Staying Alive in Wadi Shab, Oman, Part 2 (or, "We Will All Live Through This, Except the Kids")

A Euro family was coming down the trail as we pushed up the trail. "It's too dangerous for kids up there," the dad said, eyeing our little brood and jerking his thumb over his shoulder. The mom nodded, frowning disapprovingly at two-year-old Tess in the baby backpack. "You won't make it with that backpack," she stated.

I was confused. Our friends from Dubai had taken their two little kids up to the top of the trail the year before, and they didn't die. I told Overly Protective Euro Family as much. "Well," said Overly Protective Euro Dad, "our guide said it's too dangerous." I looked at the pudgy Omani guide, sweating in the midday heat, and deduced that Overweight Omani Guide just didn't want to walk to the top of the trail today.

Taking their lives into their hands. Because if they fall, they will get all wet.
Shannon took Overly Protective Euro Family seriously. "It sounds dangerous. I'm not taking the kids up that trail," she hissed in the tone of voice she uses when she's not going to budge unless I temporarily agree to her position AND let her monologue about arcane health and fitness data for twenty minutes AND remind her of the health and fitness benefits the children would accrue by hiking further uphill AND acknowledge and apologize for all my mistakes of the past week AND randomly compliment the meal she prepared yesterday evening AND punch myself in the face. Then, after that, I can usually get my way.

So we stopped for a time, and the kids swam in a large, crystalline swimming hole, and a little crab scampered over Shannon's foot and she did a funny dance, and then I suggested that I go scout ahead on the trail and report back in an objective fashion how scary the trail actually was. Shannon wasn't fully onboard until I punched myself in the face, then she smiled and said, "I like when you do that. Okay, let's sew up your lip and then you go scout the trail for us."

It turned out that Overweight Omani Guy really was just lazy, and Overly Protective Euro Family really were just hapless patsies, because the trail wasn't that bad, apart from a few places where the edge of the trail dropped away into sheer thirty foot drops ending in certain death for unsuspecting, trusting children. I returned and told Shannon, no problem, easy peezy, we will all live through this except the kids.

Unable to remember the several thousand previous times I had mischaracterized or outright lied about how dangerous a thing is, Shannon agreed to trust me and pack things up and continue up the trail. After successfully negotiating the treacherous trail (which wasn't treacherous at all -- I am merely taking literary license to make myself sound like less of a soft-in-the-middle, middle-aged father of four whose only opportunity for adventure is walking up a dirt trail in triple-digit heat and more like a rock-solid, intrepid explorer who takes his life into his hands several times a day for the sake of discovery and reaching the outer limits of the human spirit), we scrambled over large boulders for a time until we reached the end of the hiking trail.

From there, the only way forward is to swim. So we put Tess in her floaty life jacket, and we all waded into the water that filled the narrow wadi between the steep rock walls on either side. Ten minutes later, we'd reached the crown jewel of Wadi Shab, a cave accessible only by swimming through a tight passageway that leaves only enough room for the swimmer's head. It's hard to describe, so, here -- check out someone else's video with super cheesy background music. A video is worth like 12,000 words. All the kids except Tess made it into the cave and received a huge boost to their self-esteem for having done something so awesome. Also, they avoided getting grounded, because I told them whoever doesn't make it into the cave will get grounded for three months, and will be referred to as "Captain Worthless" until they turn sixteen or buy me an ice cream cone, whichever comes first. So that maybe motivated them. Tess was exempt because she gives me wet toddler kisses, which are more valuable than the island of Manhattan.

Afterwards we were super tired, so we laid out in the sun and ate stale cookies next to these two French girls we had followed up the trail. They were stretched out in their bathing suits, reading cheap romance novels. And I thought, these chicks came a long ways to sunbathe and read bad literature. So I named them Weird French Girls Who Traveled Thousands of Miles to Oman and Drove Several Hours Into the Desert and Then Hiked Several Miles Up a Canyon in Order to Sun Tan Which Can in Fact be Done in France. We didn't talk to them because language barrier. And we didn't offer them cookies because our family motto is "Leavitts Don't Share."

Staying Alive in Wadi Shab, Oman, Part 1 (or, "Bully Goat's Gruff")

A goat tried to maul my daughter in the parking lot. So I guess you could say it was an inauspicious start to our hike up Wadi Shab, a glorious, watery canyon a couple hours southeast of Muscat. The goat had wandered up to us, hoping to get a little hit of the sunscreen Shannon was applying to the kids. It was one of those junkie goats you see eating grass sometimes out behind the barn. Tess got excited, because, wow, goat. So she tried to pet it. So it tried to gore her. Don't worry though. After a cool-down period, the two parties reconciled. And by "reconciled" I mean the goat left to see if it could bum a cigarette from the Europeans in the Fiat three parking spots down.

Ye olde swimming hole. Wadi Shab, Oman.
Everyone was nearly sunscreened when Shannon instructed Savannah to fetch from the car the backpack containing all the food. You know, the backpack Shannon had asked Savannah to load into the car two hours and 100 miles ago. You know, the backpack that Savannah left sitting inside the front door to the house.

Savannah defended herself, ably employing the classic 11 year-old rhetorical tactic "Vocalize Unpersuasive Arguments Loudly and Defensively Because That Makes Them Seem Compelling": "You didn't tell me I was supposed to bring that backpack!" she said, as if one needs to be told to bring food and water with them when hiking into desert wastelands under the triple-digit heat of the harsh and unyielding Arabian sun. I said, "I think you need to repeat fourth grade. Also, third grade and second grade. Also, do you have a concussion you never told us about." So I drove 10 miles back up the highway until I found a dingy little town where I bought several bags of dusty pre-popped popcorn and a few sleeves of stale cookies from a grocery store with no electricity.

So we had our food, we were sunscreened, and the bully goat gruff was over taking drags beside the men's room. It was time to start the hike. But first we had to get across the lake separating the parking lot from the trailhead. A few Omani guys had rickety boats, and you could pay them a couple bucks to ferry you across. But me and Shannon looked at each other, and we're like, "No way. We're not paying no one to give us a ride across a knee-deep river/lake thingy." So we made for the near shore and had gone maybe 80 steps, and Shannon goes, "Oh, I think I forgot my sandals," which are important because this hike is like two miles over rocks and sand and through a lot of water. And I go, "No problem, we're only like 80 steps from the car. I'll go back and get them." And she goes, "No, I mean I think I left them at the house." And I go, "That's like a half million steps." And she cheerfully says in her indominable way, "It's okay, I'll be fine just hiking with my expensive running shoes." And I reply in my abominable way, "Great. Fine. Nice. Did you remember both kidneys."

So we went ahead and forded the little river thing, and Shannon took off her expensive shoes, which was fortunate because the bottom was really mucky and sticky. So there we are, 10 minutes into the hike, on the far side of the river/lake thingy, and Shannon is cramming her feet -- which are caked with sticky poopy-looking mud -- into her expensive running shoes, and I'm thinking, "This royally sucks."

And that is my cliffhanger ending: my wife putting her poopy-looking feet into expensive running shoes on the bank of a little river thingy in the wilderness of Oman. Next time, I will tell you how hiking Wadi Shab got way better once we left Devil Goat and Poopy River Crossing behind us, particularly thanks to an exciting cast of characters, including Weird French Girls Who Traveled Thousand of Miles to Oman and Drove Several Hours Into the Desert and Then Hiked Several Miles Up a Canyon in Order to Sun Tan Which Can in Fact be Done in France, and Overly Protective Euro Parents Who Were Unreasonably Afraid of Sheer Cliff Dropoffs and Sasquatch.

Dubai Took All My Money (or "I Got Ravaged By a Mythological Figure")

They wanted $250 to swim with dolphins at the waterpark in Dubai. I was like, "Okay, so like 40 bucks per person, that seems reasonable." And the guy's like, "No, $250 per person." And I'm all, "But the baby is free, right?" And he goes, "No, she's $250." And I'm like, "So, for that price, we get to keep the dolphin, right?" You know, call it Hermy and have it blow water out its blow hole to the beat of "Cotton-Eyed Joe."

