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20140312 Hello from the Desert

I hope this finds you all doing well. Sorry I have not written a lot lately, I’ve really had a time of it with head cold, chest cold and asthma and working hard. However, we are finally starting to feel summer coming on in the Arabian Gulf area. The winter was lovely I must say, and a very pleasant surprise. Tomorrow it will be 35oC/95oF. I can’t say I’m looking forward to scorching heat. I moved to another area of the foreigners' camp so I would have a long way to walk if I missed the 6:30 bus in the a.m. Never my finest hour, I’m getting used to starting work at 7 AM and getting Friday/Saturday off for the weekend. On Friday everything is shut for prayers so it’s more or less an enforced rest day. Last weekend I took a taxi across the causeway to the Kingdom of Bahrain for the weekend. Saw Jose Carerras at the National Theatre and he gave a fabulous performance of opera excerpts. Went to brunch at the Crowne Plaza and caught up with friends who have actually spent many years in the middle east. It was really lovely. Got a little retail therapy in, and bought fabric to cover my ugly kitchen table.

Well life in Arabia is even more restricting than I thought it would be – on many levels. Actually living in the eastern (Gulf) area is better as the locals are more used to seeing westerners. Women are still forced to wear black abayas top to toe if you go outside the camp. In the heat of summer I cannot imagine. At least I won’t get sunburned. I’ve had a couple of trips to the desert and a few camel encounters. I drank milk warm from a cow camel - it was delicious. Her baby camel was really annoyed and set up such a racket! Those babies are loud and cantankerous and she told me exactly what she thought about some human drinking her milk - so there!

Work is insane at times. Four contractors are out the door in less than one month. Three of them are really talented, and they just happened to get the wrong side of someone’s personality. Your personal connections count for much here! There is an Arabic term called Wasta, which means essentially clout or influence (from your family). Since it is truly a tribal society, if you have enough Wasta you have more wiggle-room than the average guy. The crime is to get caught. That isn’t unusual in most societies really, but here it is acceptable. The well off Saudis go to Bahrain for ‘entertainment’ while the poor ones are trapped in here and could never dream of doing anything against the norm.

The shops close for prayer several times a day but not everyone prays. The women cluster around in their black robes and chat on cell phones. Men scuttle into coffee shop sections that are reserved for men only. I window shop and wait for the doors to open, unless of course I get caught inside. (Thankfully I only got trapped once and it was a harrowing experience. Fortunately I was able to call my sister who kept me giggling, and there was no toilet in the place!). The shop keeper was flabergasted when she found me sitting on a stool in the corner laughing. I got lost one night a few weeks back and it was dark. Suddenly I was surrounded by the call to prayer from all the mosques in the area, which is strange enough, but there were feral cats making a horrific noise so all in all, not a good experience. After checking out the want ads, and falling off a clunker, I decided to buy a new bike. I went with a colleague who does triathlons, and he helped me pick one out. It also happened to be on sale for half price; an American brand, made in China of course. No brakes and no gears. It is basic to say the least. Last night I got a ride to Bahrain with a colleague who went to the US Navy Base to buy a laptop, so I got a helmet and lock for my bike. I will get delivery of my bike next week and try to keep myself safe while I toodle around the compound. I’m not allowed to ride on the main roads outside. Women are not allowed to ride on anything – and anyway with a black robe they’d trip themselves up.

I enjoy learning the geophysics and drilling end of the oil industry, and I’ve even found mistakes in their equations and technical terminology much to my utter amazement. I remember square roots, logs and gems that were buried in my brain somewhere far away. I love rocks anyway and have found a few lovely little stones that I keep on my desk. The food is horribly bland, and not like middle eastern food you get in UK or USA, which I like. The grub on camp is cheap and nasty and I am glad I got a studio apartment with a kitchen. I eat mostly vegetables, bread, fruit and have a hard time getting quality protein. They do have tuna, eggs, tofu and beans galore, so that does me. Once in a while I have a nice treat outside at a restaurant and bring some home for the next day. Still, I am now getting paid regularly (they forgot to pay me for a month). I’m planning to get my mid year leave in May, and will go to New York for a few days. It’ll be nice to go home for a spell and see my NY friends and family. Make some wardrobe changes too no doubt.

Managed to get to a spa for some treatments. Manicure, pedicure, hair colour etc. The spas are almost totally run by Filipinas and a few Arab women, so you get a better class of uniform in the high end ones. The treatments are much the same, but you’re paying for the ambiance. The high end ones are rather exotic and beautiful.

All in all - work continues to grab my interest, at least the technical side of it; the modus operandi end needs some adjustment of expectation. The local people are on the whole quite friendly. Things are changing very slowly. Women still cannot drive, car or bicycle. Few women work outside the home. All women dress in black. Today we have a shamal – a sandstorm. I can see the need to wear the abaya and the head covering. It is not just for modesty, as it offers protection from the elements. I just wish you could show an ankle though, because I dread tripping up over my hem getting off the bus. And with the hijab, there are no bad hair days. Sometimes reasons show themselves slowly, and I’m ‘getting it’ on some levels. No excuse for bland food though. That I’m still trying to figure out.

Until next time, best wishes from
Wee Shufti.