Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas in the Arizonan Desert

December 18 2013, one week before St Nick slips down chimneys all over this beautiful city and here I am preparing to celebrate the festivities in the Arizonan Desert. Holidaying with the daughter and long standing friends, it is a busy but enjoyable and moving time of the year especially here in this very dear place that is close to my heart. The sun rises about 7.30am and sets about 5.30pm with vermillion and amethyst brush strokes painted across the horizon, it’s an exquisite sight with Camelback Mountain silhouetted against this beautiful backdrop.

As dawn evolves the Arizonan sun and blue skies flood the day, together with a cool desert chill morning and evening filling the atmosphere and where, surprisingly, light jackets are required even though the temperature is still 75 degrees Fahrenheit. A road runner runs here and a quail scurries there; a hummingbird hovers and darts to my left and a desert robin sits proudly high atop a saguaro surveying the festive landscape. Venturing out I enjoy observing the merriment and hustle and bustle of families preparing for their personal celebrations…fall or one day only (yes one day only) here in the US. No Boxing Day here. Though our American friends pretend to celebrate BD day, even though they do not really know what it is all about; they like to observe it for us two Brits, Mrs Teacup and daughter. Sadly, on Boxing Day the working population usually return to their corporate desks.

The Malls are frantic with families buying food, decorations, gifts, wrapping paper and ribbon. Monstrous evergreen Christmas trees are sold on street corners in the “Tree Patches” all over town and families load their car roofs and make their way home to overload such tree with sparkly decorations and lights of every shape size and colour you can imagine. Shop windows are beautifully and tastefully overdone; prices are low, or lower than usual, with bargains to be had on every corner of the Phoenix grid system where businesses hope to rake in their last sales before the New Year is rung in with Should Old Acquaintance be Forgotten. Coffee shops sell Christmas shaped cookies and pastries, snowy frothy winter lattes and cappuccinos and Christmas flavoured tea with cinnamon and seasonal spices, all very yummy and moreish. Families look festive (and silly in some cases) wearing reindeer ears or jingle bell antennae as they go about their Christmas business; even some of the cars and trucks are sparkled up for the Season of Good Will and wear “ears” or “sparkles” or “lights” of some description or another.

Every other house and garden twinkle with coloured lights of every colour of the rainbow; gardens are a glow and covered in decorations. Competition is high to see who can put the most lights up or who can do the most outrageous display; electricity bills must be high too! Neighbours outwitting neighbours in the Christmas spirit in some streets.  Cactuses, bushes, trees and plants are all elaborately adorned and flashing. The downtown trolley bus will take you on a tour of the grandest displays if you so desire. House parties are in full swing on each street corner with Cadillac’s, Hummers and Station Wagons parked kerb side and I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas blaring. Restaurants have Christmas everything; decorated ice creams and puds; napkins and table centres; waitresses and waiters are bedecked with tinsel and flashing earrings, Santa hats and festive antennae. Christmas flavoured ice teas, Christmas smelling candles; in fact everything you ever wanted can be Christmas coloured, flavoured or decorated right down to the Kleenex box , kitchen towel…..and even the loo rolls!

There are places to go and things to see; Lights at the Zoo, Luminaries at the Botanical Gardens with Chihully, Christmas Markets by the Waterfront, Christmas Craft Making Parties, the Nutcracker at the theatre, carols at the Philharmonic, Swan Lake at the ballet, Native American Storytelling and children’s theatre of some description all over town. No traditional Pantomime; they do not understand Pantomime! The Public Art is festivitied up with holly and ivy wreaths, bows and baubles. Everything that can be decorated is decorated.
Churches of every denomination are in full swing and sparkle up with crosses and stars, mangers and nativity scenes to praise, be thankful and welcome the Kings of Kings birth on the 25th. Carollers sing The Holly and the Ivy and Hark the Herald Angles in quiet corners of shopping malls with donations going to charities. Schools celebrate with parties and concerts for proud mums and dads to shed a happy tear in honour of their children’s successful year at school. Charities sell paper angels in a variety of prominent spots, in order that children less fortunate can receive a gift over the Christmas period. Soup kitchens and youth hostels serve up free meals and food bags so most do not go hungry.

Its fun, a blast, cool, awesome and certainly different and I love every minute. You cannot get much more Christmassy and outrageous than spending the Christmas Holiday Season in the Arizonan Desert alongside the Saguaros, Jumping Chollas, Cactus Wrens, Hummingbirds, Road Runners, Quails, Poinsettia’s, Cowboys and Native Americans. What a fantastic juxtaposition this whole adventure and season always is here in my heartland.

Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

God Bless.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Say NO to Bullies

Do the memories and trauma's associated with bullies and bullying stay with us into our middle and old age? I believe they do. Not only was I, Mrs Teacup, a victim of bullies and bullying most of my school life but worse still I can remember the taunts, name calling, whispers and abuse like it was yesterday. And even worse than all that, is the lifelong emotional and psychological damage that can haunt a child. As an adult, teacher and trainer in early year’s education, I do not suffer bullies in my classrooms wherever I am in the world and I role model respect, kindness, fairness and tolerance.

Forty five years ago I was teased because my dad was a successful and talented artist and architect. We lived in a nice house down a country lane and he drove a Jaguar. I had a middle class accent from middle class England and I wore middle class clothes. But as a small child and teenager none of this was my fault (if there is ever any fault with anyone) and the comments and taunts were scary and hard to comprehend. Because of these outrageous individuals and ghastly comments I hated my school days, and have traumatic memories, but despite it all did well enough to gain a place at university.

The taunts and bullying were so bad I would never let my dad drive me to school; I would rather walk or get the bus. If he did insist on driving me, he had to drop me in an obscure back street far enough away not to be seen or my day and life at school would not be worth living. I would walk the last part of the journey, often alone, in order to survive the bullies and the forthcoming day in school.

It was not just me who got it in the neck, there was a few of us. One girl who had been adopted was bullied and often beaten to a pulp. I would stick up for her and then they attacked me too but I didn't care, I have never been one to hold back or be frightened to speak up. But that probably made it worse for me as I was not afraid to stand up for me, others and the poor adopted young girl. Still am not even now.

The funniest part is that these kids had no idea how they made me stronger; more determined to show them who the “daddy” was. I am a survivor, a fighter, and I come back stronger and more determined every time I am knocked back. But can you imagine where I may have ended up (and where some poor individuals do end up) when the bullies get the better of them and confidence and self-esteem is knocked. Difference is what makes the world go round and what makes us all interesting and unique, why would we tease and taunt someone cause they are different?? But we all know "difference" is an easy option for a bully.

I have encountered bullying behaviour all over the world in all cultures. Bullying and bullies do not discriminate and we could all find ourselves at some point in our lives the victim of an individual or individuals that can't resist having a go or a “pop” at us about something or another. Have the confidence to have a comeback and stick up for you in an honest mature but assertive manner. Walk away and don’t beat yourself up about their undignified behaviours. Stand tall and know you are special and have greatness within you.   

So my advice to the bullied is fight the good fight, rise up and show 'em what you've got. Don't be beaten, come back stronger than ever, fulfil your dreams, hopes and wishes. Stay true to yourself, set an exemplary example; shame the bullies. Have a mind of your own and do not succumb to such disgusting behaviour, always be the one to teach those around you the right path. Do great things for the world and, where possible, those within it.

