Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: February 2016

Zaragoza and Madrid Spain

After spending 4 lovely nights in Barcelona we boarded an express train to the town of Zaragoza. Zaraogoza is located west of Barcelona about 90 min on the train. Spanish trains are clean and the one we were on went about 300km/hr. Normally, I love to take a window seat and watch the world wiz by, but at that speed most of the scenery was a blur.

We arrived mid morning and the town was much colder than Barcelona had been. Since we only had one night in Zaragoza we tried to pack in as much as we could. Our first stop was Aljaferia Place an Arabic Palace from the 11th century. I have a love of Arabic architecture and patterns and this place didn’t disappoint. The outer walls of the Palace look like a traditional castle but the inside courtyards have beautiful carved archways and the inner rooms have intricately painted designs. Well worth a visit if you also share of love of Arabic design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then spent some time in the Main square and visited Cathedral del Salvador which dates from the 12 century and the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar which was built from the late 1600’s to the early 1800’s. Sadly, neither church allowed photos from the inside, but the Basilica is stunning, especially at night. The rest of our time in Zaragoza was spent wandering and getting our fill of tapas.

 

 

 

 

 

The following day we boarded another train and headed for Madrid. Again we only had one night so we tried to fit in as much of the city as we could. In hind sight we easily could’ve spend a few more nights here, but inshallah next time. We checked into our hotel and immediately set off for Mercado san Miguel a huge upscale tapas market. For my North American readers think something similar to Granville Island or Pike Market, but with way more alcohol choices. We lunched on tapas and wine to our hearts content. There is a lot of different food to choose from and it pays to go during off peak hours as understandably it is very popular.

From here we walked over to Almudena Cathedral which was built on the site of a medieval mosque in 1879, but wasn’t completed until the early 1990’s. The cathedral is stunning and sits next to the Royal Palace of Madrid. The inside is filled with some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen and thankfully they do allow photos, so feel free to click away. After this we headed to the Royal Palace which was built in the 1700’s. The palace used to be home to the Spanish Royal family, but currently it is only used for state functions. The place is enormous and reportedly contains more than 3000 rooms. Photos are not allowed inside the palace, but take my word- the rooms are decorated beautifully and I really enjoyed visiting it. There is also an impressive armory and carriage display, but again no photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that about wraps up my week in Spain. I really loved Spain and am very much looking forward to going back this fall as I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. February was a busy month for me as I spent some time living it up in Dubai, and then returned from a week long trip to Romania a few days ago, but more to come on all that soon! I’m off to Italy for 12 days of solo travel next weekend which I’m pretty excited about, and am hoping to make some long term decisions to figure out what the heck I’m going to do with my life once I leave Saudi…..decisions, decisions…..

Barcelona Spain

So last month I spent a week in Spain. 4 nights in Barcelona and then a night in both Zaragoza and Madrid. I loved it. Spain is rad and if you haven’t been then you should go asap. The people were so friendly. Like over the top friendly. And that’s really something for me to say seeing as I grew up in Canada a country often remarked as one of the friendliest countries in the world. I’m sure like in most non-English speaking countries people are often friendlier when you attempt to speak their language. So I busted out my best Spanish and wowed people with my Hola’s and was able to order beers and ask how much something cost, and could you please bring the check fine sir. Otherwise my Spanish skills consist of some medical terminology and that’s about it. But we got by. Mostly because as with the world over- almost everyone speaks English anyways so you’re never really not able to communicate.

 

 

 

 

 

The other great thing about Spain is the food, and that wine is available everywhere. And it’s also totally acceptable to get day drunk of which I am a huge fan. So I ate fresh seafood, tapas, and drank Spanish wine to my heart and belly’s content. Also, Spanish men are uber stylish and often super hot. So while getting day drunk there was always a lot of eye candy for my viewing pleasure which only added to Spain’s appeal. But here’s the one bad thing about Spanish men……they scratch their balls a lot. Often while making eye contact and chatting with you. It’s a little disconcerting. Let me set the scene for you. We got lost. So asked a random dude for directions. He’s telling us which way to go and then oh great I think he’s going to point which way we need to go. Nope. Scratching his balls. Unfortunately, my eyes tend to follow any type of quick movement like a cat to a laser pen so there’s this really awkward second or so where the dude is scratching and my eyes are just taking it all in. I’m not sure if it’s an underwear issue (or lack of underwear) but apparently as far as I can tell, Spanish balls are itchy balls.

Ok. Enough about balls. Now onto what we actually did besides eating, drinking, and men watching. Normally I’m not a huge fan of Hop on Hop off buses because I get very irritated by other tourists, but in Barcelona it’s a great way to go, as a bunch of the things you want to do are spread out around the city. Also it was chilly when we were there. Ok. Fine. We were also kinda lazy. So there’s that. I would recommend a 2 day pass. You’ll have plenty of time to see everything you want that way. We stayed on the Old Gothic area like a 2 min walk to Las Ramblas street. There are a ton of small hotels there, but some of the roads aren’t accessible by vehicle so be prepared to walk a bit with your luggage. This area is pretty central and you can walk to lots from there.

If you don’t know much about Barcelona you’ll need to at least read up about Antoni Gaudi. You will hear his name over and over and he was very influential in Barcelona. He was a Spanish architect who died in 1926, but the city is filled with buildings designed by him. In fact one major building of his design the Sagrada Familia is still under construction funded by private donors. Sagrada Familia is an enormous Roman Catholic church that was designated as a UNESCO site. You would be plain silly to visit Barcelona without going here. The outside is bizarre and Gothic and actually quite hard to explain. There are spires stretching up towards the sky with cranes and drilling and chiseling heard over the Barcelona traffic sounds. The inside will literally take your breath away. The light reflection from the stained glass windows has a hypnotic effect and even though it was super crowded with tourists there was this overwhelming sense of peace. The thing I loved about the on going construction was that even after his death his work is still taking place. Little by little the cathedral will eventually be completed. That what he didn’t complete during his life will carry on. It’s really remarkable. Try and go early as there are hoards of tourists and I dread to think how busy it would be during the summer months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Park Guell is another very popular tourist site also designed by Antoni Gaudi. This park has also been declared a World Heritage Park by UNESCO and is well worth the visit. True to Gaudi’s style the park design is bizarre but it’s not Gothic like the Sagrada Familia. It has a more magical feel. Make sure to go to the roof of the main terrace which has stunning views of the city and some of the most beautiful mosaic work I’ve ever seen. It’s also a perfect place for people watching, or to sit and take a break. As I’ve mentioned there are Gaudi buildings all over the city, but we only visited one other one during our time there called Le Pedrera. This site is also not surprisingly, a UNESCO site. The building is impressive from the outside given its unique facade, but it’s famous for its bizarre rooftop adorned with 28 chimneys some covered with shiny pottery pieces. It was interesting, but it was the most expensive entrance we paid during our whole trip and I’m not really sure it was worth the money. You do get to tour one of the apartments and there is a great exhibit on the design and reconstruction project.

Park Guell

Park Guell

 

 

 

 

 

Le Pedrera

Le Pedrera

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the rest of our time in Barcelona visiting the Monastery of Pedralbes a Gothic monastery from the 14th century. We also visited the Erotic Museum (sorry Pops) which was actually pretty entertaining and showcased cultural artwork pertaining to sexuality from around the world and provided more than a few good laughs. We visited the Picasso museum where I learned that I actually don’t like modern art much at all, but I did very much appreciate his early works. He was a very talented artist at a very young age. We also visited the main Cathedral which you can take an elevator to the roof for some great views of the city. And that pretty much wrapped up our days in Barcelona.  From here we traveled onwards to Zaragoza…..

Cloisters at the Monastery

An old tomb

Janadriyah Festival

Well it’s that time of year again my Saudi people. Janadriyah festival started this past weekend and will continue until February 20th. The first time I was in Saudi it was a really cool cultural event. One that I was very eager to attend again, but it was cancelled last year after King Abdullah’s death. I’m planning on going next week, but wanted to let you know what it’s all about and what I thought of it from the previous time I attended.

For my North American readers, Janadriyah is part country fair meets expo, minus the rides and the alcohol. The festival is held on the outskirts of Riyadh on a site designated for this festival. I don’t think the site is used the rest of the year but I could be wrong about that. It lasts for 2 weeks with the first weekend being designated for men and the rest of the time to families. The opening hours are from 9am till noon, and then again from 4pm until midnight. From what I remember there were a bunch of different tents or areas designated to the different regions of Saudi. There were dancers and musicians, and people wearing traditional costumes from their regions. There were a bunch of different tents giving away educational material from different government sectors. I remember visiting tents staffed by the Ministry of Health, the Saudi Human Rights Commission, and other social programs within the Kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the interesting memories I have was visiting the Ministry of Hajj tent and learning about the Hajj experience and being offered ZamZam water (the holy water from Mecca.) Pilgrims who return from Hajj or Umra often return with jugs of ZamZam water, and it’s not uncommon for our patients in the hospital to request their medications be given or mixed with ZamZam water. While it was an experience getting to taste ZamZam water, I believe it is something that one acquires a taste to. From what I recall it was rather minerally in taste, and one sip was more than enough. Every year the festival designates a different country from around the world to be highlighted, and has a tent to showcase them. When I was there I believe the guest country was Japan. This year it is Germany. I’m super tempted to bust out my Oktoberfest costume, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be well received but really who would know anyways since I’d be wearing it under my abaya…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few things stood out to me from the last time I visited. First, I took a bunch of photos which is not always easy to do in Saudi Arabia, but I don’t remember it being a problem. For obvious reasons don’t blatantly take photos of uncovered women or children, but photos of the decor, crafts and buildings were no problem. Second, it’s a fantastic way to mix with the locals. I remember the local women being extremely friendly, coming up to chat with us, touch our hair, or ask for photos with us. So if you have a day or night free you should definitely make the trek out to the Janadriyah festival. It’s a very unique festival that will give you a better understanding of Saudi culture and let you interact with the locals.

 

 

 

 

 

Women will need to make sure they have a scarf and you will likely be directed to cover your hair prior to entering the festival grounds. I remember the Mutawa (religious police) giving verbal warnings to women who’s hair was uncovered, but I don’t recall being asked to cover my hair once in the actual festival site. Have fun!!!

Travel as a Woman

This blog post has been writing itself in my head for at least the last several months. Ultimately, it came to fruition partly related to a recent article written by a fellow travel blogger Gigi Griffis were she discussed her recent trip to Columbia and the numerous safety issues she faced while traveling there as a solo women. She received a lot of angry comments both on her blog and Facebook page from people who discounted her concerns and largely her feelings regarding her own safety. The other reason I’m writing this post is following a discussion I had with my Pops about what it’s like largely to be a woman traveling, but also to just live daily life as a woman. This was directly related to an incident that happened while I was in Barcelona last week. It made me realize that men in general (sorry to say) are pretty clueless as to what a woman puts up with on a daily basis, especially regarding the safety concerns that govern many aspects of our daily lives. Things we even as women don’t likely realize we do. Now I realize there are women out there that are less safety conscious than me, or who are fearless and for whom maybe these things don’t apply, but I imagine they are few and far between.

Women’s safety concerns can dictate where they park (always in a lit area, never next to a creepy child molester van). It dictates where they might choose to live, or what hours they may choose to work. As an example, my previous job in Kelowna the free staff parking lot was like a 10 min walk to a largely unlit parking lot that by the time I got off work in the winter hours was pitch black. So do you think I would park there? Hells no. I’m not risking my safety to park for free in some shady ass parking lot. And so I didn’t and I just paid. I have lived places where I didn’t exactly feel safe so I would literally do a “safety sweep” and check the closets and behind the couch and under the bed when I got home at night. Now I know you’re probably thinking I’m a crazy lunatic, but I reckon that easily half the women who read this and live alone perform some type of safety related action or routine when they get home at night. I’m also very aware of my surroundings when out at night regardless of where I am. I look people in the eye and would never wear headphones or be chatting on the phone if I was walking anywhere at all secluded. I feel like if I’m aware and alert I’m less of a target for someone to attack or rob me.

So how does this overlay into when we travel? Well being a blond westerner brings it’s own share of problems when traveling in much of the world where blond hair isn’t very common. Living in Saudi it’s pretty uncommon if I get thru a day without something strange or inappropriate happening. Just a quick walk down the main hospital corridor where I work can sometimes feel like I’m walking down a cat walk. I’m not saying this because I think I’m super hot, I’m just stating what actually takes place for me and many western women here. Men stare. Sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes in a creepy leering way. At least once a week someone takes my photos without my permission. Often this happens in one of my patients rooms and it’s awkward as fuck every time it happens. First, they never ask me if it’s ok to take the photo. Second, often the phone isn’t silenced so as the photos is taken the phone makes that shutter noise so they know that I know they’ve just taken my picture. Thirdly, if you’re going to take my bloody picture maybe you could give me a heads up?! At least let me look my best for whatever creepy reason it is that you needed to take that photo in the first place?! Then there are the inappropriate questions regarding whether I’m single and if I would like to have an Arabic husband. Ummm no. Then there are the instances where a man will look at you literally like you aren’t wearing clothes. Sometimes I will walk out of a patient’s room feeling like a need a shower because of the pervy aggressive looks I received. It should be noted that our work uniforms consist of super unsexy white scrubs. Mine are way too big and I literally resemble the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. Seriously. Can you imagine if we were allowed to wear the flattering scrubs we wear back home. I feel like the local male population would quite literally die of heart attacks. The other thing that happens quite a bit is getting followed. Last month a creepy dude followed me around the grocery store and leered at me while I picked out my cucumbers in the produce section. As a woman here you will often get followed by cars with Saudi boys who are old enough to be your children. The same day of the infamous cucumber incident a Saudi guy pulled up next to the vehicle I was in and demanded my driver put down the back window so he could “get a look.” I told my driver to tell him to “get a life” instead.

Unfortunately, these incidents aren’t specific to Saudi. Last week in Barcelona my Kiwi mate and I were dressed up for dinner and walking in a crowded main square when men repeatedly blocked our way to try and chat us up. We would step around them and a little further up some new guys would try the same aggressive and unsuccessful move. Later that evening as we were walking back to our hotel 2 men crossed our paths and catcalled us about spending the night with them. We ignored them and crossed the street. They turned around and followed us. I’m still pissed about it. That they felt that it was ok to try and follow us late a night back to our hotel. I personally have zero tolerance for this type of behaviour and stopped to make it very clear that we knew what they were up to and that they had better keep it moving. Sadly, my Kiwi mate and I have been followed on the streets of Phnom Penh, and in Nicosia Cyprus a Nigerian guy kept following us after we repeatedly told him to leave us alone. To the point that I actually had to cause a public scene for him to leave. Super creepy. While in Kolkata India, my friend and I would joke that when we go back we will have shirts made with the Hindi text “STOP STARING”  written on the front because that week I experienced some of the most intense staring of my life. Then there were the numerous sexist and generally unpleasant experiences in Marrakesh Morocco. Being surrounded by groups of men in the main square. Having my path blocked in the Medina or my wrist grabbed on more than one occasion as a shopkeeper tried to drag me into their store. Then there are the local markets the world over. I think you would be hard pressed to find a female traveler that hasn’t been inappropriately touched or rubbed against while trying to purchase some cheap tourist trinkets. Just so I’m being clear by “touching” I mean being rubbed against or having one’s ass, breasts or crotch grabbed. Unfortunately, I have had all 3 happen more than once. But to be fair, this can happen to a woman without traveling abroad. I’m sure many of my female readers have been in a crowded bar or nightclub and had a similar experience.

Travel as a woman can be difficult in ways that men will never fully understand. Sometimes after an inappropriate encounter I try to visualize what my Pops or my brother would do or think if they had witnessed it. Or I try and think what the men would do if the person getting leered at or followed was their mother, daughter or sister. It wouldn’t be ok then would it?! So what does a lady do? How do you combat this type of behaviour when it happens a lot? Many of us modify the way we dress while traveling.  We try to make ourselves less visible. Loose casual clothing, nothing flashy. Cover your hair when it’s culturally appropriate to do so. In my opinion these alterations don’t really make any difference. If a man is going to stare at you then he’s going to stare at you regardless. I have tested this theory day in and day out living in Saudi. I get the same looks and attention whether my hair is covered or not. It’s still pretty obvious that I’m a westerner and therefore foreign looking. I think talking about it helps. Making men aware of what kind of behaviour is threatening and inappropriate. But here’s the thing, many men would welcome any type of attention from ladies so if the situation was reversed they likely wouldn’t be uncomfortable like we are. I have tried the “you stare at me and I’ll stare right back at you” game. Trust me. That never works. In fact in my experience it just makes the staring more aggressive and usually the creepy dude will take it as suggestion to come and have a closer look. Also when someone is full on perving at you it’s impossible to hold eye contact with them. I find it very threatening.  I’m not sure how we go about making it clear that men the world over need to modify their behaviour. Just because a woman looks foreign does not make it ok to aggressively stare at her. It is NOT ok to follow a woman. Especially when she has already made her disinterest clear. Especially if she is alone or it is late at night. It is NEVER ok to grab a women’s wrist or block her way. I guarantee that if she didn’t want to see want whatever stupid thing you were selling a second ago, she sure as hell won’t now that you’ve become physically aggressive with her.

Please don’t read this post and take it as a message that women shouldn’t travel because that is definitely not what I’m saying. I just think women have to be safe and smart. The main goal of this post was to draw attention to the many ways women can and are made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. That maybe one guy who reads this will be with his buddy who will see a lady and say “she’s hot, lets follow her!” And the guy will turn to his friend and say “nah, lets go get a tea/coffee/beer instead.” To be clear I have traveled to over 40 countries now and I have met many, many lovely and kind men throughout my travels. Luckily, when I think back on visiting most countries the impression I had of it, and the memories I take with me are overwhelmingly of the positive things that happened to me and the positive interactions I had. And not the intense staring or back to back ass grabs I got in the market.

Safe travels ladies….

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