Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays

Greetings Friends and Family,

We just finished up our 11th week of school with a touching and thoughtful awards ceremony focusing on one of the IB learner profile characteristics: inquirer. The teachers chose a boy and a girl from each grade who most represented the qualities of being an inquirer - interest in learning, asking questions, eager to pursue knowledge. With no Christmas pageants, celebrations, gifts, or baking, this was a mellower week than pre-Christmas weeks I remember from home. All the teachers do have a secret person for which to choose a simple gift over the holidays, to be shared upon our return.

We leave for Austria tomorrow, where we have rented an apartment outside of Innsbruck in a town called Seefeld. We hope to do some skiing, snowball fighting, cooking, sipping of wine, celebrating of the holiday, and purchasing of vacuum bags. The boys are very excited.

We recently were able to do another trip on the KAUST boat which takes us out into the Red Sea for swimming and snorkeling. Hayden was lucky enough to get to drive the boat.

After work one day, I was making dinner, David was grading papers, Hayden was doing homework, and Logan decided to play dress-up from the many clothes in piles around the house. He was quite thrilled with his creations.

We are getting mail now - regular mail through the post! Write letters and / or send photos of you and your families. Always fun to see!

We wish you all a very happy and peaceful holiday season, wherever you may be, and hope you have time to reflect on the value of family and friends.

Thanks for reading - Jennifer

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Vacuum Story

Hello Friends and Family,
We are very busy finishing our final week before we have two weeks off for the December holidays. Very exciting time. Tests. Grading. Final written papers. Projects. Listening to Christmas music in the cafe. Shopping for vacuum bags.

When we finally moved into our house, we ultimately decided that a small vacuum would be helpful for cleaning our floors, particularly for vacuuming up the ants and dust that seem to come into the house. One weekend shopping spree in Jeddah, David and I split up to divide and conquer. He ended up with the list that included the vacuum. He was awesome. He got a great small, quiet vacuum made by Siemens, a good product. It came with one vacuum bag. One. The department store that sells the vacuums does not/is not allowed to sell more bags. We were told we had to go to the Siemens store. There is one - in all of Jeddah. We went several weeks later on a Friday, the holy day. It was closed, even after five in the evening when many stores opened. Another time, Hayden and I went to Jeddah for errands on a Thursday. The store was closed - and didn't look likely to open in the hours we were standing outside. I tried one other time. Not open. I checked online. One Siemens store. In all of Jeddah. I took the evening bus with some friends last week, partly to go to the Siemens store for these bags and partly to shop for some Christmas presents, a rather odd combination I might add. (I have already once pulled all of the gunk out of the bag in order to keep reusing it. It was an unpleasant but not impossible experience.) That evening, we were stuck in traffic and finally got to our destination ... just as the call to prayer sounded and all stores closed. As the prayer time ended, I checked Siemens. Closed. I returned one hour later. Open. I could not believe it. I entered the store nervously, fearing it would close again as I opened the door. I told the very nice man what I needed. "Oh, you are unlucky," he said. "We are out of those bags." I nearly screamed. I explained that I lived in Thuwal and he said, "Let me have your number, and I will maybe bring you some when I have to head that way." No such luck yet.

Happy Day. We will try to write again soon. A holiday message!

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grocery Store Opens

Greetings all,
This last week saw us all busy back at work and in school, missing the pristine and calming aquamarine waters of Koh Samui, the aromas of grilled seafood and steaming bowls of jasmine rice, fragrant coconut oil massages, the peaceful and soothing sounds of the waves on the beach, the laughter and calls of the boys in the pool, and, for Hayden, heaping piles of bacon for breakfast.

This week we taught classes, played at the recreation center, and discovered that the large new supermarket had finally opened. It's called Tamimi Market, but, somehow it's also a Safeway. It's excellent, and you cannot imagine how thrilling it is to stroll through the aisles of a large supermarket, knowing that those items are now available five minutes from our home instead of 75 kilometres. We can now buy, here in our community, Tillamook cheeses, parmes
an cheese, coffee, fresh lettuce and greens, frozen organic pizzas, Argentinian beef and lean freshly ground hamburger, all manner of toiletries, raw and roasted nuts of many types, baguettes and rolls, boxed brownie mixes, granola bars and Cheetos (Hayden hopes), and most other items we might find in a grocery store in the U.S. The manager promises that canned pumpkin is soon to come, so we might actually have pumpkin pies and muffins. The mini-mart was doing its best with essentials, but this is truly helpful and will mean we do not need to go to Jeddah to buy food.

Just returned home from a shower for a 20-something colleague who is getting married in Connecticut in December. David is heading to a men's tool shower for this woman's husband-to-be, also a colleague. Among us women, there was a lot of laughter about the tool shower, wondering how much fun the men would have compared to us. I doubt if their cake, should they have one, will look like the cake I just enjoyed! One of the gift ideas was for each person to bring a Christmas ornament for this couple, and they received - like David and I did at our wedding - an amazing assortment of ornaments from Oman, Istanbul, Jordan, London, Italy, Thailand, Starbucks, and even the Jeddah Marriott!

Love to all and thanks for reading,

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thailand from Hayden

We just got back from Thailand, and we had a great time! One of my favorite things about the trip was the great food. Kowneeo mamuang was my favorite. It is a dessert, of course! It is mango with sticky rice and coconut sauce. It is very very good. My Mom has been telling me stories about it since I was 4 years old. I'm glad I finally got to try it. I think the best place to get it is the resort we were staying at. The food there was spectacular! We went out to a couple of other restaurants in town, but my favorite by far was our own resort. My whole family agreed that the best restaurant in town was probably our resort. Another thing I like about Thailand is that the people there are so nice. When we come to have dinner they push you in, and put your napkin in your lap for you, they even talk to you and ask you how you like the food, and they talk with Logan and me too. One guy asked me where I was from, another asked me what my name was, another asked me if I liked soccer, one even asked me if I was Thai. I told him that I was not. The last thing that I want to tell you about is the transportation. On Samui island there are no hummers, no big huge 4 by 4s. I didn't even see one big truck. The average vehicle is actually a 10 year rusty old motor bike. There must be almost 50,ooo of them just on one island. Thank you for reading this!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Logan's blog entry

Hello all. Below is Logan's blog, written directly and exactly from Logan's letter to a friend in Seattle:
"I went to Thailand. It was really nice. I love the food. I just wish I could stay there because I lived right on the beach! My favorite food there
was fried rice and mangos. I think you would also like it if you came there. The mangos are really sweet. I also loved to play on the beach. There was also a pool there that I had a lot of fun in. But then I had to leave. I wasn't happy when I had to leave because Thailand is so nice. I also learned a little bit of Thai. I think I wanted to stay there longer, even though KAUST is a little bit nice. I had to go on a lot of airplanes. In Thailand I even saw somebody stick his head in a crocodile's mouth and he even put his hand in also and he put his hand in the crocodile's huge throat."

Logan also said that Thailand was his new favorite place, which I, of course, don't mind hearing.

We were so grateful for this opportunity for travel over the Thanksgiving holiday and the Muslim Eid.

Thanks for reading. Logan (and Mom)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bits and Pieces

We were awakened this morning around 5 a.m. by a vaguely familiar noise - thunder, accompanied by flashes of lightening. As I sat at the computer a bit later to check email, I suddenly heard pouring rain on our front patio and David and I raced outside to stare in awe at - rain! It must be sympathy rain for our friends in Seattle who write frequently about rain. And like our Seattle home's leaking (but soon-to-be-fixed) windows, we hear dripping in the kitchen and are, simply, hesitant to look. The housing 'help desk', the infamous 959, will probably be inundated with phone calls today about leaks in houses. Another huge crash of thunder and David mentioned the "Raindrops on Roses" scene in the "Sound of Music", which goes perfectly with our drapes, virtually identical to the ones that Maria made play-clothes out of. Kind of exciting to have rain, though I have no idea how we will get to work in an hour. It is currently coming down in sheets. As Hayden would say, "If this was snow, it would be a blizzard."

