What we really think about living in Kuwait & the Middle East

Recently we’ve been asked by two different people about what it’s like in Kuwait. One was a potential hire and the other a friend of a friend who will be traveling here next month. I thought you might be interested in our responses since they aren’t things we talk to family & friends about as much. Some of the responses may be reiterated but it’s easiest to just copy & paste them for you.

From Jeff to potential hire:

Have you had the opportunity to travel around your area?  Outside your area? 
Working in Kuwait we have 4 major breaks per year and we travel for 3 of them, plus on our way  home to the states in June. We’ve gone to Greece, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Oman, South Africa, Germany, Iceland, Bahrain, Turkey and probably one or two more I’m forgetting. The opportunity for travel is incredible, and we take advantage of it every time we can.

How safe do you feel when traveling? 
Teaching abroad offers a different perspective on world events, untouched by American media. Working in the Middle East helps, too. Using this newfound “sense,” we only travel to places we deem safe enough to go. We’ve never felt unsafe anywhere we go, and are quite often surprised at how congenial and friendly people are of Americans. Omanis currently sit atop my list of friendliest people in the world, followed closely  by Sri Lankans. Ask me that a few years ago and I wouldn’t have been able to point either of those places out on a map. That being said, we’re never foolish enough to put yourselves in a bad position, so we’re already mindful of safety no matter what.

How safe do you feel around your school and home? Shopping, walking, ect.  Night, day..
As a white male, I feel extremely safe. The people in our community are, for the most part, very nice. They happily wave or greet me when I walk by, and I’ve developed a lot of friendly relationships with shop owners. Theft is an extreme sin in Islam, and people rarely, if ever, do it. At the grocery store I could leave my backpack and Lissa’s purse in our cart, walk away for 5 minutes to go find something, come back, and everything would still be there. There are many times I feel safer in Kuwait than I do in the US.

What are some experiences that you have had traveling in the places you have gone?  Good, bad…
We’ve only had good, and there’s almost too many to tell. I’ll share a few of my favorite and Lissa can share hers.

Our first night Kruger National Park in South Africa found us in an air conditioned hut a few hundred meters above a giant river full of talking hippos. We sat on our covered porch having drinks while dinner was cooking on the grill and the sun was going down. Although I had simple modern amenities, I felt very much in the African bush. It was amazing.

Another one of my favorite times was our last day in Greece. Our plane took off in the early afternoon, so we got up really early and hoofed it a half mile to the Acropolis. The sun was coming up and we had the place to ourselves. I’m always in awe of historical sites that were built by hand and the Acropolis was no exception.

In general, one of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place is to go on a run or walk with Lissa. We’ve found it’s one of the best ways to “see” a city for the first time. We also geocache, which is a fun game anywhere but especially when you travel :)

What have been some of your experiences with other cultures?
Oh man… just the other day, in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, I posted on Facebook how hard it is to reconcile the wonderful acts of the Muslims I interact with on a daily basis with those I see committing terror in the name of Islam abroad. Our experience in Kuwait has been eye opening, both good and bad. As white westerners, we’ve never felt in danger here. However, we’re in the top tier of citizens, right beneath Kuwaiti’s and other rich gulf arabs. We’ve seen some pretty atrocious attitudes towards the working class, and we can’t ignore the fact that human rights aren’t on the same level here as we’re accustomed to in the US. On a positive note, I’ve come into contact with so many unbelievably friendly people from numerous cultures that I would have never had the opportunity to before. I’ve mentioned Omanis and Sri Lankans as being some of the friendliest people on earth, but the arabs, muslims, and arab muslims I interact with every day are wonderful as well. I’ve become a culturally richer person with little to no threat to my safety.

What percent range of salary do you think you can save beyond daily expenses?
With our school’s package, we don’t pay taxes on our salary, rent, or utilities. Our expenses are food, internet and cellphones, and depending on your preferences, that can be extremely low. We are both enrolled in Master’s programs (which we pay for in cash), we are paying our undergrad student loans and and we still take (what feels like) exorbitant and luxurious vacations 3-5 times a year. We also have a maid that cleans our house once a week. It’s silly, really.

