Friday, October 30, 2009

Climbing Sinai

This is Mount Moses, also known as Mount Sinai. Mount Moses is the traditional site where Moses received the ten commandments from God more than 3,000 years ago. Climbing the mountain was not just a touristic experience, but also a spiritual one. Moses' story is a tale of how God gives direction to, and provides for those who believe in him. I rely on his direction and his provision every day.

We hired a driver from Sharem El-Sheikh to take us to the foot of Mount Moses, the traditional site where Moses received the ten commandments from God more than three thousand years ago. We left Sharem at 11:30 PM. The drive was 2.5 hours, and the climb up was 3 hours more. Our climb was tiring, but the experience was more than worth it. I have never seen the sunrise from a mountain top. This is the most beautiful sight I've beheld since coming to the Middle East.

I am sorry that my camera could not capture a photo of the night sky. Millions of stars lit up the night sky as we climbed. I cannot remember a time when I have seen so many - certainly not at KAUST - the night lights only allow me to see three or four stars on campus.

Our guide was good natured and overall pretty cool. He is one of the many "Bedouin" who have given up on a migratory lifestyle to extort money from travelers to Mount Moses. I think that tourists are more profitable than sheep farming in the desert. The "Bedouin" are guides on a very well-marked and smooth trail, they also offer camel rides, tea and coffee, and other services to weary hikers for a price. Using the bathroom at the top of the mountain cost me more money that all of the water I drank on the way up.
Comercialization aside, the natural landscape of Sinai was absolutely amazing. Here is a small group of successful climbers gazing at the sunrise.

Stars melted away as the sunlight flooded over the horizon. We did not have a proper view of the surrounding mountain range until the sun illuminated the world that morning.

Most of the central penensula is rock without trees or grass, but this desolate mountain range is strangely beautiful.
Shadows retreated further and further, and we blinked at bright light and a perfectly blue sky.

On our way down we passed some pack animals hauling up another day's supply of tea and snacks for the tourists.
Camels were everywhere! Climbing up and down were surreal experiences in part because our path had to be shared with these big creatures. Imagine how you would feel if a camel snuck up on you in the dark. We got used to it and even enjoyed the company of these obstinate animals and their bossy drivers.

More blue sky and more mountains.

And more camels. : )

This is the beginning of the trail up the mountain which we are climbing back down. At the very bottom is a monastery which is shared by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox monks. We didn't have a chance to visit because they were closed in the morning for prayer, and all of us were too tired from the night climb to stick around for the opening.

There are some who say that the monks have it wrong, because the historical location of Mount Moses is not really known. Some historians believe that Mount Sinai is actually in Jordan, or Israel, or even in Mount Jabal al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia. Still I would recommend the journey. For me, climbing Mount Moses was a wonder-filled and spirit-filled experience; one I will not soon forget.

Sharem El-Sheikh

Last weekend, I traveled with some friends to Sharem El-Sheikh, a resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. I was really excited about spending time at the beach and visiting nearby Mount Sinai, the traditional site where Muslims, Christians, and Jews believe that Moses recieved the ten commandments from God after the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
Sharem is also a bit of a party town, but before getting too excited you should know that it is a very Eastern European style party - lots of techno music, lots of vodka, and lots of Russians.

I am not a huge fan of Russian parties - I don't like techno or vodka, and they weren't speaking much English either. I did have some fun though. I ate good food, smoked good sheesha, enjoyed the water, and watched an amazing sunrize. Our climb up Mount Sinai alone was worth the trip (covered in its own post).

This picture was taken at the duty free liquor store in the airport before we left. See the lines? I have never seen this many people buying this much liquor before a flight home. Must be an Eastern European thing.

Organization Fail: Housing Maintenance

Most of the KAUST campus houses had problems when students moved in on September 3rd. Some student problems were small: doors which did not close or phone connections which did not work. Others were more threatening: pipes bursting or sections of the ceiling collapsing.

These problems were made more frustrating by poor communication within the maintenance department. My sad story about a missing stove top is a tale of communication failure. It took two and a half months to fix.

