the chorister's c




20 September 1998

I've been overseas only once in my life, really. In the fall of 1982, I took two business trips to Saudi Arabia. I was working on a project to install customized accounting software; my client company was in turn providing training and logistics services to the Saudi Arabian government on a naval base in Jubail, on the Persian Gulf.

I left on a flight out of JFK at something like 11 in the evening and was fed an enormous business class dinner. I got drunk on the high-altitude enhanced dinner wine and slept the rest of the way. The next morning, which had somehow become the next afternoon, I arrived in-Kingdom.

It was September, and it was indescribably hot. Don't-move-too-fast-or-you'll-melt-into-the-tarmac hot. Leave-an-air-conditioned-space-and-your-glasses-fog-up hot. Every car that I remember riding in was white. Now I understand why.

But the temperatures are measured in Celsius, so at least your mind doesn't realize how hot it is. And you pay for things in riyals, which ran at that time about 3.5 to the dollar, so you don't realize how cheap some things are (like gray market audiotapes) and how dear others are (like butter from New Zealand, stocked in the grocery's freezer). And the speedometers in the car are marked in Kph, so you don't realize how fast you're driving in this country where speed limits are meant to be ignored. Driving too fast is the only accepted vice in this religious state.

I found a mix-up of cultures that remained separate. It seemed like all the work was done with imported labor, each job to its respective developing country. The bookkeepers were from the Philippines; desk clerks and waiters from Pakistan; construction workers from the least-developed countries. English was the lingua franca, so to speak: in the vaguely French-Swiss hotel where I stayed, it was not unusual for me to order my Arabic specialties in English from a Pakistani waiter.

After several weeks in the hotel, I moved into the on-base billet of one of my contacts while he and his family took R&R in Europe. These ranch-style houses were built of cinder-block, packed together like row houses, with common walls, and all laid out on the same 2-bedroom plan. To provide for a large family, a common wall would be punched through to make a "double house," with two living rooms, two dining rooms, two kitchens.

On my second visit, I shared a "villa" with another guy. The villas were prefab freestanding units designed for two bachelors, and a house boy came with: for an insanely small sum (10 riyals a week, as I recall), he kept the unit in order. This would probably prove to be my only experience with domestic servants.

I never saw a structure with a basement. The landscape reminded me a bit of Oklahoma: oil wells and scrubby vegetation. It rained while I was there, exactly once. A desert downpour of about two inches, the water did not sink very deep into the hard pan, but sat on the surface. Driving through the gumbo was like going through that much snow.

When the work day was over, there was precious little to do, so the six-day work week was easy to take. I got the flu for three days, and shivered alone in my hotel room. I wrote bad verse for my wife that didn't prevent our marriage from breaking up. I read the books I had brought with me, whatever I figured looked bland enough to get through customs. But mainly I just worked, on a project I disliked, doing work that I thought was arbitrary and pointless.

The biggest excitement came, as you might expect, from a bureaucratic snafu. I was traveling on a visa that my client assured me was good for a three-month stay. Another consultant, visaed like me, finished his part of the project and headed for the airport and home. The nice officials at the airport wanted to know why Jack was trying to leave the country after a six weeks' visit, on a visa that was only good for a month!

With a guard outside, we sat in the Dammam apartment of the client's paid go-between, while he made phone calls and sorted things out. Beautiful, soft carpets to sit on, no chairs, and a television set hanging from the ceiling. There was a boy there, about 6 or 8 years old, playing with about a dozen mismatched cards from an American poker deck. He and I played crazy-eights-meets-war, making up the rules as we went along. Since he had no English and I no Arabic, changing the rules was easy.

Suitably apologetic to my host country, I flew home the next day. But wait! I still had a project to finish. I took three weeks off, got my passport stamped again, and came back.

My job finished at last, I flew home at Christmas, in a center-center coach seat, with what must have been every other European-American in the country. The plane was packed so full it felt like an evacuation. The plane left Dhahran, then touched down in Riyadh, the capital. For customs purposes that were never explained to me, the plane was emptied, we walked around the airport for about twenty minutes, and then we reboarded the same plane.

This was 1982, and I left Saudi Arabia for the last time. I thought, "Ha! what a waste of time! There will never be a war here!"

prev ||| index ||| next


the chorister's c ||| pedantic nuthatch

©1998 David L. Gorsline.
All rights reserved.