Sunday, December 30, 2007

Camel Racing in Qatar

Camels are, understandably, a big deal in this desert-defined region. They provide transportation, food, and entertainment in the form of racing. The QNHG (Qatar Natural History Group), which I have mentioned before, had a ramble to the camel race track near Sheehaniya in mid-December. There we were able to watch the Sudanese trainers as they exercised and trained the camels on the track.

Things I learned:
1. The young Sudanese boys who used to be used as jockeys have been replaced by mechanical boxes that are attached to the saddle. This was done in response to protests by human rights groups several years back, who objected to the way in which the young jockeys were obtained and retained.
2. Those young Sudanese boys have become the trainers.
3. The races start with pairs of camels: a mother, ridden by her trainer, and a young camel with the mechanical jockey. After a bit, the mother leaves the track and the races are completed by the young camels.
4. There are two concentric race tracks - the camels race on the inner track and the camel owners and spectators drive/race alongside on the outer track. The owners are controlling the mechanical jockey. The spectators are just having a good time.
5. Gambling is illegal in Qatar, so various interested individuals put up large purses as prize winnings - usually 4x4 SUV's or pick-up trucks.

This information explained why the parking lot of the race track looked like a car dealership with lots of unlicensed vehicles sitting about; why there were two tracks; and why it didn't matter if you couldn't see the far side of the track from the very small grandstand since most spectators would be in their cars racing with the camels.

It seems to be rather difficult to find out when the camels are racing, since the races aren't widely publicized, but I'm hoping to be able to attend at least one race before I leave in May - as long as someone else is driving!

Holidays in Qatar and Anna & Scott's Excellent Adventure in Doha

Sorry I haven't blogged lately. I had to wrap up the semester and then concentrate on Christmas, so I'll start this posting by going back a month to Thanksgiving to fill in some blanks.

I had Thanksgiving dinner with quite a few other VCUQ people and their families in Sandy & Ty Wilkins' back yard feasting on lots of traditional Thanksgiving dishes and other treats (note: Sandy is the chair of fashion design and Ty is the facility manager of the VCUQ building). It was dark by dinner time, so I'm not sure exactly what I did eat, but it was all yummy.

Because I am used to being super involved with Thanksgiving cooking, I volunteered to help River, my neighbor and VCUQ's registrar, bake 8 pies - mostly pumpkin, but also a couple of sweet potato and apple. Finding a rolling pin was a bit challenging, but the Carrefour (a French Wal-Mart near my villa) had them. Special guests for the evening were ten US Air Force service personnel. Interestingly, some were civilian contractors rather than service men. The US military in Qatar are very low profile around here. They don't wear uniforms off base and travel in small groups. One had graduated from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh and was (no surprise) a Steelers' fan. Another was from Baltimore and also a Steelers' fan, who didn't change his allegiance to the Ravens when Modell brought his team to town. Overall, it was a fun evening, but not at all like the traditional Thanksgiving dinners that Anna and I have cooked and hosted over the years.

And now to Christmas...this was a really special time that I had been looking forward to for a long time since Anna and Scott were coming. Because I was so excited by the prospect of their arrival, I started preparations right after Thanksgiving. For a tree, I found a 6 foot tall Norfolk pine at the Plant Souk. Brian, VCUQ faculty and a fellow Pittsburgher, helped me get it home in his rag-top Land Rover. For ornaments, I bought some small glass balls at a holiday bazaar hosted by the College of the North Atlantic, a Canadian technical institute in Doha. The bazaar also provided me with wrapping paper and a small stocking for myself; Anna and Scott brought theirs with them. I found later that most of the stores also had sections devoted to Christmas ornaments and miscellany. Another friend, Kathleen Ferguson Huntington, who teaches foundation courses at VCUQ, gave me an entire packing box full of pine cones that her father, a retired jewelry designer, had sprayed gold, which I managed to hang from the rather sparce branches of the Norfolk pine. Overall, it kind of looked like a classy Charlie Brown tree. I also had purchased a small olive wood creche in Jordan at Eid break and later bought a couple of small camel ornaments and some great red, green, blue, and yellow plaid at the Fabric Souk for a tablecloth.

Anna and Scott arrived as scheduled on Christmas Eve via Paris and Frankfort, after a very frustrating 4 days of travel. They slept late on Christmas morning, then we opened presents and had a special breakfast - Anna made wonderful chocolate chip griddle cakes. About mid-afternoon, while the turkey was cooking, we went to the tailor I'd found who'd agreed to make a custom suit for Scott in the five days they were here. Scott, as you may or may not know is about 6'-6" and sometimes has a difficult time finding clothes that fit well. And this suit needed to be special because it's for their wedding in August.

