Friday, June 22, 2012

Licensed to drive, Hitting the Saudi Trifecta

Another great week has past here in the Kingdom (Saudi Arabia that is, not to be confused with the Magical Kingdom which I am sure would have some sort of trademark infringement ;-). From the few bits of communication that I had with Tennessee, it sounds like the family reunion was a great success. I think that Barbara and the kids are now on their way for their westward adventure that will culminate with them joining me at KAUST in the middle of July.

On the local front, because of the inherent amounts of hassle and bureaucracy that come with things I used to take for granted, I continue to celebrate seemingly inconsequential milestones. This week's? Getting a driving license :-)

I went into the adventure with the anticipation that there would be mind-numbing bureaucracy, ambiguous expectations, and poor customer service. I am glad to report that I once again hit the trifecta, but since my expectations were so low I could smile about it and mumble my new favoriate phrase from the movie Madagascar, "just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave"

I was fortunate to have someone to warn me so I was sort of prepared. We met at Government Affairs at KAUST and then had to arrange your own transport to the licensing place north of campus about 45 km. I had already lined up a car and driver (320 SAR/ ~$85USD) and was able to help out a guy so we split the car which was nice. Once we got to Rabigh our first order of business was to get a green folder. I already had one, but since this was the one that our GA rep suggested, and it was only 2 SAR (~0.53 USD) I got one. This worked out because it had some posts for holding paper and it was what was expected.

Next we go to the clinic for our driving physical (60 SAR, ~$16 USD). This consisted of a blood test and an eye exam. The blood test was one that I actually could have studied for. It went like this, "Do you know your blood type?", "A positive", "now go up stairs to the eye exam". (I just hope that I remembered right ;-) Now it is my belief the eye exam is not simply a test to see if you can read signs, but it also tests your ability to follow vague directions, your willingness to wander aimlessly, and even a bit of Latin. As we walk up the stairs there are no helpful signs (in any language) to assist us with our quest. I just happened to see a door down a hallway that said "ophtha office".

 I thought that sounds like ophthalmologist, let's see. We were met by a nice young lady who directed us back down the hall to a waiting area. In the waiting area some of the people had numbers so we went back down in search of such a thing for ourselves. When we were unsuccessful, we asked the woman and she said we didn't need them. After a little while we were led back down the hall where she took each of us into the doctors office, flashed some letters on the wall, and then had us leave the paperwork with the doctor. After a few minutes she brought it back and we headed in search of a doctor in the ER who had to sign and stamp our papers.

From here we went out to the driving facility a few miles away. First we had to get our English driver's licensed translated into Arabic (90 SAR/ $24USD) He was in this little shack across from the actual testing facility and kept pretty busy, but I think he gave everyone the best customer service of the whole adventure. We then paid our license fee (I took the 5 year option @ 240 SAR/ ~$64USD) and headed across the street to window #4 (which was of course empty). Fortunately one of our merry band was already in a different line so we lined up behind him. Once we got to the front we found out that we needed to get a stamp from the windows behind us, so we did and came back.

Then we had to go out for our test drive. There are already about a dozen people when I get there and only 2 cars driving around the middle of the facility and it looked pretty extensive, but they just kept driving. Finally a couple of officers came out and started to get in a couple of other cars. One asked who knew how to drive stick and instantly his car was full before I could get to it. Fortunately they drove one lap and it was my turn. We got in with a guy who said he could drive stick (because there was still a number of people waiting to drive the automatic), but after he stalled it twice trying to start out the officer made him get out and I jumped behind the wheel. We buckled up drove 20 yards, and he said good, now pull over. We played a little Chinese fire drill, and by the time we finished the lap all 3 of use had passed the test.

