Thursday, January 31, 2013

Desert Truffles

Yes, I know exactly what you are thinking: what the hell is a “desert truffle”? Is it a euphemism for camel dung or some weird sand dune configuration? 

No, desert truffles are very real. Just like the more familiar European truffles, desert truffles are fungi with underground fruiting bodies that grow in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific plants. Desert truffle species have been found in Africa, the Middle East, south Asia, and even in China, and as the name suggests, they are usually found in areas with dry climates. They are a bit more common than European truffles (and often larger too).

This photo appears on several websites but I was not able to identify the original source. This gives you a great idea of the size of these things.
A very old myth common across North Africa and the Middle East says these fungi grow only where lightning has struck the ground or, in an alternate version, that it is the rumble of thunder brings the fungi close to the surface. That’s of course silly but in order to grow, the desert truffles need some well-timed early winter rain. Storms in the desert can be accompanied by thunder and lightning, so the association is sort of reasonable, just not directly causal. (You can find some amazing pseudo-scientific babble about lightning, nitrates, and truffles here. It’s total nonsense. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. And it's very disappointing that a botany department at a very good school would link to such pseudo-science.) 

Desert truffles are sometimes used for medicinal purposes but mostly they are eaten (fungi are decent sources of protein). A traditional method is to roast them like potatoes in a fire (they are often described as resembling sandy potatoes and are thus treated like potatoes when cooking with them) or fry them in oil. I found several recipes for making truffle soup using camel milk.

Another photo with no clear source. Fungi masquerading as "sandy potatoes".

It appears there is a tempest in a teacup amongst the scientifically illiterate over “true” and “false” truffles. (This site states that the difference between “true” and “false” truffles is based on their "gastronomic" uses [he meant "culinary"]. Utter nonsense. However, the site does have a very good set of photos of the main desert truffle species. It's worth a visit for the photos but you can skip the introductory text.) 

A quick scan of a few peer-reviewed scientific articles cleared up the matter of “true” versus “false” truffles (for example, see this paper and this one too). Nearly all fungal groups contain species which develop lumpy, underground fruiting bodies. The principal difference between “true” and “false” truffles is the way they produce spores (“true” truffles have round or elliptical spores while "false" truffles have club-shaped spores). The group Ascomyota contains the “true” desert truffle species. The main genus of European truffles is Tuber (yes, that's the same word we use for potato in English but truffles and potatoes aren’t related) and the main genera of desert truffles are Terfezia and Tirmania. Saudis call desert truffles "fa'qa" (many spelling variations exist), but they are widely called "terfez" across other parts of the Middle East (which is of course where the genus name came from).

We are now entering truffle season here in Saudi Arabia. Some of the Saudis with family farms have been talking about going truffle collecting (the sites are revisited year after year and their locations, just as in Europe, are generally kept secret). Since I'm not already a fan of truffles, I probably won't make an effort to find the desert variety in a local market. Even so, it was interesting to learn about these weird desert fungi.

Extraction 1

Leaving the Kingdom is far more difficult than getting into it, in part because of the ridiculous bureaucratic minutiae and in part because we acquire things here that we didn’t have back there (carpets, for example).

Because I have no property in the U.S., I am essentially building a new household from scratch. There isn’t much point in bringing too many things back with me because I won’t see them for at least three months, the typical time it takes shipments of personal goods to travel between KSA and the U.S. (the route apparently includes long stretches where your items are carried by camel). 

If an item is critical, say, dog beds or cat dinner bowls, then I’m going to have to bring it with me when I fly back or ship it myself via very fast camel. I flew out here with two dogs and five suitcases. I will be returning with three dogs, two cats, and at least two suitcases and a dishpack box. The tale of the journey back will be epic. But that’s still in the future (I won’t give any precise dates until closer to departure time).

One of the big steps in the extraction process is selling stuff you don’t want to take back with you. Selling things in Aramco used to be very easy. There was an online classifieds section of the intranet that you could access from home or work. People would list all sorts of junk and treasure and find a buyer for it. But we lost the classifieds after the hacking incident in August 2012 when Aramco shut down all internet connectivity for several weeks. They’ve never brought the classifieds back. Since “community” is something that only gets token lip service here, re-establishing the classifieds is pretty low on Aramco’s list.

You can ask the buffoons in the Community Services office to post 3x4 cards listing an item for sale on a bulletin board in the mail center but each card can only reference one item, there is a limit to the number you can submit, and you can’t list a mobile number (oh my god, there might be something nefarious going on if people are talking on mobiles, right?). This might be more trouble than it's worth.

Somebody tried to set up a craigslist-type of online classifieds service (it’s free and appears to be legit) but I test-posted four items to see what sort of traffic it gets and I think it’s a bust. 

There is of course the tried and true garage sale (more effective if you have a garage or even a yard, of which I have neither). I might go this route but it will take some planning and I’ll need help. I’m going to ask friends to participate, have them do a bit of housecleaning and see if they want to sell a few things. A multi-family sale will draw more people. And I can have the contributors help out for an hour or so.

Finally there is the secretary network. Some of those secretaries send out emails to many hundreds of people at a time. We thought for a while that new internet monitoring policies (our every keystroke is monitored) would end this practice but several of the secretaries said, the hell with Akh Akbar (Big Brother), I’m sending this info around just like I used to. A friend who is leaving sold his car two days after he had the ad sent out by one of the secretaries (it helped that he priced it right). This is really the best option to move large items (car, refrigerator, furniture) and I have already begun to prepare a document with photos, descriptions, and asking prices of all the items I’m selling.

I can't actually send the list of things to the secretaries because I haven't submitted my resignation letter yet. All of these tasks have to occur in the proper order. If I suddenly start selling a bunch of stuff, word will spread like wildfire that something is up. The letter is already written, I only have to print it, sign it, and hand it over to my manager. I plan to do this next week. Then things will begin to get interesting.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

First Class

Without a doubt, my illness and the fact that I've not been OOK for five months influenced my extravagant decision to upgrade my airline seats to first class. I've done plenty of business class traveling in my time. But I've never entered the world of first class. It turned out to be an experience well worth collecting for CircusK9.

In Bahrain, there is an entirely separate part of the terminal (there is only one terminal, astonishing for such a busy airport) with a separate curbside entrance reserved for first class check in. Once inside, you sit down next to a desk, sort of like meeting with a bank manager. I was checked in by a very large, doughy Arab man in an even larger, loose suit jacket (never saw his lower half) wearing immaculate makeup: eyeshadow, plucked brows, foundation, the palest pink gloss on his lips. My bag was whisked away as I watched this man elegantly refold with his tiny sausage fingers my already somewhat crumpled, home-printed boarding passes into thirds so they would fit into a folder.

It turns out that security screening for first class is also separate and unequal: no line, no removing a single item from my person or my bags, a quick pass through the scanner and you are done. You enter the concourse from an entrance I'd never noticed before, abruptly shunted out into the normal flow from such a rarified beginning.

We had a three-day weekend coming up and the airport was packed. Every seat in every gate area was taken as far as the eye could see. But I proceeded to the first class lounge where there were plenty of seats, snacks, WiFi, real alcohol, and other glories.

Your first class seat in the airplane is like a miniature world unto itself. A cubby for your shoes. Louvered window blinds that you can raise and lower with a button. Slippers, thick wool socks, fancy skin and face products delivered in a discreet little case. In fact, the seats themselves are of such a shape and arranged in such a way as to create maximim discretion: you can't see any of the other passengers except for a bit of foot here and there.

I eschewed the offered pajamas but did set up my bed: a pad on top of the flattened seat, full pillow, feather duvet. Every single person in first class, including the stewards as I later discovered, snuggled into their nests and slept most of the flight (most flights from the Arabian Gulf to Europe are at night). Nobody had dinner despite a tempting menu. Nobody even watched a movie.

A couple hours before landing, I had a full breakfast on a real place setting. There are no forced feedings at fixed times in first class. They wait for you to stir then see if you want anything. Everyone is served on their own individual schedule. Real milk for your real coffee, yogurt served in a bowl instead of the plastic container, you get the idea.

In big transit airports like Heathrow, the first class lounges have showers. That seemed a bit fussy for me. I chose to freshen up in a large private restroom, a real room, not a stall in a smelly public toilet. (I always travel with a change of undergarments and shirt, a habit acquired many years ago.)

Second leg. On this flight, I was handed an iPad loaded with movies and other diversions along with a pair of noise-canceling headphones, so I watched the 2006 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley. Of course the image quality on the iPad was excellent.

Briefly woke from a Stilton-mousse-, garden-green-, sea bass-, cheese-plate-, four-glasses-of-viognier-, two-glasses-of-tawny-port-fueled nap to find the steward tucking me in under yet another feather duvet.

It was a travel adventure, this first class treatment. I arrived in the US slightly cleaner and more rested than I otherwise would be after 24 hours of airports and airplanes. Sleeping flat was very nice but in the end, the most tiring aspect is the lack of activity. That's the same no matter which part of the airplane you are in.

Monday, January 14, 2013


I’ve changed positions within Aramco and now have an officemate. He and I chose to share an office because we are the only two members of a new division and being in the same office facilitates sharing ideas. WC has decided that I’m something of a grammar guru and sometimes asks me about such things as when to use “that” or “which” (complicated) or whether it is considered okay to begin a sentence with a preposition like “between” or “whether” (it’s perfectly fine to do so).

Today he asked me if I thought it was okay for him to use the phrase “a sobering observation” in a report he's writing for senior management.

This isn’t about a grammar or usage issue, of course, but an example of how living in this place can warp the thinking of perfectly normal people. Even though an enormous filter has already been applied that separates people who decide to come here to live and work from those that wouldn’t, you could perhaps argue from a reasonably strong position that there may be something, well, different about those of us who come here in the first place. 

But let’s assume that most of us are more or less normal when we arrive. 

If you want to survive here, as most normal people would, you quickly learn to moderate what you say to Saudis, self-censoring beyond what typical business settings would require. And even though “a sobering observation” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow anywhere else in the world, the subtle association of the word “sober” with alcohol (the origins of the word mean “without drunkenness”) is enough to doom its use here even though it has good metaphorical value.

There is another side to this self-censoring coin--what happens when you fail to do it. Hash House Harriers are social groups of expats, often British in core, that organize runs/jogs/strolls that usually involve exuberant alcohol consumption before, during, and after the event. They often describe themselves as “drinking clubs that have a running problem.” The local hashers mostly confine their drinking to post-run events in reasonably desert locales off camp, which would certainly seem to be discreet enough.

However, photos of a recent post-hash event were posted on FaceBook. I haven’t seen them myself but apparently there were photos of people drinking alcohol; some of these people were recognized by their Saudi managers. (Saudis are quite fond of FaceBook as it provides them a facade of social connection they are denied in real life. Yet another reason that I prefer real life.) There was an enormous furor over the photos that may still not be fully resolved. I don’t have much sympathy for the hashers as they certainly know better. 

Self-censorship is part of the unwritten, unspoken contract you have to accept if you want to stay in the Kingdom. I’m amused when I read news stories in which Americans are braying about their “right” to do this or that. They truly don’t understand what exceptional personal freedoms they have.


A month ago I got a cold. It was a garden-variety rhinovirus infection. A couple of days of extreme quantities of mucus and a muzzy head followed by a few days with a disgusting cough.

A week ago I started to feel off. Food didn't taste right. I was far more tired than I should have been. Uh oh. These were all warning signs that I've seen before. Sure enough, I got the flu.

It started with copious amounts of mucus, the typical reaction of my body in an apparent attempt to flush out the virus, followed by a very sore, swollen throat and rising fever. I thought, hopefully, that I might have a streptococcus infection. I say hopefully because you can at least get drugs for that. No such luck though.

Then it got bad. The alternating sweats and chills were causing me to change my clothes every few hours. I was so weak that I had to ask Upul to change the sheets on the bed. Every part of me hurt.

I haven't been this sick in a long time. I lost about 36 hours. Not sure what I did exactly. The dogs and cats got fed and I know I took the dogs out to pee fairly often. But other than that, those hours are gone.

To make this even worse, my home internet went out on Wednesday night (the start of our weekend). The IT Helpless Desk was typically useless, giving me a different time before it would be fixed each time I called to complain ("at least five hours," "a day," "...days").

I am supposed to fly out on leave on Tuesday night (I'm writing this on Monday afternoon). I couldn't do any of the pre-travel internet stuff I normally do. I wasn't even sure I'd be well enough to travel. I was getting frantic and stressed, not a good condition to be in when you can't even stand upright for more than a minute or two.

After repeated calls to the Helpless Desk, they finally sent a guy over. It took him less than five minutes to get my modem working again. Hamdallillah!

I made some alternate arrangements for my flights (upgraded my seats, to be precise, on the theory that if I did make the flight, I'd be more comfortable if I could stretch out a bit).

I feel quite a bit better today. Took a shower and washed my hair. Ate some food (first meal in almost two days). Took the dogs for a walk in the balmy afternoon sunshine. Things are looking up.

Thursday, January 03, 2013


When I first came to Saudi Arabia back in October 2009, I didn’t have many other options. Saudi Aramco was the only job offer I had in hand at the time. I knew that I was going to lose my house to foreclosure in a few months (it was in fact sold at auction in January 2010). I had already sold most everything I could to keep the animals fed and to keep my internet paid up so I could look for a job. I was running up bigger and bigger credit card debts to pay the bills.

When I asked two good friends for advice, which I desperately needed at the time to sort out this monumental decision to leave home and family and friends, they told me that I probably had to take the Aramco job if for no other reason than I otherwise wouldn’t know what opportunities it might lead to, that an opportunity like this might not come around again.

Being here has challenged me, rewarded me, frustrated me, but it has never disappointed me. I discovered that once you become an expat, willingly leaving home and country, your perspectives may shift alarmingly but as long as you keep your eyes and ears and mind open, you will survive and may even learn something useful.
Even before I left, I decided that I needed to identify some decisions points when I would evaluate my situation in Saudi Arabia. I figured that one of those points should be at five years and the second should then be at ten years.

