Thursday, January 17, 2019

Christmas Festivities

We did a number of fun things this year to celebrate Christmas. The weekend before Mason flew out to Texas, the Embassy held its annual Children's Holiday Party....complete with Santa arriving via motor cycle (still doesn't top Mason's first Christmas with Santa arriving in a fighter jet!).

Everyone was quite amused, but Mason kindly emojified everyone else's faces for privacy. He is good at that and making wallpapers for phone backgrounds (check out his handiwork here!)

Of course there was one on one time to chat with Santa. Clarissa (girl who wakes up around 5:00 am - weekends and holidays too) asked Santa for sleep (?!?!) and Mason asked for some Magic the Gathering game cards (which Mom had already gotten him! Score!!). BTW - doesn't the tree behind them look awesome?!? I was one of the elves that helped decorate for the party!!

After Mason flew out, Clarissa and I made cookies for Santa and winter mints from some edible dough we made. We opted to make an army of penguin after my "polar bear" looks like a white pig wearing a workout headband from the 1980s.

I got around to making a tree skirt as well (all locally acquired fabrics...the lighter green had little sparkly bits in it so I made that the main fabric). Isa was inspecting my handiwork. We went light on ornaments not know how she would do with the tree (since we didn't put one up last year due to our Australian cruise). She sniffed it a lot and we found the random ornament on the ground here and there. So for the most part she did really good, until we started taking it down and she tried to climb up the main trunk. We also made some cinnamon/applesauce ornaments, so its possible the smell deterred her a bit too.

On Christmas Eve Eve, Richard took a vacation day and we took a trip out to Banana Island. I wrote all about it here!

On Christmas Eve, we had booked ourselves on a Christmas Dhow Boat trip. It left just after sunset, provided us dinner and entertainment in the form of Santa. As we left the dock, the Spiral Mosque was glowing brightly onshore.

On the Dhow boat, on the bottom level there was a room with soft velvety cushions.

While in this room, I saw a ladder heading upstairs. The view was much better on the top deck of the Dhow boat (just a smidge colder). Santa not only arrived on the boat but passed out presents!

In addition, Santa showed off some of the new dances the elves have come up with.

Clarissa was too cold to get up, so she was happy to take my photo with Santa.

After Santa's grand entrance (which we had been watching them grill chicken on the back of the boat), dinner was ready. Richard/everyone else headed down for some food. Clarissa finally took my suggestion to get up and floss (I thought it would be funny to challenge Santa)....

We enjoyed great views of the city skyline all lit up. Given how cold we had been the day before on Banana Island, we had smartly brought warm sweatshirts, gloves and scarves. I feel we got a couple odd looks before the boat left the dock being all bundled up, but as soon as we were underway we stayed warmer and others were all cuddled up and under blankets to keep warm. Once the moon rose up in the sky it was a great view!

We got home past someone's bedtime. She was quick to get ready for bed as she didn't want to miss out on Santa stopping by our house. Sure enough he did stop by (even left a couple things for Mason here).

We still had another week before Mason got home. So Clarissa and I worked on some projects around the house. We got the last of her toys put away (or added to the sell/give-away pile). We also got around to making the cover for her 'daybed'. I took a fitted sheet and added some extra length around the bottom with fabric from the top sheet (totally cheated and cut it so I could use the top sheet trim and not have to hem that side). In Fiji, there was a shop where you could get all sorts of shape/size pillow inserts. I have looked for a while and have not been able to find any such pillows here. So we ended up using a body pillow that I found on sale. We had left over top sheet fabric, so we made a envelope pillowcase to match. Since this was an easy stitch (no elastic to deal with), I had Clarissa put her sewing skills to use!

On the off chance you feel that is a staged photo (which she didn't want me documenting her sewing), here's a video clip that I snuck in and tried to get!

We attempted to tie-dye the sheets. A bit of the blue dye took (and all the thread from our stitches took), but I guess this is a synthetic fabric and all our hard work washed right out. Regardless, she was super proud of the finished product.

