An acknowledgement: There has been a lot of disturbing news about Saudi Arabia in the past couple years, and while these situations are very troubling, I still want to share some of my own positive stories about my experiences there.
Now, please journey with me back in time...
Volunteering for a Middle East adventure
By the end of 2015, I'll have spent at least 7 weeks in Saudi Arabia.
When I tell people about my Middle East travel plans, reactions have generally fallen into either:
"Whoa that's so cool, what a great opportunity!"
"You're doing what‽"
Myself, I've responded to my own decisions with a mixture of both exclamations.
|Newspaper at KAUST, published during my second trip|
For those who have no idea what a "supercomputer" is or looks like, check out this video for a glimpse into the computer bay as they were assembling the system: https://vimeo.com/123295777
While the company works on hiring full-time on-site personnel, they've been staffing the site with other employees from our worldwide support teams.
"But Jeremy," you interject, "you don't work in customer support; how did you get involved?"
Good question. At an employee meeting back in March, one of the project managers made an ask for volunteers to fill in for one or two-week shifts, while the system was being installed. They also mentioned a bonus, to which my ears perked up; that could sure help pay off my car loan early!
|The computer building at KAUST where I worked each day;|
Cafeteria on left, and reflection pond in foreground.
Months ago, there had been a similar opening in this same group, and I'd very seriously considered applying. However, at that time I opted to stay put where I was, because I really liked my coworkers and current job responsibilities, and couldn't find peace in my heart about leaving. This time around was different. Literally 18 hours prior to this conversation, my manager broke the news to me that they were shuffling responsibilities, and I'd be losing the half of my job that I really loved. I can't say I was terribly surprised, because the writing had been appearing on the wall for months; nevertheless it was still a disappointing decision. My manager also understood that by telling me this, odds were good I'd start looking for a different job elsewhere in the company. This was true. So, when I heard from new-manager the very next morning about an opening for a job that was 100% what-I-loved-doing, I jumped on it. Long story short: she brought my case to her director, fought for approval to get the position bumped from level I to II, and I started in the new group less than a month later. I miss many of my coworkers from my old group (I still see them, just less often), but this new job is a better fit for where I want to head career-wise, and I'm getting to work side-by-side with some brilliant folks (for instance, there are over 100 years of company experience between just three of the guys on my team). All that to say, attending that one, 20-minute meeting, ended up being QUITE life-changing.
|Closer view of Building 1, and the door I went in each day.|
Also, there are lots of bikes at KAUST.
Preparing for my travels became an adventure in and of itself. First step: get a visa. KSA doesn't let anyone in without a visa (and also a valid passport; I had my first experience with expedited renewal, since mine was expiring soon!), and in order to obtain a visa, you need a letter of invitation from a corporate entity within the Kingdom. We had a local KSA company who was able to provide invitation letters, so this was a smooth process, it just took time. Once we had my invitation, we shipped my passport to the embassy for an official visa. Once I had that back, one of our AAs worked with me to book flights, hotels, taxis from/to the airport, and a gate pass to get into KAUST, which is a secure gated community. I'm extremely grateful for my coworker Joe who went far beyond the call of duty holding my hand through the whole process, making sure I had all my paperwork and reservations in order.
|Bay La Sun hotel in KAEC|
Unpublished blog post from 2015
This summer I made two trips to Saudi Arabia for work to help with a customer site. To be bluntly honest, I was quite apprehensive about being a Christian (with the word "hope" tattooed on my arm) traveling to an Islamic country, very near Mecca, during Ramadan. A couple Sundays before my trip, though, the worship leader at my evening church told a story about a barber friend/acquaintance of his who was wearing a shirt that said "I'm Muslim, don't panic." Stefan explained the word "Muslim" means "one who follows God." Hearing his story, a lot of my fear went away, and I started thinking about what it must be like for many Muslims who come to live in or visit America - living in the minority, not knowing the language, being feared and judged and harassed because of the actions of a few (or of a country's choices that they don't control).
That in turn got me thinking about some cultural differences. I can't judge my friends and family for being worried about me as I travel - as I already said I was a bit worried myself - but... here are some thoughts (written before my first flight lifted off):
- In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, alcohol is forbidden. In American, some people drive drunk and kill innocents on the road.
- Saudi Arabia has been dropping bombs on Yemen. The US has invaded two countries and started how many wars, just within my lifetime.
