Some Early Observations

Well, I’ve made it through the first week. And he saw that it was good. Here are just a few observations thrown together while sitting in the KFUPM “Mall”, with the evening call to prayer, Isha’a, echoing around me. I’m here at the mall to use the wifi and watch some BPL football/soccer. This is mostly a student-oriented mall; a faculty/staff mall is nearing completion. Here, there’s a giant-screen TV that is nearly always showing some soccer match or other. There is a small market with necessities and treats, some coffee/tea shops, a bank, a barber shop, a sports clothing store, a travel agency, four bowling lanes, ATMs from a variety of banks, food kiosks, and a handful of familiar and not so familiar fast-food storefronts. Student mailboxes are here, and outside is a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts.

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Shots of KFUPM Mall.

Last night was my first night in my new house, after having spent the previous nights in the cushy confines of the Le Meridien hotel in Al Khobar. Accordingly, over the past week, I’ve been making numerous trips and spending my Riyals at IKEA, Saco World (the KSA answer to The Home Depot or Lowe’s), and three different supermarkets that I like. Today, I found the Sultan Garden Center and bought a nice plant – I’m thinking I’ll be back there a bunch.

The weekend here is Friday and Saturday. From the sound of it on Thursday night, the evening before the weekend in Al Khobar is for cruising fast and loud cars and motorcycles along the Corniche road that runs along the Gulf. The lead shot is of a mosque along the Corniche.

Friday morning is a time of worship, and nothing save for some eateries and markets is open until about 2:00 PM. Friday afternoon and evening are bustling, with a note to self to never again go to IKEA on Friday evening. Think of it like Whole Foods in Boulder on a Saturday afternoon before a holiday. Shopping carts strewn everywhere, screaming kids, pushy parents, and a general lack of self awareness of one’s place in three-dimensional space.

I’ve been to the Mall of Dhahran several times (Saco World is an anchor), and it’s a massive, glitzy mall with lots of high-end stores, a wide variety of Western, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern restaurants, and with just about every ‘murican fast-food place you can think of splayed around a food court – Popeye’s, yup: McDonald’s and Burger King, of course: Charley’s Philly Cheesesteaks, yeah: along with what is in the photo below, yep.

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It is what you think it is…

Prayer time is interesting and something that will take some getting used to, but thanks to my iPhone “MuslimPro” app, I keep track of the times fairly well. There happens to be a small mosque a stone’s throw from my place on campus, meaning the early morning Fajr call to prayer did not go unnoticed while I was sleeping this morning. I’ve been in stores several times during prayer and some things happen and other things do not.  For example, in IKEA, there’s an announcement about 10 minutes before the call, with a reminder that the store will be closing and with the location of the men’s and women’s prayer rooms within the store. Once the call starts, some people head to pray, while others simply keep on shopping. The typical crowd thins a bit as folks head to pray – the registers are closed down and store employees are not available to help you. Then there’s an announcement for employees to return to their stations, followed a few minutes later by an announcement that store is back open. I was in a grocery store yesterday during prayer and one of the registers remained open and working, but nobody was manning the counters (deli, meat, seafood, etc.). Apparently, sometimes, prayer directives are given (see below). I read the story last night in the Arab News, and lo and behold, it sprinkled for about 4 minutes early this morning.  Huh.

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I think more prayers are in order.

Driving. Now just about everyone who had been to KSA prior to me getting here warned me about the driving. Crazy, they said! Death-defying, they said! Don’t even think of it, they warned! So, of course, I rented a car for a month on the first day…  I like driving challenges. Since being here, and upon hearing that I’ve been driving all over the map, my colleagues all ask if it’s frightening out there on the roads. No doubt there’s a degree of chaos on the roads, and some guys really suck at driving (or at least at making good driving decisions). I say “guys”, because women can’t drive here. So NO ONE gets to place the blame for poor driving habits on the women. Nope, the guys own this.

So, is it a frightening, white-knuckle, pee-inducing experience out on the roads? Pshaw. I drove in Providence RI for four years… There are definitely some consistent bad-driving idiosyncrasies here, but most I’ve been able to identify and deal with. U-turns are a necessity, and that definitely slows things down, especially when three lanes of cars are simultaneously trying to make the same u-turn onto a 2-lane return street. Turn signals are optional, but lane drift gives you a hint about what is about to happen. One of the strange things (but I’m sure it’s done to decrease traffic accidents) is that at signaled 4-way intersections, each of the four spokes has their own turn at going, with the other three spokes just sitting there and waiting (i.e., the oncoming traffic does not flow). This means that wait times for lights at major intersections can last 4 or 5 minutes. There are large digital timers that show the count down until it is your turn, so I’m not exaggerating on the wait times. Invariably, as soon as the light finally changes, horns start honking to get everyone moving (I kind of like this, ha!). I guess a certain intensity builds when you pull up to a light and there’s still 224 seconds remaining for you to go.

