What began in 2009 with as a vacation to Tanzania with my two children has now become an integral part of my life and perhaps the most important event outside of my part in creating those two amazing individuals that shared that first trip with me. It is hard to believe that I am now embarking on my twentieth trip to Tanzania, a place that I now consider my other home and where I have spent more time than any other in my adult life. That simple request made so many years ago to visit a medical clinic has changed my life and, for that, I am forever grateful. FAME, having begun only the year before my initial visit, has become my family. And so, it was with great honor in March of this year that I was asked to take on the additional role of a board member, joining an incredibly dedicated group of individuals whose responsibility it is to secure the future of this most remarkable of institutions that has become so important to the health and prosperity of a vast population of Northern Tanzania and the Karatu District specifically.
As so many of trips have begun, I am schlepping two large duffels and a camera backpack that weighs over 30 pounds. I know this about my backpack as they weighed it at the airport, only to tell me that it was too heavy to carry on along with the small duffel, which, by the way, tipped the scales at only 5 kilos, much of it the skittles that Sheena had given me earlier in the day not to open until arrived at my destination. The duffel contained papers that I had planned to work on during my flight and, as part of my final negotiation with the supervisor at the Qatar Airways counter, I had to hand over the duffel while being allowed to carry on my camera backpack intact. To be totally fair, though, it was all my fault. I had misread the luggage maximum that came with my newly acquired Silver Privilege Club membership level which specifically did not include flights from the US or Brazil, which now meant that each bag was 10 kg over. Thankfully, they took pity on me and didn’t charge me what they could have for the overweight bags and the extra duffel. Still, it meant that I was flying without the work that I had planned to bring on board with me and necessitated watching most of the second season of Westworld which would have made much more sense if I had seen the first season. Being the Sci Fi nut that I am, though, it was still quite entertaining.
The flight departed at 9:15 PM from Philadelphia and we arrived on time in Doha at about 4 PM. I made it through immigration and was on my way to my marketplace hotel in Doha in no time. It was only 100 degrees in Doha at 5 PM and the temperature never really dropped much from there overnight. The drive in the taxi was mostly nondescript other than the fact that Doha must have the absolute longest traffic lights in the world. We literally sat for over 5 minutes at one just to make a left turn before arriving at another similarly lengthy light a block later. Thankfully, the taxi fare seemed to based solely on the distance as I was watching the meter during the stops and it didn’t budge. My Uber ride (yes, there’s Uber in Middle East as the residents taught last March) the following day went smoother, but it was so incredibly steamy walking out of the hotel lobby, I was unable to wear my glasses waiting for it. The heat here is dramatic with temperatures of nearly 100 and over the entire 24 hours and “real feel” temps approaching 115 most of the time.
As I had covered last trip, the Doha market place, or Souq Waqif, is a simply magical place that can be best described as a cross between watching Disney’s dAladdin and Casa Blanca. It is a maze of small alleyways, each with its own category of shops, that have exit signs located everywhere otherwise you would never be able to find your way out. There’s the fabric center, the perfume center, the pet center (with thousands of squawking birds), kitchen and restaurant supplies center, and the sweets and spices center, perhaps my favorite. This is not a tourist center as all of the locals come to shop here and, as such, there are plenty of locals restaurants. Though I had walked around for hours last March, I soon found that there was much more to this place than one can find on their own by simply roaming the alleyways. When I checked into my hotel, they had mentioned that there would be a walking tour of the market later that evening at 8 PM and, thankfully, I didn’t blow it off thinking it was some touristy thing to do and, therefore, probably not worthwhile.
After stopping in one of the shops for some dates (I was starving and hadn’t planned to eat dinner until after the tour), where I was able to sample to my heart’s, or perhaps stomach’s, desire, I headed back to the hotel to wait for tour to organize. The hotel that I was staying in, the Hotel Najid, is one of the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels, a cluster of hotels that are all within the marketplace and run by Tivoli, an international hotel chain. Qatar Airways, owned by the government, of course, promotes tourism in their country by making available hotel rooms for a steal ($23 US for a 5-star hotel!) for those guests who have to overnight in Doha. I was driven in a golf cart as the only passenger to another of their hotels on the other side of the marketplace, which was welcome relief given the incredible heat even at 8 PM. There were only two others waiting for the tour, a lovely couple from Australia, Sue and Michael, so when we were all together we met with Abubakar, who would be our guide for the night. Abubakar, who is from Zanzibar and of Omani descent, had arrived here 8 years ago while participating in an internship, and had decided to make the city his new home.
After a brief discussion on how you can easily where someone is from in the middle east by how they are dressed (collar or no collar, length of their thobe, length of the tie around their neck, etc.), we departed on our walking tour of the marketplace and its environs. As you might imagine, Qatar is a very wealthy Arab country whose residents enjoy a great many social luxuries at the government’s expense. Of course, exactly what percentage of the population has access to these was not entirely clear, but leave it to say that the standard of living here is likely quite high here as it is in most of the oil-rich Middle East. Our first stop was to visit the royal camels on the outskirts of the marketplace. Those who know me are well-aware of my love of animals of any sort and the camels were no different for me, though I must say that they were just a bit intimidating to stand next to, given their size and somewhat nasty disposition. As we were standing their talking, though, a small stray cat wandered at the feet of a camel who had just been quite threatening to me, yet the cat seemed as comfortable as with one of its littermates as the camel bent forward to nuzzle him.
