Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Saudi Arabia (page 1 of 7)

Ramadan

Last weekend while I was away in Switzerland, marked the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. So Ramadan Mubarak (a Blessed Ramadan) to my Muslim readers and fellow ex-pats in the Middle East. I know people back home have some basic understanding about what Ramadan is, but I thought I’d take a little bit of time and tell you more about it, and what it’s like to live in a Muslim country as a non-Muslim during Ramadan.

First off, Ramadan takes place during the 9th month of the Islamic Hijri calendar. This calendar is about 10-11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar so Ramadan shifts forward by nearly half a month from the preceding year. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with believing in only one God, praying 5 times a day, giving to charity and making pilgrimage to Mecca. This year Ramadan started on May 27th and will likely end on June 24th or 25th depending on how visible the moon is. For the entire month Muslims will fast from the morning prayer (dawn) until sunset. Here in Saudi this is from around 4am until 6:30ish pm. Children, the elderly, those traveling, people who are sick and in the hospital, diabetics, and women who are pregnant, or breastfeeding or menstrating are exempt from having to fast. In addition to fasting Muslims are also to abstain from gossiping, smoking, daytime intimacy and sex, and really anything that would make their fasting efforts less noble. Fasting basically means no food, drink (including water) or chewing gum or candies.

So what’s it like during Ramadan for non-Muslims? Well it’s a whole lot quieter during the daytime that’s for sure. Grocery stores are open in the day but restaurants are all closed. No lunch time McDonald’s drive-thru or delivery. Starbucks is closed. Most things open after sunset and stay open until late into the night. At sunset Muslims break their fast with dates and Arabic coffee. This breaking of the fast is called Iftar and throughout the Middle East there are Iftar buffets which is basically like a dinner buffet. Here in Riyadh Iftar buffets are often very lavish and often on the pricey side between 200-400 riyals ($50-100 U.S.) Next week I’m going to the Iftar at the Ritz Carlton with a group of friends which I imagine will be well worth the splurge.

For non-Muslims it’s advised to not drink or eat in public or chew gum. If you’re going to eat and drink than just be sneaky about it. The hospital I work at has a cafeteria and restaurant that are open for us to eat at, but the main public coffee shops and restaurants are closed during the day. I’m working night shift for the entire month so for me this isn’t a problem. Muslim hospital staff are not required to work the full amount of hours as they would during the rest of the year. They can chose between working 6 hour shifts, or chose to work night shift instead. Clinics and such are open but on shorter hours so usually 9am-3:30pm or so. Saudi culture (especially during the summer) tends to stay up late into the night and sleep during the day because of the heat. This is especially so during Ramadan. Working night shift is actually like working day shift as the patients are awake the entire night often going to sleep around 5-6am and sleeping most of the day. Medications often have to be re-timed around this sleep schedule especially if they are food related and the patient is fasting. Sometimes patients who are in the hospital will want to fast and will decline things like IV fluids which would interfere with their fast- I have found that to be pretty rare though.

Ramadan ends with the sighting of the new moon in Mecca, or after 30 full days of fasting if the new moon isn’t visible because of clouds. The new month is kicked off with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr in which the fasting is broken. I will be away for about 10 days later this month as I’ll be traveling solo to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country but everything I’ve read says restaurants and coffee shops will be open for non-Muslims and Georgia is a mix of Muslim and Orthodox Christians so traveling during Ramadan shouldn’t be an issue.

So to those of you who are celebrating Ramadan I wish you all a Blessed Ramadan and may your prayers be answered!

An Australian travel guide through Jeddah

I’m so happy to feature my blog’s second guest writer Emma!! I visited Jeddah way back in 2010- it was actually my first trip out of Riyadh my first time here and I’ve been wanting to go back so this blog has some great tips about what to see if Jeddah is on your Saudi travel list. Emma Lawson is a passionate writer, online article editor and a health enthusiast. In her spare time, she likes to do research, and write articles to create awareness regarding healthy lifestyles. You can catch her on Twitter @EmmahLawson

For an Australian traveler, Jeddah is a small goldmine of cultural and historical heritage, culinary surprises, and numerous sites of natural beauty. Home to around 4.3 million people, Jeddah sits on the sea-bound frontier of Saudi Arabia and it’s one of the most captivating cities in the region that is still largely unblemished by mass tourism. Ready to pack your bags and head to the Red Sea pearl for a fair share of holiday fun, thrills, and shopping sprees? You’d better arm yourself with Jeddah travel essentials, just to stay on the safe and well-entertained side of your Saudi adventure.

 

Visa Requirements

Getting a visa for Saudi Arabia isn’t easy, but the red tape and the waiting are definitely worth it. As a western tourist, you’ll need a letter of invitation from a Saudi Arabia national, and it’s also advisable to travel with a travel agency or with a group of at least four other people. You can file for a visa at the closest Saudi Arabian embassy in your country of origin, but be sure to submit the application well in advance, just to stay on the safe side of the travel itinerary. Tourist visas are available only to selected groups on a limited basis.

Due to the strict requirements of Saudi Arabia, women entering the Kingdom alone must be met by a sponsor (and have a letter of invitation) or male relative and have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their stay. Additionally, entry may be refused to any visitor judged as behaving indecently, according to Saudi Arabia law and tradition.

 

How to get there

The best way to get to Jeddah is by plane. Jeddah international airport is situated close to the city center, and Saudi Arabian Airways offers favorable deals for tourists arriving from Europe. A fun fact: tourists aren’t allowed to drink alcohol once the plane crosses over into Saudi Arabian airspace.

Upon landing in Jeddah, you should rent a car as there’s no official public transport in the city. If you can’t drive, your transport options will be limited to private vans, taxis, and your own two feet. Do not cycle or ride a motorbike in Jeddah: streets over here are dangerous and local laws don’t exactly favor two-wheeled transport on city streets.

 

Jeddah Attractions

Although foreigners are advised to keep a level head and stay out of locals’ hair, there are many fun things a western tourist can do in Jeddah.

• King Fahd’s Fountain

Known as the world’s tallest fountain, King Fahd’s Fountain was built back in 1985 with the help of funds donated by the King. The Jeddah fountain releases sprays of water as tall as 850 feet, which means there are as many as 16 tons of H2O up in the air at any point when the fountain is running. Located in the vicinity of Falastin Street, the fountain goes on at sundown and runs all through the night.

• Ta’if

If you can set aside the time and cash for a daytrip outside Jeddah, head to Ta’if. Situated on the slopes of the Sarawat Mountains, Ta’if is the center of the regional agricultural area known for pomegranate, grape, fig, rose and honey production. It’s home to Al Rudaf Natural Park, Shubra Palace museum, remains of a Turkish fort, rock-carving site, Al Hada nature reserve, and a small zoo where tourists can see baboons up close.

• Obhur

A snaking islet of the Red Sea in the northern part of Jeddah, Obhur penetrates inland for about 12 kilometers and is home to fancy houses, hotels, dive shops, and compounds. If you’re up for a jet-ski ride or just want to spend the afternoon sunbathing and sipping mocktails on the beach, Obhur is the place to go.

• Aquatic fun

If you’re into scuba diving, Jeddah will definitely win a spot in your heart. The Red Sea coast is brimming with amazing dive sites, complete with breath-taking coral reefs, warm turquoise sea water, schools of parrotfish and surgeonfish, and an odd dolphin.

• Al-Balad   

Situated in the heart of old Jeddah, Al-Balad is home to picturesque buildings made out of coral reefs brought over from the Red Sea. Here you’ll find the fish market and many traditional souks where you can get local merchandise and souvenirs at a decent price. The neighborhood is no longer in perfect shape, but it’s still well-worth visiting, especially if you’re into old buildings and first-hand encounters with the locals.

• Shopping malls

If you’re short on ideas what to do in Jeddah, head to a local restaurant or a shopping mall. For a delectable local treat, try Shawarma Shakir or Albaik, or indulge your palate by a refreshing drink over at Juice World. As for shopping, you’ll find it hard to grow bored with local offer of jewelry and clothes, and you can also find designer brands for a real bargain.

 
Special considerations

Last but not the least, there are certain lifestyle and cultural rules you’ll need to obey during your visit to Jeddah. If you’re a woman, you’ll have to keep your hair and clothes covered so that your skin doesn’t show in public. You’re not required to cover your face, though, but you’ll have to stay away from the steering wheel during your stay in the city – and much of Saudi Arabia, for that matter. There is no official law that bans women from driving, but religious beliefs prohibit it, with Saudi clerics arguing that female drivers “undermine social values”. On top of that, ladies under 30 must be accompanied by their husband, brother, or father out in public. Islam is the only religion and while you’re not required to take part in daily prayer, you should abandon all hope of finding a religious facility other than a mosque. It may also be a good idea to stay away from alcohol during your visit to Jeddah as spirits are illegal and can’t be purchased in stores and consumed at hotels, on boats, or in vehicles.

Ready to pack your bags and head to Jeddah? Follow the guidelines above and you’re bound to have the time of your life. Bon voyage!

Edge of the World

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve always got a Saudi bucket list an arms length long. It’s really the only reason I keep coming back. Oh, and likely the money and the ridiculous amount of vacation time I get. That definitely helps. One of the things that time after time has remained on that list was to visit a place called the Edge of the World. Sounds cool as hell right?! Who wouldn’t want to go there? This magical place is about 180km north east of Riyadh in a place called the Acacia Valley. Given that it’s unbearably hot most of the year here it’s really best to go in the winter months. There’s like zero shade there, and since I nearly get heat stroke every time I’m outside when it’s hotter than 30C I knew I needed to go soon. As in should’ve probably done it a few months ago.

So a few weeks back myself and my new kiwi sidekick and an American I’ve grown very fond of joined up with Haya tours to go. We did a tour for 2 reasons- it’s far out and unless you go as a caravan with other people it can be a little dangerous in the event of a breakdown, kidnapping, or no cell phone coverage. The second reason was that I’ve been nursing a foot injury and this tour basically drove you to 2 different canyons and you didn’t have to walk much which suited me just fine. Last year before Pops and I walked 700km across Spain I had my first flare up of plantar fasciitis. Basically this meant that I had heel pain to my left foot quite bad in the morning. Ice, ibuprofen and stretching quickly resolved it and amazingly it didn’t bother me when I walked the Camino. That was good because on the Camino I had other things to deal with like blisters, healed blisters, new blisters, and the general aches and pains that go with walking that distance. After the Camino I continued to walk quite a bit as I visited Paris, Amsterdam, Seattle and spend time in Canada. Then in January I started going to the gym and was working out a lot. And around the beginning of February I started getting really bad heel pain. It was different than the plantar fasciitis though, and the longer it went on the more worried I was that I had a stress fracture. Since I’m a nurse I just gritted my teeth and tolerated it for as long as I could. I bought insoles. Then crazy old lady supportive walking shoes. I took ibuprofen around the clock and finally I went to the doctor who x-ray’d it and found a heel spur. So since then I’m having to limit my walking. I can’t stand for long periods of time. I’m grumpy because I’m restricted in what I can do. I’m going to physio to get shock wave therapy and I’ve now got professional orthotics. And it’s not really getting much better. Which is frustrating as hell. So long story short that’s why we took this tour.

We had my driver Joe drop us at the meeting point. There were maybe 10 other people on the tour split between 3 cars. By cars I mean 2 fancy SUV’s and us three with a french lady packed into a Toyota truck that looks like it normally transported camels and not people. The meeting location was conveniently located in a mall that had Tim Horton’s which made me pretty jazzed until we started driving and I promptly spilled my coffee all over the floor. Between our unfiltered language and my coffee fiasco I’m sure that french lady was questioning her mode of transport that day! So off we drove. We made it to the edge of Riyadh and then things started looking weird. There were paved walkways and tons of children’s playgrounds and no houses. There were decorative cement or stone designs along the road or at the center of the roundabouts but there really wasn’t much else around. We were confused. No kids at the play ground. No one walking the paved paths. On we drove.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We turned off the highway onto a dirt path. Driving past a police check point that was really more like a shack than a station. In the distance we could see cliffs  and hills. We arrived at the first cliff which is probably the place most people go. The cars park at the bottom of a hill and there’s an area that’s like a rock window with cliffs to both sides. Make sure to wear good walking shoes (and your orthotics if you’re an old lady like me.) The terrain is rocky and it’s super easy to slip. There are no guard rails or any safety features so don’t act like a jack ass up there as it’s a long way to the bottom. We spend maybe 10 minutes walking up pausing for selfie breaks. My kiwi sidekick is a professional duckface maker- her selfies are the bomb. You can walk out to the farthest part and the coolest part of the cliff but we decided not to. Mostly on account of laziness and that I’m a real klutz. If someone was going to slip and fall high chances it was going to be me. So we took more selfies and  we chatted about recent heartbreaks and dating and a bunch of other things that I’m sure our Yankee sidekick could’ve done without. Men are mildly entertained by girl talk until they are not. We climbed back into the Toyota tow truck and carried on to the next cliff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next stop was at another cliff maybe 10 minutes away. This cliff overlooked the ravine below. There are apparently fossils found there as this area was covered by water forever ago. While the rest of the group went on a fossil expedition we did what we do best- took selfies and chatted. After the rest of the group ohhh’d and ahhh’d over these fossils we got back in the truck and made our way towards the main road. We stopped off in spot with a bunch of trees and had a picnic in the shade. It would’ve been nice had it not been 37C and like a hundred flies buzzing around. It was nice in the shade but the flies were mega annoying. On the way back we passed a caravan of camels and stopped to take pictures.

Once we got to the main road we passed a town on the outskirts of the city. Friday prayer had just ended and the streets were filled with men- not a woman in sight. We passed a bunch of local vegetable markets that I would’ve loved to have stopped at to take pictures but I’m sure we would’ve cause quite the spectacle had we stopped. So back to Riyadh we went- past the empty walkways and apocalyptic play grounds back to civilization.

If you live in Riyadh and haven’t been to the Edge of the World you really, really should. It’s hella cool and makes a great day trip. But go soon or wait until like October when the temperatures start to trend back down. Bring the usual things- sunscreen, hat, gallons and gallons of water and good shoes. Keep any kiddos on a short leash to be safe. Also fun fact: camels come when you roll down the window and make kissing noise. Or at least this guy above did to me. I think he thought he might be getting lucky the way he trotted over. You’re welcome.

Goodbyes

One would think that if there is anything I would be an expert in at this point in my life it should be saying goodbyes and packing. And yet I’m total shit at both. I spend my 20’s bouncing between the states of North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Arizona, California and Washington. My car loaded to the brim as I would drive cross country to whichever city held my next adventure. Many of these states I yo-yo’d in between, setting up a life in San Francisco and San Diego a couple times, and in Seattle several more times. Since I first left Canada in 2002 I’ve moved at least 26 times. I’m saying at least because my memory isn’t super sharp, and I’m sure there’s one or two moves I may have forgotten. So much packing and unpacking. This is of course spread between Canada, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Each assignment brought with it a new set of friends and a new set of adventures. And a new set of goodbyes.

The expat world is similarly as transient as the world of travel nursing. People come into your life and you form intense bonds over a short period of time and then either you leave, or they leave, or both. It’s the nature of the life style, because especially in Saudi, no one stays forever. Some goodbyes are easy because the world is sprinkled with assholes. Some are gut wrenchingly hard. Sometimes these goodbyes take a long time to get over. The void that’s left takes a while to fill. It’s a blessing and a curse. To allow people to deeply touch you in ways you don’t initially realize, and then have to part ways with them. That the world can feel both so small and enormous at the same time. But such is life. And if I’ve learned one thing it’s that love is infinite. It goes beyond goodbyes. It lives in the spaces in between those goodbyes.

So here’s to those of you who have deeply touched my life. I do so hope that our paths cross again. See you someplace down the road……

“The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected. Maybe they always have been and will be.

Maybe we’ve lived a thousand lives before this one and in each if them we’ve found each other.

And maybe each time, we’ve been forced apart by the same reasons.

That means that this goodbye is both a goodbye for the past ten thousand years

and a prelude for what will come”

From the book The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks.

 

 

King Abdulaziz Camel Festival

So this past week I went on a real Saudi style adventure with my new kiwi sidekick, and we visited the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival about 140km outside of Riyadh. It’s kinda like Saudi’s version of America’s next top model, except the models are camels. The only real thing I had heard about the festival was that there was a camel beauty pageant and I was like hells yeah I’m in. Over the past few years festivals and local events are often advertised in some form of English although the information isn’t always correct regarding schedule and timings. We took our chances and booked my driver and headed out.

It took us about 90min to reach the location of the festival and let me tell you it was lovely leaving the traffic and congestion of populated Riyadh behind. The first hour we drove mostly through the desert, its colour changing from a sandy brown to a brightening shade of red. We passed Bedouin tents and much of the desert along the roadside was dotted with camels and goats. It was great. The closer we got to the festival location the landscape changed. It became green  and you could see rock canyons in the distance. We came across a large herd of camels being led alongside the road. The camel caravan wound behind a rock wall and we had Joseph my driver stop at the base so we could take some pictures. We scurried up the rock hill making sure not to trip on our abayas and popped over the wall in full view of the approaching caravan. I’m pretty sure two western women were about the last thing they expected to have pop up!! We took videos and photos of them, and they of us, as the camels shuffled past. Many waves and Assalamu Alaykum’s were exchanged. There were maybe 50 camels in the herd and several baby camels. We made our way back to the car, mud wedged into the soles of our shoes and carried on towards the festival grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On arrival the festival looked exactly like a fair back home. It’s a huge enclosed area with parking areas surrounding the site. There was a main road leading to the main entrance that was blocked off by barriers and security at several points leading up to the main gate. At every check point the security guards would motion for Joseph to pull off and park, but as soon as the windows in the back went down and they saw me and my kiwi sidekick they would yell “VIP” and we would wave and say “hello” and they would move the barricade out of the way and let us drive on to the next one and the same scenario would happen until we were at the main entrance and Joseph was exclaiming “Unbelievable!!” We just giggled with delight. Sometimes blond hair is a curse, sometimes it provides VIP treatment.

We left Joseph and walked towards what looked like a massive arena with stadium style seating. There were very, very few ladies and no other westerners around. There was a lot of staring, but also a lot of “Hellos” and “Welcomes” being yelled at us. We decided to go have a seat with the many other visitors and headed towards the seating area. Oopsie. We tried to sit in the men’s sections. We really should know better and were politely pointed towards a further set of seats of which no one was sitting in. The men’s area was packed. Not a lady in the ladies area. Hmmm? So we walked over and were directed towards some seats. I pointed towards my wrist to ask the security guard what time the show started. He shook his head and said “mafi.” Which means none or no. I pointed towards the packed male seating area with some confusion as to how there wasn’t a camel parade today yet all these men were waiting. At this point a tour bus of Saudi women pulled up so we asked them to translate what was going on. One lady told us that there was no camel parade or contest today but that the next one was tomorrow. I had her ask the guard what all the men were sitting in the stands then waiting for then?! He replied that no one had told them that there wasn’t one today. The Saudi lady and I looked over at the maybe 200 men sitting there and then back at each other and laughed. Then they wanted to take some selfies. So we did. And they asked where we were from, assuming as it is always assumed that we are American. We politely told them we were not. Several of them spoke perfect English so I asked where they worked and they said that they were all teachers. After a few more pictures we then parted ways.

We decided to explore the rest of the festival site. There was the normal Saudi style security to get in. Men on one side and women on the other. The women’s side was wide open and they searched our bags and wanded us down. Before they used that metal detector wand thingy on us a girl asked if I was pregnant. I winked at her and said “Inshallah” and they all three of these Saudi girls started giggling. We were killing it on making friends at the camel festival. There were literally pretty much zero other ladies around and we walked past a food area into a main courtyard area with traditional Arabic music playing and surrounded by statues of camels. Many male attendees wanted to stop us to chat. One young guy asked where we were from and when I said Canada he replied that his uncle lived in Canada and was searching for a second wife for him. Mind you this guy was maybe 20 years old and was looking for a second wife, and I’m 38 and can’t even keep a full-time boyfriend. Oh the irony. I replied that Canadian women love to be second wives, but I don’t think he caught on to the sarcasm. We then ran into a group of four boys who all saluted us and we exchanged photos. One of the funny things about living in Saudi Arabia as a western women is that men of literally all ages will likely find you attractive. Back home 20 year old boys would never ask for my picture, or want their picture taken with me, or try and sneakily take a picture of me. But at this camel festival it was like a full on photo shoot. At one point some kid was taking video footage of us and I told my kiwi mate that I was quite certain we were having a documentary made. Naturally, we took a bunch of photos as well. It does warrant being said that at no point did we feel unsafe. Other than feeling a bit like celebrities, everyone we encountered was very friendly and generally excited that we would want to visit a cultural festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was starting to get hot so we ducked into a tent that was like a mini indoor market selling spices, and local handicrafts. We did a little shopping and took advantage of the huge AC unit to cool down. We then headed towards the Planetarium. On the way there we passed 2 large walls with pictures of fallen soldiers on it. I think it’s easy to forget that every country has lost service people, and that there are heroes in every culture. Inside the planetarium was a roof mural basically of the constellations and a couple exhibits. The men inside were very educated and happy to explain things to us. By this point we’d been at the Camel festival for like an hour and yet to see an actual camel so we set out to find some. On the outskirts of the festival we ran into a a guy outside the media building. He didn’t speak much English but we asked him “Mafi Camels?” so basically “No Camels?” He then took us on a tour. First stop outside a Bedouin tent where four teenage boys were tending to one camel. They asked if we wanted to ride it and we both declined. I rode a camel in Oman and it was a terrifying experience and I’m not a huge fan of riding animals. Horses, donkeys, elephants, camels. All are terrifying to me. So we took some photos and then were escorted by our new tour guide over to some tents off in the distance all the while being trailed by our new squad of these four teenage boys. Over near this new set of tents were another 15 or so camels spread out with decorative drapes and saddles. We took a bunch more photos and the teenage boys got bored with us and walked away. By now it was almost noon and the sun was directly overhead and it was quite hot. Our unofficial tour guide signaled a golf cart over and we were instructed to climb in and then were driven in a couple circles while a guy with perfect English explained to us about the festival. Almost everyday there is a camel parade. Two weeks of the festival are dedicated to the white camels and two weeks to the black ones. They are judged not as single camels but as a group, in groups of 25, 50 and 100. The cash prizes are very high, I can’t remember the specifics off hand. We were then driven around the festival site and dropped at the main exhibition hall which was closed, but this helpful guy had the security guard open the door and we were left to roam on our own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main exhibit hall had information about camels. Did you know that the country that has the most camels in the world is Somalia? Or that there are 17 million camels spread around the Middle Eastern countries? This exhibit also had a National Geographic Photography section and some camel related art that I would’ve loved to have bought, but sadly wasn’t for purchase. Once we were finished there it was time to start the drive back to Riyadh, and we returned the same way we arrived. On the drive back we passed a small lake that had formed from the recent rains. There was a tree in the lake and kids were swimming at the base of the tree. We made Joseph turn around so we could go back to take a picture, as I knew I would be disappointed not to capture the carefree nature of these local kids escaping the heat. We walked to the edge of the water and the kids waved and yelled at us “come in!!” Such a great way to end a really special day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The festival ends this weekend. So it’s your last chance if you’re wanting to attend. You can get the schedule and more information here.

A Saudi Update…..

Well. Where has the time gone? I’ve been a very bad blogger as of late. I arrived back on Saudi Arabian soil on the 2nd of February and its been a whirlwind of embassy parties, overcoming jetlag, catching up with old friends over dinners out, and settling back into my old job. This past weekend was the first set of days off where I finally feel like I’ve gotten caught up on sleep. In fact it felt so strange having a day of downtime that the very unfamiliar feeling of being a little lonely crept in, which is not an emotion I’m very well acquainted with. While my body desperately needed some downtime my mind wasn’t quite on board. Thankfully, that uneasy feeling quickly passed!

So what have I been up to since my return? I arrived late on a Wednesday night to my housing unit. When I left Saudi I was in single housing, but this time I’m in a different building sharing with an American girl who arrived a few months ago. I spent the following day running around with my lovely driver Joseph who is a  very dear person here in Saudi for me. We had to visit 3 different stores in order to get my internet reinstated which was priority numero uno for me, and then did a little grocery shopping. Then it was nap time because jet lag is the worst. That first weekend passed with a night out at the American embassy with friends and then a party in the Diplomatic Quarters. One surprising thing about life in Saudi Arabia is that the social scene is anything but dull. The next week involved updating my medical, reopening my bank account, getting a photo shoot for my hospital ID, getting sized for our super sexy white scrubs  and various other work related things. I started work back on my unit. The following weekend was pretty much a repeat of that first weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Arabian return happened to coincide with the Janadriyah festival. This festival is a yearly event in February that is one of my most favourite things to do here. It’s a huge cultural festival with arts, food and local dancers (males only). It’s similar to a county fair in the U.S. minus the rides and beer garden, and where everyone is dressed in traditional Arabian attire. So it’s basically a sea of black and white as far as the eye can see. It has a very jovial feel and the local Saudis are super friendly and it’s a very merry time. I love it a lot and so I dragged a couple girls from work with me. The really great thing about the festival for me is that taking pictures is allowed. Obviously, this means being careful about taking pictures of women, but nobody seems to mind!

Adjusting back to life in Saudi hasn’t been too terribly hard. I’m very familiar with how things work here, and the cultural differences are less jarring the more one is exposed to them. I’m lucky enough to have several friends that are still here which also makes things easier. It is weird for me being here without my kiwi sidekick though- I think I underestimated just how much I relied on her before. Work is work. It was strange returning after having over 5 months off, but after a handful of orientation shifts things fell back into place. I’m still working on a VIP floor that looks after members of the Saudi royal family and other important people. The patient population has definitely changed since I first arrived here in 2010- the patients are much sicker than they were back then, and while our patients do end up staying in the hospital much longer than they would back home (often by personal choice) gone are the days of people admitting themselves to the hospital over a hangnail or sprained ankle (true story).

So that’s pretty much the latest. By some complete stroke of luck I’ve managed to get a ticket to the Irish embassy for St Pats. That might be a bigger deal than that one time I had my birthday party at the Canadian embassy a couple years ago!! So this upcoming weekend is filled with celebrating with the Irish, steak night with the Americans and of course work.  As always I’ve got a long to-do list of things I want to do here including seeing the horse races which end at they end of this month. There’s also an upcoming camel beauty competition but it’s rumored to only be for males attendees. Oh how males get to have all the fun in this country! I also want to plan a couple overnight trips to other parts of Saudi Arabia before the weather gets too hot. Last weekend there was a food festival at the French embassy that showcased local foods from France, Belgium, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and few others that I can’t recall off the top of my head. It was one of those events where you could easily forget that you were even in Saudi Arabia. A couple weekends ago I met up with a walking group and we walked the 12km track around the Diplomatic Quarter which had me reminiscing my Camino walking days from this past fall. So apart from embassy gigs there’s still a ton of things to keep ex-pats busy in Saudi Arabia. The important thing is to be motivated enough to take part!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I promise to do my best to get back into a blogging routine. I still have so much to write about from Pops and my Camino experience, and my winter in Paris, Amsterdam and Iceland. I’m trying to find a better balance between being social and also needing time alone to write and reflect. Thanks for being patient with me!

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….

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……..

Saudi Exit Process

So the count down is on. I’ve got less than a month left here and I’m currently completing the Saudi exit process. Truth be told I’m more than a little conflicted about leaving. I feel weirdly like I have unfinished business here, places I would still like to visit and as frustrating as this part of the world can be I’m also very comfortable in it. But for now I’m in the process of getting all my work clearances. So I can get my final pay and the visa I need that will allow me to leave. Yes, you read that right- you need a visa not only to enter Saudi Arabia but also to be able to leave. Yep. The process is far more efficient than when I was here 5 years ago. Back in those days you had to stumble around the hospital getting something like 20+ signatures from a variety of odd departments in order to exit. You can imagine between prayer times, lunch breaks, tea breaks, smoking breaks, text my friends break, fix my hair breaks, kiss my co-worker on the cheek breaks, it was no easy feat. In fact it’s surprising that more hospital employees didn’t have full fledged meltdowns over this process. Even thinking about it right now my heart rate is going up.

But those were the old days. Today it is way, way more efficient. You only need to complete and visit maybe 5 departments now and it’s all processed electronically. Like magic. Last week I completed my last one and turned in my keys and ID badge. I’m a little pressed for time as I’m leaving in the middle of Hajj holidays where most government offices and banks will be closed. This means all my clearances needed to be done early so I can wire my hard earned money home and have my visa processed in time.

When I leave Saudi in mid September I’m flying to Paris to meet my Dad and we will make our way by train to the French town of St Jean Pied de Port where we will walk almost 800km thru Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. We’re hoping to be finished by the end of October. I’ve then rented an apartment in the Montemarte neighbourhood of Paris for an entire month. My Dad will likely join me for a week or so. The beginning of December I’ll spend a week in Amsterdam, a city I’ve always wanted to visit but never have and then I’ll fly back to North America with a stop-over in Iceland to meet a dear fiend, soak in the Blue Lagoon and inshallah catch the Northern Lights. Then mid December I’ll make my way back to Canada via Seattle for Christmas. Then depending on my bank account I’ll need to get a job either in Canada, the US, or back in Saudi Arabia. Or, I’ll head down to Mexico or to Northern Thailand for a few months, and then get a proper job. All my plans after Christmas are just ideas that haven’t fully blossomed yet.

My current state of mind is that I would strongly like to return to the Middle East for another year. I have requested to be rehired at my current job, but there may not be a position for me. I’m toying with applying to the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi but the paperwork for the application process is giving me chest palpitations and you only get half the vacation time I currently get in Saudi Arabia. So we will see. Of course there’s always a chance that after sipping wine in Paris for a month I might come to the realization that I’m ready to reenter the “real world” and opt not to return to this part of the world, but for now that’s where my head and heart are leaning. Decisions decision……

Have you ever lived abroad and had a hard time returning to your previous life? What made your transition easier?

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