Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Asia

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 Top 10 from 2017

Every year I try to do a post about my favourite travel destinations of the past year. So in keeping with tradition I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 travels from 2017. In many ways it feels like the past year flew by, and then at the same time there were some months that looking back at them moved by achingly slow. I fit in a lot of travel this year. I shared a lot of great memories. I nursed myself through a heartbreak. I connected with a cousin I didn’t really know I had and visited her twice this year. I almost delivered a baby on a plane. I drove a rickshaw in Ethiopia. I was flown from Georgia to Bahrain in business class on a flight were I was the only passenger. I’ve made some very dear friends this past year- that has probably been the biggest blessing for me. While the travel was great- the actual human interactions I had are the thing that stands out the most.

In 2017 I visited 18 countries not including Saudi Arabia. 12 of them new to me. I took 38 international flights, which for someone terrified of flying is no easy feat. I traveled solo, with a tinder date, with my Kiwi sidekick, to see my cousin and then home for a few weeks. I traveled by plane, bus, boat, rickshaw and car. So without further delay here’s my 2017 travel recommendations in chronological order…..

1. Croatia

Croatia is stunning. In April I spent a week in Dubrovnik with a fella I met on tinder a month before I left for Saudi Arabia. He was a great travel partner and I would happily have him be my travel side kick again- he was only mildly irritated when I asked him to take the hundreth posed picture of me in a row.  And he was pretty much down to do and eat where ever I wanted- what more can you ask for in a travel companion?! After a week in Dubrovnik he flew back to Canada and I spent a few days in Split solo exploring the city. As I previously blogged Dubrovnik is a great base to visit nearby Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina on separate day trips. We spent our time in Dubrovnik exploring the Old City, taking tons of postcard worthy pictures and sipping Croatia’s delicious wines. I would highly recommend to avoid both Dubrovnik and Split during the peak tourist season. We were there in April and it was the beginning of the cruise ships- I would have been highly irritated if we had gone when the reportedly 10,000 daily cruisers get dropped in the Old Town (although reportedly they are capping this number at 8,000 in 2018.)

My favourite thing that we did while in Croatia was explore the nearby abandoned resort Town of Kupari just south of Dubrovnik. I love abandoned places and it was super cool to be able to wander through these large empty hotels and take pictures. It had that eerie beauty to it, and it was very easy to imagine what it must’ve looked like in their prime time. We also visited the nearby town of Cavtat which has a very cute water front and some delicious restaurants. The Croatian coastline is spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Switzerland

2017 was a lot about Europe for me. Seeing as Frankfurt is a direct flight from Riyadh and has easy connections to just about every large European city it’s pretty easy to make a long weekend into a trip to Europe. My Kiwi sidekick and I opted for Switzerland seeing as neither of us had ever been and we were traveling in May which made for perfect weather there. We stayed in Geneva where we strolled the cobble stoned lanes, ate our weight in cheese fondue,  and stumbled upon Camino signs which only solidified me knowing that I want to walk the Camino de Santiago again. One of the coolest things we did though was take a day trip to nearby Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps.

Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps range and the highest in Europe. We did a bus trip to the French town of Chamonix and from there we took two gondolas to the top of the mountain. I’m scared of heights and being confined to a small car packed with people dangling from a cable from the top of a mountain was moderately terrifying. Both Kiwi and I rode most of the way with our eyes closed performing lamaze child birth breathing techniques. But once up top the views were stunning. We even concurred our fear of heights by walking out into this glass floored room that’s 1035 meters off the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan was one of the countries that surprised me the most last year. I had no idea what to expect and it actually blew me away. It had a Middle Eastern vibe, but felt very European. The buildings were very European but accented with Islamic architectural features. I felt totally comfortable traveling there solo, and it was pretty easy to get there from Riyadh as it’s a direct flight from Dubai to the capital Baku. Some of you may never have heard of this country (and I’ve yet to properly blog about) but I’ll tell you a few helpful facts. Azerbaijan borders both Europe and Asia and is a predominantly Muslim country, but it felt the least religious of all the Muslim countries I have traveled to. It is in the Caucasus region and borders the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and Baku is on the Caspian Sea. The phrase “the old meets the new” or the “east meets the west” are very fitting in relation to Azerbaijan.

I spent two nights in Baku which was the perfect amount of time to see the city. The Old Town in Baku is really cool. The buildings are of an architectural style I had never seen before with double story homes with very ornate wooden balconies. I would later see this same style in Georgia. I wandered the Old Town and climbed the Maiden Tower which has a great panorama view of the city from the top. I strolled the walkways near Nizami square soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. I walked the corniche overlooking the Caspian Sea. One evening I walked over to Sahidler Xiyabani Park with is a really ornately decorated park that has amazing views overlooking the city, and also perfect views of the iconic Flames Towers. There is an impressive nightly light show on the Flames Towers featuring flames, and running water, and the Azerbaijani flags. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the tourist track and an easy long weekend trip from Riyadh I would highly recommend Azerbaijan!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Georgia

The country. Not the state. Just to be clear. If I had to rank these countries in order of my favourites Georgia would’ve been at the top of my list. Georgia first landed on my radar after seeing a friend’s picture from a trip she and her boyfriend took. Or more specifically a single view from a balcony of a hotel at a range of mountains that I later researched to be the country of Georgia. I was determined to wake up to that same view one day. I spent a week solo in Georgia. A couple nights in the capital of Tbilisi before retreating for the mountain views of Kazbegi that had inspired my trip, and then a night at the end back in Tbilisi. The best decision I made while in Georgia was to hire a guide/driver from Instagram. At first it sounds a little sketchy- having some youngish guy pick you up a night from the airport in a country you’ve never been to as a solo woman traveler. But, I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. And my gut said that Zuka was legit- and in fact he was. Zuka would be my sidekick over the next week. He drove me around, told me the history of the region, and we rocked out to Enrique Inglasias’s song “Bailando” quite likely 100 times.

Zuka drove me to the famous Jvari Monastery, to the wine region of Kakheti, and later into the mountain region of Kazbegi close to the Russian border where I spend 3 days taking in the most stunning mountain views and watching the changing weather. I spent time in Tbilisi and was mesmerized by the graffiti art around the city. If you are a foodie at all I would highly recommend adding Georgia to your list. Georgian food is fantastic- my favourite was the Georgian Salad made of cucumbers, tomatoes, with a walnut paste and Khinkali which are pork dumplings. And trust me- Georgian wine is amazing. If you go be sure to use Zuka– tell him I sent you, and be sure to listen to a little Enrique or whatever music is trendy when you go!