The other day walking home from the rec center, I said to Logan that I had heard from his teacher, Ms. Sue, that he had had a very good day. He said, "I have good days and I have bad days. That's the kind of boy I am." Long pause. "Probably most kids have good days and bad days." It sounds like Logan's days are heavily leaning towards the good days. He is happy and learning and still loving books, of course. We are so grateful for the many fantastic books available in the various school and community libraries here! Both boys and us adults are finding so many good book options. Currently I am reading Girls of Riyadh and I just finished a fabulous book, Finding Nouf.

Today is our last day of school before the Eid holiday. This is the Eid when many Muslim pilgrims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the most holy site in Islam, for their pilgrimage. It is a very powerful and meaningful experience, as I have been told. We are heading out of town tomorrow morning and will be back, ready to start back up after a week.

Thanks for reading - off to clean up leaking rainwater!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Biking in the desert from Hayden

Today, my dad and I went biking in the desert. It was a blast! We saw camels, alive and dead, we saw some of the most poor people I've ever seen, and we saw lots of wild dogs that didn't look very friendly. It's a good thing there were about ten of us there. I got stuck in the sand and the rocks a couple of times. There were a lot of rocks. Huge mountains of them! Some of them were pretty tall. It would be so easy to get lost because all of the little mountains look the same. We all had to stick together. We had to also get up really early or else it would be way too hot. When we got back from the ride we had a big brunch with beef bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. I was starving! I ate a large pile of eggs, more than ten slices of bacon, and three big pieces of toast. I think I biked about ten miles. You burn energy so quickly though, it felt like I biked twenty. Our bike ride started at about eight in the morning, and we had to drive about two hours to get there. Plus, I had to get up even earlier because I had to have a little bite to eat before we left. I think I got up at about five in the morning. But all I remember is the awesome biking, the great food, and the camels. Over all, the whole trip was one of my best days ever at KAUST so far.
Thank you for reading this!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The New Rec Center from Hayden

Finally, the new recreation center opened. I'm very happy about that because there are lots of things to do like racket ball, badminton, basketball, soccer, and bowling. Today we went there and found that the basketball courts weren't done and they were having problems with one of the bowling lanes. Our family played a game. I came in second. Other than that, it's great! They even are eventually supposed to have a fifty meter pool and a gym. I think the gym is almost done. I hope the pool has a nice slide like the one in Denver. The only thing that I don't like is that the halls are way too wide and waste space that could be used for sports. The restaurant there is nice except that my mom doesn't like the coffee because the coffee water is yucky she said.

My mom wrote about this but I just want to say that the boat trip is way better than the recreation center.

Thanks for reading this!

The Glorious Red Sea

Greetings,Yesterday we were fortunate enough to get to join a KAUST family boat trip out into the Red Sea. The KAUST yacht left the harbor in the morning with about thirty people and five or six staff members. We cruised out about seven miles into the sea to the
point that we could look back at KAUST and vaguely see it on the horizon. Coffee and muffins were available. The hazy morning soon gave up and the bright sunshine crystalized the day. Once the boat stopped to allow people a chance at some fishing, and a few people caught some small fish. We continued further to a reef where we spent the rest of the afternoon, alternating between swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing on the boat. Sandwiches and cold drinks were available for lunch.

Throughout the day, I was so grateful that Hayden and Logan are such good swimmers now. Logan still swam with a life jacket when he went into the sea, but I know that he will not just wander off into the water and get into trouble. Both boys thought the day was such a highlight to relax on the boat and swim in the luxurious water. It's so salty that it is very easy to stay afloat.

A great day. Popcorn and the movie "Cars" ended the day. We certainly treasure our weekends and the family time they offer.

More soon. Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Sunday, November 8, 2009


As many of you know, before we left Seattle, we sold our beloved dark green Subaru Outback, which had been with our family since just before Hayden was born. With that car, we traveled safely with our children up to the mountains nearly every weekend in the winter, once to Colorado in the HOT summer, once to Los Angeles in the traffic, on backcountry, rutted roads, and up and down Seattle's steeply hilly streets. Still, who wants to return from overseas to an old car? We packed up our bikes, rollerskis (as David has already shown), inline skates, running shoes, and a skateboard thinking we would use those all here, which we have been.

When we lived in Jeddah, we took taxis everywhere. Now that we live here on KAUST campus, we have access, though sometimes sporadic, to buses and we have our bikes. We pretty much bike a lot because it's really the fastest and easiest way we can get anywhere as a family. Most of our friends and colleagues bit the bullet and bought new cars as soon as the males in the family had gotten their driver's licenses, but we held off. In the early weeks, people were generous about giving us a lift when needed, even to Jeddah, but after a time, we began to feel that we didn't want people to resent us asking all the time. We are trying to avoid buying a car since it seems the distances are so small, at least on campus, and so sporadic, when we go into Jeddah or - perhaps someday - further to explore. We discovered that we can rent a car on campus anytime for a modest price for 24 hours. We figured out that we could rent a car every single weekend for nearly four years and spend less than a new car, and we won't rent a car every single weekend. There are also free community buses to Jeddah on weekends and most weeknights, if I am up for a late night. Finally, we recently bought a small motorbike which allows David or me to take Logan to school in the morning, spend a few minutes with him in his class reading a story, and then make it to our own classroom in time for advisory. The distance is not so far, but since Logan goes home with a caretaker and two friends after school, he could not take his bike home and it kept getting stuck at school. Or we would walk him and then be late. This seems like a perfect solution for us. Hayden is Mr. Bike this year, as he bikes all over campus, often with friends, and explores. Logan, too, has become so competent and confident on his bike, which, because it's home, he can ride every day after school. The motorbike is not permitted to leave campus, not that we would anyway, so we feel pretty safe - and, yes, we always wear helmets. We bought it here on campus, so the mechanic is right here and will tune it any time. I ride it for short distances every day, nearly, and have yet to see the gas tank fall below 'F'. I bet I could go one year without filling it up.

Our lives are busy with school. Our days are long but satisfying. Our kids are learning and growing, being challenged by the need for tolerance, learning Arabic, meeting new kids, and, overall, doing so very well. Hayden and I took the bus to Jeddah this last weekend and bought some new carpets for our house, which make it feel much more like home. It was a worthy trip. I am proud of the insights I hear from our boys, and I can appreciate their struggles too because we all feel them.

We are fortunate enough to get to go to Thailand later this month during our Eid holiday, when many Muslims will travel to Mecca for their hajj. Rather than do an exploration of Thailand, we are simply going to go to our favorite island bungalows and relax on the beach, enjoying fabulous Thai food!

Thanks for reading and keeping in touch! Jennifer

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wheeled sports at KAUST

We're at the ramparts of November, and there are plenty of fine folk around the northern hemisphere getting ready for snow sports and the advent of winter. Heck, we hear that snow has even begun to fall in parts of the Rockies and Cascades, and a colleague returned from the Twin Cities a week back to say that Minneapolis had already received its first snowfall. Of course, we have a difficult time appreciating this at KAUST, where a cool day is one that stays in the double digits, Fahrenheit, and outdoor workouts, if they happen at all, occur early in the morning or late in the evening, and even then are accompanied by an alarming rate of liquid loss.
Though many are surprised to see a family so often biking together (or is it the wife/mother in shorts?), nothing can compare to the stares from folks as you roller ski or roller blade around campus. I've bladed and r'skied a number of times now (check out Hayden's video), and each time as I pass a group of workers (and there are far more day laborers here than there are KAUST employees such as Jennifer and me), the looks of total shock and disbelief register everywhere, and a well-intentioned "Hello!" or "Good Morning!" often only adds to the puzzlement of the men who may only hear Bengali or the occasional redirect in Arabic.
Yet this is an incredible campus for wheeled sports. Built, or more likely being built, for 20,000, but with only 2,000+ currently here, if you choose your workout times reasonably well you can cover kilometer after kilometer of the 40K possible on car-free, brand new, pancake-flat roads. What motorized vehicles you do come across are usually so shocked and surprised to see you that you might as well be in an Obama motorcade, so widespread is their deference.
There is one lonely hill, a slight incline leading up to the university campus, and the cycling group I now ride with twice a week tries to hit that hill as many times as we can on our fairly short rides (since no one is in shape for longer rides here, and besides, a long ride in SA might be your last!).
There are now four security gates on the campus perimeter, providing the only ways to get on and off campus. Each has cement bunkers arrayed to force a serpentine, slowed approach to the many stationed security personnel, and each consists of two stopping points where, at any exit or entry, a man will ask you for your KAUST ID and might look in, around, and under your vehicle. Just for good measure, there is a machine gunner stationed at each of these checkpoints. These men are all Saudi nationals, and if there is anyone you want to remain on good terms with at KAUST it is certainly these guys!
But they often smile when we pass as a cycling group, and a few have even taken to teasing us and asking us who is the fastest, etc. These are small steps, but gradually community and commonality are being realized here. The groups involved are incredibly disparate, oftentimes disjointed, not infrequently disappointed, even disparaged, but it is the small steps toward the common good that KAUST is becoming that matter the most, and the roller skis, roller blades, and bikes around campus help put us in better touch with the humanity that is making this place more viable each day.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Biking at kaust

