Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Coccyxitis or How I Broke My Bottom

Ok, so first off, my bottom is NOT actually broken.  Inflamed, yes, broken probably not.  Starting last night I had really strong pain in my tail bone (coccyx).  Apparently it's the last bone of your spinal column and back when we were creatures with tails, if that ever was, this is the bone that would make up the end of the tail.  Oh, and when this little bone is in pain, you cannot sit at all.  I'm not joking, it is incredibly painful to put a lot of pressure on my tush.  After large doses of Excedrin, which taken late at night do nothing for your ability to sleep (each pill contains as much caffeine as a cup of coffee) and a cute little homemade rice heating pad, I could finally lie in bed and fall asleep.  Unfortunately, I have class at 10:30 on Tuesday mornings so going to Emergency wasn't going to be a realistic option unless I was willing to ditch class, and frankly I wasn't.  I was pretty glad I stuck it out, we toured the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) Lab for my Polymer class, and it was so cool.  Yes, this makes me ridiculously nerdy, but wow it was impressive.  After my last class ended around 2 I darted over to the medical clinic here on campus.  That was also pretty darn impressive.  I'm really grateful to have good medical insurance here.  Even though I went to emergency because I didn't have an appointment and honestly wasn't going to go through the trouble of scheduling one, it was still quick, relatively efficient, and free.  I've heard horror stories about how people wait all day in emergency rooms in the US and I'm so glad that wasn't the case here.  Unfortunately, since it's my tail bone that is the problem, there is very little they can do to help me.  So after a couple of prescriptions for pain and anti-inflammatorys, we were done.  Since sitting down is a major issue, most people with tail bone problems use a doughnut  pillow to sit.  But, they don't have any here.  So I'm going to be doing a lot of standing in the next week or so because the only other option is lying down and it is really quite hard to get anything done when lying down (big surprise).

Since I'll be working standing up for awhile, Steve improvised me a workstation!  It's pretty clever, just one of the small end tables stacked on top of the coffee table and it's the right height for working and computing!  Thank goodness for small wins.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Trips to Jeddah

This weekend we took another trip to Jeddah.  We're looking for a kitten, but aren't too keen about picking up a stray from around campus.  Getting around Jeddah is an interesting experience all by itself.  There are weekly trips scheduled to a few of the malls in Jeddah and to the International hospital.  The more we go to Jeddah, the more malls we find.  We've been to four different malls, and honestly they're all the same for the most part.  The Mall of Arabia did have a really cool indoor amusement park which included a water slide!  Anyway, after a lot of searching online and talking to the vet clinic here on campus, we were able to get a decent idea of where a pet store was in Jeddah.  Finding this out was no small feat, because unlike in the US where you can just Google a business and find their address and phone number and such, you can't really do that for businesses here.  We did manage to find a blog that mentioned a specific store that actually did have a website; it turned out to be pretty close to one of the vet clinics in Jeddah so the vet here on campus drew us a general map of the area.

After getting to the Mall of Arabia, we then had to catch a taxi to the pet store.  Again, no small feat.  The key seems to be to find a driver who speaks enough English to actually understand where we want to go.  Thankfully it only took a couple of tries to find a taxi driver who knew where to take us.  The trip to the store was terrible on my nerves.  I feel like everyone here drives like they're the most important people on the road and everyone should get out of the way.  Lane lines, turn signals, seat belts, and even medians all seem to be suggestions when driving in Jeddah!  After only one minor slow down from traffic (the police were checking if taxi drivers were wearing seat belts, apparently it's a 100SAR ($27) fine if they don't) we managed to make it to the pet store.  We had a really interesting "conversation" with the taxi driver which started with him asking whether we liked Bush or Obama.  Talk about an awkward question.  I can't really say this is really the place where I would wear my political affiliations on my sleeve, so it was interesting to see that the taxi driver supported Obama and thought Bush was bad.  He also liked Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter, but I honestly don't know much about Carter at all.

