Friday, 19th March, we drove 30kms northwest of Riyadh towards Al Uyaynah village. It has been quite a while since we spent some time with our RDA diving buddies.
We reached the Eye Park known in Arabic as Hadiqa AlAyoun by the locals at 8am. The park was empty, with only a few maintenance staff cleaning the area. Like most of the parks in Riyadh, the Eye Park is well maintained and clean. What makes it unique among others is that it is on top of a mountain with facilities provided for free.
There are several concrete gazebos on top of the valley and there’s also three separate play areas for children. Inside each gazebo, there’s a fireplace which can be used for barbeque.
Electric power outlets are available inside the huts which makes the place ideal for worry-free and convenient weekend gatherings.
We also joined the birthday celebration of Faith, daughter of Kuya Roden and Ate Maria who were amongst our very first friends in Riyadh. Imagine halo-halo and freshly grilled burgers at the mountain top?! Awesome!
At this time of the year before summer kicks off, being at the Eye Park has given us the best chance for clear mountain views, sunny skies and mild temperature. Since we arrived early at the place, we were able to take the best hut facing southeast overlooking the mountains surrounding Al Uyaynah and its main village. Our diver cum FPV enthusiast friends enjoyed flying their freestyle drones over the uniquely arid mountain landscape and sunny weather. It was also a delight to see big bikers following the trails around the valley.
Spending time with friends is one of the few pleasures in this life that costs us nothing but rewards us substantially. Im glad I had the chance to share a Friday with my diving buddies, and kuya Roden’s family though not underwater, but up in mountain park.
Trip to the North
Part 2 - The Sea, the Mountains and Roads of Tabuk
We left Al Ula at half past 11am on 9th March. The drive from the small city of Al Ula to the quite popular Tabuk province of the north is simply breathtaking. It’s basically a long journey from the countryside, but then again there were miles and miles of desert sands before us until somehow it enters an area of outstanding geological wonders. The cliffs and rock formations along the way is absolutely spectacular in a variety of colors of red, brown, green, and grey, with highlights of glistening yellow as the sunlight hits them. Unlike the valleys in Al Ula, those surrounding Tabuk look stiff and pointed from the top, forming cones and triangular shapes of all sorts.
Up early the following day, we drove far north of Tabuk for shore diving at the Gulf of Aqaba which is at the northern tip of the Red Sea. Good to know that the same coastline is divided (or shared) by Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
There were some incomprehensible arguments at the coastguard office, but finally we were allowed to dive at 11am. We had all the diving area for ourselves so we easily set up our tents, ready to enjoy the sun and the sea.
As per Eric and RDA’s account, the amazing visibility at Wasel site (King Abdullah Reef) was the best compared among all other parts of the Red Sea where we have done diving before. We thought the viz at Yanbu and Sharm El Sheikh were the topnotch, but this one beats them for sure.
Sadly though, amidst colorful corals and epic viz, there were less fish and marine life in the site.
Two dives at 135ft, an hour each at 15C water temp and we’ve ticked off Tabuk diving from our bucket list.
We noticed a lot of signages and ongoing construction sites related to the $500B Neom project in the area. Neom is a highly ambitious planned cross-border city in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia.
We passed by another popular site - the Georgios G Shipwreck which is a 40-year-old Greek ship that got stranded near the city of Tabuk on the shore of Bir Al-Mashi in Haql.
The trip back to Tabuk City took us almost 3 hours, due to quite a lot of detour/ traffic in the highway.
Visiting the Tabuk Castle was first on our list on our third day. It was an open museum and with free admission. We were the only visitors at the fort that morning so we enjoyed our self guided tour at the simple, yet picturesque architecture of the ancient castle which dated as far back 3500 BC though known origin was from year 1559.
We had several other museums and landmarks on our list to visit but most of them were closed either for renovation or due to COVID restrictions.
So we opted to head back northwest instead to see the popular Moses Well also known as Bir Al-Sa’idani in Bad’a. It is believed that Moses frequented this well and settled with his wife in this place after he was exiled from Egypt.
