How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

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There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

A Farewell to Saudi

I think I realized why I’ve been putting off writing in my blog about the last vacation. In the car on the way back from Aqaba, I felt so good, so full of joy and love for the world I thought I was going to burst, and yet within a day of being back in Saudi it was gone. Before when I would come back from a trip, writing about it was half of the adventure, I got some of those feelings back when I viewed my photos or wrote descriptions of the places I’d been. It seems I’m avoiding those memories, because all they do is remind me of what I don’t have now.

When I first came here, there was some adventure, some newness, a series of events of trying to figure things out, and several things to look forward to. I don’t think it’s Saudi in general that’s getting me down. I see people in other cities having a good time, and I remember that in Jeddah and Riyadh there were taxis and car services, lots of restaurants, parks, museums, and places to go that had a little freedom like the expat beaches or diplomatic quarter.

But Tabuk is small, and I’m trapped in one tiny corner of it with no means of transportation but a company driver, and no one go there with anyway. It might have been a little more bearable with better transportation, but really, I don’t think I’d be happy living in a tiny town in any culture. In the second half of my time in China, I was going into Beijing at least twice a week to get out of the small town. When I lived in a small town with my family in the US, I started taking off into the city as soon as I was able, and not necessarily waiting for parental permission (sorry mom).

On top of that, Saudi is a hard place to be a woman, especially a single one. Although I had more freedom in Jeddah and Riyadh, it’s still hard. Unlike many expat women, I don’t hate the abaya, although I am getting a little tired of black. But I don’t like the inability to have a conversation with a man without being seen as “loose” or any number of other derogatory sexual terms. I don’t like the fact that I can’t shake hands, make eye contact or smile at another person in public. Although the women behind closed doors are wonderfully friendly and lively, in public they are closed off and distant, so finding my way into social settings is very challenging.

I remember at my going away party I was showing off pictures of the compound I was supposed to be living on, but that was changed after I arrived in Saudi, and instead of living around a community of expats with access to a cafeteria, cinema, pool and gym, I’m living in a rather small hotel room with one working burner, no oven, a washing machine that’s only one step up from hand washing, and no neighbors to mingle with.

I question what is the point of proving I could “tough it out” when what I really want in life is to feel that joy and love again. Am I proving something? What? and to who? I know I’m strong and capable already. Is it about future employers? Not really. There isn’t actually an industry wide stigma about leaving a job as long as you do it with notice (voluntary resignation and termination are standard clauses in the contracts), and basically everyone would understand leaving a job in a desert with no air conditioning, no flushing toilets, and in a country that just went to war.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Saudi, far from it. I’m still grateful for the experiences I have had in the Kingdom, I’ve seen things that most people will never get to see. I now know why everyone who comes here wants to write a book. This place is unlike anything else on Earth. On top of that, I made enough money to travel around the region and learn things about the Middle East that have changed my feelings forever for the better.

Jeddah
I spent a wonderful week in Jeddah when I first arrived here. I got to go snorkeling in the Red Sea, and enjoy a beautiful beach. I got to ride Asia’s tallest double loop rollercoaster and see the UNESCO world heritage site at Al Balad. It gave me a great insight into the wide range of cultural norms within the kingdom.

Saudi People
I got invited more than once to visit a Saudi friend in her home. It was so welcoming and such a great way to see how the people live here. We had so much fun chatting, eating and dancing. I also got to go to an Istraha and see how the Saudi people party!

IMG_0274

GCON
I went to a women’s only gaming convention in Riyadh, and although I only got to see a few hours of it, those hours were a precious memory and a great peek into what is going on under the abaya for the young women here.

Riyadh
In visiting the capital I got to see the jewel of a museum that is there and was thrilled to see the quality of the displays as well as the delicate integration of science and religion that respected both. I also got to go to the famous Al Faisaliah tower, enjoy a magnificiently luxurious spa treatment followed dinner at the top complete with view.

The Edge of the World
The first of my three bucket list items that I came here with was completed with this trip. The geography was simply stunning and the company was equally amazing. I found a 50+ million year old fossil shell and I got taken out to a traditional Saudi restaurant for dinner afterward by some more charming and brilliant Saudi ladies.

A Saudi Wedding
I got to attend a wedding where the men and women remained segregated even as the bride walked down the aisle. It was a real kick to see the women shake it, even the old ladies got up and danced!

Madain Saleh
Number two on the bucket list was this amazing ancient civilization’s ruins. It was really a privilage to be able to see the ruins and be escorted by such a great guide. Not only that, I left with a pretty hilarious story about the French cultural attache.

Beyond Saudi
I also got to explore Dubai, Jordan and Egypt while I was living here. In many ways I think I had a very different experience coming from Saudi to these countries than I might have simply on vacation from the US. For one thing, whenever people I met found out I was living in Saudi, they seemed very sympathetic, but also very keen to showcase their own country’s customs in contrast to what I experienced in Saudi.

Dubai
This place is as wealthy and glitzy and big as you think it is. Acutally probably more so. The amazing birthday brunch and surprise night out with the mystery star, the world’s tallest building, the Atlantis, and so much more. Dubai is like going inside a fairy tale.

Jordan
This country has stolen my heart in a very short time. Petra was so powerful, my stay in Amman was barely long enough to let me know I want to go back, and Aqaba finally checked off my third and final bucket list item for this leg of the adventure: scuba diving in the Red Sea.

Egypt
From the luxury resort at Sharm el Sheihk to the majesty of the Pyramids, the people of Egypt are so welcoming and full of hope for their future and yet struggling so much to recover from the years of revolution. A life long dream of seeing the great Pyramids would have been enough, but I got more.

My blog is filled with these experiences and many more because I treasure them and want to share them with the world. It was a desire for experiences that drew me here. It was because Saudi cannot be understood from a book or a movie that I wanted to see it for myself. And I see a lot of expats who have made a home here, but most of them have a family with them, and live in a community they can interact with, while I am alone. So after some serious soul searching, I have decided I need to leave now.

As for what’s next, I’ve been waiting to hear back from some interviews and job opportunities, but I think it’s time to recognize that I will find something, if not now then surely by the fall. I chose this career because I enjoy the work, I love the travel and someone’s always hiring. This wasn’t my plan when I came here, but that is one of the things I’m learning, how to let go of a plan. In one of our last converations, my father said this to me:

“You call yourself an adventurer and you certainly have had some adventures. You have seen and done things most people only dream about. All adventures also have an element of danger and uncertainty, that is part of what makes them an adventure. It seems you have traded financial well being for an adventurous life. If you can’t have both, it seems like a good choice.”

I guess I hope I can have both, or at least enough financial well being not to be living in a cardboard box, but I think he’s right, if I have to choose, I would rather have adventure than money. It’s been a wild ride in Saudi, but it’s getting time to move on.

“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.
The chances, the changes are all yours to make.
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.”
–J.R.R. Tolkein

Hotels and Hostels, Spring of 2015

So, I meant to do this before I went on my second spring break, also known as the “Royal Decree Holiday”, but I’m clearly not motivated to write every day, which is probably why I’m still not getting paid for my words. Alas. So without further ado, let me tell you all about the places that I stayed during the two (separate) weeks of holiday in the Middle East this spring. Although this is mainly a “review” post to help other people decide where to stay, I still hope some of you will enjoy the stories.


Al Ula ARAC Resort, Saudi Arabia

This was my hotel in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia when I decided to go see Madain Saleh. Al Ula is a very small town and has only 2 hotels. (Booking.com swears now there is a “tent camp” option, ooo.) I scoured the internet for reviews, but neither one was well spoken of. It seems that since they basically know that they have a monopoly on a world heritage site that they don’t actually have to provide service and can charge whatever they like.

