Feh Sahahtikum

Tomorrow is Girl’s 28th birthday. For the past several weeks myself and the Brit have been relentlessly referencing her age and reminding her of how little she has accomplished so near to her 30th birthday. What started out as a little lighthearted jesting quickly turned into a friendly competition to see who can break her down first. A career that’s produced nothing but debt, no wedding ring or babies, no long standing friendships or house to go home to. I have to admit that I’m in the same situation, but, for one, I’m not nearly that old, and two, I don’t care nearly as much as she does. Cruel as it is, she’s taken it fairly well, and the only one to have been slapped was the Paki (sometimes things just don’t translate that well into English). To celebrate the occasion, she made the Paki arrange (and pay for) a large all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet at one of the nice hotels in Bahrain. Despite all our jokes (and partially because of them) she’s put together an entire day of youthful drinking and debauchery. Little does she realize, the hotel the Paki picked is usually packed with the retired men, and, like everywhere else in Bahrain, prostitutes. It will be interesting.

This soiree will be the first time I’ll head to Bahrain in the past few months. We had made it a habit of going once a week for decent food and a beer or two, but with the other travel I’ve been doing as of late, and more so because I’ve been low on drinking money, I haven’t been in a while. While I was searching for directions to this hotel last night, I got to thinking about Bahrain and how interesting of a place that little island of sand really is. Like Saudi, it’s hard to adequately describe everything that goes on there, but unlike Saudi it actually has some semblance of normalcy.

Bahrain is usually described as a paradise by expats here in the Kingdom. It’s not uncommon to center conversation around all things Bahrain, and for all intents and purposes it’s one of the few reasons many an expat has kept their sanity. Often called Saudi’s Playground, it really is an escape.

Getting to Bahrain is fairly straightforward considering it’s a desert island; you drive there.  In the mid 1980s a causeway was opened connecting the Dammam-Dhahran-Khobar metropolitan area in Saudi to the ever increasing sprawl of Manama, the capital city of Bahrain. As convenient as it sounds, actually crossing it is fairly time consuming. After a 10 minute drive down the main expressway from my compound, you briefly stop to pay a 20 riyal toll, then have another 15 minute cruise to the border station that sits halfway on a man-made island. This is where the fun begins. People in this part of the world are notorious for not being able to form or use lines for anything, and driving in cars is no different. It’s a free-for-all. The first stop at the border is a vehicle registration booth. After a long wait in line with a hundred or so other cars, a vigilant member of the Border Control hands you a paper with your car details. The process to be approved to get this paper is fairly lengthy, as with all processes in Saudi, and I ended up making several attempts the first time I tried it 6 months ago before I got through without hitting a snag. Once through this booth, you drive into another queue and wait with the other hundred cars to go through Saudi passport control. After a long wait, and if everything checks out, the Agent will stamp your paper, which allows you drive to yet another booth and wait in line to show another border agent your sheet of paper with the stamp on it. Then you drive into another queuing area and wait to see the Bahraini Passport control, who will stamp your paper and wave you on to wait in another line to have your car searched. Depending on whether or not you and your passengers look suspicious (i.e. non-white) you leave the search area and wait in line to buy temporary auto insurance, which starts at 20 riyal for three days (although its only valid to cross the bridge again within the first 48 hours). Once purchased you're free to drive the rest of the 20 or so minutes to Manama.

On a good day, with light traffic and a few friendly unassuming border guards, the 30 mile trip to Manama will take around an hour and a half. On a normal day, it’s a full two hours or more. The trip back to Saudi is exactly the same, except in reverse, and it is guaranteed that you’ll have your car searched if you look suspicious (i.e. white). For as painstakingly long as it is, the trip is usually worth the time and effort. Once you arrive in Manama, normal aspects of life such as movies, booze, pork, and women clothed in fabric other than black sheets, are all available. It still happens to be a Muslim country, and just about every other person you see will be Saudi, but at least it isn’t physically part of the Kingdom.

Every aspect of life in a city built around the tourism industry is present in Manama, but the biggest draws for most expats coming from Saudi are movie theatres, which are all located in shopping malls, and bars, which are usually located in hotels. The selection of restaurants is fairly large and quite diverse, but eating out is very expensive, and when paired with several drinks it’s easy to spend a few days’ wages on a meal.

Whenever I make the trip, I tend to stick to bars in the Juffair area, and tend to pick those with free chips and salsa. Bars with staff members who speak Urdu are also good, because the Paki can usually coax a free round or two if he doesn’t make an ass of himself. There isn’t much going on as far as ongoing political trouble, and protesters don’t usually reach this area. We have occasionally driven through lingering tear gas and been escorted by armed guards a few times on the way home though. Some nights are just worse than others. Here are some of my favorite places;

Champs: a sports bar in the second floor of the Best Western. The upside is the large crowd of Brits who gather here to watch football. The downside is that the hotel also houses two dance bars, one of which is Wrangler’s. It’s the seediest place I have ever stepped foot in, its packed with Saudis, and just about every woman inside is a lady of the night. During the height of the troubles in January we walked through a wafting cloud of tear gas to get inside. It gave our beers a funny taste that night. For whatever reason, this is Girls favorite bar. 

Ric’s: a dive just down the road from Champs. It’s quite small for a bar in Bahrain, and is almost never crowded. The food is good, although it’s a weird combination of pizza and sushi, neither of which are very authentic, and the prices are decent. I like it because I can sit at the end of the bar and not be bothered. They also have an unwritten rule that women must be accompanied by a man, which helps keep the number of prostitutes to a minimum.

The Warbler: an interesting ‘British Pub’ filled with all things Canadian, complete with a doorman dressed as a Mountie. There are life size statues of buxom women in various Halloween costumes scattered around the place, and they have an in-house Vietnamese karaoke band that plays songs from the early 2000s most nights. Despite being deafeningly loud most of the time it’s a nice change of pace. The downside is being in the middle of the area known for Saudi men soliciting the services of male prostitutes.

JJs: an Irish bar tucked in neighborhood just beyond Juffair. It caters mainly to American servicemen (Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet) and has a good crowd most nights. Despite being mostly meatheads, sometimes it’s nice to be around other Americans. This feeling usually wears off within the first half hour of being there, but the upstairs lounge makes for a nice retreat.

Bars draw a fairly mixed crowd. It’s not uncommon to be approached by a number of different people in various stages of inebriation and English comprehension. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s not. It’s no different than drinking in a bar anywhere, except the guy sitting next to you might be wearing a nightgown and have a towel on his head. The one guarantee will be the amazingly large number of prostitutes just about everywhere you go. It’s ridiculous.

A day in Bahrain is a good break from life in Saudi, depending on what you expect and how you go about doing things. It’s hard not to enjoy a taste of the real world, but Bahrain is definitely a long way from being normal. For those of us blessed with a residence in Saudi, Bahrain is heaven. For anybody else, it’s just an overpriced sandbar with a funny name. It all comes down to perspective.