City on the Make

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Doha is really on the make. The sound of construction 6 days a week rings over the city. Towers and apartment blocks are changing the face of the city on a monthly basis. The ding of metal on metal, the whirl of cranes and the drills can be heard as a constant over the other constant, traffic.

These towers are completely unlike what Qatar experienced before. Across the city the highest ‘old’ landmarks are a mere 4 storeys high. Below the towers are the wide roads, the odd shopping centre and yet more construction. Cafes exist next to the water (about 200m from my place) but the little have generally made room for the big boys.

Unlike Dubai, construction here is primarily financed by foreign investors and Qatar itself. It doesn’t have the same cowboy casino attitude to property and investment. It has more money than it can deal with but with some common sense, the money is being invested in infra-structure, education and health. The World Cup infrastructure programme is a sign of Qatari forward-thinking. The train network linking the stadiums is being built by a German company. Smartly Qatar bought a 25% stake in the company before awarding the contract. They are essentially paying themselves to do the construction.

Infrastructure is a major success story. The condition of the roads and the basic lack of them tells you much about how Qatar looked 30 years ago. The prevalence of Toyota Land Cruisers is not just as signal of wealth or the wish to escape to the desert but would have been a practical necessity. Qatari guys like their wheels too. In lieu of actually playing sport (more about that later) and drinking (cough, cough), Qatari men spend their time racing around, cruising out to the desert and having barbecues or going fishing. Qatari women can drive but generally get ‘the Indian’ to do it (more about them later too).

All of these impressive facilities provides great opportunities for Qataris but it is a case of putting the cart before the horse. They appear slightly unready to really push themselves. The idea is for Qataris to take up 50% of position within the economy but that’s fantasy land. They are not ready or willing. The drag from previous times creates  great inertia but equally most jobs are labour-intensive or skill-intensive so why bother? Basic computing and arithmetic skills are lacking. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve created email addresses for locals.

Qataris are almost bribed to get into education or take work. Salaries for them are far above the more experienced foreign workers who are mostly from the Asian sub-continent (but not the white engineers) and soon they will lose their position if not their role. It will take another generation before the Qataris are truly ready educationally and psychologically to take over the responsibilities, if ever.

Predictably it is often women who are keener to get educated and broaden their role in society. Qatar is fairly progressive when it comes to women. They do appear occasionally without a headscarf, they do drive and play a major role in education and health policy. The second wife of the Emir, Shieka Moza is a prominent figure in the country, pushing women’s opportunities and roles in society mostly in education as well as making speeches at various international conferences. She is older Grace Kelly of the region! (More about society later)

Anyway, it’s a sunny day as near always. I’m going out for a bit of sun.

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Dan’s Awards 2012

DSCF7883Person of the Year

Gabriel Almonacid for being a great mate in Colombia providing me with a bed, a guide in Bogota and the ‘nearby’ old towns and staying with his great family in Armenia. I even heard he and Claudia tried to call me the other night!

Comeback of the Year

Christine Leclerc. After living together for a year many years ago, I can say I have missed that big laugh and smiley face a lot.

DSCF1214Newcomer of the Year

Jan Thomas Ødegaard, the slightly eccentric Norwegian gets the nod.

My Christ Its Been a Long Time

Bobbi Coombs met me at the airport in Winnipeg after not seeing each other for about 3500 days (aka 9.5 years) and then had me to stay for a few days. We ate Easter dinner with her family, watched hockey together and I got well and truly plastered with her brother Doug.

DSCF8918Meal of the Year

Eating the freshly-caught fish in Colombia with Jenni and Kati.

Sushi with Ronnie and Debs in Ontario

Tapas and red wine with Gabrielle in Bilbao.

What the hell happened Last Night drunk night

3. The Sarajevo dancing night.

2. Post presentation with Oli Bigland in Oxford

1. Waking up in the morning in a Ukrainian mental hospital. I still don’t know what happened.

PANO_20120516_183803Sight of the Year

Kotor in Montenegro blew me away. Waking up in our house in Salento in Colombia. The sight of Venice from the train station. Its everything you’ve heard about.

Random Moment Award

Jumping off the NY subway to be with Bora.

The house gig with Em in Bavaria

Cultural Event of the Year

Taking part in the La Merce festival in Barcelona with Ilo. Fireworks, burns and dancing masks.

DSC_0392-1Sports event of the Year

Big year for games. I saw maybe 10 and 5 or 6 were football derbies, the Yankees and the Knicks play in New York but it has to go to the Belgrade derby. Red Star against Partizan Belgrade.

Films of the Year

Moonrise Kingdom or Cloud Atlas

Favourite album of the year

Japandroids

Moment of Violence Moment

Getting chased and hit with a truncheon by a rabid Bosnian policeman before the Sarajevo derby was pretty exciting.

Bar of the Year

Tijuana bar in Belgrade, the night of the French music with Mirjana and Jan.

Hospital Bar in Kiev with the flaming helmet

Scariest moment of the Year

Seeing Emmi somersault off her bike and land on her head in Bavaria. Luckily she was wearing a helmet and only broke two neck vertebrates.

Big Balls Moment

Heading back in a taxi from the beach with Jenni and Marioka in Santa Cruz, Colombia, we saw a neighbourhood street party. We changed in the hostel and walked there. the police were outside telling us not to go in as it was a cartel party. We looked at each other and walked over. After some drinks and flour thrown over us, we ended drinking the local firewater outside the convenience store with some truckers until the early hours.

Standing up to another huge, sneering policeman before the Sarajevo derby was fairly scary.

Would I do it all again?

Hell yeah. I’d like to thank everyone for helping me along the way 🙂

Muscat

PANO_20130201_172821In all my travelling days, I’ve rarely been more excited about a trip and then satisfied by it. Muscat was as fantastic as they say.

From hearing at the airport that I didn’t need to pay for a short-term visa by the flat, turban-wearing immigration to being greeted by Ajit at his flat with a beer, I knew I’d be happy here. I applied to work in Muscat a few years ago on a whim after seeing an advertisement. I never really followed it up. I should have.

IMG_20130201_150037Muscat is essentially three towns strung along the coast making it a long city. The reason for the trio is clear enough as I hailed a shared minibus from the Grand Mosque area to Ruwi, the Indian business area and the middle town. The tree-lined highways have wide grassed central reservations than curl between huge rocky outcrops that divide up the towns. Or huge sand dunes with young Omanis surfing down. No building can be higher than 6 storeys and can be only certain light colours giving the city a colonial-era feel.

shot_1359730800163The first day I took the minibuses through Ruwi to Murat, the corniche area and then walked around the numerous small bays to Old Muscat. The pavement was accompanied by grassy verges and beds of flowers. Curious, nautical statues dedicated to the sea marked the route. Old Muscat is littered with trees and grand government building but above it all, on every outcrop sits a fort built to ward off invaders from inland and as a look-out to sea. Being Friday it was very peaceful. That afternoon I ate Omani bread with honey and cream and drank some beers with Ajit. We ended up in an Indian dance bar, a weird, weird place about which I talk about more later.

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The next day I went to the Grand Mosque, the third largest in the world and again a model of restrain from the outside. Being only 8 years old and tended to by a legions of cleaners, it looks immaculate. I caught another minibus into the centre and searched out the souq which as usual is just a tourist trap selling the usual trinkets and crap. The colonial merchant houses on the promenade give clues to the trading history of the city.

IMG_20130202_123852That night I took in more beers with Ajit and swapped travelling stories. I talk of him as an old friend when in fact I was couchsurfing there. But he made the stay so comfortable from the off and had enough stories himself from his days as a surgeon in the Indian Army, I did feel like I’d known him for a while. The last day I met another couchsurfer Qu who showed me round some of the old ruins on the outskirts of the city. I am not sure how good company I was. My head ached from the booze but it was insightful.

Ajit gave me a lift to the airport late that afternoon and I flew back in for work the next day. The old Middle East of Baghdad and Samarkland, Persia and Muscat never seemed so real as those few days in Oman. The grandness of the views are awe-inspiring. I’ll be back for sure and will be trying for at least two of the three above this year. Another adventure begins.

