14 December 2015

Damn Right I'm My Mother's Son

When I was a kid, twelve years old maybe, a person on the other end of the phone made my mom cry. They accused her of having a “Pollyanna” view of the world. They told her that it “Can’t be sunshine all the time.” My mom cried because she couldn’t comprehend how anyone could see so much sadness where sadness didn’t need to be.

I saw her tears and balled-up my little fists, furious at the squawking voice on the other end of the electric lines. Why would anyone make my mom cry? And how could anyone think that happiness was bad?

At twelve my indignation was DNA shouting. My mom is human sunshine and I am my mother’s son. She didn’t teach me to be happy; she put a polish on what she had already given me. I’m not twelve anymore. I’m a grown man with a bald head and bad knees and yet my sunny view of the world has only gotten brighter—and not because of flourishing genetic optimism. I am also my father’s son; pragmatic, analytical. My happiness is never unquestioned. I dissect it—chop it up and examine the pieces. I wait. There are jolts that dissipate and joy that spreads from the center. I’m careful because a jolt is nothing to shout about, but joy certainly is.

I need you to know that my mom gave me optimism and that my dad taught me how to prove its worth, because I’m going shout now. I’m going to tell you a story, a story about yesterday, a pedestrian day whose ordinariness makes it the perfect choice. Parts of it will be mundane and parts of it grumbling, but as a whole I suspect it will read like Pollyanna chugging down a glass full of sunshine. I will not apologize for that. This happiness has been tested. This happiness is real.

Squawk at me voice. I dare you.

Palm trees jutting above a canopy of green, bright blues skies and the unseen sun burning a yellow penumbra that blurs the edge of the picture. The view is the same everyday and everyday it’s the sweet ass prize at the bottom of the cereal box. I stretch and groan, full of secret joy, as though I’m getting away with something naughty. As always the secret overwhelms me.

“Fuck yeah!”

It’s too early for articulate. I need coffee. And I’ve got just the place. From my porch the jungle garden opens up wide. I sit in my favorite chair and enjoy a simple breakfast. This is my routine. Most days I pour a second cup of coffee and read for awhile or tap away at stories I may or may not finish. I love a long slow morning and I’m getting good at it. The brain noise and excess energy are still there, but Island Time is drip drip dripping into the marrow.

There will be no second cup today, I’m working the early shift 9:30am – 6pm. This is unusual for me. Julie typically takes the early shift while Khai and I rotate the middle and late shifts. I like mixing it up, it changes how we interact with the guests. At night it’s about managing the staff and doing a vibe check: is this a party crowd or a chill crowd? During the day there is more busy work to be done, but we also get to give adventure advice. We get to spread out the map and tell tales about Koh Tao; diving, cliff jumping, nature walks around rocky cliffs and how to get to that bar that sells weed and mushroom shakes.

I fire up my motorcycle and let it idle. It is very pretty and totally unnecessary for commuting Koh Tao but I don’t care because it’s very pretty. In these idling moments I often think about…

I almost lied to you. I starting writing about how “In these idling moments” I compare this commute to past commutes, this job to past jobs. Happy, happier, happiest! And then I held down the backspace key. I made it all disappear. I may be the happiest I’ve ever been, but my present is not the result of a mended past. I’ve had great jobs, lived in amazing places, met exceptional people. The past is full of stories I get to tell. Today is the result of yesterday giving me a gentle push, “Go on. We’ll always be here.” The truth is when I’m sitting on my motorcycle, idling, the only thing I’m thinking about is how much I love riding motorcycles and how fun this ride is going to be.

The Taco Shack opens at 8am. Aor, our primary receptionist has been away helping her daughter transition into high school. Our backup receptionist/handyman, Wee is the first person I see. I haven’t even taken my sunglasses off and he is already reciting a rehearsed breakdown of who needs to check out, who needs to check in, who owes us money and what bull$%^ the kitchen staff has come up with so far. Aor does the same thing. I never correct their eagerness. It’s a good trait—pesky but adorably so. I knew Wee had been on time that morning because he always checks-in via Facebook. Facebook then sends me a push notification saying, “Wee Wee has checked in at the Taco Shack Restaurant and Hostel.” I haven’t had the heart to tell him that his nickname means “baby penis.”

