Sunday, April 26, 2020

Reflections of the Saudi Experience - Part I

Good thing I like to take notes while we travel. Here were some interesting experiences, observations and things learned along the way after our first few days in KSA and Jeddah:

Thursday, November 7, 2019
  • Prior to getting to Saudi Arabia and spending any time immersed in the culture, I was fearful of coming. But after talking with the people, walking the streets, and partaking in daily meals, my fears have subsided significantly. As-salamu alaykum - peace be upon you.
  • Sitting at the King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah waiting for our flight to Riyadh. We are two of the very few non-Arabic / non-Muslim people in the entire airport. But no one looks at us twice. We are foreign but it doesn’t matter to anyone, which is great. Only for the 2nd time did we have to line up separately (different lines for male and female) to get into the airport. The first time we experienced the segregation was to order food at Al Baik. Otherwise, it hasn’t been anything to think about.
  • There’s a lot of mystery behind the women but I think that’s the purpose. They’re not hiding. They’re keeping private while in the public eye.
  • The food has been really delicious thus far. It’s just another reason to support my love for Middle Eastern food. Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish, Yemeni, and now Saudi Arabian foods are all some of my favorites. The different kinds of bread, the fresh herbs, the use of yogurt and honey and freshly ground spices is essential to the cuisines. I think that’s what I love most. The grilled meats are tasty and juicy but I think it’s really the herbs and freshness that capture my palette. And the breads fill me with sustenance while conveying the various bounties.
  • We were told that Saudi kids will start to be taught Chinese in school as a 3rd language in addition to Arabic and English. It’s in preparation for the future of business. China is becoming a bigger force in the world economy and the Saudis have recognized this. The future is bright for these kids and a new cross cultural wave is about to begin.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Micro-Experiences in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Jeddah

The month of November 2019 was amazing for me! At the end of October, I was offered a new position at a consulting company that I accepted. I negotiated to have a start date of December 2, allowing me the entire month of November off to take a much-needed break from the stresses leading up to this time.

Of course, how did I spend this time? Travel. And plenty of it. This is Part I in a series of posts about the month of November 2019.

My last day at my previous job was November 1, and on November 3 we were in flight to a destination that just opened it's doors to foreign visitors - The KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, or KSA for short.

Most people hear this and think, "why? " There's a simple answer. Because what you think of this place is not the reality, and the adventurous nature we've developed over the years tells us that experience will find the truth.

The following is a set of various memories and micro-experiences that, to me, were worth documenting throughout the trip. 
  • While staring at the flight map en-route from Houston to Jeddah via Frankfurt, I realized for the first time in my life that the Middle East is relative to Europe. The Americas are West; and Asia is the Far East. Why did this never occur to me until now? Maybe because it was our first visit to the Middle East, a region that, in the media, is synonymous with terror, anger, barren lands, and deemed unsafe. Surely, parts of this area are exactly that, but certainly the media only portrays the shockingly negative.
  • The flight from Frankfurt was not full, and didn’t have as many Middle Easterners as I would have imagined. In fact, there were many other foreigners but we were certainly two of the very few Americans.
  • Upon entry, the female customs agent whose line we fell into commented that she liked Carolyn’s name and said it was beautiful (I couldn't agree more, of course). She seemed to be genuinely happy to see us. Although we didn't see a smile because she was covered with a niqab, you could kind of tell from the way the corners of her eyes moved. It was subtle but enough for us to feel welcomed.
  • In the airport in Jeddah, there were many Indonesians, Filipinos, and other Muslims. No one looked at us strangely, so there was no awkward feeling. You know, that feeling of being watched or judged. It put our minds at ease a bit and made our initial impression of the country a good one. Why are there so many foreigners in this airport? Because Saudi Arabia is known for hiring help from Asia. It's cheap labor for them, but provides a great income for the 3rd world Asians who send it back home to their families to support them.
  • A very close friend met us at the airport as she’s been working here as a teacher to an autistic boy. She helped us get to our hotel by arranging for a Careem ride. This the the local equivalent of Uber, although they have that too. Our Careem driver to the hotel was Kenyan, from Nairobi. When I looked on the map it made sense as his home was really not far from here. And I had read previously that Jeddah is a melting pot for countries close to and/or bordering the Red Sea. We would meet more foreigners here in Saudi Arabia along the way.
  • One night, our friend's employer took us out to dinner at an authentic local neighborhood restaurant, Palm Garden. She treated us to the experience of dining like locals and a meals with a variety of flavors that make up the Saudi palate. All of the breads, vegetables, dips/spreads, and drinks that a local would eat, we sampled. It was amazing and delicious. The hospitality she gave us was so similar to the other experiences we had with locals. We were treated so kindly and embraced as tourists. We gave them the opportunity to showcase their culture free from the negativity typically associated with it. 
  • In doing our research on KSA, we knew it was important to respect the religious customs of the country. So despite the heat, we both dressed in long pants and long sleeves most of the time. Carolyn even wore a hijab and an abaya most of the time. Although it's worth noting that the guides on a variety of our excursions were pretty lenient despite being male. (What's the difference between a hijab, niqab, and burka?)
  • Jeddah is a sprawling city. It is certainly not a walking city. We were told renting a car would be much easier. But how did we log 20,000 steps?! Haha. Despite there not being any sidewalks, we still managed to walk through some local neighborhoods and reach some of the major areas. We've always found that this is the way to know a city better. Walk the side streets, the main roads, and the local neighborhoods if you want to feel town or city.
  • The only part of the city that is really walkable is Al Balad or Old Jeddah, near the Corniche and where all the souq markets are located. Here you will find everyone walking as the area is quite small and narrow. It's truly an historical feel. The roads meander, seemingly circularly, but always leading you to see new things and views. We felt very safe in this neighborhood, as no one bothered us, and we felt free to photograph as we pleased, always careful to ask permission if we felt it was warranted.
  • When we weren't walking, we took advantage of using ride sharing applications, Uber and Careem. Our drivers have been really pleasant. The ones we’ve been able to talk to have been fun and happy to know that we are tourists. Some have been to the U.S. and have experienced life there but came back to Jeddah to work. One Uber driver told us we were the first tourists he’s picked up! He was very happy and mentioned to us that he keeps telling his American friends to visit but they always decline.
Example of gender segregation (pre-Dec 2019)
  • Coffee Culture in KSA is serious. It seems that Western-style coffee shops have made their impact on local society and the specialty coffee has a place in society. They are a social hub. Like most other public establishments, coffee shops are divided between male only and family only areas, with separate entrances even. The latter is where single females congregate.
  • As of December 2019, gender segregation was ended in Saudi Arabia. It was interesting to experience the divide, but happy it's ended for a more inclusive lifestyle. This came about not too long after females were given the right to drive in the Kingdom, as well as travel abroad without a male guardian's permissions. These movements have been a part of the crown prince's sweeping changes for the country. 
  • Malls. There are so many! The initial wonder was, why? I think part of the answer is because they all have air conditioning, while many homes do not. Walking through the malls gives relief from the sometimes oppressive heat of the arid landscape. The other side of the coin is that I believe Saudis love to shop. Literally every store from around the world can be found here. This is a true East-Meets-West type of place from the retail perspective. Although not in retail, the simplest example I can give to depict the abundance of variety is that you can choose any kind of car you want from anywhere in the world. Ford? Ferrari? Mitsubishi Montero or Mitsubishi Pajero? Opel? Renault? Tata? Abarth? Toyota? It's all here. 

Jeddah Waterfront
  • Jeddah Waterfront. This strip of pavement runs along the waterfront and is only for pedestrian traffic. Imagine Park Avenue in NY but instead of the islands there is a walkway / bike lane as wide as the car lanes. Plenty of locals walk this strip each night for the brisk evening air which is a welcome relief from the blazing sun of the daytime. Men and women together, dressed in a variety of ways from fully covered females to men in shorts and T-shirt’s to women with their hair exposed, the walkway is open to all. We made our way down to the JEDDAH sign which is illuminated in the evening and took a bunch of photos. It seemed we were the only ones on tour, but occasionally other families would take pictures too. I’m not sure if they were local or tourists but I would guess it’s the former just looking for a change of scenery.
  • This evening (11/6) we met some Filipinos at the waterfront. They were fishing and caught an octopus! Of the 4 men, one was from Cebu so I spoke to him most in Visaya even though they could all speak English. I spoke to the others as well. One man has been in Saudi Arabia for 24 years. He has been working as an air conditioning technician all this time. When I asked him why he’s been here for so long he said that his pay is 5 fold than it would have been in the Philippines. KSA is filled with overseas workers, many Filipino, in all different capacities. There are many domestic workers, engineers, nurses, and technicians of some sort. I, now, recall that when I was checking into a flight in Manila there were numerous lines of people checking into their flights to Dubai. I'm sure that was the connection point to arrive here in KSA.
After spending 3 nights in Jeddah exploring the souqs, waterfront, malls, cafes, and catching up with a friend we were off to see the capital city of Riyadh.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Support For The Cuban People, Support for All People

In July of 2019, we traveled to Cuba. During that year, numerous restrictions to travel were implemented for US citizens by the Administration. But we still found a way to get there.