I will admit, the resort was very pretty. The grounds had well cared for trees and lawns (actual grass!) and even some flowers trying to bloom. The view was stunning, but I get the impression that would be true nearly anywhere in Al Ula since it is surrounded by great sweeping cliff-like mountains. And the room was clean, which has not always been my experience in travelling. However, my positive things to say basically end there.

When I arrived with my guide who had picked me up from the airport, the receptionist was unable to find my reservation, even though I had printed out a copy of the website’s receipt and confirmation number. After keeping me standing around in the lobby for a while (this is after my all day travel and 7 hour layover stuck inside the Madinah airport), my guide told them to just find a room for me and sort it out later. So they did. However, the room had not been prepared? I guess, since the hot water tank was switched off when I arrived so I had no hot water to bathe with, and would have to wait several hours for the tank to heat up.

I also avoided the restaurant entirely because of the price gouging. My guide took me by a local restaurant where I got a very tasty dinner for much cheaper. The prices are rather insane and the quality of the food, from what I gather from others, is nothing to write home about.

Having to bathe cold, I was somewhat grateful for the blankets, but had to put both bed’s blankets on me to get warm, since the room lacked heat as well. I know it’s Saudi, but February in the desert at night is NOT warm.

At breakfast, I went into the lobby to get some coffee from the little shop there whose sign proclaimed it to open at 8am, however it was completely dark and the receptionist told me they didn’t open until 2pm… which would have been less of an issue if they had bothered to update the rather large sign in front of the counter. So I slunk into the restaurant which only served buffet style breakfast (90 SAR) and had no a la carte options. There I purloined a cup of the “American” coffee, but since there was no staff anywhere to ask the price, I gave up and went back out to the courtyard to enjoy my leftovers and coffee with the stunning mountain view.

As if all of this weren’t disappointing enough, a couple weeks after my holiday, I got an email from booking.com telling me that since I hadn’t stayed in the room or cancelled that I would be charged anyway. Whut? The fine folks at Al Ula ARAC who couldn’t find my booking registration at check in apparently found it later and filed a claim for payment, despite having been paid when I checked out. And this is why, even though I pay a foreign transaction fee, I like to use my MasterCard to pay for big items like hotel rooms. Papertrail.

After a couple more weeks of sending the original receipt, a print screen of my bank statement and a photo of the room I stayed in, booking.com finally agreed that yes, I really had stayed there and they would inform the hotel.

And the rub? I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend the other hotel any better, because it has even lower ratings and more complaints. So, if you’re going to Madain Saleh (which you should if you get the chance cause it’s quite cool), just resign yourself to a cold shower and an overpriced dining experience with unhelpful staff, then get out and enjoy the city where there are cool people, nice restaurants and excellent things to see.

The Jordan Tower Hotel, Amman

My next stop was in Amman, Jordan. I really wasn’t planning on staying there long, just one night before heading out to Petra, so my criteria in booking were primarily about cost. I booked a bed in the all female dorm at the Jordan Tower because it was going to cost all of 7$ (5JD) and included breakfast. I wasn’t expecting too much, but boy was I surprised.

A staff member contacted me shortly after I made my reservation and introduced himself and what services the hotel offered, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We exchanged a few emails about my plans in Jordan and he gave me tons of information about transportation options and ideas for what else to do. I ended up using their driver service to pick me up from the airport, which was nice since it was about 3am when I came in and was saved all the trouble of looking for or haggling with a taxi.

The manager decided not to bother with the official check in that night and simply showed me to the room so I could go to sleep. My one and only complaint of this whole place is that the dorm was listed as 4 bed and turned out to be 4 bunk beds, so 8 people. I think in the end that didn’t matter too much because all the ladies were super polite and I didn’t even hear them when they got up a few hours after I came in to go on their own adventures, but it still would have been nice to know.

Picture 101Breakfast was really nice, bread and cake with lebnah and jam, also fresh egg and veggies and bottomless hot coffee or tea. I sat by the window enjoying the downdown view as I soaked upt the good food and coffee. During breakfast the staff helped me feel out my options for getting to Petra, looking up prices for rental cars and private drivers as well as bus station information. They really were awesome. When I checked out that morning, heading off to see the Roman Theater and then on to Petra, I didn’t really expect to see them again.

The next day, when I returned to Amman from my overnight in Petra, I had several hours to kill between when the bus arrived and when I needed to be at the airport. I had sort of considered heading back to the hotel simply because it was familiar and I knew they would help me find a place to eat and possibly something to do. I headed off the bus considering how best to flag down a taxi, but to my surprise there was a driver there with my name on a sign!

The Jordan Tower had sent their driver to pick me up at the bus stop based on our emails of my plans, even though I had not made any specific arrangements. I suppose if I hadn’t wanted a lift, I could have just said no thank you, but it was dark and cold by then, and I loved the idea of a car waiting to take me somewhere warm. The driver had thought he was taking me to the airport, but I explained that I still had a long time yet and would he mind taking me back to the hotel instead?

There I got a huge bowl of steaming soup, some kind of flavorful broth with what seemed like giant couscous and a heaping plate of bread. I also met a fellow traveler, who you can read a little more about in Spring Break Vol. 6. We hung out in the lobby chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go and were also able to split the cost of the car back to the airport.

I cannot recommend this place enough. It’s small, and up a flight of stairs behind some kind of junk shop, but it’s amazing. Best service, really above and beyond, plus clean rooms, good food and nice fellow guests. If you are ever in Amman, go check them out.

The Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa (Petra)

Picture 150This place also turned out to be pretty amazing. I decided I needed 2 days in Petra, so I booked an overnight room in the nearby town of Wadi Musa (nearby meaning a few minutes drive from the park entrance, if you felt like adding another 20 minutes of walking to your hours of park exploring, you could even walk there). My bus dropped me off right at the door, and they got me checked in pretty fast, since I wanted to get up to the park quickly. I had planned to get to Petra earlier, but as events transpired it was already after 3pm. When I couldn’t find a taxi to take me down to the park entrance, Jane (the owner) said she had to run down to the market anyway, and gave me a ride the short way.

When I got back to the hotel after dark, I waited briefly with some other guests in the lobby for our ride over to her husband’s property, an outdoorsy tent hotel (heated tents, and a generator for wi-fi) up in the mountains, where we had a Bedouin dinner. The dinner was pretty standard for me, but would probably be a cool experience for someone who doesn’t live in a half Bedouin town already. And the setting was astonishly beautiful. Far from town we had a great view of the stars, and they had set up paper lanterns on one of the nearby rock faces.

Sadly, my one complaint about the Rocky Mountain is the timing of their hot water. I understand the need to conserve both water and electricity where they are, so hot water is only on for a few hours each morning and evening. In theory, I have no issue with this, but since her husband’s hotel’s dinner didn’t get us back to our hotel until after hot water time, it seemed like poor planning. I know a lot of people prefer to shower in the morning, but I like a hot shower before bed, especially when I’ve been travelling all day and want to wash the road dust off before climbing in clean sheets. This was the 3rd hotel in a row with no pre-bed hot shower for me, so it was a little disappointing.

Picture 152Everything else was great. Although the heater in the room was off until I got back (did I mention Petra is cold at night in February?), it worked really quickly and I was soon warm and slept comfortably. Breakfast was again included on the rooftop restaurant where we had a stunning view of the valley with our traditional Jordanian breakfast (eggs, fresh veggies, bread, lebnah and jam).

