Wednesday, August 19, 2009

License Accomplished!

Yes, you read it right! I finally received my license, but it wasn't an easy process. I woke up at 3:45 AM on Sunday morning to take my test starting at 5:30AM. After a mad dash of people swarmed to collect their paperwork and pay for the test, I made my way to the first part of the test, the road sign exam. I passed that quite easily since they pointed to a stop sign, a no parking sign and a danger sign. Next I waited to get into a car to do the "L" test which involves stopping on an incline and balancing the clutch and gas. If you roll backwards, you fail, if you stall, you fail. I didn't do either of those things, but I still failed... yep, you heard me, I failed. I asked them why? They didn't give me an answer.... great! So after I parked the car I made my way out of the testing facility to get a ride home. On my way out, I met a man who was behind me in the next car waiting to take the test. He told me I didn't do anything wrong and that this particular testing location was known for failing Americans so they can get more money out of them. That was the icing on the cake. Not only did I feel completely crushed about failing the test, I now had become a victim of a scam.

I made my way out of the school/driving test location and waited for my colleague Chris to pick me up. While I waited outside I was approached by a rather shady Philippine man who, at first, was very friendly and harmless but then became quite creepy when he started to ask me for my phone number and kept offering a ride home. Perhaps the best part was that he wanted to "show me some pretty Philippine women." That just solidified the awesome experience at the driving test!

But, now the good news! I do have my license now because someone in HR at the Qatar Foundation, let's just say, helped me out. Now I'm just waiting to get my own car!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Driving my way towards having a life

CDA training has just wrapped up. It was a long, but good experience. I am excited to work with my student staff. I've already noticed differences between the supervision needed here versus back at home. The students are very bright but have not had much responsibility in the past which transfers to frustrations with work ethic, timeliness and "street smarts". My staff members are going to do well, I can feel it =)

I've been busy meeting with students who have arrived early unapproved by H&RL (Housing and Residence Life) to discuss the importance of following directions and notifying the foundation of their plans. While these meetings are somewhat frustrating, I have had some really great interactions with other students. I met with a 5th year medical student at Cornell, we discussed politics and computers, and we both agreed Apple Computers are superior. Student interactions like this make my day more enjoyable.

I also have been "On Call" this week which means I am the go-to person for questions and emergencies within the halls and with our students. So far, so good. I did have one student who had to go to the hospital and was tested for H1N1. She is self-quarantined until we get the results, however, she is feeling a lot better and I think that this issue will be resolved soon.

Outside of work, my life has been consumed by driving lessons every night. Alhamdulillah (Thank God) my last lesson is this Saturday. The big day is Sunday (the test). I feel confident in my driving and knowledge of the test, however I'm still weary of the test itself because it really relies on your tester if you pass or not. He must be in a good mood or he's going to make it very difficult to pass. LAME.

Other than my work and driving classes, I've been working out, and sleeping... nothing too exciting yet. However, tomorrow I get to be a chaperon for the international student orientation group as the visit the Museum of Islamic Art and take a Dhow ship cruise in the gulf. I'm pretty excited. Keep an eye out for picture soon!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

One Month!

Well, almost one month. 13/08/09 will be my one month anniversary here in Doha and so far it's been a great time.

Currently we are half-way through CDA training and even though it is a long and tiresome process, I enjoy working with the student staff and especially my CDAs. I've had the opportunity to present at CDA training a few times and will have a few more sessions to lead. So far, so good. It is enjoyable to present to a group of students who actually participate in the conversation and have comments and thoughts to share in reference to the topic at hand.

The diversity is unmatched by any previous experience I have ever had, and the caliber of students here is phenomenal. My staff of four CDAs includes Sinan who is from Baghdad, Iraq, Joshi from Nepal, Swapnil from India, and Modaris from Syria. All amazing young men. Sinan and Modaris go to Texas A&M, Joshi is starting at Cornell and Swapnil goes to Carnige Mellon.

