Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm awkward in Saudi Arabia

I think everyone would describe me as being moderately eloquent and able to know when to shut up.

...I'm waiting for my friends and family who know me best to stop laughing before I go on...

Truth is that I'm an unfortunately awkward person with very bad timing and the inability to know when to stop talking. I do have the occasional moment of clarity when I find something similar to the right thing to say, and I sometimes can know when to keep my mouth shut and save myself from embarrassment.

The sad thing is, I think that shut-up switch was broken on the flight over here back in September. Ever since we have left the country, my awkward-o-meter has been off the charts!

Exhibit A: One day during our long Eid break, the Mister and I came home and bumped in to our neighbor outside in the courtyard. She was getting her laundry from the dryer (we share a dryer, so it's outside), and she usually has a big smile on her face at all times. This time she scurried away, didn't smile, and just kind of mumbled a hello. Her husband was also there and he said, "You'll have to excuse her, she has something on her face." I asked what he meant and he said she had a beauty mask on her face. "She uses it every now and then to make her more beautiful."

It must have been clear, because I hadn't notice anything unusual about her face in the few seconds we saw her.

That's what SHOULD have come out of my mouth. What I actually said was, "Oh. I hadn't noticed." This short clause made it sound like I hadn't notice that she was more beautiful, and while I think her husband picked up on what I really meant, he kind of chuckled.

"....I mean that I didn't notice she had the stuff on her face, not that I didn't notice that she's beautiful. Because of course she's beautiful; she doesn't need to use anything on her face!" the awkward rambling just wouldn't stop, even as the hubs was giving me the are-you-seriously-still-talking face. After a bit I finally just sighed, "I'm gonna stop now..." and I unlocked our door and went inside.

Exhibit B: Thanksgiving. Dinner with the Billionaires. We've retired to the tea and dessert portion of our program, and everyone's sharing stories of their world travels. The current topic of conversation is Turkey (the country, not the meal we are digesting). Someone mentions that Turkey has more Greek history than Greece does and the ancient city of Troy is brought up.

"Yeah, but all Troy has is some walls and a horse you can take a picture with," someone mentions.

"You mean like a Trojan horse?" I ask. This is question is awkward/stupid enough, but I think he overlooks it because he did just say that it was a horse...ok, yeah, it was just a stupid question. But like I said, the switch is broken!

"Yeah, it's this big wooden horse for the tourists to climb into and take silly photos," my guest humors me.

"Like a replica?"

DID THAT REALLY JUST COME OUT OF MY MOUTH!? Of course it's a replica! What, were the Trojans going to piece together the charred remains of the downfall of their city and preserve it for tourists to enjoy centuries later?!

While most people would have said, "Gosh, that was a stupid question," I of course feel the need to save face because we are dining with billionaires, and this particular variety happen to be my boss and her husband who pays my salary. I can't let them think they've hired a total dud.

"I mean, of course it's a replica, but it's a big wooden horse just like the real thing was? ...That's pretty much what a replica is, isn't it? Oh, you know what I meant!" It all comes out of my mouth so fast, I'm sure it's wasn't even discernible as English words.

So. Awkward.

And these are just the two examples I'm willing to share with the world! I don't know what it is, but I'm hoping I can rediscover my somewhat with-it self when we visit the States this summer. Awkward Amber has got to go!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving from Saudi Arabia!

Welp, Thanksgiving has come and gone in Saudi Arabia, and I must say it was one for the books. I haven't had the pleasure of hosting a Thanksgiving in my own home until now, and I really wanted things to go well. The hubsy and I invited all of the housemates, an American family from down the street, and our new boss and her husband. (Her husband is a Sheikh [read: Billionaire], and is also the man who is sponsoring us in the country, so...there was that.)

We used Alton Brown's Good Eats roasted turkey recipe for our Tom this year, and oh my LORD was it sooo good! We've found a new favorite recipe. We brined the turkey overnight and slathered it in oil before we put it in the oven.

After 30 minutes, we turned the oven down to prime roasting temperature and it was already looking like something from a movie dinner table.

We searched high and low for a roasting pan and one could not be found.

It was even more yummy looking after all the roasting was finished and boy oh boy was it soo juicy and wonderful! As another Food Network host would say, "Yum-o!"

