My Time in KSA…The Good, The bad & The Ugly

As my time in Saudi comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on my time spent here, the good, the bad & the ugly…

The good…

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Clock Tower, Makkah

TRAVEL: since KSA is in the Middle East, it’s super cheap to travel to Europe, Asia, Africa, your choice. Plus it’s incredibly easy to go to other Middle Eastern countries, Dubai for like $200-300 (can’t beat that).

Vacation Time: Most jobs give you at least one month paid vacation!

Makkah & Madinah are only a bus ride or flight away. I lost count of how many times I went to Madinah and I’ve been to Makkah twice. 

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The Kaaba, Makkah

Everything’s CHEAP!! Food, clothes, EVERYTHING!!!

Save tons!! Who can say no to no taxes and free/low cost housing?!

Exposure to other people and cultures…I have literally met people from all over the world, not even an exaggeration. Ex: I worked with a few Georgian teachers, as in from the country not state. I had never met a Georgian or even heard about them outside of the news before Saudi.

Time to reflect: A good thing about KSA is that there aren’t a lot of things to do so you have plenty of time to focus on your goals and “find yourself”

The bad…

The weather is horrid, as in scorching hot 24/7 unless it’s winter when it’s freezing. Take my advice don’t go to Riyadh in the summer!

Transportation can get complicated since women can’t drive…Alhamdulillah there’s Uber!! Don’t know what I’d do without it tbh.

Being on someone else’s schedule aka constantly waiting for drivers **eye roll**

Living & working with the same people…I prefer to have a separate work and home life and it can get exhausting seeing the same people everywhere. At the same time, you can really get to know some amazing people

Entertainment…What’s that?? If it’s not a restaurant and/or a mall, you’re probably not going to do it. Basically if you want to get out of the house, you’ll be spending money. There are parks but it’s wayyy too hot to go the majority of the year. There’s always camping (eat and drink in the desert then go home and sleep) but the logistics can get complicated since you can’t drive and need a trusted person to take you. No one wants to get stranded in the middle of nowhere, literally! 

The ugly…

Choosing the wrong company…ultimately people’s experiences really depend on their company. My experience could have been better to say the least.

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Desert Safari outside of Riyadh

 

Food, Food and more Food

It’s Ramadan, so of course I’m thinking about food…There are a few things that I’m more passionate about than food. I would say that I’m a picky eater, but at the same time I eat a lot. I’ve been a pescatarian for eight and a half years now. Originally, I was just trying out not eating meat (chicken, beef, lamb, etc.) for a month, which turned into six months and now it’s been over eight years. Now, having such a particular diet can make eating while traveling difficult sometimes. So, I made a list of places I’ve travelled to with the best food! =)

Bali

IMG_4498Omg! The food I had in Bali was probably the best that I’ve ever had, whether it was at small, local restaurants or larger, fancier ones. Bali was the first time that I ever got up for the breakfast included with my hotel. They have tons of fresh, tropical fruits that I had never tried before, like dragonfruit, passionfuit and more. Of course, I had the juices back home, but never the actual fruits. Bali also has amazing fried noodles. I had them for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner. You get it? So delicious!! It’s also very easy to find halal food in Bali, so you don’t have to worry about pork products being used. Since Bali is an island, there’s tons of seafood! The best thing about Balinese cuisine is how fresh and flavorful it is. 

Spain

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Lobster, Mango & Avocado & Ceviche

I’ve been to a few cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Segovia and Toledo)- all of which have really good food. Obviously, Spain is famous for tapas (small plates) and paella, which are tasty. However, my favorite thing about Spain is the really good specialty restaurants like cevicherías (ceviche restaurants), marisquerías (seafood restaurants), pulperías (octopus restaurants) and more! Basically Spain is a pescatarian’s destination. So much fresh seafood and veggies!! My favorite Spanish dish is the Spanish tortilla or omelette made from fried potatoes and onions-aka the perfect breakfast! 

IMG_4007San Miguel Market is a good place to try different types of Spanish food. I had different types of calamari and ceviche there. I loved the variety of food and not having to settle on just one type. Everything comes in small portions so you can try many different things at once. The only downside is it’s a bit expensive compared to other places in the city, but still cheap compared to American prices i.e. €20 or $22. The only downside with food in Spain is that you have to be careful about the large amount of pork products in food. Aside from that, it’s perfect! 

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is an up and coming tourist destination for food and architecture. Like Spain, there are many pescatarian and vegetarian options. Being a coastal city, there are so many options for fresh, local seafood and vegetables. There’s a lot of pork, similar to Spain, but it’s still fairly easy to find halal food. Portugal has tapas or small plates, also like Spain, so you can order many and different things to try, instead of just one. My favorite tapa in Lisbon was pan-fried, crispy sardines with garlic. Yes, sardines!!

Maldivian Beauty

I would say that Maldives is definitely the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been to– from the clear blue water to the sound of bats overhead (yes bats!). Everything was amazing! The people, the food, EVERYTHING!! 

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Hulhulmalé

I had wanted to go to Maldives since I did a project about it. However, I didn’t think that I’d be able to go anytime soon. Living in Saudi Arabia makes it super easy to travel around Europe, Africa and most places in Asia. So, when one of my friends suggested that we go to Maldives, I jumped at the chance. Who can beat cheap tickets?

In the first night in Maldives I stayed in Hulhulmalé at the HM Retreat, an overnight hotel, close to the public beach. It’s a small hotel, but it’s close to the airport and clean which is good for an overnight stay. Personally, I wouldn’t stay there for more than one night because the rooms are pretty small. They also provide a free standard breakfast. 

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Amazing food from Royal Quest

The great thing about Hulhulmalé is that most hotels have small restaurants in the lobbies. So, there are many food options =). My favorite restaurant was in the Royal Quest Hotel. They have the BEST seafood fried noodles! 

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Hulhulmalé Public Beach

I think it’s good to spend at least one day in Hulhulmalé before going to a resort to get a feel for Maldivian culture. The island is really clean and people are nice–plus it’s really cheap. The Hulhulmalé beach is beautiful. Yet, nothing compared to the beaches at the resorts. There are a lot of rocks in the water; it’s still unbelievably clear. However, there are a lot more rules there. For example, you can’t wear bikinis.

I ended up staying at Kurumba Maldives, an island resort, which means coconut in the local language. Naturally, coconuts are a theme throughout the resort. On the way we were given coconut scented hand towels and coconut sorbet. There are 8 restaurants to choose from for each meal, which includes everything from Chinese to contemporary Western cuisine. There’s a spa, masjid, pools, tons of beachside seating, and it’s perfect for watching the sunset. 

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Sunset…

The first night we ate at Thila, which offers contemporary Western food for dinner. They have really nice outdoor seating over the ocean. While we were eating, sharks were swimming below. The scenery and décor were awesome, but the food was even better. Another good restaurant at the resort is East, which has “Oriental Cuisine” from China, Singapore, Cambodia, etc. 

To be honest, in Maldives, I didn’t do much. I just relaxed. There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning with nothing to do but decide if you should eat first or go to the beach first. Maldives is truly the place to go to fully relax and get away from life. I literally slept outside a few times in the hammock outside of our bungalow. I felt like I was in a paradise. The only noises to be heard were the waves hitting the sand and bat calls. I experienced true tranquility. Also, I went in January, so it wasn’t too hot or humid. The weather was perfect. The bungalow was great too! We got the deluxe bungalow, which was pretty big. It had a Jacuzzi bathtub, an indoor and outdoor shower (my new fave thing).

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Complimentary Coconut =)

The only negative thing about Maldives is the taxes. They are extremely high! When I booked the bungalow it was one price–then they charged about a fourth of the price in taxes (almost $500). At the resorts everything is in dollars and it adds up after a while. So, when you go just keep that in mind. Aside from that it’s the perfect place to go for a relaxing vacay =)

 

 

 

Baha-rain

I went to Bahrain for the first time in November 2015 and since then I’ve been about 10 times (a lot I know). I’m sure you’re wondering why. Honestly, when I lived in Riyadh it was the easiest place to get to (time and money wise).

I like to think of Bahrain as the Vegas of the Gulf, literally “Sin City”, if that’s the kind of experience you want. I could always talk about the prostitutes and partying, but that’s not why I enjoy it so much. I really fell for the people and culture. I’ve been to the majority of the Gulf countries and Bahrainis are definitely amongst the nicest people in the world who are extremely welcoming. I’ve had so many random convos with taxi drivers. You can also find a lot of expats from all over the world.

bahrainbushidoMy favorite restaurant in Bahrain is Bushido, a Japanese restaurant and lounge. The atmosphere is great and the food is awesome! There are two floors and tons of outside seating which overlook a small pond. Downstairs there’s a shisha lounge, while upstairs has the bar/lounge. Both floors are decorated in traditional Japanese decor. The shisha lounge is interesting because you definitely have a mixture of Japanese culture and Middle Eastern. At night it gets a little awkward when the prostitutes or high-end escorts come out. I’m actually a big people watcher, so it’s always hilarious for me. You’ll usually see a guy dressed in traditional clothing (thobe and shamagh) with a scantily clad, young Eastern European woman, which is always a sight.

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Girls I met at Cavallo lol

Going out in Bahrain is completely different from back home. Most places are complete sausage fests–there are always way more men than women. As a woman, you are literally their prey (not even exaggerating here, unfortunately). For example, if you go to Cavallo, they usually play hip-hop and R&B until about 12 or 1am and then things get weird. Usually the music changes to techno around that time and then groups of Saudi guys start their dance offs (this is my cue to leave). Wrangler is another club that plays a mix of hip-hop, R&B and Afrobeats. To be honest, it’s really seedy, and everything you have on will smell like cigarettes when you leave, but you’ll have a good time. Also, it’s the perfect place to people watch locals and foreigners. It’s normal to see prostitutes looking for johns and vice versa. Bahrain is a pretty small country so we see the same people all the time, which brings a new meaning to Eskimo brothers. Another club is at the Ramee Grand Hotel and it’s pretty weird. Again, it’s mostly Saudi guys also having dance offs, to hip-hop on techno beats (such a strange sight!). I definitely don’t recommend going there unless that’s your scene.

bahrainmeThe malls are always fascinating as well, as you can see such a diverse mix of people (everything from full burqa to shorts and a t-shirt) and no one cares. THE MALLS! Like all of the other Gulf countries, one of the main forms of entertainment in Bahrain is the mall. My favorite mall is City Centre in Manama, which is the largest mall in the country. There are tons of restaurants, cafes, stores; you can find everything there! Most of the stores are American or European, so you can find everything from back home (Top Shop, River Island, H&M, Forever 21, Sephora, Bobbi Brown, etc.).

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View from The Swiss Belhotel

 

 

I think I’ve eaten at every restaurant there with the exception of TGI Friday’s and Chili’s (because why would I eat American food when there are so many better options?!). My favorite restaurant is Asha’s, an Indian restaurant with amazing unique mocktails (my fave is the Ginger Moscow Mule which is a mix of ginger, lime and lemonade) and even better food (seafood kababs!!). There’s also a really nice salon called Hello Kitty, which as you can guess is decorated in a Hello Kitty theme. I always get mani/pedis there and I’ve never had a bad experience. One time one of my friends got a bad haircut and color in Saudi and they were able to salvage her hair–it looked amazing!

There are also two hotels attached to City Centre, The Westin and Le Meridien. Both hotels are very nice and they share a spa and pool area. The Westin is great if you’re staying for a few days, but it’s pricier than Le Meridien. I just love the convenience of both because if you’re hungry you can just go to the mall to eat. Taxis can get expensive, so even though you pay more to stay there, you save on taxi fare. 

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Star Wars in 3D!!

Another great mall is Seef Mall in Muharraq. I went there to watch the Star Wars premiere in 3D. It’s much smaller than City Centre but still nice. If you’re looking for a nice quiet place to shop, then this is your place. It has all of the typical stores that are in most Gulf malls.

