This week I’ve been staying with a guy from Austria called Martin. His flat is spanking – it’s in a brand new apartment complex and the apartment is so neat and tidy just my mere presence is enough to destabilise the Xi. It’s warming up here in Kuwait – the rains of last week are but a distant memory and it’s hard not to be enchanted by the thought of running from one air-conditioned building to another.
There was still no sign of my Saudi Letter of Invitation coming through and so I cracked on with website updates. On Friday I met with Ruban and we crashed a rooftop party held by a cool British guy called Wes. There I met a ton of tip-top people. First up, there was Kassie from Australia, who offered me a place to crash now that I was in serious danger of outstaying my welcome at Martin’s.
Secondly, I met Andrea and Eric from Canada who gave me a ton of advice about getting the Saudi visa – telling me I was best going to a little copy shop in Salmiya which is tasked with processing the Saudi visas. Yeah, a copy shop – go figure. Andrea would also be instrumental in introducing me to the British Ladies Society and thereafter the British Embassy. Thirdly, I met Bernie, an Aussie living in Dubai who put me in touch with Colin, an intellectual copyright lawyer from Sydney who might be interested in helping out my poor impoverished ass to, you know, make some money out of this whole hilarious adventure thing because I sure as hell made no money out of that television show I made.
After Wes’s we crashed another party – I don’t know how to spell her name, but it was pronounced ‘E’, so maybe I’ll just call her E until somebody corrects me. This party was even better than the last and – oh yes – there was alcohol! Homebrew and ethanol, but hell, it did the trick! It was like the goddamn United Nations (only more use) with not two people from the same country at the entire shindig. As my friends can no doubt attest, I’m a huge fan of house parties (it’s the Gatsby in me) and if I could attend a couple of these things a week I can see why Kuwait has its appeals.
But the moonshine will no doubt break your head in the morning, as I found the following day. It was the evening before I shook off my hangover, gathered up my things and moved my stuff to Kassie’s flat, just over the road from Martin’s. Something you should know – staying with (or even visiting) a member of the opposite sex is against the law here (as is Skype!) and they think nothing of throwing people in jail for six months without charge for even lesser misdemeanours – so I’ve got to keep my head down.
Yes, we are children in a 1950s all-boys boarding school. Females are dangerous creatures who must be avoided at all costs lest you – you know – fall in love. Love is not a big thing in the Middle East. Sex and money – that’s all marriages are about here – children and dowries. I can’t be the only one who finds the whole set up (arranged marriages and the like) dripping with sin and depravity. To remove the whole love thing from getting hitched removes the only wholesome aspect of this marriage business, leaving only a seedy transaction that might as well be sorted out with a prostitute. My dad gives you money, you lie back and think of England. Deal?
Cheer up love, it’s your wedding day!
Well, I don’t know if my predictions for Lost are going to be as spot-on as my predictions for the election result, but if Nick Clegg gets his way with PR, let me hereby predict not just the outcome of this election, but the outcome of the next 100 years worth of elections: The Liberals will win.
They won’t necessary win a majority, but the wonderful thing (for them!) is that they won’t need to – in fact, it would be better if they didn’t. They will always win because the a Tory/Labour pact is about as likely as the pope doing a breakdance on the bonnet of Hugh Hefner’s pink Cadillac. So once we set up a system that by it’s very nature will hardly ever foster a 51% majority for any given party, the Libs will have that all-important power of veto… and they will hold it indefinitely.
And we all know how wonderful the disproportionate power of veto is, don’t we? Look at the domestically impotent Congress of the USA – sorry chumps, but that bloke what lives in the White House can veto ANYTHING you monkeys want to do. Don’t like it? Come back to me with a 2/3rds majority. Oh, yeah, sorry – never going to happen is it? Great. I mean I could point out the conveyor-belt political changes of somewhere like Italy or Belgium, but I’ve got a better idea – check out the UN.
The five members of the security council can individually Vito Corleone ANYTHING the rest of the UN would like to do. And so what gets done? Nothing. Nothing at all. We have an organization that sits there picking it’s nose whilst MILLIONS of Africans are slaughtered in what can only be described as genocide (except by the UN, of course, which prefers the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ – means they don’t have to do anything!) and you think any international law strengthening the hand of democracy is going to be approved by China…?
