When my husband was invited to speak at a medical conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he was honored by the invitation. Despite the fear of the un-known, and the idea of being so far away from the kids, I desperately wanted to go with him. Not knowing what to expect we asked advice from someone familiar with the country. He sent back an e-mail saying I should probably stay home “since there is virtually no tourism, as a woman she may not be able to go out on her own, and she would have to wear their traditional dress”.
He had me at “no tourism”. The exact thing to say to me that would make me want to visit a place more than ever. I have always been electrified by entering into a culture different from my own. Even more so knowing it is a country difficult to get into. Though word is that tourism restrictions are easing up, you still must be invited to go to Saudi Arabia, there are many business travelers, but the majority of tourism permitted is for groups. Islam was founded there, and the two holy pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina draw millions of visitors each year. In fact every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to make the trip is required to do so once in their lifetime.
The real key to any travel for me is my amazing mother-in-law. My father-in-law often can’t join her due to his work constraints, but she will still always come to help us out. With four kids I would not be going anywhere without her! Our kids are always so excited to spend the time with her; they barely mind us taking a trip. It is an incredible feeling for us as parents to know our kids are completely safe, happy and loved while we are away. (I am deeply grateful, and highly aware of how lucky we all are for her!) Though I have joyfully to set aside my wanderlust to raise our children, a unique opportunity such as this was too much to let pass by. I have always been fascinated by the experience as a traveler to have to forget everything I think I know, and try to figure out another set of customs and social norms in different countries. When the written language is entirely different it gives one the sense of being a child in a way, vulnerable but trusting and it is always an enlightening scenario. It also gives me a great empathy for foreign visitors in my own culture, and an opportunity to see how universally kind and generous most people really are.
I had no problem with the idea of donning an Abaya and hijab, the traditional dress in public for Saudi women. As a visitor I feel it is just basic respect and good manners to adhere to the dress codes of your host culture, anywhere in the world. Besides, I would much rather blend in and observe and learn than stand out and garner possible unwanted attention. I bought my Abaya and hijab for the trip on Amazon.com. Our hosts thoughtfully provided an abaya for me upon arrival as well, just in case. Not all women had their head covered in public, but almost all did, so I personally felt more comfortable with mine under a scarf.
The trip did not disappoint. In Saudi Arabia where the language is Arabic, we could not even begin to understand announcements or decipher the writing or signs. We did however find that many people we met spoke English, which they are taught in school. The crime rate is extremely low and we felt very safe. We returned deeply touched by our host’s hospitality and the kindness of the people we met. The modernity of the city impressed us, as well as the emphasis on higher education, and the rich history of the region. Previously a tribal and nomadic population, the country and the city of Riyadh itself is young. 100 years ago there were approximately 19,000 people living in the desert oasis that became the Kingdom. Today the city is a metropolis rising like a vast shimmering mirage out of the sand with a population in and around the city of nearly 6 million.
Modern architecture, impressive medical facilities, and all the iPhones in use make you feel like you could be in any major city in the world. Shopping malls boast high-end stores from the GAP to Missoni, and include food courts with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Dunkin’ Donuts, while American chain restaurants line the main shopping streets. In this way Riyadh was very much the same as home. The call to prayer five times a day, the dress code, the separation of men and women and the desert that surrounds the city as far as the eye can see and beyond are up front reminders of the differences. In our brief visit, my world was opened wider, I feel like I learned so much and am excited to share some of it with you over my next series of posts.