The Seef area is really nice as well and still close to the City Centre. I’ve stayed at the Swiss Belhotel and the Ibis Seef Hotel. The Swiss Belhotel is really nice and relatively new, so it’s not very expensive. It’s across the street from Seef Mall, while Ibis Seef is a little further down the street. The Ibis Seef is definitely a budget hotel. If you plan a lot of activities and don’t plan on spending a lot of time in your room, then this is your place. It’s super cheap, clean and close to pretty much everything.

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Outside at Al Bindaira

Al Bindaira Café in Seef is another really good shisha lounge/restaurant. They have typical Middle Eastern food (Lebanese or Syrian) like falafel, hummus, etc.. Their Bindaira mix shisha is really delicious; it’s a mix of different flavors and not too strong. They also have typical Middle Eastern décor. Outside there’s outdoor seating with big screen TVs (with soccer or Arabic music videos playing), normal tables and low tables with benches and cushions for a more intimate atmosphere. It’s a really good place to just hang out with friends+ shisha =good match. Inside they have the traditional majlees, which is really comfortable.

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Al Bindaira

La Taverna Sul Mare is a really good choice for Italian food. The ambience is really nice as well. If you sit outside there are couches with huge cushions, so you can almost lie down while eating. It’s also really quiet. The food is good, but nothing special (my seafood pizza was okay); however, the restaurant’s atmosphere makes up for it. The restaurant is at the Coral Bay floating hotel, which is a unique type of hotel. It’s a really romantic setting **perfect for dates**.

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View from a café in Amwaj

The landscapes in Bahrain are also very diverse, in that there are plenty of beaches (from white sand to rocky), a small desert and hills that are good for hiking. The worst thing in Bahrain is the weather because it gets extremely hot and humid. If you walk outside during the day, you’ll seriously reevaluate your life. What do I mean by that? You go out for a few minutes and get very sweaty and sticky. It’s really gross, but at night it gets cool and bearable. So, the best time to visit is in the winter (December to February/March) when it’s a little cooler. A must visit in Bahrain is Amwaj islands, which are extremely beautiful. The water is so blue and much cleaner than a lot of the beaches. There are a lot of restaurants around the lagoon and most of them have shisha and really good Middle Eastern food. It’s also just nice to walk around at night, to check out the plenty festivals, fairs and celebrations. It’s a nice, quiet, peaceful area. Everyone goes there from families, singles, teens, etc.

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That time I hiked..

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The view from the top…

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a chill place to vacation that’s cheaper than Dubai but still fun, Bahrain is your place.

Here are some videos I took in the desert and a nearby beach…

 

 

Hola, bienvenido =)

There is no way for me to talk about traveling without going back to the beginning. I always knew that I didn’t want to be like everyone around me. I grew up in a very close knit Muslim community in Northern Virginia where everyone went to the same schools, the same masjids, the same universities and you know the rest. I always wondered what else was out there for me. To be quite honest, Northern Virginia is an excellent place to raise children, but it’s stifling to the young adult.

I always imagined that I would get married and move away. Then, in college it dawned on me, why wait until I get married to leave? Why not now? And who’s to say that I would get married anytime soon? Here my friends…is where I started to make changes to live my life the way I wanted to.

First, I transferred to Virginia Tech and changed my major to International Studies and Spanish (two things I’m very passionate about). Of course, in studying both, there were many study abroad opportunities, all of which were way too expensive. Also, all of my classmates who studied abroad came back being able to say “cerveza” and “ron” (beer and rum), which you could learn at your local Latin restaurant. Why would I pay thousands of dollars to learn drink names? Who does that? Disappointed in the study abroad programs, I started to do my own research into countries to visit and practice my Spanish.

