Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mid-East Blog # 2

February 26, 2016
Doha, Qatar

A Tauck agent greeted us at the airport "Arrival" door and escorted us to a very special  looking hotel - Sharq Village Ritz Carlton. Out of no where, we came to what looked like an Arabian or even a crusader era-looking fort that we might have discovered years ago while riding camels across a desert.  

A hotel host greeted us with dates and traditional coffee (more like a tea) with spices tasting like cardamom and star anise.  The exotic scent and flavor was quite refreshing - especially after a 16-hour flight.  

The early evening breeze was refreshing. Palm tree fronds swayed, large fountains gurgled and ethnic music in the background quickly reinforced the fact that we were in a totally different country.

After checking in, we were escorted to our villa by a butler - a young girl from Macedonia, who later gave us a walking tour of the grounds. The hotel property has a beach front looking out at a bay, a harbor in the distance and the Doha cityscape. At nighttime, the dramatically lit buildings was an extraordinary sight.

Being friendly with reception often helps in getting a nice room and a good location. Our "home" for almost a week was quite large.

The shiny marble floors, ornate furniture and a great patio/garden area would be very inviting to have our morning coffee and to listen to, as we would soon find out,  the morning cacophony of bird calls - screeching, hooting, squawking, chirping, peeping as well as calling out melodic melodies.

Jerry Is Enjoying Fresh Brewed Coffee

Atrium Outside Our Villa's Front Door

The hotel, with all of the floral and cactus vegetation, seems like it is situated in an oasis and is a safe haven for bird life.

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The bed is actually over sized. We figured out why...

Supposedly, Moslem men can have up to four wives unless, of course, the man is a king or prince. Then, perhaps, there might be a harem situated somewhere in a palace.  In any event, our bed can easily handle a husband and three wives side by side and possibly, a smaller wife at the foot of the bed. We guess this works if the hotel guest is a Moslem man.

We turned the TV on to check out examples of local programming:

Prince Reviewing Troops

Religious Holiday - Men Praying At Mecca
We Later Found Out That Showing Mecca On TV Brings Moslem Viewers Emotionally And Spiritually Closer To Islam

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Sleeping the first night was a little difficult. Our bio-rhythms were off. Rather than push, we decided to relax. Besides, the Tauck tour would not start for a few days.

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Breakfast was expansive and representative of what the locals might eat on a regular basis. Rich, thick yogurts with honey, a variety of salads, humus, different types of olives and pickles, assorted meats (such as chopped lamb liver), eggplant concoctions and many fruits and vegetables complemented the western style food such as omelets, french toast and pancakes.

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The hotel property has a variety of large pools and plenty of (very) attentive staff to help us should we need anything. 

A "Royal" (there are many) is staying in one of the compounds that comes with its own large pool, many rooms and support staff. At this point, he and his family have been residing at the hotel for four months as his palace is being renovated.

Most of the music played throughout the property is "ethnic" and quite simple: There is usually some sort of wooden flute playing along with a drum and, perhaps, some sort of string instrument. There isn't so much of a melody; but, rather repeating beats. Perhaps, years ago, local people may have danced to these simple, repetitive beats.

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There are two airports - the Hamad International and a military base. For most of the early mornings, fighter jets are either practicing maneuvers or they were on - a mission. The local newspaper mentioned that the Qatar government is quietly supporting USA, UK and France campaigns against ISIS while also secretly financing some of the extremist groups.

Perhaps, playing both sides is a good thing. Apparently, what the Qatar government is doing works as it is trying to maintain a peaceful existence in this hotbed area. FYI - We read that the locals are enthusiastic about Qatar being just been recognized as the 70th out of 100 safest cities in the area. (Is being # 70 a good thing? Wouldn't be better if it was ranked within the top 10?)

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 After a day of relaxing and getting our batteries recharged, we decided to venture out to the city center and check out the country's largest mall.

 We were going to search for an abaya store.

 City Center's Huge, Multi-Level Mall

Some of our readers may think we're "a little nuts." Having seen many different styles of abayas during our many stays in Malaysia, we were curious about how a woman selects her abaya wardrobe.

Success! We found such a store in the mall.

Fancy Cuffs - Very Expensive!

Fancy (Expensive) Party Gowns Worn Under Abaya

The Unveiling! - Abayas Removed After Party Arrival

Want To Buy A Scarf For Everyday?

Guess Who?

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Throughout the day, we hear loud speakers blaring away - calling people to prayer. The prayer announcement actually starts out as if there is a beginning of an air raid siren. There is that drown sound that builds up into a crescendo and continues for about five to ten minutes. This "sound" has that same sort of audible feeling.

Hurry Up! Stop Eating! It's Time To Pray!

Start Them At A Young Age!

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The cityscape from our hotel looked amazing.  

We had no idea how fantastic it was until we got closer to the buildings. 

Some of these edifices are architectural wonders. At this point, Singapore and Shanghai are neck and neck with Qatar as to which city has the # 1 "WOW" factor.

Great Looking Buildings!

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Many boats - sort of looking like Chinese junks, are all lit up at night with pretty neon lights. Quite a sight!

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From our lounging location at one of the hotel's pool, we have a great vantage point to see all of the planes taking off from Qatar's airport. Planes do frequently take off. However, the quantity of planes taking off from Qatar is no where near what flies in and out of Dubai. Jerry has an "App" that looks at all of the planes in the skies. It's amazing to see(on his cell phone) the steady stream of planes taking off from Dubai as well as over the entire European/Mid-East skies.

Helicopters regularly fly over the hotel and head to the city center. We thought that tourists were getting a "birds-eye tour" of the area. This is not the case. Businessmen actually fly into Qatar on private jets and then take a helicopter to a meeting in town. Why drive for 30 minutes when you can fly in five? Not too shabby!

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We noticed that some Moslem women tend to put on too much perfume.

 Moslem men smoke.

Many Moslem families come to this hotel for some R&R - many of which come with nannies. If there is more than one child, each child could have its own nanny. Often, we will see quite a procession of people: the parents and then there are the  caretakers following behind holding a child's hand or pushing a stroller.

Moslem mothers (and nannies) seem to be less attentive to their children as compared to American mothers. The nannies do not engage with the children; rather, the parents just ensure that the nannies gets their charge to the right place on time. In fact, we have seen small children get too close to a pool's edge. Why are we freaking out? It's not our responsibility! 

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We have two butlers - one that supports our villa complex which has about 15 rooms. Then, there is our Macedonia "Vicke" who has befriended us. She wrapped some towels into sort of a sharpie dog-looking thing and also brought in some roses to help decorate the place.

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On our way back to our room one evening, we noticed that room service was delivering fruit plates and some other amenities to some of the guests. We learned that this food was ordered for a "romantic evening." Jerry quickly proclaimed to the room service person:

"We're romantic!"

Thirty minutes later our doorbell rang and an entourage of men brought into our room a bouquet of roses, a large bag of rose pestles to sprinkle on the bed and...

two glasses of watermelon juice and two highly choleric deserts that were - Yummy!

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We are quickly learning that there are very few real Qatari (or whatever they are called) and of those, many actually have passports from other countries. The total Qatari population may be about 270,000 people. However, there are "millions" of immigrants who are here to work.

For instance, there are 500,000 Nepalese. We discovered that most Qatari do not work. Their paid a stipend by the government. They play at night - they sleep during the day. What a life!  Also, this is supposed to be the most expensive city in the world to live.

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 As ambassadors of "goodwill," we had a lengthy and  insightful conversation with the hotel's concierge (A young woman) who happened to be Iranian.  We were able to encourage her to tell us her life's (very) interesting story.

Her name is Yeganeh Seifi. She started out in Iran's hotel management program. There was an opportunity to expand her training in Malaysia. At the last moment, an opportunity surfaced with the opening of an Iranian restaurant in this hotel. Since it was close to her home country, and there was an opportunity for upward mobility, she thought that this would be a better choice.

There was a nasty break-up with her boy friend. At 38, she's  probably lonely. She feels that there is hope for the Iranian people with the lifting of the embargos. However, there has been a significant deterioration of  Iran's infrastructure over the last four years. Iranian people are primarily Zoroastrian. She finds it depressing to see the Moslem leadership show a distain for Persian culture and historical edifices which are being torn apart.

She didn't want to talk too openly about the Qatar government. Immigrants are paid lowly wages ($200-$300/month) and most do not have medical insurance. Still, there are jobs here where there would be no jobs in their home country. The "worker-bees" are "stuck" with two-year contracts.

Yeganeh Modeling at The Hotel

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mid-East Blog # 1

February 25, 2016

There is the classic final exam question on a philosophy test:
The answer?

Friends and family continued to ask us why go to Qatar, Oman and UAE.
The answer?

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We're a little worn out and not quite recovered from an unexpected, intense and lengthy Asian trip. And now, to find ourselves in the Mid-East? The whole situation is a little weird!

Checking in at the Qatar Airlines counter was somewhat surprising. First of all, it was in Terminal 2 rather than Bradley. But more importantly, we were checked in by a woman agent wearing a Moslem scarf. Also, most of the women passengers checking in with us were wearing moderate styled a
abayas. Many of the Qatar counter signage included Arabic. It was quite clear to us that we were not returning to Asia.

A New Experience

Once in the lounge, there were a couple of women wearing full abayas (aka burkas). Also, we encountered another surprise in the lounge. One hour before departure and while both of us were doing some work on our laptops/i-pads, there was a "last call to board the plane" announcement. 

What happened to the first call? It seems that Qatar Airlines wants passengers on board earlier than normal. We learned that most of the passengers are "regulars" and know the drill. Also, the communication system in the lounge doesn't always work.

We rushed to the gate with a handful of other surprised, "first time" passengers.

As we exited the lounge (second floor of the terminal), there was a man kneeling on the floor. He was praying to Mecca. There was only one problem. He was facing the wrong direction. His prayers were headed toward West Los Angeles rather than Orange County which would be somewhat in the direction of Mecca. Oh well...

Our Home For The Next 16 Hours

During our hurried walk to the plane, we started to talk to a mother (wearing a head covering) and her son. We made "friends" (we like to talk to strangers). It turned out that they would sit next to us on the plane. The are Pakistanis and would be returning to their home via Doha. What a great opportunity to learn how people live in such a hostile country as Pakistan. This is what she told us:

·       They live in the south part of Pakistan, near the coast which is "less of a problem area."
·       It appears that she is a "minority" - more like a mid-east Moslem than a Southwest Hindi Indian.
·       Her family (clothing industry) has two homes in SoCal: (Fullerton and Mission Viejo).
·       She has four sons - oldest will be a doctor, the next just enrolled into Duke University.
·       Their Pakistan neighborhood is "upscale" (whatever that means) with neighbors from different parts of the world, ex-pats, etc.
·       In addition to the car that will pick them up at the Pakistani airport, there will be a hired body guard in another car.
·       Many wealthy people are kidnapped. (Body guards are now more of a necessity).
·       Children's lives are "controlled" - they can only go to certain areas and with supervision.
·       Businesses have to pay "protection" money
·       We got the idea that children "grow up fast" and understand the danger that surrounds them even though there is a lot of supervision,
·       The news media exaggerates the situations. However, a terrorist bomb blast killing scores of people still is a bad situation.
·       Malaysians come to Pakistan to work - better jobs, more money, benefits, etc.
·       As in many third world countries, the majority are controlled by the minority.
·       While introducing ourselves, Jerry confirmed that it was not okay to shake her hand. Jerry did a "knuckle bump" with the son (about 10 or 11). Jerry also gave him a PMI Frisbee.
·       She, and her family have learned to "live smart" (if they want to stay alive), "always be on guard" and "live life as best as possible."

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The "Safety Announcements" on the were fantastic. Qatar sponsors world class soccer teams. Famous soccer players were used in the safety messages. Some of the situations were hilarious!

Qatar Airlines was voted # 1 as compared to Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emerits, etc. We're not sure what makes an airline # 1. Perhaps the ranking has more emphasis with what the airlines will do in their hub area rather than in an international setting. Overall, on this flight, we would give the our experience an 8.5 or 9.0/10.

Looking Down At The Rockies

There were some interesting and unique/positive aspects to this flight:

·       Comes with pajamas - one size does NOT fits all

·       Flight graphics (audio-visual system) were very advanced as compared to other airlines.

·       In fact, as we were flying over a particular area, a picture would appear on our TV screen showing what was below us i.e. national park, mountainous terrain, a desert, some "icon" of a particular country, etc. 
A Little Bit of History

Familiar Places!

    There were simulated cockpit shots:

From The Cockpit - getting Closer!

Making A Turn Toward Doha

·       One of our plates was removed/exchanged -  it had a "spec" of something on it.
·       The flight attendants (as much as possible) did their best to ensure that there was a paper seat cover over the toilet seat.
·       Food was good although the flight attendants did not help us understand how to order. We got the entree ahead of the appetizer.
·       Champagne and wines were quite good.
·       The well designed flat bed also gives massages.
·       Bedding (something like a light weight mattress/sheet combination) came with nice blanket.
·       There were scores of movies, music, the internet and other activities to keep the passengers entertained.
·       Not only is a small, wet towel offered at the beginning, throughout and end of the flight, we had a choice of the towel being hot or cold and nicely scented. Nice touch!
·       We could dine at our leisure - there was no prescribed time when business class passengers had to eat

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Sometimes, when we arrive in a new place, there is nothing truly distinctive that indicates where we have landed. It could be any where in the world. Airports are airports.

Doha's airport was quite unique.

First, several large airplanes landed at the same time. At least a thousand passengers would disembark. There were only a handful of passengers that actually went though immigration.  All the others were in transit.

Second, and highly unusual, was that business and first class passengers, after getting off the plane, would go through immigration via a VIP lounge. Food and drink were offered (along with couches and chairs to rest or to wait)  should their be a need. Unreal!!  There were no lines and the immigration folks actually smiled and welcomed us as they checked our passports.

Qatar's Immigration Lounge

The Hamed International Airport is an architectural wonder. It is less than two years old. 

Most incredible was that next to the main terminal was another, almost as large beautiful terminal that was used strictly for the royal family. Well, if money is no object...  

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