Happy New Year all! I have returned from my travels with no jetlag to speak of so before I get consumed with work again, now seems a good time to put up my first post of 2017. I could of course tell you what a lovely place Thailand is, but I believe this has been done by one or two others before so instead I invite you to laugh at my attempt to enjoy a brief stopover I had in Bahrain on the way home. It sums me up pretty well.
After a somewhat sleepless last night in Bangkok (another travel error, namely booking a hotel IN THE MIDDLE OF KHAO SAN ROAD – I thought it would be tacky in a funny Vegas type of way but instead it was West Street on steroids and I couldn’t sleep at all amid the infernal cacophony of Gangnam Style/Macarena/Barbie Girl etc., interspersed with drunken shouting, that went on until the small hours), I started my 24-hour journey home. Including an 11-hour stopover in Bahrain.
I had several options for this stopover: 1. book a hotel; 2. try to amuse myself in the airport; 3. go explore. Of course, dear reader, I chose option 3. Because it was 2.30pm when we landed, it was sunny, I was wide awake and I’d never been to Bahrain (or indeed the Middle East) and was unlikely to ever go there again. So far, so adventurous. From some cursory googling I’d calculated that for about 20 dinar (c. £45) I would easily be able to get into town, explore the city for a bit, maybe have coffee somewhere, sample some local food, sit in a park or a restaurant, read my book, write and sketch for a while, and get back to the airport well in time for my 2am flight to Heathrow.
After getting a visa on arrival for 5 dinar (which I had to put on my credit card), my first mistake was to head to the taxi queue rather than look for an airport bus. In my defence, I’d read on a blog that taxi journeys were fairly reasonable, and I had thought that perhaps the cab driver could recommend some places to go, drop me off in a nice part of town, etc. I had no map or guidebook, of course. I had intended to do a bit more googling before setting off, but after going through Arrivals I couldn’t get wifi so I thought what the heck, I’ll figure it out when I get there.
So the taxi driver, a big guy in full Arab garb, is all congenial, calling me madam a lot (“Do you smoke, madam?” whilst waving a packet of cigarettes at me), welcomes me to Bahrain and says no problem, I will take you into the city. He stops briefly by some old fort so I can take a photo (which I bemusedly do, not really sure what I’m looking at), and offers to stop at a KFC so I can get something to eat. I laugh and say I would rather eat something local, can he recommend anything to try? “I like rice”, he replies when I press him on his favourite dish, and informs me there are lots of restaurants in the city. Right!
He finally drops me off somewhere in the centre, near the local markets. Great, I say, and ‘shukran’ which he’s just told me means thank you in Arabic. The meter is at 8 dinar, which is more than I thought the journey would come to but it was a bit of a schlepp. So when I hand him my 20 dinar note and he doesn’t make any moves to give me change, I am a bit nonplussed. He makes up some story about having to add another number to the meter total, and finally gives me a rather arbitrary 2 dinar back. You know when you know you are being scammed but you are somehow unable to do anything about it? I mean, I could have picked a fight with this big burly cab driver right in the middle of a completely alien place, but… I didn’t, basically.
Ok, I think, I’ll put it down to experience – it’s only money, I always think in these situations. There must be an airport bus to get back more cheaply, and I’ll just get some more cash out and then find somewhere to have a coffee and connect to wifi so I can work out where I am and what to do next. So I find an ATM and take another 20 dinar out, meaning I have now withdrawn a total of about £100 for this jaunt into Bahrain.
Ha! Cue me wandering around endless characterless streets full of mobile phone shops, small grocery stores, shops selling slippers and fake Louis Vuitton bags and costume jewellery, the occasional insalubrious-looking cafeteria… But absolutely nowhere that you’d want to sit down and have a coffee. And hardly any tourists – I stick out like a great big pale Dutch sore thumb. I walk and walk, seeing gleaming skyscrapers in the distance and wondering if there might be more by way of coffee shops or parks in that part of town but unable to work out how to get there. It’s about 5pm now, and the sun is hanging low in the smog-hazed sky.
I pass a couple of bakeries on my aimless perambulations and decide to at least pop in to one of them so I can sample something local. There are piles of different types of biscuits laid out, so I ask for a small bag of mixed biscuits – thinking I would eat some and then take the rest home with me to share out. Before I know it, the guy is taping up a kilo box and in my slightly befuddled state I feel too polite to correct him. So I leave the bakery with this ridiculously big box of biscuits which, upon later inspection, turn out to all pretty much taste the same, i.e. not particularly nice.
Then, it gets dark. It is acutely obvious to me that this is NOT a tourist city, or at least that this part of town is not at all geared towards tourists. Which is not a problem per se, but I feel more and more conspicuous and uneasy, particularly because there are suddenly hardly any women on the streets, let alone women dressed in Western clothing. In the mean time, my quest for coffee and wifi is now redolent of that of King Arthur’s knights for the Holy Grail. Jet lag is starting to hit me (having no idea what timezone I’m in and how it compares with the UK) and I catch myself thinking longingly of airport benches and Costa Coffee. I head to an internet shop to at least get my bearings and find myself in a grubby booth in front of a 2001 Dell computer with a paleontological version of Windows. I type in ‘airport bus’ and find it leaves every 15 minutes from exactly the spot I was dropped off earlier. A ticket costs about £1. INSERT ROLL-EYE EMOJI HERE. I also look for eating recommendations, which according to Time Out Bahrain are mainly in posh hotel restaurants in the diplomatic district. Fuck that, I think I’ve seen enough of Bahrain.
So I find the bus stop and pay my fare out of the change that has been given to me extremely reluctantly by the grumpy internet shop man for my new 20 dinar note, my other 2 dinar having been spent on the comically large box of tasteless Bahraini biscuits I am now dragging around with me. I get a distinct feeling that people (exclusively men) are staring at me on the bus, and saying things about me, and laughing, but perhaps I am paranoid by this point. I put my iPod on and pretend I am somewhere else.
Back at the airport, I am told that I am way too early for my flight and am not allowed to go through to Departures. I occupy myself by writing down my entire Bahrain adventure in my travel notebook, whilst chuckling to myself, and try again in a couple of hours only to be told I am STILL too early. I am by now rather desperate to spend my remaining dinars on an airport lounge to at least get some food and chill out before my flight, so I patiently as-salaam-aleikum my way from one customer service desk to another until someone suggests I try the First Class check-in desk. Which I do, looking distinctly un-First Class. But I do my best damsel in distress and flutter my eyelashes and the man at the desk takes pity on me, thankfully.
Oh, and then as a delightful postscript I am so grateful to be in the airport lounge that I hit the booze slightly too enthusiastically and have to be sick on the plane. Yeah. Don’t all rush at once boys.
So, if you ever find yourself in Bahrain with a few hours spare, don’t be a monumental tool and work out a plan beforehand. And take the bus.