This past weekend I flew to Abha to visit the nearby AlSoudah Season festival. It’s part of the new Saudi initiative called “Saudi Seasons” by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage which aims to put Saudi on the map as a travel destination. The month of July was dedicated to Jeddah Season and August features both AlSoudah and Taif Seasons.
AlSoudah Season takes place in the Asir region of Saudi Arabia which is south of Jeddah sharing a small border with Yemen. The festival is held on AlSoudah mountain which is about a 40 minute drive from Abha, the regions capital. The mountain elevation is around 3000m making this the highest festival ever held in the kingdom.
There are direct flights from Riyadh and Jeddah on either Saudia, FlyNas, Saudi Gulf Air or Flyadeal. Saudia currently is offering a discount code to get 20% off flights- you can use code ABHA19 to take advantage of it. Book tickets soon though as many flights are selling out.
From Abha you could either rent a car or take an Uber or Kareem taxi to AlSoudah. With good traffic it takes around 40 minutes, but allow up to an hour for travel time. The weather in Abha is much cooler than Riyadh and much cooler in AlSoudah because of the elevation, so pack accordingly. If you will be there in the afternoon or evening make sure to bring a coat. Think temperatures in the mid 20’s C but cooling down to the mid teens (15C). The weather also changes very fast. Views are better in the morning before the clouds roll in. Afternoon rain is common and the fog can get very thick. I especially loved the rain and fog as it was such a surprising change from the sweltering heat of Riyadh.
Entrance tickets to the festival are 40sar for the 12years and older crowd, 10sar for kids 4-11 years old, and free for those kiddos under 4. You can buy them online here. It’s important to note that the festival site is quite spread out so wear good walking shoes and bring a stroller for the kids. There are free bikes that you can ride as an alternative to walking.
The festival events includes many adventure activities like bungee jumping, sling shot, zip lining, paintball, and a zip line course. There is also paragliding although I didn’t see it while I was there. I did try the zip line which for someone scared of heights was terrifying, but I’m glad I did it! There are hiking trails for both beginner and advanced hikers. Tickets can be purchased at the above link. You can also buy tickets at the “Hub” center which has food trucks, swings, seating areas and a kids zone. Timings and other information can be found on the AlSoudah Season website here. Please note that not all of the info is in English so you might need an Arabic translator to get the whole scoop!
There are three restaurants if you prefer coffee with a view or a sit down meal. They are Bayat, Serafina (same as the Riyadh restaurant) and Meraki which is a London restaurant. They will be opening a Meraki restaurant in Riyadh in the New Year. I only ate at Meraki which is Greek- I highly recommend it. The food was really good- try the chicken as it is the moistest chicken I’ve ever eaten. Sit outside on the terrace for perfect valley views and watch the zip liners go by.
Misk Art also has an ongoing exhibit at the festival that I would highly recommend seeing. It’s about the history of the Asir region featuring clothing, music and dance. I’m a huge fan of the Misk Art Institute and try to visit their exhibits whenever I can. There is also traditional dancing outside the exhibit in the evenings. And a night time shisha area with music.
There are several accommodation options. I stayed on the festival site so I can’t vouch for the following list but they were recommended as options. Maybe check tripadvisor before booking. In downtown Abha there is Abha Palace and Blue Inn. AlSoudah Tourism Resort is closest to the festival. Mirage Hotel and Bayat Hotel are in neighbouring Khamis Mushait. Bayat Hotel is considered to be the best hotel in the Asir region. Shatha Hotel, KNF Abha Hotel and Abha View Hotel are smaller apartment hotels.
The festival has 17 luxury RVs that can be rented. It’s pretty much like luxury camping with the option of ordering room service. The RVs are managed by the Intercontinental Hotel so it really is 5 star amenities and mine had the softest towels I’ve ever used. It is still an RV though so showering is possible but with limited water. There was an electric fireplace, Nespresso machine, and flat screen TV in mine. You can see the pricing for the RVs here.
The other thing that is taking place in the month of August about 30 minutes from AlSoudah Season is the “Flowerman Festival” which takes place August 12-31. The festival is held in the historical village of Rijal Almaa and highlights the flower headbands men from this region wear. The village is set in a valley about 2300m below AlSoudah- the road to get there is a series of switchbacks so for those of you like me who suffer from motion sickness just be aware. There is also a cable car that takes you down the valley, but I didn’t experience it. It is much hotter on the valley floor so drink lots of water while exploring.
The village of Rijal Almaa was a trade route between Yemen up to Mekkah. It’s currently on the tentative list of upcoming UNESCO sites and consists of about 60 palaces made from stone, clay and wood. I’ve never seen anything like them in all my travels and found it really fascinating. There’s a museum there and you can see examples of the traditional wall painting the area is known for called Qut. It’s made up of mostly primary colours and has a geometric style to it. Laura from Blue Abaya and I spend part of an afternoon exploring the old abandoned parts of the village. Late afternoon is the best time to visit- the village photographs perfectly during the golden hour.
So that’s a little about the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. I didn’t have much of a chance to see Abha so I likely will go back as I’m sure there’s much more of the region to explore. Enjoy the adventure of AlSouhad Season should you go!
A couple weekends ago I joined a tour with a group of friends to go to Taif in Saudi Arabia. Taif is an easy 1hr direct flight from Riyadh to the southwest. It’s about 90km to Mecca just to put it into geographic context. Taif is located in the mountains of the Mecca province and was previously used as a summer capital for the Royals due to cooler temperatures. It is also famous for its Rose Festival which was the main reason we visited.
The Rose Festival takes place every year from mid March till the end of April. These Damask roses were originally brought to Saudi Arabia by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The climate and fertile soil of this region make it the prefect place to grow roses, but they also produce some of the country’s best honey, grapes, and pomegranate. The roses are hand picked in the early morning as they start to bloom as that’s when they have the most oil. If they are collected too late the oil evaporates and that’s a loss of profit. After they’re collected the rose petals (around 12000-18000 petals) are poured into large copper pots and a super-secret amount of distilled rose water is added and the pot is covered and sealed. Then it’s heated to a temperature specific to each distillery. Kinda like following a recipe. It then drains into large glass containers and the oil collects on top of the water. If a distiller is lucky 18000 petals will produce about 10ml of rose oil (called 1 tawlah.)
The price of the rose oil is based off the weight of 1000 petals and it changes from year to year. Last year it was 60 riyals (16 USD). This year it is 45 riyals (12 USD) as there are more farms which as per economics drives down the price. Taif rose oil has been used in perfumes by Lancome, Givenchy, and Bvlgari to name a few. While in Taif you will have the opportunity to buy a variety of rose products to take home. Rose oil. Rose lotions. Rose water. You get the idea.
Our group tour was not only to visit the roses, but also the see the area. Our tour guide Khalid organized a jam-packed itinerary so we could maximize our time. If you want to visit Taif I would highly recommend booking a tour with him. He was professional and super knowledgeable and I’d book him again. Our tour started on Thursday night and we were greeted at the airport and taken for a late dinner of mezze (mixed salads) and grilled meat before crawling into bed for an early morning start.
Friday morning we had a quick breakfast and headed off towards the Al Hada mountains. The road passes by many amusement parks with what looks like day rental cabins. Taif is a summer tourist destination for Saudi Arabians looking to beat the scorching heat of most of the country. These amusement parks looked kinda apocalyptic as they are dated (think 1980’s) and weren’t open so were empty when we were there. We stopped at a roadside fruit market to sample and buy some of the regions best fruit and then Khalid surprised us with a scenic viewpoint. From that elevation you are able to see the winding Alkurr road below. Just looking at it made me car sick. Besides roses the Taif area is known for …….red-butted baboons. Run for your lives!!! Just kidding, but baboons and monkey’s make me nervous as hell so needless to say there was a lot of screaming while other tourists fed them. On a clear day it is possible to see the clock tower in Mecca in the distance. Sadly, the day was hazy and we couldn’t see it but that would’ve been hella cool.
