Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bonnie's Oxymoronic Day in Saudi

When I first arrived in Saudi the people I met all informed me at one point or another that they had no friends who were, in fact, Saudi Arabian.  I suppose it made sense.  Many Saudi people tend to stay close with their families and consider their brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and parents to be their circle of friends.  It seems they’re not so motivated to meet new people, because they don’t really need new people for friends.  On the flip side, the expatriate compounds do not allow Saudi born people into them.  Mainly because Saudi people are considered, as a whole, to have conservative views and, well, Saudi-level conservative practices aren’t typically the norm at compounds and these compounds would prefer Saudis with conservative perspectives to not witness this in case complaints ensue.  The same goes for expat events like parties at embassies.  Saudis aren’t allowed in because conservative Saudis wouldn’t be happy with what they saw (No, there are no orgies or cocaine snorting happening.  Well, not the ones I’ve been to anyway. There are just a lot of men and women mixing and talking and not an abaya to be found.).  This makes for a very difficult time if an expat such as myself wants to meet people from Saudi Arabia.  With no chance to mix with them and have a proper conversation, I was limited to the odd smile (or at least smiley looking eyes due to the niqab’s blocking effect) and maybe a word or two at the grocery store.

Not meeting Saudi born people for myself bothered me.  All I ever heard from so many people here, especially when I first arrived, were negative things about Saudi Arabians.  They’re lazy, they’re angry all the time, they’re judgmental, they have a sense of entitlement, they mismanage everything, etc. etc..  But I craved conversations with the local people.  I was super curious to know more about what they thought of all this.  Maybe they could explain why so many expats look at them this way.  Maybe they could give me a new perspective that crushed these opinions and showed me that Saudi people are nothing like what those who haven’t met Saudis think of them. 

Like always, if you’re a patient person, what you wish for comes to you and I eventually began making Saudi friends.  And they are fantastic.  So fantastic, in fact, that I didn’t really care to know what they thought of how other people viewed them.  To be honest, I’m not even sure they care about what other people think of them because these Saudi friends o’mine are just too chill to bother wondering about those things.  One cool Saudi and his friends stand out as of late.  His name is Hamza.

I was due to be working in Jeddah for about ten days.  I would be there for a weekend so my friend, Asam, got me in touch with Hamza who lived in Jeddah.  Now, you have to keep in mind that, while my Saudi born friends are really great and relaxed, as I mentioned earlier, there are actually Saudi people who are super conservative or at least haven’t had much experience outside of the conservative ways of the country.  Makes sense, really.  How else could the country still have laws forcing women to wear abayas and not allowing women to drive and also place cultural and societal pressures upon women to cover their faces if people didn’t still agree with these ultra-conservative practices?  So, when Asam (who is a male for those not familiar with the name “Asam”) told me he had a male Saudi friend for me to get in touch with I was a little apprehensive.  Male-expat to male-Saudi contact can be pretty normal, but put a girl into the mix and conservative views, or even new-to-the-liberal-world perspectives (picture a guy who hasn’t been around any girls outside of his conservative family and then finally meets a girl who he is not related to and who happens to be really friendly to him - it can become very awkward very fast) can get in the way of a nice time.  Asam assured me that Hamza was not that kind of Saudi guy and so I sent him a text.

Wow, am I glad I contacted Hamza.  Have you ever heard the phrase, “Necessity breeds invention?”  Hamza’s life is the reason that phrase was created.  He knows how to have liberal fun in a conservative country (Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) and Hamza was more than happy to share his inventions with me in an entire day of activities that he had planned.  What was first on the itinerary Hamza put together for Bonnie’s Oxymoronic Day in Saudi?  Going to the beach.  Yes, I wondered why we would bother with a beach visit considering I would have to wear my abaya, in the sand, under the sun, with raging humidity.  Hamza assured me, I could wear what I want at this beach.  It turned out Jeddah has private resorts on the beach and we went to one.  It was an adorable spot with a small sandy beach that was sheltered in a small man-made harbour with high stone walls that jetted far out into the water.  Boats couldn’t even come into the harbour if they wanted because there was a significant sized reef at the end of the harbor that made the water too shallow for a boat to get through.  Add that to the oodles of bright yellow signs with red writing severely stating “NO PICTURES OR VIDEOS” and you have a beach where women who typically show very little skin to very few people can be comfortable wearing a bathing suit if she wanted to.  That equated to me being surrounded by men in everything from speedos to wet suits and women in everything from full abaya and hijab, to burkini, to board shorts and t-shirts, to one-piece swimsuits, to bikinis.  Me?  I wore a bikini.  Nothing subtle about this girl.  Sand, sun, and a bikini in Saudi Arabia? Yes, it is possible.  Yes, I was happy.

