© All photos by Meryl Balusek. All rights reserved.*
Elephant Rock at Al-‘Ula.
Our daily lives typically unfold in a manner of predictability, a pattern, a routine. However, every now and then, tucked tightly under our routine of daily lives, are glittering moments of serendipity in which we suddenly open our eyes to an unexpected event, outcome, or interaction that makes us smile.
On a quaint Saturday morning, while watching the quarterfinals for the World Cup in December 2022, I was casually browsing through my social media feed when I came across photos of the all-too-familiar landscape of Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia. That’s when I realized I was looking at the photos my friend Meryl had posted. Allow me to introduce Meryl.
Meryl Balusek is a young documentary photographer based out of Denver, Colorado, who has traveled to thirty-six countries over six continents to date. We brushed past each other during graduate school, as we both attended the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. We had both heard of each other through mutual friends and at some point, we became acquainted through social media. On her recent visit to Calcutta, India, I casually messaged her to tell her that I loved her photography and that Calcutta is my birthplace and where my roots began. That introduction led to many exchanges specifically about her love for India, and broadly about travel and culture.
Fast-forward to December 2022, when I saw her post photos of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, I thought to myself, wow this girl has been to more than one place that has been a part of my own personal journey.
Bustling Bird Market in Qatif.
I also remembered that as of 2018, Saudi Arabia had opened its borders to international tourism. I enthusiastically messaged her with childlike innocence, to tell her that I grew up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. From thereon, our correspondences got longer, with voice messages and long paragraphs that were read during transit and amidst busy schedules on our respective ends.
Our correspondence was a mutual exchange, one in which Meryl’s stories about the trip allowed my nostalgia to flow, while I shared restaurant recommendations in the Eastern Province, and broadly my knowledge of the region with Meryl.
These serendipitous moments are very special to me. It is uncommon to come across someone who has traveled to your place of birth (Calcutta, India), especially when that place is half a world away. Moreover, it is even more uncommon to come across someone who then travels to the place you consider to be home (Dhahran, Saudi Arabia), especially when it is in a country just beginning to be touched by international tourism.
A large part of an innocuous-yet-simmering tension that has existed in the backdrop of my own life as a third culture kid is the inability to explain the nature of my expatriate experience, and the inevitable frustration that sprouts when people do not show enough interest beyond the surface level, choose to misunderstand you, or judge you with the assumptions they have already created about you as “the other.” I do not take this personally anymore, but it invariably results in me holding a large part of the past close to my chest, only choosing to share this part of my journey with those that are curious to know.
I write for Aramco ExPats partly for this very reason. Writing for this platform is, in a way, a historical archive of my own past, flowing into the broader collective memory of the expatriate community in Aramco and the region at large. I don’t always get the chance to share about my childhood, but it is through the art of writing and storytelling that my past is always right next to me.
Apart from Meryl, there was only one other person in Denver I knew that was personally familiar with the Aramco compound— a former U.S. Ambassador to Oman, who also serves as a distinguished professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He has been an instrumental mentor in the development of my academic career, and one of the most intelligent, humble, and thoughtful people I have ever met. When I was in his class, I knew the comments I made about the Kingdom were well received, as there was already a sense that I was understood.
Thus, when I learned a fellow alumnus from the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver was traveling to the place that is so close to my heart, it felt like I was one step closer to sharing the truth of my experience with the world around me. Once again, I felt understood.
For third-culture kids, because our experiences are so niche, nuanced, and context-specific, when we counter that feeling of understanding, our own cultural identity feels like less of a stranger in the room. It is a liberating feeling. And I was thrilled that the Kingdom's new tourist visa was making this possible. Not only am I personally excited to visit Dhahran again someday on a reunion visit, but I am so happy that anyone— independent of any prior ties to the country—is able to visit if they wish. This feat was not even a possibility in the past, so it is remarkable that we can act on this opportunity today.
Connecting with Meryl through social media was a series of serendipitous moments in which I realized that the past does not fade into the distance we see in our rearview mirror as we drive away. Instead, our past is weaved into our present, into who we are today as human beings. It informs our disposition toward people, places, and things.
