Feeling Excited to be an Expat in Saudi Arabia, Witnessing Historical Change

It seems every day I tune into social media there is a new announcement being made that reflects the extraordinary changes underfoot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

On October 1, 2017 I was incredulous as I read in several articles, including Arabnews.com and Riyadhconnect.com, that King Salman issued a decree allowing Saudi women to drive. To the uninformed reader this decree may not sound earth-shattering, but Saudi Arabia has remained, until now, the only country in the world where it is illegal for women to drive.

 

The next day Blue Abaya posted that Ford Middle East was gifting a mustang to Sahar Nassif, a Saudi woman who has spent years campaigning for equal rights. In the past, Sahar was arrested for driving around Jeddah and when the proclamation was made by King Salman she rejoiced, saying she was going to purchase a yellow and black Mustang to celebrate. Ford got wind of the story and chose to gift her with the car of her dreams.

In related news, the Saudi Princess Nourah University is planning to establish a women’s driving school and the Ministry says the legal driving age for women will be 18 years. The ruling allowing women to drive is expected to become law by June of 2018, but many enthusiastic Saudi women are already getting behind the wheel to practice in preparation.

Saudi Princess Nourah University to establish a women driving school

Apparently, the seeds of change were planted even earlier. According to Gulf Insider, back in June of this year King Salman ordered that women no longer need a man’s permission to travel, study, or make complaints. As Maha Akeel, a women’s rights campaigner, suggests the move is a step in the right direction, opening the entire discussion on the guardian system for debate.

The decision to allow women these new freedoms seems part of a plan to include more women in the workforce to help diversify the country’s economy. The trend towards what is often referred to as “Saudi-isation” began as early as 2011, and has resulted in a grand 78-page document authorized by King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, KSA Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program encompasses a huge mandate for change. Goals include efficient planning within government agencies and global investments, not to mention becoming the epicentre of trade and the gateway to the world. There are plans for growth through diversification of resources. More jobs, education and skills- building opportunities for citizens are being created. There is a push to strengthen the National Identity, develop tourism, improve living and working conditions for expats, and even increase household spending on culture and entertainment.

 

 

Towards the goal of entertainment spending, another shattering announcement was made on October 2.  According to expatwoman.com, Cinemas are Returning to Saudi Arabia. I never knew they were once in existence, but upon reading the article I discovered that there were cinemas before 1980. Personally, I am thrilled at the prospect of adding going out to the movies to our current small list of entertainment possibilities and hope the decision opens the door for more opportunities here in Riyadh.

I read about these changes in the news, but I’m even more encouraged by the observations I’ve made in the short time since I moved here in May of 2015. I have witnessed the increase of women in the workforce first-hand, seeing more and more female cashiers at the major shopping centres. I have noticed each time I fly back to Riyadh from abroad more women in the airport who are dressing in fashionable abayas. They are pushing convention, adding colour and bling and even opting for fitted over the typical ‘tented’ attire.

Further updates on emirateswoman.com revealed, “Hot on the heels of news that Saudi Arabia will soon start issuing driving licenses to women, the kingdom has appointed its first female spokeswoman. Fatimah Baeshen was announced as a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington, US, on Wednesday, a day after King Salman issued a royal decree to lift the driving ban on women. Saudi national Baeshen celebrated the announcement of her new role, saying she was ‘proud to serve’ her country.”

I still find going out into the city challenging, but every time I do it feels like more Saudi men and women alike are welcoming me. I’m not postulating that everyone here supports change and welcomes new ideas, but there does seem to be a growing sense of globalism. The incentive may have begun as an economic response to the oil crisis, but it has evolved. Many progressive-thinking Saudis, including those in positions of authority, recognize that their future success involves growth, and growth demands respectful partnerships within global frameworks.

As a woman who stands for equality and liberty for all people, it is exciting to see that positive change is not just a dream. It is becoming a reality, throughout the world. Don’t believe in the negativity of the naysayers who claim that the world is destroying itself. Don’t accept that the terrorists and the corrupt and greedy politicians and corporations are the rule. There is a global rising. There is a New Earth, just beyond the horizon.

So yeah, I’m feeling excited to be an expat in Saudi Arabia, witnessing historical change.

 

Feeling Certain of the Depth, Breadth and Intensity of my Love for my Family

Ramadan began on May 25, marking the beginning of a whirlwind five week adventure for me and Mister. We caught the red eye out of Riyadh to our connecting flight at London Heathrow, then on to Victoria via Vancouver. It took over thirty hours, crossing ten time zones. Despite exhaustion, the pristine beauty of Vancouver Island invigorated my soul and the lure of connecting and sharing stories with family had me tapping into a third or fourth wind.

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My mother, two daughters, son-in-law and grandson all live on Vancouver Island. I knew it was going to be a challenge to be with each of them in authentic communication within four and a half days, but I was committed. Inspired by Elizabeth Lesser’s Ted Talk, Say Your Truths, which I referenced in a previous blog, I vowed to create space for deep time or sacred awe to manifest. And it did.

We engaged in the usual traditions of preparing and sharing food together while engaging in deep discussions.

Re-connecting with my grandson was a gift to be cherished, from that first moment I peeked into his room and he shyly regarded me for all of a minute before crying out in delight, “Grandma!” and that final heart-wrenching kiss goodbye.

We established our motto, “party every day,” belting it out in an off-key version of The Black Eyed Peas, repeating the chorus frequently throughout our visit.

Our first day Mister and I took Em with us into Victoria where we picked up my mom (nana) and drove to Willows Beach. All the adults were enamoured with Em and we traipsed after him as he navigated the playground equipment with confidence. We ate ice cream and drew pictures in the sand with old driftwood sticks. We ate crispy-gooey-greasy pizza and engaged our imaginations in play. Mister pushed my Mom on the swing and me and Em on the merry-go-round. We dizzy-walked and fake crashed into the soft green grass. I felt present to expansive possibilities and the innocence of his loving young heart.

Driving back home we sang songs and told stories, Mister sharing a smash-up impersonation of Foghorn Leghorn, a character from the Looney Tunes of our youth and me giving my Southern accent version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Em revealed with the frank honesty of young children that my story was horrible because it was too scary. He loved Mister’s Foghorn vignette and kept asking him to tell it again.

The next day Mister and I took Em on a walk down by Fisherman’s Wharf in scenic Cowichan Bay. We spotted fish and looked for sea lions, holding hands and seeing the beauty and wonder of the world through Em’s eyes. We had a pirate pool party in their backyard and I relished the freedom to be childish.

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Whether he was busy being a boy, playing and chattering non-stop or snuggled up to me while I read him his bedtime stories, Em’s soft spirit spoke to me. My time with Em brought me back to my purpose, which as Mister identified, is simply to love.

I didn’t create as many opportunities to connect deeply with my Mom as I would have liked. However, it was a gift to witness her youthful, spirited energy as she interacted with Em. During one of our family dinners Mom shared a little of her Ancestry Circle. I felt honoured that she expressed her vulnerability. The day before we left she invited us to lunch at her place and while  I was in a bit of a muddle that day I gave her a big hug goodbye, managing to stay fully present, if only for a few moments.

Scarlet was at a workshop when I first arrived. When she got back early Sunday afternoon I was thrilled and ran to the door to wrap my arms around her. Tamara supported us in our desire to create one-on-one connection, looking after Em. Scarlet drove us to Mill Bay, to a part of the ocean we used to walk together when I lived nearby. We walked along the waters edge sipping our coffees and releasing all of our heaviness, baggage and updates.

When we reached a craggy boulder overlooking the ocean we spread out her yoga mat and settled into the space, holding hands and sitting in spiritual silence. Scarlet led us into deep and sacred communion. We were in deep time and the hours melted into moments where watches don’t exist and our heartbeats marked the passage of time. I felt like I was glowing, acknowledging the grace and gift from God that is my angel daughter.

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My time with Tamara was not as plentiful as I would have liked. I felt grateful for the time we shared together in Goa. We did manage to engage in a few open and honest conversations. I was able to hold and behold her.

On our last evening, after Em was all tucked into bed and the dinner dishes were tidied away, me, Scarlet and Tamara participated in a spiritual bonding ceremony, sharing our vulnerable hearts in deep connection with one another. I experienced some stickiness, but both my girls responded in their own individual ways to support me. My heart was filled with fiery hot pride of the strong women that my girls have become. At the same time, I was present to the approaching end of my visit and my heart was drenched in the tears of goodbyes.

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So yeah, I left Vancouver Island feeling a lot of things, but certain of the depth, breadth and intensity of my love for my family.

Feeling Fortunate for Healthcare in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

When I moved from Canada to Saudi Arabia I never imagined that the quality of health services would be at a similar standard, let alone superior. Unfortunately, the lack of health care professionals combined with increasing government cuts to health care budgets in Canada has impacted access and delivery dramatically. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, it appears that both financing and trained health professionals are in abundance.

 

I have two chronic autoimmune diseases, diagnosed in my twenties. The first disease, Type I Diabetes Mellitus, is usually juvenile onset, but may occur at any age. It occurs when the body’s own immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. The second, Hypothyroid disease, is a condition in which the thyroid gland is considered underactive. I had no known relatives with Diabetes, and although Hypothyroidism runs in my family, I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

 

Diabetes treatment

 

Having a chronic illness like Type I Diabetes is manageable. There is no cure, nor is it easy to try and mimic what the pancreas does automatically, but insulin therapy is available. To manage it well requires diligence and hard work. The support of health care professionals, particularly a skilled and knowledgeable endocrinologist, can be very helpful.

 

I’d like to say I’ve had amazing support from the health care system as a Canadian, but that would be a lie. I happen to be one of the fortunate people who, when initially diagnosed, had health care coverage from both my husband’s employer and my own that rendered my insulin, test strips, and other diabetes supplies free. Other people aren’t so lucky.

 

When, for other health reasons, I had to stop working, I had to pay for all my prescriptions until I reached a deductible of $2500. I managed, using money I’d saved over the years.  I’ve met other people less fortunate who don’t fare so well. They end up choosing not to test regularly because they don’t have coverage and with each test strip valuing at a dollar, testing frequently can soon become a financial burden.

 

The biggest challenge for me has been in receiving supportive care. When I moved to Victoria from Calgary, it was almost impossible to find a general practitioner, whom you need to see first to procure a referral to any specialist. There was only one doctor accepting new patients, and once I met her and had to endure her patronizing, unprofessional attitude, it became clear why she had vacancies. I had no other choice. She made the referral to an endocrinologist and it took over four months just to book an initial consultation.

 

At the time, I was having considerable difficulty achieving what has been determined to be a healthy range of blood sugar, or A1C. Upon reviewing my health journal, the endocrinologist in question made a few suggestions to alter my regimen and dosage of insulin shots. There was no discussion involving diet or exercise what-so-ever. None. Lucky for me I have the self motivation and initiative to research nutritional recommendations on my own, but the information available is highly diverse and often conflicting. I felt alone, confused and unsupported.

 

I have felt chastised for my lack of achieving blood sugars within goal instead of helped to improve them. Some doctors referred to me as noncompliant, which confused me more. After all, who is to benefit from good control and who is to suffer the complications if not me? I have battled on with my own unwavering determination, pretty much on my own.

 

In December of 2012 I started to suffer from a range of debilitating symptoms. I was teaching in a new position that was very stressful, which I’m certain contributed to the problem. I fainted during yoga and proceeded to have various vasovagal episodes. I had an infection in my knee that required intravenous antibiotics followed by an oral dosage, for a total of three weeks. I started to experience chronic fatigue and generalized weakness. Holding my arm above my head to write on the chalkboard became impossible and writing up report cards on my computer caused deep pain in my hands.

 

I made an appointment with my general practitioner, the one I described earlier. She intimated that it was all in my head, that I was a hypochondriac. When the blood tests revealed high levels of cortisol, she suggested I might be developing another autoimmune disease, perhaps lupus. And when she informed me the referral to a rheumatologist would take four months, she told me it was just as well because I would only be put on a regimen of extreme pain killers for the rest of my life anyway. She completely missed the result indicating I had a urinary tract infection and it was left untreated for over two weeks.

 

Within a few weeks, I had to go from teaching full time to part time and a few weeks after that I had to, somewhat stubbornly, resign. At this point, I decided I had to take matters into my own hands. Since there wasn’t an alternative western doctor in Victoria to choose from, I took it upon a recommendation to seek help from a doctor in Nanaimo who practices integrated, functional and alternative medicine at his clinic. It was tedious driving the two hours each way, once a week, for IV infusion treatments for high levels of mercury and lead in my bloodstream, but at least I was finally hopeful.

 

My challenges persisted. Eventually I was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease. Even that diagnosis was fraught with difficult to determine blood testing and medical doctrine in BC suggesting that chronic Lyme’s disease did not exist at best, and if it did, there was certainly no cure. It took determination and a miracle, but I ended up in the care of a doctor who practices Homeopathic and Naturopathic medicine. After two and a half years of intense and expensive treatment, not covered by health care, I am cured of Lyme’s disease. I’ve started taking my life back, living each day with greater vitality and overwhelming gratitude.

 

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/under-our-skin/

 

Which brings me back to my current feelings of being fortunate.  Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, I was required to undergo a thorough, in-depth medical, including a battery of tests and forms. Upon arrival, I had to have another medical, in Riyadh, before being issued residency. My Mister introduced me to the Medical Clinic on our compound right away, and the level of service ever since I arrived has been nothing short of exemplary.

 

A few months back Mister and I were packing up to leave on holiday when I started having spasms in my leg. The clinic was closed and we were leaving in a few hours. I couldn’t imagine having to endure the long flights with the pain I was in. Mister called the emergency line and the nurse on call agreed to come by and have a look. He came to our home and examined me, then gave me a shot of magnesium to relax the muscle, along with several pain medications and a detailed prescription of how to follow a successful pain management regimen. It made our trip doable and I was beyond grateful.

 

Earlier that year I developed a severe pain in my tooth. It was a Friday, the religious day when the dentist and medical centre are both closed. But again, the nurse on call met us at the clinic and gave me some temporary pain medication. I called my dentist at Smile Dental and could get in immediately. Upon examining me it was clear I needed a root canal. I had to follow a week of antibiotic therapy for the infection, and right away I was scheduled for the procedure. My dentist, a pleasant and professional Saudi woman, did an amazing job and I was thrilled with the result.

 

 

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Smile Design professionals

 

 

When I need to make an appointment to see one of the two doctors practicing at our clinic it usually takes a day or two to get in to see them. If I have an issue that requires a specialist, they make a referral, and the appointment is scheduled within a week or two. All my supplies are free, either given to me at our clinic, or purchased at a pharmacy in Riyadh and then reimbursed directly to Mister’s pay. I have seen a gynecologist from Greece, an ophthalmologist from Jordan, and I’m going to see an endocrinologist from the UK in a few weeks.

 

What really blew me away was the access to diagnostics. I’ve been having difficulty with pain in my neck and shoulder, including numbness in my right arm, for several months now. When I asked my doctor if I could be referred to a Chiropractor, she agreed, but suggested I get an MRI first to properly diagnose the situation. I was stunned. I called Kingdom hospital and was given an appointment for the next week. And so I had my first MRI and the results were emailed to me the next day. Meanwhile, back in Canada, people like my mom and mother-in-law are waiting four to six months to receive an MRI for chronic and painful conditions.

 

 

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MRI @ Kingdom Hospital Radiology Department, Riyadh

 

 

I don’t know enough about the politics and regulations of each country to quote cold, hard, facts. I can only speak of my experiences, then and now. I guess what has impacted me most, besides the superior service, is the feeling of being treated with respect. The medical community here assumes I am doing my best and that I want to be as healthy as I can. They support me in achieving my health goals without being authoritarian. We work together, as a team, to review my observations and discuss possible treatment. The care I have received has been thorough and my concerns have never once been dismissed.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling fortunate for the health care I am receiving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Feeling a Sense of Belonging as an Expat living in Saudi Arabia

 

I arrived in Riyadh on May 21, 2015 and yet this feeling of belonging has only begun to manifest over the last few months. Anyone who knows me understands I am slow to transition. I’m not certain what event or combination of events led me to feeling like I belong in this community on Salwa compound. I didn’t even realize it was missing until I felt it.

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They say that home is where your heart is. Yet my heart has ties and bonds in so many places, with so many people. Since falling in love with Mister I’ve claimed that I could live anywhere in the world and be happy, if I was with him. That still holds true, but even an amazing relationship doesn’t replace all the other connections that create balance and a meaningful existence.

 

When Mister asked me how I felt about moving from Canada I had mixed feelings. I was anxious about leaving my children and grandson, my Mom and the rest of my family. I was uncertain about living in a foreign country, especially in the middle east, of which I knew little about other than from media and novels like Not Without My Daughter and Ten Thousand Splendid Suns. I had misgivings about wearing an abaya and not being able to drive. But the opportunities for growth and adventure, not to mention financial security for our up-coming retirement, were more compelling than my fears and I said yes. We agreed to give it a go and when asked what our long-term plan is, we simply say, “as long as we’re happy.”

 

So, I came, with few expectations and an open mind, never once imagining I would end up having so many fulfilling experiences nor meeting so many amazing people from so many different cultures. Here on the compound of Salwa I have met people from the UK, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Poland. I’ve interacted with service providers from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. I’ve met the odd Saudi Arabian too, but due to restrictions around the public conduct of women, that hasn’t been as easy.

 

 

Since everyone on Salwa are expats living in a foreign country, we can relate to one another and offer support. Most of the people I have had the opportunity to meet are positive, and I consider myself fortunate to have acquaintances from a broad spectrum. Some have likened the experience of living on Salwa to living in a fish bowl. Granted, it is a small community and when you work and play with the same people, it can get a bit too familiar at times. For me, the positives far out-weigh the negatives and I’ve come to view my life on Salwa as my sanctuary.

 

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Entertaining friends in our garden

Salwa feels like a sanctuary for many reasons. In the almost two years since I’ve lived here I still feel uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of our compound. When I need a service or product in the city, which is typically once a week, the first challenge to overcome is how to get there. As I’ve mentioned, women aren’t allowed to drive here, so if my Mister is at work, I must arrange a driver. Drivers are in a competitive business, and many times I have had my driver call to cancel or rearrange at the last minute. For a hard-core planner, such as myself, this alone can be challenging.

 

Driver arrangements secured, the next challenge is navigating the traffic of Riyadh to arrive at my destination safely. I have vented about this before in earlier posts, so suffice to say that the combination of being in a big city with drivers who are distracted and self-focused creates mayhem in one form or another on a regular basis. I often find my heart in my throat, or in my stomach. As my friend Rhonda so wisely advised, it’s best not to look. Going on adventures into the city with friends is a highly advisable distraction.

 

Clad in an abaya, I feel like an imposter. I have also berated this aspect of living in a Muslim country, but it bears repeating. The abaya is a tripping hazard. When a scarf is adorned as well, you lose part of your peripheral vision, and when you already suffer from coordination issues, it can cause one to bump into things. When it is hot, which is most of the time, or when I am having a hot flash, which is a great deal of the time, the abaya feels like the weight of the world draped over my shoulders.

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The physical constraints of the abaya, however, pale in comparison to the emotional discomfort. To say I feel like an imposter may sound like I’m being a drama queen, but the truth of the matter is, I’m not Muslim, and to adorn myself in a garment that is part of that religion and culture feels hypocritical. Furthermore, I am a liberal and feminist thinker, believing in the equality of all human beings. I don’t have the knowledge to make an informed comment, but when I see an entire family out and about and all the men and children are dressed in designer fashions whilst the women are kept covered in drab abayas, it feels oppressive.

 

Driver and abaya aside, there are still a multitude of challenges once arriving at the destination. There are prayer times, language barriers, and products that are unfamiliar with ingredients listed in foreign languages. With food allergies, this can be a big problem. I have had occasion when shopping for groceries and prayer starts and the produce weighing stations close and the cashiers close and I have all my items, including perishables, but have to wait the half an hour until prayer is over. I have had occasions when I’ve arrived at a store to find the blinds pulled, the shop closed from noon to four. It is a first world problem, I admit, but frustrating none the less.

 

Enough of the bickering and complaining, though, and back to the developing sense of belonging…

 

I failed to mention Canada when listing all the countries whose natives populate our fair compound. It has amazed me how leaving your country of origin can inspire such patriotic feelings of love and appreciation. Canada truly is a country to be proud of and my fellow Canadians have provided huge support.

 

Me and Mister joined the Canadian Community of Riyadh, which offers members opportunities for socializing in a myriad of interesting ways. We had a wonderful time dressing up in Gangster attire for the casino night, then getting all decked out in ball gowns and tuxedos for the Red and White ball hosted at the British Embassy. The Canadian Embassy has been under construction since our arrival. Volunteers work countless hours and monies raised by such functions go towards supporting worthwhile causes, such as families of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom and humanitarian causes.

 

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Red & White Ball with Matt & Elizabeth Kingsman

A less formal but equally engaging organization has been the ladies known affectionately as the Canadian Chicks. Someone with far more technical skills than I created a handy What’s App for us to communicate get togethers, ideas, frustrations and celebrations. It has been a great way to stay informed and connected and I appreciate being a part of such a vibrant and positive group of women.

 

My fellow Canadians are not the only people who I’ve come to grow fond of here of Salwa. Many women are here supporting husbands who work for BAE systems and are unable or choose not to work, but are incredibly enterprising and creative. I have dabbled in a variety of clubs that offer a diverse array of opportunities, including Crafty Ladies and Book Club. There is a huge array of fitness classes on offer by people with talent and training and I have enjoyed practicing yoga and belly dancing.  And there are many casual get togethers too; ladies meeting up for a walk around the compound, for lunch at the Kingpin restaurant, for coffee at Costa, or to lounge by one of the many community pools.

 

On top of these incredible opportunities in our community are the deep and meaningful friendships that have blossomed. I have bonded with several women here whom I trust completely and would do anything for. I share openly with them my fears and my dreams, and I hope they feel the same ability to share their hearts with me. They’ve had my back and supported me through the tough times, the times when the differences felt overwhelming and the fishbowl too constrictive. The times when events in my personal life felt too challenging to bear alone and I needed a friend to lean on.

 

I blogged about the experience I had in Bahrain, of feeling a growing sense of belonging to a human collective. At the that time, I had thought that feeling couldn’t possibly manifest here in Riyadh. Then, a few weeks ago, a small miracle of hope was given to me in the most unlikely and unanticipated circumstance. I was in line at the grocery counter in Carrefour, when a little girl, likely around one year old, in the aisle beside me caught my attention. Her joy and innocence were infectious, and soon myself as well as the two Saudi women scanning and packing my groceries were enraptured, cooing and smiling away. It was a brief and beautiful moment, where our differences dissolved. There were no religions or cultures or languages, only the sisterhood of women, of mothers. We all felt it, and we smiled genuinely at one another in recognition of what unites us; our emotions and our love of our families.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling a sense of belonging as an Expat living in the community of Saudi Arabia.

 

Feeling Reflective about the Year 2016

 

The end of the year that many are calling disastrous has arrived. True, there were natural, political and religious disasters of one kind or another. There were a lot of celebrity deaths. Life is an ebb and flow of contrasts, and Nature, left to her own devices, gravitates to balance. So, rather than focus on negativity, I feel optimistic.  What happens isn’t what matters, but how we, as a human collective, respond.

 

 

 

Looking back on my own little microcosm, there is a similar theme. I experienced many challenges this year. I blogged about my difficulties with my letting go journey. I hinted at some of my health problems. But I am proud of myself for behaving with integrity and character, for the most part. After all, it’s relatively easy to be a good person when life is proceeding smoothly and people are good to us. Suffering, on the other hand, forces us to find our inner strength.

 

 

 

I have been blessed this past week with one of those rare epiphanies when apparent random and separate events collide to create deep understanding. I achieved success on my letting go journey when I wasn’t searching for answers. In fact, I had few expectations of my brief holiday in Bahrain, other than an opportunity for adventure, relaxation and rejuvenation.

 

 

 

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take you with me to the beginning, when Mister and I embarked on our road trip to Bahrain.

 

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As road trips go, I can’t honestly classify the drive from Riyadh to Bahrain as epic. I was excitedly anticipating what was to be my first drive through the desert and enthusiastically tucked my journal and pen in a handy spot to chronicle my observations. Heading east on a paved three lane highway, barreling along at the posted speed of 120 km/h, I asked if we had left the city of Riyadh to which Mr. Vocabulary replied, “the city limit is rather nebulous.”  We continued past miles and miles of sandy landscape, broken only by the frequent spotting of camels and sheep and oil refineries. I felt like a rebel in the rubble.

 

 

 

Mid-way, the beige sand morphed to a warm burnt orange hue with tufts of green here and there, but soon enough it was back to the endless sea of beige. The monotony of the landscape reminded me of drives across the Canadian prairies. We passed the odd car carcass, a solitary Caterpillar tractor and, strangely, an abandoned Ferris wheel. It was all rather uninspiring.

 

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Three and half hours later, we arrived at the Persian Gulf. I could smell the salty air before it came into view, and I found my heart skipping around in my ribcage with delight as my body absorbed the timeless peacefulness of the open air on the sea. I had an intuition that Bahrain was going to be an impacting experience and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

 

After forty five minutes of waiting in lines and going through tolls and customs booths, driving over the causeway, we arrived in beautiful Bahrain. One of the officials asked David if I was his only wife. He replied yes, to which the official answered, looking over at me, “She has a pretty face, one will do. Me, I have three wives. I sleep well on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.” I must admit it gave me pause to chuckle and I marveled at his cheekiness.

 

 

 

We got a little lost, but soon enough we were at our hotel, Le Meridian, with smiling, friendly porters offering to unload our luggage onto trolleys and park our car. I quickly stepped out of my abaya, tossing it with gleeful abandon onto the trolley and entered the hotel lobby with my Mister. The hotel was decked out in lavish Christmas decorations and the hotel receptionist, Martha, joyfully welcomed us. A feeling of freedom enveloped me and I couldn’t help but feel a wave of gratitude wash over me.

 

 

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Me & Mister by one of the Christmas Trees at Le Meridian

 

 

 

 

 

We made reservations for the hotel’s famous Friday brunch the next day. The experience impacted me on many levels. From the moment we entered the restaurant I felt like Cinderella, it was pure magic. The entryway served as the monument to all things sweet, baked and delicious. Chefs had prepared a sensational assortment of culinary decadence. There was Santa on his sleigh being pulled by cookie reindeer, cakes and puddings, gingerbread houses, an iced snowman and a Christmas tree with bon-bon ornaments. It was a chocolate lovers heaven with at least twenty different varieties of truffles, not to mention a chocolate fountain. My mouth was salivating already and our dining experience had not yet begun.

 

 

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Yes, the reindeer are cookies!

 

 

 

 

 

The smiling waiter with his elf hat perched merrily on his head led us past the live entertainment and seated us at our table with aplomb, plucking my napkin up and placing it politely across my lap. We were brought still water and ordered a glass of champagne.  As I clinked flutes with my Mister I felt more gratitude and tears filled me eyes. Composing myself, I ventured amongst the vast array of food stations, hand in hand with Mr. Charming.

 

 

 

For our first course, several delicious cheeses made their way to our shared plate, including a strong and savoury blue that packed a punch, made even more delectable with the addition of a tart cranberry jam. We also waxed eloquently over the piquant and buttery French cheese, of which variety I have now forgotten. My senses of sight, smell and taste were tantalized, but something much deeper occurred for me as I felt the gift of being in connection with my husband amid the Christmas spirit all around us, surrounded by people of all cultures and religions, gathered together. In that moment, my heart-felt light and a world where peace is king and people respect one another felt possible. I wasn’t the only one with such a vision, as the following video testifies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a short rest and engaging conversation we moved on from champagne to red wine and decided to serve up our second course. We started at the carving station where the chef sliced us thick slices of roast turkey and Wagyu beef. In the line we made eye contact and smiled in greeting to a lady ahead of us who ended up visiting our table later on, a delightful woman named Sophie originally from Germany. We dished up small portions of savoury zucchini, parsnips and potatoes that were spicy and crisp on the outside while an observant server kept discreetly filling up our wine glasses.

