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.

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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.

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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 Рearly 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.

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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.

 

 

 

Arabian Nights in Muscat, Oman

I was in Muscat for 3 days last week, followed by a visit to Saudi Arabia. My travels have taken me to the Middle East many times before, but never to wondrous places such as these.

I remember the first time I visited the Middle East. ¬†More specifically, Abu Dhabi. I was in awe of everything ‚Äď the buildings, the lights, the sand, the heat, the souqs. It all felt like I was walking through a dream because it was unlike anything I had experienced before.

Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque

Then came the visits to Dubai. As much as I enjoyed it, I could tell right away that Dubai wasn‚Äôt true Arabia. It was and it remains the most manufactured version of the Middle East. Sure, you can smoke shisha and see men and women in traditional dress, but any city that boasts expensive shopping and fancy water fountains may as well be in Las Vegas. That doesn’t make Dubai less special or unique, it just makes it less authentic.

Dubai Mall

After Dubai came Doha. Doha really took my breath away. Talk about my first taste of authenticity. I went to a true souq, pet live camels, and ate the most incredible moutabbel. It was in Doha that I was introduced to grape mint shisha and the yogurt drink laban, meant to be enjoyed by locals.

Then came Muscat. Magical, intricate, beautiful Muscat. ¬†I witnessed Arabia even before leaving the airport. I came to realize right away that the authenticity lived in the details ‚Äď the arches of the airport buildings, the ‚Äúmagic lamps‚ÄĚ on the counter tops, the colorful embroidered caps worn by the men. Arriving to my hotel, the Grand Hyatt Muscat, was even more mesmerizing. The building looks like something out of a story book. This is what I expected of Arabia.

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Sea view from my room

While in Muscat, I spent my day off exploring the city.  The morning started off with a boat ride on the sea to view the dolphins.  There were hundreds swimming at the surface, including little babies! I also enjoyed an authentic Omani meal at Bait Al Luban Рshuwa beef with rice.  The beef is prepared by burying it in a sand fire pit for a full day.  It was absolutely to die for.

Shuwa

After dinner, I headed to the Mutrah Souq.  As with most shopping areas on a weekend night, it was very busy and people were everywhere.  One of the things I enjoyed so much about Muscat was that I was the minority.  I saw a Westerner here and there, but overall the souq was full of locals and the vendors selling their wares.

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Frankincense

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During this visit I came to learn that frankincense originates in Oman. ¬†It has a very peppery smell to it that I have often associated with Arabia. ¬†The vendors in the souq showed me how to use it as well. ¬†They took round charcoals that are used for shisa and placed a lit one inside one of the small clay pots above. ¬†A “rock” of frankincense was then placed on top of the coal, and the heat caused it to release that calming smell. ¬†The entire process was so cool but it was a little too complicated to try and replicate once back in Zurich. ¬†I ended up purchasing both an Omani cap and one of those clay pots to use for tea light candles rather than frankincense.

My last stop on the way to the airport was to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.  It was gorgeous and seemed to glow in the sunshine.  It reminded me a lot of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, with its size, decadence and elegance.  Like in Abu Dhabi, I had to be fully covered, but this mosque did not provide coverings.  Since I was on my way to Saudi Arabia, I had packed accordingly.

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Me wearing a hijab

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As stunning as the interior was, I think I enjoyed the exterior more.  As the sun moved across the sky, it would cast different shadows and lighting on the beautiful details and I found myself in such a peaceful state.  Within the mosque itself were a variety of volunteers available to speak with, and I spent 45 minutes talking with a young man about the meaning of Islam.  It was such an informative conversation, that I lost track of time!

I stopped at the information center on my rush out and got a quick taste of Omani Halwa, a sticky yet delicious sweet treat consisting of rose water, cardamom and almonds.

My visit to Muscat was very short but also very sweet.  I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to spend a few days in this authentic, peaceful, and lovely part of the world.

Saudi Arabia up next!

Dubai: It Just Never Gets Old

I have just finished another wonderful trip to Dubai, and with each visit I find I still experience something new. ¬†On this particular trip, it was the gorgeous “winter” weather and the light show at the Burj Khalifa.

I have been in the Middle East during standard “winter” months, but the weather this round was so absolutely gorgeous, it was like it was hand-crafted by God himself. ¬†It was never hotter than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was always a light, cool breeze brushing through the trees, dusting¬†my hair and cooling my skin. ¬†The nights, while chillier, were overall clear and just as gorgeous as the day, rounding out another 24 hours with calm and making for a deep sleep.

Aside from enjoying the great weather, I was also in awe of the cool light show at the Burj Khalifa.  I have had the pleasure of viewing this magnificent structure before, but never like this.  It is usually the height of the building and the glory of the fountain show that draw crowds, but this time it was the dancing colored lights across the building itself.

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Apparently, this display has won the Guinness World record for ‚ÄėWorld‚Äôs Largest LED-Illuminated Fa√ßade‚Äô, inclusive of ¬†70,000 LED bulbs. ¬†It will run through January 31. ¬†Wow!