Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Around the world (or halfway at least)

I suppose it would behoove me to mention that next week I will be in Bahrain.  Alas, I will probably not be mingling with the activists there - I haven't even been mingling with the activists here - but I'll be staying in a temporally rented apartment for a few days and then on to India.  

I have mentioned, I am sure, my former room mate Papa, with whom I shared an apartment for about six years when I worked in Saudi.  The company I worked for, a Saudi manufacturer, provided deluxe family housing for Western employees who were married, and modern, though Spartan, housing in a separate area for singles.   Asian and African employees were paid much less and were given allowances with which they were expected to rent locally.  The last thing I wanted to do was to hang about with a bunch of western ex-pats bitching about Saudi life and planning their next vacation.  So when I met Papa at a company department  goat-grab, which is the term westerners used for the type of Saudi celebratory meal which involves sitting on the ground or in a tent  around a huge platter containing an enormous bed of rice flavored with oil, tomato, cardamom and the like atop which rests a whole roasted sheep or goat from which one pulls chunks to eat with one's hands, I soon wound up agreeing to share lodgings with him in the older part of town.  I kept my company-provided apartment, which was a single room with a kitchen along one side and a private modern bathroom, but I shared half of the rather low rent on an apartment spang in the middle of old Jubail.  As the company hired more Indians to work with Papa as computer operators, they joined us in the apartment, which had two bedrooms.  Papa and Matthew (a Christian Indian) shared one bedroom and Martie (a Catholic Goan) and I had bunks in the other.  The four of us remained roomies and good friends for all of my six years at the company.

I lost touch with Martie who married and emigrated to Australia, and in the last few years I have also lost track of Matthew.  Matthew married and then, to his shock , his wife divorced him.  He had brief stints in the USA but so far as I know he now lives in Mumbai.  However, I have remained in contact with Papa who still lives and works in Jubail, though now he is a programmer at a private company with greatly increased wages.  Papa married not long after I left Saudi in 1996 and he has visited me almost annually, twice with his wife and son.  Papa wanted to return my hospitality and that of my brother George, who was also his host the last time Papa's family came with him, so when his brother-in-law arranged a marriage for himself, Papa invited George and me to attend.  In india, weddings are not the exclusive sorts of events that we have here, although there is a similar desire to spend too much.  Indeed, the last time I was in India I attended the weddings of four perfect strangers; as the first Western man ever to visit the small village I was staying in, I believe I served as cheap entertainment for the guests.  I was only able to speak with one of the four grooms at all because although none spoke any English, this one man had worked in the Gulf and we were able to stumble through a few sentences in Arabic, which he spoke far better than me.  

Anyway, now Papa is reasonably rich by Indian standards and George and I are to be his guests at a home he has built in Palakkad in the state of Kerala for a couple of weeks.  We had hoped to get a visa for Saudi for a couple of days en route; Papa says Jubail - and Saudi in general - have changed beyond recognition and I'd have liked to see the new Saudi Arabia, although i kind of loved the old version.  But visas are hard to come by, so instead we will spend a few days in Bahrain and then fly together with Papa and his wife and 12-year-old Bubba (we call the boy Bubba and have done so since before he was born although of course that is not his name) to Kerala.  I had assumed that the plan was to hang out in Palakkad for a while, but no, Papa has booked us on a tour of all kinds of sights.  He sent us an itinerary and when George went on line to see what these various places were all about, he was stunned to see we are in a 5-star sort of situation everywhere, staying where kings and film stars (which is the same thing, really) have stayed.  This was slightly alarming because although it seemed like Papa had said he was hosting (i. e. paying), it had never been specifically stated.  Up until we got the itinerary, I had assumed that  the beaches and temples and forts were day trips Papa planned, but now, I find we are on some kind of grand tour.   I delicately brought up the financial situation that George and I find ourselves in, and Papa said to worry not - everything was on the house.  Oh my!  

Is it churlish of me to mention that I loathe sightseeing?  And I would never, on my own, book any kind of packaged tour, although it is not exactly 'packaged' in that we won't have a guide, but we will have a driver.  My idea of travel is to go, stay in a cheap local hotel patronized by locals and to get to know a place by walking around and making a fool of myself.  I always say if one is going to a five-star hotel one might as well save the airfare and stay at the one in the closest town because they are all the same.  Although there is a smiling friendliness amidst all the staff, it is a bought and paid for experience and is as close to really having a friendly conversation with a local as the Disney Jungle ride is to a trip down the Amazon.  But it looks like this is what I am going to have.  

The right way to look at this trip is a visit to a friend, rather than as travel.  A friend who, whether he is visiting me or I him believes that the hour not spent in strenuously doing something or seeing something or, preferably, buying something is an hour wasted.   I already have 9 packages from Amazon sitting on my kitchen table, which Papa has had sent here for me to tuck into my luggage for him.  Oy!  And a week to go; what new surprise will be delivered to my door?  So I foresee a high level of activity doing things I would not consider doing if I were on my own.

