Friday, January 4, 2008

Memories of Night

Originally posted 8/24/06

Night time again. Cool. Quiet. Still. Most people are starting to think of going to bed if they haven't already turned in for the night. I just can't do it. The dark night tends to make me feel rather feral and restless. That's left over from bygone days, though, and isn't something that I'm going to go into here. These days, more often than not, I end up getting out of bed to enjoy the stillness, the quiet and the darkness of the house after everyone else is asleep. Given the fact that I've been a lifelong night owl, I suppose that it's appropriate that some of my favorite memories are from the night, then, isn't it?

There was one night soon after we arrived in Saudi when the company arranged for us to have a picnic on a beach by the Red Sea. They called it the Goat Grab, though I'm not sure if they had any goat there, but you never know, eh? It certainly wouldn't be the strangest thing that I ate while I lived there. The beaches along that part of the Red Sea were different than they are here. Sure, there's sand, but that's abundant through much of Saudi anyway. What made it different was that the Red Sea had extensive coral reefs along the shoreline that slowly build on themselves as the old coral ages and dies, so you sometimes had to walk through a shallow water area of old coral, sea urchins, mollusks, crabs (and sometimes even a lost pufferfish) for about 50 to 100 feet (or sometimes more) before you get to the drop-off where the waves were breaking. It was strongly advised to wear shoes in the water because there were all sorts of sharp or poisonous things to step on. Another oddity of these beaches was that there were often parts of the beach that were mostly enclosed on the land side with cinderblock walls, as if someone were claiming it as beachfront property, but without any houses on them. Just walls around the beach in the middle of nowhere. Odd, but typical.

In one of these "courtyards" at the beach that night, they spread two long rows of table cloths with oriental carpets along each edge to sit on; on the table cloths were spread dish upon dish of the most mouth watering middle eastern food that I had ever seen in my life. We took off our shoes and sat on the carpets to eat while some of the Saudi nationals who were along with us were playing traditional music. What a great experience. However, the most memorable part of the evening was when we first arrived at the beach. All the kids (myself included...hey, I was only 14) ran down to the waterline as kids always do when they get around water, and we stood there listening to the waves breaking against the coral somewhere out in the inky darkness at the edge of the reef. Eventually, most of the kids ran back to the group, but I stood there, intoxicated by the smell of the sea air and enoying the feeling of the night breeze on my face.

And then I looked up and saw something that I had never seen before: a sky full of stars completely untouched by any trace of man-made light. It was unlike any sky I had seen before or would see again, painted by seemingly thousands of stars, like a barrel full of diamond dust had been poured from horizon to horizon across a sky of black velvet. There was not one place where you could point your finger and find blank sky. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I only saw this for a few minutes. They fired up the generators and much of the sky was lost as the light haze in the humid air bleached out the dark sky.

Those few minutes have stayed with me throughout my life, though. Every time I look at a starry night sky now, I think of that night and what the sky looked like, glad that for one time in my life I could see all that lies hidden from our eyes in much of the western world.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

History of the Girl: Part I

Originally posted 8/1/06.... these four posts below are in chronological order from the top down (which may be pretty confusing for regular blog readers... I'll have to work out some other way as I put more posts back up). These are actually four out of my first five posts from when I was just a blogging newbie, but this is what I started with. :-)

There's a lot of information that I never really tell people about myself. I know that we all self-edit to one degree or another, but I intentionally leave out huge chunks of my life until I know someone a little better. I don't lie about it, I just don't offer up any information unless necessary and, even then, rather sparingly. One of the reasons that I wanted to start this blog is so that I could have an opportunity to just get it all out, as a way to talk about it for a change. Whether anybody is actually there to read it is entirely secondary.