I didn’t think my life could be any cooler than being at the Red Sea, on a Saudi Arabian beach, in a bikini, and not worrying about some Mutawa (religious police) getting red faced and belligerent in a major freak storm.  That was until Hamza pulled out his shisha (some of you may know it as a hookah).  It may be hard to believe, considering that I have lived in Saudi Arabia for almost two years and on a compound where shisha smoking is the norm for almost every resident, but I really hadn’t tried smoking a shisha.  Just like I say when I tell people I hadn’t tried any illegal drugs until I was 22 years old, I just wasn’t interested.  It never occurred to me to, as travel-book author Kristin Newman says, “Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it.” Which, in Saudi Arabia, is to smoke shisha.  Luckily for me, Hamza not only loves smoking shisha, he loves to teach people all about it.

I bombarded Hamza with questions about the shisha while he set it up; where does the tobacco go; what is different about this tobacco and cigarette tobacco (it’s just tobacco, no other crappy poisonous things mixed in); why does the smoke smell so good (because dried fruit and herbs like mint are mixed in with the tobacco); how does the charcoal make the tobacco smoke without actually burning it (it sits on top of foil that sits over the tobacco and heats it up, so it’s really just steam that you breathe in); how would we incorporate smoking marijuana using this wonderful contraption (Hamza just laughed at this question)?  Finally he had the shisha ready and handed me the long pipe, mostly to try the shisha out but also possibly to stop me from asking more questions.  I placed the tip gently on my lips like all the people I’ve seen smoking shisha before me, and breathed in.  It tasted like a minty fresh cloud had entered my system and it was wonderful.  Apparently the flavour of tobacco we were smoking today was grape-mint.  A few more tips on the smoking procedure from Hamza later and I was a regular shisha smoker and thoroughly enjoying myself. 

It was enjoyable not because there was any real effect on me from the shisha smoke itself, but because of the whole experience.  Shisha smoking is like drinking a glass of red wine.  The parts are greater than the whole.  Red wine in a plastic cup is a waste of good wine.  It needs the round glass with the slender, long stem.  You need to see the redness of it swirling around, smell it as you bring it to your lips, hear the delicate chink of the glass as you place it down on the table while you gently swallow the tasty fermented grape and feel it create the tiniest buzz of pleasure as it enters your belly.  The whole process creates a feeling of peace and refinedness.  You feel a little more special somehow. 

Smoking shisha is like this.  At a restaurant you have a “shisha man” delegated specifically for all things shisha.  He brings this long, skinny, multi-piece contraption with an odd shaped water-filled glass bowl at the bottom and a ceramic cup containing the tobacco at the top covered in foil with tiny holes in it.  It sounds ridiculous but it looks exotic and distinguished.  The “shisha man” takes the pipe and attaches the flexible tube end to the shisha and passes you the end with the long, stiff pipe. Then you lean back in your chair, cross your legs, place the pipe gently on your lips and breathe in, feeling the flavour of the tobacco emanate through your mouth and into your lungs.  It’s almost sexual (at least for a girl).  When you breathe out you do it gently with a relaxed and open mouth and just let the lovely smelling smoke leave your body in a wave that caresses your face.  After a while the “shisha man” stops by, carrying hot charcoal in a small, often intricately designed, metal bucket with a long handle.  You know he’s there before you see him because you can feel the heat emanating from his bucket.  He replaces the old burned out charcoal with fresh pieces and places them carefully along the edge of the foil covered ceramic bowl.  It makes you feel cared for and gives you a reason to smile and say thank you to someone on a regular basis.  It’s such a relaxing thing just sitting back, breathing in tasty smoke from an sleek pipe.  You feel like a “cool kid,” almost jazzy, like an Arabian hipster but actually rad rather than pretentious.  Like I said, shisha isn’t just smoking.  It’s an experience.

