Delayed Gratification

My wonderful little misadventure in obtaining a car is coming to a close, and as elated as I am to finally be master of my own travels, I’m hesitant to start celebrating just yet.

The view of the Gulf on the King Fahd Causeway from 
the passenger seat during a recent trip to Bahrain. 


At a Divide

Up until today, relations between the Western staff and Saudi Administration were fairly cordial. Various Saudi Vice Presidents had been paying visits to the schools and were making a reasonable effort (by Saudi standards) to get things accomplished. They’ve been reaching out to the Western teachers trying to establish something akin to friendship, and generally trying to understand how things work in a typical Western school. Their success has been limited though, partly because of the awkwardness of how Saudis interpret friendship, but mostly because the primary interest of the Company is very different than the primary interests of the teachers. The good thing was that most everyone had at least been trying to make an effort at forming good relations. That all changed last night when a few of the teachers from the Girls’ School had an informal dinner with one of the Vice Presidents to discuss renewing their contracts.  


A Shift in Perspective

Religious differences create interesting situations. This is true pretty much everywhere in the world, but its particularly interesting in places where well understood and respected human rights, such as having the freedom of religion, do not exist. Such is the case here in the Kingdom. Obviously, Islam dominates every aspect of life here, but it has much farther reaching effects than the outside observer might initially perceive.

Officially, the only legally recognized religion is Islam, specifically the Sunni sect, while everything else is banned. The King is the religiously appointed ruler, and his title is The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. A council of religious elders, The Sharia, advise him on legal matters, and the King’s word is final. It is taken as law with the same authority as those written in the Quran because of his supreme Divinity. The only holidays aside from National Day are Islamic holidays, and any outward display of celebration of any other holiday, religious or political, is strictly prohibited. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Armistice Day; they’re all technically banned, but so long as they’re celebrated or observed in private things tend to work out ok. Non-Muslims who are allowed into the country can practice whatever they chose in private (except Jews, who are banned from entering the country entirely), but they are strongly advised to keep their religion to themselves when out in public. In more conservative areas things like cross necklaces may be perceived as offensive and can be confiscated. I’ve never actually found or heard of anyone attempting it, but proselytizing is a definite no-no, and the punishments vary from deportation to death. As restricting as this is, it really doesn’t have much of an effect on day to day life for the average person, outside of the fact that everyone observes prayer time regardless of how inconvenient it is.


Count Your Blessings

I’m close to clearing one of the last major hurdles in an important aspect of life here in Saudi. This process has been a few months in the making, but relatively soon I should be driving a car. Acquiring the ability to drive in most countries is a relatively mundane undertaking, with few hurdles other than getting your driver’s license and obtaining a vehicle. In keeping with the norm, gaining the ability to drive here in the Kingdom is quite the escapade.  

The vast majority of people who move to the Kingdom to work are given a car by their company as stated in their contract. This was never negotiated in my contract because up until this point my company only hired women. Women are not legally allowed to drive here. My contract does state that I have access to a driver, but it isn’t all that convenient because I share him with the other teachers who live on my compound, all of whom are women. I’ve met a few people with cars who are nice enough to take me somewhere if I ask them, but it gets a bit awkward at times. More often than not I end up taking a cab, and as lovely as that usually is, I decided it’d be worth it to figure out how to buy a car.

Normally with undertakings such as this I’ve found that asking other expatriates usually provides a good starting point, but with this particular subject that hasn’t necessarily been the case. The majority of men I’ve met have company cars, and, since only men can drive, those with wives never have the need to buy a second vehicle. Most people come here with the intention of making as much money as possible, so buying a second vehicle for personal pleasure isn’t all that common either. In the end, most men I know have ample experience driving, but very few actually know how to go about buying a car. Thankfully, the Brit from school has some familiarity with this process, and has been kind enough to guide me through the bulk of this labyrinthine process.  


It's not what you know...

The major upside to moving to strange new places is that everyone you meet usually has something interesting to share. I’ve all but given up learning Arabic, so the majority of the people I’ve met are western expatriates, most of whom hail from either the States or Great Britain.

They cover every gamut of society, and they’re generally very friendly people. Life on a compound is conducive to meeting new people, and the opportunity for socializing is quite large. The downside to compound life is the monotony of living in close quarters with the same people, most of which have differing priorities, personalities, and tastes. Not to worry though. The expat social network within the Kingdom as a whole is very large. A relatively uncomplicated system of emails, texts, and word of mouth will usually get you where you want to go without too much pain in the wallet. But, for its size, it can actually be quite daunting at times to find out exactly what’s going on. Finding out information about certain events can be a formidable task. People here are usually warm and welcoming to most of the people they meet, but it isn’t all that uncommon to find people unwilling to share information about upcoming get-togethers or generally viewing new acquaintances with a bit of suspicion. Having this sort of social code isn’t all that strange; most big cities or communities have certain cultural norms about holding gatherings and inviting guests. What makes it interesting here in the Kingdom is that everything is underground, and, although the likelihood of getting in trouble with the law is relatively slim, precautions are necessary to make sure everyone has a good time.

I’ve had fairly good luck in finding things to occupy my time, though most of it has been blind luck on my part. I’ve simply managed to meet the right people at the right time. Once I started mingling with more expats outside my compound I started making acquaintances with good connections that have been able to show me some of what the more discrete side of the Kingdom has to offer.

This past Saturday evening I was invited to tag along with a Brit friend to a British trade gathering for British Multinational Corporations at the British Console General’s house in Khobar. Interestingly enough, it centered on educational opportunities to enhance business opportunities, but it was clearly not the place for an American elementary school teacher to be hanging around. Thankfully, I had come straight from work and had a tie in my bag so I at least I didn’t stand out too much. When the Brit and I arrived we put his friend’s business cards in the name badges we were given, and set out to find a few people we knew. As a foreign diplomat’s place or residence, the police turn a blind eye to what goes on there. Also, foreign dignitaries and their convoys are not checked at border crossings, which means they can discretely import just about anything they’d like. The point of this little party was to establish business connections, but in reality most people showed up for the booze. It’s free and all you can drink, courtesy of the U.K. Taxpayer.

After finding our ‘employer’ in the crowd, we settled into a corner of the courtyard, befriended one of the waiters (with a healthy tip of course), and enjoyed more than our fair share of pints of real beer. We spent the evening talking about living here while avoiding all the small conversations random passers-by would try to engage us in. At the end of the night we bought a small bottle of whiskey off the waiter and continued on to the Brit’s apartment. Teaching first period at school Sunday morning was a little rough, but it was well worth the experience. 


