Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Homage to the Foreign Workers at KAUST

Having grown up in a foreign service family, I was early on exposed to some of the realities of expatriate life. However, working as my father did - as a diplomat serving the US government - or as my wife and I currently do - as educators serving a somewhat lavishly-funded project, hardly begins to conjure the experiences of the vast majority of people whose jobs take them overseas.

I have earlier commented on the tens of thousands of workers who for the past three years have worked on creating a major research university and campus out of the sands of coastal Saudi Arabia. As we drive north from Jeddah, the vast buildings and surrounding campus neighborhoods seem to rise out of the simmering heat like a Sphinx, a visual aberration in this largely empty, arid, hardscrabble land. As we get closer, and especially as we make our way onto campus and begin appreciating the vastness of the KAUST project, it suddenly dawns on us that undertaking anything of this magnitude on such short order could only have occurred through considerable, almost incalculable, human effort. It is usually about then that we begin seeing the workers, ubiquitous in every aspect of campus.

A school head I know once said that getting donors to pay for a new auditorium is glamorous, and therefore fairly easy. It's getting them to pay for the supporting infrastructure and the often underestimated long-term maintenance costs that makes the shiny new auditorium more of a reach for most institutions. Now imagine the maintenance and upkeep at a place like KAUST! Apart from the monetary costs, which I can't begin to fathom, there is the human cost, and on this count I'd like to express my deep gratitude to the men and women - primarily from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh - who largely made, and every day and night maintain, this huge and growing campus. These workers are part of a large trend worldwide - more than 200 million people now work outside their country of citizenship; in Dubai, just 1 in 5 is a citizen; 1 in 4 Filipinos works overseas; nearly 5 million Americans live, and often work, overseas.

Last week our plumbing had a hiccup, and so we dutifully called the prescribed number to have the problem addressed. In short order a skilled team from Asia's subcontinent showed up, readily attended to the problem, and then had us sign off on the work order. It was then that I discovered that the three workers were from Hyderabad, India, but that their boss was from Lahore, Pakistan. When I mentioned to the team that I'd spent a half a decade in India and Pakistan as a boy, the disbelief was obvious and the smiles were genuine. I agreed with all of them that Kashmir is about as close to heaven as you can get (carefully avoiding discussion of that ongoing regional conflict). Given the two countries' histories, I was impressed with how well the entire team worked together, and how proud they were of the their origins, our shared understanding. Yet in coming here we Evanses haven't said goodbye to spouses or our own children for as many as two years, or put off getting married, or signed up to live in spartan accommodations at considerably different pay, or work under often dramatically different circumstances It is these kinds of sacrifices, made by thousands, that have helped build KAUST, and we would just like to say thank you to these men and women.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hayden's Highlights from Camp

Dee Dee (My Grandma) and I just got back to KAUST late Sunday night. The first day especially I was really tired. I almost took a nap whenever I sat down. When I flew from Frankfurt to Denver earlier in the summer it took me only about a day to get fully adjusted to Colorado time. I was in Denver for 4 days until camp started. Then we drove the 2 hour long drive to Buena Vista, where A/U is. We got there at about 2:30. That afternoon I basically played Gockey and bounced on the tramp the whole time. Gockey is a version of mini hockey except they play with little hockey sticks and a squash ball. At first I was really bad. But because I kept playing and playing I soon got to be pretty good. That night the head of camp told us all the rules and things we should know about camp. The next day the mountaineers went up to the ropes course. I still think it was one of my favorite days at camp. We went on this awesome zip line where you were attached on by a carabiner. Its a good thing too because the zip line goes 25 feet up in the air. It is definitely the best zip line I've ever been on. A few days later the mountaineers went caving in some caves about a 45 minute drive away from camp. We had to hike a little ways to get to the mouth of the cave. The cave was really dark and dusty. We all either had flashlights or headlights. The caves aren't huge, but it was still really awesome. At one point we had to army crawl with our flashlights off. It was really freaky but really fun. When we were all done with caving we went back to the mouth of the cave to find that we were all completely covered in a thick layer of dust. A few days later we went to a place called Turtle Rocks. It is an outside climbing place across the valley. It was kind of shaped like a turtle. We did a few climbs, then we hiked up to the turtle's head. We had a pretty good view of the surrounding 14ers. The next activity the mountaineers did was climb Mt. Yale. It was a really fun 3 days. The first day all we did was hike up to a camp site at about 12,000 feet. The next day we got up really early and started hiking. We hiked the first 2 hours in total darkness. We peaked at about 10, having hiked uphill for 5 hours straight we were all very tired. On the way down we had to go through some hail. I got totally soaked even with a rain jacket on. The next day we hiked back down to the parking lot. Thank you so much for reading this!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gearing Up

