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 café 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.