Thursday, May 3, 2012

Baha Uni Open Day: April 2012

Some of the (mostly) Egyptian teachers involved in Open Day
The first open day at Baha University was in December 2011. This week we had the second. It was not truly an open day in that it was not open to the public, parents, family or other interested parties (there are no events in KSA where the possibility exists of a male and female meeting and socialising). However it was an opportunity for the sudents to show-off their English skills in front of their peers and university management. Events were organised by the teachers and performed exclusively by the students. It was also a good marketing opportunity for Al Jazeera as the local TV stations were on hand to record the event.

The festivities commenced (predictably) with speeches praising and lauding our achievements. Pass rates were up, teachers were enthusiastic and highly skilled, students were motivated and thirsty for knowledge. This was followed by a recitation from the Q'ran and an Islamic song sung by a choir of students.

There was a debate, which was unfortunately marred by poor sound quality,  between students about whether KSA is a desirable tourist destination or not. Arguments for and against were evenly balanced and when the audience was asked to express an opinion by a show of hands the result was a resounding "aye" for apathy.

The students then presented a tragedy, Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice". I was initially involved
in the production of this play and selected the scenes to be presented. However I had nothing whatever to do with the actual presentation of this work. The students were enthusiastic and clearly enjoyed themselves in performing the different roles.

We had a game show where Team Smart and Team Bright answered general knowledge questions. The quiz master, also a student, was lively and vainly did his best to generate some excitement and enthusiasm in the audience as he quizzed the contestants. Eventually Team Bright was declared the winner, a result which appeared to stun the audience into deathly silence.

Between all of these acts we either had the singing of Islamic songs of praise or a game of "Who am I?" Students dressed as various popular figures such as The King of KSA, Yasser Arafat and Adolph Hitler and acted the part of the characters.

Adolph Hitler (holding a microphone)
Hitler strutted around the stage and proclaimed that he had started World War II, had been responsible for the death of millions, including millions of Jewish people in the holocaust.

Arafat cheerfully shared with the audience that he had dedicated
Mr. Y Arafat
his life to fighting the Jews and performing other noble acts. After they had described themselves they thundered "WHO AM I?" and the audience was required to shout out the answer.

Ironically, this was followed by a student singing "What a Wonderful World" (Louis Armstrong)!
I had a small part in the festivities facilitating a debate
on the importance of English
 Music is not allowed in KSA so he sang without the benefit of any musical accompaniment. In the circumstances he did very well.

Events were concluded with the awarding of diplomas for outstanding students by the Dean of the university and the honouring of the top act. This turned out to be one of the choirs who sang an Islamic song of peace.

May the sentiments of the songs that were sung during the course of the event, peace, love, understanding and tolerance find fertile soil amongst the future leaders of this country.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Flat-Mates

In the time that I have been here I have associated mainly with western teachers;  South Africans, British and Americans mostly. About half of these are determinedly pessimistic  and are usually unhappy about something or other, things real and things gloomily foreseen. Just ten minutes ago I was chatting to one of my flat-mates; a few days ago he was complaining that decisions take forever "in this place". This morning he was complaining that decisions "in this place" are made on the spur of the moment ("in this place" is a much used phrase amongst the westerners.) He also tends to talk in italics: "Why did no one tell me? I never knew that" (he seems permanently bewildered); "When I got there nobody was there!".

He had a rather traumatic introduction to Al Baha. He was conducted to our flat by the caretaker of the building, Barakaat, and accompanied by my other flat-mate, Timothy. Timothy felt that the newcomer would be better off in another flat. Accordingly, he slipped into the flat ahead of the other two and locked the door in their faces to prevent them from entering while he phoned our manager to try to change the sharing arrangements. Barakaat wasn't having any of it and proceeded to kick the door to gain access. Timothy was unfazed by this and continued with his phone conversation. Eventually Barakaat kicked the door down and our new (traumatized) flatmate was duly installed.

However, that was not the end of induction day. Another colleague later came to visit us and in the course of the conversation he testified that Al-Jazeera management were a bunch of thugs and crooks that cared nothing for us teachers. They cheated, lied and broke promises as a matter of course. The contract he had signed meant nothing because foreigners have no rights in KSA. Finally, Baha is the arsehole of the world with no opportunities for recreation or fun - it is a desolate and miserable place and will inevitably lead to thoughts of suicide.