The biking at kaust is okay for a city that is still being built. Yeah, there are big trucks and buses and other work veichles but they are actually quite careful around kids. King Abdullah probably said if you hit a child you're fired. Of course, that's not that bad considering they get paid about 100 dollars a month. I think we've only had one close call this whole time. One thing I hate is all this gravel, they must have shipped over 20 tons of it. It lines all the streets. Every single street in all of kaust is lined with a thick coating of gravel. Logan tripped over it once. There are lots of problems but I think that over all, its actually not that bad. Thank you for reading this!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Toilet Smiles


We have some bad smells coming from our air conditioning - moldy and mildewy - and from our master bathroom - sewagey (is that a word?). I called the infamous 959 phone number for help and I received the following emails as a follow-up:

Your call was logged today 10/20/2009 5:03:50 PM by taha as follows:

Problem: Plumbing : Bad smile coming from the toilet
Description: There is sewage Smile coming from the toilet
Priority: Priority 2
Estimated Completion Date/Time: 10/25/2009 5:03:00 PM

Problem: A/C Not working : Bad smile coming from the A/C
Description: Is the A/C working in any part of the location? : Main entrance Is there access to the A/C Panel? : How long has the A/C not worked? : 3 weeks A/C has a very bad smile
Priority: Priority 1
Estimated Completion Date/Time: 10/20/2009 10:59:00 PM

Yes, for three weeks our A/C has had a very bad smile. I wish it would grin in a more friendly manner! And sitting on a potty with a sewage smile is very concerning! I wonder what the workers may think they are coming to repair? Life is eternally interesting, is it not??

Watch those sewage smiles! Jennifer

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shopping in Saudi Arabia

Greetings all,
Well, life is settling in a bit since we have moved from the hotel life and into our home here on campus. School has started, homework is kicking in, and students are beginning to settle in as well, though we did receive at least six new students in the secondary school today. Since the large supermarket on campus is not yet ready, people have been offered complimentary food at the campus cafeteria and campus eateries, which are mostly fast-food type places offering pizza, Burger King, subs, Lebanese, Arabic, and Indian dishes. The free food came to an end at the small restaurants this last weekend and will end at the cafeteria at the end of the month. Therefore, I have been making forays to Jeddah to gather food for our return to home cooking. It's just not quite as simple as walking to Ballard Market or driving to Trader Joe's.

Since I am not, as a woman, allowed to drive off campus, I have on two occasions taken a week-night bus leaving campus at 5:30 for a Jeddah mall, which includes a large supermarket similar to Fred Meyer in Seattle. Last week, I went on the bus with a friend to the Red Sea Mall. As we arrived, prayer time was soon to start so we darted into a restaurant to order dinner and eat while waiting
for prayer time to end and shops to open. We were
able to get some of the things we needed that evening, including basic food and items for our kitchens at home. We headed back to the bus at the designated time of 10 pm, struggling across the large parking lot to the bus pushing our heavy shopping carts and clutching frothy cups of coffee. Two other people were late to the bus but called a friend to say they would be only 20 minutes. We agreed to wait. Forty-five minutes later the bus driver simply started to leave when the missing passengers raced up in a taxi! We ultimately arrived back on campus at 12:15 am wondering how we would make it to school the next morning.

On the weekend, the same friend said that her husband had agreed to drive to Jeddah to buy some additional items and to do food shopping. We headed out again, this time in the car, late on Friday morning, which is the most holy day of the week. (Remember that Thursdays and
Fridays are the weekend.) David was more than happy to stay home with Hayden and Logan, as well as with our friends' sons, none of whom wanted any more trips to Jeddah. We had called to ensure that the store we were heading to was open and that the mall would be open too. We arrived just as the gates of the store were being closed for long Friday prayers. We were allowed to dart inside as several customers were paying and leaving. Though the store was closed for an hour and a half of prayer, we were allowed to walk around and shop until it re-opened. It was surreal to be shopping in a closed store with only a handful of employees around, half-heartedly restocking shelves. Once the store reopened, we finished and headed to the now-open cash registers to pay while massive numbers of men flocked into the store, grabbing at the newspaper inserts announcing Friday sales.

We headed into The Mall for some final items only to find nearly every store, except Starbucks, still closed and not due to open for an hour or four. Who knew? Time to go home. Not as productive as we had hoped, but we have been enjoying fresh vegetables, pasta, tacos and burritos, and some brownies at home. After all the meals in hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias, it is such a pleasure to sit down and eat together at home!

The photos in this post are all from our home. The drapes on the
windows are basically the same as the ones Maria used to make play-clothes for the Von Trapp family children in the Sound of Music. There is a kind of bar that separates the kitchen from the dining room, and Logan likes to do his art work there.

Thanks for reading! Jennifer

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Not Quite What it Seems


Those of you who know me even passably are aware of an abiding antipathy to most faculty meetings. Lucky for us, the faculty meetings we now attend are anything but boring. Take this week's meeting, for example. Despite an inspiring secondary school principal and a well-organized meeting agenda, the reality is that faculty meetings here are anything but what they once were. For one, we currently have our meetings in the only room - the school's cafeteria - large enough to accommodate our three dozen or so faculty. So, while we attempt to discuss curriculum, the lunch crew is busily trying to finish up their day's business. Plates clatter, silverware jingles, fridge doors slam - all while the school's head is trying to focus on the finer points of getting the school up and running.

And that's the least of it, for we also feature what has to be the most active fire alarm system in any school's history. Indeed, the fire department has been to our school so many times already in two short weeks of classes that they might well consider building an extension garage for one of their trucks and just taking over part of our campus. During our 3:15 - 5:00 meeting, and already having gone off twice that day already, the fire alarm went off twice more, the gathering of now alarm-insensitive veterans staying put as if a fire alarm hardly mattered now that the kids had gone home.

Of course, in the greater scheme of Murphy's Law, a few fire alarms are nothing. So to add to the unpredictability of the day's meeting, we also had the power go out during, ironically, a Powerpoint presentation. Never so quickly has a well-intentioned electronic presentation been snuffed out, and yet the grizzled veterans we've become barely batted eyes (as if we could see eyes batting...) and continued on, as best we could, with the conversation. Eventually the lights and general power came back on (which is always underscored by the constant whir of the central air conditioning, no matter the building), the meeting found its center once again, and all seemed relatively normal - until prayer time suddenly occurred and, we soon found, the school's PA system was being perhaps inadvertently used to loudly broadcast the prayer both inside and outside the entire building. Quietly and discretely, a few of the Arabic teachers snuck out of the room, apparently talked to the appropriate folks, and soon an air of normalcy gained a foothold. By now it was 5 pm, we'd been at school since 7:30 am, and the meeting ended on time, albeit "a bit short" of the intended conclusion.

Such is life at KAUST, we are finding, where things are never quite what they seem, yet each of us endeavors as best as possible in his or her own way, hoping for that presumably far-off day when a meeting will be just that, a meeting. Of course, for my part, I kind of like the unpredictable punctuation to our meetings - heck, at least there are no sprinklers in the ceilings of the school! Of course, why there are none in a school is yet another story...

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kaust from Hayden

Since we moved to Kaust from Jeddah, life has become a lot more like the one we had in Seattle. First of all, I've been going to school every day. Second of all, we actually have a house and I have my own room with a desk and a carpet. We still go into Jeddah quite a bit for shopping trips but that will soon change. My dad said that he will be happy if he never goes to another mall in his life. I don't blame him. My mom is not a big shopper either but she enjoys it more than my dad. Logan just learned learned how to ride a bike. He sort of learned in Seattle, but I think now he's really mastered it. When ever he's not at school he's either riding his bike or eating. I am really exited to have my bike too. Yesterday my friend Colin came over and we biked all around our neighborhood, and we even went off a couple jumps. Thank you for reading this!

