Monday, March 10, 2014

Sorry, Madam, It's Not Available

Last week I was with a group of friends from my photography class at a Lebanese restaurant at the souq.  Several people chose the same thing from the menu and smiled expectantly while they waited for our server to take their orders.  Kathy started us off.

“I’ll have the halloumi salad, please.”

“Sorry, madam.  Not available.”

“OK.  Then I’ll have the halloumi wrap.”

“Sorry, madam.  Also not available.”

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Those with similar orders scrambled to find something else on the menu.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the cuisine, halloumi in Lebanese restaurants is kind of, well, mandatory.  You might say that it's the poster child of Middle Eastern cheeses.

I shouldn't have been surprised.  The first sign that something was amiss was when our family went to Buffalo’s Restaurant for lunch a couple of weeks prior to this.

After a morning of hockey and a couple of hours at the Terry Fox Run on National Sports Day, we decided on a late lunch at the new restaurant. Our server patiently wrote down our orders, smiling as the six of us, in turn, ordered a plate of wings.  We started to hand him back our menus when he said, in his sweet Tagalog-accented English:

“Sir, madam?  Just to let you know?  The wings?  They are not abailable.”

You can understand how we were fooled, what with the glossy pictures of Buffalo chicken wings all over the restaurant and the word “Buffalo” in their name.

“Right now, we only have the boneless.  Not with the bone in.”

Now, all the members of my immediate family are what some might call “wing enthusiasts”.  Hardly a week goes by when I haven’t split, skinned, baked, and doused in Frank’s Red Hot five kilos of chicken wings.  Simply put, we're purists.  So it’s hard for us to accept that boneless wings are actually wings.  It's like someone would like us to believe that some elf-like Chicken Carcass Worker has examined every wing and carefully pulled each bone out of it.  Like they haven’t instead hacked off some other non-wing and non-bone chicken body part, breaded it, deep-fried it, and called it a day.

But we ate our “wings” anyway.  I glanced at the sign above the door as we were leaving.  “Buffalo’s – Try our wings! (JK Lol!!)”

I hadn't noticed that last bit on the way in.

Surely the unavailability of staple items at Doha establishments was the exception, not the rule.  I had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Twice.  It happens.  Armed with this confidence, I ventured to Tim’s Horton’s today to buy a couple of tins of ground coffee.

“Sorry, madam, the coffee is not available.”

My hand flew up to my right eyelid, which had begun to twitch violently.

I ordered a small Iced Capp to calm my nerves.  A Tim Horton’s coffee shop with no Tim Horton’s coffee?  Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter what we drink in the morning, then, does it?  Might as well put ground camel turds in the filter and run some hot water through it.  Would that be coffee?  No, it would not.  At this point, who the hell cares.

But then it occurred to me that there was a Carrefour grocery store in the same mall as the Tim’s, and back in the day before there was a Tim’s in Doha, I used to slum it and drink Carrefour brand coffee.  Not the next best thing, but it would do in a pinch, and seemed far more appealing than camel turds.

I marched with renewed purpose down the beverage aisle, my eyes peeled for the familiar blue package.  I got all the way to the instant hot chocolate at the end of the row and turned back and looked again.  Nothing.  It appeared as though this particular Carrefour location DID NOT CARRY CARREFOUR-BRAND COFFEE.

Despondent, I came home and barricaded myself in my room, away from the creators of this twisted conspiracy, where I've been holed-up ever since.  If anyone calls tell them I’m not available.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sisters in Arms

A few days ago I was sitting by the pool at a resort in Oman, enjoying a pina colada and reading the latest news from Doha online, when I came across this headline:

"Court fines, revokes license of expat woman in road rage incident"

This stopped me in my wet flip-flopped, sun-woozy, dark-rum-sipping tracks.  After a quick self-patdown to confirm my whereabouts, I determined that a) I was not, in fact, presently incarcerated, and b) I was also not currently making headlines in Doha.

Phew.  While it was a relief to discover that I hadn't entered a fugue state sometime in the last week and taken my irritation out on another driver, I have to be honest:  This type of action would not have been completely out of the question.  A few months ago, I actually joked to friends to be prepared for me, any day, to fulfill my fantasy headline and related story, that I imagined would go something like this:

"Canadian woman charged in road rage incident

"...The woman, a Canadian believed to be in her mid-forties, allegedly pulled her victim through his unopened driver's side window.  The young expatriate driver was unharmed, but his windshield was found to be shattered beyond repair.  Upon being apprehended, the woman, while still clutching a mangled hockey stick, was reported to be heard muttering the phrase 'Je ne regrette rien'."

No word of a lie.  This was my light-hearted version of what the future held for me. And now it would seem as though some other poor woman had beaten (pardon the pun) me to it.

Now before you get your shorts in a knot about me condoning her actions, let me say this:  I don't consider myself to be a particularly violent person.  And even if I were, my five-foot-two, skinny yet curiously flabby frame would make me completely ineffective.  I do, however, believe in a little reverie to help me through some stressful situations.  Situations like driving in Doha.  Hockey stick is Fantasy Number One.  A spike belt that I can throw out the passenger side window into the path of the tires of a vehicle that is passing me after riding my ass for 300 metres in Fantasy Number Two.  And you know those spiky metal things from that movie (Transformers, maybe?) that fold out of your wheels to shred the vehicle next to you like a tin can?  You got it.  Fantasy Number Three.  

There was no end to the self-righteous online tsk-tsking in response to this story.  But I mean really, people.  Who among us hasn't indulged in just a teeny tiny little bit of revenge-filled fancy while driving in this crazy city?  A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, secretly confessed that she harbours a desire to sneak around parking garages and let the air out of the tires of those who have wronged her with their driving infractions.  We all imagine it.  The lady in the real headline just snapped first.

So to the woman who lost her license because of a momentary fit of pique, I'd like to offer up my driving services.  Need a lift somewhere, hun?  Happy to help.  You can play Thelma to my Louise. Especially if you supply your own spike belt.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Qtel, With Love...

                                                                                                                Photo details

September 16, 2012

Dear Qtel,

It was so great to see you today!  And what a relief to finally have this’s been a month since I made it.  I know you were three hours late, but it’s going to be totally worth it.  So happy that you came to install the big black box for our fibre optic for our high-speed internet.  I hear we can get up to 50 Mb/sec!  I’ll bet it’ll just be a matter of days until someone comes back to activate it.  One of your guys mentioned as he was leaving that another person would be coming back in 15 minutes to do his part of the job?  Hmmm.  He actually never came.  Oh well, no biggie.  I’m sure he’ll come when he has time.

Warmest regards,
Desert Mama

* * *

September 17, 2012

Dear Qtel,

Wow!  Two visits from you in as many days!  I totally don’t mind that you came a day late, but I was a bit surprised to see you!  I’m just glad I happened to be here when you arrived.  I’m not exactly sure what you were doing in the little room with the black box?  It's all over my head—you're the expert! Can’t wait to have our fibre optic up and running!

Desert Mama

* * *

September 18, 2012

Hi again, Qtel,

Gosh, I hadn't realized what a big job this fibre optic activation is!  And it seems like there are so many highly-trained individuals working at your company—I haven’t seen the same person twice!  So nice of you to come back again today and do whatever it was you did to the big black box.  I’m so happy you told me that all we (well, my husband, actually) have to do now is call your office to arrange for another Qtel technician to come to our house to activate it.  Which I kind of thought was the point of all the other technicians.  Oh well.  We'll make that appointment ASAP!

Desert Mama

* * *

September  20, 2012

Hey there,

Just wanted to let you know that my husband made an appointment for next week.  One step closer to having high-speed internet...Yippee!

Desert Mama

* * *

September 26, 2012

Hi Qtel,

I had no idea you had your very own comedy troupe that you sent out on the road!  What a treat, and so hysterical!  When your “technician” arrived on the compound, he phoned me, and told me that he was here for my “appointment”, and that he was the Copper Wire Technician, not the Fibre Optic Technician.  So funny to make it seem like you sent the wrong guy!  The best part was the dead-pan way he kept delivering the line: “There is NO fibre optic wire on your compound yet, Madam, only copper wire.”  I don’t know how he kept a straight face—I would have busted a gut laughing trying to pull that one over on someone!

Thanks for the laugh,
Desert Mama

* * *

September 27, 2012

Hi again,

Just wanted to let you know that I made another call to your office today to get my fibre optic activated.  Boy, you guys must be BUSY!  The operator told me that it could take up to two months for an appointment!  But, I’m not worried.  She said you’d call me to let me know when you were coming.  Looking forward to hearing from you!

Bye for now,
Desert Mama

* * *

October 19, 2012

Hi Qtel!

It’s been such a long time!  I can’t tell you how excited I was to get your call today.  Looks like I’ll see you tomorrow at 4:00!

See ya,
Desert Mama

* * *

October 20, 2012

Dear Qtel,

I hate you.  Drop dead.

Desert Mama

* * *

October 21, 2012


OK, I'm sorry.  I know I overreacted.  It's just that I've invested so much time in our relationship, and I was so disappointed that you didn't come over at all yesterday.  Couldn't you have called to say you weren't coming?  I wasn't even the one that initiated it this time!  And I had waited so patiently for a month for you, not pestering you by calling you myself.  Sigh.  I know you're probably angry and that's the reason you're not returning my calls.  Please say you'll come back?

Desert Mama

* * *

October 28, 2012


Alright, I get it.  I guess it's over.  It's really too bad...I thought this was the beginning of something special.  Downloading movies from iTunes at high speed, using Skype without the picture freezing...I guess it just wasn't our time.  I'll never forget those countless hours of anticipation I spent waiting for you to arrive.  In the end, maybe that's all the excitement I could have hoped for.  Take good care of yourself.

With my unwavering affection,
Desert Mama

* * *

November 15, 2012

Hey Qtel, you rat bastard,

I just heard from a friend of a friend that someone on this compound had their fibre optic activated last week.  That's right.  ACTIVATED.  There may be a million and a half people living in this city, but I think you forgot what a small community this is.  News travels fast, you two-timing low-life.

Get bent.
Desert Mama

* * *

December 12, 2012


What makes you think you can just come waltzing back into my life and tell me you're going to pop in tomorrow afternoon?   I'm OVER you, get it?  Four o'clock?  Yeah, I've heard that one before.  I'm not holding my breath.

Desert Mama

* * *

December 13, 2012

See?  I knew it.  6:00 pm and you're still not here.  I'd better stop sending these emails since it's taking up too much bandwidth and interfering with downloading the movie we want to watch tonight.  Yeah, you read that right.  We're going to download a movie without your help.  Loser.

Desert Mama

* * *

December 14, 2012

Dear Qtel,

Thank you for your prompt and efficient service in getting our fibre optic internet installed and activated.  The coordination of your various departments to accomplish this task was exemplary, and your technicians and administrative staff are clearly top-notch.  That it only took three months, four appointments, and nine technicians to get the job done is nothing short of impressive.  You have set a new standard for monopoly internet service providers worldwide.

Yours truly,
Desert Mama

Monday, November 26, 2012

An Undertaking for the Anti-Overtakers

If you've lived here for awhile, it can be easy to become disillusioned and feel like you could never contribute to any kind of change.  It can seem that no one is interested in what expats have to say, despite being the majority of the population.  And feeling this way would be spot-on with reality.

So imagine how startled you'd be to discover that the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) has created an online traffic survey.  An ONLINE TRAFFIC SURVEY.  Do you know what this means?  It means that instead of having to resort to muttering obscenities and secretly flipping other drivers the bird below the level of your windshield, you could actually air all of your grievances to an administrative body that could do something about them.  Now that's progress!

This survey was far more thorough than anything in my wildest dreams.  OK, I don't actually dream about surveys, but if I did, most of them would suck, and this one would exceed expectations.    It has several questions, with drop-down menus to list your top three complaints on any of the subjects, and then a box to type in everything that you see as wrong with the driving scene in Doha. Someone at MOI actually seemed to care what I had to say.  It was touching.  So I let 'er rip.

Coincidentally, this past week our compound launched a "Safe Driving Awareness Campaign".  The kick-off event on the first Saturday involved a safety presentation for families, and some driving games for kids designed to help them understand the importance of playing safely on our compound streets.  This past Saturday, on the final day of the campaign, the MOI was invited to come and give a talk to teenagers and adults about road safety.

