“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre Gide
One of the most adventurous destinations I’ve traveled to is Bahrain. I was stationed there with the Navy in the early 2000’s. I’m not sure what I expected when I set out, but it was an eye-opener in so many ways. I’ll leave out any political observations here in favor of focusing on the things you, as a traveler, might find of interest, as Bahrain has certainly become a tourist destination.
Bahrain is a small Arab state situated in a bay on the southwestern coast of the Persian Gulf. It is an archipelago consisting of Bahrain Island and some 30 smaller islands. Its name is from the Arabic term al-bahrayn, meaning “two seas.”
Unlike many of its neighboring countries, Bahrain has only small stores of petroleum. Its economy relies on processing crude oil from its neighbors and, more recently, the country has benefitted from an increase in tourism. Manama, the country’s chief city, port, and capital (and where I was stationed) is located on the northeastern tip of Bahrain Island.
During my tour there, I found Bahrain to be an interesting juxtapose: on one hand, a strikingly modern city, relaxed and cosmopolitan; on the other, the epitome of a poverty-stricken island. The people of Bahrain remain conservative in their lifeways, and that is apparent throughout the island. Manama is a favorite destination for visitors from neighboring Saudi Arabia; on weekends, crowds of Saudis converge on the city to enjoy its restaurants and bars. But I also observed a stark contrast to the modernization of the city – wealth vs. poverty, living hand-to-hand with one another. Many roads and sidewalks were in such total disrepair that it was difficult to maneuver them. From my room, I looked down on to an alley where children were living in cardboard boxes. Looking a little farther out, I could see a beautiful see a beautiful villa, complete with lovely landscaping and a private pool.
The contrast existed within the people I met as well. It was obvious to all that I was a “female soldier.” Although we weren’t required to wear the “Burka,” or “Hijab,” military regulations required that we kept our arms and legs covered and that we didn’t wear any tee-shirts with logos or writing on them. So, we stood out! When we walked down the streets to go shopping, it was not uncommon for large groups of local women to push us out of the way and spit on us. We learned to cross the road when we saw them coming!
But we also met so many Bahraini – in fact, the majority– who were friendly and reached out to us. The owners and staff of the restaurants where we became “regulars;” the owners of the jewelry stores in the Gold Souk; the clerk in the off-base cleaners where we had our uniforms laundered, and those at the grocery store we frequented – they all went out of their way to get to know us, share information about their lives and culture, and ask millions of questions about ours.
We met one elderly gentleman at the Gold Souq where we frequently shopped. Even though his store was on the 3rd floor, he somehow always knew when we entered the building and he would come running down the stairs. “Madams, madams! I have tea waiting for you!!” We spent many hours in the back of his shop, sharing tea and stories. He was very open and was sincere in wanting us to understand his culture – and to learn about ours.
The heat in Bahrain was – in a word – unbearable. I stayed off-base and drove to work, where we parked our cars outside of the gate and walked through a maze of sandbags and armed soldiers to enter the base. Then I walked to my office, which took about 10-15 minutes. At 7:30 am, it was normal for the temperature to have already topped 100 degrees. The humidity, due to the island’s location, was unlike anything I’ve experienced: when I walked out of my air-conditioned office into the heat, it was like walking smack into a brick wall. It sucked the life out of me! I wish I could say I adjusted but I didn’t.
I’m a sucker for trying local foods when I travel, and Bahrain didn’t disappoint. The traditional food includes fish, meat, rice, and dates. You can feast on an all-day traditional Bahraini breakfast consisting of khubz (oven-baked flatbread), falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties), balaleet (sweet vermicelli and eggs), keema (minced meat) and more or dig into the delicious bokhari (grilled chicken with rice – one of my favorites!. My favorite dish was the Shawarma – thinly sliced cuts of meat, like chicken, beef, goat, lamb, sometimes turkey, rolled into a large piece of flatbread or pita that has been steamed or heated. Inside the pita, foods like hummus, tahini, pickles, and vegetables are added. The island also had one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to. I found an amazing Spice Souq on the island where I stocked up on Indian spices, such as cardamom, turmeric, cumin, fennel, and coriander to bring home (yes, I could buy them here in the states, but the quality is so much different!).
Tourists to the island often come to admire the authentic Islamic architecture and shop at traditional markets. Many come to invest in the purest gold in the world. Visitors shouldn’t miss the dazzling experience of shopping for gold at Manama Souq: the marketplace I mentioned above, where gold vendors sell the purest and best quality 22- and 24-carat gold as opposed to the 18-carat that’s common in the West. You can choose from a wide range of contemporary and traditionally designed diamond- and pearl-studded gold jewelry. Simply buy the ready-to-wear pieces or go for a custom-made gold pendant of your name in Arabic to take back home as a souvenir. I had several silver pieces made for family members while there and the quality is superb!
Bahrain is known for its variety of pearls. The nation’s economy thrived on its pearling industry until the 1930s (when Japanese cultured pearls entered the market). Though few divers remain today, the Bahrain Pearling Trail, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, protects this local legacy. You can follow this 2+ mile trail consisting of 17 traditional buildings around the city of Muharraq, as well as three offshore oyster beds, parts of the seashore and the Bu Maher fort. If you’re the adventurous type, a licensed diving company will whisk you off to the middle of the sea for a pearl dive where you get to keep what you find.
For a traditional bazaar-like shopping experience, check out the Manama Souq. It’s located in the narrow streets of central Manama behind Bab al-Bahrain — a historical building with an arch marking the entrance to the Manama Souq. Enter through the archway and enter another world.
Here, ancient traditions meet modern lifestyle. You will find the same cheap electronics and bargain clothing found at any open-air market, but not many Americans can say they’ve been to a traditional Arab market in the Middle East. Look beyond the wares that are for sale. I was totally transported by the smells and the sounds of the market. The chaos of intense smells — good and bad — hit you from all directions: the trash bins in the alleys; Arabic sweets shops; bins of spices. Vendors spray potent perfume into the air as you pass, hoping to tempt you to enter their shops.
You’ll find amazing deals on fabrics from all over the world, as well as beautiful carpets. I found beautiful bolts of silk at unbelievable prices, and several brass pieces that I couldn’t resist. All prices are negotiable, and the streets are full of vendors offering special deals just for YOU. They’re generally friendly and want to be helpful. They aren’t as pushy as you’ll experience in other parts of the world; they’ll go out of their way to attract you and gain your loyalty in hopes you will return. And if you do, most are surprisingly quick to remember you (as we experienced in the Gold Souq).
As happy as I was to return home, I found myself missing Bahrain for several months after I left. Total emersion in another culture, coupled with the friendships we made while there – it’s all part of the process and lure of traveling.
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