Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's the end of Ramadan and I've got some Holy Month fatigue.

It happens when I'm getting ready for bed and notice that we're out of coffee. I just went to the store that morning but the stores don't stock much variety in ground coffee - instant is a more common drink here. You can find green beans and beans ground with cardamom, but I've given up on finding any even vaguely-dark roast. Which means I have to go to an actual coffee house. And those, along with any other restaurant, are closed every day during Ramadan until after sunset. Which means I can't run out to Starbuck's in the morning when the demons arrive in my head. I have to either go now - change out of my PJs and face the 11 o'clock crowds in the mall - or endure the withdrawal symptoms in the morning.

The fatigue also happens when I'm picking the kids up from school on Tuesdays. For some strange reason, their school has a half-day every Tuesday (I guess it helps the teachers get over the mid-week hump). I'd love to take the kids out to lunch and maybe even do something fun like go to a park or the ice skating rink in the mall but all the restaurants are closed and we can't eat in public until sunset. I'm hot and hungry and grumpy as hell and it's always a long and imagination-challenged afternoon. You'd think I could find something fun to do with my afternoon with the kids but during Ramadan it just doesn't happen.

I'm not Muslim, I don't fast. I have a huge amount of respect for my friends who do fast throughout this month, and do it with a strength, humility, patience, and devotion that I just can not comprehend. They surrender themselves to their faith, and I'm both awed by their efforts and frivolous enough to complain about how it inconveniences me. Maybe this is how husbands feel when watching their wives go through pregnancy: outside looking in at something inexplicable. How did my husband tolerate me though that process for all those months?

With one week left in the Holy Month, I was looking forward to the week-long Eid break, when we'll have a whole week off work and school with the whole family together. All of us. Here in this house (it's too damn hot and humid to spend much time outside). For nine. Whole. Days.

Weekends are nice for us, but by the third or fourth day at home we get a bad case of cabin fever and can't stand the look of each other by day 5.

I thought about Bob and me driving over to Abu Dhabi for a quick overnight trip - hire a babysitter we know and trust, and take off for a belated anniversary getaway (our 15th was back in July and in the hustle and bustle we never even made it out for an anniversary dinner). But the land route is through Saudi Arabia, and they require you to apply in advance for a transit visa. Between Ramadan and the coming Eid holiday we couldn't get a visa in time. So we thought about taking the family for a short beach vacation in Sri Lanka - it's close and easy and green and you can read in this blog archive how much we loved our trip there two years ago. I got so far as asking the kids whether they wanted to take a day trip to the elephant orphanage, or whether they wanted to spend all three days just lounging at the pool and body surfing in the Indian Ocean. Awesome options, right? Turns out they'd prefer to sit around in Barzan compound doing nothing at all for nine days, thank you very little.

So I'll go back to my original idea: Bob and I will go off on a couple's getaway. We'll go to Oman because although it's not green, it's at least somewhat mountainous, and it's giving me something to look forward to. And sometimes you just really need that.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Arab Qatari Agricultural Co: my personal crack house

I'm an enthusiastic amateur gardener, and one of the hardest parts of living in Qatar is the near-absence of the color green. The landscape is sandy, dusty beige; the sky is always a dusty blue; the buildings in our compound are a dusty peach color. My eyes ache for green, my lungs ache for oxygen. So my husband had a hard time breaking the news to me when he returned early to Doha after our summer break and found that nearly every plant in our garden had died. I suspect that the maintenance men in the compound let themselves into our (locked, walled-in) back yard to apply insecticide spray and as a favor while they were there turned off the slow drip irrigation pipes I had set up before we left. I have problems with this on many levels. But that's not the point of this post.

I took a trip to the nursery today to re-stock my garden with green. Wow. I haven't come down from the high yet. It's an amazing place: a lush oasis in the midst of the desert made possible by a truly impressive climate control system. They have over a dozen greenhouses in one compound, each about half the size of a football field, filled with wonderful exotic plants. I wat there for over two hours, and didn't see the whole place. Can you imagine? The oxygen content inside those greenhouses must be huge because just walking around gives me a euphoric energy rush.

Coming from Pittsburgh and Michigan, I am so amazed at the plants they grow: I'm reasonably well informed on the plants you typically find in Zone 5 and 6. But if you take a walk through the tropical houseplants department in Lowe's or Home Depot, those are the plants you find here growing in irrigated beds. I like to go with my friend who is a master gardener from Texas: she is much more familiar with the Zone 9 plants we have here. I don't know the names of half the things I buy - I have to rely on the list they write up and then try to research them online - but they are gorgeous and I want to rush out and put them in the ground right now. But it's 108 degrees, so I think maybe I'll wait till tomorrow morning.

