Monday, April 30, 2012

Going back

I am going to Mumbai this weekend. Towards this, I have expended a lot of effort, and quite a lot of cash as well, as I am going on my own cost and not at the cost of the Ministry of Health. I hope to land in Mumbai at or around 9:00 A.M. on Friday, 4th May, 2012. My journey will begin tomorrow though, i.e. on /tuesday 1st May 2012. From Al Muweh, I will go to Ta'if, where I hope to pick up my passport. Thence, to Mecca for a pilgrimage of circumambulation only; and finally, to Jeddah, from where I will board the flight early Friday morning (1.30 A.M. Saudi time). 

I will be staying in Mumbai till the end of May, and will return, Inshallah, on the 1st of June 2012. Those who are in Mumbai, do call me on my cell number in India (+919821***248) or on my email id drtaher@gmail.com. I would be pleased to get in touch with you.

Thanks for reading this post!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How-To guide: how to spend an interesting day in a desert

During my conversation with a dear pediatric colleague in India, he asked me how I passed the time, given that the Kingdom has hardly any entertainment channels or social do's or other activities to calm the restive mind. This blog entry is a result of my rumination in the past few hours over the question asked by my friend. 

Back in India, life was so fast that the above question never occurred to any of us to ask or answer! Here, in this simple Bedouin place called Al Muwayh, this is the first question that occurs to an inquisitive outsider - once he knows the limitations of this place. As it did to my friend. I mulled over the answer, and the simple reply that rose to my lips was: keeping in touch with your friends and family. This is the ONE activity most ex-patriates are engaged in throughout the Kingdom. Towards satisfying this end, people buy smart phones, VOIP cards, download software to talk cheap to India, surf the net and spend endless hours on GTalk, Yahoo Chat or the ever-growing Facebook, etc. The Saudi Arabians earn a neat amount of money through these and similar other activities, and I am sure they are not complaining. Several large organisations offer access to free Wireless within their office premises, and many hospitals within the Kingdom do, too. Unfortunately, Al Muwayh Hospital where I work is not one of them. 

To be sure, it has a Wireless, but it is password protected, and no one will tell you what the Password is. Hence, all the staff at my hospital from doctors down to ward boys and general helpers are forever buying internet cards and phone cards to be in touch with  their kith and kin overseas. In fact, for the female employees (nurses and female helpers), the cards are happily provided by one of the cafeteria servicemen, who probably boosts his own income by purchasing these cards in bulk at a discount and re-sells them at the MRP in the cafeteria.

I usually call my family every single day. In addition, I make a few calls each day to talk to my other contacts, whether in India or elsewhere. VOIP calls to India cost only 75p per minute, or Rs. 2.25 for three minutes. When one is properly connected to the net, the quality of the calls is as good as with a normal telephone call, as many of my readers whom I have called will attest to. Each day, therefore, I spend about an hour making calls. 

In addition to this, I walk about 5-6 km per day on at least 5-6 days of a week, whether I am on-call or off-call. I undertake these brisk walks at a pace of about 6.5-6.8 km/hr, and hence, I spend a solid hour walking. Including the warm-up, cool-down and the tea ritual in a local shop that follows my walk, this activity shaves off another 1.5 hours each day.

Doing all my internet activities such as reading upwards of 50 mails per day, writing this blog, visiting some fitness sites, logging into my investment website and tweaking my investments, visiting my bank accounts, answering health related questions on a few interactive health-query sites like this one, and viewing  a few videos on Youtube or Facebook - etc. take up another 2-4 hours daily.

When I cook, I spend another hour or so with this. Transportation to the hospital and back twice a day (once in morning/afternoon, and once in the afternoon/evening) take up another hour, and eating and other activities of daily living take up a few more. Sleep takes up seven hours or a few more on the weekends, and the rest I spend loafing around the locality, meeting people, sitting and chatting with like-minded people, and so on. 

I do play some games and read a book (currently, I read about 500 words per day from the evergreen book "The Lord of the Rings" a book that I missed reading in my youth) on my smartphone - the Samsung Galaxy Ace S5830, and I also read a real book (am reading "The Taking", a horror + sci-fi book by Dean Koontz) - these take up another 45-60 minutes each day. 

And, oh yes, I also see downloaded movies; I have over a hundred movies between my laptop and my external Hard Disk, and I keep downloading movies whenever I get free access to the net, for example, when I am in a hotel in Ta'if or something like that. 

When I study, as I did for the Saudi Council exams, I cut down on some of the above activities. Now that I am not studying, my hands are full and I am almost at the stage where I can proudly say that I am not bored of life, and that I am doing so many interesting things each day!

