13-Hour Flight & Unusual First Night
Overview of my 13-hour flight on Qatar Airways
My arrival in Doha and plans to attend a late-night wedding reception
The story of my first ever Uber experience
My experience at the wedding reception and finding my way back home
Final thoughts on my first 24 hours travelling to and around Doha
The path from Hamad International Airport is lined with colorful street poles, each engraved with Arabic script
First, let’s talk about my 13-hour flight on Qatar Airways.
I know I don't look very excited, but I had just endured one rough flight, man
When I tell people it took 13 hours to get from America to Qatar, their first instinct is often to recoil and gasp, roll their eyes, clutch their invisible pearls, and a look of exhaustion creeps across their face. For me, though, the length of the flight wasn’t a problem in part due to the airline itself.
Qatar Airways is fan-freaking-tastic. The food is good, the seats are comfortable, there’s an array of entertainment options, they give you things like pillows and headphones, there’s $10 WiFi, and the staff is helpful (both on the plane and during check-in). Once I flew Q.A., every other airline experience was a wee bit disappointing.
Even with all the perks, though, my flight from D.C. to Doha in January 2018 was the worst flight experience of my life to date.
The flight to Doha was my 7th time on a plane, the first six times having been a series of connecting flights from Virginia to Morocco and back. With that in mind, I was fairly used to riding on airplanes, which meant my anxiety and poor preparation were no longer factors. I was calm, I was hydrated, I was comfortable—I was ready—but for some reason, I had the worst stomach pain of my life for 9 out of those 13 hours. I was nauseous, I couldn’t eat or drink, it hurt to move, and no amount of medication, meditation, or ginger slices were helping. The fact I was in the middle seat just added cosmic insult to my mysterious injury because both I and the universe know of my great dislike for snug spaces, especially when sandwiched between two other humans.
For the record, I’m an aisle seat kind of girl.
Once those 9 hours of hell had passed, though, the flight was just fine! And the thing is, even with all the pain, at the end of the day (literally) it only took 13 hours for me to travel halfway around the world. That’s incredible to think about, right?
But if it’s any consolation, my 13-hour flight home was the definition of in-flight comfort. I had absolutely zero pain, I ate really well, I got some good sleep, the WiFi was eerily strong, and I had an entire row of seats to myself.
Now let’s talk about my arrival
Upon arrival at the exceedingly classy Hamad International Airport, the four of us exchange students were greeted by our VCUQ liaison, the official mother to all international students at any given time. We made our way to Education City, parked at the Shamali (the girl’s dorm), waited a while for someone to open the gate at such a late hour, noticed the shadows of two young lovers in a neighboring SUV, and eventually were welcomed into the residence hall.
Within Shamali is a cafeteria, and within the cafeteria were some leftovers. I paid entry with my American debit card, ate a teeny bit of food (that probably would have been great if fresh), and the liaison gifted us with some goodie bags (which contained some VCUQ swag, some German candy that was at the time illegal in the U.S., and some practical things like toilet paper.
Soon after, it was time for us to check-in to our rooms. With the help of an R.A., we carried my absurdly cumbersome suitcase, duffel bag, and travel trunk to my room (a good distance away) and I looked around the apartment. It was nice . . . like, really nice, and after getting my bearings, I changed into my party clothes. Black shirt, a long skirt with gold trimming, wedge heels, some eyeliner . . . it was a simple look, but if I had known how elegant the wedding reception was going to be at nearly 1am, I would have stepped my game way up.
Wait a minute, let’s rewind. Wedding?
Yes, my friends, I was going to a wedding.
Not too bad for a late night wedding, right?
In 2017, on my trip to Morocco, I made a friend who lived in Doha. Many months later, upon learning I would be studying in Doha, that same friend invited me to her sister’s wedding. The wedding was the same day as my arrival in Doha.
Despite being invited, though, I was reluctant to attend; after all, it’s not like I knew the bride, nor was I my friend’s +1, and I would be arriving to the ceremony hours after its start. I debated my attendance for weeks, even during the plane ride, but in the end I decided to go . . . even though it would be 1am by the time I got there.
Earlier, I had learned that our liaison would also be attending the wedding. Small world, right? Well, it was a great stroke of luck because she had a hardcopy of the invitation, which meant she had the address to the venue, a vital piece of information I realized my friend had never actually given me. So, I snapped a photo of the invitation and woohoo, problem solved!
Except all the text was in Arabic.
I don’t read Arabic.
However, plenty of people in Doha do, including one of the two lovers I mentioned earlier, both of whom were now chilling out in the lobby. The young man read the invitation, requested I download an Arabic keyboard, then typed the address into Uber for me.
Next, I called my very first Uber and waited for it to arrive outside of Shamali, but then the little car icon on the map seemed to get stuck. I thought it was a glitch in the app or some funky outdoor WiFi, so I waited patiently for the real car to pull up in front of me.
30 minutes passed. No Uber.
Then I began to get these strange text messages filled with jargon, like they were being translated from another language, but I figured it was the Uber driver trying to contact me. I called him, but we couldn’t understand each other, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of the staticky trainwreck that occurs when foreign cellphones try to hit each other up.
After that, I went back inside and told the student at the front desk what was going on. She voiced concern over me having stayed out in the cold for so long and explained that the Uber was probably stuck at the front gate, which could be remedied by a quick call to security.
