Thailand in Style with my Brother

I had a fantastic ten days in Thailand with my brother, Neil. With enviable fortitude, he flew into Bangkok all the way from Portland, OR – about a 30-hour trip. In coach. I told him all he had to do was get himself to BKK, and I’d figure out the rest. We spent the first three days in Bangkok, a couple up north in Chiang Mai, flew down and spent time in Phuket, and then returned to Bangkok for a bit before parting ways.

My trip to Bangkok from Dammam was quite a bit shorter – a quick hop to Dubai, and then about a six and a half hour flight into Bangkok. I had a delightful flight in business class on Emirates on one of their A380 flying whales. The upper deck is reserved for first and business class. At the rear of the plane, there is a social area for when you get bored being pampered in your comfortable lay-flat seat. And by social area, I mean that there’s a bar. Okay, they call it a lounge. Whatever. Experience now suggests that there is always a bunch of fun and interesting travelers hanging out in the lounge. There are bar snacks and the attendants will make signature cocktails for you. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty phenomenal. They’ll even let you stage a shot to make it look like you’re earning your keep by tending bar.

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Pretending to mix a drink aboard the Emirates A380 business class lounge. My Old Fashioned is at the lower left.

My arrival at BKK preceded Neil’s by about 12 hours, so once I got settled at the hotel (the Intercontinental on Sukhumvit at Chit Lom), I ventured out for my first breath of Bangkok. Sukhumvit 11, along the metro line, is a bustling, vibrant, modern, loud, traffic-laden stretch that comes at all your senses. I was ready to begin to sample Thai street food and started with a spicy bowl of noodles and pork that fully covered the savory, hot, sweet, tart spectrum. Especially the hot.

First food! Spicy, delicious, and ridiculously inexpensive. Calm late-morning traffic in Sukhumvit 11.

Neil arrived that evening, late enough that we didn’t make it out past the hotel lounge. The next day was a Saturday so we hopped on the MRT (metro) and headed to the popular Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest market in Thailand, with over 15,000 stalls – some open air, but mostly in densely packed and crowded covered areas. Food and souvenirs were our targets, and we weren’t disappointed. The market is huge and vaguely reminded me of the dizzying souk in the medina of Fes, Morocco.

Tastes of the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok.

The next day was our first official tour day. Taking advice from other travelers on line, I reserved several tours during our stay. The first half of our full-day tour was to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, about an hour and a half drive from central Bangkok. This is the busiest (touristy) floating market, but we got there early enough in the morning that it was quite manageable. This is the famous James Bond “Man with the Golden Gun” setting, with waterways packed with Thai longboats.

Neil and I visit the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.

After snacking on fried bananas prepared for us on the water, we headed back into Bangkok to continue our tour – with the first of many temple tours. I’m not going to name all the Buddhist temples we visited; between Bangkok and Chiang Mai temple tours, we got templed out. I’ll simply say that each of the temples (and their grounds) held something special.

Bangkok temples. Remember, you can click on the thumbnails for a full-sized view.

After touring temples it was back to the hotel to regroup by the tropical rooftop pool and plan a night out. Restaurant and bar hopping in Bangkok is easy, quick, and oftentimes frightening aboard small, cheap taxis called tuk tuks. They are open to the elements and  we definitely took on water with the brief downpours that evening. Locals and tourists alike were full of revelry this Saturday night.

Intercontinental rooftop pool, and its view toward the east. Ripping through the city on a tuk tuk, and one of many stops for some food and Singha beer.

The next day we rode the MRT to the airport to begin the second leg of the trip. It’s a little over two hours flight time up north to the mountains and the 13th Century city of Chiang Mai. While Bangkok is full-on high energy, Chiang Mai enjoys a lower-paced chill attitude. We stayed at the Le Meridien in between the old walled city and the river, affording us a great base for exploration on foot.

Le Meridien infinity pool looking toward Doi Suthep, the mountain housing the spectacular Wat Phrathap temple. Temples discovered while exploring the old city on foot. Ubiquitous street food stalls and beer. The sign doesn’t lie.

