Friday, December 12, 2014

The Train Ride There and Back: Dammam - Riyadh (Camel Tour Part 1 . . . and 4?)

While it seems that this section should have been written first, it has taken me much longer to write as there just isn't much to say about a train ride in either direction. In addition to that, I neglected to take pictures, so there is really nothing to show...

It was a fight to get away from work in order to get back to the apartments with adequate time to properly prepare ourselves for the two day-ish journey that was to follow. What should we pack? What should we wear? What is or is not allowed? Normally these questions would not phase me, but with my unsureness in dealing with Saudi culture, I tend to over-think just about everything. Eventually we managed to escape, and with the generous help of a coworker, we made it to the train station with time to spare.
http://www.panoramio.com/photo/25527386 Dammam
We entered from the front and went to the left where we showed our ticket and had it scanned. We then went through the "door" to another space where they once again checked our tickets and ids and put our backpacks through an x-ray scanner. We then pick up our "luggage" and proceed to the train bypassing the first class lounge we would have been entitled to use had we arrived earlier.

We exited through the back making our way to the train. We boarded and were led to our seats. The ones whose numbers matched the ones on our tickets were at a table, but a woman and two children were sitting there. We were shown to different seats. My seat was facing the opposite direction than the train was going, but I didn't really notice, even with the large window I had been fortunately seated next to. It would have been a great view if it wouldn't have been dark!

/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railway_stations_in_Saudi_Arabia
 As the train was pulling away from the station, they made an announcement over the PA system. Part of this was a recitation of a part of the Koran which is said for travelers. It was s very interesting thing to listen to (unfortunately, it was in Arabic, so all I understood was the description they gave in English before hand).

The 4.5 hour ride went fairly quickly. We chatted a bit, watched a couple of kids watch their movies and play their games, and had a nice unhealthy meal in the meal car: a cheese sandwich, two small bags of salt and vinegar chips (crisps for you British types), a can of Coke, and a Bounty (think Mounds).

The return trip was basically the same, though quite a bit more subdued. We spent a few minutes in the first class lounge before heading to the train, and we were able to get the seats we had been assigned. It was the last train of the night, and it wasn't overly populated. After the rather disheartening meal of fast food, and the long day we had spent on the tour, we were ready to sleep, and sleep we did... for a while at least.

When we arrived at the station in Dammam, we realized that we didn't know the name of the compound in such a way as to communicate it to a taxi driver without them thinking we needed to go far beyond where we need to. This leads to an extreme increase in price, unnecessarily. Thankfully, there was someone there who spoke both Arabic and English AND actually knew where we were talking about! He helped us negotiate a fair fare, and we were able to learn that the name people are going to know is quite a bit different than the actual name! Thank goodness for my bed!!!!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Actual Tour (Camel Tour Part 3)

White Camel at Festival
 We left the hotel early in the morning... around 4:45 am or so. Getting a cab was easy, and while negotiating a price wasn't as difficult this time around, I am still not comfortable with such necessities.

The ride took about half an hour. Finding the meeting spot wasn't as easy as it should have been, but we arrived safely and relatively quickly. We boarded the bus and commenced with the waiting. They pointed out the tea and coffee that was available for us to make should we desire. I should have known then that it was going to be a rather odd day!

The bus ride took forever! It wasn't really uncomfortable, just long. It was basically long stretches of desert with occasional camels and/or goats dotting the landscape. We also passed through a town/city every now and then as well. Somewhere along the way a couple of the other passengers decided that we weren't too odd to actually talk with a bit. Eventually we arrived!

We were a little late for the festival, so we apparently missed some cultural performances. As I am not sure what exactly we were supposed to have seen, I really don't feel like I missed out on too much. After we had offloaded the bus, we were taken to a place on the opposite side of the ring as the rest of the spectators. I felt like we were being given VIP treatment. This feeling was supported by a person in an SUV who upon exiting stopped to say "Hello. I hope you enjoy the festival!" Not very profound words, but the "guide" informed us, as the SUV pulled off, that the man was one of the high princes. An early morning greeting by a high prince of Saudi Arabia while being led to an exclusive viewing area at a camel festival? Yes, definitely VIP experience!!