Hamza took me shisha shopping for my own shisha later in the week.
With that shisha experience under my belt it was time for me to meet another Saudi friend, a super cool guy and a good friend of Hamza’s.  Hamza and I needed a place to get cleaned up after our day of sun, sand, and sea so he phoned his friend, Omar, who lived nearby to ask if we could use his shower facilities.  Omar was not home, but as I was coming to learn, Saudi people drop everything to help a friend out, especially a friend who has a guest with him.  So, Omar left whatever it was he was doing and came home to let Hamza and I rinse off the seawater and sweat we had bathed in all day and have a little visit.  We arrived to find Omar waiting outside his apartment building in full Saudi attire: thobe, shmagh, agaal, and designer aviation sunglasses.  There was a time when this outfit kind of freaked me out.  I blame it on media bombardment back home creating a kind of Pavlovian effect and conditioning me to equate negative “stuff” with traditional Middle Eastern attire.  Luckily, there is such thing as behavioural extinguishing, and living in Saudi shifted me from getting a little freaked by guys wearing this outfit to me thinking they can look kinda sexy in it.  (Side Note:  I plan on buying a few of these outfits to take home with me; maybe have a late night fantasy or two with any future boyfriends that come along.  If anything, the clothes will be fun to have around for costume parties.  I hope that doesn’t offend any of my Saudi friends.  If it’s any consolation, I have an ulterior motive in that having friends wear the outfit will bring back fond memories of fun times in Saudi).


On the way to Omar's after our fun day at the beach

All cleaned up and feeling refreshed I settled in to one of Omar’s sofas and chatted with the guys.  Let’s put this into perspective here.  We, all three of us, are single.  We even have to carry special ID cards called an iqama that, along with other information, indicate our marital status for officials to confirm this.  I am a female, Hamza and Omar are male.  We are not on a compound.  We are in Saudi Arabia proper, where apartment buildings as well as sections in restaurants are designated as “Single” and “Family.”  Women are not allowed in the “Single” areas.  Single men are not allowed in the “Family” areas. Me being present in a Saudi guy’s apartment is something I had figured I wouldn’t experience, not because of not being able to meet Saudi people, but because it just isn’t allowed.  But, what the Mutawa don’t know doesn’t hurt us, and so here I was hanging out at Omar’s and having a fabulous time talking with my new friends.  Hamza patiently translated much of our conversation because Omar knows a small amount of English and my Arabic is limited to about five words that are not in any way useful for conversation (I am not proud of this).  The guys asked me about my mountain biking adventures which they may have regretted because, as any of my non-biker friends who have gotten me on the topic of mountain biking know, I won’t shut up about biking back home in British Columbia once I start.  Many videos, exaggerated hand gestures, and showing off of scars followed and then it was time to go shopping for abayas.  Yes, Hamza is so amazing that, when I mentioned I needed a new abaya, he offered to take me shopping as part of “Bonnie’s Oxymoronic Day in Saudi.”

One of my fantastic girl friends from Riyadh, Haya, has frequented Jeddah on regular occasions and recommended a souq (market) that would offer myriad abayas at fantastic prices.  Haya’s recommendation did not disappoint.  I had talked about abayas in a previous post when I had an abaya custom made.  That was back when I was new to Saudi and didn’t quite understand the importance of having multiple abayas for multiple occasions.  At this point I had three abayas: the crappy one I bought in Ottawa before I moved to Saudi and now used when I was bound to get dirty, like when visiting a camel farm; the one I got custom made for me with my friend, Munira’s, help but then realized it is WAY too fancy to wear as an everyday abaya but way too hard to put on and take off when I’m dressed up for a formal event and have my hair done (I had it made so that it goes over my head to put on…lack of foresight on my part); and finally the one that I wear essentially all the time and is functional but oh so NOT exciting or nice in any real way.  Yes, I realize I just said that my shapeless piece of black material that I put on my body to cover my womanly shape from the piercing eyes of men is not exciting.  Stating the obvious, I know.  But the women here in Saudi know how to pull these abayas off with serious style.  I am enamoured with their grace and class with which they wear them.  I’m even tempted to begin wearing my head scarf because that sucker actually pulls the whole ensemble together.  So, since my new motto is to “do the thing your supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it,” I wanted to rock this abaya thing and get some style mixed in to this black wardrobe of mine.

And, in Jeddah, it is in fact possible to find an abaya with style.  I have heard Jeddah referred to as the “Paris of Saudi Arabia.”  While it’s definitely not Paris, it is more relaxed than Riyadh and other parts of Saudi I’ve visited and people have acceptance for individuality, especially with how women dress.  So I rarely see women wearing the full-face covering niqab and there are always women walking around with abayas of super cool designs and colours.  I wanted a blue one that gathers at the waist and makes me look elegant.  I told Hamza this and he took it on as a mission to help me find exactly that.  Keep in mind that I come from a small town where the guys I know work in the forest or at a copper mine and ride mountain bikes and snowmobiles for their entertainment.  I grew up with a coal-mining dad and my brother worked in the oil field.  I can honestly say I have never met a guy who likes to shop.  Then I met Hamza. 