This then was our new flatmates first day in a foreign and strange (very strange) country. Little wonder that the whites of his eyes were clearly visible and that he wore an expression of disbelief and horror. He asserted that there was no way he would part with his passport and that at the first opportunity he would get a local sim card for his phone so that he could contact his embassy to send in the marines to rescue him if necessary. He wasn't joking when he said this.

His predecessor in our three-bedroomed flat was an English gentleman whom I nicknamed "Pigpen". We always could tell what Pigpen had been cooking as bits of his last two or three meals were always in evidence on the stove, on the floor and in the sink. We would look at his dirty dishes every day with morbid interest for the first signs on putrification. Fortunately he only showered every two weeks or so, so at least the bathroom stayed clean. 

On occasion I would ask him to please clean up after himself. I would also leave notes for him and I printed large notices which I stuck up around the place, all urging him to clean up his act. All in vain. When confronted he would run his tongue around the inside of his cheeks (which reminded me of a cat moving under a blanket) and gesture with jerky and random movements of his arms. The most frightening thing I have heard  was when Pigpen told me that in his last accommodation he had been the one who was always nagging the others to be less slovenly!!

The accommodation itself is more than adequate. There is an entrance hall which leads into a lounge with air-con, couches, table and a TV. The kitchen has a gas stove and fridge and sufficient cupboards. It always has a faint smell of meals past. Continuing down the passage you get the odor of stale tobacco smoke from the first bedroom and further down the more pleasing (to me) smell of incense which I burn daily. At the end of the passage is the bathroom with a rudimentary shower, two toilets (one western, one squat) and a twin-tub washing machine. My shirts are terrified of this machine - after being washed they always have their arms wrapped tightly around each other and can only be separated with difficulty.

The local Saudi companies like Al Jazeera have to pay over the odds to tempt westerners to come and live in what is not only a foreign environment, it is actually an alien and rather grim environment.  Once here some become overly critical and quickly forget how grateful they were to be offered the job in the first place. They instead choose to ridicule our hosts and their (admittedly strange) customs which effectively outlaws any activity that can be seen as fun. There's no going for a beer with your colleagues on the weekend, no social events, no opportunity to associate with any of the fairer <ahem> sex, no parks to relax or walk in, no music.... The few social amenities are reserved for families only. Entertainment and diversion for the unmarried is pretty much limited to internet and shopping malls (on non-family-only days). Working and living in KSA is, to say the least, a unique experience.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Quick Visit Home

Three of us left the University for Baha airport around midday; I was bound for SA, one colleague for USA and the other for Qatar. My flight was at 1700 so it was quite a long wait before I got going on the first leg of my trip which was to Riyadh. We got to Riyadh about 1830 and took a leisurely stroll from domestic arrivals to international departures. Leisurely because my connecting flight was only leaving at 0430. 

When I went to check in I was told that I couldn't check in before 0100, so that meant I had 6 hours to kill. I also couldn't enter the transit lounge and there was no waiting area for passengers who were waiting to check in. We (Alan and I) ended up in a small coffee shop and had to pay SR10/hour to sit in the "TV lounge". The TV lounge was a two-seater couch and two armchairs in a semi-circle around the TV and about 2 meters from it.

While we were there a football match was being broadcast - KSA vs Iraq. I wasn't particularly interested, but most of airport security were enthusiastic fans and were gathered around the TV. Some had brought their own chairs and there was lots of excited chatter and cheering. An unexpected window of opportunity for smugglers and other baddies!

Eventually one 'o clock came around and I drifted back to the check-in counters. I was disheartened to see that the queue waiting to pass through security had grown from zero to about 100 passengers while I was languishing in the TV lounge sipping Pepsi. While I was gazing despondently at the crawling queue a Pakistani gentleman offered (for a small consideration) to help me. He grabbed my bags, forced them onto the conveyer and then pushed me through the metal detector. Total time taken: about 1 minute. Of course if I had been in the queue and seen someone else pushing through like that I would have been seriously pissed off, but since I was the one benefitting...

In due course I boarded my Ethiopian Air flight. As I was making my way down the aisle a hostess asked me if I would mind sitting by the emergency exit since I spoke English. In case of emergency I would be asked (in English) to open the exit and see the other passengers safely off  the potentially blazing and toxic-smoke filled aircraft. I was OK with that but I was a bit alarmed at how easily the door could be opened in flight. For all she knew I might have been flying to get my regular ECT treatment to alleviate my suicidal depression and irrational behavior! I considered telling her that I would only open the emergency exit if the voices told me to do so just to see how she'd respond, but I resisted the temptation.

