If there’s one thing we can attest to, it’s that Bahrain is not for the pedestrian.
This isn’t news. Most emerging cities in the Middle East are built on a very twentieth century principle, and for a blindingly obvious and unassailable reason – the car and oil. Duh.
To underscore it, I’ll say simply that when I filled up our modestly-powered runabout just before we left our windy-wet shores, it cost me fifty quid. Julian mentioned casually as we were cruising through the shifting shining panorama of Manama yesterday that he’d just filled his umpteen-litre gas guzzler for less than a tenner.
So pavements lead nowhere, buses are a kind of parked billboard system and people in coffee shops in the more exclusive island developments have no concept of where to find a number for a taxi here.
We do this everywhere we go. We wander instinctively and end up always at some point in some nameless back road with locals leaning in doorways casually eyeing the purposeful and conspicuously English-looking couple striding confidently towards the iron smelting plant/canal/industrial car park. But we feel we’ve seen the real wherever as a result. The unromantic, boring, foot-wearing, passing-pity-inducing real wherever.
But, there’s nothing like treading out the real footprint of a place. Which I do largely mean. Now that I’ve made it back and had a shower.
Given that our trip out here is more of a visit to chums than a dreamy holiday, we’re pretty happy to wander between places with no real itinerary. Although it’s a bitter irony to Jules that he’s landed a lot of all-hours appointments with work the very moment his chums arrive to see him, having had rather more space to be sociable up until now.
Still, work is work and Bahrain is intriguing, whoever we’re with.
Plus his ‘work’ is directing photo shoots of F16s, Gazelle helicopters and the King’s eye-wateringly luxurious personal 747s, so I’m not sure his feelings are single-mindedly missing our company. Jammy swine.
What we can also attest to after today is that Dilmun was a trading nation for some three thousand years, its paraditical identity surviving the influence of pushy investors no less significant than the Assyrians, the Babsters and the Messy-potamers, until self promotion monster Alex ‘the just great, y’know’ rebranded them to Tylos, about three hundred years before Christ. And he didn’t even go there. Those Greek egotists. Bet he’d had his teeth done.
Anyway, modern Bahrain owes a very great deal to the black gold discovered only eighty-odd years ago here. And to the shadow of the great Arab homeland looming behind it. But despite the now-physical connection to a giant desert land with no cinemas or alchohol, thousands of weekend visitors from Saudi stream over the causway because of its decidedly laid-back approach to its Islamic identity.
As a result, the country has become a centre of international business in the region and some 40% of Bahrain’s population is ex-patriate. So bars and cinemas and Innocent smoothies in local supermarkets are all a normal part of life here. Just like the motor car. Plus the American fifth fleet is based here, so Blackhawks shuttle to and fro along the shimmering coast every day. No idea what they cost to run. Perhaps cheap enough for anyone to rent one.
But the cheapest way to get around would have to be one of the most practical too, and one suggested in an unintentional malapropal moment by Caroline.
“Bahrain is an archepedalo, isn’t it?” she said, when we arrived.
“That’s right, ” I nodded knowingly, “everyone wisely shuttles between the islands by self-powered pleasure boats.”
Having found ourselves whisked off to the water’s edge outside Julian’s flat, the night we arrived, bobbing around in the middle of the glass-flat lagoon being assailed by flying fish a mere hour after landing in the balmy darkness, I can attest to the sense of adopting padalos or kayaks as a means of getting around here.
It took us a brisk 25mins to cross to the neighbouring island for a Costa Americano this morning, striding through the seering heat and brickdust of a building site residence; it took us a casual five minutes to cross the water to it at drifting speed that first night.
Not sure anyone would listen to us, however. Think if we approached the security men on the gates at Tila island with kayaks and said: “You chaps should really TRY these babies…” they would look no less incredulous than when we asked them if they could point us to the nearest public transport.
My feet hurt.