Sunday, November 22, 2009

KSA, oil & the world: thoughts from Shaybah (retro post)

On October 22nd, 2009 the KAUST Student Council, KAUST student affairs, and the Saudi Arabian oil company ARAMCO (also responsible for most of campus construction, planning, etc) flew, a jet full of students, for free, to the oil fields at Shaybah (a 4 hour flight), in the Saudi Arabian "Empty Quarter," kinda the toe of the boot of the Arabian peninsula, just west of the UAE and Oman. It was in order to share the wonder of human engineering with KSA's future engineers at KAUST. There, we were treated to a very short tour of the facilities, as well as allowed to romp around the beautiful open desert sand dunes that stretch for hundeds of kilometers in all directions at sunset, and then served a roasted lamb dinner. After, there was a presentation about the faciliy, from which you can learn all the facts you need to know from this excellent video they played for us. Watch it; it is very good and gives many insights about KSA, Aramco, fuel, and the world. The rest of this blog post contains photos taken by me and others from the trip as well as excerpts of my thoughts that day regarding fossil fuels and human civilization, taken from my Saudi Travel Notebook... (Note I don't edit the grammar from the notebook - it's the diltuted form of insights I sometimes share on the blog. Another reason I hardly edit: retro-actively understanding the concepts I've put on paper can be tough.)

Can't wait to send photos home; here I look at where dead dinosaurs get pulled from the ground & changed into your fuel... I visit the place where your car's engines know intimately; suddenly, all your past vehicles & I have a common link... FIND OUT on this trip the markets for this product - could I have gassed up w/ Shaybah fuel before?

it's certainly sobering to sit here on top of so much natural resource - so much of what drives my home country crazy - & to think that what differet cultures had built atop of them, & whether some Gaia-like influence has chosen to push the paths of these peoples in one way or another...

Now watching PR video... all about Saudi inegnuity, Saudi goals, & man's ability to create - to achieve - but funny that all began as American-created company, & all this happy-go-lucky achivement stuff in order to serve the developed nations of the world fuel for their polluting vehicles; the Saudi ingenuity and oil harvesting technologies & skills all serve to [do that... to] subsidize global transport... help you get to work...

What if U.S.A. located on [this much] oil & had fields like these? [i.e. interesting that the U.S. is not.] To think that instead of just distance seperating product from markets, there are cultures...

"Any organic farming [here at Shaybah]?" asks a be-abaya'd woman visiting with us -
"No." Our guide says, flatly.
Sustainability, 'self-sufficiency' DENIED. [i.e. all imported, flown in on plane.]

If it's not from the sun, it's from the oil... Sun moves the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere... OIL moves the anthrosphere... [We are part of the biosphere, yet our actions aren't mere flows of interactions between animals... we are literally] carving out the planet for our [excessive] existence...

When I go back and read this post now, I just think you will all find it confusing and reminiscent of dirty hippie. But Shaybah was large; something like 1/4 of all KSA production or something. And it put into perspective the money just to fly us out there, and indeed the money for KAUST... it was all very interesting. Hoping you could catch some of that in this post.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Two Weeks with the Red Sea

The Obeamyway Peninsula. A remote and fascinating region teeming with marine life. We chose these mysterious waters as the Belafonte's next stop.

For those of you that missed the reference, it's from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and it's amazing. The movie is a somewhat bluntly satirical postmortem celebration of the life and times of Jacques Yves Cousteau, that beloved and famous French oceanographer & SCUBA co-inventor. And it's the sort of nostalgic scientific enjoyment I was experiencing daily on our vessel. Heck, we even brought glocks (replicae, of course).

We visited each of the sites on the map below on a cruise from North to South and back again in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea...

I'm not sure how to share this trip with you. To share a portion of what I wrote while on the cruise, "Memories & research cruises don't go well together; think blur with bright patches; like a Jackson Pollock with the occasional chartreuse smear. Its very anachronistic, just a collection of amazing moments with shady/fuzzy links between them (i.e. was the white tip @ Canyon? Or was it before the sea turtle?). The other [researchers on the boat] must just enjoy it, & end up with the data they need... no problem... sort of a 'surprise, you have samples to work with [back in the lab]' kind of memory... Though it was all planned out beforehand, like a composed orchestra, it cannot be reconstructed however meticulously by the listener from a single performance... I guess we just enjoy it... Learn what lessons you can, here & there..."