My thoughts were interrupted by a commotion on the opposite side of the cabin. The same hostess was stridently explaining to three Arab gentlemen that they would have to move from the emergency exit because they could not speak or understand English. Since she was doing the explaining in English, she was not enjoying much success in getting her point across. Her frustration made her all the shriller and she declaimed loudly that the safety of the entire aircraft and the hundreds of passengers depended on these three gentlemen vacating their booked seats. Eventually someone translated and they sulkily found other seats while replacement, English speaking passengers took their place.

Once we were airborne and the set-belt light was turned off, a large Arab gentleman required these three passengers to vacate their seats. It turned out he wanted to pray and needed space to bow and prostrate himself. I watched this with some alarm; I know we tend to stereotype, but when you are on an international flight and you see an Arab praying and prostrating himself, potentially making peace with his maker, one does feel a certain amount of unease.

A bit later breakfast was served. This was a warm, grayish-brown sticky paste and a few thinly sliced pieces of potato. All the potato slices were stuck to each together and the bottom one was stuck to the container. Trying to prise them loose with my springy, plastic knife resulted in me almost flicking the entire potato cluster-bomb across the cabin to where the three original passengers had reclaimed their seats.

We landed at OR Tambo on time and I quickly passed through immigrations and customs. I always feel a bit uneasy when the drug-sniffing Bassets are around my luggage or the customs officials give me the evil eye as I pass them in the "nothing to declare" line. I know I'm innocent but what if the dogs pay me too much attention? I always say things like "what a clever boy" (to the dog, not the handler) to try to establish cordial relations with the sniffer.

I passed into the arrivals hall and was a bit deflated to see nobody was there to meet and greet. I drifted around grumpily for a while and finally sat in a quiet corner. There I tried different sims from different service providers in different phones to try and find a winning combination so that I could ascertain whether I was, in fact, expected by my loved ones. It turned out that I was expected and an hour later I was on my way and all was well.

I only had five days in Johannesburg and I didn't see all the people I wanted to see, meet all the people I wanted to meet or go to all the places I wanted to go. Nonetheless I had a magic visit where I got to see green plants, trees and grass, had a cat sleep with me, spoke to women AND saw their faces. I went to pubs and ate in restaurants. I had a Wimpy breakfast with pork sausages and bacon. I could drive my car and go wherever I wanted. It was refreshing to be back in a "normal" society. And it was wonderful to spend time with my loved ones.

All too soon I was back at OR Tambo again. Saying goodbye at the airport is always a heart-wrenching business, but this time we managed it without tears (or very nearly). I was once again appointed the guardian of the emergency exit, along with a lady who was going to Riyadh to teach English in a ladies university. Soon after we were airborne (Ethiopian Air again), the captain came on the intercom and made a lengthy announcement in Arabic. Then he switched to almost inaudible and incomprehensible English. All I could make out was "Lusaka" and "technical issues". Apparently a flight from Lusaka to Riyadh had been scrapped and we were on our way to pick up the stranded passengers.

We parked a good distance from the terminal building at Lusaka Airport. The aircraft doors were not opened. No new passengers came on board. No baggage carts appeared and no additional baggage was loaded. Then the captain asked us to switch off all electrical equipment as we were refueling! Based on the evidence, I surmised that they had forgotten to fill up before we left (or maybe fuel is cheaper in Lusaka) and we had been in danger of ruuning out. One of the hostesses told an American lady I spoke with that we had landed to change a tyre??  WTF? There's an Afrikaans saying that summed up my feelings: "Ek ken modder en ek ken kak, en hierdie is nie modder nie". After they finished doing whatever it was that they were doing we took off again with no explanation. The lost time meant we had to sprint for our connection in Addis Ababa. We got to Riyadh at 0230 where I waited till 0730 to fly back to Baha.

Eight days later I'm back "home" with a stock of South African groceries: chutney, Simba peanuts, Cadbury Chocolates, Knorr stock cubes and various other bits and pieces. And most of all, lovely memories fresh in my mind.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Internet in KSA

KSA - Internet 

As I mentioned in my Peruvian blog last year, the internet is very important to me while I am away from home. It is my only link with home, family and friends.

Internet access is provided by Al Jazeera in our accommodation block. The downstairs area has been designated the recreation area with plastic garden furniture, a table-tennis table and a pool table. It is a cavernous room with large pillars which support the building. Running down some of these pillars are all the toilet pipes from the dwellings above. When upstairs toilets are flushed, one can hear the merry gurgling of water, soggy toilet paper and waste matter rushing by on its way to the underground septic tank.

