Asia Saudi Arabia

A Stopover in Saudi Arabia

When I was looking at my flight options back from Doha, the obvious choice probably would have been Qatar Airways. That said, if I’m going to fly across an entire ocean, I’d rather get miles for it if I can, and Qatar Airways isn’t in an alliance that’s beneficial for me. So I started looking at my other options, and when I filtered for either Star Alliance or SkyTeam, there was a pretty clear winner: Saudia. They partner with Delta, the flight was way cheaper than my other options, and they have a stopover program.

Which left me with a different and thornier question, which was whether it was a good idea to do a stopover as a solo American woman. Saudi Arabia only opened to tourism in 2019, so there really wasn’t a lot of information out there about what it was like to travel there, and they haven’t historically had the best track record on women’s rights. I spoke with a few other travelers about it, and they both told me it was safe, so I went for it, and I’m really glad I did! It was a fascinating place to visit and I’m also happy I saw it at this particular moment in time – I can see the trajectory of their budding tourism industry, but right now it’s still fairly nascent.

Let’s start with a quick rapid fire. The policies may later change, but this is accurate as of February 2024 when I went.

Did I feel safe in Saudi Arabia? Yes. I felt completely safe. This includes walking alone late at night and taking Ubers at all times of the day. Do women have to cover their hair? No, and I didn’t cover mine. In theory, if you go to a mosque you would need to, but that is true regardless of what country you’re in and the only mosques that non-Muslims can enter in all of Saudi Arabia are in Jeddah. Do women have to wear an abaya? No, but they do need to cover elbows and knees. I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt about half the time, and then I did buy an abaya in Qatar because I had a super fancy dinner planned and I wanted to look nice. Locals seemed a bit bemused/pleased when I wore the abaya but no one commented either way.

Wearing my abaya on my way to fancy dinner

With that out of the way, let’s get to the trip report!

The view from my hotel room!

As part of the stopover program, Saudia handled my transit visa and paid for my first night of my hotel. The one clunky piece of this was that I couldn’t add on a second night and just pay for that, I had to find the hotel and book them separately for the second night. And then I did have to check out and back into my hotel. But it was pretty painless, and the hotel room that they paid for was nice and very centrally located. It was right next to the National Library, which I didn’t get a chance to go in but was a really cool building.

I landed around 5 pm, and wow, rush hour traffic is bad. It looks like they might be starting to build their first train, but it’s not surprising that car culture reigns supreme in Saudi Arabia. I took Ubers the entire time I was there, which worked really well. I never had to wait too long, even when I was fairly far away from the city center. It took a little while to get to my hotel, which was fine because the only thing I’d planned for the first night was a fancy dinner! I’d made myself a reservation at The Globe, which is at the top of the building that looks like a pyramid in the golden sphere. And fun fact, it was Valentine’s Day the next day so they had a special set menu for that.

The food was pretty good. No alcohol – it looked like you could potentially add it on for an expensive fee, but I didn’t really care enough to ask. My real goal, though, was to do this for the view of the skyline, which was so cool! I love the building that looks like a giant bottle opener.

Leading up to this, one of my biggest questions was how the locals would feel about tourists. Going from fully closed to tourists, to a couple years where foreign women visitors were required to wear the abaya and cover their hair, to now – it feels like a lot of substantial changes in a pretty short amount of time. And in my experience, I found the local Saudis to be very warm and welcoming! Everyone asked me if I had been to Saudi Arabia before, how I was liking it, if I needed any recommendations of what to do. Even at the airport, the customs/border agents were smiling and laughing as I walked up, which is unlike…. almost every border experience ever. When I was leaving The Globe, one of the guys who worked there offered to take my picture with the sign, and then he wanted to take a selfie together as well!

I assume it’s because of the overwhelming heat during the day, but the timing of everything is later than most countries I’ve been to. My dinner reservation was for 8:30 pm. As I was walking back to my hotel, the mall that I walked past was still open, and had a closing time of 11 pm or midnight. I went in and wandered around for a bit. There’s always something a little surreal about seeing mostly American brands translated into different languages and cultures – I’m not sure I’ve even seen a Bath & Body Works outside of the US before!

The next morning, I had some free time in the morning, so I took an Uber to the National Museum. There aren’t a lot of tourist-y sites in Riyadh – it’s pretty much the museum, the adjacent Murabba Palace, and the Al Masmak Palace, which was closed when I was there. Both the National Museum and the Murabba Palace are free.

Between the museum and the palace, the museum was more interesting to me – a national museum is the chance to see how a country wants to portray itself. What pieces of history they highlight or skip over, what they’re proud of, what they display. And Saudi Arabia is in the midst of what might be one of the world’s biggest PR campaigns. Ever since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was announced as crown prince in 2017, Saudi Arabia has been making significant moves. Opening the country up to tourism and allowing women to drive are the most noticeable, certainly, but they’ve also been doing a lot of sportswashing with massive Aramco sponsorship in Formula 1 and the LIV tour in golf. They’ve announced multiple massive urban planning projects, like The Line, a proposed smart city in Neom that’s currently under construction, and an attempt to “re-green” the desert to help with climate change in the region. So yes, I was curious to hear how Saudi Arabia would present itself in its own words.

