Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Saudi Road Trip

Guys. I meant to write about this right after it happened but then Covid happened and I thought who wants to hear about a road trip when the world has shut down?! And then I just never quite made it back to writing about it. Until today. Buckle up as this is going to be a long one…

Come along with me on a Saudi road trip…

As you probably know (but maybe you don’t) I lived in Saudi Arabia a total of 7 years give or take, off and on from 2010 until I left in May 2020. Not that I would officially say I’m an expert on Saudi, but I did see more than the average expat who lived there, and also more than your average Saudi national. Because, lets be honest, most expats never leave the gates of their western compounds except to go to and from work. Western expat men I’m talking specifically to you. It was always wild to me that people would move to a country and never experience any of it. Can you imagine if your entire opinion of a country was based on your co-workers? I’m not judging (ok maybe I am a little bit), but Saudi has changed so much over the decade that I lived there, and I’m sure even more in the 3 years I’ve been gone.

When I first moved to Saudi you could only visit on a work visa. Tourist visas didn’t exist. Muslim travelers were able to see bits of the country if they came for Hajj or Umrah. I’d heard rumors of people getting spouses or family members over, but in those days I didn’t know anyone who had. Tourism in those days was a bit like the wild west. My first visit to Mada’in Saleh was with 3 fellow western nurses and we had a police car escort us everywhere. We literally drove and parked directly out front of the tombs and walked right into them. I’m not in anyway endorsing that it should’ve been like this. Obviously historical sites like this should be preserved, but travel within the country back then was really unique.

At the end of 2019 it was announced that Saudi would start allowing online tourist visas. It had long been a dream of mine to show either my bestie Jen or my family the country I called home for so many years. Thankfully Jen was keen and she flew from the US to Jeddah. Saudi was late to the party in terms of allowing women to drive, but in 2018 women finally got the right. That fall I obtained my Saudi license, so I was road trip ready. I rented a car from the Riyadh airport. I had booked a mid-sized SUV because I wasn’t totally sure what the roads were going to be like. What they ended up giving me was a lime-green Hyundai Kona. There was literally no blending in driving it. We announced our foreign-ness every where we went driving it.

Could we look anymore like tourists?

Due to time constraints the plan was to meet Jen in Jeddah. I had a coworker who will forever be known as “Sunshine” for the complete joy she adds to any situation. She was to be the co-pilot on the road trip to Jeddah and then she would fly back to Riyadh, as Jen flew in. We left early one morning and headed to Al Baha (or Al Bahah) which is about 900km from Riyadh. Al Baha is to the southwest of Riyadh in the Sarawat Mountains. We spent one night there. The following morning we headed off for Jeddah with a planned stop off at the village of Dhee Ayn. Now let me tell you that I was unprepared for the 40min drive to the village. That winding mountain road had some of the most scenic views I’ve ever seen in Saudi. It is well worth the visit in my opinion. I was however, glad I was the driver as I would’ve been motion sick were I in the back seat. There are pull offs where it is possible to take photos.

The road leaving Riyadh
Desert views a plenty.

Dhee Ayn (also spelled Thee Ayn or Zee Al-Ayn) is a true hidden gem of Saudi Arabia. It is 400 years old and is built of rock on a huge white marble slab. The village was named after a spring at the bottom of the village and you can hear the water while exploring the village. We got here at 9am and had the entire site to ourselves. The only downside was that the sun was directly behind the village so the village was covered in shadows. Great for beating the heat, terrible for getting good photos. Wear good shoes as there’s lots of stairs and climbing involved. There are about 40-ish houses made from stacked flat rocks and slate- they tower over you as you approach from the parking lot. When we visited some of the houses were unlocked so you could go inside of them. The village overlooks the fertile fields below. 10/10 you should visit if you are in the region.

From here we headed for Jeddah about a 400km drive. Just a quick note about road trips in Saudi Arabia. We mapped everything out so we always knew that there would be a gas station so we didn’t have to worry about running out of gas. Every road side gas station has a mosque. Every mosque has a bathroom. Voila there are bathrooms everywhere. Just be prepared to perfect your squatty potty skills. And it’s a good idea to have tissue with you. And as with bathrooms across the Middle East everything will be dripping water. They give water fight with a super-soaker vibes. If you know you know. Sunshine and I spent the afternoon boutique shopping in Jeddah while waiting for her evening flight back to Riyadh and Jen’s flight into Jeddah. Side note Jeddah has some really cool shops, and the best abayas. We spent the night in Jeddah.

The following morning Jen and I headed to Al Ula about 700km. En route we stopped off at Khaybar (or Khyber) about 90min north of Medina. You know I have a love of abandoned places so I was pretty jazzed to visit after having it recommended by an Instagram follower. The old part of the city is abandoned. It was last inhabited in the 1970’s but some of the buildings date from the 1500’s. It looks like newer buildings were built on top of old. It has a very movie set vibe and you can just slow cruise through. The city itself is historically significant. It was previously inhabited by Jewish tribes who were pushed out of the area in the Battle of Khaybar in 629AD. On a nearby hill overlooking the old city is the fort. Try as we might we couldn’t get our car there on account of recent rain and really muddy tracks. Great pit stop though on the way from Jeddah to Al Ula.

We arrived in Al Ula and stayed in a rented apartment. When we visited it was part of the Winter at Tantora festival. Now there are very high end luxury accommodations that all the ritzy travel influencers are flocking to. We however were on a budget, so Airbnb style it was. Al Ula is the town near the UNESCO site of Mada’in Saleh which is the sister city of Petra. The entire area is known as Hegra and the majority of the 131 tombs date from the Nabatean period (1st century AD). These burial tombs are cut into rock and the fronts are ornately carved. The majority are built into clusters, but the largest tomb Qasr Al-Farid is free standing. This should be top of your list if you visit Saudi Arabia. It won’t disappoint. And don’t forget to stop off for sunset at Elephant Rock a rock formation made of sandstone that resembles……yep, you guessed it….an elephant. For those history buffs that follow me you can also visit the Al Ula station on the Hejaz railway built by the Ottomans in the early 1900’s to connect Damascus to Medina. It was attacked in WWI and never reopened.

After Mada’in Saleh we headed for Tabuk. What should have been a 3-4hr drive ended up being 6.5hrs after Google maps routed us on a route that was in fact impassable in our Hyundai Kona. This resulted in an absolutely hilarious exchange with 2 Afghani men in traditional outfits who flagged us down to tell us that the road we were on would soon become not a road. Kindness ensued. In Saudi someone will always come to your assistance. Lots and lots of camels on the road so naturally my phone was filled with videos of us calling to the camels as one would call a dog over. Seeing camels never really gets old.

In Tabuk I booked a tour guide to take us on a tour of the province. We started the morning off visiting Tabuk Fort which was build in the mid 1500’s, and the attached Hejaz railway museum, and then headed for Wadi Disa (Disah). To say this wadi is stunning would be a massive understatement. It is mars meets Jurassic Park and I would immediately add this to your Saudi travel itinerary. We had a lovely picnic with the canyon walls towering over us and were met by a herd of camels. They just waltzed in and joined our picnic and tried to steal things out of the back of the SUV. It was surreal and terrifying at the same time. This spot is very popular to camp in and we saw many families and groups of men doing so. The other highlight was stopping off to have a chat with some guys at their camp and being invited to have Arabic coffee and dates and taking a ton of photos together. If I haven’t made this point before…Saudis are super friendly.

From here we ventured to the western coast of Saudi Arabia. We were on the hunt for 2 wreck sites I’d long seen photos of. About 3hrs from Tabuk on the western most tip of the country is the Catalina seaplane wreck at a place called Ras Alskeikh Hamid. The story is that in 1960 an American (it’s always an American) landed his plane on this site….but wait for it….didn’t have the proper authorization to do so. The plane was attacked by a group of local Bedouins who believed the plane to be military. The plane was shot some 300 times but the family survived and were taken to Jeddah for an interrogation and later released. The plane has lain there ever since but it is continually deteriorating due to the tide and weather. To get there just google “Catalina Seaplane Wreckage,” it’s bit off the main road. We made it fine without 4×4 but it wouldn’t hurt to have it.

We then visited the town of Al Bad to see the tombs of Magh’ir Shuaib which is also known as the caves of Shuaib, but biblically as Jethro. These tombs are from the same time period as Mada’is Saleh, but not as well preserved. They make a great alternative though as they see far less tourists. There was a tourist office when we visited with signs in English. There were lots of stairs and little shade so I would say good foot wear, a hat, and water are essential. We also packed in a visit to Wadi Tayyib which is a cool spot to get out and stretch your legs. We had hoped to continue north up the coast but the road was closed when we were there. Not sure if it is open now or not. The last highlight of this area was a visit to the Georgios G shipwreck site. It’s 30min south of the city of Haql. In the late 1970’s it was stranded of the coast of Saudi Arabia and then caught fire which destroyed most of it. It has rested there ever since. Visiting an hour before sunset will give you that perfect golden hour light. You can see across the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt on a clear day.

We spend the night in the town of Haql which is about 5km to the border of Jordan. This town has very limited tourist hotels. When we visited in 2020 we were the only tourists staying at the place that we were recommended to stay. Jen and I still laugh about that check-in experience. We were given a room down the hall from the lobby. Directly outside the room the smoke detector was chirping. You know how annoying that noise can be, so we were like “hey could you change the batteries so it stops making that noise?” Oh course this was conveyed with my toddler level Arabic skills and my masters level miming skills. The noise eventually stopped. One of the hotel workers knocked on the door and said “Halas. Mafi Mushkilla,” while miming the scissors hand gesture. That basically means “finished, no problem.” We looked up to the ceiling to see the wires had been snipped. Problem solved, Saudi style. That will never not be funny.

We then headed back to Jeddah for a night. One of the coolest places we visited was Khuzam Palace. I don’t know if it is now open- at the time it was offices but through a contact we were able to get inside. The architecture was super cool- it was built in 1933 and is the place where the agreement to allow oil exploration in the Kingdom was signed. In the event that it is still closed there were great views from the street of the outside so you could do a little drive-by. The other thing you shouldn’t miss when visiting Jeddah is the Al Balad area. It dates from the 7th century and is the historical city center. It has UNESCO recognition. It’s a mix of old heritage homes from the Hejaz design, (some of which are in completed ruin), mosques and shops. It is a photographers dream with the array of patterns and designs. It is also great people watching. Oh and there are cats. The street cats of Al Balad are infamous. Especially the ones that have one blue eye and one yellow. Lastly, things might have changed since I visited in 2020, but it isn’t an area I would’ve felt comfortable going solo- we received many leering looks that made me feel uncomfortable which was surprising as I always felt safer in Saudi than in most North American cities.

It was then time to return to Riyadh. Word of caution- google maps will route you through Mecca. It doesn’t know if you are Muslim or not. There is a separate route to bypass the city for non-believers. I knew of this, but didn’t realize google wouldn’t take us that way. We missed the bypass, so I stopped at the next checkpoint and waved over a police man who was probably 20 years old. He spoke zero English so I said “shway muskillah brother, mafi Muslim.” Which translates to “little problem….” He laughed and said “mafi mushkillah sister” and pointed us to an exit. Phewww. The drive from Jeddah to Riyadh is about 10hrs.

