Sunday, May 30, 2004

To Doubt is to Have Faith

Musings on missing Catholic rites.

I haven’t missed mass all that much, I am reminded how many challenges there are to my faith. My cousin Ronnie (who’s a Mormon) just showed me why Catholics are at a big disadvantage here. Aside from the fact that we are already limited since we have no priests, we are especially watched here. Not that they have their eyes on us all the time, it’s just that if there is any proselytizing done around here. At least the Mormons can meet clandestinely with more ease – I am no longer wondering why Kuya Ronnie changed religions. With all the religion being practiced in our midst, it’s so hard to deal that one cannot be at worship at one’s own.

As to the proscription against alcohol, I intend to honor it, since it’s better for my physical and emotional health. Personally I wouldn’t mind getting a drink on occasion, but forking out money for stuff made from contraband stills doesn’t appeal to me. But stories abound about how millionaires were produced by moonshine “manufacturing.” Would you believe you can’t even bring in vanilla here because they suspect that to be used in making moonshine? There is even a specific proscription on oak and wood chips because they are also used in making moonshine more flavorful. Well, Filipinos do manage by using raisins, chewing gum, apples, dates, and even chocolate on occasion to flavor their homemade brews. Security guards in housing camps are known to be the chief smugglers of moonshine. Always a function of law – the nature and level of corruption are best determined by the things a society aims to suppress.

As for me, I wouldn’t be caught dead imbibing alcoholic beverages – and so far, I am doing my best to have a healthy and natural good time. The Filipino Channel (TFC to us bumpkins over here) is a big hit (the only hit, I guess) and I guess our kababayans lap it all up, though it was the same drivel I saw back home. Some Arabs subscribe to the stuff (for SR760 a year, one-time, but SR76/month on monthly payments) just to see women in bikinis for free when they can’t see the same with their own women. (I find that reality very funny in more ways than one, but it is not a laughing matter for us here…)

People say I seem well-adjusted and culture shock has not gotten me at all. On the other hand, what they don’t know is that I left all my “baggage” behind – meaning that I left what I must over there and prepared myself to be alone for this one whole year. If not, I will probably go nuts trying to look for what isn’t there – friends, family, my way of life – and never accept that I am living here. A lot have also said that coping with life here is more difficult if you have a wife/family or girlfriend back home. In some ways, yes, it’s true, because one can never witness the most beautiful moments when children grow up. However, I think for me it’s the reverse. Sometimes it’s so easy to forget you’re human over here – only the animal impulse of eating, sleeping, and even fornicating (heterosexually of course, since I haven’t “dropped the soap”) remains. I always found it easier to do things when there’s a higher reason or bond behind it. For now it’s for the dream that life would be made easier for my mother especially now that all of us would soon move out, but I wish there was something more.

There are days when I worry about what is happening at home but I know that is something I can no longer control. It would help if I can just pick up the phone and call to see if things are all right, but I also stop myself at times because I believe the less the people at home are reminded I am not there the more easily they can cope with my absence. Helps for me too. There were also times over the past few weeks, during “touching” moments in movies on the tube and I was reminded about how things are back home. It gives me more inspiration to do what I can here so I can succeed. Because for one thing, living here makes one a “spectator” and not a “cast member” in the story of my life. But anyway, there is a “script” over here that I have to write for myself. Hope it will have a good story and nice ending.

I am guided by this quote whenever I feel adversity: “My brethren, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure. Make sure that your endurance carries you all the way without failing, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should pray to God, who will give it to him; because God gives generously and graciously to all.” (James 1:2-5)

It’s been a great “vacation” so far. But the shitty, crappy months are just ahead – when you can leave a fresh egg in your room for the day and then find it cooked or spoiled when you get back. Our company video demonstrates summer weather by driving a car into the desert and then cracking an egg on the hood. It literally cooked (no kidding)! It’s starting to get hot and then the days are starting to get longer. Prayer time will progressively start earlier and then end later at night as we reach the summer solstice. After that it will go down until more or less the days and nights are equal in length at the autumnal equinox (sometime in October-November). For those people with the so-called “broken schedule” i.e. their offices close for an equivalent of the afternoon siesta, the breaks can be dreadful if you have to travel back to your accommodation. At least we have a straight schedule, and I have gotten used to ten hours at the office from back home.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Earthen Vessel

Posting my thoughts I wrote down last night...

The TV has conked out on me (well, the only channel available has the display “Access denied”), so I am all alone here with my thoughts.

I no longer feel like a young man. I worry too much about the future. But then, what’s new? It’s not as if I want to be younger. Time to move on, fella.

I desperately need to be in love. But with whom? I know I have to go out and try to touch someone. Over here it’s almost impossible. Makes me want to muse that no one wants to become gay in this place, but it just happens. I guess I ought to accept Janew's invitation to join that SPA group. Otherwise the days would stretch on and on, without end.

I think about three girls at the oddest of times – I’d have admitted their names in my heart of hearts – but I just can’t let someone else read this journal and see their names (just in case). Let’s just give them aliases. The first is the Raven. She has been, and always will be, the kind of girl I’d want to bring home to my mother and my mother would approve, I bet. However it is obvious to me that I am not the kind of guy she would want to have in her life. It has everything to do with me, of course.

