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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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.”

Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

Khulood Al-Fadhli and her brother Bader at Uhuru Peak. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2018

Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

  • Khulood Al-Fadhli tells Arab News about the physical battle she won to ascend Africa’s highest peak
  • As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away, remembers Al-Fadhli

JEDDAH: A 36-year-old Saudi-based Green Leaves Playgroup principal went on an extreme adventure in August by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It was the first on her seven summits list.

Khulood Al-Fadhli said she had a love for adventures ever since she was a child.

“My father instilled a love for adventure in me. I remember 10-15 years ago, when Eid vacations were extremely cold, we used to camp in Asfan for two nights and climb Al-Qamar mountain, and I enjoyed climbing that mountain. So, climbing mountains was something within me since childhood,” she told Arab News.

“Fast-forward to who I am now, I still love it. I go to that area in Asfan, and sometimes I take my kids there and tell them, ‘This was my Eid’,” she added.

She halted these activities for a while. “At the beginning of my married life, I turned away from these adventures for a while. I was only focusing on raising my kids and my career, until this happened. I found a group that organizes these trips to Kilimanjaro, then I read about Mount Kilimanjaro and the process of climbing it. Climbing up takes you five days, descending the mountain takes you two.”

Al-Fadhli said It’s not about the peak, it’s about the journey itself. “I was really amazed when I read the things that happen within the journey.”

She explained that the effects of high altitudes could strike at any moment during the climb and can be life-threatening in certain cases. “It’s not about being mentally or physically fit. There’s a chance of getting altitude sickness, and I always say this altitude has a very bad attitude! Because high altitudes can cause one to feel nauseous or have a headache and dizziness. Sometimes the extreme ones are life-threatening; water fills in your lungs, or your brain. If any of these happen, you should immediately descend because it’s very dangerous. Alhamdulillah, nothing like that happened during my trip.”

She experienced severe headaches during her adventure. “The problem I suffered was on day two: I had an extreme headache. I was the only one who had this headache.

“Then on the third day, I had the headache again, alone. I was asking the guide ‘Will I have these excessive headaches every day and will I be the only one having them?’ He said, ‘This is just the altitude.’ That comforted me. I took some painkillers and it went away.

“The fourth day the headache came. The fifth day, which is the summit day, the push of the summit, I did not experience any headache.”

Al-Fadhli admits it's not all about reaching the peak. (Supplied)

The summit day was an eight-hour climb that started at midnight.

“We woke up at 11 p.m., had our dinner then started our trek, climbing up at 12 a.m. They told us from 5 p.m. to relax and try to sleep as much as possible because at 11 you have to wake up.”

“Imagine me knowing that I am going to the summit at 11, and it was 5 p.m. and I was in my tent. I couldn’t even close my eyes, I was really excited.

“I was afraid of a headache, afraid that it would become severe at the summit. because they say it’s the altitude. The summit is around 6,000 meters high. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

“It was 11, my phone rang. It was time to start packing our backpacks. My Panadol Extra was in my pocket, ready for my severe headache. I’d just have to reach into my pocket.”


The members of the group must proceed with extreme caution, she explained. “We started our day at midnight, but a lot of people were with us, so many different groups from so many different places, and on your way up to the summit, you don’t see anything. It’s just you, the mountain and the stars and the headband flashlights of the people you’re with.

“And you see the flashlight from the ground all the way to the summit. It was a really lovely route. You can’t see the summit because it’s dark. You don’t know if you are heading for a cliff because of the darkness, which is why you have to use your flashlight — focus on your steps and the person in front of you.”

Her group consisted of seven people, but the number decreased.

“We reached a point where one of the men in my group suddenly sat down and had to hold his head. I remember how he looked, and I was really worried about him. He wasn’t like this on day one. The guide said, ‘Well, it looks like a severe altitude sickness that affected him.’ He stayed with him and had a talk. When someone stays and delays the others, one guide stays with him. Either we all wait and stay, or we move and one guide stays with that person.

“The guide asked him if he was OK, but he felt dizzy and couldn’t continue. He said, ‘I’m going to descend.’ Then the guide informed us that the man was descending, and I was shocked. The strongest one among us pulled out.

“Two hours later, a lady felt dizzy. Her husband supported her and encouraged her to continue, and the guide also spoke to her. I was looking at them negotiating from far away. Five minutes later, they also pulled out. From the seven, three had pulled out, and only four were left.

“One of the girls got really tired. She stopped and said she wanted to take a rest for 20 minutes and didn’t want anyone to wait for her. The guide told me she wanted to relax and take baby steps and she would like to have excessive stops for 20 minutes so no one should wait for her. She could stay with a porter. Someone was with her.

“I couldn’t know anything about her, so we were only three. Me, my brother and a lady. One hour later — which was three hours away from the summit — the lady said there was something wrong with her heart. It was beating irregularly.

“Five minutes later, the guide came to me and said she had pulled out. And it was only me and my brother. And that’s when I asked, ‘Bader, do you think we can make it?’ Everyone had pulled out. It was really scary.

“Imagine, you’re a group of seven going up together, and one after another pulls out. I felt like I was in a horror movie. And above all, it was at night.”

Al-Fadhli witnessed a breathtaking view. “At 4:35 a.m., I started to see the sunrise between the huge cliffs. I saw the sunrise while I was going up, and was completely overwhelmed at the beauty of the site. I was trekking and I looked to my right and there it was, the sunrise and the mountains. The feeling was overwhelming,”

She experienced physical exhaustion, but pushed through and succeeded. “When we reached Stella point, which was one hour from the summit, there was a sign that said, ‘Congratulations, you reached Stella point.’

“Uhuru peak is the top, and Uhuru means freedom. So many people reach Stella point then become really exhausted from the seven-hour walk, ascending in the middle of the night in the cold. Most of the people, like me, hadn’t slept.

“Imagine from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and I’m still awake. I reached Stella point exhausted. I told my brother and my guide I wanted to relax at Stella point. Let me think if I can actually make it to the top because I couldn’t even bend my toes. And I was anticipating the walk I still had ahead.

“I sat down and started to fall asleep. The guide woke me up, telling me we still had one more hour. I started to break down a little. The guide was very clever. He asked us all some questions because people tend to hallucinate at this point. So he asked some questions, making sure everything was fine — that I was just exhausted and tired and wanted to sleep, which was normal for a human body awake for more than 24 hours, trekking in the middle of the night in cold weather. And on that day, I did not have any headaches.

“My brother was my support. He encouraged me when I thought I had reached my limit at Stella Point.”

When Al-Fadhli made it to the top, she and her brother raised the Yemeni and the Saudi flags.

“My motivation was to raise both flags: My Yemeni flag as I’m from Yemen, along with the Saudi flag. I’m really proud of my roots, and I’m really honored to be living in Saudi Arabia. I was born and raised here and I consider myself Saudi. I’m telling everyone I’m from both countries. I’m very happy that I’m rooted in both.”

She successfully completed her adventure in good health. “As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away. I reached the top in full health with no pains whatsoever.”

Al-Fadhli’s goal is to climb the seven summits before she turns 40.

Al-Fadhli has her sights set on several other summits. (Supplied)