Ha! Gotcha! From the title of this blog, you probably were expecting my personal in-depth thoughts on the Saudi autocracy’s recent regime changes and new royal family appointments. Or maybe even discussion about the Saudi military leadership in the Yemen situation. Noooope!
This entry is to announce I have my own little prince or princess currently residing in my uterus. As expected (though I am still mostly in denial), this is resulting in an interesting new world order for us, just as we were getting pretty well adjusted and adapting to our new expat life. What can I say…we always look for ways to make the adventure more fun and interesting, and it has definitely been both over these last three months.
Future Family breakfast (Dad and his cereal, Mama and her yogurt, and Baby and his/her bottle)
Saudi Themed Announcement (I painted it myself!)
Obligatory Human Fetus In Utero Photo
This is our first child and I’m sure there will be some unique situations as we plan to rely on the Saudi medical system to handle the pregnancy. My first few visits to the hospital and the doctors have been fun to see how the Saudi culture, insurance, and hospital processes work to handle medical situations. I can’t wait to share some of my observations. For example, the hospital we have chosen is used by the royal families who live in the area and looks like an elegant opera house and includes a salon/spa. Everything has been great so far and as most things here just requires patience. Maternity shopping will also be interesting. We stepped into a Babies-R-Us just to see what they have. The female-image censorship with black Sharpie makes me giggle (see example below). I had to go online to see what a maternity belt is really supposed to look like.
Saudi censorship makes this look like a VERY “supportive” maternity belt. Saudi censored on left. Original product image (from online sources) on right.
Part of our family planning decision was based on the experiences of about eight different awesome ladies in our similar situation (i.e. HR dept, compound, insurance, drivers, etc). They have used the Saudi medical system for most of their pregnancy and/or childbirth over this past year. It has been a good mix of first time and experienced moms. So, even though it is WAY out of my comfort zone, I hope to leverage their vast mommy knowledge, ask “girlie” questions, and get their advice on medical & logistical stuff. Wish me luck (and Josh too) we’re definitely gonna need it!! 🙂
Do you have any questions about having babies in Saudi?! Maybe I will need to answer some of them over the next several months anyways so let’s hear ’em.
P.S. Don’t expect the little nugget to cramp my world traveling too much. Assuming my body cooperates, we still have a Spain trip planned in May/June and I have a much needed hugging session scheduled in the USA this July/August.
I know. I know. I haven’t posted in a LONG time. It was a busy last half of 2014: I coordinated and prepared for the arrival of my puppies to Saudi from Saudi. Went on a few more awesome trips. Learned addicting card games (Canasta = crack). Talked to several science classes about Space Station Flight Control. Survived a temporary compound security lock down. And I’ve even picked up some new fun hobbies we can talk about when I’m back home. :-)
Momo (Lhasa Apso) and Jameson (Westie) are starting to settle in. Momo has decided he likes compound life, Jameson not so much.
I’m also coming up on my 1 year Saudi arrival anniversary (Feb 14th) which is a good time for reflection or something like that. Last year included trips to London, Saudi, Shaybah, Istanbul, Dubai (twice), Bahrain (a bajillion times), Bangkok, Bhutan, Bali, and Italy (Rome, Florence, Venice).
Amazing first year living in Saudi! Excited for the adventures in year two!!
I’m excited about this year too! Josh found out we are definitely here through 2015 and into 2016. So, I’ve started travel planning for this year. Tentatively, I’m planning Dubai Jazz Festival to see John Legend and Esperanza Spalding, Ireland for a St. Patty’s Day pre-party (early March), Japan for the cherry blossoms (late April/May), a USA trip in July followed by a Spain trip and a couple more locations in the early planning phases. I also feel that at my one year mark, I can semi-legitimately start passing out unsolicited advice about moving and living in Saudi, or least share tips on what has worked for me. 🙂 Lots of blog posts to work on. In order to keep up with the times and various media forms, I’ve created a blog Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram feed. These pages will definitely have more posts, photos, and random commentary that I’ve been wanting to share. I hope y’all have enjoyed the stories and pics I have shared so far and I’m excited to share more this year!
That was the typical response from my family and friends when we told them we eloped and got legally married (we held out for over a decade) and then immediately told them it was because we were moving to Saudi Arabia where co-habitation is not allowed.
Texans eloping to Canada because we are moving to Saudi Arabia!!
In a few days, I will have been in Saudi Arabia for 5 months. This month is also Ramadan which is an interesting time in Saudi. I thought it would be a good month to reflect and share some interesting Saudi experiences and maybe answer some of the questions I get from family and friends.
I had put off writing about some of these experiences for two reasons:
1. I do not want my experiences to come off as solely negative or complaining
I am really enjoying my time here, but it is sometimes different than how I would do things or spend my time back home. Different is not necessarily a bad thing. I make my own happiness instead of waiting for it to come to me. I like a saying I heard from a sweet lady here at my compound, “If you think the grass is greener on the other side, start watering your own lawn!” Lucky for me, it doesn’t take much for me to find something that will put a smile on my face. Also, I think a big part of my happiness is I have a really good thunderbuddy for when things do get scary, sad, or boring. 🙂
My Awesome Thunderbuddy!
