Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Camino Lessons…..

Pops and I completed our Camino three months ago tomorrow. Where the heck has the time gone? I learned so many things on the Camino and wanted to share these Camino lessons with you. These lessons come from stories told by other pilgrims, notes or messages left literally on the path, or feelings and thoughts I had while walking. Enjoy!

 

1. Anyone can do the Camino- even you! I have met people 40 years older than myself who blew past me on the hills. People who weigh much more than me. People with disabilities. We met a lady who had MS who walked with her daughter and a blind man who walked with a guide. People walk with children. We met a couple who walked with their son who was 20 months old. Our favourite Camino sidekick was a 73 years old American and he carried his backpack the entire way. You too can walk the Camino!!

2. The body is amazing. The changes that you will notice in the period of a few weeks are awesome. Your strength and endurance change quickly. Hills that previously would’ve made you stop and take a breath every few minutes you can suddenly walk without stopping. Pops and I would joke that when we finished we wanted to fly back to the starting point and re-do the hike from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles just to see how much easier crossing the Pyrenees would feel!

3. Nature is good for your soul. It was especially good for mine. Seeing the world at walking pace is like a day long meditation. Everything is slowed down. You take notice of things you otherwise wouldn’t. I loved the quiet and the peacefulness of the walk. In fact I found it very jarring when we occasionally crossed paths with a large group of loudish pilgrims. I would make Pops stop and wait until they were out of hearing distance so I could get my peaceful space back. My eyes tended to focus on the brilliant colours and the texture of the foliage that surrounded us. I’ve never been a real nature junky but this trip changed me. It changed the way I see nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Be kind to yourself and to your Camino. It is your Camino and yours alone. Do it on your own terms. Accept that sometimes it won’t go according to your plans. Ours sure didn’t. We had planned to walk the entire 800km carrying our packs the entire way. That was our “plan.” Our Camino took a different “plan” though. Because I had such painful blisters we were forced to skip about 100km of the walk on the meseta (the flattest portion) and jumped ahead to Leon to rest for 4 days and so I could buy new shoes (breaking in new shoes part way through was definitely not in my plan!) And we ended up shipping our bags several days to give us a break and to help with Pops shin splints. We had to be kind to ourselves and just listen to what our bodies were telling us. And since it came down to making the decision between walking and shipping our packs ahead, or not walking it was pretty easy to let the guilt fall away about shipping our packs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. From now on whenever I get asked what my favourite body part is I will answer that it’s my feet. My feet carried me across nearly an entire country. They blistered and healed and blistered again, and still they walked. I’d never really spent much time thinking about what my feet do for me, but walking that far makes you spend a great deal of time thinking about them. Trust me.  I’ve come to cherish them!

6. I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter how old you are- whatever deep seeded insecurities you’ve battled in the past will likely make an appearance some point on the Camino. It’s also a great place to work through them. I’ve always been the type of person who doesn’t easily ask for help, and often because I offer help quickly to others I also expect this in return (although I’d never tell anyone that!) So this is a vicious circle for me- expecting others to know what I need from them in relationships because that’s what I offer, but never actually telling the other person/s and then getting upset when they don’t pick up on this (because I never told them.) It’s definitely not my most mature quality. But post Camino I’m trying very hard to tell those around me what I need from them instead of resenting them when they don’t do that thing that they don’t know I needed in the first place. There was a miserable two days for me on the Camino when a group situation left me feeling ignored, replaceable and left out. It hit a deep childhood pain similar to those of you who may have been picked last for a team when you were a child. I’m glad it happened though because it gave me a chance to take a deep look at myself and what triggered those feelings for me in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. One of the best lessons I learned from the Camino was the importance of looking behind you. Both on the Camino and in life in general. On the Camino since the views ahead were stunning, but especially in the mornings the sun rises behind you and turning around to take in the changing light I was often surprised by how glorious the view was. For those of you like me who are into photography make sure to turn around. The view will endlessly surprise you.

8. There are Camino messages everywhere. Make of them what you will. For me the written messages that line the Camino left by pilgrims of past were inspirational. Some brought tears to my eyes, or made me contemplate things or encouraged me to push on. They were a constant reminder of the massive number of pilgrims who have come before me. Sometimes these messages were of a funny nature also- like the one that exclaimed “Martin Sheen was here!” Or the one advertising “Free Blisters next 16km.” Both made me laugh literally out loud. Thank you to whomever left those!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. I wish I could go back to a time where I was ignorant to bed bugs. We traveled with a Australian guy who had walked the Camino before and regaled us with tales of bedbugs. Thanks to him there wasn’t a night I wasn’t itchy before going to bed. But also thanks to him we knew how to treat bedbugs and what to watch for. We did have one encounter with these little beasts, but somehow ended up not getting bitten and they didn’t end up in our things. I’ll definitely be treating my sleep sac or sleeping bag properly before our next big walk!

10. For me the Camino wasn’t the spiritual awakening I had thought it would be. For me it was mostly about community. About the human spirit and connection. It was about meeting so many amazing people who touched my heart. Many of who I still keep in touch with, many whom I know I will see again. Our paths were meant to cross and they will again at some point in the future. The Camino strips you all down to being the same. There’s no bullshit. No one cares what kind of car you drive, or how big your house is. In fact those things never come up. People care about why you’re walking. What you’ve learned. How you’re feeling physically. People are quick to offer up help- we met a man who bought a young German pilgrim new shoes because hers were too small and she couldn’t afford new ones. That’s the spirit of the Camino. We are all walking in this tiny bubble together. We are all connected. This couldn’t be more evident than at the end of a days walk and you sit down to chat with fellow pilgrims and get word of mouth updates about people you had lost track with. It’s a really amazing network. One that I long to be a part of again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll end this with a quote from one of my favourite authors Rebecca Solnit. Her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking is a super interesting read if you’re a little obsessed with walking as I recently have become!

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind,

and walking travels both terrains.”

Don’t you agree…..Happy Walking!

 

 

A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim……

Here’s some insight into a day in the life of a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago….Most likely depending on your budget, who you are traveling with and whether you are a light sleeper will determine how well you slept last night. If you’re on a budget and staying in dorm hostels then hopefully you’ve brought a good set of earplugs with you, otherwise the roaring vibrations of your fellow snoring pilgrims likely lulled you to sleep. Or you might find yourself on a bunk bed above or below a restless sleeper and feel like you’re riding on a ship as the waves toss you from side to side.

If you’re in a dorm room you’ll likely be awoken before 6am by a fellow pilgrim. Some are courteous. Some will flick the lights on and rustle through their bags for a lengthy amount of time. To be fair, unless you are sleeping in your next day clothes, it’s difficult to be super organized in the morning as there’s little room in the dorm areas to lay out the things you need. I’m sure you’ve all read how annoying plastic bags are. Don’t pack your things in them. They make a heck of a lot of noise and are pretty annoying for anyone sharing a room with you.

Most mornings Pops and I got up around 6:20am or 6:30am. It should be noted that when we walked in late September into October the sun rose late. If we had been walking in the spring we would’ve been up earlier. Often someone turns the lights on by 6:30. You get up. Head for the loo. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. Get dressed. Pack up. Your feet will now need some attention. Your method of choice will likely included either double layered socks, Vaseline, or covering ever possible inch of skin on your feet with some sort of bandage or tape (this was my method!) You’ll stand up, take a few steps and realize that your socks are bunched up, laces are too tight or loose, or you’ve got a piece of skin not covered by tape. So you’ll drop everything and readjust.

Next it will be time for breakfast. Your alburgue may or may not provide breakfast. If they do lower your expectations greatly. It will likely only include coffee and toast with jam. No protein at all. So if you do manage to find eggs, cheese, or yogurt consider yourself very, very lucky! We stayed in an alburgue where 2 ladies were boiling eggs for their breakfast the following morning. They quickly became geniuses in my book. If your alburgue doesn’t include breakfast then hopefully there’s a bar and it’s open in whichever village you find yourself in. Go there. Get a coffee and a tortilla de potatoe. So good.

Next grab a torch (headlamp/flash light) and hit the trail. In the dark it can be hard to actually make out the yellow arrows that guide every move you make on the Camino. Start walking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With any luck you’ll come to a village with an open bar in the next 1-2 hours. Stop. It’s time for breakfast number two. We ate double breakfast all the time while walking. Especially if you only had toast at the alburgue you’ll want something more substantial. Then, continue walking.