We then went to Madyan (or Midian), passing by the visitor center where the manager explained to us the historical significance of the areas surrounding Medyan and Maqna and how they are being protected and developed right now as valuable archeological parts of the Neom Project.
As I have been interested and curious to know more about the Nabatean people and culture, visiting Madyan was definitely a plus to our tour. Also known as Mugha’ir Shu’ayb, Medyan is still mostly unknown compared to Jordan’s Petra and Al Ula’s Madain Salih, although it has some of the most beautiful monumental tombs typical of the architecture of the ancient Nabatean kingdom.
After visiting the necropolis dug in the hillsides of the Jebel Mussalla, we drove farther west side on to Maqna (or Makna) to check out the springs on top of the Valley of Moses. It was a short trek up to the valley. Villagers say that Moses brought his people from Egypt through the Red Sea and when they asked him for water, they found the little springs where crystal clear water comes out of the ground in several places as if by magic. The spot is surrounded by beautiful palm trees and its water runs downhill towards a lush palm grove.
Springs of Moses on top of Maqna Valley. It was a short trek up to the valley. Villagers say that Moses brought his people from Egypt through the Red Sea and when they asked him for water, they found the little springs where crystal clear water comes out of the ground in several places as if by magic. The spot is surrounded by beautiful palm trees and its water runs downhill towards a lush palm grove.
It was already late afternoon and we decided to head back to the city. It was delightful and serene to watch the sun slowly setting down to the west, painting the sky orange and red, and the mountains glimmering of yellow and brown hues.
A hearty meal among Filipino friends at Western Road Steak & Grill concluded our third night at Tabuk City.
Our trip to the north of Saudi Arabia was a much needed break. With all the covid related restrictions since last year, our family hasn’t traveled as much as we used to. And after traveling to almost 50 countries around the world, it is indeed surprising to discover hidden jewels of history, culture, and amazing sea and landscapes that Saudi Arabia has - all within our reach.
Certainly though, seeing and knowing more about Saudi Arabia - its rich history, culture, people, geological wonders and even its future plans like the Neom project, makes me feel proud and humbled at the same time. To most people around the world, Saudi Arabia may just be a sandpit, a mere land of desert and oil, but for me and my family, it has been our second home and I will forever be grateful for the opportunities and privileges that this kingdom has given me.
Trip to the North: Ocampo Fam Travels KSA
Part 1- Al Ula Journey
We were due for annual vacation in Philippines but due to Covid restrictions, we decided to stay in Saudi Arabia and travel north/northwest of the kingdom instead.
We left Riyadh on Saturday, 6th March, at 6:30am. Our gps was set to Al Ula showing 1,070 kms on a 10.15hrs travel time.
The girls and I were mostly asleep half of the trip, waking up at pitstops along the way. My husband and our dear friend RDA shared driving. We had our quick lunch at a small park along Qassim Highway. It was a smooth road trip on a perfect sunny day.
As we approach the northern part of Al Madinah province, we were amazed by the gorgeous landscape of crazy beautiful rock formations in the high desert extending for miles upon miles in every direction and passing numerous small towns, most of which still retain a strong indigenous presence.
We reached Al Ula past 7pm and bought dinner from one of the local cafeterias. There were neither big or fancy restaurants in the area and it was rather dark and quiet. It kinda reminded me of my childhood in the province where we used to have dinner at 7pm and sleep early during night time.
The next day, we were up early for our full day itinerary. We have booked our tour tickets online beforehand through www.experiencealula.com.
We arrived at the Winter Park at 8:10am as we were asked to be at the bus 8:20am.
First Tour: Hegra Tour including Hejaz Railway Station and Mada’in Salih
Second Tour: Dadan and Jabal Al Ikmah Tour
Third Tour: Elephant Rock Tour
Free Admission/ Need prior booking
Note that a confirmed reservation is required to enter the Elephant Rock site. We were allowed to get in only at exactly 6pm as mentioned in our passes.
In between tours, we grabbed coffee and quick bites at the Winter Park. There’s a Dunkin Donut branch and Burger King among few other local food stalls.
