Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Signs and Wonders Herald My Arrival

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

The air is normally quite dry in Qatar with prevailing winds out of the desert. This dry breeze is quite nice for dealing with the heat; high efficiency for the body’s cooling system. However it’s a common occurrence for the wind to change and come in from the gulf for a while. When this happens it becomes uncomfortably humid. Your first clue that this has happened is that you’re walking along outside with naught but a light sweat on your brow and then 60 seconds later your shirt is soaked thru front and back and there is sweat dripping into your eyes. Plus the weather forecasts are accurate for temperatures but nothing else, so there’s no advance warning. Another reason I suppose I’m the only one walking around here besides laborers.

I soon noticed some differences in the daily temperature patterns. Instead of slowly rising through the morning and slowly falling in the evening, it gets hot very quickly after the sun rises and then falls off as soon as the sun gets low.

For me this turned out to mean that I could walk to the closest store at 3pm and and require a change of clothes and shower immediately upon my return, while had I left at 4:15pm I’d have not a drop of sweat on me. So this is part of my plans now: if I need the store, I go after 4.

So I was on my way to the mall to get some munchies about 4:20 one time during my first week and all of a sudden it got semi-dark, like an eclipse. Looking around I’m like wtf!? Then I saw the stand storm.

Figure 1. A sand storm blots out my sunshine

It was pretty far away at that point and I made it to Tawar before it really hit. It wasn’t until I started heading home after with my food that I got a good taste of it.

Now, I’ve never been in a sand storm before. I kind of assumed that there would be sand blowing around but, you know, if you squint you can keep most of it out of your eyes. Well no, it wasn’t like that at all. It was more like dust or baby powder. And also in retrospect, I might have taken a hint from all the people at the mall recording video of it as if they didn’t live in the desert. (Spoiler: yeah, they are actually super rare)

The walk home was awful. I couldn’t see anything. If I had been looking around it would look like good old fashioned snow storm white out, but you know, brown, so brown out, lol. But I wasn’t looking around, I was looking straight down at my feet, covering as much of my eyes as possible with the non grocery holding hand. Squinting didn’t help at all. I couldn’t feel it hitting my eyes, but a lot was getting in there, irritating and drying out my eyes something fierce. And with contacts I couldn’t make tears fast enough.

The first 5 minutes was the worst. After I turned down the next street the wind was less swirling around and more at my back. That was when the lightning started. I didn’t realize what it was at first. It was like a strobe light or flickering street lamp. And there was no thunder, but super bright. I would normally call it cloud to cloud lightning but when I looked up I could see the moon with perfect clarity above me and not a cloud in the sky, while I still could’t make out the buildings across the street.

Later when talking to people who have been here more than a year I found out that it’s been a long time since the last sand storm: this was their first for many of them.

That weekend I had a meetup with some expats who I later referred to as humans. It was in Festival City Mall, a very large mall that was big enough for me to get lost in twice. This is the ONE mall that has directory kiosks so you can find your way around. It has 2 of them, they run a touch screen system where you can zoom and pan with your fingers. The one I went to was frozen.

I did manage to find the Cheesecake Factory where we met. (Don’t ask me what it’s like getting directions from the security guards, of which there are always dozens on duty). Here’s a pic:

say cheesecake
Figure 2. Humans?

We talked for hours over breakfast, mainly about business, Qataris and life in Doha. Also about where to buy waffle makers, which turned out to be a store in the very same mall. I went there and they did indeed sell waffle makers but were sold out. No big loss though. They were selling a shitty tiny "one waffle at a time" maker worth about 17 USD for 80 USD. Yeah, like I’m gonna pay 80 bucks to sit around all day making one waffle at a time with some junk that doesn’t even have a timer.


So I went to leave and the Uber app was quoting me 10x the normal price. I went to the door and saw it was pouring rain and well flooded.

The drops in Doha are determined not to drain

I waited a while at the mall and then stayed for lunch, how bad could rain in Qatar actually be? Well it continued for hours and there was massive flooding. After it stopped the temp dropped into the 70s and since there was no way I’m paying 10x for a cab ride, I walked the hour and a half home. It was a quite nice walk, having a break from the heat. The flooding most of the way was minor after getting clear of the mall. This was one instance that required a detour:

walk around the puddle
Figure 3. Walk Around the Puddle
make way
Figure 4. Me enjoying a cool walk, yesterday

By the time I got close to home the sun was setting. That’s when I started to see more serious issues. There were cop cars blocking of the main road near my place. Turns out that the road was flooded to car window height at a point where there are no turn offs from the road. So there was almost a km of bumper to bumper traffic stopped that couldn’t go forward. One at a time the cops had them backing up from the rear and driving over the highway divider to get out. All the while new cars kept bypassing the barricade and cops cars and getting in the way from behind.