The icing on the cake of my trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia was turning up to the airport to fly back to Riyadh and getting upgraded to business class and then coming to find out that not only was I upgraded, but that I was the only passenger on the entire flight. It will be difficult to ever top that travel experience!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Ethiopia

Ethiopia was definitely the most exciting trip I took this year in terms of things just generally not going as plan but still working out in the end. From the get go this trip was a hot mess. Our flight was delayed in Riyadh for 8 hours. 8 hours after we had already been awake for nearly 24hours. Then there was a medical emergency where a woman was in questionable labour and didn’t speak English. We assessed her and kept her comfortable and for landing she and I were moved up to Business class. I had instructed her via a Swahili translator that if she were to feel like her water broke or that she was bleeding she was to squeeze my arm. Literally as the plane touches down she squeezes my arm. So here we are taxiing to the gate and I’m under her dress assessing her. Thankfully she was neither bleeding, nor did her water break and she could still feel the baby moving. In the midst of all this excitement my kiwi sidekick proudly told me she knew the Swahili word for Giraffe. Not super helpful!!

Three of our four flight legs were delayed that trip. Ethiopia Air is a bit of a scheduling disaster and I wouldn’t fly with them again unless there were zero other options. My Kiwi mate lost consciousness likely due to altitude in the town of Lalibela. That was medical emergency numero 2 of the trip. One minute she’s saying she doesn’t feel well, the next she’s laying on the floor. The greatest disappointment of the trip though was our Ethiopian attempt at wine tasting. We literally drove 3-4 hours each way to go wine tasting at a French winery only to be told that there was in fact no wine to taste. I nearly cried. Ok. I might’ve actually cried.

It wasn’t all bad though. Ethiopia is an intriguing country with amazing food. It’s colourful and vibrant. The rock churches of Lalibela are amazing and totally worth the effort it took to get there. We were even able to convince our tour guide in Lalibela to organize us a tour by auto rickshaw in which I was the driver and he was happy to comply. He proudly told us that I was the first westerner to driver Bajaj (rickshaw) in the history of Lalibela. We spent time exploring Addis Ababa and even got to meet up with one of the housekeepers that I work with here in Saudi.  She and her family took us out for dinner and I oogled their cute kids and we decided I would take one to Canada- but then we decided Canada was far too cold for them. Ethiopia was both extremes- frustrating beyond belief at times, and then totally rewarding and heart filling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Austria

I’d previously been to Austria twice before. Once way back in 2010 to Vienna, and then in 2016 to Salzburg with my mom. Both times I loved the food and especially the wine. In August I visited Bratislava Slovakia and then traveled by boat up the river Danube to Vienna and later onward to Slovenia. The main reason I was stopping off for a night was to meet up with a cousin I had only really learned about the month before. Her mom and my Dad were cousins so I guess we are second cousins- although after meeting her she feels very much like a first cousin to me. I stayed right near St Stephen’s Cathedral which is beautiful and my room had rooftop views over the city.

Even though I was only there one night I had really wished I had the time to stay another couple nights. My cousin and I went for a traditional Austrian meal and she toured me around the city on foot pointing out the important buildings and telling me the history of the city. We sipped delicious Austrian wine at a rooftop bar and tried to piece together our family history. And best of all we made plans to ensure our paths would cross again….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Slovenia

I’d long wanted to visit Lake Bled- it’s on many people’s favourite places they’ve traveled to list, so I had to see if it held up to the hype. I spent 8 days in Slovenia split between its capital city of Ljubljana and three nights of total relaxation at Lake Bled. Ljubljana is a great city- it’s small and easy to navigate, if felt totally safe as a female traveler and there’s enough to see to fill a few days. Oh, and of course the food and wine is really good. It’s pretty touristy and it being the summer it was pretty packed, but the temperature was perfect for evening strolling while eating gelato (a favourite past time of mine). I did a couple free walking tours while there. As I’ve previously mentioned many, many times I’m a huge fan of taking part in free walking tours. They are offered in almost every major city- they’re a great way to get your bearings by walking a city by foot, learning the history of the region, meeting other travelers and they are cheap. While not exactly free the guides work off of tips- I’m happy to give them the equivalent of $10 US for someone to walk me around for 2-3hours telling animated tales. Always money well spent. If you are only in a city for a short period of time I’d always recommend joining a walking tour. Make sure to visit the central market in Ljubljana as there’s tons of delicious food, and during the warmer months there’s an outdoor food festival on Fridays called “Open Kitchen.” They serve international food and alcohol and it’s great fun to sit outside sampling different food.

After spending a night in Ljubljana I took the bus to Lake Bled for 3 nights. This part of my trip was a bit of a splurge and I had booked myself a room with a balcony over looking the lake, facing towards the castle. I spent my time walking the 6km lake path, climbing up to the castle which had postcard worthy views of the lake and town below and taking boat tours around the lake. In the evenings I would sit on my balcony sipping wine, reading a book and  watching the magnificent sunsets. I would look up every paragraph or so to see the sky changing colours. Deepening. Each moment more beautiful than the one before. Watching as the light sparkled across the lake. The yellow brightening into orange then into pink and then into a light mauve. The sky looked like it was expanding. As the sky fell darker the last bits of light faded the castle on the opposite cliff grew brighter- its windows illuminated from within as the last bit of sun slipped away. Those sunsets were my favourite part of being in Slovenia. Lake Bled is a very romantic place and would be a great place to take a partner, but equally so if you’re looking to clear your head and relax which was exactly why I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Estonia

In October I flew into Helsinki Finland and made my way down thru Estonia, to Latvia and then Lithuania before flying to Berlin to meet up with my cousin. Estonia was a place I’d heard a lot about this past year. If you’re into travel at all then you also have probably heard a lot about Estonia, specifically about the city of Tallinn which has been an up and coming travel destination. I spend a couple nights in Helsinki and then took the ferry to Tallinn. The ferry to Tallinn is more of a booze cruise for the Finns. They go over to Estonia where the booze are cheaper and stock up. The ferry itself is only about four hours. It’s super easy to get between the two countries. I’m used to ferries in Canada or the US. They are low key, relaxing type of sailing. Often you sit and watch the view from the windows or go to the upper decks for some fresh air. Ferries in this part of the world are really more of a cruise entertainment experience. There’s singing and choreographed dance moves. There was also a stuffed mascot that was involved in the dancing. While waiting for the ferry to board I was approached by a couple. They were Finnish and very, very drunk. And/or possibly on meth- it was hard to say. He was a little overly friendly and started chatting me up. Being the polite Canadian I was I answered and the following conversation ensued……. Him “Where are you from?” Me “Canada.” Him “Hmmm never heard of it.” So I then told him that I lived in the Middle East and was here on vacation. He then started yelling “BOMB.” Quite loud while pointing at my suitcase and then he started laughing. I was mortified and thankful no one nearby was taking him serious. He then tried to hug me and he and his lady then proceeded to overshare their entire life stories. How they met, how many kids they had, how much alcohol they planned to buy. The ship literally could not board fast enough. I kept thinking that at some point I was likely going to get pick pocketed, but that didn’t happen. They were just very friendly Finns. I managed to lose them in the crowd as we boarded, but later saw them going into the Duty Free. He winked at me and waved.

