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,


Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Car Accident in Saudi - It Was Bound to Happen to Me

One of the first things people told me when I moved to Saudi Arabia was that things move very slowly here, unless you're in a car.  They weren't lying.  As I've mentioned in past blogs, people drive fast here.  Let me rephrase that, men drive fast here, and many of them are hot-headed and reckless when they drive.  So, even if you have a calm and sensible driver on the road there's still a lot of danger involved because there are so many overly confident and short-sighted drivers that can screw with the safety that a good driver is trying to maintain.  Essentially, the longer you live in Saudi, the higher the chances are that you will be in a motor vehicle accident.

I have been in Saudi for a little more one year and my accident-free days are now over.  Just as I was getting used to the swerving in and out of traffic, the near-misses, and the speeding past cars to be the first in line at a stoplight I got a wake up call.  My driver and I were in a solid accident on the Saudi highway.

Getting in a car accident here is definitely a rant-worthy occurrence.  I could go on about how much it drives me crazy that I can't drive my own car and rely on my own defensive driving skills to get me safely to and from work.  I could go on about the over-confident drivers that get insulted when I put my seat belt on and say, "I've been driving for many years in all kinds of vehicles.  You don't need to wear a belt.  I can drive over the 120km/h speed limit and still keep you safe."  But, you've heard it before, so I'll leave you to read that in my other blog posts (check out point #4 here; and read this blog post here).

Instead of a rant I think that simply sharing my experience is actually entertaining enough in a semi-sadistic sort of way.  You see, in Saudi, accidents are dealt with in a very different way from home:

It was a typical drive home from work.  I have two different drivers that take me home at the end of the day.  This day, thankfully, I had the calm, go-with-the-flow driver.  We were heading along the highway with a solid amount of traffic around us, which I'm also thankful for because it meant we were going 90km/hr instead of 120km/hr.  What is not so typical is that my driver was traveling at a good distance from the car ahead of us.  So when that car (who, as per usual, was tail-gating the car in front of him) slammed on his brakes to avoid a rear-ender accident he lost control and swerved in and out of the lane me and my driver were in.  There was room enough to slow down, but not room enough to avoid hitting the car.

Even though I saw it coming it didn't prevent me from losing my glasses (not a happy thing for a girl who is legally blind without them).  I eventually managed to find them under the seat in front of me.  Then I realized I didn't have my abaya on.

**Let me pause here and explain that I am absolutely supposed to have my abaya on when in public.  The thing is, I don't quite see the inside of a car as "public."  I get in the car and out of the car while on private property and I simply hate being forced to wear that black piece of material.  So, not wearing my abaya in the car is my own little form of protest.  I do, however, make sure my shoulders are covered, just to keep the peace...sort of**

I quickly pulled my abaya from my bag and undid the seatbelt buckle to put it on.  Then I realized that, knowing Saudi traffic, there's a good chance someone could drive up to the accident scene too quickly and rear-end us.  So, back went my seatbelt into the buckle and I struggled to put my abaya on through the straps.

During the process with my abaya my driver had gotten out of the car to talk, animatedly and angrily, with the driver of the car we hit.  I sat and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I assessed my physical state, some bruises and my neck was a little stiff, but all was well.  I waited some more.  My driver came to my door and, in Arabic, said something that I believe was a question as to my state of health.  I told him I was fine.  Somehow he understood what I meant.   My driver was definitely hurt.  Not imminent death kind of hurt, but he was a hurting unit for sure.  I asked him if he was okay.  He didn't understand that.  He walked away.  I waited again.

The police arrived fairly quickly and talked with the drivers.  I waited.  I wasn't quite sure what to do.  I was a witness to the accident.  I saw it all quite clearly.  I was happy to give a statement.  Yet the police didn't even come to the car to ask if I was okay.  I didn't want to get out because cars were still driving by (yes, we were still parked in the middle of the highway).  So, I continued to wait.

Finally, the police had the cars moved to the shoulder of the highway.  They had passed by my door many times at this point.  Still, no one checked in on me, except for my driver.  I called a friend and asked what I should do.  He said he would come get me.  Ah, but this is Saudi.  He can't pick me up in his car.  Women in Saudi aren't allowed to drive in a vehicle with a man who isn't their husband, father, son, or an official driver.  I needed to find a friend who could come with his wife to get me because it didn't seem like anyone else was going to do anything to help me.

I managed to have someone come for me.  I actually could have left without anyone caring.  I didn't want to do that to my driver, though.  I could imagine him finally finishing up his arguments with the police and the other driver only to find me gone followed by his ensuing worry.  I got my Arabic speaking friend on the phone with him to explain that I was being picked up by friends.  My driver nodded his head, "okay," and off I went.  Gone from the scene.  Not once did a police officer even acknowledge my presence.  Not even a hint of an ambulance siren let alone an actual ambulance, even though my driver was clearly in pain.

And that was it.  That's how my first car accident went down.  I'm still a little amazed at the disregard of the police officers.  Whether it's the fact that I'm a woman or that police just don't care so much about passengers involved in motor-vehicle accidents, I don't know.  What I do know is that I much prefer the processes and due-diligence that highway officials are subject to following in Canada.  Just another experience in Saudi Arabia for me, I suppose.  I'm super grateful that I ended up with just a sore neck and my driver turned out to have only a bruised chest.  As they say here in Saudi, Alhamdulillah.

In Joy,


Friday, March 21, 2014

"It Will Be Awesome!!"...and other musings about my latest defining moment

Have you ever looked back on your life and been able to recognize events that shifted everything?  Events that took you off a path you were happily trucking along and caused you to change and evolve in completely unexpected ways?  Defining moments - that's what I like to call them (or maybe it was Dr. Phil that I got the phrase from).

I've had a lot of Defining Moments.  My life always seems to be shifting and changing.  Moving to Saudi Arabia is just one of many of these change-based Moments, albeit it's definitely the biggest and quickest changes I've had.  The thing about moving here, though, is that it was just meant to be a temporary change and then I was going to go back home to BC and carry on with my outdoorsy fun and my speech-language pathology career.  Of course, I knew that my eyes would open to crazy and amazing experiences and my perspectives on the world would change, but that was about it.  Ah, but this is me we're talking about.  The momentum of my life tends to dictate more permanent shifts and, not surprisingly, it seems that I've had a Defining Moment within my Saudi Defining Moment.

It started with a conversation with Jack, a rad guy living here in Saudi who's become my best friend.  The conversation was about a thought that has played in my head ever since I started mountain biking; "Wouldn't it be cool if we had a hostel to accommodate the super cool bikers and outdoorsy folk who visit my town?"  When I said this aloud to Jack he replied, very matter-of-factly, with, "Why don't you do it?"  Let me put this into perspective and give you a bit of background on Jack and me at that point in time.  Jack is who I would call the ultimate "businessman."  Someone who's been buying and selling goods since he was a kid.  Literally.  When he mentioned business'y things to me his voice would start sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher and I would just nod and smile until he recognized my glazed look and changed the subject.  The hostel conversation was different.  Even though I laughed at his reply, he continued on the topic.  For the following 20 minutes he had me explain my finances, give ballpark figures on housing costs, potential income from hostel beds and hostel services, minimum wages, costs of living, and tons of other numbers and figures.  He did impressive math in his head and when he was finished he said, "This is something you could do."

Of course he meant something I could "do" financially and I would be keeping my S-LP work going while I was "doing" it.  So you can understand when I replied in a very high pitched and sarcastic voice, "Really, Jack?"  I proceeded to remind him about my complete lack of business-sense, business experience, and even interest in business'y things.  But he had me.  Jack had finally piqued my interest in something business'y and he kept rolling with how businesses really worked.  By the time he was finished I came to realize that, as my lovely entrepreneurial friend, Amy, says, "Business is simple.  It's hard, but simple."  I can do hard;  especially if it's straightforward.  Better yet, this hostel-thing would be SO FREAKING COOL!

Everything shifted in my brain after that.  It was like Jack had taken a mixing spoon, dipped it into my skull, and stirred my brains around.  When it all settled down I knew the life I would be leading when I moved back home would look nothing like I had originally imagined.  It was going to be better.  Harder, but better.

So, now where does all of this put me?  Let's be honest here, I've got a lot to learn.  So, this hostel-thing will take time to develop.  A lot of evolution is going to happen in terms of what it will actually look like when it's time to break ground and even afterward.  I say "hostel-thing" on purpose because the evolution has already begun.  Since I seriously started planning this business six months ago it has warped and changed into some pretty cool things that, in many ways, don't look like a hostel at all.  My main goals for it, however, have not changed.  This "hostel-thing" is going to bring the people I love to be surrounded with together: the nature lovers, the bikers, the hikers, the outdoor extremists, the yogis, the meditatives, the animal lovers, the gardeners, the musicians, the lovers of life, the lovers of love.  It will bring the visitors to my town together with the resident community that I hold so dear to my heart and soul.  It will combine the love of fun, nature, and learning.  It will be a place in my community where people feel good, nay, feel great.  It will be a place of happiness and heart.  It will be awesome!!

I sound so confident.  And I am confident, about the absolute awesomeness of this place that I am creating and how good it will be for my town.  I'm also scared beyond reason to do it.  But I will.  I will learn. I will work hard.  I will take risks.  I will take criticism.  I will take praise (oh please let there be praise).  I will cry.  I will snap out of it.  I will grow.  I will ask for help (dearest friends, please be patient with me in this area).  I will start small and make it bigger.  I will keep going.  I will keep going because it's the only way to go from being a beginner at something to being great at something.  And this business, this "hostel-thing," feels oh-so-good to me.  It deserves to become something real.  It deserves to be as wonderful as it feels to me in my heart.  Most importantly, my community deserves to have something awesome.

Now that I, hopefully, have you just as excited about this business venture o'mine as I am, you might consider helping a beginner out.  I'm starting some market research to get a feel for how the different ideas I have might pan out.  If you're in a giving mood and have ever given a course or a workshop of any sort please head on over to this quick four question anonymous survey for teachers and trainers.  If you are not a teacher or trainer but are still in a giving mood then I have something special for you.  Have you ever taken a workshop or course that wasn't in a typical classroom?  If so, head on over to this quick three question anonymous survey for lifelong learners.  Thank you SO much for your support in my newest adventure!

In Joy,

p.s. Check out Amy's awesome aromatherapy (and then some) business, The Blending Bar.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Last Night I Cried

Yes, I did.  I cried.  Not because I miss home after being there for vacation; and not because I've got a pretty nasty cold/flu virus at the moment (probably from not balancing my fun with rest while on said vacation).  Last night I cried because I got clear on something that I've been grappling with ever since I moved to Riyadh.  Compassion is lacking here.  Kindness is lacking here.  Love is lacking here.  And it is needed oh so badly.

I'm immersed in the Saudi "world" a lot.  I'm out in the city quite a bit and am often amongst the people who live the general Saudi life.  Basically, I deal with the "essence" of Saudi Arabia that exists outside of expatriate compounds very often.  This means that I'm exposed to the many many MANY people who move into Saudi for work (one third of the population of Saudi Arabia are expatriate workers).  Unfortunately, many of these workers come from developing countries or circumstances that cause them to take jobs that pay them sub-standard wages, cause them to live in sub-standard conditions, and have managers who treat them with sub-standard fairness.  Now I, by no means, consider myself an expert on the state of affairs when it comes to the general Saudi workforce.  And I truly believe that there are good situations for many of the people who come to work in Saudi Arabia.  I only know what I've been told and what I've seen.  What I've been told is that things are not great here for a lot of workers who hold passports from countries whose embassies don't have a lot of clout.  What I've seen is this information being supported.  It breaks my heart.  I can't fathom how these workers manage to do the work they do under the conditions they do them.   It tortures me that I can't do something to make things better for them.  I'm disheartened that they don't do something to make working conditions better for themselves.  It frustrates me that I don't understand why this continues.  This is why I cried last night.

Many of these lovely and wonderful people come here to better their circumstances for when they return home.  Unfortunately, what seems to happen is that, through various occurrences involved with working here, they turn into people with hardened hearts.  Just based on my interactions with expat workers in the Saudi service sector, I've experienced okay service for the most part but when the service is poor, oh dear geezus, it's completely miserable.   These people, I'm certain, have hearts of gold and oodles of kindness to give yet they are quick to get defensive and spew anger at me over a simple statement of dissatisfaction.  This, unfortunately, is not what saddens me.  I can go home and reflect and shake off the negativity.  The most bothersome part for me is that I've experienced these people - with their lovely souls hiding behind hardened hearts - throwing anger daggers at each other.  What they need most is to support each other and be kind to each other and, instead, they hurt each other and increase the misery within their already sub-par situations.  My heart breaks when I see this.  This is why I cried last night.

Ah, but don't let me lead you to believe that I'm a saint in the interactions that I have with some of the workers here.  Those interactions that have erupted into anger are not just a result of one party's frustrations.  I have let my irritations transform into anger as well, causing the situations to become  serious messes that leave me exhausted and ashamed.  I know better than to allow anger to come into the mix of negotiation.  I know better than to get angry at all.  To be honest, until moving to Saudi, I don't remember the last time I got legitimately angry (alright, it may have involved a disagreement with an ex-boyfriend... but that was at least half a decade ago).  The point I'm trying to make is that I am often afraid that the hard-heartedness that exists here is drawing me into that negativity.  Just when a person needs compassion and kindness the most, I've gone and spewed my own anger daggers at them.  When I could send smiles toward someone with a grumpy face, I've looked away.  When I could have let a silly misunderstanding go and walked away feeling positive, I nit-picked and negatively expressed my displeasure.  This is why I cried last night.

So what do I do now?  I recognize that I am very very lucky to be from Canada and, like other expatriates in Saudi who come from wealthy European, American, and other westernized countries, I have free time and energy to reflect.  I stop crying and I smile, at myself and at others.  I stop crying and I show kindness, consideration, and compassion.  I stop crying and resolve myself to take deep breaths, shake off irritation, and proceed with patience and an open heart anytime that I feel wronged in the future.  I stop crying and I look at these experiences in Saudi as a lesson in humanity and I thank whatever powers that be for teaching me the importance of compassion.  I stop crying and I love.

In Joy,

This is a TED Talk that speaks a bit of what I'm going to do now.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Another Year in Saudi

Last month was a month of reflection for me.  It was time to make the decision to stay in Saudi Arabia for another year, or to head home to British Columbia as originally planned.  It wasn’t just the need to make this decision to renew my contract that got me reflecting, however.  It was also because I was finally able to understand, with real coherence now, that I was beginning to see my life in Saudi a little more clearly.  Something that definitely became clear was that I always knew I would stay for a second year, but I was too scared to admit it to myself.  It was obvious that I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of staying but intuitively I knew it was going to happen.  For the first nine months in the Kingdom, I was searching for a way out of this gut feeling telling me I was going to stay.  My soul was often so sad and I was blaming Saudi Arabia for all of it and so that feeling of being okay with staying was simply not surfacing.

But the blame for my sad soul can’t be laid on Saudi.  Sure, this place isn’t the easiest place to get used to but, like anything I experience, I get to choose how I perceive it and react to it.  And, when it came to how I perceived Saudi, I was convincing myself that it was not home, would never be home, and it was just a stopover until I could go back home.  How I reacted to it was to reject all possible good experiences as fleeting bits of fun and dwell on all the negative aspects of Saudi Arabia.  The funny thing is, I knew better than to do this.

I think the reason that I didn’t recognize that I was sabotaging myself was because I was holding on to BC with a death grip.  I just couldn’t let go of all the amazing things happening there that I was missing out on.  The road trips with friends, the mountain bike races, the music festivals, the camping, the lounging on the dock at the lake, the bike shop talk, the kayaking, the random outdoor workout sessions, the hiking in our backyard forests.  I could go on.   When I left BC I had felt for sure that it was my home and that no place could ever be better for me.  This is most likely because during my time in BC I healed and grew in ways that I never imagined possible.  For me, BC is a place of clarity, peace, and love.  It is has a heart that wiggled it’s way deep into my soul and psyche.  It put me on a frequency so high that only good things could ever happen to me there.  I was sure that BC was the best place for me and that I needed to get back there, ASAP.


Yet, who am I to decide that there is only one place in the world that is the best for me?  I am only capable of perceiving the tiniest amount of life that is happening in this present moment.  My perception is limited by the experiences I’ve had thus far and by what my imaginings entail.  In reality, there are no limits for what my life holds for me.  So, who am I to say that the only great experiences for my life will happen in BC?

When I talked to my best friend, Megan, about Saudi and my resistance to letting go of BC she promptly told me,  “It’s your moral obligation to make money and see the wonders of the world for those of us who can’t.  Once you’re done with that, which could be 10 years down the road, then you can settle into a home.  Until then, take Saudi by storm.”  (After which she bounced into a texted rendition of House of Pain’s “Everybody Jump.”  Love that girl!)   It’s odd for me to ever feel the need for permission to do something, but I definitely needed it in this case and Megan gave it to me.  It was humbling to recognize that, while I often feel like I’ve got shit figured out, sometimes I need my friends to shake things up a bit and show me that I can be just as lost as the next person.  Megan woke me up to the knowledge that BC is wonderful, but the world is also an interesting and welcoming place and I am lucky enough to have been given the chance and the means to explore it. 

