Saturday, March 31, 2012

Locum duty at Zalm: The next two days

In Saudi Arabia and most other Arab countries, Thursday and Friday, as you are well aware, dear readers, are equivalent to Saturday and Sunday of the non-Arab world. On these two days, the specialist doctors are generally free to relax in their homes or do whatever they please to do, unless they are on call, in which case, they have to remain in the town. If not on call, one can also leave the town and go anywhere else in the country.

Most of you must not be aware that Zalm was the original town they were planning to send me to when I passed the interview for selection last year. In fact, when I called up the Department of Medical Recruitment in New Delhi (I got their number by searching Just Dial, an amazing service), I was told that Zalm was the place they had selected for me to go to once my travel was confirmed. In fact, my printed contract mentions Zalm, not Al Muweh. So, what made them change their decision?

Two things: One, I was considerably delayed in coming to Saudi Arabia (nearly 7 months, since I gave the interviews in late April, and eventually came in mid-November). In the interim, they appointed other doctors in Zalm, and my position was no longer available, In fact, the pediatricians now working in Zalm include the Egyptian Dr. Hani, whose locum I had gone to serve, and one Dr. Rajkumar, a Haryanvi Indian. Both have joined last year much after April. The second reason was the untimely exit of the Egyptian pediatrician in Al Muweh, a giant of a doctor by the unusual name of Dr. Bakry. His departure in October created a vacancy, which I was then asked to fill. I thought of sharing this with you since the news is relevant to my current post.

Back to the diary then. My weekend was spent in Zalm. I had a total of seven calls during these two days. Of these, five were sore throat, and the remaining two were cases of lower respiratory infection (similar to but not the same as bronchitis in adults). In addition, I had a delivery room call to attend the birth of an essentially normal newborn.

On 'Thursday evening, one of the Pakistani resident doctors (Dr. Inam Bari) and I went to have dinner at a local restaurant run by three Pakistani brothers. The restaurant is called the "Punjab Hotel" and serves excellent food. We had minced meat (kheema), chana dal, peas-potato curry (alu mutter) and rotis, followed by tea. Enjoyed this very much. On Friday, I got some of the food back to my room where I had it in the company of Dr. Prakasan (though he did not touch the kheema, being a patient of peptic ulcer disease.)

Day 134, Wednesday, 28th March, 2012: Zalm

The vetical shades that hid the night from view did nothing to keep out the early morning sun as they were white. Thus, I woke up at about 5:00 a.m.! I snuggled back inside the covers and slept some more in the new environs of my shared room in the campus of Zalm General Hospital, and wondered what the day had in store for me. Finally, my room-mate and I both got up at a little after 7:00 a.m. and dressed to go to the hospital for the day's work. 

 Earlier, I was called to the ER twice to see some sick children, and so, I had had less sleep than what I normally get, but both the children, thankfully, had nothing serious, and I could dispatch both of them after some basic tests and a prescription that they could continue the treatment with, at home.

The adjoining photo and the one below show the ER of the hospital.
A view of the parking lot outside the main hospital building

Zalm, like Al Muweh hospital, is more like a primary health center. and although it has intensive care units, a fully functional operation theatre, and all the equipment money can buy, these facilities are not in use, either due to the lack of trained personnel or the lack of initiative. It is also possible that many such hospitals all over Saudi Arabia are meant to serve just local communities in lieu of a robust private medical practice set-up in this country. Most of these hospitals are staffed by expatriates, such as doctors from other countries of the Arabian Gulf, Pakistan, India and so on, nurses from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, and so on, and subordinate staff from the entire Indian peninsula including a horde of people from Bangla Desh.  

Only the admininstrative staff is local, and is culled from the same region as the hospital. The situation in Zalm was no different, but the difference was that the administrative staff seemed a whole lot more competent than the ones I have met elsewhere. The hospital itself looks shiny and new, and most of its departments are functional and well-maintained. The resident doctors were all respectful and polite, the nurses, extremely charming, friendly and efficient, and the subordinate staff , helpful and keen. 

The next few pictures are of the room allotted to me (the one on the extreme left), and the access route to it from outside the hospital. 

The door that leads to the stairs on the first floor to the doctors' residence area

The entrance door to my room
 The next three pictures show the door of the room I shared with Dr. Prakasan, the room itself (with my bed) and the chairs in the lobby outside where the canteen service left our lunches and dinners for us to come and collect it ourselves. To their credit, however, it must be said that the lunches were packed hygienically. The main problem was that all the lunches were identical to each other, with sheer monotony preventing me from partaking of the dinner served to me on the next two days, but more of that later. 
My room

The lobby chairs
Sister Gracie in the Pediatric OPD
Today being a working day, I was required to stay in the out-patient department from eight o'clock till four p,m,, with an hour's break from noon till 1:00 p.m. for lunch and afternoon prayers. The nurse in the Pediatric OPD was one sister Gracie, a Filipino who was very efficient. Of course, it is quite a thing to say that she was efficient, because we saw a grand total of just FIVE patients, none critical, over the entire spell of seven hours! During the day, I also managed to hospitalise one child from the ER, a case of sore throat with high fever, and in the night, one infant with an accidental ingestion of one or two tablets of an antidepressant that his grandmother was using at home. Both the children stayed in the hospital for just one day, going home the next day. 

