Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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Falcons and Scorpions RFCs (who happen to live in Riyadh) Perform Respectably in Dubai

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Well it’s taken me a whole week to write up a summary of the Dubai 7s, probably because that whole time was spent catching up on sleep, getting students final grades together, and getting more sleep. Really, did we sleep at all in Dubai? I, for one, don’t think I did.

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Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics for the folks back home of myself playing rugby this weekend. I didn’t make the starting line-up for the Falcons, but the Yenbo, KSA team needed some extra players, so I had the privilege to play with six Saudi dudes. As is often the case when playing with Saudis, their athleticism and heart was through the roof, however they literally had no idea where to be or what to do with the ball. Let’s put it this way, any team where I’m the one with the most experience is a team in trouble. So we didn’t win any games, but we did have a lot of fun, and I got to watch Riyadh play from the sidelines.

Excuse me. Due to some political reorganization within the KSA rugby hierarchy, our teams weren’t allowed to call ourselves “Riyadh”. So we were simply the Falcons (my team) and the Scorpions (the over-35 team).

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Taff Williams does a scary impression of the chubby bubbles girl.

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The Scorpion big boys power through a ruck as David Faughnan lines up for the next play.

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While the Scorpions are ostensibly an over-35 team, it might be more accurate to label them a “circa fifty” team. Let’s put it this way. Usually when you’re on the sidelines in a rugby game, you’ll hear people cheer things like “Faster faster!” “Get in position!” “Oh what a hit!”, etc. While I was on the sidelines watching the Scorpions, the most common cheer was something along the lines of “Get up! Get on your feet! KEEP MOVING!”

Teasing aside, the Scorpions made a respectable showing considering they had not had many chances to play together this season. Ultimately the pesky Serco Seniles defeated us in the Plate Semi-Final, but overall the fellows outscored their opponents 41-34, and if their fitness level catches up with their talent, the other teams in the region better look out.

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The 2014 Falcons team for Dubai 7s, coached by Simon Hill and Dave Clarke.

The Falcons started the weekend slow, but by the end of the tournament they looked marvelous. They kicked off Thursday with a couple tough losses to Kuwait and Sharjah, but I suspect this may be partly due to the chance to play less inter-club matches than big teams from somewhere like the UAE are able to do. Likewise, with a relatively small club, injuries are a serious concern, so we try to avoid a ton of contact in practice. But once the guys got loosened up, they started to look quite tough, beating up on the Arabian Knights 43-0. Friday and Saturday they looked good as well, winning through until the ultimately losing the Plate Final to the Dubai Exiles. I hope that all the guys left the field with heads held high. If that same team gets to play and practice together for a year, they’ll return to Dubai next year with a serious chance at taking home some hardware.

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Nick Sparks steals the ball after Yuji Satoh creams the opposition. Feargal Nolan is prepared to support.

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Yuji Satoh uses his quickness as Dennis Parreidt follows in support.

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Sparks passes out to the Falcons back line.

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Scorpions scrum down with great form.

Of course, if there’s one place a guy can be self serving, it better be his blog, so I’ll take this platform to state my intent to make the team next year. My fitness isn’t quite up to where it ought to be, and my skill and rugby instincts will probably never quite be up to the level of guys who have been learning the sport since the age when I’d only ever heard of American football, baseball, and basketball. But my goal for the next year is improve to the point where I can be at least considered for a spot playing in Dubai.  The opportunity to practice with the team has been so good for me. Through my involvement, I’ve snapped out of the fatty malaise that plagued my first few months in KSA. I’ve made a few mistakes that have taught me some tough personal lessons, but ultimately I’ve become part of a stellar community and made some great friends. For a while, I wasn’t sure if this would be my last year in Saudi Arabia. But a few big things coming into my life this fall have helped me decide that I’ll be here again next year. And one of those elements is the Falcons RFC.

