Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Doesn't matter how old the students are, certain things will never change...

Spoiler alert: I'm about to totally geek out with teacher-ness right now. I apologize to my non-teacher readers for the copious use of jargon.

I use small dry erase boards in my classroom. They're a fantastic tool for formative assessment, and as I've previously discussed, they are great catharsis for those kids that need a doodling fix. They definitely present a classroom management challenge, one that I was proud of conquering in the States.

Welp, apparently I've lost my mojo since moving to Saudi Arabia.

Ok, I guess I'll give myself a little credit and admit that I didn't properly train my students on my behavior expectations. The boards weren't introduced to my classroom till the middle of my year when the ship had sailed and I didn't want to take the time to introduce some new procedures. I'll do a better job about that next school year, insh'allah.


I used the dry erase boards with my 10th grade class today and it was like I had been transported back to my 6th grade classroom in the States.

Phrases that could have been heard in my high school classroom today AND my middle school classroom in the past:

"[Student], you're going to lose your board privileges if you don't start following directions and use the boards properly."

"[Different Student], please only write on the white part of the board. We're not using the back of the boards today."

"I'm over here, guys." --in response to half the class holding up their dry erase boards backwards.

"I'm not interested in your doodles, I want to see your answers."

"[Student], 'smiley face' isn't an answer."

"Well, [student], at least you're honest." --in response to a board with "I have no idea" written as an answer.

I was very nervous about facing the challenge of teaching high school this year, but if today has taught me anything, it's that high schoolers are just middle schoolers with a height advantage.

Vicariously yours,

Stuff Arabs Like #15: Hazard Lights

Like the liberal use of the car horn, Arabs (or perhaps more specifically Saudis) love them some hazard lights! And like the car horn, the hazard light has many meanings. Yes, in the West, use of these flashing taillights is usually reserved for when you're broken down on the shoulder after sunset. Slow-moving or heavy-laden vehicles might also use the hazard lights on the interstate to prevent other cars from changing lanes too late and rear-ending them at high speed.

You use your HAZARD lights when you are a HAZARD! It's logical.

Not the case in the Middle East. One can assume that Arabs think the hazard lights are like little flashing accessories for their cars--a less expensive alternative to underglow.

Thank goodness we haven't seen much of this in Saudi!

You see the blinkers in traffic jams--when EVERYONE is at a complete stop. You see blinkers when a BMW burns by you at 100 miles an hour and weaving in and out of traffic. School buses leave their hazard lights on permanently, even when they're not in residential areas and there's a chance of a child darting out into traffic. Blinkers on pick up trucks with 15 migrant workers in the back. Blinkers on delivery cars stopped outside a customer's house.

Apparently when an Arab asks himself (cause we know in Saudi it ain't gonna be a woman making this decision) "Is this a situation that calls for my hazard lights?" the answer is always "YES!"

Vicariously yours,

Friday, May 27, 2011

We're having a cold snap

My current location:

My summer location:

At this point, I'd be thrilled with the occasional scattered thunderstorm. Bring on Costa Rica!!

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wait, you mean we'll have to actually do for ourselves?!

I've been writing a lot of homesick-sounding posts lately. It is true, the Mister and I are excited to head West for the summer. There's nothing quite like the modern conveniences of home. But despite all the complaining I've done lately, there are a few things about living in Saudi Arabia that will make eventually moving back home a little difficult.

The Mister and I hardly do anything for ourselves anymore. This country is chock-a-block full of Southeast Asian migrant workers who work for less money and in much worse conditions than their Central American counterparts in the States. They are always looking to make an extra buck, and lucky for them, Saudis and their expat neighbors are l-a-z-y!

We don't have to take our groceries out to our car anymore. We just go shopping, get the cart loaded up for us by a nice Indian worker, and then a Bangladeshi or Indonesian man meets us at the door and takes over. We usually tip the guy SAR 5 ($1.15), and you'd think we'd just made his week!

We don't have to wash our car anymore (although, our parents would say we never washed it all that much to begin with). There's a Bangladeshi guy in the neighborhood who comes around once a week, sometimes more, to return our dusty car to a lovely shine. He always appears after dark, so we assume he comes from his job as a street cleaner. I'm sure he works long days all week. We are glad to have him around and try to give him more than the $13 a month he charges us, but he won't accept it.

It seems Saudi Arabia has taken a nod from New Jersey labor laws and doesn't allow the public to pump its own gas. There's a gas attendant at every station ready to fill 'er up. Unlike New Jersey, however, I don't think Saudi Arabia has this custom is an effort to decrease the Saudi unemployment rate. A true Saudi wouldn't be caught dead doing this job, so the migrant Asian workers get to sit outside in the summer heat and wait for patrons instead! They make creative use of their time. I once saw a modified cricket match being held in the parking lot of a gas station during the prayer break. They were using a water bottle as the ball, and a plastic pipe as the bat.

The Mister and I haven't taken advantage of this service, but we constantly see McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and other fast food delivery cars on the streets of our neighborhood dropping off orders. Yes, you heard me right. In Saudi Arabia, you don't even have to go through the drive-thru. The drive-thru comes to you!!

Another service the Mister and I can't justify taking advantage of is having a house boy. Although, to hear some of the locals talk, we're suffering through the toils of housework for no reason! I once was describing to a co-worker what our living arrangements were like and she said, "Do you have someone who helps you clean all that?" (keep in mind that we only have a 3 bedroom apartment and only one of the bedrooms is actually in use)

"My husband," I replied.

