Thursday, January 17, 2008

Frustrations Mount or “Fun in The Sandbox”

Time for a well-deserved little break from The Sandbox. Actually, probably overdue for a break. I suppose if you are a “local” then long uninterrupted periods or years of life in The Sandbox are just the norm, but if you are not a “local,” there is just only so much one can take in a country that sometimes seemingly sucks the life right out of you! My breaking point usually hits at about four months – and then it becomes time for an extended break in the real world – which is far, far, far from here.

December flew by. We were busy – mostly I was busy. We had our first “real Holidays!” and thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed them. I spent the better part of the middle of the month baking. Every year I make plates of cookies for all of the “bachelor” pilots that are here without family. [Bachelor doesn’t necessarily mean single and unmarried, here. It can mean a man that is here without his family; most of the married pilots arrive alone and are not able to bring their families until they have been here for a period of time – usually about a year and sometimes longer.] I started making these cookie plates five years ago – and that first year I probably made nine or ten plates of cookies. Since that year the count has increased, and along with the “bachelors” that are here working, I also try to include as many of the men who are here that come and work for ridiculous wages from other Third World Countries who will never get to bring their families and who are only allowed to travel home every two or three years – usually the men that others don’t think to consider, the ones who work very, very hard to make our lives as good as they are here – the street cleaners, the gardeners, the guys who wash cars in the parking lots for a living, the guys at the cleaners, the guys who bag my groceries at the Commissary and unload my cart into my car, the two newspaper delivery men, the man who cleans my pool, my houseboy, and a few others.

This year I made thirty-seven cookie plates. There were pictures. Unfortunately, something happened when I tried to get technical and there are no more pictures. I do, however, have pictures of some of the cookies before they were carefully, tediously arranged onto plates, covered with cellophane and then tied with red and green ribbons. The baking this year included seven batches of gingerbread which I rolled out and cut into Gingerbread Men and then painstakingly decorated – 280 of them! I made eight batches of Russian Teacakes and hand rolled them all in confectioner’s sugar, twice. I made three batches of Mamie Eisenhower fudge, three double batches of butterscotch pecan coconut brownies [which are more delicious than I can even describe!]. I made three double batches of lemon cookies with raspberry filling. I made three batches of Martha Stewart’s white chocolate peppermint bark. And I made three batches of triple chocolate biscotti with white chocolate chunks. Yes, to say that I was very, very busy baking is an understatement, but for the most part, this was an enjoyable and pleasant task, even though incredibly time consuming.

This was the first year since we’ve been here that we had a Christmas Tree! It was sooo exciting! I was in Bahrain, early in December, and walked into a store and saw several different sizes of trees – fake of course, for sale, and bought the very biggest one. Eight feet of plastic pine needles, made in China, for far less than what one would pay in the States – I paid 39 Bahraini Dinars for the tree, which is 390 Saudi Riyals [$104.55 U.S. Dollars]. I bought decorations at the same store. Nothing to rant and rave about – they weren’t gorgeous, but here, in the Middle East where Christmas is generally not an accepted and openly celebrated holiday – you do the best you can with what you have available. From then on, it was a mission, to shop and find ornaments and decorations for the Tree. I called my Mom in North Carolina and begged her to immediately go out and find lights for me – the lights here are all on cords are 220 volts – which is what the electricity is for everywhere here BUT for our compound which was built by Westerner’s and uses standard 110 voltage like in the States – and send them to me via overnight delivery. Bless her heart, she did, too! Mom immediately purchased eight boxes of lights for me – for a total of 800’ of little clear lights – and also included as a surprise in the box she shipped the lights in four or five boxes of icicles [long silver strands of “tinsel”] – the cost of the items she sent was about $40.00, but she paid $90.00 to ship it! I waited until the lights arrived before assembling the Tree. Thankfully, a few of the photos of our Tree made it to our computer’s hard drive before I destroyed the chip that had everything else on it. It really, truly was an almost picture-perfect gorgeous Tree. Even the Houseboy walked in one morning after I’d decorated it and said, “It is very beautiful, Madam. I have never seen anything like that except in a movie.”

Needless to say, because I was so involved with baking, and then waited for the lights to arrive before putting the Tree up and decorating it, we never got around to doing our usual family Christmas photo this year, and that truly is regretful. Next year… The Kids were so good with the Tree – it was their very first Tree, ever, too! Each time The Baby would go near the Tree the laws of physics kicked in – or something – and she created enough static that the thin strands of silver plastic tinsel attached themselves to her and she’d end up prancing through the house covered in icicles – so it was rather comical – seeing her fluffy black curls decorated with silvery strands [yes, of course we were very, very careful to make sure that we took them off of her and replaced them to the branches of the Tree – before she could attack them on her own!]. As often as the Kids had their noses in the Tree, or went to the windows behind the Tree to do their “barking chicken” thing at whatever moves on the other side of the windows – not a single ornament ended up breaking, and not once did The Boy lift his leg to mark his territory – thankfully.

At some point during the last week or so before Christmas there were a couple of people over and, as we are apt to do here, we were sitting around consuming our beverages – my beverage of choice being “grape juice,” and after I consumed several glasses of it I said, “I know, on Christmas Day we’ll have an open house and everyone that doesn’t have a place to go with friends or family can come here.” Suffice it to say that one of my two New Year’s resolutions this year includes wearing a roll of duck tape on my wrist like a bracelet so that the next time I’m enjoying several glasses of “grape juice” someone rips a piece of tape off and covers my mouth before I say something like, “Let’s have an Open House!” So now, along with the umpteen gazillion cookies I’ve committed to baking and decorating or cutting and arranging, I committed myself to a Christmas Day Open House and what was only going to be a few people ended up with something like thirty – mostly men [one of which came and brought a Saudi woman to accompany him – but I’ll save that for another post] – invited – including the Marines at the local Consulate. It really went quite well, considering I did most of the work myself and cooked a turkey and a ham, and made 200 little cocktail meatballs in grape jelly and chili sauce, a cheese and pepperoni tray, deviled eggs, chips and a couple of dips… Someone make a corn casserole and brought that, someone else brought a couple different dips to put out with chips and crackers, one of the neighbors baked two pumpkin pies, one of the flight attendants made absolutely wonderful little mincemeat tarts, and someone brought a quiche – which we put in the oven and forgot [whoops!]. A good time was had by all, and my “little” Christmas Day Open House was a pleasant success and perhaps we will make this an annual tradition here – along with the cookie plates… [As much work as all of this was – all the baking and cooking – decorating – preparing for the Open House, and the Open House itself, I have to say that I am extremely fortunate in that I do have almost daily household help – and whatever messes I make get cleaned up, like magic. Thank you, thank you, thank you Sajeed for all of your help!!!]

So, finally, the Holidays are over, the Tree has been undecorated, and is in its box, to sit in the garage wrapped in green plastic until next year when we will likely again repeat all of the above. I cannot say that I am disappointed that the Holidays have, once again, come and passed, it was wonderful for the duration, but now it is time to move forward with a New Year, 2008, and what better way to see the New Year in than with a nasty cold! Damn it, anyway. Everyone has been passing this “respiratory” crap around and I was sure – certain – that it wasn’t going to get me. Wrong. I got it. Not really the flu – the symptoms are not nearly as bad – but a nasty, annoying head / sinus / upper respiratory infection that just refuses to leave once it infects you. It starts off with a low grade fever that’s just enough to make you achy, a constant runny nose, itchy eyes and scratchy throat – not quite enough to make you “sick stay at home in bed” but just enough to make you irritable and uncomfortable. Then it progresses and by day four or six you are sick in bed because you feel absolutely lethargic, your nose is red and raw from the dozen or so boxes of Kleenexes you’ve used and still your nose just refuses to quit running – and of course at this point a nasty cough is now part and parcel of this “crud” you’ve been infected with. You had better hope and pray you were smart enough to have put cold remedies in your suitcase the last time you were in the States, because you’re NOT going to find NyQuil [contains alcohol!] or any Alka-Seltzer Plus [probably an aphrodisiac of some sort] on any of the shelves here in The Sandbox – nope – nothing like that – so you’ve been self-medicating yourself with whatever remedies you do have – I went with the Benadryl and cough syrup – a cough suppressant – knowing full well that I really needed a decongestant, not an antihistamine, and a cough expectorant rather than suppressant – but you just hope you’re doing something right to alleviate all of what it is that is ailing you.

