Sunday, June 27, 2021

Aquaponics

A few years ago, Alissa and I saw an aquaponics display at the State Fair (in the hexagonal "hunny building" as I call it, though I'm sure it has a real name). As I often find myself saying, I exclaimed "that looks neat, let's do that!" Alissa agreed, and thus began a multi-year journey.

For the uninitiated: aquaponics is simply using fish poo to feed bacteria (and optionally worms), which produce nitrates to feed the plants, which then filter the water before it gets returned to the fish tank. You can grow pretty much any veggies or other plants you want, as well as edible fish such as tilapia. This can make aquaponics appealing and useful in extreme food deserts, since the only "input" you really need is sunlight and fish food.

Since we are lucky enough not to suffer from food scarcity, our aquaponics goals were much less ambitious; basically we just wanted a "free"1 source of fresh veggies for our bunny rabbits, Luke and Daisy, during the winter months when our outdoor garden is frozen.

To that end, I started researching. Somewhere along the way, I discovered Sylvia Bernstein's book Aquaponic Gardening, A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together, which was, I must say, the most amazing and helpful resource I could have possibly imagined. It was exactly what I wanted. Each chapter discussed a new aspect of system design, and listed the pros and cons of each option you might choose. For instance, the choices between a basic flood-and-drain system vs a bell-siphon; whether to have a sump tank, and if so, having one or two water pumps; what grow media to use; which type of fish to raise; what kinds of lights to use; and so on. Each chapter simultaneously revealed to me how much I didn't know that I didn't know ("unknown unknowns," you might say), yet also gave me the confidence to make an informed decision. As I read, I collected quite a lengthy set of notes for later reference when I reached each step. My favorite piece of advice from the book was the reminder that water weighs a lot (8.33 pounds/gallon), as can your growing media, and so she advised locating your aquaponics on the lowest level of your building, so that your system doesn't start on the second floor and end up relocating itself to your basement.

After finishing Aquaponic Gardening, I drew a pencil and paper sketch of what I thought our system should look like. In fancy lingo, it would be a slightly modified "CHIFT-PIST" design, which stands for "Constant Height In Fish Tank - Pump In Sump Tank.” ("slightly modified" in that we have an additional pump in the fish tank, too). The main benefits of this design are that the fish tank water height remains constant (changing water height can stress the fish), and both pumps are constant-on (turning a pump off and on can shorten its life). If you're really into the nitty-gritty details, you can also read this footnote: 2

It's been long enough that I forget exactly what came first, but among our first tangible steps for physically creating this thing were: hauling over one of my parents' old fish tanks that they'd been saving for us (a 46-gallon bow-front, with display pedestal), purchasing a heavy-duty wire-frame shelving unit from Menards, and ordering two of these hefty grow beds (they weigh a figurative ton - shipping alone was $100 for the two beds!). I also scoured the internet to find the best price on hydroton, a clay-pebble growing medium for the plants; I eventually found Greener Gardens in Richfield had a good price, and Alissa and I had a fun outing there to purchase 400 pounds of the stuff.3

Alissa's sister Abby helped us rinse all the hydroton as we added it to the grow beds on January 4, 2020. (Er, excuse me, Winnie reminded me he actually was the one who did all the work. My mistake.) By this time I'd also made countless trips to Menards to acquire various PVC pipe fittings in order to assemble the plumbing, as well as spent countless hours researching grow lights.4


With the hydroton and plumbing in place, on March 14, 2020 I connected a hose to our utility sink and added 100 gallons of water to the system and turned the pumps on. It was very exciting to see water flowing through everything for the first time! As expected, I needed to tweak things, all the way from realizing I should probably use a food-safe PVC glue, to more minor adjustments of the water valves leading into the grow beds. My two most frustrating challenges over the following months were getting the siphons to stop after draining each grow bed (eventually solved by altering how far down into the sump tank the drain pipes went), and removing a super-annoying gurgling noise from one of the pipes coming into the grow bed (solved by running more water through it, rather than less, I think resulting in less empty space for air to come back into the pipe).

Once water was flowing, I started "cycling" by adding Ammonium Chloride (in the absence of fish waste) to encourage bacteria colonies to take up residence, and somewhere in here we added our first plants, too. I tested the water almost daily to watch for nitrites (which would indicate the presence of ammonia-eating bacteria), and then waited not-so-patiently for nitrates to appear, indicating that the tank was fully cycled and ready for fish. After days then weeks of testing but not seeing any nitrates, I kept adding more and more Ammonium Chloride, to no avail. I was baffled.

I bought some cheap water test strips from Amazon and was shocked when I dipped the strip into the water and saw a nitrate reading off the charts (like, 140+ or something). I went back and re-read the directions in my original water test kit, and realized I'd been testing for nitrates completely the wrong way; while with the pH test you just have to invert the test tube a couple times, for the nitrate test you have to shake one of the solution bottles for 30 seconds before adding to the test tube, and then shake the test tube a full 60 seconds afterward. I'd done none of that. Once I actually followed the directions, the test tube clearly showed an overabundance of nitrates.

This was both good and bad news. Good in that it meant the tank was, indeed, fully cycled, but bad in that we couldn't add fish until the nitrate level was back under control (down into the 10-20 range or lower). It took several months of partial water changes, adding plants, and adding a canister pump/filter with nitrate-reducing pads, before the nitrates decreased enough so we could add fish.

