From 2003 to 2018, Dave lived and worked in GCC countries including UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. He had a great time!
Extreme Heat and Humidity, Qatar style
Where I live, in Doha, it rains maybe five days each year, sometimes less. The other 360 days tend to be sunny and for the six months from mid April to mid October, downright hot. Let's get the numbers out of the way. From June to August, daytime temperatures around 45C (113F) are normal, with occasional heat waves peaking up to 50C (122F). From mid August through September, as the fierce summer temperatures slowly drop from searing to merely roasting, the humidity ramps up to compensate, making it feel even hotter.
There are two ways of dealing with this climate. The way favoured by all the locals and most of the expat community is avoidance, by moving exclusively between air conditioned homes, malls, offices and cars. The other way is to learn to enjoy it. This is best done by getting out and walking. There are challenges, even dangers, in walking in extreme heat. But there are rewards too, such as keeping fit, getting to know the city in intimate detail and the feeling of union with, instead of escape from, the elements, however hostile they might appear.
I invite you to join me on an aimless ramble around Doha. We'll capture a few random pictures along the way and chat about such trivia as hats, shoes and good honest sweat.
You could drive around Doha all day and never know about the camel paddock behind Souq Waqif. You can't see them from the road. These are the ceremonial camels, ridden out on special occasions by an elite uniformed police unit, Doha's equivalent of London's Royal Horse Guards.
To keep your camels cool in the sun, provide each with a light coloured blanket, remembering to cut a large hole in the middle and insert a loose bag to accommodate the hump. The bag may be of maroon fabric, the colour of the national flag.
To keep your head camel-cool, keep the sun off with a good quality wide-brimmed hat. Take it off when in the shade. At drinking fountains, soak the hat with water. This cools your head for the next fifteen minutes as it evaporates. Cold rivulets down your neck and back are very refreshing and the rising steam cloud looks really cool.
Baseball caps worn normally give no protection to the back of the neck. Worn back to front, your face is fully exposed and your IQ drops by 14 points. They are as useful in the desert as a chocolate fireplace. They should never have been invented, not even for baseball. Anyone wearing one in the desert deserves sunstroke.
Up the road about fifteen minutes from the camels is one of the bigger city centre electrical substations. At walking speed, you have time to look at the construction of that wall. For all its Arab ornateness, it's a fortification, pure and simple. These vertical pillars have slotted edges, H-section, if you like. The massive prefabricated concrete panels are dropped in by crane and would withstand a ram-raid assault by a fully laden HGV. They can be removed just as quickly if a main transformer has to be replaced. Qatar takes civil defence seriously. After all, the only land border is with Saudi Arabia. Nothing good is ever going to come from that quarter.
Sun block. Forget it. It's for the beach, when your skin is deliberately exposed to the sun. It's not half as effective as a decent hat, a T-shirt and knee-length shorts. It turns sweat into a chemical slurry. Get that in your eyes and you'll know all about it.
Some of Qatar's Asian girls, mainly Filipinas and Chinese, dispense with hats and carry brightly coloured parasols instead. They look chic and cheerful. (So do the parasols).
Road safety. Walking in extreme heat, your reactions may be slower than you think, especially as fatigue or dehydration sets in. Be very careful of the baby driver lunatics in air conditioned, grossly overpowered 4x4s. They don't see you. As a mere walker, you don't feature in their cocooned Microverse. Pity them by all means, but stay out of their way and don't take chances. Seriously.
In Qatar, driving standards are very low. So low that the authorities, in desperation, have resorted to cartoon policemen (in ceremonial dress) bolted to the poles of warning signs and pointing to the message above. Apparently, drivers who habitually ignore traffic signals, and the signs warning of traffic signals, will change their ways out of respect for two-dimensional authority? What I can tell you is that the ubiquitous metal cutouts have sharp edges and are a genuine hazard to unsuspecting passers-by.
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There's nothing to tell you from the outside, but this Popeye 'Restaurant, Snack Bar & Cafeteria' (what, all three?) is actually Sri Lankan and serves an interesting range of western, oriental and far eastern fare. Last time I ate there I had spiced sweetbreads with glass noodles. I didn't see any spinach though. When I first came to the Gulf, I used to wonder why shop signboards always had the English name first and the Arabic second. They don't of course. If you read right to left, it's the other way around. It's a win-win.
Underwear. Leave it at home. If it's tight, it will be uncomfortable when you sweat. If you're male it will also foil the body's need to carry the testicles lower in the scrotum in hot weather. On the other hand, if it's loose, it serves no purpose at all, except to complicate the waistband area and make you hotter. Think about it: underwear is for sacrificial soiling under normal conditions. That is, you wash it every day so you don't have to wash outer garments quite so often. But in extreme heat, you are going to sweat through the whole lot, so the underwear is just something else to wash.
Note: Tip 5 above referred to lower body underwear only. I'm not qualified to offer advice on bras, never having worn one. Ladies, you're on your own with that decision. I have my own views but I'll keep them to myself.
Something is Afoot
For thousands of years, people in hot countries have known that sandals are the best footwear for walking. Modern running or training shoes are far too warm for these climates and have far more padding than you need for walking. However, real leather sandals take a lot of breaking in. My own preference is for the extremely lightweight (and cheap) flip-flops made by Lee Cooper. I wear out a pair every six months or so, just kicking about town.
I will make an exception for long distances though. If you are planning to walk 10 km or more, to protect your joints and avoid blisters you should wear trainers and put up with hot feet or invest in a pair of proper walking shoes.
I did warn you that the photographs would be a bit random. Whatever caught my eye on my last walk. In Qatar, dental surgeries are just like any other shop. You don't have to register on anyone's panel. If you want some treatment, you just pick your surgery and walk in. If it's not urgent, you can ask for a quote and shop around.
We have a couple of famous namesake dentists, among them Dr Mahmoud Abbas (President of Palestine and leader of Fatah and the PLO). Or if your tastes are more cinematic, we have Dr Susan George who has recently relocated because of the inner city demolition and reconstruction project.
Water and Sweat
Above 37 Celsius (body temperature) different rules apply. Compared with the surrounding air, you are cold. You might feel hot, but the air doesn't care about that. It sees you as a place to dump heat. You are also a place to dump water. When you first step outside on a hot, humid day, you might think you immediately break sweat. You don't. That comes later after some exertion. The water that first coats your body is just condensation. It coats your watch and sunglasses too and a moment's reflection tells you these don't sweat. As already mentioned, a proper hat prevents sunstroke but does nothing to ward off heatstroke. You avoid that by walking at a moderate pace and drinking warm water.
Never pass a drinking fountain without partaking. A little and often is the key. In the Gulf, there is a water fountain outside every mosque and many of the bigger walled villas provide an outside water point as a gesture of hospitality to passing strangers. But when you are very hot, don't drink chilled water as the risk of stomach spasms is quite high. In fact, chilled water is something of a modern Western fad. In hot countries like India and the Middle East water is usually taken at room temperature.
When you get home, remove your sweat-saturated clothes and wrap yourself in a bath towel. 'Warm down' gradually, drinking plenty water and snacking to replace depleted energy. Don't lie down until you have stabilised, re-hydrated and stopped sweating.
The Lesson of the Toast
Conventional wisdom says to favour the morning and evening and to avoid the heat of the day. I disagree with that. I'm not an early morning person and the evenings tend to be the most humid time of the day. Besides which, I know how to make toast. Now, listen:
To make toast, you present the full face of the bread to the radiant element to capture as much heat as you can as quickly as you can. You don't present the edge of the slice to the heat. When folk say that the midday sun is strongest, they are talking about sunbathing, or toasting themselves, not standing upright. For a walker, it's completely different.
Between eleven a.m. and one p.m. when the sun is almost overhead, your hat and clothed shoulders shade your whole body. Earlier and later, the sun's slanting rays beat on you mercilessly. (The afternoon is worst because the air temperature lags behind the sun by a few hours).
Every country has its tough season, whether it's a northern winter or a desert summer. But there is nothing worse than giving in to it, hiding indoors from the weather. Our ancestors were nomadic, hunter-gatherers. We are built for walking. All it takes is a little determination, a little knowledge and a healthy respect for the power of the elements. If you sit indoors, nothing is going to happen; step outside and something just might. Life is good, when you live it.
Thanks for reading!