Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Fun Day!

(yes, that man does look very freaked out in the background...)
Days off are few and far between here.

The Doha work week stretches from Saturday to Thursday, meaning Fridays are free days. Folks do get a three hour break in the middle of the day, which I suppose makes up for the one-day weekend. Only hey! Journalists don't! Because the news never sleeps, even if its writers try to get into bed at 10 (rarely happens). 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

These past couple days have been a'rushing and busy. We had dinner on Mr. Bilal's boat. Sitting around munching on nuts and bites of small talk, Mr. Bilal stood up around 9pm and announced there was a little 'snack' upstairs. The snack proved to be an amazing spread of around thirty dishes. Dinner ran until midnight. 

I had three plates and could've eaten more. See me there, in the left corner? Please notice I'm the only one who still has a plate. Oh yes. And that's other ABODE staff in their snazzy best. 

Friday arrived after several more interviews. Taking the day slow, I woke up at 6 and bounded off to the Sheraton for my morning jog-a-thon. I love running. In the company of two other crazy earlier morning'ers, I had probably one of the best runs yet. Great start to a great day! I keep trying to convince myself to run outside, but the 90-108 degree temp somehow keeps me indoors.  

I wandered around Carefourre for a bit trying to find contact solution for Kath (no luck) and groceries for me (always luck). Blissed out from running, I found myself narrating the story of every passerby, always circling back to one central theme: I love it here. The woman in the pink sari, the little girl running past shouting in german after her mom, the men jostling at the produce stand trying to find onions (what do they do with all those onions?!)... all of it. I hear french, arabic, italian, british english, accents heavy and rich with travels of the world. I wander through isles filled with food unfamiliar to me, hailing from regions as diverse as this population.

I love Doha. 

We brunched at the Ritz where my mouth found a new sanctuary. There's something to be said about a buffet where caviar,  champagne and fois gras are on the menu. Here's a shot or two of the interior. 

Kath and I retreated then to the private beach at the Sheraton, to melt and die in the 105 heat. It was so hot that people couldn't move- they just floated on rafts in the water, bobbing almost comically in the sun and gentle waves. Occasionally I'd dive in, swim, flop, swim, and then somehow find myself just laying across my own personal bobbing mat. 

So that was my weekend. Grocery stores, food, and beach. Now it's time to get back to work. Tonight I'm going to a salsa class to interview folks and try to get my gangly limbs moving in time. Funny, I know.

 I love writing. I love this job. I'm even starting to be amused by the crazy traffic and how people park on sidewalks, resulting in people walking on streets, resulting in even crazier traffic (look! Dodge that man! Don't stop or they all walk in front of your car!) 

Maybe I shouldn't be behind the wheel. Kath did test drive a saucy red built-for-street-racing car with a switch that made it go even faster. 

And I'm probably going to Germany to test drive another. I say, bring it on. Who needs two-day weekends when jobs are this amazing? 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

So this is culture shock

It didn't happen with a bang, a snap, or anything much of notice at all... but it happened. Somehow, between here and there, I've started to experience a bit of culture shock.

I walk down the street angry at the absence of females. I find myself marching ahead as though convinced that if I go long enough, cross that next corner and creep over that next bridge, I will find just a gaggle of girls my age. They'll be chatting casually and I will somehow find a way to introduce myself. Hello, Danae from America. Nice to meet you.

I walked an hour on Sunday. After working all day in the office, I was so desperate to move my legs that I couldn't even wait ten minutes for Kathleen to finish up. I texted her as the Doha heat caught me and I moved outside: I'm sorry, I said. I just have to get out. Go swim without me. 

But I didn't see any women.

People stare. That's bothering me too. People stare all the time. And by people, I mean men. And by stare, I mean they follow me aggressively with their eyes, studying me in a manner I just can't understand. Sexual? Surprised? Malicious? Genuinely interested? I don't know. I'm starting to feel like I never will.

So this is culture shock. I drove by Subway today on my way back from an interview and found myself craving a big ol' 'merican sandwich- only I don't like Subway. Or big ol' American sandwiches. I'm not consciously homesick, but somewhere my mind is registering that this place of sun and sand is very, very far from home.

Yet! Yet I want to say, yet again and again, that I'm so grateful to be here. In the pic above, I'm helping photograph recipes I wrote and prepared alongside Kath and Bryce. 

I know without a doubt that were Cambridge not around the corner, I would stay in a heartbeat. I love my job. I love the people I work with, and the kindness of the many individuals I meet. I love the excitement of Doha, the ocean, the food (my god... the food...) 

To amuse myself, I've compiled a list of lil Doha things that are just different:
  • People don't use napkins here. There are tissues. At nice restaurants, in the middle of tables, there are boxes of tissues. Makes me think of boogies. 
  • Only one day off, and that's Friday. Six day work week!
  • Books are impossible to find. When you do, they're horribly expensive
  • Several times a day, all radios tune in to Prayer Call, and Mosques have their own Prayer Calls. It's really amazing, driving down the street hearing all these different voices
  • I haven't seen a single pack of mustard
  • I found ketchup!
  • Everyone drinks carrot juice. Everywhere.
  • Everyone also drinks Nescafe. As in, insta-coffee. My tongue is sad.
  • Work days go 6-1, 4-7pm. Except for us journalists. We just go straight. 
  • Every bathroom has a lil bide, or a thing to wash yourself in a very intimate way after doing that one thing.

Well, there are more lil nuances that have happened but I can't quite remember. Tonight Kath and I are going to yoga (I finally succumbed to the QR 50, or $14 price tag) and then meeting up with some other expats at a cafe tonight. 

Life is amazing. The culture shock will wear off, and I'll be better for it. It was time this westward young woman broke out of her shell. 

Friday, June 19, 2009

Scary start, great ending

"You are the gold car, yes? Gold car with dent in bumper," said the man next to me with a slight, gee-isn't-it-funny smile. 

That's when I realized he had been following me for the last hour and a half. He had followed me into Carefour, a wal-mart style grocery store here in Doha packed with expats and locals. Somehow, he had trailed me around the store for the 90 minutes that I meandered, losing myself in the many foreign labels. I was oblivious. Sure, it was odd that he stood in front of the lettuce for three minutes, not moving, just -standing-, until I shrugged at him and walked past. It was also a bit peculiar that he took his spot behind me in line, wielding only a bag of grapes to my cart full.

"I help you carry out," he said. Roughly 50, with a heavy accent and a half-grin, he didn't seem unusual. As I've mentioned before, the men here stare. They stare a lot. I've gotten used to it/started to ignore it/am still struggling but hey, that's life.

"No, I'm fine," was my response. He argued, saying yes, yes, let me help you carry out. I shook my head, quickly collected my bags and hurried out of Carefour and into the mall proper. He caught up with me two minutes later. I heard his footsteps first, then he was grabbing my bag.

"I help you carry out." 

I stopped for a moment, turning to face him and firmly shaking my head. "No, I -am- fine." I grabbed at my sack. He wouldn't give it bag. 

"I help you, it's heavy. I help." 


We reached the escalator, descending towards the garage. He asked where I was from. I said America. The conversation died and then he mentioned my bumper. My bumper, dented from a hit-and-run that happened a couple nights ago while Kath and I were sleeping. 

That's when I started to freak out. In a moment of utter surprise, I turned to him. "How did you -know- that?" I demanded. He smiled and I pulled out my phone, calling Bryce, editor-in-chief and my unknowing hero.

Now Crazy and I were in the garage together, alone, surrounded by cars. I couldn't figure out where I parked. Crazy knew. He helped me. I talked to Bryce the whole time, chatting about eggplants, grocery stores, chatting as though this would-be-stalker hadn't just followed me a lot and then some more. The groceries were in my trunk, Crazy was waiting. I turned to him.

"Maybe we..." He began.

"No. I'm seeing someone. I'm on the phone with him now." Before he could answer, I was inside my car, doors locked, shaking. 

