What Happened?!?

First off, apologies.  It isn’t nice of me to be so far away from so many of our friends and not keep everyone updated.  And although it’s no excuse, this has been a really shitty two weeks.  So, what happened, you ask?

My husband drove himself off a cliff.  Literally.  And I thought he died.

Let me explain:  There’s a lot of sand around here, so we try to make the best of it.  We have (yikes — had) three four wheelers that we love to ride out in the desert. We’ll pack a picnic, load up the family and head out to ride, climb, slide and play frisbee until it’s time to watch an amazing sunset.  And it is fun.  And gorgeous.  And on December 22nd a rare and magical event occurred.  Three families with traveling and hard-working dads all had a day off together.  So we decided to make the most of it and loaded up three huge vehicles with three dads, three moms, eight kids, two grandmas, a trailer, three quads, and a whole lot of shwarmas to tour the desert.  It’s about an hour drive to where we ride, then we unhooked the trailer, and left it on the side of the road and set out into the middle of nowhere.  IMG_2575

We set up in a lovely bowl with a great hill for the littles to climb and the older kids set out riding the kid’s quads and sand sledding.  Mark was on his quad and had decided to run back to the trailer to drop a pin on his map to ensure we could locate the trailer on our return trip in case it was difficult to find in the dark.  On his ride back to the group he was on top of a ridge and could see us, so he was riding fairly quickly as it was a straight shot.  Now, here’s the thing about the desert.  It’s tricky.  And deceiving.  And it was close to sunset.  So from atop the dune where we were all hanging out, I watched as Mark drove… right off of a cliff.  And then he didn’t move. I stopped the kid closest to me that had a four wheeler, jumped on it and drove toward Mark.  And that was the longest 5 minutes of my life.  I prayed and prayed and prayed over and over and over.  When I got to him he was sitting up, but I could tell he was in bad shape.  His eyes were dilated, he was dazed, his shoes were off and his two wrists were distorted.  Rich had stolen the other kid’s four wheeler and met me there.  We decided Mark needed to get to the hospital.  Now, here’s the part about living in Saudi Arabia that’s a real pain in the ass.  We had three eight-passenger vehicles.  So if we drove Mark to the hospital in one of them, we had 16 seats left for the remaining 13 people and everyone could get home, right?  Nope.  Because I needed one of the other men to drive Mark to the hospital.  Because I CAN’T FRICKING DRIVE IN THIS COUNTRY!!! So two men in one car meant abandoning 13 people in the desert with one legal driver.  And that’s exactly what we did.

Then what?  Well, then we hit cell service and called back to camp where we enlisted a man, who then enlisted another man, to drive out to the desert to rescue all the stranded friends, quads, and trailers we left behind.  And of course that worked because the people in this camp are amazing.

We arrived at the Dhahran Hospital (the hospital on one of the other Aramco camps) about an hour later.  Mark was admitted and they started the slew of tests.  Turns out that after diving off of an 80 foot cliff, he was lucky.  No head or neck trauma, no brain injury.  (Thank God.) He did some damage to his poor body though.  Two broken wrists, a shattered ankle, lots of broken ribs, some pretty serious road rash, a coronary contusion, a bruised lung and a laceration on his liver.  Bad, definitely.  But we know how much worse it could’ve been.  He was admitted to the ICU for monitoring because of the damage to his internal organs.  So the first 24 hours was pretty intense. Three days later he was cleared by his cardiologist and was admitted for surgery on Christmas Day. One wrist now has a plate, and the other has external pins. Both are in casts. The orthopedic surgeon wasn’t able to operate on his ankle because of the extreme swelling and the extent to which it was shattered. They re-set the bone and cast it and we are now waiting to see what will need to be done as it begins to heal.