My brother and I were born here (our parents were WWII refugees from Europe who actually met in NJ... funny, that) and we spent the first part of our lives in upstate New York. Life seemed pretty normal to me... y'know, blood sausage and sauerkraut for Christmas dinner (none of that for me, thanks, give me a hamburger, really), along with shredded veal in a meat gelatin with vinegar and/or hot mustard (yum... or not, but it's really not all that bad), Santa coming to our house on Christmas eve while we were over at the neighbor's or while we were at church (woohoo! presents on Christmas Eve hours before our friends got theirs!), and all those normal, assimilating kinds of things that immigrants do. You can bet that we were the only family on the block burning real candles on the Christmas tree as a treat. But we also had the cat, dog, fish, gerbils, all that typical kind of stuff and our parents had us doing lots of sports (though baseball and football were suspiciously absent from the list... hmmm). We didn't have much money because of the whole "war/refugee/immigrant" situation. Still, camping, hiking, kayaking and xc-skiing were mainstays and we spent an amazing amount of time in the Adirondacks. A kid could do a lot worse. Odd traditions aside, I had great hopes of becoming any one of the endless variations of a normal American.

Then, just as I was rounding the corner to 14, it happened: my father sat us down and announced that he had the opportunity to take a job in Saudi Arabia.

That was when I should have known that I could pretty much kiss any hopes of being "normal" goodbye...

On the Threshold of a Brand New Life

Originally posted 8/2/06

Okay, so, in the story of my young life, I had reached one of the major turning points: I was leaving the only town that I had ever lived in and was moving to, of all exotic places, Saudi Arabia. Expatriate life. What an adventure!

Now, the company figured that the hardship benefits for taking a job like this had to be very generous because, when you live in a place like that, you make considerable lifestyle sacrifices. Everything becomes more difficult, from food and clothes shopping to getting medical care, but things can be particularly hard if you're a woman or a girl... being unable to work or drive, unable to go out without being covered up, being isolated on a compound in the desert with limited things to do. These things can really wear on you. So, other than covering all your living expenses and giving you a generous food allowance, how do they sweeten the pot even more? Travel. Lots and lots of travel. One home leave a year back to the States and three vacations a year any place else in the world but the US... with the company paying airfare and providing a very nice spending allowance.

In my 13 year old mind, we had hit the JACKPOT. My first time out of the country! I had a shiny new passport in my hand, ready to see the great cities of the world. Dreams filled my head of seeing London, Paris, Rome, all the great places in Europe... and beyond! And we were taking that first vacation on the way to moving to Saudi. Oh, the possibilities! Where would we go?! The suspense was killing me... where would my parents choose for that first trip?!

When we were finally in Saudi and I was meeting the other expat kids from the company, we were comparing notes about our European stopovers. The other kids had all been to places like London and Paris and other celebrated places in the world. Where had we gone? What was the first country outside of the US that I stepped foot in?


Shit. Even among the misfits we were misfits.

Culture Shock in Saudi Arabia

Originally posted 8/3/06

So, imagine that you've been plucked from your comfortable, temperate home of lush greenery, tall trees, winding rivers, lakes and been spun around until you were dizzy then plonked down in a 125 degree Fahrenheit desert. If you were like me, you'd stand there, slackjawed, dazed, trying to absorb what just happened.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There we were. The new Jeddah airport was still being built (that's why we were there in the first place), so we arrived at the old Jeddah airport close to, or even in, town... I can't even remember anymore. But if ever there was a time to mutter the oft overused quote, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," this was it.

Anyone who has ever gone through Saudi customs can relate to what an alarming experience it can be for a first-timer. After claiming your luggage, you brought it to the customs area, which, at the old airport, was a cavernous white room with long, low counters and bright overhead lighting where they would rifle through all your bags to determine if you were trying to bring in anything forbidden. Pornography. Pictures of women with any skin other than hands, faces, or feet showing at all (to them, the same thing as pornography). Pork. Alcohol. Even, in one story we heard, mentions of pork and alcohol. The customs agents had black markers and used them with impunity to black out anything that they deemed offensive. That is, if they didn't take it away from you instead. After a while, you learned what things to avoid bringing into the kingdom so that you could get through customs with the least hassle. To add further enjoyment to the customs experience was the clear, plexiglas barrier where the people who were meeting you stood. On those counters, before the throng of onlookers, all your dainties and not so dainties were spread out for everyone to see.

But this is something that you eventually get used to and, over the years, you tend to rack up customs stories. Like the friend who was bringing in her precious contact lens solution (a hard to find item there at the time) and frantically trying to stop the customs agent from squirting the entire bottle all over the counter while he was feverishly trying to light it because he was convinced that it was alcohol. Or the time when I was coming back from a european ski vacation and the agent reached into my ski boot bag where I had also packed my furry boots (all the rage in the french alps at the time). With his hand still in the bag and looking into my eyes, he started slowly fondling the goat hair with a lecherous smile on his face and a look that I can still see today. I doubt that I even tried to hide my disgust and there's no way that I can emphasize the word "eeeew" in print to accurately describe what I was thinking at that moment. It's a good thing that I wasn't as outspoken then as I am now or I might have made some crack about his last date and then I would have really been in trouble.

But back to that very first time. It was an eye opener to have my things treated so roughly by a stranger and it was a taste of how different life was going to be now. Finally cleared through customs, we made our way past the armed guards at the barrier into the teeming mass of people from seemingly every possible corner of the globe; once we finally found the company driver who was there to pick us up, we walked out the airport door into the hustle and bustle of the hot, steamy Jeddah night.

"Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, folks. Enjoy your stay..."

Jeddah: Let's Talk About the Weather...

Originally posted 8/4/06

When I've told people about how hot it was in Jeddah, the first thing that they usually say is that at least it was dry heat because it was the desert, but this wasn't true at all. Jeddah is on the Red Sea and therefore very humid, sometimes even 80-90%, so couple the high humidity with 125 degree temperatures and you may just be able to imagine how hot it really felt.

The adaptability of the human body is simply astounding, though, and by the end of the first week there, I was spending most of the day at the pool despite a temperature spike that week to over 130 degrees. So, how was the heat not oppressive? There was a constant desert wind blowing that helped to keep you cooler. Not a breeze. A wind. And that made all the difference.

Factoring in physical adaptation, our house was air-conditioned to a chilly 80 degrees and if it were any colder than that we might have had to put on sweaters. So, the relative temperature felt no different from a typical hot August day at home. One man's 125 is another man's 95, right? But we can also talk about absolutes. In absolute temperatures, it really was hot; the heat was enough to make the pool water the same as a warm bath by the end of the day and the shallow water at the beach could become even uncomfortably hot. And, at its worst, losing your air-conditioning in the summer could make your food spoilage quick and catastrophic. Returning home from a vacation one summer, we found that a breaker had tripped, knocking out our AC and rendering the refrigerator totally beyond any hope of repair because it was dripping with blood from the festering, spoiled meat in the freezer. So, yes, in absolutes, it was hot. Of course, these are the summer temperatures. In the winter, it was in the chilly 70's and the pool area was deserted.

Jeddah's in a desert, getting rain maybe only twice a year on average when we lived there, usually in the winter, sometimes heavily, but never for very long. To give you an idea about what the weather was generally like, I can give you a rundown of the weekly weather pattern during the summer:

Monday: Sunny, hot, humid, windy.
Tuesday: Sunny, hot , humid, windy.
Wednesday: Sunny, hot, humid, windy.
Thursday: Sunny, hot, humid, windy.

Repeat this for every day all summer and, well, you get the picture. When you first get there, you look out the window to check the weather when you get up in the morning, but it's always the same, so after a while you just stop looking. You would think that it would be ideal to have a summer of perfect days (and thinking back on it, it was kinda nice), but you would be surprised at what you miss. Try to explain that to the people you see when you first come back to the States after spending the summer in the desert... try to get them to understand why you are running barefoot on the grass, laughing in the pouring rain.

And because it's 75 degrees out, you have on a sweater.