As I joined the excited, gorgeous crowd of party-goers at the W Hotel Doha, Qatar, anticipating the New Year’s countdown, I took the last few minutes of 2015 to reflect on all how much had happened in my life in the last 12 months. Wow!
A mere 365 days earlier I was “counting down” with close friends in DC. Unbeknownst to them, I had scheduled what would be my final call with an HR recruiter in a place half way ‘round the world at 6 am EST. It would be a day that would radically change my life: accepting the position of event producer for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. The next call was to my parents to tell them the news. Cue the “waterworks” on both ends.
Eventually, as the rigorous visa process was winding down, it was finally time to put in my two weeks notice. By then, everyone had known that I, Sydney Meredith, was moving to Saudi Arabia. Their first reaction to the news? A bulging of the eyes and subtle jaw drop, quickly followed by, "YOU'RE MOVING WHERE?"
Sure, Saudi doesn’t have the best reputation on the world stage of “advanced nations.” And, with the current state of geo-political and cultural affairs in the Middle East, it's probably not on your "Oh, wouldn't it be lovely to live there?" list. Especially, for my fellow females. (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) So, why leave family, friends, a social life, freedom, alcohol, and the all-important consumption of bacon for a 14 sq. mi. slab of academia in the middle of the desert?
Let me put it this way: I was either crazy enough or brave enough (perhaps both) to see a glimmer of light at the end of that endless tunnel known as student loans. Fact was,what with my salary then and the exorbitant cost-of-living in DC, I could only manage to save a pittance towards grad school and was barely keeping up with my loans. Social life? What social life?
The opportunity at KAUST has given me a fighting chance to pay off college – I did it in less than a year - AND save for all those important "adult expenses" like a wedding, a house, and the start of a small nest egg for retirement. Plus, a little extra for that unquenchable wanderlust to see as much of world as I can, while I can.
It's been 9 months since I took the leap for sandier pastures. Regrets? I must admit, there are days I want to turn into an ostrich and bury my head in sand but I’ve come to recognize that no amount of hiding, belly aching, or pleading is going to change the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that plagues large institutions or those not used to letting females get the job done. And there are moments when I do feel like a prisoner in my 14 sq. mi. cell; unable to leave the confines of the secure campus as a female without male chaperones and the mandatory abaya and hijab – only slightly less restrictive than a burqa. God forbid I lose my mind and drive outside of the campus. Or dance, imbibe, or discuss politics.
But, there are days and nights like tonight here on the beautiful Arabian peninsula where few people my age have had pleasure of appreciating her beauty, as I stand amongst the festive crowd ringing in 2016 together, that I realize how many adventures and memories I have been blessed with, and the amazing people I've met and the friends I've made. And, I think to myself, "Where in the world will I be ringing in 2017?"