– photo credits to George Thomas and Simon Hill

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Najdcore

So far my Saudi home base has been the Riyadh area, smack in the center of KSA- actually pretty much in the middle of the entire Arabian peninsula. From ancient times, this central region has been called the Najd. You can think of this region as sort of similar to the American Midwest – the “Heartland”. While Middle America features cattle, corn fields, semi-trucks, and religious fundamentalists, Middle Arabia features camels, date palms, caravans*, and religious fundamentalists. Najd has never been the most populated area of Arabia. For centuries, human settlement existed sporadically in the form of nomadic Bedouins or insular small towns huddled around a source of potable water like so many prairie homesteaders crowding around a pot belly stove. Despite it’s sparse population, Najd birthed Wahhabism, an Islamic denomination which swept Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Arabic historian Fouad Ibrahim describes a region composed of religious minorities from which the Salafists emerged the “dominant minority”. Today, Saudi-Wahhabism is a defining political/social force with influence well beyond Saudi borders.

* modern caravans also use semis, but have solar power, so you can live in them too

Think of the example how folk music and flannel shirts influence the American scene from LA to NYC. Modern Najd has kind of done the same thing, exporting back country traditions to more worldy metropolii. For perspective, imagine if over the last century USA had moved our population center to Montana. What was once the home of sparsely scattered ranchers and wild individualists blossoms into the seat of our government and culture. Folks from Miami are headed to Bismark because it’s a little closer to the action. Despite this rapid expansion, the region keeps it’s  staunch conservatism and insular communities. In a matter of decades, the social hub of the country emerges from a place no one had ever heard of.

Al-Namrood is a Saudi black metal band that you’ve probably never heard of. Most Saudis have never heard of them either. Worldwide, NOBODY has ever even seen them. That’s because, despite having released five albums in a career spanning almost a decade, Al-Namrood has never had the chance to play a concert. Of course divergent opinions and the sub-cultures which foster them are kept to a brutally strict minimum here.

I’ve written before about all my students giving identical answers, like they all live exactly the same life on the weekends. This is a positive here, not a negative. We might generalize that Eastern cultures are more collective compared to Western individualism, and Arabia is no exception. This is the country where a Saudi friend rebuked me for suggesting that we screen print a thobe. It’s just not done. Amazingly, this culture has preserved a formal dialect unchanged for a millennium and a half. You might feel the same way about your language if you were convinced that it was the pure, uncorrupted, uncorruptible dialect that God used to send down his final revelation. (King James Version only Christians literally can’t even.) And within this society, somewhere, three dudes are recording black metal and mailing it off to Canada, C/O Shaytan Records, their record label.  

Secrecy is necessary as apostasy charges are a very real possibility. “Apostasy” as the definition goes in this neck of the Najd is a renunciation of one’s religious/political allegiance. In KSA atheism is literally the same thing as terrorism, and the penalty is death. While I’m poorly qualified to speculate on the rulings of Wahabbi jurisprudence, it seems a safe guess Al-Namrood would be marked slightly apostasy flavored should the issue ever come up. The band’s lyrics are full of pre-Islamic polytheism and appropriated holy war imagery and so on. At least, this is what the internet says re A-N lyrics, to be fair it all sounds like Arabic black metal to me.The band’s name honors King Nimrod, a legendary rebel against the Almighty, in some tales responsible for the tower of Babel, in others he’s the king who went to war against Abraham, or founded the evil city of Ninevah, or received instruction in the dark arts from Noah’s fourth son (my favorite). These dudes are making music that could literally* result in a guy with a sword and another guy with a basket for catching detached items, all on the accusation of thrashing against the Lord. So metal.

I’m using “literally” millenially i.e. figuratively. Statistics for executions in KSA are difficult to trust. Islamic leaders point out that decapitation is not Koranic, calling it “an old Nejdi tradition having nothing to do with Islam”. so in the case of apostasy the government usually sticks to several years of imprisonment receiving monthly lashings.  Continue reading


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Barren Blooms

crazy eyes look less conspicuous when you’re surrounded by cactuses

One of my recent discussion prompts was this: “Tell me about when you were a little kid. What did you like to do for fun?” Of course, I didn’t expect the students to have the same responses as Western kids, but I assumed that everyone had a favorite game or hobby from their childhood. But I couldn’t believe the absolute uniformity my guys answered with. “Football” and “video games” – these were the only answers I received, in class after class. Almost 200 students, and I struggled to find a single different answer.

