Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Pull Tabs

Remember these?

If you're from the Arabian peninsula, you probably just saw one today so it won't be much of a stretch to remember them.

Monday, February 27, 2006

February Holidays

Kuwait was just kind enough to give me a three-day weekend. Which is twice the usual weekend for my company.

On the down side, there are no more holidays before I leave on April 4th. That means 30 days of work between now and then—bad news for Donald Duck and Dik-Diks—so I won't get any more chances to investigate the surrounding countries. That's probably it for excursions to Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain. From here on it, it's excursions to the mall or the supermarket.

To what did I owe the honor of this three-day weekend?

Well, first it was Friday. Friday is our Sunday, the day that everyone gets off. Religious people go to the mosque. Others go to the mall or stay home and color comic books.

Then it was National Day. That's the day the Kuwaitis celebrate the creation of the nation, which happened in 1961. I read somewhere that there are fireworks on National Day (like in the USA on Independence Day) but I missed them because I was sitting on the bus home from the airport at that time.

Sunday was Liberation Day. That's the day the Gulf War ended in 1991, when the seven months of Iraqi occupation were over. The good news is that when Saddam Hussein's army invaded, it was in the height of summer, so many people were vacationing in cooler climes, a sensible tradition in the Gulf. The bad news is that of course plenty of people were not out of town, and they had to live through the violence, torture, rape, and looting that began on August 2, 1990.

On Liberation Day, there are celebrations, but the only celebrating I did in 2006 was when I turned off my laptop and went to sleep after agonizing over the East Africa Express chapter of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik all day.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Few Amps Short

Last night, I flew in from Bahrain and caught the bus back to Mirqab terminal, where I changed to the no. 15 bus, which took me home to Bneid al-Gar.

Far too tired to make something out of rice and cashews, I stuck a frozen Stouffer's chicken thingy in the microwave and turned it on. There was a flash and then nothing.

I tried fussing around with the buttons and got no results. Tried moving it to another room where the outlet worked for the hair dryer--no results.

Bummer. Broken microwave.

I turned on the stove, which is powered by the same outlet.


Tried the coffee maker. Nothing.

Only the 'fridge and overhead lights work in the kitchen.

I had granola and yogurt for dinner. But today I have to find someone and convince them that I need power in the kitchen. Then I have to convince them that they need to buy a new microwave. I use it all the time for bagel-defrosting.

No way am I taking apart a dodgy outlet in Kuwait, with my Swiss army knife. I might try to find the fuse box though.

For now, I moved the coffee maker so I can heat up water. But I'm going to get hungry later. Wonder when Starbucks opens.

Update: I found the fuse box behind a picture on the wall. The fuse was tripped, so I reset it. Now the stove/oven works so I just toasted a bagel the old-fashioned way. But the microwave is still busted. I wonder if I should turn the fuse back off so that I can explain easier in sign language to the maintenance man by clicking a lot of appliances on an off, or if I can just point and the microwave and say "boom" a lot.

Bahrain Photos



Not Offensive

At the Souk

There's pig meat in Bahrain!

We bought some

The Professor cooked me breakfast

Friday, February 24, 2006

Boom Oopsy

"Peshawar, right?"

The pleasant man--in sandals and shalwar kameez--who had just plowed his Nissan pickup truck into the back of our rental car nodded with delight at the Professor's guess.

The Professor has some secret method of divining a person's home region just by looking at the person. Okay, I thought, maybe it's the fact that nearly every Pakistani in Bahrain (prounouned Bah-hrain with a mild break between the syllables) is from Peshawar. And if someone is in a shalwar kameez, it's a safe guess is that they are from Pakistan. I have one myself from when I visited Pakistan, and use it as pajamas at home.

The flight from Kuwait to Bahrain had taken only an hour. It would have taken me the same amount of time to commute from downtown Jersey City to The Professor's Columbia area digs in the mid-90s. The Professor was waiting for me outside Customs.

Bahrain seemed so mild compared to Kuwait, which has to be because it has a quarter the population and is tiny—only 3.5 times bigger than Washington DC, which is a compact city and not an urban sprawl. (Okay, it's a sprawl if you include Maryland and Virginia, but I mean the actual boundaries.)

The mildness seems to apply to traffic accidents as well. In Kuwait, cars regularly flip over or get flattened. In Bahrain, we drove out of the airport and onto the bridge that connects the airport island to the bigger island. Traffic moved slowly, but there were no sudden stops. Brake lights were apparent across the bridge and we slowly halted behind the long line of stopped cars.

The Professor was just updating me on his personal life (someone has to have one) and WHAM. Smashed from behind. My bearclaw hair-clip fell out.

I had a flash of anger. What the hell? Was the driver spacing out completely?

But The Professor got out of the car first while I rummaged through the glove-box for the insurance paperwork. By the time I joined him on the road, he was swapping friendly banter with the Peshawar guy.

Both drivers called people on cell phones, and our instructions were to proceed to the traffic police office. There, papers were looked at, reports were written, and we were sent on our way.

"Whose fault?" asked the policeman.

"His fault," said The Professor at the same time that the Peshawar man pointed to himself.

Not a big deal, apparently, except perhaps, for the guy who owns the rental.

Plane to Bahrain

I don't know squat about Bahrain.

I realized this while sitting in the Kuwait Airport Starbucks, sipping whatever was cheapest while I use the free airport wi-fi. (Do you suppose anyone ever uses the pay Starbucks wi-fi here?) I'm surrounded by smokers—took a quick look around and everyone in the whole place was smoking. Choke and bear it. It's all part of the extremely discreet charm of Kuwait City.

My pal The Professor lives there. He's teaches and deans at New York Institute of Technology, Bahrain Campus. I didn't know there was an NYIT anywhere outside New York. He used to do something involving statistics or questionnaire results in Abu Dhabi. Before that, it was something similar in New York, while he earned something like 17 Master's degrees at Columbia. I'm exaggerating, but he has a few of them. I can't remember if he ever got that elusive PhD or not. So many people don't. Even the hyper-educated eSwede—who sometimes writes me emails that I know are in English but I couldn't tell you what they mean--didn't get around to it.

I met the Professor in either the late 80s or early 90s. Those years are a blur of staying out until four seeing indie bands at Maxwell's, Knitting Factory, or CBGB's, then having the energy to still do a good job making the doughnuts (Marvel Comics) the next morning. He was a friend of a guy I was seeing (a supposed filmmaker—so many are—but one that actually turned out to be more than supposed and actually made a film and still makes plenty these days, even making money at it). I can't remember if we met in Austin or Jersey City, but The Professor came up to stay with me and the Other Marie (we were housemates) one summer. He became a recurring character in the Marie and Marie Show, kind of our older academic brother, then finally moved to NYC permanently sometime after I'd repositioned myself in Manhattan, the Other Marie installed two stories above in her own Avenue B condo.

