Monday, August 30, 2010

Licence to Drive

It's official:  I can now do everything that Dan can in this country (except brazenly show my knees or shoulders in public).  On Saturday, I received my Qatari driver's licence.  I completed the whole process in record time, taking only 15 minutes from the moment I walked into the Traffic Commission.  All I needed to do was present my passport, Qatar ID, Alberta driver's licence and 150QR.  It's great to be a Canadian and be on The List of several countries whose expats don't have to undergo a driving test!  

I've only driven a handful of times since Saturday, but the true test was last evening when Dan and I went to the mall to get a mobile phone for me.  I don't know if you can imagine driving in the dark, through several roundabouts, in the evening during Ramadan, but it wasn't pretty.  I wasn't prepared for how busy it would be, both on the roads and in the mall.  Nonetheless, we made it home safely a couple of hours later with me at the wheel.   Stay tuned and keep an eye on the Accident Report on the top right of this page, though...I think it's not a matter of if, but when!

This might be of interest to some of you (you know who you are):  the legal limit for blood alcohol while driving is 0.00%.   Makes you rethink that glass of wine with dinner if you've got someplace to go afterwards.  Despite this, I'd still swear that half the drivers are drunk.  Speed limit 100 km/h?  The Sri Lankan in the little Nissan pick-up is going 60, while the Qatari in the Land Rover is going 160.  We actually saw an SUV run a red light the other day and round the corner on two wheels!

Yesterday, I had a specialized tour of Doha, courtesy of ExxonMobil.  My new friend A.G. (no, I'm not trying to conceal her identity; it's what she goes by when us English-onlys try to pronounce her Turkish name), who is also a newcomer, and I were guided by Angela (originally from the UK) on a "ladies" tour.  The purpose of the tour was to show us where to go for some essentials, like where to get one's hair cut or get a massage.  Angela brought us to some of the most exclusive spas in the city for tours, and all looked amazing, with some being comparable in price to those in Calgary.  So, girls, if you're coming for a visit, I know just the place for us to hang out for a day!  Angela also showed us the location of the gold souks, tailor souks and fabric souks.  I'll definitely make my way back there when Ramadan is over and it's not quite so hot.  We'll have another tour sometime in September which will be more family-oriented.

And now, I'll spend the rest of the afternoon getting psyched for the short drive I need to make later today!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

There's a Gecko Living in my Hockey Equipment

Well Dan's, anyway.  Despite having such a big house, we're faced with the same space issues regarding where to put the stinky hockey equipment.  So outside it stays until either a) it's dry; or b) someone surreptitiously stashes it in the maid's quarters.  (Lucky for her, we don't have a maid.)  Last week when Dan was getting ready for hockey, the tiniest gecko imaginable scurried out of his hockey bag and ran through the kitchen.  We haven't found him yet, but I'm sure the kids will be thrilled with their new pet.

I got my RP this week, so I'm in the clear to get my Qatari driver's licence.  Trying to find out their hours of operation (or "timing", as they say here), especially during Ramadan, is like pulling teeth, so we drove to the Traffic Office late Thursday, only to find it closed.  We're persistent, though, and will try again tomorrow morning.

It's been a busy week with school.  On Monday evening, Dan and I attended Activities Night, where organizations from all around Doha (and the school itself) set up booths to show what extracurricular activities there are for kids.  We made a bee-line straight for the Qatar Minor Hockey table (for Nick and Jacob), and then I ingratiated myself with the piano teacher.  I thought I was in danger of scaring her off by telling her that she had a potential four students in our family, but luckily she saw this as a good thing and agreed to meet with us today.  I'm happy to say that she has agreed to take us on, but not until our piano arrives in October.

The novelty of the weather is wearing off, I think.  This week it was three whole days before I looked at our indoor/outdoor thermometer.  "Huh, only 37 - that's not so bad."  And then I went outside and realized that I should have paid more attention to the 72% humidity reading.  It usually takes 'til I get all the way to the clubhouse before I can see where I'm going, as my sunglasses are actually fogged up!

