Monday, June 30, 2014

Ramadan 2014 - Day 1 Continued, Where’s the Artillery?

So after an afternoon nap I packed up some food and water and went down to the Corniche area to see the Ramadan cannon, which fires to signal the end of fasting.

When I got to the lot the cars were all there . . .

The fence and people were there . . .

Reporters and TV crews were there . . .

But wait a sec, where's the cannon?

For some reason the cannon wasn't there! Everyone waited around but no military personnel appeared and then we heard a nearby mosque sound the end of the fast. Strange, I wonder what happened to the cannon? I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be there. TV crews were there and you figure if the military wasn't going to be holding things there they would have informed the media.

I'll try going again in a few days. [July 1 update: the cannon has been moved to the State Mosque]

From the Corniche it was off to Souq Waqif to catch the Netherlands vs Mexico match (game was okay, then went into overdrive for that crazy-crazy last 10 minutes). Aside from the match the souq was pretty quiet, at half-time (8pm) some of the restaurants weren't open and the ones that were didn't have a lot of customers. Chances are most Muslims were at evening prayers called Tarawih so they’d probably be out later in the evening.

I'm going to see the 11pm match tonight (Algeria!) so we'll see if maybe the souq picks up after nine or so. There’ll definitely be a lot of Algerians there.

I had a snack at half-time and then a mixed grill at around 11pm. I think it was too much food, my stomach didn't feel that great afterward. I’ll try to cut back on mid-evening meals and stick to iftar and the 3am meals as my main ones.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ramadan 2014 – Day 1, Rough Beginning

So did everyone watch that Brazil versus Chile match? That match was crazy!

Anyway, after I got back from watching the game I got everything prepared for my first sohour meal. Set it all up on my nightstand then set the alarm for 3:10am so that I could eat before the fast. Especially important to have liquids since you can't drink water during the fast.

Iftar (the meal to break the fast) isn’t until around 6:30pm so that means over 15 hours without any food or drink, and I still have to commute to work in temperatures over 40°. Whoever invented air conditioning is a lifesaver!

So in the morning I opened my eyes a little and saw some daylight peeking through the curtains. How could that be, the alarm is supposed to go off before sunrise? Sure enough the battery had died on my alarm clock and it was actually 5am. Technically it was too late to eat the food that was on my nightstand but I'm not being as strict about this as a Muslim would be so I woke up and started eating. That's when I accidentally knocked the bowl of nuts off the nightstand, scattering nuts all over the floor. The bread was stale (blah) and there was no way I was going to drink the glass of laban -- it'd been sitting on my nightstand for over six hours. All in all not a great start to my Ramadan meals. I went back to bed and slept a little longer before going to work. At least because it’s Ramadan and most people are fasting working hours have been reduced, which makes it a bit easier to get home to have a nap before iftar.

Today there were a lot of well-wishes from people for the holiday. Some stopped by my desk, others sent texts or messages. Some of the messages even contained images with Ramadan tidings.

It's also time to plan meeting friends for iftars and sohours. I've already got one invite for this weekend. People may think that because you're fasting all day everyone loses weight during the month but in fact it's the opposite. Ramadan can be quite festive and there are lots of invitations to iftars and sohours, and people buy a lot of sweets for eating during the month. Many restaurants and all the major hotels also have huge buffets on offer. If you're not careful you usually wind up gaining weight instead of losing it.

Normally for iftar I would make a meal at home but the World Cup is complicating the schedule a bit. Tonight I'm planning to break the fast by watching the Ramadan Cannon near the Corniche, but I also want to catch the World Cup match starting at 7pm (Netherlands versus Mexico, should be a good game). So tonight it's off to the Corniche, see the cannon at 6:30pm, munch on some dates and a banana in the car, and drive to Souq Waqif to catch the kickoff. Despite the heat the Souq is becoming more popular for watching the matches so it can get crowded. I'll have a snack at half-time and get something more solid to eat after the match.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ramadan 2014 starts tomorrow night

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced that the crescent moon was not sighted so Ramadan will start tomorrow night.