Beach Football World Cup Qualifiers

2013-01-22 09-25-37-063I went to the WC beach football qualifiers here last week. Beach football is usually garbage but being sat with 200 Afghans as they trashed Qatar 7-3 with their goalkeeper making a string of fantastic saves and then scoring on the counterattack was brilliant. The Afghans who do the poorest jobs were great fun. They were smiling, had drums and danced and cheered. Plus if you know anything about Afghanistan, you’ll know how diverse they are ethnically and that really showed in the crowd.

The previous game brought out the local Thais and Japanese as their nations dueled to a 4-1 Japanese win. The Japanese are good at this, twice winners in the past but this time their hopes seems to rest on the 6-4 African guy who played at the back! The Qataris themselves were embarrassing in their lack of support for their team.

IMG_20130126_215410_0I went back with friends here for the finals. The UAE controversially beat Australia (who scored an equaliser a  second after the final whistle). The UAE spent a significant amount of their time rolling around on the sand too. The final brought together Japan and Iran and its fairly raucous fans. Iran used their size advantage to bully the Japanese but simply couldn’t get past the best player in the tournament, a lanky, black ‘Japanese’ guy called Ozu. Japan led throughout until the last few minutes when Iran scored 3 quick goals to equal it up. It went to penalties and Iran kept their nerve. The best team beat the best player who tired after leading the whole team and never being subbed.

The top 3 team went through to the World Cup beach football tournament in……Taihiti. I am in the wrong business. Great nights of football and cultural experiences.

Mama No Lie

PANO_20120518_090156After seeing the glorious sunshine and coastline of Croatia/Montenegro, I felt I had no choice but to jump off the bus at Dubrovnik. Jan and Michaela didn’t want to stay that night for different reasons but continued to move on to Mostar. I’d been there before yet my last trip to Dubrovnik was too short-lived to justify it.

As I stepped off the bus I was greeted by a group of middle-aged women haggling for our money via their rented accommodation. A squat, old lady stood out. She quoted a price. I, at the time, had no idea of the exchange rate. Jan informed me it was barely 10 pounds so I took it. Other hagglers among the throng snatched out it was far from the old town but I took a punt on my old woman.

She explained on the bus to the flat she was Italian with two sons but only had poco english. Her husband  was called Bruno. I liked that. She knew everyone on the bus. She was no great vocabularist but was certainly able to confirm the same information over and over again. I have never said ok so much in my life.

I would say she was generous in her 10minute estimate to the old city. 15-20 would be more accurate. The apartment however had a sea view. She showed me round, the bathroom, kitchen and two rooms. Mama No Lie, see. I liked this place. The view confirmed Dubrovnik’s magnificent position.

I got up early to avoid the hordes of tourists, shuffling due to age and standing with confused attention as the guide talks. All walled cities are labyrinthine and Dubrovnik is one of the great surviving examples, with its smooth stone leading down lanes which are never straight. Like Kotor, it is a living city rather than a museum. Though again like Kotor, it would benefit from having some signs on the walls to highlight its history.

IMG_20120518_094722After Dubrovnik, (Mama blew me a kiss as I left) I headed north to Split and home. Its difficult to understate the beauty of the coastline. Jan met me there along with Jeremy. We wandered around the seafront, took pictures and drank a few beers. Croats are less open than their neighbours. There seems a more internalised nature to them. Split is the gateway to the island tours, advertised either as majestic or an opportunity to get shitfaced on a boat. I didn’t have time or the inclination to take part.

It was time to go home. On a trip that took me from Colombia to Canada, the US, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Croatia, I’d seen a lot, made plenty of friends, re-met some of my favourite people, rode horses, cycled the Alps, seen coffee production first hand in Colombia, witnessed an Italian Easter in Canada, attended the Belgrade and Sarajevo derbies, saw the Yankees and the Knicks and ice hockey in Canada It was time. I returned happy, bewildered and tired. It’s been a long road…

Montenegro Wonderland

The first time I used the term wonderland I was on the very early morning train into Slovenia from Austria three years ago. I stood staring out the window, the crispy morning air rushing in as we cut through the valleys and past the small, sleeping town towards Ljubljana. The later sights of Maribo, fields of wheat and Lake Bled merely confirmed Slovenia was a lovely looking place.

DSCF0760The same term could be applied again 3 years later as we took the bus from Sarajevo to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The sudden snow in Bosnia, after days of plus 30C, dumped snow on the early roads heading out through the national parks of the north (home to the best rafting in Europe) to the open fields of the centre and the blue water of the coast.

After days in Sarajevo, Jan and I decided to leave the town and the country, knowing we’d be returning for the next weekend. In the hostel we met some newcomers, Julio and Michaela who’d just got in. Their plans were to stay in Sarajevo but after some quick chat and beer from the Dan and Jan show, Michaela convinced Julio to come along with us. We had a travel team. The wilted and hungover pulse lifted.

DSCF0846We got to coastal resort of Budva late, around 10pm and then proceeded to get lost finding the hostel. Jan, dressed in total black climbed the gates of someone’s house only to be confronted by a neighbour wielding a stick who quickly gave us directions to the hostel. You can’t hit a face like Jan’s. The Montenegro Freedom hostel was a classic, run by two guys, generous, smiley and chatty, they booked us in and then made the best breakfast of the whole trip, cheese and ham toasties with fresh fruit and tea. Nomnom.

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We spent the days going up and down the coast. Montenegro is tiny, nestled on the Adriatic between the old world sophistication of Dubrovnik and the old world, managed-chaos of Albania. The coast is stunning and littered with ancient forts, steep mountains, hidden bays and old, labyrinth towns. We went round Budva’s old town, to Sveti Stefan and then onto Kotor in one day. Kotor stopped me dead. I knew I had to come back to stay.

DSCF0882Julio lacked the time but the remaining three stayed over in a hostel in Kotor old town, climbed up to the fortress for some amazing views and walked around the bay trying to take pictures without the cruise liner which parked itself in the bay. It was like a tank on your front lawn. The hostel owner also turned out to be a nationalist who seemed to despise the Bosnian Muslims (only the Muslims care about the bridge in Mostar. I spit off it. Its only 5 metres). But that took little away from Kotor, a real gem town, smaller than Dubronvik but with tighter streets and knock-out views from the fortress at the top.

I’ll be back Montenegro and not just to throw that tosser off the roof.

The Bucket Wash

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Travelling in Sri Lanka has re-introduced me to the an old travellers institution, the necessity to wash yourself, like billions of others in the world, from a bucket. You have a a ladle or a small bowl, a large tap-filled bucket, an acceptance this is gonna be cold on your crown jewels and a humility that this regression is fine. I try to think of it as that shower you have before diving into the pool. On the negative, you are naked. Then again, no one is watching. Showering like this is barely effective for a newbie like me. But the bigger issue is this is normal for many parts of the world, worse due to the lack of tapped water requires walking for miles to fetch it or going to the river to bath. (Naturally once Myo turned up we had to find a better place!)

I’ve helped out at Water Aid and consulted with them on their research. At Nottingham Dena and I went to see some presentations and films on the subject, The World Water Council, the unoffical water board for the world is in fact a sham organisation run by the French for the benefit of water companies. Its about as effective as the International Whaling Commission which is corrupted by the Japanese. So much so Laos is a member at the invitation of Japan. After they must have a lot of whales in such a  land-locked country.

Access to clean water is considered a human right. Our use of bottled water sold to us by Coca-Cola is a remarkable waste of drinking water. In hindsight so were my ridiculously long showers at Uni or in Korea where I’d run the shower and then have a naked chat with Christine about what drunken shenanigans we got up to last night. All the while Christine hid under the duvet. Abroad foreigners insist of bottled water even when their food and the plates they eat off are washed in local water. My advice is get the bug early and let your guts remedy it and move on. I’ve had four poisoning four times over the years (Brazil, Bolivia, Morocco and Colombia) and the next day, after some water I feel fine. Once we get over our preciousness and remember how we bathed as kids, or chewed plastic and stayed out until bed time out of sight from home, then we’ll relax. A bit of cold water down there is apparently good for circulation they say.