A Good Day

The moon is just a gentle sliver that I can see over the tips of the trees at sunset. There is a gentle breeze and on it I hear the call to prayer from the compound just across the wall - the Saudi side of the compound. As I get closer to the house I pick up an escort of felines, one, then two as Shisha comes to greet me, giving up her hiding spot in the corn to surprise me. In all, I can't help but think it is a good day.

Work was the usual business, though I did actually get in a the classroom. I wasn't scheduled for regular class times this term, as it is the frontline teachers are not even doing ten hours a week. Still, the admin who does the scheduling was perhaps over enthusiastic to think that our project would actually be full tilt. I've been here a year, I've yet to see anything go full tilt except uncoordinated scheduling and other academic disasters. The only thing that gives us grace is doing it the way they tell us to, then not only do we have an out, but no disaster is perceived by the customer. Embarrassing, but true.

As I sip my morning coffee, a habit acquired since living here, the senior administrator who is also fluent in English beckons me to join him in his office. Alarm flags raise as I go in and we exchange greetings, twice around. I'm not sure if that is a Saudi custom, or something that has just developed of its own. For all I know, it may be just something I do. In any event, he comes to the point, "This is a gift. From the civilian studies teacher, the one with the beard," at least three of them have beards, but I leap to the conclusion he means either the Sheikh, who is relatively new, or the muttawah who is likely in training to be a sheikh. As I reflect on it likely the younger man. Neither man has good English, and so using Mr. Faahd, the administrator, makes sense. It would make more sense if they were there. I accept the bag with gift wrapped box and return to my desk.

I spend part to the morning fiddling with Moodle, course management software, and try to figure out how I'm going to get all the teachers on a single network. An experiment the day before indicated that a wireless one won't cut it. Which means we need wiring, which means we will need the help of the base IT department. They recently made themselves visible, so there is a chance we can get something done, if we apply pressure, or baksheesh, in the right places.

In any event, I get to teaching. A slideshow I made on Electronic Warfare, followed by some short YouTube clips about missile systems. It's not as focused as the sessions with their usual teachers, but the students do talk through an engagement and use the target vocabulary, that is, if they aren't sleeping.

Just as the day ends the XO gets an electrician to come over. This is the third electrician I have seen, and tells his name is Sultan as he waggles his head, Indian style. I echo it as we talk and I explain my problem. I'm told Electrician Mohammed, the plucky Filipino man who usually helps us (to stretch the definition of "usual") is on vacation, but should be back next week. The building engineer, a real professional who wears slacks and button down shirt, has not been seen in a week, which is disappointing to say the least. He seemed senior enough that if he said something would be done, it would be done.

In any event, Electrician Sultan gives me a new shopping list for the required parts. The day before he left on holiday our Captain explained that we must have the electricity for the labs wired like the existing computer lab, the lab used by the civilian studies department. This would have rankled more if it wasn't a good idea. Of course, it would have been nicer if we had heard this sooner, but that's life in Saudi Arabia. In any event, all I can do is take notes and forward them to my superiors, they can argue with the customer if they like. At my level, when the Red Queen demands red roses, you paint the white roses red.

I get out of work and ride home with my carpool. I relax, check mail and even chat on the internet phone (only one mysterious disconnection!). The gift is a bottle of perfume. Hmmmm.. No idea what to think of that. After that I get suited up and go riding. I had not gotten to the stables at all last week and need the ride more than I realize.

The drive to the stables involves only one near scrape and I dodge all the potholes without menacing the oncoming traffic. The gate is open and I exchange salutes with the thobed gateman as I drive in.

The grounds are still under construction. I'm able to spy the ostriches in their own special area before turning onto the loop around the arena and taking my usual parking spot. That is, a choice spot on the roadway between the stables and the arenas. I park with the keys in the visor, just in case a stablehand needs to move it, and hop out.

They are working at the edge of the arena I have been training in. The Captain greets me and shakes my hand, holding and getting me pointed toward the larger arena. I wander over, looking at the holes being dug for the new lighting going in, get my gloves on. The Captain directs a teenage boy, who is already mounted up with helmet and switch in hand, to dismount and gives the horse over to me. A reddish grey animal with a slight attitude problem.

I mount up and start my rounds. The usual hands aren't there, so the Captain helps adjust my stirrups. We don't get the balance quite right this time, but I don't get clear on that until later. I smile and start the warm up rounds. The horse quite indifferent and not really caring to walk in straight lines. I have to use the reins to actually get him to follow the arena wall, which he only does grudgingly.

After a bit of warm up more horses and more stablehands arrive. I'm handed a helmet that is actually my size, and a switch. I'd been trying to kick my horse to a trot, but he wouldn't keep it up. This is the first time I've been given a switch to use. Moving up? Slowly? Maybe. In any event, once helmeted and in the long stretch of the arena, horse pointed in the proper direction, I apply the switch. What a difference! I get a trot out of him and he keeps to it. I actually have to work to keep balance - up, down, up, down - and find I'm breaking a sweat. This really is exercise.

I do a few rounds and take a short pause. "Aaaah, you are doing great! You ride really well." I smile and say thank you. "Now, you should hold your feet here, like this." Hands on my feet remind me to keep my toes pointed in and knees tight. "And you should sit three fingers back from the front and from behind." I consider this and adjust in the saddle. Hmm... Maybe I wasn't doing so well at all. More to think about. I get back to doing rounds. Up, down. Up, down.

One of the princes, yes, they really are princes, comes up along side me and asks me a few questions. How I am, how I'm doing, am I really a Muslim ("Alhamdulilah!") and so on. I get practice how to ride alongside someone and in understanding basic Arabic. He goes on at length about Islam. I listen diligently and offer "Aiwa" at what seems the appropriate times. He parts with a "Salaam" and seems in good spirits. Insha'Allah, my answers were correct.

All of this gets me wanting to do a little more. I'm a long way from jumping yet, but I pull to a stop near the Captain, "Nagheeb," I say his title to get his attention, I always make a point of using it in Arabic. He looks over at me. I point at the wooden posts laying on the ground, obstacles the other young riders are working, then point at myself, "Aiwa? La? Ok?" The Captain considers and makes some soothing sounds that indicate the negative. I ask again to make sure and it he makes it a clear negative, adding "Ma'shallah, ma'shallah." I smile and salute and get back to my rounds.

In a way, I'm glad. Between being given a horse with attitude for the first time and the switch, I was wondering if the Captain had been overrating my learning curve. Clearly, he is not and that is good to know. I've had problems with people thinking I was learning faster than I really was. Good instructors, like when I was doing karate, see right through pretense and can evaluate their students. I put the Captain into the good instructors group as I get back to my rounds.

I finally begin to tire. Another son of the stable owner, technically another prince, no really, comes over and suggests I do a couple rounds with the horse at a walk and my feet out of the stirrups. I relax and ride. It occurs to me I'm likely as close as I will ever get, or would ever care to get really, to being Gurny Halleck from "Dune". All these princelings and noble estates. It would be intimidating if they weren't all just regular people. No pretense, friendly and direct. I try to hold to the saddle with no stirrups, but really just sit there Western style and do a couple of rounds.

I finally dismount and the young man helps me with the horse as I get down. The stablehands have taken the other horses off. The Captain is there and a young boy of five or six, who's son he is I'm not sure. He's been there the whole time, and didn't know what to make of me when I "salaam'ed" him when I first arrived. The Captain and the young man get the boy to hold the reins and "lead" the horse toward the stable, the Captain keeping a hand on the bridle. I hand off the helmet and switch and make my good byes. All in all, a good day.


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