We took a short walk from the camels to visit a stable that housed the Arabian horses owned and ridden by the royal family. These horses were absolutely gorgeous and distinguished in their rather plain looking stables compared to what I’ve seen in the US on those rare occasions that I’ve visited one. Having lived for a time in Albemarle County, Virginia, and visiting a few farms here and there, though, compared to the simple white-washed plaster walls standing before us one wouldn’t have picked them out for what they were. The horses, of course, were so magnificent that it really didn’t matter where they were as they were just regal at their mere presence. We spent quite some time with them as Abubakar informed us that if he didn’t visit certain ones, they would become jealous. It was clear that these horses knew him from his nightly visits during these tours and each horse seemed to brighten up when they heard his voice. The Arabian is an amazing and intelligent animal.
As many are aware, falconry is very popular among the wealthy of many Arab countries and Qatar is no different in that regard. There is a falcon center in the marketplace and we stopped to visit one of the shops that sells falcons for this purpose. Entering the shop, there are dozens of falcons perched on rows of green Astro turf, each with its own unique leather hood. We watched some young boys while they tended to some of the birds and it was clear that they were from well-to-do families whose fathers were among those participating in this sport. As we walked upstairs, there were dozens more birds along with the gentleman who owned them all, a breeder whose farm is in Spain but is French himself. He breeds the birds and imports them to Qatar where they sell for one-thousand dollars and up. Abubakar told us that the most money paid for a falcon was something like one-hundred-million dollars, though the best I could find on the internet was something approximating $400,000 in 2016. Regardless, It’s clearly an expensive hobby and probably something akin to horseracing and polo in regard to the cost to participate in the sport. We also stopped by a falcon hospital where people can bring their birds who may need some care. There were a dozen or so pedestals topped with Astroturf on each side of the lobby for the birds to sit on while they waiting to be seen on each side of the lobby.
As we walked through the almost magical alleyways, we came upon what Abubakar told us was a “men’s sitting area,” which is a place for men to sit and relax, have some tea or Arabic coffee (rather weak coffee with milk) and snacks of dates and nuts. They are very nice and quiet places and there seemed to be absolutely no issue with Sue joining us inside to participate in the visit. In the first such place we visited, there were two gentleman relaxing who were deaf and mute and they welcomed us in without hesitation and seemed quite pleased to share their space with us. They insisted that we have coffee (served by a young man who is essentially a barista there) and share their dates with them. There is no cost for anything as it is all provided by the Qatari government. We said our goodbyes and wandered down some more alleyways until we came upon another much larger “club” where among the many men sitting inside were two older gentleman that Abubakar was friends with and he promptly introduced us to them. They were perhaps half a dozen game boards for a game that resembled checkers and both of the men were sitting at separate boards relaxing. We soon discovered that the game is called Dama and is a traditional Qatari board game that has been around for many, many years. In very short time, Sue was taking on one of the gentleman at a game which was very brave considering that she had no idea of how to play it at the outset. Abubakar sat down to play the other gentleman in a friendly game and introduced him to us as one of the current ministers of the Qatari government. Both of the men (the other by the way was a pilot and had worked with NASA sometime in the 1960s or 1970s) were intense Dama players and it was so much fun to just sit and watch them contemplate the game. Abubakar, by the way, was certainly holding his own, but it was quite clear to me who was the master and who was the student this night. We drank both tea and coffee and I learned very quickly not to ever hand you cup back to the server for that meant that you wanted more. You either left it sitting on the table or very clearly indicated that you were finished as doing otherwise would land you a bottomless cup of either drink.
We finally said our goodbyes and ended our tour with Abubakar at the restaurant where I had planned to have dinner as I had spotted it last March only after having already eaten dinner. Luckily, I had dropped a pin on my map and forwarded it to the residents for dinner the following night and they raved about it. Sue and Michael hadn’t yet made any exchange for Qatari Riyals, so I offered to buy them dinner and after we were served, it was very clear that all the hype was well deserved. We had lamb, beef and chicken kabobs, humus, yogurt with cucumber and garlic yogurt and everything was quite delicious. The entire bill for the three of us was a whopping 75 Riyals with tip, or about $18. We parted after dinner as they were staying in one of the other Souq Waqif Boutique hotels and I took a slow and circuitous route back to my hotel so as to explore just a bit more before calling it a night.
My room was very nice, though did not have a window to the outside which really didn’t matter as I hadn’t planned to spend much time there. I had thought about asking for a room with a view, but I figured for $23 I really couldn’t be too demanding. It reminded of recently when Anna and I were staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite due an apparent last minute cancellation and when I asked for a nicer room with a view, the desk clerk responded with, “Mr. Rubenstein, our rooms are booked based on the time of booking and most of our reservations are made a year in advance.” No matter as our room there had a lovely view of the rear grounds and steep cliffs beyond and I was sure I could imagine anything much nicer. The room at the Najid was quite nice and more than worth the $23 I had paid for it. Trust me, the Ahwahnee with all its splendor and history was orders of magnitude more expensive though well worth the price of admission. I sat down to write, but very quickly realized just how exhausted I was having left the evening before from Philadelphia and having had very little shuteye on the plane. I laid my head on the pillow and before I knew what had hit me, I was very soundly asleep. My flight the following morning was departing at 8:45 AM and I had wanted to hit the airport club in the morning for a light breakfast before my flight.