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March 25, 2013

Whisked Away: The Midwest To The Middle East

Riders from around the globe will be heading to Doha, Qatar, for the inaugural Al Shaqab CHI. Photo courtesy Al Shaqab CHI.

I’d gotten a lot of beyond-belief emails in my tenure at the Chronicle, but this was a first.

The craziest emails always seem to come on Monday mornings. Most of us try to stay up-to-date with our work correspondence over the weekends, so it’s not a matter of weird messages piling up over a few days off. By a strange twist of fate, they all just seem to flood in on Monday mornings of their own accord.

“CHI AL SHAQAB 2013 MEDIA TRIP INVITATION,” the subject line read. Had it not come as a forward from our editor, Beth Rasin, I probably would have deleted it out of hand, assuming it was one of the 50 or so general media/random listserve/spam emails I receive on any given day.

But this one was different.

“On behalf of the organising committee of the first annual CHI Al SHAQAB, which will take place 27 to 30 March 2013, I have been asked to extend an invitation to you, or one of your colleagues, to attend this prestigious event at Al Shaqab’s state-of-the-art facilities in Doha, Qatar.”

The email went on to describe how one lucky Chronicle employee could have a free trip to cover the top-class show jumping, dressage and endurance competitions slated to take place at the inaugural CHI (which stands for Concours Hippique International, the official title given by the Fédération Equestre Internationale to competitions with three or more disciplines) on the sunny, sandy shores of the Persian Gulf. It defied belief.

I looked out the window of the third-floor Chicago apartment from which I work at my current reality: a gunmetal sky and with sleet spitting out of it. The view hadn’t changed for days. I’m a pretty good sport about bad weather, but by this point in March even my patience was wearing thin. 

I then thought about the Latin Counts and La Raza, who on the day before had started using the entire front of our building as a canvas for their gang tags, painting over one another’s graffiti in broad daylight. This behavior marks a new level of ballsiness with which I am still slightly ill at ease; I’m pretty sure having two factions planting their proverbial flags on our stoop is something I could live without. No pun intended.

I sighed as I bundled up and headed downstairs to take the dog for his morning walk, passing our little Ford Ranger parked out front. That’s when I noticed the cherry on top of it all: We’d incurred yet another of our semi-regular parking tickets. (Chicago still has a totally bogus and arcane law on the books outlawing the parking of a pick-up truck on a residential street, and when the city gets desperate for revenue—which is always—they go on a ticketing spree...)

It was the straw that broke my back. I was ready to get the heck outta Dodge.

And I had an invitation to go to Qatar. All expenses paid. Flying business class and staying at a hotel with a private beach. Leaving in six days.

“Oh, hell yes,” I thought.

The Waiting Game

It felt like fate. The trip fell on a rare off week in our print magazine schedule and immediately after the deadline for the April issue of our monthly digital publication, the Connection.

We all wanted to go, but Beth’s passport was out of date, and she’d already committed to taking her parents on vacation to Florida that weekend anyway. Sara and Molly are intrepid travelers as well, but the former had already paid her entry fees for a horse show she was looking forward to, and the latter, at seven months pregnant, opted to stay home. She’s busy enough as it is, and she didn’t need to risk adding the load of paperwork that surely comes with accidentally giving birth in a foreign country and thus trying to establish dual citizenship for an infant… 

That left me, with, embarrassingly (and luckily), little more on my calendar than an Easter visit from my parents and a new episode of Nashville. (ABC’s been showing re-runs for a month, and I really want to know what happens with Gunnar and Scarlett—lay off me, OK?!) I got the green light.

I immediately responded to the invitation with a polite aloofness somewhere along the lines of “Oh, what a generous offer, I believe I might be able to make that work.”

When accepting such an outrageous invitation, you see, one must refrain from sounding even remotely excited. That would clearly give away the fact that you’ve never been offered anything even half this cool in your entire life and are nerding out about it in a manner totally unbecoming of a woman nearing 30. Decidedly classless exclamations like “Ummm, do you KNOW how much a last-minute business class ticket to Qatar is?” and “Whaaat, they have those seats that fold all the way down into a bed!” are better conveyed to your husband than your host.

Anyway, invitation: accepted. But between going back and forth on visas, accreditation and flight confirmations, I was left anxiously twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the week. I wasn’t going to get my hopes up too high, lest I tempt fate and something go wrong. Still, in between obsessive refreshes of my email inbox, I needed to get prepared.

Step 1: Google proper pronunciation of Qatar, which I have always subconsciously intonated as something kind of rhyming with “guitar.” Be mad at NPR when their story directly addressing this confusing topic leads to no real answer. Resolve to just mimic whatever the flight attendants say.

Step 2: Google dress codes for women in Qatar, leading to even more frustration over my own ignorance. Local women wear the full-body abaya, but visitors don’t even have to cover their heads? I should try to keep my elbows covered and be sure to not cross my legs, because pointing the sole of my foot at someone is a sign of disrespect, but I’m still allowed to wear a bikini? With mere hours to study the finer points of these cultural mores before departure, I seem truly doomed to offend…

Step 3: Start Googling all the cool things to do in Doha, even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t get attached to the idea. But that art museum looks sooooo awesoooome, and so does the open-air market… And this hotel they mentioned is right on the beach!

Step 4: Mental hipcheck: You’re going for work. Blugh. Fine. Note that while the Americans and Canadians haven’t gotten on board yet, there are actually some really big names coming from Europe for this shindig. Bone up on the recent history of horses and riders you haven’t seen since the Olympics. Brainstorm ideas for a story on the Middle East’s growing influence in horse sport, especially top-level show jumping…

And then, at long last, on Saturday afternoon, 24 hours before departure, Mac Mail sounded its familiar notification. Operation Chronicle in Qatar was officially a go.

After 26 hours in transit (that’s a tale best kept for my next entry), I’m just about to touch down in Doha. It’s after midnight local time here, so it’s time I hit the hay and get recharged.

After all, it’s still technically Monday at home… there’s no telling what kind of craziness awaits in ye olde inbox.

Each week, we'll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Kat Netzler serves as senior editor for the Chronicle from her kitchen table and coffee shops across Chicago. After graduating from the University of Georgia's journalism school and then working out of our main office in Middleburg for five years, she set up camp in The Windy City with her corgi, Fitz, and her now-husband, Brett, in 2011. Kat, who grew up eventing in the Midwest and is a graduate "C-3" from Manes And Reins Pony Club, is the point person on our bi-monthly digital magazine, The Chronicle Connection.

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