Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 6

The Middle East

There is something wholly beguiling about the Middle East. The region is an ancient centre of civilization steeped both in spirituality and spectacular wonders, the vast age of which have imparted to their facades a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily humbling. The rock-cut palace of Petra in Jordan, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem (where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the eerily lit Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, and the Masjid al Haram in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest mosque…the Middle East is home to innumerable archaeological and architectural marvels.

Then, of course, there are the vast desiccated landscapes rippling with sand dunes and being ripped apart by yawning canyons, where the silence is so absolute that it’s deafening. Dusty museums display artefacts dating back thousands of years, when the sweeping stories told by the ancient record were almost too grand, too opulent, and too savage to be believed.

The Middle East is a place to feel humbled by age, beauty, desolation, affluence, vastness, and the deep devotion of a people to their God and their religion. In other words, it is the Holy Grail of travel kicks and, one way or another, every traveller should make his or her pilgrimage here.

Maligned by War

Unfortunately, the very phrase ‘Middle East’ evokes strongly averse feelings from the rest of the world and particularly the West. Perhaps rightly so. Bloody, merciless wars have waged in this region for decades now, if not longer, and news of bombings, terrorism, and appalling atrocities continue to dominate the headlines streaming out of global news centres. It is a war fuelled by greed, creed, and the utter conviction from every quarter that the violence is a noble and righteous cause, when in fact it is little more than humankind at its dastardly worst.

Middle East war Howitzer gun

But, not all of the Middle East is a battlefield. In fact, much of this ancient region is peaceful and offers travellers an incredible off the beaten track experience. One such haven is to be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a collection of small islands and countries bordering on the Persian Gulf and tucked into the crook of Saudi Arabia’s landmass.

Dubai (International Airport)

It is in places like the UAE that intrepid explorers such as myself are provided with a somewhat sanitized, yet spicy taste of the Middle East without the terribly pervasive dangers one can experience further north in Iraq and Afghanistan, and south in Yemen. Dubai, the capital of the UAE and a hugely successful business centre, is perhaps the best-known city in the area. It is home to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – as well as many other architectural oddities, such as a man-made island resort shaped like a palm tree, which is best appreciated from the air as you take off from Dubai International Airport.

Dubai_Palm_Islands_from_the_air

I can’t recount how many times I have traipsed through this airport en route to some other international destination. It surely has to be one of the most sophisticated in the world but, other than its souvenirs of smirking plastic camels, burka-clad figurines, and oases trapped in snow globes (how does that work?), it doesn’t offer one much of a cultural experience. Although, curled up on an airport lounger at some ungodly hour, eyes crusty from arid airplane air, I have felt compelled to smile by the haunting warble of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders calling people to prayer. It’s what tells you that – in spite of the yawning marble, glass, and chrome structure that envelops you – you’re in the Middle East, baby.

Aside from that, all I can say about Dubai is that it is hotter than Lucifer’s taint. One day, I shall have to spend more than just 12 hours in that country.

Two Weeks in Bahrain

Bahrain fort Bahrain Middle East
Qal’at al-Bahrain, also known as the Bahrain Fort or Portuguese Fort, is an archaeological site in Bahrain. Since 1954, archaeological excavations carried out here have unearthed antiquities dating to between 2300 BC and the 18th Century, belonging to the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese, and Persians. The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Tree of Life, Bahrain Middle East
The Tree of Life (Shajarat-al-Hayat) is a 9.75 meters (32 feet) high Prosopis cineraria tree that is over 400 years old. It is located on a hill in a barren area of the Arabian Desert and is the only remotely large tree growing in the area, which has made it a significant tourist attraction. In fact, the Tree of Life is visited by approximately 65,000 people every year.
Souk market places Bahrain Middle East
A really bad photo I took really quickly of a souk (marketplace) we visited. After the unwanted attention we had received from several Bahraini men, many of my photos I took on our trip turned out like this because I was too rushed and too anxious to take decent pictures.

Shortly after I submitted my Master Degree thesis (or, rather, threw it at my supervisor yelling “tag, you’re it!” before running away from campus and the country) I spent two weeks in Bahrain, en route to Thailand, where I would be spending the following two years of my life. I had always dreamed of travelling and now that my studies were finally done, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I, or rather we, spent two weeks in the sovereign state of Bahrain because my then girlfriend’s father lived and worked there, and the opportunity to experience a country I would never have otherwise thought to visit presented itself.

Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain, is another one of those havens where one can appreciate Middle Eastern culture without having to trade in one’s limbs for a debilitating case of PTSD: a lose-lose situation if I ever heard of one (pretty much sums up the U.S. war in Iraq, doesn’t it?) Coming from most places in the world, this island country in the Persian Gulf slaps you in the face as a totally alien place. Disembarking your plane, you don’t feel like you’ve stepped into another country; you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. And to support this point, Bahrain was used as the film location for Tattoine in the Star Warsmovies, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised as a child.

Desert scenery Bahrain Middle East
Photograph of Tattoine’s / Bahrain’s dusty-ass, rock-strewn desert surface.

The country comprises a small archipelago sandwiched between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected by the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway. What immediately strikes you as you touch down here, even in the wee hours of the morning as we did, is the intense, suffocating heat and humidity. Then, when the sun rises, you’re confronted by an atmosphere and landscape so white and hazy with desert sand and dust that seeing colour comes as a physical relief to your retina.

Bedouine Camps, Bahrain Middle East
A really crappy, mostly unadulterated photograph of a Bedouine camp. Notice the eerily white atmosphere.

But while there are parts of Bahrain that are just vast expanses of white, crumbly rock and soil, there are, conversely, parts that have been nurtured into lush gardens, palm forests, and flowerbeds. It’s illogical and it’s beautiful.

Money, Money, Money

The Arab Sheiks, oil barons, business moguls, and royal family have the money to turn infertile desert into man-made oases of intense biological activity. These people are rich. They are richer than Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but we never really hear about it here in the West. This stratospheric affluence was evident in the sheer number of ambitious building projects there were scattered across the island: building projects that had been abandoned, not because their investor ran out of capital but because they got bored, leaving behind dinosaur skeletons of would-be super malls and palaces.

Walking Bahrain Middle East
On our daytime walkabout: to our right is Princess Sabeeka Park, a recreational space that was inaugurated in February 2010 (literally the same time we were there) by Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeekabint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, wife of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Chairwoman of the Supreme Council for Women in Bahrain. That’s quite a title.

The homes of wealthy Bahrainis are almost senselessly palatial, the business district is dominated by spectacularly scaled and designed skyscrapers, everyone drives big expensive cars, and the kind of gifts that are exchanged between affluent members of society can be measured in acres (it’s the square footage that counts, right?) Even shopping malls are ostentatious brick-and-mortar odes to an incomprehensible level of affluence, with their polished solid marble flooring and gilded bathroom faucets. But of all the displays of wealth that leave one slack-jawed in Bahrain, by far the most outrageous were the beggars. Outside of a grocery store, right around the corner from where we were staying, a man pulled up next to us in an Audi – not the latest model but infinitely nicer than any car I have ever owned.

And he stopped to beg for money…money to put petrol in his car, fetch his kids from school, and feed them. Something that, we were told by our host, isn’t uncommon.

Manama, Bahrain, Middle East
Manama, the capital and largest city of Bahrain. Photo credit: Jayson De Leon.

In Bahrain, the evidence of ancient custom, deep religious fervour and history is juxtaposed by the country’s thriving economic activity. This, in turn, is juxtaposed by desperate poverty. Blue steel-and-glass monstrosities rear up out of the flat white landscape, almost defying physics with their size. These monolithic entities give way to Bedouin camps and clustered, terribly impoverished housing where Indians, Thais, Filipinos, and other hopeful foreigners live. Oil and gas pipes ubiquitous to the island run for miles and miles through its white wasteland. Some of these pipes end in vents that sporadically erupt in a monstrous burp of gas and flame, which has, according to our host, roasted many a poor and unsuspecting soul.

Bahrain by Foot. Bad Idea.

The Middle East 1

For two weeks, we explored this tiny island nation mostly by car because, in spite of its size, daytime temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius made walking a very real health hazard. More than any risk of heat exhaustion, however, were the younger Bahraini men and the constant unwanted attention they slathered in copious amounts over us.

Eager to experience Bahrain on my skin and in all its intoxicating fragrances and fascinating scenery, we struck out on foot on one of the first few days of our trip. Within the first ten minutes, a man pulled his car up next to us and, leering out of the open window, gabbled something in Arabic. We tried to explain that we didn’t understand. He proceeded to stare at us, no, drink us in with his liquid dark eyes and with a revolting lecherous smirk on his face. Minutes later, another complete stranger pulled his car over, once again, to stare at us. It’s like we were tall glasses of ice water on legs and these men in their expensive cars were fresh from dying of thirst in the desert. We were fully clothed (long shorts and T-shirts that covered our shoulders, as was recommended to us) but I couldn’t have felt more blue-arsed naked. I was shocked to my core by their complete lack of what the West regards as rudimentary etiquette.

This is the incredibly confronting reality that visitors to most places in the Middle East have to come to terms with. This is a man’s world and women are second-class citizens for the most part. Seriously battling the temptation to pick up a dog turd and throw it in the next leery asshole’s open car window, we ducked into an air-conditioned mall for an hour or two before catching a taxi home.

The men of Bahrain were redeemed a day or two later when, attempting to catch a taxi home from sightseeing, a kind man stopped his car and offered us a lift. Thinking he was a taxi, we climbed in and were astounded (and somewhat shaken) to discover when he refused to take our money that he had gone completely out of his way to deliver us safely to our doorstep. He was friendly and chatty and simply welcomed the opportunity to speak to a couple of foreigners. I’m sure he was also concerned for our safety.

It must be said that most of the older Bahraini men we met during our two-week stay were polite and generous. It was the younger generations who appeared to need a serious clout about the ears.

Bahrain Middle East
Our verdant abode during our stay in Bahrain; quite the juxtaposition to the desert landscapes outside!

What I Remember Most

Adventures in Bahrain, Middle East
A visit to the Arabian Sea! Naturally, I had to give the water a fondle.

In Bahrain, the morning dawns and the day closes with the haunting warbles of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders. Accompanying this gentle soundtrack are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises, which is what I think I remember most about Bahrain. With the atmosphere being so thick with white dust, the early morning light gets refracted into a billion shades of pink and blue pastels, and all of this gorgeous light caresses the Bahraini landscape’s white desolation and visionary architecture.

We spent two weeks exploring the ancient archaeological ruins of the Bahrain Fort, enduring the incredible heat, marvelling at the strange and exotic imported fruits in the grocery store, and trying new foods, the names of which I have long forgotten. We went to bars where we couldn’t afford to drink (thanks to the steep exchange rate), to the desert where I felt as though the emptiness and silence would swallow me whole, and to the beach, where the salty waters of the Arabian Sea lapped at our feet. We wandered the souks, the malls, and the streets of this very strange country, the first international adventure I’d had since travelling to Singapore as a child.

I enjoyed Bahrain intensely and the scene I carry – and will always carry – as my mental postcard for this magical place is of a gently pink dawn over the bridge to Manama.

Sunrise Bahrain Middle East

Advertisements

Travel Tip Tuesday – Check the Weather

Tornado on holiday

It’s such a simple, logical thing to do and yet it’s a mistake made by novice and, oftentimes, experienced travellers: failing to research the weather of your destination city. Everywhere you go, ALWAYS check the weather (sing it, Crowded House!) This is something you should do before you book your flights because nothing puts a (literal) damper on a holiday quite like a monsoon, or days that are so swelteringly hot that you might actually die if you get locked out your air bnb.

Ask the oracle AKA Google: “what’s the best time of year to travel to [insert fabulous destination city]?” or “what’s the climate like?”

Make sure you specify the “city” or region because countries are large and the climate/weather can vary dramatically from north to south and east to west. The June weather in Michigan, for example, may require a sweater; the June weather in Kansas may require a tornado shelter.

Climate in America funny

Understanding the climate of your destination will help you make smart choices – like not visiting Puerto Rico in hurricane season or Dubai in mid-summer. And you’ll have a much more comfortable stay for it! It also means that you can pack far more appropriately, like not taking thermal underwear on a visit to Vancouver in July. As it turns out, not ALL of Canada is a frozen wasteland all year around.

Do your research and enjoy a safe, comfortable, and happy adventure!

Travel Tip Tuesday – Not Packing the Kitchen Sink

Every time I fly, I pack lighter and I pack smarter, because the mental and physical anguish from my previous baggage-laden trip still lingers. I’ve learned to talk myself out of taking that extra sweater and how to wing it in situations where I could have used something I forced myself to leave behind, such as nail clippers (use your teeth) or a hair dryer (wear a hat). By packing smart, you can save yourself many hundreds of dollars on chiropractor bills for your shattered vertebrae when you return. Mobility is key when travelling and you should be able to get from the airport to your hotel on public transport without sweating, grunting, and screaming obscenities at the small house you’ve brought along with you.

Here are some essential tips on packing smart and traveling light:

Never buy large travel bags 

Heavy packing for travel

If you are physically restricted on how much you can pack by the smaller size of your suitcase, you’ll find yourself packing smarter. Therefore, when buying a travel case, force yourself to opt for the slightly smaller option of the style/colour you like. There are some truly enormous suitcases out there and while they may be useful for housing your impressive collection of erotica, used for travel, they will only compel you to shove more and more stuff in. You know, just in case.

Leave bulky clothing at home

Unless you’re headed for the Swiss Alps or Antarctica in the middle of winter, layer your clothing rather than pack a variety of heavy sweaters and bulky jackets. If you do need to take a warm jacket and heavy shoes with you, wear those on the plane – don’t pack them in your luggage.

P.S. Always research the weather and climate of your destination to help you pack accurately!

Don’t bother with bath and hand towels

There are few wastes of space quite as gratuitous as bath towels. Wherever you stay – whether it’s with a friend or at a backpackers, hostel, or hotel – there will be towels available for you to use. It’s better to spend €1 on renting a towel at a hostel in Barcelona, for example, than it is to haul that extra weight around with you. Even if you plan on spending your holiday on the beach, sneak the hotel towel out with you or take a sarong and dry off in the gorgeous sun!

Buy your toiletries there

Unless you’re travelling to cities that are notoriously expensive or are so remote and impoverished that they don’t even have a drug store, it usually works out better to just buy your toiletries there, especially at the local and inexpensive “dollar stores”. Also, soap is almost never necessary to bring with you – most accommodations will supply that.

If you  still prefer to take your own, go with the smaller volume containers or buy empty travel bottles and fill them with the appropriate body care items. This will help you avoid having to carry around the combined weight of your toiletries, which could sink a small country.

  • Gem of Advice: Always wrap liquid toiletries in a plastic or a zip-lock bag. With the dramatic changes in air pressure experienced in the plane’s baggage hold, there is more than just a remote possibility they’ll crack open and drench all your possessions in floral-scented, soapy ejaculate.

funny toiletries humour

Choose versatile clothing

Every article of clothing you pack must work hard to earn its place in your holiday suitcase! Don’t pack fussy clothing that needs to be ironed and folded carefully before it’s suitable for wear. Opt instead for clothing that’s comfortable, is easy to tour around in, and can have layers added to it for warmth on cooler days or in the evenings. Every item of clothing should have multiple possible combinations with the other clothing you’ve brought so that you’re able to put together as many outfits with as few articles as possible. Avoid colours and patterns that are hard to coordinate, and fabrics that show up stains. All it takes is one overzealous swill of wine at a trattoria in Florence to leave a blouse unwearable for the entire trip.

Cotton is the enemy

According to die-hard travellers who insist that you can get by on two pairs of underwear, two T-shirts, and a single pair of jeans for months, never choose cotton clothing for smart packing. Cotton is heavier, takes ages to dry, and tends to stain easily and absorb smells. And no-one wants their clothing soaking up their travel smells like a thirsty sponge.

Pack for one week

Overstuffed travel bag

Regardless of whether you’re travelling for a month or longer – only ever pack enough clothing for one week. Make use of the laundry rooms most if not all accommodations have or the local laundromat (there’s something oddly satisfying about doing your laundry alongside the locals). It is way easier to do this than it is to haul around all that extra weight with you. Rely on versatile clothing choices and different combinations to make it look like you’re not wearing the same thing all the time.

Smart Packing Tip

Roll up your socks and underwear and shove them inside your shoes. This not only saves space in your bag, but it also prevents your shoes from looking like flattened road kill upon arrival.

Speaking of shoes

They take up a lot of space and tend to weigh down your bag, so only pack three pairs at the most. You’ll need one pair for comfortable walking and travelling, one slightly smarter pair, which can also be used for touring, as well as going out at night and, if necessary, a pair of sandals or flip-flops for the beach or meandering about a town. You do not need to pack a variety of “going-out shoes” unless you’re planning a trip to Las Vegas or Paris Fashion Week. 

too many shoes

Condense your technology

Nowadays, there’s an app for appsolutely (*snort*) everything. For the travel addicted, there are some FABULOUS tools at your disposal and many of them – like TripAdvisor – are completely free! Best of all, they weigh bugger all and are far more convenient to use than any physical book guide. These apps give you access to interactive maps, suggested itineraries, up-to-date “tourist” information, and convenient portals through which you can book tickets into various attractions. You can also lighten your bag of its load by downloading reading material onto your phone, iPad, laptop or Kindle.

Deal only in absolutes: if you don’t need it, leave it

Remember, wherever it is you’re going in the world, you will probably be able to get whatever you need there. The items you take with you from home should be indispensible to your travels and not “what-ifs” and “maybes” and “just in cases.” Rather replenish or replace your stocks at your destination than take your entire bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen with you.