 

 

 

Before heading for dessert, Santa Claus arrived. It was quite a hoot, as his black hair peeked out from his thin white wig and obviously fake beard all askew. No one was bothered, least of all the children, who all clamoured about him excitedly and posed with their parents for photos to mark the occasion. Everyone was festive and it touched my heart when a Muslim woman I passed by on my way to the dessert station smiled broadly at me.

 

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Our third and final course was dessert. I did over-indulge (yes, Carol, your Oink was appropriate!) tasting at least six varieties of creamy, velvety, smooth and luscious truffles. Three hours later, stuffed, (not quite like a pig) our experience was complete and we left to explore the shops in the attached City Centre mall.

 

 

 

Skipping ahead, my next impactful experience was our tour of the Al-Fateh Grand Mosque. My good friend Carol, and her husband Raimo, had invited us to join them. Neither Mister nor I had ever stepped foot in a mosque before, and we weren’t certain what to expect. I pulled my scarf discreetly over my blonde hair and lifted my long abaya as we ascended the steps to the entrance. We were ushered into a reception area and asked our nationalities and then asked to wait for our guide outside the shoe cubicle area.

 

 

 

Within minutes our guide, an Imam born in Kenya before settling in Bahrain, joined us. He was a gentle man, the kind of spiritual person for whom all of Life’s questions and answers are simple, for they are placed at the foot of God. For him, his faith was easy and pure and the path to salvation was available to everyone, including us. We merely had to make an oath that there is only one God and that Mohammed was the true and final prophet. Carol and I peppered him with questions about the role of women, about the five daily prayers, and about fasting over Ramadan. He urged us to set our minds and accept the way to a prosperous and happy life. He tried his best to convert us to Islam, but there was no judgement or condemnation expressed, only a sincere desire to provide us with an opportunity for salvation.

 

 

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Me & Carol in the mosque

 

 

 

 

 

The mosque itself was a beautiful structure, designed in an intricate geometric configuration of shapes that exuded a peaceful quality. The walls were covered in a special local stone tile that kept them cool in the hot weather. The ceilings were so high they seemed to stretch to the very heavens themselves. The door to the main prayer area for men, which we were not permitted to enter, was a tall, ornate structure, the handle at the height of my head and almost the same circumference.

 

 

 

Our guide led us up the winding staircase to the gallery viewing area and place where women can pray. We engaged in further discussion about the origins of Islam and Christianity and he shared how both religions had as their common ancestor Abraham, from Israel. Somehow the story had me feeling the unity of humanity, not the division, and I was moved.

 

 

 

We walked around the balcony ledge, carved of ornate dark wood, and peered above at the stained glass windows and elaborate chandelier of imported lamps. The call to prayer began and we took it as our time to depart. We thanked the Imam for his time, David taking his hand in his as a sign of appreciation, and I motioned to do the same before realizing with embarrassment the inappropriateness of my action. I felt flustered and perhaps even a little angry for the first time since arriving in Bahrain with the restrictions of being a woman in patriarchal Muslim society. 

 

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My journey continued when we chose to go and see the movie Passengers. I was excited by the opportunity as there are no movie theatres in Riyadh. Even the message of the movie, which was about letting go of how we expect our lives to unfold to accept what manifests, seemed so appropriate. I could almost feel God whispering me to make the most of each and every moment.

 

 

 

Last, but not least, was our romantic Christmas Eve Dinner at the Cut restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. Mister and I walked into an elegantly decorated hostess station and were shown to the elevator before being led to our intimate booth. Our seats boasted spectacular views of the bay through floor to ceiling windows and the red and white lights of Bahrain’s National Day twinkled in the moonlight. A duo of talented musicians provided us with the atmosphere, the young woman’s sultry voice reminding me of Dido, the man strumming proficiently on his guitar.

 

 

 

The waiter brought us two menus, one a la carte, the other the chef’s prix fixe with wine pairings. The four-course set menu was tantalizing, but I wasn’t sure if my food allergies could be accommodated. To my delight, our smiling server returned and assured me the chef was more than happy to make whatever revisions necessary for me to enjoy his creations.

 

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Mister & Me @ Cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The presentation did not disappoint. The first course was prosecco with smoked salmon. Crispy on the outside, buttery and flaky inside, it was melt in your mouth delicious. Pasta was served next, and the chef wowed me with a serving of gluten-free spinach fettucine in butter with fresh parmesan, paired with a luscious glass of Chateau de Neuf. The main was the feature and the filet mignon was a perfect cut, perfectly cooked and infused with complex but complementary flavours of earthy mushrooms, savoury mustard sauce and crispy onions. The pairing was a peppery shiraz blend that was our favourite wine selection of the evening. The finale was as impressive, with the chef preparing me from scratch a gluten free yule log of cake and cream that looked equally divine to David’s traditional fare. In addition, was an apple poached tart with two quenelles, one vanilla bean ice cream and one mascarpone cheese. Dessert was paired with a silky port that was not too sweet, pleasing even our picky palates. Yes, it was over the top and we both felt full of food and gratitude when we climbed into our taxi three hours later.

 

That night we were treated to a FaceTime conversation with our daughter and grandson. We were thrilled especially because our FaceTime has not been working since arriving back in Riyadh after Haj. It was so touching to see his cute little face, full of excitement with the magic that Santa Claus was coming to town. In the morning, we enjoyed more connection with my Mom and brother and then with our youngest daughter. I realized how far I’d come on my letting go journey, from last year when my heart was grieving our separation from family so heavily. I still missed them, but I was grateful that I had a family I loved so much to miss. I was grateful for all the Christmas celebrations I shared with them in the past. And I was present to the gift of this Christmas with my Mister in Bahrain.

 

 

 

The myriad of experiences I had in Bahrain combined to create feelings of such deep love, peace and joy. I left feeling full of hope for the future, enthusiastic to discover what new adventures were in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling reflective about 2016 and wishing everyone a Happy New Year

 

Feeling Blessed for the Gift of my Relationship with my Mister

It was bound to happen eventually. I think my last blog featuring my sentimental feelings for Lola opened the floodgates. That, and I’ve been having a hard time of it lately, and in such times, I tend to lean on my Mister, who is my rock. So, without further ado, I shall share my story of falling in love and perhaps a few words of wisdom along the way.

 

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Me & Mister

 

In the beginning, I wasn’t looking, but there he was. In fact, when I met my Mister, I was enthusiastic about exploring the world as a single person. I was open to meeting new people and sharing experiences, but I certainly had no inkling of making a pledge, far less a commitment.

 

I had left Calgary after thirty years and my marriage of twenty- two years in October of 2011. My eldest daughter was ill at the time, and she and her husband were on a healing journey abroad. They were looking for someone to sublet their home in Cowichan Bay, BC, and I was the lucky candidate. I fell in love with the healing aura of the land, home to the first nations people, a place where nature unfolds in abundance. Little did I know, I was about to fall in love again.

 

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Me & Mister in Panama

 

My daughter’s good friend, an amazing and talented social worker like herself, as well as a cupid it would be revealed, took me under her wing when I arrived. In February of 2012 she called me to say that the father of one of her past clients was in town to support his daughter, on compassionate leave from Saudi Arabia. He didn’t know anyone and since I, not having found employment, had oodles of free time, she wondered if I might show him about a bit. I was more than happy to make a new acquaintance so she gave me his contact information and we set up a lunch for the three of us to meet.

 

Our lunch was rather hurried as they had an appointment following, but I enjoyed both of their company. Mister paid the bill, his treat. It was my first experience of Mr. Generous, and being of a similar generous minded heart, I suggested we meet again so that I could return the favour. We made plans to meet at a new restaurant in Duncan, just the two of us. From the moment I arrived to the moment we left together, I felt an ease and flow, like I’d known him forever. We talked nonstop in a fluid exchange of ideas on a wide range of topics. Time seemed to lose it’s hold and before we knew it three hours had passed. Our spirits recognized the connection between us, but it took a little longer for our hearts and minds to catch up.

 

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Me & Mister in our first rental in Victoria

 

 

We met up next for a dinner which included my mother who was visiting from Calgary. The three of us experienced a fluid, joyful connection, where once again, it felt like we were all old friends. At one point my mother started rubbing her arms, asking us did we find it a bit chilly? Mister excused himself politely, went out to his car, and returned carrying a sweater that he placed gently over her shoulders. I found out later he had only purchased said sweater that afternoon. Mister earned his first and most enduring nickname, Mr. Charming Pants.

 

We decided it was time for another date, just the two of us, as both of us recognized some feelings were budding. We met at a pub in the area. During our conversation, I casually asked him if he knew what values were most important to him in life. He thought about it for a few moments, as is his way, and then he replied, “Open, honest, integrity and character.” I almost fell out of my chair. I had just spent considerable time reflecting on my values and had created an authenticity outline. The first two, and most important values I identified were open and honest! I could feel the electricity of synchronicity in the air. It was so palpable, that as he went on to explain how he felt open and honest communication was vital to building trust, I interrupted him to ask him to kiss me. Rather than be offended at my rude behaviour, he knew it was my heart impatiently opening to him and he obliged.

 

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Me & Mister in our garden in Riyadh

 

Recently I was looking over old emails and I discovered it wasn’t long before we knew we were in love. At one point, we both were suffering from horrendous colds, but still couldn’t be kept apart. Mr. Charming Pants arrived at my door with the classic chocolate and wine, along with the not so classic tissue and Tylenol. We snuggled on the couch and watched a movie, our sea-lion coughs erupting every time we laughed. My good friend Virginia noted my high praise and accolades, along with the serious amount of time we were spending together, and referred to Mister as “your Saudi Prince” and “Super Dave.”

 

When Mister had to return to Saudi Arabia for three weeks at the beginning of March we started using the love word with one another in our email communication. I still hesitated on offering a commitment, preferring somehow a pledge. I admitted my feelings rather candidly to the cashier at the grocery store, when I was rushing to pay for my purchases before closing. I apologized for my tardiness, explaining that I was too busy falling in love to get my chores done and she swooned right along with me.

 

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Me & Mister @ Noowick

 

As time went along we became deeper in love and soon knew we were destined to be a couple. Mister earned new nicknames along the way, including Mr. Taking Care of Business, Mr. Five Hands, and Mr. One-ups. I’ll leave the circumstances of those titles to imagination. I had a few nicknames of my own, but the two most popular were Ms. Bossy Pants and Ms. Sensitive Pants. We often spotted two deer together when we were driving back and forth to Victoria. When I googled deer wisdom, I discovered that if a deer crosses your path they are helping you walk the path of love with full consciousness and awareness. Deer teach us gentleness, the ability to listen, the power of gratitude and giving, and the beauty of balance. How appropriate.

 

Two mule deer bucks with velvet antlers interact

I had the pleasure of meeting Mister’s mom and dad, as well as his brother, in Vancouver that May. His mom walked over to me, took my hand in hers, and with a beaming smile proclaimed, “It is a pleasure to finally meet the sun in my son’s life!” Her loving acceptance of me seemed to seal the deal, and that July we decided to move in together, along with his daughter, in Victoria. Many people warned us it was too early and we were jeopardizing our relationship, but it only strengthened our pledge to a commitment. At the same time, I fell in love with Kara. But that is another story for another blog.

 

Christmas of 2012 Mister’s mom and dad flew in from Winnipeg to join us in Whistler for a family Christmas. As we drove from the ferry, the boys up front and us girls in the back, Julie took my left hand and sang, “If he liked it then he shoulda put a ring on it.” I couldn’t help giggling at her precocious gesture. On Christmas day as the family was gathered around our tree opening gifts, I was passed a parcel from Mister in the shape of a ring box. All eyes were on me and the tension was thick. I opened it, my heart pounding, to discover a beautiful set of silver hoop earrings. Mister never once considered I might think we were about to get engaged. Two days later, when our company had departed and we were alone together, he produced a second ring box, this time with a ring inside, and proposed. I accepted without hesitation and we were married just a few weeks later.

 

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Me & Mister on our wedding day

 

It was and is a whirlwind love affair. We have been together now for almost five years and I still feel as over-the-moon in love as those early days. My Mister is my best friend. We enjoy one another’s company more than anyone else’s. We rarely argue. Me being be and him being him naturally suits us. We don’t have a desire to change anything about each other. Some of that is the wisdom of being older. Most of it is the blessing of a union that feels heavenly blessed and Divinely orchestrated.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling blessed for the gift of my relationship with my Mister. And by the way, it turns out the name David means beloved.

Feeling Warm-hearted for my Loyal, Furry Companion, Lola

Anyone who is a dog lover will likely relate to the sentiments expressed in this blog. I apologize in advance to those readers who don’t understand how some of us dog owners can become so attached. But for everyone who has met her, there can be no doubt that there is something special about Lola.

 

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Lola

 

Lola came into my life ten years ago. She was born into a litter of six pups at Pooch Palace, a dog breeding facility just outside of Calgary, Alberta. A friend who had purchased her sweet-natured dog from the Palace had recommended them. From a humanitarian perspective, I know the better choice would have been to check out the local animal shelter but I can’t in all honesty express even a drop of regret when it comes to the circumstances that led me to adopting this lovable creature.

 

We went to the Palace with open hearts and met so many adorable puppies, we thought at first it would be a difficult decision. Then we saw Lola. She was only five weeks old, not old enough to leave her mother, and no larger than a compact box of tissue. I picked her up, attracted by her caramel brown fur and white tuft at the forehead, and she snuggled into my chest like she belonged there. I fell in love with her in that moment, her tiny puppy heart beating next to mine.