This just doesn't do justice to how beautiful our bird was!

It was funny because before we put the bird in to brine, the Mister and I looked for the neck and the giblets so we could take them out and put them in the fridge. All we could find was the neck. I thought that was a little weird, but we did buy the turkey in Saudi Arabia, so perhaps they didn't know to include the giblets? Anyway, we went about our business. Wouldn't you know, as soon as we started carving, the giblets dropped out, perfectly roasted in their little bag. Oops!

Don't worry, I didn't use them for gravy.

The table was set. We had sweet potatoes with bananas and honey, green bean casserole, deviled eggs, my Granny's sunshine casserole, mashed potatoes, dressing, pumpkin kibbeh, cooked carrots, and yummy yummy rolls.

Oh, and we had two turkeys. The hubs and I made one, and our neighbor and his Thai wife made one. It was so funny, when we all sat down, our neighbor invited the Sheikh to carve the turkey. Being a Saudi, he of course had no idea how to begin carving a turkey, so our neighbor took over. After a couple of ungraceful cuts, his Thai wife said, "Move over, I'll do it," and took the reins!

She did a mighty fine job of carving, too!

The hubsy played nicely with his friends while the grown-ups ate.

And after dinner, we retired to the apartment next door and had dessert and tea. The Mister kept playing outside with the kids and captured these hilarious moments (they're dark and grainy but still pretty funny):

All in all, I think everyone had a great time and lots of food was eaten. That's the whole point of Thanksgiving, right? Hope the holiday was just as fun for everyone else in the good ol' USA!

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, November 25, 2010

They're getting to me

I'm slowly starting to realize that some of the things that drive me crazy about the way Saudi children behave probably can be explained and I somewhat sympathize.

For example, the kids here will actually ride scooters, roller skates/roller blades, and various other wheeled contraptions through crowded public places that a Westerner like me would not expect to see them. They are blowing past me in the malls and through the grocery store (less so the scooters in grocery stores, but boy oh boy do they ever love those Heelys!).

ugh. It just makes me want to throw a stick in his path Big Daddy style.

At first I was blown away at the fact that these parents weren't driven as bonkers by this behavior as I was! I was in a mall, for heaven's sake! A mall is for shopping, walking, and not for being mowed over by drag racing 9 year olds on roller blades! What possesses these parents to let their kids treat this confined public space as if it is their personal back yard or an open park?

Safety gear?! Pah! The Saudis laugh at helmets.

Today as the Hubbins and I were walking through a mall to get lunch, I saw a little girl in the center atrium playing with a frisbee. I can only hope that her parents were nearby keeping watch (but, if I'm honest with myself, they probably weren't), but she was just going to town with this frisbee! She would throw it up in the air and chase after it as it floated over the center fountain and across the open space. She had a total look of euphoria on her face and it was just like a scene anyone would see in a grassy suburban park back home.

Then it hit me. This probably was her park. It's not like there are a lot of grassy hills in Saudi Arabia. Most of the year it's so hot outside, your face melts as soon as you step out the door. Malls are where people gather here. It's a safe place for women to walk around without their guardian. And because it's so crowded with other Saudis in the same lack-of-entertainment situation they are, these moms don't really worry much if their kids run around in and out of sight through the throngs of people. Everyone kinda watches out for each other and they are used to dodging the tots.

It still drives me totally bonkers, but now I kind of feel sad for these little tykes. They won't have the kind of childhood memories that I had. They probably don't know what it's like to run down a hill barefoot with the feeling the soft grass beneath your feet. They don't know what it's like to have to stop your kickball game because of a pop-up spring shower. They don't know what the instructions "Stay within earshot" mean. They are growing up in the middle of a flat, brown, sandy desert. To them, the mall is their playground, and I guess I can give them a little leeway as they zoom past me in the food court.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stuff Arabs Love #3: Corn

Yes, you read the title correctly. Arabs love corn. Specifically as a snack item, not necessarily as a dinner side dish. Those starchy, sweet kernels of goodness seem to get the Arabs' hearts a'flutterin' and they will line up in droves to get a cup of its crunchy, buttery nourishment.

