When England make their embarrassing group-stage exit at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, there will be the inevitable excuse that “it was too hot”. Having spent two weeks in the Gulf State myself, I’ll have to agree. Not only is it the hottest place I’ve ever been to, it sparked my interest in visiting unusual destinations and inspired me to become a travel writer.
Qatar has a large expat population of migrant workers such as Indian manual labourers, Filipino maids and British schoolteachers. In 2002, I went to stay with friends teaching out there, and spent my days melting while they were at work.
The country has a population of just over 2 million, and most live in the biggest city – the capital, Doha – where I stayed.
Temperatures rarely drop below 40°C, and often rise beyond 50°C in summer. This is when FIFA currently plans to hold the World Cup (if they don’t take it away from Qatar because of allegations of bribery). You’d be crazy to walk on the streets here – it’s air-conditioned taxis to air-conditioned shopping malls, hotels, museums and restaurants all the way – unless you fancy taking a shower every hour to wash off the sweat.
So what else can be said of Qatar other than the heat? Well, I always say everything you need to know about a place can be summarise into three categories: food, booze and sport.
Lovers of ethnic cuisine will find something they like in Doha without too much trouble. With tens of thousands of migrant workers from South and South East Asia, we feasted on some excellent meals.
Qataris are not even the largest ethnic group in their own country, with the estimated 280,000 locals lagging behind Indians and Nepalese. Even so, I had to visit a traditional Qatari restaurant while I was there. To be honest, Qatari food is nothing to write home about and, as you can tell from the photo below (roasted dove and salad), it’s never going to make anyone fat.
As a strict Arabic country, alcohol is frowned upon and is only available to tourists at international hotels. When I was there, there were barely a dozen of these including the Sheraton (top photo), which was our local. A quick look at Trivago tells me there are now well over 100 household-name hotels, and they’re not too badly priced if you fancy a bit of 5-star luxury.
However, beer doesn’t come cheap. I remember paying £6 for a pint of Fosters, a beer I’d normally turn my nose up at. But despite its questionable quality, it was one of the most memorable pints of my life. Served ice-cold, it was just what the doctor ordered after a scorching day in the Gulf. God knows how much it would cost now, 12 years after my visit!
As well as hosting major tennis and golf opens, Qatar has something of a football scene. If it manages to hold on to the World Cup in 2022, expect state of the art stadia to be in the public eye. Although three existing grounds will be used and renovated, nine new zero-carbon, air-conditioned stadia will be built from scratch.
Ten years ago, the Qatari domestic league (“Qatar Stars League”) was the kind of place big-name professional footballers would go to end their careers and earn massive salaries. When I was there, South American legends Romário and Gabriel Batistuta played at the Doha clubs Al-Sadd and Al-Arabi respectively.
These days, it is rare for the modern footballer to choose the Middle East over the USA or Australia for his swansong.
This trip not only ignited my interest in visiting unusual places (I’ve never been to Paris, but have seen large parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Baltics), but it sparked my interest in travel-writing.
As soon as I got back, I submitted a 500-word piece to my local paper, The Coventry Telegraph, who gave me a double-page spread (below) when they published it a few weeks later. Although they didn’t pay me, I thought this might be the start of a successful travel-writing career, but twelve years later, I’m still no closer to being the Simon Calder of the West Midlands.
I’ve had plenty of travel stories published in the Coventry Telegraph and the Birmingham Mail over the years, but never made the next step up. A website paying contributors came along (www.simonseeks.com) with promises to revolutionise the travel-writing industry, but when my first monthly pay cheque was £6.42, it finally sunk in that I was never going to be able to give up the day-job.
I’ve been blogging at www.abitofculture for over two years now and consider it a fulfilling and addictive hobby – now you know it has its roots in the Middle East and overpriced lager.