- Smuggling drugs into the Kingdom is punishable by death. In the US, our "justice" system killed 35 people in 2014 [citation], 15 so far this year [citation], and has over 2600 inmates awaiting death [citation]. And, in the US, our "war on drugs" has cost billions of tax payer dollars, and doesn't seem to have accomplished much [citation].
- Saudi Arabia hires foreigners to do all the "dirty" jobs. The US tends to do the same.
- It's illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia [this law was changed in 2018]. In the US, women's suffrage happened less than a century ago, and sexism is still alive and well. (one example I care a lot about: in many churches, women still cannot be ordained or hold leadership roles)
- It's illegal to bring bibles into Saudi. In the US we allow douche-tool Christians to protest outside of mosques, mock the Islamic holy Prophet, and hold book burnings of the Koran. Somehow we justify these hate crimes under "free speech."
- From at least one source, per-1000 crime rate in Saudi is 3.88, vs 41.29 in the US. Now, with that said, reading the Wikipedia page doesn't exactly reassure me: "The Saudi legal system is based on Sharia or Islamic law and thus often prohibits many activities that are not crimes in other nations, such as alcohol or pork consumption, public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols or text, affection between opposite sex, "indecent" artwork or media images, homosexuality, cross-dressing, fornication or adultery." [citation]
|Saudia safety pamphlet|
My flight was divided into two legs: 9 hours from MSP to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, a 3 hour layover, then 6 hours from CDG to Jeddah, KSA. Because my first flight went overnight, I tried to sleep for most of it (though I did finish watching an Apple keynote, and started watching the first Maze Runner movie, while waiting for the first meal to be served). I left Minneapolis on a Friday evening and arrived in Jeddah Saturday night local time, so I basically lost a day. On the plus side, that meant essentially gaining a day later when I came home. A fascinating new-to-me experience on my second flight (operated by Saudia) was while we taxied: following a standard airplane safety video, they then played a travel prayer (with english translation in the video) that Prophet Mohammed prayed when he traveled. It was very soothing.
|Saudi Arabia from the air.|
I kept looking for Sand worms, Banthas,
and Sarlaccs, but didn't see any.
Immigration took (are you ready?) : two and a half freaking hours. It was a MESS. (side-note: for this and other reasons, the Jeddah airport [JED] was ranked at the time as the world's second worst airport) Pilgrims were budging, some lines (like mine) weren't moving at all, other lines people were sailing through. I'd been advised to prepare for a 45 minute wait, because anyone coming into the Kingdom for the first time has to be fingerprinted and photo taken and I'd heard the computer system takes forever (upwards of 10 minutes) to process that information, but I was not prepared to stand there for hours on end, after roughly 20 hours of traveling and being sleep-deprived. While in line at least I could text with my girlfriend (ps I have a girlfriend now, which is one reason I haven't had time to blog much since April! She's worth it though) [update: now she's actually my wife :) ], and I met a guy who spoke both Arabic and English, who tried to get us both into a faster line. I think he might have actually succeeded, but our new line was still abysmally slow compared to another one next to us.
Anyway. After waiting far too long, I got through, then had to search for my suitcase. This was another panic-moment, since none of the carousels were labeled with flight info. Eventually I broke through my stubbornness/pride and asked someone who worked there; he pointed me to the correct carousel area, where I found my bag in the middle of a large pile of bags all waiting for their owners still stuck back in immigration.
"Customs" involved sending my bags on an X-ray conveyor and picking them up on the other side, which took a grand total of 30 seconds. Huge relief. Then I finally left the immigration area to find my taxi driver. In the "receiving line" as I call it, there were a lot of drivers holding signs with names; I kept looking at each with hope, and they looked at me in return with hope, only to sadly shake my head, "no, you're not my driver :("... but then at the end of the line I found him! He said he'd almost left without me because it had taken so long. Yikes! And whew! We walked a short distance to the parking lot, loaded my bags into the trunk, and I proceeded to nap in the back seat. It was over an hour drive to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) where I would be staying this trip, and then another 15 minutes from entering the city gates until we got to the hotel (long stretches of road dotted with roundabouts, most of which had only two roads intersecting them; the city has been walled off but remained [at the time] largely unfinished within those walls).
