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
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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.”


On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

Updated 17 August 2018
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On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

  • Hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups
  • Hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans

KUALA LUMPUR: For the millions of sun seekers who head to Thailand’s resort island of Phuket each year in search of stunning beaches and clear waters, cutting down on waste may not be a top priority.
But the island’s hotel association is hoping to change that with a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of plastic, tackling the garbage that washes up on its shores, and educating staff, local communities and tourists alike.
“Hotels unchecked are huge consumers and users of single-use plastics,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association and managing director of the Trisara resort.
“Every resort in Southeast Asia has a plastic problem. Until we all make a change, it’s going to get worse and worse,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Established in 2016 and with about 70 members — including all Phuket’s five-star hotels — the association has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list.
Last year the group surveyed members’ plastics use and then began looking at ways to shrink their plastics footprint.
As part of this, three months ago the association’s hotels committed to phase out, or put plans in place to stop using plastic water bottles and plastic drinking straws by 2019.
About five years ago, Lark’s own resort with about 40 villas used to dump into landfill about 250,000 plastic water bottles annually. It has now switched to reusable glass bottles.
The hotel association also teamed up with the documentary makers of “A Plastic Ocean,” and now show an edited version with Thai subtitles for staff training.
Meanwhile hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups.
“The association is involved in good and inclusive community-based action, rather than just hotel general managers getting together for a drink,” Lark said.
Phuket, like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines, has become a top holiday destination in Southeast Asia — and faces similar challenges.
Of a similar size to Singapore and at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia, Phuket is easily accessible to tourists from China, India, Malaysia and Australia.
With its white sandy beaches and infamous nightlife, Phuket attracts about 10 million visitors each year, media reports say, helping make the Thai tourism industry one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy.
Popular with holiday makers and retirees, Phuket — like many other Southeast Asian resorts — must contend with traffic congestion, poor water management and patchy waste collection services.
Despite these persistent problems, hotels in the region need to follow Phuket’s lead and step up action to cut their dependence on plastics, said Susan Ruffo, a managing director at the US-based non-profit group Ocean Conservancy.
Worldwide, between 8 million and 15 million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UN Environment says.
Five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for up to 60 percent of plastic waste leaking into the seas, an Ocean Conservancy study found.
“As both creators and ‘victims’ of waste, the hotel industry has a lot to gain by making efforts to control their own waste and helping their guests do the same,” Ruffo said.
“We are seeing more and more resorts and chains start to take action, but there is a lot more to be done, particularly in the area of ensuring that hotel waste is properly collected and recycled,” she added.
Data on how much plastic is used by hotels and the hospitality industry is hard to find. But packaging accounts for up to 40 percent of an establishment’s waste stream, according to a 2011 study by The Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity.
Water bottles, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and even food delivered by room service all tend to use throw-away plastics.
In the past, the hospitality industry has looked at how to use less water and energy, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator at the “Break Free From Plastic” movement in Manila.
Now hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans.
“A lot of hotels are doing good work around plastics,” adopting measures to eliminate or shrink their footprint, said Hernandez.
But hotels in Southeast Asia often have to contend with poor waste management and crumbling infrastructure.
“I’ve seen resorts in Bali that pay staff to rake the beach every morning to get rid of plastic, but then they either dig a hole, and bury it or burn it on the beach,” said Ruffo. “Those are not effective solutions, and can lead to other issues.”
Hotels should look at providing reusable water containers and refill stations, giving guests metal or bamboo drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and replacing single-use soap and shampoo containers with refillable dispensers, experts said.
“Over time, this could actually lower their operational costs — it could give them savings,” said Hernandez. “It could help change mindsets of people, so that when they go back to their usual lives, they have a little bit of education.”
Back in Phuket, the hotel association is exploring ways to cut plastic waste further, and will host its first regional forum on environmental awareness next month.
The hope is that what the group has learned over the last two years can be implemented at other Southeast Asian resorts and across the wider community.
“If the 20,000 staff in our hotels go home and educate mum and dad about recycling or reusing, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Lark.