Through Meryl, I’ve been able to connect with three places of my past and present that hold a part of me: India, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, in specific our exchange point in Denver, Colorado through graduate school. I consider myself lucky to know someone as cultured, well-traveled, curious, and intelligent as Meryl.
It was with that sentimentality of serendipity that I reached out to her about a potential interview, as I felt the readership of Aramco ExPats would love to hear an outsider's perspective, especially that of a woman traveling to the Kingdom in light of the new tourist visa.
What follows is my interview with Meryl, which was a 3-hour video call that evolved into a colorful conversation. This isn’t a story that is about Aramco, in particular, but I write this story in an effort to widen the narrative of the collective memory of expatriate life in the Kingdom.
For the sake of space, I could not include everything we spoke about, but I hope you enjoy this conversation—it outlines Meryl’s beginnings as a documentary photographer, her experience visiting Saudi Arabia from December 2022 - January 2023, and concludes with her perspective on how traveling informs worldviews.
How did your journey as a documentary photographer begin?
The first time I traveled to India with my mom was in 2008. I was thirteen years old, and I fell in love with the country and culture, and even more so with the adventure of exploring a place much different from where I grew up. From a young age, I took photos of people and places, and my passion for documenting bloomed over time.
In 2016, I was traveling in Yangon, Myanmar with my small, point-and-shoot camera. I had the urge to buy a bigger, better camera to capture photos. So, one day, I decided to spontaneously get in a cab by myself and go in search of a photo store that sold a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) in Yangon. I found one and I bought a Canon DSLR. That purchase shifted my mentality from just “taking photos” to being a proper documentarian during my travels.
In the margins of that decision to get in a cab in search of a camera in Myanmar rested a broader spark—a love for photography that has always subtly accompanied me throughout my life of traveling.
What meaning do photos hold for you beyond collecting personal memories?
For me, photos express the unfiltered truth of a place—its energy, spirit, and authenticity. I became obsessed with capturing the “vibe,” and positioning a shot in which you can feel the essence of that moment, even if you aren’t physically there. My aim is to take photos that floor me— photos that deliver a visceral effect and give me chills.
Moreover, when I created my website, I knew I wanted to make use of the thousands of photos I had from trips all around the globe. I thought that a website would be a clever way to bring it all together and share my photos.
Currently, I am writing country travel guides to accompany my photos.
You have managed to visit thirty-six countries across six continents so far, that is an impressive feat at a young age. Do you have any tips you can share with those who would love to travel widely, but might feel held back by the daunting nature of planning and saving?
Yes! A few tips:
- Travel to affordable countries that are underrated and off the beaten path. Even when you are in countries that are historically more touristy, go to the lesser-known cities and towns. Don’t go to the cream of the crop—wander to your own spot.
- Use public transport whenever possible.
- Be open to different modalities of accommodations—hotels, Airbnbs, hostels, and guest homes. When I was in South India, I stayed in a guest home, and it was a great experience. In Rishikesh, India, I stayed in a super clean hostel for just $4 a night!
What did you do for India for 6 months?
I went to Kochi, Kerala for an internship after I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado – Boulder. I was an intern on a local women’s empowerment project. I go into detail about my work in Kochi on my website.
Immersing myself deeply in the country made me fall in love with India and travel even more. During that time there, I visited Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Leh, and Srinagar. I traveled with my friends, and most of them were British, so at one point they all had gone back to England, but I wanted to stay and venture up to Nepal. I spent a few weeks in Nepal on my own. It wasn’t the easiest country to travel alone as a woman, but I’m definitely glad I went.
On your website, I found many photos of animals. Is there any specific reason you are drawn toward photographing animals across countries?
I love animals. They add to the vibrancy and spirit of a place. I view animals as members of the society they live in. Plus, they have their own personality! I once befriended a dog at the Taj Mahal, and another time I slept with a stray cat in my bed in Greece!
Hassan’s family’s (very dusty) cat, Adol.
A boy shares his shawarma with a stray cat in Ha’il.
In certain cultures, it is considered lucky to get pooped on by a bird. When I was standing on the Great Wall of China, I got pooped on by a bird, and I thought, wow this is probably the luckiest bird poop moment, ever!