The first floor is primarily the history of the peninsula. A little about its geology and how it came to have the oil that has made it wealthy and powerful, and then the development of trade routes across Asia and how Saudi Arabia was tapped into that. And then I took the elevator upstairs, and found myself in a very detailed recount of the life of the prophet Mohammed. The second floor focuses on how Islam shaped Saudi Arabia, and it does not shy away from the theocratic aspects of their society.

Once I was done reading about how Islam transformed Saudi Arabia, I wandered through the garden and then Murabba Palace. That one didn’t have as many exhibits, or at least I didn’t know where to find more exhibits, so it was just a few smaller areas with photos and details about the King’s life. From there, I took another Uber to my next location, a Carrefour far from the center of the city.

I had booked a tour for the afternoon! When I was deciding on whether to come to Saudi Arabia, I had a choice between Riyadh or Jeddah. I chose Riyadh for a few reasons, including the idea that it was probably a truer introduction to Saudi Arabia than the comparatively liberal Jeddah and the desire to see the capital, but the main deciding factor was really that I wanted to see The Edge of the World. I had seen pictures online before and I thought it looked pretty amazing.

And you know what? It was. The company drove us out a couple hours from the city, first through small towns and then through the desert until we came to the edge of a cliff. We walked along it, even climbing all the way out to the tip of that rock formation (which was way less precarious than it looks in the photo). Then our driver made us dinner, so it was me and five others sitting there, eating our meals as the sun set over the cliffs. I got back to the hotel very late, but I’m really glad I signed up for it.

The next morning, I took an Uber back to the airport and took a direct flight home to Washington, DC. There are other areas of Saudi Arabia I would be interested in, namely Jeddah and al-Ula, which is a set of ruins that is allegedly reminiscent of Petra. But for Riyadh, the day and a half or so that I had was probably sufficient, unless they develop out their tourism a bit more.

You don’t need me to tell you the things that Saudi Arabia needs to work on. You probably already know about their problems with human rights, the power that an absolute monarchy can wield, and what concerns develop when one religion is taken to the extreme. And the level of gender segregation is jarring. In every restaurant, there was a men’s section and a family section, where women and children were allowed to be served. In my hotel, the gym separated out the hours that you could go depending on your gender. I know that coming in as a foreigner is not the same experience that Saudi women have, and I know there are still plenty of problems left to resolve.

In advance of my trip, I also read Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif while I was in Ethiopia. It had been on my TBR list for ages. Manal al-Sharif was one of the main women pushing for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, which was granted in 2017. Licenses were first issued to women in June 2018. I would absolutely recommend the memoir, which was a great introduction on the women’s right to drive movement and what life was like up until about 2016.

Still, I was blown away at how much things had changed in the decade or so since the events detailed in her book. I saw women driving. I saw a huge, beautiful women’s college on the drive from the airport into the city center. There are no religious police anymore. No one asked me to cover my hair. No one even gave me so much as a second glance as a woman with uncovered hair or western clothes. Everyone I interacted with seemed happy to see me as a tourist in their country, and they wanted to know if I had ever been to Saudi Arabia before and whether I was enjoying my time there. I left feeling a lot more encouraged and hopeful for Saudi Arabia’s future – I think they’ve made an incredible amount of progress so far, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

Asia Qatar

Two Days in Doha

After Ethiopia, Lucy and I headed to Qatar! We were excited to visit a friend of ours, Aisha, who had been with us in PNG and Vanuatu. She picked us up from the airport after our red-eye flight and we all went out for breakfast. We loved it so much we ended up going back to the same place the next day – with Aisha’s recommendations, we ate so well during our time in Qatar!

We were staying in the Souq Waqif area, which is a great area for tourists – the souq itself is fun to walk around, with lots of food and shops, and it’s pretty central to a lot of the major sites. My favorite part was the Falcon Souq. Falconry is a lot more common in the region, and so they have places that sell them along with all the accessories to train the falcons to hunt. It was so fascinating to walk into a shop and have all the birds lined up.

I don’t have much to compare it to, as I haven’t traveled much in the GCC countries, but it seems to me that Qatar has done a great job modernizing while still retaining the history and charm of the way it used to look. I’ve heard people say that Dubai, for example, is a bit too sanitized and they’ve lost the connection to what they used to be before the skyscrapers were built. I’ll be interested to compare once I make it to the UAE.

Once Lucy and I had a chance to explore the souq and take a nap – not necessarily in that order – we headed over to the waterfront. There are nice walkways along Al Corniche and some great views of the Doha skyline.

