When I first accepted the job in Kuwait, I didn’t have a lot of time to really think about what I was about to do. I phoned friends and family to let them know that I was moving to the Middle East – most of whom did the whole “nervous laugh” thing. Looking back, I’d have laughed as well. I had no idea what would be in store…
I’m one of those people who commits to crazy things at the last possible minute so as to narrow the window of possibly backing-out. Take sky diving for example.
I’ve never sky dived but if someone approached me and said:
“Hey, wanna go sky diving later today?”
I’d probably say:
However if they asked me weeks ahead of time I’m 90% certain I would over-think, get nervous and be more likely to back out at the last minute.
Okay so that’s not a very good example. Translate the above on to what started my Kuwait adventure. That will make a bit more sense. Possibly.
I had less than one week after accepting a job offer to pack up my life before boarding a plane. Better? I’ll move on…
Population: 3.4million (1/3 of whom are Kuwaiti)
Climate: Hot; Dry
Popular pastimes: Shopping; Eating; Shisha; Camel Racing
city country; one that’s always in the centre fold of any atlas. A tiny state nestled safely between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, with the Arabian Gulf to the East.
They have a restaurant called “The Chocolate Bar”, need I say more?
Oh Kuwait, you definitely do food. You might not produce anything much besides dates and sheep, but you do food good. It’s no wonder people build their lives around it out there. Think American portions, but bigger. To be honest, I’m surprised I lost so much weight (3 stone!!!!!) during the year.
One week in to my time there, I met up with Nikki for lunch with a couple of other newly-made friends. As Nikki had already been in KW for a few weeks I took her advice and we shared the grilled chicken. What arrived consisted of four different “flavours” of grilled chicken, served on a bed of sliced cucumber and tomatoes, a mountain of chips, some pickled vegetables (a staple in the desert), choice of three dipping sauces, a tank of pepsi, one bottle of water and some Arabian flat breads.
It was cheaper to eat out than buy fresh food to cook at home, a factor responsible in part for the cafe culture that exists so prominently in KW. It’s too hot during the day most days to do much, so you’ll notice the shopping malls, marinas and other public places come alive after 6pm. You won’t walk down a street without seeing men and women sitting outside, eating dinner and smoking the extremely popular Shisha.
I’ll be honest, the “foodie” culture of Kuwait made me happy. The affordability of it all made me even happier (unless you want to buy vegetables, then you need to re-mortgage your house). I could talk for hours about the variety of foods available, instead I’ll leave you with a list of my favourites from the year:
- Hummus – in the Middle East, this constitutes a meal. Well, part of. No pre-packed hummus comes CLOSE
- Baba Ghanoush – the aubergine-based twin of hummus
- Fattoush (salad with pomegranate, mint and flat-bread “croutons”)
- Shish Taouk – Grilled meats with various spices
- Fatayer – FEED ME THIS NOW. Basically Arabian pizza.
- Baklava – because.
- Everything – (let’s face it, KW is a nation of foodies, it’s all good)
If you DO decide to cook at home (something my friendship group opted for most of the time) there are plenty of places to shop. Again, every world food you can think of (besides pork) can be found in most stores. My favourite though, was the Souk Al-Mubarakiya. A half-day out in itself it houses, amongst other things, a meat market, fish market, fruit and veg market and an abundance of stalls selling herbs, spices, sweets and other dried or pickled goods. Bargaining is essential here as they see “westerner” and charge more. That plus everyone secretly enjoys the banter!
Annnnd if that wasn’t enough, almost every food establishment DELIVERS! We would often order our lunch in the morning and have it delivered to work. Fro-yo became my bff as we entered summer (yes, there was a “winter” as well) in addition to our dessert of choice, galaxy chocolate ice creams. Nom.
If you ever visit Kuwait, you certainly won’t go hungry.
Kuwait is a dry country. Yes, you heard me right. There’s no alcohol in Kuwait. Not that it’s much of a problem (although as a teacher, there are days…).
What WAS a problem, in the beginning at least, was the milk. Some witty bugger obviously thought it wise/funny to bottle cow’s milk in exactly the same styled packaging as camels milk and yogurt. Imagine my confusion upon adding “milk” to my cup of tea, only to then see flaccid curdles of yogurt floating about. Yummy. Still, you only make that mistake once.
One of the best things about travelling and working abroad is the people you meet from all corners of the world. One of the worst things about travelling and working abroad is the people you meet from all corners of the world.
My year in Kuwait brought home to me the fact that, wherever you are, humans are humans. Each individual is different, yet people are all the same. The same drama that you witnessed in high school will rear its ugly head in adulthood. The same care, kindness and support that you encounter within your home community will also be found the other side of the world. Culturally different, but still the same.
There’s an unusual hierarchy system in Kuwait that is a tough pill to swallow at first. Sadly, you get used to it, but there’s no disguising the fact that the expat workers from India, Bangladesh and S.E Asia are the lowest class citizens, working for the Kuwaiti elite who run the place. The rest of us fit somewhere in the middle, though as a female naturally I place in the lower portion of that. Unless you’re a teacher, in which case it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’re nestled in the middle with the rest of us (though the male-female bias still stands). As I said, unusual, but you do get used to it.
From day one, I met some incredible people in Kuwait. When you land in a country that is in every way foreign to you, it’s normal to gravitate towards what you know when you see it. Upon arriving at my apartment I quickly found a group of fellow teachers congregated in a neighbouring flat, hailing from the UK, Ireland, Egypt and the USA, some of whom would become part of my “Kuwaiti family” as the year wore on and would be the best support group during challenging times. Throughout the rest of the year my social circle (thankfully) moved away from work. It’s incredibly difficult to live and socialise with the people you work with.
My year in Kuwait opened my eyes to a lot of things, where until now I realise I was naive. I no longer trust people in the same way I did before, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I still see the best in everyone and am friendly towards all I meet, I’ll just take more time getting to know people before regarding them as friends. Nothing really to do with Kuwait, just a lesson I happened to learn out there.
On the whole though, most people I met were friendly and welcoming. Aside from being stared at (and followed) by some men for having ankles, I felt safe and comfortable. My “Kuwait family” are some of the best people I know and I miss them a LOT.
Work is work is work. I spent the year teaching 3-4yr olds at an International school. As with all teaching, the time spent with the children was great! The rest (and sadly more dominant aspect of the job) not so much. It was a big school, with eighteen…yes, EIGHTEEN Early Years classes.
I’ll never forget that first day with the children. 25 tiny people who didn’t speak English were suddenly my responsibility! I had the “new” class, which meant there was no furniture and no resources readily available. It made setting up the classroom a tad challenging as I found myself asking complete strangers if I could borrow some of their resources until mine arrived (which they did, in February).
Despite the stress of it all, it turned out to be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. To take a bunch of children, many of whom – I was told by other teachers – had been rejected before (nice) and guide them towards becoming the kind, considerate, close-knit class that they became was amazing…and that’s not even including their (excellent) academic progress!!
One of my proudest moments was when one of my girlies had a mini meltdown as the activity she wanted to do was full. Upon hearing our conversation, one of my boys stood up, fetched a chair for her and then continued with what he was doing. A) they were 4 years old, B) English is their second language, C) if you understand the culture, you will know that a boy doing that for a girl is amazing. I was SO proud.
We were lucky enough to have THE best P.E teacher in the Early Years department, Susanna. She knew exactly what the children needed and worked so well with them – sure, my kids were scared of her in the beginning (I remember being scared of my PE teacher way back when!) but by the end of the year they adored her. We all did! I became very good friends with her and her family as the year went on. She was an asset to the school.
We were also EXTREMELY lucky to have Ally as our Deputy Head of Early Years. Without question she held the department together and was the one running the place…
(Just as well, as the actual Head of EY didn’t have the first clue what she was doing. In fact we’re all certain most of her time was spent bitching about her staff to the head of the school and making us all feel like shit. Not once during the year did she observe me teach, yet she dished out insults and negative comments on an almost daily basis – despite me providing her with planning on day one as she hadn’t prepared any. When she wasn’t in school, the rest of us had a far more enjoyable time. Even the parents and children would comment on things, with one mum asking me why Ms Ally wasn’t the Head. Speaks volumes…and I’m being complimentary… Sour grapes? Definitely. I’m not usually the sort to hold grudges, but that woman made my life hell throughout the year and got away with it. Never before nor since have I met such a horrible person. My blog, my rants. C’est fin.)
…there was no such thing as a “free minute” with Ally, yet she was the most supportive manager anyone could ask for. We became good friends and I had been looking forward to working with her again this year, as she is now the Head of an up and coming International school elsewhere in KW. I miss them, but am glad to hear Ally and Susanna are doing well and enjoying their new jobs!
I was very fortunate to have a lovely, supportive group of parents. To hear them ask if I would teach their child again next year – or their younger children as and when they reach school age – was the biggest compliment. Happy class + happy parents = happy teacher.
Work is work. It’s what I went out there to do. I often wonder how my kiddos are getting on this year and continue to wish them all the best as they journey through education ❤
Madness. That’s the best way to describe driving in Kuwait.
I trusted taxi drivers in the same way I trust pilots. When you get on the road you, quite literally, put your life in their hands.
See this excerpt from a travel wiki site below:
In addition to this, seatbelts are an option in KW. In fact, many taxis don’t even have seatbelts. It’s not surprise then that there are reports on a daily basis of accidents throughout the country. A five seater car doesn’t mean only five people can travel…ohhh no, the number of passengers a car can take is at the complete discretion of the driver. Babies are often seen upon the laps of the driver so as to avoid being squished in the back. Where do the nannies sit? Well there’s always the boot/trunk of the car. As I said previously, some things you never get used to, rather you
learn to live with ignore it.
Whilst Kuwait does apparently have quite the range of wildlife, they reside mostly in the desert so go unnoticed. To be honest, the only animals I saw the entire year were cats and camels. Feral cats are everywhere in Kuwait; a problem for most countries, but in Kuwait it’s the preferred alternative to rats. I’ll take that. Still, the noise cats make when in heat will haunt me forever and I don’t recall a single occasion where I was able to walk past a dumpster without fearing for my life. If one had chosen that moment to jump out and accidentally claw my face off resulting in my needing rabies injections, I’d have been a mad mo fo. Again, it’s a sight you soon got used to, though it took everything in me not to adopt every kitten I saw.
Then there’s the camels. Highly valued in Kuwait, there was more upset when a camel was accidentally killed by a motorist than when a man was killed in a similar incident. Camels are to Kuwaitis what Horses are to Brits. They love them and, to be honest, I can see why…
…which brings me on to Camel racing. Extremely popular, Kuwaitis take this sport very seriously. Children used to be the jockeys, however they now use small robots. The first sign that a race has begun comes in the form of dust clouds developing on the horizon. Camel owners follow their stock in four-by-fours along an adjacent track, whilst camels are categorised for racing based on size, age and breed. It’s serious business, but hugely entertaining (would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting such countries!) – the most entertaining bit has to be the scramble to catch the camels once they pass the finish line. Rather them than me, that’s for sure!
On the odd occasion, we would visit one of Kuwait’s many shopping malls (the largest being The Avenues), in addition to spending time bowling, at a beach club or eating out somewhere. Most of our free time, however, was spent in Colin and Doug’s apartment watching films, putting the world to right, eating freshly made dinners and drinking copious amounts of tea. The occasional party happened, but for the most part we spent time enjoying each other’s company, playing board or card games, darts, mini table tennis and attempting fitness with yoga mats and resistance bands. It’s not often you meet a group of people who have similar interests, tastes and sense of humour to you, so when you do find said people, it’s easy enough to make your own entertainment.
My friend Valentina organised a boat trip for the beginning of May – helping her prepare things and then the trip itself was one of the most fun things I did out there. It was the one time during the entire year where I got sun burnt, but that didn’t ruin it. Definitely the way to go when living in Kuwait!
One final thing people often do for fun when living in Kuwait, is leave Kuwait. I did some amazing travelling whilst living out there, including my trip to Thailand. Flights across to places like Bahrain and Dubai are relatively inexpensive, with many people spending their weekends away. It’s true when they say people in the Middle East jump on planes like they do buses in the UK!
And there’s SO much more…
Towards the end of my time there, I began to notice more and more gems of culture that you would only really discover by immersing yourself fully in Kuwaiti life. Many western expats don’t do this, rather they do as I did this year. Stick together, venture out to eat, go to the beach, go shopping if you enjoy the same ol’ sort of thing. The last few months in Kuwait were the best for me and I was excited at the prospect of returning in September. Had I returned, I had a game plan. Friends – check. Job – check. Familiarity with necessities required to survive – check. I was ready to delve deeper, to get more involved, to build a life out there, however temporary.
It wasn’t to happen this time around and there are plenty of days I regret the decision not to go back. However then something happens…extremists in neighbouring Iraq influence that many more people. Only a few days ago they advised supporters to kill all American teachers in the middle east. Fortunately their supporters are still few and far between, but then one American teacher was killed in Abu Dhabi whilst in the toilets of a shopping mall. My sister immediately sent me a message exclaiming that that was why she didn’t want me going back. I get it. It’s not a safe region at the moment, regardless of the friends I have out there who tell me otherwise. I would have been selfish to go ahead, knowing how worried my relatives would have been on a daily basis. So yes, I miss it, but it was the right decision – for me – not to go back right now.
That said, I would love to explore more of the Middle East in the future!!!! The world is becoming a more dangerous place, but the majority of people are good, kind, welcoming people. There is an entirely different world of culture in the Middle East that was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It changed me for the better and opened my eyes to the M.E way of life where I thought I already had an awareness.
Kuwait, you may have given me bronchitis (due to dust in the air), but I still appreciate you. I actually miss you, which is strange to admit. You also have an unintentionally great sense of humour…
To anyone considering visiting that region in the future – be sensible, respect their culture, stay safe, but do it. I can not recommend it highly enough.