Friday, April 25, 2008

You Can't Spell Bahrain without Ah

After the over the top intensity of Dubai and the strange backwardness of Kuwait, Bahrain was Just Right. Friendly people who speak English, warm Cinnabons, and gas at 75 cents a gallon: What's not to like?

I had learned my lesson in Kuwait, and upon arrival at the Bahrain airport I went straight to the rental car area. A nice Mazda at $33 a day, and away I went, heading for the Juffair district, where the directions posted on the internet 3 months ago said that the Youth Hostel was. And, look at that, but there was a directional sign on the main road, and I went straight to it! Only problem was that it had been closed for the past four years.

It was hot and pedestrian free in the area; a lone Indian workman walked by. But not only did he speak good English, but he knew exactly where it had moved, way on the other side of town. With his precise directions I headed off.

I got to the Geant hypermarket in the fancy mall suburb and looked to the only 'other side of road' available. Nothing. I went into a store and asked. Instead of 'youth hostel' I might as well have said 'schmerdwall'. He shrugged his shoulders.

I kept driving around and around the area, then back to the back side of the Geant, etc., etc. Nothing. I then went back to the original area and tried one last store. The Indian there said, 'huh?' Utterly defeated, I walked out the door.

He followed me, saying 'The Youth Hostel is over there', and he pointed to an old yellow building about 400 yards away. Now if I could just u-turn my way over. I got there and found myself the only customer of the day. But instead of dorms all it had were really nice singles with tv, a/c, desk, etc.

It was now 2:02, and, having awoken very early in the morning, I lay down on the bed to get some rest. At 2:04 the fire alarm sounded all over the building. Twenty minutes later it hadn't stopped, so I left the building and hit the road.

First stop, the Subway at the Geant. Then across town to the National Museum, which was pretty good. It appears that the place has been settled extensively since the Bronze Age. Then I drove through downtown Manama, the capital, and found it rundown, crowded, and empty.

So it was back to the mall, this time the fanciest one in the country. Really big, and filled with everything from Gucci on down. You might wonder why I would go halfway around the world to hang out in malls, but in these countries at least that is pretty much all the 'social' life there is, and that is always interesting to watch. Women's attire went from burka to a couple of Western gals in really ugly t-shirts and a couple of Lebanese types showing a lot of cleavage. None of the traditional types bats an eye at the western degradation, including a few pretty risque store displays. And, again, all the modestly clothed Islamic types were busy window shopping at all the swimwear and dress stores, etc.

By now I was pretty exhausted from my long day, but first I needed to go to the Geant for some food for the morning. By the time I had finished all that it was about 9, and as usual for around here the mall was getting really crowded. I was really tired by now, and came this close to backing into a parked car. Whew.

I thankfully slept in that morning. Then it was up and out to an old Portuguese fort, where I was about the only visitor. As I was leaving there were several security guys in dark suits and headphones and walkie talkies. I asked what was going on, and was told that we were soon to be visited by all 27 NATO ambassadors, who were in Bahrain for some meeting.

Sure enough, as I left the site there arrived 5 motorcycles and 10 police cars. Followed by 10 motorcycles and 20 police cars. Followed by 4 limousines, 6 ambulances, more police, and 3 darkened out buses. Whew.

I drove west along the coast and found my next target of tourism, the 26 km long causeway to Saudi Arabia. I drove on it for about 12 km until I got to the border, where I turned off for the visitor center. Since Saudi does not give out tourist visas, this was probably the closest I was ever going to get. Going up to the observation tower, I longingly gazed at the McDonald's across the border.

Then I noticed that right below me was the same police car entourage. The darkened buses all drove up, and out of them came many, many people in casual wear. They turned out to be the NATO party, and they turned out to be rather ordinary and friendly folk.

Back into Bahrain and on to ancient burial mounds, which were right in the middle of an urban town and were just 20 foot high piles of dirt with rubbish all around. Then to another fort, which was closed on Friday, and into the uninhabited south of the island, which is really hot and barren and is filled with oil wells and gas refineries.

A visit to a nice little Oil History museum, and then off to find the Tree of Life, which is a giant tree that is hundreds of years old that is in the middle of hot, barren nowhere. But I couldn't find it.

So I turned around and headed back. From this angle I could now see it off in the desert, surrounded by vehicles. Although there were still no signs for any turnoff. I took a dirt track and headed for it.

About 200 yards ahead of it on the left was a herd of over 50 camels. Along with others I stopped and took all kinds of camel pictures, went up and patted the sitting ones on the head, etc.

The tree was big and low and spreading, with all kinds of kids climbing all over it.

I had by now seen everything there is to see in Bahrain, and headed back for Manama. As I've intimated before, Arabs aren't that big with computers, and most who are have their own, so internet places are hard to find. But with only a fair degree of difficulty I found one.


At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, I ride surreptitiously with you! Thank you for great travelogue. Also, Thanks for the book! -Cliff


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