Sunday, 27 September 2009

Our Arabian Nights (Part 2)

Having successfully moved countries once again, and having had three weeks to sort of settle in, it is about time we filled in our friends with how things are going here in Qatar. To make this a little easier, rather than detail everything and every day, we will break things up into categories, beginning with;


Make no mistake about it; even at the end of summer, Doha is hot! Things may have cooled down from the high 40's that we experienced when we first arrived, but even today the temperature was 40°C. In the next month we are told the temperature during the day will drop and become much more bearable but for the last three weeks (with only a couple of exceptions) the only time it has been sensible to venture out onto the streets is after dark. Consequently, we have become accustomed to visiting shopping centres in the evening and seeing children playing in the playgrounds until well past midnight. When we drove along the Corniche one night (the parkland that rings the bay here in Doha) it was amazing to see all of the playground equipment being used so late at night by so many people. At 1am a local McDonalds was full of children enjoying their Happy Meals. I am not sure how they will all cope come Sunday when school goes back.

There is a rumour that Quinn saw a cloud one day two weeks ago, although the rest of us have our doubts. If you are looking for somewhere where it doesn't rain a lot, Doha could certainly be the place for you. We were amazed to see the pictures of the dust storms on the east coast of Australia the other day, particularly because it reminded us of the regular late afternoons here. The major difference was the colour of the dust, which tends toward the white in Doha, as opposed to the orange we saw in Australia. It is very dry which means that the areas of grass, shrubs and trees that have been cultivated in gardens around the city stand out even more. We haven't experienced very much humidity until yesterday, when Meg and Wayne went down to the Souqs (markets) with some friends during the morning.

Even though there is very little change in the weather we still arise each morning (although the time for that rising has occasionally drifted more toward the afternoon) and check out the window to see what the day will bring. It shows that the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. Air conditioning is obviously very important in this climate and we are fortunate that everywhere we want to go has so far been air conditioned. It is an amazing thing to drive past a large tent in the middle of a patch of desert and see the line of air conditioning units outside.


One of the things we have really appreciated about Qatar Academy is how generous they have been with providing transport during the time we have been here so far. After picking us up from the airport and bringing us to our new home, there have also been multiple bus trips in the evening to the various shopping options which are available around the city. For the two weeks of orientation, buses were provided to and from the school each day, and if Meg and the boys finished early transportation was arranged to get them home. We have in the last week or so made contact with a driver of our own, who will come and pick us up and ferry us anywhere for a very reasonable price. The other family who lives in our building were able to rent a car because the husband still had a valid Qatari licence from a previous period here, so they have also been very helpful in getting us around.

Getting a Qatari drivers licence has been one of the tasks we have set ourselves since we arrived so that we will not have to continue to rely on others. This has meant making visits to an optometrist to do an eye test, getting our fingerprints recorded, and going to the Motor Registry and having our paperwork processed. Consequently, Wayne is the proud possessor of a Temporary (3 month) Qatari licence while we wait for our Residency Visas to come through at which time the full licence will be available. This meant we also went out yesterday and explored getting a vehicle of our own. It seems that in a month or so we will own a Mitsubishi Pajero 7 seat 4 wheel drive, which will enable us to go trekking around the rest of the country and into other places such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Getting the licence isn't the only scary thing about driving in Doha however. One of the ways that you navigate around the city is by knowing the major roundabouts which everyone uses as reference points*. Until recently Doha was known for a dearth of street signs. However, when you watch the Qatari's negotiate intersections (and roundabouts in particular) you begin to understand why there are places with hundreds and hundreds of damaged cars not far from the city. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be for you to watch this youtube video of what is reputed to be the worst intersection in Qatar ( While initially Meg was thinking about driving, and will probably still get her licence, some of these driving habits along with driving on the right hand side of the road mean that she will probably not use it much.


The most significant impact that living in an Islamic culture has had on our lives so far has been because our arrival coincided with the month of Ramadan. As part of this holy month Muslim peoples do not eat between the hours of sunrise and sunset and our doing so would be likely to cause great offence to our hosts. This meant that shops were only open for an hour or so early in the day, then reopened after dark. It also meant that we could not carry drinks with us if we were out during the day and were restricted to consuming food and drink only in places where we would not be likely to be seen.

At the end of Ramadan was the festival known as Eid al Fitr which is one of the few occasions during the year when everyone gets a holiday. Even the builders who are working on the multi story building which is being constructed next to us had a day or two off and (apart from Friday mornings) they seem to work most of the rest of the time. We got used to wishing people (and receiving from others) Happy Eid, although this was usually in the form of 'Eid Mubarak', and this would even come from complete strangers as we walked through shopping centres.

