Desert Camping

Saudi weather during the winter months affords the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and natural beauty of the Arabian Peninsula. With daytime temperatures in the low 70s (°F or 21-22°C) and nighttime temperatures in the mid 50s°F (12-13°C), and no prospect of rain, a group of us made a late-week decision to head out to the desert for a weekend of camping in the impressive dunes. In all, we were nine 4×4 vehicles, somewhere around 15-20 adults, and big ol’ mess of kids. Pretty certain it was all Aramcons except for me (I’ve been “adopted” by a great group of expats at Aramco with whom I visit and hang out with frequently).

This was my first Saudi “wilderness” camping experience, not at all like camping in the mountains of Colorado, or even the sandy Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Fortunately, you don’t have to venture far from Dhahran to get the full desert experience. We ended up choosing an erg (giant dune field) near Abqaiq, only about an hour drive from town. Well, it would have been only an hour had we not repeatedly gotten stuck in the sand on the way in. One rule of driving on desert sand is to reduce your tire pressure to substantially flatten the tire, and thereby increasing the footprint (surface area) of tire contact.

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The fleet stopping just off the road to reduce tire pressure for effective sand driving.

Driving on the sand is not unlike driving in the snow. Momentum is critical for stretches of soft sand and uphill climbs. Having traction control turned off is also important – 4-low can also be crucial but isn’t always necessary. I drove Clay’s silver ’91 Land Cruiser (perhaps because I can drive a stick) and that beast never got stuck. Others did, but it was great fun for the kids to push the vehicles, and it sometimes required engineering ingenuity to yank stuck vehicles out of soft sand up to their axles.

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Not the only time David got stuck. Just sayin’.

Clay’s magnificent beast. More detail if you click on the photos.

We camped in a flat “playa” (water table controlled) at the base of a 30-meter dune. You can see our shanty town in the lead photograph up above. I ended up not bothering to set up a tent and just slept on a borrowed cot under the stars (and near the campfire). The kids spent most of their time climbing up the slip face of the dune, and either sandboarding or sledding back down. The adults didn’t have that kind of energy and we passed the time by eating and drinking and “dune bashing.”

Dune bashing is a term that covers yahoo driving in 4x4s all over the dunes, including making plummets down the slip face of the large dunes. For the most part, this sport is safe, as long as you’re in the vehicle… Hanging perched on the rear bumper and clinging to the roof rack may not always be the best choice, as young Thomas can attest.

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John’s H2 about to descend the slip face at camp.

These activities went on well into the night, both before and after makeshift dinners that included grilling meats on the campfire. Some portion of every meal consisted of eating sand. In a bow to technology, we set up an outdoor movie theater for the kids, using a generator, projector, and large screen. I didn’t get a great picture of that, but you get the idea.

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Fire. Useful for cooking and warmth. Note the hubbly bubbly in the left rear.

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Yeah, kind of like an old timey drive-in movie. But in the desert. And not in cars.

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Late-night shenanigans high atop the dunes.

Needless to say, I had a blast. Well, we all had a blast. This crew made my first Saudi desert camping experience a ton of fun. And I think I brought back a ton of sand with me. Not on purpose, it’s just that sand is everwhar.

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Oman Recon

I’ve mentioned before that our newly established College within the University is a combination of previously existing departments and a research entity on campus. For example, the Geosciences Department has been at KFUPM since 1973. The College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences (CPG) has melded the departments of Petroleum Engineering with Geosciences, of course, and also includes a research arm, the Center for Integrative Petroleum Research. New Bachelor’s-level curricular programs in geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering were developed and codified during 2017.

With a focus on integration of these three disciplines, CPG students enroll in an identical freshman-year course sequence, culminating in a summer-long course known as CPG 199 Summer Camp. In this course, all the post-freshmen are together for eight weeks in the summer. We’ll have right around 60 students for summer 2018. Lucky me, I’m coordinating the course. We are splitting the course into three segments, with one in the mountains of Oman for two weeks, another two weeks in southeastern Poland (working out of Krakow and in the adjoining Carpathian mountains), and the rest of the summer program will be in-Kingdom (mainly in conjunction with Saudi Aramco).

Since I’ll be leading the Oman and Poland legs, I went on a recon mission in late December to Oman with my colleague, Khalid, and also with the Dean of CPG. We’ve contracted an adventure company, Husaak Adventures, to run the trip. The intent of this first leg is for team building, camaraderie, cooperation, and self-confidence. That there is spectacular carbonate geology everywhere we go is definitely a plus, but studying geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering is not the focus of this module. Of course, it will be extremely difficult to contain my excitement for the geology (and I think my students know this…).

The Sultanate of Oman is in the southeast of the Arabian peninsula, bounded by the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The areas that we’ll be principally located are in the eastern and western Al Hajar Mountains that prominently jut inland from along the northeastern margin of the Sultanate.

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The Arabian peninsula with the Sultanate of Oman along the east-southeast.

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A closer view showing the location of the Omani capital, Muscat, and the splay of the Al Hajar mountain range paralleling the coast of the Gulf of Oman. The dark “blobs” indicate locations of the Semail Ophiolite (see text).

Well, I won’t bore you with all the great details of Omani geology, but I need to mention a couple things. First, yes you can see that it’s quite arid (like most of the peninsula), but the SE Asian monsoon does bring moisture to Hajar Mountains. Vegetation grows in the wadis (intermittent river courses) draining the mountains. Second, abundant Cretaceous and Paleogene limestones that outcrop in the Oman mountains form important petroleum reservoirs in the subsurface of Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (e.g., the prolific Thamama Group). And third, Oman hosts the famous (well, in geological circles anyway) Semail Ophiolite. During tectonic closing of ocean basins, in general, the denser ocean crust gets subducted below the more buoyant continental crust. In rare cases, however, slivers of the uppermost mantle and oceanic crust get thrust up onto the continents (obduction, rather than subduction). These pieces of former seafloor basalt that are obducted onto the continents are called ophiolites. Named for the town of Samail/Semail, the ultramafic (mantle) and mafic (seafloor basalts) rocks of the Semail Ophiolite are dark grey to black on fresh surface, and they weather slightly reddish brown (iron) upon exposure. The dark blobs in these Google Map images are (mostly) ophiolite successions.

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Area of the western Hajar Mountains. The town of Nizwa is at the bottom of the photo, just to the east of two ophiolite sections. We’ll be camping, hiking, and canyoneering around Jebel Shams (the highest point in Oman, at just over 3000 m).

Our two and a half day field excursion covered basically all the areas that the students will be exposed to over the span of two weeks. So, there was a lot of “windshield time”, interspersed with quick field stops, overviews, short hikes, one long hike, and two nights camping in the cold, high mountains. The cooler temperatures afforded by the mountains will be welcome when we’re all camping out there during the summer, when lower-elevation temperatures will be in the 40s (°C) or low 100s (°F).

We’ll start our adventure touring in the western mountains, using a camping area near Jebel Shams (location in the image above). One of the activities that the group will do is a 8-12 hour round-trip hike to the summit of Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman, at 3028 m (just under 10,000 ft).

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Dark ophiolite along the drive to the western Hajar Mountains.

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These pillow basalts represent seafloor lava outpourings as new oceanic crust is created at the mid-ocean ridges (oceanic layer 2A), here exposed in the Semail Ophiolite. The distinct “pillow” at center-right is about a meter and a half wide.

The roads in Oman are quite good, but there’s no easy route to get to some of our locations. Husaak has new badass Land Cruisers that will get the job done. We scaled and descended some very steep routes and the vehicles were simply monsters.

Husaak’s Toyota Land Cruiser workhorses got it done!

The western Hajar Mountains have low-grade metamorphics as underburden, with thick stacked sequences of carbonates as a mantle. Steep-sided canyons descend from the high mountains, and date palms adorn the wadi floors. Streams appear and disappear. We have several mountain and canyon hikes for the students lined up.

Majestic peaks, valleys, and canyons of the western Hajar Mountains.

After five nights camping at the high Jebel Shams camp, the group will move to the town of Nizwa as a base for two nights. We have a geological excursion to Jebel Madar planned and there will be another day hike. However, while in Nizwa, we’ll have a chance to clean up and sleep in beds before heading to the eastern Hajar. Our plan is to stay at the Golden Tulip hotel, the same hotel I stayed in when I visited Oman for a post-AAPG field trip in 2002. The students (and faculty, and Husaak guides) will be happy.