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Mark’s mom was here for Christmas (again, Thank God).  So we were able to take turns caring for the children and visiting Mark in the hospital.  We figured out how to best make use of the Aramco Bus system, taxis, and all of our friends to make the hour drive back and forth.  We even managed to make sure Santa came on time and all of the presents under the tree were wrapped.  The kids had a great morning, and Mark was with us via FaceTime.  The children voluntarily stopped opening presents about half way through and decided to wait for their daddy to get home to finish with Christmas. I took Rhys and LT to hospital on Christmas afternoon so Mark could get some kiddo time and although it was his only gift, I think those hugs really hit the spot.

Mark was discharged a week later on December 29th.

And, for as much as it sucks not to be able to drive in an emergency, here are the benefits to living here:

  • 8 days in the hospital, including 3 in Intensive Care.  X-rays, CT Scans, Casts, Surgery.  We got sent home with a wheelchair and a walker.  All free. Yes, 100% coverage.  Thank you, Saudi Arabia, for allowing us to focus on healing instead of panic about how to pay our medical bills.
  • Mark’s job.  His bosses have been amazing.  And concerned. And understanding.  And nothing but focused on his healing.  And we don’t have to worry about the security of his job or his paycheck.  What a blessing.
  • This community.  There are no words to describe the envelopment of the people around us.  People we hardly know – and some that we don’t know at all – have showed up and stepped up. And our close friends have been amazing.  The day Mark was admitted, we had a quiche dropped off so that we’d have breakfast for the next day.  And then chicken tortilla soup.  And then a casserole… and it hasn’t stopped.  People will show up with pizza, or a loaf of bread, or brownies. And I swear, it helps.  Every time I see that food, I am reminded of how much these people care about us, and worry about us, and want to see our family heal successfully from this.  Friends wrapped my Christmas gifts and watched my kids, they have gone grocery shopping for me and helped put together our kid’s Christmas toys.  They drop off movies for Mark to watch and Rosetta Stone so he can use his time to learn Arabic.  They brought over a recliner so he could rest comfortably.  They call and pray with us over the phone. And, (and this is totally true) one of them came installed a bidet.  Now that is a good, and very thoughtful,  friend. For as awful as it has been, I have been reminded of all the good there is in people.

Mark was able to go to dinner at a friends house for New Year’s Eve, but has been home other than that.  We are learning how to navigate with his injuries.  Our shower is upstairs, which makes for a long and arduous process for him.  He’s sleeping on the couch.  But mostly right now he’s healing… slowly.  He has an appointment with his surgeon on Jan 7th, so we will know how he is progressing later this week and will update when we know more.  For now, please know that we appreciate all of your thoughts and prayers and we are grateful for everyone that is helping us through this time.12471559_10153743355862527_6403636291104785755_o

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I had grand visions of jetsetting… but today we’re all just jetlagging…

Every time we come home, I convince myself that it’s not going to be that bad.  And this time was no different… but I was wrong.  Again.

Even I knew better...

Even I knew better…

We returned from our three month summer break in the States on Aug 22nd.  Words of wisdom from fellow travelers say it takes 1 day per time zone change to fully recover from jet lag.  We’ve also found that coming this way (Eastbound) is multiple times more difficult than our trip going to the US.  We’re 9 hours ahead in Saudi, so that’s 9 days of exhaustion to be expected… and I’m not sure they factored in a two year old and a traveling husband.  We’re at exactly a week today, and I can promise you: it ain’t over yet.  This is one of the hardest parts of living abroad – transitioning from one place to the other.

The kiddos have adjusted really well – they’ve all been sleeping through the night for the past two nights.  I, however, cannot seem to sleep past 3:30am, although last night Mark came home from work at 2:00am, so I’ve been up since then.  The silver lining?  It’s 5:24am and I have bread baking, lunch and dinner made, breakfast prepped, I’ve made batches of enchilada sauce to freeze (random, yes, but very handy), and the kid’s playroom is now alphabetized and color coordinated.  And a blog post to boot!  I’ll feel very productive until about 11:00 when I crash.  The other bonus is that everyone on camp is going through the same thing.  Lots of families to commiserate with, and lots of help.  As usual, upon our return we had two homemade meals in our fridge and a basic stock of groceries from friends.  Because, honestly, they understand that there’s nothing worse than trying to get three kids loaded up in a car when it’s 118 degrees outside just to go get half & half so you can make your coffee and try and prop your eyes open with caffeine.