Most mornings are smooth; some light accounting, a kitchen and housecleaning check, chatting up the guests about their plans for the day. Today is not smooth. Three guests have requested to check-out early. They were all staying in the same dorm and they all had the same complaints; noise and ants. I know immediately who and what is to blame. The previous evening a group of hard partying guys from that dorm had gone on the pub crawl. The pub crawl is messy. I am well acquainted with booze = messy. I am well acquainted with the siren song of 7-11 snackage in the waning hours of a binge night. I know what happened. Those drunken animals came back to the dorm, kept the party going till sunrise and left a feast for ants in their wake. I explain this to the unhappy guests and promise it won’t happen again. They still want out.

So now I’ve got three beds to fill and a room full of ants. I send a squadron of Burmese girls to deal with the ants. They have names like a musical scale: mee, Moe, MAY, TAY. Spotting the culprits is easy, it’s after 11am and they are the only ones still sleeping. I sympathize with them—been there, done that. But this is not their room. They are sharing it with strangers and they need to respect that. I wake them up. Boss face. Stern: “Get as drunk as you want. I don’t care. But shut it down before you get back here. If there are any more problems you’re gone.” My warning is met with four groans and a hiccup.

11am -12pm—rush hour; guests are checking out, guests are checking in, the staff is cleaning the rooms and everyone has questions. I have just finished explaining that the only sensible route to Phi Phi island is ferry + bus + ferry because the alternative would be a boat that swings south around Singapore. This geography reveal seems more crushing than obvious. Expectant faces are waiting. WIFI? Easy. Towels? Easy. Where is the beach? Ah, my favorite question. I tell the guest to join me outside. We sit down at a stone table. I unfold the map and position Koh Tao just right. I’m in no hurry because I need time to swallow the smartass responses sloshing around like dirty dish water. I trace a path north to sunsets and nightlife, south to beaches both popular and secret, east to viewpoints no one bothers to see. The guest has more questions, good questions. We are humming and people are starting to notice. Several new arrivals join us and I am painting Koh Tao in the brightest colors. Koh Tao turns to travel, the life, the road! I am basking in it now. I love this part. This is so much sunshine I almost feel guilty. I must be hogging it. I must be leaving someone in the shade.

I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. A girl from the cleaning crew, Burmese and four-foot nothing, explains in broken Thai that there is a foreigner in one of the beds she is supposed to clean. My Thai isn’t even good enough to be broken but I understand what she is saying. “Mai pen rai,” I say. Don’t worry about it. I know who is in that bed. He has been extending (late) for more than a week. He isn’t going anywhere. Koh Tao has him.

There is a lull now. The hostel has several busy periods throughout the day and we use the time between to catch up on little things. I am in charge of the chalk work. We have two chalkboards on the patio, a small one for food and drink promotions and a big one for inspiration. I sit down on a bench looking for just that. The board has been wiped clean; it’s still a bit wet. I’m zoned out, watching the wetness wither under the heat—thinking. Got it! I soak the chalk so it will stick. Using every color in the box I write:

Travel! Throw away the things you shouldn’t have packed. Arrive with no exit in mind. Risk. Relax. Smile. You’re in Thailand!

Julie is here now. We sit against the back wall, which is hideously and inexplicably covered in Astroturf, chit-chatting about life, work and life again. No stress. Easy easy. The beginning of each shift is busy; we use that time to clear away behind-the-scenes work so we can concentrate on the guests, the atmosphere and the spoils of the gig. I let Julie do her thing. She handles most of the tasks I don’t want to deal with; ordering from Makro (think Costco), employee payroll, ticket services—Excel file numbness. My busy work is done and the patio is empty so I sit on the swing and let it rock. I feel a twitch, muscle memory telling me to work harder, find work if there is none to be found, climb the ladder! I wish, WISH, I could siphon that mentality out of myself and pour it into my employees. They know exactly where the bare minimum is. They curl-up on it. Nap on it. I twitch because I’m still learning how to be an employer not an employee. I can sit on the swing and do nothing at all, because I quite literally own it. This is my swing. I push off with my foot, rock it—this time with defiance.
“Mike! We have no mo pen.”

