Finally… Hanoi

Feb 4-5, 2017

After our 2 luxurious days in Da Nang at the gorgeous Naman Retreat, we once again took a terrible little Vietnamese airline flight after many many delays to Hanoi this time… our most Northern stop in Vietnam… the capital city of Vietnam and the city most commonly affiliated with one of the most beautiful places in the world… Halong Bay.

This was probably the stop we were looking forward to the most. We had planned to spend a few days in Hanoi for Vietnamese New Year and then carry on to Halong Bay for a few days cruise before leaving Vietnam.

Our hostel in Vietnam was fantastic. Great location in the Old Quarter. Great vibes here too… met some wonderful people on our first night… hit up a pub crawl through more tiny little completely not safety standard approved hole in the wall bars… and had so much fun that the next day was not very much fun at all!

On our first day in Hanoi, we learned that the city would pretty much shut down over the next few days for Vietnamese New Year… there would be a lot of celebrations and festivities but no restaurants or sight seeing locations would be open. So basically we could party in the streets and not much else…

My friend and I weren’t particularly keen to stay in noisy, smelly, dirty, chaotic Hanoi. The traffic was absolutely insane!!! And the smells were atrocious! And we yearned for somewhere quieter and calmer, somewhere lush and green, somewhere surrounded by nature.

Turns out our hostel had a homestay out in Mai Chau… a small town out in the country further up North a couple hours drive from our hostel. We wouldn’t be able to make it out to Sapa on this trip so we welcomed the opportunity to get out of the noisy, congested city to the lush, green land of rice paddies and emerald green terraces…

We spent our one day in Hanoi walking around the city near our hostel.

We visited the “Lake of the Restored Swords,” or Hoàn Kiem Lake … the center of Hanoi life. We weren’t awake early enough to see it but in the mornings there are many people here doing their morning exercises… There is a beautiful red bridge, Huc Bridge, leading to a pagoda in the lake which we wandered through as well. And in the center of the lake is Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa).

Every country has a story to tell… and unfortunately Vietnam’s story isn’t only about beaches and rice paddies and beautiful limestone mountains or pretty lanterns… It also has a sad and complex history that involves a lot of unnecessary war and hatred and violence. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi… it felt so heavy and dark inside the prison… I could feel the centuries of suffering and pain and torment weighing down on me!

It was definitely not easy to see but a good reality check and pause to stop for a moment to be thankful for our freedom and the relative ease with which we’ve lived our lives so far!

Finally… after spending a few hours wandering the city… we found some proper Western breakfast food… at a super cute cafe that we could have found in any Western/European city… where they served up THE BEST french toast I’ve ever had!!!! (I know… shame on me for not experiencing local delicacies… but hungover girls just gotta have some normal homey comfort food every now n then!)

Now… The joys of backpacking and travel… Laundry in the sink at our hostel cuz all the laundry shops are closed for New Years! Hung out at the hostel for the evening and then Mai Chau in the morning!

I can’t wait to get out to countryside!!!

Spa Days in Da Nang

February 3-5, 2016

Life in Saudi Arabia, while often lovely and very enjoyable, is frequently extremely stressful and wears on you after a while. My friend and I were at a point in our Saudi Arabian journey where we desperately needed time to relax and de-stress. And while it may seem like we’re constantly vacationing and always relaxing, a trip through Vietnam is really not particularly relaxing! Which is why we checked ourselves into a fabulous spa resort, the Naman Retreat in Da Nang, for a couple nights to really relax so we’d be relatively rejuvenated on our return to Saudi Arabia!

The weather wasn’t in top form. It was a bit rainy and stormy. But the spa resort was blissfully green with water and foliage and beautiful nature every where! It was on the beach with several infinity pools that looked out over the ocean… every where were relaxing water sounds, birds chirping, gentle Asian spa music, the damp fresh smell of rain falling on lush vegetation, the peppermint scented spa, the gorgeous hibiscus tea on arrival and at the spa… It was a little piece of paradise for sure!!

On arrival at the hotel, we were seated with cups of warm hibiscus tea and warm cinnamon scented towels to freshen our hands while we checked in. It was so peaceful and relaxing right from the moment we arrived!