Chat with fellow pilgrims. Focus an absurd amount of time to thinking about your aching muscles, your blisters, or why the heck you packed so much shit in the first place. Ask yourself why it seems that French men always wear the tiniest of knickers and parade around in them, or why you didn’t learn more Spanish for this trip apart from being able to order a couple beers. Get distracted by the scenery.

Next it’s beer o’clock. Which is pretty much anytime after 12pm. Keep walking. Consult your guidebook or phone app to review the upcoming elevation changes. Taking breaks is essential, but rest assured for every break you take it will easily take your body 20 min to get back into walking mode. Everything gets stiff. Mostly I started out every morning and after anytime I sat for more than 5 min hobbling like I was easily double my age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the afternoon gets on it’s time to find a place to sleep for the night. We mostly called it quits around 2-3pm. It’s nice to arrive at an alburgue, get checked in and get your credential stamped. Choose a bed (if you’re in a dorm), drop your pack and either grab a shower or a cold beer. Often beer then shower, but sometimes shower then beer for us. A cold beverage is so rewarding after a long days walk. Every second to third day will be laundry day depending on weather and the washing facilities wherever you are staying. Then chat with fellow pilgrims. Or journal, or plan how far you might want to walk the following day.

Dinner time is often 7pm but sometimes 8pm in the larger cities. Go for the pilgrim menu as it’s normally good bang for your Euro (3 courses with unlimited wine for 9-10 Euros.) And yes, you read that right…..unlimited wine. The menu does tend to get boring after a while though, but the wine is always good. Many of the alburgues have kitchens should you fancy cooking something. We rarely did this but if you’re on a budget this is a good way to keep costs down. Dinners are by far one of my favourite memories from the Camino. That sense of camaraderie is like nothing I have ever experienced before. To sit around and chat with fellow pilgrims from a mixmash of different countries spanning in age from early 20’s into their 70’s or 80’s is a really unique experience. The Camino has a great way of leveling everything so despite our differences, at our core we pilgrims are all the same.

After dinner is finished and you’ve consumed enough wine to make you sleep through your fellow pilgrims snoring, it’s time for bed. Some alburgues will lock the doors so it’s good to know what time that happens at. We met several pilgrims who returned shortly after curfew and weren’t allowed into the alburgue. So go wash your face, brush your teeth and wedge your earplugs in and dream. Night night!

A pilgirms mantra is basically…..WALK>EAT>SLEEP>REPEAT

My Top 10 from 2016

Last year I did a recap of my favourite travel destinations and memories from the previous year. So with the New Year upon us I wanted to write another post about my top 10 destinations from 2016. It was another great year of travel for me. Looking back over the past 12 months it was a busy year. I worked full-time as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia from January until September when I left to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. I had a whopping 178 days of travel (mind you almost 3 months of this I was technically unemployed!) I visited 15 countries, 9 of them new for me. I saw a lot, I took a lot of pictures, and I lived it up. I hope this doesn’t sound bragadocious, because it’s not meant to (credit to Donald T for inventing this awesome word!) Some of that travel was with friends from Saudi, and I did some travel through Europe with my mom, and then spent about 7 weeks with my Dad while we walked across Northern Spain. Quite a bit of it was on my own- which I’ve become quite a fan. So here’s my top 10 from 2016 (in no particular order).

1. Romania

Romania is hardly mentioned in the top 10 of most people’s bucket lists, and as per my usual form of travel I did very little research about the country prior to going. Usually when I do very little research about a trip (which is most of the time) I am always pleasantly surprised. Romania was exactly that. I spent a week based in Bucharest and did a couple day trips, one to Transylvania and the other into neighbouring Bulgaria. My favourite memories from that trip were visiting Peles Castle and later Bram Castle which is also known as Dracula’s Castle (although in reality it has very little to do with Dracula.) These castles couldn’t have been more different from one another. Peles Castle is from the late 1800s and built in a Gothic Bavarian style, whereas Bram Castle is an old fortress castle that sits atop a cliff. It dates from the 1400’s and has a very eerie feel to it,  and even though it’s only a tale, I loved the stories of Dracula in relation to Romania History. The other standout thing from this trip was that we did a walking tour in Bucharest that took us to old decaying places which was super cool. Bucharest is also full of urban art and graffiti of which I’m a huge fan. It’s pretty inexpensive, had great restaurants, and was a very walkable city. So add Romania to your list of places to visit in 2017!

Peles Castle

Bram Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Italy

I spent 11 lovely days in Italy solo, splitting my time between Rome and Florence. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I look back on my time in Italy and smile because I was brimming with happiness and confidence. The architecture, the food, the Chianti, the museums were fantastic. Between the two, Florence was my favourite, and I’m sure this was because I booked myself a cheapish hotel that had phenomenal views of the cathedral from my private balcony. It felt like I could just reach across and touch it, and I could hear the street artists below playing music which felt like I had my own private show. This trip was a turning point in solo travel for me, and I became very comfortable in my own skin. I no longer have any issues with eating alone, or going to a bar for a drink, or wandering a city. This trip was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me feel so brave and empowered. Two of my favourite memories of that trip involved random encounters with fellow travelers. I met an American girl around my age who she and her parents adopted me during my time in Rome and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! My other favourite memory was meeting a couple from Texas on a day tour of Tuscany.  We met up for dinner in Florence and then for dinner and drinks my last night in Rome. By drinks I mean bottle after bottle of delicious Chianti. This resulted in a very hungover (possibly still drunk) me trying to get to the airport for my early morning flight! Oh the memories we make while traveling…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The United Arab Emirates

I visited Dubai a few times over the last year and one of the highlights for me (and a silly Bucket List item) was to stay at the Atlantis resort. So for one night on a huge splurge (and because if you are a Saudi resident you qualify for the GCC discount) I stayed here. As you can imagine it was very nice. There’s a ton to do, so no real need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. We had free admission to the water park which was pretty cool, but the outdoor pool area and the aquarium were highlights for me. Oh, and the food was really good as well. I also visited Abu Dhabi and as I recently blogged about got to visit the iconic Sheikh Zayed mosque which has long been a place I wanted to visit. If you’re in Dubai make the trip to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque- it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. The Czech Republic

There’s so much to see in the Czech Republic and this trip was especially special (is that a thing?) as I reunited with a guy I met several years earlier on my first solo trip to Portugal. It was so great to see him and have him take us around his city, and meet his partner, and check out hot Czech guys and eat good food. This was also the trip where my mom and I visited the town we believe is where my Oma (German for grandmother) grew up prior to her time in Germany where my mother was born. We flew into Germany and then spent a few days in Austria before visiting the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Prague. We found that it was easier to travel around on the bus than the train (comfortable seats and wifi!) We ended the trip with a few days in Prague which is a fantastically walkable city of which I am always a fan. Also Czech is pretty inexpensive as far as Europe goes so you won’t break the bank while traveling there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Poland

One of the other solo trips I took this past year was to Poland. I only had time to visit Warsaw so obviously a return trip is in order as there are many other places I would like to visit. Warsaw, specifically the old town, is rife with history. It is also rife with graffiti and displays of urban art which brings me a great amount of joy! The city felt very open and green, it was easy to navigate, and I felt totally safe wandering around on my own. The best thing I did while there was take a couple walking tours to learn about Poland’s history in WW2. It was fascinating. In hindsight it might’ve been better had I learned some of this history prior to visiting but seeing as I’m not one for planning or researching much before I go (I’ve become super lazy in my travel style and really only care about where I’m staying) this didn’t happen. Maybe one of my New Years resolutions will be a actually properly research a place before I visit. Somehow I doubt I’ll actually get my shit together and follow through on this. Plus it’s so much more fun making decisions on the fly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Jordan

This summer my short few day break to Jordan was just the relaxation I needed. The resorts that line the Dead Sea on the Jordan side are fancy with infinity pools and pool boys who will clean your sunglasses, and bring you towels and ice which make for a very happy me. While Petra itself is amazing, I’m so glad that we made the effort to visit the site at night. Especially since there was a full moon when we visited which provided for a lot of ambient light and beautiful pictures. It was also nice to get to revisit Bedouin culture as a trip to Petra at night includes traditional Bedouin music and tea. Even though it is pretty touristy I would recommend seeing Petra both by day and night. It’s stunning in the day but at night it has a magical mystical feel to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Spain

I’ve spend a lot of time in Spain this past year. Early last year I spent a week split between Barcelona and Madrid with a night in Zaragoza to see the Arabic Palace called Aljaferia, because as we’ve already established I have a major crush on Islamic architecture. Then this fall I spent just over 5 weeks in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and an experience that if I’m being honest, I haven’t fully debriefed from (hence my lack of blogging about it yet.) We walked around 700km from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was the biggest physical accomplishment of my life, one that I’m quite certain I will walk again (or another route). Everyday the scenery we walked was stunning and it really slowed things down for me and made me think about what I want out of life, and about how much stuff we all have that we don’t need. And how stuff does not equal happiness, but being out in the world interacting with people from all different walks of life does make me extremely happy. So more about the Camino in the upcoming weeks. But in the event you are looking for a cheapish European vacation- Spain is very reasonable, especially once you leave the bigger cities. And the Euro is quite low right now and airfare is pretty cheap to Europe so it’s a good time to take advantage of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Paris France

I spent a month in Paris this fall in a cute but run down apartment in the nieghbourhood of Montmartre. It was really nice to be able to settle into a place and feel like a local. Shopping at the same stores and frequenting the same cafes. My Pops was with me for a short while and then I was lucky enough to have a couple visitors. One of those visitors I suspect I will always associate Paris with. I spent my time exploring, but also doing some writing and reading and generally just hanging out. I caught up with a fellow travel nurse I knew from when I lived in San Francisco. I drank a lot of wine and cappucinos and ate my weight in cheese. (Not really but I do LOVE cheese a lot.) I walked much of the city. Coming to Paris directly after walking the Camino was a bit difficult because I very much missed walking (I still do.) But often I would google distances to whatever I wanted to do and if it was 5km away I’d think “oh that’s just a short walk” and opt to not take the metro. I was in Paris during the month of November which was pretty great because I get a little obsessive about Christmas. I love it so much- the decorations and the lights and colder weather. It was great to wander Paris with the store windows all decorated for the season. Paris is lovely. Tourism there is massively down given the recent terror attacks there and throughout Europe. But since I’m not one to live my life in fear I would say don’t let that deter you one bit! I spend a month there because with many places on AirBnb you get a discount if you book for a month and it ended up being cheaper than if I had booked for only 3 weeks. But a month was plenty long enough for me. 3 weeks would’ve been perfect because Paris is wicked break the bank expensive and I’m terrible with a budget so it was time to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Amsterdam Netherlands

After Paris I took the train to Amsterdam, a city I had long wanted to explore. And boy oh boy did I love it. Loved it as in it’s maybe my favourite European city ever (or at least tied with Copenhagen) at the very least! I spent a week here in a lovely apartment overlooking one of the main canals and had a grand time. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, and so much cheaper than Paris. A friend whom I met walking the Camino came and visited me for a night which was great. Two things really stood out during my time in Amsterdam. The first was doing a nighttime canal tour. It was the beginning of December when I was there and during the holiday season Amsterdam has numerous illuminated art installations around the city. We took a boat tour along the canals which offers a really cool view of the art itself, but also glimpses of life into the stunning historic canal houses. We sipped mulled wine and oohhhed and ahhhed over the interior decorations, wall colours, and the molded ceilings (but mostly I was just trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was living in any one of these houses!) The other thing I would highly recommend doing when in Amsterdam is taking a tour of the red light district. I mean Amsterdam is known for 2 main things (pot and ladies in windows with red lights overhead) so why not actually learn something about it. I’m not telling you to go to Amsterdam and smoke weed. If you do I have no issues but that’s your own choice. Neither am I telling you to pay for sex. Again, your choice. I’m not going to judge how you spend your money. For me I wanted to take a tour to learn how the red light district came to be, and basically how it works. So I did a tour thru the Prostitute Information Center which leads tours by women who have worked as sex workers in the red light district. It was really informative and I learned the following fun facts…..1/3 of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are over the age of 55. They literally come in all sizes, ages and ethnicity. Also the average time men spend with a lady is 6 minutes. Including getting dressed and undressed. 6. Minutes. But the minimum amount of time a customer must pay for is 15 minutes. Also the ladies are licensed and pay taxes so they basically have their own businesses. I learned a variety of other things as well, but since my Pops reads this I’ll try and keep it clean. Needless to say I left my heart in Amsterdam, and I really want to go back and see more of the Netherlands!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Iceland

Iceland is friggin fantastic. It is very, very photogenic and you can pack a lot into a relatively short visit. I spend 5 nights there in December and it did not disappoint. But while it is beautiful it is not cheap. So bring your money, honey cause you’re going to spend it. Once you get over the initial shock of the price of things I’m quite certain you will have a great time. I mean how can’t you with waterfalls, glaciers, tiny horses and Northern Lights aplenty. I met my best mate there and we spent 4 nights in Reykjavik and had one night on a tour to the southern part of the island with Extreme Iceland. It was fantastic, plus our guide was a riot and super entertaining. We visited waterfalls, and petted Icelandic horses who will come to you when you call them just like dogs do! We ended up getting stuck at a gas station while waiting out a wind storm and were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in between sipping gas station beers. We walked on a beach covered in icebergs, walked on a black sand beach with a phallic rock formation in the windiest conditions I’ve ever been in. We wore crampons and went on an ice hike and posed straddling a crevasse and ate fermented shark (not at the same time.) As you can imagine fermented shark is not great. It’s one of those odd things that gets worse the longer you chew it, and the taste strengthens in your mouth long after you’ve already swallowed it. Thankfully, copious amounts of Icelandic beer does eventually get the taste out. Our final morning in Iceland we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon which as you can imagine is full of tourists, but pretty awesome. It is good to know that in the winter there is very, very little useful hours of daylight. In fact there was only about 3.5 hrs a day when we were there and I’m being generous with that time frame, as a lot of it was “light” how it is at dusk or dawn. I would love to go back in the summer to see it light until 11pm. I would also love to go back and rent a car and drive the island and have the flexibility to stop at absolutely every thermal pool I came across. I would also stop at every farm that had Icelandic horses and walk up to the fence and call the horses over like the pack of friendly horse/puppies that they are and pet them till my hearts content. Do you really need anymore reasons to go to Iceland? Didn’t think so….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up my Top 10 from 2016. 2017 is off to a slow and patience trying start. I have decided that I want to return to Saudi Arabia for another year contract, but things are very, very slowly coming together. But fingers crossed they will fall into place in the next week or so. The first time I left Saudi I felt really excited to get an apartment and sign a lease and buy furniture. The current me has none of those deep gut feelings. To be honest I’m clueless as to what country I want to even settle down in, so returning to Saudi feels right and gives me a chance to save  a little more money and see some more things. And you and I both know how much of a fan I am of seeing more things! There are still a couple places in Saudi Arabia I would like to explore. There is a group of islands off the coast of Jeddah called the Farasan Islands that are a protected marine sanctuary that are supposed to be beautiful and I would also love to explore the mountains of Saudi and visit either Abha or Taif. As far as out of Saudi travel I would like to fit in a weekend trip to Oman a place I’ve already seen, and make it over to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Namibia, the Seychelles, or Madagascar. I would also very much like to visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and really any of the Stans. Obviously, I’ll have to pick and choose but these are my top interests. So inshallah in the next couple weeks I’ll have a firmer idea about my return, but in the mean time I’m going to relax and try and get some much overdue blogging about the Camino done.

Wishing all my readers a very happy and healthy 2017. And obviously I wish you some kick-ass travel adventures also…….

 

Abu Dhabi

Over the past 2 years I’ve been to Dubai several times, but hadn’t had the chance to make my way to Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates is a conglomerate of seven emirates- each emirate is governed by a monarch and together they form a federal council. Some of the smaller emirates are less well known and I’m guessing apart from my Middle Eastern readers many of you may not have heard of Ajman or Sharjah. But I’m pretty certain you know quite a bit about Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I’ve blogged about Dubai before- it’s a great weekend break from Saudi and there’s tons of things to do and see. Many of those things are over the top tourists things like indoor skiing, swimming with dolphins, and tend to have a luxury type travel flare to them. Abu Dhabi by contrast is Dubai’s classier more cultured and sophisticated sister. The economy of the UAE is made up of 2 things- oil and tourism. Dubai is the 5th most popular tourist destination in the world with an estimated 15 million overnight tourists expected in 2016.

Back in August I had a weeks vacation and split it between Dubai and a night in Kuwait. I had originally wanted to just stay in Abu Dhabi but the flight times didn’t work great with meeting up with my friend in Kuwait so I opted to just take a day trip to Abu Dhabi instead. There are so many tour options to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi depending on what you are wanting to see. For me, the main priority of visiting Abu Dhabi was to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and photograph it. I’d seen so many pictures of this iconic mosque and long ago I fell in love with Islamic architecture so this was really my sole purpose for going. I joined a large day bus tour of which I’m not normally a fan, but this was the cheapest and easiest option.

It takes about 90 minutes by bus to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. On route the tour guide pointed out the many many new buildings and tourists attractions being built in the emirates. They do things big here- like record breaking big. So most of the things that are being built are the largest such and such, and tallest such and such, and the first ever such and such of the Middle East. As you can imagine much of the countryside in between Dubai and Abi Dhabi is made up of sandy desert, although it does get significantly greener towards Abu Dhabi. Our first stop on the tour was a stop at the very fancy Viceroy hotel on Yas Island that overlooks the Yas Marina circuit of the Formula 1 races. The hotel as you can imagine is very opulent and it would probably cost me a months salary to spend a night there. The hotel overlooks the race track and we stopped for a cold drink and some obligatory photos. The tour then visited the Abu Dhabi waterfront where  we stopped for some photos along the corniche of the Emirates Palace another fancy 5 star hotel. Then there was a trip to a nearby mall for lunch (can you see why I’m never especially jazzed about big group tours?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, after lunch we headed for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Finally!! Now it should be said that even though everyone on the tour bus had been instructed (and warned multiple times) about the dress code to visit the mosque, many of my fellow tourists didn’t get the message. There seemed to be mass confusion about why shorts and uncovered shoulders weren’t allowed. Why they wouldn’t be allowed in with a sexy tight fitting dresses. It was mildly entertaining to watch- really equal parts entertaining and annoying since the tour guide had already instructed these ladies that they would need to purchase abayas at the mall if they wanted to visit the mosque. So after we all off loaded the tour bus and started walking towards the entrance a security guard came over and started picking those deemed inappropriately dressed out of the group. Luckily, it is possible to also buy an abaya from the gift shop on site. Being a professional abaya wearer I had packed mine from Saudi just for this occasion. Per the mosque website it states that all women MUST wear an abaya, but then also that lose fitting clothes and ankle length skirts are ok. Clothing must not be transparent. Men cannot wear shorts. I do recall that there were women there not wearing abayas, but if you have one I’d err on the side of just bringing it. Women must cover their hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built in the late 1990s and completed in 2007. It was built by the president for whom the mosque is named after, sadly he passed away in 2004. It’s the largest mosque in the UAE and can hold a reported 40,000 worshipers at a time. The outer courtyard of the mosque is accented with manicured gardens and shallow reflective pools. I didn’t have a chance to see the mosque at night, but from pictures I have seen it is beautifully lit. As you can imagine the mosque is enormous- the whole area is the size of five football fields. It’s built out of white marble and some of that marble is inlaid with pearl and other semi precious stones into colourful flower patterns that reminded me of the Taj Mahal. There are 4 minarets, 82 domes of varying size, 96 columns in the prayer hall with one the worlds largest carpets weighing some 35 tons. We spend about an hour visiting the mosque. Seeing as it was August when I visited it was very hot and humid and the outside courtyard offers very little shade. You then wind your way thru the outer walkway accented by arches into the great room. It’s all very aesthetically pleasing. Everything flows and is very calming and symmetrical as  Islamic architecture always is. It’s very cool if you have the chance to be there as the call to prayer goes off. All around are tourists taking selfies. As you walk into the main room shoes are removed and you can feel the cold marble underfoot until you reach the carpet inside. The domes allow light to flow into the room and it’s adorned with decorative chandeliers. I must say that this mosque lived up to my expectations!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we started our drive back to Dubai. If you’re in Dubai I would highly recommend making a trip to Abu Dhabi. Seeing the Sheikh Zayed mosque is well worth it!

Merry Christmas

I just wanted to take a moment and wish you all a Merry Christmas and the happiest of holidays from the cold weather of Canada. I know that this time of year can be full of happiness and excitement, full of memories from the past and hopes for the future as the new year quickly approaches. It can equally be difficult. Many people are facing the holidays alone, or having financial problems, or dealing with the many forms that loss takes. I think it’s important to approach this time of year with kindness. Kindness for mankind, but also for yourself.  Be patient with others. Be gentle with yourselves. Take the time to rest. Do the things that nurture your spirit. Be compassionate. Practice self compassion.

As someone who has a spent a couple lonely Christmases in the desert of Saudi Arabia I can offer a few ideas to make the season more pleasant for expats living abroad. Decorate. Surprisingly you can get some “holiday” decorations in Saudi. Well as long as you don’t say the “C” word (Christmas) you can find things at many of the local stores. I can remember IKEA having some interesting winter holiday themed items last year. Get your party on. Many of the compounds will have some type of holiday party. The past 2 years I was able to have a full home cooked turkey meal, with real Christmas decorations and music. I almost forgot I wasn’t home. Almost. Gift exchange. I’m a big fan of presents (who isn’t) so I found it was fun to organize a gift swap as it makes for a merry gathering. But most importantly don’t be alone. My first Christmas in Saudi back in 2010 I was miserable. It was my first Christmas away from home and I was so homesick. I had to work, and since it’s not being a holiday in Saudi it was just a regular day. I cried off and on that whole shift, and I had a hard time even chatting with my family back home. After work I just wanted to go home and be sad, but thankfully, my Czech roommate dragged me out to a Christmas dinner at a nearby compound and I had the nicest of times. So surround yourself with people and you won’t be as homesick over the holidays. Hopefully those of you that are away from home over the holidays will find these tips helpful.

My Christmas wish for you this year is that your year will be filled with Joy and Peace. That you will love and be loved. That you will bask in the simple pleasures that we so often overlook. That you will have clarity into what you want out of life. That you will go forth with a heart full of gratitude and compassion.

Merry Merry Christmas.

Kuwait

imageSo I’m sure you’re thinking why the heck would anybody want to visit Kuwait. I mean really what’s there? Why go. If I’m being honest (which I mostly always am) my reasons for visiting Kuwait were completely ridiculous. I have a dream of visiting every country in the Middle East. And Kuwait was the only safe one left that I hadn’t visited during my time living in Saudi. I haven’t been to Yemen, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, but rest assured, as soon as they move from the avoid all travel warning to exercise a high degree of caution, I’ll be booking tickets. Anyways, back in August I had a last week of holidays to use before I left Saudi Arabia in September. I booked myself a relaxing weekend in Dubai with a day trip to Abu Dhabi and on the way back from Dubai I met a work friend of mine from Saudi in Kuwait for a night.

Apart from knowing that Kuwait was invaded by Saddam in the 1990’s, and having seen pictures of the Kuwait towers I didn’t really know much more than that. Oh, and I knew alcohol was banned. Because when a girl lives in the Middle East and loves the taste of wine she knows which countries are going to prevent her from reaching her full potential. But that’s really all I knew. Kuwait borders the northeastern part of Saudi Arabia and is surrounded by Iraq to the west and north of it. The coastal part of the country lies on the Persian Gulf. Here’s a little back history about Kuwait so you’ll know more than I did when I visited….way back in the 1500’s Kuwait was under Portuguese control. In 1613 a town was built on the spot that is present day Kuwait City. In the mid 1700’s Kuwait was a major shipping route between India and Africa. In 1899 Kuwait became a British protectorate until its independence in 1961. It was the first of the gulf coast countries to establish a constitution and a parliament. Things in the region heated up in the 1980’s with the Iraq-Iran war of which Kuwait supported Iraq. After this war ended tension increased between Iraq and Kuwait as Iraq owed a reported $65 billion US dollars in debt to Kuwait. In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait which led to American forces eventually driving out Iraq in early 1991. Then in 2003 Kuwait was used as the starting point for the American led invasion of Iraq.

