Thursday, February 2, 2012


The Muslim holidays are over and the Christian holidays have officially begun.  I have become so busy with work that writing this blog has become a complete after thought.  I have thought since I arrived that the time here is different than in other places in the world.  Perhaps it is because I live this sort of dual life – weekends for me are Thursday and Friday, weekends at home are Saturday and Sunday so I only really think of the work week as Monday to Wednesday.  Or perhaps it is because I work from 7-4 and usually only drive about 8 minutes to work every day.  Somehow, the time has flown by and I am rapidly approaching being in the Kingdom one full year!
The holiday season came quickly.  It seems like only yesterday it was 120 degrees outside and summer was in full swing.  Now it has turned cold, I mean about 60 degrees cold and the drop in the temperature happened literally over night!  The skies are clear cobalt blue right now without a cloud to be seen.  The sun is always hanging like a big orange ball and there is a subtle breeze that just reminds me of the tropics almost every day now.  If I only had an umbrella drink I would swear I was in paradise!
I went to Shaybah for Thanksgiving.  Shaybay is located in the Rub al Kahli (the Empty Quarter) in the southeast part of the Arabian Peninsula.  They found a very special kind of oil there and built a camp and a road and 600 KM of pipeline to get the oil to the gulf for transport.  The Rub is about 40 KM west of the United Arab Emirates and other than that there is nothing but desert on all sides. 
We flew on a chartered Aramco flight.  I love flying on Aramco airlines!  It is really funny to take a 737 when there is almost no security and the flight attendants are just interested in passing their muffins and juice.  The whole 60 minute flight the cockpit door was wide open and a steady stream of passengers queued up to take pictures and see what the instrument panel looked like.  I couldn’t remember if I was actually on a plane or maybe just a party bus.   Thank goodness we didn’t have any alcohol!   Of course the first Aramco flight I ever took, I was a little unnerved by the Traveler's Prayer that is said in Arabic as we taxi down the runway.  It probably is a good idea; maybe all flights should start with a prayer.   In either case, we had a completely uneventful flight and it was great to catch a glimpse of Bahrain, Qatar and the Gulf Coast from thirty thousand feet.
Shaybah is the world’s largest sand desert.  It is a coppery color of red sand piled into dunes that look similar to the Smoky Mountains in size.  The Aramco camp at Shaybah could be mistaken for a 5 star resort anywhere in the world.  The engineering that went into clearing the sand to build the run way is nothing short of amazing and I am blown away by the actual camp.  We land right outside the gate to the camp and stand in awe of the red sand dunes that surround us.  Entering the camp I blink a few times to be sure I am seeing things correctly.  There are tree lined boulevards; flowing, tiled fountains; and flowers and bushes everywhere!
After a brief tour of the residential camp and the gas and oil separating plants and some of the 600 KM of pipe that gets the oil to the refinery we had free time to play on the dunes.  Climbing the huge dunes only to slide down them on snow boards was exhilarating fun!  The sand was fine and smooth like powdered sugar and felt warm and soft on your feet.  The view of the camp from the dunes was breath taking and when the sun set the lights below twinkled like a small town.
We enjoyed a meal of all the usual Middle Eastern dishes:  hummus, mutahbal, tabhouli, biryani, Arabic rice, lamb, chicken, sweets and mint tea.  Sitting on the ground, enjoying the company of a lovely Saudi couple, a Saudi man and his Austrian wife, another Saudi man and his American wife; it was interesting to the discussion of how they met their spouses and what they think about living and raising children in Saudi.  It is obvious that they share many of the same struggles we Americans do with additional burdens of the restrictions placed on women and non-Muslims.  The evening ended with a quiet flight back to Dammam and a bus ride back to the camp.  Everyone tired and satisfied with the day and thankful for the blessings of our new found friendships, the luxury of travel “Aramco style” and another day in the  Magic Kingdom!

Foot Note:
I started this almost 2 months ago.  I have been very lax lately about posting to my blog.  It has been a very busy year end and I have had several distractions!  I am going to do my best to post more regularly in the next several months.  I have quite a lot to write about now and will begin the next of several segments on my recent travels to Jordan and around KSA.  Look forward to hearing from you and sharing with you in 2012!  Cheers!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Paradigms Shift Like Sand in the Desert

We approached the house.  Standing in a new neighborhood that is full of construction it looks out of place.  Neighborhoods aren’t really defined here by gates or organized streets or other markers that would indicate its purpose as an area of homes and families.  Neighborhoods are built like the Bedouins put tents in the desert – sort of random.  This neighborhood is perhaps a little more organized than most because it is being built on recently reclaimed land that was once covered by the sea. 
Like all houses in the Eastern Province, the house itself is shrouded by a 12 foot stucco wall.  Where ever you drive, whether dirt poor or multimillion dollar rich, the homes are hidden behind beige walls that blend inconspicuously into the sand.  So much of this country seems to be like that…hidden, covered, and cloaked in secrecy and mystery that is seldom revealed.  It is easy to think that you know and understand because the world we come from is so in your face.  Everyone’s dirty laundry is aired daily on the TV or newspapers in the US.  We see so much “junk” about Lindsey Lohan, Snookie, and the Kardashians 72 day marriage that we become numb.  Here, even if those things happen, they will never be spoken of or printed.  The most important thing in Arab culture is “saving face”.