Two Sides to Every Coin

Things have wound down. The last few weeks have been relatively uneventful. The quick pace of the various installations happening in the building wore down rather quickly, and virtually everything has slowed to its previous pace. As it turns out, the majority of the work being done was due to some bribes and a bit of tactful blackmailing, and once the money stopped flowing so did any progress. This exemplifies one of the relatively major yet seldom spoken of aspects of everyday life here.

Nothing ever really gets done here unless you pay someone to do it, even when it’s their job. This infuriates everyone, Saudis included, but no one really has the time or desire to change the system. Case in point, I’ve recently been trying and failing to get my driver’s license in order to buy a car. I’ve been waiting for a few weeks to get this finished, and the only real hurdle in this process is having my company’s Government Relations Officer (a Saudi whose job it is to process these things for our company) take my already completed papers to a window at the license office and wait there while they print my license. This will take less than 5 minutes, but I’ve only finally been able to get him to agree to go by paying him extra. I’m bribing my superior to do one of the few things his job actually requires him to do, but I’m not really that upset about it because at least something will get done. Or at least that’s how it will work in theory. I’m scheduled to meet him tomorrow to finalize this, but he isn’t particularly well known for his punctuality.

Another fun little fact of life in the Kingdom is that promises mean everything when given to a Saudi, but nothing when given to anyone else. One of the very first pieces of advice the South African gave me was never to tell a Saudi parent that you’re actually willing to do anything for them. I noticed he always ended his conversations with “and you know I won’t promise you this” and gave an awkward stare into the eyes of whomever he was talking to. At first I thought it was some odd South African way of doing things, but over time I realized that all my parents were hanging on to my every word, as if anything I said held as much merit as a binding contract. They would contact me weeks after I had last talked to them, asking about small mundane things that had no relation to school or their son, and grow upset if they hadn’t been dealt with because they could have sworn they remembered me promising them I would take care of it.  

The open house held at the Boys’ School almost two months ago was initially a great experience and fermented the beginnings of what would have been a very good system of parent-teacher communication. The problem was that after giving out all of my contact information and receiving verbal commitments from the parents to participate in it, nothing happened. I accepted this as a normal state of affairs because, seeing as it was up to the parents to perform the majority of action, things weren’t likely to be done. Then, more than a month later, came the parent-teacher conferences that we held yesterday. None of the parents were particularly worried that things haven’t really changed, and they readily admitted it was because they hadn’t made an effort to help change the situation. They were quite upset, however, that I wasn’t able to make small changes that I had supposedly promised them, like helping their son after school with extra English, or buying missing textbooks and equipment with my own salary. Neither I nor the parents were able to remember exactly when I had said these things, or why I had promised to do them in the first place, but they were all fairly disappointed in me. By the end of the day I was ending my conferences with ‘I’m going to try to help you and your son, but I cannot and will not promise you anything’ and giving an uncomfortably long handshake to each father.

I’m surprised with how good I feel in the aftermath of my conferences. They went much better than I anticipated once I started wading through the bullshit, and I think my terse attitude struck a chord with some of the parents; this afternoon when I emailed them, they responded.

In some respects this is difficult to come to terms with because, retrospectively, I feel as though I’m turning into the type of expat that many people frown upon. In reality, I haven’t been able to find any other way to deal with living here, and I haven’t found too many others who’ve come up with something different. I find myself with the attitude that every person I must deal with is either too incompetent or too apathetic to accomplish a simple task, and therefore I must treat them like a toddler. I know that describing a group of people based on the shortcomings of a few individuals is both misleading and impolite. I realize that my interactions with this culture thus far are skewed and mostly not the norm. I understand that even though almost everyone I’ve met seems to share a similar experience and viewpoint, it doesn’t mean we’re qualified to present a formative opinion on the matter. But at what point do rationalizations for cultural shortcomings stop, while making excuses to justify backasswardness begin? I don’t know, but I have a particularly strong feeling I’ll be discovering that threshold in the near future.  


It’s the Little Things

As I mentioned in a few previous posts, the concepts of sanitation and personal hygiene are quite vague, if not entirely misunderstood here in the Kingdom. It’s not an issue that most people here are eager to talk about, but seeing as I teach at the forefront of the culture clash, I get to deal with it on a daily basis.

Most Saudis grow up in traditional households, where personal freedoms are granted to children in amounts that would make most western parents cringe. This takes the form of doing whatever you want whenever you please, taking rather than asking, and doing things only for yourself. Some people describe the resulting children as selfish, abhorrent, and lazy. I personally like to add annoying, and na├»ve, but in short I think average Saudi children are best described as ‘little shits.’  

Historically, Saudis were just like every other group of people with limited availability to any proper sanitation technologies or continuous water supplies. They worked with what they had and eventually ended up doing what everybody else does in the same situation; you eat with your right hand, and clean yourself with the left. Even after the advent of indoor plumbing and toilet paper, this tradition persists, and everyone from small children to wealthy adults takes part.

This brings me to my main point: nobody knows how to use the bathroom. I don’t mean that in the sense that people relieve themselves at their own free will in random places whenever it pleases them. What I do mean, however, is that the normally insignificant act of going to the bathroom ends up looking like a fairly large production to the average western person.

Most buildings have what could be labeled as modern bathrooms. They usually come with two types of facilities; normal western toilets, and eastern squat toilets, which is basically a porcelain rectangle with two spaces for your feet with a hole between them (which can vary considerably in diameter). This only makes sense, seeing as Saudi sits at the crossroads of both civilizations. If you’re lucky, the stall will have a scant amount of toilet paper, but more often than not the only accoutrements available will be a miniature garden hose that’s basically the exact same as the extendable faucet in most western kitchen sinks, and your hand. If they do have toilet paper, you usually have to put it in a little basket, as most sewer lines can’t handle it. Once you finish you may or may not find soap, and there usually isn’t anything to dry your hands with.   

A stall at the Boys' School, on a really, really good day.

Keep in mind that the standard dress for both men and women is a long robe that drags on the floor which is put on by slipping it over the head, paired with open toed leather sandals. As you can imagine, there is quite a bit going on near the end of any bathroom usage, which means that most Saudis are fairly indiscriminant when it comes to finishing up this particular task. It’s not uncommon to walk into a bathroom to find the floor of every stall covered in standing water, with the little hose laying somewhere in the puddle and splatters of leftovers on random surfaces. Saudi men also do not usually raise the seat when they go to the bathroom, and based on the yellow stains on every possible surface one can assume they also do not use their hands or practice aiming of any sort.

