Thursday, June 24, 2010

So long [NAME REMOVED]...

Way back in June of 2008... I posted a brief snippet of life in Doha that included the name of a lovely woman that I had started dating. Immediately after posting I was summoned to her office and berated about posting her name. Her position within her company was of a sensitive nature, and she utterly refused any coercion to allow me to post anything about her… including any names, images, or personal details.

And hence… [NAME REMOVED] was born.

Over the past two years, [NAME REMOVED] has been a constant feature of this blog: as a friend, a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, and a travel buddy. Our relationship has varied from loving and caring with drinks on the balcony while watching the sun drift below the skyline, to each of us telling our respective friends how much of a whore the other person is. But as chemistry teaches us… everything must come to an end.

[NAME REMOVED] was shafted up the ass by a multitude of incompetent and cowardly bureaucrats, and was kinda forced from her job. She’s spent the last few months looking for a new position for her multitude of talents. Thankfully she was able to nab yet another dream job in the UAE, and is scheduled to leave in just a few days. Everyone has already agreed to come and visit her… mostly because her extra bedroom has made Abu Dhabi and Dubai super cheap… IKEA, pork, and prostitutes anyone?

I could write volumes on some of [NAME REMOVED]’s eccentricities: bossing me around like a servant, making me read aloud my blog entries to her even though she knows how to fucking read, her total inability to cook meals a starving dog would want to eat, forcing me to do her nasty-ass laundry, or her love of coffee enemas. But instead I’m going to take this space to give thanks for having her in my life.

[NAME REMOVED] was an architect of where my life is now. She was the one who first convinced me that traveling a little scared around India could be a life changing experience. She pushed me to take the rugged path of adventure. She taught me how to not drink the water. She extolled the theory that the extra money for an over-the-water bungalow or a private train cabin was worth it. She taught me you can never have enough hand sanitizer. She relished in the idea of slowing down to enjoy the journey. She celebrated the virtues of carrying a magic bag. She showed me that foot massages are a necessity of a happy life. She did not teach me how to ski.

But please don’t get the wrong impression of [NAME REMOVED]… she is still, absolutely, 100%, bat-shit crazy. [FOR THE RECORD, I HAD AN AWESOME PARAGRAPH HERE DETAILING JUST ONE OF [NAME REMOVED] MANY INSANE BEHAVIORS... BUT SHE MADE ME TAKE IT DOWN... OLD HABITS DIE HARD]... because God I wish I would have.

That being said, I’m saddened to see her go. She’ll only be a forty-five minute flight away, but distances tend to stretch over time. For the past week her friends and I have spent our free time helping her pack and edit her belongings, stealing all the best house wares for ourselves. The students that she has devoted her life to help have all said their goodbyes. Her friends have bought her going-away and birthday dinners, we’ve taken all the leftover booze, the flat is empty, the “miss you already” cards have all been opened. Most of the tears have already been shed.

Happy Birthday... and Goodbye [NAME REMOVED]. Be safe. Have fun. And make sure you find some time to laugh.

With all my love…


Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Streets of San Francisco...

One of the best parts of my job is that I get the opportunity to do many different things in the course of a week. I can be teaching an advanced analytical lab one day, running nuclear magnetic resonance and gas chromatograph samples the next, and find myself performing chemistry and physics demonstrations one day later… I love it. But one of the best parts of my job is that sometimes, when the students are gone and I have some free time on my hands, I get to do research.

I used to love research, but I fell out of love during my school days after a full year of getting my ass kicked by an overly zealous professor who loved to torture his undergrads. But now, I get to do serious research without the hassle and pressures of trying to achieve a degree or maintain tenure… I get play scientist… and entirely for fun.

Last summer, I spent a month shooting high powered lasers onto chemical reactions, studied my results, worked with Captain Science (I swear to God… he chose that pseudonym), came up with some conclusions, wrote up the report with Little Boss, got peer reviewed, and was published in a serious scientific journal. Feel free to pick up your copy of The Journal of Organometallic Chemistry and read Reactivity of the M-(η-2-alkyne) Bond [M = Cr, W]: A Kinetic and DFT Study. Of course, due to the fact that I’m not really supposed to be doing research… I got listed as second author again. But hey… it counts.