To make matters worse, the Liberal Party, NOT YOU, will always chose the Prime Minister. Via a televised debate in the House of Commons? No, don’t be silly – in secret meetings, behind closed doors. You’ve had a taste of what it will be like over the last five days. Enjoying it? Thought not. I don’t like or trust politicians. If I had my way everything they did, said or agreed to in their role as an MP would be recorded Nixon-style. I would like the PM to be the leader of the party with the largest majority (I was led to believe that’s how it should work) but to give the power to decide to ONE MAN – a career politician who leads a party with just over 50 of the 650 seats in Parliament is utterly wrong wrong and wrong again. How anyone who believes in (or claims to understand) democracy can defend this nonsense astounds me.
My advice? Cleggy, take the deal with the Tories – fair’s fair. Give Labour a break for the next 5 years (they seem to need it) and be on hand to temper any of the more nutty ambitions of them posh kids in blue. In turn, give up going on about electoral reform. Proportional representation is an even bigger big fat boring waste of time and money than ID Cards (which you proclaim to despise as a waste of time and money) and it will, in time, prove to be more self-serving than Jabba The Hutt at a free buffet of gold-bikini-clad slave girls. If you’re desperate to do something, anything, get through a bill that makes all constituencies the same size. Then go after some more pressing social concern (ie. addressing the fact that we have comprehensively LOST the War on Drugs would be nice) because 10,000,000 Brits are on anti-depressants and I’ll tell you now IT’S NOT BECAUSE OF THE FIRST-PAST-THE-POST SYSTEM.
The British system is imperfect I know, but only because there is no perfect system of democracy, there never has been and there never will be. Our system seems to work, we’re immensely rich and we’re immensely powerful (seriously and scarily). We have a free health care system, a welfare state, free schooling – all of which were introduced using the first-past-the-post system of elections. Bereft of a political model that we can all agree on which is ‘the best’, I’m plumming for the devil I know – one that gives one lot a few years in power followed by the other lot with a nice well hung parliament every thirty years thrown in for good measure. I’m sure we’re going to see this sentiment written in opt-ed pieces for the next five years, but: if it ain’t broke, don’t waste our time and money trying to fix it.
On Sunday morning came the news I was waiting for – my Saudi invitation was in the bag! Within just a few days I’d be finally buzzing through to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. I headed like a bonanza bongo bang bang buckaroo over to the Saudi embassy. Only I found myself stopping along the way in a copy shop to get the letter of invitation printed out. But this wasn’t just any old copy shop – this was the copy shop that Eric was talking about the other night! I could get the visa here! Of all the copy shops in all the Kuwait Cities… Awesome. I printed out my letter of invitation (which was all in Arabic) but it was up to Captain Hugh back in the UK to rush back to his office in Liverpool and write me a letter of introduction (HUGH……. You are an Odyssey GOD!) that afternoon I handed in my application – stamped, sealed and signed on the dotted line. All was good. Five days, they said, Ishallah – meaning god willing. Hmm… I guess that means seven.
Either way, this should be my last week here in Kuwait.
The next day I was invited by Andrea, Eric’s wife, to give a talk at the British Ladies Society of Kuwait. I was promised tea and cake, how could I say no?! The Ladies were wonderful, taking a keen interest in my mad adventures and even having a whip-around to help me and WaterAid on our way. From that talk, many doors were opened to me…
I was invited to give talks to the girl guides, the boy scouts and various English schools around Kuwait. Kids ask the best questions – out of all the people you’ve met, who had the best name? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten? Do Somali pirates look like pirates? But best of all I was invited to come and watch the British election at my embassy – something which made some of my other British chums a little uppity… we’ve been here six years and we’ve never been invited to the embassy!
Something you should know about the British Embassy in Kuwait… they have booze. And my surname doesn’t rhyme with ‘booze’ by chance. After four weeks of 7up and ethanol, drinking an ice-cold Stella is like a little taste of heaven. I think there was an ulterior motive in inviting me to the embassy… there was a politics quiz on. My reputation must precede me.
Of course my team won (could there have been any doubt?) and since we won by one point, my firm belief is that it was me getting Rebel Rebel by David Bowie in the lyrics round that made all the difference. I miss quizzes, it’s one of the few competitive events that I kick ass at – seriously, if you’re ever on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire you want me as your phone-a-friend!! As the night went on I sat with the British ambassador in the Embassy garden watching the election results come in. I remember discussing the cons and cons of PR, getting more and more sozzled and demanding to know where on Earth he was hiding his tray of Ferrero Rocher.
Before I knew what was going on, Gordon Brown was squatting in number 10 and Nick Clegg was umming and arring about who to team up with. I was just looking forward to Sunday – my Saudi visa…
Well then, it should all be over, shouldn’t it? First thing Sunday morning I hurried down to the copy place to pick up my shiny happy visa, only for the guy to pull it out of the drawer with a despondent look on his face.
You need to get the visa in London.
I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled, exited and screamed an obscenity to the sky that would have woken Rip Van Winkle.
No visa. No dice. What now?
I rang Eric who has become my unofficial Kuwaiti Yoda, he said he could get my passport DHLed back in the UK for just a fiver through his company. Thus began my week of visa madness.
On the Monday morning I was invited back to the British Embassy to see if they could musta some ‘wusta’, the word for influence around these parts (and my collective noun for Kuwaitis). They tried their best, but as the guy in the Embassy said, he could help me get me a visa for anywhere in the world – except Saudi. They are more awkward than a spoilt child designed by Apple.
So Andrea picked me up (THANK YOU!!) and took me over to Eric’s workplace. The passport was dispatched to London. I sent it to my friend Lindsey for her to give to my dad. So the frickin’ Saudis essentially forced my 73 year old father to go all the way down to London because my letter of invitation had ‘London’ written on it – in Arabic I might add.
The answer is no, now what’s the question?
But even all that did not suffice, in London they wanted the passport to be submitted by an agency, not a individual. So my gallant father had to come all the way back to Liverpool, gather even more forms and crap and nonsense and then return to London the next day. And would it take three days (as advertised on the Saudi website) for the visa to come through? Would it buggery. It would take a week, now sod off we tire of you.
I sat in Kassie’s flat, incapacitated with a firmament of fury towards the bureaucrats of the world. I hate you all, why don’t you climb aboard the B-Ark and go torment somebody somebody else’s planet? At this rate, I’ll be in Kuwait longer than anywhere else so far on The Odyssey – even Cape Verde.
500 days on the road and a good 200 of them have been wasted waiting for either visas or boats. In situations like this you can’t help but acquiesce and go with the flow. The other plans you could have gone for – maybe a new visa for Iran would have been quicker (and cheaper) – will only serve to taunt you. I’ve made my bed and one way or another I’ll have to lie in it. The maddening thing is that I know once I reach the UAE and Oman I’m going to be stuck there, perhaps for a comparable time, waiting for a way to get to Eritrea.
On Thursday this week my dad returned to London for a third time. The visa was ready. We looked into getting my Eritrea and Indian visas, but they would both take too long to come through, so we looked at just getting the passport back to me asap. As Friday and Saturday are the weekend here, sending it DHL would not get here until Sunday. That being the case I roped in the magnificent Stan Standryt into helping me get the passport back the next day.
How do you do that Graham? Well, you do what Bono did when he forget his stupid hat – put it on a plane. Only I’d be using a scheduled service – not a charter job BECAUSE I’M NOT A SMUG MULTI-MILLIONAIRE TAX-DODGING CREEP. Sorry – Bono. Hate him. Can’t help it. So ANYWAYS… Stan picked the passport up off my dad went all the way to Heathrow. BA were happy to put it on tonight’s flight – that was until they discovered it was a passport. Can’t send passports – use DHL.
I understand why courier services are reluctant to take passports – they could lead to all kinds of trouble. But this wasn’t a stack of dubious passports on their way to Nigeria – this was a single passport that would be picked up by the guy whose passport it was. After wasting £47 in taxis getting shunted from pillar to post around the Heathrow site, Stan was forced to give up and send it DHL the next day anyway. BA – you just posted another massive loss. I was willing to pay you twice the cost of an average easyjet flight (for a person) just to put a document on your damn aeroplane.
You fools. Your airline is made of poo and FAIL!
Well, one way or another this was my final weekend in Kuwait. I have been here for SIX WEEKS waiting for this damn stamp in my passport. On Friday I was desperate for a party, so I met up with a cute CSer from South Africa called Janine. On discovering she was being put up by her company all expenses paid in the five-star Marriot Courtyard Hotel, I suggested we invade the buffet. Yes I have no shame and nothing cheers me up more than turning up to a posh do in my scuffs looking like I’ve just stumbled out of a particularly gritty western onto the dancefloor of the Ritz.
Later, Ruban got everyone around the pool at Jannie’s place for some final soft drinks and Pringles. Awesomely enough, there was another party happening down the road later on. We crashed it with aplomb and – joy of joys – they had a cooler filled with REAL ice-cold beer!!
So so happy! We shimmy shake-shaked the night away with our chums from the four corners of the planet. If nothing else, Kuwait is one hell of a melting pot. And you want to know something cool? I had been to everybody’s country (with the notable exception of the Philippines – why didn’t I hit that gaff in ’02, I’ll never know).
No worries – I’ll remedy that soon enough…
Tracking numbers are so cool. I got to watch online as my passport arrived in Bahrain yesterday and then arrived here just after 8am today. The DHL guys even called me and explained where I had to go to pick up my maroon booklet of doom. As always, Andrea was on hand to help me out. She picked me up and we grabbed the passport. I checked it over and all was good.
I had my ticket to ride.
After picking Eric up from work, we headed into town to visit Andrea’s mate who fed us the yummiest sausage salad (chicken sausage of course, but whatchagonnado?) before Eric and I braved the bus station to find out times of buses to Bahrain. Oh dear. You would think that given all it’s immense riches Kuwait could afford a bus station that wouldn’t have looked fitting in 1980s Beirut. The hilarious thing was that it adjoined the police lock-up – so, so many cars impounded (I don’t think Kuwaitis are capable of driving more than a few meters without breaking several international driving laws). Eventually we found a guy to ask – nah, these were all local buses – we wanted the SAPTCO place out by the United Nations roundabout. No worries. I’d give them a call in the morning and find out the SP.
Afterwards I met up with Janine – we well and truly abused the Marriot’s roomservice together and since she had already ruined the end of Prison Break for me, it did no harm to watch The Final Break which I guess was all the stuff that was meant to happen in Season 5, but then the damn thing got cancelled on the grounds that it wasn’t Lost.
But then what is?
I could tell you I got up bright and early and rang the bus company only to discover that there was no bus to Bahrain today (there wasn’t), but to be honest, even if there had of been a bus, I would have missed it on purpose. I had bigger fish to fry. A fish called Lost.
Last January, Mandy and I made a pact to watch the last episode of Lost together, just like we watched the first episode together back in January 2005. She was planning to fly out to meet me in India or China or wherever I was. Well my enforced sojourn in Kuwait threw that idea out of the window. Plus there’s the fact that we haven’t got enough money left to fly Mandy to Bali, never mind Bahrain. So we did what we always do and muddled through – if we couldn’t physically be together to watch it, then we could certainly be together through the wonderful power of Skype.
I tell you what though, I have no idea why it took so long to download… there must have been a a few zillion people seeding it. But eventually Mand and I had it. I wore my special DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO t-shirt and we counted down to when we had to PUSH THE BUTTON (to start the video) with an 4 8 15 16 23 42 for old times sake.
Damn, I can’t believe it’s over. I need to think of a good replacement…
How about a mystery TV show called ‘Nightingale’ which is set in the outback of Australia – Mad Max meets Twin Peaks. After the inhabitants of the small mining town of Nightingale (pop. 108) awake to find their children missing, and in trying to discover where they have gone find themselves activating an ancient evil – one that might just destroy the world.
Two words for you – Aboriginals and Aliens.
Anyone want to option it?
Oh yes, I’m back ON THE ROAD! After saying my final farewell to the delectable Kassie I bundled myself on the 9am bus to Bahrain via Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Panicking over all the horror stories I’ve been told about Saudi customs, I wiped all the TV shows and Hollywood movies off my hard drives (lest they contain kisses, witchcraft or a picture of a cross) and made sure I didn’t have a single used videotape on me (remembering Iran and Congo).
In the event, they didn’t even open my bag. Hilarious.
I had my photo taken and my fingerprints scanned and that was it. Easy as pie. I arrived in the wholly unremarkable town of Dammam in the early afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was excitedly crossing the MASSIVE causeway to Nation 156, Bahrain – the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
Oh yes, Bahrain – Bands, Broads and Booze on tap and the parties don’t even get started until after midnight. I met with Tim, my CS host and one US Navy Lieutenant. His apartment was so kick ass it made me wonder why I never went to officer school. Oh yeah and then there was the fridge – stocked to the gills with beer, lovely cold refreshing beer.
After a few we hit the streets, grabbing some authentic Bahraini KFC on the way to the Irish pub (there’s always an Irish pub). There we watched a band that were so-so before pushing on to a Pilipino joint with a much better band who actually put some pizzazz into their cover versions. From that point on my recollection of the night kind of falls apart. I remember meeting some girls from Ethiopia and asking why they wouldn’t let me open the windows on the bus. I don’t think I did any Karaoke, but it’s a possibility.
How on Earth Tim dragged himself into work in the morning is a mystery I’ll probably never fathom.
