Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Little R&R in Qatar

The commando got a free short vacation in neighboring Qatar! Understand that, if given any chance, all of us would gladly leave this place even if it were for a short stay in anyplace that doesn’t involve us getting shot at. Anyway, the purpose of this trip was purely for R&R (rest & relaxation) and I am so glad I got the opportunity to go. It’s always a fun, yet disturbing experience to do something different here. First, the flight itself was sort of strange to me because we took off “normally” with the vertical launch up. When we landed, there was none of the shenanigans I’ve grown accustomed to. The hard banking, nosedives, or barfing that are part of the charm of our “normal” flights. In fact what I thought was just minor turbulence turned out to be the plane landing.

We got to spend the first day (Day Zero) getting to know the post and all of the activities offered, while wearing civilian clothing. Normally I have a choice of wearing a combat uniform or PT (physical training) uniform as my clothing options in Iraq. A man can only take so much so, in the spirit of rebellion, I wear civilian pajamas, and civilian clothing while I’m in my hooch for a sense of normalcy. During those lovely 2AM mortar & rocket attacks, I’m known as the guy with combat gear, flip flops and the Simpson’s pajama pants. In perspective, if you are required to wear a uniform at work, try wearing it (of course you have several of the same) for almost two years and nothing else 24-7.

The biggest novelties for the day would make my readers think “Yep, he’s in need for a lot of therapy that requires a padded room and a dinner jacket with wrap-around sleeves and big buckles & locks”. The place is clean, and in comparison to where we’re at in Iraq the place is immaculate. The air doesn’t reek of burned crap, plastic and “mystery smell” of the day. And it’s “creepy” quiet. There’s no machinegun fire, Blackhawks buzzing at 30 feet above your hooch, rocket or mortar impacts, construction machines, or alarms letting you know that we have incoming fire. I sat on a berm for about two hours and just listened to the wind blow. I know it’s the simple things in life that have the most impact.

The highlight of the evening was BEER. You see, in a combat zone, we fall under “General Order Number 1”. In short you can’t drink, possess, buy, sell or even think about alcohol. Now I’m not a big drinker, in fact, I probably cook with more alcohol in a month than I drink in a year, but the ability of having the choice to drink, is one that I couldn’t pass on. Now here’s how it works, since I am coming from one Muslim country to another and I’m on an American post, I can only drink on post. That’s still OK, and I’m allocated 3 alcoholic beverages (beer or wine) in a 24-hour period. In comparison to nothing at all, it works for me. My battle buddy and I decided to maximize the potential of the alcohol. We purposely drank very little water prior to our venture and didn’t eat. About ¾ into my cup of Guinness, life was pretty good. At the end of Guinness number two, I’m done, felling a little loopy, and ready to go back to bed and nap. No karaoke, no streaking, and no fighting, in fact nothing but a decent buzz and a short two block stroll back to the bunk. Like I said, I enjoyed the novelty of having the choice to drink in the first place.

The next day held a fun trip out in the country. Locals that operate a tour guide-like business picked us up and took us out for some fun. Our particular driver was wearing the local “man dress” you see in the pictures of Mille Eastern native. I’ve worn one as an experiment in the past and they are actually pretty comfortable and do keep you cool in 100º+ temperatures. Now, unlike my normal outings in Iraq, we went with the intent to vacation, which included a bit of Baja driving topped off with having a picnic on the shores of the Persian Gulf. If you don’t know, Qatar is a peninsula much like Florida. However, the terrain is more like Baja California in that it’s all desert. We stopped on the way to take some pictures of local camels. Once we got there, it was beautiful. Once again, it was pristine property. The sand was white and the water was crystal clear. The locals had set up a beachside “campsite” which offered tanning, swimming, volleyball, BBQ, tents for napping, and the highlight for some of the Joes (and Janes) was the smoking of the traditional hookah (huka, hooka). Basically it’s a water-based bong that the locals use to smoke just about anything. Yes, the commando knows what a bong is, from his counter-drug ops days. In this case, they were smoking apple wood tobacco. I hope it was what they said or we’re going to have a few soldiers come up hot on the next whiz quiz.

Some of the things that I noticed that seemed unusual to me were the lack of seafowl. By that I mean seagulls (the rats of the ocean). In fact, there were no seagulls the whole day while we were there. There were no clams or oysters underground like you would see at the tidal area of the beach. How can I tell? When the waves roll in and ebb out, you can see multiple bubbles coming from underground in that area of the shore. And then there were the flies. Normally, because of the high salt content at the beach, in the ocean water, and in the air, flies aren’t able to survive. Exceptions to the rule are brine flies. They thrive in those areas. But these were run of the mill houseflies. Remember, the Commando grew up in Puerto Rico until he was eight and then spent the rest of his childhood in Orlando, so he knows a thing or two about the ocean and the beach. Anyway, those were the “things to note” of the place.

We enjoyed the ocean, the sun, and the food. We were served hummus (ground chickpeas with spices), rice, cucumber salad, bean and cilantro salad, salsa (it’s universal), grilled chicken, and kabobs. Needless to say, I’m going to have to run a lot of extra miles when I get back in order to drop the fatty pounds I pick up here. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the amenities there and then returned back to post. Once we got back, we ran into a few other soldiers I know that are stationed in different areas of Iraq and joined them for dinner and our nightly allocation of three beers. This time I had one Corona, one Guinness and the short stroll back to the bunk.

Day three is an “off” day in that we are staying on post and enjoying the facilities here. I have to tell you, the Department of Defense has really done well with allowing the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) to arrange activities and provide facilities in order for us to get away from the war.

Day four was a blast! We went on the cultural tour which included shopping in Doha (the capital) and seeing the sites. All those tourists I used to make fun of in Orlando, I was one of them this time. The bonus of it was the fact that we were taken in the short bus with tinted windows. Anyway, the tour was great because you get to learn about the culture, interact with the natives and tour around the city. We started at the camel market which was very much like a livestock market you would encounter in the Midwest. They had camels of all shapes, colors sizes and purposes. What I mean is that they sell them for milk, meat, the hide, racing, transportation and studding out. I don’t care for camels too much. You can read my entry on the Iraq 101 blog as to why.

After the camel market, we went to the fish market. Let’s just say that they don’t have as good air filtering systems as in the states. The flies on the fish added a nice touch. I was actually impressed with the selection of seafood. Prawn, grouper, shark, and squid were just some of the selections. I had fun with the fact that the bus smelled of fish when we got back in. So much to the point that one of the passengers spent a good 30 minutes fighting the urge to vomit. The next stop was the produce market. They had pretty much everything you can imagine.

Let me sidetrack for a bit - Qatar is a peninsula in the Persian Gulf. It is a unique country in that it has to import a majority of its products from fresh produce to automobiles. Before the discovery of oil, the economy of the Qatari region focused on fishing and pearling. After the introduction of the Japanese cultured pearl onto the world market in the 1920s and 1930s, Qatar's pearling industry faltered. However, the discovery of oil reserves, beginning in the 1940s, completely transformed the nation's economy. Now the country has a high standard of living, with many social services offered to its citizens and all the amenities of any modern nation. These include free electricity, education from K-12, water, and additional subsidies if they sponsor foreign investors. This means that if you were to open your own business (Starbucks, etc.) in Qatar, you have to have a native sponsor and, by law, pay him 50% of what your business makes; nice deal!

Now, while oil and gas will probably remain the backbone of Qatar's economy for some time to come, the country seeks to stimulate the private sector and develop a "knowledge economy". In 2004, it established the Qatar Science & Technology Park to attract and serve technology-based companies and entrepreneurs, from overseas and within Qatar. Qatar also established "education city" which consists of international colleges. For the 15th Asian Games in Doha, it established a "sports city" consisting of Khalifa stadium, the Aspire Sports Academy, aquatic centers, exhibition centers and many other sports related buildings and centers. Qatar also plans to build an "entertainment city" in the future.

Now back to the posting. From the produce market we went to what our tour guide affectionately calls the “Bling” mall. The bling mall is a blast! They sell gold jewels, pearls, hookas, Ferraris, and a whole ton of expensive things. The fun part is, unlike the states, you can negotiate a price with the dealer. For example, my partner in crime was able to negotiate paying $60 (217.80 Qatari Riyals) for a black pearl set which included the necklace, earrings, and a ring. The fact that the pearls are locally cultured, allows for such a price. In the states he would have easily paid about $1200 for the set. There was a reception waiting for us at the mall, much like piranhas wait for the cattle to cross the river. After about an hour and a half, we left for our next stop.

Downtown Doha’s picture sites include the giant clam, in honor of their pearling industry, boat docks, and the exterior of the Muslim Studies Center. As infidels, we aren’t allowed on the property but the locals were thrilled to tell us all about it (in a positive way) not like when we go out in sector in Iraq. We also saw a man made island that the Qatari government has built and are developing into a new business center. In short, I counted 23 buildings being built at the same time. They are basically on a quest to develop the region to become a major tourist hub in the Middle East. What about crime? Let me put it this way, they are VERY severe on criminals there. Their justice and trial systems rival our own in ideals and structure, but their punishments are a very good deterrent for crime.

Our last stop took us to a local restaurant called “Abdulraman Bin Abdulla Obaidan Fakfroo and Sons”. No lie that was the full name. The food was set up buffet style featuring local cuisine (clock wise in picture) such as meatballs in sweet sauce, garlic chicken, roasted chicken, goat shish kabobs, steamed rice, pan roasted potatoes and hummus (ground chick peas & spices), no camel that I’m aware of. It was phenomenal! When we were done, we returned back to post for more ice cold Guinness and a nap.

The last day was spent poolside relaxing. We left Qatar the next morning at o’dark thirty for the return to Iraq. As expected, the landing was par for the course with the hard banking and barfing. Thus ends my trip to Qatar.


Blogger kissmekate said...

It sounds like you had a great time, and greatly deserved!

I want a black pearl set for $60! I LOVE black pearls and desperately want one, but I think the airfare would outweigh the cost of it :-( at the marketplace.

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Charm said...

Glad you got to get away for a while to enjoy some R&R! Great write up of your experiences in Qatar. You have a writing style that is a pleasure to read. Loved the photos too! Stay safe!

4:07 PM  
Blogger barista grazioso said...

I agree with charm - you have an amazing writing style. It's beautiful there, and sounds like you had a much deserved and wonderful time. Thanks again for all that you do.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Nigel said...

Good to hear you enjoyed your time in Qatar, and hope you can return someday. It's rare to see US military in the country, despite the huge airbase. The only times I've seen military haircuts has been in the old souq and on the corniche. I think the passes to visit Doha must be very limited.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know if family members are aloud to join their spouse (who's a service member) on this vacation?

4:58 PM  
Blogger coconut commando said...

The answer is "No". Due to the fact that it's a military base in Qatar where we're housed and it is in a "high-risk" country, family members are not allowed to join us. That and the travel there would be a nightmare for a four day pass. In other words, the time on the ground there is only four days and you’d spend about three on each end traveling.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Cherie said...

You, sir, have just earned yourself a new fan. This is great! I like your style.

5:27 AM  
Blogger NavalOfficersLady said...

YeeHaww!! My husband is due for R & R soon, I am glad for your writing, happy to know he'll be at a place where he can get it done..oh yeah..what marketplace did you find the black pearls? Just wanna know so I can pass that along to him :)

7:39 AM  
Blogger drbracerrick98 said...

I was also able to get to Qatar for R&R much the same as you, bought many black pear gifts, went out on the cruise, swam in the gulf in Jan, but also got to see Carly Simon along with the evening beer. On my day on post, I had a massage, toenail manacure, hot tub, and
Chili's poolside. Awsome R&R, even though sleeping in the warehouse tents was a drag.

10:35 PM  

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