Alex JF

Qatar Adventure

  • Category: Personal

I've just about given up trying to keep regular personal updates on my blog. Something always comes up to take my attention and what were initially days of delay end up becoming months. Besides, it's not like I particularly enjoy writing or anything like that :P. Anyway, some people have asked me what I've been up to recently and the truth is that it's well past time I added some new content to the site. So here it is!!

Thesis and Vacations

So back in March 2014, I was at Telefónica Research, in Barcelona, fully focused on my master thesis regarding incremental graph processing. I'm happy to say that everything went well on that end and I successfully defended it at the beginning of July. You can check out the result here.

After that, I went back to Portugal to enjoy some very anticipated vacations and think about what I wanted to do next. I won't get into details regarding this as it would add considerable length to this post. Suffice it to say that after a couple of months I received an excellent offer from Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) to come to Doha and work as a Research Associate. After receiving this offer, I needed an extra couple of months to procure all the necessary documentation (criminal record, master degree certificate, etc.). Finally, at the beginning of December, I received my work visa and plane ticket and was ready to start this new journey!

Qatar

Arrival and setup

After a 6-hour trip from Barcelona, on the 12th of December, I finally arrived at Hamad International Airport in Doha. Quickly went through the immigration controls and found the driver that would take me to my accomodation. Because it was already quite late (midnight something), the roads were empty so we made excellent time and got from the airport to the Ezdan Hotel (where I'm currently staying) in just under 20 minutes.

Ezdan is located in the West Bay district in Doha, the one with all the nice skyscrappers. It is actually in a pretty nice location, with 2 shopping malls (and a Carrefour) very close by. It is also very close to the main boulevard by the sea (Corniche) where I have my walks and runs. And the cherry on top of the cake is the fact that it is just 10 minutes away from the office by foot. My apartment itself is a single room (bed + couches + kitchenette) plus a small bathroom. Not luxurious at all but very practical and quite big. In fact, I think this single room might be as big as my entire apartment back in Barcelona! And of course the hotel has a swimming pool and a gym (even a local supermarket although quite expensive), so I'm overall extremely happy with my little "home".

Ezdan Hotel towers (in the middle) My room at Ezdan Photosphere of the view from my room

During the first week I was quite busy with the initial work and residency paperwork. Also had to undergo a medical examination (complete with blood test, god I hate those!) in order to get the residence ID. Fortunately, everything was pre-arranged by Qatar Foundation (parent entity of QCRI) so I just had to follow the arranged schedule and things went very smoothly. I've heard that this is not always the case and some companies don't guide you as much during this process so if you get a job in Doha try to clarify this with your employer.

Transportation

Regarding transportation, most expats living in Doha get a car to move around (either rent/lease or buy). Up until now, I've actually managed to survive without a car, which is a good thing because Doha's traffic is horrendous! They are constantly improving road layouts and working in a metro system so hopefully this situation will become less severe in a few years. Lets see if I can survive the summer without a car too!

Since everything I need is relatively close by, my legs are my main means of transportation. For the occasional trips to more distant places or when carrying a lot of shopping bags, there's very good taxi coverage: Karwa, the local official taxi company; unnofficial taxis by individuals; and Uber. I've had good experiences with all of them. I've also seen some buses moving around but never tried them myself. I've heard the route coverage and scheduling could be better though.

Weather

I've been pleasantly surprised with the weather up until now. The idea I had of Doha was of this hot furnace all year round with temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees. While this might indeed be true during the Summer months (plus the extreme humidity or so I've been told), the Winter months (December, January and February) were actually quite mild. There were weeks where we had minimums and maximums of respectively 12 and 16. Some occasional spikes to mid-twenties or even 35 on this particularly hot day but very tolerable I might say. Of course, I expect this will totally change during the Summer so I'll provide a relevant update when that time comes.

Besides temperatures, there are also other things to worry about related to weather. Since I've arrived, I've witnessed 2 or 3 very mild sandstorms. These tend to occur whenever wind speed goes over a certain threshold and can be quite unpredictable. I remember this one time we went out for lunch to the closest mall to the office and when we came out visibility was reduced to a few hundred meters and you could actually feel little grains of sand hitting your face (I wear glasses so had my eyes kinda covered). Other than that, humidity is the other factor to worry about. I've already experienced some quite humid days, specially along the seaside boulevard and I was told that things will only get worse the nearer we get to August.

Doha Pearl Mild sandstorm

Work

As I've mentioned, I'm now working at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI). In particular, I've joined the Distributed Systems team and am working primarily on distributed graph mining and analytics systems (including the system I worked with during my master thesis). Been enjoying it tremendously and the people are amazing! Felt integrated from the start.

QCRI is located at the Tornado Tower, also in West Bay. It's a stylish building and easy to spot from the distance with its own particular shape. My particular desk is pretty standard, although I do like the fact that it has this glass part on the wall that essentially serves as a small whiteboard and which is super practical to jot down some ideas. I got a dual monitor setup and a DELL XPS which is very similar, if not identical, to the one I had back at Telefónica in Barcelona (12 gigs of RAM, Nvidia GTX 750, i7 3.4Ghz, 2TB disk) so I can easily run a local virtualized Hadoop cluster for debugging without seeing things slow to a crawl.

There's one thing I miss from Telefónica though: Cupcake Friday. That has to become a thing here as well to spice up productivity (and belly sizes :P).

Tornado Tower My desk

Language

Now one of the things I've been trying to do during all these travels and moves is to get to actually try and learn the native language. For Spanish, I had 1 year of classes before actually moving there for my master and it was relatively easy to pick up given the similarities of Portuguese. For Swedish, I did make the initial effort but the learning environment that we were provided with was an auditorium full with something close to 300 students. I do not see this as a good setup to learning any language and since I ended up staying a little less than 6 months anyway, no real harm done.

Having arrived in Qatar, one thing I noticed is that everyone talks English (to varying degrees of proficiency but enough to be understood), from the people in the taxis, to people at supermarkets and restaurants and your work place. In my particular case, I have no requirement at all to know Arabic for any of my day to day stuff but I imagine that someone with a more customer-facing job might have a different experience in this regard.

In any case, I still wanted to make the effort to learn, at least, the very basics of Arabic: letters, numbers, some vocabulary and sentences. It turns out that the Arabic Language Technologies group at QCRI holds biweekly Arabic classes for QCRI employees free of charge so I tried to join in on that. However, they had already had 10 classes so I felt a bit adrift and didn't really want to do all that effort to catch up individually at home. Fortunately, Arabic classes at Fanar, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Center located near to Souq Waqif, were scheduled to start in January so I just registered with them for a level 1 course. You pay 300QAR (other schools asked for as much as 2800QAR) for biweekly 1.5 hour classes over the course of 2 months or so.

Numbers in arabic

We are now well past the middle of the course and I must say I've learnt a lot! You do have to put some effort at home so you don't fall behind as the rhythm is quite franctic (the first day we learnt 4 consonants and all the vowel sounds along with the initial greetings and "how do you do?" kind of things). It does get somewhat smoother after that initial shock but I guess the vocabulary count up till now is close to the 200 words (of which I've only been able to memorize a very small subset). We are now learning verbs and plurals for which rules seem to be nonexistent or all over the place. I do start to identify some patterns but it's slow-going. I admit to having some difficulty with the pronunciation: there are 4 differents type of "d" and 2 types of "t" which I can't really distinguish between as well all these throat and nosal sounds that I'm slowly getting accostumed to. The writing, however, I love it!!! It's just so different and elegant!

Not sure if I'll be continuing on to level 2 as it does require some serious time commitment to be able to learn successfully but I think level 1 is something everyone should try to do. Not only you start understanding signs and being able to recognize some meanings in arabic texts and conversations but you also find out some interesting facts about the culture and religion during the classes. I've heard some people complain that at Fanar they try to impose their religion on you and, while there were some classes where the teacher spoke a lot about the Quran, I've really come to see it as interesting and culturarly relevant asides and considerations that really do enrich the experience if you keep an open mind.

Free times, fun

Finally, we come to another question I also got asked a lot after having moved here: "But isn't it boring over there?". While the answer to this is something that greatly depends on your individual personality, I must say that ever since I arrived there wasn't a single day that I could classify as boring or as wasted.

One of the things you might miss in Doha, for instance, is the nightlife. This is specially true if you come from Barcelona or Lisbon where you simply have to walk a few streets to find some random event, nice bar with live music, discos, etc. At least, in West Bay, the area I spend the most time, the only place you can find something similar is inside the hotels and this usually means you'll have to be able to pay premium. I suspect that one of the biggest reasons for this is the negative conotation associated with alcohol in Qatar and other Arabic countries. In fact, with the exception of some hotels, you can only buy alcohol if you have a special permit and, even so, only at a special shop (which I guess is government regulated but not sure how that works).

That is not to say people consistently spend their nights at home. There are several restaurants and cafes where you can enjoy some nice drinks (alcohol-free of course), foods and shisha (water pipes). Souq Waqif (the traditional market) and, to a lesser extent, Katara are 2 places where you can find an unusually large amount of this kind of night activity. People also go out for leisury strolls and to enjoy the amazing views along some of the seaside boulevards like the Corniche and, again, Katara. I've also spent some of my Saturday nights attending classical music concerts performed by the Qatar Philarmonic Orchestra at the Katara Cultural Village and have enjoyed them tremendously.

Souq Waqif at night Corniche at dusk Qatar Philarmonic Orchestra

Malls are also a big part of the local pastimes. They usually fill up with people after work and/or during weekends just doing their shopping or just strolling around with friends. Each of the big malls has a fun center and cinemas. Some also offer more unique experiences. In Villagio, for instance, you can take a gondola ride along the artificial river that cuts the mall in half. On the other hand, in City Centre, you have a bowling alley and an ice skating rink.

Villagio shopping mall interior Villagio gondola City centre ice skating rink

Doha also has quite a nice collection of parks and green areas. I was expecting the city to be more barren on that regard but was pleasantly surprised. Not sure how well the vegetation survives the harsh summer but I guess I'll see it soon enough. Anyway, parks are another favorite destination of people living here, specially families. It also has quite a few beaches but you have to be mindful that most are either privately owned by hotels/condos or are restricted to families so you might have to go further away from the city. I've just been to one of the beaches in Pearl with some friends (2 of them lived there) and I must say the water was phenomenal (and full of fish of various sizes).

Roadside decoration Corniche during the National day celebrations Qatar Science and Technology Park Pearl beach

Qatar has also been trying to promote a lot of sports events lately. I myself attended one of the matches of the Handball World Championship which was then followed by a live concert by Gwen Steffani. Since the start of the year, Doha has also hosted the Qatar Total Open (tennis) and there's currently an event related to equestrian sports. I think there was also a golf championship, the Qatar Masters or something like that. There are also quite a few different types of water sports you can do if you're so inclined. Just the other week, some friends and I rented a small sail boat and sailed for a few hours. That ended up being quite an adventure due to the strong wind and the fact that the boat had a leak somewhere and we noticed it was starting to sink. Fortunately, we reached shore soon after so there was no major problem (although my phone did have a swim). I've also been slowly getting back into shape with my weekly runs and gym sessions.

Denmark vs Poland in the Handball World Championship Gwen Steffani concert after the handball match

Another very popular attraction, and the most unique experience I've had here so far, is the desert. I've only been there once with a mid-day excursion but I look forward to returning there sometime. During this excursion, we did some dune surfing/bashing in SUVs; stopped at some spots with a particularly nice view for photos and just fooling around in the sand; and ended up spending the evening in these nice traditional tents and eating a magnificent BBQ. Although I went with an excursion, if you own (or rent) a SUV, you can go on your own (well, better in a group in case anything happens). In fact, most of the locals seem to drive SUVs and, during the weekends with particularly nice weather, you can count on them going for some trips to the desert.

Camels Camel rides Vehicles of our desert excursion Enjoying the desert Posing for the photo :P Beautiful sunset

Finally, every other month a new convention seems to pop-up at the Qatar National Convention Centre. In February, I went to the Qatar Motorshow where major car dealers showcased their latest (and not so latest) models. So that was pretty fun. They've also had (not sure if it's still going on at the time of writing) another convention but this time related to jewelry, watches and all sorts of luxury accessories and items. I didn't go to that one myself but I've heard it was at least twice as big as the motorshow.

Corvette at the Qatar Motorshow Camaro at the Qatar Motorshow BMW i8 at the Qatar Motorshow Lamborghini at the Qatar Motorshow

So as you see, I've been keeping pretty busy. I'm running out of things to talk about but that might just be for the best because this post seems to have become rather lengthy. Anyway, feel free to ask for any other details you might want to ask to satisfy your curiosity. Or if you actually live in Doha, I'd love to meet you sometime!

Cheers!

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