April 8, 2013
I'm a 50 year old woman born, raised and currently living in Canada. For the past 28 years, I've worked in the health care field as a Respiratory Therapist, mostly in the neonatal intensive care unit setting. I love my work and the miraculous little babies I work with but over the past couple of years I've been feeling the need to do something different and to try and to contribute on a more global scale. There's so much need out there and I'm so lucky to have all that I need; my goal now is to share what I have and what I know with people around the world, while at the same time learn all I can about other cultures and what struggles they have and how I can help.
When I was in my early 20s I got a job in Saudi Arabia and worked in several places within the Kingdom for about 3 years. This was pre-911 so the Middle East and the world in general was a very different place. Having never been off the North American continent prior to that, it was a real eye-opener! The patriarchal society with no separation of church and state was something I knew nothing about so it was scary but extremely exciting at the same time.
In retrospect, that first 48 hours in the Kingdom was perhaps one of the most significant turning points in my life. I arrived at the airport in Jeddah, scared half to death and expecting someone to meet me and take me to a hotel for the night. Nobody met me and nobody told me why I hadn't been met. I was just left there, alone and stranded in the gated area of the airport, unable to leave because the laws of the land dictated that I couldn't leave the airport unaccompanied. So I was stuck there until I flew out the next morning.
Feeling very scared and not knowing what to do, I sat down on the floor and choked back the tears. Eventually I decided to try to distract myself by watching all the people coming and going. Suddenly it hit me...it was like I had stepped into the pages of a National Geographic magazine! Everywhere I looked I saw people from all over the world walking around in their colorful outfits, huge head coverings and traditional costumes. Not only did this distract me, it was totally awesome!
Then out of the blue, a woman covered in black from head to toe came up to me and motioned for me to follow her. Not knowing what else to do, I followed her to a back room where, despite not being able to verbally communicate, I spent the rest of the night with her and her female companions, all Saudi nationals. Seeing that I was all alone and knowing how scared I must have been, she did the ultimate thing—offered me friendship and the safety and security of a group.
Throughout the night they shared their food with me, showed me where the bathroom was (and how to use it--I had never used a squat-type toilet before) and just made me feel less scared in general. Even though we didn't speak the same language, they went to great lengths to make sure I was included in the group and felt safe and, as the night went on, we even managed to make each other laugh! It was my first experience with non verbal communication and it taught me a very important lesson that I've carried with me ever since: No matter how bad it feels and how bleak the situation seems, there's always someone that's inherently good and wants to help.
The next morning I flew from Jeddah to Khamis Mushayt, my final destination. I arrived in the late-morning, exhausted, extremely homesick, not sure what to expect! I remember being dropped off at the building where I would be living for the next few months, carrying my luggage to my room and just closing the door and crying…those big heaving cries that one only does when one thinks the world is about to end! Not only did my world not end, I was about to embark on one of the greatest journeys of my life...
A short while later, there was this knock on the door and a little voice said “welcome to Khamis Mushayt. Come out and have a meal with us when you’re ready.” There was a large group of Filipino women in the building and they all welcomed me with open arms and went on to become good friends of mine. They took care of me, shared their food and stories with me and made sure I was alright and was adjusting to life in the Kingdom. Talk about random acts of kindness at a time when I didn’t even know what that saying meant! Between the Saudi women in the Jeddah airport and the Filipino women in Khamis Mushayt, I was totally awestruck by the spontaneous goodness of people and the power that a little act of kindness has to totally change how someone's feeling!
Although life in the Kingdom was completely different from anything I had ever experienced, those first 3 months were so cathartic that I went back for more. After my first contract was finished, I returned to Canada just long enough to get another contract which took me back to Saudi for another 2 years.
Living and working in the Kingdom was definitely a turning point in my life. It allowed me to see how interesting and exciting other cultures and religions can be (I was raised Christian), a fascination I've carried with me all my life to every country I've traveled to.
And working overseas spawned my love of travel. Since that time I've been fortunate to do a lot of traveling to many different parts of the world and that, to me, has been the best education I could have ever had! In my mind there are no textbooks that can teach what you learn from simply going out into the world and interacting with people! And I'm constantly amazed by how happy people are even though they're living in extreme poverty and have so little. To me, they are the true heroes of the world; the ones who teach us that there's always hope and that no matter what's going on in your life, it's still worth it to get out of bed every single day and say YES to life!