Friday, 28 June 2013

24 hours in Bahrain

With my Dad's 70th birthday half way through my contract in Doha, I decided to take a few days to fly back to the UK to surprise him.  However, what I didn't realise is that my efforts to surprise my Dad, would turn into a nice surprise weekend break in Bahrain for me!... here is what unfolded ... 

After leaving Doha last night on what should be a 9 hour flight, I am sitting in a hotel in Bahrain, waiting for our BA crew to get enough sleep so that we can continue on to London.... yes that does sound a bit bizarre but true!  After a smooth enough take-off from Doha at 11.25pm, we landed in Bahrain last night at 1200 midnight - we'd had terrible turbulence and a dreadful landing with lots of bangs and things falling out of overhead cabins, it was so rough!  I'm usually a very relaxed flyer but even my feathers were a little ruffled when I saw the cabin crew hurrying up and down the isles looking very stressed and concerned.

The plane was stopping at Bahrain on the way to London to drop off and pick up passengers.  We sat waiting for people to get on and I was chatting away to a lovely group of Canadians, some for whom this was their first trip to the Middle East.  One hour turned to two and then the Captain told us there had been hydraulic failure and they were trying to fix it.  What they didnt tell us at that point, was that the failure had taen place in the air before landing, which is why the landing had been so tricky.  

An hour later - the Captain announced that it would take much longer to fix and we would need to disembark while they de-powered the plan to get it sorted.  Another hour in the airport (a quirkly little airport with some interesting tourist exhibits), they said the plane was beyond quick repair and we would not be going anywhere until tomorrow and they would put us up in a hotel. 

It seemed the high level migration plan was in place - nice hotel lined up etc etc, but the detailed migration plan left much to be desired - no one on hand to tell us where to go, no directions, no information about baggage, etc.  After some very loud shouty shouty in very angry Arabic by one particular individual, while the rest of us remained stoically stiff upper lipped about the whole thing and just happy to be alive, we were sent to the immigration area - where there were no officials to check us through!

After half an hour, a member of the Village People turned up to shout - "where are your landing cards?" there was even more shouty shouty while the crafty ones, me included felt a 'go with the flow - do what the man say' approach was probably for the best.  

It was a bit like a scene out of 'Its a Knockout'- where people suddenly raced to the little landing card booth, grabbed a card, searched in their bag for a pen, tried to find a flat surface on which to lean (lots of competition for those) and then who could fill it out the quickest and get to the front of the line?

We had been told the Regency Hotel would send a bus with 30 spaces - for 160 people - and the hotel was around a 20 min drive from the airport - so you could see people "doing the maths" !  Now, here is where I win the prize - i never travel with checked baggage and on this occasion, I was the only one.  By the time, they'd all got through with their bags, I'd already spoken to the hotel , located the bus driver and told him he should probably start lining up taxis so he didn't have a screaming mob standing at arrivals wanting to kill him.  This he duly did, clearly acknowledging my authority... obviously!.. and I got into taxi no. 1.  

 The taxis then raced through Bahrain, clearly inspired by the recent Grand Prix - I was in a hideously top heavy London cabesque taxi which the driver delighted in taking around very sharp bends at very high speed.... and his air con wasn't working ! ;-) 

But my cunning plan worked because I arrived right at the front of the queue to be met by the most hideously bureacratic check in process known to man.  Signing forms for the hotel room, meals, transport, scanning of passports, filling in name and room number on another sheet "doh!"... 

As I stood there, I could sense the line behind me growing - and joked with the other lucky ones at the front that we would emerge the next morning and see them still standing in a line, checking in just in time to be collected for our flight the next day!!! 

So eventually, after a badly managed decant of 160 tired and emotional passengers (and yes, I was going through all of the things they could have done better - simple things like stationing staff at each key point of the process to explain face-to-face.... blah blah blah, giving us meal vouchers etc etc etc) we were finally looking at getting some rest in a really really nice hotel..... and it was now 5am.    

I asked about breakfast "oh yes, you get free breakfast" - what time? "6am ..." :-) so funny.  "Not only that ma'am, you will get free lunch and free dinner tomorrow evening!....... ah, OK, so we're not leaving in any hurry then!!  This is because, not only would the crew need a certain number of hours rest, but we then hit up against the overnight Heathrow flight ban which means the earliest flights can land is 6am.  So this would mean a take off very late the following night at the earliest. 

Rather than get upset about it, I made the most of the time, writing an assignment for my OU course, which was due in the following day, eating lost of fabulous free food and popping out to the nearby Souq after dark..... which sadly had real difficult competing with the marvellous Souq Waqif in Doha, the King of Souqs!   

I did eventually get to see my Dad and was in time to surprise him for his birthday - it was a lovely couple of days with my whole family, which I'll remember forever..... plus I got the added bonus of a mini Middle Eastern getaway in the bargain!!!

As my dear colleague at Al Jazeera told me "Keep smiling, this is God's choice".... if he also chose the hotel, I must congratulate him, it was excellent - if you're ever in Bahrain, stay at the Regency Intercontinental !!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The secrets of the Souk

Ive been in Doha now for two months and I feel myself falling under its spell, largely down to my weekly trips to Souk Waqif, a place so full of atmosphere and life, where tourists and locals stroll the cobbled alleyways, and maze of tunnels to buy anything from camel key rings to carpets, slippers to swords fact pretty much anything you can think of...... even, sadly, live animals and birds.  It's not just a tourist attraction, locals too buy all sorts here.... cooking pots, spices, nuts, dates, fabric, clothing, blankets etc etc..... I could go on!

Despite what the photos suggest, this incarnation of the Souk has only been in existence for a few years.  It was the site of the original Souk when Doha was a small village and the Bedouin would bring their products such as camel's milk and dates to trade.  In 2004, the Sheik decided to restore the area to its former glory and they did such a good job, it really does feel like stepping back in time.

The most wonderful area for me is the spice market - a labyrinth of
little shops selling every aromatic herb and spice you could wish for.  If only this were a scratch and sniff blog!  Imagine a soft warm blanket of coriander enveloping your senses as it bakes in the heat of the sun, waiting for the pigeons to feast.

Proving that this isn't just a place for tourists, the restaurants and cafes are heaving with locals, dining on dishes from around the middle east and other parts of the world.  Kebabs, tajine, humus and babba ganoush, followed by a relaxing puff on a shisha pipe while watching the rest of the world go by.

For me, though, the best thing about the Souk is Thursday and Friday nights...... live music every weekend.  Frame drumming and tablas setting the most incredible and complex beats to get the audience of 99.9% men - most in dishdashas (or thawbs) - up on their feet to dance......... and dance they do!!

What I love most about the atmosphere is that it is not drug or drink fuelled (neither are allowed here).  They just know how to have a good time, without any leud behaviour, drunken brawling or any kind of  aggravation with one another.   They hang out with their friends, and get along with people of all nationalities together - Qatari of course, Lebanese, Yemeni, Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian etc ....and the odd westerner, although I have to say, they are few and far between in amongst the I like to call them....... Soak up the atmosphere!

I go along and stand in amongst them watching and listening to the music.  It starts around 8ish and goes on until 1130pm.  It is usually around the mid-way break that the real party starts, when the local guys start dancing together at the back - always in the same spot.

There are a few different styles - they told me they were traditional Yemeni dances.  It usually starts with 3 or 4 of them dancing in sync and then others join until there is a group of around 11 or 12 and sometimes more.  Witness the dishydashas in action !

Having been for the last few weeks, watching from the side-lines, generally swaying along, encouraging.... and videoing them! ...... last night, I was pulled in to dance by one of dishydashas.  It is clearly unusual for a woman, not to mention a western one, to join in with their dancing and no sooner had I started my tentative steps into joining their troupe, but I suddenly had a tight circle of guys around me clapping and whooping.....and videoing me!   It felt like an acceptance ritual - Ive seen the same guys down there dancing most weekends and one or two who know a bit of English have talked to me a little..... but this time, there I was dancing alongside them.

When the dance was over, they all gave me a group hug.... and the funny thing was that it didnt feel in the least bit threatening.   I feel safer here as a woman out on my own, than I would walking down a typical British suburban high street on a Friday night.  Of course, I know there are many reasons for that, too many to delve into here, but for now I'm just soaking up the atmosphere, the warmth, and the beat of my new home.