25 January 2014

Guess Who Got the F--- Outta Dodge!

Imagine a toy car pulled back until its little plastic wheels are ready to snap off.

That was me after close to three months locked inside Saudi Arabia.

Now imagine that toy car slamming into a wall, BANG, BANG, BANG, until its little wheels burn out all they’ve got.

That was me slamming into the island nation of Bahrain.

It had to be done.

I hate when people talk about the wildness of Thailand, because it isn’t true. There are five wild streets and that’s where tourists go and so the myth spreads. I hate when people talk about the debauchery of Prague, because it isn’t true. There is a debaucherous pub crawl path and that’s where tourists go and so the myth spreads. When I go to Bahrain I am a myth spreading tourist. I don’t visit Bahrain, I descend on Bahrain. For that matter so does much of Saudi Arabia—every weekend. It is the easiest place to find vice in the region and from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know it, it seems like a place whose sole purpose is to be used-up and discarded.

Walking across a dusty lot, away from the last few beers, I felt used-up myself. I was with several co-workers and a dozen more were waiting in the hotel lobby, bored and disgruntled. We hadn’t come to Bahrain on purpose; it was a company requirement to renew our visas. We wanted our passports back and we wanted to start our real vacations.

My vacation was in Qatar. Qatar is a called a country, but that is a stretch. It is more of a city-state. Something like ninety-percent of the population lives in the capital city of Doha. The rest of the country is desert hinterlands and not much of it. If you look at a map of Saudi Arabia, Qatar is the pinky-nail peninsula halfway down the East Coast. It probably would have been swallowed up by King Ibn Saud 100 years ago when he was leading a camel charge to unite the tribes of the Arabian peninsula—but “luckily” it was a British protectorate—an important shipping port for the Queen’s men. Did you know that Great Britain has invaded or occupied all but 22 of the world’s 200 or so countries? Nasty teetotalers.

The Qatari’s have a lot of money to spend. Discovery of the world’s largest natural gas deposit has led to the highest per capita income in the world. And the Emir is investing billions to transform Doha into an international city—a Middle East metropolis to rival Dubai. I hope that doesn’t happen. Right now Doha is very manageable. It’s on the water. It’s clean. The architecture is fantastic. In my opinion the Qataris should cap it now. But it is too late for that. The World Cup is coming. Cranes litter the city. In a decade the Doha I’ve seen will be the center and skyscrapers will ripple out filling the desert.

I wasn’t expecting to be awestruck by Qatar. I was expecting to unwind someplace pleasant and I got that. Qatar is one of those places I probably wouldn’t have visited if I didn’t live in the region. It’s a weekend getaway.
The trip was Will (The Captain) and Leah’s idea. I was tagging along. I expected our trip to be about culture and calm and that’s what I got. It was a perfect antithesis to Bahrain. We checked into a cheap hotel with a poor reputation and I can understand why. My room overlooked a shanty town and a freaky ass tree that surely had a hanging or two in its past. Added to which the shower door didn’t close, I found hair (not mine) on the bed, the WIFI was suspect and the hallways were loud. It was still nicer than my usual accommodation. I’m used funky smelling dorms with a dozen bunk beds, snorers, farters and not so silent humpers. This was swank by MBabroad standards.
BTW…Will and Leah’s room was much nicer and had a beautiful view of the bay. Typical married people bias.

We rented a black boxy Skoda. Skoda is a Czech automotive brand and the last thing I expected to find in Qatar. Our first destination was the Museum of Islamic Art. I’ve been to a few museums where I thought the greatest work of art was the building itself. This was one of those times. The collection is ok. The building is amazing; modern and elegant with a wall of windows that overlook the bay and the skyline beyond. It’s impressive.

Afterwards we walked across the parking lot to the Museum of Modern Art. That building looks like a six-year old girl’s birthday cake. And the collection is equally impressive. To be fair I don’t get most modern art. Every information tag in the museum included the artist’s explanation of what the piece meant. If art can’t explain itself it’s not art. The artist on display was Damien Hirst, a famous dude in explaino-art circles. I will admit that I liked a few of the pieces, but most of it was shit like this:

Flies + a bloody cow head + bug zapper = art
Our next destination was the mall. Why? Because, I forgot to pack underwear. My passport looks like a novel written in crayon and I forgot to pack underwear. I blame Bahrain. The mall is called The Vellagio. The ceiling is painted like a cloudy blue sky and gondoliers usher shoppers down a chlorine canal. Italy has a city called Venice. Las Vegas has a casino called Bellagio. Doha has a mall called V-ellagio. Get it? I understand if you don’t, it’s quite subtle. At least the underwear were cheap.

That evening Will and I ran five-miles to the end of the Corniche and back. On purpose. In Bahrain I wouldn’t have done that if immigration officers were chasing me with a fishing net.

Purple Island sounded cool. A low lying formation of Mangrove trees, seashells and snails used to produce the purple dye favored by ancient Qatari kings. Unfortunately we never found it. The three of us travel well together. We do not navigate well. Leah drove, Will sat in the back and tried not to tell Leah how to drive and I sat in the front reading directions written by a random blogger in 2009. This risky arrangement led us all the way to the tip of Qatar, then back within the general vicinity of Purple Island, and eventually onto a jetty to nowhere. We discovered later that we had overshot it by a couple of miles. Even armed with that knowledge I guarantee we still wouldn’t have found it. Purple Island was not to be, but it was an enjoyable day. We got to see what lies beyond (or does not lie beyond) Doha, we put our feet in the Persian Gulf and we had an excellent lunch at a Filipino restaurant that for some reason chose the name Pearl of Beirut.

That night we visited Souq Waqif, Doha’s central market. Doha is not one of Arabia’s ancient cities. Until the natural gas money started flowing in, it was little more than an outpost on the peninsula. To accommodate tourists they tore down the small existing souq and built a Disneyfied extravaganza in its place. It’s fake; first world comforts tucked away in new buildings designed to look old. It’s also a great place to spend an evening. You can go shopping for swords or old Iraqi cash with Saddam Hussein’s face on it. You can pick up Darth Vader salt 'n pepper shakers only to realize they are actually ceramic women in Abayas. You can eat stellar food for $10 per person. You can see horses and camels and as Will boldly proclaimed, “Get some sick Falcon action!” You can smoke shisha and watch the people pass. Though, I advise you not to smoke as much shisha than I did.

It's Friday, our last day in Doha. I am at a cafĂ© listening to Arabic tunes and writing the words you’re reading. I’ve been here all day; drinking Egyptian coffee, people watching and writing. It’s not adventurous but it is one of my favorite ways to spend a travel day.

My next trip is booked. Two weeks from now I’ll be in…

Well, let’s just keep that a secret for now.

17 January 2014

Until the Next Shiny Thing Distracts Me

Sometimes there are no stories to tell.

I haven't written a word for weeks. I've been ripping through nerdtastic fantasy novels and looking at my computer like it owed me an apology. I don't have a good reason. I wanted a break, I needed a break, a strange alchemy of goings-on told me to dork out and detox. Who knows?

When you're stuck in the mud, as I have been stuck, you have to force momentum. This might read like a wet sock dangling over toes or it might pop with the slurp-fart sound of boots pulled free. In either case it's necessary motion.

Before I got stuck I was spending most of my creative time working on a novel that is proving to be a challenge. I like what I've done, but what I've done has taken far longer than it should. Typically the blog helps to stoke the fires so over the holidays I started an entry entitled, "Christmas in the Land of Malls and Mosques." I didn't get very far because it was too many words and not enough story. On December 25th, 2013, I taught simple grammar to a bunch of nineteen year old Saudi dudes who care about Christmas about as much as Icelandic fishermen care about Cinco de Mayo. In the evening I got together with the other teachers and enjoyed a delicious potluck meal. Afterwards we watched Die Hard, because nothing says holiday spirit like "Yippee ki-yay motherfucker."

It has taken me months but I am finally figuring out how to live here. Compound life in the "Oasis" of Eastern Saudi Arabia is a lot like being grounded. We have all the toys; Internet, TV, a fridge full of snacks. We are spoiled. And like spoiled brats the things we want are the things we can't have. Which in my case is booze and chicks. I was too anti-social in the beginning. Not intentionally, I just figured there was nothing to do. But, recently things have been picking up. I've got a great group of friends here. If we weren't grounded we would be having the time of our lives. But we are learning to make do; Frisbee golf with holes that start on the roof, bad movie night, moonshine if the howling gets too strong. There is fun to be had. I just needed to remember that toys are nice, but even a hole in the sand can be fun if you let it. 

I figured it out just in time because contract renewals are coming up. If I'm offered the gig, I'll take it. If you strip away the location and any frustrations I have about being grounded, this is the best teaching gig I've had. And it is obvious that my students are gaining language skills and worldliness under my expert tutelage. Check out this pearl of wisdom from last week's writing assignment: 

Alright, alright so I've still got some work to do. A good job (not yet finished) + better living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Why not stay on?

Speaking of things getting better...

I don't have to work next week so I'm escaping to Bahrain and Qatar. I have another break in mid-February and I'm thinking Africa. I have another break in March and I'm going to Jordan to meet up with a friend I haven't seen since my first trip to Prague five or six years ago. In the midst of all that I'm going to Abu Dhabi to see The Rolling Stones. Following the Jordan trip I have six weeks in Saudi until my contract is up. If I get my way I'll stay on and teach summer school, but that seems unlikely, so chances are I will be America bound. It may not be exactly what I wanted but there are worse things than summer vacation in California.

Since there is nothing to do in the present my friends and I often talk about the future. None of us like living here; our contentment is measured in varying degrees of tolerance. But, we all agree that Saudi is a minor sacrifice for the multitude of futures it sets up. Over the summer I talked about saving money and opening a small resort. That remains the ultimate goal. But,I'm not ready to settle into a settled future. And I won't be anytime soon. Recently, I have been looking into grad school programs in Europe (not because I want a better career, but because I like to learn and I think it would be a great experience). The list of things I want to do and see is getting longer not shorter. The plan will change again soon, it always does. But please understand that when I speechify with confidence and assurance that this plan is the plan, I mean it--100%.

It's just that on the topic of what comes next, I am not to be trusted.

All I know is where I end up is where I am supposed to be.

Until the next shiny thing distracts me.