Visiting Porto, Portugal

After my Saudi Arabia trip, I had a day and a half back in Zurich before I was on a plane again. This time it was for pleasure – Tony, Matilda and I were flying to Porto, Portugal for my boss’ wedding.

I had visited Lisbon a few years earlier and loved it, so I was really looking forward to this trip. Porto is just as cute and quaint and hilly. However, there were less tourists than in Lisbon which made it easier to navigate.

Also like Lisbon, tile covered many of the buildings. This is one of my favorite things about Portugal in general – this colorful tile is so incredibly unique to the area and even more lovely to gaze at.  It can make any old building an instant masterpiece.

porto

Porto is also the city of Port wine. Unfortunately for me, though, I hate Port wine. Back in high school, I worked part time at a country club and I remember watching all of the rich people drinking Port wine with their dessert. I was often situated as the “dessert girl” or “official ice cream scooper”, so that, plus Port, always brings back memories of cold and sticky hands (from the ice cream).  And honestly, the taste of Port is far too sweet for my palate.

porto

A few of the must-see sights in Porto include:

Livraria Lello

This book shop, founded in 1881, inspired JK Rowling’s design of Hogwarts.  When she was teaching English in Porto, she spent a lot of time here.

porto

porto

porto

porto

 

Sao Bento Railway Station

The station boasts gorgeous tiled scenary throughout the main entrance and is a must see in Porto.

porto

porto

porto

porto

 

Dom Luis I Bridge

The bridge is double decker and crosses over the Douro River.  The top is meant for walking and the tram, and the bottom is meant for cars.  There are stunning views of the river’s edge when driving through it.

porto

porto

Anyway, aside from the beauty of Porto which we enjoyed, we also had an incredible wedding to attend. Matilda was the most beautiful guest of all in her cute white dress. Tony and I also used it as an opportunity to take our annual anniversary photos – 7 years! – which of course featured Matilda.

porto

The wedding included a mini-Fado concert by the very popular Cristina Branco. She. Was. Amazing. The voice on this woman was unlike anything I’d ever heard in person before. She was so incredibly talented, and we spotified her music for the rest of the trip.

porto

The wedding ended with delicious red velvet cake and laterns released into the sky.  Tony and I were so incredibly thankful for this opportunity to visit Porto.  We celebrated love and all of the gifts life has to offer.

Next up is Boston, and it’s quite a douzy of a trip….

Traveling to Saudi Arabia – Part 2

Step 3: The Arrival

Let’s just say I felt like Britney Spears upon arriving into Jeddah.  Given the issues I had stumbled across along the way, my wonderful colleagues stopped at nothing to ensure there were no more bumps in the journey.

De-boarding the plane occurred further from the terminal, so all passengers were transferred via bus.  As I entered the airport, everyone was moving towards the right, but I saw a sign with my name and 5 colleagues waving frantically towards the left.  I headed to them, away from everyone else, and this is why I felt like a celebrity.  All other passengers were staring at me wondering why I was being whisked away in such a swarm of people.

These colleagues helped me through customs, where I had to scan my finger prints and take an awful photograph. Aside from the traditional Middle Eastern dress, there wasn’t anything different about Jeddah customs compared to other citites I’ve visited.  Before I knew it, I was in the car on the way to the hotel.   I had made it.  I was officially in Jeddah.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Step 4: Jeddah

When looking at a map, Jeddah is on the west coast of Saudi Arabia.  It is the gateway city to Makkah, which is part of the reason I had issues getting to Jeddah from Oman.  Driving to my hotel, it resembled many other Middle Eastern cities I’d visited before.  I passed mosques, shopping malls, and many, many American fast food restaurants.  It still blows my mind to see “KFC” or “McDonald’s” written out in Arabic.

Jeddah was very hot and humid and I was thankful to spend most of my time indoors.  I was with with colleagues from both Jeddah and Makkah, and all of our interactions were surprisingly natural.  I had been preparing for a toned down, overly monitored setting.  In reality, I spoke and hung out with both male and female colleagues in almost the same way I would in my office in Zurich.  The only differences occurred during my presentations and lunch, when women sat at one table, and men at the other.

saudi arabia

Jeddah

I came to learn from these colleagues that Snapchat is the social site.  Upon introducing myself during my presentations, I often include my Twitter and Instagram handles.  However, all my colleagues wanted to know was my Snapchat handle.  We took some pretty epic snaps together as well.

saudi arabia

saudi arabia

My amazing new friends

Before I headed off to Riyadh, I was introduced to Al Baik.  This is the ultimate fried chicken restaurant that puts the likes of KFC and Popeye’s to shame.  It can’t be found in every city in Saudi Arabia, and is apparently so popular that the chain created special travel boxes for carting food on airplanes.  Their secret?  They do simple food, very well, and at affordable prices.

saudi arabia

saudi arabia

Image from TripAdvisor – I ate mine too fast to take a pic

Saying good-bye to my new friends brought tears to my eyes.  I didn’t expect to form such strong bonds with these wonderful women in such a short period of time.  Before I knew it, I was on my way to the airport and off to Riyadh.

 

Step 5: Riyadh

I went to the airport fully covered in my hijab and abaya.  It was like any other airport experience, but the benefit of being a woman was having a much shorter, and private, security line.  I was finished and sitting at the gate a good 10 minutes before my male travel companion.

Al Baik was present at the airport, and as had been explained to me, people were lined up to take their travel boxes with them to their next stop.  The toilet signs featured images of men and women in traditional head coverings.  Thankfully, the male image also hosted a beard.

The flight over to Riyadh and the airport pick-up were uneventful.  There was no customs to clear this time so I was quickly on the road.  Once again, on the drive to the hotel, I saw many mosques, malls and fast food restaurants.  I would never be able to get over seeing so many American food chains in a country like this.

saudi arabia

I sadly did not have as much time in Riyadh as I did in Jeddah.  I ended up spending most of my time in the hotel, head completely uncovered, and not feeling a shred out of place.

The End

I spent about 4 full days in Saudi Arabia, so I am no expert.  All I can do is share my own experience and I hope I have done it justice.  I found Saudi Arabia to be an incredibly fascinating place.  But as a Westerner, and especially as a woman, there are components about Saudi Arabia that I don’t agree with or understand.  For example, women are not allowed to drive and there are no movie theaters, and yet Snapchat is rampant.   Alcohol is prohibited but McDonald’s is everywhere.  Ew.

However, what surprised me in the most wonderful way were the women I met.  Because of some of the examples listed above,  there can be the perception that women who live in Saudi Arabia are silent or oppressed.  But that is the complete opposite of what I experienced.  The women I met are passionate; friendly; talkative and open-minded.  They are educated and curious.  They are funny and beautiful and smart.  They want to feel pretty, they want to have families, they want to have a good time with their friends.  They are like any other woman I could’ve met in Chicago, or Zurich, or Paris.  They are like any other woman I would be honored to call my friend.  Quite honestly, I do consider them friends.  And I am very proud of that.

saudi arabia

My friends

 

 

 

Traveling to Saudi Arabia – Part 1

Traveling to Saudi Arabia is…well, I got back a couple weeks ago and…um…I don’t even know how to begin.

😯

Saudi Arabia is one of the most fascinating place I have ever traveled to.  Just getting there was its own adventure.  I have had a little over a week to process what I experienced, and I am thrilled to be able to share it.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Step 1: The Visa

As a non-resident, I needed to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia.  All visa applications are complicated, and this was no exception.  I was applying for a “commercial visa”, and there were essentially 12 steps to take before I could even make my in-person appointment.  My colleagues in Saudi Arabia helped provide the needed documentation on their end, including an invitation letter and copy of their commercial register. Once all the boxes were ticked, I made an appointment with the visa office in Bern, which is an hour train ride from Zurich.