To maximize our short time in Chiang Mai, we arranged a tour of both the mountaintop Wat Phrathap Doi Suthep temple and assorted city temples. Our tour guide was gracious and informative and spent much of our driving time explaining aspects of Buddhism to our group (the young Texan Christian couple we perplexed by much of what he shared with us). After a winding ride up Doi Suthep, tourists and worshippers ascend the long dragon staircase to the temple. The temple grounds are nothing short of spectacular, and the few pictures I’m posting here simply don’t display its full grandeur. Construction of the temple began in the late 1300s CE. From the periphery of the temple, one gets awarded a panoramic view of the city below.

Wat Phrathap Doi Suthep temple.

Heading back down the mountain and into the old city, we toured several more temples. I believe by the end of the day we had reached temple saturation. We thanked our guide and bade farewell to our tour mates and got dropped off at the main street and plaza area for food stalls and stands. While the weather had been threatening all day, and we had some intermittent rain on the mountain, nothing could stop the black cloud deluge that hit just as we were buying some delicious street fare. Once the heavy rain slowed to a light shower, the hyperactive food commerce recommenced. Before leaving Chiang Mai, we indulged in authentic Thai massages at Lila massage house. This well-known parlor trains and employs ex-inmates on their road back from incarceration. Don’t pass up treating yourself to a Thai massage when you visit.

Chiang Mai old city temples, street food after the deluge, and the facade of Lila Thai Massage.

From mellow Chiang Mai, we took a flight to the southern resort island of Phuket on the Andaman Sea. Accommodations were the Phuket Le Meridien Beach Resort, set in a quiet cove with a beautiful beach only a few km from the craziness that is Patong. We thoroughly enjoyed both settings, relaxing at the resort and eating and drinking our way through Patong. We also took a day trip cruising the Phi Phi islands, taking in the karst scenery and swimming and snorkeling from our tour boat.

Le Meridien Beach Resort, Bangla Road party and food zone, and karst towers of the Phi Phi islands to the east of Phuket.

Our ten-day trip culminated back in Bangkok, where we stayed the last night in the Sukhumvit Sheraton Grande, just two metro stops east of the Intercontinental. Absolutely loved that hotel! One of the must-do Bangkok nightlife activities is to enjoy food and drink from one of the many popular rooftop bars. We chose the nearby Belga Rooftop Bar and Brasserie in the Sofitel Hotel. This was a great trip finale, with some light bites, tasty beverages, and outstanding views.

What can be said about Thailand that hasn’t already been said? I’ll only say that if you have that cliche “bucket list”, put Thailand on it, and make sure you check it off. I’m looking forward to returning. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

Jazz-themed lounge in the Sheraton Grande, and nighttime views from the Sofitel rooftop.

Satisfied, the Humphrey brothers parted ways the next day, with our flights heading in different directions from BKK. I used miles to upgrade my business-class booking to first. Well. Emirates First Class is outrageous. On the A380, you can take a shower in flight. So, I did. Because I could. You get your own private “suite” (there is an automated sliding door), pajamas and slippers, ultimate amenities, and top-level food, beverages, and service. I would be fulfilled if this was a one-off experience. While it was my first time in Emirates First, it wasn’t my last. I flew three other first class legs during 2018. Don’t hate me.

Private first-class suite on the Emirates A380 with a 2009 Dom Perignon. Cheers!

Bahrain Grand Prix 2018

Okay, I’m not a motorhead. Yes, I did attend the Bahrain Grand Prix last year. Well, I had a good time and for no better reason than that, I again attended the Formula 1 event again this year. Last year, I was basically on a solo mission, as I was just starting to find my way around the Gulf. This year, I teamed up with my friend, former Mines student, and current Aramco geologist, Craig Harran. Since we ran into one another last year, we’ve been hanging out from time to time, attending parties/gatherings at Aramco and zipping over to Bahrain on Tuesday nights for wine-tasting evenings. Not sure how or when it happened, but Craig got in tight with a lively bunch of Bahrainis who have a standing Tuesday night prix fixe wine and cheese tasting event. Anyway, I convinced Craig that we should make a VIP showing at F1 weekend, and here’s how it went down.

The weekend kick-off was a pit lane walk through on Thursday evening. We got to weave through the pits and watch the teams in various states of activity and preparation. Some were simply doing maintenance on their team cars, some were practicing pit maneuvers like lightning-fast tire changing and refueling, and some were off having a cocktail somewhere, not bothering to grace us with their presence.

Pit lane walk through. Click on photos for a larger view.

