So after an enjoyable week at home, it’s back to Doha for a five week stint leading up to Christmas. This will present an interesting challenge – getting an extension to my 30 day visitor’s visa that expires three days before I’m due to travel home. Working on the assumption that Qatari civil servants are the same as those I’ve encountered in England, Poland and Trinidad – which is to say largely unhelpful, and at worst downright unpleasant – I expect to spend most of one day next week sitting in a waiting room in a faceless government building while the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly round. The signs so far have been mixed. Admittedly my experience of the local civil service is limited to the folks manning the passport control booths at the airport, but still….
The first guy was very pleasant and welcoming and laughed as much as I did when the machine failed completely to take an acceptable photo of me while he processed the visa stamp. You’re supposed to stare at this camera thing with your eyes wide open and it takes a mug-shot – my problem is because of a lazy eye medical condition I actually can’t open my eyes wide unless I hold them open between fingers and thumbs – which is of course unacceptable. After ten attempts he gave it up and waved me through. Same going home – the guy then let me off without a pic too, probably on the basis he couldn’t find a matching arrival snap. Second trip, the bloke said hardly a word, except for “Pin please” when he processed my credit card payment, but at least (for the only time so far) the machine managed to get a decent picture. Going home the guy said even less, merely comparing me with my passport photo, accepting with a shrug my explanation about the (again) failed mug-shot, and waving me through without another word.
On arrival this time, an hour earlier because of a change in flight times courtesy of the clocks going back in Europe (they don’t in Qatar) the Arrivals Hall was packed and it took well over an hour to inch to the front of the Immigration line. At the desk I was greeted by a very surly and extremely boss-eyed woman in the usual black robes who refused point blank to meet my gaze (that’s if she could – she seemed to be looking over my right shoulder all the time). To make matters worse, she mumbled in heavily accented English so that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. She asked me where I came from, and didn’t like my “Warsaw” answer…… ”Which country?” she snapped. I told her politely, and she frowned and demanded why I had a British passport. I told her I was British. With ill grace, she accepted that. “Address?” I started spelling out my Warsaw street name but she furiously shook her head – “Here. Doha.” I had to repeat the name three times before she understood “Le Park hotel”. Eventually after a snapped “Pin” (no please, which I thought was needlessly rude) she stamped my passport and slapped it down in front of me. I wished her a nice evening (it was nearly midnight) and left her to it. Three days later I noticed she hadn’t stuck the exit date label in my passport, as is customary – so that should make extending it next week even more fun.
So anyway, I got here ok, and initially to the same shitty hotel I wrote about last time, Le Park. Rated 111 out of 115 hotels in Doha on TripAdvisor (the other 4 have not been rated….) – deep joy. In common with that rating, in the 10 days I’d been away nothing, literally nothing, had changed or as far as I could see even been touched. In the bathroom (they gave me the same room) was the empty shower gel bottle I had left. In the fridge was an unfinished tub of Anchor spreadable butter and half a jar of apricot jam. A half empty packet of Corn Flakes was on the side, and in the ash tray the loose change I’d left for the cleaners. The bed had been made but not clean sheeted, and the towels unchanged. I couldn’t be bothered to argue as I was only staying a couple of nights before being re-located to the Ezdan Towers.
Ezdan Tower 4 - my home from home
Now this place has also been slated on the internet. It seemed marginally better than the Park, but the list of complaints was similar – poorly maintained, rude and unhelpful staff, dingy corridors, lack of amenities etc etc. Clearly an open mind would be needed for this gaff, and some staying power too – the bank insisted it would not consider any more changes. On the plus side, the location looked better as it’s in the West Bay area, just back from the Corniche and close to the excellent City Centre Mall, and within walking distance of a couple of bars that actually serve beer (even if it is overpriced beer). It also was reported to have an outdoor, Olympic sized swimming pool – though a number of reports mentioned broken tiles, the risk of cutting your feet in the scummy water and verrucas…….
Well, actually, I’ve been here just over a week now, and I have very little to complain about so far. The location is very good, exactly as stated, and from my 21st floor room I have a nice view of the Corniche and, beyond it, Doha Bay. The place is huge, 4 towers all around 40 floors high, three of which look like Lego bricks on end, with black centres and white surrounds. The fourth is just a bloody tall building, it’s the newest and apparently the best block and luckily I’m in it, about halfway up.
