From Stockholm, I would normally have flown west, toward home, but instead headed to a short consulting assignment, boarding a brand-new Qatar Airways 787 bound for Doha and my first visit to the Gulf – indeed to any part of the world between India and Turkey. This was a new kind of client (can’t say too much), and the contract provided for business-class travel on trips longer than six hours. Woo hoo! It was a fancy ride, with a good meal, and a good movie, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” We landed Doha at sunset.
A long queue for immigration, and I missed the hourly shuttle to the nearby Crowne Plaza, so I hopped in a taxi. The driver was multitasking cleverly: driving me and praying, the Qur’an being chanted on the radio. Not sure if it was blasphemy or not, but I diverted him with some questions: almost no one working in service or construction is Qatari (less than 15% of the population of 2 million are from there), so I was sure he was from somewhere else. An Egyptian, with a wife and kids 15 and 4 back home. They Skype every day, “but,” he said, “it’s not the same as holding them.” When I checked in, I was delighted to learn that my loyalty to IHG Hotels was paying off: I had become “Gold,” and that got me upgraded to a suite. Wowie! It was posh, especially after the dorm-like OK. Unpacked, and immediately headed to the gym to pound out some miles. The USBE bike was great for urban transportation, but you couldn’t really get aerobic. By the time I cooled down, it was nearly ten and I decided on sleep. Ah, finally my favored combination of a firm mattress and a very soft feather pillow. I was deep in dreamland all night.
Was up early Sunday morning. It was the start of the Muslim workweek, so locals were headed to work and school. The hotel restaurants were pricey, and even though I was on expense account, I went foraging for breakfast in a mixed neighborhood of modest apartments, newer flashy buildings, and some small construction-supply stores. Greeted the workingmen with “Salaam” (Peace). Spotted a totally local cafe, but I was self-conscious about using my (to the locals) unclean left hand – the one I learned to favor as a kid, hard to change six decades later – so at the tiny Al Faheem Grocery I bought a pint of Saudi milk, two sweet rolls and a banana (equivalent of $1.84) and headed home to practice eating with my right hand.
Fortified, I headed out into bright sunshine and a temp already in the mid-80s. First stop was the Souk Waqif, a traditional bazaar. I love markets, and this was my first visit to one in the Islamic world. I was surprised and happy that that there were no hustlers preying on visitors. It attracted visitors but mostly quite a few customers, ordinary people: older women buying spices, a fellow getting measured for a thawb (the traditional men’s white dress), a young guy buying wire mesh. Porters in red vests used garden-like wheelbarrows to tote customer purchases to the parking lot or taxis. The souk was partially arranged by type of goods, and I soon was in the pet area, surrounded by cages of songbirds, lizards, turtles, rabbits. Many looked underfed and poorly cared for, depressing (clearly, there’s no Doha chapter of PETA). I drank a can of soda and pressed on. Some scenes from the souk:
This is a traditional place, judging from clothing: lots of men in thawbs or the pajama-like dress. Almost every woman was in a burqa and headscarf (hijab), a few of which had the veil that covered all but the eyes.
Rounding the corner at the northwest edge of the souk, shimmering in the distance was the new Doha skyline. The contrast with a traditional bazaar could not have been more startling. I crossed a busy street and walked east along the Corniche, a bayfront promenade, past the harbor full of traditional boats called dhows, to the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei.
I needed a jolt of coffee, and sat down in a very comfortable lobby café with a superb view of that bay and skyline. First stop was a temporary exhibit, “Kings and Pawns: Board Games from India to Spain.” Superb museum interpretation of “war games” (chess) and “race games” (parcheesi, backgammon, and snakes and ladders). Turns out the latter originated as a fun way to teach children moral principles. Who knew? Then it was time to see the permanent collection, which was eye-popping. The key difference was that art meant not painting and sculpture (though there was some of that), but mostly what the West calls decorative arts: dishware, jewelry, architectural detail, illustrated manuscripts, weapons, and more. I swept through galleries on two floors, then started again, to re-admire some of the stuff that really caught my eye:
The lobby café was pricey, but I was hungry, so I paused for a plate of chicken biryani, then hopped into a cab. I slapped my forehead as I headed back to the hotel: forgot that I needed to make some photocopies for the meeting the next day. With a bit of resourcefulness, I found a Kinko’s-like place two miles away; the hotel concierge who called to ensure they were open then offered a 50% discount on the hotel’s normal rate, which made it a likely wash (cheaper copies, but two taxi fares). Ya gotta admire enterprise!
Grabbed a nap and 15 miles on a fitness bike. At six I headed to the bar; was glad I had a frequent-stayer chit for a free drink. At least in that Muslim land they discourage the tippler: a beer cost more than in Sweden, the equivalent of $11. I confess that I felt a bit immoral, especially when the only other people in the bar were drinking water, juice or tea. After a cold one (and jotting notes for this journal on my iPhone), it was pedal to the metal with a young and chatty Egyptian taxi driver. He got a bit distracted and missed the turn, requiring a long detour around a huge construction site, Msheireb Downtown.
Happily, he dropped me right on time for my dinner booking at Khazana, owned Sanjeev Kapoor, an Indian celebrity chef (I love Indian food, but don’t track the TV cook-stars). I was almost the only one in the place, and enjoyed a nice T-t-S with the manager, who was from Chennai. It was pricey, but delicious, with huge portions. The waiter kindly offered to package it up “for takeaway, sah.” I was surprised and pleased, and told him I hated to waste food. I reckoned it could be lunch after our meeting the next day.
Because of construction, Khazana was in a sort of no-man’s land (part of the reason for its emptiness), so I walked diagonally across the Souk Waqif to a busy street and a taxi home. At nine on a Monday the souk was buzzing with life. Found myself on “falcon alley,” a string of five or six shops selling falcons and everything you needed to handle them. That was way local.
After flagging a cab on Banks Street (apparently named for the finance houses that line both sides for about three blocks), I asked the young Sri Lankan taxi driver if he wanted dinner, and happily parted with my leftovers. Asleep soon, a long and fascinating day.
Up just after dawn Monday, back to the Al Rasheem Grocery for breakfast stuff, then suited up. At 9:30 I met Rabih, a friendly Lebanese fellow from the organization that was subcontracting my services, and hopped in a taxi to the client offices. There we met his colleague Shikha, and we spent a couple of hours presenting. All went well, and there may be more work there, which would be good.
It was almost two, and I was hungry. On the taxi ride back to the hotel I spotted a couple of simple, local eateries a couple of blocks away, so after changing clothes I headed over, settling into the Jawahar Restaurant. Lots of stares, returned with smiles. Most of the diners appeared to be Indian, all tucking, with great gusto, into a big aluminum plate of rice with three stews, and with their (right) hands – no forks, no spoons. “When in Rome,” thought I, and in no time I was digging in, though with a spoon in my right hand. It really wasn’t so hard to be ambidextrous, and I chuckled when I thought about the last time local convention dictated a new hand-to-mouth skill: Osaka, Japan, November 1993, when I either learned to use chopsticks or go hungry! A friendly fellow brought seconds, ladled with a smile. What a place! I was chuckling to myself about going totally local in the Jawahar. I’m glad I’m still the adventurous traveler I was 40 years earlier. Smiled again at the front of the place, when the manager punched “9.00” on his calculator – $2.84 for the big meal and a can of 7-Up.
Ambled back to the hotel, did a bit of work, and hopped in a cab around the bay to the downtown area. Walked for a mile or so, then hopped on a free shuttle bus to cool off and see a bit more – like a Grey Line tour without the narration, and the cost! Jumped off at one of the several flashy malls that cab drivers extolled (and I politely replied, each time, that I wasn’t a shopper). This one had an ice rink. A little of modern commerce was enough, so walked to the basement of the mall and hopped in a cab with a Kenyan driver, a happy fellow with a good smile. His English was the best thus far, and I learned a lot about him. He was of the Mijikenda coastal people, from Mombasa. He had been in Qatar for three months, after two years next door in Saudi Arabia. Qatar, he said, was freer, but more expensive – running a red light costs you the equivalent of $1650 here, a huge chunk or yearly income. He said he could tell where in Africa men were from, by the way they walked: “See, there’s a Nigerian guy.” About halfway home he volunteered that his wife gave birth to their second child, Mohammed, yesterday. Maybe it was a scam, but even if it was I felt good handing him a tip that doubled the cost of the ride.
Headed to the gym for a brief ride, then back to the bar for a free beer (on the second chit), then out for dinner. Like the night before, the young Nepali driver did not use the meter. Because I had lots of riyals and was leaving in 12 hours I didn’t ask the price as we left the hotel. When we got to the souk, I asked the price. He smiled and replied, “You decide, sir.” So I did. I headed back to the lively souk, to the restaurant area, where lots of people were sitting outside, many happily puffing on water pipes (shisha). Not my cup of tea. Spotted a Malaysian restaurant, and sat down outdoors for plates of chicken satay and spicy noodles. Back home, and fast asleep.
Was up at 5:30 Tuesday morning, over to the airport. I growled to myself in the Qatar Airways premium terminal, at people – largely fellow Americans, I’m sure – who were dressed like they were headed out to sweep their garage (not that many of them would ever do that). This lack of grace was especially visible in a conservative place like Qatar. A little adult supervision warranted.
One last T-t-S of the trip, with a very friendly young fellow, Dave, a health and safety consultant on oil rigs. Originally from Liverpool, he was living in Perth, Australia, and was enroute to a rig in the Libyan desert. Clearly a fearless soul. We covered a lot of topics in a short period, and it was a pleasure to yak with him. Before parting, we agreed that Talking to Strangers was a great thing while traveling, and I promised to send him my soon-to-be-published story on the topic. He agreed to email some photos of his Libyan gig. What fun those 20 minutes were!
Climbed on a long (13.8 hours, time for four movies), pleasant flight nonstop to Washington . We were late, and I did not walk in the front door until 6:30. The terriers were ready for a walk!
Postscript: I’m still unhappy with how WordPress software blurs the photos — every one of these was crisp before uploading. Rather than delaying the post, I dispatch these with apologies.