It remains a mystery as to why corn, of all things, is so popular with our Middle Eastern counterparts. Perhaps because corn is not indigenous to the Middle East it's considered an exotic delicacy? Perhaps it is the vegetable's versatility. Regardless of why it's popular, in any mall in the Middle East you can find a corn stand offering maize drenched in all kinds of flavored butters to titillate your taste buds.

To be clear: I'm not talking about the popped variety of corn. It wouldn't be all that surprising if the Arabs loved popcorn (they do, but as far as I can tell only the sugary caramel kind), cause that stuff is delicious and relatively healthy. And they don't like it on the cob, either. No, no. Our neighbors in the East like the cooked kernels just the way they would emerge from the Jolly Green Giant's metallic confines.

Just heat 'em up, slap some butter on, and go to town!

This was definitely one of those things that struck the hubs and I as very strange in our first few days in the Kingdom. Seriously, the people in the mall got so excited when the corn stand guy returned to his post after the allotted prayer time had passed, "Hurry up! Hurry up! I need some CORN!"

Of course it's an Asian migrant worker serving up the corn!

So there you have it, one of the more perplexing things that Arabs love. Corn.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's not all camels and oppression...

A lot of my posts about Saudi Arabia have had a bit of a negative spin, and I want to clarify. I really am not miserable here at all. A lot of the things people think they know about this Kingdom are total misconceptions, and it's been great to prove all of those misunderstandings false.

There are a few things that I really do enjoy about living in Saudi Arabia. For example:

The abaya and hijab. As much as the West likes to disparage the uniform of Saudi women, I really don't mind it much at all. Because I'm covered from head to toe, it doesn't matter what I'm wearing when I leave the house to run errands. I went grocery shopping today in my pajamas. And because it's silly for me to suit up to run out to the street, I get out of taking out the trash. I don't have to worry about how my hair looks, and a lot of the time I don't even worry about putting on make up. Plus, because Western women aren't *really* required to wear the hijab, I score bonus points with my Saudi colleagues for wearing it when I don't have to.

There is no such thing as cold weather. Yes, my students are starting to wear sweatshirts to school in the morning because they get a chill from the 70 degree weather we're having. But it's like heaven for me! The hubs and I have slept with the window open for the past few weeks, and there's no end in sight for that luxury. Even though I miss the bon fires and s'mores of the fall season back home, I do NOT miss the winter jackets and cold bathroom floors. I am definitely going to love winter in Saudi Arabia.

Fresh produce is VERY cheap here. Because there's always a temperate zone just a few hours away, produce is ridiculously cheap. I might not be able to find all of the fruits and vegetables that I'm used to, but I can find some very interesting and exotic fruits for just a few cents per pound. I bought a bunch of bananas for about a dollar a pound! Apples are about 50 cents a pound. There are bundles of carrots, peppers, cucumbers and other fruits for crazy low prices! I'm really really hoping that this fact will up the amount of healthy foods I add to my diet. I'll keep you posted on how that research goes.

I'm treated with slightly more respect here. I've been happily surprised by this, because it is one of the most popular misconceptions of the Kingdom. Before leaving home, I was told countless times that I would have to walk 10 paces behind my husband and he would have to do all the talking. That has just not been the case. When the Mister and I were in Dubai, I was expecting to feel just like I was at home. But whenever we went to a store or restaurant or anywhere that I would need to speak to a man, I was treated like I wasn't even there. Some men even refused to look at me at all. I would ask a question, and he would turn to my husband and say, "Yes sir, how can I help you?" I have not had that experience at all in Saudi Arabia. There have been a few times that I've seen the Muslim man have an internal conflict as to whether it is ok for him to speak to another man's wife. But I guess because we get to play the Western card, he generally gets over that and treats me like a grown adult.

One word: Shawarma. Unfortunately, this is probably going to be the biggest factor that prevents me from incorporating more fresh produce into my daily diet. Shawarma is what we would call gyros back at home. You've seen the giant slab of seasoned meat rotating by a glorified warming lamp, and then shaved from its rotisserie to be wrapped up in a warm pita with various accouterments. But boy oh boy you have never had such wonderful shawarma in your entire life as the shawarma you find in Saudi Arabia. Words cannot describe the yummy goodness and I'm not even upset that we had to come half way across the world to find it. Too bad I can't share with all you suckas!

