Friday began with a much appreciated morning off.  I woke up around 9 and set out for a long walk around Bishkek.  I always enjoy walking the places that we visit.  Bishkek is very walkable and seems safe at all times of day or night.  While the air quality can present a challenge, one would be hard pressed to find a major city with more public parks than this one – all filled with sculptures, statues, memorials, and far more trees than I’ve ever seen in any city anywhere.  In fact -we’ve been told – during the Soviet times, Bishkek (then known as Frunze) had more trees than any other city in the entire Soviet Union.  While the Soviet Union is no more, the trees and parks have survived!

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I had one goal on my walk:  Find a copy of the first Harry Potter book in Russian for my next-door neighbors who collect such things.

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Along the way, I stumbled upon some protestors outside of a government building.

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Unfortunately I don’t know what their message was.  (Anyone who can read the Kyrgyz writing, feel free to chime in!) I tried to ask a nearby officer, but he could’t understand my English and I could understand neither his Kyrgyz or his Russian.  Regardless, it is nice to see that the right to protest is an acceptable thing here – which of course it was not for many decades.

After a brief press interview for a local website, and lunch around the corner from our hotel, it was off to rehearse with our new friends Ordo Sakhna in preparation for tonight’s concert.

We had already planned for a two song collaboration during our previous rehearsal with these talented and easy-to-get-along-with artists.  Then something happened during our soundcheck that led to a third song. There was some fun teasing of each other about the way we all speak our own languages, (and the way we try to speak each other’s languages).  That’s when one member of their group began to sing the Ben E. King classic, Stand By Me.  We added harmonies on the chorus, then Aaron and I chimed in with the second verse.  We knew immediately that this had to become a part of the set!

Here is another fun moment that happened during soundcheck.  Is Ben giving the banjo lesson, or is he receiving the banjo lesson?

The purpose of our being here is to celebrate 25 years of friendship between the US and Kyrgyzstan.  It is The Dostuk Music Festival – dostuk is Kyrgyz for “friendship.”  Tonight’s event was the keystone of the week in that respect.  This was the closing reception of a daylong conference highlighting the relationship between our two countries, held at the American University of Central Asia.  The event was reminiscent of many receptions we’ve performed for at various embassies on the several State Department sponsored tours that we’ve been lucky enough to be a part of – compete with appetizers, libations, and diplomats rubbing elbows & “letting their hair down” a bit.   We performed a short set, followed by Ordo Sakhna performing two songs.  Then we combined forces for the final three songs of the night, closing it out with Stand By Me.

Here Is a piece of Ordo Sakhna’s first song, just to give you a taste of the traditional Kyrgyz music they play.

After our set, as the reception was wrapping up, we mingled around the room, meeting some of the many American diplomats in attendance.   Each one I spoke with emphasized the importance of our role as musicians in this event, for preserving and bettering relations between the U.S. Kyrgyzstan in this particular case.  They remarked that this type cultural exchange goes much further than any other type diplomacy that an embassy can offer when it comes to building bridges between cultures and emphasizing our similarities over our differences.  That it makes the embassy’s job much easier when there are positive cultural exchanges to draw upon and share.  I have had these thoughts and feelings often on these tours to different corners of the globe.  From the rooftop jam session in Nouakchott, to backing up amature rappers in the poorest neighborhood of Monrovia, to finding common interests with musicians and audiences in central Russia and beyond…  Music builds bonds between people.  It makes us smile and dance with each other.  It creates positive communication when words fail us.

I can not emphasize enough how much I believe this to be true.  I believe it because I’ve seen it and experienced it first hand many times.  I don’t consider myself “patriotic” in the sense that the word tends to be used, yet I am proud of what our country does when it comes utilizing to this type of cultural exchange to bridge gaps and maintain friendships with our fellow nations.  It encourages us to simply be good humans with one another.  I am proud to be a part of it, and hope that our country will have the good sense to continue this type of cultural diplomacy in the years to come.