Look at those bags!

This was the only way he’d sleep… in my arms… for the first 4 days home

At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world, but woo… the struggle is real, kids.  It feels like I’m three martinis in all day long.  In the process of trying to use my time wisely and cook, I’ve managed to burn my hand cooking a frittata, throw a hot cake pan on the floor and totally obliterate the meringue cake that I had just baked, ruin three loaves of bread for multiple (yes, all different) reasons, and yesterday and I burned a pot of rice so badly that the fire alarm went off (oh, add that to things I did this morning: scrubbed a blackened pot for at least an hour).  It’s the dichotomy of being exhausted and trying to be productive.

My babies start school tomorrow, so hopefully their schedule will help me get back on track.  In the meantime, if you’re stateside and you want to chat, feel free to call… anytime… I’ll be awake!

…this fits too.

There’s a quote in the movie Sweet Home Alabama (don’t judge me, I love Reese Witherspoon) where she’s talking about how great her life is at home, but she says, “But then I come down here… and this fits too.”  That’s how it feels to be back “home” in Saudi.  We had a great three month summer vacation back in Boise visiting friends, hanging in McCall, snuck in a trip to Yellowstone with the family, and the kids got to do a ton of fun summer camps.  The trip back here was long, but the kids did as well as we could hope for.  Since we’ve been back, we’ve had our wonderful community here step up.  Neighbors have taken the kids so we could regroup, brought coffee to help us stay awake, and I’ve even had an offer from a friend to come over and hold my eyelids open (now that’s a good friend!)

This is what jet lag feels like... for 7 days.

This is what jet lag feels like… for 7 days.

The jet lag this trip has been horrible (which explains why I have time to catch up on my blog… the kids are all still asleep at 9:15am!).

It’s still hard to believe that we got three whole months in Idaho.  Part of the wonderful benefit to working here is the vacation – Mark gets 10 weeks off his first year, and ended up carrying 2 weeks from last year.  So he has 3 months off work!  He is also home almost every night of the week.  Our home life has so vastly improved from when we were both flying, it’s just amazing.

It’s starting to feel more like home here since we got our shipment from the States.  That was a wonderful day, for sure.

"home"

“home”

We had been surviving on Aramco supplied housewares, donations from friends and neighbors, and sparse furniture from 1972.  Our downstairs is entirely covered in white tile and the walls were all stark white.  It felt very empty, and tended to echo – which is not the “homey-ist” feeling in the world.  So, March 18th, three and a half months after we moved in, we got all of our stuff.  And that has helped A LOT.  Rugs, furniture, clothes… I have never been so happy to see my salad spinner, have more than 4 forks, and have a real couch to sit on.  And baking dishes!  Ahhhhhh…..

One of 4 trucks containing all the comforts of our home!

One of 4 trucks containing all the comforts of our home!

So on this last trip home we gathered the few things we were still missing.  Mark completed our few painting projects that were needing to be done while the family was gone, so we are finally really feeling settled.  Most Aramcons told us that it would take a year to get moved in, which seemed crazy.  But given the shipping date, the vacations, and the incredible amount of time and energy that it takes to get anything done in this country – it’s turned out to be about right.  We have some pictures that need to be framed and I think by the time we find a framing place, get the timing right so that we miss prayer time, nap time, and the store owner decides to be open, it will be completed right around our one year anniversary 😉

 

Overall, we just feel amazingly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend such quality time with our family and friends.  We saw almost all of my side of the family on this trip, and will hit up the Todds on our next trip State-side.  So ya, it was a blast of a summer.  But, …this fits too.

