New to Doha? Here’s a random sprinkling of things I learned the hard way – so you don’t have to…
I’m no Richard Branson, but I’m pretty sure there’s a viable business model to be had from setting up an orientation / acclimatisation business for new expats in Qatar (and if there is one its marketing is terrible.)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been contacted by readers of this blog, former colleagues, colleagues-twice-removed, as well as a number of commercial organisations, all of whom had similar queries for me about daily life in Qatar.
Which is all very flattering, but naturally, my first thought was: why are you asking someone who doesn’t even know what day the Immigration Office is open?
Yes, without me really noticing, I have become a semi-grizzled Doha veteran. Squint a bit and Mrs LC’s almost halfway through her contract. And with the turnover of expats as high as it is here, I am increasingly finding myself talking to people who have been here less time than us. Yikes.
Whether it’s about the cost of living, international driving licences, commuting times, buying a car, locations, opening times or the availability of mincemeat (you know, the kind for mince pies), there’s a ton of stuff people arrive here not knowing.
Sure, you’ll find a bit in this book, and something else on that board, but there isn’t one single accurate and current guide I could name that would answer everything – hence my business idea. Someone to deal with all of that stuff would be a big help.
Because despite appearances, Doha is an intimidating place to arrive. All it’s missing is a crowd of old lags at Doha International, like Red and his gang watching Andy’s bus roll into Shawshank, yelling “fresh fish” at the newbies as they emerge blinking into the desert sun.
So here’s a sprinkling of things I’ve learned the hard way; feel free to add anything I’ve forgotten or missed or that helped you in the comments.
Caveat: I’m not going to include generic newbie expat tips (Learn – or at least have a stab at – the language, meet the locals, eat new food, dress conservatively and try not to hang out exclusively with people from your home country). This is where you, newer newbie, get to take advantage of my year of failings without even having to buy me a coffee.
- There is no ‘next time’
Whether it’s obscure ingredients, a new shirt or simply a familiar taste of home to put aside for when a ‘Doha day’ hits, whatever it is – don’t wait to buy it. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Most of what’s on sale in stores here is the leftovers that didn’t sell the first time around in their country of origin – like the cordial which appeared earlier this month proudly announcing a promotional tie-in with Wimbledon – a tournament that ended four months ago.
Pro tip: check expiration dates on everything.
- Bureaucracy is in a league of its own
For a country that is rubbish at it, Qatar loves queuing. Queues here are a bit less Wimbledon, a bit more World War Z.
At some special places like the Traffic dept and Immigration, you’ll even have to queue twice – once to get a deli counter-style number, and then again to actually get whatever you came for in the first place.
So make sure you’ve always got something to read in your pocket and reset your expectations for life here to “An adventure with frequent queuing”.
- Eat cheaply
Not knowing where or what to eat is one of the most disorienting aspects of moving to a new city. Finding somewhere where you can get a decent meal for not much money takes a huge weight off your newly-arrived mind.
Luckily, in a presumably unplanned bit of serendipity, two of Doha’s best and cheapest eats – Turkey Central and Thai Snack & Massage – are on the same street (Al Mirqab Al Jadeed St, off C Ring Road), making it the perfect place to start your culinary adventures.
Pro tip: Thai Snack & Massage does what it says on the tin. Massages are for men only, and are great, although the delicious smells coming from the restaurant kitchen are somewhat distracting as you get osteopathically rearranged, Picasso-style. At QR120 for an hour of pleasure/pain it’s not cheap, but it is an experience.
For many more cheap eats, and much more besides, check out Time Out Doha.
- Be flexible
That route you took to work / school today will probably have changed by tomorrow (it might even have changed by this afternoon). Not for nothing is our unofficial tourist slogan: “Doha – it’ll be even better when it’s finished.”
But unless you’re planning to stay here for a decade, it still won’t be finished before you leave. So best to embrace the chaos as your new normal and plough on.
- Small talk leads to big talk
It took us forever to build a new social circle. We had to – in Mrs LC’s accurate-if-creepy phrase – kiss a lot of frogs. You probably will do, too. Particularly if you find yourselves on a night out with precisely the kind of people you emigrated to get away from.
But you know what? You’re not alone. Most people here are from somewhere else, so if all else fails, you can ask someone where they’re from originally and, before you know it, you’ll be swapping commuting shortcuts and hummus recipes.
- Live nearer school
If you have kids, and you have a choice of where to live (which you may not), pick whichever one is nearer school than work. Trust me.
- Go outside! (Especially if you have a 7-3 office job like Mrs LC, assuming she ever leaves the office in daylight…)
Otherwise, a year or so from now, you’ll be prescribed some supplements because you’re vitamin D deficient! (Personally, I think this rite of passage deserves some sort of certificate.)
- Carry copies of everything, everywhere
Until you get your QID, it’s best to carry photocopies of everything with you, from your passport to your cycling proficiency certificate. Trying to guess who’s going to want to see what is only fun if you’ve come prepared.
For whatever reason, the culture here is one where the onus is on you to prove you have the right to be somewhere. I even have to surrender my driver’s licence in order to get a visitor’s badge when I take Amnesiac to a neighbouring school to play football. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
If you don’t yet have a QID, hotel bars accept passports as proof of age – so if you’re taking a half-hour crosstown taxi ride for a night out, make sure you take yours with you, or you’ll be going home early and sober…I would imagine.
- There’s a map for that
When you get a cab, don’t assume your driver knows where they’re going! They may well be even newer in town than you, which makes life nothing if not fun. If possible, try and have a rough idea of where you’re going (get a map from the supermarket, or track your progress on your phone) as you may end up navigating.
Pro tip: insist your driver resets the meter.
- Get a local SIM card
- Buy a GPS (aka Sat Nag)
Carrefour has a number of branches in the big malls and a good selection – but ask them to fire it up in store to make sure the unit they’re selling as new isn’t actually “pre-owned”.
Then rent a car with your international drivers licence and go exploring on Friday mornings when it’s quieter (better yet, take someone else along to navigate) and save everywhere you find as a Favourite so you don’t need to find it again.
Pro tips: back up your Favourites and keep your receipt – both essential for when the GPS dies because it got baked in your car. Again
- Ask “what else do I need to know/do?”
Sadly, you can’t rely on government officials / customer service reps to tell you all the facts about any given service, situation or product.
Start by not assuming that life here is like wherever you came from. Doha is like the Matrix – it might look familiar, but there are glitches everywhere.
You might not think to ask, I don’t know, if a shop or government dept closes for four hours every lunchtime, or shuts completely on some random day, or if you can pay in a cheque into an account that’s not in your name, or if your child is too tall to ride their bike in the country’s largest park, or if the Christmas brunch you’ve just reserved a table at requires you to buy a voucher weeks before the event itself. Ahem.
- Get connected
Twitter is where everyone finds out about everything, from what’s on to traffic updates. It’s also great for tapping into the Doha hivemind to answer your random queries.
I’ve used it to find everything from car batteries to blow up beds (but sadly not Kid A’s hat, which went MIA at Katara; but thanks for trying, everyone.)
Mums of all descriptions should make a beeline for, er, Doha Mums for its networking might and instant community.
Buy stuff from the Buy It Sell It Swap It Qatar (BISISIQ) Facebook page (I have to trust this link works because I am not on the Book of Faces) or take the highway north to Ikea.
- And finally, get out of Doha
It might not be big, but there is a whole country out there! Whether it’s the mangroves in Mesaieed, Purple Island at Al Khor or Fuwairat beach further north, drench yourself in SPF50 and hit the road.
Be patient, keep laughing – and good luck…
PS – if you’re at the not-here-yet stage, check out Tory Scott’s 10 things to know before relocating to Qatar – and if you’ve been here a while, what tips would you add? What would have helped you in the early stages of relocation?