Hamza was the opposite of every guy I had ever shopped with (unless I was shopping for bike parts).  This man actually likes to shop, and so the oxymoronic experience of my day continued.  He talked with the clerks about what I was looking for and had them pull out one abaya after another and hang them on display hooks.  He held the abayas open and helped me put them on; he adjusted the abayas on me and asked for new sizes; before I could even veto the ones I didn’t like, Hamza stated to the clerks “la” (“no” in Arabic) and re-explained what I was looking for; and when I expressed that I liked something he said, “Whatever you like.”  It was so much fun.  We went to three abaya shops, even though I thought an abaya I found in the first shop was very nice.  Hamza wanted me to be sure and encouraged me to go to more shops.  Then a clerk pulled out a lovely blue abaya covered in a simple and elegant lace with a drawstring creating sweet gatherings of pleats around the waist.  I put it on and heard Hamza say something in Arabic that I didn’t understand but could tell it meant he greatly approved.  I looked in the mirror and it really was exactly what I wanted.  Before I could even say so, Hamza had me take the abaya off after which he walked to the counter, talked to the clerk, who put the abaya in a bag, and only then did I realize that Hamza had just bought the abaya for me.  He was expecting my protest and stopped me when he said, “You deserve all of what I am doing for you and more.  You are sweet and kind and have a bright heart.  Omar thinks so too. Please, this is a gift that I want to give to you.”  Now that’s the best way I have ever been told to be quiet and say thank you.  Thank you, Hamza!

On the way to dinner in my new blue abaya

It didn’t end there.  Since I had gotten the perfect abaya as a gift I thought it wouldn’t hurt to buy myself an abaya that was a little more extravagant.  I had seen the Saudi princesses wearing abayas that are made of tons of material, flowy, and only clasp at the top but the excess material keeps things discreet; like a fabulously designed cape with armholes.  They looked so regal and I wanted that.  So, off Hamza and I went on the search, in the same way we had looked for my perfect blue abaya.  We went to five different shops and when I found what I wanted I was really excited.  It looked so amazing when I walked around in it, flowing and moving in the breeze my steps created, and it was such an indulgence for me.  Hamza was delighted that I found what I wanted and insisted he buy this one for me too.  

This is where I paused and wondered.  I had had an experience when I first arrived in Saudi when a man was buying things for me and insisting on buying more.  At first it was sweet and I thought he was so kind for the help he was giving me.  But it wasn’t long before it became awkward and a little creepy, especially when he was adamant about buying something he wanted me to wear that I had said I didn’t want. “But you will look sexy in it.” he had said.  I later discovered that this was the way men in his society pursued women and I, not being aware of his culture’s flirtation practices, didn’t pick up on it.  It ended up being a big reason why I lost my friendship with this person and I was so sad about that.  As you can imagine, I was flashing back to this when Hamza insisted on buying my version of abaya luxury.  Something was different about this situation with Hamza, however.  He was so sincere in his generosity and seemed to find great joy in gift giving.  He reminded me of my best friend, Malgosia, who just loves finding something that her friends will appreciate and buying it for them.  Hamza also knew why I was protesting - he understood my culture and how I wouldn’t be used to such grand gestures of generosity - and so assured me that I could pay for anything else that I wanted to get (except for anything at a restaurant, he insisted on that being a gift to me as his guest as well).  And so, Hamza gave me my second abaya as a gift and I got to experience the supreme generosity that is a sincere part of Hamza, and I believe part of the Saudi culture.

We left the abaya souq with me feeling completely excited about my new abayas and fully humbled to be in the presence of someone so generous and kind.  I was also starving, as was Hamza.  So to dinner we went where Hamza paid and I abstained from protesting and instead expressed gratitude.  Then Hamza happily told me he had something else he wanted to show me.  We drove to a building in Jeddah where we ascended up eight floors to a rooftop restaurant.  I was tempted to ask Hamza if he had been scrounging around my psyche because it seemed he must have known of my love for eating and lounging al fresco and how sad it made me that, in Riyadh, there were minimal restaurants (outside of compounds) to sit al fresco and feel the openness of the outdoors while socializing.  Even worse, the family sections of restaurants actually have each table sectioned off into curtained or walled-in rooms.  This, to me, defeats the purpose of going out to eat.  In my opinion, if we’re going to go somewhere to eat where we’re inside a room and cannot people watch and gain a sense of existing amongst fellow human beings who are not our immediate friends and family then we might as well stay home and order food in. 

So, when Hamza and I stepped out of the elevator and onto the rooftop patio I was elated.  We were seated at the wall where we could look out over Jeddah and see it’s nighttime skyline.  Soon a shisha was by my side and drinks (non-alcoholic of course; Hamza had been making this day atypical of my usual life in Saudi, but he was not a miracle worker) were ordered.  I was contemplating how fantastic my day had been when two of Hamza’s friends showed up.  Saad (pronounced “sa-ad,” not “sad” as in unhappy), a smiling guy who works at the airport and likes to help his friends get extra baggage onto their flights even if it means he gets into trouble (are you seeing a pattern of generousity amongst these Saudi folk?  I know I do).  Zayna, Hamza’s other friend, is completing her Masters in Biochemistry and works at the hospital when she’s not studying.  I wanted to talk more with her about her research but our chatting about the fun I had during the day got in the way.  Zayna and Saad were followed shortly after by Omar, no longer in his traditional Saudi attire but still as friendly as before.  We all quickly got to talking and laughing.  I watched the guys carry-on with each other, as guys tend to do, and tease Zayna making her sweet spirit shine through her smile.   Through lots of Arabic, Hamza encouraging those who could to speak in English, and me testing out the few words I knew in Arabic, we chatted and laughed and I discovered new and wonderful friends.  

Enjoying the rooftop

You would think I would end my blog post there but Hamza just continued on with treating me to another happy surprise.  Earlier in the evening, during my mountain biking conversation with Hamza and Omar, I had talked about my best friend, Megan, and how she had been the one to introduce me to the biking world.  I had told them how much I missed her, and even more than usual on that day because it was her birthday.  Hamza took note of this and made an arrangement with the wait-staff at the rooftop restaurant.  So, just before our already fantastic evening was ending, I heard a pop-rock version of the “Happy Birthday” song playing over the sound system and noticed the entire wait-staff bouncing over to our table with a sparkler burning bright on a piece of chocolate cake with “Happy Birthday, Megan!” written in chocolate syrup on it.  Hamza arranged it so I could celebrate my best friend’s birthday even though I was a world away from her. He recorded the entire thing and I sent the video to Megan straight away.  She was delighted.  It was all so sweet and special and unbelievably thoughtful.  

Megan's cake

So there we all were, on the Jeddah rooftop; me the pale-skinned, blue-eyed Canadian chatting, laughing, and eating Megan’s birthday cake with the kindest, friendliest, and most beautiful Saudis that I had been supremely blessed to meet.  I couldn’t have asked for a better day and I have Hamza to thank for that.

In Joy,

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Saudi Arabia in a New Light - Part Two: The Extension

In Part One I mentioned that I came back to Saudi Arabia from my West Coast “retreat” feeling rejuvenated and clear headed.  I didn’t mention that I also came back with a project to work on, and that project was the process of obtaining a house.  No, not just a house, a Piece of Heaven.  I am not going to go into any more details.  At this point in time things are still being worked out and, while I’m feeling positive about things coming together, it’s not quite definite yet.  The only reason why I’m mentioning it is because Piece of Heaven plays a big role in the latest situation I have found myself in with regards to my life in Saudi Arabia.

I have said that, if Saudi Arabia is anything, it is a gift to those of us desiring to gain financial freedom.   In the process of me finally recognizing this of Saudi, it has also allowed me to finally admit that it is one of the big reasons for me being here.  My job here is amazing and I gain so much goodness from it both with career-based experience and with the joys that the smile and gorgeous dimples of the boy I work with bring; but let’s face it, I would not have come here if the money didn’t make moving to a desert on the other side of the world worth it.

What am I getting at here?  Well, something happens when you decide to buy a house.  As many people already know, bank accounts get drained and require refilling.  Take this fact and add to it my new positive perspectives and outlook on life in Saudi Arabia, plus the wonderful friendships that I’ve developed with people here, plus the motivation that comes from seeing the therapy you provide to a client actually create positive gains, and you have the perfect storm for making it worthwhile to stay in Saudi Arabia a little longer.

