Disneylaaaaand!

One Friday morning, I met my friend, Rebecca, for our weekly Pound gym class. She asked me if I had plans for the upcoming 9-day term break and I realised that I actually didn’t. When I have holidays, I always like to try and go away for a couple of days and be back in time for the weekend so that Carlos and I can spend some time together.  Rebecca invited me to Hong Kong and I think we were both surprised when I agreed!

After class, I went home and had a look at flights.  Hong Kong is a direct 4-hour flight from Singapore and the prices were reasonable.  In total, it cost me around $270 (£150) to fly on the Monday morning and comeback on the Thursday afternoon.  So I booked it! I had no clue about Hong Kong before I went, other than there was a Disneyland and a really high peak from which you could see tremendous views of the island.

Rebecca and I spent a little while looking for hotels and deciding on the best place to stay.  Hong Kong is made up of 261 islands, but we chose to stay on Hong Kong island itself as it seemed a good base for the things we wanted to see and do.  We chose a hotel named Butterfly on Waterfront Boutique as it was close to a train station and they had the best facilities.

So, on the Monday morning, I set off to meet Rebecca at the airport.  As usual, seeing as I was in a rush, I couldn’t seem to find a Grab driver who was free to take me there! Thankfully, Rebecca and I are similarly-minded travellers who like to be at the airport with plenty of time to spare before the flight so, although I felt awful knowing Rebecca was waiting for me, I still made it in plenty of time.
Rebecca was sensible, she had already printed off her boarding pass.  I hadn’t been as organised and so made my way to the boarding pass printing machine (I’m sure it has a more formal name than that!).  However, upon scanning my passport, the machine told me that there was a problem and I needed to go to the check-in desk to resolve it.  When I got to the front of the queue, she told me I had been upgraded to an emergency exit seat.  Is this really an upgrade though?! Yes, you get more leg room, but you are responsible for making sure the emergency exit door opens and people can get out safely if needs be! Oh, and you can’t have your bag under the seat in front of you (which meant I had to disturb the man next to me to retrieve the doughnut that I had snuck on the plane out of my holdall!).  Anyway, I got my boarding pass and we made our way towards the document-check area as Rebecca’s documents needed checking.

Documents all checked, we finally made our way towards immigration, only to be pounced upon by a man from JetStar, the airline we were travelling with.  For the first time ever for both of us, he made us weigh our luggage and to no-one’s surprise, we were very overweight. Rebecca duly check-in her suitcase with much grumbling from the pair of us and we set off for immigration, for the second time.

With immigration being super straight-forward, we were through in no time and had some breakfast.  After a quick stop at 7/11 and Dunkin’ Donuts for some snacks for the plane, we were making our way to the gate and through security.

Unfortunately for Rebecca, we were not seated together.  I know she missed my wonderful chat during the 4-hour flight.  Instead, I was sitting next to a Chinese man and an Australian man going to Hong Kong on business.  It was a good flight, I managed to nap a little, read my book for a while and have a wee chat with my Aussie neighbour.  Before I knew it, we were descending over HK and the view was spectacular.

Having completed our landing cards during the flight, we had a quick and painless immigration experience- having only once tried to detour to the “Macau/ China mainland” part of the airport! Safely through, we picked up Rebecca’s bag and made our way to the train services desk to catch the train from the airport to Central station on HK Island.  It was cheap, around HK$80 (£8) per person, to reach the centre. We paid and noticed there was a train waiting to leave… Cue crazy girls running the length of the airport to hop on the train! We made it but as we sat down and the train started moving, I realised I had left my phone on the train ticket man’s desk.  Pure panic ensued. However, upon proper inspection of my belongings, I found my phone tucked away in an inside pocket! Haha. All good.

Central Station is really well signposted and the routes are easy to follow. It is also super easy to buy a ticket on the machine- all you have to do is tap your destination and it tells you the price and details.  Our hotel was only 2 stops from Central and the station was called Sai Ying Pun.  It took us about 4 minutes to reach the station, and after a million steps, we made our way to the hotel.  Booking.com said the hotel was 450m from the station which could be correct- I have no idea about metres! It took us about 5 minutes to walk there once we found the best route.

Check-in at the hotel was super easy and the receptionist was so helpful.  She gave us recommendations on places to eat that were nearby and the hotel provided a smartphone and a whole host of other products free of charge. Amazing.

So, once checked in and freshened up, we headed out to begin our adventures.  We tried to go to a dim sum place nearby, but they were only doing a-la-carte meals so we decided to go back the following day for a more traditional experience.
We ended up in a generic rice restaurant which did the job of filling my very hungry tummy and we continued on our way down to the pier to take an evening cruise and catch the light show.  Anyone who has been to Singapore will know that there is a light show down at Marina Bay Sands every evening. For me, it’s ok and nice to see but I haven’t been back since I saw it the first time.  I was very intrigued to see the HK light show.

After much confusion about boat tickets, we were finally booked on a boat to take us around Victoria harbour and see the light show.  It was really interesting to hear the history and stories of the harbour which connects HK Island to the mainland.  That part of town seemed to be mostly skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, much like the Central Business District (CBD) in Singapore.
When it was time for the light show, I was quite excited.  The audio on the boat told us that the HK light show is in the Guinness Book of World Records but I can’t imagine why. I can’t remember the last time I was that disappointed! Haha! It was terrible. If you have the chance, take a trip round the harbour but don’t worry if you miss the light show.

After the boat trip, we popped over to the fairground area next to the pier.  There’s a helter skelter and a ferris wheel and some food and drink stalls.  We paid HK$20 (£2) and waited in the enormous queue to hop on.  It was in the queue that we realised that I was one of only a handful of white people.  This really surprised me as I had always thought that HK was an expat hub. We finally reached the front of the queue and hopped in a pod.  The views really were amazing, and had it not been for the annoying couple next to us who kept smooching and snuggling, it would have been really lovely. Haha! Anyways, we went round on the ferris wheel a few times and when we got off, we decided to make our way back to the hotel and get some much-needed rest.

Disneylaaaaaand! Day two dawned bright and sunny which was not what my weather app had suggested.  We got ready for my first ever and Rebecca’s 4th trip to Disneyland.  Wearing our Disney-themed T-shirts and comfy shoes, we headed out for breakfast.  We decided to go back to the dim sum place from the previous day as it was a Michelin-starred place with the traditional dim sum trolleys.  It was an amazing experience.  People of all walks of life were there, quietly reading newspapers or chatting with their table neighbours.  We were seated at a table, a kettle of Jasmine green tea was placed in front of us and we were given a piece of paper that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a bingo hall- it was all boxes and numbers.  The trolley ladies walked up and down the aisles between the tables and you choose whatever you want before handing over your slip of paper to be stamped.  I left Rebecca in charge of the dim sum and she made her Cantonese dad proud by choosing an amazing variety of dishes. We left very full but amazingly it had only cost us HK$120 (£12) each!

From there, we headed to the train station, bought our tickets for the train and headed off to Disneyland.  It is very cute that all of the signs for Disneyland in the stations have the Mickey Mouse head on them.  We made our way to a connecting station and then hopped on the Disneyland train.  It was brilliant! All the handrails were Mickey heads as were the windows.
We arrived around 10.30am and after a few obligatory selfies at the gates, we headed into the park.  We were a little worried about queues as previous theme park experiences had shown us that sometimes you can queue for hours to get on rides.  Having said that, I think the longest we had to wait for a ride over the course of the day was about 5 minutes! We couldn’t have been luckier.
Disney really is a magical place. We hopped on Space Mountain, then the Iron Man Experience and slowly but surely made our way around every ride in the park.  Every single ride! Once Rebecca realised that my screaming was happy screaming and not I-want-to-get-off-this-ride screaming, we both had a fantastic time.  The weather was amazing! Super hot and sunny- so hot that at one point, Rebecca had to tip a bottle of water over my head as I worried I might get heatstroke! My favourite ride was probably the Gold Mine one which involved being in a little cart like a gold mining cart, which started off fast like a regular rollercoaster. However, not long into the ride, it stopped suddenly and started going backwards for a good while. It was madness!

After we had been on all the rides, seen all the shows we wanted, had some snacks and did some gift shopping, we found a spot to watch the night parade.  It was really awesome.  You can see the amount of effort that goes into everything to make it so special. I thoroughly enjoyed my first trip to Disney and I hope it won’t be my last. 🙂

Our last full day again dawned bright and sunny.  We headed back down to the pier to buy our tickets for a hop on/ hop off bus.  Anyone who knows me, knows I love a ho/ho bus! I think they’re the best way to see the area you’re visiting and let you see parts you might not have seen otherwise.  Plus, I love hearing the commentary about the different sights- you can learn so much!
We spent the whole day on the bus!  We took the boat across the harbour to start on the mainland blue line but we didn’t get off as there wasn’t much to see at that time.  The commentary told us about how Kowloon is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet with 2.1 million people living in that area alone.  It was fascinating- much older than the other parts of HK we’d seen and much dirtier than I’d been expecting.
After the blue line, we zipped back across the harbour and hopped on the red line (or maybe it was yellow?).  This took us around the city and let us see skyscrapers that towered above street-level and also narrow, steep streets that are more traditionally Hong Kong.
After a stop at the beach (I didn’t even realise HK had such lovely beaches!), a leisurely lunch of fish and chips, we hopped back on a bus with the intention of heading up to Victoria Peak.
The traffic was crazy.  Like, actually crazy.  We spent over an hour sitting in traffic and trying to reach the entrance for the Peak.  I’ve never lived anywhere that has bad traffic, like London or Paris or Madrid, and having experienced it, I don’t particularly want to move somewhere that does!  We finally reached the Peak, redeemed our tickets and joined the exceptionally long queue for the tram.  The tram takes you up an impossibly steep hill, I actually felt like we were vertical at one point, and up to the top of Victoria Peak.  I was surprised that at the top, there is a mall of sorts with lots of restaurants and cute little gift shops.  We made our way to the top of the mall and out onto the observation deck.  I’m not sure I was prepared for such a sight.  It was around 7.45pm when we got there, so it was already dark and the land below was lit up and twinkling.  It really is a beautiful sight to see the harbour and the CBD and across to the mainland.  We took some lovely photos and videos and made our way back down to grab some dinner before heading back to the hotel.

The following day, it was time to leave.  Rebecca continued on her term-break adventures to Taiwan for a few days and I headed back to Singapore to spend the weekend with my beau.

All in all, I had a wonderful time exploring a new place with a fabulous travel buddy. Hong Kong is such an interesting mixture of people, buildings, food and history. I would love to go back and visit again someday, but I’m not sure it’s on my list of places to live! 😉

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“Shall we order a pad Thai, too?”

Bangkok.  The city of temples, amazing food and foot massages.  At least, that was our long weekend break experience.

My boyfriend, Carlos, and I have very different work schedules.  He has regular Monday to Friday hours (excluding all the meetings and calls he has to take from home) whilst I work irregular hours from Wednesdays to Sundays.  I never expected to meet someone during my time here- I came with the clear idea of doing my two-year contract and then heading back to the Middle East.  However, cupid’s arrow struck and I love spending as much time with him as possible (most of the time! Hahaha!) Usually, we only see each other after work at weekends so I really look forward to public holidays and my term breaks when we get to spend daylight hours together.

So in June, I had a week free from work.  I decided that Bangkok was my next travel destination as it is super close to Singapore, just a 2-hour flight, and is relatively cheap to get to.  Carlos could also come with me, as the Friday was a public holiday for Eid Al-Adha. Cue wee Nadine being very excited about this!

So, we booked a late evening flight, packed a suitcase between us and headed to the airport.  We enjoyed some Thai food in the departure lounge (what else would you eat before flying to Thailand?!) and headed to the gate.

Funnily enough, I don’t particularly enjoy travelling.  I love being in new countries and cities but the actual act of travelling doesn’t sit very well with me.  I used to suffer from really bad travel sickness on every mode of transport when I was a kid and I think that discomfort has stuck with me.  Now I don’t get sick, but I do get bored very easily and a little claustrophobic on long-haul journeys.

Anyways, our flight went well.  Carlos convinced the man sitting next to him to swap seats with me and we spent the two hours playing Monopoly Deal.  Given that he only learnt how to play a couple of months ago en route to Sydney, Carlos sure has picked it up quickly and is really good!

When we arrived in Bangkok, we grabbed the suitcase and made our way to the exit.  I ordered an Uber to take us to the hotel but being nearly midnight, I was a little apprehensive about getting into a stranger’s car and trusting him with most of my worldly possessions… Not to mention my life. Haha!  That said, our driver was a very polite, friendly young chap who pointed out several important monuments on the way to the hotel and gave us important information about when to go and see things and how to avoid the touts.

We arrived very safely at Casa Nithra which was to be home for the following 4 days.  We were greeted by two very friendly receptionists who provided us with refreshing cool wet towels and glasses of something very lemongrass-y.  Check-in was swift and hassle-free and we were soon escorted to our room.  It was lovely! A huge king-size bed dominated the room, but there was also space for an armchair, a desk, a storage unit, a wardrobe and a massive bathroom too.  The wall between the bathroom and the bedroom was glass but thankfully it had a wooden slatted blind to give some privacy.  I’m not sure Carlos and I are ready for no blind! 😉

I have an annoying habit of not making decisions.  I believe it’s not a conscious decision but one related to the anxiety I have been dealing with over the past couple of years.  I understand how frustrating it can be, but it really does take a lot of effort for me to choose something that may affect someone else.  Having said that, I had chosen the area and hotel for us to stay for this holiday and I was a little worried that I may chosen badly.
I chose to stay in the Khao San district which has a reputation for wild partying and backpacking.  I preferred this area as it was near to all the things I wanted to see, and the hotel looked lovely on the website.