With a couple of close friends, we were travelers under the “Support for the Cuban People” category of limited visitors to the island nation. We checked in at IAH and paid $150 for our “visa” and proceeded to fly first class (upgraded due to status) to Havana.

After a short flight in fantastic tropical weather, we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. After a ridiculously long wait at baggage claim, we found a collectivo or shared taxi for the 4 of us and saved Havana to be our last stop instead of our first. Typical of our style of travel, we were bound for the smaller cities and towns off the beaten path. This time, we'd call Cienfuegos and Trinidad our homes for most of this adventure.

Our 10 days on this island nation were like stepping back in time. We enjoyed the reprieve from the hustle and bustle of 21st century American life. Being disconnected from the internet, using tangible currency to complete transactions, negotiating for better prices for services provided by locals, speaking a foreign language to get by, and navigating the old roads in classic cars were a joy to be had throughout the trip.

Along the way, we met so many great people, but at the same time, we did feel some prying eyes. In the smaller towns this tends to happen. It's not a surprise. But there was never any real animosity felt. It was just the feeling of eyeballs following you in motion.

One of the best connections we made was with our Airbnb / Casa Particular hosts - in Cienfuegos, Magda and her husband, and in Trinidad, Daineris and her son, Fabian.

Although Magda or her husband spoke no English, I used my 6 years of Spanish to get us through (with a little help of Google Translate). And despite Daineris being able to speak fluent English, she challenged me daily to speak Spanish! What a great experience to be immersed in language. Both hosts gave us insights to their locales, from where to eat, where to shop, where to swim, and even where to dance! They helped us organize collectivos to travel between destinations, provided us with ample desayunos or breakfast to start out our days, and in Daineris' case,  corrected my Spanish when it wasn't perfect.

This is not to say that we didn't encounter other equally wonderful people. We just didn't spend as much time with them. I have to say that all of our collectivo drivers were so engaging. They were all curious about us, foreigners. On our short rides, they inquired about why were in their country, what did we like to eat, how did we learn to speak Spanish. On the longer rides between towns and cities, in very basic Spanish, we talked about our childhood, our families, the weather, other tourists. I asked about fruits and vegetables well-known in Cuba. They asked if we had ever heard of certain things. I asked how to say certain words by providing descriptions of what I imagined. It was like playing Pictionary verbally! Our conversations were endless.

One of the little things that I really enjoyed was the old school way of communication. Because of the lack of very good internet, people still make house-calls. It's not uncommon to see a man calling from the street up to the 2nd floor balcony until his friend or family member or love interest comes to answer. I also really enjoyed sampling from street carts of food selling anything from fruits and vegetables to pan con jamon to tostones o maduros to churros to chicharrones.

On a different note, I think one of the harder things to grasp was the actual poverty that we sometimes witnessed, but more so learned about. To some extent it's not outwardly visible because the people are usually so positive or laid back or energetic. Like other communist countries in the 3rd world, Cuba rations food. We'd been to other Communist countries but never saw this life first-hand. Our Airbnb hosts shared their rationing booklets with us. They educated us about how much of each staple food they were entitled to. They shared their opinions about their lifestyles.

The strangest part about the whole setup is that having an Airbnb is very much a capitalist idea. Anywhere else in the world, individual owners are the beneficiaries of renting out their extra space to make more money. In Cuba, however, the casa particular owners are undercut by the government; they must pay the government to setup their hosting situation. Maybe it's like a tax, but I don't think it is. I suppose the hosts still make some money and are a little bit better off, but my feeling was that they were still suffering in not reaping the full benefit of being an owner like everyone else in the world.

Despite this, the Cuban people remain so positive. They are so hospitable, looking to help in any way possible. Each person we met was so open and happy to see us, and we were happy to support them.

Most people say that the beaches are the most beautiful part of the island. But I think that the island wouldn't be as beautiful if not for the quality of people that inhabit it. It made the experience that much more wonderful.

Be unassuming when traveling to Cuba, you will appreciate what the country has to offer. I suppose this is the advice I’d give for travel to any country, city, or village but In our recent travels no places has made me think this more than Cuba (and now Saudi Arabia too).

What we know about Cuba through the media is simply the negative. No surprise. When politics dominate the news, and the country opposes another’s actions, you will never see or hear about the beauty of the place or the people. You lose out on the creativity of culture, the splendor of scenery, and the camaraderie of humanity.

Before we left for Cuba the restrictions on travel to the island nation became increasingly difficult to overcome due to the current political administration. But what for really? Because some people want to impose their will on another people not seeing eye to eye with you? I get it, but I don’t. Trying to keep our nation safe at the peril of others through modern day non-violent warfare / bullying is not brave nor honorable.

