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

80 Days in Qatar – Learnings, Part 1. Culture Shock.

Ok. I’m going to ask you to do something.

Close your eyes. Imagine arriving into a strange country. It’s filled with a sticky warm air that you normally associate with holiday, not home. You are enveloped in new noises, smells, senses. Your nerves are at jangling point as you pass through immigration, getting the stamp that says you’re not a regular holiday maker but someone who might be staying here.

People from every corner of the globe are squeezed into a chaotic airport arrivals lounge. There are tears and laughter as people come and go. Trollies laden down with cases pass by. You see chubby toddler legs chasing his sisters’ into the open arms of daddy. Reunited, four months later.

Somewhere new is home. This is home. This alien environment. This city. Doha. A place that two years ago, you would have struggled to pinpoint on a map.

Driving home, wherever that now is, the horizon is filled with the spectacle of skyscrapers climbing to new heights. The sea is decorated with boats ablaze with dancing fairy lights and pumping out bass notes across the water. The roads are… well, that’s a whole separate blog post… suffice it for now to use the word “shit-scary”. And your husband, has learned a whole new set of driving skills with blue language to boot.

There is a perfume in the air of your new compound as you pull up. It’s quiet and empty now – your neighbours have not all yet moved in – so feral cats provide the only life you see as you unpack your lives through the door. Welcome home.

The culture shock is real. The people are different. Languages are different. It is hard to do things that would have been easy at home; harder and more frustrating yet with a hearing loss (yup, that’s a smallest violin moment!). The school system is different. Gone is the Educate Together informality, replaced with British School academic rigor and excellence. Life begins earlier; 5:30am alarm calls are no longer saved for early morning travel or special occasions.

And it’s dusty, so so dusty. The air is sandy and any greenery is maintained through careful irrigation, either piped or manual. The city is full of roadworks and building works. Roads that exist one day are gone the next. Buildings grow as if shaped out of the ground.

The heat, tolerable when you arrive, builds to a May crescendo, punctuated by the warnings of an imminent summer and the well-meaning threat that “you haven’t seen anything yet”.

However, some moments mark your first weeks. Punctuate the oddness with a feeling of home. The most consistent of these is the Adhan, or call to prayer, which echoes through the air five times daily, in the malls, on the radio, over the neighbourhoods. You hear it and feel at home. This is where I am. Even in the most commercial or crazy of environments, here is the sound of home. (Take a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe8qRj12OhY)

You stop feeling naked, no matter how well covered up you are, as you walk past the thawbs and abayas in the shops. You stop feeling self consciously different to the surroundings. You meet others in similar situations to you. The school has class mums, designed to answer silly questions like “What colour socks should I buy?” and gently help you to decipher the school system of multiple PE days, swimming days, library days, and recorder days.

You explore. You have your favourite restaurants. A routine at home. A house that has plants and pictures and life. Your life.

You discover blogs like “I Love Qatar” and start learning more about Arabic culture and a life that’s so vastly different to home.

You start to offer advice to newcomers. Your kids have playdates, away and at home. You cook your first roast dinner and can now list most of the city’s best day out options and some lovely options for food.

Only 80 days in, and this is feeling like home.

 

 

 

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

 

 

Qatar?

 

Two of the most common questions posed to me lately are: “Where exactly is Qatar?” and “So when are you heading to Dubai?”

The second is perhaps understandable given the first. (For the record, Dubai is not part of Qatar, but rather a city state within the United Arab Emirates, one of Qatar’s neighbours).

Few people would be able to pinpoint Qatar on a map — in February last year, faced with a need to make a rather important decision, I wasn’t either. So, first things first, here’s Qatar in a map of the Middle East.

Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai on Map.  Closer look at where Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai is on Map:  http://pinterest.com/pin/142707881913438836/:

As you can see, the only country with which it shares a land border is Saudi Arabia.

A closer look at Qatar reveals that its capital, Doha, our future home, is positioned much like Dublin on the East coast, but with a very different aspect of the Persian Gulf versus the grey stormy Irish Sea!

Image result for map qatar

This isn’t the place for a long, geography lesson, but some interesting points on Qatar from the CIA World Factbook:

  • Population: 2,258,283
  • Only 0.94% of the population is aged over 65 years.
  • The highest net migration rate in the world, at 18.2 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2016 est.)
  • Qatar has, since 2007, had the highest GDP in the world
  • Satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera was originally owned and financed by the Qatari government but has evolved to independent corporate status; Al-Jaze (2014)
  • Qatar, like Ireland, used to be part of the British empire, and gained independence on 3rd September 1971.

Qatar is a population primarily comprised of migrants from around the world. I thought this infographic, albeit a little dated, from Doha News gave an interesting insight into the country’s population composition.

Image result for infographic qatar population

 

This is the flag of Qatar.

The cuture

Given the relatively recent development of Qatar and growth in Doha, it’s not surprising that its main attractions are still maturing and gaining importance. However, these are three attractions that I am particularly looking forward to seeing.

The Museum of Islamic Art

@MIAQatar

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The picture at the top is one perspective on this amazing building, which I, for one, am looking forward to exploring in depth. My only experiences to date of Islamic architecture include the magnificent Mezquita de Córdoba and the Alcázar of Seville, all places that have left an indelible mark on my soul.

