Nairobi to Doha, the Long Way Around

Monday, September 2, 2013 | Doha, Qatar

So close, yet so far: Migrant workers take in downtown Doha from across the harbor.
Thanks to a reservation glitch at the Tribe Hotel in Nairobi—and a pleasantly accommodating reception clerk—Rebecca and I spent the final days of our vacation in the hotel's two-story, no-expenses-spared Penthouse suite. And just think, only a few hours before arriving there we had been traipsing through donkey droppings in Lamu!

Lacking mega-malls back in our respective homes, we spent much of our time in Nairobi stocking up on housewares and other amenities at the nearby Village Market mall, a gleaming monument to Kenya's massive income gap.

On our final morning, we packed our bags, had breakfast, and were preparing to head to the airport when a friend texted Rebecca: "Nairobi airport is on fire." We switched on the TV and, sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta International, East Africa's principal transport hub and our way home, was en fuego as promised. Eventually we would learn that a perfect storm of poor maintenance, staff incompetence, and management's decisions to forego forego necessary safety equipment and training had all contributed to the blaze—which embarrassingly took place during Kenya's National Fire Safety Week.

But whatever its causes, that day the fire forced Rebecca and I to make a hasty goodbye so that I could hop on a bus to Arusha, Tanzania, where the plane that was to take me home via Doha was apparently grounded. And that is how I found myself on a ten-hour bus ride, rattling through the darkened savannah (as only a Tanzanian mini-bus on a Tanzanian road can rattle) long into the night with six elderly Indian vacationers, five Nepali conference-goers, two disapproving Norwegians, one cranky Saudi businessman, a Tanzanian nun, and one sad Indian man who just wanted to join his family in Chicago for their long-awaited vacation.

Many, many hours later, when we finally reached Doha, I and the Chicago-bound Indian, whose name was Naidu, had missed our connections, and were faced with an unexpected free day in Doha. Sadly, it fell on the Eid el-Fitr holiday, when none of Doha's art museums or few other attractions were open, so Naidu and I spent the day getting to know each other at our transit hotel's restaurant.

At night, Doha's sweltering heat finally dulled somewhat. Though exhausted from two weeks of nonstop travel (and now in my sixth country on this short trip!) I figured I might as well take a look around as long as I was here, and set off to explore.

I had most often heard they city described by one friend who had lived here as "dull-as-dogshit-Doha", but I found it interesting enough to occupy me for a few hours' walk around. Compared to the sub-Saharan countries from which I'd just come—and even oil-rich Algeria—the signs of wealth in Doha seemed to be all around: Range Rovers, clean streets, a horizon full of skyscrapers, fancy dhows on the waterfront, and more. There was hardly a woman to be seen on the streets. Just young South Asian workers and the occasional thobe-clad Qatari. At the hip Souq Waqif center, however, the local elites were out in abundance, eating mezzeh and smoking arguilehs at the many restaurants dressed up with Orientalist names (like Layali Al-Qahira ("Cairo Nights"), Beirut Restaurant, etc.) Severed from their own cultural roots by an instantaneous explosion of wealth, perhaps Qataris find Middle Eastern culture just as exotic and fascinating as Westerners do?

As usual, my vacation had proved utterly exhausting—just the way I like it. Next, back "home" to Algiers.


Ismael Saifan said...

Just discovered your blog. Great work. Your open mindedness motivates me.

Ibn Ibn Battuta said...

Thank you, Ismael! It's always a pleasure to hear when a reader appreciates my stories! I hope you keep reading.


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