catching up

Despite the obvious lack of available information, the past few months have been eventful. We’re in our fifth hotel now, the Rosewood Corniche, having traveled from our home south of Chicago to White Plains, New York; San Diego, California; Paris, France (for all of two hours); and now Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

We were originally supposed to relocate 15 June 2009. Rather, we were originally supposed to relocated in November of 2010, but some as-yet-unnamed individual (or groupthink) changed all that. We were handed a new relocation date (again, 15 June) and told to prepare.

For those of you who have never traveled to Saudi Arabia, let me digress for a moment to tell you a bit about the visa application process: it’s extensive. Very extensive. “Medical exam so thorough the doctors have never heard of the tests” extensive. A deceptively-single page covered in “positive/negative” checkboxes that certify that you are either worthy of entry or summarily fired. (I guess they usually do these before they hire you, but someone thought better of it since “we were going to be working in the US for over a year anyway.”) If the tests themselves–and the passport photos, and the background check, and the scholastic reports–were not complicated enough, we suffered mistakes. Little mistakes, but many. Forgotten tests. Incorrect tests. Mislabeled samples. Lost samples. Exploding samples. (I am quite glad that I was not present for that one.) Complicating matters even more, Andi was traveling the entire time. Round One in New York. Rounds Two and Three in Wisconsin. Rounds Four and Five in Florida. All within the span of two weeks. (At least the three times I had to go were all in the same state.) These complications and over-complications set our relocation date back by a month (or one month closer to our original date, however you care to see it).

For the curious, Andi and I are now both certified–to the satisfaction of the Saudi Arabian government–to be free of syphilis, malaria, HIV, hepatitis, cholera, parasites, mental retardation, mental disorder, paralysis, blindness, hearing disorder, speech disorder, and unborn children. Good to know.

After an epic three-way phone call with a testing clinic, more mad FedEx-overnighting than I’ve ever seen before, and a mysterious visit to the Saudi embassy in DC, Andi and I were each the proud owner of an entry visa for Saudi Arabia.

In the mean time, I had been working furiously to co-ordinate the sale of my 1999 Pontiac Grand Am to a good friend in need of a vehicle. It turns out it’s complicated to pay off a Wisconsin loan for an Illinois-titled car while living in New York and shipping to California… especially without a reliable mailing address. Still, just days after my entry visa arrived, the shippers appeared and carried away my car, leaving me to walk back to my hotel. As a born-and-bred midwesterner from the heartland of car culture, stranded (as it were) far from what my subconscious still considers home, that was a very odd feeling.

A eight-hour flight to Paris should be exciting. A little less so when you only get to be in Paris for two hours. Even less so when you never get to leave the airport… and when you’ve got another seven-hour flight after that… and when you’re flying coach.

When we finally arrived at the Jeddah airport, we were pleasantly surprised to find an entire KAUST greeting booth–with its now-familiar, large, colorful, and beckoning logo–manned and ready to receive us. We were ushered quickly through customs, and our bags were left unopened after a quick run through an x-ray, putting to rest months of fears about complications at the border. It took us thirty minutes to move from the plane to the car. (As Andi later remarked, “I thought they were driving us somewhere else for the actual customs check!”)

It might not surprise you to find out that Saudi Arabia is nothing like the US, so you’ll be very surprised to find out that it is exactly like the US… only hotter… and the men wear thobes and the women wear abayas… and everything is in Arabic… and businesses shut down five times a day for prayer… and there’s wild camels roaming the desert… ok, so maybe it’s not exactly like the US, but I was shocked by how familiar it can feel. One of the first things I saw (in the semi-conscious car ride from the airport to the hotel) was an iPhone billboard for the 3GS. Then a mall, in which I saw a Fudruckers. (That’s right, a Fudruckers.) Burger King… Applebees… TGI Fridays… There’s a Pizza Hut down the road from our hotel! (I’m starting to notice that I can’t think of much aside from the restaurants, so perhaps I’ve only underestimated the affect that familiar food can have.)

Oh, they have Wal-Mart, too. Only it’s not Wal-Mart, it’s HyperPanda, which, as I’m sure you are aware, is an infinitely better name than Wal-Mart. (Obviously, it follows that Saudi Arabia > the US.) Nothing makes the human experience seem more universal than watching a Saudi man stand awkwardly with his wife in the “feminine products” aisle.

Initial impressions at the KAUST campus were bad. My entire first day in Thuwal was spent in and around our datacenter… a ghastly sight. We entered the building through a hole in the wall, traversed the offices without floors, to reach the machine room: Shaheen splayed open, Blue Gene entrails spread callously across the floor. 85% humidity… heat… dust… and that’s with all the hardware turned off. This room was not fit to have a machine like Shaheen in it. (It still isn’t, really, though it’s closer every day.)

The next day was better. My project manager led me through more-complete areas of the campus: the vast tunnel that runs through the center of the academic square… the seafront… the residences… (Actually, those were depressing again, but we’re being positive now.) The more I saw, the broader my perspective became. Now I was one of the wide-eyed dreamers that provides no useful information to the comrades back home.

If I had one word to describe the campus it would be “behind.” With two words I would say, “behind schedule.” With four, though, It’s “behind schedule, but amazing.” Its proximity to the sea gives it both a fantastic view and a cooler climate than Jeddah. (Even a warm breeze can cool you down.) From a distance, I think the academic center is a bit sterile (though still grand) but in and around the buildings you explore passageways and walkways positioned to use the breeze while shielding from the sun. The center is an intellectually satisfying interweave of levels and walkways, all highlighted by palm-accented roads and water affects.

The residential districts (including the student accommodations) are similarly fantastic, if a bit repetitive. (It’s inevitable, I think, when you build this many homes all at once.) From a plaza at the center they are an amazing sight, and from there I began to get my first inkling of the full scale of what was being constructed.

That is the one problem, though: it’s all still being constructed. The site is large enough that you can get a perspective high enough that you can see just how amazing it really is; but up close there are few real roads, incomplete buildings, and an undeniable prevalence of unlandscaped desert. It’s a massive construction in the desert, with a few out-of-place grassy areas: not the miraculous oasis that it will one day be.

Andi and I each have an Iqama (ee-gah-mah) now: a sort of permanent residency permit, so they won’t kick us out of the country in thirty days. Andi has found work, too, in the university relations department! She’s doing exactly what she’s wanted to do, too: editing and writing, and even investigating and interviewing a bit. (I’ll let her talk about it, since she probably has much more interesting things to say about it than I do. I’m crazy-excited for her, though!) We’re still in the Rosewood Corniche, our stay in Jeddah having been extended until at least 8 September, due to the current state of the campus. We feel a bit stuck (again) but really, we can’t complain. We’re in this for the adventure, and we’re certainly having it. There’s virtually no information available (KAUST seems pathologically afraid of communication); but despite an unfortunate tendency toward freneticism (that I’m trying to calm) things get taken care of eventually. Just not on my schedule.