Saturday, April 17, 2010

Afghani Souk

Over the weekend, some friends and I rented a small bus whose driver took us to the Afghani souk in Jeddah. I had read about the amazing sights and items to buy there and had been intrigued for some time about this. The Jeddah magazine claimed that we would enjoy a "blissful shopping experience." Skeptical but interested, we headed out on Thursday afternoon. The driver eventually found the location we wanted and all eight of us women, fully covered with our black abayas (which cover the body but not head or face), disembarked from the bus to the stares of many.

We started down the small street, stepping over piles of concrete and rocks, around prowling cats searching for meals, and away from small bare-foot boys playing soccer. A short distance down the street, an old man motioned us into his shop. The small shop's walls were completely covered with carpets of all types. Some were red wool with bold patterns; others were soft silk with blues and greens in intricate patterns. One told a story in pictures of Soviet tanks entering Kabul. Another carpet, in yellows and whites, represented the Holy door of the sacred Kaaba stone from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. We began looking through the carpets, getting assistance from three young Afghan men with pale skin and reddish hair. They explained the various qualities of carpets, the types of wool or silk, locations made, and the patterns in each. Prayer time was called by the mosque singing but we were able to stay inside, talking about carpets, with all doors closed. Some purchases were made by our group and many photos taken.

About an hour or so later, we headed further down the street and were welcomed into another shop, again by an old Afghan man who spoke English well. He quickly flipped on some inadequate air conditioners and proceeded to engage us in conversation. I showed him the small local magazine I was clutching and explained that we came to this district because of the article and photos. He was so amazed to see photos of his shop in the magazine. He kept pointing out where various photos had been taken in his shop. I was interested in one red wool carpet, large enough to fit nicely in our bare entry way. He flipped the carpets on top onto the floor and pulled the one I liked out for me to look at in better light. The elder shop owner explained that it was a marriage pattern, and I said I was already married. He laughed and made a joke about my evening at home should I end up buying the carpet. He told me the price was 1200 Saudi riyals. I said that I really liked it but that I didn't have that much. He asked how much I would pay. I said I had about 750. I took out my wallet and took out all of my remaining cash. I had 770 Saudi riyals. He took the money, counted it out, handed me back 20 riyals, and rolled up the carpet with a wink. He brought out tea and almonds and we all sat on huge stacks of carpets drinking tea and talking to him about where we were from. I told him that my parents-in-law had been to Kabul, where he was from, and that they had seen the ancient statues at Bamiyan (which have since been destroyed by the Taliban). After the tea, several others in our group negotiated for carpets big and small. We spent easily one and a half hours in the shop, chatting about family, bargaining for carpets, drinking tea, and admiring his products. It was truly a 'blissful shopping experience.' The shop owner was kind and friendly, willing to negotiate, chat, and offer up smiles and laughter.

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Music at KAUST hits a high note!

What do a 14-person gamelan orchestra made up of Indonesian grad students, a couple playing an apparently well-known Chinese violin double concerto, and sundry classical chamber groups all have in common? They were all wonderful participants in KAUST's first community-wide music concert, an event heard earlier this week by about 250 grateful and impressed campus residents, many of whom, by the end of the evening, suddenly realized that there is more than ample musical talent right here on campus, thank you!
In fact, the gamelan group played a beautiful rendition of Edelweiss, giving The Sound of Music (my favorite movie of all time) a special spin, while the classical groups, many accompanied by one of the apparently very few pianos on campus, had to withstand notes from an instrument that could easily have benefitted from the attention of the piano tuner who never showed. Oh well. Beware of pianos needing to be moved just before concerts...
The concert was slated to begin at 6:45, after prayer time, and had to be over by 8:20, well before the next prayer time. Indeed, if you're one of those who's worried about attending concerts that drag on and on, then an evening concert in Saudi Arabia could be the answer to your problems :).
More concerts are being planned, one of which your humble author will be performing in next month. Now that the ice has been broken, musicians are literally coming out of the woodwork. A mother whom we'd chatted briefly with at the beach only last weekend, revealed to a clarinet-playing colleague who had just performed that she is a flutist with PhD in musical performance! The next day I saw another colleague, our school counselor, walking out of his office and toward the music room toting a violin, which I'd never seen him carry.
I'm beginning to get the feeling that we're actually part of a large music conservatory! Maybe we've been misinformed all this time and this is really King Abdullah University of Strings and Troubadours?!

Thanks for reading,

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Frustration and then Cookies

If yesterday for me was a real low point, today has been a high point. Yesterday I was frustrated and disappointed by students who didn't care, who didn't take learning seriously, and who taunted each other through Facebook (certainly a questionable development in the lives of human adolescents!). After work I discovered that our replacement credit cards had been sent to a US address and then replacements for those were not a day or two away but 2-4 weeks away. The USAA credit card representative unfortunately had to bear the brunt of my fairly challenging day. Finally, burned popcorn for a family movie night triggered a smoke/fire alarm that can only be shut off by the fire department. After several calls and nearly 15 minutes of waiting outside, they arrived in the fire truck, typed in a code, and silence finally ensued.

Today, however, was a new day. I attended one of the best yoga classes ever with an instructor from India. Though not permitted to teach co-ed classes, he has been permitted to teach a female class, which is widely popular because he's so good. I left class feeling somewhat rejuvenated. In the afternoon, the boys each competed in their first-ever swimming races and each performed well considering it was their first. They may have been disappointed not to win, but having never trained before, they swam remarkably.

Finally, we enjoyed a wonderful home dinner and then ... cookie-making for David's birthday at the beach tomorrow. Making cookies with kids must be, if you are in the mood, one of the funniest endeavors. Hayden, ever eager to help with cooking and baking, grabbed the eggs to break into the bowl. He kept trying one egg over and over, until finally David said, "Hey, that egg is hardboiled." Next try, the egg broke all over the counter without one drop going into the bowl. The next two were successfully added to the batter. I had to do a continual dance in the kitchen trying to keep the boys' fingers from the batter. Remember being young and thinking, "When I am a grown-up, I am going to make a batch of batter and eat it all?" I thought that. I never did it, but tonight I remembered wanting to. The cookies are done, a few less than anticipated, but no real loss. Many laughs and good memories instead.

Now ... for the writing of progress reports. Sigh.

Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thinking, Learning, Reading

One of the hardest things, at least for me, is teaching those kids who just don't care about learning. What is it that happens - or does not happen - in the life of a child who, by the age of 12, does not care to learn anything new, does not care to read, does not ask questions, or desire to know? What has happened in the lives of other kids who inquire, who read, who ask, who try, who want to learn new things? Is it possible to get a kid who does not want to learn to want to learn?


Monday, April 5, 2010

More on Bangkok

Hayden has already written some about Thailand, but I just have to write about one of my favorite places. It was so amazing to be 'back home', and even though we went to Koh Samui last year and I love it there as well, Bangkok was where I really lived for nearly two years.

The NESA educators' conference was at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, which is located by the Chao Praya River - not at all the area in which I lived. It was a wonderful opportunity to take David and the boys to my two favorite wats, or temples, in Bangkok. We went to Wat Po, with the largest beautiful golden reclining Buddha. I was reminded of the specialness of Thai temples: in the midst of a bustling metropolis, the temple remains quiet and peaceful, a place of contemplation. Next we crossed the river on another river shuttle to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Because it's across the river, it's even more quiet and peaceful, though beautiful with small pieces of tile decorating the stupas and temple structures.

On Sunday the conference ended in the early afternoon, and we took a river shuttle to the skytrain station which then took us to the largest outdoor weekend market that I have ever heard of: Chatuchak. There you can buy leather bags, t-shirts, Thai ceramics, kittens and rabbits and other 'pets', food (of course), all kinds of Thai handicrafts and gifts, CDs and DVDs, clothing ... just about everything. Apparently, no one really knows exactly how many stalls bargain and sell products in the market's mazes, but it's around 10,000. The boys were, I think, amazed and intrigued. Hayden chose a wall hanging for his room,

and Logan chose a colorful elephant. We all stopped and ate pineapple from the various sellers in the market and later had banana smoothies while watching market/street musicians. It was hot but invigorating, particularly for me. I loved being able to speak Thai again, bargaining with people and chatting away. I hope that for the boys seeing me speak Thai and David French they will be inspired to learn another language some day, perhaps continuing with Arabic!

We found some great restaurants where we ate lots of pork, rice, noodles, curries, vegetables, and amazingly sweet fruit - dragonfruit, mango, pineapple, watermelon ... We ate my favorite - sticky rice, grilled pork, and raw papaya salad - at street restaurants on several occasions. We finally were able to find the boys' favorite Thai specialty: mangoes with sticky rice and coconut milk. Thai people have truly mastered the art of food. It's everywhere, it's inexpensive, and it's mouth-wateringly delicious!

We took an afternoon trip by train to Ayuthaya where we wandered around the ruins of an ancient powerful civilization and another day we hired a taxi to take us to the famous floating market at Damuen Saduak. We hired a small boat to take us through the market, marveling at the shops along the canals, the boat traffic jams, and, again, the incredible food options.

We were grateful to have the opportunity to attend an inspiring conference with helpful sessions in one of our favorite cities. Thanks for reading. Jennifer

Friday, April 2, 2010

Culture in Thailand from Hayden

We just got back from another trip to Thailand. This time we went to Bangkok. I had a great time. It is a little noisier than Samui Island, but it is good in different ways. Some of the things I really noticed about Bangkok was the people. A lot of them are very poor and barely making it but they are all very nice. If you ask them a question like "where is the bathroom"? Instead of just vaguely pointing in some direction they will actually stop and say "the bathroom is down there. You should see a sign". A lot of them don't speak english so were all lucky that my mom speaks Thai pretty well. I love listening to her bargain to the tuk tuk drivers, who always try to charge more to westerners then Thais. Another thing I noticed about Thailand was the culture. When I went out on my outing to the amusement park with a bunch of other kids my age. The group was totally run by Thais and they were really nice. Some of the rides we went to I didn't really want to do because they were upside-down and really fast and instead of trying to make me do them they just said okay and waited with you. In other places they would try to persuade you do the ride even if you didn't feel comfortable doing it. I don't really like being forced to do things so I was glad that the instructors didn't do that. When I was there I made a few friends. One was Ian and one was another boy named Hayden. They were both 9 and both from the U.S. I would highly recommend going there if you haven't yet. Also, since there is no pork in Saudi Arabia I tried to eat it as much as possible!
Thank you for reading this!