|Bay La Sun hotel reception|
|Welcome message on the hotel room TV|
|Sleep! Glorious sleep.|
|Fresh fruit in the fancy hotel room|
|Bay La Sun hotel from my floor looking down|
The shuttle bus ride from Bay La Sun / KAEC to KAUST was 40 minutes, which is enough time for a short nap. It's also long enough to see all the sights: sand, sand, a few camels, and more sand. Having recently read Dune, I realized I might be living inside those novels and had flown to Arrakis (or perhaps Tatooine); sadly I did not see any sand worms, though I'll further the metaphor by suggesting oil could be the Arabian form of Dune Spice, and that KAUST and KAEC were like the Atreides' palace in Arrakeen, with palm trees in the middle of a desert where water is power.
|Water fountain at KAUST|
After meeting the on-site admin team (KAUST employees, several from the UK, one from Poland), I learned we would be starting on a software upgrade, similar to what I've done almost every week since starting at my job. Woohoo! I rejoiced, for upon hearing this news I knew I could actually be useful!
Going into my first trip I had fretted, "do I have the skills they need? or will I just be a warm body filling in a contractual obligation?" Over and over during my trips, I discovered my worries were unfounded. While I only volunteered for the KAUST experience a few months ago, I have felt as though all of my training and learning over my career at the company has prepared me for this specific trip and the specific issues that happened while I was there. As well, my own personal improvement work on my people skills proved invaluable; if I might be so humble: I felt perfectly placed.
During my first week I worked primarily on software upgrades and troubleshooting, but I also got to have a crash course in hardware work, which I've never done before. The hardware guy showed me how to pull a blade from the system, take it apart, and replace all the different components. "How much does this blade cost that I'm carrying?" I asked one day. "Probably about $40,000," he said. *Gasp* / *Gulp*. Like he told me would happen, though, I got over the fear of that dollar sign pretty quickly.
Because we were staying off-campus at Bay La Sun, our work day wrapped up promptly at 5 p.m. in order to catch the shuttle bus that left KAUST promptly at 5:15. This was inconvenient more than once, when we needed "just 5 more minutes" to finish something (also inconvenient the day I had a terrible headache and just wanted to take a short nap back at the hotel!). Coupled with the commute time the bus schedule made for long days, especially my first couple days while I battled jetlag. Nearly fell asleep at my computer some of those warm afternoons right after lunch.
|KAUST computer building on left; cafeteria on right;|
Red Sea in distance
I digress. The bus left KAUST every day at 5:15 and arrived back to Bay La Sun around 6 o'clock. My coworkers introduced me to some of the KAEC restaurants, all of which were delicious. The first night we ate at a steak house, which reminded me very much of an Applebees except with no liquor (they had delicious shakes, though!). Another night, we walked half a mile to eat at a restaurant right on the Red Sea and watched the sun set over the water during dinner. It was beautiful.
|Sunset over the Red Sea during dinner|
|Stop sign for non-existent road; Bay La Sun hotel in distance|
|Unfinished sidewalk in KAEC|
|KAEC sidewalk at night; Bay La Sun hotel in distance|
For the first day of Ramadan, I did choose to fast, to see how hard it would be. Well... I was hungry again by about 10:30 a.m., so THAT made for a long day! Nevertheless I ignored the hunger and successfully avoided food and drink (even water, because that's part of the fasting deal) until sunset, which came at about 7:10 that evening. Now in fairness, strictly speaking I did cheat - I ate my normal-time breakfast which was after sunrise, because I couldn't bring myself to wake up at 4 a.m. for the pre-sunrise meal. Deal with it, I'm still claiming credit for lasting through the day.
I broke fast that evening at the Steak House (the Applebee's-esque restaurant I mentioned) by the hotel with a chicken burger and Nutella & banana milkshake. It may not have been a traditional Ramadan experience but it sure was tasty! I don't recall which days specifically I fasted - it wasn't every day, but it was more than a few. And I definitely noticed I had a larger appetite those evenings :)
|Walking around KAEC|
|Restaurants along the Red Sea in KAEC|
I guess it's not quite true that I had no friends around, because on the weekend evenings Alissa and I were able to have Skype calls for a bit, which was nice.
|Reflection pond behind KAEC's Visitor's Center|
A cultural aspect of Saudi Arabia that I'd heard about but didn't quite believe until I saw it myself, is that almost every worker you see is a foreigner, be it construction worker, custodial / maintenance staff, grounds crew, hotel staff, cashiers, pretty much everything. As I understand it most of these workers don't live on campus at KAUST - they get bussed in each morning and bussed out each evening. During my second trip I actually talked for a few minutes with one of the grounds crew guys, and learned he was from India, where his family still lives; he is working at KAUST for 6 months before going back to them. I can't imagine being away for that long!
|A cake at the pastry shop on campus.|
(I ate many tasty treats from here...)
