Kuwait – so much more than a gas station
Day 1,695 since October 10th 2013: 147 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
Turning the heat up!
I have a witty friend who sent me a message: “why are you going to Kuwait? It’s nothing but a gas station”. In Denmark Q8 is a Kuwaiti petrol station which is found nationwide. However I’d argue that today’s petrol stations sell so much more than just gas. So let’s see about that…
In last week’s entry I had just left Iraq and entered Kuwait. It was a dusty dry desert border crossing. Fairly simple. And crossing went smooth. On the Kuwaiti side a bus had brought me to a parking lot under the scorching heat. I had met a friendly man on the bus who assisted me and he even offered to give me a ride to Kuwait City. However at the parking lot a Taxi driver immediately got in a verbal fight with the friendly man who gave up giving me a ride. That was already kind of strange? Now the taxi driver wanted me to get into his taxi so he could take me to my destination. I wanted to know the price but he just said: “no problem. Get in”. Fortunately I’ve been on the road to long to fall for that one. After insisting for a while he finally said: “USD 100”. With my crippled economy that was completely out of the question and I kindly refused. However the taxi driver was adamant about that I had no choice. I suggested that I might stop a truck or something similar at which point the taxi driver asked how much I was willing to pay? I replied USD 10 which was laughable to the driver. An Egyptian then showed up and told me that there would be a bus leaving if I could wait two hours. The taxi driver didn’t like this and insisted that there was no bus and that I should get into his taxi. But it was game over…I followed the Egyptian into a mobile shed and sat down in oven like conditions. The air conditioner hardly worked but at least I was in the shade. The kind Egyptian offered me water which was more than welcome. Then he connected me to his portable WIFI. The taxi driver showed up and debated a bit with the Egyptian as he offered me his service for USD 50. The bus would only be USD 5 so I kindly declined. This upset him and he went away. After another 30 minutes the taxi driver showed up and said: “okay! Ten dollars. Let’s go!” But I don’t mind taking the bus so I declined which really upset the driver. I think I might have been cursed if there ever was such kind of desert wizardry :)
The road to Kuwait City was good and the bus was air conditioned. In fact I would soon learn that nearly everything in Kuwait is air conditioned. The bus driver was living out his fantasy of starring in a Fast & Furious movie. I would also soon learn that to be a fantasy of many Kuwaitis. Big engines and good roads are plentyful in Kuwait. The desert road to the city would have been unremarkable if it hadn’t been for a forest of high power transmission towers. They were all over the place and it was a remarkable site! What was that? Import? Export? Something big was definitely going on.
It feels like all of Kuwait is running on air condition and yet they never have power cuts? Well done Kuwait!
After a few hours the bus reached a terminal in Kuwait City and I was told to wait for a city bus to take me to my neighborhood. As I waited two taxi drivers did their best to convince me that the bus wasn’t coming and that I should ride with them. I wonder if people would even try that stuff with me if they knew who I am and what I have been through to get this far? The bus arrived and another race driver got me to Jabriya in Kuwait City in no time.
From desert to city...
I had a hard time locating my hosts address. I couldn’t find the street and my heavy North Face duffel bag along with the heat was working against me. But I met a lot of friendly people who all tried to help. Eventually I met a Syrian doctor named Kinan. He called my host who sent Islam from Egypt to pick me up. Islam is a great guy! He drove me to the address where I finally got to meet Ahlam from Tunisia. Ahlam lives with Mohammed who was still at work. Mohammed is also Egyptian and I know him through Max who’s been following the Saga for a while. Mohammed once hosted Max and it would later turn out that Mohammed and Ahlam have hosted many travelers over time. And they are great at it!! On arrival I was handed a portable WIFI device and told that it was mine as long as I was their guest. Then Mohammed gave me some indoor slippers and Ahlam made some food for me. They are a really happy couple who laugh and joke a lot. And definitely proof that a stranger is friend you’ve never met before.
Some of the most wonderful host you could possibly imagine. And I haven't even mentioned half of what they've done for me!
We are now more than halfway through the Ramadan. They take the Ramadan a lot more serious in Kuwait than in e.g. Jordan and Iraq where it was common to see people drink or eat on the street. In Kuwait you will get fined for drinking water in public in the daylight hours of the Ramadan. And it’s a pretty heavy fine too. As it turns out you also need to wear a seatbelt if you’re in the front seat of a car or you will be fined. Every country has its rules and as foreigners we can agree or disagree. But I believe it’s vital that we remember that we are guests. On that note there are a lot of guests in Kuwait. Roughly two thirds of the population are not Kuwaiti and are referred to as expats. The expats mainly consists of Indians and Egyptians.
From left to right: Islam (Egypt), Abdurrahman (Jordan) and Ahmed (Jordan/Palestine). Abdurrahman asked me to tell you all that as soon as this photo was taken he left on his bling-bling helicopter to join a swag party :)
It’s unbelievably hot in Kuwait this time of the year and it hasn’t yet reached its peak. Temperatures here are around 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 F) BEFORE THE SUN RISES! On my first day in Kuwait I headed straight for the Iranian Embassy to hear if there was any news in relation to my online application? Then I proceeded to the Saudi embassy to hear if they were more open to having me visit than their embassy in Jordan. These Saudi embassies have so far been like fortresses. In Kuwait it was no different. And the Iranian embassy didn’t have any news either. Those two countries are my east and west solutions from Kuwait. North you’ll find Iraq and I just came from there. South You’ll find the Gulf with no ferries going to Bahrain or Qatar. So here we are.
My 25th Maersk Line presentation across 25 different countries (all without flying). Woop woop! And I've seen a Maersk container in all 147 countries!
The Ramadan and the heat together make for a great excuse to sleep the day away. And many do live like that during the Ramadan. Weekends start Friday and finish Saturday with Sunday being the first day of the week. My first days in Kuwait were not hosting a motivated explorer from the north. I slept a lot and researched a lot. Islam introduced me to Abdurrahman from Jordan who is tech savvy. For the longest time I have been dreaming about reaching Kuwait so I could buy a laptop at low cost. Islam and Abdurrahman were great!! They took me here and they took me there. Finally we found a shop with MSI laptop which fit the bill in terms of specifications and price. The Saga is now traveling with a new laptop and I’m writing this blog on it opposed to the other blogs which were mostly written on my smartphone. Unfortunately my new laptop had a faulty keyboard and we had to return to the shop and have it replaced after a few days. But so far the "new new" one is working! :)
My new laptop is ready to go. And this is the first blog which has been completed on it! :)
After a few days in Kuwait my perception rapidly changed of the country. Kuwait is great!! I’ve written much about hospitality in the past and I can’t mention Kuwait without repeating it again. Arabic hospitality is first class. As an outsider it’s nearly impossible to pay for anything. Two Kuwaiti’s may nearly fight each other in order to pay. The Saga is a success on so many levels but having a large online following or sufficient funds is not among the current success. I don’t want people to pay for me all the time but I’m not going to fight to pay :) I met up with Abdullah who’s a great guy. He is Kuwaiti and first learned about Once Upon A Saga when I visited Give Volunteers in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Give made a post about my visit and Abdullah follows their social media as he used to be a volunteer himself. How about that! Abdullah spent the last six years studying in Perth, Australia, and recently returned home.
Hmmmm...seems like I missed an H there. Sorry Abdullah :)
We met up to head out and see what Kuwait has to offer. I think we were both surprised when we began investigating. It’s by the way nearly impossible to get Kuwaiti citizenship if your father is not Kuwaiti. And to be Kuwaiti is good! The government takes very good care of its citizens and it’s a citizenship which is much desired. With a Kuwaiti passport you can travel to 90 countries visa free. You can compare that to Egypt (51) or India (58). But apart from the accessibility you also have, as mentioned before, a very caring government. Fortunately it is also good to be a Kuwaiti guest! The first stop Abdullah and I made was at The Avenues Mall. I’m rarely entertained by visiting malls anywhere in the world but the Avenues is something else! It’s like a cross between Las Vegas and Disney World. Definitely a sight to behold. And a fun fact is that due to the heat it’s not uncommon to see people jogging in the malls.
Our next stop was at the relatively new Al Shaheed Park which is the largest urban park in Kuwait. And now I want one! If anyone knows the right prince…could you then tell him to build one of these near my apartment in Copenhagen? It’s a great park which even has a 2.5k (1.5mi) rubber running track encompassing its beautiful gardens. I decided that I wanted to go running there as soon as I saw it!