We squeezed in some dentist appointments, grocery shopping, and a special lunch date. We discovered the Steak'n'Shake here. There are several big murals on the walls of photos from the 1950s....of all the murals in all the Steak'n'Shakes, Doha has a mural of a St. Louis Steak'n'Shake. Based on the year, my dad was a we had to take a picture and send it to my dad to see if recognized/had eaten at that location!

Mason arrived back home on the 30th, we had a quiet New Year's Eve (Richard and I headed to a neighbor's house, the kids watched movies, we made it home in time to ring in the New Year with Mason). School started back on last Sunday....and we are back into the craziness of school/yearbook/ice skating lessons/Brownie meetings.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Beatuiful Day Trip to Banana Island

On Christmas Eve Eve, Richard took a vacation day and we took a trip out to Banana Island. Since Mason got to get away, we thought this would be a nice break for the rest of us from the hustle and bustle of city life. Banana Island Resort offers day trip packages (though someone is hinting for a Mother's Day weekend in the future). It's a small resort island about a 30 minute boat ride from Souq Waqif area, we caught an early boat out and a later boat back for a full day of fun. So while waiting to board we could admire the spiral mosque in the morning sun (or as some expats call it, the seashell mosque).

The weather was a bit chilly but we could admire the tropical island beauty, 

run freely, 

and hunt for shells. 

I found a couple awesome treasures!

It may have been a tad windy that day. Don't mind my hair.

We had a late breakfast at one of their restaurants, just outside the restaurant there was a Reflexology Wading pool. What's that you ask? It is an Ancient Egyptian method to restore good health and balance to the body. Essentially you walk through water that has rocks/pebbles strategically placed to provide you a foot massage of sorts while wading.

The rock placement was quite methodical as well, they were placed in patterns of different sea animals, such as a sea horse, dolphin, and sand dollar/sea star (some sort of echinoderm). You quickly learned which rocks felt good and which hit pain sensors!

After lunch and wading, it had finally warmed up enough to allow swimsuit donning, sand castle building, and playing in the kids pool water slides! 

While some worked on channeling their inner mermaid,

others used the downtime to catch up on some reading!

It was also now low tide, so we could take advantage of the water swing (the seat was underwater at high tide when we had arrived).

There were a handful of people on the boat we took over, we saw a huge school group arrive while we were on the beach, and we saw people here and there, but it was relatively quiet and secluded (guessing middle of winter isn't there high season). It started to make us miss Fiji.

As the afternoon breeze started to pick up, we all started to get chilled (you know if Mr. Turn-the-AC-Down is cold, then it's cold). Luckily they had warm showers for those of us in swimsuits to get warmed up. We head to the American Diner for a late lunch and then to the bowling alley!! We had a super fun game of bowling.

We walked along the path on the seaward side of the island. Near the main building, there we got this nice scenic shot!

We were headed back to the front not to go to the playground again, but to decorate a Gingerbread House. There is a little coffee shop, that decorated the entrance like a giant gingerbread house. 

Once inside you could got a more manageably sized house of your own. 

Clarissa was super excited and took the task quite seriously (sampling all construction material of course).

I snuck out to catch the end of our island adventure day's sunset.

We then caught the ferry back to city. The Banana Island dock was nicely lit up. One of the most ingenious things they did was make a valet parking ticket with three parts. One went with our car/keys, when boarding the return ferry they tore off the second part (which they used to radio back with the number), so as soon as we got off the boat our car was already pulled up in front and ready to give the last ticket to the valet attendant and drive off!

It was a fun day, it would be much more enjoyable if it was bit warmer. We did get some information about doing shore dives, so given it is the only place of its kind in Doha....we will likely be back (ahem, cough, Mother's Day weekend, hint, hint).

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tips for Unaccompanied Minors Traveling Internationally

One of the reasons we bid on Doha (and were excited to get it) was the fact that Qatar Airways offers direct flights from Doha to Houston, Texas (the closest international airport to Mason's dad). In addition, Mason has passed the 'older than 13 years old' threshold. Meaning he can take direct international flights unaccompanied and you don't have to pay the extra fees for an escort (which is like an additional ticket). While at our last post, we learned the State Department allows children of divorced parents one trip a year to visit the other parent. You see where I'm going with this! After not being able to see his dad much while we were in Fiji (three connections was the most direct), Mason can now get two trips a year (he usually visits once while we are on R&R/home leave and now this second trip).

