Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

36 Hours in Helsinki……

Last month I spent 2 weeks traveling solo from Helsinki Finland thru Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and then ending with a few days in Berlin. Prior to going my immune system was not great and a combination of back to back traveling, taking on some new roles at work and just being generally run down resulted in me getting sick the couple days before I left. Truth be told I wasn’t especially jazzed to be going on this trip- the thought of spending 2 weeks in my bed was sounding pretty great (insert pitty party here). Thankfully though, as soon as my feet hit Finnish soil (and I checked into my swank hotel) I was out of my funk and ready to see what Helsinki had to offer. A couple years ago I spent a bit of time in northern Finland- specifically Lapland where Santa lives, but never got a chance to see Helsinki.

Helsinki is hella expensive as is most of Scandinavia. Basically it’s kinda in between Paris and Iceland in terms of expensive. The trade off though is that even though things like food cost a lot, I never had a bad meal. I spent 2 nights in Helsinki- basically landing early afternoon and then leaving early 2 days later- so I really only had a day and a half to explore. I stayed in the city center meaning that I was easy walking distance to the water and to shopping and a few churches and sites that I wanted to see. After checking into my hotel I wandered towards the water and found that there was a fish market where boats lined the harbour and sold local pickled varieties of fish from the backs of the boats. The air was crisp and smelled salty like the sea and that was all it took to get me out of my travel funk. That first afternoon I walked along the waterfront and went to the Central Market. The Central Market has a wine store, coffee shops and places to buy fresh fish, as well as places to buy fish sandwiches and oysters. It’s pretty awesome. I then walked up to Uspenski Cathedral an Orthodox cathedral from the late 1800’s. Later I visited the nearby Helsinki Cathedral which is up a steep flight of stairs. The outside is much cooler than the inside. I went at sunset which made for some great pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day I spent part of the morning organizing a ferry ticket for the following day to take me from Helsinki to Tallinn Estonia (more on this in an upcoming post). Seeing as it was the beginning of October, the weather was chilly, rainy and pretty windy. The one great thing about traveling at this time of year is that the leaves had just started to change colours so it was a beautiful landscape of reds, oranges and yellows. I decided to take a ferry to the nearby island of Suomenlinna- the ferry takes about 20min to get to the island and the views of the Helsinki skyline off the back of the ferry are amazing. I stood outside in the chilly air taking in the scenery. Suomenlinna is a fortress, some parts of it from the 1700’s and it is now a UNESCO heritage site. The island itself is free- you just have to pay for the ferry to and from. There is a residential portion of the island (actually it’s comprised of 6 linked islands) as well as cafes, and museums. I spend my time wandering the main path that wound past the church, past the fortress structures and past a hidden beach. I took tons of photos of the changing leaves that lined the walkways. After a coffee to warm up I took the ferry back to Helsinki and had a late lunch at the Central Market. Fresh salmon sandwiches with a glass of chilled white wine never disappoint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though I’m not especially religious I wanted to visit two religious-y places while in Helsinki so I walked over to the Temppeliaukio (rock church). I’d seen pictures of this church which is built into a rock wall and has a copper dome roof and a skylight that lets in natural light. Architecturally it’s a really cool building, and has a sense of peacefulness inside it once you get past the clicks of all the people taking pictures. The second place I wanted to visit was Kamppi Chapel- a chapel built for the sole purpose of silence in the middle of a busy shopping area. The building itself is iconic- it’s a very modern design and the inner sanctuary is curved and built to block out the outside noise. Of course interspersed between doing some sightseeing and walking in the brisk autumn air I was eating good food and drinking delicious wine. My first night there I had an amazing meal of fettuccine with prawns in a lobster butter sauce. So damn good. The next night I ate at a different Italian restaurant that had a mozzarella bar. Mozzarella cheese soaked in a bunch of different sauces or oil. Not very healthy but totally tasty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s a quick 36 hours in Helsinki. Next blog post I’ll tell you about one of my new favourite cities: Tallinn Estonia. I’m currently writing this sitting on the couch of my bestfriend’s house in Seattle while she is baking some sweets for Thanksgiving. Next weekend I’ll be flying back to Saudi where I’ll be thru the Christmas holidays. No white Christmas for me. Happy Thanksgiving to my Yankee peeps!

Camino Memories

A year ago today is a day that will be implanted in my memories forever. For two reasons…..first it’s my Pops birthday, and secondly because a year ago today we finished our Camino. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know last year I walked almost the entire length of Spain with my Pops. We started our pilgrimage in St Jean Pied de Port and walked over the Pyrenees walking to Santiago de Compostela about 100km from the Atlantic Ocean. I had purposely planned for us to arrive into Santiago on the 29th of October so we would be issued our Camino certificates on Pops birthday. And so that’s exactly what we did.

The night before we stayed in a town called Lovacolla on the outskirts of the Santiago airport about 11km to the Santiago Cathedral. We woke up early as we had plans to arrive in Santiago by mid morning. The Camino had other plans for us though. We left before the sun was up and started out in the pitch black of the early morning hours. This was pretty much the only time we got lost on the Camino and we spend the better part of an hour scouting out the famous yellow arrows we’d spend the last five weeks following. With our headlamps on we just couldn’t make sense of where we had lost the trail and we back tracked and wandered around trying to get our bearings. I have a way over active imagination so being in the woods in the dark is the setting for a horror movie I wanted no part of. We eventually ended up coming across a yellow arrow and were finally on our way.

We made it into Santiago a little before 12pm and went directly to get our Camino credential and to store our bags. On the way to the pilgrims mass we ended up running into 2 older Japanese/American ladies who we had crossed paths with several times and made plans to meet up later. Somehow we confused the Museum for the Cathedral and attempted to go to mass there- the employee thought this was hilarious. We finally got ourselves sorted and took in the  traditional pilgrims mass and then in honour of Pops birthday I had booked us for lunch at Casa Marcelo, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was the bomb. Seriously such a great meal. After several glasses of wine we day drunkenly made our way back to pick up our bags and head to the hotel. En route we ran into an Australian guy we had meet a couple weeks before. I refer to him as Dr Bob. While not a doctor he gave me blister advice and helped Pops with his shin splints so he will always be affectionately known as Dr Bob to me. He and Pops shared the same birthday so we made plans to meet up a couple hours later at the cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 5pm we wandered to the Cathedral and met up with Dr Bob who had 3 plastic cups and a bottle of red wine and we sat on the cold stone out front catching up and watching other pilgrims arrive. Within very little time we were reunited with several pilgrims we knew- some Americans, a fellow Canadian, another Australian, a girl from the Netherlands, and Swiss guy. We took a ton of pictures in front of the Cathedral and wandered off to find something to eat as a group. A few of us later went for dinner and then out to this bizarre bar with a live jazz band where one of the dudes was very clearly on some type of drugs, but nonetheless an amazing musician. We drank beer and listened to the band play and Pops had a very special day.

For obvious reasons this will always be a day that stands out in my memories of our time on the Camino. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, but also of sadness that the Camino was over. That we had walked nearly 700km over 5 weeks, and that the walk was over. A few days later we would leave Spain and return to Paris. As I’ve mentioned before not a single day has passed in the last year that I haven’t longed to be back on the Camino, the sun coming up, the wind gently blowing, and my feet carrying me across nearly an entire country. So for now I’ll just rely on my memories until I walk again.

And a very Happy Birthday to Pops who I’ll be seeing next week. Can’t wait!!!

Camino Anniversary

Today marks my Camino anniversary. A year ago today Pops and I woke up filled with anxiety and excitement in the town of St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains. We ate a typical Camino breakfast of toast with jam, coffee and juice and we packed up and headed out in the mid mourning hours. We stopped off in a small church and I said a prayer for safety for the journey that lay ahead. I’m not especially religious, but I would repeat this habit in countless churches spanning the whole of Spain. Mostly asking for a safe journey, a quiet mind and an open heart. We crossed the main bridge leading out of town, stopping to take a selfie. Well two selfies really, because Pops has this uncanny ability to look completely surprised in almost every photo. The second one he looks slightly less surprised. We followed the bronzed metal markers that dot the streets leading up the hill outside of the town. These markers then turned  into wooden signs or spray painted arrows that we would follow for the next 5 weeks westward across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the next several hours climbing. That first day was only 8km but we would climb 600m into the hills to our first nights stay at Orisson. Those first 3-4km I referred to in my journal as deceiving. They didn’t seem that hard, but the last 4km were very steep. I had trained very little for our Camino- mostly because it was difficult to do much hiking in the months leading up to it on account of living in Saudi Arabia where the temperatures were still extremely hot to be hiking outside, and that mostly everywhere is flat. I had trained with my pack on a treadmill. The conditions going over the Pyrenees were nothing like walking on an incline on a treadmill. First off I had no idea that my feet would get so sweaty. My shoes it turned out were not especially breathable, and it only took me about 4km to start to develop blisters. Yep 4km. Those blisters would haunt me the next 450km all the way to Leon where I finally broke down and bought new shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scenery that first day was mesmerizing as the town of St Jean disappeared and we slinked up the hillside. The hillsides layered against one another forming a sort of tapestry with the differing hues of green and browns of the hills playing against the bright blue sky. Pops was extremely patient with me as we stopped numerous times to tend to my feet. Cows passed us, as did other pilgrims. We sat on a log and ate some nuts and hydrated. Further up the path we stopped at a scenic overlook where 20-30 buzzards were gliding in circles on the air current with the Pyrenees in the distance. A little further we came to a flattened area and then a small downhill that dropped us at our refuge for the night. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived and we dropped our bags in our room. We were lucky enough to arrive and be given one of the only private rooms for the night. We then went and ordered a well deserved beer. If I close my eyes I can still feel how crisp and refreshing that beer at Orisson was. We sat outside looking at the view and eventually made our way to shower and wash our sweaty clothes and lay them out to dry for the following day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chatted with fellow pilgrims. We were all bonded together by this shared journey that we were embarking on. Walking quite literally into the unknown. We shared our first of many communal meals that night. Something that would become one of my favourite parts of the Camino. Little did we know that this band of characters would become the backdrop of our Camino experience. How our paths would cross and intersect and we would get news about some of these people days later by way of the Camino grapevine. There were the 2 Irish sisters. The Korean girl who we would see many times throughout our Camino. The 2 older ladies from Quebec. The loud Texans- a couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and their uber fit daughter and son in law. And then there was the older American man who talked loudly into his phone. The first time we laid eyes on him he was having an animated conversation and Pops and I looked at each other as if to say “bloody Americans.” His name was Richard and he played a huge role in our Camino. We would walk countless days together. Sometimes in a group, sometimes solo but in sight on one another, sometimes with other pilgrims. We would later learn that the person on the other end of the phone was his wife Sherri and over the next 5 weeks we would be invited into the calls with her. Richard is also one of my best Camino memories and a true Camino blessing. So many of my funniest Camino memories involve him. A personal favourite was when Pops and I were waiting for him at the top of a steep hill and Richard made his way over the crest holding his phone against his ear yelling “Taxi!!” Richard was the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In honour of this anniversary I thought I’d make mention of the many, many things I miss about walking the Camino. Because truthfully not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and long for the sound of crunching gravel under my feet, the wind blowing against my face, and the quiet sounds of nature.

-I miss being outside as the sun is coming up. Watching the changing light and colours as the sky lit up. Almost every day of those 5 weeks I saw the sunrise. It would rise behind us lighting up the path in front of us casting shadows of our silhouettes. I would stop and take picture after picture spaced out by a few minutes, each picture more stunning than the last.

-I miss the simplicity of the journey. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Except it was more like wake up- eat some type of breakfast. Walk. Second breakfast and cappuccino. Walk. Lunch. Walk. Beer. Shower. Dinner. Wine. Sleep. Or something like that….

-I miss the introspection. The quietness of being alone with my thoughts. Having the ability to tune the outside world out. Walking the Camino is like being insulated inside a bubble. You end up being disconnected from the outside world.

-I love seeing the world at walking pace. There is something to be said about crossing a country powered by your own two feet. I’ve always been a fan of slow motion travel and not much is slower than a walkers pace. You observe things you would otherwise miss traveling by car or train. You take note of things like the smell of wildflowers or the texture of a fern. It’s really something to turn around and look at the landscape behind you to see how far you’ve come.

-The people. Pops and I met so many lovely people. The Camino has a way of leveling people so that it really doesn’t matter what your income is or what your education level is or what your job is. Literally no one cares. What they care about is your reasons for walking. Your observations and experiences. How your feet are doing. I loved meeting people from so many different countries. In fact our last night in Santiago we met up with fellow pilgrims we had crossed paths with from the U.S, Canada, Netherlands, Korea, Australia and Switzerland. A whole new group of international friends.

-As I’ve mentioned I loved the evening pilgrims communal dinners. It was such a fun way to unwind after a long days walking. It also didn’t hurt that the wine was refillable. By now you know how much I love wine. And Spanish wine is very drinkable.

-Being someone who isn’t especially athletic completing the Camino was a huge accomplishment to me. I know I surprised some of the people in my life, and I even surprised myself. I miss the feeling of accomplishment after a hard days hike.

-Getting to spend so much time with Pops was also one of the best parts. There weren’t many father daughter pairs on the Camino. In fact I can’t actually recall if we met any others. We have a pretty great relationship and he learned pretty early on that if I was in the midst of a blister melt down it was best to just leave me be. I get upset fast, but I’m back to my normal happy self equally as quick. I’d happily walk across another country with him as my sidekick.

For the last year I’d planned to blog a ton about our experiences on the Camino but every time I sit down to write I’m at a loss of words as to how to describe the whole experience. I had walked the Camino to find answers to the age old question of “What the hell am I doing with my life??” But instead I ended up with no answers and only more questions. What I did make of it is this though- that I strive to live a full life with an open heart. To be brave even when things are scary. To tell those I care about how I feel about them even at the risk of it not being reciprocated. To live without regrets. Or as Daniel puts it in the iconic Camino movie The Way……You don’t choose a life. You live one. I couldn’t agree more.

Buen Camino my fellow pilgrims. I hope our paths cross again….

 

The Red String of Fate

About a month ago I was doing some research about different myths and I came across this old Asian myth which is specific to the Chinese and Japanese. They believe that at birth the gods tie a red invisible sting around your pinky finger (or ankle depending on the legend) and the end of that string is attached to your soulmate. I actually really hate the word soulmate but for this post it seems the easiest word to use. Also I don’t think the word soulmate pertains just to romantic relationships.  Anyways, according to this myth you are destined to meet this person in your lifetime regardless of place, time or circumstances. They say the string may tangle and stretch but it can never break. I read this and just loved the idea. Because most of us have at some point met someone who it felt like you were destined to meet. Someone who marks a point in your life when you identify things as before that person and after. A notch in time.

There are similar theories throughout history and in many different religions. Ancient Greek mythology believes that Zeus split humans into two separate pieces so you were destined to search for your other half. There are Hindu beliefs involving twin flames who are destined to unite and then continue reuniting in subsequent lives. In Judaism it is believed that you are destined to meet your soulmate and that your soulmate is determined 40 days before a child is born. Of all of these I like the story of the red string the most, but for me I think there are multiple strings tied to multiple people. I’ve always felt like we are so interconnected that I can easily imagine this network of strings all tangled and moving. These strings connecting you to people of great importance in your life. One to a soulmate (or multiple soulmates if that’s what you believe) others tied to people who will impact your life in a variety of ways.

Since walking the Camino de Santiago last fall I’ve had the blessing of meeting several people who have had a big impact on my life. Some of them were brief encounters that came at just the right time. We’ve all experienced the meeting of a person that initially seems insignificant but then inspires something in us whether that be a decision, a passion,  or opens us up to something we otherwise wouldn’t. Over the course of my career as a nurse I’ve had many such interactions with patients or their families. Moments were it felt like our paths were meant to cross- where the connections feels so genuine and strong like it was preordained that I would care for them. Over the last year I’ve also met two people for whom I now can’t imagine never having met. One of them is Kiwi. I refer to her as my platonic soulmate but I actually think the phrase kindred spirit is more fitting. She came into my life prior to a major heartbreak and kept me afloat.  We have a bond that will go on for years even though we are from opposite sides of the world. I can imagine us with greying hair, laughing over completely childish things and her taking kissy lipped selfies of us. The other one is a person who I felt a bond with that I’d never experienced before. He is easily one of the most genuine connections I’ve had with a guy, but things were complicated.  Saying goodbye to him was a gut wrenching experience and even though months have passed for me my feelings are just the same- unchanged despite the distance and silence between us. It feels like my heart skips a beat every time I see a guy wearing a ball cap and a flannel shirt, even though I know it’s not him. I’m still trying to work out the lesson I’m supposed to learn or why exactly it is that our paths crossed. Maybe it was to teach me that these types of connections are possible and not to settle for anything less.

Since reading the myth of the Red String of Fate I like to imagine multiple strings attached to me that are attached to people out there in the world. Some of them I met briefly, some are my dearest friends, some I have yet to meet. It’s a comforting thought. The thought that even though I have literally no idea what I’m doing with my life that it’s ok because I’m connected to my people. That they will come into my life as they are meant to when they are supposed to.

Anyways enough of my babble. I promised last week to update you about what my upcoming plans are. Well I’ll be here in Saudi Arabia until at least February when my contract ends. I had planned to leave at some point in the fall as I wanted to walk another Camino, but while my foot injury is better it’s not good enough for me to consider walking another 700km on it just yet. In October I’m traveling to Helsinki Finland and then making my way to Estonia and to Latvia and then Lithuania and eventually to Berlin where I’m spending a few nights catching up with my second cousin. In November I’m planning on traveling back to Canada for a week or so and then to Seattle to catch up with old friends and spend Yankee Thanksgiving with my bestie and her family. In December I’ll have to decide whether I’ll re-contract here in Saudi for another year, or extend my contract a few months to avoid North American winter. I’m sure there will be a few weekend getaways thrown in just to keep me busy.

Also in case you missed it- last month I did a podcast about my travel adventures/misadventures and you can listen to it here. Happy travels…..

 

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

So after a super fun 24 hours in Lalibela we arrived back in Addis Ababa for the last 2 nights of our trip. I’m a huge wine fan, so when researching the trip we found Castel Winery a french winery who had imported french grapes into the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and arranged a tour. By arranged a tour I mean we booked a guide and driver for the last 2 days to take us around. They contacted the winery and arranged a tour for us. So early one morning we set off. The winery is located 3 hours to the south of Addis- it being the rainy season everything was green and lush. Our trip plans for the day were to visit the winery, do a wine tasting, and then drive back to Addis where we had arranged a tour of this world famous women’s hospital that we had to reschedule from the previous day because of our flight delay.

This particular day was a great reminder that sometimes things do not go as planned. Sometimes travel is hard and frustrating and there are communication errors and shit just goes generally opposite of how you want it to. So we drove south towards the winery. The roads reminded me of driving in India- small single or double lane roads winding thru tiny villages lined with massive potholes and any number of bikes, motorcycles, car, trucks, cows all over the road. We passed several funeral processions as we passed thru the tiny villages. We stopped off mid morning for a cup of Ethiopian coffee and Fanta for Kiwi and drove to the winery.

We arrived at Castel Winery which is a large wine exporter. We had read blog posts about the lovely tours other travelers had, and again our tour company had emailed them that we were coming. Except they had no idea we were coming. So we arrive and negotiations were made as to whether we could be given a tour. Thankfully, a random employee gave us a tour of the vineyard and told us about the agriculture in the region and what types of grapes they grow. Which was great, except I’m primarily there to taste the wine. I will totally drive 6 hours round trip on backroads just to taste some wine. So next they arrange for us a tour where the wine is actually made. Which again is cool. But I’m here for the wine people. So after that tour they’re like “would you like to buy some wine?” And I’m like “hells yes, but after we taste is so I know which ones I like.” Being a real wine nerd I had already looked up all the wine they made and knew which ones I was keen to try. And then the guy said the words that I dread….“not possible.” And I’m like “what now?” And they inform us that the person in charge of the wine tasting wasn’t working today so there was no wine tasting. We had a total first world traveler melt down. I think I stopped breathing I was so disappointed. I mean that was the entire point of us driving all that way. We could’ve literally stayed in Addis and bought every type of wine that they made there and did our own wine tasting while getting day drunk instead of driving 3 hours there and back to taste zero wine. We went wine tasting and left sober. It was actually pretty fitting seeing as how our trip to Ethiopia had gone thus far. So they told us we could still buy wine. So we bought one bottle to take back with us. Naturally, being the person who likes to get the last word in I told the tour guide and the winery employees that if they want to get tourists obviously they need to have wine to actually taste. Kiwi chimed in and was like “you need to get some table and chairs and crackers and cheese…..” and I was like “Kiwi that’s the least of their problems- there’s apparently no wine to taste.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sulked back to the car, and because we were already tight for time for our hospital tour we opted to skip lunch and just try and make it back to Addis in time. Our guide and driver assured us this was possible despite our gut feeling that it was not. One lesson I’ve learned from mixing with other cultures is that often times people will just tell you what they think you want to hear instead of telling you something bad. This was that exact situation. In hindsight unless we were taking a helicopter back it was unlikely we ever could’ve made it back in time. Like hella unlikely. After 3 more hours in the car we were hungry, tired, and it was impossible to make our appointment so we had to call and cancel. Again. I was so bummed. The Hamlin Fistula Hospital was founded by an Australian couple in the 1970s. It provides free care to women who have sustained injuries related to childbirth. As someone who works in maternity and is passionate about women’s health I was really gutted that we missed this. This particular day was just not our day. We arrived back at the hotel 9 hours after we set out, starving and feeling defeated from the many obstacles of the trip. We had plans to meet up with one of the housekeepers I work with here Saudi Arabia. She was in Addis with her children to visit her family and this was one of the reasons I wanted to visit Addis. We couldn’t have felt less social after our day of irritation but we dragged ourselves to the shower and made ourselves presentable. I’m so very glad we didn’t cancel.

My work friend and her brother picked us up from our hotel and drove us to a nearby touristy restaurant that serves Ethiopian food and then also has traditional dancers. Her three children and her brother’s wife and their two young kids were waiting for us. We had such a fantastic evening. Truly. That night will always be such a special memory for me. We ate some delicious food and sat around chatting while I cuddled the brother’s 6 month old baby girl and gained the trust of his 3 year old son. They were adorable and they kept saying to the 3 year old “do you want to go to Canada?” And I was like don’t leave this kid unattended or he’s for sure coming to Canada with me. We watched the dancing and he sat on my lap (the kid not the brother just to be clear) and we took a ton of photos and got all the kids to do kissy lip selfies with us. It was the best. And then they refused to let us pay and even payed for our taxi back to the hotel which was beyond kind. I hope I can repay this kindness to them in the future. After a dark cloud of a day the storm cleared and the sun brightly shone on us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we woke up early for a tour of Addis before our flight back to Riyadh that evening. We did a little shopping. The textiles in Ethiopia are beautiful so I bought an absurd number of scarves and some jewelry. We then visited Holy Trinity Cathedral which is very much worth a visit if you are in Addis. We arrived at the tail end of a service and there were worshippers outside. The inside of the church has stunning stained glass windows, but the bit I liked was that the walls and pillars were tiled with this glazed tile which made the light reflecting through the windows bounce all over. Also the carpet was fuschia and who doesn’t love that?! From here we drove to a view point on Mt Entoto which over looks the city of Addis Ababa. Did you know that Addis is the fifth highest capital city in the world at nearly 8000 feet? Well you do now. You’re welcome. We drove down the mountain and visited the Lucy exhibit at the National Museum. While there I started to feel not so great. My stomach felt a little off and I was dizzy so I took a rest hoping things would improve. They did not so we went to a nearby restaurant and I tried some 7-up and soup which marginally helped. We visited the Ethnological museum which probably would’ve been interesting had I not been feeling so poorly. Our guide was a chatty fellow and basically read every single sign to me which was way over stimulating. After that we drove through Merkato market which is the largest market in Africa. They literally sell everything. We drove through because I wasn’t feeling great and our guide wouldn’t have let us out of the car anyways, because according to him there is a lot of theft and such there. I imagine that’s not an untrue statement from what I saw. We then went back to the hotel so I could rest before our flight as I was starting to run a fever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So later that night we headed off to the airport. The check in guy was great and gave us a row to ourselves as I clearly did not look well. This was the first time our flight was actually on time. Thank goodness. We boarded the plane and there was this creepy guy who was clearly taking photos of us. I was too ill to care but Kiwi was getting irritated. Right before take off he moved seats and sat directly across the aisle from Kiwi. I was just waiting for her to tell him off because he was hardcore staring at us. Then he tried to do his seat belt up. He grabbed part of his seat belt and part of the one from the empty seat next to him and tried two identical pieces to match. Naturally this didn’t work. Kiwi and I just sat there watching this happen. So he tied the belt in a knot and tucked it under his arm and look around to see if anyone noticed. Kiwi and I made eye contact with each other and then just about died laughing about the hilariousness of the whole trip. My medication kicked in and when I woke up the creepy guy had moved seats away from us. When we landed in Riyadh I texted my driver to have him pick me up crackers and 7-up. Sometimes having a driver is the bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So while a lot of crazy things happened over our 5 day trip to Ethiopia it was still overall a great trip. One for the books really. There’s no one I would’ve rather shared it with than Kiwi as we balance each other out and we laugh all the damn time which makes us great travel sidekicks. I can’t wait for our next adventure!!! Next week I’ll update ya’ll with what’s in store for me for the few months…..

Lalibela Ethiopia

Ok, so now you know the story of how our Ethiopian adventure came about. After one extremely long and dramatic travel day we found ourselves in Addis Ababa after nearly 36+ hours of no sleep. We were beyond exhausted and literally ordered room service and fell asleep. We had an early morning flight with our favourite airline Ethiopian Air, the following morning.

Bright and early the next day we caught a shuttle to the airport only to find out…..not very shockingly....that our flight was delayed a couple hours. This was a little annoying because we only had time for an overnight in Lalibela, and were planning to pack a lot into our time there. But these things happen and we didn’t want to get into a negative mood so we grabbed some cokes and some type of cake and people watched. Much to our delight we ran into a super cute Somali/UK family that had been on our Riyadh flight the day before. The mom was very nice and she had an older teenage daughter, and a boy who I’m guessing was like 13 and a young boy who was maybe 3. The 13 year old was the most polite child I’ve ever met. The 3 year old was naturally scared of strangers and didn’t initially take a liking to me, but eventually I wore him down and he kept trying to hold my hand like we were the best of buds. Operation befriend strangers child was successful. It’s a good thing his mom was keeping an eye on him otherwise I might’ve made off with him- he was super cute. So anyways because of our delay that morning it just so happened that we crossed paths with them which was a very nice surprise.

Our flight to Lalibela which is in the northern part of Ethiopia was uneventful (thank goodness!) We stopped off in a place called Bahir Dal which is on Lake Tana and then into Lalibela. Coming into Lalibela the countryside reminded me of the Grand Canyon. It’s rugged and colourful and there are little huts dotting the horizon. We jumped in a local shuttle to go to our hotel- the actual village is about 20min away from the airport. I watched out the window wide eyed. This after all is my first trip to Africa apart from Egypt and Morocco which are very different because they are Northern Arab Africa. We passed straw roofed huts, colourfully dressed locals, and the absolute best part for me was that they had RICKSHAWS!! Ever since driving a 3 wheeled auto rickshaw across India a few years back I’m obsessed with driving them. As soon as I saw the first one I turned to Kiwi and was like “I’m driving one of those today!” And luckily Kiwi is happy to go along with my crazy ideas so she was on board. We arrived at our hotel. There are understandably no super fancy hotels in this village but we stayed at the Maribella Hotel which was perfectly adequate and the staff were lovely. We met our guide for the rock churches who would come back and get us after we had eaten some lunch. I requested that our tour be by rickshaw, “preferably a rickshaw that I am driving.” Kassaye the guide was totally unphased by this and said “no problem.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a delicious Ethiopian lunch and I had a couple local Walia beers which were very tasty and we started to climb the 3 flights of stairs to our room. Part way up Kiwi says to me “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well take a rest then.” And I went ahead and unlocked the door to our room. Kiwi comes in and she’s leaning over her bed and again says “I feel dizzy.” And I’m like “well sit down then.” No sooner do the words come out of my mouth then I see movement out of the corner of my eye. I turn and watch her slow motion fall between the beds. My initial thought is that she’s fake fallen, but as I come around the side of the bed she’s laying in between the 2 twin beds, eyes open, not blinking, face pale and her lips are starting to turn a little blue. My mind was racing and I’m trying to figure out whether I yell for help- if anyone would actually hear me, and if there’s even a hospital in this village. I crouched down and felt her pulse which thankful she had and start shaking her and she eventually started blinking. Now a back story is that Kiwi is allergic to a wide variety of things and one of the requirements for us to take this trip was that she get an epi pen. So I’m like “Kiwi are you having an allergic reaction?” And she’s like “why is my iPad on the floor?” And I’m “like well you’re on the floor.” And she looks around and realizes that she is and she slowly sat up and we both laughed. I laughed mostly out of relief because it really was a scary thing to witness, and having to call a travel mate’s family to say that something bad happened is something I’ve always feared while traveling. But she was ok. I think it was a combination of the elevation and exhaustion so we took it slow the rest of the trip.

Once that medical emergency was out of the way we made our way downstairs to meet Kassaye. Outside to my great delight was Kassaye and a young rickshaw driver who was totally cool with me driving his rickshaw. So Kiwi got in the back with our guide and the rickshaw boy perched on the edge of the driver’s seat as he gave me a refresher of Rickshaw Driving 101 for Dummies. I stalled it the first time and then got it going and then he jumped in the back. I was smiling from ear to ear and both the guide and rickshaw boy were impressed! They said they’d never had a tourist drive a rickshaw in Lalibela before and by the end of the day we would be the talk of the town. So off we headed to the main cluster of rock churches. We drove through the main center of Lalibela and when locals got a look at me driving they would start clapping and cheering. The kids chased after the rickshaw. But the best for me was the look of surprise on the teenage girls faces that we passed. I loved seeing the excitement in their eyes. Kiwi kept saying “I can’t believe I’m being driven to a UNESCO site by kristinewanders in a rickshaw. This is the best!” And she was exactly, right. It was the absolute best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we arrived at the complex that holds several rock churches. Lalibela is an interesting town in that it is all Orthodox Christians. There are no other churches in the area- in fact the closest mosque is like 60km away. It is also considered to be a holy city and is a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The churches in this region date from the 7th to 13th century and are often carved out of a solid piece of rock. There is a lot of links of Jerusalem and most of the churches have names like House of the Cross or House of Mary as examples. Our first stop that day was to visit the Northern grouping of churches which comprises 5 churches in the same complex. The Lalibela Rocks churches became a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1978. It costs $50 US dollars a person to get into the Northern complex. To me that is pretty steep but they are very much worth being seen. There is a tiny museum on site which houses display cases with old art work and a history of the King of Lalibela and examples of the metal crosses the region is known for.

As we were checking out the museum a religious ceremony was finishing up so there were priests and other worshippers dressed in traditional clothing leaving the church complex. That made for some amazing photos. Over the next couple hours we visited several of the churches. They are carved out of a single piece of rock and each one is different from the others. Some of them the insides are bare, others like St Mary’s has the remnants of fresco paintings on the arches and ceiling. They have carved windows which allows for natural light to filter in. It’s amazing to think of how something like this was built with such precision. The archways are perfect. You need to wear good walking shoes though as the floors are uneven and you are climbing up and down to get to the churches. We were in Ethiopia during the rainy season so late in the afternoon it started to rain which turned the paths into mud and made it quite slippery. Luckily, the rains were short lived and we wandered the paths outside the church complex. We then got back into the rickshaw to pick up some supplies for one of the local schools. Kiwi had been in contact with the principle of the primary school there and was told that the kids needed soccer balls. She had kindly bought some nice Adidas balls in Saudi which were taken away from us in Riyadh by airport officials who said you couldn’t fly with soccer balls, but secretly we think they just wanted them for themselves. Anyways we bought 10 new soccer balls for the kids and squeezed them into the rickshaw with us. The young rickshaw owner had an old Nokia phone that had  Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” as his ringtone. Lucky for us he was quite popular so it would ring pretty often and Kiwi and I would start singing along until he answered it and we would all laugh!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning our guide Kassaye picked us up. He had been in the market the previous night and the talk of the town was of the girl who was driving the rickshaw. So now I’m basically #EthiopiaFamous for my mad driving skillz. We set off for St George’s Church.  Naturally we had requested a rickshaw again so I drove us there. St George’s Church is the church you see when you when you google Ethiopia rock churches. It is beyond stunning. A perfect rock cross roofed church carved into the ground. When you first view it it appears small, but as you walk closer you can see that it’s not nearly as small as you had originally thought. I was actually speechless and pretty much just stood there feeling like all the drama to get to this place was so very much worth it. There’s a path that descends down to the base of the church and we walked around it and took photos from outside and then inside. After that we climbed back up and took selfies with Kassaye and the rickshaw owner. Kiwi even convinced them to make kissy lips which is her specialty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then switched vehicles and on our way to the airport we tracked down the school principle and visited the school to drop off the soccer balls. Sadly, school was out for the summer so there weren’t any kids around. Maybe this was a good thing because I likely would’ve tried to adopt/steal several of them! We toured the school- like 2000 children attend broken into morning and afternoon classes with adult education classes held in the evenings. We then drove out of town stopping on the way to visit Bet Neakutoleab a church that is built into the wall of a rock cliff. It’s a bit of a walk down a rocky path to get to it but it’s pretty cool. I got to meet one of the local priests who showed me all the treasures of the church which consisted of the typical metal crosses, incense and an old colourful handwritten bible. From here we got dropped off at the airport. The airport there is super small. Like teeny tiny. Naturally our flight was delayed almost an hour. We had each purchased a metal Lalibela cross as a souvenir and didn’t even think that they probably wouldn’t be allowed as carry on. We made sad eyes to the security guy and he said he would ask someone if an exception could be made so we could bring them on board as we didn’t want to have to check a bag. He later came back to us and said he would ask the flight attendant if she would lock them up for the flight and return them to us when we landed in Addis. Much to our delight she agreed which made me dislike Ethiopian Air a tiny bit less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go to Lalibela the staff at the Maribella Hotel is really great. The local guide we used is Kassaye. He speaks great English and you can contact him via his Facebook page here.

Happy travels….

Ethiopian Adventures

Last month I went to Ethiopia for 5 days. You’re probably saying to yourself “hmmm Ethiopia is an interesting choice?!” My reasons for going were threefold. First, it’s an easy direct flight from Riyadh to Addis Ababa so it’s a great use of 5 days. Secondly, these UNESCO rock churches that I’ve been wanting to see are there and thirdly, one of the lovely housekeepers that I work with was taking her family home for the summer and would be in Addis during this time. So we booked a ticket. My kiwi sidekick has been to Africa a bunch and had previously flown with Ethiopian Air. Reportedly, they used to be amazing. Our choices to get there were to fly with them, or with Saudia stopping in Jeddah. The direct flight with Ethiopia Air was the logical choice.

I’m part of a Girls travel group on Facebook and in the week leading up to our trip I saw a couple different girls post about getting stuck in Addis  with Ethiopian Air, or having their luggage turn up with most of their things missing, or their luggage never turning up. I told my kiwi sidekick this but she was unphased. The day of our flight I came across another post about Ethiopia Air.  The person commented if you want some entertainment to read the reviews on Ethiopia Air’s Facebook page. In that moment for whatever reason I did want some entertainment, and so I searched them. The reviews were awful. I’m already a nervous flier so reading this was not an especially smart move. Basically, all the reviews had the same thing in common- things went from bad to worse. People said that if there was an option they would rate them zero stars instead of one. Phrases like “worst airline” “horrific experience” “total incompetence” keep repeating themselves, and my anxiety was building. This was red flag numero uno.

So after working a 12hour day shift we went home from work to finish packing. I grabbed an hour cat nap and we were off to the airport for our 3am flight. We arrived at the airport and it’s normal Riyadh chaos. Oddly, our flight isn’t even listed on the screen so for a second we think maybe we’re at the wrong terminal. Turns out we’re not, just for whatever reason our flight and airline aren’t on the monitor. Hmmm. Weird. Red flag numero dos. So we check in, and it’s mayhem. People have like a million bags and like 5 pieces of carry-on per person. As you can imagine getting thru security took all the remaining patience in us after working 12hours. So we wait at the boarding gate which is confusing as we aren’t sure if the flight is even on time because again it’s still not on the monitor. People are literally camped out in the walkways and it’s pretty much impossible to move around. I go find someone to get some intel on when we are actually leaving- because I’m such a stressed flier I like to take my prescription meds an hour before we leave so that as we are taking off I’m mostly asleep. So they say the flight is delayed a bit. A little while later a guy says we will be boarding soon, so I medicate. We all form a line (I’m joking of course).  There’s no single line per say, just like 10 lines that all end up in people crowding together and the people behind you pushing. Part of the plane begins to board and then there is a commotion and suddenly we are all back in the boarding area. Doors are closed and we wait. At first people are standing in place and then people just start dropping to the floor unsure whether to go take seats or if the issue will be resolved quickly.

Eventually a guy comes around and says “mechanical problem.” And I’m like what does that mean? And he just repeats the same phrase over and over which in that moment was highly irritating and I immediately decided I didn’t like this guy. Over the next 3 hours we would mill around the airport trying to get an update. There were very few westerners on the plane. As the delay went on it became apparent that Ethiopia Air well knew of the delay before we checked into the flight, hence why it never ended up on the list of departures. This of course was done on purpose so they didn’t have to put people up in hotels. Seeing as most of the flight was Africans I imagine they felt they could get away with treating people like this. This made me more angry. By 7am they had not given us much info or offered any of these people food or water. Many of the people on this flight wouldn’t have had the money to pay airport prices for things like food and drinks. Because I was already so annoyed I made a big deal about this to some of the airport staff and then they suddenly brought food and water out. We waited some more. We started to make back up plans. Where should we go instead we discussed? There was a flight to Dubai at 5pm. We could go home and repack and come back to the airport. Check into a 5 star hotel and lay by the pool and sip cocktails and get fanned by a pool boy. By 9am we were demanding to speak with the supervisor. I was told that he couldn’t come now because he was on the plane. We demanded refunds. They said that wasn’t a problem but that we had to wait for the supervisor. They then told us and a select few passengers that the flight was actually cancelled. Again they would refund us, but we needed to wait on the supervisor to officially state it was cancelled. So we waited some more- and bonded with a few other passengers over the disaster that is Ethiopian Air. So then the “supervisor” shows up and it’s this same jerk that we had to deal with earlier only now he’s saying that the flight is leaving right now. I’m all like “so the mechanical thing is fixed?” And he’s all like “inshallah” and my kiwi sidekick and I look at each other like are we actually doing this? And I swallow my anxiety medication and we board the plane. Eight hours after we were due to leave we actually left.

So we get on the plane and there are a bunch of crying kids because they are overtired and hungry and frustrated just like us. I put an eye mask on and my headphones in and I’m out. A while later I’m woken by someone shaking me. I groggily pull my headphones out and lift my eye mask and it’s a lady from South Africa whom we’d been chatting with earlier. She knew we were nurses and she’s saying to us “they need you. They’ve been paging a medical emergency for the last while, there’s a lady who might be in labour.” Kiwi and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders and try and get our shoes on and go see what the scenario is. I’ve never actually seen a birth take place. But I did recently compete a Neonatal Resuscitation course so I’m feeling mildly confident with my skills. The woman is on the floor. She does not speak English or Arabic. She looks to be having some pain but does not appear to be in active labour. She speaks Swahili. Thankfully there is one random dude who is acting as a translator. Kiwi leans over to me and says she knows the Swahili word for giraffe. Funny. But not helpful. There is also a girl there who has just completed nursing school. She has examined the woman and her water has not broken and she is not bleeding. I ask the man to translate a series of questions. When did the pain start? How many babies has she had? How far along is she? Can she still feel the baby moving? The pain started yesterday. It’s her 5th pregnancy, and she is 6-7 months along although to me she looks small. The baby is still moving.

I ask the flight attendants for the emergency kit. There’s not a ton in it that will be useful if she has this baby. We take her vital signs and give her something to drink as I’m sure she’s dehydrated given our lengthy delay at the airport. We are an hour outside of Addis at this point. A medical team will meet us when we land. The crew is helpful and professional. As we begin the decent they move the woman and I to business class. I have the man translate prior to him returning to his seat that if she feels severe pain or if her water breaks she should squeeze my arm. The plane lands and as we touch down she squeezes my forearm and her eyes go wide. So here we are taxiing down the runway and I’m under her skirt checking the situation. No bleeding. Her water did not break. Once we were stopped the medical team arrived and I reported off to them and the woman was taken away in a wheelchair. I wonder whatever happened to her.

And so that’s how we found ourselves in Addis Ababa deliriously tired. This was far from the only adventures we had on the trip, but luckily the kiwi and I travel great together so mostly we end up just laughing when things went awry. Would I fly Ethiopia Airlines again? No. Not unless it was free and it was the only option, but I’m sure there are worse airlines. More of our Ethiopian adventures to come….

So You Want to Work as a Nurse in Saudi Arabia?

I get a lot and I mean A LOT of emails from prospective nurses interested in moving to the Middle East, and more specifically to Saudi Arabia. Often times when they write to me they tend to ask the same questions, so I thought it might be helpful to dedicate a post to answer those questions. So here we go…..

 

Is if safe?

Understandably, this is the most asked question. If we’ve learned anything from the most recent American presidential elections it’s that the media loves to sensationalize things and skew the facts. So here are my personal thoughts on things. I feel very safe living in Saudi Arabia. I’m talking in terms of my personal safety as a woman. I live in an all woman’s housing compound where the likelihood of my being assaulted would be extremely low. I felt much more concerned for my physical safety as a woman when I lived in Philadelphia, or LA, or in Arizona or in Seattle. People who know me or have lived with me know that I’m the kind of scaredy cat that would do a full security sweep of my apartment when I got home from work, just to make sure no one was hiding behind the shower curtain. True story. I don’t do that in Saudi. I’ve  been robbed twice before- neither of these incidents took place in Saudi. That’s not to say I couldn’t be involved in some type of security incident, but I feel like the chances of that happening are more likely to happen in Europe, and I travel to Europe all the time. What does concern me though is the likelihood of being involved in a traffic accident. As I’ve previously blogged about, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest death rates by motor vehicle in the world. So buckle up ladies.

I venture out all the time alone to go to the grocery store or to the mall and I have never had an incident take place apart from some lusty stares and the occasional unwanted phone number being passed to me. Be prepared for some staring and many many comments about your body and physical appearance. It’s easy to feel objectified here. Patients, staff and visitors constantly comment on my appearance. My hair colour, my eyes, how pale I am, my weight, my curves. Mostly I can laugh it off, but sometimes it feels like because I look a certain way people are more inclined to help me or listen to me based off my appearance and not because I actually have a brain. That gets old real quick. So just be prepared.

Do you have to cover your face or hair?

No. Never. Unless you want to, and then rock that hijab/niqab girlfriend. I carry a scarf as a colourful accessory but since the Mutawwa (religious police) lost arresting power a while back it’s not necessary. I can’t remember the last time someone yelled at me to cover my hair. Its likely been a few years. But yes you do have to wear an abaya all the time you’re off the hospital compound. The only exception is on the western compounds or in a part of the city called the Diplomatic Quarter. Personally, I don’t especially mind wearing an abaya. It means I can literally wear PJ’s or yoga pants out all the time. Sometimes if I’m wanting to look especially fancy I’ll wear high heels with my stretchy yoga pants so that it looks like I’m wearing a killer outfit underneath, but really I’m just a quick abaya removal from hopping into bed. The other reason I don’t mind my abaya is that sometimes it blows open and then has the appearance of a cape and I feel like a badass superhero for a hot second. Embrace the abaya ladies aka your new little black dress.

What’s the housing like?

I’ll start out by saying that the housing is free. That’s a bonus right?! And it has AC, and access to a pool and gym. Is it nice? Well see my first point- it’s free. I always tell people the housing is fine. Would I pay actual money to live there? No. If you ever worked as a travel nurse in the U.S. well then my friend lower you expectations a bit. I lived in San Francisco for a year rent free and had a balcony view of Alcatraz and was like a one minute walk from North Beach. Sister, this definitely isn’t that. But again it’s free. Also as I previously mentioned the housing is only for women. I like to refer to if as a convent or cell block. Housing also will be very hospital specific as well as pay grade specific. Higher pay grade = better housing options. The housing at the hospital I work at is a mix of shared accommodation and single accommodations. Likely you will be paired with a someone from a similar country as yourself. You’ll have your own bathroom. Some of you might luck out and get a private studio apartment, which is obviously nicer. If you have an issue with your roommate you can request to change, or you can apply to move into a private unit when one opens up.

What schedule do you work?

Everyone is contracted to work a 44 hour week at my hospital- so likely you will work more hours than what is considered full time back home. If you work in-patient then you might work 22 12 hr shifts in a 6 week period. You will more than likely flip between day shift and night shift. My unit does 3 weeks of days and 3 weeks of nights. I personally hate night shift so to me the schedule is less than ideal, but it’s part of the gig.

What do you do outside of work?

Well my social life here in Saudi has always been more exciting that anywhere else I lived. I mean who can say that they went to the Irish embassy for St Pats, or that one time they had a private birthday party at the Canadian embassy? Well maybe you if you take a contract in Saudi? There are balls and galas and very formal events all the time. Pretty much whatever you’re into you can probably find here in Riyadh. There’s golfing, and photography groups, and horseback riding or rugby. And don’t forget the unlimited travel options from here.

What is the nursing standard like?

This will depend on your hospital. The one I work at is supposed to be like an American hospital. Having worked in the states for 10 years I can say that in some ways it is and some ways it isn’t. I base my own nursing practice off the premise if I couldn’t do that thing I’m being asked to do in my own country then I’m not doing it here. Saudi Arabia employs nurses from many countries. Nursing education and scope of practice is not the same across the board. Some countries nurses don’t put in catheters in male patients, or nurses don’t use a stethoscope as the doctor is in charge of listening to lung and bowel sounds. This might be hard to comprehend for those of you from Canada or the U.S.

You will for sure see things working in Saudi Arabia that you will never have experienced in your nursing practice. For sure. Saudi Arabia has a high incidence of metabolic and genetic disorders. I’ve always thought that if you worked in the field of genetics or fertility Saudi Arabia would be fascinating. End of life counseling will likely be very different than back home. People here are kept as Full Codes in situations that they wouldn’t in the western world. People are kept “alive” in situations where the family would’ve been counseled otherwise elsewhere. There is this interesting dichotomy where people don’t wear seat belts or put their kids in a car seat and yet when there has been a severe accident everything under the sun is done to keep that person alive. It’s hard to comprehend seeing as we know that seat belts and car seats and driving the speed limit save lives. So why not just do those things and if there was an accident the injuries would likely be less severe? I have literally never discharged a baby from the hospital in a car seat. Back home it’s a whole big ordeal- the car seat is brought in, the parents buckle the baby in, the nurse checks and often tells them the straps are too lose, and they have to readjust them, and the mom usually says to the dad “I told you yesterday to adjust those straps” and he takes a deep sigh. It’s a production. But not here. It’s totally not uncommon to be driving down the highway and see kids crawling around the backseat, or sitting on Daddy’s lap or with their head out the sunroof.

As far as technology goes I would say that in the large hospitals you would have access to the latest gadgets. The hospital I work at has a Pyxis for medications and the IV pumps and EKGs and such are ones I have used before. Most things in that regard are similar to North America. Patient ratios will vary. Because of the area I work in the patient ratios are lower than that of many of the units my friends work on. I work in a VIP area which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen prior to coming here. It’s fancy and the rooms are nice. And sometimes the patients get 2 rooms, sometimes 3. Sometime they bring their own furniture. The VIP culture is a big thing throughout the Middle East. It’s likely a foreign concept in your home country, but here it’s a thing.

Saudi is a big family culture which is quite different from back home. Family members typically sit with the patients around the clock in shifts. If the family isn’t there than likely the patient will have a paid sitter (someone the family employs who will be there round the clock). My patients often have a full entourage of people in the room. Sometimes one patient might have 3-4 paid private nurses per shift in addition to the nursing care we provide. It can end up being a lot of cooks in the kitchen if you know what I mean. It’s also not uncommon to have a patient in their late teens to early 20’s come in with their nanny who has literally cared for them since birth.

Muslims pray 5 times a day so when it’s prayer time the call to prayer is piped over the hospital intercom. If your patient needs a doctor during prayer time they will often have to wait (unless it’s a true emergency.) This can be problematic if your patient needs labs drawn or to be transported and it’s prayer time. You will get very used to saying the word “Inshallah.” It means God willing and it is the most used word in the Arabic language. It’s a very foreign concept for westerners- the first time I heard a doctor tell a patient that “inshallah” his surgery would go well I was like “hold up a minute did I hear that right.” From a western culture if a doctor told me that my surgery would go well if God willed it I would be asking for a new surgeon, but here people find it very comforting. I personally say it all the time now as well as a variety of other Arabic words.

Do I need to learn Arabic before coming to Saudi?

You will pick up words pretty quickly once you arrive. My Arabic is not great on account of most of my patients speaking English, or someone in the room speaking English. I know Arabic basics so between that and elaborate hand gestures I can get my point across. The hospital I work at has an “English in the workplace policy.” It’s not heavily enforced. The doctors often speak in Arabic with the patients which is understandable. Working in Saudi you will work alongside staff from many different countries. The Philippines and India are probably the largest percentage of expats. So at work everyone is “supposed” to be speaking English. In reality though if you are working in an area where being western you are a minority you will likely feel quite isolated. I hear Tagalog all day long. People will have work related conversations in front of you all the time in a language you may not understand. People give report about patients in Tagalog. It’s very frustrating and contributes to an “us vs them” type mentality because if you don’t speak the language you are purposely left out. I have found a creative way to deal with this and have learned a wide variety of inappropriate words and phrases in Tagalog. These words make my coworkers blush (even though they taught them to me) so when people are have lengthy conversations at the nurses station in Tagalog I will say “if you guys are going to talk in Tagalog I’ll say all the Tagalog words I know.” Everyone immediately will switch to English. For like 5 minutes and then often they go right back to it and I’ll often do something really bitchy like clear my throat unnaturally loud and it’s back to English. Kinda like a game of cat and mouse. Usually though I just eventually give up. So moral of the story my western nurses is don’t bother learning Arabic before you come, but consider brushing up on your Tagalog.

How long does the application process take?

Have patience. There’s a ton of paperwork involved to come to Saudi. Your educational documents will need to be verified. You’ll need references. You’ll need to have a full physical. By full physical I mean everything. Labs, chest x-ray, pregnancy test, pap smear. Yep, you read that right. Coming to Saudi was the first time my hoo-ha exam contributed to me getting a job. I always knew she had marketable skills. Then you’ll submit your passport for a visa. I’d plan on it taking at least 3 months. If your application coincides with the Ramadan or Hajj holidays then it will take longer.

So how do I apply?

I came over with Helen Ziegler and Associates who recruits the majority of Canadian and American nurses at the hospital I work at. So if you’re from North America I would contact them. I asked a friend in the recruiting department of my hospital to give me a list of who they use so here it is:

  1. Abba Personnel Services: Philippines
  2. Agensi Pekerjaan Melorita SDN, BHD: Malaysia
  3. Al  Hind Foreign Service Agency: New Delhi
  4. Austra Health International: Australia
  5. Ben K Associates: North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand
  6. Bin Paracha Overseas Employment: Pakistan
  7. CCM Recruitment International: Australia, New Zealand
  8. Climax Medical Recruitment: Egypt
  9. G5 Plus, LLC: Czech Republic
  10. Geneva Health International: New Zealand
  11. Helen Ziegler & Associates: North America
  12. Herman Medical Staff: Germany
  13. Holden Knight: United Kingdom
  14. International Health Resources Canada: North America, Europe, New Zealand, Australia
  15. International Health Resources Lebanon: Lebanon
  16. LBS e-Recruitment Solution Corp.: Philippines
  17. Marvel Medical Consultants: USA
  18. Medmerge Inc.: North America, Europe
  19. Professional Connections: Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Malta
  20. Regent Personnel Limited: South Africa, UK
  21. Symbiosis Pty Ltd. : South Africa, UK
  22. TTM Healthcare: North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand

An after thought….

Just a word of warning. Coming to Saudi Arabia will not fix your problems. They will still follow you here. If you are someone who has a negative attitude then you’ll probably have a shitty time here. The people who do well in Saudi are people who can laugh at the things that are strange, embrace the cultural differences, and don’t take life too seriously. There will be hard days, but for me the benefits still outweigh the negatives. When there are more negatives than positives I’ll be on the first flight out. Working in Saudi Arabia let me pay off an insane amount of debt and travel the world. I have easily been to 40 some new countries in my time here. I have made dear friends. I have shared many laughs. I have an amazing social life. The work can be hard at times and living here as a woman is not easy, but for me there are so many positives that it has been an overall positive experience. Your experience will be whatever you make of it. That’s the way life works. You get out what you put in.

I wrote a couple blog posts about the positives and negatives of working in Saudi and they might be helpful also…..and as always I’m happy to answer any questions you have. Feel free to ask them in the comments or email them to me privately.

 

 

Thoughts on Dreams

I was recently asked “what is your dream?” And it really got me thinking. My initial gut response was to answer “to meet an amazing partner and be a mother,” but that felt like a bit of a heavy response to the wide eyed teenager who was asking. So instead I paused and took a second before responding “well actually, I’m kinda already living my dream.” Don’t get me wrong, sometimes, living in Saudi is more of a nightmare type of dream than one where I’m skipping through a field of flowers while the wind blows through my hair and the smell of lavender lingers in the air. But what I really meant was that I’m not much of an “in 10 years I’ll do this…..” type of person. I’m more of the school of thought that if I want to do something or I have a dream and I’m healthy and able, I’ll do it now. That probably comes off as cheeky and filled with privilege, and some of you reading this are probably thinking “must be nice to have those type of options.” For me though,  it all comes down to choices. Originally, I came to Saudi Arabia with bucket loads of debt based off of years of frivolous materialistic living. I’ve lived on my own since I was 18. I had student loans from nursing school and a propensity towards new flashy cars and I lived off the thrill of putting things on a credit card where they would stay until future Kristine finally had to deal with them. And deal with them I did. It came down to either filing for bankruptcy or moving to Saudi Arabia to sort out my finances.  I chose to move to Saudi to sort things out. This probably was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was able to eventually become debt free, I learned a huge life lesson, and I currently get super stressed if I don’t pay my credit card off immediately. As many of you probably know, that type of financial stress weighs you down and can feel near impossible to pull yourself out of. But it was my choices that got my into that whole mess and it would be my choices that got me out of it.

My own personal choices allow me to travel wherever I would like. I do spend a decent amount of money on travel, but I rarely shop. I don’t buy fancy shoes or designer clothes. But those choices that allow me to travel also mean I don’t have a home base, and I have essentially nothing to my name except a storage unit that I dread eventually having to deal with. I literally have none of the possessions society believes a woman in her late 30’s should. No car. No house or apartment. No husband. No children. Some of these I am ok with, some of them I long for, but just aren’t a possibility right now. This nomadic lifestyle and independence that I love and have chosen are often incompatible with the side of me that would like to have a home base and someone to come home to. I choose to live in Saudi even though I’m sure this has put a strain on many of my relationships and possibly contributed to the reason for my perpetual singleness. That’s not to say that there aren’t dating options here, but most of the ones I’ve met haven’t been good, or like my most recent love disaster had me falling for a completely amazing but totally unavailable man. And now truth be told my heart just isn’t quite ready to meet someone new.

I guess the whole point of this post is that it’s good to have dreams, but for me living a full life is essentially a way of living your dreams as best you can in the now. I don’t really have much control over when I meet Mr Right, and while I could pursue having a baby alone right now I’m just not in that head space. But I can control whether I want to learn a second language, bicycle in the vineyards in France, or go on an African safari. I can choose these things by choosing not to pay for cable TV, or have a collection of purses, or put off buying a new iPhone. I tend to view things in terms of well that such and such thing is a plane ticket, and I’m way less inclined to spend my money on it. The other reason I don’t put off doing things is that as a nurse I often see people who have saved or worked hard their entire lives with plans to start living when they retire, or to take that dream trip in 5 years time. Then they or their partner’s health fails and they don’t get that chance. Instead I prefer to live my life in the present, basing my decisions off the here and now since tomorrow is never a guarantee. I’m reminded of this every time I fly as that’s the only real time I truly contemplate death. My fear of flying results in me spending a large portion of the flight convinced engine one is likely going to fail. When this happens I remind myself even if I were to die today I’ve lived a life. I haven’t just merely existed. I’ve done almost everything I’ve wanted to in my life up until this point. At least the things I have control of anyways.

So let me ask you….“what is your dream?”

Upgrade

Well folks it finally happened…..after years of traveling I finally got what I’ve always dreamed of….an upgrade!! I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly 4 years total and every time I turn up to the airport I make sure my blond locks are on point and my lipstick is in place in the hopes of getting an upgrade. Sadly, the most this has ever gotten me is some hardcore stares and some passive/borderline aggressive flirting. But never an upgrade. All this changed last week when I returned from my 59th country after taking a solo trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia. I’ll be blogging more on them later but both were awesome and I would highly recommend adding them to your travel list.

So originally I had booked my flights from Saudi on Qatar Air, which is a really nice airline and since ya’ll know how stressed I am about flying I like to fly with airlines that I know are very safe. Then the diplomatic row broke out between Qatar and the neighbouring Gulf countries and a week before my trip all flights with Qatar Air were canceled coming in or out of Saudi (and several other countries.) Luckily I got a refund but was left stranded trying to buy last minute tickets and now my only options were mostly budget type airlines which freaks me out. As it turned out the only real way to continue with my planned itinerary was to by 3 one way tickets so I flew Emirates to Dubai and then Fly Dubai into Baku Azerbaijan. This wasn’t an option as a return flight as the flight times didn’t line up. I then flew Azerbaijan Air from Baku to Tbilisi Georgia and then bought a really short flight connection back with Gulf Air via Bahrain with an hour layover. I had looked to buy a round trip ticket with Gulf Air but there were literally no flights the week that I was leaving. No flights, not tickets. This should’ve been a tip of what was to come…..

So anyways I flew to Dubai. While I was waiting for my connection someone from Gulf Air called me and told me my return flight in 9 days was to be delayed leaving Tbilisi and that I would miss my Riyadh connection. I was like how the heck can you possibly know that a flight will be delayed by 2 hours in 9 days time??! Sleep deprivation and irritation over all ready having to re-book this trip made me basically tell the guy that “this is unacceptable and if the flight isn’t going to be on time then just refund my ticket and I’ll fly home via Dubai.” This ladies and gentlemen will prove to be a hilarious statement later in this story. The guy ended up calling me back like 30min later and saying that the flight was back on track.

So I spent a couple nights in Azerbaijan and then on the day I was flying to Tbilisi Georgia there was a wind storm and on the way to the airport I was thinking there’s no way this flight is going to take off but it did. And because it was a short flight and I was getting in after dark I decided not to medicate because I don’t like being groggy solo in a new place once the sun has gone down. Lets just say that flight was a very religious experience for me. Me and G.O.D became one that flight and I regretted not medicating the entire hour. I spent the next week traveling in Georgia which I will tell you more about later. The days leading up to my flight back to Saudi I 100% expected to get a message saying that flight was delayed. It is a very Middle Easter thing that instead of dealing with a problem people will just tell you what you want to hear instead of having to deal with you getting angry. Anyways when I did the online check in everything was on time.

So I arrive at the airport and make my way to the check in counter to check my bag. There are like eight Gulf Air staff eagerly standing around. I walk up and they start to get very excited. The check in process starts and they tell me I am their first customer. I’m all “of the day?” And their all “no ma’am ever. This is a new route for Gulf Air.” And I’m like that’s cool and they hand me a bag with flowers and ask to take my picture and I’m immediately regretting not wearing something a little more low cut and a little more fashionable. After photo time is over I ask to make sure I have a window seat and someone makes a comment that not only am I the first customer I am the only customer that day. And I laugh because surely they must be joking. So yes I get a window seat in economy and I go sit down nearby the check in area as I wanted to text my friends at how cool it is that I’m their first customer. In the meantime some men in suits who are obviously “someone” in Gulf Air arrive. The Gulf Air staff are shaking hands and everyone is patting each other on the back. And then someone points in my direction and the men in suits come over and introduce themselves and ask can they have their picture as well. And I’m all “sure boys I don’t see why not.” And then one of the men asks me for my boarding pass and comes back a few minutes later with it and I’ve been upgraded to Business Class. I damn near hugged the guy I was so excited…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I go thru security and then wait at the gate. The flight arrives from Bahrain which is the first flight on that route as well and so there are people on the tarmac taking picture and there were two firetrucks spraying the plane as it pulled up to the gate which is apparently something they do on inaugural flights. Who knew?! So I’m waiting at the gate and there are like maybe 5 other people sitting in that area so I just assume they are also on my flight. So it’s finally time to board and they overhead page the flight. And I’m expecting these other people to get up and board but they don’t so I walk up to the desk and a man comes up and says to me “shall we go?” And escorts me on the plane. I just roll with it because I’m still not realizing what is happening. And so I get to the plane and everyone is clapping and there are more photos and I’ve literally got the entire plane to myself. They tell me I can sit wherever I like (because I’m the only passenger.) They overhead paged a flight solely for me! It’s not like it was a small plane either it was an A320 which seats probably 150 passengers. So I pick a seat in Business Class and immediately start sipping champagne as we take off. It was totally the bomb. I skipped medicating in lew of alcohol and am so glad I did!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me just say that flying will never be the same if I’m not sitting in Business Class on my own private plane. The seats up there are super comfortable, the food is about a million times better and also unlimited champagne. I just sat there and smiled the entire time, and took a noteworthy amount of selfies. Then I fully relined my chair and took a cat nap (most likely on account of the champagne and wine). In hindsight I probably should’ve sat in literally every seat just to say I had. But truth be told, I kept expecting them to realize that I was a famous blogger from Saudi Arabia (not so much) and offer me free flights for life or at the very least a year! Sadly, that did not happen. But I will forever rave about Gulf Air as I do think they are pretty great! I even got a certificate saying I had taken part on an inaugural flight! For those of you who know me you would expect that I asked to see the cockpit. I was very relived when they told me I could but only when the plane was on the ground, so they kept things according to safety standards. When we landed I took a picture of the cockpit and then was asked if I wanted to sit in the captains seat and I was like “YES.” And then as if the guy knew my soul he asked if I wanted a picture in the captains seat wearing his hat. “I 100% did.” BEST DAY EVER!!!

 

After that I boarded my flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where I was not upgraded and so it seems Cinderella left her glass slipper in the Business Class area on that Gulf Air flight from Tbilisi to Bahrain. In’Shallah she gets it back sometime soon. This whole thing makes that previous phone call a riot now though. Can you imagine that I told someone that it was unacceptable for that flight time to be changed not knowing that I was the only passenger booked on that flight. What a total diva. But cheers Gulf Air for making my travel dream come true and finally offering me the upgrade I’ve waited 59 countries for!

 

 

 

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