Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Customs is very strict here in Qatar. We were warned that all of our boxes would be opened, and any items offensive to Islam would be removed. Certainly our boxes were opened, and many items were removed, though we’re sure that not all were offensive to Islam…but what can we do? Some things have been imported in the past that should not have been allowed. If only they had known, surely the strict customs officials would have blocked them. I’m thinking here about BRITISH ROUND-ABOUTS.
For the uninitiated, round-abouts are a traffic solution found throughout Britain. They are placed at intersections to avoid installation of traffic lights. In Britain, there are very strict rules about driving behavior in the round-abouts, and the whole situation works out pretty well. Traffic generally keeps flowing, despite the four-way interchange. Not so in Doha.
The colonial legacy of round-abouts might work if people knew the rules (or cared to follow them), but naturally they don’t. Drivers here may or may not have had any driving training (they may or may not have licenses or insurance for that matter), so they enter the round-abouts from every which way, change lanes without rhyme or reason, exit right from the far left…it’s total mayhem. We have to be incredibly vigilant in observing and anticipating actions of fellow drivers to avoid crashes at every interchange. Round-abouts are at nearly every intersection (though they are slowly being replaced by traffic lights), and the traffic backs up like you wouldn’t believe. To make things worse, the police often “help” clear traffic at the maddest round-abouts by stopping and starting traffic on their own…often halting the traffic already in the round-about to allow dozens of new cars to enter. It’s chaos. For extra fun, there are no left turns (only doubling back at the next round-about). When planning a drive, you have to plan ahead to end up on the correct side of the road as your destination, which often results in detours of several miles or at least several minutes. A small example happened yesterday, when it took me just 8 minutes to get from the hotel to the location of my destination…but 15 more minutes to get from that spot to the other side of the street, where my destination actually was.
Add to this the fact that the roads are not in any way equipped to handle the volume of traffic, and you have a very messy situation. Construction is underway all over the city, and roads that we drove on today might not be there tomorrow. You think I’m kidding, but we’ve already experienced that very thing! The country has so much money that it seems to have undertaken whatever projects it can think up at the moment the idea occurs. And we thought driving in Houston was ridiculous. Oy!
But enough venting about traffic. At least the British didn’t successfully export their driving on the left, yes?

It seems tonight will be our last night in the hotel. Our things were delivered to the house at Palm Plaza as scheduled last week, and we have unpacked. Unfortunately, the company did not get around to fixing any of the items we’d submitted before move-in. The air conditioners don’t work in most rooms, and the dirty (smelly and stained) carpets and (slightly moldy) drapes have not been cleaned…thus, we have remained in the Ritz. When we called Human Resources (HR) today to ask about a timeline for maintenance and repair (this was our third call since Thursday), all they seemed to hear was that we are still in the hotel. Within hours, they hadn’t arranged for maintenance, but they HAD arranged for us to check-out tomorrow. For those of you who want reading the blog to feel as though you were talking to us, feel free to insert as many bad words at this point as you like. Needless to say, we are none too pleased with HR.

In other news, Jennifer started Arabic lessons yesterday! I love learning new things, and I get a real kick out of new languages. Last night, we started with basic introductions (my name is…, I am from…). My favorite word from yesterday is “mutazawija” (pronounced moo-tah-ZOW-widge-ah). When a woman says “Ana mutazawija”, it means “I’m married.” (For men, it’s “Ana mutazawij.”) I just think the word sounds cool. Thanks to Markus, I get to use it!

And last but never least, our precious Ellie is growing like a weed! Our favorite staff person in the Exec Lounge had two days off, and the first thing she said when she saw us today was, “Ellie got so much bigger!” How does it happen that they grow so fast? Our new pediatrician remarked that she’s going to be tall. We hope so!
Ellie has always been strong and quick to learn. Two days ago, she pulled herself into standing position in her stroller (she was sitting in her car seat, which was nestled backwards in her stroller at the time…she just leaned forward, grabbed the edge of the stroller, and stood up!). Now, it’s her favorite thing to try. She stood up in her play bed this afternoon just by pulling on a support with one hand. Got her papa’s genes…can’t sit still!

Monday, March 20, 2006

It seems we may be leaving the Ritz this week! The company won the battle for housing (i.e., we got tired of fighting them). Palm Plaza it is, with the promise of a move to a nicer compound in the future when one becomes available. Last week, we selected a house. The company housing dude said he would have it professionally cleaned by Monday of this week, and then our shipment could be delivered on Wednesday. The house has carpets in the bedrooms and lots of heavy drapes, so we are hoping the house cleaning will include thorough steam cleaning of those items...but we're not counting on it. Ah well. At least we know where we'll be living.
Although we greatly dislike the compound, the house itself is relatively nice. It has four bedrooms and a little garden in the back. The kitchen has a new stove. We got the only one that had a full bath in the downstairs guest room. We'll cling to the little things. :)

In other news, we picked up our car and have arranged to buy a second (absolutely must have two cars here). The settling in process has begun.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

More pictures!

Ellie watches us constantly, and she tries to mimick much of what we do. This is especially true when it comes to drinking. Ellie has no interest in the sippy cup. She watches us drink from regular glasses or water bottles, and that's what she wants too (picture of her drinking from a glass coming soon)!

Today, we visited more souqs. This time, we went to the "old souqs", which have pretty much whatever you can think of (although much of it is cheap crap). Walking past the spice stalls filled our noses with amazing scents and our eyes with wonder (as in, "I wonder what THAT is?!"). The best part was seeing falcons for sale. March is the last month of falcon season (hunting with falcons is extremely popular here). Top birds are sold privately, but some falcons are available in the souqs, and we saw those today. Beautiful.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The population of Qatar is approaching one million persons, about 80% of those persons being expatriates (expats, for short--people who live outside their home country). Of all the expats here, most of the workers seem to be men, leaving lots of expat wives in the mix with little to do (other than shop) while the kids are in school. To remedy this, numerous women's groups have popped up around town: American Ladies Group, South African Ladies Group, AUZIQ (for Australians and Kiwis), Spanish-speaking Ladies, Expat Women, Tuesday Morning Ladies...and of course, there are the company-specific wives' groups as well. This week, Jennifer and Ellie attended two such groups: the company wives' coffee morning and the Tuesday Morning Ladies Group coffee morning and fashion show. For those of you lacking in excess comedy these days, read on for an account...

First, the company group. Oh my. In the past, I've avoided those coffee mornings entirely, assuming they simply wouldn't be my kind of thing. However, being new to Qatar and finding very little else to do here, I decided to give it a try. Let's just say my initial assumption held. It really wasn't my kind of thing. Although I was dressed in "smart casual", I was the only one not wearing a skirt or dress. The other ladies weren't very friendly. Making conversation was painful! No one seemed to want to meet new people...so, as the new people, we were left with no choice but to exit stage right after about 15 minutes.

Next, the Tuesday Morning Ladies. I have found a good friend in another American woman here in the Ritz, and she invited us to come along with her to try out this group. She had met a wonderful Scottish woman who recommended it, so we thought we'd give it a try. Oh my again. And again. We arrived at the Ramada for the coffee morning, and the room was a relatively small conference room with low ceilings and not much A/C...and it was packed with ladies, most of whom are at least 20 years older than I am. Again, not too many people wearing trousers or jeans. My claustrophobia (and general fear of lots of expat ladies in small quarters) kicked in immediately and I had the overwhelming urge to flee at top speed...except I'd come with a friend and was trapped. Instead, I opted to have some tea, which had cost me an unexpected fee at the door (QR 10 for tea, QR 10 because I wasn't a member, and QR 10 for charitable funds). There were indeed many cups, saucers and tea bags available...but no more hot water, so no tea. Alas. Just as I began to twitch with anxiety, a very proper English old biddy (picture Hyacinth Bucket, for those who are familiar) stepped up to the podium and says above the din of expat ladies' chatter, "I'm waiting...for silence." Now, we are in elementary school. It only got better. She went on with the morning's announcements, including disdain for the Ramada, which seems to be booked (heaven forbid!) at the time of the next Tuesday Morning Ladies' Group meeting, so "we must have an outing". Though inexact, her speech pretty much went as follows (to be read in a high British accent): "The outing will be a beauty day at two salons in the Royal Plaza. We will be divided into two groups on the day, and you will not be allowed to choose your group. Remember this if you come with a friend! You might not be in the same group and that is just how it is, ladies. No quabbling about it! The beauty morning will begin at 9:30. That's 9:30, ladies! NOT 9:15. NOT 9:45. NINE. THIRTY." By now, I'm giggling. Then, the fashion show began. About ten of the ladies had volunteered to model fashions that were...shall we say...for a different age group and taste than mine. Then, there was a little raffle for charity and it was over. Something tells me that the Tuesday Morning Ladies Group isn't really my thing either.

On the drive home, my friend's husband called her cell phone to see how it went. She gave a brief synopsis and concluded with, "Where are all the young, fun expat wives??!!" His response was, "In your car right now."
The man has a point.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

This morning, we headed to the souqs (rhymes with "spooks") to see what we could see. The souqs are vibrant, open-air markets where you can find just about anything, if you look. We stuck to the fruit and vegetable market (where we couldn't take any pictures...lots of people, and you have to ask permission from locals for photographs). Then, we went in search of the animal market, where we'd heard everything from pigeons to camels were available for sale. Success! We found the animal market after a bit of searching. Let's just say that this is the place to shop if you want to become a shepherd. I've never seen so many sheep available for sale! Sheep, sheep, and more sheep! Some cows. And yes, many many many pigeons too. The best part was the camels. Big camels, little camels, beige camels, dark camels... What fun! We've been debating which vehicles to buy to facilitate desert travels and off-road adventures. I think camels provide an ideal solution! Won't get stuck in the sand, roll down a dune, or overheat far from an auto service. Unfortunately, the animal market looked rather shabby. It made us feel a bit sorry for the critters. We didn't get out of the car much, so no new camels for us. Ellie slept through the whole experience. She just cut tooth number too, so she's exhausted!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The newest Executive Lounge reception staff member

Sorry we haven't posted in a while. Ellie has had a cold. She hasn't been feeling great and hasn't been sleeping much (thanks to a very stuffy nose)...meaning neither have we. The three of us are all exhausted. Thank goodness it is finally the weekend. We hope to recoup a bit.

The latest word on the housing front is that we won't get any more choices, although technically other homes are available. The company has made numerous exceptions to their housing policy to let other families into better compounds, leaving these two remaining compounds relatively unfilled because no one wants them. The homes in them aren't all that bad, if we're honest. In Palm Plaza, the houses are actually quite new and quite decent. It's the facilities and the locations that are so problematic. It's hard to be content with Palm Plaza, a little cul-de-sac in a not-so-nice neighborhood with a tiny outdoor pool for all 14 houses, when you know there are homes available (as in the company is paying for them to stand empty) in compounds that have trees and places to walk and play, with large indoor and outdoor pools, playgrounds, gyms, yoga rooms... You see our point. For some reason, the company has laid down the law in our case and outright refuses to make any exceptions to their policies that reserve these homes for larger families (at least two kids), although we are aware of at least five cases in which they've already made exceptions. We've even brought forth the point that we will be here for four years and are likely to have a second child in the time, but they won't budge. My guess is that they are angry about being stuck with these two compounds nobody wants and have decided to fill them, tough luck if you don't like it. In addition, they refuse to allow us to find our own house. We're very frustrated. In either compound we choose, there is nowhere to take Ellie on walks or out to play unless we pop her into the (steaming hot) car every single time and drive somewhere else. ARGH!

At least it's the weekend, and Markus, for the moment, doesn't have to work like he did last week. We're hoping to get out and explore a bit, trying to make the best of this extremely frustrating posting. We're sure it will get better. We just have to get settled into some kind of routine and find something we like to do here.
On the positive side, we did find a FABULOUS club yesterday. We liked it instantly and submitted our application straight away. Unfortunately, there is a waiting list as they are trying to keep the member list short, so keep your fingers crossed that we will get in!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Greetings to all y'all! (can you tell we miss New Orleans a bit?)
More photos from the hotel to share...

a fabulous sunbather

view of the hotel from its outdoor pool

a sleepy stroll

shisha pipes

the huge lobby chandelier

Friday, March 03, 2006

Let the excitement begin! Jennifer took her first drive through Doha tonight. For the uninitiated, driving in Doha has a bit of an Indy 500 feel to it. People drive very fast and don't necessarily stick to designated lanes or follow traffic "rules." It's a bit wild. Fortunately, we moved here from New Orleans, where traffic rules are only made to be broken...though not out of aggression. That's the difference we have to get used to. People drive like mad here because they want to get where they are going. People drive like mad in New Orleans because 1) they are mad, or 2) they are just very relaxed and aren't particularly fussed about how they get there as long as they get there and isn't it convenient that their cellphones come with a car... :)

Jennifer needs to remember to bring her camera along on new excursions. Tonight, we took an evening stroll on the Corniche (the road and walk that runs along the bay). The temperature was HEAVENLY with a gorgeous breeze, and apparently every other resident of Doha had the same idea we had. The place was PACKED! We will definitely post photos after our next stroll there. Such sights!

Soon, we will also post more photos of the hotel. This place is unbelievable. Our favorite is the HUGE chandelier in the main lobby. It's amazing. You'll have to see it!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Yesterday, Ellie and Jennifer looked at houses with the company housing guy, Les. The company has decided that all employees must live in company housing, and they rent/own numerous homes in compounds around the city. (Compounds are like mini gated communities back in the States.) We saw Castle Compound and Palm Plaza. Both are very closely ringed by their respective walls, giving a bit of a prison feel when one is in the house. The house in Palm Plaza was really nice and new, but the compound facilities were lacking and it will be quite a commute to get to clubs (and work, for that matter). The house in Castle Compound wasn't bad but was much older and is in the middle of massive construction effort for the Asian Games. Neither was what we hoped for. The company has many homes in wonderful compounds (some with such fabulous facilities--indoor and outdoor pools, kiddie play areas, sauna, steam room, gym...--that no club would be necessary). Unfortunately, we are at the tail-end of a HUGE influx of people for the company, and housing was first-come, first-served. What we see now is what everyone else has rejected. Alas. Les told us that he might have some different places available next week. Please keep your fingers crossed! This transition has not been a very smooth one, so we'd really love to have a good home here.