Pretty Darn Good Weekend

FRIDAY

It started raining here on Wednesday during the late morning hours.  Not just sprinkling – really, really raining. It rained all afternoon and night Wednesday, all day and night Thursday, and a good chunk of the day on Friday. Now, average annual rainfall here in the Eastern Province is just about 8 cm (a bit over 3 inches). Reports from this storm came in at 11 cm in about three days. Was it the main topic of conversation over the past few days? You bet it was. The folks who have been here for a couple or few decades recall maybe only one other stretch when this kind of rain fell.

Inasmuch as these major rainfall events aren’t typically engineered for (at all…), what we typically think of “storm drainage” didn’t exactly happen here. Many roads, highway sections, intersections, and businesses were closed down.

However, my weekend started Friday morning, I had finally gotten all the pieces of paperwork taken care of to drive my rental to Bahrain, and darn it, I was simply going to go. Rain be damned. So, I set off Friday morning and got on the highway through Al Khobar that leads onto the King Fahd Causeway that connects Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Large stretches of the highway through Al Khobar were partially flooded. Because of this (and because it was the holy day), traffic was really subdued. Although some sections of the highway were pretty sketch, I managed to make it on through.

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Five lanes of highway reduced to one and a half lanes of deep standing water.

Once I got to the causeway (which of course is raised), the water was no longer a problem, even though the rain kept coming. Getting through immigration and customs consisted of four checkpoints (two on each side of the border). It being a flooded Friday morning, through traffic was light and I got through the checkpoints (they collect about $7 each way) about as rapidly as one can. The causeway is about 20 km long and there’s another 20 km or so to get to the capital city of Manama.

Having done some homework about places to eat breakfast or brunch in Manama, I settled on Ric’s Kountry Kitchen, which bills itself as a home away from home for American expats. I pretty much knew what I wanted and ordered the American Breakfast, shown below.

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Scrambled eggs, home fries, biscuit and sausage gravy, and bacon. Glorious bacon. NB that pork is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Nicely satisfied with my late breakfast, I headed to another spot that I had previously picked out – JJ’s Irish Bar and Restaurant. Well, after that breakfast, I certainly was not there to eat. After not having even a whiff of alcohol for a month (alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia), I ordered a Guinness stout. I savored its smoky taste and thick consistency, and then had another. And he saw that it was good…

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Not gonna lie. That. Was. Good.

I nursed and enjoyed those beers for a while, and then headed to the City Centre Mall of Manama to walk it off. This is a truly glitzy mall with 340 retail stores and 60 eateries spread out over four (five?) levels. There’s also a cinema with 20 theaters (there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia; they’re illegal – sensing a theme here?).

I’ll have more to say about Bahrain after another future visit. The weather was still crap and I didn’t take any outdoor photos. Manama is a big, shiny city with tall buildings of glass and steel, many with intriguing and futuristic architecture. The roads in Bahrain are noticeably better than KSA, and the drivers are undeniably better in Bahrain.

SATURDAY

The AAPG Student Chapter had arranged a “picnic” for the day on Saturday. We met in the old geology department parking lot at 8 AM and piled into two KFUPM buses about, oh, 45 minutes after that. The picnic was for the Chapter students and faculty and administrators from the new College. Cool air had pushed the storms away over night and the morning was chilly (low 50’s F) and breezy/windy. We were headed to a “farm” out in the countryside, just off the Dammam-Riyadh highway, about 80 km from school. The owner and host of the farm had been a 30-year Aramco employee, but was clearly from a large and well-to-do family from the Eastern Province. The farm was a walled (topped with razor wire) casbah out in the desert. We were welcomed by our hosts and ushered to our camp.

The camp consisted of a series of large connected tents, open to the downwind side, and floored with beautiful berber and Arabian rugs. There were fires burning in two portable pits, a line of chairs, and cushions for on-floor seating. Servers brought us coffee and tea and there were fruits, sweet pastries, and boxes of dates scattered all over.

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Inside the camp tents.

