Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hazy Daze in Doha

Doha. Very Homer Simpson-esque, isn't it? I still don't know how to say it. I say "Dough-wuh" sometimes, but then hear someone else say "Doh-Hah", giving much more emphasis to the second syllable.

Anyway, I got there eventually. I had already checked in on the morning after being bumped onto the afternoon flight, so I just stopped by check-in to get the gate number before proceeding through passort control. I had the pleasure of using the e-gate system for the first time, and even though I managed to cock it up (as usual) by forgetting which finger I was meant to scan, I got through. It is a fantastic system. You scan your card on a reader at the first electronic gate, which is a bit like the barriers in the London Underground, then when it opens with a Star-Trek style swish, you move into the next section where you are instructed to scan your finger on the infra-red reader. Then (if you use the right finger) it bleeps and opens the next gate and you are through, laughing at the sad sacks queueing to get their passports stamped. It's even better on the way back in. You can be out of the airport in 15 minutes if you don't have any baggage checked.

The plane ride was a bit of a bumpy one. The crew gave us our snacks of roasted veg sandwiches and Arabic sweets before snatching them back as we took the first bite. It is a short flight, admittedly. They must have known we were likely to hit turbulence, and we did, especially as we approached to land in Doha. As ever in these situations, I planted my feet firmly on the floor and gripped the chair arms tightly. As if that would have helped.

But we landed safely and I was lucky enough to find a shuttle bus to my hotel waiting outside, so took the opportunity to check in before heading over to my company's offices. Within an hour we were having a long meeting about the Big Hole in the Ground with the people assigned the lovely task of building something nice in the Big Hole. It went quite well - well enough for us all to remain on talking terms, and then it was home time. It was decided that a few of us would head out to watch the England v France rugby game in a bar called Aussie Legends in the Rydges Plaza Hotel. I went back to the hotel first to freshen up before joining the others in the bar.

It was one of those typical expat bars, full of large televisions and chain-smoking antipodeans. A couple of nice pints of Guinness were consumed while we watched the English rugby team pull out all the stops to beat the French. It was a good atmosphere, without the slightest hint of bother even bubbling under. The only annoyance was a large, hairy man of unkown nationality (but definitely not English) who shouted "WAHEY" every time France had the ball near the try line or when England made a mistake. His braying soon quietened towards the end of the match as England romped home.

After the rugby we headed down to the Italian restaurant on the Ground Floor (been there before - the scene of an interesting political discussion previously) and ate a pleasant, if unspectacular meal, and waffled for a good couple of hours. My early start again caught up with me. I was almost falling asleep at the table and I was glad to get back to my hotel for some kip.

Monday morning, and after a bit of room service breakfast I made my way over to the office, from where we drove over to the site on the Corniche. As we drove along the corniche, with the sun shining down on the city, I again noticed what a pleasing-on-the-eye place Doha can be. There aren't many cranes, but there are loads of palm trees lining the roads and expanses of grass everywhere, and the buildings are nicely spread out. The Corniche is a large sweeping U-shape, with a small, deserted island in the middle of the bay, which used to be home to a restaurant at one time. At one end of the big U is the airport and the sea port, and at the other is the beginnings of a Sheik Zayed Road-style skyscraper zone, with shiny new buildings rising on the shore. Past that is the new Pearl Island, which sounds like an impressive development, in the shape of a string of pearls. They are definitely copying Dubai in some respects, but like I said before, I hope they don't try too hard. The place has a real Middle-Eastern identity and feel that should be retained. I think they are trying to strike a balance.

So we entered the site complex, walking along the precariously-balanced scaffolding walkway along the front of the cabins that are perched on the side of the Big Hole in the Ground. The Hole was a hive of activity, with cranes and piling rigs and all other manner of machines banging and digging and grinding away. The noise of construction was reaching ear-splitting levels, and the ground beneath us shuddered and vibrated unnervingly.

