Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Rain in Bahrain Stays Mainly in...Spain!


Don’t we live in a wonderful age? If the weather gets too cold, we just hop on a plane and go somewhere warm! Which is what I did again this winter.

Readers please note: I am SERIOUSLY running out of places to visit that excite me. Especially places to go in the winter to get warm after braving the chilly Budapest winds and sub-zero temps. Been to all the great venues on my List. Well, almost. One or two left that could be OK. So this early winter I found out about Bahrain, that little island in the Persian Gulf. Actually, it’s a kingdom in its own right, tucked in between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which I visited in early 2018).

Online resources say Bahrain is “an oasis of social liberalism – or at least Western-friendly moderation – among the Muslim countries of the region. It's popular with travelers for its authentic ‘Arabness’, but without the strict application of Islamic law upon its non-Muslim minority.” Boy, did THAT turn out to be true!

Bahrain (pronounced ‘Bacch-rain’, as if you’re clearing your throat; failure to at least attempt this pronunciation will only get you stared at by locals who will adamantly refuse to understand the sheepish “Baa-rain” pronunciation) is the smallest country in GCC (mainly, the Arabian Peninsula countries), but “its more relaxed culture has also made it a social and shopping mecca (so to speak), which has helped it develop a fairly cosmopolitan middle class not found in neighboring countries with just a rich elite and subsistence-level masses.”

So there!

Anyway, I decided it would be a nice place to visit over the Xmas holiday, so I wouldn’t have to sit in my tiny (but cozy) Budapest flat all alone, without a Christmas tree or presents (even a lump of coal would have been appreciated) or even an egg nog. OK, I don’t really do that, but it is a fact that Budapest is dead, dead, dead on Xmas Day and December 26, with pretty much everything closed, as everyone stays home with their families. I often try and travel around then to countries that don’t celebrate Xmas, which makes it much more fun. (I once celebrated Xmas with other expats at the MASH Bar in Tel Aviv – More Alcohol Served Here!). And here I go again, back to the Middle East. Where it’s warm – hot – and I can enjoy walking around in shorts and taking cruises in the Persian Gulf and wandering the wonderful souks and finding some great new hammam and generally enjoying the warm weather and interesting ambiance of the area.

My flight left at a civilized hour on December 20, 1:30 in the afternoon. I had a three-hour layover in Istanbul in the evening, and got to Bahrain a little after midnight. Oh, joy. My hotel didn’t offer an airport pickup at that time of night, so I caught a taxi instead. Luckily, my room reservation included my arrival night, so I could tuck in for a few hours sleep before heading out to savor the warmth of the Middle East.

I was booked in at the Oriental Palace Hotel, just a hijab’s throw from the main souk in Manama, Bahrain’s main city. The taxi ride was about 15 minutes and got me to the hotel around 2 o’clock in the morning. Check-in was quick and easy and I was unpacked and asleep by 2:30 AM. Had a nice six hours sleep and, with a shower and buffet breakfast in the hotel, was ready to explore another new city in my 74th country. The hotel’s breakfast was a touch disappointing, as there was no bacon or pork sausage or other meat of any kind. Some veggie samosa were nice, hard-boiled eggs, a few skimpy fruits and veggies and not much else. Ah, well, it damped down my hunger pangs until lunchtime.

The three-star Oriental Palace Hotel is located in the middle of town, about a five-minute walk to the main Manama souk and former entry gate to the area from the then-nearby sea. I reveled in the 21-degree-Celsius heat and sunshine as I wandered the old souk area. Found the Intercontinental hotel nearby, where the Elements Bar is supposed to have karaoke. Mainly I just soaked up the heat.
Lunchtime found me near the Gold Souk and the Diggers Bar and Night Club in the nearby Delmon Hotel. I’d researched this bar before coming and its description included the information that it was a good place for “single male expats.” Now, it was not so long ago I’d have interpreted that phrase as meaning it was a fun bar in which to drink, maybe play some pool, watch some sports, socialize with other expats and, probably, meet some interesting local ladies.

