Home Leave

After a long transition back to the U.S. that required extensive planning and great perseverance, we are finally (relatively) settled in Virginia for three months of training.

We have been living out of suitcases for the last four months and are carting around several large boxes from Saudi Arabia which we will be shipping off to Baghdad in a couple months. The whole prospect of what we’ve been through and what we still have left to tackle sometimes feels overwhelming, but for the time being we are keeping calm and staying positive.

This blog post is called “Home Leave” because we just spent the whole month of July enjoying the beauty of this benefit that the Foreign Service enforces all employees to take between assignments. The idea is that after serving overseas for two years and before going back, your family needs to spend time in the U.S. to remember why this country is so great. We are serving the U.S. overseas after all. So we had mandatory vacation time. Yippee!

The decision to go to Maggie Valley, which is a small town in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, was made very quickly after we thought about where we were coming from and where we were going. Desert – aaaand then back to – desert. We needed some color and depth in our lives and the Great Smokies provided just that. With green trees, mountain streams and rivers, a high elevation, and rainy weather that came and went in the afternoons, we couldn’t have asked for a better contrast to our life in the Middle East.

With no itinerary or schedule, we let ourselves relax and decide how we would spend our time each day as it came. Among our hikes into the mountains and walks around the lake, we white water rafted down the Ocoee River in Tennessee, rode horses, ate some amazing BBQ and southern comfort dishes, floated in inner tubes down Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, and spent time with family and friends.

It was hard to leave such a peaceful and charming vacation, but we are grateful we had such an opportunity to explore and have fun in the mountains.

Now, once again, it’s back to work!

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Around the World in Seventeen Days

Coming home after being overseas for a year-and-a-half is an emotional experience to say the least. Our second R&R (rest and recovery) for our two year assignment in SA took us around the world as we traveled from Bahrain to London to Los Angeles to Tokyo to Manila to Bahrain and then back to Saudi. We somehow survived the total air time of forty-five hours in the seventeen days journey. Why would we put ourselves through this madness? Because our family and friends mean this much to us. We would travel tens of thousands of miles to be there to hear that two of our friends are getting engaged, to find out that two of our friends are expecting their first child, and to watch two of our friends say “I do” to each other.          We spent time with family, talking about how life has changed and witnessing it in person. Walking around Old Town Pasadena we saw that some of our favorite stores and restaurants had come and gone, recognition that the time capsule we were expecting to come back to was never shut. We closed those chapters of our life when we moved away, but they were still being written without us. This realization hit me the hardest as we sat in our favorite Himalayan restaurant eating some of our favorite dishes. As David and I reminisced about this life that we once inhabited, the tears poured out of me. We have changed. Our friends and family have changed. Places have changed. Outside the restaurant was a world that we recognized but which no longer felt familiar.   

 I imagine this is a one time shock to transition through since I have never been away from the U.S. for so long. Even David had to adjust to the homecoming in his own way. We stepped off the shuttle bus from LAX to the rental car company, and the driver asked us if we had ever been here before. David not realizing the context of the question responded, “yes, we’re coming home” with a giant smile on his face. The driver gave him a blank look as I quickly interjected, “no, we haven’t.” The driver then picked up my cue and said, “okay, so you’re going to make a left at the end of the sidewalk and then another left, follow the arrows until you see the sign.” The relief and joy of being back in CA was all we could think about as we held our suitcases. The sun set over the coast casting a red glow on the palm trees.

Along with our jam-packed social itinerary, we also did quite a bit of shopping at our favorite stores and malls: Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, Trader Joe’s, the Cabazon outlets, See’s candies. Ate at our favorite establishments: El Ranchito, Santana’s, In ‘N Out, Togo’s, Chipotle, Panda Express.
 
I DROVE!!!! Everywhere I could!
In the Philippines we enjoyed sightseeing (Bonifacio Global City, Fort Santiago and Intramuros), spa services, and lots of delicious food with David’s family and relatives.    

               It was good to see everyone again.  What an amazing thing to have people we are close with all over the world.

Winter’s Week in Paris

I cannot believe it has been four months since my last post, one month since our last trip, and two weeks since I wrote the following post on Paris but never submitted it! I cannot keep pace with our schedule at the moment so I’m scrambling to catch up. We are about to embark on our second and last R&R trip which will take us to London, Los Angeles, and Manila. Yep, we’re heading West and we won’t stop until we are back in Saudi Arabia again. Around the world in eighty days? Ha. We are doing it in two weeks. So before I set off, I leave you with pictures from our most recent vacation, which was the perfect break. The pictures may look a little gloomy, but we were loving the cold and gray winter. Paris, it seems, is beautiful all year long.

