Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: April 2015

Home Sweet Home

So last month I moved into private accommodations. Most of the housing provided at my hospital is shared housing with another nurse. For my first 3 months here they were replacing the elevators which just so happened to be behind the wall that my headboard was against. The sound of drilling and banging does not lull one to sleep, and so subsequently I was pretty sleep deprived my first few months here. The last time I lived here I was in a different complex where the 2 bedrooms were on opposite sides of the apartment with the common areas in between. In that set-up noise was never an issue. The apartment I just moved out of was of a very different design, one that had both rooms up against each other. So, if you and your roommate were on different schedules it could be very disruptive. Luckily, I was able to get single housing.

Housing here is included as part of our work contract. It has everything you need, but it’s still pretty dated and basic. I intend to do a comparison blog post between the housing offered to male ex-pats (granted they are not nurses) to highlight the vast differences in housing and lifestyle! So anyways, I moved into a very large apartment complex. All the apartments are studio apartments with a bit of a kitchenette/hotel type feel. The kitchen in the unit I’m in is a throwback to most people’s college days. No stove or oven, but a double burner hot plate. No dishwasher, but to be honest I don’t really have enough dishes to justify needing a dishwasher. I have a sink with a faucet that has the pressure of a fireman’s hose which really gets my dishes clean, while soaking me in the process. Then I have this microwave/convection oven thingy that terrifies me a bit. I get the microwave bit, but am scared of using if for anything else. It’s like those washer/dryer combo thingy’s in Europe. It’s like magic, and my brain can’t comprehend how it is capable of 2 very different functions. The kitchen opens into the living room/bedroom/office and from there it’s just a hop skip and a teeny jump to the bathroom. I also have a teeny standing room only balcony that overlooks the pool.

Fully stocked Kitchen

Fully stocked Kitchen

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Office/Bedroom/Living Room

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not complaining about the housing. It’s perfectly fine, and with many things in life it could be both worse and better. I have AC and access to a fully stocked gym, and several of my friends and co-workers also live in this building making it very convenient. And the best part is that it’s entirely my own space!

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By comparison though, after spending the better part of a decade working as a travel nurse in the US and having my housing included in my work package this is on the opposite end of the spectrum. I have very fond memories of my most favourite apartment in North Beach, San Francisco, with parking, and a pool, and a huge balcony overlooking Alcatraz. Man, those where the days!!

My old SF DIgs

My old SF DIgs

 

 

The National Museum of Saudi Arabia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week my kiwi sidekick and I set out on a fun field trip to the National Museum in Riyadh. It’s located in the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, and has a lovely courtyard/park area with a meandering man-made creek out front. It makes a great spot for people watching, or to have a picnic in. The museum is open for school visits in the mornings (segregated into boys and girls days) ad then open to the public from 12pm-2pm, and again from 4pm-8pm most days of the week.

Depending on how keen of a reader you are will determine how long you need. I’m not much of a museum reader and am more of a wanderer, so I had thought 90min would be plenty of time. You actually probably need at least 2 hours as the museum is quite large and spread over 2 floors. Longer if you want to read every single plaque. The museum opens with an exhibit called “Man and the Universe” with an enormous meteor and an exhibit of a rotating solar system with Koranic music playing. I really liked this bit. Then there was a section about the geology and geography of the Arabian peninsula and a dinosaur skeleton.

Outdoor park area

Outdoor park area

Man and the Universe exhibit

Man and the Universe exhibit

From here the following exhibits cover the ancient kingdoms of Arabia, the Pre-Islamic era with a display of ancient written languages and calligraphy. That was cool. They also had a section of recreated tombs from Mada’in Saleh which was interesting seeing as I visited there a few months back. You then take an escalator upstairs to an exhibit on The Prophet Mohammad’s Mission which had an interesting timeline of his life, and a family tree. You then cross over a bridge with beautifully ornate tiles inscribed with Arabic text into 2 exhibits about Islam and the Arabian Peninsula, and the First and Second Saudi states. There was a really cool exhibit which felt a little like being in Vegas or Disneyland in that there was a pretend market area with old buildings, and store fronts. There was also a gallery dedicated to the late King Abdul Aziz and how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established. The last exhibit was especially interesting (particularly so for non-Muslims) as it is about Hajj and the Two Holy Mosques and includes a miniature version of Makkah.

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So should you have an afternoon free the National Museum is worth a visit. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to live in a country you should know a little about it’s history. The museum will cost you 10riyals to get in. It’s kid friendly. High chances you’ll learn something, especially if you’ve yet to venture out to other parts of Saudi Arabia. To be honest, I had very low expectation for it, and it was a much better organized museum than I had imagined. So check it out people!

Upcoming Travels…..

The next couple months are going to be busy. I’m leaving for Dubai mid-week. Heading for the 3 B’s…….booze, bacon, and boyz. Just kiddin! I’ve never been to Dubai and our meeting is long overdue. It’s going to be a jam-packed visit. Later in the week my Kiwi partner in crime and I are flying to the Maldives. This involves a seaplane transfer to our all-inclusive resort. I’m filled with a mix of excitement and terror at the prospect of being in a seaplane. This will be a first for me, and I’m hoping I can remember it thru my medication induced haze. Remember how terrified of flying I am people!? It’s also going to be my first time staying at a fancy resort. All-inclusive resort type travel is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from the travel style I’m used to and prefer. We have now booked 5 nights in a fancy island oasis where I’m sure we’ll standout, as the Maldives are the honeymoon capital of the world. No, we’re not on our Honeymoon. Yes, we do want separate beds. Please bring us more champagne. It will be tough. After that we fly back to Dubai for 3 nights before returning to the sandbox.

In May we’re heading to Bahrain with a group of embassy/engineers/nurses. Should be a super fun mix, and a really great weekend I have no doubt. In June, my dear Seattle friend is meeting me in Morocco for 2 weeks. I can’t wait to see her face and have some overdue catch-up time in a country that I’ve dreamed of traveling and photographing for years. I’m pretty jazzed about it. Then it will be Ramadan, which I will blog about what that means in relation to living in a Muslim country as it gets closer to that time.

I’m sure you’re now asking yourself, when does this girl actually work? Well work I do, rest assured. Some days are easier than others. Some days I’m not treated especially great. But, all that slips away and is easily forgotten when I’m jet-setting across the globe.

A Lesson In Kindness

For me, travel is a never ending lesson in kindness. I truly believe that most people are good, and this belief is never more apparent then when I’m traveling. From India, to Bangladesh, to the corners of the Middle East, for the most part I’ve met kind, kind people.

Back in February I took a trip to Cyprus. My kiwi travel mate and I rented a car in the southern part of Cyprus where we toured around for the better part of a week. Our last few days in Cyprus were spend in the border city of Nicosia where the Green Line dissects the city into the southern Greek part and what they refer to as the “Turkish occupied” area to the North. We had been warned many times by people on the southern side that the people of the north couldn’t be trusted. That they were dishonest. That it was unsafe. And that we would be scammed. Naturally, I wanted to check out this place, full well knowing that this was likely very untrue.

We wanted to explore the Turkish side, but it was a bit of a paper-work nightmare to drive our rental car across. Even with the proper paperwork the end result was that we would likely still void the rental agreement we had with the car rental place in the south. So that seemed like not a great option. We inquired at our hotel in the southern part of Nicosia about booking a taxi for the day to take us around. At first the reception guy referenced the many reasons why we shouldn’t go to the north. They are bad, they treat their women bad, they will treat you bad. We then informed him where we live. He replied that we would find the north especially shocking then. He was dead serious. We laughed till our eyes watered. He then quoted us 350euros to book a taxi for the day. Again, I thought he was joking and started to laugh. Turns out he was not. So we told him we would walk across the border and negotiate a taxi ourselves. He was horrified at our blatant disregard for his safety warnings.

So cross the border we did. And we found a taxi stand and tried to negotiate with a couple drivers, but the lowest price we could get them down to was 120euros which still seemed rather steep. So, we wandered the market and found a small shawarma place called the Orange Cafe and Restaurant. We sat down and ordered a bite to eat and a couple beers to discuss our options. It then dawned on me that maybe we could just rent a car in the north for the day. So I asked the very nice Pakistani guy who was our server if there were any car rental places close by. He replied no, but then uttered the words “maybe my boss knows.” And off he went to get his boss.

Samie, as we would soon learn was the boss’s name strolled over a couple minutes later. He was in his late 40’s, wearing blue jeans, a leather jacket, and a hat with a maple leaf on the front. In Canada we call these hats a touque and the fact that his had a maple leaf on it made me like him immediately. So we told him our sad story of how we wanted to tour the north, but didn’t want to pay very much to do it. As it turned out Samie also owned a taxi company and told us he could get us a driver for the day for 100euros. Again we said it was too much, so then Samie said he had a BMW that he would lend us for 50euros the following day. He said he also had a Hummer, but that the it was too expensive in gas. Now granted, it did sound a little sketchy, but I’m one for seeing how a situation plays out. And 50euros to drive ourselves was exactly what we wanted. So we made arrangements to meet at 9am the following morning.

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So the following morning we head back across the border to the north. It’s pouring rain, and by the time we arrive at the Orange Cafe we are drenched. Samie is there, and his “brother” is there, and no one really speaks great English. So we are invited to sit down for tea, and Samie brings us an olive loaf that his mother made. And it’s delicious. Samie makes a phone call that we eventually make out has to do with insurance for the car, and then a guy arrives with papers, and then things got a little confusing. Samie hands my kiwi mate the keys and we walk over to the BMW but the guy who delivered the papers is still there. So we’re thinking maybe we’ve totally misunderstood and this guy is taking us for the day? So Samie says basically “bring the car back whenever” and walks away. Now I’m in the backseat and my Kiwi friend is in the passenger seat, and this paper-delivery guy is now driving us through the winding narrow streets of Northern Nicosia. After a couple minutes he stops, gets out, and gets into another vehicle, and signals for us to follow him out of the old city walls.

And then just like that we’re on our own in a strangers car (that we’ve yet to pay the 50euros) and we’re driving further into the north, and we’re laughing at the absurdness of it all. That Samie trusted us enough upon initial impression to hand over the keys to his car. At the complete kindness and trust of a stranger. So we spent the day touring and getting lost in the north of Cyprus as I’ve previously told you. We got hopelessly lost trying to get back to the cafe. The winding narrow streets of the walled section of north Nicosia is disorienting and confusing. By complete fluke we ended up pulling over about to ask for directions and who was standing across the street? The original guy who delivered the insurance papers. So he jumped in and drove us back to the Orange Cafe and to the car’s rightful owner, Samie. We ordered some beer and some food and sat with Samie and his “brother” for a couple hours discussing politics and life in the north in broken English.

The following day (our last day in Cyprus) we stopped back at the Orange Cafe. By now we felt like they were our good friends. We had some apple tea, and said our goodbyes. So what did Samie teach me? He taught me that it’s ok to take a chance on a stranger, that people can do something kind, just for the reason of being kind and helpful. He taught me that each of us should make more of an effort to help tourists in our own country. Because even though I have had so many kind interactions with strangers while traveling,  I could make more of an effort when I’m on my home soil. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should all immediately hand over our car keys to the next tourist you see, but that it’s ok to go out of your way to help a stranger. That kindness towards a stranger benefits not just the giver but also the receiver. Try it and I guarantee your heart will feel a little lighter.

I think I’m going to make a Lesson in Kindness a regular part of my blog. I’ve got so many wonderful stories of chance encounters with kind strangers that have been so humbling, I would love to share more of them. Those chance encounters where you walk away with the feeling that the world is a good place, and that compassion and kindness are the keys to the betterment of humanity. For as the Dalai Lama once said “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
I agree wholeheartedly.

Abaya Shopping……

So one of the many fashion must-haves for women in Saudi Arabia is an abaya. You are required to wear one anytime you are out in public, or in my case when I’m off the hospital compound. Inside the hospital it isn’t required, and the other non-abaya places are in the Diplomatic Quarter or in western compounds. So naturally, if a girl has to cover she might as well look fashionable!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbaya’s come in a variety of styles, but the most common colour for them by far is black. There is the pull over your head model that is useful when you don’t intend to take it off (as taking it off causes massive static electricity, and messes up your hair.) This is my go-to style when I’m going grocery shopping, running errands, or to the mall. Then there are the zipper or button front models for when you want to class it up a bit. The last time I lived here I bought this abaya that basically made me feel like a super hero. It had this sheer fabric bit in the back that looped out and attached to the end of my sleeves so I felt like an exotic princess/superhero. In theory this sounds amazing right? In actual fact the sleeves made eating very, very difficult, and they would get caught on everything making me resemble a marionette puppet because I couldn’t reach for things properly. Not cool abaya. Not cool.

Bedazzled abaya

Bedazzled abaya

My old superhero abaya

My old superhero abaya

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few months ago I bought a very trendy abaya that was made in Dubai. It had a sheer lace top with a lining, and the base of it was a piece of beige fabric. So fashionable. Until I ripped a huge whole down the side of it in a taxi. Then it was a huge waste of money. So now I was sans a fashionable abaya. Earlier this week I ventured out to Deira Souk in hunt of a new abaya with my kiwi sidekick. Deira Souk has a bunch of abaya stores, and you can pick one up for anywhere between 80-150riyals. The day we went we were trailed by an older Saudi lady and her daughter who were very open about giving their fashion advice about which abaya we should buy. They were very vocal about their distaste for anything remotely flattering, and were giving us thumbs up for anything that fit us with the fashion style of being covered in a garbage bag. We thanked them for their “help” and quickly ditched them. In the third abaya shop that we went to I casually asked if they had anything with pockets. Abaya’s pretty much never have a pocket option, and its a pain in the butt as you have to carry a purse or risk misplacing your phone or keys as you have nowhere to put them. This my friends, is where I hit the abaya jackpot. Because, “yes mamm we have pockets” and out of the rack was the greatest abaya that has ever existed. It had a zipper front with 2 front pockets, and gold piping down the front, the sides, and around the pockets. I couldn’t have designed a better abaya. And then the man said something that almost made my head explode “mamm, we also have blue.” Blue. Midnight blue to be exact. With gold piping. If this abaya were a jackets and pants it would be the type of sporty outfit you see Indian men wearing. Part tracksuit, part workout gear, part abaya. Trendy, yet casual, yet retro. I had know idea I could love an abaya this much. So I am now the excited owner of a midnight blue abaya with gold piping. And pockets. Sir, you had me at pockets. So naturally I bartered a good price. And then asked the men where they were from. And they were from Bangladesh, one of my favourite countries I’ve visited. So I practiced the one Bengali word I know with them, and they were very impressed.

FullSizeRender-1The End.

Doha Qatar

IMG_4643In February on the way back to Saudi from Cyprus, I had a stop over in Qatar. One of my goals while living in the Middle East is that I would eventually like to visit every Middle Eastern country. Yemen for obvious reasons is out, and I was lucky enough to visit Syria back in 2010 before the war. The only countries I had yet to see where Qatar, Kuwait, Israel, Iran, and Iraq. For obvious reasons, Iraq is also a no-go, and if I visited Israel I’d have a heck of a time explaining that stamp in my passport on my return to Saudi, so Qatar was a safe bet! The only land border Qatar shares is with Saudi Arabia to the southwest, and is otherwise surrounded by the Persian gulf. It is geographically very close to Bahrain and is the world’s richest country. Yes, the richest. Richer than the UAE and Saudi Arabia combined.

Qatari fashion is similar to Saudi fashion in many ways, except that the Abaya is not mandatory. As with any Middle Eastern country it’s respectful to dress conservatively, but western clothes are perfectly acceptable and you aren’t required to cover your hair. Many Qatari women did wear an Abaya, or had their hair covered. Many Qatari men also wore traditional dress which consists of a thobe (the white garment worn by many men throughout the Middle East) and either the white or red checkered head scarf, or a white “skull cap” which I’m unable to Google the proper name of. Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available, but can be purchased in restaurants in the major hotels, or via permit for ex-pats living there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe flew into Doha, and I was surprised that the city was quite a bit smaller than I had expected it to be. Riyadh has a population of around 4 million people, by comparison Doha has around 800,000 people living there. The main downtown area is full of tall brightly lit buildings clustered around the coast. There is a corniche that hugs the Doha Bay with a walking and cycling path. We drove past it and it was full of people exercising and enjoying the warm evening breeze. Temperatures in Doha are similar to that of Riyadh except that they there is the humidity factor of being on the coast, which makes it feel a great deal warmer in the summer.

We visited The Pearl which is a residential/commercial project involving a man-made island so named because it was build on the site of a major pearl diving site. We were in search of a movie theatre, which I’m sure sounds absurd to those of you living outside of Saudi. There are no movie theatres in Saudi Arabia, where it would be considered illegal to have men and women mixing in the darkness of a movie theatre. I love, love, love going to the movies, so whenever I’m traveling outside of Saudi I always try to fit in a movie. Our movie mission was very successful after we eventually found the theatre. The Pearl is a huge development and getting from one end to the other is quite a distance.

The following day we ventured out to Souq Waqif which has a very “traditional Arabia” feel to it. It’s full of restaurants, and curving alleyways that open into shops. We ate breakfast outdoors at one of the many cafes. I was pretty jazzed to order my favourite Arabic breakfast dish called shakshouka consisting of eggs, tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions served with Arabic bread. Yumm.

Qatari Police

Qatari Police

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Souq Waqif

 

After this we headed to the Islamic Arts Museum, which was the real highlight of Doha for me. First off, the building is very aesthetically pleasing. It’s on the Doha Bay with great views of the Doha skyline. Second, I love Islamic Art. I love the patterns, and the textures, and Arabic is a really beautiful written language. The museum has an amazing flow to it. I am often very overwhelmed in museums that don’t flow well, I sort of wander around aimlessly, and often times don’t really take too much in as the feeling of being overwhelmed often turns to being anxious. Not here. The museum is spacious, and well lit, and has a very calming atmosphere about it. Oh, and it’s free to get in. Yes. Free. I especially like free. There is art from neighbouring Middle Eastern countries spanning the 7th to 19th century. Exhibits include ceramics, textiles, and metal and wood work. When you’re done touring the museum there is a fantastic gift shop and a cafe with floor to ceiling views of the skyline. It’s well worth a visit.

Men traditionally dressed

Men traditionally dressed

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At the Islamic Arts Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So, for those of you in Saudi Arabia, looking for a quick weekend getaway, Doha Qatar is a good option when you need to get out of the sandbox! I intend to return as we really only scratched the surface and there’s much more to see and do. And when I go back I’ll likely return to the Islamic Arts Museum. That’s how much I liked it!!

Sandstorming

Growing up in Calgary Alberta I was used to weird weather phenomenons. Some days the weather felt like it ran the full spectrum of the 4 seasons. It could be a bitterly cold -25C winter day and yet the skies could be blue and the sun shining. Or it could be a full-on blizzard in June. One thing we didn’t get though, were sandstorms.

IMG_5399On Wednesday, I was at work and people kept talking about the wind picking up and that a sandstorm was coming. Working indoors makes it hard to get a clear (sandy) idea of what is actually happening outside the hospital walls. Sandstorms literally roll in like a huge wall of sand that clouds over the entire city. It gets very dark, and the sun is mostly blocked out to create this golden/brown aura. And then you start to taste the sand. And its a taste similar to dirt (not that I eat dirt people!) but it has a very dirty, gritty type taste and smell to it. Things start to look truly apocalyptic once you see people walking around the hospital compound in various types of medical masks with face shields thru the haziness of a sandstorm. It’s eery.

IMG_5406Now sandstorms and snowstorms do have an awful lot in common. They both make for terrible driving conditions. The wind causes the sand to literally drift across the road just as it does with blowing snow. Visibility gets very poor and it  becomes a near “sand-out” (white-out) conditions. Drivers for the most part slow-down and put their flashers on, or pull over to the side of the road. Unlike a snowstorm there is no shoveling to clean up the aftermath of a sandstorm, but there is a IMG_5413whole lot of sweeping and wiping everything down. Because even though you might have your housing area sealed up the sand finds a way of getting in. Walking in my apartment complex the ends of the hallways were hazy. Inside my apartment unit, there was a thick layer of sand coating everything. My tiled floor was super slippery. And the really gross part is that we breathe all that sand in. It’s a great way to pick up a respiratory infection. I tend to cough a lot and my voice sounds quite hoarse. It’s not very pleasant. The outdoor pool areas fill with sand and take on the resemblance of a beach area, instead of a chlorinated pool. I would hate to be a pool cleaner here.

I spent Thursday and Friday cleaning and wiping everything down. And today, the IMG_5441weather forecast is………..you guessed it. Dust. Seriously. I guess I cleaned too soon!

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