The first morning dawned rainy and overcast.  We headed down for breakfast and were not disappointed.  The buffet breakfast included fresh fruit, yoghurt, pastries and breads, Western food and traditional Thai and Asian cuisines, all served with tea/coffee and fresh juices.  We really were spoilt for choice.  As always, I ate far too many pastries and so we headed back upstairs to decide what to do for the rest of the day.  After an unexpected 3-hour nap, we made a plan to walk down to the main streets of Khao San and have a bite to eat and maybe a massage.  We were in Thailand after all. 🙂

The walk along to the main streets took us about 15 minutes.  I had been told that bag-snatching was a really bad problem and so had arrived in Bangkok wearing a money belt which went everywhere with me.  Walking along the streets though, I certainly never felt unduly unsafe.  There were the usual tuk tuk touts who wanted to take us to the palace around the corner for what seemed like 1000000% more than we should be paying, but what else do you expect?  These things happen everywhere.

So, we made it to the central area and found an amazing garden spa.  We both chose the same package which included a full body massage with oil and a head massage.  We were led through the gardens to an outdoor area where there were “rooms” made from canvas tent-type structures.  All were undercover which was perfect as the heavens decided to open then and the storm that had been brewing all morning finally came to a head.  Carlos and I were in the same room and, lying on the massage table listening to the pouring rain, I felt more relaxed than I had since February.  We left feeling as light as air and went off in search of lunch.

I love to eat. Thai food is also my favourite cuisine in the whole world.  I could actually eat it all day, every day so I always get super excited about going to Thailand.  Carlos’s first Thai meal in Thailand came courtesy of a small indie-looking place next door to the garden spa.  We ordered a panang (phanaeng) curry and a papaya salad when Carlos uttered the most-used expression of the holiday… “Shall we have a phad thai too?”             The food was awesome but the portions were a bit stingy which made me a little sad.  The evening was spent wandering around Khao San Road, eating and marvelling at the bars where the music was exceptionally loud and people were drinking from the biggest glasses I have ever seen. 🙂

Saturday was our culture-vulture day! After another amazing breakfast, we took a tuk tuk round to the Grand Palace.  That tuk tuk ride was brilliant! A little scary when the driver took corners at what felt like 100 mph but good fun!  Although I had planned to see all of the major cultural sites, I had completely forgotten to take appropriate trousers so, upon arrival, Carlos and I were directed to a shop selling elephant pants, cargo trousers and long wrap-round skirts.  I chose a purple wrap-round, which Carlos had to keep dressing me in, and he chose a pair of cargo trousers.  It was a hot, sunny day so these new wardrobe additions made for a bit of complaining (mostly from C…. :D).

The Grand Palace was truly majestic.  The site itself holds many buildings and temples, topped with traditional roofs made from gold.  You can’t enter these buildings but there are many beautiful photo opportunities.  Also housed within the grounds of the Palace is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.  I’m not sure I could ever describe just how amazing it was to be able to see something that for Buddhists is one of the most important things within their religion.

From the Grand Palace, we walked around to the next site on my list- Wat Pho. Wat Pho is home to one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in Thailand.  It was built in 1832 and measures 15m high and 46m long.  It was amazing to see this beautiful statue, created with such attention to detail, including the mother-of-pearl inlay on the soles of the feet, and maintained to such a high degree.  It was a very humbling experience.

Having seen these two wonders, we decided it was lunchtime and found a lovely little place to eat.  Once more, we had papaya salad, a curry and some phad thai and it was amazing.  However, just as we were going to leave the restaurant, there was an unexpected downpour and we chose to have another drink and play some Monopoly Deal while we waited.

Once the rain had gone off sufficiently, we took a short boat ride across the Chao Phraya river over to Wat Arun, also known as The Temple of Dawn.  This is another beautiful temple, most recognised for its spires which appear gold at sunrise and sunset.  It was amazing to be able to take photographs around this spectacular structure and marvel at the views from the highest points.

That evening, we headed out for dinner and decided to have some drinks along Khao San Road.  We found a lovely little bar, with an eclectic mix of people.  There was a group of older Thai men, a few Japanese tourists, some young men who might have felt at home on the Big Bang Theory and us.  There were two guys playing music and they did their best to please everyone-  they sang Thai songs and English songs equally well and the tips coming from all of us ensured they continued playing well into the wee hours of the morning.
On our way back towards the hotel, we wandered down a smaller side street which was filled with restaurants and massage parlours.  So, what do you do at 2.30am?  Well, stop and have a phad thai and a foot massage, of course!
I also couldn’t resist trying one of the many bugs on sale in this part of town.  They have lots to choose from-  crickets, locusts, tarantulas, cockroaches, scorpions, maggots…  we chose massive grasshoppers and, whilst Carlos ate his easily (albeit with a lot of chewing!), it took me a lot longer (and many videos) to work up the courage.  It was crunchy and tasted burnt but not as bad as I had been expecting.

Having slept wonderfully, the next day we day decided to visit the biggest market in Bangkok.  It was amazing, there were stalls selling clothes, knick knacks, ornaments… I couldn’t believe the variety of things on offer!  We had a little plate of paella (who would have thought- a Venezuelan and a Scot, eating paella in the heart of a Thai marketplace!) and a beer and headed off on our next adventure.

We headed to the house, and now museum, of Jim Thompson.  For those who don’t know the story, I’ll give you an edited version.  Jim Thompson was an American who was posted to Thailand as a military attaché in 1946.  He became a very successful businessman by bringing back the traditional methods of silk-weaving, and built a spectacular mansion in Bangkok on the banks of a small river.  Legend has it, he was once told by a fortune-teller to take more care when he reached the age of 61.  Low and behold, he disappeared during a walk in the jungles of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.  He was 61 years old.
I was most interested to go and see the mansion and hear the stories as Carlos had taken me to the Jim Thompson restaurant in Singapore for my birthday.  At that point, I didn’t really know the story, and so it was fascinating to see all the artefacts and hear the stories of his event-filled life.  It’s hard to imagine how influential he must have been and how powerful he must have seemed to the locals.

Our break was coming to an end.  On our last day, we headed out for a walk around town, had a bite to eat and, of course, one last foot massage.  Travelling with Carlos is always easy-  he is very much the chilled, relaxed one in our relationship and he makes every adventure wonderful.

Bangkok- you were amazing!  Your beautiful temples, delicious food, urban legends, bug-eating and massages ensured we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Carlos-  I’m already planning the next adventure! Te quiero, mi amor ❤

 

Ramadan Mubarak!

It was a lovely, leisurely lunch on Tuesday with my good friend, Judy, that got me thinking about the topic for this post.  Judy and I met in 2009 in London’s Heathrow airport, at the start of our epic journey to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I often get asked what made me move to Saudi Arabia at the age of 22.  The answer is quite simple.  Good money and no tax! 🙂
On a more serious note, I had left Poland and was at a bit of a loose end.  I was working in a clothes shop while I considered my options when I got a phone call from a lady called Margarita who worked for a recruitment company.  She told me she had seen my CV online and that I would be a perfect fit for a job available in Riyadh.  I kindly refused her offer, thanked her for her call and thought nothing more about it.  When I told my mum I had been offered the job, she told me to go for it.  I thought she was actually mental. My dad came home from work and my mum told him about my job offer.  My dad is a serious, sensible kind of person so I was quite sure he would agree with me rejecting the post.  However, to my utter surprise, he said, “What else are you doing with your life? Wasting your degree working in a clothes shop?” That gave me food for thought and I read the information pack Margarita had sent me after the call.

We all think we know what happens in Saudi- we’ve all seen the ladies who are completely covered from head-to-toe, the men who wear white robes, and we know it’s a strict country.  But no-one knows what it’s really like until they’ve lived there.

The following day, Margarita phoned me again and spent the best part of 2 hours trying to convince me to accept the job.  Eventually, I crumbled and agreed.  That was the Wednesday and on the Friday, I flew down to London’s Harley Street to have my pre-visa medical done.  It was my first ever medical and it was intense.  Some of the questions seemed bizarre, until I got to Saudi and understood why.  My passport was sent away for the visa along with all of the samples taken during the medical.

A matter of weeks later, I was packing to leave for Riyadh.  My flights had been booked for me, and I knew that several of the other women who were going to work for the same company, including Judy, would be on the same flights as me.  We agreed to meet up in Heathrow, where we would catch our flight to Frankfurt and connect there for the final flight to Riyadh.  It was surreal to see a group of Western women, all excited to be flying to the Middle East.  During the Lufthansa flight, the air stewardess asked me if I would like an alcoholic drink.  I was shocked, given that Saudi has a super strict policy of no alcohol in the whole country.  I meekly asked if I was allowed to drink… She looked at me with surprise written all over her face, and said, “Are you over 18?”  She then explained that I would be fine as long as I didn’t end up drunk.  I have never forgotten her telling me the golden rule of flying- one drink in the air is the same as two on the ground. 🙂

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The Land of the Two Holy Mosques.

As we came into land at King Khalid International airport, I had to complete my first ever landing card.  The first thing that you see on the card is the Saudi emblem of the swords with a phrase similar to, “Drug traffickers will be executed”…
Now, having travelled a bit throughout Asia in recent years, I realise that this is nothing special.  Most countries who have strict drug laws have similar phrases on their landing cards.  22-year-old me nearly had a heart attack! Having reassured the air stewardess that I most certainly was not carrying drugs-  she seemed a little suspicious of my rather extreme reaction- I completed the card, gathered my belongings and headed out to see what this kingdom was all about.

