Thursday, September 5, 2013

Flying, Driving, Moving and other disasters

18 August 2013

Always interesting to fly with with Ethiopian Air. After taking off from Johannesburg for Riyadh (via Ethiopia) we were diverted to Entebbe to pick up some random passengers who had been stranded there by a cancelled Ethiopian Air flight.

This made us late for our connecting flight to Riyadh from Ethiopia. I was one of the last to board and found an Arab gentleman occupying my seat. He wasn't interested in moving and when I showed him my boarding pass with allocated seat number he just looked at me blankly and shrugged. Mafi Englisi (No English).

It turns out that the first few people on board didn't understand the concept of assigned seating and by the time cabin crew realized that there was a problem people were just sitting wherever the spirit moved them. Since random seating seemed to be the order of the day, I took a seat next to an SA lady - on the aisle and near the front, so that was good - one wants to disembark as quickly as possible at Riyadh airport.Then a rather disgruntled looking character came up and asked me to move as I was in his seat; he had just gone to chat to his friend further back. I gave him a blank look and shrugged and pulled my seat-belt tighter. When he complained to a steward he was unsympathetically led to a seat at the back of the plane and told to sit and be happy.

Meanwhile, just in front of me in Business Class a dude was complaining incessantly about his seat (what exactly his complaint was I don't know - I mean, he was in Business Class!). Eventually the steward asked him if he'd rather swop with someone in economy class. When he declined the offer the harassed steward told him to "just sit and fly". Furthermore he didn't want to hear another word from the passenger.

After take-off the young dude who had hijacked my seat noticed that I was sitting next to a female. This caused him to remember how to communicate in English and all of a sudden I was "sir" and being urged to occupy my assigned seat - he would be only too happy to change seats with me. He seemed disappointed when I told him I was cool with my seating and he kept looking across the aisle wistfully where I was sipping my beer and chatting to the charming lady.

23 Aug 2013
Yesterday was an interesting day. My driver arrived at SANG with a flat wheel. The spare was shredded from an earlier incident and had not yet, after several  months, been repaired. We then drove for about 20km on the rim looking for somewhere to get a repair. The tyre places that we found were all closed so eventually I got out and looked for a taxi. 

An elderly party in a dirty heap stopped and offered me a lift, which I accepted. He chatted to me incessantly in Arabic, spraying bits of whatever he was eating over me. From time to time he erupted into song, singing loudly and tunelessly.

When we got close to home he rather belligerently demanded money for the transport. I had nothing smaller than a 100 riyal note which I reluctantly offered (Tip: ALWAYS have small denomination notes when using a taxi in KSA.The larger the note you offer the more likely you are to be overcharged). The 40 riyals change he gave me was damp from his sweaty pocket and while I was still counting the change he snatched back SAR10.

Once in my accommodation I needed the bathroom only to find that my flat-mate had been smoking in the bathroom thus rendering it unusable (by me) for half-an-hour.

With a full bladder, I decided to open a tin of spaghetti and meatballs for lunch (all the way from SA) but the tab on the can snapped off. Being resourceful  I fetched my hammer and a screwdriver. After whacking the tin a few times with a screw-driver the top descended into the sauce at high speed, causing a gout of tomato juice to erupt from the can onto me, 2 of the walls, the cupboard and the floor. "Goodness me", I thought to myself as I cleaned up.

After microwaving the remains of my meal I discovered I was out of bread, so I changed my spattered clothing and went downstairs to the local cafe. Sadly, they were closed for prayers and I had to wait for 20 minutes to get my bread.

5 September 2012
One of my colleagues has a serious nicotine addiction and smokes incessantly. Although I dislike inhaling his second-hand smoke don't complain when he smokes in the kitchen or passage of our shared accommodation. As an ex-smoker I know how powerful the urge to smoke can be. However, when he smokes in the bathroom, there is a problem. The bathroom is small and has no windows, so when I go into it after he has used it it really pongs and I find it unusable for the next half-hour.
The first time I spoke to him about this and asked him to not do this he rather vaguely said "ah well... we'll see what happens" (ins'Allah?). What happened was that he bought some air freshener to mask the smell of the cigarette smoke. Unfortunately the result  of this strategy was that the bathroom ended up smelling of tobacco flavored citrus. Not too pleasant. 

