Monday, September 1, 2014

How Saudi Arabia Shaped Me

Happy Labor Day to all the Americans!  I hope everyone is enjoying their long weekend, I know I am enjoying the 3 day holiday with a lazy weekend at home in Portland.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll know somewhat of my background.  I was born and raised in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia specifically and while I've talked about our life there, how it changed the course of my adult life and my passion to see the world, I've not talked much about my life actually there and the lessons I learned there early in my life that have shaped my present.

I recently ran into a couple that is loosely related to Nick's side of the family that live in Saudi Arabia now, on one of the ARAMCO compounds about an hour away from where I lived as a child.  After talking to them and getting to know them, come to find out they know a lot of the same people that I knew growing up, parents of my friends and names they've always heard of that were people close to me as a kid.  It was refreshing to say the least, to be able to talk to them, to have them know exactly what I was talking about when I was shocked to hear of a new green grass golf course in Dhahran (when I was there, they were only oiled sand), to hear that two of the smaller compounds were totally full with residents and to hear their stories.  To have someone know that part of me completely, without even really knowing anything about me personally, is a feeling I haven't had in a long time.  It is rare to speak to someone in my daily life (other than my parents) that knows in depth about that part of my life.  It's hard daily to not be able to show my husband that part of my life, a part that was such a huge reason why I am the way I am now.  So when I can share it, when I can let others in just a little on what my childhood was like in the middle of the Middle East, it makes that burden a little easier.

When I look back on my childhood in Saudi Arabia, I remember feeling completely at home, always feeling safe, an idyllic way of life.  But as I look back on it now, a full seventeen years this month since we moved back to the States, those memories are still what shape me today and the lessons I learned during my eleven years there are the lessons that I hold with me daily still.  So in the midst of so many present uprisings and conflicts in the part of the world that I was born into, I think it's worth remembering that that part of the world still has lots to teach us as well if we'll let it.

While much of the world would be quick to say how much the Middle East hates the United States, I would beg to differ.  Our family was shown nothing but kindness, acceptance and friendship while in Saudi Arabia by Arabs and Americans alike.  My dad was friends with many of the Saudis that we lived around and many of my friends came from nearby countries like Jordan and Lebanon.  And while I know that yes, there is tension between the Middle East and the West, particularly the US, we must also remember that the ordinary people living their lives in those countries we are so quick to judge don't often share all the sentiments that our media would like to portray or that the extremists would preach.  We only ever see the bad, but what we don't see are all the people around the world that are kind and accepting, that showed a little blue eyed girl from the other side of the world kindness and acceptance.

I was always one to be totally fine on my own, even as a kid, I didn't need to be surrounded by friends or have activities planned all the time.  But I think one thing that Saudi brought out in me at an early age was a curiosity with the world.  I am fascinated with cultures and languages and how all over the world we're all just people, living the best we know how to.  A curiosity with the world I think has always been in me, but living half a world away as a kid only strengthened it.  It's still something I hold on to today and something that I hope I always have, a curiosity to better understand our world.

I can't even count anymore the people who, over the years, have said things to me like "all Muslims are terrorists" or used racial slurs against Islam or those who would practice a different faith than their own.  It's something I won't tolerate and those that have made the mistake of making those comments to me will get a response they perhaps weren't expecting if you don't know me.  I won't tolerate ignorance or bigotry, there is no reason for it and those that would put down an entire group of believers in a religion like Islam, or any other for that matter, are going against any faith they pretend to practice or believe in.  I'll never forget a conversation I had with a Muslim friend of mine as a kid.  We sat in the jungle gym on the playground at school and talked about how much our two religions, Islam and Christianity, really had in common, how much we were alike in what we believed.  Saudi Arabia taught me that faith across the world is more similar than different and whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, we all have more in common than not.

My passion for seeing the world is no doubt something that stems from my childhood abroad, a drive to see all parts of the globe, to find out about different cultures and learn different languages.  From an early age we traveled to far off places like Cyprus and Bahrain, Dubai and India.  We spent time as a family seeing the world and while my parents probably wouldn't say they have such an insatiable passion for traveling as I do, they raised my brother and I in a way that we learned about the world through experience.  We learned words in Arabic and embraced local foods and cultures.  My passion for this beautiful world we live in no doubt came from Saudi Arabia, a place I called my home.

I didn't have the typical childhood in some ways, like the fact that we were a world away from our families or that I'll forever have Dammam, Saudi Arabia as my place of birth in my passport.  Like the fact that we went to camel markets on the weekends and I grew up eating schawarmas and drinking Orangina with a label written in Arabic, but my childhood was totally unique.  It is something that took me a long time to come to grips with and to embrace, that I was different.  That my life was different.  That my experiences were different.  Moving back to the States was challenging, to leave that unique life behind was really hard but all these years later I realize now that I never really wanted a normal life.  I've always craved something different, to go against the grain, to choose the life I want and to make it as extraordinary as I can.  I realize now that my unique childhood in Saudi Arabia was the start of my path, a unique journey that I'll always have propelling me forward.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Don't Forget...

Don't forget to sign up today (if you haven't already) to make sure and receive the first edition of the True Colours Insider newsletter!  It will be sent out on September 1st to subscribers, so make sure and sign up today to be on the list!

The Insider will be a way to get monthly travel information that isn't shared on the blog, special travel items I come across or insider tips into some of my favorite cities around the globe.  It will be a once a month newsletter with lots of great travel information and you can sign up to receive it now on my sidebar!  And in the first installment of the newsletter in September, I'll be offering a major percentage off of ad space only for newsletter subscribers that won't be available on the blog.  So head on over to my sidebar now to sign up and the first issue will arrive in your email inbox on September 1st!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Destinations : Puerto Rico & Bruge

We're back today with my monthly series called Destinations.  Each month I am interviewing travelers all over the world near and far about destinations they've been to, what they packed, how they got there and so much more. 

Today I have 2 amazing bloggers sharing their chosen destinations with you.  I'm so excited to welcome Katie and Bailey to share some amazing places in the world with you today!



Puerto Rico

I love how much Puerto Rico has to offer. You get the outdoors (mountains, hills, waterfalls as well as beaches, of course), city-life, history, relaxation, adventure, great food, culture, and more. There is something for everyone, and one great thing about Puerto Rico is that nothing is too far away from something else. We were there with my whole family (11 of us) for my parents' 30th anniversary, who surprised us with a vow renewal on the beach the last night we were there.

We flew direct from Houston to San Juan, and drove to our hotel in Rio Grande, about 35 minutes outside of San Juan.

My whole family stayed at Wyndham Rio Mar Resort, which I actually wouldn't recommend. Too expensive and not enough bang for the buck, among other things. :) 

1. I would recommend to dive into the culture, especially the food. Stop and eat at the street food vendors or hole-in-the-walls, and embrace plantains! 
2. We went in August, and it was SO hot and humid. I'm used to that, being from Texas, but if you're from a less temperate region, I would recommend going any other time. 
3. Lastly, try something different. We were able to visit the famous Bioluminescent Bay and it was amazing, but we also zip-lined, hiked to waterfalls, cliff jumped, and snorkeled as well as doing things like beach-lounging and city-touring. 

Since the climate basically stays the same throughout the year (warm), you won't have to worry about packing for unexpected weather except during hurricane season (June-November). The culture is pretty casual, so walking around in swim suits with coverings is totally acceptable, even in non-touristy areas. Obviously pack swim suits and warm-weather clothes, but you could also pack hiking gear and a nice outfit depending on what you want to do. I basically wore my swim suit, shorts, and a cute casual lightweight shirt every day. Pack sunscreen, bug spray, and rain gear just in case.

1. Visit Old San Juan for sure. The colorful buildings are beautiful and fun, and there are gorgeous forts full of history for you to tour, like the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. 
2. Bioluminescent Bay on the island of Vieques is where you get to see blue-glowing organisms at night, and it is absolutely amazing. 
3. My favorite place to hike was El Yunque Rainforest where you'll find luscious plants and trees and gorgeous waterfalls. 
4. Lastly, basically any beach you find is gorgeous, and be sure to snorkel at some point.

The feel of the island is very laid back. Make sure to explore and find new things to experience, but don't rush or put pressure on yourself. Lay back and just be grateful that you're there!

I blog at the French Pemberley blog where I share travel, photography, and intentional living. I'm a yoga teacher and an advanced scuba diver so I also share tips for creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and being someone who has always loved good design, I share a little of that there as well. I live in the beautiful Southwest, but have become a prolific traveler. 2014 will find me in San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Mexico, Maui, Las Vegas, Spain, France, Italy, and Monte Carlo before the year is over.

Today I am sharing Bruge, Belgium.

My first trip to Paris, I saw a brochure about day trips to Bruge, Belgium.  I wanted to take a day trip to Bruge, but did not have enough time. I promised myself the next time I was in Paris, I would make a day trip there a priority and I did! The following year, I was in Paris with my 5 year old (at the time) daughter and we took a bus charter day trip there. Last year found me in Paris again, this time with my husband and our two eldest daughters and we drove there from Paris.  

We did these trips into Bruge as day trips so we stayed at the same resort outside Paris each time.

Bruge is a charming locale to visit so anytime is a good time but if you go in winter be sure and bundle up, it gets very cold there in late fall-early spring. When staying in Paris, it is a full day trip to get there and back but is well worth the day if you wish to get in an additional country during your Paris holiday. Belgium is known for its chocolates and handmaid laces so it is a great place to pick up souvenirs for yourself and for family members.

 A camera for sure, as Bruge is one of the most photogenic destinations in Europe. Gloves, hat and scarf if you are there during cooler months.

Taking a boat ride through the town is a must, which allows you to see all the architecture and bridges. If you have little ones with you, the Chocolate Museum is a big hit. Be sure and visit at least one each of a tapestry, lace and chocolate shop while visiting. The stained glass and architecture of the cathedral in city center is also a must.  

Bruge is a wonderful day trip location if you are coming there from Paris. On its own merit, it is a city with much character and many charming hotels and bed and breakfasts waiting to accommodate you if you choose to stay a bit longer !

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Travel Tips : Using Credit Cards Points for Travel

So let's talk about how to pay for travel, and I mean really get your money's worth, from credit card points.  I know this subject to some may seem like you never get a value from it, but let me tell you, if you know how to use them, credit card points can be incredibly valuable.  Just this year we've paid for numerous hotel stays, flights and weekend getaways on credit card points alone and I'm sharing some of my tips today to make the most of your points and put them to good use.

Let me preface this post by saying that due to my job, I put a lot more on credit cards than the average person, but that by no means is a reason that you can't use your credit cards to your advantage either.  It takes some planning and organization to get your credit cards to the point where you're earning lots of points but it's well worth the effort.  

My 3 favorite credit cards for travel are shown above: the Alaska Visa, Chase Sapphire Visa and the British Airways Visa.  All 3 are excellent at paying for travel through points and I've had great luck with all of them.  I've talked about their perks in this post before, but today here is how I use the points from these cards to pay for actual travel and save a lot of money in the process.

There are times when your travel dates happen to fall on weekends with high traffic or in cities that are generally very expensive and even if you found cheap flights, hotels might be astronomical in price.  That is when I use points on hotels.  I generally keep my BA card points stocked up for hotels, as I like their system and have had good luck with it in the past.  I also generally don't have enough for long haul flights through them, but I usually have a good stockpile of BA avios that work out really well for hotel stays (or short intra-Europe flights).  In cities like London where hotels can be over $300 a night for a decent hotel, points work really well and cost you nothing.  Or for example, for our upcoming trip to Denver in September, we found out after booking cheap flights that the weekend we are there there is a huge convention and hotels in downtown Denver were going for $389 per night.  There is no way I'm going to pay that for one night, so I reached into my BA points and got us a hotel on points.  

A great way to use points for airfare, particularly when you don't have enough for a full round trip long haul ticket, is to use it on one way flights and pay for the other way on cash.  I particularly like the Sapphire card for this purpose.  Booking through their portal you can see which airlines will offer rates for one way fares (not all of them do).  I usually do the research before hand to see if I can find an inexpensive flight for the other way to pay cash for before I book my one way on points.

For an example of this, on our trip to Spain in March of next year I booked us totally on points for our flight from the US to London (then we'll jump on an EasyJet flight to Spain) on Air New Zealand.  On the way home, I found a cheap flight from London back to the US on Norwegian Air for only $240 per person one way.  Which means, we're both flying to Europe for only about $500 total since we used points on the outbound flight.

This is also a great way to save on flights to and from major airports.  For example when we travel abroad, we generally leave from Seattle or LA, so to get from Portland to those airports, I'll use points to cover those connecting flights from our Alaska account.  Generally we never pay for those connecting flights, they are always on points since they are short and don't require a lot of mileage.

Credit cards points can be great for weekend getaways and can often cover everything you need in a couple days at a location.  Particularly in not as popular destinations, you can easily cover a weekend's hotels, car rental and airfare on points when used properly.

For an example of this, earlier this year Nick and I spent a weekend in New Mexico.  We covered our flights, car rental and hotels for the whole weekend on points from our Sapphire card.  This is especially easier after you've received your sign up bonus points for cards like this or if you've stockpiled points for a while, but nevertheless, there are lots of destinations that you can cover with points for a weekend getaway pretty easily.

One of my favorite ways to use points is to use them for rental cars.  Rental car costs can add up really quickly and I never pay for them anymore, instead always using my BA or sapphire points for our reservations.  To be able to save the $300 or more cost for rental cars for a few days, points can be a great way to save a chunk of cash when it comes to renting cars around the world.

Just in the past year, I've used points to rent cars in Ireland, Scotland, New Mexico and Southern California and not paid a dime for them.

*Note : Travel credit cards can be amazing in terms of paying for actual travel but keep in mind how much you're spending and be careful not to rack up credit card amounts just to get points.  Make sure your spending is in line with what you can afford, but also realize the advantage that with careful planning and responsible spending you can save up a lot of points that can then turn into travel opportunities.