Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pearl of the Persian Gulf

Why would I miss a chance to add one more country to the list of countries I visited? When my travel agent informed about a stay over at Bahrain on my return trip to US from India after the short vacation, I was happier to see another gulf country than worrying about losing a day in my travel. Moreover the airline company (Gulf Air) was providing the transit visa with star hotel accommodation and food.

We started the journey from Kochi 23-Jul-2007 early morning and landed at Bahrain before 9 AM. The procedures were quick and in no time we were out of the airport with a transit visa and the agent took all of us to the hotel in Manama.

The connection flight to Frankfurt was on the next day early morning 01:15 AM and hence we had a whole day to enjoy Bahrain. I knew it was the smallest country in gulf and was possible to cover the whole area in few hours. What I didn’t think of was the fierceness of desert summer sun. After taking some rest and having lunch, we attempted to go out to see some nearby places. But the scorching heat pushed us back and we limited our visits to some shops and souks.

I had been to gulf few times before and was quiet familiar with the culture here. This time I had my wife with me and Bahrain proved to be a better cross section of the gulf culture for her to experience in first hand. It was no different from countries like Saudi and Qatar in the way streets and buildings looked like. But it looked like there are more Malayalis than any where else. All the shops we walked into were having a Malayali guy, be it a cool drink parlor, dress shop or souvenir shop. We also noticed most of the shop boards are having their names in Malayalam too besides Arabic and English. There were lots of notices and posters in pure Malayalam all over the building walls on some inside streets.

Another specialty I noticed was the large number of bars and clubs all over the place. Later I learnt that Bahrain’s major income is not just from pearls or petrol or financial institutions but also from this pleasure business which attracts lots of crowd from the neighbor Saudi where religious rules forbids all this enjoyment.

We roamed around the streets for some time and bought a souvenir (the typical one – a frame containing seven different colored sands of the gulf). Bahrain Dinar is having a higher value (1 BD = 3 US$) and I paid 3 BD for this.

At evening, we made a deal with the hotel chauffeur (who is again a Malayali) to take us around the places in Bahrain. He came with his own car and for $60 took us for a three hour sight seeing drive. First we visited Bahrain Fort, located at Karbabad village. The first dwellings on this site are believed to have been constructed around 2800 BC. (I never knew gulf had such old history!) The last was built in the early 16th century by Portuguese. It was an elegant structure and the highlighting lights in the night made it more attractive. Even though it was night, the temperature outside was still not comfortable.

Next, we headed to King Fahad Causeway listening to the stories of our chauffeur which was not any different from the typical Malayali living an expatriate life in gulf. This time my wife was more convincing why I decided to move away from gulf leaving my first major job and why I am still reluctant to seek out any opportunities in gulf.

Opened in 1986, King Fahad Causeway is a remarkable 15.5 miles (25km) feat of engineering linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most expensive bridges in the world. The causeway traverses Umm Nasan Island, which is a sanctuary for wildlife, and at halfway point there is a facility area, with a big viewpoint tower and restaurant. The view of illuminated bridge all the way from Bahrain to Saudi over the sea was interesting. We could see the long line of cars coming from Saudi waiting at the border for clearances. I was told, this line will extend to kilometers during weekends with Saudis crossing the border to enjoy the forbidden fruits.

We ended our trip with a short visit to one of the mega shopping malls in Manama city and said good bye to Bahrain. Though it’s a small country I realized that I have missed many other attractions like beaches and small islands besides some old age remnants like Burial Mounds and modern age wonders like F1 racing circuit. But Bahrain is still very much accessible and I may get a chance again.

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