Saturday, November 21, 2009

Brown remembered hills

"Mr Goat, you used to live in Doha, didn't you?"

"Yes, but why do you suddenly ask, right out of the blue, Mr Boss?"

"We need someone to go for a couple of days. It's urgent, it's at the drop of a hat, and you have been selected from a host of applicant."

And so it was on Tuesday morning when the alarm went off at an appallingly uncivilised 04:30. I have long regarded the alarm clock springing into action when the hour hand is on the right-hand side of the clock face as being a violation of the natural order of things. I mean, it was still as dark outside as when I went to bed. But such early starts are a necessary evil when the budget airline Fly Dubai is going to leave DXB Terminal 2 at half past seven.

Beloved wife kindly dropped me off at the airport, and with no fuss at all I was in Doha, having apparently taken no time at all. The aircraft disgorged its two hundred or so business executives into the waiting bus, and we all spent the next 20 minutes trundling around the perimeter of Doha International Airport. I've heard it said that DOH has one of the longest runways in the world; such a pity that the bus driver didn't take the shorter route.

As usual it was Karma Sutra Passport Control. Sixteen positions, but only a couple of them actually worked. A further half an hour later - and I was in the first dozen in the queue - I escaped and found my lift. The driver had grown a beard and turned grey while waiting but hadn't actually died of old age.

What I was doing in Doha involved driving all over town, and this was the reason why I'd been picked. Someone who'd lived there for several years might easily find his way around without becoming horribly lost.

Best-laid plans, unfortunately. Since my previous visit in 2006 there has been a lot of construction, some major roads are completely upgraded, and other major interchanges are under construction. In keeping with normal custom and practice, the traffic management for junctions under construction is to block all approaches and provide "Road Closed. U-Turn Only" signs. How helpful.

Rumours exist concerning the reason why construction of three major interchanges in Doha has stopped. In brief, the rumour goes something like this: The Contractor wishes to be paid for the work he's done, and the Client (who indirectly has dollar bills pouring uncontrolled out of the Ras Laffan gas pipes) promises to pay once the work has been done. The Contractor has previously learned that statements to that effect are so much horse-hockey, and the result is a stalemate. Eventually of course, another Contractor will have to be appointed at much-increased cost in order to get the work finished. But as this new incumbent won't be paid either, then the Client will be able to keep his cash.

I was amazed to discover the extent of new building work in Doha. And how the Aladdin's Kingdom has been demolished - although the road signs pointing to it are still in place. So I never did get to ride on that roller coaster after all.

I noted how little some things have changed since my initial departure back in 2002. Side roads in residential areas still haven't seen any maintenance (no international media coverage of the grotty back streets, so it's not worth spending anything), soft landscaping of some schemes completed in 2003 or earlier remain unfinished, although others have been planted and watered so that they've become rainforests. The prestigious and high-profile Aspire Park is of course surrounded by manicured lawn. Overall however, Doha is dusty and brown, brown, brown.

The local driving style is still slower than in Dubai, but this is compensated for by the complete enthusiasm for filling every available square inch of asphalt, breakdown lane and verge. I was hooted at with full New York Nanosecond tolerance by drivers of Land Cruisers, Totota Echos, Mitsubishi pickups and trucks. Being regaled in this way might have been understandable if I'd failed to accelerate smartly from a green light, but this was while travelling along the highway slow lane at the speed limit!

On one memorable occasion I was physically forced off the road on to the gravel verge by a small white pickup. Poised ready to remonstrate, it was startling to discover that the idiot delivery driver was in fact two uniformed Qatari police officers, neither of whom looked old enough to shave.

I had two long days of this sort of thing. At least I got to meet up with some old friends on Tuesday night for a beer or six before getting a lift (I don't drink and drive) back to the villa where I was staying overnight, way oop north near Umm S'lal Mohammed. The newly-finished villa was the last word in incompetent construction, with most lights not working upstairs, wall-banger aircons throughout except in the lounge where a split unit included hideous trunking all across one of the walls, leaky plumbing and wacky light switches. Why do they put the switches behind doors next to hinges? Why doesn't the carpenter simply hang the door the other way around? What's wrong with actually using that dormant organ between your ears?

On which subject, I failed to adjust the clock on my phone, which resulted in a 5am start on Wednesday rather than the marginally less unacceptable 6am.

The flight back to Dubai was uneventful. Unfortunately I got a "Maximum stay 30 days" stamp put in my passport despite my having presented it open at the UAE residence visa page. Somehow this then became my fault, as I queued behind half the population of Bangladesh in Terminal 2 until the Big Boss unlocked his safe and got hold of a red "Cancelled" stamp to put over the "30-days" bit.

So I got home at 2am on Thursday, was back in the office five hours later, and now one weekend after that I remain desperate for sleep.

Oh, blessed Morpheus...z.z.z.z.zzzz.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Beloved Wife and I spotted this last weekend. The only clouds in the sky were over Business Bay, and Dubaisengard - the tallest free-standing structure on the planet until someone builds a bigger one - wasn't so much scraping the sky as piercing it.

Apologies for the quality of the image. I was driving, and the only available camera was attached to an ancient Nokia steam-powered telephone.

Before anyone asks, the phone cam was wielded by Beloved Wife from her vantage point in the Goatmobile's passenger seat.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Death and taxes

These two things are certain, according to Daniel Defoe (1726) and Benjamin Franklin (1789). Well, putting death aside for the time being, I was somewhat irritated to encounter taxes on Monday.

In my previous blog I passed a comment that my motorbike was too quiet. The sewing-machine impression afforded by stock engine and exhaust lacks Presence, so I needed to do something about it. I canvassed opinion on a motorcycle forum and decided that several brands would be offensively loud and were rejected on that basis. "Which one is quietest?" was my fundamental question. What I have ended up with is a new stainless steel and carbon-fibre system that has been developed to maximise power without shaking every window in Mirdif or rattling the fillings out of the teeth of slugabeds when I set off in the early mornings.

I ordered the system from Area-P in California and it was duly despatched last Wednesday, courtesy of the United States Postal Service. Despite allegations that "The U.S. Post Service was established in 1775. You have had 234 years to get it right and it is broke", the USPS managed to contrive to get my package to Sharjah by Monday morning. And the Emirates Postal Service got it into my hand by 5pm that same day.

I had to go to the Post Office to collect it, of course. After signing for the package, it was x-rayed and then opened - presumably to confirm that the x-ray machine wasn't lying - and at that point I was invited to pay import duty.

I was ready for this: 5% tax on the value of the goods. The trouble was that the nice customs gentlemen were adamant that the duty was payable on the entire cost, including postage and packing. Naturally I argued the toss. And then explained the problem to the next official up the chain. Why should I pay 5% of the value of services bought, paid for and utilised last week in California to the UAE government? The goods, yes. But surely not the carriage?

Eventually I was forced to pay my Dh40 over the odds in order to get my stuff. But I am not pleased. I'm convinced that this is a rip-off.


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