Being the adventure that it already is, going to the bathroom at the Boys’ School is made even more daring due to the fact that most of the students were not specifically taught how to go to the bathroom. They were potty trained to the extent that they know where and when to go, but that’s about it. I have students who regularly come back from the bathroom with wet clothes and unbearable smells. In the first few weeks of school I threw away several textbooks because I found smears on several pages. Let me reiterate that for you. I threw away several of my textbooks, of which I didn't even have enough to begin with, because they were covered in human feces. Only after I specifically taught my students how to wash their hands using soap, and monitored them whenever they went to the bathroom, did I feel comfortable touching some of the things they touched. It doesn't help that regular bathing is not something my students normally practiced, and things like deodorant and toothbrushes are considered novelties. 

Being an elementary school teacher has its moments. Teaching the older grades usually means smartass kids doing stupid things, or having conversations about uncomfortable topics that always end up being hilarious after the fact. I have had a surprising amount of those moments, but I’ve also had a few unexpected ones. They keep life interesting. Frustrating, but interesting. I guess it comes with the territory.

I teach 6th grade. My youngest student is 11 years old. Today, I taught him how to wipe his own ass. 



Things have gotten a bit strange here in the Kingdom. What started out as a fairly uneventful week has turned into five days without a single major incident. Not only has it actually felt somewhat normal, progress has been made in at least one major way each day. The weather has eased into relatively balmy temps each day, hovering around the mid 80s; the normally endlessly blue skies have occasionally been covered with thin dust colored clouds. It’s been almost surreal to wake up each day in what seems like such a distant place from where I came just two short months ago.

Things have been on quite the upswing at the Boys’ School. On Tuesday, just a few hours after we finally found the key to the classroom where the projectors had been locked, the engineers arrived and began the installation process in my classroom. Without even having to ask them, they unscrewed one of the outlets and rewired it so it would work, and then gave me a power strip so I could actually power my computer. After getting a hold of the pirated copies of Windows and Microsoft Office, I formatted my computer. This just happened to all take place during a normal class period, but considering how extraordinary it was to actually have these things happening, I had my class take an “exercise break” outside while I oversaw everything taking place. Wednesday morning I started my morning like this:

Its just so fancy.

The building is still seriously lacking in important infrastructure, including any cables on which a school wide network or basic internet could be implemented. The engineers who installed the projector haven’t yet been contracted for that project, so it will be some time before anything is up and running. This is slightly frustrating, but it pales in comparison to more serious problems. The building ran out of water several times this past week because the water lines have not been connected to the main water supply, and the reserve water tanks we usually rely on can apparently be depleted rather quickly. The normally scheduled water deliveries weren’t prearranged for this month, so trucks have had to come to refill the tanks sporadically each day, if we’re lucky they come at all. I should mention that this building was completed three years ago and has been in final development stage ever since. Thankfully, we have a sewer connection and it can handle most of the waste being produced in the building. The Girls’ School is not quite as lucky, and has a strict ‘basket policy’ for toilet paper and the like (not that Saudis really ever choose to use toilet paper anyway). There are numerous other problems, such as broken windows, faulty wiring, locked doors without keys, and considerable amounts of construction debris on the second and third floors. These issues will take months, if not longer, to be resolved.

I’ve had an almost wonderful time teaching over the last five days. There’s been the usual fights, language misunderstandings, confrontations with parents, and pointless visits from bureaucrats, but I’m actually quite happy with the week as a whole. It’s odd though. As great as it is, I can’t help but feel guilty about how positive things have gone. I’m nervous as to what next week will bring. Things have a nasty habit of swinging back and forth between extremes, which means I might be in for one hell of a week. I’d like to think that I’m about due for some continued positive vibes. Here’s to hoping Lady Karma agrees.  


If you get bored, just walk away.

A long Eid Holiday has finally come to an end. I can’t say that I’m all that overjoyed to be back at the Boys’ School, but it was incredibly dull sitting around the compound while everyone else enjoyed their extended stays in faraway places. That, and I had finished all the good bottles of my homemade wine. I was anxious to see what had happened in the buildings over break, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up too high as, after all, this is Saudi. 

Before the holiday break, teams of electricians and engineers where wiring the Girls’ School and installing smartboards and projectors in all the remaining classrooms, and were doing so at a very quick pace (by Saudi standards). They were scheduled to start the installation process in the Boys’ section during the first few days of break, and then continue after the holiday ended.   

Upon arriving Saturday morning, this is what I found on the journey down the hall to my classroom:

Securely locked away behind glass; to look at, but not to touch. 
Just as every essential classroom tool should be.


In Due Time

I’m finally back in country after a successful week of travel to the States. After working a full day at school, sitting around Dammam Airport (which is really not the most inviting place in the world) until the early morning, then partaking in 32 hours of relatively uneventful flights, and finally spending the last 4 hours in a car, I arrived in my home town in all its autumnal glory. I made it back just in time to be able to surprise one of my very good friends at the rehearsal for his wedding, and it couldn’t have been a more enjoyable weekend.

It was interesting to talk with everyone about my experiences living in the Kingdom. Some were left genuinely bewildered as to how and why I ended up in the middle of a desert 8000 miles from everything I have ever known, while others were pretty excited to hear all little details of living in one of the most religiously prohibitive countries on earth. I initially figured I would turn into a bit of a pompous ass and grow tired of constantly having to explain myself to everyone I met, but I quickly realized that every time I found myself explaining something to someone new, it was a definite deep conversation rather than me just blathering on like a self absorbed idiot. Or at least that’s how I walked away from it. I very well could be a little egocentric, but then who isn’t when they get a little more attention than usual.

I relived my wonderfully ordinary series of flights back to Dammam, this time flying with the jet stream so as to make it a bit quicker, and am now currently enjoying the same monotonous compound life as before. Going back home, after any extended period of time, tends to give you a false sense that the world changes at an incredible pace. In reality, very little actually changes when you get back and it’s a bit of a downer to realize that. It’s also incredibly unsatisfying to then return to your new home, hoping for some evidence of even a minimal change, and realize that things are still exactly as you left them. This realization personally materialized as a very ill-advised, home-sickness and jet lag induced, sunset-to-sunrise, homemade wine drinking binge followed by a full 18 hours of painfully intermittent hungover sleep.

It’s been a considerable personal challenge living here. For as exciting as it is to experience total change in every part of life at such a fast pace, it’s also depressing to realize that everything you left behind is continuing on in its own normal way. I didn’t realize this was going to happen when I left two months ago, and it really came to the surface once I checked in at the airport in Minneapolis and I was left to mull it over in solitude for the next 24 hours. At some point, every dream that comes to fruition has its dark period. I waited and dreamt for years to become a teacher and live abroad, and through quite a bit of good luck it happened much sooner than most people expected. My plans didn’t originally include living somewhere quite this remote or teaching in a school quite this ridiculous, but I’ve never been one to wind up with the most sensible or peachy-keen experiences anyway. My low point is realizing that pretty much everything I expected to happen hasn’t, and for the definite near future, it won’t. It makes it hard to keep a positive attitude about waiting out my time here in the Kingdom and hoping things will improve, but I’m trying, much harder than at other times, to keep from throwing in the towel. I know that in time, and with effort, things will, inevitably, get better. Because honestly, how could they really get any worse. 


