Friday, April 29, 2011

Places and Faces...

Big green caterpillar buses line the street as people of all ages crowd up to get their box lunch and board.  There is a buzz in the air because this is a big chance for expats to see the real Saudi Arabia and the Arabs are looking forward to celebrating with their fellow countrymen.  There are many men in white thobes and ghutra’s.  All of the women are wearing their black abayas and if they don’t have their head scarves already on they are prepared with them at hand.
The busses pull out and head to the Dammam airport about 30 miles away.  We are taking a company plane to Riyadh and there is a certain excitement about even this fact.  The airport is the same airport I flew into 2 months ago and I was so dazed I barely remember landing.  The Saudi gentleman leading the trip passes by to make sure everyone is settled and ready to go.  I am practicing my Arabic with a friend and noting that I have learned about 100 words so far!
We approach the airport and I am awestruck when I see “Welcome to Saudi Aramco Aeronautics” written on the side of a very large, very nice terminal.  I knew the company owned planes, helicopters and buses.  They have oil rigs, wells, and pipelines across almost every inch of Saudi and many people have to travel back and forth from the remote areas to the corporate office in Dhahran for business purposes.  I had no idea that they had their own terminal – complete with security screening, ticket agents, baggage claim, waiting areas and a snack bar!  It is all very modern and very organized.  There are actually 2 separate concourses and of course separate waiting areas for men and women.
Once all boarding passes have been issued and there is clearance that everyone has their iqama we are ready to board.  The plan is one of 6 nearly new 737 just like the ones Southwest Airlines flies.  I was expecting a more military flight but instead I had a very comfortable seat complete with flight attendants, beverage service and drop down TV screens.  I sat by the window so I could see the changing scenery of the desert as we flew to the capital city of Riyadh. 
Janadyriah is a village about 45 km north of Riyadh and every year they host a festival that is something like a state fair minus the carnival rides.  We met 12 other busses from two of the other Aramco residential camps and we were escorted by security police to the front gate.  The festival goes for 2 weeks but only one weekend is for families and expats.  This day there are over 500,000 Saudi men, women and children attending!!  There is an absolute sea of thobes, ghutras, abayas and nijabs.  The central provence is one of the most conservative areas so nearly all of the women are fully covered from head to toe in black.  Some expose their eyes; others are covered completely or wear sunglasses.   We were all prepared that we would be asked to cover our hair as well, we never were. 
The buildings house exhibits about either the different regions of the country or the Ministries of the government.  Japan was the host country this year so there was a special exhibit about Japan.  Food vendors line the pathways and a steady stream of people flow in and out of each exhibit.  Lines are long; it is very hot with the sun overhead and the black abaya on.  A friend and I stop for some icecream and suddenly there is a crowd forming and I begin to hear drums beating.  A parade is coming down the street with men from all of the tribes in Saudi dressed in costumes native to their region and performing the traditional dances and chants.  The costumes are colorful and everyone is clearly enjoying the show!  Simultaneously, the Saudi air force performs an amazing air show complete with smoke and daring formations.  Three men dressed in desert coats ride along on camels looking something like the Three Kings.
We ate our ice cream and watched the fun, then headed off to see how camels were used to get water out of the ground in the old days.  As the sun began to set we enjoyed other performances of native dancing and singing on huge stages throughout the festival.  I notice the stacks of Persian carpets when we arrived and wondered what they were for.  Now, in the twilight I see they have been rolled out to serve as park benches where families sit and have picnics complete with tea and coffee pots.  The children take naps in the mothers’ laps and the older people just appreciate a chance to rest.  I am struck by how some of the old traditions remain from the days of the Bedouin.  Families also bring their own carpets much like we would bring lawn chairs.  They spread them on the ground and enjoy watching the scenes around them while they eat dates and drink the Arabic coffee or tea.
Arabic coffee is made from green coffee beans which are brewed and mixed with cardamom and sugar and then served from a brass pot called a “dallah”.  It has a very unique spicy taste and some is better than others depending on how it is made.  It is always served with dates and the coffee is in small cups without a handle that are usually hand painted and very pretty.  Arabic coffee and dates are essential to welcoming guests and this combination is served at every social function.  We enter an exhibit for a southern region of the country and enjoy a lovely cup of Arabic coffee, some very nice organic dates and a private tour of the exhibit.
Traditionally, women are not supposed to be photographed.  Men are probably not either but they tend to be more forward in asking to have photos taken of themselves.  On this occasion though we are like rock stars!  Everyone one is asking to have their picture taken with us.  Some want it taken with their camera others don’t have a camera and just want a picture made with the Americans.  The young girls completely covered in black ask to take our pictures and then want a picture taken with us.  They are so excited to see us and can’t stop staring at our hair and faces.  A young man in a thobe is wearing a cowboy hat and wants to have a group photo taken with us using his camera and of course we all want the photo taken on our cameras too!  His friends are happy to oblige.   As we drift from exhibit to exhibit we separate so some of us can watch the dancing on a giant stage and others can wander through the souks looking at spices, handmade sandals, handmade baskets, sweets and baked goods and other native items.  We also enjoy watching the children take turns riding camels and playing with toy swords and dolls.  Val, my friend that arranged for this trip and I try to buy huge dallahs that could be used for decorations in our house or garden.  The old Bedouin that is selling the items is brown with leathered skin from years in the desert sun.  He doesn’t speak any English and our Arabic is minimal.  He is dressed in an old thobe and desert coat with his ghutra wrapped around his head like a turban.  He has almost no teeth and his bare feet are knarrled and dry – evidence of the harsh life in the desert.  Several women hear us trying to bargain with this man and decide to chime in in Arabic.  He is steadfast about his price and Val and I decide it would be too hard to carry the pots anyway so we head off to find the rest of our group.
Our other friends are sitting on cushions on the giant stage and once we join them people start approaching the stage to take pictures of us.  We all have a good laugh and a well needed rest before we head off to see more of the festival.  Val and I try one more time for the giant dallahs without success and opt for a large, functional handmade basket instead.  The evening has slipped into night and it is time for us to leave.  The crowd has grown exponentially making navigation with the giant baskets a challenge.  Long carpets are now laid out down the center of the roads and men, women, children, and elders are reclining with their tea, coffee, dates and other food taking a well-deserved break from the crowds and the heat. 
Back onboard the buses to the private terminal for the quick one hour flight back to Dammam.  We settle in, exhausted but satisfied by our adventure.  Another amazing week with the places and faces of Saudi has come to end.

Easter in the Middle East

The bleachers look out over a paddock designed for showing horses.  Today, there are microphones and guitars and even a flute set along the edge of the bleachers.  Sunday is not a day of worship here, it is a work day but this day is different.  Today is the day of the Risen Lord!  Some hundred plus people pack into the bleachers dressed in bright colors and native costumes.  There is a buzz in the air and a warm breeze surrounds us like gauze. 
The dust is hanging in the air and the sky looks flat through the trees.  Everyone has finally settled in, we are after all on Arabic time.  Arabic time is meaningless, there is no hour, there is no minute…time just happens when it happens and so it is this morning.  The musicians begin to sing and as strains of “Christ the Lord is risen today” float through the dry, dusty air I notice a woman in her black abaya with head and face covered walking along the path beside the horse stables. 
The sounds of praise echo across the paddock and the sun begins to shine like a huge yellow ball hanging effortlessly in the dusty sky.  The message is the Good News that I have heard on countless Easter Sundays in the past but today it suddenly has a new meaning.  I feel very close to the places and events that are described and I have a new appreciation for what both the Father and the Son did for me.  As strange as it seems, I feel closer than ever before here in the desert in the Middle East.  The service ends and we great each other with heartfelt hugs and wishes for the new day.  Hot cross buns and coffee are served and we all head off to our respective jobs in different parts of the camp.  He is risen, He is risen indeed!!!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Random thoughts...