The second – let’s call her the Guardian. She would perhaps be the best fit, intellectually, as to who I am and how I express myself. Lord knows if she ever thinks I think of her – for all I know she has someone else. Besides, similarities may not necessarily make a whole lot of magic. As to the third girl, maybe she has something that I so deeply want but never could have. She is the Reaper – not because she has any resemblance to the Grim One – but because she is of the earth. In her simplicity she can dare to look and dream of the sky. Maybe I have scared her away. Serves me right for trying to impress her…

What am I doing? Two months and a week I am already cracking? I highly doubt it. I can still function, and that I am self-aware means there is no meltdown yet. Surely I didn’t sign up for one. Keep it together, buddy! At times I can get to be too self-critical, just an obsession for analysis and psychobabble. Storytelling helps, as I had been told once. Let it all hang out, and who knows? Something might happen. If not, I can safely say that there will be no regrets.

Like with another girl – the pain of her subtle rejection was drowned out by the fact that I let everything out on paper. Pouring out the feelings makes it easier for me to accept that sometimes I’m weak, though it doesn’t help if that so-called sensitive doesn’t sell. Aw, so long as I am not peddling bull, it doesn’t matter what they believe. I don’t have to sell anything. As long as I remain true to who I am.

But then, there are times when I should apply the brakes. I can look back with fond nostalgia at all those wasted opportunities. I am blessed that they came, and even if things didn’t pan out, I’m certain there will be more. Life has that kind of symmetry even if sometimes events and feelings go topsy-turvy. Fear has its purposes – for one thing, it instructs me that I must have courage. The courage to dream, to dare… still, it’s not the same as it was ten years ago. I no longer have the first flush of youth – and maybe I shouldn’t really indulge in teenybopper fantasies. Maybe romantic love is not in the cards for me. I prayed for more wisdom, but maybe I should have prayed for more patience.

Should I stop dreaming then? I am tickled pink by the thought of letting others read my thoughts (maybe I should, and I would) --- (and so I did). Maybe this will be the romance that will fill my life while I am away from my heart’s true home. Maybe my heart will learn to accept this place as the foundation of my life. If so, then I should paint on this blank canvas, for lack of a better expression.

If there is one more prayer I can say, it’s that He will allow me to become as honest with myself to a degree that I have never imagined. That He will allow me to become humble and brave to ask for help when I know I am in trouble.

Lord, grant me the strength so all of this would be made true. BY ME – or rather, BY YOU, THROUGH ME. Fill me with light so I can shine Your light to others. There is a night out there that must be filled with love and joy. I may be just a humble earthen vessel, liable to break, but until then, use me.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Quick Counts and the Elections

The world for the Filipino is all wrapped up in the drama unfolding with the election count.

The Sunday editorial of TODAY prods that Namfrel should complete its Quick Count and well as it should to provide a clear picture on which candidate actually won. However, the kind of implications that the piece puts forth should draw a stir from Namfrel people about how it really conducts its Quick Count. As a former volunteer, I am concerned over how the star of Namfrel has taken a bad hit.

While I have not been personally involved in this year's count (since I resigned from my post supporting Joe Concepcion and went to the Middle East late in March), such statements from the media denigrates the value of the work of the thousands of volunteers who put forth a massive effort to get the quick count going DESPITE the problems of Comelec officialdom and the massive confusion brought about on Election Day BECAUSE of Comelec failure to properly plan first, for automation, and then, switching back to the manual count.

1. The obvious strength and influence of surveys has again put into question what surveys are all about. For the better-informed, the science of surveys can be evaluated as to the quality of respondents (demographics), quality of survey-takers, construction and parameters of survey questions, and sample size. But to the viewing public, this is not well-understood. Media practitioners and of course political campaigners have their share of the blame why the survey issue as "trending" has been blown out of proportion.

Therefore, it is the selfsame media practitioners and established social scientists who should point out the fact that surveys are just tools. They are merely indicators and are not oracles.

What does this have to do with Namfrel? Everything and nothing. All Namfrel does is a parallel count. Volunteers get their results from the copies of the election returns. IF THE OFFICIAL COUNT is slow or delayed, definitely Namfrel's job is slowed. Bad weather and poor logistics slowed the count, while the new "matched-pair" system was done in by:

a) Delayed, and grudging accreditation by the Comelec, which hurt the usual timetable of Namfrel to organize and properly train volunteers
b) Technical difficulties encountered by the system during the first days of counting
c) Difficulties with securing ERs because BEIs refused to cooperate with Namfrel or gave the designated copy to other parties.

As to c), this has been nothing new since the Comelec historically has never had a good relationship with Namfrel. More on this later.

