Living in Qatar. 10 things to know about driving here.

In a previous post, I described driving in Qatar as shit scary. I have been trying since to come up with a more eloquent expression to use, but I genuinely can’t.

You will experience this phenomenon the first time you come to a roundabout in Doha (it won’t take long — hopefully as a passenger, ideally a back seat one. During this life altering moment you are likely to shout, or perhaps politely think if you’re from a stiff upper lip nation, “What the **** is he/she doing????”.

You will watch aghast as your driver floors the accelerator as you approach the merge and speeds toward a flood of massive SUVs that seem to be spilling onto the roundabout despite your presence, dodge a car that suddenly decides, with neither indication nor apparent thought to the value of their lives or yours, to cross your lane to exit before you and then listen as the driver takes a big intake of breath, clasps the steering wheel determinedly and points the car in the direction of the exit you want to take, speed up further, perhaps plough through more cars that have hurtled in front of you, and join the next road.

Actually, that’s all a lie.

You won’t watch. Your eyes will actually be clenched shut, your jaw clenched more tightly than you deemed possible, likely taking a decade’s worth of enamel with it, and your fingernails will be embedded deep into the leather of the arm rest.

Welcome to driving in Doha.

This is a crazy city. It moves at a pace that alternates between sleepy stupour and Usain Bolt style. Nowhere is this more evident than on the roads.

It’s tempting to point the finger at locals, who drive fast and furious, but that’s unfair. Doha is a melting pot of nationalities and I actually find a lot of similarity between the crazy nonsensical roads of South East Asia and here, except that there, the most powerful engines are the tuk tuks and the Honda 50 ccs. Here it’s Land Cruisers, Lexuses and Nissans with 3.8 litre engines that rule the roads. A heady combination, and not a particularly good one! Add a network of constantly changing roads to the mix and you have chaos.

So, here are some tips about driving here and getting on the road, should you decide after reading this that you don’t want to take up walking. (And trust me, that’s not going to work here either!)

Forget what you know about roundabouts.

If you hadn’t already guessed from my comments above, roundabouts are a whole new world of anxiety here. It’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants time, and there are no rules other than to get off that roundabout alive and unsoiled.

Genuinely though, drive like you know what you’re doing. That speeding up shows other drivers they don’t want to cut you off And be prepared for those nutcases cutting you up to exit. They actually will be you in the future when you realise that you can’t go straight on from the middle lane because people are turning left from your outside lane. Yes, seriously.

Expect the unexpected.

Crazy driving doesn’t just happen on roundabouts. It can happen on four lane expressways too, when someone decides that they need to exit or just need to go faster. It’s not unknown for people to cut across four lanes in one maneouveur. At 100km. In between other cars.

Give way to bigger cars.

Forget that rule about leaving two car spaces between you and the car in front. That just won’t work in Doha. It will be full of other cars in the time it takes you to slow down, so to make it work, you will actually need to drive backward. Bigger cars will always try to push in. They won’t indicate. They will just move, especially if you’ve left space (but that’s not required). Expect it and stay alert.

Believe it or not, you’ll be doing it soon too.

Horns – get used to them

The bigger the car, the more likely they are to sit on the horn when they are stuck behind you. To be fair about this, it is entirely reasonable that they should beep you when you haven’t moved 0.00000001 milliseconds after the light has gone green, or when you haven’t squeezed yourself in between a truck and a bus travelling at top speed, just to ensure they can push past.

Joining expressways

This will initially rank up alongside roundabouts as your most loathed moments on the road in Doha. There’s no ever-so-polite shifting of cars from the inside lane to the middle as they approach a merge doesn’t happen here, so you need to learn to judge, and fast or the horns will start, how you will merge. If you’re not fast enough, the cars behind will start to overtake you while you try to merge. While beeping. Yes, seriously.

You will get better at it with time!

Navigation requires a sat nav

Forget any notion of learning the roads in this city so that you can navigate with ease. They are literally rebuilding an entire road network across swathes of the city, so a road you took tomorrow might not exist tomorrow and a whole new diversion will be in place. Avoid Google Maps — it is woeful at keeping up to date with map changes and doesn’t give enough warning of turns. Waze is absolutely amazing and will become your best friend in the cockpit. So much so that on those rare occasions when it lets you down you find yourself sobbing to it about betrayal and how you expected so much better from your relationship!

You don’t need a road to drive on

Now there is a fun meaning to this and the reason so many people have 4x4s. We live in the desert after all, and what better activity for a winter’s day that racing off road over the dunes.

However, some people take that off roading to another level, and it’s not unknown to see SUVs getting fed up with traffic and mounting the median areas to drive as far as they can through the rubble before rejoining, possibly 30 seconds further along their journey than they would otherwise have been. The same rules apply to parking. If there are no spaces, just leave the car anywhere. Ideally as close as possible to where you’re going. If that’s a pavement, it doesn’t really matter. After all, pavements are just random disconnected decorative objects placed around the city with no intent for pedestrians to ever actually attempt to — gasp! — walk somewhere on them.

Driving test instructors may grab the wheel

In my 10 minute driving test, I got yelled at to go faster, shouted at to drive straight (and when I did, I was told it was the wrong straight) and then the instructor grabbed the wheel to correct me. I still passed.

There’s a whole post I’ve written about passing your test here. I’ll post it separately, because that’s an adventure in itself.

Car seats aren’t the norm here

As shocking as this sounds, car seats are not the norm on these crazy roads. You will regularly see children 1980’s Ireland style, standing between the front seats of their car or mothers holding toddlers unbelted on their laps on the front seat. It is perhaps reflective of the general crazy attitude to road safety, but it makes my heart sink every time I see it, especially on the crazily busy 4 lane expressways.

Go for it… drive

For all of the above comments, it is possible to drive and drive relatively safely around Doha. It’s also perfectly possible to use a taxi service and might even work out cheaper.

So if you’re reading this and unsure about whether you want to drive or not, don’t let this put you off. You will get used to the roads, you will pass your test and you will appreciate the freedom this gives you to explore this wonderful city.

 

If you’re reading this from Qatar, I’d love to hear your experiences or tips for the new driver. If you haven’t been here before but can think of somewhere that will rival this, please do let me know!

 

Image credit: Sam Agnew, Flickr

Feeling Alien: First Reflections on Qatar

First confession: Only amateur expat wannabe bloggers fail in style by forgetting their laptop charger in their home country. Mine is somewhere, who knows where, in a small green nation over 5,000km away.

However, for all that this error resulted in itchy fingers and a temptation to start plugging away here on my iPhone, it led to me taking an enforced break from writing here for two weeks, providing time for reflection on all that’s happened in the past two weeks since our arrival in Doha. And reflection has been very much needed!

 

Greetings 

We arrived to a hot, dry Doha. Greeted with open arms by a tired, well prepared expat father who had been working hard to lay the groundwork for our new lives in Qatar. I think the image of our three kids racing across the airport arrivals ahead of my mother, myself and three porters laden down with our massive luggage haul will live with me forever, especially the smiles all around at Alex’s chubby legs carrying him, arms outstretched, for a long overdue hug with his Dad.

reunionWe also arrived just after Pixie was released from customs, so it was a grand family reunion in the car park of Doha Hamad Airport. Kids, check; Pixie, check; driver, check; sanity, check.

First impressions matter. Simon knows from years of travel that arriving in a dusty Dohan suburb would not do. So he had arranged for a drive-through road tour along the Corniche, lit up as it always is against a dark sea and sky, announcing in case of doubt Doha’s ambition to be a city of the world, where success is measured in skyscraper floor totals and grand architectural tricks and illusions. Tantalizing glimpses of Souq and MIA to whet the appetite for exploration and life here.

souq

Feeling green
I will confess now to an arrogance that until two weeks ago I had no idea I possessed. An assumption that I was a seasoned traveller of the world. I had seen continents and sights that would complete many a bucket list or Top 10 travel guide. I was wrong. Totally wrong.

The best introduction to Doha life is not the museums or the scenery, it’s the traffic and the malls. Traffic is traffic, but the cars are larger, roads are faster and the drivers more impatient. The first few roundabouts are navigated with your hands across your eyes — thankfully, I was a passenger and not a driver at that stage!

The malls are where we, as expats, first engage with Qatari culture beyond the immigration desks in the airport. I don’t honestly know what I had expected but it wasn’t what I found. I was an alien in my own skin, feeling weirdly unsure how to walk, behave, even act in this new environment. Qatari men and women are clearly proud of their culture and status and this is evident most of all in their dress. Men wearing the long white shirts called thawbs with headdresses called agals on their heads. They are tall, proud men. The women that initially stood out were a wall of black. It would be wrong to say they all wear abayas – they clearly don’t – but it certainly appeared so at first glance. They also wear headscarves of varying styles, from hijabs more commonly seen in Europe to full veils covering their entire face.

This sea of white and black was hard to see past at first, even while aware of the multitude of other nationalities around us. It took time, nearly two weeks before I could fully stop staring at the newness of it all and start appreciating more in the wider environment. The abayas became less of a black uniform and more diverse. I could appreciate the intricacies in the different fabric choices or embellishments sewn into the material, the glittering sequins on some, the chiffon or lace on others.

If this description makes Doha sound very uniform, I can assure you that it’s far from this. Indeed, I would describe Doha as possibly one of the most diverse places I’ve ever been in. There are people of all nationalities here, and because tourism isn’t yet a huge driver of population shift here, you know most people are living here, trying to shape a life in this rapidly growing and evolving country.

A forest of forms

The first couple of weeks here have been consumed with paperwork, travelling around the city and multiple office visits (often fruitless ones with missing papers, etc.). You’re never 100% sure which website is accurate, what forms are required, whether original documents are needed or just photocopies, and presenting more than required seems to be greeted with derision! However, we’ve got there now – all Residency Permits are approved, my Driving Licence has been received and we’re good to go!

The piece I’ve personally found hardest is dealing with officials, who are as helpful as you would expect from civil servants in any country, but since many are women and also wearing a hijab of some sort, my ability to lipread has been hampered and so conversation is stilted and limited to me head bowing, apologising and repeating shukran (thank you) over and over again. Accents in general are a challenge, whether Indian, Pakistani, African or Filipino, but I’m sure I’ll get there.

Finding the green

MIA ParkWe’ve managed to find some respite from the dust and sand and endless construction sites. Aspire Park and MIA Park have been located and provide the green, however artificial it may be, that we need. I’m not sure I ever realised quite how dependent I was on the clean air and open spaces of Ireland. Give me grass, some water and tranquility and my soul breathes deeply. MIA Park, in particular, will be a spot we will come to relish over the coming years. I haven’t quite picked out our favourite picnic spot yet, but it’s coming!

Next stop – real life

Now real life begins. We’ve been on holiday mode until now. The kids have been off school and I haven’t been working. That all changes this coming week. We’ll start with the 5:30am starts for a 7:30am school day. The girls will start making new friends and joining new activities. We’ll figure out childcare for Alex and I’ll start preparation for work in April (if it happens – paperwork still ongoing for that one).

This is where we need to start getting a genuine routine in place. Finding meals to cook that work for the heat. Creating school lunches where ham and cheese isn’t an option. Adjusting to a world where weekends are different simply by starting on a Friday!

I’d love to hear tips from other expats or you creative folk at home. Activities for home evenings appreciated? Tips for lunchboxes in the heat? Quick and easy meals that stop us visiting the malls for all dinners.

@sineadorourke

 

 

Bye bye, bye bye, bye bye… the Irish long goodbye

Anyone who has ever tried to end a phone call with an Irish loved one will know this closing salutation, usually echoed by your counterpart at the other end: “Bye bye, bye bye, bye bye…” (repeat until hanging up). It demonstrates clearly the Irish reluctance to end a connection, to close a conversation, to say goodbye.

Image result for bye bye bye irish

And so it is when one of us is departing to foreign shores. Ireland has a long tradition of emigration and departure – our diaspora are scattered to the furthest corners of the Earth – but it’s still hard to let go of the homeland. It’s harder yet for those left behind to say that final farewell.

I’m experiencing this now. Final meetings with friends and family are never described as such and so I find myself scheduling a further catch up, chat, lunch, tea, coffee, get together. There are leaving parties and goodbyes before final days in school, creche, work. An excuse to postpone the inevitable tough reality of the pain of goodbye.

Last night was one such goodbye night.

A catch up with my two closest friends, to be repeated again tomorrow night, over probably our worst meal out in years but with satisfying accompanying hilarious critique.

The night ended with a session in the Oliver St John Gogarty pub in Temple Bar, frequented only by tourists, stag parties and maudlin potential Irish expats and their friends (no other Irish people would pay €11 for a spirit and mixer!).

The trip to the (in)famous drinking house allowed me to sing Black Velvet Band, Whiskey in the Jar and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For at the top of my voice alongside the Brits, Canadians, Spanish and Peaky Blinders wannabes.

Because I know those songs will become different when sung on foreign soil, in Irish bars where the antiques are made in China and even the Guinness isn’t real. These songs will become layered with longing and loss.

When my dear friend Catherine played a request for her friend who was emigrating, the long goodbyes and my willing participation in dragging them out suddenly made sense.

I’m not just an expat, I’m an emigrant. I’m joining the diaspora. And it’s hard to say goodbye.