**Note: I didn't have a very good camera on this trip, nor did I have an iPhone yet, so forgive the lack of quality in many of these images.**
A wise woman named Susan Sontag once said, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” This statement sums up my disposition on exploration. I’m down to visit pretty much anywhere I haven’t been, but there are a couple dozen special locations that made it onto a list I made several years back. In June 2011, I crossed India and Dubai off that list, along with two other new places, Bahrain and Sri Lanka. The anticipation of visiting four new countries and spending time with my dad was almost unbearable.
My father was stationed in Afghanistan at this time, and during many of the trips that I have written/will write about. This was my first time flying abroad to meet him for a vacation and my first time setting foot in the Middle East. The trip was to begin with a night alone in Manama, Bahrain. As you may have previously read in my other entries, the feeling of rolling solo in a foreign country is generally one of the most thrilling aspects of travel for me. This time, I'll admit to being ever so slightly anxious about being alone my first time in the Middle East. As you all know, things have been pretty iffy in that part of the world for quite some time. In the weeks leading up to my departure, I periodically read up on current events in Manama, finding way too many violent details. I also read up on Arab customs to make sure I would be as under the radar as possible (definitely stuck out like a sore thumb, anyway) and respectful of the culture. Summer in this region averages a temperature of 104°F and can reach up to 118.4 °F, with plenty of humidity to boot. That kind of heat is rough even in a string bikini, so I was not looking forward to the long skirt and head scarf. Still, it was a very small sacrifice to make in comparison to risking any extra unwanted attention.
I flew to Washington D.C. to visit my mom for a couple days and then I was off to the desert. The United Airlines route (which was recently discontinued) makes a short stop in Kuwait City, where many military folks deplane. From Kuwait, Manama is about another hour. Looking out the window, you see the driest land on one side and the vivid sparkling turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf on the other side. As the pilot announced to prepare for landing, my stomach began to flutter with eagerness. By the time the wheels touched down, it was hard to keep myself from grinning like an idiot.
Bahrain requires an entry visa, but this can be purchased at the airport, so no need to do it in advance. When I visited, I paid $12 in USD. I had no trouble getting a taxi to my hotel, and my driver even spoke fairly decent English. I stayed at the Ramee Baisan International Hotel in the CBD, about a 10 minute ride from the airport. After checking in to my room, I set out to take a stroll around the neighborhood. It was the strangest landscape, there were empty lots full of rubble and possibly shrapnel, next to busy modern-looking restaurants and shops. The highways from the airport were paved, but many of the streets in the CBD were glorified dirt paths. There were lots of people out and about, most of them men standing around or sitting on piles of bricks and socializing. I was getting an almost uncomfortable amount of stares from them all, they could tell I was a Westerner and they could see that I was alone. I didn't want to stray very far from my hotel, so I settled for the first restaurant that wasn't fast food. I saw A LOT of fast food options. I was eating as a pescatarian at the time, so I was really looking forward to all of the flavorful plant-based dishes that Mediterranean cuisine offers. It was still light outside after dinner, so i took a stroll up and down the main street before heading back to the hotel. I noticed the room service menu offered alcohol for a pretty penny, which is not so common in the Middle East, but I decided I could wait until India for a beer. After checking out the gym on the roof and snapping a few photos, I set 400 alarms and a wake up call and went to bed.
I woke up with the sunrise and had plenty of time to spare. This is extremely out of character for me, by the way, but when you're a night owl in the U.S., adjusting to obscure time zones is actually quite doable. Check-in and security went smoothly and I was waiting at the gate in no time. My flight to New Delhi was on Gulf Air. The logo has a falcon on the tail, as falconry is very popular in the Middle East. There were even several men in the airport with hooded falcons on their arms, pretty cool to see. I read an article on falconry in the in-flight magazine and found it very interesting. If you're not familiar with the sport, you should look it up. Even thought my flight was less than 4 hours, I was served a truly delicious vegetarian meal, which is generally unheard of in economy class. Actually, it's completely unheard of to be served ANY kind of meal on an American airline. Those days are long gone. My flight landed several hours before my father's, so he arranged a room for me in the Plaza Premium Traveler's Lounge at the airport. I immediately hopped on wi-fi, took a shower, took a nap, and had a few of the many complimentary snacks offered in the common area.
Dad came to grab me just after dinner time, and we made our way to the most unorganized taxi line situation on the planet. The concept of waiting in line, or a queue as they say, is basically nonexistent in India. This also applies to the concept of personal space. Staring is also not considered rude in this country, or Sri Lanka, and being "white" ensured that everyone who saw me that week would not seem to be able to look away. After exchanging words with the many local folks who continuously cut the entire line, we got in our taxi and were on our way into the city. Most of the cars we saw during our stay in Delhi were adorable vintage models, none of which had A/C (not so adorable). Most of the taxis do not have fare meters, so be prepared to haggle. Actually, be prepared to haggle in all that you do in India outside of a restaurant or hotel. You should also turn on your GPS or print out directions to your hotel. The drivers don't seem to be 100% familiar with navigation, and there's barely an address system in effect, which makes it very difficult to locate anything off the beaten path. Our driver asked us how to get to the hotel, gaining a resounding LOL reaction from us both. Eventually we found it and all was well. We grabbed some beers nearby and called it an early night.
We woke up early the next morning and had a quick breakfast before setting out into town. When I dreamt of going to India, New Delhi wasn't necessarily at the top of my list, but I was thrilled to be there nonetheless. I found a few points of interest and strung together a loose itinerary for us. We grabbed a taxi to the metro station and I lead the way. The subway system is brand new and very clean, unlike the rest of the city/country. Most importantly, the train is the only place I remember feeling true A/C. The trains are color-coded and there are a few signs in English, making it fairly simple to get around. There is a security checkpoint upon entering the station, similar to that which you would find in a courthouse, but the line seems to move quickly. Our first stop was a botanical garden called Lodhi Garden. It is located about equal distance from four metro stations, so take your pick depending on where you're coming from. It is one of the largest sprawls of greenery in an otherwise earth-toned setting. It even has man made canals and bridges to cross over them. There are four 15th century style burial tombs here, lots of wildlife hopping around, and plenty of shade - major key for a sweaty day in India.
After the gardens, we took the metro over to the Grand Bazaar. It was a bit of a walk from the station, so we opted to hop on a bull cart to add to my list of various forms of animal-powered transportation. However minimal the breeze may have been at our slow pace, I was grateful for it.
The Grand Bazaar was every bit as grand and bizarre as expected. It's huge, there are countless shops and restaurants, and even more aggressive shopkeepers. The kind that follow you for 50 ft before they finally lower the price to lure you back. I purchased some very ethnic jewelry, some really neat cabinet knobs, and a few awesome harem pants/rompers. To this day, I receive plenty of compliments on my collection of gypsy pants, and I love telling people I spent $4-10 on the outfit. There are also lots of knockoff soccer kits, cricket kits, and sarees. Sarees are the traditional wear in India and a few other cultures of this region. These sarong wrap ensembles are usually comprised of two or three pieces and expose a bare midriff. Every single woman, young or old, was wearing sarees, no exceptions. All men I saw, including the street beggars, wear collared shirts and slacks or khakis with loafers or flip-flops. Occasionally you see a male in a cricket jersey, but I didn't see many t-shirts and denim. Needless to say, the fashion was quite different than we're used to seeing in America.
We took the train back to our neck of the hood, and caught a tuk-tuk from the station to the hotel. I'm not sure what they're called in India, but in Thailand (where my mother is from) we call them tuk-tuks, They are basically mopeds with a tiny backset and a roof, no doors. That was a glorious breeze to feel after getting sticky in the stagnant, damp, smelly air of the Bazaar. They are a bit cheaper than a regular taxi, and you haggle the fare before you get going. Considering that no cars have A/C, I highly recommend this method of transport. Especially if you've never ridden in one!
We dropped off our swag in the room, got a good wi-fi fix in real quick, and headed out into the neighborhood in search of more curry and ice cold Kingfisher beers. Everything in India is pretty cheap, and beer is no different. Kingfisher is a great beer, and we had plenty. I found a henna ink artist sitting outside of the restaurant we were in, and since we weren't in America, I was allowed to take my beer glass out to the sidewalk while I got my hand done. I have been in love with henna tattoos since my first one in elementary school, and getting henna done in India was at the top of my to-do list. This guy did an wonderful job.
After we had a few more to drink, we headed out to take another lap around the hood in search of a convenient store to stock up on some stuff for the room. We packed up our stuff and went to bed at a decent time. It was a very short visit to India, but I know I'll be back to see the rest of the beautiful subcontinent. We were exhausted from the heat, the walking, and the beer, but I still had trouble falling asleep knowing that I was just hours away from the next stop on our trip, Sri Lanka.