 

It was quite the procedure to bring Lola home. We had to be approved, and to do so required filling in an extensive application that outlined our commitment to owning a dog and making the time required in our schedules to train her properly. She wasn’t ready to be weaned until she was ten weeks old, so every weekend for five weeks I made the hour drive, often with one or two of the kids in tow, to go and visit with her. While we were waiting there were purchases to be made of dog food, grooming supplies, and stuffed toys. Choosing a name was another ordeal that involved a computer spreadsheet of possibilities generated by each family member and a democratic vote.

 

Finally, the day arrived and the whole family drove with excited anticipation to pick her up. It was a chilly November day in Calgary and we bundled her up in cozy blankets.

 

When we got her home we immediately took her outside in our backyard to begin the process of training her. I never anticipated how fast those short little legs could go, nor did I judge how large the opening between our fence and the culvert was. In mere minutes Lola, had escaped into the neighbour’s yard. I heroically jumped the fence, a stunt I’m sure I would have difficulty replicating, scooped her up and brought her home amid a flurry of kisses and admonishments. Immediately I found an old piece of lumber to wedge into place, blocking the escape route. It wasn’t long before Lola picked up on the procedure. It has been a perk to have a dog who not only knows to do her business outside, but prefers to make her deposits in locations outside of her own yard’s boundaries.

 

Lola developed a variety of skills over the years. At puppy school, she was extremely motivated to perform any trick that involved receiving a treat. She learned how to sit, lay down, leave it, and her most impressive, give a kiss. She has an uncanny knack of discerning the sound of a cheese package being opened. When I attempted to teach her how to use her nose to ring a bell on the wall to indicate she wanted to go outside, it was a colossal fail as she only saw it as an opportunity to gobble down the chicken strip that was the treat given for ringing it and proceeded to ring the bell all day, regardless of her need to go outside. Even after we took the bell down she would go over to the place on the wall where it had been hanging and bump the wall with her muzzle in hopes of chicken treats. Silly dog!

 

Lola accompanied our family on numerous camping trips across Canada over the years. She didn’t like to join the other dogs frolicking in the lakes or ocean tides for sticks, having an aversion to being cold and wet. But she did and does love to roll around in anything stinky, including dried up old fish corpses on the beach or bird poo littering the grass. Not one of her more endearing qualities, I admit. Despite not liking her bath, her frequent rolling tendencies require that she have one often and her good nature has her accepting her fate with a somewhat sad look of resignation.

 

Lola was my loyal companion when I suffered a deep episode of depression. She never questioned my mood swings or abandoned me when I was irrational. She loved me unconditionally, her tail wagging enthusiastically in greeting when I returned from the hospital. She would lay in bed with me when I had no energy to face the world and alternatively accompany me on my long brooding walks through the ravine.

 

When I left my ex-husband and my comfortable suburban life in Calgary, moving with what I could fit in my sporty red Mazda 3 to start over on Vancouver Island, Lola was with me. Driving through the mountains with the explosion of fall foliage all around us, the sun-roof open and Michael Buble crooning “It’s a new life,” Lola sat on my lap and took all the changes in stride. When I arrived in the Cowichan Valley, alone and on my own for the first time in thirty years, Lola was again my faithful friend, accompanying me on walks through the orchards and down to the pebbled beaches and curling up on the end of my bed at the end of each day.

 

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Me and my faithful companion

 

Not long after we moved to Longwood we met Tom and Virginia and their dog Bobbi Jo, who became dear friends of ours. They invited us over for Halloween festivities. The adults visited one another, comfortably seated on lawn furniture around a roaring fire, drinking wine or hot rum while children came and trick or treated. A local was giving me a hard time for having Lola on a leash and said maybe in the city such things were necessary, but in the valley, she ought to be let free. I should have known better, but let myself be influenced and wouldn’t you know it, shortly after being set free Lola ditched the party. I was a mess of tears and heart-racing anxiety, scouring the dark streets with a flashlight and praying she wouldn’t be found hit by a car. Luckily a member of the search team found her. She had followed a couple of trick or treaters home, upgrading to a warm and cozy house and in fact was found cuddled up on their couch with the kids, likely thinking herself a clever dog.

 

When I met my Mr., he was of the non-dog loving crowd. Being of an open and honest nature, he never tried to conceal his dislike, but I knew right away by the way he quickly went to wash his hands after she licked them enthusiastically in greeting. As mentioned above, Lola was used to sleeping with me at the end of my bed, so on the occasion of our first sleepover it was all a bit awkward. I attempted to have Lola sleep on her bed in the office, but confused, she kept coming in and whining to get up. I snuck her in on my side, feigning surprise in the morning, but soon confessed and her spot on the bed was accepted. I wondered if it was going to be a deal breaker, but the more we fell in love, the more Lola’s magic transformed him. Mr. has not only developed a fondness for her, I tease him that he is the dog whisperer as he has become so attuned. He often predicts accurately when a sniff means a roll or business and when a bark means someone is at the door or let’s play and he takes very good care of her. Air heart!

 

Therapy dogs are a new phenomenon that is having great success in a variety of settings, and Lola most surely would be a fantastic candidate. As mentioned previously, her unconditional love was a special part of my recovery. She also formed an immediate and inseparable bond with my daughter Kara, allowing her to tote her around and scoop her up for cuddles whenever it was required.

 

When I made the decision to move to Riyadh, there was no question that Lola would be accompanying me. The stack of legal documents that I needed to procure for her entry into Saudi Arabia was almost as thick as my own, and included documents from our local veterinarian certifying her health, documents from the provincial veterinarian society supporting the validity of our veterinarian and documents from a notary certifying all the documents enclosed in the application.

 

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Lola & Me

 

The day of our departure arrived. We were taking off from Toronto Pearson airport, where, for a small fee, I could store Lola in her carry-on bag under the seat in front of me. It was a nine-hour flight to Frankfurt and I was anxious that she might have an accident, so I lined her carrier with absorbent pads. Surprisingly she made it, but then at the airport in Frankfurt she refused to use the pad to relieve herself in the washroom, despite my efforts to demonstrate the procedure for her. After a five hour lay-over it was time to board our plane to Riyadh for another seven-hour flight. Miraculously, that dog held her bladder for the entire duration, including the long line-up through customs. In total, she went over 21 hours and earned her new nickname, Ms. Iron Bladder.

 

I’ll admit, neither one of us was impressed with the desert relocation at first. In May in Riyadh the temperature often reaches forty-five degrees Celsius, and neither one of us appreciated the feeling that we were being roasted in a convection oven each time we ventured outside. The first time I tried to walk her mid-day and she started lifting her paws I tossed aside my flip-flop and discovered the fry-an-egg-on-it heat of the sidewalk, then had to carry her the rest of the way home. It took some adjustment for her to transition from a dog walk that skirted along the ocean and through the rainforest of Vancouver Island to the sand and rubble of the desert. Fortunately, our compound is a virtual sanctuary and the gardeners have created beautiful patches of grass for her to roll around in, not to mention outings to the Diplomatic Quarters and into the desert camping out with her Holiday Mum.