So we didn't swim with the dolphins. For $250 per person, I can fly to Egypt and throw moltov cocktails with the kids down at Al-Azhar. Swim with dolphins, throw moltov cocktails at riot police (imagine me holding out both hands, palms up, making balancing motions, then deciding moltov cocktails are better than dolphins and punching my left hand in the air and saying, "Arooga!"). Protesting sounds cooler, but we probably won't do that, since I'm pretty sure it's against U.S. policy for its diplomats to participate in revolutions in foreign countries.

Observation Deck of Burj al-Khalifa, world's tallest building. Tess is about to chuck that plush puppy at Shannon's face. Funny every time.
Instead of selling the farm to swim with the dolphins, we just bought a normal old entry pass to the waterpark. I think the full name of the waterpark bears repeating -- how is this for ostentatious: Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis Paradise Island. The park isn't quite as cool as the name makes it sound; with a name like that, you would expect to swashbuckle with pirates, roast up a bird of paradise for lunch, and beat up an arrogant merman before bed. But there was none of that, just some waterslides and overpriced food. In fact, if you wanted Dubai summed up in one word, that word would be: overpriced.

Unfortunately, Grace was too short to ride any of the slides. Also unfortunately, Savannah was too skittish to ride any of the slides. Also unfortunately, after riding exactly one of the slides with me, Halen became too terrified to ride any more of the slides. At that point, I was feeling really good about having dished out two hundred and fifty dollars so that we could all come to this waterpark and observe all the European dudes bursting out of their speedos.

I was unwilling to let such wicked slides go completely to waste, as well as the fact that there were no lines, so I told the kids to wait for me at the splashdown pool and not talk to anyone wearing Speedos, and I went up to the highest slide they had. It was called Poseidon's Revenge, which sounded super manly, which naturally attracted manly people like me. No one else manly must've been at the waterpark that day, because I was all by me onesie at the tiptop of the waterslide tower. Just me and the Filipino dude attending the slide. I'm all, "Where's the slide?" And he goes, "Right here." And he points to this slab of clear plastic covering a hole in the floor, and he says, "Stand on it." So I stand on it, and I lean against an upright piece of fiberglass, and the guy goes, "Cross your arms and legs." And I'm like, "What are you doing to me? I want to ride a waterslide."

And then this clear plastic lid starts closing over me, and this robot lady's voice starts counting down, "Three, two, one..." and I'm thinking, "Creepy, man." And then, whoosh! The clear plastic slab I was standing on drops away and I fall through the floor! And I'm all, "I've been had/hoodwinked by Filipino Guy at the Top of the Tower!" Now I'm in this tube, falling, falling, falling, and then the tube violently arcs back upward, and water is spraying in my face, and I'm flailing, and sputtering, and the tube is snaking all over the place, and I start wondering how badly it will traumatize my children when my lifeless body shoots into the splashdown pool, and they're like, "That was awesome Dad! Dad? Really? You gave up the ghost on a waterslide? Ha ha ha ha!" But then, just when I'm sure I am going to die, I hit the splashdown pool, coughing, thrashing, hyperventilating. Everyone stops to watch the sissy American in unfashionably loose swim trunks slowly claw his flabby American way out of the pool. (Actually, nobody stopped to watch, I just had that thing where when you look stupid you think everyone is staring at you, when in reality nobody cares one lick about you. At all.) Halen, however, was watching me, and he was like, "You okay Dad?" And I go, "Poseidon had his way with me." And Halen says, "Poseidon did what to you?" And I'm all, "You'll understand when you get older."

After that, I became too scared to ride any more of the slides.

It turned out that the waterpark was pretty killer, even if you're too wussy to ride any of the slides, largely because it has the world's coolest kiddie park. We spent two hours there, and I didn't get bored once. And I am 34 years old. There is this giant scaffold that rises upward out of a huge pool of 12-18 inch deep water into several open-air towers, with little kid-sized water slides of all shapes and colors and sizes sprouting outward, some twisting, some spiralling, some roller coaster-ing. There are stairs and nets leading upward, and the best part is, water is spraying everywhere, all the time. So it is a bad place to be if you want to be dry. Pipes spit water. Shower nozzles spray water. Hoses stream water. And there are numerous little buckets continuously filling up with water, and when they get too heavy, they tip over and dump their contents on whomever happens to be walking below. Aaaaaaand, there are a few gigantic buckets also continuously filling up with water, and when fill up they dump hundreds of gallons of water all over the whole kiddie park. Best. Thing. Ever. Even if it costs, like, all my money.

Dune Surfing in Saudi: How to Keep Sand Out of Your Car

I think my dad's least favorite thing when I was growing up was getting sand in his car. He also disliked Californians, which is ironic because he is one. It is also ironic that Dad had 10,000 spoons when all he needed was a knife. Who would've thought? It figures. But this is not a story about my dad disliking people from California. This is a story about sand. It will probably be as boring as it sounds.

"I don't have enough sand on my back. I can fix that."
So Dad has always hated getting sand in his car. When we would go to the beach, Dad wouldn't let me get in the car afterward unless I had been properly de-sanded. I remember him essentially giving me a spanking in the beach parking lots, trying to get all the loose sand off my pants. Once my butt was sufficiently de-sanded, I could sit on the bumper and he would remove my shoes and wipe off my feet. When my feet were de-sanded, I was no longer permitted to put them on the ground; I had to climb through the car to my seat. Dad would also scour each crevice of my face, scraping sand out of my nostrils, out from the folds in my ears, from around the hair roots in my eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of my eyes. I hated it. "DA-aaaaaddd!!" I would whine. If I whined too much, he would find a zit somewhere on my face and pop it to remind me who was boss.

I vowed that things would be different when I was a dad. I am a dad now. Things are not different.

Stop 1 on our trans-Arabian road trip was dune surfing near Riyadh. Dune surfing is where you basically just go to sand dunes and stuff sand down your pants and smear it around in your hair. Also, you eat mouthfuls of it and swish it over your tongue, then spit the product into your shoes and run around for several hours.

The kids had a lot of fun. After a couple hours of sand sledding (with this type of thing), the children were unhappy because some of their body crevices did not have sand in them, so they began burying each other in the sand. Grace said, "I want to get buried too!" I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to be Sand Nazi, Jr. Halen also wanted to be buried. I sort of whimpered a little. Then Savannah also thought having sand dumped all over one's body seemed delightful. And I was defeated. There was definitely going to be sand in my car.

When it was time to go, I essentially spanked each of my children, trying to get all the loose sand off their pants. Once their butts were sufficiently de-sanded, they could sit on the bumper and I would remove their shoes and wipe off their feet. When their feet were de-sanded, they were no longer permitted to put them on the ground; they had to climb through the car to their seats. I scoured each crevice of their faces, scraping sand out of their nostrils, out from the folds in their ears, from around the hair roots in their eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of their eyes. They hated it.

Thanks Dad. You could've just used baby powder to get the sand off. Duh.

Intro to "Trip in a Car Through the Desert" (or, "Driving Across the Arabian Peninsula Like a Merriwether")

When you are a diplomat and your are posted in "hard" countries (i.e. no Wal-Marts or JoAnne's Fabric stores), you are supposed to get "R&Rs," or "rest & relaxation/recooperation/Rummy." An R&R is a some-expenses-paid vacation to somewhere where they have JoAnne's Fabric stores, so that you can go inside and inhale the smell of old American ladies and cinnamon sticks. But you don't have to go somewhere nice and civilized. If you are so inclined, you may use the airfare to go somewhere with angry naked people with body piercings running around everywhere, like Paris.

2007: "Aw yeah, suckah. I'm gonna drive across Arabia in seven years."
As an aside, while I was making fun of JoAnne's Fabric, I was reminded of when I got my first job. I was 16, and I worked at Craft Warehouse. It was all a horrible misunderstanding. When I applied I believed it was Kraft Warehouse, and I pictured myself pushing swaying stacks of Kraft dinner boxes around and, oops, accidentally dropping and damaging some boxes and taking them home, or else, oops, just cutting to the chase and accidentally cooking me up a pot of macaroni right there on the warehouse floor. Instead, I worked at the counter beside Flo, this really wrinkly lady who must've used to eat cigarettes way back when she was in her 60s, because she rasped like Kim Carnes and sometimes when she was just talking a little smoke would waft out between her lips, and I was like, "Flo, I think your uvula might have somehow ignited." And she'd say something like, "Hon," (except not in a southern-type voice; it was more like how Catherine the Great would sound if you dug her up and she called you "Hon"), "don't you worry about my uvula." She also wore neon pink lipstick, which I frankly quite liked because it drew attention away from her smoldering uvula.