Somehow, the Golden Tulip allowed this group of grubby guys to tour the facilities.

We swung the vehicles back toward Muscat and headed through the valley on the back side of Jebel Akhdar before turning into the eastern Hajar Mountains. Here, crazy dipslope Eocene nummulitic limestones plunge toward the Arabia Sea. Wadis follow obvious large-scale fracture/fault patterns that are perpendicular to the coast. We spent a fair amount of time in the Tiwi Wadi south of the town of Fins. Road winds up the wadi through dense date palm stands and small villages. All along the wadi, “plantations” of dates, mangos, and crops are terraced along the wadi walls.

After hiking down to the river in part of the wadi, discovering waterfalls, rapids, and limpid pools, we exited the wadi and made for camp by way of a steep climb up to the Salmah plateau. Again, elevation will be high enough in the summer time to have comfortable nighttime temperatures for camping. For us, the December time frame, lack of clouds, and the elevation made for some rather cold-weather camping. We slept under the stars and close to the campfire. We saw some shooting stars streaking across the sky, likely the last remnants of the Geminids meteor shower.

Not only is the plateau dissected by steep-sided wadis, but there is a complex network of caverns throughout this limestone terrane. Husaak is in the process of exploring and mapping the cave network. The size of some of the caves is simply remarkable – one cave entrance we saw was nearly 200 m high.

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Google Earth image of the Salmah plateau area of the eastern Hajar Mountains. Narrow wadis dissect the Eocene limestone (full of large nummulites forams) because of dissolution and erosion coincident with a large-scale fracture/fault system.

Limestones of the eastern Hajar slope down to the azure waters of the Arabian Sea.

Waterfalls, emerald pools, and plantations make Wadi Tiwi a must-see destination in the eastern Hajar Mountains.

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Early morning slumber on the Salmah plateau. No one was excited about climbing out of warm bags into the morning chill.

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Entrance to an enormous cave atop the Salmah plateau requiring a 150 m rappel into the massive cave network below.

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Ali, Khalid, and I with a cave entrance in the background. The cliffs here are several hundred meters high and a helicopter can easily fly into the cave entrance. Ali is founder and president of Husaak Adventures. A Colorado School of Mines petroleum engineering grad, he spent many years with major oil companies as a top engineer before turning to adventure tourism. And we’re glad he did!

Many thanks to Ali and his crew (especially Hassan and Bader) who helped us on this recon trip. We were well taken care of and we have full confidence in Husaak to deliver a memorable experience for our students in CPG 199. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about this upcoming summer…

Incidentally, you can follow Husaak Adventures on Instagram @husaak. Believe me, you’ll want to join their adventures.

 

Fieldwork in Spain

Fall semester just ended and, after too short a break, we’re back at it for spring semester. From my lack of updates, you may be able to guess just how busy last semester was. Never mind that, I’ll begin to post some updates worth noting and I’ll hope to not fall irrevocably behind.

First up is a report on fieldwork in southeastern Spain that we completed in late October. I was joined by two of my geology faculty colleagues and two of our stellar undergraduate students. We met colleagues in the field from University of Barcelona and University of Manchester. Without getting too geological, we had two subordinate objectives related to an overall project of relating outcrop exposures in Spain with those in the subsurface in Saudi Arabia. The successions are age-equivalent, Early Cretaceous (125-100 million years ago), and they both represent widespread limestone deposition. So, we’re using the Spanish outcrops as analogs to supergiant oilfields in the subsurface of the Kingdom, which we can only see and touch and sample from scattered cores. Geology by analogy is something we routinely do.

The first field area was located near the town of Aliaga (in Aragon), about a five-hour drive from Barcelona. We flew from Dammam to Dubai and then Dubai to Barcelona. It was my first time on an Airbus A380, the huge aircraft with two full levels. More on that later. After arrival and getting situated in the hotel and wandering around a bit, we met with our Spanish colleagues and enjoyed a traditional Catalan dinner of tapas and sumptuous main courses. And wine.

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The Iberian Peninsula. The pin drop is on the town of Aliaga, west-southwest of Barcelona.

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The Emirates A380. It’s a flying whale. Not sure how it gets off the ground.

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Iberian ham, sardines, and wine. This was just a mid-afternoon snack at a street cafe in Barcelona.

The next morning, we began our drive to Aragon, stopping twice along the way. Once for coffee and pastries and once for an excellent family-style lunch at local “club” that was serving Sunday meals for the locals. We seriously just stumbled upon this place in a small town, and were welcomed and fed with great affection.

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A statue honoring local agriculture in the small town we stopped in for lunch.

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Our crew, about to dine alongside locals at the club’s dining hall.

Aliaga is a small town in the Aragon region of southeastern Spain. The area over the years was visited by and occupied by the Romans and, of course, the Moors. Our field accommodations was a lovely hotel that had once been the engineer’s quarters for the coal mines in the region. After coal mining had died out, about 40 years ago, the building was bought by our hosts and turned into a hotel.

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A Google image of the lay of the land around the town of Aliaga. Hopefully, you can note the excellent outcrop exposures available for study.

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The wild streets of downtown Aliaga.

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A front view of our field accommodations (La Parra hotel).

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And, yes, those are grape vines clinging to the lower walls.

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External view of Our Lady of Zarza Sanctuary.

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The cemetery grounds and crypts of Zarza Sanctuary. Deformed limestones in the background…

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The inside of Zarza has been painstakingly restored by hand by a single individual over the past fifteen years. He allowed us entrance and told us all about the restoration.

The next couple of days were spent documenting diagenetic changes within sequence stratigraphic packages and sampling shelf-to-basin transitions that were nicely exposed throughout the field area (click on the photos to see the full-size images).

Field localities around Aliaga.

From Aliaga and Aragon, we made our way into Valencia in the vicinity of the Morella Castle (Castell de Morella). The castle can be seen from a long distance away, sitting on a strategic know elevated above the broad valley. While our focus was on the outcrops several kms away, the castle kept drawing us in. Finally finished in the field for the day, we drove to Morella and explored the town and the castle. Occupation and fortification of the high ground of Morella was again led by the Romans, followed by the Moors, and then the Europeans.

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View of the Castell de Morella from just outside of town.

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Many stairs were climbed to reach the top of the fortification.

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A view to the west from the top rampart of the castle. The ridge to the center right was the focus of our fieldwork earlier in the day.

The last part of our project was to document and sample fault-controlled dolomitization in equivalent strata, but in a more tectonically active setting. Our base for this campaign was the Mediterranean resort town of Benicassim (terrible, right?!), and working on outcrops accessible through the town of Oropesa. As it was off season, we didn’t have to fight the crowds of people who frequent the beaches and towns of the area during the summer. The outcrops here are spectacular and, certainly from afar, it’s easy to tell what section of the ridges have experienced dolomitization (alteration from later fluid flow that produces the mineral dolomite).

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Good exposures of our target strata from the town of Oropesa del Mar.

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Setting off to sample rocks of this face. The light grey strata are original limestone, and the stratbound dark layers have experienced dolomitization. The controlling fault lies to the right of the photo by about a half kilometer. While it looks benign, the slopes are very steep and every bit of vegetation had nasty thorns – the last one came out of my knee just a couple weeks ago.

Views of the Mediterranean back toward Benicassim, the beach along the Benicassim waterfront, and oranges and olives in abundance.

After a couple days of seriously invigorating fieldwork in the area, we wrapped up the campaign and headed back to Barcelona, and the following day back to KSA through Dubai. We can’t thank our colleagues from University of Barcelona enough for our success on this trip. Their guidance in the field, their deep knowledge of the local geology, and their willingness to share and collaborate was simply incomparable.

We enjoyed a post-fieldwork tapas/seafood dinner and stayed overnight at a hotel on La Rambla, the site of the unfortunate terror attack a few months earlier. The next morning, before leaving for the airport, I took time to stroll Las Rambla and visit the incredible sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the adjoining Boqueria Market.

Street scene of La Rambla, and wondrous temptations of the Boqueria Market.

To top the trip off, I got an upgrade on Emirates to business class on the A380 flying whale. Emirates has quickly become my go-to airline for this part of the world. Dubai is a quick one-hour flight from Dammam, and from there (DXB) one can travel throughout the world.

International business class on Emirates is okay.

