Urgh me drinkie too muchie. I’ve seriously put on a stone in the last six weeks, what with all my Dominos pizzas and KFC. I need to get moving and get grooving before I turn into a big fat Jabba slug. I found out that the bus for Qatar (only 40km across the sea from the island of Bahrain) would be leaving from Dammam in Saudi at 5pm. As the next bus to Dammam was leaving at 3pm, this was going to make things awkward – Dammam is only an hour away, but it’s a bit of a risk as if the Saudi border guys wanted to make the bus wait, there wasn’t a lot I could have done about it – I could very well miss the bus to Qatar. I therefore elected to take a taxi (at great expense – fifty quid’s worth of expense) because I was damned if I was going to spend the night in Dammam.
Getting back into Saudi was even easier the second time. Seriously – they didn’t even look at my bags and in I went. I was in Dammam within the hour and had my ticket for Nation 157 – Qatar.
The bus was supposed to get in at 10pm. I had arranged with Tracy, my CS host in Qatar, to meet here when I arrived, although the fact it was now pushing midnight and we were still not at the border compounded my discontent. But what I was not expecting was for it to take TWO HOURS to cross the border into Qatar. What the hell would you smuggle OUT of Saudi? A camel?
But then I discovered the root of the problem. The border guards were denying access not to us passengers, but to the bus driver. They had changed the rules TODAY (seriously!) and he needed a letter of employment of SAPTCO to say he worked for them. His uniform and the fact HE WAS DRIVING THE DAMN BUS wasn’t enough proof for them.
I guess in their twisted little heads this was all an elaborate plan for the driver to sneak into Qatar (with a busload of passengers) and stay there illegally. The hundreds of Qatar entry and EXIT stamps in his passport were similarly not seen as proof that he didn’t intent Qatar several layers of harm.
I’ll get you Butler!
So the bus was stuck, it was now 2am. Oh, and to cap it all, my phone had stopped working. I didn’t know this at the time, it seemed that my texts were going through, but then I sent a test text to my mum and since a reply didn’t come back I knew trouble was afoot. There was no way I was going to be able to stay at Tracey’s tonight. I teamed up with Saleh and we trekked across the border together on foot. Once in Qatar, we flagged down a passing car and hitched a ride to Doha from a fantastically friendly chap called Mohammed.
And so I wound up in the cheapest, nastiest little hotel in town. Filthy dirty, luke warm shower, a broken television… the price? Fifty quid. Straight up. Take it or leave it.
Damn you Qatar.
As if Qatar hadn’t done enough to upset me, today it well and truly rained on my parade. I was planning to meet up with friends I had met in Kuwait tomorrow in Dubai, and when I rang the SAPTCO bus office they told me that the bus left at 6pm.
Good stuff! I packed up my things and headed into Doha city centre, there to meet Tracy who I should have been CouchSurfing with last night. We grabbed some lunch in a Thai restaurant and nattered about living in Qatar. Originally from Vancouver in Canada, Tracy’s been here for two years. It seems that Qatar suffers from many of the same problems as Kuwait – spoilt, lazy rich kids, dangerous drivers and an almost unbelievably stratified society.
But, you know, in the greater scheme of things these are minor quibbles. The governments here really do look after their people very, very well – in a way that African governments just wouldn’t understand. Free hospitals, schools, roads, sewers, street lights, development, enterprise grants, allowances, pensions, unemployment benefits… go try to explain what these things are to Ali Bongo of Gabon and he’ll probably chase you up a tree and set fire to it.
But the guys in charge here could, if they wanted to, pull an Ali Bongo. Or a Nigeria. Or an Angola – rich rich rich oil states, but 100% of the money that could go to building a better society and a brighter future for their citizens is stolen and squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts. Here, things are very different, and I for one salute the Gulf’s governments for looking after their own people.
Of course, it’s not a rosy garden – at any one time there are about 400 Filipino housemaids in the Filipino embassy in Kuwait desperate to go home after being abused or raped or locked in the house for months while the family goes on holiday (seriously). The attitude of the locals towards the ‘lower’ immigrants (Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis etc) would make Nick Griffin blush.
But, you know, you live in hope. Maybe one day attitudes will change and the little Princes and Princesses of the Gulf will learn a little bit of humility and the fact that what goes around, comes around.
After lunch I thanked Tracy and apologised for last night’s cock-up. I then darted over to the bus office (next to the Guest Palace Hotel, pop-pickers!) to get my ticket for tonights bus… only to discover that tonight’s bus back into Saudi (you have to dip in and out of Saudi to get to the UAE) was last night’s bus that’s still stuck at the border.
Again, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Tracy graciously allowed me to stay at her’s for the night and that evening we made a beeline for the Irish Pub – yes, there’s ALWAYS an Irish Pub! I’ve got to say I never thought I’d be dancing to YMCA in Arabia with a pint of Stella in my grubby mitts.
So with a day to kill, Tracy and I headed out to the museum of Islamic Art. As I’ve mentioned before, with a pretty much outright ban in place over depicting any living thing in a picture or a statue, Islamic art is concentrated around two disciplines – calligraphy and complex geometric shapes. When these two disciplines come together to create something as spellbinding and complex as the Taj Mahal, it truly is a joy to behold.
What was particularly cool about the museum (certainly not the architecture I have to say, typical boring brutalist crap by I.M. Not-Very-Good-At-This-Am-I?) was the Pearl exhibition that was on. Before they found oil in the 1930s, the Gulf states paid their way through the pearl trade. A trade that had pretty much dried up over the preceding decades as cultured pearls for Japan had begun to dominate the market. In fact, it’s a good bet that had oil not been found there would only be three gulf states – Saudi, Yemen and Oman. I seriously doubt that Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE would exist as separate nations.
But they did find oil and the rest, as they say, is history. But that’s not to detract from the importance of the pearl trade throughout the 19th century and what a shame that the new commodity is – unlike pearls – dirty, polluting, and contributing to an impeding global catastrophe that no politicians in the world today seem willing or able to do anything about. A necessary evil some might say, but then they probably haven’t watched the documentary ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’.
A least pearls are fairly innocent trinkets and treasures – the idea of snorkelling down to the bottom of the sea with a knife and looking for riches hidden in shells is a lot more romantic than the poor wretched life of a diamond miner in Sierra Leone or a silver miner in Bolivia (life expectancy 40 years).
So after soaking in the history and the art of Qatar and the surrounding regions, Tracy and I grabbed one last coffee and at 6pm I was on the bus that was supposed to leave yesterday.
Again, the border crossing into Saudi was painless, but I wasn’t too happy when I got to my transit stop only to find that the bus to Dubai didn’t leave at 10pm (as it said on my ticket) but it would be leaving at 12pm. Three hours spent literally in the middle of nowhere on the edge of The Empty Quarter. This also meant we had an incredibly ill-timed border crossing in the middle of the night which wasn’t completed until well after 3am.
Needless to day, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.