The driver stops in front of the house and we climb out of the Toyota Van.  Five of us have been invited to spend the day with our Saudi nursing colleague who lives in Qatif.  The gate, although attractively styled from wrought iron and glass, is opaque and cannot be seen through.  We are buzzed in and immediately the paradigm shifts.
Inside the tall wall is a beautiful oasis of palm trees, grass, flowers and a swimming pool surrounded by terracotta tiles and comfortable sitting areas.  The house is 2+ stories tall and practically surrounded by glass windows stretching from floor to ceiling on the first level.  As is the custom we remove our shoes at the door and step inside.  I catch my breath as we enter the most beautiful home I have ever seen.  Over the entry door is an elegantly painted prayer from the Quran asking God’s blessing on everyone that enters. Looking up in the foyer I see a charming stained glass cupola depicting a scene with the prophet Mohamed.  The formal living room is painted a deep, rich red with gold fleur de lis embossed on the walls.  The twenty foot ceilings give a palatial feel to the space.  The main family area of the house is open and provides a perfect spot for entertaining.  There are two seating areas with an adjacent dining area in the middle and it all opens onto the pool.  The walls are faux painted to look like marble in the dining area and one sitting area. The floor is marble.  The other sitting room is an amazing color of blue that shimmers when the sunlight hits it just right. 
My friend’s husband comes to greet us as do her two daughters and we are welcomed into the lovely home with kawa (traditional Arabic coffee), tea and of course dates!  After some easy conversation and a tour of the main floor of the house we all head out to the market.  My friend’s husband graciously agrees to drive us.  We have a couple of hours to explore the market until the heat becomes too much and we collapse back into the air conditioned car for a private tour of Taroot Island.  This area is very ancient and was once settled by Portuguese sailors.  Some of the locales are hundreds of years old and people are still living in the houses.  The roads are narrow and twisting and definitely not meant for automobiles!  The Arabian Gulf is stunning in the mid-morning light and the dhal boats are bobbing gently along the corniche.  On my way to the car a Saudi man and is son are waiting in a dilapidated old Ford.  The old man has the window down and calls out to us asking about our nationality.  I answer, “Amerikki” and he shouts back with a smile “USA number one!” and give me a thumbs up.  I am amazed once again how much they love and respect Americans here.  The paradigms shift….
Once back at the house we ditch our abayas and settle in for more kawa and tea.  It is approaching noon and five other Saudi women join us for lunch.  Mr. Husband has retreated back to the men’s area of the house and we don’t see him again until time to leave.  Men and women remain separate almost from birth.  Entertaining men and women together is rare and actually the layout of this house is unusual.  Generally, there is a completely separate sitting and dining area for men and women because a man should never see the face (or arms or legs) of any women that is not his wife or mother.  Even siblings keep separate quarters after the age of puberty.   
The other ladies that join us remove their abayas and hijabs once they are in the house and cannot be seen by intruding male eyes.  They reveal beautiful clothes and thick, dark hair.  These are women I work with at the hospital but I have never seen their hair.  They are all stunningly beautiful women.  We greet each other with the traditional three kisses to one cheek and a hug.  This is the greeting of close friends (male to male or female to female but NEVER mixed!) and if men are very close friends they will also touch noses.  Greeting and parting are very important and always very animated.    Tea, coffee (kawa) and food are also very strong signs of welcome and friendship and we all sit together and enjoy the welcome.
Our hostess has prepared a huge spread thanks to some of the other women who brought a dish or two and her sisters also helped by preparing food.  We have broccoli cheese soup, seafood biryani, pasta and chicken, stuffed grape leaves, homemade hummus, 5 layer dip with Doritos, haloumi and tomato salad, fatoush salad, and flat bread.  The food is delicious and we enjoy laughter and conversation as the women talk about their homes, their children, how they met their spouses and the struggles of balancing a career and a family.  In some ways I could have been with any group of ladies in the States talking about the same things.  Most marriages here are arranged and often the couple doesn’t even see each other until their engagement party.  About half of these women actually met their husband and fell in love before they were married.  Hearing these stories and the similarities to our courtships, engagements and marriages makes me smile.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent drinking mint tea and eating sweets (desert) in the sitting area while the sun slid slowly down the sky.  Once it was cool enough we slipped out by the pool to enjoy the last vestiges of daylight.  If our group had been adults only we would have smoked the “hubbly bubbly” but since we had our hostess’  two girls and two of the other guests’ daughters with us we opted to be good role models and pass.  All in all it was a wonderful day getting to know ladies I work with and catch a rare glimpse of life in a Saudi home.   