On Thursday of the second week, I checked out of the hotel at 8:30 p.m., to catch a >1 hour taxi ride to the Jeddah airport, for a 1 a.m. flight. Bluntly: the airport was stressful. I found the signs pointing to "international departures", and then stood in line for... I think at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before reaching the front. It's not because the line was all that long - there were maybe a couple dozen people in front of me? - it's because the ticketing folks took FOREVER. At one point, the line literally did not move for half an hour. I was terrified I would miss my flight. Oh and of course loads of people were butting in front of the line, because, you know, that's cool. The real kicker, though: once I finally reached the front, I learned from the ticketing agent that I'd been standing in the wrong line. Even though I was departing internationally, the line I really should have gone to was not this "international departures" line, but the special Air France line, that's tucked in between the domestic and international lines. And by "tucked" I mean "hidden". Fortunately, that line was only 1 or 2 people long, and took no time at all to check my luggage and get my ticket. Whew!!
|A playground at KAEC|
Some hours later we arrived in Paris. After deplaning, all transfers had to go through security again, and I took a bus to a different terminal where my Delta flight would board. I had a couple hours in my layover, so plenty of spare time to meander the shops, struggle to buy water (the French cashier must have thought me utterly clueless as I tried to figure out how to use the chip in my credit card for the very first time), and otherwise hurry up and wait. After two weeks in the Middle East, seeing so much blonde hair around the airport was another culture shock. On the plane ride over the Atlantic I was more or less awake, so watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Imitation Game, Hunger Games 3 part 1, a Ted talk, and half of Super 8. Then, at long last, I was back on American soil, going through immigration, being picked up by parents and Alissa, and then finally, home.
|Lots and lots of palm trees on campus|
Oh, and just one other side-note from trip #1: I learned upon arrival that KAUST uses almost exclusively Apple products. This helped me feel very much at home :)
|Welcome home balloons from Mom|
|Let's be honest, I ate a lot of pastries from the bakery|
So, two weeks after returning from KAUST the first time, I was heading back to the airport for trip #2. This time, my TSA precheck and Global Entry paperwork had all processed, allowing me to breeze through TSA and later, immigration. To my chagrin, there was no reciprocity in France for my precheck status, so there I still needed to do the full shoes-off/laptop-out routine going through Paris.
Because this trip was to be three weeks long instead of two, I needed to pack a syringe of my Humira medication, which is supposed to remain refrigerated. I packed it with an ice pack, which I refilled with ice from the Delta / Air France crew, and again on the Saudia flight (since I had to dump the ice prior to going through French TSA). It ended up not being a huge hassle, though I'd prepared for contingencies including a doctor's note for TSA in case they balked at me bringing a needled medication onto the plane. In retrospect I probably over-panicked about this, because I imagine there are many, many people who have to travel on airplanes with medical needles.
During my layover in France, I found a good napping area near the gate with couches, and caught a little bit of rest. Immigration in Jeddah was still stressful but significantly less so than last time, because I knew what to expect. This time, it only took one and a half hours instead of two and a half. This efficiency improvement is due largely to my wearing a KAUST-logo shirt, because when I got near the front of the room, someone spotted the KAUST logo and asked, "you work for KAUST? Come over here, sir!" and brought me to an empty line. If you're wondering if I plan to milk that for all it's worth on my next trip, you can rest assured my answer is, "you betcha."
|KAUST Inn II|
|KAUST academic buildings, from underneath|
I did a lot of reading between my walks and time at the hotel: I finished a couple audiobooks, and even one paperback. I kept intending to read my Koran (that had been gifted to me a few years back by my optometrist), but never ended up making the time for it. I also made time to focus on my faith, listening to worship music while I walked and being intentional about prayer - the frequent calls to prayer definitely helped in this regard. On the final day of Ramadan, I had fasted, and went to the mosque to join others in breaking fast with dates, water, and meat (I think it was chicken? but I don't remember for sure now).
