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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!