I love to cook at home. When I moved into my apartment, I noticed my stove top (or cooking range) was missing the heating elements. I immediately called the maintenance hotline and asked for a quick repair.

About four days later, at 11:00 pm, a team of seven workers swarmed my apartment to change lighbulbs, check electrical fuses, and look for leaks. Before they left, I asked if they could install the heating elements for my stove top. They did not know where to find the elements, but they would leave a note with the supervisor in the morning.

A different team of three workers came three days later.

"We are here to fix your stove sir."

"Oh good," I thought to myself.

They barged through the door with a big bag of tools, pulled the stove out from the wall and gathered around. After a few seconds, one of them asked where I hid the heating elements.

"There are none," I replied.

They could not fix it without the elements, they said, but they would leave a note with their manager.

Weeks passed. I called the maintenance hotline, sent emails to various managers as they were fired and replaced (KAUST maintenance manager has to be one of the worst jobs in the world,) and complained to the workers themselved as they moved from house to house in the night. Almost every week I would get a visit from a different group of workers who came to "fix" my stove. Sometimes there were two, other times there were five. One of them always carried a big bag of tools, but each time the result was the same.

They swarmed into my kitchen, pulled out the stove, looked at it, and asked me where the heating elements were.

"I don't know; I don't have them; I was hoping you would bring some; who knows?" I would answer.

Each time their response was the same: "we will leave a note with our manager in the morning."

This happened eight times in two and a half months. Organization fail.

But then two weeks ago, two guys came to my front door. I recognized them - they were from the very first group of workers that visited more than two months ago. One of them had in his hand a bag of tools... and the other was carrying four heating elements! Success!!!

I can cook in my home! The fix came just in time, because we start paying for our food in the diner tomorrow.

Since the stove was fixed two weeks ago, I have recieved two more visits and three phone calls from the maintenance department. Each time they said, "we are here to fix your stove, sir."

I guess the manager finally got all of those notes.

Cultural Differences: The Jet

As an American living in Saudi Arabia, I have had to adjust to many cultural differences. Overall, I have adapted very well, but my American psyche cannot get used to the idea of not having toilet paper in the bathroom.

Don't misunderstand me, Saudi Arabian culture is very clean and concerned about personal hygiene. For example, hands, and sometimes feet and head are washed before many meals.

Perhaps because of their will for frequent washing, the Saudi Arabian alternative to toilet paper is the water jet. Those water jets which I have tested are all quite powerful and difficult for a beginner like myself to control. Besides getting one's clothes all wet, there is something unsettling in my American mind about aiming such a strong jet stream at the body's most sensitive areas.

A word to wise Western travelers - if you don't think you can handle the jet, carry your own paper.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Busy Week

Sadly, this week blogging took a back seat to lots of homework, though there were some bright spots in an otherwise busy week:

1. An outdoor basketball court opened up and I played twice this week. The second time, ten of the Philippine gym employees came to play with us - they were great competition!

2. The local students have begun teaching Arabic lessons this week. I have already picked up some useful phrases; Jeddah retailers beware - I am equipped to bargain!

3. The Chinese students will also begin offering language lessons next week. I may get to brush up on my Mandarin while in Saudi Arabia!

4. Tonight was Mexican food night at the cafe... hallelujah! Normally I would be very skeptical about Arabic-mexican style, but our own Mexican students teamed up with the KAUST cooking staff to whip up an authentic dinner. Well done guys! It made me think of home...

5. I am getting closer to finding a research project which I will keep for the rest of my time at KAUST. Next week I have a meeting with two different professors... I'll keep y'all posted on this one!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shayabh: Oil Wells, Sand Dunes, and Sunset

On Thursday, Saudi Aramco treated the KAUST's faculty, staff, and students with a visit to Shayabh in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, one of the most isolated places in the world. Shayabh has a producion capacity of 12 million barrels of oil per day and is being expanded to produce even more. Shayabh is known for the quality of oil it produces, even more than its quality. Shayabh's oil is one of the sweetest (having a low sulfur content) in the entire world.

