Diamond in the Rough, Doha, Qatar
The sun was long gone as Justin and I sat on a pier looking out onto the Doha skyline. There were four or five fishermen to our left, and a couple dressed in thobe and burka to our right. The weather felt like a breezy 75, though it would seem living in the Middle East had somewhat tainted our perception of heat. The real temperature hovered somewhere around 90, and it was perfect.
A 25 minute flight had landed us in Qatar Thursday night, with just two days time to explore country #30. As it turned out, 48 hours was just the right amount. We booked two nights at the Movenpick in the diplomatic district, and managed a suite upgrade thanks to our amazing friend Sumaya. We pondered the pillow menu left for our convenience and wondered how we would survive a weekend holiday in an alcohol-free country.
Sleep came easy given our posh pillow selection, and we climbed from bed only when our need for coffee could be ignored no more. We sipped lattes and shared banana bread at a corner cafe in the Doha city center. Sometime before noon, the call to prayer overcame the usual chatter and we watched as every shop, grocery store and restaurant closed its doors for the hour. Unsure of what to do with ourselves, we wandered to the bus stop where a perfect stranger invited us to share a taxi downtown. The drive was 20 minutes, and cost just 10 Qatari Riyal ($3). We were dropped at Souq Waqif near Al Rayyan Road.
A Middle Eastern souq is something to be experienced; a market tradition that seems to vary depending on country, each having its own flavor and draw. Muttrah Souq in Muscat, Oman is a personal favorite. Souq Waqif had something old, something new. Shisha lounges and perfume stalls; tailors, kittens and jewelers; pashminas, slippers and henna; barrels of sweets and rolled carpet. The architecture was brand new, but built to look old. In Waqif, the Middle East market was alive and well; despite its outdoor cafes stocked with American cuisine and English speaking baristas. It may have been missing the messy, chaotic charm of a genuinely old souq, but I was okay with that.
We bartered for an Arabian brass teapot and tiny treasure chest. I was even feeling brave enough to be fitted for a burka. We stopped for mint shisha at Cafe Tasse, an outdoor restaurant that won us over for coffee, dinner and dessert. We sampled fresh honey and bought cooked rice on the street (10 Riyal). We ate, and ate. We stuffed ourselves until we began to understand the meaning behind the so-called "Doha dozen".
We walked it off on the Corniche, the city's waterfront promenade winding around Doha bay. We would have taken a taxi after the first two miles, but traffic was in gridlock and we seemed to be making more progress on foot. If there was a downside to Doha, it was the endless construction and ever-present detours. The city was recently chosen to host the World Cup 2022 and has since taken up massive projects to include a city metro, a museum of art, a stadium and various residential high-rise structures. Katara was one such newly constructed, art-inspired village. We spent an afternoon wandering its photo galleries, photographing panoramas of impressive architectural design, waving down complimentary golf cart chauffeurs and wishing we had eaten at the Red Velvet Cupcakery.
Camped out on the floor of the British Airways terminal, we pounded trail mix and tried desperately to charge our U.S. and Euro volt electronics. Qatar was my fifth GCC country, and to say it might compare to Oman or the Emirates would be a stretch. At least not yet. Qatar is a work in progress. Doha is a diamond in the rough.