Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pigs do fly

There is only one place for a resident of Qatar to obtain intoxicating beverages to enjoy in the comfort and privacy of his own home. This is through the auspices of the Qatar Distribution Company, a kind of cross between an off-licence and a members-only club. It will come as no surprise at all to learn that, in accordance with the law of the land, Muslims are not allowed to be members.

Back in the olden days, Cable and Wireless somehow managed to obtain permission to import booze for sale to C&W employees. Other thirsty expatriates wondered why they weren’t allowed to avail themselves of this largesse and, to cut a long story short, the booze permit system was extended to all non-Muslim expatriates and administered by the British embassy. With an allocated weekday and a fixed maximum QAR500 allowance, going up to the C&W Syndicate once a month became something of an institution.

It has always been the case that the liquor permit system allows the bearer to acquire beverages up to a cost limit, and then to transport it directly to his residence for his sole consumption. Selling it, giving it away, or taking an Eski of refreshing hop-flavoured thirst-quencher to the beach are all strictly forbidden.

In due course, the Syndicate was taken over by the new Qatar Distribution Company, a branch of Doha Duty Free and therefore ultimately part of Qatar Airways. Allowances were doubled overnight, as were prices, so that the cost of alcoholic liquor aligned broadly with UK high street prices. The monthly allowance is now based on an individual’s salary.

Last week, the QDC quietly introduced an additional line of products that would not interest Muslims. Bacon and sausages. Proper ones, made of flat-nosed, curly-tailed haraminal. Apparently, plans are afoot to increase the range to hams and proper pork joints once the freezer space is available. And as a hog-gobbling infidel I say huzzah to this! Up until now, Qatar has been a pig-free zone, apart from the occasional pack of “Egyptian Veal” or “Turkey Burgers” flown in from Dubai or further afield. Now the bacon and sausages are flying in courtesy of Qatar Airways. I’m quite happy to purchase the products supplied by the State of Qatar, and then to take home and enjoy those same products.

Within a day of the news breaking, the Qatar Living website had multiple pages of forum comments, getting progressively more extreme. Such as:

“You shall not eat the flesh of swine.”

“But that only applies to Muslims, and my having a bacon butty doesn’t affect your beliefs.”

“But this is a Muslim country.”

“Then take it up with the Emir and his state airline.”

By the time I got to QDC this evening, the speciality sausages and all the bacon had vanished, and the freezers were resplendent with hundreds of identical packets of ordinary, bog-standard bangers. This is exactly as predicted by pretty much everyone. I like billy-basic bangers, so this isn’t actually a hardship, but a delight.

Being able to buy pork and booze in the UAE has not caused the complete collapse of civilization, as far as I know. It surely shouldn’t be any different in Qatar. I feel that the situation is a little like the idea of gay marriage. You may or may not approve, but if you don’t want one, don’t have one.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Up diddly-up-up

I know that modern commercial aviation is a truly wonderful thing, and this post is rather unfairly written to highlight its recent shortfalls rather than its benefits. It's a bit of a cathartic rant. I basically agree with the sentiments of Ford Prefect, who “...always found the actual travelling-through-space part of space travel rather trying.”

Indeed. Air travel is similarly afflicted, being the several rather expensive hours of discomfort between where I am and where I wish to be. I lack the wherewithal to fly Business class, and I don't fly enough to earn sufficient air miles for upgrades.

I swore off Emirates, Dubai’s flagship airline, way back in 1997 after a disastrous Eid trip to the Maldives where the said airline contrived to bump me and two fellow passengers off our flights three times in 24 hours and then mislaid our luggage. How wonderful to arrive on a diving holiday with nothing but the clothes on our backs. My letter of complaint made shortly thereafter received a curt “it’s our airline and we’ll snub who we want to” response.

But for the most recent trip to the Philippines, Emirates represented the only realistic combination of schedule and price that would get both me and Beloved Wife from Doha and Dubai respectively to Manila and back again. Maybe Emirates had improved after 14 years.

Credit where credit is due. Our bags were not mishandled and we got where we needed to be, eventually. All cabin crews were polite and accommodating where they could be. You can’t blame the airline for bawling brats.

But four flights, and not one of them took off less than 45 minutes later than advertised. After an hour queuing to check in, trying to get me and Beloved Wife into adjacent seats was “sorted” in Doha, but by the time we had rendezvoused in Dubai it had become “impossible” and the best the airline could manage was placing us on opposite sides of the cabin in nearby rows.

At least the entertainment system worked. Sleep was impossible in the packed cabin, as was movement.

I must agree with the website (for the more frugal traveller!): Manila's Ninoy Aquino Airport is a dreadful place to wait. Having negotiated check-in and immigration, the possibilities for entertainment are limited to a modest selection of duty-free shops and an even more modest choice in food and beverage outlets. We bought our instant noodles and then tried to find a quiet corner of floor where we could sit down and eat. The concept of a restaurant providing seating for patrons seems an alien one.

With over three hours to go before take-off, there were announcements that passengers for the Emirates flight to Dubai should make their way to the departure gate. It was very clear through the glass that there was a big empty space where our Boeing 777 should have been. It finally trundled into position about twenty minutes before the scheduled departure, at which point we were advised that departure would be delayed. Duh.

In other airports, there might be a business case to keep passengers on delayed flights in the terminal, where they’d buy food and drink, but not so in Manila. Perhaps the policy is to prevent the terminal from becoming totally clogged with people by removing travellers to the departure gate sheep-pen as early as possible and holding them there with nothing to do. And no, you can’t use the lavatory. Why not? Because we say so.

Many hours later, the Emirates flight touched down in Dubai but didn’t park at the Emirates terminal. Such is the case with Dubai, where the weary traveller arrives at his destination and then spends half an hour in ever-increasing circles, looking for a parking space. The airport bus trundled the length of the airport, depositing all passengers at Terminal 3 where Beloved Wife and I parted company. I underwent airport security yet again: the authorities clearly need to check that we transit passengers haven’t sneaked any contraband into our personal effects on the trip between aircraft and terminal. And then the 1km walk to Terminal 1 for the Emirates flight to Doha. Why not the Emirates terminal for an Emirates flight?

The lateness of the Manila to Dubai flight meant that my three hour stopover was now only two hours. I decided not to avail myself of the “SnoozeCube” at Dh65 per hour, but instead crashed out on the floor between one of the travelators and some airport seats for a fitful few minutes of kip. My carry-on wheeled suitcase does not make a particularly effective pillow.

And the Doha flight was delayed by half an hour, which actually turned into 45 minutes before the doors were finally closed and we were on our way.

I look forward with no little trepidation to my next long-haul trip. The idea of being able to cross a third of the planet or more by simply paying money and then showing up at an airport is a truly marvellous one. It seems such a pity that the actual experience always leaves me feeling as if I’ve gone several rounds against Manny Pacquiato.


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Her name is Rio, and she dances on the sand

Largely thanks to the efforts of Mohammed, the Daihatsu salesman over at Taleb Trading in Doha, I got my test drive. Adonis Car Rental must have been abundantly aware of what I intended to do with their black Terios, my having previously explained that I specifically wanted the 4WD version for a weekend. But they let me have one regardless.

The vehicle shuffling started on Thursday evening, as I parked the Jazz in a quiet corner near Terii-Я-Us and picked up the Daihatsu. I gassed it up and then filled it with diving kit in preparation for Friday’s boat dive.

Test 1 passed: a Terios easily swallows all my dive kit with room to spare. I wouldn’t want to carry five human adults and all their luggage, though. There are limits to friendliness!

On Saturday morning, I met Gadget Boy in his Nissan Patrol, with his snorkel, lift kit, big tyres, and – crucially – tow rope and air compressor, and we headed off south in search of a quiet area of desert where we could hoon in the dunes. After deflating our tyres, no-one was more surprised than I at quite how well the little Daihatsu tear-arsed over the sand, including successfully tackling some quite steep slopes without incident. Of course, the tiny engine had to be revved hard to extract all 103 ponies. This is to be expected if that’s all there are, and ten of them were pedalling the air conditioning.

Test 2 passed: a Terios is fully capable of getting to the Inland Sea and back, over the sand. Following tyre re-inflation, Gadget Boy went off and got on with his life, and I drove back to Doha at a respectable speed.

Test 3 passed: a Terios can sustain the speed limit with ease without excessive noise, despite being a thrashy little beast. And it’s comfortable enough, and has excellent lights, an adequate stereo, keyless entry, central locking, trip computer, full-size spare wheel, whistles, bells, yadda, yadda.

I put the Terios through a car wash to remove the worst of the, erm, evidence, and off-hired it. Then I off-hired the Honda Jazz. I figure that I can use just the bike until Eid, and following the holiday I’ll pick up my new Japanese miniature SUV. I’ll put occasional updates on the blog as to how Rio (and now I’ve got to call her ‘Rio’) performs long-term.

Incidentally, full marks to Axa insurance in Doha for checking with Axa in Sharjah and obtaining an instant five-year no-claims discount. I’ll be fully insured, including against off-road risks, and with agency repairs, GCC cover and a free rental car if Rio ever ends up in the body shop. And I still had change from a farthing.

Now, without a car pro tem, how am I going to get those aqualung cylinders back to the dive club…?


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