The Edge of the World

March 2016

Back in Riyadh again…

The Edge of the World… one of the major “tourist”attractions near Riyadh… a must see for any expat in Saudi Arabia. Check out Blue Abaya’s Guide to the Edge of the World as well… http://www.blueabaya.com/2012/08/guide-to-edge-of-world.html

Not too far outside Riyadh, the Tuwaiq escarpment drops away to nothing but hazy desert for miles and miles as far as one can see. The cliffs are magnificent and terrifying… but so breathtakingly beautiful.

We rode out across the desert in strong, sturdy 4×4 vehicles… across soft sand and rocky desert… through a small flat plain with scrabbly bushes and many camels…

…Up steep hills to the top of the escarpment.

The world just seemed to drop away. It did really seem like the “Edge of the World!”

In the bright sunlight, (thank goodness for the cool breeze!),  we climbed up loose rock covered hills, and down another steep rocky hill and over to a narrow point, protruding far above the desert floor below…

Heart pounding I stepped out onto the mandatory precipice for a quick photo… hoping the unruly wind wouldn’t suddenly push against me, as I felt quite feeble and insignificant so high up there on that rocky ledge…

A friend climbed up to a small cave at the top of an even higher rock formation… and dropped his sunglasses. We watched them free fall for what seemed like hours until they disappeared from view and smashed at the bottom of the cliff…

Ummm yeah… now I’ll definitely be even more cautious around that edge!!! :/

It was absolutely worth the bit of anxiety climbing over the rocks and standing on those rock Ledges… the view was just so stunning…

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So, If you’re not living in Saudi Arabia or have never had the chance to live in Saudi Arabia… I hope you do get the chance to go and visit this beautiful country  and experience its culture and unique natural beauty for yourself someday!

Halong Bay

Feb 9-12, 2016

Halong Bay was just absolutely gorgeous and everything I ever dreamed it would be from the minute we arrived at the warf of Halong Bay! Pictures absolutely do not do it justice! (Not my pictures anyways!!)

Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 7 wonders of the Natural World.

We booked a 3 day boat tour of Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island via Vega Travel... it was a great experience with them and Cat Ba Island was an awesome addition. Our trip to Halong Bay started with a lengthy, bumpy, nausea inducing wild bus ride from Hanoi through the Red River Delta to the warf. The upside… wifi on the bus! The downside to wifi on the bus… finding out all our friends from our Mai Chau trip had food poisoning!!! It was a tense bus ride as we wondered whether the nausea we were experiencing was the onset of food poisoning for us or just the wild ride!  (Turns out… we lucked out and never got it!!!)

We spent the next 2 days on a junk boat traveling through Halong Bay. Junk boats are traditionally a Chinese sailing ship with unique sails that were quite aerodynamic and made the boat easy to control. Below: junk boats in Lan Ha Bay.

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When we first got out the boat and headed out, it was absolutely gorgeous and sunny!! The view was so clear and you could see the layers of limestone mountains and islands in the turquoise sea. Many of the limestone islands are little more than a pillar, or appear to be perched on smaller limestone pillars as they have been eroded by thousands of years of water that have also formed many caves, coves and arches…   It was incredibly picturesque! We travelled through all the little islands and inlets of a less busy bay called Bai Tu Long Bay.

Mid afternoon, we anchored in a peaceful lagoon where Bai Tu Long Bay, Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay meet. It was too cool at this time of year for swimming in the gorgeous turquoise waters but it was beautifully sunny for kayaking around the bay. Amelia and I shared a kayak and paddled through a limestone tunnel grotto called Hang Luon into a gorgeous lagoon completed surrounded by tall limestone mountains with the only opening the small tunnel we passed through to access lagoon.

Along the shore wild monkeys played and did the nasty in the trees. Giggles. But I got a selfie with a monkey. He wasn’t a particularly willing participant though. And apparently they’re a bit naughty so we we advised not to get too close to shore.

After paddling peacefully around, we went back to boat and transferred to in a small motor boat for a little climb up to the top of Titop mountain on Titop Island for 360 degree sunset views of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. It was absolutely stunning!!!

After watching the sunset, we headed back in the afterglow to spend the night on our junk boat. The little boat we were in died though… so we were stuck on the boat out on the water for a while before it was sorted and we actually got back to the junk boat for dinner.

We awoke the next morning to gorgeous views of calm, placid Halong Bay from our stateroom window!

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After breakfast, we transferred to a little island to visit a cave called Han Sung Sot (Surprising Cave) to check out the beautiful limestone formations inside.

We did a small walk about the island near the docks and found a beautiful viewpoint of the bay we were in… back on the dock, a Vietnamese woman paddled along in a little boat, small fish frying on a little stove on the boat, selling sodas and water and snacks…

Back on our junkboat, we headed out through the various bays to Cat Ba Island where we would spend the next night and day. It was a bit cloudy and moody out, not as bright and sunny, but it was still absolutely gorgeous travelling through all the limestone islands and seeing the beautiful limestone formations they formed…

One of my absolute favourite sights from the whole trip through Halong Bay was going through a large fishing village. Cua Van is one of the largest and wealthiest of 4 major fishing villages in Halong Bay. It is home to hundreds of people who relay largely on fishing for income. It was unbelievable to see a whole town in a placid emerald bay nestled among the limestone mountains with water “roads”, brilliantly colored floating homes and boats… a grocery store and a gas station even… and a Vietnamese fisherman rowing a traditional boat down one of the water roads…

Cat Ba Island. One of the largest islands in the bay, a large portion of it is a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a rugged, rocky, jungle island with a large variety of habitats… limestone karsts, tropical limestone forests, coral reefs, mangrove and sea grass beds, lagoons, beaches, caves, and willow swamp forests. We docked here and picked up bicycles to cycle around a portion of the island. We cycled along the seawall and into some small villages. There was a pretty good sized hill we had to cycle up which our bikes were definitely not designed for (or at least not designed to make it easier going up anyways!)

At one point we ditched the bikes and treked through a portion of the rainforest along narrow trails, attempting to cross streams on logs and not fall in and get soaked, and up some pretty sketchy rocks into a bat cave and out through it to an opening overlooking a farmland valley in the center of the island.

After a night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, we headed back through Halong Bay on our junk boat to return back to the Hanoi. It was a thoroughly relaxing day spent on the boat just watching the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen in the world go by… before saying goodbye to our fabulous tour guide and the lovely people we met on our Halong Bay tour!

And then… we were back in Hanoi, for one last night at a terribly sketchy hotel near the airport for our last night before we’d head back to Ho Chi Minh and onwards back to Saudi.

Flying back to Ho Chi Minh, we had a good bit of time between our arrival in Saigon and departure back to Riyadh, so we ended up heading into the city again to go check out the War Remnants Museum as we’d not really seen many museums or historical things like that and this museum was supposed to be really good. And it was! So much interesting and devastating history on display… it’s terrible the things we humans have done to each other actually… 😦

Back at the airport… one last Vietnamese coffee…

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One last drink in freedom… bought with probably 200,000 Vietnamese dong… (like 5 Canadian dollars or so)… an airport backpack picture or two… because my very first ever backpacking trip needed to be documented… and then we were off to Saudi again… to our temporary reality.

I remember friends telling me before we left for Vietnam that of all the many places they’d been in the world, Vietnam was their favourite or at the top of their list of favourites… and now after visiting just a fraction of the country, I can totally understand why. Aside from its stunning natural beauty, the people were so warm and welcoming and friendly and the culture and history is fascinating especially given the dynamics of it being a Communist country and it’s history with America and the Vietnamese war.

So… of all the places I’ve been in the world, Vietnam comes the most highly recommended! So get out there and go check it out! It’s gorgeous!!!!!

Vegetable Village

Hoi An is beautiful for its contrasts. The Old Town sophistication of Hoi An with its textiles and art and beautiful European influenced South East Asian port city architecture… in start comparison to the lush, green verdant farmland and simplicity of nature and a farming lifestyle in the surrounding countryside…

We loved our walks through the bustling but still quaint and quiet Old Town… but I loved to trade it in for cycling along narrow paths that divided lush green rice paddies… down quiet country lanes through small suburbs of Hoi An where homes often had vegetable gardens for “lawns”… encountering farmers walking their water buffalo down the paths… or cows munching grass along the roadside…

I had heard about a “vegetable village” just outside the town, so on our last day, we cycled through the farmland to Tra Que Vegetable Village. The village is rare in the sense that few, if any villages in Vietnam earn their income based primarily on vegetables… although it has become a tourism highlight now due to the quiet and peaceful setting where one can wander through fields of vegetables grown without any chemicals and only natural fertilizer from an algae found in the Tra Que village lagoon. The vegetables are beautifully fresh and there are many places one can take a cooking lesson and learn to make delicious, fresh Vietnamese dishes.

We wandered through rows of vegetables… bright green lettuce, herbs of all varieties, fluffy stemmed carrots… and eventually found a restaurant where we were served the simplest but most delicious food I’ve had in a very long time. We started with a lovely juice cocktail with cucumber and basil… Followed by fresh vegetable rolls that were so beautiful and bursting with herbs and slivers of tasty veggies… delicious deep fried spring rolls, and fresh shrimps wrapped with a few fresh herbs and dipped in a sweet chili sauce… It was a gorgeous way to showcase the village vegetables!

It was such a gorgeous way to spend our morning/afternoon… and a perfect last day in Hoi An!

Next up: A couple Spa/Beach days!!!

Running (in) Riyadh

I think I’ve run more in Riyadh than I’ve ever run in my life.

Year 1 was good for me. But not that good. I joined a running club, but missed the majority of the Friday morning races as my Thursday nights were usually busy and a little too entertainment filled for me to get up early on a Friday morning and run. However… Did manage to win the 10km race series in my category as somehow they were the only races I actually made it to!

Year 2 in Saudi… I was determined to run more and party less. And it started off really well. (And I’m proud to say that 5 months later… its better than ever!) I’ve only missed a few Friday morning runs and one was due to Christmas, the other 3 Fridays I missed I was out of the country.

My first race back was a 10mile race (of which I only ran half) but it was a fundraiser for an awareness project I’d become involved in shortly after arriving back in Riyadh called 10KSA… an organization devoted to promoting health and wellness in Saudi and around the world. Our first event was to be a breast cancer awareness event, and part of that was collaborating with a running group in Riyadh to raise money and gain support for the organization and event.

We ran at a venue I’d never run at before… there were more hills than usual… and steeper… but the view from the top of the hills over the farm was incredible! It was a good distance outside the city with a great mix of date palm forest and hilly/rugged/rocky terrain to run through… making it really great scenery to pass the time!

And… the best part was reconnecting with friends from the running group/making new friends… I love the social aspect of it and talking times/training plans, etc with people who share similar passions and goals when it comes to running and fitness. And although the club has some intensely competitive members, there are people there who are not nearly so fit but yet push themselves to finish even some very challenging runs, not just the short runs! And everyone is so supportive of each other too.

One day… a month or so after I returned to Saudi, there was a significant rainstorm and there was a lot of water hanging around in the low areas… We went for a run one morning to the DQ around the wadi… but found out quite quickly that getting down into the date palm forest on our usual trail would be a challenge as it was all flooded!! We all ended up getting a little muddy… but to be honest… it was pretty cool because it’s rarely damp/muddy in Riyadh, just dry and dusty! And… we found a poor little turtle on a dry spot of the road… so we put him back in the mud to find his way to a little pond…

I forgot how much I love waking up early on a Friday morning to run in the fresh fall/winter air (which in Riyadh is a cool 10ish degrees, maybe slightly more…) to run, and get a good endorphin high first thing in the morning… to feel productive and accomplished and good about myself… and to get outside in nature too rather than being sluggish indoors all day like I would otherwise…

Over the last few months in Riyadh, I’ve had a variety of amazing runs throughout Riyadh… sometimes races at compounds… sometimes in the Diplomatic Quarters (most often actually!). There have been rainy runs… foggy morning runs… a lot of sunny runs (like the time I got sunburnt in November??!!)… trail runs or road runs… and super fresh clean and green runs after recent rainfalls that turn the DQ into a big of a green/flowery paradise actually… a lovely contrast to the drab/dusty brown scene it usually is…

When I think back, I’ve just had so many runs with so many good people! Especially my regular running crew, the running lemons. Unfortunately over the last year or so we’ve lost valuable team members as they moved out of Saudi and on to new adventures… but we’ve also gained some new lemons…. and I gained a new and fabulous training partner/running buddy/amazing friend… and… showed some new friends the great trails through the DQ!