We then visited the first of two rose distilleries and got to sample the local Taif bread. Taif bread is made from 7 different types of flour. Being domestically challenged I wasn’t aware that there were more flour options than white or brown. Who knew?! It’s quite a dense bread and paired very well with local honey and rose tea. After an informative explanation of the rose distillery process we had the option of being showered with rose petals. Hellloooooo Instagram. When opportunity comes a knocking I happily accept.
From here we visited the regional Al-Shareef museum which has a great display of old historical artifacts such as traditional tea and coffee pots. Clothing and textiles of the region and how meals of the past were prepared and stored. The museum also gives you a feel for what traditional Taif buildings looked like. We then visited Alarfa Fortress which is about 200 years old. On some of the rocks outside of the fort are petroglyphs (rock carvings) of cows, dogs and gazelles. They are said to be 3000 years old. We also visited the nearby camel market and learned some introductory information about camels. The male camels are rather frisky and are kept tied up outside separate from the pens containing the female and baby camels. The males are also separated from each other as they will fight to the death. It was baby camel season so we got to see the babies up close.
Then it was lunch and nap time before heading out for the evening activities. Just before sunset we headed back towards Al Hada to ride the cable car. This ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend trip. The cable car descends into a valley to the tourist village of Al Kar. The ride is about 20min and if you are scared of heights you will probably scream both on the outside and inside as I did. But the views are amazing as is the village at the bottom. Our visit was timed perfectly with the setting sun which added to the magic. There is a water park complete with water slides at the bottom, and the tourist village has great outdoor space with coffee shops and restaurants. The best part was that they had one of those “Alpine-coasters” which are a cross between a roller coaster and a luge minus the snow. Basically you are in separate sleds that are propelled up a hill by a motor and then at the top you are released and you come down the mountain however fast you choose. Both fun and terrifying at the same time! We then took the cable car back up the mountain and headed off to a private camp where we relaxed for the rest of the evening which is a very traditionally Saudi thing to do.
The next morning we headed off early again. This time we headed towards the Al Shafa mountains. We stopped off at another scenic overlook that doubled as baboon feeding ground. Their faces and red bums are equally terrifying, but the view was spectacular. My selfies were on fire. Also if riding things is your thang there were camels and donkeys all colourfully decorated. It was then souvenir shopping time and we visited a different rose distillery. The group let the riyals fly as we bought a wide variety of rose products. We then drove to Taif central market. We explored the honey and gold market and then visited the newly opened artist cooperative where local artist showcase their creative works. Before making a quick dart to the airport we stopped off for lunch for what several people referred to as “the best chicken of my life.” We had Yemeni Mandi chicken which is a style of cooking chicken where it is seasoned with special spices and then cooked in an underground pit. It’s served on a plate of saffron rice and it’s moist and delicious. I would definitely eat Mandi chicken again.
So that wraps up my weekend adventures in Taif. If roses don’t really interest you there’s still a ton to see and it has a very different feel than Riyadh. And if I don’t convey it I would very much recommend having Khalid organize a tour for you!
Well it’s that time of the year again. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one. I love looking back at where I was and forward to where I want to go. 2018 was jam packed full of travel. In fact I was out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a total of 103 days. I did A LOT of solo travel. I visited 19 countries this year, with 11 of those being new to me, and 12 of them solo. I traveled quite a bit to Europe and saw the remaining Eastern European countries I’d yet visited, and spend a bit of time in my native country of Canada.
2018 seemed really busy to me and my blogging kinda fell to the wayside. I’ve got a great group of friends and my social calendar was pretty full. Then at the end of the summer I met a boy…..and that’s consumed even more of my time, but in a good way. But enough about that. Lets talk about the top places I traveled….
1. Luxor, Egypt
In January I flew to Luxor Egypt via Cairo, with 3 girlfriends for a quick weekend away, to check off a bucket list item for me. I’m not really a “bucket list” person, but hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings was definitely on it. We took a sunset sail down the Nile, visited the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Hatshepsut, and Medinet Habu. We walked the Valley of the Kings. Our local guide convinced a rickshaw driver to let me drive his rickshaw. That’s always a highlight for me (and a reoccurring theme of this years travels.)
Luxor was amazing. It felt completely surreal to wander amongst so much history. The temple of Luxor was even more stunning and eerie at night and I’d highly recommend it. The best part of that weekend though was the hot air ballooning. We were under prepared for how cold Egypt was in the early morning hours in January so the four of us “borrowed” our white hotel robes to keep warm. Many thanks to the Hilton for keeping us warm. We must’ve looked like a confusing sight to the locals, but a few of them gave us thumbs up so they obviously appreciated our ingenuity. Anyways, if you go to Luxor make sure to go hot air ballooning. It is magical as the sun is coming up. You have views over the Nile River to one side and the temples of the Valley of the Kings to the other. It was peaceful and awe inspiring and amazing.
In February my Kiwi sidekick and I set out on operation “Shake our Booty in Djibouti.” If you follow my blog at all then you know the trip was a complete success. Djibouti is a country that is off the beaten path, and yet up and coming. For such a small country there is a surprising number of things to see and adventures to have. This was the scene of the 2018 tire mishap, where Kiwi and I ended up in a vehicle which suddenly had only 3 tires on it on an old air tarmac quite literally in the middle of no where. We spend a night camping in the desert and dancing with the locals. At some point I was handed an old wild west style wooden hunting rifle and instructed to dance with said rifle. And dance I did. Harder and faster than ever before, and that was pretty close to being the best travel memory of the year. I also was fortunate enough to drive a rickshaw on Africa’s busiest highway. I loved every minute of it, no body died, and the rickshaw wallah even asked me to join him in a joint business venture. Sadly, I had to decline.
This trip was also a great reminder in the fact that you can make plans and then life just happens. Our flight from Djibouti to Dubai was canceled and we had to scramble to change our plans, which basically meant a bunch of frustrating emails with FlyDubai over their lack of assistance, and us checking back into the hotel we had just checked out of for a pool day. To be fair the hotel was full of military contractors so there was a ton of eye candy at the pool so it felt like a reward in a lot of ways. But it did mean we had to shorten our time in Dubai to only one night. Thankfully though, the Westin took pity on us and upgraded us to our own suite with a massive private balcony. So great!!
3. Farasan Islands, Saudi Arabia
In March I took a weekend trip to the coast of Saudi Arabia. Down near to the border of Yemen about a 90min ferry ride from the port city of Jizan is these chain of islands. To stay they are stunning is a huge understatement. The water is that shade of blue that typically makes you think of the Caribbean. The sandy beaches are secluded and largely devoid of other tourists. It is a snorkeler or diver’s paradise. We spend the weekend on an all day boat tour exploring the beaches and swimming or snorkeling while dining on fresh fish. On the way back our boat broke down and it took some time to get the engine restarted and then we had to battle huge waves that kept splashing over the side of the boat. It was all very exciting and very, very cold as the sun set.
The next day we explored the main island and visited the town of Fursan to see some old merchant houses that have ornate stonework. We visited an old Ottoman Fort from the 18th century and a restored historical village. And we took soooo many pictures. The entire weekend was just perfect, and I had to keep reminding myself that we were still in Saudi Arabia. That these amazingly colourful views were in fact Saudi. Because, lets be honest, these are not the views you would ever associate with this country! If you live in Saudi make sure to visit the Farasan Islands.
