Thursday, April 24, 2008

dunestock...

Hey everyone... hope you're enjoying your beautiful spring weather. Normally spring means gentle, cleansing rains, the opening of flowers, and a return to enjoying the warm outdoors. Over here, spring means something entirely different... it means "oh shit... here comes summer." We had our first 100+ temperature day here... on April 1st... 103F to be exact. It is consistently in the mid to upper 90's F everyday... all day. Walking across the parking lots to our main building feels like running a marathon uphill carrying jugs of water... and it's not even summer yet!

Everything is going really well. I just turned in my final grades, and can say that I successfully taught my first semester!! Well, at least 83% successful, since that was my average grade. Another instructor thought that was a little low, but my prof praised me for being a hard-ass. All in all, I had a blast teaching the labs. So much so, that I'm having to teach over the summer... ugh. I'm teaching the same lab, but instead of fifteen weeks... we're doing it over five weeks. Plus, I'm doing a recitation for two hours a week, basically doing problem solving sessions with the students. With the 20 hours a week of chemistry these students are going to have, they are going to absolutely hate me this summer... which wouldn't be so bad, except that I'll be surrounded by angry students with access to deadly chemicals and glassware.

Big news... last weekend, Tex and I went out to Dunestock. Dunestock is an all day concert put on by the Doha Players, a British theatre troupe to raise funds. The Doha Players theatre was destroyed in 2005 from the only terrorist act to ever hit Qatar. Some guy, during a performance, walked out of a performance, stood in the lobby, and blew himself up... killing one of the troupe members. Since then, the Players have been slowly rebuilding the theatre with donated funds... and their biggest fundraiser is Dunestock.

Dunestock takes place in an area called the Singing Dunes... in a central area of the country very close to the American air base. The Singing Dunes are a large collection of dunes in the middle of the rocky desert. They look and feel like any other dune, except for one major difference... they sing. No... really... they sing!! When you walk on the dune sand, you can hear a very low rumbling resonance. Actually, you more feel the sound than hear it... and it only happens on these particular dunes! Anyway, the morning of Dunestock a massive sandstorm moved in and, once again, almost blacked out the sun. But nothing was going to stop Tex and I from sitting in foldable chairs and listening to bad cover bands... so we were off.

The concert arena was in the circular area created by a massive sand dune, making the dune itself the perfect amphitheater seating! About four thousand people were there, and almost all of them were western expats! It was really very strange... when you live in a country where you are always the outsider, seeing a massive group of people that, at least on the outside, look like you was eerie. People set up tents and canopies, everyone was staring fires to BBQ and smoking shisha. Hundreds of people were climbing up the dunes and either sledding, snowboarding, or simply falling down the steep, powdery slopes. I tried to climb up the dune after an afternoon of drinking and smoking while in the middle of a sandstorm... got about halfway before my lungs gave out on me. Imagine climbing stairs made out of talcum powder... not as easy as it seems.

Another strange thing. There were no police. None. A private security firm was hired to make sure people bought tickets... and that's about it. Everyone was openly drinking, women were in bikinis, people were making out on blankets... behavior absolutely forbidden in public in this country. But it seems that the government kindly looks the other way during these large gatherings. Maybe they realize that there would be a coup if they didn't. Maybe the government was there without their thobes on... who knows. I did see some of my students there (some with women!)... and I asked them if their parents knew they were out partying. After some odd looks and quick unclasping of hands, most confessed they told their parents they were studying at school... sinners.

As for the bands... Doha isn't exactly up to Austin's "live music capital" status just yet. Only a handful of acts were decent, some were god-awful. One particularly fun act was a duo of older indians who sang acapella... no kidding... folk songs and sea shanties. Exactly the music western people want to hear during an outdoor music festival...

So with the exception of the terrible music, the sand behind my eyeballs and in my drink... it was a blast!

Heading out to play some golf this afternoon. Since the course is lit at night, it should be fun. Also, bowling is going great! I really sucked at first, but have quickly progressed to decent status. I still don't have my shirt... but soon, I promise...

later...

ben

Saturday, April 12, 2008

GOT IT!!!

I got it!!Three camels in the back of a truck!! Beat that with a stick!!
By the way, you can click on any photo to enlarge it for more detail...

ben

video killed everyone...

Hope this works OK... enjoy...

video

Friday, April 11, 2008

sand in funny places...

Sorry for the lack of updates, but I fell into a rut of daily routine for about a month. Nothing really happened for about three weeks... just teaching and lab work. All that changed two weeks ago. I was invited to play in the Education City Golf Tournament, hosted by the Qatar Foundation.

I brought my clubs with me, not ever really expecting that I would have the opportunity to play. So I unwrapped my clubs from their shipping container and took them out back for some test swings. Turns out in this country there is plenty of space to practice your bunker play. I went out to the only golf course in the country, which has a magnificent clubhouse and faculties. Everyone got together and had Arabic coffee with biscuits and prepped for the tourney. Nine-hole scramble, best ball, Texas rules. The course is very nice, and very reminiscent of the golf courses in Arizona... one big exception... you can see the ocean from the tee boxes.

Unfortunately, I was the "A" player on the team. We had a great time, but ended up two-over. But it happens that everyone else was just as shitty. The winning teams were tied at even par. Afterwards we chilled out with lunch on the patio and shared drinks. Best part, there were a ton of door prizes... not just some sleeves of balls or a putter; but video cameras and trips to Bahrain! I won a new digital camera (Sony Cybershot 7.2 megapixel) with photo printer! I didn't take any photos of the tournament, since my camera was on the fritz (omen?). But I'll post some from my playing partners when I get some.

Quick note about the Qatar Foundation. The QF, as it's called, is a quasi-governmental entity here that runs Education City, including TAMU-Q. We've been told to always list the QF as our employer with any local agencies, because they will treat you a lot better.

Last weekend, I finally got out to the southern dunes! I've been dying to get down there. Unlike the other parts of the country where you can drive off-road without much difficulty, the southern dunes are deadly serious. Big rule of thumb... never go to the dunes in only one vehicle. No matter how good a driver you are... you will get marooned. I joined a group of coworkers who go camping in the desert all the time for an early morning trip. Our group included three Texans, three South Africans, and two Germans... quite the international house of travelers. Johan is a very experienced desert outdoorsman, and... he also owns an X-Terra. Turns out he bought the first one in the country, 'cause of how good it handles in sand. He checked my car out, gave me a thumbs up, and we took off. We drove about 45 minutes south of Doha to the Sealine Resort. At that point, the road dead stops at the desert. Unlike the rest of the country, the southern area is covered with massive, powdery sand dunes that can be over 50 meters tall!! I took of tons of photos, but like traveling to the mountains, the photos cannot describe how beautiful and serene the area is.

Driving, or "bashing", the dunes is the favorite pastime of the Qatari youth. Before we got started, we had to let the air out of our tires... down to 1 kPa/cm3. If that unit doesn't make sense, don't worry. Basically, we let the tires down to about 5 psi... almost on the rims. It's very easy to dune bash... just point your 4x4 toward a dune, and drive as fast as you can! And I mean as fast as you can! If you let up on the gas while driving on the soft sand, your tires dig in deep and you come to a screeching halt. You become "thin blooded," as the locals say. It means... "not funny" or "up shit's creek." And I should know... 'cause I did. I rode with Johan on a trial bash up the side of one of the largest dunes in the area. The dunes are gently sloped on one side, and then sharply drop almost straight down! We took off up the side of the dune at full speed, about 150km/hr, then turned a hard left right on the precipice of the dropoff. Suddenly, you find yourself hanging what looks like the edge of a cliff... and you hit the gas. We drove down the lee side of the dune holding on to the handbrake. I swear it seems like your going to start tumbling head over heels down the dune! When I tried a run in my X-Terra, I ended up letting off the gas at the very top, and stranded my car. It took the entire group digging and pushing to get it unstuck. But since I wasn't in the car when it went... I tried to run down the slope. Busted my ass...

We drove across the sand to the inland sea... a small sea that suddenly appears out of nowhere. It's not very big, and you could easily swim across it... but you can't. Because on the other side of the sea is Saudi Arabia. We set up camp, ate, drank, and smoked shisha. I went swimming in the sea, which was only ankle deep about 100 meters from the shore, then quickly dropped off. The sea is so salty, and hence so dense, that I couldn't swim more than five meters down without the water forcing me back to the surface like a rocket.

Everyone who drove by our camp slowed down, honked, and waved. A few even stopped to say hello... everyone from westerners to the local Qatari's. We thought they were being extremely polite... then we realized that they were waving at Tim's wife, Melissa. All six-foot, fair-haired, pro-volleyball playing figure of her. And they were not ashamed to admit they were stopping to meet the beautiful lady sunning herself.

After a few hours, we packed up and started home, bashing the dunes at full speed as we went. One car in our group, a rented Hummer, overheated and got stuck a few times in some easy sand. When we arrived that morning at Sealine, we only saw a few cars on the dunes. But as we were leaving, there were hundreds upon hundreds of Land Cruisers, sand buggies, ATV's, and four-wheelers pulling up to the dunes. The Qatari's prefer to go in the late afternoon and stay out at night... which makes it incredible dangerous for us to be out there. Every week in the paper is a story about cars smashing head-on at the top of a dune, or rolling end-over-end down a dune. Time to get out...

After getting home and inspecting the damage to my car (thankfully only soda, beer, and syrupy melon tobacco spills), I took a shower, then shoveled all the sand out of my shower. But soon, I started to get sick... and then spent the next two days on the floor of my bathroom crying... because obviously I had pissed off God in some way to make me as sick as I was. One other person in our group also got sick... she thinks it was the inland sea... I think it was someone's crab salad...

Well, I still have a bad cough and the aches a full week later, but everything is back on track. I've put all the photos online at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/, so make sure you check them out!

Oh! One more thing... I bought a video camera right before the trip! I got a good deal, and figured it was the only way to really capture some of my adventures to share with ya'll. Also, I've been dying to make some of those grainy green-eyed sex tapes that's all the rage. Probably not as sexy if I make one by myself, though. I spliced the dune footage together, and will post it online in a day or so. I would have posted it today... but I left the camera in my office.

Tomorrow, I'm heading north to collect some samples for carbon dating, and next week I'm going out to a massive dune bash festival... and will be camping out overnight. Can't wait...

later...

ben