Thursday, October 18, 2007

I am Working too hard

My arms hurt from typing too much. Oh god, I'm such a fucking loser. Less than 2 months too go. Shit.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A birthday in Saudi and a night in Bahrain

Hi all,

So it was my Birthday about a week or 2 ago. Thanks to everyone who phoned/emailed/GTalked me or got in touch in some way, was really cool to hear from you guys. I hear you are all partying it up, I'm not quite so lucky. But I did manage to do something for my birthday. I got a glass of real (Not Homebrew Sadeek) Johnnie Walker whiskey, which is the equivalent of cocaine or something here. So that was cool. Then got then to this restaurant that I can only describe as pan-asian, it served food literally from every place in between Arabia and Japan. The food was really cool, we got a dish each and then shared. Odd thing is restaurants here don't seem to ever have music, which doesn't sound like it should strike me as really odd, but it did.

After that we went to a furniture store to look at some furniture for the place they want to move allot of the company employees into. You see there really isn't much to do in terms of fun here, so westerners begin to look for fun in more obscure places, like shopping. So shopping here turns into a huge quest, where every single show must be checked, and then every shop owner must be haggled with, and then this must be repeated until the absolute lowest price has been found. this process can take several months. But its made easier by the layout of the shops. Geographically shops are grouped by function. So all the tailor are together, all the gold shops are together, all the food stores are together. Hence the street of dress makers from the last email. allot of really huge Malls have been built here too, I try to stay away from them cause they seem like a weird little plastic America, and malls without cinemas or bars are pretty boring.

So my birthday was pretty uneventful, luckily I got a chance to make up for that.

One of the guys I'm working for, Stuart, had to go back to RSA, he flew out on Valentines day, from Bahrain. Whenever anyone goes to Bahrain its an excuse for all of us to tag along. Because as you should remember Bahrain is allot cooler than Saudi. Once again I was hit by the difference between Bahrain and KSA immediately. Bahrain is clean, and nice, and the new buildings aren't all modeled after a borg cube. Bahrain is like Saudi's play park, but their economy is being diversified away from oil (Which ran out in Bahrain a while ago I think).

There are 2 types of bars (Proper bars, not dancing girl clubs) in Bahrain, Hotel bars and the other type. Generally you start the day at a hotel bar, and end at the other type. We started the day at the Ritz Bahrain. Which looks like an awesome hotel, but I found out that the Beachside Villas cost 1000 dinars a night, which is about R20 000. A round of drinks, 5 beers cost 13 BHD (Bahrain dinar) which is about R260. after that I stopped keeping tabs on how expensive everything was going to be.

We went to the Souk (market is closest translation), which is huge warren of tiny streets all filled with tiny shops. Its a place where you can buy just about anything, covering a few city blocks. The buildings are all 3 or 4 stories tall and old. I'm not sure how you are meant to find anything you're looking for, and in a way I'm surprised I ever found my way out. I stopped and had tea at this tiny Indian cafe place, I think I was the first white person to evr step inside it. When i say tiny I literally mean I had to bend down to stand. But I found out they serve like 500 cups of tea a day, it was good tea though.

Our next stop was the pub at the Radisson Hotel in the diplomatic quarter, where apparently you have to be diplomatic to everyone you meet. It was a cool pub, but could have been anywhere in the world. I got pretty drunk. But that is what you do when you go to Bahrain from Saudi. All the good bars in this part of the world have DSTV (Illegally), cause the satellite here is all American and crap.

Then we went on to the next bar, Diggers,a perfect example of the other type of bar. Diggers is allot of fun. But there are somethings you notice as you go in. Mainly that every single women in the bar, that isn't in the band or working as a bar girl, is a chinese prostitue. And I mean every single one, and there were lots of them. Which is a bizarre sight, come to the middle east to be surrounded by broken engrish. Its also hell of a creepy to see allot of Fat old english/american expats with a young Asian girl hanging on their arm, caue you know that relationship is of only one type, the fincanicial type.

The band was awesome, like all the rock bands here they were Filipino, but were hitting covers from sheryl crow to led zeppelin. They had a girl guitarist, who was amazing, she seemed like one of the best guitarists I'd ever seen (But that may be skewed cause I was really drunk). I ended up singing 'stairway to heaven" with the lead girl singer (These bands seem to have lots of singers, cause they do covers, normally two girls and a guy, the bands have about 7 or more members). It was good to see some live rock music again.

