The musings of a wanderer......

Month: August 2016

Saudi Exit Process

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Places

During my time in Prague we wandered around the Old Jewish Cemetery and it got me thinking about all the sacred places I’ve visited during my travels. Places where the ugliness of humanity once carried out unimaginable horrors or mother nature intervened in tragic ways, and the different ways people pay their respects and mourn for those that died. In the West we commonly lay wreaths. Have moments of silence or hold candle light vigils. We visit grave sights and place flowers. We bow our heads. We say prayers. Wandering this Jewish cemetery many of the tombstones had rocks placed on the top, or coins, or notes. Some of the notes said “Love from Italy.” Or Florida, or France. Many of the notes were folded in a way that the messages were kept secret. Sealed messages of mourning to honour the dead. I was really moved by this tradition of leaving behind something to acknowledge that we have been there, and that the persons memory is carried on by the living.













I remember one of my first trips abroad and visiting Hiroshima and seeing the Peace Memorial at sunset. In 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped there and some 70 000 people were instantly killed. Today the bombed out remains of one building are all that remain and I remember the building being lit up at night which made the visit very moving and that there was an eerie calmness to the site. In my memories it’s silent except for the sound of the wind thru the nearby trees. I’m sure there were other noises, but all I remember was the light and the setting sun. Since then I have visited Ground Zero in New York City. I’ve walked the beaches of Sri Lanka years after the deadly tsunami that claimed the lives of nearly 37 000 people. When I visited back in 2010 nearly 6 years later parts of the coast looked like a war zone with only the cement frames of houses that were otherwise completely washed away. It was heart wrenching to drive through these small villages and meet people who had lost family members or even their entire family, their houses, and had no choice but to continue living on the coast- in many cases living off the very ocean that took so much from them.







I remember in 2010 when I backpacked thru Syria. Crossing by land from northern Jordan and driving up to Damascus the oldest city in the world. I remember feeling very safe while traveling there- my best friend and I taking public buses to the UNESCO sites of Palmyra in the northeastern part of the country near the Iraqi border and Crac de Chevaliers just outside of Homs. Both sites have been massively damaged in the Syrian conflict not to mention the estimated 250 000 Syrians that have lost their lives. Last year when I was in the Maldives there was a massive earthquake that hit Nepal, a country I had visited the year before. I remember exploring the alleyways of Kathmandu stumbling across tiny temples and statues amongst the hustle and bustle of such a populated city. Much of it was damaged during that earthquake in April 2015.

Palmyra in Syria

Crac de Chevaliers














A few years back I visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia where over 1 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. 1 million. In my lifetime. I remember wandering the memorial site and crying. What took place there was horrific and barbaric. Processing it made the air feel thick and my chest feel heavy. It’s unimaginable. And yet it happened. In recent years it has become a tradition to leave a bracelet to remember the dead at the site of one of the mass graves. Rocks in Jewish cemeteries, bracelets in Cambodia. Different acts and yet the same meaning- to bare witness. To mourn for humanities evil. All of these sites have the same things in common. They are sacred. They instill the visitor with a sense of disbelief and an overwhelming feeling of despair. Apart from my reference to Sri Lanka and Nepal all these events are man made. The darkest parts of humanity did this. And it continues to happen today.







This post wasn’t meant to be depressing but rather to acknowledge the different ways around the world people pay their respects and remember the dead on the actual soil where nature and man has claimed so many lives. I also hope that it motivates you to learn about these dark periods of history and compare them to current events. To bear witness to what is happening around the world today. Lest we not repeat humanities mistakes. That we realize that a life no matter how far away or how different from our own is still a precious life. That it inspires you to get out there and see the world, as the world and climate are always changing and natural events can forever change the face of a place.

