For those that have been reading my blog, for years now, I feel like I don’t need to remind you how excited I get before a trip. This one would be no different. I set my alarm for 5:45, not for a wake-up alert but to let myself know after a night of popping off the pillow every half hour like it was time to go when I should actually get up to grab my bag and take an Uber to the airport since the safety situation here in Bahrain left my friend feeling cautious to be out on unnecessary travel according to the base who had just three days ago sent my husband out to sea to defend not only Americans in the region but the other nationalities that call this place home.
Some spouses felt the need to leave and go to the safety of the United States and others panicked with this being their first and rough introduction to the custom of the Navy that is underway. I didn’t feel the same, as even though Caleb had less than twelve hours to get ready to deploy with another ship, this is his job and the military has kept their promise to provide three meals and a cot (whether healthy or comfy is up for debate) for the 16 years Caleb has served, so I left on my first visa run feeling sure that we would see each other in weeks.
What concerned me was the lack of communication that might follow. His first two deployments were email heavy with a phone call interspersed between the months but the longest separation left me receiving two calls daily. I didn’t think I was prepared to go without for so long, but the Navy had thought of that and the new crew was given email access within 24 hours of being onboard. Caleb and I would be able to share, me more than him, how we were doing.
I get to see a bit of the beautiful Bahraini sunrise, from the corner of the backseat behind the high-rise buildings, that I’ve missed, just not enough to be awake for it or to step outside when I am. My driver is playing music and I wonder if it’s because I’m alone or because he’s not on the phone as having ridden with Caleb in the evenings the drivers feel fine answering the call on speakerphone to say they will call back when they have dropped us off or continuing a conversation they know we don’t understand.
I arrive at the airport in hiking boots and my Hello Kitty jacket with my face still puffy from the phone ringing on the wall, most likely for food delivery or a friend showing up to play video games with the guy below. I also forgot to flip my phone over so it lit up with a downloadable file from a Kenya number that is blocked so I could go back to closing my eyes and pretending to dream.
The immigration agent asked for my name, a first, and then wished me a good flight. I didn’t realize how many times travel documents get checked as a precaution against travelers in a hurry getting on the wrong flight or other precarious issues that might arise. At the Bahrain airport there is a guard to ensure that only people with flights and one aide per disabled person continues towards the baggage wrapping machines and airline’s counters.
The airlines will check your passport if you’re checking a bag or don’t have an e-ticket. Another guard will check your boarding pass before the immigration agent checks your passport. Once in line for security, there is another agent checking both, and some airports don’t want you checking in too many hours early before a flight to limit congestion. I went through the scanner with a group of women in hijabs so the guy on the other side wasn’t concerned with the amount of shoes or jackets I had on, though they usually have a woman available.
I wasn’t able to get Georgian Lari at the Exchange on base so I went to BFG at the airport where there seemed to be more security checks in place, as is usually the case where high volumes of money are concerned. The company only had half the amount I planned on taking with me so I’m interested in what the conversion difference will be once I’m in country. I traded dollars, a scanned copy of my passport, and a signature for a small wad of 50 lari bills. I didn’t fully agree with the swap as I wish the transaction was more clear on the buying and selling value of the currencies being traded.
I forget that it’s winter in Bahrain and I was worried about looking out of place (which I usually do anyway) but many people have coats, gloves, scarves, and hats on — also a great way to get more carry-on without paying for the weight as my coat and camera add five pounds to my bag. I sit down near my gate and watch an Arabian toddler approach a Russian man with her little hand on his knee to get a look at his phone while he’s on a video call with his wife and baby.
I’ve gotten to the airport too soon and I’m feeling sleepy so I grab a snack and some steps to stay awake until I’m on the plane. A woman asks me where the toilet is and I point towards the overhead sign as I try to remember the response to “shukran” as there are at least six ways to say “you’re welcome” in Arabic, “afwan” and “hala hala” being the most common. I’m the fourth one on the plane, not because of a rewards program or first-class seats but because with so many possible language barriers it’s difficult for the staff to keep people from skipping ahead anyway.
The lady behind me almost grabs my face twice by slapping her fat hand onto my headrest while trying to find her seatbelt and get comfortable while the woman beside me is busy putting a seatbelt on her unbranded quilted blush backpack in the seat between us, only to have to put it under the seat like everyone else before take-off. This plane has screens available where I’m expecting to see the safety video displayed twice, once in the local language of the airline and again in English but this briefing will be brought to the passengers via a guy talking as fast as I do but in Arabic.
The three stewardesses are showing us how to blow ourselves to safety should the airplane experience (an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone) a water landing which minimizes the chances for recovery or recycling of the aircraft but might provide an artificial reef and food to the fish. These thoughts will follow me into my nap as we approach Dubai. I’m looking forward to Gulf Air increasing their direct flights to more Europian and Asian cities this summer so I can decrease the time spent on planes and in airports.
I’m fourth in line again as I stand near a plastic-covered construction site for a flight with a delayed departure time of 30 minutes. The boarding process starts earlier when a bus is involved and I’m pulled aside to have my bag tagged for its large size. I begin pleading with the man because I know it fits in the overhead compartment and I don’t want to repack my bag for their harsh treatment. He puts the tag on and says it’s up to the flight crew. I thank him and join people on the bus with their three carry-ons and notice other bags getting tagged as well.
We arrive at the plane and a man tries to take my bag, but I assure him I’m allowed to bring it on board. The cart is filled with extra bags but still people are getting on the plane with two bags the size of mine, plus their purse, mini backpack, and duty free bags. One woman gets on with a hiking backpack that she could fit in and I don’t blame her for not wanting to part with her life’s belongings, but that could’ve been split between two bags for air travel. I’m grateful that some airlines are beginning to limit bag size and type to lessen their liability for damage and time spent fitting things into the overhead bins because people want to maximize their foot space.
I try a trail mix Evolve plant-based protein bar (which could use only a third of the sugar and taste better) as I fly over the beautiful Zagros Mountain range in Iran. I put my tray table down in anticipation of food but I wasn’t on the pre-purchased meal list so I went to put it back up when I was offered a free veg fried noodle since there were ‘extra’, lucky me. My smart watch says we’re flying at 2,093 meters and though I can still see roads and buildings I know we’re closer to 10,900 meters otherwise we’d be crashing into the 9,800 – 14,922 ft tall snow-covered limestone and dolomite below.
I’m looking forward to the cold because my feet are getting sweaty in my boots, which next time I will either take off in-flight or pack flip flops to change into as there was enough room in my bag. Usually on descent I notice farm fields, industrial centers, major highways, or busy beaches but this landing had us passing tracts of trash and I wondered if they were natural or man-made collections. I hand the immigration officer my passport and she hands it back with a stamp in it and a small bottle of wine that says “gamarjoba”, which means “hello” in Georgian.
I am offered a taxi ten times before leaving the small departure area of the airport filled with just the necessities — rental car agencies, SIM card seller, currency exchange booth, and a restaurant — with drivers and police mingling in-between. I go to the Hertz counter and while I’m waiting on the guy to check on my license situation with my international permit I ask the next counter for water. The man asks what took me so long to ask as they saw me standing there a while but I was taking the place in — looking at the sign outside and the people walking up from a parking lot.
I’m ok to drive with my expired Florida license with military extension because I have the valid international permit that I will present with my passport if needed by the police. I chug another cup of water before attempting to get my first SIM card because Hertz doesn’t have a travel wifi and I forgot to ask about a GPS. The seller takes my phone and tries to unlock it using the airport’s wifi and then I seem to get some signal. I would be satisfied with dial-up as long as it got me to all the places on my list. I return the unusable card and exchange the rest of my dollars for lari (bills of 5, 10, and 20) and tetri (coins of 1 and 2 lari with 10, 20, and 50 tetri) which resemble the Euro coins.
Back at Hertz, the guy grabs his clipboard and my suitcase to escort me to the rental lot. The 8*C feels amazing and I walk with my jacket open and no other winter accoutrements on even though I can see my breath. I told the guy I definitely packed too much but I’m hoping for snow so I should be fine. I don’t notice much about the bus on my left or the smokers to my right that we pass on our short walk but I do see the black dog sitting on the edge of the road with a yellow tag on his right ear and pause to appreciate the sky beside the airport as we arrive at my white BMW X1 4×4 which doesn’t seem to be very high clearance.
The car takes diesel and I will have two types to choose from at the pump. I pull over outside the airport for a nice picture before the road lines disappear and I follow behind a vehicle as cars merge knowingly even with oncoming traffic. I feel better once the lines return between old buildings and wintered trees. The view is constantly changing, as it usually does with any amount of movement, but the main theme on the road is buildings on, next to, and between mountains and suspended Christmas lights as I enter the busier downtown district.
I barely notice the sex music on the radio (sorry I don’t remember more details) as my senses are being pulled in all directions as I’m engaged like I knew I would be. The road goes from paved to smooth rocks turned on edge to provide traction for tires in inclement weather with a small concrete-like rough section between as a lane marker and footpath. I follow the signs for Guest House Zemeli as the street continues to climb and park as closely as I can next to a cardiologist’s gate (there’s a sign) to avoid being in the road, blocking the entrance, or hitting the light pole and walk up to the small wooden door with a large metal latch.
Once inside, past the glass case of toiletries for sale, there is a woman on the couch in a living room. I look up my reservation (that currently doesn’t exist) so I get to go through the motions of explaining that I would like one room with one bed to rest my soon-to-be tired head. She agrees and I pay her in cash for less than the discounted online price. I return to the car for my suitcase and can’t figure out how to lock the vehicle. There’s a button to push to shift between R and D on the side of the gear shift and another button on top to park. Then I push the on/off button and push the key fob in to release it.
The fob has a key that comes out with an unlock button for the doors and a separate one for the trunk which doesn’t seem to open on its own. I walk down to the main street after putting my bag in the room and my coat on as I figured the temperature would drop when the sun did. I turn left on Merab Kostava St and point to a closed khachapuri (cheese in bread) through the bakery window. I walk with a smile on my face as I take in the Christmas lights, cold cigarette smoke smell, the loose tiles underfoot, the half warm bread in my hands, and the holiday music that I can understand.
I finish my meal quickly when I see the pomegranate juicer and get the medium size cup to chug down before I slosh it from the rim or someone bumps into me. This country, so far, makes me think of the Soviet Union, London, Singapore, New Jersey… and I’m sure this is where the ideas got started for the modern cities. My walk to the Clock Tower was a bit rushed so that I could make the 7 o’clock show or otherwise I can return at noon tomorrow. I was still able to take photos of goods being sold on steps, graffiti in the pedestrian underpass, benches and statues, and a black kitty too.
The show starts as I walk up and find a spot amongst the crowd with their faces and phones tilted towards the top of the tower as an angelic puppet comes out to ring the bell as the “Circle of Life”, from boy meets girl to marriage, birth, and death plays out and is just as quickly over and the mass of people disperse. The Leaning Tower of Tbilisi and the marionette theatre that it’s attached to have more history and meaning than can be attained in this sneak peek into the life’s work of Rezo Gabriadze.
I begin my walk back towards the guesthouse and have more time to take in the well-lit under street passages that are covered in art and filled with shops selling wine, panties, fruits, and trinkets. I try some eggnog at one of the many Christmas markets, booths selling mostly hot wine and sweets. There are plenty of statues, some permanent and others adorned with lights, for the passersby photo opportunity. There’s a large fresh flower market, an open playground, a pop-up ice rink, and a metal trash can with fire lighting up the stars cut into the side.
The Kashveti St. George Orthodox Church is beautiful inside and out. Women are covering their hair (except for one who looks like she threw a dish towel over her head) and men giving the sign of the cross upon exit. I put my coat hood on and go in. There is no place to sit and everyone is placing an 8-inch candle, thinner than a pen, to melt under the image displaying a lord, mother, or disciple of their choosing and allowing the wax to drop on the floor as the candle is placed on a tray of its peers.
I can’t tell in what order, but people are praying and kissing the cases containing images and taking their blessings from the objects in the room within reach. Some images have more gold and others are bejeweled with a description below in Georgian. Some of the wooden frames and furniture are ornately designed. The dress code sign on the side door says no flash photography and no pants for women. I’m on my way out and hold the door for a kid. His dad will give me a grateful smile and a nod.
I was going to write some notes on my phone while I stood taking in the grey stone of the church contrasting with golden pictures inside and yellow street lights outside when Caleb called. We both had terrible service but I think he was able to make out that I had found a room for the night and was having an amazing time. Caleb had made a new friend to keep him company, which was good since he didn’t have a job onboard. He still wasn’t able to tell me if he would stay out to sea or return home via ship or plane according to the Navy’s plans, but it was great to hear his voice.
I’d spend the next hour or so getting back to the room as I pause to enter a shop and get one photo before a man comes over and turns on his language Rolodex — “ara” I don’t understand, but I know that “нет” means no more pictures. I release a long “aww” to let him know I get the message that drinks don’t like my camera. I thought about sneaking a photo of the snacks but figure I will have other shops and opportunities while I’m here. I pass the room and climb some stairs in the dark for a look over the city and the Biltmore, attached to the IMELI building which was erected in the 1930s, dominates the skyline with a 32-floor glass skyscraper that opened in 2016.
The Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute served the Georgian government from 1991 to 2007 and was partly demolished by a team that was turning it into a hotel until another group came along and spent $140 million on its preservation and additional 300-meter high hotel tower. This building combination is a great example of the country as a whole. A lot of the buildings would be condemned in the States for their broken appearance, but here they are saved to tell a story… and probably a lack of government funding to improve the situation.
My room is the first one to the right once you enter the main door and I try to enter quietly and have a look around but the fireworks outside, done before I can capture evidence, grabs the attention of the night attendant who asks if I’m German and then Russian with me saying no in both languages respectively. I tell her I speak English from America and she says her Georgian is from here. I’m grateful to the societies that understand the significance of learning another language to connect cultures without a sense of losing their identity.
I plug in the space heater and turn it on to create a barrier between the window and the bed. I hang my coat up next to the mirror and exchange clothes from my body and suitcase. I sit on the bed to plug my phone in via adapter and wish I had a match to light my bedside candle though I won’t need it with the lights flashing in through the blinds and performing a dance show on the wall. There’s also one glass there and that might be for my welcome drink but I’m ready to lay my head down on the bird sleeping in my pillow, the densest pile of covered feathers ever.
I unfold the origami sheet as it continues to grow from a neat folded napkin into a behemoth of warmth blanket that will envelop me and the mattress. I’m taking in the day and imagining tomorrow as other guests are still arriving with their text alerts and chatter that can be heard through the door. Nothing that can’t be fixed by being tired enough to roll over and go to sleep.