My thoughts on paper sway like the swell of the sea, and my apologies if they don't make sense. If we meet in person and drink beer together in the future and talk about this trip, you and I, I can show you some photos and tell you that this trip was key for my experience at KAUST. It has been the first reassurance that KAUST could be a good place for me to do research, and that the researcher I want to work with is an incredibly cool person.

I learned more on this trip about the current research techniques in understanding the life histories of reef fishes - what they do, why, where they go, where they're from, where they grew up, why they only eat this coral, who they're friends with... I learned how to identify a few dozen more species of reef animals (mostly fish) in this part of the world, including some endemic (Red Sea only) species... I learned how to throw a cast net, how to keep cuts and scratches taped up to keep them from getting worse even after hours in the sea, how to cut out the sagittal otolith bones from the neurocraniums of Actinopterygiian fishes, how to catch & clip clownfish, and how to play bananagrams.

[Above, cool photo Justin took of Red Sea ghost crab, an endemic sp. w/cool eyes!]

But it was not some drift off into wonderland, some heralded exclusive for a few lucky scientists to discuss life and love and coral reefs. In fact, there were only a few in depth conversations I had over the two weeks - with the cool researcher/PI/boss regarding what I was interested in & what I thought reef conservation needed and where I wanted to go with it; with a last-year WHOI PhD student regarding fish life history, grad school, otoliths and girlfriends; with cool researcher's assistant about conservation, hippies, communal farming and the reefs of Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea... Most days consisted of three good Filipino-cooked meals, lots of water to drink, several hours of diving and catching, measuring and clipping the fins of spunky clownfish - then back on the boat for data recording, relaxing, planning the next cruise location, playing guitar, watching a movie, swimming in the bioluminescent waters off the boat at night, or catching little fish from the transom...

So, since I told myself to keep these post short, and to honor the anachronism and mire of the memories of the voyage that ended nearly a month ago, I'll just share a few random excerpts from the journal and put up a few more pictures. Ask me more in December over a nice winter warmer while the snow falls outside, far from the reefs.

Excerpt from 10/4/09
"In bed, just thought how funny would it be to tell a total stranger... about the day's activities? Here I am on a boat snug-as-a-bug reading a book about Red Sea marine life; rather, studying and memorizing fish species... wondering about their diets, their availability in the aquarium trade, their captive care... their ease of capture, their abundance on reefs, their otoliths, their population structure and dynamics... why do I have to pick one question? Do I? & why must it be "relevant"? to what need it be "relevant"? And how funny would any of this be to someone else...

Excerpt from 10/6/09
"We even did a night dive. Not enough lights for all of us, but nearly full moon so it bright enough... Just to play in sand w/bioluminescent dinoflagellates was enough for me. No responsibilities, just play - & night dive the best time to do so on a reef. You feel like a member of the club, unified, your secret sea home, a place to play & sleep and do handstands & eat coral & fight eels & chew lil reef shrimp & grunt at competing males... Mike even brought some of our dead fish to try to get sharks in, but we never did... I was worried at first, but it's really the live & inured fish that get sharks excited... otherwise they're too scared to come just cuz you smell like fish... Mike DID put two on the reef before we left though & they were gone when we got back..." [Photos are lionfish hunting over reef at night, scorpionfish perched on coral branches, and octopus tucked down inside a coral]

Excerpt from 10/9/09
"Up @ 11 this morning [late] cuz sat phone peaches last night for ~15 mins [after all the night's activities]. There were squid off the stern last night; five, in a line next to each other - probably the reef squid Sepioteuthis lessioniana - short lifespans, mature in ten months!" [I was thinking about how she was in a car with friends during the call, going out, to an opera? And I'm staring at squid at like 3 am rocking over the reef... The photo I posted below is one I took of Erin and I if we lived as reef fish buddies... I thought of this immediately when I saw the juvenile goatfish and the juvenile bird wrasse hanging out together. Of course, Erin's the bird wrasse (above) and I'm the goatfish (below)... & I know they're juveniles, but like my sister said, we really like to play together...]

Excerpt from 10/11/09
"An unbelievable evening - am I making it up? Sammy [our Filipino cook] made me a cake, w/FROSTING, & my own chicken for dinner!" [The chicken had a flag stuck in it that said "Happy 21st B-Day NOAH," and all of this was after a dusk dive where I "found" an angelfish-shaped card made from underwater paper with everyone's signature on it down on the reef...]