"What?! You don't have to do that! There are people that will clean your house for you! And they're cheap!" she exclaimed, reaching out for my hand as if this was some sort of intervention.

Some of the other American workers do hire the services of an Asian migrant worker looking to make an extra few riyals. But they have large villas, and children to make a mess. For anywhere between $26 and $106 a month, my colleagues get a guy who comes once a week (or more in some cases) to do the dishes, mop the floors, iron clothes and do any other odd jobs they ask. A fantastic luxury that would be significantly more expensive back home!!

In many regards, the Mister and I are very spoiled over here. We're able to travel to places we could never afford on our salaries back home, we have a wonderful apartment and great co-workers. We're homesick for the familiarity of the States, but life over here is definitely just fine!!

Vicariously yours,

Stuff Arabs Like #14: Juice Boxes

I want you to do me a favor. You will need the mental image for this post to really make sense. So go on, close your eyes. Are they closed? Okay, good. Now, imagine a 40 year old man...with the traditional Saudi goatee...in a thobe...talking on a cell phone...at a business meeting...sipping on a juice box.

That's right. A juice box. Arabs love them. It is, for them, the perfect drink on the go. In the States you see people sipping on a Diet Coke or a Dr. Pepper (mmm, Dr. Pepper), but here they choose to get their refined sugars from the cardboard box equivilant of a Capri Sun. It's not like they're drinking healthy fruit juice either. Sure, it's fruit juice, but how much of that came from actual fruit? The ingredients never lie... The aisle at the grocery store is literally top to bottom filled with different flavors and brands from all over the world. It's like a United Nations of boxed drinks.

And the best part of all is that EVERYONE drinks them. Toddlers, teenagers, and yes, even grown men. Professional men. I went into our version of Verizon the other day to get some stuff with our account worked out and the gentleman who helped me was nursing an apple juice the whole time we talked. It was one of those tiny 4 oz. boxes with a bright yellow bendy straw. Adorable.

While you would expect to see people sipping on their Starbucks in the morning on the way to work, usually the gentleman in the BMW passing you on the left is relishing a mango juice with added sugar. When you think the two shebab wandering around the mall would be drinking a Coke you are surprise to see them squeezing a fruit juice cocktail to get the last drops out of it.

I can totally understand the Mr. Mom whose only choice for liquid refreshment on the go is the orange juice he tossed in the diaper bag before heading out on the road to see Grandma. Or even the soccer coach who is washing down some orange slices with a grape juice after a tough loss to the Joe's Hardware Eagles. But with the frequency that we see grown men drinking from the boxed goodness we can only assume that they have chosen this as their beverage of choice.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Saudi Car Horn Translations

A major factor in our culture shock after moving to Saudi Arabia was the gratuitous use of car horns. The Mister and I grew up in the South. You only use your horn for one of 2 reasons: 1). To warn someone of an impending traffic accident 2). to get your friend's attention so you can wave hello.


That is not the case in Saudi Arabia. The car horn is like an extension of your larynx; voicing your frustration or excitement so you don't have to go to the effort of rolling down your window and shouting at the other drivers. After many hours of observation and analysis, the Mister and I have come up with a translation guide for the typical car horn honks you will hear on the streets of Saudi Arabia.

"I'm passing you in a way that is illegal in most countries, whether you're ready or not." This usually sounds like a staccato succession of honks that vary in duration and intensity. For example, if you are passing a person on the shoulder, and they are hogging the entire left lane instead of moving to the far right side of the lane so as to allow you to pass ON THE SHOULDER (some people are so selfish), give them 4 to 5 quick honks and watch them bend to your will. If, however, the offensive driver, blatantly obeying international driving laws and staying in an actual driving lane, refuses to give way, you have the right to lengthen the honks and increase the number.

Similarly, if you are impatiently trying to pass a car in the zebra stripes that create a barrier between the cars on the on-ramp and the flow of traffic (the Saudi driver's motto: If it's paved, it's fair game), tap your horn anywhere from 3 to 7 times rapidly because he's probably not paying attention as you're creeping into his blind spot while simultaneously changing lanes and sending out a BBM about how annoyed you are to be stuck behind a nimrod like him. He should really watch out for people like you who are driving in places that are designed for motorists' safety.

"I'm in a tunnel/at the border crossing and I have a horn." This honk is a good way to identify the young male drivers of Saudi Arabia. This honk can be heard while cars are stuck in the bottle neck that inevitably forms under the highway overpasses during the morning commute. You'd think the civil engineers of this country would have planned for the fact that if you're going to have 3 lanes of traffic and 2 shoulders leading up to a tunnel, they should have same number of "lanes" in the tunnel itself. Where are the people driving on the shoulder supposed to go!?

Anyway, to pass the time while stuck in a tunnel or while waiting at the Bahrain border crossing, you can let everyone know your maturity level by starting an audible version of everyone's favorite sports fanfare: The Wave.

Start by finding a rhythm, usually 2/4 or 3/4 time, and tap it out on your Toyota Camry's car horn. After 1 or 2 bars of this beat, a comrade of irritation will join in, syncopating your rhythm and adding a few quarter notes and half notes. If you're really lucky, 3 or 4 other cars with similarly childish drivers will join in and before you know it the walls of the tunnel have created a reverberating cacophony of annoyance that will drive other commuters over the edge.

Isn't having the freedom to drive fun?

