Driver Boss, Jack-o-Lanterns & Camel Chocolate

Yesterday went like this:

J got home from work (flying to Dubai – or was it Abu Dhabi? and back) around 8:00am. I had my driver (he’s not MY driver per se, but the one I always call – “Driver Boss” for the purpose of this blog) take me 30 miles north of the city for my second interview at an international school. I have been toying with the idea of working full time here instead of just part time. The interview went well, and this particular school is quite nice and seems to be very Western.

After my interview, I had Driver Boss stop at Subway. I ran in and ordered 3 sandwiches: 1 for me, 1 for J, and 1 for Driver Boss, who had waited in the car an hour while I was at the school. While the Filipino man behind the counter prepared our sandwiches, an old Qatari man came in and waited behind me. The Dhuhr call to prayer (around noon) came on over the restaurant speakers and could be heard from area mosques. The local man cheerfully whistled along with the whole thing, then ordered his sandwich. I have never heard anyone, let alone one of the locals, whistle along with the call to prayer! It was pretty cute.

I love hearing D Boss describe India, so a portion of the drive back we talked about his home in Kerala – the nature, the houseboats. Most of his family still live there, including his mother, wife and daughter. He doesn’t know when he will move back to Kerala, and says it’s not too bad being here because he gets to go back to his family every 3 months. His older brother, an equally kind, soft spoken gentleman, lives with him here in The Country and drives one of the fleet’s five cars. Even so, D Boss preferred Dubai, where he lived and worked for 12 years, enjoying more freedom and luxuries than there are here.

We talked about religion, one of my favorite topics with D Boss and his drivers. He told me how his mother traveled all the way from Kerala to Mecca for The Hajj, and that he hopes to do the same one day. I asked him why men and women don’t pray in the same area at a mosque, or masjid. Women pray in a separate room from men. He explained how the men line up so close to each other while praying, that their arms actually touch. He went on to say it would not be right for him and someone else’s wife to touch while praying. Regardless of my own beliefs, I understood.

In preparation for Halloween, we broke out the Shuns and got to work on the Lebanese pumpkins we acquired the night before.

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I love pumpkins!

Amazingly enough, the pumpkins were the only things to get sliced (I keep a few bandaids under the Shun knife block just to be safe).

We both walked away from our glorious jack-o-lanterns with all fingers, toes, and everything in between 100% intact.

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Lebanese Jack-o-Lanterns + Cheesy Poof

Trying to get the Cheese monster to pose for a picture with our jack-o-lanterns reminded me of Mixy’s old pumpkin head “costume.” Mixy is my cat who is temporarily residing with my parents back in KC. Mixy wore that pumpkin head and she wore it well, although I can’t find the pictures now. Anyway, I brought Mixy’s pumpkin head “costume” all the way back to Qatari from Kansas City. Here is Cheese Louise in all her pumpkin head glory:

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Lookin’ good, Cheesy!

After royally pissing off Cheese, J and I headed to a gourmet cafe for some camel chocolate.

That’s right, “the first and finest camel milk chocolate.”

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Al Nassma camel chocolate display

Although cheese is my downfall, I opt for organic soy or almond milk instead of cow milk when eating cereal. I really try my hardest to avoid leather products, and of course I don’t eat meat. The thought of camel milk chocolate was pretty disturbing at first. I wanted to try it, because 1. I love trying new things, 2. when else will this kind of “crazy” opportunity present itself?!, and 3. I suspect camels are treated pretty damn fabulously compared to American dairy cows. Does that mean I was up for trying the $24 camel burger on the menu? Eh, no.

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Thanks, but no thanks!

So, what was the verdict in the trial of the camel chocolate? According to J, who absolutely did not want to try the stuff, “It was good! It was better than I thought it would be.” Indeed, it was a very smooth, very creamy, very delicious milk chocolate.

Even so, I don’t think I’d eat it knowingly again, as I couldn’t get the image of a camel being milked out of my head…

…especially not after watching Mike Rowe milk a camel at San Diego’s Oasis Camel Dairy!

What do you think – would you eat camel chocolate?

Turquoise Taxi Talk

I love meeting people from all over the world, and hearing about their unique life stories. With foreign expats making up over 80% of Qatar’s population, there are infinite opportunities for such exchanges to take place.

Unfortunately, small talk is not my forte. Chit chat, the skimming of the surface that occurs after every Sunday church service, is just not my thing. It’s like testing the water with just one toe; something a clumsy, Accidental Asshole like myself does not do well. I tend to stumble on my words before completely falling in headfirst. Luckily, that flaw has resulted in some of the most interesting conversations I never thought I’d have.