Now it is about noon and I am thinking that we might make it out before dhuhr (the prayer after midday). We get inside and there is no line  My Muslim Pro app (a must for any logistical considerations in KSA) tells me dhuhr is going to happen a 12:22 so we have about 20 minutes. What do I find when I get to the window? That's right, NOONE! For the next 20 minutes I am anxiously hoping that we will see this officer and he can take our forms. And then we see him with about 3 minutes to spare. As expected, he tells me to sit down until after prayers (just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave). Fortunately there is a cafeteria next door and I was able to get a couple of CHEAP sandwiches (2 SAR).

After prayers, our would be benefactor sits patiently in his chair drinking his coffee and to his credit our line of people didn't bother him a bit. I decided to sit down in a different area that is a bit cooler, but away from the window. After a few minutes one of my traveling buddies comes in and says that the network crashed. Finally about 2:00 we get his final stamp (sidenote: this paper had 7 stamps when it was done, not to mention the signatures that didn't have a stamp) and are then told that the license will be ready tomorrow. KAUST Government Affairs will pick it up and send me an email to come pick it up. So I should probably get it tomorrow or Sunday.

Green Folder: 2 SAR
"Physical": 60 SAR
Translation: 90 SAR
5 year License: 240 SAR
Driver and car: 320 SAR
Winning the Saudi Trifecta: PRICELESS!!

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Saudi Day

What a Saudi kind of day!

It started out with my first trip to Jeddah to get some things for the house, and mainly my first Jeddah experience. Jeddah is about 3.5 million people and the metropolitan location that you go to get those things that you just can't find in the local area. My friend was trying to confirm a cruise to Egypt that he is planning to take in a few weeks so he offered to take me along and I was glad to go. He sent me a message that he would be ready to go around 9:15, so after a a quick run through a community garage sale (didn't really find anything) I met up with him and another friend from work and we headed on the adventure that started out in true Saudi style.

When he had picked up the Tahoe at the rental agency they requested that he get an updated sticker at the security gate. Now me, I would sort of think that is the kind of thing car rental company would usually do that rather than clients, but many things are unique for me, so I wasn't to surprised. So we did so and headed to Jeddah.

The trip there was pretty uneventful, but you could feel that defensive driving is important. On the cool side I did see a couple of herds of camels with a couple running along side the road at one point. So we get into Jeddah and the irony of me not being able to drive because I don't have a Saudi license yet seems kind of humorous (I guess they will be quizzing me on things such as not using turn signals or making sure that I understand solid white and yellow lines alongside the road are simply optional).

So Jerry is driving along and taking it all in stride, but he is not actually 100% sure where we are headed. He had Googled the location and thought that he had it down, but it didn't work out quite that way. We drove around a number of areas that we thought it was supposed to be, but no luck. After awhile (and some spicy chicken from a great little chain) Jerry decided it wasn't worth it and will work with the travel agent here on campus.

We then started to head back to KAUST with the intent to stop off at a SOCO store (like the illegitimate spawn of Dollar General and Lowe's). Not really high end stuff, mostly housewares and outdoor rec., but SOME reasonably priced stuff. I bought a dust mop and some other stuff and headed out the door. We next went to grocery store that is in the same mall, but they don't open the gate to the hall so you have to go clear out and come back in on the other end of the building. In this store I found a dust mop for about 25% of the price and some other things like camel steak (at a later date I will tell you how that comes out). We leave and head back to SOCO to return my high priced dust mop.

The return wasn't as bad as I had expected, with the only difference being that you have to get an invoice and then take it to a cash register to actually get your money. I mean who doesn't feel ripped off if you only got to stand in ONE line. Fortunate for me the register that I went to only had 5's so he couldn't give me the refund and I got to stand in a 3rd line (I know your jealous, but that is how I roll). While I am waiting in my 2nd line I see one of the guys come in and I assume he is looking for me since he heads to the customer service counter. I get his attention so that he knows I am standing in a different line. He tells me that someone had just backed into the truck an he was trying to get a police officer to come fill out a report.

I finish up my line standing and go out to see what is going on. A few people standing around waiting on the cops and a suburban bashed into us and the car next to us.

