Shopping Fair

With souk-sista, friend and fellow craft enthusiast – Heba, as my guide, I recently girded up with my scarf and comfortable shoes and together with thousands of Bahraini and Saudi shopping enthusiasts, headed into the Bahrain Exhibition Center for the Shopping Experience of the Year – aka, The Bahrain Autumn Fair.

Nine Days of bargaining, cajoling, haggling, arguing, debating, but mostly, in the true spirit of  this area – charming, customers into purchasing goods from all across the Middle East and  Asia.

Seven hundred and fifty stalls of wonder…

A rolling maze of a souk,

offering pottery from Hebron, Linen from India, Furniture from Syria and Afghanistan, carpets from Turkey and Iran, shoes from Oman, wraps, throws and scarves from Pashmina, spices and incense from all over and dresses from everywhere else…

Not to be outdone by their fellow traders though, the sweetest bargains on the floor came from the Yemen Honey Sellers. These guys roll a sale off their tongue as smooth as an Ed Sheeran lyric and back it up with quiet smiles and deep brown honey enhanced eyes. With seemingly little effort they draw you into a world of desert plains and forested mountains. One is assured that in these hills one will find the most special bees that produce the most special honey, in the world, a cure for many, many aliments including  marital-bed disinterest and child bearing problems. When Sarah suggested that a taster from the ‘Only For Married’ honey pot was perhaps not appropriate, being single and all – this too was not an insurmountable problem as the honey seller himself was still single ….

Unfortunately for him his camel and saber-tooth tiger count was a little short, and anyway Sarah, while enjoying the taste and shopping sensation, wasn’t falling over herself to hit the road with a Honey Seller, … but as far as the healing power of that divinely nutty, cinnamon, gingery, spiced honey goes, those ‘charm a minute’ honey guys might be onto something; the overwhelmingly delicious, heaven on a spoon, golden liquid, is fabulous.

Loaded with honey, pottery and other bits and pieces of gorgeousness, we did eventually managed to drag ourselves away from the sounds, colour and delight of it all – relatively unscarred and before the spend got a little haram; exhausted but inspirited with the knowledge that we had helped to make a small contribution to the continuation of trade in the Middle East.

Celebrating Middle Eastern Craft, Shopping and Honey- First Quarter 2017

Dhow Adventures

Bahrain’s rich history is steeped in the pearl banks that once lined the outer edges of this Arabian Island, drawing traders to its shores. The incredibly hardened pearl divers of years gone by are now inked images in local museums and pearling, once Bahrain’s main source of income, is not much more than a tourist attraction as Bahrain trades well beyond this natural resource.

Trade seems to pump through Bahraini blood, generating the commercial and cosmopolitan hub that modern Bahrain is today…

This ecumenical feel is not new to the area…Grifford Palgrave, an English explorer and Arabic scholar drew attention to to it a few centuries back  describing a local scene as:        a a mix of strangers, settlers and locals blended together at the Market Places and Coffee Shops, the colours of India blending in with the Saffron stained vests of the Oman, the white robed  Nejed and stripes of the Baghdad gowns. The atmosphere open, with an urbane outlook, unlike the zealots and fanatics, camel drivers and Bedouins of the more closely knit and bigoted universe of Central Arabia… A Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia (1862-3)

Along side pearling, fishing was and still is an integral part of the economy, and today the fishermen go out, dawn and dusk, on various crafts,…most striking of which are the fishing dhows, once magnificent – pearl laden and in full sail, but still dramatic even though engines have now replaced sails, puffing smoke into the air as they charge off into the distance.

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From the Bahrain Yacht Club where our little sailing boat sleeps, we have watched these dhows head out just before sunset for a night of fishing.

And recently, in search of an ‘up-close’ view, we took Singapore Sling out around this time – our sightseeing interrupted briefly when distracted by the passing scene, we momentarily lost our focus and landed up pivoting on a sand bank. An appropriate amount of yelling as we pondered the 200m swim in through the passing stream of boats seemed to wright the problem along with a few fancy  moves and sail yanking from our Skipper.

A visit to the local souk for Bahrain pearls or the Manama Central Fish Market completes the trade circle where on any given day a vast selection of fresh fish, prawns, and at times oysters- sans pearls, can be purchased and cleaned, sliced or diced, “as you please Madame” –  along with the usual smiles and service that we have come to appreciate  on this busy, buzzy, trade friendly Arabian Island.

Celebrating Middle Eastern Living and Rich Trade History- December 2016

Gone Tribal……

Mark Twain wrote:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

People need to travel – for the sake of those they share their space with,

because it opens up our world,

and helps build confidence,

enriching our interpersonal relationships through shared experiences.