We didn't get to see all of the camel judging. It was a typical tour at this point in which it was a bit rushed as there was a schedule to keep and such. But what was to come was as much of a joy! We made various stops where we had tea, Saudi white coffee, dates, and were given gifts of hats and trinkets. (I now have about 4 or 5 hats that I will need to give away.)
One of the many cups of tea!

Amid all of this hustle and bustle, we also had lunch. I was under the impression that it was going to be Subway as that is what one of my traveling partners was told. It turned out to be a huge spread of pita bread, various hummus dishes, chicken, kebab, lasagna, fish, fruit, and whatever else I may be forgetting at the moment! There was no way to go hungry here!

While the food was wonderful, I was even more pleased by the discussion. Our tour guide was a Saudi woman who had earned her PhD in Special Education from the University of Syracuse! The topic of women driving came up, and she informed us that many women were actually opposed to it because of the responsibility they would have to take on if they were allowed to. She also told us about the body of 100 people that advises the king: 30 of these are women.

Off we went again. We saw a camel up close, listened to a man play a Saudi instrument (I wish I could remember what it was called, but it escapes me at the moment), and just relaxed.
Camel, man playing instrument, and
child from tour enjoying herself.

There was also a stop at a Wildlife Society station where we watched a video while sitting in very comfortable chairs. Again, included in all of these stops was coffee and a date! I think I had more coffee and tea in this one day than I did previously in two or three months!

Then we started home. To make up for not being able to stop at the souq (shop), we stopped at a store on the way home. Here there was a place one could buy dates, one that sold homemade cheese, butter, milk (cow and camel apparently), and large convenience store where they sold just about anything you could possibly want.

Family centered doll set. 
 The toys they sold surprised me a little. They had your everyday toy AK-47s, cowboy hats, and rocking horses, but they also sold dolls. These dolls were not covered; they were your standard dolls that one would find in stores across the western world. For a place that says they censor tv, movies, magazines, and the like, allowing such things as these seems a bit on the odd side. Of course after having seen the magazine selection they have here, I am of the impression that things aren't as heavily censored as people have made it sound... at least not in this area.

Then it was time to head home again. The women who had allowed themselves to be subjected to my tea induced giddiness were kind enough to continue talking with us. My tendency for puns/word-play having been greatly increased, I commend them for not throwing me off the bus any number of times!

It was quite the diverse make up, our group. There were the two of us strange Americans (plus the other who was sitting across the aisle), a South African of Indian decent, a Maori woman from New Zealand, and occasionally a British woman. It was great meeting them, and I am hoping that it isn't the last time for such an honor. As it was, they exited the bus early, and not too much later my group was at the shopping center finding a place to eat before heading off to the train station for the long ride back to Dammam!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tulip Inn Riyadh (Camel Tour Part 2)

After the train ride, we had to negotiate with a taxi in order to get to our hotel: Tulip Inn Riyadh. They wanted to charge us 50 SAR, but we were armed with information from the hotels website: they were only five minutes from the rail station! One of my traveling companions called the hotel in order to get directions. He gave his cell phone to the driver in order for the desk worker to give him directions. The driver listened, gave my friend back his phone, and said that we didn't have a reservation at the hotel.

I said that we just wanted to get there and deal with that upon arrival, so we asked the driver to take us there. He didn't know how to get there! We re-called the hotel so he could actually get directions! We then were able to negotiate a 30 SAR price. As we were riding and getting closer and closer to the hotel, my other companion informed us that we were in the bad part of town. It was crowded, loud, and looked like many busy south Asian locals.

When we finally arrive at the hotel and find the entrance, we are greeted by a sign that says reception but with no indication as to where it is. We decide to walk up the stairs to see if we can locate it. Fortunately, it is there. Unfortunately, they state they don't have my reservation. I show them my confirmation email. The receptionist tells me to forward that email to their home office and proceeds to check me in. He confirmed with me that I had already paid for the room and gave me the key. My two friends and I go to our Executive Suite!
Main Room

 The Suite is made up of the main room, which includes a television, and three bedrooms. The main bedroom also has its own bathroom. The beds are a bit hard, but I slept mostly on the couch anyway!