Of course, this was inconvenient, because it gave me little material to practice the grammar lesson. But, I wasn’t so much annoyed as befuddled, so I asked them in more detail, giving examples from my childhood: “Someone, I’m sure, liked riding bicycles? Pretending to be an animal? Playing with blocks or Legos? Finger painting?”

One of my best students finally responded:

“Here, we don’t do different things like in America. The father wants his family to stay home, and we don’t, um… ishoo [slang: ‘waddya call it’] the things for play only …”

“Toys?”

Aywa [slang: ‘yeah’], we don’t have much toys like kids in America. We play football and relax in al-jurooz (a place in Saudi houses like an old-fashioned sitting room). Now, play video games and watch movies also. But on the weekend, I don’t do much things for fun. I play video games and watch football only.”

It goes without saying, the desert is very barren, for the most part. But as I continue to settle into this culture, I understand more and more that the character of the environment is also reflected as a uniformly sparse character among the people who live here. Sometimes, I imagine that the environment must slowly program the genetics of its inhabitants. I don’t just mean the evolutionary concept of physical adaptation – it’s more of a shared personality between place and people. My idea is probably oversimplified and unscientific, but when a Saudi friend invites you to the desert, where you just sit and drink coffee for five hours, doing nothing but surveying the rocks and sand, you begin to understand the origin of his mono-everything worldview and austere attitude.

maybe got carried away with the whole "get away from it all" thing

maybe got carried away with the whole “get away from it all” thing

I’m beginning to feel the process of desertification in my own personality. Occasionally, Saudi friends invite me to their house for dinner. An evening with a Saudi goes something like this:

  • Arrive at eight. Settle on a couch in al-jarooz.
  • Sip coffee and tea from miniscule cups for the next two hours. You will discuss either Islam or work. (Of course, all the women are sequestered in their own portion of the house for the evening, except when they set up the meal in the dining room).
  • Dinner is served around ten p.m. Everyone sits cross-legged on the floor around a communal platter of rice and chicken, which is eaten with your hands. (The food and coffee is delicious, but more about that in another post. Right now I’m whining.)
  • After dinner, return to al-jarooz and repeat the tea-coffee-restrained conversation ritual until one or two in the morning (or whenever you can conjure a reason to excuse yourself).

That’s it. No board games, no walks in a park, no playing with pets or working together on a project . We don’t discuss music, or history, or politics, or new ideas. (Please don’t think this is representative of 100% of Saudi people, or 100% of my evenings on the weekend. I have made friends with some outstanding, progressive, intelligent, and active guys here. I’m only describing my general experience and what seems to be “normal”).

Where I initially felt confined or bored during these evenings, I’ve now learned to slip into an expectation-less trance. Just like my vocabulary has slowly melted due to constantly using the simplest phrasing available, my vibrant, scattered attitude and habits have eroded, leaving only a bedrock like some sort of bland, unsought zen. “Everyone here” used to mean “them”, now it means “us”.

During the work week, I teach for absurd lengths of time: 7 a.m. to 2.45 p.m., then back to the office at 4 to prepare for my 5 – 9 shift. Sometimes I’ll tutor an extra student after work or on the weekend. My life now: work, sleep. On the weekend: alternately eat chicken and rice with my hands, or politely circumvent encouragement to become a Muslim. .

Fatigued from long hours, inept management, and an extreme environment, it’s tempting to simply give up. Thankfully, I live with another American teacher, and we work to stay vibrant in our limited free time. Like the pioneers first carving out homes on the unforgiving Great Plains, we remind ourselves that, with hard work and a resilient mindset, we can thrive anywhere – even here. So I read. I have solo dance parties in my bedroom. I’ve started drawing – not very well at it, but I enjoy myself.

it's just science, k?

it’s just science, k?

more science

more science

To my family and friends, I apologize for not writing frequently these past couple months. This suffocating work schedule really cramps my style. For self-preservation, I spend my limited free time with phone and computer off (the internet here only works half the time anyway). Usually, I spend my down time on our roof – a space we work to make colorful and alive. I’ll tell you more about my roof in another article.