Electronics are plentiful, and ridiculously cheap to get repaired. About a month ago, I killed our brand new laptop by spilling water on it as I was using it as a recipe card for the dinner I was making (I also spilled the water down my arm, as is chronicled in this blog post). We've been dragging our feet with getting it fixed because we were sure it was going to cost a load of money and take forever to get repaired. Well, we took advantage of the time off from school and took the computer down to a repair place...ONE HOUR and $93 later, our computer is working just as good as new! There is no way that repair would have been so fast and so cheap at home! It costs more to get the Best Buy protection plan, and insurance would require a deductible of a lot more than $93 for sure!

The milk is a-mazingly good. I don't know what it is, but the milk here is so flavorful and good! I commented the other night to the Mister that if milk tasted like this when I was growing up, I would have bones that would rival Superman's!

So there it is, dear readers. This is just a short list of some of the things I enjoy most about living in Saudi Arabia. While some of them might not be so mind blowingly awesome to those of you back in the States, but it's the little things that make Kingdom life so worth it.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stuff Arabs like #2: Plastic covering on seats

Old people aren't the only ones who enjoy the squeaky goodness of plastic seat covers. The only difference is that Arabs aren't about to go out and buy a custom-made thick plastic liner for their car seats or office chairs. Heck no! Why waste the money when the manufacturer already provides you with a protective shell when you purchase your tushie-holding devices?!

You know what I'm talking about right? The thin plastic sheet that car manufacturers put on the seats of the car while they're in production to protect the seats from...well, I'm not really sure what, but you get the point.

Anyway, when we first arrived, I thought that leaving this plastic on the seats was just something taxi drivers did for obvious hygienic reasons. But then I was given a ride by a colleague of mine, and she still had the plastic in her car! As I look around me during the morning commute I see that so many cars have the plastic peeking out from over their back seats, it would make any hypochondriac weep with envy.

But the polyethylene protective barriers aren't limited to vehicles! No no, my friend. It is not uncommon to find the manufacturer's plastic still on an office chair, even though it's a few years old. Dining room seats are often still wrapped in the same plastic they left the factory in. Anywhere you land your tuchus is likely to be found somewhere in the Arab world in fresh-from-the-factory condition, even years after purchase, thanks to the frugal practices of their owners.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ya'll better be thankful, darnit!

As our American readers know, Thanksgiving is coming up. This is a holiday every American has grown up with, and each family has its own traditions that make this time of year special. Hollywood likes to satirize the drama that can sometimes come from having so much family together time, but being away from home during the holidays certainly makes one long for the days of family tension filling the air over the dinner table.

The hubs and I are hosting Thanksgiving for our colleagues. I've wanted to host Thanksgiving for years, but I've generally been overridden by family members with bigger houses and larger dining room tables. I'm really excited to finally get to have a house full of guests and yummy Thanksgiving aromas.

Well, hopefully my house will be filled with the usual aromas. See, some of the traditional American products are hard to find over here, making the typical dishes (read: dressing and green bean casserole) a lot harder to prepare than they should be.

A few of the things that are going to require a little extra searching: marshmallows (pork products are illegal, you know. google it.), celery, condensed soups (a la cream of mushroom and others), Jiffy corn bread mix, and any sort of cooking wine/sherry/alcohol at all.

Luckily, I don't think my guests will mind. All of the residents of the house are invited, including our Thai neighbor with mad skills in the kitchen. We're also inviting another family from down the street, and the matriarch is Mexican--tamales, anyone? Add to that our new boss and her billionaire husband, both Saudis, who have offered to bring a dish. I asked for the most authentically Saudi dish they could muster. It's going to be a very international Thanksgiving, and half the guests aren't going to miss the traditional dishes anyway.

While I might not be able to have the candied yams or the mashed potatoes with bacon bits, I'm pretty sure the first Thanksgiving I host around my table will be one for the personal history books.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stuff Arabs Like #1: Shiny tile floors

The hubs and I have now traveled to 4 countries on the Arabian peninsula, and I think this gives us the right to post a few of our observations. At first I thought some of the funny quirks we noticed about Saudis might have been limited to just our new home. But now that we've been to Bahrain, the UAE and Oman and we've seen a lot of the same quirks, I think it's safe to say that these are not unique to KSA.