January 2016:

We made it through another holiday season in Saudi. It was hard being overseas and away from family this time around, possibly because we haven’t been home since we left in September 2014. I missed all the Christmas decorations and shopping and neighborhood lights. The austerity of life in Saudi is starting to get to me. Work and life on the compound is uneventful, and the oppressive culture outside of these walls leaves for very little distraction from the things that bother us. But we made it through and 2016 began with a trip to Paris as a way to treat ourselves and get a taste of the Western world again.

France is quickly becoming our favorite retreat. Its simple pace fits our lazy travel style where we can leisurely stroll along cobblestone roads, linger at cafes for a glass of wine or espresso, and meander through parks, gardens, and museums with no schedule or agenda. And with cold rainy winter days, Paris did not lose one bit of its charm. We stayed in the neighborhood of Montmartre at the same hotel which we previously stayed. Nothing has changed since three years ago which means it is still quaint and scenic. It sits up on a hill with Sacre Coeur at the top, overlooking all of the city. We enjoyed every moment of our trip! There is still much left to explore of Paris and greater France, we don’t have any future plans, but I don’t doubt that we will one day be back for more.

Sri Lanka

Following the advice that we need to get out of Saudi Arabia every three months in order to maintain some sanity, we decided to take a tropical vacation to a nearby island that would be “cheap.” Sri Lanka is only a five hour plane ride away and offers landscapes of lush green mountains and refreshing coastlines. Recently we had met several expats who journeyed to the South Asian island and really enjoyed it. After all the sun and heat during the summer months, we felt some rain and clouds would do us good.

Ahh Sri Lanka. A vacation of mixed emotions. A return to nature, spiritualism, fresh food, and relaxation. And a test of patience and wit. We spent six nights and seven days with a total of five different hotels. It was a whirlwind of touring with quite a bit of time in the car driving between destinations, but we left with some incredible memories and lessons. Here are the highlights.

Along the way from Negombo International Airport to Sigiriya, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where elephants are free to roam on the reserve and visitors get to watch them eat, wander, play, work, and bathe. There were many generations of elephants to observe, some with long tusks and even babies.

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We got to feed the elephants. Fruit like pineapple and banana is a special treat for them.

Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an absolute must-see. Our favorite memory of the trip was climbing 1202 steps to the top of Sigiriya rock 180 meters high in the rain while lightning struck all around us. The king built two palaces at the rock, one on the top and another at the bottom. He rotated his stays, living in the winter months above and below during the summer. Graffiti alludes to frescoes at one point covering the rock both inside and out, but most have since washed away, only a few remain on the interior.

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The Aliya Resort hotel in Sigiriya was eco-friendly, quiet, good customer service and food, and had a great view of the rock fortress in the distance.


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King Kashyapa who developed the fortress and built the palace established a sophisticated irrigation system of pools at the base of the rock which would collect water during the rainy season. These pools provided hydration in the summer months as well as a great place to bathe and refresh.

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The fortress was built in seven years during King Kashyapa’s short reign in 477-495CE. The design makes use of the natural resources much of which has sustained the weathering of time. Seen in this picture is our guide Neil who was very knowledgeable and took great care of us.


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Frescos of harems at Sigiriya rock, the company of which the king appeared to enjoy. The paintings were created with natural inks and dyes found in the chemical reactions created by certain woods. A demonstration which we later witnessed at a woodcarving “museum” in Kandy.

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Sigiriya means “lion rock” and at one time sported the head of a lion carved into the rock at this location. All that remains are the lion’s feet which are at the entrance of the stairs if you look closely.


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At the top of Sigiriya rock in the pouring rain. What an experience!

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My morning breakfast always consisted of fresh fruit, nescafe coffee (they don’t do fresh brew), and curries with rice. I loved it.


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Garden plots and natural paths at the hotel – a wonderful retreat.

Leaving Sigiriya the next day, we then drove to Kandy. Along the way we stopped in Dambulla to visit the Golden Temple which is a Buddhist temple with attached museum. Here we observed Buddhists dressed in white and carrying flowers to place before Buddha. We learned much about the philosophy and way of life guided by Buddha’s teachings. Our driver, Prasanna, showed us around and was quick to correct me when I called it a religion. In Sri Lanka, a population of 20 million, 75% are Buddhist, 9% are Muslim, 7% are Catholic, and the rest is a mix of Hindu and other religions.

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The Bodhi tree is a significant symbol in Buddhism, it is said to be where Buddha achieved enlightenment.


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Buddhist temple in Kandy. The black smudge on Buddha’s neck is actually a wasp nest, we saw many during our trip.


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Wearing white to visit the temple.


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Monk statues walking on the path towards Buddha.


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Pagoda.

