Thursday, February 28, 2013

Agility in KSA: Only Four More Classes Left

It's not like I don't have plenty to do in my spare time since this departure business is fairly consuming, but last fall I decided that I needed to run one final agility class during this Community Education session. It's only 8 weeks long because of my trip to the US in January, and the final, eighth class takes place after my pack date, which means I won't have any equipment to work with. Still, I felt I was up to the challenge. Tomorrow is our fifth class out of the eight.

CJ agreed once again to be my assistant instructor. She has developed an exceptionally good eye when it comes to watching handlers and figuring out where they are and where they need to be on a particular skill. I greatly value her insight and advice.

There's not much that I will miss when I leave here but teaching the agility class will certainly be one of those things.

I haven't been taking many pictures myself but fortunately the father of one of the junior handlers took some last fall. They aren't pics of the current class but they are all great pics, showing off those hardworking handlers and their dogs. Here's the link (the guest password is Doggie).

When I was in in the US in January, I visited my friend AI in Portland. She dragged me along to her agility class one evening (I wasn't exactly unwilling!). Her instructor had put up a very challenging sequence...and I decided that with a bit of modification, I could present similar challenges to my group here in Dhahran. Her instructor generously gave me a copy of her course map and when I got home, I redrafted it. I had to replace the 12 weave poles in the center with a jump serpentine but it turned out to be a perfect beginning to our final agility session.

Here I've shown you only one of the five sequences I presented to the class. And even better, this setup only used six jumps, leaving one jump for the novices who joined our class.


The novices in this last group are certainly reaping the benefits from my accummulated experience teaching this class. I had them sequencing and doing front crosses by week 3. By week 5 (tomorrow), they will be working with five-obstacle sequences and using both left and right FCs. That's pretty impressive!

Here's the layout I'm using for both intermediate and novice groups tomorrow (the dashed lines are guides to help us put the equipment out):

I numbered three novice and three intermediate variations within it. Many of my early course layouts were pedestrian: boxy and symmetrical. I think that I'm starting to get more creative now given the limitations of our equipment.

Of course Mimi continues to think that the entire affair revolves around her, and rightly so. Three years ago I wrote that I would do anything for my dogs, and I have proved that true. I spend hours preparing for agility class each week (thinking about what the group needs to work on, sketching the course, getting it laid out in Course Designer, printing handouts, loading and hauling and setting up equipment, writing and sending post-class emails). I do this in large part so that Mimi will be able to continue to play agility. But in the process, I have gained confidence and insight and maybe I can even say some expertise in working with people and their dogs. I've been able to share my love of agility with other people, and even infect them with the agility bug. And that certainly is at least as important as keeping Mimi happy!

Dog Friends Come Through As Always

It is not uncommon for people to retire from Aramco after working here for 20, 30, even 40 years. In those cases, the home department can choose to host a ma’asalamah (farewell) party. Being a short-timer, I don’t qualify for a work-sponsored event. But two of my dog friends (PM and MW) took care to see that I had a ma’asalamah party anyway: a last day of shopping, food, and drink in Bahrain before I turn in my passport and iqama.


We got an early start to beat the causeway crush and headed to one of the big malls for coffee. Once the stores began opening, we began shopping. I wouldn’t say that my friends are women who live to shop, but they clearly know more about the entire process than I do. We ended up in this small shop where they began trying on tops and each ended up buying one. I didn’t try anything on but they kept pushing this top or that dress at me. I felt a bit churlish for not getting more into the spirit of things but I rarely shop for clothes precisely because I hate trying them on and dealing with the inevitable disappointment when they don’t fit. 

MW and the G&T that she'd been drooling about for days.

Cheeseball! PM.

Next we headed over to M&S. I was extremely pleased to immediately score some cheap flipflops (HellBeast had managed to get at my current pair one too many times and I needed replacements) and I suppose this shopping success put me in a different frame of mind. 

I ended up trying on a few pieces of clothes at M&S including a pair of black leggings. I’ve never tried on leggings before. I’ve never even envisioned myself wearing that particular fashion trend: tunics and leggings. You see it everywhere on women young and old, thin and round, but for some reason I never pursued it. But watching PM and MW spend an hour trying on tunic tops that morning must have planted the idea in my head. The leggings fit so I bought them. But what to wear with them?

We spent about an hour looking at carpets. The shop owner was surly and his selection was poor. Despite being perfectly able and willing, none of us bought any carpets that morning. His loss.

We headed back to the first shop where we proceeded to engage in a frenzy of fitting room madness. Those two crazy women had me trying on dresses and tops and all kinds of weird things that I would have never even given a second glance to. All three of us tried on a couple of the dresses, the same dress, in fact, because although we are very different in size and shape, we wear about the same size. And I ended up buying a very cool tunic top to wear over the leggings. Who knew I could look so fashionable? It's certainly not my normal mode of dress!

I’ve had a number of close women friends over the years but for some reason I don’t usually go shopping with them, certainly not clothes shopping taken to that level. So the morning at the mall with PM and MW was a surprise and a pleasure.

We closed our day in Bahrain with an excess of food and drink at Trader Vick’s where we sat on the patio overlooking their landscaped lagoon backed by the Arabian Gulf. PM and MW wouldn’t take a single hallalah from me for the driver or the meals or the alcohol (including two bottles of wine and a couple of B52 shots each!), insisting that it was all their treat. It was the best ma’asalamah party I’ll ever have!

View of the Arabian Gulf from Trader Vick's patio.

We made a quick run to Al Osra (home of the famed pork store) on the way back. The situation in Bahrain remains unsettled and we ran into a minor roadblock of burning tires and debris. A quick detour and some equally quickly snapped photos and we were on our way again.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mimi and Azza

I'm trying for the FOURTH time to get this video from my new iPad to display in my blog. I'll get it figured out eventually!

This head-patting thing is very odd. Mimi is being very tolerant of Azza.

Notice Harry curled up in the dog bed. When the girls get going, they are quite careful to avoid disturbing him.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Extraction 5

I ran into an acquaintance at the bank today. She is supposed to be leaving the Kingdom tomorrow on her final exit visa. I suspect that she will have some problems since she does not yet have her final exit visa. She was at the bank to close her local account. She apparently used it like a real bank account; when I asked her why she didn’t just walk away from it since there is no departure clearance requirement that the accounts be closed, she claimed that she had “twenty years of savings” in it. I didn’t bother to ask her why she hadn't taken the money out sooner or even more importantly, why she didn’t invest that money in a more reasonable location where it might, you know, earn some interest. Her house was inspected but the item hasn’t been cleared from her online departure clearance list. She doesn’t have her plane tickets. She requested “cash in lieu” instead of having Aramco pack up her stuff but she said she hadn’t received the money yet. She called Personal Effects about that and was told she needed to fill out another form to complete the “cash in lieu” process, which she claimed she was never told about.
In short, she frittered away most of her 30 days’ notice period, apparently not bothering to meet with Personnel or read their departure guide and research the things that she needed to do before leaving. That guide would have clearly indicated she needed to turn in her iqama to get her final exit visa about 21 days before departure, that the final exit visa wouldn’t be prepared until all items on her online departure clearance list were approved, that taking “cash in lieu” instead of an Aramco-organized shipment required almost as much paperwork, that receiving any of her final payments wouldn’t happen until all of this nonsense was dealt with, and that trying to sort these matters out once she left was nearly impossible (payments can be delayed for months). What sort of person waits until the day before they are to leave to do anything in this country? Despite having lived here for 20 years, she’s apparently quite clueless.
She’s also the architect of her own misery. Aramco doesn’t make it easy to leave, and while it is true that the information that you need to make your departure plans may be spread all over the place, it is available without too much effort. After thinking this over, I wonder if effort isn’t at the heart of this. It takes effort to get a clue. It takes effort to pull yourself from Aramco’s clutches, and quite a bit of effort in the first place to keep from sinking into the muffling cocoon that is the Aramco expat lifestyle, a cocoon comprised of housekeepers, car washers, drivers, and an army of small brown men seeing to all of the dirty labor. I see this disease affecting nearly all old-timers to the point that some of them don’t even leave when they are supposed to but beg and plead for extension after extension. Living in the real world is hard work.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Extraction 4

I am officially engaged in what is called “departure clearance”. The day after I submitted my resignation letter, the administrative assistant to my supervisor initiated the online departure clearance process. Within minutes, a series of items appeared in a special location in the Aramco intranet. The list includes the following:

  • Housing rentals (appliances and the few remnants of crappy Aramco furniture I retained)
  • Housing inspection (to make sure I didn’t knock holes in the walls or run a line from my sweet water tap to my washing machine)
  • Furniture warehouse (tied to the housing rentals item)
  • Mail center (submit forwarding address)
  • Recreation rentals (I never rented anything from them)
  • EPiC library (Upstream technical library)
  • Training library (I don’t know what this is)
  • Medical assets (I don’t know what this one is either)
  • Domestic camp (only applies if you are the sponsor of a maid or houseboy)
  • Dental services (I never had dental work done here)
  • Medical liaison (get copies of medical records from this office)
  • Telecom billing (I never turned on the long-distance code dialing)
  • Passport office (once the car is off my iqama, I have to turn in my iqama and passport)
  • Personal effects (packing and shipping my stuff)
  • Industrial security (I have to turn in my Aramco ID)

Being in departure clearance is a lot like playing a computer game. The objective: remove all of the items by the payroll close date of the month you are leaving so all of your final payments can be processed with your normal paycheck for that month.

Some of these items were automatically marked “completed” and I never had to deal with them. That’s a good thing because the remaining items require an astonishing amount of time and fuss to complete. 

For example, you can make an online request for your medical records. There is a button on the request form that you click that says “I want a complete copy of my medical records”. I clicked it. Two days later, I received an email saying the records were ready for pickup at the hospital. I went there right after lunch only to discover that films and other digital records were not included in the packet. In other words, you really don’t get a complete copy of your records. For digital diagnostic items, you have to fill out a separate request by hand and submit it to the same office. Then you wait another two days and take more time off from work to return to the hospital to pick up the second packet.

The Recreation Library is another good example. You have to turn in your library card. Sounds simple enough. But the guys working the checkout desk can’t help you. You have to speak to the Saudi supervisor who takes the typically endless smoke, tea, prayer, and gossip breaks throughout the day as well as the usual lunch hour. “Turning in your library card” really means you must make at least three or four visits to the library at different days and times in the hopes that you will catch this guy at his desk. You have to do this during normal working hours so that means more time that you aren’t doing your own job.

My appliances and house were inspected last week. I signed papers for both inspectors. I waited one day and the items were still on my departure clearance list. So I began emailing. The system lists the name of the person who has approval authority for the item, so it is easy to email them a screen shot of the item clearly showing their name and the code, asking nicely when I might expect the item to be approved (and removed from my list). It took five emails to both groups (total of ten emails) before I was able to get those items cleared off the list.

I’m pleased to report that as of this afternoon, I’m down to the last three items, all of which are pretty important: iqama and passport, ID, and personal effects. 

I am now trying to sell my car. I’ve still got a bit of time but I’m learning not to take any of that for granted. The game timer is steadily, relentlessly clicking down.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mmmm! Goat!

Last week, my new supervisor (I moved to a different group within the company in December) invited me and my office mate to his home this past Thursday (our weekend) for lunch. It’s a big deal for a Saudi to invite westerners to his home, even more so since I am a woman. I had a fairly good idea of what to expect although I am pretty sure my office mate didn’t!

MS has a traditional “villa” located not far from Dhahran. Completely surrounded by 10-foot-high walls, there are separate entrances for men and women, and in fact the women’s part of the house is completely isolated from the men’s part with only a single connecting door near the kitchen (so the female servants can serve food at the men’s parties). I was invited into the women’s part of the house and visited with his wife and two daughters for about 15 minutes. They served me dates and unsweetened Arabic coffee mixed with ground cardamom, a traditional Arabic social custom. The coffee is served in tiny cups without handles. It can range in color from a clear orange to a cloudy yellow. It is an acquired taste for sure—sometimes you’d swear it was nothing but cardamom tea. The dates that are usually served with Arabic coffee are the dry ones, although I prefer the sweeter, sticky ones.

Image from

I think I’ve mentioned this before but am too lazy to look up at the moment: you can’t assume a Saudi is westernized just because he wears western clothing and seems to be relatively tolerant of us. Our supervisor, MS, wears office casual clothing to work every day, including the frequent appearance of a natty, black, loose silk jacket, yet he maintains a very traditional household such that his wife and daughters aren’t even permitted to mingle with other males in his own family, much less my office mate. The women would of course not join us for lunch.

MS takes his Bedouin roots quite seriously. He built a modern, city version of a bedu tent within his villa compound. I’ve seen them before at fancy restaurants and at a few places around Aramco where they are used to entertain visiting bigwigs. The building has solid walls and the fancy ones have windows. They always have AC units. The walls and ceiling inside are draped with cloth to make it look like you are inside a tent although there is usually a solid roof on top of the building. Inside, the walls will be lined with long cushions and backrests on the floor with an occasional armrest scattered here and there. Shoes are always removed before entering. It is considered rude to cross your legs (I can’t do it in an abaya anyway; I had to wear the hated thing for the entire lunch). Most westerners don’t spend much time sitting on the floor as adults and we struggle with the sitting down and getting up routines that are required by these cushions on the floor.

MS also invited a couple of other Saudis who live near him who work at Aramco (it would have been too weird for it to be just me, WC, and MS) and one brought his son. The three older men wore thobes. The son was in western clothes.

After more obligatory Arabic coffee and dates, it was time for lunch. Even though MS didn’t tell us in advance, I knew what was coming: kabsa.

Kabsa is essentially a meat and rice dish. It can be made in amazingly enormous quantities and is considered a Saudi national dish. The rice is usually basmati, cooked until it is slightly sticky. The meat is where things get interesting. Kabsa is traditionally served with lamb or goat but camel is also common. Non-traditionalists will substitute beef or chicken. The meat is butchered into very large pieces (it is not deboned) and cooked with the rice and an incredible array of spices. The animal can also be partially cooked whole then cut up and added to the rice later. (You can find a westernized version of a kabsa recipe here.)

A tray of kabsa. This is almost certainly a sheep; it's too big to be a goat. Note the head on the left side of the platter. I ripped the picture from but the original source is unknown.

Kabsa is served on large trays with the meat laid on top of or mixed in with the rice; sometimes the edge of the platter is decorated with fresh veggies such as tomato and cucumber. You sit on the floor around the trays and eat kabsa with your fingers. The technique of balling up some rice and meat and delivering it to your mouth without spilling it all over your lap on the way or without cramming your fingers in your mouth (considered rude) requires quite a bit of practice (a lot of practice). Just as when you dine with Chinese folks, the Saudis will offer you a spoon but are much pleased if you use your fingers (or chopsticks, as the case may be).

The meat can sometimes cause problems for westerners. Fat is not trimmed off and all of the animals are served, including their heads. I laughed when WC and I sat down with the son at one tray and the son pulled off the foil covering to reveal…a goat head staring up at us, white-grey tongue sticking out of its mouth. I wasn’t laughing at the goat but at WC. His eyes were popping out but not because he’d been steaming with rice for hours. Fortunately, we had other bits of the goat that were well worth eating (ribs and legs, for example).

There's another head on this platter too. Kabsa is eaten with the hands. No, let me correct that. It is eaten with the RIGHT hand. Never use your left hand while eating with Muslims if you can avoid it. I ripped this photo off

In between picking out goat hairs from the rice and accepting pieces of rib and cheek meat from the son sitting with us (cheeks are always a choice bit) while deftly refusing tastes of brains and eyeballs, I rather enjoyed myself. When the son grabbed the head and ripped its jaw off to get at some of the meat, WC stopped eating any more meat and only nibbled at the rice. When the son told us his mother was a master at picking all the meat off the head, then grabbed the goat head and jammed two spoon handles into its eye sockets to demonstrate her technique for splitting the skull to get at the brains, I laughed again. WC simply stopped eating at that point.

Me? I’m an adventurous eater. The goat hair had been well cooked along with the rest of it, and I happen to like fatty meat. In fact, I’ve had kabsa served with mutton (instead of the preferred lamb) and it was downright nasty. So I thought the succulent little goat was delicious!

The meal was followed by more gossip and chatter (Saudi men love to gossip) and glass after glass of super hot, impossibly sweet black tea. We also had an eggy dessert topped with chopped pistachios. It was more salty than sweet but it went well with the tea.

I enjoyed the afternoon quite a bit. It is rare to spend time with Saudis in such a casual setting and I am pleased that MS invited us to such a grand feast.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Training Azza 15

It's always a pleasure to realize that you've trained your dog to do something through everyday, casual actions instead of specific training events. Or put another way, to realize that your everyday actions are for the most part training events.

A good example of this is Azza and toys. I taught her to play with toys but I always did this during play sessions with the terriers so toy training was always in the context of toy play. She will now reliably fetch a good variety of toys. She will vigorously tug, growling and shaking her head, and will drop and take toys on command. But I realized just this past week that she's also got another useful toy skill: she returns toys to my hand.

I taught Harry this many years ago out of desperation when he wouldn't come back to me after getting the ball during flyball. "Put it in my hand!" will cause him to firmly shove whatever toy he has into my open hand. If I don't offer a hand, he will shove it into my lap.

As I was playing with the dogs a couple of weeks back, I noticed that when Azza was returning to me after chasing her toy, I was holding my hand out to her without saying anything. It was an automatic response after years of doing it with Harry. But I spend so much time training Azza that I guess she figures anything I do may possibly be a command for her and thus an opportunity for a reward. So she shoves her toy into my hand!

Pretty good trick for a feral dog.

She also learned a new trick last week. I say "trick" but I consider the ability to catch thrown food to be a useful skill for a dog.

I've tossed bits to her now and then but typically they just bounced off her head and Mimi would get them before they hit the floor. I figured it was time to get Azza sorted out on the concept.

I keep popcorn around even though I only eat it a few times a year because it is a good training tool for some behaviors. It is easy to throw with some accuracy, the pieces are large and visible on different flooring types, and it is tasty. One of the skills I always teach with popcorn is catching thrown food.

Azza was quite successful at this game, figuring it out after perhaps ten or so misses. She's become quite accurate and can now catch smaller things like dog treats that are harder to see.

An interesting corollary is that she has caught thrown toys a few times since. I have to throw them with just the right arc so that they come down on top of her head, but the new part is that she is trying to catch them at all. She usually lets them drop to the floor then picks them up.

Her social skills continue to expand and strengthen. She's always have freaky deaky fear behaviors but I knew that even before I started this experiment.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Training Azza 14

Azza had a pretty good day.

This seems like a weird way to begin a post about a dog but you have to remember that she is a feral dog, only tamed, not domesticated.

All three dogs had to go to the vet clinic today for their DHLP vaccinations, required annually and required at least 30 days before they make the big trip back to the U.S. They had their rabies shots before I visited the U.S. in January--I always stagger the dogs' shots by at least two weeks.

Azza got on the scale and sat quietly so we could get her weight (16 kg), let the vet look in her ears with a scary looking device, poke around between her toes, examine her belly, even lift her tail and look at her butt. Wisely, he didn't bother to examine her teeth.

She wasn't happy but she wasn't even close to freaking out. She wouldn't take a treat from him but she did take it from me out in the waiting room when I was paying the bill.

Then when we were out for our regular walk after I got home from work (the weather is gorgeous), she offered a nose touch on a tire swing that had two weeks earlier gotten her quite wound up, and offered a paw touch on a big piece of cardboard tossed onto the sidewalk.

To cap this lovely, long walk off, she calmly, without hackling or growling, walked past a baby stroller and a kid on a bike. Of course I was asking her to look at me and shoving treats in her mouth every step, but that is just a detail.

There is a large difference between domesticated, meaning selected and bred for many generations by humans, and tamed. Azza and her ancestors have not been directly shaped by the whims and demands of humans. Sure, there has been some indirect shaping because the feral dogs always live near humans and thus there must be some co-dependent adaption. Still, I marvel at the distance between Mimi, a dog whose lines have been selected for a couple of centuries to be pleasing and responsive to us, and Azza, a feral dog whose lines have been mostly shaped by those individuals who survived long enough to breed.

Nonetheless, I persist. I was lucky to get Azza when she was so young. I was lucky that I already knew a good bit about training dogs and had ready, reliable methods to use with her. I am lucky that my terriers are so accepting of other animals in the household. And I'm lucky that Azza is a healthy, happy, playful young animal who has learned to love treats, praise, and toys.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Extraction 3: Death By A Thousand Cuts

Once you officially initiate what is called the "departure clearance", things begin to happen much more quickly than I expected.

Remember my list of dated events? It's been replaced with a changing array of sticky notes and scribbled instructions on the margins of other documents. I now cart a bulging manila folder everywhere I go.

Many of the items I need to clear off my "departure clearance" list require multiple emails and phone calls requesting information or action from this person or that. A good half of them require me to go to another office in Aramco and deal with the matter myself. A large number of the things that I am required to do could easily be done by a couple of admin people in Personnel. But I suppose Aramco continues to pay me either way.

Something new or unexpected pops up every day. These are not crisis events, but in combination they take up hours of my time. I'm not getting much done at work as a result. I've already spent hours on the phone in the evenings talking to banks and airlines on the US end of things.

The very good news is that I sold my car. There was a pretty narrow window of time for me to sell it, and selling it is absolutely necessary. I must have the car registration off my iqama and the camp entry sticker off my badge number (and off the car) in order to turn in my iqama and passport so that my final exit visa can be processed. And I have to turn those in by the first week of March in order to have everything done in time.

I sold it to my geologist friend MG. I gave him a good price, less than I planned to advertise it for. The deal was arranged over coffee and closed with a handshake. He's still working on the wire transfer directly into my account from his (you'd think banks would make this a little easier), but I suspect that in the end, no money needs to directly change hands. Very neat, very easy.

I was very lucky to sell it to a westerner. Not only is he willing to let me continue to use it until I leave, but the financial and legal hoops are so much more simple than if I had sold it to a Saudi.

See, the Saudis don't really trust each other, and that spills over to financial dealings with us (non-Saudis). When you sell your car to a Saudi, you often have to leave the car with the dealer (for a fee of course) until all of the money is transferred. This prevents the seller from disappearing with the car after getting the money or the buyer from skipping out with the car without paying for it. The dealer releases the car only after all the money and titles are transferred.

We still have to pay the fixer at the Auto Association here on camp to take care of the title transfer paperwork. He charges surprisingly high fees for this service, but he knows he has us all by the shorties. The rules are arbitrary, they change without notice, and no westerner wants to go to a government office if they can avoid it.

I also sent out my first list of "for sale" items over the secretary network. I sold a good part of the list, including my fridge. I'll miss that awesomely enormous fridge.

Most of my non-dog time is taken up with these endless tiny tasks, each one contingent upon two or three others. Death by a thousand cuts.

Dog Origami

Azza often lays like this when I'm preparing dinner. She looks like some kind of half-finished origami creation.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

No Joke

It's done. Today I submitted my resignation to Saudi Aramco. I'll be leaving the Magic Kingdom on April 1st.
I felt such a weight lifting from my mind after it was done. I was telling a friend yesterday that I thought that I was displacing a lot of anxiety onto the resignation event, which turned out to be true. I've still got plenty of things left to worry about between now and the end of March. But the symbolically big step off that cliff edge has now been taken.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Stress Reduction

I've written before about Erika, the Step Nazi. I stopped going to her classes some while ago because she changed the time and I found it didn't work well with my schedule.

I've been so stressed lately that it was clear that I was going to have to do something about it. Going to the Ladies' Gym to lift weights is always an option but the group fitness classes are particularly motivating.

So I was quite pleased this morning to get a secretary-network email announcing Erika's new Pilates class, starting tonight at the later hour that I prefer.

I just got back from her class. True to form, even with low-impact Pilates, Erika is able to kick everybody's butt. I'm sore and tired, but best of all, I know that I'll sleep like a baby tonight.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Extraction 2

I referred in the first extraction post to the bureaucratic minutiae associated with leaving. Saudi Arabia does not permit free movement of people in, out, or even within its borders.
Every non-Saudi must have a sponsor. For example, Upul’s sponsor is a Canadian family who lives on camp. In addition to his salary, they pay the renewal fees for his visa and iqama (residence permit) and give him money to travel home once a year. When a sponsor brings someone into the Kingdom, the sponsor (an individual or a company) also has to pay an initial fee to the Saudi government of around SAR 10,000-20,000. The army of small brown men who clean, sweep, mow, drive, etc. are sponsored in bulk by Saudi middlemen who “sell” them to contractors. It’s nothing more than slavery thinly disguised as these poor guys often have to work off the sponsorship fees. Hard to do when you only make SAR 200 a month (about USD 50). Their sponsors hold their iqamas and passports so they can’t even look for a better job (a slave isn’t supposed to be able to shop around for a nicer master, right?). But back to the point, Aramco is my sponsor. And even though I hold my passport and iqama, I can’t just waltz out of here when I choose.
One important thing that will happen is that eventually I will be issued an exit-only visa. These have a mythical air about them, becoming a metaphor for all sorts of things to an expat leaving Saudi Arabia.
In order to obtain that magical exit-only visa, there are dozens of hoops I must jump through. Some are silly (turn in my recreation library card; no need to clear fines since Aramco started doing payroll deduction for those a couple of years ago). Some are more difficult (selling my car, which will require paying a middleman to handle the paperwork for me, assuming of course I find a buyer).
The Dollar/Pound Sterling Payroll team in HR put together a departure booklet. Being the nerd that I am, I decided to turn the booklet into a checklist and assign deadlines for each specific task.
I quickly realized that I had to start at the end by defining my last day of work and my departure date. You can’t pick any old date to leave. It shouldn’t be on or around a holiday. It should be a date after Payroll closes for the month, assuming that your final clearance is approved by that closing date. It must be a regular work day, not the weekend. And since I’m flying with the dogs and cats, I will only fly KLM and they don’t fly from Dammam to the U.S. every day of the week. Getting the proper clearances for the dogs and cats can’t be done sooner than two days before the day that I leave so I have to make sure I make enough time for that (I’ll discuss the dog and cat departure saga in a future post). After spending a few days researching all of this, I finally identified those dates, last day of work and departure date (they will be the same day, in fact).
Then I started working back in time, listing all of the tasks that I needed to complete. Right now I’ve got over 40 distinct tasks listed and I’m adding more every day or so. For example, I remembered before I left on my trip to the US that the airlines require animals to have vaccinations at least 30 days before travel. Unfortunately, the entire CircusK9 pack is due for everything in Q1 so they all have to have shots at least one month before I leave. I stagger the dog’s shots, separating rabies from their other shots by a couple of weeks. Even if I take the animals into the vet in groups, I need to schedule three to five vet visits. More tasks added to the list.
I had my exit meeting with a Dollar Payroll advisor this morning. I was appalled at the amount of paperwork he loaded me down with—and the accompanying increase in the number of tasks on my checklist. So tonight after cats were fed and dogs were walked and fed, I spread out a mass of papers and opened a handful of websites and supporting files on my computer, getting ready to call Vanguard….doh! It’s Sunday!
I’m completely stressed. I wake up at night and start thinking about all the things I need to do and I end up tossing and turning for hours (doesn’t help that I’m still jetlagged from my US trip). I am worried and anxious. I feel like I’m stepping off a cliff. Some of you may think that leaving the US would have been difficult. I assure you that leaving KSA is far more so.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Training HellBeast

HellBeast never misses an opportunity to beat up on Tsingy. Meal times in particular seem to send him into a frenzy. During meal prep, he runs back and forth between the kitchen and the cat room, pummeling Tsingy at one end and screeching and tripping me at the other. He gulps his food, then jumps up on her perch, shoves her aside, and eats hers too. Since Tsingy is a gentle, mild-mannered cat, she never fights back or stands up for herself. So if I'm not vigilant, she can easily go hungry.

Upul and I talked about this in the past but I never really did anything about it other than yell (ineffectually) at HellBeast. While I was in the US, Upul decided to take matters into his own hands. He trained HellBeast to go into an opened dog crate before the cat could get his food. HB could then be safely locked up until Tsingy finished.

This is nothing short of a miracle since it took me and Upul 15 minutes and the judicious use of a broom and partial dismantling of my bed before I could catch HB in a towel and dump him into a cat crate so I could cart him off to the vet for his shots. Blood was drawn (mine) and the dogs were totally freaked out.

But Upul did a good job. The cat will enter an opened dog crate with no command other than the opening of the crate door and wait patiently for his food bowl. He even waits quietly after he's done, so unusually quiet that I sometimes forget he's locked up!

I think I'm going to expand on this success. I am going to train the cat to enter his own crate under his own power.

The power of positive reinforcement.

Friday, February 01, 2013

New Blog Editing App: Prose

New iPad, new tiny Bluetooth keyboard. Photo of exhausted Mimi.