Moving Abroad to Teach in Bahrain

Food Festival at Bahrain Bay in Bahrain.
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Bahrain Food Festival at Bahrain Bay. March 2017.

A New Beginning Abroad

Have you ever felt like moving abroad and starting a new life? Do you love traveling and learning about new cultures? One way to do both of these things is by finding a teaching job and moving abroad. I found a job in Bahrain before I finished graduate school and left the U.S. right after graduation. I knew very little about the country that would soon become my home, so I want to help you by sharing my experience moving to Bahrain so you know what to expect if you are planning on moving there yourself. Bahrain is a tiny, desert, island country just a quick, forty-five minute flight away from Dubai and connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahad Causeway. I’m always pleasantly surprised when someone has heard of Bahrain because I only heard of it a few years before I moved there myself. Although Bahrain is not as well-known as Dubai, it still ranks number one as the best country in the GCC for expats, so it’s no wonder that it’s a highly popular destination for those looking to teach in the Middle East.

Moving from the U.S. to Bahrain

Sitting at Gate S5 at SeaTac waiting to board my Emirates flight, I pondered what living and working in Bahrain would be like. I imagined that it was similar to Dubai, but on a smaller scale. What I knew for certain was that Bahrain was an Islamic country, it’s an island but also a desert, it’s a popular vacation destination for citizens from around the GCC, and the Fifth Fleet Naval Base is located in Juffair, one of the main expat areas.

When you move halfway across the world, most people will be supportive and curious, while others will undoubtedly think you’re insane for moving somewhere you know nothing about, and especially if you’re moving to an Islamic country. I would advise you to do your research before making a big move like this, but don’t be deterred by the naysayers. Before deciding to move to Bahrain, I had Saudi friends give me their honest opinion about living and teaching in the Middle East, and they ultimately recommended Dubai and Bahrain because both countries are expat-friendly. Moving to Bahrain took a big leap of faith, but I desperately wanted to start a new chapter in my life and do some serious soul-searching away from home. I knew everything was about to change, but I couldn’t have imagined just how transformative this experience would be.

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SeaTac Airport

Arriving in Bahrain

I first arrived in Bahrain on a blazing hot, humid, evening in August of 2016. At the arrivals gate, I was greeted by a smiling woman wearing a hijab holding a sign that read, “Ms. Adriana Sanchez.” She led me to a lounge where I waited for someone to pick up my suitcases from the luggage carousel and help me fill out paperwork for customs. I sat in a plush velvet armchair and sipped cold water, grateful that it was all being taken care of because I was exhausted after a long twenty-three hour journey from Seattle. I could feel the jetlag creeping in. At the airport, my school had arranged for a bus to pick up all the new teachers, and a welcome committee of current teachers was there to meet us, too. Before I’d accepted the teaching position, I’d emailed back and forth with a current teacher, and I recognized some other faces from the school’s Facebook group. When you’re looking at prospective schools, ask to talk to a current teacher so you can ask them any questions you might have about working at the school or living in the country as an expat. I felt much more comfortable about the move after doing this myself. To my knowledge, not all schools offer this VIP service, so make sure to talk to a representative for your school to find out what benefits you will receive as a new teacher. Services could include airport pickup, transportation to a hotel, hotel accommodation for a period of time, or assistance finding housing.

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Sunsets in Juffair

How to Get a Teaching Job Abroad

Thinking back to how I got the job in the first place, it’s no wonder that some people expressed concern about me moving there.  “You found your job on Google? Do you even know anyone that works there? How do you know it’s even a real job?”  Unlike other people who applied for a teaching position at my school through a job fair, I found the job on my own. I Googled, “teaching opening Bahrain,” applied to the first (and only job opening) I found, and I received an email for a Skype interview a few days later.  When you’re interviewing for a job in another country, make sure to take their time zone into account. Bahrain is ten hours ahead of Washington, and I almost missed my interview because of a mix-up with the time. Luckily, it all worked out. The day after the interview, I received an email with a job offer. It seemed too good to be true since it all happened so fast, but it started to feel more real when I received my travel itinerary a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave Washington. It still didn’t feel real until I found myself in Bahrain on the little bus pulling out of the parking lot at the airport. We drove past palm trees and crossed bridges overlooking buildings with the red and white Bahraini flag and pictures of the Bahraini royal family on display. I could see the ocean almost the entire way home. “I’m finally here,” I whispered to myself, but it still felt surreal.

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Visiting the Al Fateh Grand Mosque in Juffair, Bahrain.

Jetlagged in Bahrain

For the first week or two I was extremely jet-lagged. The jetlag was just as maddening as I remembered from my trip to Dubai a few years before moving to Bahrain. Heavy eyelids, the sensation that you’re moving in slow motion, being wide awake hours before the sun comes up, and fighting to stay awake past 3PM thanks to the body’s circadian rhythm being completely thrown out of window. No amount of caffeine helps, either. Experts say that the best way to beat jetlag is to stay awake until midnight, local time, wake up at your usual wake up time, and get natural sunlight exposure during the day. If you know you’ll struggle like me, you can also take melatonin at bedtime to help you naturally reset your sleep schedule.