From the beginning Alissa has insisted that "fish are friends not food," so we opted for fancy goldfish (specifically, Shubunkin), which are not edible. We made an outing to Aqualand on February 7, 2021, and brought home three fish we named Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Sadly, one fish died within a few days after being sucked into the pump (I immediately added a grating cover around the pump to prevent that happening again). Another developed "fin rot," which, had we known the warning signs, we might have been able to treat, but because we didn't know to look for it, we didn't realize something was wrong until it was too late.

We worried about our water quality but after re-testing (and bringing a sample to the pet store to test, too), there didn't appear to be anything obviously wrong. We went back to Aqualand and bought one more goldfish, whom we named Silver (because he was all silver), and enjoyed his presence for about a week before he disappeared. There weren't many hiding spots in the tank, but we spent over an hour trying to find him. At one point, I turned off the pumps and a whole bunch of biologic-looking "stuff" came out of the fish tank pump, so we assumed he must have gotten sucked into there, or died/was eaten by Dewey and these were the remains. I used the canisters pumps suction to get most of the debris out and then turned everything back on.

A day or two later, I went down to feed Dewey and... there was Silver! We determined he must have been hiding in the fish castle (I could have sworn I saw a fish tail in there when we pulled it out of the tank, but then when we looked again we didn't see anything, so he must have been hiding way up in the tower spire or something). He was looking quite worse for wear, with his top fin gone - presumably torn off in trying to escape the castle decoration's interior. I put him into a bucket with tank water and medicine and a bubbler, and he died a few hours later. To the degree you can emotionally bond to a fish, I was really sad to lose yet another one. And we did remove the castle ornament so if/when we get yet another fish, there's no risk of it getting stuck in there.

Separately from the fish and water quality adventures, this project wouldn't be a Jeremy-project without me wanting to over-complicate things. My ambition from the beginning was to set up a Raspberry Pi with sensors to monitor pH, oxygenation, temperature, light, and water-level, that could email and text us within minutes if something started going "out of whack." While I planned for (and purchased) plenty of redundancy (two water heaters, spare water pumps, multiple air stones, and a UPS for the air pump), I also knew stuff could still go wrong.

Ultimately I've been able to achieve three of my five sensor goals. Let's talk about the successes, first. Once a minute the Pi checks for water temperature, lights on/off, and water height, and logs those values into a MySQL database. If the temperature goes out of bounds, or one of the grow lights is off for more than 15 minutes during the day (perhaps because we went to harvest kale and forgot to turn the light back on when we were done), or if the sump tank's water height falls below a certain level for an extended period of time (due to overall evaporation from the system), then the Pi emails me so I know something needs attention. I've also added a small LCD display to the front of the Pi box that will print warning messages.

Water evaporates surprisingly quickly, which is why I spent a lot of time thinking about the water height sensor. I think it's quite interesting, so I'm going to risk boring you with what I consider some fascinating details. I bought this expensive liquid level sensor from Adafruit, allowing the Pi to measure the water height in the sump tank. Unlike the fish tank (which maintains a constant height of water), the sump tank water level is quite variable. As both grow beds fill with water over the course of 5-10 minutes, the sump tank will slowly get emptier; when a grow bed is full, it will dump all its water back into the sump tank in less than 30 seconds. So, looking at the sump's water height at a single point in time isn't very helpful, because, for instance, if both grow beds are nearly full of water the sump tank water height will be fairly low, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're short on the total amount of water in the system, it just means the grow beds are full and about to siphon their water back down. So instead, I have the Pi look at the past 12-hours of water height data and find the highest water level during that time. I make an assumption that both grow beds will have emptied near-simultaneously at least once during that timeframe. After adding a "fudge factor" and doing some math based on the dimensions of the sump tank, I can know that if the highest water level was below 9 inches, that means we need to add 5 gallons of water. If I ignore the warning messages for a couple days and the highest measurement dips below 7 inches, that means add 10 gallons. And so on. By design, the Pi gets more insistent / annoying about it's warnings the longer I ignore them.

As for the sensors I couldn't get working, there's not a whole lot to tell other than... spoiler... I couldn't get them working. Oxygenation sensors run around $200 and once I discovered that price tag it was easy to say "hard pass." (I have enough air stones and water movement - particularly from the splash bar - that I'm not worried about oxygenation, and especially not $200's worth.) The pH sensor, on the other hand, cost only about $40 (though I later found a cheaper source)... plus hours and hours of frustration. While the small pamphlet included a list of common household items and their respective pH's, there was no guide on mapping the sensor's voltage reading to specific pH values. Nor could I find any help online to that effect. So, I sat down at the dining room table with a spreadsheet, and glasses of orange juice and distilled water and eye-droppers of pH Down and pH Up and so on. I wrote a short loop that simply printed the sensor's voltage reading once per second, and then I stuck the sensor into the various liquids and started recording values for each. The values were frustratingly not 100% consistent, and unfortunately because I wanted to measure pH's specifically within the 6.5-7.5 range, there wasn't a lot of "room" between the voltage readings in that narrow range. So, I didn't have a high level of confidence. Nevertheless, I thought I'd gotten it "close enough" and went ahead and stuck the sensor into the aquarium.