I can’t wait to learn more about the history of Islamic art and architecture over the past 1,400 years, and so this landmark building will be first on the family to-visit list.

Souq Waqif

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Anyone who has ever travelled with me will attest that I am a market nut. I will travel for miles to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling local market. My idea of heaven is walking through spice markets and taking in the sights of piles of dried fruits and pistachios.

Souq Waqif is already a favourite spot of Simon’s, and he tells tales of wandering through narrow streets, past cafés filled with patrons enjoying excellent coffee and shisha tobacco. I’m looking forward to joining him, and the multitudes of others, very soon.

The Corniche

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Simon has described many hours walking along the famed seafront in Doha called the Corniche. A small step away from the Dun Laoghaire or Bray promenades, perhaps, in terms of perspectives! In a city that hasn’t really been developed for pedestrians, this seems like a rare opportunity to take a long stroll, with beautiful views of twisting skyscrapers and the famous Doha boats called dhows on the water.

 

Photo credits (in order, from Flickr)

I do! Saying Yes to the new overseas address.

Makes it sound so simple right? Uttering a quick yes to a romantic proposal for #expatlife, following years of planning filled with shared imagery for the future and dreams of sun soaked days and toenail selfies by the exotic pool.

Not quite the reality that met me in early 2016. Let me rewind and perhaps offer some notes of learning for anyone who stumbles across this looking for help to make a similar decision.

Forward planning

Ok, confession time: forward planning is not my strong suit. Those who know me know that my head is full of dreams and meandering thoughts but these rarely involve long-term practical planning. I’m also loathe to change. Sure, I’m an INFP (more on that another day) and adore big beautiful ideas and exciting plans, but I like these to be happening to others, not me.

So it was that in early 2016, despite a great job in a global organisation that offered lots of opportunities to move overseas, the thought had never entered my head. The furthest I saw us moving was within a 20km radius into a lovely new house, surrounded by fields and where the biggest issue for the children was whether they could access an Educate Together school.

On the other hand, hubby was talking. A lot. Again. To overseas companies. Well, one in particular.

I say again because this often happened. We’d considered moving to Haiti (never happened) and he’d done an interview or two for a –stan country somewhere up toward the Urals. I now ignored this and blissfully house-hunted as he had interview after interview, uttering these now infamous words of warning: “You’ll probably be offered a job the day we put an offer in on a house.”

And that’s exactly what happened. House offer made; no Educate Together, but I was overlooking it. Job offer made; still no Educate Together, and where on Earth is Qatar?

Having the talk

It would be unfair to make it seem like the decision-making was all one way, but clearly some serious conversations were needed and quickly. It is almost (and I mean almost) hilarious how little time you seem to have to make these very big decisions when everything else afterward about setting up expat life seems to take an eternity.

So, these are the things to consider:

  • Family – your kids will always be fine, even if you first think you’re ruining their lives. Trust me on this. Don’t make the children the focus of your decision; they’ll be happy once they’re with their parents.
  • Family – your parents/siblings are another matter. There’s no way to gloss this over, as this is the tough bit. We were blessed as our family are all in good health, which does make this type of decision easier.
  • Schooling – so I said don’t worry about the kids, but actually, do worry about their schooling! Qatar, for instance, has a shortage of places in schools. Have a look and see whether there are any schools that match your ethos and expectations for your children’s education. See if you can chat to any other parents there already.
  • Contract details – look at the finer details, the whole package. How much is the school allowance? Does it cover fees in your preferred schools? How much of an allowance do you get to go home during the year? What about health insurance? How much annual leave do you get and will it allow you both a holiday and a trip home? How much is your housing allowance, if you have one, and does it cover the type of housing you’ll require?
  • Jobs – do you both need/want to work while overseas? I’m still in two minds on this one personally (my lack of proper planning obvious on this), but I suspect that might be more down to the toenail selfie opportunity issue.
  • Your relationship – this sounds obvious but it’s likely that someone will leave first. How will this affect your relationship? How will you deal with communicating at a distance? Also, let’s face it, moving house is already one of life’s biggest stresses. Doing this across continents just multiplies this. Make sure you’re both strong and committed or you’re setting yourselves up to fail.

Taking the step into the unknown

I won’t lie and say any of the above was easy, or that I took a logical approach to any of the questions above. I think I cried every time it was mentioned for the first week or so.

And then, having digested and started to think “possibility” instead of “change”, the conversations became less about whether and more about how we would move. Less about the fear and more about the practicality.

I’m honestly not sure, even now, whether we had a “Yes, this is it. We’re doing it” moment, and that was ok, especially for me. It allowed me to digest each change at a time and focus on each of the implications at a time. That moment when I got an email to say the contracts had been signed and sent wasn’t long in arriving.

We were about to embark on a new adventure and I was now ready and excited about what the future would bring.

I’m packing my toenail polish alongside my laptop and the nappy bag! Qatar calls and next month, after rather a lot of preparation and treading water, we’ll be calling it home.

Say Yes flickr photo by 4rilla shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license