Thursday, March 26, 2009

Recapping Qatar: Part 1

Predictably, my adventures in Doha feel like they happened about four years ago now that I'm back in the US of A. Before the sights, sounds and smells have completely faded from my consciousness, I think I should put a few of my impressions down for posterity. This might be long, so you have my full permission to skim.

On Luxury
I already recounted my out-of-this-world air travel experience in business class on Qatari Airways, but the high living persisted throughout my stay in Doha and permeated almost every aspect of the trip. From waiting for my flight in a first class airport lounge to my cavernous hotel room in the Ritz-Carlton Doha to the as-much-marble-as-possible decor of the buildings in Education City, there was nothing cheap about this trip. Unless I build a better mousetrap or something, this might have been the most luxurious weekend of my life.

It boggles my mind to think that celebrities, heads of state and the incredibly wealthy live this way all the time. The lavish, AIG executive lifestyle came into full focus for me this past weekend and I can't overstate the sweetness of it all. It's frighteningly easy to get used to that way of life and the economy class flight from New York back to Chicago seemed unbearably common. What do you mean I have to sit by the gate and wait? Where are the Godiva chocolates and mimosas? (The flight was also delayed by an hour and a half and I sat next to an armrest hog on the plane. Seriously, give my elbow a little real estate.) This served as a harsh but much-needed reminder that I am, in fact, just a regular person.

On Doha

After the wonderful 12-hour flight, we made our way through the Qatar airport. Aside from the traditional dress of the employees and the Arabic signage, it could have been any bustling airport terminal. As we stepped outside into the pleasantly breezy 80-degree evening, the smell of deeply fried foods assaulted our nostrils. Some in the group speculated that it was fried bread or another local delicacy. As our bus left the airport, however, we discovered the true source--a nearby McDonald's. So much for international cuisine...

The city of Doha itself is somewhat hard to wrap your arms around. The Doha skyline is a sight to behold. There isn't a single building with the familiar rectangular shape that we're accustomed to in America. Every building is an architectural experiment of harsh angles and rounded corners and every building is either brand new or under construction. Doha is growing at the speed of light and more than 20 construction cranes accent the skyline.

While any signs of growth are encouraging in these economic times, the non-stop construction must be getting old for Doha residents. It's so all-encompassing that no parts of downtown Doha feel finished. Everything has a "coming soon" vibe to it. I'd be curious to return in a few years to see if the construction is done and if there are enough businesses to fill all of the new business and residential real estate.

I don't feel I had a complete representation of life in Qatar. Our itinerary was decidedly one-sided and stuck to the best parts of town--the fanciest hotels, the nicest restaurants, the traditional markets and the burgeoning investment that is Education City. I don't know how or where a regular person lives in Qatar. And I don't even know what I mean by "regular person." Only 25 percent of the Qatar population are natives and the rest are well-to-do travelers, ex-pats with good white collar jobs or foreign immigrants who have come to Doha as cheap labor for construction projects and menial jobs at one of the numerous high-rise hotels scattered throughout downtown Doha. Which brings me to my next point...

On the Ritz-Carlton

I have never stayed in such a magnificent hotel. Ever. The doorman was impressive. The lobby was impressive. The pool was impressive. And the room was beyond compare. When I first entered my room, my jaw dropped, the door shut behind me and there was practically an echo. The ceilings were insanely high and there was so much space that I believe there was a couch in the room that I never actually used.

I spent the morning of the first day poolside with a book and a bottle of water. Sitting under the shade of palm trees and enjoying the cool of the ever-present breeze, it was a definite "pinch-me" moment. After the pool, I headed for another of the many buffet meals I was treated to throughout my stay. While I wasn't sure if I would enjoy non-stop Middle Eastern cuisine, the buffets always knocked my socks off and meat is meat, no matter what you call it or what spices you dress it up with. Meat is truly the international language.

The hotel lobby featured a steady stream of young, blonde (American?) women playing the piano and the tunes were also decidedly Western. I think my favorite round of "Name That Incongruous American Tune" came when a group of us were sitting in the hotel bar at the end of a long day and the piano player broke into George Michael's Careless Whisper. You have to travel 7,000 miles if you want to hear that 1980s hit played dramatically on a grand piano.

Well, that's more than enough for Part One. Tune in next time for reflections on NU-Q and what I actually did while I was over there.

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