Tuesday, January 22, 2008


It has been a week since I arrived in Qatar, and I sit in my office sore, tired, and content. The time has come to check in and recount the past weeks antics for the history books.

The first good thing about traveling to Qatar on business, is you get to skip out of work early on Friday to pack and catch the limo to the airport. The first bad thing about travelling to Qatar is the non-existence of your weekend. You fly out at 4pm on Friday, arrive at your layover (Frankfurt in my case) early Saturday morning, and then fly to Doha to arrive at 7pm Saturday Night. This would not be terrible if Sunday was a weekend day, unfortunately, Qatar takes Friday and Saturday off as their weekend.

Having made the trip once before, I felt fairly secure in my ability to moderate my sleep to best avoid jet lag. The idea is simply to land in Doha as sleepy as possible, and go to sleep such that you wake up for work having slept 8 hours. I however cannot stay awake on planes, and instead of landing sleepy, I landed awake, and proceeded to have a hell of a time getting to sleep.

So Sunday I wake up and catch a ride to work with my boss. Making this one hour trip with my boss every morning and evening, has let us get pretty close, but it has also led to the exhaustion of all small-talk topics. The ride is so long because we drive from the main city of Doha in the south east of the country, to the gas processing area called Ras Laffan Industrial City, in the northeast of Qatar. Along the way, you see excellent examples of desert. Vast stretches of empty, flat, sandy desert. The highlights include the possibility of seeing the camel herders, the antics of crazy drivers, and the occasional sand storm or fog that can cloud the way. This first trip to work was blessed with the rarest of all highlights…rain. As you can guess, it does not rain much in the Middle East, but there was a mild downpour occurring that morning…and the city was completely unprepared. The rain was not heavy or long in duration, but there is NO infrastructure to handle rain whatsoever. So instead of drains, the roundabouts became pools for water to collect. Instead of roads of cement and asphalt, the roads turned to a mud layer because there are no curbs to keep muddy water from entering the road way. The Qatari’s and expats generally adjust their driving accordingly, but some speed on, hence the significant increase in traffic accidents when rain occurs.

Work was good, as I was able to see all the people I had met before, as well as meet some new folks. Although the work I enjoy the work I do in the office, its not really worth writing about. Some of the cool stuff that comes along with working in a city-sized construction site includes the inevitable traffic jams when a 100-ft reactor chamber is being inched down the road, or the forced reversal of traffic when a bus or truck gets stuck or broken down, the gas flares that send 120-ft flames into the air at all times, and the people…slew of workers that are trying to make the best living available to them by laboring at Ras Laffan. The food is 5 Riyals for a lunch buffet (about $1.25) and 70% of that food is Indian. I am a big fan of the food and the deserts because it is all new to me. They seem to serve everything but pork products as food here, so everyday is something different.

After work, I was able to meet up with some expats (American) that my friend Cory knew. Cory, my coworker in Houston, is on a business trip the same time as I am, but he works in Doha and has a rental car. This makes getting around easy, because he is kind enough to drive me around to places. So we go to the City Center (the main mall of Doha) and grab a bite to eat. City Center mall is similar to almost any other mall in the US, with American fast food in the food court (McD’s, BK, Hardees, Subway, etc.) with some local cuisines interspersed. The stores are mostly different brands, but they focus on clothing, electronics, shoes, and department stores. The only thing that is significantly different is the store Carrefour. It is essentially the Walmart of Qatar, and it takes a half of the bottom floor of the mall. Inside it sells everything from a Playstation 3 and a Gold Plated Motorola Razor, to a fully skinned Lamb and Hummus. So after eating at the mall, we decided to go see the movie Charlie Wilsons War. This was also a bit different from US movies, as you choose seats when you buy your tickets, and also they cut out all scenes that imply sexuality. Hence you will begin a scene, and then cut to another scene without any warning or filler. This happened several times during the movie, and this was not a movie with explicit sexual content. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable experience, despite the fact that Cory pissed off the guy in front of us by kicking his chair. Afterwards we drove home.

