Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's the little things...

Qatar is not exactly a vacation destination (no, it's not really a journey either, for all of those fond of bumper sticker philosophizing). No pyramids or historical sites, no white sand beaches, a sometimes inscrutable and closed culture, and easily more time spent at malls per capita than the US.

But there are grotty little gems to be found all over, if one takes the time to look. One such is Gharrafa Tower Cafeteria and Juice Stall (no, not a tower, no towers nearby, and it's not a stall either). It's just one of dozens of hole-in-the-wall juice stores that also serve liver, mutton, egg, etc. sandwiches too (I'd probably opt for "etc." if I ever ate there). But it is one of the pleasures of being here, especially during summer, when daytime temps are 110-115 and it cools down to about 90 at night (sorry, no sympathy for temperate zone types whining about a day or two in the nineties or triple digits). However, walk into Gharrafa Tower Cafeteria and Juice Stall, and you're greeted by a counter filled with boxes of fruit - guavas, papayas, lemons, oranges, pineapple, mangos, pomegranates in season - just what the body needs on a hot day.

You are also greeted by decor that is a cross between a South Asian discotheque gone horribly wrong and a very large bathroom. The walls covered with mirrors and photos of supposedly mouthwatering drinks, except they were taken at about a foot distance with a flash that more or less gives the impression of a nuclear blast, with everything fading to varying shades of white. Above this and running around the entire store for a about two feet below the ceiling is a red plastic display marquee, interspersed by a yellow and blue approximation of the international radiation symbol. There are several tables, each with a box of tissues (in lieu of napkins) and a sink with a toilet paper roll dispenser installed just above it (again, paper products thinner than a couple microns are apparently de rigeur in Qatar).

The key is to just focus on the fruit counter, and the fantastic fresh pomegranate juice you can get for two bucks while a concoction with 20% juice and some food coloring and high fructose corn syrup with some slick packaging and marketing (anti-oxidants!) can set you back five or six buck in the states, depending on what other trace minerals or nutrients you're willing to pay for. Here, they don't really care - it's cold and it tastes good. You watch the guy pick the fruit, hear it juiced, get it in a plain plastic (unrecyclable - because there are no programs here) cup and if it's to go, you get a thin plastic bag that they tie in a bow.

But you get to drink fresh tropical fruit juice every day of the year - this is one of those little things that I really missed in the States and have really enjoyed since I've been back.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Do not fear for me...

For those of you who may have wondered exactly what I've been doing, if I'm well, etc., let me put your minds at ease. I am more in danger of being killed in a road accident than by any act of terror (although some would equate Doha traffic with acts of terror), and to that end, the wise and benign leadership of the country has posted our boys in blue (berets even!) our traffic police, at most busy roundabouts. You can palpably feel there presence even before arrive at a roundabout: you'll just be sitting in traffic longer than if there were no traffic controls at all other than the precision timing and nerves of steel of the Doha driving populace. However, the gov is justly proud of this traffic calming (i.e. slowing) force, and has posted public service signs at many roundabouts to calm our uneasy hearts:

Yes, Traffic Man, a hero for a new millenium and a new world order, such as order of any kind exists in Qatar.

And no, the gentleman in the background is NOT a terrorist; he's most likely a poor South Asian who is trying to keep from frying in the Arabian sun or having his epidermis sandblasted away by the wind. Anyway, with Traffic Man on the beat, you come to realize with profound awe and gratitude that we truly have little to fear except fear itself.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Three races at once

We both hopped into a slightly moving Land Cruiser (as Nadia later commented, here you don't have to worry about hopping into a vehicle with a couple guys, you won't wind up with your head chopped off and buried in a backyard;) and two Bedouins quickly introduced themselves as Ahmed and Fawaz (and managed to keep out of any accidents). Luckily, camels only run at about 15-20 mph. It was very different being in a car with the race announcer on the radio yelling with the enthusiasm and volume of a Latin American futbol announcer while the "shaabi" (i.e. commoners like us) rode around the outside of the track and the sheikhs rode around the inside of the track (less far to drive, by a few hundred meters?).

The camels actually looked fairly graceful in profile as they ran the course... until about a kilometer or two in, they start frothing at the mouth. Apparently camels don't sweat per se, and this was the mechanism by which they shed heat. So we were treated to what looked like a stampede of rabid camels being beaten intermittently (and pretty ineffectually as far as I could tell) by tiny hypocephalic robotic jockeys with silk jockey outfits (for comfort, of course) and rotary arm for holding the whip. Surreal. But better than child labor.

It doesn't seem like anyone particularly cares who wins, because everyone we could see looked equally enthusiastic at the end of the race (gambling is of course forbidden by Islam, but I find it hard to believe the sheikhs weren't making gentlemens' wagers). Afterwards, Ahmed and Fawaz took us to the compound where they (actually where their Sudanese trainers) keep and train the camels. We did an obligatory photo op shot on an older more settled beast, then heading back to the races.

By the end of our day, our two guest had offered to meet us at dinner in Villagio Mall. Picture the tackiness of Caesars Las Vegas shops, lots of columns and pediments, complete with a "canal" and gondolas. Nothing like Venice of course, too clean, the gondoliers don't row, they actually just move a metal pole that adjusts the engine speed, and even though Arabs could pass for Italian, none of them would stoop to the work, so the gondoliers themselves are generally Philipino (who have nice singing voices at least). Anyway, we exchanged mobile numbers (still trying to decide if this was a mistake;) and agreed to meet at 8pm at the mall, which actually has some seriously nice gourmet restaurants in their food court, along with all the chain restaurant trash we have at home. Regardless of the fact that thousands of Italian architects, designers, etc. are rolling in their graves.

We returned home for a couple hours rest - and each received about half a dozen phone calls regarding "plans" for the evening. One of the Arabs' main pasttimes is conversation, even if they can't speak a given language. In this case, Nadia's Arabic was good enough for a conversation. Their other main pasttime is socializing; they absolutely can't picture the Western need for "alone time" and always want other people around. In this case, that was us. When the preordained hour for our side of the cultural exchange was near, we headed to Villagio, parked, and walked the long mile to the food court, running a bit late. On our way, three more phone calls; the last one asking which entrance we were near. Apparently, they arrived early but hadn't gone in the mall. We were about to find out just how Bedouin our new friends were.

We met just a bit from the food court, said our hellos, and asked them where they'd like to eat. Fawaz laughed a bit and said MacDonalds. Ah. Ahmed quickly made fun of him, and said they would eat anywhere we wanted. So we picked a nice upscale Indian restaurant named Asha's, and got a table "inside" - yes I know, they ask you to suspend a lot of disbelief here, but the rooms off the food court itself are quieter).

Just after sitting down, Fawaz and Ahmed produced a couple small boxes. Gifts. Oh, darling. A sterling silver ring for Michelle and gold earrings for Nadia. And, no, I wasn't concerned that they were going to ask to buy "my women." Bedouins, as I was later told, have all the normal preconceptions about Western women that Arabs have, but are absolutely face-value and salt of the earth, and polite to a fault; their hospitality required that they get gifts. They both apologized profusesly for not being able to get my gift - a type of colgone they had offered me to try at the camel races (because, well, a lot of camels produce a lot of...) I hadn't realized I was being tested out for a gift. Unfortunately, the shop was out of that kind. It would have been about a hundred dollar bottle of cologne.

When we ordered, Fawaz had no idea what to order, so I suggested some Naan (in lieu of pita) and shish tawook (kebab:). After a couple clumsy efforts at using fork and knife, which resulted in painfully loud crashes of the former implement on the table, we assured Fawaz it was just fine to grab a piece of Naan and use that as a fork, which worked much better. Even if you do drop Naan, it doesn't make much of a racket, does it?

