Young Saudi dentist breaks out of his comfort zone to tour 120 cities around the world on a backpacker’s budget

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Rayyan Abdulwahed
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Updated 11 August 2018

Young Saudi dentist breaks out of his comfort zone to tour 120 cities around the world on a backpacker’s budget

  • In his travels, Rayyan Abdulwahed volunteered as a dentist in Cambodia and at a refugee center in Greece
  • Aside from experiencing different cultures, Abdulwahed had also tried eating the weirdest native delicacies in many places

JEDDAH: Take a minute and imagine all the images you’ve seen of travel destinations on your social media feed disappear. Now, why not turn that dream of visiting them into reality? One Saudi traveler decided to do just that on a backpacker’s budget, traveling to 120 cities across four continents.

Rayyan Abdulwahed, a 29-year-old dentist from Alkhobar, has always sought to challenge himself by breaking out of his comfort zone. Speaking exclusively to Arab News from his hometown, he told stories of his experiences, including a recent 15-month journey to Europe’s Balkan states and South America.
“I was a shy and timid child, and went to Jordan to study dentistry after high school,” he said. “I tried my take on traveling alone for the first time during that freshman year — and I haven’t been able to stop since.”
Spain was Abdulwahed’s first destination. Staying with a family and learning Spanish at a nearby institute helped him feel independent, and he got a taste of what it’s like to travel alone.
For a couple of years, Abdulwahed traveled to countries such as Kenya and Cambodia as a volunteer, visited France to live with another family and improve his French, and took his brothers hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“Kenya was hard to grasp at first,” he said. “I volunteered in an orphanage for two weeks, and it was difficult to see whole families and communities living in slums on mountains of garbage. At some point, it hit me that we’re very blessed; it hit hard. I understood then and there that I would be selfish if I didn’t try to bring a significant change in a life.”
Abdulwahed spent time volunteering in Cambodia as a dentist and teacher. Giving back to a less privileged community is as satisfying as going on a beach vacation, he said; it’s just how you choose to look at it. He believes that the key to traveling the world is self-exploration and pushing your limits, while keeping a tight budget and living the moment.
Case in point: His stay at a Buddhist temple in China. “I had just finished a residency program in Riyadh and I had been working non-stop for months,” he said.
“I was given forced vacation leave and found myself booking a stay at a Buddhist temple. There was nothing spiritual or religious about it. I just wanted to experience what it’s like to stay there. We did tai-chi every day and kung-fu, cleaned, meditated from early sunrise to sunset. Rumor has it that the shifu (master) of the famous movie “Kung-Fu Panda” is based on the monastery’s shifu.”
At the same time, a plan was brewing in the young traveler’s mind. “The plan was simple: A cultural experience on the smallest budget ever. I would start volunteering at a refugee camp in Thessaloniki, Greece, for three weeks, then I had a one-way ticket to Colombia. What happened next was unexpected,” he said.
“Instead of my three weeks as a volunteer dentist, it turned into three months. It was a demanding and an addictive job. You just couldn’t stop. I was performing dental procedures for people who hadn’t seen a dentist in years. It was a surreal experience, difficult at times, too.
“Dealing with teenagers was the hardest. They were traumatized from their war-stricken homelands and just seeing the dental tools could freak them out. Some might have been tortured; you never knew who you were dealing with. I was empathetic and numbed, which helped with my stay at the camps.”
Abdulwahed canceled his flight to Colombia and found a budget-friendly flight to Romania. “The only catch was that it was five weeks away, so I did what any rational person would do — couch-surfed my way through the Balkans, of course, before reaching Romania,” he said.
His months-long journey through South America began in Bogota, Colombia. “I couch-surfed and stayed in hostels, getting to meet people and communicate. We don’t do that often, as far as I could see. We don’t know much about the world and neither does the world know much about us,” Abdulwahed said.
“Take this example: I met a German girl at one of the hostels, and she asked me where I came from. I said Saudi Arabia. She said that her dad worked there, and I felt excited — finally, someone knew where my country was. I asked her where her dad worked. She said Dubai. I face-palmed then and there. Sorry, another country.”
Meeting different people from across the world was fascinating, but for someone who thought he was proficient in Spanish, Abdulwahed soon found that was far from the case.
“From the first day I stepped on to Colombian soil, I knew my Spanish was not as good as I thought it would be. It was time to learn the proper way, by traveling. I stayed in Medellin, fasting during Ramadan and studying during the day. Things started to look up.”
So many cities, so many memorable experiences. He improved on his Spanish while traveling through Colombia, hitchhiked his way through Chile for three months, hiked up Machu Picchu in Peru, worked in the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia, watched the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, tasted the famous steaks of Argentina, and even took an “expensive” flight to Easter Island to see the Moai statues.
South America had a lot to offer: Indigenous tribes, ancient civilizations, superb food — and even better people.
“One of the most adventurous things I’ve done would be in Iquique, Chile. I took a paragliding course, but I haggled with the instructor, wanting only five days instead of 10 and ignoring the certificate for a lower price. I should have realized the red flags, but I ignored them. So, I took the necessary course, and my instructor and I headed out to the top of a hill about 500 meters above sea level to run, fly and land on the beach. That was the plan. But it didn’t go so well.”
“A million questions ran through my mind, and I was already on the edge of my seat. I ran off the hill and off I flew. The cars and people looked like ants from up above. I was flying and relishing every moment. The instructor was guiding me on which direction I should take to gain elevation through a mic in my ear. The only problem was I was supposed to be going up, but instead I was dropping fast. I could only see the highway by now and the cars were getting closer.
He paused, recalling his brush with danger. “I calculated where I was going to land, and found a small dirt bend that had a hill drop on the side of the highway. Miraculously, I landed safely, with only a few scratches, and people ran to check if I was
OK. Thankfully, I was. With the adrenaline still high, I hitchhiked back up the hill again and took another turn, flying over the whole city, and landing on the strip of sandy beach just as I wanted. The feeling was indescribable.”
Now that’s an exclusive even his mother didn’t know about.
Abdulwahed’s journey ended back where it started: Greece. He spent the final two months of his 15-month journey volunteering at camp Moria, on the island of Lesbos, where refugees and asylum-seekers arrived each day in search of a better life.
Exploring the world is one of the most invigorating and life-changing experiences. Abdulwahed’s journeys confirm that. “It could sound a bit cliched, but it’s true: Traveling does make you a better person.”


Work begins on world’s largest cultural and heritage development in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah’s landscape has attracted many visitors, and as the Kingdom opens its doors to the world the tourist site is a must-see. The initiative is one of the top major projects in KSA. (Photo/Diriyah Gate)
Updated 15 June 2020

Work begins on world’s largest cultural and heritage development in Saudi Arabia

  • Inspired by At-Turaif, Diriyah Gate will anchor a vision for the future on a jewel from the Saudi past

RIYADH: While many countries in the world have halted construction work and put projects on hold due to the pandemic, Saudi Arabia continues to move forward with its giga-projects, including the homeland of its forefathers, Diriyah.

Construction on the first phase of Diriyah Gate has resumed in the past few weeks as plans are set to transform the 7 sq/km Old Town into one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost historic cultural destinations, just 15 minutes from downtown Riyadh.
“The investments in massive upgrades and infrastructure are continuing despite the economic climate,” Danielle Ainslie, chief marketing officer at the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, told Arab News. “We have literally begun work in the world’s largest cultural and heritage development,” she said.
Ainslie considers work on a giga-project during this time as a “great global message.”
“There are economies that are still thriving, and Saudi Arabia is one of them. Irrespective of COVID-19, it is business as usual and the focus is on Vision 2030 and realizing Vision 2030,” Ainslie said.
The project is well on its way with a new addition to the team: Princess Deena Nahar Al-Saud recently joined as senior director of brand strategy and experience. With an extensive background in business development and a passion for branding, design and experience, she previously worked with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage where she was a key member in the tourism visa team and led the “Open Hearts, Open Doors” tourism visa launch event.
Speaking to Arab News, she described Diriyah as her favorite location in the city, a space that she said “holds beautiful stories of the past and reminds me of our nation’s inspiring future.”
“Being in close proximity to At-Turaif always leaves me speechless. The walls surrounding Salwa Palace are extraordinary, and I am grateful to have started a journey that will showcase Diriyah to the world,” she said.
Inspired by At-Turaif, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Diriyah Gate will anchor a vision for the future on a jewel from the Saudi past. It will bring together Saudi’s foremost collection of culture, lifestyle, learning and hospitality. The mixed-used development will showcase 300-plus years of authentic history by delivering heritage experiences, empowering education, world-class entertainment, outstanding lifestyle and vibrant shopping and dining.
Unified by an authentic cultural identity that transcends time, Diriyah will be a place of historical significance for Saudis.

FASTFACT

Construction on the first phase of Diriyah Gate has resumed in the past few weeks as plans are set to transform the 7 sq/km Old Town into one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost historic cultural destinations.

As part of the operational phase, the restoration of Wadi Hanifa, a valley that runs for many kilometers and creates an incredible landscape, is as Ainslie described the reason behind the existence of Turaif where a major part of the project will include the replanting of about 20,000 historic palms this year.
Creating free public spaces for all to enjoy, just as London has its Hyde Park and New York has its Central Park, Diriyah will have its own free public space, with researchers investigating the history of the area and staying true to the landscape, planting authentic plants that historically grew in this area.
“That natural oasis or wadi was primarily the reason that the settlement was there, even before the first Saudi state ... and today that is one of the main goals to bring it back to its original state,” Princess Deena said.
Ainslie said that the restoration of the wadi would create one of the Kingdom’s largest and most beautiful parks with three zones — a culture and heritage zone, a living zone, and an ecotourism zone. “We’ve already started the process of replanting trees and not just palm trees, but also other plants that are native to Diriyah.”
“When I close my eyes and I think of Diriyah, I think of palm trees. So, restoring the wadi to this beautiful parkland is going to be really important,” Ainslie said.
Watching families out by the wadi in the evening having picnics and having coffee and dates was “something special,” she said.
“That’s what the development is really about; bringing back the places for families to gather and meet and to enjoy a better climate with the cool breeze and the green,” she said.
Work has already started in Bujairi to improve infrastructure and make it easier for people to get there to enjoy the beautiful sites of Wadi Hanifa and the historical sites of At-Turaif, as well as being a destination for food and dining, Ainslie said.
“Diriyah already is an amazing gathering place and what we’re building is one of the world’s greatest gathering places. And obviously, a key part of that is its dining and food; it is a real reason why people come to visit,” she said.
From luxury and fine dining to local restaurants and food halls, Diriyah will provide something for everyone to enjoy.
Diriyah’s history and landscape has attracted many visitors over the years, and as the Kingdom opens its doors to the world the tourist site is a must-see.
“You wouldn’t go to Egypt without seeing the pyramids. I don’t want people to come to Saudi Arabia without seeing At-Turaif,” Ainslie said.