The best way to relax is to get away for the weekend. “I need a little adventure in my life”, I had remarked and that is exactly what my dear Z! gave me. We got up on Thursday morning not knowing how to spend the weekend and then we knew exactly what we needed. We needed to grab a camera and our passports and runaway! And so that is what we did, we drove off to Bahrain.
The State of Bahrain is a small island country off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Gulf. (It is actually 30 miles long and 20 miles wide!) It is linked by the King Fahd Causeway Bridge to the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and it takes less than half an hour to drive to Bahrain (baring customs and immigration of course). The Causeway itself is 25km long. It was almost noon when we got in queue for customs at the Saudi side of the Bridge and it was 1.15pm when we got out of customs on the Bahraini side. The weather was clear blue and so was the sea and add to that the patches of green in the water due to the coral reef and it can be called picture perfect!
It was my first time to Bahrain and from what I had heard of it, I expected to see a modern country with high rise buildings, greenery all around, great roads, fantastic malls and boats and ships lining its coast. What I had expected was that it would be quite different from Saudi Arabia. Saudis flood to Bahrain all the time; I had heard and I had inferred that that meant that it had something that Saudi Arabia did not have. We see many Bahrainis in Saudi Arabia too but, I thought they just got here for the shopping. I hadn’t given it much thought and when we did get to go to Bahrain, what I saw surprised me.
We crossed the Causeway and drove on and what I saw around me, the sea shore, the road winding ahead and the boundary a little way off with Bahraini flags quite clearly indicating that it was ‘private’ property (Those who live in Saudi Arabia, know very well what ‘private’ property means!!) made me believe that I was still in Saudi Arabia. Except the Bahraini flag, there wasn’t much difference. I must add here that the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia is quite different from the west. You don’t see just yellow sand and desert here with blackish mountains here and there. When I first got here, I had exclaimed that it reminded me of Spain or Portugal. Not that it is anything like it but it gives me that feeling. I believe the reason is because Dammam and Dhahran and the eastern cities with their white sand and beautiful beaches give the feeling of being on a holiday. It was the same in Bahrain. Crossing the bridge and looking down at the coast with its greenery and beaches, it made me feel like I was driving to Half moon Bay!
We saw a sign overhead showing us that Manama was straight ahead and that there were a couple of small cities around if we took the turns. Z! had remarked that Bahrain was so small that it was possible to see it in a day. I took him on his word and we decided to see the smaller towns first before we moved on to see Manama. The road ahead turned to the right and the sign said Jasra and Badhaiyah. I am not sure which way we went but the first town that we saw was Dumistan. That sounds so Persian, I had thought and Z! confirmed my suspicions by saying that it was a Shiite town. I have never seen any Shias in Saudi Arabia. ( I am sure it is not written on their faces!! :p) Yes, the eastern region of Saudi Arabia has a Shiite majority but that is that they mainly live in their own towns and you don’t find such extravagant behavior here in the Kingdom. Dumistan, had golden domed mosques (or what ever they are called) and there were banners that must have been put up during Muharram to mark Ashura. The entire area reminded me of being in Iran or Iraq. Even the people there looked Persian. Bahrain, I have heard, was a very important trade centre in the past. ‘Its ideal location in the Arabian Gulf just between Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and India made it an entréport’, I had read. I am sure that is why there are so many Shias in Bahrain. The road to and in the city was a single track and it almost looked like a dirt road. What I saw made me remark that that part of Bahrain was still under-developed. Or should I be saying that it was in development? On the outskirts of the town we saw villas, big beautiful but empty villas and on the other side, we see old houses that make you wonder how people live there. There were Bangladeshi men selling vegetables on the road sides and his vegetables were on a shovel! I didn’t see beggars but it was evident that there were poor people living there. Undoubtedly, it was clear that the ’70 years of development’ still had not reached this part!
From here on we took the highway. Interestingly, even the highway is a single tracked road. There is one track for coming and the other for the other direction. And every turn has a round about. There were so many round-abouts ( and they were numbered too!) that it was dizzying! We were following the road to see the International Circuit. For those interested, the Bahraini Grand Prix is in the first week of April this year. We had to see the Circuit! Never mind that I have never been to one but, atleast the Circuit was a must see. We were merely following directions and moving on. I believe it was Rifa that we were moving towards then because an hour or so later we saw the Rifa beach and that is where we stopped for lunch, our picnic. The beach was any typical beach with a hedgerow seperating it from the road and lines of beach houses with an occasional stone bench here and there. Seadoos could be seen racing around and a boat or two sailing in the blue waters. We could here the motors and my first impression was that the Circuit was close by and we were hearing the cars but then a moment later it occurred to us that it was the Water jets and since (for some strange reason), the sound was echoing, we were hearing it sound like F1 cars racing!!
We hit the road an hour later and it was to see Al Areen, a wildlife resort close to the International Circuit. It has a water park too and a Spa, I have heard but we didn’t go into it. We weren’t there to check out resorts and besides we still had the rest of the country to see. On our way back, we finally did see the International circuit but unfortunately, there was a sign that said that only ‘Authorized Personnel’ were allowed there. We had no choice but to see it from the outside and return back. 🙁
Next stop was the First Oil Well. Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932 and they boast of being the first to discover oil in the Middle East. I am yet to check that story out but there we were, at the first oil well. There wasn’t much to see there because what it looked like was any ordinary pipeline pump but it had a sign board which said that it was the First Oil well. Oh… kay!
The Oil well is next door to the Oil Museum. A small building (very small building), with a cute little garden and it was closed. Z! has been there before and he said he found it closed then too. Oh well…
Both the oil well and the Museum are near a what looked like a Oil Refinery. That was the closest I have been to one and if that is really an oil refinery then it must be the smallest there ever is. I have seen refineries in Saudi Arabia too though I admit I have never been as close to one as this but they are supposed to be really big with lot of security and something to look at. This one was so ordinary! The way to from the Oil well, we saw what looked like camps with too many (read hundreds of) Bahraini flags. I had by then formed the opinion that the Bahrainis are obsessed with their flag and it confirmed my suspicion when I saw more later. These camps consisted of hundreds of tents all around and they were in the middle of the desert but near the refinery which made me wonder if people who worked in those refineries lived there. A few miles later we came across a few Villas which now make me wonder if the Europeans and Foreigners who work in the refinery live there.
Anyway, back on the road heading towards Manama, we saw the Golf Club, the Equestrian club and since we play neither Golf nor ride horses, we didn’t take that turn. We saw Bahrain University too and still kept driving on to Manama.
Bahrain consists of two large islands, Bahrain and Muharraq and a some smaller islands. (The word Bahrain by the way, is a combination of two arabic words: ‘Bahr’ meaning Sea and ‘Thnain’ meaning two and it refers to the sweet water springs under the sea which mingle with the salt water, believed to be responsible for the unusual lustre of Bahraini pearls. ) Before we see Manama, we thought it better to see Muharraq. The road to Muharraq is through Manama. Muharraq is where the Bahraini International Airport is and we had to see the airport!
Back into Manama, we see the Causeways that link the city together and my first impression of Bahrain was, ” Ahah! So Manama is where the 70 years of development is!!” For those who have lived in the Middle East especially, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait or Qatar, Bahrain feels like any other Middle Eastern country. It is like Jeddah, like Dubai, like Kuwait and it is a mixture of it all. The roads here too were narrow and I wondered how they handle the traffic. A few hours later, I got my answer! The traffic signals turn green and red and the cars move only an inch! It is after the third time that it has turned green that you can drive off! We drove to the City Centre and these are the words that echoed in my ears:
‘ Bahrain has joined the race to reach for the skies and the Manama skyline has changed dramatically within just four years as giant cranes and slim structures soar skywards.’
Undoubtedly, they are racing and they are racing against Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Taiwan, Dubai and every other city that is trying to build tall towers and skyscrapers. It is as if a craze to build and race to be the first or the next! That is what I saw in the Bahraini World Trade Centre and the Financial Harbour. Undoubtedly it is beautiful but then again, they all are!
We stopped at the Corniche to freshen up and also to see what it was like. What was it like? There wasn’t any beach at all! Or atleast there isnt going to be one in a few years time. There were tall cranes and trucks filling up the sea with mud and huge stones. They are actually filling up the sea to build more skyscrapers. I know that for an average Bahraini, it means pride that their country will be developing enough to boast of tall towers and all but strangely I felt a little saddened that a beautiful country was covering up its natural beauty to give to the world what the world wants rather than what is required. True that Bahrains economy depends on Banking and the Financial stuff and no doubt the skyscrapers will quickly be accomodated but aren’t they building a bit too many?! A few weeks ago, the Dhahran Expo had a trade fair and Z! had been to it. He brought home a couple of brochures (read many ) and almost all of them were of Bahraini towers. As we waited at Signals and roamed the city, I look out at the sites where the cranes are at work and to my astonishment, read the names of the buildings that I have brochures of at home. What surprises me is that they are selling and leasiong off apartments and offices spaces in buildings that arent even built yet. Built? Sorry let me re-phrase that… they are still digging up the ground to lay the foundation!! Well, I guess Manama may soon become the next Dubai!
Driving down the road and moving on to Seef District. Seef is supposed to be the ‘ happening place’ in Manama. Thatis where all the famous buildings and Malls are. The Seef Mall and Mall of Bahrain. Mall of Bahrain is smaller but Seef was average. There are bigger and more beautiful places in Saudi Arabia but this is where people from Saudi Arabia come to Bahrain for, I have heard. We circled the mall in all its traffic but couldn’t find a parking space. While dear husband, searched for the space, I checked out the mall and the people there through my window. The cars were 50% Saudi with the occasional Qatar and Kuwaiti too. The people were 60% Europeans, Americans and Philipinese. I did one or two Abaya clad women too and I am sure there were more in the mall. The difference between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is that Liquor is allowed here and women though urged to dress modestly are not asked to wear Abayas. As one of the magazines I read a few months ago remarked, ‘ Most tourists and visitors to the country come for the entertainment.’ Entertainment …. If you know what I mean!
The sun had set and it was almost 7pm and we needed to hurry back home. There was more to see the Diplomatic Quarters which was the previous ‘ must see and shop’ in Bahrain. We saw the Gold souk and what other souk that was and then trying to wind our way back mistakenly turn to Isa town. Z! hadn’t seen it either but we had heard that that was where the Indians, Pakis and Bangladeshis hanged around. No doubt! Will you believe that we actually saw a Karnataka Social Club and a Kannada Sangh!!? And yes… a very shabby building with a board that read ‘ Konkani Singers Club’ !!! That must have been the best see of the trip!!
And we returned back. It was 8.30 pm when we reached home and I had 2 minutes of battery on my Camcorder and 10 minutes of recording time left!! In all it was an amazing trip and if I had written everything I saw and everything I thought… I would have had to write for three more hours!
I am yet to read it all and check for errors but I may edit later.