for this final class: a complete novice level course comprised of 11 obstacles with one side change. The course had 7 jumps, 2 tunnels (one straight, one curved), 1 chute, and for a special surprise, two sets of 2 weave poles, canted at 2 o'clock and 8 o'clock, 10 feet apart, put in the course as a "weave" obstacle. You can see the layout in the videos I've posted below: a sweeping U-shaped affair with the chute as the final obstacle off to the left. We numbered the entire course and set out cones for the start and finish lines.

After we had it all set up, MH and I ran it with our dogs to ensure it was runnable, and to figure out where the change of side needed to occur. I originally thought it would be a cross before jump 10, but the speed that our dogs had on the second straightaway meant we could never be there with them when they were at jump 10. So the side change had to be done between tunnel 6 and jump 7. An FC or a RC would work, although we have only taught them front crosses in class, so I hoped they would choose that.

Just imagine what we were asking of our dogs and handlers: eleven obstacles! That's a lot to tackle after only 10 weeks of class, considering that none of these ladies and their dogs attended all 10 weeks. But MH and I wanted to set the bar high for them.

After they walked it and we had a short discussion about walking courses in general and this course in particular, we had them backchain it. This means we had them work the last 4 obstacles, then the last 8, then finally doing the entire thing, with plenty of rewarding along the way. One thing I didn't do often enough with my own agility pups in training was stop and reward during a sequence. I wanted to make sure that our novice handlers and their dogs didn't make the same mistake. Then, after all of that practice, we asked them to run the full course and reward at the end.

Our little novice group exceeded expectations and more! All three dogs were focused and driving forward, diving into tunnels and over jumps, happy to receive their rewards along the way but also quite happy to do the obstacles, and by the end of class, all three dogs were able to complete the full course with only one huge reward at the end. That's a huge leap forward in dog and handler understanding of what agility is! MH and I were getting goosebumps watching them! Of course they weren't perfect but I have seen far worse handling in real trials. I told MH that we managed to create some real agility handlers and dogs in just 10 weeks!

Judge for yourself in the videos below.

All of the handlers looked at the "weave" obstacle and said, my dog doesn't know what the poles mean. They only do it for the toy reward at the end. MH and I said, try it anyway. We've been sending them home for several weeks with either fixed steel 2x2 bases or stick-in-the-ground poles (depending on whether they have a backyard with grass or not) so they can practice. Turns out that practice does pay off because all of the dogs drove forward from jump 7 directly into the first set of 2 poles and forward to the second set. To their handler's surprise, they absolutely understood what the required performance was supposed to be.

And yes, I already know what you purists are saying, that we are totally perverting Garrett's 2x2 method. So what? We are in Saudi Arabia and making all of this up as we go. We put those 2x2s in a sequence and the dogs did them in the sequence. We may not have dogs doing inline weaves yet...but we will. And we are going to have plenty of fun getting to that point.

There were other challenges in our little novice course besides the side change. Jumps 3, 4, and 5 formed part of the curve from the first leg of the U to the second. The handlers worried about these curved jumps because they'd only done jumps in a straight line, but for the most part, the dogs did just fine.

And I sneaked in the curved tunnel, obstacle 6. We've been putting out straight tunnels for weeks but we've been heavily rewarding for the tunnel commitment. So the curved tunnel presented no problem at all for the dogs (handlers, it was another story as they had to drive forward to get in position for the FC!).

On a final note, all of the handlers who signed up for the class (all of them, not just these three) apparently were sneaking around behind our backs because they presented MH and I each with an extremely generous gift certificate for the spas and restaurants at the Ritz Carlton in Bahrain! I suspect MH was as moved by this as I was. And I'm not kidding about the generous part!

This class has been a labor of love on all levels for me and MH. Yes, we get up hideously early on a weekend morning. Yes, we haul every scrap of equipment up and down a steep hill each week. Yes, we set up the class in the dark. But...we have learned so much about teaching agility. We get to remember way back when we were novice handlers too. We get to try out different teaching and learning methods. And we have been able to provide our own dogs an opportunity to do agility that both of us have waited two years for. In the process, a very happy coincidence indeed, we have provided that same opportunity for some handlers and their dogs who are now infected with the agility bug! I am so very thankful that MH is my partner in this venture and that we have found some dog folks who find this crazy game just as exciting as we do.

I am quite blessed to end my second year in Saudi Arabia doing agility with friends.


Other than the somewhat garish wound and stitches, you'd hardly know that Harry had surgery yesterday morning. He's a bit more tired today than usual and still a bit wobbly on that leg, but he jumps up on the couch and did his squeaky bounce to greet a friend last night. Gotta admire those tough little terriers.
Most of the swelling is gone. He has two additional layers of stitches inside the wound to close the skin layers. The lump was completely outside his muscle tissue and the vet said he didn't have to cut any muscle at all to remove it. He said it went very smoothly. That's Mimi's tail sticking into the middle of the picture.
Mimi in fact is presenting me with more of a worry. Upul came by yesterday after the work day specifically to talk to me about her. 

Harry and I left around a quarter to 7 that morning and Upul came over around 10am. He said he could hear Mimi howling from the parking lot!

He opened the gate and came up to the window and looked in to see her sitting with her back to the window, head thrown up, howling. She didn't even hear him until he rattled his keys. It is quite clear that she was most unhappy being left alone (the cat, snoozing upstairs, hardly counts).

She didn't greet him like she usually does. She ran to the door and stood there. He thought she needed to go out so he put her on the leash and took her out. Ignoring all of her usual "I've gotta go" quick peeing spots, she pulled him straight to the parking lot...Upul said, "ma'am, were you parked to the left of the Range Rover this morning?" Um, yes, that's exactly where the car was when I left with Harry. She dragged Upul to the very spot where I had been parked, sniffed around, then wanted to go back in the house. He said the entire time he was in my place cleaning up, she stood at the door staring out instead of following him around like usual. I'll just mention that she can't see the parking lot from the house.

Upul asked me what I was going to do when Harry "was gone." I said, well, I guess I'm going to have to get Mimi a dog!

