INCIDENTS OF My TRAVELS to
NEVER SEEKING ADVENTURE YET ADVENTURE FINDS ME
Kingdom of Bahrain, Arab Spring 2011
“You…You…” The man searched for the word from Arabic to English in his head, “…America”. The word more of an accusation than a question from suspicious eyes. I was startled in place. Why the question?
The encounter surreal. as I was rushing out of my suite from a Bahrain resort located near the fringes of the island, an area still under construction so any interaction is seldom and brief. I was in a hurry to beat the traffic to Manama City for the night’s dinner, some cocktails, maybe a bout of Cricket on the telly at an undisclosed restaurant sports bar. The discovery of which only comes from exploration of the area. The only reason I was even here was to wash the weathered sweat and salt from a long day’s work in the hull of a ship. The 100-degrees of the day augmented by the sun beaten ship’s hull and its confined quarters. Refreshed and change of clothes, I rush out to the man’s path.
The Arab was unkempt, the sight pitiful. Tousled hair caked with clumps of dandruff and with straggly beard festooned with foodstuff trapped in their curls and dried spit. A stained t-shirt and acrid body odor betrays any consideration of hygiene long abandoned. And though with an armful of bottled water, his dried and cracked lips evince dehydration, his queries looked painful. He blocks the stairs I intended to use. His shock clearly displayed that he did not expect this encounter either.
I notice the opened door beside us to the his suite around the corner from mine. Shadows mill around in the dark. I see their silhouettes against a cooking fire in the middle of the great room the only source of light for the drapes are drawn in the darkened apartment. As the questioning is repeated louder, ambulation stops and figures approach the portal. Curious.
Their presence here incongruous. Obviously longer than mine. The reason I was isolated here, instead of a city hotel by our client, is to prevent such interactions. With tensions between east and west it seemed a good plan. Apparently they had the same idea. A month here and a few more days to go before leaving attests the futility of the plan.
Before this trip, I have been warned. Attempts to deter this field job decision came from my immediate manager. “You can always back out, no reflection on you or your work.” Clandestine calls received by government representatives, all advising to reconsider the trip. However, the boss and owner of the company, Bill, was adamant on his intent and I agreed to accompany him. He now was gone a few weeks and I was alone now realizing the cause for the concern.
My mind races in that moment, have I discovered a zealous and xenophobic cell in hiding? Worse, they discovered me.
I have seen the movies, in the book “Den of Lions” correspondent Terry Anderson’s unfortunate encounter in the 1980s lasted in sequestration for seven years. Others not as fortunate as videos appear of their demise at the hacks of dull machetes. We were assured safety at the beginning of this venture of course. A security detail at the ready to extract us to the safety of Dubai at the moment’s press of a pager phone. A phone I have now kept in my suite for lack of imminent danger these past four weeks here already.
Frozen in place on this terrace alone, with all of these thoughts racing through my head…my fate depends on my response to probing questions.
An answer is expected...
The assignment was that of maintenance repair to a dredge and dock vessel whose generator could not maintain from tripping under heavy load. Something in the regulator selected. No one wanted it, too far and in disputed territory most concerned for safety in the den of Middle Easterners who did not regard Westerners highly. But boss Bill needed a lackey and I jumped at the opportunity.
I have always wanted to travel to the Middle East and thought that without military service it would not occur. The customer, a longtime relationship with boss Bill, needed technical advice. They have acquired a contract to dredge the northern coast of Bahrain. Sweep for sand from the floor of the Persian Gulf and mix it to make an island. A new hobby for the Arabs, creating land beyond the limits of their shores.
A few islands already made in countries along the periphery of Saudi Arabia. Some in the shape of palm trees or fishes. Nothing that their imagination and unlimited resources could not derive.
Another enticement, boss Bill was a genius. No small claim. The man worked at levels beyond the peer engineers. His was the solution to complex problems along the lakefront steel mills, the root of our enterprise. His work has kept our business solvent for years, with patents pending and repeat business, his reputation kept him surrounded with acolytes seeking recognition.
However, this one time, none wanted to go and I saw an opportunity to flicker my ambitious flame against his roaring pyre.
Concerns arose. Bahrain has just gone through an attempted revolt. Citizenry wanting to change the regal system a deadly failure. The result known across the world as the Bahrain uprising, the Pearl Roundabout where the incident happened was soon torn down to not inspire martyrs. This fresh in the news as we plan our maintenance execution.
The flights took a full 24 hours. With a major delay in Kuwait. Boss Bill, Ed S., our customer’s liaison, and myself struggling with jet lag and the language gap kept close quarters the entire way. Moreover, even after arriving on the island we were not far from each other’s company. Traveling with their lead was limiting. We went to the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner for the first few weeks. The only place deemed to have decent American meals was Rick's Kountry Kafe, an establishment in an open lot just outside the city. Book-ending our 16 hour days on the vessels. The dusty fields surrounding it also awaiting building constructions for islands were not the only intended modernization on the burgeoning island. Here the sight of an ancient Mosque and blends with the modern World Trade Center beyond, a dual Sail building with three windmill blades to harness wind to power the building. The ambitious project would never spin all three at once when sighted, rumors stating that resulting vibrations from all three turbines were disturbing and concerning. Nonetheless, Bahrain intent on entering the 21st century as a beacon of progress without sacrificing its Regal hold on ancient fiefdom.
Local lore has it that a lone denuded tree in the sands a few miles south of the city is the remains of the tree of knowledge, whose transgressed fruit exiled Adam and Eve. In effect the belief is that Bahrain is the desert result of the fallen garden of Eden. Awaiting a triumphant return with the eradication of all non-believers. The deserted area around the tree is littered with debris of human refuse. A Jimala (local McDonalds) wrapper here, empty Wild Stallion (Red Bull) cans there, strips of caught paper flitting around on twig branches dance in hot winds. But the lack of piety for the area does not discourage the locals to believe they are the promised ones.
This was the extent of our touring. The remaining time was work based in the hull of the vessel. Retiring to the resort the customer suggested as a deterrent for unfortunate encounters.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is credited as the birthplace of Kings, the great leaders of history are rumored to be from here. And is doing so it has been disputed territory for centuries. Saudi Arabia holds it; Iran covets it, tensions are high, resulting in rumors of an impending invasion for rightful claim is a matter of time. The countries only separated by the narrow strip of the Persian Gulf that if executed it would only be a matter of minutes warning of the transgression. In addition, with recent escalations between the east and west, non believers are scrutinized by all.
Time came, two weeks hence, that Boss Bill and Ed S. had to return to the states to attend other business. I remained to maintain unforeseen issues. Given the rental car and freedom to explore, I ventured where they did not dare.
I discovered a city foreign to anything I have ever seen yet somewhat similar. A nearby Shia town named Galilee, just west of the neo-island, had a familiar feel. Narrow muddy streets filled with speed bumps and potholes. Corrugated doors closed on adobe storefronts for either evening prayers or to abate the heat of the afternoon. Walls awash with base colors for differentiation. The few citizens visible lazing in a shade, sharp features on darkened skin and thick black hair that gave them a distinctive Hispanic look. In fact, if not for the Arabic lettering on the store marquees I could have mistook the town to be one like Tarimoro in my native Mexico.
The island is Sunni dominated, although in the minority of the population, and so both entrance and exit to these towns have Saudi checkpoints. A tight reign and curfew imposed upon the majority accused of enticing the revolt. As a result, the Shia have been disappearing on a daily basis since. They question my reasons for driving through. Accusingly berating me with imagined conspiracies. However, I am let go once I speak feign confusion for the inquiries. I drive away in relief and for the only time in my life, I am glad I am not as dark skinned as my native family who looks to be kin to the people of the desert.
Galilee no longer shows on modern maps, updated with the new islands created shown I only can speculate that the intended expulsion of the minority has succeeded.
May 2nd of that year, news of Osama Bin-Laden reaches us. The cause for concern that was looming this entire trip for naught. The streets erupt in celebration. Soldiers on leave from the base, expats who have not been stateside since discharge (complaining of an indolent society they cannot bare to return and stagnate), visiting Saudis with their choice of caffeinated drink, Wild Stallion a Red Bull equivalent. In my weeks there, they were my barfly friends and we all party the night away. I become complacent and no longer worry about retributions.
My time on the island is near an a month hence and I drive to the city, whose traffic is so slow, with no rush to be anywhere and gas prices at 30 cents a gallon the citizens enjoy their car time. In all that time waiting for the nigh hour crossing of a few miles I have taken up teaching myself Arabic numbers and letters through the miasma of exhausts of stopped cars in front of me. I too, it seemed, was not in a rush either. On this day, a quick shower after brief day of work promised the possibility of a shortened delay in traffic. However, running out distracted and as I turn the corner to the assumed unoccupied section of my hotel I encounter the specter of a man with suspicious eyes.
Am I an American, the question asked twice from the tramp in front of me, eager to hear my answer as we circle each other. I lose count of hidden spectators in the shadows at the door at six. Maybe more.
“Americano? No. No Señor!” In Spanish. “Mexican!” Throwing in further strings of words to validate my claim, dripping thick in accent. Then to push the narrative home, feigning the throwing down a sombrero and dancing around it with imagined Mariachi music. I must have looked a fool but that was my intent. For in Arab culture, it is to care for the fool. A religious edict around these parts. However, them barely able to care for themselves in seclusion I wagered they could not afford the extra burden. Sure enough, uncomfortable in the situation the scruffy Arab backed slowly into his doorway while others slammed it shut. I ran down the stairs in a rush praising my luck. Never to ascend that particular set of stairs, remaining vigilant for the rest of my stay.
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About the Author
I have always ended up in unexpected places. So I present a collection of my tales told over the years. Places that due to circumstances I might never go on my own accord.