It’s hard to describe Riyadh.  It’s like a neat grid of streets, filled with mansion-style houses and shopping malls.  And everything is a sandy-yellow colour.  The country is a desert, and that becomes more and more clear as soon as you leave the built-up city centre. Sand dunes and the occasional petrol station are all that can be found.  The difference in wealth amongst the local people is both fascinating and soul-destroying. The rich are frighteningly rich, the poor begging in the streets moving from car window to car window at traffic lights, looking for any money that they can get.

Gender segregation was the first thing I spotted when out and about on my adventures around Riyadh. There are two queues everywhere you go- one for single men, the other for women and families. In restaurants, eating in a booth behind a curtain is normal for single women. I found it quite nice to have the privacy, but I can understand why Western women might get frustrated.

The next major thing I noticed was the Muttawa.  They are the religious police who patrol shopping malls and public spaces, and whose slogan is “For the protection of virtue and prevention of vice”.  I’m pretty sure that every foreign woman in Saudi Arabia has had, or knows someone who has had, an issue with these men. Their methods are often ones that are intended to bring shame upon the woman in question.  One particular incident sticks in my mind. I was in the Tamimi supermarket with my friend Becca when she nipped off to get something she needed, leaving me to decide which shampoo to choose. I could hear a very angry man shouting in Arabic, but thought nothing more of it… Until the shouting got closer and closer, and ended up right next to me! I turned to find a very angry Muttawa, alternately shouting at me in Arabic and English that I had to cover my hair with my headscarf, that I had no shame, that I was bringing shame upon myself…. I stood, watching his very red face get redder and redder, looking at the people around us, until I could take no more.  I clearly stated that I would not cover my hair, that I was neither legally nor morally obliged to do so as a non-Muslim woman and eventually he walked off, calling me every name under the sun. I have heard of women having these scary ecounters over the length of their abaya (the black gown worn by every woman in Saudi, regardless of religion and nationality), their use of eye make-up and for speaking to security guards in a shopping mall.

I could write for years about everything I saw and did in Riyadh- from my first amber alert lockdown on a housing compound due to bomb threats, to my roadtrip to Bahrain when our driver informed us he could not stop to let us pee in case Al-Qaeda kidnapped us.

Let me know if you’d like me to post again on this topic.  🙂  Until then, ramadan mubarak everyone!

 

That Sunday-night feeling…

Clammy palms… That sinking feeling in the tummy… Trying to stay up late to eke out the last few hours of the weekend… The dread of going to bed knowing that tomorrow, it’s back to school…

And that’s not the kids- that’s me! The teacher. Hahaha! 🙂

For the past few months, I’ve been feeling a bit lost. A bit unsure about the future.  Unsure as to whether I want to teach anymore.
I was never supposed to be a teacher.  It all happened by accident- by all means, a generally happy accident, but an accident nonetheless.  Let me explain…

Growing up, I was a geek at school.  A proper wee nerd who always did her homework, always paid attention in class, a right teacher’s pet. By the time I got to high school, I was like an old lady trapped in a teenaged body. I hung about with the “cool” kids- the ones who smoked, drank vodka in the park at 13 and progressed onto weed- but I never did any of those things. I hung out, chatted and then ran all the way home so I wouldn’t be late for my curfew. There was mutual respect between my friends, my parents and I. My parents trusted me not to do any of that and I was honest with them about what my friends were doing. My mates never pressured me to take part in anything and I respected their teenage curiosity to break the rules and the social norms.
At school, I studied hard, excelled in languages and failed dismally at anything science-based or Maths. By the time it came to choosing universities and courses, it was pretty clear that I had to pursue some sort of future in languages.

Living where I did, the obvious university choices were Dundee and Abertay.  Both are excellent universities but are most famous for courses to do with forensics and engineering.  Languages weren’t readily available at either back then, the only option being a joint degree in Psychology with Spanish at Dundee. That was when I decided to look further afield.  Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, with its modern languages department and its interpreting labs, then become my dream. After a tense phone call on exam results day, I found out I had been accepted through clearing.

Back then, walking through the doors of the Henry Prais building on the first day of first year, I decided that I was going to make my dream of becoming Head Interpreter for the United Nations a reality.  I studied reasonably hard, as hard as one can in the first year of uni and living away from home for the first time, and got through to second year.
Which was when my dream was smashed to smithereens.
I got my timetable for second year and, upon studying it closely with my good friend Andrew, found a strangely-accronymed module on it.

“What is this module here?” I asked, thinking there had been a typing error.

“TESOL? That’s your teaching module!” Andrew replied.

