Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oh Man, Oman...

For the past week I've been fortunate enough to be in the Sultantate of Oman. It was vastly different than anything I expected, although I had heard how pretty it was because of how green it is – – so I kind of expected that. At first I was a little disappointed because I was used to seeing the opulence of places like Dubai and I almost expected something along those lines. I went to Salalah, the southernmost large city in Oman, because the other large city is in the north and is also the capital of Oman – – perhaps it looks more like Dubai. 
Salalah is a medium-size city that reminded me of like sized cities in the Midwest. The buildings weren't overly fancy but they were well-kept.  It was easy to find my way around, even though a lot of the streets were never intended for use by automobiles. It wasn't until I was almost leaving that it occurred to me what was so different about Oman as opposed to other places I've been to in the Middle East.

Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are filled with third country nationals (TCNs) and it is almost rare that you meet citizen – – in Oman most of the people I met were citizens and although they have a large population of TCNs, they don't seem to treat them as a third class but just another member of the workforce. That could be a misperception of my part because I was only there for a week but because so many of the people that I met were Omani and because all of them were both friendly and welcoming – – I felt very at home very quickly.  It was nice.

Because I was brought there for a specific mission I didn't have much time to look around, but I did make it to one very interesting place and that is the tomb of Job. Yes, that Job.  To the Muslims he is known as Nabi Ayub and in their faith he is considered a prophet.  At first I was a little disappointed when I got to the tomb because it appeared to be so plain and not built up. But as I sat there and remembered the story of Job from the Bible – – his challenges and how he never lost his faith – – I thought that the tomb was most appropriate for the man that he was. Other remnants of that book of the Bible are also in the area.

On my way to the tomb, I ran across a man who was walking to camels along the road. I pulled off the road after I passed him in order to take some pictures of the scenery. After a few minutes I heard a call from behind me, "How are you?"  I turned to see the man with his camels and I responded that I was fine asking him how he was -- to which he just waved.  I walked towards him with my camera and asked him if it was okay if I took a picture of him with his animals, his response was "How are you?"  So, I then asked him if he spoke any English besides that sentence and he responded "How are you?"  Not wanting to upset him if he had some objection to me taking his picture I let that opportunity pass and shook his hand wishing him a good day and as I walked away, he called out from behind me "How are you?" while waving farewell.

As you can see from these pictures, the terrain in Oman is much different than that of Kuwait. Those are mountains that you're seeing in the distance and yes, the sky was that blue. If you see people in the pictures, you'll notice that they wear their headdress quite differently from anywhere else in the Middle East using more of a turban style wrap or they wear little circular hats without a brim that look sort of like a short fez – or a Scottish Rite hat.

Another place that I went was a souk located in the middle of the city where perfume and raw frankincense was sold.  I was not aware until I did a little reading that Oman is known as the perfume capital of the world. Not so much the kind that you might buy at Macy's, but the kinds of perfumes that are made from frankincense. The smell of this resin when burned is quite pleasant and you can smell it almost everywhere in the Middle East as is often burned out of tradition.
Near the Port of Salalah is this small bay. I thought it was quite beautiful every time I drove by it -- then one time I was lucky enough to catch it at sunset and could see how truly beautiful it was. Just past the port was a restaurant called the Oasis where I had dinner with some of the folks who I was there to support.  The highlight of my last night there, was getting to try one of their specialties which was a Whiskey Milkshake. It is just what it sounds like, with whiskey being the primary ingredient. Since the bar tended to be patronized by British ex-pats, they usually used Scotch but I had mine made with good old American Bourbon. It was actually very tasty.
There was a mix-up on my return flight, so I was left stranded for about 8 hours. I was able to use the time to explore the city some more. Since it was Friday, very little was open but as you can see the views were fantastic and you never can tell when you're going to find something interesting.  Apparently the shop will take care of both dentistry and circumcision.  I'm not sure you would want to combine both those into one appointment, and I would be more than a little leery if the same guy was doing both procedures.

Maybe it belongs to the "How are you?" Camelherd


Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Unexpected Tale

Preface:  When I started documenting my experiences in Kuwait a year ago the only thing I promised was to make an entry once a week. I have done that, making an entry every Sunday since I have been here – except for one week when I was on leave. Even though I make only one entry a week, I sometimes cover multiple subjects and try to tie it all together with some sort of creative title. This week is a bit different. I met a cab driver who had an interesting story and I feel it is deserving of his own entry but I met him after I had already created my entry for this week. So, rather than trying to kloodge the two together I would just have two entries for today. Enjoy!

