Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Two Years In

I promised two years.
"I will go for two years and not a day more" is pretty much how I phrased it at the time.
I was eight months pregnant and C had just come home from work, sporting a sheepish smile as he asked me to sit down and 'talk' with him.
I knew something was up right away.
He blurts out something about a fantastic opportunity... a new adventure... Doha... Qatar.

I couldn't say too much right away as so many thoughts were racing around in my head I thought I might explode.

I was thinking of the perfect little nursery I had just created in our home. Imagining slowly turning it into a proper 'big' girl room as she grew.  Visualizing a little diapered bum working her way up the staircase as she learned to master the steps. Our walks to the neighbourhood park holding hands, just like I saw other moms do.  The long weekend trips home to Canada. All the friends I didn't want to say goodbye to. And the house - the house I loved from the first moment I saw it.
I had just settled here. It finally felt, after four and a half years, that this was home.
Why do we have to go now? I am comfortable here.
I moaned and cried a lot. I called my mother. I even threatened to change my mind and not go.
But time has a funny way of carrying you with it whether you like it or not, and before I knew it, our little Texan was born, we sold our house after only a few days on the market, said goodbye to our cars and most everything else, packed up our lives and prepared to begin a new chapter.
After all, C is my family. I vowed to stand by his side no matter where the spot next to him may be, geographically speaking, any given year.
He has an annoying habit of seeing the best in everything and everybody. He thought it would be great. I thought it would stink.
"Imagine the things we will get to see and do"
"So many unique experiences for E"
"Just think of the new friends you will meet"
He was the picture of optimism and some nights leading up to our move, I pondered why I hadn't married a school teacher. How was my life about to change? Change isn't fun for me unless I suggest it.
Then we got here. I was in a new-breastfeeding-mom-sleep-deprived haze. The sand blowing around me as I reluctantly explored Doha matched my mood quite well. I had a constant foggy feeling, unable to see too far in front of me. I just couldn't figure out how this new house, and this new city, were going to work for me.

But, soon enough the doorbell started ringing. Ladies who didn't wait for an invitation walked in, took E from my tired arms, and handed me lists of important phone numbers and gifts for my empty kitchen. Not the stereotypical expat wives I had imagined. Women who had been standing where I was once before. Maybe with four kids instead of one. Or maybe no kids at all. Big hearts of different ages and nationalities who remembered what it was like to start fresh, whether it's for the first time or the fifth.

So many little tasks that quickly turn in to huge ordeals in a new country, accomplished because of the kindness of strangers that were soon to be my friends. I was shown the good grocery stores, the easiest malls to drive to, and where to find decent dog food. Someone helped me subscribe to the local morning paper and someone else helped me find swimming lessons for E. I learned where to get the car oil changed and how to say thank you in Arabic. I found a good pediatrician and an okay hair salon. I was 'set up' by neighbours who invited me and other new moms to coffee dates, hoping I would meet new friends.
And, guess what? I did. The figurative sand eventually stopped swirling around my head, and I slowly began to open up to our new home. I found a routine. I became familiar.
I welcomed the smell of spices and shisha in the cobblestone alleys of the souq as I would walk around with E and find eclectic whatnots for our villa. The fine dining and the awesome hospitality. The winds from the gulf that carry heaps of dust into our house every other day. The unmerciful heat and its heaviest blanket called summer. The complicated traditions. The miles of beige. The crazy driving. Our quiet Fridays. Our Mercy. Our vacations. Our family time.

I still grumble a bit. I still get lonely for home and miss the way things used to be. I still fall into a sad place for a few days when we have had to swallow hard and miss weddings, birthdays, graduations and funerals because we just can't make it this time. I often wish our parents could see what an awesome little person E is. Like, really see her. Maybe feel her warmth as she snuggles in for a story or witness her triumph as she scrambles to the top of the monkey bars.
I guess sometimes living far away is... well, it's far away.

But like I said, C is my home. And, I hate to say it once more, but he was right, this has been quite the adventure so far.
This boxy villa is the only true home Ella has ever known. She can proudly find it all on her own as we drive up a street where every villa looks the same - she always exclaims "We're home guys!".
Yes hunny, we are.
Earlier this month, we marked two whole years here. In that time we have travelled to seven different countries on family vacations together. We have had family and friends travel from the other side of the world to visit us in this place. It has indeed been a busy two years... busy making memories.
A few downs, but lots of ups.

So, I didn't run to the airport and buy the first ticket out of here when I heard the two year buzzer ringing in my head. I'm not in much of a hurry anymore.
Soon enough, it will be time to go again.
C will come home from work one day and want to have another chat, and I will know before he says the words.
Doha has grown on me. We got off to a shaky start but we have come to understand each other more with time. We 'get' each other a bit more now.

