Friday, 10 April 2009

A Post-Modern Day in West Bay

Prologue: A visit to our local branch of Qatar General Postal Corporation, situated handily in the previously described souq just across the interchange (I think it's actually called Souq Al Ali, according to several of the shop signs).

The branch comprises a PO Box lobby (the guidebooks reveal that the fee is the same whatever the size of the box, and you can't choose - you get the next one, big or small) and a clean modern shop, empty except for a sign in Arabic listing PO Box prices (I didn't pursue the detail), and a glassed-in counter. I asked the younger of the two smiling Qatari men (in immaculate thowbs as ever) if he could tell me the rates for postage to NZ; he looked a bit nonplussed. "English?" I prompted. He laughed a knowing laugh and pointed to his senior, who when he got off the phone turned out to have at least three words of English. Eventually the rates book was produced and thumbed through at great length, punctuated by reassuring exchanges: "Newzea-land-ah?" "Yes, I am New Zealander!" "Ah, Newzea-land-ah!" At last the page was found and he showed me the relevant entry - for The Netherlands. However, NZ being 3 lines further down the page I was able to ascertain that parcel postage is QR86 for the first kg and QR43 for each extra kg. to search for the lightest possible birthday presents so as to make the most of the self-imposed 1kg limit.
Of course these proved elusive (why is it always that once the parcel is posted, the markets are suddenly full of the perfect presents you couldn't find), but not as hard to find as any suitable posting bag, box or wrapping material such as festoon the shelves of NZ Post shops. Certainly none to be seen in any QGP branch offices, nor in any book- or stationery shops I was able to find, or in the hypermarts. No, said the experienced expats, you have to go to the General Post Office.

This deceptively modest-looking at first glance, but actually quite massive building is one of the major landmarks your driver will point out to you on first arriving here, quite sensibly as it is very distinctive (sort of a pyramid with tiers of one-story-high arches along each side like rows of upturned half-pipes - there it is in the background of the picture; I don't know anything about the leaopard-skin luggage tractor...) and occupies a whole block at a focal point in Doha's maze of dual carriageways - on one side is the seafront sweep of the Corniche, on the other the craneforest of West Bay CBD, and the adjacent roundabout hapens to be where Khalifa St (the main road by our front door) leads to.

So once the makeshift selection of gifts had been lovingly bought and it was already high time to get posting (given the generally agreed two-week estimated delivery time), a visit to the edifice was dictated. It was our first day with our new leased car and Angela happened to have a meeting in an adjacent building (the green one in the centre of the next photo), so she dropped me off - after we worked out how to park in the recommended nearby open site (see the cars beyond the fence and the palm trees). You drive aroung the block twice, scanning the foot-high kerb for a sign of a crossing, rather than risk damaging trims and tyres on your brand new vehicle, as yet unmarked by Doha traffic, and finally spot a steepish makeshift asphalt ramp from a busy turn lane (beeeeep!!!) to a narrow gap between two trees, deeply potholed of course. Safely parked, off she went, not very late for the meeting, leaving me to storm the citadel of Post on foot.

The guidebooks advise that you have to enter through the car park, but this being Doha, there appears to be scant provision and no direction for pedestrians. Said car park is four storeys and occupies a hundred metres between the road and the building. I didn't find a lift, but walking down an alley to one side, happened upon a stairway, requiring only the traverse of a half-made landscape garden bed to access. This eventually brought me to the top floor of the car park, where I paused for breath and took the above picture. And there in the distance was the main entrance.

Once inside, a complete circuit of the main floor (there are four more above) afforded an appreciation of the reassuringly cool, shady, slightly musty bureaucratic ambience, common I suspect to GPOs the world over, but no enlightenment as to where one might post a parcel, let alone purchase suitable materials. I found the Customer Service counter (right down the back) and was directed by the lady officer who did have some English (having of course first asked the other, who didn't) to a room marked Parcel Collection. Yes, I had seen it already, but you too would have assumed it referred to people collecting parcels that had arrived for them, eh.

The friendly young african guy confirmed that they could sort out all my requirements and took me to a different counter three doors away. He produced a large posting box - in hindsight, the next smaller size would probably have done the job, but I'll think more clearly if there is a next time - and a customs label which I filled out while he copiously and irrevocably taped the box shut (with presents inside). Then he weighed it: with the box, well over 2kg! So I paid and ran; it was worth it for the experience, I insist. At least it reached its destination well within the two weeks...

Duty discharged, I was free to get on with my plan for the rest of the day before meeting Ange in the afternoon at City Centre shopping mall several blocks away. This was to make the most of being on foot in West Bay and shoot a comprehensive photo essay of the showcase of state-of-art high rise architecture, mostly still under construction. I headed down to the Corniche, with a passing nod to Asian Games mascot Orry the Oryx faithfully standing guard half a km away, and braving the roundabout traffic, stepped out along a somewhat deserted thoroughfare, though initially this didn't surprise on a Sunday morning.

