I've completely failed to keep this blog up to date. This is partly because I've been lazy, but also because I've been fairly busy. Since I call people at home quite frequently, I am less inclined to write. Now that I've been back in the states I have less of an excuse, although I have been quite busy lately. In the last seven weekends, I've been to Doha, Dubai, Cairo, Boston (suburbs), Pittsburgh and New York City and in a week and a half, I'll be in the San Francisco bay area. At this point I'm tired of traveling, and am looking forward to settling down, although I'm apprehensive about moving to the west coast permanently. I'm definitely glad I took the time to travel, as I only get 12 days of vacation with my job at Apple, so I may never get an opportunity like this again. Overall I'm very glad I spent a semester in Doha. My parents' fears about safety turned out to be unfounded, as Doha is probably safer than most American cities. I was also way too busy to get bored, as many people thought I would.
The end of the semester was a success. I am proud to say that everyone passed the algorithms class. This means that there will be ten seniors graduating from the Computer Science program this year with 3 more graduation in August after they complete some additional work. Since CMUQ has only been around for 4 years, this will be our first graduating class. The success of our students in algorithms vindicates the hard work of the faculty and staff here. There is always the concern especially among faculty in Pittsburgh, that the education students receive here is inferior to the education they would receive in Pittsburgh, but in algorithms we gave the same homework and tests. I was especially harsh in grading the final so I can comfortably say that the grades students received aren't due to grade inflation, but are the product of a semester of hard work. CMUQ may lack the superstar students that Pittsburgh has, but that's a function of the class size. Fewer students mean fewer As but fewer Fs as well.
I promised in my last entry that I'd talk about some of my experiences outside of school. I did many actives that I'd normally do in the states, like go bowling and go to the movies, though I admit that watching a movie like Vantage Point, where the villains are Muslim terrorists seems a bit different when you are watching the movie with a Muslim majority audience in the middle east. Other activities were quite different, such as watching camel races, and going dune bashing in SUVs and quad bikes in the desert. Toward the end of the semester I've spent very long days at the office helping students complete the semester and prepare for the final. Other than that I mainly keep myself busy by biking. I had my bicycle shipped out using my generous shipping allowance. Every Friday and Saturday morning there is a group of about 4 to 6 riders get together at the dean's house. To tell the truth, riding here is not that great. It's completely flat, usually windy with not much to look at. Also towards the end of the semester, as expected, it started to get incredibly hot. This meant to beat the sun, we'd have to get up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 or 5:00 to go for a ride. Nevertheless I had a good time. Biking in Qatar could present unique challenges that would not occur elsewhere. For example, one day I was doing a 20 mile solo ride in the desert behind my apartment complex. On the way back a lone camel stood in the middle of the road blocking my path.
Since Qatar is such a small country, it is possible to bike across it in a single day. I didn't quite manage to do this but did an 80 mile ride across half the country. You can see pictures here. The ride was supposed to be 100 miles, but I was out of shape and the heat did me in. What's kind of embarrassing is the 3 guys I was biking with were much older than I, including the dean, who's in his 50s, and yet they finished fine. We took advantage of the massive construction that is occurring across the country, to ride on roads that were not yet open to traffic. A little over half way through the ride, we ran low on water, so we stopped at a grocery store on the outskirts of Al Khor, a settlement north of Doha. As would be expected, people outside the capital are much more conservative, so when we walked into the supermarket with our spandex biking shorts, we were met with stares of disapproval. Remember, this is in a society where exposing your kneecaps is considered impolite. The people in the supermarket were in such a hurry to get us out of there, they had us cut the entire line. Todd, one of the guys I was biking with, later told me that a "conservative gentleman" reprimanded him for wearing shorts. When Todd complained about the heat, the man simply told him that he should not be biking in this weather, and he should be riding in an air conditioned car.