Driving is another thing that must be explained. Like most countries outside of the US, the rules of the road are a lot more relaxed. It seems the only rule is, do not hit anybody, but you are allowed to come as close as you can. Hence it is not unusual to see people create lanes, or cut people off, or stop in the middle of the road. Also, there are very few stop lights, everything is based on roundabouts, which is another interesting experience because people do not seem to understand the concept of yielding. All in all though, driving is an aggressive but seemingly safe activity. The drivers develop a skill that is uncommon in most American drivers, the skill of knowing where other cars are and what they are going to do.

Monday, was fairly uneventful, went to dinner with a coworker and talked shop for a while. After dinner, we went to this bar in the Sheraton for expensive beers (about 10 bucks each). I was actually a little upset to be drinking, since I had no real intentions of buying alcohol while on the trip. I have since proven that this was a naïve assumption. Alcohol is as you would expect in an Arab nation, they do not do it. Alcohol is served in Hotels only, with a few exceptions, and the only way for individuals to purchase alcohol for personal use is to obtain a liquor license, which requires residency. This bar, the Irish Harp, is a new fixture of Doha, and it is extremely popular with expats. It is popular only to the expats with money, because the price of a drink is what most laborers make in a day (if that). So this is the spot for Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and Arabs (those that believe in drinking), to come out and experience the culture of alcoholism that they are used to. But anyways, we had a beer or two and left. I stay in the Sheraton so getting home from the Irish Harp is pretty simple.

Tuesday, was pretty nice due to a quality dinner, and a good round of indoor tennis playing. Coming on a business trip allows for free food, hotel, and transportation, so my friend Cory and I treated ourselves to a very nice seafood place at the Intercontinental Hotel. The Fish Market is one of those restaurants, where you pick out the fish, while it is on ice, and they take it to the back and cook it. Very fresh fish, and they serve a local fish called the Hammour which is very meaty and great for flavoring. Despite being very late to our 7pm tennis reservation, we were able to get a court at 8pm. I forgot to mention that Qatar was actually cold the first couple of days of the trip, so for once people were playing inside for non-heat related reasons. I was actually able to get back to the room at a reasonable hour that night, so I was able to watch some TV before going to bed. Also, the French president Nicholas Sarkhozy supposedly stayed in my Hotel this day, but I did not notice anything special to verify if that was true or not. I only know that he came to speak in Doha that day.

TV must be mentioned. Of the 60 channels available in the hotel room, probably 30 of those are news broadcasts. The TV here is SO international, with news channels that focus on different parts of the world. Watching TV in Qatar forces the viewer to be aware of the happenings in the world that is unconceivable in the US. Information trumps entertainment here, or maybe it is more accurate to say that information is entertainment. It is unfortunate that the US has become such a content-light society.

Wednesday, work was very eventful. We actually left at lunch time to go to Doha for the year-end close out report. This is when the project (I work on the Common Sulfur Project, a big warehouse for processing and storing sulfur) closes its accounting books for the year. Our accounting practices proved to be very sub-par, and we were told that things needed to be cleaned up by noon the next day. My boss lets us go early since there was no point in driving up to Ras Laffan, just to come back to Doha. Coincidently, the auditing group is the same group that Cory works for, so after the meeting, we both hopped in the car and started driving. We ended up in the Aspire Zone, which is the area of Doha where the Asian Games were held. Driving around let me see how large of a city Doha is. I stay in an are called the West Bay, sort of like downtown, but the vast majority of the city spreads out in all directions away from that area. So we ended up driving pretty deep into Doha and ended up at probably the nicest mall of Doha, the Vellagio. It is based on the Bellagio of Las Vegas, designed by the same guy, and is equipped with a indoor river and gondola service, as well as the cloud painted ceilings. The mall, despite its aspirations, is still nothing to write about…except I am writing about it. After the mall we tried to just get lost in the desert, but Cory got a little freaked out by the quickly deteriorating quality of road, and turned back towards the city. Once back we went to the Ramada for a Sushi dinner. The sushi platter I ordered (the chef special) was plentiful and featured fish I had never tasted before, but was not as good as I had hoped for. That seems to be the case with restaurants here. The same dishes ordered in the States tastes much better than here in Qatar. I don’t know if it is the ingredients or the chefs, but food really does taste better in the states. The only exception is Arabic or Indian food. So after Sushi, caught a cab home and went to sleep.

Thursday, worked like hell in the morning to get the cost accounting stuff finished, and then waited for the weekend to start. It seemed like everyone that I talked to was heading to the Irish Harp for the night, but before that I was going to have lunch with my boss and his son Aria. Dinner was tasty, but the real fun was after dinner at the Harp. As much as I was not interested in a Western experience, the Irish Harp was a lot of fun. It was packed with people from all over the world, and they were all having a lot of fun. Qatar has the highest ratio of men to women, so it is not unusual to see 5 guys to every girl when going out. When you take out the women who are married, taken, or are ‘working the crowd’ it is more like 10 guys to one girl. Nevertheless, the women were gorgeous, the people were generous, and the drinks were flowing. I was hanging out with a crowd of Scots, Irish, British, and Canadians…so they were planning on getting royally f***** up that night. I have come to learn that cultures outside of the US are so generous, that you are more likely to buy a drink for someone else than for yourself. My friend Cory was in no condition to get home, so I said he could stay in my Hotel room. This proved to be a mistake, as he proceeded to drunk dial the US from my hotel room that will charge some ungodly fee for that. I kept yelling at him and eventually had to throw him out before he would get a hold of himself. After letting Cory back in, we went to sleep and prepared for the first official day of the weekend.

Friday, we discovered that NOBODY is out on Friday mornings. It is the holy time when most everybody is in Mosque, or is still asleep. This culture is fairly night-owlish, most restaurants won’t start serving food until 7 or 7:30, and dinners can take two to three hours. We went to eat at this popular place called Turkey Central, and had a small feast for about 20 bucks. It was pretty amazing to see how things changed once the Mosques let out. The town went from being completely dead to steady traffic on foot and in cars. Religion is a huge part of the culture, and you will hear the call to prayer on the radio as you drive, or by simply rolling down the window. It is hard to imagine the Middle East becoming as loose with their religious expectations as western societies, at least not in the near term.

After Turkey Central we headed about an hour south of Doha to an area where you could rent All Terrain Vehicles and drive on the dunes. I will give a list of lessons learned from ATV riding:

Do not rent the cheapest ATV’s: Although they are cheap, they will more likely fall apart or stop working in the event of a crash. And remember that you can haggle for cheaper prices.

Do not assume that you know how to ride the ATV: Driving a manual ATV is apparently much different than the automatics, and trying to have that explained to us by someone with limited English was pretty entertaining. Eventually we figured out that it was just like motorcycle shifting.

Cory sucks at not getting stuck: Cory found a way to make his first twenty minutes of dun riding a stationary event. He could not keep his ATV moving for the life of him.

Look before you leap: These dunes are huge, and their descents can be very steep. Before you go over an edge, make sure you know what is on the other side.

It is difficult, but you can flip over your ATV: I went over the edge of a very steep dune at a bad angle, and the damn ATV started to flip over. I jumped off, and noticed that the ATV was not going to stop rolling over. So it was a race down the dune as my ATV went side over side after me. Luckily, I was faster than it and it came resting at the bottom of the hill with me shaken but not hurt.

ATV’s can break: After the ATV flipped over about 8 times on the descent, it proceeded to stop working. Luckily the guy who rented them to us did not make a big deal about helping out; he just wanted to know how bad the crash was.

There Will Be Blood: As Cory will attest, some crashes are worse than others. Cory managed to drive himself into a ditch, get thrown off of his ATV, and bust his lip open. Quote of the Crash: Me-What are you doing down there; Cory- Recovering; Me- Are you bleeding?; Cory- Yes; Me- Do you have all your teeth?; Cory- pauses to run tongue along teeth…Yes; Me- Awesome. Not only did he bust himself up, he knocked the tire off of the rim in the process. All of this happens when we are far as hell away, and we have about 3 minutes to get back to the rental place. Needless to say, by the time we got back, it was about half an hour later.

All in all, it was an excellent time. The guy did not keep Cory’s passport (collateral on the rental), he did not charge us for busting up his rides, and we got out alive.

Once we were back in Doha, we cleaned up a little, and headed to the Rugby Club to catch the tail end of a rugby game and also to meet some people. Once again drinks were flowing including shots of whiskey to celebrate one of the Rugby players birthdays. Somehow we ended up at the Irish Harp AGAIN, but called it quits early because everyone was dead tired. I did see one of the most beautiful woman ever there, that was pretty awesome.

Saturday, woke up early, and Cory and I were supposed to go to the Soukhs, which are the traditional shops where goods are sold. Since Cory had to go to the Ramada, before hand, I had him drop me off, and we agreed to meet an hour later at a spot. The Soukhs are a very interesting place, you can pretty much buy anything you could think of there. The paths between the stores are narrow alleys that go in any direction, and they can dead end without notice. I would describe the Soukh overall as a maze lined with store stalls. I went back to the meeting spot after an hour, and waited for 45 minutes for Cory to arrive. I gave up and caught a cab back home, but evidently he showed up right as I was leaving. It turns out that he got stuck horribly in traffic. He never did get to see the Soukhs because we had to go pretty quickly to a soccer game with the Scots. We played on a tennis court, and it was fun playing soccer with people that grew up on the game. The skill level was varied, but I was able to hold my own. After soccer, we went to City Center for some fast food and TCBY ice cream. We had to reward ourselves for the health kick. Unfortunately, I had agreed to play tennis with some people later that night, so at 7, I met with three other folks for tennis. By the time I got to my hotel room after all of this, I was sore, tired and cranky. Then to top it all off, there was a show about slavery that just made me mad at white people. Eventually I was able to sleep.

Monday, so here I sit, sore, tired but content, ready to take on another week. I hope to be able to fly to London Thursday to see my sister for a few days. We shall see how that goes.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Inside and Out

I recently came to an interesting conclusion about my desire to be liked. I am my own life’s greatest work, and like an artist who has formed something with love and hard work, he expects his exhibit to be appreciated. The piece is still whole without the audience, but it does not make the impact on people’s lives that it could if they could envision the artist’s message.

I work hard at making myself into a human being. A more truthful statement, I try to make myself into the model human being. That has been the motivation for my addiction to discipline, patience, and understanding, because I wish to make myself into a person that can be a light to the world.

Perhaps this effort is rooted in my Christian upbringing of living a life that can inspire others to aspire for more. My purpose and my gifts revolve around influencing people, and I have been trying hard to influence in a positive light.

This whole thought process emerged from the seeming contradiction of both loving ones self and truly wanting others to like you. I knew that I felt both strongly, but figured it was an almost bipolar relationship instead of two layers of one plane.

When my personality rubs others wrong, or when I feel at odds with others and their actions, I feel like the artist who is getting mixed review on his life work.

I really do wish that this was more a trait of humanity, the desire to better one’s self. People will say, ‘I am just being me’, and continue to act the same way. But it only takes a small experiment of smiling more to realize that people can improve who they are by consciously moving themselves down a path of better existence. Being content with mediocrity is a curse on the masses, why can’t we all work together to change for the better.

If you see something about yourself that is not the best that it can be, make every effort to defeat that trait, do not give into the urge to ‘accept’ that part of you. It took years to develop most bad habits, it usually takes that much more hard work to break it.

Let’s all create our own masterpieces.