We met with the client Project Manager in his office overlooking the site, and even with the door shut the noise outside was obtrusive. The PM glumly admitted that he would often leave the site and find somewhere else to work just to get some peace and quiet. Even so, he soon perked up when he remembered the news from Dubai. He cheerily told us that there had been an accident at Dubai Airport this morning, where a Bangladesh Airlines plane had failed to take off and had slid off the runway. The airport was therefore closed and all flights to and from Dubai were cancelled. Once again, it looked like I would be staying in Doha for longer than I expected.

So we get going with the site progress meeting, half of which I missed due to the noise of banging and digging outisde. The other half passed right over my head with engineers talking technical jargon. I should record these meetings for when I have insomnia. The worst bit is, whenever I am right on the verge of slumber, or daydreaming about dancing hippos being hunted by cougars in smoking jackets, someone will turn to me and ask my opinion. Er... let me get back to you on that one.

Actually, I do wake up when I'm needed, pretty much always at the end of the meetings, when they deem it appropriate to talk about commercial matters, or how much money it's costing to make a lot of noise with over-sized Tonka toys in a Big Bloody Hole in the Ground.

I managed to blag it once again and after the meeting adjourned we returned to our offices. The secretary told me that there was a flight now. My original 2.25pm was now scheduled to take off at 3.30pm, so I got a lift to the airport, checked in, passed through passport control and had a quick browse in Duty Free. As I was looking at something to buy the kids, there was a BING BONG from the Tannoy. First came the Arabic version, but my ears pricked up when I heard my airline's name (out of kindness, I will call them BLOODY EMIRATES) in amongst the husky tones and throat-clearing noises of the announcement. Then came the English version, and the words: "We regret to inform you that..." told me all I needed to know and my flight was cancelled. Bugger.

So, I was stuck in limbo, with my passport still freshly adorned with an exit stamp and a boarding pass. I asked an official-looking lady milling around near passport control what was going on and what we should do, and they said they would ask before hurrying off. The departure information screen showed the words CANCELLED in large white letters next to my flight. Bugger.

The official-looking woman returned and said that a representative of BLOODY EMIRATES would be through soon to update us. A couple of other people had joined me by now, looking at their watches impatiently, shaking their heads and looking back up at the information board in case it changed. We were told to wait by the gate, but then the BING BONG sounded again, telling us that the flight was just delayed. The board still said CANCELLED. Confusion reigned, but most of us decided to wait by the gate for someone to come and tell us what was going on.

It was a long wait. No-one from BLOODY EMIRATES appeared. It transpired that 70 people had been allowed to check in before the flight had been cancelled. Mobile phones were hammered by people ringing home, the office, the airline or even their dog, who would probably have been of infinitely more use than BLOODY EMIRATES. Their Doha operation actually closes for 3 hours in the afternoon. How very professional of them. I rang the Dubai branch and was told that our flight was definitely off. The next one was at 11.15pm. Bugger. Then someone piped up with the quite startling information that Doha International Airport actaully closes between 3pm and 7pm every single day for maintenance or something like that. Bugger, Bollocks and For F*ck's Sake.

I rang our Doha office to tell them about the situation, but without any real knowledge of what to do in this situation (could we just go out through passport control again?) there wasn't really much to be said. After a little bit more waiting, a sheepish man shuffled towards us (not from BLOODY EMIRATES, surprisingly) and said we could go upstairs to the café and have a sandwich and a drink. Information would have been nice, but that wasn't on the menu, apparently. We just had to wait.

As it was, no-one from BLOODY EMIRATES showed up to tell anyone anything. I only found out what to do by spotting the lady who had checked me in (non-airline affiliated, natch) sitting in the café and asking her what to do. She told me to go to the Transfer desk. Why couldn't someone have told us that before? It seems that the message had been spreading, and a gaggle of tired, confused passengers was gathered at the Transfer desk by the time I got to it. We were all offered passes to the Business Lounge and a seat on the 11.15pm. Marvellous, thought I. An 8-hour wait for a plane that might not even leave. I could have taken them up on this offer and drunk their bar dry, but thought better of it and asked if I could come back the next day instead. I was told I could, and instructed to leave through the arrivals section by passing through the Transfer security section backwards and getting my exit stamp cancelled.

That I did, walking through an eerily deserted passport control manned by one official and past static, empty luggage carousels and out into the open air again. I rang our Doha office to tell them to book me a hotel room for the night then caught a cab (there were loads of them, probably as no flights were arriving or departing) to the office where I worked for what was left of the working day. The Doha Manager was receptive to the idea of having a beer and a bite that night, so we took off at 6pm and had a very pleasant evening eating a seafood buffet at my hotel. We got on very well, and the seeds of something were planted that night. That sounds slightly pervy, if you've got a sick mind, but I mean that future plans were considered. I have been working in Dubai on a project taking place in Doha since I arrived in August last year, and aside from the odd blip, have done a good job, or so I'm told. Personally, I feel like I've half-blagged it. But then the job is as much about being able to hold your own in negotiations and confrontations. It's about saying the right things at the right times to the right people.

Whatever. I know what I mean. The possibility of me moving to Doha, either alone on a weekly basis, or with the family in tow, has now entered my mind as an option. The people in Doha seem to be keen to get me there on a permanent basis, even if the people in Dubai would probably not want to lose me (they've said as much). I know the job and I know the people on the job, I wouldn't actually be changing companies, and honestly I would like to see the job through to its end. I would like to see this 90-storey tower sparkling in the sunlight of the Arabian Gulf. I've seen the drawings; now I want to see the reality, even if I'll have to take some tranquilisers before even thinking about going to the top of the finished building.

And of course, I know that I have previously expressed doubts about Doha as a place to live, but it's grown on me. Dubai is great in its own way. It has the bright lights, the malls, the hotels and all that. It also has traffic and hassle and maddeningly conspicuous consumption that jars with my personal outlook. It's also a very cliquey kind of place. Someone said it's like Hong Kong, where it's difficult to make friends amongst the numerous established expats who have lived there for years and like to stick to their closed circles of friends. I will say that it's definitely more suited to the single person than the family, and I've heard it said by plenty of others. Bahrain and Qatar are more family-friendly, some have said. Doha may be a small place, with less in the way of tourist attractions, but it is quiter, calmer, less materialistic, it has far less traffic and isn't far from Dubai if you fancy a mad weekend in the Vegas of the Middle East. It's a real quandary. The WIFE and KIDS are settling in. They've made a few friends. I think they like it here. Well most of it. Nowhere's perfect. Even though it's still just a possibility, I've got a lot of thinking to do. For one thing, the title of this blog would have to change.

Knowing me, I'll feel completely different tomorrow, and after another weekend of eating out in great locations and having a good time with my family, I might never want to leave. Who knows?

Anyway, I did finally get back to Dubai on Tuesday. The flight was only half an hour late.

1 comment:

Grumpy Goat said...

Didn't BLOODY EMIRATES used to use the slogan "The Finest In The Sky"? In my experience, this in no way compensated for being a complete crock of crap on the ground.

Every time I have had the misfortune to use B.E. it has produced a litany of woes.

Attempting to get from Doha to the Maldives for an Eid break a couple of years back was the worst. At the hands of B.E., I and two friends were bumped off three consecutive flights in under 24 hours. And my luggage didn't arrive in the Maldives until the last day of my holiday. A subsequent letter of complaint produced a response from B.E. that may be paraphrased as:

"We don't see what you're whingeing about. We got you there and back. How dare you complain that you lost 30% of your holiday."

Even when relocating from Doha to Sharjah, my unaccompanied baggage spent three days cooking in the summer sun on the tarmac at Doha airport because Emirates Cargo lost it.