Friday, January 13, 2012

Pit Stop in Bahrain

Due to a flight cancellation from Bahrain to Colombo (it's a long story --  Gulf Air, I'm waiting for our compensation!), Keenan and I had an unexpected 12 hour layover in Bahrain. So what to do for the day in the capital city of Manama? Not much. But I guess the silver lining behind this travel debacle was adding another country to our tally at the expense of cutting out Colombo entirely from our itinerary. 


After arguing with the Gulf Air desk at Bahrain airport, they finally agreed to put us up in a hotel for the day so we can sleep and shower. Tired, agitated, and grumpy, we piled into the shuttle van to the Al Safir Hotel in the Juffair neighbourhood. As we navigated the streets of Manama, passing Bahrain's Central Business District, two Indian-American kids from Dallas yelled out exactly what I was thinking: "This looks like America!" Just imagine as if a cookie-cutter American suburb was dropped in the the middle of an Arabian desert; that's Bahrain. Massive multi-lane highways, super-sized SUVs, souless buildings, big billboards, and every possible American chain restaurant. The same kids went on and asked, "Where's all the grass here?" Desert, highways, and construction pretty much sums up the landscape in Manama. It's not the most interesting city in the Middle East to say the least. 

After a much-needed nap, we attempted to do a bit of exploring by first visiting the nearby Al-Fatih Mosque. We've seen far more impressive mosques in Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul in our lifetime so the Al-Fatih, Bahrain's largest mosque, didn't impress us, but I appreciated the guide's efforts in explaining the architectural inspiration behind the mosque. Adjacent to the mosque is a massive parking lot, very telling of how car dependent Bahrain is. I'm used to visiting mosques in the wonderfully chaotic back alleys of the Islamic quarter. 

Since it was "cool" day in Bahrain at 22C/72F, the guide at Al-Fatih Mosque suggested we take a walk along the Corniche to the National Museum of Bahrain. The Corniche? Sure, why not. It'll be nice, thinking it would be similar to the Corniche in Beirut. Not so. The problem is that the Corniche is literally parallel to the Al-Fatih Highway with loads of cars whizzing by, and there is little to see along the way, which doesn't make for a very pleasant walk. We didn't make it very far before we aborted our "corniche" walk. Bahrain is not very pedestrian-friendly, and with no taxis in sight and no dinars in hand, we had no choice but to walk back to our hotel, which was only 1 mile away, but that walk felt like eternity. 

As for eating, we had no option other than to dine at the TGIF located across the street from the Al-Safir Hotel. Inside the restaurant was decked out in American paraphernalia - NFL, American rockbands, NBA, American movie stars, and a room full of people with American accents. All very strange. It turns out that there is a sizable American population in Manama due to the US Navy base, hence, the American accents, American-style SUVs, and American-size portions. 

Bahrain's biggest draw is of course the Grand Prix scheduled for April 2012. Other things to do and see in Bahrain as I was told by the concierge. Had we not taken our 3 hour nap earlier, we probably would have just enough time to cover the sights below with a tour company.  
  • Qulat Al Bahrain 
  • Bab Al Bahrain
  • Tree of Life
  • Bahrain National Museum
  • Arad Fort
  • Bahrain Souq

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