Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Wine, Work and the Law

Wine: It's Tuesday and I've a hangover despite last night being a "school night" as a result of an impromptu evening together with some friends in our apartment. I consumed more white wine than was good for me! One of our bottles of lovely chilled Pouilly-Vinzelles from the Bahrain airport duty free was shared then followed by some of our staple white: South African Footprint (large wine box in the fridge). The wine choices here are not huge so you often find yourself confronted by the same ones you drink at home on most restaurant wine lists, the result of a limited number of importers. Anyway I digress...

Work: Talk last night turned to the complexity of labour and immigration law as one of our party has recently been made redundant by his employer. Now you would think that it was fortunate that his wife is still working meaning they can remain in Bahrain while their youngest is still at school. Not necessarily. The first problem they face is that the former employer did not cancel his work visa in a timely fashion (for which the company is being fined). The Bahraini authorities want him to hand over his passport together with proof of a ticket to leave the country. They will then hand back his passport at the airport when he flies out. However it is unlikely that the work visa in his passport will be cancelled via this process. Without one visa being cancelled you cannot be issued another meaning you cannot return to the country.

Law: The second puzzle to solve is that although children can live in Bahrain with their working mother, the law doesn't envisage an unemployed or retired husband doing so. If a wife has a work visa the husband cannot live here permanently only visit on a three month tourist visa whereas if the husband has a work visa the wife is welcome to come permanently as their spouse.

There has been in recent months an amnesty for "illegal" ex-pats which has been widely covered in the papers here. The government together with the embassies has been encouraging them to come forward, pay their fines and be repatriated through an Easy Exit Scheme. These are mostly from the Indian sub-continent and probably came orginally with sponsorship from an employer but then moved on to another road project, shop, restaurant or hotel without the required LMRA paperwork being completed. Or they simply overstayed their original tourist visa and found work. Whatever the reason the immigration and labour organisations here are getting tougher on all foreigners and their employers to ensure they comply with the existing laws.

Yesterday's Gulf Daily News had a comment column which had echoes of the UK. "Public opinion" here feels that too many Bahraini's are unemployed (officially 3.5% in March 2010) and that same opinion has it that there are too many foreign workers (an estimated half a million ex-pats of all nationalities live here). The argument as positioned in the GDNs pages is that foreign workers are more willing to do the manual work for lower pay. Talk in the letters page is of minimum wages, caps on numbers of foreign workers....Sound familiar?

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Great Night Out

During July Bahrain holds a festival "Bahrain Summer" of art and culture mainly aimed at children however there are a few events for adults on offer. One that caught our eye via a large roadside billboard not far from our apartment was "Lord of The Dance" who were to perform at the Bahrain International Exhibition and Conference Centre (BIECC) for two nights this week. I acquired tickets from the Zain store at the airport when I was collecting Kevin one evening. Buying concert tickets at your local mobile operator's shop may seem odd but it obviously worked as on the night there were very few empty seats.

On Tuesday evening we arrived as instructed 60 minutes before the performance started. The door was not yet open so we joined the lengthy queue snaking its way through what appeared to be an enormous ice cube. This inflatable arch provided a reception area with aircon and fantastic floral displays as well as white leather seating. Onward and into the hall itself. Raised seating at the back, two areas of black covered banqueting chairs between that and the stage. We were efficiently guided into the right area and found orselves some seats towards the centre of the stage.

Meanwhile Inge, who had discovered the Irish dance troup were in town from a Facebook post I made shortly before we left our apartment, managed to get changed, drive from Amwaj (islands to the north of Bahrain) and buy herself a ticket on the door in less than an hour! Her 1BD ticket was for the raised area at the back whereas we had invested in the 10BD seats (around £18 each) closer to the stage. The ticket prices are amazingly inexpensive compared to the price of a similar show in London. Comparing notes later there were benefits to both seating areas; closer too you could see the footwork, raised up you could see the overall impact of the dance formations with the downside of the front seats being having to look up to see the stage whereas further back you missed some of the detail.

Anyway on to the show, the story is a simple one of the tussle between good and evil. The dancing was superb and the audience, a mix of locals and ex-pats, quickly got into the swing of clapping in time to the catchy Irish music once encouraged by the performers. The drumming feet on the wooden stage in perfect timing was amazing and kept everyone entranced. The dualing fiddle players brought the house down and the lovely Little Spirit captured everyone's hearts. The troupe got a standing ovation when they'd done which they responded to with an encore.

How do the girls dancing on tip toes in soft shoes make that little wiggle of their body from their ankles and remain standing! And how do apparently simple foot moves make so many rythmic taps? Their skills and stamina are amazing. I understand now why this show is still playing to full houses wherever in the world it is performed. I for one want to go again!

Thank-you Bahrain Summer (warning the festival theme tune is annoyingly catchy!).

Monday, 5 July 2010

Morning Ma-dam

Here in almost every shop as you enter, you will hear a greeting from a usually unseen shop assistant "Morning Ma-dam". My British politemess gene automatically forces me to mutter a response but I notice that many of my fellow shoppers simply ignore the staff. This level of attention I don't mind. In fact it is good to know that someone has registered your presence unlike the UK where often its impossible to find anyone to answer your query. My pet hate is when they decide to follow you around or pop out from behind the racks to stand close, often very close beside you as if they are a good friend. Another oddity you have to get used to here is the fact that in many women's clothing stores, it is young men who are realigning the clothes on the hanging rails, straightening the shoe display or refolding t-shirts on the shelves. Not certain why I find this off putting but I do.

Yesterday as I browsed round the City Mall sales there was usually someone standing a few yards behind me tracking my every move, ready to jump in if I so much as look at a label more closely. Get out of my space! The most off putting was the young man in Desigual who stood at my elbow as I moved around the store asking me what size, what colour, was there some specific? All too much for me, do I look like a potential shoplifter?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Where is the Beach?

Bahrain is a group of islands, islands in the desert therefore logic would dictate there should be a surfeit of sandy beaches. The reality is that shallow seas, land reclamation and the stony geology mean decent beaches are few and far between, the majority of them man-made. Clubs and hotels situated by the sea often have a beach of some sort. The Ritz-Carlton has the Rolls-Royce of man-made efforts with white sand and palm trees whilst the one we visit most is Bahrain YC's cove. This also ranks amongst the top of the man-made efforts with its curve of sand supporting a beach bar, sun loungers and umbrellas whilst leaving plenty of space for building sand castles or launching dinghies.

Initially I found myself asking people I met where are the beaches? I have since learnt that there are few public beaches. Guide books on Bahrain are rare and the two I have found have few references to any beaches. Tourists it seems, come to Bahrain mainly for the Grand Prix and throw in a bit of sight seeing whilst they are here. As for the locals, beach-going is not viewed in the same light as it is in Britain as can be seen from the accoutrements provided - benches, sun shades, childrens play equipment and lighting. The seaside is a place to walk with the family in the cool of the evening rather than somewhere to strip off, laze about, swim or picnic during the day; it's simply too hot and the culture doesn't endorse scanty clothing. As for the water, the Gulf is apparently the second most salty sea on Earth and Bahrain's shallow seas heat up quickly meaning that it offers little in the way of a refreshing dip for those ex-pats looking for a little R&R.

Close to us, across the bridge, on Muharraq Island, is a beach situated just outside the gates to the dry docks. Despite its location in amongst heavy industry it seems popular. It is fringed with leafy trees rather than the ubiquitous date palm and we intend to try it sometime. Way down the west side of the island is the first beach we discovered, Al Jazayer with its street lights and childrens play equipment. You can take a boat to the tiny Al Dar Island just north of the yacht club on the east coast and hire a four poster sun lounger for the day. For those wanting to experience real isolation, a longer boat trip can be made south to the Hawar Islands. Down there vistors will find a hotel as well as a military base but basically the Hawar's are an uninhabited and isolated nature reserve so possibly a great spot for getting away from it all.

This weekend we accidently found another pleasant spot on the west coast just south of the fishing harbour at Malkiya (turn off opposite the new Reef Mall). After driving across an expanse of open land used as makeshift football pitches you reach a low sand and ditch barrier, park and walk the final few yards to the sea. The sand is flat and natural, not the dredged, sharp shell filled, grey stuff that the man-made beaches are made of. Benches, plastic "gazebo" style sunshades, a fenced, floodlit sports court and childrens play equipment are close by. The sea was clear and it was good to hear the sound of the sea breaking on the shore. However the sand shelves steeply and not far out coral heads could be seen, so care would have to be taken when swimming but I had a pleasant paddle in the warm water as we walked along. It is another beach to try when the cooler autumn weather arrives.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Home Office

When we left the UK we simply shipped personal efffects, no furniture on the basis that we would rent a fully furnished apartment and be relatively free to move if needed. So much for our ideal. Since we arrived Kevin has frequently worked from home rather than squashing into the serviced broom cupboard in the Diplomatic Area his company rent as their local office. Using the dining table isn't too bad but having to eat meals amongst a litter of paper, cables and computer accessories is not acceptable. We decided to buy a workspace - I use that odd term rather than desk or table as it turned out the pair of us had very different ideas of what to acquire and where it might be located. I firmly want to keep his messy desk out of sight of any guests and don't want to have to listen to endless conference calls when I'm at home whereas Kevin prefers the light airy feel of our living area.

In the Bahrain City Mall are a couple of large furniture stores so we toured them one Saturday afternoon. Having eventually agreed that any purchase will be placed in the window of our bedroom which has great views over the bay and the bridge plus windows on two sides we were looking for something relatively small. Desks with returns are out as are executive football pitch sized expanses of work surface. Back in the UK daughter Maddy had had an IKEA table with metal legs and a beech top, hubby eventually let go of his executive desk dream and started to look at tables similar to the one in our garge back home! To be precise cheap metal and plastic dining tables with four or six chairs. Oddly even wooden casual dining sets, the style you'd have in the kitchen, are cheaper than desks! He did suggest I left him loose at our nearest IKEA, over the border in Saudi but that I felt was too dangerous!

Determined to minimise any expenditure after reveiwing what was on offer in the mall, I steered us toward a couple of office furnishing shops. Large wooden executive models with tooled leather writing areas were all that appealed to either of us as the rest were well, too office-like. Our eventual purchase has to be woken up to every morning. Then I located Gulf Auctions. Now "auction" here means "secondhand" not "bidding". The large warehouse had lots of quality, solid pieces of Middle Eastern style furniture; huge wardrobes, heavily carved bedsteads, weighty dining tables for a dozen guests but few desks. The latter were mostly too officey or too large and the crunch came when we found that all were more expensive than the veneered MDF stuff in the mall even after some tentative negotiations.

Searching the web uncovered a local furniture store with clean modern designs (think Heals or Habitat), so another Saturday afternoon we braved the Sitra causeway road works and headed to the Sitra Mall. Its on the wrong side of the road surronded by roadworks and a bit depressing with many empty units. ID Designs is full of lots of lovely furniture and home accessories including some large pieces of art and sculpture. A great place if you want to make an investment buy of statement items for your home but beyond what we'd budgeted. We resisted the temptation and headed back to Home Store in the City Mall where we reveiwed the options again. Computer desks with all their fiddly shelves and racks need dusting - a no no in the climate we live in. A plain glass table with dark wooden supports at either end and a couple of cross rails in steel had caught our eye on the first visit. Now we discovered everything in store had 25% off for the weekend... the table was ordered with a little haggling over delivery dates and duely arrived as promised on Wednesday. Three guys brought in the two boxes of flat pack and one of tools. The desk was rapidly assembled by practised hands in the window space, within a few minutes of arriving the paperwork was signed and they were gone - impressive service and free of charge!

Footnote: Amongst the effects we shipped out is an almost new, all singing, all dancing Epson printer. Be warned if you plan to move abroad, this model wasn't sold here (it doesn't support Arabic) meaning we can't buy ink cartridges locally. Kevin has ordered a supply from the UK at about the same cost as a new printer so I think a new printer will shortly be required!