This sign feels like accidental poetry, I love it

Our walk was cut short by a sudden rainstorm. It turns out that when a country is built in a desert, they aren’t thinking about rain shelters! We ended up having to run for it before we could find a hotel lobby to shelter in. After waiting out the rainstorm, we made our way back to the souq area, which was even more beautiful at night.

Aisha didn’t have to work the next day, so she picked us up and we headed out of the city! We wanted to go to the UNESCO site in Qatar, which is the Al Zubarah Fort and Archeological Site. It’s about an hour northwest of Doha, and if you look it up on a map, the route looks like you’ve drive about halfway across the entire country.

One of the most interesting things to me is watching humanity solve the same problems in roughly the same way halfway across the world. The Al Zubarah Fort looked so similar to the types of forts that are found across the American Southwest, which has a very similar climate.

It was also good to get more insight into the history of Qatar before oil – this region was famous for pearl diving, which sounded like a very difficult job with the technology du jour, and that allowed them to flourish and trade with other civilizations. This was going swimmingly (pun intended) until the artificial pearl was invented, which pretty much cratered their economy. They were struggling until oil was discovered. We saw two abandoned settlements from when there was still pearl diving and then went out to lunch before heading back to Doha.

From there, we headed to the National Museum! It’s such a cool looking building. The architecture is based on the desert rose crystals, which is a formation of gypsum that’s common in the region. We didn’t have a ton of time to spend there before it closed, but it had a great overview of the country’s history and some very interesting exhibits. Afterwards, we had a last dinner with Aisha and got ready for our respective flights the next morning. Lucy was heading on to Bahrain and then Kuwait, and I was heading on to Saudi Arabia.

I really couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the Middle East! It was so fun to see Aisha again and she was a fantastic tour guide to learn more about Qatar. I would definitely recommend spending a couple days here if you’re in the region.

Africa Ethiopia

The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Lalibela had been on my bucket list for a long time. I don’t even remember where I first came across it, but I saw a picture of the beautiful stone-hewn churches and I thought they looked SO cool. Since I had to fly to and from Addis as part of the Eritrea and Djibouti trip, I knew I had to make the trip to see them!

Let’s talk about safety. Ethiopia has been fairly volatile lately – while I am certainly not an expert, my understanding is that this is a ripple effect from the peace agreement with Eritrea. The northern region, the Tigray, was not pleased with how conciliatory the agreement was toward Eritrea after they had spent so many of their resources in that fight, and it erupted into civil war. The US State Department had this area as a Level 4 while I was there, and while I felt completely safe in Lalibela, I was also conscious that the fighting was not far from where we were. It’s definitely worth doing your research before planning anything in Northern Ethiopia at the moment.

The churches of Lalibela were built between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Ethiopia is orthodox Christian, and part of that historically involved going to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage. In one of the changes of power, it became unsafe for the Ethiopians to go to Jerusalem, so they responded by building this site to be their own version of Jerusalem in Africa.

One of the coolest aspects of this site is that it is still actively used as a site of worship! While we were there, we saw plenty of locals coming to pray, and outside of one group of Russian tourists, we were the only foreigners for pretty much our entire tour. Our hotel had set up a tour guide to take us around, which was a great way to get a little more context.

The architecture is amazing. Pictured below is the most famous of the churches – this is the Church of Saint George, which is the one I had always seen in pictures. This one is the only one that doesn’t have the roof covered, so it’s easier to see the unique shape of the building.

We had two nights and one full day in Lalibela before we headed back to Addis for another stopover. Fun fact, I’ve spent so much time flying around this region of Africa on this trip that my flight tracking app is convinced that Addis Ababa is my home airport. As of the time of writing, I’ve been on 26 flights in 2024, and ADD was involved in 10 of those flights!

We booked a driver and tour guide for our third stopover, which was a nice way to see some of the parts of the city that were a bit farther out from the center. They took us up to Entoto Park, which had great views of the city and seemed to be a pretty cool recent development project. It reminded me of an Ethiopian take on N Seoul Tower, with restaurants and bars and walking trails for people to come spend time. Towards the end of our visit there, it started raining, so we ended up taking a driving tour through the main market before we headed back to the airport for our next flight.

All in all, Ethiopia was fascinating. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel in – when you’re the only tourists around, it means there’s always a sense of being under observation – but it has some of the most amazing sites out there. This region, along with Eritrea and Djibouti, was such a good introduction to Africa, and I can’t wait to explore more of the continent in the future!

Africa Ethiopia

Camping at the Danakil Depression

After a week in Eritrea and Djibouti, Lucy and I headed to Ethiopia! We had figured since all our flights went through Addis Ababa, we might as well use that as a launch point to see a little of Ethiopia before we returned to our respective countries. We had about a half a day in the city before we returned to the airport for a domestic flight out to the Afar region.