Apparently the sensor requires the water around it to be still, instead of swirling with currents like there are in the aquarium, because I got readings that were all over the place (one minute it might say 4.3, the next 2.6, and the next 11.5). I toyed with the idea of buying some little pumps that would every-so-often pump water out of the fish tank into a small testing container, take the measurement with the pH sensor, then pump the water back out and pump distilled water in. But, honestly, that seemed like over-engineering a solution that wasn't a huge hassle just to do manually. Using the test tube kit it takes 1-2 minutes to test pH and clean up, and it only needs to be tested every few days or once a week, so... I gave up on the pH sensor idea.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out. It's a fun bragging thing to say we've got an aquaponics setup (though I wonder what the neighbors think at night when they see this purple glow emanating from the basement windows). We are able to harvest some amount of kale and basil and parsley and so on, though still working through some possible nutrient deficiencies (I've been adding phosphorus weekly to try to help the plant leaves grow better). And our wanna-be-vegetarian dog Robin loves going downstairs to bark at her kale vending machine until Mommy or Daddy dispenses some kale into her mouth.



Footnotes


1 "Free" like a puppy. When you add up the cost of electricity, water refills, various pH balancing chemicals, etc, it's probably more expensive than just going to the grocery store.

2 In this design, water (and fish poo) is pumped constantly from the fish tank into the two grow beds (and also through a splash bar back into the fish tank, to help with aeration). Each grow bed has a bell-siphon, which means when the water in a grow bed reaches a depth of 10" or so, physics happens and the water gets siphoned down the drain to the sump tank (underneath both grow beds). Once the grow bed has drained, air enters the pipe, breaking the siphon until the grow bed fills up again. A pump in the sump tank, meanwhile, is constantly pumping water from the sump back into the fish tank. To prevent the main fish tank from overflowing, there's an overflow box hanging off the back which drains excess water back to the sump tank; the overflow box also has a small, self-priming pump attached so it never loses siphon. Lastly, the fish and sump tank pumps are each connected to mechanical water level sensors that will cut power to a pump if the water level drops too low in that tank, thus avoiding dry-pumping which would damage the pump.

3 Regular readers might recall our puppy Winnie writing about "Clifford kibble" in a previous blog post.

4 One wonders what Google makes of my search history sometimes. I'm sure they think I'm growing pot; for the record: we're not, but I will say the marijuana farmers on the internet know a lot about what are the best grow lights for indoor plants.

Friday, December 04, 2020

3D Printed Warp Core

The finished product
After finishing my 3D printed Stargate (https://www.thingiverse.com/make:749261 and https://jeremygustafson.blogspot.com/2019/10/3d-printed-stargate-journey.html), I started looking at the other 3D printed things that "Boogle" (the guy who's Stargate build I'd based mine off of) had printed. That led me to this creation: https://www.thingiverse.com/make:589779 - a warp core from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Where the original design had blue-only LEDs, Boogle had expanded upon the electronics to include multi-color lights (RGB LEDs), a web-based control interface to change the light patterns, and Bluetooth connectivity to play sound effects through a speaker.

I also saw Boogle's comment that: "If there's much interest I can put up the source code and PCB files for the brave and the crazy but it won't be anywhere near as well put together as [the original warp core designer's] guide :("

Naïvely counting myself amongst "the brave and the crazy," and since I already had a correspondence running with Boogle (aka Dan) from my Stargate build, I wrote and asked if he'd share his Warp Core PCB (printed circuit board) and source code with me. He did! And then even more graciously, he cheerfully and patiently answered my dozens of questions over the months as I attempted to tweak his circuit board to be more novice-friendly (an attempt I later abandoned, but I learned a LOT along the way), and shared numerous other pointers to help in my struggles.

Early LED test with a spare Raspberry Pi
Early on, I could see one of my biggest hurdles was going to be soldering. While I'd grown comfortable soldering small surface mount components during the Stargate project, some of the chips in Dan's PCB had yet even tinier pins, in no small quantity. Since these were expensive chips ($3-ish a piece for some), and since I didn't think I would have the fine motor dexterity to successfully solder them, Dan suggested I could redesign the board to use a different set of chips that had larger pads. "Larger" here is a relative term, meaning "still tiny but roughly the same size as on the other surface mount pieces I'd successfully soldered previously."

For several months I on-again-off-again worked toward redesigning the PCB with these other chips, and finally in mid-summer, after MUCH hand-holding from Dan, finished that design. The experience was turned slightly anti-climactic while placing the order, because it was at this point I discovered the factory that made the circuit boards would also do some automated assembly/soldering for most of the chips, including the "novice-friendly" chips I'd used in the design. So as it turned out, I paid them money and they sent me almost-completed boards.

Completed ring section, fully lit!
Nevertheless, as an electronics novice, I learned a LOT along the way, including some rudimentary skill in examining chip data sheets, and perhaps more usefully, how to use a particular online PCB editing tool, which I would later use to design my own Stargate Atlantis circuit boards. (see an as-yet-unwritten blog post about that project!).

