My sunburn is in the final peeling stage but my week in Thailand is as brilliant and jumbled in my mind as a kaleidoscope with ADD. No run-of-the-mill traveler blog here about where to go or what to do because really, unless you find yourself in a Thai prison – and you don’t want to go there - you can't go wrong. Google "Thailand" and you get something like 980,000,000 responses in a second flat. Barnes and Noble sells 304 titles on the place. What I give you is my story.
Being the island girl type – in my dreams, anyway - I skipped mainland-Thailand in lieu of seven days of island hopping east coast side, hitting the big three (they’re really very small): Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Kho Phangan. I spent a lot of time on Samui and did the basic but fun touristy stuff there. Like indulging in a traditional Thai massage on the beach where they walk on your back and you try to keep from moaning and groaning too loud in public; fantastic snorkeling and kayaking in the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Thailand with brilliant colored fishes and coral; eating amazing street food including deep fried pork skin dripping with tangy chili sauce and fresh mango with sticky rice that deserved Michelin stars though I avoided the fried crickets which are all the rage and drank way too many mojitos instead of mai tais by the pool.
Flashback to my recent trip to Vienna where I met an independent film maker. We kept in touch and as luck would have it, we would both be traveling Thailand the same time. He suggested we meet up at the infamous Halfmoon Festival on the island of Koh Phangan. And what a festival it is, set in the jungle at night, people from all over the world join together for an evening that, and I quote: "symbolizes the power of freedom, free expression, love and unity." Which pretty much sums up the polar opposite of every experience I’ve had – or ever will - in Saudi Arabia.
So, on the afternoon of said festival, I went to the port to catch a ferry from Samui to Phangan. The place was full of backpackers, male and female, young and old - some smelling better than others – when the theme song from “Titanic” began to play over the intercom system. Hmmmm. Regardless, 30 minutes later I'm on Phangan hailing another taxi to the small bungalow beach hotel room I had rented to get some sleep before meeting my friend for a drink.
At around 9 pm I asked where I could find transportation and the toothless hotel owner merely pointed to the main road. I walked a considerable distance and hailed a songthaew. Basically, it’s a glorified flat-bed truck with benches and most are beat up as hell including the one I rode; reminding me of a present day covered wagon blaring dance music (disco ball not included).
When one finally stops to pick me up, I'm greeted by four young Israeli women who had completed two years compulsory military duty and were backpacking Asia for the next 6 months. Covered in glow-in-the-dark body-paint, I already know where they are going and so I’m glowing on the inside. For the next five miles in a mix of euphoria and absolute terror, as the driver tears through a succession of dark and winding island roads, we get along famously especially when they learn that I’m an American living and working in Saudi Arabia. We get so caught up in conversation that I missed the stop to meet my friend and end up at the infamous Halfmoon Festival I’ve heard so much about for the past four months. We waited in line to get our tickets, complimentary drink stubs, and free gift (a rubber smiley face ring with a blinking light in the middle).
With no WiFi, I had no way to tell my friend from Vienna that I had already arrived and hoped the Halfmoon gods would somehow intervene. Meanwhile, my new Jew friends took me under their wings and together we flew into the crowd of tanned, barely-dressed but brightly painted bodies all dancing to club music courtesy of a crazy DJ with a heavy hand on the bass. Oh, and by the way, the DJ just happened to be in a tree house, complete with surrounding laser show, fog machines, pyrotechnics, and trance including videos on large screens installed behind him. Basically, an epileptic's worst nightmare.
I spent the next several hours dancing with a mass of human flesh that seemed to only grow – perhaps mutate – in a good way? – is more accurate. Definitely lots of freedom of expression, that's for sure. There was an abundance of alcohol which was served in colorful plastic buckets. Perfect for taking to the beach tomorrow, right?
Finally, with a single WiFi bar I was able to find my friend among the throngs of people painted with intricate dragons, angel wings, hearts, stars and the occasional superman logo glowing on their chest. We got to catch up on what we had been up to the past few months: work, our time in Thailand, current events.
Hours passed when the Halfmoon gods spoke. (Or, rather, didn’t.) A power outage and the jungle party came to an abrupt halt. Our quick thinking, tree house DJ grabbed his saxophone and started playing a jazzy tune. Next, a bongo drummer joined in. Before you know it, the jungle was brought back to life as the sound of hundreds of us creatures continued to dance in the darkness. In that singular moment it felt like the planets had aligned and the world was going to be okay.
Now, usually the Halfmooners would end the festival by watching the sunrise on the beach, but since the power was not going back on anytime soon, people began to go back home. My friend and I parted ways and I finally found a songthaew to climb into. As if the night hadn’t been novel enough, the next chapter got more outrageous still.
There is nothing worse than hundreds of extremely intoxicated individuals pissed that their Halfmoon Festival got cut short and arguing with non-English speaking songthaew drivers to take them home. My songthaew was half full with some of these particular types including a group from Norway on my left, an Irish fellow on my right, and a very tired and exasperated guy from who knows where across from me just trying to get to his hostel. The real trouble started when the driver wouldn’t budge until us Halfmooners were packed in like sardines. After threats and curses, the driver finally agrees to get going only after three VERY intoxicated Irishman hopped on the running boards and held on for dear life as our driver sped through the dark streets.
And then things became comically surreal. The Irish guy next to me heard the accents of the Irish guys hanging on side and much to the chagrin of everyone else, decided to find out where in Ireland they were from. Mind you, the engine is pretty loud and so these guys are yelling back and forth and are as drunk as two sheets to the wind. It happened that no, they were not from the same place, but they then decided to ask if they each knew their friends that lived in the respective towns as each other. And, as if that wasn't enough, they decided to have each other call each other's friends back home on their mobile phones to find out if they knew each other. Yes, while hanging on for dear life, these drunk bloats are on the bloody phone. The rest of us mere spectators; the belligerent guy from who knows where sticking his head out every 10 seconds to ask if we were at his hostel yet. It was a scene straight out of Monty Python.
When we got to my hotel, I wished everyone good luck and watched with a mixture of relief and disbelief as the songthaew drove away, the three Irishman still swinging from the back, one trying to light a cigarette with a free hand, his phone still couched between his ear and his shoulder. With the sun just beginning to rise – the eternal light bulb of the cosmos - I took a few minutes on the beach to reflect on this wild and whimsical trip to the islands of Thailand. The postcard perfect scenery made so much more memorable by my unconventional storyline; one you won’t read about in any travel guide, that’s for sure.
Exhausted, I collapsed in my bungalow bed fully clothed, my ears still pounding with club music, my smiley face ring still blinking.
If you find yourself in Thailand during a Halfmoon - or even a Fullmoon Festival - make your way to Phangan. Go to the jungle. Dance with strangers. Drink from a bucket. Get home safe. But make sure you take a shower before you go to bed. They’ll charge you extra for cleaning the sheets from that awesome glow-in-the-dark body paint.
As I joined the excited, gorgeous crowd of party-goers at the W Hotel Doha, Qatar, anticipating the New Year’s countdown, I took the last few minutes of 2015 to reflect on all how much had happened in my life in the last 12 months. Wow!
A mere 365 days earlier I was “counting down” with close friends in DC. Unbeknownst to them, I had scheduled what would be my final call with an HR recruiter in a place half way ‘round the world at 6 am EST. It would be a day that would radically change my life: accepting the position of event producer for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. The next call was to my parents to tell them the news. Cue the “waterworks” on both ends.
Eventually, as the rigorous visa process was winding down, it was finally time to put in my two weeks notice. By then, everyone had known that I, Sydney Meredith, was moving to Saudi Arabia. Their first reaction to the news? A bulging of the eyes and subtle jaw drop, quickly followed by, "YOU'RE MOVING WHERE?"
Sure, Saudi doesn’t have the best reputation on the world stage of “advanced nations.” And, with the current state of geo-political and cultural affairs in the Middle East, it's probably not on your "Oh, wouldn't it be lovely to live there?" list. Especially, for my fellow females. (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) So, why leave family, friends, a social life, freedom, alcohol, and the all-important consumption of bacon for a 14 sq. mi. slab of academia in the middle of the desert?
Let me put it this way: I was either crazy enough or brave enough (perhaps both) to see a glimmer of light at the end of that endless tunnel known as student loans. Fact was,what with my salary then and the exorbitant cost-of-living in DC, I could only manage to save a pittance towards grad school and was barely keeping up with my loans. Social life? What social life?
The opportunity at KAUST has given me a fighting chance to pay off college – I did it in less than a year - AND save for all those important "adult expenses" like a wedding, a house, and the start of a small nest egg for retirement. Plus, a little extra for that unquenchable wanderlust to see as much of world as I can, while I can.
It's been 9 months since I took the leap for sandier pastures. Regrets? I must admit, there are days I want to turn into an ostrich and bury my head in sand but I’ve come to recognize that no amount of hiding, belly aching, or pleading is going to change the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that plagues large institutions or those not used to letting females get the job done. And there are moments when I do feel like a prisoner in my 14 sq. mi. cell; unable to leave the confines of the secure campus as a female without male chaperones and the mandatory abaya and hijab – only slightly less restrictive than a burqa. God forbid I lose my mind and drive outside of the campus. Or dance, imbibe, or discuss politics.
But, there are days and nights like tonight here on the beautiful Arabian peninsula where few people my age have had pleasure of appreciating her beauty, as I stand amongst the festive crowd ringing in 2016 together, that I realize how many adventures and memories I have been blessed with, and the amazing people I've met and the friends I've made. And, I think to myself, "Where in the world will I be ringing in 2017?"
There are few people I love enough to give a kidney to. My parents, my sister, and my best friend, Dancey. (If a human kidney can fit into a dog, then definitely my mutt, Boston).
Dancey and I met while working at an international think tank in D.C. and we figure it was best-friend-love-at first email because I neither remember her first day nor her welcome lunch, but somewhere in between it happened. Thankfully, we didn't have a hard time breaking any walls down (considering we didn’t have one between our work spaces).
It's been said that if you wake up and look forward to going to work, you've got it made. But to be honest, it wasn't the work I was looking forward to, it was seeing Dancey. And,how many times we could make each other laugh and how many times I thought we couldn't get any funnier. Surprise! We always did.
Like that time time we wanted to know how many M&Ms we could fit into our mouth and just when we started to look like squirrels packing away acorns, my boss asked us a question about an event. Or all the haiku's we wrote about describing our life in the office.
Dearest cleaning man,
how do you always know when
my bathroom time is?
Food in the kitchen?
when I get there, there is none.
I walk back empty.
A week before leaving my “Beltway” job for sandier pastures, Dancey and me decided to get “friendship” tattoos. Not your cute little “school girl” throw backs that you put on your arm and apply a wet washcloth only to have it fade in a few days; I’m talking the hardcore, bad ass, last-a-lifetime, ouch-that-hurts, needle and ink variety. It took us all of a day to design what we wanted. Our own constellation of sorts using the airport codes of all the places we had been to together through our jobs at work: DCA (DC), ASE (Aspen), LHR (London), CPT (Capetown), DXB (Dubai). The goal was that this tattoo would continue, adding on every time we get to travel to distant shores and exotic locales to see each other.
Flash forward a year and voila! When I found out she would be in Kerala, India, for a conference in December, I couldn’t wait to buy my ticket. “Cool!” we emailed in glee, “So what code are we adding?” This is where it turned weird funny. It was either TRV for (Trivandrum International Airport) or COK for Cochin International Airport. Def the former as neither of us actually wanted COK permanently scripted on our arms. As an added bonus, I found out by flying into TRV, I could avoid the onerously long visa process and was ecstatic!
My ecstasy was short lived. The day before my departure - and on a whim - I confirmed the visa process only to realize with horror what "Visa on Arrival" really meant: "Apply 4 Days before you Arrive then Print it for Immigration's When you Get Here.” My reaction? "OH SH#T!" I applied online and called only to find out it takes 36 to 72 hours for approval. The only tattoo I was getting was SCR (Screwed).
After desperately searching for any options, I found a super sketchy non-government associated "24 Hour Visa" website. I said a prayer, submitted my paperwork along with a non-refundable check of an embarrassing amount andproceeded to call every hour on the hour like some super sketchy character in a James Bond movie.
On the day of my supposed flight to India’s TRV Airport, I brought a packed suitcase to work. No word all day of said Visa from said Visa company. My taxi arrives at 4:45pm for my 7pm flight and still no Visa. My weeping calls all to no avail, I told the cab driver to turn around and take me home.
Then, miracles of miracles, I got THE CALL, headed to Kerala for the best three days I had in a long, long time with my best friend Dancey consisting of all-night girl talk, bathroom dance parties, cocktails by the pool and laughing until we cried. TRV, I can’t wait to add you to our constellation.
While I have finally come to the depressing conclusion I am not royalty (Harry, if you're reading this, call me!), my stay at Chedi Hotel Muscat made me feel like a queen nonetheless. If only for a few days.
I celebrated my 25th birthday in a drop dead, gorgeous postcard of place - one I had never heard of, frankly, until moving to Saudi. Hey, a quarter of a century is a pretty big milestone, so I went all out. And man, Oman, my present to myself didn’t disappoint. Just a 3-hour flight from Jeddah, the secluded beach-front property is on the southeastern coast of the Saudi Peninsula. A blinding white Benz swept me off my feet and delivered me to the Chedi where the “Club Benefits Package” had me livin’ large by my standards for a girl from Nashua.
Talk about a dichotomy. With binoculars from my beach cabana, I could see the coasts of Iran and Pakistan. Not your Top Ten Tourists Destinations. (Unless you’re into nuclear surveillance.) But in Sultan-ruled Oman, where tourism accounts for much of the economy (it has modest oil reserves), they pretty much treat us globe-trekkers as part of the family. The Chedi, part GMH’s group of distinguished global real estate, my temporary “palace” was some kind of awesome swank with beautifully decorated suites and villas, several delectable restaurants, oasis-like pools, and a spa menu for ordering your very own ultimate nirvana.
My idea of nirvana from the moment I laid eyes on the Chedi’s insane outdoor pool in all its splendor on the internet ad, was to get my b-day butt there, tear off my abaya, and decompress with a lovely swim and a poolside drink. NOT in the cards. A baby in their actual birthday suit was there screaming her head off whilst her parents gave not a fig. I stood my ground, however, and got the ultimate revenge: a 5-hour spa treatment including seaweed wrap and bath, Balinese massage, and foot reflexology. I felt so great afterwards that I didn’t even WANT to drown that baby.
I got dressed for the first of every evening’s “pre-dinner receptions.” A little old-school perhaps, but fun in a surreal, “let’s see who I strike up a conversation with today” kind of vibe. The Chedi served exotic libations and yummy canapés including an array of sushi and endless flutes of champagne.
You can have the most wow-worthy cover photo in the travel magazines, but if your food doesn’t live up to the billing, well, أراك لاحقا. I’d come back to the Chedi just for the food, people! As mentioned, they have three restaurants: The Restaurant, The Beach Restaurant, and the Long Pool Restaurant. At THE Restaurant, for my birthday, I was particularly hot for the Thai menu and indulged in the Tom Yam Koon soup with the Basil red curry duck and pineapple. The duck was tender and perfectly pared with perfumed jasmine rice. I shared it was my signature drink, a mojito, and it paired wonderfully. (In lieu of traditional cake – I didn’t need to see 25 candles and nobody around me needed to either – I ordered the salted caramel macaroons.) OMG! I could so get used to this . . .
And the icing on the cake? I mean macaroons? I went back to my room just in time for my virtual birthday party via Skype with my parents. You see, back in June I had my employer ship a bunch of stuff over from my parent’s house in New Hampshire for my home here in Saudi; mundane stuff like linens and a bicycle, a carpet for my room and pots and pans. Well, my thoughtful parents surprised me and included lots of wrapped birthday gifts all bearing the message: DO NOT OPEN UNTIL YOUR BIRTYDAY! I brought the booty with me and opened it with mom and dad looking on. Their little girl was back home for a few minutes anyway.
#25, here’s to ya! You’ve made #24 look like a yawner. Can’t to see what you’ve got in store for the next 11 months.