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Day One – To Doha and on to Bangkok

June 19, 2009

Whew, I almost started today in a very bad way. Last night I had to get a few last minute items at the Mall of the Emirates. It took quite a bit longer than I expected and I finally got back to the hotel around 11:30. I went against my usual way of doing things and packed before going to bed. I usually wait until the morning that I leave. I set my Blackberry alarm to wake me up at 4 and as a backup had the hotel call me at 4:15. It had been a very busy day so it took a while to finally doze off, but when I did I was completely out. So far out that I have no idea if my phone alarm worked. Thankfully at 4:15 someone said something on the phone that got me out of bed. When you are that tired, it doesn’t matter what the person says because I had to use my entire brain to remember how to say: OK, I am up.

My flight was at 7 and Dubai airport is not a place to arrive at the last minute. To make things worse, Qatar is an airline I have never flown, so I have ZERO status. From then on until check-in, everything was going according to plan. Well, maybe I started second guessing a little bit earlier. In the taxi I noticed that Qatar allows a single bag that is 7kg or less. Thankfully I left the bag with the Cisco router and my work laptop at our Dubai office, but I still had my other bag with me. Let me tell you, this ain’t light. With the D700, battery pack, extra battery for the battery pack, 3 extra batteries for the body, 20/2.8, 50/1.4, 80-200/2.8, SB400, binoculars, Zune, IXUS880, Gitzo 1541t, Gitzo 1780QR, Asus eeePC 1000HE, Flip MinoHD, 2 external hard drives, and lots of other little things like wires, battery chargers, pens, and more, I am surprised my arm is still attached to my shoulder.

As soon as I actually reached the airport I realised that this wasn’t going to be like my usual trip to the airport. When you first get into the terminal, there is usually a long queue to go through the metal detectors before the check in counters. Today there were 3 people in front of me. When I got to the Qatar check-in counter there were only 2 or 3 in front there too. I noticed there was only one check-in agent who was weighing every carry on bag and when he waved over to me to step forward, I started to panic. I wondered if I could somehow hide the bag somewhere.

He weighed my checked bag and I noticed it was just a little over weight. Crap! Then he asked if I had any carry ons. Ummm…one. Somehow my throat managed to get all clogged up right at that time. Ahem…one. Put it on the belt so I can have it weighed, he told me. Crap! As I lifted it onto the belt, he reached down to attach an Approved Carry On Item tag. I don’t think he ever looked at the scale’s display before I quickly removed it. He probably just saw the ThinkTank Urban Disguise bag and thought it was a standard laptop bag. He handed me my tickets and let me go. Whew, I made it.

Around the corner, I was very disappointed to see no lines at the second security line. I only like to see those lines when I have a shortcut through and in Dubai its the eGate card. This is a program which involves some sort of minimal background check, biometric scan, and the exchange of a few Dirhams. With the card, its a quick swipe and then a thumbprint scan and you are through. But again, this is most satisfying when there is a huge line for the regular folks, which wasn’t there this morning.

At the Qatar gate, I noticed there were plenty of others with very oversized bags, so I needn’t have worried too much. On the plane, there were probably more empty seats than full ones. Often even in those cases, I manage to get the one person in a middle seat right next to me. But not this time. I did get one fellow passenger on the aisle of my seat block. And he turned out to be one of the most interesting people I have sat next to for a very long time. He was on his way from Dubai to go home to Virginia. What made it so interesting was that he was Iraqi, and served on the CPA in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. In fact he was just back there a few weeks ago. It was fascinating to hear his views on the current state of the country as well as how different it is compared to when he was growing up there.

I mentioned that the closest I had ever been to Baghdad was in the skies above on a KLM flight from Dubai to Amsterdam. On one of those flights, the entire plane became very nervous as the plane made a 360 degree turn right above the war-torn city. The captain came on to assure us that we were just in a small holding pattern due to traffic over Europe. I thought he could have chosen a place for that where the natives might not cut our heads off if we survive a crash landing.

My flight companion had a similar story of 360s above Baghdad, though a bit more nerve-racking. When he first started his job in Iraq in 2004, they flew to Kuwait on a scheduled airline flight. From there they flew a military transport plane to Baghdad. He was shocked at how maneuverable this massive contraption was. Normally when a plane comes in for a landing, it gradually descends in a straight line. But when US military planes fly into places like the Green Zone, they come down in a very tight spiral until they land. That way they are relatively protected from most of the surface to air missiles used by the less friendly types. In fact, he had to ask a friend why there were fireworks being set off at night in the city. Apparently when some types of aircraft come in, they set off enormous fireballs to confuse the heat-seeking guidance systems in some of the more advanced missiles. 

It was fascinating for me. Iraq is definitely a place I would love to visit some day. Its going to be a long time before it will be safe enough to go, but there is much to see. In fact, there is so much in the whole region I am very eager to see. Places like Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria all have locations that are somewhere on my list. Again, those trips are a long way off and my seat mate agreed.

Doha Airport is a pretty basic place. I thought it was very small considering how many big planes were waiting on the tarmac. There was another security line to get into the main airport which felt like it took forever. My connection was just over one hour so I began to get a bit nervous, but after the initial squeeze into the lines, it seemed to move pretty quickly. On the plane I was very disappointed. This was a flight I would be on for 6 and a half hours. I have never been on a plane with such a small seat. The seat in front of me was fully upright and my knees pushed it ever further forward because there was just no room. I thought this was going to really suck. But when they closed the doors, most of the seats were empty so I managed to find a row to myself. Wonderful. Service is good, food is OK. Entertainment system is a bit ancient, but better than some airlines. Not sure where they get the “5-Star” rating from. I guess on that scale, United and some of the other US carriers must be 6- and 7-star carriers. How many stars does a perfect airline get?

The flight felt very short. I had the entire row to myself but I didn’t use it to stretch out. Watched a movie, 12 Rounds, tried a second, Watchmen, but gave up since it was a bit boring. Guess I needed to read the comic book first. And before I knew it we were getting ready to land in Bangkok. Those who know me will probably be surprised that I get worried over little things so much. I had something new to worry about. The flight attendants informed us that Bangkok is using thermal scanners to single out potential swine flu victims to quarantine. Considering the fact that I spent much of this week talking and teaching a class, my throat is a bit raw and a flight aggravates that a bit and makes me cough. Add to that the way that everyone on the planet, especially the far east, seems to be completely overreacting to this minor issue. How many people have died from this? 200? A thousand even? In the entire world??? In a few months?? This is crazy. More people die in the US in that time from the common flu or from crossing the street. So when I made it through the line unscathed, I was very relieved. I think I owe it again to the attendant not paying attention to his duties.

Anyway, I make it through security, customs, and pick up my bag. And then I have to figure out how to get to the Airport Novotel Shuttle. I see a sign that says Level 2 Gate 4. There are no signs saying what floor I am on now so I am a little confused. The escalator seems to point to level 2 being up a level, so I take it up. But at the top, I am now at level 3. Dammit, I was on Level 2. So I try to go right down, but the other escalator is also going up. I walk down about 100 meters and find the next escalator going down, but you have to have some airport pass to get down there. And there are guys with guns preventing me from ignoring the sign. So I walk further to an elevator…an elevator that does not stop at 2. Another 100 meters finally gets me to an escalator down but now there is another one of those signs between me and gate 4. Crap! I explain to the guard my situation (I don’t think he understood anything but Novotel) and he let me through. And that was it. Its 8PM now and I am sitting in my room. Nice place, very comfortable room, beautiful lobby. Now I have 4 hours to rest before my sister arrives from San Antonio. Hmmm…nap time? I think I will ask for a wake up call just to be safe…

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