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!