Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Busy (9/10 update) 

So much for the idea of blogging my experiences here... I've been busy with work and I just got busier. I was reassigned to a job where everything is high-vis and high-priority. It's basically a 12 hour a day, 7 day a week job, and for me it will even entail a couple of days at sea elsewhere in the region for a conference. So it looks like my opportunities to experience life outside of the base and the hotel will be extremely limited. If I get some time I'll do some roaming, but it looks unlikely at this point. Oh well... Maybe next time.

UPDATE: So maybe it's a 5-and-a-half day a week job. I've got a full day off coming, and assuming my cold is sufficiently subdued, I've got some religious and cultural stops on the agenda. Possibly an archaeological site or two.

That latter category fascinates me. It always has, but here perhaps more than in other places. You look at ancient Egypt, and they had the Nile and the abundance it brought. The Fertile Crescent, same deal. In the Americas, the original inhabitants found lands of plenty.

So it amazes me that thousands of years ago, some wandering tribe found itself on this limestone and saline island, at which point they pondered staying. As they weighed the pros and cons, they surely had no problem listing the negatives: Awful soil, a miniscule amount of precipitation, a paucity of plant and animal life for subsistence, and oppressive summer heat and humidity. The positives mainly consist of freshwater springs and offshore fishing. That, apparently, was enough. (Now that I think about, in this part of the world, the water alone is reason enough to stay put.)

In any case, this island offers ancient burial mounds and excavated ruins from ancient times, a few semi-ruins from the early Islamic period, and several forts of relatively recent construction. Along with those things, there are traditionally built homes to show how people lived before the invasion of the modern world, and the Bahrain National Museum, which has excellent exhibits. There is also the Beit Al Qu'ran, or House of the Qu'ran, which showcases, obviously, the Qu'ran. At the museum, I have seen some jaw-dropping decorative artwork on copies of the Qu'ran, but unfortunately, photos are not allowed, and the same holds true at the Beit Al Qu'ran. But everywhere else, photography is okay. If I decide that I don't mind a good soaking sweat, I'll walk around the fascinating and uniquely Arab souq. The batteries are charged and the memory card in my digicam is empty, so expect photos.
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Monday, September 06, 2004


I promised not to post a lot about the weather, but today's warrants its own post.

At midday it was 104 degrees, with a dewpoint of 81. For the weather illiterate, that means that at around 81 degrees, the moisture in the air would condense into fog. I don't know how things are were you live, but where I come from we don't see too many foggy days in the low 80s. Given the forecast low, a foggy low 80s night might be in store for us here.

In other words, it felt like a sauna today, and the glaring sun didn't help. I really picked the wrong day to walk from one end of the base to the other several times... Good thing I was there to do laundry.

All of this will mean nothing to most readers. Most of you have no experience with this combination of heat and humidity. It's impossible to imagine if you haven't felt it. Sort of like describing ice to a remote Amazon tribe. They simply can't understand.

But believe me, it's awful. And it's going to stay this way for a few more days at least. I can't wait. Just when I think I'm getting used to the heat, nature throws in a new wrinkle to make it feel even worse.
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Sunday, September 05, 2004

One of the best things about being in Bahrain... 

...is that I haven't seen a single campaign ad in over two weeks. I couldn't escape the Republican convention though. I woke up Friday morning to the President's acceptance speech. When I got to work, he was still talking.

But at least when I get home I will have spent an entire month without having to endure the nonstop campaign ads about how Bush gets his jollies shipping jobs overseas and how Kerry didn't get shot at honorably enough in Vietnam.

I'm holding out hope that the "You will lose and we will win" Kerry ad will be out of rotation when I get back to the states.
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Black Monday 

On August 24, a little after 8 in the morning, Bahrain lost power. The whole country went dark, and slowly became hotter. Where I am staying, power did not come back on until nearly 12 hours later.

Now, this is a place where air conditioning is a basic necessity for survival. On that day, like every other day this time of year, a cloudless sky left the island to bake in the sun, with temperatures rising to around 110 degrees. And it's humid, too. Most people assume the whole Middle East is a hot, dry desert. It is hot and it is a desert, but Bahrain is also an island in the Arabian Gulf. It is surrounded by water...water which, when heated by the sun's rays, evaporates. Voila, 110 degrees with 50-60% humidity on the day of the blackout.

Fortunately, I was at work for most of this, and we had everything running on backup power so it wasn't so bad. I felt terrible for the poor guys whose only way to feed us all lunch was to grill hundreds of burgers and hotdogs outside in the heat. I can't imagine how hot they must have been. I was hot enough just standing in line for a burger and then sitting down to eat it. We had heard rumors about various parts of the island regaining power, so I left for the hotel hopeful that I was staying in such an area.

No such luck. The power was out here and it was pretty warm here in my room. So, I decided the pool was a better place to be. After the pool, the bar was next, and a wise man there had gotten some ice so cold drinks were available.

Overall, people made the best of the situation. They found cold drinks where they could, they went to the pool or the beach, or they found a spot in the shade. The police did an outstanding job, standing in the sun on the hot pavement and keeping traffic flowing smoothly despite the lack of signal lights. By all accounts, the nation's electricity workers worked feverishly (no pun intended) to restore power. As it turned out, we were among the last to get it back, at around 8 PM.