We're the silver one
After a few more phone calls we find out that the police aren't coming. The guy who backs into us acted like he was drunk, (which is interesting in a country without booze). He decides he has been there long enough and proceeds to drive off. He about aces the ATM that is near us and takes off. We stick around for a bit and finally call the rental place and they are alright with us just bringing it back since we have a number of pictures.

Once on campus, things start to go the other Saudi way. I get invited over to visit a family that is KAUST. On my way over there I get some shots of the Red Sea and campus.

Red Sea looking through the harbor out to the Red Sea

The canal that separates "the Island" from the mainland

Looking across the beach towards the Red Sea

 Looking across the beach towards the Red Sea

Looking across the beach towards the Red Sea

Red Sea sunset

Following these shots I met up at Discovery Square and had some good dinner and conversation.

The irony of Saudi Arabia was truly on display. It included large portions of bureaucracy but ended with fantastic views and great people. I think the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses and I really am going to enjoy it here.

Best wishes to all,

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Quick tour around campus

All right it is time for some site seeing. It was about 110 F (or 44 as they like to call it here ;-), so these are from when I first arrived and have not had time to post UNTIL NOW. The first stop on any tour of KAUST has to focus on "the Beacon". This is an amazing structure with multicolored lights at night. It really is the focus of the harbor and amazing to see.

KAUST Beacon

Next on the tour we have little jelly fish. This is only a picture of one, but later on we came near a pier and there were dozens. It was about the size of a salad or dinner plate. I am told that their sting shouldn't give you any trouble, but I have seen Finding Nemo and am not ready to take the chance ;-) Representing with some Tennessee Orange for the friends back at Tech (sure I only bought it because it was on the clearance rack, but still :-)

KAUST and the Jellys dude!!!
Now we will take a little detour for some liquid refreshment from the past. I mean really when was the last time that you saw a pull tab on a can of soda? Another funny thing is that they don't have diet soda, they have "light".

Coke Light, 80's style
The final destination will be to the office. Our desks are located around the perimeter of this wide open space. Very amazing architecturally, but I do miss having a door (or even a wall for that matter ;-)

Well that is about all for now.

Best wishes,


Friday, June 1, 2012

When the Sabbath isn't Sunday

It's funny as I close out my first official week at KAUST I have been able to adjust to most things a lot easier than I had expected. I am told that it isn't usually this hot and humid (about 110F/~43C) , this early in the year (I guess my pattern of bringing weather extremes in my wake continues ;-). Fortunately, this has not been as bad as I had expected and I am adjusting well.

Then there is the jet lag that everyone talked about. Again this has not been bad. I think that this may have had more to do with the fact that my last 48 hours in the states accounted for about 3 hours sleep, with only 2 more on the plane from DC to Jeddah. It seems that the cure for jet lag is extreme exhaustion.

So it would seem to be smooth sailing if I have already knocked out my two greatest concerns, right? WRONG!!! I can't get used to the week/ weekend. This was best epitomized this morning (Friday) when I received a phone call that my ride to Church was waiting in the driveway. This turned out to be problematic since the call had woken me up :-( So I sent them on their way and was thinking how did I miss my alarm, and then it hit me, I SET IT FOR SUNDAY!!! I have been using my tablet as my alarm clock, and it has worked very well. So I set it last night when I went to bed, heck I even named it "Sunday Alarm" Once I realized what had happened I fixed the alarm, and renamed it "Friday alarm"

I was fortunate that yesterday I was able to meet most of the members that are here at KAUST and was able to have dinner on the square with them and get to know them better. I even went and helped one family move some furniture. A true quorum activity ;-) Downside being that one of the families will be moving back to the States here in the next couple of weeks, and another family will be leaving until the end of August. Regardless, I think they are going to be a great group of people, I just wished that I had been able to go to church with them today :-(

I am sure at some point I will get this all worked through, but it sure is annoying for now.

Best wishes,


Check out this picture that one of people sent me from his morning run.

Picture of the KAUST Beacon at day break