The hotel also provides a shuttle service to the Petra gate 2 times each morning and each evening, so I got another ride back to the park. I was also able to request a packed lunch for my day, since there’s only a few places to eat inside Petra and all are expensive. I got a simple sandwich with some snack cakes, a candy bar, a juice box and come “all natural” corn puffs. It sounds like a lot of junk food, but when you’re hiking all day, high sugar and carbs is actually pretty welcome. There was enough food for my lunch in the park, a snack on the way out of the park, and a dinner on the bus back to Amman for 8JD.

Jane was also really helpful with information about the area. I asked her several questions about the locals I had met on my first day including safety, general expectations and trustworthiness as tour guides as well as what I should expect to pay for certain tour services. She also helped me figure out the bus schedules to make sure I wouldn’t miss the only bus out of town that afternoon, and kept my bag for me after I’d checked out until I was ready to leave town.

Maybe there’s a better place in Wadi Musa (there is a Movenpick after all), but I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal for the price than the Rocky Mountain, plus you’ll be supporting small business so it’s really win-win.

Tamani Marina Hotel, Dubai

IMG_1476This was the last stop on my February trip. I had planned to spend 3 days in Dubai, and after being highly disappointed in the quality and price of hostels there, I went into fantasy mode and just started randomly checking the prices of hotels near the beach. Most of them were way outside of my price range, but then suddenly my cursor hovered over one that popped up a really reasonable rate! I checked about 4 more times incase there was a catch, but since booking.com has free cancellation, I decided to go ahead and book it, then do more research. If it turned out to have a horrible reputation later, I could always cancel and find something else. However as I continued to research the hotel, it looked like it was a pretty nice place, and moreover that I had something close to a 60% discount on their normal rate.

And thank goodness I did. Because if I had paid full price for that, I would have almost certainly been outraged. As it was, I was just a little miffed.

When I first arrived I had quite a wait while another guest harangued the girl behind the counter about having to show his passport again. I kind of thought he was being a douche and felt bad for her, so I tried to just relax in the lobby and wait it out rather than complain and add to her problems. When they finally did get someone to me, I was chastised for “checking in late”. I had arrived at the hotel around 2pm, which is standard check in start time for most hotels in the world. I flew into Dubai around 9am and knew I wanted to do some shopping, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. Apparently because I had told them I might arrive early, that meant I was now late. And they had given my room away.

The clerk said they were all out of singles now, but I could have a larger suite for just the increase in city tax. I guess I could have stuck to my guns, but I really wanted a bath and a bed after so much travelling, and the tax wasn’t all that much so I agreed. The room was insanely huge. I think two families could have stayed there comfortably. Picture 173There were two furnished bedrooms, plus what seemed like another empty room, four bathrooms, a giant living room, dining room and expansive kitchen. There was also a washer/dryer combo unit, so I dumped in my clothes and went off to bathe. The baths win all the stars. I also took a short nap. But even after all of this, my clothes weren’t done. I managed to pull out everything but two lightweight items so they dried faster, but this left me with a pile of wet laundry.

Why not just leave it running while I went out for the evening? Well, it seems even in luxury hotels, you have to put the key card in the wall to turn on the power, so as soon as I took the key to leave, the machine would stop running, leaving my wet laundry to get stinky. So I called down to ask for another key. This shouldn’t be hard, and it really shouldn’t be a negotiation or an argument, but it took a really long time to explain the situation and make it clear that I was not going to be held hostage in my room by their stupid electricity issues, so they needed to bring me a key.

The next day, I tried to ask their tourism desk, the people whose job it is to know what tourists staying at their hotel can do, where the Big Red Bus stop near their hotel was. I should point out that it’s less than a block away, and one of the largest tour bus operators in Dubai. They actually knew the company, but insisted that there was no stop near them, pulling out an outdated map to try and prove it to me. I had to cut and run, since debating the issue with them was just going to make me miss the bus they knew nothing about. Later on, when I brought them an updated map for their records to help future guests, they treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes.

Housekeeping managed to steal or throw away some of the groceries that I’d bought at the Carrefour next door, while at the same time leaving trash and dishes that needed cleaning. One evening I decided to order food in because I was just too tired to go anywhere, but there wasn’t a room service menu in the room. I called down to ask for one and they told me, rather annoyed, that it was in the binder next to the television. Now, the suite is the size of a large house, so not being able to find something right away isn’t all that odd, but there was no menu in the binder. So I called back, and had to argue with them, again. I feel like if I was asking for something odd or unreasonable that the staff might need to disagree, but if you’re asking for something like an extra key, a menu or a towel, there shouldn’t need to be a discussion. The guest says ‘please bring me x’ and the hotel staff say ‘sure no problem’. Even when someone finally showed up with a menu, I had to show them the menuless binder before they would hand it over! At least the food was tasty.

Also, on the day I needed to take a taxi instead of the bus, one of the hotel staff stepped up to me as I headed for the line of taxis and asked if I needed one. I replied that yes I did. This didn’t seem odd at the time since I’ve seen lots of places have deals with drivers or queues and try to make sure that guests get into waiting taxis in order. The guy told me they had metered hotel taxis, stressing the meter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standard meter and ran almost double the city taxi rate. The car may have been nicer, but I felt lied to. They could easily have been upfront about offering “luxury” or “private” cars at a higher rate, that’s what Uber does and it works just fine. And I might even expect local drivers to try to claim they’re homemade meter is just as good as a taxi. But I was pretty upset about having been deceived by the hotel staff where I was a paying guest.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had more sympathy for the guest I’d seen on the first day than the staff. After several days of being treated this way in a supposedly luxury hotel, it was about all I could do not to loose my cool with the staff too. The only thing that really made it bearable was my discount, but this place is no way worth it’s normal price tag. The best thing about it? Walking distance from the Barasti Beach Bar and Carrefour.


Thus concludes the Spring Break portion of my accommodation reviews. During the Royal Decree Holiday I stayed in 2 more places.

Bedouin Garden Hotel, Aqaba

I have a lot of good things to say about this place. However, when I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I came in after dark, having driven from Tabuk after school Thursday and planning to leave for Egypt on the next day. Aqaba was just meant to be a resting spot in my journey from Tabuk to Sharm el Sheikh. When I was shown my “single” it had three beds crammed in, and there was no TV or (far more important) wi-fi, despite the fact that both of these had been advertised on the website. There were also several large flies in my room.

wpid-20150320_162111.jpgReminding myself that it was just one night, I gritted my teeth and decided to bear it. I got some dinner (which was quite generous and delicious), chatted with the Filapina server and went to bed. My ferry to Egypt didn’t leave until around 6:30 the next evening, but the hostel looked much better in the light. wpid-20150320_094947.jpgThere were flowers in bloom and lots of “Bedouin tent” style outdoor seating areas. I figured I could just enjoy the weather and read my book until it was time to go. Breakfast was simple but good and I got to chat with some Pakistani guests who were also out of Saudi for the holiday and heading to Petra.

There was a dive shop there, but since I don’t have my license, I kind of ignored it. I bid good travels to my breakfast companions and took my coffee over to some cushions in the shade to relax and read. The full story of my Friday adventure will be told in another post, but my plans of quiet reading were fully and enjoyably foiled. I had a great day at the Bedouin Gardens, and as it turned out accidentally ran off with their key, so I came back again the following Friday as I was making the reverse journey and spent several more hours there.

So, yeah, the rooms aren’t much. You’re not going to watch movies on satellite TV in your room or surf the web from your laptop, but if you give it a chance, you won’t miss those things at all and you’ll only be in your room to shower or sleep. Wonderful people, amazing place, beautiful beaches. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of the city and see the beach in Aqaba.

