"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.