Hurry Up and Wait

Today marked the end of the toughest week I’ve experienced so far. Surprisingly, it was also the most normal, or at least it had some semblance of normality. My daily routine has lost its glamour, and the wonderment that comes with living in a new place has just about dried up. My little desert prisons were pushing me to the end of my last nerve by Monday (hump day here in the Kingdom), and every hour thereafter was like pulling hair from the balding scalp that is my sanity.

The schedule I established (for the entire school as a new teacher in a foreign country) two weeks ago has been working wonders. It took some time for the other staff members to realize it would be wise to listen to the only person in the building with any experience working with children, as they might have the knowhow and wherewithal to fix the situation. Now that things are starting to function properly, small problems are starting to fix themselves. This turn of events has been great. But not really. Becoming a real school means there has been a noticeable decrease in everyday chaos, and a huge increase in problems stemming from all but one of the staff members having any experience or knowledge working with children. The dim speckle of light at the end of the tunnel is the new requirement that every teacher attend one mandatory teaching seminar each week. It’ll eventually help take the burden of teaching teachers how to teach off the shoulders of the four people who actually know what they’re doing (myself and three women in the Girls’ School), but only thirty minutes at a time, provided the seminars actually happen. They currently aren’t. It’s a great personal learning experience to teach the art of teaching and then see if your advice actually works, but it’s not particularly convenient to do it while teaching children at the same time. I mean that literally. I teach my students and am usually interrupted two or three times each period to answer questions or give advice to other staff members.

I’m relatively certain this is something that most people would not call an ideal first year teaching experience.

Compounding this is that up until late this afternoon I was without my passport or any legal or practical way to leave the country. I received my iqama late last week, which meant I could cash my paycheck and start trying to fill the void of normal life with things like a bank account, a mobile phone, health insurance, or driving a car. But if I wanted to leave the country, say to a small island nation a short drive down the road from my compound where one can legally purchase a significant amount of things that interest me, I couldn’t. By significant amount of things I mean bacon, booze that wasn’t made in a cupboard, and interacting with women who don’t wear bed sheet dresses. Most everybody else can, and, come Wednesday night, everyone relatively close to my age with any preference for consuming booze or indulging in social interaction with the opposite gender heads to Bahrain. I like sitting by the pool, and the weather is great, but middle aged Scottish women and moonshine hangovers just don’t cut it after a while. During my wait, I made several phone calls every day to my government agent, and was given more broken promises than I care to count. It took 43 days to get my Multi-Visa, which is 42 days and 22 hours longer than it actually takes, but now I have it, and I plan on putting it to good use.

Next week marks the start of our Eid Holiday. I plan on spending the better part of the next two weeks travelling, now that I actually can. It’ll be nice to take a break from the monotonous chaos people refer to as my job. Until then, my posting will probably be light, but I hope to come back with a few good stories and plenty of pictures. Peace.


Undoubtedly the Best Policy

Last Wednesday saw the first parent teacher conferences of the year. I didn’t think much of them, seeing as I’d already met most of the fathers, and after school activities (especially on a Wednesday night) are not something that many people here in the Kingdom actively participate in. Only after weaving our way through traffic, arriving 20 minutes late, and seeing the mass of people waiting in the school foyer, did I then realize how much trouble was in store.

Things got off on a bit of a sour note. After trying, and failing, to lighten the mood with a few jokes about it being cold and drizzly back in the States and the distinct tone my Midwestern accent gives certain words, did I realize I needed to stop beating the bush and be brutally honest about how incredibly bleak the current situation really was. Parents were astounded with how honest and forthright I was willing to be when they started asking questions. They couldn't believe I was willing to tell them that I don’t really know why I’m here in this relatively weak excuse for a school without any resources, support, or administration. They were shocked when I showed them the pile of textbooks I have available (it’s about 40 total books for 14 students in 6 separate subjects). One father made me physically show him that the outlets in my room didn’t work, and then pulled out his phone charger to make sure I wasn’t lying to his face. I finally just told them that I meant no disrespect towards my employers, but I couldn’t lie to a roomful of parents who actually care deeply for their sons’ educations just to make everything seem okay. They were not happy campers 20 minutes into our hour long session.

One thing about Saudi culture that I’m still getting accustomed to is their ability to forgive. A sincere apology is worth its weight in gold here, and a grudge isn’t something that most people are willing to keep (religion aside). It’s incredible, at least from this Westerner’s standpoint, how serious issues are resolved with an ‘I’m sorry’ and a handshake. I stood in front of a room full of people who spend more than a fourth of their income on one child’s education and had nothing better to say than to apologize for my employer's mistakes. I was anticipating an ass-chewing, but instead was met with more than a few smiles. They appreciated the honesty. From that point on, we worked towards establishing a type of pseudo-PTA in an attempt to get organized, and I explained to them the different ways in which they could help get things accomplished around the school. For starters, I gave them the name and number of the many Vice Presidents, none of whom decided to show up for the evening.

After the hour meeting was over, I had a chance to meet with many of the parents individually and talk about their sons. It was one of the first times that I have seen that much devotion to the ideals of education, and it made me realize how much westerners like myself can take things for granted. Something as basic as an elementary education can mean the world to certain people, and the sacrifices some parents are willing to make in order to give their children a better chance can sometimes be overwhelming. Most of my students are fairly well-to-do and it’s sometimes hard to empathize with their attitudes considering their standard of living, but taking into account the obstacles put in place by their nationality, their religion, and their society’s views on life in general, it’s still pretty refreshing to see the hope their parent’s have for future. 


Mind Your Ps and Qs

‘Early to bed, early to rise’ is not something any Saudi has taken to heart.

As I mentioned previously, things here operate on two schedules; Real Time and Saudi Time. An interesting aspect of living on Saudi Time is the daily routine. Aside from building their schedules around Salah (daily prayer), living in the middle of a barren ocean of sand means avoiding doing much of anything during the heat of the day. Some Saudis still work normal hours, relatively speaking, but they don’t accomplish much (mindsets and cultural norms aside). Lazy as it may seem, it makes a fair bit of sense. After sunset and the last of the daily prayers the heat dissipates, and attending to any personal business becomes much more bearable. Typical Saudis, including children, eat their evening meal well after dark, usually between 9 and 11, and stay up well past midnight. They’ll awake for morning Salah, which occurs just before sunrise (currently around 4:30am) and then head back to sleep until midmorning. Breakfast isn’t really that big of a meal and isn’t usually until 10 or 11, and lunch is taken around 2pm. It’s a wonderful schedule for coping with the heat and monotony of the desert. It’s also almost entirely incompatible with those of us living in Real Time.  