All my meals were sponsored by the hospital, and on Wednesday, I ate my breakfast and lunch in the canteen. Dinner was sent to the doctors' quarters and was left on the chairs outside in the lobby as it was the night before. 
Dr. Prakasan, my room-mate

Alfaaz, at the cafeteria outside the hospital
After clinic hours, I went back to the room and whiled away the evening doing this and that - but mostly surfing the net and reading some stuff from the study material I was carrying with me. At about a quarter to six, Dr. Prakasan and I went out for a small amble, reaching one of the only two main arterial roads, where we crossed over to the opposite side to have tea in a local cafeteria. The sole person who served us our tea was a fellow-Indian by the quaint name of Alfaaz. He comes from Allahabad, the city in Uttar Pradesh which is on the bank of the river Yamuna. (This is also the city from where the great Amitabh Bachchan came to Mumbai to become a huge, huge superstar and a movie thespian the like of whom I have not seen in my entire life-time.)

After tea, we returned to the hospital, where perchance, I discovered that there was a password-protected wireless signal on my mobile. With some poking around, I had the password, and so, I sat near their "control room" and surfed the net for free for about an hour or so. At about half past eight, I went outside for my daily walk. Out of the hospital, I walked all the length of the small village and back, to register a distance of 3.25 km. I stopped at a grocery/convenience store for a banana and a bottle of water. Arriving back in the hospital, I continued walking around the hospital for some more time, so that I had logged in 5.25 km in all, burning about 250 calories. (My Samsung Ace has a downloaded app called Sports Tracker which uses GPS technology to monitor your exercise after you have entered in all the details. It will also display your speed, your pace, the map of the path you took, and if you connected a heart-rate monitor, a graph of the heart rate that you achieved during the given exercise. It also allows you to share the exercise parameters on Facebook and other social applications if you are connected to the net.)

After this, I returned to my room where Dr. Prakasan and I had dinner, and after some chatting with him, I opened my PC to surf the net. I went to sleep at a little after one a.m. 

That's it for now.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 133, Tuesday, 27th March, 2012, Ta'if and then, Zalm

If you have read my post for yesterday, you probably already know that I spent the night in Ta'if after some unusual twists in my Monday story. Today, I was to perform tasks for my other friends in Ta'if. I was to get some documents from the Saudi Council office for the newly joined Syrian surgeon Dr. Majid Shaaib, and to visit the CPR office to fix an appointment for Dr. Sadiya, the Pakistani resident doctor for her course in Basic Life support. I accomplished both the visits on my own, but with considerable on-telephone assistance from Dr. Tariq Khan, the Peshawari surgeon who works in Ta'if at the King Faisal hospital here. I have had the honour to befriend him earlier this year when he, like Dr. Asadullah, and one Dr. Aly Kamran (also a Pakistani surgeon) had visited Al Muweh to substitute for Dr. Shahid Hasan who was on vacation in India. I finished both my visits before the afternoon prayer, and then contacted Dr. Asad to help me reach the SAPTCO bus stand (with a small diversion to Panda to purchase some stuff -esp. food) for my return trip to Al Muweh. 

I was to go to Zalm to replace their Pediatrician today evening, and I was planning to reach Al Muweh well before my scheduled departure at about 4:00 p.m. as I had not yet packed my bags etc. I was quite optimistic that I would be able to reach well in time since I was informed by my more senior friends that buses to Riyadh (and therefore stopping at Al Muweh) would be available every half an hour. Accordingly, I was not worried. Then, something happened that changed my equanimity. I got a call from the Pediatrician at Zalm at about half past twelve p.m. He sounded distressed and asked me when I was reaching there as he wanted to leave early. I was shocked, and being inexperienced in the realities of life, quite panicky when I informed him that I was nowhere near Zalm and, in fact, still in Ta'if, as my medical director had told me I would be leaving after As'r prayers. My planned visit to Panda turned into one filled with anxiety. My repeated attempts to reach my medical director failed as he would not pick up his cell phone. Eventually, when I got through to him through another doctor's phone, he was reassuring when he said that as per his talk with me earlier, I would not be required to go before about 5:00 p.m., and that I should not worry. Even so, I remained anxious and did not buy anything except a 6" Subway Chicken Teriyaki sandwich to eat on the way to Al Muweh in lieu of lunch. Dr. Asad left me at the bus stand at about ten minutes before one o'clock, but as this was time for salaah, there was no one to sell the tickets. The ticket window eventually opened at a little after 1:00 p.m. I was first in the queue, but an old Saudi fellow jumped ahead of me and about 5 other people in the queue to request for a ticket for his (probably) grandchildren and daughter-in-law. His ticketing took another fifteen minutes. After this was my turn. I expected to board a bus in the next ten minutes, or at about half past one, but, unfortunately, there was no bus till 2:00 p.m. I was getting worried now about the time I would reach Al Muweh. I remained restless as I waited for the bus to arrive.

It did, in fact, come at exactly 2 minutes before its time of 2:00 p.m., but it was another 20 minutes before we actually left. The ride itself was event-free, and to my pleasant surprise, the driver drove quite fast, so that I reached Al Muweh around 3:50 p.m.! The walk to my house was accomplished in another ten minutes, and after a flurry of packing etc, I was ready to go at half past four p.m. I called the ER manager to inform him that I was ready, and would he please send a car to my place to pick me up and take me to Zalm. This, in fact, was the major problem, and it was only at 5:15 p.m. that a car actually came to pick me up. The driver was the manager himself and the car was actually a pick-up belonging to Bandar, one of the ambulance drivers, who was also with us on the short journey to Zalm. 