This is a land shrouded in mystery and secrecy.    Men and women stay separated from each other in public places.  Women veil their entire face in public and cover the rest of their bodies with black polyester robes, gloves and socks.  Underneath the hijab is most likely a gorgeous mane of thick black hair and underneath the abaya is sure to be a designer dress or expensive pair of blue jeans.  Questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will almost always be affirmative to avoid “losing face”.  Even if the driver has no idea the location requested by his passenger he will confidently take them on board.   Islam is Saudi and Saudi is Islam.  It is difficult if not impossible for us from the West to understand that concept.  Even the most enlightened Saudi male is not aware of the sometimes opposition to an outspoken Western woman or some of our concepts of self-governance.  We as Westerners living in this strange land are guilty too…we hide our Christianity, hide the fact we drink, make halfhearted attempts to cover our clothes and hair, and make vain attempts to “save face” by often telling half-truths or at least distorting the facts.  What you see on the surface is rarely, if ever the reality.  At the close of every day I lie in bed and shake my head at the wonders of the day:  an amazing sunset followed by a full moon, a compliment on an achievement at work from a most unlikely source, lunch with a diverse group of women sharing stories about life, love, children and families, uncovering the tender side of a new Saudi dad.  My time is never boring and never luke warm.  Some things I love and some things I hate about my life here but I wouldn’t trade the experience…every day is magical here in the Magic Kingdom!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sal's Birthday Week

The weather has started to cool off.  I walk about 3 blocks from my office across the hospital campus to another office building for a meeting.  There is a dry, gentle breeze blowing that feels like a cashmere wrap on my arms and shoulders.  The warmth of the sun is welcoming but much less harsh than a month ago.   
As I sit in the conference room I can see the minarets of a mosque just on the outskirts of the camp and my thoughts drift off in reflection of the past week.  My close friend Sal celebrated her 50th birthday this weekend.  Actually we spent an entire week celebrating!  Her sister came from the US to visit for the first time and this alone was a great reason to celebrate.  The visit was really Sal’s only birthday wish.  Sal has been here over 15 years and that makes turning 50 an especially important milestone.  When you have completed 10 years of service and you turn 50 you are eligible to retire fully vested and with full healthcare benefits for the rest of your life!
I reflect on the early part of the week when I was sitting in a difficult peer review meeting and Sal begins to text message me that she is in Bahrain with the driver waiting to pick up her sister and she has discovered her Saudi visa is not in her passport!  The Saudi checkpoint didn’t look for it and let her leave but the Bahraini check point noticed she didn’t have it so several urgent texts are flying back and forth and we decide that I can retrieve the house key from her car, go to her house and find the visa and then meet a driver near the main gate of camp who will take it to Bahrain so she and her sister can both return later that night to Saudi Arabia!  This is good for many laughs the rest of the week.
Celebrations should always begin with a party and this is no exception.  Sal’s birthday party is held at her close friend’s house on camp.  The house is quite spacious and beautifully decorated.  Artwork from around the world covers almost every wall.  Food is being catered by a local food vendor and includes full service with waiters passing trays of goodies like stuffed mushroom caps, chicken skewers, fresh vegetable crudités, cheese wrapped in phyllo dough, and of course a “shawarma dude”.  Shawarma is an Arabic sandwich like wrap made with thin slices of chicken (or lamb or beef) wrapped in flat bread with pickles, tomatoes and a garlic sauce.  I am not that fond of shawarma but it is hugely popular here and almost every party or event serves this.
As people gather outside on the deck around the pool the evening is warm and unusually humid.  People drift casually in, dressed in their best clothes and finest jewels.  Why not?  This is a special night and opportunities to dress up and “go out” are few and far between here.  I am pleasantly surprised to find that I know most of the people attending and few of them are people I actually work with!  Sal’s sister is obviously enjoying meeting all of her friends and sharing laughs and memories of past places and times.  Homemade beverages are flowing freely and as the night goes on everyone is feeling happy and relaxed. I enjoy meeting all sorts of interesting people: a young man that is here from one of the Eastern Bloc countries teaching English, a man who grew up in Aramco and now has his own children studying professions that are likely to have them employed by Aramco, a couple from Italy that are now retired and live outside the camp.  Everyone has a story to tell and the places and people associated with the stories make me smile with fascination about the world.
A couple of days later my special group of friends gather at yet another beautiful home on camp to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving.  The group of about 12 people have become my inner circle and really instrumental in me keeping my sanity.  There are single men and women and couples and some work on the core oil side and some work with me in the hospital.  All of them are especially kind and would do anything for each other.  We frequently gather at each other’s homes for “405” parties or the equivalent of a happy hour at home.  It is a great way to start the weekend and unwind from the craziness we all experience every week.  Today, we are just having a good old fashioned Thanksgiving meal.  Everyone brought a dish and the host prepared a turkey (brought from the US especially for this meal!).   The menu will be turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, green salad, fresh rolls, homemade cranberry sauce, stuffing, more homemade beverages and of course a birthday cake.  I volunteered to make dessert and since it was a continuation of the birthday celebration what would be better than a homemade pumpkin/pecan birthday cake with cream cheese frosting? 
Preparing to make the cake meant taking an inventory of the necessary ingredients.  Most things could easily be purchased in the commissary on camp but a few things I knew might be a problem.  Canned pumpkin is not something you see here very often.  Fortunately another friend had an extra can (brought back from a recent trip to the US) and she was willing to donate to the cause.  Nutmeg was completely out of the question as it is prohibited here because in large quantities it can be an aphrodisiac.  The other spices were eventually found and after visiting both commissaries and the mini-market on camp plus 2 grocery stores in Khobar I had everything but cream cheese.   I felt certain I would find cream cheese on camp – I always see it in the commissary so I didn’t see the need to bring it back from town.  Important lesson here is that just because you see it once or even twice, don’t assume you will find it when you need it!  I had to have cream cheese.  The frosting would not be as good without it and after all this is my closest friend here so I wanted the cake to be as special as she is! 
