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,