Bahrain is a hole. It is without doubt the most soulless, dull and boring country on the planet. I can think of no other place—with the possible exception of a Fallujah mosque wearing a Bush 2004 campaign badge—that I will never, ever want to return to on holiday.
Locals get down to some serious domino playing to pass the time on hot and humid afternoons. Enlarge »
When I booked my flight to Iran over a month ago, my travel agent told me I had a three hour stop over in the mysterious sounding country of Bahrain.
“Make it three days!” I’d blurted out in one of those giddy fits of wanderlust that overcomes me when seated opposite travel agents, dreaming of spice markets, tranquil gardens and undiscovered nirvanas. It was only as I was leaving, ticket in hand, that I paused to ask, “Um, where exactly is it?”
As it turns out, this microscopic island state—sitting next to Qatar in the Persian Gulf—is a country doomed to be forever ignored by the rest of the world. Rolling in the riches of its seemingly endless supply of gas and oil, the leaders of Bahrain have transformed their little oasis into the ultimate holiday destination for rich Arab sheiks who come to escape the puritanical laws of their own countries and eat, drink and shag themselves to five-star oblivion.
So Bahrain today has become a palm-lined and Hilton-branded Garden of Eden for hedonistic millionaires but a budget-crushing purgatory for cash-strapped backpackers who don’t seek enlightenment in the glimmer of Louis Vuitton shop fronts and Starbucks coffee.
I arrive in Bahrain miserable with the flu and check into the only budget option in town, a claustrophobic, AUD $32 a night room in the seedy Seef Hotel, while trying to ignore the stained bed sheets, peepholes drilled into the wall and cracked toilet that spews half its contents on to the yellowing bathroom floor with every flush. Suffocating in the humid sauna of a Bahraini evening and the tightening grip of a crippling fever, I strip off my clothes and collapse on the creaking bed a coughing, aching mess.
Bahrain is a hole. I can think of no other place—with the possible exception of a Fallujah mosque wearing a Bush 2004 campaign badge—that I will never, ever want to return to on holiday.
An unwise number of painkillers are finally beginning to lull me to sleep when I’m woken by an insistent rap on the door.
“Hang on,” I groan while reaching for my pants. The visitor must have misheard me, though, for the unlocked door swings open to reveal a tired, ageing Thai prostitute squeezed into a lurid green mini. She glimpses my naked form—those who don’t know me may find Benjamin Bratt and that guy from the Calvin Klein ads a handy visual reference—and smiles coquettishly.
“Helloooooo,” she drawls with a thick accent and a wink while I scramble to cover myself with the bedsheets. “You looooooonely?”
I stare at this apparition of badly applied makeup, chins and wrinkles, wondering whether it’s some kind of fever-induced hallucination. She wets her orchid lips, revealing a top set of chipped, yellowing teeth and pouts. No, not even my subconscious is this warped.
“I-I’m fine,” I stutter. “No thanks.”
“Maybe laaaaater.” She mopes, turns on her dagger-like heels and closes the door, while I collapse back into my coma with the sound of her knocking on my neighbour’s door.
The world's most boring nightlife awaits you in Bahrain. Enlarge »
I awake again after two a.m., coated in sweat and hungry after a bedridden day. I stumble out of my room hoping to raid a convenience store for food and spot my lady friend sitting at the end of the corridor, half-heartedly watching Al Jazeera on a black and white television.
He face lights up when she sees me. “Now you loooooooonely?”
“Sorry,” I apologise, “I’m sick.” I prove my point with a coughing fit. “No customers?”
She shrugs by way of agreement.
“Say, is there a place around here I can get some food at this time of night?”
She studies me for a second, then stands. “No one for Lucky tonight.” She straightens her skirt and takes my hand. “I go for eat. I take you for eat.”
“Your name is Lucky?” I’m wondering if she appreciates the irony of a life-worn working girl plying the seediest hotel of a foreign city half the world from home choosing that name.
“Yah,” she giggles. “Lucky, luuuuucky!”
I don’t have the energy to refuse Lucky a second time, so I soon find myself being led through the maze of alleys behind Manama’s once-vibrant bazaar in search of dinner at 2.30 am. I’m surprised that the streets are still alive at this hour, mainly with the chatter and laughter of migrant workers. Bahrain is full of Thai, Russian and Indian immigrants who flock to the wealthy island to satisfy its voracious appetite for cheap sex and disposable labour. In fact it’s only their fiery curries and cheesy Asian pop that provide the faintest blip of a cultural heartbeat to convince a visitor that life in Bahrain isn’t confined to the air con comfort of a Hilton penthouse.
I’m wondering if she appreciates the irony of a life-worn working girl plying the seediest hotel of a foreign city half the world from home choosing the name Lucky.
Lucky leads me through an unsigned glass door and I find myself in a café of sorts. At a dozen or so tables covered with cheap laminate and baskets filled with condiments sit thirty or so Asian working girls chatting over plates of noodles and rice. Lucky announces my arrival with some shouted Thai that results in a roomful of laughter, then leaves me with sixty quizzical eyes to wander into the chaotic kitchen and find the cook.
Within minutes she returns with a steaming bowl of soup and places it in front of me, but I’m somewhat concerned by the unidentifiable, grey lumps floating on its surface. “Special soup,” assures Lucky, heaping a teaspoon of chilli into it, “good for sick.”
Figuring ‘in for a penny’ I wolf down my dinner over attempted conversation with a roomful of women whose only knowledge of English is the vocabulary necessary to negotiate a four hour trick.
Slurping the last of the incendiary broth from my bowl, I turn to Lucky. “That was great! My fever is going and my nose has cleared up! What was in it?”
She just giggles, raises an eyebrow and somewhat alarmingly squeals, “Luuucky, Luuuuuccckkky!”
Ashen skies, the patter of rain hitting glass and an apologetic smile on the television: “…having a good morning out there, because I’m afraid the weather isn’t being very cooperative today…”
Television weather presenters have a tough time of it in London, like surgeons constantly delivering bad news to expectant families in denial. I will myself out of the sleeping bag spread out on a friend’s living room floor and through the front door where an icy wind greets me like a slap in the face from a disgruntled lover.
They don't call London's underground subway system the Tube for nothing. Enlarge »
Onto the Tube, heading for Soho and I’m swept up in a flood of harried office workers as they jostle through the turnstile and trudge down the stairs towards the train. “Oh for f***k’s sake!” yells a pinstripe suit when a woman bends down to tie her laces, halting the flow.
I’ve been taken aback by London, probably because I’d always assumed that I’d love the place. But having been conditioned by months of travel on the easy-going continent, the harried, rushing people of London—nervous glances over shoulders, glazed eyes when passing beggars, mothers screaming at toddlers, commuters swearing at one-minute delays—have been a shock.
Coupled with weather far colder than my sun-drenched body has become accustomed to, I find myself questioning why I don’t just leave and explore the rest of England. I pack my bags and resolve to leave, but find my last night in the capital taking an unexpected turn.
“Change of plans,” announces Adrian, my gracious London host and sugar-daddy when I ask him about the night’s planned bar-hopping expedition. “Meet you in fifteen; we’re going to see U2.”
Television weather presenters have a tough time of it in London, like surgeons constantly delivering bad news to expectant families in denial.
An hour later I’ve got a beer in my hand and am staring down at a throng of fans gathered around Dr Who’s tardis in the parking lot of White City—the BBC’s headquarters—while the granddaddies or Irish pop rock tear up the stage with Desire. Ashleigh, one of Adrian’s friends (and a BBC employee) heard about the secret gig for the long-running Top of the Pops, whisked us past security for the show and then gives us a post-gig tour of some acid-inspired television sets before we demolish a fiery vindaloo at a local curry house.
And as we taxi home past a billboard advertising upcoming London gigs—The Doves, Rod Stewart, the Wailers, Angelique Kidjo, De La Soul or even Rammstein—I catch a glimpse of this city’s allure. In this mad, frantic city of over twelve million white, black, Asian, rich, poor, ecstatic and distraught people anything seems possible. London stands alone as a truly global city where you can crave some Zambian performance art, a Bolivian feast and the latest New York beats and be assured that in a city this size, and with enough pounds in pocket, you’ll not only be able to sate your desires, but that the dining will be three-star Michelin, the club will be the hippest in Europe, and that the darling of the fickle Zambian performance art world is currently naked on stage at the Forum, riding a unicycle and lactating over her ecstatically applauding audience. I decide that London is a wonderfully electric city, raging with opportunity just begging to be tapped.
The weather’s still shit, though.
“Spare some change?” asks a red beanie on a middle-aged beard.
I reach into my pocket with frostbitten fingers but find only notes. “Sorry mate,” I whisper before being flushed with shame; for some reason Europe has hardened me to beggars. In Asia I always has a pocketful of change ready for street urchins and Cambodian amputees, but I’ve found it too easy to ignore the faceless poor of Paris and Berlin.
We trudge down an inner Newcastle-Upon-Tyne street, empty at 6.30 in the morning, and duck into a small shop filled with construction workers and the smell of frying bacon. My guest—his name is John—orders two English breakfasts and a mug of tea, and I can’t help but ask how he came to be sitting on a wet pavement at the age of forty-three.
“Used to work with the railway, but then it was privatised and they told me I wasn’t ‘cost efficient.’ Sacked me on the spot.”
John’s story is not unique. A few years ago this northern British town was just another grey and miserable failure haunted by the ghosts of bankrupt industry and Thatherite economics that shut down local production and saw unemployment skyrocket. But some inspired planning and visionary investment in recent years have reincarnated the city as a hub of contemporary art, theatre and music. These days Newcastle almost tingles with a sense of rebirth and once pessimistic locals are wildly hopeful about their city’s future. Everyone that is, except for John.
“Losing that job lost me my life. I didn’t have any work, so me wife left me for a guy that did.” He glumly chews on a mouthful. “‘Course, me gambling and drinking pro’lly didn’t help, either.”
Since the conversation is quickly heading into emotional waters far too treacherous for a 7.00 am breakfast with a total stranger, I ask John about the origin of the breakfast delicacy he’s savouring: England’s ubiquitous black pudding.
“It was old cattle drovers that invented it. They were always on the move and needed a mobile source of protein, so every now’n then they’d tap one of their herd for a few pints of blood. Mix it with some oats and you’ve goat yourself a healthful, energising meal.”
“Losing that job lost me my life. I didn’t have any work, so me wife left me for a guy that did. ‘Course, me gambling and drinking pro’lly didn’t help, either.”
Mmm, blood and oats. Looking at the congealing disc of charcoal brown goop taunting me from my fork, I can’t help but comment. “Kind of makes a case for just packing a few sandwiches, doesn’t it?”
After Newcastle and the quaint streets and castle of Durham, I spend a few days feeling right at home amid the gothic architecture and funky Scottish cafes of Edinburgh, before giving the coin one of the last decisions of my trip—north or west—and jumping on a train headed for Glasgow.
“Glasgow?” queries a paunchy man with a cherry-red nose I sit next to on the train. “Why d’yae wanna be goin’ to Glasgow? If yae wanna see soomethin’ pretty, go to the Isle of Mull.”
So still not entirely sure why, or even how, I’m soon on a ferry sliding across the Sound of Mull to the seventy-kilometre long island and hitching a lift with a minibus to its largest town, Tobernary (population 1,700).
“What spectacular scenery,” I comment to the man I’m squashed next to for the trek.
On a hill up to Arthur's Seat, overlooking the wonderful gothic architecture of Edinburgh. Enlarge »
Ignorance and Highlander had me expecting drizzly bluestone outcrops and Sean Connery hamming it up under an overcast sky, but the endless spectacle of Scotland in the last throes of Autumn that’s been rushing past my train and car windows has been a stunning surprise. The countryside looks as though its been set alight by the hand of a pyromaniac deity—towering firs frosted with burnt yellow, glowing orange and muddy reds branch over meadows of luminous green grass and rich, brown brush.
“Aye, I never tire of it,” he agrees. “Even after all these years.”
The man’s name is Frank, and I discover he’s the island’s social worker, although he spends most of his time on the mainland. “I’m just not needed on Mull. We’re a fairly content lot.”
In fact other than the odd case of adultery, political bickering and inter-family feuding, it seems not much happens on this sleepy island. Crime is unheard of, the locals are welcoming and the only drug scandal in recent memory saw the pub owner’s son get his hands on some hash then break his leg jumping out a second storey window, convinced he was a parrot.
It’s dark and drizzling when we pull into Tobernary so I dump my bags and decide to break my week long curry binge in recognition of National Curry Week with a warming pile of fish and chips from a lonely van standing on the town’s deserted pier. Ravenous, I retreat from the biting wind and rain under a darkened shop front and tear off a chunk. It is the single most glorious fish I’ve ever tasted. Haddock plucked from the sea only an hour ago steamed to tenderness inside the lightest jacket of crisp, golden batter and sitting on a bed of crunchy potato straws.
“The best in Scotland.” He pats his sizeable belly, “and I’ve doone mae research.”
I ask the man, a local dairy farmer as it turns out, about the rainbow house fronts the town has become famous for.
“‘Twas the hotel that started it. The owner just came oout one day, ābout forty years ago, and painted it bright yellow. Soon every house on the waterfront had doone the same. Sure it looks pretty, but because of it now weāre being overrun with southerners.ā
Heās referring to Balamory, a hugely popular kidsā soap opera set on the townās colorful waterfront and the reason why a once quiet hamlet is now inundated by holidaying families whose toddlers are desperate to see the ārealā Balymore. Understandably not everyone is happy with the sudden explosion in summer tourism.
