The following interview on solo female travel in Qatar is from one of our readers, Tina.
I am Tina, I am 27 years old, and I have packing down to a science, though I always browse online for new tricks! But nothing could prepare me for the packing that was to come in my next adventure. But before I tell you about it let’s go back to my first ever “solo” travel. I was 15 and I did an exchange programme to Germany. I learned a lot from that trip (do not run uphill, with snow boots and snow everywhere if you haven’t done any exercise in over a month!!) but the one thing that stuck with me was: I never want to stop doing this, I want to travel all over and go everywhere.
That’s where my adventures began: two more exchange programmes to the UK, two amazing Lollapalooza festivals in Chile and plenty travel around the US, South and Central America, either solo or with friends and family and I cannot wait for more!
Why did you decide to travel to Qatar by yourself?
Qatar? What is Qatar? Where is that? Middle East? Oh dear…that sounds dangerous…World Cup? Uh? What is this place? What am I getting myself into!
None of those thoughts crossed my mind when I decided to move to Qatar. All those thoughts belong to all my friends and family members. I went to a job fair in 2015 in Toronto and, after a couple interviews, I signed a contract to become the Primary School Librarian in an international school in Doha, Qatar.
I didn’t so much choose the country as I did choose the school. I had another job offer in China and looked through both offers and realized the school in Doha offered the best deal, so I took it! Then I began to learn about Qatar.
Did you have any trouble traveling solo there?
After signing the contract I began my research about what to expect from Qatar. During my interview I was told not to believe the “CNN effect”, that the Middle East does not mean violence around every corner and you will not be kidnapped or killed the second you land.
I talked to a couple of people that had lived here and started following Doha News (news outlet run by expats for expats) and I thought I had learned everything, but nothing could really prepare me for living or visiting this country.
The ‘rules’ are:
- Alcohol is only sold in one shop (Qatar Distribution Company, QDC for short) and in every hotel in Doha. So the second you can, you get your QDC card (that allows you to buy alcohol) and stock up on the drinks you like and you make sure you take your Resident Permit (RP) or passport whenever you go to bars at the hotels. I have had plenty of nights where I have greatly enjoyed drinking! So if you want to have a beer or a G&T, don’t forget your passport and expect to pay quite a bit for it. (G&T is about 19USD.)
- You cannot show your shoulders or knees. This is a bit tricky and somewhat annoying, but you’re in another culture, so suck it up and find ways to deal with that. I now own a large amount of cardigans and kimonos, both thick and thin for every month of the year and I have plenty of trousers and long skirts to follow this rule. One fun thing about this is that when I leave Qatar, wearing shorts and vests make me feel like a badass rule breaker!
- No pork is sold here (only at the QDC and it’s hidden behind a set of doors). This is tricky but again makes you appreciate eating pork when you’re not here or when you eat your QDC buys. If you’re only visiting forget about the pork, hotels won’t sell it.
>>Learn more about packing for conservative countries here.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
A lot of expats in this country are terrified of the driving. I am not bothered about it as I come from a country (Peru) that has terrible driving. However, my coworkers tell me this driving is not normal and they have suffered mild heart attacks whilst driving on this roads. So if you are used to organized driving and slow speeds, well good luck and maybe close your eyes when you’re in a taxi.
Speaking of taxis, Uber has been a lifesaver on many occasions. Since we are in the desert and the country is fairly new, there are very few street names. On Google, my road is called Unnamed Road so when I get a taxi I have to say “go to IKEA and I’ll direct you from there”. So yes having GPS and a taxi that picks you up according to the coordinates of where you are currently standing is the best thing.
I rarely get a Karwa, which is the local taxi company, but what I have learned is that you need to demand that the meter is running (it is useful to say: I am not paying you unless you turn it on) and you need to know where you’re going, otherwise I recommend Uber.
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences from traveling solo in Qatar.
Since I’ve been here for nearly 10 months, I have quite a few favourite experiences, but one of the things I love doing is going to Souq Waqif (in English: The Standing Market) and eating at this restaurant that has tables out in the street and has amazing food. Locals and expats eat delicious meat skewers (lamb and chicken) with naan (flatbread) and hummus (made out of chickpeas).
Going there and people watching is probably one of my favourites things to do here. Not to mention, the food is fantastic! Also if you have the chance and like a little bit of adventure, dune bashing is the thing to do!
Were there any special precautions you took to feel safer while traveling solo?
The only precaution I take here is with the taxis. I only ever use Uber if I’m alone, and to respect the culture and avoid unwanted attention, I follow the no knees or shoulders rule. That’s pretty much it. Qatar is fairly safe and everyone speaks English so you always have a helping hand if you get lost or need some help.
Did you meet any other solo female travelers while you were there?
Because I came to work here, my friends are work friends. They are married couples and single people. Some people have dated people in this country, but because it’s a religious country and government, you need to be careful and you can’t go out and have PDA session in public. But I have met a few people that met their significant other here, and they’ve been doing pretty good.
And also since it’s a country full of expats, there are plenty of activities to keep you entertained. Doha News is probably your go to place. There’s a Facebook group called Girls Who Brunch – Doha, Qatar and, even though it’s mostly married ladies, they always post about activities you can do around Doha or things you can do with them (cooking classes, brunch, yoga, etc.).
There’s also the rugby club where you can train and learn how to play rugby (first couple of lessons are free) or you can even try out for the team and travel around the Middle East to different tournaments.
>>Read about using meetup.com to meet locals when you travel.
What did you pack for Qatar?
I brought a lot of things to this country, since I was moving here, but for someone on vacation, I suggest the following:
- For summer: Light clothes and a thin cardigan or pashmina. You can wear shorts and tank tops in your house or hotel but you cannot wear it out in public. People will stare at you if you do, and someone might even come up to you and tell you to respect their culture and cover up. Honestly it is not difficult, and to avoid any trouble you should cover up. There’s AC most everywhere so you won’t be too hot, even if outside is 50 degrees Celsius. I went camping one weekend and the tent had AC! If you forgot something, don’t worry there are plenty of shopping centres to offer what you need.
- For winter: It gets cold, really cold. When it goes from 50 degrees Celsius to 16 degrees Celsius you can feel it. I didn’t bring any thick winter clothes and the second winter began I bought jumpers and a thick blanket for my bed because I was freezing. You will even turn off the AC! Something that you don’t even think about during the summer months.
>>Read our packing list for the Middle East here.
Were there any items you were glad you brought with you or that you wished you had brought?
I was told to bring with me several things that were difficult to find in Qatar (tampons especially). I brought a lot of things that I realize I could’ve gotten here (tampons included). Having said that Qatar is a country where all of their products are imported from somewhere else and sometimes things don’t come again for a while.
>>Check out HPL’s guide to dealing with your period when you travel.
I love mac and cheese, not the one you make from scratch but the one that comes in a box. In all the ten months I have been here, I found them once and when I went back to get more (two days later) everything was gone, no more boxed mac and cheese! This is a regular issue so if there’s a brand you can’t live without and you’re coming over here, bring as much as you need of that cause you might find it here, but you might not.
What’s your number 1 tip for females traveling solo to Qatar?
Qatar is a Muslim country, always remember that. Make smart choices about the way you dress and the way you speak to everyone. People will cut in line in front of you, it happens and you choose if it’s worth the fight or not. Having said that, good manners and being polite to the people at shops will get you a long way.
About the author: Tina has been traveling almost her whole life, since she was 5 or 6 years old, and she is always thinking about the next destination. She is an international teacher on her first post abroad, enjoying a completely different culture and the school vacations to travel the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.