Visiting Shayabh was a special treat for us. It is rare for people who are not Aramco employees or native Beduins travel to the empty Quarter - it is accessible only by corporate jet or by camel. There is a road connecting the oil outpost to the nearest Saudi Arabian city, but the region is so isolated that employees are not allowed to travel on that road because it is dangerous. The highway is only used to transport heavy equipment to and from Shayabh.

Mr. Nadhmi Al-Nasr, KAUST's acting vice president and one of KAUST's first founding team members, was our special sponser for this trip. Ten years before KAUST, he was one of the principal project managers of the Shayabh construction and development. Mr. Al-Nasr was a great host; he spoke intimately about Shayabh as if he were introducing us to one of his closest friends or family members.

Mr. Al-Nasr was just as proud of the natural wonders in this region of the desert as he was the accomplishments of his company at Shayabh. Though built in the middle of nothing, Aramco still made a conscientious effort to preserve the beautiful and unique landscape which surrounds the facility. "Keep Shayabh Clean" signs line the streets between the airport and the refinery. Community rules strictly prohibit littering and Aramco policy is very very careful to avoid spills and waste.

The tours were informative, and the company information interesting, but the biggest treat for us was watching the sun set over the sand dunes in the evening. After a drive around the facility, we were set free to hike through the sand before dinner.

I took the chance to venture off by myself. The desert is a very peaceful, quiet, and beautiful place. The sand in Shayabh is very red and very soft because of its high iron content. The sand's gentle beneath one's bare feet is almost as pleasing as the shifting colors of the red dunes in evening twilight. I had not imagined this kind of beauty in the desert.

There is also life in Shayabh. I came across some lizard tracks and these fox tracks while I was walking. The most amazing form of life was the persistant little bushes which grow on the dunes. They have very long roots to anchor themselves to the loose sand, and yet they don't get their water from the ground, but from the air. These plants survive by absorbing moisture in the air through there leaves. They must be very efficient, because it was not humid in Shayabh while we were there.

As the sun dipped lower and lower, the sands changed colors. I wish my camera could adequately show what my eyes saw yesterday.

The sunset alone was worth the journey. This is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. This short trip was the perfect respite from tests, homework, and business back at KAUST. One of the downsides to living in a compound - even one that is well designed and comfortable - is that I rarely get a chance to get away from people and just be still, listening to God's voice and admiring his creation.

Of course, after our trip through the desert, we were treated to a wonderful traditional meal. The lamb was prepared excellently - I cannot remember having such tender meat before!

After dinner, I and a few others went back to the dunes to sneak away from the lights tarry under the stars. We almost missed the bus, but a clear view of the night sky was worth a little excitement. I will probably never get to visit Shayabh again, but there will be many more once-in-a-lifetime opprotunities for us while we remain in Saudi Arabia. I am glad to be here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


In Saudi Arabia, gossip spreads like the plague. This blog has recieved tens of thousands of new visitors in one week alone. I am honored, as a visitor to this country, by your interest in what I think and what I experience at KAUST. Thank you very much for the positive feedback I have recieved. I am disappointed though with the many belligerant comments - anger and name calling solves nothing. Outrage prevents meaningful discussion which can solve problems like these. Outrage isolates people from each other, especially when neither believes he is really in the wrong. Outrage focuses the discussion on people, rather than on truth.

I came to Saudi Arabia to build bridges, not to make enemies. I came to study and research at a university which is striving with all of its might to be one of the best research universities in the world, not to get money from people or organizations.

I do want accountability. What Al Yaum did was wrong, but the tone of the discussion is also wrong. Outrage does nothing to solve our problems and does everything to create even more.

Most importantly, outrage sets a very poor example of how believers in Allah, or God, should act. Since this happened, I have been reading from the Quran and from the Bible about forgiveness and grace. The words of the Quran encourage us not to be divided. Because we have been shown much grace, we should show grace to others.
Al Imran, 3:103 (Y. Ali) :And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah's favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided."