This stands in stark contrast to the younger generation, especially those enrolled in Education City. It seems American pop culture has infected the world, and Qatar is no exception. In the hallways I could hear people discussing the latest Brittany Spears shenanigans, and when I attended a barbecue party my students threw, they danced to hip hop music, including some of the women whom I thought would be more conservative, since they wore abayas. To celebrate graduation, my students wanted to play paintball. When one of the faculty members convinced them that this was a bad idea, they settled for a water ballon fight instead, during which their abayas got quite soaked.
Much bigger than the difference between generations is the difference between classes. While Qatar has improved quite a bit over the years, human right abuses do occur which you can read about here. The working migrant labor force that makes up the majority of the population of the country remains largely hidden and ignored. Class segregation is the norm and any intentional or unintentional breach of this creates an awkward situation. I have two stories that illustrate this. For spring break, I met up with my family in Istanbul. To get there, instead of taking the more expensive direct flight with Qatar airways, I flew Gulf Air with a layover in . When I got to the Doha airport, there were two lines to go through security, one for Qatar Airways, and one for everything else, which is considered lower class. I got in the non Qatar Airlines line with a bunch of Nepali migrant workers catching a flight to Katmandu, so naturally I stood out as an American. Soon after I got in line, I was approached by an airport employee who asked me if I was in the correct line. When he didn't believe me, I had to show him my Gulf Air tickets. He then told me that I needed to move to the front of the line, cutting about 20 Nepali workers in the process. I complied since I didn't want to make a scene, but I felt a bit guilty about the whole thing. The Nepali workers didn't complain, I guess they are used to treatment like that.
The reverse situation happened when I took a weekend trip to Dubai. On a Friday night I was trying to get back to my youth hostel from Dubai Creek by bus. Unfortunately Friday is the day many migrant workers have off, and many of them needed to take the same bus to get back to their quarters. While Dubai has tons of oil money and foreign investments, most of this money goes towards catering to the rich and building extravagant things, such as the Burj Dubai, and improving the mass transit system is not a high priority. Thus the buses run very infrequently and are quite crowded. I waited at the bus station with hundreds of migrant workers for an hour and a half before I got to the front of the line. Right when I was about to get on the bus, one of the guys working at the station blocked me from getting on the bus and said something in a language I could not understand. Then he let a couple of the migrant workers standing behind me get on the bus, and the bus took off. Since I wasn't sure if they would let me on the next bus, which probably wouldn't come for an hour, I decided to try to catch a taxi instead. Unfortunately, as it was rush hour on a Friday, many people were trying to catch taxis and I tried for half an hour to hail a taxi, but ended up without a ride. There were a few people in unmarked vehicles that offered me a ride, but they wanted twice the fare that taxis charged, and I wasn't sure if I could trust them, so I turned them down. I ended up walking back to the youth hostel which was about 10 miles away. I didn't have a very detailed map of Dubai, so I ended up getting a bit lost in the process. Most of the walk was along sidewalks next to well lit roads with a lot of traffic. Towards the end it got a bit interesting, as I ended up walking on the sand, next to the main high way through the UAE, and I had to run across merging lanes and cross an overpass. The walk took about 3 hours and I arrived back in my room around midnight. Luckily Dubai is a very safe city, and nothing bad happened to me, but it probably wasn't the best decision I made.
Since there is so much to write about, I can't possibly write about it all, I will share a random story. Perhaps the craziest thing that happened to me in Qatar occurred when driving back form a day of dune bashing with Zaher and Irmgard. Zaher is a male Arab Isreali grad student in computer science from the University of Michigan, and Irmgard is a female Austrian postdoc from the University of Vienna. We all share an office so I hung out with them a lot. By the time we were driving back from Sealine beach resort, in the southern part of the country, it had already been a long day. I helped proctor a high school programming competition in the morning and spent the afternoon driving a quad bike through the sand dunes. On the drive back to Doha, we made a wrong turn and instead of taking the short way along the coast, we ended up driving the long way through the middle of the country. The road we ended up on, which we later learned was called Al Salwa road, was under a lot of construction and was heavily trafficked by large trucks. Naturally the road quality was very poor and there were many pot holes. When we were about 30 miles away from Doha, as she exited a roundabout, Irmgard hit a huge pothole. Similar to what happened to me in my first week in Doha, this pothole bent the rim of the front right wheel and flatted the tire. When we got out to swap in the spare, the sun had already set. When we were finally on our way again, we heard a strange noise from the back tire as well and came to the realization that it was slowly going flat. We couldn't pull over immediately, as the entire right side of the road was blocked off due to construction, so we turned on our emergency lights and drove extremely slowly to the next exit, all the while huge trucks thundered by on our right.
Since we had already used our only spare, we were now stuck in the middle of the desert. Luckily we all had cell phones, and cell phone reception in Qatar is amazing. I never found a single spot in the country where I couldn't get signal. We called Fadhel, the coordinator for CMU car rentals, and he in turn called a tow truck from Triple A (like a lot of American things they exist in Qatar as well). Unfortunately the tow truck drivers did not speak good English. Since Zaher speaks Arabic, this would not have been a problem, except the tow truck drivers did not speak good Arabic either. Like many of the workers in Qatar, they were from the Indian subcontinent, and thus neither English nor Arabic was their native tongue. Compounding the language barrier was the additional problem that we didn't know exactly where we were. Two hours passed while Zaher yelled at the tow truck drivers, alternating between English in Arabic. Eventually his cell phone ran out of batteries so Irmgard had to lend him hers. In the mean time, Irmgard had to urinate, but there was no place to go as we were stuck in the desert. There was a bush a little ways down the road, but it happened to be next to a mosque. Just as Irmgrad was going behind the tree, the mosque started to blast the evening call to prayer. Zaher and I freaked out, but luckily no one saw her. We teased her about this for the rest of the semester.
Finally the tow truck arrived. Unfortunately there were two people in the tow truck and there was only room for one additional person. The tow truck drivers recommended that the remaining two people ride in the car as it was being towed. Luckily this was a flat bed tow truck, so the entire car was elevated onto the bed of the truck and chained down, making this much safer than a traditional tow truck. We opted to have Zaher ride in the tow truck since he would be able to communicate best with the drivers. As we approached the city, Zaher called from the front to let us know that the tow truck drivers wanted us to lie flat. Apparently riding in a car that is being towed is illegal, which they hadn't bothered to tell us beforehand, and they didn't want the cops to see us. Luckily we arrived at the auto repair shop without incident where they replaced the tires and bent the rims back into shape. To celebrate, Irmgard took Zaher and I out to Turkey central, perhaps the best Turkish restaurant in all of Qatar.
I have plenty of other stories as well, but I'm too lazy to type them up. I'm moving to California in a week to start full time employment at Apple Computer. Given my horrendous record, I probably won't be writing updates for a very long time unless something unusually exciting or interesting happens. Despite the mishaps, going to Qatar was once in a life time experience that I'm glad I took. When Majd, a professor I worked closely with and cycled with, was driving me to the airport for the final time, he asked me what I am going to miss the most about Qatar. I jokingly replied "the low gas prices". In actuality I'll probably miss the sense of community the most. The small student body and faculty size created an environment where everyone knew and cared about everyone. The small class size also allowed me to concentrate on individual students and really make a difference in their learning. Realistically I relies I will probably never go back to Qatar. I would like to return in 2016 if Doha ends up hosting the Olympic games to see how things have changed, but this is a remote possibility contingent on my time, money and priorities eight years from now. Also it would have made a lot more financial sense to start working at Apple right away instead of traveling to the middle east. What made the trip worthwhile was the experience and what I learned both about the middle east and myself. As my first time traveling and living abroad alone, I've gained self confidence and although I've made some bad decisions, I've gained some street smarts and learned to rely and depend on myself. I could still use quite a bit of improvement, especially in my negotiation skills (I was probably ripped off many times in Egypt), but at least it's a start. Also I've realized that I like teaching quite a bit and this has made me reconsider grad school. I'll be working in industry for the next few years, but I could see myself eventually go back to school, and possibly become a professor in the very distant future. Perhaps by that time, I'll get around to write another entry, and hope you'll still have the attention span to read it.