Yes, you heard correctly.  I was asked to stay in Saudi Arabia for another few months and I agreed to do it.  It really makes total and complete sense in all aspects.  There are lots of benefits in the realm of my work here (that I won’t get into because, for confidentiality reasons, I don’t like to put details of my work in my blog), I can continue to experience personal growth through my epiphanies now that I understand myself and my relationship to Saudi more clearly, and I can get my financial foothold back after investing what savings I currently have into a property that is the epitome of peace and harmony.

And so, here I am, staying in Saudi Arabia for an extra four months.  I am actually at peace with this.  There are definitely times when I wonder if I can make it through, but that is just a remnant of old thought patterns that still float around my now open-minded and positive mind frame.  I don’t engage with those thoughts anymore and, instead, think about all of the wonderful things that will come from just a few extra months of remaining in Saudi Arabia.  And wonderful things will happen because I am in a positive place now.  I have come to recognize that thoughts become things, as Mike Tooley says, and so I choose the good ones.

In Joy,

p.s.  Thank you to everyone back home who are playing a part in keeping my life back in BC in order for a few extra months.  Sky, Jared, Chai, Piece of Heaven, Westie and my sanity all thank you to the moon and back!

Saudi Arabia In a New Light - Part One: The Shift

I came back to Saudi Arabia after my “work-ation” in California and my vacation at home and I felt rejuvenated to the Nth degree.  On top of that I had less than six months left in my contract, adding to my sense of lightness.  What I also had was a realization that I had made during a brief conversation with a sweet and dear friend at home, Sashie. 

Sashie and I talked about my period of down’dom that I experienced in the late-winter/early spring and how I had a deep-seated fear of it happening again.  Depression is scary when you’re in it.  It feels like you are in a hole of darkness that you will never get out of no matter how hard you try.  It keeps you from seeing things clearly, which makes shifting into a positive mind-frame essentially impossible even though you know that it is the best thing for you to do.  During the conversation with Sashie she helped me to feel human about it all.  She helped me recognize that, even with all that I know about meditation and the ways that the perspectives we take shape our mentality and happiness, it is still possible to get lost in a cavern of darkness.  As I had said to Sashie, I had been thinking that I should know better and that I had done something wrong to let myself get so down.  Sashie brought me back to reality and got me on a path of recognition where I was able to see how it all happened and forgive myself for going into that dark place.

My refreshed and rejuvenated brain that came from my West Coast “retreat” and my new sense of recognition on how my depression came about created the clarity I needed to be able to see things with regards to Saudi differently.  I see now that, in many ways, I actually knew that I was digging a hole for myself to become depressed and it all boils down to resisting change.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, my philosophy in life is that the only constant in life is change.  I have also mentioned that I LOVE change.  You wouldn’t have thought that if you were in my head during my first year and a half here in Saudi.  You see, if you are a lover of change then you have to be someone who lets things go; who allows things, situations, people, circumstances, ways-of-being to simply leave when the flow of life sends them away.  These all need to go in order to create space in your life for new things, situations, people, circumstances, ways-of-being to come in and shape you into an evolved and greater version of you.  It’s like shedding an old skin and in order to allow a new you to breathe and expand. 

I didn’t realize it until recently, but I was scared to shed my skin and expand here in Saudi.  When I left British Columbia I was so happy with the person I had become.  I was in love with that person.  She was the best version of me I had ever experienced.  I felt that British Columbia had created that person and somehow, without realizing it until now, my subconscious mind felt that I could only be that best version of myself in BC.   I’m not sure why I felt this exactly, but I have a feeling that I was afraid of becoming something I didn’t want to be if I allowed Saudi into my psyche and let it change me. 

I most likely was afraid because I was initially surrounded by negativity in Saudi.  Anyone I met during those first six’ish months, except for a select few people, were people who took the glass-half-empty perspective on life.  I thought that it was living in Saudi that did that to them.  Understandably so, Saudi Arabia is not an easy place to live.  But I was wrong.  Saudi didn’t cause these people to exist in negativity, their own perspectives on life did.  And it is no surprise that, with me holding on tight to the person I was back in BC, I created a breeding ground of stagnation where my psyche couldn’t move, couldn’t change freely, and so couldn’t gain clarity and see the positivity that was hiding behind the negativity surrounding me.  I soon found myself sucked into that zone of negativity that I so feared because my mind wasn’t open to the possibilities that living somewhere new, exotic, and strange could create for my personality.

My footprints in the Saudi sand.

The negativity came not just because I was holding onto my BC-self too tight; I was also holding on to BC and refusing to let go.  I compared Saudi to BC over and over and over again.  The problem is, when you’re in love with a place and so utterly attached to it you will never ever find another place that lives up to the standards you created.  And, again, me being the change loving person that I thought I was; I ended up doing myself a grand disservice by remaining attached to BC in this way and not allowing Saudi to show me the possibilities for goodness that it holds within it’s beige walls.

I finally saw how resisting change within myself and by remaining too attached to the place I call home was creating my depressed state.  So, after returning to Riyadh in August I began to peel off that skin that was the “BC me” and I decided to leave my thoughts of BC to float around as they please without hanging on to them as if my life depended on it.  This created room for the person that my experiences in Saudi had been shaping all along to finally breathe deep and expand.  And it allowed for me to shine a new and clear perspective onto Saudi Arabia so that I could see it for what it really is.

"Edge of the World" in Saudi Arabia

And what is the Saudi Arabia that I see now? It is a place that has given me access to travelling opportunities I had never imagined I would get; London, Paris, Lebanon, Switzerland, California, Jeddah, Ha’il, Sri Lanka.  It is a place that has deserts of raw beauty that take your breath away and only a select few people in the world get to see. It is a place that has given me the gift of financial freedom and has changed my relationship with money for the better. It is a place that contains amazingly lovely people from all over the world that I am lucky enough to call friends.  It is a place that has opened my mind to cultures and world perspectives that I didn’t even know existed.  It is a place that has helped me gain greater understanding of global issues.  It is a place that has given me opportunities to expand my abilities in climbing.  It is a place that has given me the experience of five star living (which has allowed me to appreciate camping so much more). It is a place that has camels who are happy to wrap their long necks around me in an affectionate embrace. Saudi Arabia is a place that holds grand possibilities for experiences that allow me to grow into a better person.  Saudi Arabia is a place that does in fact have love and light within it’s walls, you just have to actually open your eyes up and clear your brain of any blocks in order to see it.  Now that I have done that I am being inundated with wonderful happenings and even more positive and loving people to call friends.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to live in Saudi Arabia and it is time that I see it for the positive place that it is.

In Joy,


Keep reading for an important update on my Saudi Arabian experience in Part Two: The Extension.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Home Is Where You've Felt The Most - The California Cure

Those of you who have read my blog posts in the past know that I like to be positive or, at the very least, write about negative experiences only when I find the positive silver lining underneath it all.  Those of you who follow my blog (Hi Mom and Dad!!) probably noticed that it has been months since I’ve posted anything.  The reason for this is, while I’ve had intermittent periods of positive experiences and feelings in Saudi Arabia, I’ve been sad most of the time.  I mean ugly-face-crying-in-the-morning-for-days-on-end kind of sad.  There was an undercurrent of unhappiness for a long while and I just couldn’t bring myself to write and didn’t dare force myself to write something that would radiate negative energy onto anyone reading it.

Luckily for me, things have shifted.  A light came into my tunnel of sadness and everything brightened up.  That light has a name, and it’s name is California.  As some of you may recall, I traveled last year with the family I work for to London and Paris.  This year, Alhamdulillah (aka Thank You, God), we went to Southern California.  Oh, just typing out that word, California, sends positive vibes through my entire body.  When I found out we were traveling to Los Angeles I knew the potential for goodness was there.  It’s the west coast of North America after all.  It’s the southern version of British Columbia as far as I’m concerned, and anyone who knows me knows all about my unconditional love for my dearest BC.  Yes, California brought me out of my long-term funk and caused a happy shift that was unexpected.  It made me feel like there may be another “home” out there for me other than British Columbia.  *GASP!*  I know.  How can it be possible when my love affair with BC has been so strong for so long?!  Well, my dearest family and friends, as I’ve said before, change is the only constant in life and oh how I love to flow with change.

What could possibly be so great about Southern California that would make me think I could belong there as well as British Columbia? 

I could tell you about the purple flowers covering the beautiful Jacaranda trees when I first arrived in SoCal and how their fragrance woke me up and encouraged deep breaths as I ran through gorgeous Beverly Hills neighbourhoods during my morning workouts.

Climbing in Malibu

I could tell you about rock climbing in Malibu; how the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks that lay just below me distracted me in the most fantastic of ways, creating a feeling of nonchalance even though I struggled during my climbs.

