Sunday, January 11, 2009
Much to my surprise and to my previously frustrated teacher I’m sure, Mrs. Beattie, I have a few memories from my 3rd form English class. This one is a lesson on Pathetic Fallacy and as it is so often noted, “it was a dark and stormy night…” From what I can recall, the author uses this literary tool to have the weather reflect the mood and tone of the characters; whether this be their emanate danger or their new feeling of loss or heartache. As this teaching floats amidst lessons I once learned or thought I learned, I laugh every time I am grumpy and it begins to rain.
Though our emotions cannot control the weather it often times quite certainly seems to be the case. No sooner than saying goodbye to the final two of our companions, and reading my uncle’s e-mail from home which states, “And very few people know that the country was named in the late 1960s by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival: I wanna know, have you ever seen Bahrain.”—it began to rain.
As all the tour guides and booklets boast, it doesn’t rain in Bahrain! They claim that there are over 350 days of the year in which the sun shines on the happy lot; but not today. For apparently today is a day of mourning as Andy and I are off to the Seef mall, alone, the only two left on our quickly ending journey.
We were phoned as usual around noon, from our hosts, to report that they would have a driver waiting for us at 8:00 for dinner. I should report that Bahraini time is quite different from the punctual American time, but because Leslie is English, the car arrives at a happy median of 8:15. When we are deposited via the Senor Paco van at the newly opened Memories of China, there is little to no surprise that we are Americans who pour out of another restaurant’s car service. This time it is okay—because this new trendy sky lit restraint is owned by the Al-Sharif twins. With a passion for elegantly presented and uniquely created food, the Al-Sharif family has a Mexican, Italian, and now Chinese choice of top chefs.
Once inside we are escorted to the second story bar, which serves as the family’s private reception area until it is ready to open in a few weeks time. This balcony level is decorated with white and black loveseats, punctuated by red pillows, and over looks a bamboo garden that is illuminated by the city lights.
After we all take turns answering either ‘white’ or ‘red’, we are seated and briefed. Tonight we will be dining with the British Ambassador as well as the Editor in Chief of the local newspaper that we read in our hotel rooms. With little more reaction than opened mouths, we all begin to fidget, wondering what sort of faith this family must have in us roping ranchers. Leslie, almost as nervous as us, says to “have to worry—they’re all down to earth and quite nice”…I would like to point out that when the Ambassador’s wife ordered her meal in perfect Mandarin to the head chef Mr. Butt who was flown in from London for the opening, all hopes of her being one of us were shot.
Over all it was, as the British would say, “a lovely evening.” Though I had no personal lengthy conversation with either couple, they did look quite nice strategically seated at the opposite end of the table.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
In keeping with the government’s involvement in the lives of its citizens, it has also gone to lengths to protect its cultural heritage, crafts, and trade. With the creation of a ‘Craft Center’ the basket weavers, potters, carvers, whittlers, and cloth weavers have been given aid to their dying arts.
The knowledge of these particular trades have been passed down through generations and therefore it is a general rule that one family has one trade. Though this is not their only livelihood, it is an important factor to keep going in their traditionally based culture.
As we sat with a basket weaver I was reminded of the sweet grass baskets that are so popular in South Carolina. The material used here of course is dried palm leaves rather than the potent marsh grasses, and are nowhere as intricate or elaborate in looks. Although this self proclaimed old man was working on several different baskets, some dyed by India Ink, others natural, he made us each a little present to take back. I was given a purple dyed diamond ring while my friends got a camel and a horse—no doubt my red hair was the cause behind this action. Between my fair skin and bright red hair, I am an anomaly to this country and thereby haven’t been able to stray from the ‘tourist look’.
Bahrain is sprinkled with several forts that have remained intact over the years; one dates back to the 11th century but most are from the 16th. Though they once were used for military purpose, they are now merely tourist attractions and marriage locations for locals.
The Bahrain Fort is most commonly referred to as the Portuguese Fort. This stone structure (16th C.) is located in the very small village of Karbabad. This agricultural town of twenty-six homes gets its water from natural springs. Our tour guide noted that with oil drilling and even modern architecture, the springs can easily be disturbed and run dry. If this were to happen to this village, its source of economy would certainly be threatened.
With that in mind I should point out that Bahrain does not have homeless contingent. Even families that society would consider to be living in poverty have cars and satellite dishes. This is partly due to government subsidized housing developments, but mainly because this group oriented culture makes sure to leave no one behind.
If a family owns land and has lived in one village for generations, the younger and more prosperous sons will also build there, despite what condition the area might be in. This congregation of generations, rich, and poor, creates a very mixed and integrated society—parallel to the set up of prayer in Islam. (The non-discriminatory shoulder to shoulder lines.)
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Almost instantly after mentioning to our hosts that we would like to see the desert, we were off on another adventure. The drive away from the capital is a journey itself with more roundabout driving circles than the state of South Carolina has in its total. After several phone calls and a few U-turns later we were greeted by a prized pigeon breeding friend of Ali’s; he was taking his newest birds as a present to the Grand Shaikh and extended an invitation for us to come along on the trip.
We stopped at the Tree of Life, which as Ali pointed out is ‘the tree of no life’ since being covered in graffiti. But in spite of its hasty decoration, the sprawling African tree, with no water source, has been a thriving pilgrimage for decades. With good luck now in tow and a reminder of something higher, we set forth across the dunes to meet a member of the royal family.
We were warned about the weather difference between the city and the desert, but even the cold weather natives were stunned. More than once during the twenty minute Jeep ride, the thought crossed our minds that we might not ever be returning to the city—camping tents, wild camels, and garbage dumps began springing up. We must have sat very quietly in the back seat because Ali joked about the very thing we were ashamed to admit, “Don’t worry, we won’t kill you here.”
As we pulled into this elaborate six tented area (falconers camp for four months at a time) we were greeted by a swarm of happy faces. In addition to being an avid pigeon collector, the Grand Shaikh ironically was also a master falconer, and we were just in time to watch a demonstration. These magnificent birds can cost from two thousand to two million dollars, and always ride first class on airplanes.
Without getting into too much detail on the rather bloody event, the falcon is released into the wind and can spot his prey from a mile away. It then flies very low to the ground, dropping with speed onto the pigeon and then elevates again, circling around for another strike.
After we watched the training of three different birds, held them properly with and without their hoods, the sun began to set and we were invited into the welcoming tent for hot tea and dessert. I still have not learned the name of one of the dishes we tried, but according to Ali’s facial expression, it is not one that will be imported into the city. It was a spiced apple gelatin of sorts with fried egg on top, and having not had lunch that day, the Americans drove heartily into the substance. Ali stated later that he would not serve that ‘yuck’ in any of his restaurants, but thanked us for being polite-- Little did he know that we were all so hungry the raw pigeon meat looked good!
As instructed the night before, we were outside our hotel at noon to be picked up by our host Sharock (Ali) Al-Sharif in his Porsche SUV to go on some ‘outings’.
We drove for about twenty minutes off the Manama island and toward Saudi Arabia when we pulled into a stone gated area. We found out that all of the King’s palaces were hidden amongst these stone gated forests of palm and palmetto trees. After one right turn we were parked in front of huge tan and burnt red stone stables. Although horses are prized and well maintained here, these were not stables for those four legged friends—these were the king’s camels.
This country seems to thrive on courtesy; everyone we have met is willing to help as much as they can. After walking around, keeping our distance from the animals, a trainer approaches and offers us a tour of the outdoor facility. Due to their aggressive natures, the male camels are separated from the females; as are the young from the rest of the heard. While the females are content being grouped and pinned together in large numbers, all the males are hobbled and chained in their own area. A hobble is often used on a horse in the states, meaning the two front legs are bound together with a three foot range of movement to prevent the animal from running off.