Terezin Concentration Camp

First off, I don’t claim to be a historian, nor am I any sort of expert about World War II history, so most of this post is a summary based on tour guide information and bits and pieces of what I have read about the events surrounding Czechoslovakia and the Holocaust. I have always felt a certain tie to this awful period of history since as I’ve recently blogged about- I grew up believing my maternal grandparents were German. While I have now learned that my Oma (Grandmother) was actually born in Czechoslovakia and my Opa (Grandfather) in Poland, they both were forced out of their native countries and made to return to Germany as they were ethnic Germans. They both were children/teenagers during World War II. I actually grew up believing that my Oma didn’t believe the Holocaust had taken place because as I’ve previously mentioned, things of the past just weren’t discussed. It’s really crazy to me that I can’t recall ever asking them about what that time of their lives was like. How afraid they were. Whether they had any Jewish friends or neighbours. I think it’s also worth noting that when one learns about events like the Holocaust or other incidents of ethnic cleansing in school as a child the words don’t really make sense. It’s unfathomable. The numbers are so large, the place so far away, the events so horrific that it’s hard to accept or to understand. In the last year I’ve visited Germany twice- to Munich and Frankfurt, but for very quick visits only. Terezin in the Czech Republic was my first time to visit a concentration camp.

Terezin as it is know in Czech is known as Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in German. It’s located about an hour north of Prague. The site is now a memorial to the Jewish and Christian souls that lost their lives here. It is also possible to tour the actual town of Terezin which is nearby the camp and at one time served as the Jewish ghetto and to fool the outside world into thinking that the Jewish people were being treated well. Today the town is sparsely populated but there are 2 museums there that are worth visiting (and if you do a tour will likely include) the Magdeburg Barracks which has a replicated women’s dormitory as well as exhibits on the arts, music, theatre works and literature that was produced in Terezin. The other museum is the Ghetto Museum which was opened in the Terezin schoolhouse.















A brief overview of Czechoslovakia leaking up to and after World War II is as follows: In 1918 the country of Czechoslovakia was formed. In 1933 after Nazis came to power they demanded the return of Czech lands and the ethnic German population that was living there. In 1938 leaders from Europe met in Munich and it was agreed that this land would be returned to Germany under the Munich Pact in exchange for a peace commitment from Hitler. As a result the democratic leaders of the country resigned. Later that same year other portions of land were seized by Hungary and Poland. In March 1939 Germany invaded the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Germany occupied Czechoslovakia until it surrendered at the end of the war. Many Jews emigrated in 1939. The Jewish populations in the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia were almost completely wiped out. It is estimated that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed.

During the German occupation it’s believed that 144,000 Jews were sent to Terezin. Although Terezin was not an extermination camp some 33,000 died there due to its deplorable conditions, over crowded living conditions and mass spreading of disease. Nearly 90,000 were sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. 17,000 survived. In 1944 the Red Cross visited and the Nazis presented Terezin as an ideal Jewish community and a propaganda film was made at the time showing the Jewish population living freely and taking part in everyday life, which was entirely fictional. Many Jews were transferred to Auschwitz to avoid the appearance of overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit. Terezin was home to many literary and artistic geniuses from the time period including poets, composers, musicians, and painters. It is reported that of the 15,000 children that were housed in the children’s home only 93 survived. 93.

So today it’s possible to tour both the camp and the ghetto. Driving up to the site you see the massive red brick fortress walls of the prison. As you walk into the site you pass the memorial cemeteries for the Jewish people and Christians that died here. Our tour took us thru the warden’s office were prisoners were registered, and into cells where people were literally packed in like cattle. Hundreds living in rooms fit for 20. Poor sanitation, and air flow led to many deaths. The air inside the cells is stifling with little movement. It was a somber experience hearing the inhumane conditions people were forced to live under.  On the concentration camp grounds stood the enormous and lavish Wardens house in stark contrast to the way prisoners were forced to live. It’s hard to accurately describe how one feels wandering a site like this. Horrified. Disgusted. But I think to some degree the word numb feels most accurate. Numb because it’s overwhelming, and it takes time to process this enormous loss of life. To stand where these people previously stood. To bear witness while trying to come to grips with how something like this happened in the first place. To say that 263,000 Czech Jews were killed during the Holocaust is like saying that every person in the town I went to college was murdered. Two and a half times. It’s mind blowing. And numbing.
