These days, of course, the secret code probably meant it was a hangout for pretty young men who only enjoyed each other’s company. Well, what the heck, I thought I’d take a shot. The bar, actually a night club, with a stage at one end, was dark and cozy, like all bars should be. Good wait staff and only a few male customers during the lunch hour. I looked around carefully to see if there were any of those pretty young men about when, lo and behold, what did my rapidly-adjusting-to-the-dark eyes see but groups of young women in tight skirts and low-cut blouses. Oriental/Asian women, Young. Friendly. OK, definitely not a pretty boys’ bar.
Two of the young women immediately accosted me at the bar and started a friendly conversation. Unlike other such bars around the world, they didn’t ask me to buy them a drink. Their come-on line, after the initial conversational gambits were out of the way (“Where you from? You work Saudi? How long you here?”) was even more direct: “You finish drink come back my place.”

In the middle of the day? Well, let me finish my drink and go find some lunch and maybe I’ll return later in the evening and we can chat some more. But no $20 beers for you, my sweet! The girls were pleasant and attractive, but not pushy; if anything, they were incredibly patient. Even though their prey didn’t seem to show much interest, they hung around long enough to ensure they wouldn’t be engaged for the next few hours, then they moved quietly away to another potential customer.

And thus it was I discovered why the westerners and other Persian Gulf State locals come to Bahrain: booze and young, pretty Asian Ladies of Negotiable Virtue. Can’t find them in the other states, so Bahrain set itself up as the fun and loose place to relax from home-state morals. Plus, you can still smoke indoors.

I resumed my orientation stroll around the area and found a Hardee’s for lunch. I didn’t realize Hardee’s still existed, much less that there would be one in Bahrain. Good burgers.
Since I hadn’t arrived at my hotel until after 2 AM this morning (Friday, December 21), a nap was in order to replenish my seriously depleted store of energy. I was up and about by 7 PM, however, and decided, what the heck, let’s see what Diggers looks like at night. Well, it was the same only with more young Asian ladies and more expats. Prices were good, so I hung around a while, drinking Kilkenny beer and having some pretty tasty quesadillas at the bar. The hard rock band started around 9 PM and, as hard and loud as they were, for whatever reason this night they weren’t too loud, which means I’m not yet too old. Whew!

During the first part of the evening I made ‘friends’ with a few of the young ladies: Ming Ming and Lei Lei and Ling Ling all chatted me up, hanging around like cats after the mouse, just in case I might be fair game. I loved their names and was waiting to meet Do Do and Ka Ka and Bang Bang. After a while, they all got the message that this night was just for bar socializing and they left me alone. It turned into a good relaxing, albeit loud, night after all

On Saturday I realized why Bahrain is not a popular tourist destination spot for people not from the Middle East: there really isn’t a lot to see and do here. And finding any tourist help is really difficult. I knew that on Friday, which is the Arabic world’s Sunday, the Tourist Information Office would be closed, which it was, but I didn’t expect it be closed on Saturday and Sunday, too, but it turned out it also was (despite the signs outside their door saying they were open those days). So, no tourist information about local tours. There was no Hop On Hop Off bus company in town, so that was out. In desperation, I finally found a tourist travel agency where the agent was kind enough to help me out.
I booked a three-hour tour with a private driver for 45 Bahraini Dinar (about $120 US!), but it was the only game in town, so what the heck; that’s what those little plastic cards are for. And actually it was a pretty good tour with a really nice local driver, Mahmud (pronounced ‘Mach-mood), with the little throat clearing sound for the ‘ch’). We went to the old Bahrain fort and wandered through it for a while. Then drove and walked around the old town and old houses in the area. Machmud lived in this area and knew everyone. He even got me a piece of local Arabic bread
filled with cheese and backed in those old ovens where you slap the large round bread dough onto the side of the oven until it cooks. Kind of like a gigantic piece of naan. Accompanied by some hot milky Arabic tea, it was a nice treat.
And that was pretty much it for the Manama tour. See, not a lot to bring in the tourists, if you don’t want to drink alcohol in a dark bar and go home with young Asian ladies. But it was a lovely sunny, warm day and I wasn’t freezing my butt off in Budapest, so I sat back and enjoyed the tour.