I excitedly awaited the arrival of my circuit boards from China, and timed a summer vacation from work to coincide with when the boards would arrive, knowing I would still need to solder the micro USB connectors onto the boards (those weren't available as part of the factory assembly service), and then thinking I'd be able to completely finish assembling the warp core that same week.

The magic smoke escaped
(and left scorch marks)
Freshly into my weeklong vacation, my Dad graciously allowed me to take over his soldering workstation for a day (which turned into multiple days). Things went south for me almost immediately. After successfully soldering a few capacitors and other components with "large" pads, I tried my hand at the micro USB ports.

Spoiler alert: this went, shall we say, "poorly."

After several days of effort, I'd ruined/ripped/burnt the pads on several circuit boards, ruined 6 or 7 USB connectors, and then after I thought I'd finally soldered the ports correctly, I plugged it in, heard a sizzling sound, and cried as I watched the magic smoke escape (fortunately no fire extinguishers were required).

It was at this point I decided to salvage the remainder of my vacation by taking a break from the warp core for a while. Though, I would be remiss if I didn't also say there was one good thing that came from all the soldering failure, and that was that I got to spend a lot of hours hanging out with my parents, which was truly wonderful.

Around this time Alissa asked me a question that I still think about: do I want my hobbies to be challenging and frustrating? I really had to stop and ponder. My eventual answer was that I do enjoy challenges... that are within my ability to learn and achieve. The Stargate project helped me learn more about electronics than I’d known since 9th grade electronics class, and this warp core project continued that learning. And in documenting my build process my hope is to pass some of that along so that the next “me” looks at this warp core project and says “yeah, I can learn how to do this.” (for instance, I know at least two people have built Stargates based on my directions I published)

Partial assembly

Now that I've reached the end, I can definitively say the warp core was both challenging AND frustrating, but that I view it as yet another step in preparation for future projects, like the aforementioned Stargate Atlantis, but also my hopes of perhaps designing a Quantum Link handlink prop (something I've wanted since childhood), and my eventual goal of building a club-spec R2-D2. I think I might have too many hobbies, but the benefit of that is that when one gets a little too frustrating, I can just pause for a little bit and hop to a different hobby to relax (like painting).

When I eventually came back to the warp core, I'd discovered that I could purchase pre-soldered micro USB boards for only $1.50 a piece. So I did that. I also discovered that the circuit board assembly service could solder the more expensive/faster/better/harder-to-solder chip that Dan had used in his original design, so my entire venture into redesigning the board was basically moot (except for the learning along the way). I went ahead and un-redesigned my PCB back to Dan's original version, except with easily-solderable headers that could connect to these pre-soldered USB boards, and placed an order. I'm sometimes a Scrooge when it comes to spending my personal allowance money, and so I briefly considered just ordering the parts and not paying for the assembly service (which is somewhat pricy), but with Alissa's reminder of "how much is your time worth?", it was an easier decision to pony up the extra cost to have the boards pre-soldered as much as possible.

Short story short: soldering the new boards went easily and uneventfully.

Partial assembly
Turning my attention to the software side of things, the experience was neither easy nor uneventful. I won't bore you more than I already have, but in short, when Dan mentioned to me that he'd had to perform "unspeakable hackery" to get things to work, that rings true to my experience. I documented my steps along the way to make it easier writing a guide at the end, and many of my notes were of the form, "try this. Nope, don't do that, try this instead. Nevermind, that didn't work, try this third thing instead. Screw ALL of that, go back to the first thing, except do this differently, and touch your nose and lick your elbow at the same time." Finally there came a moment where I glanced at my screen and exclaimed, "holy sheep, it worked!" (or something like that).

Finished warp core!
At the end, I used all those notes to compile what I think is a fantastically thorough guide, along with a lengthy troubleshooting document with all the specific error messages I encountered and how I eventually solved them.

Late at night on Friday, November 27th, I jokingly (and proudly) posted on Facebook that "Alissa's Thanksgiving wish came true, she'll finally stop having to listen to me talk about "warp core this" and "warp core that". Aka, the warp core is finished!"

In case it wasn't clear, let me be abundantly clear that I owe so many thanks to Dan for sharing his design and answering my innumerable questions and cheering me on along the way; to my parents for also cheering me on along the way and my Dad especially for letting me take over his electronics bench for almost a week; and of course to Alissa for putting up with my constant "warp core this" and "warp core that," and still loving me through it all.




Monday, July 13, 2020

Saudi Arabian Adventures from 2015

Between June 2015 to January 2016, I was privileged to take four work trips to Saudi Arabia, for a total of eight weeks spent in the Kingdom. While my intent had been to publish this blog post shortly afterward, life happened and a lot of my writing... didn't. Now (four/five years later) I've finally dusted off an earlier draft and polished it for public consumption. About half of what you'll read was written in 2015/16, and I've decided to keep some of the in-that-time based language (for instance, the very first sentence below begins with a future-looking "by the end of 2015..."). Apologies for any confusion my time-traveling writing tenses may inflict.