Popular garages were the perennial favorites Ferrari and Mercedes. To dispel any suspense, just like last year, Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari ultimately won the race, with Mercedes coming in for place and show (Bottas second and Hamilton third).

Through Craig’s wino connections, we scored tickets to the Thursday evening beach party thrown at the Ritz-Carlton, and headed there after the novelty of the pits wore off. The Bahrain Ritz-Carlton sits on the north shore of the island in the Seef district of Manama. The pre-race-weekend party at the R-C is a popular happening, pulling together excellent food, drinks, live music, DJs, dancing, and overall mirth. We pre-gamed with some Aramco folks at an apartment in Manama before heading over to the beach party. Gotta say the evening was a blast.

Race weekend kick-off beach party at the Bahrain Ritz-Carlton Resort.

Throughout the Gulf region, Friday brunch is a big dang deal. Fancy hotels and restaurants go all out – if you’re ever in the Middle East do yourself a favor; ask the locals where the best Friday brunch is happening. I’m sure you’ll get any number of answers. They usually have only one seating, typically running from noon or 12:30 until 4:30 or 5:00. Yes, hours of indulgence.

One resort that just may be the closest to the race track is the Sofitel Thallassa Sea and Spa. It’s on the west side of the island, facing out into the strait that separates Bahrain from Saudi Arabia. I had been to the Sofitel brunch before, and it’s fun and classy and delicious and opulent. Planning ahead, we had made reservations for the race weekend Friday brunch (reservations are a necessity even if it’s not a special weekend), and it was clearly ramped up a notch. Several of the race teams (including drivers!) were staying at the resort for the duration, so it was a place to see and be seen. After catching some of the qualifying rounds and other race practice sessions on Friday morning, we hit the Sofitel for the afternoon. Lively music, superb food, and tasty beverages captivated us for several hours.

Scenes from the Sofitel race-week Friday brunch.

Saturday was again filled with lower tier races and qualifying rounds. The final classification of the F1 grid was settled on Saturday evening with, no surprise, Ferrari and Mercedes coming in 1-4 (Vettel, Raikkonen, Bottas, Hamilton). Not sure why the other teams even bother – hehe. Some of the others must win sometimes, but I don’t follow the sport so I really don’t know.  I have two data points (last year and this), and as far as I can tell, only Ferrari and Mercedes are competitive. In Bahrain.

Our VIP tickets got us into the Grand Prix club, which is basically a beer tent, for lack of a better term. This is a cavernous, air-conditioned hall about the size and appearance of an indoor practice facility for football. We ran into some of the ne’er-do-wells that we had befriended at the Sofitel the day before, and spent time going back and forth from the track to the hospitality tent.

Beer tent, I mean Grand Prix Club.

Outside the track and outside the Club, there’s always crowds of people enjoying the atmosphere, roaming entertainment, kiosks for buying souvenirs (mostly Mercedes and Ferrari gear lol), and lots of food stands. Saturday culminates with a concert, and this year it was Carlos Santana. What? Yep, it was Carlos Santana. Woot! He seemed to be having a blast and the crowd was really into it. A great time all around. We headed back to KSA right at the end of the show, because we both had work on Sunday. F1 marks their weekend calendar like the rest of the world, so they hold the showcase race on Sunday evening. So, we had to shoot back over to Bahrain after work on Sunday to catch the big race.

Outside the track and the Saturday night Santana concert.

Oh yeah, there was a car race, too. The grand finale of the weekend is the big F1 race. It runs for about 2 hours, starting just after 6:00 in the evening. Again positioned in the main grandstand, our seats were low down and just behind the start-finish line. Pretty sweet seats, except you don’t get to see a lot of the maneuvering by the drivers as the slash through the curves – the grandstand stretch is just a long straightaway. The red car won, followed by the two teal cars. The other red car went out because of an incident and didn’t finish the race. So, at least one of the other teams got fourth place.

Great seats, fun crowd, fast cars. The red one on the left won.

So, that’s it for Bahrain Grand Prix weekend 2018. Solid entertainment throughout the weekend; will surely go again next year!

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Abu Dhabi and the Sir Bani Yas Challenge

Shortly after the Oman recon trip with Husaak Adventures in December, they informed me of a challenge race to be held on Sir Bani Yas Island, offshore Abu Dhabi. While I had already consistently been working out, I decided to accept the challenge and use it to set a fitness goal for myself. The Challenge was to be 50 km total, with a 10 km run, 37 km mountain bike course, and culminating with a 3 km lagoonal sea kayak haul to the finish. I accepted the challenge in mid-January, and with the race being held in late March, it was time to get serious with my workouts!