We ended a long day with some local food from the city center.
For our third day in Al Ula, we didn't schedule any pre-booked tours. We opted to drive around and discover more about the town by ourselves.
We drove to the Maraya Concert Hall which is also known as Glass Building of Saudi but it was closed for renovation and we were not allowed in.
We went to a citrus farm and the owner let us pick some orange and lemon fruits by ourselves. There were at least 10 different varieties of citrus in the farm and we had a blast picking and eating and of course we took a bagful home too.
We strolled around the town admiring the unique, mesmerizing rock formations enclosing Al Ula. We drove up to one of the highest peaks along Al Madinah highway overlooking Al Ula town. With the echo from surrounding valleys, the girls enjoyed shouting their hearts out calling their KPoP idols and altogether doing countless BTS chants.
It was definitely surreal being so up close to the majestic rocks and actually touching, and climbing some.
On the fourth day, we got reservations for an early Al Ula Old Town Archeological Tour.
We paid 70 SAR for each ticket. We took the bus at the Winter Park at 8:20am. It was a 1.5hr tour.
Personally, I could say that the tour of the Al Ula Old Town was the highlight of our “experiencealula” journey. Not only because I have always been fascinated by history itself but exploring the mud houses in the old town made me appreciate the jewel that Al Ula is, and how it echoes with stories of the past, civilizations of old age, revolution and war, religion and beliefs, slavery and freedom, arts, primeval architecture and culture.
The numerous gates surrounding the previously existent village and the 40 meter fortress opened our eyes to the secrets of how this little town has adapted to changing times and developing perspective around it - of life itself and Arab traditions that circles around hospitality, family and also survival.
Sunny day with family @ Hidden Canyon
Im not sure when my thing for canyons actually started. But I have always been fascinated with canyons, either underwater or in the ground or high upland.
Last Friday, right after our usual biking routine at Wadi Hanifa, the #ocampers (lol i’ve just made that up to call Ocampo fam campers) headed a bit quite far down southern Riyadh to see the infamous hidden canyon.
It was almost lunch time when we reached the area. We decided to park on the right side facing South. There were few vehicles already in the area and while we were fixing our picnic mat and whatnots, two more cars came in with at least three western families with kids.
There was no water in the canyons as it has not rained since almost a few weeks, but the wind was a bit cold. Quite disappointing though because we have seen photos in the net of how beautiful the canyons are when there’s water on it.
What makes the Hidden Canyon special? Also known as Mawan Valley, the Hidden Canyon of Riyadh is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia.
Located near the city of Ad-Dilam, not very far from the center of Riyadh, it is also a site of stunning natural beauty which cannot be seen from a distance but only by standing at its head unlike many other canyons that we see on our way out of Riyadh.
The majestic view from the top of the hidden valley consists of two stone structures on both sides. The foundations of the wall were supported by high stone slabs while the wall itself is around 6 meters high or even more. The tower-like structures are conical in shape, with their centers open to the bottom, and they look like a cave without a roof.
I was contented from staying on top watching my kids go deep down the canyon all the way down to the center where the deepest part is. I could imagine how in many million years back, this very same colossal landscape was underwater and slowly forming its now magnificent shape.
We spent a few more hours relaxing in our newly found spot outside the city. We also had a share of freshly cooked chicken biryani from our Indian friends.
Taking one last look at the canyon before we leave the place, I somehow realized what makes a canyon special. Being such a vast, breathtaking spectacle as it is, a canyon is formed after many years of struggle from harsh environment and weather conditions - which I guess makes it a happy ending. Indeed, this not so “hidden” canyon with its stiff and stepped terraces, sandy bottom and scattering of smallholdings is worth the admiration.
I was browsing the net for some nice places to visit near Riyadh and I chanced upon Tumair or Tumayr where people say wild iris flowers bloom during spring time, for just a few hours between January to March.
6th Feb 2021 and off to Tumayr we went. We left at 10:20am with packed lunch, coffee and chips. It started raining midway so I didnt keep my hopes high. It was also my first time to drive north of Riyadh so I drove slowly. We reached Tumayr at 12:10pm.