  • Kuwait is extremely family friendly.
    • There’s first class medical facilities with western doctors (and it’s cheap!)
    • Nannies, maids and even cooks to an extent are unbelievably cheap, easy to hire and extremely reliable. We pay ~$90 a month for a maid that comes once a week for 2-3 hours at a time. We guess we’d pay about that much for 1-2 hours in the states.
    • Everything is deliverable in Kuwait, and they have almost every western restaurant you could want. Out of coffee? Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Tim Hortons and Caribou will happily bring a latte to you. It’s amazing and lazy :)
    • There’s a distinct lack of green space here, so playing outside will be much, MUCH different than in the states.
  • Food is my favorite part of living abroad. I can get sushi, thai, sri lankan, indian and turkish without traveling more than a mile or so from my apartment – and that’s if I don’t want it delivered! Bonus; it’s astoundingly cheap. I can also get 4 feet of little ceasars pizza brought to my door if I need some good ‘ole fashioned american grub. I love trying food from the countries we visit, then finding restaurants that specialize in it in Kuwait.

From Lissa to potential hire:

  • We’ve also been to Dubai, Ethiopia and Tanzania for conferences (on our own dime). Next month I’ll be going to Qatar and then back to Istanbul in March. We’re planning Sri Lanka (again) for spring break and Paris on the way home in June.
  • In general I feel extremely safe here in Kuwait and abroad. My experiences as a woman are slightly different than Jeff’s. I feel comfortable walking in our neighborhood (and to the grocery store & gym about a mile away) by myself both during the day and at night. However I am extremely aware of my surroundings. I’ve been yelled and honked at from men in cars but it hasn’t felt much different than when I’ve been running down Capital Ave and get honked at. I have never felt threatened. That, however, does not mean that all women have had that same experience. We have had harassment incidents in our neighborhood but I’m not sure it would be any different in a big city. We live in a big city and need to continually be aware of what is happening around us and who is around us.
  • I don’t wear tank tops, shorts or low-cut shirts. I dress conservatively because it makes me more comfortable. I don’t make eye contact with people when I’m walking outdoors (but didn’t do that in France either). In general I stay more to myself while being 100% aware of my surroundings.
  • Another amazing experience we had was in Oman – Jeff found an Omani guy who owns a hut on the beach. We booked to stay with him for one night with my sister (who also teaches here), my mom, dad & two siblings in high school. We loved it so much we ended up staying two. On our first night we piled in his car and he took us to a beach where turtles lay their eggs. We slept on the floor of his hut with no locking doors. He also took us fishing on his boat (with no life vests, etc), we caught barracudas and then he grilled them up that night for dinner. We all hopped on the boat quickly when he told us there were dolphins – we drove through an enormous pod of dolphins (hundreds). My mom was a little uncomfortable at first but looking back it was one of our highlights of Oman. He ended up calling my mom ‘Mommy’ and we could have stayed for much longer.
  • I am all for women’s rights but neither of us have ever felt like we need to bite our tongue. Or even had to make the choice to bite my tongue. I’ve learned a lot about Islam since moving here – although it is a patriarchal society, women are a very important part of the family. One of the biggest insults you can give a boy at our school is to say something bad about any of the women in his family. Most men seem to feel a strong need to protect the women in their family. Women make the choice to cover – it is a decision between them and God. No one else is supposed to influence or affect their decision. They usually choose to cover because they want to keep their beauty for themselves and their husband.
  • In Saudi, women’s rights are severely restricted (must wear hijab & abaya, can’t drive, etc). For these reasons we have no desire to ever live there. In Kuwait it is more about your nationality than your gender. The working class is low on the totem pole and often isn’t treated well. That has been the biggest adjustment for me. However I do my part to treat the maids, drivers, etc well. It’s all I can do. There are only about 1 million Kuwaitis in a country of over 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to get Kuwaiti citizenship. Thus life can be difficult/frustrating here for other nationalities, especially the ones deemed not as good. Jeff and I believe strongly that life is what you make of it. We choose to be happy and see the good in life/people – but not everyone here does.
  • The biggest reason that I wear what I wear is out of respect for the culture. Their culture is more conservative than in the US and I acknowledge that. Christina and I run 3 mornings a week before school (you’d be welcome to join us!). When it is hot I wear shorts & short sleeve shirts. I’ve learned that the material matters here, not necessarily how much skin I’m showing! Sometimes we get honks from cars but this happens no matter what we are wearing. I also wear tight capris & leggings to run to walk to the gym. I know that if I’m going to wear something that is extremely tight and not cover my butt, I might get some stares. We are Western women in a Middle Eastern country. Just like we have stereotypes of them, they have stereotypes of us. They have seen all the American movies where women are portrayed as ‘easy.’ So they think that if they honk and say hi maybe we’ll be easy too. It gets HOT here. But I never wear tank tops or shorts (other than bermuda). I would rather be a little warm than feel out of place. Blond women & children are going to get more attention – people aren’t used to seeing that here (same goes for Asia). There are Arabs of all countries here. In general the Lebanese women wear whatever they want without regard for who sees them. This isn’t the choice I make. But some of the things I’ve seen moms at our school wear I wouldn’t wear in the States either. I’ve never felt judged or harassed by other women.