First driving trip OOK

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Bahrain is pretty tiny when compared to Saudi!

 

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Crossing The Border!

Now that things are settling down a bit, we decided to celebrate our 5 month anniversary here in the Kingdom by, well… leaving.  We made our first international driving trip to Bahrain yesterday!  Mark isn’t off on the weekends, so we kept the kids home from school on Monday & got on the road around 8:00am.  It’s about a two hour drive including the customs stops.  Bahrain is a sovereign island off the East Coast of Saudi in the Persian Gulf and the two nations are connected by a 16 mile causeway.  One of the interesting things about Saudi Arabia is that you have to have an EXIT Visa to depart the country.  Many of the workers here are actually required to surrender their passports upon arrival, so they are very much at the mercy of their employers as to wether they are allowed to leave the country or not.  Mark and I have “Multi-Entrance Visas”, so we are able to come and go as we please, and I (as a woman) can travel without him (although this is obviously not the norm).  So upon reaching the middle of the causeway, we cleared customs outbound, and then entered Bahrain!

Kingdom of Bahrain!

Kingdom of Bahrain!

It’s a small island but with some major differences from Saudi.  Although most citizens are Muslim, the stores do not close for prayer (so nice!) and women are not required to wear an abaya.  There is pork if you know where to go, and alcohol too, although we didn’t get a chance to find either on this trip.   We did find a very nice mall and wandered around – had a cappuccino and the kids found a cupcake store.  We are still trying to finish the house, so we were looking for some household items, but kept getting distracted by the kids wanting to go in all the different “fun stores”.  We found an organic market and stocked up on some staples we’ve been missing, but food in general here is *very* expensive, and organic food is just ridiculous.  It doesn’t help the the Bahriani Dinar is equal to .37 US Dollars, so the prices are a bit deceptive.  We walked out of the store and realized that we spent $34.oo on Maple Syrup!  It didn’t look so bad when it said “12BD”…  We also found a grocery store that had canned green chills in stock, so we counted the whole trip as a success and will be making chicken tacos soon.

We headed back across the bridge about 7:15pm and ran into a small wait, but we’ve heard that some people have been delayed up to 5 hours – especially on the weekends.  When it was finally our turn the customs agent made Mark and I get out of the car.  He asked Mark, “You have any pork?”  “No.”  “You have been drinking?”  “No.”  “You are sure?”  “Yes.”  “I can search the car?”  “Sure.”  “You have confidence?” “Pretty sure, yes.”  He searched it thoroughly –  made LT get out of her car seat and he climbed all over it.  He must have been trying to sniff out smuggled bacon —

Made it home around 10:00pm with three sleeping kiddos in the backseat.  Overall, it was nice to get to a place that just felt “normal” – kind of like Miami (if you consider that “normal”), but we could see other women’s faces, use Western toilets, try clothing on if we wanted to, the drivers weren’t entirely horrible, and we were not constantly stopping our day due to prayer.  We will definitely be going back soon!

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Bitty in the mall ball pit

Settling In

Ellis

As we are all settling in, we just celebrated the half birthday of our littlest Aramco Brat.  Ellis now has his parents all to himself during the day, so we celebrated his 6 month milestone with a nice morning walk along the beach, then a quick stop at the commissary to pick up schwarmas for his brother & sister for lunch.  Ellis is what you might call a “thriving child” and blows all the other babies out of the water when it comes to gaining weight.  No official weigh-ins recently, but the kid is definitely going to be a linebacker.  He sits up for short periods of time all by himself, and has had a trial run with solid foods including sweet potatoes, bananas, mangoes, and kiwi.  He is unimpressed with all of them.  His biggest accomplishment as of late is the growing of hair on his crooked little head.  He’s managed to fill in his old-man hair, so his cul-de-sac male pattern baldness is a bit less noticeable these days.  Still no teeth.  His sleeping pattern is erratic, although we’ve had a decent run the past week or so.  He is capable of about 6 hours straight at night, but tends to be inconsistent at best.  His naps during the day are becoming somewhat regular, but he likes to keep us on our toes.  In this regard, he is very different than his older siblings, who were on a very clear sleep schedule.  Maybe now that he’s officially 6 months old things will start to self-regulate…

