Monthly Archives: November 2015

Look who’s home!

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There’s no place like it

My great Middle East odyssey has come to an end. After a year and three months of living a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I find myself back home in Canada. I will take advantage of some remaining vacation time to get things back in order and I will then rejoin my colleagues at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus for the winter semester.

What an adventure! It feels great to be home but I am very conscious that I left a lot of new friends back in Taif. The memories, too numerous to list here, boggle the mind when I think back on the hectic, chaotic, work-filled, extremely long days of the first few months last August. All of the meetings, special events and open houses we attended and organized seem like a blur today. You know you’re part of a very special team when you can get together at the end of those long days and still laugh and enjoy the experience.

I have Dave Taylor to thank for making this whole journey a reality. He kept warning me that it was going to one hectic ride…and he didn’t lie! I also owe thanks to Sean Kennedy for allowing me to be part of this incredible team. It always amazed me in those early days that no matter how busy and frenzied the workload was, Sean was there, sleeves rolled up, digging in to help. He kept our sanity by treating us to some Baskin-Robbins ice cream once or twice…a day! There’s a rumour around here that Sean is single-handedly responsible for increasing the value of the franchise! Being a part of the small team that tackled daily challenges and always found ways to meet them will always be something that I will be immensely proud of.

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Dave Taylor and Sean Kennedy rockin’ those sunglasses!

Getting to know Bassem Makzoumi will always be one of the best things to come from this adventure. I had to opportunity to meet him a few times at the Welland campus before he flew over to Taif before I did. Once I arrived, we became fast friends. Sharing an office and our daily challenges helped to develop a bond that will last forever. He’s a negotiator, a salesman, a diplomat but above all else, he is fiercely loyal to the college and his friends. My first week in Saudi, he was nice enough to take me with him when he went for a haircut.  Now Bassem has a brush cut so you don’t need a lot of explanation to get the barber to do that. I, however, have an award-winning and stunning hairstyle that is the envy of all (Would it kill you to play along?). So Bassem goes first and gets his cut done in minutes and then he gets up and says he has a few things to buy and will be back shortly. So…here I am, my first week in Saudi, sitting in a barber’s chair with a guy asking me in Arabic what I’d like done. Luckily, the results left me as handsome as ever!

Bassem was my constant companion for the first six months or so. Our rooms were across the hall from each other at the hotel. We would often go out for supper together or coffee/tea at ‘each other’s place’. Bassem, thankfully, could handle the driving in Taif, something I never got used to.  Bassem also knows everyone in town. He can fix anything. Bassem simply gets things done!

At some point, we made a deal that would see him teach me some Arabic while I would teach him some French. Turns out he doesn’t like tongue kissing all that much! Actually, he and his family spent a lot of time in France so he was, and is, well versed in French. I, on the other hand, now have an incredible 15-word Arabic library. I wish there would have been time to properly learn more of this language.

It is comforting to know that our bond will continue here in Canada. I am privileged and lucky to count Bassem Makzoumi as a very dear friend.

Andre and Bassem SM

Bassem and me

I also had the chance to get to know and work with other Niagara College employees that I had never met. Orel Ruiz, in charge of Finances, is without a doubt the answer to the energy crisis. If we could bottle the energy he has the world would no longer have a crisis…and he does it all with a smile and positive attitude. Matt Marois, in charge of recruitment and student services, is also incredible. Let alone the hundreds of things that need to be dealt with on a daily basis, he’s getting married on New Year’s Eve and somehow still finds time to do what needs to be done. Mike Hurley, our IT go-to-guy. He took what can be generously described as the IT Challenge of all time and cobbled together a network that did the job! David Atherton, in charge of…well…in charge of everything! This poor man’s job description has changed so many times that it makes my head spin. Not David. Always equal to the challenge, he goes on his merry way getting the work done. Even though he would much rather stay home with his children, he gets on the plane for that killer flight and spends a couple of weeks at a time in Taif. It is that type of dedication that is synonymous with the entire team.

Can it really be 15 months? How lucky am I to have been part of a small, hard-working and dedicated team to go to foreign lands and open a new college? From the ground up, we put it together and got it running. It’s funny to think (well…now it’s funny) that we were still uncrating tables and chairs the night before the first day of classes.

Dealing with the Saudi culture is always an exercise in patience and creativity. Simple things that would only require an email to get accomplished here in Canada often requires days, weeks or longer to get done in Saudi. Now if you don’t happen to be blessed with an inordinate amount of patience (pick me!!!) it can be frustrating, but I was finally getting used to it. It didn’t make it any more fun, but it is what it is.

The Saudi people I met were very friendly and warm. On many occasions, I would get invited to the home of someone I barely knew. I sometimes accepted and was always treated like family. In my experience, they are truly open and giving people. They can’t drive, though!!!!

The college itself was invited to many official functions and many times we were the guests of honour. Always warmly received, it was obvious to me they were happy to have us here. We met princes, governors, ambassadors, top business people and all were thrilled that we were here to help offer a western education to their young citizens. This is what made it worthwhile for me.

I realize that some people back home, colleagues and even friends, find it difficult to understand why Niagara College would get involved in Saudi Arabia. I understand that. I, too, do not agree with all of the policies, laws and customs that make up the Saudi culture. My decision for joining the team was not to embark on a ‘mission’ to change the world. I simply believe that education, be it here in Canada, the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, has the power to change.

Making close friends with some, acquaintances with others and teaching yet more Saudis, all while interacting with many decision-makers, I know that there is a willingness to change. Some want change to help the local economy while others want progressive change for all citizens. I’ve been fortunate to have had many conversations with Saudis who privately hope for positive change. However, they, like myself, understand that change is a very slow moving machine. It is a culture steeped in long-standing traditions and the past does not let go easily.

Interacting with our students in the classroom and casually outside of class, I see the desire for change. Saudi Arabia’s population is about 39 million (and by the amount of crying babies on every plane I’ve been on, growing fast!!!) of which roughly two-thirds are below the age of 30. It is a very young population with citizens who are more and more aware of what the ‘outside world’ is like. The ‘old guard’, like those of all countries, will have to make way for the new. I believe change is coming and I’m glad to have played a very small part in what I hope will be a positive transformation.

So my journey comes to an end. I have grown both personally and professionally. I can highly recommend to anyone that wants to work ‘outside their comfort zone’ to consider being a part of the great work our International Department is doing. It doesn’t have to Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t have to be for 15 months either!! I also wouldn’t recommend doing it while taking a synchronous Masters course based in a time zone with an 11-hour difference, but I digress.

Our International Department is involved in a wide variety of projects all over the globe. With government funding shrinking, new revenue sources are needed. Our International Department is contributing to this with some of their projects. Sure it would be nice if we could open campuses in Hawaii or Venice or other such places. The fact is, the places that need our expertise are mostly from poorer or developing countries. As much as I would like it, Hawaii doesn’t need us.

There will always be cultural, religious and political differences to deal with. However, if you wait for the just the right mix of everything before you decide to expand your global experiences, you might just never leave the country, and that would be a shame. International travel is one of the best interactive forms of education there is. The opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture different than your own allows you to see everything from a global perspective. I truly hope some of you are as lucky as I was and get an opportunity to experience what I have. It truly was an amazing chapter in my life.

So, what do I do with this blog moving forward? I’m going to visit a friend in Orangeville next weekend. I could post some pictures of that, but I suspect no one will care…and I don’t blame you. Although their Summer Rib Fest is pretty awesome!

I’ll just leave it as is for now and decide what to do with it later on.

For now, as Sam said to Rose, “Well, I’m back.”

Niagara College Taif

Niagara College Taif

 

 

A Gift from Saleh

Saleh and me

Saleh and me

Yesterday evening I had a visit from my good friend Saleh and his son Anas. They came over to say goodbye as my return to Canada is barely a week away. In our vastly improving but still sorely lacking mastery of each other’s language, we relived a few memories from the past 15 months. We shared many laughs and a few tears. Man, it’s difficult to say goodbye!

Anas and me

Anas and me

Young Anas then presented me with a gift. Saleh had him taught him a couple of lines of English which Anas delivered beautifully.  And what a gift it was! A handmade, traditional Arabian dagger in a sheath covered with silver.

Wow

How beautiful is that? The packing material is dried flower petals and leaves. I think it goes well with the silver of the sheath. :o)

Engraved

The handle is made from the branch of a local tree.

To make it even more special, Saleh engraved the blade with my name and date. I will treasure both his friendship and generous gift forever.

Look at those big, brown eyes!!!

Look at those big, brown eyes!!!

Shokran Saleh.

Good Idea That Rain Day!

OK, that’s a lot of rain!

Imagine if that was snow!!!

Rain Day!?!?

Rain Day

You know it’s time to come back home when they’re shutting down schools and businesses because of rain!

Snow Day I understand but Rain Day???

Apparently they are expecting very heavy rain so our Makkah campus, along with everything else has been closed as a precaution. Here in Taif, it’s business as usual. That’s just not fair!

So…we had a BBQ

BBQ04

Niagara College President Dr. Dan Patterson is here in Saudi Arabia for a visit and we decided to have a BBQ. Not just any BBQ though. A traditional, cook and eat outside BBQ. Not just any traditional, cook and eat outside BBQ, but one in a location that was truly awe-inspiring.

BBQ_Location

We drove into the mountains of Al Hada and there, at the edge of a cliff, was our BBQ. Arabic rugs and pillows laid out on the ground, sun peeking through the clouds and a view that went for ever. And just to be certain that everything was perfect…Chef Osama and his crew were doing the cooking.

It was like something out of a storybook. How often do you get to do this? I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

A well-fed and happy group

A well-fed and happy group

There are more on my Flickr site. Click here.

Saleh Abu Anas

Saleh and Son

Saleh and his son Anas

So…you’ve just left everyone you know and everything you own behind. You’ve been on a plane for 13 straight hours. You’ve just landed in a place called Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The only 3 people you know in this country are still a two-hour car ride away.

You’ve been told a driver will be there to pick you up. Your whole world is spinning as everything is so different than what you’re used to. The sights, the smells, the dress, the language. Thoughts like, “What the hell am I doing here?”, and, “Is it too late to get out of this?” start sneaking into your brain.

It’s at this point that you spot a man, dressed in a thobe, holding a sign with your name on it. You read the name on the sign again, just to make you’re not confused. Of course, how many other André Roy’s can there be in Saudi Arabia? I walk up to the man and identify myself. The man gives you the biggest smile ever, says, “Hello Mr. Andy!”, shakes your hand and then hugs and kisses you on both cheeks. I actually remember looking around me, a bit out of embarrassment and a bit out of shock. “I am Saleh!”, said the man and took my luggage and started walking away with trotting behind trying to keep up. Welcome to Saudi Arabia!

Every now and then he would look back at me, smile and say, “Mr. Andy”. I’d smile back and have absolutely no idea what to say. It was when we got to the airport doors and walked outside that I realized I was no longer in Canada. It felt like someone had thrown a blanket soaked in boiling water on me. My little fat body would have reacted had it known what to do. Holy crap was it hot! My sweat was sweating!! How was I going to survive in the repressive heat?

At some point while my body was losing liters of sweat, I must have stopped walking. I heard Saleh, from a distance, say, “Mr. Andy”. I snapped back to reality, stepped out of the pool of sweat I was standing in and caught up to him.

When we reached the car and I got in, leaving the hellish sun for the comfort of shade, I remember thinking, “How do you say ‘air conditioning’ in Arabic?” I needed have worried. As soon as Saleh starting the car, he began adjusting the A/C and moving the vents around so I was in the ‘sweet spot’ of the cool stream of air. He handed me some tissues to wipe off my face and gave me a nice cool bottle of water. “This guy’s alright”, I remember thinking.

We were on our way. After a few more smiles followed by some “Mr. Andy’s”, I started wondering how we were ever going to communicate. I was dead tired after the long flight but didn’t want to fall asleep as I thought that would be rude. Again, I needed have worried. I was about to discover ‘Saudi Driving’!

The traffic was five cars abreast. Not a big deal unless you consider there were only TWO LANES!! There were cars passing us on both shoulders AND in the ditch!!! I would glance over to Saleh to see his reaction, but he was a calm as could be. Cars would be honking their horns, flying past us at speeds that were frightening, cutting in and out with absolutely no concern for other drivers. I was doing my best to maintain a calm appearance. Of course, it didn’t help when I would see Saleh driving at 120KMs while holding his cell phone and drinking some water while steering with his knee.

Then we finally got out of the airport parking lot. OK, that’s not true but Saudis are crazy drivers!!

I think Saleh must have sensed my complete terror so he started chatting with me. I had no clue what he was saying but he was chatting away. Somehow, at some point, we started teaching each other the words for various body parts. Head, arms, legs, feet, fingers, etc. We were laughing at both of our awkward pronunciations but we were having the best time. Unfortunately, I cannot remember any of the Arabic body part words. It turns out that ‘body parts’ don’t come up too often in general Arabic conversation.

Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Taif campus. I couldn’t believe how much fun I had just had while in car for two hours with a complete stranger who didn’t speak my language. It seemed impossible that two people could laugh so much and feel like good friends under these conditions.

But that is the ‘magic’ that Saleh has. You are never a stranger and he will never let you feel like you are alone or an outsider. Saleh has driven me around to many places over the 15 months that I have been in Saudi Arabia. Each time was a laugh and joyous event. On trips back to Jeddah for the airport or meetings, he would always pull over and buy some water or coffee and snacks. He would never accept any money. Sometimes, he would be driving me and prayer time would come up. He would pull up to a mosque and ask if it was ok for him to pray. I was tempted once or twice to say no just to see his reaction!

Now, I’ve explained the Saleh was OUR driver. He was there for US. The normal ‘Driver/Driven’ thing (if there is even such a thing) would lead one to believe that YOU would tell HIM when to pick YOU up. Saleh was having none of that! You would ask him to pick you up at a certain time to take you to the airport and he would inevitably insist on a half hour earlier pick up. Arguing didn’t change anything. We quickly found ourselves asking Saleh what time he would pick us up of rides. That was how dedicated he was. He knew the roads and traffic patterns. He would not risk having you be late because we hadn’t left early enough.

Saleh is now in charge of our campus security. Turns out he’s very well connected and has many friends that make him a natural for the job. He brings the same dedication and work ethic to security and we all felt much better for it.

It was impossible to know on that hot day at the Jeddah airport in August of 2014 that the first person I met would turn out to be such a great friend. When I go home, I will miss his ever-present, infectious smile and warm, out-going personality.

Thank you for all you have done for me, but most of all, thank you for your friendship, Saleh.

Chef Osama Delivers!

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Chef Osama and a grateful fan

Last night, a few of us were treated to a typical Middle Eastern supper in our cafeteria at the Taif campus.

Bassem Makzoumi decided that it was the perfect time to get together and ‘break bread’. As always, he was absolutely right. He contacted Chef Osama and asked him to put together a ‘little something’ for about 8 of us.

Chef Osama works for the catering company that handles our cafeteria. As you can see, he put together quite the meal.

Nothing like getting a few friends together and having a great chef prepare the meal.

Chef Osama meal

A hard-working, well-fed, happy bunch of guys!

“Bilhana washifa” (please forgive the spelling) is Arabic for “may you have your meal with gladness and health” 

Beautiful Bahrain

217Ever one of those weekends when all you want to do is ‘nothing’? Just laze around with a cold beer and scotch and watch life go by? That’s what I was in the mood for this past weekend and that’s exactly what I did.

bahrain-map

OK, so it was in beautiful Bahrain and I was lounging beside multiple swimming pools while looking out on the Arabian Gulf at a four-star resort and spa, but still…I was lazing!!! The next time you pop into Bahrain, I can highly recommend the Elite Resort and Spa in Muharraq, Bahrain. The service is incredible! It’s as if they anticipate your needs before you know them yourself. On two separate occasions, I was reaching into my fridge and noticed I was taking the last water bottle. Before I could even open it, room service was at the door with another half dozen to replenish the stock. Sitting under a shady umbrella, taking in the warm October breeze while gazing out at the blue waters of the Gulf, I would be I would be finishing my last gulp of cold, refreshing beer and the server would appear with a new one! I didn’t even have to ask. OK, that’s not such a good example but I was never empty damn it!!

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The Elite is aptly named. Everything was perfect. All the little, finishing touches are there. Nothing is out of place. The flowers are fresh. All is as it should be.

There are two aquariums in the lobby with a colourful variety of fish that draws your look every time you walk by.

Here are a few pictures of the Elite, both from the inside and outside and during the day and night. These pictures are mostly for my good friend Kathy and her hospitality students.

Of course, you would expect the food at this type of resort to be of the highest caliber and that it was! Incredible buffets for lunch and supper. A complimentary, fully loaded, breakfast buffet with an amazing omelet station was waiting every morning. Just to remind you that your were, after all, in the Middle East, breakfast was served in huge, air-conditioned tent beside the beach. The requisite tapestries, pillows and multi-coloured drapes that one expects of such a location added a feast to eyes to compliment the culinary feast on your plate.

The lunch and supper buffets consisted of mixed grill meats one night and paella and seafood the next. The pictures do not convey just how great it all tasted. Just for fun, if you wanted fish, you chose it from what was on offer and off it went to the grill or the pan, depending on your choice. Of course, to put an exclamation mark on the meal, desserts were also available and the variety seemed endless.

All of these culinary masterpieces were served and enjoyed outside by the pool while soft Arabic music wafted through the air to remind you that you were not at McDonald’s. The Elite has two large pools, a child’s splash pad and a party-sized hot tub. The flora added to the relaxing tone of your surroundings. Here are a few examples. (Again…don’t forget the beer glass thing!!)

The resort immediately beside the Elite is the Novotel, a five-star luxury worthy of it’s international reputation. I wandered over on Halloween Night, drawn by the music and costume wearing crowd that were filing into the resort. It, too, was very impressive.

Finally, here is my colleague from Niagara College Taif, Charmarke. He is an ESL teacher at our campus and was in Bahrain to file for a new visa. He popped over for supper and to kill a bit of the time as waiting for these government papers is not always fun.

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So there! That’s how I spent my weekend. Doing absolutely nothing but resting and, as my good friend Barry says, wondering what the poor people were doing! Did I mention my beer glass was never empty?

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Ummmm…I meant my rye and coke!

Cheers.