All in all I drove us some 4500km across the country. As anticipated, we had zero problems, although I did wind up getting (one or two) speeding tickets. I would highly recommend a Saudi road trip as a way to truly experience the country.

Welcome Back…

Yikes. 3 years is a long time to disappear. If you previously read my blog…“hi again. I’m still very much alive.” Hopefully, you follow me on the gram where I post fairly frequently. If you’re reading my blog for the first time “welcome.” I’ll reintroduce myself at the end of this post.

So where did we leave off? My last post found me still adjusting to the many changes that 2020 brought. Feels like old news now but truth be told I was a broken mess of a person for a long while. My Saudi break up and moving back to Canada during Covid were major life adjustments for me. I actually still have a hard time reading back the last post I wrote because it was so riddled with pain. For those of you who are going through major life upsets right now just know that little by little it does get easier and then one day you come out on the other side a stronger (and maybe slightly more jaded) version of yourself. Life is full of lessons and I fully learned this one.

So what have I been up to since I left the desert and glam ex-pat life of Saudi Arabia? I took a few months off pondering my options and licking my wounds while living in my moms basement. Yeah. It was a low point. When all your life plans fall apart at once it can be hella overwhelming to move forward, because then quite literally anything could be an option. I decided that I was really tired of working in my current role as a nurse and I found a hospital that was offering training opportunities to retrain into Emergency Room nursing. In hind sight deciding to become a critical care nurse during a pandemic might seem like a wild choice, but I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other. So I moved to a teeny tiny town in one of the most beautiful places in British Columbia and started to build a life. I’d never lived anywhere rural before so it was a bit of an adjustment. The community I live in is only accessible by ferry (boat) or plane. Turns out it was just what my soul and heart needed.

If you read my previous post you know that in addition to my relationship falling apart I also had to leave our rescue doggo as there was no option of getting him to Canada. Airlines weren’t flying animals and my ex was keen to keep him. Then through a wonderful series of events Moshen was reunited with me. He’s been here almost a year and a half after more than 20 months apart. He is pure joy. I’m giving him the very best life I can. I think every dog should be adopted by a 40 something woman who wanted kids. He wants for nothing (except for me to have a stay at home job). He and I are currently living in a stunning house in the woods that we rent from awesome landlords, and it’s hard to ever imagine leaving here. We are surrounded by woods on all sides, we get the odd bear and deer wandering through our yard. I cook, and garden and we have wood fires in the winter. It’s not a life I ever really saw for myself and yet I’ve just leaned into it. It feels good right now. Who knew there was a domestic goddess hiding inside of a girl who prior to Covid lived on boxed mac and cheese?!

The past couple years have been humbling. Learning new stuff in your 40’s is not the same as it was 10 years ago. My brain doesn’t retain things as well as it used to. Emergency nurses are really amazing humans. The knowledge base for this area of nursing is immense. It’s challenging and really rewarding. I’ve never as a nurse experienced teamwork like I do working in the ER. We’re all in it together, we all have each others backs.

While I’m not jetting off the Europe on the monthly like I was while living in Saudi, I’ve still been traveling. I’ve spend some time on Vancouver Island catching up with friends whom I met in Saudi. One of my kiwi sidekicks from Saudi visited me in the fall and we did a road trip (with Moshen) to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the west coast near Alaska. Later in the fall I returned to Spain to visit the southern cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. One of these days I’ll tell you about those tales.

My feet have been getting itchy and I’ve felt an adventure brewing for a while. This fall I’ll be returning to the Middle East. I’m flying to Lahore, Pakistan, then heading to Dubai for a couple nights before flying into Baghdad. I’m going on a tour of Iraq that starts in Baghdad and ends in Erbil in Kurdistan. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE. As with any travel to this region I know that my experiences will be vastly different than what western media tells us. For those of you reading this and yelling “is Iraq safe?” I’ll say what I always say. Safety is relative. Many people would think nothing of going to the US (who recently topped 400 mass shootings this year). I’m a smart traveler, who knows the region and speaks some of the language. I always have a back-up plan, and should the security situation change between now and then I’ll change plans. I lived in Saudi during Arab Spring, and when the Canadian Ambassador was expelled from Saudi Arabia, and while missiles were being shot into Riyadh on the regular. So why am I going to Iraq? I’m excited to visit the ancient city of Babylon, see the Iraqi marches, be surrounded by the call to prayer (which is a really magical experience), wander through souks, experience the culture in Kurdistan, and meet the locals. In anticipation of the trip I’ve been reading a lot about the past and present history and brushing up on what I call my “party trick Arabic.” Can’t wait to share that trip with ya’ll

As promised for those of you who are new here. I’m Kristine. I’m an adventurer and wanderer at heart. I’m a story teller and photo documentarian. Many of my happiest memories are being out there in the world detached and roaming. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited over 80 countries, at least 40 of them solo. I’ve walked across Spain. My claim to fame is that if there is an auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) within 50km I will drive it. I’ve driven one in a race 2500km across India, in Dhaka rush hour traffic and on Africa’s busiest highway in Djibouti (as well as in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Portugal). Soon to add Pakistan and Iraq to that list. I have a passion for the Middle East. It has always fascinated me and it is a region that holds a good chunk of my heart. I’m very comfortable being in uncomfortable situations. I’m a huge advocate of solo travel for women and hope to encourage more women to stop waiting on their friends and just buy the damn ticket already.

More posts soon…

Heartbreak in the Time of Quarantine

So sorry my lovely readers. I’d taken a 3 month break from writing. I just couldn’t find the words to describe what has happened over the last 2 months. You see….my world quite literally fell apart. Everything I knew about my life 2 months ago is no more. Pretty much every aspect of my life has changed and it took a long while for me to catch my breath.

Last you knew I was still stuck in Saudi. I finished up my work contract in February, and was set to fly home with Moshen, our Saudi rescue pup at the beginning of April. And then Covid-19 arrived, and like many of you it wiped out any future plans I had. Suddenly, the world was a very uncertain place, and now looking back I really wasn’t coping with the uncertainty very well. This isn’t exactly a tale of Covid, but I’m just painting the backdrop of the story. At that time I was content to hang out in Saudi until my Lufthansa flight was rescheduled, because I didn’t want to risk exposure by traveling and because I was safe with my guy and my pup.

So as the weeks progressed pretty much every couple weeks my new scheduled flight would be canceled. There were some embassy repatriation flights, but you couldn’t fly animals on them so I decided to just sit tight. So April dragged into May. The days were long. I was super unproductive and really anxious. We were mostly on a curfew with our movement being restricted to the area we lived in- so my only real outings were to the grocery store. Thankfully, we were living on a large western compound so we could go out walking. There was a period of time when we were on 24hr lock down and couldn’t leave the compound though. Anyways, without going into a whole lot of detail my guy and I broke up. Or more precisely, he broke up with me. I did not see it coming.

I was devastated. I booked onto the next American embassy organized repatriation flight via Washington DC which was about a week and a half later. While the Canadian embassy did have some occasional flight options they required multiple flight connections for me to get home, so I opted not to take them. I spent that week and a half struggling to make sense of what was happening while still sharing an apartment with him. It was agony. At times it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I cried what felt like all the time. Also, because it was a repatriation flight taking Moshen with me was no longer an option. I had always thought I’d come back to Saudi Arabia a country that has really become a part of me, but that dream of coming back always involved coming to visit my boyfriend. Without that connection it felt like I was losing any future plans of returning. It was just layers and layers of loss and grief.

How I made it to the airport the morning of my flight I’ll never know. Those of you who have said goodbye to people you love not knowing if you’ll ever see them again can understand. If you’ve never had to do this count yourself lucky. We had to carry special embassy permission for him to drive me as we were under a 24hour curfew then and without it he could’ve been fined at one of the check points. We were both emotional. I’ll never forget that goodbye or the last kiss I gave Moshen. Even weeks later I can’t type this without stirring up all those fresh emotions.

I flew from Riyadh direct to Dulles airport. Oddly there was no Covid screening upon arrival which was strange. I spend the night at a nearby hotel and then flew to Seattle the next morning to spend a night with my bestie, who then drove me up to the Canadian border. I am so beyond thankful for getting to see her. With the Canadian/American border being closed I think it will likely be sometime in 2021 before I get to see her again. From here I entered quarantine at an Airbnb apartment I had booked. In Canada you can’t quarantine with anyone over 65 years old so staying with my parents wasn’t an option, and I really didn’t want to risk exposing them if I’d picked it up on either of my flights.

So breakups are never fun, but going through a breakup and then being forced to sit alone inside with your thoughts for 2 weeks is no joke. There’s no “let me get my headphones and go for a walk” or meet up with my friends to drink as much wine as it takes to forget about all this. Thankfully, my quarantine did have wine which likely was the only thing that got me through. I told my friends that if I survived heartbreak quarantine I would leave it a fu$#ing warrior. Well I did survive it, but I think the warrior part is taking a bit longer. Slowly I’m feeling more and more myself.

So that’s where I’ve been. Wading through all these murky emotions of loss and grief over the life I thought I’d have with someone I still very much love. I’m learning to let it go. I’m trying to fill this massive hole with other things. You see it’s not just my partner that I lost, he was my best friend. My person. That’s honestly been the hardest part. And of course I miss Moshen so much also but I know he’s being taken care of.

Then on top of that there’s the adjustment of returning home after living a life abroad. My fellow expats know all too well how challenging this is to re-acclimate to old lives. To fit back into familial roles and reestablish friendships. I think the reason many of us become serial expats is because we can never quite fit ourselves back into our home countries. We get used to the ridiculous daily things that happen outside of our countries of birth and learn to thrive under those conditions. Once you’ve spent years living in Saudi Arabia I can assure you that normal life in Canada feels quite boring in comparison. There’s not weird broken Arabic/English convos with the taxi driver or check out person at the grocery store. Everything you are looking for is surely in stock. Gone are the days of finding the peanut butter brand you love and having to buy 6 of something because you know you’ll not find it again for at least the next 6 months. No older covered women are trying to pet my hair in aisle 4. No one is trying to stare me into marrying them. It’s all very ordinary.

But I have to remind myself that I was planning to come back to Canada before the breakup. While I did actually really love living and traveling in Saudi Arabia, I no longer wanted to work as a nurse there. I no longer wanted to work where I was working. So although I didn’t leave under the circumstances I’d planned to, I was still planning to leave. I just thought our relationship would be able to survive the distance. And I have to keep reminding myself that the heart heals. I am so thankful for this love that I got to share. It only took me 39 years to meet someone who made my heart expand more than I knew it was capable of. This will happen again.

So right now I’m in the process of change. I’ve just bought a new car and next month I’m starting a new job, in a new place, with new memories. I hope this post isn’t too much, it took me a long time to get to the point of sharing. I believe that healing comes from being vulnerable. It’s also just going to take time- it was a nearly 2 year relationship and that’s not something a person can move on from overnight. In the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”

Also I’m calling copyright on the title of this post in the event I want to use it when I write my memoir. Which given my lack of discipline is likely to be never. More to come. Hopefully sooner than another 3 months.