In April I did a three week solo trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. To be quite honest, I had a really great time in each country, and I found Belgrade, Serbia to be a wonderful place to pass a few days. The city itself is very walkable and full of large urban art installations (graffiti) of which I’m a huge fan. Skopje, Macedonia was a whimsical place which has a dizzying assortment of statues. Most of them weird and confusing, but made it interesting to wander the streets because you didn’t know what odd statue was just around the bend. Statue to breastfeeding women. Check. Statue of a fish. Check. So many horse statues. The countryside of Albania was green and beautiful. One of my favourite sunsets of 2018 was captured in a square in Tirana. But lets talk more about Kosovo…
Kosovo is still pretty off the beaten path. The history in this entire region is complicated to say the least. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe having declared independence in 2010- some countries recognize it and some countries don’t. There are 4 Christian Orthodox churches/monasteries in Kosovo that are on the UNESCO list. I hired a local guide for a day and we drove the Kosovo countryside while discussing the history of the region and taking in the scenery. The countryside reminded me a lot of driving in parts of Canada, as it was green with snow capped mountains. My favourite part of this trip though was the sweet man I met on the bus from Belgrade to Pristina who went by the name of “Galle.” He read his newspaper to me, and we shared snacks and he told me stories of his time as a pilot in the Yugoslav Army. Random unexpected meetings with kind strangers is one of my favourite things about traveling. When you start off as people from different backgrounds and countries but part as friends.
5. Santorini, Greece
The tail end of my trip to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania ended with a few days in Athens and then 4 nights on what I coined my “Solomoon.” This basically consisted of me booking myself into a beautiful villa with a private hot tub and drinking absurd amounts of wine. I figured that since I was 39 and yet to have a Honeymoon it was time to take myself on one. I don’t meant this to sound bitter, because I wasn’t bitter while I was there. And it’s not meant to sound pathetic either. It was mostly meant to be empowering from the mindset that I wasn’t going to not treat myself to experiences in romantic places just because I’m not in a relationship. And so I didn’t. I treated myself to fancy dinners, watched the sunset from my hot tub, wandered the island aimlessly, and ate a ton of orange gelato. I read books and took naps and tried to make some big life decisions. It was lovely. I think every single lady should take themselves on a “Solomoon.” That sounded a bit sexist, but I think for those of us older and single it’s really important. And really life is too short, so just take that damn trip to a romantic hot spot.
In August I spend some time on a solo trip through Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Ukraine was a pretty significant trip for me. For once I’d done some research before going- specifically about the 2014 revolution. If Ukraine is on your travel list I would highly recommend watching the Netflix documentary called “Winter on Fire.” It is intense and I found it really emotional to walk around the city center with scenes from the documentary playing in the back of my head. Many of the protesters killed were young students and there are several memorials throughout the city center.
One of my most random travel memories happened in Kiev when I showed up planning to do a free walking tour of the city, but the guide never turned up. The other travelers that were also at the meeting point banded together and we formed an impromptu tour of our own. We were an international expat conglomerate from Kazakhstan, Australia, Slovenia, the UK, Portugal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka- some living in their home countries and the some residing in India, Germany, Qatar and me in Saudi Arabia. We jumped on the metro and visited some of the major tourist sites, snapping group photos and chatting about our shared love of travel. It was a really memorable afternoon, and one I won’t soon forget.
The other great thing I did in Ukraine was visit the site of Chernobyl. As much as I hate the word it was a “bucket list” item for me. I’ve long been a lover of eerie abandoned places and I really wanted to photograph the area. I joined onto a day tour and was able to explore the safe areas and take photos to my hearts desire.
One word really sums up why Moldova is on my top 10 of 2018 list….Wine. Such amazing wine. Moldova is a trip for wine lovers like me. Many families still produce their own small batch wines from old family recipes to store for personal use. I spent 2 nights in the capital of Chisinau and did a wine tour of Cricova winery which is listed as the countries best. Underneath the town is 120km of underground wine cellars which you can tour by trolley. Word to the wise- if you book a tasting tour this isn’t like tiny sips of tasting that we in North America are used to. It is like full glass of wine, make sure the bottle is empty kinda tastings. You can easily see how this made my list.
I’d been to Portugal once back in 2010 on my first ever solo trip. That seems a lifetime ago and I can still remember how scared I was getting off the plane in Lisbon on my own and so uncertain that solo travel was for me. Flash forward to October of this year when I flew to Porto to meet my Pops for Camino Part Two. We spent a week walking from Portugal and then onwards to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Walking the Camino Portuguese was much easier than when we walked the Camino Frances in the fall of 2016. Albeit the walk from Porto was far shorter (we ended up walking only 280km as opposed to 680km) but it was less populated and so very scenic. We ended up seeing very few pilgrims those first few days. We chatted and bonded and by some miracle my feet were in much better shape than the whole blister fiasco of the Camino Frances. But it was still challenging. We were 2 years older and a little wiser which meant our packs were lighter than our first walk, but everything mostly hurt all the time.
We had a full day in Porto prior to staring our Camino so we explored. Porto is a fantastic city, with stunning views. We visited the Cathedral and picked up our pilgrim passports and then booked a young guy who gave tours in an auto rickshaw at sunset. He took us to a scenic overlook with another spectacular sunset and then I asked him if I could drive. And Pops found himself in his first ever rickshaw being driven in Portugal by his daughter!!
In December I had sometime off and I was dying to visit some European Christmas markets so I flew to Luxembourg, Belgium and then to Berlin Germany to visit my cousin. Luxembourg was cooler than I thought and definitely warrants a few days exploring, and I loved the Christmas markets there. Cheese fondue for 6euros. Need I say more.
I spent 2 night in Bruges which is quaint and adorable as the entire Old Town is on the UNESCO list. It offers great examples of medieval architecture. But the Belgium city of Ghent really stole my heart. It was gritty and urban and reminded me a lot of my second home, Seattle. I loved photographing that city and wandered aimlessly for hours. The December skies added an extra layer to the already photogenic city. I stayed in a building that used to be the Post Office before it was turned into a hotel- my room overlooked the ferris wheel and Christmas market below. From Belgium I flew to Berlin to spend a few days with my cousin and her partner. Operation European Christmas Markets was a total success.
The last trip of the year was probably my most favourite. Right after Christmas I flew to Milan with my new boo to celebrate my 40th birthday. Holy hell how am I 40??! Anyways the thought of celebrating in the desert felt less than ideal so off to Milan we went. Now I’m a seasoned solo traveler and I’ve been single for like 100 years, but traveling with a partner was pretty unfamiliar to me. Boo carried my bag in the airport. Like all I had to do was carry my purse and try and keep up. Mind blown. Not sure how I’ll ever go back to carrying my own stuff again.
Anyways enough about that and onto Milan. We spent 4 nights exploring the city which was a really good amount of time. I had read reviews of people saying to skip Milan or only spend a day there, but we found plenty to do and walked a ton. We went to a 2 star Michelin restaurant and sat at the chef’s table in the kitchen which was really cool, and way less dramatic than Hell’s Kitchen looks on TV. We visited the Milan Cathedral and saw The Last Supper (otherwise coined by yours truly the dinner table Jesus thing when I couldn’t remember what it was called.) We drank lots and lots of wine and did a pub crawl of local bars. But the best part was that we got to spend time together outside of Saudi as a normal couple which was really, really nice.
So that’s my top 10 from 2018. I’ve already got some upcoming travel plans for 2019. I’m off to Istanbul next week with a couple nights in Cappadocia. I’ve already visited both, but not since 2011, and I’ve long wanted to hot air balloon over the area when there’s snow. Fingers crossed there’s snow next weekend. In February I might do a short weekend away to Jordan or Cairo and in March I’m doing a girls boozy brunch weekend in Dubai. Then Tunisia and any of the Stans (minus Afghanistan) are high on my travel list. Bali is always calling me back so maybe a yoga retreat will be on the horizon again. And I’m sure I’ll be back in Europe by the spring- I just can’t seem to stay away and there are like 5 or 6 countries left that I haven’t yet visited.
Otherwise I’ll be in North America in July most likely and that’s all I’ve got planned. I’m going to try and get caught up on my writing in Turkey next week and post in more detail about some of last years trips. From me to you- may your 2019 be full of joy and some epic adventures along the way. Happiest of travels…..
First off…. I’m the worst. I’ve been getting emails from many of my readers asking where I’ve been since I haven’t blogged in several months. I’m still here- I’ve just been really, really busy. Life kinda got away from me, but fingers crossed in the New Year I’ll get some better balance. So what have I been so busy with you’re probably wondering?! Well let me tell you….
I’ve been traveling- like kinda a lot. I’m in the midst of writing my Top 10 from 2018 review so I’ll tell you in more detail then, but earlier this month I visited my 75th and 76th countries. Not that it’s a competition (because it’s not) but the OCD part of my brain likes to keep track of these things, hence the counting. I spent a lot of this year in Eastern Europe to some less traveled places like Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. I spent three weeks in October walking the Camino Portuguese from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain with my Pops. It was a shorter tribute to our walk on the Camino Frances two years ago. It was an easier, less social walk but with stunning scenery. I’ve been doing a lot of solo traveling as of late, which I am a huge fan. I’ve got one more trip coming up next week to end the year. I’m going to Milan, Italy with my new beau for my 40th. Yes I said new beau. And yes I’m turning 40. Ugh. Sayonara to my 30’s. I hope my 40’s are full of just as many adventures!!
Back in June women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive. Naturally, I was late to the party (mostly because of the massive backlog related to driver’s license appointments) but better late than never I got my license this fall. Have I driven yet? Sadly no. But I’m dying to plan an all girls road trip sometime soon.
I’ve had a pretty busy social life as of late (truth be told my social life has always been pretty full). For years Pops has been offering me unwanted advice on how to get more rest with no success. Fall and winter in Saudi is when the weather is perfect and there’s quite a lot of formal embassy things going on. I’ve been to a few art exhibits. Yes. Saudi has an art scene. Who knew?! It’s pretty cool and I’m keen to go to more things. And I’ve been checking out some new restaurants and food trucks which are really popular in Riyadh right now!
I’ve also been working on a kinda big writing thing that I’ll tell you about when it actually publishes. Basically, I was approached by a HUGE travel website to write a paid thing for them and at first I totally thought it was a Nigerian prince scam, but it turns out it wasn’t which was really cool. Details to come about that….
For my Saudi peeps- Janadriyah Festival is starting this week. Normally it’s in February, but this year it’s running from December 20th to January 9th. December 20-24th are male only days and then the festival will be open to ladies and families. It’s one of my most favourite things to do here and I look forward to it every year. I read online that it will be open from 11am to 11pm, but previous years I’d tried to go in the early afternoon during the week and it wasn’t open, so I’d say go late afternoon. Parking is always a hot mess, so take that into consideration. Personally, I think it’s much easier to have a driver or taxi/uber drop you off.
So that’s it really. I’m still alive. I’m still in Saudi Arabia. I’m planning to stay another year. One day I hope to get caught up on telling you about my travels. In the mean time it seems I’m much better at posting to my Facebook page or Instagram so you can follow along there if you like. Happy travels, and a very merry holiday season!!
I’d been wanting to visit the Farasan Islands of Saudi Arabia for years, but the plans just never seemed to materialize. Or, if they did it was over the summer months when I knew it would be so hot and humid I would end up with heat stroke, so I didn’t go. This past March a friend of mine who goes there several times a year and has great contacts, organized a weekend trip for about 20 of us expats. The Farasan Islands are a chain of islands off the coast of Saudi to the south towards the border with Yemen. They are a grouping of coral islands. One of the locals we met told me there were around 200 islands, although the only research I can find says there are anywhere between 80-120 islands. So lets say over a hundred such islands. We flew from Riyadh to the city of Jizan and spent a night there before getting up early the following morning to take the public ferry to the largest island of the chain called Farasan.
Jizan is a coastal city about 80km north of the border with Yemen. In the past year or so it (like Riyadh) it has been the focus of Yemeni missile attacks. We weighed the safety risk and decided to go. In Jizan we stayed a night at the Best Western- there are many hotel options in Jizan of varying class. Our hotel was not flashy, but totally fine for one night. The entire trip was organized so we only had to buy our plane tickets. Normally I’m the one who does a lot of the travel planning when I travel with others, so it was lovely to just show up and go with the flow. Note: going with the flow only works if you have zero expectations! My only expectation was for a daily nap which seemed highly doable.
So the public ferry to Farasan took about 90minutes and leaves at 7 in the morning. The island itself is about 50km from the mainland. It’s like a normal public ferry anywhere in the world except with zero lines and tons of pushing. Naturally, women and men are separated in the security areas. We arrived in Farasan and transferred to the Farasan Hotel. I can’t find a website for them but the phone number is +966173161166 if that helps. There are only 2 hotel options on the island as far as I am aware. The other choice is the Coral Hotel which is on the beach but quite a bit more expensive. The Farasan Hotel is not fancy but the staff will make you feel like family and the food is really good, so I would recommend staying there if you are traveling in a group. We had a lovely Arabic breakfast before making our way to the port for our boat tour.
We had 2 boats between our group- later we would realize that we ended up on the unlucky boat, but I’ll save that tale for a little later! Anyways we donned life jackets over top of our abayas until we were out of view of prying eyes and then the abayas immediately came off. The water is the most surreal shade of blue. You know that turquoise colour that’s the most prefect mix of blue and green, and it was stunning. We attempted to stop at a snorkel spot but the current was really strong so we headed off to a more sheltered area. It should come as little surprise to you that I am equally as scared of water as I am of flying. I can swim, but I’m very nervous in the water. Luckily, my favourite Aussie sidekick had agreed to be joined to me the entire time we were in the water which made me more comfortable. We did a little snorkeling. The water is really clear and there were a ton of fish around. We then set off to explore a private beach all to ourselves. Some people roamed the water’s edge collecting shells, others just relaxing in the surf. We then cruised out to a popular fishing area and attempted to catch some fish for lunch, but the sea was really rough that afternoon, and several fellow travelers were getting seasick. So we headed to shore. We found a beach area with cooking huts for a late afternoon siesta. The boats were edged towards the shore so that you could jump over the side into the sand below. Seems easy enough right?! Well I’m anything but graceful, so as I was edging myself over the side I looked down and there was this tie-down hook on the ledge. I remember thinking hmmm that could be dangerous. No sooner am I hoisting myself over does the pocket of my shorts get caught on the hook and there I am dangling from the side of the boat my tip toes touching the sand. As this is happening a wave hit the boat causing it to shift and my toes could no longer touch, leaving me dangling attached only by my pocket. I yelled for help and they were able to get me unhooked, but my shorts were sadly now one pocket short. I cringe to think of what that scenario would’ve looked like had I not had shorts over my swimsuit bottoms!!
We spend the next few hours either napping in the beach huts, collecting seashells, or just hanging out while the boat crew went back out and caught fish for our lunch. It was a perfectly relaxing day. We feasted on veggies and rice and fish on the beach. It was divine. On the way back the wind started to pick up. This coincided with the engine deciding to die. Right next to a rock wall that we were quickly drifting into as the captain tried to get the engine to start. Luckily, one of the guys on our boat had the genius idea to throw the anchor in to prevent us from actually being thrown into the rocks. The other boat eventually realized that we were not behind it and came back to offer assistance. They were finally able to get the engine restarted and we headed back to the port as the sun was setting. The ride back was epic. Our captain was driving full throttle trying to make it back before dark. The waves were smashing over the side of the boat and everyone was drenched and freezing cold. We literally looked like drowned rats. We ended up taking every towel on the boat and draping them over our heads to prevent the water from spraying directly into our faces, while trying to hold on as the boat smashed into the waves. By the time we got to shore we looked like total hot messes. We drove back to the hotel for hot showers and a late dinner of fresh seafood.
The following morning after another delicious breakfast we set off to explore the island. Our first stop was on the modern bridge that connects the two main islands. The views from here are stunning- I just kept thinking I can’t believe this is Saudi Arabia! From here we headed back to the town of Fursan and visited the House of Rifae which belonged to a pearl merchant. There are several ornate stone archways and houses in this area and we spend some time wandering around. Much of it is in varying states of disrepair and I would recommend sturdy shoes if you are exploring as there were bits of wood and nails from the partially collapsed buildings. Once the group was finished taking pictures and exploring, we headed for the nearby 18th century Ottoman Fort. For obvious strategic purposes it’s located on a small hill with views of the ocean. It’s rather small in size and really just consists of one long room with a well for water close by, but it was cool to visit. From here we visited the lovely coffee shop at the historical restored village of Al Qassar. We then made our way back to the hotel stopping off en route at a view point over looking the port and at a local beach before catching the 3pm ferry back to the mainland.
