This is the hottest part of Saudi Arabia's year: mid-July, and the afternoon temperature hovers around 120 degrees fahrenheit every day. Stepping out the front door feels like stepping into a clothes dryer. The sky is a bleached-out off-white, and I can feel the heat of the pavement through the soles of my shoes. My skin is sucking up moisturizer, the humidifier in the bedroom is cranking out about half a gallon of water every night, and my nose still feels crunchy in the morning. The flowers I bought at the market two days ago have already dropped all their petals. What was I thinking, anyway, buying flowers? This is the desert, no joke.
Many of the expat mothers and children have decamped back to their home countries for the summer, and what was already a sleepy little compound is now even quieter. A few new families have recently arrived on camp, staggering under the blast of their first Saudi summer, having to adjust to the heat along with culture shock and new jobs and everything else all at once. Michael and I are sticking it out right here for the month of July. It's our first summer here, and there's a bit of a learning curve.
For example, walking the scant quarter mile to the grocery store and back is just not something you do in the middle of the day. For one thing, your groceries will be wrecked: anything frozen will be melted, and anything refrigerated will be warm. And as for you: after the walk you'll probably need to sit on the couch in the air conditioning and drink a few glasses of cold water to regain equilibrium. A healthy, active life that includes outdoor sports and play is not to be had here in the summertime. One of my yoga teachers in India told me that I need to be outside every day. I need to garden, get my hands and feet in contact with the earth, to "ground" myself for my own good health. Sounds great, but seriously, it's not going to happen right now.
So, what to do? A few times, I have gotten up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and gone out for a walk or a bike ride just after sunrise, before the heat of the day takes hold. This is a beautiful time: the soft light blushes the sand into the colors of a peach, and the sky is a clear, pale blue. Later in the day, colors seem flat and bleached out, but in the 5 o’clock hour, on the silent ribbon of road around the back of town, the palette is fresh and subtle. Also, the birds are especially chatty. I always see hoopoes and bulbuls on my morning outings, and the trees in my neighborhood are noisy with birdsong just after sunrise. It’s nice to listen to the desert quiet punctuated by the bright sounds of morning birds.
So I can get up early. Oh, but I am not at all a morning person. I am always glad when I have gotten up to enjoy the early hour, but making myself get up is nearly impossible. I must give myself a stern talking-to! This is one of those things, like any personal discipline, that I don't have to like, I just have to do. And by doing, I inevitably reap a reward greater than I had expected.
The other strategy is to go outside at night. It's still hot, indeed. But it's not as blistering, and plus it's dark. There is something soothing and cooling about being outside at night. Michael and I have vowed to sit outside more after dark. It's nice to sit together outside with a dessert or a cool drink just for a little while. Having a time-out from the air conditioning feels good, at least for a few minutes.
Aside from the issue of getting outside, there is the question of what to do with all of our inside time. There's not a lot of night life going on around here! There are no new restaurants to try, no concerts or art openings, no bands playing at the local bar. The World Cup games were a great distraction, but now they're over, and there's nothing! Plus, with so many people gone for the summer, there is hardly any social life happening even in our neighbors' living rooms. I imagine that getting through a summer in Saudi Arabia is a lot like getting through a winter in northern Canada, or Scandinavia. You hunker down. You get creative.
I am learning French using Rosetta Stone. I have taken on some more writing work. Michael and I are playing a lot of chess. My computer rings a little alarm every hour to signal me to drop down on the floor and do push-ups, sit-ups, crunches. I read. I do Sun Salutations. I write. I cook. There are actually plenty of things to do, and I'm not getting bored. But my brain feels a little staticky; there is definitely a short circuit that happens when I go for days without leaving the house. My fuse gets shorter. The people closest to me start giving me cues that I am being intense, argumentative.
This is, in all seriousness, a beautiful opportunity to learn some self-control, some self-discipline, and to Get Things Done. I think I'm doing a fairly good job of it, all things considered. But I sure am looking forward to August 1st, when I fly out of here once again. Next, I am going to Brussels to visit a friend for a few days, then to Paris, and then to a farm in Normandy, where I will be weeding and helping to harvest organic produce. There! Plenty of dirt under my fingernails in a few short weeks.
Next year, Michael will probably be able to take his annual leave during the high summer season, so neither of us will have to slog through another Saudi July. I am glad to have this opportunity to experience a Middle Eastern summer, but just the once'll do it.