Sunday, May 13, 2007

Party on...

Summer is returning. The sun is getting hotter. The air is starting to feel thick with heat and moisture, and the vicious, unrelenting glare of the sky, sand and light-coloured buildings is getting brighter and brighter. The glass windows of buildings feel warm from the inside, rather than cold now, and you really notice the difference when you enter or exit a building. The air conditioning makes you shiver monentarily as you enter, and on the flip-side, getting into a car - especially when it has been parked out of the shade - is like entering a sauna - fully clothed, with a red hot steering wheel to hold.

My third weekend in Doha has been and gone. On Thursday, I spent the day recoiling from a barrage of sardonic and annoying e-mails from one person who seemed to have it in for me that day. I was glad of the opportunity to take a bit of a flier and drive down to the site on the Corniche for a little party they were holding to celebrate the end of a particular phase of work in the Big Hole in the Ground.

I got there just in time. The portacabin meeting room was full of people standing with their arms folded, looking longingly at the Arabic-syle feast laid out on the tables in the middle, with kebabs, pickles, hummous and breads waiting to be consumed. Two large plates took centre stage, but foil concealed the delights upon them. The Project Managers made their little speeches, the staff appluaded politely, then everyone eagerly tucked in. Foil was ripped away from the two large plates to reveal the almost complete roasted carcasses of lambs laying on beds of yellow rice. I waited a moment to see what would happen, and watched as the others around me started ripping the meat from the carcasses with their bare hands. Well, their right hands, to be precise. No-one uses their left hand to touch food here, for reasons of hygiene. Left hands are for dealing with sanitary matters, shall we say.

So I dived in as well, feeling like some early hominid without a spear or a loin cloth as I tore cooked flesh from the bones of the dead beast in front of me, piled it onto my plastic plate, and stuffed it into my mouth. It felt good, and it tasted even better. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to when this animal had been gamboling around in a field, completely unaware of its final destination, but I imagine it wasn't long ago. This thought, along with the sight of the lamb's body with leg bones and ribs protruding from it might have put some people off, but there weren't many around me that showed any signs of being so. Within ten minutes, there wasn't much meat left at all, just bones and gristle and skin, as if a pack of ravenous hyenas had just taken its fill, before washing it down with a can of Coke.

Greasy hands and faces were wiped clean and Arabic sweets were passed round. They were sweets which I hadn't seen before; a kind of sticky orange, crispy cigar filled with custardy cream. One was more than enough for me, and then the party seemed to disband, and everyone began to shuffle away from the meeting room, wiping their mouths clean as they went back to their desks, or straight out of the door towards home. A few of the big cheeses were meeting for a cup of tea in another room, but I decided against joining them - not that I'm a big cheese, more of a half-pack of Dairylea, if I'm honest - and slipped back to my car and started driving towards my hotel.

With the sun on its way down and the air cooling a bit, I decided to park up on the Corniche front and take in a little fresh air. I didn't walk very far, deciding to sit on the thick, white, sectioned wall at the water's edge and watch the world go by. Joggers, families and random single people passed by, the odd one greeting me with the traditional, "A Salaam alaykum" as they passed. I still haven't got the hang of answering straight away in Arabic, favouring the silent nod or the quick, "Hi" in reply. I hope they aren't offended.

After 15 minutes of peaceful reflection, I went back to the car and completed my journey to the hotel, wondering what I was going to do for the weekend, since it was upon me again, and I was alone again. I ended up ringing a chap I know who works for one of the companies I deal with and we agreed to meet at the Australian bar in Rydges. We'd both had hard days, so a quick drink was definitely on the cards.

We met and chatted and drank, and I was introduced to a handful of people from various places and various companies - mostly construction related - and had a thoroughly pleasant evening, drinking the black stuff and smoking other people's cigarettes, which is a filthy habit, especially when you take one without asking. Oh well, they're only 90p a packet here. So maybe I should buy my own. But if I did that, I would smoke more, and I really shouldn't smoke, even on this ad-hoc, "only when I drink" basis. It's asking for trouble with this ticker of mine on top of the alcohol.

The bar was pretty busy by 10pm. The music gradually got louder, and so did the people, and when I decided to leave at 11.30, there was a small group of people waiting to get in, standing impatiently in front of the velvet rope manned by gargantuan, glowering bouncers. I smiled to myself as I walked past them all and into the waiting lift. I've been there before, and I'm sure I'll be there again. Everyone wants to get in somewhere, and everyone wants to keep everyone out. Unless you're a VIP, of course.

Friday was lie-in day. Though I miss my children, the one advantage of being away from them is not having them jumping all over me at 6.30 in the morning on a weekend. So I had a nice long sleep, before ordering room service for breakfast and watching old movies on the TV, sitting there in a hotel-issue bath robe that just about fitted.

Boredom got the better of me by early afternoon, so I decided to ring another chap, this time an ex-colleague, who had suggested earlier last week that we visit the (in)famous Garvey's for a drink and some food. Their roast dinners are legendary. Especially in their own lunchtime. The suggestion had been made on Wednesday night when we had met up with other ex-colleagues and current incumbents over a curry at a very impressive and cheap Indian restuarant next to the tennis stadium.

So we drove out of central Doha, towards the Sports City area, and eventually arrived at a complex tucked away from view behind some shops and villas. The complex calls itself The European Families Club, and has a collection of low buildings, including villas and fitted-out cabins which they rent out to expats. Garvey's is the bar, and lies behind a solid, dark wooden door near the swimming pool area. Even on this hot day, the pool area was busy with lobster-skinned Brits sitting in the midday sun supping cold beers. Unfortunately, there were no canines in need of therapy to be seen anywhere.

Garvey's itself has been described as having the feel of a working men's club, and this assessment is spot on. It has undergone a recent revamp, with fancy wooden venetian blinds being added to the windows, and dark blue paint slapped on the walls, but it can't betray its roots. The tables and chairs are old and wobbly, and the once-white ceiling tiles now resemble a heavy smoker's teeth; yellowy-brown and quite unpleasant. Newer, cleaner tiles fitted with recessed lights have been fitted, obviously to provide some light, but they just serve to highlight the griminess of their older neighbours. In the corner, a TV shows sport on a permanent loop, interspersed with information about forthcoming Karaoke and Quiz nights, and messages imploring people not to drink and drive. The obligatory pool table and large screen telly hide round a corner at one end.

The clientele all seemed jolly enough when we entered. There was a mix of middle-aged, shaven-headed men in long shorts and football shirts, younger men in long shorts and football shirts with designer sunglasses and Crocodile Dundee hats, women in short skirts and cropped tops trying to ignore their young, boisterous children, and a few older, red-bonced men in long shorts and football shirts with faded tattoos extoling the virtues of female parents on every spare scrap of bare skin. My colleague informed me it was still early, and it was reasonably quiet for now, but most of these people would spend all day in this one place. Fights, he told me, were quite a regular occurence in the darker hours.

But before I come across as some sort of insufferable snob (moi?), I have to point out that the food in Garvey's is superb. I plumped for leek and potato soup and roast beef with all the trimmings, and was not disappointed. In fact, it was excellent, and really cheap. The soup was as good as anything I've ever made myself, the roast potatoes were crunchy and moist without being greasy and the beef was just a little bit pink in the middle, covered in dark, thick gravy. Oh yes. The only slight let-down was the Yorkshire pudding, which was a little on the soggy side, but it didn't ruin the whole experience of eating a home-made roast dinner again. When I'd eaten everything on my plate (except the cauliflower), I sent my wife a rather cheeky text message telling her what I'd just eaten. Her reply was short, sweet and effective: BOG OFF.

After a couple of non-alcoholic drinks (don't let the halo slip, now), my colleague and I headed off into the cooling late afternoon. It had certainly been an experience, that's for sure. It's like a real, authentic piece of UK culture has been lifted from a Northern industrial town and transplanted into the middle of this Middle Eastern city. The only hint that you're not in the UK is the high percentage of Asian staff behind the bar. It serves its primary purpose, which is to give people a home from home while they are overseas, and it keeps people happy. And drunk. Of course, I could go on about cultural integration and the criticism immigrants to the UK suffer because of their lack of integration, but that would be remiss of me. The point is made, and will be made again.

Friday night was a lazy night. I watched Mission Impossible 3 on the hotel pay-per-view system, and it passed the time well. When will that Tom Cruise fella start showing his age?

If Friday was a lazy night, Saturday was a lazy day. I spent it almost entirely in the hotel, only leaving it to get some lunch across the road in the neighbouring hotel, and having a little wander around the grounds to look at their impressive multi-level, lagoon-style swimming pool. The rest of the day I spent watching TV or playing the PSP, in between contemplating my future. I have two solid job offers for other work on the table now. One is in Doha, the other in Russia, and I keep changing my mind as to which would be the better one to take. I have pretty much decided to leave the company I'm with now.

The last film I watched last night was Luc Besson's take on the Joan of Arc story. It came across as a sort of Braveheart with a French woman, with maybe a little more historical accuracy, and wasn't TOO damning on the English for once. The ending, where a 19-year-old Joan is burnt at the stake, made me squirm a bit, serving as a reminder of humankind's propensity to savage brutality. I had to watch a little bit of the comedy channel to take my mind away from the images of Joan being consumed by the flames.

And here we are. The start of another week. I should get home this week. Home being Dubai, of course. Strange how I see it like that now. But home is where the heart is, and my heart is with 3 people who I miss. I miss them a lot.

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