The road to Zalm is a dusty one, and Zalm itself is no less dusty. The hospital model is more or less similar to the one at Al Muweh, but it is a lot newer, more well organised and definitely more colourful, to name its major differences from the Al Muweh place. I met the Mudeer of the ER, who then helped me to settle into a room in the hospital that was already occupied by Dr. Prakasan K.S., a Ta'if based anesthesiologist who is also here to substitute for an absent doctor. I met Dr. _____, the middle-aged Egyptian pediatrician who I was supposed to relieve, and the pleasure on his face was a sight to see. He was gone within 15 minutes of my arrival! I also met some of the ER residents and nurses and went around the hospital to see the facilities for myself. The room where I was to stay was pretty clean and basic, but sharing it with someone else was something I had not bargained for when I accepted the posting. In the event, Dr. Prakasan turned out to be a cool, level headed Keralite who was pretty affable and charming in his own way. We received our dinners together in the lobby outside the room, and had the food together as well. I warned him to beware of my snoring, but he rubbished it, saying he had no problem with this and would sleep as usual. I laughed then for the first time in the evening, and began to enjoy my stint here. 

I slept a little after 1:00 a.m., and thus ended another eventful day.

Day 132, Monday. 26th March, 2012

I was planning to take a day's leave on the coming Wednesday and travel to Ta'if, where I had some work related to the bank account I have in India, and to then proceed to Mecca for my third Umrah. I was mentally building up to this since the last few days, and went to the medical director to seek permission for the leave. Fate, however, had decreed otherwise. It seems that the director had received a formal request to send a pediatrician to Zalm General Hospital, located at Zalm, a small village about 50 km north of Al Muweh, to replace their own pediatrician who needed leave for three days. One of us, i.e. either yours truly, or my co-Pediatrician, would have to go to Zalm by Tuesday evening and stay there till Saturday morning. As my colleague Dr. Yasser was on call this week, it would be my "turn" to go to Zalm, and hence, leave to go to Ta'if  on Wednesday was not possible.

This considerably dampened my spirits for a short while, but I decided then and there to try and go to Ta'if today itself. I sought verbal consent from my co-ped Dr. Yasser, then went home to pack a few things for an overnighter to Ta'if, and returned to the hospital to join a few nurses who had already "booked" a hospital ambulance to go to Ta'if the same day. I was told that they would start after the Dhuhr prayers. I waited patiently for the same. However, the driver had not turned up until almost half past one. When he did turn up, he was informed about my intention to join the nurses to go to Ta'if, but due to some reason, he dilly-dallied the departure for a further 30-40 minutes. Then, just a few minutes before our intended departure, the ER received a road-accident patient who came in very severely injured. It was decided that we would accompany the patient on his transfer to Ta'if, and so, our departure was delayed by a further 1 1/2 hours. 

In the event, I remained in the ER till almost 3:45 p.m., when the ambulance finally started off with the nurses, the ER resident who would accompany the patient, and myself. We reached Ta'if at about half past five, and I got off at a turn-off point where the ambulance and the rest of its occupants would proceed to the King Abdel Aziz Speciality Hospital (KAASH). I first went to a local eatery where I had a kabab frankie (it was delicious) with sweet-lime juice. Then, I went on to the bank office to complete my official work.

After this, I contacted Dr. Asadulla, the Pakistani surgeon whom I have befriended, and he asked me to come near his house in Bukhariya after Maghrib, and he would assist me in getting a hotel room for the night.  
So it was that I walked about half a km from the Panda supermarket where the bank office was located, down Abu Baker Street, to finally reach Bukhariya. I met Dr. Asadulla, and, with his help, I was able to secure a room for myself in one of the small hotels located in the vicinity of his residence and a stone's throw away from the Indian souk located behind the Gazzaz mall in Ta'if city centre. The room was actually a BHK type of accommodation, and although the facilities were simple, it had the advantage of a quiet location, reasonable charges (SR 90 per night after considerable bargaining by Asad), free wireless internet access, working AC units in the bedroom as well as the living room, and clean bedsheets. I settled in, then took a bath and refreshed myself. I sat for a while to surf the net. Dr. Asad, meanwhile, went off to meet a few more doctors - one of them being a newly arrived Pediatrician who was to join a military hospital in Ta'if. When Dr. Asad came back, I met with his new guests, who, in fact, also visited my room as the new doctor needed a room for a month or so before he got his own rented accommodation in Ta'if. In fact, this promise to the manager of my hotel helped bargain my room price down from SR 130 (his original demand) to SR 90 (which I paid). 

Dr. Asad then left me for the night, and I went to the Indian souk to buy kadhi-patta (an essential that is not available in Al Muweh), and then have an amazing dinner at the Asian Restaurant located there. I had the Indian-style tandoori roti with Mutton Kadhai and rice to end off the meal. With a soft drink, it cost me SR 18, and it was worth its cost.After dinner, I returned to the room, and then began downloading various things on the laptop to take advantage of the free access to relatively rapid internet. I fell asleep a little after midnight. This was a great day indeed. By the morning, I had downloaded four complete movies, and about 17 episodes of Series 7 of How I Met Your Mother!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 131, Sunday, 25th March, 2012

For several days, I was postponing the day count as I felt readers had probably lost interest in looking at how many days have passed since I landed in Saudi Arabia. I have recently posted here an entry on my visit to a local wildlife reserve. I decided to also submit it to a travel site called Ghumakkar. This post has received very generous and kind reviews. If you would like to visit the post, here is the link:-> Click HERE.

Life, as I know it here, was going on an even keel, till something unusual happened here in Al Muwayh. It RAINED. The skies had been cloudy and overcast since early afternoon, and while talking to a colleague, I had expressed the desire that it rain today. Well, it did! From 5:15 p..m., it rained for about an hour, give or take. In that one hour, it must not have rained more than 30-40 mm. However, the effect it had on the town was to create a cool breeze, to create big puddles of water, and to deter some from venturing out of their homes.  Here, then, are the pictures I took with my mobile's 5 MP camera. The first few pictures are taken from outside the main door of my house. It faces the back-side of the main road, and you can see the damp on the road as the rain gathered strength. As can be seen from the third photo, the entire road and so on were wet ... and this, within 15 minutes. There was lightning, and of course thunder, but the rain never became very strong or inconvenient for us.