More tomorrow, when hopefully I will be legal to drive...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010, 1:20 pm


Glad you're still tuning in!  If you would like to share this blog with others that may be interested, please do, as I may have missed some people on my original email.  And remember, you can always sign up to be a Follower (and join my one and only - thanks, Kim!) - I believe Followers are notified when I make an entry, so you don't have to check to see if I've posted.

I completed the final step in the RP process this morning, which was getting fingerprinted at the Forensics office.  Nick joined me, as children over 12 have to be fingerprinted as well.  One couple in our group brought their 12-year-old son, too, who coincidentally is Nick's classmate and one of his first new friends, Nathan.  Once again, there were separate areas for women and men, so the boys had to go with Nathan's dad.  The boys were quite impressed with the process - no ink, but a pretty sophisticated scanner which they use to scan each finger individually, as well as the palm of the hand.

It should now only be a matter of days until I get my RP, and then I can get my Qatari driver's licence.  After being a passenger for a few weeks, I'm looking forward to being able to get around on my own...but that will mean that I have to GET AROUND ON MY OWN!  I've never quite seen drivers like this anywhere, and the roundabouts don't help!  Ben told us this morning that one of his teachers has been here for two weeks and has already been in one accident.  I'm not eager to break her record.

I've included two new pictures:  one is of Cholesterol Corner (check out the sign on the Applebee's building) and a closer pic of the McDonald's sign with Arabic writing.  Still recognizable the world over!

Dan and I made a shopping trip (sans kids) on Friday, to the MegaMart.  Bit of a misnomer, as it was decidedly Mini when compared to the other stores we've been to.  However, as we were promised, it did carry quite a few North American brands (Bounce sheets - yay!).  We also found real Cheerios; most stores carry two different-looking boxes of the same brand.  Both will have English writing, but only one will have Arabic written right on the box, too.  The latter is the one that is made here (or some country nearby); the other is actually from North America.  You can also tell by the price - we paid 36QR for the box of Cheerios (about 15CAD)!  Dan claims it was worth it.

And FYI, Ben remembered that the last boy in his class is from Syria.  Quite a diverse group of kids!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010, 12:30 pm

Marhaba!  Currently in Doha, 11:15 am, 37C.  How hot is it?  Check out this link:
Expat Woman Bakes Cookies in Her Car

The kids have made it through their first full week of school.  It's still hard to get our heads around the new work week - I usually spend all day Sunday thinking it's Monday.  This morning, we've already been to the pool (with our newly repaired dinghy - fingers crossed!) and Dan has gone to play hockey.

Yesterday, my neighbour Lynn (who I knew from when we lived in Norman Wells, NWT) took me shopping, and showed me where to find some of the things I haven't been able to find on my own.  We stopped first at a Dean and Deluca location in Villagio Mall - if you're not familiar with the chain, it's a high-end grocery store (or, more appropriately, a "gourmet boutique").  They carry things like specialty coffee beans, imported pastas, and even balsamic vinegar that looks like a good bottle of Scotch - 200 ml in a fancy bottle, nestled in a padded box, all for the low price of 700QR (200CAD).  We didn't buy anything there - maybe when Ramadan is over I'll go back for some of their pastries.  We walked down to Carrefour, where we got most of our shopping done.  When were ready to leave, we tried to take our carts to the exit near Dean and Deluca, but the security guard stopped us.  Apparently, no carts are allowed in the area with Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Tiffany stores!  Which made me think, don't rich people need carts, too?  Apparently they have "people" to do their shopping for them...

One of the things I've needed to be careful of when looking for a public toilet (all North Americans: read "bathroom"), is that I don't go into a prayer room by mistake.  Nicholas and I almost did this on our first trip to the mall - the rooms are labelled with the male and female symbols.  The only thing that tipped me off as I was reaching for the door handle was the sign, in English, which read "No food or drink allowed in the prayer room".  Upon closer inspection, I realized that the symbol which I thought was hamburger, was really shaped like the top of a mosque!