We darted to an electronics store to get a printer cable, since the printer we bought didn't come with the necessary one.  We're still looking for a slow cooker, I swear one day we'll find one mixed in with the rice cookers and what a day that will be!

We got to the pet store right as they were closing down for one of the prayers so we had to hang around outside the store for about 20 minutes until they opened back up.  It's always so much nicer to get stuck inside the store, rather than outside; with big stores like the hyper markets they just close you in the store until they open again.

Sadly, they did have super cute kittens, but they were way over priced.  There's no way we would reasonably spend 1,000 SAR (~$280) just for a kitty!

So we ended up back at the Mall of Arabia and settled for dinner at TGI Friday's where I got the best mudslide (nonalcoholic of course) and then did a bit of shopping.  I really needed a new sweatshirt.

Now we're going to wait and see if we can find/capture a stray kitty from around campus.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Kite Adventure

With the good wind here on the Red Sea, we decided to try out the kite we brought with us.  We got a Symphony Beach 1.7 m kite while honeymooning on St. Martin back in July and had only gotten to fly it once since buying it.  We wanted the 1.3 m which apparently was more of a beginner kite whereas this one calls itself intermediate.  Anyway, it's a bit of work to keep it in control and up in the air!

We flew the kite on the football (soccer) field at the park near our apartment.  It's a really quick bike ride to the park and they've done a couple of campus events there this year.

This is unfortunately how our kite ended up more often than not.  It was really hard to control since it had two lines instead of one.  We both made it nose dive straight into the ground a couple of times and the poor kite took some pretty hard impacts.

Cute little gazebo in the park. 

Some housing near the park.  I think this is where faculty and administrative staff live with their families.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Our Weekend

Weekends here are on Thursday and Friday, so we've spent the last two days hanging out enjoying a few days off class and job searching.  We had dinner at Quizno's here on campus tonight, trying it for the first time; let me tell you it definitely left something to be desired.  The food was decent, but it some ways it doesn't live up to Subway where they let you customize to your hearts content.  The level of service here is just lack luster non existent.  It took three tries to tell the worker that I did in fact expect lettuce on a veggie sub. Three tries. No wonder I don't look forward to trying to buy anything here, because any verbal communication necessary takes at least twice as long as it should and is flat out exhausting.  We tried to get Quizno's last night, but for some reason by 6:30 pm they were "Close" (I promise that's what their sign says!).  Now I don't know why they were "close" so early and they couldn't seem to tell us their working hours when Steve asked.

After dinner, we took a few pictures of us together.  We haven't really taken any together since the summer so it was definitely time for some new ones!

So it turns out, neither one of us can look in the right place at the right time, oh well.

On a final note, I found this the other day.  It is definitely worth reading and really made me consider what was on my to-do list.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

To Bake or Not to Bake

We've been doing a tiny bit of baking lately, some purposefully and some to make up for other baking mistakes.

First, we made these delicious chocolate chip cookies.  They claim to be the best chocolate chip cookie recipe out there, and while I can't say definitely that they're the best they certainly were delicous!  We only have 1 cookie sheet and a smaller than average size oven so we rolled most of the dough into individual cookie balls and then froze them.  It was beyond amazing to pop half a dozen cookies into the oven and in 10 minutes (they need less time when already frozen) get a batch of cookies!

Are these not the most beautiful cookies you've ever seen?  They're certainly the prettiest cookies I've ever made!

Unfortunately I really wanted to try out this Brownie Pillow Cookie  but with a single bag of chocolate chips running about $4.20 here it was going to be almost $20 worth of chocolate to make this recipe plus the Outrageous Brownies  that would make up the "pillow" part of the cookie.

Our next foray was into one of my absolute favorite recipes, Banana Bread Cake.  Banana bread is good in so many different ways.  You can make it like a cake, in a bread pan so you can slice it like bread, or in a muffin pan to get individual banana bread muffins.  Right now we're making it cake style since we don't have a bread pan or a muffin pan.