So what did I do when I got back to shore, two weeks of classes to catch up on, and three make-up tests?
Tyler: Dude, do you want to go diving?
Noah: Uhm, I have this one weekend to catch up on tests and work and yadda yadda and I just did a lot of diving...
Tyler: Soooo.....
Noah: Well, yeah, okay.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Real Bahrain a small country with big buildings. This is a terrible way to sum up a whole country, but this is outdated (blog planning & promises fail - I returned from the trip on September 21st...). I could tell you that Bahrain is only 290 square miles (which means it could fit into Rhode Island 5.3 times) with a population of about 791,000 people (a population density about three times that of Rhode Island) - or you could just read that on Wikipedia like I did just now.

No, what you really want to see are the pictures and read about my adventures. They were split between cultural and social events, and both were phenomenal. All of the events took place in the capital city of Manama, which may or may not consist of everything the country has to offer. The basic schedule was to explore and find out what the heck Bahrain is by day, then to indulge in its liberal alcohol policies at night. The latter was performed at all manner of establishments - contrary to the Wall Street Journal article online that I posted in the pre-Bahrain post, which said that as of 2007 the only source of alcohol was at three-star hotel bars. The first place we passed on the way to our hotel was a Bennigan's (across from a TGI Friday's), where we stopped for a pint of Guinness. After this, E-Mart & I wandered in search of a liquor store, which at first was too crowded to get in and we had to come later:

All this alcohol freedom, but I still couldn't get a bacon cheeseburger or a ham sandwich anywhere over the entire three day period. I have since written the author of the June 2009 Wall Street Journal article to chastise his poor research and enlighten him that Sobriety (was) Second to Bahrain's Bacon Ban. I have not heard back for some reason. I'll take it as a compliment that a New Yorker possibly finds ME arrogant.

Now for some reason blogger is hassling me regarding photos, etc. So, instead of a witty and well-constructed storyline, instead enjoy short captions to about 3/4 of the pictures I had intended to show you. Not much, but I like to think of it as the thousand-words-per-picture replacement scheme.

Our first journey was to Bennigan's.

An anti sand damage car coating coats this Toyota; ironically made of sand and water. Protects your paint job. Makes your car look ugly anyways.

Bahraini money...

Just more evidence of the point made in my friend's blog that the expat population is quite high; here, some UMichigan feller has taken advantage of the Middle East's lucrative salary phenomena...

The grand mosque of Bahrain in the foreground, with the trade center (financial center?) in the background...

Random run-ins while wandering include this prestigious institution:

Above - they didn't check my ID or my religion... so we stocked up (below).

I really liked how the gas to our stove was provided via rubber tubing. I half expected we'd need one of those Bunson burner spark making starter...

The pool behind the lobby of our hotel was an excellent pre-game location; amidst all the flotsam and jetsam, the remnants of an exercise machine and several stereos were evidence of more prosperous earlier years in this back room area before it was rendered as storage. The general lack of upkeep in the room should have factored into our decision as to whether or not the pool was toxic. It's amazing how just a few beers will make you wave away any worries regarding bottom-obscuring cloudiness in a 6 foot deep pool.

The El Camino below is just sweet, and for a split second I considered buying it, my dream car, but I would never get it back to Saudi Arabia in one piece.

This was one of the best parts of the trip; on the first two days of the Eid al-Fitr holiday (our Bahrain trip), the grand mosque in the center of the city was open for tourists. Wow!!! I haven't felt too welcomed to the Islam of Saudi Arabia just yet - after all, the two holiest cities of Mecca and Medina are off-limits to non-Muslims. In Bahrain, Islam was having an open house.

Above, the grand mosque from the front of the parking lot; below, the inner courtyard... Upon entrance, we were welcomed by a British man who invited us to remove our shoes and try on a thobe as others flocked in around us.

While traditionally garbed, we were greeted by a tour guide below. I have unfortunately forgotten his name, for it was a month ago now, but he was from Ft. Lauderdale. In fact, not one of the tour guides was from Bahrain. Many were in the country for work and now on Eid were volunteering to show other non-Muslims what Islam is really about. Of course Ft. Lauderdale and I struck up a rapport; but there was also an Australian Muslim dude manning the guestbook, so we talked too.

At one point while walking around and reading some free literature from the mosque entitled "Islam and Christianity," a friend and I got in a little tiff regarding the following writing:

"One such approach [to bridge the gulf dividing Christianity and Islam] could be for a Muslim to explain to his Christian brother/sister that Islam is not an alien religion, as he might think; it is very much Biblical, in the sense that what was taught by all the prophets of God (as we find them in the Bible) is being followed today by Muslims. It is Muslims who are best adhering to the teachings of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), and hence they rightly deserve to be called 'the true followers of Jesus Christ.' This is exactly what this booklet tries to convey."

