As an introduction to Expatriate Life I have decided to start with an essay I wrote when we first arrived in 2005. Many things have changed since then but the essence of living here is the same. The Asian games have been and gone with with much acclaim. Qatar is bidding for the World Cup in 2022 and the Tribecca Film Festival has came to Doha last year to name a few of the changes. The city has grown exponentially with the construction of new buildings and in regard to population (expatriate). Due to this growth, many round abouts have become lights to regulate traffic better. You are no longer whole hand printed with ink in order to obtain a residency permit. And at an attempt to make driving safer, many laws have been implemented including not allowing children under the age of 12 to ride in the front seat. The ability to network has also grown. This has been particularly useful when trying to become an entrepreneur.
Here is the original essay…
What a long strange trip it has been… Many of you have asked about our life here in Doha. Hopefully this will serve to give you some insight to life in our corner of the world. My son and I arrived after almost 24 hours of travel. I thought our whole trip was doomed after being delayed at the ticket counter by a woman who was having a bad day. We were further delayed as my son had to be deselected from a random security screen. I was quite the sight pushing three carry ons all strapped together with one hand, the car seat strapped to my back in a large backpack and pushing a stroller in the other hand. The luggage dolly I bought was a great idea until I had to take it all apart at security only to not be able to get all three pieces to stay attached. Every other minute the carry ons were flying off. Needless to say, one golf cart ride to the gate and a literal trip down the walkway and we were off. My son did very well during almost 20 hours of travel. We arrived to a pleasant warm evening and my husband’s smiling face. The nanny was smiles and my son went to her immediately, thankfully! This is the second time my husband has preceded me in a move and set up “house” in advance. It is very helpful indeed to arrive to a clean bed and a functional household.
Our villa is centrally located and as my husband told me, we would be swimming in it compared to our prior living spaces. Villa sounds much too glamorous and while some villas are luxurious, the term is meant to imply a house. Some are free standing, some in compounds some attached to others. Ours is in a row of four villas, and has a shared swimming pool.Sadly, the pool is only intermittently clean enough to swim in. Our nanny, Mary is Indian and has worked as a nanny for 30 years. In addition to watching our son, she cooks, cleans, washes, irons, and makes our lunches at 6 am (so they will be fresh!). What a luxury to have not only ironed sheets but, pajamas as well! A final word on having a nanny overseas, it took awhile getting used to being catered to, being called: Sir and Madame and having someone live with you.
The first few weeks seemed a blur. They were filled with gaining residency, transferring driver’s licenses, and getting acquainted with a new job and environment. The residency process here is most interesting. Like all other processes here, only the locals seem to know the procedure. In order to obtain residency, you must have tests for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis along with a chest X-ray (to exclude tuberculosis). If you have any of the above, you will not be granted residency into the country. The tests require waiting in four different lines with many women trying to “line jump”. The whole process was most amusing and only mildly annoying. After medical clearance, you prints taken of your whole hand; yes, the whole hand. Thankfully, my husband’s company, like most companies employing expatriates has a hired public relations officer (P.R.O.) who was there to assist with the whole procedure. And now, we are all officially residents of Qatar.
Driving here gives the experience a new meaning. The first five weeks I didn’t drive and had the luxury of being transported by the hospital’s employed drivers. Initially, it was easy and welcome. Later it became a burden as you could wait for the driver for long periods. Now, the hospital has supplied me with a car and I can zip around town with ease. At first, it felt like we were always driving in circles because well, we were. There is a huge median strip down every road that you cannot cross. So you either need to take continual rights to get to and from where you are going or do u-turns at the roundabouts. The town is almost exclusively roundabouts. I don’t feel as daunted about the roundabouts particularly as I have had the experience of driving them while visiting New Zealand.
So far, my account may make it sound as if I don’t like it here. This is not the case. Life here is quite easy, simple, and safe! (Did I say safe, aside from the drivers!) The nanny leaves us with not a thing to do at home except enjoy the company of ourselves, pure bliss especially as our son is in a delightful stage. Contrary to what you might think about the Middle East, Qatar is safe and even more so than the US. A murder is rare and will be in the news for weeks. Child abductions almost never happen. The country is very family oriented and kid friendly. On more than one occasion, a Qatari has been delighted by Liam, walked over, picked him up and kissed his forehead. Here it is benign. In the states; we would be alarmed over such an incident. The majority of the country (70%) is expats. These expats herald from all over the world including: India, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Britain, Africa, NZ, Australia and the USA. The western expats are extremely friendly and tight nit. It has been very easy making acquaintances. My husband’s colleagues are largely young married couples with kids. I have befriended a female IVF doctor. She has an interesting background as do most of the expats, leaving me to feel a bit bland! She is Tunisian born; Belgian trained and most recently worked in Saudi. She and I started the same day and were jointly laughing at the hospital’s disorganization. Through her and my husband’s colleagues, we have started to meet many others. This networking and socializing is one aspect that is quite exciting and perhaps was missing while we were in Chicago. (This is not to say we don’t miss our Chicago friends!) Most social outings are private parties at homes. There are a good number of restaurants and bars. Only the hotels have bars that serve alcohol. Buying alcohol for consumption in your home requires a “license”. It is merely a technicality that requires a letter from your employer and a deposit of a couple hundred dollars. The limit is 10% of your salary per month in spending. This is more than enough to keep us inebriated for days on end if we desire.
For those of you that don’t know, the expatriate package comes with some nice benefits. Most positions come with a relocation/furniture allowance, a housing allowance, a car allowance, cell phone allowance, travel back to your country once a year paid, private schooling for your children, three-four week bonuses for every year worked, healthy vacation time (Kerry has 4 weeks, and with my current job I have 50 days) etc. We are thankful to have a housing allowance as rental costs have increased greatly (300-500%) in the last 5 years. Lastly, hired help is inexpensive.
As far as work, I accepted a three month locums (temporary) position with Hamad Hospital working in their primary outpatient health centers. This is the public hospital that is free to the locals and nearly free to expat residents. This has been a most interesting experience. I could fill pages with the whole experience. I won’t. Just be grateful with the care you have in the USA. To summarize, the organization is very disorganized which can comes across as rude if you are the employed physician. In any other circumstance, I would not have accepted the job. However, there are many aspects I have enjoyed. The hours are great 7-2. The other docs and staff are extremely friendly. And as a nice bonus, there are “tea boys” who water the doctors with tea and coffee throughout the day. Several of the medical directors of the outpatient clinics are really great female physicians! It has also been fun to learn yet another language. At the time of writing, I have been offered a position with Qatar Petroleum in their primary health centers and will more than likely change jobs once my son and I return from our trip back to the states in September. Currently, we are considering continuing west after the U.S.A to stop off in New Zealand for a couple of weeks as a surprise visit to the other grandparents. Heaven help me, an around the world trip with an 18 month old.
As far as the other aspects of Doha life, the city is quite small, smaller than Columbus, OH. There is decent shopping with some of the stores familiar to us; Gap, Banana Republic, and Furla to name a few. There are also high end stores: Gucci, Prada, etc. I have found almost all of the makeup products I use from Bobbi Brown, to Lancome, to Clinique, and even Laura Mercier. Some of the products are anywhere from slightly more expensive to 50% more. There is an abundance of baby products, particularly clothes. However, the American brands are steep! Our $70 Graco car seat retails for $180 here! And, some convenience items liked curved spoons and forks for toddlers learning to self feed are non-existent. Also lacking is a huge selection of fiction books, magazines, and salon quality hair products. The magazines that are available are pricey $8-9 dollars for “People” and “Parents” both! If you entertain an international move, buy your favorite magazine subscriptions a couple months before you leave the US as they will ship the remainder of the subscription internationally for no additional charge.
The expat mom’s group is 200 strong. The group provides information about events for parents and children via a monthly newsletter. The country is also athletically oriented and has a Sports academy, Aspire which makes available many classes. For my son there is a fabulous mother and child “gym class” that is free! Sadly like most clubs and activities, there is a break for the summer when many expat wives take their kids back to their respective countries to escape the heat. The Asian games, Asia’s answer to the Olympics, are being held in Doha in 2006. There is also an ice skating ring in one of the mall’s.
In general, Doha is small but there is enough to do. Even more exciting are the surrounding areas we will get to explore. Locally, there are the sand dunes and the inland sea. Nearby there is Oman for the beaches, mountains, and diving as well as Dubai for the ultimate shopping experience and nightlife.
Speaking of heat… Yes, it is hot, over a hundred degrees most days. Temperatures can reach 125 F. Thankfully, it is only humid for a couple of months of the year: July and Aug. About 5:30 PM in the summer, we can take Liam out for a walk on the Corniche which runs along the waterfront.
The villas do not get as hot as you would imagine as they are well constructed against the heat. For awhile, we were using ice cubes to cool Liam’s bath. The cold water tank is on the outside of the house while the hot water tank is inside. By the end of the day from spring to fall, the cold water is really hot! During these months, we turn the hot water tank off and use “hot” water for cold! The metal portions of the car seat straps can get extremely hot as well. But, the locals need not worry as there are no car seat laws. More than once, I have seen a local driving with his child sitting on his lap.
Now an update on our son! He has really flourished here. He went from a feeding challenge to eating just about everything including the nanny’s spicy curries! We managed to wean him off bottle and formula in about 2 days. He has also become very verbal. At 16 mos, he is approaching 50 words. He just started running and has not stopped since!
One other obvious difference of Arab life is their dress. The niqab (the veil which covers a woman’s face), I feel enhances a woman’s looks more than it does to hide beauty. The eyes can be one of the most sensual parts of the body. Additionally, there is a call to prayer 6 times per day. During these times, the doctors will disappear to pray while the patients wait. At first, the call to prayer would wake us from our sleep. Now it goes unnoticed and is for the most part drowned out by the A/C. The language is quite beautiful. There are certain phrases that you will hear repeatedly: “Inshallah” for God willing, Mafi Meeshkeela for No worries, and Al Humdulela for Thank God. You will often time here, Inshallah Bukra Mafi Meeshkeela (god willing tomorrow no worries). Obviously this phrase is not so reassuring when you are trying to make something happen! I spent a long time writing and editing this and fear I have left off so many things. Hopefully you have enjoyed the look into life in Doha.