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First Week in Qatar Posted on: 1/20/08 at 12:54:14 PM

I've put off writing about my experience in Qatar for long enough so now is a good time to start. For those of you who haven't heard, I graduated from Carnegie Mellon a semester early, and decided to be a teaching assistant at Carnegie Mellon's campus in Qatar. Qatar is a small oil rich country in the Middle East, bordering Saudi Arabia and across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Qatar's government has decided to invest much of their oil money in education, and the result is Education City, a compound containing satellite campuses of several American universities, including Carnegie Mellon. I've been in the country for two weeks now and had my share of ups and downs. The flight over was very nice. I flew business class on but was upgraded to first class for both of my flights. Flying first class for the first flight from Boston to Dulles, Virginia was not too special since it was a short flight. Flying from Dulles to Doha, Qatar was a whole different experience. The seat, or should I say booth was about the size of six seats in coach. The buttons on the side allowed the seat to fully recline into a bed. Dinner was a four course meal served with champaign and there were two flight attendants dedicated to the six first class passengers. Each seat had its own TV with a large selection of movies. Also I got a nice set of complementary pajamas. Unfortunately I was perhaps too comfortable on the trip over and slept too much, making it harder to adjust to the new time zone.

The rest of the day did not go as well. When I arrived in Doha, I discovered that one of my bags was still sitting in Virginia. Apparently paying $8500 for a flight does not guarantee that your bags make it. I was met at the airport by Jim Gartner and his wife, who give me a ride to my apartment. Unfortunately she had bad directions and it took us over 2 hours to find the place. We got to the apartment complex fine, but we had no idea which apartment was mine. The apartment complex is huge, about a tenth of a square mile with over 50 buildings. The key we had said 1aa2-6 but there were no buildings with that label. We asked the guard for help but he had no clue either. He explained that they had recently changed the numbering scheme for the apartments and our directions were using the old numbering scheme. Eventually the guard resorted to going door to door and trying the key we had. Luckily we were in the generally correct area so he was eventually able to find the room. Turns out I am in building 4. Go figure.

The apartment itself is very nice. It is slightly bigger than the apartment I had in Pittsburgh, except that was a two person apartment and I have the place here to myself. The apartment came complete with bed linens, cooking ware, laundry machines and big screen TV. The refrigerator came pre-stocked with food so I could survive the first several days without having to go grocery shopping. The internet connection is comparable to the connection I have at home, which most importantly is fast enough to make cheap Skype phone calls.

The first week was filled mainly with orientation events. This included orientation to being a full time employee at Carnegie Mellon, teaching assistant orientation and orientation to Qatar and Education City. I got to meet the other seven TAs, six of whom are architecture majors and one of whom is computer science. I am the only one who has already graduated. Everyone else is taking a few courses to finish up, and then graduating in May. The nice thing about working here is due to the smallness of the academic community, being a teaching assistant here has a higher status than in Pittsburgh, and I get invited to meetings that in Pittsburgh would be faculty only. Thus I got to attend faculty orientation and meet all the new professors. While CMU Qatar only offers computer science and business bachelors degrees, most of the new professors where not in these fields, including professors in architecture, design and social science. There are no plans at the moment to increase the choices of majors and minors offered, so these professors will be mainly teaching introductory elective courses. Originally the plan at Education City was to share general requirement courses between all the universities here, however this proved too hard to coordinate, and thus CMU as moved more towards the model of providing its own gen-ed classes.

At the end of faculty orientation we got to meet a panel of CMU Qatar students. While students come from all over the region, most of parents that work in the country and most attended high school in Doha. Native Qatari's are a minority of the student population, and very much unlike CMU Pittsburgh, girls outnumber boys, partly because many boys leave the country to go to college, but families here are reluctant to send their daughters abroad. Business majors vastly outnumber computer science majors. The main surprise for me in this meeting was when I asked them about their future plans, most of them wanted to obtain a graduate degree. Also while it is hard to tell just by talking to them, money did not seems to be a big motivating factor for most of them compared to helping improve the lives of people in their home countries and throughout the world.

Education City itself is pretty amazing. It's a tribute to what a country can do when it has too much oil money. Currently there are five American universities at Education City: Virginia Common Wealth, Texas A&M, Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown. Since the Carnegie Mellon building is still in the process of being built, we are currently sharing the LAS building with Georgetown. All the buildings have unique architecture, with Texas A&M looking the best in my opinion, which has an entranceway somewhat resembling an Aztec temple. The campus also includes Qatar Academy, which is a middle school and high school, as well as a gym with an olympic size swimming pool. Current under construction is a huge convention center, a research park, which they hope high tech industries move into (Microsoft already has an office there, as do the major oil companies), and even a horse racetrack.

And now to adventures with driving. My car, a Chevy Optra, arrived the night of the first full day I was here but I was reluctant to drive anywhere other than school. Driving here is very dangerous. There are around 300 accidents a day, in a city with a population of only half a million. While people do drive on the right, the road system is heavily influenced by the British, meaning tons of roundabouts instead of traffic lights. While roundabouts are very nice when there is little traffic they mean you have to preform a potentially dangerous merger every half mile and they tend to get clogged under any traffic load. Adding to the craziness is the city is undergoing rapid expansion. Any map of the city is already out of date by the time it goes into print and there are lots of dead end roads that end in the open desert. Road are being made faster then they can be named, or at least labeled with signs, thus the best way to navigate is through use of landmarks. Also there are no addresses, so the usual approach of typing the address into Google does not work. Also Google has no detailed map data for Doha.

Even driving to school the first day was a bit of an adventure. Since I live in Qatar Foundation housing, I'm only a five minute drive from Education City, which essentially involves only two turns. Nonetheless I managed to get lost, and to make matters worse, when the rental company dropped off the car, the gas needle was on empty, a fact I did not discover until after I got lost. I managed to find my way there ten minutes later, but it was quite a stressful 10 minutes. The drive home was much smoother, and I got directions to a nearby gas station. Gas here cost about 73 cents a gallon and it's a real nice feeling to able to fill your tank for about $10.

On my second day with the car, I had to drive to the airport to pick up my missing suitcase. The airport is about 15 miles away and on the complete opposite side of the city. I originally asked Qatar Airways to deliver my suitcase to my apartment. This was not easy to do, since due to lack of addresses, I had to give them directions on how to get there. When the driver finally arrived two hours late, he had the wrong suitcase and Qatar Airways said they weren't sure where my suitcase was and that I would have to go to the airport to sort it out. Initially I was planning to get a ride to the airport with another CMU person but that ended up falling though, so I had to drive myself. Luckily I got a good set of directions from Jim Gartner and I was able to make it there and back without incident, or even a wrong turn. When I got to the airport, the person at the counter insisted that they had already delivered my suitcase. When I convinced him otherwise, he told me to wait while they located it. After waiting for half an hour with no response, they let me enter security to talk with the manager. That turned out to be unnecessary, as my bag was sitting right in front of his desk. In fact it was the only bag that was sitting in front of his desk. I have no idea how it got there, but in the end I guess it doesn't matter. I was able to return home happily reunited with my suitcase. And the root cause for all of this trouble? Who else but the TSA, who hand inspected my suitcase, causing it to miss the connecting flight.

Driving the next day, I was not so lucky. I was driving to the nearby grocery store when I hit a small but deep pothole. If I had been traveling a few inches to the left or right, I probably would have been OK, as the pothole was about the width of my tire, but I ended up hitting it dead on. It tore off my hubcap and bent the rim of my wheel, but I was able to pull into the parking lot of the nearby grocery store. I called Fadhel, the CMU guy who coordinates the car rentals, and he sent repairmen out to fix it. It is going to cost $250, quite expensive for only four days of driving. I went back to try to find my lost hubcap, but instead I found someone else's hubcap next to the same pothole, so I guess I'm in good company.

The next day I had another driving incident. It was Friday, which is the Muslim holy day, so it is a very good time to practice driving. I decided to drive out to the Vilagio Mall. The mall itself was pretty cool since it had a full size hockey rink as well as a cannel that runs the length of the main hallway through the mall, complete with gondolas. To go to shops on the other side of the hall, you had to cross on one of the numerous foot bridges. Also the entrances to stores are made to look like building facades, to make you feel like you are strolling down a street in a European city. Keep in mind that this is all inside. After leaving the mall, I decided to head home via a different route. Since this is in a newer part of the city, they switched over to using traffic lights instead of roundabouts. The timing of traffic lights here is different than in the United States. The green light blinks before turning to yellow, and the yellow light is extremely short. As I approached an intersection, the light blink green, so I took my foot off the gas, but unfortunately did not start to break. By the time the light turned yellow, I was going too fast to stop, and if I slammed on the breaks, I probably would have skidded into the middle of the intersection, so I keep on driving. I don't recall the light turning red, so I'm not sure if I made it through but it was definitely close. Running a red light in this country is a very serious offence, carrying a $3000 fine. They install cameras at many intersections, and driving through that intersection the next day, I confirmed that there was indeed a camera present. Violations are posted to a website, allowing you to pay them online. So far, no violations have appeared on my car, but I heard it can take between three weeks and three months for them to show up. If I don't pay my violations they won't let me leave the country. Needless to say I was pretty distraught for the rest of the day, and didn't get much sleep that night. Now, a week later, I'm more optimistic, and try to worry about it as little as possible, since at this point, there is nothing I can do about it. Also I tried to put the situation in perspective. Although it would suck to pay a $3000 fine, I can definitely afford it, unlike many of the poor worker in this country, where $3000 would be half a years salary that they desperately need to feed their families back home. Also on the plus side, worrying about having to pay $3000 has made me not care as much about pay $250 to have my car wheel fixed.

Wow, that was a lot more than I intended to write. As you can see the first week was quite eventful and stressful. Now that I've started to adjust and school has started, things have calmed down quite a bit. Since this entry is already too long, I'll give you the details in my next entry.

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