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Visit Doha

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No trust me, visit Doha, it is amazing…

The plane hurtles over increasingly barren land, I look down as tiny private jets zoom by nearer the horizon and think about Drew. Drew and I were inseparable throughout our college years. We filled our days by stealing reagents from the chemistry lab and trying to blow ourselves up in many varied and outlandish experiments. Once in 1994 we ruined Drew’s Dad’s lawnmower when we asked ourselves what would happen if we filled the petrol tank with methanol, tainted methanol no less, smuggled out of a distilling class. We drained the tank of normal fuel and filled it with the bad methanol. As if knowing its fate the mower started hesitantly before increasing in volume until it screamed like a jet engine. The sad old mower-turned race engine then became deathly silent, giving a small pop as life left its rusted frame for ever. With our question answered we wheeled the carcass back to the shed and nothing more was said about our experimentation.

The last time Drew and I spent any time together was the summer of 1995 before we separated to attend University in different corners of the state. We spent two weeks surfing the cool waters of the Tasmanian east coast, nighttimes lounging around beachey campfires drinking cheap wine and chasing girls. I start to wonder if we have changed in our fourteen years effectively apart.  More to the point I am wondering if we are unchanged enough to be able to dust off our mate ship and pick up where we left.

The plane lands at the Doha international airport with a thump and shakes my thoughts back to the present. Once off the plane all passengers are shuffled into a queue to pass immigration. In front of me are a group of Nepalese workers nervously dressed in long shirts despite the heat. They repeatedly check their papers with the air of excited teens on holiday. In reality they are about to be put to work building the infrastructure which houses this booming oil economy. Their days will be spent hauling bricks up bamboo ladders and pouring concrete slabs in forty degree heat. The exploitation of Nepalese workers was explained to me that night by an unimpressed Drew over a beer, one aspect of Qatari life which does not sit easily with my friend.

Doha is the capital of Qatar. The city is about forty minutes drive from Saudi Arabia and home to about 1.6 million people, everything here is new and fresh, the population is very, very wealthy. The government is a dictatorship which means that the king decides where all the wealth is distributed. The government is that incredibly wealthy due to its oil reserves that money is distributed back amongst the people. To be Qatari means receiving money from the government for nothing. The locals get free electricity, money for socialising and a wage amongst other benefits. Qataris are rather a fat lazy people as a whole. It is not uncommon to see locals sitting in air conditioned Hummer trucks outside shops tooting the horn and waiting for someone to come out and serve. They love takeaway and junk food, long white thobes hiding swollen belly’s (Thobes are long white gowns worn by some islamic males). The city is a smorgasbord of flashy architecture, new buildings are constantly built and older ones ripped down, seemingly independent of budget considerations. Office blocks are built and left empty for years before they are filled. Why this is done I do not know but it certainly keeps the imported Nepalese workers busy. Maybe it is tradition, in Australia it is common for youngsters to receive a special beer mug for their eighteenth birthday, in Qatar an office block.

I flag down a taxi outside the airport and pass neatly copied directions over to the Arabic driver. I am heading to the hospital where Andrew and Cathy both work. The Hospital is a modern sports rehabilitation centre, the founders have spared no expense, filling the centre with the best equipment and staff. Andrew and Cathy agree that they would be back in Australia instantly if they could match the great working conditions and training opportunities here.