At the time of this trip, I was involved in the Prayer Team at Upper Room, and I wrote this email to share with them:
Ramadan ends this week, and for me anyway, it's exciting to be here (in Saudi Arabia again) during this time. Yesterday I was researching some of the terms used around the Muslim pilgrimages (what's the difference between Umrah and Hajj, what is a state of Ihram, where exactly are the Miqats, and so on), and I stumbled upon a blog post written by a Muslim woman about her and her husband's Umrah pilgrimage. Growing up in a Christian family and Christian community, I've had extremely limited (read: none) exposure to conversations about faith with members of Islam. Though I guess I haven't really extended myself to help make those conversations possible, either. So what I read in this woman's post was not only fascinating, it also made me tear up a little bit. Maybe this has no interest to you at all, and that's fine, too. But I wanted to copy part of what she wrote here, that had struck me so:
"Prior to checking out of our hotel earlier that day, we started assuming our Ihram. We showered, changed into our Umrah clothes and offered the two raka’at nafl prayer before setting out. I wore my new abaya, but there wasn’t anything unusual about my appearance. Masood, however, came out wearing his two-piece white, unhemmed sheets (more or less like towel material), feeling slightly awkward managing the lower garment. I looked at him for the longest time – my husband, the man who gave me nothing but happiness and love, stood before me ready to fulfill his obligation to Allah. I uttered a prayer for him, in my heart, right then and there."
( Citation: https://thepurplejournal.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/umrah-part-5-miqat-the-point-where-it-all-starts/ )
Setting aside religional/theological differences, because they're not relevant to this conversation: to me, the marriage of one's love for God and one's love for his/her spouse doesn't get much more beautiful than that.
|Cell tower disguised as a palm tree|
Coming to the end of my trip, I wrote this email to my Upper Room Prayer Team friends:
I finish my second tour in Saudi Arabia tomorrow (been here three weeks now). While it's been a wonderful and life-giving experience, I'll be honest: I'm home-sick and looking forward to being back.
Until two weeks ago I'd never been in a mosque; on the last day of Ramadan, though, I got to break fast with hundreds of strangers at the mosque. Then last Friday I attended the mosque service with some of my Muslim coworkers. I enjoyed the cultural experience and learning more about how others worship God, but it also made me miss the worship experience of Upper Room, and I realized just how hard it's been being away from Christian community.
At the same time that away-ness has made me value my alone time with God even more. To help facilitate this one-on-one time, and inspired by how diligently Muslims pray thoughout the day, I downloaded an app to send me notifications before each prayer time; for the past couple weeks I've been taking a pause at each Call to Prayer, to step outside, quiet my mind, and try to listen to the Spirit's nudging in my prayers. I think it goes along well with Paul's "pray without ceasing" mandate. Oftentimes the prayer times are inconvenient, like in the middle of writing an email, or a stressful "everything is broken" moment at work, yet I think that makes it all the more important to say, "my time is Yours, God." I worry it'll be hard to keep that up once I'm back in Corporate America.
As I prepared to depart, I scribbled a note about all the lines I'd be standing in. I don't know if I did this because I needed to psych myself up to prepare for all the frustration, or because I wanted to vent said frustration, or for posterity, or... let's assume it was all three. Here's what I wrote:
Flying home from KAUST and that means today is a "line" day. Here are all the lines I stood in or will stand in in a 24 hour period:
- check in at Jeddah airport
- access to passport control
- passport control itself
- airport security in Jeddah
- wait to have boarding pass scanned and then go down the escalator to get to bus
- boarding the bus
- off the bus and board the airplane
- passport control into Paris airport (CDG) once deplaned
- French immigration because my bag wasn't checked all the way through
(Wander around and not know where I'm going in Charles de Gaulle)
- Delta self-check-in to print boarding pass
- Baggage drop
- French passport control
- French airport security
- airplane boarding check in
- airplane boarding itself
- US immigration
- baggage claim
And then finally I shall be home!
