If you have ever smelled a Middle Eastern person's cologne or perfume as they walked past you, you might have wondered what makes it so much more exotic smelling. It's probably oud.

The word 'oud' literally means 'stick', but is used in the fragrance industry and in the Mideast to refer to the fragrant resinous wood from aquilaria trees after they have become infected with a type of mold. The healthy agarwood is fragrance free, but as it fights off the mold infection, it creates a resin that has become prized for its aromatic qualities. It can all vary by the country of origin, the conditions of growth and infection, and other factors. The final wood and resin or oil, if expressed out, are more valuable than gold. After all, it takes 20 kilos of agarwood to produce only 12 millileters of oil. The wood can be over $2000 per pound!

There are soooo many oud (fragrance) stores here because fragrance is really important to the Saudi people. Known for their hospitality, the bedouin will greet you with Arab coffee filled with cardamom, dates for nourishment, and fragrance. There's often an incense burner somewhere and they will waft the smoke onto you and your clothes as well as around the tent or room. One other touch might be the splashing of rose water on your hands. 

As mentioned, oud refers to the infected wood. You can burn this as incense. Perfume and fragrance makers will process the wood to extract the treasured oil from it. This is what they use in perfumes. Either way, oud has a very distinctive and exotic fragrance to it.

I had seen the pieces of wood in stores and also watched as a salesman would carefully sort through a bin of wood looking for specific pieces. I found one store which had a nice display of several kinds of oud, so I thought I'd see if I could an education. Waleed was kind enough to help me, but his English was a bit sketchy. I hope I kept the details right.

He pointed to the different windows and gave the prices and their rankings. The most expensive was over $1000 Saudi riyals for 30 ounces and the prices, and apparently quality, went down to about 350 SR. They were also from different countries. One was from Cambodia, another from India, etc.  

Waleed went and grabbed the incense burner so he could show me the difference. First step is to light a piece of charcoal. Then you snip off just a tiny piece of wood and put it on top of the charcoal so it smolders and gives off smoke. He did this with a couple versions of oud and the fragrance was a bit different for each. He explained that you burn this for about five minutes in your home and the smell should linger for several days, depending on the quality of the oud.

The amount you see on the left is 30 ounces and four pieces. Waleed then took snippers and cut it into smaller pieces. The size you need is smaller than your pinky fingernail though.

Here you can kind of make out the bit of shiny edge as the resin is melting and smoking.

Waleed then showed me another product which is a paste made from oud resin, other fragrances, balsam, patchouli, and more. There are also some woods that have extra fragrance soaked into them. These are known as bakhoor.

Once the incense or bakhoor is burning, you only need to let it burn for about five minutes, preferably walking around your house with it or wafting it on your clothes. The fragrance will linger in your house for several days.

There are so many to choose from, but Waleed gave me the snipped pieces you see above and a sample of a couple pieces of paste. I look forward to trying them out back in Sacramento!

I've been going into Jeddah quite a bit while I'm here and notice the same thing every time we drive past an Al Baik ... it's crowded!

The number one fast food chain in Saudi Arabia is Al Baik. The name is derived from  the title used to refer to an important person in Turkish – similar to “Sir”. It's meant as a respectful way to address its customers. 

The chain serves fried chicken, shrimp, and fish and you have a choice of regular or spicy coatings. They do not use chicken mince in their nuggets, instead they are whole breast meat pieces. Like Colonel Sanders and KFC, there is a secret blend of spices that are used in the coating. Finally, they have a signature garlic aioli that is served with everything - and it's pretty good!

I had a hankering for fried chicken last night and it's the only fast food that is not on the KAUST campus (surprisingly). Since I was going to Balad again, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try them out and battle the pressing crowds I always see.

But I was surprised because for the first time I was confronted by the gender segregation I'd so often heard about. Saudi Arabia has segregated stores and restaurants due to their strict adherence to Islam. That means that unaccompanied women cannot eat in the same area with any unrelated men. As a child I was always with my father, so I was accompanied by a male family member. Back then there were also not many places to go out to eat anyway. Yet I had often heard and knew that there was segregation in the restaurants. Better establishments had sectioned off rooms while other establishments would have men inside and women were stuck outside. Air conditioning and comfort vs none. 

Things are changing in the kingdom and you do see a lot more freedom of movement for the women here. It's especially easier for those that are still completely covered. As a Westerner, I go around without my head uncovered and I tend to think that if I had wanted to, I might have been able to go into the men's side to order. But frankly, I didn't want to. The men's side is chaos and I thought I might have quicker and better service if I just went to the women's side.

In the picture at the top you can see the men's side in the left, pretty crowded.  You can see the partition for women's side toward the right and how much narrower that side is.

The women's side was also a bit chaotic with only one register. Service takes a while and so I had to wait and ask the ladies to help me to recognize when my number came up. 

What about the food?  I actually carried it around while I continued shopping to save it for eating on the bus. No pictures because I ate in the dark.  I ordered a four piece chicken meal. It came with french fries and a bun. At first I thought, "oh, there's a biscuit in here!" only to find out it was simply a burger bun. I did not eat that. The fries were typical fast food fries and would have been better with more salt.

I ordered the spicy chicken and it did have some heat to it. I liked that it was a very different spicy than, say, Popeye's. More like a tandoori type of spicy. What impressed me was that it permeated deep into the meat. When I pulled apart the breast, there were streaks of red spice well into the center. The coating was good and probably crispy had I eaten it right away.

They have cocktail sauce and garlic sauce and I tried the garlic. I have to say, I'd love it if some American chains served garlic sauce.

It was definitely an experience. I doubt I'll go again unless my fried chicken craving is too strong. The ordeal of ordering and waiting is a bit much. Although, now that I think about it, I often deal with that at In-N-Out!

If you have ever seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, you know it takes place around the first World War when the British were aiding the Arabs in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire that had controlled the region off and on for centuries. Most of what you see is a land of Bedouin tribes that roam the region with their camels and goats. Rarely is there a scene of an actual town.

minor gate into Balad from Corniche Commercial side

That's why it is somewhat surprising to find buildings that are over 400 years old in the old section of Jeddah known as Al-Balad. On the one hand you have the images of the movie in your head, while on the other you have a logical realization that people have lived in the region for thousands of years. It only makes sense that there would be a very old city on the shores of the Red Sea. A city that has been not only a port for centuries of trade, but also as a landing place for people on their way to the Holy City of Mecca. 

Balad, for short, is a historic district in much need of preservation. It is rare to see the old style of Arab homes still existing when there is so much modernization all around. There are also the problems of deterioration as some buildings are apparently sinking into the ground due to flood damage and time. This includes the main mosque, which the government is trying to restore.

Here I am with my roommate, Azhar. She's a Saudi and acted as my translator for the day. Her family lives in Mecca and part of her ancestry includes Indian blood. She reminds me that for all those centuries, the Red Sea coast of Saudi was quite cosmopolitan due to all the trade. She says that when the country was unified in 1930, all inhabitants were granted Saudi citizenship, no matter what their background. 

Hejaz House
Most of the old homes in Balad are vacant now, although some have been turned into museums. During evening prayers we stopped at the Hejaz House, one of the old homes that has been turned into a coffee house and museum. While there, a family sat next to us and started a conversation with my roommate in Arabic. She told me that the wife's father still owns a nearby house that the  family has owned for many generations. Like others, they have moved to more modern accommodations, but have held onto the home and are investing in its preservation. 

Speaking of Prayer Time, take a listen to this clip. Forget the picture because it is unimportant. It's the sound of about a half dozen mosques all calling for prayer at the same time. I've heard a lot of calls to prayer in my life, but never so many together.

There's a real beauty in the old buildings and their windows. The old shutter-balconies are called Hejazi mashrabiyya.

We also went to another museum, the Matbouli House. Inside it was a maze of floors, stairways, tucked away rooms.

 I was hoping to stumble across the old style souks from my childhood, but not on this day. There may be a second Balad post later in my stay as I plan to return a couple of times for exploration. 

The first mall in Jeddah was built in the early 1980s. By the time I had last visited the Kingdom there were no malls yet in the Eastern Province where I was. I did not have the experience of an Arab shopping mall. 

Since my arrival I have gone to two malls in Jeddah. The Red Sea Mall and the Mall of Arabia. Both are the biggest ones here and I have a preference for the Red Sea Mall as the other is undergoing renovations and had less stores of interest to me. The Mall of Arabia is better for families because it has a large amusement park section on the ground level with rides and games. 

Businesses in Saudi stay open late. With much of the year being very hot, things pretty much spring to life at sunset. Businesses here stay open to midnight or later. During Ramadan restaurants, especially, can stay open until 3 or 4 a.m. This is forcing me into a later pattern than I am used to. I'm generally a morning/day person due to my light sensitivity.

Many international brands are here: H&M, Body Shop, Clarks, DKNY, etc. There are also some European brands such as Boots and Marks & Spencer. I also found the Turkish equivalent of Payless Shoes. There are many stores that are, of course, unfamiliar. 

Being outside KAUST, I must wear an abaya, although I can leave my head uncovered. For the local women, you will see quite the assortment. The liberal women are uncovered, the conservative are completely covered (including face), and the moderates have their hair covered, but not their faces.

Shortly after arrival I experienced a flash from the past as the businesses began to shut down for Prayer Time. Muslims pray five times a day and in the evening there is one at sunset and another a few hours after that. This was the last prayer of the day around 8 p.m. It is best to time dinner for Prayer Time so that you have something to occupy you while shops are closed for 20-45 minutes. 

The food courts are just as varied as the shops. There are Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, Popeye's, Tim Horton's from the west as well as international cuisine options. My first night I opted for Indian and my second night I stumbled across a Yemeni stand. So glad I tried it. 

I had a meat mugalgal, which is a stew that is popular throughout the peninsula. It came with the most fabulous flatbread. It was large, like a platter, and so flaky! It was a carb cheat day because I couldn't resist!

Upon arrival in Saudi I came to realize some of my dresses wouldn't cut it. I have to have things covering to below the elbows and knees. One dress showed my knees and another had too high a slit. This was my goal in the shopping trips, along with some black, low heel shoes.

I entered H&M, gathered an armload of clothes, and then went in search of a Fitting Room. They were all marked 'closed' and finally I had to ask and everyone gave me bewildered stares and said, 'closed!'. It was not until I later talked to people at work that I learned there are few fitting rooms in Saudi. Instead, you purchase the clothes, go to a Ladies' restroom, try them on, and, if necessary, return them. This explained why there was a long return line at the register.

I was on a deadline and ignorant of this fact. Keep in mind that things here are marked in European measurements for the most part. I paid for my items and, luckily, returned home to find that I had picked out my sizes perfectly. Phew!

Returning to the bathroom situation, the first mall had no changing rooms that I saw. Only toilets. It was the second mall that had an area of changing rooms separated from the toilets/hammams. 

For Arabs 'hammam' means bathroom. It was at Mall of Arabia that I encountered my first on this trip. I couldn't find a western toilet and had to go like a native. While there are arguably benefits to this style, I find it rather a pain when you are dealing with abayas that already skirt the floor as it is. Hammams are a lot wetter and so one must take a lot of care gathering up clothes. So glad I wasn't wearing pants that day or I'd have had to deal with pulling down as well as gathering up! The hose you see is present in both toilets and hammams for additional cleaning 'down there', if necessary. 

I no longer have much of a need to go to the malls now that I have what I need, but may still venture to some of the others as it is something to do as a means of entertainment, so to speak. The Red Sea Mall has the first movie theater in Jeddah that only opened recently. It is, not surprisingly, so popular that you must reserve seats as soon as the date opens up. 

I'd much rather shop the streetside shops and markets much like I remember them. This I will do tonight with my Saudi roommate, Azhar, who has agreed to be my guide and translator. That post soon!

For years when people asked me where I was from, I would reply that I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Saudi was home. After all, the majority of my life had been there due to my father working for ARAMCO for 16 years. That was basically my childhood - from first grade through college. It wasn't until I was in my late 30s that I changed my 'home' to Sacramento. 

My father retired in 1987, so my last visit to Saudi had been in the summer of 1986.  Over 30 years ago. I wasn't sure I'd ever get the opportunity to revisit my childhood home since you were only allowed into the country for pilgrimage to Mecca or for employment. It wasn't until 2018 that the Kingdom announced it would allow for tourism. Luckily the company offers a reunion trip every five years and I have my chance.

Then something else fell into my lap - an opportunity to take a three month work assignment on the other side of the country. A friend referred me to a writing position at the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, otherwise known as KAUST. KAUST is located an hour north of Jeddah along the Red Sea. In very many ways it is just like I grew up, living in a Westernized compound with all the amenities.

When I arrived at the Jeddah airport I was immediately struck by how things changed and also stayed the same. The first difference was Customs. Thirty years ago it meant having every bag opened up and searched through looking for videos, porn, drugs, pork, and alcohol. Today it is just a matter of having your bags x-rayed. Another change, women were operating the x-rays! Still covered, including faces, but employed women, nonetheless.

Outside what hadn't changed was traffic. Still the same muscling into each others' paths with no discipline. Our taxi even got involved in a tap by another vehicle, but not enough to quibble over.

I've been put into a shared apartment with a young Saudi woman. Her name is Azhar and her family lives in Mecca. I'm so grateful to have her as a roommate because she brought a ton of stuff from home. Unfortunately the apartment gives you bare minimum - bath towel, hand towel, small fry pan, kettle, pot, three sets of dishes/silverware and that's about it. Very difficult to cook with no other tools or pans. Azhar has brought everything! She's got spices, cooking tools, even small appliances like toaster and coffee maker. Without her I would have to spend a lot of money outfitting myself or eating out all the time. 

The Beacon
The apartment is like a two-bedroom condo. We each have a bed/bath upstairs and then we share the rest of the apartment downstairs. One difficulty I am having is with the washer/dryer combo. I've actually been interested in one for home (less space), but this one has no instructions and I'm stumped at how to get it to just dry without washing. Like how to fluff up or unwrinkle an item.

The University is international and uses mostly English to communicate and teach classes. There are only about 1000 students, but from the size of the overall property (campus and living areas) it is a small city and has plenty of room for growth. 

The students, apparently, also live in similar apartments to mine. Not so bad considering most US universities have dorms. The faculty live in apartments themselves, or if they are married and/or have children, they have very nice townhouses or detached homes similar to the one I grew up in in Dhahran. Executives live along the shoreline in McMansions. 

Island Rec Center is on the beach

There are schools, a supermarket, a movie theater, and recreation areas. There are two recreation areas with swimming pools and gyms. The gyms are separated as male/female due to the strictness of the country. One rec center has a women's only pool as well, otherwise the pools are 'family' pools and coed. I'm excited to swim laps as much as possible!

faculty style housing
Familiar to my growing up, there are also other things such as a bowling alley, rock climbing wall, yoga, spin class, and snack bars! There are also art, photography, and ceramic classes I could join. 

Separately are a golf center and course as well as a racquet club for tennis, squash, and badminton. 

Somewhat in the center of 'town' is Discovery Square where there are several restaurants, including: Domino's, Tim Horton's, Burger King, Cold Stone, and several others that include Indian, Mideastern, Japanese/Chinese, and Italian.

Getting around is easy because there are several buses that make loops around the compound all day. On weekdays I take the bus to work to the main campus and the Administration building where I am working for Dr. Najah Ashry, VP of Saudi Affairs. She is a very impressive woman and certainly one of the most influential women in the country.

At lunch there is a very large cafeteria that offers many stations such as pasta, salad, deli, pizza, grill, as well as the featured entrees of the day, of which there are about a dozen to choose from. Due to the international nature of KAUST there are always Mideastern, Asian, and Indian selections. The dining hall is extremely large but there is also the lovely outside dining if the weather isn't too bad.

KAUST is something new for me but at the same time so familiar. It's like living in one of the ARAMCO compounds from my youth. That will be next month, though, when I return to the Eastern province to attend the reunion. Meanwhile, more pictures of KAUST...

part of the campus

looking toward the Beacon and Yacht Club

Harbor Walk with student housing

more student housing

out on Beacon point looking back toward campus

Yacht Club
inside the Beacon