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.