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!"
Or,
"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
In late 2014, my company sold a supercomputer to the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Cray press release | KAUST press release). While I was in Saudi, the system made headlines when it ranked as the #7 most powerful supercomputer in the world, so it was kind of a big deal. [of course, since then newer, more powerful systems have pushed it down on the list]

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.
These employee meetings are optional, and I usually skip them. I don't remember why in particular I attended that day, but please allow me to digress for a couple paragraphs to talk about another way (in addition to the Saudi opportunity) in which that decision was life-and-career-altering. At the meeting, I was joined by a manager I knew from a different group, and we got to talking afterward; she mentioned how she would have an entry-level position opening soon in her group, so if I had any friends just graduating college who might be interested, I should send them her way. "Actually," I told her, "if there's any way you can make that a level II position instead of entry, I'd be interested." "Oh!" she replied, surprised. "Let me see what I can do..."

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.
I wrote an email to the lead KAUST installation project manager, laying out my skillset and asking if I had any of the skills they needed for the site volunteers. We talked in person the next week and yes, they could use me! After clearing it with my new manager, I offered some possible weeks that I could travel. Originally I'd intended only to volunteer for one set of dates, but they took my "or" as an "and" and scheduled me for both. Being single at the time, with no kids and no pets at home, I think I was kind of an ideal candidate. And fortunately my new boss agreed that supporting KAUST was a high priority and gave me wide latitude to keep pursuing it.

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
During the hotel-booking process, I found out I'd be staying off-campus for the first trip, because the on-campus hotel was fully booked. This made me feel, to put it mildly, "uncomfortable." Having never been to Saudi before, my only knowledge of the country came from news reports about bloggers being sentenced to 1000 lashes for writing anti-King[dom] sentiments, or a woman who was raped being sentenced to lashes for adultery, or the bombings with Yemen. I knew KAUST campus itself was safe (and fortunately far away from Yemen), but didn't feel comfortable staying off-campus. As my parents can attest, I very nearly pulled the plug on the whole trip, but I'm very glad I didn't. After talking with many coworkers and friends and people who'd been there and returned with all limbs attached, I suppressed my nervousness and affirmed my decision to go. A couple days before my first flight, I had a chance to grab coffee with my aquaintance Stefan, the worship leader from my evening church, who has traveled to the Middle East extensively and has numerous friends there; hearing his perspective considerably eased my tension, and also got me really thinking about how founded or unfounded my fears might be. I wrote a blog post at the time but never published it, so I'm going to include that here:


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]
It's been a lot to think about.



Trip #1


Saudia safety pamphlet
Packing was stressful, largely because I chose to wait until the last evening before & morning of my flight to throw everything into my suitcase. I based my packing list off of my most recent LA travels, plus a few things like passport, electricity adapters, and travel papers that I wanted to have handy when going through immigration. This process was complicated by figuring out precisely what I'd need in my carry-ons (for example, I always pack a set of clothes to carry-on, in case my checked luggage is lost or delayed) and if I'd just done it a few days earlier it would have been so much less stressful; leaving everything until the last minute because I'd been busy, was plain and simple a mistake.

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.
What wasn't soothing was arriving and going through immigration. I'd been warned by my coworker that the mad rush to get off the plane was... well... mad. At the Jeddah airport, we deplaned in the middle of the desert and loaded onto buses; these took us to the main terminal where the immigration lines are. I succeeded in getting onto the first bus to depart (win!) and then de-bussed reasonably quickly at the terminal, but then... I didn't know where to go, because the signage inside the entrance was not particularly clear. When I got into the large immigration room with lines and lines of people, it took me minutes to figure out which line to wait in, which lost me any advantage I might have garnered being early off the bus. Shoot.

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
For all the stress of pre-trip uncertainties and agonies of travel and immigration, Bay La Sun hotel marked a turning point toward awesomeness; as my Grandma Sue would have said, it was "very deluxe" (and for almost $300/night, it'd better be!). Of course my first night all I really cared about was the bed :) I got to the hotel about 10:15 that night and unpacked somewhat, showered, prepped my briefcase for the next morning, and fell asleep. Jetlag kept me from sleeping all night like I should have, which sucked, because I had made plans to meet my fellow site workers for breakfast at 6:30 the next morning. Those who know me know I struggle to function without 8-9 full hours of sleep, so those first few days were rough.
Sleep! Glorious sleep.

Fresh fruit in the fancy hotel room

Bay La Sun hotel from my floor looking down
At the hotel's breakfast buffet, I enjoyed chicken sausage and beef bacon (no pork in KSA), mango juice, and some dried fruit bits. (I was never brave enough to try the carrot juice, though I heard it was good). Because I had never met the other site workers, I didn't know which table to introduce myself to, so... I ate by myself that first day. On my way out of the restaurant, though, I recognized a software logo on a guy's shirt, so I shyly introduced myself and at long last met my coworkers, one from Switzerland and one from the UK. We meandered out to the bus (which leaves promptly at 7:20 each morning... sooooo early...), and on the bus I met the fourth of our group, who was from Lebanon. My entire first week in Saudi Arabia, I did not hear another American accent.

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
KAUST has two security checkpoints on the way in, between which is the visitor's center where I picked up my temporary visitor ID; a few days later I was given an official ID valid for 1-month. Once inside the gate it's a 3-minute-ish ride to the bus drop-off, then a few minutes' walk to the computer building, where we arrived almost precisely at 8 a.m.