We have several Saudi employees at the Boys’ School, and after tweaking our schedule to relegate most of their responsibilities to the afternoon, things have taken a turn for the better. Sadly, because school starts at 7:30, the students are still trapped in a world of little sleep, low standards of parental supervision, diets with incredible amounts of oil and sugar, and a very ambivalent attitude towards exercise of any kind. It makes for an interesting day.

Our newest staff addition is the Vice President of Education for the company. After his quick orientation to what was supposed to resemble a school last week, he decided to spend more time sorting out exactly what was going on. He arrived every day this past week (surprisingly) a few hours into each school day, and seeing as his designated office is on the third floor of the Girls’ School which no male is allowed to enter during formal school hours, he spent his time wandering around our barebone facility. His first order of business was to upgrade our teachers’ lounge.

Swanky, eh?

It was a nice gesture, but aside from providing a nice spot for a nap during my prep period, it didn’t amount to much. What repaired his image in my book was his invitation to dinner at a traditional Saudi restaurant last night. It made for an exceptionally late night, but I walked away with a better sense that he wasn’t as dense or detached as he had originally seemed. I learned about his formal education as a teacher and the many years he lived in the States and the U.K. (he has an American accent but a British vocabulary), and he confided in private with me that he was just as frustrated with the current state of affairs at the school as I was.

The dinner itself was set around a long low table surround with pillows and throws in a semi-lavish private room hazy with incense and candle light. The food was delicious, and the experience was memorable. The image you probably have in your mind is much more picturesque than it actually was, sadly. All but one of the attendants were Western, and the most common topic of conversation was awkward chatter about women’s rights. There were many relatively unintentional but nonetheless incredibly culturally offensive statements made by a few of my female coworkers about our host’s home country, which left the South African and myself a bit upset about being associated with their viewpoints. There was a bit of animosity on the bus ride home.

It’s a very different experience living in the Kingdom, one of which I don’t think many people are well suited to undertake. It’s easy to live within your own ignorance here, but being educated enough to realize that many people here don’t know any other life than the one they currently live makes it hard to sit around and let others label every Saudi as the crazy person they superficially seem to be. I keep my mouth shut, however, because karma usually has a funny way of handling these types of situations.

That, and I make all their booze.


One Day at a Time

The call to prayer came all too early this morning.

This week has been particularly uneventful yet still surprisingly tumultuous. The Kingdom has a funny way of creating a sense of monotony out of everyday chaos. Things are so unstable that without something new and ridiculous happening each day, it starts to feel like things aren’t happening at all. In the last four days we’ve received a new British teacher, restructured our entire class schedule, established a beginners English program, and found out that over the weekend 40 more Smartboards will be installed, inshallah, in the building (no computers or projectors to accompany them though), but it doesn’t really feel like we actually accomplished anything. When it came time to get on the bus this morning, I wasn’t feeling all that motivated.

After arriving at school and beginning our morning routine of holding a quick 3 minute staff meeting (all five of us now) in the foyer before students rush the doors, we noticed a woman in her abaya (or a Street Ninja as the South African calls them) walking up the stairs. It was a secretary from the Girls School (one of four secretaries in that building) informing us that a large factory just down the road from the compound, which specializes in producing toxic gases used in industrial applications, had sprung a leak overnight and students would be given a holiday. That explained the strange tinge of formaldehyde in the air.

After a celebratory sigh of relief and a quick prep for the week ahead (25 lessons in 15 minutes, including making copies), we left for home.

In hindsight, it would have been nice to have known that venturing into the area around the school was considered hazardous, or that because huge sections of highway that run through the heart of Dammam needed to be shut down traffic would substantially increase en route to our compound, turning our normal twenty minute commute into two and a half hours. Nonetheless, I spent the afternoon running some errands, then sunning by the pool enjoying some wine and eating some cheese. Such is life in Saudi. 

Reflecting over my time here has meant learning to take things in stride, even if they’re painstakingly annoying or, just as frequently, life threatening. They may be teensy little baby strides accompanied by an internal monologue filled with curse words and self-deprecation, but they’re still usually moving in the right direction.


Nothing but Time

I’ve been here a day over four weeks, though it seems much, much, longer. There has been so much to experience in such a short period of time that it all seems to blend together. I’m having a relatively good time, aside from dealing with a completely absurd working environment, but the nostalgia of moving to a new world seems to have started to wear off. Mostly, I think I’m just getting a bit annoyed with being stuck in two little prisons.

I spend the majority of each day at the Boys’ School surrounded by three meter security walls patrolled by men with large knifes and pistols, and the majority of each night on a four square block residential compound surrounded by three meter security walls topped with razor wire patrolled by a bunch of men with machine guns. I have the ability to leave each place if I choose to, but lacking a car, any type of credentials, language skills, or even a cell phone, means it’s a little bit painstaking and risky.

The view could be worse.


Mr. Volstead be Damned...

Before I arrived here in the Kingdom it had been of chief concern for a many number of individuals as to what I was possibly going to do without being able to indulge myself in libations. Not knowing what to expect, and generally fearing the worse, I consoled myself with the notion that I would pick up the worst habits I could, as soon as possible. Upon taking conversation, most people realized that without booze, women, or general freedoms, I would be pretty much on my own and suffering hideously, thus I would ultimately end up with an inevitable bad habit of picking up smoking. Or worse. Luckily, this has not been the case, for as much as people smoke here (and my do they smoke), my fears have never been realized.

Most weekends around the compound involve a considerable amount of illegality. Alcohol is completely illegal here in the Kingdom, but that hardly stops most westerners from indulging themselves in a myriad of different ways. Home-brewing is fairly common, and each compound has at least two or three reliable sources that one can count on to provide a good time. Moonshine is relatively available and goes by the name of Sidique (Sah Dee Kay), which is more often than not terrible, tastes of piss water, and gives some of the worst hangovers imaginable. Lastly, and only if you have connections or are incredibly lucky, you can procure regular beer or liquor through the available channels such as American or British consulates or Foreign Service members within the Royal Family. Each avenue has its disadvantages and costs.

Thankfully, one of the first weekends I was in country I befriended a wonderfully funny young Scottish man who went by the name of Mick. He had an incredible temper, and on more than one occasion ended up ruining an evening, but he made for a great host. He introduced me to homemade wine here in the Kingdom, and, upon finding out that he was going back home indefinitely, he was gracious enough to give me the materials necessary to start my own little hobby. Since then I’ve been a wee bit busy.