"I'm at the back of the line and I want to be at the front of the line, so I'm going to honk my horn until I get what I want." If you're a hired Indonesian driver for a wealthy Saudi family, this honk is for you. You are a busy guy with several schools at which to retrieve the various off-spring of your employers, and you don't have time to wait in the pick-up lane anymore! The sliding door of the Ford Windstar you drive has been shut for an entire .25 second, what is the hold up?! Let the rest of the world know your frustration and really get things moving by laying on the horn for 15-20 seconds. Pause for approximately 2 seconds and repeat until you finally get to the front of the line 5 to 7 minutes later. That will really inspire the other drivers in the same exact situation as you to inch along that much faster.

This honk is only effective, however, if you maintain a stone-faced, couldn't-hate-my-life-more expression on your face the entire time.

"Hey, the light is green." In the West, boring law-abiding drivers actually stop at the white line at intersections and wait for the light to turn green. Can you believe that?! Wimps. In Saudi Arabia, the drivers have cojones to ignore all laws and common courtesy and skip to the head of the line, or just inch their way forward every 2 seconds, leaving the white line yards behind (that is, if they even stop at the red lights to begin with). The only problem is this means drivers can't see the stoplight anymore. This is because the lights aren't hanging from power lines or large metal beams that extend across the roadway in plain sight of everyone. Nope, they're on poles that are placed adjacent to the white lines that the rebels ignore. So, as a favor to the king of the hill, drivers will give a polite, demure tap on the horn when the light turns green so the alpha dog at the head of the pack will know when to let off the brakes.

"HEY! THE LIGHT IS GREEN!!" This horn honk is reserved for the donkeys' behinds that actually stop where they're supposed to, and wait for the light to turn green. To add insult to injury, they seem to have conspired against you and gotten their friends to also get at the front of the line in ALL the lanes, including the shoulder! AUGH! The nerve of some people.

You know what'll communicate your frustration to these chicken-liver rule followers? Blaring your horn angrily the nanosecond the light turns green. Sure, they have the reaction time of a normal human being, and it takes them the normal half a second to move their foot from the brake to the accelerator, but that's not your problem! Your problem is that you're still waiting 2 second after the light has turned green, and you're 15 cars back! Don't these fools know you're in a rush, and you have VERY important things to do!? You have a barbeque with the shebab on the sidewalk of the corniche to get to, you don't have time to dilly-dally.

The Mister and I hope that this guide to car conversation will be helpful to any of the fortunate souls that get the pleasure of driving on the highways and byways of Saudi Arabia. Who knows, perhaps a new language will be created if women ever get the right to legally get behind the wheel.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Here's an interesting problem...

So, it gets hot in the desert. I know that comes as a shock. We've reached the part of the year where the temperatures will only be rising for the next few months. It's already peaking above 100 degrees by mid-day, and we're not even finished with May yet.

As previously discussed, our house has a few oddities. One of them being that the cold water tank is on the roof, which means that in the warm months the term "cold water" takes on a whole different meaning.

This morning, I woke up and worked out, as has become my routine. I took a shower, and because it stays so hot all the time now, I didn't need to turn on the hot water at all. In fact, turning on the hot water would have resulted in the first layer of my skin being scalded off. The nice part is the "cold water" is now bath-water-warm so my shower was quite pleasant.

Unfortunately, I enjoyed my pleasant shower a little too long. After I finished, it was the Mister's turn, and there was no cold water left. It didn't matter which faucet he used, the only option he had was boiling-lava-hot.

Oops! There's a problem we didn't expect! I've never run out of cold water before!!

Vicariously yours,

Featured Photo: "I don't think the Pledge can handle this."

Yes. This is a photo of my husband vacuuming the remote control. No. We have not developed a sudden case of extreme OCD. What we have acquired, apparently, is a front door that doesn't stay latched. It has recently taken to opening at random times, and today it came open sometime during the day while we were at work.

This wouldn't have normally been all that big a deal, but today was extraordinarily windy, so the door basically welcomed in our own little sandstorm. Everything was covered in a thick layer of sand--not dust, sand! At one point the Mister said, "I need the vacuum. I don't think the Pledge can handle this. This isn't dust, it's piles of SAND."

le sigh.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Om nom nom (alternate title: Yep, I'm still a fatty)

Perhaps it's because I've been on a diet for more than a month. Perhaps it's because I'm craving some particularly Southern food lately. Perhaps it's because the Mister and I are almost a month away from going home for the summer, but I have been having some massive food cravings lately! I've been hankering for some shawarma, so it's not all about missing my typical American eateries, but golly I would kill to enjoy some of my favorite noshes. Below is a list of the top 6 places/things I'm going to eat as soon as I step off the plane in July.

It's sad that there are some unfortunate souls in the world that have not gotten to enjoy the magic of a Chick-fil-A #1 combo with waffle fries, fresh lemonade and a side order of coleslaw to put on their Southern style chicken sandwich. Yes, I realize that probably adds up to a few thousand calories but GOLLY is it good and I can't wait to have one this summer!

#2: Yep, you can take the fat girl out of the South, but you can't take her love of Southern fast food. I know that you're probably all judging me for putting two notoriously fattening fast foods as the top two things that I can't wait to put in my mouth but I don't care! Anyone who has a Sonic nearby understands why I miss happy hour in the summer with Route 44 cherry limeades, tater tots, and carhops on skates. Sonic is definitely one of the few places that result in instant regret as soon as you've wolfed down one of their burgers, but the fatty, juicy, blissful euphoria you get while pigging out totally makes it worth it!