There are more important things than worrying about human faults. God's creation makes our small worries and arguments seem insignificant.

Al Hijr, 15:85 (Y. Ali) "We created not the heavens, the earth, and all between them, but for just ends. And the Hour is surely coming (when this will be manifest). So overlook (any human faults) with gracious forgiveness."

The followers of Isa, or Jesus, also encouraged each other to live at peace with their neighbors, even though they were being chased after and killed by the religious and political authorities after he was taken up to heaven.

1 Peter 3: 8-9 8Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. 9Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

Isa, or Jesus, teaches a more radical version of forgiveness in these verses from the Injeel, the Gospel. He said that we should even love even people who do wrong to us, because if we love only our family and friends, what credit is that to us? Even lawless men love their own family.
Matthew 5: 38-42 38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

If you want to borrow something from my blog, please ask first. Nobody, myself included, enjoys misunderstandings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Should Be Getting Paid for This!

From Al Yaum

I can't believe this! Look at this article that was published recently in the major Saudi Arabian newspaper, Al Yaum. Do those pictures look familiar? How about the words? If you can't read Arabic, this was taken almost verbatim from my blog post "Elections" published October 7th, 2009. This can't be legal, not even in Saudi Arabia!

If I was in the USA I would file an intellectual property rights case against Al Yaum. If it was the New York Times that plagiarized my blog I would be rich right now. Do intellectual rights to published thoughts and photos have any value here?

Saeed, I know you are reading this blog, and I hope you can understand how I feel now that I know you are trying to make money off of my ideas and my photos. I hope you get fired Saeed. I am a better journalist than you, Saeed, at least I cite my sources!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Blue Collar Workers

A group of friends got together to bake cookies that we could hand out to some of the workers here who do the jobs that no one else wants to do. They are under-appreciated, and often underpaid.
The guys in this picture are representative of the blue collar workers at KAUST. Most have come from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Indonesia. They are here to fill blue collar jobs that pay at a higher salary than back home (but still not very much.)

Immigrant workers in this Saudi Arabia often get mistreated. It is not KAUST's fault, but there is a widespread practice in this country that the contractors which sponsor construction workers, housekeepers, and other low-paying jobs will take the passports of their immigrant employees after they enter the country. The justification is so that these workers will have to fulfill their contracts, but sometimes these contracts change. Without their passports, employees are at the mercy of their employers and often find their working hours extended, their wages reduced, or that other benefits never materialize.

All is not all bad, but these things do happen. By baking and handing out cookies we just wanted to show these guys that we appreciate what they do for us and that we value their contributions to our community.

Texas Cookie

A group of friends got together to make cookies last week and I just had to brag...

The Texas oatmeal raisin chocolate chunk cookies (right) clearly blew away the Colorado sugar cookies (left.) Cookie quality is just one more evidence that Texas is awesome. ;)

First KAUST Student Committee Meeting

KAUST, this is your new Student Government!

After two and a half hours of discussion and speeches, we came away with a good, flexible model for student government and six leaders for four different committees.

The meeting was hard and long, but well done in the end. Now we can get down to some real work!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Treasures of the Red Sea


After a day of snorkeling in the Red Sea, I have begun to envy my friends who are majoring in Marine Science. For them, diving is also research, and the world they study is magical - full of color and life.

One of the journalists who visited KAUST during the inaugeration asked me if I had been diving or snorkeling yet. When I answered "no, but soon," his response was, "then you will soon see why you are going to own an underwater camera!" Fortunately for me, one of my friends brought his along for the trip.

The camera does not fully capture the colors of the reef and the fish as well as human eyes do. Our eyes adjust to the blue and filter more of it out - making the colors look more stunning that a camera without a filter can capture.