Another afternoon nap was in order, as most things in the Arabic world close down between one and five PM for their own siesta. I checked out a couple of other local places, JJ’s Irish Pub and the Sherlock Holmes Bar, both of which were overpriced and crawling with a rather more upscale expat clientele and their Oriental female limpet mines. The music was OK at each one and the food quite tasty, but it was obvious that the real reason for their existence was to supply the expats and other Middle East visitors with what they really wanted: Sodom and Gomorrah. Since I’ve been to both of those places over the years in other countries, this time I was merely an observer and whiled away the hours enjoying the beer and music and snacks. And even at night it was warm.
Sunday would be Mall Day. Shopping malls are big in the Middle East and attract lots of the wealthy cruise ship visitors and the few other tourists who enjoy the warm and sunny ambiance – like me. Anyway, Bahrain has several major malls and I chose the Center City Mall for today. After a taxi ride to the outskirts of Manama, looking for a special gift, I hit the Center City Mall late morning. It’s a big sucker. I wandered and walked and strolled and picked up a couple of things, but generally it was just another mall filled with the same stores one sees everywhere. I did get to have lunch at PF Chang’s, however, so that made up for most anything: hot and sour soup, wok-charred beef and rice; aaahhh.

Tonight I’d decided on visiting the Elements night club in the Intercontinental Hotel, just a few minutes away from the Bar al Bahrain Gate. I even dressed nicely, as they had a dress code. Probably to keep the usually-grubby expats and Saudi oil workers away. That’s OK; once in a while I can clean up for an occasion. At least I didn’t have to wear a tie.

Suffice it to say that the Elements night club, along with the Downtown bar in the same hotel, were both dead and dull on a Sunday night. A few desert sheikhs at the bar, probably waiting for some Asian companions (I could have told them where to go for that), a couple of small parties of what appeared to be locals, and one lone American expat at the bar slugging down some Czech beer and indulging in some bar snacks – moi! I lasted through the first set of the two bands in each club, then called it a night. I debated wandering over to Diggers, but decided just to see what the nighttime souks had to offer. Again, just enjoying the nice weather.

Monday, December 24, Xmas Eve. Time to see if I could find a good local hammam (Turkish bath) and get myself clean, massaged and refreshed. I was hoping the Tourist Information Office would finally be open, so checked them out first. Turned out it’s a tourist cultural information office, i.e., if you want to know about the Bahrainian culture, it’s a great place to visit; but if you’re looking for assistance, maps, recommendations, tours, etc, give it a big PASS – it is completely worthless for all standard tourists. Bahrain is definitely not a tourist-friendly town (with obvious exceptions, as noted above).

What to do, what to do? OK, the other day I had noticed the Intercontinental Hotel had a Concierge Desk, so I hoped maybe they could help me, even if I wasn’t a guest of theirs. They were pleasantness and helpfulness personified. At one point I had three guys trying to find me a hammam, which was tough for them because they didn’t even know the word! Hammam! They’re all over the Middle East and North Africa. Turkish baths. Nope, not known in Bahrain. Until finally one of the guys had a brainstorm after I described what I was looking for, and he said, “Ah, maybe you want Moroccan bath!” Yes, yes, I’d take it! I’d done the Moroccan hammam in Morocco and would be satisfied with that.

The guys found the name and address of the place they thought I wanted and even called them up to make an appointment for me. If I can ever afford it, I’ll stay at the Intercontinental Hotel one day. Wonderful staff. They wrote out the name, address and phone number of the place for me to show to a taxi driver, and I was off and running.

It was now early afternoon and my taxi driver, after going into a holding pattern in the neighborhood of the hammam, finally called them and was able to locate their place; we weren’t that far away after all. The La Coupe Men’s Sauna and Moroccan Bath is a small two-story storefront establishment with all the necessary rooms and furniture for the hammam experience. Over the period of a couple of hours, I had a wonderful massage, scrub down with loofa, steam room and wash down, performed by Ali. It was great. And only 31 Bahraini Dinar, about $85 US, a real bargain, especially since it is apparently the only hammam in town (not counting the big mainline hotel spa facilities, which is a whole different level). And the manager had even called my taxi back to come pick me up!

Overall I found Bahrain a friendly, happy atmosphere, eager to help tourists in many ways and eager to have conversations with foreigners who didn’t work in Saudi. So many of the local workers spoke English. When asked where I was from, I told everyone I lived in Hungary, and got the old, bad response, “So, are you hungry?” I figured they’d never met anyone from Hungary before, so cut them all some slack. But they were all so nice and welcoming. You know the only jerk I met there? An Irishman from Cork. Everyone else was a pleasure to talk to and deal with.

After my hammam experience I was wasted and ready for a nap, but I was also hungry (I must live in Hungary!), so I stopped off in the Manama souk on the way back to the hotel for a yummy Bahrainian lunch in the La Porta restaurant. Tricia from the Philippines suggested a tapas-style spread, called mezzeh in the Middle East, consisting of small separate servings of spicy falafel, a thick veggie dip, shakshuka and Arabic lemonade. Yummy, and just enough to satisfy my hunger and see me off to my nap.
Back at my hotel, I wrote out my postcards and took a shower and finally hit the sack for a brief nap. I wanted to get over to JJ’s again that night for their karaoke. I hit the pillow and next thing I knew it was 6 o’clock in the morning! Damn, that hammam must have really wiped me out. Of course, my irregular sleeping habits while traveling sometimes play havoc with my regular schedule and once in a while I crash for longer than usual, to make up for my missed sleep. This was one of those times. Ah, well, next time.

I took it easy on Tuesday morning, Christmas Day, as I would be heading back to Diggers in the early afternoon for a gigantic Xmas Dinner for which I had signed up a couple of days previously. It promised to be a fun day, with lots of good food – turkey, dressing, potatoes, veggies, seafood starters, desserts, etc. The price even included two regular drinks. I wondered if the Asian contingent would be in evidence, eating and drinking and cajoling expats in silly-looking Santa hats to come back to their place after dinner. I couldn’t wait to find out.
Aaahh, Christmas Day in Bahrain. At the Diggers night club, the food was laid out in a spectacular display, turkey, other meats, hot casserole dishes filled with side dishes, starters of seafood and fowl, trays of desserts, a veritable cornucopia of culinary delights. I was ready to indulge. And yes, the young Asian ladies were gathered in their groups, ready and waiting to swoop down on the stuffed revelers and cajole them back to their lairs. What a great country. I had my two included drinks at the bar and piled a plate high with goodies. The tables were filling up with other expats and especially with unaccompanied young Asian ladies, so there wasn’t a whole lot of room left at which to sit and eat. No matter, my perch at the bar was more than adequate. Bartenders Lewis, Alam and Vipin took care of me as I chomped and masticated and stuffed my face with holiday gluttony. Xmas dinner – gotta love it.
I was accosted several times, but held out to see if anyone named Bang Bang would show up. Alas, my wait was in vain. After a while, the girls realized who would and wouldn’t be interested in them, so they didn’t bother the ones who just wanted to be left alone to eat and drink. Food first, girls later. The same hard rock band came on around 3 PM with their crashing, loud, smashing versions of the holiday favorites. I just love trying to enjoy my turkey and trimmings accompanied by Avril Lavigne’s screeching version of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’ Today, unfortunately, I must have been too old, as the music was definitely too loud.
But I persevered and had another helping of food and listened to the band and drank my holiday drinks and generally just chilled out, getting my money’s worth of everything. Well, almost everything. By 9 PM I was glazed over and decided to call it a night. A good Xmas Day. Thanks Diggers, for such an entertaining holiday bash.

Wednesday was my final day in Bahrain, as my red-eye flight was to leave at 2 AM Thursday, which meant I’d have to be at the airport by around 11 o’clock or so Wednesday night. I had no plans for my last day, so after taking a nice long stroll after breakfast, I decided to visit the Seef Mall, which I hadn’t yet seen. I could have saved myself the visit. Nothing much better than the City Center Mall. But it killed a couple of hours. Nap and reading and TV movies took care of the remainder of my day and evening, and I caught a taxi to the airport to await my flight. Everything was on time, no surprises, thank goodness, so my winter escape ended peacefully and quietly. I slept most of the way back to Budapest, rousing myself just enough to make my connection in Istanbul. We hit Budapest at 8:30 in the morning of December 27, right on time. I pulled on a heavier shirt and jacket and braved the zero degrees Celsius weather to take the airport bus home.

Another fun and interesting adventure. Maybe at another time and place those little Chinese girls could have tempted me; maybe I’d return to Bahrain someday and see. Until then, to all a Happy New Year.

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