It should be fun, though.  The scientific principle that best applies to me is Newton's law that a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  I don't go to a great number of events because all I can think of is the parking problem or the cost of admission or the crowds or being out too late.  I am a sad wreck of the adventurer I used to be.  One thing that does appeal to the adventurer in me is another idea that Papa has proposed.  He will be working in Saudi for the forseeable future - he is quite a young man compared to me.  He is 47, but looks like a man in his twenties.  He has built a house in Kerala, as I said, and at present his mother and one of his brothers live there.  But the brother has bought his own place and the two will be moving to this, therefore Papa's home will lie vacant much of the year.  He has proposed that I  - or George and I, or whoever I want and I - live in it for a couple of months in the winter of next year.  I see no downside to that.  Because I am an eternal pessimist in some things - again, anything that requires me to move my butt - I am sure I will manufacturer a number of objections in the coming year, but , hey, right now it sounds cool.

I guess I might mention that my Cambodian cousin Warren, (well, half-Cambodian cousin - if he was all-Cambodian he wouldn't be a cousin, would he?), offered me a job teaching English in Phnom Penh a few months ago.  Unfortunately it would mean teaching the sons of privilege, not just some village kids, and the sons of privilege everywhere are the same nightmare for a teacher.  I used to hear a few horror stories from teachers in Saudi.  Being a teacher when you are outranked socially by your students is not a picnic.  People talk about the tribulations of teaching in rough poor districts, but there is a whole different hell with rich kids.  They say it is hard to engage the parents in some poor districts; it is harder to disengage the parents in the wealthy sectors, parents who think that an A+ is hardly enough reward for little Bree or Buckleigh.  And that A+ should arise from the beloved one's essence, not his or her work; and certainly that the child's playful nature should not be curbed just because there are others trying to learn.  Nonetheless, I should have taken the job, because my life sucks big-time and anything would be better than drooling in front of a screen - which I am doing as we speak, yes, but usually I am drooling more passively than this (and usually there's more drool).   

So anyway, if I don't write for a while, I will have a different excuse at least.  

By the way, Marge, if you are reading this - I can't get to your site anymore because my computer informs me you've gone all high hat and are not letting in hoi poloi.   And even when I could get through in the last month or two, none of my comments would post.  Weird things happened.  But now I get this message to ask for permission even to read, but how the hell do I do that when I can't get there to ask?  So I am asking.

I wonder if I can get kidnapped in Bahrain?  Now that would be different!


  1. Interesting insights to life elsewhere.

  2. I see you have a knack for memoirs! Glad to meet you.

  3. Wow! Two new posts! I'm glad you're getting to go somewhere interesting and do something. I think the sightseeing will be more interesting than it would be with a tourist company, since you'll have a native helping. My dad did it with a driver provided by a friend, in Egypt, and it was soooo much better than the tourist arranged type! He hates sightseeing, but truly enjoyed all the time the driver took him around. I hope you have the same kind of excursions.
    The whole world is a very different place than it was even 10 years ago. I don't know if the Kingdom would be anything like you remember. I know Russia and some of the places I've been are totally changed. Might not enjoy them as much as I did then. I'm more like you, in liking the "real" people and places more than the touristy ones. I hope it all surprises you with the greatness of the trip! Good travels.

  4. Thanks for visiting me David. You sound my kind of guy. Have a great time with your friend. I'll be following your trip with interest.

  5. David, I've done as much as I'm able to get my blog opened up to anyone whpo cares to read it.

    There has been some kind of third-party cookies issue which has interfered with my blog's functions in the past, and my hope is that my action has remedied the situation again.

    I wish you a wonderful time and godspeed as you travel abroad; if I'd known sooner I would have begged and groveled--I mean, requested--to join you in your globetrotting.
    In a substantial-sized suitcase I would not take up much room and my considerable theatrical makeup skills could render me completely inoccuous to the watchful eyes of the TSA Nazis...

    Should I warn you against drinking the water..?

    ; )

  6. @Terry - Yeah, life elsewhere always seems interesting - mostly because it is not HERE.

    @Rosaria - Thanks - but the old memoir-y ain't what it used to be!

    @Kiffle - I assume when you say your Dad "did it with a driver" we are not talking of the biblical sense! No, you are right, being with someone local who is friendly is all the difference. If I ever recover from a truly determined effort to make sure I missed nothing (THREE boat rides??), I shall try to share a bit of the fun. I am in the last 2 days of India and I am finally near a computer...

    @Retired&c - I enjoyed visiting and like Arnold, "I'll be back". First I have to get back to the USA and my computer. I am following my own trip with exhaustion more than anything else, but it DOES get the blood flowing...

    @Marge - Soon as I get back I shall try to storm the walls of your blog again. I visited a fort in Palakkad with mighty stone walls today and thought of you! Remember the good old days when the only cookie issue was getting enough of them?

    There were some anomolous items in the bottom of my suitcase but none, alas, turned out to be you!

    So far the water's fine, but go ahead and warn me...