During the ten minute ride to the hospital my senses are massacred, especially my sense of smell. Shielding my eyes from the blinding sun I watch very expensive sports cars slide by while listening to burka clad drivers berate each other through the heat shimmer. The smell of stale tobacco and sweat inside my airless taxi is engulfing. I wind down the window but a wall of heat brings with it the hot smell of melting tarmac and desert dust which rises visible from the road. I wind the window back up and settle with taking shallow breathes through my mouth, tasting the driver’s body odour as we drive. Stuck to the cheap vinyl seat cover I can’t wait for this ride to be over. Due to a wink of fate I step out of the taxi at the hospital and am immediately greeted by Cathy. She has stepped outside for a breather. Following Cathy inside the building, cool air flows onto my head and washes away disturbing memories of the taxi ride. Once in Andrews office I drop my pack and study my friend. He sounds the same, looks the same, he is talking about a massive thirst for beer developing, so I figure he must not have changed all that much. Being lunchtime in Doha Andrew drives me to his apartment, tells me to help myself to anything I may want and goes back to work, leaving me alone to catch up with no loner being in Thailand. Dropping my pack I immediately fall sound asleep on the couch under the air conditioning.

In the afternoon I wake and try a few times to go outside for a stroll but the heat blows me back inside under the air conditioner. From the balcony I can see a gang of long shirted Nepalese construction men working under the shimmering heat. Unable to navigate the television controls I rummage through the kitchen and find a frying pan and an egg. In memory of our boyhood experimentation I crack the egg into the pan and leave it outside, wondering if it will cook. My experiment fails so I clean the pan, put it back in the kitchen and, after arranging my clothes in the spare room, return to the couch to contentedly stare at the wall.

When Andrew and Cathy arrive home from work the mercury is still showing a temperature in the mid forties.  The evening is spent washing away the years with cold beer and reminiscing about our boyhood adventures. A few of Andrew and Cathy’s neighbours drop by to greet the visitor, it seems that in a country like Qatar with such a small ex-pat population any alien visitor provides a welcome diversion.

Being motivated explorers Andrew and Cathy are keen to hear my thoughts on Thailand. I find it difficult to formulate my thoughts. It is easy to paint an accurate picture of Patong, a sleazy tourist area where every person you meet will try to prise money out of you. Bangkok is different though, I think that if I was more brave I would have had a different experience of Bangkok. All I did in Bangkok were group tours, I felt almost like I had let myself down by being wimpy and not striking out more, that I could have found more of the real Bangkok by scratching below the tourist facade. I am getting the feeling that this whole searching for the true adventure business will be much harder than simply looking at a brochure and picking a tour.

The following morning I wake on a mattress on the floor in the very cool spare room. I am somewhat disoriented as to time but get dressed and head downstairs in search of caffeine. Cathy is rummaging around the kitchen and fixes me a coffee, Andrew soon wanders down the stairs and caffeinates himself while checking sports results on the television. It is Friday morning and the first day of the weekend for Andrew and Cathy, theirs is a Friday/Saturday weekend.

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We skip breakfast as we have a monumental gastronomic appointment at eleven am. Being a strict Muslim city it is very hard for ex-pats living here to acquire alcohol. Before being able to buy alcohol it is necessary to present a drinking licence that shows you are not a local and not Muslim. The sole liquor shop opens weekly for a few hours, ex-pats line their cars up outside for many blocks to wait their turn. Alcohol is not available for sale in clubs or cafes with one exception. A few large high class hotels and casinos have received special permission to serve alcohol to guests alongside food. This is how the infamous Doha brunch was born. For a set price, luxury hotels welcome visitors as guests for brunch. Food and alcohol is served between eleven in the morning and five in the afternoon.grey Visit Doha

On Andrews advice I approach the day as more of a marathon than a sprint. We catch a taxi to the hotel, walk in and my jaw drops. A room the size of a tennis court is piled to the roof with incredible food, chefs dot the room readying to cook and serve for guests. We walk through this gastronomic Disneyland, I spot fois gras, tender roast meat piled high, oceanic quantities of seafood, over twenty different types of salad and another room full of cheese wheels amongst food that looks incredible but unrecognisable. Andrew, Cathy and I find a table, sit down and warm up with a champagne, stretching our gorging muscles. I am a race horse pushing on the barrier, it is just past eleven-o-clock.

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Five hours later our table is littered with empty wine and champagne glasses, I am alternating between hiccups and contented burps while trying to force tiny pancakes covered with beluga caviar down my throat. Cathy is leaning back in her chair rubbing her belly, Andrew is wandering around the cheese section wearing an amused look and chuckling to himself. I can picture red cholesterol lights flashing deep inside my torso warning of meltdown. Thoroughly drunk, Andrew returns and we enjoy a few more quick wines before deciding it would be prudent to leave.

On our journey down gluttony road Cathy has mentioned a few times that she likes the glass olive oil bottle on our table. When we leave I decide to repay their kind hospitality and have a university kleptomaniac flashback shoving the bottle down my pants as we stand to leave. The neck sticks out at an awkward angle and makes me look like I have a permanent, if slender, erection, this in a country where the penalty for raising your middle finger at a local is a night in prison.

We walk out to the foyer where Andrew spots a grand piano and insists that I join him in a rendition of ‘chopsticks’. Being way too drunk to manage even the simplest piano song I walk over to Andrew and lean over the keys trying to focus, my olive oil jar keeps hitting the keys from inside my pants. Andrew and I give our best shot but our timing is completely wrong, also the black and white keys keep switching place. Giving up, we walk outside into the scorching sun where the heat steps my drunkenness up a notch. Andrew and I drool and lean over luxury cars in the car park as we await our taxi.

The taxi ride home is something of a blur. Rumours abound that a person resembling me, except with crossed eyes, stuck his head out of a sunroof and serenaded the Qatari population until his lungs burst, they are unconfirmed. Once safely back at Drew and Cathy’s home we all skip dinner and crawl into bed leaving the house deathly silent except for the sound of air conditioners thrumming in time with drunken snoring. grey Visit Doha

The following day due to our very early night we all wake feeling relatively healthy and go to try out the pool in a neighboring compound. Compounds are walled communities where ex-pats can shelter together safe from Arabic culture, most compounds have shared exercise facilities and common rooms. The water is a much welcome break from the heat, which is approaching a foot melting forty degrees. The compound owners have to run heat pumps to cool the water, this is a hard idea for me to wrap around my head after spending so much time and money heating my little pool in Tasmania. Running quickly over scorchingly hot tiles we plunge into the cool water and rinse stale wine sweat off our bodies. Andrew and I jokily pretend it is an accident whenever we ‘drop’ my waterproof camera into the pool, no one is fooled but we are having a lovely time having reverted to our natural state of ‘silly bugger’.

Lounging around the side of the pool amongst friends I realise just how lonely solo travel can become. Before meeting up with Drew and Cathy the last person who did not try to sell me something was Noel, he just annoyed me. I think about my vague plans to continue travelling and wonder how lonely that could get. I may have to learn Spanish properly or disguise my grey hairs with a trendy haircut and stay in youth hostels. grey Visit Doha

Soon Cathy has finished baking in the sun lounge and Drew and I are out of silly pranks so we gather our gear and run over white hot tiles to the car. We drive past a shop to buy cool drinks, laughing at the fat Qatari honking his car horn right outside the door, we go inside, buy a drink each and get back into the car. As we drive off enjoying our drinks he is still there in his car honking his horn and working up a sweat. We then return to the apartment for an afternoon nap, naps are a pleasant necessity in this heat. We finish our hibernations, shaking off the sleep we jump into Andrew and Cathy’s car, braving the traffic we drive to visit a local Souk.

Souks are local markets laden with Arabic wares, food and exotic animals. Dodging sheet clad locals I look around at the buildings, very impressed with their traditional style. I very much appreciate the stall owners’ standoffish attitude, a welcome change to being harassed incessantly in Thailand. We eat a traditional Arabic lunch then share a grape flavoured tobacco pipe. The evening slides by to the sound of various lung parts being coughed up and talk of failed experiments from Andrew’s and mine heyday.

In the morning I thank my friends for being such affable hosts and see them off to work, I have a plane to catch.

 

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