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
Speaking of lunch, KAUST has over a dozen restaurants / eateries on campus, so finding food was never a challenge. Usually my coworkers and the KAUST admin team and I would wander over to the campus cafeteria, conveniently located about 20 feet from the computer building. It was like any college / university cafeteria, with lines for pizza, grilled things, middle eastern things, rabbit-food (salad) things, juices, desserts, etc. The few days we didn't eat there, though, we explored some of the other restaurants, like an Italian restaurant with pizza cheeses imported from Italy (quattro formaggi pizza == delicious).

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
The initial phase of KAEC was built in a hurry, with much of the city remaining unconstructed. Within the walls there are vast expanses of sand, destined to become housing, shopping, I heard eventually even a stock market. Whether it was propaganda or not, I became swept up in the excitement of all the "could be"s of KAEC - it would be fascinating to come back in 20 or 50 years and see how it's grown. For now though, there are temporary walls everywhere barricading off construction zones, sidewalks that end abruptly or in heaps of rubble, and at least one stop sign facing to stop traffic on a not-yet-in-existence road. And while the city is geographically large, it seems still to have a small population (I never heard an official number, but I'm guessing single-digit thousands), so while I did see others out and about, they were few in number. Everyone I did encounter was friendly.

Unfinished sidewalk in KAEC
I felt safe walking around KAEC at night, even when I was by myself. The sidewalks are well-lit by streetlights, and though there aren't many people around, there are enough that I figured if I got mugged, it wouldn't be long before someone came along. That said, I never feared for my safety, due both to the security patrols and that it was a gated city - everyone needed a legitimate reason for being there in order to get past the front gate. But the other big factor for me, was that both KAUST and KAEC are deliberately "western" (this is also one reason why they're segregated [by a large expanse of desert] from the rest of Saudi society), which meant I could worry just a little bit less about accidentally committing a social faux pas that could get me into trouble.

KAEC sidewalk at night; Bay La Sun hotel in distance
Ramadan started during my first week at KAUST. I had worried going into the trip whether I would be forced to fast, but that was not the case - the hotel still had 6 a.m. to midnight room service, and their normal breakfast buffet until 10 a.m. (though the buffet did move down the hallway to a secluded meeting room). The cafeteria on campus was open normal hours and people could eat inside, just not outside in public. Many of the restaurants allowed take-out, as well.

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
Jet lag took some time to recover from, but by the weekend I was onto a normal sleeping schedule. I've heard that adjusting to a new timezone takes 1 day for each timezone you cross, and that was close to accurate for me: 6 days to adjust to an 8 hour difference. The first few days I was utterly exhausted, especially because I'm not used to waking up at 6 a.m. anymore, but once my body started adjusting to the early mornings, I had enough energy in the evenings to go for walks and explore. During that first weekend I took a walk at high noon to explore the town, which may have been a mistake - I definitely didn't see anyone else out and about at that time and temperature!! (they were probably looking out their windows asking "who's that crazy guy taking a walk in this heat?") Back in the hotel I took a shower and watched Netflix the rest of the day. The solitude of being in another country with no friends nearby provided me some much-needed introvert recharge time. Many people asked me whether I did much sight-seeing and exploring while I was there, but the truth is I just desperately needed time for myself away from people, and my hotel room was my sanctuary.

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.

KAEC construction
Going into my first weekend (the weekends are Friday & Saturday), I was on my own for a couple days, as one coworker left Thursday night and his replacement wouldn't arrive until Saturday sometime. It was of course during this Thursday night, as I was on my own, that a major issue came up that I needed to call back to the states to help solve. Good thing I got that international phone plan! (with it, calls were 50 cents/minute; without it they would have been $2.50!) We got everything fixed in short order, and I have to commend the on-call guy I talked with for his cool, calm, and collected head while I was busy panicking. Also I had fasted that day, which I'm sure didn't help my "OH MY GOODNESS EVERYTHING'S BROKEN I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FIX IT" mentality.

Reflection pond behind KAEC's Visitor's Center
At the beginning of my second week, a new coworker arrived from the States, at which time I heard my first American accent (other than from Skyping with Alissa and my telephone calls with the on-call guy from support) since arriving. I actually found it kind of weird - KAUST is truly an international experience, and I guess I'd become acclimated to the accents. Because he was a software guy, for a couple days *I* was the hardware "expert", until another guy joined us from Australia. When I first met him, he looked tall and menacing, but turns out he's the friendliest teddy bear (or koala bear? since, you know, Australian).

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...)
During my second week, I got to have a cultural experience I was not planning: visiting the medical clinic. I'm fine, don't worry, just had an ear issue that needed looking at. The clinic was walking distance from the computer center (though it was a hot day so I was sweaty by the time I got there); and here I learned that, although English *is* the official language of KAUST, it's still not always easy to communicate in English. Trying to schedule an appointment was frustrating, as I attempted to explain "no, I'm not a KAUST resident, I don't have Saudi insurance, and the only phone number I can give you is my American phone. Yes, my American phone works here. No, seriously, that's the only phone number I have that I can give you. Why do you need my phone number anyway? Yes, I'm absolutely sure I have no other phone number I can possibly write down on your form. Here's my passport, okay thanks for the medical ID and appointment time." I suppose though it did give me a higher empathy for non-English speakers who struggle to use our American health system. (Heck, even native English speakers like me struggle while navigating the ludicrous complexities of our healthcare!)