Back to R&Rs. We are preparing to use one of our R&Rs to drive across the Arabian Peninsula, because I like to transect things, and also because it's not very often that you're on the Arabian Peninsula, so you might as well scope it out while you're there, much like Lewis & Clark, who thought that if you live in North America you might as well scope it out, although they were weaker than I am, because they had to hire people to help them scope, while the only aid I need in my scoping is my phone -- just that and me monocular.

As I consider Lewis & Clark, I feel that if I could only have two more sons, I would name them Merriwether and Perriwinkle. They probably wouldn't be very popular in high school, but they would be good at drama.

All great voyages need a name, and this voyage -- 1,500 miles across sand and rock with four children and one wife (who hates to "just sit") in an aged Suburban with an iffy transmission -- is truly great, like a dane, but without those weird jowels. So I will call our voyage "Trip in a Car Through the Desert," and I will blog about it when we get back.

How to Become a Runner, Part 2 (or, "Poop Sandwich on the Dead 2 Red Relay Race")

There is a thing called Dead 2 Red. It sounds like it would be a duet with Prince and Slayer, but it's not. It's a race from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Teams of ten runners and two or three chase car drivers get together, slam a bunch of Red Bull, and then run 150 miles through the Jordanian desert. This year I got together with three friends and 10 complete strangers, and we all ran the race like cheetahs, and the other teams ran like gazelles, and we overtook them and ate their innards and left their carcasses on the side of the highway. Just kidding. We didn't do any of those things.

"Did you say poop sandwich? Thumbs up."
I had never run in a real race before, at least not since fifth grade when I raced the cool kids across the playground from one fence to the other, but when we all reached the finish-line-fence I couldn't stop fast enough so I just plowed into the fence like a crash test dummy. I remember laying on the ground and my friend Danny standing above me saying, "Don't cry, Joe! Don't cry!" So I huffed and I puffed and sniffled and I growled and I rolled on the ground rubbing my throbbing knees and elbows. And then I cried a whole bunch there on the blacktop with everyone watching. And after that I didn't get invited to very many slumber parties, and things just kind of spiralled down until I got depantsed in seventh grade in the hallway outside the lunchroom. Don't worry, I was wearing Loony Toons briefs so it wasn't embarrassing at all.

I didn't actually know all of my Dead 2 Red team members. We didn't have enough people from Jeddah who were interested in running, so we asked a friend at Embassy Amman to hang up an advertisement in the embassy hallway that said something like, "Email Keegan if you want to join our Dead 2 Red team." Well, I guess there is more than one Keegan on the planet, because these two guys at the embassy were like, "Oh, cool, let's join our friend Keegan's team," except their friend Keegan and the Keegan they actually emailed were two different people. After we all started exchanging emails in preparation for the race, these two guys were like, "Wait, who are these people?" But by then it was too late. Our team rule was, "If you email us, you are one of us," or "Emailing us is like marrying us," or something like that.

The first two or three hours of the race were a bit chaotic, to be honest. There were more than 40 teams, each with 10 runners and two chase cars. And the "course" was just the Dead Sea Highway, which is two lanes. And they didn't shut down the highway. And there's no requirement on how long each leg has to be -- each team can choose. And history has shown that sprinting short legs is the key to being competitive. So you have to picture 80 vans all bunched up, with runners sprinting like 100 meters at a time, and cars picking up the guy who just finished sprinting, and then trying to pull out into the traffic created by the other 79 cars, which are all doing the same thing, and each van is trying to hustle down the highway another couple hundred meters to pick up the guy who is currently sprinting, and the van has to get there before the sprinter finishes, so there's a lot of urgent driving, and there aren't really "traffic laws," per se, in Jordan, and we've only got two lanes, and don't forget regular traffic, including semi trucks loaded with produce and water and goats, is also trying to get by. For my first several miles I'd say I was less "running" and more "not quite getting hit by a car or colliding with other runners or getting pushed into the Dead Sea."

One guy on our team kept saying, "Look guys. This race is a big poop sandwich, and we all have to take a bite." I thought that was funny, partly because I think eating a big poop sandwich is a funny mental image, but mostly because the guy who kept saying that was the only guy who was actually eating the figurative poop sandwich. First, he got stuck running the opening leg, which race organizers mandated had to be at least two kilometers. I don't think Poop Sandwich Man paced himself very well, because when he rounded the last bend in the road, he was in real danger of exploding into a nasty ball of I-Just-Ran-Faster-Than-I-Am-Able-For-Longer-And-Further-Than-I-Am-Able-And-Now-BLAM-I-Have-Died." He survived, and I was like, "How does that poop sandwich taste." And he was all, "Like poop."

Later, when it got dark, we kind of lost him. He was running a short leg (in exchange for the long initial leg he had run), and he somehow got in front of the van that was ostensibly waiting for him. After sitting on the side of the dark road for like 15 minutes, we looked at each other and were like, "How long do you think it takes Poop Sandwich Man to run half a kilometer?" Then, after doing some complex long division and employing the Pythagorean Theorem, we figured it is strange for anyone, particularly Poop Sandwich Man, who is actually quite fleet of foot, to take 15 minutes to run 500 meters. So we drove down the road for awhile, and eventually we found Poop Sandwich Man limping along, having run several miles alone in the dark, and we were like, "You are hogging the poop sandwich." I do not know if he thought this was funny. I'm thinking no.

How to Become a Runner, Part 1 (or "Battle Axe Issues Prepping for the Dead 2 Red Relay Race")

For about the past four years, I've been a runner. I faked being a runner before that, because chicks dig runners. At least Shannon did. And I needed Shannon to like me, and I didn't really have that much going for me in the I-Do-Stuff-That-Shannon-Digs category. Shannon read the classics: Wordsworth, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Emerson. I read the little booklets that come inside CDs: Jewel, Zeppelin, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jewel. Shannon cooked. I sat in the stairwells of the apartment complex woefully playing my guitar until a girl felt sorry for me and threw me some leftovers. And Shannon liked to exercise. So I pretended I liked to exercise.

Back when Shannon thought I jogged. Sucker.
When me and Shannon met, she told me she jogged to stay fit. I was like, "Really? Me TOO! I jog TOO!" Then I went and signed up for a jogging class, because I didn't actually jog, and I needed to start so I wouldn't be the type of guy who would lie to make a cute girl think she has something in common with him, even though I was kind of the type of guy who would lie to make a cute girl think she has something in common with him.

A few weeks later Shannon suggested we go jogging together. It was her worst idea ever, but I pretended that I liked it, because when you want a girl to like you, you shouldn't ever say she has bad ideas. Unless her idea is to kick you in the jimmy and steal your Moto Guzzi. When we met up and started jogging, I said we should jog slow so we could talk better, but what I meant was we should jog slow so I wouldn't get a cramp and vomit. That was the only time I jogged that whole semester, which normally wouldn't be a problem, except my grade in my jogging class was based on how much faster I could run 1.5 miles at the end of the semester than I did at the beginning. I had unthinkingly posted a pretty decent time at the beginning of the semester, so I no choice but to just go all out during the "final exam" despite having jogged exactly one time since high school. I ended up beating everyone else in my class, but it came at a price. While the professor gave us our final lecture as we sat on the bleachers after the run, I just sat byself and dry heaved the whole time, then I was sick for like two months after that.

Later, me and Shannon got married, and on our honeymoon she was like, "Let's go for a jog together," not realizing that I did not, in fact, actually like to run at all. I had successfully dodged all of her invitations to jog with her after that initial jog, with excuses like, "Sorry, I just ran like eight miles yesterday so I'm kind of bushed -- want to just scratch my back instead?" and "Sounds fun but my workout clothes are in the wash and I don't actually own any workout clothes because I have never really worked out," and "Just ate an entire pizza less than 45 minutes ago, sorry," and -- after Shannon called back to ask again a couple hours later if I felt better and wanted to jog then -- "Dang, just ate another entire pizza, so, dang."

So Shannon invited me jogging on our honeymoon, and I was like, "I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm not who you think I am." And she was like, oh no he's going to cleave me with a battle axe, but then I just said, "I don't really like to run that much," and she was like, "Thank GOODNESS you don't have issues with the battle axe; I don't even care that you have lied all this time about liking to run."