We have been fairly enmeshed in the process of gearing up for a new school year. Teachers have all been meeting to work on units, advisory, attendance, planning ... As a new school in its second year, we have structures to get into place and decisions to be made to support the learning that we can provide. We are working on becoming approved as an MYP/IB school, so we have projects to do for that approval as well. School starts on August 28, but as it's right in the middle of the Holy Month of Ramadan, we will be missing many students who are either away or at home in Jeddah but unable to come to school. As a school, we have made a big push to encourage kids to come to school for these next two weeks of Ramadan and prior to the Eid holiday. The school day will be somewhat shortened to accommodate students who may be fasting and in honor of Ramadan. During this month of Ramadan, somewhat surprisingly, we have prescribed differences in required working hours for faculty and staff across the entire KAUST community, depending on whether a person is Muslim or non-Muslim. For an international community, I would have thought that all people would have the same working hours, shortened or not. Perhaps this is something that will be adjusted and/or equalized as time goes.

We have several new faculty and staff members for our growing student body - more from the United States than in the original group. It has been a pleasure to get to know the new members of our 'team'. They are a dynamic and talented group, who are working hard to learn so many new things and prepare for school too.

My mother and our son, Hayden, arrived a few days ago. They both looked happy and had gotten tremendous support and assistance at the airport from a KAUST representative who met them and helped them through immigration and customs. They are both struggling to adjust to the huge time difference between Colorado and Jeddah, but it gets better daily. It's very nice to be back together as a family - I missed that time. Hayden has matured a lot over his month away, including his two weeks at camp, and he seems confident and taller. Apparently, he wrote us a postcard from camp, but as we have not yet received it, I am so grateful that we had other ways to hear from him - phone calls and skype.

Hope for more blog posts soon. Perhaps even from Hayden. Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Home at KAUST

Logan, David, and I arrived safely back at KAUST last week after our amazing summer adventures. The three of us awkwardly careened through the Zurich airport with four large suitcases, three boxed bicycles, a guitar, three smaller backpacks, a bag of bread and cheese we could not bear to leave behind, and a computer bag. I saw people watch coming, quickly get out of the way, and look at their travel companions as if to say, "Geez, those people really need to learn to travel lighter." I suppose that could be true, but after five weeks away, we had things to bring back that we can use here at KAUST, particularly two new bikes to add to our growing collection - all of which get used.

Once the bags and bikes were checked for the plane (and paid for!), we proceeded to our gate. I was a bit apprehensive about getting everything securely back in Jeddah. The flight from Frankfurt was packed with pilgrims, mostly from England, coming to Mecca and Medina for the upcoming Holy Month of Ramadan. I gingerly sat next to a man draped in the traditional white pilgrimage outfit, trying not to disturb him, and was surprised when he immediately addressed me in Manchester-accented English. Enroute David and I ended up chatting with many members of his family about life in England and life in Jeddah. Originally from India, he and his wife were quite surprised to discover that David had been born in Karachi. Wonderful family who invited us to visit when we were in Manchester!

Upon arrival at the Jeddah airport, we made our way through immigration and waited for the bags, wandering between carousels as no one seemed clear as to which of the three would carry our flight's bags. Eventually, our suitcases came sliding down the conveyor belt and, just as I began to fret about the bikes, three large bike boxes slid down as well. Our KAUST taxi driver waited patiently, helped us load up everything into the van, and drove us home. It was nice to be home, to unpack, to relax, and to settle back in again.