Remember my opening paragraph that after forty five years I still remember the words, taunts and associated feelings as strong today as all those years ago, consequently, so will the little people we have the privilege of teaching in our early years settings. Be aware of, and wise to, unwanted negatives in your classrooms. Nip in the bud quickly behaviours that damage self-esteem and confidence and role model fair balanced honest and trustworthy relationships.

You will probably be shocked to know that I have witnessed bullying with a child as young as two years old, so much so that when the toddler arrived in my class her hair was falling out, she was mute and her confidence and self-esteem were at an all-time low. In her previous setting she had been pushed and poked, hair pulled and persistently bitten by one particular child. She moved to my setting and my staff team gradually built up her confidence and self-image until she was able to speak eloquently, participated with her peers and began to have fun. That precious and delightful bundle of joy grew and matured into the eminent woman she is today and who now imparts her experiences to others around the world.

So say NO to bullies, in fact sometimes it is ok to say something stronger to a bully, but best of all, role model positive ethical respectful behaviour and expose the bully as the coward that they actually are. We should all be working together to make sure all children have a safe and fun world to develop and grow in. #justsaying

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Children of Africa

With many of the older generations being illiterate, having never had the opportunity to go to school, it is hard for the younger generations to gain support in their homes with school work and is more obvious in rural African villages.

When I arrived in Africa it was interesting to witness children who had limited concentration skills, lacked listening skills and didn’t know what phonics was, couldn't read or write no IT skills, hadn't played a board game and had never had a story read to them. A beautiful ebony skinned talented seven year little girl presented me with her journal filled with wonderful drawings depicting her life with friends in Africa. Although this little one was a talented artist she was not proficient in literacy or math; we spent many hours together “reading” her drawings and her telling me in depth stories about her childhood through her pencil drawings. Asking open ended questions of her work, her imagination ran riot and I had a hard time ending these wonderful stories spewing from her mouth for hours on end.

When I sat down to spend time with each little doe eyed child, they were so active and willing to learn. They wanted and craved one to one attention and fought to be up close to me; it was often claustrophobic. Every piece of learning I offered was sucked up and their appetites could not be sated. Like the traditional American Indian Storyteller, I was clambered over constantly and suffocated with excited children craving to get more of me and my was an exhaustive pleasure to work with these little people. My lap was full to overflowing. If they heard I was not appearing for a day or so sad whispers, cries and sighs echoed after my departure and if they heard I was returning tomorrow, hurrahs, laughter and whoops resounded as I entered the room and no minute of the day was my own.

One handsome little boy of five years took a shine to me and wanted my total attention. For the first time in his short life he found learning and began responding to his homework and suddenly began to enjoy engaging with books and conversations positively. He couldn't read or write when I arrived, nor could he count or sound letters, he knew no colours and his family spent little time giving him support. Living with his grandparents who were illiterate and spoke limited English, it was almost impossible to complete his school and homework. His family were aware and saddened they could not help and did their very best but with no schooling themselves it was nigh on impossible. By the time I left he could write his letters and numbers, had begun to sound his letters and had a hunger to learn and asked for a story every day. It had been a pleasure to get to know this boy and to be able to see him develop.

The classrooms were old fashioned, basic and tired in decor. Often run down and shabby but teachers did their best and at least there was school. Teacher training was an issue, very limited and EYFS here, no safeguarding, no behaviour or social networking policies and discipline was antiquated and harsh....let's just say we would not be allowed to practice it and I was extremely uncomfortable with their methods and thinking. So embedded in their culture, way of life and upbringing, the teachers had no understanding of my concerns. Indoctrinated by spiritualism and often the witch doctors they had entrenched beliefs that to us Westerners are wild and weird. In class they sat in formal rows behind old fashioned wooden lift top desks with ink wells, facing a traditional large grey blackboard, that desperately needed blackening. No interactive white boards, PC's or laptops in these classrooms and limited paper and pencils, fascinating to say the least. My large array of paper, colouring pencils, story and exercise books, that I had carried in my suitcase, did not stretch very far but for those children it did reach, it was appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed.

In rural schools the same meal is delivered every day, beans and rice, rice and beans and sometimes egosi may be thrown in for good measure. Children eat because they have to eat, it maybe all they get that day. Phenomenally, they all had mobiles, but often nothing else and were out of proportionally addicted to all the latest technology. Materialism was part of the mind set and culture in many ways. Few clothes, no school books, no reading books, limited food and money but always the current technology.

School uniforms were curious too; often brightly coloured, the girls wore oversized calf length dresses, with white starched "peter pan" collars, thick ankle socks and chunky badly fitting second hand shoes and carried traditionally shaped brown leather satchels. The boys wore brightly coloured oversized knee length shorts, stiff starched white shirts, ankle socks, chunky trainers and carried the same satchels as the girls. In their masses these brightly clad children walked, sometimes for miles, to and from school each morning and evening in the blistering heat only to begin housework and washing when they arrived home. Uniforms were washed each day, by hand on a ridged wash board over a metal pail, and hung to dry on ropes on patios; shopping, cooking and cleaning had to be completed and the children were expected to assist. If there was a few minutes to play, they played in the dusty crater filled streets and gutters with handmade cars and trucks recycled from trash while rusty scooters, cars, trucks and buses wove their way around them.

Every evening I had a hard time dragging myself away from these gorgeous little ones; their little faces with wide eyes said it all, “please stay, don’t go; don’t leave us.” They never wanted me to leave and I often did not want to go but I was usually exhausted by the end of the day from the intense pressure to continually sate the learning appetite of these under nourished brains, the constant mauling of my body and calling of "miss" all day. If the only thing I had done was to stimulate the passion for books and learning then my mission was accomplished.
I lived many miles from where I was teaching and the traffic was heavy and slow, the electricity was non-existent, water was in short supply, no washer or dryer, antiquated air conditioning units, corruption all around me and the pressure of constantly being asked for money or a “dash” was draining. Everything about living in this part of Africa was hard work and exhausting. No one could be trusted and so called friends hung around me because I was white and rich…or so they believed. Everywhere I went I had to be accompanied by a body guard to ensure my safety, that was exhausting in itself; I could never go out alone or with a girlfriend. Even the police could not be trusted. There was a constant fear of kidnapping.

At the end of my day I was driven back to my very basic hotel room; I doused myself down with cold water in my make shift shower, hand washed my clothes and hung them to dry and retired for some well-earned rest to recharge my body and brain for another day. I snuggled down with my book and a good strong cuppa before the electricity was pulled and darkness obliterated all sense of meaning and I retreated into the land of nod. What seemed like only a few hours later I was woken, at 5.00am, to the sound of wails calling the locals to prayer, one hundred percent humidity and bitten to bits by mosquitoes and sand fly? And so starts another teaching day in Africa.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Arabian Beauty Salon

Other than the large hotels mostly set on the beach and the odd excursion to one of the major cities, there is very little to do in for expat teachers in rural Arabia. Once you have experienced the glamour and glitz there is little else to do week after week. As westerners we had to be very careful to abide by the local rules and laws and also careful not to offend, so our western way of life had to be carried out in the lounges of such hotels and more or less from behind closed doors. This is the only place we could eat, drink and be very merry, so for four very English teachers, Sunday afternoon visiting the local beauty salon to have a manicure or pedicure was a treat and a half and believe it or not…a big event.

