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 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!