Baku and Updates

I know, I know… It’s been a while since I last posted. That’s what happens when work gets in the way. Considering I received a non-remunerative “promotion” to Assistant Department Chairman, and considering that happened a couple of days before school started for the semester, I’m simply happy at this point to find a few spare moments here and there to give a brief update and to crow about my trip to Baku, Azerbaijan just before school started.

First part of the update is that which I just said. I have a new and challenging role in the Department. After seven years as Department Head at Colorado School of Mines, I’m well prepared and equipped to assume this roll. My days are slammed and I’m juggling way too many balls in the air, but it feels good and it feels right. It’s good to again be shaping policy and direction for my academic unit.

Right now, a major focal point is a technical conference that we are hosting next week. It’s been dubbed EPTEK, for Exploration & Production Technical Exchange at KFUPM. We’re bringing in tech movers and shakers from within and outside the E&P ecosystem to exchange ideas on future breakthroughs in the industry. The day after the conference, the College is hosting the Aramco Executive Committee (the body that funded the College). This approximately two-hour event has been preceded by hours and hours of preparation. I think we’ve had six dry runs so far, and I’m sure there will be more.

Those events have dovetailed with getting the semester off the ground, and we’re now in stride as we approach the first round of mid-terms. I have a freshmen/sophomore class in Physical Geology that currently has 111 students, including members of this largest freshman class to ever enter Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences. I’m also team teaching a graduate project-based course in carbonate microfacies. We’ve been out in the field twice collecting samples as starting points for two of the semester projects.

Field excursions for our carbonate microfacies course. The first was to the construction site next door, where they are building our new College research building. Here, dolomudstones of the Eocene Rus Formation (Lower Member) is exposed in the pit. We then did a modern trip to nearby Half Moon Bay to collect Recent sediments and associated submarine hardgrounds and beachrock accumulations.

Another update. The heat has finally broken!! Wow, the summer and early fall here have been brutal, but we’re heading into seven months of really pleasant weather. In a blog entry to come (I’m hesitant to say “soon”), I’m going to write about the weather and climate here. I’ve been gathering historical records through Weather Underground and I have some thoughts that seem to be slightly different from others’ interpretations of drivers of the annual cycle here. More importantly, early morning temperatures are now in the 70’s (°F) and daytime temperatures are struggling to get to triple digits. Still not a cloud to be seen… In the Eastern Province, we’re at about 26° North latitude, so the shortening of daylight hours (and the concomitant decrease in daily insolation) is noticeable. It has recently become okay to hang out outside in the evening, making happy hour by the pool at the Consulate quite pleasant.

Three of us faculty in Geosciences have finally gotten approval to do fieldwork in Spain at the end of this month. We’ll be working in the Maestrat basin on some dolomitized lower Cretaceous platform carbonates. We’ll be in Barcelona on either end of the fieldwork, and we’re hoping the Catalan-Spanish agitation has settled down a bit by then. Regardless, a week of fieldwork in southern Spain should be awesome. More on that after it happens, obviously.

I was in Dubai for some R&R last weekend, ate and drank well, saw some sights, and again caught up with my good friend and former PhD student, Abdulrahman.

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Modern architecture surrounding the Dubai Marina.

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The evening fountain show at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall.

Baku, Azerbaijan

I was looking at a variety of side trips to take for a few days before school started. After looking seriously at about six or seven locations, I decided to visit Baku. I won’t be surprised if you have never heard of Baku before, and perhaps not even Azerbaijan. Those of us who have been engaged in learning about or working in the global oil and gas sector certainly know about it. Companies such as Statoil, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and others are all in play in the region. Azerbaijan has been known as an oil-rich country going back to ancient times; Baku is its capital city, and there are active oilfields right within the city limits.

Azerbaijan, a country of the southern Caucasus region, is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the East, Russia and Georgia to the North and Northwest, Armenia to the West, and Iran to the South.  Baku sits on a promontory reaching out into the western Caspian Sea. My flight was only about two and a half hours from Dubai (an hour flight from Bahrain) and we flew over the Arabian Gulf, Iran, and the Caspian. On approach to the Baku airport, I counted over 50 offshore rigs and platforms dotting the shallow western Caspian.

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Regional map.

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Location of Baku on the peninsula.

Old City

The waterfront and the old walled city.

Suffice it to say that I loved Baku! I stayed in the Four Seasons just outside the walled old city and facing the Caspian. The hotel lived up to the wonderful service, comfort, and detail the chain is known for. In addition to its close proximity to the Old City, it was also easy walking distance to other cultural sites and museums, mosques, the waterfront (obviously), new and traditional restaurants, plazas and squares, and the vibrant nightlife. I only once took an Uber to go to a restaurant (but ended up taking a long walk back because the weather was lovely). The Old City dates back to the Fourteenth Century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The Maiden Tower at night, at the southeast corner of the Old City.

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Just outside the Fourteenth Century walls of the Old City.

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A hammam (bath house) from centuries ago.

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Crypts on display in the Old City.

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Ornate stonework at a mosque entrance.

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A column inside the mosque.

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Domed ceiling and chandelier of the mosque.

Shops and restaurants, both new and traditional Azeri, are found throughout Nizami Street and the adjoining Fountain Square. This was an area of bustling activity, both during the day and especially at night. Prices were amazingly reasonable (even cheap!) in most of the restaurants I visited. I had a fantastic Asian-Azeri-Seafood-Fusion meal, with a cocktail and appetizer, entree, and glass of wine at a very upscale restaurant, and it cost $31USD! Another night I went to a great sushi place and opted for the additional Caspian caviar to adorn my rolls, plus a tasty local beer for $21USD. Just about everything in Baku was reasonably priced, or remarkably low in price, except the Four Seasons. Bahahahaha!! Come to think of it, I had an hour-long traditional hammam at the 4S that was reasonably priced and ridiculously wonderful.

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Nizami Street by day…

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…and by night.

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The fountain of Fountain Square.

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Mmmmm, sushi.

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This was a pretty tasty beverage.

The waterfront area was nice, with a marina, interesting architecture, a corniche walkway, and a Venetian watercourse. Not sure what that was all about, but it was photogenic. There’s a mall being built that has the same swooping architecture as the Sidney Opera House – I was told that it’s still about two years from opening.

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Along the corniche, with the main port in the right background.

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The colorful flag of Azerbaijan along the waterfront.

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One of many gardens along the waterfront park area.

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The flame towers of Baku are the tallest buildings in the country. They’re spectacularly lit up at night, with changing colors and motifs, but my pics turned out crappy.

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The Sidney Opera House-style mall under construction, and the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum in the right foreground.

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Venice of Baku, with the Four Seasons in the background.

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The flame towers from the Venetian area.

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I never saw anyone on a gondola ride – perhaps the gondoliers were on strike…

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This is the Four Seasons Baku. I would highly recommend it!

Like other areas in the region, Azerbaijan is known for its carpets. I told myself that I was not going to buy carpets on this trip, but after visiting the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, I couldn’t help myself! The museum was one of the highlights of my trip. There’s a rich history of carpet making, and different styles of carpets are characteristic of different periods and of different regions in the country.

Some of the hundreds of Azerbaijan carpets at the museum, along with artifacts showing ancient looms, traditional looms, and an impressive carpet paying homage to the oil industry of the Caspian region. Click on individual images to see more detail.

Well, dang. After that inspirational visit I went back to the Old City and selected a couple to take back with me. I love them…

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This one is silk. It’s going to hang on my wall as soon as I find an appropriate hanger assembly. It’s about 4′ by 2.5′.

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This one is wool and I have it on the floor in my bedroom. It’s about 8′ by 5′.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation…

Back from field camp, I had a day and a half to unpack, do laundry (meaning, take it to the cleaners), and repack before taking the Lufthansa flight out of Dammam and on my way to Colorado. There’s no doubt that Lufthansa provides the most direct and quickest connections for me to get to Colorado – Dammam direct to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt direct to Denver. Business class (and the Frankfurt business lounge) made the door-to-door 30-hour journey bearable.

It was certainly a strange feeling renting a car at the Denver airport. Inasmuch as Colorado was my home base for 25 years, I had never done such a thing! Furthermore, since I no longer have a house in Boulder, I secured an Airbnb for at least part of my time while I was “home”. It was a convenient, if Spartan, condo in northeast Boulder from which I was able to get around the Denver metro area, visit my stuff in my storage unit, eat at some of my favorite places, see family and friends, and get out to do some fishing (really the reason I went to the storage unit not just to visit my things, but to pick up my fishing gear).