So… I love a good run thats me… solo… thinking life through… but even more… I love the people in my running community and in running communities around the world!!

Stopover: Minneapolis with my Bestie

After 3 months at home… the most intense family time I’ve ever had… spending nearly every day with my mom/sister/nieces… I knew that the only way I would be able to get on a plane and leave them for an extended period of time again to return to Saudi, would be to book a stopover somewhere… like in Minneapolis so that I could visit my best friend and pretend like I was just flying away for the weekend, instead of for potentially years…

I landed in Minneapolis in the evening and my bestie picked me up… it was a very very long year and a half probably since we’d seen each other last… and I love how whenever I see her, it’s really like no time has passed at all and we’re right where we left off last time!

We went downtown to the Guthrie Theatre to watch a live production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My first play ever! It was really beautiful and well performed!

Obvious cocktails and dessert were necessary after the play!!! It’s not a girls night without chocolate and a good martini!

The next day…we explored Minneapolis. Well.. downtown anyways! For the record… it’s a gorgeous city, especially in the fall!! I could make it my home for a while I think!!! Maybe one day…

We found a super cute little breakfast nook for delicious waffles with strawberries and cream…

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and then spent the remainder of the day just wandering around the city… checking out all the adorable little blobby people sculptures in the downtown area…

admiring the gorgeous fall colors everywhere…

and walked through Mill Park along the Mississippi River…

It was such a gorgeously sunny day… the sky was so blue and the fall leaves looked incredible everywhere.

But most of all… it was so wonderful to have a whole 24 hours to hang out with my best friend and catch up on life… it made it so much easier for me to leave home knowing that she’d be there to meet me in Minneapolis!

I’m going to miss this wonderful friend… like always… but looking forward to the next time I see her…

Fall Days… So Idyllic

I love typical fall days. I don’t care if they’re over-instagrammed or over hash-tagged or considered “typical white girl” activites and such… I love the gentle bite the air has in the fall… the crispy leaves that crackle when I walk on them… all the vivid colours on display… watching the leaves change color… the sky more blue than usual… the misty mornings… walks by the river with a girlfriend while we drink a pumpkin-spice latte from Starbucks and our boots crunch through the leaves… or… apple picking at the Apple Barn with my sister and nieces.

I didn’t get fall last year as I was living in Saudi Arabia throughout the entire fall of 2014. And fall in Saudi Arabia reminds me of spring at home. Really. It’s bizarre. It cools down. The air is fresher. And everything blooms!!! There’s fresh flowers blooming everywhere and the gardeners plant petunias and pansy’s and marigolds and verbena and all the flowers my daddy sells in the springtime at home!! The grass is new and bright green and the trees grow new leaves… That’s nothing like fall at home!

So I really appreciated having extra time at home during the fall this year! And I did every typical fall activity I could!!!

A river walk in the sunshine with Pumpkin-spice lattes with a good friend from nursing school…

Word & Deed baseball tournament… I helped babysit the kids with my sister (hand/eye coordination when it comes to a ball and bat is absolutely shit! :S) But we helped cheer on everyone we love!

And one of my favourite days of the whole time I was home… a trip to the Apple Barn with my sister and nieces to take the girls apple picking! The Apple Barn is actually an apple orchard, petting zoo, pumpkin patch, and playground for kiddos… it’s a lot of fun with little ones!!!

We started our visit to the orchard with a hay wagon ride through the orchard…

We spent a little time apple picking (but it’s so much more convenient to go pick up a bag or three of apples from the apple barn shop than pick them all… plus my niece wasn’t terribly interested in picking apples.)

