Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Prologue to Saudi Arabia

As it turns out, it was a short passage.  I have returned to the United States. 
Saudi Arabia proved a unique experience which I am glad to have had the opportunity to try.  I saw another culture "up close and personal" and met many wonderful people.  Ultimately, however, I was unable to embrace the cultural differences and the loneliness which beset me at KAUST.  I tell myself that, if I were 20 years or so younger, giving up a year wouldn't have mattered. At my age, however, I don't have that many years left to spend one of them unhappily.  I'd like to say I am wiser than I was but I don't suppose I am.  I'd like to say I've learned much about my self but I don't suppose I have.  I do know that I am much happier being with my family and in familiar surroundings.

 Whether with my family in Northern Michigan at my sister's 50th wedding anniversary celebration.....


Sunset over the Gulf at Marathon Key in Florida

Or in the Florida Keys with my family just enjoying the sun......

I find life at home to be more fulfilling and more precious than I did previously.  I left much behind when I went to Saudi Arabia but only in the leaving did I realize just how much.  Now I work at never forgetting.  I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience.  I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Musings from KAUST

Process:  
I have learned that things are rarely done the same way twice in Saudi Arabia.  Take, for example, applying for a Saudi driver's license.  KAUST kindly supplies a Saudi facilitator to help with the process.  My facilitator took 3 of us to Rabigh, about 30km north of KAUST.  I found it interesting that his Toyota Camry was cruising at about 160kmh (that's 100mph) on the way to get a driving license when the speed limit was 120kmh.  He smiled and slowed down a bit when one of the passengers loudly fastened his seat belt.  (Mine was already cutting off my circulation)  In any case we (quickly) visited in turn, a stationer to get a special folder; a medical clinic for blood typing and an eye exam; a police station for another eye exam and application review; a translator to translate our current license to Arabic; and the licensing office to submit all the forms and pay our fees.  While not what I would call simple, the entire process was relatively painless and within a couple of days I had my Saudi driving license.  (which I have yet to need, by the way)

A couple of weeks later the same facilitator took some co-workers for their licenses.  They described a different health clinic, no police station, a different translator, and a different license office.  New license delivery?  About 10 days. 

When I had data center access added to my KAUST badge it required showing my iqama (residency card).  That requirement vanished the next day for a co-worker.  Opening a bank account required the original of my Employment Offer letter.  The next day a black and white copy was fine.  One day getting into the office before 7am required signing in.  The next day it did not.  And on and on and on....

There is always a "new form" which replaces the one you picked up yesterday or a new process which varies with the attendant or official.  The Lesson:  it never pays to be impatient.  You just accept what comes and enjoy those times when anything administrative happens in a single attempt.

People: 
KAUST  is located next to a village named Thuwal.  It was long just a sleepy fishing village but the creation of KAUST and the influx of construction and other workers have increased the pace of life there considerably.  There are small shops of all kinds; bakers, shoe stores, clothing stores, computer shops, grocers, and small shops with miscellany of all sorts.  In the evenings the shopping areas (or "souks") are brightly lit and crowded.  The one glaring omission is women.  The only place (outside of KAUST) where the sight of women is common is in the large shopping malls in Jeddah.

I've read many articles here, including some by women, arguing for the benefits of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.  See this link for an example.    It's not my place to judge in a part of the world where, as opposed to the U.S. concept of separation of Church and State,  the "Church" (Islam) and State are very tightly interwoven.  Most of the cultural norms are driven by an Islamic perspective and a uniquely Saudi one at that.  I can only point out that women cannot drive, (They don't have to drive;  someone else will do the driving for them) they do not work in shops and stores (They don't have to work; they are taken care of), they are not allowed to be in the presence of men other than their husbands or brothers (this relieves them of dealing with uncouth and uncontrolled men), and they must be covered (usually including their face) when in public (they don't have to worry about what they look like under the abaya.  It's very freeing!).    No matter how you spin it, it's a very difficult cultural reality to get used to and one few U.S. women I know would find acceptable.

Place:
I spent last weekend in Dubai at the invitation of an IBM friend living there.  I had a cold beer for the first time in 3 months.  It was great! :-)  Dubai, in the United Arab Emerites (UAE),  houses the worlds tallest building, the Burj Dubai.  It's right next to one of the largest shopping malls in the world and is, indeed, a sight to behold.  Dubai appears to exist only to move money around and is largely populated by expatriates.  It's a very expensive place as I can attest after playing golf and having a couple of meals and a few drinks.  I wouldn't want to live there unless I was very wealthy.  That said, it was a great place to visit.  

This is a view of the Dubai skyline from the Al Badia golf course.   You can see the Burj Dubai tower above the rest of the high rise buildings that populate the city.









"Ski Dubai" is an indoor snow ski hill complete with chair lift.
 The economic downturn has left many unfinished skyscrapers littering the landscape as you can see in the background of this photo.  Dubai is slowly regaining it's normal growth rate.

Dubai is famous for the "palms" built into the sea.  Below is Palm Jumeirah.  There are underwater car tunnels to drive to the outside circle.  


This hotel on the left sits at the top of Palm Jumeirah.  I didn't go inside because there is a charge to sightsee.  The "trunk" of the palm is made up of apartment buildings and the "fronds" contain (expensive) single family homes.  My buddy in Dubai drove me around the palm and it is really an architectural achievement and very beautiful.  Dubai was about a 2 1/2 hour flight from Jeddah and was worth the trip.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Hath March Wrought?


The answer to the title question, to be brief, is "not much".  I have found myself working long hours and some weekends with a never-ending supply of things to be done.  My personal responsibilities revolve around storage systems, filesystems, backup, and archive.  These all come with their own set of unique requirements, skills, and activities.  Making this stuff available to a community of highly educated researchers requires delving into operating systems, security, policy, procedure, politics, etc. etc..  Having only recently seen some significant utilization on our first compute cluster, we are adding another which is to be operational within a couple of weeks.  I note all this by way of an apology for not being more diligent in my blogging.

I have made a couple of journeys to Jeddah to do some shopping.  There are many "things" I would like to purchase but can't bring myself to do so.  I've looked at vacuum cleaners, ink jet printers, speakers, stereos and the like but I keep asking myself questions like "Do I really need that?" and "What will I do with it when I leave?" and "You came here to save money, remember?".  As a result I have managed to keep my spending to a minimum.

Two of my teammates have acquired vehicles, however.  One purchased a LandRover LE and another a Jaguar XJ.  Both are used but very low milage and in excellent condition.  My buddy from Finland bought the Jag.  The price was close to what a used Jag would cost in the States but 10K-20K Euros less than it would cost in Finland.  His plan is to drive it here for a few years and then take it to Finland and sell it for what he paid for it. 

 The Finnish Jag owner, Olli, is on the left in this photo.  Another teammate, Rashid, is on the right.   Rashid lived in Michigan before coming to KAUST and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his family next month.   This photo was taken at the "Auto Mall" during evening prayer while we waited for the dealerships to re-open.  There are 10-15 dealers arranged in a semicircular fashion over a city block.  They include everything from Jag to Chevy to boat dealers to used car dealers.  One shop specializes in used Ford Crown Victorias straight from the U.S.   It makes one wonder just what experiences those cars have had on their journey.

  A car is another thing that would be nice just to be able to leave the campus when I wanted.  However, there aren't many places to go, drivers in Saudi Arabia are entirely nuts, and I came here to save money, remember?  I did make a change however.  I traded in one scooter for another.  The first one always felt like it was going to simply disassemble itself with me riding it leaving me skidding down the road on my posterior at 30kph.

This is my new ride.  Simple, slow, but entirely adequate for the grocery store and the golf course.

The KAUST campus is slowly growing......well not really growing but more of it is opening.  In the picture below you can see how little is actually opened compared to what will eventually be occupied.


The areas covered in the brown color are all housing.  The KAUST population is expected to be several thousand eventually which should attract many more shops and activities of all sorts.  The purple line outlines what's currently occupied.  Housing makes up a fairly small part of that.

The "Just Opened" bubble refers to the removal of fencing around the boat harbor area.  It's not actually complete but at least we can access it.  As in many things Saudi, art is a major component.









On the left is a wall of the marina building.  The mural is made entirely of tiles.  On the right is a closeup of part of the wall where you can see the tiles.  This boat is on the lower right of the larger photo on the left.


Jeddah is quite famous for the amount of public art that can be found in roundabouts and along the Corniche which is a road that runs along the Red Sea.  If you are interested, "Susie's Big Adventure" is an amazing blogger who has many photos of sculptures around Jeddah.  See Sculputures of Jeddah.
If you are interested in a much broader view of Saudi Arabia and Jeddah than I can provide, check out her blog at http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/.





 The view on the left is of some of the landscaping at the Marina.  The Boat Harbor is just to the left of this photo. (see below)



I don't know for sure but I believe the boat in the picture belongs to KAUST and is used for taking visiting bigwigs out to the reefs that are the focus of much research at KAUST.  I'm confident this is a close as I will ever get to that boat.


















Above is the marina building from the water side.  The KAUST "beacon" is on the left and is located right across from the marina.  It's still under construction but we will eventually be able to walk out to it.  In the campus picture above where I showed what was open, the red pin points to the beacon.  The picture below give you an idea of its scale.  That's a 6-8' ladder leaning against it.




Lastly, after only two months and a bit, I have business cards!  English on one side; Arabic on the other.  I don't really know what I'll use them for but they sure are pretty :-)

Friday, March 5, 2010

May I See Your ID Please

I made my first trip to KAUST's recently opened beach today.  Much to my surprise, it's a coed beach.  The rules dictate some common sense in choice of apparel but that's about it.  It's located a couple of miles from the main housing area while the beach much closer and directly in front of the seafront homes remains fenced from access.  There are so many things here at KAUST that just don't seem to make much sense.  This is just one more.

My trip to the beach did remind me of something that is ubiquitous at KAUST which is the need for an ID.  To enter the beach area you must show your id, write down your id, sign your name and whether you are a "single" or "family".  Yesterday, to get a mailbox which everyone is supposed to have you must show your id, write down your id, address, mobile number, etc., etc..   To ride the shopping bus to Jeddah, you must show your id.  I guess that's the one facet of living here that causes me to realize just how tenuous KAUST's existence is.....there is constant checking to see if you belong.  (The miles of fencing topped with razor wire could be another clue, I suppose.) (Oh, and the guards with automatic weapons, truck mounted machine guns, and occasional use of a mirror to see the underside of a vehicle are also indicators.)  This radical (for Saudi Arabia) concept of men and women more or less freely mingling engenders its share of ill will among the religious conservatives in the Kingdom so a certain level of caution is to be expected.

 

Back to the beach.  As you can see above, there are kayaks and paddleboats for rent.  There is a refreshment stand with drinks and food for sale.  There are "lifeguards" by the dozens.  They outnumbered the beach goers today, for example.  Whether walking around, sitting in lifeguard chairs, riding 4-wheelers around or sitting offshore in boats, they're everywhere!  There is also, of course, lots of fencing.  As noted, I have to assume it's for our protection but it gets a little stifling after awhile.



This view is looking back at the University and is taken just to the left of the picture above.  The shallow water area in the foreground is a tidal basin and the tide was out when I took this photo. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Green Grass in the "Big Tan"

This post will likely only be of interest to any golfers reading it.  I received my "playing" card at Safaa Golf Course here at KAUST today.  I met with one of the Pros on staff who watched me hit for a bit and gave me some excellent tips.  I found out that I'm an "aggressive ball striker"!  He gave me the impression that's a good thing but one never knows.  He could have just been being kind to an old duffer.  Nonetheless, I have my first tee time on Thursday morning (which, you may recall, is my "Saturday") and I can't wait.  Here are a few more pictures I took at the course.

This is the clubhouse as seen from the course side.  It's got a pro shop and a nice restaurant plus men's and women's locker rooms.  Very new and nice inside.  I had a tasty chicken and avocado sandwich, fries, and a diet pepsi for SR28.  (if you've been paying attention, you'll be able to figure that out in American $ :-))

This view is approaching the first tee.  The little hut beyond the golf carts is the starters booth.



This is a view of the first hole from the back tees.  It turns out the course is longer than I thought.  This hole is a 445 yard (black tees) par 4.  The current 9 hole course clocks in at over 3000 yards from the white tees and almost 3600 yards from the black tees.

From behind the first tee you can see the practice greens and chipping area.  I didn't know it when I took this picture but the fellow in the background is the CIO (Chief Information Officer) at KAUST.  My boss reports to him.

This was a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours after a long day at work.  The weather was perfect and I only hurt a little bit.  It's all good.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Going Places

I've joined the ranks of the mobile here at KAUST.  My transportation alternatives have dramatically increased in the past week.  I was limited to two feet but look at me now!

On the right is my Trek bicycle which arrived in my shipment from home along with some clothes, tools, and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff which had me wondering why I packed it.  On the left is my first major purchase in Saudi Arabia and a fine example of Chinese manufacturing it is.  My brand new Banweer Super Classic 110cc scooter will be perfect for those 115F degree days when peddling a bike seems like just too much work.  It's already served it's purpose by getting me and my golf clubs (which were also in the shipment) to the golf course here at KAUST  I only had to do that once because they'll store the clubs for me.  Golf, including rounds, carts, and the driving range are all free for the time being!  I don't know when they'll start charging but I'm going to take advantage of it now.
The 9-hole course is pretty short but very well maintained and under utilized.  I'm looking forward to being a bad golfer on an entirely new continent.  I'll have to learn the appropriate expletives to mutter in Arabic now.  I'm scheduled to meet one of the three PGA golf pros tomorrow to ascertain my "level" of golf and to begin the establishment of a handicap.  (Something we just never got around to in the States).  They are wary of complete novices coming out with no knowledge of the rules of golf or how to hit a ball without tearing up the course.  I, at least, know the rules.  I don't recall being a strict adherent of them.....but I know what they are.  On the other count.....well doesn't everyone take a divot now and then?!? 

Friday, February 26, 2010

News of the Day

This is one article you won't find in the Detroit Free Press or News!
If you just have to see the complete article, look here.  My only encounter with camels so far is seeing 4 or 5 of them being herded through Rabigh when I went to get my driver's license.