We didn’t do a whole lot with our time there other than eat delicious food in the several restaurants on the resort property…

Spent a lot of time looking out at the beach, several hours at the spa getting massages… Or enjoying the hot and cool spa pools and the sauna and steam room…

I spent hours walking/running the beach enjoying the storminess and the waves rushing in over my toes, the ocean spray on my face… It was absolutely gorgeous.

Also was a big fan of the hammocks they had draped between palm trees…

It was a gorgeous resort… Worth every precious penny (it wasn’t inexpensive like the rest of Vietnam!! But you pay for luxury like this, and it was a totally different experience than the typical hostel/backpacker in SE Asia experience… and it was WORTH IT!)… And I’m glad we were able to spend a couple days there relaxing!!! I felt so refreshed when we left. Which was great because we needed it for Hanoi!!

Overall, highly recommend the Naman Retreat if you’re looking for a spa stay in Da Nang!!

Vacation in Vietnam

End of January 2016

The end of January… end of probation (the mandatory 3 months in Saudi Arabia without vacation to prove you’re a responsible employee…) and my bestie and I are headed to Vietnam for 2 completely amazing weeks away from work!!!!

Riyadh -> Doha -> Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).

Flying Qatar airways for the first time… even economy class is lovely on a Dreamliner!!!! And Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar… is definitely the nicest airport I’ve ever been too!!!

We had a couple hours wait in Doha before our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) so we found a lovely steakhouse/wine bar/piano bar where we ordered dinner and settled into luscious leather seats to listen to some lovely piano music and sip glasses of wine. Such a relaxing start to the trip!

And… my bestie is AMAZING! She surprised me with a gorgeous white gold necklace with my name written in Arabic! I’d always admired hers… and, being the extremely thoughtful individual that she is, she got me one of my own!!

Eventually we flew out of Doha to Vietnam, and landed in the crazy that is Vietnam mid-day I think? I can’t remember. I think my body was pretty stunned by travelling all night after working a full day before getting on the plane! We retrieved our backpacks (oh yeah… I should mention that this is my first ever “backpacking trip!!!!!! It took a little to minimize my packing style!)

As a side note, to avoid confusion, I should briefly explain that Saigon is the original name of Ho Chi Minh City… it was renamed after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Still most commonly called Saigon by Vietnamese and tourists alike.

Our first exposure to Vietnam was a little crazy. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the traffic… but imagine how a school of fish swim… and then picture those fish as dilapidated cars or mopeds… and the mopeds are carrying probably a mother and father and one toddler and the mother is holding a small infant and theres a box of groceries on the back and a small tree and potentially a cow… (the cow is probably pushing it a little… but the rest is legit)… and the cars and mopeds all swarm together and cross paths and beep their horns continuously… rushing forward as soon as theres a small gap that opens up before appearing to nearly crash into each other again… It was insanity! I was white knuckled every time I got in any type of vehicle and I thought for sure we were going to get in a car accident at some point on our trip through Vietnam. (we made it out unscathed though… didn’t even witness a single accident!)

Anyways. Found our hostel in District 1. Crashed for a few hours. Then went a wandering the streets around our hostel looking for some fabulous pho for dinner. I’d seen that Pho Quynh had great reviews on Foursquare (didn’t know how much I could actually count on Foursquare in Vietnam) so we wandered around a couple blocks several times, before realizing we kept walking past it! It was a packed little place on a street corner, filled with locals and expats, where we sat outside on the corner on metal chairs with traffic zipping by only feet away. Despite Saigon being hot and sticky, that hot soup tasted amazing despite the heat… probably cuz the Tiger beers we drank with it were amazing!! Fun fact: upon further research now that I’m home, apparently this place even made it into Lonely Planet it’s so great!

Seriously sleep deprived so we didn’t have the energy required for Saigon nightlife… but we did manage to wander the streets around our hotel for a bit… found a bar where we had a couple drinks sitting on flimsy wooden chairs along the sidewalk, just people watching and taking in all the crazy awesome and fascinating scenes the busy night scene had on display…

And then, early-ish lights out for us sleep deprived nanas. Mekong Delta tour tomorrow!

Volunteering with 10KSA: Breast Cancer Awareness

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

As I was leaving North America, Breast Cancer Awareness events were in full swing all over Canada and the USA. I was really hoping that somehow, I could initiate or participate in a some type of event or activity to raise awareness in Saudi Arabia and have a positive impact on women’s lives.

In my previous year in Saudi, I’d seen some of the devastation of breast cancer among the women of Saudi, and in my experience, it seemed to hit so many of them and at such a young age as well. (Maybe that’s just because I work in a large chemotherapy clinic so my exposure to women with breast cancer will be quite high given the volume of patients we see on a daily basis.)

However, the sad truth is that Saudi Arabia, like all countries in the world, has significantly high rates of breast cancer. Unfortunately, awareness is not as high as it is in the Western World. Many women go undiagnosed for years until the symptoms of advanced disease bring them into the hospital for treatment which ultimately results in reduced survival and less positive treatment outcomes, as well as increased pain and suffering.

Many women also lack the education and the awareness to monitor their health and perform monthly self exams to monitor their health, or the awareness that a mother or sister or auntie with breast cancer could indicate a significantly increased risk that they themselves might develop breast cancer. They’re not educated that lifestyle factors such as a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits and unhealthy body weights increase their risk of developing cancer in general but also breast cancer. Many women also lack the access to resources such as family physicians, or proper medical care to monitor their health, assess and diagnose also.

So, my wish actually came true. The opportunity to volunteer for a large breast cancer awareness event came my way only a week or so after returning to Saudi, through a friend of a friend, who was organizing and recruiting all the volunteers for the event.

The event was being developed by an organization called 10KSA, a subdivision of a greater organization called Alf Khair, started by Princess Reema bint Bandar. The goal of Alf Khair is to empower the women and youth of Saudi Arabia, and to make the people of Saudi Arabia, the best they can be, and the countries greatest natural resource. 10KSA is a holistic health initiative, and the primary focus is raising health awareness throughout Saudi and the world. This would be 10KSA’s first event and breast cancer was the focus.

The event itself would be held in December and the goal was not only to focus on breast cancer, but also holistic health in general. And the highlight of the day was to be the formation of the world’s largest human health awareness ribbon. The current world record was held by India, but 10KSA was hoping to break that record and get 10,000 women together to form the new largest ribbon. The event would also focus on various other ways to promote health and wellness also though.

As it was to be a very large event, thousands of volunteers were required to run the event. I was hoping I could do some education on breast cancer, but unfortunately those roles were taken by the various hospitals and organizations holding awareness booths at the event.

I ended up joining the team of first Aid volunteers, originally as just one of the volunteers, but as I wanted to get more and more involved in the activity, it escalated into then becoming head volunteer of the First Aid team and planning/coordinating the First Aid Plan for the event as well as train the First Aid volunteers.

I still wanted to do more… so my friend suggested I help recruit volunteers and do some of the orientation sessions for them also. So I got to meet so many amazing Saudi women through this. And it was so fun to tell them about the event and share my passion for this with them… because then they would also get really excited and happy about this opportunity… it was just so inspiring to see them all coming together!

Altogether I think we recruited well over 3000 volutunteers. My first aid group made up a very small portion of this, roughly 30 volunteers in total, plus the team of doctors and nurses from the university hospital.

The weeks and months leading up to the event were ridiculously busy. I was working full time as well as trying to participate as much as possible in training sessions and planning for the event. Many evenings were spent running off after work to an office somewhere to orientate the volunteers to the purpose of the organization and the event and determine their role at the event, as well as assisting with task specific training once the women had been selected for various roles. But I thrived on every minute of it and loved the opportunity to interact with Saudi women who were excited to volunteer and participate in this potentially historical event…

Until this point, my interactions with Saudi women had been restricted largely to work, but this was a huge opportunity to work with them outside of work… to inspire them and be inspired by them… to work together to create something amazing for the women of Saudi… to feel strong and empowered together… It was beautiful!

The planning and promotion of the event lasted for a couple months… with a woman flying to Australia in a small plane even carrying the 10KSA logo on her plane when she stopped briefly at the Riyadh airport. The symbolic 10KSA Wings of Hope could be found at various venues throughout Riyadh… including shopping centers… and even at King Faisal Specialist Hospital for a few days!

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There was even a theme song created for the event which went on to win an award at the California International Shorts Festival as the best music video!

As the day to the event grew closer, my days filled up with work and training volunteers, and mostly… figuring out how first aid was going to work at the event and developing the first aid training program for the first aid volunteers!

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I met Princess Reema, a beautiful person with a vision for the people and especially the women of her country… I was so inspired by her and her goals and commitment to raising awareness and empowering women!

In general, being a part of the event and all the planning was just an incredible experience. I met so many women who inspired me. And to be part of such a major event organized by women for women… my heart was so full and happy!!

And in the final days leading up to the event, I made many trips to Princess Noura University, the largest all-female university in the world, so large it even had it’s own train system inside, to the sports complex where the event would be held. There was so much organizing to do yet… determining how first aid services would be available throughout a venue that large was quite a challenge. I met with the emergency doctors at the Princess Noura University Hospital to plan how we would provide support throughout the venue the day of the event… Fortunately, we would have a couple of doctors and a team of nurses from the university hospital to offer support (and supplies!!!) the day of the event, as my first aid volunteers would really only be providing very basic care in case of any emergency.

It was really  amazing to see the sports complex transformed into a health and wellness event, with amazing displays including beautiful photographs from Saudi and artwork by Saudi women… and an incredible Active center for promoting fitness and active lifestyles…

And of course, the massive stadium where the ribbon formation would happen. Princess Reema went up in a big lift up over the field to see what the view would be like for the photographers who would be photographing this historical event…

And the last day before the event, all the head volunteers and main organizers and supporters of the event, me at the complex for a last run through… and an amazing family photo.. it was so incredible for me to be there, with all those women, women dedicated to making a change in Saudi… I felt so blessed!!IMG_5847And that’s about it… bring on the big day!!!

Freedom is a glass of wine

I’m not a fan of prohibition at all. Especially the prohibition of alcohol. And I’ve begun to equate alcohol with freedom. Freedom is a glass of wine… with friends… or family… or own my own!

I’m back in Saudi at the moment and all I really want is a glass of wine. A beautiful big full glass of red wine. Real red wine. From a bottle that I picked out  for myself at the shop… and then drove myself and my wine back home in my car…

Having a drink is more than just having a drink to me now. It means I’m free. It means I’m relaxed. It means I’m not in Saudi Arabia. It means I’m either on vacation. Or on a day or night off. It means I’m probably surrounded by family and friends. Or I’m on my own just enjoying a quiet night. That’s freedom to me. Freedom is a glass of wine. Or a bottle. Or a cool, refreshing G&T… or a good craft beer…

I probably sound like an alcoholic, but I’m not (and I’m not just in denial). Really. I just miss the simplicity of a lazy evening at home with a good book and a glass of good red wine. Or a beer on the patio in the late afternoon sunshine. I don’t get to do this stuff over here. I mean, not completely freely without any suggestion of repercussions.

I was so happy to be home during the end of summer and all the family BBQ’s and dinners we had… as well as being home for my aunt’s birthday party and hanging out with aunts, uncles and cousins… laughing a lot… drinking a lot of wine and whiskey… and dancing to a whole lot of country music… (country music never gets played in Saudi if you happen to be at an event where there is music and dancing!!) But now I really miss those family nights and events…

I love a night out with girlfriends… catching up… getting all the gossip… having a martini… and a lot of laughs over a shared bottle of wine. I get lots of girls nights in Saudi… but they don’t include a good martini 😥

Freedom is nipping out to the next city over in my car with all my favorite tunes blasting while I go to meet an old friend… who just happened to share 11 months with me in Saudi… someone who completely empathizes with me…

Freedom is a good night with one of my closest friends from high school and her Aussie husband… remembering good times back a few years ago when I went to visit them in Australia and we had the greatest night out in Sydney ever!!!! And now they’re living in North America instead of Australia, and I’m in Saudi… crazy how our lives change!!