 

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Mr., Lola and me at the Diplomatic Quarters in Riyadh

 

Most days Lola is a low maintenance, low key and mellow addition to the family. She isn’t fussed if we miss a dog walk here and there, especially during the hot months. She likes to gobble down treats as frequently as they are offered, completely oblivious to her expanding waistline. Often it is a simply a matter of moving from laying on one piece of furniture to another. Lately she’s taken to laying around on my meditation pillow while I’m writing in the office, even when her own puppy bed is sitting vacant right beside it. Oh, Guru dog, if only you could talk and share with me the secrets of the universe!

 

It would seem that dogs, like people, can adjust to their surroundings and new situations and, in fact, Lola did so with far less drama than me.

 

So yeah, I’m feeling warm-hearted and grateful for my loyal, furry companion, Lola.  

Feeling Grateful for an Off-compound Adventure with Friends

It has been said by many that some of the best things in life are the simple things and it’s true. Living as an expat in a foreign country that is so different from my native Canada has me more aware of that than ever. I am far more appreciative of so many things I often took for granted. I’ve had to let go of many of my expectations. Sometimes, I have been pleasantly surprised.

 

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City of Riyadh

I have lived in Riyadh since May of 2015 and yet somehow I have failed to participate in one of the common rituals offered to ladies living on the compound – coffee morning excursions to other locations in Riyadh. These opportunities are offered once or twice a month. To be included, one only need sign up before the cut-off date and arrive at the market meeting place on time the day of, then load up onto a bus. Yet somehow I have always managed to miss out on the first step, signing up. Until yesterday.

 

Several Canadian ladies that I am acquainted with here on Salwa compound informed me that they planned to attend the Ishbilia coffee morning and that signing up was easier than ever with a new on-line application form. I bit the bullet, deciding it was high time I investigated and stopped being such an insular hermit. I signed up successfully, got ready on time and walked up to the bus stop clad in my required body-covering abaya.

 

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Me in my abaya

 

It was a short half hour drive to the Ishbilia compound, but I can not continue without going off track for a bit to explain the transportation situation to those of you unacquainted with life here in Riyadh. It’s a rather large can of worms to open, and likely a politically incorrect can at that, but needs to be addressed nonetheless. The best way to introduce this segue is to take you back to one of my first experiences heading into town shortly after moving.

 

I was heading out with a dear friend of mine, Rhonda. It was our first adventure together into the city, and we were simply planning a grocery trip. We were in Rhonda’s vehicle, using her driver. Did I mention that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia? Well, it’s true. Anyway, we were happily engaged in conversation when out of the corner of my eye I saw a spectacle unfold in a matter of mere seconds. A small white hatchback flew across the four lanes of traffic, in front of a semi-truck, which hit it and sent it spinning towards us. Being in the far lane against the cement median, her driver had nowhere to go and the out-of-control vehicle slammed into our front passenger side with a tremendous impact.

 

We went from travelling at 100 km/h to standstill very quickly.  As tends to happen in such situations, we were stunned. Her car wouldn’t start so her driver couldn’t move it onto the shoulder, despite the impatient and offended howling of passersby and policemen to do so. Instead of being offered sympathy and possibly help, as would happen in Canada, people were angry with us. I was shocked. To make matters worse, it was a toasty 44 degrees Celsius. Lucky for us, Rhonda was able to contact her husband on her cell phone and he came to our rescue. We sat in the comfort of his vehicle’s air conditioning and a few hours and considerable negotiations later we were back on the compound, scrunched vehicle in tow.

 

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Me & Rhonda after our car accident

 

Now, although this was apparently Rhonda’s first accident in eight years of living here and you might assume I am a curse, this kind of thing is not at all uncommon here. The driving is absolutely awful. People speed, talk on their cellphones, change lanes without signalling, drink coffee, eat pastries, and typically don’t wear seatbelts. In fact, the man whose car hit ours was driving down the freeway with his two-year-old child on his lap. Without a seat belt. There are often eight or nine lanes of traffic where clearly the roadway was designed for a maximum of six. There is a definite lack of traffic lights, a plethora of traffic circles with vehicles merging from all directions, and many times one need travel several kilometres past their destination in order to find a suitable U-turn.

 

Just having the courage to leave the compound and enter traffic is a feat itself. And when we arrived at Ishbilia completely intact, with no damage or near run-ins, I was thrilled. In my mind, things were already off to a fantastic start.

 

At the gates to the compound we had to disembark from our bus, handover our Iqamas (residency documents) and walk to the market square which was our destination. It was a modern facility and bustling with men and women from all over Riyadh looking to purchase or sell a variety of artifacts and wares that were on display in stalls ranging from jewelry and trinkets to abayas and art to Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations.

 

The first stall I came upon belonged to a lovely lady I know who lives on our compound who sells a product line called Forever Young. It is a fabulous product and my friend Carolyn, a loyal client, took a few moments to check it out. I bought a few things and then on we went. There were so many beautiful items on display, I could have easily strayed way outside of my budget. As it was, I had a specific goal of purchasing my first abaya, the two in my possession having been given to me by friends who have returned to Canada.

 

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Alison, Forever Living Saleswoman

 

Abayas, like any article of merchandise, range in quality and price. You can pay as a little as 100 SAR or as much as 1000 SAR. Which roughly translates into $35 to $350 Canadian. The very first stall I came upon had a unique selection on display, with interesting details and colours to contrast the traditional solid black. I fancied one that had denim pockets and detailing, but it was a wee bit tight. Then I found a red and white adorned abaya with my sought-after design of a zipper versus the typical snaps that are always coming unsnapped and pockets to boot. I tried it on, and not only did it fit perfectly, my friends Rebecca and Carolyn exclaimed enthusiastically that it looked stunning on me so how could I resist? I asked the price, and the retailer said it was 500 SAR, but for me, only 450. I didn’t even have to barter to get a discount and I was thrilled.

 

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Kim, Julia & Rebecca at Ishbilia Compound

 

My purchase complete, I was free to wander the stalls and take in everything on display while my friends looked for the items on their wish lists. After awhile the group of us felt ready for a coffee and some connection. Breakfast was being served in a large room reminiscent of a hotel conference room, but entry required purchasing a breakfast for 45 SAR and none of us were interested. On our way to the Starbucks we passed a vendor selling homemade healthy snacks of granola bars and nut butters, as well as offering organic coffee samples. It was amazingly good coffee, even without milk as is my preference. We had the audacity to claim a group of chairs in the Starbucks toting our freebie coffees. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Kim and Julia while Carolyn and Rebecca returned for more browsing.

 

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Kim & Julia at Starbucks

 

 

Soon enough it was time to make our way back to the bus. I had the idea planted that I would be writing this post and asked my friends if I could take some photos. They agreed, and to our good fortune Jamal was outside the entrance, a very friendly man who drives for me occasionally. He took a group photo for us and then we had to dash to make our bus on time. On the journey back to Salwa compound I engaged in further scintillating conversation with my Canadian friends.

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Feeling gratitude for an off-compound adventure with the support and comradery of an amazing group of women.