Last couple thoughts this evening. I saw the campus doctor who reviewed my medical stuff on Thursday afternoon. He signed off on my forms and then I went to the medical administration and they loudly stamped my forms. Apparently, this means that I’m approved for my Iqama card. Although I haven’t completely figured out the next step (and apparently, there are new procedures), but I really think I’ll get my card early in the week.

I spent a good chunk of the morning today in the new college building, working on a syllabus and putting some PowerPoint slides together. There is still plenty of installation, finishing, and cleaning that is being done, and I was probably the only non-laborer in the building. That is, until my Dean walked in (checking up on building progress). So, looks like I scored some points this morning.

Finally, here’s a collection of comfort condiments that I’ve been accruing (plus a bunch of various local and subcontinent spices). I’m heading home now to make a chicken tikka masala from scratch, along with biryani rice and a salad.

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The likelihood of my survival has increased.

 

The New Abode

While they’re still working on my street and continuing to put in landscaping, you’re looking at my stylish new place (above).  I have the bottom floor – it’s 2 bedrooms and 1.5 baths and comes furnished. Sort of. Nearly all the houses in the campus compound for faculty and staff look similar to this (i.e., beige boxes).  The size one is assigned to is determined by a formula based on number of family members to be housed there, position rank, and seniority. Folks do get moved up to larger places with promotions and addition of family members (and presumably down, also).  My guess is that this will be my place for the duration.  It’s about a 10-minute walk to the new College building where my office is.  That’s no problem in late-January weather (today topped out only in the mid-60°s F), but I could see the walk becoming problematic when the temperatures are in the 120-130°F range in several months.  The new College building does have a parking garage for faculty adjoining it.

Here’s a look at some of the spaces I have.

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Living room/dining room/”office” great room. My backpack is on the desk on the left and that’s the dining table on the right.  Plenty of light throughout.

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That would be my bedroom. Plenty of closet space. I’m going to need to gussy the decor up a little bit… It will look fabulous when I get done with it, believe me.

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The full bath. I need to have maintenance install a shower curtain rod and toilet paper roll holder. Good water pressure out of the shower!

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A galley-style kitchen. Lacks a dishwasher (I guess that would be me) and a microwave.

That squat thing by the front porch door is a washing machine, sans dryer. Good storage space and there’s a pantry/closet just outside the kitchen, sort of behind where the range is. I’m leaning toward doing drop-off laundry bundle service, so I might just punt the washing machine back to the housing folks and put more prep space (table with storage – yay, IKEA) where the washing machine is.

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This is my private (i.e., walled in) back patio space. It’s begging for a grill and an outdoor table/chair set.

The sliding glass doors are to my bedroom on the right and the second, a bit smaller, bedroom on the left. That second bedroom will be my home office, except for when you come to visit me…

I’ll still be in the Meridien hotel for a couple more nights.  It’s going to be hard to give up the ridiculously good food, overly comfortable bed, wifi, and cable TV, but the time is drawing near. Just finalized payment with the shipping company – my stuff is in LA, but should be here in a couple of days. Not sure how long customs is going to take on this end. I can only get internet and cable service after I have my Iqama card; I’m hoping to get that before the weekend. In reality, I’ll be thrilled to have it early next week.

Travel Part II and First Full Day in Dhahran

Travel to Dhahran was probably about as easy/efficient as it could be. The layover in Frankfurt was only 2.5 hours and the next flight was direct to Dammam. Had KFUPM folks meet me at the airport and I got the VIP immigration and customs treatment, so I got through the process quickly and painlessly. And, hey, it rained on the way from the airport to my hotel (and was sprinkling on and off this morning).

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Cloudy skies and wet pool area from my hotel balcony this morning.

Made my way over to KFUPM after breakfast, met with the Geosciences Chair, the College Dean, and then got down to HR business. First business was to get my Iqama (residency visa) card process in motion. Even though I had gotten many medical tests in Boulder to get my work visa, they needed more (some the same, some, ahem different). These included having blood drawn, a chest x-ray taken, giving a blood sample, and giving a stool sample. Well. Hey, at least I had some instructions for that last one…

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Good to know.

The College is moving into a brand new building, so I went to find my office. After I start filling it up (provided my boxes arrive), I’ll post a pic or two. It’s new and has plenty of space and is located in a Geoscience faculty cluster area.

Met up with another new carbonate faculty member, a long-time friend, Luis Gonzalez. I’ve known Luis since he was doing his PhD at UMich, and have followed his work at University of Iowa and University of Kansas (where he has just finished up as Chair). He arrived last week, so I’m the new guy now. After lunch he and I went with our HR guy to rent cars. That was a bit of a process, but I now have a Hyundai Sonata for the next month while I try to wrap my head around what kind of vehicle I’m going to buy here.