While J flew to Moscow and back, I met up with my favorite Swede. We shopped around yet another mall in hopes of finding winter wear for our December trips home, and stopped for coffee at Krispy Kreme. After going our separate ways, I jumped in one of the turquoise taxis waiting outside the mall.

“How long have you lived here?” I asked the driver. That question, coupled with, “Where are you from?” are my icebreakers of choice.

In no time at all, I had the taxi driver, *Aadarsh, telling me about life in Qatar from his perspective. Although many of the taxi drivers here have incredibly poor English, Aadarsh’s English was pretty good. I reveled in the opportunity for a comprehensible conversation with someone experiencing a whole other side of expat life.

A native Sri Lankan, Aadarsh learned English as a child in his school near Colombo. He’s lived in Qatar for about 4 months, but this isn’t his first gig in the Middle East. Before coming here, he spent 3 years living and working in Saudi Arabia. He said the traffic fines are not as bad in Saudi as they are here, but the people there are much worse. His wife and 4-year old son are back in Sri Lanka. He signed a 2-year contract with the taxi company here, and expects to return to Sri Lanka as soon as his contract is over to be with his wife and son, as their son will begin school at that time.

My own personal beliefs aside, I find religious devotion fascinating. In Sri Lanka, Aadarsh explained, people are “Buddhist (70%), Hindu, Muslim, then Christian.” He said he is Hindu, because his father is Hindu. We talked about eating meat, and agreed Buddhism would be good for me, because I’m vegetarian! He thought it was pretty funny that I don’t cook meat for J. I told him J gets all the meat he ever wanted outside our home!

I asked how it was to work for the taxi company. He described 16-hour work days, beginning at 6:00am and ending at 10:00pm. He has 2 days off each month. I asked if he knew before he started the job that he would only have 2 days off each month. He said no, adding that another company in town gives its drivers 1 day off each week, but, unfortunately, his company does not. Continually referring to his company’s “scheme,” he explained how he pays the equivalent of $82 each day to “rent” the taxi he drives, in addition to paying about $95 each week in gas. At the end of a 16-hour shift, after paying for gas and renting the taxi, he takes home about $27.

Curious about all of the claims I’ve read about worker treatment here, I asked him where his Passport is. He said the company has it. I asked about his living accommodations, which are provided by the company. He reiterated what one of my building staff members had previously told me: 8 men share one room. I asked about their kitchen. He said they don’t have a kitchen, but they are provided food at the “canteen” (cafeteria).

Finally, we reached my building. I thanked him, tipped him nicely, greeted my building’s nighttime concierge as I headed upstairs, and opened my apartment door to an enthusiastically meowing Cheese Louise McFlufferstein.

We have it so damn good.

Intentional Assholes – Mall Edition

If I had to pick the number one thing that grinds my gears, it would probably be Intentional Assholes.

Intentional Assholes come in all shapes and sizes, are all skin colors and all ages. Their population is growing faster than a Jumanji vine, and we’ve all known at least a few. That guy that won’t let you change lanes even when you’ve had your blinker on for 190,348,109,234 miles? Intentional Asshole. Your ex who would take your car keys with him to work so you couldn’t leave the house? Intentional Asshole. Rush Limbaugh and Fred Phelps? Intentional Assholes.

Intentional Assholes should not be confused with Accidental Assholes. Accidental Assholes say the wrong thing at the wrong time, insert-foot-in-mouth, didn’t really mean for “it” to come out “like that,” are genuinely sorry after the fact, care more than they don’t. Most people fall into the Accidental Asshole category at one point or another, because, well, accidents happen.

Tonight, I had a run-in with some Intentional Assholes.

While shopping for some new black pumps in one of Qatar’s many malls, I passed the Haagen-Dazs store. I strolled by, thinking mmmmm ice cream, when suddenly I smelled cigarette smoke. The locals here rarely abide by “no smoking” signs; many of them are viewed (by themselves and others) as being above the law. Even so, few things make my blood boil like people INTENTIONALLY IGNORING THE “NO SMOKING” SIGN ON THEIR TABLE WHILE THEY SHAMELESSLY PUFF AWAY ON THEIR CIGARETTES.

As luck would have it, that is exactly what 2 local men were doing at Haagen-Dazs – just puff puff puffing away, blowing stank ass cigarette smoke on every man, woman and child that walked by, with zero regard for the NO SMOKING sign in the middle of their table.

