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 cafĂ©, 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!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Arabic Rules of the Road

As you have probably noted, my blog posts have been a bit few and far between!  I love keeping in touch with you all by writing this blog but I actually have been quite busy with my life here and somehow the time is gone before I realize it!   All of the expats that live here actually think there is a time warp here that makes the time go by faster.  We call it “Arabic time” – the clock just runs faster here and the days, weeks and months go by at lightning speed.
Days at work are usually filled with the usual meetings and emails and problem solving on the fly.  When I first arrived I was struck by how there seemed to be a complete lack of planning in any area of the organization.  I assumed that was just because up until about 2 years ago the hospital was run by an engineer from the oil production side.  I reminded myself that this is an oil company, not a healthcare company and the hospital and clinics only serve as a service to the employees that actually produce the oil.  FACTOID:  Oil production in approximately the first four days of each month pay for the monthly operations for the company – all remaining production is profit (predominantly to the Royal Family)!
Evenings are busy too!  I try to Zumba at least twice a week and walk at least twice a week.  I am starting to relocate my “girlish” figure – I thought I had lost it forever!!  Sometimes a group of us will go to a movie or have dinner together.  I always find time to check email and Facebook.  The evenings at home alone are hard and that is the time I am most homesick.  Keeping busy and staying out of the house until near bed time makes the homesickness tolerable.  Days off can be hard too – anytime with too much time to miss my husband, dogs, house and family is dangerous – I have to keep myself occupied!   Shopping in Khobar is good for killing time since you can go grocery shopping or just wander around anyone of several big malls.  The malls are kind of strange because they are designed with no real plan.  They seem to have a million stores selling the same things all located in the same area and most of what they are selling isn’t really something you want to buy.  A popular kiosk is the one that sells canned corn in little cups.  This is really interesting to me and I have often wondered if a cup of canned corn that has been sitting in a steamer has less nutritional value than a large chocolate chip cooking sandwiched with white frosting?
This brings me to the real subject of my blog today:  The rules of the road in Saudi Arabia.  I have hinted before that driving is probably the scariest thing you could ever do.  It would make a camel ride look tame!  So here is what I have noted:
1.        A speed limit is only a suggestion.  If you are in a hurry and need to go fast you can totally disregard the signs and drive as fast as your car can go. 
2.       If there is a traffic jam and the cars are all stopped, simply go around the other drivers on the shoulder of the road.  You can go on the left or right, it doesn’t matter because the only object is to be first!
3.       Red, green and yellow lights have only one purpose – they decorate “holiday trees”.  Since the Saudis don’t celebrate that “holiday” there really is no need for the lights so whatever those light thingies are – ignore them.
4.       A “stop sign” even written in Arabic is still a red octagonal sign but its purpose here is unclear.
5.       The white lines that are painted down the pavement that divide it into areas we call “lanes” in the west are simply there for decoration.  Straddling them, crossing them without warning, weaving back and forth between them is all perfectly acceptable and should be no cause for alarm.
6.       Seat belts are way to constricting.  They make it difficult to maneuver at high speeds, especially when you are passing other drivers on the left side between the mysterious solid white or yellow line and the concrete barrier.  By the way, what is a concrete wall doing dividing the traffic moving in opposite directions??   Oh, seat belts, yes, I forgot, don’t bother…
7.       If there is traffic all around but you want to turn, just do it!  It is fun to watch the other people slam on their brakes while you speed off in front of them!  Right hand turns across three lanes of traffic or left hand turns with no signal hone the skills of the other drivers!
8.       There is no need to queue when you drive.  Any more than there is a reason to queue when you are at a store waiting to check out.  If you all just muck in together sooner or later someone will move.
9.       If there is a pedestrian in the cross walk, speed up.  They will get out of the way.
10.   If the car in front of you is approaching a driveway on their right, even if they have a turn signal on and have begun to slow down, zoom around them on the right side.  It is too much trouble to stop and wait for them to make their turn.
These rules are not only handy for driving but they also make shopping at a crowded mall or grocery store very interesting.  A couple of weeks ago I went shopping at a very large supermarket call LULU (something like a Super Wal-Mart).  I wanted some produce from the produce section and my unfortunate luck was that I didn’t get to the section until the call for prayer.  As I have said before, when the call for prayer happens, all the workers take a break.  The customers are often allowed to continue their shopping and this was the case at LULU.  Produce has to be weighed and labeled at a counter in the middle of the produce department because the check-out stands are not equipped with scales to weigh the produce.  Thursdays are the first day of our weekend, so as you might imagine the grocery store was bustling.  People from all nations are looking for their five fruits and vegetables for the week.  Bananas, pears, oranges, peaches, nectarines, guavas, star fruits, mangoes, apples, grapes, and fruits I have never seen before were being grabbed up and bagged for weighing.  All types of lettuces and greens, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, fresh herbs, potatoes, squashes and other vegetables were also being bagged for weighing and the scene looked something like a shark feeding frenzy.  Once the prayer ended and the workers came back to the weighing stations you might have expected people to queue up orderly and get their produced weighed and labeled.  NOT TRUE!!!!  It looked more like rush hour on a weekend night and I was taught a very important lesson:  It’s a good thing women can’t drive!  It also confirmed something I began to suspect early on in my arrival – this is a society that does not plan.  There is no plan for how to organize a business, how to take care of patients at a hospital, how to manage the traffic flow on the highways, or even how much oil to produce.  It is seemingly all done in a random fashion without a plan.  Alas, the fact we get anything accomplished is proof it is the Magic Kingdom!!!