Our first stop was the National Museum, which houses the famous skeleton Lucy! We made a lot of jokes about Lucy needing to go see her bones, but it was super cool to see such a significant piece of human history. Ethiopia’s history as the cradle of civilization makes it such an interesting visit.

From there, we took a walk through the city. First impressions: Addis Ababa felt very cosmopolitan in some areas, especially compared to the frozen-in-time experience of Eritrea and the chaotic Djibouti City. There were plenty of skyscrapers and beautiful parks. We saw advertisements indicating that Addis was hosting some sort of event for the African Union. But we also found ourselves walking through some fairly poor areas, and it’s the first city I’ve ever been where multiple locals stopped us to tell us to put our phones away and not hold anything valuable in our hands. That was a strange experience.

The next morning, we boarded our flight to Semera. This is where we were joining our Danakil Depression tour! We had seen part of the continental rift in Djibouti, but the majority of it lies within Ethiopia. It is at the divergence of three continental plates, which makes for some spectacular landscapes. We had booked a three day tour, which would take us to some extremely remote corners in the Afar region.

Nothing really prepared me for when we got off the airplane. We walked out of the Semera airport, which is tiny, and we had figured we would see signs from tour companies as they picked up their clients. Instead, we walked out to UN cars. As it turns out, there are some refugee camps in the Afar region and a number of programs providing international aid, like the UN and the World Food Programme, but it was a little jarring to find that when we were showing up as tourists. We did end up finding our tour company, though!

Our first day was a long one. We headed through volcanic landscapes and made our way toward Erta Ale, which is Ethiopia’s most active volcano. We got there as the sun was starting to set and began a hike up to go see the volcano, which was a little treacherous because so much of the lava flow was brand new.

Fun fact, new lava flow feels a bit like stepping on a macaron, with a delicate crunch that makes you worry it might crumble underneath you. Also, this is where the Ethiopian calendar came up during the trip – I asked when the most recent lava flow had occurred, and they told me a date in 2016. I said that was surprising, because it seemed a lot fresher than that, and the guides laughed and said that was three weeks ago. Once we got near the volcano, I could feel the warmth of the Earth beneath my feet, hot enough that it started to get uncomfortable after a while.

This was the first night I’d ever spent camping under the stars! Which, the stars were pretty spectacular. The camping was a little rough because it was incredibly windy where we were, so it wasn’t the best sleep I’ve ever gotten. Still, windy conditions are temporary, and standing next to an active volcano is something I will remember for the rest of my life, so absolutely worth it. We headed out for our next day of driving. The landscape changed from volcanic to an area that looked more like the savannah, where the guides said we might see an ostrich if we were lucky. We didn’t, but we did see the cool bird pictured above that a friend of mine later identified as an Arabian Bustard.

From there, the landscape changed again, and we ended up in one of the most hostile yet gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever seen. The highlight of any Danakil Depression tour is Dallol, which is a hydrothermal system that’s part of this particular continental rift. It smells strongly of sulphur, so most of us brought masks to cut the scent a bit. Everything I was wearing went in the wash so fast after this tour.

It didn’t seem possible that the Earth could produce such color. The closest thing I’ve ever seen is Yellowstone, and even then, they aren’t quite as vibrant as the ones in Dallol. One of the other strange things is being able to walk so close to the geothermal formations – it certainly couldn’t handle the level of tourism as Yellowstone gets, but it was pretty amazing to be able to see everything up close without boardwalks or anything being roped off.

After we had spent our time at Dallol, we headed out to a few other saltwater lakes, salt flats, and salt pillars. As the sun began to set, we started to see these huge trucks transporting workers across the salt flats. We had a chance to meet some of them and learn more about their work, which was breaking up sections of the salt flats to harvest the salt. It sounds like a very difficult job. They’re dropped off at sunset and they work through the night, then the trucks pick them up at dawn. Working during the day would be too hot.

After one more night in the desert, we drove back across the Afar region to the airport and headed back to Addis for a late afternoon flight! I have the utmost respect for anyone who is living out in this region of Ethiopia – between the hostile environment and the lack of access to goods and services, I think it would be a very difficult place to live. After a few days, I was happy to head back to the city for a hot shower, plentiful electrical outlets, and running water, but for the people out there, even getting access to food and safe water can be a huge challenge. I’m very grateful for my chance to visit such a remote and largely unexplored region, and I had an incredible experience.

Africa Djibouti

Whale Sharks in Djibouti

After wrapping up our time in Eritrea, it was on to Djibouti! It’s a very small country, so we were staying in the very creatively named Djibouti City, which is their capital. Djibouti is an interesting place – it isn’t particularly touristy, but there are a ton of foreigners around because of the military bases. It’s positioned right in the middle of a bunch of regions that frequently have conflict, and it seems like just about every military in the world looked at it on a map and went, “yep, let’s build a base there.”

As you can see, our flight was not particularly busy!

I don’t have a lot of pictures of Djibouti City itself. We did spend a lot of time walking around there, but Alvaro had warned us that locals didn’t like people taking pictures. Which I can confirm, because I wanted to take a picture in the market and got yelled at. And honestly, it’s not that scenic of a city. But the markets were cool to walk around in, our hotel was great, and we had some good dinners while we were there, so I can’t complain. Our last meal of Yemeni food was my favorite. It was also fun to break out my rusty French to help translated when we ordered food.

This mistranslation cracked me up

The first full day, we did the activity I was most excited about on this whole trip, which was snorkeling with whale sharks! I love whale sharks. I’ve seen them in aquariums twice (Osaka and Atlanta) and have been amazed by their size and how beautiful they are. Snorkeling with them in Djibouti was one of my top travel experiences ever. They come up to the shallow waters to feed. We had taken a larger boat to get out to the right area, but we switched to smaller boats to get closer to them. Our guide would point to them in the water and we would all have to jump out of the boat as quickly as possible in our snorkel gear to try to find them before they dove back deep under water. If you were careful and didn’t spook them, you could swim alongside them for minutes at a time. It was magical.

The rest of the day, we had lunch and relaxed on our larger boat. It was such an incredible day and one of my favorite animal encounters.

Our next day, we headed to Lake Assal! This is the lowest point in Africa, at -509 feet. I know myself well enough to know that I am not going to reach the highest point of the various continents but the lowest points feel more achievable. The lake itself reminded me a lot of Salt Lake and the surrounding salt flats – there were mountains nearby as well, so it felt like very familiar landscapes.

We also headed to a volcanic area, which included a spot where you could stand across the rift between the African and Arabic continental plates! Lucy and I saw more of this area on the other side of the border in Ethiopia later in our trip, which was much more scenic than the version in Djibouti, but I still think it’s cool to be on the borders of continents in that way. This is the second continental plate border that I’ve been to – the first one was the Silfra rift in Iceland, and neither has disappointed.

All in all, Djibouti might not be the next tourism hotspot, but it does have some interesting sites and is worth a few days if you’re in the region. Swimming with the whale sharks was absolutely incredible!

Africa Eritrea

Stepping Back in Time in Eritrea

When I went to Papua New Guinea with Wander Expeditions, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to go on another trip with them. We had spent a night with one of the tribes playing Werewolf around the fire and dancing in the rain, and I wanted to capture that energy again. So I looked on their website and looked at the upcoming trip options, and I picked one that went to Eritrea and Djibouti. Was I familiar with either of those countries before I picked it? Barely. But I am so glad that I picked this trip.

Eritrea is a very unusual place. It’s sometimes described as the North Korea of Africa, which I think is an incorrect characterization. It is known for being very isolated, with a visa that’s difficult to get and restrictive rules on where you can go as a foreigner once you’re there. It ranks quite low in a number of human rights indexes and has been one of the bottom countries in the Press Freedom Index as well. When I was doing my research on it, it seemed like a lot of what impacted its human rights score was related to (1) the war, which I’ll get to in a minute, and (2) the military requirement, which, according to what I read, could have somewhat arbitrary rules and could lead to vastly different lengths of assignment and situations among its citizens.

A summarized version of the history is basically that, like its neighbor Ethiopia, Eritrea was one of the cradles of human civilization and had a long period of successful empires and dynasties. Then, when Europe got involved in Africa, they were colonized by Italy and were strategically important for their proximity to the Suez Canal. After WW2, the British took over from the Italians and made them pseudo-independent in the early 1950s. One problem with this – Ethiopia thought that Eritrea should belong to them. This led to the Eritrean War of Independence, which went on for 30 years and which Eritrea ultimately won in 1993. Things were still tense for quite a long time between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Locals in both countries still reference the war, but you can tell that tensions have cooled a bit because you can fly directly between the two countries now! This is recent – I got the Lonely Planet Guide for Ethiopia & Djibouti, which was last updated in 2017, and it said that there were no air links with Eritrea at all.

I loved Eritrea. I think, of places I’ve been to, it felt closest to an Italian Cuba. Despite reading about its dictatorship and place on the human rights indexes, I didn’t feel that as strongly as other places I’ve visited in similar situations. I didn’t feel as though people were measuring their words around us or monitoring what we were doing or anything like that – I found the Eritreans to be very warm and very welcoming to outsiders. It was a bit odd being, perhaps, the only tourists in the country for the first few days we were there. The last day, we did see a few Italians checking into our hotel as we were leaving, but otherwise my group appeared to be the only foreigners everywhere we went.

We spent most of our time in Asmara, which is the capital and has this beautiful old Art Deco Italian architecture. We saw their most famous buildings, like the Fiat Tagliero building, the old cinema, and a lot of beautiful old churches.