As a reward for getting published, Little Boss allowed me to travel to the American Chemical Society annual meeting and expo in San Francisco. I had to change my journal article into a poster board, but completed it on time and was ready to go. While my profs were traveling business class (“we have PhDs… we don’t travel coach”), I was shoved into a tiny coach seat for a fifteen hour flight from Doha to Houston. My bosses had the class to walk back and tease me about their ice cream floats and filet mignon while I dined on roasted nuts and the sweat of the people seated next to me.

Since there would be an eleven hour time difference between Doha and San Francisco, we had planned on spending the night in Houston to get acclimated. My parents picked me up at the airport for a joyous reunion. We drove to my sister Pumpkin’s house just outside the loop so I could get cleaned up and see her kids. My nephews, now in their teens, are almost as tall as me… frightening. Pumpkin arrived and we headed into the Montrose area for some fine pork dining at a restaurant simply called Feast.

Feast specializes in home grown, farm raised, huge hunks of meat… especially pork. I gorged myself on roasted bone marrow on toast, creamed sweet potato soup, savory bone chunks where you had to grind the meat off, and finished it off with a whole pork loin and mushrooms…


I quickly fell asleep from the wine and the oncoming food coma. In the morning I woke to the delicious smell of cooking bacon, as Pumpkin had made a feast of everything breakfast pork... bacon, links, sausage... oh God. My parents dropped me off the next morning back at the airport so I could jump on my flight to San Francisco. While waiting at the gate, I looked around and noticed that the entire plane was nothing but grad students and post docs, each carrying their poster tube, or bazooka as we all call it. I even got to travel with some of my undergrad professors. When we arrived in San Fran, my bosses took their hotel supplied luxury car to their fancy hotel, while I flagged down a cab to ferry me to my “boutique” hotel… a fancy word for cheap. I would be sharing a room with Little Boss’s Dutch postdoc… let’s call him Ernie. Our hotel was just off of the Broadway cable car line near the convention center. I dropped off my bag and went in search of some fun.

I don’t think I need to go into a huge amount of detail about San Francisco… do I? I mean, anyone who reads this blog reads it for the amazing travel destinations and sights that they may not be ever lucky to see themselves… but San Fran? You can all buy a bus ticket.

The convention was great; I went to a bunch of talks and lectures ranging from my research topic to chemical education to science history. I loved setting up the poster presentation… all the young grad students were dressed in suits and ties, eager to display how smart and interesting their research was, while the postdocs just clamored for the ability to network for jobs. But me, I came in with an untucked shirt and a beer… after all, my research was for fun.

I spent my free time walking back and forth thru the city, as I do love San Francisco. I toured the nearby modern art museums and parks. I rode the trolleys and buses across town to visit the Exploratorium and California Academy of Science, finishing the day by heading to the beach just under the Golden Gate Bridge and scoping out Alcatraz in the distance. Each day I awoke to the cool mornings and mist rolling over the streets. At night, all my bosses plus some friends would head out for great local restaurants and even better local brews. Captain Science and I walked a few miles to an excellent brew house for burgers and to get drunk on dark, rich, tar-like ales. Ernie and I pounded down Dutch and Irish beers at a local pub, all the while dodging the homeless and streetwalkers outside of our hotel window. One day we walked down to the piers where I bought the best T-shirt from a pork store to wear in Qatar… “Praise the Lard” with a picture of a ripe pig on it. Amazing how much you realize you miss things like pork, Mexican food, and just sitting around with a beer when you aren’t allowed it anymore.

We even met up with a former student of ours from Qatar one evening. He came down from Stanford where he’s getting his PhD, and we spent some time catching up. One of the best times I had was when Big Boss and Little Boss took me on the subway out to Berkeley, where Little boss did his postdoctoral work. We walked us up the steep hills to the beautiful campus and he showed us his old haunts. Berkeley looks like how college campuses are supposed to look… thick trees, open fields, and fliers hanging on everything. They both especially loved taking a photograph of themselves in front of the “No Parking Except for NL”… NL meaning Nobel Laureates. As they bickered about the climb, work, and everything else as they both are fond of doing, I yelled out “C’mon Dads, this is supposed to be my time to check out the campus!” Pretty funny considering they’re both conservative Muslims with international reputations in the scientific community… and I just called them out as being a gay couple walking the streets of Berkeley… hah! And if you’re ever in Berkeley, eat at Bongo Burger… damn good burger.

