Kuwait to Jordan, home of the dodgy taxi driver

Not a lot to do today. Bob was working but had arranged to take a half day so that he could show me a little more of the Gulf before dropping me at the airport. I woke a little later than I intended and had some brekkie before donning my trunks and plodding down to the pool.

There were two other women down there with Aurelie: one American and one from Goole, not a gazillion miles from Bradford. And her husband a devoted Toon-following Geordie. I checked – it wasn’t the same guy I met yesterday! The American lady had two cute little dachshunds that barked at anyone who moved past them. Cute as buttons and completely soft once you made it obvious that a 6-inch high dog didn’t intimidate you.

While a lot of you would have been settling into your chairs at work, I was splashing in the pool, playing with dogs and taking a sauna. What a shame…

All too soon, Bob came home and it was time to pack for the trip to the airport. We drove a long route around up and down the coastline looking at some pretty amazing buildings (and the full range of fast food restaurants).

My final treat was the obligatory KFC in the restaurant I’d spotted when I arrived. Bob and Aurelie probably think I’m mad for wanting KFC in every country I visit but it’s a habit I started and I intend to keep it up wherever I can! With seconds to spare I located a cheap bookshop selling even cheaper postcards and got them winging their way homeward. I apologise in advance for the poor quality and lack of text on them but I was short of time and they were the only ones I could get!

Check-in, passport control and security were a lot better than I had been led to expect. The only confusion came when it turned out two flights were leaving at the same time from the same gate, which caused me minor panic when I thought I was at the wrong place with seconds left.

Royal Jordanian were to be today’s carrier and I was impressed. Possibly the best-looking stewardesses to date, really good food and four seats to myself. I almost wish the flight could have been longer.

Jordan was altogether a different experience to entering Kuwait. The visa was just as quick to sort, though involved a barrage of questions (“where have you come from, what is your address in Jordan, how long are you staying, why are you here…”) but passport control themselves were a nightmare. It took almost an hour to get through the queue and that was with every single desk manned. I had the same barrage of questions and also had to put my thumb onto a sensor thingy so it was registered.

Still, I got in. Only to find that I’d just missed the express bus into town and had an hour to wait for the next one. The guy at the counter became my friend for the duration which was pleasant, and he showed me onto the bus when it finally arrived.

Then things got a bit bizarre. The guy sat behind me kept asking my name and trying to get me to talk into his phone. When the bus finally arrived at Al Abdali station, he said I had to go back to the airport as my friend was waiting for me or something. The fact that I didn’t know anyone at the airport seemed lost on him. I just walked off into a crowd of argumentative taxi drivers each insisting that my hotel was a gazillion miles away and that I needed to hire them.

In fairness, it was a fair walk so I picked one who undercut his buddy by half a dinar (the fare on a meter would probably be half that again, but we’re talking 10p here). What I didn’t appreciate was the drive taking ten minutes when it should have taken two as he attempted to convince me that my hotel was full. The conversation went a little like this:

“I have number of your hotel. Let me call. *beep beep beep* Hello, is that HOTEL SULTAN? Are you fully booked? Yes? Hold on.”

I was given the phone.

“Hello, Hotel Sultan reception.”

“Yes, whatever. I have a booking with you for tonight.”

“I am sorry, but we’re full.”

“That will be because I’m taking up one of your rooms.”

“What name is the booking in?”

“John Smith.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have that name.”

“I know, I just made it up. Just the way you’re making up being a hotel receptionist. I’ll pass you back to your friend. Please tell him to take me to the hotel I’ve already paid for and not to try and rip me off or I won’t pay him. Thank you.”

I think he got the hint. A couple of half-hearted attempts to get me to go to the Palace Hotel (which I’ve heard isn’t too bad, actually) fell on deaf ears and he reluctantly dropped me at the Hotel Sultan.

On entering, I knew for a fact I’d been talking to a ringer on the phone as the guy on reception barely spoke English. They had to get a guest from Georgia out to speak to me so that I could confirm I’d already booked. Even then, the dropped me in a double room when I’d booked into a 4-bed dorm. This didn’t seem to make sense to the otherwise nice guy at the desk so I settled in and went for a quick walk.

I located a cybercafe, printed out my original booking and the hotel listing from HostelWorld and walked back. They still didn’t help, but the chap rang his boss who did speak very good English. He told me to accept the double room at the rate I’d originally agreed on and they’d move me the next day. That’s fine by me. I couldn’t be bothered arguing about the lack of wireless access which featured prominently as one of their selling points. Maybe tomorrow if I saw the manager.

So, to bed. My third night in a row in a comfy double. Not too shabby.

Hotter and drier than a hot and dry thing

The plan today was simply to chill and get a good night’s sleep before Aurelie took me around Kuwait city to see the limited sights. It’s not a huge place by any stretch and construction is underway all over, though certainly not on the scale of Dubai.

After a simple breakfast where Aurelie tried to make me eat three times more than I usually do, I was convinced to take a bottle of water (sensible woman) and we caught a taxi to the Kuwait Towers. These three spires are impressive despite their age. One is a simple spike, one has a globe halfway up containing up to one million gallons of water and the third has two spheres: a viewing platform in one and a restaurant in the other. We rode a swift elevator up to the viewing platform and had a wander round.

Unfortunately, again due to the sandstorm, the windows were somewhat gritty. I’d hate to be the guy who has to get out there and clean them. The upshot is that the view wasn’t as amazing as I’m sure it can be, and my photos aren’t great but they are good enough. Pictures on the wall show the damage done by the Iraqis when they invaded all those years ago. Going by the language used in the plaques, there’s no love lost between the nations. It does come as a surprise that the Iraqis didn’t destroy the towers completely, instead settling for a load of childish vandalism, but that’s pretty much what they did with the oil fields when they pulled out as well.

Back at ground level we hailed another cab and headed mall-wards for lunch. Another huge meal, this time Texas Fries. This is essentially a near-solid brick of chips, cheese and mincemeat with chilies. It’s delicious and stupidly filling – and on the menu as a starter.

We had a walk around the few shops that were open. Most of the trading kicks off around 4pm in Kuwait, so the majority were closed. To while away the time, we crossed to another mall for dessert at a French-style coffee shop. I had the most delicious berry pie and watched some men sweep away all the sand that was darkening the huge pool where a musical fountain features in the evening.

While in a supermarket picking up some groceries I heard a very familar accent and accosted a Geordie to ask where he was from. We exchanged a few words and he went on his way. We do get everywhere…

As the shops opened, we walked over to the older bazaar area. There are an amazing number of gold stores around there, all selling huge, chunky bracelets and necklaces. Definitely not something I’d buy, but there’s a huge market for it in Kuwait – all very bling. There must be four blocks where all the ground floor shops sell jewelery.

Evening was approaching and we caught a taxi back to the flat before Bob got in from work. It was when we got back that I discovered that my watch was an hour out. I have no idea if I didn’t change it when I landed or if the battery’s getting dodgy. As we’d returned comparatively late, I didn’t have time to jump in the pool but not to worry. There was always tomorrow and I had a lot to do online. I was fortunate to catch Noa on MSN and she gave me a ton of pointers on how to get to Israel and where to stay. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing her again in a few days to thank her for all her efforts!

Tonight I talked to my other US-based cousin before collapsing into my wonderfully comfy bed. Two nights in a row with a nice room. Top notch!

Rushing round Dubai… then rushing to Kuwait

I woke early the following day to be taken around Dubai in a minibus. Breakfast was included in my “rent” and was quite passable.

I’d really wanted to go to Wild Wadi, the water park, but didn’t meet anyone at the hostel to go with – until I was waiting for the minibus to arrive for the tour. A shame, but perhaps I’ll go back another day. It was also annoying because the tour bus arrived over an hour late. This is a big waste of time when you’re only in a country for two days.

Finally, we set off with our cramped transport attempting to deal with the horrendous Dubai traffic. A major issue with Dubai is a lack of stopping or parking places for tourist vehicles. As a result, we were literally clicking like loons at the windows to get photos instead of being able to step out and take decent pictures. What I first thought was bad pollution also didn’t help when trying to take pictures of distant buildings, but I found out there had been bad sandstorms a day or so earlier, which was causing the foggy appearance.

Remember that Indian guy from the mall yesterday? Well, he’s from West London. He just got married to a lovely young lady who was with him and they were heading for Mauritius. I know this because he was on the same city tour! Small world, indeed.

We did see some impressive structures and managed 30 minutes at the Dubai Museum which was quite interesting. Set in an old fort, it looks tiny on first appearance until you see a door taking you to “new exhibits”. They are buried below the original fort and cover maybe three times the surface area. And they’re air-conditioned which was welcome.