Mimi recovering from a full morning of agility and Harry just recovering. I had been on the other end of the couch with Harry's head in my lap. They didn't move when I got up to take this picture.
She greeted Harry's return at noon on Wednesday with extravagant sniffing and nudging.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting Old

Harry nodding off with a toy in his mouth after a happy game of fetch.
I was grooming Harry this weekend, something I usually only need to do every couple of months at most, and when I was clippering his fuzzy butt, I discovered a large mushy lump on his right buttock. It didn't feel connected to anything, sort of like it was floating below the skin. It certainly hadn't been there when I last groomed him. I slept very poorly for a couple of nights until I was able to get him into the vet.

The vet clinic here is not quite bare bones but it is starkly utilitarian. The two vets take care of an array of small animals as well as the horses at the Hobby Farms in both Dhahran and Ras Tanura. They are stretched pretty thin even on good days.

The one that was on duty when I took Harry in was the Kiwi. He's stereotypically blunt and abrupt but I quite like him. He gave a quick look at Harry's lump, grabbed a giant syringe with a tiny needle stuck on the end, and jabbed it in the lump a few times. He then rubbed the needle tip on a glass slide and held it up to the light on the ceiling. "No sign of cells here, probably not cancer" he said. Just like that. No fixing agents, no stains, no cover slide, no looking at things under a microscope. Veterinary medicine by triage.

Diagnosis: lipoma. The lump is about the size of a ping pong ball (pretty big when you are the size of a fox terrier). Lots of dogs get lumps as they age and lipomas are for the most part benign and can be left alone, although they can get quite large.

The vet and I debated the various sides of the matter: would it get bigger, would I want to do surgery on a 15 yr old dog (in two years), would it interfere in any way with function, what would the surgery entail, what about recovery, etc.

I have decided to have it removed. This is his only lump but the rapidity with which it developed concerns me a bit. Harry is still quite vigorous and healthy, even if he is getting a bit hard of hearing (upon returning from class, Mimi and I can sometimes get entirely in the house before he hears us and wakes up), and his cataracts are getting progressively worse. Even so, he is up for walks whenever they are offered, he plays with his toys with as much joy, if perhaps a little less energy, as he has always had, and he eats everything he is offered. He may not be able to get much air when he jumps to greet me (his hind legs don't leave the ground very often these days), and he's rather stiff in the mornings. But he's 13 years old and all of these things are to be expected.

I hope I'm not subjecting him to a procedure that isn't needed, but the sight of that lump bothers me. His surgery is scheduled for Wednesday morning. (If you are interested in this sort of thing, a series of photos of a lipoma removal can be found here; they aren't kidding, not for the squeamish.)

Harry and Mimi (the lump under the greenish blanket; she likes to be completely covered) on a cold evening a couple of weeks ago. They'd had play time, dinner, a walk, more play time, and it was at last time to settle down for the evening.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 9

It's the end of the year and all of those "over" holidays are around the corner (overeating, overspending on crap nobody needs, over-religious-ing on an originally pagan holiday co-opted by the Christian church, over-decorating, over-emotional...). We aren't immune to any of that stuff here although it does take a little more effort to make it all happen in an overdone fashion.

And in the holiday spirit, this week I got emails from one handler after another saying they couldn't make it to class, until the list dwindled to one. And she emailed me at 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning saying she was sick.

I emailed MH earlier in the week to let her know of the trend. Her reply? "Well, I'll be there." That's my girl!

So she and I spent two hours having our own private agility seminar! We worked our way through two different exercises from the CleanRun Exercise Source Books (I have numbers 1 and 2). As always, what looks fairly easy on the page can turn into quite a challenge when you put actual dogs and handlers on the field.

We had a great time! It was another clear and cold morning here in Dhahran and by the time we were ready to run, the sun was up and the field was entirely ours! MH and I use radically different handling styles and it was quite fun to watch each other sort out the various challenges in each exercise.

I asked MH to take some pictures of me and Mimi since I realized that I've been posting about agility in KSA for TWO months and haven't posted one pic of my little fox terrier actually doing it.

Mimi. She KNOWS that the agility class is really all about her.

MH and Austin, one of her PWDs.

A great picture of Mimi turning out of the tunnel. She is one happy fox terrier.

This is my favorite picture of all. I just love the sign for the school in the background! Mimi exiting the weaves. Thanks to MH for taking this great photo!

MH and her older PWD Dallas in the weaves.

Not the best picture of Mimi (amazing extension on her hind legs though) but it shows me and the school sign. Just in case any of you were doubting that I was really doing agility in Saudi Arabia. That's the bunny fur tug-n-treat clutched in my left hand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Adventures in the Kitchen

I've mentioned that the five English-language radio stations we get here in the Eastern Province include the Armed Forces Radio Network. Instead of commercials, they run short spots lasting 1 to 3 minutes that are pulled from public networks all over the U.S. One of these is a short radio blog done by Mike Colameco called "Food in a Flash". Because cooking is one of my hobbies, I usually try to pay pretty close attention to his bits. This weekend, he talked about baking winter squash with maple syrup, bacon fat, and lime juice. Bacon? Limes? Squash? It sounded pretty interesting!

I like all of those flavors on their own so the idea of combining them sounded like something I definitely needed to try. When I ran to the commissary on Friday, I picked up some imported limes and two nice Saudi-grown butternut squashes. We can get locally grown limes but they are small and bitter and not all that juicy. I prefer to pay more and use limes that have a more familiar performance.

Unfortunately, I was folding laundry at the time of Colameco's bit and didn't get all the details, such as oven temp, and whether you peel the squash or not. To find an answer to these questions, I turned to the venerable Joy of Cooking. But even this hoary reference didn't help me much. I could have sworn Colameco said to peel the squash, but JofC said not to. Recipes for baked squash in JofC called for oven temps ranging from 325F to 400F--that wasn't narrowing things down much. But in the end, I realized that all of the JofC recipes involved steaming the squash in the oven then adding some seasoning. That clearly wasn't what Colameco had in mind when he was extolling the virtues of squash baked in bacon fat.

So like any good cook, I improvised.

I did follow JofC's tip to peel and dice the raw squash on a folded towel using a serrated blade. Those tough winter squash can be kind of tricky to cut up when raw. But it all came off smooth as buttah.

I put the coarsely diced squash in my trusty pyrex baking pan, drizzled some maple syrup over it, then I followed that with some more maple syrup (maple syrup, yum!). I gave the squash a liberal dousing of freshly ground pepper. Next I laced seven fat slices of smoked bacon around the squash cubes (yeah, seven slices for one squash; don't be so quick to judge--it's a damned miracle that I even have bacon and thus not surprising that I am liberal in its application). Finally, I squeezed 2/3s of a fresh lime over everything.

It took about 55 minutes at 375F for the squash to cook tender. I covered the dish with foil for the last 20 minutes.

The end result was fabulous! Since I didn't add any extra oil, the dish wasn't sloppy or greasy. And the pepper and lime really brightened up the dish, making it feel Caribbean or Asian in influence. Easy to prepare, easy to cook, and as long as you overlook the saturated animal fats, ever so healthy for you!

Let's review the ingredients:
  • maple syrup: organic, comes from a tree, has to be better for you than processed white sugar, and it is so smooth and delicious
  • freshly ground black pepper: if you can flavor chocolate with black pepper, well, you can put this stuff on just about anything (maybe not oatmeal, but even that might be worth an experiment: black pepper and maple syrup oatmeal...yum!)
  • freshly squeezed lime juice: a secret ingredient of many tasty South Asian sauces
  • smoked bacon: the mellow fatty counterpoint to the acidic lime and the sharp pepper and the sweet syrup, bacon can also be used to flavor anything; I knew this bacon was very salty so I added no additional salt to the squash
  • butternut squash: fiber, vitamin A, seasonal, locally grown, side or main dish as you choose--how could you not appreciate the versatile butternut?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 8

This week I had to run the class myself since MH was OOK on a short trip. Since I could observe last week that lots of the dogs had commitment issues with jumps in particular, I had already decided to have them backchain a jump chute this week. That meant that I could pare the equipment list down to something I could manage on my own (although it still took me three trips from car to field). Amazing how quickly I got used to having MH haul half the gear down each week!

I had each team begin with one jump and had the handlers start in different locations--with the dog, at the jump, on the landing side of the jump. And I added a twist--everyone had to throw a toy forward to encourage the dog to drive ahead. We've been working with toys in a haphazard fashion but I figured it was time to increase the training pressure and require every handler to use them.

The handlers were quite interested in my bunny fur tug-n-treat, so a few weeks ago I ordered some of those along with some other fun tugs and toys from Clean Run to sell to them. Imagine the excitement of the dogs, who are just starting to figure out this agility game, when confronted with one of those very high value toys! They were all mad for their new toys! Even Webster, who will drop a toy for food, wouldn't drop his new tug-n-treat bear, no how, no way.

For the dogs who have issues returning toys to their handlers (I am all in favor of a good victory lap but if it happens every single time you throw the toy, all learning is lost), I brought some nylon rope to make tethers for the toys. So now the novice handlers had to manage the dog while not running into the jumps and wrestling with six feet of rope tied to a toy that they have to throw at precisely the moment the dog commits to the jump (too soon and it's a lure, too late and you really aren't rewarding what you want to reward).

After having them work one jump, I set up two, then quickly progressed to three in a row with the handlers working the jumps first off their left, then again off their right. The dogs were sailing! It was fabulous to see how excited everyone was!

Our experiment in training weaves using the 2x2 method took a big leap forward too. We haven't been progressing terribly quickly but this week we did at last make it to the step where you have two sets of 2 poles rotated at 2 and 8 o'clock, set about 10-15 feet apart. I was frustrated at our lack of progress in the weave training and figured that if we could get the handlers used to throwing toys and the dogs used to driving forward that we might be able to get out of our rut. And it worked exactly as I hoped it would! After some warm up on one set of 2 poles, the dogs rapidly progressed to driving forward through two sets of 2 poles with the handlers working both left and right sides.

Running this class has been exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. I see so much talent and promise but with only one class a week and no access to equipment or a space to practice in (like me, some of the participants don't even have yards), our progress is slow. I've had to dial back some of my larger expectations but every week I am amazed at the new skills that the dogs and handlers display.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 7

This week I decided to raise the bar fairly high on our little group of handlers. I set up a sequence using three jumps and a tunnel such that they would be forced to use a lead out and a front cross in order to be successful. MH and I set out cones 1-4 and told them to "walk the course" and figure out what they needed to do.

My goodness, there was much discussion amongst them about what to do, but in the end, to my great pleasure, they did figure out that they needed to do a front cross after the second jump. I gave them some tips and let them walk it again.

I know that many of you in North America look at these photos and think, well, that's kind of a yawn: I've put in this post some pictures of handlers walking a course. How dynamic can that possibly be? But please, do not ever forget that you are seeing pictures of very dedicated dog owners who are giving up their precious weekend mornings to come and do Saudi Arabia! I get goosebumps watching them each week. If I'm talking about it after I have a couple of glasses of whine, I might even get a tear or two in my eye. This is a huge achievement, an amazing thing we are doing here.

I've said before, I will do anything for my dogs. Turns out MH will too! She's bringing in half the equipment each week and she works her behind off in support of the class. We meet at 5:15 in the morning in the cold dark and manhandle a couple of hundred pounds of equipment and three dogs down a steep path to the soccer field within the school grounds (in the process, we pass through a security gate manned by a guard wearing a very large sidearm). We unload our carts, then put up 12 mesh panels to block off the fence openings (I custom-made the panels to fit the openings; MH figured out this morning how to put them up with only two clips each, saving one of us a trip to town to buy more; you say, pssh, why not just drive to town and get more? well, we can't drive to town, and the expedition to go buy more clips might take 2-3 hours with the various buses and taxis and store closures during prayer times; are you willing to give up one of your evenings after work to do that?). We set up the student part of the course then lay out the remaining equipment around that so that we can goof around with our dogs for a good 45 minutes before class begins.

So without further ado, here are the photos from today's class.

MH goofing with one of her dogs.

More goofing. She probably has some good pictures of me and Mimi. MH and I highly value this time in which we get to work our own dogs, practicing half-remembered handling moves.