In the beginning, Support for the Cuban People was our reason for travel. But at the end, supporting the Cuban people became more than just a reason to travel. We learned that it's a way of life on the island - Cubans supporting Cubans, travelers supporting Cubans, travelers supporting travelers, travelers supporting people, people supporting each other. Isn't that the way it should be no matter where in the world we are? 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Short Life Advice

I recently started to read a book called Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Tim Ferriss. It's exactly what it is says it is - short life advice. It's short because each person included in this eclectic collection answers just 11 questions about life. Tim Ferriss' set of questions were carefully chosen and ordered to foster the best responses from some of the most successful people on the planet. 

I sent these same questions to my closest friends, family, and colleagues because they are no different in my eyes. So I'm using the same set of questions and order. 

I thought it would be even more interesting to read the responses from the people who are closer to me than the company that Ferriss keeps. 

Call it somewhat of a social experiment, but my objective is to continue to learn about this tribe, my tribe, in ways that I don't already know and add their answers to my collection of books because their collection of knowledge and experience is no less important than the authors on my shelves. 

While waiting for their responses, I've already gotten calls to share my own answers. So here they are: 

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo 
The Richest Man In Babylon by George S. Clason

These 2 books are really easy to read, but the messages are deep and complex. One speaks to finding the treasure within yourself after overcoming obstacles in life and along the journey. The other conveys the wisdom of logic, time, interest, and putting yourself first. Together, these books are a great 1-2 punch out of the gates of college and entering adulthood.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months (or in recent memory)? Be specific.

Blood Pressure Monitor ($44.99 on Amazon) - It’s gotten me to pay specific attention to my, well, blood pressure and pulse. It took a change in medication that caused my heart to beat out of my chest and cause discomfort for me to make this purchase, but it was much needed even before that. Although my diet has been pretty consistent and healthy, the blood pressure monitor has served as my checkmate. I’ve become very conscious of the decisions that I make because this device sits in front of me on my desk in my office. It’s a daily reminder not to abuse my body. 

How has failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours? 

I’ve failed so many times in my life, it’s impossible to count. But none more life changing than the series of what, at the time, were the most depressing chain of events I could ever imagine. After choosing to leave a comfortable job, after being employed for 14 years, my wife and I decided to take 6 months off to travel around the world. When I came home I had great hope and positivity about quickly re-joining the workforce. While we were planning the trip, throughout the trip, and even when we first came home, I had little doubt I’d be able to find a job and get right back to it - continuing my professional career. I was never so wrong in my life. 

In a span of 17 months, I applied to 181 different jobs. 112 did not respond. I was informed that I was not selected for 61 of them. I interviewed for 4 but was never contacted ever again. One of my applications was withdrawn. I was given 3 offers, 2 of which I had to decline after weighing all the options. The more time that passed without a positive response, the deeper the depression I would get into and the more I questioned my previous actions. Every response, or lack thereof, was a failure to me. 

A change of scenery and an employer’s need to fill a role quickly finally gave me the break I needed. But because I was filling someone else’s need before my own, this job was ultimately a failure too. I couldn’t stay there. It wasn’t worth the time I was losing, the sacrifices I was making, or the stress I was enduring. 

The brightest side of that failure was that it enabled me and gave me the determination to finish my studies for the CPA exam. And in the last quarter of 2019, I passed my final part and earned my certification. 

My success today is based on the fact that I never really gave up, despite how awful it felt along the journey. It’s the most common failure/success story (the CPA part), but it’s mine. I lived it. I toughed it out. I am still learning from it because I still look back on it when I need motivation. 

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it - metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions - what would it say and why? It could be a few words or paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quote you think of often or live your life by?)

"The biggest room in the the room for improvement."

Education is the most valuable intangible in the universe. Big data, oil / energy, investments, and cash don’t even have the fraction of value or importance that Education has. It’s so important that I’m going to capitalize the “E” in Education from now on - because it’s that proper and necessary. 

Everyone has room to grow, learn, and improve. My wife always says that it’s not that you don’t have the time, it’s that you haven’t prioritized what you want to do. 

And as I would say, “Failing to learn, is learning to fail.” Has anyone ever said that before? I don’t know. But I always have. 

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

There’s not one. There are collections. And those collections grow all the time. My favorite, though, are the ones called “Life Experiences.” In this collection are eating and traveling memories. My wife and I used to say that we travel to eat, and when we eat, we travel to the origin of that food in our minds and the memories from the places we’ve been. 