There is also a deer reservation and a coral museum which we did not visit, mostly out of heat exhaustion and just generally being lazy, but some people from our group did. I would highly recommend adding the Farasan Islands to your Saudi bucket list!!! Happy adventuring!
First off I’m sorry. I’ve been an absolutely terrible blogger as of late. As I mentioned in my last post I’ve taken on some new responsibilities at work which has affected my schedule- mostly in a positive way, but between work and having a social life there hasn’t been much time left over for blogging. With the winter upon us here it means the weather is perfect to be out and about in the day- and the last couple weeks I’ve been doing some local sightseeing that I wanted to share with you. As many of you know things here in Saudi Arabia are rapidly changing. There is a big push by the new Crown Prince to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, and fast. Mostly, that means opening the country up in terms of women’s rights, employment opportunities for Saudis, and tourism. It is planned that tourists visas (although I’m sure on a restricted basis) and women driving will come in 2018. Just this last week it was released that movie theatres will open as early as March 2018. Things are changing. It feels like nearly everyday there is some type of announcement in the news. Enough about that though- lets talk of what I’ve been exploring here in Riyadh.
If you follow my travels at all you know that I have a love of urban art. One of my favourite parts of travel is stumbling across some artistic graffiti. When I first came to Saudi back in 2010 you would never see this type of thing. Arabic type tagging was common on fences and walls, but actual urban art I can’t ever recall seeing. Earlier this year I attended the horse races here and there was a huge painted mural of the first King of Saudi Arabia. That was the first time I had seen art of this type here in the Kingdom. Last week while on Talia street I noticed an entire wall filled with urban art. I immediately made my driver stop and got out to take pictures. As a not especially artsy person I’m jealous of people who can paint and draw. My mom is a water colour artist and she definitely didn’t pass those skills down to me. There was a mural of the current King praying, and scene of a man doing his ablutions, and there was a large mural with the Riyadh skyline in the back with a map of Saudi Arabia and some type of reference to the new transit system that is being built all across the city. There was also a lot of Arabic writing that I have no idea what it says, but it looked cool nonetheless.
Last week Kiwi and I embarked on a expedition to visit Salaam Park a huge park with a man-made lake that you can pedal boat on and a local date market. Typical to any adventure in Saudi it did not go quite as planned. For example opening hours here an a mere suggestion. Online the park is listed as opening at 1pm. Yeah, I know it’s weird that a park wouldn’t just be open all day every day…..but hey, this is Saudi. So a little before 2pm we rock up to the park. Hmmmm- there are like zero other cars in the parking lot. We walk up to the ticket booth- yes ticket booth. It costs 5 riyals to get in (that’s like US$1.25). Sign above the ticket both states the opening hours as being……you guessed it 1pm. But really it opens at 3pm. So in the mean time we attempted to visit the large date market and nearby vegetable market to take some photos. Except that google maps instead directed us to a date store- same, same but different. So that was fail numero 2 of the day. So back to the park we went. By this time it was open. We strolled along the path that loops the lake. It’s lined with popcorn stalls, and stalls selling trinkets and like a hundred stay cats. Kiwi was in heaven because she calls cats “her people” so she was feeding them food and I was watching the ruckus that ensued.
There is a large fountain in the middle of the lake and plenty of grass spots to lay out a picnic. I would say to go early or go during the week as I’m sure it turns into a packed frenzy on the weekends. Saudis tend to not use garbage cans to dispose of their things- they are more inclined to just leave things on the ground where they fall so the grass was intermittently littered with trash. Apparently after 4pm there are boat tours on the lake. It should be noted that this is not a huge lake- so likely the boat tour is like 5min tops. There are roped off areas to pedal boat in. One for men and a teeny tiny one for the ladies. On our way back to meet our driver Kiwi grabbed my arm and squealed “you aren’t going to believe this.” I turned my head in the direction she was pointing and there was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my time in Saudi. Behind a chain link fence was what appeared to be a deflated mechanical bull. Yeah. Let that soak in. Somewhere in a park in Riyadh Saudi Arabia sits a mechanical bull. Now naturally, it wasn’t open when we were there, and I’m quite certain adult women are not meant to ride it. But mark my words- ride that bull one day I will. I’ve just added it to my Saudi bucket list. It’s currently activity #16, obviously not by order of importance.
So after we had walked the park we had our driver take us the Kingdom Tower as we wanted the visit the Skywalk. I’d been up there several years ago, but never at sunset- so our driver weaved in and out of traffic to get us there before the sun set. Kingdom Tower is probably Saudi Arabia’s most iconic building (after the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.) The tower faces north/south not east to west so you don’t really get amazing views of the actual sunset, but as the sun sets the reflecting light in the sky is pretty spectacular. Kiwi and I took tons of pictures and once it was dark we made our way back down and headed to a nearby restaurant I’d been wanting to try.
A while back I’d seen an add pop up on my Facebook feed for this place called Serafina (sometimes having google invade your privacy can turn into a positive thing.) In the add there was a video of some pasta dish that is prepared in a wheel of cheese. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute. Pasta. Wheel of Cheese. So Kiwi and I go and that’s the only thing I’m planning to order- except it’s not on the menu. So I ask the waiter and he’s like- “mam, we have. Is special dish. For 2-3 people.” And Kiwi and I are like “challenge accepted!” So the meal comes and it’s wheeled over on a cart. On one side of the cart is an enormous cheese wheel and the other side is like a hot plate with a pan full of pasta in a cream sauce. And the guy takes a knife and breaks up some of the cheese on the inside of the cheese wheel and then pours the hot pasta in and stirs it around. And it was the best. I mean how could pasta swirled in a cheese wheel not be anything short of delicious right?! So for my Riyadh readers if you haven’t been you should definitely go and gain about 5lbs from cheese and pasta. I highly recommend it.
So that’s a little bit about what I’ve been up to. I also went desert diamond hunting with some friends last week which I will tell you more about in an upcoming post. For those of you celebrating the holidays I’m wishing you a very Merry Christmas and an upcoming year full of adventure. xoxo
I get a lot and I mean A LOT of emails from prospective nurses interested in moving to the Middle East, and more specifically to Saudi Arabia. Often times when they write to me they tend to ask the same questions, so I thought it might be helpful to dedicate a post to answer those questions. So here we go…..
Is if safe?
Understandably, this is the most asked question. If we’ve learned anything from the most recent American presidential elections it’s that the media loves to sensationalize things and skew the facts. So here are my personal thoughts on things. I feel very safe living in Saudi Arabia. I’m talking in terms of my personal safety as a woman. I live in an all woman’s housing compound where the likelihood of my being assaulted would be extremely low. I felt much more concerned for my physical safety as a woman when I lived in Philadelphia, or LA, or in Arizona or in Seattle. People who know me or have lived with me know that I’m the kind of scaredy cat that would do a full security sweep of my apartment when I got home from work, just to make sure no one was hiding behind the shower curtain. True story. I don’t do that in Saudi. I’ve been robbed twice before- neither of these incidents took place in Saudi. That’s not to say I couldn’t be involved in some type of security incident, but I feel like the chances of that happening are more likely to happen in Europe, and I travel to Europe all the time. What does concern me though is the likelihood of being involved in a traffic accident. As I’ve previously blogged about, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest death rates by motor vehicle in the world. So buckle up ladies.
I venture out all the time alone to go to the grocery store or to the mall and I have never had an incident take place apart from some lusty stares and the occasional unwanted phone number being passed to me. Be prepared for some staring and many many comments about your body and physical appearance. It’s easy to feel objectified here. Patients, staff and visitors constantly comment on my appearance. My hair colour, my eyes, how pale I am, my weight, my curves. Mostly I can laugh it off, but sometimes it feels like because I look a certain way people are more inclined to help me or listen to me based off my appearance and not because I actually have a brain. That gets old real quick. So just be prepared.
