Ashkeling 2005/6 trip - Bahrain     Last Updated: 24-Dec-05

8-Dec-05 Bahrain

Upon arrival in Bahrain, our luggage showed up missing. Two of the four bags were logged as still being in JFK, with no mention of the other two. Emirates is not the main airline in Bahrain, so they had shut down the counter. With some patience and persistence in the departure hall, we were able to get some toiletry kits which seem to be one for a man, and one for a woman, but neither included soap or shampoo.

After an 8 BD ($24, we probably overpaid) taxi ride to the Bahrain Int'l Hotel, we checked in to a dated, but OK room. The hotel is right near the Bab Al Bahrain (Gate of Bahrain), which used to be right on the water, and is central to old Manama. It has turned out to be a great reference point.


Bab Al Bahrain

The tourist information shop is barely that; it's a bunch of Indians (like most of the businesses we're seeing) with a tchotchke shop that somehow got the designation. From them we got a map and a suggestion for a vegetarian Indian restaurant where the proprietor eats dinner. With new maps in hand, we wandered up to Anand Bhavan (Shop 207, Road 343) for a lunch for which we were not too hungry. They asked us to go upstairs to the "family" section (there was a woman, after all), where we ordered a Thali lunch, Mutter Paneer, an Onion Masala Dosa, and a couple of sweet lassis. While we ate our very tasty lunch, the owner came over - he'd heard that we had been sent there - and apologized that his restaurant was not on the main street where the rent was three times higher. He also wondered if the food was too spicy, and was quite surprised when we enlightened him that it was not even close. Finally, he apologized that the place was so empty, but said that on Thursdays (the start of the Arab weekend) it filled up a bit later in the day. This seemed to be true; as we thanked him and bid him goodbye, the place was starting to hop as all the Indian shopkeepers were flowing into his place.


Lunch at Anand Bhavan

We had time to kill before the Bahrain National Museum opened, so we walked around the closing-for-the-weekend cloth and gold souks ("Yes!" "Sir, look here." "Yes!" "Sir, you want a kefieh?" "Yes!"), which were basically shops with the usual stuff, briefly logged in at the Batelco Internet Center, looked at the outside of the uninteresting Friday mosque, and wandered the King Faisal Corniche seafront, where families of kids and black-draped women were having picnics and playing catch. Having still more time to kill, we walked through the Manama's government center's cluster of ministry buildings and made our way to the Crowne Plaza for a drink and an attempt to resist the pull of jet-lag sleep.


Old and new

Construction along the Corniche

Dodging the famously fatal traffic, we walked over to the Bahrain National Museum, which does an excellent job of showing the history of the island, starting from the prehistoric Dilman period (4000-3000 BCE) through to just before the modern day. The amount of information they've gleaned from burial grounds is impressive, but how would they know that a 40-year-old man's tomb was dug from the time he was 16, and that the bodies of his two children were laid to rest before him on the periphery of his tomb's circular wall? We learned how they identify the age of a skeleton from the amount of fusion between the bones, and that Arab traditions include burying the umbilical cord of males under the mosque and females in the kitchen. The museum was a good introduction, but jeg lag was starting to turn us into the walking dead. So, we headed back to our hotel.



Recreation of a tomb, with
photo of many of them

Tomb of the 40 year old

Script from the Koran

Beit al Quran

Along the way, we decided to stop off at the Al Osra restaurant, which was recommended through various sources. Although we were not hungry, it made sense to eat on the local schedule so that we'd not wake up hungry in the middle of the night. Once again shooed upstairs to the family section, we had a Greek salad (although there was the traditional feta, there were also carrots and corn), hummus (bitter and tasted like it was from a mix), Lebneh with zatar (basically sour cream with herbs and olive oil), and Shish Tikka (meat). All of this was served on Disney-themed placemats and snowman-in-winter plates. I'm not sure what the recommended specialty of the place is, but in our curtained-off family cell, I'm not sure that we had it. Not recommended.