Daniel Johnston introduced me to the filmmaker, and I met Daniel Johnston through a combination of the McDonald's he worked in and the parking lot of the Austin Chronicle, but that is another story.

I'm going to see The Professor because we have a three-day weekend and Jazeera Airways is so cheap. I'll be back tomorrow night. I'm not quite sure what we're going to do in Bahrain. I assumed there is not a hell of a lot to do. Sometimes The Professor tells me I'm crazy. I hate when he does that. No, Jared, that is not an invitation to pick on me in the Comments.

Let's review our pooled knowledge of Bahrain. Here's what I know.

-Michael Jackson lives there and at least once tried to go out while covered up like a woman (I have no idea how anyone figured it out. That's a good disguise. It might have been the fact that his kids had their heads swathed in black cloth.)
-It's on an island.
-Alcohol is legal there.
-There's a really long bridge to Saudi Arabia from Bahrain.
-I'm guessing there's some drunk driving that happens on that long bridge.
-The population of Bahrain is way, way smaller than that of Kuwait.

What do you know about Bahrain?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Active Imagination

Balancing the demands of freelance life and office work has been a struggle for the last few weeks.

There's comic book coloring—my Mickey Mouse job—due at the end of the month. There's a book being written, with re-worked chapters due every four days to my new and fabulous editor. Then there's the small matter of a 44-hour-and-some a week office job that seemed relaxing until it became obvious that my co-workers were like members of the Supreme Court, each interpreting our mandate from a different perspective. "What does our founding father mean? I thought this… why do you think that?" Plus technology rebelled in all kinds of surprising ways, which wasted about 34 hours a week. And I've still got one eye set on the cartoon riots, which have nothing to do with us, but hey, you never know.

I get up early most days to deal with personal and freelance email and do some coloring, and then I work on my book after work and on my one-day weekend. It's not surprising that I'm fraying around the edges. It's also nothing new. I was coloring a heap of work and working a full-time job at Scholastic only a year ago.

This week I've been wrangling a particularly difficult chapter, and I've run late the last few days. So instead of walking to work, I've been racing out to the bus stop when I'm already supposed to be in the office. There are two types of buses in Kuwait—there's the KPTC public bus, and then there's the Citybus private bus line. KPTC runs large buses, the kind we have in metropolitan cities in the US. Citybus run half-size buses. They follow similar routes and have the same route numbers. Residents warn me that the working class takes the bus—not the professional class—but where I come from, class doesn't get in the way so much, and especially not in the way of saving a buck. I board the bus proudly in the mornings, but I never make a fuss when people move aside to let me sit in the front—in the "women's seats." Nine a.m. is too early in the morning to rebel against society.

I almost always end up sitting next to a woman from India, Sri Lanka, or the Philippines. This morning, I sat next to a Filipino woman who looked to be about 45 years old. She was reading a letter that she had unfolded and taken out of an envelope. It was carefully written in blue ink, in Tagalog (I reckon). She seemed to read it over and over again. I hear the faintest sound of a quick intake of breath. Was she crying?

She put the letter down and sat still for a few minutes. Then picked it up, read it again, then put it back down. I could still hear the breathy-gaspy sounds.

I imagined some bad news from home, a home she worked hard to support. She'd been here for years, I thought, and the letters from home were her lifeline. Should I dig out a Kleenex for her? A traveler always has tissue in her bag—you never know when you'll find a place where you have to pay for toilet paper.

But what if I was mistaken? What would she make of this strange American woman suddenly shoving a tissue into her lap? I dared not turn and look at her eyes to see if there were tears. Who wants a total stranger to watch them break down on the bus? I've been there… you just want people to pretend they don't notice.

I waffled too long and then my stop was near. I stood up and as I left the bus, I peeked.

Her eyes were shut. She was alternating snoozing with reading her mail.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Election Fever

Everyone knows I'd usually rather be in Uganda than Kuwait.

But not right now, even though there's nothing real appealing about my office life at the moment (save for the miraculous luck of being out of the car wash office and in a little pocket universe of civility where people actually like each other).

Why would I rather be working a day job than zipping around Kampala on the back of a moped?

Because tomorrow is election day in Uganda, the most tightly fought election in, well… before President Museveni, the place had a bad run of military takeovers and crazy dictators, so I guess it would be the most tightly fought race since independence. But then I might well be guessing wrong since my awareness of Uganda is limited to modern times.

Let's review:
Pres M has been in office since 1986, when he seized power from a short-lived military coalition that had taken over following the ousting of the Obote administration, which might have been repressive and bad but there does seem to be some debate as to HOW bad. Obote followed up Idi Amin, so by comparison, it would be hard for him to do anything as rotten as feed his enemies to crocodiles and put heads in the 'fridge to scare the daylights out of opponents. (Rumors of cannibalism are unsubstantiated, although he clearly liked to encourage the rumors.)

Pres M led the country into stability, no small feat after the madness of the previous decades. For a long time, Uganda was a model economic success story as well as being a success in the fight against HIV. Then things changed a bit—on the HIV front, for whatever reason, the administration started advocated abstinence instead of condoms and education (uh, yeah, that'll work). The long-running war in the north got worse and worse, to where even people I peripherally knew or relatives of friends were killed.

And then there was the small matter of term limits in the constitution of Uganda being altered in order to allow Pres M to run again.

In 2001, I was briefly in Uganda but I was a clueless backpacking tourist, utterly unaware there was an election that year. But Dr. Kizza Besigye—once Pres M's personal physician—ran a campaign in which he garnered some votes. Not enough to win, but enough to be noticed.

Besigye went into exile right after the election, and within a few days of his return in 2005, he was arrested on charges of treason and rape. He was held for ages, while the international community demanded explanations. The treason charges have not yet been substantiated. The rape trial was impossible to make sense of (I read the transcripts on the Daily Monitor site). I am not qualified to say if the charges were trumped-up or not, although their timing is suspicious. The campaign, likewise, has produced no evidence as to who would be a better president, Museveni or Besigye. It's been a campaign of vendettas and personalities. As in most elections at home, genuine agendas and opinions are obscured by sound bites and media moments.

So who would be a better president? I couldn't say. Part of me assumes that stability is the best course, but there's the other part of me that knows that term limits should not be rescinded even if FDR or Thomas Jefferson were suddenly resurrected. No matter the outcome, there are sure to be accusations of poll fraud and intimidation. Things haven't been going well… tear gas was used at an opposition rally, an armored military vehicle killed some Besigye supporters, there were massive protests when Besigye was in jail and cars were burned.

I assume Museveni will win either by popular vote or other methods, and I also wonder if perhaps it's for the best if he does win. But no matter who wins, it's going to be ugly. The question is how ugly. Now is probably not the worst time for me to be sitting in an office in Sharq, Kuwait City.

Update: Museveni won. There are allegations of election irregularities, but the margin seems big enough that he would have won with or without help. Let's see if he does anything about the LRA now.

Monday, February 20, 2006

One Metaphor Required

I am in need of a metaphor.

Here's the scenario:

I have just been on a ship for 15 days. My port of departure was in Germany. The container ship lands in Cape Town, South Africa. My mission is to spend the next four months going north to Cairo by public transportation. I get on a shuttle bus and go to the container port gate, where there is high security. I have all these giddy expectations--a feeling of excitement, an expectation of a romantic moment when I set foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I'm Stanley, I'm Livingstone, I'm Speke, I'm... oh, a gal with a backpack entering a modern city but still, I'm in f*ing Africa!! How cool is that! I was on the bridge on approach and the western cape is lovely and awesome.

And here goes, the big first step...

Then, I have to get a guard's attention. He's behind a gate and some kind of security glass. He makes a smart remark and buzzes me in. It's like... what is it like? Going to the DMV? No. Going to the bank? Not really. Going to a shop on Avenue A back when the East Village was famous for crime?

I need something completely mundane to contrast. What is it like? Someone help me out here. I have metaphor-block.

A simile would be good too.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Camel Jockeys

"Marie, what would you do with a car if you had one?" asked one of the guys in the satellite office.

"I don't know. I'd go to the Friday Market. Maybe see a few things. Like the camel races."

Another guy turned around and shuddered.

"The camel races? They're horrible."

I knew what he was talking about.

"You mean the child jockeys? The kids that were sort of slaves? But that's illegal in Kuwait. They use robots here. And robots are cool!"

"I know, but I went only once--in another country--and it was so awful to watch that I never wanted to see any more."

He said that the children were very young, maybe 4-6 years old. And they cried as the camels ran. And the louder they cried, the faster the camels ran. And that in some countries, they still use kids.

It kind of turned me off to camel racing. I hope that it's true about the robots.

New York Times Article

Dear Everyone:

Yes, I know there was a New York Times article about artist/musician Daniel Johnston.

Thank you for your emails.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Banking Woes

I can't get onto my bank's website from my apartment.

It's really annoying. Almost as annoying as having no Internet at all from home this morning.

It isn't "banned in Kuwait" because I can still get onto it from work. It looks like my ISP has blocked it.

Can anyone who lives in Kuwait explain why one ISP would block a bank but the other would not? It's a mystery to me. But most things are, so that isn't so surprising.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thursday is Saturday Here

Thursday's Project:
Tackle Chapter 2 of STALKING THE WILD DIK-DIK. It used to be Chapter 1. And I've always hated it… because nothing happens. I arrive in Cape Town. I go to the dentist. I buy shampoo. I catch a bus to Namibia. I go on safari and look at animals, including a lot of dik-diks and rock rabbits. I flirt with Shawn, who I last saw in Cape Town in October, 2005. I take a bus to Victoria Falls. Big yawn. (I've done other chapters, just not Chapter 2.)

Thursday's Soundtrack:
Doris Duke. I'm A Loser: The Swamp Dogg Sessions. I love this. My Brit/Oz pal Sean in Sydney introduced me to Doris Duke through a mix CD he'd sent me before I left NJ. It's soulful, kind of Aretha Franklin-esque, but painfully honest in a Nina Simone way. Hell, I never said I was a music critic. Go ask Ed Ward if you want to know what genre it is.

This Week's Book:
THE NATURAL by Joe Klein. It's interesting stuff about the Clinton presidency. But last week's book was really enjoyable. INTO AFRICA by Martin Dugard. It's about Stanley and Livingstone and is a real page-turner. I bought it in Kampala in November and carried it around since then, never opening it. I finally opened it on the plane to Dubai, and that was the end of me trying to get any work done on the plane rides.

Today's Moments Worth Mentioning:
-Mr. Fixit, my company's finance and business manager, sadly saw the passing of one his three goldfish that he'd bought on the street for Chinese New Year. ("A bargain! 1 KD for three fish.")
- CanIndian Staff Writer got to go to a party at the British Embassy last night. He told me that since the embassy is not officially Kuwait, they have alcohol on site. He saw a lot of drunk Brits. (FYI, we work half-days on Thursday even though it's Saturday.)
-We read in the news that Frank Miller is making a "Batman Vs. Al Qaeda" comic called "Holy Terror." (Better DC than us, yikes!)
-Israel is drawing better cartoons about itself than Iran as a challenge back to Iran. Germans are drawing cartoons of Iranians. The world has gone mad, but I guess cartooning beats killing each other. AND WHAT ABOUT THE DANES? Is there nothing worth lampooning?
-And finally, Sven—COO and default-publisher when the big boss is away (I've yet to meet the big boss although I've harangued him a fair bit by email as he co-writes the comic I'm editing)—was in freefall and then stuck on an elevator. But I'll let him tell you about that as soon as he finds somewhere to blog about the terrifying experience. He still has no internet access at home.
-Last, I have seen no smashed cars today. But there's still a few hours of daylight left.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Workin' at the Car Wash

The old "office-in-the-car-wash" district idea went absurdly wrong along the way.

On the day we arrived, workers nailed down thresholds across each office door. We were opening and shutting doors to keep out the noise of drills. A mandoub had to take us to IKEA to buy trashcans, and to the supermarket to buy toilet paper for the bathrooms.

The Internet went off. Then it was on. Then it was off. And off. And off. We spent a lot of time and money at Starbucks. At one point there were no phones. The other people in the office told us to come in and out of the back door like squatters sneaking around (I refused and so far no one has confronted me about it).

Anyway, one day I spent about three hours fighting with a printer (the kind that my computer hooks up to, not the kind that supplies us with comic books but I know that is coming too), and there was still no Internet. Someone in the other office did something to the firewall. No one seemed to be in a rush to repair it. I had been trying to establish an FTP site for the art team for a week. I needed to get a bio off one of them for the website. I needed to e-mail the writer about the use of the term "terrorism" in the script. The water went off for a while. Then there were no toilets. I went to Mr. Fixit and demanded to know who I could yell at.

Fortunately, Sven was a step ahead of me and was far more reasonable than I would have been. He didn't yell, but I imagine he was not a pushover.

The end result was that the owner of our company let us rent a satellite office for a short time in the rental fully equipped offices of the Gulf Business Centre. They thought we were just coming to look but were taken aback when I moved in, along with Sven and the staff writer.

I was delighted. From here, I could walk to work. There were restaurants in the mall downstairs where we could buy food. There was a nice lady who fetches glasses of water and cappuccino for us. Another woman keeps the bathrooms spic-and-span (although she yelled at me today--I think it was over leaving tissue in the toilet, then later she either told me hair was dirty or that she was off-duty.) There are shops where I can buy things like shampoo (if this sounds like not-much of a luxury, bear in mind that you can't buy a lot in a car wash, aside from Turtle Wax, and I'm allergic to oil and I bet that's not oil-free).

I had a productive day today and was then walking home. sipping a smoothie from our office mall. Getting to the new office is difficult. To get there by bus would involve a transfer and still involve a 15-20 minutes walk at the end. The mandoubs pick up those of us who don't have cars and then take us home at the end of the day. I don't accept service any better than I take a compliment. It makes me feel oddly bourgeois, like I'm doing something horribly indulgent.

We've talked about getting me a car since I got here. I was game when it was 60 dinars a month to rent one… but that turned out to be wishful thinking. It's 100 Kuwaiti dinars, which is $342.

No thanks.

Plus, I'm afraid to drive here. They drive on the right and roads are well marked in both Arabic and English. There isn't an insane amount of traffic.

But people tailgate like mad, at dangerously high speeds. The results litter the roads—smashed-up or upside-down newish cars, now useless.

One day Sven and I went for steak along the Gulf Road. Afterwards, we saw a Suburban that looked like Godzilla had flattened it. A SUBURBAN! Do you know how big a Suburban is? To my knowledge, Godzilla has not visited Kuwait. How the hell do you nearly flatten a Suburban?

A week does not go by without spotting a crashed car by the side of the road. One sat in front of my apartment building for four days before someone took it away.

But then Sven started talking about buying a car. Or maybe leasing one. But he doesn't have his license yet (his US one had expired) and he can't get it without his residency permit, which is taking forever. So I would rent it off him and I'd cover the Bneid al-Gar/Sharq employees for the ride to-and-from Car Wash Land. Sven and I could then get to the camel races on Thursday, and we could check out the robot jockeys (it used to be indentured kids). I could buy groceries at the discount place. I could join a gym. I could go to souks, and the famous Friday Market. It would be nice to have a car.

This evening, after another blissful (well, as blissful as working gets) day of working at the satellite office in Sharq, I started my walk home. I'd been taking different routes daily, but today had worked late and just wanted to walk the most direct route. So I followed the highway.

I was lost in thought, trying to figure out what visual manifestation of her power the organizing hero could have, when I heard a loud crumple/smash.

There was an orange Bedouin taxi up on the curb. And a white minivan that was only askew across lanes.

And a medium-sized sedan was just skidding to a halt, driver's side down in the middle of the highway.

I know how a car turns on its side. It involves a ditch or an uneven road. This was a perfectly level paved highway.

How the hell does something like that happen?

Cars stopped and men got out. Male pedestrians ran over from all sides. Several were on cell phones, presumably calling for the police. Kuwait residents know how to react to a car crash.

They tried to climb up and open the passenger door. When that didn't work, with great rapidity and teamwork, ten men from the Asian Subcontinent--who were probably total strangers to each other--tipped the car back onto its wheels. They opened the driver's door, unfastened his seatbelt, and helped him from the car to the island in the middle of the highway.

The man looked dazed. He sat on a rock. He was a middle-aged man with a potbelly and a bald head, with a moustache. He didn't look like a speeding maniac.

How does a car do that?

Maybe there's a reason this is an alcohol-free country. And maybe I'm better off without a car in Kuwait.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Touts and Tourists

Egypt, no matter how beautiful the coast and amazing the snorkeling, is still tough going.

It's still the only place in the world—aside from the USA-—where a man I'd never met took it upon himself to grope me (no, I don't dress skimpy or prance around in front of a mosque with my belly hanging out and my shoulders exposed). It still vies with India and Istanbul for the title of "most touts per yard." Ethiopia holds a title in that race as well, but not so much for touting as for outright demands on cash.

Don't lecture me. I know I should be more patient. I should consider that there is high unemployment. I should consider that fattened tourists run around by the busload, throwing money away in the face of poverty. I should look at it as a traditional way of life, in which it is a battle of wits and the one with the most patience and chutzpah wins. I should travel with a small group like Intrepid, where tourists encounter some local customs, but are beautifully insulated from the hassles of solo travel, where negotiating taxi fares and hotel fees is simply not the client's problem, but the client is still sensitized to the region through talks and local guides.

But I have to say, it does try my patience to walk over to the Internet place to send a business fax and have three guys try to lure me into their shops by complimenting my ass or my citizenship, to lure me in so that I might buy an essential print of the Sphinx on a banana-leaf parchment designed to look like papyrus ("handmade"). I prefer the restaurant touts, because when they bellow out "where are you from" in three languages, I can walk away and they can't follow. The other guys will follow for a bit, trying to engage me in chat so that I will visit the shop they are touting for. How can they know I have no desire to buy anything that might weigh me down? How are they to know I have been trying to get rid of things for years, not acquire more?

I know that not all of Egypt is like tourist-Egypt. I know that I will not change tourist-Egypt by growling or refusing to play the game. I usually walk away muttering "no, thank you." The most effective answer to "where are you from" seems to be "Kuwait."

"Kuwait?" They say this with surprise.

"Nam." Yep. That stuns them into silence.

I lost the battle of wits to the taxi drivers when I went to and from the airport, which is about a ten-minute drive from Na'ama Bay. 35 Egyptian pounds ($6.15) is the official rate. The opening bid from the taxi driver on the way in was $20. I got him down to $10.

The return battle of wits was lost to a bait-and-switch scam. The driver started by asking for $4.40. Halfway through the trip, it went up to $6.15. But the time I got out of the taxi, I'd parted with $7.77. I was happier losing more money to the first guy because he stuck to his price instead of changing in mid-stream. I assume I'm mellowing since I did not berate the driver or throw the agreed-upon bills at him and angrily storm out of the taxi.

Egypt has had mass-tourism for a long time, and I wonder if this is what has turned the tradition of Arabic hospitality on its ear, or if there's more to it, involving colonialism and occupation. My uneducated guess says this is what happens when you put prepackaged bus tours out there with little explanation of context to the passengers. And Egypt has gotten prepackaged tourists as long as there has been such thing, and had its share of westerners throwing money around since the 1800s. It doesn't make me any less comfortable with people talking about my ass, but on the plus side, it does mean I can expose my calves and ankles without fear of offending, since for every me there are a dozen Italians in hot-pants and heels.

Whoa, what a grumpy blog entry this is! And I've managed to insult both Egyptians and Italians in one go. And my company's Editor-in-Chief is Egyptian, and the mandoub who drives me to work is Egyptian, and either one of them would probably take great offense and smack any man who dared speak of my ass in front of them. The EIC is so sweet, in fact, that he looked shocked once when I told him someone's coloring reminded me of vomit.

I'm on an offending, over-generalizing roll these days.

I actually enjoyed Sharm El-Sheikh, although you wouldn't know it from this screed.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

What I'm Missing

Have a look at what I'm missing by being in Kuwait. The first photo is of my street, courtesy my neighbor Helen. The second is of one block over, sent by Yancey.

I wonder how my tenants like shoveling snow.

A Snorkel A Day

"There is one more thing," said the hotel attendant at the Kanabesh Hotel's private beach. He'd just outfitted me with a mask, fins, and snorkel for my half-day trip to Ras Mohammed National Park.

I stopped and waited apprehensively. Whatever he was about to say, I knew I didn't want to hear it.


His voice lowered and his face softened into what I assume was his "seductive" phase.

"You are very beautiful."

"Thank you. Good-bye." My voice conveyed no surprise or embarrassment. I trotted up the steps to Reception.

This must not have been the response he expected, because after a moment he yelled after me. "And you know it too!"

This gave me pause. What if it wasn't a line uttered to every female who crossed his path as I assumed it was? He was about 23 years old. Could he have mistaken me for someone within a decade of his age? There was no way he meant what he said. He'd say this to a single female baboon if she came onto his beach, right?

In case he'd meant what he'd said, I shot back "I'm much too old for you." That stunned him long enough for me to escape to the mini-bus bound for the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

Ras Mohammed National Park was declared a protected area in 1986, and that's about all I know about it because my guide sucked. (The following day's guide on my trip to St. Katherine's Monastery was no great shakes either.)

We had seven Germans on the Ras Mohammed trip, and they complained that they'd been promised a German-speaking guide. I told them they were missing nothing, as the guide's narrative seemed to be limited to "1986" and "we will stop here so that you can rent wetsuits from my friend." They lucked out though. I was called upon to translate to them that the German-speaking guide was sick, and they would be compensated with a free glass-bottomed boat trip the next day. The Germans were pleased. I wished our English-speaking guide had been ill as well.

In 1998, Yancey and I had gone snorkeling with Camel Dive Center. They supplied everything—mask, fins, snorkel, life-vest, wetsuit, lunch—for 40 euros. I thought I'd gotten a bargain this time by paying 20 euros to snorkel from the national park shoreline, plus I'd get to see the eerie sand-scape formations on the Sinai.

I outsmarted myself on this one as the operator nickel-and-dimed us with extras. It was extra to rent the wetsuit, extra to rent the snorkel gear from the hotel, they didn't supply lunch, and so on. I'd say "AWA, Africa Wins Again," except that the Sinai, I believe, is technically part of Asia.

I suited up and swam out at the first snorkeling stop, a flat sandy area where the sun blazed down. Now I could see some of those colorful fish that Scarf'lonius had been raving about, and I could admire the famous Red Sea coral as well. I clumsily backed in wearing my hotel fins. I spat in my mask, rubbed it around the goggles, held the snorkel in my mouth, and put my face in the water.

And got a mouthful of salt. Bleh!

I adjusted my snorkel and tried again. More salt, enough to bring my head out to the surface with coughing and sputtering.

I tried a few more times with the same results. My snorkel was busted. There was a hole in it somewhere. I paddled around on my back a little, then—disappointed—went to shore.

By the time we reached the next snorkel spot by the visitor's center and museum, I'd found the leak. I paddled out, covered the leak with one hand, held my disposable underwater camera with the other, and stuck my face in.

Wow! An incredible sight lay right off the shoreline. The coral dropped away suddenly to a deep pit of sand. Fish of all shapes and sized darted in and out of the reef right under me. The blazing sun lit it beautifully. I was missing nothing by not diving at Sharm. It was all there right under my nose.

I was so amazed that I forgot to hold my hand on the snorkel's hole, and had to leave the wonderland long enough to breathe and get a firm grip on the snorkel. I wouldn't make that mistake again. I stuck my head back in to admire a yellow-and-silver triangular fish, a rainbow-striped bass-like fish, and lots of little darting silver things. The coral was brown in the shadowed parts, but had reds and whites where the sun hit it directly. The bumpy and ribbed textures were as unique as the colors. The sea glistened right above me. Spectacular!

I couldn't stay too long as I didn't trust myself not to suck in saltwater, but it was as awesome as I'd remembered it being.

It was have been easy to just rent the snorkel gear and get a taxi to the visitor's center. And a lot cheaper. Next time I'll know, except next time I'll be going with Camel Dive Center. If there is a next time. There's still plenty of the world to see and twice might well be enough for Sharm El-Sheikh and the Sinai Peninsula.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Look at Sinai

On approach to Sinai Peninsula



Ras Mohammed National Park



St. Katherine's Monastery





Many tourists visit St. Katherine's



Marie and flammable acacia bush ("burning")






Kids in Dahab eating scraps from tourist hotel breakfast boxes


Screams, howls, and whistles echoed through the streets of Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort town on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

Was I scared? Hadn't two resorts been bombed in 2005? Wasn't Egypt the place where Greeks were mowed down on the steps of the Egyptian Museum, where tourists were slaughtered en masse at Luxor? No, I wasn't scared. I was relieved. The howling meant that Egypt was playing Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations soccer match. Consequently any Egyptian who did not work at a hotel or restaurant was crowded into a sports bar, or even watching the large screen TV outside Sanifir Hotel, staring raptly from the pedestrian-only street.

No one was touting. No one tried to sell me a perfume bottle or a papyrus or a shisha (hookah/water pipe). I walked unaccosted through Sharm, as I'd done during my first visit in '99, when Sharm had been less developed, but more importantly, Egypt had not recovered from the tragic massacres. The tourist industry had been decimated when Yancey and I had caught the ferry from the mainland and stumbled onto the charming Kanabesh Hotel in the middle of quiet Na'ama Bay.

There was nothing quiet about Na'ama Bay anymore and Kanabesh had gone way up in price. Even after aggressive haggling, I still paid more than twice the $20 we'd paid for a double in '98. I could have stayed at Tropicana Rosetta resort for $29 a night through hotelpronto.com, but the Kanabesh is a local hotel deep in the center of the action. It has its own private beach and the rooms are atmospheric, multi-level, whitewashed mazes. Each had a balcony and as part of my negotiations, I got one overlooking the Red Sea. The hotel is comfortable rather than modern, and the bathrooms all have a distinct moldy sewer odor emanating from them. I also discovered that if I stood on a bench on my balcony and faced south, I could swipe free wi-fi off of Sanifir Hotel across the pedestrian street.

The only problem—I discovered the next morning as I got up early shave my legs before a snorkeling trip to Ras Mohammed National Park—is that the water in the shower never really gets hot. Which is probably a lovely thing in the height of summer. But I think I scraped off a fair number of goosebumps in addition to hair as I prepared for my day of snorkeling.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Jazeera Airways vs. AirArabia

There are two low-cost airlines in the Gulf, and now I have taken them both.

I cannot claim to be an expert on either Jazeera Airways or Air Arabia, as I have now taken exactly ONE flight on each. And Mr. Fixit's wife works for Jazeera and looks smashing in her blue uniform, so I have a slight bias.

If my experiences over the last few days are anything to go by, it might be fair to compare Jazeera to Southwest Airlines in the States, and Air Arabia to Ryanair in Europe. Meaning, in Air Arabia's case, you get there and you don't have to pay much but after that, it's fairly average. But Jazeera seems both swell and cheap, not just cheap.

The Jazeera aircraft was brand-new. The staff was friendly and attentive. Everything ran smoothly from the base in Kuwait to Dubai International Airport. Even the food was reasonably priced. The fares were great, starting at $18 or so and going up to $48 for most routes beginning in Kuwait.

Air Arabia's hub is in Sharjah, UAE. The airport is low-end compared to Dubai, but you can overlook that if there's other compelling reasons to take the airline. In Europe, Ryanair often uses airports between 60-90 minutes from the city they service, but the .99 fares make the bus fare worth it. If I fly to Stockholm on my April mini-break (I'll have a week in Europe, anywhere I can get to cheap from London), I'll be halfway across Sweden from the actual city of Stockholm, but that this is okay given the dirt-cheap fare. I'm actually inclined to go to Berlin to hole up in a rented flat for a week and work on rewrites and maybe even meet Ed Ward for a meal if he hasn't moved to France by then. Berlin also has an advantage in that I've been there recently and won't be distracted. Wait, I'm supposed to be talking about Air Arabia.

The first thing I noticed at Sharjah Airport was the lax security. The next thing was that I boarded what looked like a rent-a-plane. There were beautifully painted Air Arabia Airbus jets nearby, but not the Sharjah-Aqaba-Sharm one. Ours was white with some lettering on the side that had been painted over (not too effectively) in white. It looked like it said "Sharee" or something underneath.

The inside looked fine. But weirdly, it was like the staff was also a rental. No one seemed to have any idea how anything was supposed to work. When we stopped in Aqaba, one blond European passenger asked "Can we go outside?"

"I don't know," answered a flight attendant.

He asked three more times but the other staff members ignored him.

I asked someone if they would be serving food on the next leg, as it was so brief.

"I have no idea," the uniformed attendant answered answered.

I'd been trying to buy a chicken tikka sandwich for three hours. The staff had wheeled the food cart up the aisle to the halfway point, then rolled backwards and disappeared. I'd assumed they'd gong to refill, but they never came back, with or without the cart. I didn't spy another staff member until we were on the ground in Aqaba.

There was some sort of holdup and we sat at Aqaba for an hour longer than scheduled. The European never did determine if he could get off the plane, although I did finally badger someone into feeding me.

If I have a choice, I'll always opt for Jazeera over Air Arabia. But AA was all right for the money. I'd just gotten inflated expectations based on my JA experience.

There's still the return flight on Sunday, so maybe AA will redeem itself.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sharjah Schwarma

I wanted a falafel or some hummous. But all I could find was schwarma.

Rolla Square seemed to be the Sharjah center of the UAE's subcontinent population. My taxi driver, who was of undefined Arabic origin, waved his hand and said "Little India."

It wasn't so simple. I didn't spot a single curry or dosa near the Al-Sharq Hotel. Just lots of schwarma, being consumed by men in shalwar kameezes. Presumably it was a Pakistani area.

After about ten minutes of hunting for a falafel, I went into the first schwarma place that had an open table and got a chicken sandwich. There was a variety of fruits on display.

"What kind of juice do you have?" I asked my bearded server.

"Mango, orange, apple, pineapple, cocktail…"

"I'll have that. Cocktail."

He brought me a delicious orange concoction that had red streaks throughout it. The schwarma was good too. The food was two and a half dirhams—just over half a dollar. The drink was twice that.

I'd had a long day of sightseeing and was looking forward to relaxing in my shabby room. I'd caught the bus into Dubai in the morning, and had the pleasure of sitting next to a man who worked for Dubai's municipal bus company. He'd told me how the fleet was being overhauled and had 600 buses, how traffic was a horrible problem in Dubai and a train was being built from Dubai to Sharjah, and how there was no stigma to taking the bus in Dubai.

"It's cheap and they go everywhere," he said.

Later, the bored-sounding narrator on the city bus tour I'd boarded told his audience the oft-repeated tale that water is more expensive than gas in the Gulf. It's true, although it isn't as insane as it sounds. I remember gas being under a dollar a gallon in the mid-80s when I lived in Texas. That's cheaper than a gallon of bottled water.

I sat on the bus a lot, saw a faux Egypt that was actually a high-end shopping center, and realized I had nothing appropriate for hot weather (Kuwait was a little chilly in January and is more conservative so I have only long sleeves and cover-y things). I bought a $12 pair of sandals at Carrefour in Deira City Centre and asked the cashier to cut off the tags so I could wear them out.

I headed back to Sharjah and wandered through an upscale souk. I went into shops a few times, and engaged the shopkeepers in extended conversations. Once they realized I wasn't going to buy anything, we'd have good chats. A man from Bangladesh tried to sell me a carpet from Esfahan. He laid off that once I told him I had a perfectly fine carpet from Esfahan at home.

"How much was it?" He asked.

"About $140."

He was silent. I wasn't supposed to respond that way. I felt guilty. He was just trying to make a living.

"But it's different because I bought it in Esfahan. So I got a very good price."

His face brightened. He stopped asking me to buy a carpet and talked about marriage in our different cultures.

"Are you married?"

"Divorced." I've recently realized that saying this makes people feel sorry for me and then they are unlikely to get fresh.

"Let me ask you: how many boyfriends have you had?"

"More than one." I dodged the question.

"Ah. This is a better way. This way you really know the person and you know if it will work out."

I told him he was wrong. It doesn't make it any more likely to work out. We had a nice chat and I moved on. I needed to get some sleep as I was heading to Sharm El-Sheikh early in the morning.

UAE is really cosmopolitan. It made me realize how we're small-fry on many levels in Kuwait. Dubai has an indoor ski slope. We've only got an ice rink.

But sometimes an ice rink is all you need.

Visa Run to Dubai

dubai sign







Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On the Road, or Plane Anyway

And you may find yourself in another part of the world...

...sitting in a Starbucks in Kuwait Airport, waiting on a Jazeera Airways flight to Dubai after trying to make Arabic comics all day, in a new office in the "car wash" industrial area, with a man nailing down the floor under your feet and the sound of circular saws coming through as you try to talk to John McCrea on a phone swiped off Sven's desk while he's in a meeting, and of course John has screeching toddler syndrome.

"John, the face in the last panel isn't Arabic enough."

"I know."

"I know you know."

(laughter on both sides. Kirby howls. Or maybe it's the baby Ella.)

I rushed to a meeting where Sven did a lot of math while the E-I-C and I looked on in astonishment. We came up with page counts. I thought "shit, it's expensive to make a comic book."

And you may ask yourself... how did I get here?

Well, that one's easy. Girl has problem staying still. Girl gets bored easily and hates normal office jobs. Girl has issues with intimacy and likes to get the hell out of Dodge frequently. Girl meets boy. Girl gets book contract on Africa. Girl moves to Africa for better access to boy and book. Life is great although girl's issues are magnified in boy, who has even worse issues. Life goes to hell and girls gets sick and ends up in hospital. Boy splits. Girl wallows for months and decides "hey, I think Kuwait is a good place to spend the end of my 30s."

No, that didn't really make sense to me either. But it's not the first time I've ended up somewhere weird.

Same as it ever was.

As it turns out, Kuwait is a good place to recover. There are few demands on my time since I'm not big on shopping malls and not a member of a family over here. I am slowly becoming less numb, although the 800-pound gorilla of the book is scaring the shit out of me. Editors freak out on me. I take it out on Fabian and John and soon on the inker too (lucky guy).

More from Dubai. I've got a plane to catch.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kiss and Make Up

All right, I understand that the Danish cartoons were in very poor taste and quite offensive. I'm glad the US newspapers have avoided reprinting them, although I understand the dilemmas of editors facing "how do we print the news without showing the news?"

But embassies are burning and people are dying. This is not an appropriate response to an affront to a religion. I still maintain that one offensive cartoon deserves an offensive cartoon back atchya. Complaints can be noted. Newspapers can be boycotted. Death is not okay. Bomb threats are not okay. I don't agree with the people who do it, but I thinks it's acceptable to protest something like Last Temptation of Christ or the elephant-dung art exhibit at Brooklyn Museum. But I don't think it's okay to bomb museums or chase around Martin Scorsese with a brick. It's not even a fine line. It's a very clear line. THERE'S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROTEST AND VIOLENCE. Malcolm X even changed his mind on this point.

But it does seem to me that there is something else happening here. Could it be that this is more a rising-up about social relevance in the world? About being tired of being ignored? Am I talking out of my ass because I am a clueless privileged person (not that privileged, mind you)?

Me and my talking ass now are moving onto another topic. Two topics, actually. One: still no internet at the office. Rumors blame an IT guy who has vanished. Not our IT guy, from some other company in the building. Two: Tomorrow night I will be sleeping in a hotel in United Arab Emirates. And the next night too. Then it's off to Sharm, where I hope to find a place to lay my head at the same great little place I stayed with my pal Yancey in 1999. I hope it's not so cold that I can't snorkel. And maybe I'll find time to see the "burning bush." Ha ha, as if a bush could survive for thousands of years. Oops, now who did I just offend?

Additional Thought on the Cartoon Thing: Those of you who think it's just a Muslim thing to react with violence need to remember Oklahoma City, the Unabomber, and people shooting doctors and bombing abortion clinics. It's not a Muslim thing to react violently. It's a people thing. An unfortunate people thing.

Update: That talking ass was onto something. And I haven't read "Jihad versus McWorld" but it sounds like a title that might be onto something.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Up and Down, But Mostly Down

We are off-line again. But this time it's at the new office. And I'm at Starbucks again, uploading and downloading today's office mail.

Sunday is the Tuesday of this part of the world, so it is a working day. It's annoying to try to work without a connection to the rest of the world, or to Mr. Fixit in the office next door to the one I share with two other editors.

At home in Bneid al-Gar, I have the ability to send and receive mail (slowly) but my web browsing is limited. Nine out of ten times of hitting "reload," I actually get something.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Start of Book's Nairobi Chapter


I was in downtown Nairobi, looking for a travel agent so that I could book a balloon flight over Masai Mara. The man who had said 'hello' in Swahili had fallen into step alongside me. He was tall, dressed in casual clothing, and smiled at me with familiarity. My "scam-sense" throbbed dully.

"Still walking, huh?"

I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never seen him before and had only been walking for about ten minutes. I'd just arrived from Kampala and quickly found a cheap hotel room on the edge of a squalid block of green that passed for parkland. I'd walked about six blocks from my hotel. That was all. I made a noncommittal noise.

"Hmghph," I replied.

"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked. Ah, I knew this one. I stifled a giggle.

The "remember-me-from-the-hotel" scam was documented in my guidebook. The goal was to engage me in conversation, make me think I knew him, then ask me for a small loan which would be repaid later at the hotel.

I shook my head.

"John. From the hotel," he said.

"I'm not staying in a hotel," I lied.

"I mean the hostel. You don't recognize me out of my uniform."

"I'm not staying in a hostel." I coolly stared at his eyes.

He knew I was on to him.

"Son of a bitch," he snarled and strode away. I was too surprised at his anger to correct his English usage. Bitch could be applied to me, but son?

* * * * *

Back to the present. Writing this chapter is fun but in some ways the most disappointing. Because it's the one that works best as a comic book story, telling in 4 pages of pictures what is going to take me 6,000 words in text.

Is there such thing as a "scam-sense" or is this just further evidence that Marvel is imprinted deep in my psyche?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Back to the Books

Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik.
One Woman's something or other blah blah Africa.

That's it. The title of my book. (Although I forget the subtitle.) My No Hurry In Africa one got bounced. Which is fine because somehow they accepted my earliest first suggestion from last spring: Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik. I had to sulk for a long time before they took it. They weren't real keen on Curse of the Hippo, which is also fine because that would take me into places I'm not sure if I want to go yet since I'm still struggling with Mr. Hippo and the issues that were alongside his chasing me. He's a metaphor for a dark time in my life. (Kuwait turns out to be a good recovery station.)

The dik-dik is a cute little antelope thing, the size of a chihuahua. Anyone who read MariesWorldTour knows that my Africa struggles in 2001 were with the dik-dik, not the hippo. Which admittedly doesn't sound as scary now that I've revealed it's the size of a chihuahua. Anyway, he terrorized me outside my tent one night when I assumed he was a lion.

The title may horrify some or interest others. It is not one that will be overlooked. To me, it's an inside joke that the readers will be let in on slowly.

My editor has passed me off onto another editor, some kind of specialist. She thinks I'm working in a bubble and afraid to show her stuff. Which is very kind of her. If I were my editor, I would assume my lazy good-for-nothing freelancer was putting everyone else's work ahead of mine. But you know, a girl's gotta eat. The thing due tomorrow gets done first. I did turn in three chapters. I have another 10 that I hate and need to rework but haven't touched in ages. (She doesn't read this blog very often, although the new editor may check it immediately. But she'll probably be onto me in a flash anyway. If I were, uh, me, and the writer was, oh, I don't know, Warren E, and we were making comics and he didn't keep in touch for a while, I would not assume he was diligently working on my stuff. I'd assume he was doing everyone else's. And I'd be right.)

One thing that has horrified me about the book is reading the reader reviews on Amazon. I had read a funny book from my publisher and checked out the responses.

Rarely have I read any kind of book where the author is more self-absorbed and impressed with him/herself. I got SO tired of page after page of putting other people down while describing how cool she was.


The author is incredibly whiny and self-important yet hypocritical. There are glimpses of her humanity, but for the most part she puts herself on a pedestal above everyone she encounters - traveling companions included.

"Just don't look, Marie." My former boss used to say that. "Don't look at what they are saying about you on the internet. It will drive you crazy."

It will. I don't have the thick skin for this kind of criticism.

Just don't look. But you know I will.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Devil and Daniel Johnston trailer

I have about three minutes of footage in this film. There's a split-second of one of my shots in the trailer too, just Daniel looking straight at me (behind the video camera) in his middle years (early 90s). The film will be released in March, or so says the website.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Long Walk Home

The office moves tomorrow from downtown Kuwait City (and a 10-minute walk from my flat) to AEON (Ass-End of Nowhere), an industrial area out past the Friday Market.

I took my final walk home from work tonight, against the backdrop of a lengthening evening, walking over sandy lots and squishy damp fields (carefully avoiding the sprinklers that stick up out of the grass). The call to prayer came from two directions. I'd stayed at work later than usual.

I never thought I'd say this in Kuwait—which frequently suffers from haze or dust—but it was a lovely evening. A perfect temperature, just cold enough to make me cross my arms across the front of my open jacket.

Ed Ward offered me a tip that I've used to examine nearly all of Bneid al-Gar. He said that he used to walk his dog on a different route every day, and he'd look at things. So I've been walking different ways home every day. I've crossed several dusty lots and seen many men from India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka walking towards me. Sometimes they veer left to pass, while I veer right and we have to dance a little. Lots of them wrap scarves around their heads. This might mean they are from a certain region, or it might just mean that they are cold or avoiding dust.

I pass both apartment blocks and tiny shops every night. At home, we'd call the shops bodegas. Here, there's not many people using Spanish terms. One near my house sells mutton and has a sign advertising "Indian meat." Others sell bottled water, sodas, bananas, bread, and snacks, just like at home. Some makeshift shelters have set up recently—blue tarps over wooden frames. Men lounge around inside on pillows. I can't work out what is happening. At home I'd assume it was a demonstration or a revival. Here, I assume it is neither.

One of these walks resulted in newly colored hair roots. I'd walked under the highway, through a tunnel sparsely adorned in graphitti. I was headed to the Safir Hotel, hoping they'd have a decent gym. But before I got there, I saw a sign for "La Rouge Beauty Saloon and Fitness Center for Women."

I never did find the fitness center and I doubt it exists. But the "saloon" (for whatever reason, they are all saloons over here) existed.

"How much is it to color regrowth?" I asked the Filipino saloon receptionist.

"10 KD." That's $34.23.

"And a cut?"

"4 KD." $13.70.

Well, all right. I wasn't going to do better than that unless I flew to New York and went to see my student colorist.

But I sat terrified as I waited for Salwa the Lebanese colorist to finish her other client. Everyone else in the salon had dark hair. So did Salwa. My hair goes orange without the right mixture of color. Should I flee?

I didn't, reasoning that I'd had my hair colored all over the world. Never mind that I came home with horizontal bands of different blonds across my hair, like I was a tree. Never mind that it took me two years to get it all one color again, and even now it's debatably light-brown. It's just chemicals. It can't be that hard.

Salwa showed me a Wella chart. I pointed to the ash blonds and told her I needed a mixture to avoid orange. She laughed at me. I suddenly remembered the Kenyan man who had done a fine job on my hair in Nairobi.

"Have you colored blond before?"

"No, but I can learn." He was joking. Salwa was doing this now. She rolled her eyes and clasped my hand and led me to a sink. She mixed a concoction. And Indian girl covered me in plastic and, under Salwa's tutelage, smeared it all over my roots.

A half-hour later, Salwa was admiring her perfect work in front of a mirror. I'd gotten lucky and stumbled onto a great colorist. She walked me to the front desk, where the facial woman was doing the books.

"How much are facials?" I asked her.

I don't even remember her answer, because it was a lot more than color and there's no way I'd cough over that much. I know it's gross work to dig all the crap out of someone else's pores, but a Biore strip is a lot cheaper.

"Oh, but it includes facial, collagen, and whitening."

"Whitening?" I caught her eye and giggled.

A beat later, she and Salwa were laughing with me.