Park Inn by Radisson at Sharm el Sheikh

This was another one of the luxury deals that I found online. Not quite as big a discount as Tamani, but Sharm is so insanely cheap because the Egyptian Pound is very weak and business are dropping prices to attract tourists back after two revolutions destabilized the country. I should mention, I felt totally safe the whole time.

wpid-20150321_071427.jpgThe resort is insanely huge. Buildings and buildings full of rooms, two swimming pools, two restaurants, 5 bars, a private beach across the road, a water park on the premises, and a gym + spa. It took me about 45 minutes to walk around the whole thing. Plus there were shops and bars outside too.

My very low price tag included 3 meals a day (but really more, because poolside snacks were served all day) and free local booze, which amounted to pretty low end stuff, but free and unlimited goes a long way to making up for quality. It was a really beautiful place, the staff were if anything too friendly, the food was decent, although not 4 star. In terms of value for money I can’t say enough.

I had a few issues, since nothing is ever perfect. I had some trouble with overly flirty staff pushing me for a phone number or to come out with them after work to some local bars. I think if I had been with a group, that might have been fun, going out with the locals and seeing local bars, but since I was alone it just made me uncomfortable, especially coming from people I would see every day in the dining room or bar. The good news is that the one time I felt something went to far, I commented that I thought it was not appropriate and he stopped instantly, so I think they have just found that more often than not, guests respond well to the attention and so do it to everyone.

I also got food poisoning. Normally this might be enough to turn one off of a restaurant, but I know that it’s a normal hazard of international travel. Honestly, considering everywhere I’ve gone in the last few months, I’m surprised this is the only time it’s happened. I’m less upset about the illness than how the hotel handled it. I know I was already getting a cheap deal, but it would have been appropriate for them to offer some kind of recompense, especially since I had to delay my trip to Cairo at extra expense. Instead they just awkwardly tried to change the subject when I brought it up.

wpid-20150325_095331.jpgHousekeeping was adorable, if overly persistent. If I forgot to put up the do not disturb sign when I went to take a nap, they would just knock and knock and knock. Once they even had reception call me to ask me to let them in. But, to be fair, any time I had that sign up, they were quiet as mice. They also would shape my new towels into various animals on the bed and bring fresh flowers into the room.

I also noticed there was plenty of kid specific entertainment, as well as nightly activities on site like karaoke or dance performances, and daily poolside activities like yoga and water aerobics. I myself was mostly a bum, sitting poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, but there seemed to be a lot to choose from.

wpid-20150321_163956.jpgOverall, I still would recommend this place. It’s a really nice resort with lots to do and it’s easy to see many places around Egypt on day trips from Sharm. It’s less pricey than some of the swankier places, but it’s still more than nice enough to make you feel like you’re on a pampered lux vacation and you can easily spend a week or two there without breaking the bank.


So what have we learned? Well, I can tell you for sure that all my best vacation experiences are shaping up to be at tiny hole in the wall mom and pop stop type places, while the big fancy resorts are somewhere between just ok and a let down. I’m still planning to drag friends and family to some of the resorts because I think they’ll be more fun in groups and easier to do with kids than my solo traveler preferences, but it is sort of a relief to know that I not only don’t have expensive tastes, but might actually enjoy myself more at the cheaper options!

Thanks for reading, I hope it was entertaining or maybe even helpful. Check out all the adventures surrounding these hotels in any of the Spring Break 2015 posts or the soon to be published Royal Decree Holiday posts! 🙂

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page 🙂

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

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Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

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We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

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Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.


So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows,  I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 2: A Morning in Madain Saleh

I spent a whole day in transit to get to a city only 3 hours by car away from the one I live in. Why go through so much trouble and pain just to see some old ruins? Because Saudi Arabia is closed to tourists.

Madain Saleh may have been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but very little is yet known about the people or the civilizations that predated the Nabateans (who we know all about by studying Petra in Jordan) because it’s only been in the past few years that archaeologists have been allowed to enter and excavate the site. In fact, the French archaeologist Dr. Laila Nehme was there at the same time I was. I didn’t meet her, but I did have in interesting run in with the French cultural attache who had come up from Riyadh to check on her that day (more on that later).

So, as a pure achievement junkie, I could not imagine coming so close to such an amazing piece of history and missing out! The only other time that I could have gone would have been in the summer heat after the semester ended, so I took two days of my precious vacation, and spent one of them simply travelling so that I could walk these grounds.

As it turned out, my adventure was way more than I’d bargained for, but in a good way. Read about it here and see all the photos on facebook!


Arriving on one of only two inbound flights for the week on Friday evening, my guide picked me up at the airport. You have to have a guide to see Madain Saleh. (disclaimer: Lot’s of Westerners don’t, because all rules in Saudi are malleable, but it’s a safer option than travelling all that way and possibly getting turned aside or lost). Particularly since I cannot drive in Saudi, a good guide was important to me. I searched a long time to find one, since tourism isn’t yet a big deal and locals who want to go to Madain Saleh just drive themselves!

Mr. Fayez

After emailing everyone on the official tourist guide website, and scouring Trip Advisor, I found Mr. Fayez. Who, by the way, is awesome and I’ll be happy to send you his contact info if you need a guide.

Mr. Fayez spoke very proficient English and had not only agreed to be my guide to Madain Saleh, he also arranged all my transport, the necessary permits to visit the sites, and helped me with meals! He even sent me a message shortly before my vacation began to verify our plans, a true rarity in Saudi where everything is “Inshallah”.

Knowing I was a single lady travelling alone, he brought his niece and nephews with him when he picked me up at the airport (at night). This may sound odd, but its actually very courteous. It is a protection both of his reputation and of mine to ensure not only that nothing untoward happens, but that no one will talk bad or spread rumors. We drove around a bit and I got a sneak preview of the amazing rock formations that surround the town of Al Ula. He told me that the hotel had a restaurant but that it was very expensive and offered to take me to another restaurant that was much more reasonable.

Of course, he’s friends with the restaurant owner, this kind of thing is standard in lots of places with local guides, but it really was a better price and very good food with such generous portions that I ate the remainder for breakfast the next day. Sadly, the restaurant owner says he’s tired of running it because kids come by and tag the walls with paint all the time, so he’s selling the space to a traditional kabsa restaurant.

During our time talking, I also discovered that Mr. Fayez is 37 and planning to get married in just a few weeks. His bride is only 20, but this age gap is fairly common, since men have to finish their education, get a job and save up money before they can get married, while women only have to be legally old enough. He told us that his young bride really didn’t know anything about running a home, she didn’t even know how to make tea yet! To me, this is just another example of how the oil wealth has really changed the younger generations in Saudi, making them dependent on servants to do anything that resembles “manual labor” including simple household tasks like cooking or sewing a button.

IMG_1059Mr. Fayez is one of many tour guides in Al Ula, but he is the only one who makes guiding tourists his full time job. All the other guides have “day jobs” (which doesn’t amount to much real work for Saudis) and take tourists around on the weekends. He said that the reason he charges less than the others (and he does) is so that he can attract more customers, but that the other guides give him a hard time because he is making their prices seem too high (which they are). It made me happy to be supporting a Saudi who wanted to make a success of his own business and work hard to achieve his goals. I feel like that’s a rare quality in the Kingdom nowadays, so I may be shamelessly plugging for him as a great choice if you visit Madain Saleh.

While we waited for Isha prayers to end so we could pick up the food, Mr. Fayez took me by one of the towns public parks. It was a beautifully grassy area just alongside one of the prodigious rock formations with a nice walking path, and a playground for children. On a Friday evening, many families were out enjoying the mild weather, and it was really neat to be able to see the community. In many ways it reminded me of the Corniche in Jeddah. When I told Mr. Fayez this he laughed and said except there is no sea.