We spoke again and I suggested that he use the second bathroom when he needed to smoke whilst taking care of his ablutions. Things went well for quite a while and then he started smoking in "our" bathroom again. This time we had a fairly loud discussion about the issue and the problem disappeared again for a while. Then recently he has again felt the need to smoke in our bathroom and I again find it unusable several times a week.

This is the same person who some time back chatted to our other flatmates about some issues that had arisen for him in the shared accommodation. We all want to smile when we come home, he told them, and this means that we need to consider the people we share with and be prepared to compromise. This, he asserted, will make life more pleasant for all. Yes, quite.

About 10 days ago we heard from one of our Egyptian flatmates that we were being moved to other accommodation. Initially we disregarded what he said because his English is such that we were not really sure what he was trying to communicate to us and secondly we had received no official notification from the academy. Then a second flatmate seemed to be saying the same thing, and when I inquired from the supervisor he confirmed that this was indeed about to happen.

This seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for my smoking flatmate and I to part company, especially since things had become a little tense between us. He could join a group of smokers or people who don't have a problem with inhaling second-hand smoke and I could cohabit with people who are happy not smoking in the public areas of the accommodation. A win-win situation.

Accordingly, I suggested this to our supervisor. I also asked him to where we were being moved and when, and when could I inspect the new premises. The date of the move was more or less confirmed but my repeated requests to inspect the new premises and my suggestion regarding the solution to the smoking issue were ignored. I kept nagging and was then told that the manager in charge of accommodation had been informed of my request. This also had zero results and the day arrived for the move. A work crew arrived, dismantled our furniture and loaded up our garbage bags full of our belongings. We were both headed for the same destination all! 

I traveled to our new digs with the first truckload of stuff. Words cannot describe how I felt as I explored my new "home". Opening the front door, my nose was assailed by an indefinable
Curtaining kindly donated by previous tenant
Guest bathroom

smell - sort of a mix between rotting vegetation and the smell you get around a landfill site.

The air-conditioner in one of the  bedrooms wheezed asthmatically and barely produced a breeze. The air-conditioner in the other bedroom roared like a bulldozer and produced a weak breeze.

One bathroom had a spectacularly filthy toilet and a washing machine perched on blocks above a squat toilet. The shower rose like a skinny apparition in front of the
window, thus preventing the window from opening. To shower one would need to stand between the toilet and the washing machine and use the washing machine as a soap dish and face-cloth rack.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the kitchen. There was nowhere near enough cupboard space to hold our groceries and pots and pans. The cupboard that were there were broken, rotting and filthy. 

A white substance  that most closely resembled pigeon shit was spattered on several of the
Mr. C. Roach agreed to pose for the photo
surfaces. The walls, especially around the dirt-encrusted stove, were filthy with the ghosts of meals past. Some brown substance had also run down some of the walls. No hot water was available in the kitchen. I opened the fridge and cupboard using only one finger. Moving or touching anything resulted in mild panic amongst the cockroaches who would run excitedly for cover. The kitchen appeared to be the source of the pong (and the cockroaches) that permeated the entire apartment. 

There was no way I was going to use the kitchen for anything, so I set up a table in the passage for my microwave and kettle and this became my pro-tem kitchen. I was afraid to leave my 2 boxes of groceries on the floor in case the cockroaches fancied upgrading their own accommodation, so I placed both boxes on a drying rack which would at least make it more challenging for potential cockroach squatters to move in.

To round things off, I got a phone call from our HR department to inform me that they had received complaints about me smoking in the accommodation and inconveniencing the other occupants. Academy rules forbid smoking in any of their buildings and I was to cease this inconsiderate and unhygienic practice immediately! By now I was so dispirited that I meekly agreed not to smoke indoors.

Going to bed and to sleep was another 'gedoente'. Since it was impossible to sleep with the noise of the air-con I switched it off when I went to bed. An hour later I woke up sweating in the heat and had to get out of bed to switch it back on. After listening to it for half-an-hour I again switched it off and slept for another hour. And so on for the rest of the night.

Before going to bed I had composed and sent a rather bitter email to our company CEO in which I bared my soul concerning my views of the accommodation and the message it sent me about my standing in the company. I was heartened to receive a call from him the next morning where he apologized for the cock-up and where he promised to remedy the situation without delay.

