All posts by Eric

Best of Saudi… Six years later

Back in 2011, we had just completed our first year living and working in Saudi Arabia.
We published a blog post on the Top 10 Best Things about Living in Saudi Arabia to our personal blog which was later published to TIE Online Blog. Now, six years later, we are finishing our 7th year in Saudi Arabia and thought there was a need for a reflection and update to this top 10.

With that said, our priorities have changed mainly because we have two children. That, along with our longevity here, has altered the list. First, let’s revisit the original:

10) Labor Costs
9) Location for Traveling
8) Bahrain
7) Shawarma
6) Availability of Food
5) Coworkers and Our Jobs
4) Gas
3) Weather
2) Housing
1) Money

Six years later…

1) Money

This is a no brainer. This was the top of our list back in 2011 and is still here. Almost no one is here for anything other than the money or perhaps family. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. We doubled our salary moving here back in 2010, and it has gone up another 50% since then. That, along with the free health care, housing, utilities, and flight money home, it is overall an outstanding package that rivals all but a very few in the world for international teaching.

2) Nursery on Campus

Again, this rises to a high spot because of we had our children in the past five years. Above all, this is what is keeping us in the country for the time being. Our school provides a free nursery on campus. So, our boys ride with us to work and ride with us home from work. They are about 100 yards away from us at all times, and the nursery care, facilities, and curriculum are outstanding. The ratio of children to staff is around 3.5:1. You would be hard pressed to find another school that has this benefit.

3) Lifestyle

This remains high on the list and has been enhanced the more we have stayed. Needless to say, we have become quite spoiled. While our compound isn’t the greatest in the city, compound life in and of itself is relaxing, fun, and enjoyable.  It can be a fishbowl at times, but you really can have as much privacy or be as social as you wish. We have a housekeeper, gardener, and guy to wash our car. Our kids can run around the compound freely at a very early age. There is a great swimming pool area and decent little recreational center. Our neighbors are our co-workers which overall is a pleasant experience, because we all know we are in this together. We’ve had some pretty cool compound parties and get togethers over the years.

4) Professional Development Opportunities

This is a new one to the list too as we didn’t quite understand how fortunate we have been to be able to attend such amazing conferences for professional development opportunities. Many of these have been paid for by the school or district, which makes it even better. We’ve had training from experts in the field of education at some of these conferences and have learned so many new skills that have allowed us to immediately impact learning in our classroom but also make us very marketable to future employers.

5) Our Respective Schools and School District

With the hire of a new superintendent four years ago, our district and school has really seen some major changes and will continue to do so for years to come. Both mine and Jamie’s schools have had their challenges in the last few years, but new leadership at the top has really made a difference. Our campus is cleaner and nicer looking, there is an increased importance in safety, technology, infrastructure, human resources, and budgeting. A new superintendent is coming in the Fall of 2017, so let’s hope he can keep up the positive momentum as our campus builds a new school to move into in 2020.

6) Friends

This seems a bit low on the list, but the sad reality is that despite all of these amazing things on this list, friends will come and go in an international lifestyle. Leaving your home country for the first time, you’ll start losing ties to those friends the longer you stay overseas. It is only natural. However especially in a place like Saudi, you’ll find many other like minded people (who else would move here?), so developing friendships sometimes happens overnight. We’ve said goodbye to many good friends but others have also come in not as a replacement but a wonderful addition into our lives. It will hit our children the hardest when we leave here next year. They’ve grown up with some of the kids on the compound, and this is truly “home” for them. Kids are resilient, and we are confident they will make new friends at our next location. Social media will ensure we can maintain close ties with everyone.

7) Weather

Again, with the exception of mid May through mid September, the weather in Saudi is amazing. The weather also allows for a lot of lifestyle activities described above on the compound. You get used to the heat, and you are able to get in a few extra months of pool time.

8) Food

We’ve come to enjoy middle eastern food quite a bit. Not only shawarma, but other foods like mixed grills and the amazing breads and cold appetizers you can get here. Our kids love the India food here as well as the Filipino bread downtown.  There has been an influx of big name western restaurants that have moved in the area such as 5 Guys, Red Lobster, and The Butcher Shop. Chik-fil-A will obviously never be here and there still isn’t a Zaxby’s, but Raisin Cane’s is coming next month.

9) Traveling

Again, this seems very low on the list, but traveling is just simply now a part of our lives. Our three and five year old boys have been to eight and 14 countries respectively. I had to retire my 10 year old passport with over 35 countries stamped, James is already on his secon passport, and Jamie will renew next year. Saudi is a fine place for traveling to not only the middle east but zipping back to southeast Asia, Africa, or to Europe. Flight costs have risen steadily, but you can still find some good deals. Our only issue is now we pay for 4 tickets instead of 2 which hurts the overall budget and limits our traveling.

10) Leaving Saudi Arabia

This used to be my #1 reason because I always though that the best thing about living here was any time you were able to leave. Saudi can be tough to live in with inefficiency, terrible and dangerous driving, extreme temperatures, sexism, racism, the inability to immerse yourself with the culture, and a wide variety of other things that can make you frustrated.

However, Saudi has been very good to us since we moved here in 2010. Summarizing this list, we’ve paid off debt, both of our children were born and raised here, we’ve had wonderful childcare every day (for free) at our school, and we’ve met some wonderful people along the way that we hope to stay in touch with for years to come. So when we finally do leave for the final time in June 2018, it’ll be very bittersweet.