2. I want to avoid my experiences being used to stereotype Arab people or those of Muslim faith and/or culture
Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, etc. Even Jubail, the city I live in, is probably different from other Saudi cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca, etc. Making broad generalizations based on living in Jubail would be like saying Corpus Christi, TX is like New York City. Regarding the Muslim faith and culture, it is a super broad spectrum even here in Saudi. There are liberals and conservatives and everything in between. I am framing my stories around the government applied rules and first hand observations/encounters in Jubail and adjacent cities.
Some common questions/themes I get about living in Saudi:
What’s it like to have lady parts in Saudi? Do you have to practice Islam while you are there? Aren’t you scared? So….what do you do all day?
What’s it like to have lady parts in Saudi?
I would compare it to being in the nerdy math and science clubs or the male-dominated engineering schools/environments….it’s SUPER AWKWARD…..for THEM (mostly)! As a result, the male-dominated religious leaders and government have imposed some rules on those of us with curves.
I’m not going to get too much into trying to rationalize the why’s, or into the history of women’s rights in Saudi, social or cultural implications of the rules on women, or my opinions on if it is really achieving its intent…blah blah blah….at least not without a beer in my hand. I’m sticking to my understanding of the rules and how the rules impact me day to day.
a) No showing signs of lady lumps (Dressing modestly) b) No non-family member opposite sex interaction (Mingling of the sexes/Male guardians) c) No driving
a) Dressing modestly
Technically, this applies to both sexes. ~99.9% of women I’ve seen wear an abaya (see pic). ~75-80% of Saudi men wear a thobe in public. Though Saudi men typically don’t wear one when working or playing sports, and expat men don’t have to wear one at all…..so that’s A LOT of men who don’t wear one A LOT of the time.
Me in an abaya and Josh attempting to wear a thobe
Anytime I plan to go out in public, I wear an abaya. I still let my freak flag fly in regards to my hair, but I carry a scarf around just in case my brown luscious locks become too much for other folks to handle. I do not cover my face. I see a range of dress in the malls/shops….some wear the full up burqa (head-to-toe black even over eyes), some show their gorgeous eyes with a niqab (ninja style), some show just their face with a hijab, and others dress just like me. This is the Saudi cultural dress to attempt modesty and I’ve been told that legal action can be taken against us by the religious police (don’t know if this is true, but I’m sure public shaming is involved which sometimes can be worse). I have not seen or been stopped by the religious police, but a couple of women told me they have been asked to cover their hair in public before.
I do not have to wear an abaya in my walled compound, or any of the other Western compounds, or either of the other Muslim countries I have visited (Bahrain, UAE). If I am getting in the car and going straight to Bahrain (2 hour drive) or going to another compound, I will wear my abaya like a cape, super-hero style, or lay it in the seat just in case I need to get out of the car. I would say I am ambivalent in regards to me personally wearing an abaya. I have days I want to rip it off and hurl it over my head US Women’s World Cup style. And there are days where I’m glad to wear it because it doesn’t matter too much what I wear underneath and there is none of the “OMG! Look what she’s wearing” bs, but with the Saudi heat, it limits how much time I wait outside to about zero seconds….
b) No mingling of the sexes/Male guardians
Technically, this applies to both sexes as well and it is pretty much impossible to consistently enforce. The way I see it, it’s like a really extreme version of abstinence-only sex ed….except here you should abstain from talking with the opposite sex to avoid so much as even thinking about sex. It affects me as a married woman because single men and all women are attempted to be physically segregated in public. Married women are considered “families”, because what married woman would go around town without a husband and has no children (cough…cough…excuse me…THIS ONE!!). In general, I haven’t been limited to where I go here without my husband.
Practically all restaurants have a “Singles” (men) entrance and a “Family” entrance, with the family entrance typically on the second floor. To apply rules a) and b), a lot of restaurants have curtains or dividers (sometimes optional) separating you from any prying eyes (like me, because I LOVE to people watch). But if you are at a restaurant/shop without a husband, you must interface with the driver/waiter/cashier and those are ~90% male, so the rules get fuzzy when business/money is involved. My most memorable and favorite experiences at the restaurants have been without the curtain. It has given us the opportunity to meet and mingle with other female Saudis. On a couple of occasions, we have had young really sweet Saudi ladies come introduce themselves. Some wanted to practice their English, some just wanted to talk and ask us questions….and of course take selfies….particularly with my “exotic” beautiful blonde friend.
Another side effect of the rule, unaccompanied/single men (like some of my husband’s co-workers) live in a separate compound on the other side of town, which adds an extra hurdle to getting together to just hang out. Adding to that, there is virtually no form of entertainment here that we were used to enjoying in the US…bars, bowling, movies, liquor stores, sports events, karaoke, breweries, arcades, go-karts, paint ball, etc. Bahrain, our neighboring country, has most of these things….and they make A LOT of money. We still hang out with the “single” guys. When we eat at restaurants, they are allowed to sit with me and my husband in the family section. Other than that, we have to get creative on our compound for recreational activities and invite folks over. It’s how I picture boarding schools…but with more challenges to that whole carpe diem thing. We also travel a lot.
Two pictures of the same building. The single entrance is on one side, and the family entrance is on the complete opposite side!
c) No driving, ladies!!
You know that saying “Be careful what you wish for….” Yeah, that applies to me. I often complained back home about 45+ min drive one way to/from work. I wished upon multiple stars, that I could have a driver (or efficient public transportation) so that I could get my breakfast in, sleep a little extra, or always have a DD. Well, I got what I wished for….
In Saudi, women are not allowed to drive (or vote). Women will be allowed to vote and run in local elections in 2015, but if I want to cruise down the street with the top down….I am SOL. Talking with a Saudi friend, his concern is safety for his female loved ones and adding more cars/drivers to the already scary traffic conditions. I can definitely understand his concern, I have the same concern for everyone. Saudi roads can get scary…like no joke, no exaggeration, they are scary!! And I’m used to driving with crazy Houston drivers. In Saudi, it feels like the traffic laws are “really more like guidelines.” Often (like ALL the time), people drive on the shoulders and those white lines on the road….pshhhh…who needs those. By the way some of the drivers stare at their mobiles all the time, I swear there must be an app that shows the road in front of you. Stories about accidents are abundant from neighbors and other expats. Sometimes we can feel the whoosh of a car as it speeds past us on the shoulder! I have never seen a cop pull someone over for speeding. There are lots of speeding cameras on the highways, but they are obviously not a strong deterrent.
Shoulder driving. All these cars are in motion!! The one on the shoulder is zooming past everyone.
A side effect of it being illegal for women to drive is we get drivers. It is a little weird scheduling and having someone drive you to the supermarket, but it is nice to have some help loading and unloading the groceries. Or if you had a weird experience at the store (like the awkwardly nice guy at the store who kept asking for my number), there is a kind smiling face waiting just outside in the parking lot to take you home. All of our drivers are from Kerala, India so I’ve had to the opportunity to learn some words in a new language, listen to some new music, and meet some really nice people. What I miss is the privacy and independence to go where I want, when I want, without checking with anyone. What makes me feel a little less bitter about it is…. all the guys working on the project have to deal with the same thing. Yay for universal loss of rights? Or as my mama would say to 16-year old me…driving is a privilege!!
Do you have to practice Islam while you are there?
No. Expats are exempt from practicing Islam, but you can’t openly practice other religions and there are government applied religious rules that apply to everyone including us. Let’s just say, it makes me appreciate separation of church and state even more. It is not that anything is hard to deal with, it just adds an inconvenience at times and changes how I do things. The big one for me is that EVERYTHING shuts down during prayer time and it is announced (sung) over loud speakers so everyone knows. If you live near a mosque (they are on almost every block), the first prayer time happens before sunrise…..uh, good morning?! It’s not a big deal for me since I am a heavy sleeper, so I’ve heard the early prayer call only once or twice. Some stores/restaurants will stay open during prayer time, but they lock the doors to new customers or the cashiers leave and you can’t check out. Prayer time happens five times a day, and four of those are during standard business hours. So if you need to go out to the grocery store or just want to hit up the mall with friends, you have to schedule around prayer times or haul ass to the next stop before they lock the doors….maybe that is why folks are always speeding?
The first time I heard the call to prayer in public was at IKEA (listen below). I was so excited I made an audio recording. I was going to see a major Saudi cultural and religious event and get to see everyone piously head out to the mosque and pray together. Uh, no. That was me with my generalizations and stereotypes in my head. In fact, there really wasn’t too much change from one moment to the next. A small percentage headed to the mosques that were built into IKEA, but many others continued shopping or doing what they were doing. The cashiers left and people just left their carts in line while they prayed or took a seat somewhere. So, it’s not a super big deal, but if you’re hungry or tired and ready to leave the store and timed it wrong….it could be another 20-30+ minutes wait before you can get in or leave the store with your stuff.
Another government endorsed, religious time here in Saudi is Ramadan. It is a full month, that among other things, most Saudi Muslims fast from food and water the entire time between sunrise to sunset (think extreme version of Lent). Expats are expected to not eat or drink in public during this time. Hours for many stores/restaurants change or shift to accommodate folks being out more at night. The main forms of public entertainment for me are shopping and eating out during the day. During Ramadan, eating out is nixed since the restaurants don’t serve food during daylight hours, and shopping is limited since many stores are closed for a big chunk of the day. I decided to take part in Ramadan and have been fasting for two weeks. It has been challenging. I have had to cheat a couple of the days and allow myself to drink water because it can get HOT here. I think I have reached my desired limit of the Ramadan experience. With not eating or drinking until night time, I have a lot less energy and don’t exercise or exert myself as much as I used to….and I’m getting antsy to run, jump, etc without getting dizzy. Quite a few expats use this time as an excuse to high-tail it out of town, but other reasons are it is summertime and Ramadan started just after school let out for the kiddos, so it has been really quiet here on the compound.
Aren’t you scared?
There is some amount of danger in almost everything you do in life. I don’t want to minimize actual dangers that exist here, but what I’m saying is there are dangers everywhere and my job is to be aware of the potentials and know how to avoid, prevent, or prepare no matter where I am. Honestly, as an introvert, I probably get more anxiety/annoyance over being in a room full of new people I have to talk to than some of the potential dangers folks typically think about.
In Saudi, my biggest fear right now is the driving and traffic accident rate. Since I can’t drive, I don’t have too much control over the defensive driving skills of my drivers, but I can control when, where, and how often I am on the road for the most part. Similar to Houston, I try to avoid heavy traffic times/places. Also, the drivers I’ve had are actually pretty good and are careful. Talking with some of them, they also highly value their lives and their goal is to come out on the other end of their Saudi journey in one piece. So we’re in it together.
My ride and one of our shopping buddies. Credit: Driving Company
MERS. What I tell my grandma about MERS is…I will avoid making out with any camels! 😉 I watch the news and stay up-to-date on where cases are reported. In Jubail and the nearby areas, we do not have the “epidemic level” that other parts of Saudi are seeing. In general, I don’t like being any kind of sick, so I try to avoid germs and sick people using standard precautions. Also, I am not old, young, or sickly….and I don’t make out with camels… so I’m not in a super high-risk category 🙂
Physical violence/Stranger Danger/Terrorists. I keep up to date on the US Embassy newsletters and I avoid the “bad sides of town” just like I do with the local Houston news when I’m back home. Due to past events targeted on Westerners, ALL the western compounds I have been to have security measures similar to US government buildings (like the NASA site back home). There are badges, guards, physical barriers, etc, but this is for your home as well as work. There are no open carry laws here and I’ve never seen a Saudi regular citizen with a weapon of any kind. So at times, I feel safer than I have back home (cough…cough…creepy guy walking into gun show who had at least three visible deadly weapons). There is still the fear of being the minority (Westerner and a woman), and not being familiar with the country or cultures, and knowing the complex history between our country and the Middle East. But I think that fear of the unknown probably goes both ways. Being different, I get a lot of stares and sometimes it is hard to read the facial and body language behind the stare. But a good majority of the time, the stares come with a smile (when you smile first) and when you attempt to speak in their language you often get a chuckle or giggle.
Ok, time for the elephant in the room:
So….what do you do all day?
I’m weird. In high school, I took summer classes for fun. I spent most of my Saturdays in high school getting up early to take tests competitively. I like to read a lot for fun. The challenges of college and stuff I learned blew my mind and I loved it (for the most part). I loved my job. It was a dream job, it was what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old.
I got a lot of concerned looks and questions about why I would give that up or how I would spend my time. I was nervous about the same thing. I would joke with folks who asked what I was going to do without a job, and told them “I don’t know, whatever the f*** I want, I guess?!” But it is kinda true and it’s really weird for me. The hard part is allowing myself to be honest about what I want and allowing myself to enjoy it and not feel guilty about not bringing home an income. Right now, I’m focusing on being healthy, making friends, and having fun…so I feel that I am bringing home smiles instead. 🙂 Fun includes cooking, games, movies, reading, working out, going out to restaurants, and traveling! I am also learning new skills like how to really clean a house, how to keep plants alive, and the complexity of mahjong. I also have opportunities to learn new languages and new subjects thanks to my Arabic tutor and the thing we call the internet, but I have to force myself not to get too academic and just have fun with it.
I also have the opportunity to plan and experiment with vacations. Our next trip is Bali, Indonesia!! Josh is really excited since he has been working hard this last month, sometimes seven days a week. I’m nervous excited because I am experimenting by doing super minimal planning!! We have our flights and hotels booked, but nothing else. I’m trying to go with the flow and let each day of the vacation be an adventure. We’ll see what happens! I’ll tell y’all how it works out!
So did I answer some of your questions? Do you have any others? Submit a question to the comments and I will try to get to them in a future post! Also, check out what other ladies think about living in Saudi here or check out the other Saudi blogs on the Links page.
I chose to visit Bhutan because it seemed like a well-kept secret. It’s often the overlooked cousin of the more athletic Nepal with its gorgeous peaks and long line of Everest-conquerors. It’s not quite as well known for the healing powers of helping people “find” happiness with the devote spiritualness of Tibet. And it’s not the go-to place like the fun, mysterious, romantic, artistic, spicy, and more popular India with its unique style of films, music, food, clothing, and body art. Instead Bhutan showed itself to be a unique and special country on its own, but also taking some influences from its more popular neighbors.
This was a semi-solo trip for me. And my first international solo holiday. So safety was an important factor in my destination decision and travel method. Nature, culture, and beer were among my other factors. Being in the desert for three months, the horizon can get a little dull at times….car, building, tent, camel (repeat). Don’t get me wrong, living in the desert can also be pleasant and also quite beautiful. Check out my pics from Shaybah this April.
Sunset over Shaybah
But, I was looking for those sexy curves of the Earth covered in soft, velvety green, gray, and white. At my job, I had unlimited and mostly unfiltered access to the best Earth porn. Here is the public version, not quite the same, but hey – it’s free and no pop-ups 🙂 As a flight controller, I was primarily interested in the photos taken of the inside of the Space Station so that I could fix the broken box. But, whew….let me tell you, the explorer in me was interested in those pictures taken out the Space Station windows and watching the live stream of Earth as our ship orbited during those overnight shifts…my mind is expanding just thinking about it….
NASA Earth Porn – Beautiful photo taken by Expedition 13 crew from the ISS of someplace other than Bhutan; Credit – NASA
Ok. Back to Bhutan.
Bhutan is beautiful. I have some great photos, but even those do not do it justice. At times, I just put down the camera, stared, and breathed in the moment with the fresh air. Well, maybe it was more like stopping to suck down gallons of air after hiking 5 minutes up an incline greater than the 15 maximum degrees of my treadmill at altitudes reaching 3988 meters (13,084 feet). But hey, it can still be incredible and leave you huffing and puffing…. Even the flight to and from Bhutan was beautiful. It was a little too cloudy on the way to Bhutan, but on the flight back I may or may not have seen Everest. Either way, I took photos of a really large, tall, beautiful mountain off the in the distance while flying across northern India.
Bhutan’s Mountain Views. Maybe one of Everest in the top right corner….maybe?
I bought a seat on a 12-day guided hiking group tour of Bhutan. I signed up primarily to have a local expert to show me around and because I was too lazy to set up my own 12 day itinerary. Also, since I was traveling by myself, I thought it would be fun to have some consistent people to potentially hang out with. (More on the pros and cons of group tour travel in a future post….maybe) Our group was small, 5 folks (4 girls, 1 dude), and we had one lead guide and a driver. Our trip took us from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha/Wangdue to Bumthang before heading back to Paro.
We hiked just about every day, sometimes twice a day. The hikes would only be a few hours, and being a Texas girl I was not used to the inclines or the altitude. The highest peak I had conquered before this trip had been Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg (130 m climb, altitude 556 m) and maybe a few hills at Garner State Park in the Hill Country (max elevation 750 m). In Bhutan, I reached an elevation of 3,988 meters!! Technically, I was driven to that elevation and then hiked down, but it still counts. I am not an athlete and I’m what you would probably call a part-time couch potato. Sometimes I’m gung-ho for a week or two maybe even a few months building up to a 5k, 10k, or even a Tough Mudder, but then, eh, I’ll feel like binge watching an entire season of Archer. Hiking in Bhutan was fine for me though. I love walking. My lungs were the only part of my body that didn’t enjoy the hiking as much. My legs and everything else wanted to keep going, but my lungs are what would make me stop and slow down. Granted I could have pushed myself harder and whipped my lungs into shape, but I currently don’t plan to move to a high elevation, and it’s not like I was going to win a medal at the end of the hike…though sometimes there was beer, but I got that whether I was first or last…so I just took my time and stopped to enjoy the view and soak it all in.
Several of the hikes took us through REAL farms, with local farmers actively working the land. I had never seen rice paddies close up, let alone walked through them. Being from Texas, we drive by farms all the time, but usually what I see are HUGE commercially owned enterprises with heavy machinery and specially engineered crops or what I hear about are plantation-esque owners who employ migrant workers to do the manual labor. My high school had a big 4H department and I’ve been to the rodeo a time or two, but even still I never had the opportunity to go for a peaceful hike through miles of farmland. In Bhutan, I saw actual farm owners working their land with their family and using every bit of what they had for sustenance. One hike we walked through the retired King’s land and right by his home. The farm and the king’s home weren’t tourist attractions, a dude ranch, petting zoo, museum, or learning center. It was just a farm and a house and we were just walking through.
Many if not all the hikes took us to a temple, monastery, or nunnery. Making the mistake of making my mental thoughts audible one day, I commented on how healthy and nicely shaped the monks’ bums must be from all the hiking up the mountain and stairs. I got a stare from a fellow traveler that had “inappropes” all over it or maybe that was directed at her husband who was laughing. Good thing I had my filter on that day, because what I was thinking was….“Damn! I bet these monks have some tight booty under those robes!” And no joke, these monasteries are at the tippy top of these mountains and if you want supplies you have to carry them up by foot or horse and I maybe saw a horse carrying supplies once.
I only have photos of the outside of the temples. The reason being that the temples are sacred religious places with gorgeous artwork and artifacts and making them into celebrities with people paparazzi’ing worshipers would not be right. It would be like someone going into your peaceful place and shoving a camera in your face. Also, the treasures inside the temples are so rich in meaning and symbolism it would be a shame for people to see them and not understand the context. For example, in one temple there was a big wooden dong placed at the top of my forehead. A simple moment that could be misconstrued. I was in the temple of “The Divine Madman” in Punakha. The Divine Madman brought a unique style of teaching Buddhism to the people of Bhutan including among other things, the phallus symbol which is meant to bring good luck and protect from evil spirits. The temple is rich in its told history and believed to be the place to receive special fertility blessings. Being someone who would like to have children sometime in the future, I took the opportunity to make an offering and receive my special blessing from a young monk which included taking a sip of saffron water, putting some on my head, and then being touched on the head with the wooden phallus and an ancient bow and arrow. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?
Beautiful Bhutan People and Culture
Bhutanese symbol for luck and protection from evil spirits
Some of the Bhutan Wildlife
Bhutanese Buildings, Prayer Flags, and other wonderful items
I have worked hard at learning to publically control my emotions, but I was overwhelmed twice in Bhutan. The first was in the temple of one of the dzongs, a transformed fortress that now holds monasteries or government administration. The dzong was in Thimphu and it was huge. The day we visited happened to be a prayer day and the large temple was full of probably over a hundred monks, even more worshipers, and a thousand Buddha statues along the walls. I had never heard monks chanting in real life let alone a hundred chanting all at once. We sat for a while just listening and watching, the deep chanting and incense filling the room. I was overwhelmed with an I-Never-Thought-In-A-Million-Years moment. It was one of those moments that I can recall all the senses. The biggest emotional moment for me was Tiger’s Nest temple in Paro. Tiger’s Nest is the Bhutan postcard. The temple was constructed in the 17th century around a cave that was inhabited in the 8th century by the man responsible for bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Oh, and a helpful tigress flew him up to said cave. I did it with my own two feet. I wasn’t expecting to be emotional about it at all. I was just focused on getting up there. But it was a bit of a feat to get up that mountain with some steep terrain. When we got to the top and my guide showed me where we started, I was so proud of myself combined with the spectacular view and another INTIAMY moment. It was pretty special. Later, I realized I accidently left my laptop in my unusually heavy daypack from not properly unpacking the night before the hike. That earned my unintended hiking companion a Bhutan sticker for making it to Tiger’s Nest.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery and some views from the climb
So, I didn’t want to tell you about Bhutan because it is unique in its identity and I want it to remain that way. I feel strongly that it is something worthy of protecting. Bhutan is wonderful and what makes Bhutan special is that it’s just itself. It’s easy going, not overly complicated, and it isn’t flashy trying to impress you or get you to buy anything. It’s that person who is naturally beautiful inside and out and just wants to hang out with you. With the increase in tourism, Bhutan is beginning to modernize, particularly in the capital, Thimphu, and bigger cities. Its modernization is probably not considered up to some North American traveler “standards” in all areas quite yet, but that’s ok. I hope Bhutan finds its own path and is not too swayed by the tourism industrial complex. Yes, it’s nice sometimes to have 20 dishes to choose from at dinner, and to be able to find a clean Western toilet (Buc-ees would have been nice a time or two), dogs barking at random hours of the night can be annoying, and what all roads don’t come paved and pothole free?! But Bhutan was the second country I’ve been to without a McDonald’s (the first was St. Lucia). The Bhutanese food was pretty basic, but it was complete, filling, tasty, and almost always included optional chilies, which was great for me. It was refreshing to not see the capital suffocating with neon brand signs and littered with take-out wrappers (though some litter was still around). Instead there were local businesses and vendors, each with their own personality. The country also seems to be doing a fantastic job maintaining its natural beauty and retaining its cultural artistry with schools. I hope that western travelers don’t push it to produce 32 oz steaks or to always have 20 different dishes on the menu (often times we didn’t even have a menu and ate family style). I shudder to think of those beautiful valleys of farmland potentially being converted to mass produce cattle and chickens for tourist consumption. I hope they never build huge gondolas up to the Tiger’s Nest and simply charge for the ride up there. Or export Bhutanese patterns, drawings, and symbols to be manufactured by the millions in cheap print and plastic factories that can be as easily bought at Wal-Mart as the majestic valleys of Bhutan.
Bhutan should simply be experienced. Tourists are well taken care of and in my encounters were of interest to the young Bhutanese who are learning English and want to know where you are from and what you’ve thought of their country. At times, I felt like I was on a parade float waving back to all the smiling waving children.
I hope to one day take my future children to Bhutan and NOT have the option of buying them chicken nuggets or to take a 10 min ride to Tiger’s Nest with the $12 tacky framed photo and stuffed animal at the end. I want them to experience minimally touched nature and engage with a different, beautifully kind culture. I also want to take my hypothetical potential children to Mars one day. But I feel that accepting and loving Bhutan for what it is and helping it grow at its own pace to retain its culture is something that can be attained instantly if you open yourself up to new experiences.
As I get older (ugh, hate to admit that), I am starting to forget things. Unlike my family (Val, I mean you!) that can remember all the embarrassing things I did and stuff I said from since I was three….I need triggers sometimes (and I’ve watched The Notebook too many times!). So, I try to jot down some of my favorite memories from my travels in small journals when I have some down time during the trip, or after we get home. Later I will go back and paste in ticket stubs, restaurant cards, etc. Here are some of my favorite “Turkish Delights” that made it to the book.
Istanbul Travel Journal
Ancient Architecture and Really Really Old Stuff
The palaces, mosques, churches, and museums are gorgeous. The buildings are so old and it is amazing what you can see and touch. Every ceiling, door, window, wall, and walkway was decorated in the palaces and mosques. We saw Topkapi Palace, Archeological Museum, Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, Yerebatan Cistern, Mosaic Museum and Dolmabahce Palace. Did I mention we were only there 5 days?!
