Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weekends - Doha style.

I have just spent my first weekend in Doha. The potential for loneliness and boredom was high. So what better way to waste the hours than drive around the place exploring and getting one's bearings. And with the loneliness and boredom at the forefront of my worries, I doubled my exploration with looking for a PSP on Friday. I decided that now I am going to be alone for long spells, I need something to alleviate the boredom. So out I went.

Dubai has a lot of shopping malls. It's supposedly one of the attractions of the place. On a stupidly hot day, what is better than wandering around an air-conditioned temple of consumerism or sitting in Starbucks sipping on a half-fat soy latte?

And what Dubai can do, Doha wants to do better.

There are a suprising amount of malls here. The main one is the Doha City Centre Mall (they seem to have City Centre Malls in all the major cities in the Gulf). It has an ice rink and a cinema and lots of shops, including Carrefour. It also has lots of shops that are not yet open, and new extensions with massive hotels being constructed all around it. I digress.

As I said, I was looking for a PSP, so I tried Carrefour. They only had pink ones, and I am not having a pink one. Call me traditional. Call me gender-role-compliant, but pink isn't my colour. I tried a few other shops in the mall. No luck there either. They seem to be in short supply, unless you're a girl. So it was time to explore Doha. It is very quiet on a Friday; a lot of the shops are just closed, or don't open till after lunch, and the roads are much quieter. It reminded me of how Sunday used to be in the UK. As it was, I didn't head out till the afternoon, so the malls were at least open, if not all the shops within them.

Looking on the map I had borrowed from the hotel, I spotted the Sports City area and a new mall called Villagio nearby, which sounded promising. So I pointed the car out towards the desert, and drove along a quiet, straight boulevard lined with closely-grouped crane-like lamposts adorned with spotlights. Within a short time I saw the elongated egg-cup of the Aspire tower and the skeletal roof of the main stadium used for the Asian Games last year, and impressive structures they are. I drove round the empty car-park getting different angles of the buildings.

There is something eerily peaceful about sports venues when they are empty. They stand like this for most of their existence, as if sleeping in dignified, empty silence, waiting to wake up to the noise and colour of a sports event to bring everything to life again as the car parks fill up, the crowds take their seats, the concession operators and programme sellers fill the concourses, and the competitors take to the field in pursuit of glory and adulation.

Right next door to the stadium is the Villagio shopping mall. In contrast to the sports stadium, this place is awake a lot more than it is asleep (except on Friday mornings, of course). After I'd finished looking at the stadium, I drove into the car park of the mall and parked. As I approached, I noticed the intended theming straight away. Even the exterior is built to resemble an Italian town, with pastel-coloured, terraced buildings of different shapes and sizes huddled together. Even so, I didn't expect to see what I found inside.

As I entered the mall, I was immediately aware of the similarities with Ibn Battuta mall in Dubai, where the malls boulevards and shops are styled and themed to make you feel like you are in an old Andalusion village, or in ancient China. Villagio is themed on Venice, and the theme of closely-huddled, terracota-rooved buildings is even more prevalent inside. The ceiling of the mall is painted to look like a summer sky; azure blue with whispy clouds here and there. The floor is tiled to resemble a Venetian street.

Then you notice it: Right in the middle of this mall is a canal with real, life-sized gondolas that you can actually ride in. The word Vegas sprung into my head, as I shook it side to side in disbelief.

So I walked along the canal, in the fake Venice. I stopped briefly when I heard a bird singing from the roof of one of the shops. I couldn't see a bird, but it sounded real enough. I wouldn't be surprised if it was just a loudspeaker. Walking further along, I crossed the canal over an ornate bridge, and turned a corner to find a food court and a large area with high white hoardings all around that was obviously not finished. Who knows what lies there? I've been told since that it might be an ice rink. It's not quite Ski Dubai standard, I'm sure, but the wish is there, you just know it.

As it happens, the Villagio visit was fruitless. The huge Carrefour (is there any other size?) had only pink PSPs again. I was told to try the Virgin Megastore, and did so, but while they had loads and loads of games and accessories for PSPs, they didn't have a single PSP. How annoying.

So I wearily headed back towards the car, stopping for a late lunch of lentil soup and bread at a French-style cafe. There were no Italian cafes. Note to self: do not eat baked beans, eggs and lentils on the same day again. It might keep you warm, but the odour is not a good one.

As I drove away from Villagio, I noticed yet another mall, just past it. Right next to it, in fact. It was a much older one, called the Hyatt Plaza or something. At the front, near the road, there is a giant - I hesitate to call it a sculpture - model of a shopping trolley. It must be 30 or 40 metres high, at a guess. So it's not just Dubai that has a taste for the incredibly kitsch and mind-boggling. This kind of thing belongs in a U2 concert (Popmart tour), or a pulp sci-fi novel about giant killer shopping trolleys. If I shake my head much more, it'll fall off.

This mall is a lot older, and it showed. There is a large hypermarket with a name I can't remember, and a cluster of small shops, fast-food outlets and kiddies play areas all around it. I tried the main shop for a PSP, but was again frustrated. Not even close. This particular hypermarket is really low-end, I thought. Netto makes it look classy.

Frustrated by my lack of success in getting my sweaty mitts on a PSP, I thought about other options. The hotel has a swimming pool, and a bit of exercise would do no harm. I could even have a jacuzzi without turning the bubbles on. So I looked for swimming shorts. I found some, and every single pair was size L. The shop assistant I collared looked at my bulk and shrugged, mumbling something about the size L being generous. He pointed me towards a changing room to see for myself.

I say changing room. It was four planks of MDF held together with nails in the middle of the clothing section. The "door" didn't have a lock, it had a shoe-lace and a metal eyelet to tie it around. It did have a mirror, I'll give them that. So I squeezed into this little structure and tried on the shorts, being careful not to knock the walls of the structure for fear of knocking them down, leaving me standing there in the middle of a low-rent hypermarket with my trousers round my ankles.

As luck would have it, the swimming shorts were of a generous size, and they fit me, so I made my purchase and left the shop. On my way out, I spied a small electronics shop to one side, and through the window I saw a range of PSPs in different colours. GET IN YA BEAUTY! As usual, salvation came from an unexpected source. I dived into the shop, bought a PSP and made my way back to the hotel with my newest toy and a smile on my face.

I also bought a couple of games - Pro Evolution Soccer and Call of Duty. I was worried when I noticed they had a different region number on them to that on the PSP, but after a quick battery charge, the software updated and all was well. The games are great, and look great. Pro Evo plays and looks almost exactly the same as it does on the PS2 / X-box. Yeah, the commentary isn't so good, and you can't edit the strips, but that's not an issue to me. I now have something to waste the lonely hours with.

Saturday came, and I decided to go for that swim in the hotel. The first part of this venture was to push down and swallow the fear of heights I have. The pool is on the 26th floor, which is high enough for me, thank you, even though I have lived on the 29th floor before during my short stay in the USA. Luckily the pool is enclosed, not open-air. So I donned my new shorts and took the lift from the 7th to the 26th floor. I was impressed with how fast the lift moved, and I watched the electronic display count them off at a floor every second or just over. I had visions of it shooting out of the top of the building, but it came to a quick stop at 26 and I got out.

The views were amazing. The pool area is surrounded by full-height windows giving a superb view across the bay and along the sweeping arc of corniche. As I stood there, I saw an airliner taking off from Doha airport and rise slowly and quietly towards me, before passing over and to the side of the building and heading out towards the Persian Gulf. At 100 metres in the air, things look small on the ground. I can only imagine what the view will be like from the top of the building I am working on, which will be nearly 100 floors and 500m high. I might struggle to contain my vertigo for any length of time. Like with most fears I have, the key seems to be confronting them and reducing their impact by just getting on with it.

So I had a little swim, then had some lunch right next to the window, looking out across the calm blue bay and down at the green arc of the corniche. It was really quite pleasant.