2. I have had both the privilege and the difficulty to have known Mr. Joe Concepcion for almost seven years and working directly with him for about four. The good man has been misunderstood and reviled for so many years. I cannot claim to defend him or vouch for him, because he has often shot himself in the foot with the way he talks (and acts). He has also on occasion, because of his willingness to help or get involved with the community, oversubscribed beyond his capacity to deliver on commitments. He has unfortunately shown that his politics are inconsistent (riding on the barometer of the occupant of MalacaƱang), and even more unfortunately, he has been associated with Mrs. Arroyo being her former boss at DTI.
However, he has been consistent in one thing: the nonpartisanship of Namfrel. Without the bullheadedness and determination of Mr. Concepcion, Namfrel would not have reached its current level. The organization has been trusted to serve in election-monitoring activities in 27 countries. That is the kind of integrity that cannot be lightly questioned.

Whatever the faults of Mr. Concepcion or of Bill Luz and MBC, they have not compromised on that, and have taken even greater pains to do so because of suspicions over their politics. I have had ideological disagreements with my ex-boss and sometimes with his attitude and methods, but he is solid on this point (which sometimes, again, hurts him more than helps).

The tragedy is that the times have created an air of cynicism that has tarnished the high ideals of volunteerism. Namfrel, thankfully, has not moved with the times in this respect. Public knowledge and approval of Namfrel, because of this cynicism, has noticeably declined, which is a shame.

3. Namfrel did not sign up for pollwatching activities because it has already recognized PPCRV as the primary pollwatching organization. I somewhat have to disagree over the declaration that "there has been no deliberate, massive organized cheating" by Mr. Concepcion but then again, why allege fraud if there has been no hard proof? Proof must be presented by those who allege cheating.

I have to agree that the energy of Namfrel in going after fraud has been a question mark. If there is a chink in the armor of Namfrel's integrity, is its current lack of alacrity (or perhaps resources) in the 2004 elections to go after electoral fraud.

4. I agree shutting down the OQC is a bit premature when there is less than 60% of the quick count completed. Moving the count to RFM must have its own attendant accessibility to media and the public at large. Whether Namfrel has adequate preparations for this I am not aware. If not, it has just given itself a mortal PR wound. It will never live down this kind of shot at its public image.

5. After all has been said and done, Comelec must take the blame for the difficulties in these elections. The Commissioners must be brought to account for the failure of the voter validation/registration, the generation of the voters' lists, and most especially, the way public money has been used on a failed and flawed automation project. If I were in Namfrel's shoes, prudent distancing from the Comelec should start NOW.

The Comelec-Namfrel relationship has been by and large a difficult one, as I think it should be. The raison d'etre of a Namfrel or similar EMO always brings into issue the efficiency, impartiality, and integrity of Comelec and our system of conducting elections. If the Comelec had a reputation for performance, what use Namfrel?

Part of the political maturing for us, methinks, is the evolution of demanding more from our electoral system. More than anything else, it is to safeguard the principle of "one-citizen, one-vote." There is more than enough reason to doubt its applicability for the Philippines, but that is another story.

6. No comment on the Brother Eddie thing. If the man has proof he has been cheated, he had better put his case together carefully but quickly. The window of opportunity for public perception to swing in his favor is fast closing.

Now to the editorial:

That’s what Namfrel chairman Jose Concepcion and his executive director Guillermo Luz will be -- criminals -- if they stop, before counting the very last vote out there, the Namfrel so-called quick count that seems less like it will take forever than that it is taking its sweet time until it gets returns it likes as opposed to those it fears.

Concepcion has made noises that Namfrel will stop its count at something like 75 percent -- and that in a baby’s butt-tight race where the remaining 25 percent definitely holds the secret of the true winner. And all the more so since Namfrel did not count the votes as they came but rather, it seems (and why are we not surprised?), as it felt like it. “Nope, not that batch; yup, that batch from Western Visayas. Nope, not those from Eastern Visayas, and, for God’s sake, not from that part of Mindanao. Give us rather those from Bukidnon.”

With that kind of suspected selectivity, Namfrel cannot arbitrarily stop a quick count it had the temerity to insist had to be exclusive -- fiercelessly and dishonestly battling and finally frustrating with the help of the Supreme Court the Comelec’s own proposed quick count, together with that of the now-gagged ABC 5. That second quick count would have swiftly put out a tentative total of the votes that would have deterred further cheating in the tallies and headed off at the pass the next stage of electoral fraud; to wit, the outright purchase of fresh certificates of canvass that are, for all intents and purposes, fraudulent originals.

But in fact, Namfrel has already folded its tent at La Salle Greenhills as of 12 noon Saturday, on the specious reasoning that its agreement with the Christian Brothers had expired. What about an extension? It’s not like La Salle has any use for the gym in the next two to four weeks; in fact until June 30, when the president and vice president will have been proclaimed, or the Senate president will finally taste the office however briefly. One utterly vivacious TV talk show host confidently declared that Namfrel is composed of people of integrity. Hahahahaha. Once perhaps, but people change -- and always for the worse.

In 1992, Namfrel was suspected of cooking the count to prevent the election of someone its members regarded as a lunatic. In 1998, with a landslide victory for the patently “unfit” winner, Namfrel did not stir. In fact, no one did, not even the losing administration candidate, because it was just so hopeless to even try to change the result. But now, in a race so tight that not a sliver of light seems able to slip through and it almost seems as if there isn’t the narrowest gap between the two candidates, it is imperative for Namfrel to finish what it started. And prevented Comelec and ABC-5 from doing parallel with it.

