Saturday, November 5, 2011

Doha Diaries: Week 1

All righty, so I guess it's time to blog about my adventures in Qatar.

October 30, My God, It's Full of Stewardesses

My abundant time to pack and prepare rapidly evaporated and I found myself a little stressed as I piled my gigantic new bags, along with the usual carry-on and brief, into my friend's car.  The advice online was to arrive three hours in advance, but I showed up with two hours to spare.

Worried that two hours might not be enough, we pulled up to the curbside baggage check.  There were two guys there, one was practically lounging on a chair, listening to his iPod.  The other one was sitting near a computer.  The latter sluggishly responded to our presence.  After a painfully slow, confused exchange of "information", I was referred to the IPod guy, who had to be seriously goaded to stand up, turn off his iPod, and actually do stuff.  More painfully slow, confused inquiries...and nothing.

So, I bid my friend adieu and headed up to the ticket agent.  In sharp contrast to the curbside experience, the American Airlines agent was incredibly friendly, efficient, and helpful.  Working with him washed away the grime of the curbside check-in snafu.

It turns out that there is a weight limit for carry-ons...40 pounds.  This was problematic because my grand plan for travel included packing every piece of electronics into my carry-on or brief.  My carry-on ended up being about 8 pounds over, so the PS3 and Bose SoundLink went into the "suiter" case.

I offered my prayers to the gods of baggage handling and asked them to watch over my electronics.

Speaking of electronics, the agent mentioned an interesting electronics alternative plan from his and his friends' experience with long stays abroad - buy them locally and then sell them when you leave.  Not a bad idea.  Oh well, I was committed to my crazy plan to take lots of electronics with me.

I touched down in Houston, hopped on the interterminal train, and arrived at the gate for my Qatar Airways flight.  I wasn't in Kansas anymore.  The gate waiting area was noticeably warmer than the other terminal.  The Indian and Middle Eastern folks in the area vastly outnumbered everyone else.  It was already starting to feel like I had left the country.

I was unable to get a seat assignment or boarding pass ahead of time, even at DFW, so I headed up to the desk and was greeted by an affable woman attendant.  I think I filled out some paperwork.  She took my bag check tags and confirmed that my bags were being put on the plane, which was a welcome reassurance.  Then it was back into the line for me.

You know how they have the folks in wheelchairs at the front of the line?, so many wheelchairs.  There were dozens of folks in wheelchairs.  Oh well, it's a big plane.

Boarding started late, but I was not worried.  My bags were accounted for and I had a 14.5-hour flight ahead of me, so small delays were irrelevant.  We ended up leaving more or less on time (7:55 PM).

When I did get aboard the plane, I was taken aback by two remarkable things.  One, the seats in economy were actually reasonably spacious.  Two, an army of stewardesses in formal uniforms.

It was like I had time-traveled back to when I was a kid, flying to England for the first time.  Outside of the TV show Pan Am, I had not seen this since I was a child.  It was cool.  It really takes the edge off of a long grueling flight to not only have nice people tending to you, but to have plenty of them.  I mean wow, so much service.  There were 3-5 stewardesses within a 40 ft. radius at any given time.

As if that was not enough to blow my mind, they offered me a free not just a soft drink.  That's right, they were pouring cocktails in economy class.  Sweet.  One gin and tonic please!  And some water...gotta stay hydrated. :-)

Interestingly, they fed us appropriately for the time zone we left (UTC-6) as opposed to our destination (UTC+3).  So, we had dinner first.  Dinner was actually good, but I can't remember exactly what I had.  It was a complete meal though, including dessert.  Each portion was smallish, but collectively, it was satisfying.  And the complimentary wine was nice too.

Clearly, Qatar Airways realizes that mildly inebriated customers enjoy their 14.5-hour flight more. :-)

Then it was time to settle in for the long haul.  Many hours of fidgeting, shifting, and repositioning to avoid leaving a permanent flat spot on your ass.

Entertainment was plentiful, as each seat had its own monitor with music, movies, TV, and more.  You could even pull up a screen with flight information.  I watched Cars 2, which taught me the valuable moral lesson to not befriend a moronic tow truck.

Then there was much fitful sleeping, with an occasional water break.

