Saturday, November 3, 2007

My Accommodation and More on Why I'm in Kuwait

I live on the ninth floor of a block of flats overlooking a toy shop on Kuwait city’s 5th ring road. Of course, locals will say I don’t live in Kuwait City but in Salmiya, one of the relatively upmarket areas of the larger urban sprawl surrounding it. Out of my bedroom window I see the Arabian/Persian Gulf at the end of a wide panorama of roofs below. Everyday at about 5am I hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer. By now, after my travels, I have become used to this sound and rather like it. It doesn’t wake me up. It’s not that loud but sometimes I wake up earlier than I need to.

For my first week I only had a double bed, a wardrobe, two sofas, a fitted bathroom and a fitted kitchen for company. I have since been joined by an oven, a fridge freezer, a plant, two tables, cutlery, plates, pots and pans, a TV, a DVD player, a Satellite TV receiver and some curtains. All this stuff belongs to my employer. Both it and the flat are provided as part of my contract so I don’t have to worry about rent and bills, which is nice, though I’m not quite sure about the bills yet. If I choose I can take an accommodation allowance and find my own place. For now at least I’ll enjoy the ease this place affords. In fact, almost certainly I’ll stay where I am, given that I don't plan to be here in Kuwait more than a year. Overall, the flat is clean and modern and shiny in its appearance and sufficiently robust in its furnishings.

Drawbacks: No internet connection and my Satellite TV receiver doesn’t work. Until last night all my showers were lukewarm but now I’ve worked out how my weird tap works. My bed also squeaks a lot, so I’ve put the mattress on the floor. Actually, this makes the base of the bed into an interesting table substitute over which the draping of clothes etc can be usefully performed. In addition:

There is no bath! This is a true bane, a cross to bear, a sacrifice I must reckon with and cannot avoid. In Slovakia I always had a bath. As a child, as my mother will inform you, I indulged a healthy love of hot water in my bathing. Reading in the bath, of course, is a luxury not to be underestimated in importance in the constitution of any fine day. Reading in the shower I have not yet tried, but my suspicions are that it will not compete.

I am not a cook but cooking is something I will try to do more of in the coming months. This may well mean, and probably will, that I’ll become a connoisseur of Kuwait’s selection of ‘Ready Meals’. The ones I’ve seen so far have been good, although on the ungenerous side, and have the advantage that they come in a bag you’re supposed to boil. So you don’t need a microwave, which I lack.

I share my block of flat with eight other teachers from the same school. Four of them are British, one is Canadian and three are American. Since the school I work for is set to expand, new teachers should be arriving soon.

It’s good living so close to other teachers. I have connected with some of these better than others, naturally enough. Still, it’s ‘early days’ and I am notorious - to those who take an interest in such matters, i.e me - for sometimes leaving it months, if not years, before striking up friendships with particular people I’ve already lived or worked closely with. A very good friend from my schooldays, for example, is someone I hardly spoke to until twelve months after we’d both left. This pattern has often repeated itself, though usually in a less extreme way, at work places and other organized communities I’ve been involved in - usually trips or expeditions of one kind or another.

The surroundings of the tower block are less than charming. Cars perpetually rush by outside. Luckily, since I grew up next to a busy street in Cambridge, I’m accustomed to ignoring the unique rushes and murmers that traffic generates. Still, I’d rather have it silent. Actually, until right now – as I write this – I had not really been aware of the noise. Alas now I shall have to learn to ignore it again, which may take awhile. We shall see.

This busy street is the 5th of Kuwait’s seven ring roads, which together resemble a series of ripples on a lake emanating from a central point. This point is the Financial District, which used to be the old, walled historical centre and is where you now find the Liberation and Kuwait Towers. About 800 metres north of me, past a prison, over an open sandy area used by Indians for cricket and football, lies the nearest of Kuwait’s Malls. Even though it is about 8km from the city centre it is called ‘City Center’. More than once this has caused uncertainty when I’ve asked taxi drivers to take me to the mall. I had to make sure they didn’t take me to the real city centre which is in the completely opposite direction. The mall itself, compared to ‘Marina Mall’, ‘Al Fanar’ and ‘Sharq Souq’ is not great, though it has a useful ‘Caribou Coffee’ which can do more than pump me full of caffeine, a vital pleasure in this land of no booze. For it has a Wi-Fi connection too, which comes free, albeit only for an hour, with your drink. The Mall’s supermarket is good, specializing in bulk buy deals, the majority of which concern tuna in some form. Unfortunately, I am more of a sardine than a tuna man, but there’re enough sardines too. Another noticeable thing is that everything you buy in the supermarket is paid for through the same cash registers. Since you can buy clothes and other inedible accessories here, this means you will pay for your trousers alongside your marmalade.

City Center Mall also has a Bowling Alley, which I’ve yet to use, and an enormous area for entertaining children with small rides and other electronic amusements. A rumour at work maintained that a cinema lurked beside one of the many fast food chicken joints, but this proved unfounded.

Malls are very important in Kuwait. One gets the impression Kuwaitis take considerable pride in them, though perhaps not so much in ‘City center’, which is mainly functional and not one of the glamour malls. The best of the glamour malls is called ‘The Avenues’, which I’ve yet to visit. Without pubs or clubs to frequent, and as an alternative to the popular local men only ‘Diwaniya’ meeting places, I can imagine how malls have become the attraction that they are for those Kuwaitis who want a break from home. Another reason for their appeal is their marvellous, highly welcome air conditioning. Kuwait in the summer months is outrageously hot. Oddly enough, so I’ve heard, it's even hotter here than further south in the Gulf, though why that is I’m not sure. In the summer months, while Europeans and other Muslims further north and west might fancy a promenade along their coastlines or major city streets, in Kuwait this would never be comfortable, not even in the evening. That said, now that it's cooler the malls still get pretty packed in the evenings and throughout the day at the weekend, so one shouldn't underestimate the specifically social function these tiny shopping cities perform. While there are more shops in them than cafes, restaurants and fast food outlets, the differential is not that great.

For me, City center Mall is one of the two most important locations near my flat. The other is an Indian restaurant called ‘Banana Leaf’, where I've eaten three times in the past two weeks and which seems to have turned into our ‘local’. The food is excellent and the portions absurdly generous, as they generally are in Kuwait. The other day, for example, I ordered ‘Chicken and Chips’ and was given an entire chicken, and in addition to a nast mountain of chips, three pieces of bread, pickles and vegetables. On this occasion even my stomach was defeated. So I did what I’ve never done before and took some of my food home with me. That particular feat cost me Three pounds five pence, or 146 Slovak crowns, if one thinks in Slovak currency, as I still sometimes do. So on balance I’d say slightly cheaper than Slovakia and a little cheaper still than the UK, if you think in terms of a sanely sized serving, anyway. The Indian meal, however, widened the differential. A full, very full meal, including mineral water, in a modest restaurant for three pounds sixty. Such a price is not to be found in ‘curry happy’ Britain; not anywhere.

By the way, three pounds sixty is equivalent to two Kuwaiti Dinars. Like the Omani Riyal, which I used in Oman for a week three years ago, it's one of the few currencies in the world with a numerical value greater than Sterling’s. Not being any longer tied to the ailing dollar, Kuwait is an officially expensive place to visit or buy products from since its Dinar has been flying high recently, unlike the Saudi Riyal next door. Luckily, though, I get paid in Kuwaiti Dinars, which compensates. And since I am not here to live an expensive, lavish, albeit affordable high life but save enough money to enable me to buy pockets of freedom for travelling in my future – or this at least is the current shape of my plan* – saving a strong currency seems like a good thing to do. Fewer Dinars to my pound now ultimately means more pounds to my Dinar in the future. Or so my logic reasons. Does this mean I want the Kuwaiti Dinar to get even stronger? I suppose it does yes, but I don’t really care that much to be honest, nor do I really understand economics. No doubt if I wear my unselfish cap a moment I can accept that the strong Dinar probably exerts some negative effects on the country as a whole. As I say, I am no economist. Certainly in any case, the strong currency is not the reason I came here. It just strikes me as an advantage when I think about it. If maximum savings were my mission I would have gone to Saudi, where you not only get paid more in real terms, despite the declining Riyal, but a) there is less to spend your money on and b) the prices of the same things there are to spend your money on (food, pepsi, petrol, taxis, clothes, chocolate milk etc) are much cheaper.

Regarding my reasons for being here I should correct the impression given, perhaps, that I'm only here for the money. It's also true that I'm interested in religion and wanted to live amongst Muslims awhile. But I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t because of the money that I chose a Gulf state over, for example Egypt, Syria, Turkey or Pakistan. On the other hand, I also wanted to go somewhere, at least for a short time, where I’d experience what one might characterize as ‘Serious’, or ‘undiluted’ Islam. So that rather ruled out Egypt and Syria, even more so Turkey, which are all mixed with a secularist counter-balancing element, be that democratic or authoritarian. Such a criteria, of course, certainly qualifies Pakistan and Afghanistan for example (and Somalia!), but in these cases the old money argument kicks in, as well as my currently held preference, at least in the case of Somalia, if not Afghanistan and Pakistan to a lesser extent, for staying alive. Being kidnapped, on the other hand, could always turn into a rather interesting, lucrative book; but no, alas, on second thoughts Kidnappings are just too common these days, aren’t they? Although not in Kuwait I must hasten to add!


Booty said...

Hi Jon
Glad to hear that you are settled in Kuwait. I was wondering what you were going to do next. Love the links to your other blogs. Fascinating stuff.
How R U coping?
I´m in Madrid now, and am pining to go back to Bratislava.
Will get a blog on the go soon.
Good luck in Kuwait. I was once there.... as a very small child.

Emily said...

Hey Jonathan! So sorry, but I haven't been able to respond because this website has been blocked and I don't have your email. Leave your email on my blog if you can and I will shoot you one. Nice new blog! I liked your wrap up of the Middle East and Turkey too (I just skimmed it now because for some reason I have found a random cafe that lets me access this stuff...)

Jonathan said...

Hi booty, took me awhile to find out who you were there, but now I know. So you didn't return to blava then, I see. Am looking forward to your latest blog. Am coping very well here thanks. I was helped by having zero expectations about the place.

Great to hear from you Emily. Will post mt email on your site. Of course you have given me your email about a million times, but my emails never seem to get through.

Fancy a weekend in kuwait, I wondner? It's especially appropriate, I would wager, for homesick Americans, as an American friend here said its just like the US - well, southern california especially. Ok minus the booze and plus alot of sand.

Jonathan said...

Emily, I cant access your blog because it strangely wants a password it has never asked me for before. I will try to email you. Maybe its a problem with the computers at this end.