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.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Continuing the Marathon of Hope

It was April, 1980.  A 21-year-old young man dipped his prosthesis into the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's, Newfoundland to symbolize the beginning of his cross-country run, in the hopes of raising money for cancer research.

By the time Terry Fox had reached Ontario, there was a media frenzy over his "Marathon of Hope". Canadians were glued to the nightly news, awaiting updates on the incredible journey Terry was making.  We watched with awe the film clips of him running.  Terry had lost one leg to osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and ran with determined effort with one strong leg and a prosthesis on the other.  His gait became iconic.  Incredibly, Terry ran 26 miles daily, the equivalent of one marathon every single day.

I was a preteen at the time.  I remember talking with friends, all of us anticipating Terry's arrival in our hometown of Dryden, Ontario, eager to finally catch a glimpse of this new Canadian hero.  He would be there in four weeks, three weeks, two and a half.

And then the sad news that day in early September, 1980, that just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, Terry had to end his run.  The cancer was back, this time in his lungs.  I remember watching a news clip of Terry choking back tears as he was loaded into ambulance, saying, "If there's any way I can finish it, I will."

Fast forward to summer 2012.  Over the course of a couple of months, our circle of family and friends was impacted by cancer so greatly that it seemed statistically impossible.  Dan's grandmother passes away from cancer in June.  The husband of a dear friend is diagnosed with throat cancer.  A friend from Doha discovers she has breast cancer.  And Nick's friend and Doha hockey teammate, at the heartbreaking age of 14, is diagnosed with bone cancer, the same kind that Terry Fox had.

Through their experiences, I learned more than I thought I ever wanted to know about chemotherapy, radiation, and post-operative complications.  But I also learned a great deal from these friends about peace, resilience, and hope.

Terry Fox
Terry Fox died of cancer on June 28, 1981, at the age of 22.  His Marathon of Hope inspired a nation to continue in his footsteps, and every September in Canada the Terry Fox Run is held in thousands of cities and towns across the country.  The run is now held in many other countries around the world, including annually in Qatar at the College of the North Atlantic in Doha (Qatar's 2012 TFR was held in February).  The organization that was founded in his name has raised over 600 million dollars worldwide to support cancer research.  Six.  Hundred.  Million.  That's money that has gone to research that has benefited cancer patients the world over, research that has most likely impacted the treatment of those I know:  Treatment for my friend with breast cancer.  Treatment for my friend with throat cancer.  Treatment for my young friend battling the same cancer that inspired Terry Fox to take up this cause.

Please consider taking part or supporting a team in a Terry Fox Run, wherever you are in the world.  For more information, visit the links below.  Make a donation.  Participate in a run.  Like them on Facebook.  Do whatever that thing is you do on Twitter.  Spread the word!

Terry Fox Foundation

Terry Fox International

Today, September 16,  is the annual Terry Fox Run in Canada.  It happens in a week when one friend returns to Doha cancer-free, and the outcome of another's surgery to remove the tumour in his leg was so amazingly wonderful that it brought us to tears.  Continue the marathon.  Hope carries on.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Natural Disasters and Other Summer Pastimes

Stop talking about it, Mom.  Stop saying "we were so lucky to get out".  When you say that, it makes me think about what could have happened.  But it didn't.  We did get out.  That's all that matters.

* * *

This is our second year returning home to Canada for the summer.  Having learned a little bit from our experience last year, we decided to change some things around.  Just like last year, the kids and I came back to Calgary for a bit to visit with friends.  But this year, instead of spending our whole time in the city, we decided to follow our friends and hop one province over into British Columbia, renting a cabin in the beautiful little mountain town of Windermere.

Our vacation within a vacation proved to be a wise choice.  We went to the beach everyday, taking advantage of the 30C temperatures and sunny skies.  A friend took us out on his boat, and the kids knee-boarded, wake-boarded, and went tubing. We sat with friends on the grass beside the lake and grazed on all-afternoon lunches.  We'd meet again for potluck dinners, and drink wine by the campfire until midnight.

The amazingly good weather stayed with us until two days before we left.  On our last day in Windermere, with the rain pouring down and no chance of going to the beach, we decided to go to the natural hot springs in Fairmont.  My friends, Lisa and Randy, and their two boys, plus another friend of the boys', led the way in their van, with my kids and I following.  Randy and I parked our vans next to a creek at the resort, but were told we were parked illegally, so made our way up to the parking lot and found spots.

* * *

The serene hot springs, as seen from the opposite side of the creek.
The creek is in the lower part of the picture.
After the boys had spent about 40 minutes in the hot springs, they started a game of Marco Polo.  Thinking that they may be there for awhile, Lisa decided that it would probably be best if she came to tell me and Jacob not to wait, and that she and Randy would bring all the boys home.  She crossed the small footbridge—really, a couple of pieces of wood across the creek.  As she headed up the path on the way back to the parking lot, she noticed that the water level in the creek was rising, and returned to the crossing to warn Randy.

* * *

Randy stayed to watch the boys while Lisa returned to the parking lot to talk to me.  He saw her return, and she told him that the footbridge had been washed away, and that he should try to find something to use as a crossing.  Above the din of the waterfall behind him, Randy heard Lisa say that she was going for help, and saw her head back toward the path.

* * *

Lisa looked up the mountain and saw creek water pouring over the access road.  As she watched, she saw not just water, but mud and trees making their way down the waterway that had once been a small creek, and was now a 20-foot wide torrent.  Panicked, she tried to return to the hot springs to warn Randy, but the path had washed out, and she was now ankle-deep in muddy water.  Without a path, she was forced to scale the steep embankment by grasping tree roots and finding footing on rocks, while calling out to anyone who could hear her in the RV park.  Several people came over to help her, and they ran to a spot directly across the creek from the hot springs, where Randy and the five boys still were.

* * *

Suddenly, Randy and the boys heard a rumbling from up the mountain, sounding like thunder.  A wave of mud, trees, and rocks rushed down what used to be the creek.  A chain-link fence on the opposite side was peeled away like a sardine can.  A garbage can that had been cemented down was caught in the strong current and churned past.  Randy saw Lisa and others on the embankment opposite to where he was, gesturing wildly and telling him that he needed to get everyone out of there.  Ben and Nick saw a what looked like a path up the steep embankment from the hot springs.  From their vantage point, the campers on the RV side could see the same path up the embankment on the hot springs side, and yelled for them to climb up.

* * *
Jacob and I sat inside our warm, dry van while the rain poured outside.  We read, and occasionally turned on the engine to listen to the radio.  After about 40 minutes, we noticed people running up to the parking lot from the public pools, most in their bathing suits, some with bare feet.  When they reached the lot, everyone seemed to be looking in the direction of the road crossing the creek.  I wondered out loud if perhaps there was a bear there, and told Jacob I was going to go and have a look.

With my raincoat on and the hood pulled down to nearly my nose, jeans rolled up to as not to get the bottoms wet, and flip-flops on my feet, I got out of the car and walked in the direction of the access road.  I stared at the spot where Randy and I had parked our vans less than 45 minutes earlier:

Our cars had been parked on the near side of the creek,
where this torrent of water is now shown

* * *

Ben was the first one to scale the embankment, and was met by lifeguards from the public pools and emergency officials at the top.  Nick climbed half way, and then helped the other kids make their way before making his way up. In the pouring rain, after he had ensured that all five boys had reached safety, Randy scaled the cliff himself, grasping at tree roots and using rocks as footholds.

* * *

Frantic, I ran down to the public pools, scanning the crowd for our group.  They were nowhere to be found.  The pools had been evacuated, and as I made my way in the opposite direction of those leaving the pool, I was told that it was a restricted area and that I had to leave.  I explained that I was looking for my family and friends, and a supervisor at the pools had me write down the names and ages of everyone I was looking for, as well as my cell number, with strict instructions to call her when and if  I did locate them.  I returned to the parking lot again, looking for them.  In vain, I went to the pools again, which were totally empty of bathers by this point.  On my second climb up the hill, with the rain still falling hard, I spotted, with a wave of relief, Randy and all five boys standing on the walkway.  After a flurry of comparing notes and piecing together what had happened, I looked around the group and said to Randy, "Where's Lisa?"


Lisa had been stranded on the RV Park side of the creek after the road and the footbridge had both washed out.  She was able to borrow a phone (and eventually, dry clothes) from one of the campers, and after a couple of anxious phone calls to Randy and I, we all finally knew that everyone was accounted for and safe.  

The aftermath of the slide
The five boys were cold, wet, and muddy when I returned them home.  Lisa was later able to get a ride by helicopter, and was home by about 9:00 pm.

My kids told me at first that they felt they were never in any danger, and for that I credit Randy with remaining calm during the whole ordeal.  It wasn't until later, when we had pieced together stories from all seven people, and the media had descended on our neighbourhood in Windermere, that I realized just how close a call this was.  Lucky, for sure, and grateful that I am able to report this as a near-miss.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Time Zoned-Out

A serial expat friend of mine once declared that jet lag didn't affect her.  "What's the big deal?  You're really tired on the first night, so you sleep well, and by the next day you're turned around."  I remember gaping at her, incredulous.  I also remember secretly wanting to sneak out to her driveway and let all the air out of her tires.

Dan's parents have come from Canada to visit us in Doha twice.  (The fact that they made that trip more than once affirms my opinion that those 26-hour journeys are a lot like childbirth:  long, painful and unpleasant, but the horror is instantly forgotten, leaving the optimistic feeling of wanting to try it again in a year or two.)  On both trips, my father-in-law behaved like any normal person for the first week:  he was up at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am for a few days, kept trying to catch a nap during the afternoon, looked vacant and pale just shortly after dinner, and begged off to bed well before the rest of us.  My mother-in-law, however, acted like she had been living with us for the whole year, or at the very least taking a well-scheduled combination of melatonin supplements and Red Bull.  She'd get a solid 10 hours on the first night, up at 8:00, and then proceed to do all the dishes, play three two-hour games of Settlers of Catan, dead-head my petunias, and clean out my Tupperware cupboard.  She'd turn in only after completing the border of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, long after the rest of us had given up and gone to bed.  This was her pattern for the remainder of her stay.  Sleep-of-the-dead, up, frenetic pace, repeat.

Is it possible that the two women described above are superhuman?  I ask this because last week, after a 13-hour overseas flight, followed by a 4-1/2-hour flight across four provinces, I felt quite a bit less than human.  In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but I felt downright short-tempered and bitchy.  Kind of like my normal self, only kicked up a few notches.

For those of you who have experienced jet lag, you know the drill.  Night One, after being awake for 30 hours in transit, you are delirious with exhaustion and sleep a good eight hours.  "Ahh, 6:00 a.m.!" you might exclaim upon waking.  You will think, mistakenly, that you are "turned around".  But Night One is all a big set-up for your pending and most certain disappointment.

The best advice I can give for the day after Night One is this:  don't sign any legal documents and don't drive heavy machinery.  It is also a good idea to avoid attempting any transactions that are complicated and confusing.  (Note:  all transactions on this day will be complicated and confusing.)  On Day One, I made the mistake of visiting my local mobile phone service provider to get my phone working here in Calgary.  My recollection of the conversation is something like this:

"We have a plan that allows for free messaging, with 25 cents a minute for local calls for the first five minutes, or calculated at a rate of the integral of the speed of the call, whichever is greater, unless they are calls made to numbers consisting of only prime numbers, in which case unicorns will fly over rainbows,'am?  Ma'am?  Could you get your head off the counter?  We try to discourage the customers from drooling on the pamphlets."