Given we know where were are heading about 8 months out, we've been prepping him for this for a while. We've been giving him his passport/ticket to deal with in the airport, letting him go first when we hit security, immigration, Global Entry kiosks, etc. That let let him practice what he's doing while we are right there if there was a question. It probably also helps that when stateside, since he was eight he has been flying unaccompanied back and forth across the US. With Southwest Airlines, when he turned twelve he became a "young traveler". Meaning which ever parent dropped him off could get a gate pass and accompany him/wait at the gate and the parent picking up could also get a gate pass to meet them upon arrival (unless the flight arrives after 10pm and you arrive at 8:30pm and TSA has already closed up). As a "young traveler" forms confirming who was picking up the child were no longer needed (Thank goodness for cell phones).

For his trip, I made him an international flight to-do's check list. He hadn't flown this airline so we weren't exactly sure on their procedures. We did find out in advance there was a form to be filled out, but none of the store front locations ever had any forms on hand. So Richard and I made a special trip to the airport to pick up a copy. So I will share the check list and then say how it worked out.

International Flight To-Do’s

Departure from Qatar:
     • After security put Q-ID into wallet (keep wallet in travel pouch)
     • Keep boarding pass and passport together in the front pocket of backpack 
     • Find Gate, wait nearby so you hear boarding calls
     • Get passport and ticket out for boarding, show to agent when your boarding group is called

On board the plane:
     • Put boarding pass stub (keep) and passport back in travel pouch 
     • Put phone in airplane mode, turn off cell phone
     • Change out SIM card (put Qatari SIM and paper clip in mini Ziploc, put into travel pouch)

Arrival in Texas:
     • Text your Dad to let him know your plane has landed (if texting doesn’t work, call).
          o Dad: XXX-XXX-XXXX Stepmom : XXX-XXX-XXXX
     • If no one is assisting you, ask a gate agent how to get to immigration/passport control
          o Someone with Qatar Airways uniform/jacket should be just outside the gangway
     • Find Global Entry kiosks at immigration/passport control
     • Scan passport, pose for picture, enter data from customs declaration form, get printout 
     • Show to immigration agent if needed (has an X on your printout) or be waved by.
     • If asked what were you doing in Qatar respond, “my stepdad works in Qatar for xxxxxxxxx”
     • Head to baggage claim and retrieve suitcase(s)
     • Find ‘Global Entry’ line and walk through customs (turn in the printout at this point if asked)
     • Meet your dad & stepmom outside customs/baggage claim area
     • Put passport back in travel pouch 
     • Text me to let know you have arrived/made it through and found your Dad okay.

Vaca Time!!

Departure from Texas:
     • Check in at ticket counter
     • Have Dad/Stepmom buy you two Subway sandwiches to put in your backpack
          o 1 sandwich while waiting to get on the plane
          o 1 sandwich for the flight
     • Enter TSA pre-check line (if printed on your boarding pass)
     • After security put passport and boarding pass in the front pocket of backpack
     • Find gate, wait nearby so you hear boarding calls
     • Get passport and ticket out for boarding, show to agent when your boarding group is called

On board the return flight:
     • Put boarding pass stub (keep) and passport back in travel pouch
     • Put in phone in airplane mode, turn off cell phone
     • Put Qatari SIM card back into phone (put Blackwireless SIM/paper clip in travel pouch)

Arrival in Qatar:
     • Text your me to let him know your plane has landed 
     • If no one is assisting you, ask a gate agent how to get to immigration/passport control
     • Show security agent your Diplomatic passport and you should be directed to the Diplomat Line
     • Hand the agent your passport and Q-ID
     • If asked why you coming into Qatar respond, “my stepdad works in Qatar for xxxxxxxx”
     • Put passport & Q-ID back in travel pouch 
     • Head to baggage claim and retrieve suitcase(s)
     • Exit baggage claim (if bag is flagged, take to x-ray)
     • I’ll be where I picked you up from Sri Lanka
     • Text your dad to let him know you have arrived/made it through and found me okay.

So now, how did it work you ask?

Well a couple other prep things we did.

• I made him a special travel pouch that would hold all his important documents. This would help him stay organized/not lose anything.

• You can print out the US customs form online (the one they pass out after boarding) and with Global Entry you don't need the form you enter everything at the kiosk. So we filled in the form, so he would know the answers (ie address of where you are staying) and I left a few blank in regards to food (in case he wouldn't eat all his snacks). He ended up eating all snacks on the plane (it was the 24th longest direct flight in the world - 16.5 hours! He had a meal just after take off and before landing, but had a long stretch in the middle with no meal service and used those snacks then!).

• We were thrown for a bit of a loop at check-in here in Doha. Only passengers with tickets were allowed to stand in line/go up to the counter. They told me to go stand to the side and if they needed me they would bring me over. I am not sure what all was discussed, but Mason got a ticket and then walked over to me and said he could head to security. We aren't sure if he was suppose to wait for someone to escort him (it was a little after 5:00am, so we were all tired, and he may not have been listening). He did make it through security and to his gate all on his own. At which point, I got a phone call from an agent (my number was on the UM form) saying she had talked to him and he was fine waiting by himself and was I okay with that. Well since he had made it through customs/security (the "hard" part), I was okay with that.

• We also made him an authorized user on one of our credit cards (so he was issued a card in his name). He took this card with him for emergencies only (what if they had to do an emergency landing somewhere and he needed food). We warned him, any unnecessary purchases made on the card, he would pay us back for. He also had some cash on him (local and US currency), if he needed a snack while waiting at the gates.

• He did a great job informing everyone what was going on.

• Even got a photo once they made it to the car!

• On his return flight, his dad was able to walk up to the counter with him. He had his paper work being handled by a gate agent, upon arrival he had to wait for everyone to disembark and then he was escorted through everything (apparently there are special short lines for situations like this)!! We saw him and held up the sign Clarissa had painted for him when he was walking out of the secured baggage area.

• I printed the check list making it double sided (each trip was on opposite sides) and then laminated. I asked if he used the checklist and was it helpful. He said yes and he used it. So I'm glad we made it and the nights before his flights we would remind him of all the things to do (they say others hear 1/3 of what someone says to if we went over it enough we figured it would all get So I figured I can pay it forward and share the checklist we used (obviously some things were marked out for privacy/security reasons), no need to reinvent the wheel.

For Foreign Service Folk specifically, if you are at a post where the city-pair for the Fly America Act requires an international layover, you can apply for a wavier for the UM to take the direct flight. Here's the FAM info:

14 FAM 583.5 b. " Traveler's safety: On a case-by-case basis, use of a foreign air carrier is required to avoid an unreasonable risk to the traveler's safety. This includes ensuring that unaccompanied children (16 years of age or younger at the time of travel) are not required to change airports at interchange points abroad or are otherwise hindered in their safe and speedy passage. An agency determination and approval of use of a foreign air carrier based on a threat against a U.S. air carrier must be supported by a travel advisory notice issued by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of State. An agency determination and approval of use of a foreign air carrier based on a threat against U.S. Government employees or other travelers must be supported by evidence of the threat(s) that forms the basis of the determination and approval"

Sunday, January 13, 2019

National Day Celebrations

Qatar National Day (Arabic: اليوم الوطني لقطر‎; Al-Yawm al-Waṭani li-Qaṭar) is a national commemoration of Qatar's unification on the 18th December 1878 to fight against the Ottomans, British and other Arabian Peninsula tribes. It used to be celebrated on the 3rd of September (their Independence Day from Britain - which didn't occur until Sept. 3, 1971), but is now celebrated on the 18th of December (thanks wikipedia for the info!).

There are lots of activities to do leading up to actual National Day (a day off work and school). There are parades, air shows, and our personal favorite - Darb Al Saai. This year it was located about a 5 minute drive from our house. It is full of tents/boths/exhibitions about all things Qatar! We went to Darb Al Saai the weekend before National day (I think it spanned two weekends - it takes so much to set up/organized).

The first tent we entered was called the Al Beda: An exhibit of traditional marine life, like sailing, pearling, traditional games and coffee. Biologist Deb liked this exhibit.

Falcon eggs are beautiful!

I think Clarissa's favorite area was the Al Liwan Women's Tent. There were all sorts of activities ranging from what you think were "female" things - aka flower arranging -

to things you wouldn't automatically consider to be female (Girl Power - we can do anything). Like the laser maze (which we had to come back again for Clarissa to go through a third time). I recorded her last time through (at which point I saw there was a night vision camera also set up above the maze so everyone waiting in line/walking by could watch you go through.....I feel bad for all the people who got an eye full of my butt as I went through. Clarissa's petite size definitely gave her an advantage!

They also had an archery area within the female tent. Clarissa was too young, but I shot off some arrows. I asked Clarissa to take a picture of me and this is what I got!

We headed back outside from the female tent. Richard and Mason had found the camel and falcon section (aka Al Izbba: A desert campsite, where men would traditionally look after the camels). Though on our way to find them we got distracted by the free pony ride and horse riding display of the Al Shaqab: A spot for horse shows and riding. So we they met us there. Mason took some photos (I have yet to see) for his final photography class project of the riders.

Clarissa loved the pony ride - she had the biggest grin on her face!

Richard took the photos of her and I got a small video of clip when she was heading towards me.

Finally back together, on our way over to the camel camp, we passed through the Souq Waqif: A showcase of traditional handicrafts like baskets, dolls and engraving, plus Qatari “food tasting;”. While in line for the pony ride, I had seen lots of kids wearing kid-size Qatari military uniforms. It was in this area we saw the shop for them.

I couldn't pick a favorite to I'm sharing both camel photos.

Around the camel area was Al Hafeez: A classic cars exhibition and Al Maqtar: Tents demonstrating desert activities from Qatar’s nomadic past. The tents were pretty awesome. We watched a woman weaving a tapestry as well as make yarn for weaving with. Richard sampled some Arabic coffee.

In the Al Mshabayh: Qatari Oryx, there were some regional animal exhibits, they displayed owls,

cute little hedgehogs, obviously an Arabian Oryx,

the most timid looking fox (not sure if it was a Desert Fox, Rueppell's Fox, or Sand Fox),

and of course the Falcons. We all got to hold a falcon (though Richard and Mason aren't pictured as Mason was busier/more interested in photographing the falcon. So he emailed me his best shot).

We also visited (but did not photograph) the Housh Al Yahal (Kids Yard): An area for younger kids to play and paint (we saw a dome/surround movie here); Al Nasa: A shooting gallery, where professional trainers will teach you about rifle shooting - I think this was part of the huge military exhibit (we did a maze but there was also a repelling tower and parkour course); Al Doha: An exhibition area for various government agencies and state-sponsored institutions (we watched a 9D movie in here); and Al Maqlat: The dining area / food court (we grabbed ice cream and more coffee here). We spent several hours here but there was more we could have explored!! We can't wait to go again next year.

On actual National Day, I had to wake super super early (ie we had to leave for the airport by 4:30 am....I'll get to that in another post), so I took a nap/took it easy the rest of the day. Lots of roads were closed for different events (looking forward to the transit system being open next year), but once again we were able to watched the airshow from our top floor balcony. It appeared they had four different types of aircrafts.

Then came the acrobatics with smoke in the national colors of maroon and white!

What are they drawing in the sky with smoke trails?

Aahh....a 'love heart'!

After the heart smoke, it was quiet for a bit, then we saw a tiny helicopter fly past the moon.

Then we started seeing jumpers!

In all there were four parachuters, each with a flag. One of the country flag, Father Emir (retired), current Emir, and what I'm guessing is the wings of the Qatari Display Team (complete guess on the last one!).

Lastly, there was a huge firework display, which we also successfully watched from our balcony. It lasted about 10 minutes. The whole display made me think of firework finales in the was quite spectacular. Here's the Qatari style finale!

For next year, we have some visitors already planning their trip. Seeing the airshow and fireworks up close will be on our to-see list, as well as take them to Darb Al Saai!