I'll do this again any time. We were only splashing around for two hours, but I could have done this all day. I can't wait to get my diver's certification!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Organization Fail: The Post Office

This is the first in a series of posts about dysfunctional organizations in Saudi Arabia. All of these frustrations share a common theme... service industries here are not nearly as helpful as they are in the West. If I want something done, say buying a plane ticket, getting a visa, or even picking up a package, my experience has been that you have to be very persistent. Take FedEx for example: I was expecting a package from home which I might never have received at all if I had not begged, haggled, and coerced the well-meaning, but totally clueless guys at the front desk until I finally found someone who could locate my package. Here is the story where I had to go postal with FedEx Saudi Arabia:

There are always four guys working at the counter, and there is never more than one or two customers in the FedEx store at a time. I am not sure what they do all day, but every time someone comes in, they are always eager to help.

My first time to the post office, two weeks after I had come to KAUST, I wanted to check and see if my package had arrived. The man behind the counter was very nice. "Let me show you where your mailbox is, sir... what is your mobile number sir?... if you get a package we will call you sir," was about the extent of the conversation. The package had been sent when I left and I thought two weeks was the time it would take, but I thought maybe it really has not arrived yet... I was so naive!

One week later I came back to ask about my package. I got the same spiel from the guys at the front desk, "let me show you where your mailbox is sir... oh, we already have your mobile number?... if you get a package we will call you sir." I pressed on, asking to talk with a manager because I wanted more reassurance than I was getting. The man at the desk retreated into the back room and out came a large, annoyed looking Egyptian man.

"Your package is not here, we will call your mobile when it comes," he said.

I thought to myself that he doesn't really know, he is just trying to get rid of me. Not wanting to back down because I have already quit at this point before, I tried in vain to get him to ask someone else, "Can you call a supervisor, maybe the package is somewhere else?

"No, not possible. Your package will come. Maybe it will come later insh'allah."

Insh'allah is a bad sign, in this particular context the word means he is willing to give up and leave it to God to find my package, but I am still sure that some man at FedEx must know where my package is. "Can you call the post office in Jeddah, maybe they have it still?"

It will not come to Jeddah, it will come here.

"Well can you call anyway, maybe someone has misplaced my package."

"I cannot, I don't know the telephone number."

Come on, can's he at least try to help a guy out?

"Can you look it up?" I asked.


So he either does not have a phone book or does not know what a phone book is, or the phone is not working. Any of these are possible at this point. "Can you ask someone else who does know?"I asked.


I was getting nowhere. He was clearly uninformed and either unwilling or unequipped to do his basic job - which was helping me - so I decided to let him go with a little grace, "Is there a chance it could have been held up in customs?" I asked.

He thought for a second before realizing that this was his big chance to get rid of me, and then said, "Yes, maybe. We will call you when the package comes."

"Ok, thank you, I will come back again later."

Two days later, I went back to the same office and asked a different front desk guy if my package had arrived yet. After the initial "we will call you when your package arrives," line, he brought out a manager I had not yet met from the back office to talk with me.

After a few questions, he called another mail location on campus, which I had not known about, and in thirty seconds they found my package!

It had been there for more than two weeks.

KAUST post office fail.


This week students sponsored and ran two fair and free elections for the first KAUST student council. The five of us who were involved in the planning were really, really busy!

On Saturday, eleven students were elected to the student council, one from each academic major. The speeches were good, and some races were quite close! I was impressed with the quality of every candidate I saw run.

Men and women from all different nationalities came to submit their votes.

Voter turnout was phenomenal - almost sixty percent of the students came to vote! Some of the students come from countries where they have never had an opportunity to vote, and some come from countries where the people are disillusioned with the voting process. An Italian told me that this was the first election he had participated in because he felt that it would be fair and his vote really would matter!

I've never seen so many people so happy to be voting... do we not take the privilage seriously enough in the USA anymore?

We got several compliments about how professional the job was; I am glad that everything ran so smoothly.

Opening the ballot box after elections are over.

Counting 223 votes for 36 different candidates completely accurately was no small feat.

We were really excited to finish, well done guys!

The final makeup of KAUST's first student council is as diverse as the student population itself. One is from Europe, two are from China, three are from the USA, four are from Mexico, and the other twelve come from many different countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

I think we made history yesterday.