Given the fact that Namfrel’s credibility has been dented, the election watchdog must not only complete the count but do it in the open, in full view of the media and, more importantly, since the media have shown themselves to be biased and buyable, the opposition. If Namfrel does anything less than finish counting the very last vote -- whether faked or purchased -- our title would be fully justified.

Was it Namfrel executive director Bill Luz who said that the Namfrel volunteers are tired? But of what? Having taken their sweet time, why should they feel so harried? No, they have the energy to finish the count; unless they are saving it to save their hides if an ugly truth comes out. Sorry, boys, back to the bean counters.

Hang in there
Brother Eddie Villanueva, the charismatic preacher whose surprising ability to attract millions to his presidential candidacy was manifested in humongous crowds before the Quirino Grandstand that twice stunned his politically astute rivals and the jaded media, is under siege. He is obviously the target of a demolition campaign to force him to do what his conscience, not to mention good taste, forbids -- concede a race whose true outcome is still in doubt because of the methodical confusion of the elections and widespread allegations of rampant fraud that must be addressed first.

The attacks have gone so far below the belt that at least the latest one must have bruised Villanueva’s gonads. A patently planted or outright invented story in the press had it that several leaders of the Jesus Is Lord ministry are shunning him now because of his “irrational” decision not to concede. The Iscariots in his camp are said to be whispering it about that “something is wrong with the Master” because he must be hearing voices telling him not to concede when “he’s just a poor fourth” and not even the second placer. Excuse us, but no one at this point even knows who is the real second placer.

The story was pure invention, of course; Brother Eddie reiterated he is not conceding, citing as authority for his decision the painful patriotism of hanging in there to tease out the hard truth. Like Ping Lacson, he does not want to open the floodgates to more cheating by stepping aside for it.

For anyone to suggest, especially from the mouths of invented characters in a story that is pure fiction, that it is more Christian to concede than to stand by principle is to pose the proposition that Jesus should have listened to the Devil and let the cup of self-sacrifice pass from his lips. But if He did that, this season’s great movie of that passed-up crucifixion would not be called The Passion but The Fashion because he will have surrendered to the time.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Early Lessons

There are some changes I never expected to happen. We have to use skin moisturizers so that our skin won’t dry up like raisins with the omnipresent dust, etc. I haven’t even bothered using lotion before, and now I’m frantic to get the lotion on every morning before I leave for work!

I also used to be uncaring as to facial hair – but I did shave whenever possible. Now, I’m just shaving to regulate the growth of my beard, which I am growing in earnest. Arab males in general and Saudis in particular just have this thing for Filipino men, and even the best of Western education does not remove this cultural inborn repression. Muslim households over here must be really hard on the men. One Egyptian is trying to pick me up, for crying out loud! It reminds me of that odd feeling when I was the last customer in a cramped beauty salon and all the gay friends of the hairdresser arrived. I was the only straight man in the joint and there were nine of them – now I understand why most women don’t want to be ogled. Hehe – homophobia everywhere and now it creeps onto me.

I’ll try to be enlightened, but nevertheless, I shouldn’t “drop the soap.” Can you visualize those prison movies – shower scenes, etc.? It was a joke we came up with the night we celebrated my leaving. I gave the Egyptian the cold shoulder so maybe he won’t bother me anymore. Over the past few days, it seems to have worked (nyuk, expecting the visitor! Bwahahahahaha!). I guess like me, the pace of work is picking up for him.

I weighed myself just a few days ago and I am down to 100kg from 107kg arrival weight. That’s about 15lbs since I arrived (yehey---I think). I'm not entertaining any guilt feelings about eating, though I hardly go beyond my food budget allocation of SR20/day. It will be a good thing to remember since I have already acquired a refrigerator and will proceed to eat my way into, and then out of, it and my pantry.

I miss pork. Time was when I was still vegetarian and recovering from the condition that hospitalized me when we were eating at Leslie’s in Tagaytay and one of my best friends offered me a piece of liempo – literally daring me to eat the liempo at first and then putting our friendship on the line if I didn’t eat it (“kung talagang kaibigan mo ako, kakainin mo ang liempo na ito") – with all due apologies, I had to turn him down that time. Now I’m just making up for lost time, because pork is banned here!

Wake-up is at 5:00am though sometimes if I get to a bad patch I get awakened by Fajr-Salat (fa-jir sa’-la) or the dawn prayer, which by now starts at 3:15am. The mosque is just across the street so I have a front-row seat. I don’t mind at all, there is a semi-metaphysical quality to the experience of trying to ignore the prayer and trying to remember one’s own. At least the mosque affords a view instead of the cheap boxes they have for architecture here. I try my best to leave by 6:30am to make the most of the cooler morning hours and of course to avoid some traffic. Lots easier also to get a ride on the two-riyal specials which I share with four to five other passengers. If you can’t get on a two-riyal special, riding cabs would cost me at least SR15 (P225), which is too expensive, or more.