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At Coors Field with Jack. Rockies win!!

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South Boulder Creek near Rollinsville.

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A South Boulder Creek rainbow trout.

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Kara’s excited with her feisty brown trout from South Boulder Creek.

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The famous (to anglers, anyway) Frying Pan River near Basalt, Colorado.

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A torpedo brown trout from the Frying Pan.

After a good dose of Colorado mountain air and water, I hopped on a plane to Laguardia and headed to Connecticut to visit with my college friends. A group of us have a great tradition of getting together every five years to attempt to relive our past glory as miscreants at University of Vermont many years ago, retell stories that just never get old, and eat and drink and laugh until it hurts. I’m so glad the timing worked out for me to do this!

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Joel’s place in Connecticut.

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Look at us, all growed up…

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Flight path out of  Laguardia took us right over the city, with a great view of Central Park and lower Manhattan.

I was then back in Colorado for about a day and a half, before catching an early morning flight to Dallas, TX. Daughter Rebeca is now a Dallas resident, and working for Southwest Airlines at their corporate offices at Love Field as a technical writer. As part of her compensation package, she gets to fly standby free to anywhere Southwest services. Not only that, but her parents can also fly standby free (called non-revenue travel). So, we made plans for me to visit for a day (plus overnight) if I could get on standby, which I did.

It tickles me to no end that Rebeca is living in Dallas – I lived there for five years (1986-91), when I was on the faculty at University of Texas at Dallas. I hadn’t been back to Dallas in about 20 years. So much has changed! I even got to go visit UTD while Rebeca was a work and had lunch with a former colleague there, Bob Stern. I didn’t recognize campus at all, and the drive up to Richardson from downtown Dallas was completely different to me.

Some things are still the same, however, and Rebeca and I spent time looking at a couple of the places where I had lived, and going to my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, the Blue Goose Cantina on Lower Greenville. There I had my usual incredible plate of sour cream chicken enchiladas, along with a couple of frozen margaritas – just like the old days with the likes of Tod, Hadj, Tad, Dr. Rick, Big Dog, etc. My friend and former Mines student Sherif lives nearby Lower Greenville, so I called him up and he joined us at the Blue Goose, before going over to one of my other former haunts, the Winedale Tavern (although it’s not called that anymore, it’s still the same ol’ dive bar that it always was).  Rebeca earlier had also introduced me to a new hangout in the Lower Greenville area called the Truck Yard. This very cool place is a combination food truck park and watering hole that feels very Austin-esque, and not at all glitzy like Dallas is wont to be.

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The Truck Yard.

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Rebeca sharing my Dallas glory days with me at the Goose, with a plate of sour cream chicken enchiladas and a tasty frozen marg.

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Sorry it’s a little dark, but that’s me and Sherif at the dive bar formerly known as the Winedale Tavern.

After the great fun visit with Rebeca, I flew back to Colorado the next morning. I think I got the last standby seat on the flight, but I made it regardless. And, wouldn’t you know it, I was only back in Colorado for another day and a half before getting on yet another flight. This time to Portland, Oregon, to visit my mother and my brother and his wife.

Portland is typically gorgeous in the summertime, with sunny skies all day every day, and nice warm temperatures. The morning I left Dallas was about as cool (and rainy) as Dallas ever gets on the first of August, and Colorado was remarkably cool for the beginning of August also. Not so much with Portland! There were heat advisories and temperatures were forecast to be in the 104°F (40°C) range.  That’s highly uncommon for the Pacific northwest. Compounding the heat was that nearby wild/forest fires in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, had spread smoke over the western side of the Cascades, and Portland was blanketed by the thick smoke.

We had sort of a small family reunion at Neil’s place, as Jack flew out from Colorado and Rebeca hopped a flight from Dallas for the weekend. Much good food and good Oregon beer was consumed at Neil’s and in and around Portland, before heading out to the Oregon coast for two days with Kara to escape the heat and smoke.

Oregon has a beautiful rocky coast consisting mostly of oceanic basalts (it’s not too difficult to find beautiful MOR pillow basalts), along with volcaniclastics and turbidites. Overall, it’s an active continental margin, with the Juan de Fuca plate subducting below the North American plate, creating the Coast Ranges and the Cascade magmatic arc. One day, the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver area will experience a catastrophic earthquake and I truly hope the people there are prepared. To their credit, in many areas along the coast, there are abundant tsunami warning signs and evacuation areas. I don’t want to be a downer or anything, it’s just geological reality that goes along with an active oceanic-continental subduction margin. Regardless, it certainly is purty…

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Brother Neil at Breakside Brewery, one of many brewpubs in beer-crazy Portland.

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My mother with granddaughter Rebeca in an action shot of mom doing what she does best, this time at a fantastic ramen house in the west hills of Portland.

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With the kids in Neil’s lush back yard. I note that Jack’s wearing my summer 1995 Grateful Dead tour shirt that I got in Vegas, the final time I saw Jerry Garcia.

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Jack gingerly (get it) holding the Paul Reed Smith guitar signed by the members of Widespread Panic that Kelly won at auction. With the twist being that Kelly got Paul to donate the guitar to the band for auction, and then ended up buying it herself!

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Partial aftermath of a great dinner at Olympia Oyster Bar. I simply love those PNW oysters!

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A window display at Paxton Gate, a store featuring natural mounted specimens, taxidermy, fossils, minerals, and other wonders. It happened to be right next to Olympia Oyster Bar where we had dinner one night. Interesting place…

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Horsetails (sphenopsids) and seed ferns along the Oregon coast, mimicking a Devonian forest (except for the obvious angiosperms scattered throughout).

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Typical day along the coast, with this day thankfully 20°F cooler than Portland.

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That dark spot in the water is the tail of a grey whale that surfaced several times. I had never before seen a whale!! Like in my whole life! So, kind of a big deal.

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The Oregon coast is known for these “haystacks”, isolated erosional basalt remnants of the former coastline.

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The haystacks attract a wide array of sea birds. Didn’t get to see a puffin, however.

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Tidal pool with abundant anemones, mussels, and barnacles.

So… That’s what I did on my summer vacation. From Oregon, I flew back to Colorado for another day and a half stay, and then flew back to the Kingdom on the return flights through Frankfurt and into Dammam.

On a sad note, I had to say goodbye to a good friend. Darlene was a beautiful and sweet greyhound who had nearly reached 12 years old and had contracted an aggressive bone cancer. The one and only DogFish will be greatly missed.

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Did you say “ham”?!? RIP DogFish.

Field Camp 2017

For geology students who haven’t yet experienced it, the mystique of field camp is real. Time leading up to summer field camp is anxiety filled. You’re told various horror stories from students who have recently completed it… “It’s brutal.” “I never knew what I was doing.” “Don’t give up, you’ll make it.” “The instructors are dicks.” And so on. As instructors, we always say that field camp is, “the best time you’ll ever hate.” You have to amass supplies from some draconian list given to you by the professors. You have to give up summer employment. You need to say goodbye to your family and friends and the creature comforts of home.

To be sure, field camp is a rite of passage for geology students.

The majority of study leading up to it is comprised of lectures and labs and, hopefully, scattered field exercises here and there in Physical Geology, Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, and Structural Geology. Whatever the course name is (Field Camp, Geological Field Study, Field Geology, etc.), everyone knows what it is: six semester hours of intensive fieldwork. Usually following the junior year, field camp is a culmination and integration of all classroom study that had come before. The Earth is our laboratory and the only way to really “become a geologist” is to get out in the field and suffer the oftentimes hell that is field camp.

Six semester hours is a rip-off, right? Fieldwork time while it’s light and nightly work time usually is 40 to 60 hours per week for six weeks. Huh, that’s pretty stout, considering that a 3-credit course is 45 contact hours for an entire semester.

While the fear of the unknown is palpable going into it (what? six weeks of immersive geology, commonly in uncomfortable conditions), the reward on the other side of it is typically incomparable. You survived geology boot camp! You’re in the club! You’re truly a geologist!

I had my own trepidation going into this field session. Not so much because of new geology (I revel in seeing new geology!), but mostly because of the weather that we would have to work with. Who does fieldwork in Saudi Arabia in July? Surely only idiots.