Jennifer's classes

Greetings all,

After my last posting about school starting, I received many questions, and I realized that our post raised more questions than it answered. I will try my best to explain further. As students were changing grades and moving from boys' only or girls' only programs to the co-ed program, our classes, grades, and schedules were adjusting constantly last week. Now it is slightly clearer, but change seems to be the key word this year ...

As of today, the first day of our second week of school, we have a girls' only school which is located in an upstairs wing of the school, though many of the girls have been more than happy to have some classes in the co-ed section of the school, as well as to eat lunch in the co-ed cafeteria. We have no more boys' school. All boys moved into the co-ed component of the school, which made most teachers very pleased. Now I am teaching the eight 6th graders Language A (English/ Language Arts), and my colleague teaches them on alternating days for humanities/social students (Ancient Civilizations - Egypt, Greece, and Rome). In 6th grade Language Arts, we are working on reading, discussing, writing, grammar. Though the students have varying abilities in English, they seem to be trying really hard, and there is always one Saudi boy who is comfortable enough to translate for the others. Last week we introduced the components of a story (setting, rising action, conflict, anit-climax ...) to our students with a children's story that belongs to our family. I copied the story and read it aloud while the students read along - about a knight, a princess, a dragon, and a battle. The students said they loved it. Later I asked the kids to let me know with a five-finger rating system how much they had understood, and all students raised either 4-5 fingers, showing thorough understanding of the story. It was a fun lesson and it gave me a sense that they understand more than they can sometimes express. One boy who I thought didn't understand English well, enthusiastically offered many predictions for the story, and he was right in each case! Tomorrow they will have their first quiz!

I also teach 7th grade humanities. There are more than 20 students, so my colleague and I have split the class into two sections. Again we alternate days between Language Arts and social studies. Today we drew maps from memory on large completely blank pieces of paper. It's a very hard exercise which really shows how much awareness of the world people have. My three Saudi boys, try as they might, really only knew Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a few countries around the Arabian Peninsula. That's okay. Think how much they will know by the end of the year!

We do have teachers on staff who are trained in English as a Second Language (ESL), and they come into the class or offer ideas whenever asked. This has been tremendously helpful. All teachers have to balance between students who are native speakers of English and are 'ready to go' and students who are primarily learning English as we go. I am grateful that most of my students are trying really hard and seem pleased to be here. As is always the case, once you begin to get to know your students, to see their strengths, and to see some successes, you just care more and more and want to help them continue to learn. I am buoyed by the idea of what all of my students will be able to label on a world map by June - and what that will offer their world perspective!

Over the weekend, we spent one day doing errands in Jeddah - buying a vacuum and a blender, a desk (again at IKEA), some food we cannot get here in the mini-mart, and other household items. On Friday we stayed home organizing our house, installing a water filter system in the kitchen (no more need for bottles of water), cleaning and vacuuming, doing laundry. It felt good to settle in. We also enjoyed a relaxing brunch at the cafeteria where we can get omelets, smoothies, waffles and pancakes ... more than we are cooking at home at the moment. The super market on campus will open, inshallah, in December, and the mini-mart just cannot keep up with all food needs, thus the campus-wide free food until ... who knows?

Thanks for reading - and for all the positive comments about Hayden's blog. He is ready to try another. -- Jennifer

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dubai for the weekend

Not only has this been my first teaching job where the first day of school was in October, or the first that has allowed for a vacation even before teaching the students, this has been the first time I've ever missed a first day of school - albeit for professional reasons.
The occasion was IB math curriculum training with a group of colleagues, originally planned to occur a month into school but, with delay followed by delay, actually taking place the weekend before and first day of school.
Fortunately, the IB training was first-rate, Dubai was a stark contrast to Jeddah, and the group of us returned in time for the first day of academic classes no worse for wear.
Dubai, like much of the rest of the planet, has been adversely affected by the world's economic downturn. In Dubai's case, the telltales are cancelled or delayed construction projects (I'd never seen so many still cranes towering over a cityscape), and, on a personal plus side, the opportunity to stay in a five-star hotel (due to slashed rates), the Emirate Towers, about the last place you'd catch me staying were the tab not someone else's. The room I shared with a colleague apparently goes for $900 per night on the hotel's website, though I doubt anyone is paying that these days.
Dubai's sidewalks are clean and continuous, streets are well marked, smooth, and spotless, cars drive with seeming civility and an apparent recognition of the rules, and building construction in general seems to have been executed to a high standard. Interestingly, Dubai doesn't have the oil SA has, though it has attracted impressive business investment and parlayed that into a fusion of Las Vegas and Singapore. It is apparently a very popular vacation destination for those with money, whether native or expat, from the more religiously conservative corners of the middle east; with the incredible sums being spent on oil in the region, you can imagine how many folks that might be. Heck, it even sports the world's new tallest building, and one of the few seven-star hotels, if you're into those sorts of things. Still, I'm not sure I'd go back. There are many places in the middle east with a great deal more historical attraction to them, which is why we're increasingly talking about heading to Egypt, Jordan, or even Turkey when wanderlust hits again. Thanks for reading, Dubai David

Monday, October 5, 2009

And...school starts ...

A month later than originally expected, school actually started on Saturday, 3 October. Hayden biked to the elementary school and met his teacher; Logan and I locked up our bikes and walked across the street to his school to meet his teacher, Ms. Sue. (See photo) I stayed with Logan to read some books in his classroom until Ms. Sue came over to say hello. After nearly nine weeks of living together at the Marriott hotel, our boys already know their teachers quite well - and vice versa. Logan's teacher is Australian and Hayden's teacher is from Canada, but what is most appealing about her - in Hayden's mind, of course - is that her Australian husband loves American football!

At the Harbor Secondary School, where David and I teach, class changes have been a constant for the last few days. Nearly all the boys who originally wanted to be placed in a boys' only program have opted for co-ed, as well as many girls. The school was initially founded with the understanding that there would be a girls' school, a boys' school, and a co-ed international school. Right now, it's all in the same place. The girls who have opted for the girls' school have a wing for girls only, but they are generally happier than we expected to come down stairs for classes and to share lunch in the lunchroom. The first day was complete with excitement, confusion, transition, exhaustion, activities, new friends, and - of course - a fire alarm! All systems are still being worked on. The air conditioning, for example, is either freezing cold with rooms around 16 degrees celsius or off which allows the rooms to
warm up to steamy mid-twenties. It's exciting. Though I teach co-ed classes, the students are mostly boys. I teach 7th grade humanities to 8 boys and 1 girl; 6th grade humanities to 3 boys and 1 girl; 7th grade P.E. to 8 girls. My colleague teaches the other half of the humanities classes, total grade 6 is around 9 students and grade 7 is around 20. More students are arriving in mid-October. Like their teachers, some families' relocation have been delayed in order to get the graduate students, professors, and teachers moved in. My students are wonderful. Having them in the class makes us realize, again, why we are here, adjusting, preparing, adapting, and working hard. They are so fun and many are eager to learn. I have students who are Saudi Arabia, British, Swiss, Palestinian-Jordanian, Filipino, Saudi-British, American-Egyptian ... They seem happy to be here and I see them acting as teenagers do world-wide - silly and sophisticated from one moment to the next. We are tired each day, not completely prepared for the next one, but making it work well nonetheless. All the teachers seem very jazzed about their kids!

David is no longer teaching just boys since the boys' only classes have disappeared - except for 2 boys in the 8th grade and that may change ... He is much more pleased to be teaching girls and boys because he thrives professionally in that setting. Must head off to dinner. More to follow. Students receive laptops tomorrow, which should offer new challenges and benefits!

Thanks for reading! Jennifer

Friday, October 2, 2009


This is what I really liked about London. 1. They speak english. 2. There are lots of parks with green trees and bushes. 3. It is just the right temperature. 4. It is clean and the people there are nice. They don't cut in line, they don't throw their trash everywhere, and they say hi to you when they pass you. 5. There are so many things to do as a family. There are tons of museums and old fascinating buildings and stuff like that. You could live in London 10 years and do something cool every day. That's how cool London is. 6. In London they also have so many ways of public transportation. There are double-decker buses and taxis and they even have a underground train system called the tube. Thank you for reading this!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A (mostly) completed house ...