True to his word I received another call later in the day to confirm that we will on Saturday be moving back to the place we vacated on Wednesday. Luckily I haven't unpacked much so repacking and resealing my numerous packets and bags should not be too much of a schlep.

I don't believe that things happen "just sommer" or without there being a point. I believe that everything happens for a reason so I am looking for reasons that I needed to have this experience. What has changed in my life or my attitudes that wouldn't have changed without this event. What has happened that otherwise wouldn't have happened? Right now I have no answers, but I will keep looking.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An Embassy Affair

Some time ago, a colleague and I managed to get an invitation to an event at the French embassy in Riyadh. It was a very formal affair and when we got there almost everyone apart from the two of us was dressed in tuxedos (I do not own a tuxedo).

Eventually the gates opened and we all streamed in. After being scanned and searched for cell phones, cameras and weapons we moved to the outside bar area. We ordered a couple of beers and by the time I had taken a couple of sips of mine my colleague had finished his. I should mention here that alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom, apart from in the embassies, so this was a rare treat.

After a quick visit to the bar my colleague returned with a couple of Chivas for each of us which, for me, was nectar from the gods. I must confess that I had smuggled a small plastic bottle onto the premises which I filled with Chivas for my future enjoyment. 

In due course the bar closed and we moved to our assigned tables for the meal. We shared a table with ten other guests and I found myself seated next to a rather introverted Italian guy with a rather extroverted Swiss girlfriend. She proudly informed us that she was a sexologist and she clearly enjoyed the speculative looks that this information provoked from all the males at the table. Her boyfriend seemed vaguely discomfited by all the attention she was receiving.

My colleague, meanwhile, had bribed one of the waiters with SAR100 for him to keep bringing drinks and at regular intervals he would leave the table and reappear with more drinks for us. Sadly, each time I was ready for another drink I found that he had finished them. Fortunately there was wine on the table which I enjoyed with my meal. As the alcohol took hold, my companion’s appreciation of etiquette suffered and he became louder and contradicted nearly every comment made by anyone at the table (with the exception of the sexologist).

Growing bored he drifted off again, and after he had been missing for about 30 minutes, a rather
austere French gentleman informed me that he felt that my friend was in need of assistance. He led me across a marble-tiled courtyard to where my colleague was sitting on a step. Of his former exuberance there was no sign. His head was hanging, his eyes were lusterless and his general demeanor was that of one who is not feeling in the best of health. He promptly confirmed this assessment by vomiting onto the marble tiling, said vomit splashing onto my shoes and trousers.

At this, the French gentleman opined that this would probably be the appropriate moment for us to make our exit. I could not disagree with him so accordingly I returned to my table to get my jacket, only to find it was missing. I saw what appeared to be my jacket on the back of another chair, but when I tried to take it the owner of the jacket objected. Once he had proved to my satisfaction that the jacket in question was indeed his, I returned to my friend where I found that my jacket had been place next to him (fortunately, not right next to him). All stops had obviously been pulled out in order to hasten our departure.

I dutifully supported the inebriated one as we exited the embassy, him leaving damp and smelly footprints as he wobbled off the premises. I found a taxi and off we went. Sadly, his stomach had not yet finished rebelling against the evening’s insults and he abruptly wound down his window and sprayed more vomit into the slipstream. The upside of this was that the cars behind us kept a more respectable following distance following this incident. Eventually we got home where I had to pay the irate taxi-driver a bonus of SAR30 for a car wash. I managed to get my colleague up the stairs and into his room, where I gave him a gentle push in the general direction of his bed, where he collapsed like a dead man and immediately started snoring.

The next day he asked me if I would like to chip in half of the bribe he had paid the waiter to keep the booze coming. I politely declined. I then waited for him to offer to refund the taxi cleaning fee which I had paid on his behalf. In this respect I was destined to be disappointed.

We have not gone to any other social events together and regrettably, I have been unable to get any more invitations to embassy events. My emails to the lady who arranged our invitation to the French embassy appear to be disappearing into cyber-space - surely she wouldn't be ignoring me...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Teaching the Military

After my harrowing experiences teaching children at the Learning Horizons Primary School, I was apparently adjudged to be now tough and seasoned enough to be able to teach at the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). Working at a military installation means that the day starts early. Accordingly my alarm goes off at 0430 and after a 45 minute drive we start work at 0600.