We take electricity for granted, but when it's gone--especially in a place as hot and humid as Bahrain--one really develops a new appreciation for it.

Some of the locals in this sweltering place, however, met the blackout with nostalgia, if you can believe that.

"Summer did not really bother us, I do remember those good old days when we had no air-conditioners," recalled noted historian Ali Akbar Bushehri, adding, "I remember seeing the air-conditioner sometime in 1960 first – I was around seven years old at that time. At night time we would sleep on the rooftop taking out our mattresses with us. We would sleep there until dawn – we had a good time, we would even count the stars before we go to sleep. In the morning, we would wake up all wet because of the humidity."
Ah, the "good old days..."
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The little differences 

This afternoon reminded me of that conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. The one about the little differences one notices in Europe.

Well, obviously the differences are a bit more pronounced here in the Middle East than they are in Europe. But at the surface, it's not so different. Or maybe I'm just an adaptable guy. I'm equally at ease in the Maine woods as I am in Paris, as comfortable in Bahrain as I am in San Diego. Comfortable in a cultural sense, not a meteorological one.

But the differences are there. They're often subtle, though, and if you're not paying attention you could miss them.

First, the similarities. My afternoon began by the hotel pool today, and it could just as easily have been a hotel pool at any American hotel. (I'm not sure every American hotel has a statuesque and tanned German blonde lounging poolside in a bikini, but I digress.) It was a mix of people, mostly white, which is a change from the usual. An Arab father and his two sons splashed and laughed nearby, and one of the boys attempted to fix his digital watch in what I always assumed was a purely American method. He banged it repeatedly against a table.

Other people soaked up rays and sipped cold beers and frou-frou umbrella drinks. They read their books or chatted together, every now and then taking a dip to cool off.

Like I said, a scene like this could just as easily have bet set back in America.

I left the pool on account of hunger, and my hunger took me to McDonald's for the first time on this visit. It was the cheapest meal I've had since I arrived, and if it weren't for the high caloric content, I would be tempted to go there more often.

Arabs, by the way, apparently DO know what the ____ a quarter pound is because right there on the menu was the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. No Royale with Cheese here. Other than the old-school styrofoam box for the burger, and the strange addition of "Mc" to the word "Fries," it was the same as any McDonald's anywhere in the world. Happy Meals, apple pies, kids' toys, the works. The one (in my opinion, lame) nod to the local culture is the McArabia, which is grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, and some kind of sauce on flat bread. I've had it before and it's not bad, but trust me, if you are ever in the Arabic world and find yourself tempted to order a McArabia at McDonald's, do yourself a favor and walk back out the door and find the nearest shwarma stand. You'll be glad you did.

McDonald's was followed by the gas station. And while it's not a cultural difference per se, a whole tank of gas cost me about six bucks. Full service.

Back in my hotel room, I stumbled upon a difference. A subtle one, so subtle that I didn't notice it until today. The picture above shows what I found, way over in one corner of the room. It's a little circle with a red arrow, and I don't need to understand Arabic to know where the arrow is pointing.

That little red arrow got me thinking about all of the other differences that surround me every day here, but that I simply take for granted.

For all its similarities to a poolside scene back home, there were some differences to be seen by the pool today. Before leaving for McDonald's, I had perused the menu card on a table in the poolside bar/cafe. One of the things on the menu was a club sandwich, complete with veal bacon. Veal bacon? Then it clicked--I hadn't put it all together before, but there are no pork products on the menu here. This isn't true of the whole country, but at least at this hotel, you will find only veal bacon, chicken sausage, and the like.

A little while earlier, a family had arrived, and to my untrained eye they struck me as a very traditional one. The mother was wearing the usual black gown, complete with veil, which is somewhat unusual even here. What really stood out, though, were her young daughters, also wearing long black gowns. Every other kid I've seen here has worn basically western clothes, so that was one clue that this might be a more traditional family than most. The next clue was that they quickly surveyed the pool deck, turned around, and left. My hunch is that the German blonde in the bikini was a bit much for them.

Before I left Maine to come here, I called Bahrain a cosmopolitan and modern place. It certainly is that. Two-fifths of the people here hail from somewhere else. Besides the many workers from Asia and the subcontinent, there is a decent-sized American and European expat community here. For those with work, Bahrain is a thriving Kingdom, setting itself up as a financial and information technology hub in the Middle East. The island has several modern (and frankly, impressive) shopping malls, excellent dining, and, rare in this part of the world, a happening nightlife scene. A few months ago, Bahrain brought visitors from around the world to the island for the inaugural Formula One race at its brand-new speedway. The internet and mobile phones are everywhere--and unrestricted. Life in general is much less restricted than it is in some neighboring countries. Less traditional.

But those little differences I mentioned are signs that not everyone is ready to give themselves over to the modern world. Bahrainis have been doing things their way for centuries, and the last fifty years have brought tumultuous changes. They would seem to be positive changes to most of us, but perhaps not to everyone here. To some they are foreign--more specifically, American, changes. (Although the majority assuredly does welcome the changes, as far as I can tell.)

There was a poster in the window at McDonald's, and it said something like "Your world changes. Big Mac won't." I can't help but wonder what message the veiled woman by the pool might take away from that slogan.
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