So things worked out pretty well for me on that one. Until I got to be about 30, and my buddy Spencer was like, "You should come running with me, because you are portly." So I did, and Spencer ran outdoors on fun dirt trails, and I liked that. So I finally became the runner that I had hoodwinked Shannon into believing I was a decade before. And then I squished a disc between my vertabrae and had to get surgery, but that's a different story.

I was going to tell you about the sweet action Dead 2 Red relay race that I ran in Jordan from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, but I got a little carried away with the backstory there, what with the dry heaving and the battle axe issues. So I'll cover the race in part two.

Dads Can Solve Anything (or "Roadtrippin' to Mada'in Saleh")

By Abu Halen

Sometimes when you're a stranger in a foreign land, you experience curious, surreal moments of the outlandish. Here's one: Grace's six year old eyes are wide in alarm, and she's crouched behind a fire engine in a fleck of a town somewhere in the Arabian desert. Her dad is engaged in a shouting match in Arabic with a young firefighter. Dad pauses, turns to Grace in the shadows behind the truck, and yells, "Go ahead! Just pee! It's fine!" She starts to unbutton her pants. Then the firefighter yells something in Arabic at her, clearly intended to dissuade her from peeing, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad turns back to the firefighter and resumes yelling in Arabic, gesturing wildly, and the fireman yells back, and while he's yelling, Dad jerks his head back to Grace, "I said pee! Just do it!" So she nervously starts to unbutton her pants again, but then the fireman points and fires off another menacing Arabic tirade in her direction, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad furiously takes up again with the fireman in Arabic. Grace walks back toward the car, calling back over her shoulder to the two fighting men, "I don't have to go potty anymore." See? Dads can solve anything.

We were on a roadtrip to Mada'in Saleh, one of only two UNESCO world heritage sites in Saudi Arabia, which we've visited before and which I wrote about here and Shannon wrote about here. Read Shannon's version if you want to actually learn about Mada'in Saleh. Read mine if you love Cheap Trick and Uno.

I (heart) acacia trees.
Also on this trip, the kids had their first exposure to Janis Joplin. "Who is this screaming lady?" Savannah called from the back seat. "Janis Joplin," I said. "Planet Chocolate?" she said. "I like this song."

Since we scoured Mada'in Saleh pretty thoroughly last time we visited, this time we focused on other sites in the area. There's an old mud city a half hour south, which was built back to the 13th century and occupied up until the 1980s. The kids enjoyed exploring the labyrinthian hallways and former homes of the city. Halen discovered that the roofs made of flimsy palm fronds can support a small eight-year old boy, which is good because if they didn't, he would've discovered that gravity supports no one, and also that there are no decent hospitals in this desolate corner of the Saudi Kingdom.

Elephant Rock is a hulking monolith in the desert southeast of Mada'in Saleh. I snapped photos of the boulder for awhile. Grace made mounds of sand in the dust. After twenty minutes, I went to collect Savannah and Halen. They were just pinpricks of color climbing a distant mountain of sandstone. I trudged across the dirt and rock, the cold wind snapping at my jeans, the weak sun gamely shining but warming little. The only sound was the wind and my crunchy footfalls, and I gazed around myself at the harsh, dazzling expanse of dust, rock, and blazing blue sky. Saudi Arabia. Curious and surreal. 

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Al Tayibat Museum (Jeddah)

By Shannon

Abu Halen took me to a museum today, which is a big thing because it doesn’t happen very often. He’s not a fan of museums, but as he ages he seems to have become more persuadable about things like this. Museums, and onions. Frankly, the onions are a bigger victory than the museum visits, because I use them constantly, and they make food so much tastier.

This museum we visited is called Al Tayibat. I’d say it’s housed in a mansion, but I think it’s too big for that descriptor. So instead I’ll say it’s housed in a really fancy, old-fashioned Arab complex. Only part of the complex belongs to the museum. The other part is for a Koranic school. Al Tayibat’s exterior woodwork is impressive and deserves a decent half hour of admiration. The interior is divided into about 300 rooms that are crammed with stuff, in a way that makes you wonder whether the curator is one of those people who has lots of wildly creative and sometimes promising ideas but lacks follow-through. So walls are covered in anachronistic collages of modern art mixed with traditional art mixed with bright flower wall stencils mixed with photos from the early 20th century. The old Bedouin attire—even men’s clothing—is displayed on headless female mannequin bodies (sometimes with scant wigs sticking out from under the head coverings).

This museum is not just a glimpse into the past, it’s a glimpse into someone’s really eclectic mind. So it’s fascinating on a few levels. Some of the rooms, like the Koran room, are well designed. So is the room that displays embroidered textiles that once adorned the Kaaba. The hall of ancient vessels is also remarkable, with pieces from across the Middle East that range in age from the 800s AD to the 1950s (and those two pieces, of course, are displayed next to each other, at the shadowy bottom of a display case).

My favorite floor groups artifacts by region—there’s a room for Riyadh, where you feel like you’re walking into a tent where a bunch of headless and lethargic Beduin are having tea. The Jeddah room is laid out like a simple mud home, with one side for the headless men and another for the headless women. (Honestly, I preferred headlessness: tooling around the simulated homes would have been much creepier if mannequins had been staring me down.) The best rooms are those for the southern Hijaz, around Abha. This is the most colorful region in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, it’s perhaps the most attractive to Westerners. The homes are colorful too, their interiors painted in bright and intricate designs. It was in the Abha rooms that Abu Halen snapped a shot of garlic and onion braids in the light. . . . Which brings us back to our oniony beginning to close this blog post with a bit of random poetics.

Stupid Gibbous Moon (or "Decomposing Sheep Make It Hard to Sleep")

I thought only full moons were bright, but it turns out waxing gibbous moons are really bright too. We've pulled off a lonely ribbon of highway and followed a track of packed sand into the desert, where we pitched our tent in the shade of a wiry acacia tree. We're 55 miles east of Jeddah in the dark, rocky hills -- me and Savannah and Halen and Grace. We came to see the stars splashed across the navy sky, but the stupid gibbous moon is afire with pale, ghostly light that drowns out the soft glow of far off suns and brown dwarves and supernovas and planets and comets.

Our campsite. Good riddance, sun.
I'm staring out the screened tent window at the rocks and the acacia trees, at the surprisingly hard shadows they're throwing against the sallow sand in the fierce moonlight. Three little bodies are slumped around me. Their breathing is even. They're sleeping like babies -- like slightly elongated babies that can talk and frequently exhibit reasoning skills superior to my own.

We told each other scary stories an hour ago. Grace's was probably the worst ghost story I've ever heard. Something about these two brothers making a scarecrow named Gerald and smearing food all over its face (to repel crows?), and then they throw Gerald on the roof but later Gerald jumps off the roof (I guess Gerald came to life?) and kills one of the brothers. I guess that was supposed to be the scary part, but I laughed when I pictured a limp, stuffed scarecrow with yogurt all over its face, falling off a roof and smothering an unsuspecting guy who happened to be walking by. Grace indignantly demanded what was so funny about her scary story, and I lied that I had rolled over onto the flashlight and it had tickled me. My scary story about skinwalkers didn't really phase the kids, who fell asleep as I told it, but I kind of scared myself and that's probably why I'm sitting, hugging my knees, staring off at the Saudi Arabian desert, making sure no native American warlocks come and eat my children. What can I say. I'm a good dad.

The day was scorching and the darkness is slow to bring relief. We spent a few hours in the shade of the tent, just talking, waiting for the sun to go away behind the curve of the earth. I had hoped that the conversation would turn to the spiritual, that something about the silence would awaken within my children their sense of the profound. But all we got was yogurt-faced Gerald and an argument over pretzels and a monologue from Halen about monster trucks.

I listen to their breathing and I wonder what they'll remember about their youth. And I wonder if the small sacrifices that dads make -- like sleeping on a weird Coleman sleeping pad that blows up like a huge tube of toothpaste instead of a soft, sleek, oversized stick of gum (no, seriously, imagine trying to sleep on top of a big, rolley-poley tube of Aquafresh and then tell me with a straight face I'm not hecka-rad) -- mean anything thirty years later.