I take the shoppers bus into Khobar the night before the party determined to go to the newly remodeled Safeway grocery store.  I have only been to this store once or twice when I first arrived and although I had a general idea where it was I wasn’t sure of the exact location or the bus stop.  I get off at the first stop and follow the crowd across the pedestrian bridge into the heart of Khobar.  It is a Friday afternoon and this is the only time the third world laborers get off.  The sidewalks and pedestrian bridge are packed with people from all poverty stricken countries around the world.  They are selling belts, underwear, vegetables and fruit, watches, and just about everything else you can imagine along the bustling sidewalks.  The streets are dirty and filled with litter and broken tiles, glass, and other remnants of demolition.
I make my way through the chaos to the corniche and begin the mile long trek to Safeway.  Cars are packed onto the road that runs along the conrniche and as I make my way I witness many near miss collisions and I am acutely aware of the need for extra caution as you cross an intersection.  I am also conscious of staying away from the edge of the road as the crazy drivers have no concept that curbs are meant to keep you on the road and not the sidewalk.  It is blistering hot in a black nylon abaya and the humidity coming off the gulf is making me drip with sweat.  I finally reach the store and gulp in the cool air-conditioned air as I enter a new, modern, clean store that looks just like home.  I take advantage of the coolness and wonder through the produce, cheese and lunch meat, olives, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh fish and meat and of course a bakery.  With my mouth watering over all of the variety of yummy looking goods I settle on a jug of fresh OJ and head off to get my cream cheese.  Safeway is part of an American food chain and reminds me a lot of Kroger.  They usually have a lot of American products here so I do a quick check for the things I want the most:  Aquafresh toothpast – check, toilet tissue – check, liquid laundry detergent – no, not this time.  I grab a few items and head for the checkout just as the prayer call starts.  I have to get checked out before prayer so I can catch a taxi back to camp and finish my cake!
I find a lane that is moving quickly, glance at my watch and take a deep breath with the realization that I am going to make it back to camp with time to spare.  The man at the cash register tells me I owe 220SR or about 40 dollars and reach into my purse for my wallet.  After removing most everything I realize I don’t have my wallet and in my panic I am not even sure where it is.  After a few minutes of embarrassment as I confess I have no money with me and the cashier calls the manager over who agrees to let me have the groceries and just pay for them the next time I come in.  I explain that won’t be for a few days and he assures me “mafi mushkila” – no problem.   Amazed, I collect my groceries and head out to hail a taxi.  I realize of course, I have no money so I better find the Aramco bus and after a quick call to another friend I am delighted to hear she is near me eating dinner and will pick me up on her way home and loan me the money to pay off my groceries.
Safely back on the Aramco camp I find my wallet on the kitchen counter and I finish my birthday cake and head to bed satisfied that I have survived another day.  I have also managed to avoid the need to go back into town and pay the grocery bill so all in all things worked out fine. 
The birthday cake looked perfect with chopped pecans and candles spelling HAPPY BIRTHDAY providing the final touches.  The thanks giving dinner was delicious and a welcome touch of something familiar.  The dining room was filled with laughter, toasts, stories, hugs and the warm glow of friends and families coming together to share thanks for all of the blessings we are given everyday.  Whether they are disguised in the privilege of being born an American or the amazing sights of Saudi Arabia or the new friends that have become a sort of temporary family I feel very blessed and thank God for this amazing experience.  Fond farewells are said to Sal’s sister as they are preparing to leave the next day to do some sightseeing.  We all part full and contented.   So goes another week in the Magic Kingdom. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

No Place Like Home

I love flying on Saudi Aramco Airlines!  The bus drives you to the private terminal; someone is there to wait on you hand and foot.  There are minimal security checks to go through and nice clean lounges to wait in.  The fleet of 737s is almost new and only 4 seats to a row, divided by a nice wide aisle make the plane very comfortable too.  Noticeably absent on both flights this time is the travelers prayer, said in Arabic, usually right before take-off asking Allah to protect and bless the travelers on their journey.  The flight is full of Aramco workers traveling for business or just taking a trip to see family.  The all-male flight crew is polite, helpful and swift as they serve snacks and beverages to all the passengers.  Of course only soft drinks but the snacks are a box lunch of sandwiches and fruit or yogurt.  The two hour flight passes quickly and as we approach Jeddah I notice a huge wall cloud in front of us coming in off the Red Sea.  The air is bumpy but the landing is smooth as glass and soon we are in another private VIP terminal.