Kinda obsessed with this aqua-phobic demon

Eritrea is primarily an orthodox Christian nation. We went in a few churches and we got to see a religious ceremony happening later in the trip in Massawa.

We also crashed a wedding! It was pretty special to get to go and observe and see the amazing dancing that they put on. I can’t even imagine how my family would react if a group of strangers wandered into a family wedding, but this family was so happy to have us. They made up a plate of food for us to split and poured us all drinks. When we tried to leave, they actually called us back to make sure we saw the next dance, where a group of men danced with bottles on their heads. Definitely impressive!

We went to a very beautiful old post office, and around that time, I also visited my very first internet café. Eritrea does not allow foreigners to get esims or use international data plans, so in theory, the internet cafés are the only way to connect to the internet. In practice, I would say even this glimmer of internet proved elusive. Not that it stopped the people in my group from trying, but there was very little internet connection to be had the entire time we were in Eritrea.

Our next stop was one of the coolest markets I have ever seen, full stop. As a newer and more isolated country, I imagine their trade options are a bit more limited. As such, there’s a big focus on being able to re-use and recycle the materials that they have available to them. Which is another similarity with Cuba, actually. We just got to walk around and watch them at work as they were welding and hammering and riveting metals. It was SO interesting to watch. No labor laws, obviously, with the children working just as hard as the adults and no safety measures to speak of. I saw men welding using what looked like cardboard eclipse glasses as their eye protection. Even the man in the picture above is just wearing normal sunglasses.

From there, we headed out of Asmara! Fun fact, as a foreigner, you have to fill out permits to do anything outside of Asmara. These get pretty granular as well – we got asked to check a box if we were planning to snorkel or swim when we got to Dissei Island. Still, even with the bureaucracy, it was worth it to see a bit more of the country. The drive from Asmara to Massawa is absolutely stunning. Asmara is at 7,600 feet in elevation, so the landscape changes substantially going down to sea level. We also saw some baboons out the car window, which was good because every coworker asked me if I was going on safari while I was in Africa and at least this way I could report seeing at least one cool type of animal.

Massawa had sustained some damage in the war, but it was still quite lively and the buildings were beautiful. I could see the vision the Italians had for the oceanside city, with lots of patios where people could sit and drink and talk. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the various cafés and another internet café that didn’t let anyone connect to the internet. I also got eaten alive by bugs.

The next morning, we got to see a religious ceremony at the local orthodox church! I don’t know much about it, and there were a ton of people so it was a bit overwhelming and hot to stand amongst the crowd, but it was cool to get a chance to attend.

After that, we headed off to Dissei Island. It was fully uninhabited. There were a few structures from when they had tried to build a resort on the island, which would have been a good idea if they had, you know, any tourists. We went snorkeling for a bit and saw some sharks and fish and rays, and then it started raining so we mostly hung around the fire and ate spaghetti and talked. It’s never ideal when it rains when you’re camping (I say, as if this wasn’t my second time camping in a tent in my entire life) but we still had a nice time.

On the way back, we stopped at the Tank Graveyard! This is basically where Eritrea put all the tanks and military equipment from Ethiopia that they destroyed in their war for independence. I have to say, given the area and population of Eritrea vs. Ethiopia, it seems like they really punched above their weight in a military capacity. The Tank Graveyard is a surreal experience, and we wandered around and took lots of photos of the destroyed tanks (and even climbed a few).

After that, we went bowling. This was one of my highlights of Eritrea – this bowling alley was SO cool. It’s all manual, so there are actually people behind the pins putting them back, and they have kids recording the scores and keeping track of who’s winning. We had a lot of fun, especially once we got the hang of which lanes leaned which direction.

All in all, Eritrea was fascinating. I loved the chance to explore a country that not many people get the chance to go to. Also, I know it’s an unusual choice for first country in Africa, but I was really happy to get to my sixth continent. The logistics are a bit complicated for foreigners, but I would highly recommend it as an off-the-beaten path destination!

North America United States

You’re Doing Fine, Oklahoma

As part of my effort to get to all fifty states, I ended up doing a stopover in Oklahoma City on the way from Denver to Washington DC! It was January, so… not exactly peak tourist season in OKC, if such a thing exists. That said, I loved my time in Oklahoma and found it to be one of the friendliest places I’ve been.

I stayed at the Skirvin Hotel, which is beautiful and historic and, according to the Uber driver who picked me up from the airport, haunted. I loved how central it was. I loved the historic vibes, and it was pretty reasonable for the cost, all things considered.

What I most admired about Oklahoma is the intention behind what they’ve built in their city. I started in Bricktown, which is along a canal and has light San Antonio Riverwalk vibes. I got dinner here and while it was pretty quiet, there were still people out playing mini golf and going to some of the restaurants along the water.

There was also a lot of street art, including the one above referencing the famous musical of the same name!

By far the most famous historical event to happen in Oklahoma was the Oklahoma City Bombing. On April 19, 1995, the Federal Building in downtown OKC was blown up in a domestic terrorism attack. To this day, it remains the deadliest domestic terrorism attack in American history. I wanted to go to the memorial and museum to learn about it and see how they represented those events. First of all, highly recommend if you’re there – it was a really impactful museum, covering the events of that day, the first responders and search and rescue teams and the incredible work they did, and the long term effects, as well as the hunt for Timothy McVeigh. Second, it is even more incredible to see what they’ve done with the city after that. If you asked most people to name 20 cities in America, Oklahoma City probably wouldn’t make that list. Even if you asked them to name 50, it still might not. And for this city to go through what it went through in 1995, rebuild, and come out with smart urban planning and a strong identity, it’s pretty amazing.

The next morning, I headed to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art! They have a Chihuly exhibit, which, if you’re not familiar with his work, he does some spectacular glasswork. There were a lot of pieces across the museum that I enjoyed.

Beyond the specific sites, one other thing that I want to shout out Oklahoma for is the friendliness and warmth that I saw exhibited across every part of my visit. Every Uber driver, bartender, patron in a restaurant – everyone local that I spoke to was so nice, and so happy to talk to me about their city. I think a lot of them were surprised I was there as a tourist in January, which, fair (I got so lucky with the weather). I went to a great breakfast place which was clearly very popular and busy, and when I told them it was my first time in Oklahoma, they comped my coffee and gave me a free pastry for the road. It was a wonderful experience, and I would recommend Oklahoma City to anyone who’s looking for a nice city break!

Mexico North America

Thanksgiving in Mexico: Beach Edition

From Mexico City, Chelsea and I headed to Playa del Carmen! We flew into Cancun and took the bus an hour south. It dropped us off right in the middle of Playa del Carmen’s main street.

Unsurprisingly, Playa del Carmen is significantly more touristy than Mexico City! Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum make up a significant amount of American travel to Mexico, and it was easy to see what draws people here. The beaches are stunning and there’s a lot of tourist infrastructure. Chelsea was coming off a significant amount of travel in the US and I was coming off moving across the country, so we appreciated the chill vibes and the spent a lot of time at the beach.

We also took the ferry out to Cozumel! It was a pretty short boat ride, and it had a charming town and some nice landscapes. We ended up walking quite a ways away to find some good lookout points that the map indicated, and it was a great day trip from Playa del Carmen.

But the main reason I wanted to come to the Yucatán Peninsula was to see my third world wonder! Chichén Itzá is an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen as well. We were not interested in renting a car and you theoretically can get there by bus, but it’s not convenient with the transfers, so I booked a tour.

All the tour companies had pretty similar itineraries, featuring cenote swims, Valladolid, and the site of Chichén Itzá itself. Ours started with the cenote. The cenotes themselves are super cool looking, and it was fun to go to one and have the chance to swim! The water was pretty cold but I got used to it after a few minutes. What I could have done without was the hard sell – this was one of those tours where they try to sell you things on the bus and give you a tour of the gift shop and all that. A lot of the places I go are not necessarily on the beaten path and so it was a bit surprising to have so many pushy salespeople everywhere we went.

After the cenote and a pretty decent buffet lunch, we headed to the pyramids! I’ve always been a little surprised to find Chichén Itzá on the world wonder list given the sheer number of amazing historical sites out there, but I was pretty impressed. I didn’t know about the sonic engineering they did, with the effects that made it sound like echos and bird calls, and it was very cool. We had a good amount of time to explore the whole area, which had more than just the main pyramid. Of the two Mexican pyramid sites I went to, I probably enjoyed Teotihuacán slightly more, but I would definitely recommend both sites if you’re in the right region to see them.

Our last stop of the day was Valladolid. I found it quite charming and wished we had more time there – I could have used a full half day, and it would have been fun to do breakfast or lunch there instead of at the cenote. As it was, we left as the sun was setting and it took us a very long time to get back to our hotel. It was a long day but worth it in my opinion.

Overall, I had a great time in Mexico. Good food, good drinks, and interesting museums and historical sites. I know it’s a huge country with a lot of incredible places to visit, and I would definitely be open to going back – I would probably prioritize Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta on a next trip! It was getting a little embarrassing that I hadn’t been, and so I was glad to get the chance to go over Thanksgiving.

Mexico North America

Thanksgiving in Mexico: Museum Edition

I was at a party in Seattle with a few friends. We were drinking and playing party games, and we had just started playing Never Have I Ever. It had just gotten to my turn.

“Never have I ever… been to Mexico,” I said, expecting I could make a lot of people drink.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of shock in the room! For most Americans, Canada and Mexico are the first foreign countries they’ve ever been to, and so my friends were baffled how I had a country count into the 40s without having crossed over our southern border. We hatched a plan to go for Thanksgiving, and I am pleased to say that the trip actually made it out of the group chat!

