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!


nzm said...

That's sad when a family has to split.

An observation - and I trust that this will be not construed as racism as it is a perspective and perhaps an indictment on Dubai with its ridiculous costs of living:

Especially in the lower socio-economic groups, families are split when people seek work overseas. Look at the large Indian and Filipino communities in Dubai who have left their families in their homelands to seek employment and better wages.

John Chilton has an excellent link to an article which focusses on the Filipinos who leave home with an inclusion on the Filipinos based in Dubai.

The Dubai costs have also been affecting the Middle Management tier for about 2 years now - our Indian office and bank account managers are 2 of many in this group who have had to send their families back to India to live, as they can't afford family rental accommodation here.

Your story and experiences foretell that families in the higher economic brackets are about to be affected in the same way.

It's bloody sad.

I trust that all will be good for you in Doha. Whatever you do, please don't fall into the routine of drinking to ease the vicious boredom/pain/loneliness cycle. Get out - join a sports club and stay away from the booze, otherwise we'll have to come over to Doha and straighten you out!

littejimmy said...

Thanks for that nzm.

It is sad. There is nothing racist about what you said at all.

As for drink, I've seen first hand what it does to people. Luckily (or not depending on your view) my heart condition means I am not able to drink a lot. I have a low limit, and will alternative hard and soft drinks when I'm out, even if it gets me called names.

So I plan to keep busy - I imagine work will do that mostly, but I might start Arabic lessons and/or find an outlet for my creative energies. I might even join a gym again if it isn't too expensive.

Anonymous said...

I see two options, sir: You can embrace your inner Bukowski or you can devote fanatic attention to work by day and spend your evenings training for the apocalypse on long runs through the dunes.

Or there is a third way - yeah, Arabic lessons. This a hugely valuable but underpursued way to kill some time. I'm surprised more people don't learn the language.

Last, a question. What makes Dubai so expensive for white-collar execs with families in Dubai? Is it school fees, cars, food? What?

littejimmy said...

Bukowski - it's a combination of ridiculous property rental costs and schooling.

taunted - wash your mouth out, or even your fingers, if you want to have your comments posted in future.