My years of field camp with CSM consisted of leading a week (this is how we do it Fifth Week!!) in the Molas Lake area of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Weather there, in mid- to late June, camping at 10,500’ (3200 m), ran the gamut from single-digit temperatures (Fahrenheit, minus 5°C) at night, to low- mid-70s (20s C) during the day, and oftentimes encountering rain, sleet, snow, graupel, hail, lightning, intense sunshine, and radiative cooling at night. The prospect of fieldwork in the Kingdom in July meant searing sunshine, temperatures in the 40s to low 50s C (115°ish F) every day, and only cooling off to the upper 30s at night. No matter, we’re f*cking geologists and this is what we do…

June in the San Juan Mountains. This is how we did it fifth week!!

Unfortunately, for me, I had already made my summer “repatriation” plans to be back in the US, so I wasn’t able to spend the whole time in the field with my students and colleagues. However, the two weeks I was able to spend with them was simply wonderful.

The field site is in northwest Saudi Arabia, tucked up against the Gulf of Aqaba, and in sight of the Sinai peninsula and Egypt. We flew domestically on Saudia Airlines from Dammam to Tabuk. Our Land Cruisers had been delivered to Tabuk earlier in the week, so Khalid and I grabbed a taxi, picked up the vehicles, loaded up the students, did some grocery shopping, and headed to Maqna. The Gulf of Aqaba is a left-lateral shear zone that’s still active (didn’t get to experience an earthquake, dang), and separating the Sinai from the Arabian shield. 700 to 800 meter high mountains plunge into the Gulf, where depths range up to 1500 meters, with little to no continental shelf. Where the wadis empty coarse siliciclastics into the Gulf, there’s essentially no shelf at all – inter-wadi areas have thriving reefs and carbonate sedimentation. There’s no better place to see sediment reciprocity in action.

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Northern end of the Red Sea, Sinai, Nile delta, and location of Tabuk in NW Saudi Arabia.

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Gulf of Aqaba to Tabuk.

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Approximate field study area. We stayed in Maqna, and Al Badh was the closest larger town.

It’s hard to emote the joy and enrichment that I experienced during my time in the field. The geology was ridiculously good and fascinating. It helps when there’s no vegetation in the way – not like mapping in the glacial-till-covered forested wilds of Vermont, or the Enchanted Forest at Molas. Not at all. I call it “slap you in the face geology” because, seriously, if you don’t get this, you’re in the wrong profession/line of study.

Working for KFUPM dictates that things will be different from other universities. We’re well funded and we were fortunately able to buy field equipment for the students, stay in comfortable, if Spartan, apartments, and have a cook for all our meals. Abu Mohammed was integral to our field experience. We typically had breakfast well before the sun was up, to beat the heat, so Mohammed was up even earlier, laying out the breakfast staples and (usually) cooking something to get our day started.

We got in the vehicles at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, so we could get to our field sites as the sun was coming up. Because of the heat, we were typically off the outcrop by 10:30 AM or so, more than ready to head back to the apartments for some cowering downtime in air conditioning, and to get cleaned up and ready for absolutely the best meal of the day. We headed back to the field around 3:30 in the afternoon, well after the peak heat, and would work until sundown. Without elaborating, the heat just sucks the life out of you – we worked the field, drank lots of water, slept hard when we could, and recharged with Abu Mohammed’s meals.

We worked with everything from Neoproterozoic intrusives, to Recent carbonate reef sediments, but mostly we were in the Early Miocene sedimentary cover. That won’t mean much to many, but just know we had awesome geology to work with. Without boring you more, I’ll just upload a bunch of pictures, with a little commentary in the captions.

Arrival in Tabuk with a traditional lunch – before and after!

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After several field stops along the way from Tabuk to Maqna, this sunset vista over the Gulf of Aqaba greeted our arrival to our accommodations.

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First recon day to the field area, with evaporites to the upper left. The Precambrian is in the far right background, in fault contact with continental redbeds and turbidites in the nearer background.

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A typical gourmet field lunch from Abu Mohammed. This sustained us daily in the field grind, and lunch was our biggest meal in the day. Like every lunch, this one started with soup – all other soup makers should bow in the presence of Mohammed. Each day’s soup was better than the last. Also here are roasted chickens, basmati rice, salsa, okra ratatouille, and fresh fruit for dessert.

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You want structure? Yeah, we have structure. This recumbent fold in Miocene carbonates was generated from shearing along the Gulf of Aqaba.

This Land Cruiser is “John’s car.” I’ve put about 95% of the kms on this beast since April, and this was my field vehicle for the duration. The right photo shows “John’s dent.” I hope it’s not coming out of my paycheck. This christening happened during a wadi crossing along the mountain front in the left photo.

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Ever wonder what the inside of a pediment looks like? Coarse clastics with obvious channel features were exposed by a wadi cut through a large pediment dipping from the mountains to the east toward the Gulf.

Views in and around Haql, a town on the Jordanian border.

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World-class healthy reefs in the northern Gulf of Aqaba at Haql. This was off our back doorstep from our accommodations in town!

Proof I was there.

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The dreaded camel spider. This was in my freaking bathroom. Khalid stepped on it and all the black stuff came spewing out. My boot toe for scale.

If you thought Saudi Arabia was all sand dunes, you’ve been mistaken. I’ve been pleasantly blown away by the geology of the Kingdom.

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A WWII Catalina seaplane that apparently missed the sea…

Our curious animal friends.

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Our accommodations in Maqna – early morning, gearing up for a warm day in the field.

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Al Badh had some Petra-like ruins.

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Patagonia Arabia…

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Our last night together before I left the field was spend at a resort in Sharma. The crew arranged this lovely cake for me. Thenks!! But seriously, I loved my time in the field with my colleagues and students and hope that you’ve enjoyed this sample of my photos.

WSMFP

It was the third weekend in June, and where was I going to be? The same place I’ve been for the third weekend in June, nearly continuously since 1997 – Red Rocks Amphitheater to see Widespread Panic.

Let’s break that down. First, I hadn’t been back to the US since I moved to Saudi Arabia on 45’s Inauguration Day, and this is what I chose to do. Second, 9500 of my best friends and I were at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, the most spectacular natural outdoor music venue anywhere in the world. And third, we were all there to see Widespread Panic for three nights of kick-ass jamming rock and roll.

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater is owned by the city and county of Denver, Colorado, although it is actually located in the town of Morrison, Colorado, just to the west of Denver. The amphitheater was built by the CCC and WPA from 1936 to 1941, in a space between to massive, titled outcrops of the Pennsylvanian-aged (about 300 Ma) Fountain Formation. In the Park (and elsewhere along the Front Range), and indeed commemorated by a plaque in the upper amphitheater parking lot, the Fountain Fm. sits unconformably on gneisses and intrusive granites of the Idaho Springs Formation. So, in actuality, the contact is a non-conformity, with sedimentary rocks sitting upon crystalline basement of the continental crust.

The Idaho Springs Fm. is dated between 1.7 and 1.4 billion years old, so the non-conformity represents over a billion years of missing time. Let that swirl around in your brain for a bit. The Fountain Fm. formed during the Pennsylvanian Ancestral Rocky Mountain orogeny (mountain building event), and represents the erosional remnants of uplift of the much older continental crust (Idaho Springs Fm.). The Fountain Fm. is a mixed lithology unit, comprised of conglomerates, sandstones, siltstones, and shales, all deposited proximal to the uplift in a series of alluvial fans. Besides Red Rocks, the Fountain also makes up the iconic rock outcroppings of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and the Flatirons in Boulder.

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Here, the steeply dipping Fountain Formation makes up the Boulder Flatirons.

The Fountain is overlain by a series of Permian through Cretaceous sedimentary rocks, including the Jurassic Morrison Formation, known for its wealth of both terrestrial dinosaur and marine reptile fossils. Famously, adjacent to Red Rocks to the east is Dinosaur Ridge, where there are exposed dinosaur fossils and spectacular dinosaur trackways in the Morrison. All these were later uplifted and tilted during the Laramide orogeny in the late Cretaceous and earliest Paleogene. Much later erosion exposed the towering outcrops of the Fountain, later to be made into the Amphitheater.

My first Panic show at Red Rocks was in 1997. While I had seen them as early as 1989 and I had been to Red Rocks for other musical acts, this convergence in 1997 was a major inspirational event for me. After years (and many dollars) of following the Grateful Dead, and reeling from Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, I was somewhat rudderless when it came to how I was going to part with my disposable income in an equally irresponsible fashion. Then Panic grabbed my leg and pulled me in; the Disco>Diner opener sealed the deal. Twenty years later, and now with a total of 141 shows under my belt, we can safely say that I found the outlet that I was looking for.