After spending allot of time at diggers we finished off the night with a whiskey at one of those Russian dancing girl places. I'm suprised we managed to crawl back across the causeway into Saudi in one piece. My body was not prepared for the hangover the next day. Total Cost per a person for the evening R1000 about, I didn't even bother keeping a proper count. Fun is expensive here.

Otherwise I have been working allot. So not much more to report. Except that people here find it very strange that I'm South African. At first everyone says british and then when I south African, they look surprised and say things like, "But you're white. I thought Africans were black". One guy at the local food joint wouldn't believe me until I eventually showed him my passport.

A week and a half in KSA

Hi everyone,

I've been here in KSA for about a week and a half now, I've been meaning to write this mail for a long time but I just haven't had a chance. So this is a few things I've noticed or thought about.

The two guys that are directly in charge of me, Dino and Stuart, live in a compound. Pretty much all the westerners that stay here permanently live in compounds. Compounds remind me allot of the cluster home complexes in South Africa, except way more hard core. I've been to a few compounds now and all of them have the same sort of security. When driving in first you get to speed bumps where you have to slow down in good shooting range of the pillbox at the first gate, once you get through there you have to stop for them to check your papers and scan the bottom of your car for bombs. Then you enter through the armored gat and the 15 ft walls. Inside the walls the compounds are really nice, green grass and trees everywhere, nice big houses and civil liberties. At all the compounds I've been to the houses are referred to as villas, a bit grandiose perhaps. Only people with "western" passports are allowed to live in compounds, thats a Saudi law. But realistically the compounds are some of the nicest places to live so allot of Syrians and Lebanese and the like go and pull some strings to get an American or British passport, and can then legitimately claim to be a westerner. So in Dino and Stuart's compound I haven't seen another "white" face walking around. That specific compound is also only meant to be for married couples, they got in there because the big boss knows the owner, so the running joke is that they're the resident gays (Which in reality they aren't, since they couldn't be, since they'd have been executed already, since they're in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality is illegal).

Life inside the compound is much like America or Britain, I've specifically spent allot of time in the British Aerospace compounds. British Aerospace maintains the Saudi air force, so they have 900 employees in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi police cannot come into a compound without the express permission of the crown prince in charge of the region, which would never be given. This gives rise to the possibility for a truly western past time, drinking. almost every compound operates a pub. These pubs have to make there own drinks since they can't import them, so each compound has something akin to a brew master who makes sid.

The local liquor is called Sadeek, which means "my friend" in Arabic, its shortened to "Sid". Sid is pretty much 90% alcohol. They get really creative with it though and in a compound pub you can buy beer, drought, whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, Malibu and clear. These drinks don't really taste the same as there names though, for example "whiskey" is really just sid thats been diluted and then soaked with wood chips to give it colour (Which is how real whiskey gets its colour), and the beer tastes more like a cider or ale. But its still damn good and fucking strong. If you've been drinking sid then you make sure you have allot of water before you got to bed or the next day you will have a headache sent by Allah to punish you, I know.

The brewmaster at the British Aerospace compound I last drank at brews 18000 litres of beer a year, which is about 50 litres a day. It takes at least a two weeks to brew and distill, which means at any one time there are over 700 litres of sid lying around in spare rooms of the compound, and thats just for the beer. He makes more money off beer than off his day job, and he gets paid allot to fix fighter jets. Like they say in Jurassic Park, " Life will find a way"

I went to a car dealership sometime last week, the company needed cars and I came along for the ride. Cars are allot cheaper here, its not because Saudi has cheap cars, its because in South Africa we get ripped off. A car that costs the equivalent of R90 000 in Saudi costs about R160 000 in South Africa. Its ridiculous. While I was at the dealership I saw a group of teenage girls dressed in the traditional dress. I could see they were teenagers because of the way they sat, which was slightly awkward and bored, with the same posed lack of comfort you can see in a group of underage girls trying to look cool and old in a club in RSA. When I saw them I thought how basically similar we all are, how stupis these divisions we create between us really are.

I was fortunate yesterday to get invited to the house of the big boss yesterday. Ahmed seems like a really smart nice guy. He entertained us in a tent in the front yard of his house, I say tent because basically thats what it is, but it was a really nice tent with air conditioning and a TV. We ate on the floor. The food here is very good and I think its pretty healthy. There was way too much food, as is the tradition when entertaining, the Saudi's are very hospitable when the entertain. It was really interesting to talk to him, since he is Saudi but was educated in America and in private is willing to talk about pretty much any subject openly, something that is very rare to find here.

The traditional drinks here are sweet tea, Arabic coffee and ginger milk. Arabic is made with un-roasted coffee beans and a spice I wasn't familiar with, so it tastes very different to western coffee. The tea here is served very sweet. The other popular drink is what it sounds like, warm milk with blocks of ginger inside it, its very nice.

Today was my day off, so after waking up at about 2 pm I decided to go for a walk around Khobar, the town I'm staying in. The streets of Khobar are a grid, with numbers going the one way (e.g. 4th Street) and princes going the other way ( e.g. Prince Hamoud Rd), finding your way around is pretty easy and the inner city, where I stay, is fairly well sign posted in English and Arabic. When I started walking one of the five daily prayers had just started, so all the shops were closed and the streets were all but deserted. It was eerie to walk around this foreign ghost town. It was as if i was the only thing there with eyes, the only witness to its existence except for the slow wailing from the minarets of the mosques. The weather has cleared up, the skies are a perfect blue as far as the eye can see and slowly the puddles are drying up. Much like Johannesburg in the winter there is a late afternoon glare on everything here, giving the city a strange aura, making everything look slightly out of focus, or like a film that has aged. As the prayers ended I found myself standing outside a mosque. The difference was immediate, in minutes the streets were buzzing with people dodging cars. The shops opened up and business resumed as normal. The romance of the moment was lost.

I continued on my way and eventually got onto the main road that runs through the city. This road is called "The custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Rd", thats the official name of the road, and since road signs here are in Arabic and English the road name takes up four lines on a road sign. It used to be "Prince Abdullah Rd" but when he crowned they had to include his official title every time his name was said or used. This makes Saudi news reports very long winded, since they use official titles for everyone important. It's a nice road though, with a big public park where it crosses another major road. The park (Whose name I don't know) is a bright emerald green right now because of all the rain, I saw a family having a picnic and playing soccer, soccer seems to be the only popular sport here, no girl teams yet though.

A little way on I turned down a side road. I'm not very well traveled so sometimes things that may be pretty ordinary tend to surprise or amaze me, this may have been one of them but I thought it was incredible. The whole street was full of tailors, dress makers and jewelers. It was the dress makers that amazed me. They were all small shops, with rolls of fabric on the back wall, but in the front window they put there display dresses. They were beautiful, made of bright vivid materials with sequins and jewels sown into them everywhere. I don't have the gift necessary to describe the scene to you. The dresses were exquisitely made and when displayed on mannequins the dresses didn't simply hang, they very pinned and drawn out to make it seem as if the mannequins were constantly spinning or dancing. Shop after shop it was the same, like a strange ball room full of invisible dancers. I would walk by and then see a Saudi women dresses in her Abaya and hijab and niqab (The Abaya is the Robe, the hijab is the head scarf and the niqah covers the face, leaving only a long slit open for the eyes), these women would stop and look at the clothes,point some of them out to there friends and walk on. I had to find this odd, since these clothes in no way conformed to the Islamic hadith, but they were there, and in great quantity, so there must be a market. If a women were to buy one of these dresses then she could only be seen in it by her husband (and male relatives). But despite that people put so much effort into creating these beautiful pieces.

2 days in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)

2 Days in KSA

So I've been working here for 2 days. There are somethings everyone should know about Saudi Arabia. The most important is "EVERYONE DRIVES LIKE AN IDIOT", come here for a day and you will never complain about south African drivers again. Its not like the seething madness of India (which barely resembles driving, and only happens at 50km/h), from a distance it looks like normal driving except imagine every irritating dick of a thing to do in traffic, and that will happen to you, people cut each other off, cross 4 lanes at an intersection swerving in front of everybody. All night in my room I can hear faint hooting from somewhere, some would say its like having every car being a RSA taxi. And if there is an accident then the law states that the drivers have to leave the cars exactly as they were when they crashed, so even if its a small bumper bashing the drivers have to get out the cars and wait for the police, even if it blocks an entire highway. To enforce this its impossible to get a car fixed if you don't have police approval.

Here is something else to know. It has money, Exxon Mobil (The biggest private oil company in the world) just posted record profits of $39.5 billion. Saudi Aramco (the Saudi National Producer) makes about $500 Million (Costs $10 a barrel to pull out the ground, sells at $60, they sells 10 Million a day) profit a day, thats a massive $182.5 Billion a year(Thats an estimate not an official figure, but should be pretty accurate). Thats around $6000 a second. But if you looked around you really wouldn't think so. Saudi is a dirty country, there is trash and rubble everywhere, the roads are not well maintained, all the big buildings look something like Borg Cubes. And then you look over to Bahrain which has only a tiny amount of oil compared to KSA, Bahrain is nice and clean and modern looking, well maintained. There just isn't re-investment in KSA by the government (Except for lots of signs about Islam).

All the work in the country is done by foreigners. The country is full of foreigners of various types. The different groups of expatriates tend to do different things, for instance (and this is a vast generalization, there are obviously lots of exceptions) the huge amount of Filipino's here are ussually artisans or mechanics or something like that. The Indians generally have computer and tech jobs, as well as some lower level engineers, the Europeans, British, Americans and South Africans are Engineers and the people from Bangladesh (Cant think of the right word) are cleaners and office boys or manual Labour. Most saudi's do not work, unemployment is officially around 40%, but I'm told it is probably higher than that (The stats are skewed by fake jobs created for Saudiasation, the Saudi version of BEE). To make a point, the division of the company where I am working has only 3 Saudi's of the 27 people there. The one is the owner of the company (Who i haven't met but by all accounts is a really good guy), the other 2 are paid to deal with the government (getting Visa's, stamping forms, customs etc). Now this is a Saudi owned company, so its not racism or colonialism. Its just that there are no skills in the local population, there are only 7 universities in the country and 4 of those only teach religion, which means Islam. By all accounts the other 3 teach mainly Islam with side subjects in other things.

The first thing you see here as you cross the border post from Bahrain, only 100 meters in is a McDonald's. No anti-American attitudes when it comes to fast food. They also like really big department stores here. They make really good fresh bread here, there's a little cafeteria down the road from where I work that makes traditional-ish food. It looks like a dump (Referring back to Saudi Arabia being a dirty place), but it cooks really well. Humus tastes allot better here, it has more of a tang, and with most meals you get lots of bread. It also helps that the owner can speak English so you can know sort of what you're ordering.

The weather has been really strange here, its been raining allot. No one knows how to drive in the rain. since there is usually so little rain the country has no drainage and if it rains mildly for 20 minutes then the roads start to flood in the middle because they aren't convex. It was 17 Degrees today, but it'll be 27 degrees by Wednesday (relying on my trusty forecast fox), I think i came at the best time of year weather wise.

The weekend runs from Thursday to Friday, which only leaves 3 days a week to work in common with western countries. Bahrain saw this was a problem and changed theirs to Friday-Saturday. Saudi Arabia is just waiting for everyone to convert to Islam.

An important thing to learn in Saudi Arabia is that every answer has two answers: In theory and In practice. For example: In theory its impossible to get alcohol here, in practice the compounds have parties. In theory rape is punished by death and is completely socially unacceptable, in practice it takes 4 eye witnesses to the act (Not circumstantial evidence, its gotta be seen in the act) to convict some one. In theory this is the richest country in the Middle East, in practice most of the money gets siphoned off to the 14000 members of the royal family.

But despite (and because of) all that its a bizarre and interesting country. I'm going out tomorrow (my day off) to walk around town (I'm not in a compound) and see some more of the country and stuff.

The Saudi Posts

These are emails I sent out while I was in Saudi Arabia, I figure they're the type of thing that should go on a blog. I went to work in Saudi for February and a bit of March 2007. The next three posts were posted from there.