I am particularly obsessed with Indian street cows; I love their neck rolls. I saw a cow once laying in the middle of a textile store in Varanasi. It was a fascinating sight. You wouldn’t expect an animal (let alone a massive cow) to be inside a store, but cows are sacred in Hinduism and people are supposed to let them do what they want!
That sounds like such a beautiful beginning to your lust for traveling and photography. I would love to get into your journey to Saudi Arabia.
How did the idea of visiting Saudi Arabia pop into your head?
My fiancé, Matt, whom I met at the University of Colorado—Boulder (CU), was randomly assigned to be roommates with Hassan, a Saudi from Qatif, during their freshman year at CU. Hassan and Matt lived together throughout their undergraduate years and became best friends.
We always knew we wanted to visit Hassan in the Kingdom, but we could not go there until the tourist visa was created a few years ago. And when it finally was, I immediately knew I wanted to go to Saudi Arabia.
In many ways, the Kingdom is the final frontier for tourism for those from outside the Middle East. I love experiencing dynamics that are different from the Western world and Saudi Arabia offers a very unique opportunity to experience that. We had our initial flights scheduled for December 2020, but due to Covid-19, we had to reschedule our trip to December 2022.
What was your experience like with the Saudi Tourist Visa application process?
Honestly, it was the easiest and most favorite visa experience to date. I got it approved within just thirty minutes—the interface was so easy.
Have you traveled to other Middle Eastern countries prior to your visit to Saudi?
No! I have only been to Morocco in North Africa, but nowhere else in the Middle East, so, in many ways, Saudi Arabia was my introduction to the core of the Middle East. After visiting, I have a strong desire to travel to more Middle Eastern countries.
The ancient Nabataean city of Hegra.
How long were you in the Kingdom and which cities did you travel to?
We flew there in December 2022 and were there for five weeks, up until January 2023. We stayed in the Eastern Province, in Qatif, with Hassan and his family in their home. We mostly went to cities along the Eastern Province—Khobar, Dammam, Dhahran, and Ras Tanura.
Clusters of camels being transported via highway near Riyadh.
More camels on our drive back home to the Eastern Province.
In addition, we embarked on a 10-day road trip to Al-‘Ula, which was around a 15-hour drive from Qatif. On that road trip, we stopped in Riyadh, Diriyah, Majma’ah, Ha’il, Jubbah, and Al Qaid.
Petroglyphs of camels in Jubbah estimated to be between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.
Ancient Arabian rock art in Jubbah.
We also spent a few days in Bahrain during our visit. One of my favorite sights on my trip was the Causeway from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. It was just so beautiful to be driving across the bridge, enveloped by the calm blue waters of the Arabian Gulf.
Did this first visit inspire a desire to return?
Absolutely! I would love to come back and visit more parts of the Kingdom, especially the Western Province, which I didn’t get to see. I also want to come to the Aramco compound next time. En route back to the United States, we saw many Aramco boarding school/university students on our Lufthansa flight.
That visual makes me so nostalgic. It reminds me of the memorable holiday seasons in Dhahran. It was always sad to part with my parents as the season ended, but whenever I saw other Aramco kids on my plane, I felt comforted knowing it wasn’t just me.
My route back was via British Airways, Bahrain—>London Heathrow—>Chicago, and then later Denver. I remember that journey so well.
Terminal 5 in London Heathrow became a familiar place for me, and I developed my own rituals. I would arrive early hours of U.K. time, and once I was done with security, I would go browse at the Harry Potter store and Harrods, before going into a bookstore, and finally to Pret A Manger for my coffee and chocolate croissant. I would then find a cozy seat by the large windows and watch the sunrise.
That sounds like a beautiful memory!
It is! Anyway, tell me about your first impression upon landing in the Kingdom.
We landed at King Fahd airport in Dammam. Immediately, I could sense that privacy was a strong virtue. All of the homes have tinted glass windows and are walled and gated. Most houses are like little compounds!
