Friday, November 17, 2006

Things to do in Doha when you're ...

bored and lonely:

Visit the Pearl Lounge bar attached to the side of the Marriott hotel. There you will be made to feel completely unwelcome, brusquely quizzed like a criminal suspect about your hotel room number and name and hastily ushered to the bar because all the tables are reserved even though the place is emptier than Paris Hilton's head. Even when you manage to convince them to let you sit at a table, by telling them you won't be staying long, they watch you like hawks wearing bi-focals as you slide down the leather-clad low seats with shallow-sloping sides, toying with your over-iced Jamesons and wondering what kind of people come to a place like this, apart from lonely and bored businessmen, of course. The lighting is non-existent, so much so, that the drinks menus have little torches attached to them. There are large Plasma screen TVs dotted around the walls, showing scenes of snowy mountains and trendy people skiing down them on a permanent loop, all accompanied by instantly forgettable chill/trance/technopap. You should probably have more than one drink, just to annoy them, and see if anyone comes in. When people do appear, they look at you like you are sitting there in the altogether. Finally, when you've had enough of feeling as welcome as Timothy Mallett at a wake, the bill appears in your face and you leave, tutting to yourself about the utter absurdity of it all, and swearing never to go that kind of place again. Until next time you're alone and bored in a strange city. Still, you feel slightly amused and smug as a couple of Japanese businessmen (dressed smartly enough) try to get in as you're leaving and get turned away from a 90% empty club because they aren't hotel guests. You think to yourself that the club must resent the arrangement with the hotel.

Which is a shame, really, because the trip was otherwise a reasonably good experience. Well, OK, the plane was an hour late, and there were no taxis to be had when I landed, which meant a 30 minute wait for one, and then after popping into my firm's local office, I had a really interesting experience in the most banged-up, crappy car I've ever been in, because there just weren't any taxis. This car was a wreck. The headlights were smashed in and the wing mirrors hung off, and the rust was just about holding it together. I even had to push it to get it going, and jumped in as it spluttered and coughed into life. The Sudanese man driving it was quite a good driver, but without a working seat belt and a seat set at a permanent 45-degree recline, I didn't feel very safe. When we inevitably encountered a local in a white 4x4 who cut across us, my driver let out a stream of exotic-sounding expletives and gesticulated wildly at the other driver. Getting to the hotel was a relief.

The hotel itself was a smooth operation and they were falling over themselves to help me at every turn. Every corner I turned seemed to reveal another oriental person in bell-boy get-up greeting me with the now-familiar American-accented, nasal whine of, "Good Morning, Sir," or something similar. The restaurants had good food and excellent service. The room was pleasant, and the free use of the business lounge (with 4 free alchoholic drinks a night) was a nice touch.

The aims of the trip were met as well. We had loads of meetings about the Big Hole in the Ground, and how much it was going to cost to build something in the hole and how long it was going to take, etc., and in the end people were satisfied with what I did. I hope. A few of us went for dinner in a nice Italian in the Rydges hotel on my second night, and as if by magic, the conversation turned to politics. We had me, a Brit, a South African, and Australian, an Iraqi and two Palestinians (one Christian, one Muslim) sat around the table, and the Australian broke the shop talk up spectacularly with a question about the whereabouts of a certain Mr. Bin Laden. In the end, some strong (and surprising) viewpoints were aired, but everyone managed to come away smiling and still on talking terms. The consensus was that the British had managed to mess about with and fuck up the Middle East after both World wars, and now the Americans were carrying on where we had left off. Scars run deep round here, it seems.

Apart from everything else, I found myself thinking how lucky I am to be living in Dubai. Doha is trying desperately to catch up with Dubai, but the general feeling around here is that they are about 15 years behind at least. There are few things for tourists and expats to do, and the infrastructure is seriously poor. People who work there constantly tell me they wish they didn't. Some even fly to Dubai every weekend. On the other hand, I bet they don't spend as much living in Doha.

The Asian games that start on the 1st December are looming large now. It's quite obvious that Doha is going to struggle, because hotel rooms are just impossible to get now, and traffic is getting heavier and heavier whilst they attempt to finish all the new roads and tart up the airport and the unfinished roads and buildings and erect huge scaffolding structures covered in plywood advertising the games. The taxi situation sucks, truly sucks. It seems that they are all being used as chauffers now, driving officials and dignitaries all over the place, because public transport is even worse here than it is in Dubai, and that's saying something. Even so, I wish the city well. I hope they pull it off and show the continent a good time. I hope the games give the place a good kick-start towards catching up with its bigger, glitzier neighbour.

So I left Doha after 4 days, looking forward to seeing my wife and kids again. The week had gone a lot quicker than the previous one in hospital, that's for sure. The plane out of Doha was 40 minutes late in departing, and I spent the whole flight quietly fuming as men in National dress sat in their seats sending text messages all through the flight, despite the many in-your-face reminders to turn off all mobile phones. I try to be understanding of cultural differences, but this annoyed me. They knew they were doing wrong, because they hid their phones when any cabin crew passed close. Some, I stress SOME of these people just don't give a fig about rules, regulations, common courtesty and cultural norms and believe themselves to be invincible and above everyone else because they wear a dish-dash. It's a shame, because a few bad eggs end up giving everyone else a bad name.

Anyway, despite all this, we landed safely, and despite some of the strangest and most worrying mechanical noises I've ever heard on an (supposedly modern) aeroplane. I am getting better at flying, and I don't have a choice but to do so, with all the flying that is done round here. My fear levels are reducing every time, but I still have my little superstitions and routines that I have to go through. I always read the safety information card on both sides, I invariable end up praying to that God who must be pissed off with hearing from this agnostic again, and I always find my imagination running riot with the infinite number of ways a plane can come to harm on the ground and in the air as we taxi out to the runway. Statistics can say what they want, but there's just something unnatural about hurtling at just less than the speed of sound, 6 miles up in the air in a pressurised tube.

It took me just an hour to pass through Dubai airport this time. Passport control was a chew as ever, and will continue to be until my company get my residence visa sorted out, and there was a long queue as ever. I remembered to pick up some duty free goods this time, though, so it eased some of the earlier frustrations. I even managed to find a taxi quite quickly, as you would expect at an international airport, and less than an hour later, I was home, and my kids ran with outstretched arms to greet the bags of goodies I'd brought them. It's good to be home again

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