(Keep in mind, it was only about a year ago that a mall fire here killed 13 children and 6 adults. While that fire wasn’t caused by a cigarette, surely people can respect NO SMOKING areas at family friendly establishments, if for no other reason than to be mindful of fire prevention!)

I approached the Haagen-Dazs manager, telling him there were men smoking at a table that was clearly marked NO SMOKING. He acknowledged they were smoking, and explained that his superiors instructed him to allow Qatari men to smoke indoors, and to give them ash trays. He admitted even the mall security officers would not apprehend local men for smoking in no smoking areas. While this isn’t news to anyone who lives here, it is nonetheless MADDENING.

I thought about walking away, I really did. But GOOD GOD I HATE CIGARETTE SMOKE AND INTENTIONAL ASSHOLES. The combination was too much to bear.

So, I went up to their table. I plastered on a big, fake smile and said something along the lines of, “Excuse me, there is no smoking here.” Whether they understood me or not, I really am not sure. I got the impression they thought I wanted a cigarette, which would not have been the first time I was offered a cigarette when asking a local man not to smoke in a no smoking area. Exasperated, I just turned the sign on their table toward them. “No smoking!” Two and two suddenly made four, and Intentional Asshole #1 reluctantly dropped his cigarette into their water cup ashtray. Intentional Asshole #2 continued to smoke, so I smiled and asked them where they were from, knowing damn well they are from here. Indeed, they confirmed they were local, so I said something about what a nice country they have and how they ought to take care of it. Finally, Intentional Asshole #2 dunked his cigarette. I thanked them and walked away, feeling very small and insecure under a facade of confidence.

The Haagen-Dazs manager, presumably having watched the whole ordeal, apologized to me as I was leaving. I told him not to worry; I understand they can lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.

Unfortunately, I did not find a new pair of black pumps tonight. I’ll have to return and face the wrath of Intentional Assholes at the mall another day!

Conversations with Young English Learners (Part 4)

This week, I worked my first shift at the tutoring center since leaving almost a month ago. I have had kind of a sour attitude since returning to Qatar, and was not particularly excited to go back to work. On the way to the tutoring center, J and I were briefly stuck in traffic at one of the many, many roundabouts. I looked at the vehicle next to us just in time to see a kid, maybe 7 years old, hanging out of the passenger side window, presumably to get a better view of the truck full of sheep on the other side of the street. Suddenly, a fugitive sheep bolted by with a little Indian man right on its heels. It was funny for a split second, this dirty sheep making a break for it, crossing multiple lanes of traffic, little brown man in hot pursuit. The scene was straight out of a cartoon. Then, like a ton of bricks, the reality of it hit: a lone sheep desperately trying to escape the path to slaughter, the futility of its attempt, the fighting of the inevitable. I wanted to cry, could have cried, but was dropped off at work just moments later.

It didn’t take long for the students to cheer me up. I don’t think they knew I needed cheering up, but their contagious charisma had me all smiles in no time. I missed working with them more than I realized.

One local boy’s assignment involved writing about his hobbies. Initially, he wanted to write about playing Call of Duty: Black Ops. I encouraged him to pick a different hobby. After careful consideration, he decided to write about sports. Soon, we were discussing different types of sports, how silly it is for Americans to call soccer “football” when it’s played with feet, and how the Indians “stole” cricket from the Brits.

Later, the same student had to write about his favorite season. It quickly became obvious he was not familiar with the four seasons. Another local student helped name the seasons: “winter, spring, summer… I know it starts with A!”

I wanted to exclaim, “Why, it’s only autumn, the BEST SEASON EVER!” I wanted to give them pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top, tell them about Halloween and trick-or-treating and apple cider, and walk them down a street lined with bright yellow and red Maple trees. Instead, I said, “Yes, autumn! Sometimes, we also call it fall.”

He decided his favorite season was winter, because of the cold weather, snowball fights, and snowmen. I told him winter is also an excellent time to drink hot cocoa (as if it’s not good year round!), and as soon as I said “cocoa,” he burst into laughter. I’m not sure if “cocoa” sounds like a bad word in Arabic, if I had something on my face, or if maybe, just maybe, he was really that excited about a season he has never actually experienced…

The next day (yesterday), I had an eager little 2nd grader at my table. He was reading through a list of new vocab words. He got to the word “rich” and exclaimed, “I like that one!” Before our hour was over, he confidently explained to anyone who was listening, “When a boy eats a lot of junk food, he turns into a girl!” I asked if he was sure about that, and he said he was, because his sister told him so!

Since a new school year has just recently started, there are a lot of new faces at the tutoring center. As one newbie cautiously sat down at my table, I asked him where he was from. He mulled over the question for a second, then responded, “Where was I born or where am I from?” I said, “Both!” He informed me he was born in America, but from a Mediterranean country. I love expat students! He wasn’t particularly interested in his assignments, but I’d bet his multiculturalism will benefit him far more than any degree. God knows that in retrospect, I wish I’d invested a fraction of what I spent on college into world travels instead.

I ended my shift listening to a local hijabi describe how she makes her nanny buy her tickets to scary movies, and how upsetting it was when she didn’t get to go to Bath & Body Works during her last trip to Dubai (which reminds me: I’m all out of body cream!). She moaned that now she must wait until she goes to Japan to go to Bath & Body Works. The agony!

I am happy to be picking up more hours tutoring this week, and always look forward to the unexpected things these kids say!

“What do you do for fun?”

One of the most common questions I get asked when I go back to the States is what we do for fun over here.

For starters, we go out to eat pretty frequently with friends. It’s not always easy coordinating the guys’ schedules, but having a social life here is a huge key to happiness. And by happiness, I mean not getting totally depressed and bailing. I eat at restaurants more often now than I have ever before in my life. For me, sharing a meal with friends is a sort of group therapy, a source of familiarity found in the closest individuals to family on this side of the planet. Of course, every opportunity to be with friends is like this, but sitting around a table “breaking bread” especially so.

Chain

Name that chain!

This one is easy...

This one is easy…

Mom & Pop (Thai)

dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant

We like going to the local shooting complex. Maybe I should say, we have liked going there, because we’ve only been twice so far. Now that it’s getting nice out (below 100F), we hope to start going more regularly. Pistol ranges are reserved for the national teams and military forces, but expats are allowed to shoot skeet with 12 gauge shotguns. Cost per 25 shells, with “equipment” and “assistance” runs $27.

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take your pick

This is me, getting ready to miss the target!

This is me, getting ready to miss the target!

Sunset on the way home from the shooting complex

January sunset on the way home from shooting

We go to the movies. While we are lucky to be expats in a Middle Eastern country progressive enough to have public cinemas, there is still blatant censorship in the movies here. For example, the back side of a statue in Django Unchained was blurred out. In Kick-Ass 2, “Mother F*cker” became “Melon Farmer.” Suggestive scenes are simply cut out, and new releases are not released during Ramadan. All censorship aside, the caramel popcorn that’s sold at the concession stand, and the reasonably priced concession items, are always a nice treat!

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Django Unchained (uncensored version pictured)

Halle Berry in a custom made bikini cover-up

Halle Berry in a custom made bikini cover-up

Salty for J, sweet for me!

Salty for J, sweet for me!

We hit the beach! For being a desert country, there are an awful lot of beaches around here. Last January, we rented 4-wheelers for a few hours, and played in the dunes. We weren’t technically at the beach, but we were close. This should happen again soon, since the weather is decent now (and when it does, I want to ride a camel!). This week, we went to the private beach area in a friend’s subdivision, where we kayaked through the Venetian inspired waterways. Previously, we kayaked through The Country’s mangroves: an area with so much vegetation, it seemed like a different country. When it’s not too hot, we can walk to our “neighborhood’s” residential beach. Unlike some of The Country’s beaches, bikinis are allowed there.

Sea from ATV

Sea from ATV

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Private beach area

rainbow kayaks

rainbow kayaks pre-mangrove tour

Bring your resident ID to this one!

Bring your resident ID to this one!

We hang out at the Souq! It’s a shopping and dining area, designed to resemble a traditional marketplace. We prefer to go here when it’s not too hot, since sitting outside to smoke shisha, browsing the many outdoor souqs, or shops, and getting some cheap henna is much more enjoyable when not on the verge of heat exhaustion! There’s something for everyone at the souq.

A waiter takes a break next to the shisha pipes at the souq's Syrian restaurant

A waiter takes a break next to the shisha pipes at the souq’s Syrian restaurant

fabric

fabric

lanterns

lamps

souvenirs

souvenirs

falcon souq

Falcon Souq

Getting from Point A to Point B, finding out basic information (contact info, hours, cost, directions, etc.), might take twice as long (or longer) than it would back home, but there’s no denying there’s always something to do here. We manage to stay pretty busy.

