Friday, December 28, 2012

Land of Illusion

Our "Historic" house on camp.  Circa 1950ish.
I awoke the other day to the exotic call of a bird just outside our bedroom window.   It apparently had spent some time in a tropical rainforest, where such sounds seem normal.  I find it strange hearing it here, but understand the root of my confusion.

I have been very negligent in maintaining this blog during the past year.   This has been a time of transition for myself and my wife.   We decided to take a big gamble, sell the house and move half way around the world.   We thought that it would be interesting to take on some new challenges and get a larger perspective on the world and its inhabitants.   So here we are for the time being: Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

The Rub al Khali desert landscape is a difficult place.   There is very little water.   What was here historically is now greatly diminished due to well pumping.   Natural vegetation is sparse, but severe in its tenacious endurance.    It can be terribly hot in the summer.   Daily highs in excess of 120 degrees F. are not uncommon.    Periodically, a north wind kicks up and brings in dust from as far away as Turkey.   When the Shamal is active, the sky turns to a burning orange and then darkens sets in as the dust completely engulfs the sun. 

We live in a western compound of 12,000.   It has all the amenities of home.   This is no surprise as it was originally built by Americans in late 1930’s.   The houses, lawns, streetscape, everything looks like it was transported from the United States.    And a lot of it was as recently as the early 90’s when US military family housing intended to support the first Bush foray into Iraq ended early.   Several boat loads of suddenly unneeded prefab housing ended up in the Dammam port and is now installed on camp.   Open your eyes and you will think you are in any-town tract suburbia in the US.

The original Americans were apparently not amused by the local archetypes and decided to replicate home as closely as possible.   Green lawns maintained via heavy irrigation is key to the illusion.   Concrete must be watered also.   The Shamal dust mixes with the Arabia Gulf moisture to create a semi-hard dust coating on everything.   Our first morning upon arrival involved constant door bell interruptions by small, marginally coherent but very conversive, extremely dark skinned men from Bangladesh looking to be our “gardener”.   One major responsibility of said gardener is to wash the walks with a garden hose on a daily basis.   This reputedly safely enconses the dust back in the soil from which it originates.

The population of the kingdom is growing exponentially.   Construction of multifamily housing is apparent nearly everywhere here in the Eastern Province.  Fortunately, I am starting to see the locals take action on the diminishment of precious resources.   Water meters are about to be installed at everyone’s house with the intent to inhibit waste.   Solar PV is being used to shade cars at a major new office building.   This is replacing the “normal” fabric canopy that is common in parking lots in this part of the world to mitigate heat island effect.   Insulation is just starting to be considered, primarily with a move to clad existing buildings with EIFS to at least add some protection from nature’s severity.

In the meantime, we dwell a bit in disillusion.   It may look like home, but it isn’t.   Come to find out, the bird in my yard is a common Mynah.    Where he learned to imitate that song, I have no idea.   But it isn’t his original creation and it certainly is out of place here.    In a strange way, that seems appropriate. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Half a World Away

Rainwater Harvesting Circa 1000ad - Uqair

One of my readers sent me a note with a gentle reminder to get back to work on this blog.   Sometimes it takes a little motivation in this world of constant multi-tasking to get me moving.  That note was sufficient.  It told me that somebody actually cares.

This has been a crazy year.   I have been home only one day out of every three.   That trend will continue into May.   Frankly, I am getting pretty exhausted.   I miss my wife a lot.  But it is an essential part of my job…and I remind myself that I need to be thankful that I am over-employed in this struggling economy.
Some believe that business travel is rich and rewarding.  Sometimes it actually is.   The best part is the ability to meet new people in far off places.   There are differences evident in the varied localities I visit.   But most of the time the commonalities outweigh the differences.

In January, I spent the better part of the month in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  The Kingdom adopts the same building code that we use in the United States.   Their national oil company employs me periodically to teach code seminars to their staff.   That was the point of my last visit.   It was a rewarding one.
The NICEST classroom I have ever been assigned!
 As to differences, Saudi Arabia is about as different a place that there is.   The landscape and architecture appears somewhat harsh compared to that in the US.  Despite the visual and cultural differences, I find the people to be very genuine with hopes and concerns no different than our own.
 Contrary to how the Middle East is portrayed in western media, the Saudi people are friendly, peaceful, and very dedicated to their families.   We westerners can take a lesson from that.   In the pursuit of our daily attainments, we often forget what is really important.
February provided a milestone birthday for me.  That birthday was one of “those” that usually promulgates wild desires for youthful misadventures, marginally countered with mature reassessments of life ambitions and goals.   I am directing my efforts towards the latter as the former already has a pretty firm hold.  One of those reassessments is determining how I can best provide for my wife and I in our retirement years.  
Unfortunately, savings are a big deciding factor in our eventual success.   I am not keen on spending the rest of my life sitting in an airline seat (coincidentally where I write this now) going from one job to another.   However, one must work doing something in order to save for a time when work is no longer an option.
According to a retirement article I recently read, one ultimately needs to accrue 20-25 times the annual income they desire in retirement.   If one has high expectations of their annual spending in retirement, one will need to work a lot.   If spending can be moderated, a little less money in the "nest egg" is required.   How much is too little or too much is a big question.
Then there is the problem of determining the undeterminable.   What will inflation, world economy, natural and manmade disaster do to affect the annual purchasing power of that fund?   What will the costs of health care be in 20-30 years?   What will our living conditions be and what can I do to ensure they are stable?
Each of these must be assessed and addressed to ensure some reasonable degree of success.   One can diversify ones investments sufficiently to accomodate economic variabilities and hope for the best.   Health care will always be an issue, especially since our dysfunctional government insists on meddling with it.    These two factors will remain certain uncertainties.
The “living condition” variable is the only one that I feel I have any control over.   To ensure the security of my family, I am moving toward maximized self-sufficiency.   If you have read my old posts, you know that we recently bought land in Western Colorado.   The land is tilled and fertile with good southern exposure.  We are provided with copious irrigation water from historically reliable drainage with good senior rights.  We have a potable water tap and a good natural spring in case the former goes dry for some reason.    
We will be building our future house to maximize energy efficiency and work to minimize reliance on unpredictable utilities.   The costs of energy will undoubtedly increase in time.   Gasoline is pushing $4.00 a gallon at the moment.   Home energy costs will follow the trend.   Our new house will take maximum advantage of both passive and active solar technologies.   This is the only means I know to mitigate energy based outflow of our limited nest egg.
This brings me full circle back to Saudi Arabia.   The Kingdom sits on a vast pool of oil that has yet to yeild to production demand.  The current cost of 91 octane gasoline in the Kingdom is 45 cents per gallon.   As incredible as this sounds, the Saudi’s realize that low energy costs are not permanently sustainable.  They also see the need to maximize efficiency and minimize consumption.   They are actively promoting research on solar energy and alternative fuels.   They are starting to seriously look at building energy efficiencies.   They have a strong green building program that appears to be growing.    At the very least, in this respect we are kindred.
It has been a pleasure to travel half way around the world to confirm my assumptions.  I have developed a high level of respect for the Saudi people and their efforts to improve their portion of the world.   I hope that the expertise I shared with them will benefit the Kingdom and their future generations.    I look forward to furthering that relationship in the years ahead.   No matter where I travel, I am pleased to find people looking to better building methods to help provide for better lives.   That makes my toil worthwhile.
New Multifamily Mixed Use Project