Arrival to Saudi Arabia

Aloha everyone!

I apologize for the hiatus, but I have been having a blast meeting my peers, adjusting to life at KAUST, settling in, and exploring.  I have been here about a week and I already have so much to say and people have been asking so many questions so I will try my best to answer all of these questions.  

First I will begin with my arrival at Jeddah International Airport.  The plane landed and I decided to put on my abaya (a full length garment worn by all women in Saudi).  Now this is not a requirement, I was not forced to wear one.  But when I travel of course I want to fit in with the culture and abide by their traditions.  I also chose to wear a hijab (scarf to cover my hair) to go through customs as it was my first time ever in Saudi and I didn’t know what to expect.  If I were to go back to the airport I would not wear one, but again I was happy to not stand out in the airport.  Anyways, a KAUST government affairs representative met me in the airport terminal where the plane bus dropped me off.  He lead me through customs for people traveling with a visa, which was a pretty low stress procedure compared to the process I went through to get my student visa. They took my photo and fingerprints and everyone was super nice and helpful in the airport.  After customs I grabbed all of my bags (had to use a free cart to push everything) and it only took like 5 minutes for me to gather all three bags (I had heard for some people it took hours).  My government affairs representative lead me out of the baggage claim area where my taxi driver was waiting with a KAUST sign with my name on it.  I was relieved that he was there as I was a bit nervous that I would have to fetch a taxi by myself.  He said it was perfect timing and that I was earlier than they had anticipated.  He helped me push my luggage cart and went to pickup the taxi while I waited with my bags outside.  It was very very hot outside so I was happy when he came back with the AC blasting.

We drove through the desert for about 50 minutes to KAUST.  I talked the whole time with my taxi driver who was from Pakistan and had been working at KAUST for 5 years so he was telling me how lovely the “compound” is. We saw some camels on our way, as well as some amusement parks, large stadium, and also where they are constructing the world’s tallest building, read about the Jeddah Tower here.

KAUST is super safe, and has a double wall security system so you have to go through two stop points to show your KAUST ID (passport in my case because I did not yet have my ID).  Our first stop was to get my ID so I just gave them my passport to scan and got my ID in just a few minutes.  Stop two was to the housing building in Discovery Square (one of the main shopping areas on campus) and I filled out paperwork, received my keys, and got a little housing orientation.  After this 30-minute process my taxi driver took me to my apartment where the housing team met me and helped me move my belongings into the apartment.  I was exhausted but had to move in a little bit and get settled.  So I opened the box that housing gives all new students with plates, silverware, cups, pots and pans, toiletries, toilet paper, sheets, pillows, a duvet (all that kind of fun stuff).  So I made my bed, unpacked a bit, and had a very good night sleep.  There is a 13 hour time difference and honestly there was zero jetlag.  I think I was just so exhausted after my 32 hour travel day (mostly because of the stomach flu) so that made sleeping through the night pretty easy. The next morning I woke up and headed to the student building where there were about 1,000 posters, banners, balloons, and signs to guide me to the right place(KAUST goes all out for orientation).  I grabbed a quick bite to eat where I happened to sit down with a marine science student, Janna, who had done an internship in the past so she could tell me all about her experience.  It is so funny how all of the marine science students attract each other like magnets because we are all so alike.  Not only do we like marine science but we all dress very similarly, we love to travel, we are passionate and adventurous (you have to be to decide to go to school in Saudi!), and everyone is so friendly so it is so easy to meet people.  Anyways, orientation is a two week ordeal, the first week being “cultural orientation” which is basically optional fun activities to help us settle in, adjust, and meet people.  We did have one mandatory session on culture and one on entrepreneurship. Otherwise, we had a full list of events taking place and we just could pick and choose what we wanted to attend.  In addition the entire orientation offers free meals (breakfast lunch and dinner!) so obviously I went to every meal and most of the other time was going through my orientation checklist.  For example, getting my bank account started, meeting my onboarding team, academic advisors, getting a Saudi cell phone number, and then applying for an iqama (residency document) and taking tours.  

There were also some evening fieldtrips scheduled from 4 PM to midnight so I signed up for two.  The first was a shopping trip to a bargain souk (basically a cheap market), Ikea, electronics store, and the Mall of Arabia.  I needed some things for my apartment (like more kitchen supplies, an internet modem, and things like that) so I gladly went.  I wore an abaya (not a headscarf) and made some friends on the bus.  I didn’t quite know what to expect shopping as a foreigner, but everyone was so nice, employees always made sure I knew where I was going, and you can walk whereever you want and do your own thing (there were some concerns from family that woman could not go out alone, which I found to be false). But it is true that women can’t drive in the Kingdom (other than the compounds, like KAUST) so they would have to find a ride from family or a male.  Saudi Arabia has soo many familiar stores and restaurants.  For example, they have places like Forever 21, H&M, Lush cosmetics, Aldo, Nike, Old Navy, ect.  I was also shocked by all the restaurants in Saudi that I knew from home.  Even on the KAUST campus there are places like Tim Hortons, Coldstone, Dominos, Burger King, Quiznos, Subway, Starbucks, and more!  In the mall and around Jeddah there were restaurants like KFC, Chuck E Cheese, Chilies, Panda Express, Johnny Rockets, Baskin Robins, Apple Bees, and TGI Friday. Also important add there are free busses every single week to the large Jeddah malls, Ikea, Balad, amusement parks, and more, so it is every easy to get off campus.    

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The second field trip I went to was to Balad, or Old Jeddah.  A very old and historical spot about an hour from KAUST.  About 40 students loaded on the bus and we got a tour of this region.  I enjoyed the architecture and bright colors everywhere!  We even got to visit a mosque and then go to the roof of a building during prayer time to hear the prayers from all around the city, it was so cool!  It was also a great spot for photography! I will add some photos.  Hope to blog soon about campus and the culture!  Thanks for reading!

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