Now my friend remarked at the offensiveness of the comment. "I can think of so many people who'd get very angry at that," he said. This is where I became irate. For while I knew my friend was correct about the probable reactions to it, this booklet & others we picked up were attempts to build bridges, burn them. Wouldn't my fellow mankind try to not react indignantly to a pamphlet regarding peace? If a document was not meant to offend, why should you be offended? If anything, just be a thinker and say to yourself "gee, I'm not hiring that author to write my breaking-religious-barriers material," and move on. One of my favorite things about islam is the concept of niyya, or "intent." It basically means that Allah knows your good intentions. So, when people read this, I hope they can recognize the niyya of the text...

From the second level of the mosque, we looked down on prayer time. Curious "westerners," taking photos, fascinated with the five-times-a-day mindfulness of Allah. In my home country many people are Christian and their outward devotion and praise to Jesus occurs in the form of a once-weekly sermon-based sacrifice of time. Once weekly as compared to 35 times weekly... It reminds me of that story where Moses (I think?) kept sending Muhammad (pbuh - "praise be upon him," an appropriate addendum I learned from the free mosque literature) back to ask God to reduce the number of daily prayers for humanity, because Moses knew us well and said we would never pray one hundred / fifty / twenty times a day, or whatever it was. Muhammad (pbuh) would not go back after getting down to five, despite Moses' insistence. I think I would side with Allah/God over Moses, too. But the story certainly makes me wonder which saint it was that bargained Christians down to the once-a-week deal!

Outside the windows and past the mosque's protective spiritual concrete enclosure the modern Middle East loomed; a world of construction and imported goods where progress can't be stopped, skyscrapers remind you on all sides. Cranes are an eternal feature of Middle Eastern skylines as the stereotype goes, and it seems to fit.

I forget if this is the world trade center of the financial center, but it was vast and impressive. If there were tours or tour guides or information, I probably would have given you some more facts - but the base level of this behemoth merely contained the most expensive mall I have been to in my life, with two porsches-as-prizes at the front door and a Giorgio Armany that was charging $790.00 US for a plain gray long-sleeve cotton shirt, no logo or buttons or pockets - and indeed of a cotton so thin that it might as well have been manufactured from the cotton in a single sleeve of a Wal-Mart version...

We also managed to wander into the souq ("traditional" marketplace), just around sunset. A busy, crowded and male-dominated place, we walked past Bahraini football shirts and cheap electronics shops packed so thick and competitive that the very shop fronts leaned in against each other locked in a battle for tourist dollars, blocking any leftover sunlight not swallowed up by the hungry horizon or the height of the buildings that continued upwards beyond the souq.

Yet looking at the souq outside the shoes of an annoyed tourist (yes, your fascination will die quickly as you are hassled here and there and nearly run over by the occasional car navigating through the market as if it were a regular road), it wasn't hard to find the dreary motivations for chasing down the foreign dollar. As I've tastefully (oddly) chosen to depict in the edit of a below photo, the bright bright souq can distract you from what occurs just around it, outside of it, below and above it - as symbolized by the decrepit edifice just above the shouts of the market and possibly interpreted far too freely by my mind...

Finally, we spent the last day pre-airport exploring the two Bahraini forts, which were in service by the Portugese to fend off the Ottoman Empire. OK I don't think that statement is entirely true, but the buzzwords within it apply in some way to these structures. The second fort was really the ruins of the old capital of the civilization of Dilmun, and was in some form of use and level of construction as far back as 2300 B.C. This I did not know and therefore failed to appreciate in full at the time of my visit. But the museum that went with it costs like $15 to get in and I didn't have any loose cash. It was only later that I learned it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And to think I was merely wandering around with a hangover and wondering what the heck the various rooms could have been used for...

So I don't know if I'll be going back to Bahrain; I feel like the land itself might ask me how I've been, considering how small the country is and how quickly it gets to know you. Besides, I had plenty of fun adventures to boot, including things I won't include in full detail, such as:
- how I got to drink Zam-Zam, the holy water from the spring in the Arabian desert that God let flow after a blow from Abraham's staff, and which is used even in medicinal academia now (Johns Hopkins University medical center) for its cleanliness
- how an American ex-pat read our minds and drove E-Mart and I back to our hotel from the liquor store after we just looked at him
- how to enjoy the Bahrain bar scene
- how to fail to enjoy the Bahrain bar scene
- how to be blamed for watermelon shenanigans...