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Summer Entertainments

Vicente Collado Jr.
Doha, Qatar
August 28, 2009

We cancelled our summer holidays in Europe because of the swine flu,” a Qatari officemate of Carol recounted one day in the elevator.

Now my biggest headache is how to come up with an alternative to keep my kids entertained. They are growing restless by the day and they keep pressuring me to think of something, anything, but fast,” he continued. “It‘s really hard to keep one‘s cool under these circumstances, not to mention under the 50C heat.
Qatar Summer Wonders

He was not alone in his predicament. Many Qataris and expatriates were forced to drop their travel plans because of the swine flu scare and they were left to themselves figuring out how to meet the gargantuan challenge of making their holiday in Doha look like and feel like a holiday. We were some of them.

Even before the end of school year, Carol and Sema had already planned a week-long vacation at Disneyland, Hong Kong to meet Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Sema‘s other favorite characters. They had already chosen a room at the Disneyland Hotel. At the last minute, we succumbed to pandemic fear. After reading about the closure of several schools in Hong Kong and the infection of many plane passengers, we felt ignoring the risk would be foolhardy. So, like many others, we stayed put, hoping the searing heat would save us from these submicroscopic parasites. We just had to find other ways to make what Sema was beginning to call “a boring vacation” less boring.

But, despite the oppressive heat that “quarantined” everyone indoors, summer vacation in Doha does not necessarily have to be dull. It’s true one cannot go out for a leisurely walk in the park or have a barbeque in the backyard unless done at midnight. Still, fun, especially for children, should not be so elusive.

For one, malls and other shopping establishments will not just sit passively by without somehow exploiting the great business opportunity thousands of bored schoolchildren represent. In fact, for so many summers now, malls have been sponsoring an event called Qatar Summer Wonders festival, a month-long program that seeks to entertain visitors with street theaters, film screenings, circus shows, art exhibits, jugglers, clowns, balloon artists, stilt-walkers, magicians, face paintings, bargain sales, etc. A carnival-like atmosphere is created to lure more customers and to keep children busy and, hopefully, entertained.
Teacup Ride

This summer Qatar Summer Wonders was scrapped, but something new and better took its place. The festival that used to be hosted partially by the different shopping centers was set up under one roof, at the huge Doha Exhibition Center, forming a sort of a covered and air-conditioned amusement theme park.

The operative word is air-conditioned. Theme parks are not new in Doha. Nearby, there is the brand new Aladdin Park that could rival Disneyland or Six Flags. But, because it is in open air, it is practically useless. It is empty during summer when it is too hot, during winter when it is too cold and during dusty days, which is almost everyday.

Because it is covered and air-conditioned, this year’s makeshift amusement park was such a big hit. Everyday throughout the whole month it was operational, the parking lot was always full.

Papa, I am really so excited to try out the rides,” Sema kept saying while on our way there on our first visit. His favorite was the rollercoaster, riding it repeatedly, which was quite a torture for Carol and me who had to accompany him each time. He also enjoyed screaming his lungs out in the boat ride, the flying clowns, the teacups, the swing and the Ferris wheel. He also spent considerable time in video games, giant slides and bump cars. To his delight, there was a Mickey Mouse ride and mascots of Barney and his other favorite cartoon characters.

Disneyland knew we could not go to Hong Kong because of the swine flu. So Disneyland came to Doha,” Sema commented during our refreshment break. Luckily, he saw it that way. Before that, our big problem was how to break the news of the trip cancellation.

Not only Disneyland but also Hong Kong came to Doha. In addition to the amusement rides, the exhibition center also housed a Chinese bazaar. Chinese vendors were peddling all sorts of products from China --toys, clothes, herbal medicine, and bags. Nothing could be better for Carol who wanted to go to Hong Kong not only for Mickey’s maze but also to revisit the shopping district in Kowloon.

Only five minutes away, the Exhibition Center is our neighbor. It shouldn’t be a surprise we almost became a permanent fixture of the place until Sema finally got tired of the rides.

For another, hotels will not remain immobile knowing thousands of potential tourists are stranded home. This summer, aware of the market created by the swine flu scare, hotels in Doha intensified their summer promo, with significant rate reduction as the main feature. Other benefits are thrown into the package like free internet, free spa and massage, free breakfast, free upgrade and even an extra night free for some. Many find these offers quite attractive and even practical. Indeed, it is more relaxing, not to mention cost-effective, to book oneself in a hotel just fifteen minutes away from your house then in one located in the other part of the globe. Once in the hotel, you get the same feeling of being in another country if not in another planet. Above all, there are no jetlags and other trip hassles to contend with.

