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.