After three solid days in bed realized that I was going to have to drag myself to the clinic, here. I should have known better – I should have gone to the clinic earlier – when the very first signs of this upper respiratory thing appeared – I know that when I get this type of “cold” it doesn’t take long for it to turn into bronchitis – and sometimes close to pneumonia – it’s happened here before – and I am quite positive that the “schmalls” we have – sand storms – are a big part of the problem with the respiratory problems that people have here – and “Kids,” as well. The Boy has terrible dust allergies – and we live in a Sandbox! So, anyway, after spending time in bed getting absolutely nothing accomplished and far from feeling better I knew I had to face the music and plan on spending a good part of the day at the clinic where I’d be surrounded by throngs of men wearing long white dresses and red and white ghoutras [thobes and head coverings] and women completely covered head-to-toe in black. I really didn’t have a choice, in my opinion, and had to do it – and of course I chose to go on a Wednesday, our “Friday” here. The clinic is closed on Thursday and Friday –our “Saturday” and “Sunday.” What a mistake – waiting like I did – so that I could go on the busiest day of the week. I’m fairly certain I’ve blogged on this before, but because women can’t drive in The Sandbox, along with the many who don’t realize they have any rights at all – like the right to be sick and get diagnosed by a medical professional without their male guardian’s permission – going to the clinic becomes a family outing. No, I am not kidding. If a woman is sick – not a Westerner, here, but a “local” – it means her husband must drive her – or her six-year-old son or twenty-four-year old brother or eighty-year-old father – whatever “man” of the house has responsibility for her, and thus the whole family loads up in the Suburban or Ford Crown Victoria and they head off to the clinic.

about the implication of this – if the man is taking his wife / sister / mother / daughter to the clinic – who’s going to watch their six or nine or thirteen little misbehaving, wild and unruly children?!? You couldn’t possibly leave all those children home with an untrustworthy maid, so guess what? The maid with ALL of the urchins in tow become part of the entourage accompanying the sick woman and her husband / guardian to the clinic. I am convinced there are families who schedule days to go to the clinic and do so to make it a family outing. Really. This is the only way for some women to get out of the house – so it does become something of an outing, say, like going to the mall. But the mall is only open for a few hours in the morning – and again at night – so what are you going to do with the rest of your day? After all, you don’t want to be cooped up in your house with your maid and your kids and given no chance to socialize with all the other women that belong to your particular tribe – so you “get sick.” Always on a Wednesday, though, because how else are you going to catch up with all of your friends to find out what plans they are making for the weekend? And, again, always on a Wednesday because this gives the man of the house a three-day weekend – see, it’s like a bonus!

Here's a novel idea - use your mobile! Just because the signs entering the clinic say that all mobiles must be turned off – we know that those signs do not pertain to “you!”
Mobiles constantly going off with music, gongs and prayer ring-tones and mumbled conversations mostly in Arabic are being carried on all around you in the clinic – I have yet to see one of the men entrusted with security as you enter the clinic either take a mobile away from someone or actually tell someone to turn their mobile off – men and women alike flaunt their defiance to the rules by entering the clinic with their mobiles glued to their ears. But nooooo. Couldn’t possibly use that mobile to call your friends and find out what weekend plans are being made. Instead, you ALL flock to the clinic to spend your Wednesday – the day that I know I have to go because otherwise I’ll be deathly ill all weekend and then have to wait until Saturday to be seen by a doctor.

Really, going to the clinic is like
aan organized sport of some sort – with a list of rules that are somewhat baffling – especially to a newcomer [which, thankfully, I am not, anymore]. First there is the hunt for a parking space – it’s a huge parking lot. Huge. But every single space is filled – and then some – because all of those pesky yellow lines which are painted to show where a vehicle should be parked only apply to everyone else. “You,” as a “local,” are entitled to park anywhere you want – double park – block an entry or exit – that’s fine for you. Park on the sidewalk – that curbing that’s been placed there is no deterrent whatsoever – just hop up on over it. So just finding a parking space becomes the first quarter of this game called “going to the clinic,” with no referee or umpire to call “safe” when you’ve got your parking place in your sights and are ready to ease your vehicle into it – when WHOOOSH – someone else overtakes you and screeches around you to get their vehicle into the spot first. Quite a game, really, and deft skill is required so that your vehicle – no matter how big it is – doesn’t get totaled in the process. So, here I am, poor little me, without my DH as my guardian to accompany me to the clinic because he is working and it would be totally unacceptable for a Westerner to call his supervisor and say, “I won’t be in to work today because I’m taking my female dependent property to seek medical attention” playing the first quarter of this game and not winning, I might add. I end up parking what seems like a good half mile or so from the clinic. Oh – forgot to add that the last part of the quarter of this little game is to try to navigate the parking lots / sidewalks and other pedestrian areas without being hit by oncoming traffic. I finally make it to the clinic… End of first quarter.