Crazy followed me home. He followed me back to my apartment, where Bryce told me to pull up front, walk straight in and tell the guards. I did. Crazy left, after having failed to find a parking spot (and perhaps seeing me talking with someone). Bryce offered to come over, take pictures, kick some serious tush. No, no, I just wanted to go upstairs and return to normal.

So I guess moral of the story is, not everything is rosy in Doha. Sure, that could have happened anywhere. But it didn't. It happened here, where I'm a stranger in a strange land... where I don't know what to do, or how to react, or if I somehow encouraged that sort of behavior. I suppose it's a good reminder to be a little cautious, and not go walking by myself at strange hours, and not go swimming by moonlight. ... or something like that.

Kath and I really did have an amazing rest of the day. We attended a business brunch (Great food! Lots of talk!) then snuck off to the Sheraton to lounge, read, lounge and read. After much swimming, lounging and reading, I'm back home eating my body weight in melons (purchased this morning, oh yay!). We work tomorrow, so bed will be coming soon.

I really do love it here, good, bad 'n ugly. I love my job. I love the people I'm around. And yes, I still love grocery stores. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Work and Pleasure

I love my job here.

I love writing. Interviewing. Finding ways of capturing people in words and conveying what they're passionate about or afraid of, or what makes them think in the middle of the night, eyes shut but brain rushing, or what happens when they wake up at 4:30am and are they tired? Do they spring out of bed to design? Do they curl beneath the covers or hop into the shower?

I love writing. 
We also go to tons of events as part of ABODE. The first shot is Kath and I at the Dominica Vaca opening, where I saw bags made of all the animals I don't eat. They were just beautifully crafted, but sort of horrible in their own right. Lisa, recognize my undershirt in that pic? Oh yes, rocking the 80s! 

The second pic is of the ABODE staff (Sans Deliah and Fawzi) at a tower opening. I found fruit. See my smile? I was happy. Fruit + Nae = YES!

Today is Thursday, as in Doha Friday, so I'm in an extra-lively mood. Kath and I are about to pop out and visit a cute-stuff-for-cheap-prices store on Salwa for Retail Therapy (an actual section in ABODE). We're going swimming tonight (OCEAN!) and swimming tomorrow (OCEAN!) with a food-coma brunch in between (OCEAN!FOOD!OCEAN!)


I think I'm addicted to Tabbouleh. Mmmm. And delish Indian food. Melons. Red bull (blame Kath). Ocean. Writing. God, things can't get any better.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Every day is amazing

That is, except for the stares. 

I got used to it a bit in Spain. Walking down the street, men would shout, whistle and occasionally ask to touch le blonde hair. I learned how to establish personal space with big elbow juts and numerous mean looks. 

But here in Doha, the style-of-stare is something different. The men just look. Not sexually, not viscously... they just look. I can't figure out why. Is it because I'm female? We've seen very few women here, and those we do tend to either (a) be in the hotel setting, a la expats, or (b) be covered head-to-toe in a Hijab. Is it because I'm not covered entirely myself? I dress conservatively. Arms, legs, loose clothes, simple shoes. So what's the deal?

I guess this question is tugging through my mind because I just walked down the street to our little closet-sized neighborhood grocery store, called (of all things) Dana Grocery. I bought some cauliflower, two sodas and a weird fruit that I can't quite recognize but definitely can smell. During the short, five-minute walk, I tried not to notice the many eyes on me. Then I tried not to let it bother me. Should it? I just don't understand.
Life, though... life here in Doha is just amazing. The GM of the Sheraton (another friend of Mr. Billionaire Bilal) gave Kath, Tessa and I all pool and gym passes to his hotel. Enter private beach, much swimming, a solid fitness facility, and.. oh yeah, a private beach. White sand, blue sky, blue waters. Even better? Pretty much no one is ever around, choosing to swim in the hotel pool over swimming in the salty ocean. This means that most mornings, like today, I had the entire stretch of salt and water and sand to myself. 

I'm busy writing. It's still hard for me to believe that I am, indeed, a real journalist now. We attend events as press, and I introduce myself as 'Danae Mercer, staff writer from ABODE.' I have interviewed several just fascinating people, like this woman named Noor Al-Kuwari who pretty much single-handedly (and pregnant to boot) opened two restaurants, traveled to China, Morocco, America and back again, and is traditional Qatari. She worked alongside her construction people, eight-months-pregnant, wearing her Abijah, during the insane Doha summer heat. Amazing.

The wealth of Doha is also still constantly amazing me. It's... well... It's a lot. Tons. People here have resources I can't even imagine. When we go out to meals, they tend to run upwards of $100 a plate. Starting price. It makes me wonder about how all this is impacting me. A man at a cocktail party told me the other day that once you are in Doha, you get spoiled. You can't leave. You become use to the grandeur, the opulence, the luxury. 

Will I ever become used to many near-silent servers sweeping forward to lay my napkin on my lap, pull out my chair, pick up my water bottle when it tips sideways, fill my glass with bubbly and wine? Will I ever adjust to this sort of treatment? 

Today, Tessa is allowing Kath and I to come in late, since we are usually working from 8am-6pm officially, then attending events for work in the evening. We're going to hit up various stores to do pulls for interiors; I'm going to finish my articles and copy edit some others; write write write; and then attend a W pool party in the evening. 

So things are, as always, busy. Good thing I've got my cauliflower to tide me over, and my soda to give me a lil pep. Man, I love it here. 

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Swimming in the moonlight and hasish on a terrace

How can every second be this amazing?

Yesterday, I woke up and went to the most delicious, grandious breakfast I've ever had. Mr. Bilal, the owner of ABODE Magazine, invited Kathleen and me to eat with him, his international reporter friend Judith, Katryna, and several other just fantastic folks.

"You have to make this place your home," Mr. Bilal announced at one point, staring at me and Kathleen over piles of pastries, cheeses and fresh fruit. "But go get some more. Go eat! Go eat." Of course we got more food. I went back four times, only to be sent home with goody bags that Mr. Bilal had previously arranged. Papaya and pastries and cold cuts, oh my!

Beach time followed. Friday is the Holy Day here in Qatar, so everyone has it off. The writing gang (so much easier than saying Bryce, Kathleen Tessa and me, isn't it?) trekked out for some serious sand and sun time. By sun, I mean I avoided the orange beast at all cost, hiding under layers of anti-stayaway-sunscreen. The beach was hot and the water was warm. Perfection.

I felt self-conscious in my bikini, as did Kathleen, so we rushed to the water quickly after taking off our clothes. Save for two women in birkas and one little girl, we were the only females around. Dozens of men filled the beach. Men swimming. Men grilling. Men just sitting together in clumps, touching each other in a casually affectionate way not quite common to us westerners. 

After showering and catching a quick nap, le Writers headed to the Souq, a middle east styled outdoor market. Thin alleyways winding throughout adobe cream buildings, opening into hundreds of shops, make up the Souq. Vendors stood in each doorway. As we walked past, they would call out after us in a soft mumble. "Scarves. Scarves. Jewelry. Perfume. Scarves."

Birds, cats, food, nuts, candies, scarves, hats, art, beads, breads, here and here. Just step inside. The words trailed after us but on we walked, surrounded by hundreds of people. I saw more women in one hour than I had the entire two previous days. In their black birkas they brushed past, not speaking a word and again I found myself staring but trying not to. 

Dinner was on the upper level of a Moroccan, sitting outside on pillows. We shared strawberry hasish while watching the people walk by and eating small plates of couscous. I have never tasted anything that delicious. 
And today? What did I do today? I feel like this post has already gone on long enough. Today I wrote, worked for the magazine, interviewed people, collected information for stories. I visited the Islamic Museum of Art and the Islamic Cultural Society, where men in white quietly stepped up to me and offered black tea with honey. While reading about Islam and Mohammed, I drank every last drop. 

After work, Kathleen and I went swimming again. It was late. The sun had already set. So we swam by moonlight in the warm water, this time wearing long shorts and t-shirts. Floating on my back, I looked up at the sky and realized I couldn't be happier. This is my dream. My life is really happening. 