We toasted our two year 'anniversary' at home with some good friends last week - a couple we had met in Texas on our last assignment (and are now living in Prague) who travelled to visit us for a week, and a neighbour who was my first 'real' friend in Doha (and who happened to be with us last year on the night we celebrated our 'one year' mark).
A great way to celebrate our little milestone.
C joked that night that getting me to leave Doha may be like how it was getting me to leave Texas. Digging my heels in all the way.
I'm not quite there yet, but you just never know.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gold Plated

We are almost at the two year mark!  730 whole days and nights in Qatar. And, in the two years I've just about spent here, a significant part of that time has been taken up driving in my vehicle. Driving almost every single day.
First it was learning to drive here. Mastering the roundabouts and the other drivers.
Then it was finding my way. Getting lost over and over again. Eventually finding routes I liked and familiar landmarks. Navigating parking lots and desert detours.
Next, it was working on my patience while being honked at, passed, flashed with high beams, and cut off regularly. Recognizing good drivers from bad a mile away (literally), and carrying on with my errand(s) safely and calmly.
I am guessing I spend an hour a day in my car. Sometimes more. Minus some vacation days and whatnot and we're still talking hundreds of clocked hours behind the wheel.
Plenty of time to notice the numbers.
License Plate Numbers.
The digits on the State of Qatar license plates carry with them status that the plain old plates back home could only dream of. These babies earn a few ooohs and ahhhs as they adorn the backs of their rides. They are nothing special to look at - just rectangular metal plates painted black and white (the new ones have the inverted State flag too), with numbers recorded in both English and Arabic.
I shall explain...

'average' plate number
When we first arrived in our new home, C's company had arranged for a greeting service to come collect E and I and show us around a bit. The lady who ferried us to and fro for a few days was the first one to point out licence plates here and explain a bit about them. She had said that the numbers, much like in other countries, were randomly generated and assigned, but the smaller the number, the more valuable the plate, and thus highly sought after.
For example, if your vehicle is sporting a 245 as its plate number, it would be worth loads of cash compared to a lowly 365498 (close to my own plate), which would be worth a big fat 0.
I have heard a few different stories about the meaning behind certain plate numbers.
My (now former) neighbour had insisted that the small numbers were reserved for those who were direct relatives of the Emir. I pondered this for a while, because you never see a Ford Pinto bombing around with a 36 on it's tail. Rather, it is the super luxury vehicles that sport the smallest numerals. And who can buy the best of the best in automobiles? The very rich and the odd lottery winner... but since gambling is prohibited here,  we're left with just the wealthy ones.
pretty special
Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask a few Qatari acquaintances (thank you to Mohamed, Abdulla and Ahmed) about the license numbers so I could gather some cold hard facts.
Was that really a royal Sheikha in Jimmy Choos, driving '4477', that just helped herself to my parking spot in this mall lot? Couldn't be. Could it?

How one arrives at the exact value of a certain plate isn't perfectly clear to me, but it all boils down to good ol' supply and demand, and a whole lot of extra dough.
Basically, the plate numbers are randomly generated and assigned by the appropriate government ministry. At some point along the way, people started wanting smaller numbers (those closer to the digit '1'), and so they began to offer to pay for them. Plates here are legally registered to an owner seperate from the vehicle, and can be sold and registered to a new owner (and that new owners vehicle) pretty easily.
Plate number value depends on a few things.
First, the smaller the number, the higher the price. But if the number sequence is a cool one, or better yet, one with some significance, the price shoots up.
  • C recently saw a '974' plate while in traffic. This happens to be the country code for Qatar. Cool factor is way high here. Price would be way high too.
  • If the number is repetitive or in a neat sequence, it renders a fair price... like 262626. Even though it's 6 digits long, it's different... and errr...nice to look at? Numbers like 777 or 4321 would also drive the price up. Waay up.
  • Three digit plate numbers can start around 300,000QAR and go up to 1,000,000QAR (82,00USD - 275,000USD), depending on how 'special' they are. So, 333 would be much more than 825.
Check out this site for some current Qatar plates for sale, and to get an idea of what the asking prices start at: http://www.semsar.net/en/numbers/search/car.htm

very impressive
I joked while chatting with a local aquaintance who said he aims to purchase a three digit plate for his truck, that he may have to upgrade his truck to be worthy of such a plate. His answer went something like this:
"Well if I have a Land Cruiser worth 250000QAR, and I purchase a three or four digit plate at, 1,500,000QAR, then my car is now worth a total of 1,750,000QAR (almost 500,000USD). The whole package is impressive now. It's kind of like investing your money. The value of the vehicle may go down with time, but the plate will only get more valuable."
Hmm? I then argued that maybe folks in these parts may lose interest in spending loads of loot on a small piece of hammered tin. Then what? He replied that families here that can afford these types of plates do look at it like a sort of investment. They can keep those numbers in the family and pass them on. The value grows.

stop and stare
I brazenly questioned the 'show off' factor to all this. I mean, come on. I can think of a hundred ways to spend wads of cash. Buying a funky license plate number so the guy stuck behind me on his way to work can see it, isn't one of them. Each time I mentioned this component to my local informants, I was met with smiles. Of course. It's always nice to be noticed.

Things are different here. Status and prestige are big things. Really big things for some. A local man last year reportedly spent almost $4,000,000 USD on a coveted plate number. Four. Million. Dollars.
The plate he purchased was "55555". Five 5's. Wowsers.

Just like my little obsession with Ghutra styles, I now watch for 'good' plate numbers where ever we go. We have spotted some impressive ones. It's a solid distraction when the tension of Thursday night traffic starts creeping in to our car.
What do you think? If you had money to burn, would this be how you would burn it?