Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fat City

You can already predict that Kuwait will join the USA and the UK in the obesity rankings in the next 5 years. For a country that ranks in the bottom quartile for tourism rates but tops the rankings in traffic accident rates adding obesity to it’s claims to fames won’t entice tourists. Or will it?

If you want to stuff your face in a warm climate then welcome to Kuwait. For those of us who are veterans of Weight Watchers there is temptation of mass proportions on every corner. They say you should never supermarket shop on an empty stomach but over here you shouldn’t go anywhere on an empty stomach. And when you do pick one of the thousands of restaurants expect to be fed enough calories to keep you going for a week. America is famed for it’s fatties but when strolling through the shopping mall the already chubby Kuwaiti teenagers are hot on the heels of the US. And the blame could lie at the doors of our American friends.

The addiction to Americanism brings all the well-known chains to the Middle East, and therefore the portion sizes favoured by the yanks. I tried Texas Roadhouse on my first trip here. In a whole weekend I couldn’t eat the amount of meat, fries and sauce heaped on my plate. The Cheesecake Factory would sell more cheesecake if they didn’t stuff you full of main course and Friday morning breakfast at IHOP will see you through ’till Sunday. I love food, and I have the size 18 trousers stashed in my wardrobe as a reminder I loved it too much. My size 12 self is now terrified of eating out in case I fall off the wagon face first in to a pile of fried food with a side of sugary goodness. And it’s not just the restaurants. Try finding tinned fruit in juice for zero WW points. Impossible. It’s all in syrup. And don’t leave me in the sweet aisle. I never realised Hershey made so many varieties!

I have lost weight since being here but now it’s an ongoing fight to keep it off and try and lose more. I’ve found places that do normal human portions, but the starters then creep on to the order. Dynamite shrimp anyone?

But the obsession of western brands isn’t limited to American exports. Thank God for Pizza Express and the leggera range!

A Day in My Life

This blog was supposed to document my move to Kuwait, and to an extent it does. But friends have commented that they can’t picture my day-to-day existence other than I’m likely to get chatted up and will certainly be in a car accident, or witness one, pretty soon. So here’s my working day!

A notoriously bad riser in the mornings in the UK, I hop out of bed at 5.50am and put the kettle on. Quick shower under low pressure, almost salty water and I’m out and making my coffee. At this point the Alisha Keys album goes on. ‘This Girl is On Fire’ was everywhere during my interview process and it really spoke to me. Since moving, ‘Brand New Me’ has become my theme tune. Make up on, outfit selected (arms covered and ballet pumps on if I have a day of meetings) and it’s time for breakfast. I watch a bit of BBC news or France 24 to establish some sort of link to the outside world and eat my toast. My driver has been told to pick me up at 7am. Any time between 6.30 and 6.45am he’ll call and inform me he’s downstairs. If it’s 6.30 I tend not to answer in the vain hope he’ll take the hint this is too early.
I make my way down in the lift from my 6th floor apartment and get in my cab. My driver is always pleased to see me. Seeing as I have heard I’m over-paying him I’m not suprised!

We set off and I await to see which route we’re going today. The traffic is mental and we’ve been taking minor roads and back streets to shave minutes off of my commute. Seeing as he’s always early I’m not that worried but it seems to be his mission to find a quick way. In rush hour traffic in Kuwait there is no quick way ANYWHERE.

We pull up right outside my office door and I pay him.
The security guard greets me and I spend ages waving my badge in front of a sensor to gain entry. One day I’ll get the right angle straight away.

I walk to my office and realise I’m the first one in, because I have an overly keen cabby. I set my laptop up, check emails from suppliers in the UK and US who have contacted me overnight (Blackberry is still on order, it’s only been 4 weeks) and await my coffee colleague. When she arrives we head for our usual morning coffee and sit outside to drink it. Sitting in the sunshine at 7.30am is bliss before a working day.

I have a windowless office with air conditioning that would keep ice cubes solid, so whenever I have to step outside I am greeted with warm sunshine. The novelty of that still hasn’t worn off.

Lunch is only quick but there’s plenty of choices a stone’s throw from the door.

The afternoon is usually spent on conference calls to the UK or in meetings around the office. I get lost frequently so one of my team’s secretaries has taken to escorting me!

On the stroke of 5pm everyone’s laptops are hurriedly packed away and we’re out of the door. No hanging around. Your work is done so you leave. There’s no prizes for sticking around, and if you do it begs the question ‘why didn’t you get the work done between 8am and 5pm. Are you slacking?’

Walking outside reminds me of being picked up from school. We pour out of the front door, eager to escape the day and scan the crowds of taxis for ours. No easy task when they’re all white. My guy however is early, so he parks up under a canopy and stands talking to his fellow early-bird friends. He’ll wave at me as I cross the road whilst my colleagues wait despondently for their drivers.

The drive back always follows the same route. We skirt round Kuwait City and I gaze out of the window at the skyscrapers passing by the window. If I look to the other side I see a row of sandy coloured villas and dirt. The contrast is amazing.

