Monday, January 15, 2018

A Day On, Not a Day Off

             Today, through parades, programs and service, we celebrated the life and dream of a man who fought for equality, dignity and freedom for all social backgrounds.  We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as well as his life’s work involving the elimination of poverty, racism and nonviolence in America.
The former U.S Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, co-authors of the King Holiday and Service Act started the Martin Luther King Day of Service which transformed the King holiday into a day of citizen action volunteerism resulting in the slogan, “A Day On, not a Day Off”.

Mrs.Coretta Scott King encouraged community service to carry on her husband’s unfinished work and to honor the legacy of Dr. King by making one’s community, country and the world a better place.

Last September, while Florida was under the siege of a category 5 storm called Hurricane Irma, I was invited by a friend to evacuate and visit Montgomery, Alabama. During my 4-day stay, I had the unique opportunity and pleasure to visit Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Dr. King was a full-time pastor. It was an honor to visit Dr. King's office, located in the church's basement. It is from this command post where he helped organized the infamous Montgomery Bus Boycott.  

Besides attending the annual MLK Jr. parade in St. Petersburg Florida, I performed by conscientious obligatory day of service at the Kind Mouse Productions Pantry. This wonderful organization, which is run by CEO Gina Wilkins, assists local families in transition and their hungry children. The families, who they provide with food, are those downsized by the economy and are trying to reestablish themselves. This important organization who is partnered with the Pinellas County School Board for the Jane's Pantry/HEAT program, provides nine emergency meals per week per child in a family that are homeless or on the border of becoming homeless. 

Full day, but with purpose and celebratory praises to a man whose huge life contributions have touched the lives of all walks of life.
All the best,

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Rota Spain……A Hidden Jewel

             Time as flown since returning to the United States after living and working in Saudi Arabia for over four years. I realized after coming across some old photos that I had a few more overseas adventures in me that although dated, I need to post to my blog. I also decided that all my adventures didn’t have to have taken place abroad, but I could also share some of my escapades and experiences in the Americas as well. So, after almost a two-year hiatus, I hope to regain some of my followers who have written me that they enjoyed my journey through my blog as I travelled throughout the continent of Asia and Africa. So, without further ado, here goes and I hope that you continue to follow me through GMarie’s Page.

Being a Navy vet, I was never fortunate to receive orders to Naval Station Rota which is the first and last port of call for U.S. naval vessels after leaving the Mediterranean Sea. So, it just so happens that I was able to visit through a work assignment. Though I would only be passing through this hidden treasure as a fuel stop for the C17 aircraft I was traveling on, I would have to make the best of the 36-hour layover.
Upon landing, and catching a cab to the hotel, I quickly drop of my baggage and some colleagues and I started our exploration of Rota which is in the Province of Cadiz. Rota has a population of about 30,000, and encompasses an area of approximately 32 square miles.
Rota is an ideal town to view on foot. Along our route, we came across a retired Navy Master Chief who saw us roaming in and out of side streets and offered to give us a tour of this quaint town. As we walked along the seemingly many narrow streets our gracious host informed us that Rota was his last duty station and he and his wife decided to make this their retirement home being that his wife was from Spain. He was so full of information and told us many stories of his travels throughout Spain. 

As we walked through the center of the town, we came across many interesting shops. Not too many people were around but those we did encounter were super friendly and laid back. Everyone seemed to know their neighbors, so you did see most would stop on the sidewalk to talk.  We walked to the Castilo de Luna and sat at the patio while we drank our beverages. The place had an old town medieval atmosphere

Though it was chilly, we did go walking along the waterfront boardwalk. The boardwalk was exploratory trail that wind through nature one minute and very close to the roaring Atlantic Ocean the next. 
As the afternoon turned into evening, Rota’s streets were swarming with folks after Siesta (around 6 or 7pm) who were on their way to the cafes and restaurants. But you really get a sense of how Rota really is after 10pm. The bars are buzzing with the locals and tourists.   

I really enjoyed the short hiatus in Rota Spain sporting it beautiful beaches in a small place but big family friendly atmosphere!

All the best,

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Saudi-based Security Assistance Employees Enjoy Adventure and Professional Benefits

  Story Highlights

Gina Marie Collins, an analyst with Sigmatech Security Assistance Management Directorate in Huntsville, Ala., just returned from a four-year assignment with the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard. Based at a secure military compound where employees work and live, she served as an acquisition management specialist for the aviation team .. and she loved it!

Moving from the sun kissed beauty of Southern Florida to the arid, sand dusted climate of Saudi Arabia might not sound tempting to most people. But for some employees, it is the greatest adventure of their lives.
Gina Marie Collins, an analyst with Sigmatech Security Assistance Management Directorate in Huntsville, just returned from a four year assignment with the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard. Based at a secure military compound where employees work and live, she was an acquisition management specialist for the aviation team.

During an employee's downtime, the region is a virtual playground for travelers, said Collins, who visited Abu Dhabi, Thailand, Dubai, South Africa, Bahrain and many other locations. Collins said she struck out on so many adventures while living in Saudi Arabia that she began blogging about her exploits, GMarie's Page at

"Saudi Arabia is one of those places where you have to be creative in finding things to do," she admitted, "but it's also the kind of assignment that allows you the time, the financial ability and autonomy to do so."

Collins' adventuresome spirit and creativity led her to learn and enjoy golf, diving and horseback riding, activities she might never have thought to pursue.


Collins called the assignment a great place for reflection. A lot of people come here to click the reset button, start a new phase in their lives, begin anew. She called it the perfect location to leave distractions behind and focus on yourself - pursue career, education and personal goals.

"It seems like you have a lot of time on your hands here since you are not exposed to a lot of things you would be exposed to in the U.S. - movie theaters, bars, dance clubs," she said.

She and many of her friends and co-workers enhanced their skill sets by taking online classes. "You can finish a degree here, get a second degree," she said, "or master another language."

More importantly for Collins, "I broadened my horizons by meeting people that don't necessarily think or live like I do and the result was lasting and meaningful relationships."

Employees at OPM-SANG can also also enjoy a significant number of additional leave days due to home leave and host nation holidays. Home leave is earned after being in country for 24 months, and combined with host nation observes, can nearly double some employees' leave days.


Jan Weston is OPM-SANG's chief of Contracting and, like Collins, has worked in Saudi for four years. Although the typical assignment for military and civilian personnel is one year unaccompanied (up to five with an extension) and for civilians two to five years accompanied, Weston was not ready to give up the many advantages of living and working in the Middle East.

For people who want to make or save more money, Weston said on top of employees' salaries, they get a 25 percent hardship differential incentive and additional money for post allowance. In all, it can add up to almost 30 percent, based on the employee's spendable income and fixed calculations.

Another cash bonus is Sunday premium, a slight wage increase based on the fact that U.S. employees at OPM-SANG mirror the Saudi workweek and work Sunday to Thursday.

Employees who accept assignments at OPM-SANG store their household goods and vehicles back in the U.S. and are provided fully furnished villas with enclosed courtyards and relatively new automobiles.

"It (the military compound) is very accommodating and I think a lot of effort is spent to make it that way so people will like being here," Weston said. "You pay no rent or utilities; you get free cable, a cell phone and fuel for your vehicle free of charge. Everything is taken care of. Really, the only thing you have to pay for is Internet service.

"You're also allowed to shop at the commissary and Post Exchange, tax-free. This can make a big difference in the expendable income you have."
Another combined travel-monetary benefit is $4,500 that each employee receives annually to travel wherever in the world they want to go. Called "aid in kind," the money can be used by the employee to travel to the U.S. to visit family or to several destinations throughout the globe.

While she is happy with the monetary advantages, Weston said she doesn't stay for the money. For her, it's the thrill of a serving in a unique location and contributing to a critical mission with national security and global impact.

"The work environment is so fulfilling and you get a completely different perspective and a sense of purpose. It comes with an intensity that you might not get at your standard stateside assignment," she said of the unique work conditions.

And unique is an appropriate description for such an assignment, Weston admits. The Orange County, California, native is no stranger to living in the Middle East. She spent three and a half years in Iraq beginning in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion. She spent another two and a half years in Kuwait and has spent time in Afghanistan.

Attitude and adventure

While each country is unique, they have one thing in common: If you're going to work in a place like this, you have to be adaptable.

"People who aren't open-minded and flexible are making a mistake coming to an assignment like this," Weston said. "You are not going to have the same creature comforts, the same TV stations, you won't have the same routines. And if you're not emotionally or mentally prepared for that, it's not going to be a pleasant assignment."

Weston said there have been employees who just don't realize that they are in a different culture and that things work differently.

"We've hired a fair number of people who hate it here because they bring a sense of American entitlement with them," she said.

"For me, it's just an extremely interesting environment and a great culture to experience. The work we do here is helping to facilitate a U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. And they'll tell you when you arrive that everything you do is about the relationship; your performance and behavior and how you interact with people, it is all helping to improve and make good the relationship between Saudi and the United States."

One adjustment for some new arrivals is the size of the compound. The relatively small area offers challenges similar to those of living in a small town. But for those who come from that environment or who love small town living, it is business as usual.

To combat the perils of small town living, Weston said the command offers lots services and opportunities including woodworking and ceramic classes, a library, a variety of sports including horseback riding, trips and tours, volunteer opportunities and religious services. There is even a Spouses Club for those on accompanied tours.

To avoid the too-small feel of an enclosed compound, home entertaining abounds. Weston said a lot of people socialize at barbecues and host parties.

"Parties are put on by different people and everyone collects at someone's house. The upside to this is you tend to have more friends and closer friends than you would in a larger community," she said.


Any way you look at it, living and working at OPM-SANG is a very different life. Women, for example have to wear head and body coverings called abayas when they travel off the military compound. If not, you could be scorned by Saudi's religious police and even some Muslim women.

Again, she said, it goes back to having a positive attitude. "You can look at wearing the abaya and head covering as a drawback, or you can look at it as not having to fuss over clothes or hairstyles," Weston said.

"You just have to recognize you are in someone else's country and you have to respect their culture. You can't come here, thinking I'm an American and my way is the right way," she said.

Weston said another unique aspect for American women working at OPM-SANG is not driving. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. OPM-SANG's female employees are issued late model sedans that they can drive on the compound, but they must be driven off the compound by a male driver. Fortunately, she said, OPM-SANG provides a shuttle service that is available around the clock. She said it's only a matter of calling and waiting to be picked up and transported to the destination of your choice.

"I don't hear women complain about that being an inconvenience because the reality is a lot of men don't want to drive off post unless they have to. The highways are extremely congested and driving is fast-moving and chaotic, not the driving standards we are used to in the United States. Drivers don't use blinkers and they use their horn a lot," she said, laughing.


When OPM-SANG personnel and family members go off the compound, "something for everyone" is more than a cliché. "Everything is available - amazing shopping and restaurants, just about anything you could expect any normal large city - KFCs, McDonalds, Starbucks and Applebee's."

But it is the tourist-friendly souks that intrigue serious shoppers. Souks are Arab marketplaces or bazaars where consumers can bargain for a good deal.

Weston said the bustling commercial center of Riyadh is jam-packed with the most eclectic and the most commonplace items you can find. She said favorites for shoppers include the reasonably priced gold, unique jewelry, Persian carpets and knick knacks and souvenirs of every size and variety.

Although personnel must be aware of their surrounding and always pay attention to personal security, Weston said she feels safe in Saudi Arabia.

"We have a two-person rule so we don't go anywhere by ourselves," she said.

In addition to using the battle buddy system, personnel and residents report their movements frequently as they move around when off the installation.

"Our command takes security very seriously and they indoctrinate us all the time to be aware of surroundings because there are still people who don't like Westerners everywhere. But I can say that, in four years, I've never had an incident that caused me alarm. I've never been mistreated or had a security scare of any kind," Weston said.
The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is Arab and Islam, and it is deeply religious, extremely conservative and family oriented.

"One misconception is that Saudi men are mean and they treat their women like second-class citizens," Weston said.

She said that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"I have seen them treat women with more reverence," Weston said. "And in the work environment, in my years here, I have experienced nothing but extremely respectful relations with the men I've dealt with."

With many U.S. civilians working in Riyadh, Saudis are considered extremely polite and gracious hosts, albeit unhurried in business dealings.

"That was really one of my biggest adjustments," said Collins, who for a time worked at OPM-SANG's Health Affairs Division and advised the Saudis on contracting issues at the King Fahd National Guard hospital.

She said some days work went at the organized, but breakneck speed typical in American industry. And other days, Collins said the Saudis spent more time than she was accustomed to in small talk.

"They are very family oriented and interested in what is going on around the world, so they would sometime spend a lot of time talking about family and world affairs," she explained. "Americans are always moving fast at work and in our home environments. So I had to learn to pace myself and exercise a bit more patience."

Collins said she adapted to this change in her work environment and grew to not only accept, but understand the different pace in business.

For anyone who has not traveled broad, Collins and Weston agree on one thing: Keep an open mind.

"Read up on the country's culture so you're not in total shock," Collins said. "Do not be afraid to go out and explore. My blog is proof that you can come here to work and still have fun. Learn some Arabic. It is impressive to the Saudis that you are at least getting accustomed to their culture.

"Be patient to the way others do things in their 'backyard,' which will seem different from where you are from in the world. Living abroad is a challenging experience," said Collins, "but with patience and understanding, you will adapt and enjoy this new way of life."
Thanks Adriane for the great reporting!
All the best, 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi UAE

Marhabbah (Hello),                       

This past Thanksgiving weekend I took the opportunity to get out of Riyadh for a few days and re-revisit Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I was there in 2013 but did not get a chance to get a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.  Abu Dhabi is the capital of United Arab Emirates, located on the Arabian Gulf and situated among over 200 other islands.  The UAE is more conservative than Western countries but far more progressive than Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wearing an abaya is not enforced, women can drive and there are movie theaters, night clubs and one can partake in a little libation!
            Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the Abu Dhabi’s grand mosque which was envisioned by the late president of the UAE; Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan whose final resting place is located next to the mosque. Containing four 350-foot minarets, 82 white marble domes, and possibly the world's largest hand-knotted carpet, the mosque can accommodate over 40,000 worshipers; 10,000 in the internal areas and 30,000 in the external areas.


It took over 3,000 workers and 38 contractors to complete this magnificent structure that is assembled from materials such as marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. In the main prayer hall, the carpet, made in Iran, weighs over 30 tons was hand knotted and is probably the largest in the world!  Also in the main hall are 96 marble columns that are inlaid with Italian glass and mother-of-pearl. There are seven chandeliers that were imported from Germany that encompass Swarovski crystals!

           The reflective pools that surrounds the mosque really captures the beauty of the mosque, amplifying the white and gold colors during the day and amazingly at night.  This artifact is by all means a must see. Incorporate this tour into your trip to the UAE. Try to arrive at the mosque before 5pm so you can get some really great photos. The mosque is open daily except Fridays which is for worshipers only. The tour is free.

Over 41,000 "hits" on GMarie's Page and over 100 blog posts later, my adventures in Saudi Arabia, has come to an end.  I have been in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for four years. The years have been adventurous yet challenging but the cultural differences, language barriers and the extreme climate, I believe, have not been as much of an obstacle as I originally thought it would be.       . 
       I have thoroughly experienced the Saudi culture and all that it had to offer. As a Westerner, I had several pre-conceived notions that were cultivated by what is reported by the media about the Arab people, their religion and customs. But I have grown to realize, observe and have a better understanding and respect for their way of life. The day to day interaction with my Arab co-workers assisted in my understanding and perceptions. The close interactions torn down the barriers (i.e. religion, prejudices).
          I wrote in my first blog post that I would learn a lot about the Arab culture and about myself. Well, I have. I am now equipped with forbearance for others’ differences (i.e. religion, language barriers, culture), patience for the pace that others have and will always move to and regardless of where I am in this small world “People are the same wherever you go, there is good and bad in everyone. If only we could live together in perfect harmony, learn to give each other what we need to survive together alive.” (Ebony & Ivory by Steve Wonder and Paul McCartney).

          This experience has been invaluable, one of which I will never forget and enjoyed sharing every moment of it. “Catch me” on my next assignment and adventure through GMarie’s Page!

As-salaam Alaeikum (Peace be on to you) and thanks for reading!

All the best,

Friday, August 28, 2015

SAMA Money Museum, Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The post recreation department hosted a trip to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) Money Museum. The currency of Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Riyal which is abbreviated as SAR or SR.I thought this venue would be something interesting to do outside of the normal shopping or visiting an eatery.  

Once inside museum, there were several halls to explore. In the first hall there were two silver dirhams (unit of currency in several Arab states) that date back to the year 165 hejira (H means the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina) and 283H!

In another hall there were raw material and tools that are used for minting gold and silver and print the banknotes. In main showroom there were ancient currencies from pre-Islamic time to present day. Also on display were currencies from fellow Gulf States and other countries.

            In an adjacent hall, it was devoted to Saudi currency. This room contained coins that were struck (printed) during the periods of 1372 to 1375H. There was also paper money that was printed when King Fahd was the ruler. As of May 2007, the fifth domination of the Saudi Riyal features  King Abdulaziz Al Saud on the 500 riyal and  King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz's picture on all the other notes.

           Toward the end of the tour, there was a room that you could view films on how the currency is made and the proper way to check currency for authenticity.

           Before visiting the museum, which is located in the SAMA Head Office at King Saud Bin Abdulaziz Street in Riyadh (+966 1 466 2779), it would be a good idea to call the museum director first to make a reservation. The tour is free!

All the best,