Most of the expats I've met in Doha returned to family homes (USA, Canada, China, England, Scotland, Korea, Pakistan, Lebanon, India) or took extended trips over the holidays, but several remained here and joined Anna, Scott, and me for dinner - there were 7 for the main course and another 5 came later for dessert. Because I didn't cook a Thanksgiving dinner this year, I did a Thanksgiving menu for Christmas dinner. About the only things missing were the turkey shaped croutons in the soup (no soup this year and no turkey shaped cookie cutter) and celery in the stuffing - none to be found anywhere. I was able to acquire a 16+ lb Butterball, chicken bullion cubes without MSG (Anna's had trouble with MSG for years), Ocean Spray fresh cranberries for relish, and Libby's pumpkin for the pies, although I had to make my own pie crust from scratch for the first time in years, and evaporated milk wasn't to be found so I also made that, which was a challenge. Fortunately, River left the key to her villa, so I was able to borrow chairs and dishes (we all pretty much have identical everything), as well as spices.

The parts of Christmas I missed the most were the special church services, music, and dinner at Sixth Presbyterian. Things I didn't miss were winter weather, the rush to write and send Christmas cards, and buying and mailing presents - my sisters and I agreed not to exchange presents this year and Anna took some presents for my great nieces and great nephew back with her for mailing. Anna, Scott, and I agreed to minimize presents too because it cost them so much just to get here, although Anna gave me a wonderful pair of down slippers and Scott gave me a box of the best dark chocolate on earth. And my friend, Brenda, in Atlanta always sends presents, regardless of how far away I am - this year a wonderful Andy Warhol tote bag, a perfect present for a girl from Pittburgh. I'll get something in the mail to her soon!

The day after Christmas, Scott was feeling really sick as the cold he'd been fighting started winning, so he slept for a bit while Anna and I went for a power walk along the Corniche. By mid-day, Anna and I were also fighting colds and taking zinc as a preventative - among the three of us, we consumed enormous quantities of Kleenex during their visit. Scott revived later for a visit to the Souk Waqif in the afternoon, then we went to dinner at Villaggio, Doha's newest mall, modeled on Venice complete with a canal and gondola. We finished off the day with a quick trip to see Pearlman and made a few purchases.

Wednesday was our Desert Safari trip. Adel, our driver from Arabian Adventures, picked us up at 9:00 AM and drove us south toward the Inland Sea. Along the way we did some dune bashing. Google this for more detail, but it's basically like snow skiing but with a Land Cruiser and sand dunes - really fun and dangerous unless you have a very experienced driver. Then Adel made a detour to a Bedouin camp, where we were invited to tea and Anna and Scott got to take short camel rides. It was pretty interesting to sit inside a Bedouin tent - and the two hooded falcons in the corner were an extra treat. After that, we went to Arabian Adventures campsite for a late lunch (grilled chicken and lamb with typical side dishes - humous, tabouli, olive salad, etc - and flat bread) right next to the Inland Sea with Saudi Arabia on the opposite shore. After lunch, Scott tried some sand surfing with a snow board and we all basked in the warm sun for a bit. Overall, it was a fun, relaxing day, although Adel had a cold that was as bad as Scott's so all four of us were sniffling and blowing the entire trip.

That evening, after Scott had a fitting for his suit, we went to see Riyaz, (affectionately known as Rugman by people at VCUQ), so Anna and Scott could pick out their Christmas present from me. Riyaz is simply terrific. He doesn't just sell rugs. He educates all of his customers about his rugs. Most are 100% wool tribal rugs from Afganistan; the exceptions are the silk rugs from Kashmir that are woven by his father. By the end of the evening, Anna and Scott narrowed their selection down to the two they liked the best and took both to see them in the morning light and make their final decision. We dined that evening at Neo - really good sushi.

Thursday, we slept a bit late determined to beat our colds, then rallied to do the full 10K circuit along the Corniche again. After lunch at the Diet Shop, we returned to Riyaz's so he could pack up the rug they'd chosen (a beautiful gold and red-orange Kazak). Then we stopped at the reportedly best shawarma place in Doha for a treat, got Scott's new suit - also really beautiful, Anna made a final decision on new sunglasses, and we went to the Landmark Mall to see the Marks & Spencer, a disappointment compared to their London store. We finished the day at the Souk Waqif for some more shopping and dinner at an Indian restaurant.

Friday, yesterday, was their last day in Doha. Scott kindly agreed to some mother-daughter shopping time, so Anna and I headed to City Center Mall, which is huge. After a few purchases and a quick stop at Salam to see their expensive designer collections, we returned to the villa, picked up Scott, and went to the pool for some sun - it was the warmest day we had during their whole visit - and exercise. While Anna and Scott packed, I went to the Turkish Star for "take away" mixed grill, fettoush, and a mazza platter. Their flight left about midnight, so I dropped them at the airport about 10:00 - sob.

Anna and I have already IM'd today - they've arrived safely in Paris where they will spend New Year's Eve. I'm not sure yet if I'll do much for New Year's Eve or not, but I do have two bottles of champagne. Maybe someone will be interested in ringing in the New Year with me - I'll call a few friends tomorrow and see! Happy New Year to you all!