This last week I got a chance to go off base for the first time in four months. It was definitely a sensory and culture shock. The different sights and smells were a welcome change after seeing the same white buildings and grey airplanes and smelling the same dusty air and bland food day after day.
I have deployed to the Middle East several times before, but there are some huge differences with this visit. Not the least of which being, all my other trips here were pre-911. The USS Cole bombing of 2000 seemed like an isolated incident in my mind and it happened in Yemen, which we never visited. I really never gave much thought to terrorism or being attacked when I was here last. I always knew that there were people in the Muslim world that didn't like us and even would like to do us harm, but I also knew that there were countries that were our allies and that's where we always stopped.
Another huge difference in this experience is that I drove this time. In the Navy we would take a cab or a bus to where ever we were going. Here, we can go through some training, check out a vehicle and drive to town on our days off. The training however did not prepare me for what I encountered. I'm not so sure that anything could have. If you have ever been to Mexico and driven or ridden in a taxi it's similar. Very hectic, more aggressive than US drivers, with a twist. If you've ever been to Europe you would recognize all the traffic circles or round abouts. There are very few traffic lights. A four way intersection comes together in a big circle. And with the aggressive driving style here it's not easy to merge. My wife can attest to my normal laid back driving style. She usually gives me grief for driving like an old man. I just like to think that I am a careful, courteous driver who does the speed limit (maybe a little less some times). So this did not come natural to me but I managed, and it was even a little fun at times. And being the highest ranking person in our party I was forced to drive.
Myself and three others started for town. Doha is a very westernized city in a fairly progressive country by Middle Eastern standards. We stopped at a mall that was by far the nicest mall I have ever been in. And the stores were stores that anyone of you would recognize, GAP, kids gap, etc...and the food court was filled with Pizza Hut and McDonald's. But there were a few things that gave it a local feel. Seeing men in traditional thawb and women wearing the black abaya and niqab (veils) over there faces ordering food at KFC for there children dressed in western looking children's clothes seemed out of place. There was a Starbucks on every floor of the four story mega mall and they were all filled. There were also many locals and international business men and travelers.
We drove around a while, seeing the city, and how Muslim tradition mixed with new natural gas and oil money. Every where we looked a new sky scraper was being built. The construction added to the driving difficulty. We started to get hungry and look for a place to eat. We had decided at the beginning of the day that we were going to eat at a non-American restaurant. We saw a place that looked promising and stopped. When we walked in we were pleasantly surprised to see how nice the place was and that here were several American and European business men and well dressed middle eastern men in the restaurant. As a matter of fact there were no women in the place that we could see. A look at the menu told us that it was a little pricey and also not in English, and no pictures. We didn't know what anything was. Our waiter spoke some broken English and was very helpful. He told us that he would bring us out a starter and a few appetizers and then a few main dishes in a variety. We agreed and the food started coming. Wave after wave of small dishes of finger foods and dips and olives and salads and bread and grain dishes and cheese and meat just kept coming. Now the thing with letting our waiter make the choices for us was that we had no idea how much we were spending or when it would stop. I got his attention and asked him to stop bringing food and to tell us how much it would cost, he looked very confused. I was worried that they were trying to take us for more than we wanted to spend. Just then the owner comes over to the table. In perfect English he tells us that the waiter had already ordered our main dishes for us and that the order could not be canceled. He was still at the table with us when the food came out so we knew that he was telling the truth. I have never seen such a spread of food in all my life. On top of all the food we had already eaten our table filled with lamb and chicken and fish and prawns. Most of it was delicious. All was very fresh and well presented.
So we ate all we could and then asked for the bill. It came to 485 Qatari riyals, which comes to about $135 dollars. Not bad really for all the food we ate and how nice the restaurant was. But we weren't sure at first if we had enough money between the four of us. When we emptied our pockets and pooled our funds we had exactly 486 riyals between us. Close call for us to add to the adventure.
After dinner we headed down to the Corniche, which is a boardwalk that winds it's way along the bay in down town Doha. We walked and enjoyed the cool breeze from the bay and the view of the cities skyline all lit up.