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