#3: Jacks Bar-B-Que, or barbeque of any sort, is obviously not going to be found anywhere in
our new home. I never realized how much barbeque I ate until it wasn't a menu option anymore. Well I've got some munching to make up for, and Jack's is Nashville's finest place to get a pork craving under control. Their barbeque is the stuff of Food Network specials. I love going to the Broadway location, sitting upstairs next to those big windows and watching the tourists walking by Nashville's best restaurant. I can't wait to get a side of their potato salad, or the cucumber tomato salad. Their sweet tea is awesome and they indulge their patrons in something diners in Saudi are frequently denied: FREE REFILLS! In Saudi, if you go to the big restaurants like Chili's or Appebee's, you get free refills. But if you go to a local shawarma place or one that's not part of a major franchise, you get your drink in a can. Want more than 12 ounces of refreshment? That'll be another few riyals, please. I can't wait to gorge myself on pulled pork, sweet tea and heavenly sauces.

#4: Because we were not privy to the onslaught of holiday marketing, and the complete lack of
all things non-Muslim, there were no Cadbury creme eggs to be had this Easter. This is a guilty pleasure for both the Mister and me and boy did we miss 'em! Facebook friends saw my pleas for them to stockpile the chocolate eggs filled with a wonderful, almost-grainy with sugar creme. The Mister and I always got a half dozen of these from our moms on Easter and while the Mister usually goes about it wisely and has one a day, I typically had one per meal--including breakfast. Are any of you still wondering how it is that I've gained as much weight as I have?! I'll need to adopt a more Mister-like habit if it turns out that we do have a little basket of Cadbury creme eggs waiting for us after we arrive home this summer.

#5: Welcome to Moe's!! Or any burrito establishment, for that matter! Moe's, Chipotle, Baja

Fresh, it doesn't matter. I can't wait to go have a great big Joey Bag of Donuts or Homewrecker with a big basket of fresh tortilla chips and tomatillo salsa. There are Mexican restaurants here...sort of. We haven't actually frequented any (unless you count Chili's at TexMex) because they look shady. But even when we try to imitate the yummy goodness of beans and rice or nachos, we run into roadblocks. Tortilla chips are nearly impossible to find. They are sometimes stocked in the grocery store owned by Safeway, but those shipments are few and far between. The Lulu where we shop sometimes stocks those Old El Paso burritos-in-a-box meals with the flour tortillas and refried beans, but those just aren't the same thing. There's something magical about the fresh guacamole being plopped in the middle of your chicken burrito right in front of your eyes. Saudi Arabia doesn't know what it's missing. BUT I DO and I can't wait to have some Moe's ASAP.

#6: I am doing a quick unit on personal narratives with my eighth-grade class. The other day, I was sharing one of my happiest memories with them in order to model storytelling, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that this memory involved Cracker Barrel. Being that none of my students have vacationed in the American South (with the exception of DisneyWorld, but that's not real America so it doesn't count), I had to explain to them what made Cracker Barrel so wonderful. As I was describing the chicken and dumplins, hashbrown casserole, heavenly biscuits and chicken fried steak, I literally had to stop to make sure I didn't start drooling, my mouth was watering so much! Cracker Barrel is mine and the Mister's go-to pit stop restaurant on road trips, and we have a few of those planned for this summer. Front porch rockers, rock candy, and that triangle pegboard game thing is in my near future and I can't be more excited!!

Vicariously yours,


Tuesday was one of those days that I really wished Saudi Arabia was more open to letting me take pictures. It's graduation season around the world, including my school---even though the last day of school for the students isn't for another month. Part of the graduation proceedings at the school where I work is outside, and with temperatures already reaching over 100 degrees during the day, having graduation at the real end of the year would result in medical emergencies rather than celebration.

When I say graduation, most of my readers probably get a mental image similar to this:

(I had to use Google image search because apparently I haven't taken a single picture at any of the recent graduations of siblings I've attended in the past few years. Oops! Sorry guys!!)

But graduation in Saudi Arabia is a whole 'nother animal! The actual graduation shindig is tonight, but I was asked to bring my class to the graduation rehearsal on Tuesday so the kids could see all the hoop-la. At first I was really annoyed that I was losing class time again, but as I reflect on it, I'm really glad I was able to see all this.

I walked in to the gym with my class, and the room had been completely transformed. The walls were covered in black velour (or velvet) upholstered boards--I assume for sound control as much as for decoration. The stage has been extended out to cover about a third of the gym floor. There's an elaborate backdrop with an acrylic diamond at the center with radiating metallic fabric extending out, framed by styrofoam cave-like rocks. The theme for graduation this year is "Diamonds," so the backdrop is supposed to mimic a diamond mine.

Yes, I said theme.

You see, my friends, graduation in Saudi Arabia is not your typical pomp-and-circumstance procession, speech riddled, cap throwing ceremony. It's a social event. There's a central theme, Bollywood-meets-Arabia style dance numbers, dramatic readings, poetry and all kinds of other things!

I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I walk into the gym to find it completely transformed and I see the graduating class on the stage in the middle of practicing their entrance dance. This is the part of the story where I wish I could have taken pictures because I'm not sure how to describe this dance. It's kind of like a waltz because it's got three beats, but the girls alternate from one foot to the other in a little mini-hop as they rotate and move their arms. All while standing on the balls of their feet. Their heels don't touch the ground.