We loved this outing every Sunday, apart from the fact that we ended the afternoon with beautiful nails and toes; we also loved it because we were able to experience a vision and flavour of the Arabic women’s world that we could not watch anywhere else. We were able to surreptitiously get inside their world and be part of the intimacy of Arabic women and experience the harem clique and striking atmosphere. As western women we were not supposed to become close to the local women in case we influenced them in some negative manner. Some of us had, over the months, made close friends with local women only to find, sadly, the relationship died a very quick death once their men folk became aware of the relationships, consequently the women back peddled and didn’t turn up for coffee again. Sadly, we never made friends with an Arabic woman.

The beauticians are, generally, young Pilipino women who have left their families in their home countries and travelled to the Middle East to make a better life for themselves and their extended family. We got to know many of these Pilipino beauticians and were privileged to have many deep and difficult conversations with them over the years spent working in this rural town. One extremely young beautician shared her very sad story with us whilst filing and shaping our finger and toe nails. She had not seen her two year old baby for two years and missed him terribly; she just worked long hours and sent most of her money home in order to help take care of her son and give him the life she felt she never had. Quietly shaping she shed quiet tears.

The beauty salon we attended was large and must have employed over twenty of these young girls who were all supplied with very basic accommodation and employed by a wealthy Arabic madam. The girls would shed a few tears reciting their life stories to us and were so grateful that someone listened with empathy and compassion. The girls looked forward to our visit and made us very comfortable and welcome and over time we all became good friends.

Sunday afternoon at the salon was amazing for many reasons including outlandish expanses of mirrors, leather and crystal but watching the Arabic women paint themselves from head to toe for weddings, parties, dinners and just to please their men folk was an incredible sight and privilege. Kohl eyeliner, bright eye shadow, vivid lipsticks, hair extensions, dyes, gel nails and jejazzles were everywhere, not to mention frills, petticoats, sashes, stilettoes, beads and bustles bedazzling us. We sat surveying this exotic opera for hours as they paraded back and forth in front of us. No expense was spared and the adornments glittered and sparkled bright enough to blind any spectator watching this spectacle.

Four very English teachers sat, hands splayed, with our Pilipino friends busying away at making our nails gorgeous while we were entertained by these amazingly beautiful women and young girls in their magnificent makeup and attire. Sunday afternoons transformed the salon into a local meeting place for chatter and gossip, laughter and tears, playfulness and teasing; a tranquil setting for Arabic women to come together safely and allow their reticence and restraints to be shed for a short while, and bare their hearts and souls in a culture where this is hard to ensue. Thankfully, for us very English educators, we were fortunate and blessed to be able to witness this beautiful pastime and be a small part of it too.

Waiting for our manicures to dry, we sipped sweet black Arabic tea from crystal clear miniature mugs; it was a pleasure.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Visiting a Market in Lagos, West Africa

Health and safety would have a field licenses, no cling wrap, no vacuum packing, no sell by dates...visiting an African open air market place.

Full of pulsating colour, fabrics, kerosene, curry and hair products; large personalities, buxom females and colloquial dialogues, I was thrust, as a very English Mrs Teacup into a world that was fascinatingly unintelligible. Tin shacks lined muddy alleyways that wove their way amongst boldly and elaborately dressed Nigerian women manning stalls and shacks selling everything you could possibly need, from cosmetics to fresh tomatoes and hair extensions to the tail of a cow.

No concrete, tarmac or linoleum covered the earths floor, so dodging puddles, ditches and craters, my African companion steered, guided and protected me along the narrow alleys, weaving in and out of black African's who tried their best to touch and stroke, the only white face in a sea of ebony.....and again the whisper of "white woman, white woman" cascaded through the alleyways, shacks and shoppers. These whispers went before me, like a river, I never overtook these words; they went before me. As they flowed and wound their way,  inquisitive black faces peeked out, around corrugated tin walls, to view this unusual mirage that had descended upon this mind-blowing place.

Vibrant and vibrating with chatter, music and richly coloured traditional dress, the market was alive with Africa. This was Nigeria at its best. Fascinating, awesome and truly an experience made in heaven, I loved it. Jaw open, eyes wide, head lurching from side to side, I enjoyed the African-ness of it all as my companion held on to me tightly and guided me to the relevant lean-tos to realise our purchases. We bought fresh fruits and homemade hot freshly made chilli tomato sauce. We watched the animated African mama squish the tomatoes, chop the onions, slice the chillies and add all to a massive antiquated aluminium blender and pour the pureed sauce into a lidded pot we supplied ourselves. No health and safety regulations here.

On we continued to purchase meat.....Oh my.....was this an eye opener and an over powering stench as we entered the meat market. On ancient rickety wooden benches, upon a mud laden floor, were slabs of goat, cow, pig and chickens laying and hanging for as far as the eye could see. There were pig totters, strung up chickens, cow legs and cow tails decorating every part of the corrugated tin roof along with masses of flies and mosquitoes that buzzed irritatingly and persistently around us and the carcasses. I don't know how I didn't vomit; the stench was horrific, the atmosphere like a free for all abattoirs. Machetes lay nonchalantly everywhere and excesses of blood ran under our feet into ditches, gulley’s and puddles, where large fat mossies’ feasted hungrily.

My jaw dropped further open and I knew I had to get out of there. My companion purchased his large slabs of goat, beef and a chicken and feeling sick to my stomach and faint, I was whisked through the mud and puddle ridden alleys back to the flooded, car infested main road where our car awaited and where the "white woman, white woman" whispers now lagged and faded behind me.

I could not stomach cow tail, goat, beans and hot red sauce for dinner; Nigerian porridge and a cuppa tea was my preferred supper.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Stories & Storytelling Around the World

Having had an interesting set of tweets on Twitter yesterday morning, I felt it apt to share my different experiences of storytelling in the places I have lived around the world. Of course this only my view, my perspective in the villages, towns and cities I have been privileged to put down roots in for a while, some of them extremely remote and some of them vastly different to my own culture and upbringing.

I have been extremely lucky to be born into a family where I have had the humble pleasure of knowing my parents, grandparents and great grandparents who have told me stories of living through two world wars, the Somme, prisoner of war camps in Germany, the blitz, rationing, evacuees and the enormous technical and technological changes they witnessed during these very interesting lifetimes. I stayed with my grandparents on many occasions and have wonderful vivid memories of feather beds, copper bed warmers, tin baths, cigarette cards, privies and scrumping for apples to name just a few.

As a small child I was blessed with plenty of story books but I was also blessed with storytelling by members of the family. I also became aware at a very young age that one day I would have these same stories to tell others. I too witnessed an era that also changed rapidly in my lifetime; from dial telephones, black and white tv, gramophones and vinyl’s. I also knew I wanted to remember these stories and situations in order to pass them down the family as one day there would be no one left who had lived them (or been told them); I was a secret family historian in the making in order that the family history and my own culture was not forgotten one day.

So in travelling the world, one of my roles, became not only how to teach but also how to tell and write stories about life and the world around us. I was privileged to work with many children in some very remote parts of the Middle East and Africa. In my class of 30 children in Arabia most had never had a bedtime story; these small little people actually did not know what I meant by a “bedtime story.” Children raised by nannies and governesses from India and the Philippines, who first language was not Arabic or English could not read to these children and so story books were not on the families agenda. I was amazed how this culture had risen from Bedouin camel train to Mercedes, Jaguar and Range Rover, iPhone and Blackberry in such a short space of time but their children struggled to read, write and communicate at four years old. As teachers we set up story time after school clubs and parenting courses and were inundated with the response. I am sure stories still unfold today around the dinner table in many Arabic homes, but the massive and rapid changes in cultural development in the UAE have meant priorities have changed. Development means that women do not spend as much time in the home or in harems and stories and education are carried out by other cultures. Sharing books and stories and writing classroom stories was an enviable pleasure.

In Africa I experienced similar prized chattels, everyone carried a cell phone, drove a car, had a flat screen television but the children at seven years old were illiterate. No one knew phonics; the elders never experienced schooling as we know it; English was their first language taught in all establishments but the elder’s only spoke tribal languages therefore were unable to teach, assist or support the children with their studies. The African children I worked with struggled to write, read and use the English language. They were not taught grammar or sentence structure in school, unless you could afford to attend a private school and then learning was limited and not to the standards we know. The children I worked with found reading “hard work” and read extremely slowly (if at all) as they had never been given the tools to enable positive learning skills to develop. The children were so enthusiastic to learn and participate and would flock around me and sap up all information offered and were enthralled and engaged in listening to a story from a book or imagination. It was such a pleasure to tell a story to these children; it was an honour to be their teacher, I loved every minute.

I also lived and taught in the Arizonian desert and had the humble privilege of colleagues and friends from a variety of American Indian tribes. What beauty and variety span these cultures and what great story tellers these people are and have always been? The elders still pass on their stories and are most happy if you will sit and listen. It is important to these tribes that tradition, old wives tales and culture is continued to be passed on. There is a traditional image of an elder seated with a large number of children clambering all over her listening to the “story.” Nevertheless, storytelling is dwindling due to careers and people moving to the cities for a different way of life. Younger generations do not realise the loss of these stories and in years to come no one will be able to pass on the stories to the next generations.

Stories and storytelling teach us so much in so many different ways and I don’t mean just from a book. By telling or hearing a story we learn about history and cultures, families past and present; traditions and beliefs. We learn how to listen, concentrate and take turns. We mature our personal, social and emotional skills and extend language and learn how to communicate with one another. We build trusting relationships and bonds; hugs for at least twenty seconds release oxytocin which helps us to build trusting relationships. Cuddling up together with a book or a family story creates bonds, encourages conversations, poses questions and answers and deepens our connections with our children. Touching and connecting build love and care and this we all need to develop positively. Children, who are not touched, stroked and shown love falter, do not develop and can become depressed. Books and storytelling help nurture and nourish our hearts and minds.

Seeing the written word in many forms supports and develops our understanding of marks and symbols around us and is the first stages to reading and writing and builds confidence and self-esteem. Reading helps us to make sense of the world; letters, numbers and symbols are all around us wherever we are in the world and if we cannot make sense of the world it can be very detrimental to our well-being and a scary place to be. Children get great pleasure from books, pictures and stories and they obviously extend our knowledge base. A child without a book is like a sky with no sun.

So we must encourage storytelling, stories and books for every child everywhere in the world; we should never take for granted that everyone has what we have. We must not take for granted everyone has the opportunity we have. An African boy once said to me, “you were lucky to be born where you were born; I am just a poor African boy trying to learn what you know without the tools.” There are still children today who have no books, no library and no one to read to them. There are still places in the world where girls and women are not educated because it is not seen as important. Educate a girl and you educate a family and a generation.

I hope I have left a small legacy behind in the places I been a teacher.  I hope I have shared some knowledge, a story or two, some mark making skills, a phonics lesson or two, some good books, some pens, pencils and paper and how to make a good cup of tea.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Arabian Royal Wedding continued

And still no bride…or groom…yet!

Remember…the scene was amazing and spellbinding and we two very English teachers had been enjoying every single minute of this bridal event. As the concealed male voice and gong resonated to call us all to our tables for our elaborate dinner, all hell was let loose, as female...yes, all female...waitresses entered the marquee, in unison, from all corners, in exotic traditional dress, carrying huge silver platters covered in a huge domed silver food covering balanced on their right hand way above their heads in a well-rehearsed regimented march.

Each platter was placed in the centre of each elaborately decorated table and the traditionally dressed female waitresses turned and marched in time with each other back to the kitchens and returned minutes later with obscene numbers of side dishes that were delicately and precisely placed around the large silver platter centre stage.

As guests we sat patiently and waited watching this parade and spectacle take place until it was indicated by the concealed male voice that we could begin to help ourselves to dinner. One of the elder matriarchal Arabic women at our table stood and lifted the dome from the silver platter to reveal a whole roasted goat...head and all...ordaining the platter in the middle of our table. There was head, legs, tail, and you can now visualise how big this platter was. This large roasted goat slept in the middle of our table lovingly festooned with local herbs and leaves, it was a true work of art.

The waitresses parade continued collecting and removing the silver domes from each table and then immediately each of the Arabic woman lurched into the goat dissecting every limb and fighting over who was going to get the pleasure of the head. My English friend and I just sat mesmerized watching this ungainly debacle. It is one of the only times I faked vegetarianism, much to the chagrin of the Arabic womenfolk sharing our table. Everything about that meal was difficult; nothing was to my taste, strange flavours, textures and mixes but to refuse was considered rude, disrespectful and extremely bad manners in this culture. Boy, did I find eating that meal at that table grim; swallowing became awkward and at times impossible. I have to confess I did spit the most unpalatable mouthfuls into my napkin on several occasions.

The most delicious part of this meal was the traditional desserts, especially Arabic rice pudding, absolutely delicious, traditionally accompanied by the standard weak Arabic sweet syrupy tea (which I had now become accustomed to) served in the traditionally beautiful miniature glass mugs delivered to our tables by the “parade” of the female waitresses once more. Every little glass mug had been intricately engraved with the interwoven initials of the bride and groom and the royal family crest.

As we enjoyed the sweet tea and admired the glass tea mugs, Arabic music cascaded and wafted into the very pink decorated tent and swamped the guests. Whispers, rustles and hushed chatter enveloped the entire space and.....then, as we waited in anticipation....from the far end of the mile long cat walk under a pink flower laden arch and from behind a voile curtain appeared the most serene apparition.....the bride.....innocent, shy and composed, dressed in the most beautiful white very “poufy” dress with an enormous train flowing behind her, she began to walk incredibly slowly and gently down her bridal mile, making her way towards a two seater “pink” sofa in a shrine type setting at the far end. She stopped and twirled occasionally in order that no one missed a single ruffle, frill, pearl or diamond on that poufy dress. Everyone watched and gazed in awe for at least an hour, as this young woman, paraded relentlessly, until she reached the flower adorned sofa where her family assisted with her dress and train in order that she could sit, and sit comfortably, and wait for her groom to join her.

At this point I suddenly noticed that now we were being secured and guarded by an armed, all female security attaché that mingled between the guests for the remainder of the evening tapping feet in time to the music, hollering and dancing with the guests from time to time with pistols slung on their hips. What a strange and contradictory sight. After several hours of dancing, hollering and warbling and young girls provocatively snaking their hips in the middle of the round dining tables where earlier we had been devouring our goats, suddenly the atmosphere changed. A steady hum radiated through the women and around the tent like a Mexican wave followed by a rapid rustle of abayas, scarfs and veils which swept across the room within minutes; once again the room was clad in black rather than coloured satins, voiles and diamonds. It looked more like a funeral than a wedding. Not a single lock of hair was visible other than the blonde locks of us two English teachers who were unclad and showing our wears. To a fanfare of local musicians and male dancers at the flower enveloped arch, the groom finally appeared in traditional royal white and gold robes and with eyes only for his bride he proceeded to take his own parade along the mile long catwalk, stopping occasionally to the seductive hollering and warbling of the women and girls until he reached his bride.

Joining her on the couch, the family embraced them both and the dancing, hollering and celebrations continued into the small hours. Bride and groom sat on that couch for the remainder of the evening, not touching, and at opposite ends, occasionally looking and speaking to each other until most guests had departed. Luxury cars drove back into the plush pink carpet clad entrance way to collect the celebrated and royal guests and return them to their palaces and homes. My English friend and I took our chauffer driven stretched Mercedes back to our teacher’s quarters with vivid memories of an exceptional evening never to be repeated.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Mrs Teacup in Lagos, West Africa

I will  never forget the first time I travelled to Africa; it is as vivid today as it was then. The only white face on the plane was my first taste of Africa as a white woman. I was stared at, talked about and whispers rustled round the plane as diligent as an African mosquito, for the full five hours of the flight. "Why on earth are you travelling alone to Nigeria?" was the first question I was asked as I settled into my middle Afryka Airlines seat between two very dark full figured extrovertly attired African women? Eyes were on me the whole trip and I was observed from all angles; I felt like a Tracey Emin exhibit in the Tate.

I was travelling to work with African children and was proud of what I was doing. I was very excited but as the plane took off with 500 plus Africans staring at me with huge eyes peering out of black faces my excitement did dwindle slightly. My African companions (either side of me) were kind friendly and good company and they found great comfort in telling me the “whys and wherefores” of what I could expect when I landed at Mohammed Murtala Airport, Lagos. I was grateful to some of the information but I could have done without a lot of it.

Proceeding through the airport in Lagos there was not a white face in sight. I was the most popular passenger in the baggage hall and several young African women travelling with me were concerned for my safety. They surrounded me and ushered me through every turnstile and gave me their cell phone numbers “in case I got into any difficulties”. I was an easy target and harassed constantly by the porter who endeavoured to attempt to insist I pay for a baggage cart or pay him to carry my bags to my driver; this was called a “dash.”  I had been warned about this before even leaving the UK and also on the plane by my two African mentors and as my suitcase was on wheels, I gave no one a “dash.” Waiting for the bags to arrive was like waiting for paint to dry! And as the only white face in the baggage hall I was the talk of the town and extremely easy to spot! Some small children wanted to touch and stoke me! 

The baggage conveyor belt did not work, the air conditioning did not work and nor did the ceiling fans; so…hot and sticky in a 40 degree humid hall, finally our bags were brought out (some two hours later) from a deep dark hole somewhere in the airport, on very squeaky and rickety trolleys and one by one passengers claimed their luggage and began to file out of the airport building; most, kindly shouted “goodbye” to me, the exhibit and not surprisingly there was no ordered queue. Outside was an incredible sight…something I have never envisaged…an even deeper sea of dark faces just staring at me and as I exited, in slow motion the sea parted and my driver just magically appeared out of the crowd and rapidly took charge of my baggage and me and whisked me along to a car waiting for us in the car park. I suppose I was not hard for him to recognise?

We passed dealers of all descriptions who grabbed at me and murmured in hushed voices “white woman, white woman, white woman” and tried to touch and grab at me. They constantly asked “what have you bought for me.” Beggars sat in the gutters, hands held out for money or gifts, some with limbs missing, many of them children; those with limbs missing used skate boards to get around. My driver continued to hurry me on and quickly and forcefully thrust me into the back seat of the awaiting car; within minutes we were on our way out of the airport terminal; I was definitely venturing into the unknown. Already I was in awe of this fascinating culture that broke every rule and boundary.

The road was pitch black, no street lamps, no white lines and no cat’s eyes. There were holes in roads as big as craters; no tarmac… just a deep red coloured earth and dust kicked up all around us.  No one had any lane discipline, everyone was weaving in and out each other at least 70mph and buses careered past us laden with luggage on the roof and hanging over the side; these buses were oversubscribed with passengers and goats, many of them hanging out of the doors and. These sights were unbelievable to me; I had never seen anything like this before and my head jerked from side to side as I watched open mouthed the Nigerian culture unfold before me. Cars were smashed up; trucks falling apart and rusty old yellow buses that should not have been on the road were carrying civilians at high speeds. Who insures these vehicles I wondered?

Suddenly we hit a traffic jam and immediately the car came to a halt and was instantly surrounded by children begging. They tapped constantly on the car window and with their hands held out to me called “please, please lady, spare me some coins, anything you have.” They ran alongside the car as we slowly eased our way along begging me to pass money out of the window. “Please white lady, please, some coins, spare some coins.” I took out a few Naira from the ones I had brought from the Bureau de Change in the UK and carefully slipped this through a crack in the window and as the coins fell to ground the children began to fight over this tiny amount of money, it was pitiful. As one child finally took it for herself, she gave me a smile from deep within her soul and ran off. My driver began to laugh and said “you have started something now, best you give nothing as they will never be satisfied and will never leave you alone, especially as you are white.” I logged that sentence and didn’t answer; those words were to haunt me as my trip unfolded. We were also bothered by hawkers selling anything and everything to make a naira or two. Seeing a white blonde western woman in the back seat of a taxi cab meant megabucks to these beggars and hawkers, I had already become a target.

The traffic began to move at a higher speed and we left the children and hawkers behind and continued along in the opaque blackness until we turned into a street alive with loud tribal music, exotic dancing, passionate singing and alight with candles and Kerosene fires on which brightly decorated women were cooking a variety of goat, chicken and beef curries and stews. The street was rocking and buzzing with Africans of all ages; you could feel the vibration in your soul. We slowly wove our way through the crowds, my driver cleverly missing any obstruction…the noise was incredible…it was so loud it hurt my ears and head. What with the women shouting for you to sample their wares, the sound of food frying, the music and singing, the incessant chattering of exuberant African families and the car and bike engines, I had never sampled noise on this level anywhere in the world. Although outrageously out of my comfort zone, I was addicted. The smell was phenomenal too; a bizarre mixture of curry, beer, Kerosene, sweat and engine emissions; I can still smell it vividly today.

As we edged out of the crowd at the end of this long festival, we emerged into the dark shadows again and the celebratory sounds began to fade behind us and we turned into a quiet crater filled road (which ingeniously my driver dodged) and into the hotel entrance closed off by locked six foot overly ornate and heavily decorated gates of copper and aluminium which were very quickly opened by the small childlike gateman, Abdullah, and my driver parked up in front of the so called hotel. Abdullah very quickly relieved us of my suitcase and rushed it into the hotel lobby (hoping for a dash from this white woman, I am sure) while I paid and thanked my driver. On entering I was met by the very young Nigerian male proprietor who kindly “dashed” Abdullah and showed me to my very basic hotel room which included a king size bed (raised about six inches off the floor), a small worn sofa and a rickety chest of drawers on which sat a small TV with a bent indoor aerial. There was one window with torn mosquito screens and no curtains and the ceiling fan was off. My “en-suite” bathroom contained a stained and worn out bath, sink and filthy toilet. No shower, just a bright orange rubber hose pipe fitted to the single tap in the bath. A red plastic “pound shop” bucket stood in the bath with a plastic scoop inside…I learnt very quickly how to bathe in Nigeria; fill the bucket with cold water from the hose pipe (the night before, so it warms up) and scoop the water from the bucket to wash each day. I never did have a hot bath. Clothes washing was carried out the same way, by hand in the bath and hung to dry in my hotel room.

There was an old ugly grey box like air conditioning unit cut into the outside wall next to the window (the plaster work had not been repaired or made good) but I was told by my young Nigerian proprietor that the electricity was only on for one hour in the morning and one in the evening and he could not guarantee that. NEPA, the Nigerian electricity company, “took” power just when they felt like it, so nothing could be guaranteed. And when there was electricity, it was too expensive to have on continuously, proprietor advised me. I thought to myself “I am paying for this?” I giggled inside at the thought of relaying to my family my experience…they were never going to believe my story.

Exhausted (and elated) I was blessed with a chunky china mug of weak black unsweetened tea, compliments of the proprietor as a nightcap (I requested milk to accompany it) and was left to settle down for the night in 40 degree plus humidity with no air conditioning, no fan and no light, alone in a wild part of the world. I safely locked and chained my hotel door and lay in the darkness until sleep took over.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Mrs Teacup and Memories of Granny

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust and a cuppa tea. As we think about that it doesn't always go together, can be uncomfortable but you know a good cuppa can sometimes helps. It's a bit of juxtaposition isn't it? But for me and my dear old Granny tea was always a priority and there always had to be cake, preferably her all-time favourite, M&S Apricot Swiss Roll. Afternoon tea was not the same without cake. sadly, just this week I lost my dear and very old Granny after many weeks of watching her in discomfort and with progressively advanced dementia; the last eight weeks turned into a very difficult and sad waiting game. It's been a very painful time for all, but for me especially. I have been required to be strong and brave, to support the family, but haven't always wanted to be nor have I always been able to be. But for dear old Granny I think I have managed it quite well and done her proud and now sadly, she is gone. Gone to the beautiful house in the sky and God has finally welcomed her and found her a bed with the Angels.

Weekends would be our time together to chat and laugh over a good strong cuppa tea and Swiss roll in her old people’s bungalow. I would shop for her and arrive with the tea time goodies; make a brew in her loyal and traditional stainless teapot and help serve tea to us both in her rosebud bone china teacup and saucers with matching tea plates. Afternoon tea always had to be in cups and saucers.

The war and her childhood were her “fave” topics; we would talk about the past in great detail and I learnt so much. As a genealogy girl, I endeavoured to obtain as many juicy facts about the family from her as possible to add to the family tree, but the old girl was too clever for me and only told what she wanted, much to my disappointment. I did learn a lot though about a life and world past; fascinating facts about the workhouse and mills; the soldiers, families and the war and life as an evacuee. She told me about her life as a wartime bride and her courtship and the hard lifestyle of the 1930's and 40’s. she reminisced of her life as a children's governess for very “well to do” families; spoke of brass bed warmers and feather mattresses; goosanders, parlors, outside privies and fine tea trolleys. A life very far removed from what children recognise today. A life without television and telephone. My dear old Granny still lived in those dark days, washing by hand and scrubbing the floor on her hands a knees and .

At 92 years of age, wiry, frail, bent over and unsteady on her feet pushing her walking frame in her old floral piney, every Saturday tea and cake was proudly wheeled into the best living room on her gilt two tier tea trolley clad with faded but embroidered tray cloths edged in Buckinghamshire lace and tea plates with doilies and respectfully served to the family. It was a traditional and special occasion with warm fuzzy memories for me.

Those wonderful memories and stories live on in my memory and family tree even though she has now left us. Life comes so slow and yet so fast; death can be slow and yet so fast. Once here now gone. The last few weeks have been slow and painful but in the end fast and now laid to rest, God bless her soul, she is finally resting in God's house, at peace and I hope in a better place. At 92 she deserves to be able to rest. Worn out and tired she had done her time on earth; she told me she wanted to sleep for one hundred years and I hope she is now able to rest. Life is filled with interesting and poignant moments and memories to be treasured in order to remember our loved ones.  Tea and cake on Saturday afternoon’s will now be in memory of my dear old Granny. Bye bye Granny, RIP, untill we meet again.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

An Arabian Royal Wedding

Tea has always been a common denominator in my travels. I outlined that in my very first blog. And as explained previously, being English, very English, tea has always hung prevalently in my existence. This cute little pet name I inherited during afternoon tea with a good group of girlfriends after many years of tea and travels around the globe. The pet name came about in Arabia, but I had been brewing tea in a variety of receptacles, in a variety of countries and continents for several decades prior to my experiences in the Arabian Desert.

And so to continue with my Arabian Prince……

Blessed with a real life four year old Arabian Prince in my class, I was to experience some events that I could only have dreamed of prior to arriving in the Arabian Desert and these would also include afternoon tea. Having become a trusted confidante of my Princes governess, I was given an invitation to one of the Princesses exchanging of wedding vows. I didn't even have to worry about a new evening dress for this very special occasion; I was given the gift of some beautiful fabric and the address of a tailor who, to my design, run up the most gorgeous dress in two days.

All dressed up and collected by chauffeur driven Mercedes limousine, I was driven to the Palace. On entering the Palace gates, we passed armed guard security and continued along the flashing white twinkle lit tree lined driveway until we reached the large bridal marquees. To my utter surprise my limousine drove right inside the first pink plush carpeted marquee where we stopped (on the thick pile carpet) and the chauffeur helped me and my guest out of the car right into the wedding reception marquee.

The decoration was exquisite...pale pink ribbons, roses and baby lights twinkled everywhere. Pale pink thick pile carpets coveted the ground, cream silk drapes, solid silver cutlery and goblets housing champagne flowed throughout the tent. Cut glass shone and sparkled on two hundred or more circular tables around a two hundred yard long cat walk covered in cerise pink rose petals and the edges decorated with thousands of cream and pink flowers of every species one could think of.

The whole setting was overwhelmingly beautiful, it was awe inspiring. I couldn't take it all in. The setting and atmosphere caught my breath; I couldn't help staring for a long while as I digested this amazing vision and soaked up the beauty of the entire space. Nothing had been overlooked; every minute detail had been thoughtfully executed with tender loving care. Not a single item was missed; from the chandeliers to the place settings, from the carpets to the floristry…and all in a very grand tent.

The tent, of course, was full of women and girls. The men were in another very plush tent next door. The women wore amazing finery but most were ensconced in a black opaque overcoat called an abaya. Nevertheless, their finery often came with a long train which followed the women outside of the overcoat. For us two English teachers the three yards of visible finery flowing behind them, was fascinating and we wished with all our hearts the women would cast-off the overcoat and show all. These three yards were encrusted with any amount of crystals, beading, lace, ruffles and truly exquisite fine fabrics; it felt like they were teasing us and of course they were all teasing each other. The competition in the tent between the women was overpoweringly recognizable and at a “do” such as this, one wanted to “out do” anyone and everyone if one could.

Chatter, gossip, laughter and music filled the air as we glided in-between these ornate female creatures discretely espying and memorizing as much of the finery and atmosphere as possible. All of a sudden, over a loud speaker, an anonymous and clandestine male voice, announced that dinner was ready to be served. The tent became a scurry of hushed voices blended with the rustle of fine linen, as the women frantically found their tables and began to discard their abayas. We watched in wonder and awe as the tent took on a different life and colour; crystals, gold and beads dazzled from every corner of the room as the women finally paraded their attire like peacocks. The scene was amazing and spellbinding and we two English teachers loved every single minute. We turned to each other and smiled and completely mesmerized, the two of us were the last to take our seats, as we watched this spectacle unfold. We were now being watched by thousands of Arabian female eyes, of all generations, as in slow motion and with smiles on our faces we graciously found our seats for dinner. The whole room rose, smiled and clapped at us.

And still no bride and groom had been seen.

To be continued……

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Feral Child in my Classroom

During my teaching life I have worked with, and helped, some very sad cases in many wild and remote parts of the world. It's always challenging and heart wrenching to be a prominent integral piece of the jigsaw of a very young child's sad story; but when you work hard and with passion, as part of a team, and actually make a difference and change something so very negative into a positive it makes the difficult periods in life worth the fight. I have often quietly told myself “I have seen most things” but then some other horrendous situation pops out the woodwork and I am faced with a new and daunting challenge that takes me on another difficult journey with a small innocent child.

This little boy, who I will refer to as Jon, arrived in my nursery school aged two years, still in nappies. Jon spoke well for his age and appeared a clever capable little boy. At nursery he seemed happy enough although I noticed he was a slight loner. He still parallel played alongside his friends and he liked spending time with his adult carers engaging in pleasing conversation and chit chat. He attempted to participate in all activities with great enthusiasm and often struggled to end an activity and move onto the next task. He often became so fully engrossed in an activity he was “lost” in his own little world. I remember thinking on many occasions that it was obvious he had never experienced most of the play and craft activities offered to him.

I noticed that Jon came to nursery, each day, in grubby clothes and often wore the same clothes all week. Sadly, it was reported to me that he was rather smelly and unclean and consequently I asked the staff to change him into clean clothes as often as necessary and give him a wipe down to freshen him up. Sensitively and tactfully (and on many occasions) I mentioned this to his mummy, but nothing really changed. Still he came to play in a rather unkempt, grubby and smelly condition.

It was also very quickly noticed that Jon was always hungry and very thirsty. He would “woof” down his snacks, lunch and tea and was always the first to ask for seconds and he never seemed to be full; he wanted to eat and eat, as if he just couldn't get enough. The same was noticed with drinks; he was thirsty all day, every day, and would gulp down his drink and immediately ask for more. I began to realise that maybe he was scared that if he didn’t fill up at nursery he would go hungry at home until he returned the next time to nursery. Again, very sensitively and tactfully, I had a difficult conversation with his mummy and I decided to begin to keep a confidential diary of events.

Jon's mummy showed no concerns, she said he was same at home and was "just a greedy child". His mummy commented that “she tried to restrict his food and drink intake at home” and that we should do the same at nursery. She said he was always hungry and had an antisocial relationship with food. I very quickly advised her that I could not withhold food and drink; it was against the law and if Jon was hungry and thirsty we would be sating him adequately while in our care. Disturbingly, we had even seen him scrabbling to eat food off the floor. When we asked him not to do this, he would take the food and run off and hide. I learnt from other professionals that once a teacher got close to mum she did not stay in the setting for long. As soon as you got close (or wise) she made her excuses and moved Jon to a new nursery setting, hoping to blend into the background and remain off the radar. I knew I needed to move quickly and wisely. I knew I had a difficult task ahead of me. I also knew I had a duty of care.

Within twenty four hours, Jon made my next move easier; he made the decision for me. Unbelievably I found him lapping water from the children’s miniature stalls. Down on his knees, bending over the “little” toilets in the miniature stalls, Jon was lapping like a dog. Distressed and shocked, I gathered him in my arms, took him to one side and asked him to try to tell me what he was doing and why. He told me, in his own words, clearly and succinctly, that "this is what I do at home". I asked him to try to explain why, he replied "mummy doesn't allow me to eat or drink". I was horrified and I immediately referred.

Jon was taken into foster care and later adopted, joined a Preschool and, I am pleased to tell you, thrived.

Sadly, Jon's birth mother showed no remorse or conscience and went on to have another child with another partner. There was much more depth to this story but I am sure you get the picture. My duty of care was to Jon. For him to be deprived of food and water, strapped in a high chair all day in order for a mother to continue her substance abuse and not have to bother to take care of her precious baby was completely unacceptable and abusive. To see him acting like a feral child was heartbreaking and I had to act and act quickly before she moved her family on again, got lost in the system and Jon possibly became a statistic.

As you can imagine, sweet tea served in my Royal Doulton rose encrusted fine bone china mug was a welcome interlude while dealing with this distressing scenario.

Thank God this child was saved.

The characters in this story have been anonymised and names changed to protect identification and respect confidentiality.

Friday, 6 September 2013

At Mrs Teacup's Arabian Classroom Door

We filed into the large tired drab auditorium in relative silence. Having only arrived twenty four hours before, no significant relationships had yet been formed. As good English citizens do, we formed an orderly line along the edge of the stage at the front of the auditorium to claim our refreshments, other's didn't queue. Brews of Arabic and English tea was boiling away.....sadly, to be served in white plastic cups. “Take two cups, one inside the other”, we were advised, “and be careful it could be very hot”. Most of us plumped for the English brew, although weak and very milky, at this early stage we were not brave enough to try the Arabic. To my surprise, and sadness, no fine English “rose patterned” bone china teacups (or PG Tips) were anywhere insight; weak, milky and white plastics cups it was then.

Having identified parents and carers at my classroom room door in England by their faces, style and personalities, it was astounding at induction to be informed in Arabia, and more importantly in this fee paying British Curriculum school, this was not so. Forty three teachers sat, aghast, when advised of the recommended tactics we were expected to use.
With thirty children in my class who were delivered and collected by different carers each day this ranked highly as the most stressful part of my day. It was not necessarily the children’s parents that collected; it could be a driver, nanny, maid, governess, grandparent or parent. And if these were female, it was a pretty much given that they would be encapsulated in black from head to toe with only their eyes showing.

As you all know Arabian men do not cover their faces, so for me it was gratifying when a male turned up to do the after school pick up. Unfortunately the fathers did not pick up regularly; generally a female member of the family appeared outside my door. Pick up was easier if not Muslim by faith or the lady came from a bordering country, as generally one saw the face and the female was only ensconced in the scarf. Any female Muslim was, more often than not, covered from head to toe in the abaya, scarf and veil and the more fundamental the more layers of black voile covered their faces. The most fundamental ladies even wore thick black gloves, tights and socks and some of the older generations wore a metal plate across the centre of their face. No flesh to be visible to the world at all, especially to men other than their immediate male family members.
Traditionally, the Burqa, was worn by the Bedouin women to protect them from the sun, sand and extreme elements on their nomadic travels through the desert. Wearing the Burqa is not an Islamic requirement and is traditionally steeped in local customs, culture and traditions. What is mandatory in Islam is to wear cloth or clothing that cover the whole body, including the hair, except the face and hands. The cloth or clothing (abaya) must not be tight so as to show off or enhance the female form and should not be transparent to make the under garments visible. It is stated that women "cover up" to preserve their modesty and out of respect for their husbands. Arabic women explained to me that the hair, lips and body are all classed as sexual symbols and these must not be on view to any man other than immediate male members of the family and behind the families front door.

So, in the humid dank auditorium, and in the management’s wisdom, we were tutored to ensure we learnt, and had the ability to, recognise each mother or female by, what was classed as normal practices, in this rural small Arabian town. Given a list to digest, a gasp and sharp intake of breath moved through the auditorium like a Mexican wave. Frowns, raised eyebrows and rolling of eyes were visible all around me but to my amazement management just glossed over our astonishment. Queries and comments were ignored and basically we were told to “get in with it”.
Dismissively, we were given our comprehensive list of recommended ways of recognising the covered women at our classroom doors. It was seriously recommended that we learn the sound of each mothers voice and then we were given a list of other helpful additions to observe, take note of and recognise.....rings, brooches, jewellery, shoes, handbags and even the decoration on their veils or abaya. It was even suggested that we recognise the way they walk. Scared, flabbergasted and in a state of shock, I really didn't digest much more of that induction, as, I am sure did no one else. These practices were to haunt me every day of my teaching life in Arabia. I never did feel comfortable and was always terrified I would let a child go home with the wrong person.

The end of the school day was a very stressful time. I would shake and my heart would race and I could hear it beating in my chest. I was unable to bring myself to leave my classroom door or trust anyone else to see my class home safely. I saw my children home safely myself every single day. The only person I felt I could trust (if I was otherwise engaged in other teaching responsibilities) was my Lebanese teaching assistant, although I was constantly worried about the repercussions of child being lost or taken.
On several occasions, we heard of men disguising themselves in the Burqa and Hijab (veil), clad in black from head to toe and wearing ladies shoes, attempting to kidnap young children from schools for organ donation which would be sold to friends, acquaintances and family in other parts of the world. This was shocking and outrageous and caused much condemnation among me and my colleagues. The criminals carrying out these disgusting deeds were part of a sophisticated underworld that somehow secured much personal information about a particular child in a particular school and often managed to get by school security and arrive at the classroom door. As teachers and carers, no matter how worried and stressed we were, we could be nothing but vigilant, responsible and wise. This was normal practice in this part of the world and this was the way it was. Terrifying and completely beyond my understanding, I found myself ever over cautious at my classroom door. I am pleased to tell you my children went home safely with the right adult at all times.

At the end of each day, as you can well imagine, a strong brew (with a mars bar) was always a welcome and relaxing interlude in the staffroom after all the children were safely reunited with their families.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Bedouin Tents & Camp Fires

Come, settle down with a good brew, curl up somewhere comfy, grab a blanket and enjoy my next adventure…

Sitting out under Arabian clear skies, twinkling stars, a bright moon and some unusual critters in evening temperatures of 32 degrees (and above) around the most beautiful camp fire I had ever seen with special friends, was truly a delight. I had never camped before in my life, so to camp in the middle of nowhere with complete strangers – human, reptile and animal (insects abound) – was a bit scary. This was another one of those amazing experiences and learning curves for me, Mrs T.

Circumstances had brought us together, all teachers in a foreign land, and now, as a close group of friends, we set off in a convoy of four wheel drives, in high spirits, across barren arid terrain that quickly became barer and more desolate as we left the city behind us and ventured deeper and deeper into the golden desert. Camels, sand dunes and dusty roads were all we could see for miles, both left and right, for the entirety of our road trip. It was long, but not winding, a straight and dusty highway that stretched ahead forever and disappeared over the horizon and way beyond leading us into an adventure like we had never experienced before. Fifty or so miles into the heart of the desert and weaving through vivid tangerine wind sculptured, massive dunes, the size of mountains, we finally arrived at the stately and prestigious Arabian stud ranch which was to be our home and camp for the next few days and where we were to participate in a traditional Bedouin camp under the clear starry starry desert night skies.

Our kindly and generous hosts had already set up the extremely striking Arabian camp; three large cream hexagonal tents strategically and perfectly placed in an arc around a black ash pit where we would eventually build our own camp fire. The smell was potent; a distinctive blend of dust, sand, soot and Arabian horse manure filled the air. Wood had to be gathered in the desert dusk for the fire so several of the group volunteered to head off in search of as much parched branches and scrub as they could muster. Much was found and proudly dragged back to camp and a huge fire was started which we all instantly moved close to and sat around to warm ourselves. The desert gets cold in the evenings. The fire was comforting, warm and atmospheric and lively chatter, laughter and sipping filled the air. Rapidly, ornate and beautifully woven blankets, robes and pashmina's were rummaged and shared out to each and every one of us. It felt luxurious and rich to be ensconced in such fabrics and traditions. Our hosts supplied a large ornate filigree engraved silver teapot full of water, which was hung on a stake over the vast fire to boil. While waiting for it to boil, we all busied ourselves with unpacking and settling into camp by filling our tents with our belongings and supplies. There was one hexagonal tent per family group and I had one all to myself.

We all settled back around the fire and sated ourselves with delicious food and drink. The atmosphere, like nothing I had experienced before, was oozing from under regal blankets and pashminas as we relished each other’s conversation and company. Under the clear Arabian starry skies laughter echoed, chatter could be heard; Arabian music trickled softly in the background while the cicadas clicked their night music and the stallions whinnied from sandy paddocks nearby. Spiders and critters scurried beneath our feet, the odd desert wren tweeted its song and an Arabian owl twit ta wooed as the night moved in. The whole atmosphere and scene was amazing and had the essence of a storybook. Life long friendships were being forged and memories made during this trip.

The exquisite filigree teapot whistled its readiness and the hot sweet weak Arabian night cap was offered to all in petite clear delicately engraved glass mugs which was a welcome finale after our dinner of meats, Halloumi, salads, breads and humus. Content, happy and relaxed, seated around the fire we all settled down to share our life experiences; what a way to experience camping for the first time. As the sun disappeared behind the mountainous dunes, changing the colours of landscape as it retired, each one of us, as if taking turns, began to respectfully retreat to our most elaborate tents for some well-earned rest.

My Bedouin tent was beautiful and glamorous; extravagantly furnished with exotic Persian cushions along each wall of my hexagonal Arabian bedroom. The fabric were elaborate and complex; the colours rich and the fabrics expensive. Persian carpets covered the sandy floor and burgundy silks draped the inner walls tied back perfectly with gold tasseled rope. Seductive reds, purples and gold formed heady hallucinations and thoughts of the harems, belly dancers and camel trains in times gone by. When I closed your eyes I could imagine the traditional Bedouin men and women’s past lifestyles. The desert smells and sounds added to the atmosphere. When ready to retire I was shown how, traditionally, to push several of the exquisite heavy cushions together along one wall to make my bed. At the rear of the tent was a cream voile fabric screen for me to use as a changing space giving added privacy and creating a dressing room.

I had been very apprehensive about this trip but there was no need; it was amazing. I experienced, as authentically as possible the Bedouin way of life over that weekend. It was so enjoyable we repeated it many times during my time in Arabia. I slept well and rose at dawn to see the sun come up over the dunes and to the smell of bacon and eggs cooking on the grand fire. The days were relaxing, playing traditional games, watching Arabian Stallions manoeuvre through the dunes and sharing our lives around the fire pit in between cooking and preparing hot tea.

On this occasion no PG Tips were required or appropriate, weak sweet Arabian tea in beautifully engraved glass mugs was the order of the weekend and Mrs Teacup was quite content, happy and satisfied. Nothing could have been better in our Bedouin camp or added to the atmosphere. Sometimes tea needs to be different for different occasions in different parts of the world for different reasons. This was definitely one of those occasions and reasons.