Once the snacks were winding down, traditional Arabic music began pumping over a loudspeaker and the dancing commenced (all men, mind you). Much of the dancing included waving around candy striped camel sticks (for lack of a better name – you know, sticks to prod a camel into doing your bidding). Care was taken to not knock over the pair of hunting falcons outside the tents (they never flew the birds because apparently it was too windy for the demo). Yes, I danced. There is no photographic or video evidence (yeah, right). Then the camels were brought to the party.

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The falcons sell for $20-60K USD. Raising falcon chicks may become my new hobby…

A bunch of us rode the camels. These weren’t the mean mangy camels I’ve ridden in Morocco over the years – definitely, these were well taken care-of camels.

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Yeah, this was pretty awesome. Main house in the background where we had lunch.

After dancing, camel riding, and a spirited game of soccer, it was time for lunch. Sitting on the floor, we dined on lamb with flavored basmati rice, vegetable and tabouleh salad, and some sort of savory pudding. There were four of us to a platter and we ate with our hands (well, only the right hand).

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Lunch and the aftermath.

After lunch, a bunch of us played volleyball. Then, it was finally time to thank our hosts and head back to the University. Quite a memorable day!

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Top: Date palms and alfalfa (camel feed) of the farm. Note the dunes in the far background. Middle: Afternoon volleyball. Bottom: Gifts for our host in the middle, given by our Dean, my Department Chair, and Chair of Petroleum Engineering, from left to right.

A “New” Old Activity

Well, it turns out that squash is pretty big in the Kingdom. This is almost certainly due to the high number of subcontinent Asians who live and work here. Squash was exported to the subcontinent from Britain in colonial days, and now some of the very best squash professionals in the world hail from Pakistan and India (along with the UK, Australia, the US, and South Africa).

For those unfamiliar with the sport, squash (or “squash racquets”) is an indoor racquet sport that derived from a back-alley outdoor sport in Britain called “Racquets.” It’s not too dissimilar to racquetball, which is certainly more popular in the US than squash. A racquetball ball is larger and very bouncy, and the racquets are short and stubby. Squash racquets are about the length of a tennis or badminton racquet, but have narrower heads than tennis racquets. Squash balls seem defective… If you drop a room-temperature squash ball from your outstretched hand (shoulder height), it will bounce 4 or 5 inches on the first bounce and then nearly die by the second bounce. Once the ball gets warmed up by hitting the crap out of it, it becomes a bit more bouncy (but still pretty dead) I’ll show my bias here, but squash is much more of a strategy game, whereas oftentimes in racquetball he/she who has the biggest forearms wins. We squash snobs refer to racquetball as “blue-collar squash.”

I picked it up while in grad school at Brown (it’s kind of a preppy, Ivy League sport), where our group participated in country club sports – squash, sailing, and golf. That is, until John Farrell decreed that we needed a blue-collar sport and we joined an East Providence bowling league. We were the “Bedrock Bowlers,” comprised of Fred, Barney, Joe Rockhead, and Mr. Slate. Of course, I was Joe Rockhead. We didn’t win many bowling matches, but we dominated the league in terms of weekly bar tabs.

Oh, back to squash. I played a lot of squash when I lived in Dallas, while teaching at UT-Dallas. There was a very active squash community in Dallas, and a much, much bigger one in Houston. We played in many Dallas-Houston squash tournaments. I played 4 or 5 times a week and got pretty good. I won several tournaments in Dallas and represented the city as city champion in the C-Division at the national Insilco B/C/D/E tournament held in Chicago – that was probably January, 1991. I was nationally ranked!! Got my ass kicked by a woman from Atlanta in the second round…

Once I moved to Boulder, I joined Flatiron Athletic Club, where there was also a very active group of squash players and where I met many good longstanding friends, both on and off the court (Jeff Williams, John Sullivan, Tim Goodacre, Danny Rodriguez come to mind). We often played Friday nights and would socialize over beers after our pick-up matches were done at FAC’s bar. We held tournaments at the club and also played in tournaments in Denver at the DAC.

Then kids came along and I suffered a rotator cuff injury on my racquet shoulder and I pretty much stopped playing about 12 years ago. Fast forward to the day my KFUPM email went live and I started receiving University emails. One of the first ones was for the KFUPM Squash Academy, which I have signed up for. We were supposed to start this evening (Mondays and Wednesdays each week for experienced players), but the Academy was cancelled for the week. Why? Because it rained today. And it’s supposed to rain on and off for the next few days. Like it really rained today – not just sprinkles. Well, that put everyone in a tizzy, so the Academy will start a week from tonight.