Our days have been very calm.  Our shipment won’t be here until March, so until then we have rental Aramco furniture, lots of tile, and white walls.  We’re working on choosing paint colors, (but if you know me) it could be awhile before we commit.  Today after getting the kids off to school, I made a latte, read a book while I got a pedicure, came home and got the boys to go for a walk on the beach, then came home and met the kids for lunch.  Ellis is down for a nap now, and I will be meeting some of the ladies on camp for afternoon coffee.  Mark will go into work for a meeting around 4:00, so after I meet the kids school bus we will head to soccer practice – LT at 4:00 & Rhys at 5:00.  Lucky for me, one of the ladies on camp is making enchilada dinners tonight, so we placed our order over the weekend, and will pick up dinner after soccer, come home & eat and then it’s reading, bath, and bedtime!  We do have restaurants here on camp but they are nothing spectacular.  A lot of women will cook food from their native countries and you can buy it, so you get a night of “take-out”.  Thai, Mexican, Seafood… it’s always a nice change.  And then it’s movie night for the ladies, so I’ll be headed out after Mark gets home from work.  Just another day in RT!

Finally… Back to School!

 

 

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The Parker children were officially out of school for 6 weeks during our move.  We left Boise December 4th, and because of the Aramco Runaround, they didn’t get to start school before they let out here for Winter Break.  So, on January 12th both of the older kids got to start school.  And they did great!  Rhys started first grade with Miss Power and seems to be doing very well.  He is a bit behind curriculum-wise, so we are working to get him caught up, but I think we will manage.  LT, however, was placed in a K4 (pre-k) class and was significantly underwhelmed.  I think her exact words included, “lots of baby toys, none of the kids know how to share, and they don’t even have chapter books!”  We went and spoke to the school where everyone was very much on the side of “let’s get here where she belongs, regardless of her age” so she spent the week being pulled out of class and tested.  The following Monday (Sunday was a holiday here) we got a call saying that despite the fact that we are going to be gone for 4 weeks of this trimester, they would like to move her up to a kindergarten class!  She takes after her daddy – very smart little girl.  This is great for a couple of reasons.  She will be full-day, as opposed to her previous schedule of 12:45 – 3:30, which meant she spent the entire morning asking me how much longer till she could go to school… and she will be with older kids, whom she tends to get along better with.  It also means I have a big part of my day to spend with the baby, and he really has been neglected lately (um, never)… and Mark.  The kids also ride the bus to and from school, and home for lunch, so this way their schedules are synced up as opposed to overlapping.  It’s going to make the day a bit smoother for everyone.  It’s seems a bit odd to have your kids come all the way home for lunch, but with Mark not flying a whole lot right now, it’s nice to have the whole family together for a nice hot lunch every day.  The buses here are Mercedes Benz Buses, each complete with it’s own bus monitor and they all wear their seat belts.  It’s pretty darn amazing – especially considering our compound is only about 3 square miles!  I just can’t stop myself from quoting Ron White every morning as the bus pulls up…”Mercedes Benzzzzzz!”

Go Dolphins!

Go Dolphins!

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New teachers

What, Wear, & How

(***This post was written December 16th***)  So we unexpectedly got my ID!  A couple of stars must have aligned, as we hit many stumbling blocks the day before, but it came through.  If you know my husband, this won’t surprise you – but the day after I was approved, he was making plans.  He got a ride into Rahima, the local town, and rented a car.  Then we all loaded up to go to Kohbar for our first off-compound outing.  45 minutes later we were at… IKEA!!!  Due to the last minute nature of our trip, I wasn’t entirely prepared.  I had read that Western women didn’t have to wear traditional Muslim garb, just to dress modestly.  So I followed that advice and guess what?  Those authors have obviously never been to Saudi Arabia.