Thus, dear readers, we give you the first in a series of posts: Stuff Arabs Like.

Our first entry: Shiny tile floors

Look how shiny!!

Anybody who has nominal knowledge of thermal properties knows that tile floors generally stay cooler than carpet or wood floors. That makes them a natural choice for flooring in the Arab world (cause it gets hot here). We have seen more tile since arriving the Saudi Arabia than we ever thought possible.

No matter where you go, most businesses have shiny marble tile floors. I'm not sure if they're all marble, but they are polished to a glistening shine regardless. It certainly gives the impression of opulence, but they also make dusty footprints VERY obvious.

Don't you worry, the Arabs have a solution for that!

Asian migrant workers! Whether it's a mall, a mobile phone store, a movie theater, or just a bathroom, Arab businesses have a diminutive Asian man dutifully following behind their customers with a cloth broom to wipe up those pesky footprints and make everything shiny again.

They're like the silent force of the Middle East. You never hear them say anything-wait! I lied. I did have one of them give me the creepy eye and say "Es Salam Alaykuum" (or however you would transliterate that phrase) in a mall in the UAE this week.

Anyway, they don't complain, they don't roll their eyes when you walk over the exact spot they just wiped, and they rarely look up from the surfaces they are polishing. These human Zambonis just do their thing and keep the floors sparkling.

So here's to you, Asian Migrant Zamboni. Thanks for doing the grunt work and allowing us to feel like we're always in the lap of luxury.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, November 15, 2010

We are in Dubai! Alternate title: slightly disappointed with Dubai

Once the hubs and I decided on a location for our Eid break, I went to my happy place and started investigating things to do in the city and creating a spreadsheet itinerary of our trip. I do this with just about all our travels, and I really do enjoy it. We haven't previously been able to travel much, so I've always wanted to make the most of our time away from home. I'd love to be one of those "Eh, we'll get there and play it by ear" kind of people, but I HATE being one of those "Man, I wish I'd made reservations in advance" kind of people. So I investigate, find out my options, and make sure we don't miss something we'd really like to do.

I'm not sure why I feel the need to explain away my neurosis to all of you, but I just did.

ANYWAY, I say all that because I think I might have to retire the spreadsheeting for a while. The past couple of trips we've taken have been a bit of a let down and I think it's because all my planning led to so much build up that when the trip didn't turn out to be as awesome as I thought it was going to be, I was really disappointed.

Such has been the case with Dubai.

Dubai is like the Las Vegas of the Middle East: it's got all kinds of things you wouldn't expect to be possible in the desert and their only purpose is for the shock value. Case in point: Ski Dubai.

Ski Dubai is in the Mall of the Emirates. It's a "ski resort" in the middle of a the middle of the desert. It possibly creates the biggest carbon footprint of anywhere in the world...but it's a novelty, and Arabs love novelty.

The hubs and I knew from the start that we had to go skiing in the middle of the Dubai desert 'cause....well why not!? Why go all the way to Dubai and not say you went snow skiing in the desert!? We knew Ski Dubai would be a tourist trap, but even paying for lessons and a day pass for both of us was going to be cheaper than one day pass and equipment at the slopes at home. We had to take the opportunity.

Well, when we arrived, we found out that we had to book lessons in advance, something the website didn't say (see first paragraph for proof that I, of all people, should know what the website said). Add to that the fact that the cost of the lessons was different than what was posted online, and I was so disappointed that we weren't going to get to ski in Dubai. BUT, they were offering a "super pass" to their snow park, and for just AED 200 ($55) per person, we could have unlimited chair lift rides and access to the other stuff that didn't include skiing/snowboarding. Why not? We came all this way, we had to play in the snow.

The snazzy outfits were included in our pass. We had to buy the hats and gloves. (That's Charles, one of the housemates. He rode down with us.)

It was so funny to see the hijabs and gutras poking out of all the winter wear!

We did have a great time- not sure it was $55 worth of fun- and we took some funny pictures, but I am still so disappointed that I'm going to be walking away from Dubai without having learned how to snowboard.

Then there was the Dubai Aquarium. Its website makes it sound like a legitimate aquarium, something similar to the Tennessee Aquarium that I love so much. And if there's one thing I love, it's a good aquarium. So of course it was on our spreadsheet.

You even have to pay to go past the rope behind us. That's the "VIP" section. VIPs get to touch the glass.

No no, in fact the Dubai Aquarium is just a super-sized version of a fish lover's salt water tank. It's literally just a giant fish tank. Of course that's impressive in its own right, but COME ON! I don't want to pay $30 to walk through a big tunnel with a bunch of tourists and then "ride" in a glass bottom boat, which is basically just a platform on the surface of this giant fish tank! I wanted to learn! I wanted a real aquarium.

Again, I was disappointed with this Dubai novelty. Too much build up, not enough delivery of entertainment.

Then today we went on a desert safari day trip. I went out on a limb and booked with a company that has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. It's not that the company didn't deliver what they said they would--finally some truth in advertising! We went dune bashing, off roading on giant sand dunes, but only for about 10 minutes. Right when I was really enjoying myself, the bashing was over!

Malik, our driver, stopped at the top of a dune and let us take photos.

We went to a heritage village, which had creepy life size dioramas of what life was like in an old Emirati village. That was kind of cool, but I would have liked to have been guided around rather than just set loose for 20 minutes while our driver waited for us under a tree.

The fort was not actually under attack...don't worry.

Let's play "Write your own caption."

We went to a natural spring in the middle of the desert mountains which was ridiculously cool and beautiful, but as I was crawling out of the back of the SUV, I rolled my ankle like a champ and had to hobble my way down the hill to see the water. I was in too much pain to really enjoy it and I was afraid that if I took my shoes off, the swelling would get too bad for me to get them back on! (I know both of my mothers are cringing as I jump up and down on every nursing nerve in their bodies right now. Yes, I RICE'd it, Moms. I just waited until we finished our tour first).

This was taken post trauma.

Like I said, the desert safari being a disappointment was not the company's fault. They delivered exactly what they promised. But it just wasn't as fun as I thought it was going to be and I have this nagging feeling that if I had gone with a different company, we would have had more fun.

Anyway, we were supposed to go on an over night safari tomorrow, but since it still really hurts to walk, we've cancelled that reservation and I think we're just going to head back to Saudi Arabia early. The King has so kindly extended our Eid vacation (somebody's taking care of his Zakat!...little Islamic humor, folks), so we have a whole week before we have to return to work!

What will we do with ourselves? I don't know. I haven't made the spreadsheet yet.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, November 12, 2010

Desert Driving

The hubs, a housemate and I hit the road yesterday morning. Destination: Dubai. We're on a week and a half vacation from school because of the Muslim holiday Eid al Futr. We decided to take advantage of the time off and see some more of Arabia.

...SIXTEEN HOURS LATER, the hubs and I arrived at the apartment where we will be staying while we're in this particular Emirate. This city is sooo hard to navigate, the map we bought is total crap, and the SIM card we bought for my cell phone decided to putz out on us at the most inconvenient times!

The 10 or so hours that it took us to actually arrive in Dubai would normally make me groan with I-don't-wanna-be-in-the-car-anymore-Mom brattiness, but because we'd never been on a road trip in Saudi Arabia before, the desert portion of our trip flew by! Even though all we saw was just sand with the occasional bedouin-guided herd of camels, I couldn't get enough of the view out my window.

Here are a few shots (they got uploaded out of order):

This is the Burj Khalifa. The world's tallest building. We did a few circles around it trying to find our way back to the highway that would take us to the apartment.

Some sand and rock...standard Saudi Arabia.

At the took us another hour at the Arrivals Hall at the border before we could actually BE in the UAE.

There they are! The first camels I've seen since arriving in KSA! (that's no lie!)

This was the view for most of the trip.

Today we venture out to the Dubai Aquarium and some much needed time with an American bookstore. I'm giddy as a school girl!

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Strange how it rains now...