The company I have been palmed off on is GBT (no one seems to know what the acronym stands for), a British company which hires British teachers to work in the Kingdom. However, since they were experiencing rather high levels of absenteeism they were obliged to temporarily take on other, non-British native English speakers. 

On my first day I was introduced to the incumbent staff (well, except for one gentleman who pointedly ignored me) and shown around the premises. The corridors leading to the lecture rooms are long and stark, and somewhat reminiscent of “The Green Mile”. Given the feelings evoked by some of the classes, this impression is entirely appropriate. All the lecture rooms and language labs have combination locks fitted on the doors. There are strict rules about keeping the rooms locked when not in use as expensive equipment tends to get either vandalized or stolen. It is suspected that some cleaning staff are prepared to share the door combinations with students for a modest financial consideration and so we still have some pilfering in some of the lecture rooms.

The students at SANG are typical of students anywhere, I guess. You have some who are really motivated to learn and some who would rather be anywhere other than in a classroom. In general the level of proficiency is pretty comparable to that at the primary school where I was toughened up for this assignment, although there are some notable exceptions.Some students have remarked (rather astutely, I felt) that they are only obliged to take these classes to fill in time until the military can think of something to do with them. Be that as it may, we forge ahead undeterred by the inscrutable motives of the top brass. Irregular verbs and present continuous are the order of the day!

As one would expect in a military establishment, there are sets of inflexible rules which we are expected to enforce. Some of these you would expect to find in any academy, such as no cell phones during teaching sessions. Others, however, I have not found elsewhere. For instance:

  • ·         “No sleeping, heads on tables, comatose slumping or leaning on the back legs of the chairs.”
  • ·         “No wearing of caps when seated in the classroom, particularly in an MTV inspired gangster rap manner, or use of caps as missiles.”

To help with the enforcement of these regulations we have “jizza” forms. These are forms on which we report the infringement of any of the rules such as sleeping, refusing to work or being disruptive. Students who are jizza-ed get disciplined by SANG by, for instance, being locked up for the weekend. Teachers are looked at askance by SANG if they don't issue a handful of jizzers every week. The students are prepared to do their part by breaking the rules on a regular basis.

I have learned that students frequently stay up till the early hours and come to class having had only 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I have seen some literally doze off in the middle of answering a question! One of the popular late night activities here is “drifting” - driving at high speed and then causing the car to drift sideways ( Did I mention that the biggest killer in KSA is traffic accidents? Ahead of heart attacks?

Driving to and from SANG is also an experience. The Saudi driving style is unique – the lane occupied by any given driver does not necessarily bear any correlation to the direction in which he wishes to travel. Red traffic lights are seen as no more than a tentative suggestion to slow down. Merging with traffic is also a concept that is rejected with contempt – you simply drive in the direction you wish to go and trust that the other drivers will sort themselves out. Driving home the other day our driver was obliged to swerve to avoid a “merging” vehicle on the freeway. He then noticed high speed traffic approaching from the rear and had to swerve back, causing us to whack into the “merging” driver. Even this event was treated rather cavalierly and after a cordial exchange of gestures featuring middle fingers we both continued on our way. Did I mention that the biggest killer in KSA is traffic accidents?

I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the main reasons that alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom. If this is the situation with everyone sober, one can only speculate with horror at the mayhem there would be on the roads if drinking was legal. As it is we see one or two accidents almost every day on the way to or from SANG. And of course the fact that women are not allowed to drive has nothing to do with road safety.

Despite manic drivers, SANG managers not speaking to each other, flatmates not speaking to each other, getting up at an obscene hour, trying to motivate disinterested students and preparing for UNISA exams, I find that life is good. I find myself in company of people who are pleasant and helpful and I am doing work that is challenging without being too stressful. I don't see myself spending the rest of my life in the kingdom (I miss going for a beer with my mates and I miss female company too much) but KSA and Al Jazeera have been good to me.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Teaching in Primary School

After my two-month vacation I had mixed feelings about returning to Saudi Arabia. Obviously I was sad to be leaving family and friends again and saying goodbye to my lovely botanical gardens, but on the other hand I was ready to start working again. Twelve hours after tearful farewells at OR Tambo, I was back in KSA.
On my first day back at work I was told that I was to be teaching at an elementary school that Al Jazeera had acquired. I know that I’m not very good with small kids but I figured that the experience would be good and besides that it would look good on my CV. And just maybe I could learn how to work with small kids.