Just before we were about to pay, I decided to return the favor and pay the bill myself. Unfortunately, when Fawaz asked for the bill and was told it was taken care of already, they became upset, saying that since they invited us to dinner, they had to pay. Score one for diplomacy. The waiter walked away, and when he returned, it was with waterless hand cleanser, not the bill. Also unfortunately, Fawaz was distracted and held his hand out for what he thought was a bill, and turned out to be a cold dollop of alcohol-based hand cleaner. Of all the things we saw that day that I wish I had a picture for, it would be the look on his face. After a few awkward seconds, we all demonstrated what to do, and Fawaz followed suite. I eventually just let Fawaz give me the amount of the bill directly, and we parted company a bit later. 

The malls in the US were never this interesting. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Day at the Races

Camel races, that is. Most camel-oriented activities smack of tourist trap (e.g. rides around the Pyramids, of which I've been guilty, but just a little bit), but we caught wind of a local camel racing track, horribly (and happily) undermarketed and found about 18 dusty and unimpressive kilometers from Doha in a village called Shahaniya. Most of the traffic out there was in the form of oil tanker trucks and construction vehicles (a good sign) and the exit to the track was also under construction. However, there was a sign for the race track itself, in that comforting coffee brown used the world over for places of historical, natural, or cultural significance, like Stonehenge, or the Grand Canyon:

This is Qatar's answer to overhyped and non-interactive Places of Interest. After about ten minutes of searching for a diversion that would allow us to actually get there, we were on the road to the races. The blue parking signs we saw at what looked like the track building and stands were of course, merely subterfuges to embarrass naive and trusting tourists. The "stands" were completely empty and as we walked around form the parking lot, we saw they were also too far from the track for anyone without a spotting scope. We quickly realized the best thing to do was follow the camels which seemingly appeared out of nowhere and were being driven across the road by Sudanese trainers wrapped tightly against the blowing sand and dust. Here was our romanticized Orientalist image of the mysterious Middle East, updated just a bit, emerging slowly from the National Road 18 to Dukhan, complete with camel crossing signs and the odd Toyota Land Cruiser.

The young camels were muzzled with bright woven wool baskets of sorts - think of it as a camelmouth cozy. We made it to trackside (literally) and peered over the outer fence of the track, waiting for the camels to be led out. We noticed to our dismay that given our position, the apparent size of the track (6km I was told later) and the fairly safe assumption that even if we were so inclined, we could not outrun camels, it didn't look like we'd see much more than the start of the race.
Luckily, just after the camels burst out from the starting line (OK, "burst" implies too much speed - maybe "lurched forward in a tangle of necks and hooves"), Michelle, who was about twenty meters down the track from Nadia and I heard someone call out in Arabic "want to get in?" The race was about to get much more interesting...
(to be continued)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Enter Kamal

Upon every life a little rain must fall, even in Doha, and our personal stormcloud was one Mr. Kamal, "maintenance man" (despite the fact that I never saw nor heard of him actually ever fixing or facilitating the repair of anything). He actually was the gatekeeper for the sheikh who owns, well, our neighborhood. His actual function was to stop any residents from actually hanging or fixing anything in their units, for example changing curtains, having baseboards, which looked like they had been vandalized by some malcontent with wood glue, painted.

He was creative in an obstinate kind of way, though. When we aksed him why we had a three foot tall kitchen cabinet with no shelves, he replied "It's supposed to be that way." When I pointed out that every other cupboard, even ones half that height, had at least one shelf, his rejoinder was "maybe it's the style somewhere." I was a little disappointed he couldn't give me specifics on exactly what culture or country could make use of a kitchen cupboard where one could stack approximately thirty-seven tuna cans on top of one another. When we asked him about our vandalized/recycled-looking baseboards, he just kept repeating "I don't think this is a problem," presumably hoping to rely on his superior mind-control skills to convince us we weren't seeing what we were claiming we saw. When finally cornered, he said "as per company policy, no changes are allowed." At this point Michelle asked if company policy was to have baseboards that looked liked they'd been ripped from a gutted building...

We weren't the only rabblerousers that Kamal was sent in to deal with. Our neighbors Dan and Melissa had a desk delivered to their home one afternoon. Kamal insisted on opening the box and inspecting the contents. I have no idea what he was searching for, but I'm sure the TSA could use people with his persistent and lack of personal skills. Soon thereafter, the "security" gate at the entrance to our compound, which had previously always been up, was sudden lowered so that we had to honk to have Ahmed or Abbas open the gate with a key fob. This was obviously meant to keep out contractors that we had coming to our places to fix the original shoddy finish work, since any teenager with a couple years of karate could have overpowered Ahmed and Abbas and made it into the compound. Actually, several of us had considered ramming through the flimsy gate with rental cars before we bought our own, but didn't feel like paying damages for the car.

So for over a month we had to deal with constant drama regarding any repairs or improvements we wanted done to our villas, and we generally decided we needed to act covertly if anything was to be fixed...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pimp my TLC

Somewhere in the world, decals on the sides of cars are back in, and that somewhere is Doha. Our townhouse (sorry, villa!) complex is about a block (if there was a defined or discernible block actually there) behind a long row of about a dozen or more carwashes. They are interspersed with car accessory shops with exotic names like "Gulf Falcon" or obtuse ones like "Fast Car," as well as Puncturies, which are actually tire shops; no one has bothered to tell them it makes it sound as if they'll provide tire puncturing services. A couple juice stalls, the Popular Cafe, Al Zoof Cafe (like that one) and a couple "saloons" - they meant salons - and Hot Bread Bakery (talk about good marketing) round out this row.

Every night, but even more so on Thursday and Friday nights, this row is literally almost impossible to navigate, as Qataris in blinding white silk thobes (traditional robes, sometimes with diamond encrusted cufflinks) and headress sit on $2 plastic chairs and chew the fat while Philipino, Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistanis wash the desert and construction dust off their Land Cruisers. Yes, there are a few Hummers and BMWs, Mercedes, etc., but the Toyota Land Cruiser (or TLC) holds pride of place in the hearts of Qataris determined to run over curbs to catch the turn they should've been looking for but weren't because they were texting or talking on their mobile phones. Of course there is a slip road but the "driveway" for every single car wash consists of construction rubble and dust, which seems to defeat the purpose. But if you've got the money and time, and Qataris have both, you can spend every or every other night pimping out your TLC.

I have to admit, though, it does add a lot of life and local color to our 'hood.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

There's got to be a better way.

(Note: fortunately, I did not witness this Ahmed and Abbas incident, but had it related to me by a neighbor Dan)

Among the myriad of building issues (I'm starting to wonder if I'm just in a Middle Eastern "reality" show, where someone f4#@*s with various household appliances, etc. in order to create good television entertainment) is our front door glass, which is only glued to a wooden crossframe on one side of the wooden door - you can already see where this is going. Well, at some point, Dan's new bride Melissa goes to close the door behind her and the glass breaks and a shard cuts her hand. A few hours and several stiches later, she's resting comfortably, and in a week or so, as good as new.

Meanwhile, in order to remove the rest of the glass, Ahmed and Abbas, in this order of operations:

1) both get hammers
2) open the door
3) stand on either side of said door
4) proceed to pound the glass with their hammers
5) spend the next fifteen minutes
a) dodging the glass the other has knocked in the general direction of his face
b) yelling at each other regarding the aforementioned glass

After a two week search, someone manages to find glass to replace the glass Ahmed and Abbas so handily removed. Of course, the glass still doesn't have the wooden frame on both side to stop this from happening again. Apparently the producers might want to fall back on that skit again later this season.