The camp is big.  It is spread out and there are all sorts of offices, shops, restaurants, and housing that cover a very large area.  The hospital is by far the largest building on the camp but most of the offices house people that support the oil and natural gas production, exploration and associated services.  Office buildings range from single story, non-descript buildings or houses to multi-story buildings with glass facades or rich marble exteriors.   Once inside the buildings you are likely to find a maze of offices and hallways that all look essentially the same.  Most have a large reception area that will house a coffee cart or small shop, where you can purchase coffee, tea, soft drinks or bottled water and sweet snacks like pastries, cookies or candies.   Drinking coffee or tea is a huge pastime here.  It is a ritual part of every meeting, formal or informal, and either coffee or tea is consumed almost non-stop throughout the day.  The Arabs love their sweets too!  Pastries, cookies, dates, and other sweet confections are present at most social events and can be purchased at every coffee shop, coffee kiosk or the cafĂ© in the hospital throughout the day.
The green and white ‘caterpillar’ buses make their way around the camp at regularly scheduled intervals and serve as people movers for everyone from children going to school to workers headed to their jobs to the ‘dependent wives’ headed for recreational activities.  These are the buses that take us into Khobar or Dammam every day for shopping and on the weekends they make several trips back and forth.  They transport people to remote Aramco camps like Ras Tanura or Al Hossa.  These camps are quite far away and have residential housing much like the main camp in Dhahran.  They also have an emergency clinic in each of the camps that can be accessed 24 hours a day by the residents of the camp in case of emergency or urgent need.  The buses are the main mode of transportation for women who wish to travel outside the main camp for any reason such as shopping, the beach, or just visiting friends in other Aramco camps.
Old American school buses bring the workers from their barracks outside the main living quarters into the residential camp every morning at around 6:30 am and take them back again every evening around 5.  These are all men, from such places as Sri Lanka, Nepal and parts of India, Asia or the Middle East that are economically very poor.  The men often leave families at home to come here for work.  They most likely are paid only about $30 a week and they keep the trees, bushes, and shrubs trimmed, the lawns manicured, the streets cleaned, and the sidewalks hosed off daily.  The men earn extra money by washing cars and taking on additional work as gardeners for the residents living in the camp.  The gardeners and houseboys earn a pittance by American standards but this is a sort of social welfare program here that benefits everyone and in most cases it is significantly more than they could ever earn in their own countries.  They are housed in a couple of high-rise buildings at the edge of the residential part of the camp and they are not allowed free access to any of the amenities such as pools, restaurants, the library or the parks.  They cannot own vehicles and their residence is more like a dormitory than an apartment.  Some more fortunate houseboys are sponsored by an Aramco employee and will have the privilege of living in the employee’s house, but still no access to any of the other amenities. 
There is very much a class system here on the camp.  Never having spent any time in the military it seems rather strange to me but I suppose it isn’t all that different than what might happen on most military bases.  There is a ranking system, devised by job title and duties.  Those below certain job ranks are assigned housing in an area known as the ‘ballpark’.  The location is called that because at one time there actually was a baseball field in that area.  Now it is a large common with lush green grass and covered picnic tables flanked by the theatre, bowling alley, Tandori House restaurant, library and coffee shop.  The ballpark is a favorite gathering spot for everyone, especially after the blazing sun sets at night.  Family’s come here to picnic or enjoy the evening air.  Men come during prayer times to pray.  Evenings are spent alfresco sipping coffee on the patio and allowing the warm evening air to envelop you like a cashmere wrap.   Ballpark housing is made up of 300-500 square foot apartments that might also have a shared bath.  Housing is awarded based on job rank and a point system is used to bid for more desirable houses.  Houses are reserved for those with a more executive rank, however, so it is unlikely that a person living in the Ballpark will ever have enough points to move into an actual house.
Living quarters range from 500 - 1000 square foot townhomes like I live in to 2700 square foot houses that would rival some of the finest homes in the States.  These larger homes have hardwood floors, large privacy fenced yards, garages, and 2-3 bedrooms and up to 2 bathrooms.  Since most of the people living in the larger homes have lived here for some time they are also usually furnished with the finest furniture and carpets you can buy.  It is somewhat of a hobby here to collect “stuff” on the various exotic trips that are routinely taken.  Delft china from the Netherlands; French antiques; rosewood, teak and other expensive wood furniture from China or Thailand; carpets from Iraq, and so on can be found is large quantities in most homes.  It is always interesting to visit someone’s home and see what has been collected and treasured over the years.
For me, an American woman, I marvel at how surreal things seem at times.  The golf course, only about 50 feet from my apartment, is vast and green with gently rolling hills, gorgeous putting greens, palm trees and flowering shrubs in all colors from vibrant pink to spicy orange.   The green bushes and shrubs are meticulously trimmed into geometric shapes by hand by the men delivered every morning on the old yellow school buses.  Rarely do you see a dead leaf, broken branch or yard rubbish anywhere.  I have a small patch of land in front of my fence – I called housing and asked if they would pull the weeds and plant something there.  About two days later I had plants!!  And my gardener, a very sweet man from Nepal that speaks almost no English, brought pots and planted flowers in them for me to have on my patio – what a treat!!!  In some ways this feels more like Disney World than reality.  It can be mind-blowing if you think about it too hard.
After nearly two months, I still struggle to wrap my mind around life here.  Life is very easy for me here.  I can drive my little car all over camp, I rarely need to cook, and I now have a ‘houseboy’ (really more like a man for Sri Lanka) that does my cleaning and a gardener to keep the sand off my patio and my plants watered and fresh.  If I want something done around my house I just call the service center and they send someone to take care of it for me.  I also have a young man that washes my car once a week for about 4 dollars each time.  Work is difficult – there is no quality program here much to my surprise.  On the other hand, I am getting to create exactly what I want so eventually SAMSO will have the premier quality department that will probably serve as a role model for all other programs in the Kingdom.  Once again, I smile and marvel at where I have landed.