Oscar Wao.jpgIn my sophomore year of college, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which follows a boy named ‘Oscar’ and his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey over generations. It also goes through his identity crisis being Dominican-American and touches on colorism there. I immediately felt a connection to the book and the DR. I knew that I wanted to go there. I had no idea how or where, but I just knew that I had to go. So, upon researching countries, I naturally chose the DR to be at the top of my list. I finally decided to go to the DR for a multitude of reasons–mostly because I would be forced to speak Spanish the majority of the time. I prefer to travel to places and experience the local culture and food.

When I first arrived in the Dominican Republic, I was so excited. I just knew that I would be speaking Spanish all the time and everything would be perfect. Of course that isn’t what actually happened because nothing’s truly perfect. When I first arrived at the airport and went through customs, I was completely overwhelmed. The first phrase that I learned in DR was despacio , slowly, because Dominicans typically speak as if they’re trying to cram as many words as possible into one minute.

While in DR I worked at an orphanage in Santo Domingo for a month in Los Mina and Los Jardines, which really helped me improve my Spanish. Before I left I did a lot of research on transportation and how to get around DR–all of which cautioned to not, under any circumstance, take public cars, guaguas (small minivans or buses) or motores (small motorcycles). So, I of course took all of them. I could literally go from one side of the city to the other on 25 pesos ($0.53). To be honest, I enjoyed public transport far more in DR than in the DC area where you pay a crap ton of money for delays and constant construction. The good thing about public cars and guaguas is that you can get off anywhere on the route, since there aren’t set stops making them more convenient. Obviously, you should be careful because people do get robbed, but I traveled all over the capital with no problems by myself. 

I did get myself into some awkward situations because I lived in Arroyo Hondo close to 9km and would take a public car or guagua towards Los Alcarrizos (a small town) to get home everyday. So a few times I forgot to tell the drivers where to drop me and had to get dropped off by a hotel. I never thought anything of the hotel, but every time I asked to be dropped off there I would get questioned, “estás segura”?. I always thought that maybe my pronunciation was off or something so I would practice how to ask to be dropped off (déjame aquí). Then one day I was reading the local newspaper and came across an article about cheating in DR and Las Cabañas del Corazón/Sol where men go to meet their mistresses and/or prostitutes. I mentioned this to my roommate, who then told me that the hotel I was getting dropped off by was one of those places and it all made sense.

One of my favorite places was Palenque, a small rock beach about 2 hours from the capital. You can take a bus from the capital for 60 pesos ($1.28) each way. It’s a nice place to just relax and there are mostly locals there. There I had the best fish ever! All of the fish is fresh because it’s caught there and it’s super affordable. Also, you can go into the cooler and pick the fish you want and it’s served with tostones (fried plantain) and moro de gandules (rice and beans) for about 150 pesos (~$3). 

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Boca Chica

Another beach without many tourists is Boca Chica, which is about an hour or so east of Santo Domingo. You can take a bus there as well for about 60 pesos. I really liked this beach because you see more locals, not to mention that the food was amazing, especially the seafood that’s caught there.

My favorite place in Santo Domingo is La Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone). If you like history, this is your place. There are many “firsts” here like the first Cathedral in the “New World” and where the Spanish first landed. Literally you can run into really interesting historical places on every street. However, the restaurants there are a little pricier than in other parts of the city and not as authentically Dominican, but still delicious. 

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Santa Maria La Menor Cathedral (the 1st in the “New World”)

What’s a trip to DR without mangoes? They seriously have the best mangoes EVER!! I got the opportunity to go mango picking with my landlord in Baní, a small town about an hour or so southwest of Santo Domingo. The town is quite charming and they have the most amazing mangoes, called “banilejos”. They’re yellowish orange. The best thing about banilejos is that they don’t have that annoying stringy stuff that most mangoes have and are incredibly juicy. According to locals, it’s because there is salt in the soil, which changes the taste. You can even eat the peel! There’s also a small beach there with almost black sand, but blue waters. 

I definitely fell in love with the Dominican Republic that summer and with traveling in general. It was amazing!! I can’t say that I regret a thing. So, if you want to see some historical sites and relax on nice beaches, then the Dominican Republic is your place.

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Hanging with the kiddos in Los Jardines