Jeddah is a sprawling, bustling city, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia.  Our hotel is on the corniche and it is lovely and modern.  The air is warm but interestingly, not a humid as Dhahran and slightly cooler.  We drop the luggage have a quick bite to eat (during the last prayer of the day) and head out to a local shopping mall.  Saudi’s love the night life.  They sleep during the day and come out at night so malls and shops stay open until after midnight.  We wander the mall until near closing and after much negotiation with the local taxi driver we pile in and head back to the hotel for some sleep.  Three of us are crammed into the backseat and one woman is sitting in front with the driver.  She is a pleasant Arab woman from Lebanon who speaks Arabic so she can easily give directions and instructions to the driver as needed.  As we travel down the heavily congested roads driving too fast and following too close as is the way to drive in Saudi when the taxi suddenly swerves off to the side of the road and stops.  We are all chatting and don’t really notice, since this type of inexplicable behavior in a taxi is quite common.  The driver moves back in the lane of traffic and a few minutes later, he swerves off to the side of the road again.  This time we ask, “What is happening?”  Our co-worker in the front seat explains that the driver has spotted a Muttawa car and if they spotted us and pulled us over the taxi driver could be arrested for having a woman he is not married to sitting in the front seat!!  She relates her experience with the Muttawa in the past and I am in awe that this stuff actually happens.  I hear stories of being with a young male cousin in the mall in Riyadh when the Muttawa  approach and make them leave the mall and sign papers promising to never to speak to each other again.  In another incident she and her husband (before they were married) were on a public beach sitting on the hood of the car watching the sunset when the Muttawa approached.  Both were taken into custody and detained.  The man spent the night in jail and was ultimately given 18 lashes; the woman was warned and released.  This seems incomprehensible to me!!
I wanted a photograph of the amazing fountain outside our hotel.  I decide to walk down the block to an optimal site for picture taking when we arrive back at the hotel.  It was hot under the black polyester abaya and it was late.  I confidently walked down the sidewalk to the street and began looking for the perfect spot to take my pictures.  Taxis were stopping every few minutes certain I must need a ride somewhere.  The street sweepers and other workers from third world countries all stopped to stare at me.  They seemed amazed to see a woman on her own walking up and down the busy street determined to take a picture of something they had no interest in.  As I was drawing more attention than I wanted and before that included the attention of a Muttawa I hurried back to the relative safety of the hotel, climbed out of my sweaty abaya and fell into bed to sleep.
The traffic in Jeddah is worse than I have seen anywhere.  Cars are everywhere, not following their lanes, turning anytime without warning and children are not restrained and neither are the drivers or other passengers.  When people ask me if I am afraid living in Saudi, the truth is the only thing I am afraid of is driving in a taxi!  We inch our way back to the terminal for our Aramco flight and as the plane is being boarded I laugh to myself at the irony that a man and woman who are strangers can’t sit next to each other in a taxi but it is perfectly acceptable on a plane.  A reminder that this is what I call a “logic free zone”!
I sleep most of the way back to Dhahran and I am happy to be back to the safe, comfortable, somewhat predictable Aramco camp and my little apartment.  It is very late and I have an early day the next day so after a couple of quick calls to family letting them know I am back safe and sound I collapse into bed exhausted and amazed by the sights and experiences of the last twenty four hours.
I have been back in the Kingdom slightly more than a week after enjoying almost a month away visiting my family in England and the US.  I find myself dreaming about being home, in my house in Tennessee.  I am in my own bed with the sunlight softly creeping through the window tickling my eyelids and whispering “Good Morning” in my ear.  I can hear the birds chirping outside the bedroom window and the trees are making a soft rustling sound as the wind blows a soft, cool fall breeze through them.  Home is like a well-worn, favorite pair of slippers at the end of a long day.  It is a place that is filled with the laughter of my friends from my old job and my two dogs happy to meet me at the door with wagging tails and anxious to sniff all sorts of new exotic smells.  It’s the hugs and kisses from my husband and sharing a good laugh with my mom, brother and sister.  I have been back in the Kingdom slightly more than a week and already the familiar ache of missing home has set in.  But, I wake to the bright sun of a new day, enjoy a weekend with new friends playing at the beach, eating dinner at a restaurant on camp, laughing hysterically at an animated movie in the theater on camp and I remind myself what an incredible blessing this is.  An experience that most people will only read about in a book or watch on TV.  An opportunity to see a part of the world walled off from sight for most.  An adventure filled with crazy moments that make absolutely no sense and yet somehow start to feel normal.  I think that must be why they call this The Magic Kingdom! 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day into Night

The sun hangs motionless like a flaming orange ball against a cloudless blue sky.  The air is still and heavy and clings to you like wet gauze.  Summer is here is full force.  The temperatures are consistently ranging between 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit and even a short walk to the car or the office leaves my hair clinging to the back of my neck and streams of sweat running down my face.  Air conditioners groan under the weight of constant use.  People walking outside carry umbrellas to try and protect themselves from the strong rays of the sun.  There is little relief from the oppressive heat and humidity and people try to stay inside during the daylight hours as much as possible.
The date palms stand tall with branches that hang heavy with clusters of dates.  I haven’t given much thought to dates before and except the occasional date bar dates are not part of my diet routine.  Fresh dates picked right off the tree are delicious.  As they ripen, the date becomes more translucent and soft.  Ripe dates are like sweet velvet that melts in your mouth.  But the dates that aren’t quite ripe are still very tasty – they are soft but firm and sweet but not sticky.  Some of the best dates in the world come from Qatif and Al Hasa, just about 45 minutes from Dhahran.  The camp is filled with date palms and the migrant workers can be seen picking dates anywhere you look.