From wikiloc, our landmark is a dam so when we found it, we parked nearby and walked around the area. The rain has stopped but it was still gloomy.
We found the iris plants scattered in between weeds, rocks and thorny desert plants. The onion-like leaves were a bit plentiful. The area was wadi-like (same like the Wadi Hanifa -Irqah part where we bike). The pale lavender bulbs looked like small cocoons. I wondered if we’ll be lucky to see them bloom today.
We decided to explore a bit more around Tumayr since it was our first time to visit. We took some photos around town and had a quick lunch. Shortly after 1pm we decided to go near the dam area again hoping to see if the iris bloomed. It felt like the sun was teasing us, showing itself for a minute and then hiding behind the clouds. I thought the iris would bloom if only the sun could be more generous.
Half past one, the field started to look lovelier. Finally the iris buds started opening to astonishing lavender and purple flowers. It was indeed a delight to see. It’s hard to imagine such beautiful flowers could grow out from mix sand and rocks amidst the harsh conditions of the desert. Some flowers opened up en masse while some remained closed until around 2pm.
The sun was still not shining through and thinking it might rain again, we decided to leave a few minutes past 2. There were still some unopened irises, reminding me of how some beautiful things in life take their time to happen, of how patience always pays of.
The pandemic since last year has hindered us to go out and travel as much as we wanted to. This short trip to Tumayr has been a breath of fresh air. Hoping to visit more places locally while we’re still here in Saudi Arabia, our second home.
Flynn Reef, The Great Barrier Reef
Off the coast of Cairns, Australia
First Dive: 57Ft/45Mins
Dive Sites: The Flats & Boulders
Second Dive: 42Ft/47Mins
Dive Site: Gordon's Mooring & Tennis Courts
Awesome dives with #SILVERSWIFT though getting to the dive site was totally another story. Very rough seas (the roughest I have ever been to!). Diving the GBR post summertime is not for the faint of hearts😩
Great visibility! Saw lots of large pelagic fish, six graceful turtles in all, sting rays, eels, and schools of jacks and sweet lips. Unfortunately, around 90% of the corals are either bleached, discolored or dead. I don't think such a massive destruction is man-made though but still it is both alarming and disappointing.
SILVERSWIFT crew and service far exceeded our expectation. They are very well organized, staff were friendly, polite, extremely helpful and considerate, especially most of the pssengers were sea sick (including me!😩😩). Snacks were plentiful and food choices for the lunch buffet were superb. A bit pricy compared to other GBR operators but definitely recommendable.
The vessel was enormous and today almost half full at 46 slots filled out of its 85 capacity. At times during the travel to the reef, Silverswift hammered and pounded thru the giant waves, I felf and it certainly sounded like it would disassemble itself any moment 🤣. But boy that vessel was tough! We reached Flynn Site at the outer reef and did our two dives at different mooring areas. There were 18 divers grouped according to experience among 3 divemasters. The rest of the joiners snorkeled around the bay-like snorkel sites.
We were back to Cairns at 4:30pm and the crew lined up outside to bid us goodbye.
Finally, I could say that my dive trip to earth's largest reef structure was remarkable. The whole experience itself from preparation of this trip to surviving the jaggiest and bumpiest of sea ride to reach the great barrier reef was worth remembering. It may not be one of the best dives (or dive sites) I had over the last 8 yrs of diving but hey, it's a tick off my bucket list just the same☺️.
So I had travelled quite a lot of times by car with my family from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Manama, Bahrain over the years especially when there was no cinema in Riyadh yet.
Last week, my trip to Manama was different because first, I didnt go there with my family, and second, I did commute by bus and train from Saudi to Bahrain across borders which was a first experience for me.
I had always been curious about Saudi Arabia's public transport system so I asked my friends and travel buddies, Sarah and Leonor if they would like to try it out too and I was not surprised finding out that their eagerness and excitement were no less than mine.
