Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Qatar Drivers License Update

Tuesday, October 18
My appointment to take the written test is scheduled for 8:00am, so I call an Uber driver nice and early and we arrive at the driving school at 7:30am - plenty of time to spare. I walk up to the front door. The CORRECT door. The door you can actually get to because it actually has stairs leading up to it. But first, of course I had to snap a picture for you all of the other door that threw me off last week.

After snapping this picture, I walk up to the correct door, give it a pull's locked. Oh, okay, they must not open until right at 8:00am, then. I'll just wait. 
Well. It's hot. Like real hot. It might be only 7:30 in the morning, but it's already pushing 90 degrees and the humidity is making me feel like I'm sitting in a warm bathtub in the middle of a steam room, and there's no escaping it. Plus there's no shade to wait in. Full sun exposure. I walk up to the door a few times, trying it again, just to make sure they haven't unlocked it yet. I feel like I might see some figures moving around inside, but I can't be sure because the glass door is coated with a very dark sun protection screen. I figure they must be the employees and I don't want to look like I'm being pushy, so I give it a few tries, but not too many. At about 7:45, I finally give up and go sit on some nearby steps, with the sun beating down on me.
At about 7:49, I can't take the heat anymore. The back of my shirt is soaked through and I can feel the moisture literally dripping down my arms. I look down the way (past the No Stairs Door) and realize there is a QNB ATM inside of a little tiny room, attached to the outside of the building. And the little tiny room has a little tiny air conditioner in it! So I go into the little tiny room and decide to wait in there until 8:00. I get some cash out with my shiny new bank card. I check my teeth in the security mirror on the ATM. I reach my arms out as far as I can to see if I can touch both walls at the same time (almost!). I gaze out the glass doors at the view of the construction across the street. I look at the overflowing trashcan, bored and curious to know what other people have done in this little tiny room to pass the time.
At 8:01, I exit my frosty little haven and walk up to the front door again and give it a yank. Hmmm. Still locked. I stand next to the door for a few minutes, then try again. Still locked.
Now it's about 8:10 and I'm starting to feel like something's just not quite right. Why are all these cars parked out front if no one is inside? Why is no one else out here with me, trying the door and/or waiting to get in? Why did they schedule my test for 8:00am if they don't even open the doors until after 8:00? 
That's when a man walks up to me (I can only assume he'd been sitting in his car watching me for 40-plus minutes by this time). He says, "Mam. Door. In back." And he points to the side of the building. So I walk around the side of the building to the back, and sure enough. Double doors. And lots of PEOPLE milling about outside of them. Going in. Coming out. Chatting. Laughing. Talking. Living their lives like these doors have always been here for them to come and go as freely as they would like. It feels like I've walked into an alternate universe - like this happy little world has always existed back here behind the building and I've just been waiting, hot and lonely and confused, out in the FRONT of the building, for my whole life.
I open the double doors to go in and there are probably 60 women sitting in the waiting room. The same waiting room that is attached to the door I've been trying to open for the last 45 minutes. And you can see OUT of that sun shaded door just fine. From almost any spot in the waiting room, you can see out that door into the brightness. So I'm pretty sure these 60 women have been watching me walk up to that door and trying to open it repeatedly for the last 45 minutes. Awesome.
I go to the number-taking counter to try and get a number. A very confusing process on it's own as the guy who pushes the "Take a Number" button for you (I call him the Take a Number Button Pusher Guy) speaks little to no english and I'm confused about whether I'm even SUPPOSED to be taking a number, since I have an 8:00am appointment. For which I'm now 10 minutes LATE. So I just hand him my paperwork and wait to see if he will deem me worthy of a number. Take a Number Button Pusher Guy looks at it, yells over to another guy, who comes over to look at it with him. Two more guys come over, and the 4 of them engage in a passionate argument in arabic about what to do with me. Finally, Take a Number Button Pusher Guy pushes the button and hands me my number. I'm number A041. I look up at the screen. It's on number B007. Hmmm. Okay. I turn back and briefly consider questioning Take a Number Button Pusher Guy about this, but quickly realize that this would be useless and he seems a bit excitable today anyways, so I go find a spot to sit and wait for the alphabet to come back around from B to A.

After about 20 minutes, I realize that the number screen hasn't actually changed at all. It's still on number B007. They are just calling out numbers. I didn't realize this at first because of the heavy accents. So I start actually listening to the numbers they are calling, rather than staring at the screen. 
