Flying Can Be Fun! (but it usually isn’t)
Do you remember when getting on an airplane and flying somewhere was an exciting experience? It seems so long ago! We have flown a lot of miles in the last year and it was usually just a process to be endured to get somewhere. Our recent flight from Vietnam to Qatar was a welcome change.
We were planning a trip back to the USA to wait out the Covid 19 pandemic, and the best airline from Ho Chi Minh City to Fort Lauderdale was Qatar Airways. The flight would entail two stops, one at “TBD” and the second at JFK in New York. For the first stop we thought Hong Kong or Seoul would be a bad idea due to their proximity to China, but Doha in Qatar might be fun, especially considering we could stay there a couple days for the same airfare.
We arrived at the airport early in the morning and checked in with Qatar whose agents were quick and efficient, and boarded a huge Airbus A350-1000. When the doors were closed and
the pilot began to taxi out to the runway, we were pleased to see there were few people on board, so we each had a row of 3 wide, comfy seats to stretch out on. There were wide screen monitors in each seat, free movies, good food, and as many free drinks as you liked! Next thing I knew Susie had a bloody mary – first time I had ever seen her drink one of those! It was quiet and dark. I watched the Irishman, Green Book and a good film on Berry Gordy & MoTown. Most enjoyable 13 hours on an airplane ever. Qatar Airways has won Airline of the Year almost every year since 2011.
The back-of-seat monitors had an option to view the planes progress, as well as front, rear and downward-facing cameras with real-time views, so we knew when we were flying over the Persian Gulf on our approach to Hamad International Airport in Doha. Looking out the starboard side windows I could see many construction sites on the mainland and the artificial islands built with sand reclamation, including The Pearl.
Qatar is a small (11,581 sq km) peninsula of sand jutting into the Persian Gulf opposite Iran, sharing a 70km land border with Saudi Arabia. Current population is about 2.3 million with 80% being expatriates – mainly laborers from Pakistan, India & Bangladesh. The country has no income taxes and the highest per-capita income per person, thanks to large reserves of petroleum and natural gas discovered in the 20th century. Previous revenues were mainly from fishing and pearl hunting, but the pearl market was decimated by the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1920s.
Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup sending the already thriving construction industry into overdrive. 3 existing stadiums are being expanded in addition to 9 new stadiums, hotels and lux desert camps on the outskirts of Doha. Every skyline has dozens of towering cranes working to build up the infrastructure.
Hamad Airport was modern and large with few people. We cleared with no issues and made our way to the subway which was as clean and efficient as Singapore. One station change and we were at the Souk Waif stop - “sort-of” close to our hotel in Doha. Pulling our backpacks down the sidewalk. It was pretty warm, but no hotter than a late spring day in Chuluota. We checked into a room on the 9th floor of Horizon Manor Hotel, which offered a nice view of The Corniche and Doha Port.
After a quick change of clothes, we walked down towards the waterfront between high-rise hotels and banks. Al Corniche Street runs along the water with so much traffic we waited at
least 10 minutes for a light change, with no chance of crossing before. Straight ahead down a long, palm lined drive was the striking Museum of Islamic Art, which featured a cubist architecture of creamy limestone that was even more amazing after dark. It was constructed on another artificial island near the traditional dhow harbor. The interior was just as fantastic as the exterior with a 5-story central lobby featuring a huge metallic chandelier.
We spent several enjoyable hours meandering through many rooms filled with a variety of Persian and Islamic art and artifacts. Many of the displays featured amazing Persian rugs of all sizes and colors, as well as large assortments of jewelry and daggers. Typically, though not entirely, Islamic art has focused on the depiction of patterns and Arabic calligraphy, rather than human or animal figures, because it is believed by many Muslims that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and thereby a sin against God that is forbidden in the Qur'an.
Sunset was at 17:30 and many folks walked out to the west-facing patio to watch the sun sink below the horizon past the harbor as a few tourist dhows cruised by. A large reflecting pool with fountain jets added to the serene ambiance as the daylight faded.
