Qatar: Stopover on the Way to India, Candy for My New (Used) Camera

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The Scene: Doha, Qatar, the most luxurious desert I’ve ever been to.   Some 200,000 Qataris have rights to 1/3 of the world’s oil and gas reserves, making their country’s per-capita income the highest on earth.  Locals are pretty much set for life from the moment they’re born, being guaranteed a big lump sum when they come of age and very likely a cushy job at the top of a bank or in a government office should they decide they actually want to work.  The situation is slightly different for the 1.5 million workers from India, Nepal, Malaysia, Egypt, the Philippines, and elsewhere who make up the entirety of Qatar’s construction force and the vast majority of their service sectors but don’t figure into the official calculations.  Suffice it to say their lives are much harder.  

 

The Cast:

Myself, returning to fauxbodom by taking advantage of a “privilege pass subload” ticket to jump hemispheres for chump change.    

Yunkyoung Noona, former student of Mike’s, current premium class stewardess for Qatar Airways, procurator of aforementioned sweet ticket deal. 

Sarimi, another former student of Mike’s, in the same class at Yunkyoung.  Didn’t procure my PPS ticket this time, but maybe next time????

Anna Z., Couchsurfing host/chauffer, former vagabond who traveled the Mediterranean playing piano on cruise ships, current music teacher at local international school.  Polish. 

Achmed A., cousin, and crew: Egyptian friends of Anna’s who live and work in Qatar as construction crew managers, accountants, and so forth. 

Hyeyoung Noona, close friend of Yunkyoung’s, also employed as a stewardess at Qatar Airways.  This probably has nothing to do with the application essays I helped her write back in ‘08.

Hyojoung (same age as me, and therefore not a Noona), another friend of YK’s, also a QA stewardess.  From Jeju, Korea’s prized subtropical islet.  I cycled all 300 miles of its perimeter it in ‘12, booya. 

 

The Action:

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Twelve hours in the air carried me what would normally take me seven to nine months of wheeling.  The PPS ticket allows airline staff to purchase tickets for friends and family at staff prices, but comes with a few risks:

1) I’d get bumped from the flight if non-fauxbo customers purchased all the seats (at full cost).

2) I’d get bumped from the flight if the empty seats were snatched up by Captains, Cabin Crew, Ground Crew, family or spouses of any of the above, or friends of any of the above whose connection at the airline outranked Yunkyoung Noona.

3)  I’d be refused my ticket if I didn’t dress business casual.  This includes an injunction against sandals and “sports shoes.”  Not sure how I made it through, since I own only two pairs of shoes: one pair of sandals and one pair of sports shoes, the latter held together with fat gobs of Shoe Goo.   I guess the fates were on my side.

4) Once allowed on board, I might be asked to eat last and accept whatever entrée was available so that the real customers could all have their first choice. 

 

To balance the inconveniences out, there were also some perks:

1) You get to check in at the staff kiosk, where the counter assistant asks, “Hello, Sir.  Are you airline staff?”  This made me feel important, even if I had to answer in the negative. 

2)  More leniency regarding baggage size and weight limitations – I didn’t get hit with any baggage surcharges, though according to the website they should’ve charged me $150 for the oversized bag on my first flight and $100 for the overweight bag on my second. 

3) You’re still given access to the airline’s free in-flight booze service, meaning that I’ve now tried Hennessy and have some clue what P. Diddy is always on about. 

4) And, yes, a whopping 90% discount on my ticket.  Yunkyoung Noona 고마워!  사랑해! 

 

 

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My bike bag (10 lbs), disassembled bicycle (33 lbs), spare parts box, some Styrofoam and bubble wrap, and a few other odds and ends to push the total just up to the limit of 50 lbs.   

I bought the hockey bag for $50 on Craigslist in LA and have since saved about $300 in airline surcharges because of it.  Heck yeah! 

 

 

 

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Anna, artiste extraordinaire!  She took me with her to her tennis lesson straight from the airport (I nearly beat her coach but lost so as not to put him out of the job), gave me my own air-conditioned room for a whole week, drove me around to various sights, arranged a desert camping trip with some of her friends (more on that later), bought me falafel a time or two, and even dropped me off at the airport at goodbye time.  Five stars.  In exchange I did her dishes and advised her on her upcoming winter excursion to Vietnam and Cambodia. 

 

 

 

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Day 1 AM: a walk down to the nearest supermarket, which turned out to be like any supermarket anywhere.  All the same fruits and veggies from various continents (apples from America), potato chips, frozen foods, oatmeal, diapers, etc.  A few local goods at the bakery, the olive bar, and in the dates section.  I passed this monster on my stroll. 

 

 

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Day 1 PM: A night ride around “Education City,” a big multi-campus complex home to various Qatari and foreign university programs, while Anna attended her Arabic class. 

 

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A local in the know told me that Qatar is making efforts to invest its some of its massive oil income in projects that will pay off in the long run, such as turning the country into a financial and educational hub.  As later mall pictures will show, though, the consumer economy is also in full bloom, with the richest of the rich purchasing $30,000 designer handbags and normal people happily shelling out $10 for personal pan pizzas in the food courts. 

 

 

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This was the only time I cycled in Qatar; the roads everywhere else were sheer chaos.  “Totally lawless,” as Yunkyoung would later say.  Lots of SUVs since gas hardly costs $1 per gallon, nice wide roads thanks to all the cash in the government’s coffers,  a pretty meager police presence, and roundabouts everywhere that tempt everyone to do their best Formula 1 imitation. 

 

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I can’t remember the last time a statue impressed me so much – look at those flow lines in the robe.  Incredible.  Nice one, Qatar. 

 

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I ambushed a bunch of Kuwaitis (recognizable thanks to the black rope that holds their headdress on) who were taking selfies in the plaza.  The guy in the middle on the right told me “Oh, I’m also American.  I’m from Pittsburgh.”  He teaches education at a university in Kuwait and has a lecture series called “How to talk so that children will listen, and how to listen so that children will talk.” 

 

 

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Yunkyoung and Hyeyoung at Souq Waqif, the old market.  “Old” as in forty years or so.  Qatar as an independent nation hardly existed before oil was discovered there in the 60’s.  

 

 

 

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Dinner at one of the many restaurants in the Souq. 

 

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“Kofta.”  In India, it’s a donut-hole-sized ball of crushed spinach, raisins, cashews, chickpea flower, and/or cottage cheese.  In Qatar, it’s lamb or chicken meatballs skewered and roasted. Served with flatbreads, Arugala salad, a side of hummus, and a side of yogurt and cucumbers.  

 

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Middle-eastern veg staples: hummus, tabouleh (parsley salad), an eggplant and tomato dish that I think may have been metawah, and good old baba ganouj. 

 

 

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Aside from those four or five sides, vegans face pretty slim pickings in Qatar.  Here’s mostly the same thing, with the addition a cabbage salad, yogurt with red chilis (?!), and avocado smoothies.  

 

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But fairest of them all was this Korean meal that YK and HY put together for me: Kimchi pancakes, kimchi fried rice, Japchae sweet potato noodles with spinach and other julienned veg, ddeok rice cakes to be dipped in honey, and seaweed squares roast in my beloved perilla oil.   The midday temperatures in excess of 40C/104F made a picnic sound unpleasant, but I also wasn’t allowed into the airline crew accomodation complex due to some recent policy changes.  Anna Z. to the rescue – she let me have friends over for lunch while she was at work.  Thanks, Anna!

 

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Moving on from mouth candy to eye candy, here are some shots from a cool evening promenade around “The Corniche,” a long stretch of seafront in Qatar’s CBD.  

 

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The Museum of Islamic Art.  See those little eyes on the tower up top?  They’re intended to look like the eyes of a woman staring out from the abbaiya, the black dress that Qatari women wear which obscures their entire body and most – sometimes all – of their face.  There’s one eye on each of the four sides, so that no matter what angle you’re looking at the building from you see them staring back at you. 

 

 

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Inside. 

 

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New camera!  Panorama mode!

 

 

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Trees, grass, and wildlife in Doha can pretty much only survive on manicured hotel grounds or here in the “Aspire” park.   Aside from here and in the Museum gardens, I only noticed four birds over the course of an entire week in Qatar.  Kind of creepy if you ask me.  There were also few stray cats eating people’s leftovers in the Souq.  No dogs anywhere.  

 

 

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The trees have to be lit up at night because it’s too hot to go see them during the day. 

 

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Even so, it was nice to visit the (only?) playground and see and hear kids being kids.  The kid in white in the center under that light flare provided us with a good deal of entertainment – we watched him spin round and round and took bets on whether he’d spew after dismounting.  Alas, he did not. 

 

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Whenever I told someone that I was planning on spending a week in Doha, the response was inevitably something along the lines of “Why? Two or three days is more than enough.”   It’s true – aside from the Souq Waqif, the Cornice, the Museum, and Aspire park, there’s really not much for tourists (let alone fauxbos) to do in Qatar.  I was thus reduced to conducting anthropological studies in malls. 

 

 

 

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This one, the Villaggio, had both a Venetian canal and a hockey rink (no photos allowed) inside.  There were also clouds painted on the ceiling – as a matter of fact, I went here on day 4 and they were the first clouds I had seen since arriving! 

 

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There is one other popular pastime: desert camping!  Drive an hour out of Doha towards the Saudi border and the perfect black tarmac suddenly ends.  Welcome to 4WD territory. 

 

 

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Hey did I mention that I’ve got a new tent and some other gear thanks to the good folks at Big Agnes?  Official press release in the works, but for now: thanks, guys!

 

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A sunrise dip in the Persian Gulf. 

 

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Fishermen and scuba divers out while the weather’s bearble. 

 

 

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And then it was time to split.  YK had gotten me a PPS ticket for the 9PM flight to Delhi, but Indian cabin crew snatched up all the seats, leaving me to wait to try my luck again on the 2AM flight. 

 

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It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  While waiting, who showed up at the airport but YK, who had spent the previous two days flying to Belgium and back, and Sarimi, an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in three or four years.  We headed out to the Souq for a stroll, an Italian meal (the owner lady came to compliment me on my ability to converse in Chinese, and I responded to her in Italian that we were actually speaking Korean), mango avocado smoothies, and some good ol’ fashioned catching  up, with a side of nostalgia for those good old days six or seven years ago when we were all so young and spry.  Oh, the good old days!  How nice it was to relive them again, even if briefly.  

Until next time, my dear disciples. 

See you in India, everyone else!

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