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During this same journey, our driver took us to a spice garden to learn about the varying spices grown in Sri Lanka. A guide led us around the garden and gave us samples and demonstrations to which we oh’d and ah’d. He introduced himself as a PhD student studying Rheumatology who has worked with the UN in Dubai at conferences to help educate Middle Easterners on Eastern Medicine. He said he worked at the spice garden on the weekends giving tours to earn some extra cash for tips. He seemed very knowledgeable about the plants and what natural remedies they are good for, even referring to their scientific names at times. He moved us quickly through the garden and said that they made their own products back in the “lab” which was closed for the day since it was a weekend and therefore we could not see it. A couple of times I pointed to the meekness of some of the plants growing which were supposed to produce enough oil or spice for their lab to make bottled products. Giving him the benefit of the doubt I supplied him with the answer in my question, “Are they just out of season?” Yes, of course, they are out of season.

Towards the end of the tour he was rubbing all sorts of creams and oils on us, giving us a sheet listing the different plants with their descriptions in order to check off the natural products that we would be interested in. We were particularly intrigued by a plant that produces red oil which will help cure achy joints by “building” cartilage. A couple boys came over to give both David and me massages for some small change, again rubbing us down with with the different lotions and potions. We gave them tips to show our appreciation. One interesting demonstration of note was a natural hair removal which our guide rubbed on a patch of David’s leg hair during our tour. This cream was made naturally (of course) by some special plant, and when wiped away, completely removed the hair without any pain. Wow! We said. It had the faint lingering smell of Nair. David had a head cold as well, out came a spoonful of ginger syrup to naturally remedy his ailments.

As quickly as we were led through the garden, we were ushered into the store to conclude our tour. Our guide graciously offered to carry the basket for us and quickly load it with products that we were interested in trying. “What’s on your list? What did you mark? Do you want the King Coconut Oil for your hair? Sandalwood cream for your face? Aloe Vera lotion for your skin? Red oil for your joints? Spices for your cooking? Hair removal cream? Red pineapple syrup to burn fat? Tooth whitening?” We threw it all in the basket assuming these were going to be dirt cheap prices. The packaging suggested third world homemade products and we were so enthused by the prospect of treating all our problems naturally we didn’t pay much attention to the strategically hidden price tags. Many Chinese tourists also crowded the store eagerly pulling products off of the shelves and rushing to buy. It was a mad frenzy. He quickly led us to the register making one last stop in front of a display before ringing us up. “Pardon for the inconvenience, sir, but how about some sexual chocolate to revitalize your love life?”

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Pepper seeds. Green is unripened and red is ripe. If you remove the red skin you have white pepper and if you let it dry out you get black pepper which is what we use to season food. I ate the fresh red pepper and it definitely had a kick!


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Affectionately named “the chocolate lady” by our guide. Here I am with a cocoa bean.


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A demonstration on hair removal with “natural” ingredients.

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Grinding up seeds to make curry powder.


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Chameleon.

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Within seconds our basket was rung up and they were asking for our credit card. Well, what’s the total? “There on the screen.” Where on the screen? “There.” We look to the lower corner of the screen and in small font our total is given. Really?? That much? What does that convert to in dollars? 850. Seriously. We nearly gave them our credit card to charge us $850 for products of questionable quality! We took most everything off the bill but decided to continue with our purchase of some curry spice, cocoa powder, vanilla and jasmine oil, sandalwood cream, and the all powerful red oil to heal our achy joints. The new total came to $113 which we still felt a little uneasy about, but hey, we’re dumb tourists.

We said goodbye to our guide and thanked him for his time, giving him a tip and wishing him good luck on his studies. We got in the car and Prasanna whisked us away to our next destination.

The rest of the afternoon resulted in the same pattern. Go to a “museum” and get a brief tour, then arrive at the gift shop where you will expect to meet a salesman and extremely high prices for questionable quality goods. Of course we would be offered a “discount” but it was still overwhelmingly expensive. We began to figure that we were being targeted and soon smartened up. We bought nothing at the gem museum which supposedly locally sources its gems although refuses to offer wholesale prices, and we bought nothing at the woodcarving museum which was selling, among other wooden commodities, small cinnamon wooden dishes (admittedly I had my eye on them) for $30 and no less. Give me a break.

As travelers, we will never forget that day in Kandy. We began to see the business transactions for what they were. Prasanna would take us to these traps and if we bought something he would get a small kickback in return. That night at the hotel, I researched the places we went (spice garden, gem, and woodcarving museum) and found other people had the same experience. Meanwhile, David opened the bottle of red oil and proceeded to rub it on his sore ankle. Surprise surprise. It stained the white sheets red. Nothing more than cooking oil mixed with red dye.

Everything came back to me. The phony credentials, the crumpled business card of a western doctor, Linda so-and-so, he pulled out and showed us but then quickly snatched back when I began to look closely, the mysterious “lab” we never saw, the wilted plants, the smell of Nair from the hair removal cream, the rush through garden and the store giving us little time to think, the cheap packaging and labeling with no list of ingredients…

I called the supervisor of the tour company and told him the situation, complaining that we had been scammed and how extremely disappointed we were in Prasanna who took us to this spice garden which was not even on the itinerary. I demanded that I wanted to get our money back for the fraudulent goods that we purchased one way or another. Prasanna, called me back ten minutes later and said that of course it would be taken care of the next day.