As we strolled back to the Corniche and turned north, we admired the different buildings as their lighting came on in the twilight. Several buildings had prominent paintings of a man’s
profile, which we later learning is the current Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (b.3 June 1980). His portraits are designed to inspire solidarity among the Qatari people during their dispute with neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain & UAE cut off diplomatic and many economic relations with Qatar in 2017 over alleged support of terrorist groups. “Washington has strong ties with all the states involved, including Qatar which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region, and sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Iran.” Recent talks broke down and the issue is still unresolved.
Off to our right was a large fleet of dhows tied up to the wharves, resting after a slow day of tourist expeditions, instead of fishing or pearl diving in past years. Just beyond was a long and low building housing a restaurant with ever-changing floodlights playing over the structure. Looking inland the skyline was dominated by a spiraling tower lit with a golden glow against the twilight, sitting atop the Fanar- Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre.
Crossing busy Al Corniche again we followed a steady stream of folks heading towards a jumble of buildings which turned out to be Souk Waqif (the standing market), probably the last market in Doha that retains an authentic feel to past commerce and culture. It was a gathering place for Bedouins and locals to trade a century ago but was mostly destroyed by fire around 2003. Restoration was completed in 2008 with an eye towards maintaining the original atmosphere with modern safety standards.
Many indoor and outdoor shops, cafes and food carts formed a dazzling array of sights, sounds and smells as we wound our way through. Beautiful jewelry featuring pearls and other gems were exhibited in many stores, along with rugs, clothes, carvings and many trays of exotic spices. Susie picked up a couple of lovely blouses at one shop, and then we turned our attention to the culinary displays. One enterprising gentleman convinced us to try his place – Al Refea Traditional Food – a busy outdoor eatery where they quickly brought out 6 large aluminum trays, each filled with a different dish. It was all pretty tasty, though the chickpeas and noodles were a little bland.
Feeling full and tired we started walking back towards the Horizon Hotel but first I had to stop and investigate a large gold sculpture at the crossroads of several streets. It was a giant gold thumb! Standing about 3 meters tall and reflecting the surrounding light it was really quite surreal. It was cast from the thumb of Frenchman Cesar Baldaccini, and important figure in the ‘60s Noveau Realisme art movement and is part of a program to install installations of major artists at unexpected locations. (think Picasso's sculpture in downtown Chicago).
Tuesday Feb 18 – No restaurant in this hotel means we were out walking for coffee and/or breakfast, heading towards the waterfront again but turning east this time. Only tall condos and office buildings landward side but we spied a low building on the water called Halul Café. Only a few of the colorfully covered booths and chairs were occupied, all by men, and most in traditional white robes (thawbs) and headdress (ghutra). Many had a large hookah
pipe next to the table and a young boy would periodically come through with fresh coals for the burner. The menu was quite limited but the egg sandwich in something like pita bread was tasty. Coffee was unfortunately sub-par.
Next to the café were some floating docks and a small covered market. Many small (7 to 10 meter) outboard fishing boats were moored to the docks and some men were still cleaning their nets and gear. About 8 of the 30 market stalls were occupied with fishermen, displaying the iced-down morning’s catch in stainless steel trays. Mackerel, kingfish, squid and snapper.
By now we seriously needed coffee so we walked inland between the tall buildings and construction and eventually found a decent coffee shop in the lobby of an office building. Feeling fortified and rejuvenated it was time to move again as we only had 1 night at the Horizon.
Susie had discovered that the Qatar flight provided huge discounts at certain hotels and she
secured us 2 nights at the Dusit Doha Hotel located in the Diplomatic Area. The Dusit Doha was not a huge hotel, but when we walked into the lobby, we could tell it was a completely different class of place than we usually stayed. The elegant 4 story lobby featured a large gold & glass chandelier and beautiful arching stairways at each end. Opulent arrangements of tropical flowers were everywhere, and a classy 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Riviera resided at one end. The staff was very friendly and efficient, many being from Thailand.