After World War 2 many of the Nazis who worked at Terezin were charged and executed. Some were imprisoned. Some fled and escaped punishment. Today the memory of the events and the people who were killed live on in countless memorials around the world. If you haven’t visited a site like Terezin Concentration Camp and have the opportunity to I would implore you to do so. Education about past events is a precursor for the prevention of history repeating itself. While I strongly believe that history is very much worth reading I think it’s important to experience historical places first hand. To walk thru a archway entrance to a concentration camp and read the German words of irony “Arbeit Macht Frie” which translated to “Work Sets you Free.” To hear the crunch of the gravel under your feet, to hear the clink and scraping of a metal door closing. To enter a cell and look out the window to the outside world. To see bunk beds and try to physically imagine 200 prisoners sleeping in such cramped conditions sharing one toilet. This is how we make events personal. This is how we carry the burden of historical events with us to bear witness to the worst of humanity and to guard against such events happening in the future. Lest we never forget….


A Little Childhood Fun…….

So as my time in Saudi is coming to an end I’m trying to check things off my Saudi Arabia bucket list. Some of these things are historical or cultural things, but a large percentage of them fall under the fun/jackassery category, of which I am very fond. Earlier this week I had big plans for myself and 3 friends. The outside temperature was a melting 45C/115F so I thought it was a good idea to have a little childhood fun. Ice skating Saudi style anyone? Yep, you read that right…..we went ice skating. I had read an old blog post that there was ice skating here in Riyadh for women. As is often the case here a lot of activities are for children or men only. Several of the malls here have ice skating rinks, but I’d yet to see one that allowed women. After some internet research which turned up a more recent blog post from 2 years ago it seemed like Royal Mall in Olaya might have an ice skating rink for ladies. So off we set out. There was no information online about opening hours or costs. We arrived at the mall at 4pm just after prayer had ended. Go to the second floor of the mall and then to the back arcade section where there is a fairly large ice rink. Don’t kidd yourself ladies…..that’s not the one we can use. Go up another set of stairs and you’ll feel the temperature drop so you’ll be pretty sure you’re on the right track. Go to the left and look for the signs.

Here’s where things get a little comical. The entrance is dark and I actually felt like I was going into a night club. So you walk thru the door and end up in the room where the fairly small skating rink is and now it really looks like a club. The lights are dimly lit. The place where you pay and get your skates resembles a bar. Sadly, there was no music which was a bit of a bummer. I’m not sure what the opening hours are because the ladies didn’t speak any English, but I can say that I was there at 4pm on a Sunday and they were open. Its 21 riyals for 30min and 41 riyals for an hour. The rink is small and the ice is kinda crap so I would say 30 min is fine. Growing up in Canada we would skate on one of the frozen rivers in Calgary. I was never a great skater, but could get around. The ice here is super dry (shocking) and so your skates don’t really get any grip. Ice skating is normally slippery, but this was to a whole other degree. Luckily, you can skate around in circles while holding onto the railing the entire way! Anyways, they have skates in different sizes- more like roller blades than the traditional lace up skates. Heads up- the skates stink. Like the person you know with the worst foot odor multiplied by 10 kinda stink. Still though it was fun way to spend part of the afternoon. We took a bunch of photos. After the photo shoot was finished we did what any normal group of adult women who live in a country that doesn’t allow women to drive would do…….














We went to the amusement park section of the mall and drove bumper cars. I’m not kidding. It was super fun. Most of the malls here have amusement rides and games and such, but often women aren’t allowed on them. Thankfully, we were the only ones there so we had free reign of the place. I read an article a little while back that Saudi women practice driving with bumper cars which is equal parts both funny and sad. While I do very much miss driving living here I would never actually want to drive here even if it was allowed.  As I’ve previously mentioned the driving here is completely insane and I don’t think my reflexes are fast enough and I worry that I would have massive road rage and end up flipping people the middle finger every 30 seconds. So bumper cars it was. We had an afternoon filled with childhood fun and next week we’re planning on hitting up Snow City which is the newest attraction in Riyadh- it’s supposed to be like Ski Dubai but from what I can tell it’s just sledding and tubing on the snow. I’m sure whatever it is it will prove to be fun regardless!!

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