But memories are funny things, they way we remember the smallest gestures. Once my dad took me camping at Lost Lake. He wasn't much of a camper, and he wasn't a big talker either -- I think Mom made him take me. I was 11 or 12 and she probably thought if I didn't get some good male role-modeling I was going to start listening to Motley Crue and snorting Pixie Stix like the other boys at school. I remember rolling away in Dad's Dodge Omni, Mom on the curb smiling broadly and waving, and I looked over at Dad and he had this painted on grin, like he was driving somewhere to have his fingernails peeled off but Mom told him he better have fun or else. And I don't blame him -- now that I'm a grownup the thought of spending 24 hours alone with an 11 year-old kid sounds really, really bad. But I didn't comprehend his pained smile back then. All I knew was me and Dad were going camping, and it was this high point of my pre-adolescence for me, along with those torchy ballads Michael Bolton used to bust out.

So I lay back on my giant tube of toothpaste and I try to keep from rolling off, and the moonlight burns through the nylon above and it bathes me and my sleeping kids in pallid halos. And I hope the children won't remember setting up the tent in triple-digit temperatures, and I hope they won't remember that when they excitedly asked "So can we roast hot dogs?"that I answered, "No, I don't know how to start a fire. But here is an apple and a juice box and that's all you're getting till we get home tomorrow." And I hope they won't remember that we pitched our tent downwind of an animal carcass dump full of dead goats in various stages of decomposition. I hope their little brains only remember the silent night and the cool breeze and Dad's undivided -- if slightly reluctant -- attention. And my big muscles.

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Squatty Potties

“The only bad thing about road trips,” S declared from the backseat of the car, “is the squatty potties.”

After shouting out an amen, I turned to Abu Halen to muse on how remarkable it was that S had nothing bad to say about the incessant heat, the greasy food, the dull scenery, or the mothball-stinking hotel rooms. I do believe that S is becoming an optimist!

Pyramid perchers.
You can’t blame the child for dreading urination on road trips. We had just taken a late lunch, and the girls had done all they could to delay a bathroom trip. When it became apparent that delay was no longer feasible, I asked the waiter where we could find a bathroom. Gesturing apologetically at his sweltering cafe, he said there was no place for women here, but I could find a bathroom in the mosque.

The mosque was a long, hot walk from the restaurant. At the back was a sign that indicated the women’s entrance. Here we found the bathrooms. Although I took it as a good sign that a woman was just finishing cleaning the stalls when we arrived, my girls thought otherwise. Suddenly the two older ones insisted that they miraculously had no need to pee. Although she couldn’t actually articulate as much, T was doubtlessly saying a silent prayer of gratitude for her diaper.

Peeing in a hole is a daunting task for girls. That is, it’s daunting for girls who have spent a charmed life on a pedestal toilet. For them, a squatty potty is little more than a crapshoot. Their protests were to be expected.

Not in the mood for resistance, however, I snarled, “We are not leaving this bathroom until you have both peed!” G, predictably, was the first to bend to my will. The two of us squeezed into a stall, and after several awkward minutes of verbal coaching, threatening, and maneuvering, she ultimately succeeded in peeing in the hole without peeing on herself. But although I used the same strategy for S, holding her hands as she leaned back over the hole, her pants ended up soaked.

I was just about to put on my “well, life sometimes sucks” expression and hustle S out of the stall when her face crumbled in shame. Compassion got the best of me and I agreed to get her a change of clothes. Wet pants could be gotten away with when she was five, but at age ten the game was different. So I left my youngest three kids in the care of a cat sleeping in the doorway with her sickly kittens.

Striding across the parking lot, I struggled to keep my abaya from unsnapping at my knees. It whipped at
my ankles angrily, and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. Avoiding the gazes of men who were no doubt wondering where my guardian was, I pressed on to the car.

Climbing inelegantly into the back of the Suburban and not caring much about displaying my bum to bystanders, I rifled through the luggage until I located S’s bag. Predictably, it was at the very bottom of the trunk. But it contained what I was looking for: a blessed change of clothes.

I would not have gone through all that trouble for anyone I didn’t love. But I also wouldn’t have wanted to be S at that moment, waiting patiently in a strange, hot, smelly bathroom in wet pants. The fact that she waited patiently is one of the reasons I love her. And when I handed her the dry change of clothes, she knew that I love her.

Half an hour later, we reemerged into the cafe where Abu Halen was (still) chatting up the waiter. After gulping down a bottle of water, I announced, “You have to do all of the hard stuff for the rest of the day, honey. I am on vacation now.”

Vacations got a lot easier for us girls as soon as I spotted (and snapped up) one of these babies at our local grocery store. Except, ours doesn't have a bag underneath it. Sand is a much better receptacle. :)

Hero Dad (or "Mogwai Fear Caesar")

There is a place where the Saudi highway leaves street lamps and garish city lights far behind. Where it streaks through the sand and the rocks, hurtling into the puny circle of your headlights and under your blurry tires, then dissolves into inky oblivion in the blackness you leave behind. Where the only light dribbles from the dashboard and the night is a veil, and you wear it like a widow.

It's alright. He moves in mysterious ways.
This is where Grace announces to everyone in the speeding car, "Let's play 'I Spy'!"

"Okay!" Savannah squeals. "Cool!" says Halen.

"I spy with my little eye..." Grace sings slowly, "... somethinnnnnnggggggg... black." Shannon and I glance at each other with arched eyebrows, glances that, for the intense darkness, you sense more than you see.

"The sky!" Savannah shouts.

"Dang," Grace sighs. "You got it."


I've never been to this town that clings to the lip of mountain walls that plunge thousands of feet to narrow valleys below, but I'm driving the strange, winding streets in the dark looking for a Little Caesar's. My kids have been eating limp french fries and iffy chicken since yesterday morning, so when they saw a flyer covered with Arabic script that nonetheless showed the little Roman pizza-eating munchkin, they focused like little lasers on their sudden hankering for Pizza! Pizza!

And I secretly sort of want to be a hero dad. You know, the kind that will strike out into the night in a strange, lumpy town strewn over sharp hills and sudden troughs, with meandering, serpentine roads, searching for American pizza for his children who are stuck in a sketchy motel in a city full of people who don't dress or talk like them.

It's 8:30 when the kid at the front desk of the motel gives me directions to Little Caesar's. He points and draws loops in the air, incomprehensible Arabic words dripping from his mouth. I catch "right" and "left" a few times. He also says "U-turn" and, I think, "international conference." It could also have been "chaotic intersection." It's hard to be sure in the heat of the moment.

Saudi dudes.
The air is un-Saudi-like here at 6,000 feet, dry and cool. I roll down the car windows for the first time since arriving in the Kingdom a year ago. I weave through the traffic. I pop on some Mogwai. I realize I am quite possibly the first person to ever listen to Mogwai in this town, especially at a stoplight with the windows rolled down. This realization fills me with an irrational and overinflated sense of pioneer-ness.

I circle town a few times before I happen upon Little Caesar's, quite by accident. It's a busy weekend night and the lobby is full of thobes. I wait for my pizza for 45 minutes. The satellite signal on the lobby television is poor, so the news anchor keeps freezing and his face keeps pixelating. Bearded men carelessly cut in front of one another in line, angling for the counter. The South Asian cashier serves whomever is most in his face at any given time.

Two hours later I return back to the motel for a hero's welcome. Everyone is asleep. Except Savannah. So me and Savannah sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, eating pizza and chugging the Pepsi straight from the bottle. We don't say much. She doesn't have to tell me how amazing I am -- I can tell how she feels about me by the way she tosses the crust in the pizza box and gives me a little grin before rolling over to go to sleep. It's the little things.


Saudi chicks.
We're still two hours east of Jeddah atop the gnarled mountains that mark the eastern rim of the Great Rift Valley. It's noontime in Taif, a town high above the sweltering seaside plains, where men in suits and ties and thobes and shmaghs ended Lebanon's civil war in the early-1990s over tea and coffee. We stop for juice boxes and cookies in a gas station on the outskirts of town. Halen says he has to go to the bathroom.

So we amble through the candy wrapper-strewn parking lot toward a dirty little mosque in a grimy corner of the parking lot. I've lived in Saudi Arabia long enough now that I know that the muddy bathrooms are always near the mosques. The call to prayer crackles from its squat old minaret, slightly grating, as if the muezzin is leaning too close to the mike. We're a long way from the smooth, haunting prayer song recordings of the upscale neighborhoods of Jeddah, and I think for some reason of the contrast between the biblical Pharisee, well-dressed and prayerfully boasting of the size of his offerings, and the publican who stares at his shoes, smites his breast, and mumbles a plea for mercy. This is the kind of parking lot -- the kind of tumbledown house of worship -- where I can picture the publican with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the dust, hoping for salvation to come from somewhere more likely.