They finally call out number 41 ("Nimba foooty-on") and I am led into this little room with a bunch of computers. A man who is overseeing the computer room (I call him Confusing Gestures Guy) says something I don't understand and gestures at me to spin in a circle, jump twice in the air and then climb along the windowsill to the chair at Computer 1. I interpret this to mean that my computer is Computer 1, so I go and sit at Computer 1 and click "Start". I begin clicking through the road signs and quickly realize that I don't even recognize about half of these signs. I've been studying THE WRONG THING. I had a small sheet of road signs I'd been studying for the past several weeks, but about 75 percent of the actual road signs were not on that sheet! We're talking crescent moon symbols (apparently that's for "Ambulance"), blank circles with a bunch of lines slashed through them ("End of no Prohibited zone"...?!), camels ("Compulsory Animal Crossing"), all the random things you could think of and more!

Feeling even more flustered now, I rush through the test. After clicking on the last answer, a big red box immediately pops up. "YOU FAILED!" I stare at the angry red box on the screen, trying to fight back the stubborn tears that are clouding my vision. I manage to compose myself, get up from my seat and walk up to Confusing Gestures Guy. He looks at his computer, takes my paperwork and puts a slash through a box, then hands it back to me and says something I don't understand. I make a guess that he's gesturing for me to leave, so I walk up to the door and try to open it. It won't open. I try again. Stuck. Pull on the handle a little harder. Still stuck. I stand there, staring at the stupid door, picturing myself trapped in this room full of my own failure for the entire rest of the day. That's when a lady walks up behind me and reaches past me to push a button that reads, "PUSH TO RELEASE THE OPEN TO DOOR". I start to follow her through the door, but she turns around and says, "No. You wait. You supposed to wait here. For him." And she points to Confusing Gestures Guy. I try to explain to her that Confusing Gestures Guy has already gestured for me to leave, but she doesn't understand, so I just stand there watching the door close in my face. I turn around and head back towards Confusing Gestures Guy, who again indicates that I should leave the room. So I turn back around and push the "PUSH TO RELEASE THE OPEN TO DOOR" button and walk through the door back into the waiting room.
At this point, I'm beyond flustered, so I put my sunglasses on to hide my tears of frustration, disappointment and embarrassment. I walk back up to the counter and hand my papers to a lady. She looks down at my papers, and writes down a date for me to come back and re-take the written test.
I swallow my pride, clear my throat and walk back up to the Number Button Pusher Guy's counter. I ask him where I can buy a book to study, and he tells me to walk over to the other building and I can buy one there. 
So I walk through the sand in the steam-room-heat over to the next building and buy my study book. Which was a surprisingly painless experience, other than the fact that the cashier REALLY wanted me to give him exact change and I didn't have exact change, which seems to be a reoccurring thing here. Everyone wants exact change, down to the riyal (one riyal equals about 27 cents). But here's the thing, businesses of Doha: If you never have "change" to give back to your customers, then how do you expect your customers to ever have "change" so that they can give you exact "change" when they pay? It's like there's just no "change" in this whole country! Anyways, book in hand, along with some rare "change" that the cashier begrudgingly handed over, I call for an Uber driver to take me back home.
Back home, I crack open my study book and proceed to spend the whole next week studying Chaper 3: Road Signs. 
Fast forward to yesterday morning, when I was scheduled to re-take the written test. I call a driver, arrive to the driving school with 5 minutes to spare, get my number from Number Button Pusher Guy (did he actually have a hint of a smile on his face today?), and sit down to wait for my number to be called. The number screen still reads "B007". My number is called right away. I enter the computer room and Confusing Gestures Guy indicates that I am at Computer 3 today. I sit down at Computer 3 and breeze through the test. There are 2 signs I have NEVER seen before (yellow squares, one plain and one with a slash through it), so I make my best guess, and I must have guessed right because after clicking on my last answer, a green box pops up on the screen. "YOU PASSED!" Phew.