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A nice bald patch on David’s leg.


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The products we returned.


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Yep…we went there. What a scam.


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At the gem “museum” where we saw some craftsmen fitting gems into rings, they appeared to be staged.

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Mist settling into the hills in the evening.


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A Kandy sunset.

On our third day, we toured the rest of Kandy, visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya before making the long drive to Nuwara Eliya. After spending a couple hours in the gardens, Prasanna picked us up and gave us our money back for the spice garden goods. Victory!

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Sacred Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy which houses a tooth of Buddha.


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Lotus flowers for purchase.


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Crowds pushing to get into the temple. Very dangerous.

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Standing on moonstone.

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Flowers laid before Buddha. This man was regularly clearing them off to make room for more.


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Tooth is somewhere behind that wall. LOTS of shoving…


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Burning incense.

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This family asked to take a picture with me, I guess because I’m fair skinned…? None of them are smiling in the picture, but they were so happy afterwards they gave me hugs and kisses.

Sitting high in the mountains, Nuwara Eliya is affectionately called “Little England.” The British found it was a perfect location to grow tea and settled there in 1828. The buildings have an old England feel and the weather is surprisingly chilly, even cold at night. We toured a tea factory which was very informative. Learning that the stem of the tea plant is picked which has three leaves of varying size, each one representing a different tea production: white, green, and black. Our hotel, St. Andrew’s, was charming and historically preserved. The concierge greeted us with warm asparagus soup upon arrival and we then enjoyed a delicious afternoon tea in the garden. In the evening we drank wine by a lit fireplace in the sitting room off of the lobby, and then briefly roamed the gardens by night where the frogs croaked their lullabies.

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I could never pass this up.

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Nuwara Eliya hills are covered with tea plants in rows of varying designs.

By day four we were very fatigued. Moving from hotel to hotel every day was beginning to take its toll. The infrastructure of Sri Lanka is very poor and we mostly drove along two lane winding roads navigating slow traffic, stop lights, stray dogs, and long distances. We slept most of the time in the car since we had a driver to shuttle us around and we were still suffering from a bit of jet lag, but we saw quite a bit of scenery as well. Prasanna stopped several times so we could take pictures at lookout spots along the mountain road. Our next destination was Hikkaduwa where we would have two days of rest on the beach.

Hikkaduwa was a nice respite. We lounged by the beach and pool. The Indian Ocean was too rough to relax in. We even witnessed someone get swept up in the tide and carried out, unable to get back on his own. A Sri Lankan life guard took a surfboard out to retrieve him after the alarm was sounded but it took more than twenty minutes to bring him in. Luckily unharmed, just a bit shaken up. Since the ocean was off limits we swam in the pool instead. The hotel was nicely situated so we could still see the beach no matter where we were. It was a pleasant time.

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A monkey sat on David’s lap for two seconds and I got berated by the haggler for not giving him enough money for a photo. This became a recurring mark of tension for the locals, making us feel guilty like we owed them. “We are very poor people,” he told me.


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Dinner: a plate full of rice and mixed curry dishes. Lots of cooked vegetables, coconut milk, fish, chicken, lentils, and spicyyyy!


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Standing in the Indian Ocean!


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Our morning and evening ritual – scoping out the buffet.


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Bride and Groom.


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View from our hotel room in Hikkaduwa.

Finally, the conclusion of our trip. We left Hikkaduwa for Colombo which we felt would be a nice in between rest before we flew out the next day. However, there was not much to see in Colombo after all and we were tired from all the touring. The hotel was a disappointment and we were ready to go home.

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In Colombo – he’s ready to see Saudi again.

Sri Lanka afforded us the respite we needed and gave us some wonderful memories. I can’t help but laugh every time I think about that spice garden. However, we will be sticking to a first world country on our next vacation I think.

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Traveler’s tips: With quite a bit of reflection, we would recommend staying away from businesses that cater to tourists like the spice, gem, and woodcarving “museums” as the products are of precarious quality and extensively marked up. If you go with a tour company, research the planned destinations. We enjoyed most of the sights we saw but regret wasting our time walking around stores rather than hiking a trail in Kandy. We really only lost a day to the tourist traps after we wizened-up, but it’s still time and money spent (even if we didn’t buy anything).

Also, five different destinations was too much in the end. We chose to stay in Colombo on our last night in order to save travel time between the beach and the airport, but it really didn’t save us much and only added to our aggravation since we were booked in a hotel that catered to locals with thin walls and bad customer service. There was nothing much to see in Colombo aside from some historical monuments and buildings which we could have done without and we ultimately spent most of our time at a decent mall walking around and looking for souvenirs, which were again, overpriced. One more day spent at the beach would have been a better way to spend our last day.

Ramadan

Let me begin by admitting my naïveté and say that I had never heard of Ramadan before moving to Saudi Arabia. Much of the Islamic culture is new to me and I am enjoying learning about it and experiencing it firsthand. I won’t try to explain the religious significance of Ramadan – you can Wikipedia it – but I will share my understandings after a month of observing it.

Ramadan began on June 18 and ended on July 17 this year, beginning and ending with a crescent moon. During this time, Muslims fast during the daylight hours, which depending on the time of year (it’s not always during summer) and location in the world (near or far from the equator) Muslims can be fasting for most of the day. Here in Saudi, Muslims fasted between 3:30AM and 6:30PM, eating and drinking only during the evenings. This is a month of deprivation and spirituality, some praying through the night between meals. Their fast is broken at sundown with a date followed by Iftar – a large meal – shared with family and friends. These can be big gatherings with elaborate spreads and are often a time of charity feeding those who are less fortunate. I am told that food is always in overabundance during Ramadan. Later in the evening is Suhoor, a smaller meal of snacks which can also be shared. Since Muslims are up through most of the night, in SA they tend to sleep through most of the day even working a reduced number of hours.

Decorations for Ramadan.

Decorations for Ramadan.

Oud player at Iftar.

Oud player at Iftar.

Some traditions that we were privileged to participate in are unique to the Eastern Province only. We were invited to enjoy a Geerga’an which marks the fifteenth day of Ramadan and is a kind of celebration by the locals. It is mostly for the children who traditionally receive candy and nuts, but many of the adults participate with dancing and eating as well. One notable aspect of the occasion is that women will dance in horse costumes and bang on drums…I’m not sure how this originated. We had a wonderfully sweaty time in the tent with everyone dancing and watching the kids have fun. As you can see from my pictures, the girls wear colorful dresses. Women also wear colorful and elaborate dresses called Jalabiyas during Ramadan, but only at home in private. I bought three for myself. 🙂

At the Geerga'an.

At the Geerga’an.

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In my Jalabiya.

In my Jalabiya, it was made in Kuwait.

Ramadan concludes with Eid, families and friends call upon each other and enjoy dates, chocolates, and cups of Arabic coffee. We paid our respects to our Saudi contacts and enjoyed wishing them “Eid Mubarak,” many will now travel during the rest of summer before school begins at the end of August. For us, we are just happy to go to restaurants again during the day.

Dates and fancy chocolates.

Fresh dates and fancy chocolates.

During Eid calls, it is customary to sit on couches that line the perimeter of the room.

During Eid calls, it is customary to sit on couches that line the perimeter of the room.

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France and England R&R

As part of our time spent in a difficult country serving the U.S. government, we are given two weeks of what’s called “Rest and Recovery” – also known as R&R – once a year. The government pays the cost of the flights for this official travel, setting a limit to the prices. With this opportunity, we considered the time restraints and the amount of travel we were willing to do, and decided that we really needed to focus on resting and enjoying our time away from work with as little stress as possible. We also knew that we wanted to see the Western world again and we didn’t want to travel too far. Our affinity for delicious food and warm weather helped us to decide on the South of France as our destination, spending time by the Mediterranean and in the countryside of Provence – neither disappointed. And since we would be flying through England and so close to our good friends, Becca and George, we spent a few days at the end of our vacation with them at their cottage in Kent County just outside London. The whole trip was such a treat, I wish it could have lasted forever!

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The trip began in Cassis, a small sweet port outside of Marseille where the locals go for vacation. It is tucked away, surrounded by vineyards and cliffs called Calanques. In this small town, we ate delicious seafood, shopped, boated the Mediterranean, hiked, enjoyed the beaches, and relished the coastal breeze from our balcony. We spent only two nights here, but it was such a wonderful respite we easily could have done four. Next time.

One of the Calanques we visited. The image is too far away, but there is a man scaling the cliff and people enjoying the beach. The French love the outdoors.

One of the Calanques we visited. The image is too far away, but there is a man scaling the cliff and people enjoying the beach. We also passed some kayakers before that. The French love the outdoors.


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Cap Canaille in the background.

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Dogs were everywhere - the French love their dogs!

Dogs were everywhere – the French love their dogs!

Man’s best friend is a recurring sight everywhere in France. They go to work with their owners at the market, they enjoy a cafe by the port, they go on hikes, they go shopping in the stores, they walk the Roman ruins. It is a dog culture with friendly well-behaved pooches of every breed around each corner. We enjoyed cooing at them and saying hello, fondly remembering our own best friend patiently awaiting our return. We couldn’t help but think how pigpen would love to live in France. Just like mom and dad.

Market produce

At the market.


Homemade jams.

Homemade jams.


Our hotel in Cassis.

Our hotel in Cassis.