You enter into a sea of “locals” all mulling about and in no particular hurry to move out of your way as you try to make it to the reception area where you can be directed to one of several waiting areas to be seen by whatever unfortunate lowly physicians are on call for clinic duty.
This duty is probably a game for the doctors, as well – they choose straws to see who has to staff the clinic and whoever gets the short straw is the winner! I can tell you that no matter how conservatively you might dress as a Westerner, you stick out like a sore thumb. “How dare you flaunt yourself by coming into the clinic without wearing your abeyah?!? You Western whore!” All eyes will be upon you. The clinic is actually on our compound – this is supposed to be a Western compound – and as so, we, as Westerner’s – us women, anyway – are not required to cover ourselves in full-length black hefty trash bags and are instructed before we even arrive in The Sandbox that while out and about on the compound we need to be dressed conservatively. I had on long black yoga style pants, “cute” black Skechers [oh, yes, shoes do matter!], a long-sleeved white tee-shirt and one of my husband’s white sweatshirts. My husband is a fairly large man – his sweatshirts are size XXLT – the “T” being necessary because he is so tall and if we don’t get the “T” then the sleeves of whatever it is we buy are too short. So I’m swimming in his sweatshirt – two or three of me can fit in one of these sweatshirts – and it comes down to my mid-thighs rendering me totally shapeless. Albeit my blonde hair does stand out – and this alone creates a stir – everyone stares. After registering at reception I head to the designated A, B or C area where I then go to the “Female Waiting” area. All of the waiting areas are segregated – you can’t have any males mixing with females in a clinical setting! And here you will sit until your ID number is called over the PA System – and good hearing is essential for this quarter of the game – because everyone – EVERYONE – around you is either on their mobiles chatting away or sitting in groups having little parties with their pastries and sodas and tea and coffee [yes, seriously, there are numerous little food kiosks where you can get full meals or snacks scattered throughout the premises of our clinic]. Thus, you are a participant in the second quarter of this game called “going to the clinic,” and you don’t advance until you are called to be seen. End of second quarter.

After spending
what seemed like hours waiting, I finally got called and went to the designated little examining room where “Doogie Houser” is the unfortunate physician who drew the short straw to see patients in the clinic on this particular Wednesday. It really makes you feel old when a young man who looks as if he has just reached puberty – if – is going to examine and treat you – I am certainly old enough to be his mother, and am probably old enough to be his grandmother in this Country where it is okay to get married when you are ten years old. So, I tell the nice young man what my symptoms are and how long I’ve had them – blah, blah, blah – and tell him that I know I need antibiotics at this point, and ask him what kind of cough syrup I can take. Nope. I’m all wrong, apparently, and this young Saudi “kid” tells me that what I have is viral, that antibiotics are not going to help and that he wants me to just drink lots of water and that will help my cough. [Seriously, Doctor, you’re sure you’ve gone to medical school and that you are not just a child playing dress-up in a white lab coat? Drinking plenty of water is going to make me stop coughing!!!] So, “Doogie” doesn’t want to prescribe antibiotics for me, thinks that Claritin – an allergy medication – is going to take care of all of my problems – and of course I have to listen to him lecture me on the dangers of smoking and how that if I just didn’t smoke then I wouldn’t be having any of these problems and that I should just quit… Yeah. Okay. He tells me that he can enroll me in the smoking cessation program that starts every Tuesday and it’s in Room 361 or wherever, and then tells me that I should take the Claritin, drink water, quit smoking and come back in a couple of days if I am not better. I’ve had about enough, my patience is reaching its limit, and I tell the nice young doctor that I will never, ever enroll in a smoking cessation program here in The Sandbox, that I will not be coming back in a couple of days to repeat the fun in the clinic that I’ve had thus far, that I am not leaving his office without a prescription for antibiotics and that I will be taking cough medicine that is a suppressant instead of an expectorant because that’s all I have. This concludes the third quarter of this game and I storm out of his office with my prescription for antibiotics in hand and head for the pharmacy to play the last quarter of the game called going to the clinic.