āThey come in, take photos, cause a ruckus and leave,ā the farmer gripes. āOver fifty thousand people each year just because of a few tins of paint on an old hotel. If itās that easy, maybe I should paint maeā hay shed purple and open a fookinā Disneyland.ā
I laugh at this, but a little harder than necessary. You see Iām just happy, exceedingly so. Standing on the deserted pier of a remote Scottish township, huddled against the cold and wet while clutching deep-fried heaven and shooting the breeze with a sharp-tongued local as steam escapes our dinners and snakes around our faces just feels so /right/. There seems no doubt that this is where Iām meant to be right now, this is what Iām meant to be doing.
Wow. Dinner, conversation and Zen enlightenment, all for Ā£4.20 (salt and sauce, 20p extra).
Itās a good thing I achieved such budget-happy nirvana that night, because twenty-four hours later Iām trying to fathom an Ā£82 (AUS $200) cab fare thatās just been demanded of me.
Iād spent the day enjoying the rolling meadows and stunning sunsets of an island called Iona. Fifteen hundred years ago a monk by the name of Columba (soon to become Saint Columba) was exiled from Ireland over a copyright dispute, of all things, that had led to a gruesome battle. He was ordered to Scotland to convert as many as he had killed, and either had little faith in his own skills of persuasion, or was a shocking navigator, because it was upon this microscopic island only a few kilometers across, and quite a distance from the mainland, that he chose to establish Scotlandās first abbey.
So having explored the frontiers of Christian history with Jeoren (Belgian) and April (Virginian), we all jumped on the last ferry back to Mull. An equal mix of ignorance and arrogance had led me to believe that weād be able to hitch a lift one hundred kilometers back to Tobernary, but realized as we stood at the empty ferry terminal of an empty town whose three dozen residents were busy sucking the local pub dry that there was little chance of that. With accommodation already paid for on the other side of the island, weād have to call Mullās only taxi.
āWell you wonāt be making that mistake again,ā offered the driver in a poor attempt at consolation. He was a large man with a shaggy, graying beard who had come to Mull as a postman in his teens and found it impossible to leave this āfine, fine place.ā
As we rush through the moon washed meadows, I put a question to him thatās been gnawing at me for the past week. In an age when European countries are breaking down their borders and migrants from opposite corners of the globe are uniting under common flags in countries such as Canada and Australia, why are the Scottishāor indeed the Welsh or the Catalans and Basque of Spain and Franceāso eager to underline their differences and devolve from a country theyāve been related to for over five hundred years? Why canāt they just get along?
āBecause they were never given the choice!ā he booms in baritone. āThis country was taken! If a Chinese and African choose to live in Canada good on them, but nobody every asked the Scots if they wanted to be subjugated to the English. And look at the English now: a lonely, lost culture staggering around blindly without their empire.ā
A few hours later I hear the same analysis from Jeffāone of those middle-aged men you find in hostel dorms escaping failed marriages and meaningless lives in the anonymity of the road.
Jeoren, April and her sister Dawn had joined me in licking my financial wounds with dinner and a pint at the local pub before returning to the hostel to find Jeff shuffling about the common room as if yoked by regrets and circumstance. Jeff turned out to be a remarkably knowledgeable historian, however, with a fine grasp of the English psyche.
āSure there was the late nineties with its Cool Britannia, the millennium projects and Blairās New Labourā¦ā
āAnd letās not forget the Spice Girls,ā I offer.
āā¦and the Spice Girls. But it just covered the fact that the English are a once-great superpower struggling to accept life after the empire.ā As if to conclude any further discussion he stands up to refill his mug of tea and diagnoses: āSheās a country in search of a cause, and sheās miserable while she searches.ā
The next hungover morning Iām up at ten, farewelling Mull and starting on the road to the ferry terminal. I reach into my pack for my Discman and fire up the only song of my travel-scarred collection that still plays without skipping: Massive Attackās Unfinished Sympathy. Itās become something of a tradition to play this song whenever I head out into the unknown, and todayā with no idea where Iām headed, how Iāll get there or where Iāll stopāis no exception.
The synth percussion builds as I buckle the belt of my rucksack and glance up the rain-slicked road, winding under a grey sky past a mountain stream cascading between grenadine treetops.
I start walking. It starts to rain. I stick out my thumb.
It doesnāt get any better than this.