Falling in love…

…with a city of contradictions.

Beirut is: beautiful, chaotic, ugly, relaxed, noisy, chilled, destroyed, under construction, full, thriving, soulful, bombed out, loving and loved, misunderstood.

Beirut is real.

Beirut smells of petrol, and coffee, and food, and alcohol, and cigarettes, and people.

Beirut is alive.

Live love Beirut

Live love Beirut. Stencil art is everywhere.

One can only do so many visa runs to Dubai while work visas are lost, and sent to the wrong places, and set on fire or whatever has happened to my paperwork.

After a while, hopping back and forth between cities in the Gulf begins to get to you. The Gulf is easy, clean, clinical, and largely soul-less.

In Doha and Dubai the people make the cities, in Beirut the city makes the people.

The early morning flight out of Doha meant that I was able to stretch out across a row of three seats and sleep my way into the chaotic wonderfulness of Lebanon.

My first impression of Beirut was that it was an ugly city, but it only took a few hours for me to realise how wrong I was to think that the bombed out buildings, the windowless shells,the faded facades and French colonnades, were anything but majestic.

Every bullet mark, every pile of crumbling masonry that used to be a building, adds to the soul of the city.

After the pristine building and lifeless streets of West Bay, the thriving, shouting city filled me. As did the excessive amount of food I ate during my 4.5 days there.

Seriously, I think I ate twice my body weight in meat and carbs, hummus and moutabal, bacon and more bacon.

We spent the first afternoon exploring Hamra, one of the main neighbourhoods, and generally getting used to the city and its sounds. A visit to the American University of Beirut campus reawakened my thoughts about going back to university as we explored the lush green grounds. Then I saw some students, all of whom looked about 12, and felt indescribably old.

The main findings on the first day were: realising that there was no such thing as a metered taxi, and that everyone was happy to take Lebanese pounds, American dollars, or a combination of the two. Often change came back in a mix of currencies and we ended up doing unnecessarily complicated maths to work out if what we had in our hands was correct.

Our first evening out was in Gemmazeh, the big bar area where small bars run either side of the street and slowly fill up with a mix of students, tourists, and locals until each one is a mess of noise and laughter.

Being able to drink outside, in the street, for less than 60QR a drink resulted in us both going slightly mad and the evening became a blur of rum, whiskey, and at some point free shots from various happy barmen.

The bars have also adopted either a no smoking inside policy or had clearly defined smoking areas, meaning that when we eventually rolled home, although we probably smelt like a brewery, we didn’t smell like a smoke house as well.

The next morning we headed out to guidebook-recommended ‘Le Chef’ on the same

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

street that had caused our need for a lot of food and coffee in the first place. It ended up being a simple and inexpensive breakfast of Middle Eastern staples; hummus with meat, moutabal, and fatteh. With coffee and juice. This marked the start of our adventure through Lebanese meal times. The food was good and there was a lot of it and we ploughed through while I attempted to get into the groove of speaking French for the first time in years.

Fully restored and ready to face the day we headed to the National Museum and encountered a lovely but mildly insane taxi driver along the way. Had I been in Beirut alone, I would have found the fact that taxi drivers often seemed to have someone else in the front of the car with them fairly intimidating. There are recognised firms which didn’t do this, so if you’re heading by yourself ask your hotel who to use.

The National Museum wasn’t massive, but it is very well curated, with a range of artifacts that nicely embodies the wide-ranging history of Lebanon through the ages.

A quick coffee, a huge plate of shawarma, salad, and fries, an iced tea and a food-coma/nap  depending on your point of view and it was off out to the Corniche to see the Pigeon Rocks, the naturally-formed arches just off the coast.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

A night out in Hamra was a lot more relaxing than our previous evening and after dinner (or in my case mint tea and Shisha) we took a stroll around the bars until we accidentally ran into an old friend of mine.

The rest of the evening was spent learning about Lebanon from the people who live there. My friend chatted freely about the fact that once they got their qualifications, the best educated Lebanese would leave, and only rarely return.

Most people, we were told, were struggling to find work, the economy was shit and Lebanon barely existed as a country, but when we asked about the influx of refugees that come to the country seeking safety from, first Armenia, and more recently Syria there were shrugs and smiles rather than resentment.

“This whole area is full of Syrians now, a lot stay by the borders but a lot of the richer people come here. We don’t mind, it makes the city better. There are more people to party with.”

More food, an early night (12.30) and up the next day to head to Mleeta, ‘Where the land speaks to the heavens,’ acquiring a friend of Dane’s from home along the way.

About a 90 minute ride from Beirut (coaches and cars depart from the Kuwaiti

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

embassy, or if you luck out and find a good driver like we did, go with him,) Mleeta is home to the Resistance Tourist Landmark, a museum slash installation art gallery that tells the story of Hezbollah.