And there’s no rain gutters here that’s I’ve seen. What do? Here’s a pic of the carnage:

hope you have food in your car
Figure 5. Flood Road

In the above picture you can see 3 oncoming cars. Those cars were not moving. They thought they could drive through the water. And they did in fact succeed in driving through the water. But now they are stopped. And popping the hood ain’t gonna fix it.

You can also see the far lane of traffic. They were there through most of the night and the next day without moving. They couldn’t get enough cops to block off all the roads so derps in the rear kept them locked in.

How did they fix? they have tanker trucks sucking up the water and pumping it out into my vacant lot.

As I turned the corner off of sad blvd and onto my side road I snapped some pics of passable flooding.

actually safe for cars
Figure 6. Minor Flooding
less safe for pedestrians
Figure 7. More Minor Flooding

They ran the truck pumping 24-7 with 4 trucks for 3 days before it was cleared out. Here’s what it looked like the next day.

pump it
Figure 8. Man Made Lake
pump it real good
Figure 9. Pumping Away All Night Long

This is just the flooding at my street. We didn’t even get the worst of it. Elsewhere there was much worse flooding in Doha (archived)

After all that, we got a nice sunset.

good night
Figure 10. Another nice sunset

Hostile Work Environment

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

I had some ideas in my head about how I would go about working as a visitor in Qatar. I’ve had quite a bit of experience working out of coffee shops, malls and coworks from a laptop, checking out new cities all while continuing to be productive and connected.

Yeah well none of that shit happened here.

First of all you can’t get power to charge your laptop. Anywhere. Electrical outlets in customer areas: it’s just not done here. From mom and pop cafes and restaurants to local chains and big chains, even malls. So whatever charge you have at the start is all you’re going to get until you get back home.

The next thing is public wifi. Before I talk about the public wifi, let me mention the residential internet. The internet here is censored. It’s a soft censorship though. The government mandates that ISPs block websites of porn, government criticizers, etc., but takes no active role. the ISPs seem to use a complaint list + DNS redirect to meet this requirement. You know when you hit a blocked site because you see this:

Arabs, tryna be cute
Figure 1., this morning

They also block voip phones, and audio / video calls on apps like messenger / whatsapp / skype / facetime. But they don’t have any bans on the tech to bypass the censorship. Everyone here uses a VPN to voice call over wifi. Video chatting with someone down the street while I’m connected to a VPN in the US and they are connected to a VPN in Europe is no problem. Entirely usable.

The residential bandwidth at my place is about 6 Mbps up and down for sites in Qatar, 4 Mbps download for US / Europe, but wildly varying upload speed for US / Europe. Sometimes 2 Mbps, other times 300 kbps.

That’s the story for home internet. The public wifi is a different story. Mainly it doesn’t exist. A few places have it, but you can’t count on it being present anywhere you might go. Malls have it and the airports have it. But what you get makes '90s dial up look good by comparison. Far more sites are blocked, bandwidth is too small to measure (that’s what she said), convoluted portal pages to navigate to complete the connection. It smells of elderberries and futility.

If I was back home, I’d just flip on the wifi hotspot on my phone and start feasting on that data plan. Well the second phone I brought works with the local sim card, can do calls and data and even hotspot. The problem with it is that everywhere I go in Doha it shows 5 bars of signal and the E for edge network. The data speed is enough to do text based messaging and request an Uber. You’re certainly not going to load a web page anytime soon.

I think it must be my phone, even though it’s enabled for 2G/3G/4G. Other people don’t seem to have the same problem.

Another issue is the heat. I spent the whole summer going out on the motorcycle in mid 90 degree temps every day. I wasn’t expecting it to really mess with me here. I prefer the heat to the cold. But in the beginning I spent about every other day sleeping for 3+ hours in the middle of the day, exhausted. And still sleeping well every night. Part of it may be the calls to prayer, the latest being 2 hours after sunset and the earliest 6 hours and change later the next, morning. I may not be sleeping as much as I used to.

I didn’t know what what causing it at first. I didn’t have any symptoms of being sick aside from what felt like swollen tonsils for about 45 minutes. But now I’m pretty sure it was the heat that I didn’t respect enough. And not having AC at home for 3 days probably wasn’t helpful either. Two different Africans here told me that the Africa sun makes you darker but the sun here sucks your life. Which, OK whatever, but just the fact that sun drenched Africans think twice about going outside here says something.

One thing that I only half expected was the availability of information online here. I expected a lot to be missing, that most things don’t have websites here. And that’s totally true but the other thing is how much wrong information there is online. Basically you can’t rely on anything. Maps are hit or miss. So much of the information on websites here is not just outdated but flat wrong.

One thing in particular that is unreliable are business hours listed on any site. It could be listed as 8am-8pm, but sure as shit nobody’s going to be there between 1pm and 4pm. Malls are about the only thing you can be 100% sure will be open during the heat of the day / afternoon prayer time. It’s not that everything closes, or even that most things close. Just wherever you are going will be closed.

Another thing is the walkability of the city. On the one hand there are nice brick sidewalks about everywhere. On the other hand the level of new construction is off the charts and any two points on a map no matter how close can be separated by concrete barriers. They also love to put up big walls around construction here. That can literally go on for a mile.

And remember that there are villas everywhere once you get out of the downtown high rise area. And that villas have concrete walls that connect to neighbors. If there are construction barricades on one side and 20 foot villa walls on the other, you’re gonna be on that road for a long time, hope you didn’t need to make a turn, lol.

Nobody walks anywhere here. Downtown is flooded with people on weekends after dark. Other than that, I’ve walked for hours in this city without passing another pedestrian.

The rampant construction also makes calling an uber hard. They can’t find you a lot of the time when there are detours and re-routes all over. And when they quit trying, you get stuck with the cancel fee. Which feels like ten bucks if you don’t do the math.

On the plus side you can get about anywhere in the city for ~6 USD, one way, once your (Indian) driver actually finds you. It is double or triple that during bad traffic, but "rush hour" is generally much shorter in duration than in US cities. And bad traffic otherwise requires multiple car accidents on the same roadway. The $6 factors in the promo codes uber sends every week good for 15% off week days, expiring right before the heavy weekend usage.

First Steps in Doha

Friday, October 19th, 2018

I started out by exploring the area around my home base. A 10 minute walk to the north had me bumping into Tawar Mall.

Light Mall
Figure 1. Walking approach to Tawar Mall

Tawar is a pretty upscale mall, for Doha or anywhere in the US. It has what looks like polished marble floor outside at the south entrance, all around where the valet parking is. It’s 5 floors high, with a built in hotel that isn’t finished yet.

Dark mall
Figure 2. Tawar Mall at Night

There is a large grocery store at the north end. I later found out that all 12 malls in Doha have valet parking and a large grocery store. The food court is on the top floor.

Figure 3. Food Court at Tawar Mall

It has a place called "Planet Waffle And Pancake".

Figure 4. The waffle has rings like a planet, get it? But what’s with the windmill?

One thing they don’t have in Doha malls is a map station telling you where the stores are. So you basically have to walk the whole thing to know what’s there. I found some useful things in the mall. The grocery for one, is the closest one to me. Also a bunch of coffee shops and a Vodafone where I eventually got my local sim card. But the store was closed on that first visit.

I used up the morning exploring to north, around the mall. In the afternoon I went south. About 15 minutes walk to the south there is a strip mall type arrangement. It had nothing of interest to me at all. There was a pharmacy there and I made a mental note.

There was also a Burger King on the corner, with which I would later have a run in.

Figure 5. Have it your way

Pretty much all the signage for streets and businesses is in both English and Arabic. My understanding is that it would just about all be in English if not for zoning mandates requiring Arabic.

Initially I had thought that street addresses weren’t actually a thing in Doha. But it turns out that’s not true at all. Buildings all have a Street number, a building number, and a zone. It’s just that there are no street signs. All that info is kept on the building placard.

Figure 6. Good luck figuring out which street you’re on while driving around.

In contrast to the useful things to the north, my trek south was a bust. This may be a good time to note that it’s somewhat hot in Qatar. I dragged my tired ass home and collapsed for the night.

Over the next few days I started to meet people and collect the items I’d need to survive. One thing I needed was local currency: Qatar Riyals (QR). The QR is pegged to USD at a rate of 3.64 per each. In my mind I try to think of each QR as worth about a quarter, but it still hasn’t sunk in yet. I see something at the store priced at 15 QR and my mind tells me, "no way that’s worth 15 bucks!" But then I do the math.

When you do a currency exchange here, it’s a huge elaborate process. They need your passport (or Qatar ID) which they first scan and then they type in the info. I guess, you know, to be double sure. They also require your local address and phone number, which they take the time to type into the computer every time you go.

But once they are done with the TPS reports or whatever, they get to the tender reassignment operation: taking your paper that identifies as foreign and giving you some rainbow trans-tender. There is no fee for this service, so you could convert back and forth all day, really earning your way on to some watch list.

Line up
Figure 7. Bills in a Line

Interestingly, bigger bills are physically bigger in both dimensions and instead of numbers in all 4 corners, only half the corners have numbers. This was a huge pain for me because every time I flipped though a stack of bills to pay someone my habitual way of holding them prevented me from seeing the numbers.

Pile up
Figure 8. Bills in a Pile

One nice thing about the money here is that they don’t use coins. They just round up to the nearest QR.