What a year…

Is 2020 over already? Shit has been crazy and I’d like to move on to better times!! I’ve missed you guys. It’s been a while since I wrote- I just couldn’t seem to find the motivation to sit down and put some thoughts to words. It’s definitely not that I haven’t had the time, because…let’s be honest…a lot of us have more time now that we ever used to. I think just with all the stress I was feeling so emotionally drained and I just couldn’t get myself to this point. Until today…

So let me catch you all up on what’s been going on since I last wrote. As you know, I tore the meniscus in my knee back in December while traveling in France. It was a bummer of a trip, but as with everything, it could always have been worse. It took literally months for it to heal. I was off work a lot, and then on pretty restricted duty once I returned. The first three weeks after the injury I had to wear a full leg immobilizer, and then gradually was increasing my activity. Then the other knee started to play up since it was bearing most of my weight for such a long time. It was a long few months. Finally, now it is much better. I’m aiming to walk a few times a day to get Moshen (our Saudi rescue pup) out of the house. For short walks it’s fine, but for longer walks I’m still wearing the brace as I’m terrified of re-injuring it.

So I was off work a while. Way back in Nov/Dec I had already decided that I no longer wanted to work where I was working. While my manager was super understanding about my knee injury and very accommodating, I just didn’t want to continue to work for the organization. I’d long said I would stay in Saudi as long as the positives outweighed the negatives and there was a flip. I love nursing, but I just didn’t want to do it anymore where I was. I could quite happily continue to live in Saudi, I just couldn’t mentally do the job anymore. So my last day of work was the beginning of February.

Now pre-Corona, my plans were to spend some time traveling in Saudi Arabia, spend some more time with Jay and then at the beginning of April, I would move back to Canada with Moshen. For financial reasons Jay would stay in Saudi and we’d figure it out. So in February I visited Jizan and the Farasan Islands, which are in the southwest of Saudi Arabia, about 50km from the Yemen border. I’ll definitely be blogging about this over the next few weeks (possibly months). Mid February my bestie Jen from the US, flew to visit me here in Saudi. Now this was a bit of a dream trip. In all the years I’ve lived in Saudi I never thought I’d be able to have a visitor. So when Saudi announced the implementation of tourist visas last fall, she and I immediately started planning a trip.

Now what better way to tour a country that has only recently opened to tourism and relatively recently allowed women to drive, than an all-girls road trip in Saudi Arabia?! So that’s exactly what we did! One of my dear friends from work who I refer to as my Saudi little sister drove with me to Jeddah. We spent one night on the way in the mountain town of Al Bahah so we could visit the historical village of Dhee Ayn, and then I dropped her at the airport to fly back to Riyadh, just as Jen landed from the US. In total, I drove about 5500km in Saudi. I’ll be blogging about this as well, but for now just know that we drove Jeddah- Al Ula, Al Ula- Tabuk, Tabuk- Haql, Haql-Jeddah, and then Jeddah- Riyadh, with many stops in between. I loved having Jen here and showing her a bit of my Saudi life.

So that was February. Then the Covid-19 situation seemed to slowly take off. The beginning of March Jay and I had planned to take a final weekend away before I left and I had talked of visiting Sudan with my kiwi friend. International travel seemed highly risky so we quickly scrapped both those plans. A guide from the Hail region had invited me to Hail and so my kiwi sidekick and I flew up to Hail for a night, and then we spend another night in the city of Sakaka before flying back to Riyadh. That flight back to Riyadh was a little stressful as it started to become evident that maybe airports and airplanes were the last place a person would really want to be. Shortly after the country closed schools, Umrah pilgrim visas and tourist visas were suspended. And then shortly there after the list of international countries that were no longer allowed to fly into Saudi lengthened, and a 72hr warning was given before flights closed off entirely.

During this time information was not totally clear. We were told that certain countries were restricted and that they wouldn’t allow flights from those countries to fly in, however; you could still purchase tickets online, and the departures and arrivals website for King Khalid airport still showed these flights as leaving. I was highly stressed as to whether to immediately book a flight and leave Moshen with Jay, or wait it out. I think I almost gave myself an ulcer those few days. It’s hard in an unprecedented time like this to not be overcome by total fear. I really wanted to look at the situation with the knowledge that we had available and not make a knee-jerk decision. The facts were: I had medical insurance in Saudi, I had a safe place to stay, I’ve got pretty decent savings, Jay and Moshen are here, I had a flight booked to return to Canada April 5th.

At that point I made the decision to sit tight, and wait it out. Initially, we were told that the flight ban would be for 2 weeks. At present time it is indefinite. After international flights were banned the country quickly followed by banning domestic transportation as well. Currently, you can’t travel from one region of Saudi Arabia to another. We are on a 24hr curfew here in Riyadh and only allowed to travel within one’s neighbourhood during the hours of 0600-1500 for food, pharmacy or gas. There are police checkpoints on the roads and violators can face a 10,000SAR ($2600USD) fine for breaking curfew.

My flight was canceled. April 5th came and went. As the weeks progress I’m still in a sort of limbo. The US and UK governments arranged for repatriation flights for their citizens. I was in contact with my embassy and they are aware that I am still here. My visa is valid until May 11th, but the Saudi government has announced the extension of visas for an additional 3 months in light of the current world circumstances. The Canadian embassy did email me regarding some possible flight options for this week. There was the possibility of 3 flights, but honestly as I read the email my gut reaction was not one of excitement. I am apprehensive about traveling now, and it is difficult to leave a situation where I am relatively safe to risk exposure from travel. So here were the flight options, and why I’ve declined to travel:

Flight 1 was to New York, Flight 2 to the UK, and Flight 3 was to Frankfurt and then onward to Toronto. The UK and New York seem much too risky to transit through right now, I’m also worried that things are changing very quickly and neither of those locations are anywhere I would want to risk being stuck. I also worried a bit that even with proof of travel to Canada that I might run into issues or be prevented from boarding a flight as I’ve read other travelers having issues flying back to Canada via the US. The option via Frankfurt would require me to board another 2-3 domestic flights in Canada to get to my final destination of Kelowna BC. With domestic flights being cut this was likely going to be an additional 24hrs of travel inclusive of a 16hr layover in Toronto which would end up being like 42hrs of travel from Riyadh. So again, because I am not in an unsafe situation I am still just going to stay put. I have a seat on a Lufthansa flight May 18th that will arrive into Vancouver, so we will see if that flight goes. I spoke with the Canadian embassy yesterday and they will keep us informed as other flight options become available. These are not government repatriation flights, but just options presented from airlines who are flying on that particular day. I have not heard of any embassy repatriation flights from the Middle East and I can easily understand what a difficult undertaking this is for any government to get citizens back. I am also in a bit of a weird spot as I was moving back to Canada, so I do not have a place to return to in the way of my own apartment, so staying put is the lesser unknown.

Financially it is cheaper for me to wait things out in Saudi where I’m really only responsible for paying for food. I had intended to get a job as a nurse back in Kelowna, but there’s very few positions to apply for and from what I have heard they are not actively hiring at this time. As with hospitals around the world, elective surgeries and procedures have been canceled and this has affected the inpatient census as beds have been emptied to prepare for the expected Covid-19 patients that have not yet come (and maybe on account of social distancing and luck may not come.) So this was also a factor in me not feeling the desperate need to get on a flight. I will need to arrange a 2 week Airbnb as I don’t want to risk self-isolating at my mom’s place and putting her at risk. I will also need to expand my job search and possibly look at moving to someplace I had not really considered as I don’t want to drain my savings and the longer I am in Canada unemployed the quicker those savings will deplete.

So that’s where I’m at. I’m trying to keep busy, but sometimes the days feel very long. Like there’s so much time each day, but I’m not really using it in very productive ways. I feel very distracted and sometimes I will catch myself thinking that this must surely be a dream, and then I remember that no, it’s not a dream at all, and that life as we used to know it has changed so much. It’s quite honestly hard to comprehend. I do however, hold great hope in the medical professionals around the world finding a treatment plan or a vaccine. Until then we must be still. I hope you are all staying inside and staying safe. For those of you on the front line I thank you for your bravery in these desperate times. I can only try to imagine what you are faced with, but I know it must be overwhelming. The world has never needed you so much as right now. Blessings to all….

My Top 10 of 2019

With the New Year upon us it’s time for my yearly top 10 travel destinations of the past year. It was another epic year of travel. I spent 103 days traveling outside of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a few fun weekend trips exploring Saudi thrown into the mix. More on that in a bit. I took 14 separate trips, which for someone who’s terrified of flying is no easy feat. I visited 15 different countries, 6 of them new to me. 5 of those were solo trips. A few of the trips were with friends and several were with my guy. I visited Dubai 3 times because who doesn’t love a quick weekend escape to Dubai. Liechtenstein was my 82nd country.

2019 was the year I became a puppy mom. We rescued a super cute puppy who is a saluki mix and he’s quite honestly the best memory for me of the year. I ended the year twisting my knee on a cobble stoned road in Nice, France that resulted in me having to cancel the rest of my trip. I ended up tearing my meniscus and nearly 4 weeks later I’m still having a lot of difficulty getting around. I did make a travel medical claim for it but am still waiting for that to be paid. I’ll be blogging about my experiences with that whole process later as I get asked a lot about who I get medical insurance through while traveling. This is the first claim I’ve had to make though so I’ll let you know who it’s with and if I’d recommend them in the next couple weeks.

There’s a lot of changes coming up in 2020. I’ve decided not to re-contract as a nurse in Saudi and my current contract will finish at the beginning of February. I’ll be staying in Saudi for a while though as my best friend is flying in on a tourist visa and we are doing a girls road trip from Jeddah up the coast and circling back to Riyadh. I’ll be posting a lot about it on Instagram- I’m sure it will be very entertaining. I’m also looking into hosting a couple weekend trips here in Saudi by partnering with a tour company which I think will be a lot of fun. I’ve already got plans to come back to Saudi under a tourist visa to keep exploring, so Saudi I’m not done with you yet! Anyways, let’s get to my travel list….

1. Turkey

Last January I took a week long solo trip to Turkey. I’d previously visited Turkey back in 2011 and had fallen in love with the architecture. I split my time between Istanbul and Cappadocia. I arrived in Istanbul and spent 2 days exploring the sites on the European side. It was exactly as I remembered it. The sites were stunning (Blue Mosque, Hajia Sophia, Topkapi) and the men were as irritating as my first visit. Truth be told I was pretty exhausted after those 2 days of constantly being followed, cat called and chatted up. Even wearing my headphones did not stop the numerous unwanted advances. I was over it.

I spent 2 nights in Cappadocia for the sole purpose of hot air ballooning over the snow covered landscape. As many things do, this was added to my travel list after seeing some photos on Instagram. Oh the power of the Gram. I stayed in Uchisar which is a quieter part of Cappadocia and fortunately got an upgrade to a suite with a fireplace and a deep soaking tub. I made good use of both. It was super relaxing, and the hot air ballooning was easily one of my favourite memories of the year, despite it being well below freezing. I would highly, highly recommend doing this. I’d hot air ballooned in the spring on my previous trip but I loved the winter scenery.