Homemade wine and hard apple cider. And, yes, that is a condom. Let me explain.


It's a Two Way Street

It goes without saying that life is very different here in the Kingdom. Before I came I generally considered myself ready for emersion into a culture different than my own, but the world in which I landed takes the meaning of different to a whole new level. The shock that travelers and expats talk about hasn’t overwhelmed me as of yet (who knows what tomorrow, or next week, or the coming months may bring), but getting used to the way of life here is tends to put a strain on one’s patience.

Saudi society revolves around Islam. They follow a separate Islamic calendar which is slightly shorter than the Gregorian one the rest of the world uses so the months never quite match up, and their workweek is Saturday through Wednesday meaning everything operates on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Daily prayer is an essential (and mandatory) part of life here, and is held 5 times each day. Some days it’s a unique aspect of life that can be enjoyed and is almost exotic in a way. Just about an hour before sunrise the first call to prayer fills the air with a relatively peaceful chorus of monotone voices, sung almost in harmony, that reverberate through bedrooms. The rest of the day the calls to prayer serve as a reminder that Saudis follow a different work schedule, usually 9-11ish and then 4-7ish, and nothing is more important than their obligation to stop what they’re doing and head to the nearest mosque. Everybody else is left waiting for their return, literally, because nothing is technically allowed to function during prayer. Stores, restaurants, and most every other business close during prayer, leaving their patrons stuck outside waiting to get in, or locked inside waiting to get out. Non-Muslims who work for Saudis must wait patiently to finish whatever it is they’re doing because although they may be subject to an 8-4 workday, things here operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.

Saudis themselves are a mysterious breed of individuals. Living in a culture that went from nomadic and poor to twenty-first century urban and incredibly rich in just a few decades means that modern expectations must deal with old world mindsets. To Saudis, nothing is more important than the individual, and, as a general rule of thumb, that individual is themselves. Being a Saudi in the kingdom means getting what You want, and nothing should limit your ability to get it. Wanting to talk to someone means putting yourself at the front of conversation because You are the most important, regardless of who is there, and you deserve to continue to talk until you’ve made your point. Driving to the store means complete disregard for anyone around you because You have the most important priorities, speed limits be damned, and everyone else, including the police, can bugger off. ‘Waiting in line’ is something that doesn’t make sense to you, because your desire to have something means You come before everyone else and, therefore, you get to move to the front of the line. Being told No isn’t a problem because No doesn’t generally apply to You, so you get to do what you want anyway. Dependability isn’t something you should worry about because your time is only important to You, and other people should be smart enough to realize that they should feel honored if you choose to grace them with your presence. Unsurprisingly, working as a Westerner, with all its expectations and responsibilities, while under the control of a Saudi, means you learn to operate on two different schedules: Real Time and Saudi Time.   

This dichotomy creates chaos for those unaccustomed to it, but for those with the patience, or apathy, living in the Kingdom can be simplified relatively easily. This is done by converting to Inshallah. It's loosely translated as ‘if god wills it’ with if being the operative word. Get asked to do something and don’t want to do it, “I’ll do it when I can, Inshallah.” Now you don’t have to do it. Someone asks you to buy something, “Sure, the next time I go to the store, Inshallah.” Now your money is saved. Required to make a promise about something, “I promise it will be done, Inshallah.” Now your conscious is clear. I’m relatively certain most Saudis are unaware of Karma, but I like to think that their collective actions will one day come back to haunt them.

Until then, I say please and thank you when I talk to Saudis, I say excuse me when I interrupt a conversation or bump into someone, and I wait patiently in line no matter how many people budge. I minimize my negative waves with Saudis whenever I can, and Inshallah the hell out of everything else. 


Tomorrow is a New Day

The past several days have been a whirlwind of emotions. In keeping with the theme of opening a new school in a country with no sense of normality, it was happiness one minute then frustration and anger the next, with an ever present sense of sheer disbelief and bewilderment looming overhead.

Life at the Boys’ School has fallen into a regular pattern. Each day I arrive at the building with only the slightest idea of what’s in store, I make my way through the day in small patient steps to get through each strenuous hour, and by the end of the day I’m faced with the continual realization that I’m entirely unprepared for whatever tomorrow will bring through no fault of my own. Schedules change on a daily basis, depending on the time of day the majority of staff members disappear for prayer or coffee, and parents stop by two or three times a day and stay to chat for twenty minutes during the middle of a subject. I’ve welcomed two new students in the past week who lack any English abilities, and seen several others stop attending because their parents pull them out without warning. I’ll be greeting one more new student tomorrow morning, and have been told to expect another at the beginning of next week. Days that start off well turn sour relatively quickly, while others that make me question my decision to come here have resulted in some of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had. This life is manic.

The mania extends beyond the classroom. I attempted to supplement my currently non-existent income by venturing into the world of teaching English to adults. I spent an evening meeting with one of the Vice Presidents of our company and was genuinely excited to learn more about teaching at the Men’s School. After arriving there I was backhanded with the same routine of smoke and mirrors and dangerously subtle false pretenses. This was not the type of situation I needed. I came to my senses and decided to forgo this moonlighting adventure, but was unexpectedly shooed out of the building in haste, left by myself at the side of a major highway with no phone, a limited amount of cash, and no idea where I was. I got back to the compound and laid floating in the pool, staring into the dusty glow of Al Khobar at night, feeling particularly uneasy about being able to come to terms with what I’ve gotten myself into.

A different Vice President paid us a visit this afternoon. He stumbled into a fight on the football pitch, and after unsuccessfully trying to find a staff member to help him resolve the situation, he suddenly realized how ridiculous this school had become. In a relatively short meeting (by Saudi standards) he gave us full reign to restructure the school to better fit the needs of our students with our limited resources. He promised more help and more staff, and started making phone calls during the meeting (it’s incredibly impolite, but it’s how they accomplish things here in the Kingdom). I felt the weight lift from my shoulders and tried to process a flurry of ideas of how to utilize these new gifts. Then, tilting his head and lowering his voice he uttered “Inshallah.” It pulled us back to reality in one shared anticlimactic sigh. The bus ride home was very quiet.


Heading into the Unknown

The process of acclimating to the Kingdom is a common topic of discussion for the expatriates here in my compound, and I've found that it definitely varies with each individual. For some it takes many months of frustration and anxiety to fully come to terms living in Saudi culture, while for others the transition from life at home to life in a compound is relatively smooth sailing. Seeing as I was left completely in the dark about what life was like here until I met my roommate during my layover at O’Hare, I was left thinking I would be living in squalid housing in the center of the tri-city area, forced to learn to speak Arabic in a matter of days in order to survive, and wind up trying to learn to adapt to an Islamic mindset that is entirely outside my own. Obviously, things turned out much better than I anticipated.

The only issue I’m dealing with so far is the absence of genuine Saudi Culture. Yes, I live in an incredibly restrictive environment in which I almost never seeing a woman’s face  and am supposedly free of vice and libations, but living in a compound is much like living in a retirement community in Arizona, and my outside contact with genuine Saudis is largely confined to the Boys’ School. The students I teach are about as Americanized as could be; nursing obsessions with popular music, movies, Ed Hardy clothing, and, for some insane reason, John Cena the professional wrestler. American style food is just as if not more easily obtainable that traditional Middle Eastern food at most grocery stores, and just about every outlet mall on the major routes to and from work are lined with American chains; Hardees, KFC, Harley Davidson, McDonalds, Ford, Chili’s, and so on. If they can get by without explicitly needing to serve pork, booze, or sex, it’s here and it’s everywhere.

I may be disheartened about the lack of cultural originality, but I’ve found a nice little bit of salvation here:


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Week three has been a strangely ordinary week here in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the King decided to take the opportunity to skip giving everyone an extra day off because of National Day celebrations, and instead announced that starting 4 years from now, women will be able to vote in municipal elections. I’m not trying to sound bigoted, I’m just saying I wouldn’t have objected to an extra day off. It’s a nice gesture of good faith towards establishing some semblance of equality, but it’s quite a way down the road and Saudis have a distinctly nonchalant attitude about keeping their promises. Only time will tell. Until then, my female Saudi compatriots will have to relish their victory by hiding themselves away in their abayas while their male drivers escort them around town and provide legal standing should the Muttawa (the religious police) decide to question them. Baby steps I guess.

This week at school started on a high note. We were greeted by a new classroom aide, a Pakistani man named Fahraz, who for whatever reason insisted we call him Fido and that students refer to him as Mr. Mohammed (which is not in any part of his name). He was an Associate Professor of Computer Technology at a school in the tri-city area, and decided that he could use a pay raise to be a classroom assistant at an elementary school. With his credentials it leaves the actual count of elementary teachers who work in the school at one; Me. The South African warmly welcomed him with “I’d say welcome to Hell, but you’re already living in it. You’ve apparently decided to move down a few levels to join our notoriety. Welcome.” Our schedules were revised, and aside from having an art teacher with a brain the size of a peanut and a penchant for calling all her students ‘princess’ regardless of their male gender, everything is starting to function in such a way that an outside observer could call it school.

We did, however, learn that out Romanian Principle is officially out of the picture, and our Superintendent has decided to leave at the end of this week to pursue another job in the States. Thus, it will now permanently be an un-administrated school casually overseen by the overworked and underpaid Principle of the Girls’ School. The Superintendent’s  Ma’a es Salaam (a going away party of sorts) was this afternoon and the central administration of the company were present to congratulate us for doing a wonderful job starting out the school year. In talking with the Vice President, a wealthy former Minister of Education, I was consoled about the slow process of furnishing and supplying our classroom with an offer to have a TV sent over to my apartment in our compound. I accepted. It won’t happen. Such is life in Saudi.

During my prep I decided to walk around the second floor and took some pictures of our school’s humble surroundings. Enjoy.

 Were there no security walls surrounding the building and you 
could see out of my classroom windows, this would be the view.

 A view of the rear of the Girls' School.

The view directly across the street from the student entrance. 
It's new construction by the way.


Unnecessary Job in Saudi, First Edition: Meteorologist

I’m winding down from a gorgeous sunny afternoon spent lying around the pool with a few new friends, relaxing to the sounds of the doves and parrots sunning themselves in the midday heat. Tomorrow is National Day, which marks the 79th anniversary of the establishment of the Kingdom. It’s more or less a bank holiday, but schools are closed and most people, including myself, get one last long weekend to bask in the intense heat of late summer. There’s rumor the King is going to declare Sunday a holiday as well, which might be nice. It’s a bit odd to have everything shut down at the whim of an individual, but then again I haven’t done anything one would call normal since I arrived. 

The weather here is remarkable. The temperature is shocking at first but it becomes something you get used to quite quickly. What’s more unsettling is that the weather is the always the same, day, after day, after day. The forecast is always sunny, with high temps somewhere near 110 degrees, and nothing but clear blue skies. There are no clouds here. Looking across the sky every afternoon it’s an uninterrupted beautiful clear blue, suspended above an endless sea of brown, tan, beige, and taupe.

The forecast for the next week.

Not much going on, but the consistency is nice.

It does actually rain here in the Eastern Province, though much more infrequently than in other parts of the Kingdom. Talking with a nice man from the South in the pool earlier this afternoon he described his one chance encounter with rain while camping in the desert a few hours south of Dammam. It lasted all of 20 minutes, and the wet ground dried within minutes of the sun coming out. Apparently its quite an ordeal if a city gets rain because the lack of infrastructure and general inexperience of most Saudis make for one hell of a mess. Streets fill with several feet of water and life comes to a stop until everything drains away or dries up. Then it gets humid. For as close to the Gulf as it is, it never gets all that humid here, meteorologically speaking. Twenty or thirty percent humidity is the norm, but with temperatures in the triple digits it’s like breathing through a wet rag. A very old, dusty, wet rag from the garage that’s been used to clean up oil in the recent past.

All in all, the weather is enjoyable most days. I spend most of the days inside, where the air conditioning is on high, and only occasionally have to walk out into the midday heat. The early evenings make for perfect swimming and lounging weather, and the nights are decent for slow walks around the compound. Embarrassingly, I’ve found myself getting chills at times. (The temperature has never dropped below 75 degrees.)

As I’m writing this it’s 92 degrees. I’m sitting in my courtyard, the sun just having dipped below the horizon, wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt, sipping coffee. I’m not even sweating. It’s sad.


Everything Comes Full Circle

The first full week of school is coming to an end here in the Kingdom, and, rather surprisingly, there have been some significant changes for the better. It’s not to say that everything is hunky dory, but things are starting to look up.

A little background about the School.

Myself and two other men, one from South Africa, and the other an American who grew up in Moscow, teach in the Boys' School. It’s a three story modern building that will eventually hold grades 4-12 with somewhere around 500 students. It’s entirely separate from the Girls' School, which houses both the boys and girls sections of K-3 (classes can be co-ed and taught by women until grade 3), girls grades 4-6, and in the future, girls grades 7-12.

  The front door of the Boys' School.

The Girls' School is fully functioning, to use that word liberally, with 200 students, a library, a computer lab, a full array of support staff, and a healthy level of administration. On the Boys' side we have a football pitch and basketball court, neither of which is finished, and a support staff that includes Mohammed the Arabic Teacher who doesn’t speak English, our receptionist Jamal who also doesn’t speak English, and Ali our driver who also works as Gatekeeper (his actual title) preventing random riffraff from coming inside the school walls. Ali speaks Hindi, some English, and enough Arabic to get things accomplished. Our principle is a Romanian who has yet to enter the country and was last contacted 12 days ago. We’ve been told he’s due to arrive any day now. Other than that, it’s just us three teachers and a handful of rooms on the first floor with a random assortment of furniture.

The first floor foyer and reception desk, where Jamal and 
Mohammed spend most of their day talking on their cell phones.

The football field, made of artificial grass and padded with those little 
bits of rubber that get everywhere and smell like burnt tires.

The basketball court, where students display their complete lack of 
coordination for anything other than kicking a ball with their feet.

On to the week.


There's a Time and Place for Everything

Gaining residency in the Kingdom is a fairly extensive process, filled with an incredible amount of paperwork, medical examinations, and various random expenditures. For myself, most of this arduous and time consuming process was taken care of back in the States, but there are several key elements to being granted residency that can only be taken care of once you arrive in country.

The first involves obtaining your Iqama, which is a small driver’s license like identification card that basically states you have the legal right to live and work within the Kingdom. The card itself is inexpensive to procure, and aside from being mandatory for all non-Saudi residents within the country, it happens to be the only way you can obtain a multiple entry visa in your passport (which, subsequently, is the only way you can keep your passport on your person and not in possession of your employer). The second involves experiencing rapid medical processing through a Ministry of Health approved hospital.

It should be noted at this point that in order to even gain entrance into the Kingdom, I underwent a mandatory battery of laboratory tests and medical evaluations filled out to exact specifications and processed through the Royal Embassy in Washington D.C. This was so critical to being allowed permission to enter the country that I ended up doing the entire process twice.

That said, it came as a quite a surprise when I was informed shortly after getting to work last Tuesday that I would be going to a hospital immediately after school was finished to get the necessary medical exam. The man who I was walking into the building with, a young twenty something Brit who happens to be an Associate Professor of French at a college in northern Saudi but was somehow hired as a substitute teacher for the 5th grade and kept on as a helping hand for a few days, casually fluffed it off as something I “shouldn’t bugger on about,” that it “really would only take a minute” and that I’d be “right to go” after everything was said and done.

Now, any sensible person who has even the slightest idea of what I was going through during my short stay in the Kingdom would have sensed that something was amiss, and that it certainly couldn’t be as simple or straightforward as a quick trip to the clinic down the street. Seeing as I was ankle deep in the crisis that is my current situation, I took what he said earnestly and went on with my day.

As school ended, we (myself, my roommate, and another female teacher) were told that the other teachers needed to be dropped off at their compounds and when the bus returned, Ali, our driver, would take us to our evaluations. Someone, however, forgot to mention this to Ali, and after an hour wait he was called and told to come pick us up. Shortly thereafter we were on our way to a hospital called Astoon, which, unbeknownst to us, is located at the edge of the compound in which we all reside. We arrived shortly after 5pm, walked inside the main lobby up to the receptionist, and were greeted with a collective sneer from literally every person in the room. The female teacher in our group had forgotten her abaya, the traditional long black gown that is mandatory for all women regardless of nationality or religion, and was now about as offensive to Saudi society as Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day. Adding to our problem was the fact that this particular hospital only processes Iqama medical evaluations through appointments, which we didn’t have.

Back in the car, after a lengthy one-sided phone conversation with our Superintendent, Ali slammed it into gear and went tearing off in a direction opposite our compound. When asked where we were going now, he replied, “She say finish job, so I take you to 24 hour hospital.” What he was really implying was that we were going to go to an emergency room, and by emergency room he really meant any hospital in the tri-city area that was open past 6pm. After stopping at two more hospitals, we finally arrived at what looked to be a fairly lavish hotel. This was the main Indian hospital in the city of Khobar. This was not where we would be receiving our medical exams. After checking in with the receptionist, we snaked our way through the building, past the green marble fountains and bronze elevators, down a narrow darkly lit hallway, and came out through a side entrance into a waiting room lined with multicolored plastic lawn chairs in every state of disarray. This was the 24 hour Free Clinic operated via subsidy by the Government of Bangladesh, and this was where we were to be evaluated.

After the clerk at the counter copied our passports and we each handed over 200 riyals (mostly an ‘incentive’ for the doctor to process our forms), we were ushered into a side room to wait to get our physicals. After 20 minutes I was next in line, and once inside the doctor’s office I was moved to an exam table, and given a 20 second heart/lung/liver test and then ushered to the X-ray room. Fully clothed, a technician took my chest x-ray, then moved me to yet another room to have my blood drawn. After asking the male nurse to change his latex gloves (they were stained with dried blood) he pulled out a syringe, which was still sealed in the packaging, and proceeded to draw an indiscriminant amount of blood. He took off the needle, opened two test tubes, and squirted in enough to fill them, then threw the still half full syringe in the wastebasket. Then he handed me a baggy, and said slightly chuckling in broken English, “big cup number one, small cup number two” and showed me to the bathroom. As unprepared as I was to now have to provide these samples, my desire to remove myself from this situation sped the process along, and even though there was nothing but a toilet in this bathroom, I did what I had to do. And by nothing but a toilet, I mean exactly that; no sink, no faucet, no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no paper towels; nothing.    

Four hours after beginning this little adventure, I finally arrived home, took a shower, and went to bed. The next day, after letting my students outside for their morning break, the Brit came over and asked me how my medical exam went. I shot him a look, he smirked a little and said, “You didn’t know you had to make in a cup, did you? Saudi’s full of fun little surprises…”


A Diamond in the Rough

Given the ridiculousness that is my job, one solid perk is living on a compound. Needless to say, it’s a little different than any of my previous housing.

As you drive onto the compound road, weaving between the 500 meters of concrete barricades, headlights dimmed, over the dozen or so tire spikes and speed bumps, you’re greeted by two heavily armored Saudi National Guardsmen with machine guns, who watch silently as other guards search the underside and trunk of your car for bombs. You pull away from their post, weave through 250 more meters of barricades and speed bumps, past two military trucks with mounted heavy machine guns (their operator usually napping in the shade), and wait by the hydraulic car blockade just outside the main 10 ton wrought iron gate of the compound. After your credentials are cross referenced by the clerk inside, you’re given clearance to enter the compound. Here is what you’ll find: