Leaving the Middle East Later Today

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Oct 17, 2008

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Flag of Bahrain  ,
Thursday, September 4, 2008

I wanted to put on a few pics of downtown Manama before I leave the island tonight.  It's time to explore the place for about 6 hours and I will have more pics of the sights and scenery in Bahrain for you as soon as I can find an internet connection later on India.  These pics for now aren't that great at all since they are just of the few blocks in downtown.  It's too hot to walk anywhere further to get any of the cool skyscrapers.  There's a Tree of Life I want to see since it's the only one growing for miles around in the desert.  Allah considers it holy.  There's also a causeway to Saudi Arabia where you can go halfway to an island and see the mainland.  Absolutely no tourists are allowed into Saudi Arabia under any conditions so it's as far as you can get.

Manama is a pleasant enough little place although fading a bit on the side streets behind the new skyscrapers.  Bahrain is one of those places I have always wanted to go to for some reason since I was a kid.  Maybe it was seeing pictures of the Concorde here and thinking it would be so cool to fly it here when I was 11 or 12.  I can't believe I am actually on a tiny island in the Arabian Sea called Bahrain that seemed so far away and exotic when I was a kid.

I've noticed a lot of things being away from the US and American tourists.  For one, after several flights that don't touch the US, I have started to notice a pattern.  Flying that doesn't involve the TSA, US airport security checkpoints or crowded US planes.  You don't have to take off your shoes, separately produce your plastic bag full of liquids and gels, and best of all you aren't presumed guilty until suddenly your passage through the metal detector and several TSA agents suddenly deems you to be maybe halfway innocent.  International flights over here still have the 3 ounce liquid rule, and my plastic bag is so full of them it won't even close.  No one has even asked to see it when it passes through the xray.  And the service you get enroute is just awesome.

Yes, I had to travel to Africa and the Middle East to experience first hand what freedom of movement actually feels like.  In the US you always wonder if that one foot distance through the metal detector is the one that will heap the wrath of the TSA on you but not here.  Also, you know how in the US you have to get your boarding pass checked over and over and you have to walk through the metal detector with it because maybe the previous TSA person didn't know how to process the information on it properly in his brain?  Not in the rest of the world.  Competence and common sense seem so reign. It's refreshing.

I've really enjoyed a lot of the contradictory signs here in downtown Manama.  The hotel offers a "daily buffet" (except Thursday and Friday).  McDonalds is "always open 24/7" (except during Ramadan).  An internet place near the hotel is "Open 24 hours" (except between midnight and 6am).  These signs are like a metaphor for what I have seen throughout the Middle East.  At first glance you see and expect one thing but you scratch the surface and look closer and what is advertised is definitely not what you get. 

Take Dubai.  From what you have heard about the place, isn't it somewhere you would love to see because of all it's hype?  Probably so.  On the surface you see the tallest building in the world and islands built out of nothing in the shape of a giant palm tree.  A mega airport that awes you welcomes you to the place.  But dig a little deeper and you will see migrant workers who don't share in the success.  You will also see a city without a soul underneath all that shiny steel and glass.  It feels like an office park in suburban Atlanta on a Saturday night once you look deep into the city.

Amman is another place that is like these signs in Bahrain.  You saw the the pics of the place.  It was just miles of old run down buildings clinging to steep hills.  Not somewhere you would choose to go, right?  Look past the first glance and get down into the fine print though and you find a safe city that is vibrant and full of life in the street markets. The people are really nice and hospitable, too.  The place has a soul under all that dust and dilapidation.  Go outside Amman and you have wonderful ancient places like the Dead Sea and Petra.  Go outside Dubai and you have a Six Flags of all things under construction.

As for the Middle East as a whole you view it from our side of the pond as a dark and forbidden place where the infidel isn't welcome.  Travel over here and the people treat you well and want you to enjoy their countries.  I think back to my Ramadan dinner with perfect strangers along a highway in Jordan where this infidel was made to feel at home.
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