Thank you for reading this entry. Perhaps it touched your heart, and perhaps it did not. Whatever it is, do comment below and I will be obliged. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 161, Tuesday, 24th April, 2012

Hello Readers,

I am returning to this blog after a considerable gap, and this is a lapse for which I apologise unconditionally. My mind has been in the "Relax" mode after I cleared the Saudi council examinations, and I have been sort of neglecting this activity to my own detriment. A recording of the events that occur or are occurring is vital to me, and I will therefore promise to write an entry at least 3-4 days of the week if not everyday.

Today, I had the fortune of talking to my dear friend Dr. Muhbeen Shaikh, a Bombay-based radiologist-ultrasonologist. He is actually in Mecca to perform Umrah, and he called me up to say hello and connect with me. It was a pleasure to talk to you, Dr. Muhbeen, and I urge you to pray for me as well when you connect with Allah in Mecca. 

Here is a piece of news for you all: I am scheduled to travel to India within the next 10 days, and will be in Mumbai for about 3 weeks beginning 4th May 2012. I am fairly excited about this, and believe with all my heart that I will be welcome wherever I go, and that few, if any people will have an axe to grind with me. I am so looking forward to meet up with my family, friends, professional colleagues, patients, acquaintances, and even the road-side hawkers of pani puri etc. ... foods that I miss terribly here in Saudi Arabia, dust, sweat and grime not withstanding!

Towards preparation of my India visit, I am still awaiting the completion of the official formalities from the Ministry of Health, but I have already purchased the tickets and am scheduled to depart on the night of Friday, the 4th of May.

In the meantime, Al Muwayh has been quiet as ever. I have almost stopped the elaborate cooking that I used to indulge in, and now make-do with a few meals in the house and the rest in one of the two restaurants located on the highway, viz. either the Kerala one or the Pakistani one. The absence of both my Indian colleagues, Drs. Narendra and Shahid are something of a cloud that casts a gloom on my basic demeanour. In fact, one of the nurses I work with asked me what the problem with me was as she had noticed that I looked off colour of late. I agreed with her assessment, and I know that my face is a very transparent one, and I am very easy to read. When asked why, I recounted some of the things I have just mentioned here, but I don't think that makes up the whole story! Perhaps I am home-sick, and don't yet realise it. Who knows? 

After a week of my exams, it was the turn of my colleague Dr. Yasser to appear for the same exam. I am happy to report that he has also cleared the exam, and has now announced openly that he has no intention to exit (as he used to tell me earlier) and will continue working here for some time to come. That is indeed good news. Although it is true that we haven't had the most cordial relations in the past, I am sure the future is bright as long as we stay out of each other's business and help each other enjoy our stay in the Kingdom.

Through Facebook, I continue to have contact with some of my regular readers, and through Skype or chats, with a few more. To them and to all the rest of you, I declare that I love you all, and look forward to your visiting my blog, commenting on my entries, and perchance, buying something online by clicking on the advertisements that appear here, thus enabling me to earn a few extra bucks through Ad sense (LOL).

Thank you for reading this entry. Have a good day/evening/morning/afternoon/night. Whatever. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day 148: Evening: Idling time

I am writing this a few days after returning from Mecca. The interesting things I saw in this city on this visit go beyond the normal stuff that I saw in my two previous visits. On the first visit in November, I was in the company of my cousin and his family, and the visit was all too brief - just a few hours. On the second visit, I discovered the malls and the diverse crowds in the city, apart from losing my slippers. This time, though, I had more time on my hands, and I intended to explore the city as if was a tourist, not just a pilgrim. I had already explored some parts of the city on Tuesday and Wednesday, but while my mind was tense for the forthcoming exam on Tuesday (ultimately, I cleared the exam on Wednesday) and was pre-occupied with the Umrah on Wednesday, I was totally free from the later part of the evening on Wednesday (i.e. yesterday) and the half of Thursday that I spent in the city. 

On Wednesday evening, I explored the local bazaar down the street where my hotel was located. There are hundreds of small shops that sell stuff ranging from clothes, abayas, handbags, jewellery, religious books  .... to utensils, suitcases, travel paraphernalia, the things that pilgrims most need such as cheap slippers (to wear inside the Haram), nail-cutters, waist belts (with pockets to keep cash and other important stuff - for the males who have to wear only the two piece white cloths known as the >>>>), dry fruit, eateries with broast chicken, rolls, sandwiches, cold drinks, tea and a few other staples, and what not. All these shops are located on both sides of the narrow street, and almost all the buildings atop these shops are ... you guessed right ... hotels. Some are seedy and others are huge 15-20 storey towers. 

The interesting thing about the shoppers here is that they come from all parts of the world; some are Umrah pilgrims and have their heads shorn and wearing whites, some are Africans with colourful long dresses, some, Indonesians with their small traditional caps and serious faces, some, Indians/Pakistanis/Bangla Deshis, with their usual attire of shirts and trousers, or tee-shirts and casuals - jeans, for example. Women are usually covered, except for Indonesians and South Asians, who keep their faces open.  

