Trip to Doha, Qatar, Day 1
I sat down for roll call with my coffee and danish. We were given a safety briefing and inspected to check that we had followed the dress code. We, and particularly the women, had to have on long pants, and couldn't wear anything indicating our U.S. or military affiliation. The idea was to keep us from drawing attention to ourselves. (As if the blond buzz cuts didn't make us stand out!) We were told never to take pictures of women and to ask before photographing a man.
With the inspection over we moved out, driving to Doha. I made friends with some other service members on pass from Camp Bucca, Iraq. We talked about our backgrounds and where we were stationed in theater, the usual introductory conversation. Before long we were stopped at our first market. It was stocked with fruits and vegetables, much like farmers' markets in the U.S.
For the first time, I had the pleasure of interacting with the indigenous population directly. At a fruit stand, I haggled over a mango and a pomegranate. My wallet was flush with Qatari Riyals -- exchanged at the rare of 3.64 Riyals per dollar. I tried to negotiate with the vendor in Riyals, but he wanted to talk dollars. Dollars was easy enough. I walked away with my fruit, and he with his dollars. At the next few shops I attempted to purchase small items, bargaining in Riyals only to have the shopkeepers again ask for dollars.
We made our way to fabric shops where traditional Muslim attire could be purchased. An Iranian vendor quickly catch the attention of my new friends. He sat each of us down and proceeded to speak broken English while he fit us with traditional Muslim male headdresses. Many in the group purchased the attire, but I passed. While they paid for their souvenirs, I ventured to a few shops down the way. I wanted to see as much as possible in the time allotted, but I felt shouldn't be out of earshot of the group. I felt uncomfortable wandering too far from familiar faces in such a place so foreign. I returned to the group, at a firm gait, and we all joked about my fear. But clearly I was not the only one who thought we should stick together.
After we shopped at the local markets, we wen to downtown Doha. The city is pretty, on the water with grass and high-rises. Doha's buildings are numerous and no cost is spared in their design. Tens of buildings rise higher than 50 stories, many with ornate designs different from the dull, boxy, concrete office buildings of Washington, D.C. At least 30 skyscrapers of similar architectural extravagance were under construction. No city I've ever visited had this much building occurring at once.
We stopped for a traditional lunch and ate while looking out over the clear blue water of the city harbor. I sampled every entree offered. Most items were mildly spiced and served over rice. Chicken, and beef kabobs and whole fried fish filled my plate, and for desert we had a pudding-type dish, super-sweet, yellow in color, but not smooth. Lunch was more than I expected, especially for the price.
Our next stop was the City Center Mall, much like shopping malls of the U.S. On our way there, we saw five or six buildings displaying huge billboards hearalding the coming 2006 Asia Games, with Orry, a Qatari Oryx, the mascot.
Once at the mall we found several U.S. franchises in the food court, including Applebee's and Dunkin' Donuts. Of course, the mall housed two Starbucks, one at either end. Retail stores included Addidas, Quicksilver, French Connection, and Hallmark. The mall was in a race to be the biggest and best: It had built an open-air ice-skating rink and a small indoor amusement park. The biggest store in the mall, a retail store with groceries and electronics, rivaled Target. Most of us were contented to go into the stores just to see what was for sale. I forgot about the amenities offered for sale in the West.
Time came for us to return to Camp As Sayliyah. Back on post, I dragged myself to the bar, once again meeting a fellow soldier from the 224th, to consume three beers and play some darts. As soon as I finished my last beer I called it a day and looked forward to sleeping in the following morning.
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