Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Last Two Weeks...

...have been a whirl!

T+ 6 weeks.

I know, I am falling down on the job... the last couple of weeks have been super busy, but this week is Spring Break for our campus so it should be slightly slower.  So... how are you?  What's happening in your life?  So let's see, where did I leave off...?

We are continuing our city explorations on the weekends; last Saturday we went to the Souq Waqif (pronounced Sook Wakeef) and poked around there.  Exactly what I had always pictured in my mind of a traditional Arabian bazaar.  No photos there because I was trying to be culturally sensitive (many folks over here don't like to be photographed), but let me tell you, it was amazing.  The site is on the historical location of the souq that has been there forever, but about ten years ago the government rebuilt it- looks like it's always been there, with it's warren of shops and twisty alleyways.  There are stores selling just about everything- from bulk spices, to shoes, to hardware, colorful fabrics, traditional handcrafts and jewelry, to birds and bunnies and puppies.  (Thomas said he debated leading me down that particular alleyway... but I survived with very few tears.  The puppies were so cute, piled in their corner and snoring away...)  The fabric shops there were amazing, a riot of color and pattern- you can have just about anything made there for a very reasonable price.  It was hard for me to not buy a scarf in every pattern!  And the smells wafting from many shops, either incense or the spices parked out front, were just heavenly.  I took lots of deep breaths just to smell it all.  There were also lots of tiny little perfume stalls, souvenirs, accessories, you name it.  All for sale from a shopkeeper willing to haggle with you.

After all that, we were peckish so we decided to get some lunch.  We'd been given a restaurant recommendation for Syrian food, so we found the place and were led to a lovely terrace upstairs with comfy chairs and couches.  The food was really good- grilled meats (chicken, beef, lamb), fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and fresh bread- hollow loaves that steamed when split open.  Also hummus with olive oil, grilled lamb, and pine nuts.  So good, so very good.  Since the terrace was open-air (like a patio), there were a few cats around; likely keep mice away.  One sweet little expectant mama befriended me (of course, cats love me because I am highly allergic.  They ALWAYS know...) and jumped right up in my lap, licked my hand, and began purring away.  I had to shoo her away gently, but she didn't seem to mind... she just parked it under the table for a while then wandered off.  So that was Saturday...

Sunday was driving test day 1 for me.  Thomas had completed his testing and gotten his license a couple of weeks ago- now that we had our residence permits, it was my turn.  This was a fun adventure... told to meet the drivers license "fixer" at 7:00am on campus, that meant we had to leave the house at about 6:30am.  Urgh.  Coffee helped.  (Also, we are learning about "Qatari time"- generally, means about half hour AFTER the scheduled time for anything.  So our guy didn't even get there until 7:30.)  I used the extra time to make a quick review of the road signs I'd be tested on.  Not too terribly worried about it.  We got to the driving school at about 8:05 or so, paid our fee for the eye exam, took the eye exam- yes, I can see.  Good.  Then over to the traffic office to do the computerized test... not so fast.  Apparently they didn't have spots for the four of us to be able to test there that day, but we could come back another day.  Mohammed, our fixer, not having this- he took us to another driving school where we were able to get right in and take the test.  There was one other lady in our group, and we've made friends!  She is Jordanian, a new mom, and had lived in Plano before moving to Doha, so we bonded over Dallas traffic!  Anyway, she speaks Arabic and so she was kind enough to translate for me.  We both passed the exam with flying colors (20/20, what what!) and also were able to tell the proctor where the battery, radiator cap, and oil dipstick were in the engine compartment of the car there in the lobby.  Passed that test too!  Jimmy Roberts didn't raise no girly girl clueless about what's under a car hood!  So now, we've completed everything but the road test.  Which, at that school, we can take at the end of the month, no problem.  Mohammed not having this either- back to the other school we go, where Hibba and I get appointments for the next Tuesday... Ladies' Day.

And they tell us to be there at 6:30am.  So now, we have to leave the house at 6:00am.  Poor Thomas had to take me there, but he gave me some tips about the test, having already taken it.  We get there right at 6:30, and I'm hoping it won't be too crowded... and I walk in and find that it's full of chattering women already.  OK, then.  Check in and settle down to wait.  There are about five lady police officers that do the driving test for women, and they don't even show up 'til 7:30.  They get the paperwork and we start hearing names called a bit after 8:00, and I get called in about the third group.  While we were waiting, I found Hibba, and also met one of the faculty members of the program I advise for, so at least I had someone to talk to.  So, heart thumping, I meet the examiner: large, beautiful, INTIMIDATING.  Girlfriend has PRESENCE.  Now, I'd been told to try to drive second or third, so I could see the route and have an idea of what I needed to do.  So as we are walking to the car, the other two make beelines for the back seat... OK, I'll go first.  Buckled up, seat forward, mirrors adjusted, deep breath... go time.  She signals left, right, etc but doesn't say much else; then she sends me down a road, tells me to turn right into heavy traffic, and to go left at the roundabout.  SHIT.  (Have I mentioned that I very strongly dislike roundabouts?  I strongly dislike roundabouts.)  But I manage to worm my way in, get over two lanes, and when I get up to the roundabout there is a nice policeman directing traffic! YAY, not bad.  Drive a bit farther, straight thru one more easy roundabout, and then she tells me to pull over, park.  She smiled and said, "Finish!" Phew.  So I swapped places with the next victim driver, thank the Jesus for letting me get thru that, and humbly ask to make it back to the driving school.  Apparently this lady is a local, and it's clear she doesn't have the experience- very timid behind the wheel, except when she didn't slow down for a speed hump and bottomed out.  She was also very unsure about her lane placement, so she decided to drive in the middle of two to be safe.  Pull over, park, next!  Hopefully this one will be better, she's not a local... nope, pulls out in front of oncoming traffic during a left turn, stopped in the middle of the road after a (legal) U-turn... my heart rate is pretty elevated at this point.  The examiner tells her to pull over and park, and then looks at me and points me back into the drivers seat. WHAT?  Actually, probably safer that way.  She directs me back to the school, and again when we pull in smiled and said, "Finish.  American, you pass.  Others, fail, fail!"  Uh... thank you.  So then I just had to go in and wait for the paperwork to be processed.  But apparently, instead of handing it in as each group was completed, they keep it until they are done.  So I had another hour and a half to wait... Hibba finally got called, and she had the same lady.  She told Hibba that we were the only two that she had passed that day!  Dallas traffic was good for something, I guess!  So once the examiner came back in, she handed in all the paperwork.  Hibba went to check how much longer, and told me that I was already known as "the American lady" that day and wouldn't be much longer.  We finally walked out with two shiny new Qatar Driving Licenses now, yay us!  Thomas and her husband Mohammed, who had actually met on campus previously, were outside chatting and waiting for us.  I am so thankful to be done with this process, it was the last bit of official documentation I needed.  Back to campus just in time to make my third meeting in three days with the Associate Provost from main campus.

This week we were also really excited to have some friends from home visit as well.  He's faculty, she's an advisor, they are both awesome.  They get their own post tomorrow, this one is long enough already and I have THOUGHTS.  BUT!  We went to another new grocery store today- MegaMart- and we found this:

More comfort food from home!  Happy dance!  We also found another Southerner!  Nice gent saw Thomas' shirt today, and he stopped to ask where we were from. We said Texas, and he said he's from Montgomery, AL.  We chatted for a few minutes, he's been here since September and we talked about how we were making the rounds to get "stuff from home."  So lovely to hear that Southern accent!

AND, almost forgot- Monday we went to the opening round of the Qatar Total Open, totally watched Venus play.  Pretty damn cool.  (Literally.  It was in the 50's.  We were CHILLY.)

So... I'm not done, I have more to write... Part 2 tomorrow!  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Weekend Update (apologies, SNL)

T+1 month.
Yesterday was our official one-month anniversary here!  It feels like we have been here much longer, and yet at the same time it feels like we just got here yesterday.  Friday the 13th is a pretty auspicious day for an anniversary, don't ya think?

To celebrate, we got out of the city!  We decided to do a little "out of town" exploring, so we went west.  More specifically, to Dukhan, on the west coast of the Qatar peninsula.  Dukhan is a very small town, not much there besides a McDonald's, the Cuban Hospital, and massive production facilities for Qatar Petroleum.  It's about 90 kilometers from Doha, and there generally isn't much traffic on Friday mornings, so I bit the bullet and drove.  Super windy, and very dusty, but overall not too bad.  The water is crystal clear, and wasn't very deep where we were, so we went wading for a while... the water was really cold, but our feet went numb after a couple of minutes so it was all good.  That's what we get for going to the beach in February!  The beach was deserted- no one around for miles.  Literally.  No one but us and the critters in the water.  It really was gorgeous and I am looking forward to going back when it's warmer.

From Dukhan, we went to the even smaller hamlet of Umm Bab- not even a McDonald's there, just a turnoff for the cement plant.  Not another car on the road, and there was even a spot where sand had blown completely across it.  We found the beach, and the lovely cluster of palm trees that give it it's name (Palm Tree Beach)... and another oil production facility.  This beach area wasn't quite as nice, so we waded a bit, took a few pictures, and headed back.

We took an alternate route back to Doha, a smaller road across the peninsula and the desert that, actually, reminded me a LOT of West Texas.  Flat, dry, you can see for miles, and oil production equipment here and there.  But you generally don't see this sign off of I-20:

Yep, that's a camel crossing sign.  We saw several (signs, not camels) on the way back, rather like the deer crossing signs you see in the US.  There was actually quite a bit of flora to see along the way- most people think of the desert as vast and sandy and nothing living, but it's actually rocky and there are lots of trees and small plants and native grasses that manage to eke out survival here.  Quite pretty when the sand isn't blowing all over.  Our small car was buffeted quite a bit by the wind, and I had to fight to stay in my lane a few times.  (We've been given a Nissan Sunny, the international version of the Sentra) as a loaner car til we get one of our own.  It's decently zippy.)

Let's see, what else?  We received our RPs, our Residency Permits, on Wednesday this week.  We are now legal residents of the State of Qatar!  We also got our passports back- phew, relief.  It was a bit worrying to have to give them up for an extended period, but they did get returned. I'm somebody again!  Now for the drivers license, which I hope to get soon.  We also got our "liquor letter" from our employer; this allows us to go get a license to purchase adult beverages (and pork!) at the one liquor store in the whole country.  We plan to put it to the test tomorrow!  We've been ordering stuff from Amazon in the last few weeks, and it's all arriving... so now I have Ro-Tel and Velveeta and Bisquick in my pantry, I have a sponge with a handle on it for dishes (apparently not a thing here, can't find one anywhere!) and a crockpot is on it's way.  Just about got everything I need for a fully-functioning kitchen!

Work is good, I have begun to see students on my own and each appointment is a little better than the last.  Picking up the degree plans (I have good cheat sheets!) and the prerequisites and learning more each day... the students are really great.  They are unfailingly polite, and have all asked how I am liking Qatar, the campus, the job, and they are really curious to see how it compares with the College Station campus.  Some of them are surprised when they notice my Ring to see that I am an Aggie too. I've added some plants and my photos to my office, and the handyperson will be by to hang my diploma sometime soon.  (All our walls are concrete and have to have holes drilled with masonry bits, otherwise I'd have done it myself.)  I have a nice window that overlooks a courtyard with a pretty little pond and palm trees.   Speaking of which, it's a school night!  So I must say goodnight for now... type at you again soon!


Saturday, February 7, 2015

What a week it was...

T+26 days.  (I'm losing track, I had to count...)

OMG what a week the last one was.  We have made some new discoveries here in Doha...

1) PLANT SOUK.  Wow, this place was amazing.  We wanted some greenery for the apartment, and I'd already bought two small pothos ivy plants at Carrefours for way too much- but I needed to see green.  Our new friends Kerry and Eric, who have shown us a ton about the city, told me under no circumstances to buy any more plants at retail prices- and this place... well, let's say it put Lowes and Home Depot to shame.  It's about 20 minutes outside of Doha, near the camel racing track; it doesn't look like much to see, but once you get past the gatekeeper (no, really, a man comes to open the gate and let you in and back out) it's amazing.  HUGE greenhouses, full of all kinds of plants- indoor, outdoor, trees, succulents, flowers, greenery... and cheap.  We ended up with a large Chinese pine tree (looks very much like a Norfolk pine), a Chinese citrus, a huge mixed planter with anthurium, dracaena, and some other variegated foliage plants, more pothos (for my office)... and a tea rose.  Tyler girl gotta have her roses.  All of these were potted in nice, glazed clay pots that we would have paid a fortune for in the States- they were included in the price.  Our apartment now looks homey with the strategic deployment of greenery.  Happiness.

2) Oriental Carpet Company.  Y'all, I had NO idea about the beautiful, hand woven carpet tradition.  I'd seen the "Oriental" rugs, but those were machine woven with synthetic fibers and cheaply made.  THESE carpets are truly works of art, made by hand of wool and silk in Kashmir, Iran, Afghanistan- places that have an incredible tradition of carpet-making.  They're made in tiny villages, patterns and techniques being handed down for generations in the same families.  They ARE meant to be used as floor covering, to be walked all over, but I felt bad doing so because they were just so gorgeous.  We will be acquiring some as soon as we've saved up a bit (they are very reasonably priced, but not exactly inexpensive.)  AND- the store has a second floor with really beautiful handmade jewelry from some of the same areas, as well as handmade furniture and textiles.  Now you know I cannot resist the shiny, so I did walk out with a beautiful pair of sterling silver, handmade earrings.  They are so pretty.  And of course, when the shop dude said, "For you, I give discount- very good price!"... well, sold.  (It WAS a good price for sterling silver.)  We're going back there... soon.

3) Strata, the bar at the top of the Intercontinental Hotel (the City one- there's another one a little ways away on the beach.)This one's walking distance from our building, and Kerry and Eric invited us for drinks and dinner on Thursday evening to end the week.  The view from up there is incredible- fifty-five floors up makes you about even with the moon (or so it seemed that night.)  They also had good Happy Hour drink specials, so who am I to say no?  We then had excellent Chinese food at the restaurant on the second floor.  With good company, it was fantastic way to end a long week.

4) Sunrise on the Corniche.  Spectacular.  We both randomly woke up before 6 on Friday morning, so we walked over to the water to see the sunrise.  So peaceful.  If all mornings were like that, I just MIGHT turn into a morning person with enough coffee.  (Speaking of coffee- I don't really do fancy, just brewed coffee with hazelnut and cream.  Hard to find over here, so my best bet is an Americano with hazelnut.  No cream, but cold milk'll do in a pinch.  But they look at me funny when I ask for that...)

5) CAR SHOW.  OMG.  Cars I had only ever heard about and seen on TV were there.  Ferarri, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley, Rolls... and my favorite, the Bugatti Veyron.  World's fastest production car, which I'd seen a few times on Top Gear (shout out to Captain Slow!)  They had one there yesterday, and I just stood and drooled for a while... Of course, they also had cars the average person could purchase as well- Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet... they had a new 'Vette and a gorgeous new red Camaro that I looked pretty good behind the wheel of (got the pic to prove it!)  That was a fun couple of hours that made my Top-Gear-loving heart happy.  Now something like this in the States would have had a moderate entry fee- but this was totally free.  Even better.

6) Powerboat races.  Another free event, held two blocks from us on the Corniche.  It was the Qatar Cup Offshore Powerboat Races, and it started on Thursday and ended today.  Big speedboats, little speedboats, even jet skis (called "aqua bikes" here) racing around a course on Doha Bay.  So I got up and went down there this morning with my mug and my book and found a nice shady spot by the finish line and alternately watched the races and read.  Nice morning, really.   They use cranes to lift the boats in and out of the water, also pretty neat to watch.  Things like this happen all the time here...

Oh! Also, Christmas came early (or late, depending on how you look at it...) this week.  We had ordered things from Amazon, and Thomas' parents and one of my friends had also sent us care packages.  About half of the packages were delivered this week!  YAY!  Now we have Whataburger Spicy Ketchup(!), Honey Nut Cheerios, beef jerky, tortilla chips, and other assorted goodies in our cabinets.  So life is pretty good here...

We have a day off on Tuesday for Qatar National Sports Day, so more explorations to come... also, Thomas should have his temporary drivers license by tomorrow (please cross your fingers, this has been an extended process- bureaucracy!) so we're hoping to get out of the city and maybe to a beach next weekend!