October 28, 2009

Two Weeks In ...

So I'm here in the middle of the desert, trying to get a handle on this place. A poor man's Las Vegas? Not really, because we're sitting on a ton of oil. A less-polished Las Vegas? In many ways yes, although the hotels here are gorgeous and the quality of the restaurants there is good. There is definitely not the same aspect of excess and the sin part of it isn't as obvious. We who drink alcohol, for example, are hidden away in the Westernized hotels or private homes. The conspicuous consumption exists; but it's hidden away behind tall walls and black abayas.

It is difficult to describe a city that is at once both cosmopolitan and nearly third world. There are lovely buildings and gardens, there is a sense of business in the air. But there are also men -- workers -- loitering everywhere, laying on the grass, trying to find some shade. Internet access is expensive and difficult to get. The police are well-hidden in a police state.

There is no overt censorship, for example, but self-censorship works nearly as well. The concept of writing a blog while working for the paper is a touchy one. I know we are not supposed to have them without prior approval. Because I am read almost entirely by close friends and family, whose numbers likely do not reach triple digits, I am continuing to post. If I get banned, I'll simply send out mass e-mails to those who are interested. But in the meanwhile, I am careful about what I write and I do not post from work.

I don't love it here; but I don't hate it either. After two weeks -- admittedly a very short time -- I'm at best ambivalent. I like my job and I like the people I work with. I'm keen to earn a good salary. But I feel constrained by the climate and the culture. I dress more modestly than I ever have, yet I'm constantly aware of being stared at. It isn't just warm here, it's hot. Still-in-the-90s hot. Hot as in "I'll just stay inside until it's time to go to work, thank you" hot. As a result, I'm bored. No Internet at home yet (we need residence visas); bad cable; almost caught up on books, which I am rationing. On workdays, it's less of an issue. I work 2-10 and I sleep late. The idea of even venturing a few blocks to try to find a yoga class is daunting. It's not easy to walk here or to drive here. Cabs are cheap, but not always plentiful (like around prayer time; many cabs are driven by devout Pakistanis). Nothing quite like standing in the hot sun with long sleeves or a sweater hoping to catch a taxi so i can go somewhere to walk.

I haven't seen the gulf/sea/bay -- whatever it is -- in daylight hours. It's been too hot to go anywhere and take pictures. We have had some lovely night-time adventures. We went for drinks last week at The Brauhaus, a German (obviously) bar in the luxury Beach Rotana hotel that was celebrating Oktoberfest. We went with colleagues and sat on the outdoor patio. There was a light breeze which mad the 80-plus degree temperatures feel quite pleasant. Paul remarked that it felt like a Club Med: Lots of well-to-do foreigners in an exotic location. I believe the feeling passed fairly quickly.

We had a fabulous meal at the same hotel, in a restaurant called Finz that stood on stilts in the water. We had a table overlooking the sand and water, and the food was very good. We started with rolls shaped like starfish and made with seaweed, and more made with squid ink and sea salt. They came with three dips: butter, crab butter and seaweed-labnah. (And speaking of butter, we had a mustard-butter mix at The Brauhaus that was really interesting).

My rambling point, and I do have one, is that I am neither content nor discontent here. But I do feel a bit in exile. I suppose that's to be expected. "They" say it takes a year to get comfortable. A year!! And in the recesses of my bad memory, I forget how I struggled to adapt in Paris, which now seems like a second home. (And my mother points out I struggled to adapt in Santa Barbara and Missouri ...) The trick is to find our niche here. To make a home as best we can and to work around the tricky things rather than trying to fight through them.

Wish us luck.

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