I couldn't help but ponder the irony of giving a talk to a group of people who all work for oil companies that have their own very stringent safety programs, and as a whole are probably some of the most conscientious drivers in the city. Talk about preaching to the converted.  But I was curious to hear about all the wonderful new initiatives that would be launched as a direct consequence of my own personal and very detailed contribution to the online traffic survey.  Call me an optimist.  Or a narcissistic, dreamy idealist. Whichever you prefer.

To my delight, the officials at the safety session brought up my two most favourite driving moves in the city.  About a month or two ago, the MOI announced that they would start ticketing drivers for "Overtaking on the Right".  At the time, I was elated to hear this news.  Finally, something would be done about the maniacs who pass other vehicles on the right-hand shoulder while travelling at 120 km/hr, sometimes hitting cars and squashing any pedestrians who might be, say, on their way to their jobs to support their families, and have the misfortune of standing on two insufficiently human legs.  But during their little talk, the group from the MOI explained what "Overtaking on the Right" really means, with the aid of this helpful photo:

We've all seen this classy little manoeuvre, and it's not exclusive to Doha.  Ignoring the line of drivers patiently waiting in single file to go through the light when it turns green, the white car has blown past the whole lot of them on their right, and is trying to cut in near the front of the queue, presumably because either a) he is far more important than the rest of these poor saps, or b) he really, really needs to get to the loo.  If it were up to me, when I see you pull this stunt I wouldn't say you are doing anything illegal.  I also would not say that you are tricky, smart, cheeky, or even particularly clever.  I would just say you're an jerk.  Illegal?  No. Asshole?  Yes.

My second favourite driving infraction that was up for discussion is tailgating, or as some in this city like to think of it, "The Vehicular Anal Probe".  For those of you who don't have the pleasure of driving on Doha streets on a daily basis, this might warrant a description.  Imagine a three-lane expressway with a speed limit of 100 km/hr, but which really has no business having traffic on it travelling faster than 80 km/hr.  Now picture everyone in the middle and right lanes driving at speeds far lower than 100 km/hr.  It truly is enough to make a person weep.  My strategy is usually to drive in the left lane, going precisely 100.  Now, the other factor I need to add to this scenario is the group of countless large SUVs, usually Landcruisers, that come up behind those of us travelling at the speed limit in the left lane, sometimes flashing their lights and honking their horns, and position their grilles about halfway up our exhaust pipes.

What to do, as the driver in front of one of these lunatics?  Well here, I was certain, was the MOI to assure us that, after taking my online venting to heart, strict new rules would be in place to outlaw this dangerous practice.  But no.  Here was the MOI to disappoint.  The advice given to the group, when being tailgated by a nut-job driving 4700 pounds of metal on wheels, is to "put on your four-way flashers [hazard lights], and get out of the way when safe to do so."  They actually said that.  There was no suggestion of a fine, or a law, or enforcement if one already exists.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there it was, the Inshallah moment of the presentation:  "Look out for your own sorry rear-end, because it is fully and completely out of our hands."

But, really, we shouldn't lose heart.  Occasionally, a tailgater will become impatient and overtake you on the right.  And while there's evidently no ticket for doing that at high speed in the middle lane, he's probably the same guy who will get one later for trying to butt in line.  In the face of injustice, I'll settle for poetic justice any day of the week.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I Just Want a 'Flu Shot

Every year around this time my ears perk up and I'm ever alert for when the 'flu vaccine will be available, and where.  About 10 years ago, when the middlest Thing was no more than two, he got a nasty case of influenza—barely controlled fever, cough, and fatigue—that lasted for 10 days, and made us decide that since there was a preventative out there, it seemed to make sense to take advantage of it.

I get anxious about this kind of thing, at this time of year.  Not only are we going to be doing a lot of travelling, but the kids, especially, are surrounded at school by many other kids who also travel.  In my opinion, if you're exposed to that many other people, who in turn are exposed to many other people, you're exposed to that many other viruses.  Protect the herd and everyone stays healthy.

Last year it was easy.  The five of us showed up at the Mesaimeer Vaccination Clinic on a Wednesday afternoon in November, presented our national health cards, and told the receptionist we wanted the influenza vaccine.  We were immediately called into a little room where the nurse was so efficient that she didn't even get us to sit down...let alone change her gloves between us.  Five jabs, out the door.  Easy peasy.

So this year, I tried to find some information about when the clinic would be offering shots.  Eventually, I found out that it is available right now, but only to Muslims who may be travelling to Mecca over the Eid al-Adha break.  Which I get.  I understand that they would want to offer this free vaccine to their own citizens first, and then expats.  But isn't a matter of public health really a matter of, well...keeping the entire public healthy?

Anyway, it was clear that if I wanted this done I was going to have to make other arrangements.  I found out that for 100QR we could have our shots done at the hospital.  I spent thirty minutes on the phone making separate appointments (which is a whole other post in itself) for myself and the kids, specifically telling the receptionist that we wanted the 'flu shot.

Arriving five minutes early for my 1:00 pm appointment, I made my way to the department desk.  Typically Doha, there was no line, just people crowded around the breadth of the desk.  When the ubiquitous Large-Arab-Guy-Who-Has-No-Concept-of-Queuing-Theory walked in and stood in front of me, I deftly slid my foot in front of him, angling my elbow to secure my position.  I figure it's all about taking advantage of teaching moments with these guys.

When my turn came, the young man behind the desk told me I had to go back out to the Main Desk (there's a Main desk for the Main desk?) to register.  "Come back when you're done," he told me.

Another desk, another non-line, another queue-butting crowd.  Ten minutes later I successfully registered for my appointment, and she told me, pointing in the direction of Main Desk #2 (or would that be #1?), "You can go and tell them you're here."  Trust me, he already knows.

I was eventually called by a child-sized nurse who brought me into a room to check my weight and height.  "But I just want a 'flu shot," I said to her.  "Yes, madame, but the doctor wants."  Evidently, the doctor also wanted my temperature and blood pressure, the latter for which I sat through five attempts of the automatic cuff inflating incorrectly.

"Can't you do this manually?" I asked.  Can you even do it automatically?

Finally she had all my vitals, and I was led in to see Dr. B., a friendly guy with a thick accent.

"So tell me where you're travelling."

Travelling?  I hadn't realized that that would enter into the equation.  It occurred to me that maybe he wouldn't give me the shot if I wasn't.  So, I answered, honestly, that we would be travelling to Greece next week.

"Ah, Greece, yes.  Chance of mosquito-borne encephalitis, Dengue fever...You should probably get the Influenza vaccine, too..."

"No, no...I'm actually just here for the influenza vaccine."

"Ah, ok.  What about your other vaccinations?  Are they up to date?  Did you bring your card?"

"Um, no, I didn't.  Everything's up to date.  I just want a 'flu shot."

"Typhoid?  Hepatitis A?  When did you have these?"

"Before we moved here.  Look," I smiled, "I just want a 'flu shot."

"What will you be doing in Greece?  You have to be careful about air-conditioning and Legionnaire's Disease.  You might want to consider getting a pneumococcal vaccine."

Remind me again why in the hell we're going to this clearly plague-infested country and our untimely, painful, and most certain death.

"Just give me the damn 'flu shot!!"

Did I just say that out loud?  No.  No I did not.  But I do really, really have to watch that.

"OK, here is the requisition.  Take it back out to the desk."  Would that be Desk #1 or Desk #2???  "Once you've paid, come back here and the nurse will give you the injection."

Naturally, I struck out at the first desk (Desk #2).  As I waited in line again at the second desk (Desk #1), I looked over my bill.  150QR for the vaccine, 150QR for a consultation (brief).  I couldn't help but notice that this wasn't the 100QR bill I was expecting.

"Is this right?"  "Yes, madame, you have to pay for a consultation.  But I will give you your company discount.  Then you can go back to the desk and give them the receipt to show you've paid."

Great.  Back to Desk #2 it is.  "The nurse will be out shortly."  No pun intended.  "Have a seat, madame."

Except there were no seats.  So I stood.  I stood and read my book.  I checked email on my phone.  I glared at men sitting in the comfy high-back chairs.  I'm fairly sure I saw the minute-hand of the clock on the wall flit backward. I watched the nurse come out from behind the swinging doors and heard her call other patients' names, expertly avoiding eye-contact with me.  I was starting to think that having a dozen actual shots would be less painful than this whole experience.