I visited my new house – it’s free, newly renovated, furnished (albeit spartanly), has 2 bedrooms and 1.5 baths, large living room, adequate kitchen, and a sweet little back patio area. This will work.

I visited the Mall of Dhahran for a bit – it’s large… I was curious about the supermarket there (HyperPanda) and wandered around for a bit. Heintz ketchup exists in the Kingdom!! Tomorrow, I’m going to check out another supermarket here in Al-Kobar that has Safeway and Kirkland brands as its main suppliers. Must verify that Miracle Whip is available…

This evening, I had dinner with a US Embassy guy (the Embassy is right next to campus) who asked if I was American – we chatted and then sat down to eat together. The Embassy has Thursday night gatherings for the American expats here, so I’ll check that out this week.

Travel Day – Part I

Well, it seems odd to be traveling to a new land and a new life with only two suitcases (and a carry-on backpack), but there they are. Of course, I shipped a bunch of boxes to Dhahran that include my office and geology stuff, some clothes, and a good deal of my kitchen items. Those boxes were put onto a truck four days ago and hopefully I’ll see them again sometime.  The LA-based shipping company said it would go air freight and arrive in 7 to 10 days, rather than much cheaper marine freight of 6 to 10 weeks… Two guys showed up in an unmarked truck that looked like it was hand-painted yellow, put stickers on my boxes, handed me a sheet with the inventory, and drove away.  Seems legit.

The movers came yesterday to move my furniture and the rest of my belongings. All of that got put into my storage unit in north Boulder. I had moved a lot of miscellaneous boxes and items there already, with tremendous help from Jack and Rebeca, so mainly the guys moved what you see in the front part of the storage unit. I someday hope to get reacquainted with my stuff.

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Today was inauguration day for the 45th US President. I did my part by not watching any of it, while I finished off packing and shutting down my place (I had been renting and, as timing would have it, my lease was up at the end of January – more good luck than good management on my part). A peaceful transition of power has occurred for the most powerful position in the world. Seems like a really good time to be leaving the country for a while. I’m going to miss the brilliance and class of the Obamas.

Currently, I’m somewhere over the north Atlantic, just south and west of Greenland, on my way to Frankfurt. This is the daily Lufthansa flight from DEN to FRA, and I’m fortunate to have business-class tickets for my journey. My layover in Frankfurt is just under three hours, and then I’ll have a direct Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Dammam. The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is made up of three somewhat sprawling and connected cities: Dammam, Al-Khobar, and Dhahran, and the main commercial airport is in Dammam. Once I get my residency card (Iqama), it looks like it’s more or less a toss-up in time/distance whether I will fly in an out of Dammam or instead out of neighboring Bahrain.

The past week or so has consisted of scrambling to get things shipped, moved, and packed. But more importantly, I had the opportunity to say goodbye (not farewell) to many of you – my beloved family and friends. Thank you all for your support, encouragement, well wishes, and love – it means the world to me.

At the next opportunity, I’ll have a “Travel Day – Part II” to share with you.

 

Preparations

Everyone moves from time to time. Moving pretty much bites, but it can also be cleansing and cathartic; however, this is no small move. I’m in a sorting mode right now, which includes deciding what to take with me in two suitcases, what to ship by air freight, what to pile into my storage unit, what to give to my kids and friends, what to donate, what to put on consignment at a local sports-equipment place, and what to purge.

In terms of what I’m taking with me and shipping, it’s basically going to be (1) my office and geology stuff, (2) some clothes and personal effects, and (3) my kitchen stuff.  Like the other faculty and administrators at KFUPM, I’ll be living in free and furnished housing on campus (a “compound”), and as of now, I’m slated to be in a newly renovated 2-bedroom house. Anything I need for the place that isn’t there can be easily purchased at the nearby Mall of Dhahran, and IKEA – both are within a mile or two of campus.

If your impression of KSA weather is scaldingly hot, this time of year is rather pleasant. Yes, I’m taking my golf clubs. At this point, I’m not taking my bike – traffic and drivers there are nuts, so I want to get the lay of the land before I figure out where it’s safe to bike.

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A little background

As I set off on a new adventure, I’ve had several friends suggest I write a blog about my experiences.  I have signed a 2-year contract to join the faculty of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.  The University is located in the city of Dhahran (in the Eastern Province) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I’ll be joining the Department of Geosciences, which is part of the newly established College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences, which melds two long-existing departments under one new and exciting College administrative structure. Like at UT-Dallas and Colorado School of Mines, I’ll be a professor of geosciences, teaching, performing research, advising graduate students, and doing professional service.

I leave for KSA on Friday, January 20 2017.  This blog is intended to be an account of my experiences and observations as I become an expat in a new country and culture. Bookmark my site, and come back periodically to see what I’ve been up to.  I certainly plan on traveling to many “bucket-list” locations on that side of the world – I expect those trips will be featured prominently in this blog.