We come here as American people.  Playing our American music.  Sharing our American experiences that we have living in America.  We meet Kyrgyz people -some of whom play Kyrgyz music-  most of whom live their Kyrgyz lives in other ways.   They share with us their experiences of living as Kyrgyz people in the Kyrgyz Republic.  At some point in our interactions we forget about our identity as “American,” and they forget about their identity as “Kyrgyz.”   We laugh about our differences and we delight in our similarities.  That is the point at which we know that we are successfully doing our job  – both as cultural diplomats, and as human beings on this Earth.  If a life can be measured by how many bridges one builds, as opposed to how many walls, then I am confident that we are doing good.

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Ben here again.  I wanted to share a quick video I took before a show we played at a mall on Wednesday.  The Embassy has brought a bombastic MC to introduce us at every show and it’s amazing.   You have to see it.  Notice that the music they’re using to hype us up is Jesus Christ Superstar.  Hilarious.

 

Ok, I’m passing the baton to Aaron for the day.  His sweet demeanor and deep talent reservoir make him incredibly well suited for these trips.  I’m really glad he’s here with us, as ever.   Take it away, Aaron!

Aaron:  Hey guys!! Um, well…I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the opportunities I’ve been presented with in the past year traveling with the Henhouse Prowlers to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Kenya, and now Kyrgyzstan. I never in my life imagined that music would bring me to these diverse, far flung places; These countries rarely crossed my mind two years ago.  Don’t get me wrong, I had cursory knowledge about these countries or at least formed an opinion about the basic geographical region each country was located in.  But the goings on in Central Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia all seemed about as far-removed from my life as could be.  And now that I’m here, and perhaps especially because I’m here on behalf of the US State Department, I feel a responsibility to make some sense of my newly expanded world view.   Not just to be here, share music and leave, but to return home with some important piece of wisdom that I didn’t have before.

But first, a quick recap of the exploits of today. After an early wakeup (I’m slowly acclimating to the 12-hour time zone difference between Bishkek and Chicago) and a hearty breakfast at our hotel, we were picked up by our driver, Uri, and we headed to one of Kyrgyzstan’s network TV affiliates.  This is our second performance on Kyrgyzstan nation television.  And we get to play three songs.  When Ben suggests we play one of the tunes I’ve written that the Prowlers are currently performing, I’m thrilled.  Ben and Jon are both tremendous songwriters and singers and the fact that they so generously share the spotlight with me constantly reminds me to be humble and grateful.

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There’s always a bit of a panic at these types of televised performances, as nobody ever seems to know until the absolute last minute what our setup is going to be.  Will we be able to use our own microphones?  Will our instruments be plugged in?  My favorite panic inducing moment is wondering whether a TV station even has a microphone stand that works.  Fortunately, they have a microphone stand, and they toss a microphone that looks like it came from radio-shack onto the clip and give us a two-minute warning until air-time.  Haha!  On these trips, the Prowlers have learned time and time again to just roll with it.  As my dad likes to say, with a shrug and a smile, “What can you do??”

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We end up playing “Still On That Ride”, “Sitya Loss”, and close with my tune, “Nashville, Here I Come”.  In between songs, the hosts of the program talk to Ben and Jon about the band’s experiences in Kyrgyzstan, our upcoming performances and general questions about our music.  I remarked later to Ben that I’m continually impressed with his and Jon’s ability to remain calm, concise, and eloquent in front of a camera or in an interview.  As an interviewee, you have key points you want to hit; the big venue the band is playing next, the purpose of our visit, a shout out to the US State Department, for example.  But he’s not just reciting canned answers; he thinks about questions he’s asked on the spot and gives articulate, thoughtful responses, sometimes even ones that challenge the interviewer.  While they’re talking, I’m silently hoping the hosts don’t ask me any questions.  Thankfully they don’t.  Maybe another year into this band and I’ll be ready for that.  🙂  Kyle, our new mandolin/fiddle player, had some pretty killer solos in our short set.  There’s multiple times during our short set that I look over at him and smile because of some cool lick or solo idea he’s playing.  But almost as soon as our moment of glory begins, it’s over; we pack up our gear and head to a local school of music where we are scheduled to give a masterclass.