From here I returned to Istanbul but stayed on the Asian side of the city. Let me tell you this was such a change for the better. It is less touristy and way more chill so I could walk wherever I wanted and no one even looked my way. Yessssss. There’s lots to explore on the Asian side as well and it’s easy to walk over the Bosporus and get back to the European side. Things I’d recommend doing on the Asian side: check out the awesome street art (graffiti murals) in the Karakoy neighbourhood, get a traditional Turkish hamam with massage, and visit the Dolmabahce Palace.

2. Cairo, Egypt

In February I flew for a quick weekend away to Cairo with a group of friends. I’d been to Egypt a couple times before, but had only really got to spend a few hours in Cairo on a layover on the way to Europe several years ago. At that time we did a quick city tour and saw some of the sites via bus, but didn’t really cover much. When you research visiting Cairo most blog posts will tell you one day is enough. Get in see the pyramids and get out. Well I must be the exception because I could’ve very easily and happily spend a third day there.

Besides seeing the pyramids and the sphinx there’s actually quite a bit to see. We visited the pyramids mid morning and the crowds weren’t insane. You can enter into the larger pyramid but be warned it’s very muggy once you’re inside. If you are at all even remotely claustrophobic I’d give it a pass. I did it but the entire time I wished I could’ve gone back in time 15 min to before I’d agreed to it and said no. Once you’re in it’s hard to abort the mission if there’s a lot of people in it. You’ve been warned! Also I just want to say that I had the best time interacting with the local people. I was handed a baby for photos. Toddlers were pushed at me to have photos taken. They were terrified, I was loving it. Some young guy climbed part way up the pyramid and held his baby out in a cringe worthy Michael Jackson moment to show us his baby. But over all the locals were very welcoming and I felt safe. I do realize that Egypt is not the most stable of countries and that anything can happen at anytime, but I really enjoyed it.

So here’s what you shouldn’t miss…. Visit the Muhammed Al Pasha mosque and Saladin Citadel. The mosque is stunning with it’s picture perfect archways and the views overlooking the city are spectacular. Visit the Valley Temple of Chefren near the Sphinx and take some cool pillar photos. Check out Zooba restaurant. I’m a big foodie and this place serves local street food. The restaurant is small but well worth the wait. Try koshari my favourite Egyptian dish made of chick peas, lentils, rice, pasta, fried onions and a tomato sauce. So yumm. Visit the Egyptian museum which was looted during the Egyptian revolution of 2011- about half of the stolen items have now been returned. The museum is amazing. Don’t visit Cairo without going. A new larger museum is scheduled to open in 2020. We also visited the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar which is colourful and bustling and pretty overwhelming. This is the place to buy your Egyptian souvenirs from. Had we had an extra day we would’ve done a Nile river cruise and also visited Saqqara and the pyramid of Djoser. Next time…..

3. Tunisia

Tunisia had low-key been on my list for a while, but after seeing Instagram posts about it on fellow blogger Expat Panda’s Instagram it skyrocketed to the top of my list. So last March I spent a week exploring this stunning country. First off, it was all the things I loved about Morocco, with out all the things I hated about Morocco. It was stunning architecture, and the cutest little hotels that looked like they were designed solely for Instagram. I loved the food and the patterns of the dishes and the largely unpopulated tourist sites. I also loved that at no point during the trip were we grabbed or followed or yelled at or sexually leered at.

I organized us a driver for the time that we were there and we had a pretty jam-packed itinerary except for the last couple nights where we checked into a fancy hotel in Tunis. Here were the highlights from that trip: Spend some time exploring the Medina of Tunis- stop at the small museum called Dar Lasram. We stumbled upon this building as it was next door to where we stayed and it has stunning tile designs and archways that won’t disappoint. Visit the UNESCO site Ruins of Carthage and marvel at the Roman technology. The nearby amphitheater is very well preserved and dates from the end of the first century. Sidi Bou Said is an adorable town and an absolute must as the whole place is varying shades of blue. Photographers will fall in love.

The town of Kairouan makes for a nice stop en route to Sousse. The mosque there is one of the largest Islamic monuments in northern Africa. Don’t miss the smaller Mosque of the Barber. It’s beautiful. Spend a night in Sousse and try the fish couscous and explore the Medina. On the way to Sfax stop at the El Jem and tour the 3rd century UNESCO Roman Amphitheater. It’s impressive and the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. There were maybe 5 other tourists there when we visited- that’s exactly how I like it!

For you Star Wars fans there are several places to visit where filming took place- I’d recommend Matmata and Medenine as those were the ones we saw, however there are several more. Take the ferry over to Djerba Island. If you like urban art than stay in Djerbahood where there are 250 murals that were painted in 2014. Many are faded, but I loved exploring the town and coming across these artistic delights.

4. Taif, Saudi Arabia

In March I also took a weekend trip with a big group of friends to see the Rose Festival in Taif. Taif is located southwest of Riyadh and is an easy 1hr flight. The Rose Festival takes place from mid-March to the end of April each year. This is the time of year that the Damask roses bloom. These roses are world famous and the oil is quite expensive and is used in many popular perfumes like Lancome and Givenchy.

If you visit during this season you can visit the rose farms and learn how the oil is collected, see the roses in bloom, and buy a dizzying array of rose products. But that’s not all there is to do in Taif. You can take in the breathtaking views of the Al-Hada mountains and see the equally famous red butted baboons. I’m not a fan of monkeys so I tend to steer clear and watch them from afar. The regional Al-Shareef museum is well worth a visit and gives you a historical perspective of the area. You can take a cable car down to the village of Al Kar and take in the mountain views- this was a highlight for many in our group.

A visit to Taif should also include a trip to the local market. Honey from this region is said to be the best in Saudi so definitely take some home with you. We feasted on local Taif bread that is made of 7 types of flour, and ate some of the best chicken of my life prepared in a traditional Yemeni way. For those of you Saudi based I’ll keep you posted on an upcoming weekend to visit Taif in March or April to see the roses. You won’t be disappointed.

5. Kazakhstan

So if you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know I like to visit some off the beaten path locales. Kazakhstan was one of 2 “Stans” I was lucky enough to visit in 2019. For a week in June, Boobae and I flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was the first of the two Eid holidays and the flight schedule and price was right. We based ourselves in Almaty and did day trips from there. We also ate some fantastic food (not Kazakh food) and sipped wine to my hearts content.

Almaty is a really green city with tons of parks so it’s great for just leisurely strolling. The Opera House is a really cool building and Zenkov’s Cathedral has a real fairy tale air to it. We did a food tour which was essentially a walking tour that included food and we visited the Green Market. I love to visit markets when I’m traveling to see the fresh produce and mix with the locals. On the food tour we also visited a local restaurant to taste some local dishes. If you are vegetarian skip along to the next paragraph. I hate to say it but Kazakh food was just not great. First they eat horse and I just couldn’t get my head around it. Boiled meat with no seasoning is never good and fermented camel milk tastes exactly how it sounds. I’ll leave it at that.

We visited Big Almaty Lake which has stunning mountain views and the turquoise waters of this natural reservoir are the perfect backdrop for photos. We visited Tamgaly-Tas which is a canyon set alongside a river to see some petroglyphs. As it turns out the petroglyphs were at a place hours away called Tamgaly. This particular travel day was a bit of a miss as our driver had no idea where we were going and in the end we saw some stunning scenery, but none of the actual things we had set out to see. Such is life.

We visited the Museum of Rare books which involved us getting quite lost in a huge historical building but we eventually found what we were looking for. We visited a nomadic cultural center with traditional Kazakh people wearing traditional clothes and learned about the culture and traditional sports like archery and horsemanship. The best thing we did though was visit this abandoned hospital that treated WW2 veterans. It was creepy and I loved every second of it. So that’s Kazakhstan, but obviously it’s a huge country so there’s loads more a person could explore.

6. Al Soudah, Saudi Arabia

In August I flew to the Asir region of Saudi Arabia which is in the south, bordering Yemen. I was invited to attend the Al Soudah Season festival and was super pumped to explore a region of Saudi I hadn’t previously visited. The festival was held on Al Soudah mountain which is about a 40min drive from the city of Abha. This is the highest point in Saudi Arabia and the landscape and mountain views are spectacular.

If you visit the Asir region make sure you venture down to the village of Rijal Almaa on the valley floor. This historical village was on the trade route from Yemen up to Mekkah and it is on the tentative list of upcoming sites to be awarded UNESCO status. The village consists of around 60 palaces made of clay, mud and wood and you can wander from the better preserved ones into the ruins. I was fortunate enough to explore with fellow blogger Blue Abaya and we took a bunch of photos. Late afternoon really is the best time as you will the perfect light. Apart from Al Soudah festival, there is also the “Flowerman Festival” which took place in August of 2019. 2020 dates not yet released.

7. Mauritius

In August we escaped the oppressive Saudi summer for 7 nights of “winter” south of the equator on the island of Mauritius. I booked our trip so we stayed on every side of the island. We stayed 2 nights on the west coast, 3 nights on the northern coast at a rather disappointing all-inclusive, 1 night on the east coast and 1 night on the south. Mauritius is a seriously stunning country. It was winter while we were there so the temps were like 20-25C which to me is perfect. Here were a few of the highlights….

Our taxi driver in Port Louis named Kalam was the absolute best. He had a pet bird named Bebe who sometimes drove with him but also had a slightly jealous side (Bebe not Kalam) and I was so all about that damn bird. Boobae wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was, but I’ll tell you that 4 months later I’m still getting whatsapp pictures of Bebe. We spent an afternoon exploring the capital city of Port Louis- if you go, make sure to visit the UNESCO site of Aapravasi Ghat. It’s an absolute must and tells the history of slavery on the island. This is extremely important seeing that 70% of Mauritians today are ancestors to these indentured laborers.

If you are a foodie than choose your all-inclusive hotel based off the food reviews otherwise you might end up disappointed like me. Food is a big part of travel for me, and I don’t want to eat every meal at a buffet that feels like it’s some distant cousin’s wedding. The drinks however were very on point. Make sure to sit and watch the sunset every day. Mauritian sunsets are amazing and I took photos every single evening.

As I mentioned we spend 1 night on the east coast and besides that damn bird Bebe this was my favourite part. We stayed at this boutique hotel called Salt of Palmar and although it wasn’t cheap it is seriously my favourite hotel. Like ever. And no I’m sadly not getting paid to say that. This place was so aesthetically pleasing, the colour scheme and decor were totally my jam, and the food was out of this world. Like no joke. The entire concept of the hotel is to locally source everything and be environmentally conscious. There are no single use plastic products. Every guest is given an aluminum water bottle that they can fill up around the resort. I vow to return and stay there again.

We spent a day touring to the south of the island. We visited the temple of Ganga Talao, the Black River Gorges, the Chamarel waterfall, went zip lining and saw the changing colours of the Seven Coloured Earth before spending our last night in a lovely bungalow with what is quite possibly the best view on the island over looking Le Morne. It was a lovely trip.

8. Armenia

In September I took a solo trip to Armenia. I based myself in Yerevan and explored it a couple days and then booked a lovely guide to do day trips out of the city. There is a ton of things to see in Armenia. For me it was pretty similar in landscape to when I visited Georgia (the country) and the food was pretty similar. I’m sorry to say though that I preferred Georgian wine to Armenian. I visited so many monasteries on this trip but these were the standout sites from the trip….