The icing on the cake for this day is: not only do they let me wander around in the botanical garden as long as I want for absolutely free, I can take home any plants I want for a nominal price. Here's my bill of sale for today:

3 x lantana (3 foot tall, yellow-orange flowers)
4 x hibiscus (3 foot tall, marvelous lantern-style orange flowers)
3 x jactorpha (can't remember which one this is, probably the 3 foot tall with brilliant red flowers)
3 x spadlima (maybe the 3 foot tall plants with purplish-green leaves?)
3 x jasmine (only 2.5 foot tall but fragrant as you imagine an arabian night)
1 x rubber plant, 6 foot tall!
2 x ficus panda
12 x vinca, pink flowers - hey, I know what this one is!
12 x freein (?) - purplish leaved spreading groundcover
5 x cassandra
3 x gardenia
3 x zamicallus (?) (yeah, no idea - it's downstairs somewhere)
1 x pepperomia (small green houseplant)
3 x bougainvillia - 5 foot tall, pink flowers
1 x acanthus (?) - fleshy green-leaved hanging plant
1 x (?) fuzzy purple leaved hanging plant

Total cost: 574 riyals = $157

I'll be back.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eid Mubarak!

OK, this year we took a completely different approach to Eid al-Fitr.  For those just joining us, Eid is the holiday that follows the holy fasting month of Ramadan.   Schools and government offices shut down for several days and many families take this opportunity to travel.  Last year we took an adventurous, eye-opening trip to Sri Lanka.  This year we stayed put, partly to conserve resources for winter and spring vacations, partly because my residency card hasn't completed processing yet so I'm kinda stuck here.

Eid got off to a surprise start.  The islamic calendar and months do not match with ours - they are based on the sighting of the new moon by islamic authorities.  Which means there's a surprising amount of uncertainty about when Ramadan will start and end.  For instance, this year Eid was estimated on our calendar (printed a year ago) to be on October 2.  The school schedule was set for Eid break to begin Wed., October 1, although there was a possibility that it would begin a day earlier.  And at about 9 pm on Mon., September 29, we got emails and text messages announcing that the new mood was seen, Ramadan was over, and school would be out a day early.  It felt like a muslim snow day.

But can you imagine the implications?  Everyone was expecting it to begin on Wednesday.  My dear friend had planned a large group gathering for Eid, but she didn't know which day it would be until 9 pm the evening before.  Think of planning a Thanksgiving feast, and learning Tuesday night that nope, this year Thanksgiving's on Wednesday.  It all worked out (luck favors the prepared, darling) thank goodness, but I've hardly ever seen anyone look more exhausted.  

So what did we do with our extra-long holiday?  Hang out at home.  I went for a couple of bike rides, Daddy-O got out too.  Our biggest event was joining with a couple of other families for a dhow trip.  That's a traditional fishing boat in the region, and a big touristy thing to do is go downtown to the bayside and take a ride on a dhow.  20 minute trip, about 15 riyals, make sure you go when the sun isn't baking.  We went just before sunset - the weather was perfect, warm and breezy.   Then a snack picnic at the playground across the street, and dinner at McDonald's on the way home to round out the evening.  

Nothing fancy, just pleasant.  I only wish we had done another outing like this during the break.  But really, there's no hurry.  The weather is only getting nicer.  Next weekend, Singing Sands.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Looking Forward To Fall

Well, yesterday the weather was lovely - the high didn't quite break 100 degrees. When I got up early to go cycling, it was pleasantly cool, and even when I got back it was not too hot for J to take his breakfast outside in the garden. This is a short-lived break from the worst heat, but the temperatures are slowly but consistently getting more reasonable.

One measure: when we arrived, the cold water tap was running at about 105 degrees - that's too hot to stand in the shower, even for me. It would take almost two hours for the kids' bath to cool off enough for them to get in. Now it's closer to 100, which is OK for a hot shower but still too hot for the kids' bath. This is a few degrees worse than last year because our new house is around the corner from the old, and the water tank in the garden here gets less time in the shade. Also, it helped to turn off hot water heater. Not sure why that affects the cold tap, but it brought the temps down a few degrees.

I went to the big plant nursery outside town yesterday - it's truly huge, a worthy side trip for anyone who enjoys that sort of thing. I bought a bunch of things for the back garden - some hibiscus, canna, adenium, and a lemon tree. Those should add some interest and fill the space out a little better 'till the real growing season starts at the end of October. I'm also planning to have the maintenance men here pull up some more of the bricks (the whole yard is bricked in except for a few smallish garden spots with one lovely tree and two rather dehydrated climbing plants) so I can green up the yard some more. I think everyone here is suffering from a green deficit.

Everyone here is well and we're enjoying ourselves. Again, our daughter is suffering worst from homesickness and missing her Pittsburgh friends. We've had a series of fits in the evenings, pining for her best buddy. Fortunately it hasn't been quite as bad as last year - she's sad but not making herself sick over it - because she has at least a few kids her age in the compound to join up with. In fact, the kids have about doubled their base group of buddies in the compound, which means we can enjoy their company without totally monopolizing their time. Another positive development. As for me, I still have some kinks to work out, but I'm definitely heading in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New Gadget

They say you are what you eat. I kind of believe that, although I don't like what that implies about my children. Say what you want, but these kids are anything but bland.

For me, I'd revise the truism. I am what I cook. If you want a decent look into my current state of mental health, take a look at what's going in in my kitchen. When I'm floundering emotionally, I cook safe and dull if I cook at all. When I'm feeling good I get more adventurous in my menu plans. And banana bread is always a good sign.

Also, I found last year that recipes that were tried and true in the States just didn't come out as expected here. I needed to essentially pitch the old model and start with a new set of recipes and a new set of comfort foods

That's why I added a new gadget to the blog: you can take a look and see what I've been cooking lately. It's more fun to focus on the positive, so I'll only post the interesting dishes I've tried. I'm willing to share here, but I don't feel the obligation to document every time we eat pizza, burgers, rigatoni bake, or KFC.

You can assume the kids didn't eat these dishes unless I note otherwise.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Making it Home

Sorry for the long dry spell (if you will). We got our container at the beginning of the month and we've been working on making this pile of cement blocks and cardboard boxes look and feel like home.

In a nutshell: Wow. What a difference a few rugs can make. We haven't got the pictures up and the kids' rooms are basically a disorganized jumble but other than that we're pretty well settled. I'll go on record here - I thought it was foolish to ship four beds halfway around the world to a fully furnished home. I was totally wrong. Sleeping in our own beds has been a godsend.

And for those who have been wondering, buying a car reasonably cheap in the US and shipping it over to the inflated Middle East hasn't been quite as good a deal as we had hoped. Finanically it's still worked out to our advantage, but it was a much, much, MUCH bigger hassle than we had anticipated. It slowed down receiving our container and took an extra week or so in customs (all because separate customs offices here handle cars and possessions). Then, just a few days after it finally arrived, just about when Daddy-O was finally beginning to breathe easy, the electrical system went kaput. Another week, a trip to the dealership, unknown costs, and hopefully he'll get it for good tomorrow. Insha'allah.

On the other hand, we could not possibly have predicted the ease with which we found and bought a used SUV. It's huge and black and previously owned by another American whose meticulous nature is well known. And you know the best part? On Friday the low fuel light went on so I filled it up for 56 riyals. That's about $15. Including tip for full serve. And the other best part? I can drive over curbs like a native. Yeah, baby.

What else? Rapid fire: the kids are all in school (photos coming any time now) and they admit to loving it there. Pretty much all our friends from last year were still here and we've been able to fall right back into those warm fuzzies. As an added bonus, there are heaps more kids in the compound now, which means I don't have to feel guilty for allowing my kids to totally monopolize one or two families' attention. We're halfway through the holy month of Ramadan. I've started cycling on Friday mornings with some amalgam of the group I enjoyed so much last year; it's actually worth waking up at 4:30 for. And I volunteered for the PTA board - Treasurer - and that's a whole nother posting. I haven't done a job search yet but geez, give me a break. Maybe once I get my residency card...

So what have you been up to?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BACK -- in the State of Qatar!

... you don't know how lucky you are, boy --
Back in the State of Qatar!
(mental note: finish rewriting those lyrics for next talent show - it's gonna be HUGE!)

Yes, we're back in Doha after a long and exhausting summer. I'm not even going to go into how hard it was to leave Pittsburgh, both emotionally and physically. In short, you know the saying "you don't know what you got till it's gone"? Not always true. I said so many goodbyes, by the end I just shut down and only dealt with the folks who side-tackled me on the street. But my parents' neighbor told me a story about how her family moved to England (I think it was) for a few years when the kids were small, and when they returned everything was right where they left it. So I have hope. Just in case there's anyone left in Pittsburgh who doesn't resent us.

In the meantime, I'm unpacking. I've got almost all of the suitcases empty and put away which is good because any day now the container will arrive at the house (it's sitting in Customs now only a few miles away) and we'll have a big job reacquainting ourselves with our worldly possessions.

For those who've asked, the flight and navigating airports alone with three kids worked out fine, but we had a lot of help. This would have been much harder without business class seats, red-carpet lounges, and the Al Maha welcome wagon / visa and baggage expediting service at the Doha airport. The hardest part came the day after we arrived, when I had spent two nights with a total of four hours' sleep (A's schedule was as upside down as her stomach). Survive and advance. It's been much better since then, and we're all sleeping at night for at least 6 hours at a pop.

Next posts: what's different here, what's the same, and what's just plain screwy.