But while I noticed this aura of privacy, my interactions with the locals were extremely open and friendly. For example, we mentioned to a Sheikh’s wife that we wanted an English-translated Quran, and she got it for us. We also got regularly invited to people’s homes for tea.
How did you meet these people who invited you for tea?
During our road trip, we would ask locals for directions, and in many of these rural towns, these kind men would politely insist that we come to their houses for tea. It was clear that we were outsiders, so there was a mutual desire for conversation. Hassan and his uncle were with us, and even though they are from Qatif/Dhahran, our car had a Bahraini license plate—so I assume many thought we were from Bahrain.
You’re right, hospitality is a big part of Saudi culture. Even in the little beauty salon in the Aramco compound in Dhahran, they would have Arabic coffee, Turkish delight, dates, and sometimes baklava. It was such a nice little treat every time I went to get my haircut!
Wow, that sounds delicious!
From all that you saw, which part of the Kingdom did you find to be the most aesthetically beautiful?
The landscape in between Ha’il and Al-‘Ula stood out to me. The aesthetic of sand dunes positioned in the middle of the mountains was just like a movie. And again, the Arabian gulf from Bahrain to Saudi was beautiful. I also really loved the Corniche in Al-Khobar!
A man in the old district of Qatif.
A friend at the corniche on Tarout Island, Qatif.
What, in particular, did you appreciate about the country?
It was refreshing to see a country’s culture place a high value on the importance of the family unit, and how life did not revolve around work. In the United States, work takes large precedence in our day-to-day lives. For example, Hassan’s dad owns an auto shop, but he has the flexibility to come back every day to have lunch with his family, which I thought was very neat.
Ghalib, our friend Hassan’s dad, at his auto shop enjoying shisha, tea, and an Egyptian TV show after work.
Waiting for the gas station attendant in Buraydah.
It’s interesting you say that. When I attended elementary and middle school in the Aramco Schools in the Dhahran compound, I also came home for lunch. It would only be a 20-minute lunch at home before I had to get back on the bus back to school, but I always looked forward to a little pit stop to see my mom and have a relaxed meal in the comfort of my home.
That’s so lovely!
Another thing that I really admired about the culture was their devotion to religion. I could sense that it gave people a greater meaning to their existence. There’s a sense there that religion matters— that family matters. Your whole life isn’t about slaving away at a job. It was inspiring to see Hassan’s mom pray five times a day. It’s powerful to be in the presence of someone that is so devoted.
What are some of your favorite memories from the trip?
One of my favorite memories is the weekly Friday family lunch at Hassan’s Grandmother’s house, who lives in the old part of Qatif. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands. The food was incredible.
Friendly boys in Qatif.
A rest stop in the desert between Ha’il and Al-‘Ula.
Weekly Friday lunch with Hassan’s family.
Hassan’s mom is also a fabulous cook, and she cooked us meals every single day. She also bakes—Hassan owns a coffee shop in Qatif, called Oxbean, and his mom makes most of the cakes and snacks for the store. It’s a fantastic place to relax and eat (or watch the World Cup as we did!).
Another favorite memory was witnessing a Saudi wedding! It was so interesting to be at a women-only wedding.
What kind of food did you try through your ventures in the Kingdom?
We tried everything, from Indian, Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, Iraqi, Chinese, Pakistani, and American. The Yemeni breakfast was one of my favorite dishes tried. I forget what it was called, but there was a type of Daal served with Arabic Bread, and it was unbelievably delicious.
Ancient Arabian rock art in Jubbah.
Since you went to many interior cities, I assume you tried more local food, right?
Exactly. In the big cities, I saw more chain restaurants. For example, I did not know that Krispy Kreme was so international! But we ate mostly at local places during our trip. We stopped by countless boofiyas [ Boofiya: Arabic word meaning a local cafe with quick bites] with to-go items like Falafel wraps, and other sorts of sandwiches with liver, camel meat, or egg.
What was your most favorite dish?
Oh gosh—too many to count. But if I had to pick, I had the privilege to try this dish that is very local and specific to Qatif called Mashwiyah Geder, which is a black lemon curry with lamb. Think of Indian Butter Chicken, but in a black curry with lamb. I also loved Mahshi, which are rice-stuffed veggies. And of course, Kabsa was delicious.
Chicken kabsa at a restaurant in Ha’il.
Hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, etc. accompany our mixed grill dinner in Qatif.
What kinds of things did you want to photograph in the Kingdom? What obstacles did you face in this pursuit?
My favorite moments to capture are what I like to call the “in-between moments”. These are moments that you repeat daily throughout your life that you wouldn’t deem as important to draw attention to, such as walking to the grocery store or through a farmer’s market. I like capturing these simple moments to delineate the daily life of a place. I also loved taking pictures of Arabic signs in Saudi. I have a thing for written text in languages foreign to me.
Vegetable vendor at Al-‘Ula Farmer’s Market.
Did you find the country’s culture to be different across various cities within the Kingdom, or did you feel that the wider culture remained the same?
I noticed differences within the rural/urban divide, but that is true of any country I’ve been to. But the culture’s themes of generosity and hospitality were present everywhere I went.
What do you wish outsiders knew about Saudi Arabia?
Humans are humans no matter where they are, and that obviously applies to Saudi Arabia. The media narrative is often dominated by a story attached to politics, but a country’s culture cannot be reduced to a political narrative born in another country—it is separate from that. From my interactions with the locals, I understood Saudis as hospitable people who want to share their culture and engage with outsiders.
Saudi is on the map now with this new tourist visa. I truly think people should remember that the Kingdom has some of the oldest histories on the planet. It has amazing (and fairly crowd-less) anthropological sites for anyone interested in human-related history.
I also want people to know that it is a very safe country to travel to. There is almost no day-to-day crime, and people respect your space and privacy.
I can attest to this. I can speak for life inside the Aramco compound—it was very safe. When I left and started living in cities, I had to learn all the ways of unlearning the sheltered life I lived. In many ways, I felt like I grew up in a small town, but a global small town.
You have such an interesting perspective having grown up there. A third-culture kid in a small town, but with a cosmopolitan and multicultural fabric.
Exactly! How would you compare your experience in Saudi Arabia to other places in the world that you’ve traveled to?
In comparison to other countries that I have traveled to, the Kingdom feels safe, and is a much more affordable place to travel to. The food is a lot better. It’s also more diverse than many countries I’ve been to. There are so many migrant workers and expats, which adds a uniqueness to the social structure of the country.
My favorite element of Saudi is that international tourism is nascent in the Kingdom. There aren’t many places in the world that are untouched in that manner. Have you been to Vietnam? For example, there are towns and villages in Vietnam that are specifically built with tourism as their foundation, which changes the entire nature of that place. When tourism is embedded in a town’s culture it’s a very different experience being there. I’m not saying that that is inherently bad, but personally, I’m not a huge fan. In that respect, the Kingdom is so unique.
I get what you mean. Essentially what you’re saying is, the Kingdom is not curated like other tourist-dominated cities.
Exactly! It’s not curated. That’s the word. Right now, I think it’s a great time to go to Saudi Arabia, since it is a new playing field in international tourism and very untouched by the mass tourism industry. You will likely see things as they are, which is the most authentic way to understand a country and its culture.
Traveling and Worldview
What has been your favorite aspect of traveling, and how has it impacted your worldview?
My favorite aspects of traveling are the people I meet, the laughs we share, and the personal growth I make from diving into in a new environment. Travel leads us to challenge our assumptions, and that is powerful.
For me, traveling equals understanding, and understanding equals peace (when it’s intentional, curious travel of course). Allow me to explain.
The more you travel, the more exposure you gain to other people, cultures, customs, and religions. That insight leads you to develop a better understanding of other ways of life and perspectives. As you understand those perspectives, you more easily accept the differences of others. Understanding creates tolerance and that acceptance leads to peace.
Someone I admire in the human trafficking advocacy field, the late Monica Petersen, has a quote that I love, “We must consciously recognize that ‘human’ is the only single identity marker we universally share.”
And it’s with that sentiment that traveling informs my worldview. Of course, we have our differences, which is an excellent learning opportunity. But, more importantly, our similarities are rooted in our shared humanity—we all love food, hate traffic, feel awe at the sight of a newborn baby, and we all mourn the death of the ones we love. While we are all different, we are completely the same: human.
What are some challenges in documenting that you have encountered across the different countries you’ve been to? Is there a pattern?
When I can, I ask for consent to photograph people, but the biggest challenge is people not wanting their photographs taken. On the other hand, you also encounter a lot of people who get extremely excited to be photographed. In that respect, the pattern doesn’t pertain to a specific country, but that of human nature and personality — some people mind, and others don’t.
It’s also a challenge to carry around a massive camera—making sure that it is secure and accounted for feels like a full-time job.
At times, I also get too consumed with capturing the perfect shot that takes me out of the moment, which I don’t like. I envision a mental image and become obsessed with replicating it in real-time. So sometimes, I take days off from taking photos. To me, traveling is all about being rooted in the present moment.
For example, we were in Calcutta, India last year, and my fiancé, Matt, had to stop every time I stopped for photos while we were on a jam-packed sidewalk. It messed with my level of presence and with Matt’s ability to wander at his own pace!
Do you ever worry about standing out as a tourist with a large camera in hand? I know many people have an aversion to being classified as a “tourist.”
Yeah, but you know what, so what? I embrace it. I’d rather take the humility and stand out as a tourist than pretend that I’m not a tourist. Personally, I think trying to blend in as a local or expat is ego-driven. It takes time and energy to pretend to blend in, and who wants to pretend to do anything? I’d rather take that time to do what I need to do to show up as my authentic self.
How has traveling informed you about world politics?
I think politics, in many ways, spread fear and differentiate us from one another. When you travel, you realize people are more alike than different. As you mentioned to me in an earlier conversation, two truths can exist at once.
You have to detach from politics to experience a country’s culture. I want to challenge the dominant narratives spread through the vessel of media through my own lived experiences. I do pay attention to the politics of other countries, especially India’s since India feels like a second home to me; but I don’t let politics dictate my disposition toward a country.
What message do you hope to share in your personal sphere through documenting your travel experiences, as well as in your professional sphere as a documentary photographer?
I want to shine a light on the beauty, diversity, and range of humanity all around us. To capture the essence of what it is to be human.
We are a unique species; we have created so much—whether that is through art, music, cuisine, tradition, technology, or architecture, that creation is something to celebrate. I hope my photos emphasize sentiments of life force and innovation.
Lastly, I hope to document how things are as I see them. I want to spread the love by capturing the authentic energy of a country’s people, culture, and landscape and to connect us as human beings.
While Meryl was narrating her travel experiences to me, in my head, I kept thinking of Paulo Coelho’s quote in the Alchemist. I feel that this quote summates Meryl’s thoughts on how traveling leads to understanding, and how that understanding leads to peace. And in many ways, this quote encapsulates the expatriate experience quite aptly, at least for those who choose to see it that way.
“Even if my neighbor doesn’t understand my religion or understand my politics, he can understand my story. If he can understand my story, then he’s never too far from me. It is always within my power to build a bridge.“ — Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.
Connecting with Meryl over our shared graduate school experience, and her travel to cities that are a part of my own myth has been a chain of serendipitous moments that have added meaning to my life. This meaning is associated with both comfort— that my past isn’t so removed from the world around me—as well as hope — for a future in which traveling can become more accessible and serve as a vessel for cultural exchange.
I wish for more serendipity for all of us. These little moments hold the power for us to feel deeply connected to our inner experiences, and that relationship to our inner world creates room for spontaneous action—such as me corresponding with Meryl and writing the story down on paper to share with the broader community!
I am so excited to see how Meryl’s journey as a documentary photographer unravels. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and many thanks if you have read this far.
*Any reproduction or republication of all or part of any images and written material is expressly prohibited unless the author of the material has expressly granted its prior written consent.
About Meryl Balusek
Meryl Balusek travels the world as a documentary photographer. Her camera shines a light on humanity and cultures across the globe. Visit merylbalusek.com for more.
Anushka is a current PhD Student at American University in Washington, D.C. She spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy High School. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, language, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the Third Culture Kid experience. Dhahran continues to hold a big place in her heart.