Abu Dhabi

I first visited Abu Dhabi in November 2002, when I was contemplating a one-year sabbatical at the Petroleum Institute. The PI was a newly formed university that was funded by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), and Colorado School of Mines was contracted by ADNOC to provide the intellectual capital to get the PI off the ground. I was involved in the early curricular development for the Petroleum Geosciences undergraduate degree. A few Mines faculty were beginning to occupy administrative positions in residence, and others were being solicited for sabbaticals. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because I was setting up a new stable isotope lab at Mines at the time, I ended up not taking the sabbatical. However, I really enjoyed my visit to the PI and had a chance to get out to see the famous coastal sabkhas and got out into the Gulf with my friend and colleague Saleh Al-Hashimi on his boat.

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A dhow and the rapidly growing Abu Dhabi skyline circa 2002.

Needless to say, in the intervening years, Abu Dhabi has changed drastically, and is now nearly rivaling Dubai in growth and glitter. I went to AD a day early before the long transport to Sir Bani Yas, principally to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum. I had heard great things about the museum, and my visit did not disappoint.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

At this point, I’ve probably visited the Louvre 1.0 in Paris three or four times. You need about a week to cover the vast collections there, and I know for certain that I haven’t seen everything there is to see – I guess I’ll have to go back to Paris…

Cost of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was well over $1 billion USD, with about $750 million USD for purchases and rentals for the collections. The building itself came in under $100 million, and the remainder was for appropriating the Louvre name for 30 years.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi can be completely explored in a day, even accounting for special exhibits. The museum is in the Saadiyat marina district, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the Sheraton Corniche where I stayed. I arrived very close to opening time to (hopefully) beat the crowds. The approach to the museum is impressive; a latticework dome appears to float atop clean, white geometric buildings that are set within an azure lagoon.

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The Sheraton Corniche Resort, Abu Dhabi.

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Entrance to the museum.

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Underneath the latticework dome with a view from the lagoon to the Gulf.

The collections include pieces on loan from Paris and other museums, but some are “owned” by the Abu Dhabi museum. The interior layout is easy to access and to find your way around. I’ll include a few pics here to give you a flavor of the range of collections. As always, you can click on individual images to see an expanded view.

Yes, that’s the original Whistler’s Mother (on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris).

The science-oriented exhibits in the regular collections were not as extensive as those in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (an earlier blog entry), but I was very excited to see a special exhibit called “Globes – Visions of the World”. This exhibit traced the history of spheres and globes in human culture and history, going back to the Greek ideal of the sphere as the perfect shape, although it’s accepted that the Chinese were into spheres well before the Hellenistic infatuation with them. By extension, the Greek philosophers and naturalists developed the Celestial Sphere (or Armillary Sphere) which, in the Ptolemaic system, placed the Earth at the center of a series of concentric spheres. A model Armillary Sphere is in the photos below, along with a brief view of the convoluted epicycles and deferents needed to account for celestial motions (especially retrograde motion) in a geocentric system. Note the zodiac signs around the celestial depiction in the book. Also shown is a map of a terrestrial sphere, showing Earth’s climate zones, and a drawing of Mercator and his homie working out the geometry of the Mercator projection.

The Globes special exhibit.

Should you find yourself in the Emirates and you’re looking for some culture beyond the glitz/architecture/shopping/attractions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I definitely recommend a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It was a day well spent!

Sir Bani Yas Challenge

Sir Bani Yas Island is located in the Arabian Gulf and belongs to the Abu Dhabi emirate of the UAE. It’s located close to 170 km west-southwest of the UAE capital city of Abu Dhabi. When I first located the island on Google Maps, it appeared roughly circular – to me, that indicated that it was most likely related to a salt dome. These form excellent stratigraphic traps for petroleum accumulations. The map below shows a number of these round islands and features within the Gulf. Some of the large oilfields of the Middle East (and for that matter, the Gulf of Mexico) are related to salt domes. The yellow arrow points to SBYI.

