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Ode to Ali M. Al-Baluchi

25 March 2015 | comments (13) | Reunions | by

Ode to Ali M. Al-Baluchi

If your path has crossed dear Ali’s
Then you will surely know
When he wants to make “it” happen
“It’s” always good to go!
He has a way of working
That leaves you in no doubt
His plans will clearly come to pass
And find a gainful route!

But what is it that makes him reach
Across the sands of time
To touch so many hearts and lives
No longer in their prime?
What is the thing that drives him on
To join them overseas,
And gather friends from far and wide
To reunite with ease?

How does he motivate and lead
A team both old and young
Who hail from all the globe around
And toil for praise unsung?
What is this magic sense he has
That all shall come to pass?
A quiet confidence and strength,
A self-belief steadfast.

There are so many qualities
Of his that claim respect:
An active mind, perspective clear,
Ability to connect.
Much energy and wisdom rich,
Loyalty deep and true,
A love of family, national pride,
Company man right through.

But most of all we hold him dear
For his kind and gen’rous heart
That reaches out across the world
To draw friends long apart.
These Gath’rings nurtured by his hand
Are blessed by his great care,
And demonstrate to everyone
A fellowship most rare.

For Ali also understands
That in this changing world
Friendship is a powerful tool
A flag to keep unfurled.
So when we see our common ground
And think on life we’ve shared,
We all can raise a prayer of thanks -
Most of all that Ali cared.

by Alison Hooker

Adventures in France Continue: On to Bordeaux!

11 March 2015 | comments (0) | Travel & Leisure | by

Many months ago—too many months ago—you read in this newsletter an account of an October 2013 visit to Paris. That piece ended with the three of us—wife Gypsy Feet, daughter/Jack Russell Terrier Princess P and yours truly, Wanderlust, packed and ready to depart the City of Light by car on a journey that would take us first to Louis XIV’s monument to opulence, the Palace of Versailles. From there, we planned to continue westward on a leisurely drive, with an as-yet-to-be-determined overnight stop somewhere in between, eventually arriving at a château at a winery in the Haut-Médoc region north of Bordeaux.

Life, it’s said, is full of surprises. And so it was on that next leg of our Odyssey. That previous story ended with the words, “to be continued.” Here then, at long last, is that promised continuation.

We rolled out of bed early, grabbed a light breakfast, checked out of our hotel and caught a taxi to Gare du Nord, where we picked up our rental car, a GPS-equipped VW Golf. [Advice: If you ever plan to replicate a trip across France like the one I am about to describe, be sure to take along a reliable GPS. Otherwise…No, you don't want to know what "otherwise" entails; it's too frightening for words.] Miraculously, the entirety of our considerable collection of suitcases, bags and loose clothes fit inside the vehicle without blocking anyone’s view out of any of the windows.

Five minutes after leaving the parking garage at Gare du Nord, we were in trouble. Our GPS led us directly into the heart of a weekend street market, choked with the stalls of anxious vendors and throngs of eager-but-picky buyers. Half an hour later, we made it two blocks to the desired thoroughfare. By the time we reached the main motorway leading to Versailles, I knew our date with the Hall of Mirrors and the Petit Trianon was off. Bumper-to-bumper traffic heading in that general direction choked the road. Taking a quick peek at the GPS, I saw the familiar name of Poissy, famous in French history for a 16th century colloquy held there in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile Catholics and Protestant Huguenots. That appealed to the historian in me, so I pointed the car in that direction and wrote off Versailles for another time.

L'esturgeon, Poissy

Our stop in Poissy was short but memorable. Straddling the banks of the Seine, the city features worthy historical sights and some intriguing restaurants. We briefly considered having an early seafood lunch at L’esturgeon, but opted to hasten on in the direction of Chartres to see what we could find there in way of food and drink.

On our next leg, the virtues of GPS announced themselves with great fanfare. There was a setting where you could choose to stick to the major highways or avoid them entirely. We chose the latter option. I doubt if we tried it again a hundred times, we could duplicate precisely the route we took to Chartres. Along the way—whatever way that was—we passed a lovely château that had the welcome mat out for any passers-by that cared to stop and visit for a while. I might have stopped, but we were past the château by the time I was able to hit the brakes, and turning around on the narrow road would have been problematic at best. Plus, le Basilique Cathédral Notre-Dame de Chartres expected us, and I dared not keep so grand a lady waiting.

Considered the finest example of Gothic cathedrals in all of France, the one at Chartres dates from the 13th century and has been meticulously preserved. Its flying buttresses, stained glass windows and elaborately adorned façades are wonders to behold. We found a pleasant outdoor café on the square beside the cathedral and enjoyed glasses of wine and pastries before continuing on. By now we had a destination in mind for a place to bed down for the night: the Mercure Hotel in Poitiers, 280 kilometers to the south and west.

