A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait International Airport

Kuwait, the airport, is just weird. Entry into the terminal is through a bizarre scrum of four gates leading to different check-in areas for different airlines, with cars honking at each other outside and a constant flow of passengers, trolleys and porters trying to squeeze through both in and out. If going to Zones 2 or 3, you first have to trudge through an honest-to-Allah multilevel shopping mall, complete with Debenhams department store and Harley-Davidson outlet; on the other side, finally, lies Check-In Zone 3 for local LCC Jazeera (crammed full of pax) and Qatar (almost queueless). After a brief scare of demanding proof of my Singapore residency, successfully bluffed by flashing my Access Card (which is no such thing, but has enough state seals, embedded photos and IC contacts to make it look terribly convincing), I was checked in and could start wondering how I’d spend the next two hours.

The inside of the airport is old-fashioned but well-maintained. The gates go from number 1 to number 26, which might make you think KWI is pretty big, but unfortunately everything between 7 and 20 appears to be missing. There’s a boozeless but nonetheless amazingly popular dutyfree (why, I know not; an iPod Shuffle 1GB costs nearly twice what it does in Singapore), a McD’s/Pizza Hut, a Costa Coffee, and that was it. Except for a Ghiraoui chocolate boutique, which I inspected in detail, playing a fun game of “spot the chocolate” by comparing the unlabeled pralines with an illustrated brochure, and eventually handing over my last five dinars to the equally bored (but rather cute) Filipina salesgirl in exchange for rather more than 5 KD worth of chocolate.

On the way in it was the ammo boxes, on the way out it was the soldiers: none in full uniform, mind you, but those GI Joe haircuts, desert camo everything and combat boots are a bit of a giveaway. Even some of the Filipina ladies were toting about “US Army Reserve”-branded bags.

And that was that. Boarding was ordered, we were marched into the airline by tube (no buses here), and the Kuwait Towers loomed on the horizon as we did a few turns and then set off to Doha and home.

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A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait City

Kuwait was rather more fun than I expected. My arrival wasn’t particularly propitious: it took me over an hour to get my on-arrival visa, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the hotel, the city was wreathed in a persistent slow-motion sandstorm for the first three days, filling the air and even the swimming pool with dust, and at work half the hardware on site was missing and the customer’s idea of reasonable timelines was rather different from ours. But the Courtyard Kuwait City is a mind-bogglingly amazing hotel for a Courtyard, our partner’s technical people were actually competent (such a refreshing change from the usual), and Kuwait had one immense advantage over my previous work site: it’s not Saudi Arabia.

It only slowly sunk into me how different these two “conservative Islamic” countries are. Yes, both ban alcohol and pork and like to execute drug smugglers… but that’s about it, as in almost all other things, Kuwait is infinitely more laissez-faire than the Saudis. Women can, and do, wear pretty much what they want, with a remarkable array of head-turners at the (ultra-expensive) Arraya Centre mall next to the hotel and some even lounging about in bikinis at the hotel pool. Music in public is allowed, which — even subconsciously — just makes a huge difference to how lively a restaurant or shop feels. And while prayer calls were piped into shopping malls and echoed along the streets, nobody cared if you trotted off into the mosque or not. Saudi papers, and streets, and TV shows, are full of effusive paeans to the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques HH King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the vast tentacular branches of the al-Sauds; Kuwaiti papers, on the other hand, are full of Parliament debates, squabbles between voting blocks, elections, demonstrations and all the noisy trappings of a democracy; while Kuwait certainly isn’t a real one, it certainly feels like one, and even the occasional paeans to the wisdom and sagacity of HH the Amir were usually tucked away on page C17.

Above all, though, the best thing about Kuwait is just that you could feel at ease: in Saudi, you’re always a little on edge, not even because of the ethereal threat of terrorism but just always being a little unsure if you’re staying within the tightly prescribed boundaries of Allowed behavior…

The downside to visiting Kuwait in late June, though, is the heat. After the dust storm and its momentary (comparative) coolness wore off, the mercury crept closer and closer to 50 degrees, making the daytime feel literally — not figuratively, literally — like a sauna. Metaphoric saunas are usually associated with humidity, but no, the real thing is actually quite dry, and that’s how it’s in Kuwait too: you can walk outside for a few minutes, thinking “gee, now that’s hot”, before you start to sweat. But the evenings were quite tolerable, and even the daytime furnace heat was almost enjoyable if spent at the Courtyard’s breezy rooftop pool, which by afternoon had heated to the point that the jacuzzi next to it was usually cooler.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha Airport

Qatar is the world’s only country whose name starts with the letter Q, and they don’t let you forget it: in the five-minute ride from plane to terminal, you pass signs for QAS, QAAC, QNB, QJet and QTel. But DOH is also the closest I’ve seen to an airline monoculture anywhere in the world: both planes on the tarmac and flights on the information boards were 95% Qatar Airways. The DOH-based frequent flyer isn’t going to have much choice.

The airport is amazingly small and unpretentious for what may be the world’s richest country’s main gateway: one runway, one small rectangular main terminal with no jetaways, only buses. On the inside, DOH feels like a recently-built airport in a small city in a rich European country: slick, modern, supremely efficient, yet without the slightest bit of the usual Arabic penchant for ostentation with gold paint, chandeliers, palm trees and whatnot. Even duty free feels downright restrained. Enjoy it while it lasts, they’re already busily building a new DOH which will be umpteen times larger…

I had tight connections both ways — 1:20 on the way in, a scary-sounding 0:50 on the way out — but Doha’s minimum connecting time is 45 minutes and, indeed, everything worked like clockwork. I would even have had time to duty-free shop on the way back, but at midnight the queues at the registers were long and I was scared out of line by snippy “passengers on the flight to Singapore report to gate for IMMEDIATE boarding!” announcements coupled with a boarding pass admonition to show up 20 minutes before departure… which (inevitably) just left me with time to drum my fingers in the bus departure lounge. Gah.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Kuwait on Qatar Airways

The Firm recently found itself with a customer in Iraq, but visiting Baghdad being presently contraindicated for unbelieving khawagas like myself, I was asked to visit the next best thing — Kuwait. Always ready to check another Gulf state off my list, I accepted the offer and set off figuring out how to get there on Singapore. There are no direct flights, and I first looked at Thai via BKK, but they only fly three times a week and the schedule didn’t fit. Going through DXB on SQ and/or Emirates would have required two long layovers on the return leg, although detouring via Sri Lanka did sound kind of interesting… but in the end, I decided to try out Qatar for the first time: the schedule was excellent, the price was right and it was time to see if they lived up to their “five-star airline” hype, especially in Y — there are plenty of trip reports about QR C/F on FT, but I couldn’t find any for economy.

http://openflights.org/trip/1

As I flew the same flights on (almost) the same planes in both directions, I’m going to condense the flights together: one report each for SIN-DOH-SIN and DOH-KWI-DOH. No pictures, alas, as my CF card did a disappearing trick on my very last day and took every last picture of Kuwait along with it.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Manama, Bahrain

The Bahraini capital Manama reminds me of Abu Dhabi: they’re both smallish and filthy rich cities on the Gulf, relatively liberal by Gulf standards, have city centers dating to the 1970s but with huge amounts of construction now adding modern skyscrapers into the mix, and have virtually nothing in the way of attractions.  Bahrain‘s unofficial symbol is the Pearl Roundabout, which is, you guessed it, a roundabout which has a large statue of pointy things (supposedly dhow sails) holding a pearl aloft.  Yay?


Hotels in Manama are ridiculously priced (US$300 and up), so I’d exchanged 25,000 Priority Club points for a night at the Crowne Plaza Bahrain.  The remarkably clueless reception, though, wasn’t having any of it — they refused to acknowledge the existence of my reservation until I dug up my laptop and showed it to them, and then kept us waiting for half an hour out of spite, eventually giving us a room waaaaaay at the back of this sprawling complex with a lovely first-floor view of a pile of bricks.

The pool was being repaired with paint fumes and drilling noises, which didn’t do much to improve its concrete-and-Astroturf charmlessness, but there were two consolations.  First, real live women in bikinis, and second, the tower counter also did a brisk trade in cold beer.  I’m not a huge beer fan in general, but there are times when a Corona with a wedge of lime hits the spot, and this was definitely one.

The hotel reception continued to be obstructive, huffily telling us to go take a taxi and find out when we had the temerity to inquire after bus schedules instead of just taking their chauffeur service back to Saudi the next day.  As it turned out, our choices were to leave at either 9:30 (d’oh) or at noon, which would have cut it a little too close for comfort for our 4 PM flight, so we regretfully picked the earlier one.  Then to the National Museum, which was closed for a private function, so we opted for an aimless amble down the rather pleasant Al-Fateh Corniche, culminating in an ISO standard Arabic meal of hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs and Ali’s mom (as I insist on calling om Ali, the Arabic version of bread pudding) by the waterfront.

And then back to the hotel, which (according to Wikivoyage) hosted the Harvesters, one of the most popular nightspots in the city.  Indeed, the place was packed, with both Westerners and Saudis — many in full thobe-and-guthra regalia — quaffing down frothy brewskis.  (I was tempted to take a picture or two, but somehow I had the feeling that they might not have appreciated it.)  The mere availability of alcoholic malt beverages didn’t quite seem to explain the crowds, but the mystery was solved soon enough when the Filipino band launched into their second song.  The all-male musicians were joined by half a dozen Filipina singers strutting around in skimpy tops and tight little hotpants, and while it soon became clear that they had not been selected for their vocal talents, nobody seemed to mind very much.

Next morning, we hit the hotel’s fairly decent breakfast buffer, which also hosted well-signposted “Pork Items” section for all us Westerners pigging out.  After yet another fight with hotel reception, who now wanted to charge us extra because we had two people in a twin room (you don’t say?) but were yet again defeated by my laptop and its Reservation Confirmation of Doom, we headed out to the bus station and proceeded to repeat yesterday’s trip in reverse, with only two differences.  First, Bahrain immigration had managed to screw up Trsqr’s entry into the Kingdom somehow and held him for nearly 30 minutes while trying to figure out their own paperwork (it’s a good thing he had the visa receipt!), and second, this time we drove straight past Khobar into the singularly uninspiring sprawl of Dammam.

So all in all, how was Bahrain?  Well, despite beer, bacon, bargirls and other unmentioned decadences like movie theaters and Fashion TV on the telly, I can still sympathize with a friend of mine who was stranded there working for a year — it really is small, and would get boring pretty fast.  On the upside, it certainly makes a nice change of pace from Saudi, and I might even consider a second trip someday.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: A Multimodal Escape to Bahrain

One sunny day I found myself in Riyadh with a weekend to spare, and as luck would have it, fellow Wikitraveller and Flyertalker Trsqr was in exactly the same predicament. It was school holiday season in Saudi Arabia and flights to sensible places like Jeddah and Abha were packed tighter than the Jamarat Bridge on 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, so fuelled by a champagne-and-cigar binge in a giant disco ball suspended 240 meters above Riyadh, we eventually settled on visiting that den of relative iniquity known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, taking the train out and the plane — my first flight on Saudi Arabian LCC Sama — back in via Dammam.

Index

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Riyadh and Janadriyah

First Wife Bribed for Understanding

YANBU, 26 February 2008 — Ah, the complexities of having multiple wives. Some may think this makes life easier, considering that multiple wives means multiple housecleaners and multiple food-preparers and if one gets on your nerves you can go hang out with the other one until the first one behaves properly. But in fact it’s not as easy as it sounds to have a number of women in your life: life ain’t easy for a player, as some might say. So it may come to no surprise that – according to the daily Al-Madinah yesterday – a man lavished his first wife with a grand fete filled with expensive gifts and jewelry when she did not dispute his desire to marry a second woman. Perhaps there is no better way to reward a woman for allowing you to marry another woman than to give her lots of shiny things. —Arab News

Somewhat to my surprise, Riyadh was rather more fun this time around: by now I felt that I pretty much knew how things worked, and thanks to my diving buddies I was introduced to another side of life in Saudi through an invitation to dinner at one of the expat compounds on the outskirts of town — which shall remain nameless for soon to be obvious reasons. Just getting in entailed running an impressive security gauntlet: the outer gate checked who I was, who I was meeting and whether there was an invitation for me, the second automated gate some hundred meters away was opened on command, and the taxi I’d arrived in was turned around at the third and final gate, which was guarded not just by the compound’s own guards but two Saudi army soldiers sitting on top of a tank! This would be pretty excessive anywhere else, but four compounds in Riyadh alone were bombed in 2003-2004, using tactics like first blowing up a car and then sending in an a larger bomb disguised as an ambulance.

Compounds are popular among expats not just because of the security, but because they are in effect little bubbles where Saudi laws don’t apply: women can go wherever they want (within the compound) and wear whatever they want, people can mingle at the pool, and even alcohol is available. It was Wednesday night, the Saudi version of Friday, so after dinner at the compound’s restaurant we adjourned for a drink. I was expecting a juice bar where staff dribbles a little siddiqi (moonshine) into your Coke in exchange for a hefty tip, the way we used to do it at unlicensed university parties, but no: these guys had created an entire English pub, complete with wood paneling, jukebox, Premier League on the telly and beer being ladled out from an honest-to-Allah tap. Ladies in low-cut tops and skirts were clinking together glasses, the guys waved around cigars and the very worst of Britney Spears, Vengaboys and Bon Jovi blared out from the speakers. I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in Saudi.

But rest assured that even if you lack the wastah to get underground, Saudi Arabia has a plenthora of alcohol-free “malt beverages” that provide all the calories of beer with none of the kick, most of them attempting to make up for the fact by adding in copious quantities of sugar and artificial flavor. The bizarrest by a mile has to be “Budweiser NA Green Apple”, the solitary American entrant in the market, and I can state for the record that it is neither overly sweet nor artificial-tasting; it’s merely absolutely disgusting. This is not beer, nor even close to beer — it’s like Sprite with fermented oatmeal poured in. Yecch.

On my last full day, I headed out to the fortuitously timed Janadriyah festival, Saudi Arabia’s largest (only?) cultural event held yearly for two weeks in February-March. It had opened the day before with a camel race and the traditional arhda dance, which I’m told involves the royal family waving around swords as they waddle around, but being a Wednesday I had to work then. Information in English regarding the event is incredibly sparse (the newspapers couldn’t even agree on opening times or schedules), but I chartered a taxi and zoomed 45 km north of Riyadh into the surrounding wastelands to check it out. (For posterity, it appears that the event is open all day, but the best time to come is after 4 PM when things are in full swing.)

Rather stupidly, I’d arrived just before high noon, and it turned out that the site is gigantic and taxis aren’t allowed inside — I thus had to plod about on foot, spending the first half hour just trying to figure out which of the several dozen buildings scattered over the sands actually contained anything of interest. Signage in English was nonexistent (well, there was one that said “Exit” and pointed to the gate), but there were a couple of Arabic-only maps left over from previous years, so I figured that the area with the most points of interest marked had to be the place to go and headed there, pausing along the way for a few camel snapshots courtesy of a bunch of friendly herders.

Basically, Janadriyah is a mutant cross between a temporary exhibition, a job fair and a souk. The centerpiece “village” contains two large buildings full of stalls with artisans making and selling local products ranging from daggers and coffeepots to honey and kebabs. One of the buildings is very nicely done up like a traditional two-story souk, complete with narrow streets, balconies and pavilions; the other is just a square block with stalls along the sides. But in addition to the artisans, there’s a Saudi Who’s Who of ministries and companies showing off: the Interior Ministry had a rather gory exhibit showing the aftermath of the compound bombings and what they do to drug dealers, while Saudi Arabian Airlines had built a replica of an airplane cabin and even had a stall selling SV goods, including the playing card sets I’d lusted for — but, alas, the guy running the stall was AWOL and nobody else could sell me one. There are also quite a few shops selling food of all kinds, but having just had my breakfast I picked up a few ridiculously huge pastries for a riyal a pop, trekked back across the sands and returned to the hotel to nurse my burgeoning headache. In the unlikely event that there is a next time, I’ll go late in the afternoon and bring a hat.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Jeddah

Jeddah‘s King Abdulaziz International Airport has a bad rep, and on landing I could see why. We were bused into the terminal and let loose in the baggage claim area, which is split in two and entirely devoid of signage of any sort (except to note that porters are SR 10 and luggage carts are free), but the solitary moving belt drew the crowd and soon enough bags from RUH, mine among the first, started plopping onto it. I paused at the unmanned Supreme Commission for Tourism booth long enough to pick up a map in fractured English, then hopped on a taxi outside and headed to the Marriott. JED is supposed to have the same fixed-fare system as RUH, but here too there is zero signage showing the correct fares and I stupidly figured I could get it sorted out at the hotel. According to the net, SR 50 should be plenty, but the cabbie of course asked for SR 80 and wasn’t happy at being fobbed off with SR 60 — the standard fare in Riyadh, where it’s a longer distance to the airport. Grumble.

Bright and early at 6 AM in the morning, my alarm bell rung and I headed off to dive in the Red Sea. I’d booked with Desert Sea Divers who picked me up, packed 18 people on three boats and set off on the open ocean. Unsurprisingly, all fellow pax were expats, and it was fun to watch the abayas come off and reveal bikinis underneath. We cruised through the creek, passing resorts and palaces of increasing ludicrousness, and then headed out for an hour before hooking up next to the reef. The plan of the day was three dives, so I elected to sit out the first and deepest one (as it happens, I was later told it was the worst of the three), but I joined the second one… and… whoah.

Poking around the Chicken Wreck off Jeddah Lionfish off Jeddah

pictures courtesy of Marja-Leena Lehtola

I’ve dived 50 times in a dozen countries, but I’ve never seen something quite like the Chicken Wreck. Yes, it’s a wreck, once laden with frozen chickens (hence the name) and not even particularly big as far as these things go, but on this dive everything just clicked: 30+ meter visibility, the great looming shape of the wreck encrusted with marine life, plenty of fish, corals bursting with color thanks to the sunshine above… about the only downside was that I was wearing just a 3mm shorty and was freezing my pansy tropicalized ass off towards the end. I switched to my own 1mm diveskin for the last dive (in part due to reports of jellyfish), and it seemed a better choice: better a slightly cooler torso than keeping your arms and legs entirely exposed.

The third dive, too, was through some of the most remarkable coral I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately there was a distraction: my buddy, a morbidly obese Indian guy, with such a pair of man-boobs resting on his pregnant belly that I actually initially thought he was female. Now, there are plenty of well-insulated diving walruses out there, but this guy, despite holding PADI Rescue Diver certification (the highest non-divemaster rating), was probably the most incompetent diver I’ve ever had the mispleasure of partnering with. Yo-yoing wildly up and down with total lack of buoyancy control, smashing into and grabbing onto the corals, swimming way up ahead and ignoring the DM’s frantic banging on his tank, it appeared that the only skill he had mastered was mouth-breathing. I was rather relieved when he surfaced alive.

Fortunately, the other folks on the boat were rather better company, and I hit it off well enough with a blonde Finnish girl and a friendly Basque-Irish couple to arrange to meet them later in Riyadh (about which more later). Once back at the dive shop, a bit of surprise awaited though: I’d paid SR 250 (~US$65) for two dives, which was reasonable, but the shop charged SR 150 for the return transfer from the hotel; not entirely out of line, given that it’s a good 50 km away, but it would’ve been nice to mention this a little earlier. A quick meal of shwarma and Saudi champagne (soda and apple juice) later I crashed and slept until morning.

My second day in Jeddah was a Friday, which in retrospect was a little unfortunate, as nothing in the country stirs until the noon prayers are over. The Marriott obligingly gave me a late checkout, so I whiled away the heat of the day by the rather nice pool until driven out by a quadruplicate mosquecast of the noon sermon, and only headed out to al-Balad, the old town, around 4 PM when I figured the shops would be opening again.

Jeddah’s old town, or more specifically Souq al-Alawi, is the first place in Saudi where I felt like I could have been wandering in the souqs of Cairo, Tunis or East Jerusalem, if not quite as hectic or packed. Conical piles of colorful spices, the queasily intoxicating smells of Arab perfumes and incense, tailors and cobblers with piles of shoes and clothes… but what makes Jeddah stand out is the local style of architecture, with towering buildings (often five or six stories) built from coral and framed in wood painted brown or green. With the lanes rather too narrow to get about by car, they’d been spared from razing, but aside from a few beaten-up “Historic District” signs and a duly ignored English-language sign requiring visitors to register for photography permits, precious little had been done to maintain them. Nearly all were in an appalling state of disrepair, and quite a few were uninhabited and literally falling apart.

The al-Alawi Restaurant was closed (not unexpected; Saudis like to eat late), and I realized I’d better get a move on if I wanted to eat something before the first evening prayer, so I hotfooted out through the gold souq and into the modern part of al-Balad, where not a few shaven-headed US Marines were walking around souvenir shopping — the only other foreigners I’d seen in the area. Picking a large shopping mall at random, I headed to the top floor to find a deserted-looking foodcourt and a packed Filipino restaurant with the delightful name of Barrio Fiesta. Today, the fiesta was being celebrated not only with a string of Christm…err…secular tree lights, but strobe lights above the sign as well, so I decided to give the Pinoys a chance to tickle my tastebuds.

I asked the waiter what was the most popular item on the menu among locals, and after pondering a bit and confirming that I really did want their food as opposed to, say, a nice plate of fried rice, he suggested kare-kare. Having not the slightest idea of what it was, I readily agreed and awaited something different for a change. I wasn’t disappointed in that respect at least: kare-kare turned out to mean a peanut-based stew of oxtail, banana flower, bitter eggplant and string beans, a rather peculiar and, to me, rather unpalatable mix. Fortunately, I was also given a little pot of bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste) to go with it, and while Wikipedia notes that “to many Westerners unfamiliar with this condiment, the smell can be extremely repulsive“, I’ve spent long enough in South-East Asia to positively relish the salty-spicy kick it added. I wonder how this stuff would taste with kebabs and hummus?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is not one of the world’s great airports by any measure, but its quirky terminal seemed downright snazzy after the swirling chaos of DEL. Midnight is rush hour at AUH, but I had no problems snagging a seat from where I could contemplate the utterly bizarre mushroom-shaped spout of lime green and blue tiling that dominates the terminal, although any notions of Zen serenity were blasted out of the water by the endless loop of really, really loud trilingual announcements about vol eh-ygrec trois-trois-cinq a Casablanca or whereever. We’d rolled past Etihad’s future home Terminal 3 on the way in, but despite a few planes parked up to it’s still several months away from completion and Abu Dhabi has, inevitably, already started designing an entirely new airport expressly designed to put those young whippersnappers in Dubai in their place.

Etihad’s slogan is “The Airline of Abu Dhabi”, which left me ruminating. Sure, that’s an undeniable fact, but what do they mean by it? If they mean that Etihad is good because it’s associated with Abu Dhabi, I don’t think that line of argument will quite fly, as for most people “Abu Dhabi” is the faintly ridiculous-sounding place in the middle of nowhere (see also: Timbuktu, Ouagadougou) where Garfield regularly mails obnoxiously cute kittens. Alternatively, they might mean that Abu Dhabi is good because its airline is Etihad, but this has pretty much the same problem — when I told a colleague that I was flying Etihad via Abu Dhabi, her genuine reaction was “Where the heck is Abu Dhabi, and what on earth is an Etihad?” (Etihad, for the record, is Arabic for “United”, and with Air Arabia and Emirates completes the trio of large airlines using all components of the name United Arab Emirates.) Either way, it’ll take another good ten years until these guys get over their name recognition problem…

At any rate, the booze selection in AUH Tax Free was pretty good, although obviously for this leg of the trip I had to limit myself to window-shopping. An hour before my flight the gae number popped up and I headed down to Gate 22, which turned out to be a bus lounge, dominated by a colorful but orderly procession of Indonesian ladies going to work in Saudi. In the bus on the way to the plane, one of the younger women knelt on the floor and wordlessly pressed her head into the lap of a motherly older veteran. For one, the terrors of the unknown; for the other, resignation to the known.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi

It’s been a good nine months since I was last in Dilli, and I was quite amazed by the speed at which (some) things have progressed. The Metro extensions to Noida and Gurgaon, a few tentative rebar poking out from the ground in fall 2007, had sprouted into an almost unbroken row of lofty concrete pillars with viaduct cranes connecting the tops and station boxes starting to take shape — they just might make the 2010 deadline. The Great India Place in Noida and the MGF Metropolitan in Saket had both opened and finally given Delhi malls that wouldn’t look too much out of the place in Singapore. The amazingly banged-up super-high-floor city buses slaughering pedestrians on Delhi’s roads have been joined by a growing fleet of slick green low-floor buses, and the Bus Rapid Transit line from Moolchand to Ambedkar Nagar is set to open in a few months. NH-8 from Delhi to Gurgaon has finally opened and the slick swooping curves of the grade-separated intersections around Mahipalpur and the airport are an infinite improvement on the previous jams. Last but not least, the airport’s tentative renovations are now in full swing: the entire five kilometers from NH-8 to the current terminal is now one giant construction site with worker ants scurrying about building the new terminal, the third runway and the Airport Express line. What’s this place going to look like two years down the line when everything is complete for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

On the flip side of the coin, nine months away from India was enough to tune my eye again to the daily weirdnesses of life in India. Zooming on an on-ramp to the DND Flyway, one of Delhi’s still regrettably few expressways, a wandering swami had decided that the side of the road, ten meters up in the air and inches away from speeding cars, would be a good place to build a bonfire and warm himself. Going to lunch at the Shipra Mall in Noida, a ridiculously pompous palace of consumerism decked out with statues and Romanesque pillars and consequently rather resembling a cross between a Las Vegas hotel and Bangkok massage parlor, had one of the lanes on its entry way under repair — so they’d thrown up a strand of barbed wire across the road, with somebody’s pants hanging in the middle so drivers would see it. On the way out, an empty field between the glass offices of the call centers and outsourcing labs was covered from end to end in cow patties, drying in the sun. Under the flyovers lurk Delhi’s underworld of dirty street kids and destitute beggars, naked toddlers with dust-caked hair running about the median between the roads.

And in the sterile comfort of the bland Sheraton, where a week’s stay costs about the same as a Tata Nano microcar, I flipped my TV to state broadcaster Doordarshan’s Sports channel in prime time and was treated to a rerun of the 2000 World Chess Championship, long ago live from Tehran — another vaguely funny reminder of how India’s well-meaning government continues to cripple the country through misguided initiatives. The week’s talk of the town was the LPG shortage, caused by government fixed rates making it unprofitable to supply, and the limited supplies thus being diverted to commercial use at Rs.600 each or the black market at as much as Rs.1000 a pop, instead of the heavily loss-making consumer rate of Rs.300. The government’s reaction? Raids against retailers to make sure they aren’t selling them on the black market or “hoarding”. Sigh.