As an ExPat one of the first lessons you learn is to avoid discussions of religion or politics – in fact it is almost getting bad to try to discuss either in the US as well.  This morning I grabbed a cab to the airport, I will tell about my destination next week for security reasons I can’t right now.  As I often do I asked my driver about his origin to pass time on the half hour ride.  The only cabs in Kuwait that are driven by Kuwaitis are those that you catch from the airport.

He told me he was from Afghanistan and then went silent.  This was the first driver I had met from there, with a majority being for India, Pakistan, Nepal or Sri Lanka.  Amazingly, there are no New York cabbies here; with the number of Arabic cab drivers in the US you might figure that all the American drivers would end up here looking for work.  I have heard that in Saudi Arabia all of the 7-11s are run by folks from Alabama but that is story for another time.

Anyway, after a long silence, he started to talk again.

“I am from small town in northern Afghanistan, and I got here 6 months ago” he said in heavily accented English – I guessed he was about 30 or so.

“Uh-huh” I replied, I had a feeling that this was about to turn political so I was trying to shut the conversation down.  Ever been trapped in a cab with an Afghan with strong opinions, who is mad at you for having an opposing viewpoint, as you tear down the highway at 120KmH?  Me neither and I did not want to start today.

“I left because the Taliban came to village and threatened my family.” He said flatly.

“Mmm” I was beginning to realize my strategy was not working.

“In the middle of night, they knock down door and dragged me and brother to center of town with many other men from village.  They told us Americans would leave soon and that Taliban would be back in charge.  After Americans left they would push Islamic laws and rules again with heavy hand.”  As he spoke he never took his eyes off the road.

At this point, I just sat silently and listened as he spoke of the rest of the events of that night and his eventual decision to leave Afghanistan to escape the Taliban.  He also confessed he was a lapsed Muslim who wondered how Allah could allow the Taliban to exist and use his name in vain.  This was the first time I think I had ever heard a Muslim talk this way and speak freely of his beliefs.

His story was interesting and his descriptions vivid.  There are two reasons I love to travel the places I get to go is one, this is the other and the number one reason – the people I get to meet.

“Now I live here, but I do not like much because it costs too much KD.  I cannot go home because America will be give Afghanistan to the Taliban soon when they leave.  The Taliban will wipe out people who disagree.  I disagree.”

I had no idea what to say at this point and anything I could say would be my opinion that might be misunderstood as the official viewpoint of my nation.  So, I just nodded.

He told me more of his story and the events of that life changing night.  When we got to the airport I asked for is name and I gave him double fare as a tip.

As I stood in line to check in for my flight, I realized that Evan Davis really needs to meet Salwar, at least that way I can be sure his story will be told and maybe somebody will listen to the tale of this Afghan man and his escape from tyranny and search for freedom.  It is worth hearing.


In The Tens & Vertically Challenged

Nothing but boots & a helmet -- that is truly short!

I have spoken before about the way soldiers deal with tours or duties they consider a hardship.  Every month, then day, then hour is counted down until it is over.  A few days ago I realized I had become a two digit midget.  This means I am under 100 days from departure and I have started to do things to prepare for that eventuality.   This is also referred to as being short.

GIs are allowed to get shortitis, but not those of us with leadership jobs.  We have to keep things going or they would not happen.  The importance of what I do will continue after I depart – I have to keep it in motion until my replacement arrives.  I once had a Commander tell me that a leader only gets to feel short when the plane lands and by the time the plane taxis to the terminal they have mentally assumed their next assignment.

I only ever had one short timer calendar, when I was in Guam, but I found a few on the web from some places where you could really appreciate one – like Iraq and Cam Rahn Bay.  Most of the ones I saw were based on the female form, but remember it is only recently that large numbers of women have been allowed to serve in the more austere locales.  Here are a few samples:

Jim Beam marketed this during Desert Storm

I had gone over the BX on Saturday in order to pick up a few things for an upcoming trip, and when I got there I found the parking lot full of vintage automobiles and motorcycles. I guess I don’t often think about it much, but American cars tend to get around everywhere in the world and those who own them for a long time or restore them tend to be very proud of their possession and are eager to show it off whenever they can.

So here are a few views of that show. By the way, there are things that trigger homesickness and me as I go through the days here. But I will admit seeing all those motorcycles and cars built for speed made me really miss being at home and being able to get out on that highway and roll it on. Two wheels and a broken white line – – that’s how I roll.