With some poking around in the geological literature, I found out that SBYI is not just related to a salt dome, but that it actually exposes the core of the salt dome, along with associated sedimentary rocks that were deposited adjacent to, and at the same time of, deposition/accumulation of the salt. The salt accumulated over 600 million years ago, during a time when the region was (similar to today) characterized by a very arid climate. Evaporation of large volumes of seawater resulted in the accumulation of vast salt deposits, comprised principally of calcium sulfate (gypsum/anhydrite) and sodium chloride (halite). Being less dense than the surrounding and overlying sediment that accumulated later, the salt migrated upward into a dome-like feature.

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Location of Sir Bani Yas Island (yellow arrow) between Abu Dhabi city and Qatar. Note the numerous other domal features in the Arabian Gulf.

The schematic section through SBYI shown below is an attempt by the authors to show the internal structure of the dome, given the mappable surface expression of the geology. While there are some intercalated volcanics, the salts, dolostones, and sandstones/siltstones/shales were all originally deposited horizontally.  Upward flow of the less dense salt created intense disruption of those early sediments.

 

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Schematic of the SBY salt dome (ENHG Bulletin No. 27, 1985).

 

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The long axis of SBYI is about 17.5 km (11 miles).

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An oblique view of the island, looking toward the barrier islands on the eastern shore.

In 1977, Sheikh Zayed (founder of UAE) established the mostly barren island as a nature reserve. Vegetation was planted and Arabian and African animals were imported. A recent National Geographic Travel piece explains more about the nature reserve.

As mentioned in the introduction, the SBY Challenge was designed to be a unique 50 km “triathlon”, with running, mountain biking, and sea kayaking in and around the island. The possibility of being chased by free-range cheetahs added a certain level of excitement… About 290 participants signed up for the challenge – I figured I only had to run/ride faster than the slowest participant to avoid being eaten by the island’s carnivores.

As it turned out, the supplier of the mountain bikes for the challenge completely reneged on their promise, about 36 hours before the start of the race. The Husaak team went into overdrive to redesign the course and the challenge, this time without a mountain biking leg. The overhaul of the course resulted in a run/trek/hike leg of just under 21 miles (33.5 km), and kept the 3 km (1.8 mile) kayak to the finish.

Participants were bused from Abu Dhabi to boats waiting to take us over to the island. We arrived the evening before the race, had a group dinner, and then slept in a tent city on the beach. The next morning arrived very warm and very humid, promising an additional component to the challenge.

I decided that I would take advantage of the “cooler” morning air, and run the first part of the challenge as a 10K race. I’m pretty sure the last 10K that I ran was about 15 years ago (I used the run the Bolder Boulder 10K every year). Well, I ran the first 10 km, only stopping twice – once to take photos, and once to refuel at the first aid station. Pretty proud of myself on that, and getting it done in 75 minutes in hot and humid conditions.

Race headquarters, tent city, start of the race with Husaak President Ali Husain @husaak, sunrise on the course, coastal lagoon, and antelopes (Thompson’s Gazelles) along the course.

Not going to lie, the rest of the challenge was pretty brutal. But, the island was spectacular! The salt dome sediments were a rainbow of colors. The terrain was much more rugged than I had anticipated. If you’ve ever been to coastal Abu Dhabi, you’d know that it’s one of the flattest places on Earth, so the topography was a surprise. At just about every aid station I stopped, took on fuel, and spent time talking with other participants about the geology of the island. I ran into several Saudi Aramco employees and they enthusiastically endured my geological rantings.

Views along the trail through the interior of the island.

Well, what do you know, I finished the challenge. I was not fast, but I finished. Of the 287 entrants, only 113 finished the challenge. It took me well over seven hours to complete, but I certainly wasn’t rushing past the aid stations! I was the only entrant from the United States, while most were from UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. I was clearly among the “older” participants, and definitely one of the oldest to complete it. Out of the 113 finishers, I crossed the line at 102. Yay me!! I had been bike training, so it was a let down to not be able to bike. I’d never before run/hiked over 20 miles in one shot. Overall, pretty darn proud of the accomplishment and I’ll be looking to sign up again next year. The Husaak Adventures team was phenomenal as usual. If you’re looking for adventure on the Arabian peninsula (or Mongolia, Alaska, or Tanzania), check them out. I’ll be writing more about Husaak experiences when I cover our summer KFUPM activities.

The completion banner, giraffes on course, slow time, and shipping out and away from the island.

