Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Month: September 2016

The Camino de Santiago

I’ve made numerous references to my upcoming travel plans over the last few months and the main one has been walking the Camino de Santiago from the French border to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela some 800km away with my father. This has been on my bucket list for the past few years. Like many who have walked before me and many who are in the midst of planning, I heard of the Way of St James as it is otherwise referred to from browsing thru Netflix one night several years ago and coming across the movie called “The Way.” This movie started me on a journey that has led me to this very moment as I write this post from a cafe in Paris and will start my Camino with my dad later this week. The movie came out in 2010 and if you haven’t seen it you should really get it on Netflix and watch it ASAP. In the most basic form the movie is about the relationship between a father and son who chose very different paths in life. The son wants to travel the world, to see it all now, knowing that life is precious and that you have to live it for yourself and no one else. The father has spend his life priding himself in his accomplishments and having financial security and doesn’t agree with his adult sons choices. He gets a call one night that his son has died while at the beginning of the Camino. He flies to France and on a whim decides to complete the Camino in honour of his son and sets off on a pilgrimage that changes his life. The movie is heart wrenching at times to watch. I cry no less than 20 times every time I watch it, and I’ve probably watched it 50 times. No movie has ever felt so true to life or touched me as this movie does. The movie reminds you not to take life or your loved ones for granted because tomorrow is never guaranteed. It shows the immense kindness of strangers and that those people who start out as strangers can end up changing our paths entirely. It reminds you that “you don’t choose a life you live it.”

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About 10 years ago I heard about the 88 temple trail in Japan and had always put this in the back of my mind as something I would like to do, so the idea of pilgrimage wasn’t entirely new to me. I’m not particularly athletic. Or more, I’m not really athletic or outdoorsy in anyway. I could lose a few pounds. And yet I’m drawn to the magnitude of this endeavor. To walk 800km is in itself a monstrous task. It will in no way be easy, and the challenge of it is one of the top reasons I’m walking it. I have a deep seeded belief that I will finish it and yet the physical and emotional turmoil of it are hard to fully imagine. A big part of my reasons for wanting to walk the Camino are personal. I want time alone with my thoughts. I want clarity. I want to put emotional issues to rest. I want to just focus the next 40days on walking. That is all I’ll have to do every morning. Just put one foot in front of the other and walk. I want to walk it for the people I know I will meet along the way. To hear their stories. To connect with people in a genuine way. On the Camino no one cares what your profession is, or how much you earn, or what your retirement plan is. You are all Pilgrims (peregrinos). All equal. All walking for personal reasons.

So what exactly is the Camino? Well essentially it is a walk to the place where the apostle St James is believed to be buried under the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. There are several different routes. My father and I are walking the Camino Frances which is the most popular largely on account of the movie and the fact that the trail is well maintained with villages and towns regularly spaced out. Each year sees increasing numbers of pilgrims. This year is a Holy year in the Catholic church so it is busier than normal. The pilgrimage dates back to medieval times- people have been walking it for over 1000 years. Back then it was believed (and many still do) that you were absolved of all your sins once the pilgrimage was completed. The Camino Frances starts at the foot of the Pyrenees in the town of St Jean Pied de Port. We have opted to split the first day into 2 days as we don’t want to injure ourselves and we are in no rush. The first week is often described as “brutal.” Then your body supposedly adjusts and you get used to the pace. I expect to likely cry and probably vomit going over the Pyrenees. I figure if I have this as my expectation I can then be pleasantly surprised if neither of these things happen.

Pilgrims sleep in albergues (hostels) or hotels or guesthouses. Upon arrival in St Jean pilgrims head to the pilgrim office to pick up their pilgrim passport which they will get stamped daily as they make their way to Santiago. Once in Santiago the passport is shown at the office there and pilgrims receive a certificate (otherwise known as a compostela.) People walk it for religious reasons, physical reasons and personal reasons. People of all ages, all nationalities and all backgrounds walk. They walk for loss, grief, clarity, and spiritual guidance. Many people return to walk different Camino routes to Santiago.

I’m going to try a post something every other day to my Facebook page if you want to follow along. Most likely photos or conversations with those I meet and a recap of our progress. But for now Buen Camino…..

“It’s your road, and your alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” Rumi

Goodbye Saudi…..

fullsizerender-21Well my 2 years here are coming to an end and it’s time to say Goodbye Saudi. At least for now. There are many things that I’m going to miss, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you….

  1. I will miss that things are never dull here. If you are a blond westerner (or really just a western woman in general) even the most simple things can end up turning into a complete spectacle. A trip to the grocery store might include your driver almost getting into no less than 5 accidents, a phone number handed to you in Arabic, getting locked inside the store because you forgot it was prayer time, and you feeling like you hit the jackpot because you came across your favorite brand of peanut butter, or tortilla chips which had been out of stock for months.
  2. You meet people of so many different nationalities every single day. I currently work with nurses from India, the Philippines, South Africa, Canada, the UK, USA, New Zealand, Malaysia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Just to name a few. My driver is from India. My favourite guy who bags my groceries is from Bangladesh. I love interacting with different cultures, especially if someone is from a country I’ve already visited. I think this is actually one of the things I will miss the most.
  3. People are for the most part very friendly. When you walk down the hospital corridor the housekeepers and dietary staff say hello. We are like a weird little family since most people are living far away from their families. People notice when I’ve been away on holiday and I notice when they’ve been away. When I work night shift and walk home on my break I usually cross paths with this same older male housekeeper. He always hands me a cold bottle of water and tells me to have a nice day. Another housekeeper and I have this running routine that when we see each other no matter how far away we are we both salute one another. He even clicks his heels which makes me laugh every time. We’ve probably done this back and forth at least 100 times. I will miss their smiling faces immensely. People have a way of getting inside your heart and whenever I think of these people I know I will smile. I’m smiling right now just writing this.
  4. My Abaya. Lets be honest. I have a love hate relationship with this unflattering costume. And yet weirdly I will miss it. Outside of Saudi Arabia I actually have to put some thought into what I’m wearing. I’m expected to show up to dinner wearing something a little nicer than yoga pants or PJ bottoms. Not here in Saudi though. If I’m going to an event where I can’t remove my abaya (which is basically everywhere outside of a compound or the Diplomatic Quarter) I’ve been know to wear PJ bottoms under my abaya and pair it with a cure pair of heels. Because, who the heck is going to know anyways!!
  5. The travel. Duh. This is actually the main thing I will miss. Saudi Arabia is so central it’s easy get to Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s a great travel hub and I love hearing about upcoming trips my coworkers have coming up. I could talk travel all day every day.

So what’s in store for future Kristine? Well this weekend I fly to Paris for a few nights to meet up with my Pops and we will make our way to the France/Spain border to start our walk to the Spanish city of Santiago some 800km away. Fingers crossed we finish the walk around the end of October. I will stay in Paris for a month and then take the train to Amsterdam for a week and then fly back to North America via Iceland. I’ll likely be in the US/Canada for a month or so. Then if there is a position open at my current hospital and the Saudi government hasn’t introduced the rumored 10% tax to expats I’ll return mid to late January. There have been some recent restrictions here in Saudi and basically any form of internet calling has been blocked. That means you can’t use Facetime, Skype, Whatsapp or Facebook messenger for calls. I’m unclear what the rational is behind this recent development as the 9million expat workers here rely on this type of communication to speak with their loved ones back home. Then there is this rumored tax…..initially a tax system was going to be implemented in 2018, but a recent email that’s been circulated amongst expats states that it will likely come into effect in the next few months. That coupled with the planned 6% tax on money being sent out of the country would essentially mean I would be making much less than I would in North America all while being require to work an extra 32 hrs a month. But again, most of this is rumors so I’m eagerly waiting to see how it all shakes down!

So assuming those things don’t happen and there is a job in an area I want to work in I’ll most likely be back in Saudi in January for another year of travel. But that will be my last year. I promise. I know I said that before……but I really mean it this time!! But of course there’s always the chance that I really like having an apartment in Paris for a month, and access to wine and decide that what I really want after all is to drop some roots and make a permanent move back to North America. Those of you who know me I’m sure are laughing out loud at the prospect of me wanting to settle down I’m sure, but honestly I have no idea what will happen after these 4 months of travel. One thing I’m certain of though is that I will have clarity after walking some 800km. This I’m sure of!! But for now I’m going to be Paris bound in less than 24 hrs. See you soon Pops! And for my Saudi peeps- I miss you already!!

 

Ticket Stubs

IMG_3741As my time here in Saudi is coming to an end I’m sorting thru my things and deciding what stays behind and what gets packed and sent home. I’ve come across ticket stubs and souvenirs from the many trips I had the privilege of taking over the last 2 years. I’ve made a conscious effort to save every ticket stub as a keepsake so here’s what I found while I was sorting thru them. In the last 2 years I’ve flown 19 different airlines: Aegean Air, Alaska Air, Air Asia, Air Canada, American Airlines, British Air, Emirates, Etihad, FinnAir, Flydubai, FlyNas, Lufthansa, Royal Air Morocco, Royal Jordanian, SAS, Saudia, Sri Lankan Air, Turkish Airlines, and Qatar Air. I visited 25 countries, 18 of them new for me including: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Maldives, Morocco, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Qatar, and the UAE. A couple of them like Germany and the UAE I visited a few times. I took 72 different flights. For someone who is terrified of travel that’s A LOT of flights. Or more admittedly a lot of medicated flights since those of you who know me well know how much I dread flying.

So even though Saudi was not always the easiest country to live in it afforded so many experiences I wouldn’t likely have otherwise had. And my 2 years here have made me very comfortable with traveling solo, something I had only previously done twice. In fact I’ve grown very fond of my solo trips, and I love how empowered and independent I feel when traveling on my own. That might be the biggest lesson and blessing that I take from my time here in Saudi. I’ve got an upcoming blog post about the many things I will miss about living here- and very likely a lengthy blog post about the things I won’t miss. But for now it’s back to packing….

5 Useful Services No Expat Can Live Without…..

The following post is a guest post from Alex over at Currency UK. They are a UK based company that specializes in foreign exchange and international payments for my UK readers, but they also have some great resources for anyone wanting to become an expat or considering making a move abroad.

How’s the checklist going? Got everything packed, tickets booked? It can seem like moving abroad is just one long list of things to be checked off, but there are certain services that no expat should ever be without. We’ve compiled the top five essential services, so check you’ve got these covered before taking that first step onto the plane!

  1. Expat app

Once upon a time, becoming an expat involved a huge amount of logistics & paper work. But thanks to the internet, smart phones and tablets, traveling abroad is becoming easier to research & follow through with and there’s now a large number of helpful apps that can help you adjust to life abroad.

  • Learn the language – Apps like Duolingo have a range of languages to choose from and activities to help you get to grips with basic words, phrases and useful sentences of your host country.
  • Hear what other travellers think – Community apps such as Trip Advisor can suggest the best places to eat, stay and visit in your country to help you get a bit more acquainted.
  • Stay healthy – One of the most important things about living abroad is having access to healthcare. Doctoralia is one the apps that allow you to locate the nearest pharmacy or surgery to your location.
  1. Legal advice

Moving abroad invariably involves a lot of legal processes, therefore It’s important to understand both the processes in your home country and the country you’re moving to. Some of the big legal issues that need to covered include:

  • Tax – it is essential to research tax requirements in your new home country as well as tie up proceedings in your previous one before you leave. A tax lawyer or solicitor may be the best bet.
  • Will – Many retirees choose the expat life, therefore it is important to get a will and corresponding legalities sorted out before you leave.
  • Pensions/Income – If your pension will be paid from abroad, it is essential to arrange regular payments with your pension provider in your new currency – lest you be without income.
  • Documentation covering your new house – it is extremely important to ensure all paperwork regarding your new property is accounted for.
  • Currency exchange rates – You may need to transfer cash to friends or relatives abroad, which is why you will need a decent foreign exchange broker with low rates & fees.

When in doubt, always consult a lawyer or professional who is not linked to an estate agent and speaks English (and preferably the language of the country you’re moving to). You can find a helpful list of English speaking lawyers abroad on GOV.uk.

  1. Health insurance

If you’re moving abroad permanently, you won’t be entitled to healthcare on the NHS. This means that finding a good health insurance plan should be near the top of your to-do list. Make sure to check out the healthcare available in your new country. Remember also to include a healthcare budget in your financial plan; your health is one area where you don’t want to skimp on! GOV.uk has a country guide list for British nationals living abroad, and NHS Choices have a country guide both for countries in and out of the European Economic Area.

As well as finding great health insurers, do your research prior to moving countries:

  • Are there any local illnesses or health warnings near the are you’re moving to?
  • Do you need injections?
  • Have you got copies of your medical records?

Start researching sooner rather than later. You don’t want to get caught with a stomach bug with no healthcare plan in place!

  1. Moving companies

There’s a lot to take with you abroad. Even if you’re going with a minimum amount of furniture and clothes, it’s important to have an organised plan about when how and where your luggage is getting to your new country! Have a look around before deciding on a moving company. Ask friends for recommendations, check out customer reviews for each company, and ask for a price estimation before booking a company.

Also consider hiring help for other aspects of your move. It can be less stressful to simply book a car to drive you to and from the airport on the big day, so you can focus on checking you’ve got everything you need. You might even be able to catch a cheeky nap on your way to conserve your energy!

  1. Expat community

Moving abroad is a big experience, and at first it can seem overwhelming. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to fellow expats – there’s no shame in wanting to hear a familiar language or share the expat blues with someone who knows what it feels like!

There might be a local expat community in your local area, but even if there isn’t, there are plenty of online forums and publications where you can get in touch and share your experiences.

But also remember, your new community doesn’t just have to be made up of other expats! Part of the experience of moving abroad is integrating into a new culture. Join a club, take a class, or simply take the local transport; you’d be surprised how easy it is to meet new people just by getting out and about.

Conclusion

Remember that although there are plenty of things to worry about when moving abroad, there are certain things that you can’t do without. If you’ve got the most important bases covered, like health, finances, and emotional support, moving abroad and settling into your new life won’t seem quite so huge.

For those of you who are expats what other services did you find helpful?

Masmak Fort

IMG_3733Masmak Fort or Al-Masmak as it is known in Arabic is one of Riyadh’s top tourist attractions. Oddly, I hadn’t heard of it until recently, but as my time here in Saudi is wrapping up I’m trying to pack in a bunch of things in the event that I don’t come back. One of them was touring this old fort which is located in the center of Riyadh in Dirah souk area so it’s very easy to find. Earlier this week I set off to explore it with a friend of mine. My driver had never heard of the fort, but once I told him it was the museum in Dirah he immediately knew what I was talking about.

Masmak Fort was built in  the later part of the 1800s. The fort itself was built out of clay, hay and mud. Bits of hay are visible throughout the inside of the fort. The outside walls are very thick and there are four 18ft high watchtowers which give it a very striking appearance. The clay/hay/mud walls are meant to act as insulation from the cold and heat, but honestly the parts of the fort that weren’t air conditioned were unbearably hot- it was hard to imagine trying to sleep in those rooms in the summer months. There is significant history behind this fort. It was built under the reign of a man named Mohammed ibn Abdullah ibn Rasheed who previously took control of the city from the Al Saud clan. In 1902 the fort was recaptured by a young prince who had been living in exile in Kuwait named Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud. (It should be noted that many Saudi names are like this basically so and so of so and so’s father and grandfather.) Anyways this young prince would go on to become King Abdulaziz (also known as Ibn Saud the founder of Saudi Arabia) and would reign until his death in 1953. He reportedly fathered 45 sons, and all Saudi Kings since have have been his sons. Masmuk Fort was used by King Abdulaziz until 1938 when the royal court was moved to the nearby Murabba Palace.

As you pull up the fort is quite an impressive sight- the courtyard area out front with the towering palm trees and the enormous Saudi Arabian flag make a great photo with the fort in the back drop. There was only one other Saudi family visiting the fort while we were there, and the security guard and one of the Saudi staff members that worked there were very excited to see 2 western girls. In fact they untied a roped off area and let us in to explore and take photos. Sadly, when we left I was unable to convince the security guard to let us up to the restricted rooftop area of the fort, but I give myself an A+ for effort. The inside of the fort is a museum on the history of the third Saudi state during the period before and after Riyadh was conquered by Ibn Saud. The highlights for me were the beautifully painted traditional Arabic doors found throughout the fort, the array of old photos showing what Riyadh looked like in the ealry/mid 1900’s, and the maps and the display cases of weapons and traditional male clothing from that time period.

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After exploring the fort we drove thru the narrow streets of the Dirah area. I had seen crumbling old mud houses on previous trips to that area of the city and wanted to get a closer look. My driver took us to a more run down area of the city- he was happy to drive us around, but not keen to let us out of the vehicle and made a point of locking the doors incase someone might try and accost us. Luckily, this did not happen. We did get to see how the other half lives in Riyadh. We drove thru very dilapidated areas with houses falling apart, and fully covered women sitting on the corners chatting. There were couches outside of many houses which I found confusing as to why they had been disposed of there, until my friend mentioned that the residents probably sat on them in the evening when the temperatures were cooler. From here we  headed back to the crumbling mud houses-they are uninhabitable and used mostly as a dumping site. The area is fenced off and difficult to get into- I’m unclear as to whether they are completely demolishing them as the only entrance we could find was roped off with a guard out front. I still was keen to explore so I jumped out of the car and asked the guard if I could take some photos. He appeared unfazed. Like literally everyday a western woman shows up and asks if she can go in and take a look. He actually followed me in curiousity about what it was that I was taking photos of. When I left he excitedly asked me “Italian?? Italy.” And I laughed to myself and said “no. Canada.” And he gave me the thumbs up sign which made me laugh some more. So that was our morning of adventure.

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The fort is open daily, however; the times vary and there are separate times for women and families. As best as I can tell its open 8am-12pm and then again from 4pm till 10pm. It may be closed on Friday but I’ve read varying reports about that. We went at 9am on a Sunday and it was open. It’s free to visit. There’s also a cute gift store with traditional Arabic jewelry, household items and antiques. Well worth a look!

And don’t forget you can follow me on Facebook here, Twitter here and Instagram here……..

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