Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Turning 41 in Kuwait

I might as well write something about my visit to Kuwait City since the experience is still fresh in my head. Kuwait could be considered a softer version of Saudi Arabia with the anti-pork, porn, and alcohol laws. This year’s Senior Fine Arts EMAC (Eastern Mediterranean Activities Conference) was hosted by the American International School (AIS-Kuwait City, Kuwait) and in attendance was Dubai American Academy (DAA-Dubai, United Arab Emirates), American Community School (ACS-Beirut, Lebanon), and Schultz American School (SAS-Alexandria, Egypt). This would be the first of two EMAC trips this year. In April, Ana and I will travel to Dubai for Jr. Fine Arts.

Marwan showing off just one of his amazing talents

The way the conference works is that each school brings 20 students in addition to 3 coaches (teachers) to a hosting school. The visiting students will stay with a local family and coaches with another teacher and/or a school administrator.

Our departing day started with a slight change of airports. The original idea was to fly out of Alexandria; instead we were diverted to one on a military compound about an hour southwest of the city. The line getting into the airport is on par with that of an Egyptian supermarket; if you feel a sense of entitlement then you get to cut in front of everyone else. We weren’t always successful in holding our ground as a few people slipped through our human wall. I put a pair of tenth grade students (Marwan and Abdo) in charge of getting our boarding passes and taking care of the visa matters since they are pros at the process.

Once past customs, everyone headed to the duty free shop to buy gifts for their host families and I followed suit. My host would be receiving a bottle of contraband. When the time came we all piled on a bus and rode to the middle of the desert to board the plane. I tried to sweet talk the flight attendants into letting me sit first class since it was my birthday, my suggestion didn’t pan out in my favor as my initial window seat was changed to sitting between to two men who each dumped on a bottle of cologne before boarding. I’ll be sure to fail the student who stole my seat!      

When everyone still liked each other

We arrived in Kuwait City only to wait another hour to buy the remaining visas and to hunt down luggage. In the meantime, a student managed to drop her milkshake on the floor and proceeded to look at it for a few minutes, nope it wasn't going to pick itself up. As for the bottle of wine I had brought for my host, I managed to get through customs the first time but when we had to go back to look for our luggage I was nabbed and reprimanded. I asked the customs official if he was going to take the bottle home and drink it and he replied, “yes” from what I learned later that evening is that confiscated alcohol is usually given to the police to be sold on the streets. Sounds like a great racket to supplement the income.

The drama crazies

Two of the three amazing drama teachers I worked with

When we arrived at the school, the students were farmed out to their host families and I was delivered to mine. I was fortunate to be staying with the high school principal Blair Lee, his wife Kim and their two boys. All the visiting teachers and some of the admin went over to their place for a home cooked Thai meal, both the company and the food were excellent, everyone was very sympathetic to the bottle of wine that could have been. I met up with my students later for a nightcap of Pepsi, Red bull, chocolate, and coffee at an outdoor cafĂ© situated on the Arabian Gulf (note: calling it the Persian Gulf is fighting words in these parts, sort of like saying “Israel” when the correct term is “occupied Palestine” just goes to show you that political correctness is worldwide).

The hard(ly) working Schutz team

My new favorite sign

The Lee family was quite nice and gave me a key to their house so I could come and go as I pleased. I learned a lot about the culture, they had been residents of Kuwait for 6 years and had stories to tell. Accidents caused by speeding are a huge problem; the question is not “if” you get into accident it is “when” so they bought an SUV as their first line of defense. Flipped over car accidents are the sights to see as all the Kuwaitis get out of their cars to help flip the car back over. The roads did feel rather aggressive as I survived a couple of near hits in my taxi outings.

non-alcohol Bud-epic failure

The first morning of EMAC started with a tie-dye shirt activity where students had to first go around with a marker and write messages on the backs of other people’s conference shirts. Of course a couple of our suave male students took the opportunity to jot down their phone numbers and other shameless forms of flirtation. (I later learned that the concept of "hooking up" is totaled by the number of hugs they can get, the more hugs, the more of a stud you are) Later we broke off into our discipline areas and in drama we filled the remainder of the morning with icebreaker activities. After lunch we were sent with our groups (one student from each school) to work on a section of a play that Mr. Brown (the host drama teacher) had wanted drama to perform. It was called “The Hare Who Wanted to Be A Man.” A fine play it was. 

Some of Kuwait's crazy looking buildings

I have to say that I was quite proud of my group, we all worked hard and weren’t afraid to try unconventional ideas in creating an original interpretation of our play’s section. Our practice area was in an aerobics room filled with giant exercise balls and when we needed a break we pounded the crap out of each other dodge ball style. I even took delight in throwing oranges at the kids trying to make them fall off the bouncy balls. One of my students mentioned that she had Rice Krispies treats in her bag (BTW she is a full-on sugar addict) and I tired to bounce over to her bag to steal one and fell flat on butt. The worst part is she won’t let me live it down.

Sign outside a mosque

Our day usually stated at 8 am and ended twelve hours later. There were outings such as a field trips to the mall (Kuwait is littered with them) and to the souk. My evenings were spent with the Schutz kids, you’d figured that we’d be sick of each other company, but that was hardly the case. Our school is like a family (for better or worse) and they were kind enough to invite me to tag along with them…with that said you could say that no matter where we went trouble ensued when the bill arrived. Establishments feel like they could take advantage of a large groups teenagers by over charging us. Most places were rude and the final night at Sakura Japanese restaurant was epic to the point where I stood up and looked for the hidden camera, I was convinced that we were being filmed for an episode of Punk’d. Abdo was charged $40 for his Pepsi while I was charged $35 for a bowl of miso soup and a side salad. The manager “Victor” (yes, that is his real name, I even asked him where he got his name from) said that there was a minimum charge and that the price included everything on the menu except for beverages, so we all ordered more food only to be told that “we ran out of that” and “the kitchen will close in 10 minutes,” it was one excuse after another. It came to the point of being absurd where literally everyone in the restaurant was laughing hysterically; from the students, to the other patrons, to the staff…everyone was on board for this rare collective outburst. In my paranoid state I kept looking over my shoulder and poked my fork through the ice cream looking for hidden razor blades as I thought Victor hired an assassin to take me down. I told my students “if I die tonight, you’ll know why.” When we finally settled the bill Victor had the audacity to assume that we would be coming back and promised that our next visit would be a better experience, I politely assured him that we wouldn’t be returning. We camped out at our table well past closing reflecting on the conference and other matters while nibbling on our ice cream with the full wait staff staring us down.  

The infamous Kuwait Towers

Every country I have visited thus far I’ve picked up a cap to add to my dad’s extensive collection and Kuwait was no exception. I found a stall that had what I needed and a lady customer was impressed that I was buying some souvenirs of her country and she refused to let me pay. She told the shopkeeper that whatever I wanted was to be charged to her. I politely declined her generous offer, but she insisted and created a little goodie bag for me since I clearly didn’t pick out enough items. The best of the bunch were the button ribbon combo with pictures of Kuwait’s various kings. Could this have been the long overdue thanks for Operation Desert Storm…sorry that was another attempt at a joke in poor taste. 


Mosque by the school

The final gala event commenced with an art installation piece and tribal drum beats as the students broke out of their giant box and sprinkled glitter on everything within a ten-mile radius. The choir group followed with a nice diverse selection of songs. Drama was up next and the transition from one group to the next was seamless. The band ended the evening with their unique version of  “My Favorite Things;” the theme of the conference. The dinner was catered and it was the realization that the fun was coming to an end. I had met some amazing kids and adults and wished that it could go on for just a little bit longer. Mrs. Brown, the event organizer, the go-to person, the supplier of plug adapters and almonds and Ritz crackers, and the all around heart and soul of the conference really pulled it off. I said my farewells and walked back to the Lees exhausted and drained.

Mr. Greg!!!

The flight home was uneventful though we almost left a couple of girls behind at the airport because they were on their own time schedule. I'm sure Greg (the other coach) would have waited for them, he is much nicer and more forgiving than me. The 4 hour bus trip back from Cairo was the nail in the coffin. 

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