What do you do for fun?

This Morning’s Migrant Workers

Somebody, somewhere, is selling their used, unairconditioned school buses to somebody over here who uses them to transport imported, blue collar workers. These old, yellow school buses packed full of worker bees are a common sight around these parts.

the wheels on the bus go to a labor camp

the wheels on the bus go to a labor camp

Where in the world could they be coming from?!

Oh, right.

Oh, right.

Much more plentiful than the yellow school buses are the big, white Tatas.

No, seriously. Big, white Tatas.

Tata buses

Tata buses taking migrant workers to work

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Tata buses taking migrant workers “home” (restricted access)

The Country has been under extra scrutiny, as of late, for alleged mistreatment (forced labor, Passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, denial of drinking water, assault, etc.) of its migrant workers.

All reports of alleged “slave labor” have been vehemently denied by labor officials.

This morning, I woke up at 4:00am. After returning from the US last week, I have had the worst case of jet lag of my life. I fought the urge to play Candy Crush for over an hour, then finally decided to just go on a walk. I headed outside, thinking about how I probably never would have gone on a walk when it was still dark out in Kansas City, MO, but I feel so physically safe here. An American in the Middle East. It’s not at all what Fox news would have you think.

I took “the big dog” aka our Sony fancy-pants camera with me. I’m pretty sure everyone I meet thinks I’m a complete nut anyway, so I really don’t care too much anymore how ridiculous I look walking around at 5:00am in workout clothes and a tourist-style camera hanging around my neck.

As I was leaving, I stopped to chat with one of our building staff members. We have daytime staff and nighttime staff, both consisting of maintenance workers, concierge, and security guards. They are all very nice people, mostly from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philipines. As poor as those countries are, they produce some of the friendliest people on the planet. This particular staff member sleepily described their 6:00pm-6:00am shift, and how the bus was coming soon to take them on the hour long trip to their accommodations in the Industrial Area. I asked how it was to sleep during the day there, as I’d heard some areas out there are without electricity at different times throughout the day. The staff member said it’s very difficult. I started to ask, “How many…” when my sentence was finished for me: “In one room? Eight.” Eight workers share one room.

On my walk this morning, I got a little brave. Instead of dropping my eyes to the ground when passing a blue collar worker, instead of pretending they are as invisible as they probably feel, I greeted them and (in hand gestures and diluted English) asked if I could take their picture. I expected a lot of heads shaking “no,” and even to get yelled at by some unidentifiable supervisors. Surprisingly, these guys were quite eager to have their photos snapped. Many seemed as surprised as I was, and politely tried to assemble their very best “Good morning!”

Below are some shots from my morning walk.

I have attempted to protect and censor the identity of all individuals pictured, to include company and country details.

worker1

A for effort, but most worker bees don't speak - let alone READ - English

A for effort, but most worker bees don’t speak – let alone READ – English

Clearly, safety is a priority!

Safety is #1 priority, just read the board…

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from the morning bus to the job site

from the morning bus to the job site

"Are you conscious about comply others to do work safely?"

“Are you conscious about comply others to do work safely?”

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Fire Safety

fire safety station close-up

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How does your garden grow?

How does your garden grow?

bus "terminal"

bus “terminal”

If patience is a virtue, these guys are as virtuous as they come.

If patience is a virtue, these guys are as virtuous as they come.

Poseidon and the sea

Poseidon and the sea

paintbrush trident

paintbrush trident

In 1984, George Orwell describes modern war between Eurasia, Oceania and Eastasia. He writes, “…there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about … it is a war for labor power.” Detailing the disputed territories, home to “about a fifth of the population of the earth,” he goes on to say, “…they all contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labor. Whichever power controls equatorial Africa, or the countries of the Middle East, or Southern India, or the Indonesian Archipelago, disposes also of the bodies of scores of hundreds of millions of ill-paid and hard-working coolies. The inhabitants of these areas, reduced more or less openly to the status of slaves, pass continually from conqueror to conqueror…”

Knowing that having moved here makes me a contributor to my surroundings, like staying here makes me a contributor, like looking away makes me a contributor, like not doing or saying anything to advocate something better makes me a contributor, weighs heavily on my conscience. I am part of the demand. But what to do? It is exhausting to care so much about a bad situation you can’t improve, but to care less, or not at all, is surely criminal.

Inaction is action.

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein