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.