I didn’t have to wait long to be called, and as the nice gentleman starting looking through my many, many documents, he paused at the invitation letter.

“You are under 40, yes?” he asked.  At first I didn’t know how to respond.  Was he trying to flatter me or insult me?  I’m pretty sure I look under 40, but maybe I was looking haggard with the new baby.

“Yeah….” I said slowly.  “Why?”

“Well, unfortunately you have the wrong invitation letter.  Because you are under 40, you need to have a pre-visa issued rather than an invitation letter.”

My eyes widened and my jaw dropped.  I thought back to the list of required documents…

  #12. Women under the age of 40 who are travelling alone will need a Pre-issued Visa.

“But isn’t that what this is?” I asked.  “Me being here is the pre-visa, no?”

“No,” he continued.  “You essentially need to be pre-approved first.”

Deflated, I boarded the train back to Zurich.  I contacted my colleagues and they themselves almost weren’t sure of the process for a pre-visa.  They really hadn’t had to obtain one before because let’s face it, not many women from my office had made the trip to Saudi Arabia.

saudi arabia

Saudi Visa Center

Upon receiving my new documents, I went back to Bern feeling a bit wiser.  The same friendly gentleman reviewed my paperwork, and I got a knowing smile.  Phew.  Under 40, but good to go.

Within 5 days I had my multiple entry Saudi Visa.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was thrilled, and couldn’t wait to partake on my journey.

Step 2: Getting There

Once I had my visa, it took a while to coordinate the best time to visit.  We needed my trip to fit within the 180 days my visa allowed for while avoiding Eid holidays and the Hajj pilgrimage.  When dates were finalized, I booked my travel, making a pit stop in Muscat, Oman on the way.

As I wrote in my blog, Muscat was wonderful.  It is a very authentic version of Arabia.  My trip was flawless and I looked forward to the short flight over to Jeddah.

As the passengers started lining up to board, I made sure to pull on my abaya, and had my hijab in hand in case I needed it.  I noticed many men and women wearing the exact same clothing, and figured they were on some sort of tour group.  It was only when it was close to my turn that I realized what was going on – early travel for Hajj.

The man taking tickets immediately pulled me out of line and asked for my visa.  It was like I was wearing a red stop sign across my chest.

“Why are you going to Jeddah?” he demanded.

“For work,” I said.  “I have a commercial visa that is good for 180 days.”

“No.  No, you cannot board.  Priority is for Hajj travelers and you are not traveling for Hajj.” (essentially the plane was overbooked)

“What?”  My heart plopped into my stomach.  After my visa trouble, how could this be happening?  I had almost 100 colleagues expecting me in Jeddah the next day, I couldn’t just not show up.  I didn’t know what to do.

Everything ended up working out fine and I made it to Jeddah later that evening, but there was something about this trip that just refused to proceed in a straight line.  Fate was playing with me and taking me for a few loops to make sure I didn’t soon forget Saudi Arabia.

To back up a bit, Hajj is actually extremely interesting.  According to Wikipedia, “it is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the most holy city for Muslims, and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey.”  Those men and women I saw dressed the same were probably part of a tour group, but it was a group organized specifically for Hajj.  As much as I disliked my travel troubles, I was a huge fan of such a devout religious journey.

The plane ride was about 2 hours from Muscat to Jeddah.  It was uneventful except for one part.  As we started to land, all of the men on the plane starting to chant the same prayer in Arabic.  They repeated it over and over again, and as we descended into turbulence, their words brought me a lot of comfort.  My seat neighbor explained that they were saying a prayer about safe passage.  That made it even more meaningful and calming.

saudi arabia

Neighbor

By this point, I hadn’t even landed in Saudi Arabia, and yet the adventure was well on its way.  Up next, Step 3: The Arrival – it was pretty epic.