This post sounds pessimistic, but I want to finish with positivity: we can flourish anywhere. My family moved from Michigan to Iowa when I was 12 years old. As we parted, a teacher told me: “Bloom where you’re planted”. Some places, it’s difficult to bloom, but it’s never impossible. Don’t forget that.

keeping my head just above the "I hate it here" waterline

keeping my head just above the “I hate it here” waterline


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Transit Kaleidoscope

I’m a little disappointed in the content I’ve written for this blog. I – WE, really – probably expected something different. We expected crazy stories about the strange things here in Arabia – camels, scorpions, mosques, veiled women, oil wells… I don’t know, what DID we expect, anyway? Something DIFFERENT, I guess.

But the reason I only sporadically have something different and strange to write about, is that I spend more time noticing the things that aren’t different, but the things that are the same.

So let me tell you a story, about something that has stayed the same: hotel rooms.

A year and a half ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in a strange town – Huron, SD, the definition of “strange town” if ever there was one. I was there doing a few weeks of training for my new job in insurance sales – this was going to be the job where I saved up money to settle down and start a family and turn my plans into reality …

Well, it’s like Grandpa Brubacher told me just last week. We were sitting in a Culver’s in Wausau, Wisconsin, and he said, “Boy, stop trying to plan so much. A lotta things are gonna change and you won’t be able to change ’em.”

Gramps is a wise guy – I mean, my plans sure changed a lot since last April. In fact, that week, as I suffered through the training for my new job, was also the week I made my decision to go abroad. Everything changed that week. You changed, so we changed, so I changed my plans. That’s all a guy can do when he’s sitting alone in a hotel room.

But this is all wrong. I told you there was going to be a story about things that are the same. That was my plan, when I started writing this, but I keep encountering deviations.

Here’s something that stays the same: nights spent alone in hotels in strange towns. Tonight, the town is Manama, Bahrain – more of a city than a town, sure, but still a strange place.

Here’s something else that stays the same: if you’re in a strange city, alone in a hotel room, you have some strong drinks in the evening. I still remember how bitter that overdone coffee tasted every night in Huron. Tonight, I think it’s tea – double bagged, with so much sugar that there’s a layer of crystals left in the bottom every time I empty the cup.

The tea is sweet. So is Bahrain. It’s 3.30 a.m. right now. Jet lag and strong drink will keep you up too late, or have you up too early, or something. I can’t tell. It’s always changing.

I’m trying to reel it in here. I’m sorry, I really am. But things get so foggy when you’re in transit. Memories, time zones, plans … They all run together until all you can do is dance on their grave and puke them up out the other end of the kaleidoscope until the future looks more mixed up than that abortionist’s dumpster of a metaphor that I just pulled out of the blender.

In writing classes, they’ll say, “Show, don’t tell.” The funny thing is that “show, don’t tell” sounds more like telling than showing.

But the outcome always outweighs the decision, that’s what we’re getting at here. So I’d better start showing you some stories. The people want pictures!

Next time … I promise I’ll tell you a good story. That’s my plan, anyway. But tonight, I only have chopped up, scrambled, tiny pieces of stories, running together … You find yourself in a strange city, can’t remember how long you slept or when/where it was, you’ve got too many hours on the plane behind you, and kilometers to go before you sleep (all respect to Robert Frost). And the only thing to do is have some strong drink in an empty hotel room in the early early morning. So I pour some more tea and play some music that I would usually detest, but under the circumstances, so far from home, it makes more sense.

You guys, it’s a true story: I’m listening to Sheryl Crow tonight. Strange cities and empty hotel rooms have a way of making things like Sheryl Crow sound ok. You have plans, they change, no problem. You think we know who I am until we find out that you don’t know who we are, but that’s ok too – it’s all people. Time and plans and stories all run together, and the drink is still hot and strong.

Empty hotel rooms in strange cities have a way of invalidating doubts and regret. But make no mistake … Every single day, I still wish you could be here with me.


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We’re All Gonna’ Make It

To be honest, I didn’t think I would like teaching. If anyone doesn’t know, I was homeschooled, and this contributes to a certain discomfort in classrooms that began the moment I entered university. (Well, actually it began the moment I started attending public high school in the middle of junior year, but that’s a needless detail. So why did I add it? Why am I not deleting it? Because it’s MY BLOG, NOW STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.)

When I started tutoring ESL students in South Dakota, I was similarly indisposed to the classroom setting. I like passing on knowledge, sure, and I like helping people. But I just don’t like being in school – no matter whether I’m sitting at a desk or standing in front of a white board. I get fidgety. My thoughts jump all over the place. I don’t like people. I want to go outside. This is my brain on drugs…. Whoops, wait, no, I mean “This is my brain on school”. Anyways.

When I signed up to teach in Saudi Arabia, I did it as a means to an end. I knew that I wanted to travel. The money is good. Arabia and Islamic culture have fascinated me for awhile. So, “Sure”, I thought, “I’ll be a teacher, if it gets me there”. But, to my joy, I’m finding out that – money and adventures aside – I just like teaching!

Here’s why:

1) I like young people.
Did I really just say “young people”? Does that make me an “old people”? Well, no. I’m not much older than a lot of the “kids” I teach. But I like youth culture, with all its new ideas and questions and subversiveness and occasional angst, and teaching is a great way to keep myself right in the middle of it.

2) I like farming. “What? I thought he was teaching?” Here’s what I mean. I like cultivating things. I like checking in on them every day, feeding and watering them, watching them grow, and eventually eating them. O.k., so I haven’t eaten any students yet, but I do have some nice vegetables sprouting on my roof. You get my point.

3) It feels good to organize ideas.
My mom doesn’t believe in ADD. I do. I’ve been diagnosed with it by two separate people with licenses to evaluate and label things like this. I’m not saying I need drugs for it (although, to be honest, drugs make things a lot easier), but what I AM saying is that, sometimes I feel really frazzled and disorganized. This is stressful. It’s unpleasant. So when I have to sit down (because it’s my job to do this after all), and plan out a lesson, write out a conversation using a certain set of vocabulary, tie it in to some simple grammar, and neatly package it in the context of a pop culture reference, I feel good. Things come into focus. I calm down. I chug a bunch of green tea, do some pushups, and I make a plan – a lesson plan, a game plan, a life plan, I’m not sure. But it’s good for me.

4) I like simplicity.
This ties in to my last point. Let me tell you a bit more about the students I teach. Most of my classes are what my school calls “Foundation” and “Level 1” students. This means they have a very small handful of vocabulary (most of which they got from TV), they can introduce themselves, and that’s it. They’ve invariably received a PITIFUL grammar education, so as I teach conversation and pronunciation (which is my job), I also try to work in some simple grammar lessons. “We say ‘my’ and ‘your’. What are these? ‘Possessive pronouns’. A possessive pronoun is an adjective. What’s an adjective?” Etc. I like this. I repeat and repeat these things to the same students, because nobody else is doing it as far as I can tell (except for David), and it takes them a while to catch on. And I’ve found a sort of zen in the simple repetitive nature of teaching English grammar. Keep it coming baby.

5) I like sharing knowledge.
This world has the potential to be a scary place. Governments and systems and habits continue to cause a lot of problems. In the face of all the scientific, medical, and social progress we’ve made, places like Saudi Arabia (not to mention the US) have a long way to go before we can feel like we’ve “made it”. But I believe, like any teacher must, that we’re all going to make it. So while I help students learn a language, I also get a chance to help them learn to think, to learn manners, to experience a bigger culture than their own. This country has a terrible problem with idiotic driving and rampant littering. As my readers are probably aware, there are much larger issues with gender roles and freedom of expression which it is not my place to address in this blog. But if I can help a handful of folks evolve into slightly more enlightened people, I will feel like I’ve done a good job.

THAT is why I like teaching.


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Where In The World Is Simeon Brown?

