By James Davis » In my 35 years as a travel photographer, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit many countries around the world - more than 80 at last count. Few countries, though, come even close to matching Bahrain for its warmth and friendliness, and I was delighted at my most recent opportunity to visit this island nation, my third trip here.
In the course of my visit, I met up with an expatriate couple from Australia who were winding down in Bahrain after three years in the country. They, like me, were keen on visiting both the well-known attractions as well as Bahrain's more unusual sites to add to their scrapbook of memories before they headed home. It was then that the idea of a round-the-clock island tour was born.
And so it was that I found myself setting my alarm for 3am, an early start for our 24-hour tour. My line of work means that I have to be prepared to get the shots I need, no matter what time of day or night. Even so, I must say that Bahrain is one of the few island countries where it is worthwhile being up at that hour.
3am » A 'Bacha' breakfast: The reason for the early start is to visit Bahrain's fish market, and witness the fresh catch being brought in. On our way we pass the Pearl Monument, subtly lit against the dark night sky - indeed I thought it lived up to its name better seeing it this way than the more usual way in daylight.
Despite our early start, by the time we arrive at the fish market, the bringing in of the catch is already well under way. It is amazing to witness the variety of shapes, sizes and multitude of colours of the fish. The sight and smell of the fresh catch somehow invigorates the senses.
What makes it more interesting for a photographer is the fact that Bahraini people, in the main, love having their photographs taken. I had already learnt this on my previous visits, and the fish market, even at 4am, is no exception. As usual on asking the fishermen to hold up a fine specimen or two for more interesting shots they are only too pleased, encouraged as they were with the amusement and good humour of their colleagues.
We cannot stay too long as it is time to move on for an early breakfast. This is not, however, the usual breakfast of cereal or muesli ... In fact this is a very special Bahraini style traditional breakfast known as Bacha.
What makes it unusual is that it is only available before 5am! There cannot be many places in the world with a traditional breakfast at his hour; in fact there are only a few places in Bahrain where Bacha is available. The restaurant we are dining at is in Jidhafs village, and believe it or not, the place is quite full even at 4.30am. Yes, Bacha is certainly popular - one local has been heard to say that if he didn't have it at least once every three days he comes down with a headache!
So, doing as the Bahrainis did, we break up a quantity of the local flat bread into a bowl and join the queue at a very large urn of what appears to be heated meat soup. This is then dispensed onto our bowl of bread and mixed in deftly and thoroughly to a good consistency. One can eat it in the traditional way with the fingers although I prefer using a fork.
The Bacha tasted fine, warm and was spiced just enough for that time of the morning. (Only later did I learn that the major ingredients of Bacha are sheep's head and legs boiled in a special way for hours - something that could put off some Western visitors though I have to say it would be missing a unique experience).
5am » The Sun and the sea: It's just after 5am now but it's still dark and there's time to drive off to the northeast coast of Bahrain, to Hidd on Muhurraq Island, to photograph the sunrise.
We stop at one of the fishermen's beaches where men are already making new traditional wire traps and repairing old ones that work so effectively for much of the island's fishing. Watching them at work with the dark sky over the sea starting to tinge with the orange and red of the new day's sunrise behind them presents me with very photogenic subjects.
There are more excellent photo opportunities as the sun rises in a beautiful red ball over the horizon, moored fishing boats in the bay being silhouetted dramatically against the early morning colours.
Once again the great friendliness of the local people is revealed, this time by one of local boat owners who offers to take us out on his boat around the bay to see what might have been caught in the fish baskets that had been laid the previous day.
The waters are shallow here, even several hundred metres from the shore, and so we don't have long to wait before one basket after another is raised for us to see the contents of an assortment of colourful fish and crabs.
We also see in close-up some permanent fish traps in the form of stakes placed closely together which in turn hold netting to trap the fish as the tides come in and out. They are a familiar sight often visible just offshore in many places when driving around the island. Seeing them from the boat provides a new photo experience for me in Bahrain.
8.30am » Stopping for a smoke and coffee - Arabic style: Although it feels as though half the day is already gone it isn't quite 8.30am when we arrive in Manama for an early walk through some side streets of the city. We visit a couple of shops selling shisha pipes and items for this most traditional way of smoking in Bahrain, sometimes known as `hubble bubble'.
The pipes and bottles, with their wide range of vivid colours set against a clear morning sun, make good close-ups. I also get some other interesting photographs since just around the corner are two tobacco shops preparing whole tobacco leaves whose pleasant aroma unfortunately cannot be captured on film.
A few metres further on and we stop for a welcome break at a typical Arabic coffee shop in one of the pedestrian-only side streets. An excellent local yoghurt and tea goes down well after all the recent activities, made all the more pleasant by striking up a conversation with two Saudi men at the next table who prove most interesting and friendly to chat to. In fact so much so that I have one of my more unusual moments of being in front of the camera to have my photograph taken with them. More unusual still is their insistence on paying for our breakfast and being treated as their guests!
The coffee shop has its own bakery, presenting another very photogenic subject before we move on - though not very far, for just around the corner is another similarly friendly coffee shop, this time frequented by locals who came to exchange and sell their own range of jewellery of rings and beads. My Australian friends have a most enjoyable time viewing and bartering for some items so again I have more subjects for my camera.
9.30am » Sugared sweets and spice, and pearls that are nice: Then it is on to the souk to see and sample spices, nuts and sweets, including the unusual and delicious halwa - a kind of cross between Turkish delight and jelly. Best eaten warm, either straight from the shop or reheated later, I have since brought some home and enjoy it from time to time. Apparently it will keep for weeks, not even needing to be stored in a refrigerator.
The spices and the way they are displayed in such a variety of patterns and colours that are just asking to be photographed, provide a constant challenge to find new angles. It's a pity that I cannot record or photograph the wonderful aromas given off by them as well - you must come to Bahrain to experience them for yourself!