After initially being struck by the sheer number of people wearing traditional Muslim garb we have since become accustomed to the sight. While the white kandura or thobe (long sleeved robes that go down to the ankle, but not below it), gutrah (head scarf) and iqal (doubled black cord used to keep the gutrah in place) are fairly standard for men, there is much more variation in the clothing that the women wear. While the abayas (long sleeved outer garment from neck to feet) are almost always black there is lots of beading and intricate trims that form part of the clothing for most of the Muslim women in Qatar. The hijab (head covering) also has many variations, with some women wearing it so that the whole face is clear, others showing only their eyes, and occasionally women who wear it as a veil so that nothing of their face can be seen. It has been explained to us that most Muslim women (and some men) are very offended at having their photograph taken, so we have been very careful in how we take photographs while we are here.

When Brock and Quinn heard that Meg would have to wear not only the hijab but also an abaya when we go into Saudi Arabia they were horrified. Meg, however, is quite looking forward not only to the experience of wearing these garments, but also to shopping for and purchasing them. Rather than seeing it as an insult, she feels that it will be a way of experiencing another culture that she could not have, except by dressing that way. Wayne is somewhat disappointed that many Muslims would take offence if he were to dress in traditional male garb, he would be interested to experience that aspect of the culture as well.


Like any country, trying to live and work in Qatar requires fulfilling lots of bureaucratic requirements. Our passports were handed over to the school only a couple of days after we arrived and we will not receive them back until our Residency Visas are processed. However, many of the other things that we need to do require acceptable proof of identification, which means a passport. Thus there have been lots of photocopies of various pages of our passports being used to open bank accounts, apply for a temporary licence, get medical forms, obtain mobile phone sim cards and make other significant purchases. Waiting in lines has also been a past time to which we have become accustomed, particularly when there were about 42 new staff joining the school this year (because of the growth that has been taking place) and we often travelled together to get many bureaucratic things done.

One of the most amazing experiences any of us have had was the day we all went to have the medical tests which were required for our visas. Everyone was bussed down to the medical centre which conducts these tests and the men were separated from the women. Each group then had to pass through various queues; paying fees (a gentleman from Qatar Foundation handed each of us 100 Riyal from a huge pile he had for this purpose), taking the paperwork to another desk where we were given a test tube, having blood taken, joining another queue with our paperwork newly stamped, and having our chests x-rayed for tuberculosis. If we had been here to do physical labouring jobs we would also have had to endure a complete physical on top of this. In the end the women were finished much faster than the men, possibly because there were fewer of them, but they saw much more panic among the people around them, as it is against Islamic law for women to be uncovered in public (which they needed to do for their chest x ray).

While getting our chest xrays my experience was somewhat different to the wonderful men in my life, my first adrenaline rush came when they separated me from them and escorted myself and 20 other ladies from QA into a room full of women, we were taken to a VIP line so that we would not have to wait behind the other 100 plus ladies. Yay I thought until a very small worker came and dragged me out of the VIP line and told me that I have to wait like others, I tried to explain that I was with the other QA ladies and she sushed me and pushed me onto a chair. Another lady then demanded to know where my Abaya was and indicated that my hair should be covered. At this point I am seriously thinking … where is the airport I want my mama when Cheryl one of the other QA ladies realised what was happening she called me over to the rest of the group. The small worker came running to take me back until we made her understand that I was where I should have been. We had our bloods taken and Cheryl being a blonde was treated with up most care and attention whereas I had the needle stabbed into me and bruised as did all of the dark haired QA staff members that day.

Particularly unusual about this day was that only two days later we had to go off for another blood test. While we thought that it might have been possible to take a small amount of what had been siphoned out to find out what blood type we were, instead we went elsewhere and had our fingers pricked for this purpose. Many of our colleagues had already provided evidence of their blood type from their home countries (as had we) but nonetheless had to go for the blood test. For the Americans it also turned out that rather than having their driver's licence recognised (as it was for the Australian's, Canadian's, New Zealander's, Spanish and British who make up most of the remainder of the new staff) because of a dispute between the two governments they would have to sit driving tests. This was despite the fact that they at least were driving on the side of the road to which they were accustomed, unlike many of the rest of us.

I have found people here in Qatar to be very respectful and decent to us as a family but find it a little frustrating that they don't seem to be able to understand my accent and when I speak they ask Wayne or the boys what I have said ….. we also have had to learn that I am unable to get maintenance to fix anything as the workers are not comfortable being alone with a western woman in an apartment.


As those of you who have seen the promotional video would have already noticed (if you haven't it is available at this is a very professional operation. They have been wonderful at making us feel welcome, appreciated and part of the organisation. Even though our house is not in the compounds with the other staff at the moment, we are on the priority list to be there. Social outings to see more of Qatar have been part of the organisational schedule (our first trip to the souq and also a visit to a traditional coffee house). As well there was a relaxation day at the Intercontinental Hotel for staff and families where we got to lounge beside the pool or the beach and have a lovely buffet lunch.


Shopping is a hobby close to my heart and before coming to Doha I would have told you that I had nothing else to learn about shopping.. but I was so very very wrong, I did not know that squid comes in a can with ink, that potatoes are a sometimes food due to the high cost and that just because I want something doesn't mean I can get it.

I love the smells and that atmosphere of the malls here and could spend hours people watching just to see what they buy how they interact with each other and how adorable the children are here.

I miss being able to buy vanilla essence without having to go to four grocery stores, to buy and English magazine without having to sell a body part to afford it . I love the new foods we are seeing and tasting getting used to a new way of life and watching Brock and Quinn find their niche here.

I could complain or be sad for all of the things I will miss or not be able to have or I can buy a sewing machine and make it, adapt it or even invent it .. which is exactly what I have done. Qatar has been an eye opener for me in many ways but this move will be a special one because of the Qatari people and the welcome we have received from them and the Qatar Foundation

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Our Arabian Nights (Part 1)

After a month in the USA and two weeks in Australia, Meg and Wayne were in Tuncurry, N.S.W with Wayne's parents, his sister Valerie and her two children, Katie and Matthew. They had just spent 5 days with Callum, Declan and Ethan and had a wonderful time talking about the previous 18 months and taking the boys to the beach. Now it was Thursday morning, the boys had been dropped back in Sydney on Tuesday night, and the rest of the family had already left to catch a flight to Melbourne. Barry (from across the road) drove them to Forster Coach Centre and deposited them there, ready for a trip down to Sydney.

Sitting at the coach station (really, just a glorified bus stop) we were slightly confounded when an elderly lady moved away from us initially. After a few minutes she moved back closer to us and apologised when the smoke from her cigarette blew in our faces. When we told her it was o.k. she started to giggle. This behaviour continued, not just until the coach arrived at 7:10, but for the next 40 minutes or so, as we stopped at Green Point, Pacific Palms and Smiths Lake. By the time we got to Newcastle it was obvious that the driver was sick of her behaviour. When she asked if the bus was going to Wyong (which it wasn't but it was stopping somewhere not far away where another bus would have got her there) he strongly encouraged her to catch the train instead.

As always, we had our own drama with the transport. While it wasn't as time consuming as the train that broke down with us on it as we were travelling into Brisbane, the malfunction of the coach ticketing machine saw us stopping in Raymond Terrace at the Busways Head Office with the possibility that the coach may not keep going. In the end, the driver (and the guy he consulted with) decided that they would ignore it and try and get it fixed while they were in Sydney. The trip was very smooth, there was very little traffic, and we were safely deposited at Sydney's Central Station at 1pm to be met by our friend Julia. Sadly, after some beautiful weather coming down (particularly along the gorgeous coastline in Newcastle) by the time we had reached Hornsby it was overcast and it started to rain when we reached the station.

Meanwhile, Brock and Quinn, who had spent the previous 8 weeks travelling all over the east coast of Australia staying with various family members were coming to the end of their time in Brisbane. Their father dropped them at the airport at 4pm to make sure they would be ready for the 7:20 flight to Sydney but because the had no money there was not a lot for them to do other than sit around and spot celebrities. After a 15 minute delay to their flight leaving everything else flowed fairly well and they were safely in Sydney to be met by Wayne at baggage collection. After the suitcases arrived it was only a few minutes and Julia reappeared to collect all of them and whisk them back to where Meg was waiting at the Formule 1 hotel.

This gives us the opportunity to share a happy hint. If you are travelling to the domestic terminal in Sydney and are going to be met by someone, get them to wait at the Krispy Kreme doughnut store which is next to the motel we were staying in. As well as being able to use the wi-fi and consume their produce, it is only minutes away from the domestic terminals. When you land and have collected your luggage, a quick phone call or text message can have them ready to pick you up within minutes. This is certainly a much cheaper option than parking at the airport (unless, of course, they spend a lot of money at Krispy Kremes).

