Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Journeys Now & Then

It is a long journey from Kuwait to the United States.  Aside from the actual hours spent in the air, there are very few direct flights, so most stop in Europe and require a plane change.  Therefore there is time spent at Heathrow, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam waiting on the next plane.  I don't mind this, as it breaks up what would be a longer period of time trapped sitting in a cramped seat with few options for a taste of physical freedom.  My R&R flight back to the States this time left me with a few hours at both Heathrow and O'Hare.

After I settle into my seat and have spent a few hours watching the movies are available, checking out the latest Sky Mall magazine, and enjoying a delicious in-flight meal; my mind will start to wander and reflect on the time I have left on this particular flight and the wonder of modern travel in general.

Prior to air transport, a trip from Kuwait to the U.S. might have taken up to a month or more.  It probably could have all been by sea, except for the fact that the Suez Canal had not been put in place yet so you're left with two options:  Go around the horn of Africa or; Make the journey with both sea and overland transportation.  Overland transportation out of Kuwait would have been dangerous as you would have to go through the desert and face not only the elements but also roving gangs of bandits who lay in wait.  A quick look around my seat confirmed that there were no obvious bandits that I might encounter, except Sky Mall
magazine.  However, the dangers did not and once you were clear of the bandits.

The journey from Europe to the U.S. across the Atlantic would be fraught with its own dangers including rough seas, icebergs, giant squid, manatees pretending to be mermaids, and (once you got close to the U.S. coastline) Caribbean Pirates -- Arrr!  Having survived that part of the journey, you would again be traveling over land at the speedy rate of 20 to 30 miles per day until you reach your final destination.

Of course, you would also have the constant threat of disease, lack of food and water, and of course the risk that whoever was traveling with you could decide that the pouch of gold you were carrying was worth the effort of robbing you in leaving you in the wilderness.  Not to mention the fact that no one during your entire journey would come by an offer to serve you would drink as you traveled.

My journey was a bit less adventurous, but I will make these comments.

This was my first trip, while conscious, on British Air.  I made a prior trip from London to Kuwait but I was so exhausted when I got on the plane I immediately went to sleep and woke up only moments before landing.  At the beginning of the journey, before I fell asleep, I noticed that most of the folks around me were dressed in Western garb, including the lady sitting next to me. They were also enjoying Scotch and various other libations.  My exhaustion caught up with me I fell asleep and was jostled awake as the plane made its final approach into Kuwait City.  A quick look around the cabin revealed that I was now surrounded by people wearing dishadasha's and burqua's – the woman next to me was even wearing a veil.  For a moment I wondered if I had entered the Twilight Zone or maybe the plane crashed and I had ended up in the wrong Heaven.  I was awake for most of the flight this time.

A special note to British Air:  Christine, a veteran flight attendant with very pretty eyes, took good care of me and my seatmates.  She delivered a level of service that I have not seen since my very first flight back in the 70s.  An awesome lady, who was very good at her job and doing it with a smile.

British Air had sent me an email prior to travel with gate information and the like.  A suggestion to all airlines: Great that you are doing that, but why not  include the menu choices for that flight (so I could eat at the airport before boarding if I did not like them) and choices for onboard movies and other entertainment (so I could plan ahead).  Be customer proactive.

Anyway, almost all of my flights were uneventful and pleasant- except for a delay leaving O'Hare.  This was due to a family having a disagreement that was so bad the pilot was having them removed from the flight -- but after waiting 30 minutes for the Gateway to be moved back to the plane the flight crew agreed to let them fly.  We then had to wait another 30 minutes for a take off slot.  Bad decision American Airlines -- those of us in the back of the plane were treated to the abusive verbal argument for the entire duration of the flight as well as the husband throwing bags in the terminal after arrival.

Final note on my journey:  If you are carrying a U.S. passport and are returning from international travel, I would advise you to go through O'Hare.  They have automated stands there are now that make processing back into country plus clearing customs effortless and scary fast.  Well done immigration folks.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

These Ones Leave, Those Ones Arrive

It is that time again. Time for troops that have been here to go home and a whole new group of people to show up to take their place. It will happen with the flurry of activity but without a significant failure in either the mission or the pace at which things here go on. Everyone in uniform in the picture above will have gone home by 5 September (our unit is much larger, this is just the folks in our building).  The few people that you see in civilian clothes interspersed among the uniforms will still be here as they are the maintainers of the corporate knowledge for this unit and its mission. By the way, not all of them are government civilians – – there are a few contractors in that mix too. The significance of this particular change out is that it will be the last one I will be here for on this tour.

Shortly, I will be going back to the United States on leave and when I return to Kuwait I will set about preparing for my own departure. I will be documenting the things that I do on a daily basis and all the right numbers to call when something goes wrong as I prepare for whoever comes to take my place. It is familiar transition for me, when I was in the Air Force I did several times but as civilian I have done it even more – – mostly because as time has passed I have progressed to positions of greater responsibility. By the time I finally board my Freedom Bird at the end of November I will have laid out a plan that will at least get my replacement started in the right direction.