Tata is the wackiest of our wacky crew—frustrating and lovable in near equal doses. Anytime I can’t find her (which is often) she is either taking a selfie or in the toilet where I am convinced she is taking selfies.

“We have a lot of pens.” I hold up a green one and click it a few times to prove my point.

“No pen. Ben. BEN.”

“Ben? Show me.”

She shakes her head frustrated by her dumb-dumb boss. She marches into the kitchen and babbles to the girls in Burmese. One of them is going to have to take responsibility for this Ben business. Keep in mind these are grown “women” whom I have caught on several occasions wearing melon rinds as hats and sitting in empty Makro boxes playing choo-choo.

The eldest steps forward. With a solemn nod she says, “Ben.”

 I shrug my shoulders and give them my best what the fuck is a Ben look.

Tata has had enough. She holds up a crusty spoon and an even crustier pan. “BEN. BEN. No mo BEN.”

“OH, BEANS!! Bee-nnnns.”

Which reminds me… We have a shipment of refried beans waiting at the pier. I walk down the hill and onto a cargo ship. There is only one box left and the crew is looking at me, wondering if I’m going to end the mystery of who it belongs to. I pick it up. It’s heavy so I heft it onto my shoulder. The man behind the counter motions for me to sign and I do, right next to the line labeled Farang Food—foreigner food. My response to this seemingly derogatory label is always the same, mild offense overwhelmed by laughter. Crack open a can of refried beans and look at that goop. Imagine seeing that for the first time and imagine people eating it. To the uninitiated it must seem like a nameless thing; nameless until someone, anyone can prove they’d be willing to stick their snout in that crap. “Here white boy. Come on. Who’s a good Farang!?”

It’s 3pm and Khai just walked in. He is standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the place like an eagle in search of mice. I tell him about the early check-outs and he peppers me with questions. His questions in no way belie a lack of trust. He and I have an established Good Cop – Bad Cop routine. (Look, it says so on our lockers!) All of his questions amount to the same thing. Do I need to play Bad Cop? Or more accurately…can I!?

To the Astroturf wall! That hideous wall is the backdrop to our think-tank. It’s where all the big decisions are made. Today we have two important topics to discuss; renovations to the Mae Haad location and Sairee (followed by a thousand frustrated question marks.) Mae Haad is easy. High season is quickly approaching and we want to bash down walls before the masses arrive. We are really excited about the proposed changes; a bigger games area, a polished professional looking reception, a centralized and more efficient bar. We finalize the paper plans. Soon the hammers swing.
And then there is Sairee. There is an unfinished building in Sairee Beach, the tourist center of Koh Tao. We want it. We have a contract drafted and ready to sign. And yet for months it has gone unsigned. I won’t bore you with the minutiae. It’s a tired story—tug-of-war where there should be hugs and cheer. We talk about it every day, “We’re going to” shifted to “If we can.” I love you striped of honesty—a rote thing to say. And yet we hold out hope because if they would just hug-it-out, it could be so unbelievably, stupendously great.

The last couple hours roll by; conversations with guests, a game of pool, final bar checks and another day done. I’m off tomorrow. I should go out, socialize, flirt, but I’m not in the mood for all that, so I take a meandering route home aiming for a solo night in.

 I park my motorcycle by the beach and dangle my feet over the breaker wall. The sun is just below the horizon and the sky is an explosion of purple and orange. I don’t stay long. It’s always there, that riotous view, I just wanted a peek. I dust the sand off my shorts and go in search of sustenance. I pick-up a bottle of wine and a seafood salad called “Spicy Koh Tao Girl.” I ordered it the first time because of that ridiculous name and every time since because it’s delicious. I have everything I need for a long slow evening. I hurry, anxious to chill.

My hammock is made of soft red fabric held by white knotted ropes. It is slung low over my porch—low enough to reach the glass of wine on the ground and the bottle beside. I have been here for hours, listening to music, sipping, swaying. This is exactly what I wanted. Weightless time. Liquid me.

There is a pause in the music. A text message. It’s from Khai. He needs me to switch days off. He needs tomorrow, something personal. “No worries,” I reply. And it’s true. This change in schedule, this altered tomorrow, has zero effect on my pulse, my mind, my chill. Tomorrow will be like today and there is no “have to” about that.

I sip and push. I sway.

I am happy.      

15 October 2015

Rattle and Repose

I am walking up the street, across uneven pavement, dragging all my worldly belongings behind me. I haven’t slept in two days save a few fitful hours on a metal bench in the Bahrain airport. I feel drugged; stoned on anticipation with the coming crash pulling down.

I lift my bag up the green steps of the Taco Shack—my Taco Shack. Khai sees me and says, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” There is an edge to his words. There has been an edge to all our communications recently. What he really means is, “It’s about fucking time.”

I don’t rest and we don’t chat. The restaurant is filling up. Half the tables are full. All the tables are full. We are bartenders. We are waiters. We are bus boys. We are receptionists. I have never been any of these things. I am overwhelmed.

We weren’t supposed to be this big. Not yet anyway. When Khai and I agreed to become business partners he had a twelve bed hostel, a cubby-hole sized restaurant and a staff of three. Less than a year later we have a 60 bed hostel, a restaurant with enough seating for every guest and a staff of ten. We have a new business partner too – a Taco Shack triumvirate.

The ballooning of our business happened because Imagine if came true.

Last summer we were sitting on the old Taco Shack patio; scheming. The place across the street had a spacious garden patio on a corner lot. Its potential was obvious, its waste shameful. “Imagine what we could do with that...”

My imagine was a few years off. Khai’s imagine, as always, was now.

At the time I couldn’t put any immediacy to Taco Shack plans because I still had Saudi Arabia to deal with. My investment money was out there in the desert, an inescapable trial. And what a bizarre trial it turned out to be.

I am in a desolate train station. The air is hot and heavy with dust and sand. I shift my weight knowing that it won’t bring comfort. The train is late and getting later. With every second that passes my worry increases. What if it doesn’t come at all? This train is special. It leads to a better life—a dream life. There are people in the station with me, good people, friends. I try to keep up with conversations and engage in their train station world, but my mind is fixed on those rails and the promise of where they lead. My friends aren’t going with me and I don’t want them to take my happiness personally, so I do my best to internalize hope, anxiety and the need to talk it out. The clock hand falls with an exhausted thump. Where is that goddamn train? 

For nine months the Taco Shack both fueled me and burned me out. There was a brief time midway through when I thought things were going to get easier. I was fully invested in the business and looking forward to saving up for future expansion. Then I got the email.

The place across the street with the patio and all that potential, our Imagine If, was available and an offer was on the table. It meant doubling my original investment and arriving in debt to the business. It meant that all the renovation would be done while I was still in Saudi unable to put my own stamp on my own future. I whispered caution while Khai bellowed, “Now!” I knew he was right. I wanted to bellow too. But…

It was so much money.

And I was so far away.

There is a joystick to my seemingly unpredictable life and it is always in my hands. I control the action. I move me. When we agreed to lease terms and began the expansion I handed the joystick to Khai. It wasn’t a happy choice. Logically I understood that the expansion needed to happen now. We couldn’t sit on that sizeable rent payment simply because I wanted to play architect too. But, the expansion was my chance to put a physical presence to our partnership. I had been telling people that I owned a hostel in Thailand, to see how it felt, to test its realness. No matter how many times I repeated it, it always felt like a loose tooth, wiggly and worrisome. I had invested everything, but that wasn’t enough. I needed some level of physical control in order to make owner feel real.

Khai finished the renovations a week before I was due to arrive. The pictures nearly burst me. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t swung a hammer or picked the paint. It didn’t matter that the soul of the place still worried me. My friend had built the greatest fort of all time and I needed to play.

I played until it hurt. And then I played some more.

I fall into bed. My feet are throbbing. I’ve worked fifteen hour days for more than a month and I’m still not used to the pace. Construction during the day; the waiter-busboy- bartender-receptionist shuffle at night—I feel ripped inside-out and hung out to dry. I lie on sandy sheets, staring into the dark, starving. I was too tired to stop at 7-11. I regret that now.

I crawl across the bed and open the mini-fridge. I feel around for the apples I’d nearly forgotten. I gnaw at the first like a horse being fed a sweet treat. I savor three more. I put the cores in a plastic bag and tie it up. The garbage can is across the room. I am not getting out of bed. I refuse. I slide the screen back and drop the apples outside. Sleep shuts me down. This is not rest; this is the machine repairing itself.

That’s how it was for what felt like a very long time. And then it all slowed down. In retrospect the slowdown was gradual, the predictable result of hiring a proper staff, gaining a new partner and practice. But, it didn’t feel gradual. One day I was sprinting, my heart hitting my sternum like hammer to gong, the next I was strutting, slightly bewildered by my sudden ease.

Our new partner’s name is Julie. Although she is new to you, she is not new to the story.

The version you know goes something like this…

Michael came to Koh Tao to visit his buddy Khai and see what was up with the hostel/taco joint he had seen on Facebook. Over the years they had both taken (sort of ) similar paths; stints teaching English, lots of backpacking and a magnetic pull towards Thailand. The visit wasn’t supposed to be anything major; a few nights and moving on. But Michael loved the hostel and listened intently to Khai’s ideas about the future and his need for the right kind of help. They shook hands and Taco Shack became a partnership.

But that is not where the story began.

 On his first trip to Thailand Khai met Julie. She invited him to Koh Tao, a place he had never heard of. They became great friends and years later when Khai decided to start a business he could think of no better place than the island Julie had shown him. His business flourished and he needed to find it a more permanent home. Coincidently, Julie was looking to close her shop in Mae Haad. Her shop became his restaurant and six months later Khai opened a hostel upstairs. He wanted more but he needed help. Julie was firmly entrenched in her family’s business and couldn’t be the partner he needed. Then fate showed up in the form of an old friend.

Michael came to Koh Tao to visit his buddy Khai... Etc Etc. A handshake. A partnership.

Imagine if came true! The business quadrupled in size and plans for the future were anything but small. Michael and Khai needed a third partner. Fate it seems was still hanging around. Julie became quite suddenly unentrenched from her family’s business. She waivered at first but the pull of potential was just too strong. The Taco Shack became a triumvirate!

In truth I don’t believe in fate. I believe that you make connections, pay attention and seize opportunities. But, I’m also a storyteller and the whole Khai wouldn’t be here without Julie, Michael wouldn’t be here without Khai, all for one and one for all, Taco Shack for life! narrative is easy to romanticize. And why not? We work well together. We’ve never had a discussion about defined roles because we’ve never had to. I’m not trying to paint over reality with a fairytale gloss, there are things, there are moments, but we have harmony and it shows. In a recent review we were described as being “like a little family.” That is tears to the eye stuff. I love that.  
I was spinning. I was wobbling. And now I can see. Things at the Taco Shack are humming along. I’ve swung a hammer and I’ve gotten dirty. Owner no longer feels wiggly and worrisome. The three of us are working well together and enjoying the free time our triumvirate provides. Those extra hours have made me realize that while I’ve been occupying space on Koh Tao, I haven’t really been living here. I need to get a life. I need to enjoy the spoils of the island, get myself a good group of friends, read, write and learn. I need to revel. And I need to whoop.

Those things will come. I just need to have the patience to absorb. And when I’ve done that, I’ll find something else to chase, it’s who I am. But I will be as close to content as I ever want to be. It will be my version of perfect; no longer spinning, no longer wobbling, picking up speed—reveling and whooping in that syncopated burst that comes in the rattle before repose. 

08 September 2015

Expats Everywhere

You want to move abroad, teach English, travel! You've done the research and let your thoughts ramble and run. You're ready. Almost... What you'd really like to do before you make that final decision is have a no bullshit conversation with people who have already made the leap. Now you can.

Introducing: Expats Everywhere

  • Watch video testimonials about what it's like to live and teach in interesting locations around the world
  • Set up a Skype chat with expats who can help answer your toughest or tiniest questions
  • Join a unique community that helps bridge this generation of expats with the next

FYI... this is not my website. Good friends of mine put in a lot of hardwork to make it happen. And I happen to believe in the project. That said, if you scour the site closely you'll discover an MB Abroad cameo. 

20 January 2015

Holding On

In a hundred days I’ll be on Koh Tao, swinging in a hammock that overlooks the sea, already in disbelief that I used to live in Saudi Arabia.

So before I forget...


My alarm chimes—a needless noise. I am already awake thanks to the wailing outside my window. “Allah is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah. Hasten to worship. Hasten to success. Prayer is better than sleep…” The call to prayer can be beautiful but in the moments before dawn it rarely is. I stand on creaky knees and open the only window in my apartment. The glass is an impenetrable shade of yellow reminiscent of 70’s shag carpet or bile. Outside the black sky is brightening and the air is cool. The prayer assaults me from all sides. I close the window and shuffle into the kitchen to begin another day.

Coffee grounds flushed down the toilet, oatmeal with blueberries cooking on the stove and Al-Jazeera flickering on screen; the war in Syria, ISIL advancing, the false imprisonment of Al-Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and Peter Greste for their coverage of the Egyptian uprising; the news is the same every day and every day I watch.

My room has a half-burnt glow like a cardboard box lit by dying Christmas lights. I cinch my tie and swallow distastefully. I am, and always will be, convinced that ties were invented by an asphyxiation perv.

Outside the bus is waiting. It is three shades of brown smeared in a dusty fourth. The women's bus is just behind it, a different bus to a different campus, as always we are separate.

Our driver’s name is Yaseen. He is from Morocco and like everyone else he came here for the money. There are 28 million people in Saudi Arabia, only 18 million of which are Saudi nationals. A very small percentage of the foreign population is comprised of professionals recruited to fill positions at universities, hospitals, and big oil companies. I am amongst the recruited, a privileged immigrant. Yaseen is not. He is a migrant worker and like the millions who flock here from North Africa, Bangladesh and the Philippines he lives beneath the Saudi boot for a job that hardly seems worth it—for money that hardly seems worth it.

The bus pulls away. Yaseen waves to the cops who are always on guard and weaves around the barriers set up to defend us against who knows what. I listen to familiar music and watch the familiar suburban sprawl. Yaseen bullies his way through traffic, his antics a daily source of amusement. Nothing is open, and nothing will be until 4pm. I don’t know where the cars are going. I’ve never been able to figure that out. Throughout history the people in this region have stayed away from the harsh weather during the day, prayed often, and conducted commerce mostly at night. The modern world sprung up late and quick but they didn’t change to accommodate it, they just stuffed it into their millennia tested routine.

The university recently moved to a new campus and they’re still working out the kinks; the toilets overflow, there are never enough garbage cans and the thermostats in the classrooms are nothing more than 3D art. By higher learning standards it’s on par with a big community college, by ESL standards it’s downright swanky.

I walk into the classroom where a few of my students are already waiting. They are all adorned in traditional Saudi dress: white thobe, red and white shumagh and a black coiled igal. They don’t see me. They are hypnotized by their smart phones and they should be; they're nineteen and the first generation with access to the big world. Amused, I greet them loud enough to scare, “Good morning, gentlemen!” They look up startled and mumble, "Good morning," before returning to their phones. Class doesn't start for another ten minutes. I uncap a red marker and begin outlining our day.  

I have been unable to find contentment in Saudi. I am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my perceptions.

It’s a great job and ya know life isn’t so bad here!

I enjoy the work, but am I wasting what’s left of my youth?

 I’d be crazy not to cash in as much as possible, this’ll set up the future. 

Fu#% this

The conversations I have with my friends are always about the future. What are you doing over the break? Are you coming back next year? Are you working the summer? Do you even want to work the summer? The present is a joke about surviving. The past expresses gratitude for time past quickly. I often wonder what it would be like if I could live with this group of people anywhere else. Imagine the times we'd have if we weren't just killing time.

I ask one of the Ahmeds to close the door. I have five Ahmeds in a class of fourteen. I do a quick head count to make sure everyone is present.


Khalid smiles. He knows where this is going because it goes the same place every day. He beats me to it, "Put your cell phones aaa-wayyy."

The students have been my one constant in Saudi Arabia. They are good kids; polite, respectful, quick to laugh. No matter how up or down I feel about Saudi, I am always happy to walk into the classroom. My current crop of students are going into the medical college, Saudi's future doctors. For most of them it is not a path they chose. They had the highest grades in the region coming out of high school and as such it is expected that they go into medicine--with engineering being an acceptable rebellion.

I don't have Saudi friends. If I did maybe I would know more about the future of this country. I have heard that in the bigger cities it is possible to have a social life beyond the compound, to sit in shisha lounges and listen to liberal whispers. That doesn't happen here. It's too small, too country. Aside from occasional walks to the supermarket I never leave the track between school and home. My students are the only indicator I've got and they're pointing in fourteen different directions.

Besides, this is a story about my Saudi, a story that ends in a hundred days. It would be conceited and unwanted to start flinging prognostications from behind the compound walls. They would be no more accurate than a future with flying cars. I will say this: some of what confounds outsiders doesn't need to change at all, it falls into the category of different isn't wrong. But, there are obvious human rights issues as well and I think that many of those issues could be reconciled without sacrificing ideology or tradition. If the big world has any impact at all, I hope it's that.


I'm sitting at my desk eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I look up because there is a kid hovering in the doorway. He is skinny with dark wavy hair and a starter-kit mustache. I've never seen him before, he belongs to another teacher. Something is up. This little dude looks like he is about to pull apart at the molecules. His teacher finally sees him and ushers him in. The kid makes half-hidden eye contact with every teacher in the room. This is big. He wants us all to hear.

"Teacher something very bad happened yesterday. Did you hear about this?"

His teacher knowing full well what the kid is talking about says, "No, what happened?"

The kid takes a cellphone out of his pocket. He is a rabbit on alert, twitchy, ready to dart. But, he's got this grin too; a wolfish gash that doesn't fit his scared little face. He knows it. He pulls it back between twitching lips. We all know what happened yesterday. We've been whispering about it all morning--whispering as if violence can be lured. I am out of my seat. Everyone is. Does the fucking kid have pictures?

He waits until we draw near. He starts the slide show. People gathered in a semi-circle around a pedestrian looking mosque. Police lights flashing. A woman covered in black, hands hiding her already hidden face. The images close in; blurred shots of an agitated crowd, yellow barriers surrounding the entrance to the mosque. A body. An Arab man in western clothing. The last body to be moved. There are five pools of blood.

"Did you take these pictures?"

"My friend. This is very near. Maybe twenty kilometers from the University."


It's the last class of the day and I'm in Teacher Michael mode. I'm telling jokes and winging board markers around the room. I'm correcting b's that should be p's. I'm helping these kids (who came up through a system of rote memorization) learn to think for themselves and to do it in a language they are learning. I often feel atrophied outside the classroom, but inside I'm (almost) always switched on.

This quarter has been challenging because my students know me too well. Most of them were in my class last quarter and they aren't intimidated anymore. They're always trying to get me off topic. They think they're sly. Picture a bull with a bell around its neck walking on twinkle hooves.

"Teacher. In California how is the weather?"

"California is big, so it depends on where you are. It's warm by the beach, cold in the mountains and hot in the desert. As hot as Saudi in some places."

"What your job in California?"
     "Were you a teacher?"
          "What kind of car you drive?"

"What was your job. No I wasn't a teacher. And don't worry about what kind of car I drove. Open your Reading and Writing books to page 136."

"Teacher! Why? You are our teacher we want to know you!"

"No you don't. You want to waste time. Page 136."

The rabble rousers laugh because they know they're busted. Everyone starts to open their books, everyone except this kid Zuhair who is just sitting there with his face all scrunched up. He looks like a Sultan's kid, not the idealized movie version, the oh... reality version. He blasts air from his nostrils. He can't take it. He has to know.

"Teacher. Why you live here?"

I walk to the window and pull back the blinds. Outside is a nearly empty parking lot with dust devils swirling.

"Because it's so beautiful."

Now everyone is laughing.


The bus drops me off at our local mall. It's a ten minute walk from the compound and the closest thing we've got to a social destination. As I approach the grocery store, I see the metal gates closing. Prayer'd out as usual. I make a quick right and book it for Costa Coffee hoping to sneak in an order before they turn out the lights. I make it just in time. As a single man I am not allowed inside the coffee shop, but I am allowed to wait out the prayer in the singles section near the front entrance.

And there is that familiar wail blasting from every speaker in the mall.

This particular prayer is called Asr and it begins when the shadow of...well nowadays it begins when the App says so. I would have a lot more respect for prayer stoppage if anyone else did. There are hundreds of people in the mall and none of them are scurrying for the mosque on the 2nd floor. They are sitting on benches waiting out the pause just like me. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that stalls completely five times a day. It's pious grandstanding that in my opinion offers no positive benefit. Mosques are everywhere and people use them. The prayer room at school is well trod. I have almost been run over by people rushing to the mosque near the compound. Worship is alive and well. It's deeply ingrained into routine. There is no need to muck-up every trip to the bank, mall, grocery store, kebab shop...

Different isn't wrong. 

I'm sitting here sipping my cappuccino, watching the uneasy collision of old Arabia and new income. Most of the mall patrons are women. As intended they are a mystery floating around in black. I have never spoken to a Saudi woman and I never will. Women are not allowed to drive nor are they allowed to leave the house without an escort so there are plenty of figures in white as well; husbands, brothers, eldest sons keeping watch. There is a flood of prosperity these days and this mall, which emptied out could pass for a mall in suburban America, has all the brands, all the fast food joints, its a regular orgy of consumerism. Ascending the escalators, moving in and out of shops, chasing after their kids; people who perfectly match the sepia-toned pictures of their ancestors wandering through the worst parts of the West. It's like being witness to a bizarro field trip. Welcome to Sin World! Damned if you do!


I'm in the clubhouse and I'm in a shitty mood. Management called a big secret meeting and it must be important because they've got all the teachers here. I don't know what the meeting is about but I'm pretty sure we are about to get a collective wrist-slap for over-socializing. Here they come. Their faces are set. They look grim. Someone just handed me an agenda and the rundown is not what I was expecting. The big boss launches in. My shoulders relax and my arms uncross. My scowl turns curious. This meeting is not about our behavior, it's about our safety.

The neighbors don't want the female teachers out in the community without a guardian. We knew that. The incident yesterday--violence of faith not far from the compound and shocking enough to warrant a bungled report on Al-Jazeera. We knew that too. A Canadian man attacked in a big city not far from here. He was shopping with his family. He was stabbed without provocation. That we did not know.

The managers are telling us about all the new safety procedures and the teachers are raising their hands. They have so many questions, mostly about our own community. What's being said? What's being thought? This rush of discontent, these new procedures, none of it jives with my experiences in Saudi. I've never felt threatened. Occasionally men approach me with friendly curiosity, but for the most part I'm treated with passive disregard. I don't want what ifs to start affecting the way I live my life. I want to see this meeting as HR paperwork more so than genuine concern. I want to carry on. Still... I locked the door when I left. It's open now.


I'm lying on a plastic lawn chair covered in couch cushions, in an apartment that passes for our local movie theater. There are eight other people in the room and despite the heaviness of the meeting no one is talking about it. We have a break coming up and everyone is jabbering about where they are going; Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malaysia, Vietnam, Egypt, Jordan. In this room I don't feel like a foreigner in the most foreign of places. I feel a sense of home. This is the best part of Saudi; the friends I've made.

None of us fit in. We are indescribably cuckoo. The normal people are shouting, telling us that we are going the wrong way, but we aren't. We are trying to get to the Island of Misfit Toys because we think it would be a cool place to check out. We are travelers and this is no phase. Saudi isn't always easy, but it is fueling a future of indefinite adventure. For me the next stop is a perfect little island in Thailand. For my friends...well it's a big world.

For now we are here, together, holding on.