So I arrived in Tallinn Estonia on a cold autumn afternoon after being mistaken for a terrorist. I had booked a cute AirBnb in the Old Town and it was perfect for my three night stay. Tallinn is a very charming city. The Old Town is cobble stoned and easily walkable and you could easily picture yourself walking there 200 years ago. Because I was there during the off season that meant less tourists, and that it was pretty easy to get a table in some of the citiy’s best restaurants. If you are a foodie then add Tallinn to your list. There are so many great restaurants there. My favourite was Restoran O (But the “O” has those two little dots above it that my keyboard won’t let me type.) They had an amazing tasting menu with a wine pairing and all the dishes are from local foods influenced by the Island of Saaremaa the largest island in Estonia.

The second day I was there I joined a walking tour that wound it’s way thru the city to some very scenic overlooks all the while learning the history of the country. Estonia most recently became independent in 1991. The language is similar to Finnish or Hungarian and they are not gender specific. Also they have no future tense so instead of saying phrases like “in the future” they say “in 5 months time.” Also a large percentage of Estonians are atheists. That’s all the fun facts I can remember right now. You’re welcome. There is also a very cool part of town that has an urban industrial feel and is full of artists, graffiti and bars and restaurants. It’s called Kalamaya and it’s an easy walk from the Old Town. It would be a shame to visit Tallinn and not leave the Old Town as the city has much more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Latvia

After Tallin Estonia, I traveled to Riga Lativa on a one way tour bus that was really like a day tour with stop offs on the way between the two cities. This was a great way to see the countryside as it was October the leaves were changing colour and the air was crisp. Fall is my favourite season hands down. En route from Tallin to Riga we stopped off at small villages to walk around and wander thru some old castle ruins and then hiked up to some caves that were made of sandstone. Leave it to me to walk 700Km across Spain without falling only to walk like 1km on a muddy path in Latvia to make a massive spectacle of myself. As it turns out I don’t have nearly the cat like reflexes I had previously convinced myself I had. I realized this whilst laying on my back in a muddy puddle. Mud in my hair and covering most of my jeans I opted not to change into the only other clean pair of pants I had, lest I repeat the same incident.

We arrived in Riga in the rain and in the dark, but it being a weekend the city was just getting started. It was gearing up for the bachelor parties and mayhem that would later spill out of the bars onto the main street. The city felt vibrant and full of energy. The following morning I joined…. you guessed it….a walking tour of the Old Town. Riga is known to have one of the largest amounts of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. I’m a big fan of this style of architecture and I had a great time walking out of the Old Town to the nearby neighbourhoods where the vast majority of these buildings are located. The Old Town of Riga though is lovely. The alleys are cobble stoned and quaint, there are several open squares, and you can see the remnants of the old city walls. Interspersed with exploring the city on foot I took many stops for cappuccinos and of course wine. In fact one of the best places I came across that trip was a place called “Easy Wine” in the Old Town. It was a wine bar that had like 60 different kinds of wine in a vending machine. Wine. Vending Machine. Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Germany

Germany was another place I’d been to a few times. I went to Munich for Oktoberfest a few years back and visited the Christmas Market in Frankfurt two winters ago. I ended my trip to the Balkans in Berlin for two reasons. First, my cousin was living there (the one I had met in Vienna in August) and I was keen to spend more time with her. The second reason was that I wanted to get a tattoo covered and I had found an artist I really liked who was in Berlin. I spent four nights there with no real plan other than to hang out with my cousin and get my new tattoo. Other then that I just wanted to spend some time outside walking the city and eating good food. Luckily my cousin is very knowledgeable about WWII history so she walked me around the city explaining to me the history and pointing out important sites. We walked the East West gallery which has urban art painted on portions of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Mauerpark market which sells a little bit of this and a little bit of that and was insanely packed with uber trendy hipsters. My cousin introduced me to curry wurst which pairs great with beer and are basically sausages in a curry ketchup sauce. Fun fact: you can walk all over town sipping your beer. No one will say a dang thing about it.

I loved all the different neighbourhoods and how walkable the city was. I’m a big fan of big cities and I really liked Berlin. I was also lucky enough to be there during the Festival of Lights where there were different light installations spread across the city with evening shows. I’m pretty sure Berlin will be a city that I’ll return to- most likely in the spring when my cousin is back there as I’d love to explore some more and spend some time with her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s some of what I got up to in 2017. I ended the year by ringing in my birthday in Bahrain. 2018 is starting to take shape and I’ve got some plans in the works. As always I’m still not exactly sure when my final exit from Saudi Arabia will be. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. In a couple weeks I’m going to Luxor Egypt for a long weekend which has been something I’ve wanted to do the last couple years. Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings is on my bucket list so I’m pretty pumped. I’m looking into going to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi in early February and then flying to Djibouti with my kiwi sidekick for a few days. Many of you reading this are probably like hold up did she just make up another country again? No. Djibouti is next to Somalia and according to the Lonely Planet otherwise known as my travel bible, Djibouti is its 4th pick for up and coming country in 2018. After that I don’t have anything set in stone. I’d like to visit the “Stans” in the spring. Specifically Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Something really off the beaten path for a few weeks. That’s all from me. I hope 2018 is starting off as a good one for you all, and I hope this post gives you some new ideas for your upcoming adventures!

 

 

 

Upgrade

Well folks it finally happened…..after years of traveling I finally got what I’ve always dreamed of….an upgrade!! I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly 4 years total and every time I turn up to the airport I make sure my blond locks are on point and my lipstick is in place in the hopes of getting an upgrade. Sadly, the most this has ever gotten me is some hardcore stares and some passive/borderline aggressive flirting. But never an upgrade. All this changed last week when I returned from my 59th country after taking a solo trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia. I’ll be blogging more on them later but both were awesome and I would highly recommend adding them to your travel list.