Sometimes it's hard to remember that we're living in a Middle Eastern country, but yesterday Lynn had a story for me that brought me back to reality.  Dan and I don't have our bank account set up jointly yet, but Lynn and her husband do.  Every time she takes money out of their account, Bill gets a text message from the bank letting him know!  Lynn does not receive the same courtesy when Bill accesses the account.

On the school front, things seem to be going well.  The school follows an American curriculum, and has a cut-off date of Sept. 1 for birthdays.  Suddenly, our kids (with their birthdays in May and June) are some of the youngest in the their classes!  Nicholas was unable to take Arabic this year because the number of students enrolled in the beginner level wasn't high enough.  Dan and I were pretty keen to have him take a foreign language, so yesterday he had a French assessment, and he was too fluent for even high school French!  The principal and counsellor are working on trying to get him into a second level Spanish course, just to keep him going with another language.

Ben told us yesterday about the kids in his class and where they're from.  I'm going to let him take over now and give you his fascinating list:

Tilde:  Denmark
Augusta:  Denmark
Khaled:  Holland
Luke:  California
Megan:  Savannah, Georgia, USA
Blaise:  Orlando, Florida
Cedric:  Frankfurt
Soleyma: Petawawa, Ontario
Rayan: Lebanon
David:  Mexico
Hamad:  Doha
Mimi:  Doha
Kaito:  Japan
Grace:  New Zealand
Hannah: Australia
Haelyn:  Korea
Andrew C:  Texas
Andrew M: Pittsburg
Angelina:  Texas
Athaya:  Indonesia

There's one more but I can't remember where he's from.

Enjoy your weekend!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010, 11:00 am

Marhaba!  (Ben taught us yesterday that this is how you say hello in Arabic.)

Well, what a difference a couple of days can make!

I've seen much happier faces getting off the bus in the last couple of days, especially yesterday - every Tuesday is early dismissal (12:30) for all the kids.  Nick has made five friends (he's keeping track), and seems very comfortable getting around school for his different classes, buying lunch and finding company during his breaks.  Ben has made a couple of friends, and I think I'm in already in love with his teacher - the personality fit for the two of them couldn't be better.  Jacob is settling in quite well, and said he made a friend on the bus yesterday, a Fourth Grade girl from Australia who lives on our street.  Yesterday, the kids had a couple of boys over in the afternoon to play video games and go swimming.  They are also a new-to-Doha family, and have two boys, aged 12 and 9 - the oldest is in one of Nick's classes.

Yesterday, we asked Ben and Jacob what they had been doing at recess, since it's so hot outside.  They said they stayed in and played computer games.  "Mr. Leeper hands out laptops during recess to whoever wants them."  Stunned silence on our part.  Come again??  I think that particular perk has brought this school up several notches in their estimation!

I successfully completed the most arduous step in the Residence Permit (RP) process yesterday, getting my HIV test and having my chest X-ray read.  Happily, I had two other ExxonMobil women (one a spouse, the other an employee) join me to get theirs done, too, and it was so nice to have company this time around.  I actually felt like the experienced pro, as I knew how to navigate the first part of it, unlike my first attempt on Sunday!

Dan's office is located in West Bay, which is the downtown area of Doha with all the neat architecture.  He works quite close to City Center Mall, which has a Carrefour, so he is able to pick up a few things after work if needed.  Yesterday I called him and told him we needed milk, eggs, a combination lock for Nicholas...and a new dinghy.  Yes, folks, it's true - I know you're shocked but our raft sprung a leak yesterday, setting the record for the demise of a new toy.  Dan did not buy a new one, but patched it instead, and we're hoping it holds.

I learned some interesting facts about traffic rules in Doha from Rilwan the other day.  We were being tail-gated by a Qatari in a large SUV, laying on his horn and flashing his lights.  Rilwan had been going the posted speed limit (80 km/h) which seems to be recognized by ex-pats, but not (generally) the nationals.  He was telling me that there are big fines for speeding, but only if you get caught, and mostly if you're not from Qatar.  The fine for running a red light is anywhere from 6000QR or $1700CAD (running the light, no accident caused, but the camera catches you) to 50,000QR ($14000CAD), if you cause a serious accident.  My temporary right to drive expires today, so it looks like I won't have to worry about it for awhile.