I work at an Islamic school. That means we have gender separation. Obviously I work on the girls side. Some days my job description resembles that of a slumber party chaperone more than that of a teacher. Girls are the same here as they are at home, especially when you gather them in large numbers. I regularly hear peals of glee or gratuitous screams filtering in to my classroom from the halls.

But yesterday, just after the last bell had rung and the screams had started, the cries took on another tone and weren't subsiding as quickly as they usually do.

The teachers from the English cluster came out into the hallway to figure out what all the fuss was about. One of my 10th grade students came running by NASCAR style and stopped right in front of me long enough to say, "IT'S RAINING!!"

Yes. All the screaming, yelling, and jumping up and down was all because it had started to "rain" outside. At home we would have used the term "sprinkle," but I didn't have the heart to burst my student's bubble.

The excitement was contagious. I ran and grabbed my camera and headed outside. Ironically, these girls were having the most Biblical reaction to anything I've ever seen in my life. They were singing, they were dancing, and there were even some of them praying! It was so interesting to watch!

I'm told that yesterday was the first time it had rained since last winter. That's at least 7 months since these girls had seen rain in their country. There are so many things we take for granted in the West, and precipitation is definitely one of them.

The rain had stopped after about 10 minutes, but of course I made sure to snap a few pictures before it all passed. It's hard to capture rain in motion, but you can see the proof on the sidewalk around my feet!

See?! See those dots on the sidewalk?

This is my Canadian colleague. She thought the whole situation was just as funny as I did.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, November 8, 2010


I thought it was so funny this morning when we emerged from our respective gates to find that there was a tower of clouds in the sky behind our house! At home, this would never be cause for alarm or excitement of any sort, but this morning all of the residents of my house were standing in the street, faces upturned, just looking at the ONE massive cloud and the sun rays bursting from behind it.

I was so excited I took a picture of it. I took a picture of a cloud. And it's not even a particularly spectacular cloud.

It was literally the first cloud I'd seen since the Mister and I left Amsterdam on September 13.

As we loaded up the car for our daily commute to work, I laughed at myself. I imagined our neighbors coming out to their cars for work and seeing a line of Americans standing in the street, in awe of a cloud and thinking how weird we must be. "Honey, look at the silly white people!"

I didn't think there would be any more fuss about it until I got to school and the first thing a student said to me in the hall was, "Teacher did you see the cloud today?!" My colleagues were all abuzz about it when I got to my classroom: "I know! It's the first cloud since last winter! And it's so big and pretty! Amber! Did you see the cloud this morning!?"

We all were like little kids at the circus! Over A CLOUD! ONE! CLOUD!

The thought struck me as so funny I've been chuckling about it all day. I just thought I would share it with those of you at home in the land of daily clouds.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pleasure Island

Our readers in Saudi Arabia already know that Bahrain is an island kingdom about 16 miles off the coast, and the bridge to Bahrain happens to be very close to where we live! Since the Mister and I hadn't activated our multi-entry visas yet, we decided to take a day trip.

In the distance is what we've decided to call "Border Island." It's literally an island in the archipelago where you cross the border from one kingdom to another. It looks like Tomorrowland.

The Bahraini flag.

We had no idea what to expect. By the way our students and fellow teachers talk, it sounded like Bahrain was Saudi Arabia's version of Pleasure Island: women don't have to be covered and they can drive, there are movie theaters, alcohol and pork. It sounded like we could go there to get our fix of Western sins if we got a hankerin' for a beer and some real brats.

In our excitement, we just left town blindly, with no idea where to go once we got to Bahrain. So we decided to drive around for a bit and see what we could see.

I probably have a hundred of shots like this from over the course of our relationship. He's just so cute!

We dubbed this "The Red Village." We're ridiculously creative.

The first proper skyscrapers we've seen since we left the States.

After taking a spin around Manama--we think that's the least it has the biggest dot on the maps--we decided to go crazy and visit the City Center. To most Americans, the term "city center" elicits mental images of public parks, market places, and other such attractions. Nope. In Bahrain, the city center is a mall.

We had left Saudi Arabia, land of the mega mall, and went to a different mall in Bahrain. But let's not dwell on the fact. This mall has a water park, something Saudi Arabia does not have.

AND it's on the roof of the parking garage! NO ONE has that!

