Before I came to Kuwait, I talked to four different friends who had been there before. They were split down the middle. My friend Molly had worked there as a schoolteacher and tried to talk me out of wanting to go at all, describing it as one of the most boring places on Earth. Chris, who was one Afghanistan away from having visited every country in the entire world, described Kuwait as the only country in the world not worth visiting. Ouch.
But Jake spoke enthusiastically about his multiple visits there during his layovers as a flight attendant. And Simon had pulled me aside to contradict Chris and say “Don’t forget to check out the mall when you go there. It’s CRAZY.”
Hmm. 50/50. Well, I was about to find out for myself. I mean, we had a whole Gulf War over this place, it’s got to be at least a little bit interesting.
Arriving on my flight from Bahrain, I was curious how I would be treated as an American visiting Kuwait, because of America’s role in saving them from Saddam during the first Gulf War. This was before I realized that your chances of meeting a Kuwaiti while bopping around Kuwait are, actually, pretty slim.
Standing in line to get my visa, I was amused by the list of who needed a visa and who didn’t. Citizens from Kuwait’s oil-producing neighbors didn’t need one at all, which made sense. Americans, EU citizens and people from a motley assortment of other countries could get a visa on arrival, like I was doing. Eswatini? Bhutan? It was a short list, kind of an honor that those randos got into the VIP section of the club. Japan and South Korea were on the list, but not China. Huh.
Iraq? Nope, fuck off. You guys can’t come in at all. Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen? Hit the bricks, dicks.
I say “line” but really I was the only person on my flight who wasn’t from one of those oil-producing neighbor countries, so I was the only one getting a visa. The guys at the counter kind of seemed like they hadn’t interacted with anybody in a while.
Soon enough I was through immigration and into the main hall of the Kuwait City airport, looking for the desk where I would pick up my rental car. Huh, not down this way. I walked the long hall in the opposite direction, admiring the fairly lavish interior of the airport. Currency counters, a first class lounge, some kind of tiny spa. I ran out of doors to check. Huh. Oh man, did I book a non-existent rental car again?
I went up to one of the random counters and asked the guys there if they knew were Enterprise Rent a Car was.
“Oh yes, you need to go to Terminal 1. This is Terminal 4.”
“Oh, okay. Is there a bus?”
The guy looked at me like he didn’t know what a bus was. He looked at his friend for help, who shrugged.
“No bus. You can take taxi.”
I went downstairs and down a long hallway to where the taxis were. I asked the girl at the counter there if there was any shuttle or bus that went to the other terminal. She looked at me like I was asking if there were any flying unicorns that could take me to Narnia. Hmmm.
I went outside and started haggling with the taxi drivers. Everybody wanted around 6 Kuwaiti Dinar to take me to the other terminal, which is about $20. Jesus, where is the other terminal, in Iraq?
Turns out it was about a mile and a half away. Okay, screw this, I’m walking.
I headed out into the night and quickly discovered that nobody had ever walked between Terminals 1 and 4 before. There was no sidewalk and I had to cross some kind of highway on foot, at one point stepping in a mushy puddle of what I think was toxic waste.
A police car whizzed by and I tried not to look like a completely out of place white guy with a backpack walking through a wildly inappropriate and pedestrian-unfriendly part of Kuwait at night. I looked up at a sign. Oh, this is the Air Force base. Great. Maybe we’ll get the military involved.
Occasionally cars slowed down as they passed, checking to see if my sudden appearance in Kuwait meant that Saddam was back. I didn’t see another human being outside of a car during my entire 25 minute walk along this dark and lonely road.
Gradually the unkempt gravel turned to sidewalk and there I was, entering the airport like a time-traveler from the 1800s. I found the car-rental desks deep in the bowels of Terminal 1, and before I knew it they were charging me for a bunch of shit I didn’t understand at all.
“Is this your first time driving in Kuwait?”
“Okay, that will be 12 KWD ($40) for your license insurance. Everyone has to pay this.”
Uhm, can I change my answer? I then turned down the car insurance but later discovered they’d charged me for it anyway. Suddenly this $40 rental car was $120. I’m starting to get the feeling Kuwait is not going to be a cheap country to visit, even if it is itty bitty.
A lackey led me across the street to the parking garage where the cars were. While he was introducing me to the finer points of my new Nissan Sunny, his phone rang and he handed it to me. Uhm... what? It was the counter girl apologizing that she’d overcharged me and that I’d see a refund on my card in around 5 weeks. Okay cool. This never happened.
I pulled away. There was a gigantic fire extinguisher bolted to the floor on the passenger side of the car.
That’s strange. Have they been reading my blog?
Okay guys, who talked?
I pondered over how they’d managed to sell a car called the Sunny in a part of the world where one of the major conflicts is between the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects. Maybe this was a Sunni majority country. I checked later, and it is, but it’s a 60/40 split, so still plenty of room for car-based religious conflicts.
Pulling out into traffic, all of this was quickly forgotten and replaced by the struggle not to die.
Kuwaitis are, without exaggeration or bias, the worst drivers in the world. Over the course of my time in Kuwait I learned that drivers in Kuwait don’t have to take driver’s education classes or pass a driving test to get their license, all they have to take is an eye test. This is 1000% believable once you’re on the road. Kuwait is like a giant experiment in what would happen if you took a few million people who had never seen a car before and just tossed them car keys and said “Have fun!”
Pulling out into the night, I quickly switched my mindset from "driving" to "participating in some kind of car-based mortal combat, possibly inspired by the Mad Max movies."
Jesus! I gripped the steering wheel like I was hang-gliding. Bahrainians drive like a-holes but the Kuwaitis are far, far more creative about it.
A Kuwaiti doesn't let missing his exit on the freeway get him down. He takes charge of the situation by slamming on the brakes, throwing the car in reverse, and driving backwards down the busy freeway until he can take a second stab at it. And I don't mean from the breakdown lane or even the right hand lane. I mean from the center lane of the freeway.
I was thundering down the freeway, cruising along at 120 when suddenly, oh shit, somebody just blurred by me driving backwards. This happened again and again.
The roads did not help. Lanes would weave their way in and out of existence, before the road would give up entirely and the entire freeway just became one big black expanse hosting an orgy of intermingling cars, dueling for the right to exist in this Darwinian proving ground.
I quickly learned that only the doomed follow the lane markings on Kuwait, most cars straddle the lines tentatively, hovering at the ready, prepared to suddenly do something so crazy it required a friend to hold your beer.
I realized that in most driving situations, we offload the majority of the mental load onto the sense that there are rules, mixed with a vague belief in the decency of our fellow man. We look out for dangers from within this narrowly defined range of likely happenings, trusting that unless a car next to you is on fire, it's probably not going to suddenly U-turn mid-lane and drive back toward you head-on. In Kuwait, this WILL happen.
In Kuwait, you have to consider the much wider array of options encompassing everything that is physically possible. Just because you've never seen someone JESUS CHRIST that guy just turned left across five lanes of traffic from the far right hand lane.
Jamaica, I take back everything I ever said about you. You guys could teach driver safety here in Kuwait.
My internal organs suddenly compressed into a tight ball as the wind impact from a car blazing by me, an inch away, in the fucking breakdown lane hit my car. You don't just feel this in the body of the car, the WHUMP suddenly jostling your car to one side, you also feel the air pressure impact inside your own body, inside your internal organs. It’s that close. Yeezus.
To make everything even more fun, my Nissan Sunny clearly had the sports package, so you could thrill to every rut and groove in the road like you were riding a shopping cart down a gravel strewn mountain.
By the time I found my AirBnB, I felt like I’d been through a major world war. After Egypt, UAE and Bahrain, Kuwait was my fourth country of the day and I badly needed some sleep. I pulled over suddenly and diagonally in front of a pharmacy that was my only landmark for where I was staying. Can I park here? Probably not, but I’ll come back for my car after I figure out where I’m actually sleeping. It’s definitely not going to stand out parked diagonally across the sidewalk in front of a pharmacy like I just lost control while doing donuts in the street.
