April 09, 2008

Kuwait City, Kuwait
Must Loathe Dogs

I pulled my laptop out on the flight to Kuwait. The act jolted the Sri Lankan man next to me from his slumber and sent him into an angry rant about computers and their destructive effect on modern life.

"They try to make me take one of these at my company. I asked them, 'do you want a man who will sit at his computer all day and send emails, or do you want a man who can fix problems?' They said, 'we want a man who can fix problems.' And that's what I do."

He instructed me that my life would be much better if I got rid of the thing.

"When I am at work, I work. When I am at home, I am at home. That is how it should be."
"It's difficult to draw the line these days, isn't it?"
"Very much."

Sirath is an engineer living in Bahrain. He goes around the region helping commercial airlines maintain their engines. I opened up my copy of Flight Simulator and put us on the runway at Sana'a airport in a 737. He looked over the cockpit controls and started tweaking dials here and there, fuel mixtures and whatnot. He pushed the throttles forward, took off, and had a thrilling 30 second ride before flipping the plane and crashing into a sand dune.

To be fair, it's not easy piloting a commercial jet with arrow keys.

He told me some jaw-dropping stories about airline disasters.

Two years ago. Flight out of Cyprus to Greece. A Greek mechanic goes on the radio and says there's some sort of malfunction. The pilot is English, so he doesn't understand. The Greek co-pilot, for whatever reason, fails to take action. A few minutes later, the plane stops responding to air traffic control, so Greece scrambles a couple fighter jets to find out what’s wrong. They pull up alongside the jet, look in the cockpit and see that both pilots are dead; suffocated from lack of oxygen. They have no way of contacting the flight attendants or any of the passengers, so the plane continues flying on autopilot until it runs out of fuel, then crashes.

Fifteen years ago. British 747 off the coast of Malaysia on its way to Australia. All four engines go out simultaneously. The plane begins to glide into the ocean. At 6000 feet, the pilot tries to restart one of the engines. It lights up, and so do the other three. They bring it back up to cruising altitude. All four engines go out again. They plummet. At 6000 feet the engines respond, so they keep it at low altitude and land safely at the nearest airport. An investigation reveals they were flying through a cloud of volcanic ash.

Somehow, this led to Sirath sharing his thoughts on colonialism with me. He felt that Sri Lanka got what it deserved when it was absorbed into the British money-making machine.

"If you leave the front door of your house open and someone comes into your house and steals all of your things, how can you blame them?"
"Uh...because it's wrong?"
"We left our front door wide open. It was foolish."

I told him I wanted to go to Sri Lanka on this trip, but I couldn't fit it in. He said now is not a good time because of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, which I keep on thinking is a soccer team.

And, inevitably, he whispered his thoughts on Iraq into my ear.

"I think what George Bush did was the right thing. These people, they have become too big for their britches. They needed to be taken down. It was the right thing to do. However, the way in which it was done was a big mistake."
"Well, at least that last part is something we can all agree on."

Changed planes in Bahrain. All I saw of the country was about 50 yards of terminal. In that span, I think I saw ads for every sports car on the market.

Kuwait has no budget accommodation. From what I can tell, none of the gulf states do. In Dubai, they had a couple hotels filled with imported laborers from Ethiopia and Senegal, but there wasn't a lot of room turnover. The other option is flophouses, which is fine as long as you don't mind the banging on the walls and can avoid thinking about who the last people in your bed were.

On my last trip, I was on a flophouse budget. This time around, I can afford the occasional short stint at a low-end business hotel.

There's a convenient division between countries that I get a lot of email from; your Germanys, your South Koreas, your Brazils; and countries where it's easy to find kids playing on the street; your Vietnams, your Madagascars, your Rwandas. Kuwait is the rare country that doesn't comply with either of my two methods for getting people to dance with me. And my sense of Kuwaiti grown-ups is they're not the kind of folks you can get all goofy with and expect a positive response. Not because of race or religion, but because they're filthy rich, and rich people tend to have more barriers.

