Should I move to Saudi Arabia?

A chance meeting by a public toilet and a few days later my grey cells whirring.


A rainy Sunday morning on Stronsay. About 350 people supposedly live on this straggly Northern Isle of Orkney, but I rarely saw them. The ‘all arms and legs’ shape of the island does mean that there are lots of lovely coves and sandy beaches, and it was above one of these (St Catherine’s Bay) that I parked up outside the community centre and waited for the patch of blue sky I could see in the distance to reach me. I sat with a mug of steaming coffee intending to read, but stared out of the windscreen instead at the mesmerising seascape of blues, greens, greys and frothy whites. As always, when I get the time to stare at the sea, or mountains, or any other nice, natural view, my mind started to wander and ideas began to form.

Two nights previously I’d pulled up at public toilets at the end of a track, by a beach, just outside the small village of Evie on the Orkney mainland’s northern coast. I planned to sleep there. Not long after I’d arrived a car pulled up. The lone woman looked at her maps, got out and checked out the beach, wandered round, basically doing all the things I was doing. After a short while of this, I decided to go for a walk along another track that seemed to follow the bay round. At the same time, the other woman also decided to go for a walk along the track, so we joined up.

Turned out Caitlin was also on holiday, travelling round in her car and sleeping in the back of it. Like me, when looking for somewhere to sleep, she hunted out quiet spots with a nice view and convenient loos.

We walked for further than we intended, getting excited when we unexpectedly came across a geological phenomenon of basically what are reformed rocks. Sand is made from either rocks or shells that have been ground down. Here the process has gone step further and shell sand has reformed itself back into rocks. Or not really ‘back’ into rocks as it was never rocks in the first place, but shells, as though it was jealous of the sand that had once been rocks and had wanted its own turn at being a rock. We clambered over the formation which still looked like sand, expecting the grains to move underfoot, but they didn’t; they were all stuck together, solid as a rock. Very weird.

sand turned to rock
Rock formed from shell sand

We continued along the track until we reached the far side of the bay and the Broch of Gurness. The broch stands in the middle of the site and has the ruins of a neolithic village around it. The village is made up of a series of one-roomed houses interlinked by corridors which would have been originally been roofed over for protection against the weather. The houses still have the remains of beds and dressers inside them, all made out of stone, Flintstones style. The most well-known example of this type of village is, of course, Skara Brae on the west coast, but this is pretty impressive too and the I think I preferred this one.

Broch of Gurness
Neolithic village at the Broch of Gurness
The seal was still there next morning

The gate had a notice on it giving official opening hours but nothing was closed off so we wandered round having a good nosey and enjoying having the place to ourselves. Well, apart from two very friendly cats and an observant seal that is. I didn’t have my camera with me so went back the following morning to take photos, and although there were several tour groups looking round, there was still no warden.

Broch of Gurness
Broch of Gurness

During our walk we’d chatted about where we’re from, what we do, and so on. Turns out Caitlin, who’s from Angus, lives in Saudi Arabia. She’s just finished a year teaching English as a foreign language at the university in Riyadh and is waiting on her visa being renewed so she can go back for a second year.

My intentions when I became a teacher, were never to do it as a lifelong career choice. Life is far too short to spend it all doing the same thing. I always thought I’d be a teacher for five years – two in the UK getting experience and then three years in the Middle East, earning good money and getting to experience life and culture in a part of the world that really fascinates and interests me. But, the best laid plans and all that …

I’m about to go into my eighth year of teaching and I’m still in Manchester. I have thought about moving elsewhere – I got very tempted by a job in Skerries (in Shetland) a couple of years ago – but the thing that’s held me back has been my parents who are getting older, with all the issues that can entail, and since I moved back to Manchester eleven years ago, they’ve got so used to me being here, it would be quite a wrench for them to have me move away again.

I decided against the Skerries job because it was just too far and time-consuming to get ‘home’ easily and quickly. It would be impossible to pop home for a weekend and I really didn’t fancy spending all my school holidays in Manchester.

Sitting above the beach in Stronsay, thinking in the rain, my thoughts turned to Saudi Arabia and how feasible it would be for me to work there. Many Middle East countries are quite open to tourism and so it’s possible to visit and get an idea of the place. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t really do tourism. Apparently they’re tentatively exploring the idea but it’s really in its embryonic stages and will be a long time, if ever, before it really opens up. So the only way to really get to know and explore this birthplace of Islam and politically important country is to work there.

Caitlin told me that by the time her visa was sorted out last year it was October, and the academic year finishes in June, so that’s really only eight months I’d be away. And if anything serious did happen at home, it would be quicker to fly home from Saudi Arabia than it would be to get home from somewhere like Skerries which involves two ferries (including an overnight one) and a lot of driving. The more I thought about it the more things seemed to slip into place.

