Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: October 2015

Why I Loved Bangladesh

Last year I convinced a dear friend of mine to travel to Bangladesh with me. Yes. I really said Bangladesh. For at least a couple years prior I had wanted to visit this country. The first time I was in Saudi Arabia I had a awesome driver named Saybel who was from outside of Dhaka. We would often talk about what it was like to live there, and about his family. Later that year Lonely Planet named Bangladesh in its list of top 10 best value countries of 2011. I was intrigued. Over the next couple years I listened to podcasts from travelers who had visited the country, and read blog posts. Although few tourists go to Bangladesh the overwhelming message the ones that did carried home with them was to go. You will fall in love with the people they said. They also spoke of how even though it bordered India, the country felt completely different. Bangladesh quickly moved to the top of the list of countries I wanted to visit.

Since we had already planned to do the Rickshaw Run and drive an auto-rickshaw 3000km across India, it was fitting that we would also visit neighbouring countries. From India we flew to Bhutan and from Bhutan to Nepal. It was while traveling in Nepal we bought our flight to Bangladesh. We bought them very last minute as in the weeks leading up to us going there had been Hartals which are politically motivated city or region wide strikes that affect transportation and can incite rioting. We closely tracked social media, and things seemed safe, so we registered with our embassies abroad (me with Canada, her with the U.S.) and off to Bangladesh we went.

We arrived at Dhaka international airport where I wrote in my journal that there was a significant military presence. We got a VOA (visa on arrival) and were met by a taxi organized by the hotel we were staying at. The sun had already set and the traffic was insane. We weren’t really very far from the hotel, but it took over an hour to get there. It was complete chaos as cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, pedal-rickshaws, and people powered rickshaws all inched forward into any seemingly available space. If I thought traffic in Delhi was something, Dhaka was a whole other story. Eventually, we made it to the hotel and while we were checking in we got an email from the U.S. embassy informing us that there was another hartal planned for the next day, and that it was inadvisable for westerners to leave the hotel. We asked the hotel staff about this and they said we would be fine going out. “No problem.” They said. And then one of the desk clerks casually said “just don’t take the auto-rickshaws.” Naturally we asked why. He replied totally matter of factly “petrol bombs.” Huh. Good to know. Being the sensible, life loving gals that we are, we stayed on lock-down the following day. We ordered room service, and read, and watched Titanic on the smallest TV known to mankind.

 

 

 

 

 

The following day we emerged. And it was hard to get a feel for the situation. We commandeered a non-English speaking bike-rickshaw guy to take us to the bus station to see about getting tickets to Bogra and we passed police in riot gear at almost every corner. They didn’t seem to have a real purpose, but were rather just milling about. We later found out that this is the norm, and actually had little to do with the hartal the day before. After getting nowhere at the bus station we tried unsuccessfully to get train tickets (sold out) so we had the rickshaw guy take us to the Ahsan Manzil otherwise known as the Pink Palace. The Pink Palace is beautiful and has quite the sorted past. It was completed in 1872 but abandoned a decade later when it was badly damaged when a tornado hit. It then became a slum until it was acquired by the government who turned it into a museum. It sits along the shores of the Buriganga River and is well worth a visit should you find yourself in Dhaka.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While visiting the Pink Palace we were approached by a guy named Hassan who told us he was an English student and wanted to practice his English with us. I have to admit that my initial thoughts were “how much is this going to cost us?” We were slightly jaded from our time in India where it seemed like nothing was ever free. Turns out, he was actually an English student, who really did want to practice his English, and meet the few tourists that visit Dhaka. He also spoke German, and a couple other languages. Hassan toured us around the palace. He told us it’s history while a crowd of some 30 people followed us around and took our photos or asked for photos with us. This would become a recurring event as often we turned up to a tourist site only to become the tourist attraction. From here he took us to the other main sites in Dhaka, walking us thru the winding streets to see the Armenian church, we visited the home of an artist who is famous for his pieces that adorn local rickshaws, and we visited a beautiful Shia mosque. We also visited the  Star Mosque which oddly has a tile of Mt Fuji in it . While there a lady asked us for a photo and then asked if we were from Japan. Konichiwa lady!

Later in the week we met up with Hassan again and he took us to Lalbagh Fort. It was built in 1678 by a Mughal prince and reminded me a little of the Taj Mahal. The following decade the fort changed hands but was never completed after the death of the new owners daughter Pari Bibi who’s tomb is there. The surrounding gardens are beautiful and you can climb on top of the old soldiers quarters for lovely views of Dhaka city. From here we walked towards the Buriganga River where Hassan helped us hire a boat to take us out on the river to the opposite shore. The waterways are essential to Bangladesh’s economy as many places are only accessible via the rivers. The ferries (as I’m sure you’ve seen on the news) are jam packed full of people and goods, and are often very weighed down and extremely unsafe by western standards. The river itself is the colour of oil. It’s black and greasy, and the river banks are littered with garbage. And yet, I loved it. People in passing boats and ferries would go out of their way to wave at us. And do the universal sign for “please take our photo” or take return photos of us. The people of Bangladesh are undoubtedly the most friendly and curious of any country I have ever visited. I smile every time I think about my trip there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We finished off the boat trip with a visit to the ship breaking yard. The sounds of hundreds of hammers clinking against the steel hulls of the ships made a sort of urban symphony and I remember being mesmerized by it and taking a lot of video while we were there. Again we were greeted with smiles and waves by the men working here. We had the boat drop us on the opposite tour and Hassan led us through the local vegetable market as the sun was starting to set. The river looks beautiful at this time of day. Hassan led us thru the narrow back streets and with everywhere we went in Bangladesh we had a crowd of curious followers trailing us. We jumped in an auto-rickshaw where Hassan was able to convince the driver to let me drive and I inched the rickshaw thru the chaotic Dhaka traffic. Later that evening as we chatted on the street I wrote in my journal how a local man came up and gave us bubble gum and asked where we were from. Not five minutes later an elderly man came up to me and gave me a high-five. I wrote “I love it here!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s easy to see by the many positive random encounters with Bangladeshi people why I have such a fondness for their country. I love taking photos while I’m traveling. In fact photography and trying new foods are two of the big reasons I love travel. I’m a great scenic photographer, but I’m nervous taking photos of people. Bangladesh changed that for me. People requested and even demanded to have their photo taken. But here’s the thing. They never, ever smile. The one Bengali word I learned and used over and over was “hashi” which means smile. Whenever anyone was posing for a picture I would yell “hashi” and they would always smile. I’m sure part of that was amusement at the fact that I would speak a Bengali word, but it worked. I took some of the best photos I’ve ever taken here. Below is the power of “hashi” in action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t get me wrong-the poverty and over crowding are assaulting. Bangladesh is one of the most populated places on earth. And the travel there isn’t easy as there isn’t a lot of tourist infrastructure. But to travel in Bangladesh is to be rewarded in ways you will never imagine. There is a kindness and a curiousness that is incomparable to other countries. Rest assured you will be raving about your time here long after you’ve left. I should know. It’s coming up on 2 years since I visited and I have pictures of the many friendly people I met adorning my walls here in Saudi Arabia. So go. Visit. Be awestruck by the friendliness of the locals. Take photos. Explore. Visit amazing UNESCO sites and have them mostly to yourself. Mostly, I say because you will likely have quite the entourage where ever you go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hassan was the best part of our trip to Dhaka. Without him we likely wouldn’t have explored half of what we did. He recently started his own tour company called Dhaka Urban Outings. So when you go, be sure to connect up with him. Tell him I sent you!! You can find him here on Facebook.

Have you traveled in Bangladesh? Do you agree? What off the beaten track country is your favourite?

Oktoberfest Germany

A few months ago my kiwi sidekick and I had the genius and super impulsive idea to book tickets to Oktoberfest. We found a direct flight from Riyadh to Munich and a return ticket via Frankfurt so we opted to pop over for 5 days. We just kept saying YOLO (You Only Live Once) which is a super annoying phrase, but one that I am nonetheless very fond of. So book plane tickets we did. In hindsight, we probably should’ve looked a bit more into hotel prices. Because when we did, we were a little alarmed to find that really the cheapest rooms we could find were between $200-250 per night, and that they were located in the glitzy (sleazy) red-light district. Lap dance anyone?

So after working a 12 hour shift we raced home, showered and grabbed our bags for our midnight flight. This had us landing in Munich just before 6am on very little sleep. We had tried to get an early check in, but alas, they were fully booked. We had also considered booking a cheap airport hotel to grab a few hours sleep, but we were far to cheap to pay the $175 rate. So we did what any cheap travelers would do and found a bench in the arrivals terminal and tried to grab some shut eye. Then we went for a greasy breakfast and an 8am beer. Don’t judge. It was Oktoberfest. Once we got our breakfast buzz on we went to a ridiculously over priced authentic German store and bought traditional German beer maid outfits. I’m still cringing to think what we paid, but luckily, I can re-wear it for Halloween, as Ms Claus for Christmas, and any other costumed occasion that comes up. We then took the train into Munich.

By some stroke of luck we were able to finagle the hotel into letting us into the room, so we could change quick-like, and get to the Oktoberfest grounds. I had joined an Oktoberfest group on Facebook, and we had plans to meet up with a group who had booked several tables at Hacker Festzelt, one of the large tents. After making our way thru a sea of traditionally dressed people we met up with our group and entered the tent. They are enormous and most fit thousands of people. Our group was a mix mash of Germans, Brits, a couple Kiwis and a Canuck. We spent 5 hours drinking steins of beer and eating traditional German food. We also spent 5 hours yelling Prost at the top of our lungs, making up our own words to the popular German songs being sung and clinking our steins together as often as was humanly possible. By 5pm I was spend, over tired, and mildly mis-behaving. We made our way back thru the sea of now overly drunk traditionally dressed people and back to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2 found us not nearly as hungover as I had imagined we would be. We grabbed breakfast at the hotel and headed to the Marienplatz clock tower with the hoards of other tourists to watch the 11am show. Basically there is music and apparent life-sized figures that depict some type of story. It was underwhelming on account that my eye sight is crap, and there were way too many people. We continued along to Munich Residenz a former palace which used to be home to Bavarian royalty. It was pretty cool. We spent a while roaming thru the courtyards and rooms. It is opulence at it’s finest. The Hall of Antiquities was my favourite as it had wall to ceiling paintings and statues- it would’ve creeped me out to be there after dark, but in the day light I could’ve spent more time taking it all in. From here we went for a traditional German meal (because you can really never eat too much pork) and hustled back to the hotel to don our Germanic attire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Oktoberfest we went to meet up with a smaller group from the previous day. This time we were at a different tent in the upstairs balcony area of Schottenhamel Festzelt. It was much nicer being in a smaller group and especially nice since we had met most people the day before. Again more beer drinking, more pork eating, more Probst yelling, and more beer stein clinking. Personally, I liked this tent better because they played music in English which we could sing along to. At one point I was standing up from the table and this youngish guy sidled over to be and started chatting. 1st he tried German, which I promptly told him I didn’t speak. Then he switched to English and the story went something like this “my friend over there. See him. He is very drunk. He spilled a drink all over the table. Now our table is very wet. His father is very rich and has bought us this table, but he is not coming. We have some friends that are also coming.” All the while I’m nodding along because I’m confused as to where this story is going. Then he says “so before our friends come we would like to have a couple beers.” And I’m all like “ok.” Cause I still haven’t clued in yet. And then he tries to order beer from me. Because he thinks I’m a German waitress. Yep. In hindsight I wish I had been quicker on my feet, and told him that each beer was 25euros and at least made a little money off the whole thing. Next time I’ll be on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We only had our table reservation for 3 hours, then it becomes a game of cat and mouse to see how long you can stay in the tent before security kicks you out. And since it was late in the day, and also the last weekend of Oktoberfest things were a real shitshow. Everyone is pushing, and trying to get past security, and fights are breaking out, and overly testosteroned young men are having fist fights. My kiwi sidekick and our new British friends decided to take the party to a nearby bar as it was highly unlikely that we would get into any of the other Oktoberfest tents. The Oktoberfest grounds are pretty large and surrounded by grassy hills which people also use to pass out and vomit all over. Seriously. People are wasted and stumbling, and sometimes you just need to close your eyes in the closest place that looks comfortable. I get it. We’ve all been there. The nurse in me had to resist rolling all these drunks onto their sides into the recovery position for fear of them aspirating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So after consuming some more beverages we wandered back to our hotel. Things were looking pretty good until shortly after we got back when I got the worst GI bug of recent time. Now I know you’re thinking- girl you were just drunk. But I’m a classy drunk. I never vomit (well hardly ever.) I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that I lost 2 days of our trip. It was awful. I was miserable. If a fire had broken out in the hotel I doubt I would’ve had the strength to evacuate. My kiwi sidekick was a real trooper and nursed me back to health, well mostly.

On the 4th day I was able to venture out. We took the tram to Nymphenburg Palace. The tram drops you about a 10min walk to the main gate- for me this took what little energy I had, but I’m glad we ventured out. Part of the palace is under renovations, but the gardens are beautiful. Funfact; you could actually skip paying to go inside, and instead take pictures from the outside and wander the 490 acre gardens. Bring a picnic and sit next to the canal or on the shore of one of the two lakes. The place itself was completed in 1675 and served as the summer home of Bavarian royalty. The rooms are ornately decorated with some very impressive portraits lining the halls. Be sure to visit the Marstallmuseum before you leave. It’s full of old carriages and winter sleds which are a contrasting mix of opulence and absurdness. We wrapped up our last day with me finally starting to get an appetite for things other than 7-up and soup broth. Unfortunately, this coincided with my kiwi mate getting whatever bug I had. We might be the worst travelers of all time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Munich- you were hard on me, but I fully intent to come back. We have unfinished business!! As they say in Germany- Prost!!!

 

My 1 Year Anniversary

Wow. That sure went fast. 52 weeks. 365 days. And yesterday marked my 1 year anniversary in Saudi Arabia. Time here passes differently. It feels like I boarded that flight from Canada to Saudi much longer than a year ago, and oddly, at the same time it feels like I’ve packed 5 years worth of memories into the last year. The weeks seem to drag on, but the months themselves seem to fly by.  It’s hard to put the concept of time into words, but I reckon those of you who live here get what I mean.

Since this is my second time in Saudi the culture shock was pretty minimal. I’ve coped better emotionally this time around than that first time. I knew what to expect and was well prepared. Earlier this month I decided that I would re-contract for a second year. I’m not quite done traveling, and I’m finally debt free so really, all I make goes to traveling or into savings. That’s a bonus. I’ve got a bunch of loose upcoming travel plans. I’m going home for nearly 3 weeks for American Thanksgiving. I’ll be splitting my time between my second home (Seattle) and seeing my family up in Canada. I’m spending Christmas in Dubai, which I’m really looking forward to because I get overly jazzed about the holidays. Otherwise I’ve got a bunch of holiday time but nothing conclusively booked. I want to get to Kuwait for a weekend as it’s the only Gulf Coast country I’ve yet to visit. Both Azerbaijan and Iran are near the top of my list. I would love to go back to Bangladesh, and there’s a lot of Egypt I’ve yet to explore.

So here’s to surviving a year in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I can’t wait to see what this next year has in store.

Happy Travels……

 

So You Want to Work in Saudi Arabia? Part 2 (The Bad)

Last week I told you about all the lovely reasons you should consider a job in Saudi Arabia. This week I wanted to touch on the equal number of not so great things to consider if you’re thinking about being an ex-pat in the Middle East. Obviously,  as with anything really, there is the good with the bad, and working in Saudi is no exception. So here’s my list of the 10 not-so-great things you should know…..

1. Culture shock is inevitable. This is kind of a no-brainer, but if you’re a westerner you truly couldn’t pick a more different place to live than Saudi Arabia. Basically you can expect to initially be in a state of euphoria- it’s all so different and you will find it fascinating. Oh my gosh a camel. Oh my goodness the Middle Eastern attire worn by men resembles a dress. Why’s that guy got a machine gun? Why is that child hanging out the window while the car is going 100km/hr down the road? It’s like a total sensory overload and your brain will struggle to keep up with the many new things you will see. You’ll feel like a kid in a candy store. This phase is called the Honeymoon phase and you will be generally happy with your decision to move abroad. Sadly this phase ends. Often abruptly. The next phase can be called the Frustration phase. You’ll be generally bitchy or pissy. Nothing is the same, everything sucks, why the hell isn’t it like home? Why did I leave? Everything will feel challenging. Some people will spend their entire time in Saudi in this phase. Inshallah, you will pull on your big girl panties and move into the Adjustment phase which basically means that you get used to the way things are. You accept things. The final phase is Adaptation which means that things will stop feeling so foreign and that you will successfully be acclimated to the new culture. This doesn’t mean a full-on conversion to the new culture, but rather that you feel apart of the culture. I haven’t yet made it to the Adaptation phase, but quite happily navigate in the Adjustment phase with occasional relapses into the Frustration phase.

2. Bring a suitcase full of patience.  No joke. If you move to Saudi Arabia from any western country, you are in for one hell of a shocker. Things are super inefficient here. It’s mind boggling at times. Simple things that might take 3 steps back home will take 10 here. Occasionally you will suffer a full blown temper tantrum in public because you will be so annoyed. Sometimes you will cry. But mostly, you will just have to accept the way it is because you are never, ever, going to change it. So just roll with it. If you want an example of what I mean read this post about my uphill paperwork battle this fall. Or this one about Saudi banking.

3. Prayer times. Unless you live under a rock I’m sure you’re well aware that Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. And people here pray 5 times a day. And unlike other Middle Eastern countries everything closes during prayer times. Closes. Seriously. As an ex-pat you will find that you are intimately attune to what time prayer is (because the time changes a bit day to day) and you will need to be aware of this when you are heading out. It can make running errands or trying to get out for a meal difficult if you forget about prayer times. I have found myself being locked outside of a restaurant or store while we wait for prayer to finish many a times. Grocery stores will let you stay inside and keep shopping, but you won’t be able to pay or leave until prayer is over. Restaurants will let you eat during prayer, but will not serve you food or allow you to pay or leave during prayer. This is why it’s important to time things out- I like to get into a restaurant and have the food come before prayer is called so we can eat during that time. It’s also good to know that the 2 evening prayers are often quite close together, so for example if I wanted to go shopping and the mall opens at 4pm, I would only be able to shop until 5:30pm when the 1st evening prayer is called. All the stores would close, and we would wait the 20min or so until they open again. Then at 7pm prayer would be called again and this one is often 30min or so. You can see that could become a source of frustration.

4. Opening hours. Grocery stores are often open 24hours, so apart from closing for prayer you can go anytime. Malls usually open from 10am-12pm (or whenever the lunchtime prayer is) and then open again at 4pm until 11pm-1am (ish) depending on the day of the week. That being said, it’s not uncommon  to show up to a shop that should be open and find out that no one showed up for work. Or they slept in. Or are just running an hour late. Same goes for the bank.

5. No driving for the ladies. That’s right. If you would’ve described yourself as a self-sufficient independent lady you’re in for a surprise. Not being able to drive is the #1 complaint of western ladies. But, to be fair once you see how absurd the drivers here are you will quickly lose interest in wanting to drive. That being said, having to rely on a driver to take you places is pretty annoying. At first it will seem cool. Oh, let me just call my driver. But the first time you’re left stranded somewhere this will lose it’s shiny appeal. You can’t go anywhere by yourself because you are now a child who needs to be taken everywhere. And sometimes you will want to go somewhere (or leave) and all the drivers are busy. So you wait, because you don’t have any other choice. It can lead you to feeling like a caged animal because you can’t freely get into the car and drive where you want to go. Just today I was stranded at the mall waiting and waiting for a driver to come get me. #annoying

6. No recycling. If you love the environment a little piece of you will die every time you throw a water bottle in the garbage. Or a can of diet coke. Or that stack of papers. Or that pickle jar. Nothing gets recycled. Ever. Or at least not where I work and live. It breaks my heart to live somewhere that totally has the resources to recycle and just doesn’t. Also, people don’t seem to be concerned about wasting water or electricity. Newsflash: Saudi Arabia is a desert. So why would you plant grass and flowers meant for North American weather and watch them wilt and die in the 50C heat. And waste water on them?? Only to replant new flowers the following month? Why?  Because you’ve got money. That’s why. On the weekends when the hospital offices are closed you can walk by office areas where all the lights are left on (and I’m sure the AC) all weekend long while no one is there. It can be a hard pill to swallow.

7. The list of things considered illegal is long. We’ve already discussed women driving. It’s a no-no, along with alcohol, pork, movie theatres, and being alone with a man who is not your husband or your relative (so essentially no dating). Women are not allowed to try on clothes when out shopping with the exception of Kingdom Mall ladies floor, and the handful of lingerie stores run by women. Technically, it’s illegal to practice any religion but Islam. There are no churches or other religious groups. Pornography is obviously illegal. Many of these things can be a source of frustration for ex-pats. I personally miss coming home from a stressful day of work and sipping a glass (bottle) of red wine. I also really miss going to the movies.

8. Class system. Saudi Arabia is a class system, no two ways about it. Lives here are not measured the same as in western countries. There is literally a chart of how much your family will be paid if you are killed in a car accident, and that chart varies greatly depending on your sex, religion,  ethnic origin, and country of citizenship. Many Saudis employ servants, drivers, and nannies. There are numerous reports of ill treatment of these workers- and this isn’t really a topic that I want to touch on. I have witnessed on many occasions servants being treated in a less than respectful way. It is shocking, and contrary to how I was raised or how I view equality amongst people.That being said, many westerners employ housemaids and drivers and nannies. Pay amongst different nationalities is also vastly different depending on the colour of a persons passport. This is obviously a source of contention at work where we are all essentially doing the same job, and I’m not sure that there is a proper way to correct the situation. The truth of the matter is that no North American nurse in Saudi Arabia is make 2-3times what they would back home. It just doesn’t happen. And yet many Filipino and Indian nurses are making several times more than they would in their own country. It’s a touchy topic, but cost of living and education costs are drastically different between western countries and the rest of the world, and yet, here in Saudi Arabia the price of water is the same whether you’re from Canada, or Malaysia. This is a huge topic that’s hard to properly address.

9. In sh Allah. Saudis live their lives based off the principle of Inshallah which translates as God Willing or Gods Will. It is easily the most commonly used word in these parts. Also the most annoying for westerners who typically don’t live their lives guided 100% by this premise. It is also annoying because it’s so bloody contagious. I say Inshallah easily 20 times a day. I accidentally let it slip out last week at Oktoberfest when some one asked me if I was planning on going next year. Inshallah! I replied. And then immediately smacked the palm of my hand to my forehead. Duh. Let me set the scene for you…..you’ve got some type of Saudi style paperwork nightmare, that you’ve been stressed about, and really wouldn’t be that big of a deal to work out back home, but then again, you’re not at home. So this seemingly simple thing (like opening a bank account, or getting your residency card) has turned into a colossal nightmare because you’ve now made 8 trips to several different offices over the span of a few days because half the time the office hasn’t opened on time, the guy didn’t show up, or you get there and now they’ve closed for tea time, or prayer time, or smoke break time. So finally you’ve handed in all the paperwork and things are looking real good. So you ask “How long before this is processed?” I bet you a million riyals that the guy’s reply will be 1 of 2 things “2 weeks, Inshallah.” Or “Inshallah, 2 weeks.” As soon as he utters Inshallah you can almost automatically double the time, or assume the paperwork will get lost. It’s kinda like a jinx.

10. Reverse culture shock. Homesickness. People not getting you. Just as integrating into Saudi Arabian life isn’t easy, nor will returning home. Your time here will change you. It will change the way you see the world. Returning home is hard. People will have a hard time understanding what your life here was like. Many will not be interested. When I returned from Saudi the first time I moved back to Seattle. Back to the same neighbourhood, same job, same friends. And yet I wasn’t the same. It took me nearly 6 months to settle in. Upon reentry you may find that people have a hard time relating to you. You may find that the time you spent away strained relationships. Unless you are going home often, you likely will have missed out on major events back home such as weddings, births, anniversaries and holidays. It’s not easy.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think that deciding to take a job in Saudi Arabia has been hugely rewarding, and for me the positives out weigh the negatives. At least most days they do.

Did I miss anything that should be on this list?  What are your thoughts?

So You Want to Work in Saudi Arabia? Part 1 (The Good)

People are endlessly curious about what being an ex-pat in Saudi Arabia is like and what it entails. Often I get contacted regarding what it’s like to live in the Middle East and how to go about getting a job here, so I thought I would discuss the pros and cons to living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. My perspective is that of a western woman. If you’ve been reading my blog for anytime you likely know that I’m a Canadian educated nurse and that I’ve spent most of my career working in large U.S. hospitals. I’m currently working in Riyadh the capitol of Saudi Arabia in a large teaching hospital. So here are my top 10 reasons why you should consider working in the Kingdom:

1. You will most likely save money. Money is the #1 reason most people come to the Middle East. The income you make is most likely tax free depending on your residency status and tax laws in your home country. For many ex-pats housing is included with their hiring package, so no rent=more money in your pocket. Also the cost of living is WAY lower than any western country, which also makes it easy to save money assuming you’re not blowing it on designer shoes and first class plane tickets. I should note that at least for most western nurses the myth that “you’re making huge money in Saudi Arabia” is a flat out lie. What I make tax free is pretty darn close to what I made in Canada or the U.S. taxed. But I don’t pay rent or have a car payment, so at the end of the day I come out ahead. But I’m required to work about 32hrs more a month than I would back home so essentially hourly I’m actually making less, although monthly I’m making more.

2. You will meet many awesome people. Ex-pats are super fun, and also maybe a little bit crazy. I’m sure there are studies proving this. You will make friends from all over the world. New Zealand. Australia. Malaysia. The Philippines. You have to be a bit of an adventurer to want to uproot your life and move to Saudi Arabia. You will also meet people who are extremely passionate about traveling. Or salsa if that’s your thing. Or running. Or tennis. Whatever you’re into, rest assured you will find people with similar interests here.

3. You can travel the world. I get 54 vacation days per contract. Yes. 54. No joke. That’s a lot of vacation time. In fact in the year I’ve been here I’ve already visited Qatar, Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the UAE, the Maldives, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and Germany. The last time I worked here I traveled to Hungry, Austria, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Oman, India, Turkey and Greece. You can pack a lot in in a one-year contract. Trust me. I’m a professional at it. And depending on where you’re from it’s so much cheaper to travel from Saudi Arabia than it will ever be back home. For $500 the only place I can get to from the west coast of Canada is the U.S. and maybe Mexico if I found a great deal. From Riyadh I can get to Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Africa as well as Asia.

4. This is the only way you will get to see Saudi Arabia. Unless of course you’re Muslim. Cause they aren’t issuing tourist visas. So it’s quite a privilege to get to see a country and culture so vastly different than your western one. Working here gives you a perspective on a country and culture that is separate from what western media leads us to believe. Not every local you meet wants to kill you or convert you. Did you know that Saudi’s are actually very funny people? Granted sometimes they don’t get my sense of humor, but if I’m honest I laugh a lot at work. Many of my Saudi co-workers are very light-hearted. In fact, I refer to most of our male Saudi co-workers as my “brothers.” Also, being in Saudi Arabia allows you to see parts of the country that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Did you know that the famous site of Petra in Jordan has a sister site in northwestern Saudi Arabia? Have you ever been to a camel race? Did you know that camel beauty pageants are actually a thing? Take a job in Saudi Arabia and see for yourself.

5. Your life will be anything but dull. Especially if you happen to be a blond western woman like me. Trip to the grocery store=marriage proposals. Go to the bank to deposit money= getting offered tea and cookies by the male teller. Going out for dinner could turn into a full-on photo shoot with a group of local girls. Earlier this week I walked into my patients room and the patients mother held up her hands and yelled “beautiful” and then pinched my cheeks. Trust me. This kindof stuff never happened to me in North America. It’s pretty entertaining how the most seemingly easy thing can turn into some strange encounter. I personally live for this type of daily entertainment.

6. Arabic to English translations are funny. And vice versa. Quite often when I attempt to speak Arabic my patient or their family will start giggling and then clapping like they are congratulating a toddler for using the toilet. I’m not joking. It’s ridiculous. Also accents and poor language skills can lead to some pretty funny misunderstandings. The first time I was in Saudi I worked with a Finnish girl who with a thick accent would say she needed to go “shart” when she was saying she needed to chart. Trust me for 15 months this was never, not funny. Every time she said it my kiwi-sidekick and I would laugh. She probably hated to work with us. Another time an Arabic doctor came up to me and asked me a question. What I heard was him asking me “Do you have painful urination?” That’s seriously what I thought he said. I must’ve replied “what?” to him 3 times because I couldn’t believe he was asking me that. Turns out on the 4th time when he spoke v e r y   s l o w l y, that he was actually asking me “Do you have pen for donation?” I’m quite certain he never asked to borrow a pen from a western nurse like that again.

7. Ladies. You will grow to love your abaya. So yes it is true that anytime you leave your housing compound you will need to don your little black dress aka your abaya. The only exception to this is if by some amazing stroke of luck you find yourself living on the DQ (Diplomatic Quarters.) If you do then I’m super jealous, and can we please be friends. Stat. Anyways, back to the abaya. It literally takes humming and hawing over what to wear out of the picture. Going for dinner with friends and not sure what to wear under your abaya? Ummm PJs. Or yoga pants. Or nothing at all. Cause who’s going to know- you’re covered in a head to toe black dress anyways. Going shopping. Same outfit. No one but you will ever know.

8 Learning Arabic will become your party trick when you return back home. After you’ve lived in Saudi and you get asked that stupid question during an interview “Tell us one unique thing about you?” I speak Arabic bitches. That’s what. BOOM. No one will be expecting that. After I left Saudi the first time I returned to my previous job at a large hospital in Seattle. We got a lot of Somali patients, and often we would get Saudi English students from the university in the ER. One time they couldn’t find an Arabic interpreter. So I was all casually like “I can try and help.” And the doctor was like “What now?” Yep. Basic medical Arabic is my party trick.

9. Embassy Parties. When was the last time you went to a Ball or Gala? Never. Work in Saudi Arabia and that will likely change. All those bridesmaids dresses you were led to believe you could wear again. Well pack one and some dancing shoes because you’ll likely need em. Also it’s fun to have the chance to celebrate 4th of July at the U.S. embassy, or St Pats at the Irish, or Bastille Day at the French.

10. Bragging Rights. How many people can look back on their lives and say “Remember that one time I lived in Saudi Arabia…..” You, that’s who if you take an adventure as an ex-pat in Saudi. The downside is that when you are old and in a nursing home chances are people will just think you have dementia, not that you actually did live in Saudi Arabia. But either way you’ll be entertaining someone with your tales.

UPDATE August 2017: Here’s a recent link to a blog post I wrote about working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia.

 

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