Brr!! It was 48F this morning with a stiff northerly wind. For KSA in early December, that's cold!

Walking and discussing. The sequence was jump 1-jump 2-tunnel 3-jump 4. The arrangement forced them to start with the dog on their left, then FC after jump 2 and handle the rest off their right.

More walking and discussing. MH and I didn't intervene for quite a while, just walked around and took pictures! A side story to this photo is that I required everyone taking the class to show up with a crate. There was a fair bit of resistance at first as few people here use crates. But I held firm, holding in the back of my mind this vision of handlers walking a course. That is only possible if your dog is safely stashed in a crate.

More walking. Think this is a dumb picture? This photo was taken at 0650 hours on December 1, 2011, in SAUDI ARABIA!

JH and her elderly terrier mix Aris. Look at that fabulous fluffy tail! He gets quite a bit of air over those bars and can easily jump 4" despite having a bum hip, but we don't want to tire him out. So it's bars on the ground for Aris!

Okay, this week I put in THREE pictures of C and her miniature dachshund Webster, but that is because I managed to get some amazing shots of them and because he's so damned cute! His legs are not even 2" long so he jumps bars on the ground. C has already rewarded him for coming to the correct side of the FC and now she is running the full sequence. Having completed the FC, she is sending him into the tunnel. Look at that inside hand indicating the next obstacle!! Look at her body position!! Seriously, readers, tears in my eyes as I post this!

Sometimes our green dogs need a bit of help at the start line. Rather than train that in class, MH and I just hold them. I took this over Webster's head as his mom C was leading out to the second jump.

It's amazing that I managed to capture this shot. Now we have the handlers running the sequence in reverse--jump-tunnel-jump-jump--but a FC is still required! Diabolical! C is throwing the toy forward over the next jump as Webster is driving forward. Readers: this occurred this morning in SAUDI ARABIA!
PM and her lab Nellie heading for the start line.

Reward time! Get that tug! MH in the foreground bundled up because it was cold here this morning!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 6

On Thursday, the Dhahran agility class met for the sixth time. It was probably our best class yet.

After dragging all of the equipment from our cars to the field (with careful stacking and use of bungees, we have improved our transport efficiency to one dolly trip each and one dog trip each), MH and I started talking about what we wanted to do that week. I said, I want them to do another short sequence using the two tunnels, perhaps jump-tunnel-jump-tunnel-jump. Michelle suggested instead that we put the two tunnels adjacent to each other and start with them. Our goal would be to get the dogs and handlers motivated and running fast. I thought that sounded like a great idea.

So we set one tunnel up in a J-shape, often easier for a novice dog to negotiate than a C-shape, and the other as a straight tunnel with about 16 feet between them. We had the handlers line up and ran them through very quickly. Most of the dogs were driving for the first tunnel and heading right for the second to the surprise of their handlers who were often hard pressed to get to the end at the same time as their dogs. We encouraged people to throw toys and treat containers to help the dogs go on.

Then we added a jump at each end, before the first tunnel and after the second one. We have dogs of all sizes and we have to change jump heights a lot. The beauty of this setup was that MH could be at one end and I could be at the other assisting as needed.

I had to hold the dogs at the start line for the first couple of times through because we had some handler chatter and arm-flailing that needed some correction, but the handlers and dogs quickly got into the groove. They progressed so quickly and successfully that we added a second jump at the beginning and the end--now we had six obstacles for them to do. The whole sequence formed a smooth arc across the field.

I got goosebumps watching handler after handler approach the first jump, remove the lead, set their dog up at the start, lead out past both jumps to the tunnel (with their back to the dog), stop and look over their shoulder, hold out the hand closest to the dog, and calmly release their dog to the tunnel as they took off down the was as close to the real thing as I could ever hope for and quite an achievement in just six weeks. They looked so confident and their dogs were so enthusiastic about "doing it again"--exactly what I was hoping to achieve with this class.

I've already arranged with Community Education to teach the class again in the next session (late January-March), and I've invited two of my current basic obedience participants who have shown exceptional promise to join us. A particularly unique challenge of teaching agility in Dhahran is the difficulty in creating continuity and improving skill levels from week to week when people are out on leave so much. In ten weeks, most people might attend only five or six times and rarely in succession. Still, MH and I think that all of the time and effort are more than worth it!

Raining Early in the Eastern Province

It's not often that my desktop weather gidget (gadget + widget) looks like this:

That's right! It's raining! Water droplets falling from clouds (they are pretty dusty droplets but let's not quibble over details)!

Last Monday as I went out with the dogs for their 4am walk, I looked to the west and saw huge streaks of vertical lightening. The rumble of the thunder was just at the limit of my hearing (but Mimi sure could hear it and was not happy about it). The system was many tens of kilometers away and I thought no more about it.

The weather patterns here are interesting in part because there are no permanent lakes or rivers that can provide moisture to storm systems and generally speaking, the Arabian Plate doesn't have a lot of topography which exerts a strong influence on the formation and movement of storm systems. Storm systems thus tend to be localized over relatively small areas. Rainfall can be violent but is usually brief. Even the presence of clouds is a bit unusual because it is normally too dry for clouds to stay around for long. So I saw the clouds to the west and thought, it might rain out there today but we probably won't see anything here.

It turns out that the weather system was larger than I realized. It passed through Dhahran later that afternoon as a dust front and was followed by three days of the most gloriously clear and cold weather. Sweatshirts! Long pants! Throw open the windows and let the hovel air out! It gets that cool for only a few weeks out of the year, usually in January, which is also the time it typically rains, so this weather was a welcome surprise.

I could tell last night that it was warming up again--back to shorts and Tshirts when walking the dogs (in contrast to some Brits and most of the Saudis and Asians who bundle up like they have to face Arctic conditions whenever the temps are below 70F). So I was pleasantly surprised to see more clouds this morning right overhead.

The rain started as I was driving to work--and five hours later it is still raining! You could almost convince yourself that winter is just around the corner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 5

This week I thought it might be fun to give you some idea of what is required to make this agility class a reality.

First, I want to give a gigantic thanks and thumbs-up and bow of respect to my co-instructor MH. She has thrown herself completely into this agility teaching gig . Frankly, I couldn't have made it work without her.

We have now reached the stage where we have enough gear that it takes three trips from car park to soccer field, each of us manhandling a dolly precariously stacked with awkwardly shaped loads. It is all made harder by the fact that the security gate we use to enter school grounds is about 20 feet higher in elevation than the soccer field.

It is still dark here at 5:30 in the morning. Class equipment dumped in the soccer field. Jumps are made entirely of PVC with J&J Dog metal jump cup strips attached. I put as much stuff as I can into duffels for easier transport.

But it isn't simply a matter of driving up somewhere and we are done. All of the class equipment has to be loaded into our cars the night before and unloaded each class meeting. The soccer field is about 100 yards from the car park. We are now meeting at 5:15 am to do the gear-dragging so that we have about 20 minutes for transport, 20 minutes to set up the field, leaving about 25 minutes to work our own dogs before the first participants show up at 6:30 am when class begins. And to make all of that happen, I have to get up at 3:00 am on my weekend morning. Pretty brutal.

To complicate matters, the soccer field is enclosed with a fence but it has 12 permanent openings. I made mesh panels that can be clipped over each opening to give us a practice space that is sort of secure. It takes between 3 and 4 clips per opening to attach the panels. The field is 390 feet long and 150 feet wide and the openings are distributed around the perimeter so clipping up the panels before class and taking them down afterwards is a significant time commitment.

Moving to the grassy field was the impetus for us to introduce weaves this week. We are using Susan Garrett's 2x2 method (and MH's three sets of 2x2s). Even in the first lesson, and considering that we are not training handlers or dogs who will ever see competition agility, we saw some great success.

View of the field this week. You can see MH and her PWDs and the silver mesh shade we put over our three dog crates in the background. Looks kind of like real agility, doesn't it? In fact, this photo seems pretty tame until you remember that it was taken in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia!

When I Travel

Lots of people both in the US and in KSA ask me what I do with the dogs when travel. The short answer is that I have my houseboy stay at my place with them.

I've never tested the pH of dog spit but I strongly doubt that it is a median 7.0 pH. Caustic or acidic, dog spit dissolves dog toys. Before every trip out, I sweep the house and make a grand event of washing all stiff, stinky, or otherwise treasured toys. Then they get tossed into the dryer. This is a photo of the finished product: clean, dry, fluffy, almost-like-new dog toys. I've found that they last much longer with a regular wash.
I was extremely reluctant to adopt that apparently pejorative term when I first arrived in KSA, but pejorative is in the eye of the beholder. Like feminists who want to reclaim ownership of the very old word cunt or gay men who want to invest fag with a meaning that they define and control, the word "houseboy" can make some KSA newbies uncomfortable. "Domestic help" sounds so much more sanitary, right? But such semantic gymnastics don't change the reality--lots of people who live in KSA, Saudis and expats like, use other non-Saudi expats in a variety of functions: gardener, house cleaner, maid, cook, baby sitter, etc.

My houseboy is named Upul. He is from Sri Lanka. Upul is a Christian (probably Catholic but I never probed that far). He is one of the few houseboys who is willing  and able to handle dogs.

I am fortunate beyond measure to have found Upul because as far as my dogs and cat are concerned, Upul walks on water. Upul hung the moon. Fun and joy begin when Upul shows up. I get to witness this firsthand every Friday when Upul comes by to get the key and cleaning supplies for my car, which he washes and polishes to a dealership gleam each week. The dogs engage in the usual greeting frenzy but then quickly start bringing him toys.

My dogs are not at all inclined to engage in behaviors for which they don't receive any sort of reinforcement, so the fact that they bring him toys as soon as he appears is fairly telling. Upul immediately engages in tug with Harry, accompanied with plenty of growling, and fetch with Mimi.

Upul told me a very interesting story when I got back from my last trip.                                       He told me that after he packed up his things on Friday morning in expectation of my return Friday evening, every time he and the dogs came back in the house, Mimi ran around the place looking

This is a remarkable stor y on many levels. First, it is pretty clear evidence that the dogs don't miss me too much when I'm gone. But second, Mimi is smart enough to know that when Upul leaves (as indicated by him packing his things), I am returning soon. And third, Upul is observant enough to notice her behavior!

Mimi, Harry, and Upul.
 I am extraordinarily lucky to have someone like Upul who cares for my crazy terriers and my silly Saudi cat as much as I do.

Flyball! (appendix)

Here are some photos that I wasn't able to muster at the time of the original post.

Kim and Stella with Lauren's back and Duwain's headless body. These photos are out of focus and very dull because we can't use a flash during racing.

Lauren and Ryp and Duwain, generous owner of flyball whore Eris.

Karl Ruetz's back (he is so dedicated to flyball that he went through all of the training to become a judge!), Danielle and Makena, Valeria and Steve (box loader extraordinaire), and Alyssa and Mika.

My coach's notes for the A and B teams, respectively. The circled numbers are the race numbers. The columned numbers are the passes in feet (W is wide, AJ is around jump) and the numbers below the total line are the total race time in seconds with W (win) or L (loss) indicated. The notes are crumpled up from being alternately crammed in my pockets and yanked out to record results.

DR! races for the two-day tournament. This little scrap of paper looks a bit beat on because I carried it in my pocket all weekend, pulling it out frequently to check on what team was coming up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The heady mixture of dog hair, dog pee, fritos, doughnut sprinkles, half-drunk sodas, dregs of wine from the night before and dregs of coffee from this morning...the cacophany of dogs on the edge of meltdown and people taking a game we play with dogs far too seriously (and themselves too often on the edge of meltdown), the shriek of the judge's whistle, the snap of the box ejecting a tennis must be flyball!

It was a real stroke of luck that my November leave, timed to take place during the Muslim eid holiday when Aramco is closed, coincided with the flyball tournament hosted by my old club Dogz Rule!, about whom I have written many posts. The lovely Bell County Expo Center in Belton, Texas, located about 60 miles north of Austin, is a perfect venue for running flyball.

This is a good point to clearly state for the record that I flew halfway around the world just to go to a flyball tournament (literally halfway around the world, because I traveled about 12,900 km and the diameter of the earth is 12,750 km!).

When I told DR! that I could come help with the tournament, I expected the club to ask me to help with scoring. That's not a high profile job but a properly run score table is critical to running a flyball tournament; a typical tournament has multiple divisions containing four or five teams each, up to six dogs on each team, and multiple judges, all of which is organized and managed from the score table. I would have been happy to sit at the score table and in between recording scores and printing race results, watch the racing all weekend.

But to my complete amazement, when I showed up I was listed as coach or pass caller for all three DR! teams! I immediately demurred on pass calling. That's a skill that takes regular practice to do well and I've not practiced it for two years. So I ended up as coach. For three teams!

I have to confess that I harbored a secret hope that DR! would ask me to coach their C team. I coached that team for most of the time I was with DR! The C team is a team for green dogs who are testing their tournament readiness, older dogs who may be slowing down a bit, dogs who may not be able to run an entire weekend. Unlike the A or B teams which have relatively fixed line ups, the C team always went in with a second goal (besides winning, of course): to give all six dogs as much mat time as possible (only four run in any given race so there is lots of lineup juggling). The dogs assigned to the C team changed from tournament to tournament making it quite a challenge to coach! But I'm proud to brag that we usually finished first or second in our division. Sure, sure, the dogs and handlers were doing all the work, but I like to think I had a little tiny bit to do with it! The C team may not have set world time records but getting good passes and clean runs were often far more exciting for all involved.

So I was utterly thrilled that I not only had an opportunity to coach them again, but I was also going to be working with the A and B teams as well. I couldn't believe that DR! had that much faith in me.

But wait, there's more! DR! whipped out some club Tshirts--can't do flyball unless one is properly attired in club colors and logo. One of them was even an old shirt that I donated to the club when I left!

Finally, in an act of incredible generosity, Duwain offered to let me run his beautiful red BC Eris (as in goddess of discord). Eris was on the amazing team (the "well oiled machine") that took Harry all the way to his ONYX title at his last flyball tournament in August of 2009. She is lean, barky, and utterly obsessed by flyball, so consumed by the game that she will run for anybody, a charming behavior flaw. I didn't get to run Eris in just one or two races, I ran her all weekend long. I didn't do much coaching for the C team after all!

Rrrreeeeaaaaaadddyyyyy! Loud, barky dogs like Eris (and Harry in his day) are often useful in getting other dogs revved up. We are just inches away from the start dog.

I know for sure that I would probably have ended up in a corner at least once that weekend with tears in my eyes because I was missing my fabulous boy Harry, who lived for flyball. But because I was able to regularly put my hands on a dog, a bucking, leaping, excited, barking dog and work the passes and run up and down the lane with my team, the weekend felt exactly like it was supposed to.

I've written before about the strange sport of flyball, how it draws groups of disparate people together with a common love of dogs and a bit of a competitive streak (and in the case of DR!, a propensity for foul language and starting on the wine a couple of hours after lunch, excepting the Ruetz family, who have stuck with DR! through thick and thin even though they don't engage in ANY of these questionable behaviors), and how the social aspect of the sport has as much appeal for the humans as the tennis ball part of it does for the dogs. That really struck me again as DR! members, both new and old, welcomed me back, well, like I was part of the family. And several other people from other clubs came up to me that weekend and said, hey, I noticed you've been gone. When I explained that I had been gone, that I was just in for a visit, to my surprise they all said, well, it's really good to see you here. Many dog sport communities are like this, and NAFA Region 5 flyball clubs are no exception.

After it was all over, Kim casually mentioned that it was as if I hadn't ever left. It meant a lot to me that she felt that way. It meant a lot that Duwain trusted me with his beautiful but crazy dog. It meant a lot that the club had enough patience to let me stalk up and down the lane yelling at everybody all weekend.

Get it! (No, I have no fingers on my right hand, apparently.)

Dog friends have been my truest friends over the years, and DR! folks are some of the best friends anyone could hope to find.

Intertubes Wildlife

There is some really crazy stuff out there on the intertubes. To wit.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I'm taking a short trip out of the Kingdom. In the name of opsec, I'll wait until I return to post details.

What is opsec? Well, I listen to the radio a lot, and one of the four English-language radio stations we get here in the Eastern Province is AFNR, Armed Forces Network Radio. They run military-themed PSAs all the time, including some about opsec, or operations security. No reason that we non-military expats shouldn't apply some of the same common sense as we move about in this unsettled part of the world. No, no, nothing is near a tipping point yet, at least in KSA. But sadly, the people who live in this particular region of the world are prone to regularly making their own tipping points. Ignorance, fanaticism, money, water, awkward algebra for power.

But back to the hiatus...those of you whom I plan to see shortly, you know who you are!

Friday, October 28, 2011


I changed the blog photo (see right). Among the dogs' favorite weekend activities are the many opportunities to soak up rays on the patio. Harry in particular likes to warm his old bones in the sun.

I always put out two dog beds, plenty of room. And it never fails that when I look out the window to check on them, the dogs are crammed together on just one bed.

They are always touching, always in contact. It is so amazing to me that two toy-obsessed, territorial, guardy smooth fox terriers can be so relaxed in each other's company.

Agility in KSA Week 4

This was by far our most exciting class yet. I realized after last week that the dogs weren't ready to commit to obstacles and that I probably rushed them into that first sequence (yeah, I'm feeling my way through this; cut me some slack). Yet in some ways that stumbling success we had with the jump-tunnel-jump sequence gave them a tiny taste of what agility could be like. So they came back for more this week and I was better prepared.

MH and I meet early--she helps me unload my car and set up the equipment and then we work our dogs in our own small private class for a good 45 minutes before the first handler shows up for class. MH uses a handling style suitable for the NADAC venues that she trialed in--she prefers to stay almost entirely outside the course and handle from a distance with "switch" and "out" commands. I show her the Derrett handling system but I'm not sure I've convinced her yet that it is a more reliable system for getting your dog around the course faster! I never competed in NADAC so it's interesting to see how the different course styles shape handling styles. I prefer to run with my dog because I feel more connected to her and of course the Derrett method emphasizes and even requires that connection between dog and handler. Even so, NADAC-style handling works for some handlers and dogs--the beauty of agility is that it accommodates us all. But back to class!

This week, I decided to have the handlers do some progressive send drills with a single straight tunnel and then a single jump. I had them start at the tunnel exit and call the dog through. Then I had them move 3 feet back and give the dog the tunnel command and run forward to meet the dog beyond the exit. Then I had them start at the tunnel midpoint. Finally, I had them start back with the dog, first running to meet the dog beyond the exit, then stopping halfway and calling the dog as they were exiting so the dog came around to meet them. They had to do all of this on both left and right sides. And for the final drill (calling the dog as it exited the tunnel), I made it harder by forcing the handlers to start working their start-line stays so that MH and I can be gradually removed from the picture. These were fast, physically active drills that wildly exceeded our expectations! MH and I are proud and amazed and excited by this small agility revolution happening before our very eyes!

I am waiting for some video--and I will post plenty this time because these drills were so wonderfully successful. In the meantime, here are the usual still shots I manage to sneak in with my camera. When I look at these pictures, I see one very important thing: the big smiles on everyone's faces.

PM and Nellie--you can just see the tip of Nellie's tail as she runs into the tunnel.

Our tiny star Webster and his mom C. He may be small but he's a real dynamo!

Kris and Kanga. He gives all of her commands in Polish but I think she has no problem understanding what she needs to do! MH grinning in the background.

JH and her "old" dog Aris. You can see how he drops that right hip just a bit but it doesn't affect his enthusiasm at all. I love her expression in this photo--no wonder he's so happy!

Chris and Beau. What a change from last week! There's no other way to describe it: Beau is diving into the tunnel!

And speaking of progress, Mr. B played his "I'm a sensitive, anxious dog, don't make me touch that scary tunnel" with me just once too much. MW was holding a veritable plate of hot dogs out to him...and he just wouldn't go in the tunnel. So I picked him up with an arm around his chest and sort of pushed/set him in the tunnel, which was smushed up to all of 4 feet long at this point, hardly a major trek. I was gentle of course, but to our utter amazement, he walked right on through to mom and the hot dogs. So we lengthened the tunnel and I pushed him in a few more times. By the second set of drills, I was able to hold his lead and at most sort of guide his head into the tunnel...and through he went! No trauma, no drama, MW was ecstatic, and I'm pleased that it all went off so smoothly at last. Sorry, I don't have any photos of this tiny miracle but I'll bet that some video will be coming soon!

No, I don't think I want to go in there, thanks. Mr. B and MW before the intervention.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Said That I Wouldn't...

post anymore on local politics and culture. I suppose I should amend that to say, I won't comment on local subjects anymore. But this op-ed piece by Mai Yamani in Al Jazeera is a fascinating read. We expats are all talking about this.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


A cold front rolled into the Eastern Province on the heels of the sand and dust this weekend. When I took the dogs out for their walk this morning, it was 66 F! I actually put on a sweatshirt.

Now I would be the first to tell you that 66 F is hardly sweatshirt weather, and I am aware that 66 F hardly represents a "cold front" for most of you. But no matter where you live, that first cold spell at the end of the year always feels colder than it really is. Your body isn't prepared for it--it was 100 F here on Friday afternoon, we are all still in summer mode (hats, sunscreen, water bottles, etc.).

What is missing from this lovely weather are the many smells that a westerner would associate with autumn: wood smoke; the dry, dusty smell of fallen leaves; holiday baking and roasting; the cedar chest scent that clings to the first wool sweater you haul out to wear.

When I was thinking about autumn smells, it occurred to me that there are oddly few environmental odors here, and even fewer that we can associate with the seasons. The folks who live in Ras Tanura can smell the damp salt smell of the Arabian Gulf every day but back in Dhahran there isn't much to smell. Sure, it can get kind of stinky in Khobar and the back side of the commissary isn't very nice, but those smells are there year-round.

All our lizard brains have to go on to tell us that the seasons, they are a'changin, are the temperature and the length of day. And my lizard brain is telling me to put a blanket on the bed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 3

I've got 90 minutes of video from yesterday's class to wade through! Definitely some great footage of the dogs and handlers. But I've been feeling kind of crummy for several days--the weather changed and we've had strong winds from the northwest blowing sand and dust around so my sinuses are now officially on strike. On top of that I've been fighting an intestinal bug that's been going around. I have steamed snow peas and rice waiting for me; after I eat some, I'll probably head off to bed early. So you will have to be content with still photos again.

MH and I introduced the handlers to their first sequence, the classic jump-tunnel-jump. I even put up cones although they are hardly necessary for only three obstacles! Somehow the cones make it look a bit more like the real thing. I was really surprised at how hard it was to get the handlers to cross the plane of the second jump, that is, to continue forward and reward their dogs on the other side. The handlers kept stopping right before the second jump--and of course the dogs did too. But this is a First Ever for all of us, me for instructing and them for doing, so we are all learning new things. I'll explain the exercise differently next time.

After we had them do the basic sequence on both sides a few times each, we had them do it again with a front cross before the second jump. They are definitely getting smoother and faster with their footwork and timing. 

It's been quite a while since I had to train the basics and I'll admit that I need to back up a bit next week and work them on drills for sending to jumps and tunnels. But despite the steep learning curve we are all on, everyone seems to be having a great time. And I always have to keep that primary goal in mind!

I just want to thank all of you blog readers for sharing the news of our agility adventure with your friends. The page views of the first post are setting records for my blog (not that this is a high traffic site to begin with; it's all relative). But thanks for forwarding the link!

Kris and Kanga. They were absent last week so we had her work on a straight tunnel instead of a curved one. Notice that the bar is set low. The surface is rubberized but still a bit too stiff so all of the dogs jump very low bars.

PM and her crazy lab Nellie. Later in the class, Nellie got the zoomies, dived under the mesh we have clipped up on the openings of the area we are in (admittedly, the mesh really isn't intended to stop a determined dog, and it didn't), and continued her zoomies in the larger school grounds. There's always one in every class! Nellie was collected in good order however.

MW and her shepherd mix Boodle. MH is patiently holding his leash. Mr. B (as I have nicknamed him) is an anxious dog who is very cautious around new scary plastic tunnels. He just doesn't want to put his feet in there. But this picture represents a huge success over the first week: Boodle actually put his head and shoulders in the tunnel. I've loaned MW my second tunnel so she can continue Mr. B's desensitization at home during the week.

This is Chris and his gorgeous standard poodle Beau. You can tell that they are both into this exercise!

J and her terrier mix Aris, who is 10 years old and has a bit of a bum hip. She was completely unprepared for his speed out of the tunnel, but adjusted quickly! J was a bit worried about her little old guy when I invited her to sign up for the class. She didn't think he would run. Well, he hops over the bars like a pup, reads her turns like a seasoned champ, and walks around during class like he owns the place.

Another picture of Chris and Beau. MH grinning in the background. I have to constantly remind my basic obedience folks to praise their dogs but the handlers in the agility class are much more proactive. Chris poked around on the internet, found a recipe, and made some fabulous little cheesy treat bites--brought baggies of them for everyone in the class! You can tell that Beau found them well worth working for.

I wanted MW to be able to practice the front cross footwork for this exercise and since Mr. B is not doing the tunnel yet, I loaned her Mimi. Here, MW isn't crossing the plane of the jump so Mimi correctly interpreted her body language to mean that she should wrap the jump. What a beautiful tight turn my little terrier can make!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Relaxing in the Kitchen

In addition to the agility class, I'm teaching two sessions of the basic obedience class, one here in Dhahran on Thursday afternoons and one in Ras Tanura on Fridays. We had our third agility class meeting this morning and we have a ton of video and photos as a result of having a dedicated videographer (MH's husband, who gave up his usual Thursday morning to do this for us). But I am feeling a bit saturated tonight with dogs and dog training (the basic obedience class today was particularly engaging and tiring) so I'm going to post instead about relaxing in the kitchen.

I am quite capable of zoning out on the couch while watching a movie (I rarely watch sitcoms and never watch reality shows---big yawn). I much prefer relaxing on the couch with a good book (more and more these days it is an ebook although I still ready plenty of the old-fashioned tree-killing variety). But above all, I find that I unwind and relax most often in the kitchen.

It's sad that I'm stuck with the dollhouse kitchen in my hovel but I've learned to make do with everything else and the kitchen is no exception.

The monthly (or so) making of the dog food is one of my most elaborate kitchen events involving all sorts of equipment and knives and pots and vegetables. Making my whine is important but only sporadically time consuming--dumping yeast, sugar, and grape juice into the 20 L round Gott cooler (customized with a hole in the top and tubing duct-taped in to create a one-way valve) is messy but not that complicated. The big time sink for whine making is the bottling stage. I have to wash and sterilize the bottles a couple of days ahead of time to let them thoroughly dry inside before transferring the precious whine into them. But it doesn't really matter because I look forward to even the most quotidian kitchen tasks.

I have a bit of a weakness for prawns and last weekend bought 2 kilos of fresh ones from the wonderfully expanded, awesomely newly renovated Tamimi store in Khobar. Two kilos--that's a lot of damned prawns. It took me nearly an hour to clean and devein them all (divided into bags, I promptly froze most of them). It was certainly an hour of hard, messy work--but I found it extremely satisfying. How could you not? Just imagine that giant bowl of fresh, clean prawns ready to go!

My usual kitchen rituals involve making dinner. I love to cook and I love to eat what I cook. If I can't cook, rather than settle for some gross prepared frozen meal, I will eat a bowl of muesli and yogurt instead. And of course I must have a glass of whine or two while making dinner. It is only the cook's due, in my opinion.

In this post, I am sharing my recipe for Mango Chutney. I make this fresh then cook fresh prawns in it or use it as a sauce over grilled hammour (which is what I am going to have for dinner tonight). It also works well as a dressing on top of greens or rice served with grilled lamb (look, I live in Saudi Arabia; everything goes well with lamb). For you purists out there, I am perfectly aware this isn't the same sort of gummy spicey stuff you get in jars at the store; this is more of a "field" version of chutney).

Mango Chutney
  • Wash, peel, and coarsely dice a large onion. Put in saucepan with olive oil.
  • Peel and dice several large cloves of garlic. Set aside.
  • Wash, peel, dice one or two large mangos. Ripe ones are sweeter but even unripe sour ones are okay to use here.  Set aside.
  • Wash, peel, and dice about a thumb's worth of fresh ginger. Set aside. 
  • Gently saute onion over low to medium heat. Stir frequently. When the onion begins to turn clear, add the garlic, mango, and ginger. Add to taste salt, black pepper, and curry powder. You can add a bay leaf too but this is not critical. If you are feeling frisky, toss in some dried red chili pepper flakes (I always do). 
  • If you don't have real curry powder, you can use a mixture of turmeric (3/4) and cinnamon (1/4). If you use a commercial curry powder, make sure it doesn't already have salt in it. If it does, don't buy that kind again and don't add extra salt. You can also use powdered ginger instead of fresh (add about 50% more volume if you go with powdered ginger).
  • You will probably need to add 1/4 to 1/2 cup water if this mixture looks dry or sticky (which it will if you add a lot of powdered spices). Add the water in small volumes until the mixture looks smooth but not runny.
  • If you used sour not-quite-ripe mangoes, add 2 tablespoons of honey. 
  • Optional: wash, peel, and separate a tangelo or tangerine (remove seeds and white stringy bits from each piece). Add the pieces with the mango. 
  • Optional: instead of honey, dice some dates (remove pit) and add with the mango. You can add dates even if you use ripe mangos. Yum!
  • Optional: squeeze a lime into the pan. Lime and mango were made to go together.
  • Stir well. 
  • Reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until the mango pieces just begin to fall apart. Add water if needed.

If you want to use this with prawns, add them a couple of minutes after the spices. If you want to use the chutney as a dressing for grilled fish or meat, cook it completely, remove from heat, and cover until ready to serve with the main dish (the flavors improve with the sitting anyway). You can easily "perk" it up with a tablespoon or two of water added over very low heat and a bit of stirring.