The afternoon was spent playing a few games on the PSP, completing a couple of tough missions in war-torn Europe before seeing off Newcastle 7-0. I think a combination of the two games would be entertaining. Hoying a few grenades at the Geordie midfield would certainly liven things up.

And Saturday night was here. I ventured out to the Ramada Hotel and an expat bar with big screens and a smoky, working men's club vibe. The name escapes me. Shezadne or something. After watching some football, I went for a very reasonable curry at the Bombay Balti. A very kind lady from the reception had guided me all the way there, telling me it was popular and always very busy. It wasn't. I was the only one there.

To round off the night, I went to the Library bar at the Four Seasons Hotel, just across the road from my hotel. It's the second time I've been there, having been there on Wednesday night when I struck up a conversation with a very nice American chap who is also working in Doha without his family. It all started when I falteringly asked about the stuffing in the stuffed olives, and he confirmed it was indeed cream cheese, which is often the way these conversations start. Anyway, the bar is a pleasant, quiet bar, with darkwood panels on the walls, large sofas to lounge in, and some delicious mini-poppadums to snack on. Last night it was quiet in the bar, and no-one struck up converation with me, so I had a couple of whisky and gingers (something I've just started drinking, but I got the idea from my old man), a cigar (which is naughty, but I didn't inhale) and read the paper.

Then I returned to my hotel room and caught a movie starting on TV called Hellboy, which was entertaining enough, and then I went to sleep. I'm loathe to say I'm becoming used to this lifestyle, but it's getting easier to bear. I'm missing the WIFE and the kids, but I'm still not missing Dubai.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Down and Out in Doha

Not really. Stranded, lonely and confused maybe. But what's new?

I'm stuck in Qatar for a few days. I have been here since last Saturday, waiting to get my residence visa. I'm not sure how long I'm going to be here. I've had the blood test and chest x-ray done after the now-familiar queuing at various windows and waiting my turn. Thankfully, I had a friend with me this time, a Mister Fixit if you like, a chap who works for our company who speaks Arabic and who can pull strings. It's the same guy who drives the complete wreck of a car that I had a ride in on my first visit here. Surprisingly, the car is still going.

Anyway, my Mister Fixit managed to get me through the blood test part quite quickly, but I ended up having to wait over an hour for an x-ray. The wait was made worse by the number of people who jumped the queue, most of them wearing dish-dashes, it must be said. They don't even need a Mister Fixit. I was seething at the injustice of it all, conveniently forgetting that I'd jumped past a queue of at least 50 people to get the blood test. All in all, however, the system seemed a bit more efficient than in Dubai. Or maybe I'm just imagining it after having gone through it once already.

So now I have to wait for the results, before going to some other government building to have another blood test (finger prick) to establish blood group, then going to have my fingerprints scanned. They used to take your fingerprints with Indian ink until recently, which meant you were left with black fingertips for about a week, but now they've caught up with the 21st Century and use electronic scanners. After this, I should get the visa a day or two later. Insha'allah!

Luckily, I've been quite busy, and the time has gone fairly quickly. We've had a lot of meetings about the Big Hole in the Ground, and I've been going here there and everywhere to get different things sorted. I also went to the Traffic Department to get myself a temporary driving licence so I can use a hire car. This involved more queuing, a very quick eye test (AH! One of your eyes is very bad! Oh well! STAMP) and a few short, barked conversations between Mr Fixit and veiled women at counters, but after only an hour I left with a credit-card licence very similar to the UAE one, which will become a permanent licence when I get my visa.

So I now have the pleasure of driving around Doha, albeit in a car with less power than a three-legged zebra with stilletos on. It is different to Dubai because there is no Sheik Zayed Road-style 20-lane highway going through it (although one is under construction). The main roads seem to be the 6-lane ring roads, all given letters to identify them (C-ring road, etc) and there are traffic lights and roundabouts galore, which seems to put paid to any real speed. The roundabouts are a challenge, however. It's a bit of a free-for-all with people pulling out when they shouldn't and changing lanes without any warning. Traffic can build up at certain times in certain places, but generally moves at a better rate than in Dubai.

The worst part of the days has been the nights. Going back to an empty hotel room is a pretty lonely experience. It's when I miss the family the most, and this time I seem to be missing them more. I think it's because the GIRL was upset when I got out of the car at the airport on Saturday. It's the first time she's done this kind of thing, and it broke my heart to see her crying because I was going away. The WIFE tells me she has been asking for me, and the BOY keeps asking when I'm coming home. They're going to have to get used to me being away. Explanation later.

I'm in a different hotel this time; the Marriott was deemed too expensive, so I've ended up in the new Movenpick Towers hotel at the West Bay end of the Corniche. It's almost brand new, only opening 4 months ago, and it smells new, with the damp smell of new plaster and paint hitting the nostrils as you walk around. The roads around it aren't even finished. I think it's still going through teething problems. The staff are over-the-top in their attentiveness to the point of being annoying, and the main restaurant invariably serves cold food in the dinner buffet. Most shockingly of all, for an international chain hotel, there is NO ALCOHOL. I found this out when the Russian concierge showed me round my pleasant-enough, darkwood-filled room. He opened the mini-bar fridge, and saw my eyes light up, and then told me the hotel is dry. After letting me cry on his shoulder for half an hour, he told me I could get my fix over the road at the Four Seasons Hotel. So I did just that. Rather that than drink another fruit cocktail or watch a clumsy, nervous waiter take a plastic bottle of water wrapped in a napkin out of a champagne bucket. Ooh, it must be a vintage year for Evian.

Another night I thought I would try the noodle house restuarant, and it was pretty good, spoiled only by the presence of a plump American woman with a loud, whiny voice who was patronising some male work colleague sat opposite her. She was sat at a fair distance away from me, a distance you would assume would render normal conversation levels inaudible, or at least reduce it to a low murmur, mixing with the nondescript oriental music piped into the restaurant. But no, I heard every damned word of what she was saying. I was willing the waiter to bring her some food just to shut her up.

As is customary on these occassions, I sat in the darkest corner available, read a book, and sipped a very nice glass of ginger ale while I waitied for my food. Dining alone whilst away is never the most pleasant experience, particularly if you start talking to yourself out of loneliness. Other diners and staff tend to shoot you worried looks.

An explanation is due now. I mentioned that the kids would have to get used to my absence. Unfortunately, they are going to have to get used to seeing me only every 3 or 4 months. The WIFE and kids are going back to the UK. Our intended aim of making some money whilst abroad isn't working. Dubai is just too expensive, and Doha isn't much better. Villas are even more expensive here, and with the prospect of the GIRL starting school (with ever rising school fees), it has been decided that I will stay in the Middle East, work in Doha (working long hours to avoid boredom), and live as cheaply as possible. I will go home twice a year, and the family will visit me once a year or so.

It ain't ideal, but it's the best option out of the few available, I believe. I could go home as well, but would face a rather hefty tax bill having not spent a full tax year (April to April) out of the country. It's a stupid rule, if you ask me. I don't want to stay in Dubai alone. Well at all, really. I've had my fill of the place.

Now I've got my first weekend in Doha ahead, and I have no idea what I'm going to do. At least I have a car to use now. Come on Qatar: Entertain me!

Monday, April 16, 2007

What the hell am I doing..

Drinking in Dubai, at 36?

With a nod to Bran Van 3000, of course.

I woke up again this morning with the sun in my eyes,
When mike came over with a script surprise.
A wasta story with a twist,
A habibi show, on jumeirah beach,
Get your ass out of bed, he said:
Ill explain it on the way.

But we did nothing, absolutely nothing that day, and I say:
What the hell am I doing drinking in Dubai at 36?
I got the fever for the flavour, the payback will be later, still I need a fix.

And the blokes on the bus kept on laughing at us,
As we rode on the ten down to Deira again.
Flaring out the g-funk,
Sucking on a shisha,
Just me and a friend.
Feeling kinda groovy,
Working on a movie. (yeah right!)

But we did nothing, absolutely butkis that day, and I say:
What the hell am I doing drinking in Dubai at 36?

With my mind on my money and my money on my... beer, beer!

I know that life is for the taking, so I better wise up, and take it quick.

Yeah, one more time at trader vics. (I didn't change this!)

Some men there wanted to hurt us,
And other men said we werent worth the fuss.
We could see them all bitching by the bar,
About the fine line, between the rich and the poor.
Then mike turned to me and said:
what do you think we got done son?

Weve got a conclusion, and I guess thats something, so I ask you:
What the hell am I doing drinking in Dubai at 36?
I got the fever for the shisha, the payback will be later, still I need a fix.

We need to fix you up, call me Sunday and maybe well fix it all up.

Du-bai, Do-ya-buy, Du-bai, Do-ya-buy?

So I ask you:
What the hell am I doing living in Dubai at 36?

Du-bai, Do-ya-buy, Du-bai, Do-ya-buy?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

It'll be nice when it's finished.

Sorry for the delay. I've been away. Well, not actually away from Dubai, but away from the computer. We've had visitors in town. The MUM, the DAD and the BRO left last night after a whirlwind week in this crazy (pronounced ker-ay-zee) town. Their visit was a real eye-opener for them, and it has proved to be one for me as well.

It seems like a dream now, but just over a week ago, I picked the visitors up from the airport. Me and the BOY were there, eagerly watching for their familiar faces to emerge from the throngs passing through the automatic doors. I was nervous as hell. My guts were in knots, and I'd had a really bad Irritable Bowel attack the previous night. I had barely slept either.

When I spied the BRO's face, the nervousness peaked, but after the greeting hugs and kisses, the butterflies were gone. My visitors looked absolutely shattered. It had been an overnight flight, and none of them had slept. They brightened up as we headed off towards our house, and the BOY and me gave them a short guided tour of the main sights visible from the Sheik Zayed Road.

From then, it's all a blur really. We had a lot to cram in to a few days, so we did the obligatory Brunch (on Easter Sunday), the day at the beach, the malls, the Big Bus Tour, a meal on Bateaux Dubai and the desert safari, which I think was the best-enjoyed event of the week.

We went on safari with a company called Desert Rangers this time, and in all honesty, the experience was much better than with Arabian Nights. Our driver, George, was a slightly mad chap from Goa, who liked to sing along to '70s and '80s music whilst paying more attention to the two young ladies who came along with us than to the road. His whole demeanour changed when we hit the dunes, as he donned an old animal-skin rimmed hat, and he took great pleasure in showing us his excellent dune-bashing skills as he sped over the sand and twisted and turned his Land Cruiser this way and that, all with one hand on the steering wheel. I'm not sure if it was less scary this time, or if I was just more prepared for it, but I wasn't half as frightened as I was last time. I think sitting in the middle row is the best option. The DAD sat in the front seat next to George most of the time, and at the last stop near some camels, he looked whiter than a pint of milk with a comically-unwell face drawn on it.

The Bedouin camp part was really good as well. They fed us before the belly dancer arrived, and gave us ample opportunity to sample henna painting, shisha and drinks from the bar, as well as go on a short camel ride if we so wished. The food was generous and pretty good quality, and there was just a better vibe all round. More people danced with the belly dancer, and they completed the night with a few disco and dance classics to get us all gyrating on the carpet under the dark desert sky. The only slight let-down was that we didn't see the sunset. As we drove through the desert, clouds moved across the sky and hid the sinking sun. This pattern of weather repeated itself most nights, and the MUM was slightly disappointed that she never saw a nice sunset over the sea or in the desert.

