The length of my layover in Kuwait is laughable, but when I review the hotel room prices I grow serious. While I am disappointed that I only have one night in the country/ capital city, I am glad I only have to pay for one night as it looks like this oil-rich state would bankrupt me if I gave it a few weeks’ time. I arrive late and see no option but to take an airport taxi, which offers a flat rate and cannot be negotiated. When I arrive at the hotel, I realize that this cheapest property in the downtown area is still quite extravagant, with a kitchenette, toiletries and a king-sized bed. I do my best to enjoy these amenities but it is already 11 and I want to sleep.
In the morning I make sure I awake early to soak up whatever Kuwaiti culture I can find. Even finding a Kuwaiti is difficult because virtually all of those working in the capital are from somewhere else, as was the case for Dubai and Doha, too. For breakfast I eat a small box of samboosas, a version of samosas that are tiny, more triangular, and filled with creative fillings like different types of cheese and meat. They aren’t bad, and eight of them costs me about $3, so I can be proud of that economic decision. As I walk by mall after mall, I finally arrive, dripping with sweat, to Kuwait’s Grand Mosque, which is one of the largest in the world. This first legitimate cultural experience is near-empty on this day, and after misunderstanding a couple of separate guards I walk into the wrong entrances until someone tells me to go into a certain room and sit down. I am certain I’ve gotten myself into trouble, and three hours before my next flight is supposed to leave!
However, that room is nothing but a tea room, and three other white dudes sit at a table chatting. This isn’t a holding cell; this is a tour. I tell the guard repeatedly that I just want to take some pictures and go. He motions me down.
“Only a few minutes.”
What have I done?
I sit with the men. One teaches yoga at Washington University. The other two are oil boys from Kentucky. If there was a group of three other Americans to be trapped in Kuwait with, it is only fair that I say this would be the group. Imagine the laughs that a stuffy-yet-granola Professor, an overly adventurous college student, and two good ol’ boys from the oil fields could get into in Kuwait. Should I write a comedy film? A miniseries?
Anyway we all chat about our travels. It is no surprise that the Kentucky boys are new to the mosque scene, and are only here because they have a few days off after four straight days of working and don’t know what else to do. I can’t gather why the Professor is here, but he’s a country counter so I imagine he’s here more or less on purpose, like me. When our tour guide shows up, we file into the mosque and she does her well-practiced routine for about twenty minutes before I tell her I have to bail. She tells me to grab some pamphlets on the way out, which I struggle to find though admittedly I don’t try very hard.
The tour was interesting in that it was more geared toward teaching about Islam than teaching about the mosque. This makes me wish I could have stayed. Though these first twenty minutes where hardly new information, think the White American tour of the Grand Mosque would have given a lot of fuel for writing. I felt like I was at least being converted a little, given that the tour was free and that I refuse to believe there is such a thing as a free tour. I think that’s reason enough, but that’s just my Cynical Northeastern Attitude. Perhaps a hippie yoga professor could set my mind at ease. He doesn’t have the opportunity.
I catch a rideshare back to the hotel, and interview the driver to get my mind off potentially missing my flight. He says he hates driving for Uber because he feels discriminated against here, especially in circumstances where he is in conflict with Kuwaitis. I note that people drive recklessly here, and my driver says that if he gets in an accident, or gets cut off, the other driver will always ask where he is from and argue that he is wrong because he doesn’t belong here. Kuwait, like the entire region, would fall apart without immigrants because no Kuwaiti would do any of the service economy jobs that are necessary to keep a country running. There would be no cab drivers, no restaurants, and no hotels. Meanwhile, the economy benefits from immense oil reserves, considering the postage stamp size of a country, and Kuwaitis get to live this ruling class life without thinking about the lives of those working for them. I shouldn’t have to say how dangerous I think this is. Once anyone starts thinking they are better than anyone else because of means or citizenship, compassion dissolves. Empathy disappears. Things that no rational person would think is ok, like asking someone’s citizenship in an encounter on the road, becomes a normal way of defending oneself in a completely unrelated squabble.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.