After some time, I went back to my room, but  later, I left the house porch and went out on to the main road to take some more pictures as night had settled in.
Along with the first four pictures is a picture of the sky with the clouds that had gathered. 

 Finally, here are the pictures of the main road with the pools of water and well-lit cars negotiating the water collections.

That's it for now ... thanks for browsing.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Four months in Saudi Arabia and going strong

I am happy to inform my readers that I have now completed 4 1/2 months in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After about three months, I settled down to a routine which involves a lot of walking, good exercise, simple food and frequent dinners at local eating houses, gorging off and on on sweets/chips/flavoured milks etc., light duties occasionally complicated by night calls and emergencies, late night internet surfing, Thursday-Friday weekends, friendly sojourns with fellow Indians, Pakistanis and Bangla deshis, and so much more. 

Only recently, i.e. about 5 days ago, I went to see an administered Wildlife Reserve; the experience was clearly unique, and I saw, for the first time in my life, exotic creatures such as the Red-necked Ostriches, the Oryx, the  Leppet-faced Vulture, the Reem Gazelle and the Ibni Gazelle, as also the Grey Shrike and a few other birds. This outing opened my eyes to the possibility of beautiful things even existing on places like this deserty place in the interior of Saudi Arabia.

Do keep reading here as well as on the parent site of my stay in Saudi Arabia, viz. click on http://drtaherofarabia.blogspot.com.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Learning a new language

I entered Saudi Arabia with almost zero understanding of Arabic, although I could fluently read the language as the holy Book of Islam is written in Arabic. On the first night, when I arrived at Ta'if near midnight, I had a hard time talking to the cab-driver who drove me to the Children's Hospital. An Asian fellow who minded the parking lot just outside the airport helped me put my request across.

From then until now, I have come a long way. I have a vocabulary of over 300 words, and am able to ask questions and understand the answers to/from the patients in about 40-50% of the conversations. Today, that is. Saturday, 24th March, was an unusually heavy morning in the OPD. On top of this, there were at least 3-4 patients whose medical problems were not the usual run-of-the-mill types. I had a tough time questioning the parent/care-taker and on almost 2 occasions, I simply dropped my head into my hands and gave up. Eventually, I had to approach one of the Arabic-speaking Egyptian doctors to make sense of what I was asking and what they were replying.

This got me thinking about how difficult it must be for a small child to communicate. For sure, their cognitive skills must be ahead of their expressive ones, and it must be as frustrating for them to convey to their care-takers that they, for example, wanted their diaper changed, or wanted water, and not milk, or that they did not want to be kissed, but just talked to. How fast do children develop! One day you find them articulating all their needs with goos and gaas, and one day, they grow up to argue with you. Isn't that a miracle of Nature in its own way? 

Arabic is spoken very differently from the way Indian languages or English, for that matter, is. While the emphasis is on clear speech that emanates from the larynx and is modulated by the tongue, the mouth and other articulatory parts in all the other languages, in Arabic, there is a greater role for the articulatory parts and the nasal passages (the nose). In fact, many words that are spelled in the same way sound totally different on account of the way their consonants and vowels are articulated. For example, some words seem to emanate from the larynx and even more nether regions of the respiratory tract - for example, the wind-pipe; at other times, the nose modifies the erupting sound so that it is heard with a distinct nasal quality. This makes the Arabic-speaking individual appear as if she/he is gasping for breath in between, or finding it difficult to speak! 

For a person like me, it becomes nigh impossible to make out what they are saying since there is hardly any punctuation in this language except, perhaps, for a full-stop. Most of the times, the words run into one another as if breathlessly speeding up to reach a target in the least possible time. And it is I, the person who is trying to understand, who begins to gasp for breath!

All said and done, though, it is a fascinating process and it is something that is teaching me a whole lot of new things.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Into a New Weekend, with additional material for discussion

I am now reading a little as my Saudi Council examinations are just three weeks away. Due to this, I may become even more irregular in posting on this blog. I, however, do crave the indulgence of my readers to await the installments with patience. Today, I finally completed a book called "PreTest" for Pediatrics. It is a collection of 500 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) on different aspects of Pediatrics. I have fared reasonably well, I think, for someone who hasn't read much for the past two and a half decades. I mean, one does attend conferences and so on, but organised reading? You've got to be joking!The most I have done is to turn the pages of the new editions of the Holy Grail of Pediatrics (Nelson's Textbook) for a few days after purchasing it every few years. In addition, I read to understand difficult cases, to teach my students and sometimes, to kill time in the clinic when the patient flow reduces. This cannot substitute for systematic reading, and I well know it. As I went through the questions, I realised how little I actually knew about so many disease entities. Although there was an explanation attached to every answer, I still felt quite inadequate and so kept turning to the textbooks to know more about a particular subject/illness/topic. 

In a way, this reading will help me not just for the Saudi Council exams, but also when I want to appear for the MRCPCH examinations later in the years to come. So, I am trying to be serious here.

