Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week, I’ve been chatting to Ellen from Wherever the Wind Takes Me about a slightly more unusual travel destination, Saudi Arabia. Ellen is a British work psychologist, writer and consultant who left the UK in 2012 for three months’ travel – and kept going. She created a new life for herself where as well as her travel blog she writes a personal development blog at EllenBard.com, and works as a freelance management consultant in countries as diverse as China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. She bases herself in Chiang Mai. You can find her at her blogs or on twitter.
Hi Ellen! So, what took you to Saudi Arabia?
I’ve been working in the middle east for a couple of years now, including Egypt, Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. This year I was asked to do some work in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, for a huge company based there. I’ve been back a couple of times, and stay each time for 1-2 weeks.
Just getting the visa was an adventure in itself – I live in Thailand, which has a difficult diplomatic relationship with Saudi and after several months of trying, I had to go back to the UK to get the visa there. It’s less common for an expat woman to be granted a temporary working visa, but I was told I stood a better chance because I’m old (I’m 37!!).
It’s a strange experience to visit Saudi as a lone western woman. Most tourism in Saudi is religious tourism because Islam’s most important place, Mecca, is there, and all Muslims have to visit Mecca once in their lifetime. Mecca gets a couple of million visitors a year for this purpose. Saudi only opened to non-religious tourism in 2013, and this is still very limited. When I was invited to work there, I debated long and hard about whether to go. Eventually I decided that it was such a unique opportunity I would take it.
I can see why you were dubious, since it’s not the best known place for tourism. But definitely an interesting experience! Where did you stay?
My client picks up my expenses when I travel, so they chose where I stayed. The first time, I stayed on their compound . This is a huge fenced in area with reasonably high security where 11,000 expats live. It’s essentially a small town, with a bowling alley, cinema, many restaurants, a golf course, riding stables, yoga studio – you name it, they probably have it! It also had the offices where I was working.
The biggest advantage of being on the compound is that the ‘rules’ are much more relaxed than in the rest of Saudi Arabia. For example, it’s law in Saudi that women have to wear an abaya, which is the long, loose black cloak that covers everything apart from head, hands and feet (yes, it’s very hot!). On the compound, you don’t have to wear this, and although most women wear modest dress for work, you see quite varied dress around the living quarters. I stayed in accommodation on compound which was like a small hotel. The rooms were tiny but had everything I needed. They didn’t do food, but there was a supermarket across the road, so I had Special K in my room from a plastic bowl!
I’ve also stayed off-compound, which as a woman was a considerably less fun experience. Apart from having to wear the abaya all the time (including to breakfast in the hotel for example), it was quite an isolating experience – men don’t look you in the eye, they avoid touching you (at the airport the immigration officer put a piece of card between our hands when he pushed my fingers down on the fingerprint scanner), and they certainly won’t talk to you if you’re on your own. The first time I stayed in the hotel I didn’t see a single other woman in six days, not on the staff or among the guests.
One oddity I’ve found is that none of the places I have stayed in Saudi give you a kettle in the room, so I now take my own as well as coffee and coffee-mate! The hotel I stayed in on the last visit was also very dated and tired (I won’t say where) so I can’t recommend that. Airbnb does seem to exist in Saudi though!
It certainly sounds very different. Not unpleasant, but a culture shock for sure! I’m guessing it’s also pretty hot?
It’s very hot in Saudi Arabia – while I was there last in May it got up to the late 40s, and it can get to 50 and above in July and August. This means you’re likely to spend a fair amount of time indoors if you go in the hot season.
What did you get up to?
On the compounds there’s plenty to do. Outside the compound the biggest ‘activity’ is shopping, and Dammam has many huge shopping malls with western and middle eastern shops and restaurants. Saudi Arabia is a ‘dry’ country, so alcohol is forbidden. You also need to take account of prayer time (which is five times a day), because everything shuts for the 20-30 minutes that the call to prayer is happening. If you’re in the mall, you can still walk round and window shop, but you can’t go in and buy anything until prayer time is finished.
For expats, organised sports are very popular, and a quick google will bring up many opportunities.
The other popular ‘activity’ is eating, and there are plenty of American and European chains (McDonalds anyone?!), from Chillis to KFC as well as cuisines from all over the world. There are some great Indian restaurants in particular, because of the high number of expats from there.
Very interesting! Do you have a highlight?
Although Saudi is a big country, it’s mostly desert, and I’ve come to really love the desert landscape. It’s pretty bleak on the one hand, but very bright – the sky is usually blue, and there’s not much grass, mostly when you’re travelling on roads, it’s just desert and sand around you. I love the way that sand piles itself up into rippled dunes, blown by the wind. I love the feeling of space and emptiness. I also love the smell of the desert, which is hard to describe, but very distinct, and has a freshness to it that I find relaxing.
The other highlight was one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to, Maharaja at the gorgeous Movenpick hotel. I’m a vegetarian, and Indian is my favourite cuisine, so a restaurant where they have a Michelin starred chef (yes!) was a big hit with me. The food was delicious, as well as beautifully presented, and I will definitely be going back when I return to Dammam.
Ooh that does sound good! So, do you have any advice for going to Saudi?
Know the culture before you go. Look up what’s appropriate and inappropriate – there are religious police in Saudi and if you’re acting inappropriately (from not wearing your abaya to holding hands in public) the penalties can be severe. There are many restrictions, particularly on women, who can’t drive, for example.
Having said that, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about life in Saudi. Many of the expats I met there absolutely love it (though I think living on the compound makes a huge difference). I also found many of the Saudis I met while I was working to be very kind, and hospitable – one female delegate on a course I was running bought in Arabic coffee and dates for all her course-mates. And yes, there are Saudi women who work, and sometimes work in an abaya, veil and face covering. It’s disconcerting only to be able to see the eyes of the people you’re working with, but the women are no less smart and talented than anywhere else.
Very good point! I think a lot of people would be put off Saudi by all the restrictions, but it’s important to remember that it’s a big part of their culture. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad place, it’s just different to what we’re used to!
Last question, then: what do you love most about travelling?
I’ve been privileged to work in many countries, and getting to know the local people in that way has been wonderful. Meeting so many different people, from such a variety of cultures, religions and backgrounds has broadened my horizons as to what ‘normal’ is (there is no normal!), and destroyed many misconceptions or stereotypes. Another highlight for me is always the food – I love exploring new cuisines – so I try to do what I can to try new food. I love Arabic bread, fresh from the oven, and a falafel and hummus kebab is also a local favourite of mine!
NB – all images are owned by Ellen Bard