Shawarma. Yummy!
In the evenings back at KAEC, we'd often go out for dinner as a group. The sales guy, who is from the Middle East, introduced me to some amazing local cuisine, and something called shawarma, which was pure deliciousness. I don't often get excited about food, but for shawarma I made an exception. He and I also had some really good talks about faith, and what it's like for him being a Christian in the Middle East.

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
Once I had my ticket, it took maybe another 20-30 minutes to get into and through passport control (these lines at least were orderly), another 2-3 minutes at security (the lines weren't bad at all, nothing compared to the ridiculousness of the US's TSA), and then there's a massive store you have to walk through to get to the gate waiting area. Despite my earlier panic, I got there in plenty of time. There's not much to do in the waiting area - it's pretty much just a large room with a bunch of seats, and a couple monitors that list the upcoming departures in both Arabic and English. Every few minutes an angry sounding man would announce something in Arabic (I have no idea what, but boy did he sound cranky!), alternating every other few minutes with a gentle automated male voice announcing, "Saudi Arabian Airlines announces the departure of flight 1...7...0, now boarding from gate...12". As soon as the gate number is announced, a massive line starts to form at said gate. Seeing this, and also rather paranoid still about missing my flight, I planted myself by the monitor so I would know right away when my gate was announced. Soon as I saw my gate number, I bee-lined, and got in the early part of the line. The gate agent scanned my ticket, then we proceeded down an escalator and stood in another line where the armed border patrols double checked everyone had an exit stamp on their passports. Outside we boarded buses, which brought us to the plane (about a 5 minute ride). At long last, we got to board, and I fell asleep.

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
Save for the 24-hours door-to-door travel component (and in particular the horrific lines at the Jeddah airport), my tour at KAUST was otherwise a thoroughly phenomenal experience. Yes, long working hours, and hot temperatures (95+ degrees every day, no clouds, no rain), but all the buildings had AC, and both KAUST and KAEC were absolutely beautiful, with palm trees everywhere and green grass and numerous reflective pools and water fountains. Exiting the computer building, I could gaze out on the Red Sea. I felt very safe the entire time, and life was good. As I told friends and family, I enjoyed my time and looked forward to going back again in July.

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



Trip #2


Let's be honest, I ate a lot of pastries from the bakery
When I started writing this blog after my first trip, I wrote: "For all the trepidation I originally felt going into the first trip, now I find myself looking forward to going back next Friday!" I think a large part of this excitement had to do with work buying my meals every day :) KAUST and KAEC both had a lot of restaurants with very yummy food. And while I did choose to fast some days during Ramadan, I wasn't forced to, as the cafeteria stayed open during the day (it appears many of the people on-campus are non-Muslim). During my first trip, I'd also discovered the Bay La Sun hotel put on a huge buffet in the evening for the breaking of the fast. I don't have really great words for describing the experience, other than what a neat cultural experience to observe up that close.

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
This trip I got to stay on the on-campus hotel, which wasn't as luxurious as Bay La Sun. Where I'd rank BLS as a 5-star, the KAUST Inn was probably 3-star. Not bad at all, just not as elegant and classy. On the plus side, though, the wifi was considerably more stable (and didn't kick you off after 3 hours), AND, most importantly, the hotel is just a 10-minute walk to the computer building and café, so I can both sleep in and work later more easily, making my work schedule a better fit to my normal routine. The hotel was also right next to the mosque, so I'd get to hear all the evening calls to prayer. I made a couple recordings so I'd have them to listen to back home.

KAUST academic buildings, from underneath
During this trip, I took a lot of walks in the evenings to explore, and I still haven't seen all of campus. KAUST is huge. It's its own city, with their own clinic, movie theatre, a dozen restaurants, multiple mosques, and recreation centers/gyms. Huge. In the residential areas, the houses look cookie-cutter identical. There are lots of mini-parks with small playgrounds. Not a lot of people around though, due to Ramadan and the following week-long Eid holiday.

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).

I took time to notice when I'd talk with a follower of Islam how peaceful and calming their voices were, and oftentimes how harsh or blunt my voice sounded in comparison. I wonder what my own faith, and sense of inner peace, would look like if I prayed diligently throughout the day like my Muslim brothers and sisters. I wonder what it would look like for me to "fast" from some of the distractions that pull me away from God, that keep me from spending a few minutes here and there during the day to pause and pray.

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:
KAUST mosque
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
My middle week during this trip was the week-long holiday of Eid, and pretty much everyone was out of town. My fellow Cray coworker and I were the only folks in the computer building, other than the security guard. So it was a calm, non-stressful week!

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.

Speed limit
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
- deplane
- 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
- deplaning
- 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



Trip #3


Because apparently two trips wasn't enough, when the opportunity arose to volunteer again, I did.