Susie needed some new walking shoes and there just happened to be a huge mall a few blocks away – so off we went. The first thing we noticed after getting t0 the second floor was a huge ice rink in the middle of that area, complete with a Zamboni cruising around polishing the surface! Up to the fourth floor for shoe shops – and food court – which featured an interesting mix of western mall booths (McDee, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, KFC) and local fares, with a wide combination of sandwiches, platters, rice, soup, and…??? I decided on a platter of rice, veggies & lamb while Susie went off in search of. Her shoe selection was better than my meal.
Our room was absolutely gorgeous with full length windows, gigantic bed and TV, and a huge glass-walled bathroom! Who needs privacy in the shower?!?! Some people do, so there were motorized shades on the bathroom walls and outside windows! Crazy. The floor-to-ceiling closets had slippers, robes, a Qur'an and beautiful prayer rug.
Wednesday morning, we took an Uber to The Pearl, an exclusive residential & business area built on a series of artificial islands created by reclamation over previous pearl diving sites.
The Pearl is divided into 12 districts, each of which has a distinctive architectural style and feel. The area will be home to 45,000 residents when completed, with the majority in condos, towers, apartments and townhouses, although there will be some high-end villas and mansions as well.
Feeling hungry we strolled towards the nearest area of cafes, looking for an outdoor setting in the sun, as the air was a bit chilly. Unfortunately, all seats were taken, and no one looked to be budging soon, so we continued walking towards Qanat Quartier, modeled after Venice with canals running through the Venetian styled buildings. Presently we found Shakespeare & Co, a lovely café overlooking a marina, where we sat in the warming sunshine and enjoyed some delicious white coffee and breakfast.
Continuing our walk through the Venetian district and onward, we were struck by how empty most places felt. The construction was mostly finished but very few of the buildings seemed to have any occupants, and there were only a handful of people walking around. Of course, everything was beautiful and spotless, but it felt eerie. There would be an open café or gift shop, and then a dozen empty spaces. I suppose it will be a while before the whole place is
filled. We walked through one development that had security guards at the street and at the entrance to the beach, where we were stopped from going any farther. While admiring the décor inside one restaurant a server stepped outside and chatted with us for 20 minutes about everything from local customs to world politics. Nice.
By mid-afternoon we had explored much of The Pearl and were feeling tired, so we called up an Uber to take us back to the Dusit to relax and luxuriate in the posh room for one last night. I made a quick run to mall and brought back some food and donuts for the evening.
Feeling kind of sad that we were returning to the USA the next morning, we got a ride to the airport, again remarking on the incredible amount of construction going on in the distance. The airport was busier than when we arrived, and I got pulled out of line at the 3rd security check. The agent opened my drone carrying case and seemed to indicate it was not allowed. I have done a lot of research and Vietnam was the only country that was questionable about foreigners entering with drones.
Then the agent pointed to the 3 lithium drone batteries. There are many strict guidelines on carrying batteries on planes which I was familiar with, and these fell well within the limits. But the agent would not release them and finally said we had to get permission from an airline rep. So, Susie ran off to the gate whilst I cooled my heels after one more attempt to explain the rules to the agent. Finally, Susie returned with a rep from Qatar who promised the security guy that she would hold the batteries in a safe place during the flight, so I was released. Walking back to the gate she handed us the batteries while holding her finger to her lips – the universal signal of “shhh – I won’t tell if you won’t”! Thank you again Qatar Airways!
The flight to JFK was full, on a smaller plane than last time, but still tolerable. A 4-hour layover in JFK and Jet Blue to Ft. Lauderdale where we discovered one bag was lost, and it took a long time for an Uber to find us. I remember when this was a tiny airport back in 1973 – no longer.
And thus ends the first leg of our Clicker Treks, after an amazing eight months and nine
countries, discovering fantastic places & foods, and making new, lifelong friends. The coronavirus did not seem that serious when we left Asia, but it now looks like we came back just in time. The infection rate in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand is much less than in the USA (assuming their reporting is accurate), but they are still locked down, and foreigners are currently looked on with suspicion.
Will be so glad when this is over, and we can resume our travels! Next? We did not come close to seeing everything in SE Asia that we wanted, like central/north Vietnam, Borneo, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Diving in Rajah Apat for sure.
Just have to see what life brings.