I get up from my seat and walk over to Confusing Gestures Guy. He looks at his computer and then gestures for me to spin in a circle and follow him over to this big picture of the inside of a car engine. I skip the spin in a circle part (I got this down now!) and follow him over to the picture. He points to various parts of the engine (Shawn has been grilling me on this for the past 2 weeks now because I don't know an oil dipstick from an exhaust manifold) and I have to tell him what he's pointing to. I know I got battery, dipstick and wiper fluid correct. I'm not sure about the others, but I guess it was good enough for him because he smiles and gestures for me to walk to the opposite end of the room, spin in a circle, jump once in the air, and leave the room. I proudly walk up to the door and push the PUSH TO RELEASE THE OPEN TO DOOR button. I hand my paperwork to the lady behind the counter. After a bit of confusion and a short encounter with Number Button Pusher Guy (I thought she was telling me to go take a number so I could do the Road Test that same day), I was sent back over to her area and she summoned me to come up and take my paperwork back. She had written down the date I'm scheduled to take the Road Test. Next Tuesday, 7:00am. 
To be continued...!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Roaches, a lost boy & 500 riyals: Our 5th day in Qatar

I wish I could find the words to explain all that has happened the last couple of days. I meant to post a quick update on Facebook to try to cover it, but my story got a little too long for a regular old status update. So I am moving it over to the good old blog!
I will start my story yesterday morning. We had signed up Charlie for the school bus service on the first day of school (since it was quickly becoming clear that driving him to and from school each day was not going to be an easy or simple task!) Being the helicopter parent that I am, I had some serious reservations about this, but I knew it was really the best option due to the driving/traffic here. Anyways, yesterday morning at 6:40 am, the bus pulls up. We send Charlie off without a hitch, waving with pride as the bus pulls away. After Shawn leaves for work, Drew and I hang out at the house on our own. We clean and organize a little, and I get some things checked off our impossibly enormous to-do list. Overall, I'm feeling pretty good about things.
At about 2:30 in the afternoon, the doorbell rings. It's the pest control company coming to spray - we've had some freakishly large roaches who are not too happy about us moving into their big empty house and taking over! They have been crawling out of random crevices and floor drains to surprise me when I'm least expecting it since we moved in. So I let the pest control guys into the house and as soon as they see Drew, they ask, "How old? Baby?" I tell them he's 5 years old. And they say, "Oh no. Must leave house." I look outside, look back at them, and I'm thinking, "It's 106 degrees with a thousand percent humidity out there, I don't have a car, where do you think I'm going to go? On a leisurely walk down the street?" So I tell them we don't have a car and can't go anywhere and they say, "Okay. Put baby in room. Close door. No come out, 4 hours." Oh and THEN they say, "No go in kitchen or bathrooms. 4 hours." Um okay. This could get interesting. So Drew and I go upstairs and into his bedroom, and close the door behind us.
A little while later, I hear the pest control people calling out to me that they are leaving, so I go downstairs to sign their papers. After they leave, I look around, and there are ALREADY several dead and dying roaches, scattered all around the floor. Ugh. So I go back upstairs and into Drew's room. Close the door.
A little while later, Shawn comes home and comes into the room to join us in isolation. Before long comes the inevitable, "I have to go potty!" from Drew. Shawn and I look at each other. I say he should be able to run into the bathroom for a second and go real quick, no harm done. Shawn says that is too dangerous, we don't know what they sprayed in there. We're not in green Oregon anymore! Okay, he's right. I agree. A quick glance around the bedroom and I see my solution. There are two large Ziploc bags full of Legos sitting on Drew's bed. I won't go into details, but let's just say that Legos are pokey and pokey things tend to make holes in plastic bags and thank goodness for the "Lemon Scented Sanitary Wipes" that were included in Shawn's goodbye present from the people at his work back home!
As soon as I finish cleaning up that mess, the doorbell rings and my first thought is, "Wow, that's too early for Charlie to already be here!" It's about 3:10, and Charlie gets out of school at 3:00 and the commute is anywhere between 20 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on traffic. So I run downstairs and it is the TV guy, coming to fix our TV that is not working. I let him in and he gets to work. A few minutes later, he opens the front door to go get a tool out of his truck, and I peek outside as he goes out. Something is wrong, but my brain won't quite register what is going on. For one, it's too dark out there. Where is the glaring sunlight? But at the same time, all I can see is this glowing, almost fluorescent orange color when I look out the door - I can't even see past the front porch. It was very disorienting. Then I realize, it's a sandstorm, and a huge one! I've never seen anything like it. Sand. Just blowing EVERYWHERE. Feeling thankful to be inside, I close the door fast.
