Escape to Bahrain

When we lived in a quiet suburb outside of Washington, D.C., the thought of an "escape plan" would have seemed paranoid at best. Now, though, living in a very conservative country whose laws are different than those in the west and whose culture is largely a mystery to me, the notion of a sort of household "Plan B" doesn't seem so farfetched. Don't get me wrong: we have had absolutely no problems here. Everyone we meet is friendly and accommodating, and our compound is safer than any place either of us has ever lived. But still. It was time to cue the Mission: Impossible music and put together a plan. 

First, we needed to make sure we could get out of the Land of Sand quickly. Step one was a bureaucratic maneuver. In order for us to legally come and go, we applied for and received multiple exit/re-entry visas. In order to "activate" the visas, we had to cross a border and get them stamped. The most convenient way to do that was to drive across the causeway to Bahrain, and take a short holiday. Rough....

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Wind turbines on the Bahrain World Trade Center

Bahrain is a tiny island nation that is now connected by bridge to the Kingdom. The ironic expression is, "Allah does not see Bahrain." Indeed, we spent several days there, fervently enjoying gin and tonics and pork sausage--both of which are strictly no-no's on the other side of the causeway. We also went to the movies. (What a treat! Stadium seating, and really fresh popcorn--but no Golden Flavor.)

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Bahrain National Museum

We whiled away one afternoon at the Bahrain National Museum, which was a nice, bite-sized introduction to the country's history. Bahrain is an Islamic nation that made its first fortune from the pearls that divers brought up from its waters. In the early 1930s, they became the first Arab nation to go into the oil business. Now their oil reserves are shot, though they still do some refining. These days, they are turning to banking and commerce as their major industries--and maybe tourism. If western expat dollars are enough to keep them in business, they just might have something there. Plus, it wasn't just us westerners lined up at the bar at happy hour. Men in traditional Arabic clothing were there too. It was an odd sight, seeing men in traditional thobes and head coverings hoisting cold ones at the rail.

I was definitely breathing easier here. And I was relieved for more reasons than just the availability of booze and bacon, really. (Really!) After nearly two months of living in a country where women--so, think of it, that's half of us!--generally do not participate in public society, this was a welcome break. Women in Bahrain do not cover their faces--many wear western clothing--and they drive. While I was there, it hit me what a pleasure it is to be able to LOOK at other people, men and women, in public. Back home--off our compound, anyway--there is no eye contact. No smiles. Joking and flirting are right out. Michael and I are both pretty outgoing people, and so this has been a real culture shock.

At our hotel, The Happy Dots lit up the lounge stage six nights a week. The Happy Dots are a Filipino band with a guitarist, a Casiotonist, and two beautiful young female singers who know the words to every American love ballad AND MORE! Their playlist included Lionel Richie, Air Supply, and Whitney Houston, naturally, but they also cranked out a Santana medley, and, I swear, Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Bahrain may have a bunch of money, but this is not exactly the cultural equivalent of Paris. Or Los Angeles. Or Baltimore. (Though, I don't know, The Happy Dots might be a smash hit in Baltimore.)

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Gate to Manama Souk

Another notable place we visited on our inaugural voyage "abroad" was the Manama Souk. A souk is an Arabic open air market, though the one in Manama is actually a jumble of extremely narrow streets chock full of tiny shops. Many of the shops' displays were spilling out onto the sidewalk--or the street itself. It looks like a more organized souk building is in the process of being built, but for now the neighborhood is a visual and olfactory jumble.

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Signs in the souk in Arabic and English

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A corner in the old souk (a new souk is being constructed)

There are shops for gold, fabrics, spices, readymade clothes, shoes, small electronics (toasters! irons! hair curlers!), rugs, watches, and on and on. We were there at dusk, and when darkness fell we ducked into an Indian vegetarian restaurant called Woodlands. We had to try it out as a nod to another Woodlands restaurant (also Indian, also vegetarian) in Langley Park, Maryland. We had a quick but really tasty, filling dinner of dosais with spicy chutneys. It cost us the equivalent of about $3.00. Right there, we nailed down a great travel rule: eat vegetarian, and eat where the locals eat.

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The site of our cheapest and possibly tastiest meal in Bahrain

When we crossed the causeway home again, we went straight to visit some new friends who have made possible Phase 2 of our escape plan by selling us a 1999 Land Rover Discovery! It's big, camel-colored, and eminently desert-worthy. In this, we can drive wherever we need to go: into town for some shopping, into the desert for some camping, or off to Bahrain, or Qatar, or Dubai for some r&r and some g&t's.

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Our new camel

With our documents in order, our vehicle in the garage, and various escape routes programmed into the GPS, I can relax a little more here in my new home country. Nothing like a good contingency plan to help a girl sleep at night.