Friday, 10 March 2017

Doha, Qatar, on an Arabian Gulf cruise

“These are your camels?” I asked the man in the brown thoub, who was standing near, smiling at us as we petted one of the beautiful animals.

“Oh, no,” he said, shocked at the suggestion. “They are for parliament.”

There were 26 of them, munching hay in little groups within the corral. None of the camel caretakers seemed to mind when we wandered in and began taking pictures, patting and feeding them tufts of hay. There were maybe six men, one watering the verge-side grass, a couple perched on the fencing, our man in among the camels and a couple more carrying out odd jobs.

It was the same 20 minutes later when we happened upon the stables of eight grey Arabian horses, kept in immaculate conditions, with clean bedding in their vast stalls, a couple of them tacked up in ornately decorated gear, with State of Qatar on their red saddle rugs and cowry shells sewn in wherever possible. No one minded in the least that we went in and petted and stroked their fine heads, took photographs, and oohed and ahhed over their handsomeness.

Animal encounter number three was seeing the birds for sale in the falcon souq. I’d imagined this was going to be lone men with maybe one or two birds on stands around a square, who might demonstrate their bird’s training in little flights. Instead, it was shops with double-height interiors, with birds – anything from three or four to up to 10 – sitting on perches, most with burqas on their heads, covering their eyes, but occasionally a lone one without and, in one shop, none of the birds were wearing them.

“Are they trained?” I asked a shopkeeper.

“Yes, all trained.”

“How much are they?” asked my companion.

“This one,” the shopkeeper indicated the nearest bird, “Is 5,000 rial. That one, 17,000.” So, take from that they start at about £4,000-£5,000 and go up from there. As it was nearly my birthday, I suggested to my companion that an Arabian horse and a falcon would do nicely…

We were four, wandering around Doha, checking out the sights, like the Al Koot Fort in the main square, which you can’t go into and which, being entirely white, is well camouflaged against a background of more modern white buildings, but very cool when the eye picks it out at last; and the Wadif Souq which, like all the best, is a labyrinth of narrow, covered alleyways selling pashminas by the stackload; handmade saddles and other tack and leather goods, bags, holsters, swords, gold jewellery in shops that resemble small Aladdin’s caves, so full of glitter are they; along with traditional clothes, sandals and ladies with their hotplates making flatbread out in front.

At 5pm we made our way to where a small, white coach pulled up and got on. Our ship was sailing at 6pm and everyone had to be back on board by 5.30, when the gangplank would be pulled up, no exceptions.

“Can we wait five minutes?” said a harassed-looking woman. “We left our luggage in a car.”

What this luggage was (if she was on the cruise with us, what was she doing totting luggage around during a day out?) and why it was in a car (a car? Really? Whose? How could you forget something like that?), we never found out, but we spent increasingly anxious minutes waiting.

‘What happens if you miss the boat?’ I asked a companion who’d been on a cruise before.

‘You have to fly to the next destination. At your cost.’

Oh. Hmmm. Fancy making a coach load of people miss the boat? Not something I’d want on my conscience. Fortunately, eventually, we pulled away as the guide told her he’d left a message for the car to go straight to the dock.

Ten minutes later, as we ran for the boat, I could hear my name being mispronounced over a tannoy. Oh my! Bang, bang, bang, up the gangplank and… we were on. Phew.

Who says cruising is for sissies?

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