Sometime after 2:00 pm (remember my one o'clock appointment?), I finally got my shot.  There were 276 riyals and and hour and a half gone from my life that I was never going to get back.  But I got what I wanted.  All I wanted was a 'flu shot.

And people ask me what I do all day.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Plane Crash, a Mall Fire, and 43 Reasons to Remember

What possible relevance could another anecdote about my home town have to do with my life here in Doha, you're probably asking yourself.  Stick with me, folks.  I promise to stitch it together.

On March 10, 1989, the pilots of a small Air Ontario jet prepared for their flight from the airport in Dryden, Ontario, scheduled to fly to Winnipeg.  The weather was terrible, with temperatures hovering around freezing, and wet snow was falling.  The plane had already been delayed for several reasons, weather and otherwise.  When the jet finally did take off, it was sluggish, and was unable to gain even enough altitude to clear the forest beyond the runway, shearing off the tree tops in its path.  Less than a minute after taking off, the plane crashed into the dense and remote bush of northern Ontario, 950 metres from the runway.  Of the 69 passengers and crew on board, 24 died.

The tragedy of Air Ontario 1363 was a watershed event for aviation safety in Canada.  A judicial inquiry was commissioned, and after three years (during which time two interim reports were provided to international air transport safety organizations before the final document was completed), Judge Virgil Mohansky had determined that the principle cause of the crash was ice build-up on the wings of the aircraft.  No less significant was the lack of a top-down "culture of safety" at Air Ontario.  Judge Mohansky made 192 recommendations that were adopted by airports in all relevant locations, the most important being changes to de-icing methods used on planes in cold-weather climates.

The following year, a bronze plaque displaying the names of all 24 victims was unveiled at a memorial to remember the tragedy.

So, what's my point?  There's a story in Doha playing out that reminds me a great deal of the Dryden crash.  Try to think of the two stories as those near-identical cartoon pictures you see in the funny pages; see if you can spot the differences.  I think you'll find it anything but amusing.

Last week, three and a half months after a fire at Villaggio Mall claimed the lives of 19 people, the mall was once again opened to the public.  In the time since this tragedy, much has happened as a result.  The days following the fire were filled with an outpouring of grief from the whole community.  Flowers and stuffed animals were laid at the mall's main sign.  There was news that an investigation into the cause of the fire was underway.  Fire safety inspections were taking place at other malls, leaving them closed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.  A trial date was set for those suspected in playing a part, inadvertent or otherwise, in the sequence of events that led to this unimaginable tragedy.  And finally, there were reports that Villaggio had completed physical changes to the mall to satisfy improvements to its dire safety breaches.

A fire exit bound with a wire, when
the mall opened last week

But what does any of it mean?  The memorials were taken down.  Some of the padlocked fire exits were now bound with wire zip-ties.  The trial was postponed indefinitely because two of the three accused failed to appear.  Many of the changes that have occurred are sadly just knee-jerk reactions in a system that is so badly flawed it seems impossible to overcome.

The difference between the handling of the tragedy in my home town over 20 years ago and the Villaggio fire investigation is that Qatar does not have a culture of enforcement.  Unless there is consistent and lasting enforcement of the regulations that have been put into place, some unaware person will put padlocks back on the fire exits to prevent theft from his store, another may ignore a faulty fire alarm, and someone else will opt to turn off a leaky sprinkler system instead of having it repaired.

So WE have to be vigilant.  We need to keep our eyes open for possible safety issues and if we spot them, tell someone.  Heck, let's yell at them if we have to.  If those changes are adhered to, like the changes made after the Air Ontario crash, who knows how many lives could be saved.

And something needs to be done in a permanent, tangible manner to honour the memory of those who lost their lives.  Not only would it help all of us here now to remember, every time we walk past it, but it would encourage those who come after us to continue along the path of change, one step at a time.

My boys will play hockey again at Villaggio Mall.  To say that I'm dreading it would be an understatement.  I don't want to experience what I felt in those weeks after mothers, sisters, grown sons and daughters, and small children lost their lives.  But I also don't want NOT to feel it.  I don't want to enter Villaggio and pretend it never happened.  I want to be reminded, and I want everyone who enters the mall to remember, so that something like it never happens again.