Halen and I cross a tiny alcove on the way to the bathroom and the door to the little mosque is wide open. The prayer call has long since ceased and I expect to see the room full of all the men who 10 minutes ago were milling about the parking lot, meandering the aisles of the mini market, all the men who scattered and disappeared at the first notes of the prayer call. But they're not here. There's only one man near the front of the room, prostrate, forehead buried in the faded and torn carpet.

He's alone in the empty mosque and he doesn't know anyone is watching. And I suppose it's these two facts that make me figure, as me and Halen quietly move away, that today this mosque is a pretty likely place to find some kind of salvation.

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Dhee Ein or Thee Ain or The Ayn

Last weekend's trip took us several hours’ drive south of Jeddah, to some hot springs near Al Leeth, on to Dhee Ayn and Al Baha, and then back through Ta’if on the return trip. Dhee Ayn was the star of the trip. Set in the mountains, this village is about 400 years old, was built on a marble escarpment, and was abandoned only about 40 years ago.

Dhee Ein, 2013
The village’s setting is dramatic. With forbidding mountains all around, this cluster of houses towers above an oasis that owes its surprising greenness to a spring at the base of the escarpment. The spring supplies water for carefully tended fields of palm trees, banana trees, and herbs. The fields would have been the source of the village’s wealth as well as the bait for raiders in the region.

The ancients would have chosen this particular location not only for the oasis but also for the escarpment’s view of the surrounding countryside. From the rooftops of the ruins, we could hear the raucous screams of baboons and see them fighting near the spring below. From this view, the people would also have been able to spot enemies and sound the alarm for workers to hurry in from the fields. I’ve read that mountaintop villages such as this are evidence of societies with weak or nonexistent central governments and a high degree of fragmentation and lawlessness: although living on the plains would be much more convenient for agricultural populations, height provides a critical defensive advantage.

The village’s multistory houses are marvelous. Apparently constructed with little or no mortar or mud, they are simply slate stones laid one atop another. Roughly hewn timbers run crossways to form floor beams and lend some stability to the stone structures. On these the ancient builders laid floors of flagstone. The houses often have three such levels as well as a serviceable rooftop.

To the modern eye the village looks thrillingly precarious, which makes it all the more amazing that these houses have survived so many centuries. Even more marvelous for a site this old is that many of the wooden doors and shutters are still intact—not yet carried away by archaeological poachers or museums. Much of the wood is carved, but very little of the stone is engraved, evidencing the unsophisticated (but no less fascinating!) nature of this village’s culture.

Dhee Ein, 2013
Despite temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, numerous Saudi tourists were exploring Dhee Ayn on the afternoon we visited. I had to continually warn the kids, however, to watch their step, to stay away from the precipices, and to keep out of the bat-infested houses. Although the government has obviously invested a great deal to renovate the ruins, they’re still very dangerous for the unwary. Tourism is still a fledgling industry in Saudi Arabia.

The kids loved exploring the place as much as I did. They’re starting to get really good at noticing exciting little details about ruins that tell us about the people who lived there. S pointed out a painted carving in some floor beams. H called out the things he could see from progressively higher levels of the village.

My kids, indefatigable, wanted to go to the very top. We were among the few tourists who ventured that high, and everyone stared at me when I passed them—perhaps because my “guardian” was not with me (he had taken one of our girls back to the car to rest) or because I was a woman who appeared to be enjoying physical exertion or because I was wearing both a camera and a babycarrier with a 2-year-old in it or because I was looked a little scandalous for wearing only an abaya and a headscarf but no face covering. By the time we all arrived at the top of the mountain, the kids and I had the view to ourselves, and I was completely soaked in sweat. . . . So I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.

Best Saudi Wedding Ever (Shannon's Take)

A few nights before Grace’s birthday party (to which I had invited six families), I had a nightmare. Elbow-deep in a bowl of something-or-other that I was preparing, I realized that my guests were already arriving. In formal attire. To my horror, there was no way I’d be able to serve them anything anytime soon, and I wasn’t even sure I had everything I needed. For that matter, I couldn’t remember what I had planned to make. I woke up in a cold sweat.

It’s a good thing I’m not Arab; I don’t think I have the mental constitution to throw big parties like the wedding we attended recently. The first Arab wedding I attended was in Syria in 2004. I was new to the Middle East back then, fresh out of Utah, where wedding receptions are held in church gyms that have bouquets stuffed into basketball hoops and where the catering is done by burnt-out extended relatives who wish they had smaller families on occasions like this. So I showed up to this Syrian wedding in a denim skirt and t-shirt.

Wedding drums. Not as cool as Zeppelin, but decent.
I’m sure my appearance tested the boundless graciousness of my Syrian hosts, although they never gave any sign of noticing. They wore tailor-made sequined gowns, in colors so bright that I had never thought I’d see them draped over a human being. It was like a ballroom dance convention with quite a few women who were not exactly light of foot anymore . . . and without any men to serve as dancing partners, because mingling of the sexes is against the rules.

So now this little account has gone from my dreams to Syria, and I’m bringing you back to Saudi Arabia, and once again in the middle of the night. This time I’m the one in the sparkling dress, in the car, wondering if we’re ever going to find this promised wedding hall, willing myself not to nod off, trying to decide if it would be rude to give up and go home, thinking it a little strange that we’re going to such lengths to please a host we met casually at a carwash, reminding myself that I’ll probably never get another chance to see what a Saudi wedding is like. 

Abu Halen dropped me off at the women’s party, which was on the opposite side of the building from the men’s party. The women’s doors stood behind a stained-glass privacy wall. When I entered, I removed my veil and abaya, handing it to a Filipina woman behind a counter who guessed that I was American. She whispered it to one of the servers, who then sized me up with an expression that was either awe or pity—I’m still not sure which it was.

I knew no one at the party, but Abu Halen had assured me that these were wealthy Saudis—there were likely to be numerous English speakers in the crowd. There probably were. But I didn’t feel comfortable trying to introduce myself to strangers who might or might not speak English. What would they even do if I approached them? Saudi culture is very closed—in the year that I’ve lived here, this was the first time I had ever seen a Saudi woman without a veil and abaya. Given the warm hospitality I have experienced in other Arab countries, I have found it strange that I don’t know a single Saudi personally here. At least among Saudi women, friendships and kinships allow very little room for inclusion of foreigners.

The women and girls all wore elaborate ball gowns. Even babies sported fancy dresses, like these. Women who sat in the chairs and couches that lined the entrance to the ballroom wore their hair in painstakingly sculpted confections. I slipped through the group quietly as they busied themselves greeting others who were entering the room. They smiled and exchanged cheek kisses, which for an American are a social conundrum, especially when you realize that the number and location of expected kisses differs from country to country—I always fear that I’ll mess it up and accidentally end up kissing someone’s mouth. Gross. Here the women exchanged a time-consuming (but most probably sincere) five kisses on a single cheek! Occasionally I saw them throw in a bonus kiss for the neglected cheek.

I made my way to the back of the ballroom and located a table that was mostly unpopulated. Making a gesture at an empty chair, I asked the women (or perhaps girls—everyone was wearing so much makeup that age was hard to estimate) if I could join them. They kindly obliged but seemed a little confused since they didn’t know me. But they offered me a small glass of coffee, which I accepted and set amicably on the table before me. It took only a couple of exchanges before the women and I realized that communication was just not going to work for us—they spoke no English, and I spoke only a smidgen of rusty Arabic (and nothing of the Saudi dialect).

Although I felt badly that I was probably making them uncomfortable because I had no friends, I truly was happy just to be able to sit quietly and observe the crowd of women interacting. There was a lot of kissing, ululating, and dancing. All but the oldest women were unveiled. The aged women wore transparent lace veils in black or white.

A Filipina servant wandered among the tables carrying a brazier of smoking incense, and soon I was immersed in the scent. The female singer at the front of the room sang traditional Saudi melodies to recorded music dominated by drums and stringed instruments. In the middle of the room was a platform that extended from the stage to the center of the ballroom. Here women—mostly young women—danced to celebrate the day’s wedding, their arms suspended delicately below shoulder level, their hands gesturing or holding delicate poses, their hips swaying and dipping gently when the heaviest drum beat fell in the musical rhythm.

Servants distributed fruit juices while Saudi young women carried around trays of sweet-meat pastries and chocolates. Abu Halen texted me on his phone at this point, saying they had already finished a meal and the men were leaving. Amazed at our good fortune at being able to leave less than an hour after we had arrived, I made my way out of the ballroom, exchanged my wardrobe ticket for my abaya, covered myself again in modest black, and stepped out into the night. It was as perfect a wedding as I’ve ever been to in the Middle East. 

Chimps and Bare-handed Gluttony (or "Best Wedding Ever")

We were late for the Saudi wedding. Reeeeeeeally late. Festivities started at 9:00. I thought we'd be fashionably late, maybe saunter in at 10. I hate being the stupid, prompt American who shows up right on time and sits around for an hour until someone comes to turn the lights on. So instead we were the ultra cool Americans who sauntered in a half hour before everyone went home, about three hours late. What can I say -- this is how we roll at our house. Things don't start hopping for Abu Halen until around midnight. And by "hopping," I mean "entering REM sleep."

We probably would've been on time if my friend -- the host -- had given us decent directions. Or, alternatively, we probably would've been on time if Abu Halen understood Arabic better. It turns out that driving directions are quite challenging to follow in a foreign language, particularly when you don't know the foreign language.

But... ma'alish (rough translation: "nyeh"). We arrived when we arrived. I dropped Shannon off at the ladies entrance. A screen blocked the door, and a guy in a sweaty polo shirt sat on a stool just in front of the screen, ensuring no men entered, or perhaps ensuring no women exited, or perhaps he was just an enterprising passerby dude who had pulled up a chair and just sat there scoping the ladies as they came and went, or, more accurately, scoping lumps of black polyester as they came and went, imagining that somewhere in the folds was a female, maybe. Could be a chimp. Tough to tell for sure.

I entered the men's side at about midnight, right when the meal was starting. In the large dining hall most tables were already filled with chattering men in white thobes. I didn't know anybody, and I realized that this was like 8th grade lunches all over again -- I was going to have to just find a table and sit down and hope that nobody punched me or called me inappropriate names, like "stupid head."

That was when I saw it. A table at the far end of the room with two dudes sitting across from each other, elbows on the table, silently and aggressively digging into the common platter of rice and chicken with their bare hands. I wanted to sit there. No stupid chit chat. No utensils. No nonsense. Just chicken. And rice. So I pulled up a chair and as I rolled up my sleeves one of the dudes grunted at me and nodded toward an unopened can of Pepsi. I nodded back, popped the top, and slammed me some cola to, you know, whet my palette. Then I grabbed a handful of rice and slurped it and sucked it and swallowed it and slopped it all over the table. Then, after twenty minutes of vigorous gluttony, we just kind of got up and quietly went home. Chimps and bare-handed gluttony. Best wedding ever. 

"What an Adventure!" and Other Euphemisms

Happy Bangladeshi guy

When we first announced that we would be serving our first Foreign Service tour in Saudi Arabia, people would invariably respond, “What an adventure!” That, of course was a euphemism for “Wow, that’s really going to suck!” Most people don’t want to tell you that the next couple of years life are going to be crappy; they want to spare your feelings. And bless their hearts for that.

I do the same. Just before we last left the States, I met a couple that was bound for Abuja, Nigeria. Abuja had also been on our bid list, so Joey and I had researched it extensively. And you know I responded, “Wow, what an adventure, huh?”

That “huh?” was strategic. Unless you’re talking to someone who has Asperger’s, a “huh?” turns the conversation back over to the other person so that you have time to gather some positive thoughts that will temporarily allay their misgivings about their bad luck.

Euphemisms are important social tools. We hear them all the time, although I find that they differ somewhat by region and culture.

Old City, Jeddah
For example, when we moved from Utah to Virginia, every time I went out in public with my four children, complete strangers would say (with this exact phrasing!): “You have your hands full, don’t you?” And that of course meant, “You have reproduced more times than our society deems is normal. It’s only fair that you’re being publicly humiliated and/or exasperated by your children right now.”

But I knew they meant well, of course, because they tagged that “don’t you?” to the end of their question so that I would nod and we’d both feel solidarity in our mutual agreement. Then I’d at least have that cheery feeling of camaraderie to get me through the next few minutes of hell with my kids. . . . And that’s thoughtful in it’s own way, you know?

In all honesty, I’m not offended by any of these euphemisms. Yes, they’re easily deconstructed in an “I’m Eeyore the Postmodernist” kind of way, but they reveal a good heart.

Eeyore was not a healthy donkey although he was surrounded with wonderful friends (one of whom showed commendable resilience despite being named “Pooh”). It’s much better—and much healthier for everyone—to laugh than to take offense. One of the really wonderful things about human existence is that we get to choose our responses to life, wherever it happens to take us.

Road Trips, in Disguise

When we take road trips, Joey and I go in our traveling disguises—he in his thobe and I in my abaya. It’s not that we’re bashful about being Americans on an adventure in Saudi Arabia. . . . Well, maybe it is, actually.

When we’re out, we’re happy to be mistaken for Jordanians, Syrians, Turks, or (as a last resort) Canadians—because everybody likes Canadians. So I suffer my abaya to slap my ankles while I wander. I bear the desert heat in my black polyester. I swap my bad hair days for bad headscarf days—windy days are the worst, in case you were wondering.

Last week we explored the hill country around Ta’if, a nearby fertile area with ancient agricultural roots. Ta’if is home to a population of indigenous baboons. We met a group of them when we came to a roadblock on the way to Ta’if and had to stop to figure out an alternate route.

We watched the baboons from the car, because you never know when one of those guys is going to realize you’re not a baboon and rip your face off or steal your baby or something. And when you’re a mom, you think about things like this.

The kids were alternately fascinated and repulsed by the baboons. They liked watching the mothers with their young but were disturbed by all of the bare red behinds.

We wanted some pictures, so we threw some banana peels to the baboons. Joey expected the baboons to turn up their noses at our garbage, but the peels turned out to be food worth arguing over. The winner, predictably, was the baboon sheikh. He was the biggest and meanest of the group, swatting away the young ones when they came to beg for scraps.

Harsh as their environment was, I don’t think the females in the group minded the ill temper of their leader. His ill temper is likely part of what makes him a good protector for them and their babies. Gentle, peace-loving males aren't so prised in their culture as they are in mine. 

As the sun began to sink into the west, we decided to stop at a park of sorts, where the locals were paying to ride 4-wheelers and ponies and camels. Events like this are still to be found in countries where parents don’t sue people every time their 4-year-old has a head-on collision with a 16-year-old on a 4-wheeler.

Halen was super excited to join the mayhem. But he was definitely the white boy on the playing field, making conservative turns while the boys and girls around him sped and spun and swerved with abandon.

Marveling at how the girls managed to keep their veils on and dared to show their ankles on the 4-wheelers, I pulled out my paper sack of coal-roasted corn on the cob. It tasted kind of like chewey, dry, ash-covered corn (because that’s precisely what it was), but it didn’t matter because I was being Zen with the moment. And the black ash flakes from the corn were being Zen with my teeth.

A guy came by with a horse and some ponies, and I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. Maybe because he felt bad about abusing his animals, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. Or maybe because I had black stuff in my teeth. I stopped smiling, to make him feel better, and then I paid him to take my girls for a ride.

The pony guy introduced us to the camel guy, who also abused his animal, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. He got a buck out of us too, and then he introduced us to the carriage guy. And the whole evening went on and on like this until finally we were exhausted enough to take our leave of the locals we had become one with and then head back to the hotel.

There, as I took off my abaya and head scarf that had undoubtedly convinced the locals that I was indigenous, I realized that my son had been walking around all day in a red T-shirt that sported a big Mickey Mouse and the words “All American.” I was disturbed. You would think that as a mom, I would notice things like what radical nationalism my kids are advertising on their clothing. You would also think that as a mom, I would double-check that my son had packed a change of clothes for our over-night trip.

You would think. But you know what, although clothing can disguise us, it can’t black out our differences. Far though we might wander into the wilderness, we are still Americans, looking out at the world from within our safe(ish) and shiny(ish) car. We’re both fascinated and disturbed by what we see—partly because it’s different and partly because it’s eerily similar. And I suppose that the locals are both disturbed and fascinated by us.

Many might disagree, but I think differences are okay. God created the world by setting up differences between earth and sea, between light and darkness, between sun and stars and moon. The whole world needs differences. Really, they’re what makes the world beautiful. Ignoring or trying to break down our differences is in some sense a transgression against nature. I’m content to wear disguises when necessary, but they don't stop me from looking on with wonder at the world I see.

On Pure Religion, Undefiled

The first call for the noon prayer moans out of a mosque somewhere below us, to the west, toward the sea. Another call rises from the south, then another and another. Thousands of minarets jut upward from Jeddah's skin like broken bones, and suddenly they're all aflame with song. A cacophony of musical calls is crashing and colliding and congealing and climbing up the walls of this old, leaning tower, spilling through the twenty-two glassless windows that encircle the small unfurnished room where we sit at the tower's tiptop, washing over the faded, intricate carpet, the cushions that line the walls.

Kilmuir, Isle of Skye, Scotland. 2010.
The union of countless prayer calls keeps swelling and it fills the room, and I swear it's the power of the song and not the breeze that's making the lanterns hanging from the ceiling sway, and it's like the call has filled the city and there's nowhere left for it to go but up. So it ascends. It slams against the bottom of the blue sky and percolates upward, heedless of gravity, encircling the hot sun and singing straight through the stratosphere where the air is thin. And I imagine the call careening through the universe looking for God. And wherever he is, it finds him. Today, this call, it finds him. It's not the dissonent, groaning pitch to prove your piety to your neighbor that sometimes seems to fill the streets of this city. Today, it's a plea, a petition. And it finds him.

We're quiet in the high leaning tower as the call dies. All we can hear now are insistent zephyrs pushing past the empty-palmed window frames. The fabric on someone's blouse flaps. The old man with the feral beard and the bald head unscrews the lid on his water bottle. We're four Muslims, two agnostics, three Christians. Six Americans, a Saudi, a Sudanese, a German. Six men, three women. But drawing dividing lines seems silly somehow.

The Muslims rise for their prayer. An American cardiologist. A Sudanese mapmaker. An American law professor. An old Saudi sheikh. The rest of us just watch. At any other time, on any other day, watching people of another faith pray would feel really weird. But today, somehow it's not weird. We sit on the floor, leaning against the cushions that line the old walls. The Muslims lightly and easily banter as they decide who is supposed to be the imam for the group. Somehow it ends up being the young Sudanese guy. They line up. The Saudi corrects the group's direction, pointing them more squarely toward Mecca, forty miles away. And they pray. Four or five feet from the rest of us. And we watch. Without academic interest or judgment or analytic reasoning or even polite curiosity. Somehow, what's happening is matter-of-fact -- religion and agnosticism don't matter here and now. It's not surprising and it's not suspicious and it's not childish. It just is. And we sit there and we watch people talk to God.

And I'm reminded that the Bible talks at one point about "pure religion, undefiled." And I suppose that's what I'm seeing. And I start to think, I start to reason, to try to figure out what this means in terms of Us and Them, in terms of doctrine and dogma, in terms of Christianity and Islam and atheism and every other means of interfacing with or flat out ignoring the cosmos. But then I do something kind of smart -- I stop thinking. And for a little while I don't worry about who God hears and who he doesn't. He's hearing these people at this moment. That's all I know right now. And it's enough.

White Trash Scuba Diver (or "Good Luck Moving Up, Cuz I'm Moving Out")

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I am so uncultured that the first time I heard this idiom was in a Billy Joel song. I was like, "Wow, that Billy Joel, he really comes up with some good ones. First he talks about how, if buying a house out in Hackensack is moving up, then he's moving out. And now this whole Rome thing!"

I've never been to Rome. Nor Hackensack. But I've been to Jeddah. And what applies in Rome must apply in Jeddah too, so since I'm in Jeddah, I decided to do as the Jeddawis do. Learn how to scuba dive.

"Is that a pygmy kraken? I want to touch it, and maybe eat it."
There's a guy who gives scuba lessons who chain smokes and respirates on Starbucks coffee. But he doesn't charge much for lessons and he's got big muscles, so at least I know if I'm attacked underwater by a kraken, my instructor can flex his muscles before he gets eaten. I think krakens are super scary. So are dolphins, because they are always smiling. You can't trust things that smile all the time, like Chucky.

I probably will never see a kraken though. I'm not allowed to dive deeper than 60 feet, because I'm a beginner. It's like how when you're a little kid your parents take you to cool places, like a Gloria Estefan concert, but they keep you on a leash. Maybe it's one of those leashes attached to a cute backpack shaped like a monkey, but, I'm not stupid Mom, it's still a leash. I'm not certain, because Wikipedia is silent on the matter, but I think krakens live deeper than 60 feet. But if one ever comes up to attack me, it's no big deal, because even if my muscled instructor gets eaten, we're required to carry "dive knives" with us -- to cut seaweed or prick our fingers to attract interesting sharks -- and I could probably just stab the kraken in the arm, or maybe several arms if I wanted, and it'd probably flee in pain.

My scuba teacher made me watch three or four hours worth of DVD instruction on how to safely dive. The videos mostly advise you to fill your tank with oxygen and not other things, like rum, to not stick your hand in dark holes underwater (could be kraken babies in there), and to make sure injured divers are not underwater, and preferably on land, before you start to give them CPR. I learned some less intuitive things too, like that if you surface and your boat is gone, you shouldn't panic.

My first "open water dive," under the supervision of my instructor, was in the Red Sea at a kind of ghetto beach. I stood there at the edge of the rock shelf, my flippers hanging over the edge, my nerdy yellow goggles on, sporting a borrowed white Fila t-shirt under my inflatable floatation vest so the vest wouldn't chafe me, and a pair of faded swim trunks. I looked like a white trash scuba diver. The instructor told me to jump in, but it looked to me like the water was only three or four feet deep. "Are you sure?" I told him. "It looks like the water's only a few feet deep." "Trust me," he said. So I took a giant step out into the sea. Aaaaaand it was only three or four feet deep. Last time I trust a chain smoker.

We spent about 45 minutes tooling around, only a few dozen feet from shore. But the coral plateaus dropped away not ten feet offshore, forming ridges and deep canyons that we navigated, surrounded by colorful tropical fish. It was super fun. I saw an octopus. And an old muffler. And several lionfish. I was like Jacque Cousteau. But without the silly name. 

A Rest(ish) Area in Saudi Arabia

It was a long ride home from Mada’in Saleh.  We had taken two days to drive there, but we decided to make the return trip in one day. Some hours after what we told the kids would be our last potty break, Grace said she needed to pee. Halen seconded her.

Potty breaks are easily the worst aspect of road tripping in the Middle East. Going on four years living in various countries in the region, I’m still undecided whether it’s worse to pee along the side of the road or in an actual restroom (or an actual excuse for a restroom). I personally have evolved a voluminous bladder so that I don’t have to ponder on that dilemma very often. My children unfortunately inherited Joey's blunder--I mean bladder.

We found this crazy dried mud at one of our rest stops.
Joey slowed the car from our 95-mile-an-hour cruising speed and pulled off the side of the road. To avoid drawing attention, he shut off the car lights too.

“Where are we?” Grace asked tremulously as she stepped out of the car.

“Oh, this is the middle of absolutely nowhere,” I assured her. “You get to pee on the other side of the front door of the car. Come here, sweetie.”

I’ve finally figured out how to help my daughters pee al naturale without soaking themselves and me. Grace is a champ at this method, which involves looking up at the sky while I hold her hands to keep her from falling backwards. "Wow," she said.

"I know--you really did need to pee, didn't you, honey?"

"No, not that, Mommy," she said, rolling her eyes (at least that's what I guessed she was doing in the near total darkness). "Look!" Grace intoned, pointing upward.

"Oh, wow!" I smiled. “Grace, that’s what stars look like when you’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere.” We all stood there gazing at them for the longest time.

It was one of those moments where the age difference between parents and children suddenly becomes insignificant, and all of us feel like equally awestruck juveniles. It was real joy.