The only other actual stops were on the Creekside and near the Burj Al Arab hotel (the big sail-like one that costs a mortgage per night to stay in). We drove closer to that hotel, but couldn’t get in – it’s £30 entrance fee to walk onto the grounds let alone stay there. We also saw the Trade Centre and Emirates Towers buildings, the Gulf Air owner’s “house” (I thought it was another town, it was so huge), construction on what it to be the world’s tallest building (Burj Dubai) and the outside of the only mosque that foreigners can enter.

One part we zoomed around at near neck-breaking speed was the under-construction “Palm – Jumeirah”, an artificial island structure being built out into the Arabian Gulf and effectively a small trial run for the much larger Palm Deira further east. In addition to these mental undertakings is another group of artificial islands somewhere between them called The World. The islands here look like a map of the earth when viewed from the air. I so wish I could afford to buy the UK island. I’d build my toilet where Sunderland would be located.

With that, we started dropping people off. I was the last one on the bus and got dropped off almost an hour later than I should have been again due to the traffic. At the hostel, it was recommended that I leave soon to ensure there would be no such traffic problems getting me to the airport. I wasn’t flying out of the nearby DBX where I’d landed, but instead around 20km away from Sharjah. Sharjah is a smaller town with its own international airport from where budget airlines Jazeera and Air Arabia fly. Much, much cheaper than anyone I could get a ticket from DBX for.

As it turns out, there was no traffic at all between Dubai and Sherjah so I got there with a ton of spare time. A shame they didn’t have wireless but I did get all my photos off my camera and burned to CD ready for mailing home at the next opportunity.

So, onto another aeroplane. Destination: Kuwait, number 15.

Surprisingly, a much better flight than the Emirates on of a couple of days ago. Air Arabia definitely get my recommendation! I wasn’t too impressed with Sherjah airport, though. Admittedly it’s somewhat under construction, but the Costa charges UK prices for their sandwiches and some bright spark seemed to think it made sense to provide a smoking room and then wedge the doors open on it so that one wing absolutely stank. Plus one of the toilets had paper in them despite having western loos and toilet roll holders. Not good.

Still, I’ve seen worse. I’ve paid money to live in worse. And it was only a couple of hours before I jumped onto that pleasant aircraft and another two before I touched down on Kuwaiti tarmac.

Now, I’ll be honest. I’m like a lot of people who hadn’t heard of Kuwait until a certain Saddam decided to march into it and try to steal all the oil back around 1990. As such, it was just another Middle East warground to me and a bit at the back of my mind was still expecting bullet-pocked walls, desert, and men with camels everywhere. What I wasn’t expecting was a swift run through immigration, a very small charge for a visa and to walk into an airport that looked more like a shopping mall with glistening tiles and chrome everywhere. And a KFC.

I was hoping to meet my uncle Bob in the airport (there are a lot of Bobs, Roberts and Robbies in my family) as I’d emailed him the day before to expect me. However, I know he’s busy and doesn’t check his email too regularly so I made a call to the number I’d been given. The nice Kuwaiti woman who answered didn’t seem too annoyed that I’d got the wrong number. Argh.

My next plan was to find somewhere I could make an international call back home to get the right number when I heard a broad Kentuckyan drawl over my shoulder. “Well, goddamn, that must be you. Nobody else in this country could get away with wearing those shorts!”

So that’s how Bob greets the first visitor he’s had in Kuwait since he moved there to work 8 months ago. No wonder people aren’t bothering to fly over! Seriously, it was great to see the guy again. I honestly can’t remember the last time we met – I’d hazard a guess at around 16 years ago at my cousin Avril’s wedding. She’s the one who’s now in Brisbane.

Bob had found me, but lost his wife Aurelie. Finally, we spotted her, we exchanged our hellos and made our way out of the airport to Bob’s nice company-provide 4×4. Sadly, Kuwait had suffered the same sandstorms as Dubai recently, so the air was really hazy. A shame as I’m told the views of the Gulf are phenomenal most of the time.

Our first stop was a Ruby Tuesday where Bob and Aurelie insisted on force-feeding me a pretty nice steak. I was a bit of a pushover when it came to being convinced, I confess. I think this was the same restaurant chain Hans and I ended up in in Mumbai before going to see Blood Diamond, and I recall them being stupidly expensive (for India) and the pizza was rubbish. No complaints here.

Night had closed in when we got to the flat. Wow. Half the third floor of a tower block and my room was about the size of the lounge in my old house. Free internet, a kitchen, a balcony with a (hazy) view of the Gulf, a gym, pool, sauna, 250-channel telly… I began to regret only having two days here.

Courtesy of Bob’s laptop, I spoke to my mother and one of my cousins in the US. You’ve got to love Skype and NetPhone.