Nights Two through Four are cruel, cruel times, indeed.  During dinner, the whole family will be unable to stay conversational, all of you holding your forks above your plates, silently chewing, your gaze just slightly to the left of your placemats to an intriguing spot on the table.  You'll order the kids to bed at 7:30 (there won't be a big fight), and force yourself to stay up until 9:00 in the hopes that you'll get another solid eight hours.  This will not happen.  Here's a tip:  no matter what time you go to bed, you will wake up, for good, at 4:00 a.m.  Go about your day.  Look cheerful—remember, you're on vacation!

The next few nights following these will be short, and the days will drag on.  You'll find yourself high-fiving the kids for sleeping in until 5:45.  You'll stubbornly refuse naps and watch a load of crappy TV just to stay awake until 10:00.  Your brow will be furrowed, and people who are a) related to you, and b) shorter than you, might get on your nerves.  This may or may not pass.

The rule of thumb for figuring out how long it will take someone to overcome jet lag is one day for every hour of time difference.  Tomorrow marks Day Nine in our struggle with the nine-hour time difference between Doha and Calgary, so by this estimation, we should be turned around.  I think the kids are already there.  As for myself, it's a little hard to tell.  I'll know I've reached complete turn-around when there is only one 6 o'clock in my day, and when I don't have the urge to take my still-non-functioning cell phone outside and beat it to smithereens with a tire-iron.  I think you'll need to give me another day or two.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Thought We Were Still Friends, Canada

Chances are if you're an expat in Qatar, you've got access to your some of your home country's government services by way of an embassy here.  I know this because of the highly scientific research I've done, which consisted of looking at my "Marhaba Map of Doha, 2011 Edition" and counting up all the little flags.  Based on my rigorous analysis, I was able to compile a list of embassies here in Doha:

Japan, Korea, Iran, Pakistan, France, Somalia, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Kuwait, Philippines, Syria, Turkey, Mauritania, Cyprus, Thailand, Macedonia, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Algeria, United Kingdom, Swaziland, Venezuela, Bahrain, Greece, Hungary, Libya, Kazakhstan, Brazil, The Netherlands, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Cuba, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Singapore, Eritrea—


—Palestine, Indonesia, Bangladesh, United States of America, Germany, Belgium, Romania, Senegal, Iraq, Russia, Poland, Italy, Malaysia, Spain, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Dominican Republic, and my personal favourite, Djibouti (no, I did not just make that one up).

Notice anybody missing?  Maybe a sweet young thing that's overly-polite and smells a little like maple syrup?  Talks incessantly about hockey?  Puts bacon on everything?  That's right.  At the time of printing, my map did not include a Canadian Embassy here in Qatar.

Ever since we left Canada two years ago, there's been talk about a Canadian Embassy opening here.  So, we've been waiting, along with our compatriots, but after awhile it didn't really seem to matter.  We haven't had to have a passport renewed, or need anything notarized.  Our point of contact, should we need anything, was the Canadian Embassy in Kuwait.  We'd get the occasional email from the Consulate, telling us about upcoming visits to Doha and inviting us to come to their make-shift office if we required their services.  We never went.

But it was still nice to know they were thinking about us.  And I day-dreamed about what an embassy here would be like.  It would open to great fanfare, all expat Canadians gathering on our newly-minted patch of Canadian soil, waving flags of the maple leaf, unitedly finding respite from some of the more frustrating aspects of Qatar.  There'd be a cardboard cut-out of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that many of us would mistake for the real thing and try to shake his hand.   We'd lament the time difference and the lack of a decent pub in which to watch the Stanley Cup play-offs. We'd share Tim Horton's coffee and donuts, and complain about the weather.  Jian Ghomeshi would MC.

And then a couple of weeks ago, we received another email from the Canadian Consulate, this time asking for volunteers for their Warden system, a communication network designed for responding to an emergency in Qatar.  I gave it a cursory scan and then did a double-take at the signature:

Embassy of Canada
Doha, State of Qatar

More extensive scientific research (Google) led to me to discover that the Canadian Embassy in Qatar was officially opened in March.  They have an ambassador and everything.  Apparently our Governor General and Minister of Foreign Affairs were here for the opening.  Frankly, I was a little offended that they never called.

Opening an embassy in a foreign country without inviting or informing the expatriate citizens in that country is a little like David Cronenberg premiering a movie on a 20-inch TV in his basement to his two next door neighbours who don't even have an interest in movies.  Talk about not knowing your target audience.

Let me present this metaphor:  Say I'm me, and Canada is my ex-boyfriend.  If you had an ex-boyfriend that you were still on pretty good terms with, and you still maintained written correspondence, and in turn he always let you know when he was going to be flying in for a couple of days, and even if you NEVER took him up on a single one of his dinner invitations, wouldn't you expect him to, at the very least, let you know that he's moving to town?

I would have come, Canada.  I would have made a big deal about it.  Maybe I even would have made Nanaimo bars.  But now, guess what?  When I go to Canada next week, I'm not calling you, either. The only difference will be that you will definitely know I'm there.

* * *

Embassy of Canada
Tornado Tower, 30th Floor
Corner of Majlis Al Taawon Street and Al Funduq Steet,
P.O. Box 24876
Doha, State of Qatar

Postal Address:
P.O. Box 24876
Doha, State of Qatar

Telephone: (974) 4419 9000
Fax: (974) 4419 9035

Hours of operation
By appointment only

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Not Forgotten

Over the weekend we noticed that we were almost out of beer.  This is an unacceptable state to be in at our house.  Clearly, action needed to be taken.

I mentioned my planned trip to QDC to a friend yesterday morning.  She had been there the day before, and told me that she heard that they were getting a wider variety of pork products in the night before.  And by "wider variety", she meant something other than the Italian luncheon meats and overly salty bacon currently on offer.  Pork chops were going to be available.  Also, they had now started opening an hour and a half earlier, which wasn't yet common knowledge.