As we get closer to my neighbourhood we pass chicken shops. They have brightly painted, happy looking yellow chicks on the sign. Except these shops aren’t the the Kuwaiti equivalent of KFC, they have actual chickens in them. I was quite happy to think the reason the little white chickens were crammed in to floor-to-ceiling cages, with their heads poked forlornly out of the gaps in the bars, was to provide eggs. Until the day I was stuck in a queue and witnessed one be removed from its cage, killed and prepared to be bagged up for someone’s dinner. The happy looking cartoon chicken on the sign oblivious to the fate of its brethren.

We pull up outside my block and I pay the driver again. He never has change so I’ve learnt to collect one KD notes as my cab stash.

I pass the Harris (maintenance man/caretaker) and smile. He looks relieved that I’m not about to moan about the lack of power, and I press the button for the lift.

After shedding my work clothes I put on joggers and vest top (finally, arms exposed) and open the balcony doors. As my air con blows fuses if I use it I spend evenings letting the cooler air from outside in. This means the tv gets turned up loudly to try and fight with the constant car horns from the street below. Dinner tends to be a salad or some one-pot-wonder that requires little preparation. Mainly because the kitchen is lacking in utensils (my first purchase in this country was a sieve) and I have about eight square inches of available work surface on which to prepare food.

Audio visual entertainment is limited. Back to back films fill the few English language channels, and some of those are straight-to-video 80/90s classics. Although it was a joy to watch Days of Thunder last week.

I’m shattered by 9pm so slope off to bed with a book. The call to prayer is bound to wake me in the early hours so I try to get to sleep early to at least try and get a decent amount of shut-eye!

And then the cycle starts again. That’s Sunday-Wednesday taken care of. Thursday is the end of the working week and is more likely to involve social interaction, and with a good choice of shopping malls, restaurants and private beach clubs the weekends are sorted.

When I move in to my new apartment I will have several friends in the building so life will get more sociable, but for now the routine keeps me comforted. There are enough surprises and experiences in the near future so my routine right now keeps me sane.

Things could all be about to change soon though. My initial visa expires in two days and the government have decided that they are not converting commercial visit visas to work visas any more. I could end up working from Dubai next week… Now THAT could lead to some interesting blogging.

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The Expat Diet

I’ve been in Kuwait nearly four weeks and according to the bathroom scales I have lost nearly a stone. So that’s Christmas weight and a month of pork belly and alcohol pre moving all gone!

My sparsely furnished, temporary accommodation doesn’t have bathroom scales. That was a purchase I made to keep an eye on my weight due to the massive American portions you get out here. Buying scales was also a chance to get chatted up. Because men out here will chat you up at any opportunity. I was scanning the selection to find the cheapest, the man next to me was breaking in to the packaging to weigh himself on each device. He explained he’d weighed himself that morning at work and all the scales in the shop must have been dodgy as he’d gained 3kg. Not wanting to engage in conversation with a man in a dress (ok, traditional dress, but technically a dress all the same) I just smiled and kept scanning the price information. As he turns to talk to me some more I grab the most basic looking set and turn to make my escape. To which he shouts after me “but you don’t need scales, you have a lovely figure, can I have your number?”.

I kept walking. Flattered and going bright red.

So I got home, set the scales up and was pleasantly surprised. One of my best friends is now an expat in Iraq and she had said that you drop a stone as soon as you move to the Middle East, but bearing in mind eating out is my social life I hadn’t counted on it happening to me. Maybe it’s the lack of alcohol. Or maybe it’s down to the complete inability of any takeaway company to find my address reducing me to a 10pm sandwich.

There is a great website here called Talabat. You want a takeaway and they have the online ordering system for it. Italian, Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Mexican or even popcorn, this country will deliver. Or at least they say they will. My first foray in to fast food came a couple of weeks ago. I had little food in and no inclination to get a taxi to the supermarket or fight my way through the labyrinth that is the Gulf Mart nearby. So I logged on to Talabat, wrote extensive instructions as to where I lived, as well as the full address, and chose some traditional Kuwaiti food to give it a try. Then I waited. The site said it would take up to an hour. After half an hour a man called and spoke what I assume is very fast Arabic down the phone at me. When I kept explaining I only speak English he hung up on me. Another call came five minutes later from someone who I also couldn’t understand. I asked if they could speak english and they said yes. So I asked if they could speak slowly. They hung up. Another man called and asked in English if I was Philippino. I said no, I’m English and gave the instructions as to how to find my apartment. Part of the conversation went like this:

“What is near your apartment. What is next door?”
“Next door is the Copy Centre”
“Coffee shop”
“No, copy centre, they make copies, photocopies, paper printing copies”
“What name is coffee centre, Starbucks?”
“No, copy. C. O. P. Y. Copy. Opposite apartment is a car park”
“What is car park?”
“Big square, full of cars”
“I’m sorry ma’am your English not good I get lady to call you back”

So a lady calls. She asked if I was from the Philippines. I explained that no I was not, I am from the UK, I speak English. She says ok, where is the apartment?