I didn’t realize Education City even had gates, let alone that they needed me to give them the license plate number of my incoming Uber if I wanted to be taxied somewhere. I also didn’t realize 66-degrees was considered a cold evening in Doha, but hey, considering I had only been in the country for six hours, I was learning things at a reasonable speed.
My Uber driver, however, didn’t exactly see it that way. He was understandably upset about having waited for 30 minutes, and I would have tipped him in apology had I had some Qatari cash on me, but, alas, there was nothing I could do but offer an apology. Upon realizing I was new in town, though, his demeaner perked up. He asked me where I was from, why I was in Doha, how long I had lived there—just some light conversation—but then he offered to not only drive me from the wedding, but to be my personal driver for the duration of my stay.
On one hand, I understood that driving was his business and he was trying to get a new client—can’t be mad at that—but all his questions gave me a sense of unease. Maybe it was the American paranoia in me, the sort of wariness that comes with being a black woman bred in a country that tends to take advantage of females and dismiss people of color, but the possibility that he wanted to use me for nefarious purposes couldn’t help but cross my mind.
As you may have guessed, I didn’t take him up on either transportation offer, and in trying to be cautious, I photographed the route from Education City to this venue I didn’t still technically didn’t know the name of. I figured that if I could find my way there, I could find my way back Uber or no Uber.
One of my breadcrumb photos. You know, like Hansel and Gretel trying to find their way home.
Once I get to the venue, I pray I’m in the right place, enter through the open doors, follow the music, and am greeted by two women in uniform sitting before a wall of live purple flowers. I asked the ladies if this was the wedding and offered to show them a photograph of the invitation, but all they wanted was my phone. I handed them my oversized Android, they placed it on the table inside of a burgundy velvet sock, and they handed me a number card. Each sock laying neatly on the table had a number embroidered on it, and the card in my hand matched the number on my sock.
It was like a coat check, but instead of coats in a closet, it was phones in socks.
Why did I have to put my cell phone in a sock, you may be wondering? My guess is that the family didn’t want photographs during their private wedding reception. It’s not an absurd request; some Muslims are uncomfortable with photographs and there was the possibility that the women in attendance may not be dressed the way they’d normally dress in public. Whatever the reason, I was a guest at an intimate family function, and if they didn’t want me to have my cellphone, I didn’t want it either.
So, how was the wedding?
First let me describe the atmosphere to you: It was a Sudani-Turkish wedding reception with some Western twists here and there. The venue was filled with plenty of dining tables, gold charger plates, live music, high ceilings, a runway, chandeliers, an aerial camera, and lots of light, as though heaven itself was dousing the entire room in gold, white, and lavender luminance.
I was flabbergasted.
Granted, I had only attended four weddings in my life (three of which were as a child), but never had I been in a room that looked so . . . expensive.
And suddenly, I was hyperaware of the fact I looked like I had been pulled out of the $2 thrift bin.
In the midst of me reevaluating my choice in dress, my friend who had invited me noticed me lingering by the doorway and greeted me with a big hug and plenty of enthusiasm. She introduced me to her parents, I two-stepped timidly amongst her cousins and sisters, I was taught a new dance by the liaison, I awkwardly participated in the bouquet toss, I refrained from eating out of nervousness, and at one point I smiled awkwardly at the bride, who was still a complete stranger to me. Amidst the crowd of guests dancing before the live band, I met some new people, some of whom attended VCUQ as I would later discover. In that crowd I also found the other friend I had met in Morocco, who was just as surprised to see me as I was him.
After about 2 hours, I decided it was time to make my way home. I said goodbye to my hosts, called a new Uber, and eventually reentered Education City, a feat that didn’t go as smoothly as I had anticipated.
Those doggone gates, man. I wasn’t used to campus security being this tight.
My Uber stopped at the gate and the guard requested to see my ID. I handed him my temporary housing ID, thinking he needed proof I lived in the dorms, but he said he couldn’t accept it. I told him that was all the ID they had given me, that I was a new student, and international student, and a student who had only been in the country for about 10 hours. In the end, he seemed to either believe me or take pity on me, and the guards lifted the gate. What I didn’t realize is that what I should have shown him was my student ID.
Soon, though, I was back in my dorm suite getting ready for bed and reflecting on the insane day I had crafted for myself. In less than 24 hours I had left my hometown, met three other exchange students, taken a 13-hour flight to a new country, struggled through said flight, checked into my high-tech dorm, ordered my first Uber, attended a stranger’s wedding, and made my way back in one piece.
Over the course of one crazy international day I had three different costume changes like an international adventure Barbie with the hair of a teenage Cabbage Patch Kid.
But why? I didn’t have to go to the wedding. No one would have been offended had I not shown up because most of them didn’t know I existed. The thing is, though, I had the energy, I had the time, and I had the means to do it, so . . . why not do it? Why risk feeling the regret that would come if I didn’t at least try?
Going to that 1am wedding allowed me to learn some new things, make a special memory for myself, and meet some of the people who would help shape my experience in Doha (and Athens, and Istanbul) for the next four months.
And no matter what, at the end of my first day in Doha—no matter how crazy or simple it could have played out—I would have put on my pajamas, crawled into bed, and slept like a log until noon the next day. So, why not give myself one hell of a memory before turning out the lights, right?