Jack visits the Kingdom!

Son Jack turned 18 back in November and can now, without prior approval etc., travel solo internationally. He took his first such opportunity to visit me here in Saudi Arabia in early January! Although his visit was short (we were constrained by the end of my semester and the start of his semester), we packed a lot into his time here and we really had a blast.

His flights were uneventful and he had no trouble making a tight connection in Frankfurt. The Lufthansa flights are the most efficient way to make it from Denver to Dammam (DEN>FRA>DMM), although we hadn’t anticipated a stop in Riyadh. So, I had to kill some time in the Dammam airport – while they are doing some renovations, let’s just say the Dammam airport is a little tired.

Once he arrived, he got to experience some KSA inefficiency. The computer-payment system for the parking garage was down, so they decided to hand-calculate the parking fares. This led to a chaotic, glacial traffic jam getting out of the garage, which basically gave us two hours to get caught up before then making the 45 minute drive back to Dhahran.

After sleeping in (Jack, that is – for me it was a work day), he joined me at the university, met my colleagues, sat through a teleconference interview for a new faculty position, and endured a lively meeting in my office. Having arrived a little scruffy, the next move was to head to the Handsome Barber Shop in the Doha district of Dhahran for haircuts and straight-razor shaves. I had the guys give Jack the full treatment, which included a pretty involved facial.

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Facial mask and steam. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled I posted this.

The barbers here are mostly all from India. They do a great job and it’s remarkably inexpensive. Two haircuts, two shaves, and the full facial treatment for junior (plus tip) was less than $40USD.

Shorn, shaved, and dressed, we headed to the nearby US Consulate for their weekly Thursday gathering. Because it was still the holidays (more or less), the crowd was small but we spent time meeting and talking with some folks I hadn’t met before. We then made a quick tour of the Dhahran Mall.

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Cleaned up and at the Consulate.

Jack makes an impression wherever he goes. The guys we talked to at the Consulate always ask about him. My Saudi colleagues who met him now call me Abu Jack (father of Jack). Even the barber asked about him last time I was there. Not sure where he got those outgoing/extrovert genes…

I wanted to make sure that Jack got to see and touch a new body of water (for him); in this case, it was the Arabian Gulf. So, we headed down into Khobar and spent time splashing in the water, walking along the corniche, watching the fishermen, and then cruising around town a bit.

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The park, mosque, and tower along the Khobar corniche. It was really bright that day.

The best adventure in the Kingdom was a day in the dunes. Aramco friends took us out for the day in the Abqaiq area, close to where I had camped. We saw camels, picnicked, and rode Shihab’s quad bike all over the dunes. We had a blast and a real desert experience, staying until just about sunset. Huge thanks to Aisha and Shihab for their hospitality and for making a memorable day in the Saudi desert!

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Arrival in Abqaiq.

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Just about sunset, and a whole lotta sand.

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Thanks Shihab and Aisha!

We spent the next two days in Bahrain. I didn’t want Jack to come all the way here and only get one exotic stamp in his passport! He got to experience the staccato drive across the King Fahd Causeway. We spent a bunch of time in the old Bahrain souk in Manama, where we ended up bargaining for knock-off watches. Jack ended up with a real fake Rolex, and I now have almost the Breitling I’ve always coveted. Bahaha.

We took a tour of the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, and even stayed through the afternoon call for prayer. It’s one of the largest mosques in the world and apparently can accommodate thousands of worshipers. It was pretty quiet on a Sunday afternoon, though.

Some views of the Al Fateh Grand Mosque.

We stayed at The Domain Hotel and Spa, an incredibly posh hotel that has a couple of remarkable restaurants. For dinner, we chose Imari, easily one of the best Japanese restaurants on the island, and likely the Middle East. We plowed through a multi-course prix fixe extravaganza.

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The sushi course – spicy tuna roll, maguro, sake, unagi.

More Imari goodness.

By the way, we got upgraded to a suite at the Domain because we asked for two beds. I guess they have very few requests for that. Regardless, the suite was pretty sweet.

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Part of the living room in our suite. A bit extravagant for the two of us.

Later, we headed over to one of the Elite properties in Juffair for some beverages and shisha. We sat by the outdoor pool and bar and enjoyed the comfortable night air.

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A little shisha from the hubbly bubbly.

The view of the Diplomatic area and Al Seef district of Manama from the Domain both night and day is stunning.

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A view toward the west of Manama’s architecture by day…

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…and by night, as seen from the upper floors of the Domain Hotel and Spa.

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Looking north toward man-made islands. The H-shaped building is the Bahrain Four Seasons. I’m going to have to try that soon.

We wound things down upon returning to Saudi, stopping to do some souvenir shopping at the Rashid Mall.

Although his visit was short, we made the best use of the time he was here. We’re both thrilled that he got to see a window into Saudi Arabia and where I now live and work. I expect we’ll find adventures in other places the next time he’s over in these parts. For now, he has some stamps in his passport that not many other American 18 year olds can claim.

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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