TEACHING? But what was I going to teach? And who? And where? But most importantly, whyyyyy? I had applied to do interpreting and translating, and yet, here I was being told I was in fact studying to be a teacher. A teacher of English as a Second or Other Language.
I can’t lie, it took me a while to get used to that idea.  I had never considered being a teacher and had absolutely no desire to be one.  I thought back to all the teachers I’d ever had and I just couldn’t see myself being one.  Anyway, to cut an extreeeeemeeeeely long story short (I can literally hear my boyfriend saying, “Nadine, please, get to the point” as he often does when I get excited about a story, then drag it out and go off on tangents 🙂 ), I completed my second year which included some observed teaching practice.  Those classes were the ESOL classes run by the university to help some of the foreign exchange students improve their general English.  They were nerve-wrecking but fun, and always done in a tag-team with another TESOL student so the pressure wasn’t too much.

The big test was when third year began… This was my teaching assistant placement, and I was placed in a secondary school in the Andalusian city of Malaga.  By that time, I’d been studying Spanish for 5 years and thought I was the dog’s bollocks. My lecturers told me my Spanish was great and I had some Spanish friends from Madrid who I loved chatting to.  Nobody told me about the south of Spain.

“Como ehta, iha?” was what greeted me when I hopped in the taxi at Malaga airport. Ummm, sorry?! Who was this taxi driver and what was he trying to ask me? After repeating a million times in Spanish that I didn’t understand, he finally said to me, “Como estas, hija?”, asking me how I was, in an accent that I could grasp! But that was just the beginning… Cue 2 months of phone calls home where I cried every day, telling my parents that I couldn’t understand anyone and didn’t like anything.  Not to mention the classes…

As an assistant, I was supposed to help the English teachers during class with general aspects of English along with cultural elements.  Unfortunately, no-one seemed to have told my teachers that as they often left me to teach the whole class by myself while they popped down the street or to the school’s cafeteria to have breakfast! Haha!
That year was madness, absolute madness. From the kids in Bachillerato who were the same age as me but who thought I was Einstein because I was already in 3rd year of uni (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was only because I started school at 4.5 years old), to the 4th of ESO class that housed Angel, the son of a Colombian drug lord, you absolutely could not make that shit up!  I also got to meet a lot of blind children through a charity organisation called la ONCE who helped me to gain some insight into the provisions available for blind children in Malaga, which became the topic of my Spanish dissertation.

It was then that I realised that maybe teaching wasn’t such a bad idea for me.  I realised quickly that I love helping people, that moment when you see someone understand something for the first time, that gave me an amazing feeling of achievement inside.
My stint in Malaga was followed by my final year at uni, and I walked away with a MA (Hons) in Foreign Languages with the Teaching of English as a Second Language (FL-TESOL).
My CV has seen me teaching in Poland, where the students were convinced that my dad was Donald Tusk (the then- Prime Minister of Poland), a year teaching the first preparatory year programme for women at Princess Nourah bint AbdulRahman University in Riyadh, 6 years of teaching back in Spain, and now this contract here in Singapore.

I guess that lately, I’ve become a little disillusioned with life as a teacher.  I feel like maybe I’m not making as much of a difference here as I have in other places, and that upsets me.  The job of a teacher is to make an impact on their students- to make them enjoy learning, to make them want to learn, and most importantly to teach them everything they need to know to succeed.  That’s the job of a real teacher.
I’ve met a lot of people in the past ten years of teaching who are in it for all the wrong reasons.  They study for a couple of weeks or months, get a TEFL or CELTA qualification (or in Singapore, have no teaching qualification at all), and then decide to use that as an excuse to travel the world.

Now, I am not judging in anyway- everyone has the right to choose how to live their life-, nor am I saying that those qualifications aren’t good.  Much the opposite is true in fact.  What I have a problem with is those people who aren’t really interested in the kids, their learning or the futures that we, as teachers, should be helping to shape.

I think that’s what has got me thinking about my future in teaching lately.  If I’m not making a difference anymore, then what’s the point?  It’s something I definitely have to consider carefully over the next wee while… At least until I win the lottery and can open the cake shop of my current dreams! 😉

 

 

 

“Run, Forrest, Run!”

8th December, 2018.

7 months and 1 week until the people of Singapore feel a mini-earthquake between the hours of 4.30 a.m. and (if I’m lucky!) 8 a.m.

That’s right.  I, Little Miss Chubby, have signed up to run a half-marathon.  21.1km of cold, hard, tarmac stands between me and the finish line.  Alriiiight, maybe not “cold” given that the average daily temperature here is around 29 degrees! Haha!

How did this hugely massive decision come about?  That is a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I typed my credit card details into the registration page.  Let me explain…

A few years ago, while living in Almeria, a lovely wee coastal city in the south-east of Spain, I met a wonderful girl called Natalie.  A South-African who came to work at the language school I was working in, she quickly became a good friend of mine.  Straight-talking, funny and super into her fitness, she and I became gym buddies, usually frequenting the Body Combat and Booiaka classes where we vented our frustrations at life and learnt amazing dance moves.