It was well past sunset when we arrived at our hotel. Poitiers is one more historical, beautiful, unforgettable French city, situated atop a large promontory, with an old town area crammed full of Romanesque architecture and paved wall to wall with stones with hardly a tree to be found. Historically, Poitiers is best known for a nearby eponymous battle fought in 732 where the Frankish army of Charles Martel turned back the until-then-all-conquering forces of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Angouleme, France

Owing to our late arrival, our dining choices were limited. Luckily, we stumbled upon the Bistrot du Boucher, where not only the tastes but the appearance of our servings as well delighted us. The next day was a Sunday, and everything was closed, so instead of seeing more of the town, we entered “Angoulême” into our now-trusted GPS and headed in the direction of one more hilltop French city with a history a mile long. The view from that city’s heights is intoxicating, and there’s a plethora of beautifully-restored historical buildings to see. On a Sunday morning, however, our dining choices were even fewer than our dinner options had been the night before. We settled on espresso and pastries as the only customers at the first outdoor café we could find that was open and made do with that.

Cheap Thrills

For all of its glorious history over many centuries, the city is perhaps best known today internationally for its annual celebration of comic books, the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Every year they award la grand prix de la ville d’Angoulême in recognition of some artist’s body of work or lifetime achievement in the world of comics. My favorite winner of all without a doubt is the 1999 laureate, Robert Dennis Crumb, better known to rock-’n'-roll aficionados like myself as “R. Crumb,” the mad genius who designed such masterpieces as the artwork for the album cover of Cheap Thrills, the magnum opus of Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin’s screeching anthem, “Piece of My Heart”:

Didn’t I make you feel like you wanna own me – yeah!
An’ didn’t I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?
Honey, you know I did…

I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it,
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!…

View of Cognac, France

Leaving Angoulême for Médoc, we cheated and took the motorway. We were running behind schedule, such as our schedule was, and needed to make up for lost time. That resolution didn’t last long. An hour or so later we passed a sign pointing to Cognac. “Let’s go there!” Gypsy Feet cried, and Princess P and I agreed. We took the next exit, entered “Cognac” into the GPS, and headed off into the unknown countryside of France.

By the second turn we were driving down dirt paths that only the cows, local farmers and our GPS knew existed. Undaunted, we put our faith in our equipment and soldiered on.

Remy Martin

Reaching a crossroads, we found a sign reading “Remy Martin” and pointing off to the right. Our GPS insisted we go straight, and we obeyed its command. Reaching the top of the next hill, we parked the car beside a medieval cemetery encircled by high rock walls and took in the panoramic view of the surrounding valleys. In the near distance we could make out what must have been the home of Remy Martin. Whoever’s home it was, it was lovely to behold, even from afar.

In Cognac we strolled around looking for a suitable place to have lunch and settled on a pizza restaurant with walls covered floor to ceiling with mirrors. The pizza was tasty; the endless reflections in the facing mirrors were dizzying.

From Cognac we pointed our charger in the direction of Blaye, where we caught a ferry across the Gironde to arguably the finest region for red wines in the world, the Médoc. There you will find many of the great appellations: Haut-Médoc, Margaux, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and Margaux.

Our home for the next three nights would be a room at the château of a noted producer of Haut-Médoc. With the story of how that came to be I will close this episode of our adventures in France.

In August 2013, I was on a business trip to Beijing. Needing some items impossible to find in a Chinese store, I took a taxi to Wal-Mart, not far from the city’s famous Silk Market. Finished with my shopping, I headed back out to the street with the intention of walking to the Silk Market to shop for gifts for Gypsy Feet and Princess P. The oppressive heat and humidity quickly put an end to that foolish notion. Looking for some form of relief, I spotted the marquee for the Beijing Sofitel. Like a heat-seeking missile closing in on its target, I headed straight there.

Inside I passed the bar area, where a wine tasting was going on. Paying the cover without bothering to ask the price, I found a table with open bottles and clean glasses and helped myself to the grape juice. The person who sold me my ticket explained that each table was the domain of a different vintner from France, and that if no one was there to serve me, I should go ahead and help myself. Someone knowledgeable would join me shortly to explain the glories of the particular medicine I was sampling.

Chateau Meyre

Moments later, a young Frenchman arrived and introduced himself as the head of marketing for Château Meyre, a producer of Haut-Médoc and Margaux from the Bordeaux region. In 10 minutes I learned more about Bordeaux wines from him than I had accumulated previously in my entire lifetime.

Our conversation wandered here and there and eventually touched on my work and travels. When I mentioned I was going to be in Europe that fall, he invited me to come visit him at the château. One thing led to another led to another and, in the last week of October 2013, the three of us drove through the gates of Château Meyre and checked into our room.

[To be continued...]

Cabo, Cabo, Cabo…¡Olé, Cabo!

25 February 2015 | comments (0) | Travel & Leisure | by

Cabo

Cabo, Cabo, Cabo…¡Olé, Cabo!

“We loved Cabo!”

“We had the most fabulous time in Cabo!”

“We can’t wait to go back to Cabo!”

I’ve heard friends say all of these things this past year, and knew at once they were talking about Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. However, had I heard these same words from someone 40 years ago, I would have scratched my head in wonder at what in the world they were talking about.

Archeologists claim people have been living there for 10,000 years. Historians claim the first modern settlements date from the mid-19th century. But, in truth, it’s only been in the last few decades that Cabo San Lucas has exploded into the consciousness of savvy world travelers. And what an impact it’s had! Today Cabo ranks as one of the top five tourist destinations in Mexico, and with good reason. With one of the most beautiful shorelines in the world, sunshine year round and a list a mile long of exciting things to do while there, Cabo has earned its reputation as one of “the” places to go in Mexico—or anywhere in the world, for that matter.

Cabo

Everything in Cabo, “Where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean,” begins with water. Swimming? Check. Sun bathing? Check. Sailing? Check. Kayaking? Check. Whale watching? Snorkeling? Mini-submarine tours? Deep sea fishing for marlin? Check, check, check and check.

Cabo

There are countless fun things to do as well for the landlubbers amongst you: Fine dining?—enough choices to make you dizzy…the seafood’s especially tempting. Shopping?—unique jewelry, fine fashions, handicrafts and more…Cabo’s got them all. Sightseeing?—desert splendors, geological wonders, historic sites…your only problem will be which ones to choose! Nightlife? Jazz clubs here, cantinas there, nightclubs everywhere…you may never want to sleep.

A popular option for traveling to Cabo is by cruise ship. You have a chance to sample the best that Cabo has to offer with the assistance of an experienced on-board team of travel professionals. They can help you plan your time in Cabo on shore or at sea or both. You’ll still have a tough time choosing just how to spend your time (and money), but they’ll help make the process a tad bit easier.

It just so happens that the Aramco ExPats Travel Club is sponsoring a one-week adventure on the Ruby Princess in October. For more information, click the buttons below.

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Located right on a beautiful shoreline, the most popular activities in Cabo involve water. You can enjoy the Cabo Bay by renting a kayak or sailboat.

Cabo is known as the marlin capital of the world and if you enjoy fishing, you will have a great time throwing your line out in Cabo. There are many charter companies like Juanita’s Sportfishing or Pisces that can arrange a fishing charter for you.

Snorkeling and scuba diving is another popular activity in the Cabo area. Known as “The Aquarium of the World,” Cabo has one of the largest reefs in the world where you can see a variety of underwater flora and fauna. Cabo Expeditions and their fleet of Zodiacs offer some really exciting snorkeling.

Cabo

There are many championship golf courses that surround the Cabo area. You will find these courses are challenging courses that also have very beautiful landscape.

Saudi Arabia: The Great Adventure

25 February 2015 | comments (0) | Special Interest | by

The Great Adventure

By: Owen Oxley

It’s been more than sixty-four years since I first went to the ‘field ‘ in 1950 for five years (also spent another year before that in the New York Office at 505 Park Avenue). Most of that time in Arabia I was a photographer in the Public Relations Department, documenting the oil operations as well as the lifestyles of the Americans workers and families in Ras Tanura, Abqaiq, Dhahran and lots of other places.

During those several years, I married a lovely girl, Wanda Marshall, on Bahrein Island, and nearly two years later, on January 21, 1955, she gave birth to a lovely girl, named Cassandra Lea.

Then, a few months later, I resigned ,from Aramco, returned to America and spent two years at a daily newspaper before entering the public relations field as a consultant, building a client base that included British, Russian, and to the Middle East.

By an incredible, extraordinary coincidence, in 1979 I was invited to return to Arabia by a client of mine who had just won a contract to construct a highway through the Rub Al-Khali, a vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. Sadly, while I was back in Arabia, Aramco and / or the Saudi Government changed or delayed plans for the highway, but put the construction company to working on a variety of other projects.

In 2000, the first year that Saudi Arabia permitted former Aramcons to return to the Kingdom as tourists, my wife Wanda and our daughter Cassandra returned to Arabia and spent from April 18 – May 2 there, overwhelmed by the changes that had taken place since 1955.

At that time, my wife was asked to provide a selection of photographs of mine for an exhibit in Dhahran. It was quite well-received and planted the idea in my head that a book of some sort might be a very real possibility in the near future.

Today, in my eighty-eighth year, I am in reasonably good health and good spirits, although I did suffer a mild stroke a couple of years ago, was without speech for most of a day (no pain, just speechless!), and now live with my second daughter, Alyssa, in Vergennes, Vermont.

Saudi Arabia: The Great Adventure is available for sale through Aramco ExPats. We have slashed the price!

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The Boys in The Boat – Truth Truly Is Stranger than Fiction

18 February 2015 | comments (0) | Special Interest | by

The Boys in The Boat

“There is a history in all men’s lives.” – William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene 1

Every once in a while, a story comes along that is undeniably true, yet so preposterous, so difficult to believe, so fantastical, no sane reader would accept it as plausible were an author to produce a work of fiction with the same story line.

Every once in a while, a story emerges from out of nowhere that commands the attention of millions of readers, despite the fact few if any of them are familiar with the book’s subject.

Every once in a while, a sports story explodes on the scene that captures the imaginations of people who would otherwise never willingly pick up a sports book to read.

Every once in a while – but only very rarely – a story appears like Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a book that accomplishes all three feats, scoring a literary trifecta.

The Boys in The Boat

Brown’s opus recounts the improbable tale of how nine young men from the University of Washington in Seattle, most of them products of hardscrabble, working-class, small town upbringings, overcame all-but-impossible odds to capture the men’s eight-oared gold medal in rowing at the Games of the XI Olympiad in Berlin in 1936 with Adolf Hitler and his top Nazi henchmen watching from a balcony overlooking the finish line. The tale is centered around the struggles and eventual triumph of one of the Washington oarsmen, Joe Rantz. The fact that Rantz was able to rise above a painfully difficult childhood and fractured family life to become an Olympic champion is a heart-breaking, enthralling, ultimately exhilarating tale in itself. Brown vividly brings to life the characters of Rantz and his teammates—the boys in the boat—as well as those of a colorful assortment of other memorable personalities, each of whom plays their part in this unforgettable saga.

The Boys in The Boat

In recent weeks, I was fortunate to attend two programs related to the book. The first featured author Dan Brown (not that Dan Brown, the one who wrote The DaVinci Code; the other Dan Brown, the one who publishes using his full name, Daniel James Brown). The second featured Judy Rantz Willman, Joe Rantz’s daughter. Both events drew standing room-only crowds, and both speakers were loudly applauded after they finished. In Judy Willman’s case, many in the audience, myself being one of them, were busily wiping away tears from their eyes halfway through her talk. Her presentation included personal anecdotes from her father’s life not found in the book and was at once intimate, theatrical and compelling. Both Dan and Judy were outstanding, doing justice and more to a tome they refer to in their correspondence in shorthand by the acronym TBITB.

The Boys in The Boat

In pages teeming with sui generis figures, two individuals tower above the rest: Joe Rantz, the oarsman, and George Pocock, the builder of the Husky Clipper, the needle-like cedar racing shell in which the Washington crew powered to victory on the waters of the Langer See in Grünau, a suburb of Berlin. As a craftsman and coach whose company’s maxim was, “Building boats to build men,” Pocock was one of the seminal figures in the history of the sport of rowing, not only in America but world-wide. Brown begins every chapter with a quote from him.

George Pocock’s most famous quote of all describes the sport of rowing in this way:

“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion and when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the divine. It touches the you of you’s, which is your soul.”

Pocock was an imposing, impressive, inspiring figure, fond of quoting Shakespeare and the classics from memory although he never completed high school in his native England. Tellingly, he began his as-yet-unpublished memoir with the quote from Henry IV that opens this article. Pocock’s presence and influence color and inform the entire TBITB story. At the darkest of moments when Joe Rantz was in danger of losing all hope, Pocock sensed the young man’s troubles, invited him upstairs to his shop and gave him personal guidance and encouragement that kept him in the game.

As winners of a bidding war, the Weinstein Company (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, The Artist, The Iron Lady, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, The Butler, etc., etc., etc.) bought the movie rights to TBITB and commissioned a script. Neither Dan Brown nor Judy Willman, however, have an inkling as to if or when a movie will be filmed and released. Some speculate the Weinsteins plan to have a movie version ready in time for the next Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Brazil in 2016.

Whether or not a movie is made of TBITB, the book remains compelling reading. It has held the #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list for long stretches since its June 2013 publication and has already sold well over a million copies. It has been translated into Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and French. A German edition is slated to appear in April, and translations into Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Chinese and other languages are planned. Work is also underway on an abridged middle school-age version for release this coming fall.

Purchase Boys in the Boat now.

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