Al Ula is a very small town. I’m not actually sure why it has an airport except for the UNESCO fame. Some blogs I read said that there were smaller hotels or hostels around, but they were single men and had more options. As a woman (single or not) the only real option was one of the towns two hotels. Yes, two. I chose the Al Ula Arac Resort because it was only slightly more expensive and a lot nicer looking. And as with so many things in Saudi, looks are all. I’ll be doing a separate post on all the accommodations of my trip, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

We were scheduled to set out at 9am, joined by a man from the UK who had also booked Mr. Fayez for a tour. My day trip companion was Indradeb (you may notice the name is a teeny bit Hindu), and he arrived decked out with a large professional looking camera and a loaded backpack.

On the drive out, Mr. Fayez explained to me that we would start the day with Madain Saleh, since it closed fairly early, the we would see the Ottoman Train Station, Elephant Rock, the Dadan ruins, Old Town and finish with a sunset view from an overlook rock. Quite a full itinerary, but traffic was minimal and Mr. Fayez had made all the arrangements so everything went smoothly.

He also told us the origin of the name “Madain Saleh” which means Saleh’s Town. Although I have found that this story is fairly well known by Muslims, I cannot speak to the Quranic veracity of this version of the story, I can only relate it as it was told to me.

The Story of Saleh and the Camel

It comes from an Islamic belief that the Prophet Saleh (PBUH) entreated the people to follow a single god, Allah. The people ridiculed him and treated him very poorly, demanding proof of Allah’s power. Finally, Saleh prayed to Allah to send a miracle to convince the people. Allah turned a giant stone into a pregnant camel (also giant) who then gave birth to her calf.

Allah instructed Saleh that the people should alternate days in using water for themselves and for this camel. Drinking one day, and watering the camel the next, but that they could then drink the milk of the camel.

The giant camel came and went from the town as she pleased, seen by the people only when she came to get water and give milk. They were instructed not to follow her when she left.

But people being human, some of them were still not satisfied with the miracle, and desired to kill the camel. So they followed it into the mountains one day, and killed it while the calf escaped. Allah was so displeased with them that he sent a plague. On the first day their faces all turned yellow, on the second day red, and on the third day they turned black and died.

Only the people who believed Saleh (PBUH) and left the town with him were spared.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells his followers this story when they camp at a site somewhere one the road between Tabuk and Madina, and makes them leave the place because it is cursed. Many Muslims today believe that Madain Saleh is that place, although there is still room for question as we await further archaeological discoveries.

As a consequence, some Muslims avoid the historical site, believing it to be the cursed place told of by the Prophet.

Madain Saleh

This is known to be the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization which Petra is the main capitol of. Everyone knows Petra from Indiana Jones, and I was planning to visit it next, but was excited to see the contrast between the two.

The actual town of Madain Saleh is still underground, yet to be excavated fully, and is not open to the public, so we contented ourselves with the necropolis and temple.

The rocks around Al Ula are tall jutting mountain sized boulders, leftover from when the whole area was under water. In fact, I could see clear signs of water erosion on the rocks that the tombs were carved into. It made the tombs stand out even more, since they were smooth and flat in contrast to the pocked, uneven stone they had been carved from.

The tombs range in age and size. The size depended mainly on the wealth of those to be buried within. Mr. Fayez told us that the builders would start at the top and carve the facade, then excavate the inside of the tombs. We saw several that had been only partly finished and this method was obvious.

Also, unlike many historical sites, there was nothing preventing us from walking right inside the tombs where we could see the tool marks left by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. There were niches in the walls that had been carved out for single bodies, and deeper pits that had been designed to hold several bodies together.

The front of the tombs were decorated almost without variation by two pillars, a peaked triangular shape connecting them, and five stepped ziggurat shapes carved above that. Some had urns above the pillars, there were also many eagles as central adornments. A five petal flower was also quite popular. Mr. Fayez explained that five was a sacred number, and that the steps on the ziggurats represented the steps ascending to the gods or descending to the netherworld.

We also saw one tomb that had two small sphinxes guarding it above its pillars, indicating some influence of the Egyptian culture.

The grounds that cover Madain Saleh are quite large, and while we walked around many areas, we also drove between several. The temple area was quite astounding. A narrow passage between two high rocks led past a deeply carved gathering place for worship. Mr. Fayez showed us how the people had used the rocks to funnel the rain water into cisterns to be used in holy rituals.

We passed through the high rocks (a walk that echoed the long passage at Petra leading to the Treasury) looking at the small niches and carvings along the way, small spaces to place statues or offerings. We also climbed one of the tall rocks within, affording us a spectacular view of the whole area.

I’d cast off my hijab in the morning, deciding that I didn’t really need it if we were isolated from the crowds, but I was still wearing my abaya this whole time. Climbing around on the rocks in a flowing black dress is not easy. We ran into some tourists (who turned out to be from the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh) on their way back down from the view point, and I noticed the younger woman had doffed her abaya too. We had all done as much on our trip to the Edge of the World, and it was getting quite warm with the shinning sun and climbing, so I took the opportunity to shed mine and tie it around my waist, promising Mr. Fayez that I would put it back on if we ran in to anyone Saudi.

After admiring the view and posing for a few more pictures we moved on to some of the more “quintessential” spots in Madain Saleh, the ones you’ll see if you search Google Images. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the tombs I saw, I didn’t get tired of them. They shared general characteristics but were all unique. Here there were two serpents, or two lions, once a scowling face. Some had become two-storied in an effort to use more of the rock’s interior space. Some of the tomb faces in this area were pockmarked with bullet holes, reminders of Saudi’s bloody unification.

In a daze I drifted in and out of the ancient monuments, feeling an intimacy with the past that we so rarely experience in the modern era. Finally we arrived at the crown jewel, the Unique Palace. It stands alone in a single huge rock, taking up nearly the entirety of one face. It is the only tomb in Madain Saleh to have four pillars, and despite its opulence, it was never completed. Only the facade was carved, and no one was ever buried inside.

The ground around it was a striking shade of yellow, in stark contrast to the rich red sand all around. There were steps leading up to the door that Mr. Fayez said had just been added yesterday. Further evidence that the site is changing as Saudi attempts to build interest in tourism.

We also visited a couple of excavated wells. Apparently the land around Madain Saleh still has a lot of natural water. And the red sand is rich for agriculture. In fact, we saw a few wood and mud remenants of houses that had been modern Saudis living in the area until only a decade or two ago. The government had paid them to move, and torn out all the farmland to return the Heritage Site to it’s natural state.

The Ottoman Train Station

On our way out of Madain Saleh, we stopped at the train station, now defunct, where there was a restroom and small mosque. Duhr prayer call had passed while we were taking in the tombs and Mr. Fayez needed to pray. I was amazed that even out among the ruins we could still hear the Athan although only faintly.

Sand is pervasive. The sand out here isn’t like beach sand. It can range from the larger gritty crystals down to a fine talc-like powder. My shoes and socks were full of sand from my hours in the ruins, so I took some time in the bathroom to try to shake them out. On the way out, I got caught up talking to a man from Africa, because I can’t go anywhere in Saudi without men trying to talk to me and get my number, but Mr. Fayez returned from prayer and rescued me from further awkwardness.

The train station looks exceptionally British. Indradep remarked on the similarities to train stations in London. I suppose by the 1900’s the remains of the Ottoman Empire had been highly affected by British colonialism. We stood around with some other tourists, taking pictures and being generally amused at the contrast between the ancient sites behind us and this nearly modern train.

It reminded me of the old West tourist sites in California, carefully preserved or even replicated relics of that were less than a century old. The date on the trains wheels was 1914.