Somewhere over the vast black expanse of the Atlantic, October 31st arrived.

October 31, No Tricks Nor Treats

After a few more fits of sleep, breakfast arrived.  Again, it was surprisingly good, but you have to weigh that against a healthy pessimism about airplane food quality built up by life experiences and hackneyed routines of comedians that lack creativity.

I tried to watch The Tree of Life, but the background noise of the airplane was just too much, when combined with the frequent whispered commentary.  So, I switched over to Too Big To Fail.  It was an interesting film that gave me more insight into the machinations of the financial industry in the USA.  I hope someday to learn more about it and explore the arguments made in the film.

We landed a few minutes early, just before 7:00 PM local time.  We were ushered onto a terminal bus to take us to our appropriate terminals.  As we rolled along, I was pleasantly surprised to actually recognize a word I understood from my Pimsleur Eastern Arabic CDs.   Apparently, the word for "station" was also used for "terminal".  Understanding stuff is fun!

The processes here were clearly refined for satisfying the needs of a broad swath of cultures and languages.  Your boarding pass sleeve and bag tags were all uniformly color-coded to match your destination terminal.  In my case, blue.

The bus pulled up to the Blue terminal and I stepped into a large, brightly-lit room with a large network of stanchions.  I saw two signs...both read "all other countries".  As I stood there, baffled as to whether I was "all other countries" or the mysterious unnamed country or countries not included in "all other", a gentleman flagged me over to him.  He pulled back the stanchion rope and guided me to a distinctly different area.

Most of the people being served were being served by men in open booths. I was guided to an obscured booth with acid-etched glass.  When I entered, it made more sense; the women inside were covered completely in black.  I tensed a little bit.  I had been told that women in such garb I should avoid, avert my eyes, and generally not interact with in any way.  However, I was told that if I "had" to interact with them it was OK.

So I sort of stood there, befuddled until the woman called me to her, impatience clear in her voice.  It was all very confusing but, somehow, I left with a visa stamp and a credit card receipt.  Then it was time for customs.

Which is apparently, just another area of the airport, as virtually all of us just walked right through.

As I reached the exit, I had another cultural encounter.  Because it had been so easy, I was concerned that I had not done everything needed for my immigration process.  So, I went over to the information booth and proceeded to wait for a good ten minutes while the woman there shot the breeze with a fellow Qatari, occasionally glancing at me every few minutes.  I had been warned about this, but it was weird to be standing in arms' reach of someone, clearly needing them to do their job, and just have them blow me off while they chatted with someone.  Well, I am a guest, so I did my best to grin and bear it.  She confirmed that I was good to go, and I headed out to the taxi.

I had heard horror stories about the traffic, but it was far better than I expected.  People were a little aggressive at times and way too comfortable riding right on top of each other.  By all rights, we should have been in an accident at least six times during my taxi ride.

Regardless, I arrived at the W Doha Hotel and Residences in one piece.

There was a bit of confusion checking in.  My corporate American Express would not run the authorization.  Now, he was trying to authorize a month, so that was not a surprise.  Then he tried a week.  Still no luck.  Thankfully, since I was with a large corporation, they waved me up and resigned to settle the issue later.

This is when I started to feel the pain of not having a phone.  It got worse, though.

You see, American Express provides an international collect call number, but apparently there is no way to make international collect calls in Doha.  So, I hopped onto the American Express website to check out my options and the "fastest" one was using their messaging  system.  Hours later and we had the problem identified.  The hotel was trying to run the charge as retail and that is the one thing that is explicitly capped on our corporate cards.  In fact, it was a $1000 cap and one week at the W is $1440 (with our corporate rate).  Mystery solved.  Cap extended, just in case.

I opened my suiter to see how my electronics fared.  Um...what is wrong with my suit?  Holy crap...

Yeah, that was a brand new hanger, shattered by the compressive force placed on my bag.  Yay!  Well, here's hoping the PS3 works when I get around to using it.

On that topic, the room safe is big enough for my Xbox, PS3, Bose SoundLink, and more.  Nice.

Clothes unpacked, suits and shirts hung.  T-shirts and jeans...sorta flopped over furniture...bedtime!

November 1, I Came All This Way for a Mushroom Burger?

My first day of work got off to a slow start.  There was some confusion on timing.  Suffice to say I got up very early for no reason.  Ah well, better than being late.  The hotel breakfast was freaking awesome!  I discovered a tasty new food - Sujuk, which appears to be sausage-like meat with tomatoes.  I also got to try dragon fruit, which sounds way cooler than it tastes.

I showed up to work, hopped into an empty desk, and got to work.

I had lunch at the tiny cafeteria in the tower where I work.  The food was not bad.  Cash only.

That evening, I met the team lead for dinner.  He is from the USA and is not exactly the adventurous type when it comes to food.  We went to Chili's.  So, there I was, on the other side of the world, eating a Chili's Mushroom Swiss burger.  Exotic!

Then it was time to get a phone.  The company was already going to pay for the SIMs and phone minutes, and they were willing to buy a phone too.  But I took this as that final push/excuse to get an iPhone 4S (buying it myself, of course).  We headed over to the obvious place, the iSpot, an "official reseller" for Apple products.  But, to my dismay, they were all out of iPhones.

I trudged out of the store, forlorn...for about 20 feet.  Then I spotted what appeared to be iPhones in the adjacent store.  Yay!  "I can't run your card"  Boo!  "There's an ATM"  Yay!  "This transaction cannot be completed"  Boo!  So, the team lead graciously bought the phone on his card (and I will reimburse him).  Yay!

We headed over to Qtel and picked up a SIM, popped it in the phone, added some minutes, and I was ready to go!

Now, I had the presence of mind to contact my credit card company and my bank and tell them of my travel plans.  So, I was a bit peeved that my cards were not working for me.  I spent the rest of the evening trying to determine why my card didn't work and why the ATM withdrawal did not work.  My answers were:
  1. The card was not refused, it was referred. In such cases, the merchant is supposed to call the card company and answer some quick questions.  Merchant fail.
  2. My ATM card is set up with a daily limit to minimize losses if it gets stolen.  Oh yeah, I forgot I set that up.  Michael fail.  Can we get this increased for a day or two?  Um, we can't get into the system, please try again later.  Bank fail.
November 2, Pancake Breakfast With Colleagues, Dinner With New Friends

The morning started off with breakfast at Ric's Kountry Kitchen, a favorite of the team lead's because of the familiar food.  A member of the team picked us up and the three of us headed to Ric's for our "American" breakfasts.

On the way there, I noticed my UK colleague had a small red and green lapel pin and, being who I am, I asked about it.  It turns out it is a Poppy.  Apparently, in the UK, they wear poppies around Remembrance Day (similar to what we in the USA celebrate as Memorial Day)  in honor of their fellow countrymen that have died in battle.  It comes from fields of poppies growing up around the fallen dead, especially in Flanders field, in World War I.

Hearing that, I remarked that it explained Sting's lyrics, "poppies for young men, death's bitter trade" in his song Children's Crusade (off Dream of the Blue Turtles).  Learning is cool.  By the way, the whole song is filled with beautiful, sad lyrics, I recommend listening to it...and here's a YouTube video with the lyrics.  Enjoy!

All right from somber to cheesy!  Here is a picture of Ric's.

I had the pancake breakfast.  It was pretty good, on par with Denny's or IHOP.   I discovered once again that no one can escape Coca Cola products.

Or, if you want to see that in Arabic, just spin the bottle around...

The ham actually tasted like ham.  This observation spurred a discussion about the legality of pork products.  My colleagues explained that selling pork is not illegal, but importing it is, or something like that.  I bet that makes the pork on the US Air Force base quite valuable for an enterprising soldier...

Off to work.  Work was done.  Lunch in the Cantina again.

That evening I enjoyed the gracious hospitality of Ed Brothers, his wife Nicole, and his friend Mike, as Ed and Nicole welcomed me into their home for dinner.  We had salad, lasagne, and strawberry shortcake.   Many nerdy jokes were made.  Fun was had by all.  Well, maybe not the large cat-like lump that they claim is a living cat; I am not sure it had fun.  Further, I am still not sure I believe that it is 1) a cat or 2) alive; however, out of courtesy, I will take their word for it.

Ed, Nicole, and Mike are all involved in local academia at Doha, and have been here a while.  It was an interesting to hear their take on life in Doha.  I look forward to more visits.

November 3, Work Before You Crawl

Brunch was awesome again.  Today, they had fresh mango.  Holy crap was it good.  I was inspired to post to Facebook about it:
So *this* is how mango should taste. I am officially spoiled now. When I go home the mango will seem like an imposter. Sigh. Well, we'll always have Doha, mango, we'll always have Doha.
Seriously, it was wonderful.

And off to work.  You may have noticed that I am not talking about my work.  That's intentional.  This is a personal blog.  However, I will say that I managed to get on board for a fishing trip with some colleagues during the holidays next week.  We will be renting out a Dhow.  I am not sure what to expect, as a Dhow can be pretty swanky or pretty basic.  Either way, it should be another unique experience and I look forward to it.  They have speakers that work with the "I-pot", which I can only guess is a Rastafarian MP3 player.

That evening, after pounding out a lot of work for a deadline some colleagues took me on a mini pub crawl.  We started at an Irish pub located in the bottom of the Sheraton.  They had smoking, pub food, and beer, all in a dark wooden milieu.  It was quite pubesque.

While trying to find the pub I came across a bizarrely incongruous sight.  A woman covered head to toe in the "do not talk to this woman" black garb.  The only things visible were 1) her eyes and 2) bright red 5" stiletto heels; you know, the kind of shoes you would usually expect to see on a woman that was the opposite of covered.

So, back to the pub.  I had hoped to experience the duo of shrill Asian women singers that my colleagues had described so emphatically but, alas, we had to settle for a guy and girl doing covers of popular songs.  The vocals all sounded like Cher, so when she did Amy Winehouse it was painful; if alcoholic toxicity hadn't gotten her, hearing this surely would have.  I kid.  It was fun and the pub had a good vibe to it.

That said, I would prefer not to hear someone trying to mimic Amy.  She had a style all her own, she is gone, and I am sad for that.

Excited by the prospect of "real" British pub food, I ordered Bangers and Mash.  Of course, with the taboo of pork, it was made with veal sausages which, technically, still makes it bangers and mash.  It wasn't bad going down... (subtle foreshadowing)

Anywho...moving on.

Most of us headed on to the Bavarian Cafe.  I was almost sad to leave the Irish pub, as the place was really jumping when we left.  But so was the Bavarian Cafe.

The cafe, however, had a different vibe.  No dance floor or live music, but a lot more beer and many of them with high alcohol contents.

Then it was back home for the night.  Shortly after I got back to the room, my bangers and mash decided to leave my body the same way they arrived, via my mouth.  Yep, food poisoning.

November 4, When I Said I Wanted to Crawl, I Did Not Mean It Literally

The vomiting continued throughout the night and morning. Some time after the sun came up, I realized I had unfortunately passed the point where my body would no longer accept water.  Not even sips.  So, I needed to get some intravenous fluids.  If I didn't act now, I would be riding to the hospital unconscious and incoherent later.  Time for Michael's Doha Hospital Adventure!

Apparently, because I am not a resident, yet, I can only go to one of two private hospitals, according to the concierge.  With no other data, I chose the one with "American" in the name - American Hospital.  So, I asked the concierge for a couple of plastic bags...just in case my body managed to find something else to expel during the trip.

It was a much longer taxi ride than I had experienced thus far, and there were a lot of half-demolished buildings...uncertainty was rising.  Of course, time sort of stretches out when you are constantly focused on keeping your stomach calm.  When I arrived, I was not greeted by the sprawling, shiny Mecca of medicine that I might have hoped.  Here is the outside of the building and, to be clear, this was the building, that is not a close up on just the front.  I clipped the left edge slightly, but otherwise that is the entirety of the hospital.

I headed in and stopped short of the reception desk.  There was an Indian gentleman and a woman completely covered in (do not approach or look at this woman unless you HAVE to do so) black garb.  She was staring right at me, so I hazarded a glance and she beckoned me over, explaining that she was the only one there (and thus it was OK for me to approach her and talk to her).  I guess the Indian fellow was not real person and, I have to admit, I never did reach out to touch him and confirm, so perhaps he was a figment of my imagination.  No wait, I have picture of him, so he at least must be a sophisticated hologram.  The woman hidden by the desk on the right; you can just see part of her head dress sticking out of from behind the left of the nameplate on the right; I didn't make an effort to get a more direct picture of her, as I am unclear of the social acceptability of taking pictures of a covered woman.  Better safe than deported.

And to jazz up the flavor a bit, a close up of the price list in back:

It's hard to read, because I was too much of a slacker to take a close up picture of it, but the board on the right lists their medical specialties in English and the price list on the left is as follows:
  • Consultant 140 QR (Qatari Riyals)
  • Specialist 120 QR
  • GP [General Practice] Doctor 100 QR
For reference, there are about 3.5 QR to a dollar.

I got another taste of the need to be patient and lower my expectations for promptness, as they called for a nurse three times over the span of 20 minutes before I saw one.  Then suddenly there were two.  I got lucky and ended up with the cute one. :-)

They took me back to the hallway, took my vitals, and led me to the doctor.  I gave a concise description of my signs and symptoms and suggested that I needed IV fluids.  The doctor concurred, but ordered a battery of tests to be certain.  I can't blame him, I certainly could have had something else going on.  My parting statement was, "As long as I get IV fluids until I start peeing, I am happy."

Now it gets fun.  You see, back in the day when I was a nurse, I was "da man" when it came to giving IVs.  That meant I got to cringe as other nurses desperately tried to get needles into peoples' veins before they would give up and I would painlessly one-shot it, much to the relief of the patient.  In all of my time as a nurse, there was one patient that I did not save from IV hell and that was because he was a Down's Syndrome patient with very thick, chubby arms which made his veins completely impossible to see and I knew that he needed a cutdown from a doctor, not a nurse blindly sticking him and praying.  Suffice to say, I have seen every possible bad technique for IVs.

But I needed fluids, so I bit my tongue and told myself that unless I felt like they were going to do serious harm I would stay calm and take it like a man.  One stick...ah ah ah.  Two stick...ah ah ah.  Three stick...ah ah ah.  I LOVE to count needle sticks!  No wait, let's not take it out yet, let's just keep trying in that third spot.  Oh cool, let's let the other nurse try.  Why not?  We're all here and we have nothing else to do, needle party!

I was this close to going Special Forces medic on them and doing it myself, when they finally got a blood flash.  Yes, eventually, they managed to get a pediatric needle (read, very tiny) into a tiny vein in my hand.  Yay!

The blood samples were collected by letting blood drip ever so slowly out of the catheter, as opposed to drawing out the blood and injecting it into the container.  Probably not a bad idea, given my dehydration, the size of the needle, and tiny vein, which would likely collapse if they tried to pull out the blood.  However, I knew that small needles could also mean greater hemolysis (broken blood cells), which could generate erroneous potassium levels.  Mentally noted for the future in case they say that is a problem.  I am not here to teach and I certainly don't want to offend.

Fast forward 4 hours.  My tummy is calm, I have gone pee pee, and all is right in the world.  Well, righter at least.

Prescriptions, check.  Payment, check.  Taxi!

Hmm, what is this anti-nausea medication?  I assumed it was Phenergan, because that was what I used back in the day, but it is not.  It is Domperidone.  Huh, let's look that up...not approved by the FDA...used for enhanced lactation...individual incidents of problems in patients receiving an intravenous form of domperidone include cardiac arrest and arrhythmia (wait, they put some of that in my IV)...sonnuva.  Oh wait, apparently "the FDA's division of gastrointestinal drugs had approved domperidone."  Well, the risk of sinking back into dehydration versus a few days of taking a pill that is probably not as safe as I like...I'll take the damn pill.  Note to self: pick up a prescription for an anti-nausea pill before I go overseas again.

More drugs - an antibiotic and an anti-acid.  While I see the reasoning, I don't like taking antibiotics or antacids, let alone any medicine, unless I need them, so I decide to hold off on those and play it by ear.  For now, I'll just take the "Dompy" and hope it does not enhance my lactation.

All righty, back to the hotel for water and to pass out...time passes.