We booked our transportation online as follows:
Thursday, 2nd May 2019 - Riyadh ETD:3:00pm to Manama ETA 11:00pm via SAPTCO VIP Bus - Fare:180SAR (one way);
Saturday, 4th May 2019 - Manama ETD 10:00am to Dammam ETA 12:54pm via SAPTCO Bus - Fare: 70SAR (one way)
Dammam ETD 3:42pm to Riyadh ETA 7:19pm via Saudi Railways Train - Fare: 136.50SAR (one way)
We booked our accommodation at Panorama Hotel - a nice hotel located in Juffair which was near many
places we wanted to go to. Ladies night (and day) it was!
And the main question is: How was the commute from one kingdom to another? My answer: Well, it was indeed very convenient and organized - really unexpected (in a good sense!)😉
The VIP Bus from Riyadh, the SAPTCO Transport Bus from Manama and the train from Dammam left on time, not even a minute late. All the units we've been to were clean and well kept. Even the toilet inside the VIP Bus was tidy and unexpectedly not smelly🤣
I thought that maybe we will be delayed at the border as that weekend trip coincided with the closing of most schools in Saudi, but I thought wrong.
While crossing from Saudi to Bahrain, we arrived at 8:10pm at Saudi Customs, went down the bus to go to the Immigration section. We were asked to leave our passports at the Immigration Counter (Saudi), and went back to the bus. We waited for almost 30 minutes then the bus driver handed our passports back to us. At 9:00pm, we went down the bus again and proceeded to the Bahrain Passport Control Department. The queu was short and it took us no more than 10 minutes to finish. Then we were asked to put our
bags on the xray area while
a Bahraini Custom Officer inspected whatnots inside the bus. All checks and scans were done in roughly 90 minutes. Our bus left the border 9:38pm. We reached Manama Bus Station at 10:05pm which was an hour earlier than our ETA.
We had quite a good time that weekend in Manama - strolling around the old city and traditional souq, bar-hopping, shopping, watching movie, going to spa and just relaxing.
Going around Manama was quick
and easy as there is a lot of options to move around - Careem, Uber or just ordinary metered taxis are plentiful
and affordable as Manama is a small city and places to visit are within easy reach.
We left the hotel at 9:00 am on Saturday to catch our 10 am bus. We were earlyat the stationso we left our bags at the SAPTCO office and did a quick shopping for Bahraini sweets and spices
in the nearby souq. The blue SAPTCO Transport Bus left Manama at exactly 10am and we reached the Bahrain border shortly. At 10:30am the driver asked us to go down for Bahrain Passport Control check. There were three Bahraini officers in the office and it took them only 5 minutes to check all the passengers' passports and ID's. We climbed up the bus and reached Saudi border shortly. We waited inside the bus as the driver told us there was no need to go down to the Saudi Passport Control Office. Soon after, at
11:00am a Saudi officer got into the bus and took our passports one by one.
At 11:27am the bus driver returned to the bus and handed our passports back to us.
we waited thru a short traffic and at 11:35am, the driver instructed us to put ourbags in the xray machine. All the passengers heeded while another officer checked inside the bus. We waited beside the xray machine as all the passengers already lined up their bags. Finally it seemed that there was no officer available to operate the xray machine and at 11:51am our driver asked everyone to pick up the bags and return to the bus. We left the border at 11:55am and reached Dammam Bus Station at 12:25pm-that's half an hour earlier than our ETA!
We took a cab to the train station and we reached there at 12:50pm. We were very early for our trip and the station was pretty crowded. We tried to re-book our train ticket to a trip earlier (there was a train leaving at 1:35pm but it was full so we decided to go to a nearby (Othaim) mall to eat our lunch and pass time. We went back to the train station at 3:00pm to check in. The train
left Dammam on time and we reached Riyadh station as expected.
Overall it was a good experience I could say. A short, hassle-free weekend getaway from Riyadh through easy transport back and forth. And of course, spending quality time with friends away from hustle and bustle in the city is always a happy retreat.
I'm currently doing a Capstone project in my TESOL Certificate- Teach English Now! from Arizona State University (ASU) - Coursera and the first assignment is about teaching philosophy. I'm not sure how is it it but I thought of sharing it anyway.
My Teaching Philosophy by M. Ocampo
‘When one teaches, two learn.’ When I was in second grade, my teacher asked me to stand in front of our class to complete a sentence that she wrote on the board:” When I grow up, I want to be a _____.”
I was hesitant at first because as a young child, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to become and I don’t know how my classmates would react with whatever I write on the board. I paused for a while and thought hard then I went up straight to the board, grab a chalk and wrote “a teacher”. I remember some of my classmates laughing. They probably expected me to write doctor or lawyer or probably an engineer which would be quite the popular reply from kids our age then.
My passion for teaching grew considerably stronger when I reached high school because we were given an opportunity to teach the less fortunate children in our city. I joined several teaching outreach programs catering from street children in the slums to the minority tribes up in the mountainous part of our town. This experience has taught me a lot, not only about the simple facts and lessons we give them but most importantly about lessons in life that later on became more significant for me as I matured.
Coming from a poor family, I was not able to take a degree in teaching during college and instead, I graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmacy. But because teaching has always been a passion of mine, my first job was as an Instructor of Pharmacy in the University. I believed that teaching is not a one way street where only the teacher provides information and facilitates learning for the students. Rather teaching and learning is a wonderful exchange- a two way street between the teacher and his students.
Although I am abroad practicing my profession as a Pharmacist right now, I plan to teach again when I go back to my country. My passion for teaching has not withered over the years even though I neither had been in a classroom nor had a chance to teach students for a long time now. I want to pursue my desire to teach and learn “again” at the same time. For me, teaching is an opportunity to both teach and learn and for this, being a teacher becomes a privilege. Teaching is all about connection – a give and take relationship with all the knowledge and the ideals where love is the way forward and passion is what makes it real.
Once I get back to teaching, my short term goals as a teacher will include being able to provide meaningful lessons, facilitate enjoyable classroom activities and encourage students to practice what they learn from the classroom. On the other hand, my long term goals will be to help my students to explore their strengths and work out what their purpose is and to support them to have confidence, strong sense of self and positive outlook in life by inspiring them to become good citizens of the world, fostering a true way of being that I always hope myself to be.
I was in the car early morning and I suddenly glanced at the sun visor mirror. I thought I saw a grey hair just above the side of my forehead. I leaned towards the mirror and looked more closely. Ah, it is really a grey hair. I’m getting older- definitely.
And so my head started to spin. Did I miss anything? Realizations dawned.
Am I not cool anymore ( or was I ever?! –lol)? One thing is certain- I am happy with what and how my life has turned out to be, and I do believe that I still have a lot to do and achieve in the coming years. Cheers to more wisdom and years!
"Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."
There are times when I feel weary doing the same tasks every day. At work, the same routine and at home, all the chores. Sometimes I feel like doing the same things all the time loses the very meaning and purpose of the tasks, and that perhaps nobody really care whether it is done or not. I’m not spared from injustices at work and I’m never always appreciated. I sometimes feel that my efforts are unnoticed and the tasks I do seem unimportant.
And yet the more I think about it, I realize that every small choice I make, every small act or task I do impacts the people I love. I think about my family and those who are closest to me, and I realize that every small thing I do is worth doing. Yes. Small things done with purpose matter. Small things done with passion and love are a big deal.
What makes me happy?
People. Everyone around me who believes and inspires me.
Life itself is a happy experience. The world is a happy place.
I had my own share of struggles, life was not easy for us back then but my Dad taught me how to believe in myself, work hard , be kind and to be strong. He inspired me to go out of my comfort zone. He used to tell me that the possibilities in life are endless and so I believed him.
l Iost him quite a few years ago but he has left me with so much inspiration to follow my dreams - to visit places I have only dreamt of or have seen in the movies when I was little and to do things I thought were only for the privileged few.
Wherever I go, I always remember my Dad, wishing he could see me from afar and somehow be proud of me as I have always been so proud of him. Life is short and I promised him that I would make the most of mine.
Travelling makes me happy and in all other things, I choose happiness. We all should- always..