The following morning everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Wayne and Meg had breakfast at the aforementioned store and then woke the boys at 10am. We easily made checkout at 11 and then shortly after the shuttle arrived to ferry us to the international terminal. We were a little early to beginning checking in for our Etihad flight but there were lots of seats and we were soon in a fast moving queue to the check in counter. Of course, it was all just a little too easy and it wouldn't have been us if something had not gone wrong at this point.

We had been sent copies of our visas by email and had printed them out at the library in Tuncurry, however they were only in black and white. Maria, at the counter, pointed out to us that they couldn't be easily read and asked if we could get a colour copy done. Fortunately, Meg had had the foresight to anticipate this event and saved the visas to her memory stick. While the boys sat and watched the bags and Maria held on to our passports for us, Meg and Wayne scoured the International Terminal looking for a colour printer. Various people tried to help us (including three different Help Desks) but across Levels 1 and 2 there was not a colour printer to be found. Finally, someone suggested that we head up to the Administration Level 3 and visit the Etihad Office. George allowed us to use his printer and wouldn't accept any of our attempts to pay him for the privilege.

Once our bags had been checked it was smoothly through customs and security and we were in the lounge at our gate at just after 1pm. This gave us the opportunity to keep people updated with where we were using the free internet sites. Meg also changed money from Australian Dollars into Qatari Riyals and used some of her remaining funds to buy some Gucci 'Envy' at the duty-free store. It was not long after this and we were boarding our flight ready for the first leg, 14 hours from Sydney to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Etihad has some beautiful planes and we took the opportunity to make some last phone calls to our parents to say goodbye before take off. There were enough free seats on the plane that Wayne and Meg were able to move to a different row, giving both themselves and the boys a little more room to spread out on the flight. One of the stewardesses was from Melbourne originally, and she gave us some information on living in the Middle East and what we might expect when we arrived.

The flight itself was very bumpy, with lots of turbulence for most of the route as we passed over Malaysia, Indonesia and India. However, there was an abundant supply of food, and enough entertainment options to keep us all amused. The staff were attentive and we received little gift packs with toothbrushes and paste, eye masks etc. to help make the journey more comfortable. The only major issue on this leg was our fellow passengers. In the row behind Meg and Wayne an eighteen month old boy screamed and shouted for all but 2 hours of the flight, so consequently neither of them had had very much sleep at all (Wayne did, however, manage to watch 5 entire movies, win the Grand Prize on 'Who Wants to Be A Millionaire' and play a number of other games).

At midnight (Abu Dhabi time) we finally landed and were quickly shuttled to the terminal. This was a breaktakingly majestic building, largely round with a conical shape in the centre covered in beautiful tiles. The Duty Free shopping opportunities on the Ground Level were opulent and the upper floor had a number of places to eat. There was also a room where people could sit on a carpeted floor with round cushions that was just as you might have seen in Arabic themed restaurants, as well as Islamic Prayer Rooms. We were there for an hour or so before it was time to board the A319-300 that was to take us the final part of our trip to Doha, Qatar.

This was truly bizarre, because the plane left 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The 45 minutes flight time was over very quickly and consequently we were soon on the ground in the city that is to be our home for at least the next two years. At 2:40am it was already 32°C but it didn't seem too bad as we boarded another coach. As we left the coach at the Terminal, even before we made it to Customs and Immigration we were met by people who had been waiting for us. Rather than stand in the line with the hundreds of others we were ushered into a private room while our passports were stamped and our baggage collected. They then shepherded us around the lines and through security to a cafĂ© to wait for a couple of minutes while our shuttle bus was collected.

While we were waiting, one of the Qatar Academy senior staff arrived to welcome us and give us a pack with lots of information about the school. Our bus ride through Doha saw us gawking in amazement at all of the amazing architecture, the fancy cars, and all the little things that make this country different to others that we have encountered. Seeing McDonalds, Burger King and Subway written in Arabic was fascinating, as was noticing the number plates of the cars (also in Arabic, unsurprisingly) and speculating about what vehicle we might soon be driving.

We soon arrived at the complex where we will be staying and it wasn't long before we were inside the door of our new home. It is on the sixth floor of the building which is really a large apartment complex. The house itself is very big, certainly the biggest we have lived in since Wayne and Meg first came together, with three very large bedrooms and four bathrooms. When we looked out of our windows we could see the major sports centre across the road. It was all very exciting and we unpacked some of things quite quickly. However, it was clear that all of us needed some sleep and by 4am we had all crashed, relieved to have finally arrived.