Greetings all,

We have moved into our new home in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, the village which now houses the large graduate university known as KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology). It is a brand new house, so new, in fact, that it is not complete. Yes, the walls and floors are done. The furniture is here, though some pieces seemed to be put in so quickly that they are actually broken. We have plumbing, though it took David awhile to figure out that the reason we had no hot water was that we actually had to push a button to get it started. There remains work to do nonetheless. We have a list of things that are supposed to be completed by work teams when we call the "help desk." So far, other than pest control arriving to set up rat traps, we have not had a lot of the finishing work done yet. Several days ago I did stay home from work (since school has not started) to wait for the pest control guys to show up with their traps. Just as they were finishing, the maintenance team arrived to actually patch the many holes in cupboar
ds and behind appliances which could allow rats easy entrance. While the men were patching holes, another team of eight men - yes eight - arrived to perform a final cleaning of our house. They mopped, dusted, folded some towels inadvertently left out, washed down our balconies, scrubbed bathrooms, washed some walls, and cleaned the dust out of the closets. They did such a good job that I tipped the whole group by giving money to the supervisor and asking him to share it around. As they were leaving, the plumber showed up to fix the leaky sinks and dishwasher. He tried really hard to accomplish the job, and did succeed in some problems, but he didn't have the right parts to complete the dishwasher sleeve for the hose. No worries. Because all of the food in the restaurants and cafeteria is free, we have not really been cooking much yet. This will change some time, but no one seems to know when we will have to pay. (When asked, a cafeteria worker said to me, "Tomorrow, maybe, or in December.") In the end, we ended up with only one rat trapped in a cage - so far, though I just discovered 'evidence' of another one! We are still waiting for shower rods, bathroom lights to be installed, a TV remote (you cannot use the TV at all without it), another large hole to be fixed, and the landscaping to be completed. Still, we don't have to commute from Jeddah, I don't have to wear an abaya, our kids can ride bikes and play outside, and our schools are 10 minutes by walking from our house! A lot to be grateful for in any case.

Our schools are in a similar state, but further along. We expect students to start on Saturday, and I think everyone is very excited to have kids in the building. After all, that's why we are here really. At the end of our work day today, all the teachers and administrators gathered in a circle to share thoughts about school starting on Saturday. It was powerful because people are committed and excited, despite the challenges of starting up a school which is still being completed. Unfortunately, the entire math and science departments (including David) left for Dubai and a training opportunity tonight, so school will start on Saturday without those teachers! We actually had some laughs in the group about that. After awhile, you just have to be able to laugh about the crazy and silly and frustrating things that happen.

We have gradually been unpacking our shipments from Seattle. It takes time to figure out where things should go, though we did not bring everything we own as many people had to. So far all looks well, except that the guy who packed up our bicycles didn't know anything about bikes, and he actually damaged Hayden's brand new bike by incorrectly (and unnecessarily) disassembling the rear derailleur. We found the only bike shop in Jeddah, called Wheels, and the mechanic there was able to fix the bike, though it's not as strong as it was. It was some tough moments for Hayden, who has been asking for his bike for weeks, but he has recovered and has been riding all around! Off to do more laundry. We seem to have a lot this weekend.

Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Going Underground in London

Greetings all,
We have been home from London for less than 48 hours but have already moved into our house and slept here one night. Whew. More on that later ...

London was fantastic. I had not been there since a college abroad trip focused on English literature and its wonderful authors, so
this was a refreshing experience for me to visit again. I had such fond memories and now we all have fond memories. We stayed for three nights in a small hotel near Paddington station. We walked a lot each day and loved figuring out the Underground and the double-decker buses. We shopped and ate wonderful food, visited the Tower of London and walked across the Tower Bridge, went to the Imperial War Museum and the HMS Belfast (anchored on the Thames), and tried various pubs. At Covent Garden we had a delicious lunch and then watched David assist a street performer in getting tied up in his straight-jacket and climbing aboard a unicycle where he simultaneously rode the cycle and freed himself from the jacket! London seemed clean and fresh and, incredibly, it did not rain at all. After three days, we took the train to Walton-on-Thames and met up with my English family, Angela and Martin and their son and his wife and twin daughters. I had not seen Angela and Martin since 1987
and yet it felt as though I had just been there a couple of years ago. Their son Clive visited me in Vietnam many years ago and again he visited David and me in Michigan perhaps 10 years ago. The boys were so excited to play in a backyard, to try Martin's go-cart, and to be in house after all these months of hotels. It was a refreshing change for all of us, I think. Plus we were able to have afternoon tea with scones, cream, and jam. Heavenly!

Hayden loved that people spoke English and that it was so green. David loved that the city had such amazing public transportation. Logan loved the strawberry birthday cake for breakfast, that he got to have two pieces because he was the birthday boy, and that the flight attendants sang happy birthday to him. I loved reconnecting with my "English family" and with a city I have loved for a long time, particularly the parks and the pubs! We also spent a day at Hampton Court and learned so much more about King Henry VIII, his wives, his athleticism, and his legacy for England.

When we returned to London at 4 am, we received a text from a friend in Jeddah informing us that school was, again, being postponed by a week. It is giving us more time to move in, get settled, and set up class. We are ready to get started on the next part of our adventure. More on the house soon ... thanks for reading. Jennifer

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Our house is ready!

Greetings all,
We finally got notice that our house is ready; however, we have to wait 72 hours after receiving that notice to actually collect keys and do the walk-thru. And 72 hours from that notice is the day we leave for London. Fortunately, we have some friends who are willing to collect our keys and sign papers for us, and they have already gone through the process, so they totally know what to look for and what to try out. The greatest gift we have had so far is the amazing colleagues and friends we have met, many of whom have offered to help in any way possible for the families like us who have yet to move to KAUST.

We leave for a vacation in London tomorrow morning, as mentioned, and will return to Jeddah late on Thursday night, 24 September, which is Logan's 5th birthday! He was very sad to learn that he would have to be on an airplane on his birthday. I explained that he could spend most of his birthday in London with our lovely friends, the Marriotts, and that we would NOT forget to bring his special birthday jar of chocolate sauce given to him by his Evans grandparents in July. We also assured him we would have a small party after we returned to Jeddah and moved into our house with a couple of his friends. We bought a book about traveling to London with children, so that should help guide us to some great spots, perhaps even a Harry Potter tour!

When we return, we have one day to pack up our lives in the hotel, rent a car, and drive to KAUST where - inshallah - our house will be clean, rat-free, and ready for us! The day after that, school starts! Whew.

We will take photos of our home to post with our next posting about our house, so that we can share with you.

Enjoy the week and thanks for reading! And a very happy birthday to Grandpa/Dad/Gordon Evans ... still so young at heart.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Logan and Snorkeling

Hello. As typical for our Fridays, we were at the beach this morning. Logan and a friend, who is five, went out to snorkel at the reef with his friend's parents. When he got back, he ran to me and said, "Momma, I touched the first sea cucumber of my whole life. It was slimy. It was really fun!" Both boys have really taken to snorkeling, and I think Hayden truly appreciates all those Ballard swimming lessons now.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Night on the Town, Ramadan Style

Greetings all,
Last night, Wednesday, was the start to our weekend, so a group of families went out together to Chili's restaurant, a popular American chain. We were rather ready for a break from the hotel's offering during the iftar meal, and it seemed a perfect spot. During Ramadan in Saudi Arabia when Muslims are fasting during the day, restaurants are not open until evening. They begin to open to customers after 6 p.m. Though the tables at Chili's were set with iftar offerings of sweet dates and apricots, no one but children were eating and no one could order food until an announcement was made in the restaurant that iftar could begin. We spread out around a couple of large tables and enjoyed a delicious, though slightly different, American-style meal of hamburgers, fries, fajitas, buffalo wings, nachos ... After eating, the children all discovered a large outside eating area, complete with fountains and a play structure. Sweaty and red-faced, they climbed and jumped and ran, darting inside periodically for a quick drink. Logan at first thought it would be perfect to simply cool off himself in the fountain, but we didn't think it was particularly hygienic!