I have much thanks today for my neighbour, the appropriately named Joy, who gave me her extra set of measuring cups (ours are in our sea shipment).  I was able to make brownies and chocolate chip cookies that held a reasonable semblance to the ones I make back home!

Salam alikum!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010, 1:30 pm

Get ready for a long one, folks.  I had so much to say yesterday, but I didn't post as I was following the old adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all"!

I have to be honest with you...yesterday was our toughest day here yet.  The kids started school, and as I had an appointment, I was unable to join them.  They got up at 6:00 am to catch their 7:00 am bus, so that in itself made everyone a little bit edgier.  It think Ben's day went the smoothest, with no hiccups in his schedule, and he even learned to write his name in Arabic (NOW the moved over was worthwhile)!  The fifth graders (all 154 of them) got together in the cafeteria and the teachers had games to help kids meet others.   Jacob's foreign language registration somehow got missed, so he was temporarily put in Spanish yesterday - we hope to have that straightened out by today.  Nicholas was pretty positive about his experience, but he did miss out on a couple of electives that he chose in the spring, and is unable to take Arabic as he was told he needed to start that in Grade 6.  We're looking into it to see what can be done...we'd like him to take some foreign language, and he's not allowed to take French (because of being in immersion previously).  All the kids seemed to really like their teachers - I think that will go a long way in making the transition smooth.  Dan stopped by the elementary school at lunch, and saw both  Jacob and Ben - I think it was nice for them to see an familiar face.

Jacob was the most down when he got off the bus yesterday - hang-dog expression on his face, head hung down, dragging his feet (cue the Charlie Brown theme song).  He's upset because he hasn't made any friends yet, but I have every confidence that it won't take much time for him, as he is such a friendly kid.  Ben (who is the only Canadian in his class) said he met two kids from the US, a boy and a girl, who seem pretty friendly.  Nicholas met quite a few people yesterday, and I'm sure he'll do just fine.

Yesterday I was scheduled to go for an HIV test at the offices of the Supreme Council for Health, as one of the requirements for obtaining my Residence permit.  The women's clinic is segregated, and normally Exxon provides an escort to help you through the whole process, but since that wasn't possible yesterday, they provided me instead with an "expediter" - Salmeen, a Qatari man whose is supposed to translate for you and tell you where you should stand in line, etc.  However, the driver and the expediter forgot to pick me up at 8:30, and by the time Dan made some phone calls on my behalf, it was 10:30 before another  driver got here - I was happy to see Rilwan again.  By 11:00 I was at the clinic and had received a number for my place in the queue...I was 95 people back.  I sat and waited until 12:30 (remember it's Ramadan, so no eating, drinking, chewing gum - it felt even too awkward to read my book), and I was feeling pretty good that there were now only 30 people ahead of me.  However, at that point the power went out and their system went down.  The electronic numbers above the wickets disappeared and most people rushed to line up.  This turned out to be fruitless because all the women behind the counter had stopped working.  After a conversation with an Irish woman (who told me that they were not going to re-open again that day) and some discussion outside with Salmeen (with him speaking to me in Arabic and English, gesturing for me to get back in line), I convinced him that I should return another day.  So, I get to do it all over again on Tuesday morning, hopefully with much more success!

I filled my washing machine with water yesterday morning (hot - the only kind there is in Doha) and let it cool all day.  When I got home at 2:00 (and after I had cracked a beer) I started a load of laundry, but the washer quit.  Great capper to a lousy day!

Today has already been more promising, with the kids heading off to school in better spirits, my neighbour from across the street stopping by for a visit this morning, and Maintenance arriving to replace the burned-out motor in my washer.  I'll try to have a happier (and shorter!) entry next time!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010, 2:30 pm

Hi again!  Another beautiful day in Doha...forecast today is 41C, and current humidity is about 87%.

After 10 days here, I finally experienced driving first hand.  Thankfully, Dan was my navigator.  All the buildings are the same colour (picture sand-coloured buildings with terra cotta roofs), so I never know where I am because all landmarks look identical to me!  We went out in the Honda MRV after lunch, and since it's Ramadan, traffic was light.  As a non-resident, my Alberta licence is valid for two weeks after my arrival, so I've only got a few days left to get some practice in.  Once I have a Residence Permit I will only have to show my Canadian licence to get a Qatari licence.  It's great to be Canadian - expats from some other countries, including the US, have to undergo quite a rigorous driving test to get their licence here.

A couple of days ago, Ben said, "This pool would be way more fun if we had a raft."  So, off we went yesterday in search of the coveted dinghy.  Our first stop was Carrefour, a huge grocery/department store.  Imagine Superstore, but with none of the products that you are familiar with.  Without much searching, we found exactly what we were looking for, with a pump and a couple of oars, all for the ridiculously low price of 69QR (about 25 bucks).  Later in the day, while we were watching the kids use it, I commented to Dan that they were being really rough with it, and I was afraid it was going to get wrecked.  He responded, "Heck, at that price we'll go to Carrefour every week...a loaf of bread, some milk, and a new dinghy!"

Our next stop, for groceries, was the aptly named Lulu Hypermarket.  It seems as though all of the fasting Qataris decided to come out at the same time as us.  Parking was a nightmare, but we eventually found a spot about a million miles from the entrance, in full sun.  The line-ups inside were outrageous...strangely, by the time we were done, the place had pretty much cleared out.  Maybe the fact that it took us an hour and a half to find everything had something to do with it.  The kids were real troopers, and treated the whole ordeal like a scavenger hunt ("OK, you go find chocolate chips, I'll look for yeast!").  This store has probably the best produce out of all the stores we've been to so far, and also carries US beef, which we've heard is "the least tough" (not "the most tender"!) available in the area.  We even bought three kinds of ice cream (this is what happens when you go shopping with the whole family), and got it home before it melted.

That's it for today.  Tomorrow is the first day of school, and I think I'm filled with more trepidation than the kids!  This will be the first time that we are sending them off from the bus stop instead of accompanying them to school.  They will likely handle it better than I will.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, while we begin our week!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010 8:00 am

It's the beginning of the weekend for us - Friday is the new Sunday!

Our stress level was reduced somewhat yesterday as our air shipment arrived from Calgary.  We got our second computer (with our wireless router - I can now use the laptop anywhere!), all of our remaining clothes, some books, and most importantly to some, the Wii!!  It feels just like Christmas.

Yesterday the boys went for their orientations at their new school.  The three of them were pretty nervous, and a little shy, but thankfully the school had arranged for "student ambassadors" to give new students tours, and there were a LOT of new students.  Ben and Jacob met their teachers, both of whom seem lovely, and we're just waiting on Nicholas' class placement.  He had to take the Math MAP test, to see where he should be placed...I think he did quite well.  He has firmly established himself as "Nick" at his new school, introducing himself to his principal and counsellor as such.  On Sunday, I will have to put them all on the bus and send them off...I have another medical appointment for my Residence permit.

Our first full day of Ramadan outside of the compound was not so bad.  Traffic is very light, especially in the afternoon, as many people leave work at 1:00 for the day.  We were able to eat lunch in the cafeteria at school (Subway!), but we were asked not to bring any food or drink to others parts of the school out of respect for those who are fasting.  The only issue was the drive home, when it was 39C and we would have loved to have a drink of water.

I'm going to back up a bit and tell you about our arrival.  ExxonMobil had arranged for "Al-Maha service" for us when our plane arrived.  There was a young woman who met us at the terminal (with one of those little signs that had our names on it) and led us into a lounge area.  We gave her our passports and our baggage claim tickets, and then we sat and ate fruit and yogurt while she cleared Customs and arranged to have our baggage collected or us.  This, all while looking out through the glass wall at the throngs (the poor saps) navigating the process themselves.  I read that it costs about 100QR (about 35CAD) per ticket - we are so paying for this when we're traveling on our own!