The recreation area is a non-smoking area and as such there are no ashtrays. This does not deter the smokers (99% of the teachers) in the least. A variety of containers have been pressed into service as ashtrays; bottles, cold-drink cans and various lids are filled to overflowing with cigarette butts with a tasteful sprinkling of butts and ash on the carpet. The area has no ventilation or windows and consequently smells permanently of stale tobacco smoke and stale farts. The couple of waste-paper baskets are also filled to overflowing and there is an interesting variety of litter spread across the floor; paper, plastic bottles, bottle tops, cans, wrappers and plastic bags filled with miscellaneous crap and the ghost of meals past. Various unidentifiable liquids have stained the carpet with Rorschach-like patterns. One wonders about the home environment and upbringing of some of our colleagues!

This then was where I initially accessed the internet when I got to Al-Baha. Several of my colleagues had their own Wi-Fi routers from STC (Saudi Telecommunications) which gave them internet access in their rooms. This clearly was the way to go. The only problem was that to purchase an STC router one needed an iqama, the Saudi ID and work-permit, which I had not yet received. I spoke to my next-door neighbor and asked him if I could share his router until I was able to get my own. He agreed and I had reasonable internet access in my room, although the signal from his wireless router was somewhat attenuated by the several walls in between. Also, if he went to bed before me that was the end of my internet for the night.

I then went to STC to get a sim card for my BB (Blackberry) and to get my BB service activated. An iqama was needed for this too, but a colleague kindly used his iqama to get me up and running. There are some problems with BB in KSA; the Facebook app does not work here, neither does Twitter, AppWorld and various other downloaded applications. HTML emails are displayed as text which means you have to sift through several pages of text to find the body of your message. However, apart from these caveats it (BBM and internet) worked reasonably well, and since I was on a prepaid plan they simply docked my airtime balance each month to fund my BB service.

In due course I got my iqama and immediately went to STC to get my router. When I got home I discovered that my apartment did not receive a very good 3G signal – I could only pick up an EDGE network which is dead slow. However, I persevered and eventually found a location where I got HSPA+ (fast) and I happily surfed with my own router.

I did, however, experience huge differences in network speed from day to day; some weeks I had really fast access where I could download a 1gig movie in 15 minutes, and then for several days I would be stuck with effectively no internet access. Each time this happened I could be seen wandering around morosely with my router in hand trying to find the magic <ahem> 3G-spot.

In December I decided I would buy myself an iPhone 4s for Christmas. As part of the package I was given 250meg of data per month for 6 months. I figured that would be more than enough. The reality was that I had used my month’s allocation within 3 days! So I returned to STC with a view to purchasing more bandwidth. In this I was totally unsuccessful and the only winner was the language barrier. The consultant I spoke to (the only one with any English) eventually told me to buy SR200 of airtime which would, he said, give me 5 gig of bandwidth. In retrospect, I suspect he told me this just to make me go away. Using airtime for data is undoubtedly the most expensive was to access the internet; I was paying about SR1.80 per meg of data and 24 hours later my SR200 was gone (SR 1.00 = ZAR 2.00)

This last weekend we went to Tief (a large town a couple of hundred kilometers from here) and when I spotted an STC office I decided to pop in and get some advice from another consultant. This worthy told me that I could buy 1 gig bandwidth for SR100 – all I needed to do was to top up my balance to fund the data purchase and come back to him so that he could activate the service. By the time I got back with my airtime voucher (they don’t sell air-time at STC, you need to go to a cafĂ© or supermarket) they had closed for prayer. 

After prayer I went in and we tapped in the voucher code. When the SR100 did not reflect on his computer screen, the consultant (Abdullah) concluded that the money had gone towards funding my BB service. Although I assured him that my BB balance was enough to cover this month’s subscription he insisted that I would need to buy another SR100 for my iPhone. This I did and after entering the code, he found to his consternation that my balance still hadn’t been updated on his computer, although my phone now showed a balance of SR225. He drifted around the store seeking advice from the other consultants who were apparently just as baffled (or who were simply disinterested) as he was. At this point he conceded defeat and said that he would consult with his manager after the weekend and get back to me. Much to my surprise Abdullah has not to date contacted me, and the saga continues.

In the meanwhile I am being viewed with great suspicion by some of my online contacts who are muttering darkly and hinting that I am avoiding them when they are online. Hah! My wish for them is to have STC as a service provider and to deal with a non-English speaking Arabic consultant, instead of Vodacom or Telkom. Then again, tis the season of goodwill so I wouldn’t really wish that on them. Ho-ho-ho…