After much conversation and eating, the dads took the kids home for baths and bed, and several moms went to Starbucks. It must be difficult to do business as Starbucks in Jeddah right now because it is closed all day until 9 p.m. at which time it opens until 2 a.m. We nearly entered in the singles' door, which is really intended only for men, but then we discovered the family entrance for women, children, and men with spouses or families. No one was there except two young men behind the counter. The coffee was excellent, as always. About twenty minutes after opening, Starbucks must close again for the evening prayer. We were not asked to leave, but if we chose to stay, we could NOT leave for about 15 minutes. Since we were in the family section, the frosted windows prevented anyone from looking in at us, and we had a very quiet and enjoyable evening. The evening concluded with a hilarious and rather hair-raising taxi ride to ToysRUs, also open after 9 p.m., for a Monopoly game and some blocks. We tried out our minimal Arabic language skills with the Yemeni driver who laughed and then shushed us each time he received a phone call.

For the last week, we have been commuting to KAUST campus from the Marriott in Jeddah on large buses. It's about 1-1.5 hours each way, so a lot of reading gets done. The houses and schools are nearly finished, and we have set up the schools' libraries for the Secondary School, the Elementary School, and the Early Childhood School (3-5 year olds). Logan has visited his classroom and played blocks with his teachers (whom he already knew from 5 weeks in the hotel); Hayden too knows his teachers and visited his school for a writing sample 'test'. The boys are learning to call their teachers by Mr. and Ms. now, rather than the familiar first names we have been using. David and I have met many of our incoming students as they come in for interviews and math/writing tests in the secondary school, and we are now trying to piece together the details of our schedules based on student numbers and those students who are committed to single gender versus co-education. We have satisfying moments and days, as well as challenging ones. The hotel gets tiresome, of course, but some people who have moved have rat problems, and I would rather be in the hotel! We have seen our house, we think, and it's looking more and more complete. No one really anticipated we would be here in Jeddah this long, but at least we are not here alone. Some our colleagues have moved to campus, but many of the families are still here ...

We are off to London next weekend to spend three nights in the city and three nights in Surrey with a family I stayed with for a week during college; even in that short time such a long time ago, they became part of my family, and now I will get to introduce my own family to my "English family."

Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hash Runs, Jeddah style

As many of you know, Hash runs are informal runs held around the world. Part social hour, part jog/run, hash runs allow the more active folks in the typically expat community to get a better lay of the land by having them complete a pre-set route, usually something taking on the order of an hour or more to complete. Faster runners can run as much as they want by determining where the false leads are , thereby keeping those bringing up the rear on trail. What almost all hash runs have in common is a finish at a common watering hole; the ones I've done in NYC and Vientien, Laos, brought folks back together at pubs where, for many apparently, the real action started.
Not so in SA, as you could probably guess. Here, and solely based on my two outings with the hash running group in Jeddah, the program seems to revolve around getting out of busy Jeddah for a few hours, enjoying a bit of the barren and ruggedly beautiful escarpment to the east, sharing in some juice and water afterwards and, for the women, enjoying the one time in a week when they can run outside and in clothes that most of the running world would expect a person to wear in 100+ F heat. The terrain is too rocky and the pitch so up and down that most of the run is more like a fast hike, with the occasional tree with thorns, or barbed wire fence at knee high, to keep life interesting, yet we do run when we can, although it's the weather, and not the pace, that is ever sizzling.
Though close to the horizon, at 5 pm the day's sun is still blazing hot. Hashers load up on water just prior to leaving for the run, gulping down cup fulls in anticipation of the challenge ahead . Each carries a liter or more of water for the 1.5 hour"ish" run, which also includes a orange slice/extra water stop. At the end, much more water and juice is served up, with haggard, depleted finishing runners gulping down the liquid. Even so, many runners remain dehydrated and extra hydration is recommended throughout the evening and especially during the next day. On the run one hears English, Spanish, German, French, and Arabic. Since most of these folks have fairly demanding jobs and live in a culture substantially different from their own, the release of stress is palpable and a fun mood pervades the evening. Still, the barren beauty of the escarpment - geographically, the hills/low mountains that connect the huge, higher plain of the Arabian peninsula with its nearly sea-level bordering perimeter, especially along the Red Sea - captivates all of us. Ancient granitic outcroppings that have been pummeled by desert winds for millennia sport bowls, nobs, and holes not unlike ones you'd find in huge rocks in mountain streams, whether wind of water, each demonstrating the tremendous power of nature. Occasionally, the sand-borne winds of time had created such large openings that we could run through their resulting tunnels or climb over their impressive bridges.
Sometimes, folks stay afterwards, spread out the carpets on the flattest ground they can find, bring out the sandwich basket, light the houkkah pipe, and enjoy a magical evening under the stars. Opportunities for casual socializing within a mixed gender group being what they are in SA, I can imagine that this postlude is especially favored by the Arabic speakers in the group. Some time when I've grown a bit more accustomed to the heat, I hope to partake in this lingering, and when I do I'll let you know how the traditional hash pub finish really gets translated in SA. Bye for now, David

Friday, August 28, 2009

Greetings friends and family,
Recently in a rather 'down' moment, we Evanses started talking about what we miss from home:
The mountains
Sledding on our hill (Logan - not sure he realizes it is still summer at home)
Northwest microbrews and red wine
Running outside at Greenlake
Family visits

Then we talked about what we are grateful for here:
Friday beach days
The vast array of food at the Marriott buffet
The comfortable beds
Our upcoming trip to London
The pool (for the males in the family)
Daily cleaning of our room and the friendly hotel staff
Indian and Lebanese restaurants
The beach
The kids who are Logan's age and more coming who are Hayden's age
Amazing colleagues and new friends
Did I mention the beach and snorkeling at the reef??

We must remember what we miss, mostly our friends and family, and all that we have to be grateful for!

The photos above show us enjoying room service dinner and play cars at the Mall of Arabia.

Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jeddah's "Little India," the Sharafiya District

The smell of fresh chapatti quickly transported me back to the 5th - 7th grade years, when my family lived in New Delhi, India and frequently traveled throughout one of the world's most amazing countries and its largest democracy. Only this time I wasn't in Delhi, where an old, grizzled man in the alley behind our home would happily make me a fresh chapatti while squatting by his modest charcoal-fired stove, all the while chatting away amiably in Hindi, overestimating my mastery of one of the world's most widely spoken languages.
Only last night, the language our hungry group of seven was hearing and seeing everywhere was Malayalam, one of India's other 18 major languages (the most widely spoken, of course, being Hindi), and almost certainly the only language spoken by 35 million people that is such a long palindrome!
The Malayali live almost exclusively in the state of Kerala, on India's SW coast, and the parade of male shopkeepers, shoppers, restauranteurs, and peddlers all about were but a small subset of the 1.5+ million Malayali living in the Gulf States (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia).
At more than 90%, Kerala has India's highest rate of literacy, along with health and other demographics that are the envy of much of the rest of the country. Yet it also has one of India's highest population densities and, apparently, not enough post-scholastic opportunities for its burgeoning, talented population; hence Jeddah's Sharafiya district and the myriad Keralans in evidence.
Teresa Joseph, our most beloved servant while living in Delhi in the early 7os, was from Kerala; it was her son, Christopher (they were Catholics) who became such a close buddy of mine and who taught me so much about Indian culture (including how to swear fluently in Hindi!).
Our noses soon steered us to the recommended Hill Top Restaurant, where an 8:00 arrival put us at tables just vacated by the Ramadan Iftar crowd (see Jennifer's preceding entry). Soon, towering plates of scrumptious food - chapatti, daal, butter chicken, palaak paneer - that you might find in, say, Goa filled our tables, and we were soon experiencing gustatory reverie and chatting about good times spent in South Asia. Our meal for seven came in at $24 total, a far cry from what KAUST gets charged for any of our meals taken at the hotel!
Afterward, and just as the stores and shops were reopening for their Ramadan evening hours (from around 9:15 pm to midnight, or even until 1 or 2 in the morning in some cases!), we ambled about the teeming streets, purchasing a few odds and ends for that still-hoped-for move to our homes at KAUST.
Just as we were heading to the main thoroughfare and its legion of taxis, we chanced upon an open-air vegetable market. In broken English and meager Arabic, we soon determined from the stall keepers that hardly any of the fruits and vegetables on the many stands came from anywhere near Saudi Arabia - bananas from the Americas, spinach from Sri Lanka, mangoes from India, etc. So used to a farmer's market with its largely indigenous foods and crafts, we were suddenly struck again by the uniqueness of SA. SA's energy costs, apparently low tariffs, and meager supply of agricultural land give its many merchants and traders a fair degree of discretion on selection as they comb the world's trade channels, and this is obvious everywhere, from the fanciest hotels and showrooms to, like this one, the most basic open air stalls.
We hope our next foray out for authentic ethnic cuisine can take us to the Bangladeshi or Pakistani districts, both of which are purported to have similar riches awaiting us, so stay tuned and thanks for reading! David

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still here ...