Rebeca visits the Middle East

Coming right on the heels of Jack’s visit to KSA, daughter Rebeca also came to see me over in this part of the world. The planning started with a simple request from me, “What would you most like to see over here?” It didn’t take too long for her to respond with, “I want to visit Dubai and I want to see Petra.” We discussed the challenges of her coming to KSA (as a single, liberated young woman), and decided that could wait for another time.

In a relatively short period of time, we had put together a plan where I would meet her in Dubai and then travel together to Jordan to visit Petra and other sights. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, Petra seems to be on nearly everyone’s bucket list, especially after having appearances in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen movies (only one of which I have seen…). I had also been told to spend some time in the nearby Wadi Rum, a place also immortalized in film, with the classic Lawrence of Arabia having been largely filmed there. That movie just maybe had an influence on the naming of this blog. Also, because we were going to be close by, we decided to spend a couple days at a resort on the Dead Sea (on the Jordan side).

Because of her position with Southwest Airlines, Rebeca is now a skilled non-revenue flier. She was able to hop an Emirates flight to Dubai, for just the price of the tax. I flew in from Dammam, and the timing of our flights coincided so that I only had to wait about 30 minutes for her to clear immigration and meet her in baggage claim. Another perk for working for the airlines is discounted hotel rates for locations throughout the world. Since we were going to go big on this holiday, we opted for the 1%-style all along the way. Accordingly, we hopped a limo to the Ritz Carlton in the financial district. This provided a quick jumping off point to visit the Dubai Mall, the Burj Khalifa, and a nice restaurant to enjoy some fine sushi.

As always, you can click on individual photos to see higher resolution pics.

 

We would highly recommend the Dubai Ritz.

 

No visit to Dubai would be complete without ascending the Burj Kahlifa. If you’re willing to spend a little more for the VIP option, your wait time will be just minutes and you get to go to the highest floor that visitors can go (148, which is impressively higher than the normal tour at floor 125).

The next morning, we hopped on a flight to Amman, Jordan. I had prearranged a Petra/Wadi Rum tour (Classic Wadi Rum and Petra Tours), and a guide would pick us up from our hotel in Amman the next morning. We stayed at the Kempinski in the city, and the only remarkable thing about the hotel (otherwise, quite unremarkable) was that there was a bowling alley in the basement. Tempting as it was, we didn’t end up bowling…

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There’s entertainment to be had at the Amman Kempinski. Who knew?!

Bright and early the next morning, our driver picked us up and we had about 4.5 hour ride to the town of Petra. We dropped our stuff at the tour-arranged hotel in town, and headed to the visitor’s center entrance. There we were met by our guide for exploring the ancient Nabatean city of Petra.

Most people who are curious about Petra, or have seen the aforementioned films, probably have the impression that there are just a few (but spectacular) sights to see there. The reality is that the site sprawls over quite a large area. The Nabatean culture occupied the area for hundreds of years, peaking during the 1st Century C.E. with an estimated population of about 20,000 inhabitants. We spent close to six hours exploring Petra on foot – while we definitely saw a lot, we easily could have spent hours more. I say “on foot”, because if you’re so inclined, you can take horse-drawn carriages, donkeys, and camels if you want alternative transportation around the site.

The approach to the city descends down a narrow gorge/wadi called the Siq. At times, the Siq experiences flash floods and, unfortunately, lives have been lost on those occasions. But, the geologist in me says that if there weren’t floods and a lot of moving water, the Siq would not be there and the impressive unveiling of the city upon entry would not be nearly as dramatic. The very first edifice that you see upon exiting the Siq is the iconic Treasury building (the Al-Khazneh facade).

We visited Petra in mid-late January, and the weather was cold. But! Visiting Petra at that time of year ensured that there would be few other tourists there. Our guide told us that during the high season (March-May), there can be 5000 tourists there per day. I can’t imagine how crowded the Siq would be. As it was, there were maybe a couple hundred others spread out across the city. We really felt fortunate to be able to enjoy the place without the mad crush of other tourists. Some of our photos make it seem that we were the only ones there!

The modern town of Petra, not the ancient city of Petra, along with the visitor’s center and entrance to the site.

Entrance to the Siq, with some folks on horseback for the trek. Deep within the Siq. And the famous Al-Khazneh facade of the Treasury. 

Yes, we were really there, and there really were not hordes of other people there.