Elephant Rock

Ok, it really looks like an elephant. That’s kind of all, but it was a short side trip, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the amazing rock formations around Al Ula. It’s especially stunning to see sand dunes drifting right up to the bottom of these rocks. The whole landscape looks like it’s barely changed since it was under water 50 million years ago.

I think at this point we finally stopped for lunch. Mr. Fayez had brought along juice and some snacks, which was very thoughtful, but it was a lot of trekking, even with the car. We went back to his friend’s restaurant and had a quick sit down lunch of kebab, grilled meat, green salad, humus and pita, then back in the car again to try to stay on schedule!

To be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3.

Don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook!

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 1: The Madina Airport

Why am I writing about the airport? Because this day’s experiences, while not ideal spring break activities, show some very important aspects of Saudi life and culture, so hang in there and take the whole trip with all its ups and downs along with me.

The first day of my vacation was spent in airports for the very simple reason of the Saudi driving ban and gender segregation. Madain Saleh is only about 2-3 hours drive from the town I live in… by car. But since I can’t drive here, and can’t take a bus between cities alone, and can’t hire a (male) driver without extraordinary expense, I instead spent over 11 hours in airports and in the air.

I tried to find a driver, but they were all going to be more expensive than the airfare. My students and local co-worker were surprised to hear I was flying, but they all have husbands, brothers, fathers, or uncles who can drive them where they want to go. The driving ban doesn’t strongly affect them, since it’s only a hardship for those women who don’t have a strong family structure (like divorcees or immigrants and who really cares about them? right?)

There are only 4 flights in and out of Al Ula (the town nearest to Madain Saleh) every week, and they are either to Riyadh or Madina. The one on Friday I took connected through Madina, a city closed to non-Muslims. As a result, I spent the entire 7 hour layover inside the airport. Now, some people will say that this was unnecessary, because I could have easily caught a taxi there and gone out. Like all laws in Saudi Arabia, they are only applicable if you get caught, but the penalty for getting caught is severe. So, while I would love to see the holy cities, I don’t think alone and with minimal Arabic skills is the way to go.

The highlight of my waiting time was my conversation with the Filapina bathroom attendant. She was bored too, as you can imagine, and after seeing me over a course of a couple of hours, approached me to chat.

A thing to understand about KSA, the underclass of immigrant laborers is treated very poorly. There is rampant slavery (withholding of wages, withholding of passports, forced to live in employer provided housing, no transportation and limited contact with others are all very common), and female employees are often subjected to unwanted sexual advances by their male sponsors (heck, even young men can be pressed into homosexual activities). There is no place for these folks to turn. They are promised wages, and often they *are* making more money than they could at home (when they get paid), but they have no way to leave. Exit visas must be granted by the sponsor, flights are expensive, and their Embassies are overwhelmed and underfunded.

As a consequence, I try hard to be nice to these people whenever our paths cross. This lady was in many ways very lucky. Her job in a public (and very holy) place meant that she was protected from some of the worst treatment that immigrant workers are subjected to. She had also become friends with some of the Saudi women who also worked in the airport, and they looked after her to an extent, bringing her small gifts of chocolate and sheltering her from the worst consequences of being Filapina in Saudi.

She had a college education. She spoke her native Tagalog as well as a family village dialect, English and Arabic (the last she taught herself). In the Philippines she had a white collar job doing manager level work, but still did not make enough money to send her two sons to college. This alone is a travesty. She tried some other countries before finally landing in Saudi, where she is content to work cleaning up bathrooms after entitled Saudi wanna-be queens because it allows her to provide the education she wants for her sons (despite the fact that the same education did her no good economically speaking).

She told me that when she first arrived in Saudi she didn’t speak Arabic and was treated very poorly. She determined to teach herself so that she could confront the people who were talking bad about her and making her life harder than it needed to be. Her first step worked. Once the people around her figured out that she could understand them and talk back, she got fewer insults and even a few overtures of friendship.

Then she told me she had converted to Islam from the staunch Catholicism that is practiced by most people in the Philippines. However as we talked more about it, she admitted that she did not partake in the required five times daily prayers, but still prayed in her own time. A few other hints and clues led me to believe that her conversion may have simply been born out of loneliness or a desire to fit in, at best to have a spiritual community to belong to. I don’t blame her. I’ve spent my life without a spiritual community, but I see how important it is to others, and sometimes I envy them. It would be interesting to see if she keeps her faith in Islam once she returns to her homeland and is surrounded by Catholics again.

She told me a story of one of those self important Saudi ladies who had come into the prayer area without removing her shoes. The whole purpose of the sajjaada (prayer rug) is to make sure that the floor you are praying on is clean. The airports often have permanent carpeted areas in the prayer rooms, and this one also had a little shelf for shoes just outside the carpeted room. So the woman walking on the rugs with shoes is very disrespectful and inappropriate. When the Filapina tried to ask her to remove her shoes the Saudi lady became hostile, and physically hurt her by grabbing and pinching her arms, then told her she would make a complaint and get the Filapina fired and deported.

Sadly, this is a real threat. If a Saudi (or other upper class foreigner like, say, an American) makes a complaint against one of the near slave underclass immigrant workers, there won’t be an investigation or a warning, the worker will simply be ejected. If the complaint is bad, they may be jailed, whipped or fined too. This is why I was hesitant to complain about the taxi drivers in Jeddah, because despite their obnoxious behavior, I didn’t think they really deserved such harsh punishment.

Her employer took her papers and she was not allowed to come to work for 15 days while things were being decided. She was sure it was the end of her stay in Saudi and her dreams of providing college to her sons. However, by this time she had, with her Arabic and conversion, made friends among many of the other airport employees, and when they found out what had happened, they appealed to the bosses that the Saudi woman who had complained had a reputation of unreasonable complaints, and begging them to restore the Filapina.

This is wasta at work. Because some of the folks who spoke on her behalf were Saudi and higher ranking employees their word counted for something and her deportation was stayed. They airline told the Saudi complainer that her wish had been granted while quietly moving the Filapina to the international terminal for a while to reduce her chances of being seen by the complainer.

All in all, she has it better than most Filipinas in Saudi, yet she is still working far below her education and qualifications, and living apart from her family and community. She told me that whenever she is alone she cries, because she misses her home and family so much, but when she is around customers at work she always puts on a smile because she wants to bring happiness to others.

Broke my heart.

I like to believe as an educated American, I will never know what it’s like to have to take a blue collar job in a strange country just to provide for my loved ones whom I have left behind. I am fortunate enough to be travelling and working for myself and by choice, but I would be a fool if I didn’t take these stories into myself and let them change me.

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from those less fortunate, or to paint them into only the starving children of Africa or India who are so destitute they become a romantic tragedy, a plight for Angelina Jolie to bring aid. And they need it, don’t get me wrong. But so many more people around us, right next to us, people we pass on the streets and in the airports, are living “lives of quiet desperation” in a way that Thoreau himself could not have imagined.

So if ending world hunger seems like too much for you to tackle, think about those around you. When was the last time you talked to your company’s janitor? Or the bus boy at your favorite restaurant? I think we tell ourselves we can’t make a real change, but a small kindness like a bit of luxury chocolate, a friend who’s willing to listen when it seems too much, a friend who’s willing to speak up and lend a hand when the crazy bureaucracy threatens to beat their dreams down can make all the difference to someone struggling to find a dream.

This woman didn’t want anything from me but someone to hear her story. Friends she made in Madina did little things like bring her chocolate that she would never buy for herself because she was sending every spare cent home. And they fought for her when her job was in danger. Never doubt that even small actions can make a big impact when applied with love.