International Study Trips: Not Your Typical Field Trip to the Zoo

My wife and I have been very fortunate to have sponsored several study trips while teaching here in Saudi Arabia.  From what I’ve been reading about back in the States, field trips there might be limited to the surrounding counties because of bussing costs, liability concerns, and safety.  However, in international teaching entire world is at your disposal if you want to take students on a study trip. Perhaps the best of all, the sponsor costs are often covered in the students’ costs, so your trip is more or less free.

Our first year here Jamie was able to sponsor a high school Habitat for Humanity trip to Kenya. During our second year, I was able to co-sponsor a trip to South Korea for my middle school students. Our third year, I took students to Prague, Czech Republic and Budapest, Hungary, while Jamie sponsored a trip to Bali, Indonesia.  Last year, I took students to Switzerland on a ski/science study trip.  Jamie has also made two trips with the Model United Nations to Istanbul, Turkey. This year, Jamie is going to Chang Mai, Thailand for another Habitat trip, and I’m going to back Switzerland skiing again.

These trips are “study” based in a variety of ways. Some are more scientific with students getting a chance to study environmental changes, avalanches, or drought conditions. Others are skills and survival based, like students being able to learn public speaking, how to ski or snorkel, or desert survival. Still others give students a chance to help others through volunteer work building homes and community centers, as well as organizing donation drives and raising money for direct donations. And other trips are designed to teach cultural awareness, like taking cooking classes across Italy, touring the Hagia Sophia, or visiting the DMZ between North and South Korea. Many trips offer a variety of activities that include a little of each goal so that students have a chance for both personal growth and personal enjoyment. This is a great chance for students to experience cultural interactions through foods, languages, clothing styles, and technology differences. And of course, no matter what the stated purpose of the trip is officially, students and teachers all have a chance for fun, team building, and excitement out of the classroom environment.

Other study trips that teachers have sponsored at both the middle and high school level have been to places like South Africa, Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Spain, UAE, Vietnam, Thailand, and various countries in Africa.  At our middle school, teachers sign up to sponsor a trip and typically take about 20 students.  The high school has a week called Week Without Walls (WOW), where a large percentage of the students sign up for trips.  The remaining students come to school and do certain activities, but not necessarily in the classroom.

The planning and paperwork that goes into a study trip is quite extensive.  Because you are taking students out of the country, it is not quite the same as taking kids to the local zoo, museum, or aquarium.  Here is a “quick” rundown of the procedure:

  1. Check with your administration about any current travel practices, procedures, and expectations.
  2. Research places that you feel would best suit your students’ needs.  After all, you will have to choose a place that students actually want to go.
  3. Go ahead and obtain a rough estimate of the flight and costs of the trip.  Some places will simply be too costly for the flight, much less the accommodations, food, and attractions.
  4. Contact a tour company that caters to educational trips.  There are several tour companies out there that will do all of the planning for you.  These can worth their weight in gold.  Many administrators and parents will want to know you are touring with a reputable company.
  5. Obtain pre-approval permission from administration. Each school will have a different process for this, so just ask your administration.
  6. Begin the recruiting process for students. This could be an assembly, flyers, or a parent night. This year, we are sending out surveys of various places for parents to choose to gauge interest level before planning too much.
  7. Begin accepting study trip applications and teacher recommendations. This is where you will have to begin to determine which students are allowed to go on the trips due to academic/behavioral issues.
  8. Finalize all of the plans along with the costs.  This is perhaps the most difficult part. You simply cannot make a mistake in calculating how much it will cost the parents. Exchange rates may change, so you will have to build in extra money for that if necessary. Costs will range widely depending on where you go and the flight cost. Typically, you can plan on budgeting for:
    • Cost of Tour (this will include activities, entrance fees, food, and lodging)
    • Flight
    • Insurance
    • Emergency Fund (Exchange rate, emergency medical, medicines, lost/stolen money)
    • Tips
    • Sponsor Cost (This is typically just the cost of your flights divided by the number of students.  Most tour companies provide the cost of sponsors at a ratio of 1:10)
    • Visas (Typically, students are responsible for their obtaining their own visas, but this may vary by school)
    • Spending Money (snacks and souvenirs)
  9. Conduct a parent night that outlines the entire trip.  This will allow time for parents to ask questions about safety, events, costs, and travel.  It is absolutely essential that you are prepared for this as parents will have questions you might have not even thought. If parents do not think you are capable, there is no way they will allow their children to go on a trip with you.
  10. Gather a deposit (25% to cover deposit of flight and tour) and develop a payment schedule.
  11. Keep parents informed of everything.  You’ll definitely want to set up an email contact list as well as create a blog/website for your trip. Here are some things  you might want to include on the blog/website:
    • Tour Itinerary (daily schedule, hotel names, attractions, food)
    • Contact Information
    • Flight Times
    • Packing List
    • Visa Information
    • Trip Costs
    • Promotional Material (flyers, websites, videos that are provided by the Tour company)
    • Important Forms/Documents
  12. Gather all important documents (These will vary based on your school, your location, and your travel destination but below are some of the major documents):
    • Study Trip Application Form
    • Copy of Students’ Passports
    • Copy of Students’ and Parents’ Residence Visa
    • Copy of Students’ Exit/Re-entry Visas and expiration date
    • Teacher Recommendations
    • Parental Permission and Liability Forms
    • Temporary Guardianship Forms
    • Emergency Medical Forms
    • Academic Policy (Because you will travel months after students sign up and pay their deposit and final payment, it might be possible students are ineligible to go due to academic/behavior concerns)
    • Copy of Health Cards/Insurance Cards
    • Copy of Travel Insurance per student
    • Create a Parent Contact List including emails and phone numbers. This will serve as the final student list.
  13. Finalize arrangements with the tour company and flight travel agent including names and information of the students attending.
  14. Finalize any formal school student study trip applications as necessary to gain final approval.
  15. Gather final payments from students in accordance with the tour company and flight travel agent’s schedule.
  16. Hold periodic student meetings to go over final plans and packing lists.
  17. Determine what the students will be responsible for concerning school work while absent.
  18. Make arrangements for students to be transported to/from the departing airport.
  19. Create assignments for students to do while on the trip. This could include daily journaling, and A-Z book, blogs, website, etc.
  20. Gather all documents in a folder to take with you.
  21. Go over any final issues/concerns with students, teachers, administrators, parents, tour company, and flight travel agent.
  22. Double check everything!
  23. Fly away for an amazing trip!

See?  Just an easy 23 steps!  If it seems like quite a bit of work, it most certainly is.  These trips can, however, be very rewarding for the students and yourself.  We’ve had students see their first snow, be away from home for the first time, be responsible for their money for the first time, learn to ski, learn to use public transportation, learn to get up on time by themselves, learn how to eat the right foods, or eat the same foods for 10 days in a row, or be sick from hunger, and learn how to make new friends with complete strangers. The students always come back with those “stories” from the trip that they continue talking about for years to come.  When I see them on campus even a few years later, they always mention some aspect of a study trip.  Sometimes, you see kids grow up right before your eyes within a week.  As with any extracurricular setting, it is nice to interact with students outside the classroom, and it is nice for them to see you in a role outside the classroom.

Again, this is not your typical field trip, but one you will certainly remember for all of your teaching years.

Summer Break for International Educators

For most teachers, summer break is a time for relaxation, catching up on good books, traveling, and unwinding from a long school year.  For an international school teacher, this time is spent doing these things, but it could also be so much more.

Most international schools will provide you with a flight allowance back to your home country.  Our school in China bought our tickets directly for us and our school in Saudi gives us money.  This gives us the flexibility to take whatever flight we choose.

Summers for most international teaching families are spent away from their schools.  Simply, they go back visit family, friends, purchase Western products, see Western doctors, and regroup for the upcoming school year.  Some families are moving away from one international school to another, so their experience over the summer is even more tedious with packing, moving, visas, and unpacking.

For Jamie and I, our time has been spent traveling around in northwest Georgia, southeast Tennessee, the panhandle of Florida, and southwest Georgia.  Our family and vacations have been scattered there; and as we come home, we travel to see family.

Many international teachers with children feel the need for their kids to have a “home” to come back to in their home country, so their third culture kid will have a sense of what and where “home” actually is.  For us, the need for our children to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins is important especially considering the fact they may only see them once per year.  We also want our children to know that they are Americans and a have sense of southern heritage even if they’ll never have that special accent.

The options for international teachers are practically unlimited.  While most families go back to their home country, others spend the summer traveling and seeing the world.  We know of families that have rented houses in Italy for the summer, completed a road trip around the Middle East, volunteered at an African school for a few weeks, completed round the world flights with various stopovers, or just stayed in the country where they were working to save money.

With Jamie and I bouncing around from house to house and living out of a suitcase for the last 5 summers, it has become tiresome.  We are now looking into a house where family members can simply come to us.  Last year, we rented a lake house for a month, which helped with all of the traveling.  This summer, we’ll do our bouncing around so everyone can see our new addition to the family.

Other aspects of summers including additional trainings.  Jamie had a conference in Dallas last summer focusing on the Shafer writing method.  In previous summers, she had AP training conferences in Denver and Tampa. Depending on the school’s professional development funding and vision, teachers might find themselves traveling to other locations for conference and trainings.  Most, if not all, of these funds will be paid for by the school.

Our summer breaks when were teachers in the U.S. were always great and relaxing.  We were close to family, tried to vacation somewhere nice, and generally unwound from a stressful school year. We still can have those things as international school teachers, but they can potentially be so much more!

Having Children Overseas

Jamie and I began our international school teaching careers just a year after we married.  Children was certainly in our future, but the unknowns of having children abroad was unsettling at first.  What would the healthcare be like? How will they get a passport? How will we deal with grandparents and family back home being separate from our children? All of these questions and many others ran through our minds before embarking on our first international teaching job in China.

Our fears were immediately relieved once we arrived in China and discovered that they too, in fact, have children born there! Kidding aside, we met many couples who had children in China or in Hong Kong, and they all had positive experiences.  We learned more information about parents visiting, Skype calling, how to obtain passports and birth certificates, and how to deal with the family separation. We quickly realized that having a child abroad would not be as bad as we originally imagined.

We learned what a TCK (Third Culture Kid) actually was and taught several of them. The thought of having a TCK scared us a little but learning more about how various families dealt with this unique situation helped us. What we learned is that it isn’t really that unique after all and TCK children live exciting lives. The pros and cons of living abroad become exponential once you have a child, but what we learned is that having a child abroad certainly isn’t a difficult situation at all.

Like any other family, once you have children, your lives change forever.  Teaching internationally brings different changes. Some of these make your lives more difficult, but some of them make your lives easier. For example, our school here in Saudi Arabia provides a free nursery. Where in the U.S except at large companies will you get that? We save thousands of dollars of year just in day care.  We are able to bring our boys to work with us and pick them up in the afternoon literally about 100 yards from our classrooms. Jamie was able to nurse them during the day. The nursery itself is outstanding and perhaps the best benefit that is offered at the school.

Another benefit is the lifestyle you will be able to provide for your children. Their vacations will be spent in places like Rome, Paris, Bangkok, Istanbul, Maldives, and Tanzania.  They will have study trips with other children to exotic locations or Habitat for Humanity trips where they learn about service. They will probably learn a foreign language easier and be more culturally sensitive because they will have children in their classes from 10 different countries.

Some negatives include traveling. Because you will travel more, you will spend more on hotels, flights, food, and attractions.  This might limit your travel more than it would when it is just the two of you backpacking through the Philippines. Some families with three or more children only take one or two large vacations a year. Jamie and I without children took five or six. We will still take that many per year because we value the traveling. We’ve become quite adept at traveling with small children.  Our 2 year old has already been to 8 countries and has had over 30 flights.  The United States this summer will be our youngest child’s fifth country.

The most obvious negative of having children abroad is the distance they will be from family. They might only see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins one time a year. Facebook, Skype, Whatsapp, and other social media programs have really helped us stay connected to family, but it obviously isn’t the same. Once we are back home for the summer or perhaps a winter break, we complete the circuit of seeing family and friends which makes for a ton of traveling and living out of a suitcase.  Children are flexible, but parents have to have some patience and flexibility too.

The birth abroad process was very smooth for Jamie here in Saudi for the most part.  Doctors’ bedside manner will not be what you expect, but the care is fine and you and your baby will be in good hands.  Our health insurance covers Jamie for a private room and our out of pocket cost was less than $100 for both children. You simply won’t find that anywhere in the U.S.  She had two very different experiences with our boys but overall the healthcare and the facilities were very good.

Every country will have its different procedures for obtaining the birth certificate and ultimately the U.S. passport. In Saudi, here was the procedure we had to go through before our boys were given a U.S. passport, which meant they could leave the country.

  1. Certificate of Live Birth – this is a Saudi document that we received at the hospital basically stating that a baby was born in their hospital.  Documents required: mother and father’s Iqama and passports
  2. Saudi Birth Certificate – This was done by our government relations (GR) and was all in Arabic, which is actually a pretty cool looking document. Documents required: Certificate of Live Birth, mother and father’s Iqama and passports
  3. Saudi Birth Certificate Translation: Again, our government relations department did this.  It was needed for us to attain the U.S. Passport.  Documents required: Saudi Birth Certificate, Certificate of Live Birth, mother and father’s Iqama and passports
  4. U.S. Birth Certificate: We had to go next door to the U.S. Consulate here in Dhahran for this. It is actually a Certificate of Birth Abroad issued by the United States State Department.  If a child is born in the U.S., their birth certificate will always be on file at the state level.  For children born overseas to U.S. citizens, they issue this document instead. Anyone born abroad who loses their original birth certificate will have to go through the U.S. State department at receive another one. Documents required: application, money, Saudi Birth Certificate and its translation, mother and father’s passports
  5. Saudi Iqama: This is completed by the GR once the U.S. Birth Certificate comes back in.  The iqama is basically the residency permit for non Saudis working in the country. Documents required: child’s U.S. passport, mother and father’s Iqama and passports
  6. Exit/Re-entry Visa: This is completed by GR and allows for anyone to go in and out of the country freely.  The child is not permitted to leave the country until this document is finished.  Documents required: child’s Saudi Iqama and passport

That’s it!  The entire process takes about 6 weeks.  This is only frustrating because you can’t leave the country until everything has been processed.  Once it is though, your little darlings can begin their journey to becoming world travelers.

 

Winter Break: International Teaching Style

One of the most amazing things about international teaching is the ability to travel. Most families budget specifically just for travel. When Jamie and I moved overseas, we saved about $5000 a year by not having to pay for gasoline. Additionally, house payments, health insurance, and utility costs were suddenly zero.

With more disposable income and now living overseas, it became our goal to travel as much as possible.  Our first winter break overseas, we spent 3 weeks touring Thailand (Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Koh Chang). Our Christmas dinner was some delicious Thai food on a beach restaurant that just about caught our mouth on fire.  We woke up at 3:30 am to Skype our parents as we tried to find the best wifi signal.  I’m sure many international school families have similar stories.

We go home about every other winter break, especially when our calendar allows for 3 weeks.  One particular trip, we spent 3 weeks traveling to southeast China, Laos, and Thailand. The highlight of the China portion of the trip was a 10 hours of hiking to Tiger Leaping Gorge. I spent Christmas that year in a small hostel in Dali sick as a dog from food poisoning from a “pizza” at a local restaurant.  That cheese sure did taste funny at the time, but the carolers staying at the hostel sound nice out of my bedroom window. Our 2nd week was spent in Laos after a 36 hour bus ride from China into Laos.  It was a sleeper bus, so it wasn’t too bad.  Interesting, it was freezing in China, hot in Laos, and our third week of the vacation was spent in business clothes interviewing for jobs in Bangkok, Thailand.  Certainly a trip of a lifetime.

I keep saying that phrase, but the longer I’m overseas, I realize these trips aren’t trips of a lifetime, they are your life!

This winter break, we had scheduled a trip for Germany to check out the Christmas markets and all Germany has to offer over the holidays.  Due to Jamie expecting on December 6, that trip has now been cancelled for bigger and better things with the birth our our 2nd son.

My coworkers have trips planned to just about all corners of the globe and the diversity of my students means that their holidays will be well traveled as well.  Many teachers go home to visit family over the holidays, but a good many do take time to travel somewhere interesting.  Many in the Middle East either head to beaches of southeast Asia or the snowy wonderlands of Europe for winter break.

Like any teacher, winter break is a time for family, friends, and resting from a hectic fall semester of school. Unlike most teachers, international school teachers have the opportunity to make their winter breaks into something of which even Santa Clause would be jealous.

 

Enriching Opportunities in International Education

Being an international educator yields tremendous professional opportunities that can enrich your teaching.  Living and working in the U.S., professional development opportunities were limited to whatever the school sponsored at the school.  Many teachers received additional professional development by working on advanced degrees or paying out of pocket to go to a training or conference at a nearby university.  In the 7 years I taught in Georgia, I received only a handful of professional development opportunities outside working on my master’s and doctorate degrees. One of these was AP Government training, which was a wonderful experience.

Since Jamie and I have taught internationally, we have had the pleasure of working at schools who have provided us with meaningful professional development opportunities.  Our school systems have both hosted conferences and brought in educational specialist like Virginia Rojas, Martin Skelton, and John Almarode.  We have also had the opportunities to attend regional professional development opportunities in Bahrain, Kathmandu, Nepal, Dubai, UAE, Muscat, Oman, and Bangkok, Thailand for various conferences. Large names like Tom Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Jay McTighe, Leanne Jung, and Lucy Calkins have all been speakers and presenters at these conferences.  Just recently, I served on a Middle States Association accreditation team, which was the best professional development I have ever had.  I play on attending an accreditation team chair training on Philadelphia this summer.  Jamie has traveled to Denver and Tampa for AP training in Psychology and Economics, respectively. She will also attend a conference training in Houston this summer for training in the Schaffer writing method.

Most of this is paid for by the school.  We receive professional development funds each year that we can apply to conferences or post graduate work. On several occasions, we have received these trips for no cost because we are leaders on committees.

In addition to professional development opportunities, we also have travel opportunities with the students.  Jamie has attended the TIMUN conference in Istanbul, Turkey two times in three years with her high school students as well as sponsored student study trips to Kenya and Bali.  I have taken my middle school students on study trips to South Korea and Prague and Budapest.

Additionally, we travel in Kingdom to places like Riyadh and Jeddah for various school events like honor band/choir, MUN, and sports teams.  These opportunities just don’t happen back home where many school systems won’t allow student field trip to leave the county.

We are already planning next year where we will sponsor study trips as well as travel for various staff development trainings. Of course, these trainings and conferences are in addition to our normal vacation times.  This year for vacation, we have traveled to France, USA, and Thailand.  Next year, we plan on visiting Spain, Germany, Jordan, and some other destination to be determined.

Granted, this is all due because of money.  These are private schools that offer their students and teachers amazing opportunities, but one would be remiss if they didn’t take advantage of these opportunities.

Top 10 Best Things About Living in Saudi Arabia

10)  Labor Costs –

Neither Jamie and I are really used to this, but it is a nice lifestyle.  In the US and most other western nations, having a housekeeper, car washer, and gardener would be too much of a cost on the budget.  A couple of families on the compound have a live in maid, which we don’t think we’ll ever get, but certainly seems appealing if you have a few kids.  The men who work on the compound (mainly from Pakistan and India) have regular hours where the take care of maintenance on the compound itself; however, before and after work, they wash cars and do other personal maintenance request you may have.  Just recently, we had a guy build a fence and put in a doggie door for us.  We don’t mind helping these guys out because their service for us pretty much double or triple their monthly salary.

9)  Location for Traveling –

This year wasn’t nearly as busy for our traveling as our 2 years in China, but the area where we are is a great location to see 3 continents.  The only drawback is that the cost of flights are more expensive than they are in southeast Asia, but pretty much everything is more expensive than it is is SE Asia.  This year, we went to Bahrain, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, while I was able to go to Nepal and Jamie to Kenya.  With the birth of our child, it might slow us down a little bit, but we hope that in the years to come, we can take advantage of our location to 3 continents, mainly Europe.

8)  Bahrain –

Bahrain has pork, alcohol, a nightlife, movie theaters, and goods you can’t find in Saudi.  You can’t bring the pork and alcohol back into Saudi, but it has been nice to go over there on the weekends and enjoy these things.  Women can drive and Jamie doesn’t have to wear her abaya.  At a minimum, it takes about 45 minutes to get there if you can get through customs quickly; however, it can take nearly 2 hours if the causeway is busy.  Many people go on early Friday morning to avoid the traffic.  Ric’s Kountry Kitchen has a great breakfast and City Center Mall has been our favorite place to see a movie.  Overall, it is a nice getaway from the bore of Saudi Arabia.

7)  Shawarmas –

According to wikipedia, a shawarma is

“an Arab[1][2] sandwich-like wrap of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mixture thereof. The meat is placed on a spit, and may be grilled for as long as a day. Shawarma is a fast-food staple across the Middle East, Europe and the Caucasus.
Shawarma is eaten with pita breadLavash bread, tabbouleh salad, fattoush salad, taboon bread, tomato and cucumber. Toppings include tahinihummus, pickled turnips and amba.
Shawarma has many variants and names in preparation, serving style, and name. The word shawarma(pronounced /ʃəˈvɑːrmə/) comes from the Turkish word çevirme [tʃeviɾˈme] ‘turning’, though the dish is usually called döner kebab ‘turning kebab’ in Turkish. In Greek, it was formerly called ντονέρ /doner/, and now called gyros ‘turned’; in Armenian, it is “tarna”, literally meaning “to turn”.”
You can get shawarmas just about anywhere, but we have our favorite place downtown at this little hole in the wall.  It seems like every family has their favorite place to get their shawarmas, so it is nice to hear of other places.  We ate the doners in Turkey, but we seems to like the ones on Saudi better.
6)  Availability of Food –
In comparison to China, we can get just about anything we want in Khobar.  Obviously, pork and alcohol are out, but many items are available somewhere.  Tamimi’s (formerly Safeway) is our favorite place to shop due to availability of goods and location.  The prices are at most 15% more than US prices, although some items are the same or even cheaper.  Turkey bacon can be found sporadically.  Tostidos are also a hot item with westerners, so we always stock up if we can.  Cheerios are in and out, so if they are in, I usually buy 3 boxes or so.  Cheese is not as expensive, but fruits, fish, and nuts are very expensive.  Along with groceries, there are a wider variety of western restaurants, although they can be pricey too.  My favorite is Chili’s, although I’m glad there is Burger King and Hardee’s.  We have been to the Macaroni Grille with gift certificates and it is quite good too.
5)  Coworkers and Our Jobs –
Jamie is happy at the high school, and finding her a high school social studies position was one of our main objectives in moving schools.  I have settled in teaching 7th grade math/science at the middle school.  We are both pretty satisfied with our jobs.  We have the opportunity for some professional development opportunities as well as leadership opportunities that we wouldn’t have had in our last school.  ISG is a solid system to work for as a not for profit organization.  We are located right next to the US Consulate, so security is as good as it gets.  Our students for the most part are hardworking, although they have quite a bit of support from home.  The high school where Jamie teaches has 100% of its graduating students go to a university.  We have great and supportive coworkers, many of whom are also our neighbors and friends.  They have made the transition to Saudi Arabia easier.  We hope that we have these friendships for many years to come.
4)  Gas!!!
Not much I can say here other than… 40 cents a gallon, $9 to fill up my Chevy Trailblazer, and just as important, you don’t have to pump your own gas.  Many gas stations additionally give you a couple of tissue boxes if you fill up.
3)  Weather –
This one may shock some people, but the weather where we live is actually pretty amazing 8 months of the year.  During the summer, we aren’t there anyway, so we have to endure the heat during June and September, but the other months are pretty amazing.  Rainfall is less than inch per year and the winter is very mild.  During the winter, you thrown a light jacket in the morning and evening, but wear short sleeves during the day.  The heat is pretty unbearable beginning in May, but the humidity isn’t near where it is other places, so it is actually pretty bearable.  Overall, we’ve enjoyed the weather, despite the heat index in August reaching 146 on some days.
2)  Housing –
Westerners are required to live in a secure, walled compound.  Compounds vary in size and amenities.  Our compound is An Nassim, and overall we have enjoyed our stay there.  This year, we lived on the 2nd and 3rd floor of a 3 story villa.  There was a single lady who lived underneath us.  This next year, however, we have a full 3 story villa, which doubles our living space from last year.  We have a front patio, back patio, and even a grassy fenced back yard.  Many families have decorated their villas so well, it is hard to believe you live in Saudi Arabia.  The villas come furnished.  Some families replace all of the furniture and some keep it the same.  Jamie and I will do our best to make it look and feel like home as much as possible.  Home is where you make it.
Compound life for the most part is quite dull, however, there is a weekly poker night.  Some women get together for yoga, and we play Settlers of Catan every Friday.  About once per month, most people on the compound get together for some sort of pot luck dinner or celebration and Thanksgiving dinner is always prepared.  If you are lucky, you can also go to the Canadian thanksgiving.  If you’ve seen our compound video, you’ll see that we have tennis courts, a pool, and a pretty nice rec center and library.  My largest problem is that there is not a field where kids can play.  We plan on making villa 104 our home for a while, and I can think of worse places to live.
1)  Money –
No one, and I mean no one, moves to Saudi Arabia for the culture, scenery, or weather.  The lifestyle I have described above is what it is for one reason… money.  While we don’t make quite as much as we would in the states, our money is tax free, our housing is paid for, our health care taken care of, and insurance is pretty inexpensive.  Moving to Saudi has pretty much doubled our salary from China if you count the tutoring money.  Tutoring students has been a positive experience overall for us, and it can be quite lucrative.  My tutoring money alone takes care of our living expenses, so it allows for us to send most, if not all, of our money home to the states.  Our school’s package isn’t the best in the Middle East, but it is pretty good overall.

1 Year in the Kingdom

Jamie and I just finished our 1st year living in Saudi Arabia.  For the most part, it was as we expected.

Our first few weeks and months were quite frustrating at time adjusting to prayer schedules, random store hours, no vehicle, inconsistent Internet, and being stuck in Saudi.  The 2nd half of the year was more routine when we bought our vehicle, had a decent Internet connection, and were able to go to Bahrain when we wanted.

We had our trips, but they were not as numerous as our trips when we were in China.  I was able to go to a leadership conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, Jamie went to Istanbul, Turkey for a MUN conference, as well as Kenya for a Habitat for Humanity trip.  We went to Sri Lanka as well as Turkey for our two trips and enjoyed both.

Overall, Saudi living isn’t that much different than living in the US.  Exchange churches for mosques, add in prayer times and store closings, get rid of the alcohol, force the women to wear black robes, have very few traffic laws, increase the heat, lower your customer service expectations, add in foreign laborers, and up the security for all housing, and you’d have Saudi Arabia.  Similarities include the restaurants (minus pork and alcohol) and overall the general stuff you can buy.  There is much more you can purchase in Saudi than in China.  Price of gas is about 40 cents a gallon, which is nice, but other products more than make up for it.  Electronics are very expensive and random food items can be double the price.

Our next blog post will be the top 10 best things about living in Saudi Arabia.  It will give you more insight into what we think of living there.

Again, overall, a great experience so far.  We have another year on our contract, and we’ll see what we want to do after that.  We moved into a new villa that has 3 floors, so Griffey is happy because he has more room as well as a fenced in back yard complete with a doggie door.

Check our next post for those top 10.

Jamie’s Trip to Kenya

Well, lots of people are wondering about my trip to Kenya so I’m making a very rare (I think this is only my second) contribution to the blog.

We began with a late night bus trip to Bahrain Airport which involved crossing the border with 41 people (5 chaperones and 36 high school students). We had two groups going to Nairobi so we shared bus and plane rides in and out of the country. The trip started out well, no hiccups at immigration and all five chaperones got bumped up to business class! It was great, I can’t wait to be able to fly business and first class on a regular basis. Too bad that’s light years away. We had a brief layover in Addis Abba, Ethiopia and landed in Nairobi mid-day on Thursday.

There are pictures of our first hotel in Nairobi as well as our hotel in the ravine (complete with mosquito nets for all the beds). Both of the hotels we stayed at were really nice, with great outdoor garden areas to relax in during the afternoon. The food was good in both hotel locations. Kenyan food is very heavy on starches and carbohydrates so pretty much every meal had potatoes, rice, and fried bread as well as a meat dish (usually a stew of some sort). We also had some very good fish dishes while we were there and a slaw dish that I didn’t eat (it had mayonnaise of course, I can’t escape that condiment anywhere in the world).

Nairobi was pretty warm during the day but really comfy at night. In the ravine the temperature didn’t get quite as hot during the day. When we were working there was usually a breeze although it got quite cool in the evenings until mid morning the next day. I had exactly one pair of pants for traveling and no long sleeves so I was chilly.

The first evening in Nairobi we had our Habitat for Humanity orientation with Festus who would be our HfH contact for the trip. We learned about some of the traditional Kenyan housing (mud walls that have to be reworked after the rainy season every year) and the fact that boys in the rural areas move out of their families homes when they are 15. They live in a very small house (called a boy’s house) on their parents’ property until they can afford to build a larger home which often doesn’t happen until after they are married with a few children.

During this meeting, we were also reminded of the violence that had broken out during the last presidential election. The race was very close between two popular candidates (who are now the re-elected president and the new prime minister). Because of the tensions, some groups who were considered outsiders in their villages were attacked and fled. The new government has given stipends to the displaced families who are currently living in tents donated by the UN. With this money, families could rebuild their homes that were destroyed. One group decided to buy the land of their refugee camp and set up a permanent settlement so they pooled all of their stipends. This gave them a safe place to live and work but it left them with no money for actual housing. Habitat and the UN are working together to help this community build brick wall homes for everyone in their group. They have completed about half of the homes so far and our group got to stop and visit the settlement on our way to our actual build site.

We stopped a few times along the way to see a couple of look out points, shop for souvenirs, and take a few pictures. Most of our second day was spent on the road although we did get to visit the two families that we would be working with to get their homes started.

We had a total of two and a half building days. During the first day we dug the foundation of one home and began laying the foundation for another. Part of Habitat is that the families do have to pay off the loan of the building materials and contribute to the building through what is called “sweat equity.” We had locals and the family helping us lay bricks. Ultimately, we built both the foundation and most of the walls for one home. It was an amazing experience that I recommend to everyone. While we weren’t being tourists, and I can’t wait to go back to visit Kenya and do all the touristy things, we really got a great experience because we were working with a family of people. Most people had rudimentary English and of the places I’ve traveled, more people spoke basic English in Kenya than anywhere else. I’m guessing because of imperialism (and they drive on the left side of the road thanks to the Brits).

We did spend one day out on safari in one of the national reserve parks. It was amazing. We got to see lions, rhinos, giraffes, tons of zebra, antelope and deer, and a couple varieties of buffalo. Plus lots of birds. We didn’t see a leopard or an elephant but overall the day was pretty great. There was also a lodge hotel in the reserve itself which is where we ate lunch that day.

Our last day was a travel day as well and we made it from the ravine back to Nairobi. We thought for a while that the other Kenya group wasn’t going to make the flight but they did and we all headed home together.

Our kids had a great time. They were mostly juniors and seniors who were trying to beef up their college applications but I think by the end of our trip that wasn’t their focus anymore. We got to visit two schools and an orphanage which made a huge impact on all of us. We all brought items to donate (clothes, books, and toys) which were gratefully accepted. We also donated some food to the families that we worked with since they had fed all 19 of us everyday. We learned a few Kiswahili words (fundi means expert, and one of our kids got nicknamed junior fundi because he mastered the building process so well) and got to hang out with the family members during morning and afternoon tea. A baby goat was born while we were there (I’ve got some fuzzy pictures as I chased him around the living room) and a few of the young children saw white people for the first time (and were scared to death of us the first couple of days). We also got the chance to go up against a local school in a soccer game (well I took pictures from the sidelines).

Overall it was a trip that I will never forget. The people were great, the scenery was great, and I felt like I really contributed to the effort to give these people a good, sturdy home. Our students were wonderful, hardworking and cheerful, and so generous of themselves the whole week. I can’t wait to take kids on another WOW week trip. There is a lot to be said for the learning experiences that happen through giving beyond the confines of your small school community.

Random Life in Khobar

Life catches up to everyone.  We all get into the same monotonous pattern day after day.  It seems that life here in Saudi can become even more monotonous than even in the U.S.

I have been driving now for over a month.  Driving is not as bad as what people make it out to be. Sure, the drivers here are more careless than in the rule filled US, but as long as you balance your defensive/offensive driving, you’ll be fine.

There are roundabouts here, which I though I would hate.  Actually, I am not sure why more US cities do not have roundabouts.  They keep the flow of traffic moving rather nicely.  I guess it is our rebellion from England despite the fact that we had been an independent nation for over 100 years after cars were invented.

I have been playing in a basketball league at Aramco.  Aramco is the company that controls the oil here in Saudi Arabia.  Way back when the first dug here, they brought in US and other western engineers to run their oil business.  They built this enormous compound (about 12,000 people) that is heavily guarded.  They have actual grass, even a very nice grass golf course on their compound.  There are schools, grocery stores, government building, office building, parks, softball fields, gymnasiums, and plenty of swimming pools there.

You have to know someone to get onto Aramco.  You drive to the gate, tell them why you are there, then go to another parking lot and gate and check in with your drivers license, Iqama (green card), and car registration card.  People riding with you only have to present their Iqama or passport.  The guard then calls the number of the person who you know at Aramco.  This person has to be at their home number (no cell phones).  The guy lets then prints up all names of people wanting in ALWAYS misspelling the names.  It is actually quite funny.

You pass through the gate and drive where you need to go.  I have been going for a basketball league and once per week for Ultimate Frisbee.  I will also go in the Spring for softball.  It keeps my week pretty busy.

Jamie is in Kenya for the week.  I am hoping that she will blog about it when she returns.

We are still playing Settlers of Catan every Friday and sometimes through the week.  A new game introduced by a friend was Dominion, a strategy card game which has caught on.  Darts has also been a hot game to play.

This week, I was finally able to put up some picture frames around the house.  What is funny about that is that there are not any actual pictures in them.  We’ll get to that later when I have time to go print some.  We have a color printer, but I worry about the quality when I print them.

I have been pulling some long days by going in early and then tutoring right after school.  Tutoring is something that many people do here.  It is usually for just 1 hour for how many ever days you want.  I do 4 days per week, which is quite a bit, but the money is outstanding. Jamie and live off my tutoring money alone.  It was a pleasant surprise that we were able to do that.

Finally received a bank account and my ATM card.  I now have my check direct deposited so I do not have to go sit at that evil Saudi Hollandi bank any more.  I now sit at a probably just as evil Sabb bank for any banking needs. Banks usually on have about 2 tellers and only one of them will actually do any work.  You have to get a number and wait for the 1 teller to go through all of the people.  I have not been in a bank for less than 45 minutes. This is just to cash a check.  Crazy.

School here is as busy as anywhere.  The school offers a ton of things for the kids to do.  This week, it was Book Fair.  Nice selection as the student order the books, then they bring them in from Bahrain.  Only takes about 2 weeks from what they tell me.  I ordered a Dr. Seuss book I had never heard of called Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?  I also ordered those Brain Quest trivia questions and an Italian cookbook.

All for now.  I’ll try and talk Jamie into posting sometime about her Habitat for Humanity Kenya trip.  Interestingly, she is sleeping in the Southern Hemisphere and working in the Northern Hemisphere.  I think yesterday she went on a Safari – cool!

I’ll try and take pictures in the next couple of weeks.  It won’t be much to look at, but it might give you an idea of where we live.