Our first three hours in Istanbul were interesting: We got past airport security (Note: You have to buy your visa in a different line than the passport line….grrr), we checked in at our hotel (Neorion) and received an excellent personal Istanbul prebrief from the concierge while enjoying our first of many beers and Turkish mezzes. Within an hour of checking in, we walked to the Blue Mosque and got a free tour from our new friend “Charlie” who we met just outside…..conveniently the “tour” ended in his cousin’s carpet shop. Lol! Oops…tourist trap. We had even avoided some other friendly guys who wanted to help us out and check out their shop while we were taking pictures outside the mosque, I don’t know why my radar didn’t go off with Charlie. When we toured the Grand Mosque in Bahrain, we had official guides. I seriously thought Charlie was a mosque official until he started talking shop at the end. Charlie and his cousin were very friendly and gave us our first of many Turkish coffees and Apple Teas, but…we did not feel like dropping a couple thou’ or even a couple of hundreds on a carpet within three hours of arriving. Maybe if he would have given me some wine or beer instead… 🙂
So, the buildings and museums in Istanbul are amazing, but I am a HUGE nerd. Is it too much to ask for a plaque with a dissertation in at least three different languages? Ok, probably. But I want at least some information on the room, object, weapon, jewel, piece of clothing, etc. Istanbul was lacking in sharing its educational information compared to some of the London museums. Part of it was because they want you to buy the audio guide. Which to me, if you are going to put little to no information on major artifacts or not provide a map you might as well just up your price and include the audio guide and map. We bought the audio guide at Topkapi, but skipped out at Dolmabahce. Instead you can get in line for free tour guides, either Turkish or English. April is the start of the busy season, so lines were already getting long for the English tour, but barely anyone was in the Turkish lines. We waited for one tour in English, but at the next building we pretended we were Turkish. I think Josh enjoyed my translations better than the English version would’ve been.
Istanbul Palaces, Museums, Mosques
Hagia Sophia and its beautiful mosaics
Tulips and the Smell of Flowers
Istanbul in April was perfect. The whole month of April was Istanbul’s Annual Tulip festival. I couldn’t find much information on the festival online. I thought I would need to go to a certain park to see the tulips. Nope! From our taxi ride from the airport, along the highway, at stop lights, walking to the palaces, museums, in mosques, mosaics, carpets, paintings, scarves, tiles, EVERYWHERE!! It was a nice change of scenery after two months in the desert.
Tulips and Flowers Everywhere!
Eating European Style
I love walking cities!! I can eat what I want because I’ve been exercising all day….right? Istanbul is how I picture Europe in the spring. Lots of outside cafes with people drinking coffee. Café waiters all wanting to convince you that their restaurant is the best. The food was great! They also had entire cafes dedicated to sweets and Baklava. Gulluoglu has my vote for best baklava!
My favorite dinner was at Duble Meze Bar. We did it full up European style and ate, drank, and talked for almost 4 hours!! We met a great couple sitting next to us at the bar who were also expats living in India. They were so sweet and gave us some good tips heading into the Bazaar the next day. The food was excellent and the atmosphere was fun. Lots of big groups and fun people-watching. I miss people-watching at dinner! In Saudi, I have to sit in the family side of the restaurant, which is typically more secluded. Then at some restaurants they stick you behind a curtain. It is frustrating when you smell super awesome food while you are looking at the menu, but you can’t even see what the people on the other side are eating! It isolates folks from interacting with other families at dinner, but on the other hand you focus on your group/partner without anyone looking on.
European and Asian Skyline in One View
Istanbul has a beautiful skyline dotted with mosques, trams, palaces, boats, bridges, and swarms of people…and oh yeah, you can see two continents. Duble night was also one of my favorites because we had the restaurant rooftop all to ourselves after dinner. Early April was still a little too cold for the rooftop to be open for serving dinner, but our waiter let us sneak up there and enjoy the night view all by ourselves. It was really beautiful. We also enjoyed a nice setting sun from the ferry, and again we had the top deck of the ferry all to ourselves because it was too cold for other folks. I couldn’t believe it. We could see all of Istanbul with beautiful lighting and we were the only ones up there! The views from Galata Tower were great for photos! There was no limit to how long you were up there, so you could spend as much or as little time up there.
Market Scavenger Hunts
I am not a big shopper, but I love local markets because they are the best place to people-watch. It’s just a big mix of people from all over the world buying the weirdest stuff. Istanbul had two big bazaars, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. To make it interesting for us minimalist shoppers, we made it into a little Scavenger Hunt. We looked for shops that we heard folks talk about the previous days or tried to find a specific item. There is no real good map or numbers to the stalls, and sometimes we were just going on a vague description. But we found the stores we were looking for….I was sooooo tempted in the handbag (aka kryptonite) store, but stayed strong.
Istanbul Spice Bazaar
Of course! The Turkish people were great. Even if we didn’t buy the carpets or eat at their restaurants we chatted with lots of merchants about all sorts of random stuff or they helped us with directions. Before I even got to Istanbul, I had contacted a distributor for the hiking boots I wanted for my next trip, and he was so helpful in giving me options for outdoor stores in Istanbul. We saw weddings, unique pets, and street art. Our hotel staff was excellent, some of the best hotel service I’ve ever had. They were so helpful. They seemed to be in sync with all the stuff we like to do. We had Jazz Club on our list, and sure enough…in the morning hotel “paper” of tips and Istanbul recommendations, they had information on a concert going on in the club we were looking at. They even got us reservations and hooked us up right in front! I think we were the only foreigners in the club, it was great! The music was in English but all the fun banter in-between songs was a mix of English and Turkish. The band was very chill too! Great people.
Istanbul Sights and People
The only regret I have about Istanbul is not being there longer….and maybe that handbag. There was so much to do. My hiking boots were well worn in by the end of the trip! The hotel Turkish hamam was nice after the long days of walking. But we accomplished a lot in 5 days. If you have any questions or want more details on something specific in Istanbul, just shoot me an email.
My next trip starts in a couple of days. I will be heading to Bangkok for 3 days before heading to Bhutan for 1.5 weeks. I’ll be traveling to 5 different cities in Bhutan. I am expecting to be sore from smiling so much since the country measures quality of life in Gross National Happiness (GNH). I will attempt to keep y’all updated during my trip.
Josh took this photo in November on his guided tour of the town of Al-Khobar, it is about 1 hour from our city of Al-Jubail. The day after he uploaded the photos during our daily call, I immediately started asking him questions….
Me:OMG! They have a Space Shuttle in Saudi?! Why do they have a Space Shuttle? Is there a sign? What is that there for? Is there a museum or something? Are they starting a Space Program or celebrating space exploration? Does it need to be fixed cuz I can help with that?! Josh: What are you talking about?! What space shuttle? (I direct him to the photo in our Google Drive) Josh: No. That’s not a shuttle, that’s a water tower or something? Me: No! Behind the palm trees. That is definitely a Space Shuttle model. I can see the stabilizer, part of a payload bay, and a main engine. Josh: Oh. Huh. Yeah, I don’t remember. How did you see that?!
So, on our first trip to Khobar, I made sure we stopped by the Shuttle to prove I know my spaceships. 🙂
Here are the closeup photos.
Model of Shuttle Discovery Commemorating the STS-51G Mission
So…I have a small reminder of space and exploration here with me in Saudi. I also get NatGeo here which means Live from Space and the new Cosmos series!! Much needed brain food! Speaking of which….I also get my weekly fix of The Walking Dead!! Most everything else I get also get with my internet connection and various programs.
I am still exploring my new city, but seeing this Space Shuttle and showing it to folks as we drive by gives me a great sense of pride and reminds me of the rewarding opportunity I had for nine years, and inspires me to keep looking for new projects that interest me or to make those opportunities for myself.
“Hello” and “Thank you” are two basic phrases I am trying to learn first in all the new languages I am being exposed to.
I thought Arabic would be the language I would need the most here, but Saudi Arabia is diverse. Here on the compounds we have people from all over the world including India, South Korea, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, Columbia, Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Portugal, and I haven’t even met a quarter of the people who live here yet!! Also, the compound staff and what seems like a majority of the daily Saudi workforce are from different parts of Asia including the Philippines and various parts of India. The company that drives us around employs people from Kerala, India. The many different languages and cultures reminds me of working with folks on the International Space Station and the patience and understanding required. Space Fact: Astronauts from over 14 countries have visited the ISS and there are control centers in 5 different countries spread all over the world.
My hope is that learning at least some words or phrases in the other languages will show people I am making an effort to communicate and in return they will teach me something new about their language, culture, or their personal perspectives. Though, once we get past hello, a rough form of non-official sign language is also sometimes used. A lot people know some English as well, but I’ve learned that when I speak a million mph it doesn’t help! And it’s hard for me to slow down when I am excited or determined! But after experiencing confusion myself trying to understand Arabic from native speakers, I understand! I always feel like a goof when someone speaks to me in Arabic and I finally get what one or two of the words were like 30 minutes later after I’ve left the store and we’re in the car driving back.
My Arabic classes start up again soon!! I am excited to use my vocabulary and start putting more sentences together and conversing. Josh is also learning, so it has been fun to practice with him. He is learning more informal words than me since he talks more with locals. I’m still waiting for someone to teach me the bad words….though it is probably a good thing I don’t know them yet! It has also been fun to start using my Spanish a little more with some folks here on the compound.
I have tried to master “hello” and “thank you” in Filipino and in Malayalam (spoken in Kerala, India). Learning Filipino has confused the crap out of people trying to figure out “what” I am. Sometimes I forget that I don’t look like a “typical American” or Latina and I am often mistaken for being Asian. It has been a fun conversation starter most of the time, the only time I got concerned was at the passport check going to Bahrain…the officer first laughed at me for smiling in my photo (I promise I wasn’t trying to) and then asked me if I wasn’t originally from China, Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia…then he just laughed again when I said my family is originally from Mexico. Oh well.
It has been fun to see locals and folks from other countries get excited to meet and learn from Americans too. I have had friends approached by locals studying English at university. Also, we were the main entertainment when we went to visit a small hole in the wall Filipino restaurant, Kabayan, here in Jubail. We were the only Americans (me, the only female) on the whole block, let alone the restaurant. Folks were lining up to take photos with Josh 🙂
Josh at Kabayan
It’s been a fun first month and I have already learned so much. It is still a challenge for me to get into a routine, but that is part of the fun as well. We just got back from our first trip from Bahrain (more in future post) and for our next trip we are planning on Turkey!