Unlike the Western calendar the months in the Islamic calendar begin when the crescent moon is sighted. This means that the start of end of a month can vary by +/- a day. I think some countries use astronomical calculations to determine the start of the month but Saudi Arabia and Qatar still use the traditional method of sighting the crescent moon.

So fasting begins Sunday.

2014 Ramadan Preparation

With all the issues about my recent car accident I forgot to mention that Ramadan is almost here! It could even start tonight. And like other years I too will fast in order to experience Ramadan much like the Muslims here do.

Even though I haven't been blogging about it I have been getting ready. Over the last couple of weeks I've been slowly weaning myself off the caffeine: reducing the number of cups of coffee or making some of them decaf, then switching to tea, then reducing the amount of tea. If you like drinking coffee then weaning yourself off the caffeine is crucial before you start fasting otherwise you start Ramadan off with severe caffeine withdrawal. I haven't had any caffeinated tea or coffee for the last couple of days so it won't be a problem to not have any coffee during the day (but I will be having a bit of coffee in the evenings, see below).

I've also got most of my Ramadan food stocked:


Olives, nuts, and Arabic coffee (it contains the spice cardamom)

And some Ramadan-related reading material. I'll be reading the Al-Muslim Hadiths this month, and a friend of mine is due to return from vacation shortly and he'll be bringing me a couple of other books to read on Islamic History.

And as always I'll be posting frequently during the month with experiences and other general things about Ramadan.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Renew Your Car Registration

In Qatar every year you need to renew the registration on your vehicle. It's actually a straightforward process, here's how it works.

1) If your car is more than three years old it has to undergo an annual inspection. Here's a link to a post I did about how to get your car inspected. You will need to have the paper with you showing that your car has passed.

2) You will need to have proof of valid insurance for your car, usually your insurance expires around about the same time as you need to review your car. Review your insurance and have a copy with you when you go to renew your registration. (They will keep the paper so make sure you have a copy of your insurance policy for yourself)

3) Go to the Traffic Department. They used to have a convenient kiosk in the basement of City Center Mall but someone told me a week ago that it was no longer there. I couldn't find information on anywhere else you could go except for the main Traffic Department in the Madinat Khalifa neighbourhood. It's located pretty close to the Shammal/22nd February highway, between LandMark and Al Saad. It’s a new building, if you've been in Qatar while and you're familiar with the Traffic Department that building is closed, the new one is located across the main road from there.

The building looks like this:

3a) when you park you’ll probably see a bunch of guys standing around, mostly Africans, who will then offer to help you with the process for a fee. These guys do speak Arabic but I found that the employees in the Traffic Department had no problem speaking English so you don't need to hire an "assistant". Maybe for more complicated things you might need the help if you don’t speak Arabic.

3b) You will need to bring with you a copy of your insurance, your soon-to-be-expired registration, and the car inspection paper (if your car had to be inspected).

3c) you will see signs outside that say “Licensing and Registration” which point off away from the building. Don't bother wandering off in search of where this is taking you, just go to the main entrance.

4) Going through the main entrance you will enter a HUGE room, with a large round desk about 30 feet in front of you. That's the reception, go there first and tell them you're renewing your registration, they'll then give you a numbered ticket and direct you to an area where the counters are that handle registration renewals (behind them and to the left, but they might direct you somewhere else if you are a lady as I saw a cordoned off “ladies waiting area”).

[Sorry, no pictures, I always get a bit nervous about taking pictures inside Government buildings in this part of the world]

5) When your number is called go up to the appropriate counter.

6) Give them your registration, proof of insurance, and the car inspection paper. Now do you have any outstanding fines or speeding tickets? If you're not sure you’ll find out as they will add the fines to your registration fee. The regular fee is QAR 100, plus any outstanding tickets/fines. They accept debit and credit cards, I'm not sure if they take cash.

7) Once you've paid they will then print out a new registration card for you -- you're done!

Hope this helps.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So, Speaking of Car Accidents . . .

Today while I was in my car waiting at a light a taxi zoomed up and ran into the back of my car!

Over seven years without an accident and now twice in four months I have been hit from behind while stopped at an intersection. *sigh* This one was bad too, most of the trunk was caved in.

So I called the police. Since no one was injured and the taxi driver agreed he was at fault (it would be pretty hard to argue otherwise, unless I somehow reversed into him at 50 kph) the guy on the phone told me to come to the traffic station in Madinat Khalifa to file a report.

So off to the traffic station, filed a report, then tried to go to the insurance company but they were already closed for the day. So now I have a wrecked car sitting in front of my apartment building. As soon as they saw the car the security guards at my apartment building were asking me what the heck happened -- the rear of the car is pretty smashed up. We'll see what the insurance company says tomorrow.

A couple hours after the accident I realized I was still feeling kind of light-headed. I took a nap and still felt the same. Not in pain, and there’s no bump on my head, but similar to that feeling you get when you oversleep. Maybe I have a mild concussion from my head slamming into my seat when my car was run into. I went for a walk this evening and ate some dinner and felt a bit better but still have a bit of this “fog”. Hopefully I feel better tomorrow, otherwise I'll have to conclude that I did get a mild concussion and so will have to take it easy for the next few days.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The New Hamad International Airport

This weekend I happened to be in Wakra so I figured I'd stop by and take a look at the new Hamad International Airport which opened about a month ago.

First reaction: wow, it sure is a lot farther away than the old airport. While it is close to the old airport it's probably an extra 6-8 km of driving to get to the entrance (unless you live in Wakra in which case it’s probably a bit closer). Bear that in mind when going there, it'll take a bit more time and I'm assuming taxis will charge more.

As you drive in you pass by a small lake with fountains, from which you can see the VVIP “Emiri Terminal”. Looks nice. Naturally I couldn't get any closer than this.

For now parking is free, though that won't last for long and there are barriers and machines already set-up for when they want to start charging fees. I think because of the free parking a lot of people were parking their car at the airport then going on vacation, it was actually difficult to find a parking space. The first lot was completely full, but if you keep going forward to the West Lot there were some spots available there.

The parking spaces have little indicators to track how many spaces are free. Unfortunately some of them were not working properly so there would be a sign saying that there were a few empty parking spaces in this row only for there to actually be no parking spaces available. (In the picture below you can see that the parking space indicator is still green even though there is a vehicle parked there).

In between the two parking lots is a small park area with a mosque in the middle.

What was nice was the enclosed areas with moving walkways that you could use to get from the parking lot to the airport. It was air conditioned so you didn't have to walk too far in the heat.

The arrivals floor certainly had a lot more space than the old airport. This section was nearly empty, most of the people waiting for arrivals were in the middle of the airport. Plenty of seats if you wanted to sit in the areas to the left and right of the arrival doors. There's even some artwork in the area.

Nice new boards with the arrivals information.

Here's a nice touch, the board tells you when all of the bags have been unloaded from a flight, so if you are waiting for someone to arrive you'll have a better sense of when they will be coming out.

In the departures area there is definitely a lot more space than before. There are 10 rows of counters for checking people in. Qatar Airways has the first 6, with check-in for the other airlines in 7-10.

Qatar Airways tried to keep the fanciness of its previous Premium Terminal. The check-in area for Qatar Airways business-class passengers has some nice seating.

Food and beverage was still a bit limited, there was one café (Faraggi) on the arrivals floor and another small café on the departure floor. There was also a small bookshop and store where you could buy things like bags of chips. A few more places were being renovated so there will be other options available soon.

Unfortunately I wasn't flying anywhere so I couldn't go past the check-in to see the rest of the airport. I look forward to seeing it on my next trip.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

World Cup at Souq Waqif

It's World Cup time! I don't have a TV package that shows the games, so far I've been going to Souq Waqif to watch. The Government has set up two outdoor screens and so far hundreds of people are gathering to watch. The weather has been really dry so by the evening it's no problem standing around outside to watch the games. If it gets humid though I might sit in some of the restaurants or cafés at the Souq instead – a few of them are showing the games on TVs inside.

I don't normally follow soccer but I like the World Cup, it's pretty gripping drama watching entire countries be elated or crushed depending on what happens on a soccer pitch. Loved the last one in South Africa - I joked that the Golden Glove Award should have gone to Luis Suarez, what a game that was. Anyway, this time around I can't say I'm rooting for anyone in particular but I'll admit I was as shocked as anyone at that Spain versus Netherlands game. Who knew it would be such a blowout? I wonder who's going to be that underdog team that has a good run of the World Cup this year, maybe Chile?

Anyway if you want to watch the games and don't want to go to the Souq, most hotels and shisha cafés should be showing it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vehicle Fatality Rates in Qatar

So there was a recent article in Doha News about the police trying to clamp down on traffic offenders. Looking at some of the comments and having discussions with people here a lot of people dislike the traffic in Doha and find the driving hazardous, too many people ignoring the rules and doing reckless things. That the death toll last April was 29 fatalities also sparked conversation about safety on Qatar’s roads.

I last looked at the statistics for road safety back in 2011 and found that while it had improved it was still behind Western countries. So how about now?

The Government now publishes monthly statistics on road accidents so I took a look at January through April 2014. So here's a bit of math:

Current number of fatalities for 2014: 69 (29+13+13+14)

Extrapolate to the entire year: 69 x 3 = 207 (which would be less than the number of fatalities in 2010 at 226)

If the average population is 2.1 million the fatalities per 100,000 people is 207/21 = 9.86

How does that compare? Well, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) in the United States compiled the fatality rate per 100,000 vehicles for all the states. Would you be surprised to learn that a rate of 9.86 is below average for the United States!? Yep, the average rate in the United States is 10.7, with a range from 5.3 for Massachusetts up to 24.3 for North Dakota. Surprising, right?

So I think Qatar may have more accidents overall but most of the accidents are not serious so the number of fatalities is comparable to the United States.

I’m not sure why this is. Speed may play a role, the higher fatality rates in the US tended to be in a more rural areas in Mid-West and South, possibly with more “wide-open” roads so people can speed easier, whereas in Doha the traffic congestion can prevent a lot of speeding and thus fatal accidents. That said the US statistics also include motorcycle deaths (~14% of fatalities) whereas the rate would be a lot lower in Qatar, so the fatality rate for cars would be higher.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Low-Income Housing

With the population growing by 10% (around 200,000 people) a year housing is really becoming difficult to find. It's even worse for people who don't make a lot of money, Doha is an expensive city and for low income workers who do not have housing provided by their employer it can be difficult to find accommodation.

It's easy to see how many people from South or East Asia could be caught off-guard. You're working in your own country for something like $3-5 a day and you get an offer to work in Qatar for a nice salary, plus a housing allowance of around $300-500 (1100 to 1800 QAR) a month. Sounds like a deal, right?

Here's some ads that were posted on a bulletin board at a shopping center:

So that doesn’t even get you a room. If two of you shared the room you’d maybe be able to afford it. If your allowance was double that you’d be able to afford a room on your own -- maybe. I don't think many people who accept jobs with housing allowances realize just how expensive housing is, and many employers don't appear to be raising the salaries or allowances to make up for the spiraling rents.

But how is it that you can rent just a room? The answer is because someone has rented a large villa and then partitioned it into a number of rooms, renting each one out separately. It's quite common and a way to make it affordable for low-income people to find a place to rent, while the landlord can earn more rent than if he simply rented the villa to a family. It does mean though that anywhere from 10-30 people could wind up living in a villa.

The Government has now decided to crack down on the practice.

Down near the bottom of the article says it all – there are no apartments for rent less than 4,500 QAR a month (and I'm guessing anything below 5,000 a month is pretty rare). So if you crack down on the partitioned villas where are the thousands of people who are living in them supposed to go? Have someone rent a one-bedroom apartment then have five people stay there? At least in a partitioned villa you had your own room for some semblance of privacy.

Actually, 1100-1800 QAR is higher than many receive. Check out the follow up article:

One guy is paying 600 QAR a month sharing two rooms with four other guys. The five of them together are facing a 50% rent increase to rent one of those 4,500-a-month apartments. I doubt employers are going to start increasing housing allowances by 50% anytime soon.

I agree with the sentiments of people in the articles, a supply of low-income housing is needed first before cracking down on partitioned villas and throwing people out. The issue is not partitioned villas, it's the lack of affordable housing in the housing market and unrealistic salaries that forces people into this situation. Fix those issues first.