Greetings friends and family,
First, I would like to say how much we appreciate the comments many of you are making either on our blog or directly to us via email. We read all the comments and really enjoy knowing that you are reading what we write. We love to hear your comments and questions. So thank you.

We are still here in our adjoining hotel rooms at the Marriott Jeddah. Everyone is still here as well, but some people have visited their homes today, those whose homes are complete. No one has really moved up yet, but we hope to sometime at the end of August. Inshallah. Since it is now Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, reflection, prayer, and the haj to Mecca for Muslims, our options have narrowed a bit. Because many of us KAUST people are non-Muslims, the Marriott is offering us breakfast and lunch in a small side room each day - or we are welcome to order room service as well. This is so we are not openly eating in front of those who are fasting. One night we opted for room service, enjoying pizza and Caesar salad in our room. It was relaxing and family-centering. We may do that again tonight because it allows us to eat together with just our family, like at home. Nearly every restaurant, store, mall, and office has very unusual hours. They seem to have some hours each day during the daytime, though I am not clear as to what those hours are, then they close for the afternoon, opening again for a meal to break the fast (iftar) or afterwards if they do not serve food. So, IKEA and malls, for example are open from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., when people like to shop and socialize after their big evening meal. We have to work at 8 a.m. so the idea of going out from 9 - 11 p.m. is not tremendously appealing at the moment. The Marriott hotel offers an amazingly diverse array of food for each evening's iftar such that people and companies make reservations to come here just to dine. We have never seen the hotel as full as during the evening meal. Typically, we have been told, Muslims will break the fast with some tea or water and some dates and dried apricots. They then eat a large meal throughout the evening before heading out to shop or visit friends or family. A colleague went out last night to shop for a car and found the car dealers absolutely packed at midnight. We have learned to greet people with "Ramadan Mubarak" during this time of year.

Ramadan ends with a large feast thirty days after the first day of the lunar month. It is an Islamic holiday, for the final week of Ramadan, so we have a week off of school - before school even starts! We have decided to head to London for that week, to relax and regroup a bit before coming back and actually starting school on September 26. We will spend three nights at a hotel in London and three nights with a family in Surrey with whom I stayed during college for one week. I have not seen Angela and Martin for more than 20 years, though their son Clive did visit me in Vietnam and us in Michigan years ago. I think of this family as 'my English family', and I am so excited to reconnect and introduce my own family to my English family, ironically named the Marriotts.

We also plan to spend Christmas skiing in Austria. We welcome friends and family to join us?! We have rented an apartment in a small village outside of Innsbruck, a location known for its cross country ski trails, as well as downhill skiing. We are totally excited to get to some snow.

Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Thursday, August 20, 2009

House and Ramadan

Some recent photos from the beach, Hayden by the Marriott pool, both boys in a local chocolate shop! Delicious.

I was able to go to Thuwal a few days ago. The houses are coming along. Some are done. Ours and all those on our street are almost done, but the road isn't, so we don't really have full and safe access right now. Even if it was done, we can't/don't want to move yet because we have meetings here, fresh food here, friends here, a pool here, everything we need really. Up on campus there is a mini-mart which has many household items, but no fresh fruits or vegetables yet because no one is really living there yet. There are three small restaurants, a wonderful cafeteria, a great deal of nearly finished construction, and a lot of garbage that has yet to be cleaned up. Though we are pretty upbeat about living in a hotel, it does feel like a never-ending situation at times. (I have actually used two full bars of hotel soap, which is rare for most hotel visitors.) I wonder if we will ever move and, if so, if our homes will have endless problems - water leakage, electricity, wireless ... Inshallah, we will move at the end of August and have a working home. I was able to see one of the two bedroom townhouses and, though ours will be a three-bedroom, it gave me a sense of what it looks like and what is there. We went to IKEA today to buy some items we will need for the house, things that can make it feel more like OUR house and less like a hotel: candles, baskets, throw pillows and blankets for the couch.
Benefit number one of needing an abaya: I went to breakfast and to IKEA in my pajamas today - under my abaya! Pretty comfy actually.

We are off to the beach tomorrow for more swimming and snorkeling. We have made some nice friends and are enjoying a lot of our time. We are getting ready for our own home, as you might imagine, and for school to start and our lives to settle a bit.

Ramadan starts tomorrow, assuming the moon is in view. We will have to be very discreet about eating between 4:45 a.m. and 7 p.m. The hotel is setting up a private place for non-Muslims to have breakfast from 6:30-8:00 a.m. and lunch for one hour starting at noon. It is very disrespectful for anyone to eat or drink in public until after sunset. Stores and offices will have limited hours, and there will be huge iftars from 7:00 p.m. on into late hours. Malls open at 8:00 p.m. and stay open until 2 a.m. Even IKEA has hours such as this starting tomorrow. Ramadan lasts for one full lunar month and ends with a huge festival of Eid thirty days after the start of Ramadan. It's a very popular and exciting time for people of Islamic faith. They fast all day, except for children or people for whom is it not healthy to fast, to practice discipline and inner focus. I would like to fast for a day. I will let you know if I can. Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Taxis, taxis, everywhere taxis!

Like all the thousands of men driving taxis in Jeddah, this one at first seemed tired and remote, almost like we were a nuisance in his day. Yet, just like so many drivers before, once I started trying to chat with him the veneer wore away and soon we were engaged in a ranging conversation.
We have yet to have a Saudi taxi driver in our three weeks and nearly 50 taxi rides. Indeed, I doubt they exist. What does exist, however, is a demonstrably large need for low-cost rides about town. Recall that women love to shop in SA and that not one of them drives. It's also increasingly clear, given yesterday's labyrinthine process for getting a driver's license, even with our astute Saudi handlers, that many non-Saudi men don't bother to get licenses and certainly wouldn't want to drive a car in SA without one for fear of getting caught. So, to fill this supply-demand chasm is an army of willing drivers, along with the greatest per capita legion of taxis I've ever seen.
Taxis are fleet owned by, presumably, Saudi businessmen; it seems unlikely that, say, a Pakistani driver with a penchant for business would ever be able to own his own fleet. Drivers must have insurance (1700 SR, or about $500, per year), on average fill up the car once per day (20 SR, or about $6, per day, given the 65 cents/gallon for gas), and rent the car (130 SR, or about $40, per day). Each driver is also responsible for any damage to the car which, given Jeddah's driving styles, could amount to considerable sums, and quickly! Many taxis still sport the cover plastic on the seats, and a few still have the foam bumper tags on the doors from shipping! On the plus side, according to our driver from Peshawar, Pakistan, is a daily take home pay of about 150 SR, or about $40.
To achieve this amount a driver needs to work from 8 am until 10:30 pm each day (except Friday, SA's holy day), with some of the busier days going until midnight. They aren't supposed to get out of the car except once briefly in the morning, again later in the afternoon for a quick lunch, and finally again in the early evening. Most drivers have snacks and drinks next to them at all times so as to be constantly on the prowl for business. I'd not be surprised if in the very least caffeine levels are high. It's hard to find a parked taxi in this city at any waking hour.
To a person our drivers have felt little compassion for their Saudi overseers, with many expressing some very strong feelings on this subject. On the other hand, none would have attempted to come to SA weren't the conditions back home particularly poor, their futures especially bleak. To be fair, who knows what prospects would have been like back home, or how they would have been treated?
Pakistani drivers seem to have the upper hand in terms of numbers of taxi drivers in Jeddah, but like many of the basic service jobs in SA, there is broad representation among nations in this huge industry, with many of the men coming from countries with much higher population densities (like Pakistan) and political unrest (like Pakistan) than is the case currently in SA.
Most Pakistani drivers, when told, don't quite know what to make of my improbable Karachi beginnings. Perhaps they think I'm just making conversation. Last night's Peshawar native was quick to explain the sad state of affairs in this large conduit city to Afghanistan, claiming that the Taliban were a bunch of illiterate heretics that had ruined Afghanistan and were in the process of doing the same to Pakistan. Peshawar, he claimed, was nothing like it once had been. His claim was that with increasing numbers of less well-educated people calling the shots, without broader access to better education, especially for girls, the future was bleak. It sort of made me wish we had had Greg Mortensen's THREE CUPS OF TEA translated into Urdu to give him at that juncture, but clearly both men have the same thesis statement, and they aren't alone.
There are also jitneys holding (legally) about two dozen that run up and down the main thoroughfares, clearly the rides of choice for the hundreds of thousands of non-Saudis eking out a living in Jeddah. Their side-doors are constantly open, their stops ad hoc and fleetingly short, just enough time to get another man or two aboard, or a few off. I've yet to see a woman on one of these buses. Like the taxi drivers, the construction workers, the launderers, the cleaners, and the myriad other countless, nameless workers who make Jeddah run reasonably smoothly each day, these men have typically left family at home (our driver last night has a wife and child in Pakistan) and remain in SA for very long periods of time (16 years, for last night's example) in order to send regular remittances back home to pay for all sorts of things in his extended family - medical help for a sick parent, education for a nephew, perhaps a modest home for his family, etc. Obviously, if you're grossing only $40/day and have a number of other expenses besides, you can imagine the cramped quarters these men must live in, the relatively miniscule scale of the monthly amount sent home, etc. Hence, the long stays.
Like all countries, SA is a land of contrasts and contradictions, yet if you dig just a bit beneath the veneer you find incredible humanity; it is this human touch that has been so fun to get to know in our brief time here. Had we been whisked from the airport to a completed campus in order to start our lives at KAUST, we would have missed out on so much, especially the intricate web of humanity that makes this large city tick. We hope to share more of this incredible story in due course. Thanks for reading our blog, David

Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting a Driver's License

7am yesterday, a decidedly motley, bleary-eyed two dozen or so males, your humble author among them, congregated at the main entrance to the Marriott, intending to get on a shuttle bus we'd been promised the day before for the big event: Getting our driving licenses. As you are well aware, women may not drive in the Kingdom, so, good or bad, eager or begrudging, pretty much every eligible male in the Kaust Schools signed on for the day's grand opportunity. Perhaps as a harbinger to our day, no bus showed for the group and, in due time, we were quickly resorting to our now common practice of breaking up into groups of four and catching the ubiquitous taxis of Jeddah, many of which brake with enthusiasm, often cutting each other off in order to over charge a group of four western men.
SA apparently accepts no other country's driver's license as valid, so even the four Arabic instructors among us, from countries like Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, were along for the ride and, like good Arabs, they were in the lead taxi, the rest of us, in true Formula One style, making a go of keeping up as speeds exceeded 120 kph on the city's roads. The Arabic speakers in the alpha-male driven car had directed their driver to the Licensing Bureau which, at first blush, might be where you'd want to go for a license. Unfortunately, they'd broken the one rule for KAUST employees in Jeddah, which essentially posits that all groups need a handler, and that you'd better not venture out on anything, anywhere, at any time un-chapperoned.
So, after a few minutes of confusion at the licensing spot, we headed to KAUST temporary headquarters, situated in a sleek, uber-modern office building, where we got to flash our nifty security IDs to the smiling guards as we made our way to the fourth floor meeting room for our presumed 8am meeting with our government handler/guide. 8am had become 9am, we were told upon arrival, so many of us spent the next hour attending to the business of copying various letters of employment and pay status for banks, passports and airline tickets for visa applications (in SA you need a visa to both exit and enter the country...), and any other business we could have the great KAUST folks help us with.
Finally, a bit after 9, two Saudi men came in, and so began the process of preparing us for our arrival at the driver's license place. Files were dutifully begun on each of us, replete with six photos per prospective SA driver (photos are a big business here - where do they all end up?), a copy of our employment letter, a copy of our passport, a copy of our current driver's license, and a letter of good standing from our 5th grade teachers (JK!). We then got on the bus, you know, the one that should have met us at 7am, and proceeded to the DoL.
Let's remind ourselves at this juncture, pre-DoL, that each of us had been making observations about driving and drivers in Jeddah and vicinity for the better part of a month, so it was not without trepidation that each of us contemplated taking a driving test on Jeddah's streets at the height of rush hour. Where is Michael Schumacker when you need him, more than one of us probably was wondering?
So, we arrived at the DoL, and rather than giving our files to a person and beginning a series of driving tests, we began what would be the six-hour process of getting in line and waiting, eventually having someone do some small thing to your file, before being directed to another section of the building, whereupon, you guessed it, we were asked to wait in another line.
The eye test was my favorite. We sat in a chair, looked at a mirror and, in so doing, were asked to determine the orientation of a block print E on the chart behind us. Since the first half dozen or so folks in the line were in the room with the person being tested, I noticed that the man testing each hopeful was following the same pattern of symbols for each wannabe driver, thereby making my test especially anticlimactic. In due course, the various papers in our dossier had been initialed, written on, stamped, and folded at least as much as a ten year-old passport of a foreign journalist. But the good part was still to come, because we still had not driven a car!
Finally, we were directed in twos and threes out a side door and motioned to sit in a waiting area along with about three dozen or so others. Of course, to get to this waiting area one had to cross the two-way street replete with, drivers taking the driving test, injecting a bit more excitement into the process with cars going at varying speeds in both directions under an extremely broad range of control parameters. The cars all looked like the taxis we get into each day, though we soon realized that these cars never saw the open road, and that all tests were conducted on the small, closed loop before us. I'm not sure if the testers or tested had been the deciding issue on this one, but given Jeddah's Wild West traffic, it only stands to reason that a higher rate of prospective driver/veteran tester survival is achieved by testing on a compound.
Once the KAUST guys started making their way to the front of the line, a special car appeared adjacent the waiting spot, and we were directed, in fours, to get into the car. The first person got in the driver's seat, put the car in gear, drove out of the spot about twenty five feet while turning to the left and then stopped and got out, whereupon the second person on the list switched places with the driver, put the running car in reverse (no time for seatbelts, blinkers, mirror checking, etc.!), and maneuvered the car back into its original spot. I think I actually drove for eight seconds, and yes, my tester growled at me when I began wasting his time by attempting to put on my seatbelt. One person didn't even drive the car at all and was asked to take driving lessons, while another applied the brake and the accelerator in copious quantities simultaneously, generating a bit more burned rubber to Jeddah's air while making limited progress. I think he passed. I'm guessing my 2008 Toyota had been driven by 12,356 drivers and had 83 miles on it! Don't ask about the brakes and clutch..
Now, with the end in sight, we were asked to wait in yet another line and, just as we were approaching the front, midday prayer started, the windows were shuttered, personnel immediately disappeared, and we were summarily guided out of the air-conditioned, reasonably comfortable waiting room into the now midday heat, where there was nowhere to sit and little shade. Most of us had not eaten since 6:45, if at all, and now, in the early afternoon, and with everything closed, we began parceling out what little water and food we'd collectively made off with much earlier that morning.
Finally, a half hour later, end of prayer meant back to business, which meant getting back in line. Two more lines and two more signatures later (for what I'm not sure...), we made our weary way out the door, our handlers seemingly proud of us for completing the endeavor. When we returned to the bus our driver was nowhere to be seen, so we began hailing taxis, and then, of course, our bus driver suddenly appeared, and we fled the taxis for the bus, leaving upset taxi drivers in our wake. And then we waited, and waited, as apparently a few, who hadn't managed to negotiate the lines and tasks quite as collectively, slowly made a reappearance from the DoL.
Walking back into the cool hotel at 1:45 was a huge relief and, after our now reflexive washing of hands, we quickly wolfed down our lunches before heading to 2 pm meetings. We're told our new SA driving licenses will be brought from the DoL by our handlers today - Inshallah! Of course, then we might have to venture out on Jeddah's roads, but that will be another story.

Your SA Chauffeur, David