Although I gave it an honest try, I didn't quite make to five years. I’ve now been in Saudi Arabia for just over three years and I have decided to return to the U.S. in March 2013, a bit before my 50th birthday in April.

My decision isn't based on the fact that I am a outsider in this culture. I had done quite a bit of international travel prior to moving to Saudi Arabia, far more in fact than most Americans. Being different isn't a problem as I've never really fit in no matter where I am (there are exceptions; DogzRule!, I'm looking at you). And on my arrival here, I think that I managed to avoid the worst aspects of culture shock, inevitable when you make this kind of move. I threw myself into activities in and around the community and some of those, like the dog obedience and agility classes, have helped keep me sane. I’ve made some good dog friends who I will miss very much. But there are simply too many negative aspects to life and work here that I can't ignore, replace, or overcome.

You might have noticed that I never talk about my work for Aramco. This is deliberate and will continue. The work itself, the actual projects that I undertook and my regular responsibilities, has been challenging and sometimes even fun. I worked with a large number of people across the upstream part of the company. Some of them have become valued colleagues, mentors, and friends. Most of them are an impediment both to me and the company.

This company is so poorly managed that I cannot continue to work for it. Not even the money is enough to lure me to stay, and I’ll be frank, I’m making a lot of money. Leaving now is another deliberate choice related to that money. I’m leaving before the golden handcuffs are snapped on and it becomes economically impossible for me to leave. I look around and see too many unhappy expats who are in that position, who stay because they can’t afford to leave, who daily try to convince themselves that this is somehow a better life or that if they stick it out just six more months or one more year that things will be better later. I am not willing to sell myself and my future like that.

I’m also leaving because of the other 2/3s of my life here, all of the hours that I don’t spend at work. Housing is one of the biggest problems and I will go into that once I actually leave Aramco. But if you read my blog regularly then you know that I have issues with a number of aspects of life in the Magic Kingdom. 

In short, I don’t like living in a prison. Some parts of this prison are literal: we live behind walls, electrified fences, armed guards. Some parts of this prison are cultural: Saudi Arabia is of course free to demand that people residing in this country behave in a certain manner but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. In fact I am finding it all particularly wearing.

My friends were right, though. Working for Saudi Aramco did open up some interesting new opportunities for me. I don’t want to get into my future plans just yet. I'll probably spend the next couple of months of blog posts describing the unnecessarily complicated process of extraction from this country. Discussion of the future will come around in its own time.

But I will tell you that when I return, I’m bringing all five animals with me.

This Moment

I've posted before about the particular joy that old dogs bring to our lives (here and here). And there is the often-linked and -forwarded online book excerpt about old dogs that most of you have probably read by now.

With the beautiful, mild weather of the past few weeks (it was 78 F this afternoon and I'm still wearing shorts and Tshirts), I've been able to spend much more time outside with the dogs and we've rediscovered playing with tennis balls. Most of the year it's so hot that it borders on cruel to ask the dogs to work that hard just for play. When it is super humid, it's actually difficult to cool them down. So there is a narrow window when we can all be outside and enjoy it.

Here are some photos I took this afternoon of the dogs playing in the backyard of an empty house.

The tennis ball game of course incorporates three tennis balls, one for each. Arranging the tosses so I could snap this photo took some practice.

Taking a breather. Mimi, Harry, Azza.

I've become more careful of Harry of late because it is clear that he's become a little more fragile. He's 14 and a half now. He's losing muscle mass over his shoulders and hips. He doesn't fling himself around like he used to but thinks about where he needs to land before he jumps off the couch. He is stiff and a bit weak in the rear when he gets up in the mornings. It is harder to wake him up most mornings as a result of his increasing deafness and the deep, deep sleep that old animals sometimes fall into. Most of the brown markings on his face have turned grey.

But Harry can still keep a steady pace for hour-long walks. He initiates toy play at least two and usually three times a day. (I have been known to turn off the stove and interrupt my dinner prep to play with him--who knows how many more times I can do that?) I am careful to throw his toys so that he always stays on the carpet and doesn't slide uncontrollably across the tiles. I roll rather than throw his ball so it won't bounce and he won't jump, putting stress on old joints. He can still jump onto the couch and the bed on his own, and he goes up and down the stairs although without the same flinging abandon that Mimi and Azza and HellBeast apply. As you can see from the photos in this post that he is just as dedicated to his tennis ball as he has always been.

C'mon, c'mon, throw it already!

Harry is not even close to becoming infirm. He's active, healthy, engaged, feisty. But I can see glimpses of frailty that make me sad.

I know that, even though Harry and I have had enough adventures to fill a book, when he stands there with a toy in his mouth, his tail twitching, giving me the eye, I know that he isn't thinking about the past or the future, only about this very moment with this chosen toy.

In the end, that's all that matters.