Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Bridge to Saudi Arabia

There is a bridge over the Persian Gulf that connects the Kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The first time we drove in Bahrain, it seemed to me that every highway in every direction eventually led to Saudi Arabia. I'm not kidding. I saw the green highway signs to "Saudi Arabia" in all directions for miles together. I would keep praying for us to not miss our exit, lest we end up in Saudi Arabia - a thought that I dreaded (because not wearing a burqa in Saudi is illegal, and can lead to an arrest)

However, the fact is that one can go upto a certain point on the Bahrain-Saudi border, and come back without getting into any immigration or burqa hassles. There are also viewing towers at this point from where one can see the Saudi city of Khobar in the distance. This "point" is actually a little man-made island on the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia border. We had heard about this island but only in passing, and weren't too sure about how to get there, which highway to take, which exit to get off on etc etc. And since this is not yet as advanced and internet savvy a country as the US or India, we could not find any good pointers online - more so because we had no idea what to Google for! So, we took our Bahrain - Complete Resident's Guide handbook (which has a few decent maps) and hit the road. We followed the signs to Saudi Arabia, and a few miles later, started noticing the vast empty barren spaces, which, for the first time gave us the feeling of being in the fabled Arabian desert (or close to it). We continued driving, and as the traffic started thinning, a fear of the unknown and the dreaded started dawning upon us.

At that time we knew absolutely no facts about this bridge, or the come-back-from island. We drove right up to the toll booth at the start of the bridge, and, taking it for an immigration checkpost, took that last exit before the "checkpost". There were many cars parked just before this checkpost, some empty and most of them with passengers - all in traditional Arabic garb. You must be wondering why we couldn't just ask anyone about what to do. I was wondering the same thing...but what can I say, men are just so bad about asking for directions!!! (But I don't blame him entirely, because people here are strange. Nobody seems to know too much, and language can be a bit of a problem. Some people just grin and say "yes yes" to anything you ask them. "Excuse me, what's the time". "yes yes :D".)
Anyhow, we gave up and asked, and got to know that the island on the border was 12kms from the toll booth, and that there were huge viewing towers which one could not miss.

So we hit the gas, drove past the toll booth, paid 2 Dinars to the King Fahd Causeway Authority - (that's the official name of the...causeway. A causeway is a road or railway elevated by a bank, usually across a broad body of water or wetland. So its really not a bridge, because the Persian Gulf is one large body of water!), and started heading West. The expanses of brown sand on the sides of the highway were suddenly replaced by an endless expanse of the clear blue sea! The fear and anxiety was not quite gone...but it was now accompanied by an awe and thrill of driving over the sea. We kept looking out for an exit...and took one too soon...which led to an island privately owned by King Hamad of Bahrain! Thrill and anticipation gone. Fear again. Luckily the Pakistani security guards could see the fear and knew that we were lost, and guided us back to the Causeway, in Hindi! They told us it was ok to drive back along the same exit (basically in the opposite direction on a one-way) and join the Causeway in the same direction - no need to take a U-turn, just be careful when you join the highway. Good. Flexible rules. I like. Very much!

We went back and kept driving over the beautiful blue waters...and then started seeing the CN-tower like towers in the distance...and heaved a sigh of relief! And thought - what were we scared of? We couldn't have missed this.

We drove to the base of the tower, parked and breathed easy! We had forgotten the camera at home! But the little island was so irresistible that we took a few pictures on the cell phone. By the time we reached it was beginning to get dark. It would have been better to have come earlier...and with a time! (yes, there will be a next time, because the place is quite scenic). Anyhow, we paid the measly 500 fils per head and took the elevator to the top of the tower.
This isn't a tower as high as the CN tower or as mighty as the Empire State Building, and it doesn't overlook a lake Ontario or a concrete jungle of other high rises...but it does offer a breath taking view of the Persian Gulf, a few offshore oil drills, and the surreal experience of having seen the Saudi Arabian kingdom...from a distance. The King Fahd Causeway is a magnficent structure. It is a 25km (15 miles) long dike and bridge combination, and in the evening it looks like a string of gold convoluting over the sea connecting the two land masses. Since we didn't have a camera, I am posting a picture I found online. But as I said, there will be a next time and there will be real pictures then.
If you go during the day you could probably have a picninc there but there isn't much to do or see in the evening. So after spending about two hours on the island, we turned back on the causeway, in the direction of Bahrain. The endless blue sea was now a mysterious stretch of darkness, and it was a relief to see the signs of civilization after exactly 12kms.
Once back in Bahrain, we feasted on a delicous north Indian meal of picked lamb, paneer kali mirch and pulav rice, complete with a meetha paan, at a really chic Indian restaurant.
It was an adventourous experience - it definitely felt adventourous when we started out :). And it was a weekend well spent, a weekend where we did something other than going to a mall.
I am hoping to explore more non-mall things to do over the weekends and will keep writing about them.
Till then, tada!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dow Jones falls below 9000...but...

...that's not what this post is about. You must be getting enough of that on MSNBC, CNN, BBC or any other news channel you follow. This, as promised, is the blog about Bahrain.
Some readers have asked me "how is life in Bahrain city". Others have enquired where it is on the map. Some others want to know if I have to wear burka or not...
So I think its worthwhile to mention some facts about Bahrain.

Kingdom of Bahrain: Bahrain is a country. Its not a city, its not a province in Saudi Arabia, it is an independent kingdom/country/nation. It is an island country in the Persian Gulf officially known as the Kingdom of Bahrain. Manama is the capital city and chief commercial center. We live in Juffair, a few miles East of Manama.

Area: Area-wise it is smaller than New York City, so it is hard to locate on google or yahoo maps without really zooming in 3 or 4 times. This is based on data from wikipedia, where you can also get the exact figures.

Governance: His Royal Highness King Hamad bin Isa Al Khaleej is the ruling king of Bahrain. Bahrain is a constitutional hereditary monarchy with a bicameral parliament consiting of an elected House of Deputies and a Shura Council appointed by the king. The Executive Branch of the government consists of the king, HRH King Hamad, HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khaleefa and the Prime Ministed, HH Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.(Yes, I copied that from a book. I could possibly not construct those sentences by meself!)

Names: I am told that "bin" actually means "son of", so you can see that the HRH King's name is Hamad bin Isa Al Khaleefa (son of Isa. Al Khaleefa is the family name) and his son is HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khaleefa, and so on and so forth.(He who shall not be named is probably son of Laden) Also, whenever you speak of the king, you always say HRH before taking his name.

Attire: No, I do not have to wear the burka/abaya. Although a lot of the local women do wear them, it is not mandatory for all women to wear them. This is a fairly liberal place and one can dress up as per one's wish. However, you don't get to see skirts, shorts and sleeveless tees here that much. It is a conservative society after all and the dress code is mostly jeans, long sleeved shirts, kurtas and salwaar suits. I personally am more comfortable following the conservative dress code because one can feel horribly underdressed in a crowd where even the men are wearing 'ghutra' (head gears) and thobes (traditional long white robes which cover them from till the toes). The Complete Residents Guide to Bahrain also states "Visitors and expatriates are advised to show respect for the local culture when it comes to dress. While sleeveless and tighter-fitting outfits for women are increasingly seen, particularly in clubs and restaurants, it is advisable to dresss more modestly in souks, malls and pleaces where there are a lot of Bahrainis or Asian expatriates, if you don't want to have people staring at you"
The other day I saw a designer abaya store with the most gorgeous looking abayas (burkas). I was so tempted to buy one. This was in one of the more modern and stylish malls where every woman was out to do the others with her beautifully embroidered tailor-fitted abaya. Some wore head veils lined with sequins, others had patterns embroidered with silk and golden shining threads. And don't get me started on the makeup and accessories. Women here carry the most bling bling handbags, footwear and watches and wear the most nicely done eye-makeup I've ever seen.

Religous Freedom: Though Islam is the official religion of Bahrain, freedom of worship is permitted to other faiths. There are quite a few Hindu Temples (including the ubiquitous ISKCON temple), Gurudwaras and Churches. The majority of Bahraini population are followers of the Shia sect of Islam, but the ruling family follows the Sunni sect.

Formula 1!!!: Bahrain is the only country in the Middle East which has an International Circuit. There are a few F1 stars, whose names I can't remember right now, but they are the current heart throbs, and look handsome even in their thobes (one of them endorsed a breast cancer awareness event and was looking really cool in a pink thobe).
This is a picture of the Bahrain International Circuit.

Language: Arabic is the official language. English is popular. Hindi and Malayalam (language of the Indian state of Kerela) are fairly well-spoken as there are lots of Indians (particularly Kerelites) everywhere.

Electrical Appliances from the US: most of them work here, some have blown up. Luckily the laptops and hair-dryer have been working fine till now. The plug points have weird shapes. There is no standard shape and type, either for the plug points or for the appliances. They all come with plug pins of different shapes and sizes. I think its because everything is imported from different parts of the world. So we've had to buy adapters for every plug point in the house.

Not Made in China: Unlike in the US, you do get stuff that is not made in China. I was surprised to see that England and France also do a bit of manufacturing! And though their products are expensive, they are of good quality.

House help: is readily available and affordable. I have employed a part-time maid to help me with the household chores and it is such a bliss! She does everything! Cooking, cleaning, laundry, folding and ironing the clothes, baby sitting - everything you can ask for.

Despite the falling Dow Jones index (not that it affects my non-existent portfolio), there is peace and diversion to be found in these little things that I am discovering in this little island country.
Will write more - probably in a week.