Eating daal reminds me of 14 days trekking through the Himalayas to Mt. Everest Base Camp. When I eat sushi, I can’t help but imagine sitting in front of Jiro. A taco puts my mind on a stool at a street stand called Taqueria Honorio in Tulum. A hot dog throws me back to a bite at Portillo’s in Chicago. Or halal food places me on a street corner in Manhattan at 2AM waiting on line for the Halal Guys to serve up a platter with white sauce. 

Every life experience I’ve had has been an addition to my collections and they’ve all been worthwhile. Even the bad ones, because of #4 above. 

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love? 

I love a play on words. That’s probably why I enjoy rap/hip-hop music so much. The wit, humor, and quickness of the lyricism is fascinating to me. I feel intelligent when I can digest what artists are saying. It’s a combination of history, poetry, logic, and grace in a rhythmic manner making music catchy, smart, and colloquial. Rap/hip-hop have a bad rep for negativity. But if you really break down what some of the songs are about, it’s genius. You have to know about a variety of things both in popular culture and history to really get it. Maybe that means I have just enough knowledge to be cool. 

In the last 5 years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life? 

Reading / studying early in the morning. It started out just to improve my retention when I was studying for my CPA exam, but I’ve found that reading in the morning has really allowed me to enjoy the content of my books, whether fiction or nonfiction. I purposely make time for reading in the morning. 

Also, I’ve gotten into coffee in the last 2 years. And taking it in the morning with a book I’m reading is almost always the perfect start. 

I actually think that the combination of the two has produced far better results than I initially hoped for and created a better lifestyle, one that I can really enjoy. 

In the near future, I’m going to try to incorporate writing into my routine. Maybe that will be once a week. 

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? 

Two things. Find a fitting mentor. Find balance. A mentor can help you find your balance in the long run, but of course, not directly. When you figure out what you want to do or have a direction you want to point, someone can help you navigate how to get there. You will have to do a lot on your own but rely on your resources to speed up the process some. 

I tell the people whom I work with or whom I mentor that I may not have all the answers, but I am sure as hell that we can find someone who can help us get to the ones we need in the order that we need them. 

When you combine the guidance with your own hard work, you will eventually find the balance you need in work, life, and pleasure.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise? 

“Fake it until you make it.” FUCK THAT. I hate that so much. The only person you’re hurting is yourself. Yea, sure, you can fake knowing how to do something or why something is done, but eventually you will end up at a dead end. Someone is going to come to a realization that you’re a fool. And your reputation is going to be tarnished for the foreseeable future. 

I’d much rather be upfront and tell someone that I don’t understand or can’t figure something out than fake it. 

I think what I hate so much about it is that people get away with it. And then when you go to rely on those people, they end up being unreliable. My trust in them is busted. That person is no longer a resource but a drag on my well-being. Go ahead. Try that shit on me and see how quickly I drop you like dead weight. 

Ain’t nobody got time for that. 

In the last 5 years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips? 

Sugar. For years, doctors and the media have hyped the detriments of salt. High blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, dementia, kidney failure, brain damage can all result from too much salt. I get it. It’s a well known fact and to some extent, we’ve gotten that under control. 

But sugar… no one talks about how bad it is for you. It’s an empty calorie. Sugar causes weight gain. It can cause tooth cavities. Sugar increases your risk of fatty liver, diabetes, and eventually heart disease. It’s just as bad as salt. 

I’ve curtailed my sugar intake so much. It’s changed the way I can maintain my weight. I eat more fruits and vegetables, rather than processed / packaged snacks (which is another thing I’ve said no to). My life is much improved. I feel better. I have more energy. And I don’t pack on the pounds or have a hard time getting rid of them. 

With regards to processed food, I’ve learned that if I want to have processed food, the organic stuff has worked better for me. I’ve found that processed products that are more water soluble are easier to digest. The best visual example I can give is… take a regular jar of Smuckers jelly or jam once you’ve pretty much emptied it. There are, of course, some remaining bits stuck to the side or bottom of the jar. Fill that jar with water, shake it up, and pour it out. More often than not, there’s still jam/jelly stuck to the jar. That’s your insides with processed food. 

Now try that same experiment with organic jelly or jam, and you’ll find a completely different result. You will see that the residue slides right out with a quick shake of water. 

Say no (more often) to sugar and processed food. Your insides will thank me. 

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I step away from my desk, stretch, drink water, and go for a walk. If that doesn’t clear me up, then I go to sleep. Sleep can help re-energize the body's cells, and most importantly in this situation, clear waste from the brain. That feeling of being overwhelmed or unfocused... that’s the waste.