Before this year, I don’t think I could have placed Bahrain on a map, but now I have 24 hours not only to figure out where Bahrain is but what it is like to live and visit the smallest country in the Persian Gulf. Manama, the country’s capital, is situated halfway between Abu Dhabi and Kuwait and the nation shares it’s only border with Saudi Arabia. My friend, Christina, who taught in a Saudi town near the Bahrain border would hitch a ride to the small island country to visit the bars on the occasional weekend, as this country, while Muslim, allows the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims. And at quite a premium, at that. I plan on having no alcohol until I reach the Caucasus, as a single beer can easily run upwards of 10 to 15 dollars. I enjoy the occasional drink, but it's not worth 15 bucks.
Boarding takes all of three minutes for the flight to Bahrain, but “final boarding” lasts around 20. Only 15 passengers join me on this trans-Arabian flight, probably because all of the airports here are major hubs and flights between them run constantly. My only regret is that there are only 55 minutes on this flight, not nearly enough time to catch up on writing or browse the in-flight entertainment options which appear to consist largely of miscellaneous episodes of the Murphy Brown reboot. I am glad I'll be flying this airline again when I leave tomorrow.
On Losing One’s Shit (And Finding It)
I can’t be the only one fascinated by the psychology of forgetting stuff places. We all do it, now and again, but some are better than others at keeping their shit together. I pride myself in my ability to do so. Purging my life of shit to lose is a source of great catharsis in my life. So when I do things like purchase a phone-wallet hybrid, or cancel a scarcely-used credit card, or discover that the coupon I have been holding onto for free garlic knots is now expired and can finally be thrown in the trash, I feel like I have been given a newer, cleaner skin to inhabit. The first time I suspected I was losing my shit for good was back in Dubai. The fact that I almost left my two bottles of wine on the flight from China was a sign that something is not right in my brain. But what could it be?
My suspicion is that being alone, which I admittedly have always hailed as the one and only travel option for the truly hardcore travelers of the world, has one drawback: if I leave something behind, there is no one walking behind me who will see what I left. For this reason I miss my dad. He is the best person I know, and likely the best person in the world, to travel with due to his ability to scan our surrounding for potential dangers, impending gear-losses, and moderate-to-severe discomforts. Sancho Panza’s greatest strength, like his partner, is his greatest downfall. I subscribe to the ideology that all that can be easily planned should be, but that a certain room for uncertainty, flexibility, and often gratuitous levels of wanderlust adds a little spice to an already mild-to-medium adventure. I can’t be the only one who thinks that Sancho Panza was occasionally preventing Don Quixote from doing great things. Even if those great things were only in his mind.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that I forget my recently-purchased international charger on the plane, to forever remain in the skies above Arabia, watching Murphy Brown long after it goes off the air again. I notice the moment the airline bus pulls away, and kick myself both physically and emotionally for the next thirty minutes. This is a deeply troubling loss, as international chargers can be pricey and like lovers truly great ones can be hard to find. That is not to say that the lost charger was a good one. No, it was a piece of overpriced junk for which I wish I haggled more when I bought it in a sketchy basement-mall in China. But that doesn’t mean it was worthless. I tell myself to stop regretting that which I cannot change, and I pass through immigration and customs with the bitter taste of regret in the back of my mouth.
To catch the bus from Bahrain Airport to the city’s downtown is easy and cheap, but one must have small bills in order to pay the bus driver. I join an African English woman on the walk to the currency exchange, where I have some pocket change converted for the fare, and we walk back to the bus. By the first stop I realize something is missing. My wallet is gone, and the only explanation is that I exchanged my money, distracted by my friendly fellow bus-rider, and left my wallet at the desk. I rush off the bus, then catch another bus going in the other direction kicking myself 5 times harder than before. “Maybe my parents were right in not letting me travel alone all those years,” I think. “My dad would have caught this.” Thankfully my wallet is behind the exchange desk, and is returned to me promptly and with little fanfare. “Shukran barak allahu fi
k,” I say. “Thanks. God’s blessings be upon you.” I always knew that learning this would be useful, and when the cash-cashier smiles at me I realize it was. My anger subsides. Travel is about learning. Relax.
The cheapest hotel in Bahrain, near the bus station, is supposed to be my hotel for the night. When I arrive, I realize how much the city of Manama could benefit from more bargain accommodation. I pay $45 for a truly exquisite room, or at least exquisite for my tastes, in the center of downtown. Four nightclubs can be found on the property, along with a swimming pool, and I actually start to lament not spending more time in this tiny country, though I cannot really regret anything. This place is expensive.
My first order of business is to find a new charger. I venture out to an electronics store nearby after quickly showering and washing my clothes. The shop, owned by an Indian man, doesn’t sell anything suitable for my needs, but the owner makes sure he finds a place that can sell me an international charger. He even calls his son, who recently bought one for his trip to Australia, and writes down where to go on a slip of paper. So far, I have visited a mall in every Gulf Country (that is, just in the UAE), so it is fitting that I visit another one. Mall culture is, after all, one of the most distinguishing parts of this region like thobes and fast food chicken, and so it wouldn’t hurt to check out another air conditioned shopping haven while the sun is still high in the Bahraini sky. I take a bus straight there, find what I want, and catch a bus back, past the station, to my first real cultural experience in Bahrain.
The museums of Bahrain tend to be rather expensive, and I sure as hell am not going to spend ten bucks for yet another national museum, so I try to find some of the best free Bahraini museums. The only one that magic Google can find is Bayt al Quran: a donations-based museum featuring an extensive collection of Qurans dating back to the beginning of Islam. “Books” tend to be a positive trigger-word for me, along with “collection,” “rare” and of course “free,” so I have to go. I toss some pocket change in the collection container, and spend nearly an hour admiring the calligraphy, the binding, and the stories behind these amazing books.
At night I go to Haji’s cafe, where there is no menu and you are either expected to know Bahraini food enough to anticipate what they have, or have visited here enough that you know the typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. The waiter smiles at me in the same genuine Gulf smile I’ve been seeing all day so I know it isn’t some faux pas to ask what they have. Tonight, as in every other night, they have kebabs so I order the usual.
From my booth on the street I watch the waitstaff go in and out of doors on both sides of the alley, and realize that across from me through tinted windows is the families-only section of the restaurant. For those who believe that Islam always means the oppression of women, note this: As a single man, I get to eat in the hot alley while the women and children sit in air conditioning. In this instance, I feel like rhetoric in support of “family values” is actually genuine. People care about family here. As I pay my bill, a child on his father’s shoulders taps my back. When I turn around, Dad reacts in the least-expected way. He doesn’t apologize, but smiles at me as if he was just about to give me a pat on the back as well. When I give them each a salaam, their broken English hellos in response drip with affection as if I am some close uncle or cousin.
In the airport the following morning, I have a fast food breakfast and the reemergence of supersizing in my life is enough for me to praise the Middle East. Not that I approve of eating a pound of french fries, but my procurement of a giant Diet Coke scratches an itch that I’ve had for months. Some people love coffee, but I prefer the occasional gallon of Diet Soda to provide me with necessary caffeine, hydration, and tooth discoloration. It’s calorie free, so let’s just say it *probably* won’t kill me. In fact, after a day of running around the desert a bubbly Big Gulp rejuvenates me.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.