Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Quick Change of Buckets


I was called upon to perform a quick trip to Bahrain and as a result was able to cross the off the final item on my Bahrain Bucket List:  See the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life, Shajarat-al-Hayat, is lone tree 32’ tree that sits way out the desert in southern Bahrain. The tree is estimated to be over 400 years and it has no detectable source of water -- supposedly its roots that run over a kilometer to access a deep underground spring. Based on what I've read, the tree is a North American Mesquite; which explains how it can do so well in the desert but I'm not sure how the North American Mesquite managed to find its way to Bahrain.

The tree is surrounded by the remainders of the walls from a fortress that existed on that spot some 500 years ago.  Since October 2010, archaeologists have unearthed pottery and other artifacts in the vicinity of the tree, some of which may date back to the Dilmun civilization -- the precursor of modern Bahrain. You can see evidence of the archaeological dig in my pictures of the site.

The tree is a local tourist attraction and is the largest tree I've seen anywhere in the Middle East. According to the signs at the site, the tree is visited by approximately 50,000 tourists every year.  There is evidence of a lot of damage from graffiti carvings, spray painting, and supposedly it is also the site for cults practicing ancient rites.  I was also told that Chinese visitors would visit the tree and tie silk strings to its trunk and branches that created quite a mess.  According to the local Bedouins the tree marks the site of Eden.

This is another of those things that I think should be better cared for by the local powers that be. Regardless of whether it really was Eden or not – – anything that can survive over 400 years in the desert deserves to be admired and protected.

Satellite image:  The green dot near the middle is the Tree of Life

Pictures Of The Week

When I first got to Kuwait, I noticed these water fountains all over the place. From time to time you I would see someone filling up a water bottle or getting a drink as they walked down the sidewalk but I never knew their origin until recently. 

Not unlike Jews or Christians, Muslims believe that your life is blessed by the number of things that you do in charity for other people. These fountains are built and maintained by various families, individuals, and businesses to help serve the population that might not have access to clean drinking water. 

I like the variations in design of the various fountains. I have noticed that some of them seem to have cooling equipment to keep the water at an optimal temperature for drinking and most have a small metal cup attached to a chain in case a person needing a drink does not have one with them. Anyway, these are the ones that I found near where I live. From time to time I will post a few more during my remaining time in Kuwait.

Had to go to the dentist this week too.  Dental humor in the Middle East:  Before & After Braces


Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Bucket Some More Less Full

Go to the Friday Market.  

Since my arrival, I have heard stories about the Friday Market. It was described as a large bazaar with thousands of people milling around and selling their wares, like the one in the movie Indiana Jones*.  I went to the market looking for nothing in particular; I just wanted to experience the market. One of the folks I work with volunteered to act as guide, and they brought along their very nice Kuwaiti wife who would supply translation as needed.

So, off we went. Even though it is called the Friday Market, we went on a Saturday morning when there were less crowds but still a good number of vendors. From what I understand, it is open almost every day of the week, with several vendors semi permanently set up in the available stalls. The market has several large sheltering roofs under which the vendors are all set up in neat little rows, each shelter has its own particular specialty – – mattresses, bedding, furniture, tools, carpets, and clothing.  Interspersed among the entire organized seller were people selling their own used stuff flea market style.  It reminded me of a cross between the Georgia Farmer’s Market and the Tucson Swap Meet.

Here are some of the pictures I took while we were there, I only ended up buying one thing -- but it was something I had been looking for elsewhere. Many thanks to my team mate's wife for the assistance in bargaining with the vendor.

Surpise!  They all still work

As with any other flea market, this is the place where you can still by a tube radio

A toy AK-47, versus a toy M-16

Not sure how the physics works,  but that remote you lost or thought the sofa's here

From traditional to new wave -- wonderful colours too

The carpet on the left was over 30' wide

Traditional Arab patterns

My guide checks out the 8-Track tapes while we both try to explain what they are to his wife who has never seen one

Crazy Abdul's Brass Emporium

Since I am a guest here, and I did not want to cause an international incident by first freeing the animals and then beating the crap out of a vendor with the empty cage before stuffing him into it – – I avoided a situation that would rise my ire.

I have seen SUVs cruising around with a lion cub sitting in the passenger seat. At some point that lion will get bigger and decide that he is tired of living life has a domestic cat and will turn on his owner/tormentor. It will be reported that the lion went crazy – – but I have to agree with Chris Rock on this:  "That lion didn't go crazy, he went lion."

I am now down to four items on my Kuwait Bucket List  and, as it would be expected, they are the most difficult to complete. I have fairly good leads on two of them and 34 days left to fit them in.  Items still in the Bucket:

* 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.

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

* 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.

Pix Of The Week

I really like  this time lapse photo of planes departing from Hanover, Germany -- Freedom Birds!

* - I agree with the Amy Farrah Fowler's postulation concerning Indiana Jones"  "Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren't in the film it would turn out exactly the same...If he weren't in the movie the Nazis would have still found the Ark, taken it to the island, opened it up and all died... just like they did."  Think about it.  Sorry Sheldon.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sloshing the Bucket

Tour the Kuwait Grand Mosque.  

The Grand Mosque of Kuwait is the seventh largest mosque in the world, at least at the time of my tour. The original construction was completed 1986; however, it underwent extensive renovation in the last year because some cracks were found in the foundation and that is also why I had not toured it until now.  The renovation fixed those cracks, and a redesigned ceiling was installed at the same time.

The Mosque can handle up to 10,000 worshipers in the main hall and many more in the women's prayer hall and main courtyard. The largest crowd ever gathered was 100,000 people during Ramadan. Looking at the exterior design of the Mosque, there is only one dome, one minaret, and it is sand colored, it is one of the plainest mosques from the outside I've ever seen.  I understand that the number of domes and minarets is irrelevant to the importance of the mosque but having seen the Grand Mosques of both Abu Dhabi and Bahrain I was surprised at how simple the Kuwait Grand Mosque was.

The exterior courtyard is Italian marble and features no patterns or anything that stands out in a grandiose way. Those lines that are going across above the courtyard are a water misting system used to keep worshipers cool during the hotter months. I will say that at this point in the tour I was getting disappointed because I was hoping for something more unique and beautiful from the Mosque. Then we entered the inside of the main prayer hall and the true beauty of the building shown.

The tour was being given by the AWARE (Advocates for Western Arab Relations) Center and led by Iman, a British woman who has been living in Kuwait for the last 24 years...and now a word from our non-sponsor...

The folks at the AWARE Center have done more to help me understand both Kuwaiti culture and the traditions of Islam than any other single source during my entire stay in Kuwait. If you are looking for a way to learn about Arab culture they are the "go to" people; I have found them open, friendly, and very tolerant of what some might call silly questions but what they see as a quest for knowledge and truth. Later this month, I will be going on what will probably be my final two events at the AWARE Center:  the Eid Al-Adha Festival and Bait Al-Othman Museum Tour (if I can get a reservation).  If you are ever in Kuwait and want to learn about Kuwaiti culture the AWARE Center is the place to back to our show

For my entire life, I have been a fan of deep colors. It may be because I have a color vision deficiency or it may be that I see deeper colors as being bolder and decisive -- I don't know -- but upon entering the main prayer hall and seeing the deep cobalt blue used there the effect was profound. The two main colors used in the prayer hall are deep blue and beige which is meant to be symbolic of the two elements that make up Kuwait: the sea and the desert.  Additionally, the use of gold accents brought together the entire feel of the building most wonderfully.

Throughout the hall are many detailed carvings and displays of calligraphy. Unlike many Christian churches, mosques do not have paintings or statues representative of important people in their faith -- as a result, words from the Koran are used as ornamentation for the building. The carpeting, by the way, uses a pattern to help worshipers know where to line up so that they can fit 10,000 people into the hall with little hassle or fanfare. Notice that there are no chairs or other places to sit in the hall for the public, as everyone sits on the floor together because all are equal.

The dome at the center of the prayer hall is the hall's most fascinating architectural feature. The four columns supporting the roof are actually outside of the dome and not supporting the weight directly. Not sure how you do that but apparently it works; I guess the Iraqi who designed the Mosque was a really good engineer who knew how to defy gravity. Around the center of the dome are the 99 different Arab names for God. The most commonly used name is Allah, as it has no other meaning, but there are many other descriptive names that are used within Islam, i.e. the Redeemer, the Merciful, etc. This is similar to Judaism, and in some ways Christianity, although these descriptors are normally not seen as different names.

Iman, our guide from the AWARE Center
Once we had looked around the prayer hall, we all sat and Iman spent quite a bit of time answering basic questions about Islam and the Mosque -- she did a great job. 

In Kuwait, women are not required to wear any particular clothing – – it is left up to the woman to wear what she feels is appropriate for her and her faith. Based on that, Iman talked briefly about how she felt that the Abaya and head scarf were actually empowering and not limiting. I've never heard it expressed quite the way she did and Iman made a very valid argument; but I would counter with one thing: This is only valid if the woman has a choice as to whether she can or cannot chose what to wear. When that choice is taken away so is any empowerment or freedom that a woman might derive from choosing what she wants to reveal and to who.  Then the Abaya becomes its own prison. By the way, this type of limit to personal freedom is not exclusive to some forms of Islam; the same sort freedom taking exists in every faith. Free will is the ultimate gift that God has given us – – no human should feel that they could take that away from another.

After the tour, I went with a couple of folks and we had lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant, Abdel Wahab, in all of Kuwait. This place is awesome: the food is excellent and the views of the Persian Gulf are beautiful.

Progress on my Kuwait Bucket List seems to be going very well, as I have good leads on a couple of the items that are left thanks to some friendly Kuwaitis who read my blog and are very willing to share their culture with me. Thank you to them.  This week I need to go dishadasha shopping.

Items still in the Bucket:

* 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.

* 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 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.

With 44 days left, I might just fit them all in.
Kuwait City skyline


Sunday, October 6, 2013

There's a Hole in Me Bucket

When I first put together my Kuwait Bucket List, I thought that it would either be a Go or No-Go for each of the items on it.  However, I've come to realize that there are going to be varying shades of gray with getting each of the items done. So, I accept that and move along trying to finish the list as best I can.

See the inside of the Holy Family Cathedral in Kuwait City. 

The Cathedral has been there since 1966 when the ground was given to the Catholic Church by the Emir. I discovered the the church by accident when I drove past it with my son during his visit on his way home from Afghanistan. Living and traveling in a primarily Muslim region for the last 18 months, I was almost in shock when I saw a building with a cross on it. I made myself a promise that I would go back and actually see the inside of the Cathedral and today I did just that.
Having seen many cathedrals in Europe, I can tell you this was like none of those. There were no over-the-top ornamentals like in the Baroque churches that are in Germany and Austria.   The church itself has a simple beauty to it. Behind the altar is a large mural. At first glance I thought that some of the figures in the mural were Templar Knights – – which would've been quite surprising – – however, the interpretation given on the Cathedral's website is different.

I did not take a formal tour, but simply walked around the church and observed the sculpture and artistry of the building itself. The most amazing thing is that the building exists at all on the Arabian Peninsula.

Kuwait, by its Constitution, has freedom of religion. Several Arab countries claim that, but Kuwait is one of the few that I'm aware of that actually have Christian churches openly operating within their borders. Of course, there are rules regarding missionary work, but they are not as extensive or severe as those in other countries within the Arab world. This is one of the several things that I've discovered during my tour here for which I applaud Kuwait. I think the drafters of their Constitution were very farsighted in seeing the need to guarantee freedom and liberty for their citizens to include their spirituality.

See the oil fields that were set ablaze by the Iraqis at the end of Desert Storm.  

After doing a lot of research online I found out that the place where a majority of these oil fields were was the Burgan Oil Field. Armed with that information, I was able to find a picture of it on Google Earth then using that I was able to get the map coordinates and figure out where it was. There are probably people who could've told me outright how to get there, but doing the research is part of the fun.

So, armed with my trusty sidekick and partner in crime Falkor, I went out to the oilfield yesterday and was abruptly turned away. The main highway that cuts through the oilfield was closed by the military. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. This was a target for the Iraqis because it hurt the nation of Kuwait as a whole. I cannot fault them for wanting to protect it. However, that was not how I was going to get this item done and I looked at other ways to be able to get my looking at the oilfield some 20 years after Desert Storm.

Today, I went back to the oilfield again and this time armed with someone who had access, instead of Falkor, I was able to travel down that highway -- as long as I agreed not to take any pictures while on the road.
Oil Well visible from Ring 7 Road
Here is what I noticed, keeping in mind that I know nothing at all about oil drilling and all of my environmental impact knowledge was gained as a Boy Scout: There were several expanses of desert where trees and shrubs had been planted at throughout the oilfield. Nature has a tendency to take care of man's impact, and planting this bit of flora and fauna was a way to boost it along. I had read many things about large standing pools of oil, which had turned to solid and that had started working its way into the groundwater. I saw no physical evidence of that. I did see what appeared to be charred rings on the ground at the base of the oil wells that I saw. However, this could also be spillage that is normal during maintenance of an oil well.

I guess my biggest satisfaction was that it did look like it had been cleaned up. Those massive lakes of dirty oil and debris that were visible in the photos after the fires had been put out were gone. The desert seems to have healed itself rather well.

Take a ride on a Dhow

I did not even attempt to get my Dhow ride in today, but as I passed by Souk Sharq I saw all of the Dhows on the water and the miniature one out in front of this building – – which turned out to be a Dhow builder. Another time I will come back and see how I can get myself a ride or at least a tour on one of these.

Tour the Kuwait Towers

Alas, this item will not be done – – at least not during this tour. I went by there today because I could find no information on line other than it was supposed to be open in October 2013. I talked to the same gentleman at the gate that I had spoken to several other times when I've gone by there to attempt to take the tour of the towers. I was informed it will be another year before it's open. Another year-- I am not hanging around for that. When I pointed out that there had been several other delays during the past 18 months in question why there was a delay this time he told me in two words: "Arab Construction".

Outside the Bucket

While in Europe, my favorite restaurant was Die Ziegelhuette. Their specialty was Argentinian steaks served raw on top of a lava rock that had been heated to 400°. Part of the dining experience was to actually cook your own meat at the table. They accompanied this with a special homemade Herb butter that was out of this world.

Having been without one of these steaks for going on seven years, I was delighted that a restaurant was opening near where I live in Mangaf promising that same unique dining experience. So, last night I went and had dinner at the Stone Grill.

The Stone Grill is slightly more upscale than the Ziegelhuette, but I decided to eat there anyway. I had the filet mignon accompanied by a Greek salad. While it was not exactly the same, it did bring back fond memories and serves as a viable surrogate.

There were a few things that were different, for one at the Stone Grill they put a small apron on you prior to bringing out your meal to prevent from getting anything on your clothes. The plate that holds the lava rock also holds your vegetables so the meal is less spread out and easier to eat. They do not serve that awesome Herb butter here, but they do serve several sauces that were not available in Germany to include Dijon mustard and American-style barbecue.  You can also order chicken or prawns to go with your steak which is also nice. One thing I particularly liked was getting a hot towel at the end of the meal so that you could wipe your hands off.

The steak did not taste as flavorful as Argentinian beef, and with no other guidance I would probably guess that they were serving Australian steak. Overall, the meal was enjoyable and I will probably return there before I leave country.

If only they served spargel -- with a nice Hollandaise sauce.   Mmmm spargel….. 

It is a pity that this type of restaurant will never exist in the United States for two major reasons:  Nanny state food safety rules would prevent a patron from being given a raw piece of meat;  Secondly, giving someone a lava rock heated to 400° requires that you give it to an adult who will not later try to claim that they felt the need to pick it up with their bare hands because they were not sure how hot 400° was and there was no warning label on the rock. The lawsuit would be in the millions, kinda like the one for McDonald’s coffee. In general, negligence lawsuits hurt the public rather than helping people--except for lawyers.  Pity. 

Photos Of The Week

It lacks a reflecting pool, but it is a nice homage to the Taj Mahal

Astro Turf on the back deck.  Why?