After touring the main area we were taken to a more remote location where they kept the newborn and mothering. We learned that camels carry their young for twelve months before giving birth, are very docile during the process, and afterward remain just as large until the work the weight off. There was a new born in the pin ahead of us, just a day old, and already walking. Much like baby deer they are quite wobbly on their feet, and much like a puppy, they try to jump around to get your attention. This newborn in particular bonded with the trainers and thereby all human contact. We were able to hug his neck like any animal and he offered several kisses.
Although the baby camels like to kiss, not a one spit on our crowd. Apparently this is a common misconception about their behavior. What they are guilty of however, is trumpeting like elephants and hanging their tongues out one side of their mouths as a mating call, letting their partner, pinned in another location, know when they are ready.
Today was what the Al-Shairif’s called a “free day”, meaning that we unfortunately would not be seeing them for dinner. Because Andy and I arrived so close to the holiday we were thrown into the fast and furious party zone and had little time to relax and enjoy the beautiful hotel in which we were staying. With that mentality we vowed to have a resort of a day with our companions before they departed.
We woke to housekeeping bringing fresh fruit and a cheese plate, a light breakfast to start our leisurely day. At 1:00 we ventured down to the outdoor tennis courts and played a couple double rounds. After an hour and a half our arms we wore out, our bellies hungry, and our noses pink with a touch of sun and wind burn. Still in gym attire and glistening with sweat, we dined by the pool under the floral terrace. Having had so much heavier food the days before, we all ordered salads or starters and discussed our plans for the evening.
It was a fairly chilly night but we decided to walk to the Seef Mall having all met the summer before on a working guest ranch in Montana—that is, any cold there would surely rival the winters in Bahrain. (Note in the picture, that’s sand and not snow.)
We entered through the cinema side of the mall and clearly all had the same thought as the bright flashings lights beckoned us toward them; what fun it be to watch a movie in a foreign country. We sent the men to divide and conquer the refreshment center while the ladies bought the tickets. All prices were comparable to what one would find in the states, but my favorite part was assigned seats in the theater. We were able to choose exactly where we wanted to sit and by whom. Quite opposite from the first come, first serve idea in America.
We four blindly trot into our movie of choice: Body of Lies—Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, American CIAs battling an Islamic terrorist group in Amman, Jordan. Though the movie is powerful in its own right, the benefit of watching it in an Arabic speaking country was even greater.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Having once again gone to bed around 5:00am, I woke up at 2:00 wondering how much more I can take of the endless fun and carefree lifestyle. Vowing that we all need some fresh air we six headed toward the Souk, or the old market. This market probably spans over ten blocks with several side streets and ally ways. Stopping in and out of a few places and having other items displayed before us, we were engulfed in an array colors and textures. Mainly comprised of fabrics, textiles, sundry items, and spices we enjoyed bartering and experiencing the local culture. I left with several scarves and a sachet of lavender to return to the hotel for a cup of tea and a quick nap.
Bahrain is a melting pot of its surrounding cultures. This is almost extrapolated to the weather as well. With a range of temperature from 75 one day to 50 and windy the next, the locals are prepared for anything. It was a very windy day and that made it difficult for Skandaar to drive. He thought it was funny to mention that vans aren’t stable and that we could flip at any time now… I suppose this was his version of pay back for our late night taxi services rendered. However, we arrived at Monsoon Thai for dinner with no harm to our person.
American spice and authentic Thai spice are two different degrees of hot. While one might easily boast, as I have, that they can handle anything – the hotter the better, one will quickly be brought to tears at Monsoon. Several of our group made the flavorful mistake of ordering the Hot and Sour soup. As I begin taking spoonfuls of this lemongrass and ginger clear base I was fortunate enough to avoid the sliced red chilies longer than other were. Once you bite into this chickpea sized morsel, there is an instant cough and your eyes begin to water and all sinus pressure is drained. After we all experienced this pleasure/pain we began to laugh as any ego we might have had over spicy food was dashed against the bamboo bowls.
After a fairly early night came a relaxed morning. It did not occur to our group that we needed to make reservations for brunch in the buffet room so we were invited to join the staff in their Italian restaurant. Though we were not prepared for such a formal meal at 11:30, we were pleased at their accommodating service. After a relatively short meal of an hour and a half, we parted ways.
I headed via taxi to the National Museum with two others. This crisp white split level museum was very organized and appropriately spaced out. According to the map, which was a bound booklet a quarter of an inch thick, there was a touring modern art exhibition down stairs and the more traditional findings on the other floors. To the right you will find art from the Dilmun era and to the left, translated manuscripts and other paper forms. On the third floor traditional crafts and trade, as well as religion and culture of the Bahraini life.
A fairly random fact that we have found to be an issue in the worried lives of our families is that there is a lack of postcards in the area. If you happen to find a stand of odd pictures they tend to be browned and torn at the edges. (Not to mention the eight hour time difference.) Telephone communication is rather difficult and the internet is charged by the minute-- A far cry from the wireless land that I have come to depend on.
Tonight’s meal was possibly the most entertaining to come. A middle eastern and Lebanese unseen menu, meaning there was nothing to order, yet course after course kept coming with even more pita bread to accompany it. From two different kinds of hummus, stuffed grape leaves, chicken liver, wings, parsley salad, to smoked lamb and coal grilled duck, I bet we ate enough to feed a small country. Around the dessert course (approx midnight) we were greeted with a belly dancer in a pink silk outfit adorned with gold grommets and tassels. After approaching several tables around us she decided that our blond haired American men would make for the greatest laugh. She was correct. As if their dancing didn’t prove to be enough of an indicator to the events of the evening, our hosts suggested that we retire to a nearby bar to await the 2:00am last call.
I should be used to the extremely late nights by now, yet after the first bar closed I was still surprised that we headed to another—well to a club at least. Club Taboo was what everyone has in their mind when they picture a Euro Techo Club. Stark white floors and walls with white leather ottomans were set off by silver and blue Christmas trees, strobes lights, and a swimming pool, which was not chained off to the patrons. The servers wore white spandex pants and black jeweled tank tops, some had chain belts that they hung their pass keys on. Needless to say I was out of place in my black pants and sweater set.
As we all went to bed around 8:00am, we Americans found cause to sleep until 3:00, and when asked later, it seems the natives reported to work at noon and worked their full shifts. When greeted by Skandaar at 5:00, he was still as spry and kind as he could be. Tonight we were headed to a family friend’s cocktail party followed by Café Italia. This cocktail party could only be related to something seem on MTV’s cribs, the show about celebrity mansions. With five tables of food on red satin table clothes, spread before their ocean front land, we were instructed to save room for dinner. Instead we strayed from the food all together and stuck to mingling.
The reoccurring question of the trip has been “how do you like Bahrain?” With such grandeur and kindness it is hard to answer anything less than amazing or incredible. Most follow-up statements are pleas to return home and promote their country. I have no reason to think that this beautiful island should have an identity complex and yet it seems to suffer from one. By 7:30 the doorbell to the three story house rings and Skandaar awaits once more to deliver us to another great meal.
It is traditional to eat very late in Bahrain, but for the American visitors they are willing to make an exception and start at 8:00 with the standard meal lasting four hours, and always resulting in our bellies being too full. After the meal we are taken to the Al-Sharif home and escorted to their pool side game room for poker and fun. The men are invited to join a 100BD game which is a currency of 1DB=2.6$, while the women were made drinks and praised. The game ended around 2:00 with no American man left in the final rounds. As we went home via Skandaar laughing about the loss of money we determined that it was like the old saying, “when in Rome…”
Most travelers wake up around noon after an International flight, but my roommate Andy and I woke in time to join the others for a self guided tour. The Al-Sharif family arranged for us to have a driver named Skandaar. This ever-smiling 5’6” man happens to also be a waiter at Senor Paco’s, one of the many operations owned by the family. As we six Americans pile into a Senor Paco’s Mexican restaurant delivery van with no seats, we head toward the center of the city. After taking several pictures of the outside of the National Library (Islamic Center) and the Grand Mosque we venture inside. Due to the hour and the call to prayer, we are sent away and asked to return within a certain time frame. In order to kill a few hours, we head to the City Center, one of the many malls in the area. We very western six walked around, popping in and out of several stores, laughing with Skandaar about our awkwardness.
When we return to the Grand Mosque we are greeted by a receptionist that is fully covered, including her hands. We are lead into a small waiting room designed for non-Muslims, and instructed to sit. She helps the women into their robe and head coverings while the men are fine in their street clothes. The dress itself it not form fitting, but our receptionist was insistent about finding the appropriate length for the three females. When the scarf was tied around my head it was clearly a process she had completed several times: Up and over, around one side and down the other, tucking a corner into the right side of my cheek. As it is winter in Bahrain and a balmy 70 degrees, all the girls on the trip became overheated and light headed under their restricting robes. With this said, watching a call to prayer and the full service was quite powerful and emotional. Afterward we were greeted with a guide to answer any questions. His motto for us to understand was that “Difference does not mean Division.” In talking about the basics of Islam and what we witnessed it seemed that he was almost defending his religion rather than praising it. We surmised that this justification might be related to the preconceived negative notions that most westerners have about the very peaceful religion. After all questions were answered in a lengthy manner, we were helped out of our wrappings, given several pieces of literature on Islam, and wished a safe travel throughout our stay.
By this time (4:00pm) we rush back to the hotel to grab nap before the evening begins. We are picked up by Skandaar at 6:00, all clad in black and gold sparkle, and head toward the infamous Senor Paco’s. We are greeted at the door with a welcome drink, similar to a Spanish sangria, made with citrus and mango and then asked what type of margarita we will be starting with. Less brave than the others I stick to a traditional lime flavor while pitchers of banana-peach and strawberry-mango surround me. The key fact that I was not presented with before my trip was that this is an island culture clearly ready to party. The shortest version of the night that I can report is that through the four course meal, endless flavored margaritas, and American classics like “Summer of 69”, “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’” and “I will survive” we found great cause to ring in the new year and then some. As no night should ever be complete without Karaoke, we all took turns singing with the band and dancing up a storm. As 3:00am rolls around I wonder if the night will be ending soon as my jet-lag begins to catch up with me, little did I know that the night was merely beginning and that I had another four hours of action packed adventure ahead of me; culminating with the twins ordering us pizza to accompany the Moet champagne that was raffled off as the night progressed. As Americans and Bahrainis poured into the Senor Paco’s van once more, clinging to food and fun, it seems that our Grand Mosque tour guide was right; differences clearly do not mean divisions.
First let me preface that I slept through the entire journey to Bahrain and therefore have nothing to report of the flight. But as for landing in the very small Bahrain airport, I recommend to only do it in style! I was greeted by the head of securities and taken through customs via the express route; that is, the officer took my passport, waved me through the buzzers and beepers and sent me toward baggage. He returned my passport fully stamped and documented only minutes later. While waiting for my luggage to arrive, we made small talk of the 70 degree winter weather and flight. After about an hour of waiting we determine that my bag must still be in Amsterdam. The officer files all the claims for me and helps me to find my driver, Hussein.
Hassan and Hussein are twin brothers of the Al-Sharif family, and will serve as the group liaison for fun. Hussein helps me to get checked into my room at the Ritz Carleton and wishes me a good night’s sleep as I will need to be ready to party on NYE.