Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Step Dominatrix Returns!

Erika, whom I've christened the Step Dominatrix for her demanding style in leading her exercises classes, is back! Pregnant with her third kid, she had to gradually back off then completely hand over her classes to a substitute instructor this spring. Then she was out for a month after she actually had the baby. But this Thursday was her first day back! Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depends on the perspective), I chose that day to return to exercise class myself--the Thursday morning "boot camp", an hour and a half of cardio, weight training, balance work, a real grab bag of stuff. Next to step class, it is Erika's signature workout.

And she was in fine form, zipping around to every station, constantly correcting and praising as needed.

I really appreciate her methods. She combines motivation and encouragement with a no-mercy, no-slackers attitude. Of course teaching basic dog obedience is a far cry from delivering an hour-long step workout but a lot of the underlying concepts are the same. A good instructor knows how to combine the carrot and stick to keep students both challenged and successful. I've not managed to find a moment to tell her that, as an instructor myself, I have learned a lot from her, but I think that I need to do that. Everyone likes to be appreciated, even the Step Dominatrix.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Travels: Bordeaux and My Annual Shopping Trip in the US

I'm back home after my annual repat trip. I spent a week in Bordeaux, France, and a week in Virginia. It was a rather frustrating trip because I was sick for the entire two weeks (something I picked up here because I was sick when I stepped off the plane in Paris). I probably should have gone to a doctor while I was in France. But by the time I decided that I needed to do that, I had to head back to Paris and get on a plane. Being stuck on a plane for 8 plus hours breathing dry, recycled air sent my entire system into a complete tailspin (to apply an appropriate metaphor). Couple that with jet lag and you shouldn't be surprised that I spent most of my repat sleeping. It's a very good thing I gave myself three days here in Dhahran before I return to work (tomorrow) because I'm only now starting to feel sort of like myself. So in short, the trip was not exactly the adventure I had hoped to have. But that's the way it goes sometimes.

I was in La Rochelle, located on the southwest Atlantic coast of France in the Bordeaux province. This very old port city with a deep harbor is favored by the French for their summer holidays. Not just the middle class French, either. The Ile de Ré just offshore of La Rochelle attracts French people of considerable wealth. While I was there, I observed only a handful of Brits and no Americans at all (who are unfortunately all too obvious by their manners and dress and speech).

La Rochelle is a very old city. The main streets that extend back from the original harbor are bordered by arch-covered walkways. Based on some literature I picked up there, many of the cobblestones in the streets are original. Can't you just imagine these walkways filled with vendors hawking all sorts of goods? This particular street was no longer part of the tourist commercial center but along other streets the arches were lined with shops and thronged with tourists.

The city was packed to the gills with happy French families enjoying the seashore and the (mostly) sunny weather. The autoroutes from Paris to La Rochelle were clogged with French people on holiday, their cars packed to the roof with bags and people, stacks of bikes on the rear racks, kayaks, tents, and other gear tied to the roof. The French seem to do just fine with their small cars and all that gear--not an SUV to be seen. I was also rather interested in the fact that all of the cars were new or only a couple of years old. With the obvious exception of the slums in the larger cities and some of the rather dismal rural areas, in general France is a relatively prosperous country. It is another interesting factoid that I've encountered in more than one guidebook and website that the French spend their holidays and their money in France. 

Even though the tide was out the morning I took this photo, exposing a rather unlovely muddy shore, this La Rochelle beach was jammed with sun seekers.

I stayed at the Vue sur Cour B&B in La Rochelle. Located in the heart of the old city in a solid old building with a tranquil courtyard, it was perfect for short trips out and about in La Rochelle. Marika was a wonderful hostess, serving up homemade pastries and yogurt in the mornings and helpful tourist advice.

View from my sitting room window into the courtyard at Vue sur Cour.

The Bordeaux countryside is flat farmland. Fields of grass, grain, corn, and to my surprise, sunflowers, stretched as far as one could see.

The green patches are the sunflower fields--hundreds of flowers facing the same direction in each field.
The terrain is a bit more hilly around Bordeaux, which is why it is so perfect for the vineyards.

The famous vineyards of that province are all located around the city of Bordeaux, which is about 200 km south of La Rochelle. I was only able to visit the old medieval town of St. Emilion. Bordeaux itself is one of the larger cities in France with over half a million in population. It looks sleek and prosperous.

St. Emilion is a medieval walled city. Here you can see part of the walls and what was originally a moat.
St. Emilion is built on a bluff of cream colored limestone. The numerous monasteries and convents and churches and shrines on top of the bluff are sharply separated from the secular part of the village at the base. The usual claptrap about a hermit saint, a miracle spring, etc. accompany a large church carved into and under the base of the hillside.
This demon creature was in the corner of an otherwise standard religious painting/fresco inside one of the main churches in St. Emilion.

I stayed with my friend DSL and then my mother while in the US. What did we do? For the most part, shopped for things on my list. It has been almost a year since I was in the US and I needed a large variety of items that I can't get or find here or that I don't want or can't bring in via mail order: underwear, shoes, medicine and supplements. I won't go down the list because that would be pretty boring. But I will say that I traveled out with two suitcases with about half a suitcase of clothes spread between them and returned with, well, you can see for yourself in the photo below.

Harry and Mimi instantly suss out the suitcase containing the dog treats and toys!

Of course I don't go to the US just to go shopping. It was good to visit with friends and family, sharing meals and a good glass of wine or two. But I don't write about everything in the blog!

While at my mother's, I was able to spend time with Bhumi, my Siamese mix cat who almost instantly upon his arrival two years ago became BFF with her 17-year old male cat (I always suspected that Bhumi was gay) and with little Dyna, the sweetest SFT there ever was. She gave me a truly enthusiastic welcome, followed me around the house all week, and deigned to sleep with me at night. She's quite the spoiled princess, as of course she should be.

Bhumi and Freckles taking up residence in the guest room, usually forbidden to them.

Dyna, little sweet pea.

Upul managed to "endure" (as DSL so aptly put it) for the two weeks but it was clear that he was relieved to get a break from the terrier madness. Harry and Mimi were ecstatic when I finally got home. Tsingy has been a burr, never more than a few feet from me. I was sitting on the couch reading before I got up to take this photo. Can't you just feel the contentment? All is right with their world again.

Harry, Tsingy, and Mimi purring.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Training the SFT: The Joy of Toy

 I'm quite proud to announce that after 5 years and 9 months, I have at last taught Mimi a "bring it' command. What are the criteria for this command? It can be either verbal ("bring it!") or just a hand signal (one finger pointing straight down at my feet), but she has to bring the toy TO ME. Not within the same room as me. Not within 4 feet of me. To me. Inches from my feet, or preferably on top of my feet.

What a concept.

Harry, being the perfect dog, well, perfect except for his penchant for trashcan-diving, of course has a "put it in my hand" command (no need for the complicated verbal; he only needs to see a flat open palm and he rushes to jam the toy into it). I had to teach him this years ago so that he wouldn't do victory laps after every flyball race (not only did he often veer into the other team's lane, an offense that could have gotten us dismissed from more than one tournament, but the whole affair really slowed the show down).

Mimi has resisted this particular behavior mightily. She would whine, even bark. She'd shake the toy all that more vigorously. She'd start bouncing in front of the magic dresser hoping that an even better toy was stashed on top. She'd do everything she could except bring the damned toy to me. But when she started throwing the toy up in the air earlier this year, I realized I was at last making progress.

That throwing the toy up ever so gradually progressed into throwing the toy forward. I used only a verbal marker ("good girl!") and would go and pick up the toy to throw it again.

I suppose I should take a step back. Teaching Mimi the joy of toy was itself quite a struggle. For years, it was a one-throw affair. She just didn't see the value in bringing the toy back at all since she could entertain herself for hours without any need for my intervention. Last year I was at last able to turn her into a tugging monster, which meant that she needed to keep the toy in my general vicinity if that fun game was to continue.

So once she started throwing the toy forward, I knew that I had her hooked. She resisted mightily--she would toss it forward but it would still be feet from me. Once I was sure that the tossing behavior was very strong, I stopped going to get the toy.

My god, you would have thought that I was sticking her with hot pokers. The whines and moans that came out of her as she would pick up the toy, drop it, pick up the toy, drop it--all the while staring at me....but I held out. No toy brought to me, then no game. I'd keep playing with Harry, which of course just drove her mad.

And that first time she brought me the toy, all the way to my feet, I had a huge party with her. It took about eight more (long) weeks before she was willing to admit that bringing the toy to me was a far superior proposition than no more toy play at all. Fox terriers are extraordinarily stubborn, and we fox terrier trainers have to be even more resolute.

Play time is quite a bit more fun now. She's even started jamming the toy into my hand or leg if I'm not fast enough to pick it up and toss it again. I always reward that behavior with a good tug party.

Harry learned the "hand" command in a matter of weeks. Mimi, it has taken years. But I learned a lot in the process.

