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Last week I put out a call for Guest Posts and of course the awesome Claire Hastings sent me this amazing article about her travel to Riyadh! I am so excited to share it all with you.
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I recently read Hologram for the King (it is also a movie with Tom Hanks) and became very intrigued by Saudi Arabia. I honestly cannot imagine its a place I will visit soon, so I am so excited Claire was willing to share her experience, as an Aussie in Riyadh, with us!
Cultural Insights: Travel to Riyadh
While the doors of Saudi Arabia are open to all Muslims around the globe, as the religious faithful make their pilgrimage to Mecca, the country rarely opens its doors to Western and non-Muslim tourists. Because Saudi Arabia typically only issues visas for those on business trips or with family in the kingdom, I was lucky enough that my husband actually received an invitation from a company he does business with. I always knew very little about the country, but I was drawn to it particularly for its mysteriousness and the conservative reputation, and was eager to see what I would find, and here I am, sharing my amazing and astonishing experience.
Arming ourselves with knowledge
When traveling to a country you know little about, except that it is culturally and religiously far different than yours, you have to soak up as much knowledge beforehand as you possibly can. For instance, I learned that once there, I would not be able to go anywhere public without my husband. You have to know the dos and don’ts as to not offend anyone or even break a law without knowing it. As for my husband, he was free to wear his usual clothes as long as they covered his skin – pants and shirts. For me, it was more complex than that. As our visit coincided with the Holy month of Ramadan, I had to learn what to wear during Ramadan; as I discovered, I was obligated to wear an abaya, along with wide clothes in darker colors that cover me completely, no skin showing, so as to not attract attention. Once you are in the country it is highly advisable that you keep your passport and visa with you at all times, because you never know if there will be a situation in which an official will wish to see a form of identification.
The cultural differences
Even when you do all the research, when you arrive there is when the true extent of the cultural shock happens. Riyadh may be the capital of the Kingdom, but it is also the most conservative city, one deeply rooted in Saudi traditions. Everyone is quite familiar with the free-spirited and welcoming nature of Australians, so for us, it took some time to get used to the fact that everyone keeps to themselves, and you cannot just strike up a conversation and get to know people, as you would in any Australian bar, beach or any other place. We are also used to being able to grab a drink after work, and I have to say, you never know how much you can miss something until it is gone. Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Riyadh, so there is not a drop of alcohol available to you. The same rules apply to visitors as to locals. Another thing I found difficult is not holding my husband’s hand. We are cuddly by nature, and the inability to engage in any type of PDA was quite limiting.
A different perspective
Once I was able to acclimatize to the changes and rules was a time when we began to truly appreciate the beauty of the city. Sure, fasting was difficult in the beginning, but not only did it give us a taste of the culture and religion, but I have to admit, it was a purifying and cleansing experience. Fasting is an opportunity to cleanse the body and soul, practice self-control and once the sun comes down and you break the fast, it gives you a fresh perspective and makes you grateful. It is hard to explain, but the reward you feel once you taste food and water after an entire day of fasting is oddly satisfying. I taught us both a lot about tolerance and acceptance of others and their culture and religion.
The amazing sights
When visiting Riyadh, there are certain sights you definitely do not want to miss. One of them is the National Museum. Aside from the gorgeous architecture, this place offers different sections such as general history, local history and culture and Islamic history. The second place on your list should definitely be Al Rajhi Grand Mosque, followed by King Abdullah Park which is a breathtakingly beautiful place. For fine dining (during Ramadan – Iftar (a meal that comes at sundown, when you are allowed to break the fast), The Globe is a restaurant that is something you must experience at least once in your life. This is Riyadh’s most exclusive fine-dining restaurant, perched atop the Al Faisaliah Tower in a glass orb. The restaurant is a three-story venue serving Arabic dishes and modern European dishes, so there is something for every taste. However, the main reason to visit this restaurant is the ambiance and location as it is seated 240 meters up in the sky, giving guests a spectacular view over the city of Riyadh.
I definitely feel that this journey made us spiritually richer. Once you renounce ‘earthly pleasures’, you are able to reconnect with yourself, as well as with your partner on a whole new emotional level. Fasting was definitely an eye-opening experience, that taught us a lot on moderation, sacrifice and modesty. It may not be the Western way, but this way of living definitely has spiritual perks, and I am glad I got to have a taste of it. It made me more open-minded, tolerant and accepting of people’s differences.
You can follow Claire on twitter.