Unexpectedly, I find myself in Riyadh tonight. This is my first trip here, though so far the sum total of my experience has been airport, taxi, and hotel.
I hope that I manage to see something uniquely Riyadh during the trip, though I will not be surprised if my journey is a sequence of point-to-point trips, with no time in the actual city. A shame.
The story, so far as I know it, is that we (my team lead, Andrew Winfer, and I) have been called out as representatives of KAUST to assist KACST in the configuration of their Blue Gene/P. They have a single rack (4096 PowerPC compute cores, likely with four terabytes of memory disributed among them). As I understand it, KACST is structured much like a national laboratory, and this system is being managed by the group of research scientists using it. Apparently they haven't been terribly pleased with the system thus far; but a Blue Gene is a bit different from a traditional cluster, and those differences can be confusing at first.
I hope we will be able to assist them. More exciting, though, is the possibility that this is the first in a series of future collaborations between our two institutions.
Of course, I haven't been to KACST yet: we only just arrived in Riyadh at 22:00. I'm procrastinating sleep with the trickle of Internet available in my room.
KAUST has put us up in the Brzeen Hotel. (I'm giving up on trying to isolate a correct Arabic spelling.) The room is perfectly servicable, if a bit barren; but overshadowing everything else is the size of it all.
Anyway: I expect there will be more interesting things to say tomorrow.
On 1 September we'll be making our next trip back to the states to see friends and family. We've been looking forward to it for quite a while. Breaking with tradition, I've had everything planned out pretty well ahead of time: airline tickets, en–route meetups, busses...
That is the mindset I was in this weekend, as I took a leisurely walk through the campus with a couple friends. No worries. Carefree.
Until I realized that I had forgotten to file for the renewal of Andi and my exit (and re–entry) visas.
"No problem," I thought: "We have two weeks, and it's never taken more than one to get them."
Then I remembered that the second of these two weeks was Eid: non–essential government services would be shut down during the break, including visa paperwork.
I couldn't sleep on Friday night: what if we didn't manage to get our visas on time?
On Saturday morning (the beginning of my workweek) I was in the office by six–thirty, filling out the visa request forms. They require my manager's signature; and though he wasn't in the office this week, he had signed copies turned around to me via email in under an hour. The government affairs department assured me that I'd have our visas before Eid--likely Monday--which did some to allay my fears; but I wouldn't be able to stop worrying about the potential impact of my carelessness until I had those strange pieces of paper stapled in the back of our passports.
Today, I feel so much better.
My attempt to follow the Ramadan fast this year is going much better than last year. (I didn't get violently ill after one day, after all.) I think it's about ten days to go now, so I seem to be in the clear.
It's been an interesting experience. I've learned a bit about myself, and about the centrality of food (specifically eating) to society. I haven't spent much time with my coworkers during the fast: there's no lunch, no coffee breaks...
Yesterday wasn't so good of a day for me, both for completely unrelated reasons and because I hadn't had enough water the night before. We were out of food, so I was at Tamimi to get something to eat for iftar. There was Khan: "Jon! Come have breakfast with me!" For once, it just felt right. I went with him, and shared iftar with Khan and his coworkers in the back of Tamimi.
It was awesome.
I have been particularly struck by the prevalence and visibility of worship here in Saudi Arabia. We thought that we knew what it would be like, (five daily prayers, fasting at Ramadan, mosques everywhere) but I did not anticipate quite the expression of devotion that we've seen. More than once we've witnessed a crowd of men exiting a coffee shop to pray together at the call, or pulled over at the side of the road to pray alone while other's simply drive by. There's a refreshing quantity of spiritual devotion that is both prevalent enough to earn specific notice but not so universal as to invalidate it via an excuse of cultural conformity.
That's just my long winded way of saying that I admire the devotion that I've seen here, and have been thinking about it a lot in reference to my own devotion to the rituals and lifestyle of Christianity. Of course, the logical reaction was to observe Ramadan.
First, a quick primer on modern Ramadan observances in Jeddah. For a twenty-eight-day month you don't consume any food or drink (including water) or indulge oneself in any way, really, from sunrise until sunset. You work a shortened, 6-hour work day to compensate. Each morning, you get up before sunrise to eat the Sahur meal, and each night, at sunset, you break the fast at the Iftar meal. The practice of denying yourself something of which your body continually reminds you is meant to develop patience and self-control while directing attention toward Allah. This all sounded pretty good (from some perspectives of good) and I have fasted before (though admittedly nothing to this extent) so I thought I've give it a try.
After two days, I felt as though a train was about to burst out of my forehead--on fire--right after having ripped up my throat on the way out. Every single person who saw me asked me why I looked so drained (as I hadn't really publicized my attempt). I couldn't even eat much at Iftar, feeling as though I might just vomit it all back up. Even after admitting defeat I did not fully recover until three days of eating and drinking normally.
I was doing it wrong.
That shortened work week? I didn't take it. "I've never asked for special treatment during a fast before!" I thought. I hadn't ever not had water during a fast, either. I guess that's a bigger deal than I gave it credit for.
The Sahur? I didn't really take it. I'd have fruit, bread, and water in the morning, but I didn't feel comfortable enough to ask the hotel to serve me the real thing. As I found out later, I wasn't even having a real Iftar, either. Apparently there are a few specific things that you are supposed to eat to replenish what your body has lost (like dates and whole milk), and I didn't take the time to learn about any of it.
Most importantly, I didn't actually use the experience to focus my attention on my faith, defeating the entire purpose of the exercise.
I'm not going to completely discount the possibility that I really did just get sick, but most likely I got an opportunistic infection after completely abusing myself for two days without sufficient replenishment, either physically, socially, or spiritually.