The weekend began as usual, today being a Thursday. I did not cook anything, but managed to stave off starvation by eating leftovers for both breakfast and lunch. I skipped a formal dinner as I had already had snacks earlier in the evening. Today, I used a downloaded program called SPORTS TRACKER on my Android-platform mobile phone (Samsung Galaxy Ace S5830) to monitor my walk. I went from home to the hospital on an evening visit, then returned home, and proceeded onward to the garden after a few minutes' break. In the garden, I walked just 1 circuit and then went to the cafeteria to have my customary snack and tea. From there, I walked back home. The entire walk took about 6.2 km and discounting the 2 breaks (one at the hospital and one in the cafeteria), took about 70 minutes, thus giving an average of about 10 minutes or so per kilometer.Which, I think, is a pretty good effort. The app calculated a consumption of over 320 calories, which I made up with my cafeteria snack and one cup of tea with milk.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

There is something about birds

Before my readers start puzzling over the title of today's post, let me say that there really is something about birds that drew me to the hobby of watching the feathered variety since the past one year and few months. Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not offer the same opportunities for bird-watching that I used to have in India (but was sadly unable to take because of the lack of time and resources), there are birds here too. Over and above this, I feel very much like the pioneers of this hobby must have felt when they had no guides or books or the internet to refer to while making their observations.

My daily walk to the Al Moweh garden has enabled me to closely observe the birds that are either residents here (i.e. those with "Iqama", LOL) or simply visitors ("Ziyarah"). In my earlier posts, I have posted photographs and several other details of the birds seen by me. This post is not about just listing the birds seen or showing you the photos. This is a more emotive post about what observing birds really means to me.

Not lacking the time and opportunity to observe my feathered friends, I have come to one important conclusion: even without a book, or camera, or the knowledge of which bird it is that one is seeing, bird-watching can be an immensely satisfying hobby. It is not easy to venture close to a bird, whose basic nature is to move away from advancing humans. There are a few Indian robins in the garden which have a keen sense of sight: the moment they see me (even when I am over 50 meters away), they move off into the shrubbery. If I dare to close in on them, they simply fly away and appear again at a distant spot with at least 100 meters between us.

Other birds, like the common chiff-chaff and the male of the common stonechat do allow me a slightly closer approach, but will still not enable me to get closer than, say, 15 meters. At times, they will stand still as I pass by them from about 5 meters away! It is sheer pleasure to see a pair of white wagtails remaining still on the path as I walk past them from within less than 3 meters! They will eye me continually, though, and they are poised to take off if I so much as turn my neck a little forcefully to look at them! Meanwhile, they will continue to wag their tails up and down, or hop a little ahead or away from me, and keep eyeing me from a distance.

The common stonechat male is a study in confidence; from flight, it will invariably land on the highest blade of grass on the green. Balancing itself on its nimble legs, it will keep fluffing its tail feathers and jacking up its tail from time to time, maybe every 10 seconds. If a barn swallow swoops low over it and flies past it, it will stumble a bit, then right itself and perch back on the same blade of grass again, preen itself again, and continue its odd behaviour till I get tired of it and move off. 

The chiff-chaffs are small, mostly silent, very restless, and move here and there on the green, pecking at insects to fill their tiny tummies. Every 20-30 seconds, though, they will take flight, move to the nearest shrub hover there for about 2-3 seconds, and then dive into the dark to do whatever they want to do. Thus will they remain for about 5 minutes or so, then re-emerge into the bright daylight to alight again on the green, from where they will repeat the cycle again.

The barn swallows are tremendously energetic birds. They continue to fly just 9-10 inches off the ground in circular and oval directions for half an hour, one hour or even more time. I have only rarely seen a barn swallow actually alight on the ground to preen itself. They must eat a lot of grub, as they seem to never tire. Zoom, swish, zoom, they keep up their routine tirelessly. It is fascinating to see them. When I leave the house in the morning to go to the hospital, there are about 3-4 barn swallows doing their above-ground dance there. In the garden, where I go daily in the evenings, they are there as well. 

And the sparrows: I think the world celebrated the Sparrow Day yesterday in honour of this species that has survived in all the countries of the world, although their numbers are steadily dwindling ever more. In Al Moweh, though, there is no dearth of sparrows. They are all over the town, perching on building  tops, shrubs, electric and telephone poles, trees (such as they are in this country), car tops, and so on. Long may they live, is all I pray for right now.

More on my passion some other day. Be blessed and enjoy life!

Tid-bits of News and Miscellaneous stuff

YIPPEE! This is my 100th post on this site!

It has been over 4 days since I last posted in this blog; nothing of major consequence happened, and therefore, I sort of passed over the chances of updating my blog. However, several minor things happened, and I must share at least some of these things with you, dear readers.

Firstly, tomorrow, i.e. on Wednesday, 28th March 2012, a special committee is visiting our hospital. This committee originates from Ta'if our administrative HQ, and is coming to see how the hospital is doing - quality-wise, with special emphasis on what steps the hospital has taken or is taking to promote PATIENT SAFETY. I find this a bit funny, since, unfortunately, the main hospital building has several cracks in its structure, and this is actually putting patients' and staff's lives in danger! However, and this is to the credit of the hospital administrative staff, the higher-ups have visited the hospital several times to study the structural defects and even withdrawn wall and floor samples for analysis. If they rule that the hospital construction is sub-standard or in need of urgent repairs, the hospital may have to take some very unwelcome steps such as, for example, closing certain areas to carry out repairs, or, the worst, to close the entire hospital to do so.

Secondly, beginning Sunday evening, the weather in the entire Central and Western areas of Saudi Arabia took a turn for the worse. At that time, the winds rose, and with them, the dust. A sand-storm like weather came in within hours, bringing with it blurring of vistas seen by the eye, and a strong head-wind that brought down the prevailing temperatures from early 30's to eighteen or so degree Centigrade. We went home safely on Sunday, and on Monday too, but on Tuesday, the same weather continued; in the evening, though, the temperatures began to slowly go up. When I went for a walk on Monday evening, I could hardly see things in the distance, so I abbreviated my walk from 70+ minutes to just a little over 25 minutes. The general benefit of this exercise/walking accrued, however, as I felt fresher and less tired compared to what I think I would have felt like had I NOT done this walk. On Tuesday evening, the walk turned pleasant and, in fact, the local temperatures rose, so when I was about to finish my walk and go towards home, I had to remove my jacket and walk home. An interesting thing I observed was that several of the birds that I saw almost everyday during the last month were missing on Tuesday evening. Perhaps the culprit is the weather.The high winds and the cold also kept the patients away from the Hospital, so that we, the doctors and the nurses and all the rest of the staff were able to relax.

Thirdly, my reading is going on, and I have just about completed a little over 400 questions from MCQ books. My overall performance, although within the passing range of 55% or more, was just about 70% so far. I hope to revise these and more questions so that I can do better the next time. The problem is that I barely get to study for a few hours each day, and that, mostly in the hospital during the OPD hours. Back home, I have so many other things to do that I barely even look at the study books! Please pray for me, readers. My paper will be on the 10th of April, in Mecca. 

Lastly, I am just reporting this to you: my younger daughter bought a new cell phone, the HTC Cha Cha, costing about 12K Indian Rupees. It is an Android phone, and she got a free 8 GB data storage card with it.
In other news, Nishrin's parlour renovation work is now complete and I have told her to share the pictures of her newly refurbished place with me. If appropriate, I may share the photos here on this blog, or on Facebook in my profile (click HERE to go to my profile).

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Visit to the Mahazat As-Said Wildlife Reserve

I promised my readers yesterday of an unusual excursion. This materialised yesterday (15/03/2012) as I went with one of the local employees of the National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC) (click here to see the website) a Pakistani man Mr. Moayyed, in his car, to the Mahazat As-said Wildlife Reserve located in the Al Muwayh Region of the Kingdom. 

Mahazat is the name of the area. This is the second biggest pan-circumferenced protected reserve in the whole world (the first is the Kruger Park in South Africa). Spread over an area of 2250 sq. km., the desert terrain is home to over 250 varieties of birds, hundreds of invertebrates and 12 species of mammals. Many of the mammals here were indigenous to Saudi Arabia, but were decimated in the past, thanks to the widespread hobby of hunting. These have been re-introduced to the kingdom (they never got extinct, but were run down to extremely small numbers). 

To reach the reserve, one can go from the Al Muwayh side, where one just needs to cross over to the South end of Al Muwayh. A padlocked door leads to the reserve located within. The main office of the Game Ranger is located at this end, and Mr. Moayyed and his fellow-employees are required to log in their arrival every day. We, however, entered the park from its other side, which is about 50 km away to the south. One goes by road towards Ta'if, and climbs the relevant overpass to cross over to the Southern side, where one drives about 5 km inside to reach the padlocked gate of the reserve. Moayyed took with him rations to make breakfast for us - that is, his friend, the restaurant owner from Muwayh, me, and himself, along with one of the park employees whom we would meet inside. 

To be honest, I was looking forward to this visit for the last 2 1/2 months. Mr. Moayyed and I met through the good offices of my friend Dr. Niyaz, an ob-gy doctor working in our hospital. I had expressed my desire to be taken to some such excursion the same day when I learned that he worked for the government in the NWRC. As on that time he was proceeding for a vacation to his homeland in Swat, Pakistan, he had told me that he would organise something after his return. Today's trip was the culmination of his untiring effort and my determined but gentle persecution of him. 

After a 2-minute drive, we saw, in the near distance, a herd of Red-necked Ostriches crossing the road to get to the other side. The sight was simply wonderful. These graceful birds, not native to Saudi Arabia, were introduced many years ago, and theirs is a story of conservation success. As my pictures will tell you, these birds have adapted readily to this terrain, and are, in a sense, domesticated, so that they will approach their care-taker and eat food pellets served by him out of a bowl (see photos below).
We saw a huge group of these birds in a
protected enclosure as well, plus several  of them in the open; their movements and behaviour were extremely enjoyable to observe; in particular, the graceful movements of the female of the species, which I have recorded in the few photographs reproduced below for your 
enjoyment. The next two pictures show the female ostrich with her graceful neck movements. 


Time to tell you about the mammals that we saw They include the famous Arabian Oryx, the Reem Gazelle and the Ibni Gazelle. The Oryx is a long-horned animal that is feared for its ability to kill with its horns. However, within the reserve, it is remarkably docile as it has been trained to expect food and water at appointed times. At the time of writing this, there are more than 650 of these animals in the As-said reserve. According to Mr. Moayyed, the reserve is already full to above its capacity to hold these animals, and it only because of the controlled conditions that the animals are able to survive, thrive and breed over here. For example, last year, they had to destroy the eggs of the red-necked ostriches to keep their population in check!
I was able to watch these graceful mammals from extremely close quarters, and Mr. Moayyed was kind to take the accompanying picture of self with the Oryx in the background. It was a delight to see the animal feeding from a custom-made trough and also to drink water from it. 

 The photos, in fact, do not even do proper justice to their beauty, or show the reader the immense harming potential of those huge, 24-inch horns!

The next several pictures are of the two varieties of gazelles I saw here; the first one is of the Reem Gazelle, a hardy, medium-bodied animal, while the rest are of the Ibni Gazelle, a more slender-bodied species also referred to as the Mountain Gazelle in these parts. These animals, too, are being nurtured here under the guidance of the expert staff; as one can see in the pictures, the Ibni gazelles have been collared so that they can be radio-tracked all over the reserve. 

We were told that there are Arabian leopard, Desert Cat and some other mammals too in the reserve, but it is not possible to keep them under the monitor as they are felines, and unlikely to be domesticable to the same degree as the bovine and ungulate mammals that I have just described above. 

As Saudi Arabia is a desert country with fickle rains (the As-Said has rains only for a few weeks in April, but the grass that grows thereafter is able to sustain the herbivores for up to seven years, as per Mr. Moayyed's explanation), protection and provision of special food and water is the most important job     for the conservation organisation that used to be an indepe-ndent NGO earlier, but is funded generously and taken over by the Government some months ago (earlier, the website was called nwrc.org, but now it is a fully loaded governmental site with the suffix .gov.sa). The first two pictures are of the Reem gazelle while the remaining three are of the Ibni gazelle.

 Our trip then took us past a site where they store the dead animal's skulls, skeletons and so on and take a census of the same; there is a strict rule that one cannot take pictures there, so I cannot share the image with you, but there were skulls and remains of animals that have died over 5 years ago, and even more, as the locals are not allowed to take away carcasses of dead animals, or dying animals either for halal and eating.

We saw a Grey shrike on one of the trees, and I was able to capture some images into my Canon camera, and I reproduce a few of those for your consumption. 

Finally, for the finale, I share pictures of the endangered Leopard-faced Vulture. We saw one of these earlier in the morning roosting on the top of a tree as we drove into the reserve. It flew away at that time, but it went over the same hill we rounded later on. We saw perhaps the same bird later, and were able to take pictures of the same as it stood, and as it took off to wherever it wished to fly to.

After this, Mr. Moayyed took us to his onsite center where his men served us breakfast and tea. The trip ended with us moving out towards the Al Muwayh exit of the Reserve. We finally left the grounds at half past ten with happy memories and a promise by Mr. Moayyed to bring us back after the rains had fallen - perhaps after some months.

Which brings me, in fact, to the end of this narrative. I hope that you all enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing about this unique experience. If you like this, do comment in the space below. You are free to download the pictures and share them but please do not use them for commercial purposes.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Completing 4 months in Saudi Arabia

I am pleasantly shocked to note this as I write this nearly at midnight after the completion of Wednesday, 14th March 2012: I have crossed 4 months of stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! Whoopee, did I say? Well, no, and yes. No, because it certainly hasn't been a cakewalk; yes, because the money is flowing in regularly ... I am only 4 days away from the receipt of the salary for the month Rabi-ul-Awwal. Here, one gets salary according to the Hijri (Muslim) calendar - which, as most of you are aware - is based on the Lunar count; so that we get paid for 12 months in 354 days, and 11 days extra salary is paid by the Saudi Government in each Gregorian year.

My daughter Inas is officially 21 years old as I write this; she celebrates her birthday on the 15th March every year. I called her up at midnight India time and congratulated her. My family plans to cut a cake early in the morning, and I plan to join them by video chat and sing the song for my beloved daughter, Inshallah.

The other big news is that soon after the cake-cutting, I am going with a certain person on a Nature trip to a regional Wildlife Reserve. More about this later. 

The past two days, viz. Tuesday and Wednesday, have been uneventful. I did not cook anything, though, as I had balance food in the refrigerator; also, I ate outside for both the evenings - Tuesday, at the Kerala restaurant, and today, at the local Pakistani restaurant. The food I ate at the latter place won hands down. It consisted of a dry channa dal masala and a very delicious mixed vegetable, eaten with the local roti - the tameez. Moayyed, my friend from Pakistan sponsored the dinner, and Dr. Niyaz was also with us. Moayyed works for the National Wildlife Research Center of the Government of Saudi Arabia and is, in fact, the person who will take me to the trip within the next eight hours or so. He is also pursuing the M. Sc. degree in Environmental Science from a University in South Africa.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 118, Monday, 12th March, 2012

This turned out to be an unexpectedly different day, and I will shortly share this experience with all of you, my dear readers. I had planned on going to Ta'if later this week to visit the people in charge of conducting my Council examinations, viz. the guys from Prometric, the European examinations experts on a global scale. However, the opportunity to go to Ta'if suddenly happened today when a patient with a heart attack was to be transferred to King Abdal Aziz Specialist Hospital at Ta'if. As the patient would be going by an ambulance, I jumped at the chance to accompany the patient. 

Accordingly, I rushed back home (taking a lift in a Saudi's car) to pick up all my documents to present to the guys in Ta'if. Dr. Amr Hashim had already told me the approximate location of the building that housed a bank on the ground floor and was located at the last corner before the right turn approaching the Panda Mall (Ta'if's Heart Mall). Dr. Ahmed Taib had come near my residence building to pick up Dr. Magdy, one of our residents, who has just moved into a first floor flat in the adjoining building to mine. I joined the duo and returned to the hospital in record time.  I met and asked Dr. Yasser if he would look after my OPD work as I was going to be away; he agreed readily. The ambulance, with its driver, Mr. Omar was ready by 10 a.m., and so, we left for  Ta'if at around that time.

We reached the outskirts of Ta'if at a speed of 150 kmph within a few minutes less than 2 hours. I saw the driver turning into a new road to reach the referral center where the patient was to go. At that point, I asked the driver if he would drop me off, so that I could go and finish my work. He, however, assured me that he would drop me off exactly where I wanted to go, that is, near Panda, but after we had handed the patient over to KASH. I had no choice but to agree. Thus, we first went to KASH, where we spent the better part of an hour. In between, Dr. Magdi and I visited the local cafetaria where I had a chicken sandwich and tea, while Magdi had a lamb sandwich and a soft drink. In between, I made a few calls here and there just to while away the time. Eventually, it was at a little after 12.15 p.m. that I finally reached my destination. On the ground floor of this building was the Ladies' Branch of the NCB(National Commeercial Bank), and above this, on the second floor of the facade was a board of the Al Alamiya Educational Institute. It looked like a good candidate for being in charge of the Council exams, so I climbed up to the 2nd floor of the building (there was a lift here, but it was out of service due to reasons best known to the people who owned the building). 

I opened the door of the institute to see a large reception desk but no one at the desk. Slowly, I entered the office and went inside, past the reception, deep inside till I came upon a room with a solitary person praying the Dhuhr salah. I returned to the reception desk to wait for him to finish his prayers. He came pretty soon, and introduced himself as Mr. Aiman. I told him who I was and what the purpose of my visit was (to book a date for my exam). He asked me to show him the paper the Council had sent to me, and I proceeded to take the paper out from among all the documents I had carried with me from Al Muweh. Imagine my complete shock when I realised, after repeated searching, that that paper was NOT in the bag at all. It dawned on me that I had left the paper in my house in Al Muweh! Mr. Aiman regretfully informed me that he could not register me unless I had the reference number printed on that paper. I moaned silently. We could not find any way of completing my small task, and eventually, I took his cell phone number and promised to call him after I had reached Al Muweh in the evening  with all the details. 

Dejected, I left the office, and went to Panda, where I had lunch from the Syrian restaurant located next to Kudu on the first floor of the Mall. It was a plate filled with rice, 9-10 small pieces of boned chicken, french fries, a roomali roti and sauces. It wasn't very exciting, but it was filling. After this, I washed down the food with a can of Pepsi Diet and then visited a doughnut shop to pick up an assorted pack to pass on to the nurses in the OPD. After some more browsing and so on, I finally left the mall and went to the SAPTCO bus stand (Nakal Jamaee) to book myself a ticket to Al Muweh by the  4:00 p.m. bus.

I reached my house at about 6:45 p.m. Straightaway, I went in for a bath, then refreshed and made some tea for myself. Next, I searched for and immediately found the page sent to me by the Saudi Council examinations committtee. I waited for the Maghrib salah time to end, and then called up Aiman to give him my reference number. He asked me to call him back within ten minutes, when he would connect me to a Pakistani person with an Al Rajhi bank account. I would be asked to deposit SR 350 in that person's account using my debit card. The person I spoke to is one Mr. Muhammad Imran, and as per his instruction, I went to the ATM machine and put in my deposit into his account. One thing led to another, and finally, I received an email confimation informing me about the successful registration of my ID into the Saudi Council system. Another email confirmed the receipt of my money and the date of the examination, viz. 10th April 2012. The only hitch: the exam would be in Mecca.

I was relieved to have finally completed the task I had set out to do in the morning. After this, Dr. Niyaz and I went for a walk, and we had dinner at the Kerala joint. A very eventful day was ending. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Day 116 and 117, Saturday and Sunday, 10th and 11th March 2012

A new week has begun, and with it, the countdown for my a) upcoming Saudi council examinations and b) my vacation to India have also begun. The first item on the itinerary is the examination. This will be conducted by an independent agency that specialises in such examinations for almost all disciplines of education, viz. Prometrics. The format will be similar to the US examinations for entrance to graduate and post-graduate medical courses. I plan to appear for this examination on or around the 10th of April 2012. It is a multiple-choice exam consisting of 70 questions to be attempted in 2 hours. The passing percentage needed is 55% as per the website of the Saudi Council for Accreditation of Medical Specialities. I hope to be able to clear this exam and confirm my appointment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The second aim is to visit India in May, or perhaps, April-end. I intend to take my family for a vacation to the Eastern parts of India. Inshallah, this is something that will surely fructify. My daughters have promised to look into the various travel agents' offers and get some itineraries.

Yesterday, the wife and kids did some interesting shopping at the Phoenix store/mall. The major part of these purchases was for Inas, whose birthday falls on the 15th of this month, i.e. within 3 days from the time of my writing this blog entry. She bought a new pair of glares and some tee-shirts. I hope she likes her own things!

My ex-room mate Dr. Niaz arrived early on Saturday morning and it was nice to meet him once again after a break of almost 35-40 days. He looks a bit darker and has purchased a new pair of spectacles, as a result of which he looks much better.

Days 114 and 115, Thursday and Friday, 8th and 9th March, 2012

A new weekend, but this time, there is nothing exciting to report from the work-place as, although I was on call, there were not many calls or admissions to attend to. I had an easy time, which I spent mostly in walking/roaming around, reading a book (The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple), cooking stuff (I made a potato preparation, some chapatis and mutton masala ... but the last named item gave me a lot of trouble as my first consignment got burned, and I had to make a fresh one; the entire process took me the better part of the day!).

My walks to the garden are becoming more interesting now, as I often go with my Canon DSLR and am able to shoot interesting birds. This week, a new type of bird visited the garden - there were about 5-6 of these birds that went krreeeee, krreeeee and flew with stretched wings above me; their colour was an iridescent bluish green, and methinks they were bee-eaters or some form of parakeets, but I am not sure, as on those two days, unfortunately, I wasn't carrying my camera. 

In addition to this exotic traveller, my last week was spent, while walking or jogging, in viewing the regular birds that are present in the garden; to wit, the Barn Swift, the female Common Bushchat, the Northern Wheatear,  the more recent visitor, the Black-capped Yellow wagtail,  the White Wagtail,  the Namaqua dove and the Tawny Pipit. Here are pictures of each of these birds:

Aside from these, I have also captured the Male common bushchat, the Paddyfield Pipit, and a few more birds .... but let's leave some of these for a later date, shall we?

That's all for now. Thank you for reading.