Oh yeah… can’t forget… going out for dinner with a guy who is not my brother, or my father, or my husband, or my boyfriend either… just going out for dinner with an old guy friend. Having wine and beer and chatting for hours and hours about medicine – conventional and naturopathic… and generally just catching up on life… and no-one raises an eyebrow. There’s no fear that one might get caught by the muttawa (religious police). It’s just innocent and fun and free!

Anyways… that’s enough boozy talk now. I just really miss these days at home. I miss this freedom…

I love you, You love me

Back in August/September/October 2015

Family. I love my family. All of them. But my nieces hold a very special and very big place in my heart.

 

I absolutely loved every minute of the hours and hours of time I got to spend with them in the nearly 3 months i was home. A day felt incomplete if it didn’t include a stop at my sisters house for baby cuddles and big girl snuggles…

I spent a lot of time babysitting the two little girls so my sister could run errands/get out of the house. So i spent so many hours playing on the trampoline with the oldest of my nieces or running around outside… or just being goofy and silly at my sisters house… chasing her… adoring her…

Teaching her to play piano and then watching her show her “baby” how to play too…

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Taught her how to snapchat too and use the “filters”

How about this “selfie”??

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Walks through the greenhouse with her and my brothers and “gwampa”…

But one of my favourite memories was just sitting in the sunshine on the couch cuddling the wee one while she slept and singing with her big sister… “i love you, you love me, we’re a happy family. with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?”

I definitely look back on those precious moments with the girls with so much love but also a significant sense of loss now that I’m back in Riyadh and so far away from them again!!

Anyways… before I get too much more homesick… enjoy the love 🙂

xx

Back to my Saudi Home…

October 23, 2015 roughly…

When I moved to Saudi Arabia for the first time, I was terrified sitting on the plane on the tarmac in Riyadh… having absolutely no idea what was ahead for me… worried about the logistics of arrival… would they let me through immigrations? What if there was a problem with my paperwork?! How would I find the rest of my group and the hospital rep? What if my abaya wasn’t good enough? And when do I put it on yet too?! I’d definitely not worn it the whole flight from Frankfurt to Riyadh and had to struggle into it in my seat on the plane on the tarmac in Riyadh…

This time around… there was none of that anxiety though. I knew that immigrations would be the friendliest and easiest immigrations I’d ever gone through in any airport. If there wasn’t a hospital rep there for me, well at least I had a functioning Saudi phone number and contact info and even knew how to get to the hospital from the airport…

Plus… I have friends and connections in Saudi now. Surely someone would come to my rescue!

Turns out that one of my friends from hockey was the one to actually pick me up. It was so great to see a friendly, familiar face on arrival! They dropped me off at my new apartment… and I promptly showered off a day of travel and changed to go out to a party some friends were holding. It’s an excellent antidote to the loneliness and homesickness that would have set it otherwise on arrival back in Saudi!

It was seriously so amazing to see everyone and catch up… get right back into the swing of things! I missed these people!

I absolutely loved being home. But… people didn’t understand or relate to my experiences in Saudi. Everyone was always so interested. But they couldn’t quite grasp what it was like to live in Saudi and to love living in Saudi. They didn’t understand the drive to return to Saudi. But these people… my Saudi family… they get it. So it was like coming home. Well, to my second home, my international home.

I landed on a Friday night, had Saturday to relax and unpack and everything… pick up my boxes from my old apartment… and Sunday I was back to work. No time to get over jetlag :S And… I had a couple days of re-orientation period… time to get new scrubs and such… and then it was back to the grindstone working regular hours and everything.

But fortunately… the first week or so back was filled with dinners and parties and getting caught up with everyone again… hockey games… and an epic Rugby final with my kiwi friends watching the All Blacks absolutely dominate!!

But still… despite being busy… I was ridiculously homesick this time! Everytime I saw some cute little person in the hospital, I nearly started crying thinking of my nieces and how much I missed them already…

So I continued to fill my time, started running a lot, and found new projects to work on to keep me occupied and keep my mind off how much I missed my family! More to come on those projects…