A Walk in Bahrain

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.

The ruins in the foreground were built in the time of Alexander the Great and using techniques imported from the ancient Greek world.

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.

There's some traditional sights like this....

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.

... in reality there's a lot more of this.

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!

An amazing example of classical architecture, but actually built with modern technology in the 1980s.

Categories: General, Travel | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “A Walk in Bahrain

  1. Beautiful and inspiring photos. It sounds like you had a very auspicious day! What was the food like there? Happy travels!

    • Very spiced with lots of curry. I wish I had more time to explore the cuisine! Unfortunately there are tons of chains too. In the airport it’s all Chili’s and McDonald’s. :/

  2. I really enjoyed the read, the trip sounded so peculiar (in a good way) yet authentic at the same time 😀

    • Thanks Annie! Glad that’s how it sounded it since that’ how it felt! I’m now sitting on the airport floor as my flight has been delayed till 3am! All part of the adventure 🙂

  3. Kwan

    I’m glad my stylistic advice has fallen on fertile grounds! 🙂 I think it’s a shame you keep your blogs so short though … I understand that most blogs are only three paragraphs long, and yours is already longer, but I don’t think that it’ll hurt to extend just a bit more … But maybe that’s just me 😀

    • Holy S*%t!!! I don’t know what’s more shocking, a public comment from you or a reader who wants longer posts! I’ll think about penning a few longer ones, although when it comes to choosing between having experiences or writing about them I’ll always choose the former 😉

  4. Beautiful photographs… Thank you, with my love, nia

  5. I second Kwan, longer posts are better. How did your companion find her time in Bahrain, as a woman? What, specifically, are people protesting? I know there are protests and uprisings all over the Middle East, but am not aware of any problems specific to Bahrain. Obviously our news has better things to report, such as the a rehash of the latest Bachelor episode, or what Rick Santorum had for breakfast.

    • Anonymous

      Well, I am obviously in agreement with heather, so we shall root for longer posts. Other readers are free to encourage Jason, btw 😀

      A piece of advice: As long as the post is able to stay interesting and riveting, it can be a hundred paragraphs long and nobody will complain. If the post can’t hold the reader’s attention for a single paragraph, I guess it’s better to keep it down to one/two liners… Oh yeah, and it’s good practice too! 😀

  6. Great Post! Made me feel like I was actually there 🙂 Thank you for the great stories and beautiful photos 🙂

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