So originally I had booked my flights from Saudi on Qatar Air, which is a really nice airline and since ya’ll know how stressed I am about flying I like to fly with airlines that I know are very safe. Then the diplomatic row broke out between Qatar and the neighbouring Gulf countries and a week before my trip all flights with Qatar Air were canceled coming in or out of Saudi (and several other countries.) Luckily I got a refund but was left stranded trying to buy last minute tickets and now my only options were mostly budget type airlines which freaks me out. As it turned out the only real way to continue with my planned itinerary was to by 3 one way tickets so I flew Emirates to Dubai and then Fly Dubai into Baku Azerbaijan. This wasn’t an option as a return flight as the flight times didn’t line up. I then flew Azerbaijan Air from Baku to Tbilisi Georgia and then bought a really short flight connection back with Gulf Air via Bahrain with an hour layover. I had looked to buy a round trip ticket with Gulf Air but there were literally no flights the week that I was leaving. No flights, not tickets. This should’ve been a tip of what was to come…..

So anyways I flew to Dubai. While I was waiting for my connection someone from Gulf Air called me and told me my return flight in 9 days was to be delayed leaving Tbilisi and that I would miss my Riyadh connection. I was like how the heck can you possibly know that a flight will be delayed by 2 hours in 9 days time??! Sleep deprivation and irritation over all ready having to re-book this trip made me basically tell the guy that “this is unacceptable and if the flight isn’t going to be on time then just refund my ticket and I’ll fly home via Dubai.” This ladies and gentlemen will prove to be a hilarious statement later in this story. The guy ended up calling me back like 30min later and saying that the flight was back on track.

So I spent a couple nights in Azerbaijan and then on the day I was flying to Tbilisi Georgia there was a wind storm and on the way to the airport I was thinking there’s no way this flight is going to take off but it did. And because it was a short flight and I was getting in after dark I decided not to medicate because I don’t like being groggy solo in a new place once the sun has gone down. Lets just say that flight was a very religious experience for me. Me and G.O.D became one that flight and I regretted not medicating the entire hour. I spent the next week traveling in Georgia which I will tell you more about later. The days leading up to my flight back to Saudi I 100% expected to get a message saying that flight was delayed. It is a very Middle Easter thing that instead of dealing with a problem people will just tell you what you want to hear instead of having to deal with you getting angry. Anyways when I did the online check in everything was on time.

So I arrive at the airport and make my way to the check in counter to check my bag. There are like eight Gulf Air staff eagerly standing around. I walk up and they start to get very excited. The check in process starts and they tell me I am their first customer. I’m all “of the day?” And their all “no ma’am ever. This is a new route for Gulf Air.” And I’m like that’s cool and they hand me a bag with flowers and ask to take my picture and I’m immediately regretting not wearing something a little more low cut and a little more fashionable. After photo time is over I ask to make sure I have a window seat and someone makes a comment that not only am I the first customer I am the only customer that day. And I laugh because surely they must be joking. So yes I get a window seat in economy and I go sit down nearby the check in area as I wanted to text my friends at how cool it is that I’m their first customer. In the meantime some men in suits who are obviously “someone” in Gulf Air arrive. The Gulf Air staff are shaking hands and everyone is patting each other on the back. And then someone points in my direction and the men in suits come over and introduce themselves and ask can they have their picture as well. And I’m all “sure boys I don’t see why not.” And then one of the men asks me for my boarding pass and comes back a few minutes later with it and I’ve been upgraded to Business Class. I damn near hugged the guy I was so excited…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I go thru security and then wait at the gate. The flight arrives from Bahrain which is the first flight on that route as well and so there are people on the tarmac taking picture and there were two firetrucks spraying the plane as it pulled up to the gate which is apparently something they do on inaugural flights. Who knew?! So I’m waiting at the gate and there are like maybe 5 other people sitting in that area so I just assume they are also on my flight. So it’s finally time to board and they overhead page the flight. And I’m expecting these other people to get up and board but they don’t so I walk up to the desk and a man comes up and says to me “shall we go?” And escorts me on the plane. I just roll with it because I’m still not realizing what is happening. And so I get to the plane and everyone is clapping and there are more photos and I’ve literally got the entire plane to myself. They tell me I can sit wherever I like (because I’m the only passenger.) They overhead paged a flight solely for me! It’s not like it was a small plane either it was an A320 which seats probably 150 passengers. So I pick a seat in Business Class and immediately start sipping champagne as we take off. It was totally the bomb. I skipped medicating in lew of alcohol and am so glad I did!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me just say that flying will never be the same if I’m not sitting in Business Class on my own private plane. The seats up there are super comfortable, the food is about a million times better and also unlimited champagne. I just sat there and smiled the entire time, and took a noteworthy amount of selfies. Then I fully relined my chair and took a cat nap (most likely on account of the champagne and wine). In hindsight I probably should’ve sat in literally every seat just to say I had. But truth be told, I kept expecting them to realize that I was a famous blogger from Saudi Arabia (not so much) and offer me free flights for life or at the very least a year! Sadly, that did not happen. But I will forever rave about Gulf Air as I do think they are pretty great! I even got a certificate saying I had taken part on an inaugural flight! For those of you who know me you would expect that I asked to see the cockpit. I was very relived when they told me I could but only when the plane was on the ground, so they kept things according to safety standards. When we landed I took a picture of the cockpit and then was asked if I wanted to sit in the captains seat and I was like “YES.” And then as if the guy knew my soul he asked if I wanted a picture in the captains seat wearing his hat. “I 100% did.” BEST DAY EVER!!!

 

After that I boarded my flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where I was not upgraded and so it seems Cinderella left her glass slipper in the Business Class area on that Gulf Air flight from Tbilisi to Bahrain. In’Shallah she gets it back sometime soon. This whole thing makes that previous phone call a riot now though. Can you imagine that I told someone that it was unacceptable for that flight time to be changed not knowing that I was the only passenger booked on that flight. What a total diva. But cheers Gulf Air for making my travel dream come true and finally offering me the upgrade I’ve waited 59 countries for!

 

 

 

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.

Solo Travel

I’ve just returned from a solo 11 day trip to Italy. It was awesome and I loved every minute of it. There’s no other way to describe how solo travel feels,  other than to say I felt free. And empowered. And brave at times. Each day was mine to do with it what I want. No one else to consider, only what I felt like doing, or eating, or whom I felt like interacting with. I was out there drifting in the world with only myself to answer to. Free and open to a world of possibilities.

