Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: December 2015

Frankfurt Christmas Market

On my way back from Canada and the U.S. earlier this month I had a 3 night layover in Frankfurt. For at least the last decade I had wanted to see a European Christmas market so since I was flying back via Frankfurt this was the perfect time to do it. A couple years ago I went to Leavenworth WA over the holiday season so I knew a little about what to expect. Delicious warm mulled wine. Dressing in warm winter clothes. German food. Holiday cheer. And weird wooden painted German Christmas decorations. It was all those things and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had some unused hotel credits that I decided to put to use at a super nice hotel in Frankfurt. I stayed at the Rocco Forte Villa Kennedy which used to be an enormous family home from the early 1900’s but is now a fancy boutique hotel. It was beautiful and the staff were great. The only down side was that it’s a 20min walk to get to the museums and the Christmas Market. This suited me just fine as the weather was crisp and it was a lovely walk along the river to get where I wanted to go. Frankfurt has a bunch of great museums, but as with most things in Europe, many are closed on Mondays so you have to plan accordingly. I spend an afternoon wandering the galleries in the Stadel Museum which houses 700 years of art and includes the works of Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso. Later I checked out an exhibit at the Schirn Museum which houses more modern art exhibits. The one I saw was called Storm Women and featured only women artists from the early 20th century. It’s a great exhibition if you find yourself in Frankfurt between now and February.

The rest of my time in Frankfurt was spent relaxing on my own. After spending over 2 weeks catching up with everyone back home I was feeling exhausted and needing some solo time. The older I get the more I am starting to realize that I am an extroverted introvert. I LOVE being around people and being a social butterfly. Like for a night. And then I’m drained and don’t want to talk with anyone for like a full 24hours. The older I get the harder it is for me to make social commitments 2 night in a row. It wears me out. I need some down time to recharge. Frankfurt was a great place for this.

I spent 2 afternoons at the Frankfurt Christmas Market wandering around. Naturally, it was packed with people. There are vendors selling gifts like candles and ornaments, and of course those wooden painted toys/ornaments/nativity scenes that the Germans seem to be so fond of. There are food vendors selling crepes, pretzels, sausages, cookies and candies. You won’t go hungry. And then there are the many, many vendors selling “Gluhwein” or mulled wine as we know it back home. If you don’t know what this is you are missing out on life. It’s warm red wine that’s heated with cinnamon, orange, and cloves and it’s delicious. It’s served in mugs which you can either buy, or pay a refundable deposit when you return them. It’s a great way to stay warm in the chilly air, and also a great way to make friends with locals and other tourists.

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So that wraps up my latest holiday, but don’t worry I’ve got a bunch of more trips in store. I’m going to Spain for a week in January splitting my time between Barcelona and Madrid. Then the beginning of February I’ll spend a weekend in Dubai and am looking into traveling to Azerbaijan. I’ve got some more time off in March that I haven’t yet made plans for, and then in April I’ll be spending 2 weeks in Iran. 2016 is looking like it’s going to be a great year!!

Have you been to any of the European Christmas Markets? What did you think?

Happy Holidays aka Merry Christmas, and a Tribute to my Mom

This year Christmas was a weird one. Normally I’m super jazzed about Christmas. It’s always been my favourite holiday. This might have to do with the fact that I’m a December baby also. I mean if Jesus and I share the same birthday month I’m pretty sure that’s reason enough to be excited. Except, I wasn’t this year. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that I was home earlier in the month and celebrated with friends and family then. I spent American Thanksgiving with my best friends extended family and let’s be honest, American Thanksgiving feels a whole lot like Christmas to me. There’s booze and turkey and everyone is in good spirits. Then I flew to Germany and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt. So it’s no wonder that by the time I got back to Saudi Arabia it felt like the holiday was over.

I was supposed to spend Christmas in Dubai. Supposed to, because as with many things in Saudi we were thrown a curve ball. I have blogged about the numerous absurd paperwork nightmares involved with living in Saudi. This one affected my Kiwi travel mate and so we were inadvertently grounded. Basically, to make a long long story short, to work as a nurse in Saudi you have to have this thing called Saudi Health Council which means they have checked your credentialing and you are actually a registered nurse in your home country. You then get a card which means you can work here- but really you’re actually working off your nursing license in your home country, but that’s another story. So anyways, she applied for this thing when we first arrived 15 months ago. Yep 15. MONTHS. So she never got the card. Instead she got a paper copy of the registration which is pretty much good to use as toilet paper because it’s meaningless with out the card. So she’s been to the office to request said card like a hundred times and the answer is always “inshallah this week.” (Because they only go to the main office where the cards are once a week). Or, “we have requested another card.” “Or come back tomorrow inshallah.” As a side note it’s a Christmas miracle no one was murdered in the making of this tale. So anyways said card never bloody shows up. Which would only just be annoying except that we had this trip to Dubai planned. And she needed to apply for a travel visa so we could leave the country. And to go to Dubai requires that you bring your passport and your Igama (Saudi residency card). And your Igama must be good for 3 months. Which hers wasn’t, so she needed to renew it before they would issue the travel visa. And to renew your Igama you need………drumroll………yep! You need your Saudi Health Council card. Shit. Double shit.

So the week before she went to the main office and was able to get something that would suffice and rushed back to the hospital to apply for her Igama, and they “rush” processed it. By rush I mean it actually took longer to come back then if they hadn’t “rushed” it. Of course. So like 2 days before we were supposed to go we pulled the plug on it because we knew we  would be more mad to have to cancel it the day before and we re-booked for February. Thankfully, we had other plans and were invited to parties on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so it wasn’t a total wash. Although it was super annoying.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again “Saudi is one huge lesson in patience.”

So stay in Saudi we did. And then a few other things happened leading up to Christmas. My brother’s girlfriend’s Dad was involved in an awful accident and is in the ICU. My Dad went to Mexico to spend the holidays with my aunt and ended up getting sick. And then my Opa passed away Christmas Eve. It’s so difficult being in Saudi when things are happening back home and the people you care about are sick, or having a difficult time. My Opa (Grandfather in German) was old, and I didn’t really have much of a relationship with him or my Oma. In fact, I can’t actually remember the last time I saw them. They always lived on the other side of the country and never really visited us. We would chat on the phone on birthdays or the major holidays and I would send postcards from my many trips. Then a few years ago they were moved to a nursing home as their minds and bodies started to fail. My Opa’s body more than mind and the opposite for my Oma. Last week he started to decline and my mom flew out to be there with him. And my heart aches for her. It’s never easy to be present with someone in their last moments. To see them struggle for breaths. To hear the noises they make. To resist every urge in you that makes you want to run away and instead be present. To not flee. To bear witness to a life that is transitioning. It’s a huge honour to be with someone as they take their final breath, but also an emotional burden. It’s hard enough to do this, let alone when you are alone on Christmas Eve. Mom- I’m so very proud of you and thankful that you were there with him. That his hands were one of the first you would feel at the beginning of your life, and your hand was the last one he held as his ended. It’s a true testament to your courage and kindness.

So, Happy Holidays and a late Merry Christmas.

 

Thoughts on Home……

Earlier this month I traveled back to Seattle, the place I think of as my adult home and up to Canada to where my family is. Both hold very strong emotional ties for me, and after having not visited either since last October this trip was long overdue. This was in fact the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from home. I had been counting down the days coming up to this trip the last few months. I was super homesick, and couldn’t wait to surround myself with those I love dearly and who love me in return.

My visit to Canada was so needed, and yet a little difficult at the same time. Lots had changed in the year I’d been away. Lives had changed. In the couple months surrounding me coming to Saudi my parents had decided to part ways. Each starting different lives in different addresses. The family home was sold. Granted I hadn’t lived in this home in like 15 years, but mentally it was the place I would go when and if everything fell apart. It was my safe haven. The place I knew I would be welcomed and cared for unconditionally. And it no longer exists for that purpose. I was immensely nervous how I would fit in. If there would be room for me. If I would feel out of place. As it turns out there was space, both physically and emotionally for me to fit back in to the mix. I shifted my time between my mom and pop’s places, and spent a night surrounded by family at my brother’s. I caught up with old friends, many who I’ve known my entire adult life. I treated my mom to an early Christmas present and we escaped to a luxury spa for the night where we drank wine overlooking the snowy hills that flowed into Okanagan Lake. It was a great week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My time in Seattle was spent running what felt like a million errands and a majority of the time sitting on my best mate’s couch, wine in hand thankful to have some much needed catch-up time. I felt honoured that so many people went out of there way to carve out a slice of time in their busy lives to see me. Truly. Even now that I’ve been back a week my heart is huge and I’m so thankful to have so many great friends. Many I’ve known for years, some only in the last couple years I spent in Seattle. Thanks to modern technology I can easily keep in touch with them and connect whenever we find ourselves in the same geographical locale. It’s pretty awesome. So thank you- you all know who you are!! To those of you I missed- I promise to see you next time I’m in town….whenever that may be…..

So now that I’m back here in Saudi Arabia, I feel myself split in three pieces. The part of me that lives in Saudi and loves adventuring around the world.  A part of me that misses my old urban life in Seattle, where so many of my dear friends are. A place where any day of the week you can find a double happy hour, and there’s always something going on.  And then the part of me that will always call Canada home, regardless of the number of years I am away. I think Pascal Mercier sums it up perfectly with the following quote “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find only by going back there.” Wouldn’t you agree?

 

Top 10 Middle East- Part 2

Earlier this week I shared with you Part 1 of my  top 10 favourite places in the Middle East, so here’s the second half…..

6. Muscat, Oman

Oh-man!!! Where to even start about Oman. It’s an amazing country. If you’re at all nervous about visiting a country in the Middle East I would say Oman would be the easiest. I loved it, and truth be told I immediately started looking into nursing positions there after my trip, but alas, there weren’t any at that time. We organized a week long tour that took us all over the country. The Omani coast is spectacular and there are tons of wadis (natural swimming holes) that you hike into and are really cool to explore. The city of Muscat is built around a harbor surrounded by the Al Hajar mountains to the west. There is a beautiful corniche to wander along, the Old Muttrah souk to explore and many great restaurants. We spent an afternoon visiting the Grand Mosque which was colourful and ornate. Ladies you will need to cover your hair and wear long sleeved tops. Somehow this slipped my mind and I had to spend $30 on an ugly striped mens long sleeve shirt to be allowed in. Sometimes I suffer from complete Middle East amnesia and forget about prayer times, or cultural practices. Showing up at a mosque with a tank top was one such occasion.

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7. Experience Bedouin Life and see the Desert, Jordan or Oman

The deserts in the Arabian peninsula are spectacular. Be it Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Oman the sand is the most beautiful shade of red or orange and stretches out towards the horizon. If you’re visiting the Middle East it would be a shame to pass up seeing the desert. Bedouins are the local nomadic people, and many still live in the desert although this is much less common than it was even 50 years ago. I would recommend the Red Sands in Saudi Arabia. It’s a great place to ride a camel or go ATVing in the sand dunes. Wadi Rum in southern Jordan is a huge tourist attraction and attracts trekkers, climbers and people like me who visit for the day. We had a local guide and were able to interact with some of the local people which I loved. You can stay overnight in one of the Bedouin camps which I would’ve loved to but we ran out of time. Wadi Rum is surrounded by really cool rock formations and literally every direction you turn is a postcard perfect view. Oman also has beautiful desert areas. We visited Wahiba Sands which is south of Muscat and spent an afternoon 4x4ing over the sand dunes, drinking tea with a Bedouin family, and standing around while our guide tried to fix a flat tire in the soft sand. This had us asking that age old question…….How many Bedouins does it take to change a tire? Good times.

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Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wahiba Sands, Oman

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Bedouin mechanics, Oman

 

8. Istanbul. Turkey

Istanbul is a vibrant colourful city. It’s a great landing point for traveling in Turkey and you need at least 3 days to do it justice. Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait and essentially has one side in Europe and the other in Asia. It is a hugely historically significant city that was once a Christian city under Roman rule until it was conquered by the Ottomans and then converted to Islam. There is a ton to see, and so much excellent food to eat. When I went I stayed in the Sultanahment area (old town) which is easy walking distance to the big tourists attractions. Many of the hotels in that area have beautiful rooftop views, so you’ll get to eat your breakfast with a birds eye view of the Blue Mosque. The big highlights of Istanbul for me were the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topaki Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. The best and I seriously mean the BEST thing I did while in Istanbul was visit the Basilica Cistern. It’s a huge 6th century cistern from the Byzantine times and the lighting makes for beautiful photos. As you can imagine it’s dark and a bit creepy but really cool to explore. Me and my overactive imagination would cringe at the thought of being trapped alone down there though. When you go be on the look out for the 2 carved Medusa pillars.

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9. Qal’at al-Bahrain, Bahrain

To be fair there’s not a ton to do in Bahrain apart from shopping and drinking, but it does make a great weekend trip to get away from Saudi Arabia. Who knew that there were actually touristy things to do there? Well there’s a fort that also happens to be a UNESCO heritage site believe to date from 2300 BC. The outer fort is well preserved as are some of the archways and the inner portion looks very much like an archeological site. If you need a break from clubbing and shopping in Bahrain take an hour and go explore the fort. There are great city views from there.

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10. Islamic Arts Museum. Doha, Qatar

I’ve already raved about my love for this museum in a previous post which you can read here. I tend to get kinda bored in museums an my eyes glaze over and I’m far too lazy to bother with reading any of the signage around. This museum was the exception though. I love Arabic patterns and think that visually Arabic is such a beautiful written language. The museum is bright and open and laid out very well. If I’m ever back in Qatar I would check out this museum again. Oh- the best part. It’s free. I love free.

Well that wraps up my Top 10 Middle East recommendations. I could’ve easily made this a top 30 list though, as there are so many wonderful places worth exploring in this region.

Have you traveled in the Middle East? What were your top picks?

Top 10 Middle East- Part 1

I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert on travel in the Middle East, but I sort of am. Self proclaimed of course. To count I’ve traveled within Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman. Even though I would love to go to Israel I have not yet been as having an Israeli stamp in one’s passport can create numerous problems traveling to the above countries I’ve mentioned. For security reasons I have not been to Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen. I’m planning a weekend trip to Kuwait this spring and I’m super excited as I’ve just booked a trip to Iran in April. I’ve wanted to visit Iran for years and decided this spring was the time to do it. So anyways that’s where I’ve been. I thought I would share with you some of my favourite places in the Middle East, as it is a truly fascinating area of the world, and even though there are safety issues I still think if you have the means and curiosity you should go. Originally I was going to post this as one long post, but after seeing how long it actually was when I finished I’ve broken it into 2 parts. Enjoy!

1. Petra, Jordan

It’s no surprise that Petra Jordan is at the top of my Middle East travel list. It’s an amazing place, and a huge site well worth exploring. Also in terms of getting out of your comfort zone Jordan is a really easy country in the Middle East to explore. There are a lot of tourists, and the infrastructure is great. Also I’d say it’s pretty safe. Petra is Jordan’s #1 tourist site and has been the site of many movies- most famously Indiana Jones. The actual site dates from the Nabataeans who established Petra as their capital sometime in the early 5th century BC. The site is massive and you could easily spend an entire day exploring. The walk up to the site itself winds thru rock passages that are narrow but open up into an impressive view of the treasury. It’s best to go first thing when it opens at 6am when the temperatures are cooler and the tour buses haven’t yet rolled in. Once the tour buses arrive it can turn into a real shit show, and as you can imagine the summer months the temperatures are very high and there isn’t much shade. I went in October and even though it was cooler I remember being a sweaty mess by the time we left in the afternoon. My favourite place there was exploring the Monastery on the top. It’s a pretty steep hike, but you could take the lazy but more terrifying option like I did and ride a donkey. The paths are narrow and mine kept losing his footing so I had very vivid thoughts of flying over the side of the cliff and the donkey landing on top of me. It was pretty satisfying though passing all the other tourists who looked like they were seconds from passing out or giving up on the climb as we limbered past fanning ourselves on the back of a donkey. We didn’t have a chance to visit Petra at night. It takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night and the Treasury is lit up by candlelight. I’ve seen photos and it looks pretty awesome.

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2. Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

I’ve already blogged about my visit to Mada’in Saleh, the sister city to Petra in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. Truth be told it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited, mostly because it was devoid of tourists. It’s a little unfair that I’ve added it to this list as the only hope you have of seeing it is if you find yourself working in Saudi as they aren’t currently issuing tourist visas. I wanted to include it though because a lot of my readers are ex-pats in Saudi or people considering taking a job in Saudi and those are the people that should be booking their flights to Al Ula immediately to see this site. It’s more spread out than Petra and you’ll need a guide and driver to see it all. You can read what I previously wrote about it here…..

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3. Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek is located in the Beqaa valley in northern Lebanon  in an area that used to belong to Syria and is the homeland of Hezbollah. I have to admit it had a very different feel than being in Beirut and I remember there were a ton of billboards with the faces of martyrs on them, which was a little unsettling. Baalbek is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon and well worth a visit. We did a day trip from Beirut with a stop- off at Ksara winery which was a great way to end the day. Baalbek is a sister site of the Roman ruins at Palmyra in Syria. Construction on the temple of Juniper is thought to have started around 15BC. This temple is the central point of the Baalbek site and is very impressive as you can see.

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4. Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia is kinda an awkward meeting of Flintstone’s prehistoric era meets phallic rock formations. It’s strange but very picturesque. If you’re going, do yourself a favor and book to stay at one of the many cave hotels. You would be insane not to, because where else are you going to sleep in a luxury cave dwelling. When you go I would give yourself a few days to explore. There’s lots of hiking to be done in the area, and the area is scattered with underground old cities and above ground open air churches. Many of the churches are from the Byzantine era and the paintings in them are often very well preserved, except that many of the eyes or faces have been vandalized as they were seen as idol worship when Islam was brought to the region. The churches were largely abandoned in the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. The other thing you should make sure to do is splurge and treat yourself to an early morning hot-air balloon ride. Just do it. You’ll be awestruck by the beauty of the countryside below and it’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences. I loved it, and am even considering going back this winter as I would love to see what Cappadocia looks like covered in snow. I’m sure it looks magical.

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5. The Dead Sea, Jordan or Israel

It’s not often you get into a body of water and come out of it dirtier than you were when you went in, but such is a swim in the Dead Sea. It’s the lowest point on earth and reported to have the highest salt content of any other body of water. It’s almost 10x more salty than the ocean. It’s an experience going for a dip in it because due to the mineral salt content it makes you super buoyant. So you stroll down to the water edge and try to walk in and by the time the water reaches part way up your legs you lose your footing and will end up on your back. It’s a really bizarre experience, but worth going none the less. Don’t make the same mistake and shave your legs ladies before you go, because trust me. Salt stings something fierce and you’ll regret it straight away. There are a bunch of luxury resorts dotting the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. I stayed at the Movenpick which was fancy and lovely. They also had a fabulous infinity pool.

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The second part of my list will come out later in the week……inshallah….

 

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