The site was chosen because it was where the resistance fighters positioned themselves against the Israelis. The museum itself is well put together and, while obviously not impartial, it is not as in-your-face one-sided as you might expect. Instead a free guide, a 15 minute introductory film that phrases things in ways that would not fly in history books, and various well-written signs around the place allow the Hezbollah message to sink in without any

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

fist-shaking or banner waving (metaphorical or otherwise.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this museum. You can see outposts that had previously been occupied by Israeli forces and you are bombarded with military imagery and political messages, but at the same time, they put across their message in a very sophisticated way, and the site itself is like an art installation nestled in mountains that have previously been ripped apart by shells and bullets.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

Art played a strong role throughout our trip and after getting back to Beirut (having eaten excessively large chicken taouk on the road) we headed to the Beirut Art Centre to check out some of the modern art on display. The current exhibitions were largely video installations, some of which were interesting while others were close to being pretentious.

Put a bird on it...

Put a bird on it…

The upper level of the gallery had a display of birds depicted through various mediums and any fans of Portlandia will be happy to know that we were able to put a bird on it.

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

The main attraction, however, was the graffiti on the wall outside. Left over from a previous exhibition, the owners of the neighbouring building had asked the centre to use its walls for the displays and leave the work there afterwards.

Another big night out, this time the three of us were back in Gemmazeh and, at my behest, re-visiting a bar that had previously contained a very attractive man behind it. Alas, he was not there, but we still had another evening of excellent drinks in some excellent bars followed by a (probably) excellent burger and a brief argument in which Dane tried to convince me that 10am was too early to leave for Baalbek the next day.

I won, and it was with mild hangovers that the three of us hit the winding road the next morning. I fought sleep and was treated to some stunning views of Lebanon as we wound our way up through the mountains to the ancient site so I could geek out about classics and the boys could revert to being five-year-olds and climb all over the ruins.

After lunch, obviously.

Baalbek looking ominous.

Baalbek looking ominous.

The site includes various temples dedicated to various deities as well as some additional fortifications when it was used as a citadel during the crusader period.

The area was originally settled by the Phoenicians because of its access to water and its position on two major trade routes.

Also it’s super fun to get stuck on top of some of the rocks.

Having been to sites around Italy and Greece, this was one of the best, not least because you don’t have the sterilisation that comes with a fear of law suits so you are free to roam around the ruins as much as you like.

Back to Beirut, playing the alphabet game along the way, and a nap that turned into a two-hour sleep and we were back out in Hamra for dinner and to meet up with another friend of mine.

The next morning was a rush of packing, bacon, losing my passport at the airport, having a mild heart attack, coffee, and back on the plane (this time full of screaming children and not nearly as fun) and back to Doha in time for the rugby.

So that was Beirut (and some surrounding culture.) The choice between Byblos and Baalbek was a tough one and I definitely want to return to see more of the country and learn more about the people that party their way through war and refugees and elections.

Now I’m off to eat steamed vegetables and run until my waistline returns to normal.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.

Unexpected side effects…

…of being unemployed.

OK, so I’m not actually unemployed, but with my visa still held up somewhere in the world unto itself that is immigration, I have no means of earning, no office to go to, and no idea when (or even if, I’m starting to get fairly pessimistic about the whole thing) this situation will be rectified.

In the beginning, the enforced break seemed like a brilliant opportunity. I could relax after being stressed out to the point of near mental collapse, I would be able to read, write, do all the things I never had time to do when I was working because I would come home and curl up into a ball of misery thinking about returning the next day and the one after that.

To a certain extent all of that was true, for a while. This week has seen a dramatic drop in my motivation levels. I am struggling to maintain the momentum I had in the first few weeks of what my friends are calling my ‘funemployment.’

I am beginning to see why people without jobs don’t have spic and span houses, aren’t physically fitter than they are when they are working, aren’t constantly reading or filling their days with productive (albeit free) activities.

The lack of routine, the fact that if I don’t put on clothes today, no-one will know or care, the general indifference that I feel towards nearly everything I do, (because would it matter if I didn’t do it today, I will have just as much free time tomorrow) is really starting to beat me down.

The final straw came today when I wandered down to my building’s mini mart wearing purple yoga pants normally reserved for when I’m on some kind of beach in the middle of nowhere and an oversized England cricket shirt. When did I decide that it was OK to leave my flat wearing what was basically one step away from pyjamas?

I got back to my flat, cooked eggs, was briefly attacked by my cat who likes to do his best to relieve the monotony of my days by acting like Cato Fong, and was halfway through watching a god-awful film when I realised something had to be done.

Naturally, rather than actually DOING anything I decided to write this post.

So here are some things I didn’t expect from unemployment:

1) My gym shoes are falling apart

In my more motivated period (so between Christmas and now) I was working out every day on the basis that there was nothing else to do. Those who know me or read my old blog will know that due to an unfortunate incident that put a land cruiser in the same geographical space being occupied by my rib cage I haven’t been at my most athletic recently. Determined to change that, off I toddled to the gym each morning (I say morning, if I see 10am I think of it as a good day.)

As a result of this combined with a few ill-advised runs outside, the soles of my shoes are falling off (and, in some parts, melted to the Corniche.)

This week, though, even exercise has gone out the window (apart from fencing) – I’m hoping some level of motivation will return, even if it is just not to look like crap if I end up having to go back to England if all this goes belly up.

2) Insomnia

I’m not the most consistent of sleepers. Sometimes I sleep more than the average cat, and at other times I’m lucky to get 3 or 4 hours. Weirdly, when I am stressed out I normally sleep like a baby as my body adopts a head-in-sand approach that can’t be too sound evolutionarily speaking.

Apparently, however, my frustration at not working does not produce the same effect and no matter how much I run, read, write, I lie in bed staring at the ceiling and wishing I didn’t already know how the shadows would change shape during the night. In fact, I sleep properly about twice a week on evenings I have been fencing. I think my coach is now slightly confused by my new-found obsession with having extra training sessions.

3) Hermitting

A friend of mine here used to get incredibly annoyed that I would bail on mid-week parties or dinners or whatevers at about 10. Starting work at 7am meant that I would go just long enough to have been and then bounce. It meant I looked forward to the weekends when I could hang out into the wee small hours.

During my first weeks of unemployment this pattern changed, and my friend was thrilled with the person she dubbed “new, fun, social Flip.”  As the weeks have changed to months, I have started to retreat further and further back into my shell until I have reached the stage that going out to see the people I love and who make this dusty city of skyscrapers and construction noises worthwhile is becoming a physical and mental struggle.

Being alone all day (apart from the ninja cat) has apparently made the thought of being with people a stressful one.

 4) I have the attention span of a child

And a fairly inattentive one at that. In an effort to make my mind as tired as my body I have started piecing together contacts and vague plans for a few stories I have been wanting to work on for a while.

The lack of deadlines and therefore, the lack of imposed prioritising mean that I might spend an hour reading about one country or story or project, and the next five searching out contacts in a totally unrelated field, and finally looking at the cost of flights to somewhere equally unrelated to both my original story ideas.

This post itself is slightly symptomatic of the side effects of my current predicament as I try to make sure I have something to show at the end of my day, that I am not just sitting around, watching the clock, waiting for whoever is wielding that life-changing stamp to crash it on to my paperwork with a satisfying thud.

I wonder if he understands that what, to him, is a second’s work will make the past two months, and the next 12, of my life worthwhile.

 

PS

Apologies for any copy errors, I have a cat sleeping on me.

 

Although he could just be lulling me into a false sense of security.

Archived post the first…

…a few words about my father.

The evaporation of my old blog was not an ideal situation, but I have quickly come to love the format offered here and so I have decided to re-post a few of my previous entries, rather than attempt to salvage the entire site.

After a momentary panic when I realised some of the posts I wanted to upload were nowhere to be found, a friend of mine sent me all my old drafts, that had by some technological wizardry been saved to his Google reader (Hooray for Kian, king among men.)

As Mum was the subject of my last post, I felt it only fair to kick off the archives with a post about my dad.

The below was originally posted on Fathers’ Day (Sunday, 17 June) 2012.

______________________________________________________________

A while ago, I wrote a post about my mum in celebration of Mothers’ Day.

It got some attention and some kind comments and, most importantly to me, my mum liked it.

Then someone said “I can’t wait to read your Fathers’ Day post” and I had a moment of panic.

To me, my parents are the most important people on the planet, but part of what defines our relationship is that we rarely feel the need to express this. It’s just there, as obvious and constant as the baking sun that currently beats down on me everyday (I’m aware this simile doesn’t actually translate to the UK but the sun is very much at the forefront of my mind right now.)

I wrote a list of great things my mum has done and said, and included some of her more obviously wonderful qualities, and it made a surprising number of people happy.

Part of me thinks I could just do that again, but with my dad as the subject. A larger part of me thinks that would be cheating, and that I should do something different in deference to the fact that, right down to the way they put lavatory paper on the holder, my parents are very different people. (Seriously wall side or not – after more than 30 years how have you not agreed on this…)

So on to Fathers’ Day, an event I don’t think I have ever acknowledged with more than a phone call, more often with a text and, far more often than that, with nothing at all. Yes, I’m rubbish.

I think maybe the best thing about my dad is that I know if I didn’t write this, he wouldn’t mind, he wouldn’t feel short changed, he probably wouldn’t notice. I’m really not sure how he is going to react to the fact I am writing it, but then, I don’t really know what I’m writing yet. Let’s find out.

I have a very hazy memory of a TV show or book or some other medium, when someone said the only man a girl can rely on is her father. It was probably in the context of some romantic maelstrom in which the male protagonist was being rubbish in a way that, at what I think was about seven, I didn’t understand or care about.

Despite not really paying attention to the reasons for the statement, the truth behind it seemed to me so obvious I was surprised anyone needed to say it out loud. Obviously my dad is the most reliable human on the planet, why is that even under debate?

At the time of hearing it I could still fit, albeit awkwardly (I was a lanky kid,) into the crook Dad’s legs formed when he fell asleep on the sofa watching Sunday sports.

When I was there, in that nook between his faded blue jeans and the back of our old, brown sofa, I never felt safer. In later years, when I was stressed, or sad, or vulnerable, that was the part of my childhood I retreated to. You know your “happy place?” That’s it.

I don’t think it is that unusual to believe your dad is superman. The fact he used to be able to lift all three of us at once seemed to me like a feat of strength to rival the World’s Strongest Man competition we used to watch together each year. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have this memory.

What my dad always did was protect me.

I vividly remember the time I came off my scooter into a ninja tree (the thing just jumped out) and broke my wrist. At first I was in shock, by the time Dad arrived at where I was lying in the street I was bawling uncontrollably. I can’t remember him saying anything, but I remember the instant feeling of safety that came with his arrival and that stayed with me while he lifted me effortlessly, carried me home, placed me in the back seat of our Cavalier and drove me to the children’s hospital.

As I got older, that protectiveness never turned into “you’re not going out dressed like that.” He was always good at letting me live my life. In fact, in 2009 when I told him I was going to Afghanistan one of his initial questions was “I’m not going to have to look after your cat am I?”

This was followed by a certain degree of paternal concern, but the cat was the thing.

It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I realised some people didn’t have this uncomplicated relationship with their fathers, that there were stresses and strains way beyond the teenage tantrums and rows over mess and back chat and general ungratefulness that we battled through.

No matter how furiously or how frequently we argued, as I became the centre of my adolescent universe and he became increasingly keen to not have teenage children anymore (as the youngest of three I think by the time my 20th came around we had put our parents through the ringer several times,) there was never a time when I thought Dad wouldn’t be there if I needed him.

It wasn’t even a conscious thought that he would be there. It was just a fact, underpinning my life and keeping it so securely on track I didn’t even need to acknowledge its existence.

And through all this, he still found time to be my dad.

To read the Hobbit, the Three Musketeers and PG Wodehouse to me while our tent was being hammered by rain in France.

To teach me the rules of cricket and rugby and to scream and shout with me as catches were dropped and as Johnny Wilkinson kicked a World Cup-winning drop goal.

To write a meal plan at the start of each week so we knew what we were having for tea and to get something different for lunch at school, to cook our meals, and to write the shopping list in the order we’d come to it in Sainsbury’s.

To bake cakes in the shape of elephants and to put up basketball hoops, football goals and to sacrifice his garden to our sports.

To get up every Saturday to take me to Judo, and to pick me up again with various broken limbs.

To endure 5am drives, having dragged me out of bed, to various backwaters, hell holes and cities around Britain so I could fence, dealing with service station sausage and beans on the way and having to sit in the car listening to 5Live once we got there because I was too nervous to let him watch me fight.

Perhaps most importantly, to never once let me win the University Challenge challenge during the 15 or so years we have been playing.

And so to my dad, the most intelligent man I know, the other reason I am as I am, someone who I would never want to let down, but who would never ask anything of me anyway, a man I hope many of you have had the pleasure of meeting, and the one man I can truly rely on, thank you.

dad recovering from the aftermath of my 17th birthday - as exhausted as he looks.

Dad recovering in the aftermath of my 17th birthday.

A Maternal Visitation…

…and Christmas in Qatar.

With the rigmarole surrounding visas and permits and other seemingly arbitrary passport stamps still going strong just before Christmas, it wasn’t clear if I would be able to get an exit visa to leave Doha for the festive season. (Unless you are on a multiple exit visa, your company has to give you an exit visa every time you leave. At the time I was still working for Qatar foundation, but serving my notice period and trying to sort out the debacle of my new work permit.)

With Christmas in the desert looming, my mum took it upon herself to fly over for a two-week visit.

At this point I should point out that this isn’t as self-sacrificing as it sounds, in her own words: “While I’m looking forward to seeing you, sweetheart, I mainly want to be warm and go sailing.”

Many of my friends commented on the length of the stay. Firstly, it is pretty much impossible to keep someone entertained in Doha for a fortnight unless you luck out with the random events and activities that are sporadically hosted in the country, and secondly, they all seemed to think that 14 days living with a parent would be pushing the bounds of sanity.

Mum actually acknowledged this a few days in, saying she had only just realised how stressful she would have found hosting her mother for two weeks.

However, I am incredibly fortunate in that my parents are two of my favourite people on the planet. Not only do I love them, I actually really like them, so Mum being in my home for two weeks was frankly brilliant.

As a frequent traveller (go check out www.notdeadyettravel.com) she is incredibly undemanding when it comes to what she sees and does in a new place, and instead tends to enjoy the experience of just being in a new place. Her trips are normally adventurous and so she was perfectly happy with the slightly more sanitised activites on offer in Doha.

After arriving 90 minutes late because the flight was delayed while they loaded a Ferrari on board (welcome to the Gulf) we spent the first evening chilling out and catching up, while mum wandered around my flat in amazement at the fact we all had en suites and there was a huge balcony.

I often think it takes a visitor to remind me about how word life is in Doha. Mum was amused by the fact that I direct the taxi driver to my home via the five star hotels on the way (a totally normal activity here akin to using pubs or bars as landmarks in the UK) she was thrilled to have a gym in the building and, though she doesn’t swim, commented on the pool. All these things have just become part of my life, but I was pleased to be reminded about how good y standard of living is here compared to how it would be if I had a similar job back in the UK.

Mum’s second evening in Qatar involved driving out to the desert to see a meteor shower. In the end it was more of a meteor drizzle, but lying out under the stars watching the occasional meteor fall to earth is definitely and experience I am pleased to have enjoyed.

I was still working for the first week of Mum’s visit, something I felt bad about but couldn’t be helped. The original plan had been for her to do a sailing course during the day, but this ended up not being possible (which has given her the excuse she needs to come back in a few months.)

I did get one day off in that first week, as Qatar National Day is December 18th.The military parade and display of dhows on the corniche are generally seen as the most impressive parts of National Day, but by the time we began our walk along the

People celebrate by dancing on their cars stuck in traffic jams.

People celebrate by dancing on their cars stuck in traffic jams.

Corniche, much of this had given way to the heavy traffic jams and congestion that have come to be synonymous with the day.

This year was my first National Day not working, and also seemed to be more well organised than the previous year, with the general atmosphere being one of happiness and celebration.

Dhows are traditional Qatari boats, formerly used in Pearl Diving which used to be the country's largest source of income.

Dhows are traditional Qatari boats, formerly used in Pearl Diving which used to be the country’s largest source of income.

Another popular way of celebrating National Day is to decal your car and emblazon it with the face of the Emir and the Heir Apparent. While discouraged this year, there were still many examples to be seen driving between the roundabouts either end of the Corniche.

After our stroll and taking in the feeling of celebration, we decided to chill out by going to see The Hobbit. This might not seem like the best use of time when someone is visiting, but my Mum is a great lover of films and cinema and so it was the perfect way to relax after a long walk in the sun. (Yes, it was sunny in December.)

One thing that drives me insane about Qatar is the fact that people will happily talk continuously through films, often on their phone explaining that they are in the cinema. On one occasion, when I kindly told a Lebanese friend of mine to shut up or I would rip his voice box out, he responded “but I’m talking about the film…” and was genuinely surprised that this DIDN’T MAKE IT OK TO TALK.

The VIP seats. Ridiculous.

The VIP seats. Ridiculous.

Aaaaanyway, we opted for the VIP screening, one because it was the next available showing, and two because spending 100QR on a ticket would presumably drastically reduce the chances of people chatting their way through the screening, unwittingly risking their lives in the process.

The traffic jam lasted well into the evening.

The traffic jam lasted well into the evening.

One of the benefits of having Mum at home while I was at work was that I came home to a clean flat, clean clothes, and a mildly perturbed cat who wasn’t really sure how to deal with the fact that he was having to share his alone time with the first human he had ever met who was totally indifferent to his cuteness.

In fact, it was the first time since I moved in to my current place that all my clothes were clean at the same time. My wardrobe is smaller than I thought. Or I need to get rid of some clothes. Probably the first one.

Souq Waqif, the main souq in Doha, was a good source of distraction for an afternoon and we went for food and shisha and mooched about the shops that alternate between fairly traditional-looking gift shops to brands like Haagan Daz and back again. As ever with Doha, general meandering resulted in the previously undiscovered treasure of a new art gallery in the middle of the souq, which contained a variety of calligraphy sculptures and other unadvertised gems from regional artists.

A visit to the Museum of Islamic Art, which offers an interesting mix of stunning artifacts and a total lack of information about said artifacts, also proved a hit as the building itself has one of the most stunning atriums (atria?) in the city.

The set collection doesn’t have a great deal of detail about the origin or purpose of the pieces on display, but the temporary exhibition that was on when we went was an exploration of the Arab renaissance  and the influence it had on the Western world and showed that leading British and European Scientists, including founding members of the Royal Society often learnt Arabic to be able to translate the work of their Middle Eastern peers.

The Museum of Islamic Art

The Museum of Islamic Art.

Katara – The cultural village is, as I said to Mum, “a collection of interesting stuff.” While she originally didn’t find this to be a very useful description, it is hard to say anything else about the place.

My normal tactic when I decided to while away an afternoon there is to wander aimlessly into buildings and see what is inside. When mum and I went we discovered an exhibition of photos from the Galapagos Islands, a study of the remaining indigenous rain forest tribes, a series of portraits of people who shaped the Middle East (from dictators and suicide bombers to athletes and great thinkers) and a Chinese artist’s exhibition on assassinated political leaders.

After a wander we had dinner at one of the restaurants, all of which are wonderful and

Not that I corrupted mum or anything...

Not that I corrupted mum or anything…

far cheaper than the hotel restaurants as they don’t serve alcohol. There was just time for some shisha and then we headed to the latest offering by the Doha Film Institute.

DFI is a great concept and works hard to bring films by independent film makers that would otherwise be over-looked to Qatar. Their patrons are largely ex-pats, but they also make a huge effort to show films by local or regional directors. Every year the Doha Tribeca Film Festival attracts more big names and more attention. Also, the ceiling of its cinema looks like it is made of stars and is one of my favourite rooms in Doha.

That pretty much brings us up to the big day – Christmas in 25 degree heat. Annoyingly enough, I got an exit visa in time for Boxing Day and so flew out at 9am on December 26th for two weeks at home.

Christmas itself was surprisingly excellent. A friend and I decided to host an day for Doha’s festive orphans in her place (a few floors above mine) and stocked up on food, games, and booze for the day.

My fellow-organiser managed to break her wrist putting up Christmas lights a few weeks before, and I perfectly happily took on the role of kitchen hand (boom boom) and did all the chopping and kneading necessary to accommodate her vastly superior cooking skills.

The thing I liked immediately when I came to Doha was how friendly everyone was. We have all been in the same position, new and knowing nobody, so houses are opened to relative strangers, who will more than likely turn in to friends.

Secret Santa.

Secret Santa. Helicopters are a great gift for a 20-something.

The morning’s activities were fairly low key, eggs benedict, Secret Santa, Christmas hats in the sun. As the day wore on, more and more people arrived, bringing with them favourite family dishes, traditional fayre from their country (Australians eat fish on Christmas -weird) and general good will. People who knew us but had never met each other were chatting, and sharing, and forming new friendships, some of which lasted beyond that one day.

With the perfect timing of the consummate avoider of housework, I ducked out to pack at about 10pm, and the party was still going strong.

I didn’t see the aftermath as I jetted home early the next day, my new noise-cancelling headphones blocking out the sounds of screaming children as I nursed a mild hangover, but I imagine it wasn’t great.

Sorry about that, Jessie.

Cricket, tea…

…mountains, and beaches.

I have just realised that I have unconsciously adopted the Oxford comma into my writing style. Damn it.

Anyway, the encroaching Americanisms aside, I think it is high time I wrote up my jaunt to Sri Lanka, which happened way back in September.

Followers of the old blog might recall my double post chronicling (wait, one ‘l’ or two? Who knows anymore…) a trip to Jordan with a good friend from university. (I am actually planning to re-post that and other entries on to this site when I find the time and inclination.)

A large part of that trip involved a pervy driver moving his rear view mirror around to keep my friend in his sights at all times. This was not only deeply creepy, but also flies in the face of all reasonable safe driving practices.

As Uzi, my companion for this trip, is less blonde and considerably more male, we didn’t attract the same type of attention, although from our first stop the concept of people of opposite genders who weren’t a couple travelling together seemed to cause a surprising degree of confusion. Requests for two beds were met with confused look and, in one case, a plaintive cry of “but whyyyyy” aimed at a rather bemused Uzi.

Our visit to Sri Lanka was planned around the Twenty20 World Cup matches (that’s cricket, for all my friends from over the pond) so we were somewhat limited regarding the distances we could move from Colombo and Kandy, where the majority of the England and Pakistan games were being played.

Kandy Stadium at sunset - a pretty great way to watch the cricket

Kandy Stadium at sunset – a pretty great way to watch the cricket.

The first few days also didn’t really go according to plan due to me getting gastric flu just before our departure, resulting in various horrible experiences that created a close friendship out of what had originally been a trip planned on a mutual love of cricket and the knowledge that we wouldn’t kill each other after two weeks of being together every waking minute. (Every disgusting cloud has a silver lining, I guess.)

Once we got moving, however, I fell in love with Sri Lanka almost immediately.

You will all be relived to know I am not going to go into detail about the cricket, (summary: England were terrible in the midst of the KP debacle and having a good, but young captain and Pakistan lost to India. I switched loyalties as soon as England were eliminated and sported a Sri Lanka shirt for the rest of the trip, I saw the Aussie team warming down in the pool next to where we were having dinner and can’t remember most of the meal,) instead I am going to focus on the bits in between the games and the being violently sick.

First off, a shout out to our driver/tour guide/saviour Tyronne who is one of the greatest people I have ever met while travelling around. (If anyone is heading to Sri Lanka hit me up for his contact details.)

A contact of a contact, we pretty much thought we would only use him for the airport pick up and the long journeys between cities that would take too long by train. In the end he became an indispensable source of wisdom, information, and advice and he helped us out nearly every day of our trip, from ringing people to find us a room in a fully-booked city to letting us leave all our bags in his van so we weren’t weighed down while room hunting or sightseeing.

The road between Colombo and Kandy offers stunning views, the greenery was breathtaking, (this might be due to the fact that we were both coming from a steel and glass city in the middle of a sandpit – I have been known to bounce up and down in my plane seat on the first aerial view of England’s patchwork fields on my trips home) but after taking that road several times, sometimes overnight straight from a late-night game to be in the next city in time for an early afternoon one the next day, the long journey would have been considerably less fun if not for Tyronne’s stream of information about Sri Lanka, stories about the aftermath of the war, and the glimpse he gave us into the religious and social make-up of the country he so obviously loves.

With four major religions, disparate societies, and topography that spans beaches, mountains, tea plantations, and major cities, it is safe to say I would happily settle in Sri Lanka and never get bored of the place.

As this happened some time ago, the actual order we did things in has escaped me, but Uzi and I managed to see a plethora of places that did not involve cricket stadiums.

The botanical gardens in Kandy were a treat, coming as we were from the flora-deprived Doha, and we spent a happy few hours wandering, writing, and snapping away. Uzi also noticed with great joy that it was cheaper for him to get into tourist attractions than it was for me with my unmistakable English-ness obviously acting as some kind of faulty signal of wealth.

I didn’t really begrudge the cost though, it was still fairly cheap and anything to help Sri Lanka’s economy and efforts towards eco-tourism is fine with me.

Also, it looked like this:

A couple taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens - Kandy. I loved their umbrella

A couple taking a stroll through the Botanical Gardens – Kandy. I loved their umbrella.

On another visit (or possibly the same one, I just can’t be sure) to Kandy we went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple that houses a tooth of the Buddha himself, although I was mainly interested in the monkeys that scamper about in the garden.

Flowers offered in prayer at the Temple of the Scared Relic of the Broken Tooth

Flowers left in prayer at the temple.

On the Buddhist flag, blue represents loving peace, kindness, and universal compassion; yellow is the middle path - avoiding extremes; red shows the blessings of practice - achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune, and dignity; white represents the purity of Dharma; finally, orange represents the wisdom of the Buddha's teachings.

The Buddhist flag at the temple.

Guides in the temple have to be fully accredited so we could not use Tyronne for this part of the journey. The guy we ended up with certainly knew his stuff, but was far too keen to hammer through the tour and direct where we went. Both Uzi and I take a far more wandering-about-and-looking-at-stuff approach to everything and at one point had to tell him to chill out and let us sit and contemplate stuff for a bit.

On the Buddhist flag, blue represents loving peace, kindness, and universal compassion; yellow is the middle path – avoiding extremes; red shows the blessings of practice – achievement, wisdom, virtue, fortune, and dignity; white represents the purity of Dharma; finally, orange represents the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.

I pretty much just annoyed Uzi until he let me go and play with the orphaned elephants

I pretty much just annoyed Uzi until he let me go and play with the orphaned elephants.

Fairly early-on in the trip I managed to annoy Uzi into going to the elephant orphanage on the road between Colombo and Kandy. Some of these organisations have received some criticism for not preparing the animals for re-release and for making profit from tourists, but strives are being made to address these issues and a lot of the money raised now goes to conservation and preservation

Needless to say, my nieces and nephew all got an elephant poo notebook...

Needless to say, my nieces and nephew all got an elephant poo notebook…

of the country’s wildlife. My particular favourite way of making money were the slightly over-priced but utterly brilliant products made from elephant poo.

This guy is a mahoot - they take the orphaned elephants for food and a bath in the river every day.

This guy is a mahoot – they take the orphaned elephants for food and a bath in the river every day.

I have already mentioned the diverse topography of the country, and this goes hand in hand with a mix of weather – sometimes all of them in the same day. Fortunately, because we were there for cricket, the monsoon season was not on our side of the country, but we were hit with pretty much everything else.

On one of the down times between games, we headed up into the mountains and Nuwara Eliya. Nicknamed ‘little England,’ the tiny town is like an Agatha Christie novel in the middle of a mountain range. Rose-lined gardens, cottages, hotels decked out in 1940s and 50s style furnishings, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to see Poirot fastidiously making his way across one of the immaculate lawns.

Uzi on our walk round the lake in Nuwara Eliya, or Sri Lanka's 'little England.'

Uzi on our walk round the lake in Nuwara Eliya, or Sri Lanka’s ‘little England.’

Our mountain adventure had two main components. One was a hike through Horton Plains National Park at 5am to see a drop dubbed ‘World’s End.’ The freezing temperatures at the start of the walk meant that Uzi and I were both wearing more layers than we had for several months, much to the amusement of Tyronne who informed me English people normally didn’t feel it as badly as me. Apparently being in Doha has made me incredibly nesh.

So. Much. Tea. Tea pickers, usually women, a paid by the weight they manage to pick each day.

So. Much. Tea.

We also took time out on the drive up to stop off at a tea plantation/factory/museum to learn about the tea-making process. The pickers, usually women, are paid by how much weight they manage to pick each day, with a minimum requirement. While it can be dangerous sometimes, with snake bites and other injuries, plantations like Mackwoods also provide education centres etc for the families. The tea is dried out and goes through a whole bunch of processes (technical I know) and is then bagged up and shipped out.

The tea is dried out and goes through a whole bunch of processes (technical I know) and is then bagged up and shipped out.

Bagged up tea, ready for shipping.

From the bone-level cold of the mountains to the warmth of Galle, Galle Fort and Unawatuna, the beach where we stayed in an amazing guest house called The Kingfisher (as recommended by Tryonne.)

With the beach came some much-needed warmth and relaxation. As we were not there in tourist season there was not the pressure from shop owners to come in and buy their stuff that you might expect. I really enjoyed the attitude of ‘I have awesome stuff, you can buy it or not, it is still awesome.’

In Galle Fort we also found Vintage Posters & Postcards, owned by some friends of friends that stocks (unsurprisingly) vintage posters and postcards of films made in Sri Lanka, as well as adverts for Ceylon’s new railway, tea, and (to my delight an immediate purchase) a poster advertising the first test match between England and Sri Lanka.

Unawatuna also boasted the best prawn and mango curry I have ever eaten. Seriously, I would fly back just for that.

Sunset at a restaurant near Unawatuna beach.

Sunset at a restaurant near Unawatuna beach.

One of the last games we went to, along with Tyronne as a final thank you, was Sri Lanka vs England. A lot happened in that game, incluing me being used as a sign post for everyone else on the embankment (the Sinhalese for “I’m near the tall English girl, come find me” was apparently thrown about a fair bit near where I was standing,) but mainly what happened was that, ignoring a few idiots, all the Sri Lankans on the embankment with us were friendly and funny and perfectly happy to rib and be ribbed by two random tourists. Also, I might be on quite a lot of Sri Lankan’s Facebook pages looking confused as to why people are taking my picture.

A final word, which is kind of about cricket and kind of not. When we booked our

We gave these boys some tickets to the England vs Afghanistan game - 50 cents for a whole lot of happy!

We gave these boys some tickets to the England vs Afghanistan game – 50 cents for a whole lot of happy!

tickets for the games, Uzi and I were both confused by how cheap the seats were. When we arrived we realised it was so the locals, adults and children alike could afford to go and watch the games from the embankments. This is a great example of the over-all impression I got of Sri Lankans; that they care and they think about the people that matter and live and work there. The T20 CWC was for them, we just turned up.

Your typical Colombo street scene, right next to where we picked up all our tickets.

Your typical Colombo street scene, right next to where we picked up all our tickets.

An adventure…

… through bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is one of those words that I have to think very carefully about when I am writing it down. Previously, this never seemed like much of an issue. I never had call to write it with enough frequency that the time it takes me to work out how all the vowels line up had any real impact on my day.

Now, with my daily dose of paperwork, stamps, signatures, scans, originals, and visa runs I am ranting about the red tape that is wrapped around this beige country so often I think if I added up the seconds used thinking about ‘a’s and ‘e’s I would probably have enough time to listen to a song or run a kilometre. Not particularly time-consuming activities, admittedly, but you get the point.

My pursuit of the lesser-spotted work visa began back in November when I quit my job at Qatar Foundation.

Qatari employment law means that if you leave one job here, you have to get a letter (NOC) from your current employer saying they give permission for you to move to another company within Qatar. In the absence of this letter you can’t work back here for two years, which is a bit of an issue as all my stuff is here.

So QF gave me that letter. In Arabic. On the last day of my two-month notice period. Which wasn’t at all stressful.

Anyway, that done, I thought happy days were not far away and confidently skipped off to my new employer, letter in hand, thinking my new visa would soon be mine and proudly mounted on the wall above my bed.

But the work visa is an elusive beast and because my new job is a six month contract I apparently needed a different letter from QF’s immigration department saying I could leave the country when they cancelled my residency and then come back in on a six month business visa with the new company.

Now, stay with me, this is where things get complicated, or as I think of it, so unbelievably  confusing I just might cry on someone if it doesn’t get sorted out soon.

On requesting the letter from QF’s immigration, I was told they could only release it if my new employer wrote a letter formally requesting the first letter. Or something.

Again I went back to my new company and furnished myself with what I believed to be the weapon needed to finally trap my work visa in an unpenetrable net. (OK, I don’t hunt so this metaphor could be getting slightly stretched at this point.)

BUT NO! The letter must be signed by someone with a something something immigration number something something. I’m not going to lie, at this point I had tuned out when it came to the reasons behind me having done something wrong and just did as I was told without questioning the logic. If they had told me to go to North Korea to trap a unicorn and get it to sign my visa in triplicate I probably would have been on the first flight.

While all this was going on I enjoyed a very genteel temporary deportation as QF had to cancel m residency permit. This essentially involved a jolly to Dubai where I hung out with friends, drank coffee, moaned for a bit, and then flew back to Qatar on a tourist visa to give myself and my new employer a bit of time to line up some water fowl. And shoot them, if we’re going to continue the somewhat tenuous imagery I chose for this post.

So that is where I am. Paperwork floats around my new company’s HR department waiting for some mythical signature before I can be given a letter requesting a letter ok-ing my visa.

In the meantime I go to the gym, read a lot, and hit people with swords and the lesser-spotted work visa frolics free around the sand dunes of Qatar, its long ears flapping in the breeze.