Here's the news from the Kingdom.
- We had a bomb scare last week - a live duck-and-cover, "this is not a drill" event. Embassy guards heard an explosion outside the Diplomatic Quarter, and they sent us under our desks until they figured out what was going on. Turns out it was a controlled demolition in a construction site nearby - how nice of them to warn us in advance! (I imagine the contractors responsible for this snafu have already been deported; the last thing the Saudis want is for us to get any jumpier.) I am rather proud of the fact that I stayed calm and didn't panic during the scare, like some of my colleagues were starting to do. All I did was put my running shoes on, had my gas mask at hand if it was necessary, and sent text messages to people in the States to let them know I was okay, in case something hit the news.
- We had our national day celebration on Tuesday, which is like the 4th of July but held at a time when the weather is actually tolerable. It was a fine event from all accounts, very little of which I actually got to see because I was working outside at the check-in tables for most of the night. I did get put on escorting-drunk-guests-out duty at the end, and while I've heard that this level of intoxication is normal at all national day events worldwide, I've also heard that ours is a little more out-of-control than most, since all of Riyadh turns out to have access to the open bar(s). Supposedly we ran out of whiskey in under 90 minutes. Suffice it to say that Saudis, while often very sweet and hospitable, get very touchy-feely when they've been drinking for several hours.
- We're doing record numbers of visa interviews - we hit 350 people interviewed on Tuesday, which is a country-wide record. My friends at other posts will probably laugh at such a relatively low number, but when you spend 5-10 minutes on each person, going over 300 in a day feels pretty good. Other nations' embassies issue far higher numbers of visas than we do, but after 9/11 we switched to a system where almost everyone must be interviewed (diplomats, critically ill patients, and the very young are exempt), which is beneficial but does go much slower than merely adjudicating paper applications, as happens for most visas at the EU embassies, for example. At any rate, we're gearing up for the summer rush, which promises to be more fun than anyone could ever dream of. If you ever want to meet a Saudi family, go to Disneyworld - I swear this country is obsessed with Mickey Mouse.
- A few weeks ago I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life - I interviewed one person in a thirty-member midget dancing team, who regularly accompany their employer on his business trips around the world in his private jet in order to keep him entertained. I'm still struggling to come to terms with this concept.
- I have 121 days, or 36% of my tour, left in the Kingdom. Not that I'm counting or anything.