Now I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted and it's barely 9:30, but we start work early tomorrow and I have a long day ahead. There's a lot of writing to do, which excites me beyond belief. I get to write. I get to report. 

And I'm doing it in Doha.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

This is going to change my life forever.

Doha is unlike anything I've ever known. It has the big-city feel of New York without people on the streets. Everyone drives (and drives horribly). Men outnumber women five to one. The heat is surreal, bleaching the sky and the buildings until everything is faded in whites and creams and pale blues. Buildings spring up from every corner, made entirely of glass or glass and elaborate patterns or glass and gold. Construction crews work late into the night.

So many things happened today and yesterday that I can't even begin to explain. I met Mr. Bilal, the billionaire owner of both ABODE magazine and quite a lot of Doha. He sat Kathleen and me down, adjusted his robes, and kindly plied us with Turkish coffee. "Are you engaged?" he asked me, then Kathleen. "Do you have family? Why are you here? We are pleased to have you here. You both will come to breakfast with me, Friday." 

Apparently breakfast is a grand affair at some beautiful hotel on the coast. Mr. Bilal was trying to judge how long Kathleen and I would be around, it seemed. Three months? Longer? Perhaps working as a Staff Writer now intended to introduce us to a much more permanent career. 

Thessa and Bryce, my bosses, drove Kathleen and me around today in a welcome-to-Doha tour. We stopped at a cafe called Doha Rocks and ate finger sandwiches. I ordered carrot juice. We also visited one of Doha's many malls, which was so large I can't even think of how to describe it. A man-made river ran through the center, on which gondolas gently floated. 

Turns out ABODE does a lot of 'Ready Wear' pulls from shops at these malls, meaning I will get to visit shops, pick out clothing, and use them in the magazine. Amazing. 

It's fascinating to see the wide range of people here. Most men wear loose-fitting shirts and pants. Some are covered in white robes and headdresses. The few women I've seen are either wrapped head-to-toe in beautifully made, but entirely concealing, black outfits; or are dressed much like me, in longer skirts and simple tops. 

As I've mentioned before, though, there aren't many ladies out-and-about. I find myself trying not to stare while discreetly stealing side-glances at the women-in-black, looking at their beautiful robes, their shoes, their bags. What are they like under all that fabric? Will I ever know?

Prayer call happens several times throughout the day. It's currently 4am. I think the next one's at 5. Perhaps I'll still be awake for it. My sleeping has been a bit off.

Friday is the day off. We work six days a week, 9-6pm, and we're often expected to attend openings at night. I am going to be writing, writing, writing. I can't wait. We had our first staff meeting today and it was everything I could have ever hoped. Discussing ideas and articles reminded me why exactly I wanted to go into journalism... not that I have ever really forgot. 

I miss everyone, of course. But I am happy. How could I not be? This opportunity is surreal and my god, I am so excited. Let the adventure begin!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hello Doha!

I am in Doha!

After 26 hours of a'travellin, I finally arrived. Three different flights, three different airports, a whole lot of free diet coke and some serious airport food (vegetarian meals, oh yum!) resulted in just one darn fantastic trip.

On the first six hour trek,  I was next to an old, wide-eyed, glasses-wearing grampa who just blinked all confusedly, didn't speak a word of English, and woke me up every time the pilot made some sort of announcement. He also gave my shoulders a brisk rub as though to say 'this my granddaughter, rubrub night!' type of thing. I think perhaps he didn't quite understand certain things. Or personal space. He did share his gum though, which was a bit of a small life save.

Bryce and Tessa (Editors of Abode Magazine!) met me and Kathleen at the airport. We were shuttled through security and into a small waiting lounge, where we enjoyed some Coca Light. The cans were tiny, the lids different, but the taste? Still delish, especially after so much travel.

Now I'm leeching internet from someone else's room and sitting in my home-for-three-months. It's really a nice apartment. Big and airy, with a half-stocked kitchen (yogurt, here I come!)

Suppose I should try to go to bed now. But bed is overrated. Doha awaits. Abode awaits. A 10:30 meeting awaits. ...that bed thing might just happen.