We then headed out to catch the sunset before we visited Mubarakeya souk for Iftar. Iftar is the first meal to break the fast during the Ramadan. Here in Kuwait the sun sets around 6:40pm which is relatively early compared too many other places. We followed up our Iftar with a walk around the market place and spoke to a few travel agents in order to see what could be done regarding reaching Bahrain by boat or speeding up the visa process for Iran.
Dates are important during the Ramadan and are traditionally used to break the fast after the sun sets.
Finally we stopped by at the Dickson House Cultural Center where we had an interesting guided tour. The Cultural Center actually tells an interesting story about Kuwait from its own perspective and there are lots of interesting photos as well. If you’re lucky you’ll meet the care taker Faiz Khan and hear him utter: GREAT BRITON – GREAT PEOPLE!! Kuwait used to be a British protectorate until they ended the treaty in 1961. The first oil well began producing in 1946 so it’s not quite like with the British protectorate of Botswana where diamonds were only discovered after the treaty ended. Good for Botswana! But it’s certainly not like Kuwait is doing bad ;) Kuwait’s GDP per capita ranks as the 23rd highest in the world. I’m sure that I could get the funding for Once Upon A Saga here in Kuwait if I only spoke to the right person and had the investor understand what makes the Saga so much different from anything else on the planet. Making the link is a little harder, however Kuwait is a masterpiece on its own when it comes to networking. More about that in a bit. If you feel like this blog is getting long then just wait! It will get interesting! ;)
At Avenues Mall I already got a taste of KRCS's work as I stumbled upon the #EndTheirHunger charity campaign in cooperation with The Avenues. The campaign aims to raise funds to provide adequate food provisions for families in need all over. You can donate to receive a plate decorated by Bahraini local artists or paint on your own.
Oil is just below the surface of Kuwait. There are various degrees of quality and there is no doubt that oil is what makes this country what it is today. Petrol is cheaper than bottled water and the prices have even tripled recently so just imagine! In Denmark we pay roughly ten times the price. Now I could go on about oil but you probably already know that this part of the world has its fair share. I’d much rather tell you what you might not know. Let’s start with the Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS). It has formidable backing from the population which makes it highly effective nationally and internationally. In fact the KRCS has operated in nearly 90 countries around the world! I know because I had a formidable meeting with them at their headquarters where I experienced all the first class hospitality you would expect from Kuwait. And that’s a lot! One of my favorite things about their headquarters is a little silly. But nonetheless I noticed that they have world maps on the walls all over the place. It makes sense when you are active in so many countries. On several of the maps you could spot where the KRCS was or is active. Do I tip my hat to the KRCS? I most certainly do! They are active in so many areas and make a huge impact on humanity. They are well organized and hold a high spirit. My hat definitely came off.
I had the privilege of joining this highly motivated bunch of KRCS volunteers and staff as they handed out food, gifts and funds to some of the vulnerable families in Kuwait City. KRCS monitors and assists 5,000 families across Kuwait City. This specific campaign was called 'Helping Makes You Happy' and ended last Wednesday. We were joined by Bayan Dental and Hassans Opticians as we visited the families. Good work!!
I’ll mention this a million times if I have too because it rarely reaches the media. Hospitality is on a very high level in this part of the world and the rest of us might have a lot to learn from it. I was fortunate to receive an invitation for Iftar by H.E Doctor Hilal Al-Sayer who is the president of the KRCS. I accepted and joined him at his residence after having been picked up by a driver. At his impressive residence he received me with all the humility of a man on the street. But Dr Hilal is anything but that. I had the chance to research him a bit and among many other impressive things, he used to hold the position as Minister of Health in Kuwait. Titles, titles, titles…the title does not make a man. The way a man treats other people makes a man. Listen to this: Dr Hilal invited me inside his family estate and I greeted many others as we entered a lounge. Then he sat down with me and we talked. We talked until the sun set and it was time for Iftar. Then we entered a dining room with two long tables and perhaps 40 seats. Dr Hilal sat down by the end of one of the tables and offered me to sit to his left. On my left I had the honor of sitting next to his son. There were plenty of waiters to serve us all but Dr Hilal served me personally. Afterwards when we were done eating we returned to the lounging area where I was introduced to several of the guests. After a while Dr Hilal excused himself and I continued talking to his son, his nephews and guests. Among the many guests I got to speak to Abdullah Al-Sayer who was just as humble as Dr Hilal. Abdullah invited me to join an event a few days later and I immediately accepted. When I left Dr Hilal walked me to the car and told me that I was always welcome. He said they do this at his residence every night as long as the Ramadan lasts and that since I know the address I would be welcome to return anytime I like.
I didn't want to take to many photos at Dr Hilal's Iftar but I had to get a photo of this! :)
Now was this part of a game and was this all for show? No not at all. I was a guest and hospitality around here in this part of the world is genuine and nearly always present. Besides…I feel like I have met enough people from various cultures and had enough negotiations to know when something is genuine and when it is not. My best assessment is that how I was treated was a true reflection of a man who is humble and generous. The estate also cooks for thousands of strangers who come and collect food throughout the month of the Ramadan. This holy month is in itself a time to show generosity and there is a lot to go around. That was a little bit about the President of the KRCS. I could mention many others whom I met from the national society but it is easier if you just trust me that I was received well by all. Besides…we need to reach the end of this already long entry ;)
Sirdab Lab’s Game Night Ghabga
I might not have met many Kuwaiti’s in my first days in the country – but I feel like I quickly caught up! The event which Abdullah Al-Sayer invited me to join was Sirdab Lab’s Game Night Ghabga. The annual Ramadan Ghabga is very common in Kuwait, which provides the atmosphere of joy and happiness among the community members. Ghabga, a meal served at late night, is a get-together that usually takes place from around 10:30 pm to midnight or even later and there is always food at the ghabga. Sirdab Lab gave it a twist by adding the game night. Sirdab Lab exists to help aspiring entrepreneurs realize their dreams and build the best digital products and tech startups they can. I was lucky to get an invitation and meet some amazing people. Thank you Abdullah for inviting me. I met wonderful people such as Abdullah’s wife, Mona, Jafar, Dina, Ahmed, Bashar any many, many more.
Jafar is a great guy! He offered to give me a ride back and we had a solid talk on the way.
Kuwait's tallest tower. Will I find a way to reach the top before I leave? ;)
Kuwait might have plenty of oil below its surface. I just don’t think that’s the countries real value. After a few days here I have noticed that there are plenty of things to do and see. There are museums I want to visit and skyscrapers I want to reach the top of. There are islands, beaches, markets etc. However the real gold for me is how fun it is to network here!! The Kuwaiti’s are masters within this field and my evening quickly got booked. I have had a spectacular time lately meeting people and taking part in events. Too much to mention. Unfortunately I also have a lot of work in terms of planning, social media, visas, email and meetings. If not then I would be having a regular ball! Now I'm just kind of sleep deprived. Even regionally Kuwait is known as a high level “wasta country”. I truly believe that as I have seen how people mingle and who actually hides behind some of the names I have mentioned in this blog ;)
Last night I went out for a few hours with Doctor Kinan. Remember the guy who helped me on arrival to Kuwait City? We had a great time!
I was invited to join these two families for a BBQ by the pool. It's a long story. But Massimo is the head of the Italian/South African family while Greg is the head of the British family. They are neighbors. And the wives might actually be the heads of the families? Doesn't matter...great people and good fun. The connection to Massimo came from Steve Felder whom I met in Kenya and now lives in India. Aaahhh! It's to complicated. Just trust me: it was a nice evening :)
Kuwait however is far more than the Kuwaiti’s. It has entire neighborhoods or districts which are either Indian or Egyptian. You can virtually visit three countries by driving around in Kuwait City for 20 minutes or less. I don’t get the sense that Kuwaiti’s, Egyptian’s and Indian’s mingle a lot.It's more like they coexist. But if you visit then you can mingle as much as you want. I have met nothing but kindness here. Kindness and heat! I was told that if the temperature rises above 50 degrees C (122 F) then it’s an official day off. Apparently the temperature never exceeds 49 degrees for the same reason ;) Also I have found my loophole to breaking the fasting. Apparently you can break the fast if you are traveling! Well I have traveled 194,000 km (120,500 mi) nonstop since 2013. So I guess I’m eligible. Nah, I’m really trying to be as respectful as possible in relation to the fast. I did my presentation at Maersk Line without drinking water and a few days ago I ran 5 km (3 mi) in Al Shaheed Park (because I said I would). But also because I wanted to. It was 39 degrees C (102 F) and I timed it wrong so I finished running 20 minutes before the sun set. I could have found a corner to sneak some water into me but I didn’t. As thirsty as I was I waited until the sun set…
I said I was going to run in that park! I said I was going to visit every country without flying! What do you think? ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Ramadan Mubarak
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga