Ibrahim didn't know where he was going. Neither did I, having been in Bahrain for only 12 hours, most of them at night. But he was the driver that fate had given me that morning, and I was the one with the map. I was also, it turned out, the only one who could read it.

It was the kind of map that looks like a place mat, with little drawings of major sights and no addresses. It was all I could find at the airport when I arrived. But Bahrain is so small that when we set out from my hotel in Manama, the capital, the next morning, I thought it would be good enough.

That was before we got lost, trying to find Oil Well No. 1, the first ever drilled in the Persian Gulf. Before we got lost, trying to find the Jebel ad Dukran, Bahrain's highest hill. Before we got lost, trying to find the 5,000-year-old remains of Dilmun, said by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

And long before we nearly got arrested, trying to find the Tree of Life.

Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 low, sandy, mostly uninhabited bits of land off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the shallow waters of the Persian -- here called the Arabian -- Gulf. All together, the land adds up to less than half of Hennepin County's. The population is about 1 million and clusters around Manama, at the top of the biggest island. Big is a relative term: That island is only about 10 miles wide by 30 long. Main industries? Finance and oil, with plush island resorts coming on strong.

"You'll like Bahrain,'' said the husky Texan seated next to me on the Gulf Air flight from Amsterdam. He was an oil engineer based in Saudi, and Bahrain was where his fellow Americans went to blow off steam. "Lot of guys keep apartments there for weekends,'' he said. To be honest, I hadn't gone to Bahrain strictly for Bahrain's sake. I was on my way to Nepal, halfway around the globe from Minnesota, and it made for an intriguing stop.

The place sounded wide open -- a kind of miniature Dubai, where even liquor was sold. I could walk around alone, the Texan said, and I wouldn't have to cover my hair or wear a long black abaya, even though Bahraini women usually did. Then the ultimate American freedom: "You can drive there.''

He didn't mean me personally, though things might have gone better if I had. He meant women are permitted to drive in Bahrain, which they aren't in Saudi.

There were other surprises, starting when the plane landed that evening. I stepped out of the jetway -- and straight into Christmas. Never mind that this was October and an Arab country to boot: Pine trees sparkled in the concourse, life-sized polar bears cavorted in fake snow and a band of mechanical Santas was belting out a tinny version of "Jingle Bells'' from a balcony overhead.

It wasn't a religious thing, just good business. Bahrain has long been an international crossroads, and canny airport shopkeepers know a sales opportunity when they see one. Not that they need too many: The tiny country is rich -- the estimated per capita GDP is about $34,000 a year.

At my hotel, I asked the concierge about sightseeing tours in the morning. She said it made more sense to hire a car and an English-speaking driver. This would cost $150, but I could have them all day and go anywhere I wanted.

The driving adventure begins

The car was waiting when I finished breakfast, a gleaming, cream-colored sedan -- Mercedes, I think -- and the driver was so proud of it that he was practically standing at attention. Ibrahim was middle-aged, small and quiet and very proper, with a heavy black mustache, a crisp plaid shirt and khaki slacks.

Like half of Bahrain's population, he was an immigrant, a Muslim from India who had worked in Bahrain for 24 years, always as a taxi driver. Oddly, he seemed to have a little trouble with directions.

We drove along the seafront, where exotically shaped skyscrapers rose like jungle foliage done in glass. We stopped at a vest-pocket harbor full of old wooden fishing dhows, now outdated antiques. We toured the 200-year-old house of the current ruler's great-grandfather. We even drove halfway to Saudi Arabia on the 15-mile causeway that connects that country to Bahrain.

Then we turned south, and so did our luck.

"Let's go see Oil Well No. 1,'' I said. This was where black gold started to flow on June 2, 1932, changing everything -- for Bahrain, the rest of the Gulf and, ultimately, America. It helped feed our colossal addiction to cheap gas, big cars and the open road, and I wanted to see it, even though I felt a little like a junkie might, going to Afghanistan to see poppies.

Ibrahim looked worried. "Very far,'' he said.

No, it isn't, I said, holding out the map. See? It can't be more than 5 miles -- 10, tops.

Ibrahim looked as blank as the empty parts of the map. In all his 24 years of taxi-driving, he admitted, he had never been south of Manama before.

My heart sank. It was too late to turn back and hire another driver, so for the rest of the afternoon, I was the de facto expert. Ibrahim would come to a fork in an unmarked road and turn to me for directions. I'd consult the feckless map, make a guess and off we'd go, full speed ahead, in -- I swear -- the wrong direction. Every single time.

The landscape was limestone rock and sand, so close to sea level that it seemed to fade into it. Everywhere was horizon. How could anybody get lost in a place so open? But we did. Constantly.

Driving in larger and larger loops, on paved roads and unmarked tracks, we passed the turnoffs to the south's few landmarks: Bahrain University; the first Formula One racetrack in the Middle East; the national equestrian center. Sometimes we passed them again.

Eventually, we managed to stumble upon Oil Well No. 1, which rose out of the rocky ground like a Giacometti sculpture.

Nearby, the Oil Museum displayed rock samples, old drill bits, early photos and this prescient 1918 quote from a New Zealand prospector: "I personally believe that there will be developed an immense oil field running from Kuwait right down the coast. ... ''

Seeking the Tree of Life

Eventually, we even found the ruins of Saar, one of the cities of ancient Dilmun. And we kept looking for the Tree of Life, wandering farther and farther south.

Now we saw long snakes of rusty pipes -- some fat, some as thin as household plumbing -- that ran side by side on the ground, rising and falling over the slight ridges. They didn't look as if they were in use, but they made interesting patterns. Mesmerized, I asked Ibrahim to stop so I could take a picture.

Sometimes that isn't a good idea. This was one of those times.

A young guard in a white robe burst out of a guard booth I had not noticed. He ran at us, shouting and brandishing an automatic rifle. He looked terrified.

So did Ibrahim, frozen behind the wheel. The guard demanded Ibrahim's identity papers and my passport. Then he pulled a cell phone out of his robe and called his commanding officer. I did my best to act harmless and stupid, which wasn't, by then, very hard.

The guard yelled for a while, then listened, then seemed to calm down. Finally he handed the phone to me, and an unruffled male voice inquired, in graceful English, just what it was that had caused us to trespass onto the forbidden territory of the Bahrain Petroleum Company Ltd.

"We're trying to find the Tree of Life,'' I said.

There was a slight pause -- I think the commander was trying not to laugh -- but he believed me. If I would delete the photo, he said, and make sure the guard saw me do it, we could go.

And the Tree? The young guard gave Ibrahim directions in Arabic that were so clear even I understood them -- not the first turn, he said, acting it out -- take the second turn! The second!

Ibrahim shot past both turns and took the third, so we were lost again, on another look-alike dirt road. At least we were heading north now, back toward Manama, which was good, because I had given up.

Then suddenly, amazingly, we came upon Oil Well No. 1 again. A vanload of touring Asian engineers was just leaving, on their way to -- praise be -- the Tree of Life. We tailed them.

The famous tree turned out to be a low, sprawling mesquite, treasured for just one reason: It was the only tree in sight, a unique patch of dark green in a dry landscape, a miracle of survival.

Back at the hotel that night, packing to leave, I reran the day's adventures -- how hard Ibrahim had tried, and how poorly I'd planned, and how it had all worked out anyway. I smiled, thinking of the commander's last words on the phone, when the guard caught us trespassing.

"Next time,'' he had said to me, "try to get a more knowledgeable guide.''

I promised I would, though I doubted it would be anywhere near as exciting.

Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Star Tribune.