To be sure, pictures don’t do it justice. It’s scale and the intricate carvings into the sandstone are simply remarkable and breathtaking. From the initial shock and awe of the Treasury, we moved on to explore other parts of the city.

The very large carved amphitheater, and tombs and dwelling scattered across the sandstone cliffs.

Our guide left us to explore on our own, and suggested (if we were feeling up to it) that we ascend a steep and winding trail to see another impressive facade. It only took us about 25 or 30 minutes to make the hike, and we’re very happy we did. The “Monastery” was as impressive, if not more so, as the Treasury facade. And there were only a couple other people there the whole time we wandered around.

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The impressive Monastery. It’s huge, by the way – much larger than the Treasury. Definitely worth the hike. If you don’t think you can make the hike, you can hire a donkey and guide to get you up the trail.

Here are some other sights around Petra. If this is on your personal bucket list, I would urge you to figure out a way to make it happen!

A view along the hike to the Monastery, some animal friends, and a parting shot of the Treasury from the Siq.

The following morning, our driver took us to meet our guide for exploration of Wadi Rum (a wadi is an ephemeral/intermittent stream course that is subject to flash flooding – basically a dry river channel/valley that sometimes becomes a torrent – common in arid climate settings). The area has become an eco-tourist destination for hikers and rock climbers, along with day trippers like us coming from Petra. Our guide took us around to see various sights within the wadi, including canyons, dunes, natural rock bridges, springs, and interesting rock outcroppings. Tourism is the main source of income for the local bedouins, and there are many encampments around the vast wadi that host and cater to tourists. After we spent the day exploring the wadi, we stayed overnight in one of the bedouin camps and ate a traditional dinner of chicken and vegetables with rice cooked with coals in an outdoor pit.

Nabatean ruins and sandstone outcrops of Wadi Rum.

Awaiting sunset, a natural bridge, the bedouin camp, and inside the communal tent.

Certainly one of the highlights of our trip to Wadi Rum was a hot-air balloon ride the following morning. There is only one hot-air balloon pilot in all of Jordan, and Captain Khalid and his crew were awesome. We left camp in the dark and met up with some other tourists to make an early morning sweep across the desert landscape. This was the first balloon ride for both of us, which is kind of surprising given its popularity near our home town of Boulder, Colorado. On most still mornings there, you will commonly see a half dozen balloons in the air. But why not try it out in an exotic desert setting in a foreign land for our inaugural flight, right?

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Finally, a little warmth to ease the very cold morning air.

A very interesting process to get the balloon filled and in the air with eight of us plus Captain Khalid.

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Just about to land (and a very gentle landing it was!).

After a couple of days of Petra and desert exploration, we were ready for some leisure time. Our driver took us from Wadi Rum, south through the outskirts of Aqaba (where we could see the Gulf of Aqaba), and the north to the resort area of the Dead Sea. The drive took over five hours, but the scenery was excellent along the way. We stayed at the Kempinski Dead Sea Resort and Spa and spent two nights there before heading back to Dubai through Amman.

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White salt shrubbery along a rocky shoreline patch of the Dead Sea precipitated from its hypersaline waters (the salinity averages around 340‰, or about 34% – for comparison, normal/average seawater salinity is 35‰, or 3.5% dissolved salts).

Of course, one of the things one must do when visiting the Dead Sea is to experience the buoyancy of the hypersaline water. It’s pretty freaky – you simply can not sink below the surface.

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Bobbing up and down atop the tranquil waters of the Dead Sea.

The Kempinski has a gorgeous infinity pool and spectacular sunsets.

The final part of the trip was a couple more days spent in the Marina district in Dubai. We stayed at Le Royal Meridien Resort and Spa, perfected our relaxation skills, ate great food, and walked around the Marina district. We also visited and shopped the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, noting the surrounding lavish hotels and excessively expensive cars.

Architecture of the bustling Marina district of Dubai by day and night.

The Souk Madinat Jumeirah.

We capped the whole visit off with a wonderful dinner with my former student Abdul and his wife Nasreen, complete with shisha and belly dancers.

The beach and evening meal at Le Royal Meridien.

This was such a great trip. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend time individually with my kids over those couple of weeks. We all agree that the next adventure should be for the three of us together. Wherever that will be, I know it will be another special time together.

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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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.

Regional map

Regional map.

Peninsula

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.