Reading that now (years later), and knowing how much I HATE lines, I'm amazed I didn't go cray-cray. (pun intended). Well, anyway, I made it home, safe and sound and tired! (Just as a reminder: it's 24 hours door-to-door travel time!)
|Stairs at KAUST between the main buildings|
|Camels at the JED airport|
|Welcome home fruit basket and flowers from my Mom|
Because apparently two trips wasn't enough, when the opportunity arose to volunteer again, I did.
|Almost an entire row to myself|
We lifted off from Medina at 18:39, and I thought that meant we'd land early at Jeddah (only an hour away). Well... spoiler: that didn't happen, and I had yet another new air travel experience :) There was a sandstorm at the Jeddah airport, so our plane turned around mid-flight and landed back in Medina (18:59). We waited out the bad weather, and took off again about 20:10, landing in Jeddah an hour later.
|Nearly empty plane after pilgrims disembarked|
On our way to KAUST, I learned from the driver about the tragic crane collapse in Mecca that had just happened. I wrote this note at the time:
My flight into Saudi Arabia was delayed due to a sandstorm with near-zero visibility at the Jeddah airport; when I got into my taxi later, I learned that the storm had rolled through Mecca (a little more than an hour's drive from Jeddah) only a few hours earlier, toppling a crane that killed over 100 people at the Grand Mosque. It's so sad. I haven't been able to tell from the news reports, but with Hajj starting in a week, I have to wonder if most of those people were pilgrims, coming to Mecca from all around the world for their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. While my life was delayed for an hour and a half because of the storm, the lives of those 107 families were changed forever and unalterably.
|Living room portion of hotel room|
One of the downsides of the time difference between Saudi Arabia and Minnesota (7-8 hours depending on daylight savings) was that everyone back home was coming into work right about the time I would be leaving work at KAUST. This meant I ended up staying logged into work and emails from the hotel room long past normal quitting time, leading to an almost 60-hour workweek my first week of this trip. I forced myself to find a better balance the second week, taking time to go for walks and also to the workout center on campus. (yes Alissa, I actually forced myself to work out! :)
|The opposite of working out: Burger King for dinner|
|Do not adjust your television. This burger bun was actually green!|
Side-bar: that Wednesday, one of Alissa's students told her he was fasting, and was wow'ed when she asked him if it was for Eid :)
|Nighttime of the mosque from my hotel room|
I had breakfast at the cafe and finally tried the carrot juice. That afternoon I packed, napped, then left the hotel around 8 or 9 p.m. for my 1 a.m. flight. The only notes I have from my return voyage are that TSA sucks in all countries. Presumably because this was my third flight to/from Saudi in only a few months, I got flagged for special screening in Paris. Now, mind you, at this point I've already gone through both Saudi and French security, had my passport checked multiple times and I have Global Entry... all of which apparently count for diddly, as the french TSA rip apart my carry-on suitcase (and fails to understand why I'm frustrated). Meantime, the line piles up behind us. Well, their own fault.
Typical 24 hours door-to-door, and I'm home!
|I took intentional time this trip to photograph the plants at KAUST. There are so many!|
Check out the full album here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?
|KAUST fitness center|
|They must spend a mint on watering|
|KAUST main academic buildings, at sunset|
|I'm not used to my food staring at me while I eat|
Another fascinating cultural experience came in conversation with my Saudi coworker when I used the word "girlfriend" and he had no idea what the word meant; I fumbled through my best explanation as to what "dating" is in American culture. It makes sense that he'd have had no context - in his family, he mentioned his father had four wives, and I guess I don't remember if he also had an arranged marriage, but certainly the typical path of what leads into marriage is vastly different between our cultures. In retrospect, I wish I'd asked more questions and learned more.
Back at KAEC, I spent more time wandering around this trip, and in particular enjoyed walking through the newly opened Juman Park, adjacent to the Bay La Sun hotel, which had been under construction still when I was last here.
|Miniature model of KAEC.|
Bay La Sun hotel is just left of the center of this photo.
My last day at KAUST there was a minor sandstorm on campus, which was another new experience for me. It wasn't bad, though, and passed by the time we got back from lunch. That day, we all went to the fancy golf course restaurant (yes, believe it or not, KAUST has a full golf course on campus!), and I was so grateful to get to spend the time with a group of people I'd come to think of as friends, even though we live half a world apart. Returning to KAUST this trip was, in a sense, like coming back to a second home, and so leaving it again was correspondingly emotionally difficult.
