Monday, June 27, 2011

Another Busy Day at T3i


T3i received a big shipment yesterday. This one was particularly smelly because of the bull pizzles and tracheas tucked in along with toys and beds. Perhaps that's why Saudi customs didn't open it...? Harry and Mimi are helping me unpack.

Harry gets down to business quickly. This is a cool toy--a plush cover for a plastic bottle. The SFTs can't resist any toy if there is plush involved. Plus it makes such an interesting crackly noise!

Thorough testing procedures are always observed at T3i. Mimi is now working on the plastic bottle while Harry is taking a turn at the gigantic squeaking, honking, furry raccoon. He is in his favorite position, draped across a dog bed with his hind legs out behind him.

Mimi, I mean, tested, and tested and tested and took notes then tested some more--and she actually wore herself out. This is a very rare photo: Mimi nodding off due to exhaustion.

The production line of untested toys is full! T3i will be busy for months.

Tsingy has been put on the payroll at T3i as a specialized consultant. Here she is modeling a teal cave bed. Work it, girlie!

Proper product testing is hard work!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


For most of May and June, the weather has been fairly nice. That's a relative evaluation of course. It's been extremely dry with dust storms every couple of days. Sometimes so much dust fell out of the sky when the wind died down at night that dust drifts collected in the corners of the windshield of my car. So the dust was a problem, but the temperatures were bearable: highs around 104F and lows around 81F. That's a pleasant temperature to start the day with. You might almost consider this spring weather here in the Eastern Province. Almost.

But two days ago, summer arrived with ferocity. Temperatures soared up to around 114F and for the past two nights the lows were only 94F. It doesn't drop below 100F until after 9pm, causing great difficulties for me and the dogs since, as a rule, I won't walk Harry until the temperature is below 100F. Forget playing ball or visiting the jebels. It's about all we can do to make it around our "short" route, about 20 minutes. Upul reports lunch time mutinies: neither dog wants to do more than pee then go back inside.

And the wind is still with us, blowing stronger than ever. You know the blast of heat you get when you open your oven to check on something baking inside? It feels like that here except it's like that everywhere, not just in front of your oven. It feels like we are living inside of a furnace. Insert as many hell metaphors here as you see fit.

About the only good thing you could say about the change in weather is that it is still extremely dry.

Expats live in Dhahran in housing provided by Aramco. There are pages and pages of rules restricting what kind of house you are allowed to live in or bid on based on your grade code, describing what you can and can't do to it, and so forth. For this privilege, we pay token rent. I pay around USD 120 per month for my hovel. We don't pay for water (such as it is) or electricity or local phone service.

We also get access to a 24-hour service center staffed with hundreds of small brown men from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines who will deal with any maintenance issue no matter how small or how critical. Can't reach that burned out bulb in the stairwell? Call the service center. Washing machine stopped working mid-cycle? Call the service center.

And most importantly, if your A/C goes out, you call the service center...and they have someone at your house in minutes. Aramco takes A/C very seriously. You probably don't even get that kind of response to house fires in the US. This in fact happened to me last weekend. Turns out the motor in my cooling unit burned out. I have no idea how the logistics works but these guys travel with spare parts for the dozen different A/C models around camp, tanks of coolant and compressed air, new filters, etc. They are like some sort of A/C SWAT team ready at a moment's notice to fix all A/C crises. They were at my hovel, had the motor replaced, and cool air again blowing all in about 30 minutes.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Et Voila!

After a bit of flailing, I am pleased to show you the label design for my adult beverage products:

I have variations for Vin Rouge, Vin Blanc, Bière, and Pétillement (sparkler), the four types of beverages that I regularly make. And I do have to say that the quality of all four is constantly improving. Two French consultants drank almost 1.5 liters of my latest batch of beer last night--infused with ginger and hops with a lovely orange-red color, they decided to call that batch "Kilkenny Red"! And my cranberry preserve red? Totally awesome and dubbed by my French friends as being very similar to a decent "Beaujolais Nouveau." Both are definitely recipes to repeat. (I keep detailed notes on every batch.)