As the sun approaches the horizon, the temperatures drop into the low 100’s and the humidity climbs.  Water runs down the walls and windows of buildings, breathing is difficult like being in a sauna.  Glasses fog over making it impossible to see and taking forever to clear.  The sunsets are like a Monet painting.  The sun looks huge and turns a deep red-orange.  The sky is shades of pink, orange, lavender and once the sun drops below the horizon the sky becomes a vibrant bluish purple and the stars look like holes that have been poked in this amazing cloth covering the earth.
The Islamic calendar is lunar.  The ninth month of the lunar calendar is Ramadan and its beginning is signaled when the new moon is sighted.  During Ramadan, Muslims are required to observe a strict fast from dawn until dusk.  They cannot drink even water and cannot eat any food.  Some especially strict Muslims even refrain from swallowing their own saliva!  The hospital observes Ramadan.  Muslims are required to work only 6 hours per day – either 7 – 1 or 9 -3 (day or night).  Non-Muslims (primarily Expats) pick up the slack.  There can be no food or drink in public places – including water.  The cafeteria doors are closed and although food is served for non-Muslims, the doors remain closed and only non-Muslims are seen in the cafeteria.  The coffee kiosks are abandoned.
When the sun fades completely below the horizon the fast is broken with a small snack, iftar, which usually consists of dates and water or milk.  After the last prayer for the day the family has a big meal together and celebrates the end of the day.   As a result, activities shift from day to night.  Malls and shops are closed during the day for the most part but they open after the last prayer (around 8 pm) and stay open until just before sunrise (usually they close between 2-4 am).    This is my first Ramadan.  Many expats that have experienced this in the past leave the Kingdom during Ramadan.  When it falls in the hot summer months it is especially difficult for everyone.  The gardeners and grounds keepers must follow the same rules that the rest of us are following, no drinking or eating in public during the daylight hours.  Security guards stand at the gates in the blazing sun and heat with no water or food.  People are sleep deprived, dehydrated and just plain tired by the end of the month. 
This week I was in a meeting with my boss, a Saudi doctor, and he called another Saudi man to join us for a discussion.  The custom here is to stand with someone enters the room and I was especially conscious of this as it is not my habit to stand when a man (or even another woman) enters a room during a meeting.  The man entered, the Dr. and I both stand, and the man and the Dr. shake hands.  Without even a thought, I extended my hand.  The man covered his heart and bowed slightly.  I continued to stand there for what seemed like hours as he bowed slightly a second time and I realized he was not going to shake my hand.  My administrative assistant, a Saudi, explained that men are not allowed to touch the skin of a woman they are not married to or close relatives with!
The work I am doing in the hospital is having some impact but things have run like this here for 50 plus years so any small change is difficult.  Many of the doctors, nurses and leaders have been here for their entire career so they have little insight into how things work outside.  I am constantly reminded that there is the culture of Islam, the culture of Saudi Arabia and the culture of Saudi Aramco that must be considered with every thought or deed.  This has certainly been a crash course in organizational behavior! 
I am approaching my sixth month here.  I have had some amazing experiences.  I have met some really nice people and some not so nice people.  The culture here is not only the culture of the Arab people but the culture of a relatively small compound with people from around the world, each here for their own reasons.  Many have been here their whole lives; everyone has their own personal story and agenda.  Some people I thought were friends have turned out to be something else.  Understanding the Arab customs has been challenging and embarrassing at times.  Being a Western woman means having habits and practices that are neither appreciated nor accepted here sometimes.  I will be returning to the US in about a month for a short visit.  I can’t wait to get home to things I know and people I love.  I am not sure how long I will live in Saudi Arabia, but one thing I know for sure, even six months here have changed me forever!

Addendum:  Please don't read into this - I am still having a blast and love experiencing all these new and interesting things - but prayers are always appreciated!!  : )

Monday, July 18, 2011

Friends, Relationships and Groceries

Most of us are here on “bachelor status”, meaning we are alone.  My husband, parents and sons are still in the U.S. – except my eldest son that lives in London.  Being here alone means that you make friends really fast and they become GOOD friends!  The names of my friends are fictional and these descriptions are really a compilation of people I have met – not intended to describe a certain individual but the sentiments are real.
Sometimes you meet a person and you just know immediately they are going to be someone you want to hang with.  You can’t really say why, but you just know – the way the smile, the way they laugh, the things they like, the places they frequent – it just makes it really easy to be with them.  I got lucky and met three people like that almost the minute I landed in Kingdom.  These are the ladies I spend all of my free time with.  We like the same things, we laugh at the same things, we gossip about the same things and we have a great time just being with each other. 
