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


A Useful Papa

Papas can be useful type creatures…

But some are more useful than others….The really useful ones are strong, like bionic robots – they lift you up and throw you right over their shoulder on a whim..

A Useful Papa is fun to have around…

like a giant goofy clown with batteries that recharge each morning at daybreak,

after just four cups of coffee.

Useful Papas are practical, like moving jungle gyms to be climbed on and from which the view is always better…

A Useful Papa is smart –  like an interactive ‘How To Do It’ manual. They always seem to manage to sort out the sticky bits,

or will happily show you how to turn on the power tools…

And useful Papas are adventurous, like some kind of cool movie person – and they always want you to do the adventurous stuff with them, even when you are still little and it feels a bit scary.

But that is just because Useful Papas have so much to share and they want to share it all with YOU!

A Useful Papa is good for pulling you up cliff faces.

They are good for shark viewing when you want to get right up close….

although Useful Papas are not always the best at remembering all the rules….

They are great for taking you on surf ski safaris,

or for giving you sailing lessons.

Useful Papas make patient teachers,

and helpful recovery agents.

They do crazy things like swim next to you in freezing cold mountain pools while you scream your lungs out, and they don’t even mind…

If you have a Useful Papa you never know what is going to happen next and sometimes things can get wild….

But Useful Papas also like to just hang out …

and sometimes they don’t say much… but you know that if you have a Useful Papa you have someone who will listen intently. And even though Useful Papas can be big, a bit rough and even furry – they are good at looking after you, great at looking out for you, wonderful to snuggle with and the best at holding you gently.

 We are lucky because we have a very Useful Papa.

 Celebrating Fathers Day – June 2015

Tribal Gathering

My Oupa arrived in South Africa on a ship from Holland, as a young boy. His father, my Great-Grandfather, had relocated to the railway village of Waterval Boven where at the time there was a need for wheel-tappers. Boven was a central part of the rail trade system into and from surrounding African countries.

Ouma and Oupa

Some years later my Oupa met and married Ouma. Their wedding took place in Egypt during The Second World War. (The story goes that she lied about her age and signed up, following him North – she is no longer around for me to confirm the details of this account but then again late-night campfire stories never lie.)

Together they grew a family, which included my Dad who is 70 this year. He is the eldest of six.

After my Grandparents moved on the ‘Big Six’ began to gather every second year around Easter time. Having tested out a few different locations the event seems to have settled at the beautiful Tranquillas Adventure Farm, belonging to my lovely, strong and generous cousin Ruth and her equally lovely husband, Mike – Tranquillas is fittingly located at Waterval Boven.

While the ‘elders’ spend endless hours sitting around the fire catching up, with the odd spell of leg-stretching and bird-watching thrown into the mix,

us ‘youngsters’ spend time on our bikes exploring the surrounding forests or climbing the amazing rock that runs along the krantz that has brought rock-climbing fame to this breathtakingly beautiful place.

These gatherings of the tribe are a time of kuier

a word with Dutch roots referring to ‘visiting’ but denoting a deeper level of meaning which is somehow lost in translation. It refers to the intense type of visiting that takes place when all else is set aside and the reason for the visit is solely to do just and only that….kuier.

The six is now five and as time passes it is unclear what will become of our family reunion. Organising it can be a mission and travelling long distances for a short weekend feels daunting at times when life is happening at  pace.

But come what may I am grateful for the gatherings that we have had and for the opportunity to listen to family history and legends retold around the fire.

Grateful that my kids have a better sense of ‘what and who’ and have had a chance to spend time with their second cousins.

And grateful to have had the opportunity to share this part of who I am and where I come from with my own little family as I catch brief images of the past reflected in their fresh faces.

Waterval – April 2013 / Smulders Gathering – Celebrating Family and all that it is.


With ‘The Best Papie in the World’ working far away for the larger part of the past six months, we have had to make the most of his brief and precious visits home. Shortly after he arrived home recently, summer, in a celebratory mood, embraced the day.


And so we did what we do best together – PLAY! The dolphins joined in.


Two and a half weeks of warmth and fun.


Memories to carry us through Christmas until we are together again in the new year for more family adventure.


Celebrating Togetherness: Chintsa – November 2012

The Shape Of My Heart


There are various theories about the origin of the symbolic ‘heart’ shape that we use to represent feelings of warmth, love and passion.

The shape of the human heart is quoted as one possibility although the resemblance is slight. Perhaps it was inaccurately represented by ancient scribes and then badly edited in the hand-down process. Who knows?  Apparently cattle hearts, which these ancients might have had more access too are slightly closer in representation to the modern-day symbol.These may also have played a role.

A commonly held view is that the seed of the prized Sliphium plant, a fennel-like wonder-boom used by the Cyrenean’s of old as a contraceptive and aphrodisiac (most convenient, I’d say) –  was the life-breath of our modern-day heart symbol.  This seed, also used as a seasoning and for various medicinal purposes proved to be fickle when it came to its own reproductive capacity, refusing to grow anywhere except along a small coastal Mediterranean strip. Its rarity of course upped its economic value, prized to the point of having its heart-shaped image embedded into Cyrenean coins. It is not a stretch to imagine the jump from aphrodisiac, contraception, sex, love….<3

No matter where the heart shape actually originated from, today it is a couple of swirls and curls that bring on the fuzzies the world over, and certainly the sliphium seed is not natures only illustration. The necks of swans at play, the mating slugs on our window pane,

and Lili’s gifts of love for her Mama… brought back home from each visit to the beach…

Celebrating the Shape of Love – Chintsa November 2012

Sarah’s Pancakes and Coffee

When Sarah suggested she sell pancakes and coffee from a beach stall over the holiday season in order to earn a bit of holi-loli our hearts melted at her entrepreneurial spirit. While our hearts melted though, it would seem as if our brains froze. It must have been a defense mechanism because as Tom the Clown says,”if we thought through much of anything, we would do nothing”…wise words. For the next 15 days there would be no more early morning beach conditions checks, leisurely tea and rusks in bed or for that matter any other ‘morning rise’ unless it involved frantic dawn wake-ups, batter mixing, car packing, tent pitching or coffee brewing for the 7am start-up, targeting the dog walkers and dad’s on dawn patrol.

In retrospect there could be worse things than drinking your daughter’s fresh filter coffee on the beach each morning before the heat set in even if it was a killer to get it there, an activity which encouraged Sarah to engage with the concept of stock control. We do drink far too much coffee. All in all a successful  project:- We are still married, Sarah made a bit of cash and Home-Schooling Business 101 is a wrap. Think I’ll take the term off.

Chintsa Beach Eastern Cape South Africa – December 2011 

Ho ho ho…

Ten years ago, just before Sarah was born, we put up our first Christmas tree. It was a beautiful creation. A minimalist twig interpretation brightened with strategically placed tiny fairy lights,(that didn’t flash, come in multiple colours or play music). A neo-afro designer’s delight. Stylish seasonal home decor that yelled out, “married without kids!”

Ten years on and our christmas trees are still fallen alien twig branches gathered in the area a few days before christmas, and dragged home by the prancing elves giggling and singing merrily while pointing out the in’s and out’s of the activity to any curious passer-by who will lend an ear. There is no longer a minimalistic edge to these creations. Each year the girls make a new decoration to add to the hodge -podge of christmas type paraphernalia gathered over the seasons. The lights are brightly coloured and they flash wildly.

These trees are far removed from our first stylie creation all those years back…. but to my bright eyes more beautiful by far!

Christmas in Chintsa – Dec 2011