Spring Break 2015: Overview

My English program in Saudi is not a normal University program, but an intensive 21 week all day English course. This means we don’t get the regular university breaks. So aside from the religious holidays of Eid, and the State holiday of National Day, our only other holiday was a week between the two 21 week semesters. I have opted to think of this as “spring break”. I know it isn’t spring yet, but “winter break” has connotations of holidays and going to see family and is usually longer, whereas “spring break” is typically only a week long and used by most to run off an have raucous party times in tropical beaches (which I did at least a little of).

Today is my first day back from the vacation, and tomorrow school starts again, so I’m mostly laying on the couch trying to get my feet to unswell and gathering my strength for a new batch of students. One valuable thing I learned from this is that I really don’t have the fortitude to run around 3 countries in 7 days without proper rest. And I certainly don’t have time to stop and write about it. But since the summer travels will be restricted by money, rather than time, and staying put for a day is one of the least expensive things you can do while travelling, I should be able to take more regular downtime days where I can rest, reflect and share.

But for now, I have to do those things after the trip is finished. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be organizing my photos and stories and putting them here and on my facebook page. Until then, here’s a brief overview of the trip and what stories you can look forward to.

Day 1

This day was entirely spent travelling. There’s a sort of horrible irony to the fact that it took me almost 12 hours of travelling to get somewhere 3 hours away by car. Oh, Saudi. I had a loooong layover in the Medina airport, the highlight of which was meeting the Filapina bathroom attendant and learning the story of her life and how she came to convert to Islam and work in Saudi. Mostly it’s a story about insane economic inequality, but still worth hearing.

Day 2

This day was spent in Al Ula and Madain Saleh. I had to hire a guide because of the travel and driving restrictions in Saudi, but he turned out to be quite nice and very responsible. My original intent was just to see Madain Saleh, the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization, but I ended up seeing some other cool stuff around Al Ula as well. I ended the evening with a Bedouin style dinner out at the base of some of the high rocks, and had an interesting encounter with the local police and the French Cultural Attache.

Day 3

I also spent mostly travelling. I had an overnight flight to Amman and only crashed for a couple hours in the hostel before catching the local bus to Petra (yay local public transportation). I made it into Petra before the park closed, and since a 2 day pass is only 5JD more than a 1 day, I decided it was worth it for a couple of hours. Petra is the northern capital of the Nabateans, and made famous by Indiana Jones. I met a local Bedouin man who was closing up shop for the evening and just spent some time walking and talking with me. I learned a great deal about the local Bedouin tribe there and even walked up to their village with him at sunset. Dinner was another Bedouin style tent affair up in the rocks, similar to the one at Madain Saleh, but more commercial. However the effect of the paper lanterns on the cliffside was beautiful, and the number of stars visible in the sky was stunning.

Day 4

This was an all day hike into Petra. I have to do some research to find out how far I walked, but it was a looong hike with many many steps carved into the rocks. I walked up to the monastery with another American I’d met in the hostel, and walked back with a variety of trail partners from many different places. I also sat and had tea with several of the Bedouin ladies who were selling handmade goods (and other trinkets) along the trail. Turns out, they still barter as well as haggle. In the evening I took a charter bus back to Amman and waited for my plane in the hostel with another traveler from Australia.

Day 5

Another overnight flight, I arrived in Dubai in the morning and managed to check out the metro transit system and finish up some shopping before having a short nap and heading to a nearby beach bar where I met a lady from two neighborhoods over in Seattle! She turns out to also have an amazing story, btw.

Day 6

Sightseeing in Dubai. I started the day with a boat tour of the marina, where I met a lovely lady from Slovenia because we both had matching high top converse “chucks”. We had the same itinerary for the day, so we stayed travel buddies, and so hopefully, I’ll get some cool pictures from her as well when she’s all done. We went to the Atlantis Aquarium and then ended the day with a desert  sunset  tour. That was especially strange as my third evening in “Bedouin style” entertainment, but Dubai was by far the most touristy and least authentic. Afterward, we parted ways and I went to see the Global Village, which I can only describe as Disney meets Model UN.

Day 7

More sightseeing in Dubai. I made it to the Museum, the Heritage Village, the Gold Souk, the Jumeirah Mosque, the Burj Arab and ended with the Dubai Mall dancing fountain show (I got video and pictures this time!). Traffic was abysmal, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was exhausted, but there  was so much music playing around, that I couldn’t sleep, so I headed back to the beach bar where I ended up sitting on the sand and watching crazy drunk people.

Day 8

Finishing off Dubai without a champagne brunch was sad, but I headed once more to the nearby beach bar and had a lovely breakfast with a single glass of sparkling rose overlooking the marina. Glorious. Then headed back to the airport for the long journey back to Tabuk.

READ MORE

This is all just the quickest of overviews, a teaser, a trailer, a tantalizing glimpse of the wonders I experienced in the last 8 days. Those of you who read regularly know that each tale will be spun in detail and color as time allows, and those of you who may be new or who I met on this trip, I hope you’ll come back and see the full stories.

🙂

Reflections: Halfway Through Saudi

So, we’re in the last few days of my first of two semesters teaching in Saudi. I thought I would take a moment to reflect.

As with all new experiences, there was so much I didn’t know when I first arrived. How to wrap a hijab, how to time my shopping and dining around prayer times, how to haggle for a taxi, and so much more. A visiting substitute teacher started reading my blog from the beginning today, sort of forgetting that my taxi experiences were back from late September and early October, he started giving me some advice on “the way things are” in Saudi. It was a little funny, because I realized how much those early posts must have shown off my ignorance, but at the same time, it was nice to see that I was able to share the real first time experiences so well. I worry sometimes now that I’m leaving out or glossing over things that a Western reader would find interesting or not understand, simply because I’ve become so used to them.

In the time since I arrived I’ve been snorkeling in the Red Sea, and ridden Asia’s tallest double loop roller coaster. I’ve had a marriage proposal from a taxi driver and a slightly less savory offer from an over amorous telephone salesman. I had my first drive by flirting. I went to an all girl gaming convention, a family party at an Istraha and a wedding at the town’s most famous wedding hall. I’ve visited a Saudi home, and been treated to a traditional Saudi meal. I’ve seen the Edge of the World and ridden to the top of the world’s tallest man made structure. And so much more.

Sure sometimes I’m bored or lonely, because my days are not one string of adventures after another, but those times of solitude are needed rest times, and also serve to contrast the excitement of exploration.

Getting back into teaching after a six year break has also been an adventure. It turns out that even though I didn’t get paid for it, I never really stopped teaching. My “teacher mode” is still alive and well, and has been commented on if I accidentally slip into it when chatting with my peers. There were a lot of things about the educational facility and the national system here that I found frustrating at first, and sometimes still do, but I feel like I’ve settled into a groove and nearly every day I enjoy my job, so that seems like a good sign for my present and my future.

Keep Calm and Inshallah

I think one of the more interesting things is my own changes in perception of time and plans. One of the biggest phrases used here is “Inshallah” which literally means “if God wills it”. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that I not only didn’t understand when I arrived, but found endlessly aggravating. I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just committing to a plan, but every time I asked if someone could do something, the answer was “Inshallah”. It didn’t seem to mean anything! Sometimes it was an excuse to say ‘no’ without being rude, sometimes it was a ‘yes, assuming nothing catastrophic goes wrong’, and it could be anything in between.

