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The Middle East: Unexpected Bahrain

Written on: Sunday February 22nd, 2009

My flight from Iran to Bahrain transferred through Dubai.  I was nervous about missing this flight for two reasons: one, I desparately wanted to get off Kish Island, and two, I was going to partake in my first 'Couch Surfing' experience upon arrival into Bahrain.  For those of you who may not be familiar with this fantastically cool idea, Couch Surfing (CS) is an organization where people can stay for free at other peoples' homes.  Individuals voluntarily sign up as hosts to allow travelers (surfers) to stay with them, or, occasionally, just to meet them for lunch or a drink.  I recently created a user profile for this organization and was now about to test the waters as a surfer looking for a place to crash.  I sent out requests to five people in Bahrain and received two responses/invitations for places to stay during my time in the country.  One of the two positive responses was from Bruce, an American living and working in Bahrain, and also my number one draft choice, if you will.  He even offered to pick me up at the airport, which is what made catching the flight from Iran so important to me.

The flight from Iran to UAE went off without a hitch; unfortunately, there was a sand storm a-brewin' in Bahrain, which delayed my arrival flight into that country by one and a half hours.  Damn; not a good first impression.  I just hope he's not pissed because I am so late and have no way to contact him.  Eventually I landed, passed through Bahrainian customs and reluctantly poked my head around the corner.  From his profile photo I recognized Bruce, walked over to introduce myself and immediately apologized for not being able to forewarn him that the flight was going to be tardy.  His understanding demeanor assured me that it was not a problem.  Whew!

As we left the airport for the town of Al Manamah, I was shocked to see such a clean, modern, thriving city.  I knew that Dubai was seeking the ultra-hip urban appearance, but little did I know that Manamah already had this feather in its cap.  This place was sweet!  We drove about the office buildings and upscale shopping centers before arriving at a cosy little nook of high end restaurants: apparently we were going for Thai this evening.  We dined on sumptuous cuisine in a private room while sharing tales and getting to know each other.  It was good fun and a great meal.  Afterward, we went back to his apartment, and my home for the next three days.  Now, when I thought about CS, I sort of took it literally: Bruce would probably have a place where I could store my bags and a couch on which I could crash.  However, never once did I think that on the first couch surfing pitch thrown to me, I would hit one out of the park! Not only was there a choice of couches in his furnished corporate apartment, but I had my own enormous bedroom and private bathroom!  To top it off, there was internet access, a pool and work out facility and...this is the kicker...free phone calls to the USA!! I think I'm gonna like the CS thing...

The next morning I woke with a satisfaction that I hadn't felt in some time.  I slept so well, so soundly, that I forgot where I was.  It rejuevinated my body and my spirit, perfectly priming me to set off and explore the town.  Unlike most places I'd traveled on this journey, Bahrain had a large American presence.  There was an active naval base in this city, actually only a few blocks from where I was staying.  So when I left the accommodation, the first place I explored was 'American Alley', a street filled with stores that you would see in any strip mall in America.  I avoided the likes of the Chilis, McDonald's and Hardees, but couldn't pass on the pizza place just down the road.  Hey, at least it's a local joint.  After filling the void, I further caved and went for a tasty cup of brewed coffee at Starbucks.  But soon I found myself back at Bruce's, checking emails and facebook from the comfort of 'my' living room.  

As is typical of my arrival into a new town, I wanted to go geocaching a bit to explore.  Fortunately for me, Bruce was also a geocacher!  So we headed off together for an old fort and a bit of night caching.  After bagging one cache we chose to forego the remainder and get some dinner, for tonight was sushi night.  It had been a while since I was able to enjoy my favorite meal, and leaving the restaurant, I was happy to tap into Bruce's local knowledge regarding a tasty place to dine.  Later that evening I took full advantage of his offer to make some calls.  It had been a long time since I was able to speak directly to my friends and family, and this perk was extremely appreciated.

There was another interesting little tidbit about Bahrain: years ago at AEC I used to work with a guy who was from Bahrain.  His name was Hussain and I knew that he moved back to his country to teach at the university.  I hadn't seen him or communicated with him in about eight years, but I tracked down his email and sent a note, just in case he was still around and was interested in meeting for a cup of tea.  Luckily for me, he WAS still here and we met the next day for lunch.  It was so nice to see him again!  We talked about AEC, about who was still there from his day and how they were doing; we talked about names from the past and shared the latest information that either of us knew about our former colleagues; we talked about his current position and projects that he has worked on in Bahrain; and of course we talked about travel and my current project as I explore the world.  Much to my surprise, Hussain said that he cleared his schedule and had the afternoon free to hang out with me.  Sweet!  So we set off, first touring the city.  It was quite interesting to get a city tour from a structural engineer in the know; in fact, he had a hand in the design of several of the buildings that he showed me.  After touring town we set off for the Saudi Arabian border.  It's not every day that you can cross a causeway and enter Saudi Arabia, so when I had the opportunity to (almost) do that, I was up for the experience.  Sadly, my American passport limited me from crossing the line, but at least I got to see the country from the Bahrainian side.  It was an interesting and fun drive.  Afterward, we continued south through the smaller towns until we reached the University of Bahrain campus.  Again, I got the insider's look as we toured the grounds, which appeared quite literally to be an oasis in the desert.  From there we went to the nearby and recently built Formula 1 racetrack.  I think that Steve or Federico would have had a better appreciation for it than me, but it was still cool to see.  As we still had an appetite for exploration, we continued farther south in a quest for the 'Tree of Life', Bahrain's self-imposed tourist attraction.  It was nice to arrive at the location, despite the massive display of military weaponry in the adjacent valley as the Bahrainian army practiced tank maneuvers.  Being so close to the southern tip of the country, we decided to continue on to the Ra's al Bar, a luxury community in the making, completely built on reclaimed land.  A long ride up the eastern coast completed what turned out to be a circumnavigation of the country.  Thanks, Hussain!  It was wonderful to see you again and spend the afternoon touring your home country!

Weerily making it back to Bruce's, the night was far from over.  He picked up some fantastic looking T-bones to cook on the grill!  I hadn't grilled out in a very long time, so when the opportunity arose to stand behind a grill, beer in hand, cooking meat, I took it!  The dinner was fabulous, and we spent the remainder of the night chatting away about CS, relationships and Bruce's upcoming trip to Turkey.

The next day was my last in Bahrain.  Surpringly, I was sad to leave.  But as Bruce once again played the ever-considerate host and brought me to the airport, I reflected on my time here, and just how lucky I was to see what I did in the little time I spent in the country.   Not only that, CS proved to be an exceptional tool to meet people, tap into local knowledge and save a few dinars along the way.