The masterclass was amazing.  There’s a room full of young kids, and a smattering of adults.  All musicians.  We give a brief demo of our instruments and talk about the history of bluegrass.  We perform a few songs.  But a truly magical moment happens after Ben explains why we’re all wearing suits; it’s an attempt by early pioneers of bluegrass music to ‘legitimize’ the music and to make it equally as suitable on front porches as it is concert halls.  In my best shot at humor, I point at a man in the front row wearing a suit, and say “So you’re in our band now!”.  He stands up, says “Ok!”, then heads towards the piano in the back of the room.  The four of us look around at each other, trying to determine what to do.  There’s a room full of people watching us.  He plunks a few chords on the piano and its clear that he’s an experienced pianist.  Ben shouts out “Foggy Mountain Special!”, we exchange a quick breakdown of the chords, and off we go.  At the end of the song, there’s raucous applause from the room.  Talk about bridging a cultural divide.

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After a brief siesta back at our hotel, we head out once again for our final performance of the day, at Bishkek Humanities University.  This time, we have a full set, complete with an energetic introduction from our Kyrgyzstani MC.  Our audience, predominantly students at this local university, goes crazy for our music.  Cheering, applause, clapping along with our music.  A band can get spoiled playing these types of venues.  And afterwards, we sign autographs, shake hands, take selfies.  It feels like the closest thing to being a rock star.

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Today’s experience has taught me that music is a language that bridges many cultures.  I’m grateful to know how to speak it, though I’m still broadening my vocabulary in this universal form of communication.  And I’m reminded that because it is a way of communicating that brings people together, that music is the language of peace.  I’m beyond grateful to be here.

Ben here.  Things are moving quickly and we’re working hard.  We are at a twelve hour difference from home, so the jet-lag is about as bad as it gets, BUT we’re loving it here.  This country is fiercely beautiful and the people are so incredibly kind and friendly.

First, you need to see Aaron in action.  Shortly after Aaron joined the band, he revamped our sound setup on stage.  If you know him at all, you know that he’s a perfect negotiator and a kind soul.  That’s why it’s great to see him working with our team of Russian sound engineers.  They don’t speak english, at all.  We have a translator, but that only goes so far when you’re dealing with technical specs, international power issues and general confusion.  Check out this pic of him at the helm at our first show.

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Also, for what it’s worth, these sound guys are really good.  They weren’t sure if we had arms for our mic setup (the ones that stick to mic stand for the banjo to take solos into), so they jerry-rigged up this amazing setup with some drum stands.   Unbelievable.

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Check out the theater itself.

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Definitely a Soviet era theater.  You have to pinch yourself when you’re in these places.  Who gets to do this kind of thing?   Oh!  And the green room had this wacky cutout art in it.   We had some fun with it.  No idea what it says, but we’ll find out.

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The show itself was SO much fun.  This was at the Russian-Slavic University here in Bishkek and the students were way into the performance.  After the show, they rushed the stage and insisted on autographs and selfies.   It was overwhelming.

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Kyle’s face is obstructed here, but the picture says a lot regardless.

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Same here.

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Buddies.

The next day we got up early to be on the BIshkek morning show on their national television station. We’ve done shows like this in many countries now and the experience of playing on morning television feels familiar, with a similar format around the world. The twist this time was that there was a huge fire blazing across the street when we arrived and it made things in the studio a little hectic.

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Said fire behind our Kyrgyz-mobile.

We performed Kara Jorgo; the song that we learned for this trip.  I enjoyed seeing the hosts get into off camera as we performed.   You can watch the entire performance below.  PS:  We learned just before this that we’d been pronouncing the main words of the song wrong.  It’s Kara (J)orgo with a hard ‘J’, instead of a ‘Y’.   Listen to us struggle to correct ourselves through the performance.  It’s maddening to work so hard on something and find out you got it wrong.  Of course, the folks here are forgiving…but still.

We did an obligatory selfie with the hosts afterwards as well.

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Our entourage left the station and headed to the city of Tokmok about 90 minutes away for our next performance.  This was our first chance to see the fabled mountains of this region and there was absolutely no disappointment.

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The city line was marked with a disabled Russian jet that further cemented exactly where we are in the world. There are iconic statues and military vehicles smattered across this country.  It’s not as prevalent as Russia, but it’s still very visible.  I know we have them in the states as well, but it’s more…imposing here.  I’m sure it’s partly in my mind, but I enjoy the stark reminders that we’re far from home.

