Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday, March 10 - Hi Honey, I'm Home!!!

That's the way it felt when I arrived in Saudi Arabia. I felt like I had come home. Actually, it's 10pm here on Tues. night, and I'm finally finding the time to write. Lucy and I left Phoenix and flew to Minneapolis, then to Amsterdam, and then to Dammam. When I left Arabia 15 years ago (August 1994) the Dammam airport was not built yet. We had always flown into the Dhahran airport, but now that airport is used only for military purposes. We landed in Dammam and it took us an hour and 45 minutes to clear immigration. My first reminder of what life used to be like! A large group (several hundred) people had just landed from Sri Lanka. A lot of women...probably coming here to be house maids. I hated looking at them and thinking about the life that they had facing them, although maybe they will have a good life with a good family. But actually, my heart breaks for them, and I thought of how they were probably not married, and would not know family life, but only the life of a servant in order to earn money. But maybe they were one of the lucky ones...to leave their country and get to have a good job here. Regardless, there were a lot of Sri Lanka women waiting in the line next to us. When we approached the immigration officer we had to do fingerprinting, and get our photos taken. Of course, this was my first time coming into Saudi Arabia as a single woman. We are staying with Mike and Debbie Larsen (a family we knew from before when we lived here.) Mike had arranged to have a driver, Sheik, a Pakistani, pick us up from the airport. So Lucy and I walked out into the large area of the airport, being met by hundreds of men with dark skin and black hair, mostly Indians, Pakistanis and of course, Arabs. We certainly stood out as two blondes. I turned to her and said, "Dang Lucy, look at all the people who are so happy to see us!" Right away Sheik found us and we found him standing there holding a large pink sign that said, "Karen and Lucy". We followed him to his van, and as we left the airport and felt that warm Arabian air, oh my gosh, I felt like I had come home! I have had tons of mixed emotions that it is a bit hard to write some of it. When I lived in Arabia I was married and had a family. Our life was spent with sports, family life, church friends, hobbies, and travel. Mark had a good job, and I never worried about money or really about much at all. I realize now that those were really the best days of my life, but I didn't realize it back then. I feel like this is my reality, and the past 15 years have been a dream. When I left Arabia in August 1994, our family was leaving with the excitement and anticipation of finally going to our new home in Montana. Mark had no interest in looking back once he boarded the plane, and I remember being the last one to board, standing on the top step next to the plane, feeling that warm desert air, and also feeling a tremendous sadness at leaving Arabia and feeling that I would never be able to return. So this experience has been a tremendous surprise. Lucy and I were all eyes as we drove from Dammam to Dhahran, trying to remember the highways, the stores, and all the landmarks. We reached Mike and Debbie's house about midnight and stayed up and visited with Debbie till about 2am. Their home is the exact same floorplan as we had in Dhahran, so when I went downstairs to the kitchen in the middle of the night (can you say JETLAG?) I knew exactly where the light switches were. I stood in the breakfast room looking out the window and told Lucy that I felt like I was home, and I should be having my kids running in the door for lunch. We had no lunchrooms in the schools back then, and so they came home for lunch everyday. By the way, I am writing this blog to keep track of our adventures here, and I know that some of the readers are friends who have lived here, and so I apologize that I will write things that seem obvious. But I also have lots of friends and relatives that need some explanations. Let me tell you some of the major differences that I have noticed. One thing is that the trees have grown a tremendous amount. I drove by our home we had here at 362 Ghawar, and oh my gosh, the tree in our front yard was huge. It was way above our 2 story house. I have a picture of Ryan and Jeff sitting on their hot cycles (Big Wheels) under that tree. The front yard was all rock. Now the front yard is grass and the tree is huge. All the trees on the Aramco compound have grown tremendously!!
Another thing is that here they have the internet (we never heard of the internet back then), they have cable TV, and Debbie told us they have TV 24 hours. When we lived here we only had TV from about 4pm till the 10pm news, and everything was heavily censored. (Allie, can you imagine seeing Oprah and Dr. Phil from our family room in Dhahran??!) Debbie has a phone number that she can call the States as much as she wants for only $26 a month. They have built tall concrete walls around the Hills School, where my kids went, so that it would be safer in case of terrorism. So we really couldn't even see the school because of the walls. There are less Americans on the compound now than when we lived here, and more of Arabs and other nationalities. Gas is 40 cents a gallon. The Saudi Riyal is about 37 cents. Today Lucy and I made us a chart comparing Riyals to dollars so we could be smart shoppers. I told her how when I lived here we felt like money was Monopoly money. Fifty Riyals was nothing back then...or at least it felt that way. Now fifty riyals is $18.70, and I think twice before I spend that in the States. It was 75 degrees when we landed at 9pm last night. Today was beautiful, lots of flowers blooming, however a shamall (sand storm) did blow in tonight, and we are hoping it is gone by morning. This morning Debbie was driving us from the Hills (neighborhoods where we used to live) to Main Camp to get our ID badges for the next two weeks, and as we were driving I said, "Oh my gosh, didn't Levon Melton used to live over here?" and Debbie said she was still here. So Debbie stopped at Levon's house, and we had a great time visiting and see all her new treasures. She looked the same as she did 15 years ago. I feel like everyone looks the same except I feel I have aged. I hadn't thought of Levon Melton in years. It's so weird. Lucy and I can remember where everyone lived and tonight we drove around and looked at everyone's homes. Today we ate lunch at a new eating place next to the theatre. It was extremely nice and modern, and yes, we ordered sambusa, arab bread with hummus, etc. Their hummus is so much better than the hummus I buy in Albertson's in Vegas!! Some words that have come up that I had forgotten were igama (a work permit), Thugbah (a town near Khobar), King Khalid street (where we used to shop), and the Thieves Market (a shopping area in Khobar where we are going tomorrow). Today we went to Desert Designs, an upscale shop in Khobar that sells lots of Arab antiques. Lucy and I both dressed in Arab clothing and they let us take photos. I will have to post all these at the end of our trip when I have my own laptop. In Khobar we saw McDonald's, Krispy Kreme Donuts, Ikea (which we were told there is a mosque inside the IKEA store so that you can still shop while prayer time is going on), Hardee's, and Pizza Hut. Of course, we also saw "Turkey Barber Shop". I am sure it was supposed to be a Turkish Barber shop. We laughed as we remembered all the crazy names that some of the shops have. Lucy and I decided that the reason that we had such wonderful times back then was because of the friendships. Our group of friends and the chemistry we had, the parties we had, and the memories we shared is what made our memories of Saudi Arabia so wonderful. We agreed that if we had had the internet, the cable TV, and all the other modern technologies and distractions of life, we might not have had as many parties, and might not have taken the time to form the great friendships that we did. It is great to be back, but honestly, it will never be the same. But I still love the culture, the foods, the smells, and the flavor of the Middle East. I think that the Middle East will always have a familiar feel to me, and yes, it felt like I was coming home!!

