I originally was going to title this post something along the lines of what makes Bahrain a wonderful place to travel – though despite the recent unrest it seemed rather contradictory. Whenever I go to a new place, I often leave with a few key impressions that color my thoughts and writing. With Bahrain, the overwhelming sense that it’s a little known country was one such impression; then, a few days after I left it was all over the news.
That collective blank slate was filled with images of protests and stories of murdered bystanders, demonstrating the complexity and at the same time hiding the diversity within Bahrain.
Walking Around A Walled Yet Open Society
Bahrain, like many of its Gulf state neighbors, has the regional blend of creative skyscrapers looming in the horizon, signaling a power and wealth that few places demonstrate so effectively. When you get down into the smaller streets and neighborhoods however, you see the backbone of the nation – its countless hard working immigrants upon which Bahrain is built. Walking down the streets of these communities is almost like strolling through a live world map – slowly passing by India, Nepal, Thailand and others with each block.
The number and variety of immigrants, primarily from southeast Asia also makes Bahrain a fantastic place to eat. The variety of affordable small stands and hole-in-the-wall type restaurants lets you enjoy the best foods of the working classes. Not the fluffy designer stuff you’ll find in the high end restaurants; it’s the kind of food that makes you feel like the cook is your friend for the meal.
Then there are the intimidating walls and practically guarded Shiite communities scattered throughout many blocks and streets heading in and out of Manama. Take one of the local buses to Manama’s Bar Bar Temple and you’ll see one rather large one with a cemetery by the main road. The large black flags are both intimidating and inviting for the curious traveler; under normal circumstances most of the neighborhoods are quite accessible.
A Conserved Liberalism
An open-closed society, Bahrain is a cultural crossroads between some powerful players in its life – Iran to the east, the Saudis to the west, and the US Navy’s 5th fleet floating in its harbors. Bahrain is a good example of a society that simply can’t be closed; anytime you have that many different people in one place, ideas are bound to flow. They might not be a smooth or soft (take the current protests) as in other countries, but you get a sense the direction is forward.
Being a foreign traveler is, by and large, in Bahrain a very comfortable state. Plop yourself off just about anywhere and you probably won’t feel out of place; not to mention the masses speak English with an exceptional fluency.
Can’t Discount The Beaches And Cheap Gas
Being an island (technically there are 33), Bahrain is full of coastline, most of which is free and relatively absent of other people. The beaches in Bahrain aren’t quite tropical and the sand compacted and firm, but whether you’re looking for (or hiding from) humanity you’ll find a perfect spot on one of them. Access to the coasts is best done by car – gas is only 29 cents per liter – and you’ll have endless choice.
Not to mention bumping into the Tree of Life, mysteriously growing in the middle of Bahrain’s interior oil fields, the world’s third biggest mosque, or the simple bliss of seeing fishing boats bob into the sunset.