So again, I explain the street name, what major street it is behind, what building number it is and what floor. She asks what is nearby and we get the copy/coffee conversation going again. But, after 10 minutes we think we have it and she thanks me. Two hours later the food still hasn’t arrived. I emailed the website, who called the restaurant, and they explain I gave the wrong address. Which I clearly didn’t, they just couldn’t be bothered.

Last weekend I thought I’d give another company a go. Lebanese food this time, from a company in the same district as me. Surely they know the local area? More calls, more copy/coffee confusion and my will to live disappearing off the sixth floor balcony, but 90 minutes after ordering the food arrives. Cold.

Cold I can handle, as I have a microwave and a gas oven. But, on entering the kitchen I realise there is no power. So I get in the lift, go down to the ground floor, find the maintenance man and for the fifth time that week explain to him with actions and basic English that I have no power. By the time he has established that the air conditioning blows all the fuses I’m not hungry. So I eat bread and humous and go to bed. Most of the food I reheated the next day but not all looked edible so I chucked it. It’s a good job food is so cheap here or I’d have gone hungry and been out of pocket.

What I fail to understand is that, with smart phones and Google maps, how can a delivery service have no idea where anything is? My apartment is behind a main road, and behind a big hospital. It shows up on Google maps quite clearly. I also gave the road names around it and the name of the shop next door (COPY centre) yet no one has a clue.

But frustrations aside I have learnt a lesson. In future my driver can go and pick the food up before I waste away completely. And my new apartment is near a Burger King, so hopefully saying that will cause no confusion?

Well, I live in hope. I move in a month and will need furniture delivering. Keep your fingers crossed!!

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Driving Crazy

My UK friends seem amazed that I have chosen not to drive in Kuwait, and even more surprised to find out that my chosen mode of transport is a little Indian man who collects me at 7am without fail and picks me up at 5pm. He’s also on call if I decide I want to pop out to the shops. Yes, I have a driver. This isn’t so much of a novelty to me as at university I had a pet cab driver also. No matter what jobs he had on, Malik would always come and collect me first. It caused some cat fights outside the Union when other girls tried to steal him and he’d refuse and wait for me. I’d then stroll out and get in my cab. I can see how, as a 19 year old student, that made me look pretentious. But going back to my current driver, he’s a star. Very quiet, but a star. And the flat-rate helps. No matter what the journey, it’s about £6. But most importantly it saves me being scared witless on a daily basis by the insane driving over here.

Forget everything you’ve been taught about driving when you land in Kuwait. This country proudly holds the title of one of the top countries for car accidents. This is what happens when you have hundreds of different nationalities driving to their own rules and a host nation that have only swapped camels for cars in the last 20 years. And for a dry country the amount of pissed-up Kuwaitis speeding down the Gulf Road on a Friday night would keep Channel Five’s police programmes in material for a decade.

Examples of how to drive in Kuwait:

Your car is to replace your legs, therefore you are not required to walk ANYWHERE. This entitles you to park wherever you damn well want. No space outside the shops? Just double park. The oncoming traffic is most likely to swerve around you.
Last night I was waiting for my driver outside a supermarket. There is a massive car park at the back and about 20 spaces at the front. No spaces at the front? Then they queue. The queue snaked back on to a very busy road. No one minded, they just wanted the space right outside the supermarket doors. One girl stuck a disabled badge on her rear view mirror and an attendant removed the barrier to allow her to park in the disabled space. She then jumped down from her 4×4 and dashed in to the store. For those that don’t mind their car being downgraded to the rear car park, fear not. You do not have to walk. The supermarket has valet parking.

Seatbelts are for luxury vehicles and optional when fitted.
My cab is plush as it has rear seatbelts. The front passenger one doesn’t work but I sit in the back. There are overhead road signs reminding drivers that small children should wear seat belts but judging by the amount of little people clambering about in massive cars or riding with their heads through the sunroof then these instructions are not enforced.

Indicators make a funny noise so again, are optional. In fact, I’m not sure most drivers understand the concept of indicators as even if you are lucky enough to encounter a driver who is using them, they are likely to be indicating in the wrong direction.

The white lines on the road are for guidance purposes only. If it looks like there are three lanes then there is room enough for five. And, as we know indicators aren’t used for their real purpose, the method of changing lanes is to point your car in the direction you want and drive. The other cars will part for you, or at least you hope they will.

The bigger the car the more you are entitled to do what you damn well please. Yesterday I had a wheel of a hummer 6 inches from my face when I was sat in traffic. The driver wanted to change lanes. So he did. I thought he was going to just run our little cab over.

At least speed isn’t a worry. The traffic is so heavy that we crawl along in rush hour and I’ve not been out at night thanks to the drunk drivers racing on the highways. They do have speed cameras here but I’m sure a Maserati goes quicker than a first edition speed camera can capture.

But I guess you’ll be able to tell when I’ve settled in properly. I’ll be the girl in the massive black 4×4 cutting in and out of traffic without a care in the world. And a few bumps on the bodywork to prove I belong.