Monthly Archives: October 2012

Channeling Rachel Ray Just Isn’t the Same in the Desert

I’m a lot like Rachel Ray. In fact, people get us confused all the time. Sometimes, I’ll be out walking and I’ll hear someone yell “OMG, it’s Rachel Ray!” When that happens I just blow a kiss and keep on going. I enjoy having fans, even if they’re mistaken.

…OK, I lied. I don’t really have fans, and no one ever mistakes me for Rachel Ray. We are a little bit alike though, in that we’re both slightly chubby brunettes from the Adirondacks. Also, we’re almost the same age (though I’ll always be younger), and we both cook a lot.

“Rache” and I have only minor differences in the kitchen: she cooks for adoring millions, while I cook for 6 people who would unanimously prefer to order pizza. She has teams of minions to wash her dishes. I only have a handful of disgruntled teenagers. Also, when RR cooks she gets paid squillions of dollars per dish. I make considerably less.

But those things notwithstanding, when the cutting boards come out, and the EVOO is sizzling in the pan, when the glass of merlot is poured, and the aromas of fresh herbs and garlic fill the kitchen, Rachel and I are one in spirit.

At least that’s how it used to be. Then I moved to Kuwait and it ruined everything.

It’s hard to channel Rachel Ray here. It’s hard to make instant oatmeal here. For one thing, my stovetop has two settings: Glacial and Scorch. Also, once the stove comes on all the lights in the apartment start flickering in a manner suggestive of disco balls and death metal concerts.

My kitchen knives, too, leave a lot to be desired. My kitchen knives came with the apartment. Remember the Ginsu knives from the Home Shopping Network? They could cut through a steel can and still slice a tomato so thin you could read a newspaper through it. Well, my knives are like that… only different. My knives can cut through warm butter, and they’re superb for prying old nails out of the walls. Sometimes I use them to successfully remove hair from the shower drain. My knives, though, could not chop garlic if I was being set upon by vampires and my life depended on it.

Then there’s the counter space issue. There is none (that’s the issue), so I prep all my food on top of the washer and dryer. Which is more sanitary than it sounds. I mean, I have a cutting board; I’m not a total heathen.

Kuwait, as you may have heard me lament, is a dry nation. Not just in the lack of rainfall, either. I mean there’s no booze allowed in the country at all. None. Nada. There’s not a drop of alcohol to be had by legal means here and that, woe is me, means no wine for the kitchen.

Part of channeling my inner “Rache” has always been pouring a glass of wine (some for me… some for the sauce. And some for me again) while I cook. That, alas, is not possible now.

I did buy some alcohol-free wine recently. What a joke THAT was. It tasted like Dimetapp, and anyway, I had to drink it from a coffee cup.

It’s hard to access your inner foodie when you’re standing in the flickering semi-darkness hacking away at vegetables on the dryer-top, and knocking back grape-flavored swill from a ceramic mug.

Save me, Rachel.


You Might Be An Expatriate If…

October is winding to a close, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the east coast of the United States, and back home in Texas my friends and family are huddled around their fireplaces blaming Mitt Romney for the unseasonably cold weather.

I just called my mother and father who were battening down the hatches in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. My mom and dad are like Ma and Pa Ingalls. They’re pioneer-type survivors. Nothing really rattles them; certainly not natural disasters. They’ve seen worse. I asked my dad how he was preparing for “Frankenstorm.”

“Well,” he answered, after a pause, “we brought in a little wood for the stove.”

I have friends all up and down the eastern seaboard who are hunkering down, stocking up, drawing in or pulling out in the face of the storm. They’re there, I’m here, and the thought started making me feel a little homesick. Especially when I heard someone, today, refer to me as an expatriate.

I had to look it up to make sure I’d heard right. Am I really an expatriate? Here’s what the World English Dictionary says:


— adj
1. resident in a foreign country
2. exiled or banished from one’s native country: an expatriate American

— n
3. a person who lives in a foreign country
4. an exile; expatriate person

— vb
5. to exile (oneself) from one’s native country or cause (another) to go into exile
6. to deprive (oneself or another) of citizenship

[C18: from Medieval Latin expatriāre, from Latin ex- 1 + patria native land]

I don’t know how long you have to live away from home to technically fit the description. So I came up with a little test: a few signs that might indicate that you are, indeed a true expatriate in Kuwait.