This is the banking district, and Qatar National Bank looks to have bagged the prime spot, but so far it's just huge credit cards on a constructon fence.

Onwards down the avenue (seen below on a sunnier, busier day a few weeks ago), camera at the ready, with a cheery hullo for the occasional young guys of uncertain ethnicity casually lounging on the lawns and garden parapets (there are always unoccupied young men, usually from the Subcontinent, and usually polite and casually well-dressed, strolling about the landscape here. Then I noticed the third one I had passed 100 metres back, tidily dressed in black jeans and polo shirt, was following me - well, walking the same way - no, definitely following, and waving me to stop. Er, better find out what it's about, this is a safe country and here we are in broad daylight...

"Sorry, you must not take pictures, sir." No further explanation, no offered I.D. badge. I asked why? "One week time is OK, today no pictures sir." Well OK, I guess, if you say so. I replaced the lens cap but didn't put the camera away, and walked on, soon arriving at one of the light-controlled pedestrian crossings which are dotted occasionally along the Corniche and very few other places in the city. Notably, there is a pedestrian push button on the side away from the seafront, but none on the opposite side - apparently you are meant to reach the promenade but then not leave it again.

Thinking to enjoy the sea air and maybe take some pictures there, I went to push the button and instantly the guy in green overalls standing nearby came over and said "Sorry sir, I cannot let you go over there." Again I asked why, then a thought occurred: "Is there an official party on the way?" (it's an everyday occurrence here: somewhere in Doha, notably at our own Gharrafa roundabout which is en route to the Emir's palace, or around the Corniche where the Diwan, i.e. parliament, and major venues like the Museum of Islamic Art are situated, the red Land Cruisers of the Emir's Guard will appear and stop the traffic for a while until a cavalcade rolls through). "Yes, sir." So I put the camera away and made sure I had this second plainclothesman's permisssion to continue along to the next roundabout where I could head for the safety of City Centre mall, leaving the Corniche to the privileged and protected few.

It might have been possible to cut and run there and then, through one of the many undeveloped areas (as shown above) between the skyscrapers and construction sites, but previous experience has revealed too many dead ends or undesired changes of direction; so having gained the all clear, I stuck to the beaten track (well, the wide untrodden grass berm - never expect a sidewalk to continue when you want it to), reached the junction and found myself in the middle of a building project anyway. At least it was one with well-trodden pathways and no courteous but insistent young dudes barring the way, and there was the mall visible only a few blocks away.

City Centre-Doha is likely not the biggest shopping mall in the world, but it does have a certain grandeur, and at about half a kilometre long internally (yep, just had to step it out) is certainly too big to do justice to in the remainder of this post. That's the rear view above - the four-storey glassed atrium entrance, the skating rink and the hypermart so big you can't see one end from the other will all have to wait until I manage to get some good photos (the first time I tried, not long after we got here, the camera turned out to have flat batteries and no memory card). As it was, I needed a coffee, and avoiding the three Starbuckses, sat down in one of the many high-class cafes (always with table service) with a latte (no sign of a flat white anywhere here) and the Qatar Tribune. "Arab League Summit starts today at Sheraton Conference Centre" (which is right there on the West Bay end of the Corniche, eh). Duh, right, saw it the day before on al-Jazeera, didn't I.

Enlightened and refreshed, I saw no reason not to revive my photographic plans for the day, and started with this moderately unsuccessful shot of the skyscraper with the three-storey mirror-glass sphere suspended between two halves of the building fifteen storeys up, seen through the glass dome of the mall's north atrium. Instantly three courteous but unsmiling suits walked up to me. "What is the photo you were taking, sir?" One does try to follow the guidelines here, avoiding taking pictures directly of people without permission, especially women; had I overstepped? Puzzled, I explained (your beautiful shopping centre, show the folks back home, no offence meant, etc). They remained concerned for several minutes of polite debate - because, as it transpired, security men had been removing cash from an ATM directly in shot just as I clicked the shutter. See them silhouetted there? Yeah, right. We parted friends ("You are my valuable customer, sir") but I was ready to pack in the photography for the day, and headed for the movies.

Excellent! there on the multiplex session board was the one I wanted to see what the fuss was all about, Watchmen, screening at 11.30am. As it was only 10.30 I window shopped for a while, then returned to the box office to find it gone from the board. I enquired: "Are you showing Watchmen today?" "Yes, sir, at 11.30." "Yes, I saw it on the board before, but now it's not there, why is that?" "It's a family session." "Can't I get a ticket?" "Sorry, it's full." "Not even a single? - I only want one." "Certainly, sir, no problem." She shows me the booking screen with just the two back rows taken, I buy a ticket and go in. There were only four people in the audience, no kids, nobody in the two back rows.

Watchmen is no way a family movie, a noisy, ultraviolent and controversial Hollywood version of the celebrated superhero graphic novel, full of improbable and somewhat incomprehensible science and metaphysics. It was just what I needed.

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