We started in Mexico City. Part of why I’ve dragged my feet on Mexico is the perception of it as an American resort destination – so many people in the US go for all inclusives and private beaches, which is really not interesting to me when I travel. Mexico City, though, claims to have the most museums of any city in the world, and that’s more up my alley!

I arrived two-ish days before Chelsea and Angeli, so my first hotel was in the Zocalo area. It’s the historic center of the city, with pretty much all of the iconic buildings that you would use if you were going to do an establishing shot to show that you were in Mexico City. It was super busy and kind of chaotic almost every time I was there, so definitely a great introduction to the city! There are neighborhoods I ended up liking better, so I wouldn’t stay there again but I’m glad I did for the first couple days.

Once my friends arrived, we switched over to an Airbnb right by the Monument of the Revolution. I absolutely loved the view from our place! The plaza was having a festival one of the days but unfortunately it seemed to be a Christian rock concert, so we didn’t stick around.

The first priority was the Anthropology Museum, which is one of the most famous museums in Mexico City! It is a massive museum. We saw a very small fraction of what they had to offer, but there were so many interesting artifacts and I loved the way it was laid out. I would definitely go back.

The whole area around the museum was also great – it’s located in Chapultepec Park. You can rent a paddle boat or walk around for ages and admire all the statues. There are other museums, like a modern art museum with a great collection, and they even have a castle in the middle of the park! We walked up to it but didn’t end up going in because we didn’t feel like paying the admission.

One of my favorite things we did was the Frida Kahlo Museum! It’s located at a house that she had lived in, and features information about her life, recreations of the home when she lived there, and some of her clothing and artwork. She’s one of those figures that I’ve known who she is but very littlea bout her for a very long time. I found her story absolutely fascinating and really liked her art as well.

We also went to the Monument of the Revolution to check it out, especially since it was so close to where we were staying. You can go all the way up to the top in an elevator, which has great views of the city, as well as a little café. We got coffees and watched the sunset, and then we headed to the ground floor where there’s a museum about Mexican history. It didn’t have any English signage so I cobbled together my minimal Spanish along with a healthy dose of Wikipedia to learn more.

Obsessed with this futuristic library

A lot of the week was focused on eating great food and drinking margaritas on rooftops and wandering around the city! I had a lot of fun in Mexico City. I will say it was one of the more difficult places to navigate if you don’t speak Spanish, compared to many other places I’ve visited as a tourist where you can get by with less fluency in the native language. It was easy and pretty cheap to get around with Uber, even when my flight got in very late at night. There are certain precautions you should take in Mexico City, as with many major cities, but despite the fairly aggressive State Department warnings for Mexico, I felt quite safe throughout our time there.

We ended our time in Mexico City with a day trip out to Teotihuacán! It is definitely worth the trip out – it’s an amazing site, with so much history and a lot to see. We took an Uber out so that we could do it on our own time, which I was happy about. We went to one of the museum to see some of the murals and artifacts and made sure to get to all of the major pyramids. It’s unreal what these societies were able accomplish before modern technology. It was a bit challenging to get an Uber back to the city – I think we had a couple cancel on us before we finally found a driver who would come out there and get us, but we did make it back to the city.

The next day, Angeli headed back to the US and Chelsea and I continued on to our next destination in Mexico!

Canada North America

Vancouver Views

When I got back from Australia, I already knew that I was going to move from Salt Lake to Washington, DC! It had taken quite a while between talking about it and getting all the various logistics together, and that process was exhausting, but I pretty much got back from Australia and started working through the things I wanted to do while I was still in the western half of the United States. One of those things was going to Vancouver.

I had always heard that Vancouver was a cool city. And it was long overdue that I should go back to Canada as an adult. I’ve been twice before – once, my parents and I went on a cruise to Alaska that featured a stop in Victoria, and the second was my family going to Banff for a longer trip. My memories were of gorgeous landscapes. One of the other travelers on the PNG trip was from Vancouver, which was the push I needed to actually plan it out and go!

I spent a lot of time just wandering the city, by myself and with Parsa. We took the ferry, we saw the views from his office building, and he knew all the great places to go out to dinner, so I ate very well while I was there! It was such a needed long weekend for me, since it had been very busy both at work and with all the logistics of moving and figuring out what to do with our house.

Over the weekend, Parsa rounded up a few friends and we went hiking! We drove up the Sea to Sky Highway, which is super gorgeous and scenic, and got some coffee in Squamish. Then we headed out to the trail. We hiked Tunnel Bluffs. Literally all the elevation gain is at the beginning, so at first it seemed a little tough, but after about 2 km it levels out and it was really pleasant. The views at the end were spectacular! It was such a nice day trip out from the city.

Vancouver was great, and now that I’m based out east I’ll have a better chance to visit the provinces of Ontario and Quebec! It’s easy to focus my travel in places that are more far-flung, but I’ve never been disappointed by my visits to Canada.