Friday, January 20, 2012

Doha Diaries: Days 74-76, THE FOG, Brunch, and...Worst. Directions. Ever.

[Day 74] Wednesday, January 11th, Rooftop Vista and THE FOG!

At work, I headed up to the roof of the building where I work and took some pictures today.  The first one shows the land of villas, where people are forced to live and work in buildings so short that you can count the number of floors on one hand; madness!

Here is a 3-shot panorama of the bay.

This picture shows the pyramid-esque Sheraton hotel, where the Corniche starts.

Google Maps calls the island in this shot Old Palm Trees Island., but I think it's just supposed to be "Tree".  Strangely, Old Palm Tree Island has no palm trees, of any age.  The "Old" designation is because there is a new Palm Tree Island.  I think the couple of trees on the island are actually Sidra trees, but I am not sure.

And in this picture, is the section that juts out into the water with a restaurant (great ambiance, but very mediocre food; that said, with nice weather, being able to sit right on the edge of the water and eat was a great experience).  Here is a close-up, where you can barely make out the Minoryx, which currently marks the halfway point for my runs.

Later in the day, we saw a huge fog bank roll into Doha.  On the walk back from work, I saw something fascinating.  Some of the mirrored buildings combined their reflections and the fog to create an awesome (yes, as in awe) sight that looked almost like some otherworldly entity floating in the air (for my friends that play World of Warcraft, think Naaru).

This picture does not do it justice.  It was incredible.  Let's try zooming on the picture...

A little better, but still nothing like it looked.  The picture does not catch the soft, subtle reflections in the fog that really made it look magical.  You had to be there.  It was amazing.

During my run, the fog was really thick, but patchy, so you had things like the picture below, where it's pretty much crystal clear...right up to the point that the fog swallows the rest of the view.

[Day 75] Thursday, January 12th, Back to Johnny Rockets

My colleagues and I went back to Johnny Rockets for lunch.  I haven't mentioned this in the blog yet, because I lacked pictures, but now I have some!

So, last Saturday, we were cruising around doing various errands, you know, the usual, booze and computer monitors.  I had the bright idea to get lunch, burgers and shakes entered the discussion, and I recalled a place called Johnny Rockets, that I had seen on a web site of Doha restaurants.

We agreed to go there for lunch.

I dialed the restaurant for directions.

Me: Um, there are aren't enough numbers in this phone number.
Bob: Just add a "4" at the start.
Me: OK.
Phone: <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop>
Me: Hello, can I get directions to your restaurant?
Guy at JR: Yes boss, we are at the Ramada Junction.
Me: OK, is it easy to see your restaurant from the junction?
Guy at JR: Yes boss.

* - it's an intersection with a Ramada hotel; many names here are boringly pragmatic)

To the Ramada Junction!  Driving, driving,, where the heck is it?

Phone: <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop>
Me: Hello, we can't seem to find your restaurant.  Is it on the corner with the Ramada or another corner?
Guy at JR: It's behind the Dairy Queen.
Me: Oh, we know where that is, thanks!
Guy at JR: Yes boss.

To the Dairy Queen!  Or, rather, behind it.

The Dairy Queen is a very prominent feature as it is right at the intersection, commanding most of the real estate of one corner.  We head over there.  The only thing behind Dairy Queen is a lot of parking and the Ramada Hotel.

Phone: <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop> <beep> <boop>
Me: Hello, we are at Dairy Queen and we cannot find your restaurant.  Can you give us some more landmarks?  Is it really *at* the intersection?
Guy at JR: Yes boss.
Me: OK, is it on the corner with the Dairy Queen, the corner with the Pizza Hut...
Guy at JR: Pizza Hut, on the street from there, next to the car dealer.
Me: OK, so when you said it was behind the Dairy Queen, you meant it's nowhere near the Dairy Queen and up the road from a different corner?
Guy at JR: Yes boss.

So, where was it?  Let me show you.

Armed with the information about the correct corner, we drove down the length of the stores and we drove right in front of it and *still* almost missed it.  Here's why:

Yes, that's right, those three panes of glass are the store front, maybe 30 feet (10 m) across and that bit on the left is the building projecting out quite a bit, blocking the view of this tiny storefront.  And yes, the sign is *inside* the restaurant, hidden by the reflections off the glass, *and* it's only in Arabic.

It's a bloody miracle we found it.  But it was a weekend and it was worth the trip.  This is one of the few restaurants in Doha that actually met my expectations.  The only tip I have for you is to ask for extra chocolate in the chocolate milk shake, they have a bit of a light pour with the syrup.

Oh, and the tiny restaurant also had this comically skinny bathroom, where the doorknob clears the sink by about an inch (2.5 cm).

[Day 76] Friday, January 13th, Brunch!

What better way to spend a weekend day than eating and drinking?  Today started late...because last night ended late, but not so late that I couldn't make it to brunch with some friends.

How do I describe the brunch culture here? Well, it's hard to draw an analogy. The work week here is Sun-Thu, so Friday is our "Saturday", but at the same's also the day of worship (interestingly, for both Muslims and most Christians, since Sunday is a work day). So, Friday brunch is a combination of "well, church is over, let's all go hang out and eat!" and "woo hoo! I don't have to work tomorrow, so let's get our drink on, yo!"  Of course, the expatriates bring more of the latter than the locals. :-D

Oryx Rotana was the place where we ate.  It had a very open interior, here are a couple of pictures from inside.

It was a great brunch.  I opted for the brunch with alcohol for about US$70.  That included as much red wine (Shiraz), white wine (Chardonnay), champagne, and beer (Tiger) as you could drink, albeit there was only one choice for each.  The buffet was not as big as I expected, but it had a great deal of tasty seafood choices.  A great way to spend the morning...and afternoon.  We stayed there for like 4 hours eating, drinking, and chatting.  It was more interesting because there was a native Qatari among our small group, which was cool.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Doha Diaries: Days 71-73, High Wire Act, McDonald's, and Nervous Eggs

[Day 71] Sunday, January 8th, High Wire Act

After getting some stuff sorted out with the apartment, I headed over to the mall to get some lunch.  As I was walking there, I was dumbfounded to find that it was raining on a particular stretch of the path; a section about 30-40 meters long.  I was pretty sure it wasn't natural.  I looked up and saw the following:

If you're not sure, yes, those are people...hanging from cables, cleaning the building.  Here's a close-up (click on it to see a bigger version).

As far as I can tell, they are all being suspended from that one pulley system and there are no backups.  Foolhardy?  Desperate?  Probably a bit of both.  Either way...damn there's got to be better ways to make a living.  Perhaps by inventing a contraption for window cleaning... :-P

Later that day, I finally tried out a local McDonald's the one in the City Center Mall.

I had a Big Mac and fries.  They were...similar to what you get in the USA.  As I have in other posts, I would describe the flavor as "adjacent" to what you expect.  It's like it, definitely reminiscent of it, but slightly out of phase...

After such a healthy meal, I decided to pick up some ice cream at Carrefour, since I now have an apartment and can store such things.  Hooray!

My colleagues and friends here have complained that their perishable groceries seem to perish faster here, especially the dairy. I think I found the problem...they have made the (apparently) unreasonable assumption that the freezers in Carrefour approach anything resembling freezing.  Case in point, I bought my ice cream, walked the ten minutes home (it was about 60-65 F, 15-18 C) and the ice cream was pretty much like soup...

[Day 72] Monday, January 9th, RunKeeper Win!

So, with the crappy gym here, my options are more limited and I am inspired to run more frequently for my cardio days.  Well, this was run #3 here in Doha, and this time I didn't screw up using RunKeeper, so I had some pace data.  I managed to chop 33 seconds off of my average pace from run #1, which was pretty nice.  I am not sure how much more I can reduce that, but at least I will have a beautiful view while I try (well, for about 60% of the run).

[Day 73] Tuesday, January 10th, You Know That Humidity They Mentioned...

So, today, I once again walked to work and, as normal, I tossed some snacks in my bag.  Does this egg look nervous to you?

Wow, that egg is sweating like a <insert offensive joke here>.  Nah, it's just the crazy humidity and the fact that the egg was in the refrigerator before I left. Still...this egg was *inside* my bag and the walk only take 20 minutes.  Not to mention, my shirt was a bit damper than usual.

My colleagues and friends here tell me that the humidity gets pretty crazy here because it's a coastal town.  For me, that was surprising since this is a desert and, even though I comprehend the rational argument that sea + heat = moist air, on an emotional level the idea of a humid place in a desert is hard to fathom.  It's not anymore.  So, I have a better sense of what folks mean when they describe steam bath conditions here.  Yikes!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Doha Diaries: Days 66-70, An Apartment, The "Perfect" Margarita, and The Fearsome Minoryx!

[Day 66] January 3rd, Tuesday, Hi Ho, Hi Ho...

It's off to work I go.  Back at work.  Actually eager to get back to work and equally eager to sort out my expenses and get reimbursed. :-D

[Day 67] January 4th, A Disturbance in the Force

I hopped on the rowing machine again today and managed to push up my distance a bit, but, for the most part, about the same as my last time.

I walked to and from work today, and en route, snapped a picture of another interesting-looking building.

I finally moved into one of the corporate apartments that my company has at the Al Rabban tower today.  Here is a very poor quality video of the experience.

My primary motivation for moving in was because of the wasted money paying for a hotel.  If you recall from my prior blog post, Doha Diaries: Days 23-28 , Exercise, Apartments, Turkey, Orchestra!, I had reservations about moving into this place primarily because of the gym facilities.  Well, now that I only have four weeks left before my assignment ends, so if my routine has to be dialed down to "maintenance", I think that is manageable.

Of course, when I moved from a hotel to an apartment, I suddenly needed some extra things.  Even though the provide pans, dishes, linens, etc.  Here is my list of things you might need if you make the same move:
  • TOILET PAPER - Imagine remembering this when it is too late...that would be crappy
  • Bar soap, if you don’t already have some with you
  • Dish soap & sponge
  • Laundry Detergent
  • Laundry Softener
  • Bottled water
  • General purpose cleaner/disinfectant (unless you are planning on paying for cleaning)
  • Shampoo/conditioner, if you don’t already have some with you
  • Trash bags – I just use my old grocery bags
  • Snack foods
  • Breakfast food - Oh how I wish there was a diner, Denny's, IHOP, etc. nearby.
  • Kit Kat Chunky Bar [How did that get in there?]
Also, if you are planning on hosting...

  • Drinks for guests - sodas, tea, beer, wine, etc. - for sodas, I just grabbed two each of a few of the big names; I am not going to pack up cases of soda in four weeks...
  • Hand soap (and perhaps hand moisturizer) for the guest bathrooms
  • Snacks for guests (in case, like me, your usual snacks tend to be limited and healthier than the average person wants)
Some immediate observations about the apartment.  Aside from the bidet in two of the three bathrooms, which seems to be the norm here for well-appointed bathrooms (you probably don't want to see a picture of the ones where you squat and use a hose afterwards).

1. Virtually no bathroom storage space - the ledge you see in above the sink.  That's it; in every bathroom.  No counters.  No cupboards.  My toiletries pretty much spill over the edges; oh well, I will have to be careful.

2. Wifi only exists in the living room - because of the thick (concrete?) walls and the router being located in the living room, that is where you will get wifi, period.  Do NOT expect to get it anywhere else.

3. Only the living room and master bedroom can have internet access, and the living room only has a cable port so 1) provide a long cable if you want to use the office desk to work and 2) provide your own wifi router if you want wifi.

4. Funky washer/dryer combo...with no manual...I have this I Love Lucy scene in my head with me slipping and sliding on a sea of soap bubbles pouring out of my washer...manual requested.

5. TINY closets.  I am not kidding here.  Half of the closest are shelf/drawer space.  So, you actually end up with about the same closet space as a hotel, maybe even slightly less.

6. SHALLOW closets.  The doors rub significantly against your hanging clothes when you open and close them.  In fact, you have to be careful where you hang your suits, lest your sleeves get mashed in the door when it closes.

7. No outlets in the bathroom - This is something I have come to expect from the hotels, but I thought that in an apartment there would be one.  Is it the cost?  The safety risk?  Oh well, on the plus side, I don't have a hair dryer since I usually rely on the hotel to provide that, so I have nothing I need to plug in there... :-P

8. The regular spatula is stainless steel, but the skillet is a non-stick surface...this will not end well for the skillet.

9. You can faintly hear the "call to prayer" through the windows...hopefully the early morning ones will not wake me up...if you are not familiar with this, here is a sample of the times that the interwebs tells me for today for Doha - 4:58 AM, 6:20 AM, 11:40 AM, 2:40 PM, 5:00 PM, 6:30 PM.  There is supposed to be a preliminary call to muster folks for prayer, then one to tell them to line up for said prayer.  I am not sure if the former comes even earlier.  I just know that it is a lot of praying and a lot of some guy saying stuff on a loudspeaker that you hear whether you want to or not.

10. The gym is worse than I thought.  It turns out that the free weights are the cheap ones from Technogym.  The handles as skinny, slick, and they rotate.  On the plus side, they may build up my forearms even more, which I did not need.  On the negative side, sometime in my near future, I may accidentally launch a free weight across the room into someone or something.

[Day 68] January 5th, TGIT!  Back to the Scene of the Crime...

At work, I spotted this strange, green, caffeinated beverage...

A couple of colleagues and I went to the Irish Harp, the Irish pub in the basement of the Sheraton hotel.  This time around, they gave us some crap about buying a 60 QAR (~$17) membership.  The cost was not a big deal, but the annoyance was, so as we were calling our friends to tell them we would rather go somewhere else, they decided to let us in without it...this time.  Not sure it's worth the hassle to come back, as I am not going to carry around a wallet full of bar memberships.

OK, so we get in there and I decide to roll the dice and get some food, as this is the place that gave me food poisoning during my first week in Doha.  I had the steak and kidney pie.  It was not bad.  I made a mistake and ordered Guinness, my least favorite beer, and this killed my desire to drink anymore.  That, and the possibility that I would be called later to meet some ladies...or perhaps I would get food poisoning again and I'd rather be well hydrated if that happened.  So, I stuck with water for the rest of the evening.

[Day 69] Friday, January 8th, Minoryx! Salsa!

I started the day out with another run.  I was determined to cut at least 30 seconds off my average pace and I was well on my way.  I ran from the Al Rabban down to the Corniche and then along the Corniche to what I call "the Minoryx" - a freakish half man, half oryx mascot of some games (the past Asian Games or the future Olympic bid? Not sure).

Then I realized that I had paused RunKeeper while trying to modify the audio cues...while much for that route record.  Sigh.  Next time!

My clothes still go unwashed as I have not yet received a manual for the demonic washing beast in my kitchen.

THREE containers for detergent and stuff!  So many dials and pictographs!  Ahhhh!  I will defeat you, soon as I have a manual.

Well, in my quest to exhaust all Tex Mex options here, I dragged some friends out to the (old) Marriott (near the airport) to go to Salsa, a self-described Mexican restaurant.

I started out by ordering "the perfect margarita".

It did not taste perfect, and, like most hotel drinks was absurdly expensive, (~$20).  However, I have to hand it to them on potency - I felt that margarita more than any margarita I have had in the USA.

We all ordered canonical food, chile con queso (appetizer), burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas.

[Left to right: Me, Eric, Bob, Jeff]

The food was not bad, but the general consensus was twofold - 1) fajitas are the smartest choice, because it's hard to mess up grilling some meat and 2) Salsa was probably not worth a return visit in terms of their food.

Now, that is only part of the experience.  Like I said, the food was not bad.  The ambience was quite cute, in a "this is how I imagine Mexican/Texan restaurants to be" sort of way.  The staff's Mexican garb, the singing and obligatory Sombrero picture for the birthday boy/girl, and the potent drinks make this a decent choice for a group outing.  So, for a large group gathering, especially when someone else is paying (hint: your company), it might actually be a good choice, but I recommend the fajitas. :-)

They had a live band, which was interesting.  About half or more of the songs were just random songs.  It was not significantly Mexican/Tejano-themed music, especially the instrumental flute and guitar rendition of Genesis (I can't remember the song now).  However, I give them props for 50% of the band being very cute and dancing well.  Hint: it's the half that is smiling.

After diner, my Xbox forced Eric to play Gears of War for hours.  The poor abused.

[Day 70] Saturday, January 7th, Back to the Qatar Distribution Company

A few weeks ago, a lady friend suggested tequila shots and I, a Texan, had to admit, with embarrassment, that I neglected to pick up tequila when I went to QDC.  Well, today I was able to wash away the shame and correct that.  I also filled out my BEvERage selection for guests.

You see...currently, beer is my last choice for alcoholic beverage; I don't dislike it, I just prefer liquors, mixed drinks, and wine.  But many of my colleagues like a beer, so I picked up a dozen light (Stella Artois) and a dozen dark (Franziskaner  Weissbier).  Now, my refrigerator has a serious bachelor look to it.

You'll be relieved to know that I finally had a chance to correct my error of omission and pick up some Patron tequila and Jack Daniels whiskey.  now I have all of the usual suspects for common mixed drinks.

 And the cashews, pistachios, and almonds make it healthy, right?

Now to find shot glasses...

Ninety minutes later our hero returns with no shot glasses.  Hmm,well, this will be more challenging than I though.  Of course, what I REALLY want are souvenir shot glasses with "Qatar" emblazoned on them. :-D

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Doha Diaries: Days 60-65, Red Bull, Katara Cultural Village, Sleeping In!

[Day 60] December 28th, Wednesday, Doha Gives You Wings?

I am getting into serious vacation mode...time flies, I do very little but relax.  I am cool with that.  While waiting for the elevator, I spot something that I did not expect to see...a Red Bull car.

[Day 61] December 29th, Thursday, Katara Cultural Village

At breakfast, I was exposed to a new local dish...

Yes, that placard reads "Foul Madames.  However, it appears the actual name is Ful Medames, or just Ful (pronounced more or less like "full").  It is a slow-cooked fava bean dish.  I was told it was a regional delicacy, but my quickie research suggests it is Egyptian in origin.

You can add garlic, tomato, onion, and...something else I forgot.  Finally, some lemon juice and oil.

It was interesting, but I won't be craving it any time in the near future.

Later that morning, I walked out to the Katara Cultural Village.  It was a good 3+ mile walk, but the weather was so amazing that it was quite pleasant.  After some wandering, I stopped at L'wzaar, a seafood restaurant/market (more restaurant than market).  I was amazed at the stuff they brought to every table, it sure beat a bowl of chips and some salsa.

I opted for scallops and stir fried vegetables.  They were OK, but somewhat bland.  Oh well, can't win 'em all.  Onward to the amphitheater!

I was really taken aback by the statue at the amphitheater, so here are a lot of pictures...

And there ya go.  I left prematurely in response to a call from Ed Brothers.  He and his family were back from Austria and it was time to catch up while he ran some errands.

Fortunately for me, this also included a tour of some parts of Education City, to include the super swanky student center and the well-appointed recreation center.  Nice stuff, these kids have it pretty good.

From there, we went to get some Karak, a tea drink that is described as the closest thing to a national everage Qatar has.  Basically, it's tea with a healthy amount of sugar cubes, evaporated milk, cardamom, and possibly some other spices.   It was good stuff.

Good fortune continued to smile on me this day and I was invited to a dinner party with Ed and Nicole's friends and it was...TEX MEX!  Made-from-scratch guacamole, salsa, enchiladas, etc.  It was great food and great company.  Thanks to Raymond and Anna for graciously allowing me into their home and to crash their party.

[Day 62] December 30th, Friday, Chillin' and Rowin'

One nice feature of the new hotel is that they have a pair of Concept 2 rowing machines.  I had tried them out once last weekend, so this was my second workout on them.  Here's a post-workout picture.  Notice in the background the expansiveness of the gym and that's only about 50% of the gym; there is also a section with dumb bells, a section with bar bells, and a section with weight machines.

Aside from that, I did very much of nothing today.

[Day 63] December 31st, Saturday, More Chillin'

More of nothing today.

[Day 64] January 1st, Sunday, More Than a Full Night's Sleep?

By some miracle, I was able to sleep more than 6-7 hours last night; I think it has been well over a year since I was able to do that.  I think my body has finally accepted that I am on vacation.  Aside from some sunbathing...a whole lot of nothing today.

[Day 65] January 2nd, Monday, More Than a Full Night's Sleep?

And again, I was able to sleep in.  Of course, tomorrow I return to work.  I am actually ready for that.  Sleeping in is nice, as is the state of relaxation I have reached, but I really want to get back to work and tackle the work I need to do.