San Francisco was a great trip, both for personal and professional reasons. On the last day, I said my goodbyes to cool weather and blue skies, and flew back to Houston. Pumpkin picked me up, partially drunk, and we went off for some Shiner Bocks and Tex-Mex. In the morning my sister and I drove down south to Pearland to check out my storage unit that I packed up before moving to Doha. We were lucky enough to stop by a taqueria for chorizo breakfast tacos and dirty coffee.

When I opened the storage unit door, the chorizo high quickly dissipated. Time, heat, and dust had turned all my furniture and house wares into trash. One box that had spices in it had been devoured by rats… eww. A reason I was checking out the unit was to pick up a piece of art I had left behind that I wanted in Doha. Another reason was to see what I could get rid of. My storage unit is expensive, costing over two grand a year. And since I have no idea when, or if, I’ll ever move back to the States, I figure it was time to get rid of the dead weight. Pumpkin helped talk me into it, but in the end, it was my decision. And as I write this, my parents and Pumpkin have given away almost everything I own to various charities.

To paraphrase the movie Fight Club, “when you buy a couch, you know that you’re done… that is the only couch you need to buy, you have that problem covered.” It is strange that I spent over ten years acquiring enough furniture, art, books, and other accoutrement to fill a large house, office, and garage, etc… and here I am giving it all away. I don’t even get the tax write-off… I don’t pay any taxes in Qatar. So if I ever move back to the states, or anywhere else for that matter… I’ll be starting over. And I hope I can crash at your place for a while…

Later that morning my parents arrived and we went shopping for clothing and DVDs. We took them to an Asian market looking to get mangosteens for my father to try. No luck, but I did buy an assortment of exotic foods that I eat every day that my parents had never even seen before; including dragonfruit, rambutans, lychees, and starfruit.

After a fulfilling lunch of a Chinese buffet (again, something we don’t have in Doha), we spent the afternoon sipping on beers, not wanting the day to end. But finally, my parents drove me to the airport, and we said our goodbyes. I ate a Cajun dinner with both bosses while waiting for the plane. But soon, I was back on board and flew the fourteen hours back to Doha.
I really enjoyed this trip; both for the ability to see my family, and to experience San Francisco again. I love to visit, but don’t think I could ever live there… too many hippies.

And I fuckin’ hate hippies…



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Are you Goa'n my way...

One of the most quoted lines from expats living over here is “the best part about Doha is leaving Doha.” As much as I like Doha, sometimes you just need a break. The semester was still in full swing, but I just wanted get out of town for a few days. [NAME REMOVED] had beaten me to the punch, as she scheduled a week’s holiday in the Indian state of Goa.

Located on the western shores in central India, Goa was a former Portuguese colony up until 1961. Known for its beautiful coastline and Portuguese architecture, it is a serious vacation destination for Europeans. It is also know as a world-class drug den for hipsters looking to score cheap LSD and trip the night away in neon filled raves.

[NAME REMOVED] took off a week before me to attend yoga camp. A full week of fasting, stretching, and possibly gassing up next to complete strangers wasn’t my idea of fun… but there she went with a smile on her face. I scheduled a three-day weekend, used my Qatar Airways miles, and got a near-free flight to Goa.

This trip actually started to get interesting a week prior to leaving. I had to find the new Indian embassy in Doha (they moved without telling anyone) to get another visa. While standing in line in the non-air conditioned room packed in with a few hundred of my fellow laborers, a security guard came from behind the barred windows to switch the televisions in the room from calling out our queue numbers to a cricket match. It was India versus their rival, South Africa. India’s main batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, was on the pitch and was doing incredibly well with 187 runs already on the board. If you know cricket, you will know that this many runs during a bat is unheard of… it’s like hitting a home run at every bat for a month or scoring fifteen rushing touchdowns in a single game… cannot be accomplished.

But there he was, getting up to 190. All eyes in the room turned to the televisions. The lines stopped moving. The men and women behind the counters came out to watch. Another run… applause from the room. Another six runs and choruses of cheers and singing broke out. The tension was thick in the room, with every little Indian man, woman, and child on their feet as Tendulkar swung on a throw, and the ball sailed over the heads of the outfielders for another sixer… breaking the double century of 200 runs.

And the crowd went wild!! Everyone was hugging and jumping up and down! Men jumped up onto the stern blue plastic benches and started to chant his name, “Tendulkar! Tendulkar!” And there I was… not quite sure why this was such a big deal, but enjoying the good vibes. Turns out, this event made global news. When I got off the plane in Goa (where Tendulkar is from) banners, billboards, and the local newspapers were still covering the event a week later with the fervor of the moon landing. And just like the moon landing, when I’m asked where I was when Tendulkar broke the double century, I can honestly say I saw it live, on Indian soil… even though I was still in Qatar.

My flight landed really early in the morning, around 3 a.m. I was met by the hotel driver and was loaded up into a small car with a young couple and their two-year daughter. We took off into the eerily silent Indian night. Not many lights guided us along the roads past a few auto rickshaws and cattle lining the roads. After an hour, we reached the hotel, but not before the little girl puked in the backseat over her mom. Those last five minutes of driving with the car reeking of vomitous airline food were not the way I wanted to start my vacation.

At the hotel gates, our car was spotlighted and thoroughly searched both inside and out. It was then that I realized I was staying at the Taj Holiday Village, the same company as the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai; scene of the brutal 2008 massacre. After checking into my room, I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, I saw that my room overlooked a quaint garden with large coconut trees shading me from above. I walked down the flowered pathway down to the beach. This hotel was located directly next to Fort Aguda, the red stone encampment that is built directly into the Arabian Sea. Just off the coast was a rusted oil tanker that ran aground and was never relocated. The restaurant and beach front villas were actually perched on a cliff about twenty feet above the water. The breeze was warm and humid, and not filled with lung choking dust. At one end of the resort was their “golf course,”… I put that into quotes since it was just six flags stuck in random places across an open field. I decided to mark out my territory with a reclining chair, pack of cigarettes, and my books… and went about my business of relaxing. An early morning Tiger Beer in hand, I reclined under the palm trees and spent the entire day doing nothing but reading and napping until the sun started to set. Snacks of papadums and mixed chutneys kept my strength up, while I made sure the beers and cocktails kept coming. A simple room service of chicken curry was all I needed before I spent the night watching the stars come out over the water and the large bats swarm to munch on the abundant mosquitoes.

The next day… pretty much the same as before. I actually slept thru breakfast and awoke when [NAME REMOVED] showed up knocking on my garden doors. Her yoga classes were finally over, and she was aching for some actual food. I keep telling her to never trust a skinny chef. She regaled me with stories about downward dog and lotus positioning while keeping her mula bandha relaxed… by the way, that means the actual asshole in yoga-speak.

I took her down to the coast for a broad spread of Indian delicacies (including, of course, pork) and led her to my sunbathing spot between the cliff’s edge and the pool boy cabana. She grabbed her books and a pina colada, and we finished the day playfully ragging on the overly tanned European men in their Speedos and skin that made them looked like tattooed hotdogs.

The next morning after breakfast, we decided to leave the confines of our resort hotel, and venture out into Goa. Having spent some time in India before, strolling outside the hotel walls weren’t as exciting or interesting as my first time. Throngs of dirt covered men were walking barefoot along the road, carrying antifreeze and rugs under both arms. The smell of cardamom and curry powders were wafting thru the air. [NAME REMOVED] negotiated with a micro-van driver for a spin through the city center of Old Goa.

Old Goa was once a city with a greater population then either London or Paris. We careened through the traffic maze and blaring horns (good to know that still hasn’t changed) until we reached the Basilica of Bom Jesus. This Portuguese baroque church was built in 1594 of dark marble and precious stones inlaid into the walls with ancient white timbers for the roof. Near the altar in a candle lit apse, are the remains of St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits. His body is entombed in a silver casket inside of a wood and glass carved framework. For whatever reason, his body did not decompose in the heat and humidity of India, and his reliquary was on full display. Upon leaving the main church, you enter into a serene garden courtyard where old women were pulling weeds and lighting incense. Just across the streets was the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria, another magnificent example of the ancient churches still standing in all their glory. It makes you kinda sad when you see examples of these buildings. It seems that back in the day, men built empires and civilizations… and all we can do is build gas stations and shopping malls.

From the basilica, we found our driver and asked to be taken to the bishop’s house where we try to follow a walking tour of Old Goa. The driver pulled past the city center and headed up into the hills until we reached, appropriately, the house of the local bishop. The home was built like a palace, and is the head of the Catholic Church in India. From there, we slowly climbed down the hill past the multicolored homes that still retained the clean and vibrant architecture of Portugal. We reached the fountain as listed in our guide, then got a little lost. Having had to backtrack, we stopped some Hindu monks for directions. They guided us down a narrow winding goat path/road that snaked down vertical to the cliff. At the end of the path we were welcomed into a Hindu temple where monks and local women were cleaning the narrow alleys and statues with handmade brooms. After another ten minutes of walking, we discovered that we had made our way back to the center of town next to the gleaming white Christian church.

[NAME REMOVED] really wanted to eat lunch at a famous backpacker hangout, so we grabbed an auto rickshaw. Down a dark alley was a secluded little hangout with a few outdoor tables. It was here that I downed more Tigers and plates of curried chicken and fish, plus mutter paneer and freshly fired spring onion parantha. While [NAME REMOVED] noshed on her chutneys, a huge rat about the size of a rabbit scrambled out of a hole in the wall behind her was scurried beneath our table. I didn’t want to frighten her, so I put it out of my mind until two more made the trek. Little did she know that for about ten minutes I held my feet off the ground, hoping not to feel them nibble on my toes and start shrieking like a four-year old girl.

We flagged down another auto rickshaw and headed back to the hotel for showers and an afternoon nap. Dinner was being provided via a contact [NAME REMOVED] had made at her yoga cult. Someone had suggested a secluded French restaurant for up in north Goa. We hired a car outside of the hotel, and drove thru the resort row. The scene was more Fort Lauderdale than India, with shops for sunscreen and bathing suits next to outdoor bars playing Top 40 hits over speakers hidden in trees. But just beyond these stores would be tin shack homes where you could see the cooking fires roaring inside. Soon we were completely out of the towns and were cruising down the narrow roads filled with cattle and speed bumps as the sun went down.
Our driver got a little lost and had to make a few U-turns, but we finally found the restaurant entrance on the edge of a beach. The restaurant was a simple cabana, open-air with only the beach sand as a floor. Colored lights swayed in the wind and lit up the tables while the waves crashed onto the shore just below. We shared a great French meal and sweet wine, finishing it off with the classic floating island dessert. Dogs were roaming between the tables and getting into fights while people were enjoying their sorbets.

A quiet car ride later, we were back at the hotel where we quickly packed up our stuff and rested before we had to catch our 4 a.m. flight. The airport in Goa is a twisted mass of confusion. Generally, most native Indians have no conception of personal space; and therefore cannot queue. When a new passport desk opened up, everyone ran up and started pushing and shoving to get to the desk first… while we just sat back and watched. Since we are both members of a privilege club, we were escorted to the premier lounge to wait for the plane. Our premier lounge was a couch inside of a closed restaurant with all the lights turned off except for our table lamp. Our premier lounge food included a soda and a cookie… one cookie. I arrived in Doha and drove straight to work, only about ten minutes late.

This trip was really just an afterthought. I truly experienced India in all its beauty and mystery two years ago when I traveled all across the country. Goa is India Lite. It’s Diet India. It has all the charm with half the calories. It had beautiful scenery, great food, and lovely people… but to me… it wasn’t much more than a long nap under the trees.