The pharmacy at the clinic provides almost as much fun and entertainment as the waiting rooms do.
This is where all the “players” congregate – their respective teams separated, of course – males on one side and females on the other – to try to make the last big play of the game. The rules are really fairly easy IF you follow them [ha!]. There is a window where you line up to give the pharmacist your prescription and in return you are given a card with a number on it. Once the prescription has been filled, your number will be displayed on the big TV screen and you go to another window where the prescription will be dispensed to you. Sounds so easy – even a child could play. Unfortunately the part where everyone lines up in an orderly fashion to give the pharmacist their prescriptions is just too complicated for the “local” women here. Line up? Do this in an orderly fashion – a first come, first served basis? Nope. “You” are entitled to go straight to the front of the line, by-pass anyone else there waiting, and give the pharmacist your prescription. It is not a gentle “excuse me, while I cut right in front of you” play, either. These “local” women ARE pushy. When I first got here I was overwhelmed that things like this even happened and would have let someone cut me off like this. Not now. I’ve since learned. “You” are NOT cutting me off – and in fact since no one else is going to educate you as to the rules of this particular part of the game, I will! So there are two women dressed head-to-toe in black in front of me in this line and a couple of women behind me – all but one other woman there in the waiting section of the pharmacy were “locals.” We are all standing there, patiently waiting our turns, when this large “local” shoves her way to the very front of the line and stretches out her arm and black-gloved “claw” to put her prescription in. I stretch out my white sweatshirt clad arm and uncovered hand and gently push her arm back and say, in no uncertain terms, “These two women are next – we are all waiting in line – and you need to go back there behind them [the other women in line behind me].” The pharmacy becomes silent. I can only see the eyes of the large black blob through her little slit and believe me when I tell you that her eyes were NOT “smiling.” She then turns and waddles her way to the back of the line with a loud “humphff,” but there is nothing she can do. All eyes in the pharmacy are on her – and then I can feel them on me – and I’m thinking to myself, “this is it – I’m done for in this – the last quarter of this game called the clinic, and I am about to get tackled and taken down.” Instead, the woman directly in front of me turns around and quietly and sweetly says, “Thank you,” and the pharmacist looks at me and smiles. Score! But only one point...

As we are all sitting in chairs in this little area whilst awaiting the posting of our numbers on the screen which come up in numerical order – kind of like at the deli at a grocery store in the States – the large black blob once again tries to best all of us and she lumbers up to the dispensing window and is pounding her black covered “claw” on the counter yelling something in Arabic at the men behind the counter.
She is not pleased about something – but my Arabic is far too basic to understand what it is that she is saying. All I know is that whatever transpired during her conversation with the pharmacists was not the outcome that she expected and all of the sudden all three of the pharmacists were there huddled at the window pointing to both the screen on the wall which displays the numbers of the prescriptions and pointing at the chairs – so apparently they were ordering her to go and wait her turn and that when her number was displayed – she’d get her prescription and while she is still standing at the dispensing window – my number gets displayed on the screen and as I make my way to the counter one of the pharmacists deliberately turns his back on her completely and hands me my little container of antibiotics and tells me in nice clear English how many to take every day and to make sure that I eat something so that I don’t get an upset stomach and to call if I have any questions. Score, again! Two points for Sabra and she wins the game!!!

Of course, I couldn't possibly have just quietly walked away without muttering under my breath something that would surely get me arrested in the States as being most "politically incorrect" and racist to the core. However, since my dear Mother occasionally reads my posts here, I'll just leave it that what I said really wasn't very nice, but suddenly my "cold" didn't seem so bad after all, because I felt a whole lot better after uttering my sentiments directly to the black blob, who as far as I'm concerned, needs to go back to her tent in the desert and do all of mankind a great big favor by curling up and dying.

Oh, and by the way, I've taken a week of the antibiotics, I did get some cough medicine - expectorant - and I'm feeling much, much better!


  1. Hi, I just found your blog. I'll read your archives as I get the time and opportunity. I'm a retired Air Force officer and spent most of my career traveling to the magic kingdom with AWACS. I followed that up with 2 years as a contractor, training RSAF officers to run their air defense system at Khamis Mushait. The highlight of my time in the kingdom was scuba diving the Red Sea every weekend. I know what life was like as a single Western male living in Saudi. It was mostly GREAT! With my job, company car and kingdom-wide travel permit, I was able to travel freely in the kingdom. I look forward to reading of your experiences as a married Western female there. -Jim F

  2. Wow. When you write, you write!

    Could only finish half of it since I'm on lunch and have to eat. But I'll be back to read the rest.

    And I hope you're feeling better.

  3. Sabra, are we living the same part of the sandbox? The one with all the brick-a-liscious road medians, and Edward Scissor-hand bushes, and rolling hills??
    If so ,your desciption of the clinic game is spot on. Another thing that drives me crazy iz all the dirty Kleenexes on the floor in the women's areas. UGH!

  4. Ok. I officially admire you now. Brave soul.


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