So when I arrived at QDC, well ahead of the most of the general public, I was over the moon to see pork chops, baby back ribs, and tenderloin.  I filled my cart (read:  cleaned out their freezer), and really had to put my shoulder into it to wheel it to the till.  While I stood in the store waiting for a friend to return my call with her 'order', I went on FB and checked-in, and wrote a mildly humorous line about finding happiness in a cooler full of pork chops.

The light-hearted banter on that FB check-in continued throughout the day.  And then last evening, a good friend posted a comment on my post about finding happiness in being with her children, and the fact that she still had them.  I knew what she meant.  I knew she wasn't chastising me for being so flippant, for posting something so inconsequential.  For her, it wasn't time yet.  It was too early to be happy about anything.

The last seven days have been difficult.  The profound sadness I felt after the unthinkable in our city last Monday brought me to tears for the better part of the week.  And while this loss was not personal, it managed to become so.  I didn't know any of the families that lost children, but I know people who knew them.  Two degrees of separation.  Too close.

Grief continues to blind-side me.  A dad pushing his baby in a stroller on the compound.  A thought about stopping in to Villaggio to pick up a new shirt for B, impossible now, but the reality being so incongruous that in my subconscious, possible.  The first drive past the mall since the tragedy.  All of these things bring me to tears, unexpectedly.

And still, the question of why lingers, always.  Why that day?  Why not the middle of the night?  Why that specific, small location in what is, by all measures, a very large mall?

On Thursday, the kids' school held a memorial.  That day I signed fifteen books of condolence.  Fifteen.  Can that number be right?  Did I really stand and write something in each book?  It seems impossible that I did.  Two of those books were for families that had lost three children each.  Cue the rage.

On my way home from QDC, in my contented state, trunk full of The Forbidden Meat, I ended up driving behind a small white car that was going too slow for the speed limit and weaving back and forth across the middle lane.  No way I'm following this, I thought, and moved over to the left lane.  As I passed, I saw that there were three small children in the back seat, not one older than four-years-old, all climbing and jumping on the seats, not a seatbelt in sight.  Their mother, who was completely covered, save for the glasses poking out through her face covering, drove on, all the while reading a map that she held up on the steering wheel.  Two weeks ago, this would have been an anecdote to share with Dan later that evening with a smirk and a shake of the head.  Now, I wanted to pull her out of the car, grab her by the shoulders and scream at her.  Do you not know??  DO YOU STILL NOT KNOW ANYTHING??

I think of grief like a deep pit, with a rough, scratchy rope ladder to help you climb out.  For every rung on the ladder that you climb, there is always a little slip back.  Maybe you don't always pull yourself all the way out.

You can find me now, yelling at my kids for not putting their dishes away, posting something funny, and complaining about how long it takes to get N's phone fixed here.  But that doesn't mean that there's not an hour that goes by that I don't think about those 19 people who died here last week, and that sometimes, it still moves me to tears.  It will go on:  the yelling, the jokes, the complaining, and the grief.  All of this, all together.  To be continued.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shiny on the Outside

Doha looks like any modern city, even by Western standards.  There are museums, stadiums, and high-rises.  The skyline, up against the cool blue of the Gulf, is spectacular.  Our compound is made up of villas that look really quite lovely.  The shopping malls, where we spend much of our leisure time escaping the heat, have everything we need to entertain us: groceries, movie theatres, bowling alleys, restaurants, amusement parks and hockey rinks.

But it's just a facade.  Shiny and new on the outside, only.  We often talk about things that fall apart in our villa, or the questionable support-post smack-dab in the middle of Dan's office at work. Things are constructed quickly, and often, poorly.  It's not a big leap from this conversation to one about how this city is thirty years behind in other aspects.  The smoking in public places, often comically beneath a "No Smoking" sign.  The story about the family who noticed that the fire alarms had been switched off in their daughter's hospital room.  The small children bouncing around the back of SUVs, or on their parents'  laps, unbuckled, while their vehicle speeds past us.  When I'm with friends, we laugh nervously about how backwards things can be here.  After all, this isn't our city.  We're just guests here.  None of this will ever impact us.  Until it did.

Today, the city is reeling with unimaginable tragedy.  Yesterday morning, we heard the news that there had been a fire at Villaggio Mall.  As reports trickled in during the evening hours, we learned with horror and grief that 19 people lost their lives, including 13 small children.  All were expats.  First reports indicate that the fire may have been electrical, and started in or near a drop-in childcare centre.  Two fire-fighters and four teachers died.  Heart-breakingly, one family from New Zealand lost their two-year-old triplets.  The stories of loss become too unbearable to re-tell.

Information is available in bits and pieces—some of it online, some of it first-hand from people who were there.  A fire alarm did go off, but was described as "benign", sounding like a doorbell.  People continued to shop while the mall filled with smoke.  Members of the public urgently told others to get out, while no direction was given by mall staff.  To their credit, when a 999 call was finally made, fire-fighters arrived on scene within two minutes.

When you grow up on the other side of the world, you make certain assumptions about society that linger with you when you move to one that, on the outside, doesn't look that much different from your own.  You assume that society is inherently safe, and that you will be looked after in your time of need. Without giving much thought to it, you assume that there is an emergency action-plan in place at stadiums, schools, and shopping malls.  You assume that there are working fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems.  You assume someone will call 999 if there is an emergency.

As one friend so eloquently put it, this mall was like a village to our community.  Between Dan and the kids, we were there four days a week for hockey.  During practices or between games, we'd have coffee, shop for groceries, and chat friends and teachers from the kids' school.  I have given my kids more freedom as they get older, in the hopes that it breeds a new level of responsibility.  I have let N, last year at age 12, hang out at this very mall with a group of friends, unchaperoned, on a Thursday night.  It was only two days before this tragedy that I sat beside the ice-rink at Villaggio and told J, aged 10, that yes, he could walk down to Virgin (at the complete opposite end of the mall) to check the price of an iPod, while his dad coached and I watched his two brothers play hockey.  What if fire had broken out between us?  Would he have known to leave the building, or would he have tried to come back to where I was?  More importantly, would another adult, a member of the society I have so much faith in, have guided him to safety?  What if, what if, what if.

As Doha comes together to grieve and to try to understand such a senseless tragedy, I hope there is a way to move forward and make this city a safer place to live.  My deepest, heart-felt condolences to those who suffered such incomprehensible loss.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where Art Thou, Cheerios?

They sit atop my grocery list
Have you seen this box?
Like something that I must have missed
For months in Doha I cannot find
This staple of the breakfast kind
Someone out there surely knows:
Where are all the Cheerios?

They used to grace the grocer's shelves
But now, it seems, that they, themselves,
Have vanished, vamoosed, disappeared
This cereal, once so endeared
Into our milk-filled bowls fall tear-ios
Where the heck are all the Cheerios?

I snapped and bought the Honey version
A box of fructose—sweet perversion
To say those O's were not the same
Gives understatement a new name
The kids, they found them quite a treat
But Dan, he called them much too sweet
To pass across his breakfast table
"Tell me, dear, are you not able
To fulfill your wifely duty
And provide (besides your beauty)
Love and comfort—all those things
And especially, those oatie rings?"

I sit him down; this needs explaining
It's not just him I've heard complaining
A mother, a baby, a family
My own dear sons, my young friend E
We've gone across this dusty city
(Trust me, hun, it wasn't pretty)
In search of something held so dear-io
A solitary, crispy, Cheerio

But that's not all, across this nation,
That causes pangs of deprivation
Arborio I oft bemoan
Pepper salsa (Newman's Own)
Ketjap Manis - Indo saucy
(Don't ask me—it's loved by Aussies)
Graham crackers, sour cream
Wake me from this hungry dream!
And also in my manifesto:
Jamie Oliver's basil pesto

So if, dear reader, you spot some Cheerios
And change them back from Disappearios
Post it here, but please don't hoard!
Sharing is its own reward
And be prepared:  there is no telling
Which favourite item they'll stop selling

Monday, May 7, 2012

When Things Are Awesome

Have you ever had one of those days that is so stellar, so incredibly awesome, that it fills you with, well, awe?  The kind of day that leaves you feeling euphoric, and undeservedly lucky?  Those kind of days don't happen very often, which is probably a good thing.  It would be hard to appreciate them if they rolled around every week or so.  But there were two things that happened yesterday that made it just such a day in our house.

First off, yesterday, May 6, was guaranteed to be fabulous.  It was Thing 3's 10th birthday.  The best thing about your kids' birthdays is that it helps you to concentrate less on being in the trenches of parenthood, and more on the day that made you a parent in the first place.  For us, it brought back memories of that night in early May a decade ago, days from my due date, when I couldn't sleep and went down to the living room and watched a blizzard out my front window.  This was Calgary.  This was not surprising.  I had already planted petunias and the tulips were up.  It served me right.  Calgary gardeners should never be so cocky before the third week in May.

By the time Dan got up the next morning, the forecast was for a total of 40 cm of snow throughout the day.  He wisely decided to stay home from work, given my "condition".  Sure enough, at 5:00 pm, we headed for the hospital.  As you can imagine, it wasn't a fun trip.  The roads were terrible, and my mood was worse.

But at 7:16 pm, our littlest (biggest) was born.  And since that minute, he has been sharing his joy-filled laugh, his wicked sense of humour, and his uncannily good dance moves with us.  In short, we get to experience his awesomeness, every day.  For me, his birthday, as with his brothers', should be a celebration of how lucky we are to have him.

The second great thing that happened yesterday was The Second Thing.  Thing 2 has some special talents that cannot be denied, even modestly, by his mom.  He has a musical ear that, given his parents' musical ability, is truly baffling.  His "thing" is to listen to a song on YouTube or iTunes, and sit down at the piano and play it.  And I mean play.  He is fiercely understated about his own abilities, and is uncomfortable when complimented.  But on Thursday, he chose to be a contestant in the Middle School's talent show, mostly because we didn't tell him we thought he should enter.  He played his own arrangement of David Guetta's "Titanium".  Here is the video link to his performance:

After the talent show judges deliberated over the weekend, he made the Final Three.  This meant that he had to perform one more time at school on Sunday morning, in front of the whole student body, along with the other two finalists.  His competition was solid:  an incredible sax player, and a brother and sister band whose power went out during their final performance, and yet somehow soldiered on flawlessly.  My kid had his work cut out for him.  The students and teachers now had to vote, and a winner would be determined by the end of the school day.

And then a funny thing happened.  He won.  He won the competition.  Which meant that a good chunk of the 450 kids in his school voted for his performance.  Which meant that not just his mom, or his dad, or his grandma, thought he was good.  Maybe it meant that others recognized a little bit of awesome in him, too.

Last night, we asked Thing 1 if anything exciting happened to him yesterday, and he said, with a laugh, yes—one of his brothers turned 10 and the other one won the talent show.  As I listened to the two younger boys chat during The Birthday Dinner (steak and Caesar salad, and birthday pie—what else?), I heard them talk about birthdays past and compliments given at school.  I realized that neither boy's special day was made less special because they had to share it.  In fact, it seemed to be twice as special.  Which made it wholly, irrefutably, awesome.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

So You Don't Know Driving

It's time for me to come clean:  I know you're reading this.  Well, not you, specifically, but that someone is.  I have a website linked to my blog to see how many people visit, and where that traffic is coming from.  It's interesting to see if anyone is tuning in, and where they are.  But don't worry. The most I know about you is your city, sometimes only your country.  I don't know your name, email address, or physical address.  Except for that guy who sits in his basement and checks to see if I've posted anything lately.  I keep telling you, Dad...I'm on it.