Sally is from the Midwest US, she is full of life and so much an extrovert she literally knows everyone on the camp.  She took me under her wing the very first day and we have had some really good laughs.  Sally always sees the glass half full and when I am just desperate to find the fastest way home she can totally turn my thinking around and make me see all of the positive reasons for staying.  She helped me get stuff for my apartment, she arranged for me to borrow a car when I first arrived and she has introduced me to several other people that have become my surrogate family.  I had only been here a couple of weeks when I decided to drive the borrowed car to work for the first time.  I did a test run to make sure I knew how to get to the office.  Since I was always a passenger on my first trips to the office I didn’t really pay close attention to the route.  As is true with people who have lived in a place for a long time, no one knows the names of the streets so getting good directions was impossible.  The camp is relatively small and built like a US Military Base, so not really that hard to follow.  Rush hour traffic here consists of maybe 10-12 cars on the road at one time!  This seemed like an easy task, after all, I have been driving for a very long time!  I head out with plenty of time to spare and take the route I practiced the day before but as luck would have, all 12 cars were on the road that morning and I wasn’t exactly confident about the route.   As I was looking for the right road to turn on, I missed seeing a STOP sign until I was too late and ended up running the stop sign right in front of a security guard.  Needless to say, I got stopped and was given a ticket.  A traffic ticket here is really bad!  Your boss is notified and you get counseled, it goes into your personnel record and you don’t get your “safety award” for the year.  And the safety award is a big deal because you can choose things like a microwave or GPS unit.  I was pretty upset by this – especially since I was using my borrowed car for the first time and the car belonged to Sally’s good friend.  I told her about this as soon as got to work and she jumped into action – we spent the next 4 hours going all over the camp looking for someone with the authority to void the ticket.  When she asked me if I had tried to cry in front of the officer, I said I really had to try NOT to cry and we both laughed so hard we about wet ourselves.  The friendship was forever forged after that day.
Kathy lives out west.  She had to leave her husband and kids at home too and we spend a lot of time talking about how hard it is to be here without your husband.  It is funny how many things you take for granted and how much you miss them when you don’t have them!!  Our husbands take really good care of us and we both feel a huge void without them here!  Kathy and I have a really easy time together.  We are both very committed to our faith and enjoy our fellowship times together.  We have fun shopping, eating out, exploring and just relaxing at our apartments. 
Alice is my pal for spa days, pedicures, trips to the beauty salon and lounging by the swimming pool.  We both love being girly girls and shopping trips always cost way too much money.  I am usually just a by-stander on those trips but I have no problem choosing clothes that look great on her.  The days at the pool are always fun – the sun is warm and strong, like a bold cup of coffee.  The pool is chilled to the perfect temperature so when you jump in it is just cool enough to catch your breath but feel totally refreshing.  Hours fly by in conversation, sharing stories about life in the Middle East, travels to exotic places and experiences over 15 + years of working abroad.  The only thing we really miss is umbrella drinks.
I usually venture into Khobar on the weekends with one of my friends.  One day, I decided to be adventurous and go on my own after all, I only needed to go to the grocery store and we take a bus that only makes two stops.  On the bus, I met Karen, a woman I work with but don’t really know that well.  We had a nice chat along the route to the shops and she got off at the first stop to visit an Indian bakery and get some other things for a party she was having that night.  I got off at the second stop – LuLu market.  I was in the store about 20 minutes with several items in my cart when I started to feel very bad.  I was suddenly overcome by a feeling that was all too familiar; I was going to be sick and needed to get to a toilet – quick!  Well, public toilets are few and far between in this country so no luck.  I sat on a bench in front of the store with a plastic bag in my hands and reviewed my options:  bus wasn’t coming back for at least an hour; I couldn’t call anyone to pick me up because they aren’t allowed to drive, and calling an ambulance would surely land me in some forsaken hospital which made that not even an option!  As I sat on a bench in front of the store my bus-mate Karen appeared.  I explained the situation and she hailed a taxi, helped me into it and escorted me back to my apartment.  My grocery shopping was abandoned but another friendship was forged.  
Everyone I have met since I arrived has gone out of their way to help me, provide for me, care for me and be genuinely kind.  I work with a fabulous group of people from around the globe and we have all come to appreciate the similarities and differences we experience every day.  We have shared plenty of laughs and some tears.  We are beginning to know a little about the tapestry that makes up our lives.  We are forming relationships – some will probably last for a lifetime and others will only last for the moment.  It is all part of this incredible journey called life – in the Magic Kingdom

Friday, June 24, 2011


Today is hot and dusty.  The air is thick with dust and it covers everything like a blanket.  My car is covered with it and the heat and the dust make it difficult to breathe.  The day has just begun and the sun has only been up for a few hours but it is already approaching 100 degrees.  I am heading to Bahrain.
Bahrain is a tiny island just east of Saudi Arabia.  It is its own Kingdom, ruled by a Sunni Muslim King but inhabited in the majority by Shia Muslims.  This fact has been a source of much civil unrest over the past several months.  Riots, murders, unfounded arrests and death have all been the result of the people saying they no longer want the minority in power.  Today I learn that several people involved in an uprising about 2 months ago have been sentenced to life in prison.  I am uncertain if this includes the doctors and nurses that cared for the wounded Shia in a local hospital.
A large group of us are traveling to Bahrain today. All women – since women cannot drive they are the only ones allowed to take the shuttle.  I don’t really know anyone and I am going alone for the first time.  While I wait for the shuttle to pick us up I listen to everyone chat about their plans for the day.  Many, like me, are going to a hair salon.  There are a couple of American women on camp that do hair out of their house but both of them happen to be out this particular week on leave.  There are certainly hair salons in Khobar but the real difficulty is finding someone that speaks English well enough to trust with your hair!  In Bahrain the chance of finding someone American or English goes up exponentially and I am going to see a woman that comes highly recommended.