The other thing I needed to pick up right away was a local sim card. The card cost 120 QR ($32). Unhelpfully, the sim card doesn’t come with any minutes or data, you have to go to the grocery store to buy that. Helpfully, the grocery store is 20 paces from the Vodafone in my mall.

Diana Coman - 2018-11-01 13:50:10

The windmill (at the Waffles place) might be in reference to flour/milling - I’ve met it before on flour packets of various sorts.

Qatar: Day Zero

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

For some reason I decided to go to Qatar. It’s not like I’m a world traveler. In the 80’s I went to the Dominican Republic and in the 90’s Toronto. Other than that, I’ve just been bouncing around the USA. So, you know, this is all new to me.

The first leg of the journey was supposed to be a 7 hour flight from Raleigh to London. Then, after a 13 hour layover, another 6 hours to Doha Qatar.

Less than two hours after leaving Raleigh, right as we were heading out over the ocean, the plane banks hard left and you can see on the flight path display that we’d turned around. 5 minutes later the pilot came on and said that a warning light just came on for one of the subsystems of a backup system. And that even though all the primary systems are fine, he can’t fly more than an hour from land for safety reasons. Since we’d obviously be going more than an hour from land, JFK was our new destination for repairs.

Not so fast!
Figure 1. Flight Path of Despair

After 2+ hours sitting in a JFK terminal, and another ~45 waiting to take off we finally did get back underway. Aside from the delays, the flight was good. Both meals were actually quite tasty. I had the whole row of 3 steerage seats to myself to lay down and attempt slumber and I managed 2 hours sleep.

Instead of a 6:30am arrival, it was after 11 London time when we touched down and after noon before I had my onward boarding pass in hand and finished dealing with Heathrow shenanigans at 2 different border crossings.

I met up with Diana Coman at Hyde park and we had lunch at a Russian restaurant that served a delicious Russian fish soup. Fish soup of my own recipe being a staple of my diet, which I now must update to include chives.

Italian Gardens
Figure 2. Italian Gardens in Hyde Park

With what time I had left, and with an updated time budget for Heathrow dealings, I managed to see the Wellington Arch:

Wellington Arch
Figure 3. Wellington Arch

Buckingham Palace:

Nice Logo
Figure 4. Buckingham Gate
Nice Hat
Figure 5. Buckingham Guard
Nice jacket
Figure 6. Buckingham Fountain

And other things:

Not so fast!
Figure 7. That was a cool thing
Not so fast!
Figure 8. Also a cool thing

Honestly the park areas of London felt all too familiar. Just like autumn back home in upstate NY. Having spent a good portion of the time walking back and forth through Green Park and Hyde Park, where the leaves turning color and the London planes look just like maples, and the overgrown grasses look very New Englandy to my eye. Quite different from North Carolina, Florida and Texas plant life.

My Qatar Airways flight left on time at 9:30pm and I spent the night flying over Europe. It was surreal having such a minimal and distant experience of so many places I’ve only heard about before. "This is Brussels, if you squint you can see the lights of Paris, and there is Frankfurt, and Vienna, and Budapest and Bucharest and Istanbul.."

I was struck by how the cities and towns all seem so evenly spaced relative to flying over the US. At least in western Europe, I didn’t spend the whole flight gazing out the window.

While flying over Turkey and Iraq I saw some things that I couldn’t explain. There were these bright lights on the ground, usually in groups of 2 or 3. They seemed much brighter than anything I saw in Europe. From 40k feet, my best estimate is that each of them were at least the size of a small house. My first thought was that they were massive fires. But then I kept seeing clusters of them regularly all the way to Kuwait.

Anyway, my Qatar Airways flight was very good. More and better staff and better food than American Airlines. I got the whole row of 3 seats to myself again and this time had enough room to straighten my legs so A350 must be wider than 777. They gave out the little gift bag with ear plugs, sleep mask, lip balm, etc. to everyone and not just first class. Metal utensils with meals. A+

Again only 2 hours of sleep though. Woke up to:

Persian Gulf Sunrise
Figure 9. Sunrise Over the Persian gulf.

I was hoping to see The Pearl, Losail Racetrack and Doha skyline from the air but they were all on the other side of the plane. this is what I saw while landing:

Landing in Doha
Figure 10. Landing in Doha

Here’s the view from my room.

Window Landscape
Figure 11. My View.

That picture makes it look much more sandy and washed out than it actually is. You can see a mosque off to the right. Here is the same mosque from closer:

A Nearby Mosque
Figure 12. Local Mosque.

And in the other direction, Doha skyline through the haze:

Persian Gulf Sunrise
Figure 13. Distant Hazy Skyline.

I had left Raleigh on Sunday and now it was Tuesday. Although it was the third day technically, for me, running on a pair of naps, it was just one long ass day. I didn’t do any more exploring on day zero, I slept the better part of the day and then later got an additional full night sleep.