Friday, January 29, 2010

Saudi Arabia: From a boat to abaya

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

Getting back to reality is always a difficult transition for me, since I'd rather be working on/in the ocean than be anywhere else. Even though field work is difficult, intense, and exhausting, the field is where science comes alive. Salty breezes, blue oceans, and more science than I can possibly handle is definitely my preferred M.O.

photos by Randi Rotjan

However, if you have to be on dry land, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are a fascinating place to be. I posted earlier about KAUST - the new Saudi university that opened in September - and it's terrific to spend a few more days exploring this fascinating new world where East meets West. The transition from boat to abaya was a bit abrupt, though we were used to it because the women on-board had to don our abayas whenever we interacted with the Coast Guard. Abayas (aka burqas, chadors, or hijab) are required by Saudi Arabian law whenever women are in public, enforced by the muttawwa (religious police). They are surprisingly comfortable, though a bit impractical on a boat (too breezy!).

Upon returning to KAUST, the abayas again came off, and the work began. Sorting samples, preserving samples, entering data, sorting permits, cleaning dive gear, beginning data analysis... the hectic flurry of post-boat, pre-flight madness. Amazingly, we got everything all set with enough time to explore the KAUST Grand Mosque, accompanied by some helpful students.

photos by Randi Rotjan
To get a taste of life off-campus, we donned our abayas again and headed out for a fish dinner in Thuwal (the city surrounding KAUST). It's very strange to eat the organisms we are studying, but we found a way to use the fish for both food and science. At the dinner table (all dressed up and clean), we dissected the fish to collect additional tissue samples. Waste not, want not! Seems that you can take the scientist away from the sea, but you can't take the sea away from the scientist.

photos by Randi Rotjan
On our way to the airport, we stopped at the Souq to purchase some souveniers and get a taste of the real Jeddah. After purchasing pashminas and spices, it was close to midnight and time for me to run (literally, abaya and all) to catch my 1:00 am flight.

photos by Randi Rotjan
So. Back in Boston now, it's hard for me to face the cold (though I'm sure it will feel balmy to Brian, who's been in Antarctica all this time!). This trip will stay with me for a long time. Travel is usually solely about the science for me, but this trip had a magical combination of great science, fascinating culture, wonderful collaborators, and unfamiliar landscape (both above and below water).

As the sun set over the Red Sea on my last day, I looked out at the KAUST Beacon and wondered whether the KAUST experiment will work. To quote Robert Lacey (the author of the most recent book on Saudi):

"Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is eighty-six, and is an old man in a hurry. For more than thirty years his most cherished ambition has been the creation of an internationally prestigious college that will bear his name, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-only, Arabian equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The world's leading scientists and scholars will gather and mingle freely on its campus, dreams the king - men and women, East and West, all united in their pursuit of learning."

I hope so. Insha'Allah!


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