I am awake and hungry.  So I do the usual drill and head to Carrefour (the French Wal-Mart) for crackers, a couple of bananas, and what the heck, some chicken shawarma and fattoush for later; experience has taught me that, for me, food poisoning resolves fast and I am usually eating pretty regular within 24 hours.

So, here's another cultural quirk.  Today, the mall had signs outside declaring "family day".  The team lead has mentioned that was a day when admittance to the mall was restricted, but I could not remember the details.  I was sporting jeans and my t-shirt declaring, "Video games ruined my life. Good thing I have two extra lives."  I hoped it was acceptable.  No one stopped me or gave me a second glance.  However, on the way out, I saw guys dressed as casually or better being stopped.  The difference?  The only visible one was that they were dark-skinned Indian men.  Yeah, that felt a little weird.  I have never really witnessed overt discrimination like that.  Well, aside from Ladies Night at a bar. :-D

Crackers...water...steady...more sleep

Banana...water...steady...more sleep

Crackers and bananas...steady...more sleep

Chicken shawarma...steady...a lot more sleep

November 5, Recovery and Shopping!

So now it's freaking past midnight and I am wide awake and hungry.  I hop in the shower and get dressed, but nothing good is open this late (exacerbated by the holidays), so I break out the fattoush and have some more of the shawarma.

I think I may have slept somewhere in there.  And I worked on wrapping up some work stuff; there were administrative deadlines from the mother ship.

Hmm, what can I do?  Oh, I guess it's time to blog. Type, type, type.

Yay!  Another yummy brunch.  Mmm, more delicious fresh mango.  More yummy sujuk.

Time for an early workout.  I need to cram two in today to make up for being sick all day yesterday, but it should not be a problem

More catching up on administrata for work.  More blogging.  Time to get some swimming trunks and maybe weightlifting gloves.  Back to the mall!  I guess I could show you a picture of it.  Here is the entrance.  It's bloody huge and you can only see the map for the current floor, so it can be challenging.  In spite of the fact that there were a half dozen stores for sports equipment, I had to directly identify them by walking around because of communication barriers.

Shopping done.  Food time.  I decided I wanted to eat something decidedly local, so I hit the food court and found three places that were basically kabob places plus.  I finally settled on Safeer Express because they had fish and spinach. :-D

See, it even says "Middle-Eastern Flavors" right on the sign, so it's GOT to be legit.  Here is what I ended up getting:

The fish was spicy, which was awesome.  I am curious what was in it, because it made me sweat a little, but it was not super hot.  The spinach was tasty but definitely not as good for me as my usual fare at Rockfish back in Plano.  There were bits of meat and oils or fats in there; it was like someone decided to make "greens" with spinach.  The yellow stuff is a lentil soup.  It was all great, but I could not finish it.

Back to the hotel.

And since this is already a novella, I'll stop here and post this monster.  Hopefully you were amused and/or educated.


  1. I am pretty sure I have heard US doctor shows mention domperidone. So that counts as verification of efficacy, I'm pretty sure.

  2. Wow, it's amazing to hear about that part of the world. Hope you are recovering well.

  3. The translation for Sujuk is "Filet 'o dog". I tried not to laugh, but you got me at the hospital. I didn't know you had a PS3? What is your gamer ID so Schuyler can find you online?

  4. I am currently taking domperidone for gastroparesis. I get it from New Zealand. Every other country in the world uses it for gastroparesis. Frakkin GI docs in the US KNOW it's the gold standard for gastrparesis and prescribe it at will. It is not approved for use in the US because of the lactation thing. So chill.

    Also, just about every other civilized country on the planet knows about free drinks on international flights. It's why I fly Lufthansa whenever I can to Europe.

  5. @Greg & Deb/auspeople: Well, glad to hear that my colon will not disintegrate nor my pecs turn into fully functional man boobs.

    @Richard: Thank you for the well wishes. I got over it fast, but every now and then my stomach still remembers and gets a bit queasy. Or it could be that I am relentless assaulting it with whatever food or drinks that strike my fancy.

    @Binkley: Thank you sir!

    @Kevin: I will send you an e-mail with my gamer ID but, historically, the chances of seeing me signed into PSN are next to zero. I usually only sign into it when Sony forces me to do it. :-D

    @auspeople/Deb: I heartily endorse free drinks on international flights.