She was a lot more keen to bounce around on the kangaroo cushion (as were my sister and I :P)

We stopped at the petting zoo to see the bunnies and goats and even a donkey and a turkey!!

Climbed on the pumpkin truck… and the old red tractor… sipping on apple cider slushies. I really can’t think of a more idyllic way to spend a random mid-week fall day!

There’s one more fall day that was really special to me… but that was the day before I moved to Saudi Arabia… so I’ll save that for another post…

Looking back now… I’m sitting here on my couch in Saudi Arabia thinking… and wondering… why am I back in Saudi Arabia and not with these people I love more than anything in the world?? But I had a purpose… a reason for returning… and that’s coming up in a post soon…

So that’s all for right now…

A.

Climbing Mountains

Sometime in September 2015

Hiking… seriously the most significantly challenging workout out there! Well… maybe an exaggeration. But nothing tests your heart strength and health and your endurance like a proper hike!

I’d done a couple little hikes with my little brother and my sisters… but they don’t really count as a proper hike. Get’s your heart rate up no doubt, but we were hiking Teapot hill… which is definitely uphill but there’s only one significantly steep hill that gets your heart freaking out. It’s a lovely 45minute walk/hike that gets out you outdoors in nature and in the forest though. And it’s a nice start to a weekend morning.. followed by breakfast somewhere.. like Cookie’s grill! My sisters and I did that one morning and it was great!!

After nearly 2.5 months of vacationing with not nearly as much intensely physical activity as I’d hoped… my heart and the rest of me, was a little out of shape.

I learned this when I hiked Elk Mountain with my aunt and uncle one day. For the first time in a very long time, I nearly felt like vomiting while doing physical exercise!!! I was short of breath and huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf (accept I’m not so big and bad although I sure had the huffing and puffing down pat) after only a few minutes into the hike. By the time we’d been hiking at a pretty decent pace and up a rather significant incline for about 20-30 minutes I was just praying we were nearly at the top because my vision was starting to blur and I thought my chest was going to explode my heart was beating so fast… and then the nausea started… and I seriously regretted the weeks of slothing on the couch at my moms house or my sisters house!!

Of course, this is slightly dramatized… but it was pretty miserable for a bit. Worse for that fact that my aunt and uncle were kicking my butt… and they’ve got a couple years on me… we won’t say how many cuz it doesn’t matter cuz they’re probably one of the fittest couples I know!

Anyways… as miserable as hiking can be when you’re not in particularly good shape… I know why people love it. The views. The views are absolutely worth the pain and suffering you go through to get the view. And obviously if one stays fit enough and hikes more regularly… it’s not so painful and the payoff is just incredible!!! Not just physical health like heart health, increased endurance and strength, but also better mental and emotional health because the mountains and forests are absolutely so serene and peaceful and calming… and who doesn’t love a good endorphin rush??!!!

So now lets talk about the view… actually let me just show you some pictures!

IMG_1034IMG_1030IMG_1055(Cultus lake in the background in the picture directly above… the cloest lake to my home for watersports 🙂 )

The hike to the first major lookout point took about 45minutes to an hour… it was intense but the view from that lookout was breathtaking! (literally I was breathless. hahahaha).

It was a bit of a cool and misty start that day… but it warmed up quickly when we were out of the tree cover and out in the open sunlight… it was early fall and leaves were starting to change colours…especially the berry bushes on the side of the tree whose leaves turned the most beautiful burgundy red colour! The sky was so blue with just a little haze in the distance. We could see the rivers running through the valley below and layers and mountains shielding the valley…

We decided to carry on though through a little meadow and then over the ridge-line that led to another mountain peak and lookout. That ridge-line was amazing as it was so much more open and the view was gorgeous the whole way! As much as I love the serenity of walking through the trees… it’s amazing to be out in the open with a view too!

It was such a beautiful day…. I wish I had time to repeat it… but my time at home was coming to an end and within a week or two I’d be headed back to the desert. My one major regret: not spending more time hiking while I was home! Oh well.. something to look forward to when I get back home I guess!!! And I love spending the time with my aunt and uncle… they’re amazing people and what better way to spend a day with family?!!