Apologies to DSL, but "Bonjour Gendarmerie!" turned out to be too subtle of a private joke and too difficult of a design project for my limited Photoshop skills to be turned into a label.

I wanted a distinctive label but one that couldn't be used to directly identify me, as I plan to start taking bottles to parties, book club meetings, etc. A dog theme offered lots of possibilities but my own dogs are too unique in appearance for me to use them as models. I found this image on CuteOverload--and I came up with "Le Point" as soon as I saw it.

I like the play on words. "Point" means period or point or dot or specific location in French, and ties into the visual image of the puppy's head peeking out, but "the point" in English has an additional meaning: purpose. After all, what is the purpose of going to all the trouble to make this stuff in the first place?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse

An event that isn't making many waves in the voracious US news cycle is the total lunar eclipse that will occur tonight. We will be able to see the entire event in Saudi Arabia. It won't be visible from any location in North America, however. I was surprised to learn that there will be another lunar eclipse and one solar eclipse in 2011.

Who will be able to see the lunar eclipse tonight?

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon's path takes it across the Earth's shadow. It becomes a total eclipse when the lunar path crosses the center of the Earth's shadow. It is going to take the moon nearly two hours to cross out of the plane of the ecliptic. The local religious leaders are urging Muslims to spend that time praying. In contrast, western expats are heading to beaches to dabble our toes in the Arabian Gulf and drink whine with friends. Good thing I bottled a totally awesome batch of red last weekend--I added two jars of natural cranberry preserves during fermentation. The preserves were a bit of a pain to deal with during bottling as the cranberry pulp kept clogging up the tubing parts but my, did they ever contribute to a tasty result.

The path of the moon across the Earth's ecliptic. Times are UT; times of the event in Saudi Arabia are two hours later.

Addendum: The eclipse was fabulous. The moon looked fake, like it belonged in some 6th grader's science project on the Solar System, a styrofoam ball painted pink and purple. Our small group, about a dozen including a couple of kids, passed the binoculars around and around, oohing and aahing. One guy went swimming while the moon was totally blacked out--and as an unexpected surprise, we could see sparkling swirls of bioluminescence around his arms and feet (dinoflagellates, microscopic single-celled animals are the source). It looked like he was making snow angels in the water.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Just Say No

I don't have Facebook or other social networking accounts and, despite regular pressure from friends, I don't plan on ever having them.

There are quite a few reasons for my position. I've posted in the past about my dislike of the solipsistic navel-gazing that these sites seem to foster. My random thoughts aren't very interesting and frankly yours aren't either.

Since those arguments don't seem to be persuasive enough, how about if we couch the entire mess in terms of security and privacy?

Aramco monitors our every keystroke at work. They track which applications people access from work, and the frequency of visits. Just a couple of weeks ago, certain people received an email from Aramco IT telling them to reduce their usage of Facebook, YouTube, and other social networking sites during working hours.

Aramco monitors our surfing, emails, and phone conversations from home too (they own the phone lines that we use). The mobile phone companies report usage stats and provide text content to the Saudi government--no judge's order is required. Like the US government, they have computer algorithms that scan emails, texts, and conversations for certain hot-button words. If you happen to get a little too frisky in your online presence, they sit up and take notice and begin monitoring every single thing you do online. Just last month an expat was terminated--he was given 48 hours to leave the country. He posted some items on Facebook in support of the demonstrations back in March in Bahrain and in KSA. Certainly a very stupid thing to do, but it turns out that isn't why he was fired as initial rumors had suggested. It was those postings, however, that caused Aramco to take a closer look at his online activity. It turns out that he was participating in some rather unsavory things that perhaps would have remained below the radar (apparently had for years) if he had not been so stupid as to use social networking sites in the first place.

As a result of that news, I removed three of my blog posts and will no longer comment about specific political issues in the Gulf region. Big Brother Aramco is always watching. Nothing is private or confidential in this company or this country.

