On assignment in the Middle East, Mike Manhatton has a close encounter with these often-misunderstood creatures in the Kuwaiti desert.More >>
A visit to Kuwait is always a little odd for us Westerners. But this trip is more than a little strange. My visit with the 4th Brigade Combat Team was just about as expected. You've heard the highlights already in earlier postings. But somehow this visit is different.
I think it started at the airport. In case you're considering following my trail, coming to Kuwait for a visit, save your dinar (the Kuwaiti version of the dollar), and rest up. I left the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport Monday afternoon at 2:30. Well, I was supposed to. The flight delayed, departure wound up almost ninety minutes later. No problem. The leg to Washington, DC uneventful, the next to Frankfurt, much the same. But not quick. By Savannah time, I've now been travelling for some 13 hours.
There's a long wait at Frankfurt and while it's a big, interesting airport, it's not exactly comfortable. Crowded waiting areas, hard seats and even the traveler's resting area, with closer to lounge chairs, is right on a major path between gates and a terminal hub, always buzzing with conversations and a sound I've now grown to hate, hard rolling suitcase wheels on a hard rubbery tile floor. So much for napping. Eyes closed, teeth gritted. Did I mention it's a five and a half hour layover?
When I get on the next flight, it's just before 9, Tuesday morning back home in Savannah. Another long flight ahead, a little napping and arrival at my destination, Kuwait City. It's 9 Tuesday night here, and back in Savannah, friends and family are settling in for the second half of their workday. Yep, it's 2 in the afternoon, a full 24 hours since I sat waiting at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport. Did I mention I haven't made it to my hotel yet?
Kuwait City's international airport is about as international as it gets. Yes, men in traditional Arabian robes and headgear, prayer beads in one hand, cell phone usually in the other. Sometimes a glowing light underneath the headwear. Bluetooth is everywhere.
Everywhere around the airport, people from other places. Often East Indian, Pakistani, Pilipino, all here, far from home, for better paying jobs than they can find back home. It's colorful, that's for sure. Sikhs with turbans, Kuwaiti women with heavy head scarves. Including some working at the Immigration counters every traveler must pass through. In my dozen or more trips to Kuwait, I don't ever remember seeing a woman working at those counters. Obviously, I'm no Middle Eastern expert, and can't be sure, but they were certainly Arabic looking women.
Another thing we as Americans don't expect. Women drivers. Contrary to some other places in the region, Kuwait does have women drivers. Plenty of them. I wouldn't put a number on it, but in one long stroll to a decent size Kuwaiti mall, I noticed a woman behind the wheel every few cars. Certainly not as many as we're used to, but enough to make me think it's not the big deal it once was. Somewhat disconcerting, they often drive wearing the traditional black head scarf and veil pulled across their faces from nose to neck, leaving only the eyes exposed. A blindfold in reverse? I have enough trouble keeping my glasses perched on my nose some days; I hate to think of trying to keep that small window to the world open in the crazy traffic.
The traffic is crazy. Interstate speeds on city streets, looking a little like NASCAR in truly stock machines. From torn up Toyotas to brand new Bentleys, they drive everything you can imagine. And some things you can't. That same evening I walked to the mall, my last night in the country, I heard an unusual engine roar. Not a truck or a Lamborghini, but somehow familiar. I turned to the road, and it got louder. There, right in the middle of the Mercedes and Pajero, a plain jane (maybe plain jack) all terrain vehicle. Some guy was cranking out all the horses he could to compete, to keep up with those speedsters and sport utes, and keep from becoming a big greasy spot on somebody's bumper. Whooping like a mud bogger going through somebody else's' field at midnight, he roared, no lights and less sense along Arabian Gulf Road.
Saw some other interesting sights you wouldn't expect. As I walked up to the mall along the gulf front, I noticed a delivery truck parked along an access road. Something familiar about the pattern and color scheme, but I couldn't quite place it. Until I got closer. When did Krispy Kreme start delivering to Kuwait City? No, I didn't notice if the "hot" light was on anywhere.
Same strange in the mall. Sure, many of the stores have similar products, even a few fast food outlets. But around one curve, Kuwait threw me a curve. A sign for a sit down restaurant, and as I got near, I realized, it was Applebee's.
As much as things are familiar, there's still a very different feel in a foreign country. My first night back in Kuwait City from the camps, I turned on the TV for my long- awaited news fix. Right to one of the networks, and even on a weekend night, they were covering a breaking story. A big breaking story. Martial law in Pakistan. You've probably heard it in the headlines, maybe even dug a little deeper. But sitting in a hotel in Kuwait City, just across the Arabian Gulf, a slice of Iran, and some desert, just 1,400 or so miles away, it hits quite a bit closer to home. Especially as I realized just how many people around me, from the hotel staff to the servers in the restaurants and clerks in the stores call Pakistan home. If they have cable or satellite TV where they live, and were watching this, they'd have to be worried. They're working hard, overseas, in many cases sending much of their earnings back home to support family. What would martial law mean to them? Were any of their families in the video I was watching? Confused crowds facing soldiers in the streets? Would they have to go home? Or would the worst happen, and more fighting break out in another world hotspot and another group of people wonder if they had homes to go to?
I also thought of another trip, five years ago, in the early stages of the War on Terror. Then travelling with retired Marine Corps General Steve Cheney. Having served around the world, and at Parris Island, he knows quite a bit about the world situation, from many sources. I remember as we stood on the flight deck of the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, as they say, "somewhere in the Arabian Sea..." the general musing about the planes we were watching take off, and the place they were going. Afghanistan. We were chasing down the Taliban, Beaufort Marine aviation assets flying sorties across the region. At the time, General Cheney was concerned about Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, and whether or not another general, Pervez Musharrif could hold things together long enough to support American interests in the corner of his country where it touches Afghanistan. The spot, where even now we think Osama bin Laden might be hiding.
It's also a reminder of how complex the region is, and how alliances can change. Bin Laden's caves at Tora Bora, Americans helped build them when bin Laden was helping fight the Soviet Union. About the same time Saddam Hussein was our friend, since he was waging a brutal, Pyrrhic war against Iran. Which was then lead by a charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, whose leadership in absentia, from France, helped depose another of America's friends, the Shah of Iran.
With all that to think about, the quiet of my Kuwait City hotel room was comforting, especially knowing that one way or another our national leadership will be changing in the next year. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, the greatest comfort for me was that the change is almost guaranteed to be peaceful, and the American soldiers, like those of Hinesville's 3rd Infantry Division, those I'd just left in the desert on the first leg of the trip back to Baghdad, would not be armed in American streets, would not be taking the defeated party's leaders into custody, but instead would be defending freedom around the world, and protecting our right to peaceful change right here at home.