Mama, are we still on earth?” Sema asked while we were touring Grand Hyatt Doha. The great change in scenery did not go unnoticed for him. The hotel was recently inaugurated and we were trying out their summer promo to make up to him for the aborted check-in at Disneyland Hotel. It is only three minutes away from our house but we might as well have been in Lantau Island given the very new surroundings. We were upgraded to a deluxe suite with a great view of the Persian Gulf. Aside from free breakfast, we had free drinks, snacks, dinner and internet at the Executive Lounge plus free massage therapy at the Jaula Spa.

Sema had so much fun at the pool, in the different restaurants and at the Executive Lounge that he totally forgot about Disney. There were only a few guests and on some occasions, we had the whole pool and the whole lounge to ourselves. The lady assistants at the lounge pampered us as if we were at home.

If carnivals and hotels are not good enough, one can always take a second look at the shopping malls as options. After all, chances are one will end up shopping most of the time in the intended holiday destination, anyway. So, why not just shop here? It’s true visiting the same places one has been visiting all year round is hardly anyone’s idea of rest and recreation. But, one can be surprised how going to the same mall on an ordinary day without the teeming weekend crowd could be a whole new pleasant and relaxing experience.

This summer, we never enjoyed the malls as much as before. Nothing could be more peaceful than strolling around in a virtually deserted place with only the smiles of the sales ladies in the different shops as reminder we were not alone. There are only about five major shopping centers in Doha. We visited them alternately so as not to get used to any one of them.

More malls are being constructed that will give residents more summer options. A new one just opened and an 8-km long shopping center is scheduled for completion in 2012. Just recently, luxury shops and restaurants opened at Porto Arabia, a part of the famous Pearl-Qatar. If you don’t mind the 45C heat, you can hang out there during summer; the view of the Venice-like city is simply stunning. The air-conditioned shops are lined up along a promenade by the sea; but to go from one shop to the other you have to walk in the promenade, in the open-air, to be more precise. This summer, we made the mistake of checking out the latest Italian Restaurant located at the farthest end of Porto Arabia, some five hundred meters away. The only way to get there is by foot on the promenade. It is not hard to understand why Carol swore never to go back there in summer until they place an air-conditioned walkway.

Summer camps can also be alternative activities for kids during their long vacation. Many nursery schools and skills development centers organize them, teaching the children all sorts of skills like acting, dancing, music, public speaking, swimming, shuttle badminton, aerobics, yoga, craft, salad making, baking, fun cooking, tailoring, etc. For many parents, sending their fidgety children to these camps could be their only way to keep their sanity.

Luckily, for us, we didn’t need to send Sema to one of them. He had developed his own summer program: drawing, Lego constructions, biking, riding scooter, swimming, reading books, trying out the recipes in his cookbook for his kids, surfing and watching DVDs.

In fact, a new website or a new DVD of his cartoon characters or a new cartoon character would have been enough to keep him occupied all summer long.

He stumbled upon “Atlantis Squarepantis,” a new game in the web and there was no way to separate him from the computer screen. Likewise, he bought new episodes of Barney, Charlie and Lola, Little Einstein and Spongebob in DVDs, and he forgot everything about Circusland.

But, the thing that made his holiday was the discovery of a new cartoon character, Noddy. He’d put the DVD on repeat mode and watch it the whole day, day after day. One time I asked him why he was laughing so loud while watching Noddy Goes Shopping.
Deserted Promenade

Papa, why did the banana go to the doctor?” he answered with a question.

I don‘t know. Do they ever go to the doctor?” I said.

Because he was not peeling well!” he burst into laughter again. “Ppppeeeling well, Papa. Did you get it? Did you get it?

Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel inferiority complex beside him. I left him alone to his holiday fun. One thing is certain: he did not for a single second look like a picture of boredom this summer vacation even if many times he would sing Sponge Bob‘s song, “What to do, what to do in this boring vacation?

The nice thing about leaving him alone to his websites and DVDs is that he ends up learning the conversations and even the background music and sound effects by heart. Ultimately, he picks up new words and phrases that he occasionally pops up in our conversations to our big amazement and, of course, delights.

Doha has a long way to go before becoming an attractive summer option for residents and foreigners alike. But, plans have already been made and works have already started to transform the city into one. Right across our compound, the huge Entertainment City is being constructed along a one kilometer of waterfront. When finished, it will offer spectacular theme parks, themed hotels, specialty shopping, fine dining restaurants, cinemas, theaters and family entertainment centers. That should minimize the effect of any future epidemic to vacationers. Let’s just hope the designers have taken the summer heat into consideration this time, though.

Without realizing it, summer is about to end. Ten more days and Sema will be back in school. Time really flies when you are having fun. And, yes we had fun even if having fun seemed to be the last thing that could happen in this place under these conditions. And, it’s a good thing we did not go Hong Kong. During the week we were scheduled to be there, a strong typhoon was busy wreaking havoc on the former crown colony.

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