The courts are at the main campus gym, but over here in the residential compound, we have a community center that has a gymnasium, workout gym with free weights and machines, four nice outdoor tennis courts, an outdoor basketball court, a full-sized pool, and three beautiful squash courts (one is shown in the photo above)!! There’s also a library, banquet hall, billiard/ping pong/foosball room, and some meeting/event rooms. I haven’t found any pinball machines. Anyway, disappointed that the Academy didn’t start tonight, I went to the community center and whacked the ball around for a while. I’m very excited to start playing again!

Here’s a look at the game in case you’ve never seen it played before.

2016 Hong Kong Open Highlights

Progress on Several Fronts

Well, a number of things came together this past week, with one of the biggest of them being that I finally received my Iqama, or residency card. The Iqama opens up so many new possibilities that not having it was somewhat shackling. If you want to apply for just about anything, you need to generally have two things: (1) your Iqama, and (2) your local mobile number. Inasmuch as you can’t get a local phone number (a SIM for your phone) without the Iqama, basically everything hinges on having that in your possession.

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Part of my Iqama card – I blurred out my ID number, but if you know your non-Arabic Arabic/Indian numbers, you could figure out my birthday. And then send me presents.

So, once I had Iqama in hand, I got a SIM card for my phone. Let me know if you want my number; I just put my 303 number “to sleep” and won’t be reachable on that any more. I’ll probably post my number on FB, because that’s not open to the whole world like this blog is. Then, I got a bank account with the bank the University deals with, so I can get paid sometime (Inshallah). After that, I secured a multiple re-entry visa so I can visit other countries…and then be able to come back into the Kingdom.

Getting a driving license is proving to be a slow process. I’m going to need to have another blood test, an eye test (good idea), and I had to go to a shady place to get a translation of my Colorado license into Arabic. Some of the administrative things here seem capricious, but not much I can do about that. Pay some money here, pay some more money there, fill out forms, give blood (or other bodily fluids), and wait. Oh, and you need passport-sized photos (importantly with a white background) for many, many of the forms. Fortunately, there’s a place on campus where they’ll take passport photos for you. For a price, of course. Next time I go there, I’m going to have 20 of them printed.

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Seems like a rather specialized business.

I’m still waiting on getting internet in my flat. In the meantime, I’m using my iPhone as a personal hotspot through my unlimited data phone plan. Internet comes from the same company as my phone service. I had satellite TV installed on Friday (needed mobile number and Iqama for that, of course). But the BIG event this weekend was the delivery of the stuff I had shipped from Boulder. Although it seemed to have taken forever, it was less than a month (left Boulder January 17 and arrived here February 11). I shipped 31 boxes and a set of golf clubs. Arriving yesterday were 31 boxes (and they happened to be mine) and a set of golf clubs, also mine. Today, I’m wearing clothes other than the 3.75 changes of clothes I came over here with (yes, they’ve been laundered…more than once…give me some credit).

The delivery flatbed as it drove away, along with my boxes. Excite!

Saudi customs definitely worked over my stuff. Seems like there are a couple items missing, but nothing that can’t be replaced at IKEA. What I worried about the most being confiscated arrived unscathed – a pint of Vermont maple syrup that I got when I visited Rebeca at UVM in October.

While it’s great to have my clothes, I’m just super pumped to have all my cooking stuff (finally!!). I’ve really resisted buying too much stuff here that I know would be duplicative, and that led to some creative cooking. Not any more. Tonight I celebrated by making a very tasty (and spicy) chicken curry over basmati rice.

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Yes, it made me sweat. 🙂

Boxes with my office stuff are still in my flat. The office I was originally assigned kind of sucks (I call it the cave), but I’m moving to a “good” office later this week. Fortunately, I can get University housing guys to pick it up from here and deliver it to my office.

