Sunday, September 23, 2012


So I just spent the five days last week in Saudi Arabia. I think that in the United States we often have decidedly mixed feelings about the Kingdom. On one hand, it is the ultimate boogieman. Wealthy beyond compare but home to mindblowingly restrictive religious laws, birthplace of Osama binLadin and the 9-11 hijackers, one of the last true unapologetic monarchies… But on the other hand, when push comes to shove in a rough neighborhood, they always seem to have our back. They could choke off the American economy in a heartbeat if they stopped the oil from flowing. When we wanted to sanction Iran, they increased production to make it possible. They hosted us for Iraq I. And they have the wealth to purchase enough weapons to reduce our regional best friend forever Israel to a bug smear on the Mediterranean Sea, but never have. So when you peak under the gutra, who are we really dealing with you here?

And after five days, largely confined to the Riyadh Intercontinental and various sterile office blocks, I have no idea. This is what I can report. As a female I am required to wear an abayah in public (which is basically a flowing black polyester choir robe), and cover my hair (more black polyester). Saudi men traditionally wear a white robe and head covering as well – though it is not mandated by law and foreign men can get away with suits. No long hair though. (As an illustration, I included these cute little clip art icons that I ripped off one of our powerpoints.)

 As a woman, I am not allowed to drive. I am not allowed to enter government buildings. (This made for an awkward moment in one meeting when we realized that I was the only one in the room with the technical skills to work on the computer portal with the necessary data – but culturally that wasn’t going to work. They made robot jokes. I smiled and silently swallowed a drone joke.) Office buildings – public or private – do not contain female rest rooms. In order to use the bathroom, we have to get a male colleague to “sweep” one for us then stand guard. I am not allowed to use the hotel gym or swimming pools (though when I asked, they did install an exercise bike in my cavernous hotel room). And these are just the restrictions on foreign women. Saudi women face much stricter limitations.

All of which would lead one to believe this would be a pretty chauvinist place to work right? But oddly once you are sitting across the table in a board room, despite the fact that I am just a little face peering out of a giant mass of black fabric, my government counterparts took as seriously, if not more so, than some of my Western hyper-liberal male World Bank colleagues in DC. In addition, all the meetings were conducted in English which our Saudi counterparts spoke flawlessly. They were intelligent, engaged, motivated, and completely open to discussing innovation. There wasn’t even one time where I even felt like slamming my head into the table – almost unheard of on my standard business trips. But on the other hand, all week I encountered only one Saudi woman at any of these conference tables, and she was nearly silent.

And professional interactions are really all I have for you. On the afternoon of my last day I was able to sneak out to one of the markets. It was allegedly the oldest covered market in Riyadh and in a distinctly different part of town than the gleaming skyscrapers. The market had a local section, where all the vendors were men but some of the shoppers were small groups of women. (One of the upsides of the abayah and hijab rules are that once I am covered up and wearing sunglasses, while no one is going to mistake me for a Saudi woman, I could be any number of respectable Balkan or Central Asian nationalities.) There was a tourist section that was basically filled with Pakistanis and Afghans selling crap from Pakistan and Afghanistan. I found a rug that would go great in my new living room – but the starting price was 23,000 euros. But I guess if I were ever going to find a prince to buy it for me, I was probably in the right spot. Alas…

So in the end, I don't have any definitive conclusions for you.  Further study is warranted.  But right now - I am just happy to be sitting in the United States of America on a Sunday afternoon - full of Salvadorean food and watching football.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Les enfants tortue

This story is an oldie but goodie.  For those of you that were reading way back in 2002, I told it before.  But  it is one of my favorites so we are going to do it again.  For Christmas 2002 a few of my fellow Burkina Peace Corps volunteers and I went down to Benin.  It was a wild trip, including a high speed donkey accident and lots of voodoo, but we eventually made it to the beach.  One morning while we were having a beer (come on - I was in my early 20s and on vacation - don't judge), two local guys came up to us and asked us for money to release "les enfants tortue" (the baby turtles), which my tipsy garbled French misheard as "les enfants tortures" (the tortured children).  And hilarity ensued.  

So that story goes with these pictures that I took this weekend.  To take a break from the three weeks that I had already spent on road and gear up for this week here in Saudi Arabia (which is a fascinating place that I will write about next week), I spent the weekend at a fancy little beach resort just south of Dar.  Sea turtles nest on the grounds, and while I was there one group hatched and made their way down to the waves and whatever life had in store for it.  I of course was there with a 200mm zoom to document the moment.  See below.

And on a sad note, this post is dedicated to Hilary Stevens.  She was one of the intrepid volunteers that made their way to Benin with me on this trip mentioned above.  She sadly lost her older brother, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Libya last week.  My heartfelt condolences to her and her family.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shark Week

I was really hoping for pictures for this post.  (I have been waiting in vain hope for the last two weeks that one of my new friends from the liveaboard dive trip to share pictures, but alas.  I would have pictures myself but I learned the hard way about the dangers of submerging underwater cameras in salt water.  Note that I did this on the beach of course.)  So really by rights I shouldn’t have bothered to post this, as no one is really interested in someone else’s drinking, diving, and carrying-on stories if there aren’t a few photos to go with it – but unfortunately for all over you I have a joke that I really want to use at the start of an anxiously anticipated next blog post in two weeks – so you have to deal with this.  In summary, there were lots of sharks, a fair number of Caribbean lobster, lion fish, some really bad-ass deep water swim-throughs, and one exquisite spotted eagle ray.  Other things that I learned of note living with 24 strangers on a 69 foot sailboat in the outer islands of the Bahamas – that I am not very good at Texas-two-stepping, that the ritual of marine toilets grows old quickly, that the best place to get both get some sun and see the stars is lounging on the lifeboat, the safest way to prevent guests from tumbling down the mess ladder is by installing a tap on deck (though this is counterproductive when it comes to the sleeping quarters ladders), white sand beaches are always beautiful, iguanas cannot distinguish between grapes and purple-painted toe nails and much hilarity (for others) ensues, and the best way to cook raccoon is in a crock pot.