 The photos here show you how close these markets look to the ones at Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai! Really, it was that colourful. I was stunned to see the lively nature of these shoppers and shop-keepers. I moved on to the Haram area, and there, too, there were hundreds of people either moving toward, or away, from the Holy Mosque. On the way, they stopped to eat, chat, shop, browse and enjoy just like tourists anywhere else.

I went in to the shop shown here and enquired about the price of gold. For 21 Kara gold, the price was SR 2000/= which translates to INR 27000. This is a bit steep, I think, because the price of gold in India is around the same for 22 Karats. Be that as it may, wise people believe in taking gold from here to India as it is supposed to be "pure" and unadulterated. I don't know about the truth in this. 

 By the time the crowds clear, it must be past midnight, but even so, people keep streaming in and out throughout the night. The Haram is open for pilgrims 24X7,there being no downtime, as maintenance continues night and day: cleaners with their automatic mop cars, vacuum cleaners, etc. keep working all the hours of day and night.
 From the market, I moved on to the area around the Haram. Here, one can see hundreds of pilgrims either moving towards, or away, from the Holy Mosque. Most have gone for evening prayers and are returning at about half past eight, while, by nine or so, most are returning from the mosque and making their way to their hotels. On the way, they will (as I did) stop to chat, take pictures, eat snacks or drink tea or soft drinks, or stop to buy stuff that their hearts desire. Many will, as I did, drop inside the malls that line the tall -hotels and browse at leisure. Some will end up buying expensive stuff, while others will enter the supermarkets to buy chocolates, toiletries, and what not. Still others will take dinner at one of the food outlets on the ground floor, or make their way to the food court on one of the upper floors, where they will retire to stuff themselves. 

Inside the Haram, night shots show the beauty of the interiors of the mosque from the King Fahd entrance. Here are some pictures that will take your breath away.

Imagine that there are several of these "halls" in just one quadrant of the mosque surrounding the Holy Kaaba, and you will begin to understand the huge, huge structure that comprises of the  Haram area. 

After a night prayer and tawaf, I stopped at a local restaurant for dinner, and finally returned to the hotel room to sleep.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 148, Wednesday, 11th April, 2012: Mecca: Exam, Umrah

Dear Readers,

Let me say that I have been amiss in updating my blog for nearly a fortnight, and the main reason for this was that I was busy studying for my upcoming Council examination. Reading for an exam, that too in the new format of "Multiple Choice Questions" (MCQ) can be a tough thing for someone like me who has studied more than 2.5 decades ago (my last exams were in 1986). To be honest, when I came to Saudi Arabia in November last year, at no stage of the selection or final approval stage was I told that I would have to appear for an exam which would decide my future after the end of the first contract period. Not just this, I was not even prepared mentally or financially for these examinations. As my regular readers will remember, the fiasco that happened after my exit from Delhi had left me with just 15 Riyals in my pocket when I landed at the Children's Hospital on the dark night of 16th November2011. Over the next 1 month, I borrowed cash like crazy. Of the various moneys, at least SR 600 were paid to register my application for the Saudi Council for Health Specialities. Thereafter, I paid SR 350 to M/S Prometric as exam fees. Lastly, I was given the examination center at Mecca, which incurred me a loss of two days plus nearly SR 750/= in various expenses. 

Fortunately, though, I cleared the examination. The location was about 5 km away from the Kaaba (Haram) on Nuzha Street at the Al Khalij Education and Training Centre. I had gone yesterday evening and located the place where the Prometric test centre was housed. This enabled me to go to the examination centre very easily today. I arrived at about half past eleven and was admitted to the Computer room within the next five minutes by the manager, a Kerala person by the name of Mr. Rafeeq Madathil. The format of the exam was simple: I had to answer 70 MCQ's on the computer screen within 120 minutes. I had solved at least 2000 MCQs in the last 1 1/2 months, and was feeling a little nervous, but also confident that I would pass the exam with flying colours. In the event, I completed the questionnaire with about 60 minutes to spare. As soon as I finished the questions, I was given an opportunity to review all the answers, which I did in the next 10 minutes. I was done then, and as soon as I ended the exam, a screen popped up with the result: I had PASSED!

I left the exam centre at half past one, and walking out, I saw a nice eatery called "Iskander Kebap". This is the Turkish way of writing Sikander Kebab. The restaurant is located just outside the exam centre. I ate a plate of two lamb mince seekh kababs, a thin leaved Roti, two varieties of rice, Pepsi and water. My bill was SR 18/= only. Thereafter, I hired a taxi and arrived back at the Holy Mosque. My taxi driver agreed to return to fetch me after some time, so I returned to the hotel, took a bath and completed my ablutions. Then, I changed into the Ehram, and called up the taxi driver. He could not come, but he was kind to send his friend who took me to the Mecca mikaat (Mikaat or Taanim) for me to perform the namaaz before the umrah. He brought me back to the Haram, and I began my Umrah at about 4:15 p.m.