I could tell you about biking along the winding path that took me from the beautiful bodies lounging on Santa Monica Beach, to the eclectic characters roaming along Venice Beach, to the sights of kayaks and sail boats floating in Marina Del Rey, to the LAX flights that flew overhead while biking along Play Del Ray, Dockweiler Beach, and Manhattan Beach, to a final stop for beer and fish tacos at Hermosa Beach.

I could tell you about the exhilaration of riding on the back of a motorcycle, speeding along freeways, weaving through cars on traffic filled streets, and feeling the air turn from warm to cool as we drove up into the hills to gain a panoramic view of the San Fernando Valley while the wind whipped past me and the sun set all too quickly.

I could tell you about all the surfers with their delightfully tight bodies, bleached hair, and freckled shoulders paddling their boards out into the Pacific Ocean.

Setting up top-rope in Stoney Point

I could tell you about the dust and dirt that covered my sweat soaked face and arms while I trekked with new friends to yet another amazing climbing route in yet another gorgeous Southern California park under the mid-day sun.

I could tell you about the Farmers Market at the Grove and it’s many variants of smells from international foods that filled my nostrils and it’s adorable jewelry vendor who described his vision of a flame of insight centred in my heart as he held the chalcedony bracelet that I was about to buy.

Brunch at Cafe Gratitude

I could tell you about so many things: the comedy club, the large and lovely lady with her headphones on dancing like she was in a music video in the middle of the sidewalk, Café Gratitude and it’s delicious raw vegan menu, the friends-of-friends I was introduced to but didn’t have nearly enough time to get to know better, the mentally unstable people roaming the streets who can be disturbingly astute, and the sidewalks built especially for horses just outside of Santa Monica.

But what I really want to tell you about is the way SoCal made me feel and to do that I need you to know about the people.

As is typical with the best times had in life I had a random and unexpected occurrence happen.  It was while shopping for my climbing rope.  I received help from a cool guy named Corey who turned out to be a hub where fun times and great people rotate around.  Luckily for me, Corey decided I was worthy of an invite to a day of climbing with his friends.  A few days later he had set up a drive for me to the climbing spot.  Soon I was driving and chatting with his friends, as we drove from Santa Monica, along the Pacific Palisades, to a beach in Malibu where we would be climbing. 

Relaxing with new friends

I was so happy to simply be climbing, the fact that I was climbing at a beach was a bonus.  It wasn’t long, however that I began to realize something even better was happening and that I may have found what I like to call “insta-friends.”  I started to get to know the people who drove me.  Ian and Hailee are a couple involved in the film industry.  Ian directs the photography for the coolest of documentaries and short films many of which, be still my heart, are of snowboarding, climbing, and biking.  Hailee is probably the hardest worker in the realm of commercial filming with barely a day off and yet she still manages to stay chill and fun.  At the beach I also met, Joanne, the first person I have ever come across who had a genuine interest in and knowledge of the Middle East, as well as the sweetest of hearts, setting off a quick connection.

These people, Corey, Hailee, Ian, and Joanne, became my friends in California.  In a place where I expected to feel like a stranger, they made me feel welcomed.  They engaged me in conversation and made me realize that my life in Saudi Arabia is, in fact, interesting.  They moved me past feeling jaded to actually recognizing that I have had pretty cool experiences in that intense sandbox.   Beyond Saudi Arabia they talked with me at a level where I felt connected at the heart; where we described insights and lessons learned about topics ranging from bad boyfriends, to sex, to traveling, to inner-city children.  I found out about where they grew up and their relationships with their siblings.  They learned about my journey from growing up as an anxiety-filled nerd into who I am now.   Through conversations both planned for and taken on a whim of opportunity I ended up on a level of discovery with people that I barely knew, making me feel honoured to have been welcomed into their worlds without hesitation.  I had been given a sense of belonging and with that a sense of home.

That belonging that I felt in California with these amazing people is what I feel with my wonderful friends back in BC.  It surprised me and opened my eyes to a realization that there can, in fact, be more than one place in the world that just feels right.  I suppose this is something that many avid travelers experience.  I wonder if they also feel the confusion that I’ve been feeling and if they have internal debates on how to be in both places to experience and discover them each to the fullest.  It’s a wonderful debate to be having and I feel like the luckiest person to have been introduced to such a wonderful place as California and the amazing friends that live there.

“Home is where you’ve felt the most.” – Helen Humphries The Lost Garden

In Joy,