The room is functional but comfortable, and joy of joys has a proper kitchen, complete with ample crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer. The fridge is huge and efficient (I had to turn it down as my water was turning to ice after an hour or so), the tv is ok if with limited channel choice – no sport again, bugger – and the bed comfortable. As is the three piece suite – for a studio apartment it’s a good size and well stocked with furniture: there is also a dining table and six chairs, a coffee table, a pair of decent wardrobes with loads of hangers (strong plastic ones not crappy wire monstrosities) and the desk and chair where I’m writing this. As with everywhere else in this town the high-speed internet is actually slow and unreliable. The bathroom is laughable, just a sink, a toilet and a shower stall with a plastic curtain on a decidedly wonky rail……but it’s clean and the water is hot, so I’m ok with that.
That will do nicely....
Amenities? Yep. Half a dozen restaurants that I haven’t tried yet, a gym (ditto) and the Olympic sized outdoor pool (also ditto). I’ve had a look at it and I can’t see any obvious problems with the tiling so I guess it’s safe enough. There is also an on-site K-Mart supermarket that has pretty much all you need in terms of food, drink and household goods even if you have to pay a bit more for it. So I stocked up with important stuff and settled in. It will do fine.
The weather has changed now. It’s a lot cooler than on my previous two trips, not more than 25C so far, on some days only about 20 and even cooler in the evening. Winter is clearly fast approaching, and it’s dark by 5 in the evening.
We also had rain. Not just a shower but for three or four days, persistent downpours. I had to buy an umbrella. Because of the rarity of the event (the rain that is, not buying an umbrella) the drainage can’t cope so there were several places that turned into ponds and rivers, especially around the office (which is in an area that is being heavily re-developed – it’s one huge building site). The rain has cleared away now and the sun returned, but there is still an ankle deep pond at the end of the road. Thursday morning there was fog, and for the first time my sea view was obscured. But this weekend’s forecast is for a return to sunshine and something like 26 or 27C so I may give the pool a try, in between doing my laundry and food shop at Carrefour.
Last weekend I went for a mooch around here, as the sun was shining. I figured I’d give the Irish Harp a try. It’s in the Sheraton Hotel, perhaps 15 minutes’ walk from here, at the end of the Corniche, and has a good reputation. The menu looks pretty good, typical Irish pub grub (so stew, bangers and mash, fish and chips, burgers, pizzas but interestingly no cottage pie) and a good range of draught beers including Guinness and Kilkenny. There is a strict no shorts dress code, and big screen tv’s for viewing your sport. So despite it being pretty hot I put my jeans on and headed off. Well I found it alright, after wandering around inside the hotel for a while – and a fine complex the Sheraton is: from the outside it looks like the superstructure on an aircraft carrier, and from the inside like being inside a pyramid. The rooms are on three sides, and the atrium area looks from the ground floor to the topmost ceiling, with balconies all round where is the room access. All very swish. There are a number of cafes and restaurants and shops scattered round this area, and sweeping staircases leading up and down at various points. The Irish Harp was at the bottom of one of these, next door to an Italian restaurant that had access to the pool area and private beach.
The pub was closed. I had arrived early-ish, around 3:30, with the intention of watching the Everton – Liverpool derby over a Kilkenny or two and sausage mash and onion gravy, but that wasn’t going to happen – despite advertising on their Facebook page and various other sources that “big screen tv provides a great place to watch all Premier League matches” the place doesn’t open until 5:30 in the evening. Outside the door there was an easel on which was pinned a list of House Rules, about 15 in all. As well as the dress code (apart from a ban on shorts, apparently you’re not allowed to wear ostentatious jewellery – especially chains – or baseball caps) you are not allowed to talk too loud or create a disturbance that “may upset other patrons”. For a place where, allegedly, football fans are expected to gather and sink a few beers while watching the game, this is clearly preposterous. So I gave it a miss, and will not bother to go back there again. Irish Harp indeed!