We also made a loaf of bread, sorry no pictures from that, it just didn't last very long!  Our second attempt at bread did not rise at all, so instead of giving up on it we turned it into breadsticks and an elephant ear type snack.

For the breadsticks we just rolled long ropes of dough and baked them in the oven until browned and delicious.

For the elephant ears, we rolled the dough very thin and fried it up in some oil until crispy. We then added some cinnamon and sugar, but powdered sugar would have been better!

Steve frying:

Final product:

Up next we're going to give wheat bread a try.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Beach Trip

Here are some pictures from our recent trip to the beach on campus.  And by on campus, I really mean a short bus trip south of campus past the trailer park where all of our service workers are housed.  I would have liked to take a picture or two because it seems sad that while they spend their days toiling to make sure our every needs are met, they live in tiny little trailers.

Anyway, the beach was nice, really hot, but nice.  Swimming in the Red Sea was like taking a really salty bath.  The water is quite warm, too warm to be refreshing honestly.

The beach had cute umbrellas to sit under.  Steve and I spent a couple hours lying around enjoying the weather.  It was incredibly windy the entire time we were there.  It's probably because we're right on the sea, but it is surprisingly windy here almost all of the time.  It makes me wonder why they don't do more with wind turbines here.

They do wind surfing lessons at the beach.  And you can rent boats and such.  We haven't done awesome stuff like that, but we did go on a little cruise over Eid which was a lot of fun.  And they're starting to do snorkeling trips, so we're thinking about doing some snorkeling here in the near future.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Maintenance -or - The Knighting of Sir Bennett

I would love to rant about the maintenance issues that we have and continue to have, with our apartment. I could go on for pages about what was done wrong. But I think I would be happier just to give you a brief account of what happened and move on.

It all started when I heard what I thought sounded like dripping just before going to bed. In the end it was just water in the drain pipes from the apartment above ours, but at the time it worried me. The next morning I decided to poke around in the ceiling to check for any water. We have a whole bunch of access panels in our ceiling, so naturally I wanted to take a look in them.

It turns out that above each floor is a two or three foot high plenum for return air, which also hides all the wiring and plumbing (well at least the plumbing and wiring that is not cast into some of the solid concrete walls). When I first looked up there I was really disgusted by all the trash and dirt left up there, which all of our air must flow over on its way back to the air conditioner.

Things that I found in the ceilings:
-A really nasty old broom
-Several kg of sand and gravel
-numerous cups, bottles and food wrappers
-a box of 50 light bulbs (which is actually pretty cool, because all the ceiling lights are little halogen bulbs, which are hard to find and expensive)
-fiberglass drywall joint tape
-tons of extra wiring conduit
-a bunch extra of metal ceiling beams

I wonder if to meet the LEED requirement for low construction waste they hid extra trash in the ceilings...

So, anyways, I saw that there was a huge amount of mold above my closet. So I tapped on the false back of my closet, to see if it was wet or dry, and it just fell out, the nails holding it in being rusted, and the wood that they were holding it to being waterlogged. Here is what I found behind the closet:

I called up maintenance, and had a confusing conversation, which resulted in the opening of two "tickets":

-00102232: Moulds behind the closet in the bedroom. Need to check and replace.
-00102234: Closet full of water. Need to check and replace.

Anyone who has worked with the ticket system for IT or maintenance before will know that it can be a terrible or wonderful system, depending on how well the rules are written, and how strictly they are followed. They follow the rules very very well here, probably because their jobs depend on it. But the rules appear to have been written very poorly.

I was called once or twice a day over a period of a week while the work was being attempted. The calls were almost always exactly the same: "Hello sir, Mr. Steven Bennett, I am calling from [indecipherable] about your moulds behind the closet. Is the issue resolved? May I close the ticket?" And I would respond something like: "No, nobody has even come to look at it" or (at around two in the afternoon) "They were supposed to be here at 10AM to do the work, but they never showed up" or "They are here right now working" or (after the first failed attempt) "The moulds and the water are still there, but they have a nice new coat of paint over them"

Evidently they take complaints very seriously, because after I wrote "I am not yet satisfied, more work needs to be done" at the bottom of one of the sheets that the workers need to get signed when they finish a job, I was knighted! From then on the calls started with "Hello Sir Bennett, ..." and even the workers started calling me "Sir Bennett" or "Boss".

So they sent out an inspector to take pictures of the mold to send to a supervisor. When the inspector discovered that the closet had already been put back in place, and that he would have to stand on a chair and take pictures from in the ceiling, he asked if we had taken pictures of the mold while it was visible. When I told him we had he asked me to transfer them to his SD card. Later I was instructed to email the pictures myself to the supervisor.

Hmm, here goes another try at the "Brief Account":

After two days the workers came back and agreed to cut out the waterlogged drywall, even though it would be alot of work. In the process of doing this they found that the air conditioning line was still dripping as I had told them. They said it was just condensation, and told us to never open up the window curtains because it would "let in sun, makes much moisture". That was the third or fourth visit from the same HVAC guy, and he was getting upset that we had the nerve to set our thermostats above 15C (59 F).

Eventually the quality of the work, and my willingness to have our bedroom torn apart day after day reached a nice little equilibrium, and I just told the guy on the phone that Sir Bennett surrenders, and to close the ticket.

Interestingly, they didn't know what to make of the "closet full of water ticket" and we had people coming by to look at our water closet. I took that great opportunity to have them look at our downstairs bathroom toilet which had recently started to leak.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Building Fail?

For all of the really great pictures there were from our apartment, there are easily an equal number of pictures showcasing everything they did wrong when they built this place.  Most of the crappy construction is a result of an incredibly hasty building schedule and a large force of unskilled labor.  I think these buildings could have been much better constructed if it weren't for the major time crunch.  But when you make a deadline, I guess you do whatever it takes to get it completed on time.

So first up is an awesome door caulking/sealing job:

And if it weren't for all the ants, we wouldn't need to put poison all over the house like this.

 Turns out that cleaning up after finishing the building wasn't a priority for them either.  This is some of the stuff we pulled down from the ceiling accesses as we were doing some cleanup/maintenance/nosing around.

Cleaning writing off the glass wasn't a big deal for them either.

Painting well apparently falls into the realm of skilled labor here, because they decided our tiles needed some paint too.

Caulking peeling around the tub.

Grouting wasn't a major skill set for them either as seen below.

And of course, when they broke some tiles, instead of replacing them with new tiles, they just added more grout!

Measuring, which you would think is necessary for building, apparently was more necessary than they thought.  The cover for the toilet flushes don't line up with the hole in the counter top that was cut for it.

Again, the grouting issues propagated in the shower.  Our shower floor and walls look like junk.  There's grout all over the tiles where they let it dry completely.

And finally, they plastered over all of the ceiling accesses so when they get used, the edges get really beat up and start to crack.  Since we've had to get into some of them several times, they're starting to look pretty bad.

Despite all of of the poor construction, this wasn't the worst of it.  A few weeks after moving in we found mold in the bedroom.  Maybe next time we'll talk about the disaster it was cleaning that up!

On a side note, Steve finally got his Iqama (residence permit).  It only took six weeks when they said it would take two.  Now we're in the process of applying for Exit/Reentry visas so we can leave and reenter the country to travel!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Cooking Club

A few weeks ago we attended an event started by one of our new friends here, Cooking Club.  Steve and I both enjoy cooking and I thought it would be interesting to see how others were handling cooking here.  We've had some stress finding certain ingredients and getting used to a new variety or lack of variety as compared to a typical Wal Mart in the States.  We made two main dishes, a side, and a dessert.  The two main dishes were Tikka Masala and Ratatouille neither of which we had made before.  I've considered Ratatouille in the past, but considered the all vegetable dish to not be up my alley.  The side dish was rice pilaf, which we had made before.  The dessert was Reine de Saba cake, a great chocolate and almond cake.  In regards to cooking, I wouldn't say we learned any new techniques, but it was so much fun be around so many people.  I'd say there were easily 40ish people there.  One of the tricky parts about the event was the location.  The single (as in non married) students live 2 or 3 to an apartment so their kitchens are a really nice size where as married students get pretty small kitchens by comparison.  However, single students can only have students of the same gender in their apartment, whereas married students don't have that restriction.  So the event ended up being hosted at the apartment of one of the other American couples.  The small kitchen was a bit of a hassle, but it was still a lot of fun.  Hopefully, we'll have another event here in the upcoming weeks as the group didn't meet because of the Eid holidays.

Recipes, in case you're interested:

Tikka Masala
Serves 4-6
Prep/Cook Time: 30-40 minutes

2-4 Chicken breasts (or leave out)
1 cup thick plain yogurt
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 Tbs butter (28 g)
28 oz Tomatoes, diced (790 g)
1 yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs Ginger, minced or grated
3 Tbs Garam Masala spice mix
1 Tbs Cumin, ground
1 Tbs Coriander, ground
1 Tbs Sugar
1/2 tsp Cayenne pepper
Optional: 4 Tbs cilantro, chopped

1. Season and press chicken with salt, pepper, coriander, and cumin on both sides.  Brush both sides liberally with yogurt.
2. Broil chicken near top until done and slightly blackened about 10 minutes for each side.
3. Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat and saute diced onion until it softens, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic, ginger, and salt and continue to saute for 2 minutes.
4. Add Garam Masala and tomatoes, then stir.  Add sugar and let cook 5 minutes.  Add cayenne pepper.
5. Chop broiled chicken into 1" pieces and add to pan.  Add cilantro if desired.
6. Add heavy cream and stir.  Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
7. Serve over Rice Pilaf

Serves 4-6
Prep/Cook Time: 1 hour

3 Tbs Olive Oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
5 cloves of garlic, minced
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1/3 cup Dry red wine or bouillon
1 Tbs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried
1/4 cup fresh basil or 2 tsp dried
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped 1" pieces
3 small zucchini, 1/2" thick slices
1 large green pepper, 1" squares
1 large red peper, 1" squares
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

1. Heat oil in a large heavy pot.  Saute onions until trasnlucent.  Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes.
2. Add tomatoes with their juice, wine/bouillon, thyme, basil, bay leaves, salt and pepper.  Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
3. Add eggplant, zucchini, and green and red peppers.  Simmer covered for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.  Stir occasionally.
4. Stir and serve.

Reine de Saba Cake
Serves 6-8
Prep/Cook time: 40-50 minutes

Round cake pan, 8" diameter, buttered and dusted with flour
4 oz semisweet chocolate (113 g)
2 Tbs coffee or rum
8 Tbs butter, unsalted (113 g)
2/3 cup Sugar + 1 Tbs
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup Almonds, pulverized
1/4 tsp Almond Extract
1/2 cup cake flour

Chocolate Butter Icing:
2 oz semi sweet chocolate (56 g)
2 Tbs Coffee or rum
6 Tbs butter, unsalted (85 g)
(Follow Step 1 then cool slightly before spreading)

1. Place chocolate and coffee/rum into double boiler and heat until chocolate begins to melt, then remove and stir until combined.
2. Cream butter and 2/3 cup sugar until fluffy.  Beat in egg yolks until well blended.
3. Beat egg whites and salt in separate bowl until soft peaks form, sprinkle with 1 Tbs sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Blend chocolate into batter, stir in almonds and extract and immediately stir in 1/4 egg whites.  Alternate adding flour and egg whites until incorporated.
5. Pour into pan, pushing batter to rim.  Bake in middle level for about 25 minutes.  Done when cake is puffed, and center is a bit oily.  Cool for 10 minutes, loosen edge then reverse onto rack.