Except for the girls in stilettos. They were already on their toes, so they just went from one foot to the other.

It sounds like such a blah, simple dance, but with the whole stage filled with girls dancing, it really is quite beautiful. So uniquely Saudi.

So they decide to start the whole rehearsal from the top and they start the procession. The graduates all lined up and Arabic music blared out of the speakers. Then the girls--some of them in their graduation regalia, some not--slowly started walking two-by-two towards the stage. Emphasis on slowly. One foot every 8 beats. When they reached the stage, the pairs ascended the steps and stood in two spotlights as over their shoulders was projected a picture from their childhood and their names.

There are only about 50 students in the graduating class, so the procession didn't take too terribly long. After the procession, the MCs welcomed everyone (I assume. It was all in Arabic), there as a reading from the Quran, and the entertainment began. As I mentioned, the theme for this year is "Diamonds," so the Seniors have taken the Guy de Maupassant story "The Necklace" and adapted it a bit. Like the story, we see two girls on stage, one asking to borrow a beautiful necklace for the ball. She is presented with a lovely, elaborate and sparkly necklace and it's off to the ball. The ball, predictably, is the first dance number. Eleventh-graders in pastel gowns that remind everyone of Disney's Princesses present an Arabic-slash-Victorian dance and we see the main character of the story enter, dance, lose the necklace, and exit.

The story goes on to show the careless borrower explaining that she lost the necklace, but she will make it all right. There are more dance numbers--one involving a hip-hop mash up of the song of the dwarves from Snow White singing in the mines and a song that I'm pretty sure the girls chose because it sounds like they say "lose your mine" when it's actually "lose your mind." There are a few other dance numbers involving students from the lower grades. This really is a group effort!

Generally the idea is that the girl who lost the necklace goes to the "mine" (aka the school where I work) for 12 years and works so hard and she finds more "diamonds" (aka the graduating class) that are more beautiful than the diamonds she was lent years ago. She now has released them from their confines to go make the world beautiful.

A nice way to stay away from the actual ending of the de Maupassant story where we find out that the borrowed diamonds were actually fake...

Anyway, after all this is revealed, we are regaled by the stories and poetry and dreams of the graduating class, the diamonds. The graduates get up on stage and make presentations in Arabic and English and I think there's one more dance number (I had to leave rehearsal early) and THEN it's time to call the names and present the diplomas.

Let me tell you, it is quite the production! When graduation rehearsals began more than a month ago, I rolled my eyes and figured it was just another excuse for the girls to get out of class. While that often was the case, I can now understand why the teachers behind this madness felt the need to get started early.

While this sounds like a gratuitous display, I found out the reason behind all the madness: In the 1980s, after the ultra-conservatives tightened their grip on the country, all forms of non-Islamic celebrations and presentations were outlawed. Schools were only allowed to have graduation. So schools said, "Alright, you'll only let us have a graduation, so we'll have a graduation by gum!" The ceremony wasn't just a graduation, it was a talent show, poetry reading, dance competition, fashion show, and everything else all rolled into one.

After things lightened up, about 10 or 15 years later, the big graduation production had become a tradition and if there's one thing you don't do in Saudi Arabia, it's mess with tradition. Each year my school tries to rein the production in, but each graduating class says, "Ok, but wait till after we've left to change graduation."

This is a truly Saudi tradition that I am so glad I got the chance to experience. Other international teachers who live in Saudi Arabia and work at the non-Saudi schools are getting to have the same ol' boring ceremony. This is a slice of Saudi life that few outsiders get to see, and I feel privileged to have been let in on this little secret so I could share it all with you.

Vicariously yours,

What can I possibly be allergic to!?

This picture represents the misery and irony I have felt this week. Around the time I hit late high school, I started getting major allergies each spring. Being from the verdant South, I knew it was all the blooming flowers, newly sprung grass and blossoming trees that had it out for me each year. I was kind of hoping that moving to the arid desert would mean a little reprieve from the hayfever and packed sinuses. I mean, there are no blooming...anythings here so what's there to be allergic to?

Welp, apparently my system has found something!! I have been sniffly and congested all week long and it's really getting old. Due to the fact that this flare up of my mucus membranes in my olfactory system coincided with us turning our air conditioning back on for the first time since November, I have the sneaking suspicion that this is more of an angry reaction to a mold or dust invasion as opposed to a traditional bout with allergies. I went through a similar situation during my first year of teaching in an old, government-built, asbestos lined public school. My body either built up an immunity eventually or just coped with the biological warfare. By my second year, I had stopped sneezing and my allergy season was limited to a few weeks in March/April as opposed to 2 semesters.

In the past couple days I've succeeded in getting at least one nostril cleared for most of the day, but that means that my nose now seems to pick up ALL the dust particles in the air and amply them times a billion. Breathing is now almost painful. I'm not sure which is worse. Mouth breathing all the time, or having this sensitivity to dust IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT!!

In the meantime I'm kind of enjoying the look of pure confusion on my students' faces when they ask me if I'm sick and I simply reply and I'm just congested. "Why don't you stay home from school?" one of my sweet seventh-graders asked the other day.

"Because I have a very important job to do, and I'm not really sick, I just feel stuffy," I explained. She seemed to not really understand the difference. In Arabic, the word for "tired" is also used to mean "sick," so I can't say that I'm surprised by her perplexity. So I'll just keep on keepin' on. I have a perfect attendance goal in mind, and with only a month left in the school year, that brass ring is all mine.

Allergies be damned.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, May 16, 2011

The "Wow, I live in Saudi Arabia" Moment of the Day

I love Mythbusters. It's a fantastic show and they get to do lots of ridiculous stuff on there...like make cheese cannons or turn cargo containers and a forklift into a catapult. I heard an interview with them once where they were asked about what it's like to be able to do all that cool stuff and Adam Savage always says that they have what he calls "what the hell are we doing" moments. It's kind of like..."so we get to try and shoot a dude off a pier with compressed air and soda bottles...what the hell are we doing?!"

In a similar fashion I get stopped by the ridiculousness of things going on in around me in the Kingdom pretty frequently. These are my version of the "what the hell am I doing" moments...but to be more tame, I call them "wow, I live in Saudi Arabia" moments.

Today, I was sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store we go to (you know, the one that looks like a casino?) and listening to the end of a BBC newscast when a promo for a piece on the anniversary of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On album came on. In the background of the promo was of course "What's Goin On". I love that song, and so I had an impromptu car dance behind the wheel singing the chorus to myself, when I looked up and saw a family of Saudis walking into the grocery store...all thobed and abaya'd out. I stopped dancing immediately. It was my "wow., I live in Saudi Arabia" moment. I was in the parking lot of the Indian grocery store, listening to Marvin Gaye on a British news radio station...in Saudi Arabia. It was strange...but I couldn't help chuckling to myself. We live a very unique kind of life here in the Kingdom...

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saudi gives the term "snail mail" new meaning

As previously mentioned, there is a shortage of good young adult literature in this country. I know it sounds like I'm making a big deal out of nothing, but you have to understand that I left a classroom library of over 300 books, and a school library that was regularly stocked with the latest releases and I came here--the desert of literacy!! I'm starved for good literature, and my students are too!

I've told you before that I'm co-sponsoring the reading club at school. We have made do with our first novel choice, though not all of the girls are loving it. Before we left for spring break in April, we decided on the second and third novels that we would read and I placed the order on the Amazon UK. I'd been told that using Amazon.co.uk would get the books here faster.

More than a month later, I'm still waiting. We're about a month away from summer break and we've only been able to read one novel this entire semester because of this delayed arrival.

It's absolutely, positively driving me CRAZY, and it's not Amazon's fault. According to the DHL tracking information, the books arrived in the country less than 2 weeks after I ordered them. The issue is Saudi customs. In the past, we've gotten packages from home that were stamped with an arrival stamp, and then another stamp when the contents cleared customs. There was a difference of MORE THAN 2 WEEKS!! It took more than two weeks for my package to go through customs!!

THIS IS RIDICULOUS!! I'm all for customs, don't get me wrong. I am A-OK with them rifling through my packages because I have nothing to hide. I'm not shipping drugs, I know nothing about bombs and I'm not getting my mom to send me secret shipments of porn! So take a peak that the homemade skirts, greeting cards and Christmas candies...but do it quickly please!!

And this delayed Amazon order is just hurting the kids! Ok, them and my aching desire to finally have something good to read, but THE KIDS! Think about the kids!!

Lesson definitely learned here. I'm bringing home and empty bag this summer that will be filled with my favorite books and a few new additions to my library because I can't make it another school year without a good book!!

Vicariously yours,

What's in a Name?

As you may or may not be aware, names in the Arab world have slightly more meaning than they do in the West. Now, I apologize if you were named for your grandparents or something, but the name itself doesn't really hold any meaning. Take my name for instance. Tyler literally means "maker of tiles". That's right. Another delightful occupational name from the Anglo-Saxon tradition. My last name, through some tough googling, I discovered means "church"...(it's a long explanation and I don't want my wife and her siblings to give me the eye for going on about it). Anyway...the names that we possess don't really have meanings the way that they do here. Especially nicknames.

So here's the thing. For Muslims, your name means something. It's an attribute or a wish that your parents hope you will turn out with that value or something like that. It's not quite as simple as, "oh, Skyler sounds neat!" (seriously, who came up with that name!?) For instance, Omar means "long lived"...Abdullah means "servant of God"...and Faisal means "strong & handsome" or "decisive" (depending on the spelling). Because some names are more desirable than others, there are LOTS of kids with the same names. For instance, I have 4 Mohammeds in one of my classes (all spelled totally differently, by the way). This was actually one of the biggest struggles I had when I first got here...it makes it almost impossible to know their names. Although it did help to know that if you don't know someone's name, you can actually say "ya Mohammed!" and it's like saying "hey you!".

There is also a kind of significance to your name. Like you are kind of expected to give your first son your dad's name. So my oldest son (when we have one) would be named Bryan. This tradition is also built into your nickname. The guys over here affectionately refer to each other with a pretty standard nickname. It's Abu (meaning father of) or Um (meaning mother of) and then either your oldest son's name or if you don't have a son, your father's name. So I would be Abu Bryan and my dad would be Abu Tyler (since I'm the oldest). Honestly, I think that tradition is pretty cool. My nickname growing up was techols...which just sounds goofy. Don't get me wrong, it's totally mine and I love it, but I'm really proud of my dad, and having his name as my nickname...I kind of wear it like a badge of honor. (That's right, some of the 10th graders have started to call me Abu Bryan). This works with the parents I call too..."excuse me, is this Abu (insert student name)?" It's strange, but it's a kind of efficient system that I've grown kind of fond of.

I'm not sure if the girls have the same kind of thing. I've heard some of the guys in phone meetings with the girls's side call the girl teachers Um (insert son's name). So I guess they do...but I'll have to check with Amber and get back to you. In the meantime, I think my siblings and I should all start referring to our father as Abu Tyler...it would be hilarious and also kind of awesome.

Vicariously yours,

Author's note: For our actual Muslim/Saudi/Arab readers, please feel free to correct me on the meaning of these names...I did actually ask, but some people gave me different answers! Sorry in advance!

Featured Photo: The skeleton

This is the beginning of a mall. It's only a few hundred feet from our house and it's massive. This is only one side but I would say the finished structure would span roughly 4 or 5 city blocks. Huge.

It's not finished, clearly. And here's the kicker: it was started years ago. The story we've gotten is that there was some sort of financial dispute and construction was halted until it could all get sorted out. Then the recession started and the whole project apparently got scrapped.

And so the neighborhood is left with what the Mister and I lovingly call "The Skeleton."

Vicariously yours,

Another thing that makes me go, "...huh."

I recently wrote a post about the more perplexing aspects of Saudi culture that I wasn't prepared for before we moved. I've since realized I left one thing off my list: toilet paper.

To a Westerner, Saudis have an odd relationship with toilet paper. At home, the fluffy rolls of two-ply are pretty much only found next to the toilet. Toilet paper in the West can serve a few purposes: 1). a stand-in for kleenexes when you have a mucus emergency 2). cleaning up spills on the bathroom counter 3). wiping one's mouth after a meeting with the porcelain god 4). serving as an impromptu door lock when the public restroom door latch is broken 5). germ barrier for those rest-stop restrooms that are of the in-case-of-emergency-only types of gross.

On the whole, however, toilet paper stays in the bathroom and it serves the one, obvious purpose.

Not so is the case in Saudi Arabia. Some of you may already know that using toilet paper for personal hygiene reasons is pretty much a Western thing. Arabs and other cultures prefer to wipe with a more...God-given resource. Go to a public restroom in Saudi Arabia and you're going to find something like this:

the "squatty potty" as my friend Sandra calls it.

In a lot of places you'll find one or two sitters, but don't expect a roll of toilet paper to be hanging on the wall. Instead there will be a little water hose with which you are expected to rinse yourself. In the case of the bathrooms at the school where I work, there often is a roll of toilet paper in the Western toilet stalls, but it's usually marked with wet fingerprints because after one uses the water hose, she needs to...dry off. Oh look! An absorbent material just waiting to be put to good use. (For those who are still confused, instead of toilet paper, Arabs and many many other cultures around the world use their hand [usually the left] to...take over for the toilet paper. Number 1 and number 2)

For the sake of my students who read my blog, I need to insert a disclaimer here: NOT ALL ARABS USE THIS PARTICULAR CUSTOM IN THE RESTROOM! From what I've been told most of my students use the sitters and make good use of the toilet paper (yes, I'm that teacher who asked!) So please don't go telling your friends that all Arabs wipe with their left hand. SOME (including, from what I can tell, a whoole lot of my colleagues) do, but not ALL.

Back to the odd relationship between the Saudi and toilet paper.

You'd think that because toilet paper is not used in its traditional role (pun totally intended there!), it's not stocked much in the Middle East. H'oh boy would you be wrong! Toilet paper serves a myriad of purposes, especially at the school where I work. For example: we have a little kitchen attached to the teacher's lounge. Logic would dictate that there would be a roll of paper towels in the kitchen, but we're in Saudi Arabia, my friend. What do the ladies use to wipe up the counter? Toilet paper.

We have the air dryers in the bathroom. They are loud, time consuming, and all around annoying. Hmm, what should we do? Toilet paper!

I'm a student and I have a major case of allergies right now. Instead of buying a box of kleenex and carrying that around with me, I just steal a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom (or bring one from home), and lug that round. Toilet paper!

Someone brought a dish of pastries to share with the office! How nice, but we don't have any paper plates on which to serve it. Never fear, toilet paper is here!!

I have never seen toilet paper in so many public places outside of the restroom in my life. I don't understand why Saudis prefer it over paper products designed to clean up spills and dry hands. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why students would prefer to rub their noses raw instead of spending a couple riyals on a box of tissues. This is definitely a part of the Saudi culture I was not prepared for, and I'm not entirely sure I'll ever get a real explanation for it.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Family "gatherings" are just awkward with Skype

My brother graduates from college today. My whole family is in the same place at the same time for an entire weekend and I'm missing it. I'm really sad to be missing out on the fun, but thankfully we have Skype to bring us together!

Well..kind of.

As I've said before, the Mister and I could not survive without Skype and I don't know how international workers did it before such technology existed. It is wonderful to be able to call up family and friends and see their faces in real time.

Well...kind of.

There's always that slight delay. And in a family like mine, timing is important. We're pretty heavy on the sarcasm and one-line zingers. So if you're 1 or 2 seconds off, your joke goes from being funny to being just...awkward. There was a lot of "What'd you say?" followed by a sigh and, "Never mind."

But that doesn't matter. It was still very nice to "see" my family and get to share in a few minutes of the celebration of my little brother's success. Kid, sorry I couldn't be there in person. The Mister and I are very proud of your accomplishments and I can't wait to see what you make of yourself.