There was some power boat racing going on in the bay, so I strolled through the park beside the Sheraton to watch for a while. It was a Formula 1 event apparently, and featured a team from land-locked Uzbekistan, which continues to puzzle me a week later. The boats were small and sleek and ridiculously fast, and a few were placed on trestles for the public to examine and admire and photograph. Of course I did all three. A row of tents, fenced off from the public, was the pit area. A number of boats were being worked on here by the mechanics while others were being hoisted in and out of a calm sea. Further along, another fenced off row of sun canopies comprised the “pit wall”, familiar to any F1 motor racing fan - half a dozen screens at each raised table with a couple of high chairs and assorted headsets where Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey and all the other great and good would have felt completely at home.
I sat on a wall a little further along the Corniche for a while, but apart from a couple of boats coming out for what seemed to be test runs nothing much seemed to be happening – certainly nothing I would recognize as “racing” anyway – so after a few snaps (one of which is actually quite good) I gave up and headed back to the hotel.
The West Bay area of Doha has some excellent buildings, modern skyscrapers that would not look out of place in New York or Hong Kong or any other modern city in the world. Some are quite spectacular, especially after dark when a wonderful light show kicks off along the Corniche. One, maybe 40 floors, is a vast rocket shaped structure with a twenty or thirty foot spike at its summit, looking for all the world like Flash Gordon’s spaceship. It’s covered in an interesting metallic lattice work from top to bottom so that the windows which (I assume) are behind it cannot be seen. At night it glows in ever changing pattern of light – golds, oranges, pale greens – like a Pink Floyd light show. Behind it another building of similar height is shaped like a huge vase, circular and tapered at the waist, flaring equally at top and bottom, and the outside of that is covered by a diamond pattern of girders that are lit a vivid blue after dark. Further along is the Doha World Trade Centre, again a good forty or fifty floors tall, and at the top is a circular disc-like structure jutting out over the pathway alongside the Corniche that I assume contains a very expensive restaurant – the views across the bay and city must be unrivalled from it. This building is made of a very dark blue glass, and after dark it has its own light show – this time a constantly changing pattern of white and pale blue lights.
Check out the Images section on Google searching under “Doha skyline” – there are many pictures that illustrate it far better than I can describe it. Suffice to say it’s without a doubt on of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. It fascinates me.
In idle moments, I had wondered how the windows of these skyscrapers were cleaned. I had assumed that, like the towers at Canary Wharf, cleaners are lowered down gradually in big cradles, cleaning as they go.
Nope. As I walked back I passed, just behind the WTC, one of my favourite buildings. It’s a good 60 storeys, and at various points on its towering sides there are uneven places – imagine you have a square fence post in the ground, say six feet tall, and every couple of feet on each side you get an axe and chop a notch into it. It’s a bit like that – you’ll see it on the Google Images I’m sure. Anyway, as I walked past, I noticed there were several guy ropes tethered to the wall beside the footpath. I followed them up – and there, right at the top, I would guess no more than three floors down, a squad of window cleaners was absailing down, armed with buckets of soapy water, chamoix leathers and squeegee mops, cleaning the windows as they came. I took some pictures, and through the telephoto lens they were clearly having a blast – laughing and joking as they came. They all looked to be Nepali, so I guess being from a mountainous country like that where mountaineering is second nature, from the cradle, swinging off the side of a sixty storey building washing the windows holds no fears for them at all. But it made me feel sick!
Sod that for a living!
But they seem to enjoy it......
They are probably paid a pittance for doing the work, too, if the stories of “Nepali victims of slave labour in Qatar” that are published with monotonous regularity in the Mail and the Guardian are anything to go by, living ten to a room in squalid barracks conditions in the hot desert outside of Doha. But they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves up there.
I’ve just noticed, as I opened Blogger to post this little ramble, that it is my 100th post. Well, fancy that. And in all that time I have amassed 8 followers (thank you, ladies and gentlemen for your loyalty and staying power!) and a mere 19 Comments. Not a lot for three years’ work! But I will continue to write because I enjoy doing it (even if no-one enjoys reading it) and it gives me something to do on these lonely winter evenings far from home.
So good night, one and all, and here’s to the next hundred!