Before I came here, I was really big into plans, and confirming plans with other people. Are we gonna hang out tonight? If yes, great! If not, I’m gonna find something else to do. But “maybe” means I sit around waiting for you, and you change your mind at the last minute and I miss out on something else cool I could have done if you’d made up your mind earlier today? PNW people are notorious for replying “maybe” when they mean “no”, but you can never tell the one time they’re going to expect you to follow through because they said “maybe”. I still think that’s really rude, but I think I’ve found a headspace where I can be less bothered by it through the power of “Inshallah”.

Now I know that “Inshallah” works because the whole culture embraces it. Everything is slow, no one gets upset when things aren’t on time (except my driver when my plane is late), and if it doesn’t work the way you expected you can generally get someone to help you work it out anyway. For example, once I showed up to the airport a little bit late. The check in desk had closed. In America, this would mean I was s.o.l. I’ve heard my roomie who works for an airline say this often enough. But in Saudi, Inshallah, I can still get on the plane. And I did. It was a convoluted story involving several airline employees moving me from place to place, through security, from one gate to another, and finally hand writing a boarding pass for me, but I got on the plane, and I got back to Tabuk. Ilhamdulillah (thank God). I don’t think I can live by it in America the way people do here, because the whole society supports it, but I’m hoping it helps lower my blood pressure anyway.

The Shrinking To-Do List

Because of the way that everything is so casual about when it happens, you spend a lot of time waiting here. Whether you’re waiting in line at the store, or waiting at home for some news or for your driver, or for prayer to be over so you can go out… there’s a lot of waiting. I think it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that some of the worst time in the world is time spent waiting that you could be doing something fun or useful. I spent some time in the beginning waiting in that state. Then I realized no one but me expected me to do as much with my day as I had done in the states. I could spend hours watching tv while slowly doing my laundry (cause that takes forever) or take an hour to do a self pedicure a couple times a week, or just talk to my mom for 3 hours. I didn’t have to get anything much done, and more importantly, I didn’t have to feel guilty about not accomplishing everything.

I’m not laying around all day every day, mind you. I still teach 5 days a week and go on adventures whenever I can, plus each one of these posts usually represents a solid afternoon’s work. Before, I treated down-time like any of my other mandatory health maintenance tools (like doing yoga, fixing healthy meals, brushing my teeth etc), I knew I needed it to stay healthy, but that was the only way I could “justify” spending an afternoon lounging around in my PJs marathon watching “Dexter”. Since coming to Saudi, I’ve learned that I don’t need to justify it. My to-do list doesn’t have to include a million and one activities just to look full or avoid “wasting time”, it needs to include the things that I genuinely want and need to get done, and if one of those is break out the Shisha and catch up on facebook gossip, that’s ok.

Happier and Happier

The last time I lived abroad for so long, I was still reeling from some pretty bad life experiences that I’m still not quite ready to publicly discuss. Suffice it to say, I was not emotionally/mentally healthy. So, I went through some pretty extreme emotional roller coasters caused in part by my own state, but in large part by culture shock. I felt bi-polar. I was actually really worried I was going crazy at the time, until I found out that it’s fairly normal to react to culture shock this way. (in later years I had a friend who went completely off the deep end within a few days of arriving in China and only managed to not fly home instantly because I could explain this phenomenon over a beer and convince him we could work through it). I would go through phases of loving everything and hating everything. I’d want to go out every day, or I’d want to hide inside and watch tv. I missed the people in Seattle so badly it was a physical ache. I had a six week break for the winter there and decided to go back to visit. Returning to China may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

So when I was getting ready to come to Saudi, I reviewed these experiences and sort of braced myself to have some serious emotional roller coaster-ness. What I didn’t take into account was that I’d been actively learning the art and science of happiness since about the fall of 2012 (I swear, I’m going to write about that someday). I’d started from the basic idea that my main goal in life from thence forth was to be happy. I learned a lot about how to make that happen since then. And it seems to have made a big impact on how I experience culture shock.

To start with, the extreme mood swings simply don’t exist. I’d expected to have the new place euphoria for about 2-3 months and then maybe a slump, and that happened, but neither was as big as it had been in China. Moreover, the slump coincided with some very real-world causes for sadness such as the one year deathiversary of my friend, my first experience being censored, a very serious fever/flu, a new class of absolute hellions (which I did eventually figure out how to relate to and now love), and the impending holiday season in a place where such things are illegal. But even with all those things combined with the anticipated culture shock slump, it really only lasted a couple of weeks, and I was able to find center again as the events that contributed to the icky feelings passed or were resolved.

Secondly, while I think of my friends in America often, and miss them, it’s more like fondly remembering the past and quietly anticipating a future where we are reunited. It isn’t an ache or pain. This might change if I didn’t get to chat with them online or stalk them on facebook, so I’m grateful for all the internet has to offer, but I also recognize the change from needing these people daily to bring me out of depression and looking forward to talking with them or seeing them so I can share the happy times. Mental health win!

When you like Islam, the terrorists loose.

I can’t/don’t want to go into all of the things I’ve learned about Islam while living here in this post. I’m still working on my own understanding both of the culture here and of how my feelings are changing in response. I do want to say that before I came here, I had a solid intellectual understanding that Islam does not equal terrorism. I used to try to correct people’s misconceptions, and would say things about it that I’d learned in a book somewhere, mostly because I don’t like fear, hatred or ignorance about anything. But living here, making real emotional connections with my co-workers and students and seeing how they live inside their religion, and how the fear, hate and ignorance are hurting them has really caused me a deep shift in my emotional understanding.

I’ve found myself having much more emotion-driven responses to Islamaphobic media, and defending Islam and Saudi with much more feeling than I had done in the past. I don’t think I’m going to convert or anything, but I’m extremely grateful to be allowed to see and feel things from this point of view. Sorry, I can’t really get into details until I’m back in the land of free speech, because while my overall intention is positive and supportive, it’s not all roses and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers while I am a guest in this country. Maybe when it’s all over, I’ll be able to write more about what this has meant to me and how the transition has happened as well as list out all the good and bad things I see here with new eyes, but for now, I just want to say that I can feel myself changing, growing and deepening as a result of connecting with the people here.

Islamaphobia sucks. There’s some theories that terrorist groups are actually trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims so the (large majority of) non-violent Muslims are further isolated and driven toward the terrorists for comfort and support. So, piss of a terrorist and be tolerant of Islam!

What’s Next?

Well, now that I’ve gotten my feet under me, and jumped some of the biggest cultural hurdles, I have another semester to look forward to starting in a little over a week. My last real vacation is in just a few days, and I’m planning to get some stunning pics of two Nabatean Ruins and some parts of Dubai I missed last time.

I’m looking forward to the new semester in some ways and not in others. We’ve all learned a lot about the program and each other. We’re hopeful that a new batch of students means a fresh start to avoid our previous mistakes and improve on our successes. But I’m sad because so much of what went wrong this semester means that there’s a crackdown on rules like bathroom breaks and coffee in the classroom. I’m pretty darn tired of feeling like a prison warden when my students are grown adult women, some of whom are married with children of their own. But, since I don’t have any real control over it, I’ll take what I’ve learned from the first semester and just focus on doing what I can in a positive way.

The next semester doesn’t have any breaks for 22 weeks, oh and it’s an extra week long because Ramadan will fall at the end of the semester, shortening our days but lengthening our weeks to balance the hours. I have a few weekend trips I’m hoping to take, however (Inshallah) and I’m interested to see how Ramadan goes in an all Muslim country. I’ve gotten a lot of disparaging comments from the other non-Muslim expats around, but that happens fairly often, so I take it with a grain of salt. I’m sure if this country didn’t pay us so well, 80% of them wouldn’t be here. Besides, by then I’ll be happily planning my summer adventures!

So stay tuned readers, as we continue to travel, seek, teach and learn together 🙂