The drive out of Khobar is shocking as usual.  Since it is the weekend the roads are crowded with cars and people are driving with the usual madness.  The part of town that leads to the causeway is filled with empty buildings, empty lots with rubble from fallen buildings, patches of desert filled with the sand that is creating the dust, and businesses that remind you of an inner city slum.  The view of the Gulf rises out of the clutter like a Phoenix.  The Gulf of Arabia is beautiful.  Every time I see it I am immediately transported to Tampa Bay, Florida.  The water is still and blue – a color of blue that combines azure and cerulean with turquoise to create a color that is pure pleasure.  The causeway bridge is well built, well maintained and an excellent road for driving.  Once on the causeway a strange sense of normalcy begins to settle over me.  I am happily conversing with the new friends I have met and anxiously awaiting a haircut.
Check points are not too crowded this morning because there are several lanes open.  First the vehicle we are in must clear the exit process.  Next all passports are surrendered for the Saudi government to verify we have the necessary visa to exit Saudi.  The vehicle must stop to purchase insurance to enter Bahrain, again passengers surrender passports to Bahraini immigration and finally the car is searched for any contraband being brought into Bahrain.  Five checkpoints in all and the last one is a mystery – what is there to smuggle out of Saudi or into Bahrain???
Bahrain is like a tropical paradise.  The Gulf can be seen from almost every angle.  The buildings are a brilliant display of some of the world’s fines architecture.  The glass and steel high rises gleam with the morning sun.  We all feel a sense of freedom that is at times greatly missed in Saudi.  Here we are free to dress as we like – short skirts, crop pants, sundresses, tank tops and we are not required to wear the hot black robes called abayas that must be worn when off the camp in Saudi. 
The shuttle stops at two malls, the Ritz Carlton hotel and Trader Vic’s.  I am getting off at the mall for a short taxi ride to the hair salon.  The salon is a chain from Lebanon that has locations in three of the luxury hotels in Bahrain.  I have opted for the Regency Intercontinental because another girl I met recommended her stylist at this location.  The salon is modern and hustling with ladies in chairs getting haircuts, colored, blow dried and styled.  I immediately like to vibe of the grey metal, black leather, red towels, and white tile.  Filipino women greet every customer and place them in a black robe to protect their clothes and bring them coffee, tea, cappuccino, or water.  The stylists are assisted by the Filipino women to do everything from hold the foil pieces for hair color to shampoo and blow dry the hair.  I am fascinated by the way the stylists move from chair to chair performing the cutting, coloring, or actual styling and leaving the other work to the assistants. 
As I enjoy a relaxing shampoo complete with head, neck and shoulders massage and listen to the pop music play in the background I hear the ever familiar call to prayer waft through the air like the familiar scent of cookies baking.  Above the din of clacking scissors and humming blow dryers and ladies nattering about their day the Imam still manages to call people to prayer with his lyrical chants of the Quran.  I am reminded that as normal as it feels to me I am still a long way from home. 
Bahrain is an essential part of living in Saudi.  I can’t imagine living here without it.  It is an escape from the daily frustrations of language and communication barriers; hot, heavy abayas; always conservative dress; no alcoholic beverages; no bacon for bacon and eggs or BLT sandwiches.  Not being able to try on clothes at the mall.  Having your cosmetics and lingerie sold to you by a man.  All just little things that were taken for granted in the US but are actually quite disturbing.  Here, it seems as if all wrongs have been righted.  Of course, there are the armored tanks, machine guns, soldiers patrolling parts of town and such things as these that bring you quickly back to the reality you are still in an oppressive society without many of the freedoms we take for granted. 
After my hair cut I relax in the regal lobby of the hotel and wait for a taxi to take me to one of the malls.  I don’t have any plans to shop but I have to wait for the shuttle to pick me up there for the ride back to Dhahran.  I feel like a wealthy American tourist and enjoy the time watching the real wealthy tourists watch me! 
The mall is as all malls.  The summer sales are on now and everything is marked down 50-70%.  Business in Bahrain has been hurt because of the political unrest and the fact that for a while Saudis were not allowed in the country at all, and then Shia Muslims from Saudi were not allowed in.  It is now back to business as usual but the economy has suffered a serious blow and still people are leery of going over from Saudi.  I enjoy a nice lunch at a little French café, wonder aimlessly for a couple of hours and long for the freedom to get into my car and leave when I am ready.   I can’t, so I find a place to sit and read a book and newspaper on my iPAD.
The drive back across the causeway is the exact reverse of the five checkpoints coming over.  Traffic is bad and the ability of drivers to queue is being tested.  We narrowly escape being crushed between two inpatient Saudi drivers anxious to get back to their native soil!  Across the Gulf it is evident that the dust in the air has grown even thicker.  You can barely see the horizon and the sun looks more like a giant yellow plate hanging on a gray wall.  Everyone is relaxed and happy.  Most have had a few cocktails at Trader Vic’s and are animated as they recount their day.  A few good laughs and stories about past times and we are suddenly back safely on camp.  Hugs and farewells, wishes for the remainder of the weekend and we all part with the same thought – Thank goodness for Bahrain….we can’t imagine life here without it!