Last week I noticed a hit from a Google search that someone did from Mumbai, India.  This is what the person Googled:

"i don't know driving but is it ok to learn it in doha"

No, sir.  No it is not ok.

I spend a lot of time in the car, mostly acting in my role as Unpaid Family Chauffeur.  My working conditions are deplorable.  Drivers cut me off in roundabouts, men going far faster than me pass me on the right, and I get stuck behind slow-moving vehicles all the time.  I often think I should write about driving in this city.  But the fodder for that post is too deep and too thick, so I think it's best to write little bits at a time, if only to prevent my eye from twitching.

For this entry, let's concentrate on the driving school in my neighbourhood.  This school has a collection of little brown and mustard-yellow cars with big red "L's" stuck with a magnet on the back.  My kids asked me what the L stands for.  I told them:  "Learner".  When I'm behind one I mutter another L-word under my breath.  (Not a bad word, but it might be a little impolite.  Think fingers in the shape of an L on your forehead.)  These cars always have two people in them, the Learner and the Instructor.  They are always both expats.  Chances are high that the Learner has come to Doha to get a job as a driver.  Chances are also high that he has never before been behind the wheel of a car.

The Neighbourhood Learner

The beauty of having this driving school right in my very own neighbourhood is that I get to encounter these little cars and their drivers frequently, and collect quite a few data points about them and their habits.  Here is what I've managed to piece together so far:

1.  The Instructor's arrival in Doha preceded the Learner's by about two and a half weeks.
2.  The Learner is incapable of looking over his left shoulder, and
3.  If there is an employment sector in Doha whose remuneration is solely Danger Pay, the Instructor may very well be the highest paid man of this sector in the city, next to the guy at Carrefour who won't let me return my faulty blender.

It must be a joyous undertaking having a fellow-countryman teach you to drive in a foreign country. You speak the same language.  You're comfortable in each other's company.  You both have an affinity for under-shooting the posted speed limit by a good 30 per cent.  And culturally, you both think that checking your blind spot is for sissies.

But I fear we may be reaching a Dark Age of driving in Doha.  Those with seemingly little experience (or maybe just not enough knowledge of how they make the rest of us crazy) teach new expats to drive, and they in turn teach others to drive, and so on, into perpetuity, until soon no one who has attended a driving school will even know what the colours of the traffic lights mean.  If that's true, then things on the streets of Doha will only get worse.  It may already be too late.  I saw this printed on a card hanging from a rear-view mirror just the other day:

The Pledge of the Driving School Graduate

I will go 70 in a 100 zone because I fear the awesome power
of this Nissan Sunny.

Why merge when pulling blindly out into traffic
is so much more exciting for everyone?

The roundabout is mine.  All mine.

I will ignore the woman in the white SUV behind me,
who is honking and gesturing wildly.
My English is not great, and I have trouble hearing her, but I can read her lips.
I think she just called me a Learner.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Learning Curved

"Not that I'm complaining, but do you think the next vacation we take can be one where we don't have to learn anything?"

Ha.  'Not that he's complaining.'  Well, not now, anyway.  But I do recall an awful lot of griping coming from this 11-year-old and his two brothers on our previous holidays.  Granted, those were filled with old churches, ruins, museums, temples, tours, technical visits, road-side attractions, more ruins, and a couple more old churches thrown in for good measure.  And always, on these adventures, there was their dad, eager to fit in "just one more stop", and happily providing all the minutia they never dreamed they wanted to know, displaying his love for all things historical, sometimes sounding like a walking guidebook.  In a good way, of course.

Don't get me wrong.  We had a great time on these trips.  They were an escape from the regular routine and the confines, both tangible and not, of Doha, and we crossed some serious swaths of must-do's from our bucket lists.  But they were anything but restful.

This trip was going to be different.  We would turn off our brains and not learn a thing.  This holiday was going to be about navel-gazing.  So, we unanimously decided on the Maldives, and spent a week at Kuredu Island Resort on the northern atoll of Lhaviyani.  Upon arriving, we took off our watches and tossed them, along with our flip-flops, back into our suitcases.  Certainly we wouldn't need them on this vacation.  We walked barefoot down the beach to breakfast, and then returned to snorkel just steps from our front door, where we saw a little shark on our first outing, and crazy multi-coloured "rainbow" fish.  We banana-boated, wake-boarded, knee-boarded, parasailed, and dolphin-safaried.  We cooled off in the pool, then had Happy Hour mock- and cocktails.  We ping-ponged, night-golfed, and played board-games before dinner.  We went to the spa, and slept in.  We ate, we drank, we ate, and we drank.  We swam in the ocean.  The only ruins we saw were the kids' dessert plates from the buffet.

About four nights in, Dan asked the kids at dinner, "Has anyone learned anything, on this trip so far?"

Thing 3:  "I learned how to knee-board.  And also that there are mini sharks right out there!"

Thing 1:  "I learned how to wake-board, and that if I use a 7-iron, I can get the ball about 75 yards."

Thing 2:  "I learned to parasail.  And also that recently, the first democratically-elected president of the Maldives stepped down voluntarily (or more likely was overthrown in a bloodless coup) as his detractors thought he was too much of a moderate for an Islamic state—"

Hold the phone.  The only reason this aforementioned 11-year-old knew this is because he asked. And naturally, his father answered.  As if he could help himself.

When we grudgingly finished our week on Kuredu Island, and I hung onto the dock for dear life, my body stretched horizontally while my family tried to drag me onto the seaplane, I wondered if I had learned anything.  Turns out that I did.

I learned that there is a place on Earth whose beauty surpasses all others.  I learned that the sea can be an impossible turquoise and that sand can be as fine and white as flour.  I learned that there is water is so clear you can stand ankle-deep and count the fish swimming by.  I learned that sometimes, in the morning, you can look outside your bedroom door and watch dolphins jumping out of the ocean.  And that the shade of a palm tree, just steps from the water, is the best place in which to lose yourself in a good book.

I didn't learn, but was reminded, of how lucky we are to live where we live, for better or worse, and to go to the places we've gone.  Check your boarding passes and fasten your seatbelts, boys.  Class is in session.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mr. Donna Tracks an Elephant

For those of you keeping score at home, you'll remember that on our recent trip to Sri Lanka, I purchased a wooden elephant.  We've been lucky enough to visit countries that we had never dreamed of going to before, and I've felt compelled to bring back "a little something" as a memento of our time there.

Our visit to a wood-working shop in Matale was a bit rushed, and I'll admit that my decision-making skills may have been impaired.  I had thought that a carved, wooden elephant would be the keepsake of choice, and since I'm not much of a knick-knack-on-shelves kind of person, that would mean that my elephant would have to be large enough to sit on the floor.

And then I spotted him:  two feet tall, intricately carved dark wood, with his trunk curled upwards — good luck, I'm told.  Done.  Let's buy this baby and get out of here.  The salesperson directed us to the counter.

I'm much did you just say?

"That's with the 20 per cent discount, Madam.  We'll ship it free of charge to your nearest port, and there will be a small clearance fee once it arrives at Customs."

OK, fine.  I paid about that much for the mosaic table I bought in Jordan, and delivery went smoothly.  I can practically spit from my house to the Port of Doha.  When it comes in, I'll just whip down and throw it in the back of my car.  Easy-peasy.

That was mid-December.  Then for over two months, nothing.  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  Silence, even.  Cue the crickets chirping, the tumbleweeds rolling.  I was starting to feel a little sick about it, thinking I'd been had, so about six weeks into this silence, I picked up the phone, and with a terrible connection and the three Sinhala words I know (none of them useful in this situation), called the shop.

[Loudly] "Hello! I'm calling about an elephant I purchased in December!"  I repeated this sentence to each successive person to whom the phone was passed until ultimately being handed to a fourth who could speak English.  I was assured that it had been shipped in mid-January.

Finally, on the last day of February, I received an email from a local freight company saying it was here.  Or rather, Mr. Donna received an email.  This was a handle I was unable to shake for the remainder of the long, drawn-out transaction.  It said I owed 1100QR, and when I called Leo at the freight company, he said it would be best if I came down to his office to discuss obtaining my shipment.

Well, suddenly, things really seem to be moving along!  I'll just drive down on Saturday, talk to Leo, pay my "small clearance fee" of 1100QR, and collect my elephant.  I'll be home before my teenager is even out of bed.  Leo invited me into his office, asked me to sit down, chatted for a bit, and then surreptitiously added another four-digit number to the total of my invoice.  I looked on despondently.  This, apparently, was his company's service charge.  A service charge in addition to the 1100QR I already owed for the privilege of having this elephant arrive in the country.  As he put the final zero on that amount, I watched as the invoice transformed into a ransom note.  I envisioned my elephant in chains, blindfolded, trays of sloppy gruel and filthy water being passed through a slot at the bottom of his cell, desperate to be released.

The following two and a half weeks brought a series of phone calls, emails, and texts from Leo, each outlining more demands.  I needed a Certificate of Origin from the shop, more cash, copies of my passport and Residence Permit, a Letter of No Objection, in Arabic, from my employer (my husband's employer...and what, exactly, were they not objecting to?), even more cash, my first-born.  These instructions were doled out to me, each one like a carrot on the end of a thin strand of hope, just out of my reach.   Every additional condition diminished my purchase, and made the size of this elephant seem inversely proportional to its cost.  I felt, with certainty, that it would arrive at my house and it would stand six inches tall.

With no great fanfare, and in an anti-climactic blur, my shipment was delivered early last week, a mere 13 weeks, a confusing paper chase, and an unmentionable amount of cash later.  There was no picking it up at the port myself.  One single man carried the 50 kilo wooden box on his shoulder into my house, and then I uncrated it.  All 21 inches, or about half a metre, of elephant sit on the floor beside the piano.  Sometimes when I walk past it, my passive-aggressive side kicks it a little.  Sometimes a tusk falls out.  And sometimes, when I look at it, I recognize what a unique piece it is.  Welcome to Mr. Donna's house, Big Guy.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

True Grit

We've been overcome by beige.

I'm sitting in my beige house, looking out the window at my beige car, typing on a computer that sits on a formerly black countertop (now beige).  And no, I haven't been transported to a movie set for some monochromatic art house film.  I'm living in a dust bowl.

For the past four days, and for several days each week in the last, oh, I don't know, eternity, the wind has been blowing in Doha.  I'm not talking about a gentle ocean breeze, brought across the Gulf and carrying with it the smell of salt air and a bit of humidity.  This is a full-on, nasty wind, either blowing directly from the north, or from the west, where it has spent enough time over land to lose any moisture and gentle beach vacation memories that it may have once carried with it.  And when the wind hasn't been blowing, there is a haze that hangs in the air that would rival Toronto on a summer day.

I suppose I should be thankful that we're not under a layer of sand.  Most of the sand stayed behind.  What we get instead, coating the kids' bikes, my petunias, and any slow-moving cats wandering down our street, is what gets up and leaves after the wind beats the living daylights out of the sand:  dust.

Some aspects of this weather remind me of a good old-fashioned Canadian snowstorm:  the howling wind, the stuff being blown across roads in spidery fingers, the decreased visibility, and the desire it brings with it to stay indoors.  But even the indoors is not impervious to the dust.  A book or a piece of paper left on a table will, in a matter of hours, leave its exact shape, chalk-outline style, on the surface once removed.  Just yesterday, I lost Dan for about 15 minutes while he was having a nap on the couch.

We're all cranky.  I can tell you that it's not pleasant to have dust up your nose, and at the back of your throat, and forming a fine film of grit on your front teeth.  The novelty of using my windshield wipers to brush away a layer of dust every time I get in the car in starting to wear off, too.

It'll be 40 degrees Celsius before we know it, and the humidity will be so high we'll have to swim to our cars.  I'm going to try to get rid of all the sand in my teeth before that happens.  I know visibility is poor, but try to follow the sound of my voice:  "Pbblt.  Pwah.  Blech."

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Week the Children Went

Once a year the kids' Middle School offers an amazing adventure to its students, aptly named "Week Without Walls".  Some of us affectionately call it, for reasons that will become apparent, "Week Without Kids".  Each class, from Grades 6 through 8, experiences some pretty outstanding field trips, and the kids are encouraged to reach beyond their limitations, and take risks.  Our family is lucky to have two Middle Schoolers this year, in Grades 6 and 8.  Sixth Grade stays in-country, while Seventh and Eighth Grades travel by air to their destinations, with classes being split in half to travel to two separate destinations.  Because parent volunteers were not required as travel chaperones, the following account is based on hearsay, third-hand information, and conjecture.  It may also include a small extrapolation of the "It was great" description I received.

A large sign in the Grade 6 Commons is displayed with the title "What Are You Willing to Risk?".  Entries include, but are not limited to:  "I will sleep in a tent even though I'm not comfortable with that" and "I will have fun in a group without my close friends."  One Sixth Grader writes:  "I will risk writing something on a public board in a school hallway."  Clearly, he gets his sense of humour from his father.

Grade 8 boards a plane at 1:50 am, headed for Kuala Lumpur. After a five-hour lay-over, the group makes its connection to Kota Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo.  Upon disembarking, the 70 students giddily exclaim that the 40 minutes of sleep they got en route was more than adequate.  Seventy-two-hundred kilometers away, parents in Doha simultaneously hit the snooze button for the third time and feel a fleeting pang of pity for the seven Travel Leader teachers.  The poor saps.

Tents at Camp Bongkud
Eighth Graders arrive at Camp Bongkud, and tour the work sites.  The group is treated to a cultural performance put on by school children in the village.  Tents are assigned and blankets distributed.  A cursory inspection of the bathrooms results in about half the kids declaring, "I'm good, thanks—I went on the plane."  Evidently, there's something about a hole in the ground with two foot markers on either side that causes performance anxiety.

Sixth Graders begin their adventure.  Doha temperatures are unusually cold, and these desert kids have to endure 12C in the morning.  Action-packed day at the camel racetrack, the Emir's equestrian facility, and the falcon souq.  Mom happily reports no new pets in the backpack at the end of the day.

Eighth Graders begin their work in earnest.  Camps International in Bongkud helps the local village in development projects, such as a new women's centre, a community centre, and a water tower.  The group mixes cement and moves a mountain of rocks.  Reportedly, the cold, light trickle of the shower at the end of the day is totally worth every minute of the hour's wait.

Sixth Grade takes a bus trip to Al Khor Island as part of their environmental service.  The island is home to a large mangrove forest.  After a beach clean-up, the kids take part in an island walk/scavenger hunt, which involves voluntarily wading in the cold water.  Mud facials ensue.

The early morning climb
The Eighth Grade team makes a 5:30 am climb to the top of Golden Hill, for an amazing view of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.  After returning to camp for breakfast, the group finishes all of their projects, and then some.  In addition to completing all of the cement work, the students build a bamboo shelter for single mothers to grow vegetables, and level ground for a children's centre.  They cap the day off with an evening of skits performed by both teachers and kids, the details of which I'm not privy to.  I guess what happens on Borneo stays on Borneo.

The Sixth Grade group spends their day at a local school, painting walls, creating audio recordings of children's books, and making bookmarks.  Lunch follows at Chili's Restaurant.  By one account, records are set tying ribbons to bookmarks.

Eighth graders visit the Ranau War Memorial, in honour of the 2,700 Australian and British soldiers who were marched to their deaths by their captors in World War II.  Shopping at the local market follows, and then an attempt is made to visit the nearby hot springs. The springs are too crowded due to Chinese New Year, so the group returns to camp, swims in the river, and plays badminton and cards.  In the evening, they host the local community to perform a dance and sing a Malaysian song.  The performance goes well, and so the group is ultimately spared being voted off the island.

View of Doha from Banana Island
Today will go down in history as "WWW Sixth Grade Extravaganza".  The day begins with a dhow boat trip out to Banana Island, followed by a traditional Arabic lunch on deck, with swimming in the Gulf.  They return to shore, then school, where the fun continues:  colossal sleepover at school in tents on the baseball field, tie-dyeing, pizza dinner, ice-cream sundae bar, movie and popcorn, Karaoke, more swimming, ping-pong, campfire and s'mores.  Whew.  I'm tired just writing it.

The Borneo group begins their long trek back.  After a bus ride and one flight, several hours are spent at the airport in K.L. awaiting their delayed second flight of the day.  Students stampede at the first sighting in seven days of food that is neither chicken nor rice nor good for them.  Travel group leaders begin to silently long for the return of Walls.

After 25 hours in transit from the camp, the Grade 8 group is delivered back to their sleepy but smiling parents at 3:15 am at the Doha airport.  The choice between a bowl of homemade soup and a hot shower proves difficult, but is resolved by following the old adage, "When in doubt, follow your gut."

The threat of having to take part in the Polar Bear Swim in the school pool for anyone out of their tent before 7:00 am keeps most Sixth Graders sound asleep until 7:30.  Breakfast is served by parent volunteers, and the kids are picked up at 10:00 am in order to return home for the "sleep" portion of the sleepover.

Both kids slept away the well-deserved day off school before heading into the weekend.  They returned to school on Sunday with a few yawns, a new outlook on their world, and a few new friends.  And hopefully, an appreciation for the dynamic and adventurous school that they are lucky to attend.