Dinner at Al Osra, with the Disney crowd

Back at the hotel, we confirmed that our luggage had not arrived - JFK seems to have sent it the day after we left - so we collapsed into bed.

9-Dec-05 Bahrain

The sound of jack hammering in the building next door did not keep us from falling asleep, and the night was not bad for a first night.

Breakfast was a typical middle eastern spread, with fresh vegetables, olives (better that the usual California cardboard ones, but not very good for the middle east), cheese, foul madames (basically middle eastern refried beans), lebneh, and strong coffee. They also had western-style eggs, potatoes, and sausage.

There are three bus stations within walking distance of the hotel, so we tried to figure out what goes where. Schedules are posted along with destinations, but nothing resembling a map. The information is pretty ambiguous, and things that people told us did not make much sense to us, although we've probably sorted out the main ones we need. Regular busses cost 100 fils (about 30 cents), and minibuses running the same route are 150 fils.

Bus determinations done, and a bit of grocery shopping under our belts (chocolate bars and a jar of honey packed with nuts), we went to the Lebanese restaurant at the Tylos hotel. The staff there did not seem to be Lebanese, but they were rather disorganized. No menus were to be had because the place was under new ownership; it was now a Nepalese restaurant. They could make whatever we wanted, even Italian. Of course, we did not, and instead ordered Daal Baht and curry chicken, which came with rice, sautéed greens, and a tomato sauce. It was all mighty tasty, but turned out to be rather pricey, mainly because we got twice the amount we had ordered, and did not tell them to cut back.


Lunch at the Lebanese Nepalese joint

Our luggage had arrived intact, so we did a bit of organizing and then headed out to the island of Muharraq, and onward to Arad Town using our newfound bus knowledge. There we found the Arad Fort (Qala'at Arad), built in the early 15th century by the Portuguese. As Forts go, it's rather compact and unimpressive, but it does have nice nose-shaped boiling-oil features. It has been restored, although there's not much there except for the stone walls lit by the sun setting over the bay.


Shooting

Chairs at sunset

Fort Arad

Sunset


While we were waiting for the bus, an Arab in full robes stopped his car to single us out from all the other people waiting and asked where we were going. He offered a ride all the way into town. On the ride in, we discussed how Bahrainis are much friendlier than, say, Kuwaitis, and how so many of the trees and gardens on the island have been supplanted by houses. It was not clear whether he considered this to be a good or bad thing because he talked about "too many" trees.

Friday night brings the people out, and we walked around the cloth souq to not buy stuff or do much window shopping. We also managed to avoid buying the singing camel.

Dinner found us at Al Rawazin (Municipality Av., +973-17227227), yet another "international" restaurant with good Arabic food. Not touristy at all, it was decorated with benches, coarse tapestries, and rich colors. Arabs (men and women) were reclining and smoking Shisha from huge polished hookahs, with smells of pineapple and cherry smoke in the air. We had a mixed salad (not on the menu) of hummus, baba ganoush, tomato sauce, tabouleh, and olive salad, and a mixed grill with lamb, kebabs, chicken, onions, peppers, and cucumbers. Although we had only ordered one, they tried to bring us two mixed grill platters; we sent the second one back. We ate with our hands, using pita to scoop things up. The drink, a Cocktail "International," made of mixed fruits, was mighty tasty.


Getting into it

She wants to try the Shisha

Fancy salad, eh?

10-Dec-05 Bahrain - market & museum

To our surprise, the hotel breakfast was not the same as the previous day (on the final day we even were offered yummy chicken livers). But the real breakfast news was the loud gaggle of Arab women who seemed to dominate the restaurant, between loud telephone conversations with someone outside the window (with appropriate giggling), cooing at babies, and snatching condiments and such from other tables. It is not what we'd normally expect of reserved Arab women. Clearly, we don't understand.


Brekkies

We walked over to the central market, which had primarily fresh fruits and vegetables. We found a wide range of common stuff, with a few of the more exotic items thrown in, like custard apples, bitter melon, many varieties of dates (some of which we bought after sampling), long green things which were neither beans nor burdock, and more types of cucumbers than I'd ever seen. The stall owners were very friendly, even though it was a busy, working market. Most shopkeepers were Indian or Pakistani, although there were certainly numerous Arabs, Afghanis, and Saudis. They let us photography freely, and were usually amused to see the photos on the digital camera.


Roots, etc.

Roswitha's date vendor

Fruits


30 kinds of Pakistani
rice, & other grains

A spice mixture like sand in a bottle

Grains and legumes

With some effort, we also found the fish market in another building. Although not huge, there was still quite a range of fish and seafood, including grouper, tuna, octopus, blue crabs, catfish, anchovies, squid, parrot fish, and even shark. Everyone was trying to sell us something, and they had as much fun as we did. Many folks posed with their most interesting fish. Although none of the fish was on ice, it all looked and smelled quite fresh.


Shark

Fresh colors

What's in the mouth?

More shark

Parrot fish

Shapes


Big fish

Filet?

Want some blue crab?

A built-in toothpick

After a confusing taxi ride to the south side of the city, we arrived in the neighborhood of Adliya. We were looking for the Crafts Market, but were dropped nowhere near it. We were also looking for a place called Casa Blu (suggested on virtualtraveler.com). The maps we had of the area seem to be mere approximations, and we did not really know where it was anyway, so we were quite surprised to look up and see its sign. It was a bit early for lunch, but this seemed to be our opportunity. Like last night's dinner, it was a reclining type of place, with Shisha waterpipes and food. There were 2 robed couples in the huge place, which was decorated in strong Bedouin motif and deep blue walls and ceilings. (They made reference to the Tuareg Blue Men, fierce desert fighters.) We had a mixed plate and a greek salad. The mixed plate had spiced lamb pastie sort of things, which were just heavenly, spinach samosas, potato dumplings, hummus, lebneh, and "spicy sauce," as well as pita and some veggie garnish. Roswitha had a strong Turkish coffee, her first coffee in 6 months, while I had pomegranate juice.


Coffee and pomegranate juice

Relax

Again, too much food

Just another nibble...

A short taxi ride took us to the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, which is open to non-Muslims. We had to remove our shoes, and Roswitha had to don a black robe and beige Hijab to enter. Our tour guide was a Frenchman who had converted to Islam, and had been living in Bahrain for 3 years. We were there between the noon and 3:00 prayers, so the place was quite empty. It is modern, having been built in the late 1980s and was rather stark and geometric.


Al Fateh Grand Mosque


Roswitha with hijab


Window detail


Inside the mosque

On the 2nd floor, where most women worship


An entryway
 

Window and
inscription

Windows
 

Dome and arch
 

Our tour guide's shift was over, so he kindly dropped us off along the eastern corniche where we strolled along the water. We saw the dolphin park (but did not go in), the ice rink and bowling alley, and the marina. After a time-killing drink at the Diplomat hotel, we visited the Beit Al-Quran (Koran House). It had some photo exhibits showing that Moslems worldwide are just regular people. (I make fun, but these were actually several very good portrait series by a few photographers.) The museum has an extensive collection of ancient and modern versions of the Koran, including the world's smallest complete Koran (made in the 18th century), and excerpts painted onto rice kernels, split lentils, and sesame seeds. Overall, it was beautifully done. Several of the Korans were as artistic as some of the most wonderfully illustrated bibles we had seen in the past.


Fragments with Koranic verse


Fragments


Ancient Koran (9th Century)


Part of the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca (1893)


Verse on rice grains, lentils, and sesame seeds

Extensive displays

After a session on the internets, we went back to Anand Bhavan for a small dinner. Our host suggested Manchurian rice (cauliflower and other vegetables fried into balls and cooked in a spicy sauce, over an almost Chinese-style fried rice) and Cumin rice (cumin sauce over a fragrant lemony rice). Delicious.


On the walk back

Anand Bhavan dinner

11-Dec-05 Bahrain - car day

The car was to be delivered from Oscar's Rent-a-Car at 9:00. At 9:30 we called: "No problem. No Problem. The driver will be right there." At 10:00 we called: "Our other office is closer to you. Call them." We called them: "We don't have a car. The driver is getting one and will be there in 30 minutes. He will bring you to our office." OK, so we lost 2 hours. Still, we were finally mobile.

The first stop (after the actual first stop to put gas in the car, at $0.80/gallon) was the Al Khamis Mosque, the first mosque in Bahrain (possibly built as early as 682 ACE) when Islam came here. The minarets have been reconstructed, as have a few walls. It sits stark against the busy road which now seems to otherwise ignore it.


Al Khamis Mosque

A Minaret

Inscriptions

Minarets

From there, we drove west and north of Manama, to the Bahrain Fort, which is actually three or more forts, only one of which - the youngest, about 500 years old - was reconstructed. Bahrain has been at the crossroads for a long time, and several civilizations have built fortresses on this site. It is one of the few accessible to ships because of the coastal reefs which surround the island. The reconstructed fort is from the time when the Portuguese ruled, and it is huge, surrounded by a wide and deep moat.


3 stages of the fort's history

A narrow entrance

Steps

Watch tower

The moat

"Relaxation" room

Driving along the north coast (and through several small towns, including one where school was letting out for lunch), we arrived in Budaiya, where the king has one of his palaces on the water, overlooking the King Fahad Causeway, which crosses over to Saudi Arabia. Along the way, we discovered that most of the roads have periodic traffic-slowing humps which happen to be really inconvenient and really slow things down. In other words, they work, and they probably contribute to the large number of car repair shops we've seen. In Budaiya, we looked for the Anatolia Turkish restaurant. Instead, we found a little place ("Middle East Restaurant") which seemed to have a booming take-away business. In fact, for a dive, it was so busy that it had to have fit one or both of the two rules for such places:

They had two carhops who ran out to the cars which were driving by (and blocking traffic), took the orders and money, and ran the food back out after the customers had turned around up the block. We were lucky enough to find a parking space, so we went in to take a look. We ordered grape leaves (dolmades), hummus, a Turkish salad, and a fried fish with the yellow-colored rice. Since there was no place to sit, we drove back to the beach (a local favorite) right across from the school which had been letting out. We sat on one of the benches right at the water's edge, ate, and mused about the place. We were staring out at the water which separated Bahrain from Kuwait, and, just beyond, Iraq. Just off to the right, across the Persian Gulf, was Iran. We were not far from one of the world's major hot spots, eating lunch along a rocky beach. We were also discovering that the rule that the restaurant met was that the food was cheap.


Middle Eastern Restaurant
 

These guys
were cookin'

Picnic on the beach
 

Sated, we wound our way down the coast. We were too late for the Al Jasra House where Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the Emir of Bahrain was born. (Many places close at 2:00 PM.) We drove past the causeway to Saudi Arabia, past the Formula One Bahrain International Raceway, and found ourselves at the Al Areen Wildlife Park. The park was created in 1976 for the pleasure of the King, and was opened to the public 10 years later. It has a range of grazing mammals from the Middle East, Africa, and India, including various sorts of gazelle, dik-dik, spring bock, goats, sheep, giraffes, porcupines (larger and more uncomfortable than I had imagined), camels, and so on. A similar range of birds includes crested heron, stripe-neck geese, ducks, flamingos, ostriches, emu, Indian peacocks, African storks, Egyptian vultures, crowned cranes, and banded doves. For a cute little zoo (of 10 square kilometers), it was well done. The visit included a 45-minute bus ride, which we shared with several Arab families, with the women and girls in full cover.


We're not going this way


Say cheese!

Lose something?

This looks uncomfortable

Not very pink

Smile!

In an anti-aviary

Things with horns

 

Crested heron

More things with horns

I wish I were a giraffe

At that point, we were about half way down the country, and the sun had set. So, we drove back through rush-hour traffic to Manama and the Grand Mosque to do some night shots. The cupola and minarets were lit, making for a good subject. We were there until it was closed down, and the lights were turned off - right in the middle of a photograph.


Grand Mosque

Minaret

Another king's palace

We returned the car, and stopped at a restaurant in an alleyway right by our hotel to pick up some kabob (highly recommended by a gentleman sitting there), some flat bread, and a yogurt drink. We supplemented this with the (cheap!) leftovers from lunch, and had a meal in our room. The kabob was excellent.


Making kabobs
 

Smuggling a beer
up to the room

Room picnic
 

12-Dec-05 Bahrain - tour day

Abulla Muhanna of Ghadeer Excursions (tel. 17-412571, mobile 3-9817997) picked us up at the hotel for a half-day tour. He had already picked up another couple (from Lebanon), so we immediately headed south and west towards the town of A'Ali, site of some of the oldest burial mounds, dating back to the Dilmun period 3000 to 4000 BCE. The town is built all around them; houses respect the perimeter of the huge mounds. The burial mounds have all been excavated, with the contents taken to the Bahrain museum and other archaeology locations. We saw several places around this part of the country which had vast tracts of mounds; the towns just surrounded them.


Burial mounds

Mounds of 3 kings in A'Ali

Following the formula of tours everywhere, we stopped at a factory, in this case a pottery maker. It carries on an ancient tradition of Sumerian pots (updated as piggy banks) made from Bahraini clay from just west of town. The pots are made by hand (and foot, to turn the potters wheel); three guys turned out three very consistent types of pots as we watched. Today's generation has no interest in carrying on what many generations of this family have done, so the factory has imported potters from Asia. They mix the clay, make the pots, fire them (in gas-fired kilns which are sealed up with clay before firing), and paint them. Needless to say, we did not buy any, although we shot lots of photos of the patient potters.


Banks

Waiting to fire

Gift cups

Planters

Driving farther south, past the pipeline which crosses from Saudi Arabia to the Bahrain refineries and onward to Gulf tanker docks, past the estates of the royal family, past the limestone and marble quarries, past stationary Bedouin camps (they are not allowed to roam) and their camel herd, and into the oil and gas fields, we came to the Tree of Life. It is a lone 600-year old Saudi mesquite which taps into water far below the surface, and is a bit of an icon for the country. (I did not think about the fact that it might make some pretty good BBQ.) While it seems respected, it also is pretty abused. It is covered with graffiti, and even has a line of bullet holes where some soldier shot it with a machine gun. Trash littered the area. Still, it survives. A military unit was conducting exercises just beyond the tree.


Tree of Life

Graffiti

Machine gun bullets

As we were driving down, we were stuck behind a slow-moving caravan of oil drilling equipment. Like a band of Bedouin, the line of trucks was moving a full operation to start on a new well. We encountered them again after we visited the tree; they were starting what is probably the island's newest oil or gas well. We continued past them to Bahrain's oldest well, the one that totally changed the economics and politics of the region, and possibly the world. Its oil is long gone, but it still produces natural gas, which you can hear whooshing through its pipe.


Newest well

Oldest well

Whooshing production

From there, we drove past the king's desert palace and followed the pipelines to the King Fahd Causeway. The first island crossed by the causeway houses the palace of the King's fourth wife, who is 25 years old. We traveled to the artificial island which makes up the border, and stopped for a ride up the tower and to have a cool beverage. The island takes the form of a figure 8, with the waist being the no-man's land between the two sets of border control. The Saudi side looked more commercialized, and even had that scourge of American imperialism, McDonald's.


Saudi Arabia

Gateway to the 4th wife's palace

Abdulla dropped us back at our hotel, and recommended a nearby restaurant for lunch. He suggested the fish and rice, plus all the dates you can eat for 1 BD (about US$ 3). Al Ahli serves "all kinds of traditional food," and they tried to prove it by bringing each and every one of them to our table. The place got very quiet when we walked in - we were clearly Westerners, and Roswitha was the only woman for the whole time we were there - and it took a while until the place warmed up again. Obviously, we were the afternoon's entertainment. Besides the (two!) large fish and rice, we had a salad, melon, meat stew, soup, flat bread, and a condiment made of peppers and curry leaf. They kept trying to bring us more, but we finally figured out what was going on and waved each new item away. Most people in the place were eating with their hands, so I did as well. When we paid, we found that the tally (probably with stupid foreigner tax added in) had come to 6 BD. (We also seemed to be the only ones getting a little bill tray with gum, cumin seeds, and toothpicks.) Still, it was very good.


A spread for someone hungrier

Scott makes like a local

13-Dec-05 Bahrain - Craft Center and beyond

The Heritage Center on Government Road houses the Pearl Diving Museum. Except that it's not there, and no one in the place where two maps says that it is know anything whatsoever about it. Maybe it's over in the diplomatic area. Or maybe not.

So, we walked southward through the souq to the Craft Center, which has a program for local women to make and sell handicraft. Some of them also cook food at home and serve it in the café. Except that they don't - the café is closed. We got to see them make paper, and looked at a few other things, including some rather impressive stained glass. It can be customer ordered, but it is likely not made by the 40 women supported by the Craft Center. If you're really into this sort of thing, check it out. Otherwise, don't bother.


Various craft
shops &
galleries

Traditional
Sculpture
 

Heading further south, we walked through some gardens to Adliya, which looks like a hopping place popular with expats. We decided to stop into Señor Paco's Mexican Restaurant for lunch. The guacamole was pretty good (6/10), the salsa mediocre (4/10), the margarita about right (7/10), the BBQ pork ribs not bad (7/10 - a real smoker but sweet sauce), and the chicken burrito boring (4/10). The place even had sopapillas. There was a group of US expats there for their (daily?) fix. Two Arabs also ate there - it was clearly their first time - and did not know what to order. They clearly did not like the soup or Fajitas.


This looks promising

Here we go again

They even have Canadian water

Burrito & Ribs

Sopapillas

Pork!

A taxi took us over to Muharraq island to the Sheikh Isa Bin Ali house, which was built around 1800. It has been nicely restored, showing beautiful wood and wall carvings. A walkway goes along the full top of the building, which is constructed like a fortress. The house also features a wind tower, a large vertical scoop facing 4 directions that will capture the wind and circulate it into the house. Horizontal doors inside the house can be used to manage and direct the flow. A neat design. Another house of similar age, Beit Seyadi, lies nearby, but, alas, has not been open for 3 years.


Wind tower (with 3 vertical openings)

Looking up into the tower

Tower and ceiling

Window

Ceiling and arches

Looking into a courtyard

Door

Arched entry

Outside of Beit Seyadi

We hit the souq in the evening to find some Iranian saffron and some dresses. Some of the spice shops have a layered pile of spices; you buy a vertical slice and use it to season meat and chicken. (Likely the source of idea for the jars of sand-painting we saw in the grocery store.) We also hunted for interesting salt, but only came up with Iranian fleur de sel which did not taste special.


Pile of spice mix

Dried garlic

14-Dec-05 Bahrain - Checking out

Time for one more meal before heading out, so we went to Marrakech in the Delmon hotel. The lamb tajine with dried apricots was very good, and the hummus was the best we've had in Bahrain. Across the street is a coffee shop that spills out onto the sidewalk. We'd walked past it several times, and it was always full of Arab men hanging out and playing dominos. We sat down (to many stares and a few smiles) and ordered a coffee and a tea. Roswitha had heard about a white coffee which is supposed to be clear, but we could not get the idea across.


Tasty bread, hummus, veggies & pickles

Soup

Lamb & dried apricot tagine

Stranger in a strange land

The Bahrain airport is quite stark on the check-in side and crazy on the lounge & duty-free side. The shops were decked out in full Christmas gear, and the contrast of dancing santas and people in robes was striking. The restaurant choices were poor: a pretentious "French" restaurant guaranteed to be disappointing, and Jasmi's, a burger joint which was likely to be no different than it seemed. Plus, they had rather nice-looking pastries.


Merry Christmas! Buy!

It fits, right?

Arby's by another name, fries, pie.

Bahrain lessons

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