Lissa to visiting ‘friend':

I feel safer here than I do in most big US or European cities. Because of the harsh penalties for stealing, murder, etc, crime is very low here. I routinely leave my purse in my shopping cart and then walk away to grab something else. Although the media has sensationalized any news about Westerners being attacked in the Middle East, I have never felt threatened or fearful for my life. Or even close.
I choose to dress conservatively out of respect for the culture. The extent to most men’s (both workers & Kuwaitis) interaction with Western women have been Hollywood movies (where women aren’t always portrayed accurately). Even when it’s hot, I don’t wear tank tops or short shorts. In general I refrain from showing my shoulders, chest, & stomach. I don’t always cover my knees (Bermuda shorts and pencil skirts). I usually try not to wear anything too tight but I’ll wear skinny jeans with a loose top or loose bottoms w/ tight tops. For men, there really are no restrictions. They’ll be comfortable in shorts and t-shirts.

Headlines in Kuwait

We have officially started our 4-day weekend for National & Liberation holidays. Yay!

Every morning when I sign in at school there are newspapers on the desk. They are usually quite different than the headlines that I see in the US (or see friends/family posting). Today I thought you might like to see our headlines.



 They are both similar to and at the same time different than yours. Yes – the Middle Eastern countries are also fighting IS(IS).

Kuwait Blackout 2015

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday is family night. Jeff, Abby, Saud and I were enjoying our dinner when the lights flickered. Then the apartment went black. We thought it was just our building. However our view from the 15th floor told us it was way more widespread than that. It was black for miles and the traffic on the highway next to our apartment was all backed up.
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Our phones were dying. It luckily we have 20+ candles on our apartment to sustain us in these circumstances. We only had to use one because Bath & Body Works candles are so awesome. About 45 minutes to an hour later the power went back on. Turns out almost 80% of the country lost power. Here are some more articles to peruse.

Both fortunately and unfortunately we had school today. The dust blew in about 10am and the rest of the day was gross. Here’s hoping for a nicer weekend!
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One thing led to another

This morning when the alarm went off at 6am I was in no mood to get out of bed. Yesterday I worked on presentations until almost 11pm. I was exhausted!

But dang did it turn out to be a fantastic day! I co-presented with Abby for the first time – a ton of fun!

 

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Then we headed to our favorite event of the month – Qout Market. We met new vendors and visited some of our favorite vendors (now friends) in Kuwait.

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After we had soaked up the atmosphere, we headed to pick up the picture that Jeff & I got printed on canvas…but detours awaited us! First we found the Secret Garden (it’s actually not so secret). We’ve seen it on @mimikuwait‘s instagram a lot and have really wanted to go on a Saturday morning but haven’t made it a priority yet. WOW! I haven’t seen many pictures of the whole garden and didn’t know what to expect. It’s amazing!! And SO incredibly close to home.

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Our second detour was to check out @monstarium‘s latest project. Check out his pictures/videos for the making of! And it turns out a restaurant we want to try is just around the corner – looks gorgeous inside!

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We finally made it to pick up our picture. I’m in love. I was seriously jumping up & down when I saw it. It might be my favorite piece we own. I cannot wait to get it up on our wall!