Breakfast is ready - better run.  Later today we're going to Lulu Hypermarket to buy groceries - another shopping adventure!

Ramadan Kareem!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thanks for all the positive feedback, everyone!  I supposed it's early days, so I haven't put anyone to sleep yet...

Please ignore the date and signature stamp on this blog as it seems to be tied to some time zone in North America.  The date I type is actually the day of the post - time right now is 8:20 am.

Today is the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.  Ramadan is a time for fasting and refraining from "all other physical pleasures" during daylight hours.  This translates into a different, and sometimes trying, way of life for 30 days.  During this time, it is illegal to eat or drink in public (not even a sip of water), and we're told that there are "serious consequences" if you are caught.  It still isn't clear to me if those consequences apply to non-Muslims, but at the very least is considered rude and inappropriate to consume anything in front of someone who is fasting.  This means that Dan will either have lunch with his office door closed, or come home instead.  At the kids' school, fasting students will go to the library at lunch time, and all others, including teachers, will eat in the lunch room.  In the city, restaurants and coffee shops are closed during the day (oh, my beloved Starbucks!), and open again after sunset (who wants a frapuccino at 6:00 pm?).  I've been told that driving becomes a little dicier in the early afternoon, as drivers have low blood sugar and are somewhat crankier.  After sunset each day, the fast is broken with Iftar, which as I understand it, usually starts with dates, and is ultimately quite a feast.

I am really looking forward to experiencing Ramadan first-hand...everyone has told us how much fun it ISN'T, but I think it could be a great learning experience for us and the kids.

School starts on Sunday, Aug. 15 for our kids.  Ben and Jacob will go for their pre-admission tests this afternoon.  They have spots reserved, but everyone gets a test to make sure there are no special needs.  Nicholas was accepted to middle school a couple of months ago and has already chosen his electives, and he has a new student orientation tomorrow.  Apparently, they don't need Dan at work that badly yet as he is able to join us for (and drive us to) these events!

That's it for today...when things slow down in the next couple of days, I'll go back and fill you in on our arrival in Doha and our first few days here.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hello all!  This is my first attempt at blogging, so bear with me.  We've been here for five days now, and I'm finding there is just too much to tell on FB or by email.  So, if you're interested in finding out what new experiences we're having, please check this website periodically.  I don't promise to make it exciting, interesting, or grammatically correct, but I will try to keep you informed of our goings-on.

My first impression of this country was, of course, THE HEAT.  The moment we stepped onto the tarmac, and walked to the shuttle bus which would take us to the terminal, we were hit with a veritable wall of heat and humidity.  Interestingly, Ben immediately said, "I am definitely going to like the weather here!"  It certainly beats sub-zero weather, but we've experienced close to that here in the malls, and even in our own home!  We're still trying to optimize the air-conditioning...

Today, I started the process of acquiring my Residence permit.  This involved going to a private hospital for a chest x-ray, blood typing, and vision test.  All very civilized, as I was picked up by a driver who escorted me to all the departments and brought me home when I was finished.  Mr. Rilwan was my driver, a nice young Sri Lankan who, coincidentally, drove us home from the airport when we arrived.  Let the education begin!  I had a very informative conversation with him about Sri Lanka, regarding language, traffic, climate...he said that now that the war is over, it's a great holiday destination for residents of Qatar and others in the region.

There is so much more to write about the last five days, but I will slowly dole it out in the next little while...besides, since it's almost 8:00 pm, it's almost my bedtime!  We are gradually getting adjusted to the nine hour time difference, with Jacob and Nicholas being our Sleep Heroes, each logging 12 hours last night.

One last thing...for those who may be interested:  to calculate what time it is in Doha, if you are in Mountain Time, subtract 3 hours from your current time, and change the am to pm or vice versa.  If you're in Central or Eastern, subtract 4 or 5 hours, respectively, and do likewise.  This will all change slightly when Daylight Savings Time ends, as Qatar doesn't change.