But, I am getting ahead of myself -- today I will put together a briefing to familiarize the new Commander -- the fourth of my tenure -- about my team's job and what we plan to accomplish in both the short and long-term.  I do this now with one eye on the calendar as the days continue to count down to my departure.

No progress yet on my Kuwait Bucket List, I figure I will get started on it in earnest when I get back from my leave.

Pix Of The Week

In honor of the Kuwait Triathlon.  Love it when the local businesses show their humor.

Stewie Al Griffin


Sunday, August 18, 2013

"On the Roads It Was a White-Line Nightmare" - Mad Max II

Ramadan and Eid are over and that boost of charity and goodwill has quickly faded away sort of like the Christmas spirit does after New Year's.  People have returned to work and have returned to Kuwait after their Eid celebrations elsewhere.  The roads that at one point were mostly deserted until early evening are packed with folks heading to and from work -- and the extra crowding coupled with the loss of good will has returned the highways in Kuwait to what is best described as Mad Max the Redux.

Mad Max in the simplest terms, is the story of people trying to get from one place to another to get the things they need regardless of what level of aggression that journey takes because they are more important than anyone else on their own journey.   Got it?  Perfect description of Highway 30 at 0630 or 1700 on work day. It is beyond your normal rush hours when you consider two things: 

1.  The max speed anywhere in Kuwait is 120 KmH (72MPH) and there are speed cameras no more than about 5 Km apart on any given road.  By the way, those speed cameras don't just check your speed,  they read your license plate and then check the speed you were going from the time you passed by the last camera -- in other words you cannot cheat by speeding in between the cameras.  Next, they deport people for speeding -- at the moment are strictly enforcing all traffic laws with the ultimate penalty for a non-citizen being deportation. This results in a group of people driving with great caution but still not using turn signals or normal right of ways.

2.  Kuwait probably has the greatest number of cars capable of doing over 150MPH, per capita, in the world.  Add to that the financial ability to not worry about the cost of speeding tickets and the desire to show off your car's capabilities for speed and handling

Now, put all those folks on the road together.

I swear I saw this guy in a yellow Corvette

The driving public is: half being overly cautious, a quarter being overly aggressive and maniacal, and the rest of us trying to get to work in one piece.

It is not unusual to see a Lamborghini weaving through traffic at high speed or to have a car come up behind you going twice your speed flashing his headlights for you to move over.  But you also get a souped up Impala who rides your butt while you are in the left lane, flashing his lights for you to move over when the middle lane is full -- how exactly are you supposed to do that?  Or worse, they pass you on the left, in the emergency lane covering you in rocks and gravel as they go by.  

Impala payback

You would think once they go by you, all would be OK -- not so.  Some of more aggressive drivers feel the need to flex a bit -- so they pass and then slow down to below the speed limit to prompt you into a game of cat and mouse.  I have seen cars push into two lanes to prevent anyone from being able to get around them.  I also saw one guy pass another and then throw a water bottle out the window at the car they just passed.  

Except for being rear-ended once, I have managed to drive here for over 1 year and half without a major accident -- I hope I can keep that up until I am out of here -- or maybe I can get me one of these...

 Pix of the Week

That must be some pool if that is all that they describe

Beavis & Butthead go Kuwaiti.  Al Cornholio?


Thursday, August 15, 2013

100 Days Versus the Kuwait Bucket List

Today is the day that I can say I only have 100 days left on this tour in Kuwait (notice how I left an out there? Life is nothing if not change).  In those 100 days I have a lot of work to do on the job, but I also I have many personal goals that I want to accomplish while I am here.

The items listed below represent what is left of my Kuwait Bucket List – a sort of To Do list of experiences I want to have prior to leaving Kuwait.  Some I can figure out on my own, others will require some help or facilitation to make happen.    I realize that for the ones that I need help on, it will require a person to go out of their way to assist and all I can offer in return is to be an attentive and appreciative attendee and write the experience on my blog.    As there is no material gain for either side, the ultimate benefit will be  a greater understanding  between cultures that will reach far beyond the folks directly involved – that is a good thing as it makes the world a better place in the long run.

If you want to help or have suggestions on how I can best complete my list,  please send me an Email.

Here is the list in no particular order:

*  Tour the oil refinery at Shuaiba.  I would like to be able to take pictures, but I am more interested in learning how all of that stuff works.  I have been driving by it twice daily for the last 18 months and I am curious.

*  Attend a traditional Diwaniya (or Dewaniya).  This is supposed to be a big part of a Kuwaiti man’s social life.  Willing to wear a dishadasha if needed.

*  Tour the Kuwait Towers.  They have been closed for renovation since I arrived here in March 2012,  I hope they will open before I leave.

*  See the inside of the Holy Family Cathedral in Kuwait City and St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Ahmadi.  

*  Tour the Kuwait Grand Mosque.  Shortly after I arrived the mosque closed due to some cracks in the structure.  I hear it is open now, just have to set aside some time to go see it.

*  Go to the Friday Market.  Waiting to go with a friend who speaks Arabic in case some bargaining is needed.

*  Take a ride on a Dhow.  It is the traditional watercraft of Arabia.

*  See the oil fields that were set ablaze by the Iraqis at the end of Desert Storm.  The fires were extinguished and years have passed – I think it would be interesting to see how the environment has recovered from the disaster.

*  See the inside of a real Kuwaiti home.  I live in a Kuwaiti house,  but it is an American home – I would be glad to swap tours.

I will write about each of these experiences as they occur, so stay tuned.


Monday, August 5, 2013

A Story of Two Pails

During my first week in Kuwait, I was talking with someone who had been here for over a decade.  He asked when I was scheduled to leave, which is as common a question here as being asked what your major is on a college campus, I told him I was on a one year tour and he nodded then said,

“The length of a tour here is gauged by the pail method.  When you arrive you get two empty pails, one is for the cash you will make and the other is for the bullshit you put up while you are here.  When either of the pails gets full, it is time to leave; you can’t really gauge that by a calendar.”

I have thought about those words from time to time during the 17 months I have been here.  I am not a newbie to the expat way of life having spent over half of my life outside of the United States.  I am used to the hardships and glitches that this way of life brings and most of my time was pre-internet so it was even more isolated and logistically difficult.

In the last few weeks the bullshit pail has started filling up very fast.  We all deal with frustrations in life when hit by rules or procedures that make no sense or that only seem to provide justification for the existence of those in charge of rule enforcement.  When goals become cloudy a bureaucracy will run amok and it will consume all within its reach as it feeds and grows.  Eventually it will devour itself.

It is not those things that hit you all at once and then fade away. It is those things that hit you and then lie under the skin like a sliver or bee's stinger – those are the things that rip the scab off just as it starts to heal. It is the constant reminder -- it is the constant pain and irritation.

In the end no matter what good you think you are doing matters you need to escape the constant frustration and return to normalcy.  At least the timing is good, as I only have a little over 100 days left on my tour and I was not really considering extending anyway.  

I will say that none of frustrations I am talking about have anything to do with Kuwait or its people.  


Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Sounds of the Neighborhood

My place in Kuwait sits equidistant between 3 different mosques.  I have no idea if the mosques are Sunni or Shia or if they even have names but as a result of where my place sits, I have a front row seat for the daily calls to prayer.  This is not a bad thing necessarily, but it has led me to notice the calls more than I had in my previous location. 

The calls to prayer are done 5 times a day based a solar clock and even though all mosques have minaret’s , where in days of yore the prayer caller would do his job, most calling is done using a PA system and a microphone.  In all my time here, I have never seen a prayer caller doing the call but I am assuming he is somewhere inside the mosque.

During my first week in Kuwait, I took notice of calls and tried to listen to the words – I was listening for words I might recognize and I did find a few.  To me it sounds like singing, but my Muslim friend Saad vehemently disagrees and insists it is not singing.  Saad also told me that there is a college in Jordan where all the prayer callers go to get trained; it is the only one in the world.  At this point, I have heard a few that sounded like they did not get out of prayer caller kindergarten.

I recall one night at my old apartment when the guy doing the call started to cough in the middle of it and proceeded to cough into the microphone for 3 or 4 minutes with the sound echoing off the surrounding buildings.  Get that man a Riccola.  A day or so later there was a new voice doing the calls and never heard the other guy’s voice again.  Guess getting a cold can be a career ender for a prayer caller.

There are times when the three mosques that I live by now start their calls just a few seconds off from each other or on a slightly different starting note.  The only way to describe it is cacophony.  In Abu Dhabi they have this beat because, according to the guide who did the Grand Mosque tour, only one prayer caller does the deed and it is broadcast to all the mosques in the country at exactly the same time.  It may be uniform, but I think it loses some of the unique flavor of the call too.

Each of the prayer callers for the mosques around me is a little different.  The callers use different emphasis and the pauses, rises and falls – they are all special in their own right.  As it is Ramadan, one of the mosques has a caller performing different types of calls at around 2030 at night – these are not the standard call to prayer but something else that sounds very peaceful and musically intricate.  I enjoy listening to these while I walk Falkor around the neighborhood before we turn in for the night.

Above all, the purpose for these calls are is to let the people know it is time to pray – sort of like a shared spiritual alarm clock.  The words for all the normal calls are the same, except the early morning call that starts with a phrase that I am told means “It is better to pray than sleep” so they are not meant to be a distraction but just a ritualistic part of the day.  I personally think that stopping what you are doing during the day to have a conversation the God is a good thing – it keeps the day and your labors in perspective.

NOTE:  Yeah, there probably is an Arab name for the prayer caller, but I have no idea what it is.  This is ain’t Wikipedia ya know.

Pix of the Week

Disturbingly accurate. Call the Lollipop Guild!

I know, I know. My 80's is hanging out.

Always be yourself,  but if you can be Batman -- Be Batman