And get this…44 of my 141 shows have been at Red Rocks. It has always been my home court. That is, until I changed my home. Well, not wanting to give up an amazing streak, as soon as Red Rocks was announced this year, Team Humphrey sprang into action and procured these exceedingly hard tickets to get (anymore). I then began looking into travel arrangements and realized that this was going to be 1) my first trip back to the States, and 2) necessarily a quick hitter due to my other travel constraints (some of which you’ve seen already, and some that will be the subject of the next entry). In all, I was in Colorado for only six days.

Panic, by far, holds the DiMaggio-esque record of now 54 consecutive sold-out shows at Red Rocks. I’ve obviously been to a good chunk of those. Ones that I’ve missed were either due to work constraints or unfortunately scheduled family vacations (hehe). We all made a big deal last year out of the 50th consecutive sell-out. The band is well aware of their record.

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Stage lights on Sunday night commemorating the 54th consecutive sell out.

Here are some highlights of the weekend. Panic on the Rocks weekends are so much more than going to a concert (or three), which is why we call these events “shows”. People come in from all over the country – heck, some even come in from far-away lands! Oregon Team Humphrey were there once again and, while she didn’t go to the shows, my daughter flew up from Dallas for the weekend. Friends from far and near met at various spots around town, but the focal point of course was sharing the music and love with our favorite band.

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Wednesday evening hang out at Pasta Jay’s in Boulder.

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Thursday night gathering at Lodo’s with a beautiful Colorado sunset over Coors Field.

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Something, uh, interesting near Union Station seen while going to pick up Neil and Kelly.

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It was “cold” on Friday – well at least for someone coming from the Saudi desert.

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But, as usual, the music was hot.

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Rotating note eaters projected onto the rocks.

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Quite possibly the best pic of the weekend. A little fun was being had!

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We came to get down.

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Percussion time. Was that skull moving, or was that me?

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Humphrey family Sunday morning brunch at Sassafras.

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My ridiculously attractive spawn, Jack and Rebeca.

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Pre-show Sunday with Neil and Gilbane.

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The lights were fantastic this year.

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Never Miss a Sunday Show!

 

A Quick Trip to Paris

Back from Lisbon, I had exactly a week back at KFUPM before venturing out again. This time, to Paris, the City of Light (La Ville-Lumiere). In the intervening time, I wrote two research proposals – one a dolomitization study of Early Cretaceous platform carbonates in eastern Spain, and one for a comprehensive study for Aramco of a subsurface unconventional carbonate mudrock system. I’m hoping that the Spain study (age-equivalent strata to Shuiaba reservoirs in the Middle East) results in some field work this fall. I also hope that the unconventional system project turns into a close, long-term relationship with Aramco (it just passed the pre-proposal stage!).

The Paris trip was to attend the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers (EAGE) annual conference and exhibition. We’re in the midst of a major recruiting push for the College, aiming for faculty, post-docs, and doctoral students. Inasmuch as I was not giving a technical presentation at the meeting, I took the lead in recruiting efforts. We had a booth, clustered with other university booths, festooned with KFUPM banners and replete with all manners of swag giveaways. EAGE is a pretty big conference for Europeans – mainly geophysicists and petroleum engineers. Much less so for geologists.

My count may be off by one, but I believe this was my 8th time in Paris. Not going to lie, after my third time there, I thought to myself that I’d seen it all and I really didn’t need to go back (btw, my first time was with Mike Colucci and we killed it in 36 hours!). Who was I kidding?? I absolutely love Paris. So, when we were deciding as a College who was going to go where for recruiting purposes at what meeting/conference, I volunteered for EAGE. Good choice.

By the time my paperwork was cleared by the College for the trip, all the close-in convention hotels were already booked. No matter, a close neighborhood to the convention facilities was Montparnasse, an area I had stayed in at least three times before. Only five metro stops from the convention complex, the area surrounding the Montparnasse-Bienvenue station (principally Metro lines 4 and 12) is lively and is a great jumping off place for all things Paris.

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Metro station for Montparnasse-Bienvenue.

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Evening bustle at Gare Montparnasse.

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Pretty sure this is against code (well in the US it would be). My hotel was under renovation. Yes, this is the only exit that isn’t an elevator.

The convention complex is just south of the central part of Paris, off the Porte de Versailles metro stop (Line 12). EAGE registration numbers were on the order of 5500 people, so it was a pretty big deal. We had good recruitment discussions with several folks that hopefully will come to fruition.

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Registration for EAGE.

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Stewart and I in some serious (or not) discussion at our booth.

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Geophysics student Khalid with his masterpiece to paint his future (long story…).

Okay, enough about the conference – it went well. More importantly, when not at the convention center, I found some diversions to keep me occupied. Getting around Paris on the Metro is very easy and safe, and will always get you close to your destination. Feel free to ask me if you ever need guidance on getting around Paris. Of course, it’s nice to walk along the Seine and you can easily walk (and stop along the way) from Notre Dame to l’Arc de Triomphe, although this time I didn’t make it to the Arc or even the Champs Elysees.

I walked from my hotel through the Jardins du Luxembourg, past the Pantheon, and down to Notre Dame. I meandered along the Seine, past the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, and eventually to the Place de la Concorde, before grabbing the Metro and heading back to Montparnasse.

Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, and Notre Dame Cathedral.

 

The Seine, Louvre, Tuileries, and the obelisk in Place de la Concorde. If you squint, you can see the Arc de Triomphe straight down the Champs Elysees.

Back in Montparnasse, I had dinner at one of my favorite Paris restaurants, La Coupole. It’s a classic Parisian seafood restaurant that over the years hosted the likes of Picasso and Hemingway. I go for the cold seafood towers and always get oysters.

 La Coupole on Boulevard du Montparnasse.

Finally, I attended an evening EAGE reception at a place in Monmartre, an area well known for attractions such as the Moulin Rouge (and other racy establishments), street venders galore, and the hilltop Sacre Coeur Basilica. The area was frequented by Impressionist artists (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro) and famously Toulouse-Lautrec.

Monmartre and Sacre Coeur.

Feel free to contact me if you’re going to be in Paris – I definitely have some recommendations, even beyond those shown here. But really, it’s hard to go wrong in the City of Light.

A Family Trip to Lisbon, Portugal

As the semester drew to a close (and what a good semester it was!), I began plotting an opportunity to spend some time with my kids. After a few back and forth discussions with Rebeca, we settled on Lisbon (Portugal) as a middle-ground meeting place. I had suggested Rome, but got the response, “Daddy, we’ve already been there. Let’s go somewhere new.” She knows best.

To be honest, I really should not have been taking this time for a “vacation.” As I’ve mentioned, our annual vacation started on June 9 this year. But classes and final exams were completed by May 27, by decree. As it turned out, I parlayed the all-consuming time of writing, re-writing, and re-writing again and again effort of building a new Bachelor’s curriculum into some needed time off. I more or less received tacit agreement from my department Chairman to have a little time away from the University to spend with my family. By the way, all the hard work that went into designing a new undergraduate curriculum resulted in a positive approval – truly a milestone for the Department!

Apart from Tod and Corwin telling me that Lisbon was going to be a good choice, I hadn’t thought too much about it, except that KLM had a good sale going on from KSA to European destinations. I coupled that with Delta deals on USA to Europe around the same time frame. After exploring for and landing an Air BnB for a week in Lisbon, I secured flights for me from KSA and Jack and Rebeca from Colorado.

I’m not sure the timing could have worked out better. My flight from Dammam through Amsterdam to Lisbon arrived about 30 minutes before J&R arrived Lisbon. I collected my checked bag and went over to their baggage claim area. Our Airbnb hosts arranged a pick-up for us directly to our flat. An added bonus was that, although the cleaning crew was busy when we arrived and we couldn’t take occupancy right away, we were led to a coffee shop to wait, where we were treated to an introduction and overview of the city.

Without pulling punches, I’m going to state right now, if you’ve never considered a visit to Lisbon, and you never visit that beautiful city, you’ll be missing out on a hidden gem. While destinations like London, Paris (stay tuned for the next blog entry), Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, Venice, Barcelona and other high-profile European vacation destinations remain popular for good reason, Lisbon has flown under the radar screen. The continued economic sluggishness of the past 8 to 10 years in Europe and especially Portugal makes Lisbon an affordable destination. Our Air bnb for the three of us, in a great location in the heart of the best part of the city, for 6 nights / 7 days was under $600USD.

So, put Portugal on your bucket list. The city and surroundings are spectacular. Side trips by easily navigable train rides to places like the quaint medieval town of Sintra and beach havens like Cascais will round out your trip. Make sure to do research ahead of time and plan accordingly.

Once we were seconded in our abode for the week, we set out on foot for adventure. Looming over the city is Castelo de San Juan. Lisbon is known locally as the City of Seven Hills – not sure if there are seven or twenty-seven, but the city is steep and convoluted everywhere. Only in the city center will you find flat, accommodating tourism spaces. As you’ll see, the castle gives a spectacular view of the city. After taking in the sights and recuperating from several hard climbs, we found necessary refreshment at a close-by wine bar (recommended by Corwin) for local wines and charcuterie. This was the first of many, many delicious meals (although this was just a snack).

Up to the castle. Click on any of the photos in these mosaics for a more detailed look.

The next day was a great city-wide recon day, starting with a ride on the main tourist line trolley route #28. A spin around the city on this trolley gives a great overview, lending ideas for further exploration. It’s an out-and-back journey, and we unknowingly also had to pay for the return trip. Well worth it, regardless.

Trolley No. 28 and sights around town.

The next day we motivated early (enough) and took the train to the town of Sintra, about an hour away. The train station was only about a 10-minute walk from our flat. Sintra is a beautiful town that combines a quaint village, remarkable palaces, and the well-known Castle of the Moors. Instead of taking a taxi or a tuk-tuk up to the castle, we chose the steep hike up through lush vegetation that opened up here and there to sweeping views. We made our way to the castle – it’s really quite spectacular, putting the one in Lisbon to shame… The castle, perched atop the highest point around, was built by the Moors (obviously) in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Christians decided they wanted it and the castle was taken in 1147 CE. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, heavily damaged by the big Lisbon earthquake in 1755, and now restored to its impressive glory.

Hiking up from Sintra and the Castle of the Moors.

From the Castle we hiked up to the Palacio de Pena which, after all the up and down hiking, we renamed the Palace of Pain. It’s a spectacular, if not gaudy, palace built beginning in 1836 in what is referred to as Romanesque Revivalist architecture. It’s a sprawling colorful composition of walkways, gates, rooms, towers, overlooks, and chapels, all in a variety of Neo-Islamic, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance styles.

Palacio de Pena, near Sintra, Portugal.

That evening, in an ongoing quest for great seafood, we settled into Cervejaria Ramiro, which was nearby our flat and came recommended by our hosts. The wait can be long and we passed some of the time on the patio, where there was a cool contraption sticking out of the wall that dispensed beer. Simply insert a token and out comes the beer, at least one out of five times, anyway. You buy the tokens inside the door and they give you a cup. And then they give you more tokens when the machine eats it and doesn’t produce beer. The food was served family style and we had a great time chatting with a group of Iranians seated next to us. As we were walking back to our flat, we saw a large red neon sign atop a high-rise building, and went to investigate. Walking through an unmarked door, we were instructed to go up to the 6th floor – sure enough, the elevator opened to an indoor-outdoor bar. This place became “our bar”, as we hit it a couple more nights on the way back to our flat.

Food and drink and views.

We took another train to out beyond Lisbon the following day – this time, to spend a beach day in the town of Cascais. Again, it was an easy walk to this (different) train station and, after some frustration purchasing tickets, we had about a 45 minute ride to Cascais. The water was a bracing 58°F, so we didn’t spend get too far into the Atlantic. I could talk about eastern boundary currents and coastal upwelling here, but I’ll spare you – the ocean is cold here. We jumped off the train on the way back to Lisbon, in the area of Santa Maria de Belem, where there are parks, monuments, cathedrals, and yes more castles.

Cascais, its beaches, and the grandeur of Belem.

Searching the interwebs, we found another seafood restaurant for that evening. A place with great reviews and featuring sushi and Portuguese seafood specialties, Sea Me was an absolute treat. Among a great variety of sushi, including seared anchovy, we had a table-side preparation of tartare of grouper. The food was incredible, the wine paired nicely upon recommendation by the waiter, and the ambiance was lively (in good European style, our reservation was for 10 PM and the place was just getting started. We loved it so much that we decided to go back for our last night in Lisbon.

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The tartare prior to preparation (one of the best seafood dishes we’d ever had), along with the fresh offerings. If you’re in Lisbon, go to Sea Me. You’re welcome.

I realize this is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up with a few more highlights. Nearly everywhere you go in the city, you’ll find buildings covered with colorful and ornate tiling. Artisans from the moorish period were instrumental in introducing tile art to the Iberian peninsula. After winding our way through and stopping for brunch in the Alfama district, we made the hike to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, better known in local tourist vernacular as the Tile Museum. Located in a former convent, it has an exquisite display of azulejo art from the mid-15th Century through today.

Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

Having taken an Uber back to Alfama district we took in the sights at the overlook called Miradouro das Portas do Sol (sorry, but Portuguese just looks weird when one is used to Spanish…) and stopped in the Lisbon Cathedral.

The overlook on a crystal clear day and the stately Lisbon Cathedral.

I’ll say “we”, but mostly I mean “I” had a nice visit to the Museu Geologico. I had a good conversation with one of the curators and he said that beyond being a geological (and anthropological) showcase, it was also a “museum of a museum”, essentially capturing it as it was when it opened in the late 1800’s.

The museum, a Rebeca-sized dinosaur femur and some ichnofossils.

Finally, we bade Lisbon “tchau” with another meal at Sea Me. It was a repeater…

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We three agreed that it was the best vacation ever. That is, until we go on our next one. For Lisbon, c’est tout (foreshadowing my next entry).

The Semester Comes to a Close

Ramadan Kareem, Ramadan Mubarak, my friends!!

End of Spring Semester

With the last round of final exams yesterday, my first semester at KFUPM winds down. My sophomores had the last finals period, with their Physical Geology exam at 1:00 Friday, which turned out also to be the day before the start of Ramadan. The expat CPG faculty crew got together for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Dhahran Mall, and we chose to sit outside. By 9:30 PM or so, the temperature had plummeted to 32°C, from a high during a clear, dustless day of 44°C (that’s 90°, down from 111°F in the early afternoon). It was actually quite pleasant, even though it sounds dreadful.

Much of the discussion revolved around summer plans. We are officially released for the summer on June 9, and are required to report back again on August 13. Classes for the fall semester apparently don’t start until September 20, although we still don’t have an academic calendar for the coming year. Our summer release works out to 60 days paid leave for the calendar year. We also get off for the Eid celebrations and for National Day. As I mentioned earlier, for US federal tax purposes, I have to be outside the US for at least 330 days in a year (starting from the time I left). Thus, I’ll only spend part of my summer break in the US.

Right now, my travel schedule looks pretty intense. As I write this, I’m on a KLM flight to Amsterdam, where I’ll connect to a flight to Lisbon. I’m spending a week with my kids in the capital of Portugal. I haven’t seen them since I moved to KSA, although modern communications have made it easy to stay in touch. This is sort of a mid-point locale where we’ve never been before, and we’re looking forward to exploring museums, castles, beaches, parks, and the like. I’m especially looking forward to gorging on oysters and fine wine (both molluscan shellfish and alcohol are haram in the Islamic faith, and alcohol is illegal in KSA). Mostly, I’m just thrilled to get to spend a dedicated week with my spawn. But, I’ll need to be back at KFUPM in a week and will then have just about a week at work before we go on break. So, this is kind of a stealth vacation (but I got it cleared and I deserve it – more on that later).

Here’s a pic of my children, Rebeca and Jack. Rebeca just graduated last week from the University of Vermont (my undergrad alma mater, so I couldn’t be prouder). She double majored in English and Spanish and had a minor in Gender Studies. She finished up a semester early, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, graduated magna cum laude with a 3.92 GPA, was the top graduating Spanish major, made the Hispanic Honor Society, and also spent a semester in Buenos Aires. Rebeca interned with Southwest Airlines for the past five months and was offered a full-time position at the conclusion of her internship. She starts in two weeks as a technical editor for SWA. Jack just finished his junior year at Boulder High and is beginning to consider college choices and map out visits this summer. Can’t wait to see what’s next for him!

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Jack and Rebeca at Rebeca’s UVM graduation, Burlington, Vermont.