Need more convincing? How about this snip from the warden message that I received from the American consulate this morning:

June 14, 2011

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the Consulate General in Dhahran and the Consulate General in Jeddah request that wardens pass the following message in its entirety to the U.S. citizen community:

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the Consulate General in Dhahran and the Consulate General in Jeddah would like to remind U.S. citizens of the security situation in Saudi Arabia and of recommended security precautions.  The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to consider carefully the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia.  There is an ongoing security threat due to the continued presence of terrorist groups, some affiliated with al Qaida, who may target Western interests, housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas and other facilities where Westerners congregate.  These terrorist groups may employ a wide variety of tactics.  Most recently, al Qa’ida’s central leadership’s media wing, al-Sahab, released a 100-minute documentary calling for extremists to carry out individual “lone-wolf”-styled attacks in western countries, (specifically naming the United States, the UK, and France), and have distributed it widely on jihadist forums and mainstream video sites.

The United States Mission reminds U.S. citizens that publicly available information can be exploited by terrorist groups employing lone-wolf tactics.  Unlike other means of acquiring information on a target, such as surveillance, this type of information gathering requires no training.  The Internet can be used to ascertain biographical data, pictures, and addresses of U.S. citizens. In addition to company and other websites, social media can disclose damaging information. Biographical data is often easy to find. In addition, posting pictures can identify your frequent destinations and acquaintances through tagging. Many social media users also unknowingly post geotagged photos, revealing the exact locations where the pictures were taken. U.S. citizens should remain cautious and vigilant about personal information that is shared publicly, in the best interest of personal security. 

How sophisticated of an internet user are you? Do you know if Facebook or Flickr are geotagging your photos? Using image recognition software to identify people and places in those photos? Do you ever post comments about trips you plan to take and where and when you are going? I've been encouraged by friends to set up a "fake" Facebook account. Do you know the actual identity of every person who can view your Facebook page? Every account is tracked back to a real email somewhere with a real name on it. It doesn't take a superhacker to find that information out, or a genius IQ to set up a sufficiently believable "fake" Facebook account that would allow that person to lurk everywhere. They don't ever need to post, do they? They only need to look at what is being posted.

If you were in my position, would you want to take those kinds of chances?

I thought not.

Just say no.

Monday, June 13, 2011

False Community

There are things, small things in the scheme of things, that simply drive me mad.

When someone at Aramco retires with a really high grade code, Aramco springs for a group luncheon and a departing gift. But when someone retires and their grade code puts them down amongst the ranks of the worker bees, the home department is expected to spring for all of that, including the "masalamah" or departing gift. In the past couple of weeks, I've been nearly bludgeoned by one of our secretaries asking me to contribute to the masalamah gifts for two people who are leaving, two people with whom I never worked directly, two people whom I really don't even know.

I hate the sort of faux-community attitude that underlies those sorts of events. I hate the implied camaraderie. I detest the peer pressure, the assumption that I would go along with this just because I happen to be in the same department.

If that were not annoying enough, this week, I received two emails, sent only to the women in our department, asking me to contribute to the purchase of flowers for two women who were having birthdays.

What is wrong with that, you ask? Why send an email to only the women? Wouldn't some of the men who are friends with those two women want to contribute? That smacks of sexism, yes, sexism from the women, and to be honest, I've slaved for far too long in this industry to put up with that sort of behavior from anybody. Over the years, I've dealt with comments, improper touching, and other much more overt episodes of sexual harassment from male coworkers. I refuse to participate in the very same sort of thing just because it's being arranged by the women.

But here's what really chaps my ass about the flower emails. They didn't buy me flowers for my birthday, nor in fact did anyone, including secretaries who have access to personnel records that would list my birth date, offer me good wishes that day or even that week.

Ah, you say, perhaps if I weren't such a curmudgeon, I'd get flowers at work too? Perhaps, but I reject the very notion in the first place. I work to get a job done, not to run around like a puppy seeking approval and pets from everyone.

That's quite a cynical read on the situation, and you can rightly accuse me of tasting some sour grapes, but why should those two women get flowers and all of the other people in our department get nothing? Do those two women run the show? Are their jobs so mission-critical that tasks become bottle-necked waiting for action from them? Do we sit in meetings with bated breath for their next amazing pronouncements? The answer to all of these is no.

Then again, to receive flowers, is it necessary for someone to be that important? Again, the answer is no.

My larger point is that I am not willing to accept that it is okay to single out anyone to receive these sorts of things, particularly via the method of an email asking one to "donate to the fund."

It is all based on false community. Real pressure to participate in something artificial and awkward.

I'm not buying into any of it.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Harry, Party Animal

"Ma'am, I think the dogs had a party."

That was Upul's opening line when he called me at work yesterday.

Sadly, I knew exactly what he meant. I forgot to put up the baby gate between the living room and kitchen and Harry raided the kitchen trash can. Again. Heel ends of mushy tomatoes, cucumber tips, yogurt cups, snotty kleenexes, cat litter and dog hair sweepings, empty juice cartons, even the red wax rind from a gouda cheese, all either eaten or dragged across the living room while the dogs attempted to extract every tasty molecule. Yes, dogs plural. I know that Harry is the instigator but I have no doubt that Mimi participates fully once the party gets going.

In the US, I used a large steel can with a secure lid but not only are such household goods not available here but I have no room for one anyway.

So I keep the kitchen trash can under the kitchen sink. And Harry figured out how to open the cabinet door--not the door that directly opens onto the trash can, but the other door!

It took him a while to work out the mechanics.

Teeth and claw marks, the result of perhaps half a dozen trash-raiding episodes.

Cabinet door safety clips, you say? Do you really think that Harry would NOT eat his way through that cabinet door if left alone long enough? No, the baby gate is the ultimate solution as long as the weakest link (me) doesn't screw up the execution.

I love my fox terriers. No, really, I do.

A gratuitous pic of Harry, Party Animal, hoping he can entice me into a game of baby.

Another gratuitous pic. I'm not sure why Mimi does this but when I pile the dog beds on the couch so I can vacuum the living room (I'm having guests over tomorrow night), she always climbs up to the most precarious perch possible.     

Thursday, June 02, 2011


I have never been the kind of shopper who is happy to wander around a mall for hours (in fact, I get downright twitchy if I have to do that). It's more my style to figure out what I need, where I can purchase it, and then make a tactically targeted trip to get it. That may sound boring to some of you but it has worked for me for years.

It's hard to employ my beautifully honed system here. For one thing, I don't really know what all those grotty little shops in Khobar sell (well, I do; they mostly sell cheap crap from India and China). And I can't find out unless I am willing to wander the streets. Not only is there no such thing as a telephone directory, but most stores don't even have addresses. Some streets have multiple names (3rd Street is also known as Prince Abdul Aziz ben Abdullah Street), others have no name at all. I've been given business cards that list a shop address as "two blocks from Jarir Bookstore."

Most female expats carry ragged bits of paper with handdrawn maps to one specialty store or another given to them by friend. For example, I carry one showing a route to the Asian grocery where I can get frozen edamame. The major landmarks on that map are the Tamimi grocery store on the Corniche and the note that the storefront of the Asian grocery is "red."

But wandering the streets is too much like wandering in a mall for me (just dirtier and smellier; Khobar doesn't have sewers or even curbs in some places; I keep a separate pair of shoes that I wear when I must walk around Khobar and never wear them in my car or house). Add to that the facts that it was 104F at 11am today and that I must do the wandering sheathed neck to ankle in black polyester, well, let's just say that very little wandering takes place.

I don't even bother shopping for clothing here. Nothing fits and it's all shoddy and ugly. In fact, in a bit of a protest against the utterly stupid culture we have to deal with here, since I am not accorded full human status (no driving, no voting, must cover with the abaya, etc), I spend as little of my money here as possible. I am willing to pay more to ship an item in just to avoid lining the pockets of the Saudis with my money.

But food is something that I must purchase locally. And that confronts one with a whole new set of challenges.

Saudi Arabia imports nearly all of its vegetables from places like India, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, and Pakistan. There are lots of imported dry goods and drinks from the UK. I can even find dry goods imported from the US if I really want them (they are very expensive, 4-10 times the regular price for the same items in the US). Because of the extremely large Asian expat population who are the maids, drivers, gardeners, etc., the fresh vegetables that I can find in the stores are amazingly varied and sometimes even challenging. June is "Mango Madness" month in Lulu--there are bins of more than 50 varieties of mangoes from all over the world, all priced the same so you can just walk along and fill a bag with different mangoes that catch your fancy--green ones, red ones, yellow ones, sweet ones, tangy ones, ones with texture like custard, and so forth. Good thing the dogs and I LOVE mangoes.

I have to go to Bahrain for pork. The Shias in Bahrain are getting restless again; I haven't been there since last fall and have no plans to go this summer. But as long as you can get by without pork (we expats learn to get by without a lot of stuff, actually), you have excellent choices in meat. Lamb from Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Beef from Brazil, US, Australia. For the most part, chicken and eggs are all local. But you can find organic Saudi eggs! And fish, fish, fish from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. The fish counter at Lulu is always 3-4 Filipinos deep fighting over the displays of whole fish that are often more than three feet long. Silver fish, yellow fish, spotted fish, jaws gaping, some with huge teeth. All are extremely fresh (you can tell by their clear moist eyes). Since I can't really deal with whole fish (I find them a bit aggressive and disturbing), I buy my fish already filleted at other stores. Hammour, a firm, white-fleshed fish that comes locally from the Gulf, is one of my favorites. The Saudis love hammour too. You can do anything with it--but grilling is my favorite way of cooking it. Since I love to cook and I am a rather adventurous eater, I also try out all kinds of cool recipes for curries and vegetarian meals.

But if you happen to have a US recipe, you do need to be fairly creative in finding ingredients. For example, in a spring Clean Run magazine there was a very short recipe for dog treats. It called for baby food carrots, baby food chicken, chicken stock, whole wheat flour, and dried parsley. And once mixed the recipe suggested that you use a pastry tip and cone to dot the mixture on your cookie sheet. Sounded like a good recipe worth trying. I still make more than half of the food the dogs eat each day and making treats, as long as the process isn't too complicated, is a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

I trotted off to Lulu this morning on the Aramco shopping bus. Lulu is a hypermarket in Khobar that caters to the Asian expat community. Few Saudis shop there. You mostly wade through Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. First problem: no baby food meats, only fruits and vegetables. Don't Asians feed their babies meats? Apparently not, or at least not in that form. So I headed for the "potted meat" aisle. Lots of choices here--but potted meat is kind of a scary proposition. I watched an Asian woman select a couple of cans of potted chicken so I selected the same ones. Turns out it is kind of firm like Spam but in the food processor I was able to turn it into a smooth paste. Next challenge: dried parsley. I already knew I wouldn't find that but the goal was to find a suitable alternative. My choice: dried mint. It makes the dog treats smell very nice. The final challenge was the pastry tip and cone--no such thing exists here! In fact, I had already decided that a strong plastic freezer bag with the tiniest snip of the tip would work just fine. And in fact it did!

Since shopping in town involves driving my car to a parking lot in camp, taking a shopping bus into town, taking a taxi back to my car on camp, and driving my car back to my hovel, with the necessary multiple shuffles of grocery bags from one hot vehicle to another, a necessary accessory is one of those soft-sided coolers for the meat and yogurt. None of this is straightforward: there are multiple security checks leaving and returning to camp. Traffic can be unpredictable. You wait for the bus. You might have to wait a bit to get a taxi. Lulu is always packed on Thursday mornings so you wait in the check out line. You have to pay the driver (no meters, you have to know what the going rate is, currently SR 30). The entire affair from front door to front door can take more than 3 hours.

Sometimes the commissary selection, limited as it is, looks pretty good.