I’d like to develop my writing but living in a busy heavily populated UK city limits opportunities – far too many people all doing – or wanting to do- the same thing. Also I really struggle to find the time to keep up my blog, let alone anything else. Saudi, however, could be a completely different kettle of fish. Friends who have lived in expat communities and wanted to write, have tended to find more opportunities than there are here. Also, there isn’t that much written about Saudi Arabia compared to many other places. And if Saudi Arabia is really trying to develop its fledgling tourist industry, now could be the time to become a travel-writer based there. A good chance of write place, write time maybe?

I could also use Riyadh (or Jeddah) as a base to explore other parts of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Caitlin said it’s quite feasible to pop over to Dubai for a weekend. I could have the chance to get to know the various Emirates quite well and squeeze in a couple of visits to my teacher friend, Dawn, in Oman.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Antarctica and how I really need to do something about getting myself there. I don’t really want to go on a cruise – as well as being expensive I’d feel too much on the outside looking in. What I really want to do is go to live there for a while – at least six months and ideally for a full year. As I’m not a scientist that means applying for support type jobs, for instance, as a cook. But I know my chances would be really limited and as I get older, my age is going to go against me as well (maybe I’m already too old?).

Ideally I’d go as a writer/researcher, writing from an anthropological perspective. I always thought if I did a PhD it would be Middle East based research, but over the past few years I’ve been thinking more about how fascinating it would be to carry out research on an Antarctic base.  I’ve even researched universities that are involved in Antarctic research but I’ve not been able to get any leads for anthropological research.

If I started to establish myself as a writer and researcher in Saudi Arabia this may give me a way in to Antarctica. Long shot I know, but stranger things have been known to happen.

I’m feeling that coming across that talk on Antarctica in Lerwick and then running into Caitlin (outside a toilet at the end of a lonely track – really, what are the chances of that?) is all part of a universal nudge to try and get me back on track with my life plans and working towards achieving some of my goals. I could even give learning Arabic a pretty good shot whilst living in Saudi Arabia.

All this from sitting looking at a beach in the rain. I really should do it more often!


A talk on the Arctic and Antarctica

From East Africa to the Arctic and Antarctica. Including Shetland. Gavin Francis has led my idea of a dream life.

Last night I went along to Lerwick library to listen to Gavin Francis talk about his two books. I can’t believe I’d not heard of him before as I consider myself to be quite aware of all the travel writing books on the Arctic and Antarctica. I only knew about last night’s talk because of an article in the Shetland Times promoting the event. The article mentioned he’d started his Arctic journey in Unst which is another reason I’m surprised not to have come across him before as I’d thought I’d read all the travel writing books which mention my favourite island in my favourite archipelago.

Gavin Francis is a medical doctor who had spent some time working in East Africa and at the end of his stint he felt the need to go somewhere completely different to the heat and crowds of Africa. The Arctic is a bit different to Africa so this was where he headed using the Great Bear as a defining boundary (he visited places the constellation can be seen from) and concentrating on the European Arctic rather than the American.

He followed a route that led him from Shetland to the Faroes and into Iceland and Greenland, before exploring Spitzbergen and Scandinavian Lapland. To add extra interest to his journey (as though these places aren’t already interesting enough!) he followed routes documented by early writers. Shetland, for example, was written about over 2000 years ago by an early Greek traveller, Pytheas, who visited around the time the brochs were being built. As his journey went on he followed the writings of far more up-to-date and modern explorers e.g. the Vikings. 

Obviously he didn’t get cold enough in the Arctic because not long after he headed off to Antarctica to spend a year working as the resident doctor on British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Base. It took a while to get there on a boat that went via the Falklands, South Georgia and Bird Island. Once there it was all hands to the deck unloading two thousand drums of kerosene. A couple of weeks later, when the unloading was done, the ship left and it was time to settle in to life with just 13 other people.

About half the people on the base are scientists of various disciplines and the rest are support staff, such as the doctor, a chef, mechanics and engineers. He says he hasn’t gone into much detail about his role as doctor due to there being so few people it would be too easy for people to know who he was talking about and this would of course break medical confidentiality issues. Instead he talks about his time spent partaking in non-medical activities, such as trips out to visit the neighbours; a colony of emperor penguins. With the onset of 24 hour darkness there was plenty of time to observe the night skies and become familiar with constellations and blase with auroras. He also found time to write ‘True North’, his book based on his Arctic travels. Since returning home to Scotland he has written his second book; ‘Empire Antarctica’.

His talk last night, was divided into two half hour sessions, one for each book, with a 15 minute break between and a Q&A session at the end. The talk was engaging and interspersed with a few short readings from his own books and those of relevant others. He also passed around a few artefacts, such as his boots and gloves (big, bulky, heavy) and an emperor penguin egg (pointy, bumpy, slightly larger than a duck egg). The library was full, with people even sitting upstairs in what would have originally been the choir (it’s in an old church). Many of them were older and although there were a lot of locals present, there were tourists other than myself. I sat next to a Dutch lady who was in Lerwick with her husband on their yacht. They have sailed all over the world, including all the places Gavin spoke about. They funded their nomadic, floatational lifestyle by running a yacht business and the lady also wrote books and magazine articles on sailing and their travels.