Wandering through the souk brings us to the long established shop of Mohammed Hassan, an elderly and extremely experienced pearl merchant, where we view his amazing array of pearls. Of every conceivable colour, size and stunning variation of types, these natural Bahraini gems are indeed a sight to behold and an irresistible subject for some close-up photographs.
The same can be said for Abbas pearl merchants just ahead in the Gold Souk. Abbas has the most exquisite jewellery on display with pearls set into brooches, rings, necklaces and earrings. I enquire the price of a small brooch with a pearl whose diameter is at least one centimetre across. I am not surprised, indeed I almost expect it to be more than the $5,400 quoted! It is sights like these that make me say it's not just scenery that makes a place worth visiting!
11.30am » A mid-day break, then it's off to the market: It's time now to give the delicious assault on my mind and senses a break for lunch and as the Australian couple only have the morning for our programme I go back to my comfortable Elite apartment for a brief rest and a relaxing swim in the pool.
It is still only around midday, so I have time to head to Veranda Gallery, a most attractive restaurant with an excellent daily special for lunch as well as a comprehensive menu to choose from. I have the day's special of soup followed by a local dish of rice and meat. Topped up with dessert, this is certainly enough to keep me going through the afternoon.
It is to Janosan village on the northwest coast that I travel next, this time to meet the fishermen coming in with an amazing variety of fish and crabs. A difference from the morning here is that with the tide out, the way to transport the fish to shore is by driving open pickup trucks to the boats several hundred metres away from the shoreline.
A friendly local holding out some fine specimens whilst his fellow fishermen pour some cooling water over him in the very warm afternoon sun, make for some interesting shots.
Heading back towards Manama provides the opportunity once again for a visit to Jidhafs village's fruit and fish market. I feel that people here are beginning to know me with this being at least my third visit to this very colourful and overwhelmingly friendly market where I am more likely to have stall keepers asking me to take their photographs than me needing to ask them to pose!
3pm » Capturing a fort and going off into the sunset: Then it is on to Bahrain Fort, a truly impressive sight with constant restoration and improvement applied to the huge walls and battlements. I like to do photography here at various times of the day, especially when the changing angles of the sun bring out the various contours and reliefs which along with interesting shades and shadows provides the opportunity for plenty of architectural angles.
The afternoon is passing and it is time to think of where to set my camera up for one of Bahrain's lovely sunsets. With a clear sky today, it promises to be good and Budaiya on Bahrain's west coast, just north of the Saudi Causeway, seems the obvious choice. And so it proves to be with the sun going down, appropriately, over some local moored fishing boats.
I swiftly move on, taking the Saudi Causeway up to the Bahrain Tower a few kilometres away. I take the elevator up to the top viewing deck and make it just in time to catch the last orange glow of the sky silhouetting the identical Saudi Tower not far away.
Turning my camera through 180 degrees I get some fine shots looking back along the causeway to Bahrain and am able to record the myriad lights coming on at dusk, both on the causeway as well as along the coast. These are clearly visible thanks to the excellent weather conditions and air clarity.
Driving back along the causeway soon brings me to the Food Garden shopping centre where in the middle is a large and excellent glass-domed, very airy seating area with huge potted palm trees. It makes an excellent stop for a reviving coffee and snack.
6pm » Divine seafood and a magical carpet shop: A little later it is back to Manama and a visit to the Holiday Inn Hotel. It is Seafood Night at the hotel and I just cannot resist taking some shots of the beautifully laid out dishes of the marvellous variety of fish, shrimps, crabs and oysters - some of which perhaps I had photographed being auctioned at the early-morning fish market!
By now it is mid-evening and time to start winding down after a long day. Where better for this than the Isfahan Carpet Centre in Adliya? Owned by Mutahar Ali Ahmed Dabwan, it is a favourite meeting place for many expatriates to not only view the mind-boggling variety of carpets from around the region but to stop and chat as well.
You cannot visit Mutahar's shop without being offered at least one cup of traditional sweet tea. In fact it's more likely to be several cups by the time you've browsed, chatted with Mutahar and made friends with other visitors.
After some photography and welcome tea it occurs to me that it's a great opportunity at this time of night to take some pictures of traditional shisha smoking back at the Veranda gallery where I had lunch.
It is an excellent place for photographs of the shisha with atmospheric low evening lighting providing a different ambience to the one experienced in the local side street coffee shops during the day.
10.30pm » Here comes the night: It's getting late by now, but I am determined to complete this virtual round-the-clock Bahrain tour. My next stop has to be a visit to one of Bahrain's clubs to experience the country's famous nightlife. I head for the Elite Hotel and even as I approach, I can hear Arabic pop music emanating from the hotel's nightclub.
Inside, it is a real fun atmosphere with a group of exceptionally attractive young women singing and dancing for an appreciative audience. Considering that the singers are from the former Soviet republic of Belarus and had to learn the local pop music, I thought their talent seemed all the more commendable. I am pleased that they are willing for me to photograph their routine.
Time for a final stop at Barnaby Joe's, one of Bahrain's best known discotheques. Better known by its abbreviation BJ's, this is a disco that would sit well anywhere in the West. Not that I am an expert by any means on discos but with a huge dance floor plus a second floor gallery running around three sides, BJ's makes a great night out for young Bahrainis as well as expats. A fast film in my camera and flash combined with the flashing lights of the disco completes my photography of virtually 24 hours of a very interesting day in Bahrain.
I guess I could have gone back to my apartment via the illuminated Pearl Monument to give it a farewell wave but by now sleep beckons and I leave the disco happy that a good day's work - yes it is work although at times I must say it becomes sheer pleasure as well - is now complete.