Almost an entire row to myself
The flight from Paris to Jeddah had a short layover in Medina, because it was almost Eid. A quick cultural side-bar: there are two weeklong Eid holidays, one comes at the end of Ramadan, the other is about a month later, and that's the "big one" when Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca ("Hajj"); as I understand it, Medina is one of the starting points for the Hajj, so almost everyone on our flight deplaned there. This left me with an entire row (almost literally all the way across the plane) 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
If you'll recall, last time through immigration I came up with a plan to cheat the system by the clever wearing of a KAUST polo shirt (this is where Alissa will call me "entitled," but so-be-it). During my Parisian layover I changed into my KAUST shirt, and when I got to Jeddah I asked a traffic director if there was a special line for KAUST; he took one look at my shirt, and then far exceeded my hopes by bumping me into a special line with only three people!! Minutes later, I excitedly scribbled a note saying "21:39: Already through immigration!!!!" In fact, I got through SO fast that I had to WAIT half an hour for my luggage to come on the conveyor. By 22:15 I was in the taxi.

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
I arrived at campus at 23:05, and by 23:30 I was in my hotel room in the KAUST Inn 2, almost exactly 24 hours door-to-door from when I'd left. This time, at least, though, I'd been smart enough to fly out a day early, so I had a recovery day in between flying and having to go to work on Sunday. I unpacked, fell asleep, and... slept in until 1:30 p.m. ... oops. Upon waking, I experienced the 3-star vs 5-star difference of the KAUST Inn vs the Bay La Sun, as I found water leaking in the bathroom from the shower in the room above mine; also the bedroom thermostat stopped working. On the other hand, I got the larger room I'd requested and hoped for (after learning about it from other coworkers), with both a living room/office and a bedroom, and a sliding door that steps out right to the main campus mosque. So, not bad, over all. I went grocery shopping on campus to get some snacks, showered, and then logged into work to finish up a project.

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!
On Friday of that first week, I attended the 12:30 mosque service with one of the KAUST computer scientists, Saber, whom I'd gotten to know. What a cool experience. The sermon was in Arabic, but Saber gave me a quick translation afterward. He guided me through the prayers, standing / kneeling / prostrating / back up again, and helped me feel a sense of belonging in this new-to-me environment. I learned that the following Wednesday, the day before Eid, was an optional day of fasting, which he said brings forgiveness of last year's sins and those of the coming year. While I believe my sins are already forgiven as part of my spiritual journey with Jesus, I decided as a spiritual exercise that it'd be worthwhile to try fasting again, and also so that Saber and I could break fast together that evening. Unfortunately he ended up getting sick that day so we couldn't get together, but it was still a good exercise for me; in particular, I learned it's REALLY hard for me to focus when I'm hungry, and that's a good lesson for identifying with so many people in our cities who are constantly suffering from hunger.

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
Thursday morning I woke up super early for the mosque service at 6:30, and met up with Saber and another of our coworkers, Rooh. Normally the mosque is very quiet when people enter, but this time it was noisy - many were chanting "Allāhu akbar" (God is the greatest), and a group of kids had found the microphone in front and were leading the assembly in the chant. The order of service was also different than normal, with prayers coming first this time followed by a 15-minute sermon; this is either the or "one of the" most holy days in Islam, so it was very special to be able to worship with my friends, and very hard to say goodbye afterward, since at this point I didn't have any additional travel plans to come back.

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/?
set=a.10100109832492005.1073741840.40400401&type=1&l=18127c19ef

KAUST fitness center

They must spend a mint on watering

KAUST main academic buildings, at sunset




Trip #4


I'm not used to my food staring at me while I eat
At the end of January 2016 I got one final opportunity to visit KAUST, this time only for one week (aka, just enough time to un-jet-lag, then turn around and go home and get re-jet-lagged :). I stayed at Bay La Sun in KAEC this time, and pretty much my only notes from this trip are all meal-related, so I guess I really enjoyed the food this trip! Meals included: an Italian buffet on Friday night, a chicken salad at the [Applebees-esque] steakhouse Saturday night, a shawarma buffet Sunday night, and an Indian buffet Monday night, including an Indian dessert buffet, which I noted was "very yummy." One day during the week, my KAUST coworkers took me into the local town, Thuwal, to dine at a fish restaurant for lunch; we got there in time to place our order before they closed for Dhuhr prayer, then we went to a nearby beach to walk along a boardwalk while we waited. Upon returning to the restaurant, we were seated on a carpeted area, removed our shoes, and reclined against some pillows, as the cooked fishes with heads still attached were brought out to us. While eating with my hands wasn't a new experience (having been to India during my college years), the fish eyes staring back at me while I ate was new.

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.
During one of my last evenings at KAEC, I realized I'd never visited the inside of the Visitor's Center, so I decided to check that out. Inside, there was a miniature 3D model map of what KAEC will eventually grow to be. I love tiny model things, so this was an absolute delight. After wandering around the building and reading some of the posters, I headed for the exit, and was confronted by an angry guard who said the building was closed. Apparently it closed at like 4:30 (and this was something like 6 o'clock now), and I was supposed to have known that despite there not being any signs and the door being open. Oh well, I'd already finished exploring so I just skedaddled and went to dinner.

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.

When I last stayed at Bay La Sun (during my first trip), there had been a shuttle bus that ran to/from KAUST once in the morning and evening. I'm not sure I quite understood correctly, but I was told the driver's visa expired since then and he went back to his home country, and the hotel never hired a replacement, so there was no longer a shuttle. So, I took a private taxi each day. My final day, when coming back to Bay La Sun, my driver had never been to the hotel so to my amusement *I* became the local expert directing him through the KAEC streets!

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.



Photo albums


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