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The University we performed at in Tokmok is one of two in the country that work on the same credit system that we use in the US.  We immediately noticed that more of the students spoke english.  As with everyone here, hospitality is key.  We showed up after lunch with full bellies, and they presented us with yet another meal.  Mutton dumplings and fried potato patties (which, incidentally, are very Russian). Check out this picture of Jon politely accepting food he has no room in his stomach for.

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The show was fun and the students were seriously in to what we were playing.  We always end these shows with Kara Jorgo, but this time was really special.  Some students got up and presented their traditional dance while we played.  I felt accepted.  Like all the work we’d put into the song was worth it.

I was worried that no one got it on video, but a young girl in the audience posted it on Instagram and I was able to grab it and put it on Youtube.  It’s not very good quality, but I think it still really represents the moment well.  We were moved deeply by it.

Now it’s time for bed.   While it’s true that we’re only here for a little more than a week, we get to meet a huge amount of folks due to the nature of putting on shows in front of large crowds. Kyrgyzstan is an amalgamation of many different cultures.  Of course, there are a lot of Kyrgyz people. But, there are also Uzbek, Russian, Chinese and a myriad of minorities here. Everyone is incredibly kind and welcoming; the people beam with love when we meet them  It’s been a real honor to actually get a sense of the soul of this beautiful place.

More tomorrow from the newest Prowler!

30 hours of travel time is no joke.  Still, there’s something immediately moving about feeling the jet touch down in a country you can hardly imagine, surrounded by people that speak and look entirely different than you do.  We stepped onto the concourse and the air bit cold and smelled almost of woodsmoke.

We made it through customs (with Kyrgyz guards that had the coolest hats ever) and were intercepted by Will and Inura from the Embassy.  They escorted us to our van and brought us to our home for the next week.  It was about 5:30 AM, so we drank some whiskey and waited for breakfast.  Then we passed out.

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–loading the van–

Then you wake up to this:

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Boom.  You’re in Bishkek.  A city covered in snow and still reminiscent of the Soviet Bloc.  I walked for about an hour this morning and gathered the following shots.  It’s hard assigning words to the feeling you get wandering around a city you’re completely unfamiliar with.  Every step holds something utterly new.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of the simple things I take for granted in my own country.

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–Electric busses and fur coats.–

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–There are a lot of these little newsstands around. I like them.– 

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–Architecture from another place AND another time–

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–Kyrgyz Graffiti–

 

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— Bombastic poster.  I’m going back tomorrow to try and grab one.–

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–Juxtaposition–

In the afternoon we were taken to meet with Ordo Sakhna.  They are widely considered the best traditional Kyrgyz folk music band in the world and it showed immediately.  The band gave us an incredible exposition of each of their instruments and I caught a good chunk of it on video.

After we gave a similar demonstration the Ordo Sakhna, we got work figuring out what we were going to play together.  It was a moving experience collaborating with these seasoned and disciplined musicians and we’re surely going to have a lot to show once we perform with them.  Stay tuned for more.

Finally, we started packing up and the inevitable happened.  Musicians can’t help themselves when there’s a new instrument in the room.  She took to it quickly.

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Already we love this country.  We’ll be back shortly with more!

 

 

We get a lot of questions about the trips we’ve taken to 14 countries with the US State Dept.  More often than not these conversations consist of short exchanges that will never do the experiences justice.  So, we wanted to take the opportunity to share just a few of them here.  The places we have been changed who we are as musicians AND people and it feels important to share, as well as put on record the truly positive work our State Department does.  If you’re reading this and have any further questions, please feel free to email us at contact@henhouseprowlers.com.

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What follows is just one day of our most recent trip to Kenya:

Monday, July 18th –  2016

We were about 90% through our tour at that point.  That means we’d spent 4 weeks in Europe, a week in Uganda and 3 days in Kenya.   On the State Dept. tours we’re given a very concise schedule of things before we get there and I can show you what it looked like on that day.  We had been in Mombasa the day before, just as a reference.

7:00 a.m. – Depart hotel for airport

9:30 a.m. – Flight to Nairobi

11:00 a.m.  – Check in at Ole Sereni Hotel

12:00 noon – Lunch at Ole Sereni Hotel

1:30 p.m. – Drive to Dandora Hiphop city Hub

2:00 p.m. – Visit Hiphop city hub and interaction with resident hiphop musicians

2:50 p.m. –  Drive to Pinebreeze community Library location

3:00 p.m. – Concert at the Pinebreeze Community Library with Juliani and Sarabi bands

6:00 p.m. – Drive back to hotel

The schedules are loose at best and things often change on these trips, being that we’re in another part of the world.  Still, this is what we wake up and look at every morning on these ventures.  That’s all you get.  Ultimately we show up to these places and get to work with whatever is presented to us.  That might mean putting on a show for a huge audience, or doing a workshop on music with a small group of students, or collaborating with local musicians.  You learn to improvise in a way that’s hard to describe until you’re in the middle of it.  It’s exhilarating and maybe just a little crazy.

Things moved around this Monday because US Ambassador Godec wanted to come to show we were going to put on at the Community Library.   We switched the schedule around and did that show first.

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Flights across Africa can be stunning.

The drive to our first show from our hotel took about an hour and brought us through all manner of neighborhoods.  We ended up in the city of Dandora, which is often called a ghetto.  It’s hard for us as Americans to deal with that word due to its less than positive connotations, but we heard people who lived there (and used to live there) use it proudly.   The neighborhood is known globally for being the site of the largest garbage dumps in Africa.  

You can read about Dandora and see some powerful photographs here.

Also, there’s a really wonderful article on how residents are helping change it here.

We showed up and began setting up for the show. The Sarabi band (more on them in a bit) was there already and had sound checked.  One of the wildest things about these kinds of events is that we’re set free on our own to do sound.  That’s all fine and good in the US, but you have all sorts of different variables when you’re in Africa.  Electricity can be tricky, for one.  We’ve gotten pretty good at it (we bring a super compact but powerful PA and a power conditioner), but it can still be hectic.

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Aaron is a godsend in these situations.  He knows his technology.

The reason Ambassador Godec wanted to come out was to support the Sarabi band, who played a set along with us. They were INCREDIBLE musicians and it turns out they’ve been blacklisted some in Kenya because they sing songs of protest against the government.

Check out this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QGx_6lMjGI

It’s in Swahili, but you don’t need to understand the words to see where they’re coming from.  The song is a powerful statement against the suppression of free speech.

It’s important to note here that without fail we come back from these trips with a much better understanding of how the US State Department works and with a sense of pride in it all.  These programs are publicized very little (if at all) here in the US, yet they happen all the time across the globe.  Ambassador Robert Godec gave a short speech on the importance of protest music in American history and how proud he was of this band for pushing the envelope, regardless of the consequences.  It’s widely known that Sarabi Band is hassled by the powers that be for their anti-government stance.

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The show itself was wonderful.  We played the Kenyan tune we learned and the audience kind of lost it.  Honestly, there’s nothing more gratifying than having an audience (who looks at you the way folks do when you’re from another culture) open up and accept you when they find that you share a musical connection with them.  We bonded some with the Sarabi band after the set and it felt good.
 
This is the Sarabi band below:
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And here’s Jon hanging out with their bass player:
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Stay tuned for part two of this chronicle.  This was just the beginning of an incredible day.

Intro:  It’s important to note throughout this part of our two month tour that we’re dealing with the same curiosities and lack of knowledge that a lot of Americans do in regards to the Middle East and even Saudi Arabia specifically.  While the band has toured in a Muslim country before (Mauritania), Saudi is considered one of the more conservative countries in this vein, all while making some huge strides in our philosophical direction, recently.  To be honest, several disparaging remarks have been posted on social media about this trip.  It has been difficult to figure out how to deal with them and for the most part we ignore them.  We too find it difficult to understand some of the fundamentals of life over here, but we’re all determined to take it in with an open mind.  The people here have been welcoming and warm to us.  While the goal of these State Department trips is to connect our cultures in a meaningful way, it has become clear that one of the byproducts of the trips is that they educate us quite a bit.  We’re still soaking it all in, but to say that it has been enlightening is an understatement.  While we may not agree with everything we see in this world, it seems clear that holding the people of any given country responsible for their government or religion’s decisions may not be a useful point of view.  With that out of the way, we hope you enjoy the story of our trip.  It has been really exciting so far.

Wednesday Feb 10th – Friday Feb 12th.
By the time we landed in Saudi Arabia (6pm on Thursday) we were in that weird sleepless state that this kind of long trek puts you in.  The ride from the airport was a blur but you can’t help immediately noticing the stunning architecture of Riyadh.  Fanciful buildings that don’t look possible dot the skyline and there are new structures being built continually.

At 1pm on Friday we loaded our gear into a van and headed to the Ambassador’s house for a sound check.  It initially seemed odd that we were sound checking a full two days before the big event, but it quickly became clear how big this soiree really was going to be.  More on that later…
Friday evening we were taken by our new friend Waiel to the Diriyah Historical District (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site).   You can see from the pictures how beautiful it is.  Even thought this country is relatively young, its location in the desert gives it this otherworldly feeling.

 

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Diriyah Historical District

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being that it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, we (as single men) weren’t allowed into the restaurants in this district. So, Waeil took us to a traditional Saudi eatery downtown.  We arrived in the middle of evening prayer and had to wait for about 15 minutes.  Though things are changing some here, Saudi Arabia is still a fairly conservative Muslim country.  During prayer every business closes it’s doors for the duration.  Aaron found himself in a Dairy Queen (yes, really) in the middle of prayer as the doors were locked up and blinds set down.  He had to wait it out in silence, which sounded like a interesting if not enlightening experience.   It really does feel good to witness these things in person.  There’s so much confusion and misunderstanding about Islam in the US (ourselves included) and having a direct connection to is makes it all less mystifying.

Dinner was simply amazing.   Waeil is one of the kindest people we’ve ever met and he more than happily answers any questions we have with impunity and honesty.  It became clear to us all that he’s going to be a lifelong friend.

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Dinner in Riyadh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Feb 13th

Saturday night was our first chance to connect with some Saudi musicians and it was exhilarating. Public music performance is forbidden here, which is hard to grasp for an American, but it doesn’t stop people from being accomplished musicians.  There were so many fantastic moments that it’s difficult to encapsulate into a blog like this.  They performed for us and we did so in return.  When we played the Saudi Arabian tune we learned, they just about fell out of their chairs and began singing with us.  The minute we finished playing, a jam erupted.  They taught us a new melody and that somehow evolved into us playing “Sweet Child of Mine” (GnR) with the younger kids in the room.  It was all surreal and beautiful.

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As ever, the bass attracts a lot of attention.  Jon gave some basic technique pointers and off they went.

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Aaron gets direction on the Oud.

 

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Todd shows off some dobro licks.  Not surprisingly, all of these guys LOVED his instrument and the sounds it makes.  There was one moment I’ll never forget when Todd ripped a solo and one of our new friends held his head in excitement over hearing it.

Here’s a video of something that started out as a jam and evolved into us all being completely blown away by this guys Oud skills.

And this is probably one of our favorite moments of the trip so far.

Sunday
Our final day in Riyadh was the National Day celebration at the Ambassador’s house.  This was a massive event with 1500 guests, most of whom were Saudi and other nationals from all over the world.  The event was effectively the Fourth of July celebration but much earlier in the year due to conflicts with Muslim holidays.   The theme of the party was “State Fair” and there were booths throughout the compound designed to give a genuine feel of this seminal American event.   We were busy playing and singing the national anthem throughout the whole thing so it was difficult to get pics.

There were some wonderful moments throughout the evening, including our performance of Ya Reem Wadi Thaqif, which got all the Saudi’s up and singing along with us.  After the show I checked twitter and a bunch of people had posted things about the event in Arabic.   Luckily twitter offers you the ability to translate.  We were touched by the things they were saying.

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Sound check.

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Stay tuned for more, folks.  We’ve still got Jeddah and Dammam coming up and then we head off to Europe!