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Ten hours is a huge time difference, which means you need to be mindful that you’re on a different schedule than everyone back home. Timing phone calls to loved ones becomes a challenge. Texting friends and family back home doesn’t feel like it’s in real time either. I remember the first time I got a call at 1AM from home. I woke up in a panic imagining the worst, but it was just my sister who’d forgotten about the time difference and was calling to say hello. The time difference is one of the few downsides to living in another country. It seems like everyone is asleep when you’re starting your day, and then they’re waking up and calling or messaging in the middle of the night. Finding a good time that works for everyone is essential to feeling connected to loved ones back home. For example, I would wake up half an hour earlier during the week to call home. That way, I could catch everyone at home during the evening novelas. Weekends work well, too. Except that in Bahrain weekends are Friday and Saturday, so you have to factor that in as well.

From Dubai to Bahrain

I’ve always felt drawn to the Middle East, and my first trip to Dubai solidified my resolve to live there someday. It was so different from anything I’d ever known. Men wore crisp white thobes and women floated by gracefully in black abayas and perfectly applied makeup. The scent of Arabic perfume was deliciously intoxicating. I inhaled the scent deeply as mothers talked to their young children and men conversing and laughed with one another in Arabic. I only knew marhaba, shukran, afwan, la and how to count to ten in Arabic at this point, so I didn’t understand anything. It all sounded very poetic. Before the trip, I taught myself the Arabic alphabet by watching “Arabic with Maha” tutorials on YouTube, and I was pleased to find that I could read signs around Dubai.

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Practicing my reading in Arabic.
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Watching a soccer game at Palm Jumeirah Beach.

I was fascinated by the sights, the sounds, the smells and the food. I heard the call to prayer for the first time, as a woman in niqab ate fries.  As she lifted the niqab, the fries disappeared discretely, one by one. I didn’t know where anyone was from, and I absolutely loved the anonymity and the diversity of it all. It was quite the contrast from growing up in a small town of less than four thousand people. No one knew who I was, or could have guessed where I was from. I’d had a taste of a whole new world and I wanted more.  I promised myself that I’d return to the Middle East and travel the world. If you’ve ever felt drawn to a certain country, learn the language. Listen to the music. Talk to people from there. If it resonates with you, it’s worth learning more about it. After being in Dubai, I just knew I had to live somewhere in the Middle East. Which is why less than two years later, I found myself in a brand-new country once again again, but this time, I’d be living there.

Expat in Bahrain

Being in a new country is as exciting as it is disorienting—a mixture of feelings I’ve embraced and look forward to when I travel. Your senses are heightened and you realize that there’s nothing like the thrill and pride that comes from accomplishing even the most simple tasks. Doing something ordinary, like walking through the neighborhood or taking a taxi, gives you a sense of accomplishment that you wouldn’t feel back home. You take in every little detail and pride yourself on achieving these things because you lack the most basic knowledge about how to do everything from using new currency, to buying groceries or finding your way back home after an outing. In Bahrain, all the buildings are beige. At a glance, they all look very similar and blend into the beige desert panorama, too. I still remember my first outing to Al Jazira, the local supermarket. It was just a five-minute walk from the teacher building, but it felt like an odyssey. Learning to find your way on foot will help you familiarize yourself with the area.

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Best Apps for Expats in Bahrain

Your phone will become your lifeline, and if it isn’t already, Google Maps will become your best friend. My favorite apps to use in Bahrain are Talabat and Baqaala. Talabat is a food delivery app that delivers everything from ice-cream to burritos to vegan pastries around the clock. You want pizza at midnight? Done. You want Starbucks delivered to your door at 7AM? Say no more. Bahrain has many chain restaurants that you’d find in the U.S., but I personally prefer local restaurants with authentic food. The second app is Baqaala, a grocery delivery app that delivers right to your front door.  These two apps will simplify your life. You will wonder how you ever lived without them. My only issue with them is the amount of single-use plastic they use. You can request less plastic for your items. They wrap everything in plastic here. Even single bananas.

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I’m really glad that I moved to Bahrain instead of Dubai. I’ve only visited Dubai so perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I think that Bahrain has more soul, and certainly more history than Dubai. Most people who come to Bahrain end up falling in love with it and never want to leave. Or like me, they leave and come back time and time again. You will meet the kindest, most welcoming people and eat the most amazing, delicious, food—falafel, tabbouleh, and hummus, just to name a few dishes. And what is home if not a place filled with people and food you love?  My plan was to stay for a year, but this tiny island in the sun became my home for three years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up staying longer than intended, too.

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