21.06.1999 - 23.06.1999
DAY 42 MON Our taxi driver this morning was Vietnamese and had lived in France for twenty years. If it weren’t for his children’s futures, he told us, he would happily return to the land of his birth. He spoke continuously all the way to the airport, which wasn’t a bad thing as he was full of interesting information concerning the French tax system and Parisian road death statistics.
Our flight was delayed by an hour but any discomfort we may have experienced due to extreme boredom was more than compensated for by the lack of passengers travelling to Bahrain. Was this an omen? Yes. Margaret curled up across three seats and slept for most of the trip while I moved to a window seat not over the wing.
For the first time on Gulf Air we were offered alcoholic beverages. I opted for a scotch and dry which I spilt all over my jeans while trying to attach the earpieces to my headphones. I’m almost sure I heard one of the Muslim air hostesses mutter “drunken sot” under her breath as she poured me a replacement. Luckily the fierce air conditioning quickly dried out my bough and removed the Johnny Walker smell long before we reached Bahrain.
At Bahrain International Airport we almost had our bags loaded onto a bus to Saudi Arabia. “Where you go, sahib?” asked the swarthy Arab driver. “The Gulf Gate”, I replied. “OK, this bus for you”. Thank God we had second thoughts. I had no idea how much to tip the porter who had insisted on carrying our bags to the wrong bus so I gave him a coin which I calculated later to be the equivalent of forty cents. He didn’t smile. Serve him right.
Compared to our European hotels the Gulf Gate was enormous. Our room was as big as a concert hall, with two double beds, a generous bathroom and lots of space to put our bags and throw our dirty clothes. We had a double bed each, not through choice but because only half of each bed was free from broken springs and lumpy bits.
DAY 43 TUE After an extremely light breakfast we prepared for our free tour. The temperature in the breakfast room was a little above zero so it was a bit of a shock to step out of the hotel into the searing 370 heat of a Bahrain morning.
Three other Australians joined us before we drove to our first destination, a genuine Islamic mosque (the only mosque in Manama open to infidels). Margaret and the other lady donned black robes which covered everything but their faces, while all five of us removed our shoes. We had never been in a mosque before and were intrigued to find that the large halls contained absolutely no pictures, statues or even a single holy water font.
From the mosque we drove a short distance to the National Museum where we spent what seemed like several hours examining ancient artifacts before driving to a really big library. No Stephen King or Harold Robbins in this library; only about six hundred copies of a single book. A number of large rooms were filled with Korans ranging in size from too-big-to-be-carried-by-two-large-men to tiny, matchbox-sized volumes. The smallest item was a grain of rice on which was inscribed either all or a single page of the sacred book (the writing was too small for me to be sure).
Back at the hotel we ate a very nice (and free) lunch composed entirely of local delicacies. The waitresses were all Asian and bored silly. Usually we were the only people in the restaurant when we dined and the staff of fifty fought for the privilege of refilling our glasses or changing our ashtrays. As boring as the job of a waitress in Bahrain may be, the worst, most mind-destroying job of all belongs to the man who stands at the entrance to the hotel carpark in the broiling sun raising and lowering the barrier for visiting cars.
All the shops close between noon and four so we stayed in our room watching a delightful movie called “Pure Country”, which seemed to be about a cowboy singer who sold out to commercialism but realised the error of his ways and returned to his yodelling roots. The “in-house movies” showing at the Gulf Gate are repeated every few hours so that if you miss one badly-pirated show you can see it again later. By the time we flew out of Bahrain we had seen “Pure Country” three times.
Around four we walked down to the souk, which we thought would be an exotic Middle Eastern bazaar. In reality it was a large collection of bad jewellery shops selling gaudy gold rings and necklaces intermixed with shops selling extremely bland household goods. Margaret managed to clear several streets of pedestrians, shopkeepers and even patrolling policemen by taking my picture while I feigned interest in a spice shop. Even so I think we managed to capture several Muslim souls on celluloid. Our sole purchase was a head scarf which Margaret thought would give excellent service as a tablecloth. The bemused shopkeeper couldn’t comprehend the idea of a head covering as a kitchen decoration and persisted in trying to sell her the bands for head-attachment.
In the evening we used our dinner voucher in the restaurant and ate a very tasty selection of dishes from the buffet. Once again we supped alone and watched the bored waiters flit around the room straightening knives and forks. Before returning to our room we asked the disinterested girl behind the counter for the vouchers for tomorrow’s breakfast and dinner. She told us that we were only entitled to a single dinner voucher, which we had already used. Unfortunate woman, she didn’t realise that she was arguing with Margaret Cullis. The tide of battle turned when a large group of tourists burst through the front door and made for the reception desk. We returned to our room assured of free meals for another day. The irony of the situation was that, after examining our documents more closely, I realised that she had been right all along!
Sitting on our beds watching “Pure Country” for the fifth time we agreed that two days in Bahrain was one day too many. Even if there had been something to do, the heat kept us trapped in the hotel for most of the day and even “Mustapha ben Aboud in Concert” on the TV could not make this an attractive proposition.
DAY 44 WED Having exhausted the limited attractions of Manama yesterday we decided to lie around in our room reading, resting and catching a rerun of “Pure Country”. The hours passed slowly until lunchtime, when we ate in the coffee shop.
After lunch I left Margaret in our room and walked down the road and over a pedestrian bridge to the seaside. My intention was to plunge my hand into the warm blue waters of the exotic Gulf. I often set myself goals when travelling; to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, steal a piece of Tintern Abbey, stand naked at the top of the Schilthorn. Usually I’m successful (though I returned the brick to the abbey), but today the turgid waves lapping on the shore carried a soapy scum and unidentifiable bits of flotsam and jetsam which forced me to abandon my goal. I can tolerate flotsam, it’s the jetsam that make my stomach juices curdle.
I returned to the hotel to join Margaret in doing very little. With nothing to occupy her powerful mind, Margaret became rather incensed at the sight of a group of Arab women whose black, shroud-like clothing totally concealed them from the lustful stares of the local Arab men. I was more sympathetic, having been aroused several times by brief glimpses of brown almond eyes flashing beneath the almost opaque black veils. I was constantly amazed that these ladies didn’t walk into telegraph poles or fall into the gutter as they floated around the streets.
Later in the evening the hotel bus drove us to the airport. I tipped the driver lavishly then carried our bags to the departure area. I left Margaret to process our luggage while I queued behind a group of Arabs to pay my departure tax. The five oil sheiks insisted on paying their tax by Visa, which was not one of the available payment options. While they argued with the clerk a frantic American tourist tried desperately to get his ticket stamped before his plane departed. He eventually caught the attention of the clerk and paid his tax. The Arabs managed to come up with the necessary cash by pooling their resources and I was able to rejoin Margaret.
While I had been a mere onlooker in one of life’s little dramas, Margaret was right in the middle of a drama of her own. The Gulf Air officials had told her that we would not be sitting together on our flight to Sydney. Margaret is not one to take bureaucratic bungling lightly, especially at the hands of officious darkies. Her displeasure was so powerfully manifested that the hierarchy of Gulf Air, Manama branch, was convened to solve the problem. Many other passengers were not so lucky. Take-off was delayed for half an hour while the crew tried to find adjoining seats for a family of six.
Once we were in the air we all calmed down and settled into an oxygen-deprived stupor. The movies were forgettable, which didn’t matter as my headphones didn’t work (again) but the food was acceptable. By strange coincidence we encountered the young man we had sat next to on the flight from Sydney six weeks ago. A large group of boisterous sports persons at the front of the plane kept us entertained with songs and witty comments for the entire flight. When I first saw the beefy young men standing in the aisles brandishing cans of beer I assumed they were an Australian rugger team and was surprised to discover that they were, in fact, an English Hockey team on their way to play in Sydney. The unsolved mystery of the flight was why their passports were all newly issued in Singapore. Passengers on long, boring plane trips will grasp at anything out of the ordinary to break the tedium.
We landed in Sydney and passed through customs and immigration without incident to find our family waiting for us. The mixed pleasure and strain on their faces told us that they were both glad to have us back and resigned to many hours of travellers’ tales. On the following Sunday the entire family assembled at Jeremy and Anna’s house to hear the complete, day-by-day description of our six weeks overseas. This was an ordeal they would have to suffer a second time once our hundreds of photos were developed. Now they can relive the entire experience through this diary which will please them no end as I have probably added bits left out during my lectures. Perhaps I should gather everybody together again for an official reading. Perhaps not!