What I like the most about travelling -apart from meeting people- is being disoriented, out of my comfort zone. I feel I can truly live the experience of being away only if I’m someplace where I don’t have anything to rely on, a pace completely different from what I know. After having crossed Canada in the cold winter, we decided to head to Qatar.
-“Where?!” asked the man at the airport
– “Qatar” I repeated. When surprise fell off his face, he simply asked “But…What for?”.
That last question startled me and somehow doubled my wanting to go there. The more I travel the more I long for unknown places, unknown cultures. As you may have understood by now, going where everyone goes and doing what you’re expected to do is not really my thing. All those glamorous destinations, London, Paris, New York, the Caribbean; all those places where my friends and family wish I lived so they can visit on holidays, don’t interest me. At least not in the touristic way. And in these fashionable places there’s no one to ask you why you’re going there. That man at the airport would’ve never asked me what was I going to San Francisco for. No one would have. We all know what we’re going to see, what we’re going to find and do there.
But in Qatar…
I had no idea of what I was going to find. It was my first time in the Middle East, in the desert and in an Islamist country. It was so new to me I think I had no expectations before arriving.
My very first impression when I got off the plane was (apart from relief) excitement. Even in the airport, things were different. It was 11 PM in January (winter time) and the temperature was 20 degrees, which was really hot compared to the Canadian -15! The people were dressed differently too.
Both men and women cover their bodies. Qatari women cover their head and wear a black abaya and men wear long white thobes. Try not to stare at them. It might sound obvious but I know I couldn’t keep my eyes away from them, especially when I saw women wearing a burqa. It wasn’t meant to be rude, I just find them beautiful and elegant in their traditional outfits that inspire mystery and respect. But it’s still staring. Now girls, if you don’t want them to stare at you, don’t wear skirts, strapless tops, shorts or anything that shows too much skin. Be sure you’ve covered your shoulders and arms if you’re in public places.
Qatar is a country that’s developing fast. Very fast. Most of the people you’ll meet come from everywhere in the world. Actually, there are more expats than Qataris. So the majority of people you’ll meet (if not all of them) speak English. It’s as if English was the official language, no one tries to talk to you in Arabic if you don’t look local. Every sign and every form is translated in English, luckily for some of us!
We’ve looked and searched all Doha to find specialties but there are none. Qatar is a new country that’s only 40 years old. So no, no special dishes to try, just all the typical Arabic dishes (from Morocco, Lebanon, Iran…). The souq is a fairly good place to eat and it’s popular among Qataris too. We were more interested in traditional Arabic food so we headed to Al Majliss, on Sawarma street. The dishes were excellent and very generous for reasonable prices (count around 25 to 40 rials for a main dish -$5 to $8-). However, because it’s a traditional restaurant, make sure that you go through the family lounge entrance if you’re a woman or a couple. We entered by the men’s entrance and the waiters seemed so shocked and annoyed that I even thought women were not allowed at all in the restaurant. If you’re looking for something westernized, read the following section.
Alcohol is prohibited in Qatar. When I was told that, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. What?? no alcohol? no pubs?? HOW AM I GOING TO MEET PEOPLE? I WANT CIDERRR! Yes, that takes away an important social place. Anyway, the only alcohol you can find is only for foreigners and can only be found in the bars of the hotels. Now, I’m not talking cheap motels; in Qatar the only hotels you can find are the Hilton, the Ritz, La Cigale, and other fancy places like that. Beautiful, good, but expensive. Make sure you take your passport, the drinking age is 21 and legislation is very strict. In these restaurants you’ll find gourmet westernized food, also very expensive but excellent.
There’s only one Liquor mart and expats are the only ones allowed to buy alcohol, so if you have an expat acquaintance, jackpot my friend! However he/she must have a special license delivered by the employer.
A very funny thing in Doha, no one walks. Not even a kilometer, nothing. Sidewalks are empty and sometimes non-existent. It’s so uncommon to walk somewhere that even when you’re lucky enough to have a sidewalk, there are no pedestrian crossing. It might not sound crazy for you but think a moment. If no one walks that means that everyone drives. And everyone is a lot. Crossing a two-way street can easily take 15 minutes. And it’s suicide. People in Qatar drive like crazy, don’t even consider driving if you’re not experienced! Easing you way into a lane is impossible. Not a soul will let you pass. They just keep driving and even if you try to force your way they don’t stop. I’m telling you, it’s crazy.
Taking a taxi is fairly cheap but be sure to pay the right price. Also very funny, finding a taxi is more than easy. You don’t need to find them, they find you. If you look foreigner enough they stop even if you didn’t ask for anything (walking is so uncommon that pedestrians are considered to be lost tourists). The metered taxis are blue-green but other cars can stop (I don’t know if they’re clandestine or legal because they’re called “limousines”). No problems here.
Now, the best part: the bus.” Oh my god, you’re going to try to take the bus in Doha??!” Yes I am. Because I’m that crazy. I made it my personal challenge to go from home to the souq and find my way back. And I have to say my friends, it was a piece of cake. Well…maybe not. But you’ll read more on that here.
So, what can you do in Doha?
A few places I’ve enjoyed:
I’ve taken more pleasure in visiting Qatar than Canada. Maybe because Canada was too similar to what I already know. In Doha, everything is different even small things like through which door you have to go, how you have to dress, who do you talk to. Time here seems to go by slower than anywhere else; people are slower in their way (except on the road). Above all, Qatari culture is very intriguing and I have to say, frustrating. In a month I haven’t been able to meet anyone from Qatar, although they are nice, polite and respectful,we don’t do the same things. People in the desert are far easier to approach, but in the city it’s another story. But that adds to the mystery around Qatari culture and maybe it’s the reason why I’ve enjoyed my time here so much.
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