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!

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!!

Saigon & the Muddy Mekong

Day 2 in Saigon

Today we tour the famous Mekong River Delta in Vietnamese: the Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long “Nine Dragon river delta”.

Lengthy bus ride through HCMC and over the river …

Pit stop for refreshments again… Roadside fresh coconut water!! I had so much fresh coconut water in Vietnam… but it was definitely the best in Saigon where the weather was the hottest and it was most refreshing!

Our first stop, we visited a little village where we sampled various local fruits and honey, and a Vietnamese group sang for us.

Carrying on… we wandered through some “farmland” near the river while our guide spoke a bit about the history of the area and some of the cultures and traditions… beautiful area for sure!

And then, the highlight of the day… traditional conical Vietnamese hats, called nón lá, and a traditional Mekong row boat  ride down one of the many little channels of the Mekong River… It was amazing just meandering along that muddy chanel, surrounded by tall foliage on either side… So relaxing actually. (Not for the poor woman rowing/pushing the boat around though!)

We landed at a little factory on the edge of the river where fresh coconut candies were made. They demonstrated how the treats were made… and then we got to sample the still warm and gooey and totally delectable coconut candy… made from everything coconut! Coconut milk, coconut sugar… so yum!!!!

And… there just happened to be a big ol python?? there. Some type of snake anyways. It was our lucky day. we could hold it! Initially I was kind of excited to hold it. It looked like it was sleeping anyways as it was super relaxed. A bunch of people held it. It started waking up. By the time snakey got to Amelia… it was definitely starting to wake up and squirm a little more… so I started getting pretty freaked out about my turn next. Would it be fully awake by then?!! It took me a bit to talk myself into have the snake placed around my neck, and when I finally said yes, the snakes handler just tossed the darn thing around my neck. I jumped! Pretty sure it jumped too and started winding its snakey large self up and around my neck!!!! I was freaking!! And everyone was telling me to smile for the pic. I managed a grimace before totally freaking out. Never again feel the need to ever ever ever hold a snake again. I still get the heebie jeebies thinking bout that thing snaking around my neck!! Entertaining photos tho! :S

Next up on our tour: we took a bigger boat down a main portion of the Mekong River to a little island where we had some lunch.

And finally… headed back to the bus and on to our last stop… a Vietnamese Pagoda… Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho…

And that was it for our Ho Chi Minh tour plans. One night to go out with our hostel crew and in the morning we were catching a quick flight up to Hoi An!

Saigon nightlife for us started with a few drinks at the hostel bar where I met a ton of Canadian backpackers!!! A giant game of sidewalk Jenga evolved into a very loud and exuberant and very touching edition of “Oh Canada”. JT would be proud (Justin Trudeau…).

oh and… Canadians dominated the Hideout hostel Hand Grenade Challenge (a shot of tequila followed immediately by a Jager Bomb) as we obviously completed the most challenges 🙂

Hostel life isn’t complete without a rambunctious pub crawl through Saigon (Saigon nightlife is supposed to be fantastic btw)… so we joined a whole group from the hostel and headed out to a couple different places in District 1 in Pham Ngu Lao.. definitely a seedy district, nothing classy at all. But a whole lot of fun!! Saigon is crazy by day… and at night is only a fraction quieter and less crazy but equally as bright!

And that was it for us in Saigon… potentially will hit up a museum when we return to Saigon in a couple weeks before we fly back home.

Cam on Saigon!

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!

Breaking a World Record with 10KSA

December 12, 201d5

The big day. Finally. So much planning and preparation and stress… but I think we’re ready to break a world record!!!

I was so excited to start this day and bring awareness to the women of Saudi and empower them… and help them break a world record!

I checked into Princess Noura University Sports Complex by 0800 with all my First Aid Team… A team of nurses and doctors from the university hospital would be joining us later in the day.

The day started out gorgeous (ended beautifully also!). The winter sun was out… warming us gently as the temperature wasn’t much above 10 degrees.

First thing, we signed in, got our 10KSA sweaters… and then went to the First Aid center and attempted to organize first aid supplies… which we didn’t have and wouldn’t have for hours yet until the University Hospital opened up and our physician and her team of nurses would bring them. I was seriously stressing that we wouldn’t get the first aid supplies and I was praying we wouldn’t have any emergencies before supplies arrived, and hopefully no emergencies at all! but with 10,000+ women scheduled to arrive, it seemed unlikely that would we end the day without any issues.

Mid-morning we put all our planning on hold to meet together with all the other volunteers (at least 2000 women!!) for an beautiful message from our fearless leader Princess Reema. So excited to start the event and start seeing people come around!)

Much of the morning and early afternoon was spent just wandering around the facility before the event actually started… checking out all the displays and booths and the various areas. There an Awareness Zone (where all the booths on health and wellness were set up), Nutrition (all the food… some of it was seriously gourmet!!!), Active (basically a full on gym set up with yoga center, spin class, zumba/dance classes, and active wear/food products, etc!), and finally the Fun Zone where Luxury Events had set up a photobooth, a carnival, clothes/artsy things to purchase, as well as a beautiful group painting women could participate in… it was lovely.

My favorite place was the Active Zone… the decoration was incredibly well done. And there was constantly music and laughter coming from within the zone as women participated in the various fitness classes…

At one point late in the afternoon when I actually had time to walk around and enjoy everything, the sun was setting over the Active zone and the sun shining through all the gauze and streamers and wooden supports… it was gorgeous!

I spent the whole day, from 0800 to nearly 2400 rapidly walking from one end of the sports complex to the other. Our main First Aid center was in the sports complex building at the far end, and completely at the other end of the complex was the Stadium where we had our main first aid outpost.

Finally… the most important part of the event… the highlight of the whole day.. the formation of the Worlds Largest Human Health Awareness ribbon. Around 7pm, women started lining up to be counted to go into the stadium to form the ribbon. Hundreds of volunteers had been recruited and trained to help with ribbon formation… they’d been scurrying around for hours getting organized… but trying to organize roughly 10,000 women is a monumental task! But they did so well!! The first aid volunteers joined all the women in the stadium, helping the other volunteers get the women organized in the ribbon, as well as being accessible in case of emergency.

There was beautiful inspirational music playing and the 10KSA theme song…

All the women were given pink tarha’s to wear to cover their heads… the Tarhas were beautiful with gorgeous Saudi themed prints on the ends… and the pink was a gorgeous fuschia color!!

I joined the ribbon also just before the final count… standing there with hopefully 10,000 women, united in anticipation… united in the uniqueness of our position in Saudi Arabia and the significance of this day and this moment for women… united in support of one another to raise awareness for a disease that devastates us all in some way… filled with hope…

Finally, the most inspirational moment of the day… the representative from Guiness World Records went on stage and presented Princess Reema and the women of Saudi Arabia with… the new world record!!!! 8,264 participants… the worlds largest human health awareness ribbon. And it was all women. All women living in Saudi Arabia… at this moment crushing the stereotype of a country known for its repression of women… a country filled with so many of the strongest and most ambitious and dedicated and inspirational women I’ve ever met.

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To be part of that moment… standing there with 8,264 women celebrating our strength and celebrating women coming together to empower each other and raise awareness about a horrific disease that impacts every single one of us in some way. My heart was so full. These women are incredible. And I am so blessed to have been a part of this day… and to see into their lives in this country…

Of all the opportuniities I’ve had in Saudi Arabia and the amazing experiences… this one is by far the best. I’ll never forget how it felt to stand there with all those women… I’ll never forget the beautiful women who organized the event and how they inspired me with their courage and strength… We are blessed. Truely blessed.

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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…