Now, I’m definitely not saying that I won’t ever be back in BC.  My heart of hearts knows that home is ultimately there.  It just isn’t quite time to go back yet.  I’m not sure when it will be time.  Heck, I’m not even sure if Saudi will be my last stop before I head back to BC.  I want to give myself the freedom to “go where the wind takes me.”  This can be difficult because I do have obligations back home.  My horse and my cats are there and I often find myself feeling horrible for not being a proper pet owner to them.  But, they are being cared for and, somehow, I am keeping tabs on their well-being (Thank You to whatever powers that be for my friends who have been so kind and generous to take my fur-family into their hearts and homes).  And, not only are there present obligations back home, but I also have a new business venture up my sleeve that requires my presence in beautiful BC.  Luckily, however, it will benefit from me roaming around the world for a while doing research for it, so I can delay the business for a short while longer.

So, while my fur-family is happy in British Columbia and I'm happily plugging away at a new business idea, it’s time for me to be happy here in Saudi and wherever else I find myself in the world.  And I am happy here.  Finally.  I’ve stopped resisting leaving BC behind and I’ve accepted Saudi Arabia and the world surrounding it as a place that has a welcoming heart and is well worth exploring.

In Joy,


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mountains and Heart in Saudi Arabia

While packing up to move here to Saudi Arabia I had been doing a bit of research and chatting with people on some forums.  During this time I heard about snow that fell in the north of the country, where there are mountains.  Yes, mountains, and snow, in the desert.  You can bet your blog reading tuckus that I had been aiming to get there ever since.  Luckily for me I am a patient person and also luckily for me I'm aware of the "thoughts become things" way of living life.  So, eventually, my thought became a thing and here I am writing about my trek to the mountains in this crazy desert that is my temporary home.

The mountains are not close to Riyadh.  They're about 600 kilometres away near a small city called Ha'il.  Traveling 600 kilometres through the desert may seem boring to some, daunting to others.  For me, it's an adventure.  Better yet, I LOVE roadtrips.  Also, being a woman in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to drive myself wherever I want to go, when I'm offered the chance to go on a roadtrip, I go.  Anything for a sense of freedom and the chance to sit in the front seat of a car.  It didn't hurt that the company in said car afforded a guaranteed infinite number of laughs and pleasantries as well.   

On the trip north there was nothing overly exciting to note considering that we started our drive after work in the dark.  I may not have been able to see anything, but I could certainly feel a shift in energy as we left the city.  The tension of the city slipped away as we moved farther and farther from it.  I'm not sure if many of you are sensitive to the way a city can make a "country-girl" like myself feel.  It's like being slightly squeezed or contained within some strange confines.  Yet, I'm not quite realizing that it's happening because I'm within it for so long that I get used to it even though something always feels off.  Then, as I leave the city the pressure releases and I feel a quiet sense of peace and freedom that I forgot I was capable of feeling.  It felt so good to be leaving the city.  It felt familiar and it made me feel at home in the desert.

When we arrived in Ha'il I continued to feel a sense of familiarity.  Ha'il is like a small metropolis and it reminded me of a city not far from my home in BC called Prince George.  There is nothing there to attract those who like big fancy cities, but it has everything you need along with a taste of country-life-back-woods attitude.  We arrived at about midnight and finding a place to camp in an unfamiliar area in the dark is hard enough in Canada; try doing it in Saudi Arabia (not recommended).  So, we stayed in a hotel the first night.  Keep in mind that being a single woman and traveling within a small, very conservative, Muslim city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a pretty big no-no religious-law-wise.  The safest way to do it is to travel with a married couple (or two) which is what I did.  If I was to show up at the hotel on my own I am not quite sure what would have happened.  Being a Westerner, even though I am a woman, would have given me some lee-way, but I'm still not sure if I would have been allowed to stay there alone, without a legal male companion (i.e. father, brother, or husband).  I am pretty sure authorities would have been called to question me, regardless, and it's likely that my employer would have been contacted since, technically, he's sponsoring me and is responsible for my whereabouts and activities in this country.

Things managed to be kosher with me staying at the hotel but, upon leaving the hotel, our group was still greeted by the police.  When you think of it, though, it makes sense; it is odd for Westerners to be traipsing around rural KSA.  So, it's actually not uncommon for hotel managers to call police.  The great thing is that it has nothing to do with us being suspicious.  It has everything to do, however, with keeping us safe.  Apparently they are a little paranoid about the well-being of tourists since, a little under a decade ago, there was an unfortunate "wrong-place-wrong-time" incident with some Europeans coming across some locals that were involved in activities they would prefer to not have repeated to the authorities.  I'll leave it at that, but ever since then the Saudi police keep an eye on traveling "outsiders" as a "safety outreach program" so to speak.

Our group arrived at the mountains safe and sound and the police parked nearby while we had fun exploring and playing with ropes on the rock face.  While there we met with some friendly expats that are living in Ha'il.  They extended their friendliness into an invitation for us all to join them back at their compound for some food and continued fun.  We had hoped for an outdoor barbecue but, as odd as this sounds for the desert in November, the weather didn't cooperate.  It rained.  A lot.  With lightening and thunder and all the goodness that rain provides.  Ha'il was really feeling like home; back-country city, mountains, outdoor fun, friendly and welcoming people, and rain.  The rain definitely did not dampen our evening festivities.  It simply brought us inside to good food, great conversation, a lot of laughs, and some friendships that I hope will continue long after our departure from Ha'il.

The next day entailed our group traveling together with our new friends to the sand dunes for some sand-boarding.  Some of the group were a tad speedier at getting up in the morning than others (*cough* including me *cough*) and so they headed off to the dunes first while my group lagged behind.  Unfortunately, using coordinates and gps in KSA doesn't always turn out to be the best thing for navigation.  Somewhere along the way we missed a side road not indicated on the gps device.  So, we missed the opportunity to see some of the largest dunes in the Kingdom.  I'm not concerned.  I have a pretty good feeling I'll be getting back to Ha'il sooner than later.

Since there was no sand-boarding to be had, we headed off back to Riyadh earlier than intended, giving me the chance to see the desert route back to Riyadh in daylight.  It was fantastic!  The desert may be dry, but it certainly isn't dull.  There are beautiful, smooth dunes shaped into domes, some with edges and lips carved into them by the wind creating curving lines and swirls in a never-ending mass of beige.  We saw people parked on the side of the road every few kilometres to have a picnic or with their beautiful rugs laid out to pray upon.  We saw camel herds lumbering across the expanse heading towards a rare patch of desert bushes.  We saw oases, some man-made others natural, along with random patches of grass on irrigated land, Wadis (small valleys) with skinny running rivers, and roads that were cut right through dunes and rock.  It was beautiful, and sometimes haunting, how a land mass that is so dry and seemingly inhabitable could contain so much possibility for life and energy.

The drive was interesting and made even more so by the fact that we almost ran out of gas.  It didn't occur to anyone in the group that there wouldn't be a gas station outside of Ha'il for hundreds of kilometres, so why would there be a need to fill up while in the city?  Again, being a single female in Saudi Arabia had me a little concerned about being stranded on the side of a desert highway.  I was, however, assured that there would not be an issue and, instead, managed to give my companions a good giggle about my "stress-factor" concerning the lack of gas issue.  I did believe that being without gas would be only an issue of inconvenience once I recalled a story that one of our new Ha'il friends had told me.  He explained in the story that Saudis bestow immense hospitality upon people who are in need.  Some foreigners feel it is a requirement of their religion, most believe that Saudis really are just genuinely friendly people.  I like to believe that the latter is the truth.  Regardless, it was comforting to know that, if we had have run out of gas, there was much certainty that we would have been completely fine.

Instead of running out of gas we came across a town just off of the highway where vehicle sustenance would be found, as well as a super sketchy bathroom (I'll let the picture do the explaining).  I loved stopping in at this small town, even if it was just for a few minutes.  It gave me another opportunity to see Saudi Arabia in a different light.  It made this country feel like a humble place with a true sense of simplicity that you cannot find in the hustle and bustle and tension of the city.  It showed me that the Kingdom has a quiet, peaceful, down-home side to it.  It caused me to realize that I hadn't given Saudi Arabia a chance to be a regular country, in my mind, that has a heart with a beat all of it's own; a heart that lies in the rural desert.  Or, maybe I just feel this way because that is where my heart is most drawn to.  Either way, being deep in the desert and feeling this heart, I found that I can feel even more at ease living here in Arabia.

In Joy,