So here we are……at long last, back on The Road again. The Travellin Bob Global Tour re-starts after a 12 month hiatus. It’s good to be back.
It’s been enjoyable spending my time at home, getting to know my wife and kids again, and we’ve had some good times – documented elsewhere here. But it’s been incredibly frustrating and (at times) downright scary too – also documented elsewhere here. So getting back in the saddle, so to speak, has come not a moment too soon, and has preserved my sanity at least, and probably Ania’s too…..I know I’ve been getting under her feet a bit lately!
And a decent first assignment too – back to the Gulf, this time to Doha in Qatar: a new destination – for a good six months or more. Plenty of material to write about I’m sure – watch this space.
First things first, of course, was digging out the suitcase, and hoovering off the coating of dust it had gained from its long storage under the bed. Then re-ironing all my shirts and making sure my various suits were clean and pressed (unusually for a Gulf country, I’m having to go to the office suited and booted rather than business casual). Shoes ok? Nope – both pairs of work shoes needed attention from my friendly neighbourhood cobbler, to mention nothing of a good Polish polish. What about ties? Yep, plenty of those – but a bit of practice tying the damned things was needed since I had not worn one for a few years….now how do you do a decent Windsor Knot again? Oh, and make sure the camera battery is fully charged, and all my electrical bits have got the right plugs and/or adaptors (UK standard 3 pin replacing my European standard 2 pin)….yep, all in order.
So preparation and packing took rather longer than the half hour it used to, but took care of Friday evening and Saturday morning, in the absence of my Beloveds (who were off to the countryside with some friends of ours, drinking copious amounts of wine and beer, probably, and picking several baskets of wild mushrooms – they are delicious, and I hope they save some for me!).
Ordered my taxi – and noticed an empty wallet, so galloped off to the bank downstairs for cash. Damn – wrong pin (wait a minute……no, it’s not!). Back upstairs and on the phone to my bank. 10 minutes listening to piped muzak before getting connected to an English speaking personal banker. Re-set my pin, and galloped back downstairs….all ok, the taxi fare now nestled in my wallet. Just in time: here’s my cab. And off to Okecie airport I go……
It’s amazing how out of practice you get when you haven’t done this properly for a while (I’ll discount my odd daytrips to the UK for funerals and interviews, since there was no packing involved, and our weekend for the wedding because the whole family travelled with me). All I have to do now is get back in the old routine – which I will do by the time I travel home in a couple of weeks, I’m sure.
There have been a lot of changes at the airport and its surroundings since last year. Some I had noticed on my few English journeys, but there have been more in the past month or so. A new network of access roads has sprung up, linked to the new highway network that is under construction around Warsaw, so getting in and out seemed easier this time (though travelling on a Saturday lunchtime may have contributed to that). A railway now runs into the airport from the central station in town. There also seem to be more buses coming into the place too, not only locals but from all over Poland. Inside the terminal, there are a number of new airlines operating – notably Emirates and Qatar Airways, with both of whom there are connecting flights to the Far East and Australasia via Dubai and Doha respectively. The terminal seemed cleaner and brighter and with a bigger variety of restaurants and bars and a good range of retail outlets too. All the gates (nearly 50 now) were operating, and there were a number of planes out on the apron too. It’s all a far cry from when I first arrived in Warsaw back in 2000, when the single small terminal building operated no more than a dozen gates, covering both domestic and international flights, serving a relatively small number of (mainly European) destinations with about four airlines, and offered three shops, one café and one Business Lounge. If ever there was testament to how Poland has prospered since EU accession, a stroll round the airport provides it.
I had checked in on-line the previous morning, so queuing for that wasn’t required, just straight to the Fast Bag Drop desk. They issued me a new boarding pass anyway, and unusually put the thing in a nice blue folder. The reason for that became clear later at Doha. Security took five minutes – Saturday afternoon is clearly a good time to travel at this time of year – and passport control to the non-Schengen area even less, so I was at my gate with the best part of two hours to spare. But I had my book and my music, bought a coffee, and was quite happy.
“The World’s Five Star Airline.”
This is the tagline in all the Qatar Airways advertising, including the brilliant new film celebrating their tie-in with Barcelona F.C. (I love the bit where heavy metal god Carlos Puyol saves a kid from a pot plant falling from a third floor window by leaping in the air and heading it clear, shattering the terracotta, then brushes the dirt off his sweatshirt and wanders off as if nothing has happened – brilliant use of his “hard man” image). Despite this, TripAdvisor carried a number of negative reviews, mainly from American travelers but with a ludicrous one from a guy complaining that, when there was an aircraft malfunction causing a flight cancellation in Doha, there was no passenger announcement in his native language – Mandarin Chinese: now there’s a surprise! There were also many reviews (rather more in fact) praising the airline. Its website, on the sections relating to in-flight catering, entertainment and cabin ambience, naturally focuses on the newer planes in the fleet (mostly the Dreamliner) and on the Business and First Class passengers, but this is no different to any other airline website. So I was looking forward to the flight, booked by my client (I LOVE being able to say that with a degree of truth, rather than THE client!), and sampling its Economy Class service for myself.
I was not disappointed. No Dreamliner of course, as the flight is relatively short at a bit over 2000 miles: the plane was a regular, common or garden Airbus A320-200, the same as BA use on the Heathrow to Europe routes. But there the similarity ended. The cabin was much brighter and well appointed, there was a much better seat pitch (there are around 20 fewer Economy Class seats in all Qatar Airways cabins, giving better leg-room for everybody, even in the smaller aircraft like this), the seat was perhaps the most comfortable I’ve ever had in Economy, and the entertainment system was excellent. It carried a selection of maybe 200 movies, a similar number of tv shows and dozens of music channels and CDs in several languages and musical genres, as well as the more popular games. Previously, BA had provided the best system I had seen, on my flight to Trinidad 3 years ago, but it’s limited (or was then) to long-haul routes: QA provides it on all flights. When it came, the in-flight meal was very good too: proper cutlery, not plastic, well cooked and presented, and a good choice: my chicken with mashed potatoes and vegetables in a spicy tomato sauce was first class.
It was a five hour flight, and I passed it in comfort watching the movie (I chose Oblivion, a recent sci-fi thriller starring Tom Cruise – not bad, but I’ve seen better: I found it a bit confusing at times) and listening to Springsteen’s classic Born To Run album (amongst other delights). The sound on both was a little muffled, but I put that down to an ill-fitting headset – nothing new there, I’ve never yet found one an airplane that was the right size for my bonce - rather than the system itself. I had a minor issue with my seat too, in that it wouldn’t stay upright – no matter what I did, it constantly reclined all the way: not a big deal for me, but a problem for the lady behind me especially at meal time. But I could nothing about that except apologise.
My overall verdict: Qatar Airways is first class, and I’m more than happy to use them for the duration of this project.
We landed at Doha at 11:15 p.m. local time (that’s an hour ahead of my home CET), and the temperature was 38C……..ridiculous. We parked on the apron, as there is a lot of refurbishment going on here, and hopped on a couple of buses. I remember years ago, when I was a kid, my late brother-in-law, many years older than me, was by trade a master scaffolder, and got a job at Gatwick airport which was then (as now) being extended, and was delighted that he had found a job for life – and he was right: judging by the fact that every airport in the world (even the newer ones) seem to be in a constant state of flux and development, nothing seems to have changed in all that time. I sometimes wonder whether going into the City at 17, rather than building or plumbing or something, was the right career move……then I remember how many times I’ve hammered a thumb instead of a nail, or shelves I’ve painstakingly put up have fallen off the wall as soon I’ve put anything (like a feather or something) on them – and I know I made the right choice, despite all the aggravation I’ve been through.
Anyway, the bus took us round a circuit of the airport buildings, depositing us at various arrivals halls and transfer terminals, all of which were colour coded – hence the nice blue ticket folder. It took maybe 15 minutes to reach the blue Arrivals Terminal, where I joined the ubiquitous line snaking round to the security desks, where 20 minutes later I presented my passport and credit card to buy my 30 day visitor’s visa. Here I encountered a minor problem: you have to stand on these foot shapes painted on the floor and stare wide eyed at a camera over the guy’s head to have your picture taken for posterity and the local security services. The thing is I suffer (if that’s the right word) from lazy eyelids – as did my mum – so I can’t open my eyes wide: at least not wide enough for the camera here. After five or six attempts had failed to capture an image, and I had demonstrated twice what the problem was (much to the amusement, fortunately, of the two security guys) they gave it up as a bad job, stamped my passport and waved me through.
The baggage had all come through by then and the belt was motionless, but my case (along with 2 others) was standing safely on the floor, so I headed into the Arrivals Hall to find my driver from the hotel. There was no sign of anyone waving my name, probably spelt wrong, on a sheet of A4 as I had been expecting, so after wandering around inside the terminal building and out, I went to the Information desk. Very helpfully, they called the hotel who told me to go to desk 9 (of 20-odd) back through where I had come from, and there I would be attended to. The security guy was very helpful, and smilingly waved me back through the door marked EXIT (I had to wait a minute for someone else to come out through it). Sure enough my name was on a board at desk 9, and the bloke escorted me to a taxi driven by a very pleasant Indian from Poona who took me to the hotel (at least I think that’s what he said, but his English was so strongly accented and he had such a terrible stammer that I can’t now be sure).
But at least I had arrived safely.
The drive to the hotel took around 15 minutes, through typical Gulf city streets, well lit, with half-finished pavements and concrete barriers separating the carriageways, and rows of market stalls and shops, many still active even at midnight, along each side. It reminded me very much of Beirut, where the airport is similarly within the confines of the city rather than out of town as at Abu Dhabi, although the look of obvious prosperity was more UAE than Lebanese.
The Wyndham Grand Regency Hotel, where my client had booked me for three nights (pending relocation to an apartment) is as opulent as the name suggests. It stands on a busy road, one of the main thoroughfares through Doha, and right next to one of the busiest roundabouts, on the edge of the business district, but out about 3 km from the touristy city centre and seaside Corniche. As we pulled up, a couple of doormen raced each other to my door to help me out and take my baggage, and the winner escorted me smilingly to Check In. This was done at individual desks, and was a far more personal and friendly service than I think is normal – no queues for a start (but then it was by now nearly half past midnight). I was pleasantly surprised to receive an upgrade from a Standard Room to an Executive Suite, with separate lounge and bedroom and free internet – and very nice and comfortable it is too. I was shown to the room by my faithful doorman, who explained all the tv and air-conditioning controls, pointed out the coffee making facilities (hidden in a cupboard under the flat screen hi-def tv) and the mini bar (ditto) and didn’t seem at all put out when I explained I couldn’t tip him as I had no local currency yet. I have some now, but I’ve not seen him yet to grease his palm……ah well, such is life.
I unpacked and went to sleep in my king sized, canopied bed with a mirrored headboard, but tossed and turned for over an hour before falling asleep. My morning shower, in a beautifully tiled stall in a beautifully tiled bathroom two thirds the size of my bedroom at home, came as a deluge from a shower head the size of an open laptop, and very nice it was too. Decent spread for breakfast – plenty of cold cuts and cheeses and a dozen different varieties of bread, hot stuff like eggs and beef sausages and beef bacon (remember, Muslim country so strictly no pork), lots of fresh fruits and yoghurts and cereals, and a fine selection of pastries and donuts. Spoiled for choice, really. But I managed. The food in the hotel (mainly I’ve settled for room service meals in the evenings) has been first class, huge helpings and well-cooked and served. Last night I treated myself to dinner in one of the hotel restaurants – it was more expensive than a roomy, but well worth it: a serve yourself buffet where you can take as much or as little as you like. I settled for a tasty cream of chicken soup, a main of lamb meatballs in a savoury tomato sauce, with a big pile of roast potatoes and steamed vegetables, and for dessert a plate full of various cakes and donuts that the bald bloke in Masterchef would have loved.
If I stay here much longer, I will for sure put on quickly the weight I’ve lost over the past few months – for the first time in years I’m below 90kilos. Fortunately the hotel has a pool and a fitness centre so I can exercise it away. I’ve not used the pool yet, but gave the gym a go a couple of nights ago. It’s well equipped and I had a good half an hour on an exercise bike, covering 15km while on my iPod listening to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers: good music to sweat by. So the facilities are very good, but as we’re working until after 6, by the time we’re back in the hotel it’s nearly 7 and frankly I can’t be arsed most nights to get changed and head for the gym – it would make dinner too late for my digestion to be comfortable if I did so. But now it’s the weekend (again the Muslim one, Friday and Saturday - I still can’t used to working on a Sunday) I’ll have more of a chance, between sight-seeing expeditions, to use both the pool and the gym. Then on Monday – at least, in theory – I’ll be checking out for the apartment: no idea if there will be similar facilities in the block – I somehow doubt it. That said, I’ve been extended at the hotel twice already as a suitable apartment hasn’t been found yet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I were still here this time next week.
Again, TripAdvisor reviews have been largely positive, but with some unflattering niggles (mostly from Yanks and Chinese – what is it about those miserable sods?) but frankly I can’t fault the place at all. It’s one of the best hotels I’ve had the pleasure of staying in, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
So there we go. After a longer than expected holiday my life is getting back to normal. I’m back on the road, and happy to be so. I’ve missed it more than I had expected to, and it’s proven to me that I’m not ready to retire just yet!
Work is fine so far, but of course the project is still very much in the early stages and there is still a lot of information needed before we can make any real progress. We’re still short of people (nothing new there) with one more joining us on Sunday and a couple more being sought. I’ve found stuff to do and kept busy, but as yet have not been extended at all – that will come later, I’m sure.
In the meantime, I now have a couple of days off, and as the temperatures are falling I intend to get out and about, see the sights and shoot off a bunch of pictures. So watch this space for more on Doha, this time next week I should think.