Natalie is into running and takes part in races and, after seeing her out running along the paseo maritimo (the promenade by the beach) for the millionth time, I decided that I also wanted to get into running.  It looked so liberating and invigorating, and the people I saw made it look so easy.

Oh, how wrong was I?!

I started my quest to be a runner by running the 5km-long paseo maritimo and about 5 minutes into my first session, I felt like my lungs were going to burst out of my chest! How on Earth did these people look so comfortable gliding along the pathway? Natalie was brilliant- she encouraged me all the time to go out and do as much as I could and together with a couple of others, we joined a running group.

“Los BeerRunners” are a group of people who meet at weekends to run varying distances at their own paces.  The idea is that you start off together as a group and then you reconvene at the end and go for some beers and, of course, some tapas.  It is Spain, after all!  I had read about the merits of drinking beer after doing exercise and was surprised to see that beer is full of antioxidents and vitamin B which helps bones.  Apparently, it can also help recovery time because of the carbohydrates found in that golden nectar.
This all sounds fabulous, I’m sure, but there was one problem… I don’t like the taste of beer.  Hmm… I needn’t have worried though, the BeerRunners welcomed me with open arms regardless of my alcoholic-beverage preferences!  Soon, I was adorned with a fluorescent orange running shirt, was joining the runners for regular sessions and had soon signed up for my first competitive race.  I decided to run the annual 5km paseo race as I was very familiar with the route and it was being hosted by ARGAR, an amazing organisation that helps children with cancer and one that my close friend Blanca worked for.

On the day of the race, I was super nervous but I can clearly remember being half-way through and realising that I was really enjoying myself! People were lining the race route, cheering us on, music was being played over loudspeakers and the general atmosphere was amazing! I did the race in 35 minutes and felt immensely proud of myself.  This race was followed by a Colour Run, which was such fun! Taking place in the late evening, runners have fluorescent powdered paint thrown at them throughout the run and my running gear ended up a wonderful palette of orange, purple, yellow and green paint.
The last race I did in Spain took place along the winding coastal roads of Almeria, overlooking the sea.  It was 8km of rock-lined roads, with beautiful views of the blue-green Mediterranean sea.  8km was, and still is, the furthest I have ever run and although it was the most difficult exercise-related test I had endured, my amazing playlist of Daddy Yankee, Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys got me through it.  As I approached the finish line, feeling rather emotional, I was ecstatic to see the crowds suddenly start cheering enthusiastically, waving their arms and hollering.  Little did I know, they were actually cheering the winner of the much longer race who had lapped me about 10 times! Haha! I graciously tried to avoid the cameras which were snapping away trying to get the first finish photo of him, although I did end up appearing in the local newspapers! 🙂

Fast forward two years and I now live in the tropical wonderland that is Singapore.  Hot, humid, sometimes rainy, sometimes stormy, always unpredictable.  When I first arrived, I thought I would try and keep my running fitness up so one morning at around 8.45a.m. I left my apartment to go for a light run.  As soon as I stepped outside, I realised this was not going to be as easy as Almeria.  The biggest weather-related issue for me in Almeria was the wind.  It would be hurricane-like, whipping my hair into my face when I was running and making me feel like I was running in quicksand… Putting in so much effort but not getting anywhere.  Here, however, the biggest problems for me are the strength of the sun and the humidity.  It’s like stepping into a sauna fully-clothed at times.  Anyway, I pushed on and managed about 30 minutes.  It was so difficult for me that I never tried again! I’ve tried in the gym but for me, the best part of running is being outdoors and seeing nature, not sweaty, puffing bodies next to me.

So, one day last month, my boyfriend told me that he was signing up for the half-marathon again.  He ran it last year and did amazingly well.  He’s a real inspiration for me, and so when he suggested that I do the newly-introduced 10km race this year, I started to think about it.  My argument was that I don’t need 7 months to train for 10km, I figure that it’s all about muscle memory and that as soon as I start training again, my muscles will remember the previous runs I’ve done and so I should be able to get back into it quickly.  And so, one Sunday afternoon, I made the executive decision to do the half-marathon as well!

One 4km training session in and I have already hurt my knee! Haha! With a bit more stretching and strength and conditioning training, I should be in better physical shape. I’ll be sure to post updates on my progress.  Keep your fingers and toes crosssed for me! 🙂

xxx

 

 

Ready? Then let me begin…

First of all, welcome to my blog!

This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this, so you may have to bear with me until I get used to it!

Having lived abroad for the last 10 years, I’ve had lots of weird and wonderful experiences and have decided that now is the time for me to share some of them with you.  I hope you enjoy reading my posts and feel free to give me any feedback or share your own experiences.

“Life is about creating and living experiences that are worth sharing.”  Steve Jobs.

Lots of love xxx

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