This Umrah was a little less emotive than the previous two that I did, but it was tiring, and by the time I had finished the 7 circumambulations (tawafs) around the Kaaba and the seven full-length walks from Safa-Marwah and back, my legs felt like jelly. I walked to a quiet spot inside the mosque but outside the central circle where people keep doing the tawafs. Here, I simply plopped down to await the time when Maghrib prayers would be due. Resting my legs here for almost half an hour, I felt a lot better. I completed the prayers at about seven o'clock, then went to a barber's shop to trim my scalp hair ( I did not go for a full tonsure this time). Returning from this, I went back to my hotel room to take a bath and change into mufty. 

Next, I took a taxi to Shaara Seettin, a big road that goes off at right angles to Nuzha road. Here, my aim was to visit the Zarir Bookstore in Souk al-Hizaz. I was looking for the OB-GY Pretest for Dr. Sadia, one of the two Pakistani residents working with us in Al Muweh. She is due to appear for the exam on the 16th of this month. Alas, this book was out of stock, and I had to return to the Haram after spending more than 45 minutes of my time, and SR 35 on cab fares. I tried to locate any other bookstore within Mecca by calling on friends but it was a futile attempt, and I could not get the book for Dr. Sadia. 

I returned to my hotel room for the last time today, and sat down to write this entry. Here it is, and I hope you enjoyed reading about the experience. 

Monday, April 09, 2012

A quick note

Just a quick note to inform you, dear readers, that I am currently not writing my diary as I am busy reading for my upcoming council exams. Will update the blog in the next four days or so. Thanks for the patience. '


Sunday, April 01, 2012

Miscellaneous jottings

I have several small things to share, and I am taking this opportunity to do so here.

First of all, I am really thankful to you all for continuing to visit my blog. I have repeatedly requested you all to let me know whether the blog and its entries are liked by you or not, and what, if anything, do you feel about some of the postings, but, I am sorry to say that most of you do not think it important to provide feedback. I feel like the man who stands outside his house and talks ... and talks ... with the others only waiting to see the "tamasha", and then walking away. Is this what you feel about this blog? If not, kindly comment ... I really need the feedback. I want the feedback to be as honest as the style I write in, so don't hesitate ... just tell me it is b@@@sh@@ if you think it is. I won't mind it. Really.

Okay, on to my jottings, then. 

I have, of late, stopped enjoying experimentation with cooking, and quite frequently end up eating my dinner at one of the local restaurants - either the Kerala one or the Pakistani one. Cooking by itself isn't so boring; it's the going to the market to buy things, the dicing of onions and the other preparation that really bothers me. Also, I have come to realise that although I make food that looks attractive and appetising, it is quite commonplace in taste. For example, I am unable to create the spicy red look in meat or the healthy yellow colour of the dal, no matter which permutations and combinations of spices and chilli I try. My room-mate Dr. Shahid, who makes his food every day afresh in the evening seems to think that my style is hampered by the fact that I do not use sufficient quantity of oil and/or I don't saute the onions and the spices sufficiently. Perhaps he is right. I am always a bit impatient when the onions etc. are getting sauted, and this is leaving the food inadequately tempered. 

Okay, so I have no car or any form of automated transport, and the hospital is 1.5 km away from my house. It does not matter much when Dr. Shahid is around, as I go and return with him. Or Dr. Narendra, whose house is bang opposite my own. At present, though, both of them are away, and it creates problems. Especially in the afternoon when I wish to return home for lunch. Most of the days, I manage to get some or the other person to give me a lift back home from the hospital, and the same when I have to return to the hospital after an hour. I have honed this skill so well that I find that I am usually able to get a Saudi to give me a lift ... something that Dr. Narendra and Dr. Shahid say they NEVER did when they were without a car during their beginning periods. My ability to get the lift has also made me get closer to my patients, and they now recognise me and even smile when I meet them out of the hospital setting. Another significant thing that helps me reach out to the local population is my daily walk in the evenings. I feel sometimes that Saudis desire to talk to me as much as I do to talk to them. But only sometimes. Most of the other times, they will look past you as if you did not exist!

Of late, I have observed that I am NOT losing weight in spite of keeping up with the daily walks. The reason is not far to seek: I haven't cut down much on calories, I do not do strength training and I hardly run nowadays. In spite of this, I am not so depressed since I have maintained my weight at around 77 kg or so since the last one to one and a half months.

I think this is about all that I wished to write today. I will continue my Zalm journey with the next entry. Thanks for reading ... and please, please do comment, either here or on the Facebook entry for this one. 

Bye for now.