While I’ve traveled quite a bit, most of my travels have included a travel partner.  I have traveled alone before though. To Portugal. To an ashram in India. To Malaysia and a yoga retreat in Bali. To Frankfurt to see the Christmas markets. These are some of my favourite travel memories. And truth be told I met some of the nicest and dearest people on these trips. A kind and funny Czech guy who I hope I cross paths with again soon. A quirky British girl who matches my inappropriate sense of humor and schemed with me on how to smuggle alcohol into our ashram.  A Spanish guy who just thinking about him makes me shake my head and laugh. A lovely woman from Montreal whom I know I’ll meet out in the world again. And most recently on this trip, I met the kindest family who adopted me in Rome and made sure I didn’t have to eat dinner alone and then also a couple from Texas whom I shared many laughs with. So even when I’m traveling solo I have found that I’m never really alone for very long if I don’t want to be.

Portugal- my 1st solo trip

With my lovely Ashram friends

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often when I’m traveling alone I meet people who tell me how brave they think it is, and then immediately say “but I could never do it.” And I always respond by saying “I reckon you could.” Because I firmly believe that if I can do it, then anyone can. I also think it’s especially important for a woman to see the world on her own. There is something so empowering about standing on your own 2 feet, and trusting in yourself, your smarts and your intuition.

Don’t get me wrong- it won’t always be easy, but I’m pretty sure it will be worth it. I’m a terrible researcher. I like to have an accommodation booked, but I’ve gotten really lazy about actually researching things. I cracked open my Lonely Planet guide maybe 2 days before I left for this trip. So sometimes that means I’m not as prepared as I wish I was. Hand in hand with this is the fact that I don’t speak a lick of Italian. Well besides Bonjourno, and Spaghetti, and Ciao. But as with most places almost everyone speaks English so you can get by just fine. Often when I travel with others I leave the navigating to them. I never hold the map, I never look up directions. I’m hopelessly directionally challenged . And yet when I travel solo I make it work. Sure sometimes (a lot of the time) I get lost. But I have found that people are for the most part helpful, and I never stay lost for very long. Every now and then I still make rookie travel mistakes like ordering something without checking to see how much it costs- apparently directly across the street from the Vatican Diet Coke costs 8 euros. For a can. Of Diet Coke. Facepalm. The one downside of solo travel is that if you plan on documenting your travels you need to get very good at taking selfies (or buy a dreaded selfie stick) or speak up and ask others to take photos with you. So often I have fewer photos of myself on solo trips than I would if I was traveling with a partner.

Getting the “selfie” down

Or just ask a fellow traveler to snap a pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the thought of traveling alone abroad still seems too scary why not try a weekend away in a city you’ve always wanted to visit in your own country. Sign up for a yoga or meditation retreat- something that encourages being alone while still being around others. Or book into a group tour where you’ll be sure to meet others. I have found that when I’m alone I’m more open to meeting others, and it’s easier for others to approach me. So unless you are going to some truly isolating location, you will cross paths with other travelers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you should make solo travel a priority. I think it’s essential for your growth and development. You will never learn more about your strengths than you will when you are exploring a foreign city solo. You will most likely feel more independent than you have in your entire life. You will learn to listen to your intuition. You will learn to put your wants and needs and desires first. You will make travel memories that you will be proud of because they will be yours, and yours alone. You made them happen. You trusted yourself enough to go and know that you would just figure it out. So do yourself a huge favor and go.

My Top 10 from 2015

2015 was a pretty epic year of traveling for me. I’ve just switched over to my new 2016 calendar and I counted all the days I was out of Saudi traveling last year. It was 109. 109!!!! How is that even possible? Since the last time I checked I work a full-time gig as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia. But apparently I was on the go a lot. I visited 16 countries over the last year, 11 of them new for me, and I thought I would share my top 10 favourite memories from the last year. Enjoy!!

1. Cyprus

Way back in February I took a trip to Cyprus and my kiwi sidekick and I rented a car and drove around the quaint island. I have 2 favourite memories from this trip. The first was the a day we spend driving in the hills between Limassol and Paphos. The  day was cold and dreary and we visited a local winery and then made our way to a small village that was devastated and deserted by an earthquake in 1969. As we arrived in the village a torrential downpour started which only added to the creepiness of our visit, and we got soaked walking around taking photos. The village is on the way to a town called Lemona. The other great memory I have from that trip was the time a stranger gave us his BMW to drive for an afternoon. You can read about that travel tale here.

Creepy right?!

2. Norway

Two words. Lofoten Islands. Quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. They are picturesque and have this kinda of awestruck beauty that isolated and desolate places have. Every which way you turn your head was a postcard perfect view. The gagged snow covered peaks drop dramatically into the arctic sea and I would go back in a second. I think an Atheist would have a hard time believing there isn’t a higher power of some sort after visiting this island chain. See for yourself…..

3. Sweden

The whole of Scandinavia is awesome, and travel there is pretty easy. It would be a real shame if you went to Sweden and didn’t visit the Ice Hotel, even if only for the day! The Ice Hotel is an artistic marvel in that every year the design and decor is completely different. Different artists take part every year so the theme rooms change, which you have to admit is pretty cool. It is pricey, but well worth the stay. You can sleep in one of the actual ice rooms, or stay in a heated cabin like we did. Oh, and if you go make sure to do the tasting menu at the restaurant there- it is phenomenal. Maybe you’ll luck out and the Northern Lights will come out like they did for us!!

4. Finland

Dog sledding in Lapland has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was bloody cold, but so worth it.

5. Maldives

This view……I dream about it often. This is one of the most relaxed vacations I have ever had. Ever. It was hard to decide between spa, pool, eat, nap, read, repeat. This is also the place where I attempted to overcome my fear of the water and tried scuba diving.

6. Bahrain

So VIP culture is huge in the Middles East. You rarely see anything VIP in North America unless it’s in a mocking nature, but over in these parts everything is VIP. VIP movie theaters, hospitals, parking spots, entrances. It’s all a little over the top. That is until you catch a ride over the causeway to Bahrain in a vehicle with diplomatic plates and get to cross via the VIP lanes. Yep. And funfact….they have tea boys who come right up to you car to serve you tea, while you wait in line to cross the border.

7. Morocco

I blogged at great length about how difficult it was traveling in Morocco, but one the best things we did while there was take a cooking class thru Souk Cuisine. This class included a shopping trip to buy the needed ingredients in the Medina and was a great way to learn about local ingredients whilst mixing with the locals. Even though Morocco was sometimes very challenging the food was ALWAYS delicious. I would pretty much recommend doing a cooking class or food tour whenever you travel. I’m doing one later this month in Spain and can’t wait!!

8. Bali Indonesia

At the end of August I took part in a retreat on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Bali with 17 other ladies from all over the world. My time there was so needed and really came at a time when I needed to slow down and work through some things on my own. The location was beautiful, as were the many lovely ladies I met. This was a time of much needed R&R and reflection, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful friendships that were formed from my time in Bali.

9. Oktoberfest Germany

Even though I ended up with a GI bug from hell, Oktoberfest was a seriously fun time (while it lasted.) I mean what’s not to love about a group of traditionally costumed and hugely intoxicated people smashing beer steins together while singing traditional German songs at the top of ones lungs. It was a good time, and YOLO you really only do live once so you should go.

10. Sparkling Hills Spa in British Columbia Canada

Last month I took my mom to this spa about an hour from where she lives. This is a place people have been raving about since it opened a few years back and I was keen to see what all the hype was about! The hotel is pretty much the luxury accommodations in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and known for its spa, saunas and heated outdoor infinity pools. The views from the rooms are amazing, as are the 7 saunas and the indoor floating pool with classical music playing under the water. Well worth the visit, and it was a great mother-daughter retreat.

So really that wraps up 2015. It was a pretty great year. I’m really excited to see what is in store for 2016. I’m excited for the new faces I will meet, the new sights I will see, and the changes that will take place inside of me.  I found this quote that sums up my thoughts about the upcoming year perfectly, and my hopes for both you and I…..

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, for all of us, and my wish for myself.

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t prefect, whatever it is; art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman

Misunderstanding…..

The first and only time I almost beat an Asian man’s ass was just across the border of Thailand in Cambodia, in the back of a taxi on route to Siem Reap. It was late at night, pissing down rain and visibility was maybe half a car length ahead of the taxi’s front bumper as the driver sped down the road dodging carts and motorcycles. Naturally, he was on his mobile phone  speaking Cambodian and telling someone the name of our hotel. Golden Mango Inn. He then slowly started to pull the car over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch darkness. We had read horrible reports of the safety issues with crossing via land from Thailand into Cambodia via the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border crossing. Scams, robbings, and warnings NOT to cross after dark. And here we were crossing after dark. And in a car with a dodgy driver.

In my overly dramatic and active imagination this was the moment. The moment when all my awesome travel tales would come to an abrupt end. The moment where we would get robbed at gun point or murdered. Our bodies left in the dark night along a desolate road in the Cambodian countryside. The driver pulled the car to a stop and got out of the car without saying a word and went around to the trunk. He’s getting a gun I thought to myself, although I’m pretty sure I said this out loud to my travel partner who was also a little unsettled by the situation, but not nearly as crazy as me. All I knew was that if he were going to get a gun from the trunk there was no way I was staying in the back of the car like a sitting duck. It’s unclear to me why I thought that if he did have a gun the most logical place for him to keep it was in the trunk. But really, that’s besides the point. Everything from this point happened very fast. He got out of the drivers side, came past my door and headed for the trunk. Shit he’s getting a gun. I threw the door open and went around at him. He opened the trunk and because it was dark he didn’t see me at first. I lunged towards him as he reached into the trunk. He startled and said something in Cambodian. He then pulled out a…….towel. He pulled out a towel. He then mimed wiping the dirt and mud off the headlights. Shit got real. Real fast. He then shook his head, walked around me and proceeded to clean the headlights. I got back into the car and told my travel mate how I had bravely saved both our lives.

So several lessons were learned that night on the side of an unlit Cambodian road. I learned that even though I think it’s a good idea to head safety warnings and listen to advice from other travelers, you should also keep a clear mind. I learned that even though my instincts (and imagination) were clearly off I’m likely not going down without a fight. I also learned that I may have watched the Jason Bourne series more than maybe any one person should, but that my reflexes are none the less cat like fast. Our Cambodian driver I think learned the lesson to not pull over in the middle of the night on a back road without first indicating to your female passengers what it is you’re doing. He also might have learned that I was a bit crazy. But that’s a lesson I’ve taught more than just him over the years. Travel safely my dear readers!!

Have you ever WAY over reacted to a situation while traveling like I did? I’d love to hear about it so I feel a little less cray cray.

Ubud Bali

After my blissed out week at a retreat in the northern beach town of Bondalem Bali I headed inland to Ubud, the island’s artistic hot spot. I had visited Ubud back in 2008 the first time I was in Bali, and let me just say I was unprepared for how much it had grown. Ubud was jarring coming out of the tranquility of the meditation retreat I had been at. So much traffic, so much noise, so many tourists. It was a total assault on the senses, and that first day was really overwhelming. Thankfully, my first 2 nights I had booked to stay in the rice fields just outside of Ubud, which was much calmer. Well relatively calmer. That first night I was awoken at 4am thinking someone was in my room and violently shaking my bed, and then in my disorientation it also sounded like someone was trying to get in the room by shaking the door in its frame. Turns out there was a 5.3 earthquake off the coast. Once I determined that a) I was not crazy b) it was unlikely the room was haunted and that c) this was very likely an earthquake, I did what any savvy person would do……I googled “what to do in an earthquake” so I would be prepared if there was another one, and checked social media. Come on. I know that’s what you all would do!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After 2 nights in the rice fields I moved to Ubud proper. For 5 nights which extended into 6 when I rescheduled my flight to stay an extra night. I had initially booked at a cheaper hotel, but after some issues there I moved to the hotel next door which turned out to be the nicest place I’ve ever stayed. In my life. Nicer than the Maldives. And that’s pretty hard to do. To be fair I didn’t really know what I was booking. I basically called to ask if they had a room available, a pool, and wifi. They said yes and I showed up. The lobby was beautiful. During check-in I asked is there AC? And the lady was like yes. In each room. And in my head I was like- of course it would be in each room lady. Then she took me to the room. On the way she referred to it as the “Canopy Suite.” My eyes almost burst out of my head. It was bigger than my apartment in Saudi. It had separate rooms- with an AC in each room. Then there was the infinity pool. And the amazing breakfast. And the tub in the bathroom was like bathing in a barrel. Ok. It was actually bathing in a barrel. And they pulled my covers back every night and left me cookies. So now you see my dilemma about having to stay another night. If you go to Ubud you should look into staying at Bisma Eight. Well worth over extending my budget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ubud is full of shops, restaurants, museums and galleries. I spent my time there catching up with my other retreat-sisters, and walking around town. There are many great restaurant choices. One that was at the top of my list was Locavore. They have a very well reviewed tasting menu but they book out a month in advance and I wasn’t able to get a reservation. By chance I stopped in there for lunch one day. Table for one? And they seated me overlooking the kitchen. It’s not cheap by Bali standards, but by western standards it’s a steal. I had a 7 course meal with a couple glasses of wine and it was culinary heaven. Half of it I wasn’t exactly sure what I was eating- what exactly are fish lips anyways?  But it was all so good. If you are in Ubud make a reservation and go. I’ll be thinking of this meal for months to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the days I did a day trip with my French Canadian retreat-sister. We had an energetic Balinese guide named Gusti who took us to 3 temples in the southern part of the island while telling us of Bali culture and the practices related to Balinese Hinduism. It was such a great day. We visited Taman Ayun Temple mid morning and we basically had the temple to ourselves. This temple is from 1634 and was once the royal temple. It has beautiful gardens with the traditional tiered Balinese pagoda roofs and many ornate stone carvings. The temple is surrounded by a moat which used to hold alligators. The sky was very moody when we visited which made for great photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we dove about an hour to Tanah Lot Temple which as legend has it has snakes that guard the entrance to the caves below the temple. This temple is situated alongside the sea on a rocky cliff and it is nothing short of spectacular. The waves were large and frothy as they crashed to shore. This complex was quite large with a smaller temple off to the right and then the main sea temple to the left. By sea temple, I literally mean in the sea. Depending on the tide you may or may not be able to visit. Tide was in when we were there so we couldn’t go but it is beautiful nonetheless. You should be very careful of the cliffs though- our guide had seen tourists fall over the cliffs and get swept away so he kept us well away from the roped barriers. As we were getting ready to leave we randomly ran into 2 of our other retreat-sisters. Bali was full of of many such encounters. It was amazing that we all ended up in the same spot of land at exactly the same time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then got back in the car and drove another 90 min to Uluwatu temple. Bali is not at all equipped to handle traffic. Most roads are 2-laned roads with little room to pull over or passing lanes. And then of course they are filled with cars, trucks and loads and loads of motorcycles. When we arrived at the temple we were greeted by signs and loud recorded warnings about the bulglarizing monkeys. As I’ve previously mentioned. I’m not a huge fan of monkeys. Or rabies. I was mildly terrified which caused Gusti our guide great enjoyment as he bravely tried to protect me. We did see monkeys, but they kept their distance. This temple is also alongside a steep cliff. In fact we could see Uluwatu temple from Tanah Lot temple. I read somewhere that the temples along the sea were built as a chain so you could see one from the other. There are 2 parts to this temple and I would highly advise wearing good shoes and bringing plenty of water. I would also recommend a hat, but can’t guarantee it won’t get pulled off your head by a cheeky monkey. This temple also had mesmerizing ocean views. I basically kept taking the same photo over. And over. And over.

While Bali is full of tourists it’s still good to dress and act respectfully. Most temples won’t let you in if you’re dressed inappropriately anyways, but here’s an idea of what you should wear. Buy a sarong- you’ll need to be wearing one to enter a temple, and they double as a towel or beach cover. You will also need a sash to tie around your waist but many temples provide these, or do what I did and just use a scarf. Make sure your shoulder are covered- a simple t-shirt will do. Don’t try to enter a temple in a swimsuit top and hot pants. It seems pretty logical but you know there are people who try this. Also as with any temples/religious sites the world over- ladies if it’s that time of the month you’re not supposed to enter. One of my retreat sisters told me how her guide made her read the list of rules before entering a temple and she basically had to give him the “all clear” to tell him she was safe to go in. Also most temples have donation boxes- your call on how you feel about donating. I usually opt to.

So that wraps up my time in Ubud Bali. As I write this I can’t believe it was almost a month ago. I’m going to Munich for Oktoberfest this weekend for 5 nights and then I don’t have any major travel plans until I go home for a visit the end of November and first bit of December. I’ll be spending Christmas in Dubai which I’m super pumped for. Seeing as I’ve decided to stay in Saudi another year I’ve just requested a bunch more vacation time in the new year, with many ideas but nothing concrete as of yet.

Where are your upcoming travel plans taking you?

Blissed out in Bali

I normally have a strong dislike of the word “bliss” or phrases like “finding your bliss” and equally so of the phrase #blessed, but I’m at a complete loss of words to describe my time in Bali. The only word I keep coming back to is bliss. It really was bliss. So even though the word is kinda new-agey, and used to make me gag, it will be my word of choice for this post.

My time in Bali was split between a retreat I had wanted to do since earlier this year in the northern part of the island, and Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural hub. Bali is an island in the Indian Ocean, one of an estimated 17500 islands that make up Indonesia, or “Indo” as hipsters refer to it. Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country, but the island of Bali is the exception. Here over 80% of the population practices Balinese Hinduism which governs every aspect of local life. There are religious calendars that are followed to dictate when birth, puberty, tooth filling, marriage and cremation ceremonies should take place. It’s a very colourful and spiritual place. There are temples both large and small and shrines seemingly everywhere, garnished with daily offerings.

I flew from Kuala Lumpur via AirAsia and let me say it was in stark contrast to my previous flight with Etihad airways- but thankfully we made it. I spent one night in the touristy beach town of Seminyak as a meeting point for the retreat I was attending. Here I met up with the other 17 ladies who would also be attending the retreat organized by Sarah of Sarah Somewhere. The retreat’s theme was “Return to Wholeness” and I went into it with a pretty open mind. In fact I didn’t even really learn the name of the place where the retreat was until after the retreat was over. (Thanks Google.) Nor did I learn that we were on the northern part of the island. I literally didn’t have a care in the world and just rolled with it. Turns out that was a great way to be, as this week long retreat would prove better for my soul than I ever could’ve guessed.

The ladies of the retreat were a diverse group ranging in age from 25-71ish. We came from the Philippines, Singapore, Canada, the U.S., Australia and Mexico (sorry if I’ve left anyone out!) Some people knew each other previous to the retreat, but many like me, were strangers. We would leave friends. Friends who had the privilege to see each woman’s core. To see each other stripped away from the roles we play in our every day life and just be seen as we are. We all came running towards or away from a multitude of things but with the same shared goal of becoming whole.

The retreat took place in a small resort called the Bali Mandala Resort over looking the ocean. It was total bliss. The huts were out of an island romance scene, the pool was lovely, and the food was amazing. I’m notorious for getting sick on every single trip I take. But not this one. Not even once. There was a spa on the resort where I had some of the best massages of my life. I spent the days eating, going to a morning and afternoon meditation class, dipping in the pool or ocean, or reading and journaling listening to the ocean waves lap against the rocky shore. Even as I think about it now my breathing becomes more relaxed and a calmness washes over me. It really was bliss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During that week we did an early morning sunrise dolphin tour with a local fisherman. Right before going one of the ladies I’d gotten close to asked “are you going to take something for seasickness?” And I was like “no. It’ll be fine.” Famous last words. The fisherman laughed at me as I repeatedly vomited over the side and then handed me a Balinese pastry and an orange to settle my stomach. We visited the nearby school that is funded by the resort, and spend some time signing and dancing with the kids. We visited a local hilltop temple and received blessings from a Balinese High Priest. We witnessed sunrises and sunsets that left me speechless. We had a day of noble silence in which we weren’t supposed to talk with one anther, but encouraged to just be with our thoughts. We were entertained by local Balinese dancers on our last evening and spent the night of the full moon dancing as if no one was watching. After the impromptu dance party we changed into our swimsuits and guided by the bright moonlit sky swam in the pool, and did a “whirlpool.” This night I will likely remember for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most importantly we formed friendships- many who’s paths will likely intersect in the future. I felt whole. Like all the parts of me that were scattered miraculously found their way back to one another. I let myself be seen in my most bare form. I looked into the eyes of those 17 other ladies and saw them in their most bare forms, and loved every bit of them. I meditated and got some needed clarity on where I’ve been, and where I’m headed. I felt blessed. Blessed for the opportunity to travel to Bali for the sole purpose of finding inner peace. Blessed to disconnect. Blessed to meet these amazing ladies. Oh, and I felt pure bliss like I’ve never known before. Deep rooted joy that I hope I can channel into daily life.

What experiences have brought you bliss or made you feel blessed?

 

 

Kuala Lumpur and Batu Caves

Last week I returned from a 3 week solo trip to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and Bali Indonesia. It was such a great trip that I actually forgot I had a job. Like 2 weeks into the trip I saw photos of a work potluck on Facebook and my brain clicked in and was like “oh right. You do actually have a job.” Part of my time in Bali was spent at a yoga/meditation retreat (which I’ll tell you about soon) and my work-related amnesia must have been due to some massive uncluttering of my brain. Either that, or I have early onset dementia. Hard to say.

I flew from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi and then on to Kuala Lumpur via Emirates Air. Never having flown with them before I was super impressed, even more so after flying cargo class with Air Asia to Bali. I spent 2 nights in Kuala Lumpur before going to Bali and 3 nights there on the tail end. It’s no surprise that I liked Kuala Lumpur. I love bustling international cities. I love having great international cuisine and anywhere that has an abundance of bars. The first 2 nights I stayed in Bukit Bintang which is known as the shopping/entertainment district of KL. It’s very walkable, and I felt safe walking around as a single woman. On my return I stayed in KLCC which is where the Petronas Towers are and Suria KLCC a great shopping mall.

Biktu Bingtang

Bukit Bingtang

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent my time in Kuala Lumpur eating some amazing food, and getting to pair it with wine or beer. This is one of the major things I miss while living in Saudi- I love to go out for nice food and have a nice glass/bottle of an adult beverage to go with it. I think I ate sushi like 3 or 4 times. I ate some delicious Chinese dim-sum. I went up the Petronas towers and checked out the aquarium nearby. I shopped and lost myself in a huge English bookstore. I saw a movie, which was great because by North American standards it was super cheap. They oddly played what I’m assuming is the Malaysian national anthem prior to the movie and everyone in the audience stood up from their seats until the song was over. That was a first for me. Mostly I spent my time doing normal everyday things that I would do if I weren’t living in Saudi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One morning I took a taxi to Batu Caves which are about 20-25min from the city center depending on traffic. You can reach the caves by train, but I was feeling super lazy and had lost my travel mojo at this point so I opted for a taxi. Batu Caves is a hugely popular Hindu shrine built into the side of a limestone hill. It’s a pilgrimage site for Hindu’s worldwide. I’d seen pictures of the towering statue of Murugan with the staircase leading into the caves and it was at the top of my list of things to see while visiting Kuala Lumpur. The caves have served as a temple since the late 1800’s.

There are some 270 steps leading upwards into the cave. When I visited there were a pretty even mix of tourists and Hindu worshipers. There were also numerous menacing thieving monkeys lining the railings leading into the cave. I really don’t like monkeys so I kept a close eye on them, and kept my things out of reach. Other visitors weren’t so lucky. I witnessed the monkeys steal bottles from babies. Seriously. 2 separate incidents of bottles full of milk were taken out of the innocent hands of babes. Others lost bags of fruit and hats. Pretty much anything a monkey could get their hands on. Don’t get me wrong- they’re super cute from a distance, but that’s where they can stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So up the steps you climb, and it’s really humid, so you’re sweating from pretty much everywhere. Coming up from the bottom the steps appear to just disappear into the darkness of the cave. It’s a very impressive view. Once you get into the main cave there is a temple off to the left and there are several statues of various Hindu gods tucked around the walls of the cave. You then climb another smaller set of stairs which takes you into a smaller cave with another temple where Hindu worshipers were lined up to get Puja which involves making an offering and then getting a purification blessing from the priest. It was pretty surreal watching all the goings-on from the inside of a massive cave. Also the priests were all sporting 70’s style mustaches which are always a hit for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the drive back into the city I had a unexpected chat about world religions with the taxi driver. Malaysia is over 50% Muslim, almost 20% Buddhist, and then the remainder split between Hinduism, Christianity, and the various other Chinese religions. He asked me where I lived and I told him I was a Canadian, but that I lived in Saudi Arabia. He then asked if I was Muslim, I said no, and then asked him if he was. He replied “I like all religions but am none. All are the same.” I told him that back home we described this as being “spiritual but not religious.” He liked that phrase a lot. Chatting with him was  one of those random and unexpected things that happens when you open yourself up to meeting people who you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s one of the things I love the most about traveling. We all come from different backgrounds and places, but essentially we are all the same. Chatting with him  reminded me of a song from one of my favourite artists Ingrid Michaelson called Blood Brothers. I’ll end this post with the lyrics from the chorus…..

What you need, what you need I need too
What you are, what you are I am too
’cause we’re all the same under a different name
We’re all blood, we’re all blood, blood brothers
We’re all blood, we’re all blood, blood brothers

Lastly, I just wanted to give a quick shout out to Expat Blog for featuring me as their Blog of the Month, and a Hello to my new readers, some of whom have sent me lovely messages. So thanks for reading. And don’t forget you can subscribe to get new blog posts in your email to the right-hand side of this post. Or you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram.

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