My first couple of days at the school were pretty easy. I simply accompanied one of the existing English teachers to his classes and observed. I was given to understand that this would be the pattern for the rest of the week until the roster had been drawn up and some sort of curriculum had been devised.

On the third day I was sent to my first solo class. Walking into a classroom of 30 six-year olds who don’t understand a word of English (and who aren't particularly interested in getting to understand it) is pretty daunting. I’m here to tell you that I was not feeling safely ensconced in my comfort zone at that point!

I thought to play some games to establish rapport with the kids. In a way it worked and in a way it didn’t. I didn’t realise how quickly things can get out of hand with a bunch of six-year-olds. Getting them to shout out answers to simple questions seemed like a great idea, except it’s much easier getting them to start shouting than getting them to stop. I looked in horror at my creation; the kids were having a wonderful time yelling "A-B-C..." at the tops of their lungs, jumping up and down and totally ignoring me. Mind you, since they certainly couldn’t hear me over the racket they were making it was hardly surprising. I limped through the rest of the week in similar fashion and seldom have I been so happy to see the weekend.

This week started with the instruction that they were to be taught how to introduce themselves in English. It was decided that their existing English text books were worse that useless and that we would be working without text books (Angie Motshekga would have nodded in approval had she been consulted).

The first class I walked into was total bedlam. Kids were all over, screaming,
throwing things, hitting each other, fiddling with the computer, running in and out of the door and one or two were crying. Each time I got one half of the classroom more or less settled the other half would again erupt into a fair facsimile of Dante's Inferno. I went back and forth several times before I realised that I was on a hiding to nothing.

After about twenty minutes I felt that I should probably try and teach them something before the end of the period. So despite the rather negative portents I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and started by introducing myself. “My... (pointing at my chest) name... (drawing a label on my forehead) is Gregory”. This produced fits of giggles and whispers as they looked at me inquisitively. Nonetheless, I persevered. After several repetitions they seemed to grasp what I was driving at. I then pointed to one of my students and asked “What... is... your... name?” He responded with “What is your name?” “No-no”, I said tapping him on the chest, “what is YOUR name”. He responded by tentatively tapping me on the chest and asking “What is YOUR name”. So I slowed down and coached him word for word: "My-name-is... What?" "My name is what", he replied confidently. So I repeated the exercise without the "what?" "My-name-is......" "GREGORY" he yelled triumphantly. The thinking seems to be that repeating the teacher's words is a pretty safe bet.

Meanwhile, the rest of the class were taking advantage of the fact that I was distracted and were clicking every icon on the computer, drawing on the smart-board and beating each other up. Some were standing on their desks screaming and some were trying to climb out the window.  Others were throwing books and plastic water bottles at each other. One little guy kept pulling on my sleeve and asking me something in Arabic in a rather breathless voice (there’s one of these in every class). I had no idea what he wanted so I said “No! Sit down!” He seemed devastated by my response and kept nagging me every few seconds. Eventually I gave in and said "Yes, OK”. Sadly, that also didn’t work. (Eventually I got a bilingual teacher to translate for me: it turns out he’d had enough of school for the day and wanted to go home). Others ask for permission to go to the “WC” and giving permission to one seems to be blanket permission for three or four to rush off hooting and screaming loudly.

One little fellow thought that he would help me deal with the discipline issues and ran around the classroom screaming “shut up” and “sit down”. He probably made more noise than the rest of them put together and when the other kids ignored him he attacked them. He left off these self-imposed altruistic duties when one on his peers punched him on the nose. At that point he lost all interest in the proceedings and vacated the classroom howling and snuffling.

I then bravely moved onto their ages. “How... old... are... you?” I asked a student in the front row. I raised my fingers while suggesting “Six? Seven? Eight?” With sudden insight he grasped what I was driving at and screamed “1-2-3-4-5-6-7...” This incited the rest of the class and they all started counting rather haphazardly from one to ten loudly and compulsively.

Of course, not all of the classes are this rowdy and some barely reach the same level of noise as a jet taking off. I treasure these classes. And my afternoon classes at the academy have become so much more pleasurable than they ever were in the past; productive, peaceful and pleasant. I have applied for a license for a dart gun and a supply of Ritalin, but I have had no response as yet.