I was the only woman not in an abaya.  Really.  The ONLY ONE.

And just for a bit more embarrassment, we stopped for lunch before we started our shopping.  As our entourage entered the restaurant (3 kids, stroller, Western woman blonde hair and all…) we were very suddenly and with much gusto escorted back OUT of the restaurant.  We had inadvertently gone in the “singles” side, which is where all the single males dine.  We regrouped and ate on the “family” side where we fit it only slightly better.

A brief synopsis of Saudi garb:  Saudi Women do not wear burqas, they wear abayas, which are long, black ankle-length lightweight cloaks that cover their clothing. They also wear the hijab, which is the scarf that covers their hair, neck, and very often face.  This is the most common outfit you’ll see at the mall:

Common Muslim Women's Wear in Saudi

Common Muslim Women’s Wear in Saudi

So after lunch we walked over to IKEA and did some shopping.  And although I didn’t have on an abaya, most people were very friendly.  We even caught some Saudi women taking pictures of Ellis in his stroller.  I guess those blue eyes are somewhat of a novelty in these parts.  And not to worry, he was a total ham for them and seemed to enjoy the extra attention.

So we then ventured over to the Mall of Dhahran which is more than I would have expected when I thought “Mall” & “Saudi Arabia”.  There’s about every store you can think of… Pottery Barn, Limited, Michael Kors, Coach, plus all the European stores I’m not familiar with (yet).  It is huge.  Unfortunately, we didn’t go into any of the stores!  When we arrived, it was prayer time so everything was shut down.  This happens six times a day (approximate times for today were:  5:04am, 6:26am, 11:41am, 2:36pm, 4:55pm, and 6:18pm) and brings the world to a halt.  There is a very loud Call To Prayer that you can hear no matter where you are in the country – inside or out.  So an Immam (spiritual leader) will start singing to tell everyone to head to the mosque. It sounds like this:  http://www.freesound.org/people/ejaz215/sounds/33937/

All the stores empty out and close their gates.  So we stopped at a Starbucks to wait it out where we were promptly asked to leave — again.  We had walked into the regular Starbucks, which is, of course, the all male Starbucks.  We had to search out the family Starbucks, which has opaque glass (so men won’t see the women eating or drinking if they take their covering off).  We managed to order a round of hot chocolates just before they closed for prayer and waited for everything to re-open.  Nice that they allow you to sit inside the Starbucks while they are closed for prayer.  Lights out, registers off, see you in 25!!

Have to get used to looking twice before we enter!

Have to get used to looking twice before we enter!

When the lights came back on, we went abaya shopping.  There are many stores that carry only abayas and we found a very sweet lady to help us find the perfect one.  I went with all black with a bit of embellishment, but you can go over the top if you want to.  Amazing what you can spend on these things.  Saudi’s wear all black, but other women can get pretty fancy.  It is a little hard to wrap my head around the dichotomy of the mall.  On one hand, all the women are fully covered and extremely modest and on the other is all the Western fashion and materialism.  As one reviewer of the mall put it, “The primary aspect of interest to me, as a newly-arrived US expat, was in seeing the bizarre contrast between the Western fashions on display in the store windows–mostly oriented toward women–and the parade of abaya-clad shoppers. (There seems to be some fundamental dissonance in Saudi culture that will need to be worked out over time–a simultaneous fascination with and rejection of Western styles and values.)”  It is, indeed, very strange.

Here’s a short video on the experience of purchasing an abaya.  You can also see what the dress shop woman is wearing, which is very typical:  http://www.hziegler.com/articles/video-buying-an-abaya.html

We stopped in SACOWorld, which is a little like a Wal-Mart and grabbed a couple of things and then the kids were done.  The mall is so big, it just wore their little feet out.  So we made the drive back to Ras Tanura.  Overall, a very successful first day out!