Prior to its brief appearance in the world news spotlight last spring, I’d guess that few of us knew much about Bahrain. Truth be told I still didn’t know much after the coverage. Fortunately, I had an unexpected chance to remedy my own ignorance with a free stopover on my way to Nepal. Never one to pass up a chance to see someplace new (especially a free chance), I’m now sitting comfortably, although somewhat delirious with exhaustion, in the Bahrainian airport after an eventful day of touring the tiny country.
It has been one of those perfect days of travel, perfect because it started off so dreadfully, and then, right as the day verged on complete failure, it turned truly excellent. The day began at 7am (4am London time) and in a sleep deprived state I tried to navigate the complexities of obtaining a visa, a painful process in most countries. Bahrain shares the apparently universal love of bureaucratic absurdity and I threw a wrench in the red tape machine by not having a hotel address. This made perfect sense to me since I was staying only 17 hours, but seemed completely incomprehensible to everyone else. In the end I adapted and simply pretended I was going to a hotel, which despite being a complete and obvious fabrication, seemed to please everyone a great deal. Relieved to have made it through customs I hopped in a cab and told the driver to take me to the city center. As we drove I rapidly realized that my ideas of Bahrain, and the Middle East in general, had been shaped far too much by Disney movies and other pseudo-fiction like the news. Far from being some old fashioned, worn-down land torn by conflict, it was a large metropolis made up of extremely modern skyscrapers with new construction projects dotting the skyline.
We drove for some time when the cab driver pulled into a large, modern mall complex. To my dismay, I realized the mall was inconveniently named the “City Center” and that’s where he thought I wished to go. I smiled and told him I’d changed my mind. I asked for a recommendation and he wisely chose the central market, which brought me a bit closer to the Aladdin experience I’d hoped for.
While I enjoyed walking through the stalls and shops, I had little interest in what was for sale, the wares varying from impressive layouts of spices to imitation watches and cheap Asian imports. I decided to go off and do some sightseeing, but soon realized why the people at customs seemed so confused by my day plans. Manama, the main city of Bahrain, was not designed to be walked by a sightseer. Like many modern cities lacking a strong pre-automobile history, Manama was laid out for cars, not walkers. In fact, given the deathly heat present much of the year, walking any distance is uncommon. This fact was emphasized by sidewalks that ended without warning and large highways cutting through the city with no obvious way across.
I pushed on despite the rising heat and decided I’d make it to at least one significant site before abandoning my exploration. I set my goal as the El Fateh Mosque and eventually navigated my way across the highway. It had taken me over an hour of walking with several dead ends, and in my darkening mood I’d resolved to catch a cab from the Mosque back to the airport. Yet, as if sensing my failing strength the city took pity on me and things took a sudden turn for the better.
When I arrived at the Mosque I was given a warm greeting and was offered a complimentary tour. The guide, like many people here, spoke excellent English and explained to me in great detail the history of the Mosque, which although it appeared old, was actually very modern. Interestingly, many of the parts of the mosque were made in Europe, the chandelier in Vienna, the carpet in Scotland and the glass lamps in France. Partway along our tour another woman, who soon revealed an American accent, joined us and we continued on our leisurely private tour.
After the tour the woman, who I learned was in Bahrain as part of a librarians convention, offered to take me along with her as she had hired a driver for the day. It couldn’t have been better. Not only were my feet saved, but I was able to visit a number of other interesting locations: an archaeological site with 4,500 year old ruins; a poor, small village which the driver assured me was the more common living condition for native Bahrainians; and the site of the next round of protests, which are due to begin tomorrow.
As is so often the case, I could write all day and still not cover all I saw and experienced today. If a picture is worth a thousand words than how many more would it take to describe a day? Even so, a few last thoughts: the city felt extremely safe, certainly safer than a similar sized US city; people were very friendly and helpful, although “people” included almost exclusively men; and, the country is extremely cosmopolitan with people from numerous Middle Eastern countries making up large parts of the population, despite this the degree of Westernization is shocking, with countless familiar big brand stores and more than a couple of McDonalds.
I give up: there’s too much to say. If anyone wants to know more they’ll have to ask! Otherwise tomorrow it will be another country with new experiences and another struggle to decide what to share!