Middle East – First Impressions

Do you know that before 2007 only about 40% of Canadians owned a passport? When the USA began requiring Canadians to present a passport to enter the country Passport Canada got inundated with passport requests. What does that tell you? If you said ‘most Canadians have never traveled abroad’ you would be right. I was one of the non-traveling Canadians that didn’t own a passport. I was one of the Canadians who, early in 2007, scrambled to get one. However, I didn’t want it for something so mundane as traveling to the United States – I was going to Kuwait!

What on earth took me to Kuwait? I guess it was a burning desire to get out of a rut. I felt I had reached the pinnacle in my career and needed MORE! So I accepted a position in Kuwait.

Everybody said I was crazy! They said it was dangerous, it was madness, it was insane!

I was determined to give up the humdrum and find adventure. So, on August 27, 2007 I got on my first jet plane for my first flight – to the unknown. I had no idea what to expect. I felt ready for anything.

It was about 4 am when we landed.

My fellow travelers and I emerged from the plane into a bustling black and white world, foreign languages from all over the world buzzing around us. My eyes were roving everywhere, drinking in the foreignness of the sights. Here was a group of Indians (real ones, not the Native Canadians I was familiar with), the lady in her sari, bare brown skin exposed at the waist, he in his skull cap, the beautiful dark-eyed children clinging to their parents’ hands. Over there was a group of Pakistani men in their ragged shalwar kameez and sandals. Strolling

ahead was a couple of Filipina girls in skin-tight pants with some Filipino men. A few American-looking men

Kuwait airport reception

Kuwait airport reception

dashed past, pulling rolling suitcases. A couple of tall Nordic blond men stroll by chatting in their angular language. I heard English, French, Farsi, Urdu, Italian

and a new language I had never heard before – the pharyngeal sounds of Arabic.

… And everywhere women in black abiyah and hijab and men in white dishdasha – but I didn’t know that was what they were called then. The monochrome multitude. Groups of men in long white robes with white, or red and white cloth on their heads. Flocks of women in black, faces covered or uncovered. Amazing. And then the sheikh came through the crowd, surrounded by an enormous group of men in white, clapping and making so much noise! I stood, fascinated.

Oh, and the smells! People smelled here! Egyptians and Pakistanis that hadn’t had showers for a very long time, from the smell of it! Kuwaitis that smelled powerfully of expensive perfumes and a musky scent I soon learned was that of Bakhoor.

Then I went outside. Another shock. It was like walking into an oven. Dry, suffocating heat. Crushing unbelievable heat.

And the cars! Mercedes, Bentley, Jaguar, BMW. But that’s not all! SUVs bumper to bumper everywhere! I’d never seen so many SUVs in one place. Toyota Landcruisers, Tohoe, Expedition, Armada, Yukon, Infiniti QX56. Mind boggling.

Mesmerized, I got into the car that had been sent to take me to my new lodgings.

More amazement: the traffic! Cars went so fast here! The maximum speed limit was 120km/hr but that speed limit was not respected. Cars whizzed past so fast! We drove down a wide smooth well-tended highway with streets lights all the way. I gawked out the window, taking in all the sights. The sun was rising but the world was blanketed in dust turning the new liKuwaiti villaght into a reddish orange blur. Palm trees and acacia trees lined the highways. Date   palms were abundant everywhere, dates enveloped in green netting.

Kuwaiti villa

We entered the suburbs of the city. The houses, oh, the houses! Beautiful in the dusty dawn, ocre and amber,

Kuwaiti villa

Kuwaiti villa

pink and sage frescoed in chocolate and white. Arches and pillars and carved motifs, domes and columns and arabesque designs flourished everywhere. Enormous houses crouched on small plots of land, some surrounded by walls, others by carefully trimmed hedges.

Kuwaiti villas

Kuwaiti villas

The driver drove us into the more heavily populated areas. Now there were apartment buildings to marvel at. These, too, were not spared the architects touch with carved ornamentation everywhere, graceful balconies and arched windows. These, too, were in myriads of colour: gold, ivory, sage, blue, yellow and pink. Here and there we passed new apartment buildings under construction, cement block walls surrounded by tottery wooden scaffolding, topped by enormous cranes.

As we penetrated deeper into the area called Salmiya, the darker side of Kuwait appeared. Now I saw crumbling squalid tenement buildings, balconies broken, dusty clothes and laundry hanging from rickety racks

Tenement building - this one isn't too bad

Tenement building – this one isn’t too bad

and out of broken windows. Now we passed along the garbage strewn streets with overflowing rubbish bins dotting the corners. Scrawny feral cats prowled in the scattered litter and darted limping across the roads. Fetid odours of rotting food began to assail our nostrils along with the unmistakable scent of human waste.

The driver, seeing my expression of distaste laughed. “The perfume of Kuwait,” he said. He went on to explain that the sewers are often severed by the many construction projects throughout the city.

Finally we stopped in front of a tall distinctly pink building. This was to be my new home!

As we hauled my suitcases out of the back of the car a new sound exploded in my ears. It sounded like a man chanting in Arabic over a loud speaker. It was. Behind my apartment building was a mosque.

My new home

My new home

This was the first time I heard the muezzin’s call, but it wasn’t to be my last.

Even the muezzin’s call did not keep me from sleeping in my new bed in my new apartment more than ten thousand kilometers away from the place I had lived all my life.

It was the start of a new life.

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