Also worth a mention is the Bateaux Dubai. As is customary, I got slightly wound up about getting there on time, since this restaurant is one that moves. I was told in no uncertain terms to get there by 8pm or we wouldn't get on. So when our taxi driver turned up at 7.20 with a long drive through Sharjah-bound traffic ahead, my heart sank. I asked him to get us there by 8pm, and he told me, "No Problem, Boss". So he weaved in and out of the traffic and sniffed out the least congested routes like some moustache-wearing bloodhound, and we got there right on time. I gave him a generous tip for his efforts and we trotted over to the glass-sided boat, boarding between two lighted half-moon crescent shapes to be greeted by smiling men and women in crisp uniforms.

When we sat down, we noticed that the boat was half-empty, and we sat there until nearly 8.45pm waiting for everyone to turn up. We were ever so slightly peeved at this, and couldn't believe I'd got so stressed about getting there on time. Personally, I hate tardiness. It reeks of disrespect and arrogance, and because these people couldn't get there on time, the journey was at least half an hour shorter than it should have been. It ended just as we finished our coffees and paid our bills. We didn't get the chance to sit on the rear upper deck, sipping an after-dinner drink and taking in the delights of the creek at night. Despite this, the very good meal and the Bateaux experience were pretty damn enjoyable. The creek takes on a different guise at night, with all the old buildings lighting up and light-bulb-covered dhows and their shimmering reflections gliding past quietly. I would definitely recommend it. As long as it leaves on time.

And now my parents and my brother have gone; their physical, tangible forms vanished from our lives again, and it's as if they were never here. It all happened so so quickly, and now I'm left feeling a bit flat and empty. Now I have to re-focus, after looking forward to my family's visit for so long. I suppose that now I have to look forward to going home in the summer. It's only 3 months away now, and it should fly by if we keep busy.

I mentioned the eye-opening aspects of my family coming here. I think the biggest realisation that has dawned on me this last week is that Dubai is an absolutely great place to visit for a week or two on holiday. It has a lot to offer tourists. The Burj Al Arab and the Madinat and the desert can be alluring and attractive. My visitors enjoyed their time, there's no doubt about it, even if their favourite phrase was: "It'll be nice when it's finished!". For me, the people who you share your time with here can make a big difference. Being here full-time with only a couple of close companions is very, very different.

Those of us who live and work here see the other, less attractive aspects of the place, and after that initial honeymoon period when you ignore the cracks in the walls and the dirt under the surface, it can start to grind away at your soul. Those of us who live and work here are doing so on nothing more than a temporary basis, building the Las Vegas of the Middle East for the affluent of the world. What do we get out of it? A tax-free salary, an expat lifestyle and year-round sunshine. Well, whoop-te-doo.

The salary might be tax free, but with all the muncipality fees and charges and school fees and service charges and registration fees and the high rents and all the other bits and bobs they fail to mention when you are being enticed into moving here, you might as well be paying 40% tax.

Expat lifestyle? Sitting on a beach, going to the mall, eating out every weekend. Wow, so enriching, isn't it? And that's if you're in the highest-earning 5% of expats. What they don't advertise is the traffic and then danger on the roads, the constant dust, the noise and the utter shallow fakeness of the place.

Sunshine? I'll give them that, it is pleasant - for 6 months of the year. The rest of the time you're stuck indoors because of the heat, so your life becomes a dash between the air-conditioned sanctuaries of home, car, office, shopping mall and hotel.

Oh, a good moan gets the juices flowing. It gets it all out of your system. I've been told that life is what you make it, and I agree to an extent. Life is what you make it - if you have the means. If life is what you make it, why do people yearn for something else, why do people move to other countries? Why don't we just make the most of where we live and who we live with? It's what a friend of mine has told me for years now: The Grass is Greener on the Other Side.

I've also been told that happiness lies within, and I'm starting to think that this is true. We have to learn to be happy with what we have, with what cards we've been dealt, whether it's a silver spoon, a plastic fork or a wooden spear. Idealistic dream of everyone living equally are just that - dreams. It would be nice, but it ain't gonna happen. But that's fine, because we all know what we know and we are used to the world from our own perspective. Understanding that there are other perspectives is half the battle of life. If you can change the world, do it. You'll be a rare breed. If you can change your own view of the world, even better.

I have a lot of thinking to do.