The only other note I have from trip #4 is that I watched a couple movies on the flight home: The Good Dinosaur, and The Martian. Now for a few more pictures:
|On approach to CDG airport in Paris|
|Had an entire row to myself from Paris to Jeddah!|
|Apple juice at Bay La Sun reception while they got me checked in.|
|Wider view of KAEC miniature map. I added a red arrow pointing at Bay La Sun, for context.|
|Me and my Saudi coworkers and friends|
|I'm not used to this.|
|Thuwal beach while we waited for our fish to be cooked|
|Ready for lunch!|
|Workout room in Bay La Sun|
|Is there a "no pain" option I can choose?|
|Ah, I found the "no pain" option!|
(Bay La Sun dessert buffet after dinner)
|On approach to Minneapolis. Based on the snow I'm thinking it might be colder than what I was used to in Saudi...|
Other random thoughts and notes
In telling people of my upcoming travel plans, I was often asked "are you going to get out of the city and go see the sights?" My answer is that I personally never felt safe doing that. Another westerner might, and indeed many of my coworkers did go outside the KAUST and KAEC walls to experience scuba diving or the Jeddah mall (I don't know if "Mall of Arabia" has the same jingle as Mall of America, though I kind of hope it does). I only went out once (the fishy lunch mentioned during trip #4), and I was heavily escorted by local residents. And that was a good trip. But I also never felt a need to go exploring, either, because KAEC and KAUST themselves had plenty to keep me occupied.
Also, outside of the cities, well, it's a lot of desert. And it's FLAT. We flew over some hills on the flights into Jeddah, but those must have been farther away from KAUST because I never saw them from driving around on the ground. So, see my earlier comments about feeling like I was on Arrakis or Tatooine. It really felt that way. There was also a lot of random junk littering the side of the highway: tires, pop cans, other random junk. I've no idea where it all came from. Also for unknown reasons, I saw many many cars randomly parked along the sides of the road. No idea what they were doing, because again, it was all desert. The parked trucks I could at least imagine the drivers must be resting/sleeping, maybe the same was true for the parked cars?
Speaking of driving around, I was amazed at how perfectly smooth the highways, and even normal streets, were - I guess I'm just so accustomed to living in Minnesota where we have terrible roads because of winter and patching/re-patching from ice damage. The only bumps I experienced were the reflective bumps marking the lanes (instead of painted lines), and of course all the deliberate speed bumps. Oh, and the highways were very well-lit, too, as were all the roads inside KAUST/KAEC. I get the impression not all cities could claim this, but these two very recently-built areas were very nice.
For reasons I didn't understand and never remembered to ask about, the Saudi highway between Jeddah and KAUST had a couple random security checkpoints, at which they never actually checked the car or anything, the driver just had to slow down to go over the speed bumps (have I mentioned how much they love their speed bumps) and the guards would wave us on through, or not even acknowledge our car and we'd just keep going. It seemed pointless, but, maybe there was a real reason hidden somewhere, that I just didn't know about.
Other sights seen included Baskin Robbins everywhere (seemed like every few blocks when we were in/near Jeddah, and of course both KAUST and KAEC had at least one), and also McDonald's.
If you haven't gotten the impression already from my writing that I really loved both KAUST and KAEC, let me be clear: I loved my time spent there. It's my opinion that King Abdullah was, at least in this regard, a visionary. These cities he ordered to be built are both beautiful and forward-thinking, and global-thinking. Instead of fearing a post-oil future, he embraced it, and built the foundation (KAEC) for Saudi to remain a global economic player even after their oil some day depletes. And with regard to KAUST he wrote: "KAUST shall be a beacon for peace, hope and reconciliation, and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and the world."
When I mentioned my travel plans in an email exchange with Pastor Katie from Upper Room, she wrote back, "I can't even imagine your life. Safe travels :)" I always held onto this as a good reminder about how lucky and privileged I was to be able to go on these trips. My time at KAUST allowed me to create international friendships and experience some really great theological and social conversations. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I'm so grateful.
I posted all my photos as Facebook albums and made them public so they can be viewed even if you don't have a Facebook account. I know if you've made it this far you've already invested a LONG time reading this blog post, but KAUST and KAEC are so beautiful and I'd love for you to experience a glimpse of their beauty through these pictures. Here are the links:
KAUST trip 1: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.995660885845.1073741834.40400401&type=1&l=342b57d7c5
KAUST trip 2: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.995684613295.1073741836.40400401&type=1&l=09fd0c6537
KAUST trip 3: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100109829667665.1073741839.40400401&type=1&l=f11df6a726
Plants of KAUST: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100109832492005.1073741840.40400401&type=1&l=18127c19ef
KAUST trip 4: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100140999682705.1073741843.40400401&type=1&l=ca429bd717