My host was an Egyptian man named Aladdin and I was sleeping in a tent on his roof. This was both the only economical option in Kuwait City and also something that sounded like it would make for a fun story. Only Aladdin had been called away on business, so he’d left me a hilarious and truly bizarre series of WhatsApp video messages explaining how to find the tent, all apparently recorded while he was running down the street in Istanbul, being chased by a gang.
He had sent me one photograph of the building next to the pharmacy, with crude red arrows scribbled on it designating where I was supposed to enter. I opened the glass door, but the foyer inside was completely dark and strewn with construction materials. Huh, this is strange. I looked up and there was a key in the lock at the very top of the glass door frame. Oh, Aladdin must have left this for me. I’ll grab this and come back after I’ve found a less-conspicuous place to leave my car. I pulled out the key and walked back down the alley to my car.
Suddenly a man was chasing after me and yelling. His English was limited but we eventually worked out that I had just stolen his house key. It turned out this was not the place I was saying at all, I’d just walked off with somebody else’s front door key. I apologized and he swore at me in Arabic as he struggled to re-lock the door, but the lock above the door was clearly too high for him to reach. I took the key and locked it for him and we were friends again. Through sign language we eventually worked out that I was staying in the next building over.
I found a semi-kosher spot to abandon my car and headed up the building’s elevator to the 9th floor. There was a dog in the hallway when I stepped out of the elevator and I briefly wondered if I was going to have a problem, but he turned out to be happy to see me and quickly I had a new friend. I think the couple that lives in that apartment just puts him out in the hallway to “go outside” and he was happy to have some company.
Hmm. Where’s my tent? I opened a door that jammed half way and found that there was just random junk inside. I tried another door and it opened to the outside. Aha! A roof! Outside there was something covered by a large tarp that I briefly thought might be my tent, but that turned out to just be a bunch of crap covered in a tarp. I was standing and contemplating my situation as traffic noise from the city below rolled through the night, when I heard a gasp behind me.
“OH MY GOD! You scared me to death!" a voice gasped.
I turned and the couple who had let their dog outside inside were out on their balcony, which I was also sort of standing on. Well, at least I hadn’t taken their house key. I told them what was going on and they explained that I wanted the next floor up, the other roof. In his haste to flee from certain death, Aladdin had apparently gasped the wrong floor number into the phone while he was recording that video. The balcony guy asked three times if I was a musician and only let me go once I said yes.
On the next floor up the door was unlocked and I wandered out onto this other, higher roof. Ah, there it is. A small Bedouin tent with a bed inside. This will do nicely.
I’d been warned that I might have to sleep inside if the wind got too strong, because people generally leave bad AirBnB reviews if the tent they’re sleeping in gets blown off the roof and they fall ten stories to their death in their sleep and then get run over by seventeen cars.
Someone snuck up behind me and said hello. It was MAHMOUD.
In Aladdin’s absence, he had left my care in the capable hands of MAHMOUD, a young Egyptian chap who Aladdin always, always referred to as MAHMOUD in all-caps, so I took this to be like a trademark or a rapper name or something that I will respect here. MAHMOUD did not speak any English at all but he had a terrible translation app on his phone, so good times were guaranteed.
There are certain sounds that sync up with human biorhythms and produce the deepest, most restful and restorative sleep. The sweeping swell of the ocean. The gentle babbling of a brook. The hush of the wind rushing through the arms of tall trees. Four million assholes honking at each other all night in Kuwait.
Regardless, I’d been up for two days straight and had been in five countries in the last 30 hours stretching back to Yemen, so I slept like a dead baby up in that tent perched up on top of the roof of Kuwait City. In the morning MAHMOUD made us falafel and hummus and seemed very keen to get to know me, in spite of our complete lack of a shared language. I sat with MAHMOUD and one of his Egyptian friends on a couch on the roof and we ate breakfast in the warm sunlight.
MAHMOUD asked me through his phone app what I did for a living. I replied that I was an analyst. MAHMOUD’s phone dutifully translated this as “Cannibalist.” MAHMOUD looked concerned.
After breakfast I was pleased to find my car still parked in front of the building and was off to the National Museum to see what this Kuwait place was all about.
Reaching the museum through a strange network of one-way back alleys, I pulled into the parking lot and puzzled over the sea of chaos before me. The parking area was a dirt lot, and cars had just parked in it wherever. You’d start driving between two “rows” of cars, looking for a spot, and then the rows would begin to curve and wind, like a fractal. You’d turn and follow the corkscrew winding, until the rows gradually converged at cars parked bumper to bumper that you couldn’t drive between. Then you had to throw it in reverse and try to back out of the fractal, stopping occasionally to argue with drivers that had followed you into this trap, needing to convince them to also back up or else neither of you were going anywhere today.
Then you picked another fractal to enter, hoping your luck would be better this time around. Eventually I followed the winding chaos of cars completely out the back end of the lot and ended up parking on some side street I hoped was still within walking distance of the museum. Once I got to the museum I discovered an utterly empty, paved parking lot in front of it, but who knows how you gained entry to that thing.
The museum was fairly small and fairly lame. This was not helped at all by the upstairs being completely closed off, which is probably where the party was. The highlight of the steerage section of the museum were these gold-gilded copies of the Quran.
Beyond that it was just a bunch of old vases from back when the Greeks had a settlement in Failaka Island off the coast. A museum guard approached me and warned me in hushed tones that the museum was closing in a few minutes. Clearly people could only be given limited access to this bullshit or else they’d become overwhelmed by the splendor and quit their jobs, if they didn’t lose their minds in ecstasy first. I wandered out the door and into the more-interesting Kuwait Heritage Museum next door.
This place was like a giant diorama of what a Kuwaiti souq was like in olden times, recreating the many shops and vendors and their roped-off VIP sections.
I felt like I was in some kind of bizarre Disneyland. One section was designated the “Jew Market.” I wasn’t sure if Jewish people were sold here or what that meant.
Likewise there were some great doors and old radios because of course that’s what you’d have here.
Outside, the courtyard was flanked with strangely military-looking artistic flourishes.
The doors to the Palenterium were locked. I wandered into a couple of different art galleries that were completely empty and in various odd stages of being painted or renovated. It seemed strange that I could just wander all through these.
Well okay. That’s a thrill it will be difficult to live down. I headed off for the Kuwait Towers, a set of three funky water towers built on the shores of the Persian Gulf that are probably the most famous landmark in the country. Or, as I came to call them, Kuwait’s Balls.
There was a vivid Kuwaiti urban legend stating that after Iraq invaded, Saddam had virgins dropped from helicopters and impaled on the spires of these towers. Today I had to settle for somebody flying some kind of motorcycle attached to a parachute around the balls and over the Gulf.
One of the balls isn’t completely full of water, and there’s a restaurant inside you can take an elevator up to. The restaurant revolves slowly, giving you a view of downtown Kuwait City on one side, and the Persian Gulf on the other.
The balls are covered in strange and huge colored sequins, which they say are to emulate the design of traditional mosques, but they reminded me more of design elements from the 1960s. The towers were built from 1971 to 1976, which I think supports my explanation.
After my experiences in Tibet, I’ve become a hawk at spotting the good bathroom opportunities while traveling. I’d just come from some relatively rough bathroom times in Yemen, and the Kuwait Towers seemed a likely candidate for a quality bathroom experience. I was in the closet-like fully enclosed stall for a while, hearing various people come in and out of the bathroom outside my stall. When I finished, I exited the stall into a room full of Arab women wearing hijabs.
Oh, hello ladies. I awkwardly washed my hands. What are all these women doing in the Men’s room? Do they have sons with them? Everyone was staring at me. Hmm.
Waaaaait a minute. I opened the door to exit the bathroom and looked at the symbol on the door. Oh shit.
The difference between the Men’s and Women’s room symbols were very subtle and I had definitely just spent twenty minutes taking a massive dump in the ladies’ room.
I ducked back in and made several “Shit, sorry!” sign language gestures, bowing and shrugging and making a prayer gesture at the same time. The expressions on the faces of the women inside suddenly shifted from “Whaaaaat the fuck is going on?” to laughter. Cool. I ducked back out of the room.
Time to go. I think I’ve created all the ruckus that Kuwait is prepared to handle this morning. Soon I was back down the elevator and into the Sunny in the sun.
I wanted to check out the Grand Mosque of Kuwait City, and after five comical loops around the block I finally found parking. Approaching the building, I realized the mosque was closed. Ah, bummer. Well, at least I can walk around the outside and get some good photos.
I was walking by the guard shack in front of the mosque when a voice called out to me from the cracked window of the shack.
They can’t mean me, but whatever. I walked up to the shack and a spoonful of macaroni suddenly protruded through the window.
“My friend! Have some macaroni!”
Is this… is this something that happens? In Kuwait? Anywhere? I wasn’t sure what other response was possible so I took the spoon and ate the macaroni.
“Is good, right? Come, have lunch with us!”
M… me? Uh, okay, let’s see where this leads.
I circled the shack and squeezed through the ajar mosque gate, then made my way to the back of the shack where I entered the open door. Four Egyptian guys in uniforms were sitting and eating lunch. They quickly freed up a chair for me and pushed a bottle of water into my hands.
I’m pretty sure this is how you join Al-Qaeda. I mean, I don’t have any proof of that but I’ve always imagined it started with macaroni.
As if this had all been just a brief pause in a meal and conversation we’d all already been having, suddenly I was having lunch with four Egyptian security guards and talking about their ambitions to become actors and how shittily the Kuwaitis treat the immigrant workforce. Turns out America didn't invent that one.
This was when I realized something that would become more and more clear the longer I spent in the country: You can be in Kuwait quite a while without meeting a Kuwaiti, since every single person working an actual job there is in Kuwait on a work visa from a poorer country. I met Egyptians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Indonesians, and those groups of migrant workers make up roughly half of Kuwait’s population. And seemingly all of the actual workforce, as the Kuwaitis all seem to have oil or family money. As a result, the migrant workers are treated as inferior near-slaves by a lot of Kuwaitis.
We had a good long lunch and conversation, as I tried to navigate what looked vegan from the food they were pushing at me without being rude or having to explain what veganism is. Suddenly some other guy wandered by the booth on the street and the Egyptian security guards yelled for him to join us too. It was funny to watch someone else have the same baffled response I’d had twenty minutes ago, now that I was on inside.
This rando turned out to be an American photographer named Leonard who was traveling by himself in Kuwait. He was the only other tourist I saw while I was in the country.
Leonard joined us and explained that he’d hoped to take photos in the mosque before discovering that it was closed today. One of the guards waved away this concern as being no problem at all. He led us out of the shack and unlocked the doors to let us into the mosque.
The Grand Mosque was stunning. The guard explained the history of the mosque as Leonard and I ran around taking photos in the empty building, like kids in a candy store.
After we finished up, we chatted and took photos with the guards until they had to go back to
work eating lunch.
I expected to part ways with Leonard at this point as well, but we got onto a tangent of talking about our recent travels. He was interested in going to Yemen and I had just come from there, so this conversation was naturally going to happen. He was extremely well-traveled and on my same mission to visit every country in the world, which is probably the kind of tourist you’re going to run into in the unlikely event that you run into a tourist at all in Kuwait.
We wrapped up and were saying our goodbyes and good lucks when it came out that he was trying to find a taxi that would take him out to the Kuwait Water Towers (not to be confused with the Kuwait Towers, which are also water towers-- just roll with this). This happened to be exactly where I was headed to next, so of course I offered him a ride. And so we were off to the Kuwait Water Towers on the outskirts of town.
I’d seen photos of these towers in Atlas Obscura and definitely wanted to see them for ourselves. But the road to get there was insanely convoluted. We could see the towers in the distance across the flat desert, only to loop all the way around them multiple times as the road gradually brought us closer and closer in the most indirect route humanly possible. All of the roads in Kuwait seemed to be like this, taking circuitous routes and looping around for no apparent reason. We decided that if you could see Kuwait City from above, the roads must spell out verses from the Quran in cursive.
Eventually we got to the entrance to the towers, but it was closed and locked. I wasn’t sure if they were always closed or if this was because it was a Saturday. Hmmm. Damn, I really want to see those strange blue and white striped towers up close. We drove around the block and I found the driveway for some kind of power facility that was next door. I pulled in.
There were a few cars but the facility seemed to be closed. I pulled around the back and parked. All right, let’s see what we can do here.
We got out and headed through a maze of abandoned equipment and oil barrels, toward the towers next door.
After navigating our way through this junkyard maze, we found a fence separating us from the land the towers were on. Through the fence I could see nice landscaping and walking paths between the towers, so clearly this was a place that was open at some point, sometimes. Just not right now.
I looked around. The fence got more intense and barbed-wirey on the other sides. Where we were standing it was only about seven feet high and sturdy. There was a shack between the towers that was either for guards or just the landscaping crew. Nobody seemed to be home. I looked around in both directions. No one seemed to be around at the facility behind us. I wonder if this is one of those countries where they cut your head off for jaywalking? I mean, nobody does that, but sometimes they have a different sense of justice and the severity of various offenses in the Middle East. But, you can’t get caned or whatever if nobody sees what you did. I climbed up the fence, swung my legs over, and dropped down on the other side. Easy peasy.
Leonard looked at me like “Oh, we’re doing this? ...okay!” and climbed over the fence himself. Before we knew it we were slinking quietly along the walking path and gawking up at the massive, strange towers.
I looked up at a little ladder stretching from the top of one tower diagonally to another. I really wanted to find a ladder to go up inside one of these, but, alas, the towers were locked.
After we’d got our fill of awesome clandestine photos, periodically peeking over at the guard/landscaping shack for signs of movement, we climbed back over the fence and through the industrial rubble and were back in the car.
“If you could just drop me off anywhere back in the city that would be great.”
“Sure, no problem. I’m going to the Mirror House.”
And so Leonard joined me in my appointment for the Mirror House.
Molly and Jake had both told me about the Mirror House, offering opposite reviews. But even Molly’s attempts to scare me away just made me want to go more.
“It’s this crazy old lady who has covered her house in mirrors. She gives you a tour of all the weird shit in her house and serves you tea while telling really strange stories.”
I’d had to book a tour months in advance, but since I had agreed last-minute to move my time to accomodate a group of special needs kids that were coming that morning, the owner’s daughter was cool about letting Leonard join the afternoon group. We gathered in the living room with a couple from Spain, their friend, and a Kuwaiti couple who were there with their two young sons. The house’s owner, Lidia, served us cake and cinnamon tea that burnt the living fuck out of my mouth on the first sip.
“How’s the tea?”
“Good! (All I can taste is pain.)”
The living room walls were covered in shards of mirror that had been formed into the shapes of dolphins and planets. This place is a kitsch masterpiece.
Lidia began the tour, explaining that she had started working with mirrors while her artist husband was traveling for work. She began by covering a dresser in mirrors for her young daughter, then gradually moved on to the walls, then the ceilings, then the floors.
She lifted up the rug on the floor, and sure enough, there were mirror mosaics under our feet.
Even the ceiling fan was covered in mirrors.
Lidia explained the ins and outs of working with mirror fragments, how to avoid cutting your fingers by wrapping them in masking tape and how she saved money by getting cast-off broken mirror panels from a local construction company.
I looked over at the Spanish couple’s friend who was on the tour with us, who seemed to be British. Huh. She seems really familiar to me. I’ve probably met her somewhere along my travels. Oh well, we’ll figure it out at some point, one of us will remember. No big deal.
Lidia’s daughter was grown now and helped her mother lead us from room to room in the large house. The mirror art in each room had a different theme. One was “The Earth,” with mirror mosaics making up different animals. Another was themed after the Zodiac. We seemed to have an inordinate number of Virgos on this tour. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about an entire house covered in broken mirrors that appealed so much to Virgos.
Lidia flipped off the lights and the room came alive in blacklight splendor. Oh, my. Yeah, this is starting to get weird.
We continued from room to room, Lidia’s explanations and stories gradually became more esoteric and bizarre.
We entered yet another room and sat down on cushions lining the walls.
“Is anyone here interested in Sociology?” Lidia asked.
I raised my hand. Who isn’t interested in Sociology?”
Lidia then launched into a long, rambling, and epically confusing brain puke that was only tangentially related to sociology. About 15 minutes into it I tried to will myself to travel back in time so I could change my answer to the question of if anyone was interested in Sociology.
It was around this time that the tour began to pivot from “This is so bizarre and interesting and amazing” to “Oh my god I just realized we’re going to pay for all of this in pain.”
Leonard had assumed this was going to be some 30 minute detour in his day, not a 5 hour journey into the heart of darkness.
The rooms kind of blur together for me from here on out. At some point we ended up upstairs in a room full of Lidia’s late husband’s paintings, which were all kind of terrible Salvador Dali knockoffs crossed with vaginas. Lidia went on a long spiel about how these gloopy vaginas illustrated that we’re not taking care of the children any more.
We got a brief respite in the library, where Lidia showed us photos of the museum from before Iraq invaded in 1990 and told us stories from the invasion, which were fascinating. She told the story of the neighbor who was shot by Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint when they discovered a Kuwaiti flag he forgot he had in his luggage. Or the story of her husband being run off the road by Iraqi soldiers because they wanted his truck. Lidia and her husband had been traveling outside of the country shortly before the invasion and she expressed dismay at what could have happened to their daughter if she’d been left in Kuwait by herself, with the Iraqi army running amok.
Hearing the questions the younger people in the group asked about the invasion, it made me reflect on the difference between the history you’ve lived through and seen on the news and the things that happened before you were born. I think we all have a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the world from before we became aware. Even I was surprised at how much I learned about the invasion after the fact, going back and reading about it in connection with my visit. I hadn’t realized that Kuwait had actually been Iraq’s ally during the Iran-Iraq war, invoking Iran’s ire by loaning Iraq over $14 billion and letting Iraq use Kuwaiti ports. This actually led to the invasion of Kuwait, because after the war was over Iraq couldn’t pay back this huge debt to Kuwait. In the end, they decided it would just be simpler to invade and take over Kuwait themselves. With allies like these, who needs enemies?
In another room we got trapped into another one of Lidia’s endless free-jazz monologues about life and black holes and nanotechnology. It was like listening to a Grateful Dead bootleg that never ended. The ideas she was sharing were fairly woo-woo by regular person standards, but the most amusing part for me was that they were really kind of basic, sort of like listening to your college roommate ramble on the first time he tried pot. I generally agreed with what she was saying when she occasionally landed on a point, but I felt like she thought it was all a lot more mind-blowing and paradigm-challenging than it really was. She clearly felt it was her life’s work to provide this consciousness-expanding experience, and good for her. I’m sure there are people who take this tour who do find the ideas new and mind-opening, everyone’s at different levels. But it was a long, long slog for the rest of us.
The funniest part of all of this for me was that my mind actually was expanding in a really trippy way, though it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the tour itself. I had come to the realization that I couldn’t possibly have met the British woman who was on the tour before. But I still remembered her. Huh. And as the night went on, I began to remember the Spanish couple too. Oh wow, this is really strange. I knew I couldn’t have met them either, but they are so familiar now. Gradually, this feeling swelled and expanded to include the entire group I was touring the house with.
Could I have known all of these people in a past life? That would normally be my go-to explanation for a feeling like this, but I’d never felt that for an entire random group of people like this before. And it seemed very unlikely that we’d all come back together across the expanse of time and from around the world, just to experience this house tour together. And then never see each other again. I’m not sure what kind of karma that would possibly balance. No, this was something very different.
Eventually, this eerie feeling grew so intense I realized I was actually remembering today before it happened. It was beyond a vague sense of deja-vu, it was like a higher state of awareness where I was privy to the non-existence of time. Everything was happening simultaneously, our consciousness just parceled it out to us bit by bit, creating the moments and the illusion of time that we experience. I’d heard of this concept before, but now I was experiencing it in an extremely powerful and mind-bending way. All of my normal associations, the warm familiarity of “I know these people” versus the cold distance of “I just met these people” were all jumbled up. I was existing inside a logical impossibility, the certainty that I was not meeting these people for the first time, simultaneous with the certainty that I had to be. However it had happened, I had somehow stepped outside of the frame of reference of linear time.
Maybe Lidia had bored me into enlightenment.
The strange thing I realize now, thinking back about this, is that this is exactly how experiences of actual enlightenment have been triggered for me in the past. Many years ago, I was sitting at my desk at work, reading online about a new Robin Williams movie that was coming out that was called The Final Cut. I was struck with a very peculiar and deep certainty that I had seen this movie before. But… I couldn’t have. It hadn’t even been released yet, it was coming out in a few weeks. But… I had definitely seen it. I was certain. I started poking around online to see if the movie had somehow been released in sneak previews earlier, if there was some way I could have already seen it. There wasn’t. But I had.
My brain got caught in a loop of impossibility as these two certainties duked it out within my reasoning mind. There was an almost unbearable tension within my consciousness as I wrestled with how something could be both true and untrue at the same time. Then something happened.
A calmness and a clarity washed over my mind. Suddenly, I could see things I had never seen before, like a fog had lifted that I had existed inside for my entire life. I could remember everything I had done that day, but more than that, could remember with absolute clarity the dream I’d been having when I woke up that morning. And the dream I had before that. And the dream before that. And all night, back to the moment when I had fallen asleep the night before, with no gaps. And then what I was doing and thinking right before I fell asleep. And what happened before that. And before, and before, all the way back in a constant, unbroken scroll of memories encompassing my entire lifetime. Every moment of my entire consciousness, whether I was asleep or awake, was all there with crystal clarity.
In the moment, this seemed perfectly natural. Of course you would remember everything you did and thought! You mean people don’t? I was vaguely aware that all the rest of the time, all of this had receded into a foggy nowhereland. This concept struck me as quite strange.
I suddenly saw a vision of my consciousness as a little rubber ball bouncing around inside my skull. All day, boing, boing, boing, bouncing around endlessly. And then a crack opened up in my skull and the little ball shot out into the wider world outside. My consciousness had escaped that tiny, limited prison. That’s what I was experiencing right now.
What am I doing, sitting at my desk? Fuck this, I’m in some kind of superconsciousness. I’m not going to waste this on my day job. I got up from my desk and walked straight out the door, across the lawn and into the woods. I hiked through the woods until I came to the lake where I liked to meditate on my lunch breaks. I knelt down by the water’s edge.
My mind continued to expand exponentially. I was aware of so much, it was hard to follow all of it, to keep my consciousness focused when there were infinite directions it could travel in. I saw, with utter clarity, that when I had a conversation with someone else, that my higher self and that person’s higher self, our souls, were simultaneously having a much deeper conversation. Our enlightened consciousnesses that exist parallel to our waking consciousness, they were having a conversation that piggypacked on top of our worldly verbal exchange. And that you could even see the content of that higher conversation encoded in the words we were speaking on the physical plane. No one on Earth would ever see this or be aware of it, it would take some genius level of awareness to unpack things in all of these expanding dimensions, but there it was, plain as day.
I knelt by the lake as I continued to drill deeper and deeper into the awareness I was experiencing. It was like peeling the layers of an onion, there was always a deeper layer to be experienced, a deeper reality beyond what was apparent on the surface. This was even more true of myself, as I kept stepping into larger and grander aspects of myself, like the tiniest Russian nesting doll becoming progressively aware of all the others. I was seeing into more and more expansive dimensions, aware that I existed in all of them, simultaneously to this world that I normally thought was all there was.
My mind expanded to encompass so much information and awareness that an agonizing wave of nausea washed through me as my nervous system was completely overwhelmed by far more information and stimulus than it could possibly handle. I crouched down and held the ground as I tried to get a grip on my body and the physical world I was in. Quickly, the expanding cosmos of awareness receded and I found myself kneeling in the dirt by the water’s edge, breathing heavily and feeling incredibly dizzy.
Over the next several months this experience came back to me three or four more times, to varying degrees. The experiences were very similar, with interesting variations. During one of them I found I was able to slow down time at will, everything around me becoming slow and dreamy, as if I could toggle between dream reality and waking reality at will without falling asleep. Another time I was in a grocery store looking at a big gnarly biker guy who was in front of me in line, when suddenly my consciousness projected into the mind of his toddler daughter who was back at home, and I saw him entirely through her eyes. To my mind he had been scary, but seeing him through her eyes, I saw that for her he was the very definition of love, and then he was love for me as well. One of these experiences kicked in while I was having lunch with friends and I went into a sea of higher dimensions for who knows how long, then when I returned I discovered I’d been carrying on a mundane conversation with my friends, unbroken, the entire time.
I came to understand that the trigger for these experiences was me holding diametrically contradictory thoughts in my mind at the same time, both with utter clarity and conviction. The stress of trying to resolve this impossibility was shutting down my conscious ego and allowing that deeper awareness to come to the forefront. I came to reflect on the idea that this was what Zen koans were meant to accomplish. Japanese monks weren’t trying to understand what the sound of one hand clapping really was, or figure out if a tree falling in the empty woods really made a sound. They were creating a trap their conscious mind wouldn’t be able to logic its way out of, forcing it to shut down like an overheating engine.
And then, one day, it was gone. I couldn’t get to that space any more, the door was closed. Was it because of fear? That inrush of consciousness was so intense, the expansion so unlimited, that it did spark fear in me at times that you could possibly lose your mind if you pushed it too far. I don’t even know if that was true or not, but it was uncharted territory, mentally. But whatever the reason, that switch wasn’t flipping for me any more.
I went from thinking I was on the very verge of permanent enlightenment, from believing these experiences would keep happening more and more frequently until I was in this state of consciousness all of the time, which would have been the fulfillment of my deepest desires and most intense yearnings and hopes for this life, to it all just being gone one day.
Gradually I fell into a depression over this. I didn’t fully even realize it was happening at the time. But over time I went from meditating three hours every day, completely overjoyed by the journey of discovery I was on, to becoming disillusioned that all the work I was putting in was not bringing me back to these peak experiences. I was just treading water in the shallow end of the pool. Gradually, my practice petered out and I began spending more and more time just watching movies.
I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this at the time. I wasn’t depressed, I was a movie buff! And maybe I didn’t need to meditate so much any more, you ever think of that? Maybe what I had been doing before was overkill. Sure, I literally just spent the entire weekend watching movies, from Friday night to Monday morning. But I’m studying film history! And I need to get through all these blu-rays I bought. Silly to just let them sit unopened on the shelf. That’s so wasteful.
Years went by like this, and looking back I realize I was deeply depressed by coming so close to the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted in life and then having it just slip away from me. I was using movies as a way to self-medicate and not feel that anguish. Deep down, I believed that I had failed. To come so close and then have it fall apart like that... clearly I hadn’t worked hard enough. Hadn’t meditated enough. Hadn’t been dedicated enough. Wasn’t strong enough.
I could be distracted from those terrible feelings of ultimate failure as long as I was wrapped up in this Kubrick marathon or seeing how many movies it’s possible to watch in a single weekend. At one point, I was watching two movies at the same time, on seperate screens. It was crazy.
Occasionally I would snap out of it and dedicate myself to meditation again, but the experiences never came close to what I’d experienced back in 2004 and eventually I’d lose heart again. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the Stargate in 2017 that I began to see all of this clearly and rise back out of the funk I’d been in for a solid decade.
It’s kind of funny, looking back, because in a sense those magical experiences in 2004 were both the best and worst things that ever happened to me. I would never take them back, because they were the best moments of my life. The first time in this lifetime that I fully experienced who I truly am, which is what I’d been working toward in one form or another for my entire life. I want to cry just remembering those experiences. But what came after that was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I went through terrible depression for years in my late teens and early 20s, and rough times before my spiritual awakening at 27. But the 16 years since 2004 have been one long stretch of walking through every day knowing, beyond any doubt, that I’m asleep. That I’m living as some tiny fraction of who I really am. Before I had those experiences, I always suspected this, but it’s something very different to experience it directly and know it beyond any doubt.
And, in all honesty, I fucking hate it. I hate going through every day in this more limited state of awareness. It’s painful for me every single day and something that I’ve carried as a burden. I understand in a very personal way why we take on a veil of forgetting when we come into this life. If we truly remembered who we were beyond this, it would take a superhuman level of willpower to stay here and go through the motions, playing the game of this life, if we knew who we are and what we could be experiencing instead.
Gradually, over time, I’ve made a kind of peace with this. My spiritual work over the past three or four years has opened up my consciousness in different ways that have helped. I’ve stopped blaming myself, thankfully, and have come to accept that I chose this experience from a higher level. I’m not a victim, I’m creating this. Why would I do that? I think about my experiences with depression when I was younger. And how, as terrible as they were, they gave me the gift of being able to talk to people and help them with their own depression. Because I know that experience from the inside out, and people can sense this. People, even complete strangers, open up to me unprompted about their deepest fears and pain, and I don’t think any of that would happen if I wasn’t carrying those credentials in my aura, so to speak.
I think about playing a role in helping consciousness rise to higher levels on Earth, and about being able to talk to people about my spiritual experiences, and write about them in ways that people can hopefully connect with. I have friends who are spiritually open in amazing ways that I would love to be, but I also have no idea what they’re talking about half the time. They’ve lost that thread connecting them to the way most people think and experience consciousness, a gap has opened up that makes true communication and shared learning impossible. I think this often happens even more so for the enlightened. If a rich man can forget what it was like to be poor after a short while, how can an enlightened person help you reach their experience if they don’t remember the struggle? It’s so simple for them now.
I’ve seen for myself that I came into this life by choice to perform a service, to be a part of the process of the planet and the people here rising up in awareness. And the travel and the energy work that happens when I travel are a big part of how I chose to come here and accomplish that. Once that became clear to me, I threw myself into the opportunity, as the long scroll of photos on the index page of this blog can attest. And that has made things easier, to have that big task to focus on, rather than dwelling on having to wait, perhaps even until this life is over, to experience that beautiful awareness again.
Well, I mean, it did help, before coronavirus happened and all my 2020 trips got cancelled, ha. Balls. The last two months have been a reckoning of not being able to distract myself with travel and having to sit with the pain of that separation from my higher self again. And, honestly, that’s sucked a lot. A whole lot, but it’s been a valuable experience at the same time. To go through that and become stronger. It’s been something I needed to do. And eventually the world will open up to travel again. Fingers crossed.
I was thinking the other day about how this is like if you could become aware of just your little toe. I am Jack’s little toe. Thanks Fight Club. You’d still be you in reality, but for a time, you’re only aware of what your toe’s aware of. What the carpet feels like. The warmth of a sock. How it feels to hold up a great weight that you can’t see or conceive of. This would be a shitty prison if it were forever, but if it’s just for a time, why not lean into it and really embrace that unique experience? Why waste your toe time in angst, wishing you were the whole body? You will be soon enough. Hmm.
My experience in the Mirror House wasn’t quite to the extent of those full-blown enlightenment experiences in 2004, but it was a very solid taste, and that was exciting. And it seemed to be opening up my consciousness in a new direction related to time and alternate dimensions.
The funny thing about writing the past several paragraphs has been that the act of thinking and writing about it actually opened up that space in my consciousness again, to my great surprise. This has caused me to reflect on my conversation with Jesus in Israel and the work I’ve done using gratitude and visualization to manifest new experiences in my life. It’s dawned on me suddenly that this doesn’t have to be limited to external experiences. Why not visualize and feel gratitude for the you that you wish to become? So now I’ve started sitting and imagining what life will be like when I can switch between these states of awareness at will. How that will feel. And feeling intensely grateful for the way my life has opened up because of it, before it even happens.
OK, back to the Mirror House. I forgot to mention that Lidia spent like a half an hour borrowing our phones, then hiding behind various objects and taking photos of us. A lot of photos. Yep. That happened.
Lidia led us into yet another room, where we were encouraged to throw little velcro tiles at a trio of wall-sized black velvet paintings. There was a rumor going around that this was a game of some sort but I saw no evidence of this. I was fascinated that Lidia seemed determined to pad out this tour to be about five hours long, which no one in the world wanted. I won a pen.
To get back downstairs at the end of the tour, we had to wait our turn to board a closet-sized elevator, which was only big enough to fit three of us at a time. The slow, tiny tiled elevator blasted cowboy yodeling music the entire time it was in operation and I swear to God I’m not making any of this up.
After milling around with the other guests in the gift shop (you guys should really be selling mirror dolphins in your gift shop) and discussing the relative merits of the other countries in the region (“Oman. Oman is an actual country. Not like these other bullshits.”), Leonard and I prepared to part ways for the 18th time that day. Then it came out that we were both going to get Thai food, so we might as well go together.
After a couple of loops around the block downtown where the restaurant was located, no obvious parking made itself known, so I turned down an alley and quickly came to an impasse with another car headed in the opposite direction. Okay. I put it in reverse and weaved through the narrow chute of cars backwards. Man, there really is no parking around here. Oh, hey! There’s a sliver of space between that helter-skelter diagonal car over there and that dumpster. Let’s see if we can squeeze in there. I let Leonard out first so that he wouldn’t have to climb out the window, and he guided me in.
“Okay. Okay. Pull forward. A little more… A little more…”
The car raised up off the ground for a second before slamming back down.
“Oh! Oh my god! You just ran over something that was all glass and… meat? Oh, meat. Oh my god that’s disgusting.”
We found parking! I climbed out, careful not to look under the car.
The Thai restaurant was being run by an Indian man and his teenaged lackey who had apparently never encountered the basic concept of a restaurant before. After we had waited in the nearly-empty restaurant, swapping stories of travel to exotic and unlikely places for what felt like an hour, Leonard had to wander into the kitchen and implore them to come out and take our order. The same thing happened when we wanted to pay at the end. The food was bizarrely tossed together and deeply mediocre, both in ways that raised serious questions about whether or not this was actually a restaurant. All in all the experience went exactly the way I would expect if you had just wandered into a stranger’s house and insisted that they feed you.
Okay, well, this has been a fun and crazy day. Great to meet you Leonard. Where are you off to now?
“I’m going to try to catch a taxi to go see the Kuwait Towers and get some photos of them at night.”
“They light up at night?”
“Get in the car.”
And so I made my second visit to the Kuwait Towers that day. On the way there, Leonard told me a story about meeting a Saudi man who was married to his sister. I mean, the man was married to his own sister, not Leonard’s sister. That would be weird if you just met some random person on the street and they just happened to be married to your sister. I mean, maybe not as weird as them being married to their own sister but still pretty weird.
Leonard was right, Kuwait’s Balls were lit up at night. There was some kind of weird mesh around the balls that I hadn’t noticed during the daytime, and it was lined with LEDs that turned on at night and created low-resolution scrolling graphics that rotated around the balls.
Since I’d already checked this place in all the normal ways that morning, while Leonard was running around and taking professional photos, I wandered off to see what I could get into. One of the towers had an unlocked door. I was hoping to find a stairwell that went up the tower, but joked out loud it would probably just be a toilet.
This time around I found myself fascinated by the long, tall tower that didn’t have any balls attached to it. It looked like a giant witch’s hat.
As I was standing there in the dark looking up at the tower, my mind idly wandering, I realized I was figuring out how to climb the tower. There were little oval windows at regular intervals all the way up the side of the tower, and a wire mesh covering each window. If I could hop up to the first ledge there, I could hook my fingertips through the mesh and pull myself up, supporting my toes on the bottom ledge of each little window. Over and over, all the way up to the witch’s hat up top.
I was mentally at the top of the tower when I realized there was no way in hell I’d be able to get down. I’m sure there are people who could do the same thing in reverse, but I find climbing down things much harder than climbing up. Maybe I could make it down that thing if my life depended on it, but yeah, I’d probably die.
“You love that weird tower!” Leonard observed.
“I think I can climb it.”
Leonard looked at me like I had completely lost my mind. Maybe I had. It had been a weird day.
We took the elevator up the big tower to the cafe.
Up top we took in the nighttime view and the lights of Kuwait City as the balls ever so slowly turned.
After the towers redux I dropped Leonard back at his hotel and we traded numbers. The funniest part was that when Leonard had introduced himself to the guard back at the mosque security shack, I was busy talking to some other guard about the job market in Egypt and didn’t catch Leonard’s name. I didn’t think this was going to matter at all since I had no idea I was going to be spending the entire day with the guy, but it ended up getting increasingly awkward within my own mind as the day went on and I realized it was already way, way too late to ask him what his name was. So it was with a sigh of relief when I got a WhatsApp message from Leonard the next day that included his name. Thank God. That could have gone on for years.
I’m especially grateful that I didn’t have to make up a name for him to use in this blog, which my readers know I’ve done before because I’m really terrible with names. Thanks Leonard. What a fun crazy day.
Some work things had blown up while I was Magical Mystery Touring my way through Kuwait City, so I spent the next morning sitting in bed in my rooftop tent, working on my laptop. A no-bullshit Egyptian woman came in several times to make sure I was actually going to leave at some point that day. Occasionally MAHMOUD would stop by and knock on the flap so we could have a dangerously mistranslated conversation over his phone app.
I looked at my own phone. I had eight messages from Aladdan. It turned out he had been calling me every ten minutes to make sure I was having a good time in Kuwait. The messages grew progressively more desperate and concerned as they piled up. Damn Aladdin, that’s sweet but we’ve never even met, dude. I’m virtually certain my own dad doesn’t even know what country I’m in right now. You might want to chill a little.
Long after the trip was over, after I had returned home to the US, Aladdin checked in on me a few more times. Jesus Aladdin. I’m starting to think sleeping on your roof makes us brothers, I was not aware of this tradition when I signed up. At one point he sent me a WhatsApp request for me to record a public service announcement asking people to stay indoors during the coronavirus pandemic. I’m pretty sure by next week we’ll be singing Imagine together.
After I wrapped up my work, I packed up my little backpack and hugged MAHMOUD goodbye. He seemed genuinely sad to see me go. It’s not every day you meet a traveling cannibalist, after all. MAHMOUD was a cool guy.
I headed off to check out the vegan restaurant scene in Kuwait City. I was starting to memorize the city streets, which is a weird feeling when that starts to sink in, in a place you’ve been for a day and a half and will probably never see again. After navigating the insane fractal of the strip mall parking lot, I entered the mall, which turned out to have an inside, too. A barren, weirdly-under-construction inside, with an empty fountain and some completely indecipherable shops.
Eventually I found the restaurant tucked into the back corner of the lower level. The owner/probable only employee was sweet and served me food on top of a big purple door.
“Have you been here before?”
“No, it’s my first visit to Kuwait.”
“No I mean have you been to my restaurant before?”
“Unless you moved it here from another country, then no.”
The food was pretty good and seeing as how this was likely to be my only meal of the day, I ordered about five things. This always makes restaurant owners happy/worried.
I looked at the time. My flight out was that night. I wonder if I still have time to check out the Highway of Death before I leave Kuwait? What the hell, let’s give it a shot.
The Highway of Death is the upbeat nickname for Highway 80 that leads from Kuwait City to Iraq. This was the route that the Iraqi army took when they invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the same route they fled along back to Iraq after the US joined the war. With a certain sense of poetic irony, Highway 80 was also used by US forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
I headed out on the freeway, weaving through the chaos of evening rush hour traffic. I had absolutely no chance of capturing any decent photos of the heavenly sunset that was happening behind the high tension wires off on the horizon, as the freeway schizophrenically jumped back and forth between detour and laneless under-construction roadway, changing its mind every few seconds, and the Kuwaiti drivers veered and zig-zagged just as frequently but not at all in sync with whatever the hell the road was doing.
The Highway of Death turned out to be a lot further away than I was expecting. I mean, I was technically on Highway 80 as soon as I got out of the city itself, but the events from the war that I’d read about had happened closer to the Iraq border and there was a lot of desert between me and Iraq.
Gradually, civilization thinned out until it was just me and the open desert. I imagined convoys of military vehicles, from both sides, driving over this same road.
The Highway got its name not from Iraq’s invasion but from the Iraqi military’s attempt to flee along this route back to Iraq. After the US military took back Kuwait City, a huge convoy of around 2,000 Iraqi tanks, trucks, armored cars, civilian vehicles and even stolen Kuwaiti fire trucks were driving through this same stretch of desert, hauling ass for the Iraqi border, when the convoy was hit by an American air strike and utterly obliterated. Everything was destroyed, complete carnage. Mile after mile of twisted metal and charred vehicles. No one really knows how many people died. The surviving Iraqi soldiers fled into the desert on foot.
This is one of those war situations that gets more and more complex and gray the deeper you look at it. The photos of the aftermath of the bombing were so horrific that George W. Bush called an end to the hostilities the very next day, out of fear that the narrative would switch from Americans as liberators to butchers.
The response from officials in the US Military was basically “Fuck ‘em, they got what they deserved.” And this is what I basically remember the sentiment being in the US at the time, at least as much as I understood as a 13 year old at the time. General Norman Schwarzkopf pointed out that the Iraqi soliders had been raping their way through Kuwait and were headed back to Iraqi with all the stolen Kuwait loot they could carry when the bombing happened.
And… maybe they were. But it’s a matter of reasonable debate whether or not these soldiers were even in the war any more, and if they weren’t, killing them was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They were sure trying like hell to exit the war. More disturbingly, there are many accounts that hundreds of the unarmed Iraqi soldiers who fled the bombing out across the desert ultimately surrendered at a US military checkpoint, only to be killed by a US infantry division.
But where the story gets even darker is when you dig into who was actually in that caravan of vehicles. The first journalists on the scene very shortly after the bombing are all in agreement that it was mostly civilians, foreign workers from Palestine, Egypt and Bangladesh who had been trapped in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. The kinds of people I’d been meeting every day in Kuwait.
Everyone agrees that the majority of the vehicles blown to pieces in the bombing were civilian cars and trucks. The US military claimed that they’d been stolen by Iraqi soldiers and that few if any civilians were killed in the bombing. The evidence in the immediate aftermath seems to contradict this pretty convincingly, from the charred bodies of women and children to the toys and other personal effects strewn across the desert in all directions.
US Marines interviewed on the spot in the immediate aftermath of the bombing were clearly upset that this was obviously not a military convoy. It had no air cover whatsoever and looked to everyone there like it was everybody who just happened to be on the highway when the bombs began to drop.
The idea that the convoy was mostly civilians makes a lot of sense to me, because there were a lot of civilians fleeing Kuwait at precisely this time. PLO head Yasser Arafat had declared an alliance with Saddam Hussein, which meant that the 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait were suddenly very much not welcome there. Almost the entire population of Palestinians left Kuwait over a matter of weeks, all during the period of time that this bombing took place.
Man, Palestinians, you guys seriously can not catch a break.
For years, this highway was lined with the aftermath from the bombing, countless charred tanks and the burnt-out husks of cars had just been pushed to the sides of the roads and sat there, rusting. These were all gone now.
As I drove along through the empty desert, I began nervously eyeing my gas gauge. It was low. Real low. And I was in the middle of nowhere, headed to an even more nowhere nowhere. There was a sign I want to get a photo of before I turned around, and I knew I’d be taking a picture of it in the dark if I stopped to get gas on the way. Now I was racing against both the sun and the little flashing gas light on my dashboard.
The sand scrolled by. Man, it is really cool to be here but I’m starting to worry I’m going to accidentally cross into Iraq before I find this sign. What would happen if I did? I definitely don’t have a visa for Iraq. Is there a U-turn lane at the border? How chill are they about that kind of thing?
Finally, minutes before I would have reached the border, I saw the sign and pulled over suddenly like I was parking in downtown Kuwait City. I got out and jogged back to get a photo.
Kind of interesting and touching that the sign is still there. I mean, forgetting for a moment all the crazy shit I wrote about above. We did still rescue them from the hell of the Iraqi occupation, so it’s a nice sentiment to see, as long as you then stop thinking about the whole thing right there.
I got back in the car and said a little prayer asking for a U-turn lane. Every few dozen miles or so there had been a U-turn lane across the highway median allowing you to head back toward Kuwait City. There were no overpasses and very few exits out here, so if I didn’t find a U-turn soon I was just going to be using the last bit of my gas to get further and further away from a gas station.
DING! Turn lane! Whew. Thanks Kuwait.
As I headed back toward the city, I calculated how far I could get on the gas I had left, over and over, in my head. I definitely couldn’t make it back to Kuwait City, but I’d seen a gas station maybe a third of the way out here. I thought I could just barely make it that far and coast into the station on fumes. If it turned out to be a Burger King that looked like a gas station I was going to be screwed.
The desert grew dark around me as the night scrolled by. My gas light blinked on and off, on and off. The mileage estimator on the control panel jumped randomly between numbers, causing my emotional state to cycle between optimism and wondering if there were any scorpions in the desert I’d be trekking across if I ran out of gas.
I chuckled to myself over the irony of running out of gas in the very place where the whole world’s gas comes from.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
After an eternity I saw the gas station off in the distance. Yes! It was on the wrong side of the road, so I had to exit to the right and navigate through a maze of surface streets to find my way under the highway. When I rolled into the station, my gas gauge was on “Seriously, Dude, F You.”
I waited in line for the Indonesian guy who was pumping the gas. Once it was my turn to pull up to the pump, I realized I had no idea which side the tank was on. Luckily I guessed the right side, but I had no idea how to open the gas hatch. After a brief round of charades with the gas guy I got out of the car and let him hop in and figure it out since this was clearly his field.
He pumped the gas and I started to wonder how much it would come to. I’d been told gas is REAL cheap in Kuwait, which makes sense. It came to 8 KWD, which is about $25 bucks. Okay, not that cheap. I handed the gas guy my credit card and he looked at it like I had just handed him a rubber chicken.
He didn’t speak any English at all, so all he could do was hand my card back to me and shake his head No. I looked around at the other cars. Everyone was paying cash. The manager, who spoke 10% more English than none at all, came over and looked at my card.
“I’m sorry sir, we only take normal cards here.”
“What the f... What’s a normal card?”
He looked at me quizzically. What a silly question.
I frowned at my Visa and handed him my Mastercard instead.
“Is this one normal?”
He shook his head No.
It’s always a balancing act, trying to leave a country with a few small bills of local currency to keep as souvenirs, without accidentally going home with $100 worth of purple money you’ll never be able to spend. I’ve grown pretty good at hitting this balance, but in Kuwait it was tough because even the small bills were worth a lot of dollars. I’d managed to spend my cash down to a 5 KWD bill and a handful of coins somewhere in my bag that I intended to take home with me. Everyone accepted cards everywhere and I was leaving that night, so I figured I was set.
Turns out everyone except gas stations accepts cards. Nuts.
I looked at the 5 KWD bill in my pocket and the 8 KWD balance due on the pump, and shrugged at the guy. The manager said no problem, there’s an ATM over there. I pulled my car up and walked over to the ATM.
Put in card, PIN, and... blue screen of death. Some kind of Windows error. Great. I tried it again. Same screen. Tried my other bank card. Same thing. Well, okay then!
I walked back to my car and opened the trunk. The Indonesian gas guy jogged over to collect the cash I had surely just withdrawn from their totally functional ATM. I tried to explain through charades that their ATM was fucked and that I was going to try to dig some coins out of my backpack that was in the trunk.
I pulled out my bag and opened the huge zippered pocket where I’d been throwing loose change all trip long. That meant I had about ten pounds of coins in there that were a random hodgepodge of denominations from Norway, Hungary, Israel, Palestine, Greece, Yemen, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. Awesome. I pulled out a fistfull of coins and held them up to the dim fluorescent lights of the gas station overhang.
Oh my God. I don’t even know what Kuwaiti coins look like. I mean, I know I have some in here but I never really looked at them closely. Half of these coins have Arabic writing on them and a palm tree or some shit.
I handed the guy the 5 KWD bill that I did have, and then started taking coins one by one from the random wad of monies in my fist. I held the first one up to him.
“Is this from Kuwait?”
He shook his head no.
I held up the next coin.
“Is this from Kuwait?”
“Is this from Kuwait?”
This went on for a hilariously long time. Eventually he had about two and a half Dinar worth of Kuwaiti coins in his hand and was on the verge of totally losing his mind.
“OKAY!” he yelled suddenly, grabbing my hand and gesturing for me to please, for the love of God, stop. “OK!”
Then he ran away.
Oh, okay. I guess that last 50 cents worth of gas was on the house. Thanks Kuwait!
I looked at my phone as I pulled away and headed back toward the city. I think I may have just enough time to check out that crazy mall Simon was telling me about.
I circled half-way around the Avenues Mall before I found a way in. Oh wow. This place is BIG. Much bigger than the Mall of America. Crazy.
I parked somewhere random because I didn’t understand the hierarchy of malls within malls that was going on inside at all and I had no idea where I wanted to go anyway. The escalator rose up between two marble walls with waterfalls running down them. Wow. Swanky.
And then it spit me into the mall. Wait a… where the hell am I?
I was inside, except I was outside. I was standing on an avenue lined with high-end shops, which intersected with other streets and other multi-story buildings and the normal trees and landscaping you’d expect in a boutique shopping neighborhood. Only we weren’t outside. We were underneath a massive dome, like I had wandered into Springfield right after it was sealed off by the EPA.
What in the… I turned in all directions, looking straight up at the massive dome high above our heads. The street I was standing in the middle of stretched off as far as I could see in all directions. It was like I was in some post-apocalyptic and yet perfectly Disneyfied America, like the logical conclusion of the concept of living inside Disneyland. Everything looked like a normal shopping district, only there were no cars and everything was too… nice. And we were inside.
My mind reeled at the very concept of a mall being turned inside-out like this. Normally in a mall you’re in a big room where the walls are lined with shops and you walk around in the middle and there’s non-functioning fountain or whatever. Maybe it’s a really big mall and there are a couple wings like this. But this wasn’t a mall… it was a city. I staggered around in random directions with my mouth hanging open like Country Mouse on his first visit to the big city.
My pictures won’t do this justice at all, in part because I was trying very hard not to get women wearing burqas in my photos because I didn’t want to get caned. And all the women were wearing burquas so good luck getting photos of a mall without getting any of the thousands of people who are at that mall in your photos.
I know, I’ll try the ole selfie trick!
Ah... yeah you still can’t see shit.
I also didn’t want to draw attention to myself because I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough money to be here. Somebody had fucked up when they let me in. I kept expecting a bouncer to grab me and turn me upside-down to shake me and see if enough money fell out of my pockets for me to be able to say. Or maybe there’d be some kind of money scale you stepped on.
Everyone around me was clearly rich as fuck. Like, hunting people for sport rich. Men in white ghutras walked beside their bejeweled wives with the casual pace of someone who has never been in a hurry to go anywhere. These people weren’t rich in the American sense of “I invented Beanie Babies” or “I evicted a bunch of poor people,” they didn’t do anything. What are you, a peasant? They were rich because they existed.
I don’t know how long I wandered around like this. It was a long time. I never saw the same section of the mall twice. I have no idea how far the mall stretches on. I wandered through various themed areas, like I was in an old Arab souq for a bit there. One may have been Tortuga, I don’t know, I was confused. One section even looked like a traditional mall, just for shits.
I wandered so long I got hungry and somehow tracked down the vegan restaurant inside the mall city.
My waiter was from India. All trip long I had really enjoyed talking with the migrant workers who the Kuwaitis thought they are better than. It was fun to be really nice to them because this clearly never happened and it seemed to make their entire week. You felt like Superman just for displaying basic human decency.
I looked up from my swanky vegan toothpicked appetizers and suddenly realized I was late for my flight. This is my normal state of being so I wasn’t too alarmed, but I also had no idea where I was, so I figured I should remedy at least one of those two situations.
What followed was a high-speed wander through several new sections of the mall I hadn’t stumbled into before as I, with increasing urgency, tried to figure out #1, how to get out and #2, where in the world I had left my car.
What would have already been a pretty big challenge was heightened by the need to ignore the siren song of all the other unexplored universes of the mall I kept catching out of the corner of my eye as I tried to figure out if this was the Gucci I came in at or if it was one of the 18 other Guccis.
Hustling through the crowds of people who have never, ever experienced the need to hustle, in time I eventually found my way out of the mall. And into a below-ground area where my car was absolutely not parked. Arg. back into the mall.
Eventually I found the right anus of the mall that shat me out to where my car was impatiently waiting. Piled in and pulled out. As I steered into the ramp that headed up out of the underworld, a guy in a headscarf driving a spotless Range Rover came out of nowhere and swerved in front of me, cutting me off. He shot me a glare while I was laughing and I suddenly realised he almost certainly had enough money in his pocket, in that moment, to pay to have me killed.
Curving up the parking ramp, I paused behind a Lexus that had stopped for no apparent reason. Then I sat and watched as the driver of the Lexus slowly, hesitantly, and awkwardly proceeded to drive her car over the foot-high concrete median and into the oncoming traffic lane going the wrong way, and then happily motor away. What the? I continued to drive out the way you were supposed to, which took the same amount of time and which is why I’ll never be a billionaire.
I Street Fightered my way through Kuwait City traffic and made it to the airport with a few minutes to spare. My Nepalese car rental return guy used those minutes up by writing down a bunch of places I should visit when I get to Nepal and how his family would take care of me, a delay I didn’t mind at all. Man, I can’t believe I didn’t jack up that car, I almost said out loud in an unguarded moment.
Wow. That was a fun and magical couple of days. Not bad. I’d even go so far as to say that was one of my favorite weekend trips ever. Take that, Kuwait haters!