So I had to do things the old fashioned way: find a nifty landmark that is uniquely Kuwaiti. In Dubai I already knew about the indoor ski mountain. But I've never heard of anything so charmingly frivolous in Kuwait.

Bingo. I saw these on the way in from the airport. I called Melissa and mentioned them. She got all excited, cause she'd done a Flickr search and come up with the same idea.

They're water towers. I'm not sure why they're shaped like that, and our only guess on the blue-and-white stripes is to make it clear they're not military targets.

These things are dotted all over the city, but they're not easy to get to without a car. By the way, nothing in Kuwait is easy to get to without a car.

I called a couple rental places. The best deal I could find without notice was a BMW 530 for $300 a day. Not going to happen.

Instead I took a cab. I got an Indian driver named Nisar. When I asked him to take me to the striped water towers, he took me here.

It's an understandable miscommunication. The two larger spheres of the Swedish-designed Kuwait Towers are, evidently, filled with water. The structure is certainly unique, but tall stuff doesn't really work well for what I'm doing and they struck me as just another symbol of wealth and bad taste.

After some discussion in broken English, Nisar figured out what I was talking about and took me out to an abandoned construction site with water towers nearby. He stood next to me while I set up the shot and tried to figure out what the hell I was doing.

All of a sudden, Nisar leapt in the air with a shriek of unholy terror. He grabbed a clump of sand and threw it in the face of a stray dog that had crept up behind him. From his reaction, you would have thought it was a grizzly bear.

"Are you not afraid?" he asked.
"Afraid of what?"
"This dog!"

I recalled from past experience that it's not uncommon for Indians to be uneasy around dogs (of course, I am speaking in absolute, authoritative terms about all Indians without exception, so if you're Indian and you love dogs, it's urgent that you set me straight).

I let the dog smell my hand, then scratched him behind the ears and we were friends for life.

I continued with my business while Nisar stood at a safe distance, a fresh clump of sand in his hand.

The dog followed me over to the towers, and when I started dancing, he did too.

When I finished, Nisar fled to the safety of his taxi. The dog turned to me and asked, "what the hell is this guy's deal?"

Back on the highway, dodging Ferraris. In my day here, I've witnessed about half a dozen very near disastrous accidents. They mostly involve absurdly high speeds and a total absence of signaling.

I told Nisar I had the rest of the day to see Kuwait and asked where I should go.

"There is nothing in Kuwait," he said. "Only money."

I can't really dispute the statement. From what I saw, most of Kuwait looks like this.

We settled on Sharq Souq; a big giant shopping mall on the waterfront.

Burke-concealed ladies eyeing haute couture. This is an irresistible photo op in the Middle East, and, of course, a big fat cliche.

I was unable to photograph the designer label I noticed on the lining of one burke. Kinda seems like it's missing the point, but who am I to judge?

I followed these ladies around for a while, exploiting their lack of peripheral vision.

There are, I should mention, varying degrees of feminine obfuscation. There's the practical middle ground.

And a leftist extreme that approximates normalcy by Western standards.

Another bad picture, but you can see a man in traditional headgear behind her that I presume is her husband and she had several children prancing about.

Kiddie parks and toy stores abound in Kuwait. There seems to be a passion for family-friendly activity, which I appreciate. On the other hand, the kids playing marbles in the back alleys of Yemen seemed to be having a better time.

I stumbled into a big fish market.

If only I could photograph smells.

Look long enough at that pile of mush and it begins to stare back at you.

Skyline pictures are usually boring. Pictures of people taking skyline pictures are only 5% less boring.

I perambulated the waterfront, looking out into the fog and wishing I could see through it to Iraq and Iran a few dozen miles away.

There was a place renting kayaks in the harbor. I fantasized about a leisurely paddle into less friendly waters.

Someday, when I have my fusion-powered hovercamper, such excursions will be trivial.

Every time I look at this guy I can't help thinking of this song.

Dinner at one of Kuwait's many fine dining options: Applebee's. For dessert, I had to indulge my obsession with the best thing McDonald's has ever created.

I managed to get a plug for these things into USA Today last year. It failed to influence them into adding it to their domestic menu. I will continue lobbying.