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!