Part two of Navy officer Ryan Haag’s account of his three-month trip to Bahrain, including forays to a jewelry-making shack and a local go-kart track.
Continued from Part 1
After the pirates met their maker from the wrong end of a sniper rifle, life went back to normal:
12-hour days, lots of mouse-clicking, and the occasional jaunt out in town. My new favorite place became the Gold City; a two-level mall of nothing but jewelry stores, with the occasional trinket store in between. I managed to hook up with Shammy, the Indian owner of one of the stores. I ordered a ring and some other jewelry for my wife. After a few days, I stopped by to see Shammy and check on my order. He asked me if I wanted to see where it was being made. Loving to explore, I agreed, and off we went.
We walked through some familiar places, and then down through some not-so-familiar places. I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t a good move (and kept a vigilant watch for the infamous black flags–indicators that angry Anti-American Muslims were lurking nearby), when we arrived at a little wooden shack. Walking inside, I entered a two-floor building that had maybe 75 square feet. Some Indian guy was sitting cross-legged at a little desk (maybe three times the size of a laptop computer), pounding away at…what looked like his thumb.
Perplexed (and morbidly curious), I asked Shammy what he was doing. He explained that this guy was the diamond setter. All he did was set diamonds into jewelry. The “thumb” was actually a piece of hard resin (think dark tree sap). He would heat up the resin, which becomes loose, and stick a ring into it. Then, the resin hardened, and he would be able to hold the “thumb” in one hand and tap diamonds into the ring. Once complete, he would heat the resin again, pull out the ring, and presto, a diamond-encrusted ring was ready for sale.
Although the man had a wide range of tools (pliers, calipers, hammer, butane torch, etc.), I noticed a distinct lack of any safety equipment. No eye protection, no gloves, and no breathing protection. While it wasn’t too bad, I could smell the light hint of unburned butane. I looked at the wall, and noticed that the butane line ran right alongside the electrical wall sockets (OSHA would have died of a heart attack). Hoping that the loose building codes would work in my favor and not allow an explosive gas buildup, we moved upstairs.
Actually, we went up a crumbling, rickety improvised ladder that stood in place of stairs, and found four guys sitting in much the same setup. Apparently, one guy did simple jewelry (amulets, simple rings, etc.), two guys did more complicated stuff, and the last guy was the finisher that quality-checked everything. I looked at my wife’s ring, talked with the QC guy, and was good to go.
I asked Shammy how the whole setup worked. To make a standard amulet, a guy melts gold with a butane torch into a thin spaghetti-like strand, then runs a gauge-sizer over it to make sure it’s the right size. He then heats and bends the metal into a shape designed to hold the stone. Rings are made by first cast it out of silver then pouring molten gold into it. After it hardens the ring is stuck on a ring-sizer thing, and pounded on with a hammer until it is perfectly circular.
I noticed that with all this work, there was a lot of gold dust created. The guys all had aprons attached to their desks, so the dust could be collected and melted down again for the next project. I also noticed that these workers had no safety protection. Shammy said that they had some “eyesight problems.” The men worked with their faces right up to the object, hammering or chiseling away, with nothing to stop gold fragments from hitting their face. Shammy’s exact comment was “They do not have very good eyesight after some time…”
Gee, I thought, wonder why.
At this point, I had been in Bahrain for over two months, and was beginning to gear up to head back. The web chats with the wife and baby, although better than nothing, were beginning to get old, and I was ready to be home. But, before I could leave, I had to stop by one more place: the local go-kart track.
If I had to write a tragic story about this era, it wouldn’t be about poverty, hunger, AIDS, or the current stimulus package. It would have to be about how lawyers have destroyed the American institution of go-karting.
The original 1956 go-kart was a two-cycle engine and a bunch of scrap metal welded together and tested in the Rose Bowl parking lot. I’m certain Art Ingels didn’t ponder suing the manufacturer of his welding torch assembly if all went wrong and he landed himself in a wheelchair for life. But such a fine institution has become so bastardized in America that after signing eight forms, donning a helmet, knee pads, wrist pads, groin cup, flak jacket and bullet-proof sunglasses, you can get thrown off the course in five seconds should you so much as look aggressively at an opponent, much less hit them.
In Bahrain, law degrees are considered contraband, so liability lawsuits simply don’t exist. Otherwise, you could never have two 7.5 HP gasoline engines hooked up to the rear wheels of a kart, as I had at the go-kart track; a messy arrangement of plywood and old tires in the shadow of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. I raced three other government contractors around this primitive track like we were in Battle Mode on Mario Kart 64, minus the turtle shells and banana peels. At one point I jerked left to run one guy off the road, and we both careened into the tire barrier, sending one tire over my head, nearly hitting a nearby employee, and creating a massive dust cloud. The response by the management was simple–a swift kick to the front of both cars to aim us back on the track, and off we went.
My time to leave soon arrived, and off I was to the airport, navigating my way through security, immigration, security guards, and thick cigarette smoke as I found my terminal in time to catch my 0220 flight out of the country. Every sailor knows that despite all the fun that can be had overseas, there really is nothing like coming home to your family. Walking off the plane almost 20 hours later in Norfolk, tired, smelling of cigarette smoke, and a bit dazed, I still found the strength for a big hug for my wife and daughter.