Monday, May 25, 2009

Chaptette 1: Variables

Chaptette 1: Variables

Doha is a series of icebergs connected by blow torches. The forecast high for today is 109 Fahrenheit, and it’s still May – the end of the cool season. Inside, the typical room seems to be about 65 degrees, so when you step outside you face a 40 degree change. Ok, ok, if you step outside in Nome during the winter, you probably have a 100 degree or more change. But you can prepare for the cold by putting on more clothing; it’s difficult to dress for the heat by putting on less, because at some point there’s nothing else to take off, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to walk around naked unless one is fond of sunburn and moral censors.

So, yes, it’s hot outside. Qatar has the second highest per capita income in the world (after Lichtenstein), so no Qataris or other wealthy foreigners go outside (the Philippino and Indonesian labors do, at least until the temperature reaches 122, when outdoor labor is supposed to stop, although the law doesn’t seem to be vigorously enforced). So Doha is also a string of air conditioned moments. I go from my air conditioned apartment (it took me days to figure out how to adjust the thermostat, until my landlord kindly informed me that I needed to put batteries in the remote control) to an air conditioned car, to my office.

Speaking of cars and variables, Qataris have two driving speeds: morbidly fast and mortally fast. I hear that it has the highest rate of auto fatalities in the world. Big, fast, cars cover the roads (the most popular car seems to be the Toyota Land Cruiser, but there are lots of Porsches, Beemers, Mercedes, etc.) The roads are generally new and excellent except for all the construction zones. The roads do have lines on them; “line control” is optional, however, as cars go anywhere they want. I thought the traffic was pretty bad, but I’m told it’s pretty easy right now because the Qataris are beginning to flee the country for cooler climes (one colleague told me that, after they, they own half of London).

The food I’ve tried has been diverse and oh-so-delicious. Georgetown has a good (and subsidized!...a full meal costs about $3) cafeteria, where most people go for lunch. I’ll typically have some sort of rice dish, maybe with chicken or lamb, a lentil soup or chickpea salad, and so forth. Oh, and a diet Coke. I think Indian food dominates. Last night I went out for dinner with several GU colleagues, and we shared a large plate of mezze (bread with various appetizers like hummus, baba ganoush, olives, taboule, etc) and then Hammour (a wonderful local fish), served grilled with head and tail. Alcohol cannot be bought without a license (you need a permission slip from your employer…but then one is approved to spend up to – get this! – 10 percent of monthly income. Apparently some spend that much, as there is an, um, active “secondary market”.) I’ve not yet tried much bold cooking (major meal: frozen lamb kabobs – I mean they were frozen before I cooked them -- and rice “pilau” style).

My colleague Mark (a Swiss-American specialist in Lebanon) did take me out to the “best” nut market in Doha. (No, a nut market is not a university library.) It had the widest variety of nuts, with the widest variety of flavors (Wasabi! Curry! Mango!) After sampling most of them, I’m heeding my brother-in-law Dick Stark’s advice about potato chips: the perfect ones contain just a bit of salt.

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