Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Student Housing?!?

So we can't live in them yet - the student condos are still at least a week from completion - but KAUST boasts to have the nicest student housing of any university in the world. Of course we wanted to judge for ourselves!
My friend is posing at the front entrance of one of the town homes. These accomidations, built for one student, offer plenty of space: living room, multiple closets, and a kitchen downstairs, and a king-sized bedroom, bathroom, and lounge area upstairs.
There is a brilliant white mosque which dominates the roof-line one one side of the development. As with everything else at KAUST, it is big and architecturally beautiful.
This canal, which separates student and faculty (?) housing, adds ambiance and creates a nice water front for strolling in the neighborhood in the evenings.

I think that our four-star hotel cannot compare with a house of my own. I can't wait to move in!

My first KAUST visit: dry-run day

Yesterday almost 200 hopeful graduate students loaded on the bus at 6:30 AM for KAUST's first day of classes. Ironically called a "dry run," the purpose of yesterday was for students to follow a compressed schedule to find their classrooms, meet professors, and get a look at the construction progress of the KAUST campus. The architecture is beautiful and the size amazing to me, but construction is still a work in progress. I attended thirty-minute sessions for each of my four classes: bio-statistics, microbiology, introduction to bioprecessing, and biophysics and I was impressed with every one of my professors. Their backgrounds range from pharmaceuticals to fermentation, and they come from a mixed bacground of academia and industry from Texas A&M, Illinois, Saudi-aramco, and Harvard.

This is a view of the marina and boardwalk from inside the library. The unwashed windows are still caked with concrete powder and fine sand, but the outlook stunned me - to think that I will live and study here for the next two years is still amazing.

But for the first month - maybe longer - we will be living in a construction zone. Walkways are blocked off and scaffolding still hangs from every building. The only buildings which are ready for students are the classroom building and library - our housing should be livable within the coming week.
At night the campus has a completely different look and feel when the air cools down with an ocean breeze and spotlights illuminate the structures. What feels unreal will soon be home and I cannot wait to move in and for classes to begin.

Ramadan Kareem!

"Ramadan Kareem!" is the greeting of choice during the fasting month - literally meaning have a generous Ramadan. Today was the fourth day of Ramadan and everyone's schedule is turned topsey-turvey during this holy month of Islam.

Most of my Muslim friends, and some of the non-Muslims as well have been abstaining from food and water during the daylight hours after the pattern laid out by the prophet Mohammed. It is very hot here, and without water and food no one feels like doing much during the day time. It is very difficult to find an open store or resturaunt in the daytime - even the hotel cafes are closed for Ramadan (non-fasting guests can still, however, order room service.)
During Ramadan days, everything is quiet and people tend to sleep in and take naps, but during the night, the celebration begins. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, begins promptly at sundown. In the hotel, the Iftar meal is a huge buffet where all of us - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - stuff ourselves full. After Iftar people go outshopping, play sports or other games, or just talk for hours into the night. The Sohour, or pre-fast meal is served in our hotel between one and four in the morning, before sunrise at five-ish. Devout Muslims will wait until very late to eat Sohour, knowing that it will be their last chance for a meal and glass of water for the next fourteen or fifteen hours.
The hotel really does put out a good spread, and many of the staff are decked out in traditional Saudi Arabian dress which looks like it came straigh tout of the time of Alibaba or Aladdin.
Some of the international non-Muslim students have been partaking of the fast out of respect for their friends, for their own spiritual reasons, for their own sense of adventure, and maybe even because it is difficult to find good food to eat during the day time!

Whatever the reasons, this gesture of respect has suprised and encouraged many of the students who are fasting. Ramadan has been a fun time for bonding as we continue to get to know each other personally and explore one another's culture. Still, this morning person will be glad to be back on a "normal" schedule again next month when Ramadan is finished.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Still Waiting

We are still living out of a Jeddah hotel as we wait to move to the KAUST campus. This is our holding point - partially because they want to have all of the students in one place and they are still arriving, and partially because the infrastructure of campus is not yet ready to receive 300 students in addition to the faculty and staff that are already working. We should be moved in by August 29th (subject to change, of course).
The hotel is very nice, the all-you-can-eat buffet is very good, the beds are very comfortable, and KAUST is covering all of my costs here. However, I have been to enough hotels to know that I prefer to have my own place. I look forward to moving in to KAUST as soon as we can.

In the mean time, the studnets have all been busy bonding and exploring the city. I have had time to go shopping, and my resident's visa is now being processed. I also got a chance to play soccer with KAUST students and the hotel staff. After two hours of play, the KAUST soccer team won 8-7; KAUST's first unofficial sporting event was a win!
My Irish teammate (resting at half time) is still acclimating to the heat and humidity. The weather here is comparable to Houston in the summer time, but then he might think that Houston is miserable too. My non-American teammates were all stellar soccer players though, and their skill offset the ineptitude of the three American players (I was one)!