Sevanavank Monastery dates from the 9th century and overlooks Sevan Lake and that area is beautiful. I loved the white stones of Haghartsin Monastery complex from the 10th-13th century. It was interestingly recently renovated by the ruler of Sharjah in the UAE. The day we visited it was rainy and foggy which made it all the more cool as you pretty much drove out of the forest and then bam the monastery was visible. If you are in the town of Dilijan make sure to stop at the restaurant Tava. You won’t be sorry.

The 13th century Noravank Monastery is tucked into the red rock cliffs and I image it would be spectacular in the winter when the ground is covered in snow. Zvartnots cathedral ruins date from the 7th century and are well worth a stop, and they are a UNESCO site. Geghard Monastery is build into the cliff and the acoustics inside are amazing. There were professional singers singing while I was there and it literally brought tears to my eyes. It was a really moving moment. The Temple of Garni dates from the 1st century and is the only remaining pagan temple in the region. It is fantastic.

If you go to Armenia be sure to learn about the history of the country. Specifically the history with Turkey and the Armenian genocide. It is heartbreaking, but pertinent to understand how territory shifted, so that what is present day eastern Turkey actually used to be western Armenia. There is also a lot of biblical significance to this area. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s ark is said to have rested after the great flood. Also if you go I highly recommend Sofi the guide I used. It felt like I was traveling with an old friend!

9. Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan was my 81st country and the highlight of this past years travels for me. I’ll be raving about this country to anyone who asks me the question “where should I travel?” for a long time coming. I’m a big lover of Islamic architecture and I absolutely love tiled patterns so Uzbekistan was high up on my list. In October I spent 10 days traveling solo across the country. It is quite easily one of the safest countries I’ve visited. The only time I felt even remotely unsafe was with the lack of street lights in the old part of Bukhara- but that was just my over active imagination and not a genuine threat to my safety.

I flew into Tashkent and spent a night there and then flew to the small town of Khiva to the northwest of Tashkent. I spent 2 nights here and I’m glad I planned the trip this way. As I moved closer back towards Tashkent the cities got larger. I loved exploring Khiva. All the tourist sites are compact and easy to walk to. Every which way you turn is a photographers dream. The building courtyards are decorated in varying patterns of blue, white and turquoise tiles and I couldn’t get enough of it. Also fun fact: Uzbekistan food is really good. Khiva is known for pumpkin dumplings and this green dill pasta topped with like a tomato stew. Both were really good. Be sure to try Plov in every city- it’s a very traditional dish from the region made of rice, with meat. Each city has a different variation and I actually quite liked it. Make sure to walk the old city walls of Khiva at sunset.

From here I visited Bukhara which is larger and therefore the historical sites are more spread out. The highlights from here were: learning about the Jewish history of the city, and visiting the Kalyan minaret and mosque. The archways are amazing and you’ll want to take a bunch of photos. Go early in the morning prior to the tour buses arriving for the best pictures. Bukhara is known for its fancy pottery and it’s the place to buy dishes. Which naturally I did– and I’m total shit at bartering so I probably overpaid, but I love them. Just outside of the city is Sitorai Mohi Hossa the Emir’s summer palace. It is well worth a visit and the main entrance gate is the most colourful I saw in Uzbekistan.

I took the train from Bukhara to Samarkand. The complex of Registan is made up of three large madrasahs and was the heart of the ancient Timur dynasty. They date from the 1400-1600’s. The Gur-e-Amir complex dates from the 15th century and if you have the chance to visit at sunrise I would recommend it. You’ll have the whole site to yourself and the caretaker will likely unlock the door so you can see the gold ornate inner chamber before opening hours. It’s fantastic. My most favourite spot though was Shah-I-Zinda complex which has the most colourful mausoleums I’ve ever seen. So. Many. Photos. If you like abandoned places there’s a place called Ishratkhana which is an abandoned mausoleum from the 15th century located a little ways out of the main city center. It’s pretty cool.

I ended the trip by taking the train back to Tashkent. I ended up meeting an older Egyptian/British retired doctor at the train station and we chatted the whole train ride. We both had similar travel styles and it just so happened that his next couple of trips are to Ethiopia and Armenia (places I’ve been) so I was able to offer him advice. We even ended up being on the same flight back to Dubai so we chatted at the airport and still keep in touch. In Tashkent I hired a great local guide named Aziza and we walked some 19km around the city. She was awesome and we saw the main sites and made our way through the Chorsu Bazaar. Again, I love visiting local markets. Tashkent subway stations are some of the nicest in the region and they are well worth exploring. The Hotel Uzbekistan has really impressive city views from the top floor. It really was a jam packed 10 days.

10. Sicily, Italy

In November we flew to Palermo Sicily to meet up with my best friend and her boo. We spent two nights there and explored the nearby town of Monreale which was stunning views of the city below. We did a tasting menu at A’Cuncuma Restaurant which was delicious. We drove to Trepani and spent a night there. Drive up the hill overlooking the city to the town of Erice which has great views and some really cool graffiti murals. Stop by La Pasticceria di Maria Grammatico which has yummy pastries. From Trepani we drove towards Agrigento. We stopped off at two really cool spots. In 1968 this area was hit by an earthquake that destroyed several towns. The site of Ruderi di Gibellina is a large scale landscape art exhibition by deceased artist Albert Burri. The entire destroyed city was covered in concrete with sections mapping out the streets and alleys. It is a large scale memorial and I’ve never seen anything like it. The nearby town of Ruderi di Poggioreale is largely in ruins and uninhabitable, but you can still explore it. Please note though- many of the buildings were in varying state of collapse so caution is needed.

In Agrigento we spent a night and the highlight was the Valley of the Temples which is exactly as it sounds. It’s a nice rolling walk past 4 temples in varying state of ruin with the ocean in the distance. Just lovely. From here Boobae and I returned to Palermo for 2 more nights where we had some downtime and explored the city. If you haven’t been to this part of Italy, add Sicily to your list!

So that wraps up my top 10 of 2019. I hope it gave you some new ideas for travel destinations! I wish you all a happy, healthy year in 2020.

My Guide to Solo Travel

I tend to get asked a lot of questions related to solo travel, so I thought I’d write a guide to how I solo travel. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on solo travel, but I have traveled quite a bit on my own. Earlier this month I visited Liechtenstein my 82th country, and my 35th solo adventure. I’ve come a long way since my early days of travel.

I can vividly remember how scared I was on my first solo trip. I spent a week in Portugal and for some reason it didn’t dawn on me until I was on the airplane that I was flying to a non- English speaking country. Obviously I knew they spoke Portuguese, but like it didn’t register. I was also still pretty new to travel in general and didn’t yet know that English is literally spoken to some degree everywhere. If you are a native English speaker like me, then it’s best to accept that we are privileged. We will never fully understand the trials of travel like those of people whom English is not their first language. People are always telling me how brave I am to travel alone, but the truly brave ones are those whose mother tongue is anything but English.

So here’s how I go about deciding where my next trip will be. Once I have leave from work approved I can start the planning process. I often have a top 10 list in my head of places I want to go. That list is compiled of recommendations from other travelers, some cool picture I saw on Instagram, a video some vlogger made and posted to Facebook, or just somewhere off the beaten path place I’ve always been curious about. I’m also very focused that there are only a few countries left in Europe that I haven’t visited, so I’m always trying to fit those in. My current list is Singapore, Laos, the Faroe Islands, Sudan, San Sebastian-Spain, Greenland, Iran, Pakistan, the Seychelles, Madagascar, and Socotra Island in Yemen. Obviously Iran and Yemen are not great ideas right now so they are ruled out. Then I get on google and do a quick visa search to see which places I need a visa for and how complicated it is, and what the weather is like at that time of year. I’m not a very good hot/humid weather traveler, and I try to avoid monsoon season. I also tend to rule out Europe or anywhere touristy during peak season- I’m much more of a shoulder season traveler and prefer the spring or fall vs summer where kids are out of school and line ups for any touristy sites are ridiculous. Then I hit up Kayak and look at airfare.

Generally, I want to travel somewhere that has only one connection, that leaves sometime after midnight (so I can work day shift that day and immediately fly out) and has less that 12hrs of travel time. This rules out several places on my list. Then it really comes down to price and what flight schedule works best, and I’ll have a quick look on just to make sure accommodations aren’t too expensive. Then I just book the damn ticket. Of note: I just use Kayak as a reference for flight prices but I only book either directly with the airline or with Expedia. The reason for this is that a few years ago when I went to Morocco I booked direct with Kayak and a couple days after booking they messaged me and were like “oh your flights were never confirmed and the price went up like $300.” And the customer service was shitty so that was the first and only time I ever booked through them, or any of the other websites they use like Vayama. Often this whole flight booking process happens in the course of an afternoon or evening, and I’ll call my parents and say “oh hi, so in xxx month I’m going to blah blah blah.”

In my older years I tend to be a slower traveler and don’t want to move cities/hotels every day. I prefer to stay 2-4nights in a place. I like down time and don’t care to pack a million things into my itinerary so I’m busy from breakfast until late at night. In my younger years I could travel like that. Now I want to see a few things but then also sit in a cafe or wine bar and read and just relax. So after booking airfare I’ll look at where I’m going to stay. I’ll often have a quick look at Booking or Airbnb to see what’s available and then use Tripadvisor and read some reviews of recent solo travelers to see what they had to say. I prefer to stay somewhere really central. I don’t want to waste a ton of time on public transportation to get into the city center and I want to be close to restaurants and bars in easy walking distance. For me food and wine are a big part of travel and I love going out to eat in nice restaurants. If I’m really tired or staying somewhere sketchy then I’ll stay in and order room service- otherwise I want to go out and eat local food.

After the hotel or Airbnb is booked I start planning what I want to see. I generally search to see if there is a “free walking tour” and will make sure to do that on my first or second day in a new place. “Free walking tours” are a godsend. While not technically free (the guides get paid off tips) I find that it’s a great way to see the main tourist sites of a city, learn about the history, and meet other travelers if I’m feeling social. All for a $10 tip. These types of tours also give me an idea of what I might want to go back to see, and give me a general lay of the city since I’m navigationally challenged. I highly recommend them.

I’ll then google restaurants and wine bars. I will often try and eat at a fancy restaurant each trip- I’m a huge fan of tasting menus since I will literally try anything once and tasting menus often have expertly paired wine menus. There’s nothing I love more than someone pairing food and wine together for me! I will also research if there are any art exhibits going on while I’m traveling and add those to my list. I’ll usually search “top 10 things to see in such and such” and make a list of the interesting ones and the hours. It’s good to note that Monday’s most museums are closed and in parts of Europe Sunday’s stores are closed so take this into account when planning your itinerary.

Because I’m into kinda weird things I will research if there are any abandoned places nearby that you can visit. While I like to do touristy things I also like to do things that are a little off the beaten path. I love the stories associated with why building were abandoned and I love to see the architecture from those forgotten times. I’m big into urban art and graffiti and will google which parts of the city are known for those and plan those into my visit. Things like this are often coined “dark tourism” and they are becoming very popular- to the point that there are now walking graffiti tours and tours that visit abandoned places.

I then take the list of all the things I might want to see along with the hotel or Airbnb that I’ll be staying at and I put them into google maps and save the locations. That way it’s very easy to see where things are in relation to where I’m staying, and the map works when I’m offline, and I never feel like I can get lost. You can also download offline maps from or other apps so you’ll always have one with you. I never used to get a data plan and just largely relied on wifi (which is most everywhere) but the last year or so I started getting a data plan while I’m traveling solo- it’s just nice from a safety standpoint. And so I can look things up on the fly. And post insta stories as needed.

Earlier this year I wrote a post (vent) about solo female travel and you can read that here. I wanted to share a few quick safety tips that have helped me over the years. I always carry a door stop in my bag. This was a tip that I read about somewhere years ago and it gives me a little extra security. Basically if I’m staying anywhere shady I will use that from the inside of my room to give me an extra sense of protection- granted I realize someone could still bang the door down but it gives me a little extra peace of mind. You can buy door stops online that have an alarm so if the door was pushed open an alarm would ring out and hopefully deter anyone from further pushing in. I also carry only cross-shoulder purses because they are more difficult to steal. Pacsafe makes some great ones and I’ve owned several over the years- they have special locks so you could lock your bag to a chair to prevent it from being stolen at a cafe and they are slash proof so someone can’t just cut the strap and run off with your bag. I also prefer a bag with a good inner zipper and and fold-over top piece. My current bag is this one because I wanted something stylish, but also roomy enough to fit my iPad into. I love it.

In terms of personal safety- I do go out at night when I’m traveling solo, but just not very late. I tend to go for dinner earlier say 6-7pm and am usually back to my hotel by 9pm. While I do visit wine bars I don’t tend to go to clubs or anything super late unless I’m staying in a hostel (which rarely happens) and a group of other travelers are going out. If you are someone who likes some nightlife and you are traveling solo I would recommend booking an Airbnb Experience. They now have them in lots of cities and you could join one that is a pub crawl and have the extra safety of a group. When I’m in a taxi solo I always have my address entered into google maps to make sure I’m going the right way. In Uzbekistan I got into a taxi to go meet my guide and his friends for drinks and the taxi driver started driving me literally out of town. I showed him where I needed to go on the map and it turns out there was another place with a similar name so he was in fact not kidnapping me. But better to be safe than sorry. You can also take a picture of the taxi license plate and send it to a family member or friend for extra safety. Once in India I was in the back of a rickshaw in Delhi and I got a really creepy vibe from the driver so I pretended that my phone rang and had this loud conversation (with no one) about how I was at such and such street and would arrive in 10min.

I also tend to lock my passport up if I have the options and split my money and credit cards between a couple spots so in the event I was robbed they wouldn’t get everything. Back in the days that I carried a nice camera I would always have a couple SD cards and I would switch them out so that if the camera was stolen I wouldn’t lose all the pictures. Once in Japan I had a new camera and accidentally re-formated the memory card and erased all my photos near the end of the trip. That was in 2006 and I still haven’t fully recovered.

So that’s how I go about planning a trip (solo or otherwise) and a few of my years proven travel tips. I’ve got loads of updates coming soon, and my yearly top 10 travel destinations post is coming out next week!

Happiest of Holidays


So earlier this week Boobae and I returned from a week long trip to Mauritius. Now I know people are always saying they left their heart in some random exotic locale, but honestly guys, I really think I left a piece of mine on the eastern shore of Mauritius. Was it the sugary unlimited cocktails? The lulling sound of the waves hitting the rocky shore? The wind blowing through my hair? Or the ever changing shades of blue as I gazed at the Indian Ocean? High chances it was a combo of all of them. Mauritius I’m pretty sure we will meet again.

Some of you reading this might be asking “hmmm, where the heck is Mauritius?” Up until a few months ago I would’ve had a hard time pointing it out on a map, and would’ve just drawn my hand in a circle from India to Sri Lanka, to the entire coast of Africa and been like “it’s somewhere in this spot.” So to be a little more specific, the island country of Mauritius lies in the Indian Ocean and is part of the continent of Africa. It is about 2000km from the mainland of the continent. Mauritius is south of the Seychelles and east of Madagascar. I know that as my Pops is reading this he’s likely pulling out his atlas to get a clearer idea. The closest island to Mauritius is the French island of Reunion, which is about 200km away.

Mauritius was an uninhabited island until it was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500’s. For me it’s hard to imagine the island being uninhabited because it looks like the setting of a real life Jurassic Park, and I can totally envision native island people roasting boar on a beach, but I can’t dispute history. The Portuguese didn’t stay long. The Dutch landed there in 1598 and then abandoned it in the early 1700’s and then the French moved in pretty much right after. French history of the island is important as people still speak French. English is the official language, but most Mauritians we heard were speaking French or Creole. Anyways, back to history lessons by Kristine… back in 1814 the French gave Mauritius to the British as part of what is known as the Treaty of Paris, and Mauritius remained under British rule until its independence in 1968.

Slavery was abolished in 1835 and this led to the labour experiment called indentured labour. Basically between the late 1840’s and 1910 nearly 500,000 labourers arrived in Mauritius from China, the Indian subcontinent (many from India), Southeast Asia, Yemen, and from Madagascar and other parts of Africa. To be an in indentured meant that these labourers had a contract and had supposed freedom over their lives, but in reality the work conditions were harsh and they had little rights. These labourers were brought over to work on sugar estates. Afterwards about two thirds of the indentured labourers remained and today 70% of Mauritians are ancestors of those workers. The “experiment” in Mauritius was viewed as a success, and led to the migration of more than 2 million labourers around the world. If you visit Mauritius you should make a point of visiting Aapravasi Ghat a UNESCO site in Port Louis (the capital) that pays homage to this historical period and the labourers.

Some of the indentured labourers.

Ok, so now that you know where Mauritius is and a little about the history, let me tell you about what Boobae and I got up to. I wanted this trip to be equal parts taking in the sites and relaxation/day drinking. We had 7 nights on the island and I basically broke them up so that we stayed 2 nights on the west coast, 3 nights on the north coast, 1 night on the east coast and 1 night in the south. Most travelers to Mauritius just stay in one place and opt to do day trips from there. I’m not most travelers though and I like to plan my own itineraries.

We flew Saudia from Riyadh to Mauritius. My Saudi peeps have a couple options to get to Mauritius pretty easily. From Riyadh you could fly to Dubai and then fly direct to Mauritius, or you could take Saudia with a stop-over (you don’t get off the plane) in Jeddah. For us coming from Riyadh it was about 9hrs of travel time to fly to Jeddah- wait for the plane to board the Jeddah passengers- and then fly to Mauritius. Saudia is a decent airline, however; both our flights were delayed, and unfortunately that bathroom on our flight back to Saudi was the worst I’ve ever seen on a plane. Let me rephrase- it was the worst airplane bathroom I’ve seen in 79 countries of traveling. But anyways....

We arrived in Mauritius, collected our bags and got dropped off at Villa Anakao, which is about 20min south of Port Louis. The Villa is like a 3 star small hotel which more than met our needs. We checked in and were offered beers and sat on the balcony taking in the gorgeous pool area and ocean. We had already decided that we would visit the Flying Dodo brewery nearby for dinner so we went inside to freshen up. Boobae unzips his suitcase and pulls out a ladies flipflop. Yes a ladies flipflop. Oh shit. Identical black American Tourister suitcase. After a few comical minutes of figuring out what to do, the Villa helped to call the airport to tell them of the mix-up, and arrange a taxi to take us back to the airport to exchange bags.

We stayed in the yellow room.

So the taxi comes and the drivers name is Kalam and he’s super chatty and telling us about Mauritius and naturally I’m equally chatty and asking him questions about his family on the way to the airport. We get there and the bag exchange goes down without a hitch and Kalam is driving us to the brewery and he’s telling us about “baby” who was sad and wanted to come to work with him. And so I’m like is “baby” a boy or girl and how old are they? Kalam corrects me that “Bebe” is a boy and he’s a bird. And “sometimes” he comes to work with him. And I’m now super into this bird. And so Kalam calls home on speaker phone and his wife answers and he tells her to put “Bebe” on. And “Bebe” starts squawking and I’m on a speaker call with a bird. Could Mauritius get any better?? Well just wait….

So we got to the brewery and Boobae gets to try some craft beer and I have some wine and then Kalam comes back to get us, and BEBE IS IN THE CAR. He’s perched on his shoulder riding shotgun and I’m so damn excited. I don’t even like birds, but I’m bigtime crushing on Bebe. So we get back to the Villa and Kalam tells me to put my hand out and he covers my hand with his and then kisses his hand. But Bebe thinks he is kissing my hand and gets jealous AF and starts making these jealous bird noises. But in the end we made up and he perched on my finger for a hot second.

“BEBE” is a bright green parakeet.

The next day we had Kalam take us into Port Louis. We visited the Citadel from the 1800’s that has amazing views of the city. We then walked down to Aapravasi Ghat as I’ve already mentioned- a must do if you are in Port Louis. From here we walked over for lunch on the waterfront and headed back to the Villa for some relaxation and pool time. And to sip wine while watching a spectacular sunset. Kalam picked us up and took us to the nearby village of Albion for dinner and dropped us back. About 15min after he dropped us off he urgently called me to come outside quickly. He had Bebe. And Boobae was like a little irritated and told me that “weird things always happen when I’m with you.” And I ran outside to see Bebe and we got our picture taken with him and it was the best. And Bebe even kissed me on the cheek. Swoon.

On top of the Citdel.
Sunset views from Villa Anakao.
Hello Christmas Card 2019. Also Boobae never smiles in pictures, but he is clearly digging Bebe as much as I am!

The next day we had a driver take us to the north coast where we checked into an all-inclusive hotel. En route we stopped off at the botanical gardens in Pamplemousses. If you are into gardens then check it out- if you’re not then give it a pass. The main reason we were in Pamplemousses was that I had seen pictures of this abandoned orphanage and I was super keen to check it out. As in it was at the top of my Mauritius bucket list. But as it turns out the orphanage was fenced off and you needed special government permission to visit it, or risk getting arrested. And since Boobae is far too pretty for jail we just drove by and I took some sneaky pictures from the window. We also visited Chateau de Labourdonnais which is a restored plantation house. It is quite beautiful and included in the admission is a rum tasting which was basically all you want shots of rum. Turns out I do not especially like shots of rum so we didn’t get very much bang for our buck. We ate lunch at the restaurant on the Chateau property called Le Table du Chateau which was delicious but quite pricey. The lobster with vanilla butter was especially good.

The Botanical Gardens.
The abandoned orphanage that I wanted to visit, but sadly couldn’t.
Chateau Labourdonnais.
That lobster was the bomb.

We arrived at the all-inclusive. I’m not a big resort traveler. In fact I’ve only done all-inclusive one other time in the Maldives so that’s what I compare it to. We decided on three nights of doing nothing. I won’t name the resort we used, because I wouldn’t recommend it. The service was shit, and the food was pretty much on the same level as a buffet at your cousin’s wedding. The drink menu was on point though, and we never had to fight for chairs at the pool or beach. Our days there consisted of breakfast buffet. Getting another coffee from the bar. Finding 2 open lounge chairs. Reading/wasting time on social media. “Oh hey it’s 11am.” Direct to the bar. Now to be fair the bar opened at 9am but we are respectable day drinkers so 11am was go-time/show time. Then lunch. Bar. Pool. Bar. Read a bit. Bar. Catch the sunset. Bar. Back to the room to get ready for dinner. Dinner. And back to bar for some type of live music and to bed by 11pm. Next day- identical repeat of the previous day.

Love me a slushy fruity boozy drink.
Amazing sunsets on the north coast.
Boobae posing with my Lensball.

After the all-inclusive we booked a driver to take us to the east coast. This was the place I was most excited about staying, but because during July and August the trade winds are strongest to the east coast we decided to just stay one night. This was the only regret I had on the trip- I wish we’d canceled the all-inclusive and just stayed at the hotel we booked. Upon my research I found a hotel that opened last year. Salt by Palmar is environmentally conscious and everything is locally sourced. They provide a paperless check-in and get this….your phone opens your room. Mind blown. The attention to detail is impressive. The hotel is a total Instagrammers dream, but staying there is an experience. The hotel offers a variety of activities that are more culture oriented allowing you to visit markets, or learn a skill with locals. They don’t have single use plastic products and all guests are given a reusable water bottle that you can fill up at water stations around the small resort. And if you are a foodie like me this will be heaven for you. Every meal we had was interesting and they menu features a map with the names of the farmer who they get the produce from and the fisherman who provides the fresh fish. The entire concept was amazing and I would recommend it. It’s not a cheap hotel, but for me it was well worth it. We also got couples massages which gave us the chance to try their “Halotherapy” room, which is a room filled with Himalayan pink salt crystal and soft changing lights. It’s supposed to balance the flow of energy and calm your mind.

This was the best cocktail I’ve ever had. My favourite dessert is orange gelato and this was like drinking one.
Crab and tuna tacos.
Inside the salt room.

At dinner that night there was an Asian family seated next to us. A mom. A Dad. And their rambunctious toddler. The mom was exhausted and ended up falling asleep on a bench at the table, and the little boy wandered over to us. He didn’t speak much English but for the next 30 minutes I became his impromptu babysitter. We played a game I like to call hide behind my chair and tickle me. And the old school favourite of let me use your phone and take pictures of random things. He was super cute and while sometimes (often times) I’m not a huge fan of kids running amuck in nice restaurants, his parents looked exhausted so I made an exception. In the end their meal finally came. They had ordered the salt baked whole chicken which takes an hour to prepare. We had thought about ordering it but had opted not to. The kiddo at this point was in a highchair and the dad turned him around in it and slid him over and they handed us half the chicken. It was such a sweet gesture, and even though we were stuffed we ate the chicken, and it was delicious. In the morning the kiddo and I exchanged waves like we were old friends. I love travel interactions like that!

After sadly checking out of the hotel Salt we met our guide and started our tour to the south of the island. We visited Ganga Talao a sacred place for Hindu worshipers. The translation of the name means “Lake of Ganga” which refers to the Ganges river in India. There are several different temples and statues dedicated to the different Hindu gods. The island of Mauritius is very green and tropical and lush. There is an odd mix of vegetation with fir trees mixed in alongside tropical palms. As I mentioned before it was hard to look at the scenery without thinking about Jurassic Park or the mid-2000 TV show Lost. After Ganga Talao we went zip lining. You’re probably wondering how for someone who claims to be scared of heights how it was that I found myself zip lining for the second time this month. Well this was Boobae’s bucket list item and I’m a mostly supportive girlfriend, and I wanted prove to him that I wasn’t chicken. So I did it. And I’m not keen to do it again. We then checked out the scenic viewpoint of the Black River Gorges and stopped off for a fresh seafood lunch. More lobster? Yes please. We then drove to Chamarel to learn about rum production and to visit the Chamarel waterfall and the nearby Seven Coloured Earth. The Seven Coloured Earth is a geological field consisting of seven different coloured sands that separate into different layers based on their volcanic composition. The result is a portion of the landscape that looks like a watercolour painting with the various hues of brown, red, purple and yellow.

At Ganga Talao.
Chamarel waterfall.
Seven Coloured Earth- the hues are more defined after it’s rained.

From here we drove further into the hills to the Chalets Chamarel which I had booked because of the insane view the chalets give of the southern tip of the island below. And the views were even more impressive in person than I had seen online. We sat out on our balcony until the last bits of sunlight had faded and the summit of Le Morne was just a shadow. It was equally picturesque as the sun rose on our last morning in Mauritius.

Le Morne in the background.

So that was kinda lengthy summary of our time in Mauritius, but I’m sure that pictures can make you understand how I left a piece of my heart there….

On another note, it’s been a busy summer. I was home in Canada and the US for almost a month and flew back to Saudi worked a bit and then flew to Abha to attend the AlSoudah Season festival with fellow blogger Laura from Blue Abaya, and then later that week we flew to Mauritius. In about 3 weeks Boobae and I are spending a weekend in Dubai and then I’ll be adventuring solo in Armenia for a week which I’m really pumped about. Happy adventuring to you….

AlSoudah Season

This past weekend I flew to Abha to visit the nearby AlSoudah Season festival. It’s part of the new Saudi initiative called “Saudi Seasons” by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage which aims to put Saudi on the map as a travel destination. The month of July was dedicated to Jeddah Season and August features both AlSoudah and Taif Seasons.

AlSoudah Season takes place in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia which is south of Jeddah sharing a small border with Yemen. The festival is held on AlSoudah mountain which is about a 40 minute drive from Abha, the regions capital. The mountain elevation is around 3000m making this the highest festival ever held in the kingdom.

There are direct flights from Riyadh and Jeddah on either Saudia, FlyNas, Saudi Gulf Air or Flyadeal. Saudia currently is offering a discount code to get 20% off flights- you can use code ABHA19 to take advantage of it. Book tickets soon though as many flights are selling out.

From Abha you could either rent a car or take an Uber or Kareem taxi to AlSoudah. With good traffic it takes around 40 minutes, but allow up to an hour for travel time. The weather in Abha is much cooler than Riyadh and much cooler in AlSoudah because of the elevation, so pack accordingly. If you will be there in the afternoon or evening make sure to bring a coat. Think temperatures in the mid 20’s C but cooling down to the mid teens (15C). The weather also changes very fast. Views are better in the morning before the clouds roll in. Afternoon rain is common and the fog can get very thick. I especially loved the rain and fog as it was such a surprising change from the sweltering heat of Riyadh.

Entrance tickets to the festival are 40sar for the 12years and older crowd, 10sar for kids 4-11 years old, and free for those kiddos under 4. You can buy them online here. It’s important to note that the festival site is quite spread out so wear good walking shoes and bring a stroller for the kids. There are free bikes that you can ride as an alternative to walking.

The festival events includes many adventure activities like bungee jumping, sling shot, zip lining, paintball, and a zip line course. There is also paragliding although I didn’t see it while I was there. I did try the zip line which for someone scared of heights was terrifying, but I’m glad I did it! There are hiking trails for both beginner and advanced hikers. Tickets can be purchased at the above link. You can also buy tickets at the “Hub” center which has food trucks, swings, seating areas and a kids zone. Timings and other information can be found on the AlSoudah Season website here. Please note that not all of the info is in English so you might need an Arabic translator to get the whole scoop!

There are three restaurants if you prefer coffee with a view or a sit down meal. They are Bayat, Serafina (same as the Riyadh restaurant) and Meraki which is a London restaurant. They will be opening a Meraki restaurant in Riyadh in the New Year. I only ate at Meraki which is Greek- I highly recommend it. The food was really good- try the chicken as it is the moistest chicken I’ve ever eaten. Sit outside on the terrace for perfect valley views and watch the zip liners go by.

Misk Art also has an ongoing exhibit at the festival that I would highly recommend seeing. It’s about the history of the Asir region featuring clothing, music and dance. I’m a huge fan of the Misk Art Institute and try to visit their exhibits whenever I can. There is also traditional dancing outside the exhibit in the evenings. And a night time shisha area with music.

There are several accommodation options. I stayed on the festival site so I can’t vouch for the following list but they were recommended as options. Maybe check tripadvisor before booking. In downtown Abha there is Abha Palace and Blue Inn. AlSoudah Tourism Resort is closest to the festival. Mirage Hotel and Bayat Hotel are in neighbouring Khamis Mushait. Bayat Hotel is considered to be the best hotel in the Asir region. Shatha Hotel, KNF Abha Hotel and Abha View Hotel are smaller apartment hotels.

The festival has 17 luxury RVs that can be rented. It’s pretty much like luxury camping with the option of ordering room service. The RVs are managed by the Intercontinental Hotel so it really is 5 star amenities and mine had the softest towels I’ve ever used. It is still an RV though so showering is possible but with limited water. There was an electric fireplace, Nespresso machine, and flat screen TV in mine. You can see the pricing for the RVs here.

The other thing that is taking place in the month of August about 30 minutes from AlSoudah Season is the “Flowerman Festival” which takes place August 12-31. The festival is held in the historical village of Rijal Almaa and highlights the flower headbands men from this region wear. The village is set in a valley about 2300m below AlSoudah- the road to get there is a series of switchbacks so for those of you like me who suffer from motion sickness just be aware. There is also a cable car that takes you down the valley, but I didn’t experience it. It is much hotter on the valley floor so drink lots of water while exploring.

The village of Rijal Almaa was a trade route between Yemen up to Mekkah. It’s currently on the tentative list of upcoming UNESCO sites and consists of about 60 palaces made from stone, clay and wood. I’ve never seen anything like them in all my travels and found it really fascinating. There’s a museum there and you can see examples of the traditional wall painting the area is known for called Qut. It’s made up of mostly primary colours and has a geometric style to it. Laura from Blue Abaya and I spend part of an afternoon exploring the old abandoned parts of the village. Late afternoon is the best time to visit- the village photographs perfectly during the golden hour.

So that’s a little about the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. I didn’t have much of a chance to see Abha so I likely will go back as I’m sure there’s much more of the region to explore. Enjoy the adventure of AlSouhad Season should you go!

Taif, Saudi Arabia

A couple weekends ago I joined a tour with a group of friends to go to Taif in Saudi Arabia. Taif is an easy 1hr direct flight from Riyadh to the southwest. It’s about 90km to Mecca just to put it into geographic context. Taif is located in the mountains of the Mecca province and was previously used as a summer capital for the Royals due to cooler temperatures. It is also famous for its Rose Festival which was the main reason we visited.

The Rose Festival takes place every year from mid March till the end of April. These Damask roses were originally brought to Saudi Arabia by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The climate and fertile soil of this region make it the prefect place to grow roses, but they also produce some of the country’s best honey, grapes, and pomegranate. The roses are hand picked in the early morning as they start to bloom as that’s when they have the most oil. If they are collected too late the oil evaporates and that’s a loss of profit. After they’re collected the rose petals (around 12000-18000 petals) are poured into large copper pots and a super-secret amount of distilled rose water is added and the pot is covered and sealed. Then it’s heated to a temperature specific to each distillery. Kinda like following a recipe. It then drains into large glass containers and the oil collects on top of the water. If a distiller is lucky 18000 petals will produce about 10ml of rose oil (called 1 tawlah.)

The price of the rose oil is based off the weight of 1000 petals and it changes from year to year. Last year it was 60 riyals (16 USD). This year it is 45 riyals (12 USD) as there are more farms which as per economics drives down the price. Taif rose oil has been used in perfumes by Lancome, Givenchy, and Bvlgari to name a few. While in Taif you will have the opportunity to buy a variety of rose products to take home. Rose oil. Rose lotions. Rose water. You get the idea.

Our group tour was not only to visit the roses, but also the see the area. Our tour guide Khalid organized a jam-packed itinerary so we could maximize our time. If you want to visit Taif I would highly recommend booking a tour with him. He was professional and super knowledgeable and I’d book him again. Our tour started on Thursday night and we were greeted at the airport and taken for a late dinner of mezze (mixed salads) and grilled meat before crawling into bed for an early morning start.

Friday morning we had a quick breakfast and headed off towards the Al Hada mountains. The road passes by many amusement parks with what looks like day rental cabins. Taif is a summer tourist destination for Saudi Arabians looking to beat the scorching heat of most of the country. These amusement parks looked kinda apocalyptic as they are dated (think 1980’s) and weren’t open so were empty when we were there. We stopped at a roadside fruit market to sample and buy some of the regions best fruit and then Khalid surprised us with a scenic viewpoint. From that elevation you are able to see the winding Alkurr road below. Just looking at it made me car sick. Besides roses the Taif area is known for …….red-butted baboons. Run for your lives!!! Just kidding, but baboons and monkey’s make me nervous as hell so needless to say there was a lot of screaming while other tourists fed them. On a clear day it is possible to see the clock tower in Mecca in the distance. Sadly, the day was hazy and we couldn’t see it but that would’ve been hella cool.

We then visited the first of two rose distilleries and got to sample the local Taif bread. Taif bread is made from 7 different types of flour. Being domestically challenged I wasn’t aware that there were more flour options than white or brown. Who knew?! It’s quite a dense bread and paired very well with local honey and rose tea. After an informative explanation of the rose distillery process we had the option of being showered with rose petals. Hellloooooo Instagram. When opportunity comes a knocking I happily accept.

From here we visited the regional Al-Shareef museum which has a great display of old historical artifacts such as traditional tea and coffee pots. Clothing and textiles of the region and how meals of the past were prepared and stored. The museum also gives you a feel for what traditional Taif buildings looked like. We then visited Alarfa Fortress which is about 200 years old. On some of the rocks outside of the fort are petroglyphs (rock carvings) of cows, dogs and gazelles. They are said to be 3000 years old. We also visited the nearby camel market and learned some introductory information about camels. The male camels are rather frisky and are kept tied up outside separate from the pens containing the female and baby camels. The males are also separated from each other as they will fight to the death. It was baby camel season so we got to see the babies up close.

Then it was lunch and nap time before heading out for the evening activities. Just before sunset we headed back towards Al Hada to ride the cable car. This ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend trip. The cable car descends into a valley to the tourist village of Al Kar. The ride is about 20min and if you are scared of heights you will probably scream both on the outside and inside as I did. But the views are amazing as is the village at the bottom. Our visit was timed perfectly with the setting sun which added to the magic. There is a water park complete with water slides at the bottom, and the tourist village has great outdoor space with coffee shops and restaurants. The best part was that they had one of those “Alpine-coasters” which are a cross between a roller coaster and a luge minus the snow. Basically you are in separate sleds that are propelled up a hill by a motor and then at the top you are released and you come down the mountain however fast you choose. Both fun and terrifying at the same time! We then took the cable car back up the mountain and headed off to a private camp where we relaxed for the rest of the evening which is a very traditionally Saudi thing to do.

The next morning we headed off early again. This time we headed towards the Al Shafa mountains. We stopped off at another scenic overlook that doubled as baboon feeding ground. Their faces and red bums are equally terrifying, but the view was spectacular. My selfies were on fire. Also if riding things is your thang there were camels and donkeys all colourfully decorated. It was then souvenir shopping time and we visited a different rose distillery. The group let the riyals fly as we bought a wide variety of rose products. We then drove to Taif central market. We explored the honey and gold market and then visited the newly opened artist cooperative where local artist showcase their creative works. Before making a quick dart to the airport we stopped off for lunch for what several people referred to as “the best chicken of my life.” We had Yemeni Mandi chicken which is a style of cooking chicken where it is seasoned with special spices and then cooked in an underground pit. It’s served on a plate of saffron rice and it’s moist and delicious. I would definitely eat Mandi chicken again.

So that wraps up my weekend adventures in Taif. If roses don’t really interest you there’s still a ton to see and it has a very different feel than Riyadh. And if I don’t convey it I would very much recommend having Khalid organize a tour for you!

Get out there and start exploring…..

Solo Female Travel

Ok so lets talk about solo female travel for a bit. I wrote this post back in January while on a solo trip to Istanbul and it’s a bit of a vent about my experience while traveling there as a solo female. If you’ve read my blog before you know I’m a pretty seasoned traveler. I’ve been to 77 countries now and at least 30 of those have been on my own. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia off and on for over 5 years, and I’m pretty comfortable with being in cultures other than my own.

Anyways, I was in Turkey back in 2011 and the one major memory from that trip was how aggressive the men were. Like following you down the street, bombarding you with questions. Not as aggressive as Morocco was. In Turkey no man ever actually put his hands on me, but they were pretty annoying none the less. You’re probably reading this thinking, hang on, someone in Morocco put their hands on you? Yes. More than once. I couldn’t wait to leave. I figured this time Turkey would be different. I mean I’m 40 for god sakes. Surely past the age limit of trying to be picked up on the street. Boy was I wrong.

Now some women who read this will be saying to themselves- hey I traveled to Turkey and Morocco and had zero issues. And to you lucky ladies I say “good on ya.” Living in Saudi Arabia I’m used to not blending in. I mean blonde hair stands out. Same goes for India, all of Asia and the Middle East. One time in Syria I thought I was kinda fooling people because I kept getting asked if I was Russian which I thought was kinda cool until I learned that was code for “working girl”. The most surprising place I blended in though was Ukraine. People kept asking me if I was a local which I took as a compliment because everyone knows Ukrainian women are hella hot.

Whoah. Totally off track. I wrote this while sipping wine by the fire in Cappadocia watching the sunset so you can see how I could easily become distracted. So I arrived in Istanbul fairly uneventfully. I checked into my hotel and made a brisk walk over to the Hagia Sophia because I’m told it closed at 1700. It was like 1610. I got to the entrance and the gate is shut but there’s this helpful chap leaning against the gate who tells me it will open again in the morning at 9am. I stupidly assume he worked there. He asks where I’m from. I’m like Canada. He’s like where are you going now. And the light bulb flashes on in my head. I’m like oh just over to the Blue Mosque. And he’s all, but let me show you something over here and points across the street. And then he gets more insistent saying just 2min 2min. I’m like no. Thank you and I walk the opposite way.

So off to the Blue Mosque I go. Over the next 15min this scenario will repeat itself a couple more times. Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? How long you stay in Istanbul? Now mind you my body language and very active resting bitch face are giving off I’m quite certain zero signs that I’m wanting to be approached. How about I don’t want to tell you my name. Or what country I’m from. Or how long I’m staying because newsflash I don’t want to be talking to you. It’s all so annoying and ruined what should have been a pleasant afternoon.

So later that night I’m walking to a restaurant that the hotel recommended. And I accidentally miss the street. No biggie, it’s all very close to my hotel. As I’m turning around I walk past this dimly lit area where some men are sitting outside. I keep walking. Suddenly I hear…where in Canada are you from? Now I’m not wearing anything that would identify me as a Canadian. And people always just assume I’m American. So I turn back and it’s the same dude from outside the gate of the Hagia Sophia. And so I say near to Vancouver and turn to walk away and he’s like of I’ve been to so and so. And I’m like cool. And he’s like where are you going. And I’m like for dinner. And he’s like meet me for a drink after. And I’m like I can’t. And he’s like why not. And now I’m getting irritated. Because I just really want to say fuck off guy. (Sorry Pops but swear words get my point across better.) So I say because my boyfriend wouldn’t like it. To which he says well he’s not here is he. And so I just meekily say no and walk briskly away.

And then I get pissed. Because I’m so sick of taking this type of shit. As women we are taught to be polite otherwise you’ll be labeled a bitch. And men put us in this position. Like my body language is telling you I’m not interested. And I’m trying to walk away as you talk. So it’s kinda a no-brainer that I’m not down for this convo. And yet they persist. If I want to talk to you, you’ll know. Like I’d maybe make eye contact. Or look in your general direction. I’m a solo traveler so I pretty much know what I want to see and when I want to see it. I do not require random dude on the street’s opinion. And if I do I’ll ask. Sorry for this long vent but it’s annoying as fuck. And after several incidents like that it just made me want to hide in my hotel as opposed to being followed or chatted up by random dudes.

To be fair it’s not only Middle Eastern countries that this happens in. There was the time a friend and I were followed back to our hotel in Barcelona. Or the time in Cyprus where a Nigerian guy tried to follow us home and we quite literally had to run (like actually run) away from him while yelling at him to try and shame him into not following. I’ve had numerous incidents over the years while traveling where men have blocked my way. Often it’s to try and chat or show me something in their store. Either way it’s not ok. Then there is the grabbing that happens. And this has happened to me both in North America and while traveling. Sometimes it has been my wrist being grabbed onto to try and pull me into a store. Other times it’s more sexual in nature. A hand on my ass. A leg rubbing closer or against mine on a plane or train. Sometimes the acts cause me to take a pause as if to ask myself “that can’t really just have happened.” And yet they did. And because I’m a women they will likely happen again.

And I’m kind of at a loss for how to deal with it. Never travel again? Not an option. No more solo travel. Also not an option. I already take what I think are a number of necessary but saddening precautions. I carry a whistle on my key chain. I travel with a door stopper that I will put under my door in a hotel or hostel if it’s feeling at all dodgy. I have perfected the unwelcoming resting bitch face. If I’m in a crowded place sometimes I will put my headphones in to act as a deterrent to random dudes coming up for a chat. Oddly, this did not work at all in Istanbul and they would still come up. Sometimes I will just hold my phone up and pretend to have a conversation to lessen the chances of having unwanted interactions. I think what’s going to have to happen is that I’m just going to have to be ok with being labeled a bitch. As women we are socialized to be polite even with unwanted attention. And if we aren’t polite and thankful that some random stranger has just tried to chat, or asked us out, or said something sexual to us we are often met with being called the dreaded “B” word.

So that’s the vent. I debated whether to post it but I think it’s important to show that travel isn’t just about getting the right shot for instagram. And in no way do I regret solo travel as a woman nor do I think that women shouldn’t travel on their own because for me it has been hugely empowering. I’m also in no way saying not to travel to Morocco or Turkey. Those were just my experiences as a western looking woman. I just wanted to bring to light issues that female travelers face.

Safest of travels…..

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