Urgh me drinkie too muchie. I’ve seriously put on a stone in the last six weeks, what with all my Dominos pizzas and KFC. I need to get moving and get grooving before I turn into a big fat Jabba slug. I found out that the bus for Qatar (only 40km across the sea from the island of Bahrain) would be leaving from Dammam in Saudi at 5pm. As the next bus to Dammam was leaving at 3pm, this was going to make things awkward – Dammam is only an hour away, but it’s a bit of a risk as if the Saudi border guys wanted to make the bus wait, there wasn’t a lot I could have done about it – I could very well miss the bus to Qatar. I therefore elected to take a taxi (at great expense – fifty quid’s worth of expense) because I was damned if I was going to spend the night in Dammam.
Getting back into Saudi was even easier the second time. Seriously – they didn’t even look at my bags and in I went. I was in Dammam within the hour and had my ticket for Nation 157 – Qatar.
The bus was supposed to get in at 10pm. I had arranged with Tracy, my CS host in Qatar, to meet here when I arrived, although the fact it was now pushing midnight and we were still not at the border compounded my discontent. But what I was not expecting was for it to take TWO HOURS to cross the border into Qatar. What the hell would you smuggle OUT of Saudi? A camel?
But then I discovered the root of the problem. The border guards were denying access not to us passengers, but to the bus driver. They had changed the rules TODAY (seriously!) and he needed a letter of employment of SAPTCO to say he worked for them. His uniform and the fact HE WAS DRIVING THE DAMN BUS wasn’t enough proof for them.
I guess in their twisted little heads this was all an elaborate plan for the driver to sneak into Qatar (with a busload of passengers) and stay there illegally. The hundreds of Qatar entry and EXIT stamps in his passport were similarly not seen as proof that he didn’t intent Qatar several layers of harm.
I’ll get you Butler!
So the bus was stuck, it was now 2am. Oh, and to cap it all, my phone had stopped working. I didn’t know this at the time, it seemed that my texts were going through, but then I sent a test text to my mum and since a reply didn’t come back I knew trouble was afoot. There was no way I was going to be able to stay at Tracey’s tonight. I teamed up with Saleh and we trekked across the border together on foot. Once in Qatar, we flagged down a passing car and hitched a ride to Doha from a fantastically friendly chap called Mohammed.
And so I wound up in the cheapest, nastiest little hotel in town. Filthy dirty, luke warm shower, a broken television… the price? Fifty quid. Straight up. Take it or leave it.
Damn you Qatar.
As if Qatar hadn’t done enough to upset me, today it well and truly rained on my parade. I was planning to meet up with friends I had met in Kuwait tomorrow in Dubai, and when I rang the SAPTCO bus office they told me that the bus left at 6pm.
Good stuff! I packed up my things and headed into Doha city centre, there to meet Tracy who I should have been CouchSurfing with last night. We grabbed some lunch in a Thai restaurant and nattered about living in Qatar. Originally from Vancouver in Canada, Tracy’s been here for two years. It seems that Qatar suffers from many of the same problems as Kuwait – spoilt, lazy rich kids, dangerous drivers and an almost unbelievably stratified society.
But, you know, in the greater scheme of things these are minor quibbles. The governments here really do look after their people very, very well – in a way that African governments just wouldn’t understand. Free hospitals, schools, roads, sewers, street lights, development, enterprise grants, allowances, pensions, unemployment benefits… go try to explain what these things are to Ali Bongo of Gabon and he’ll probably chase you up a tree and set fire to it.
But the guys in charge here could, if they wanted to, pull an Ali Bongo. Or a Nigeria. Or an Angola – rich rich rich oil states, but 100% of the money that could go to building a better society and a brighter future for their citizens is stolen and squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts. Here, things are very different, and I for one salute the Gulf’s governments for looking after their own people.
Of course, it’s not a rosy garden – at any one time there are about 400 Filipino housemaids in the Filipino embassy in Kuwait desperate to go home after being abused or raped or locked in the house for months while the family goes on holiday (seriously). The attitude of the locals towards the ‘lower’ immigrants (Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis etc) would make Nick Griffin blush.
But, you know, you live in hope. Maybe one day attitudes will change and the little Princes and Princesses of the Gulf will learn a little bit of humility and the fact that what goes around, comes around.
After lunch I thanked Tracy and apologised for last night’s cock-up. I then darted over to the bus office (next to the Guest Palace Hotel, pop-pickers!) to get my ticket for tonights bus… only to discover that tonight’s bus back into Saudi (you have to dip in and out of Saudi to get to the UAE) was last night’s bus that’s still stuck at the border.
Again, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Tracy graciously allowed me to stay at her’s for the night and that evening we made a beeline for the Irish Pub – yes, there’s ALWAYS an Irish Pub! I’ve got to say I never thought I’d be dancing to YMCA in Arabia with a pint of Stella in my grubby mitts.