Do you have to cover your face or hair?
No. Never. Unless you want to, and then rock that hijab/niqab girlfriend. I carry a scarf as a colourful accessory but since the Mutawwa (religious police) lost arresting power a while back it’s not necessary. I can’t remember the last time someone yelled at me to cover my hair. Its likely been a few years. But yes you do have to wear an abaya all the time you’re off the hospital compound. The only exception is on the western compounds or in a part of the city called the Diplomatic Quarter. Personally, I don’t especially mind wearing an abaya. It means I can literally wear PJ’s or yoga pants out all the time. Sometimes if I’m wanting to look especially fancy I’ll wear high heels with my stretchy yoga pants so that it looks like I’m wearing a killer outfit underneath, but really I’m just a quick abaya removal from hopping into bed. The other reason I don’t mind my abaya is that sometimes it blows open and then has the appearance of a cape and I feel like a badass superhero for a hot second. Embrace the abaya ladies aka your new little black dress.
What’s the housing like?
I’ll start out by saying that the housing is free. That’s a bonus right?! And it has AC, and access to a pool and gym. Is it nice? Well see my first point- it’s free. I always tell people the housing is fine. Would I pay actual money to live there? No. If you ever worked as a travel nurse in the U.S. well then my friend lower you expectations a bit. I lived in San Francisco for a year rent free and had a balcony view of Alcatraz and was like a one minute walk from North Beach. Sister, this definitely isn’t that. But again it’s free. Also as I previously mentioned the housing is only for women. I like to refer to if as a convent or cell block. Housing also will be very hospital specific as well as pay grade specific. Higher pay grade = better housing options. The housing at the hospital I work at is a mix of shared accommodation and single accommodations. Likely you will be paired with a someone from a similar country as yourself. You’ll have your own bathroom. Some of you might luck out and get a private studio apartment, which is obviously nicer. If you have an issue with your roommate you can request to change, or you can apply to move into a private unit when one opens up.
What schedule do you work?
Everyone is contracted to work a 44 hour week at my hospital- so likely you will work more hours than what is considered full time back home. If you work in-patient then you might work 22 12 hr shifts in a 6 week period. You will more than likely flip between day shift and night shift. My unit does 3 weeks of days and 3 weeks of nights. I personally hate night shift so to me the schedule is less than ideal, but it’s part of the gig.
What do you do outside of work?
Well my social life here in Saudi has always been more exciting that anywhere else I lived. I mean who can say that they went to the Irish embassy for St Pats, or that one time they had a private birthday party at the Canadian embassy? Well maybe you if you take a contract in Saudi? There are balls and galas and very formal events all the time. Pretty much whatever you’re into you can probably find here in Riyadh. There’s golfing, and photography groups, and horseback riding or rugby. And don’t forget the unlimited travel options from here.
What is the nursing standard like?
This will depend on your hospital. The one I work at is supposed to be like an American hospital. Having worked in the states for 10 years I can say that in some ways it is and some ways it isn’t. I base my own nursing practice off the premise if I couldn’t do that thing I’m being asked to do in my own country then I’m not doing it here. Saudi Arabia employs nurses from many countries. Nursing education and scope of practice is not the same across the board. Some countries nurses don’t put in catheters in male patients, or nurses don’t use a stethoscope as the doctor is in charge of listening to lung and bowel sounds. This might be hard to comprehend for those of you from Canada or the U.S.
You will for sure see things working in Saudi Arabia that you will never have experienced in your nursing practice. For sure. Saudi Arabia has a high incidence of metabolic and genetic disorders. I’ve always thought that if you worked in the field of genetics or fertility Saudi Arabia would be fascinating. End of life counseling will likely be very different than back home. People here are kept as Full Codes in situations that they wouldn’t in the western world. People are kept “alive” in situations where the family would’ve been counseled otherwise elsewhere. There is this interesting dichotomy where people don’t wear seat belts or put their kids in a car seat and yet when there has been a severe accident everything under the sun is done to keep that person alive. It’s hard to comprehend seeing as we know that seat belts and car seats and driving the speed limit save lives. So why not just do those things and if there was an accident the injuries would likely be less severe? I have literally never discharged a baby from the hospital in a car seat. Back home it’s a whole big ordeal- the car seat is brought in, the parents buckle the baby in, the nurse checks and often tells them the straps are too lose, and they have to readjust them, and the mom usually says to the dad “I told you yesterday to adjust those straps” and he takes a deep sigh. It’s a production. But not here. It’s totally not uncommon to be driving down the highway and see kids crawling around the backseat, or sitting on Daddy’s lap or with their head out the sunroof.
As far as technology goes I would say that in the large hospitals you would have access to the latest gadgets. The hospital I work at has a Pyxis for medications and the IV pumps and EKGs and such are ones I have used before. Most things in that regard are similar to North America. Patient ratios will vary. Because of the area I work in the patient ratios are lower than that of many of the units my friends work on. I work in a VIP area which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen prior to coming here. It’s fancy and the rooms are nice. And sometimes the patients get 2 rooms, sometimes 3. Sometime they bring their own furniture. The VIP culture is a big thing throughout the Middle East. It’s likely a foreign concept in your home country, but here it’s a thing.
Saudi is a big family culture which is quite different from back home. Family members typically sit with the patients around the clock in shifts. If the family isn’t there than likely the patient will have a paid sitter (someone the family employs who will be there round the clock). My patients often have a full entourage of people in the room. Sometimes one patient might have 3-4 paid private nurses per shift in addition to the nursing care we provide. It can end up being a lot of cooks in the kitchen if you know what I mean. It’s also not uncommon to have a patient in their late teens to early 20’s come in with their nanny who has literally cared for them since birth.
Muslims pray 5 times a day so when it’s prayer time the call to prayer is piped over the hospital intercom. If your patient needs a doctor during prayer time they will often have to wait (unless it’s a true emergency.) This can be problematic if your patient needs labs drawn or to be transported and it’s prayer time. You will get very used to saying the word “Inshallah.” It means God willing and it is the most used word in the Arabic language. It’s a very foreign concept for westerners- the first time I heard a doctor tell a patient that “inshallah” his surgery would go well I was like “hold up a minute did I hear that right.” From a western culture if a doctor told me that my surgery would go well if God willed it I would be asking for a new surgeon, but here people find it very comforting. I personally say it all the time now as well as a variety of other Arabic words.
Do I need to learn Arabic before coming to Saudi?
You will pick up words pretty quickly once you arrive. My Arabic is not great on account of most of my patients speaking English, or someone in the room speaking English. I know Arabic basics so between that and elaborate hand gestures I can get my point across. The hospital I work at has an “English in the workplace policy.” It’s not heavily enforced. The doctors often speak in Arabic with the patients which is understandable. Working in Saudi you will work alongside staff from many different countries. The Philippines and India are probably the largest percentage of expats. So at work everyone is “supposed” to be speaking English. In reality though if you are working in an area where being western you are a minority you will likely feel quite isolated. I hear Tagalog all day long. People will have work related conversations in front of you all the time in a language you may not understand. People give report about patients in Tagalog. It’s very frustrating and contributes to an “us vs them” type mentality because if you don’t speak the language you are purposely left out. I have found a creative way to deal with this and have learned a wide variety of inappropriate words and phrases in Tagalog. These words make my coworkers blush (even though they taught them to me) so when people are have lengthy conversations at the nurses station in Tagalog I will say “if you guys are going to talk in Tagalog I’ll say all the Tagalog words I know.” Everyone immediately will switch to English. For like 5 minutes and then often they go right back to it and I’ll often do something really bitchy like clear my throat unnaturally loud and it’s back to English. Kinda like a game of cat and mouse. Usually though I just eventually give up. So moral of the story my western nurses is don’t bother learning Arabic before you come, but consider brushing up on your Tagalog.