I really had a fantastic semester. The new college has set its sights really high, and with continued support and additional new hires (faculty and postdocs), the College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences at KFUPM is going to turn heads worldwide. My colleagues are dedicated to seeing this happen. In the Geosciences Department, we’ve been busy with designing new curricula and getting University approval for a new Geophysics PhD degree and final degree revisions of BS degree plans in both Geology and Geophysics. I took the lead on the Geology BS revision, and that absolutely consumed me in the last month of the semester. I’m confident that it will all get approved, and a truly cross-disciplinary set of degree programs will begin in the fall semester.

My senior-level carbonate geology students were great all semester long. A small class, relaxed atmosphere, and excellent questions throughout made it a joy to teach. As I’ve said, my sophomores were principally civil engineering students, along with two petroleum engineers. I really don’t think that these guys had ever had anyone like me before. It was gratifying at the end of the final exam to have several of them shake my hand, thank me, and tell me how much they liked the course. One even asked for a selfie with me! A really good and respectful group of guys.

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Final exam, GEOL 201 Physical Geology, semester 162 KFUPM.

Smiley, The Dentist

We have a medical clinic on campus and I’ve been a couple of times to renew prescriptions (which, while not free, are greatly reduced in price). A couple of weeks ago, while there to renew a script, I decided on a whim to see about having a dental checkup and to have my teeth cleaned. The front desk guy plugged in my ID number and gave me directions to the dental office, no appointment necessary. I waited only about two minutes before I was called back to the checkup room. There was a dentist and an assistant waiting in the room. The dentist, a relatively young guy and quite personable, asked me if I was having any troubles and had a quick look. Unfortunately, it was too close to the mid-day Dhuhr prayer and lunch closure for me to get the cleaning. He told me to come back mid-afternoon and they’d take care of me.

Upon arrival, I was guided into a different dental room, where I found a different dentist sitting at his desk (and another dental assistant). He barely looked up to acknowledge my presence and said, “What’s wrong with you?” (kind of a loaded question, right!?). I told him I was just there for a cleaning and checkup. The only other word he said to me over the next 15 minutes of torture was “rinse.” The assistant ran a cup of water for me and dropped a dark blue tablet in it that started to dissolve. Dr. Szell (of Marathon Man movie fame) then set about cleaning my teeth. This was not a delicate scraping of plaque and polishing that I’d been accustomed to my entire life. No, this was an attack on my teeth with an instrument that I could only imagine was some type of hand-held proton beam large hadron collider ™. The beam must have come from a nuclear synchrotron from the nearby Saudi air base. I believe the blue tablet was some type of cauterizing, blood coagulating astringent. Rinse.

After the oral assault, Dr. Smiley simply walked away and sat down at his desk and again looked down at his papers. I took this as my cue to leave. I made a point of thanking him, and got no response. I then said thank you much louder, so that he was basically forced to respond. Fittingly, his response was just a grunt of acknowledgement. Man, that guy was a dick. But my teeth were clean. Possibly even cleaned of all the enamel.

Probably won’t repeat that experience.

Get a loan, get a car!

My car saga has ended with great success. The short solution was this. I was in country long enough to have gotten three paychecks (monthly), and I was therefore eligible to either get financing for a car, or to obtain a personal loan and pay cash for the car. On the advice of several friends and colleagues, I chose the latter. I picked out a car, obtained a personal loan for the sales price, paid for the car, and drove it away. For most of you, that’s all you need to know. However, now that my blog has been picked up by expat.com, I thought it worthwhile to go through the steps I had to go through to make this happen, so that other expats, or future expats, know what they’re up against. If you just want to see pictures of my beautiful new car, feel free to move along. For other expats who are in the market for buying a car in KSA, read along.

For the record, and for those of you who know me well, I like cars and I like my car to be an Audi A4. My previous three cars were A4s, and my intent all along was to make it four in row by buying a new one in the Kingdom. I supposed I could have saved up to buy the car outright, and avoided financing or a loan altogether. However, I became sick of spending money monthly on a rental Hyundai that still smelled of cigarette smoke after four months of driving it. I went for the instant gratification, like a true American. Again, based on advice, I chose the personal loan route rather than financing.

The advantage of buying a car with a personal loan is that once you acquire the car, it’s yours. In US terms, that means you get the title from the get go, and it doesn’t reside with the bank for the duration of financing. Also, higher interest rates come with financing, and the personal loan rate is very reasonable (akin to model year-end financing in the US). However, and this may be a big however for some of you, the terms of a personal loan for expats dictate that you pay the loan off in one year. Financing can be stretched out (e.g., 36, 48, 60 months), significantly lowering the monthly outlay. Truthfully, I didn’t know about the one-year restriction until the day before I was going to sign for the loan. Just make sure you talk to your banker – it’s possible that those terms were just for my bank, but I doubt it.

After I had gotten my third paycheck, my banker actually called me to tell me I was now eligible for a loan/financing plan. This bank has a branch office on campus, and is the bank that the University uses as default for direct deposit of pay. These are the things you’ll need to get the loan processes started. Three months of pay, your Iqama, your passport (with visa), a salary certification letter from your employer, and a mysterious thing loosely translated as a salary continuation letter. You should have no trouble getting a signed salary certification letter from your employer’s payroll or faculty affairs office. This continuation letter thing though… I still don’t really know what it is for certain, because it’s all in Arabic. It required a half dozen signatures and/or initials from people within faculty affairs, payroll, and accounting. One guy had to sign after he had initialed and after someone else had signed. It had to go in the proper order. No one could really explain to me what it was. It seems to be some sort of guarantee that the university gives to the bank that the employee (me) won’t go changing banks at some point during the loan. I don’t want to think about what the penalty would be for doing such. After four trips to the main admin building and two trips to the bank, the mysterious letter was acceptable to both sides.

It was then loosely explained to me that the Saudis do “Sharia banking” and after the loan is set in motion, I’ll get a call and I should just agree to what was being asked of me on the other end of the line. Sure! What could go wrong with that? So, a few hours later I get a robocall asking me if I agree to sell some number of bushels/tons/train cars of rice from India that would equal the loan amount. Sure! I’ll sell rice I don’t have! I indicated that I agreed to do what was being asked of me. The call ended and sat around perplexed at what had just happened. I guess it’s similar to doing a short sale on stocks you don’t own. Within two hours, I suppose the rice transaction went through, and I got the automated message from my bank that I now had the full balance of the loan in my bank account. Well.

I won’t give a full accounting of the process of actually buying the car. Some of it was straight forward, and some was convoluted. Many signatures are involved. My main suggestion here is that you should pay for what is known as “full” insurance. This is mostly like “comprehensive” insurance in the US. Cost of the insurance for one year should be no more than 5% of the value of the car. I used an insurance broker recommended to me by my car salesman. If you plan on driving to Bahrain or other GCC countries, make sure the insurance rider states that you’re covered in those countries. I’m not sure how much of an increment that was on the full insurance price, but overall my insurance came out less than the 5% mark. Know full well that there are a lot of uninsured “motorists” out there, and most everyone drives like poop.

Well, that’s my car from a number of angles. Audi technology in the cockpit is ridiculous.

Dawn Returns to the Kingdom

Dr. Dawn Jobe, holder of a MS and PhD from Colorado School of Mines, visited the “mother ship” for two weeks recently. And by mother ship, I mean Saudi Aramco. Dawn works as a research geologist for Aramco Services, an Aramco satellite research lab based in Houston, TX. As the newly appointed Seminar Chairman, I took the opportunity to invite her to give a technical talk to the Department. Several colleagues from Petroleum Engineering and CIPR (research entity for the College) also attended. She did a great job and the talk was very well received. Beyond that we were able to attend a function on the Aramco compound and also got together for one of the consulate high teas just before she headed back to Houston.

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Dr. Jobe giving the Geoscience Department seminar in May.

Squash

I’m also going to acknowledge and thank Dr. Mohammed Hamdan for rekindling my love of the game of squash. The Academy was a fantastic experience – I made many friends and secured current and future squash partners. It’s good to have an indoor sport in KSA, especially this time of year! It’s pretty certain that we will continue with the Academy in the fall. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw from the Dhahran Squash Club annual tournament, held on the Aramco campus, because of an injury. Not to worry, I’m recovered and back playing 2-3 times a week.

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Dr Hamdan in action on the Academy announcement.

Finally, here’s a teaser for the next blog entry.

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Castelo do Sao Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal