Was Bahrain as Boring as it Looks?

In order to get from Addis Ababa to my next destination, Cochin, India, I needed to make a connection somewhere across the Middle East. Where to connect was of course dependent on which airline I chose.

My one deciding factor on choosing Gulf Air connecting through Bahrain was their offer of a three day stopover package which included hotel, transfers via a private vehicle, and two sightseeing tours. But most importantly, it also included a Visa. The opportunity to extend my connection to include a few days exploring a country not yet visited seemed like time well spent.

Bahrain, or rather “The Kingdom of Bahrain” is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Only 300 square miles in size, it is situated between the peninsula of Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, with which it shares a “land bridge,” the 16 mile King Fahd Causeway. It’s the third smallest nation in Asia, ranking above the Maldives and Singapore. The largest city, Manama, is also the capital where I will be spending most of my visit.

It didn’t take long after landing to assess my surroundings and deem Bahrain “a bit boring.” I couldn’t imagine how people could live here on this boringly beige island surrounded by water in which no one swims, with its only connection being to Saudi Arabia. What do people find to DO here??

My tour package included three nights at the Best Western “Plus.” Never before have I been so excited about a Best Western than after spending 30 days in Ethiopia! So clean and modern! I even photographed the stationary on the desk as a reminder of the struggle I had trying to find one single envelope in Ethiopia.

The hotel is located in the Juffair area, a section of reclaimed land. Bahrain has increased its size by 14% through dredging sand from the sea. The hotel had a rooftop sports bar overlooking the Juffair area.

Bahrain does not have the usual restrictions on alcohol as most Muslim countries, which brings over lots of Saudi nationals via the land bridge. Therefore, many bars and spas with “Thai massage for men” are found here.

Bahrain has many innovative high rise buildings. The 50-story Bahrain World Trade Center is the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines into its design

If one is a shopper, there are lots of options in Bahrain.

This entire shop is nothing but decorative mosaic lamps.

My stopover package included two half-day private sightseeing tours, but they wouldn’t start until the next morning. With an afternoon to kill after my arrival, I googled “Top things to do in Bahrain,” as I was curious to see what tourist attractions might be in store for me, and how they would stretch over two half-day tours. It would appear there wasn’t much to see or do here.

As far as I could tell, there were two forms of entertainment to choose from, at least at this time of year. One was shopping. Not since Dallas or Houston have I seen so many shopping malls. Some multi-story, stretching entire city blocks. I can imagine once summer arrives and temperatures soar into the triple digits, these malls offer air conditioned respite from the baking beige of the city. But I am not a shopper. I avoid malls at all cost. So that left me with the second form of entertainment…dining out!

I lost more weight on the “Sudan and Ethiopian Pepto-Bismol Thirty Day Diet Plan” than any fad diet I’ve ever tried. Fact is, I arrived in Bahrain feeling like I was starving…not so much for quantity, as I managed to find places to eat in Addis. But it was more a matter of familiarity. And safety. I hadn’t had a bite of food in the past thirty days that I didn’t wonder, is this going to send me running in search of the nearest toilet, squat or not?

As much as McDonalds grosses most people out, it has always been my go-to comfort food while traveling internationally. Nothing says “Home Sweet Home” to me like a Big Mac, pile of fries, and a Diet Coke where the cup contains at least 50% ice cubes. Do you have any idea how foreign an ice cube is in Ethiopia?? So I headed straight for the Fast Food strip, a street lined with every kind of western food from IHOP to Church’s Fried Chicken, (rebranded as “Texas Fried Chicken.” Understandably, no matter how good the chicken, a place named “Church’s” wouldn’t draw much traffic in a Muslim country.)

Recognize this logo? It’s “Church’s Fried Chicken” rebranded as “Texas Fried Chicken.”

The Bahrainis sure love their sweets. Dozens of candy shops line this one street.

I did not care for the sweet shops in Bahrain. Even though the nuts were nice, they were all made from a weird congealed consistency.

The Bahrain National Theater is one of the largest theaters in the Arab world, and is the third largest opera house in the Arab world after the Cairo Opera House in Egypt and the Royal Opera House in Oman. Sadly, performances only happen a few months out of the year, and not while I am here.

The Bahrain National Theater is right next door to Bahrain’s National Museum.

The flooring on the first level of the museum is made of mosaics in the shape of the island country. This guard is pointing out the “You Are Here” location of the museum.

Bahrain was once a global leader in the pearl diving industry, until the 1930’s when it was eclipsed by the oil industry, and Japan began the development of cultured pearls (foreign “seed” is implanted into the oyster to stimulate pearl growth.)

The National Museum has a very nice display of the methods of pearl diving, along with this case filled with specimens.

This photo of a photo shows French jeweller Jacques Cartier during one of his many trips to Bahrain to buy pearls. He is pictured here outside a house made of coral stone with two pearl merchants. Cartier’s art-deco style in his early 20th century designs is attributed to Middle Eastern influence.

The following morning, I was to meet my tour guide in the lobby of my hotel. Initially, I was pleased to see that my guide would be a woman, as tour guides are such a male dominated profession in most countries. However, when I saw Leah’s full length abaya, or long black robe, it occurred to me that in such a devout Muslim country, their reason for sending a woman no doubt had more to do with segregation of the sexes than success stories. Leah would be accompanying me on my two half-day tours through Bahrain, along with our Indian expat driver, Rubin.

I had been given no itinerary in advance, so I was disappointed to learn after driving for 15 minutes out of town, the first planned stop on the tour was Bahrain International Circuit. “What is that exactly?” I asked Leah. “It’s Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix race course!” she proudly exclaimed. Ugh! I hate anything to do with automobile racing. Expensive, testosterone-fueled automobiles zooming around in dizzying circles, belching fossil-fuel pollution into the air and noise pollution into my ears. Nothing sends me running faster than Nascar. So I tried explaining as diplomatically as I could that “ummm…racing isn’t really my thing,” and could we please talk about some alternatives? Okay, we’ll skip the racecourse.  Another 10 minutes of driving and silence passed, when I asked again, “Where are we going now?” “To Bahrain’s Al Areen Wildlife Park!” she again enthusiastically offered. “Oh, dear” I groaned. “Are the animals in cages?” This wasn’t going well.

At this point, I suggested that maybe we pull over and stop our drive heading increasingly further out of town to review the itinerary. After I had vetoed the two planned stops of the racetrack and the zoo, there were two remaining stops on my first day itinerary; the “Tree of Life” and Bahrain’s first oil well. It was going to be a short tour.

This is Bahrain’s first oil well, “Jabal ad Dukhan” which struck oil on June 1, 1932. There is a nearby commemorative plaque in both Arabic and English posted by the Bahrain Petroleum Company.

Near the first well is the Oil Museum. Unfortunately, it is closed. While oil was first discovered in 1908 in Persia, (now Iran) Bahrain was the first place on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf where oil was discovered.

Strangely enough, this lone “Tree of Life” is one of the man tourist attractions in Bahrain, drawing 65,000 visitors each year. The tree is believed to be over 400 years old, and 32 ft high. It’s the only tree in the desert. How it survives is not completely understood, as Bahrain has little to no rain throughout the year.

The ancient fort of Qal`at al-Bahrain and Capital of Dilmun empire, the most important ancient civilization of the region. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

For some odd reason, this fort was not included in my tour itinerary. I had to ask to be taken there in exchange for the racetrack and zoo that I scrapped.

I love the ancient fort juxtapositioned against the very modern steel and glass of the capital city of Manama.

On the way to the Tree of Life, I did my best to explain to Leah that I was more interested in local culture and color, rather than commercial attractions that exist in my own country. It was at this time that I noticed we were passing through a very expansive tented camp on both sides of the road, so I asked, “Are these where the oil field workers stay?” “No, this is camping.” “Camping???” I asked hopefully. “I LOVE CAMPING!” So to appease me, Leah took me to her own family camp.

Bahrainis leave the city on the weekends, and the entire family convenes in these temporary tented camps. Similar to our BLM land, residents are allowed to set up camp on the land owned by the oil fields. Instead of the 14 day restriction, their tented camp is permitted to remain throughout the winter camping season, from November to March. They bring everything including the kitchen sink out, basically moving their city homes to the desert for weekend fun.

Tent Cities on both sides of the highway. Note the lush couch and chairs on the left. I thought these were oil well worker’s camps, but no, this is considered to be like a summer home in Bahrain!

Camping here is free, though some people rent out their tents for weekenders.

Since I am so fascinated by these camps, Leah offers to show me her family camp. There are three large tents surrounding a floodlit courtyard with a fire pit.

One of the tents is the kitchen tent, where meals are prepared.

This is the living area tent where family members congregate to spend time together on weekends.

I ask Leah to recommend a good restaurant where I can try some local specialties. She says “I will take you to my favorite, Tabreez!” Taxis are expensive in Manama, and there is only western fast food within walking distance of my hotel, so I graciously accept her offer.

Just as in Ethiopia, most Middle Eastern countries eat with their hands. Leah gives me tips on how to remove the fins of the grilled fish, take the fillets and pile them on top of the rice, then manipulate into little balls (including salad) into the fingertips. Once the fingertips reach the mouth, use the thumb to push the morsels in. I SWEAR food tastes better when eaten with the fingers!

On the second half-day tour, we visit the old pearl fishing quarter of Muharraq, Bahrain’s ancient capital. I love the sign on the door which says they are closed for 10 minutes for “Pray Time.”

Leah gives me the rundown on the Kingdom’s dynasty.

On the second day, we go to the famous Haji’s Cafe, established in 1950. Here we have chicken biryani and hot bread baked in a clay oven, consumed by more finger-dining.

Bahrain’s National Library and Islamic Cultural Center.

Visiting the family camp seemed to break the ice between Leah and me. She became less formal and more open to sharing as we compared cultures and customs from our very different backgrounds. We even ditched the formal driver, and hopped into her Mercedes (she tells me “new car status” is big in Bahrain, particularly among the women) for an afternoon at a local restaurant. We shared meals eaten without utensils, laughs without judgement, and at the end of the second day of touring, she even brought me a gift of homemade date syrup.

The most famous of Manama’s tourist attractions is the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world, capable of accommodating over 7,000 worshipers at a time. It was constructed in 1988, and is topped by the world’s largest fiberglass dome weighing in at 60 tons.

Al Fateh is one of the few mosques open to women, but I am only allowed in escorted by a guide, and I am issued an abaya (robe) and hijab (headscarf) to enter.

One must also remove and store their shoes upon the racks on the right. Note the shine on that Italian marble floor.

The center chandelier is Swarovski crystals from Austria. In addition, the mosque lighting is from 952 hand-blown glass globes from France.

My 30 minute tour includes a one on one lesson on the five pillars of Islam. I am certain I could have converted on the spot if so desired.

Thanks to Leah, I was able to scratch beneath the beige exterior of Bahrain and experience some of the local culture. However, it was still a struggle to find any vibrancy or color. So after three days, I was eager to plunge full speed ahead into the intensity that is India!

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