How long does the application process take?
Have patience. There’s a ton of paperwork involved to come to Saudi. Your educational documents will need to be verified. You’ll need references. You’ll need to have a full physical. By full physical I mean everything. Labs, chest x-ray, pregnancy test, pap smear. Yep, you read that right. Coming to Saudi was the first time my hoo-ha exam contributed to me getting a job. I always knew she had marketable skills. Then you’ll submit your passport for a visa. I’d plan on it taking at least 3 months. If your application coincides with the Ramadan or Hajj holidays then it will take longer.
So how do I apply?
I came over with Helen Ziegler and Associates who recruits the majority of Canadian and American nurses at the hospital I work at. So if you’re from North America I would contact them. I asked a friend in the recruiting department of my hospital to give me a list of who they use so here it is:
Just a word of warning. Coming to Saudi Arabia will not fix your problems. They will still follow you here. If you are someone who has a negative attitude then you’ll probably have a shitty time here. The people who do well in Saudi are people who can laugh at the things that are strange, embrace the cultural differences, and don’t take life too seriously. There will be hard days, but for me the benefits still outweigh the negatives. When there are more negatives than positives I’ll be on the first flight out. Working in Saudi Arabia let me pay off an insane amount of debt and travel the world. I have easily been to 40 some new countries in my time here. I have made dear friends. I have shared many laughs. I have an amazing social life. The work can be hard at times and living here as a woman is not easy, but for me there are so many positives that it has been an overall positive experience. Your experience will be whatever you make of it. That’s the way life works. You get out what you put in.
I wrote a couple blog posts about the positives and negatives of working in Saudi and they might be helpful also…..and as always I’m happy to answer any questions you have. Feel free to ask them in the comments or email them to me privately.
Last weekend while I was away in Switzerland, marked the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. So Ramadan Mubarak (a Blessed Ramadan) to my Muslim readers and fellow ex-pats in the Middle East. I know people back home have some basic understanding about what Ramadan is, but I thought I’d take a little bit of time and tell you more about it, and what it’s like to live in a Muslim country as a non-Muslim during Ramadan.
First off, Ramadan takes place during the 9th month of the Islamic Hijri calendar. This calendar is about 10-11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar so Ramadan shifts forward by nearly half a month from the preceding year. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with believing in only one God, praying 5 times a day, giving to charity and making pilgrimage to Mecca. This year Ramadan started on May 27th and will likely end on June 24th or 25th depending on how visible the moon is. For the entire month Muslims will fast from the morning prayer (dawn) until sunset. Here in Saudi this is from around 4am until 6:30ish pm. Children, the elderly, those traveling, people who are sick and in the hospital, diabetics, and women who are pregnant, or breastfeeding or menstrating are exempt from having to fast. In addition to fasting Muslims are also to abstain from gossiping, smoking, daytime intimacy and sex, and really anything that would make their fasting efforts less noble. Fasting basically means no food, drink (including water) or chewing gum or candies.
So what’s it like during Ramadan for non-Muslims? Well it’s a whole lot quieter during the daytime that’s for sure. Grocery stores are open in the day but restaurants are all closed. No lunch time McDonald’s drive-thru or delivery. Starbucks is closed. Most things open after sunset and stay open until late into the night. At sunset Muslims break their fast with dates and Arabic coffee. This breaking of the fast is called Iftar and throughout the Middle East there are Iftar buffets which is basically like a dinner buffet. Here in Riyadh Iftar buffets are often very lavish and often on the pricey side between 200-400 riyals ($50-100 U.S.) Next week I’m going to the Iftar at the Ritz Carlton with a group of friends which I imagine will be well worth the splurge.
For non-Muslims it’s advised to not drink or eat in public or chew gum. If you’re going to eat and drink than just be sneaky about it. The hospital I work at has a cafeteria and restaurant that are open for us to eat at, but the main public coffee shops and restaurants are closed during the day. I’m working night shift for the entire month so for me this isn’t a problem. Muslim hospital staff are not required to work the full amount of hours as they would during the rest of the year. They can chose between working 6 hour shifts, or chose to work night shift instead. Clinics and such are open but on shorter hours so usually 9am-3:30pm or so. Saudi culture (especially during the summer) tends to stay up late into the night and sleep during the day because of the heat. This is especially so during Ramadan. Working night shift is actually like working day shift as the patients are awake the entire night often going to sleep around 5-6am and sleeping most of the day. Medications often have to be re-timed around this sleep schedule especially if they are food related and the patient is fasting. Sometimes patients who are in the hospital will want to fast and will decline things like IV fluids which would interfere with their fast- I have found that to be pretty rare though.
Ramadan ends with the sighting of the new moon in Mecca, or after 30 full days of fasting if the new moon isn’t visible because of clouds. The new month is kicked off with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr in which the fasting is broken. I will be away for about 10 days later this month as I’ll be traveling solo to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country but everything I’ve read says restaurants and coffee shops will be open for non-Muslims and Georgia is a mix of Muslim and Orthodox Christians so traveling during Ramadan shouldn’t be an issue.
So to those of you who are celebrating Ramadan I wish you all a Blessed Ramadan and may your prayers be answered!
I’m so happy to feature my blog’s second guest writer Emma!! I visited Jeddah way back in 2010- it was actually my first trip out of Riyadh my first time here and I’ve been wanting to go back so this blog has some great tips about what to see if Jeddah is on your Saudi travel list. Emma Lawson is a passionate writer, online article editor and a health enthusiast. In her spare time, she likes to do research, and write articles to create awareness regarding healthy lifestyles. You can catch her on Twitter@EmmahLawson
For an Australian traveler, Jeddah is a small goldmine of cultural and historical heritage, culinary surprises, and numerous sites of natural beauty. Home to around 4.3 million people, Jeddah sits on the sea-bound frontier of Saudi Arabia and it’s one of the most captivating cities in the region that is still largely unblemished by mass tourism. Ready to pack your bags and head to the Red Sea pearl for a fair share of holiday fun, thrills, and shopping sprees? You’d better arm yourself with Jeddah travel essentials, just to stay on the safe and well-entertained side of your Saudi adventure.
Getting a visa for Saudi Arabia isn’t easy, but the red tape and the waiting are definitely worth it. As a western tourist, you’ll need a letter of invitation from a Saudi Arabia national, and it’s also advisable to travel with a travel agency or with a group of at least four other people. You can file for a visa at the closest Saudi Arabian embassy in your country of origin, but be sure to submit the application well in advance, just to stay on the safe side of the travel itinerary. Tourist visas are available only to selected groups on a limited basis.
Due to the strict requirements of Saudi Arabia, women entering the Kingdom alone must be met by a sponsor (and have a letter of invitation) or male relative and have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their stay. Additionally, entry may be refused to any visitor judged as behaving indecently, according to Saudi Arabia law and tradition.
How to get there
The best way to get to Jeddah is by plane. Jeddah international airport is situated close to the city center, and Saudi Arabian Airways offers favorable deals for tourists arriving from Europe. A fun fact: tourists aren’t allowed to drink alcohol once the plane crosses over into Saudi Arabian airspace.
Upon landing in Jeddah, you should rent a car as there’s no official public transport in the city. If you can’t drive, your transport options will be limited to private vans, taxis, and your own two feet. Do not cycle or ride a motorbike in Jeddah: streets over here are dangerous and local laws don’t exactly favor two-wheeled transport on city streets.
Although foreigners are advised to keep a level head and stay out of locals’ hair, there are many fun things a western tourist can do in Jeddah.
• King Fahd’s Fountain
Known as the world’s tallest fountain, King Fahd’s Fountain was built back in 1985 with the help of funds donated by the King. The Jeddah fountain releases sprays of water as tall as 850 feet, which means there are as many as 16 tons of H2O up in the air at any point when the fountain is running. Located in the vicinity of Falastin Street, the fountain goes on at sundown and runs all through the night.