From Cassis, we drove a couple of hours to Provence where we stayed in another small town called Orange. We selected this spot because it situated us nicely next to the Cote du Rhone and in proximity to other towns such as Avignon and la Vaison du Romaine where we drove our rented Peugeot for day trips. In Orange, we toured the countryside and ancient Roman Ruins, visited a wine museum in Chateauneuf du Pape where we did some wine tasting, and ate and drank and ate and drank and ate and DRANK. We learned that in wine country, wine is typically served, if not by the bottle, then by small pitchers called pichets – either 25ml or 50ml – and these pichets are easy to keep ordering since the price is so cheap. It is interesting to note that the regional cuisine in the South of France is very similar to Italian food, with pizzas, pastas, olives, and gelato. David missed his duck confit, but we had no complaints.

Saturday is a family-friendly day in Orange, children ride ponies.

Saturday is a family-friendly day in Orange, children ride ponies.


Families play games in the square.

Families play games in the square.


A band entertains.

A band entertains.


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Roman Theater in Orange, still used for plays and concerts.

Charming towns with cobblestone roads, flower boxes, outdoor seating at restaurants where patrons linger over their boissons and people watch. They enjoy the sun and ignore the wind, there is nothing to complain about here. La vie est belle. Inspiring. Enchanting.

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The excitement and luxury of staying in these small towns with the locals means French is the only language spoken and people are very friendly. The experience allowed us to truly settle into the French culture without any fellow tourists to distract us from what is authentic and pure. We’ve decided that finding the quiet destinations is becoming more and more our preferred way to travel. When we drove to Avignon, we were interested to see the town, but didn’t spend more than two hours touring the area because we suddenly became overwhelmed with all the people around us taking pictures and crowding the popular sights. We retreated to the lookout points admiring the architecture, gardens, and the Rhone river, but then left without even eating a meal. Maybe this means we’re getting old?

An open window carries the gentle wind and delicate light into the room, the curtains move with the breeze as the sound of a church bell rings and a perched pigeon coos. The leisurely pace and indulgent red wine at lunch invites an afternoon nap before the next adventure and the next three course meal.

In Avignon.

Cathedrale d’Avignon.


The Rhone.

The Rhone.

After three nights in Orange, we drove to Nice where we took the scenic route in order to see France’s Grand Canyon, les Gorges du Verdon. The drive took longer than eight hours but gave us some remarkable views. David will attest that I let no pretty sight go uncaptured by my camera!

The cascading soleil enjoys its own delayed departure. Reluctant to set over the glorious countryside, it lingers until after 9PM, allowing for one last snack of pizza from a nearby stand.

Cherries.

Cherries.

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Our roadside lunch in the park - bread, cheese, salami, olives, and peach wine.

Our roadside lunch in the park – bread, cheese, salami, olives, and peach wine.

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Les Gorges du Verdon.

Les Gorges du Verdon.

In Nice we spent five nights in a small apartment just a couple blocks from the sea and right near the Place Messena putting us in a central location to shops and restaurants and old Nice. This area reminded us of a big Old Town Pasadena with the architecture of Paris and the weather of San Diego. It was gorgeous and I enjoyed going out every morning to les patissiers to savor the aroma of their fresh baked goods. I could never forget the memory of warm crusty baguettes and buttery croissants and the feeling of satisfaction as I walked down the cobble-stoned rue with breakfast in my bag ready to be enjoyed with un cafe.

The Mediterranean coast in Nice is bright and exciting providing perfect temperatures and weather conditions for farmers and tourists. The water is aqua before it becomes a deep rich azure offering gorgeous views from high and low. Crowds gather on the rocky shore with their towels and soak in the sun, some women even electing to go topless. Ooh la la!

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The locals are happy and friendly. I speak French to them when interacting without much fluency, having the best communication when ordering and dealing with services rendered. It is fun to see the limit of my comprehension. Unlike Paris, the locals do not respond to my French with English, they continue the dialogue as if I am a native speaker. Only until I delay in my response or admit I don’t understand do they begin with their own limited knowledge of English.

In Nice, the regional cuisine is called, Niçoise, which is primarily seafood with Italian influences – lots of shellfish, tomatoes, olives, and pastas. I particularly enjoyed the salade niçoise which in its most basic form has lettuce, tuna, boiled eggs, anchovies, olives, tomatoes, and a vinaigrette. We later found out after returning our rental car that the border of Italy is only a thirty minute drive from Nice and Genoa is only two hours away. Since we spent five nights in Nice, I think we would have taken a day to cross the border and see some Italian countryside. Next time.

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Mussles. And the juice below the mussles to dip bread in? YUM!!


View from our room.

Outside our window.


Poodle!

Poodle!

At the conclusion of our France trip, we enjoyed the company of Becca and George by touring the English countryside surrounding their home. It was beautiful with lush green rolling hills and brick and stone homes decorated with colorful gardens. We visited a local manor, Ightham Mote, that was actually purchased by an American, Charles Robinson, after World War II for only five thousand pounds since it faced being divided up and sold. Before he died, Robinson donated the property to the National Trust to preserve its history and integrity. We also toured Penshurst Place, the home of a present-day lord and lady and I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite shows, Downton Abbey, the whole time imagining the lives of the family that’s lived there for centuries.

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Ightham Mote.

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Of course, I will have to mention the food, as it was all delicious. The first night we had dinner with Becca’s family at a pub that served traditional Sunday roasts. It felt just like Thanksgiving dinner with roast beef, ham, and turkey, sides of potatoes, vegetables, and gravy, and the most delicious dessert called sticky toffee. YUM! We also had some afternoon tea of cakes and scones with clotted cream and jam.Oof, it was so hard to leave behind our good friends and such a comforting lifestyle. — We love you, Becca and George! Thanks for being there for us!

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Penshurst Place.


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The sun didn’t come out much during our three day stay, it was wet and cold but still a lovely treat before going back to the dry heat in Saudi.

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Miss Princess Poppy.

Miss Princess Poppy enjoyed Uncle Dave and Auntie Sara’s visit.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

Our primary purpose for this trip was not tourism, but rather a Jiu-Jitsu tournament sparked by David’s new found hobby. With this as our distraction, we didn’t see as much of Abu Dhabi as we maybe should have despite taking a tour bus around the city proper. We saw a couple sights the first two days and then spent our final day preparing for the long anticipated Jiu-Jitsu match.

My perspective might be a bit skewed now since I’ve been living in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is no longer new to me, so much of what we saw in Abu Dhabi was like an extension of SA except for the fact that I didn’t have to wear an Abaya in public and alcohol is allowed. The things that draw tourists like souqs, camel rides in the desert, luxury hotels, and warm weather are all the norm for us now. Ha! It’s so strange to say!

The first day we took a Big Bus tour around the city to get a feel of what there was to see and do in Abu Dhabi. We did the same bus tour in Muscat and had a wonderful experience, but unfortunately it was a disappointment this time around. It was quite apparent from our bus tour that much of Abu Dhabi is still under heavy construction and development with few sights save for clusters of high-rise buildings, construction zones, flat desert, some mangroves, and the Gulf coastline (which is beautiful in its own right, of course). We missed the glamorous Emirates Palace which is actually a five star hotel that accommodates gawkers to look around the lobby and such. The Big Bus drove us by, but there was no stop in the immediate area to hop off so it would have required a separate taxi trip.

Abu Dhabi also boasts Ferrari World which is an amusement park with the world’s fastest roller coaster. It piqued David’s interest, but if you know anything about me it’s that I can live without terrifying death drops and heart stopping speed. My thrills are a little more simple. So we skipped that. Sorry David.

The main two attractions we felt worth exploring were the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque) and the Falcon Hospital.

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Crescent moon over the Grand Mosque.

The Grand Mosque is an absolutely magnificent sight, with eighty domes, white marble, gold-plated crystal chandeliers, and the largest Persian rug in the world (took two years to make and 2000 craftsmen). It was named after the first president of the United Arab Emirates the late Sheikh Zayed who was also the ruler of Abu Dhabi. There are seven Emirates each with its own respective ruler (Sheikh) and a federal government led by one of the sheikhs (President). We enjoyed walking around the mosque on our own, but it does operate two tour groups a day. As you can see from my pictures, the mosque is magical day and night.

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Persian rug close-up - largest in the world.

Persian rug close-up – largest in the world.

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The Falcon Hospital is such a unique site, it services over 11,000 local pet falcons a year with boarding, annual check-ups, surgeries, routine grooming, and feather repairs and treatment of other injuries. We were able to take a two hour tour of the facilities: museum, clinic, operating rooms, and aviary, as well as visit with the birds and even watch the veterinarian perform a routine check-up on one of the “patients.” They are remarkably heavy so it was interesting to learn that before breeders took over the falcon market, Bedouins would trap the birds as they migrated from mountainous regions like Germany and Pakistan to Africa and then tie them to their arms to perch twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for two weeks in order to tame the creatures. The Bedouins would then use them to hunt meat like gazelles and large roadrunners (houbara).

Falcon Hospital.

Falcon Hospital.

Hooded falcons, cool, calm, and collected.

Hooded falcons, cool, calm, and collected.

Just asleep, ready for her routine check-up and pedicure.

Just asleep, ready for her routine check-up and pedicure.

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In the wild they have three seasons: hunting (fall to winter), mating (spring), and molting (summer). The vet can actually tell the age of a falcon by the color of its feathers since every year they change a shade after the molting season. Wild falcons can live over twenty years while domesticated falcons live between fifteen and eighteen years.

Extra feathers collected during the molting season so veterinarians can fix broken wings.

Extra feathers collected during the molting season so veterinarians can fix broken wings.

Hooded falcon.

Hooded falcon.

Eating a chicken leg.

Eating a chicken leg.

There are three types of falcons that are most common, Peregrine (smallest and fastest), Saker (most persistent), and Gyr (largest and strongest). It should be noted that the female is the coveted sex since she is always much larger than the male.

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This one was flapping in my face.

This one was flapping in my face.

Arabs love their falcons and now use them for sport only since many are no longer nomads. Hunting is illegal so they fly to countries where falconry is still prevalent. Locally, they participate in competitions that test speed and measure beauty. It was funny to learn that when falcons travel they have their own falcon passport, and on select airlines owners can purchase a plane ticket and the falcon can ride in the cabin in its own seat! They are very much a part of the family. Wish we could do that for our dog!

Mm hmm.

Mm hmm.

Finally, the main purpose of our trip: the Jiu-Jitsu World Professional Championship 2015! Yes, that’s correct, World Professional Championship. The background story on this is that five months ago David decided he needed a hobby. Moving overseas and learning a new job and coping with different personalities in the workplace was proving stressful and he wanted an outlet. He found a local Jiu-Jitsu team and decided to take it up, practicing once or twice a week. This hobby soon turned into a second career as, at the encouragement of his teammates, he decided to sign up for a tournament in April. Well, between December and April, many things happened. The team disbanded in February and David was left to train mostly on his own with online instruction, a few colleagues, and a couple teammates from the old Jiu-Jitsu team, and we found out that it was the WORLD PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP tournament for which he was somehow allowed to sign up. During this time I voiced my opinion that going out three times a week after work to train until after eight o’clock was not kind on the wife who could not drive herself anywhere and was stuck watching the dog all afternoon and evening, not to mention doing all the chores and cooking, not to mention living overseas to support her husband, not to mention the weekends which were somehow being sucked away by Jiu-Jitsu…

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With all these variables, David made the best he could out of the challenges and persevered with the training in order to be competition ready. He converted fat to muscle, learned many different techniques, began going to Judo once a week where he could have the instruction of a coach and the support of a team and also where he earned his yellow belt. You would think this was the story of Rocky. Well, almost.

Once at the tournament I was so nervous for David, especially when I saw all these beefy guys from all over the world walking around the venue. David found out he would be fighting a Colombian named Isidro and the whole thing became real. Luckily he made weigh-in at 85kg after a whole day fasting and I could tell he was relieved to be a step closer but starting to get anxious. We feasted on pasta the night before the match and then suddenly, after months of training and hard work and all the struggles and balancing acts he had to perform, the day was upon us. I say “us” because I was just as much committed to him accomplishing this goal as he was. I ignored my nerves until we departed at the arena – he went to the warm-up area behind stage and I went to the stands. An hour-and-a-half behind schedule, he and his opponent finally made it out onto the mats for the fight.

The arena. Do you see the sheikhs hanging on the wall?

The arena. Do you see the sheikhs hanging on the wall?

VIP section.

VIP section.

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By this point, I was a stress ball. During my several hours in the stands waiting around, I came to realize that half the stadium was composed of Colombians. And every time a Colombian was out there fighting, the crowd would erupt with cheers and horns and chants. The athletes at this competition were the cream of the top of their country who had competed in many tournaments to be finally selected to move on to this championship. David had never competed and had only just started this as a hobby. (By the way, Abu Dhabi has branded itself as the Jiu-Jitsu capital of the world.) Oy vay.

The ridiculousness was real.

Abu Dhabi was presenting medals to the winners that were as big as salad plates! I mean. This was a big deal for many people! It was being televised!

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After a few beginner mistakes, the match finally was underway and I could not have been more proud. The Colombian was a beast and the crowd was going wild, but David hung in there until the end. He gave up a few points, but he DIDN’T submit (aka “tapout”). It was the longest five minutes of my life. The Colombians helped to count down the last ten seconds cinqoquatrotresdosuno…and it was finally done! There was so much relief! David had the biggest smile on his face, he had accomplished so much.

With a few bruises and cuts, he left with a couple souvenir shirts, some pictures, and the experience which still has him glowing and smiling when he talks about it.

C'est fini!

C’est fini!

Celebratory Shisha under the crescent moon.

Celebratory Shisha under the crescent moon.

As we left the tournament behind, he began talking about a rematch next year…oh joy. 😛

Abu Dhabi was an overall fun trip since it gave us a quiet escape and nice retreat from work. I continue to enjoy the Middle East discovering the neighboring countries to SA and unique cultures. There is still so much more to explore!

View from our room.

View from our room.

Mangroves.

Mangroves.

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Traditional Dhow in the Gulf.

Traditional Dhow in the Gulf.

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These guys.

These guys.

By the pool. No, that's not me.

By the pool. No, that’s not me.