View
The view from the hotel, while in no way what I would call beautiful, gives one an idea of how things are going outside. In this case, one can see the extremely busy Riyadh traffic! The noise that found its way into the room matched the traffic on the road below.

After a good night sleep, or rather five hours of tossing and turning, I got up and took a shower. I was partially sleeping, but I was still a bit surprised to
Used Soap in Shower
find the bar of soap in the shower that looked as if it had been used no more than twice. It would have been a nice addition would it not have been used.

I turned on the shower and realized that I hadn't put the curtain inside the tub. I dismissed it with the thought "what is the worse that could happen? A bit of water on the floor isn't a big deal." As it turned out, it could be a big deal! I had to use the hair dryer to dry out some of my clothes that I was going to wear that day.

After my shower, it was just about time to go out and catch a cab to the mall in order to catch the bus for our day long tour!










Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Negotiating Meaning with My Students

The discussion somehow turned to Arabic, and I was left wondering what was going on. I finally figured out they were talking about masoob. My students quickly remembered they were in English class and started to explain what masoob was: bread, cream, bananas, and .... something else. They said the word in Arabic, but I didn't quite recognize it at first. Then they discussed it among themselves for a few moments. It was then I recalled the word.... but I didn't let them know!

The students decided to act it out: "what is animal that bzzzzzz?" while using a finger to move in a spiral toward the ceiling.

Me: A bee?
Students: No! Different animal!
Me: Hmmm... A fly?

A student went to the board. "This," he said as he drew a picture.
"That is a flower." I was really interested to see what he came up with next.
As he was finishing filling in the stinger on a crude but recognizable drawing of a bee, "What is this?"
"A stinger."
"Noooo!" His earnest reply made me smile.
"A bee." Noticing there puzzled looks, I continued, "bzzz! It stings you; it swells; and you go to the hospital." The gestures to accompany this were being readily used throughout.
The students smiled. "Bee goes flower ..." one brings his fingers to his lips to mimic eating something thick like noodles, "then goes back home."
I draw a box on the board and try to make it look like a passable hive and write next to it "hive" while saying "hive. A bee's home."

The students try to gesture some other word. It doesn't really come across as much of anything, but I decide to have mercy on them and not play stupid. "A bee makes honey."
"YES!! Honey!!"

The students are ecstatic. They are proud to have finally figured out the word. While it would have taken far less than the 20 minutes it took us if I had used a dictionary, we would not have learned the words 'stinger', 'bee,' 'hive,' and 'make.' And even more importantly they wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn the process of negotiating meaning. This is a skill they will need when they go to Texas and need to talk with some of the other students who may not know a lot of English or any Arabic. Hopefully this is something they have learned from and will retain!

Friday, October 24, 2014

A "Nice" Dinner Out.

As I have been in Saudi Arabia for going on six months, I figured it may be time to go out and have some Saudi food. One of my students suggested I try masoob. He told me it was really good for breakfast, but I wasn't about to go out and attempt to find such a thing early in the morning on my day off!

So last night, a fellow worker and I decided to have this dish for a later dinner. We left the compound around 7pm to start our adventure of discovery. Trying to find the area in which the restaurant was located proved to be a little more difficult that first imagined. Being the progressive, modern, and technologically individuals we are, listening to the GPS on his phone seemed to be the way to go. It turned out to be a little less than reliable, though. Apparently the streets are too close together for the GPS to really be able to tell if you are on the correct one. Ultimately we ended up going in a huge circle before finally getting to the area of town we needed to be.

After arriving we entered the rather small restaurant. Upon entering one is faced with the cashier to the left and a long counter to the right, similar to some kabob places I have visited in the past. If you look past the cashier, there is a hole in the wall that leads to a room with seats. We took a seat and waited for someone to come take our order.
   
http://cookbookstoreblog.blogspot.com/2014/02/gulf-house-arabian-gulf-cusine-in.html

Everything was in Arabic (imagine that! A place in Saudi where the menu is only in Arabic... the shock one must be going through hearing this.), so I was at the mercy of my coworker whose Arabic is quite good. We went through varied masoob choices and decide on one with cream, honey, and cheese. It almost had a Waffle House feel to it both in sitting and the multi-ways in which the masoob is served (think hash-brown styles).

When the food came out, I was a little skeptical about it being enough. It was a small dish, and resembled a slightly thicker form of oatmeal. It is made with crushed bananas which one can definitely taste. With the honey, this is quite a sweet treat, that is also quite filling. The oatmeal looking stuff is apparently flat bread that has been ground up with the bananas!

We started eating after 8pm. I finished mine, but just barely (and I hadn't eaten all day at that point)! The following day, I still felt full until about mid-afternoon! This would be a great breakfast food for one who likes something hearty that will keep them full throughout the morning. I like the sweetness provided by the honey, the richness provided by the cream, but I wouldn't recommend the cheese. It wasn't bad, it just didn't seem to compliment the rest of the dish.



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ending a Vacation

Someone once made the observation that vacations were bad things because you either spend them in places that are worse than where you work making them something to not really look forward to, or you go somewhere great and end up coming back and being overly depressed by the job you have had to return to. I find neither of these extremes to be the norm, nor would I find them to be good reasons to forgo vacations even if they were. I must admit, though, that I am not looking forward to the work that faces me when I am finally blessed with no longer having to sit and wait.

I have just finished a short, two-week vacation. I flew from Saudi Arabia to Michigan looking forward to meeting up with friends and family. The first week was spent with my brother. I didn't do much other than sit around and talk and watch dvds. Not very productive, but just what a vacation is for! Besides, I did a little studying as well. In addition, I was able to meet up with a friend whom I hadn't seen in at least 5 years along with her children. The discussion was interesting, even if a bit disjointed and derailed by constant interruptions interjections by the kids.

Sometime during this, I took a test on which I didn't score as well as I would have liked; it was better than nothing, though! This disappointment was deflected by getting to meet up with friends I hadn't seen in a while. We had a good lunch of cheeseburgers and fries along with a side of great conversation.

Immediately following this nourishing of  body and soul, I drove the over 400 miles to see yet another friend and find rest on her couch. We were able to catch up during the day and enjoy the two youngsters when they returned from their daily romp in the school system. Watching Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Honey I Shrunk Ourselves with a 6 year old is an interesting experience. As is learning about her and her 5 year old sister's take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Go green!!

I then had my mandatory meet up with APO! The friends I have made within Alpha Phi Omega are wonderful, and I cherish them greatly. Unfortunately, I see them rarely and for too short of time. Far too soon I was off to Wisconsin where I was to visit another friend from university and take a three hour test the following day. Of course, I didn't sleep that night, so my test may or may not have gone so well, not that I mind so much either way. Right after sleepily taking that 3 hour exam, I was on the road yet again. This time I had to drive over 8 hours back to my brother's apartment where I would stay for the night. I arrived around 9pm. This was the perfect time as it gave me plenty of time to figure out what to pack, what to pack it in, and then how to pack it before heading off to bed so that I would be able to get up around 4am to get to the airport in time for my flight in the morning. It seems to have worked out fine as I am now typing this at the Minneapolis airport where I am waiting the 5.5 hours for my flight to Amsterdam to board. My vacation is not yet over, but I must say it has been busy, stressful, and full of good things! The ending is like a strawberry covered in dark chocolate: rich, sweet, bitter with a dash of satisfaction in knowing that moderation is the key to enjoyment. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Eggman!

There he was, in perfect form, staring up at me with his bright, orange face, confident that his mucous-fiber would hold. Of course, he was right! If not for location, this would have been a great site for those who yearn for that perfect, sunny-side up energy provider.

After admiring it for a couple of minutes, I attempted to clean up the mess I had inadvertently caused by severely underestimating gravity's control over my everyday life.  This cleanup process turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had first imagined. At first I tried using a flat device to scoop it up with. This ended in the disastrous splitting of the skin holding in the orange blood that now came flowing out. This signaled the necessity of one of the napkins I had collected (I have yet to purchase paper towels which may move up on my list of things to buy). It took two or three of them, and it was a little more difficult to pick up the gel-like substance that was left, but I did finally manage. In the future, I will remember that a pan is a much better location in which to cook eggs than the floor will ever be!

On a high note, this does mean that I have been eating, and it has been mostly at home. It may not be quite as healthy as I would like, but I am working on changing that. It is a step in the right direction for me!