4x4 Desert Duning

We are being well entertained while staying in Jeddah, waiting to move to KAUST. THursday afternoon and night was planned 4x4 expidition in the sand dunes just south of the city. Don't worry mom, dad, and Cari, KAUST students were not allowed to drive.
We were treated by the Jeddah 4x4 club to sand-dune riding. The 4x4 club, as I understood, is a group of off-roading enthusiasts who meet up and take these trips in their own private cars every so-often. There were many jeeps of all different types, some toyota landcruisers, and some suburbans all bouncing and sliding around in the sand together. Our driver told us, after he sunk the front end of the truck into a sand dune, that when he travels with so many jeeps, he doesn't have to worry about getting stuck because anyone can pull him out again. (We got stuck two more times after that).
The desert is not completely deserted. We drove by a heard of camels, and this Bedouin rancher with his flock of sheep. I wonder what they eat out here?
And here are a few pictures of our convoy.
This expidition was all guys. For social reasons, Saudi women are not comfortable hanging out with guys in public and the girls had a seperate swimming and yachting retreat which I heard was quite fun. My American friend said that when the girls were away from men and far enough from shore, the abaya headdresses all come off and they feel free to talk and swim and joke with their girl friends.
Sunset in the desert was beautiful, but this sand dune was in my way. The KAUST students on top got some great pictures too.
There was one turbocharged jeep which was not part of our group that climbed some amazing climbs up a steep sand-dune. When he gunned the engine, it boomed and like thunder, was accompanied by a burst of light and flame... from the tailpipe. The driver enjoyed spraying hapless students at the top with sand from his spinning tires. Someone said he was a relative of the king.
After tiring ourselves out on the dunes, we were served a Bedouin style cook-out and ate under the stars. Just sitting around and talking that night was a lot of fun and the food was delicious.
One last novelty from the trip - this falcon which was well trained and stood still as a statue all evening while we ate until its owner took it up and showed it off.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Friendly Travelers

The last post was quite a downer, so I thought I'd end with a happier note about the friendliness and genuine personal interest I found among my fellow travelers. I exchanged at least a few friendly words of conversation with every Middle Eastern man I sat next to on the plane or stood in line with at the airports. We talked about family, home countries, KAUST, religious beliefs, and our respective cultures.
I was able to learn a lot about Hajj and Omra, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, from three men in particular who traveled from France and from India for Omra. All men of peace, they were excited about the things of God and eager to talk about him and about their religious traditions. One gentleman, after an hour of conversation at the Dubai airport in broken English and Arabic, told me that I would make a very good Muslim and gave me a small gift along with his email address.
I was very encouraged by these men and these conversations. I have heard that Saudi culture is very communal and friendly, even more so than in parts of the USA, and I hope that yesterday's relationships were not an abberation, but that the exchanges will continue freely with new friends and strangers throughout my stay here.

Twenty-six hours of travel later...

Traveling overseas is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining because of the shifting time zones, long airplane flights, and a degree of uncertainty which is natural when you are moving through airports where few speak your language fluently. My experience today was both better and worse than I remember my trans-pacific flights.

I felt fortunate to fly an airline that offered very good food and tons of entertainment, but even the most comfortable economy class seat cannot compare with one’s own bed – especially when there are screaming babies nearby. I had a layover in Dubai, which went very smoothly, but customs in Jeddah was nightmarish. To be fair, everybody I talked to said that it has never been as bad as it was today, but I still think that 3.5 hours of standing in line to have one’s passport stamped is toeing that fine line between bureaucratic incompetency and a violation of human rights.

The guys who picked me up were still cheery even after a long and uncertain waiting for me to come through those opaque glass doors. One of them said that on the bright side, every day in Saudi Arabia should be better than my first - and without risking too much I am inclined to agree.

I am tired. Twenty-eight hours after setting out from New York this morning, I am finally sitting in a really snazzy hotel lobby… waiting for my room to be cleaned before I can go up and take a shower.

Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make or break you, and right now I just need a shower.

Still excited to be here though! Here is a photo from outside of my hotel window. There is a lot of sand, but also some greenery in Jeddah.

New Beginnings in a New Place (Again)

Howdy Y’all!

Thanks for taking some time to take a look at my new blog! I am sitting in another airport, this time waiting for a flight on Emirates Airways which will take me all the way out to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I will be taking classes at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and working toward a master’s degree.

During the next several months, I plan to frequently post journal entries and pictures of my adventures and wanderings in the Middle East. I got terrific feedback from y’all (my family and friends) with my BeijingAg blog two years ago and I hope to be at least as faithful with this one.

For those who aren’t as familiar with my plans for the next year, let me try to describe the program I will be attending for the next year or so. KAUST is a brand new graduate research university built near Jeddah, the cultural and religious hub of the country. Nearly all Muslim pilgrims from around the world will travel through Jeddah on their way to Mecca and Medina for the Hajj, a religious pilgrimage to visit the hometown of the Prophet Mohammed (PBOH) and the birthplace of the religion of Islam. Because so many people come through Jeddah, it is a very international city, and many people from Asia, Africa, and even Europe and the Americas now live there.

KAUST’s self-described purpose is to act as a beacon of knowledge for Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the world. I’ve heard KAUST called Saudi Arabia’s “great experiment” to bring foreign minds and students together in Saudi Arabia to solve some of the world’s big challenges. KAUST has already attracted some big-name researchers from around the globe in the fields of solar energy, saltwater desalination, air pollution modeling, and biological computing, materials science, pharmaceuticals, and plant genetics, among others.

This marriage of international minds and technology with Saudi Arabian capital has strong potential. KAUST is already endowed with several billion dollars and the finest research and computing equipment money can buy. This will be an exciting place form those on the cutting edge to conduct their research.

However, for at least the first few weeks I expect the atmosphere to be chaotic as administrators, students, and faculty all move in and try to find their niches during this inaugural year of KAUST. Chaotic and exciting – we will meet many new people, some of who seek to change the world, some who just want to earn a comfortable wage with a good job, and all of whom have at least some sense of adventure. I look forward to the open doors and new friends to be discovered in the next several months. I think this future semester will be both exciting and fulfilling, In’shallah, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it!