For the record, these bags contained all personal items, school books and musical instruments for an extended stay. Still tough for Eric though who always travels with carry-on only no matter the distance – to be fair to ourselves we did follow suite when we traveled from the Middle East to Sri-Lanka – showing huge restraint, mind you!

My personal preference, when it comes to exploring the planet has always been to plant a few roots, rather than take a 7 in 7 style tour…..Sharing a space in the village provides a hands on experience that I believe cannot happen on a ‘back-pack/fly-by’.

Whether attending junior high in Texas, packing fish in Iceland, counselling kids in the Catskill’s, serving cocktails on the Greek Isles or playing ‘house’ along the shores of East Africa, my travel experiences have helped mold me.

And now back ‘on the road’ my style – I am immersed in yet another set of cultures, different from my own – and far from the place I call home.

It has been an amazing experience to travel again and share the experience of travel with my kids and through it I have watched them grow in many positive ways, as they have had to cope with saying goodbye and saying hello – dealt with international arrivals and departures, overnight flights, odd looking cuisine, the fluidity of expat culture and very different currencies, cultural beliefs and rituals..and they are, I believe, open-minded, nonprejudicial and are certainly not bigots –

But don’t for a moment be fooled into believing that it is all happy, fun, glam filled days of games, travel-play, sight seeing and smooth sailing…

Packing up and saying goodbye to those you love and the space you consider home is no easy task.

And while I am grateful each and every day (although deeply heart-sore that the situation exists) that we are not being forced into traveling on foot with whatever we can manage to carry on our backs – as ours is a privileged and protected experience – it still has aspects of physical but mostly emotional rigor and it takes courage to walk into a new environment with your happy-face on, your head held high and your hand outstretched – and if you don’t, the result is real loneliness…

So there are plenty of positives that result from experiencing beautiful, interesting and different places, and tapping into the tantalizing taste of something new, along with the momentary escape from one’s current reality: and who doesn’t need a piece of that every once in awhile??

But there is perhaps the biggest positive of all…

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and that is the deep appreciation of what you have left behind – which perhaps is only realized through distancing oneself for a while,

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and the joy felt when you return to your people, whoever they might be..and realize that you, too, have a tribe……

October 2016: Celebrating the rigor of travel and the love of home.

Cinnamon Island

Half way between Galle and Welligama along the southern coast of Sri Lanka lies a lake of islands.

On an afternoon of small swell and easterly winds sweet Kalana took a break from his Nokia and loaded us into his beloved tuk- tuk to brave the coastal highway traffic.

Passing colonial ruins, fishermen on poles, coconut groves and surf spots,

we arrive to a boatman waiting along the bank, in hope of trade. We provided him with his afternoon’s income and he provided us with a gentle ride across the expanse of water, past Temple Island, Spice Island and Bird Island,

to the docking point at Cinnamon Island.

If the mood takes, a fish pedicure is on offer at a makeshift cleaning station on a  raft floating at the waters edge. Declining we head up a clove- tree lined path to the shelter at the top, where the Island Keeper and his family live.

The welcome is hospitable and seating provided under the shelter of the homestead stoep with Cinnamon tea served as we await the demonstration. The Cinnamon Man’s smile is shy but firmly consensual when I ask if I may take pictures.

With the confidence of a showman that contradicts his shy demeanor he assures me that this is no problem. His photo has traveled far and wide…

I have no doubt it has…. tourists flow steadily through this lovely space over the seasonal months.

It is easy to understand why. The tea is delicious and the atmosphere  gently hypnotic.

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Calmly we watch as The Cinnamon Man works his tools to remove one curled layer of cinnamon bark from a branch – to be dried in the sun.His wife smashes and sieves dried cinnamon out in front of us, leaving swirls of pungent and exotic aromas floating in the air, which we carry away with us as we head back down the path to the waters edge…….

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First Quarter, 2016 – Celebrating the Spices of Life… Lanka Style!

 

Waves and Wonder

Packing up the books and heading out on an adventure is an integral part of our mission to ‘un-school’ our girls.

Serving a dual purpose, these escapades provide us with time out from the daily grind and feed our ‘experience bank’…..

Inevitably, we head for waves… ..Time constraints demand a certain amount of planning, but we try keep this to a minimal,

choosing rather to embrace the turns and twists along the path as the discovery process unfolds around us….

Travel of course is an educational experience in itself, opening the mind to different  ‘ways of being’ while providing clearer insight and understanding of ‘other’.

Keeping things simple enriches this process; opening doors to spaces and experiences that one might miss out on in a resort like setting with all the standard amenities…..

Sri Lanka contrasts starkly against our current island of residence.

Colorful saris, around free flowing, fleshy mid-drifts, replace deeply modest, monotone abayas. Lush green jungle replace desert dust – creeping along, covering everything in its path.

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Sinhalese and spice curl off local tongues and roll into the thick , moist air……opulent in sensory offerings.

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It took a moment to adjust to the chaos of the traffic on this teardrop Island.

Brightly painted buses tear along winding coastal roads, dicing tuk-tuks and scooters laden with surfboards and driven by inked youths living ‘travel-freedom’ like only twenty-something year old’s can….

Large, wild water monitors lurk in garden crevices under pungent, dripping orchids and the daily bread van drags one from an afternoon’s shaded siesta with its blaringly inappropriate rendition of  – ‘Santa is Coming To Town’, offering tantalizing delights – spicy and sweet.

The Sri Lanka we experienced also came with regular power cuts, water shortages and at times, exposed sewers underlined by a limited if not defunct refuse collection system. But at every turn the forgiving jungle creeps along, covering up…..

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We made our way past rice paddies and water buffalo,

Buddhist temples and tea-plantations.

We explored ancient forts with cobble-stone streets where historic communities continue to honour the practices of their past behind decorative doors.

Lace makers, snake charmers and sun worshipers, cinnamon farmers and fisherman. Easy traveling with friendly, welcoming people,

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and at every turn,

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the jungle….the ocean….the jungle….the ocean….the jungle.

1st Quarter 2016 – Celebrating Family Travel Adventure and the Tropical Island of Sri Lanka, its Ocean, its Jungle like setting and its friendly people.

 

 

Living It Up In Saudi

When Eric switched careers some years back, I had two conditions…No Nigeria, no Saudi. Fearful from the bits and pieces I had heard over the years, my lack of knowledge and the general unknown – these places did not rest easy on my soul and I didn’t want to become a ‘diver-wife’ who was always waiting to hear if her man was OK,….. no matter the day rate. As it turned out I was to be that anyway – as he traveled to remote places to dive in deep and unfamiliar waters.

And as usual life takes one on unexpected paths and “never say never”, they say…and so now not only do we live in the Middle East, but Eric works in Saudi full time – based in the southern coastal city of Khobar, close to the 25 km King Fahd Causeway joining Saudi to Bahrain.

Settling into a different country has many challenges, but with challenge comes growth.  One of the challenges that’s helped us grow has been the requirement for all of us to spend a bit of time in Saudi…..

Now while Saudi may not feature as a regular on Western travelers ‘top ten destinations’ list, many, many people, male and female, travel from all corners of the world to Saudi every year to take part in Hajj at Mecca. This pilgrimage is an Islamic requirement – as laid out in the Five Pillars of Islam along with prayer, belief in one God, fasting and helping those in need. It is a journey that is anticipated with enthusiasm, excitement and joy. Others travel to and from Saudi to work, and even others, like our neighbours for example, travel regularly to Saudi to visit family and friends…IMG_0279

Truth be told, enthusiasm, excitement and joy were not the emotions that I was feeling overwhelmed with as we planned our trip although certainly I was a little curious ..and of course keen to see Eric’s work and living environment across the causeway.

Living so close to Saudi for a while had given me the opportunity to talk to others about their Saudi experiences; – local folk who enjoy the freedoms that come with life in Bahrain. The almost standard first complaint I would hear about everyday life in Saudi (Pilgrimages to Mecca excluded) is that it is just basically boring. A similar story from an expat mom now living in Bahrain confirmed this. She was of the opinion that life in Saudi was manageable and even enjoyable until her kids grew a little older and started needing to socialize beyond the playground. These thoughts calmed me as we donned our abayas and headed out. If boredom was all I had to contend with then I certainly could cope!

At the very least, we knew the basic rules – Woman cannot travel alone by vehicle because they may not drive. Abayas are to be worn in public, and although the girls and I could walk around together, once we entered a restaurant or cafe, we needed to sit in the ‘family section’.  Strong displays of affection in public are discouraged as is any form of ‘wild behavior’, and definitely no pork or alcohol.

Other than that, things did seem fairly normal. We were treated with courtesy and consideration – and although we received the odd surprised glance, in fairness we were three western females wearing our Arabic attire in a clearly amateurish manner, staying in a hotel in a business area of downtown Kohbar – not known for its feminine/ family like atmosphere.

In fact “a breathe of fresh air“, we were….according to Neil, the elderly British expat who has been running the hotel for the last 30 years. He then went on to recite Blake later that evening while we were dining in the family section of the hotel restaurant, so yes,…fairly normal, in an ‘Arabia meets Faulty Towers’ kind of way.

Surprisingly, despite the thick androcentric atmosphere – the shops along the streets outside our hotel displayed beautiful western style ball gowns and bizarrely fabulous cakes indicative of Saudi lifestyle way beyond my realm of understanding and experience… and later while stepping out to a local mall we found the women and children, out and about, dressed modestly and dining in the family sections….and so the week rolled on in an uneventful fashion until the girls and I decided to head across the street one morning for a breakfast of coffee and donuts, just to do something different…..

Abayas flapping in the morning breeze we blew down the block to the donut joint and  sought out the family entrance. There wasn’t one. A friendly gent having his morning espresso helpfully waved us towards the main door and inside although there was no signposted ‘Family Section’, the venue was divided into three parts – the front street area where our helpful gent and friends were hanging out, the middle section consisting of five empty tables, (bar one which was occupied by a young man) and a separate back section which was completely empty.  We ordered and waited at the front counter and when our coffee arrived I thought it prudent to check that the back section was indeed where we could sit. The young guy behind the counter looked at me in a confused manner and then somewhat sheepishly explained that it was not really possible for us to stay. We could purchase food but we couldn’t eat it in the venue. We would need to leave…’you know it is the tradition’….I think were his words.IMG_0239

As a privileged, white, western woman, the shock that I experienced in that moment is difficult to describe – even though I knew that this type of experience was possible here under certain circumstances. Perhaps if a male had been with us things might have been different. Perhaps that particular venue does not have a demarcated family section.  I am still trying to figure that part out…although clearly I need to go back to my rule book! I am also aware that Saudi is a dynamic and complex society grappling with many issues of change… Just this past week it was broadcast that the Saudi government has laid down further restrictions on the power of the ‘Religious Police’. And in addition to all of that, I am aware that my shock level relates directly to my privilege level and my lack of experience in the arena of prejudice and powerlessness…

My initial response  was a desire to turn around and have ‘a go’ at the unsuspecting, over-entitled young male, munching on his donuts behind us –  occupying one seat in an otherwise entirely empty and open section. Wisdom that comes with age helped me hold my composure and with a smile we turned on our heels and sailed back out through the front door, held open for us by yet another extremely courteous Saudi man…..

I have grappled with this experience over the past few months. On reflection what I felt in the moment was extreme frustration, quite a bit of humiliation and plenty of helplessness…yet all that had happened was we were told in a very gentle manner, that we could not stay. This was a soft experience. It did not involve trauma or violence brought on by fanatical, militant extremist nut cases. It did not damage us or hurt us. It will not leave us with scars, unlike the centuries of struggle before us and taking place even today. However for myself and our two young girls who have never really had to look straight in the eye of discrimination  – it was a challenge to be dealt with – life-schooling at its best  – clearly laid out for us as our heads smashed up against a proverbial glass ceiling that we had never felt before. And it was helpful. It encouraged us to look closer at and discuss issues around restrictions, inequality and social boundaries that are found everywhere  in the world – inviting us to look at our own cultural spaces more closely where the boundaries between rights and privileges are often deeply blurred.

February 2016 Celebrating New Places and Learning Experiences

 

Middle Eastern High

People set up in strategic viewing spots along the roads,

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was a fairly good indication that we were on the right track,

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as we made our way towards the Sakhir Airbase to attend the Bahrain International Airshow.

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The Bahrain leg of the International Grand Prix Circuit arrives early April on the Island.
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Not being motor sport types, we haven’t taken advantage of the ‘Early Bird’ ticket sales yet…but perhaps we should –

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because until recently we had not considered ourselves airshow types either…

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The Airshow is a biennial event and one that we would not normally make an effort to attend, however living a more suburban life now without the sea on our doorstep demands new social challenges ….

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A dramatic sun set bouncing off a desert setting created beautiful light, adding additional drama to an already charged atmosphere –

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Quite Intense and even a bit emotional …

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Teams from the Middle East and beyond participate in this stunning show.

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British Aerobatic Champ, Mark Jeffries, Russian Knights flying Sukhoi Su-27’s,

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The Twisters with their Twilight Pyrotechnic Display, UAE Al Fursan flying Aermacchi MB-3 39 NAT Jets,

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Saudi Hawks flying their BAE Hawk MK 65’s,

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and the Sarang Helicopter Display Team from India in modified HAL Dhruv Crafts .

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Unclear at the time as to who or what exactly we were watching….. we were completely clear on the fact that it was all rather spectacular. IMG_9971

Celebrating Special Events in Unique Destinations – 2016 Bahrain International Air Show.  Late January 2016