Although I've had two years experience working as a Residence Hall Director overseeing two halls with 11 RAs and 200+ students, I can already tell that this job will challenge me despite only having 4 CDAs and 100-ish students. Everything from programming to community development will be different and will require detailed and intentional approach. While a lot of what I will be doing is "familiar" in the sense of job requirements and expectations, there is an underlying cultural context that I predict will keep me "on my toes" as I learn what is and is not acceptable, applicable or effective in this new environment.

Outside of training this past week I've been keeping very busy with going to the gym, swimming and the joyous driving classes I go to every evening from 8pm-9pm. The driving issue has become the bane of my existence but it gets better day by day. My first day of driving lessons my instructor did not show up like everyone else's did, so I went on a journey to find him. After 15-20 minutes of looking for instructor 81 (my car number) I finally found him sleeping in his on-sight accommodations (A.D.D moment: all the instructors are from other counties and live in very small rooms on the driving-school land. It's not the best situation and I consistently feel bad for them.) So, after knocking on his window and explaining that we needed to start the class, he got dressed and finally started my first lesson. How to describe my first lesson?? Hmm.. horrible. My instructor did not speak English (my fault also for only knowing one language) and he also assumed I knew how to drive manual stick shift. FAIL. So after stalling 6 times I eventually got a grip on the concept and we did some circles around the school driving course.

The classes are essentially to teach you how to pass the test, and to teach you what techniques and tricks they look for while you are being tested. So, naturally, after paying QR 1250 (~$300) I wanted to know how to pass this test. But, getting these answers from my instructor was not going to happen on the account of our inability to communicate and the fact that he was on his cell-phone the ENTIRE TIME. So I was over this situation from minute 5 but stuck with it for the remainder of the course. I decided to give the man one more lesson to maybe prove that he was going to be a good instructor for me, but he failed to do so. The morning after my second lesson I went to the driving school and requested to have a different instructor. Very easy process and very friendly management.

Lesson three was 100% better. My new (and current) instructor Raju (car 116) is from India and has been in Doha teaching lessons for 15 years!! He has two girls back home in India and he is a really nice guy. He taught me more about stick shift and we even went outside of the school course to get practice on real roads. Yesterday (Friday) my colleague Chris, rented a stick-shift car and we practiced for 2 hours out on the main roads and even practiced the incline stop/start part of the exam. I can confidently say that I know how to drive stick-shift now.

Last night at Jill and Chris's pool party I met a man who works from Georgetown and he had heard that the reperocity agreement between the US and Qatar was re-established and now US drivers licenses will be transferable. This maybe a rumor but he said that they are having all of their new staff and faculty wait a week because they believe it's true and will take affect soon. Keep your fingers crossed!

(I'm not sure if I explained what happened behind the USA license not being accepted, and I'm too lazy to go back and look. Essentially, what happened is that the Ambassador from Qatar to the US was denied his US license when we had the reperocity agreement, and he was not happy so they basically said "an eye for an eye" and ended the easy transfer of US to Qatari Licenses.)

Jill and Chris's pool party last night was a lot of fun. Great food and company. We also celebrated Wil's birthday with a British flag cake of course! The pool parties are becoming somewhat of a common event and it seems that the same people bring the same snack or food for the group. So I've decided that my signature food will be a glass bowl of some new (hopefully uncommon) fruit. Last night I brought mandarine oranges from Africa and Australia.

Well, I'm off to the gym in a taxi.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Helllooooo Doha!

Well... I've been contemplating starting a blog since I moved to Doha and I finally found a bit of time to do so. I will be interested to see if this is an endeavor that I remain loyal to or if it's merely a temporary interest. Regardless, here is a brief "catch-up":

I arrived into Doha on July 11th, 2009 via Qatar Airways Airbus 747... ok, just kidding, (and I'm not sure that is even a real plane model?) I have found that my arrival to the middle east has been marked with highs and lows as anyone would expect after picking up their life (which had to fit into 3 boxes and 3 suitcases) and moving half-way across the world. However, the highs have far outweighed the lows mostly due to the wonderful colleagues and mutual friends that I have met since my arrival.

The food has been a "high" as I have always loved to try new foods and drinks (thanks to my parents). The first week was marked by meal after meal at various restaurants and shops that were favorites of my colleagues and by far my favorite experience has been the Iraqi restaurant located in the Souk. (Souk = Grouping of stores, typically old fashioned. Remember the Aladdin market scenes?) In general, the best aspect of the cuisine here in Doha is the various fruit drinks one can easily get at most small & quick or upscale restaurants. My favorite combination thus far for fruit drinks is the strawberry and avocado cocktail. Sounds crazy right? It's pretty amazing.

The grocery stores are also an experience in themselves. I have to contain myself when I enter a produce section because I want to try everything that I've never seen before, and so far, my new adventures in the produce area have been great! From Turkish figs to Saudi sweet mellon, I have had some great, new produce.

Meat is another story here. You have your beef. You have your chicken. Pork? Nope! Add lamb and you have your three basic meats here! Of course there is a wide assortment of fish and seafood (thank goodness) but in terms of land-roaming meat choices, you better get used to lamb and forget about pork. "But what about bacon" you may ask? Say "hello" to veal bacon... yeah I won't touch it... at least not yet.

I probably could spend the next hour talking about food, but in order not to sound like a huge fat kid, and to save you from reading so much, I will stop. (However, I will most likely have something to say about food in every blog post).

On to the social life... it started slow, I must admit, but so far I've met some really fun people who have been nice enough to include me in their circle of friends. I've been to numerous pool parties since arriving and they have all been a great time. Recently I've been hanging out with my colleague Wil who hails from England. He gets a lot of heat for his accent, and well... frankly just for being from England, but he is a great sport about it. I also have been hanging out with my colleague Annie who started with me, we are sort of partners through the crazy ride of legalization and other issues prone to newbies.

Last weekend I went wake-boarding (or attempted to wake-board) with my friend Darbi who works for Carnige Mellon University- Qatar (CMU-Q) and her friend Richard who works for Lockheed Martin. It was a pretty spectacular experience being out in a boat in the Persian Gulf (or as they like to call it the Arabian Gulf). We spent about 5 hours out on the boat and taking turns wake-boarding. Darbi was even the entertainment for some local ship workers who really enjoyed seeing an American woman in a bathing suit. The day was made even more interesting when the Qatar Coast Guard stopped our boat because we were getting to close to the Emir's (Emir= Ruler of the country) yacht. They were friendly and just informed us where to go and where to stay away from. It has been three days from this adventure and I am still sore from my "attempts" at wake-boarding.

Qatar offers an all around unique cultural experience. From roads to store fronts to landscape, this is truly a different way of life compared to anything I had experienced prior. The first cultural marker I noticed was the call to worship which is broadcasted across the country from various Mosques and on radio stations. It is an amazing experience to be outside and hear the call as the sun sets. It really hits you that you are no longer in Kansas. I am by no means an expert on Islam or the Muslim faith but I did have the opportunity to go to the Islamic Cultural Center, known as Fanar. There I was given a quick lesson on the Islamic faith and how it meshes with the culture here and in other Islamic countries. But what I have gathered thus far is that Muslims (those who submit themselves to Islam) pray 5 times a day: In the early morning around 4AM, around noon, mid-day, sunset and at night. It is really neat to see how people are so dedicated to praying and how much it means to them as Muslims. While I could spend a long time discussing Islam, and probably will make other references to interesting facts through out my blogging, I will end this section by saying that Islam and Christianity are surprisingly very similar and would encourage you to take a few minutes to see what I mean.

While I would like to say that my experience thus far has been completely smooth and without any issues, I would be lying if I did. Along with any major move to a completely different way of life and country come inherent issues and hurdles. Overall, my resident permit and visa process was OK, we had some issues with fingerprints machines not working and finding out after we drove 20 minutes to the location. Also, the medical exam was somewhat strange and scary but it really made me think about the thousands of people immigrating to the US that have similar scary situations. In general, new situations (especially ones with needles) and not knowing what is going on or being said can be unnerving.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle, and current bane of my existence is getting my drivers license. Up until January this year, an American could go to the government office for licenses and show their US drivers license and get a Qatar license after an eye-exam... no questions asked, bam, there it was and you could start driving! BUT, thanks to a new law in the US that stopped honoring Qatari licenses, the law has since changed here for the Americans. "An eye for an eye." SO, all Americans must take a drivers license test. BUT it gets better. All men must take their test in a manual transmission car... well... guess what? I don't drive manuals, or at least, never had. So after many failed attempts to circumvent the system, I signed up to take a license test with my colleague Annie (who can take the test in an automatic because she is a woman... go figure). Well, my test was set for two weeks from last Sunday, and hers was set for last Sunday. Well, not to embarrass Annie, but she failed because she didn't know what the test instructor was telling her to do. After some research, we found out that basically you can not pass the test unless you take the drivers class. It has nothing to do with ability, frankly, they are after your money. So, we both have enrolled in classes and have to go for twelve days at night from 8pm-9pm and learn the "tricks" of passing the test. This has been a frustrating experience because I am self-teaching myself how to drive manual thanks to my HORRIBLE driving instructor (I'm changing instructors tomorrow hopefully). The test includes an "L" test which requires you to drive up a slight incline, stop half way, pull the emergency break and use the clutch and gas to balance your car and then release the break. Then you must drive to the top of the incline and stop inline with a cone or something. Then you must back down the incline and line up with another line. After the "L" test you have to go do a parking test. THANK ALLAH (GOD) that this is not parallel parking! Essentially, you just park the car. Then comes the fun part. They take you out of the testing area and have you drive some round-a-bouts and some roads. Sounds alright so far right? Well here's the catch. You stop at the wrong time on the incline, you fail. You stall the car on accident at ANY point, you fail. Oh, it gets better. You fail twice? You are forced into a 40 day drivers class... can you see why I'm nervous? =) Thankfully, I have some very supportive colleagues who have been driving me to these classes and teaching me a little about manual transmission. Chris, one of my colleagues has even rented a manual car for me to practice on this weekend. I think I'm getting better, but going from stopped to first gear is still tricky for me.

Driving in Doha is interesting to say the least. There are those who follow the laws of the road, and then there are those who think they are above the law. Driving here is a skill and I hopefully will be able to pick up on it soon. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the round-a-bouts. I'll be sure to blog on those later. Let's just say that vigilance is a must! I am very excited about buying a car. Doing so is easy! Here, all I need is a letter from my employer stating that I have a job and how much I make a month, then I can essentially get a car loan for any car I want from a Chevy to a Volvo. The best part, is that if I buy a new car, the Qatar Foundation (my employer) will pay for the interest on my loan because charging interest is "haram" (wrong) in Islam.

While I can continue on about the little unique experiences I've had thus far (and will in later blogs) I have to state that I am here to work and so far that's been another "high point" of being here. I enjoy the people I work with, I enjoy what I'm doing and I'm excited about the students I will work with. This week (ADD Moment: work weeks are Sunday through Thursday here) started CDA training. CDAs are Community Development Assistants (RAs in the US). I have presented a few times and have had the opportunity to get to know the CDAs during the training and so far I am impressed with the caliber of student leaders we have. Which only makes sense when you think that these are students at Cornell, Texas A&M, Northwestern, VCU, Carnige Mellon University, and Georgetown University. My role will be completely different from what I was used to in the US as a hall director and I'm looking forward to learning and challenging myself.

Speaking of training, I have to be up early yet again for a full day of training followed by working out and driving class! Ma'a as-salaama!