Our Adventures in Sri Lanka

Safaris to spot leopards and elephants, swimming in the Indian Ocean, sipping tea in the mountains, and several more!

Our Nile Cruise

Starting in Cairo, we sailed to Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Aswan.

Trouble at Sea: Our Red Sea Dive Trip in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia

The Red Sea is one of the top diving destinations in the world, but Saudi Arabia is a very restrictive country to get into. That alone would have made the trip memorable...but then things went south and the Saudi Coast Guard and a hospital got involved.

Our Expedition to Jordan

Highlights included tracing the steps of Indiana Jones into Petra, following Lawrence of Arabia into Wadi Rum, and floating in the Dead Sea.

Discovering Turkey

We emersed ourselves in Istanbul, explored the white travertines of Pamukkale, and traced history through Laodikeia, Hierolopolis, and Cleopatra's Baths.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Western Woman in Saudi Arabia: The Basics

I drafted this post last week and meant to get it up earlier, but kept forgetting to take a picture of myself in my abaya. Well, I'm posting it today (with a crappy picture of me) because of some of the press I have seen regarding what First Lady Michelle Obama wore (or didn't wear) when she and the President traveled to Riyadh to meet with King Salman.
The outfit in question.
Note: Michelle Obama is not the only woman in this photo.
Most western women in this country, at least in Jeddah (Riyadh is more conservative) do not wear the niqab and most do not wear a headscarf (unless chased by the religious police, which happened to me. Read about that encounter in my earlier post detailing my first souk night). I have seen plenty of non-western women without the niqab as well.

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I have read several articles calling her a badass for not wearing the niqab. Michelle Obama is a badass, but not for this reason. I also do not wear a niqab or a headscarf. I am also a badass, but not for this reason. Foreign women do not wear a veil. Michelle Obama is foreign, thus she didn't wear one. I am a foreign woman in Saudi Arabia. I do not wear the niqab. I do not wear a headscarf. I haven't seen anyone mention the fact that Mrs. Obama wore PANTS. Holy cow! PANTS! And no abaya. Thank you Michelle Obama! Saudi Arabia, while way behind the rest of the world on women's rights-- all human rights for that matter-- isn't the place most Americans think it is. Read on to find out the basics of what life is like for a western woman in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some basics for friends and family who didn't hear my spiel before we moved here last month. It's also a refresher for those who did, but were too overwhelmed to fully retain the information. This is also a place I think I might point people when I get tired of repeating said spiel over and over and over and over...

We live on an international compound. The religious police (mutaween) are not allowed on this compound, so it’s just like living in the U.S. in terms of what we wear, how we act etc… It is truly international. We’ve gotten to know Germans, Danes, Brazilians, Japanese, Serbians, South Africans, Kiwis and Filipinos. It’s very nice, but not as dog friendly as we’d like.

Off the compound, it’s all Saudi Arabia. This is how it affects me:
I wear an abaya. It’s a long, flowy, figure-concealing black dress. Many westerners wear abayas with a good bit of design, so they are not just all black. If I am traveling from the compound directly to the school or the Consulate, I don’t wear the abaya in the car. I usually carry it in case we want to make a stop en route. I wear it in the car on the way to other destinations just because putting it on is just one more time consuming step to get out of the car (I’m almost always getting at least one kid out of a car seat).
A basic abaya I bought second hand at a souk.
This one snaps, I'm still hunting for one that zips.
I do not have to wear the niqab, the face veil that many Saudi women wear. I have seen a lot women here without it, many of whom appear to be Saudi. FYI: The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face while a burqa covers the whole body from the top of the head to the ground.


I am not supposed to wear the hijab because it is a religious garment. I, like most western women, do carry a scarf I can put over my head in case I run in to the religious police, feel uncomfortable or get hassled. I do get stares. Frankly, though, that could be less about my wild hair than my pale white skin or my blonde and red-headed children.

The official counsel from the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia is that he will support us no matter what we wear. It’s just a matter of how much I want to be stared at and hassled. Even Greg doesn't wear shorts in public. There have been a few women at post that never wore an abaya, getting away with just a long skirt and long sleeves. Personally, I think the abaya will be cooler in the heat of summer.

I cannot drive. The compound we live on isn't large enough to warrant driving and women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. Luckily, the office Greg works for has several drivers and cars assigned to it. There is almost always someone available to take me to the market or an event. It does require logistical coordination, though. I admit this is the biggest bother to me. I cannot just hop in my car and meet a friend for lunch, grab some milk at the market or just drive around to get to know the place. It’s also a hassle to take the kids’ car seats in an out all the time, especially since many of the Consulate cars are old and have a limited number of seats with the latch system.

There are five calls to prayer every day and while not all shops close, I cannot purchase anything for about 20-30 minutes after the prayer call. This basically means I try to get my shopping done between the time the kids go to school and noon. That’s the longest stretch during the day that there’s no call to prayer.

I have not traveled outside the country yet. But, when I go somewhere without Greg, particularly with the kids, I have to have a letter saying I’m allowed to go and take the kids. Many Consulate women take one of the expediters with them to avoid hassle.

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We have not been to the beach yet because it has been fairly cool. But, when we go, we will pay to go to a western beach. Otherwise, it would be Muslim swimwear for me.
Not ugly, but not what I call beachwear.
I carry a permit, called an iqama, with me that identifies me as a diplomat. It has a picture of me and the kids. Should I be hassled by the religious police, it’s my best friend.

Other ways we are affected:
  • We cannot buy pork or alcohol on the local market. I say on the local market because being a diplomat has some privileges. I’ll leave it at that.
  • We cannot travel to Mecca or Medina, they are open only to Muslims.
  • Neither of us could work on the Saudi economy (for a Saudi employer) without giving up our diplomatic status
  • During Ramadan we cannot consume food or beverages in public in the daytime. That usually includes having a bottle of water in the car. Again, being a diplomat (riding in a car with Dip plates) has some privileges. 
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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Getting Mail Overseas

One of the questions that comes up a lot (usually from family members) about living overseas is what sort of mail service and support we receive. There are several methods available to members of the US Foreign Service, and each has their pros and cons.

APO/DPO
This is probably the most familiar option to anyone with friends or families in the military. Except for the customs form, it's practically the same as sending something to somewhere else in the US. An APO or DPO uses the military routing system to get stuff from the US to the overseas location. It's also usually the right mix of speed and cost, usually 10-14 days but sometimes faster or slower. It requires a customs declaration PS Form 2976 from the USPS.

The PS Form 2976
Here's the USPS information about APO/DPO.

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So, now the question is, who will ship to APO? Amazon ships to APO, so that probably covers 95% of your needs right there. If you wanted to order straight from a company's  website, here's a list of companies that will ship to APO. For those companies that won't ship to APO, there's a middle-man service provided by Ship it APO or APO Box that will receive your packages and forward them on to you overseas.
APO/DPO shipments are subject to inspection
Diplomatic Pouch
One of the benefits of being on a diplomatic assignment is the use of the Diplomatic Pouch system. It's slower than APO/DPO, but it has a unique benefit: as long as it is externally marked to show its status, the package has diplomatic immunity from search or seizure, as codified in article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Because of this, it may only contain articles intended for official use, so personal items in the pouch are highly regulated and we've already had one shipment rejected. The State Department has an official page with the details for sending things by diplomatic pouch.

   As a practical matter, we can ship some stuff in what is called "Personal Pouch" as well.  It's for common things that might normally get confiscated by strict customs restrictions (not to be confused with prohibited) in regular mail like prescription medicine, or National Geographic Magazine with a naked tribesman on the cover, or maybe even DVDs and music CDs. These packages must not exceed 6 cubic feet, as the Department will consider it a bulk shipment and you’ll have to pay fees to get it shipped to you. For reference, 6 cubic feet is exactly 32” x 18” x 18”. And that's per shipment, not per box...a guy I know pouched 10 boxes that were individually under the 6 cubic feet limit, but since they all happened to end up on the same shipment, they were collectively considered to be roughly 60 cubic feet. Ouch.

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International Mail
All of the international cargo companies (Fed Ex, DHL, UPS, etc) have some way to get packages to a delivery center somewhere in the country. The problem is that those delivery centers might be inconvenient, and the shipping cost is often rather expensive. They are also subject to inspection/confiscation by the local authorities, so your package might make it into country but not past customs. Amazon also ships to a number of countries.
Which is worse?
That's about it. As far as I know, most folks overseas use the APO as their primary delivery method, but there are other options out there as well.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Children's TV for Ex-Pats in Saudi Arabia

After two weeks of living in Saudi Arabia, we're glad that our compound supplies us with cable TV that has all sorts of content from the regional channels to popular international content from the US, UK, and India. In addition to the Cartoon Network, there's also a dedicated British children's channel called Boomerang that plays re-runs and re-treads of the cartoons I grew up with: Tom & Jerry, Looney Toons, Scooby Doo, Inspector Gadget, etc. There's also one particularly entertaining show that happens to be on during the majority of my "at home" time in the morning: Lazy Town.

Here's the IMDB link to Lazy Town, an English-language Icelandic children's show that has more Euro-dance pop than a can of Fanta...but they'd never drink it in Lazy Town because "the citizens of Lazytown learn the importance of things like eating right and exercising from the ultra-athletic superhero, Sportucus, who must stop the evil plots of Robbie Rotten, who hates physical activity, among other things." Here's a sample of the music:


Before we left the US, our kids got used to using the iPad to watch all sorts of content from PBSkids.com but those videos aren't licensed to play outside the country. Same deal with Netflix. The solution?

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Art of Participation


I had heard rumors that ex-pat communities are welcoming and tight-knit, but I did not expect our second week in country to be as socially active as it was. That probably has something to do with our approach to getting involved early: If someone asks us to join, we will. Those first couple months in a new place are critical, because that's when people decide whether or not to keep asking you to join them.

Now, to put the weekend in context, the work week in Saudi Arabia is Sunday to Thursday and the American Consulate decided to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Sunday instead of Monday to give everyone a three day weekend. So, on Thursday we picked the girls up from school and headed to the American Consulate for the International Day community potluck and soccer match. The match was between the Consulate staff and the local guard force, and Kacey helped keep the game close enough to be decided by penalty kicks while I chatted on the sidelines while watching the kids running around nearby. After the game, we all headed over for an international buffet. My plate was a delicious combination of Filipino fried rice, Arabic bread, and a spicy Ethiopian chicken sauce called doro wat.

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At International Day, the CLO invited us to join her family and a few others on Friday morning on an excursion to the Trio Ranch. It was primarily to get the girls out and active, and I'm glad we said yes, since there were so many kids in our group that the ranch didn't have enough small horses for everyone to ride at the same time, but everyone still got to ride.
Are we in the Southwest or the Middle East?
On Saturday, we we a bit slow getting out of the house because we were still recovering from all the fun riding horse. But we'd decided that this morning was all about getting connected. We went to the malls to acquire our internet and mobile phone SIMs now that we had our iqamas. But even getting to the first mall at around 10 am, it seemed like 50% of the stores hadn't opened yet. Fortunately, the one we wanted was open. The purchasing system reminded me a little of how the Circuit City used to do things (before they went out of business):
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Friday, January 16, 2015

A Field Full of Horses at the Trio Ranch

Our girls love the book "A Field Full of Horses" by Peter Hansard. So when we were invited to join a couple other families for a quiet Friday morning at a horse ranch, we quickly accepted. Since I don't have my Saudi driver's license yet, our sponsors picked us up and ferried us over to the designated convoy assembly point: Dunkin Donuts. A dozen donuts and a box of munchkins later, we were on our way.

Girls on horseback at the Trio Ranch
The lead car was using Google Maps to get us to the Trio Ranch just outside Jeddah. Since the highway is under construction, it took a few U-turns to get onto the back roads that raised questions on how they found this place the first time. It felt like the driver was taking us somewhere that we'd never be found again: nondescript roads and walled yards with no street names to speak of. As it turns out, his employer kept a horse or two at the stables and he'd been here several times before...but still used the GPS to find his way.

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As soon as we'd pulled inside the walled compound (Seriously, everywhere in Jeddah seems to be a walled compound), the girls saw horses milling about and wanted to touch, feed, and ride them. Our older daughter has already been on a horse a couple of times by herself, but always with a handler guiding the horse. And while we've toured stables before as well, I think this might have been her first time in the stable area of the horses she could ride.
Let's get going already!
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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Iqama

The Iqama is probably the most important document for ex-pats in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It's a residency permit but also the key to other services like banks, mobile phone service, drivers license, etc. Also, good luck getting your air freight and household goods shipments out of customs without it.
No one looks this good on their ID card
But here's the catch. That's the normal iqama (from the Ministry of Interior) that most ex-pats get, so that's the one everyone is used to seeing. Getting issued the same thing as everyone else would be too easy.

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Of course, the ones we were issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to be different...they are green (not white). The IDs below are not of us...never post your ID on the internet, folks!
Source: mursapap.blogspot.com
So, at some point during our assignment, I fully expect to have some authority figure ask for my iqama and then not believe it's a real one just because it's green. So now, the challenge is for me to learn to read enough Arabic to translate my ID, just so that I can know where to point to where it says something like "Diplomat", which according to Google Translate is "دبلوماسي" (but that exact phrase isn't on the card).

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My First Souk Night with Bonus Mutaween (Religious Police) Encounter

One piece of advice we heard over and over while preparing for our first overseas posting was: "In your first three months at post, do not turn down any invitations." So, I ventured out with four other Consulate women to one of the local souks last week. I packed a PB&J because the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) who organized the outing recommended NOT eating the street food at this particular souk.

The Look and Smell of the Souq
While I have little basis for comparison, I did read in the post newsletter that Souk Al-Haraj (The Rocket Souq) is one of the largest used goods markets in the Middle East. It did not disappoint. I kept saying, both to myself and my companions, "I have never seen so much junk in all my life." Let me say it again for clarity. I had never seen so much junk in all my life. (By the way, my uncle was basically a junk collector. I know a bunch of junk when I see it). This place was huge with goods that ran the gamut. There were ball gowns, bathrobes, antique lamps, made in china knock offs, treadmills (next to) wheelchairs, toys, knife blocks, tableware, air conditioners etc... The only things not for sale were live animals and people (I think), though, as is typical, feral cats wandered everywhere.
A few vendors outside the main building at the rocket souq. (from Arab News)
There was a real chance of getting lost and separated, so we noted the van and driver's location (you know we didn't drive ourselves!) in front of a strip mall type place and then turned to go into the market. It is an open air bazaar under a gigantic metal roof. It was at least two football fields from one end to the other and probably nearly a full football field wide. And, this part under the metal roof is really just part of the full Souk Al-Harraj. Vendors have small areas to sell their wares. Some have tables, others just stack things on top of each other to create walls separating their area from another vendor.

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I have found smells in Saudi Arabia to be odd. There is clearly a favored scent for cleaning products that I have not yet identified. That scent mixed with the smell that all used clothing seems to have and with the incense that some vendors were burning. Add to that the dust that pervades everything here and I was sure I was going to have a headache by the end of the night. Luckily, it wasn't too loud, though I could hear what I assume were announcements coming from various areas of the souk.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Initial Impressions of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here's a not-so-brief summary of our first week at our new posting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our family of four, two pets (in crates), and something like 12 bags (not including car seats) departed Washington, D.C., transited Frankfurt, and arrived without incident in Jeddah this past Sunday evening.
It took two vehicles to carry everything & everyone to the airport.
We deplaned in Jeddah around 6 pm. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-70's, and believe it or not, almost brisk. The flight was scheduled to continue on to Addis Ababa, so we were listening attentively for our dog's yelps in the cool night air to ensure that he was getting offloaded. Considering that we could hear him while we were still inside the plane, it wasn't hard to hear him once he got outside.

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The air was also relatively dry, kind of like what you'd expect if you landed at McCarran in Las Vegas (but without all the ridiculous Vegas casino lights). Kacey had changed into her black abaya-like outfit on the plane and blended in with the other women getting into the shuttle bus. Consulate staff met us immediately after getting off the shuttle bus and ushered us through immigration and customs. It felt a little weird to be invited to the front of the line, and I'm sure we got some glares from the folks who were next up, but I guess that's part of the whole diplomatic deal.

Minor Pet Drama
Our cat and dog crates came up the luggage conveyor belt (in that order) just like regular luggage, but I was able to run around the carousel in time to retrieve the cat's crate to keep it from being crushed by the dog's. And yeah, the dog did not like that last little sliding drop down onto the carousel. Kacey stayed with the kids and the animals by the luggage carousel while I loaded our bags through the X-ray machine while the airport guards looked for contraband. Our kids' music CDs got a bag pulled for inspection as we were told to expect, but we didn't have anything get confiscated.

After the bags went through, the consulate staff took them out to the car on a half-dozen little airport carts while I stayed inside with Kacey to clear the pets through customs. As expected, it was a non-event: The Saudi customs officials looked at the stamp from the Saudi Embassy on our paperwork and waved us through. We had to use three or four carts to get all of our bags and pet crates out to the curb where my boss/sponsor was waiting for us and our stuff with two vehicles. Sorry I don't have any pictures of our stuff on the mini-carts at the airport...even though I thought it would make a funny picture, the Saudis highly discourage photography in certain places, airports included.
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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Paperwork for a Permanent Change of Station (PCS)

In addition to all the chaos involved with an international move, the State Department also has a robust system of paperwork to ensure that costs are authorized and payrolls are appropriately adjusted. They accomplish this with each assignment using Travel Messages (TMs).

But that's an over-simplification. There are lots of things required to get each TM issued. That's what the rest of this post is about.

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

End of Tour Summary: Washington, DC

Our first tour in the Foreign Service with the US Department of State was in Washington, D.C. Not really all that foreign, but there was a pretty steep learning curve associated with my job that pretty much required me to be in D.C. for at least a year


Best places to take kids:
Things to do at least once in DC:




Kid-Focused mailing lists: Red Tricycle, Social Rugrats

Useful  & heavily used apps: DC Metro; Google Keep, Evernote, Expensify

Best food trucks: Over the Rice & Lemongrass Truck

Other Useful accounts: OPM AppCapital Weather Gang; Fairfax County Schools; WMATA

You'll notice that there are a lot of free (and almost free) things to do in DC, a lot of places to get away from DC, and a lot of folks in the greater DC area to follow on Twitter. And yet having lived here for two years, we still find ourselves saying "Why do I feel like we're not as active as everyone else around us?" We determined that it's sort of a NoVA (Northern Virginia) hyper-competitive thing that's pervasive in the DC area. Status appears to be derived from how many hours you are unavailable to do things with people (it makes you more in demand, right?) Kid's schedules are packed with ballet, swimming, language, music, soccer, oh, and school. Everyone seems like they are trying to one-up everyone else with how busy they are. But I suppose that everywhere you go has their own sort of imposed stresses.

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Friday, January 02, 2015

Traveling Internationally with Pets

Traveling internationally with pets and ensuring that everything is in order can be really stressful, because who wants to be told hours before their flight to another continent that Fido can't get on the plane? Every country and airline has different rules, which means that the game is different every time you play. This round, we're taking a dog and cat from the US to Saudi Arabia by way of Germany. Seems straightforward, right? Ha. 

If you're looking for the details on how to get your own pets safely abroad, click here to skip down to the pet travel links. But I hope you read our story on how we got there (at least once).

Ok, so first a little more background on the flight regulations & rules we have to follow:
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Saudi Arabia: So Far, So Good?

We're over two years in to our second tour in the Foreign Service with the US Department of State in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's hard...

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