So my Kuwaiti adventure started pretty much from the moment my plane landed. I flew from Dubai direct to Kuwait and the friend that I was meeting flew direct from Saudi Arabia. Our planes were due to arrive at the same time and my friend had booked a hotel transfer for us. I was more than a little confused when we landed at the “airport” and there were no other commercial flights there. There were other planes, oddly a Kuwaiti military place and a Canadian military one. But that was it. In my head I was like “hmmmm. This is weird.” So we exit the plane and walk into basically an airline hanger with a small room with customs and an area off to the side that’s immigration. And it’s chaos. There’s no one to really explain anything. And at this point I’m thinking what the hell city am I in because there’s no way this in Kuwait International Airport. As it turned out since I had flown FlyDubai it arrives into this other airport which would’ve been useful to know prior to arriving.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal as this was taking place (because there was nothing else to do and I was feeling overly dramatic). It was like a scene from a bad movie. You land at a dilapidated airport and you’re momentarily confused that maybe you bought a ticket to somewhere you didn’t mean to. You walk into a room that looks like an 80’s office building and line up to take a ticket from one of those paper ticket dispensers they have at a deli. You try to get a sense of what’s going on since no one is giving directions and there aren’t any visible signs. Some people from this flight have done this before so they’re casually telling people what to do. You need to get in a separate line to make a copy of your passport. Then you have to purchase a stamp from a machine that doesn’t give change and only takes Kuwaiti dinar. There is no bank machine but outside of this room is a money changer. So people are trying to change money. Some nationalities need a stamp and others don’t. There’s a typed sheet of paper taped above the stamp machine with some countries crossed out and others hand written in. In pencil. Seems pretty legit. There’s a desk in this 1980’s themed office building. Behind it sit four Kuwaiti officials. Two men and two women. None of them appear to be working. After about 5 minutes the first number is called. There are at least 60 of us waiting for visas. We wait. Suddenly, only two are working. One is walking around chatting on his mobile phone, and the other has taken a cigarette break in what looks like a tiny open bus shelter in the same room that we are waiting in. An hour passes. And we wait. Now only one number is being called at a time. It appears that they are taking a team approach in processing the visas. That way all four look busy but actually very little work is taking place. I question whether maybe they were trained in Saudi, although truth be told Saudi immigration looks lightening fast compared to this. There’s no wifi so fellow passengers just stare blankly at each other and and give the eye raise look that essentially means “hang in there mate.” By this time I’m quite certain time has literally stopped. Every 5-10 min a ding indicates that a new number has been called. After nearly another hour has passed there seems to be some type of urgency set in. Likely there is a group coffee break coming up and they want to get us through. Nope false alarm. One has left to smoke and the other is back on the phone. The room starts to empty out. Eventually, I make my way out.

Here’s where the major lesson of if you have a shitty attitude then shitty things will happen. I was royally pissed off by the time I got my visa. Because my travel mate was at a different airport than me there wasn’t a taxi waiting. No biggie I thought…. I’ll just catch one outside the airport. Wrong. Dead wrong. No taxis. So I had to pay and wait for a shuttle. I can’t recall ever being to an airport that didn’t have taxis waiting out front. Welcome to Kuwait. So I arrive at the hotel and we had planned on spending a little time at the nice pool that was pictured when we had looked up the hotel. Except there are 2 Movenpick hotels in Kuwait and we have booked ourselves at the one that resembles a Super 8 and not the nice resort one we thought on the water. Oh Shit. Things are not going well. This is otherwise known as the snowball effect and things were rapidly rolling from not great to worse. So we had to pull it together. Like real quick! Luckily, I had made us reservations for this weird museum called the Mirror House so we hailed a taxi and off we went. The Mirror House is literally a house that a quirky Italian lady who married a Kuwaiti artist designed. She literally applied mosaic mirror all over the inside and outside of the house over a period of about 40 years. It was awesome. She is a great host and serves you juice and cake and then tours you around the many rooms of the house. As I’ve mentioned she is a very interesting woman and many of the rooms have astral themes relating to zodiac signs, planet earth and the universe. It was fascinating. In the upstairs of the house is an exhibition area paying tribute to her late husband the famous Kuwaiti artist named Khalifa Qattan whose art was quite controversial and addressed many societal issues regarding religion and gender roles. He also had paintings portraying the Iraqi invasion. It was a very interesting visit to say the least, and it was especially so because we toured with 3 Americans and 3 local Kuwaiti girls.

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After our visit to the Mirror House we braved the intense Kuwait heat to hail a taxi back to the hotel. The heat in Kuwait can be scorching and pavement is known to melt. Often it has been recorded as the hottest place on earth. It’s also super humid of which I am not a fan. After a bit of an afternoon siesta and a quick shower we caught a taxi to view the Kuwait Towers. These iconic towers were built in the 70’s and partially serve as water towers as well as a tourist viewing platform. There are 3 towers in total. The largest one has a restaurant and cafe and views over the Persian Gulf. The views would be much nicer if the windows were cleaned at all. It was pretty much impossible to get any clear pictures out the windows on account of dirt, but regardless the sunset was quite nice. These towers were damaged in the Iraqi invasion and sustained gunfire and shrapnel damage that was later repaired. From here we went to a steakhouse located in the hull of a traditional Arab dhow at the Radisson Blue hotel. It was super touristy as you can imagine, but the food was decent and we paired our steak with faux cocktails since as I’ve already mentioned alcohol is a no-go in this country.

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The following day we did some shopping prior to our flight. We visited a fancy local mall and a couple art galleries. Kuwait is quite different than Saudi Arabia. Women are not required to cover, but obviously it’s culturally appropriate to dress conservatively. Many women still do wear abayas, but many did not cover their hair. Men tended to wear traditional outfits consisting of a thobe or a dishdasha similar to Saudi with mostly white head scarves. It is ok for men and women to interact in Kuwait. We saw groups and pairs of young men and women hanging out and walking and chatting in the malls, and women can drive in Kuwait which is obviously different than in Saudi. Another difference we noticed was that the houses are more open and not fenced in or built like a compound as they are in Saudi. In Saudi you often have to go thru a gate with a high wall surrounding homes so the front door and main floor isn’t visible from the street. Kuwaiti houses seemed more open and inviting which was nice. Kuwait was similar to Saudi Arabia in that there’s not a lot of tourist infrastructure. There’s not a lot of tourist things to do, so for us one night was perfect. Compared to Saudi taxis there were super expensive and not especially easy to catch if you weren’t getting one from a hotel.

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There are 9 islands off the coast of Kuwait. We had initially looked into trying to visit Falaika Island as we read that the island had old ruins and that the island had been evacuated during the Iraqi War which made it an interesting sounding place to visit. Unfortunately, when we actually looked into it, it was going to be very expensive to try and arrange a private tour, as tours don’t go in the summer months, and if we tried to take the public ferry we could likely end up stranded unable to get a ferry back. So we gave it a pass. If I happened upon a more reasonable option I’d be keen to go back to check it out. But this time I’d be sure to fly into the main airport so as to avoid a potential second Kuwaiti nervous breakdown!! So there you have it. That’s the low-down on what to see in Kuwait should you fancy to check that country off your list!

Jordan

While I was home over the summer I was trying to figure out what to do with a week of holidays I had later in July. My trip home was lovely, but as many of you who live abroad know, it’s enjoyeable, but never very relaxing. When you live abroad trips home mean fitting in as many people you can that you’ve missed dearly in the time you’ve been away, eating and drinking all the things you’ve been craving since you were last there, and likely stocking up on the many, many things you can’t get in your new country, and doing annoying errands like banking, or getting your teeth cleaned or going to your storage unit. I had split my time between my family in Canada, and my important people in Seattle and I was exhausted. One afternoon I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to lay on a beach or by a pool for a few days somewhere fancy. So over a 5 min conversation with my best friend a plan was hatched. Initially I was like “should I go back to the Maldives?” Which after a couple seconds and a quick mental review of my bank account I was like “hmmm maybe not.” And the next thing out of my mouth was “I think I’ll go to the Dead Sea and stay at the Kempinski resort.” Here’s were the magic of synchronicity took over. I’ve been to the Dead Sea before, but we didn’t stay at the Kempinski resort, so I’m not exactly sure where my brain pulled this idea from. After I said it I remembered that I had a friend in Saudi who was thinking of going on a tour of Jordan sometime in July. So I messaged her to see what her plans were. It ended up that she was going to Jordan the same dates I had off, that she had elected not to do a tour, and instead was just going to the Dead Sea to stay at…..you guessed it…..the Kempinski. And she had a room with 2 beds and was going solo so she asked if I wanted to come along. I already had my credit card out and was booking a plane ticket!

As I said I’ve previously been to Jordan. Back in 2010 my best friend and I met in Jordan, traveled around and then crossed into Syria and then into Lebanon. This was pre Arab springs. Whenever anyone asks me where to go in the Middle East I always say Jordan or Oman, because both countries are safe, and they are a great introduction into Middle Eastern culture if you’ve never been exposed to it. My trip this time involved mostly pool time, tanning, chilling, and a visit to Petra at night. The Jordan side of the Dead Sea is lined with resort type hotels of varying class and price. If you’re planning a trip and drink alcohol it’s prudent that you check to see whether the place you are booking does in fact serve alcohol. Some do not, some charge ridiculous prices, as was the case with our hotel. Apparently, it was our hotels policy to also confiscate any food or drink brought into the property although they really weren’t very strict about it. Now, here’s the thing about me and the way I travel. I like nice things. As in nice things I’m actually going to make use of and enjoy, otherwise I’m super cheap. I have no problem paying for a fancy hotel if I’m going to relax and use the facilities. If it’s only a bed to sleep in and nothing else then I don’t want to pay much at all. I also have no problem paying for a really nice meal. But when it’s going to cost me something crazy like $16 US for a shot of vodka or $10 US for a bottle of water I’m taking things into my own hands. Which is why we stopped off at the duty free in Amman airport and I was a cheapskate and mixed my own drinks poolside. Challenge accepted Kempinski!

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So I was there for three nights. Two of those days were just totally relaxing days. I’m talking buffet breakfast followed by glass upon glass of champagne with OJ for me, and straight champagne with strawberries for my travel partner. The service at the Kempinski was really good. I’m sure the fact that we were two single gals and I had blond locks only helped our cause but we could hardly finish our glass of champagne without another being put in front of us. Oh, also the summer is off season for the Dead Sea on account of scorching temperatures- and it’s really hot and humid. Because of this there were very, very few other western tourists. So after some champagne we would make our way down to the infinity pool that overlooks the Dead Sea and claim ourselves a couple chairs. Since I burn pretty much immediately mine was always in the shade. From here the rest of the day was bouncing between the pool, the lounge chair, having a nap, writing a bit, and repeat. The service at the pool was awesome- we couldn’t get more ice, cold cloths, our umbrella moved or our sunglasses cleaned fast enough. Being the only two western women during the off-season in Jordan definitely had its perks. Since it was my travel mate’s first time to Jordan we obviously had to do the obligatory float in the Dead Sea. I’d already done it, and it really is a once in a life time thing. As in you do it once, and then you’re good for life. It’s a very odd experience to get into a body of water and come out feeling dirtier than you went in. It’s very oily, and salty as you can imagine. It’s also the lowest point on earth, and scientist say it’s shrinking at an alarming rate so you really should go if you have the chance. It’s almost 10 times saltier than the ocean, so don’t splash around because trust me if you get the water in your eyes it will burn like crazy and heaven forbid the water gets in your mouth it will take a long time to get rid of that taste. Trust me on this.

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One of the days we decided to visit Petra at night, and the hotel arranged a driver. Petra is probably best known from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s from the Nabataean Era and was thought to be built in around 312 BC. We left after lunch as it’s about a 3.5 hour drive to get to Wadi Musa the city where Petra is. We stopped off along the way for kebabs and were able to catch the setting sun on the outskirts of Wadi Musa which was stunning. It was a funny experience driving through the tiny villages along the way and for a while I tried to look at it through the eyes of someone who has never been to the Middle East before. How foreign it is from back home. How odd it would be to see signs written in Arabic, and see men in traditional clothing, and mosques everywhere,  and how in the Middle East the colours all just sort of blend together. Houses and buildings are often of similar sand or white, or tan or brown colours and just blur together. I thought about how unique it was that I am so comfortable in this environment that is so drastically different from my home culture. It made me think that in my years of living in Saudi how unfortunate it was that my family hadn’t come to visit. How I would’ve loved to share these experiences with them. I’m still in the process of deciding if I will return to Saudi in January so there might be another opportunity to share it with them!

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We got dropped in front of the entrance to Petra around 6:30pm. Petra by night tours only operate on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays at 8:30pm until around 10:30pm. I had read mixed reviews about it, but seeing as I had already seen Petra during the day I was keen to see it lit up at night. We passed the time at a bar near to the visit center that is built in a cave- reportedly it is the oldest bar in the world. I’m not sure how true that really is, but it makes for a great story. After sipping our “Petra” brand local style beer we met up with the group for the 2km walk to the Treasury building. The trail that winds its way towards the Treasury is lined with candles which cast shadows onto the rocks that line the path. We were lucky enough to be there when there was a full moon, and it wasn’t cloudy so the moon cast a lot of natural light. Eventually, we came to the siq which is the narrow rock passage that leads into the Treasury. From here we could hear traditional Bedouin music as we made our way closer.  There were hundreds of candles lit in front of the Treasury that cast an eerie sort of light. The next hour or so was filled with more music, a brief talk and then tea was served Bedouin style in tiny teacups that is traditionally how tea is served throughout the Middle East. I was highly distracted and missed most of the music as I was engrossed with taking pictures of the full moon and the Treasury building. I’m not a great night photographer but I did capture some awesome shots. We eventually made our way back out of the park and to our driver for a harrowing 3 hour drive back. The main “highway” we took back was full of potholes and speed bumps and huge trucks overloaded with cargo, so it was a little nerve wracking. Eventually, I had to close my eyes, because looking out the window was way too stressful.

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So that wrapped up my quick 3 day trip to Jordan. But you should know there’s a ton more to see. The area around Amman, the country’s capital is full of places to explore. There is a Christian town of Madaba that has some very old mosaics in one of the churches there, you can hike nearby Mt Nebo, visit Jesus’s Baptism site and view Israel on the opposite shore, or visit the Roman ruins of Jerash in the northern part of the country. Jerash was quite a cool ruin site- it’s very well preserved and dates from 129 AD. Originally, the ruins were of Christian origin, until Islam arrived and now there is remnants of a mosque. There are well preserved arches, plazas, and the Roman road. It’s well worth a visit. There’s not a lot of shade though- so wear a hat and sunscreen if visiting in the warmer months.

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In the south of the country is Wadi Musa home to Petra. It would be plain foolish to go to Jordan and not see Petra. I would recommend visiting both in the day and at night as they offer very different perspectives on the site. For the night tour you are restricted to only seeing the siq and Treasury as I’ve mentioned before. But during the day you can have free run of the massive area. The area is lined with enormous tombs, rock walls, and amazing views. When we visited we arrived early (like 6am early) when the park opens. This is really the best time as the park is largely empty and the tour buses haven’t yet arrived. Because once they do there will be no less than 20 tourist minimum in every single picture you take. As I mentioned it’s about a 2km walk on a rocky trail into the park. Good shoes, sunscreen and a hat are essential. When we visited it was September and I still nearly died of heat stroke by early afternoon (stupid lily white skin). So go early. And make sure to take the time to climb up to the Monastery, it takes about an hour. We ended up taking donkeys up but I would not recommend this- it was absolutely terrifying and I’m amazed we and the donkeys didn’t topple over the side of the path. Anyways the views from the Monastery are stunning and not to be missed.

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A trip to Petra should really be paired with a trip to nearby Wadi Rum. If you have the time I would recommend camping out- we were pressed for time so weren’t able to, but everyone I know who’s done this raved about it. I mean when else are you going to sleep under the stars in a Bedouin camp?? We took a day tour of Wadi Rum with a local Bedouin driver which turned out to be quite the adventure as our old rickety Toyota would break down no less than 20 times that day,  and we spent much of the time trying to decipher what our Bedouin driver was saying. The scenery was stunning with the sand dunes a colour of red I was previously unfamiliar with. We climbed sand dunes, and ate lunch in the shade of one of the many large rock formations. I remember thinking it was like being in the desert and the Grand Canyon at the same time. Every view was postcard worthy, and we snapped picture after picture after picture. You can also venture down further south to the port city of Aqaba, which is known for its beaches and diving. I haven’t been yet so I can’t really tell you more than that!

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So that’s a bit of an over view of what to do when you’re in Jordan. Again, I felt very safe both times I’ve been and I would happily go again. Tourism there has been massively affected with the war in Syria, but as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been any targeted attacks on tourists. I found the people to be extremely friendly, and many speak English, so language barrier isn’t much of an issue. Jordan is an excellent way to comfortably explore the Middle East. Happy travels…..

Warsaw Poland

Way back in June I took a solo trip to Warsaw Poland. I honestly don’t know where the time has gone?! How is it already November? How am I currently 5 months behind blogging about this trip? Well…..better late than never I guess…. Poland honestly wasn’t a country I knew much about before visiting. Originally, I had planned to split my time between Warsaw and Krakow but seeing as I only had 6 nights and I did want some down time I decided to just visit Warsaw and save Krakow for another time.

My initial impression of Warsaw was that it was so green. There was recreational space all around the city which reminded me a lot of large cities in Canada. Coming from Saudi Arabia where one never really sees much green I’m sure I noticed it that much more, but still it gave the city a clean and open feel to it. The older I get the more I like to stay somewhere comfortable. Especially if I’m traveling solo, I want to stay somewhere were I feel safe going out at night and where things are walking distance from my hotel. I’m happy to pay a little extra to be in the center of the action and not have to waste time commuting into the city. I opted to stay on the border of the Old City- it was an easy 10-15min walk to get to most city sites, and there are tons of cafes, bars and restaurants in that area.

I spent most of my time in Warsaw exploring the Old Town, the castle, the square and drinking glasses upon glasses of wine paired with delicious food. Warsaw has several different free walking tours with different themes that meet in the Old Town area. They are a great way to get oriented to a city and to learn the history. Technically, they are not “free” as you tip the guide, but I think they are fantastic and would highly recommend joining onto one of them. The ones I did were thru the Orange Umbrella company, but there are other free tours operating in the Old Town. Warsaw is an interesting city because 85% of its buildings were destroyed in the second World War. Much of the Old City was rebuilt to maintain the look from that time period, but it’s weird touring the castle and the Old Town knowing that much of it isn’t actually old at all.

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I spend part of a morning visiting the Neon Museum which houses neon signs from the cold war era. It’s really quite cool, but a little out of the way and it’s a very small venue. Nonetheless I was happy to have seen it. I also spent some time visiting the Block 10 museum which is within the Citadel and housed political prisoners. I got dropped off at this museum by a taxi driver and there was literally not another person in sight,  and the driver let me out and then drove away. As I walked towards the building I thought to myself how creepy it was and figured that it was closed. I ended up being wrong, but I was the only person in the museum. As I’ve described before I have a way over active imagination. Like I can get myself worked up pretty easily, so touring an old prison solo was not the best idea I’ve ever had. At one point I was walking down a dimly lit corridor with cells lining both sides and there was a gust of wind that blew in and ended up slamming one of the metal doors behind me shut. My heart quite nearly stopped, and then restarted at double its normal rate. It’s funny looking back at it the way nearly having a heart attack always is!! Also all the signs in this museum were in Polish which is less than helpful if you can’t read Polish, but there is a really well done art exhibit which is worth seeing and the museum itself is free. Just watch your back for door slamming ghosts. Another museum I would recommend is the Warsaw Uprising museum. I ended up going on a Sunday and it was free but also super super busy. There is a TON of information in this museum- it’s very well done but completely overwhelming at the amount of information displayed. It’s pretty easy to get information overloaded there.

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One morning I attempted to visit Lazienki Palace which is housed within the largest park in Warsaw. It’s built on a lake, and the views are stunning. Unfortunately, on the day I visited the Palace was closed for some type of government function with security and media. I was still able to get some spectacular shots of the Palace and the park, so all was not lost. Coincidentally, one of the reasons for my visiting the park and the Palace was that it was about a 6km stroll back to my hotel (these were my early days of Camino training). On my way back I stumbled upon a huge overpass with some very talented graffiti work. I’m a sucker for urban art- I’m not talking about the simple “tagging” of graffiti, but the stuff that’s urban and industrial and colourful, and was created at the hands of someone with a great deal of artistic talent. The graffiti covered every possible inch of reachable concrete and I was mesmerized and took at least a hundred pictures. Much to my great pleasure that walk back looped through part of an industrial area, again every surface was covered in urban art!

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My last day I took a taxi 20min south of the city to visit Wilanow Palace which was left largely unscathed from WW2. The Palace was built in the early 1800s and it’s really a marvel to visit. The Palace is white with bright yellow accents and statues lining the roof. The inside of the Palace is decorated with artwork and furniture from that time. One section had tin pieces painted with portraits from the 17th century. The portraits were painted prior to someone dying for the grieving to see the dead and often they were painted in the persons traveling clothes as they believed that death was the ultimate journey to a new life. I quite like this custom. The Palace is surrounded by well manicured grounds that make a lovely stroll.

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Poland has a very significant Jewish history and in fact  parts of Warsaw are quite literally built on the ruins of the Jewish ghetto. If you visit I would highly recommend that you do some sort of tour that speaks to this history. As previously mentioned I did a couple free walking tours with the Orange Umbrella company and they had one specifically about Jewish Warsaw. Reportedly, back in the 10th century the Kings from this area offered Jewish people the freedom of religion and protection at a time when they were being persecuted in Western Europe. In the early 16th century Warsaw became Christian and the Jewish residents moved outside the city walls. Aristocrats set up private towns and many Jewish residents lived there. In the 18th century Poland ceased to exist and it was split between Russia, Prussia (pre Germany) and Austria. It was then recreated after WW1. Prior to WW2 half the residents of Warsaw were Jewish. 6 million Poles died in WW2 and half of them were Jewish. In 1940 all Warsaw Jewish residents were moved into the Jewish Ghetto and 100,000 people were moved out of that area to make space. Eventually 500,000 people would reside there. Conditions were deplorable as one can image. There was massive over crowding and people were living off an estimated intake of 460 calories/day. 91,000 died that first year. In 1941 1 million Poles were killed by death squads. In 1942 the deportations to death camps started. International communities were petitioned to bomb the railways which likely would’ve ended the Holocaust but they didn’t. By 1942 there were just 300,000 people left in the Warsaw ghetto- mostly strong men used for labour. These men would go on to plot and take part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. These men were able to hold off Nazi forces for nearly a month and is known as the largest Jewish revolt in the second World War. In 1944 the Warsaw uprising took place which led to the retreating Nazi forces basically destroying Warsaw which is why 85% of its buildings were rebuilt after the war. The Jewish Walking tour takes you to many of the memorials around the city, past the cemetery and points out the markers on the sidewalk that indicate the borders of the Jewish ghetto.

So that covers my time in Poland. I think Poland is largely overlooked as a European destination, but if Warsaw is any indication of what the rest of the country has to offer I’m quite certain I’ll be back to explore more!

Vimy Ridge France

I’ve been a little absent on my blog, but rest assured I’ve got a lot of new posts coming, once I get my thoughts in order. It’s been just over 2 weeks since Pops and I finished up the Camino, and we spend the beginning of November chilling in Paris. Chilling because it’s actually been pretty damn cold. We did some sightseeing checking things off Pops Paris bucket list and not giving our feet and legs the much needed rest that they deserved. Pops has returned to Canada, but one of the major things that he wanted to do during our time in France was to visit Vimy Ridge War Memorial. It just so happened that the first weekend in November the Veteran Affairs of Canada hosted a memorial service there. So we bought tickets and took the high speed train from Paris to Arras, the town closest to the site. The train takes about 50min. We ended up staying in Arras overnight because the memorial service times and the train times didn’t allow us to make it a day trip.

Vimy Ridge is of huge historical significance for Canadians. I’m sure most Canadians would recognize the name, but given my WWI history isn’t so great (and I’m assuming the same can be said for some of my readers especially my dear cousin Amber) I’m going to give an overall summary. WWI started in 1914 when Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia. Because of treaties with neighbouring countries this then drew Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France into the conflict. Once Britain declared war this automatically brought Canada into the war. In 1914 Canada was still a relatively new country and this war was the first time Canadian forces fought as an independent force. By the end of the war 67,000 Canadian soldiers would be killed and 250,000 would be wounded. WWI or the “Great War” as it was known ended November 11, 1918

The battle at Vimy Ridge was fought over a 4 day period in April 1917. Basically German troops held the high ground prior to the Vimy Ridge assault and Canadian forces were credited with reclaiming the high ground from the Germans and this was essential for the advance of the British Army from the south. This victory though, came at a very steep cost. There were nearly 3,600 men killed during those bloody 4 days and over 10,000 wounded.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands as a reminder to all those who served and risked their lives or lost their lives during WWI. The monument stands on soil that saw some of the most vicious fighting overlooking the Canadian battleground. The monument is imposing as its white marble stands in contrast to the surrounding hillside and skyline. The night prior to the memorial service we met some fellow Canadians (we started chatting with them trying to figure out where they got their poppy pins from) and they ended up being from Veterans Affairs Canada and were involved in the ceremony the following day. Being the nice Canadians they were they gave us their poppies and told us to meet them in the parking lot after the service for whisky shots. I liked them a lot.

The morning of the memorial service was blustering cold. The wind was raw, working itself between the seams of our jacket and scarfs. We arrived a couple hours before the memorial service was to start. The entire site is quite large consisting of a visitor center, the monument, a cemetery and then the German and Canadian tunnels and trenches. There is also work taking place to enlarge the visitor center by next year in time for the 100 year anniversary of the battle. We spent some time wandered thru the trenches and then walked back towards the monument. Much of the area is roped off with warning signs of the possibility of unexploded shells and bombs. So people aren’t allowed to walk thru the fields but nearby farmers do allow their sheep to graze thru this area. As I mentioned there is a cemetery, so we walked down to have a look. Most of the graves were unmarked inscribed with the country and sometimes the Battalion of the troops involved. Occasionally there were graves with names. We were the only visitors at the cemetery during our time there. The grave stones were lined in long rows and the cold wind blew the changing fall leaves across the cemetery. The occasional grave was adorned with flowers that had long since died or had a single poppy planted in front the petals still bright red. There was a certain heaviness in the air of all that had been lost during those 4 days nearly 100 years earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took our time walking back towards the monument. The walkway up to the monument was packed with Canadian troops. Many young, but also several older servicemen. Some were Air Force, some Army, some Navy. Some wore green and others blue. There were a few ladies in the mix. Walking between them was one of those moments where you are filled with complete pride for your country, and for those who continue to risk their loves to protect it. The  backside of the memorial is adorned with 2 large statues of a man and woman on either side of the stairs both appear to be mourning. They are known as “The Mourning Parents.” Around both sides of the monument are the engraved names of those Canadian soldiers that died in France. As you walk thru the monument passing by the “Mourning Parents” you come to the front side of the monument and can stand staring up at the 2 large columns in front of you. There are several statues carved into the pillars. One statue stands out more than the others though. It’s of a young woman wearing a cloak. Her sorrow-filled face turned down towards the field below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The memorial service started a little before 11. I’m guessing there were a couple hundred people in attendance. There were some government dignitaries and the service was conducted in both French and English. Lining the front wall of the  monument were the retired servicemen and women holding flags throughout the service. Some songs were sung, poems read, wreaths laid and a moment of silence to honour the dead. It was really special to be able to attend a memorial service honoring Canadian soldiers on such a historical site. By the time the service was over we were frozen. The rawness of the air had numbed our toes and fingers and it was time to get on our way. Luckily, we ran into the Canadians we met the night before and true to their word we followed them to the parking lot for shots of whisky. This seemed like a fitting end to the service and proved an excellent way to warm up! I have never been a fan of scotch or whisky, but I can know proudly say that there is a type of whisky made in Eastern Canada that has maple syrup added to it and it is divine. And coincidentally, it would make an excellent stocking stuffer with the holidays coming up. It’s called Sortilege. So good.

After we warmed our insides with the sweet deliciousness of maple syrup whisky we walked back to the visitor center and had a tour of the underground tunnels and trenches. The Veteran Affairs of Canada has a program where Canadian university students can apply and become guides of the site for a semester. Applicants must be bilingual, but if you know a student that is interested you should encourage them to apply. It’s a really cool program. Our guide was Patrick from BC and he was awesome. He took us through the tunnels and talked to us about what it would’ve been like for the soldiers of that time, and preparation that went into the battle at Vimy Ridge. We then walked thru a small portion of the Canadian trenches. It’s hard to imagine the inhumane conditions those soldiers lived in.  How cold, and wet, and scared and hungry they must have been. It’s unimaginable really. We then stopped in the visitor center so Pops could buy himself a book and made our way back to the city of Arras and to the train that would return us to Paris.

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If you are in France (and Canadian) I would encourage you to visit Vimy Ridge or the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is nearby. Pay your respects to those who lost their lives in honour of our country. My patriotism always comes out when I glimpse a Canadian flag on foreign soil.

 

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset grow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

Written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

Initial Camino Toughts…..

Disclaimer: I wrote this post almost 10 days ago and never posted it. I was going to revise it for present day but reading it back I wanted to share my initial thoughts on the Camino because I think they’re relevant even though we’re now 3 weeks in and 300km from Santiago. So I’ll share them anyways…..

imageSo I’ve been on the Camino Frances with my dad for a little over a week- well actually 12 days now to be exact. We’ve walked well over 200km and we’ve walked without a rest day. Granted a couple of the days have been shorter- but still. We’ve walked 12 days straight. It has been both a physically and mentally hard journey thus far. Everyday a new part of my body aches. I’ve had blisters and bruises in various states of healing. Mentally it’s a challenge to get up some mornings. My brain wants to sleep in- to be honest my body wants to as well. But Santiago de Compostello is calling us. And so we walk. The scenery is stunning. Seriously it’s hard to describe it accurately. We get up before sunrise as the sun coming up is my favourite time of day. I love to see the start of each fresh day. The way the colours light up the sky  as though an artist was painting with pastels. The sunrise is always behind us or to the side of us so we must make a concous effort to acknowledge it. To me this is the most precious part of our day.

Mentally my brain is mostly alternating between how gorgeous the scenery is or how much my knee, or hip, or toe is hurting. Otherwise my mind is pretty much blank. I hope that in the upcoming weeks I’ll put some issues to rest, make some decisions about which path my life is taking and forgive and say a final goodbyes to some unhealthy relationships that are no longer serving me. But if that doesn’t happen then that’s ok also. I don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on this experience. I really just want to take each day for what it is. My dad and I have gotten along very well so far. We know when the other one is irritable and when to back off or not push an issue. We both just go with the flow. We have met some awesome people so far. People who started off as strangers but have quickly become friends.

Anyways here are a few of my observations for the first 12 days:

1. Hiking poles have saved my ass. There is no way I could’ve continued after getting blisters to both heels on the first afternoon. Walking uphill ( and trust me there is a lot of uphill) is pure torture. Poles help offset your weight and make it easier to hobble around. They will also save your knees on the downhill. I have found them to be tremendously helpful.

2. Staying at Orisson is essential if you’re at all concerned about your physical capabilities. Also that climb up from St Jean isn’t easy and you will taste the coldest beer of your life at Orisson when you arrive.  They also put on an awesome dinner and you’ll make many of your Camino friends that first night!

3. I have complete and utter respect for anyone walking the Camino alone. This shit is hard. Walking with someone else helps motivate you when your mind keeps telling you “just sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day.” Or when you have a mental breakdown on a steep hill with no shade as each step causes your almost healed blisters to rip back open (true story involving a few tears.)

4. I’ve written about this before but it’s proved true on the Camino as well. Kindness begets kindness. On this walk (and in life) sometimes you need help and sometimes you have to step up to help others. We all rely on each other. I have witnessed sandals being lent to help ease the pain of blisters or things given to others out of charity. Sewing kits, band aids, blisters treatment remedies. People are willing to help- often you don’t even need to ask.

5. Many people will say that you carry the weight of your fears and worries on your back. This is especially true on the Camino. I am notoriously an over packer. I like to have the things I might need. I like to have different outfit choices. As a nurse I like to have medications for as many different ailments as my brain can dream up. The Camino is teaching me that I can live with so much less. 2 pairs of pants. 3 t-shirts. 1 long sleeve. 1 fleece jacket. 1 pair of PJs. 3 pairs of underwear. I don’t need much of the things I’ve convinced myself that I do!

6. The Camino is far from a fashion contest for realz. In normal life I’m fairly put together. I try to look nice. But on the Camino….that all flies out the window. I’ve been known to wear my pajamas during the day while the laundry is being done and then wander around a village. I wear socks with sandals (oh the horror) pretty much all the time. Nothing really matches and to be honest I could care less.  My hair air dries-no hairdryer or straightener on the Camino and life is still ok! Who would’ve thunk it!?

 

So those are a few of my initial observations from the early stage of the Camino. Don’t fret- I’ve got loads of other thoughts coming!! Buen Camino!

 

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