Not even 2 minutes later, Shawn comes down the stairs, talking on his phone and he says, "It's Charlie's school. He didn't get on the bus and they don't know where he is." Right then and there? My HEART STOPS BEATING. I felt like the world was spinning around me and I had stopped spinning with it. I am dizzy and sick instantly. All I can see in my head is Charlie, my precious sweet son, all alone, wandering in some foreign desert land in the middle of a 106 degree dust storm, not being able to even see where he is going or understand what is happening, alone and crying and afraid. I've never felt such fear in my life. In that moment, I would have done anything to get to him. But the complicating factor is that Shawn and I have no way to get to him! We have no car, we still have not been able to get the Uber app on his phone to work for us, and we had spent nearly every last Riyal in cash we had, not realizing at the time that we wouldn't have access to anymore when it was gone (for some reason our bank cards will not let us withdraw any cash here). We had about enough to maybe get to the school to get Charlie, but after that we would be stranded there with no way to get back home again because the drivers here only take cash. And. DUST STORM.
After this point, everything is a little foggy. I think I went into somewhat of a state of shock because it's all a hazy memory. Here is what I know. I can tell you that we have already been blessed with the most amazing community of friends here. They came through for us with love and support and help in ways that I can't even begin to explain. My friends, Sara and Klaude, were immediately texting back and forth with me, trying to figure out a way to get us to the school. Sara's husband, Jeff, was on the phone with Shawn, offering to come over and drive us to the school. After about 20 minutes (I'm not exactly sure how long it was although it felt more like 20 hours), the school called to say that Charlie was okay, he was sitting in the school office waiting for us. I could breathe again.
Somehow, I don't even remember how, my new friend Mimi (whom I hadn't even met in person yet, only through Facebook) got involved and she said she was driving near the school at that moment and could go pick Charlie up and bring him to her house until we could get there. And she did! So we called a driver to take us to her house to get Charlie, still not quite sure how we were going to get home, but SO relieved to just know that we were on our way to him. When we pulled up to Mimi's house, we handed the driver just about all that was left of our cash and he drove off through the dust. When we stepped inside Mimi's beautiful and welcoming home, relief just washed over me and the tears of relief flowed. Yes, we didn't have any money. And yes, we had no clue how we were going to get back home again. But we had our boy. That is when my new friend, Emily, whom I'd only known for maybe 2 days, texted me to see how she could help. I told her we'd made it to Charlie but we weren't quite sure how we were going to get back home again! She said, "No problem, Steve (her husband) is getting in the car right now and coming to you to take you home."
A while later, Steve showed up to pick us up. But before we left, Mimi handed me a huge paper bag filled with lovely gifts for us, including some cute little potted pink flowers (fake of course!!) to put outside my kitchen window to brighten my view from over the sink. So incredibly sweet and thoughtful. I only found out later that yesterday was HER birthday! She picked up MY son (whom she's never even met!) from school, took him home to watch him until we could come, let us wait in her home and sat and talked with us for half an hour at dinner time, and showered us with gifts before we walked out the door. On HER birthday!
We all pile into Steve's car, and he not only drives us home, but also orders pizzas for us that he can drive back over to our house once delivered. So his wife (Emily again!) comes knocking on the door a little while later with 2 pizzas AND fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies! Do you know what I had spent a lot of the day doing (before the Charlie incident started)? Looking up my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe online and trying to find all the ingredients to make them! I had been craving this comforting taste of home - specifically chocolate chip cookies - and also some "baking therapy" SO BAD! But I still haven't found brown sugar or measuring cups here (side note: I did find a glass Pyrex measuring cup at the grocery store today that actually had CUP MEASUREMENTS on it! I was so excited!! But when I took it up to the counter to pay for it, they wouldn't let me buy it because they had just gotten them in and so there were no price tags on them yet. Seriously!!)
After our bellies were happy-full with pizza and warm cookies, I called the compound guard to drive me down to the grocery store so I could use the ATM there to withdraw some cash since we were down to practically nothing. We had called our bank and gotten a pin number for our card to be able to withdraw cash. It was such a relief knowing I was about to finally get some cash in our hands - I can't believe how many things here are cash-based. Well, mostly drivers, but not having a car makes being able to call a driver extremely important (like, especially when your son is trapped at school and needs to get home!!!) We pull up to the store, I hand over a tip to the guard for driving me. And with about 2 riyals of cash left in my wallet (about 55 cents in US money), I walk into the grocery store breezeway and up to the ATM, card ready. I insert the card into the machine, enter my fresh new pin number, click the amount of cash I want, wait a moment (in my anticipation, I can almost hear the bills being shuffled to dispense at this point), and the screen says..."TRANSACTION DENIED". Okay, deep breath. Take out Shawn's card, maybe his card is the one that I need to use? So I go through the same process with Shawn's card and..."TRANSACTION DENIED".
Now. Here I am. In the middle of the desert on the other side of the EARTH. 7,625 miles from home. Without any money or any way to get some. At that very moment, the automatic doors in the breezeway open and I can hear the call to prayer echoing loudly from the mosque across the dark street. I can't really describe how I felt in that moment. Utterly lost, utterly vulnerable, utterly scared. I saw no way out of the situation we were in. Yes, I knew it was temporary, as Shawn will be getting his first paycheck and a car in a few days and things will be just fine. But in that moment? Things felt about as far from "fine" as they could get. I got out Shawn's phone (mine is still not working), and dialed up the bank via Skype. I stood there and talked with the bank for a long time, trying to figure out what to do. They kept saying they couldn't see any problem on their end, it must be a problem with the ATM. But I had seen several people come and go with their cash since I had been there, so I knew that wasn't the issue. By this point, I was desperately fighting back tears, trying to hold it together and not have a complete breakdown in the lobby of the grocery store. While still on the phone, I walked into the entryway of the store, only to realize there was an actual bank, exactly what I needed, right there, and it was actually open right then, at 7:59pm! Oh the relief! So I walk up to the large glass doors, still on the phone with the bank, and reach for the door handle. At that very moment, the guard on the inside of the bank took out his key, put it in the lock, and locked me out. That was it. I lost it. Any semblance of composure that was left in me disappeared. I sobbed. I stood there staring into the bank, so close but so far away. I finally walked away from the bank doors, back into the store lobby and continued talking with the lady from the bank on the phone, through my sobs. That's when I noticed a well-dressed man had walked out of the bank and come up beside me. He gestured to me and asked, "Are you okay? Can I help you?" I held the phone away from my mouth to tell him it was okay, my bank cards weren't working but I was on the phone with my bank and they were trying to help me. But still he stood there with the kindest, most concerned look on his face, just watching me. After finally realizing the call was going nowhere and they were not going to be able to help me, I hung up the phone and the tears kept flowing. I stood there frozen for a moment. The man walked up to me and motioned for me to follow him back over to the bank doors. He says, "Please. Don't cry, madame. I am going to help you. I promise you this, you will not leave here without getting what you need. Now tell me what is the problem?" So I explain to him the problem with my bank cards and I explain that Shawn has an account at this very bank, but has not been paid yet and his account has not yet been activated. He asks for Shawn's bank account number anyways, to check. So I give him Shawn's account number and he goes back inside the bank. He comes back out to inform me that the account is not yet registered. Yep, knew that. And there will be no way to advance any money since the account isn't active yet. "Okay," I tell him, "It will be okay. I will figure it out." And I turn to leave. But then I hear, "Madame. No. Do not leave. I will help you. I will get you money from my own account." This man walks over to the ATM, puts in his own bank card, and pulls 500 riyals out of his personal bank account and hands them to me. Near speechless, I stutter, "Well, really? But, how can I find you to pay you back? What is your name?" And he says, "I am the branch manager. Just come back any time you want to pay it back." I told him I didn't even know how I could say thank you. And he says to me, "No. It is okay. We are all only here on this earth to spread kindness."
I just stood there for a while, holding the strange and colorful money in my hand, after he turned and walked back into the bank. His bank. I thought about what he said, what he did for me, this complete stranger. About how we humans are all only here on this earth to spread kindness to other humans. About the fact that every stranger we meet is just another human, seeking to give and receive love and kindness. About how someone seemingly so different from myself can care so genuinely about me, care enough to give of his own and share what he has with me. Me, a stranger. A weeping, frazzled, exhausted and overwhelmed foreign woman in the lobby of a grocery store in the middle of a dark desert on a Wednesday night. About our new friends who were still strangers just days ago came and surrounded us with their love and support on a day when we desperately needed love and support. About the fact that even though I may be thousands of miles of oceans and deserts and mountains away from home, I can still find love and kindness and beauty around me in this foreign place. In this place that will someday not feel quite so foreign anymore. It will just feel like "home".