It's a bittersweet lesson for me as a dog trainer since I am no longer able to compete with my dogs. But I cherish the relationship I have with Harry and Mimi and am so thankful that I can continue to learn with them.

Odds and Ends, Mostly Odds

Today is a holiday. It is not an official Saudi holiday but one engineered by and for Aramco. It has been a few months since there was a company-wide and/or national holiday--Aramco likes to intersperse those 3-day weekends throughout the year. School just ended here, it is close to July 4 (not that the Saudis care about that but the positioning of the holiday near an American one is an anachronism from the days when Aramco was an American company), the eid following Ramadan is still about 8 weeks away...all factors pointed to the need for a holiday sometime in early July.

It would have been a much more enjoyable holiday if we hadn't been hit with a major dust storm on Thursday morning. The worst of the storm lasted almost 48 hours. The Eastern Province has a nearly constant haze of dust and salt in the air but the furnace-blast wind and dust in this storm were particularly ferocious. We didn't see the sun on Thursday and the sky was a murky orange all day.

We haven't had a true shamal (sand storm) here in the two years I've been here but we frequently get the tail ends of them. The sand blows itself out somewhere between Riyadh and the coast, leaving us with the dust, so baby fine that it manages to work its way into every crack and crevice. My sinuses feel like they have been extracted, thoroughly pounded with a meat cleaver, sprinkled liberally with something suitably caustic such as Drano, then stuffed back into my head.

That this area is unsuitable for long-term human habitation is clearly demonstrated by the absence of ruins of towns. Oh, sure, remnants of the occasional Bronze Age seasonal fishing village are stumbled across, unless the Wahhabis get to the site first and destroy it (destruction and denial of pre-Islamic civilization on the Arabian peninsula is a refined cottage industry here). But even these tattered bits attest to the larger point: nobody lived in this god-forsaken landscape year-round. (There were towns along the western trade routes, but those were established by different peoples altogether.)

I'm preparing to leave this vile weather behind for a bit--my annual government-mandated repat leave is coming up soon. We are required to be OOK for 14 consecutive days each year. Add on the Aramco-mandated travel days and it turns into something like 21 days off from work. Doesn't matter where we go, but go we must. Aramco ensures our cooperation with it all by paying us extra to leave.

In other news, both dogs have a nasty case of dermatitis on their feet from the toxic combination of raw irrigation water, dust, salt, and sand fleas. Their front feet are most affected as both have lots of tiny bites between their toes. It doesn't help that we take most of our walks at dawn and dusk when the nasty little fleas are most active. I'm going to try spritzing their feet with an herbal insect repellent to see if that helps at all. Mimi licked her front feet so much that she gave herself a yeast infection (the vet, after taking a whiff of her feet, agreed that they did have "quite a pong"; he's a Brit, in case you didn't guess). He told me that nearly all dogs in camp develop this dermatitis after a year or so--it is just part of living here. We do have ticks and regular fleas so the dogs get FrontLine but it is not effective against the sand fleas, unfortunately.

Since cooking is one of my hobbies and I'm not exactly a shitty cook, I thought that I would start adding a semi-regular cooking or recipe note to the blog. So here's the first one (I'll start adding photos once I see how this goes):

Mango season is winding down at last. I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to mangoes--I like nearly all varieties--India, Africa, Pakistan, Mexico--bring'em on! I don't care much for melons or papayas or other tropical fruits but I really like mangoes. I stumbled across a great recipe that uses up as many mangoes as you need it to. Even better, this mango salsa is quite a crowd pleaser at parties. It's so simple to make! No fat! No salt! It's all good for you!

Mango Salsa

1 small red onion
3 large mangoes (if you use more than one kind, you get interesting variations in color and texture)
1 medium red bell pepper
1 hot pepper, about index-finger length (I buy the red Thai peppers but hot green ones work too)
1 lime
2 cloves of garlic (optional)

one bowl large enough to hold all ingredients

Wash all of your veggies well! Finely dice the onion. Deseed and finely dice about 1/3 of the hot pepper (add more if you are brave or your guests are hardy). Now wash your hands, the knife, and the cutting board. You just handled that hot pepper and you don't want those fiery juices getting places they shouldn't. Finely dice the garlic if you are using it. Mix these ingredients well with the juice of the lime. No hurry! Letting the onions and hot pepper sit in the lime juice allows their flavors to mix and mellow. Dice the red bell pepper. Peel and dice the mangoes. Mix all ingredients. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve with crackers (otherwise the mango bits can get kind of mushy). Also works wonderfully as a relish or salad for curries and grilled meats. Keeps for about 3 days in the fridge.

Bon appétit!