This is Lucy, writer #2, not as good with details as the headwriter, but she's insisting that I add my two riyals worth. Can't tell you how many houses we drove by today: Burnells, Vanoss', Jacobsens, Reaves, Neffs,Owens, Edwards,Woods, Goffs, Maute's and Dim's. Mike loaned us his car tonight to attend a Dharan Theater Group and we drove around in the a pretty dusty shamaal, reading familiar street names and pointing out who lived where. The strangest thing, besides all the huge trees and mature foilage is they have built lots of fences, around strategic buildings, even the Dhahran Hills School has a huge block fence around it---you can't even see it from the street. All this happened after the terrorist attack at the Oasis compound a couple of years ago.

It's much the same but just growth, growth, growth. We went to the Reunion House and met several friends we didn't expect to see. Karen's former neighbor Iro Smith is here with her husband. They are building a house in Bahrain, but she goes from Dubai, to Greece, to Saudi to do her permanet eye makeup. We saw Bonnie Cook , who looks exactly the same. She came with a group of nine-- daughters, sons-in laws and grandkids. We'll see her at church on Friday. When we got on the bus to go to Desert Design in Khobar, I sat in from of Tina First! She was Bud's first secretary in Loss Prevention. Her daughter (who grew up here) and son-in-law and granddaughter were with her. We had a lot of catching up to do.

There are other details to be sure, but we've got to get our beauty sleep and get ready for another active day tomorrow. We are going to Khobar with a group led by our hostess, Debbie. Mike and Debbie have been great----just welcomed us into their home and make it feel like old times. We've already got some great pics and maybe soon we will learn how to send them.
Masalaama until our next entry. Share this with anyone you think might be interested.
Love, Karen and Lucy


  1. JEALOUS!!! Seriously I feel like I am reliving it as I am reading it. I LOVED those days too. As strange as it seems, it was the best childhood! And yes, i agree that if those distractions had been around life probably would have been much different. Someday I would love to go back too!! Oh and yes, mom, I am EXTREMELY JEALOUS that you went out to eat and got sambusa! LOVE that stuff!!! Again, take tons of pics!!!

  2. I am taking tons of pics. Everything. Next to the shop yesterday was a "car lot"...nice cars parked there while people were working AND junk, crashed cars. So much of the middle east HAS NOT changed!! I will try to write details of every day. I would love to bring you back someday. Let's plan on it!! But like I said, it would not be the same.