The name of the water park is "Wahooo." In my head, I sing it like the old Yahoo commercials at home.

As we were walking around the City Center, we saw a lot of European tourists and American faces. Bahrain is a bit of a vacation spot--tourism is one of its main industries. It struck me that in all likelihood, none of these tourists would be able to go across the causeway to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is as close as they were gonna get. I have no idea if any of them had a desire to visit, but it occurred to me that most of them might assume that since they had visited Bahrain, they were getting a good idea of what Saudi Arabia is really like.

That could not be further from the truth. By now ya'll know I love me some lists, so here is a list of the reasons why Bahrain is not Saudi Arabia 2.0.

1. The obvious. Bahrain has alcohol. Bahrain has pork. Bahrain has movie theaters. Bahrain has uncensored bookstores. Women don't have to cover in Bahrain, though many still do.

2. Bahrain is clean. One of the things that has made the biggest impression on me in Saudi Arabia is all the litter. There is trash literally EVERYWHERE! No one cleans up after themselves and it's disgusting. Children will throw trash out the car windows, and empty shopping bags are constantly blowing down the highway. The flattened left overs of someone's filafil is the road kill of Saudi Arabia.

But there was absolutely none of that in Bahrain. The sidewalks were clear. The walkways in the mall were not littered with discarded toys or straw wrappers. Yet we never saw a single janitor.

Now, the hubsy and I have been given the impression that the entire Eastern province empties itself onto Bahrain every weekend. All our students talk about is their weekends in Bahrain. The other teachers have a second home on the island. So if there are really that many Saudis on Bahrain every weekend, then you would think that the entire island would be just as trashed as their kingdom...but it's not! And since we didn't see any custodial staff, we can only conclude that 1). the janitors are ninjas or 2). the Saudis actually do know how to clean up after themselves. It's genuinely perplexing, and I think many return trips are in order to continue our anthropological research.

3. Bahrain has a dating scene. The Mister and I went to see movies during our visit, but we went to different ones. It's such a rare treat, I didn't want to spend my money going to see something I didn't want to see. He went to see The Town and I went to see The Switch (both were heavily censored, but we'll take what we can get). Because we got out at different times, I was stuck waiting for him for about an hour. That allowed for some great people-watching opportunities.

I saw people on dates. Young people. Arms around shoulders and obvious flirtation. That is totally haram in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (for those playing the home game, "haram" means "forbidden" in Arabic). We occasionally see couples holding hands in KSA, but definitely no other outward signs of affection. I felt like I was watching a typical movie theater lobby at home, but with a LOT more abayas and niqabs.

I felt so much at home that at one point I gave my husband a peck on the cheek. I immediately said, "Oops. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to do that or not." I had forgotten where we were for a second.

4. Bahrain allows women to work. Ok, that's not fair. According to a news article I read recently, 15% of the women in Saudi Arabia have jobs. That's significantly less than the surrounding Gulf states, but some women do work in Saudi Arabia. But they're not allowed to work in places where they are intermingled with men. That means none of the mall stores in Saudi Arabia are staffed with women. This proved to be most annoying when I went to Sephora to buy some make up, and I was faced with asking a man for advice as to which concealer is best.

In Bahrain, the make up stores, the lingerie stores, and all the other female-centered stores all had female employees. As did every other store and restaurant in the mall. You just don't see things like that in Saudi Arabia.

5. Traffic laws are obeyed in Bahrain. We weren't forced out of our lane by a drifting SUV once. The red lights meant stop, not creep forward a few feet every few seconds until it turns green. There were no crazy speeders that blew past us on the shoulder of the road. Again, if most of Saudi Arabia is in Bahrain every weekend, and the drivers in Bahrain appear to be sane, WHY CAN'T THEY DRIVE LIKE THAT IN SAUDI ARABIA!?

It sounds like I'm hatin' on Saudi Arabia right now, so I feel the need to clarify. My husband and I are very very happy here. The people have been very welcoming, and we are absolutely loving our cultural experience. There are obviously some things that bother me about our new home, but we are very quickly getting used to them. It's just that all these little things became very obvious today when they were absent during our trip to Bahrain.

Anyway, there are more photos from our trip on my Facebook page.

Vicariously yours,