If you can set aside the time and cash for a daytrip outside Jeddah, head to Ta’if. Situated on the slopes of the Sarawat Mountains, Ta’if is the center of the regional agricultural area known for pomegranate, grape, fig, rose and honey production. It’s home to Al Rudaf Natural Park, Shubra Palace museum, remains of a Turkish fort, rock-carving site, Al Hada nature reserve, and a small zoo where tourists can see baboons up close.
A snaking islet of the Red Sea in the northern part of Jeddah, Obhur penetrates inland for about 12 kilometers and is home to fancy houses, hotels, dive shops, and compounds. If you’re up for a jet-ski ride or just want to spend the afternoon sunbathing and sipping mocktails on the beach, Obhur is the place to go.
• Aquatic fun
If you’re into scuba diving, Jeddah will definitely win a spot in your heart. The Red Sea coast is brimming with amazing dive sites, complete with breath-taking coral reefs, warm turquoise sea water, schools of parrotfish and surgeonfish, and an odd dolphin.
Situated in the heart of old Jeddah, Al-Balad is home to picturesque buildings made out of coral reefs brought over from the Red Sea. Here you’ll find the fish market and many traditional souks where you can get local merchandise and souvenirs at a decent price. The neighborhood is no longer in perfect shape, but it’s still well-worth visiting, especially if you’re into old buildings and first-hand encounters with the locals.
• Shopping malls
If you’re short on ideas what to do in Jeddah, head to a local restaurant or a shopping mall. For a delectable local treat, try Shawarma Shakir or Albaik, or indulge your palate by a refreshing drink over at Juice World. As for shopping, you’ll find it hard to grow bored with local offer of jewelry and clothes, and you can also find designer brands for a real bargain.
Last but not the least, there are certain lifestyle and cultural rules you’ll need to obey during your visit to Jeddah. If you’re a woman, you’ll have to keep your hair and clothes covered so that your skin doesn’t show in public. You’re not required to cover your face, though, but you’ll have to stay away from the steering wheel during your stay in the city – and much of Saudi Arabia, for that matter. There is no official law that bans women from driving, but religious beliefs prohibit it, with Saudi clerics arguing that female drivers “undermine social values”. On top of that, ladies under 30 must be accompanied by their husband, brother, or father out in public. Islam is the only religion and while you’re not required to take part in daily prayer, you should abandon all hope of finding a religious facility other than a mosque. It may also be a good idea to stay away from alcohol during your visit to Jeddah as spirits are illegal and can’t be purchased in stores and consumed at hotels, on boats, or in vehicles.
Ready to pack your bags and head to Jeddah? Follow the guidelines above and you’re bound to have the time of your life. Bon voyage!
As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve always got a Saudi bucket list an arms length long. It’s really the only reason I keep coming back. Oh, and likely the money and the ridiculous amount of vacation time I get. That definitely helps. One of the things that time after time has remained on that list was to visit a place called the Edge of the World. Sounds cool as hell right?! Who wouldn’t want to go there? This magical place is about 180km north east of Riyadh in a place called the Acacia Valley. Given that it’s unbearably hot most of the year here it’s really best to go in the winter months. There’s like zero shade there, and since I nearly get heat stroke every time I’m outside when it’s hotter than 30C I knew I needed to go soon. As in should’ve probably done it a few months ago.
So a few weeks back myself and my new kiwi sidekick and an American I’ve grown very fond of joined up with Haya tours to go. We did a tour for 2 reasons- it’s far out and unless you go as a caravan with other people it can be a little dangerous in the event of a breakdown, kidnapping, or no cell phone coverage. The second reason was that I’ve been nursing a foot injury and this tour basically drove you to 2 different canyons and you didn’t have to walk much which suited me just fine. Last year before Pops and I walked 700km across Spain I had my first flare up of plantar fasciitis. Basically this meant that I had heel pain to my left foot quite bad in the morning. Ice, ibuprofen and stretching quickly resolved it and amazingly it didn’t bother me when I walked the Camino. That was good because on the Camino I had other things to deal with like blisters, healed blisters, new blisters, and the general aches and pains that go with walking that distance. After the Camino I continued to walk quite a bit as I visited Paris, Amsterdam, Seattle and spend time in Canada. Then in January I started going to the gym and was working out a lot. And around the beginning of February I started getting really bad heel pain. It was different than the plantar fasciitis though, and the longer it went on the more worried I was that I had a stress fracture. Since I’m a nurse I just gritted my teeth and tolerated it for as long as I could. I bought insoles. Then crazy old lady supportive walking shoes. I took ibuprofen around the clock and finally I went to the doctor who x-ray’d it and found a heel spur. So since then I’m having to limit my walking. I can’t stand for long periods of time. I’m grumpy because I’m restricted in what I can do. I’m going to physio to get shock wave therapy and I’ve now got professional orthotics. And it’s not really getting much better. Which is frustrating as hell. So long story short that’s why we took this tour.
We had my driver Joe drop us at the meeting point. There were maybe 10 other people on the tour split between 3 cars. By cars I mean 2 fancy SUV’s and us three with a french lady packed into a Toyota truck that looks like it normally transported camels and not people. The meeting location was conveniently located in a mall that had Tim Horton’s which made me pretty jazzed until we started driving and I promptly spilled my coffee all over the floor. Between our unfiltered language and my coffee fiasco I’m sure that french lady was questioning her mode of transport that day! So off we drove. We made it to the edge of Riyadh and then things started looking weird. There were paved walkways and tons of children’s playgrounds and no houses. There were decorative cement or stone designs along the road or at the center of the roundabouts but there really wasn’t much else around. We were confused. No kids at the play ground. No one walking the paved paths. On we drove.
We turned off the highway onto a dirt path. Driving past a police check point that was really more like a shack than a station. In the distance we could see cliffs and hills. We arrived at the first cliff which is probably the place most people go. The cars park at the bottom of a hill and there’s an area that’s like a rock window with cliffs to both sides. Make sure to wear good walking shoes (and your orthotics if you’re an old lady like me.) The terrain is rocky and it’s super easy to slip. There are no guard rails or any safety features so don’t act like a jack ass up there as it’s a long way to the bottom. We spend maybe 10 minutes walking up pausing for selfie breaks. My kiwi sidekick is a professional duckface maker- her selfies are the bomb. You can walk out to the farthest part and the coolest part of the cliff but we decided not to. Mostly on account of laziness and that I’m a real klutz. If someone was going to slip and fall high chances it was going to be me. So we took more selfies and we chatted about recent heartbreaks and dating and a bunch of other things that I’m sure our Yankee sidekick could’ve done without. Men are mildly entertained by girl talk until they are not. We climbed back into the Toyota tow truck and carried on to the next cliff.
The next stop was at another cliff maybe 10 minutes away. This cliff overlooked the ravine below. There are apparently fossils found there as this area was covered by water forever ago. While the rest of the group went on a fossil expedition we did what we do best- took selfies and chatted. After the rest of the group ohhh’d and ahhh’d over these fossils we got back in the truck and made our way towards the main road. We stopped off in spot with a bunch of trees and had a picnic in the shade. It would’ve been nice had it not been 37C and like a hundred flies buzzing around. It was nice in the shade but the flies were mega annoying. On the way back we passed a caravan of camels and stopped to take pictures.
Once we got to the main road we passed a town on the outskirts of the city. Friday prayer had just ended and the streets were filled with men- not a woman in sight. We passed a bunch of local vegetable markets that I would’ve loved to have stopped at to take pictures but I’m sure we would’ve cause quite the spectacle had we stopped. So back to Riyadh we went- past the empty walkways and apocalyptic play grounds back to civilization.
If you live in Riyadh and haven’t been to the Edge of the World you really, really should. It’s hella cool and makes a great day trip. But go soon or wait until like October when the temperatures start to trend back down. Bring the usual things- sunscreen, hat, gallons and gallons of water and good shoes. Keep any kiddos on a short leash to be safe. Also fun fact: camels come when you roll down the window and make kissing noise. Or at least this guy above did to me. I think he thought he might be getting lucky the way he trotted over. You’re welcome.