Now I have even more ideas buzzing around inside my head. I love all the inspiration I get up here from all the amazing people I’m constantly meeting. I hope I continue to get ideas and inspiration from Orkney, though I’m sure I will. I leave on the ferry tonight.

South of Sanity

A fascinating glimpse at life on an Antarctic base. Don’t think they get that many murders on a regular basis though.

14 souls were left to winter-over on Britain’s largest Antarctic Base.
Nearly six months into their winter, all contact was lost. When a party was sent in to investigate, no one was found alive …

Cut off from the outside world, the small community gradually become fractured and antagonistic. From out of this dark crucible of malcontent, a killer emerges. In the isolated and disparate group, members are picked off one by one, paranoia ensues and no one is safe.

So reads the blurb on the back of this DVD.

The film is entirely set in Antarctica and was written, filmed and produced by a group of over-wintering scientists and support staff at a British base. During the long winter months no-one can get in or out and the base staff are at a minimum. Some of the staff decided to take the concept of making their own entertainment a step further than usual and created an entire feature film.

The resulting horror is predictable and at times the acting is a little wooden. If this was a Hollywood blockbuster I wouldn’t rate it. However, bearing in mind it’s an amateur film, filmed in limiting circumstances (can’t just nip out to the shop to buy another bottle of ketchup when you run out of blood), I think it’s bloody brilliant. Very bloody in fact; the killings get more macabre and by the end I could understand why it is certificate 18.

I also liked the film because I got to see the inside of one of the Antarctic bases. Spending time in Antarctica is one of the things I would really love to do, but may be one of the challenges on my list that I end up doing half-heartedly (a quick visit rather than living there for a while). If I was younger and commitment free I’d be applying for jobs and focusing on making sure I got one. But my current circumstances prevent me from being able to do this and I don’t see it changing in the forseeable future. A film like this, that shows me glimpses of life on a base, keeps the dream ticking over. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of murders in Antarctica and there are no records of there ever having been a serial killer, so I think I’d be safe on that score.

Here’s a link to the trailer on youtube.

Ice Station

Thrills and spills galore in this page-turner set in Antarctica.

By Matthew Reilly

I picked this up in a charity shop just before Christmas. I hadn’t heard of Matthew Reilly before but it sounded like a good fast-paced thriller – the sort of story I could easily lose myself in when I needed a bit of respite from all the chaos around me during my house renovations. The fact that it is set in Antarctica also had something to do with its attraction.

Within a couple of pages I was hooked and managed to read all 704 pages in the space of a few days. The story starts when a remote (even for Antarctica) research station puts out a distress call – the residents think they have found an alien spacecraft buried in the ice sheet and the group of scientists they sent into a cavern to investigate failed to return.

A group of American marines are sent to investigate but find the threat of death by alien to be the least of their worries. They come under attack by commandos from other countries eager to claim the extra-terrestrial prize for themselves, by killer whales, nuclear enhanced seals, and rogue elements from their own side. The action is a non-stop roller-coaster of thrills and spills and as long as you suspend any sense of incredulity it’s a great ride.

This book is just begging to be turned into an extreme Hollywood action thriller and was actually optioned by Paramount. The screenplay was written but then they let the option expire; maybe because they realised the difficulty and cost it would entail to do the story justice? The special effects and stunts required would make the Die Hard and James Bond films seem sedate by comparison. I really hope someone takes the plunge though as this would be a film I’d really like to see.

This book is by no means high literature but as far as easy, captivating reads go, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while.



Winning a competition would be one way of getting to Antarctica.

Antarctica must be the most intriguing and magical place on earth. I don’t just want to visit it, but to live there for a while, spend time, get to know it. I’ve researched working, studying and doing my own research there, but nothing is really feasible at the moment.

Whilst in Norfolk this week I was chatting to my friend about the things we’d both like to do and the places we’d both like to go. Along with Kilimanjaro, Antarctica is on both of our lists. Sitting in the pub on Sunday evening I browsed through a local tourist magazine whilst Valinda was at the bar. There was nothing of particular interest until I got near the end and saw an article about winning a trip to Antarctica. This just reinforces my belief that if you talk about things, write them down, bring them to the forefront of your mind, then things happen. This isn’t magic or fate, it’s just a case of tuning oneself in to the opportunities that are around us all the time. Even if I hadn’t been thinking of Antarctica, that article would still have been in the magazine. Only difference would be that I would have just flicked over the page and not paid any attention to it.

So, now I have a competition to enter. I’ve looked on the website and it all seems very simple – just take some award winning photographs in a wetlands centre. Hm, well with my simple point and shoot camera and my lack of award winning photography skills it might be a bit harder than it looks. But even though I don’t have much hope of winning, by entering and taking it seriously I should improve my photography skills, get to go to Martin Mere wetland centre (which I’ve never been to) and improve my knowledge of birds which is something I’m trying to do anyway.