19 November 2014

Observations from KSA - I

Here in Saudi Arabia for five weeks. 

And it’s a desert.  Like the desert that Bugs Bunny would get lost in when he took the wrong turn at Albuquerque kinda desert.  Unsurprising, but still, it overwhelms.  On the way in from the airport, looking around from any small rise in elevation (and there aren’t many), it’s sand for miles and miles and miles.  Every bit of land that isn’t irrigated is sand.  Every car is covered in dust unless it’s been freshly washed.  And it’s hot.  Midday heat is oppressive, the kind of sun and heat that feels like it’s pushing you into the (slowly melting) asphalt kinda hot. 

Wonder how Chrysler is still in business?  Come to Dhahran.  Every third sedan is a Chrysler 300, and every fourth one is a Dodge Charger.  There is, no question, a greater market share for US automakers here than in LA, and maybe even Chicago.  Every SUV is a Suburban or an Escalade or a Tahoe.  And my dad woulda felt right at home among all the huge Ford Crown Vics and Chevy Caprice Classics. 

I am living on a wholly self-contained and secured compound that a co-worker speculated pre-departure – entirely correctly – would have the look, feel, and charm of a Navy base.  (She could have added “cuisine”.) Our digs are clean and safe and well air-conditioned if not well ventilated, and there is daily housekeeping service.  It could be worse. 

All service workers are non-Saudi, and there is a pretty strict hierarchy: menial work is done by south Asians, front-of-house service positions and domestics are nearly all Filipino, and while India, Bangladesh and the Philippines all have compulsory English education, and while certainly their English is better than my Hindi/ Bangla/ Tagalog, there are opportunities for misunderstanding.  I asked for directions to the gym (there are three on the compound) and I got them, only to discover when I got there that I had received directions to the women’s gym.  Even though I asked standing there in t-shirt and shorts.  Not super helpful.  At the post office I asked about postage rates to the US, and was assured that it was 2 SR for an airmail letter.  I got out of line, posted a 2 riyal stamp on the letter, and went back to ask if it was correct.  No, no, you need two 2 – 2 riyal stamps.  Just glad I know just enough to be polite to a point in Bangla and Tagalog (though not yet Arabic) – especially since the IT guys - and the guys with all the keys - are Filipino. 

On the compound women can be absolutely scandalous – drive, show an ankle, leave their heads uncovered.  It’s illegal for women to drive elsewhere in the kingdom, but in these few acres they can.  It’s still oppressive – the compound I mean – as there are many Saudi women and men working on the compound, of course, and many of the women are in the full burka.  I feel self-conscious going for a run in shorts so I wait until nightfall (though see above re: the heat, so it’s not a hardship); there are signs in the men’s locker room of the men’s gym (that I eventually found) that you are not allowed to change in the general area, you need to go into a stall for that. There are signs in the large commissary building that you are to be modestly dressed to enter. It’s still, despite the topography, not Arizona. 

My colleague has said that she’s ruined for life on feta and hummus.  I’m not a feta guy but I can say that the hummus is stoopid good.  I’m missing leafy green veggies, but the fresh fruit is great (though I feel vaguely guilty about it as I know how much water it takes) and the rice dishes that I’ve tried, and I have no idea what they are, I just point, have all been really good, too.  Chicken "sausage" and beef "bacon", however…

If a Saudi is keen to show his gratitude (and I use the masculine 3rd person pronoun specifically here), he’ll say thanks and then touch his open right hand to his heart with a slight bow.  Some of the students have done this, and I find it to be incredibly charming, each time.

Uh, California?  Desalination is NOT the answer.  The water out of the tap is potable, yes, but it tastes like seawater without salt – because it is seawater without salt.  It’s not like Bangladesh where if you forget and brush your teeth with it you’ll be sick for a week, but it does take a lot to get that taste out of your mouth. 

Universally, people on cell phones walking and texting are a hazard.  Universally, some service sector workers are just surly.  Universally some guys in the gym are just douchy, and when it's an all guys gym?  Even douchier.  Finish your set, asshole - you're not going to see any improvement in your abs from the set before.   

Thumbs up for “good” is fine here – it starts to get offensive a little east of here in Iran and Pakistan, according to one student.  My usual go-to gesture at home for “that’s enough, no mas” – making a slicing motion across my neck with an open hand – seems in very poor taste here.  I’m casting about for a new one. 

And again I’m reminded, as I have been in other parts of the world – the crowning glory of American civilization?   The bottomless cup of coffee. 

1 comment:

Terrence Moss said...

finally! :)
glad you're surviving.
you're a stronger man than I.