Go ahead, just start off by listening to this.  You know you want to.
*
Now that we’ve pondered the musical question, “Where in the world is
Carmen Sandiego?” perhaps I can more adequately answer the question,
“Where in the world is Simeon Brown?”
*
The short answer is – Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia.  It’s a really nice
place (no offence to Sheldon, Iowa – the original “Really nice place.”)
I’ve been here since the end of May, so going on three months now.
Al Kharj is a “farming community” – or it was at one point.  It is
still the home of some of the largest dairies in the world.  (The Al
Safi dairy, located southwest of Al  Kharj, is one of the primary
suppliers for Danon products).
*
Al Kharj is a city of roughly half a million people.  It is a cheap
place to live.  Food is cheap everywhere in Saudi Arabia, since the
government subsidizes costs, but transportation and housing are also
only a half or a third of what they cost in a larger cities like
Riyadh, Dammam, or Jeddah (granted – even these costs are considerably
lower then what I’m used to paying in the USA).
*
Al Kharj is a city full of friendly people.  In my short time here,
I’ve made many friends – Saudi, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, etc.  Do not
believe the negative messages touted by Western media; Arabs are
friendly, generous people.  I feel safer on the streets of Al Kharj
then I would on the streets of a major metropolitan area like
Minneapolis or Chicago (well, I feel safer from crime, although the
insane driving here is another story altogether…).  Since I’ve been
here, friends have invited me into their homes for meals, they’ve
taken me shopping, and have guided me on tours through their farms
and, um, camel ranches? I guess? I’m not sure what you call a herd of
camels in the middle of the desert.  But, yeah, they showed me that
too.  Good friends.
*
Al Kharj is only an hour drive south of Riyadh (less if you hire a
crazy driver and tell him you want to get there fast – I only made
that mistake once).  This is nice, because I can enjoy the benefits of
a smaller city during the work week, but still easily bump up to
Riyadh on the weekend if I’m so inclined.  My city is also just a few
hours to the west of Dammam and the Persian Gulf, and a few hours to
the north of the “Empty Quarter”, a picturesque area of clean, red
sand and rolling sand dunes, which I have still yet to tour.
*
Al Kharj used to be located on top of one of the largest natural
aquifers in the country.  Unfortunately, a booming population has
mostly drained this supply, and now the city’s water comes largely
from desalinated sea water, like the rest of the country.  However,
the presence of this aquifer was enough to establish the city as one
of the major farming communities in Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned
above.
*
Speaking of water, one of the things that living in Saudi Arabia has
taught me is how truly precious water is.  Growing up in middle
America, I kind of took water for granted, with our cheap, delicious
supplies of fresh lake and river water supplying every city.  Of
course, it’s a different story here in the desert.  One doesn’t have
to look far to be reminded what a struggle it has been to build a
civilization here.  I plead with my fellow westerners – never forget how precious water is.  With many scientists warning of climate change in different incarnations, it’s never too early to start practicing smarter conservation practices.  I pretend that I’m on a mission to Mars when I use water now – using the smallest amount possible for washing dishes, showering, etc.  I’m not
perfect, but I’m getting better at it.
*
Salaam!  More coming soon! Simeon.


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Lizard Noodlin

Back in Iowa they used to do something like this with Flathead Catfish called noodlin.  Here in Saudi they go noodlin for the local desert lizard, called the “thub.”  Here’s how it works:

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Step 1: Get a bunch of water. You’re going to need this for later.

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Step 2: Try to stay awake on your trip out to the desert. We had to wake up really early to beat the heat. We probably still didn’t beat the heat. It’s always hot.

Step 3: Find a lizard hole and start dumping water in there. If the lizard is home, it will believe it's raining and, if you're very quiet, will stick it's head out.

Step 3: Find a lizard hole and start dumping water in there. If the lizard is home, it will believe it’s raining and, if you’re very quiet, will stick it’s head out.

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Step 4: When the lizard pokes its head out, grab said lizard by the face. This part might be tough. The little buggers are really stuck in there. And sometimes they bite.

lizard

Step 5: Repeat until everybody’s got a lizard. These are the two that David and I are eating for supper tonight.

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Step 6: Try to stay out of the sun while you’re hunting. It gets pretty hot out there, and the Saudis told us it would make us crazy if we didn’t cover our heads.

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RE: “Don’t let the heat get to you.” Is it just me or does lizzy look like she’s into it?