As I mentioned earlier, eating is less of a problem than it should have been, or as I expected. After all, I can cook my own food or buy Filipino food. I’ve tried the kabsa, which is just roast chicken on rice, but it's a generous helping of cholesterol since some versions use the oil that dripped during cooking or ghee (the Indian butter) liberally. Shawarma, also very good. Filafil (or Falafel), which is just the Saudi version of a burrito, also good. If you'll buy a burger, don’t buy the local burgers outside of the fastfood shops, the spices aren’t very good for you. There was one time I tried Indian food at the company cafeteria (because they ran out of Filipino food!). Very tasty, but very high on cholesterol. I must have had two days to get over the uric acid buildup in my ankles. And besides, I believe in the saying: you are what you eat. Eat more of the stinky stuff and you'll soon start smelling like it.

I'm not being unkind, but sometimes the Saudis, Arabs, and Muslim South Asians really stink. . . They just do, regardless of my opinion. During prayer time, ceremony dictates washing of hands and feet. Problem is, some of them wash their feet with their socks on. And then they put their footgear back on after prayer. However, some people spend a fortune on perfume, and some women can be smelled twenty feet away.

As to smells, there goes a story (of a lovely lady, ehem, joke) about this Keralese (Indian) receptionist hired by my boss when he worked for Jarir Bookstore, the largest book retailer in the country. His CV picture showcased his moviestar-like looks, so definitely there were plus points for him. On the phone interview the applicant's English was almost accentless. In short, he was hired. When he arrived in KSA, he smelled like a dead rat. My boss' Arab boss said, “Elmore, I know you hired that guy. But you have to tell him to do something about the way he stinks!” (Pity these people especially if you are riding with the guy in a crowded elevator). So Elmore tells him, bluntly but gently that he should take a bath every day. First day, o.k. Second day, o.k. Third day, late in the day, no good. Fourth day, the effect was over by mid-morning. Again Elmore takes note and says, “This time, you must also wash your clothes regularly.” First day, o.k. Second day, o.k. Third day, the stink was still there. The effect was so alarming that the boss says to Elmore: “If you don’t fix it, I will not only fire him, I will fire you, too.” By this time the poor employee is so self-conscious he did a combination of the following: first, when going to the office, he went together with the manual laborers to mask his smell. After which, he brought a change of clothes. Later on, the guy literally sprayed himself with air freshener to cloak his odor --- all to no avail. So Elmore takes pity on him and decides to take him to a doctor. It turns out he had an hormonal imbalance, and to top it all off, he had a bad case of nerves similar to stage fright. A few pills and finally the guy gets his B.O. under control within a week. At least there was a happy ending.

In the meantime, don’t praise an Indian or a Saudi on what he is wearing. For sure he will wear the darned thing for the entire week until it positively wears out. Meantime, everyone suffers.

I miss sports on TV since there was a service for the NBA (Star Sports) when I was at camp, but no access since I moved out. I can do without the games for the meantime, I can always read the recaps from the Internet. TFC will do for the moment even if Filipino network television sucks until I can get to buy a Playstation 2. I figure I can save more money that way – no need for satellite hook-up, etc. It also doubles as a DVD player. But let's see.

Two Wednesdays ago my boss sponsored a cook-out at his place. He lives in a modest two-room bungalow (about SR16000/year or about P19,600/month) about eight blocks away from my place or a good fifteen to twenty minute walk. Grills extravaganza - corn, tenderloin, tuna, chicken wings, plus crab and shrimp specially prepared for the occasion. Yummy! My boss didn't offer alcohol, though he had some for the others who were there. I drank some brewed Robusta coffee (which settled down my stomach, finally) and we all said our goodbyes by 11:30pm. The coffee, by the way, kept me up until 4:00am and I had to force myself to sleep otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get up early next day and have a headstart in the remittance center (despite all one’s preparations, no one can be prepared for Arabic inefficiency or rudeness when it comes to queues). I met a Filipino couple who wanted to offer another place – SR12,000 but two rooms only in a brand-new apartment building about five blocks south plus another eight blocks east from my place. O.k. but I don’t think it will be good for me to stay all on my own – and even if I share with another person that’s still SR500 per month. There are cheaper (but less convenient and smaller) apartments elsewhere. Besides, I’ve grown comfortable and moving is a real bitch of a thing here. Labor costs can kill you. Imagine – I had to pay a plumber P1500 for a P300 job over here to install my washing machine properly! At least the darn thing is automatic – open the water supply, slosh in the detergent, and during the rinse cycle put in the fabric softener, and then tada!

Sunday, May 16, 2004

First Impressions

Our apartment has “family” status, because the lease-holder is married and his company agreed to sponsor a family visa. His wife, however, does not live with us right now because she found a job in Riyadh and so she moved there together with their daughter. The other fellow was on vacation when I arrived but also works in the Industrial City where our office is located. He arrived last Sunday. In the beginning I lost the bearings on my natural compass so I relied mostly on landmarks. I used to be very proud that I could find my way anywhere in Metro Manila. In a few months, I can probably say the same here. I already walked the maze of Khobar (about 28 city blocks – I walked from end to end since the shops begin at 1st street and my flat is on 27th street) and pretty soon I will be able to tell which place is where. I bet if I get my own vehicle I will get around.

It's a shame there are no places to cruise and watch for girls that I know of. One can walk to a Ladies' Center (the only places for single women to get apartments - there is one about a five-minute walk away from the apartment, at the Silver Tower), but that's about it, because security guard meanies get in the way. Best of luck to anyone trying to get in there.
Getting a drink in a public place is out of the question as well. Another thing that is sadly true is the erosion of morality among our expats. Should there be any relations of men and women here, it is highly possible that they are illegal – meaning one or both are married back home. Bachelors are a favorite here especially if they have money.

Even worse is that some women have really taken to the oldest of all trades – prostitution – all the while keeping their day jobs. There is only one case I know of who has run away from her employer and then staying in the country illegally, surviving on the money given to her by her customers.

Gays for sale take the cake, though. Though I haven’t heard of any cases of “soliciting” around here, I’m sure that with the local grapevine you can get information on any kind of shit you need. It is for this and many reasons that Filipinos have earned a bad rep even though among all the non-Arab Asian expats we are better qualified than most excepting for some of the Indians in the technical positions. Definitely in the service sector Filipinos are preferred – shop salesclerks, restaurant managers, counter servers, tellers in some banks – Filipinos provide better service. Bad eggs really ruin the rest of the pile.

Meantime, it is fun to walk at night – just don’t bring a lot of money on you. Just stick to the main roads, walk where there are many people, and things are o.k. Until the humid season, that is. I walk almost every night if my other activities permit. On Fridays, though, I hardly go out because it takes until 4:00pm for all the stores to open and besides, I like sleeping in on a weekend. If I have to leave on Friday, maybe it will be to attend to errands or something like that. Before I bought a TV and hooked it up to TFC, sleeping time was about 11:00 to 11:30pm. I am running out of stuff to read. I finished all the books I brought with me when I left and I bought even more.

Work is starting to pick up, which is great. My objective is that I will work to clear my desk within two to three days. I don't aim for hero status, so I'm not moving all that fast.

Malling, on the other hand, is not a great option because there are no cinemas. I heard that in Bahrain there are cinemas. Anyhow, the malls are small compared to ours because the population here is not that big (the whole Kingdom supports about 18 million citizens and about 5+ million expatriate workers). There is a place for bachelor dining and another for family dining. The family section always has curtains so that the Muslim women can remove their face veils and eat their meals properly. The largest mall in Dammam/Khobar, Al-Rashid, has many such “ninjas.” In going about regular activities, one wouldn’t want to run in with the religious police or mutawwa. Some people cheat by buying fake marriage certificates so that they can go out with their girlfriends in public, though some people get away because it is not so strict over here.

The stories about corporal (and capital) punishment are all true. For those caught fraternizing illegally with females, males are imprisoned and then flogged (executions, public flogging with wooden staves, and other public punishments take place on Fridays, and broadcast over the papers) while the females are imprisoned for a few days and normally raped by their jailers. If repatriated, some of the women are likely to be raped by their DOLE handlers too. It’s a shitty thing. Our DOLE people have also been accused of the same in Malaysia and other places. What a world to live in. The tag “crime-free” no longer applies to KSA because Filipinos lose their wallets to snatchers or pickpockets, get held up in taxis, and in really bad cases, are raped by the drivers and/or stick-up men. Many crimes are committed by young males who are of school age but because they don’t qualify for university (bad study habits and lack of ability often the case) and are otherwise unemployed, they have nothing else to do.

Poverty is still a problem here, despite all the efforts of the government to engage their citizens in productive work. Welfare is still around but of course that is not the solution. You could imagine the huge budget deficit the government is running - I have a feeling they have practically sold their oil revenue for the next 10 years or so. Every other corner, there is a mosque supported by private initiative or by the government. Since Islam prohibits usury, loans for nationals are cheap, easy to acquire, and the rebate system on such loans is so friendly that loans are actually discounted. And the cost for social services! - education, health care, welfare - is so huge. Even with the "zakat" or mandatory contributions of business to government or other charities, the amount spent for maintaining the infrastructure and social services, not even including the high-tech weaponry acquired for the armed forces, so that this place can be considered "first-world" are prohibitive. Even so, there are some people who fall outside the system and get by "miraculously" by begging. Some beggars, mostly women, can collar as much as SR300 A DAY, but then they start feeding their dependents - which can cost a minor fortune.

Arrival, 2

I'm sure my reflections on life in Saudi Arabia during my arrival would bore the hell out of anyone. Sue me, I'll write anyway.

These are the best conclusions on life for a Filipino expat in Saudi Arabia:

  1. The sun is hot.
  2. Water here has high salt content because it is only desalinated from ocean water.
  3. Arabs stink, though maybe I'm being unfair.
  4. Indians also stink. Filipinos, in the usual way, have found a way to deride Indians by calling them "itik" or "pana."
  5. Saudis are very rude drivers.
  6. Gasoline is cheap. So is electricity.
  7. There are so many Filipino homosexuals. That is why, even heterosexual men are thought of to be gay too.
  8. It is hard to say whether Arab women are beautiful because the ones I've seen wear black veils and abayat all the time.
  9. You have a run of bad luck if you are a light sleeper and live beside a mosque, since early morning prayer will rouse you from sleep.
  10. One needs to use lotion to avoid dry skin.
  11. Avoid lining up at the remittance center at the start and end of each month because it will be an exercise in queueing. That is, if you hate queueing. Ditto for banks.
  12. Arabs love sweets. This is probably caused by the strong spices that they use in their food.
  13. Filipinos are real winners, above all, regardless of calling.

Work life is not that hectic (yet). My boss (who’s a Filipino) has a laissez-faire style but has a lot of demands - time to roll out those cramming skills. The big boss is a Saudi, since I don't think real positions of power will go to expats. There are two other Filipinos in the department. One of them is in charge of Training, and other handles Recruitment (who is exiting soon, so we have an opening for a recruitment specialist).

We have three personnel supervisors, one based here and the other two in the other two offices, who are all Indians. We actually have two other segments: Administrative Services (equivalent of Building Administration) which handles the building and other properties of the company (including the employee camps) and Personnel (which handles employee documentation, passport control, flight bookings, etc.). In those two areas, the people are mainly local or Indian. There is only one Filipino there, and he is likely to disappear too.

When I said that homosexuals are everywhere I mean it in the sense that even if the guy were straight back home, here he is a homosexual. I'd say the chances of a Filipino here being homosexual is 1 in 4. They work the beauty parlors in Khobar, a lot of the food establishments, and most of the secretarial positions. Skilled technicians, engineers, etc. are mostly straight, though there are some who are homosexual or are in a homosexual relationship. I don’t deplore the situation; it just is. My point only is that I don't want to be a "papa," and more importantly, I don't want one! (LOL!).

Saturday, May 15, 2004


I am glad GMA is winning. But she’s not out of the woods yet. I have been following the elections (and MTB, ang Saya-Saya!) on The Filipino Channel and at least part of the way, I feel as if I’m back home or just vacationing in some other part of the Philippines.

I arrived in Dammam, Saudi Arabia last March 22. It is my luck that on the maternal side of the family, I have two uncles, three cousins (and a cousin-in-law), and three other “relations” on the other side of my uncle’s family working in Saudi. One uncle is in Khobar, the other is in Khafji, which is due north near the Kuwait border. (He has since moved to Jubail, closer to Khobar, but still a good distance away - O.)

My uncle in Khobar is working for one of the companies in the same family-owned conglomerate that I work for (Edit: I've reconsidered posting the name of my employers, so I guess I would have to remove it. I'm no Queen of Sky who's about to lose his job). At the very least, I can say that the owning family is one of the magnates this side of the Kingdom, and they are into almost everything in FMCG, construction materials and services, and heavy industry. Their interests are widespread throughout the Eastern Province, of which the Dammam-Dhahran-Khobar axis is the principal metropolitan area, but collectively called Dammam. Dhahran is probably more familiar to most people.

I work in an industrial park area called Dammam First Industrial City. The office I have is a lot better than the one I left, in more ways than one. Though I cannot say that it is private, at least I have my own filing cabinet, I have my own cubicle and I relatively have some amount of personal space to call my own. Right now I haven’t been able to customize the space yet. (But I’m getting there, IF my supplies arrive). (Edit, February 2005: A struggle really, getting materials in this organization, even 11+ months into my service).

The primary purpose of hiring me is to make sure the policies of the three companies in this part of the conglomerate work properly and are part of the company culture. When I first arrived, I first stayed at the company-sponsored accommodation (a cool euphemism for "camp") in Rakkah, a district of the city. It is about 20 minutes away by bus from the office. At the airport, Kuya Ronnie (my cousin), who works in the X-ray Department, met me so we had a chance to hook up. Meantime, the company driver picked me up and brought me to the camp.

The camp is like a construction site home – prefab buildings, dormitories, a communal cafeteria and other amenities. There is no way to go around in the city if you do want to go … assuming you can find a taxi in this part of town. The room is well-appointed: small refrigerator, TV with cable (with just a few choices though), airconditioning, hot water in the pipes, and a little carpeting. Meals are served as early as four a.m., close at 7:30am for breakfast, and the evening meal is served from 7:00pm to 9:00p.m. At work, meals are served beginning 11:30 for the laborers and 12:00nn for staff, and close at 1p.m. Pity the fool (me being the fool in question) who comes in late for lunch, because by 12:20pm Filipino food will have been eaten. So you eat Indian food (more on this later). On weekends, lunch is served at camp.

There is no accessible public transportation from the camp to anywhere, so moving out was a priority. Plus, I was being charged SR52 a day for every cost that I had – of course they cleaned my room, had cheaper laundry service, and cooked my meals – but I had no freedom to do what I wanted.

We kept our own eating utensils to prevent pilferage at the camp. The first night I ate I forgot that I had my own eating instruments in my room and I had to fight with the food server (poor man) to get a plastic spoon. The fare is pretty much Filipino – there is a Filipino chef in service at the camp. So passed my first night.

At the office I did not get my computer until after two days and I didn’t even have my internet connection up yet, which ticked me off greatly. But anyway after one week everything was a bit okay.

Our work schedule is from Saturday to Wednesday and weekends are Thursday and Friday. Up to now it's a struggle to get the days right, as in I would refer to Friday when it's actually it's a Wednesday. The other guy will reply with the date, and schedules can get screwed up that way. I am thankful it hasn’t happened to me yet.

The first day I went to get a medical again – the urine, blood test, etc. I also had a malaria test. The medical was meant to ensure that I am fit (sorry, no way to cheat on medical, so to speak) for work. Once this is validated I will be issued my Iqama or residence permit, which basically says I am a qualified worker in the Kingdom. This document is so valuable that losing this will cost you about SR 1500 – about P18,000, though some said it costs as much as SR 2000 – so losing it will cost one dearly.

With an Iqama I can apply for a driver’s license, buy a SIM card for my cellphone, qualify to put down deposit and advance on an apartment, get a loan on my future salary, and even buy a car, which I’m sure I wouldn’t get until I saved up everything. It took over a month to get that document, which was a letdown and a frustration. Now that I have my Iqama, I was able to breathe more easily (finally!), send money back home and purchase a cellphone.

On my first nights going around town, I first visited Khobar, which is the area preferred by Filipinos but it has its own Pakistani, Indian, and Bangalis (Bangladeshis) quarters. Many of the shops cater to Filipino tastes. Dammam city proper, on the other hand, has more South Asians but there are some Filipinos there too. Dammam is also older, and the lay-out is not as distinct from what I have seen of Khobar, though both cities follow the traditional American city layout. It is just frustrating because the darned Saudis keep naming their streets after their royalty, and have no indications on the numbered streets. So, you may be referring to the same street (say, King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Road, which is a common name) or even a numbered street (there is a 14th Street in my area and another 14th street a few minutes away in a district called Aziziah), but the places are all scattered. So, people have nicknames like Dammam-Khobar Highway, Dhahran Road, Riyadh Road, or name the streets after the first establishments that got built there (like Expo Road, and Pepsi Road).

People who have visited the United States, particularly the Mountain States and the Midwest, would find themselves at home here except for the fact that the signs are mostly in Arabic. The plant life is mostly scrub, but in many places the government has endeavored to plant trees, flowering plants, and Bermuda grass, the watering of which must surely cost the government a pretty penny. The architecture is pretty much box-like, and the Arabic touches are mostly left to the cornices and columns. Structures are pretty much “modern”, i.e. ugly and cold. The only elegant architecture in this place would be best appreciated in the private palaces of the very rich and the mosques.

The highways are well-paved except for a few spots here and there, mainly because some of the trucks are too heavy! And the Arab drivers are probably the worst in the world, excepting some Filipinos on shabu.

Food… my first try was the local version of a value meal – Broasted Chicken. That’s about 4 pieces of chicken, a large serving of fries, and a large flat piece of pita (about 6 inches in diameter). Pita is refillable (as in you can ask as many as you want). This goes for about SR10, or about P150.00. This is the kind of meal one should order if you want to get stuff on the cheap. Shawarma goes for about SR3, which is also good enough, but the thing is too rich. There are several varieties, though at first I joked we should have chocolate or strawberry (which of course wouldn’t go down well with roast beef). Food at our familiar fast food joints, on the other hand, is too expensive. A Hardee’s (or Carl’s Jr. to Filipinos) roast beef sandwich meal is SR18.

When I arrived, it was still spring so the air was still nippy in the morning. It’s not advisable though to turn off the a/c unit because ventilation would also invite the omnipresent dust. Too much dust – there was even a sandstorm before my airconditioner got installed and I mistakenly forgot to board up the hole where my a/c was supposed to go. Thank God there was not much dust kicked up into the room, as I thought, but later on it took me three weeks to get rid of the dust.

As to the rest of life here, it’s the same as always, except that walking to downtown Khobar (which is a good 30 to 45 minutes away from my place) would be the best alternative for the usual weekend off.

Dammam and Khobar are on a north-south axis along the coast of the Persian Gulf, with Dhahran due west. Khobar is mostly residential and commercial. There is a park along the coast called Cornich (a generic term for beachfront) which is pretty much like Roxas Boulevard in Manila. It's a 2km stretch with space for picnics, rollerblading, jogging, and even a train. I jog there on Thursdays. It is about 30 minutes away on foot from my place.

Life and work and most everything else has settled down over here. I moved out of camp last April 15 and found my own apartment. Actually, I’m subbing for another guy who managed to find a cheaper apartment to share with someone else. But I don’t mind the arrangement that I got into – the apartment is in a quiet neighborhood (just beside a very nice mosque, by the way), it’s just a few paces away from the main highway where I can get a ride to work, and the room is big enough to match with most places back home.