Great sentiment.
Hundreds of bikes,  not a single Valkyrie

Serious Vettes

Yes,  that is a Caddie Fleetwood


Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Worm Turns....Again

Sunrise over the Persian Gulf

Today I find myself in familiar territory, by the calendar I am exactly 100 days from my scheduled departure from Kuwait. This is the second time I've been here, 100 days away from ending something that I started a year ago. This time however I am sure that these days will count down without a reprieve or additional time being added on to the end. I say that knowing full well that the world is a very unsettled place and sometimes things change with very little notice or time to prepare. Overall though, I expect the next 100 days to slip by very quickly.

For the last month or so things have been quiet enough here for me to concentrate on other things like learning more about Kuwaiti culture and to spend my day off seeking something physical to do rather than trying to avoid it because it is my only day off.  Not only has the weather been cooler, but the weather in places that we support has been cold and because of that things in those places have been less hectic and fearsome.  I started my career with the Department of Defense oh so many years ago as a Transporter, so for my entire career I know both the value and the criticality of what that mission is and why it has to be reliable. As things start to warm, I can count on what my organization does to become more counted upon and more critical.

It is odd being at this place again and realizing that this time the clock will actually continue to run down. I find myself starting to divide upcoming events into two columns, one that I will be here for and the other that I need not worry about since I will be about 6000 miles away. Even though I know I don't need to worry about those events, I'm still taking care to make sure that the outcome is the one desired because in the end this mission goes on with or without me and I need to make sure that everything that needs to be done without me needs to be prepared for now with me. Before March of last year, eight years passed since my last time in Kuwait. At that point when I left, I looked around and thought to myself that I would never be back here ever again. We all see how accurate that prediction was, so I will make no such prediction this time as I start my preparations to go.

I do know that I'm leaving behind a team of competent and professional people to continue on the mission that we have been jointly involved in the past year. During my time here I have come to admire their talents and appreciate their dedication to duty. But there is plenty of time for me to be reflective later, right now my mind is beginning to turn in new directions.

I find myself making mental lists about things that I do need to do before I go, and regretting those things that I haven't done yet but I promised myself I would try to do during this tour. I still have yet to attend the camel race. I know they have done away with the human jockeys and now rely on robots to ride the camels, but from what I understand they're still very exciting. The racing season doesn't actually end until April so I might be able to fit attendance at a race into my schedule. This weekend is the camel beauty contest, which I will miss. I can't say that I'm too depressed about that, but it is billed as a great chance to see the "pouting beauties of the desert".  I can see great value in a camel in this environment, but I'm not sure how long you have to be in the sun before you consider them pouting beauties.

I have yet to make it to the Friday Market. I really want to do that because there are several souvenir type things that I would like to pick up. From what I understand it rivals the swap meets in LA for size and diversity because you can buy everything from a toilet brush to a live jaguar there. I really don't need a toilet brush or jaguar at this point, but I would like to see what the market looks like and roam among the stalls.

The Kuwaiti towers, those spike and ball looking things that appear in a lot of my pictures, have been closed for renovation since I arrived. I am hoping they open before I leave because I would like to go to the top of the tower to take a look at the Kuwaiti City skyline.

I never got to go camping in the desert, but a few opportunities for that are still in the weeks ahead so I might yet make it. I will also probably make my way to the Grand Mosque which I understand has beautiful architecture and tile work. I have not seen the Anglican Church that exists in town, but I think I drove by it one day and I will make an effort to actually find it because I've heard it is also something to see. 

So to reword an ancient text:  I am sitting my face towards the United States as I began preparation to journey there.

This picture as nothing to do with the entry but I didn't have an appropriate picture for the end so enjoy a view of Bahrain at night.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Breaking Bread & Learning Stuff

After almost a year of being in Kuwait, I finally went to an event sponsored by the Advocate for Westerners-Arab Relations (AWARE) Center [Link].  I've actually known about them since my first week here, when I was given one of their flyers.  Their telephone number has been on a Post It note stuck to my monitor since then. However, I never could seem to get it together to give them a call.

 About a month ago, Expat posted a list of their events on her blog [Link] and one of them was a Traditional Kuwaiti Food Exhibition that was being held on an evening that I did not have to work. So, I went online and signed up. In addition to sampling Kuwaiti cuisine there was also going to be a presentation on Kuwaiti clothing complete with the opportunity to try the garb on.

When the night arrived for the exhibition, I drove over to the AWARE center [Link] and went in. The facility was very nice considering it is a nonprofit, nongovernmental and nonpolitical organization.  I was greeted warmly and offered a cup of Kuwaiti coffee. This was my first of many lessons that I learned that night.  Having drunk Turkish coffee, I really expected the coffee to be both strong and dark. It was neither. Apparently Kuwaitis to not roast beans the same way or grind them prior to making the coffee the way we do in the West. So rather than being dark it was almost clear and rather than having a bold taste it was almost delicate.  It was explained to me later that it is traditional when welcoming someone into your tent to offer them coffee on their arrival.

After a short wait, it was time to start the event and we all exited the building going outside to a tent that they had set up alongside of it. Our guide, a very nice woman whose name I failed to get, explained the tent and the bold colors that were used inside of it. Apparently, you can only stand so much sand colored desert without needing a place to get a colorful respite.  Inside the tent small fire pit was going, even though it was not necessary as the evening was comfortable. She served us two appetizers. One was dates – – which I've become a fan of since my first Ramadan in the Middle East (at Iftar, the fast is traditionally broken by eating 3 dates as Mohammed did).  The other was a kind of deep fried dumpling that had sesame seeds on top. They were quite tasty as well, although I did not try one with the dip.

From outside, we went back into the center and downstairs where we tried on some of the traditional clothing. I put on a dishdasha, which is kind of a long white garment that reminded me of a priest's cassock, except it is white.  Over that I put on a traditional cloak (a bisht) that was normally only worn in the winter or during formal engagements and of course came the headdress.  I started with one person giving me a hand, but then a native Kuwaiti arrived who was very friendly and outgoing came and helped me add bit of panache to my outfit by ensuring that the crease was put in the front of my gutra so that I was wearing a proper style 7. The gentleman helped me arrange my gutra several different ways explaining how and when each style was worn. A lot of it had to do with climate, although some had to do with situation. I had difficulty getting the ogal (the rope on top) to set just right, but finally got the hang of it just as we finished the fashion show.
From here, we went to try many different Kuwaiti dishes that they had prepared for the occasion.  I recalled the comment that was made when I first started writing my blog over here last March from a local who said he enjoyed my writing because it was a lot like Kuwaiti cuisine because of the mix of spices that I put in to my essays. Now at last I was getting to find out how much of a complement that actually was.  I have been eating a lot of different Arabic traditional food since I have been here, but this was the first time I ate truly Kuwaiti dishes prepared in a Kuwaiti style. 

Some things had a familiar feel and taste to other things I had eaten. But my two favorite dishes were the Margooogah -- a very spicy chicken dish that was hot in the style that I like my American chili -- not a sudden blast but a slow burn. Delicious. The other was a rice dish made with dried shrimp; I don't recall the name of that one.  

Near the end of dinner, our guide gave a slideshow about all the different parts of Kuwaiti traditional dress for both men and women. Again I learned a few things I did not know, like most Kuwaiti men do not wear gold or silk because they are considered feminine. It is traditional to wear perfumes, which explains the plethora of perfume dealers in the malls here. 
The Kuwaiti gentleman who had helped me in the wardrobe room was also available and eager to answer any questions that anyone had. I really wish I'd had more time to have a more thorough discussion with him because he presented things in such a clear and entertaining way. For instance, many Kuwaiti fathers will put their sons into a dishdasha and gutra as soon as they turn 16 not just for tradition but because of the young man is wearing it he has a tendency to act more mature and because he is not experienced in wearing it the young man has a tendency to be slower and more graceful because he is trying to keep it from falling off his head. Sneaky but effective parenting, as a father I can admire that. 

One question I always had was about the ogal.  Almost every man that I saw was wearing a black one. But, in a lot of the pictures I saw people were wearing ones that had gold thread on them.  He explained that back during the 70s, people would wear them as an outward display of their station in life or if they were educated. It kind of faded away when everyone started wearing them and it no longer had a distinct meaning. I told him that I thought it meant they were royals, he explained that my assumption made sense since in the pictures of the older Imirs they are wearing those golden ogals.
As I said, I could spend hours speaking with him just asking the questions that I've built up over the past year. I really wish I had gotten his name and contact information before he left. Although, I wouldn't want to appear rude by having so many questions.

The AWARE center [Link] has many activities to include language lessons. There are two events that are of particular interest to me. I want to go to the camel races before the season ends this year and they will have a desert camp in the middle of the month.  It is too bad that almost everything is done on Saturdays, which is a work day for me, so in order for me to go I have to take vacation days in order to go, if I can get the time off.

I congratulate the AWARE center [Link] for making that event so fantastic. I truly feel that their goal of mutual cultural awareness was met and by the end of the evening everyone felt a little friendlier towards each other because in the end we are all just human.