The second week of classes started today (Sunday). The first week went smoothly and I’m back in the teaching rhythm. My senior carbonate students are excellent – totally engaged. I think to a large extent because they just came back from field trip in the Bahamas. Why wasn’t I there?!?!?!? My sophomore-level Physical Geology class is mostly civil engineering majors, with a couple of petroleums in there, too. I don’t think they know what just hit them!

Thursday night I went out to dinner with my upstairs housing neighbor and the Department Chair of Petroleum Engineering. We went to a new Lebanese restaurant not too, too far from campus. My neighbor (also one of my current office neighbors in the cave area) is a brand new petroleum PhD from Stanford (although he’s originally from Austria). And by brand new, I mean he defended about a month an a half ago. He hadn’t visited campus, had never been to this part of the world, and had never taught a class before. He’s just a tad shellshocked. His Chair is a Saudi who got his PhD at TAMU – super nice guy and he really wants to learn about some of my experience as Head at Mines. Friday night, I had dinner with a recent Mines geology PhD, Mohammed Al Duhailan, who now works for Saudi Aramco. He was psyched that I was enthusiastic when he asked if I wanted to go for sushi, because his wife doesn’t like/eat sushi. We went to a nice place called Tokyo on the Corniche in Al Khobar. Mohammed says hello to all the Mines folks.

Finally, just a comment on the lead photo of this entry. That’s a panorama (obviously) taken from the “front” of campus, looking toward Dhahran, Al Khobar, and the Gulf. My building is on the far right (alt-right??) middle. The strange looking bent towers are the lights for the KFUPM soccer stadium, and the high rises on the horizon behind the stadium mark the center of Al Khobar. The University administration building is the tall building on the hill to the left (hence the nice landscaping that you see throughout most of the photo).

Al Qatif Fish and Produce Markets

Today, one of my new colleagues, Dr. Khalid Al Ramadan, and I went to the town of Al Qatif to get some inexpensive and fresh fish and vegetables. Al Qatif is north and east of Dammam/Dhahran/Khobar and is settled on an honest to goodness desert oasis. The first map below shows its location relative to the main three Eastern Province cities. For reference, KFUPM is just about where the Rt. 613 marker is, south of King Abdulaziz Rd. The second Google map image shows the greenery that marks the oasis of Al Qatif. Here, groundwater is coming near the surface as it exits into the Arabian Gulf to the east. The groundwater obviously becomes more brackish as it approaches the Gulf because of marine water intrusion.

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Al Qatif in relation to Dammam/Dhahran/Al Khobar. Arabian Gulf to the east.

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The green swath down the center of the image is the oasis, with Al Qatif city center and the Gulf on the right and off the image.

Interestingly, Al Qatif is predominantly Shia, while the vast majority of KSA is Sunni. Regardless, people from all over the Eastern Province go to these markets.

If there’s a “national fish” of Saudi Arabia, it would be Hamour (Arabic name). We would call it Orange Spotted Grouper. An example would be the large fish at the top in the photo below.  The others are Batfish (striped with yellow fins) and Yamah (Snub-Nosed Emperor). A very popular fish, from which transverse steaks are cut, is Spanish Mackerel (not shown).

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Al Qatif fish market offerings. That’s a big hamour (and really good eating)!

I bought only a half kilo of hamour, and Khalid got some mackerel and some other fish that I didn’t catch the name of. We took a quick swing through the produce market across the street. The produce was fresh and was way less expensive that what I have been buying in the city supermarkets. I got a big bag of jumbo radishes, green onions, coriander (cilantro), and parsley for about $1.30.

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Figures the pic that turned out shows packaged and imported veggies (more expensive), but the real gems were the fresh local items.

Since we were in the markets and it was early afternoon, we decided that having lunch in a nearby restaurant would be a good idea. We asked the fish market guys for a recommendation and found a place just a half block away from the market where we selected a fish and picked out salads and two types of basmati rice for our meal. They grilled the fish with spices over a charcoal flame. You can imagine how fresh this fish was!

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Khalid with our huge split grilled whole fish and mounds of basmati rice.

Classes start tomorrow morning and my first class, Physical Geology for sophomore geoscience and petroleum engineering majors, kicks off bright and early at 8:00. My other class is a senior-level Carbonate Geology class. Awwww yissss!!!