You might be an expatriate in Kuwait if:

*You’ve ever bought eggs two at a time from a hot storage room in the back of a bakala.

A Bakala:

*Your washing machine has fifteen settings but since they’re all labeled in Arabic you only know how to use one of them.

*When the car next to you escapes a traffic jam by driving backward down the sidewalk, your only thought is “why didn’t I think of that?”

*When the electricity flickers off you know the exact spot on the wall to bang on, to bring it back on.

*You understand the three speeds on the highway: Standstill, Indy Car, and Warp 9, and you know which lane is for which.

*85 degrees and breezy means you bring a sweater.

85 and Breezy in Fahaheel.

*You’ve ever rearranged your social life to avoid Friday traffic.

*You’ve eaten a Haloumi McMuffin from Mcdonalds.

*You’re shocked if a cab driver actually understands where you want to go.

*You’ve ever lost your religion in a traffic circle.

*You understand the survival value of carrying your own toilet paper.

*You understand that the rule of the road is: she who blows her horn first, wins.

*You consider a campaign to bring the “hygiene hose” to America.

The Hygiene Hose!

*You never, ever, ever order the sausage.

Judging by this self-invented list I’m not quite there. I have a date with a Haloumi McMuffin next weekend though.

Everyone stay out of the storm, drive safe, don’t eat the sausage.

And call your mother.

Some Observations and A Medical Miracle

I’ve been observing Kuwait culture for a few weeks now, and I can’t help but notice that while there are some areas where the U.S. clearly shines, Kuwait is far superior in others. I’ve been keeping a kind of informal tally sheet in my head. Here are the winners in a few categories:

Road names: The road I travel to get to work in Kuwait is called The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Fahad Bin Abdul Aziz Highway. The name of the toll road that links my hometown with Austin, Texas? Pickle Parkway. Kuwait wins.

Fast food: I ordered a chicken sandwich from Naif Chicken the other day. Underneath the crispy “chik’n” filet I was a little horrified to find a perfectly round slice of gelatinous chicken bologna, nestled there like a gruesome prank. In America fast food sandwiches come stacked with bacon and cheese, not bologna. U.S. wins.

Taxicabs: A taxi from New York’s Laguardia airport to downtown Manhattan costs around $37 before tip. A taxi from my Fahaheel apartment to the local mall costs “whatever you weesh to pay, Madame” according to 3 different cabbies last Saturday. The understood rate is 500 fils, or about $1.75. No meter, no tip expected. Kuwait wins.

Number of Camels per 1000 people: The camel is possibly the coolest animal ever created. Sorry, USA, you can’t even compete on this one.

Today I had my visa physical. Obtaining a permanent residency visa in Kuwait requires a medical exam to rule out HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and a few other infectious nasties. The government is committed to keeping the cooties out (to use the proper medical terminology).

I’d heard a lot of hair-raising tales about the physical exam process. One coworker received 7 immunizations in the arse at her physical. Several women I spoke with had undergone comprehensive “female” exams for no apparent reason. Two men told me identical stories of being squeezed inside a filth-crusted X-ray machine while a room full of sweaty, shirtless Nepalese laborers looked on.

So I was a wee bit nervous.

We got our paperwork shuffled around in an office where a grim woman in a black abayah strode up and down the front of the room shaking her finger and berating the waiting crowd in Arabic. I’m not sure what her problem was, but I nearly suggested that she emigrate and come to work for the Drivers License Office in my hometown. She had just the right anger level for that job.

At one point I was forced to hunt down a bathroom. Which turned out to be a porcelain-lined hole in the floor, the kind you squat over and pray your balance is still dependable, now that you’re in your forties. I didn’t mind the hole in the floor – I’m flexible, and hey, it’s all part of the adventure, right? I was less upbeat about the swampy floor surrounding it. I was wearing rattan-soled hippie-dippy shoes, and whatever fluid I was standing in seeped through. I just tried not to think about it. What are you going to do?

The actual exam was anticlimactic. A nurse drew a single tube of blood. Another nurse took a chest X-ray with a perfectly clean machine. End of trip. The absence of a gynecologist and the complete lack of shots qualifies as a bona fide medical miracle, in my book.

I once knew a missionary to Russia whose visa physical went like this:

Doctor: “Do you have AIDS?”

Missionary: “No.”

Doctor: “Good. Spit in this paper cup and hand it to the man in the alley on your way out. Next!”

Russia wins.

How Do I Love Thee, Harris? Let Me Count the Ways.

I stayed after work tonight to exercise at the on-post gym. Big mistake. Not the gym—that part was fine. Cardio and all. But the late drive home took me through Kuwait weekend traffic, and that was an experience I wouldn’t wish on… well, there are a few people I would wish it on, but no one I like.

I am absolutely ashamed of the things that came out of my mouth in that traffic circle. My mama raised me better than that. But really, how many near-death experiences can one person take in an hour?

And after a drive home that aged me exponentially, things got worse in a hurry. After I got home, I still had to park.

My apartment building is infamous nationwide for its lack of parking. People in Saudi Arabia know about the bad parking situation there. Probably.

There are about eight parking spots, all in the back, all permanently full. The only parking option for me is the complex’s underground parking garage, and that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

For my driving pleasure, my employer provides an SUV. A massive, foreign SUV. Like this:




And the parking garage is scaled to accommodate a dozen Matchbox cars. Here is the parking garage (actual size):



And if that isn’t challenging enough, the entire underground structure is honeycombed by thick support pillars, so close together that a Mini Cooper would have a hard time navigating around them.

Did I mention my enormous SUV?

The support pillars are scarred with the failed parking attempts of better drivers than I. I bet Mario Andretti could hit a pillar in that garage. And in this tiny, hellish labyrinth, there is exactly one parking space that is convenient to back into, and thereby, to get out in the morning.

And when I arrived home late this evening, someone had parked in the one good spot—the spot I’ve come to think of as my spot. This is where commitment to cardio fitness has landed me.

My harris happened to be underground when I inched in, peering over the steering wheel like a frightened rabbit. The harris is a kind of apartment superintendent in Kuwait. He bobs around in a blue coverall, seeing to minor repairs, taking out the trash, keeping the place presentable. My harris is a tiny, Sri Lankan man named… Harris, I guess. I’ll have to check on that.

Anway, he ground-guided me in, helped me turn around and reposition my car about twelve times, and finally got me squeezed into a space that should only take me twenty or thirty minutes to get out of tomorrow morning. I truly could not have done it without him. Without him, I would be down there right this minute in my sweaty gym clothes, hunched over the crumpled remains of my Pajero, weeping and cursing, and vowing revenge on the architect.

And then the harris offered to wash my car. For a very reasonable price he vowed to keep my car spotless. It’s a heck of a deal in Kuwait, where you can get a ticket for a dirty car. And I work in the desert.

And then, and then the Harris From Heaven showed me a super secret parking spot above ground and told me I could park there any time. It will be our little secret.

If I make it out of the parking garage intact tomorrow, he’s getting the biggest Christmas tip he’s ever seen. Maybe I won’t even wait for Christmas. Maybe Halloween would be better.

When people take care of you, you take care of them back. Right?

Getting Lost Again… and Again… and Again

There’s a lot to like about Kuwait: cheap taxis, funky bazaars, great ethnic food. And every single restaurant promises to deliver to my doorstep (well, except McDonalds. But I didn’t travel 6,000 miles across the globe to eat McByproducts anyway).

 There’s one thing here that I’ve grown to hate though, and I hate it with a passion impossible to express in a 600 word blog post. It’s a phrase. A death knell, really. A mere four words spoken by nearly everyone of whom I’ve asked directions—and with the maze of unlabeled streets in this country, I ask directions a lot.

 It’s the phrase: you can’t miss it.

 As in, “take a left out of your apartment building and continue straight down the Mecca Road. You’ll run right into the bazaar. You can’t miss it.”

 Believe me, I can miss it.

 Or, on base, “leave the office, take the first right past the dining facility, then turn right again. The PX is on your left. You can’t miss it.”

 I missed that one for a good 20 minute drive that landed me in a motor pool in the middle of the desert.

 “The finance office is through the double doors on the long side of the building.”

 I said a lot of bad words before I found that one.

 My latest you-can’t-miss-it adventure happened this afternoon when I set out on foot from my apartment building to find a famous American breakfast place called “The Early Bird.” People on two continents have told me about this amazing little café that serves nothing but American-style breakfast from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. When people heard I was headed there, their eyes glazed over and they began stuffing dinars into my hand with orders to bring them back various menu items.

 I heard tales of the legendary banana bread French toast, breakfast Monte Cristo sandwiches, omelets that would make a European chef weep.

 Everyone promised I couldn’t miss it.

 I set out with clear directions in my head and a Google map in my hand. It was 105 degrees outside. I forgot to bring water. But I went where they told me to go.

 There was no restaurant.

 I backtracked. Cut through tenement parking lots populated by slit-eyed Pakistanis and skeletal cats. Stepped over puddles of sewage and around overflowing Dumpsters. Ignored catcalls from taxi drivers. Tried another street. And another. Asked directions. Asked directions again. No one had heard of it.

 It hit me then. Of course. It must be a magical restaurant, like the wardrobe that led from England to Narnia. Sometimes there, sometimes not. Obviously, today it wasn’t there.

 I gave up and came home and ate leftover Indian food instead. Sometimes you just have to know when to quit.

 I’m not a twit, honest. In fact, working with maps and locations and directions is a huge part of my job. I’m usually good at knowing where I am and where I’m going. But in Kuwait, where every building is brown and covered in Arabic writing, where every tenth structure seems to be a pharmacy, or a mosque, or a Naif Chicken, everything looks the same. At least to me; at least on this, my second week in country. I’m sure I’ll sort it all out eventually, but for now I just keep getting lost.

 This evening I’m heading to Starbucks to take advantage of their free wi-fi. I have directions. I have a map. Everyone has assured me that I can’t miss it.

 That’s what they think.


Driving Safety… A Kuwaiti Oxymoron

Welcome to Kuwait, the nation that boasts the highest traffic crash rate in the world. In a country the size of New Jersey there are 60,000 traffic accidents each year and 400 fatalities.

400 seems low for the way they drive here. People drive on the sidewalks, they drive the wrong way down the streets, they drive with unrestrained kids hopping back and forth over the seats, and they drive while reading the newspaper. It makes the texting-while-driving epidemic in the U.S. look tame.

Teens here like to “sandal surf,” a sport where the driver barrels down the highway at 100+ km per hour, while the passengers hang out the doors and skim their sandals along the surface of the highway. Talk about a way to ruin a pedicure.

Kuwait is an immensely wealthy nation, and I have yet to see anyone here driving a clunker. The parking garage across from my complex holds a Maserati, a Lamborghini, and several other sports cars that I can only identify as A) really expensive and B) really powerful. The contractors here mostly drive new Pajeros and similar SUVs.

All of that to say, when you put that kind of horsepower on the roads, human nature wants to test it.

Well, not my human nature. My human nature wants to hire a chauffeur and never, ever, ever get behind the wheel. But that’s not the way it works, and sooner or later I am going to have to drive on these highways.

The most memorable piece of advice to come out of my driver’s safety course yesterday was: Don’t hit a camel on the highway. Especially not a white one. You’ll be paying the family back for the rest of your life.

Not “don’t hit a camel because you might die, and the world would be a poorer place for your tragic loss.” But “you can’t afford to buy a white camel.” 

Values, values.

I also attended several safety briefings in the last two days in which nearly every male spoke darkly of the dangers to females here. They made it sound like abduction and rape happen daily, on every corner. Then the women came in to conduct their briefings and rolled their eyes and told me what I already knew, which was not to listen to them, to be smart, and to be your own best defender. 

Which shows an interesting dichotomy of thought. Many men believe women either are, or should be afraid of physical danger. Smart women, on the other hand, know that if you carry yourself with authority, project confidence and fearlessness, and stay alert, there’s no reason at all to be afraid.

Unless you hit a camel.