Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Tree of Life

I was able to spend a day in the Kingdom of Bahrain this week. Part of the day was spent trying to find the Tree of Life, which is 100+year old tree, probably a Prosopis cineraria (Mesquite), which is considered a natural wonder. This unique tree stands alone in the desert about 1.2 mi from the Jebel Dukhan, the highest point in Bahrain. The source of water for this tree remains a mystery because it stands in a place completely free of water.

I picked up a guide to Bahrain at the airport. It included a map of Bahrain, with the Tree of Life noted as one of the country’s highlights. The map prominently features a deep blue to represent the Persian Gulf that surrounds the island and the roads that lead to the Tree of Life. The map lacked any identification for the roads because most of the roads in Bahrain are neither named nor numbered. While driving to see this wonder in the desert we saw two directional signs, but there was no other signage to one of the Kingdom’s prime tourist sites.

I rented a car since there are also not many organized tours, which surprises me because the Kingdom is something of a tourist destination. The rental car only had about a quarter of a tank of gas. While threading our way around the streets of Manama, the Kingdom’s capital, we made several wrong turns, in part because of the lack of street names. We finally found that coastal highway that would take us quickly and efficiently to the Tree. I was very impressed with the roads and the orderliness of traffic, given that in other middle-eastern countries, traffic in unregulated and something of a free-for-all. We soon realized that we had to purchase gas, so one of us was assigned the task of looking for a filling station. Given that this is an oil-rich country, this would be an easy task, right? Well, not really, since the gas stations are rather dreary little buildings with nothing to make them stand out from other dreary little buildings. Finally we found one and waited in line to fill up. When it was our turn, we found out from the attendant that he didn’t take credit cards. Since none of us had Bahraini Dinar, we had to find an ATM. Having seen a shopping mall a few miles back, we took off back toward Manama, went to the mall, withdrew money, had lunch, and returned to the gas station. A fill up cost us about $9- one of the benefits of being in an oil-rich country. We returned to the highway. After several missteps, we followed a directional sign for the Tree. We ended up on this desert road that was made up of rutted asphalt and white fine powder. After feeling that we were lost in the desert without Moses to guide us, I saw two people who had just left their car. I ran up to them to ask for directions. It’s a good thing that most Bahrainis have some ability to speak English. Anyway, one of the men told me to continue on the road (even though it would be unpaved in some areas) until we came to a roundabout, where sometime after, we would make a left. We would continue on until we find two uprights that would allow only one car through at a time. We would then make a left. We continued on and the road indeed nearly disappeared under to be limestone rocks and powder. We passed a cement factory, many trucks and buses with locals who waved and seemed happy to see the foreign tourists. We passed mini-mountains of limestone rocks and piles of old truck tires. After maybe 10 minutes I lost confidence since it seemed like we should have found the roundabout, I stopped to ask another Bahraini for directions. He was cleaning out his truck with a hose and water was running across the street. He seemed eager to help but did not understand English. I had the tourist map with me so that I could point out where we were going. He pointed in the direction we were going, so I figured we should press ahead. We finally found the pipes that only allowed one car to pass. I turned right onto another highway and we went what seemed to be a few miles further into the desert. Losing confidence, I turned around to go in to opposite direction. We passed large oil field pipes and networks of limestone-covered smaller pipes that were lying on the desert floor. Again, my confidence evaporated quicker than a bead of sweat in the desert heat. I said, in a semi-sarcastic way, “If only god would give us a sign here in the middle of the desert so we can find the Tree of Life.” In about two minutes, I pulled to the side of the road and saw a lime green car coming our way. I got out of my car and waved the oncoming vehicle to stop. The car stopped in the road- it was apparent that there was no traffic coming in either direction. I walked over to the car, the occupants lowered the window. I looked in and saw that they were holding the blue tourist map with the Tree circled. I asked them if they knew how to get there and one said “No, we were going to ask you.” I started to howl with laughter, as did they. It was hilarious to see that they were playing out the same tourist script as us. One of the guys was from Madrid, and one from Sri Lanka. Just as we completed our introductions, a white car with a Bahraini family headed toward us. I flagged them down. They stopped and I asked directions to the Tree. The driver said to follow him. Since he was going in the opposite direction, I turned my rental around and followed our new friends and the Bahraini family. We soon found ourselves at the point of previous indecision where we had turned around. The tree was just a few miles away. Long story short- I asked for divine intervention and indeed- it came.

At the Tree we were able to further talk with our new friends. They were both architects. One had been in Bahrain for one month and one for a year and a half. We spent about an hour at the Tree. Juan, the architect from Madrid, said that they were going to leave to visit the oil museum. I asked if he knew how to get there. He said they would find it just liked they found the tree. We shook hands good-bye. It was a great afternoon, made all the better by the great sense of humor of my traveling companions. It’s great to be a tourist.

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