We remain so grateful for our amazing summer adventures, for Hayden's awesome experiences at a mountain camp in Colorado and his continued new experiences, and for our safe return. We are eagerly anticipating Hayden and his grandmother's flight to Jeddah later this month so we can be all together as an Evans foursome again, to share stories and laugh about memories, and so we can host our first guest!

School starts on August 28. The campus is gradually slowing down and transitioning to night-time hours in preparation for Ramadan, which starts tomorrow. In fact, I have a medical appointment next week in Jeddah, where (except for 24 hour emergency service) the clinic hours are from 9 p.m. to early morning some time. Until now, I have never had an appointment at midnight. Could be interesting!

Thanks for reading. More soon, Jennifer

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Swiss Observations

As we come to the close of our amazing five week vacation, nearly all in Switzerland, I find myself pondering this amazing country. Certainly, five weeks does not make us Swiss or particularly clear on Swiss culture and history. We have observed so much here, though, which makes us so very appreciative of nearly all that Switzerland offers.

This is a country of efficiency - hundreds of trains come and go, on time, from hundreds of stations each day. Rarely are the trains late, and, if they are, announcements will let people know that the train will be arriving in 13 minutes or 23 minutes or whatever the expected new time. This is a country of constantly available fresh food - milk, cheese, bread, meats, salads, fruits, sauces, pastas, vegetables and fruits. Every meal matters - food always tastes good and fresh. Even at little train station food shops, we can find delicious, local yogurt, cheese, baguettes and bread, fruits and vegetables. Few chemically-created junk foods that you might find at a local corner store in the US. Meals also take a long time. Lunch or dinner, if eaten in a restaurant (rather than in one of the apartments we have stayed in), often takes one and a half or two hours. People sit and talk and eat and talk and eat. Few times have we see people eat on the run, as meals seem to be an enjoyable experience and part of the day. We have seen many families on outings together, going swimming, hiking, biking, playing; it helps that Switzerland has probably more nicely built, creative playgrounds per person than any other country. Quality of life seems to be quite a major component of living. We see many people eating meals with family and friends outside in the gardens, balconies, patios, or decks that are clearly a dynamic part of the integral living space.

I love the Swiss commitment to public transportation. Trains and buses traverse the country, reaching into remote valleys on narrow winding roads, using the horn as switchback turns are approaching. We have been able to get every where we wanted to go on trains or buses or bicycles. It certainly means fewer cars traveling around with just one or two people in them. Cars are very small, bikes are every where, trains leave frequently. We also have enjoyed the Swiss idea that on a hot day, lakes and rivers are part of the national playground. Just today, we joined many people swimming in Lake Zurich and later we discovered crowds jumping off bridges and the sides of a deep flowing river from Lake Zurich. Logan jumped on in with everyone else, quickly swimming to the ladder on the side. Should one miss the ladder, there are many others just short distances from each other down the river. It was truly a highlight!

The only aspect of this country that, in just five weeks, I have tired of is the incessant smoking. Since it's summer, people are out and about, eating at outdoor cafes and smoking. Everywhere we go, people are smoking - young and old, fit-looking or not, rich or poor, with children or not. Last night, we went to eat at an outdoor patio pizzeria. At one point, every sing
le table around us had at least one smoker. One table of four had four smokers. The saddest thing is the number of people with children who smoke right around them, allowing the smoke to drift into their babies' or toddlers' faces. It's hard to understand in a country of active outdoor people who bike and walk more than drive, who eat healthfully, who take care of their environment, and who appear the epitome of health and well-being. It's on my mind because I have been around more cigarette smoke here than nearly any other place. Despite this, our summer has been amazing fun, interesting, exciting, active, and memorable in every way. We have swum, hiked, biked, trained, and bused all around, enjoying Swiss hospitality and friendliness and appreciating frequent help from strangers when we, on more than one occasion, looked lost!

Missing Switzerland already! Thanks for reading, Jennifer