Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Back On, But Slowly

The things you miss when you're off-line for a few days.

I went over to the supermarket, hoping to buy some Legos or some pickled fish or maybe some danishes. But no! Thwarted by the blow-up between some Danish cartoonists and the Muslim world. What's a girl to do?

For those of you who want to see the cartoons that have caused all these problems, well, sorry but you're on your own with Google. I wanna be able to read my own blog here in the future. And those of you who want my take on it? Same thing. You can probably guess if you know me well.

I would, however, like to point out that there's a fair number of overwrought Christians in the world who did not find the South Park "Santa Claus versus Jesus" episode—in which Santa and Jesus beat the shit out of each other over the true meaning of Christmas—to be the least bit funny. What does that have to do with anything? I'm not totally sure.

I wonder if Saddam Hussein thought it was funny when the South Park movie portrayed him as the gay lover of Satan. I'm digressing again.

Anyway, there's no danishes at my neighborhood supermarket.

Update: What's annoying me is that people are responding by using guns and burning flags, which plays into stereotypes and furthermore makes non-Muslims smug and say "see, I told you so." My opinion on the proper response? If you're offended by a cartoon, draw one yourself. Even better, host a cartoon contest in which all are invited to draw cartoons lampooning anything sacred to Denmark. And better yet? Offer a prize so that even talented people who aren't offended are drawing amazing cartoons to piss off the people who pissed you off. A Thai restaurant here offered a trip to Thailand as a prize for drawing the best elephant and some really incredible elephants have come in, including two from our office. People who have never drawn an elephant in their lives are suddenly churning out amazing elephants, because who doesn't want a trip for two to Phuket? Another thought: Make the prize a free trip to that redneck town in Denmark where this nonsense started. And give the recipient a carton of eggs when they get off the plane. Just my two cents. Or two fils.

P.S. I apologize for offending any non-redneck Danes who my have been swept up in my rash generalization about the redneck town. Of course this can't possibly be the case of all Danes who live in that town, because surely they are all good and charming people who don't go around playing with Legos and eating danishes while stomping on copies of the Koran. It was wrong of me to generalize.
P.P.S. I'm going to start burning copies of all magazines that offend women, as soon as I am out of Kuwait, because Kuwait is not a large enough country for the massive bonfire I'd have to hold.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

SMS from Marie Javins

Still no Internet in Bneid al-Gar. It is, however, a good time to see if I can SMS-2-blog.

Down and Internet-less in Kuwait City

There was some kind of fire and it was somewhere important. Internet go bye-bye here in Kuwait. Or at least in huge chunks of the city.

One of these chunks covers both my apartment and my office. It's amazing how much depends on the internet. We don't even have an intranet so I copied things onto my USB stick and walked it over to the writer only to find that his USB drive was busted. Ho-hum.

Sven and I had a mandoub drive us out of the area to Starbucks. The internet works here, but now it seems that the artist I needed to send a contract to found it in his spam folder. Oh well, guess I'll just answer my emails instead.

Expect radio silence for a bit. Those who really need to find me can ask my mother for my phone number or use my secret email-to-SMS address.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mission Accomplished

Today I managed to find a post office in Kuwait AND I took a bus to it AND I even got a bus map.

I was spurred on by Sven teasing me that the post office had become my grail.

I sent a postcard to Don Hudson.

Small wonder anyone can find this place. It's not exactly well-marked. I never would have found it without asking people.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Slipper Quest, 2006

Winter in Kuwait is worth a few eye-rolls to someone used to pipe-bursting frigid winters. Any time someone bleats "it's cold today," I start giggling. It gets chilly enough for both a sweater and a light coat sometimes, but I haven't once regretted leaving my mittens and parka at home.

Nevertheless, the tile floors in my apartment do chill my lower extremities. Meaning my toes get cold.

Socks haven't beaten back the chill. I needed slippers with rubber or plastic soles.

This afternoon, I hopped the 505 bus up the Gulf Road past Kuwait Towers to Sharq Souk, the mall I'd visited on my first night in town. Slipper Quest 2006 didn't produce ideal results. Debenham's had lots of toasty slippers in sizes too small for my big feet. The 1.50 dinar slippers at Sultan Centre (the local equivalent of Shop-Rite or Safeway) were one-size-fits-all—if you are a member of the Yeti family (speaking of which, did anyone notice that the Malaysians are hot on the trail of Big Foot? But I digress.). A nice Filipino saleswoman walked me over to the KD 2.50 section and there I acquired the necessary foot coverings. Not furry or wooly as I was searching for, but I was ready to take what I could get as I don't plan on carrying these back to the States with me. KD 2.50 is USD 8.50. For a cheap pair of slippers. I'm missing dollar stores at this point.

I walked back through the mall, dosing myself on fast food with the excuse that I needed more salt in my diet since I'd been dehydrated. What a difference the time of day makes! When I'd visited Sharq last, it had been filled with teens and young adults, all decked out in hair gel and romantic flowing princess outfits. The afternoon clientele was nearly all families. Women were covered in black robes and veils. Men wore dishdashas—long loose robes and head coverings.

Children were everywhere. Baby carriages seemed as likely to be pushed by men as by women, which caught me by surprise. Older children appeared to bear some responsibility for the younger children.

Last night, I'd been in a completely different sort of shopping center. It was in the middle of town, its clientele far from the glamorous nightclub-looking denizens of Sharq or the teens of Marina Mall. The downtown shopping center was the melting pot of malls, with few Kuwaitis in sight.

Mr. Fixit took Sven, Mrs. Fixit, and me to the pirate DVD shops in the basement of the shopping center. It was a little Bollywood empire, with each of four shops competing for our attention with the latest Bollywood video. The Fixits and Sven paged through the available Hollywood DVDs while I turned my attention to the video screen of the shop next door.

"Sanjana, I love you," belted out the handsome Indian star as he swung Sanjana out over the bow of a cruise ship. Wait, I'd seen this. I'd watched half of this movie in the lobby of Econolodge in Dar Es Salaam while waiting for someone to get off the manager's computer so that I could use his internet. In this movie, Sanjana's parents tried to set her up. The boy they'd set her up with didn't feel like showing up, so he'd sent his friend. The friend and Sanjana fell in love, and then the parents found out the future Mr. Sanjana was an imposter. How did it end? I never found out. The internet became available and I'd forgotten about Sanjana's dilemma until this moment.

The shopkeeper, a young Indian guy with a doo-rag pulled tightly over his hair, instructed his helper to fast-forward so that I could see the end. Too far. All I got was an ensemble of dancing Bollywood actors doing a complex routine as the credits rolled. The shop staff looked to me hopefully.

"Thank you. That's exactly what I wanted to know," I said politely. The Fixits and Sven—DVDs in tow—showed up. We left Sanjana behind and went for some curry.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Happy Australia Day

Peter's blog just reminded me that it's Australia Day.

As someone who was once a near-Australian, I'm embarrassed to say that I had forgotten.

Not a lot of kangaroos to pet in Kuwait, so make yourself some ANZAC biscuits as the next-best thing. (Better for ANZAC Day, natch, but we're improvising here.)

1 cup of rolled oats
1 cup of plain flour
1 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of coconut
2 tablespoons of golden syrup
1/2 cup of margarine (soft and pliable)
1/2 tablespoon of baking soda (bi-carb soda)
1 teaspoon of boiling water

Mix together the oats, flour, sugar and coconut.
Melt the syrup and margarine together.
Mix bi-carb soda with the boiling water and add to the melted margarine and syrup, then add this to the dry ingredients.
Place tablespoons of the mixture on a greased tray and bake at 150c (302F) for 20 minutes.

To further celebrate Australia Day, bake these with Paul Kelly playing in the background.

Money only buys you what you want
You can't buy your balls back like you buy a pair of pants
Once they're gone, you've really got fuck-all
Watch out little boy, don't lose your balls.

Dust and Buses

I’d been walking to work but today there was a swirling haze of dust in the air. You can dress the desert up in Pizza Huts and office towers, but the sand never misses a chance to punctuate its point that mankind is just a temp in the grand scheme of things.

The desert was reminding me of its existence rather nastily this morning, so I hopped on the bus. The working-class men moved aside to give me a seat. Rather than belabor the point that they were as entitled to it as I was, I took it. I was already nervous that they’d look askance at me for taking the bus in spite of being told by co-workers that it was inappropriate.

No one looked askance. No one even blinked. The bus roared on, zipping me to work in record time. I marveled at the efficiency of Kuwaiti public transport, thinking “More people should take the bus.”

I spent the morning giving my first coloring class. It didn’t take long for the staff to groan at the labor-intensive process. The wise Editor-in-Chief looked alarmed. They got it quickly. Coloring is a pain in the butt.

Point made, we all packed up and went to look at our new offices, which happen to be located in the ass-end of nowhere. My brief bus ride this morning will likely be the end of my Kuwait City bus-riding career. I’m going to need a car.

The idea of driving in Kuwait City terrifies me. It seems like an easy place to drive. Kuwaitis drive on the right, just like at home and in continental Europe. Roads are clearly marked in both Arabic and English. Traffic lights control major intersections, and people more-or-less heed them.

No, it's not the roads. It’s the alarming speed at which people tailgate that has me worried.

According to the BBC’s correspondent, tailgating in Kuwait is about boredom. Young people, frustrated by the lack of gathering spots or things to do, play out their frustrations behind the wheel.

I worry about these drivers. I don't like when people ram me from behind while going 60 miles an hour. I've been in the car a few times with people who drive like this. One of our mandoubs is a prime offender.

"It's no problem to drive here," stated our company advertising sales executive. "You just have to look all over and be ready for anything."

Mr. Fixit is still looking into a car for me. So far they've all been quite unaffordable.

One unrelated tidbit: When I arrived home, I was surprised to see that my 2-bedroom apartment had become a 1-bedroom in my absence. They had talked about moving me into a 1-bedroom as soon as one became available, but this seemed a bit excessive. They'd sheet-rocked over the entrance to the second bedroom, making the small bedroom with attached bath into its own studio flat (although it is as of now walled up with no entrance). Which is fine, except that the workers had left the porn channel on my TV and it took ages of fiddling with the two remotes to get it back on BBC.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Losing It in Bneid Al-Gar

I haven’t been taking care of myself properly over here. I’ve been skipping meals, not drinking enough water, and burning the midnight oil on deadlines whenever I’m not at the office. And the freelance deadlines keep getting screwed up by little things from freelance sources, things that should only take “a minute.” Nothing only takes a minute. Filling out forms takes all g*dd@mned day.

Today I’m paying for it with an incredible headache. It could be because I’m allergic to tobacco, and we’re never far from the scent of a lit cigarette. Or it could be, as Sven told me, that it’s easy to get dehydrated here. I’m going to have to make more of an effort to drink more water, especially given how easy it is to have another cup of coffee set in front of you here in Kuwait.

I'm pretty sure it's not because I started walking to work today. No one stared. I even saw another female pedestrian.

I’m having a hard time working up the energy to blog lately, as I like to spend my free time sleeping. So if I slow down a bit here, forgive me.

Now, where was I before I took a paracetamol and collapsed on the couch? Ah, Donald Duck needed coloring, and still does.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Palace Showdown

According to the BBC, we're in the midst of a constitutional crisis over here. A sheikh throwdown, Kuwaiti-style, with tea and biscuits.

And here I thought it was just a little cold.

Update: Our constitutional crisis seems to be over.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hot News Day

Kuwait seems to have a new Emir, although there is still some debate among the royal family. The 75-year-old crown prince--for those of you who have not been closely following Kuwaiti politics--was too ill to take the oath of office. So a bit of a power struggle ensued between branches of the royal family. There probably wasn't much doubt all along, as the Prime Minister has been running the show here for a long time and he is almost certainly the new Emir.

There's a cabinet and a parliament here, part of the modernization reforms instituted by Sheikh Jaber (the last Emir). It's not quite the British system as the royalty has more political power here than does the Queen of England, but it's the same basic idea. I'm a little uncomfortable with the Prime Minister and the Emir being one-and-the-same, but maybe they will appoint a new Prime Minister now. I'll have to ask the wise Egyptian Editor-in-Chief about this when I get to the office.

Speaking of the office, the other hot news item is that my employer was featured in a story in today's Sunday New York Times. I am one of the "old hands" mentioned. Sigh. Old.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Out of My Element

My cell phone rang at 8:43 on Thursday morning. It was Sven.

I laughed as I told Sven how I'd woken up early to get ready for work and then remembered it was the weekend, the Saturday of the Muslim world. I'd been quite pleased when I'd realized we did not have to go to work.

"But we do work today. I'm waiting for you downstairs in the lobby."

"Uh… er… be right down," I said, wondering if I could pass off my flannel pajamas as the latest fashion from New York.

It was an honest mistake. My awareness of what is going on around me in Kuwait is limited at the best of times, and certainly no one had told me that a weekend was only one-and-a-half days long. That makes my freelance life a little more challenging. I don't think it's the same at all jobs here, but I suspect it might have something to do with us working closely with people in other countries, who take Saturday and Sunday off while we are working.

At the office, I asked my co-workers where I could find the post office. No one knew.

"Ask one of the mandoubs to do it. You should not waste your time in line at the post office."

Mandoubs are drivers, messengers, paperwork expediters, and errand-runners. They are the feet of most Kuwaiti organizations and are usually expat Arabs. A mandoub drives me to work every morning. I keep talking about how I am going to take the bus instead. Most people are horrified, a few are amused, and one of our mandoubs told me it was quite safe.

Then I was told that people don't really send postcards here, that I should put my postcard into an envelope and seal it up. I made a half-assed attempt at explaining that the recipient would want the postmark and the stamp, that the thrill of a mailed postcard was in the whole package, not in the photo and certainly not in the words on the back of it.

Other things I'm slowly learning here: Each decent office has a "tea-boy." We actually have a kitchen staff, and Sunita of Sri Lanka brings me coffee and a rusk in the mornings. If I say I don't want coffee at any point throughout the day, she'll press mango juice or water on me. And with computers, Macs and iPods are everywhere. We're all thinking different the same. The local supermarket sells incredible spices that I have no idea what to do with. Water is desalinated at great expense, and there's some kind of correlation in there between oil and water that I haven't worked out yet.

There's still so much left for me to learn in a city-state where there seems to be no post office but there are 32 branches of Starbucks.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Filipino Swedes in Kuwait

This is an ad for the Kuwait IKEA.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Multi-Culti Parker

The Scene: Four employees of an unnamed publishing company are in a small office on the 28th floor of a high-rise in downtown Kuwait.

The lovely, youthful Lebanese translator is working on translating a panel in an unspecificed comic. She looks up at the Indian copywriter, a young man with a slightly British/slightly American accent who has just entered the room.

"What is Senior Skip Day?"

"I don't know. What IS Senior Skip Day?"

They stare at the offending page and scour the surrounding panels for context. Finally, the American (the new jill-of-all-trades sitting in the corner) interrupts.

"At the end of high school, all the students decide not to go to school on one special day. They do something like go to an amusement park instead. The school doesn't like it."


They nod and smile.

From the other corner, the wizened Egyptian Editor-in-Chief calls for their attention with great seriousness.

"We could have a work skip day!"

Visa Run

My 30-day business visa for Kuwait expires on the 9th of February.

This means that I must leave and re-enter Kuwait.

Thanks to the advent of low-cost airlines Jazeera Airways and Air Arabia, this is not an expensive proposition.

The employer would normally put me on a single day round-trip flight to Bahrain. This would cost about $102 and my employer would pay it. I could hang out overnight with my pal The Professor, who works at New York Institute of Technology, Bahrain campus. (Yes, I couldn't believe there was a NYIT in Bahrain either.)

Ah, but I could do that anytime. Any weekend (which is Thursday and Friday here).

So I should take advantage of the moment and the credit towards my ticket, and go somewhere interesting.

A quick look at the airline sites tells me I could go to these places:

Sharm El-Shiekh

Khartoum is out because it's such a pain-in-the-ass to get the Sudanese visa. Damascus is out because I've been there once and the Syrian visa was also kind of annoying to get. Amman and Aqaba-- been there and done that not once but twice. I've been to Luxor and Sharm, but I really loved the snorkeling off Sharm and wouldn't mind lazing around the Kanabesh Hotel and looking at fish during the mornings. Luxor-- I'm thinking once for old dead things is enough, but maybe it bears repeating.

Never been to Beirut. Doesn't sound like a bad place to go. Lots of people like it but I don't know a lot about it.

If I went to Sharm, I could get a stopover in Dubai en route. And ebookers.com has hotels there that wouldn't give me heart problems. Another benefit there is that Egyptian visas are cheap and available at the airport. Everything else is cheap there as well.

Any advice?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Uganda Update

I'm taking a quick break from Kuwait to report that the political situation in Uganda has gotten more and more ridiculous.

The opposition candidate—Dr. Kizza Besigye—was, as you may recall, imprisoned on charges of treason and rape. The courts released him on bail. The treason charges have been delayed until after the election, but the rape trial is going on right now.

The rape trial is similar to rape trials all over the world. The casual observer (me) cannot make head or tails of who is right and who is wrong. The plaintiff has been proven to have been treated several times for mental illness, but no one has gone into if this means depression or something delusionary. A key witness for the plaintiff has been proven to have received financial assistance from the intelligence officer in charge of the case. The complaint against the defendant was not made until well after the incident, so there's no DNA evidence that's been produced yet. A witness has been kidnapped.

Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Of course I have no idea. Our natural sympathies for the underdog cut both ways here. On one hand, we are sympathetic towards the woman, and history has shown time and again how difficult it is to take the stand in a rape trial, and how the woman will always be raked over the coals. On the other hand, there is the natural assumption that the politician in power is wrong and that the challenger is being railroaded.

I've been reading the hearing transcripts on the Monitor's site and it's just a big mess. And while I do know that it's wrong to imprison the opposition just before the election, I don't know who would make a better president for Uganda.

To complicate matters, Dr. Kizza Besigye's wife complained that the President had bribed judges to keep her husband in jail. So now she has been charged with libel and so has the party treasurer.

This mess ends—in theory—just over a month from now. But we already know that the election will be super-charged. If President Museveni wins, he must do so in a transparent election and by a landslide. If the opposition wins, he must also win in court or Uganda will have a real mess on its hands.

Meanwhile, I'll be transiting Dubai on my way to Egypt next month. I have some Ugandan shillings to dump at the airport exchange place there (should be possible as Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Entebbe). Wouldn't want to be holding those shillings after the election.

Passing the Buck. Dinar, I mean.

Wondering "Where the heck is Marie's blog about the Emir funeral day?"

Me too. I finished up the 400 words (which became 500) for Tim Leffel's book, and now I really need to take advantage these two days to edit pony books for Bobbie and color some Gemstone comics. Then my plate will be clean for the dreaded book.

So until I write my own story about the Emir, check out Sven's.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The King is Dead

Swiped (and annotated) off Yahoo News. Note the bit about me suddenly having three days off after exactly ONE day at work. (Sorry to hear about the colon problems. Am I the only one who is disturbed by too much detail about the health of world leaders?)

KUWAIT CITY - Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait who survived an assassination attempt in the 1980s and a decade later escaped Iraqi troops invading his oil-rich Persian Gulf state, died Sunday, state television announced. The sheik, who had been ailing since suffering a brain hemorrhage five years ago, was 79.

Crown Prince Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, a distant cousin chosen by the emir as his heir apparent in 1978, takes over as ruler of the tiny oil-rich country — a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. He is 75 and has colon problems.

The government announced a 40-day period of mourning and said government offices would be closed for three days beginning Sunday.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Working Stiff

My first day of gainful employment in nine months is over and it didn't kill me. I didn't rush back to KuBoom House and scour the web for a ticket to Bangkok (although part of me was hoping it would be a disaster and I'd have an excuse to go eat sticky rice for three months). It actually went just fine and I even managed to impress people with my knowledge of how to put page numbers on printouts. (They don't call me an editor for nothing.)

And that's not all. Mr. Fix-it—the crack finance and general operations man for the employer—had a word with Hassan. In less than five minutes, they'd agreed that I'd pay $1,000 a month for the corporate housing that I am in until the end of January, after which Hassan reserved the right to move me to a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom for the same price.

And Sven showed me where the building washer/dryer is, so I no longer have to risk electrical shocks with the one in my flat. There's even a tiny fitness center downstairs, although I'm concerned that my presence there would be startling to the other building residents.

Everyone else in the office was from another country besides Kuwait. Bosnia, Philippines, India, Oman, Hong Kong, Canada… the only Kuwaiti is the owner and he is out of town.

I have only been in this country for four days and I am no expert on Kuwait. But lots of people have told me that many Kuwait citizens don't actually work for a living. I don't know if this is true of a majority or just a visible minority, or it could be sour grapes from the un-privileged class (that's the rest of us). What is said is that Kuwaiti citizens are all given excellent benefits from their government, simply for being Kuwaiti. And before you scream bloody murder, just remember… Alaska does this for its citizens too, albeit on a smaller scale. The idea is to share the wealth that is generated by the region's natural resources.

Kuwait is oil-rich. There's a helluva lot of money here. And Kuwaiti citizens are the privileged aristocracy. The government guards citizenship closely. Lots of people who were born in Kuwait and have never left are not citizens. There are specific rules that articulate clearly who is and is not eligible for citizenship. And if you are Kuwaiti? You get free health care. Marriage bonus. Retirement money. Money when things go horribly wrong and you need a little help. I want to be Kuwaiti too… I can see why the government guards citizenship so closely. Instead of paying taxes to the state, the state pays taxes to you.

As I start Day Five in the country, I have to resist passing any sort of judgment. I clearly don't yet know what I am talking about. And if I don't get some sort of transportation, I won't know what I'm talking about in three months either since I won't have left KuBoom House. Mr. Fix-it is working on monthly car rental for me too, although I still haven't ruled out the bus. Only problem with the bus idea is that it gets dark early here (we're not that far from the equator) and it's one thing to be ambitious in broad daylight… another to be ambitious after work.

Friday, January 13, 2006

400 Words

I am supposed to write 400 words on the value of taking local transport for Tim Leffel's new book.

I've been supposed to do this for months and now it's due in the next week.

I roughed out a beginning this morning but it needs a lot of work. It needs a lot less glibness and more, I dunno, honesty. Here's the start.

If you want to meet locals when you travel, get on the bus.

Locals don't take overland trucks or luxury coach tours. They don't shield themselves from the world in private taxis. They take whatever local transport is available in their home countries, and the poorer the country—and the fewer private cars—the more likely there is to be accessible public transportation.

It won't be comfortable in most cases, and you may find yourself wishing for a flat tire just so that you can pee. You will surely crave the "tourist bubble" and organized timetable that comes from floating along in private transport, but when you look back, you will embrace the chaos and color of your once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have ridden in Peugeots with comedic Masaai warriors—they kept a running banter throughout the two-hour journey. Unfortunately, it was all in Swahili and all I could understand was the laughter of the Kenya-bound audience.

I need to write in some other experiences here. Then I need a sassy but thoughtful finish. Anyone see anything they hate so far? I know it's kind of lazy of me to ask for input when I've barely started, but I have to go to my first day of work today so I don't know if I'll have time to deal with it for the next 10 hours.

Zen and the Art of Not Writing Anything Myself

Today's post is not about Kuwait. Or Africa. It's about saying "to hell with it" and just forking over whatever money I need for life in Kuwait.

It's about letting go of the past. Trying to leave behind last year's bad stuff and open up to the future. Trying not to wallow anymore. Trying to thwart the Curse of the Hippo.

Have a look.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

And I'm Getting Poorer Every Day

5:23 a.m. I was awakened by a man singing to me.

Okay, he was singing to everyone in earshot of the local mosque, not just to me. And it's somewhat soothing.

My morning in Kuwait had begun. It's no problem to be woken up so early when you're jetlagged anyway. My inner clock was confused. I'm back on Uganda time, after being on Eastern Standard time for six weeks.

My mobile phone started buzzing when I was in the (cold) shower. I grabbed a towel and raced over. It was the rep from a realtor I'd contacted. He would be happy to show me some furnished apartments in an hour.

I worked out which bus would take me to the meeting point in Salwa, but after standing at the bus stop for a while, considered that the buses might not run that often on a holiday. I hailed a taxi.

The taxi driver had no idea where the Palms Hotel in Salwa was. Neither did I. We couldn't communicate at all, so I said "Radisson." He nodded, then showed me a photo of his wife.

Luck was with me and the Radisson turned out to be next door to Palms. There was too much security at Radisson so I didn't bother sneaking a look. Apparently every window was blown out of it during the Gulf War.

The realtor showed me some apartments around Salwa. Kuwait City is sprawling, and Salwa seemed to be quite a long distance from the office and the city center.

The first was acceptable. It was clean and fairly modern. It wasn't large, and consisted of several small rooms that all featured locking doors. Rent was $1000 a month and Internet access was an additional $85 a month. Eh. I wasn't blown away, but if nothing else came up, I'd consider it.

The next was larger, older, and had its own balcony. It was $1200. Again, an additional $85 was required for Internet.

The third place was a $600 studio. But it smelled badly due to a sewage pipe problem, and it was dingy and excessively used. The realtor hadn't even wanted to show it to me, and once I saw it, I understood why.

I started to reconsider the corporate housing I was already in. I'd asked the maid to deal with the rancid food in the dishes and she'd done a good job. Internet was included there and the city center was just a few minutes away by taxi... but then Hassan told me the monthly rent would be $1200. Ouch.

The realtor left me at Marina Mall, another glamorous over-the-top mall that reminded me of my impoverished status. I got the cheapest thing (besides McDonald's) that I could find in the food court, and it was still $6. Then caught another $6 taxi home. I realize that $6 for a taxi fare is not to be unexpected, but if it costs me $12 just to leave my place, PLUS whatever I spend when I get to my destination, it's going to hurt. It's going to cost me $20 to walk outside my door.

It's going to be an interesting three months, but it's rapidly becoming clear to me that I am in WAY over my financial head. I can't afford to live in Kuwait.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Shock at Sharq

"How long have you been in Kuwait?" The Bangladeshi taxi driver droned. He probably asked the same thing of every passenger.

"Today," I replied, laughing.

Suddenly, he was awake and with me. He laughed too. "So you are an expert and know the way home, yes?"

"Yeah, I know the streets well."

I did manage to direct him back to my corporate housing. Somehow. I knew it was the right turn after Fuddrucker's, was behind Le Meridien and parallel to KFC and Pizza Hut.

My British Airways 777 had flown in over the desert, the carpet under under the square, beige houses and tower blocks. Only black ribbons of highways cut through the neutral tones.

My employer's accountant and a driver met me. I went with the driver, and was frightened by the way he tailgated the accountant all the way to Boom Al-Kuwait house.

"Adequate" describes the new digs. I had to track down a towel along with toilet paper, and the cleaner has still not been sent up to remove the old food-encrusted pots and pans from the kitchen. The shower was a little warm, which is probably fine in the height of Kuwait summer but certain not on a chilly January day. When I tried to use the washing machine, I recoiled from an electric shock when I touched the rim. I could stay for over a thousand dollars a month, but instead am going to look at some other places as soon as I can get some managing agents on the phone.

It's Muslim New Year here. Not the best time to arrive and expect to get anything done, but my plan was to have a few days to recuperate after the flights. I needed it too. After two nights on airplanes, I didn't even worry about the appearance of dirty sheets in the apartment. Not like they disinfect airplane seats, I reasonsed, and that's where I slept for two nights.

After a long nap, I went to search for food. Hassan, the owner of the lodge, met me in the lobby. He offered to give me a lift to the nearby Sharq Mall.

"Sure," I accepted his offer. He instructed me to get a taxi back.

Hassan explained to me that he was Palestinian by ancestry, Jordanian by citizenship, but had lived in Kuwait all his life. He drove a new SUV, and like every other driver, slowed down to stare at the overturned car we passed en route to the mall. Four emergency vehicles blocked traffic.

"How does a car flip over like that?" I asked. The road was flat. All of Kuwait appeared to be flat.

"Speeding." Hassan nodded sagely.

Speeding appears to be a favorite Kuwaiti pastime, as indicated by the number of burned-out auto carcasses that dot the roadside.

The Sharq Mall—unexpectedly full of chains such as Chili's, Starbucks, Zara, Body Shop, Mango—shocked me.

I expected to see signs of wealth in Kuwait. But it wasn't just signs. It appears that everyone in the entire country is filthy rich. Thousands of people decked out in splendor wandered the mall corridors. Women's faces were caked with makeup, while men's heads were downright flammable with hair gel.

Some women wore hijab—the black flowing robes we are accustomed to seeing on women from Saudi Arabia. But many others looked like fairy-tale gypsies. Their long skirts flowed in colorful layers resembling petticoats. Sparkling sequins adorned scarves, and a quick look around indicated that the push-up bra market might be an area worth considerable investment. I had to laugh at the interpretation of "modest" dress. There was nothing modest about these fabulously dressed women in their tight shirts and princess outfits. In my jeans, button-up loose shirt, and scandalous uncovered hair, I was more modest by far. But the definition of modesty doesn't work like that. I may be dowdy compared to these fabulously dressed people, but I'm clearly an infidel.

At least no one here is going to ask me for money.

Nice View

I've arrived. In Kuwait anyway.

Here's a photo of the lovely view from the place I'm staying for the first few nights.

At first glance, Kuwait seems to be full of beige. Beige landscape, beige buildings, beige everything but for the black ribbons of road that cut through the neutral color. And when I look out the window, all I see is beige and men. And that wreck of a building next door. People did seem to stare at me when I walked down the street to the supermarket. Maybe next time I won't go out in my bikini.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Do Something New Every Day

I got to do two new things in London today.

London, for me, is not "new." It's a place that feels like home, looks like home, but costs twice as much as home.

My old pal Peter took me for coffee on top of the National Portrait Gallery. He's had five books published in Australia and the UK, and his first book is being printed Stateside in the spring. It was NOT my intent to swipe his book idea about going from Cape Town to Cairo by land when I launched MariesWorldTour.com (he immortalized his own trip in "Swahili for the Broken-Hearted" and hopefully people will realize that many of our similar viewpoints come from being pals while talking about Africa, not from me swiping him). Strangely, that is how life turned out. And we both did it in the same year. And so did Paul Theroux, although he started from the north. Peter and I had similar experiences, although he got to be in an Oscar-winning movie and I got to crack a rib and catch walking pneumonia. As for Mr. Theroux… well, life is different when you're a small fry like me. Or a medium-fry like Peter. No one famous was inviting us over for tea, that's for sure.

I meant to cover the entire planet, not "just" Africa. But things don't go as planned very often in my life.

Anyway, the two new things are:

1) I took a shower at Heathrow Airport. I took one at Gatwick before, when Herr Marlboro had just moved into a Portsmouth place that featured an old bathtub and no shower. But Heathrow's shower was new to me. Three pounds got me the rental of a towel. The Heathrow ones (in Terminal 4 in this case) are located in the Arrivals Men's and Women's Rooms. Much nicer than the Gatwick ones, which adjoin the public corridor.

2) I was randomly selected for a full body scan. Yikes! I was subjected to low-level radiation ("the same amount as what you'd get from two minutes of a long-distance flight) and a series of strange images were created of me, which were disturbing in their flabbiness. Three shots showed me from different angles. And the closer I stood to the backdrop, the more distorted the butt and hips were.

At least that's what I tell myself.

Anyway, it will probably give me early cancer, but it did get me to the front of the line.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Gorilla Tourist Trial

The BBC reports today that one of the men in the Rwandan gang that abducted and killed eight Bwindi gorilla tourists from Uganda in '99 was found guilty.

I imagine there are dozens of men in this gang and there's no way to know how many have not been tried. But from the account safari guide Mark Ross gave in his book, it sounds like the survivors could sure-as-hell identify every man who took them on the forced march.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Carriage House

I am totally in love with this house.

I asked Yancey where it was. He has taken Murphy on hundreds of walks around every street in Hamilton Park. He had no idea.

Today I found it. It's in the backyard of a historic brownstone right on Hamilton Park. It's even on my street, just two blocks away! It's officially a condo, and you can't see it from the street. You have to go through the brownstone to get to it.

But there is no way on this earth that I will ever have $500,000, even if I sell my place for $350,000 and the Kuwaitis decide I make awesome comic books for them.

Speaking of Kuwait, I go tomorrow. I have to change airports in London. Maybe I'll spend my down time in the library so that I don't have to spend any pounds.

How About This One?

The E-Swede (a man I've never met but have an Internet correspondence with) spotted this photo on my mother's blog. He reckons it would be a good one for my "I'm-an-author-you-believe-me-right?" shot. Whaddaya reckon?

Friday, January 06, 2006


Who doesn't hate having photos taken of them?

I really hate it. As if I am not self-conscious enough already.

The book publisher wants a photo. Maybe a couple of photos.

I figure I'll send them a studio shot and a snapshot.

Here's some studio shots to choose from. I'll get to the snapshots later.

I welcome your opinions on which one I should use.

My mother took them with her new digital camera.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Burying the Lead (Not the Toxic Kind)

I was just at the supermarket. I was buying some spinach and two green peppers. The 10 Items Or Less line was plodding along.

The delay was caused by an old man, who had some kind of Coca-Cola coupon and didn't understand the related promotion. The cashier blustered something at him that confused him further. He gave up and said he didn't want them.

Meanwhile, the well-dressed couple in front of me looked annoyed. He sighed while she paged through a tabloid. She pointed out an item of great importance involving a celebrity's breast. He nodded disinterestedly.

They got to the front of the line, the old man having left sans Coke. The woman of the couple struggled when it was her turn to check-out.

"Debit or credit?"

"Credit. No, debit. No…"

"I already pushed debit."

"Okay, debit."

The woman stared at the keypad.

"Now what?"

The man became exasperated and pointed. "Push debit."

The cashier snickered and looked away, muttering "it's the end of the world."

After they pushed debit and left, the cashier howled with laughter, asked if the moon was full, and described the entire incident to me.

I guess life isn't that exciting when you have to work the register at A&P all day.

In the buried lead department, my pal Yancey has returned and taken back my security blanket (his pit bull). He was successful in his secret New Year's mission. He is now an engaged man.

Fortunately, he knows me well enough to have told his fiancée that there was no way I would give a speech at the wedding. I froze up the last time I was in wedding, and the groom's brother had to take over.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Uganda Court Frees Opposition Candidate

This is promising, although my guess is they'll find a new reason to keep the opposition candidate in jail. (And isn't it cool that in Uganda, someone with the name "Bosco" can be a judge?)

From today's Daily Monitor:

Court frees Besigye
KFM/Monitor Online
The High Court has ruled that FDC president Rtd. Col. Dr. Kiiza Besigye should be released immediately.

High Court judge John Bosco Katutsi ruled that the FDC president and presidential candidate was being held illegally at Luzira prisons since he had been granted bail and the Court Martial, under whose order he was being held at Luzira, did not have power to remand him since a stay of its proceedings had been ordered by Justice Remmy Kasule.

Besigye however remains at the High Court where Justice Katutsi is hearing the first of three charges leveled against the former- that of rape. The other offences Besigye is charged with are treason and concealment of treason.

Monitor Online will continue to bring you updates on this story


Police battle FDC supporters

Reports from Central Kampala indicate that police were involved in running battles with FDC supporters who were advancing toward the High Court in jubilant mood after word went around that their leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye had been set free by Justice Katutsi.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Curse of the Hippo

There is, my friend Scarfalonius told me, nothing wrong with a good wallow.

We all have them on occasion. Then we crawl up out of the muck and participate in life until something brings us down and we go wallow again.

And hippos wallow. Scarfalonius pointed out that hippos wallow all the time. They kind of cut out the middle-man, the part where they hang around acting normal and become depressed. They just wallow to wallow, not to get over something. They enjoy wallowing. Maybe they have it right.

H.M. and I had the Curse of the Hippo ever since the hippo chased us on the banks of the Nile. The Curse of the Hippo made him act like a renegade-bachelor-elephant and made me wallow like a hippo for four months.

But the Luck-of-Luc seems to have broken the hippo's hold for the new year. Luc the French-Bavarian (an old friend of Herr Marlboro's) did some strange e-mail time-traveling last night, reaching back from 2006 into the past (through a miracle of time zones) and coincidentally reminded me of the fun I had at Murchison Falls at exactly the moment I was e-mailing him a happy new year note. This wouldn't be so odd if we e-mailed all the time... but we haven't changed e-mails in months and it was 4:50 a.m. in Munich.

His good wishes seem to have worked. I woke up in a decent mood for a change. Took Murphy into the backyard in my pajamas. (I was in my pajamas, not Murphy.) And realized I wasn't wallowing anymore. I actually felt--gasp--optimistic.

Merci Luc for lifting the Curse of the Hippo. Now if you could just go do that to your old friend as well...