Here are a few highlights of our conversation:

I forget what the conversation was about, but it had definitely gotten to that point where all the big topics had been discussed and neither party wanted to start the hanging up process. Please note the Sonic in the bottom right corner.

This was when Mom wanted us to all "get together" for a family picture.

This is how the family picture turned out. This was the result of the third take. Classic.

I'm glad I could be in on some of the fun, but I'm definitely sad to be missing out on all the laughter and antics that are happening there without me.

Tis the life of an international worker.

Vicariously yours,

My Dad is SO Arab: Rice

My father, being from the Middle East, loves rice. Some people are very familiar with the Arab's love affair with the food staple, and it's an odd love affair if you think about it. Rice is grown in tropical areas with heavy rainfall. Those are two geographical terms that do not apply to the Middle East. The Arab's love of rice is a fantastic example of cultural exchange. The Silk Road should have been called the Rice Road as far as the Middle East is concerned.

My family eats rice with every single meal. No joke. With the exception of the rare meal that Mom convinced Daddy to allow mashed potatoes instead of rice, we had a heaping platter of Basmati every night (and even on mashed potato nights, Daddy would still heat up a plate of leftover rice so he could have his choice of starch with his dinner). My dad loves rice so much that one time, when Mom made spaghetti, he made a pot of rice for himself and put the pasta sauce on that instead of noodles.

He's such a good Arab. Like my dad, Saudis also love them some rice.

Examples of Saudis' love affair with rice: 1. The national dish of Saudi Arabia is Kebsa. It's a rice-based dish with spices and a roasted or fried chicken on top (whole or half). Other variations include lamb and beef kebsa (as seen above).

2. When I went to a Saudi friend's house for lunch, her mom made magloubah, and Arabic rice-based dish with potatoes, eggplant, chicken and spices. I've asked this same friend to teach me how to cook an easy Saudi dish so I can make it for my family while the Mister and I are home this summer. I asked her if she could think of any dishes that didn't include rice. She was stumped.

3. Just about every meal you get at restaurants has rice as an option for the side dish.

4. The rice aisle in a grocery store at home consists of roughly 2 or 3 brands in small bags or boxes. The rice aisle in a Saudi grocery store starts at the front door, spans the entire width and
contains no less than 15 different brands and types of rice.

Examples of my dad's love affair with rice: One time the Mister and I came over for dinner and he was checking out what Daddy had decided was on the menu. He lifted the lid of the large stew pot and started laughing. He said he was surprised by the enormous amount of rice that was in the pot--there was no stew! That was the rice pot. There were only 5 of us having dinner that night. When we asked Daddy why he'd cooked to feed a small army he shrugged and said, "You know. Rice never goes bad. I'll eat the rest tomorrow."

One time my sister brought a college friend over for dinner. Like any meal, Daddy made a ridiculous amount of rice (there were 7 of us eating this time). As he proudly placed the gigantic platter of rice in the middle of the table, my sister's friend smiled, complimented the meal and cheerily said, "You know, I've never had rice before."

You would have thought she'd just told Daddy that she needed him to jump start her space ship. He stopped, his body stooped over his chair because he was in the middle of sitting down, looked around the table as if to check to make sure we'd all heard the words, jaw gaping open and said, "You're not serious."

She kind of giggled and explained that no, she'd never had rice before but she was very excited to try it. My dad was still in total disbelief.

"You mean you haven't had rice in a long time. Or you've never had this kind of rice?" Dad said, hoping to find some kind of logical explanation as to why this girl had been deprived to the pleasure of the starchy goodness.

"No. I mean maybe I have had rice and didn't know it..." my sister's friend trailed off, her face almost apologetic.

Well that just opened the floodgates. It was my dad's new mission to introduce this girl to the world's best food. He immediately grabbed her plate and started piling the rice on--spoonful after heaping spoonful. He kind of chuckled to himself maniacally as my sister and the rest of my family said, "Dad!! She might not like it! Don't put so much on her plate!"

Once again, my dad stopped dead in his tracks. He paused with the fourth or fifth portion of rice hanging over the plate. "Of course she's going to like it! You'll like it, won't you?"

Who could say no?

She did end up liking the rice and now proudly makes the side dish for her own family. I imagine that news brought a little tear to my rice-loving dad's eye.

Like a lot of my dad's quirks, I never knew that there are people in the world that didn't have rice more than one a month. It was such a normal part of my every day life that I thought not having rice with dinner was a special treat--like eating at a fancy restaurant or two scoops on your ice cream cone. It brings me a little comfort knowing that I'm now surrounded by people just like my father who are probably sitting down to a steaming plate of rice right this very minute.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, May 13, 2011

Featured Photo: Use the other door.

The Mister and I don't live on a compound. We live in a Saudi house that as been converted into separate apartments. Therefore each apartment has two entrances. Not like a front door and a back door (although because our apartment is actually half of one big apartment that got divided, we do have a front and back door). I mean a men's door and a women's door.

It's a Saudi custom that men and women do not co-mingle. Therefore, if a family is having guests, the female guests enter through one door and the males through another and that way there is no chance of the male guests seeing the female residents of the host home. This is a photo of the doors to one of the apartments upstairs. I'm not sure which door is meant to be for the men and which is for the women.

Almost looks like something out of Willy Wonka's factory or Alice in Wonderland, doesn't it? Most houses don't have the two doors directly next to each other, but the size of the apartments kind of necessitated the close proximity.

Vicariously yours,