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Here are some other new additions that we bought at the Christmas bazaar yesterday to get us in the holiday spirit (we’ll be home in 16 days!):

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It’s been the an absolutely beautiful weekend. Warm sun, cool air. My favorite time to be living in Kuwait. G’night everyone!

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Qout Market Love

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about Qout Market yet!

In my opinion, the atmosphere in Kuwait has changed a lot in the last 2+ years. I attribute it to the starting of Qout Market in November of 2013. Qout has helped move the underground culture above ground. New locally owned restaurants have opened, grocery stores have started carrying a larger variety of health food, other markets have started, there are shoot-off events like Nourish…it’s a beautiful thing!

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Qout Market is the 1st Saturday of every month from November to April and is open 9am-5pm. Abby and I have been in attendance at every market since the first one. We seriously love it. I could spend the entire day on the rooftop just walking around, soaking in the atmosphere. And of course eating delicious food! In my opinion, Qout Market doesn’t happen often enough!

2013-14 Qout Market season:

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There were a lot of upgrades this year. Everything just looked more put together and organized. And just plain beautiful. Emad (of eWood Woodworking) does amazing work and I loved seeing his touch all around the market. My favorite thing about the market being back was re-connecting with all the vendors. A new community is emerging and it truly keeps me going! Abby and I are now on a first name basis with several of the vendors and it’s been really fun getting to know new people outside of our school.

Some of my tried & true Qout favorites:

Here are some pictures from the first market of the 2014-15 season. Enjoy!

 

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Bonus: Jeff made us awesome Halloween costumes :)

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A random Crossfit competition

Yesterday morning Jeff and I were discussing what to do that afternoon. We weren’t really sure – it wasn’t nice enough to lay by the pool, we didn’t really want to sit at home & watch TV all day, we didn’t really want to work (everyone needs a day off). We thought about maybe walking somewhere to get food. Instead of making a decision, I headed to Body Pump. At the beginning of class, our instructor asked us if we were going to some battle Crossfit thing (I couldn’t really understand him). When I got home, I googled it. And found out that there was a pretty big competition happening at the Marina Crescent – Battle of the East. It had just started so Jeff and I hopped in a taxi to go check it out!

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We stayed for about 2 hours and watched the competition. We were really surprised at how legit it was! They had really cool cameras that were able to get all angles off the competition area. There was a DJ who was up above the competition and when the camera was on him all you could see were beach, water & sky behind him. It wasn’t a nice day to lay at the pool but it was a perfect afternoon for watching an outdoor competition. Best of all – it was free to watch! Only thing I’m bummed about is that I didn’t buy one of the shirts.

Check out more on Instagram.

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Kuwait – where you seek out your own happiness

In general, Kuwait is a pretty easy place to live. We work at a good school. We can speak English pretty much everywhere. There are a ton of Western amenities (there are more American restaurants here then there are in Holland & Battle Creek combined). We make enough to travel where & when we want to. We belong to a beautiful gym. In general, our daily life isn’t too bad.

However it’s not always that simple. Kuwait is a dry country and thus there are none of the activities typically associated with alcohol. We can’t just go hang out at the bar for the evening. There aren’t professional sports. You can’t really take a weekend trip anywhere in the country. There’s only 1 geographical feature (and we’ve been there). You get the idea. What we’ve figured out is that this is a place where it is up to YOU to seek out your own happiness. It is not going to come to you. There is a lot of stuff happening in Kuwait but you just have to find it.

Here’s what I/we’ve been up to:

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This weekend is Halloween (even though we can’t celebrate it at school). Trick-or-treating for staff kids is on Friday night and then there’s an adult costume party. 7 Market is Friday and Saturday. And finally Qout Market is back on Saturday…so excited!!! There’s a lot going on…you just have to seek out what you’re passionate about and make your own happiness.

Fall is here (for now)

We don’t write much. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot to write about. We do. But we’re also pretty busy living such a kick-ass life and enjoying moments that we don’t always have the time to write about it. Among other posts, I want to write about spring break in Oman, June in Iceland, our summer, and Bahrain.

In the meantime I’m going to write about weather (again). I just can’t help it. It’s our daily life. And when it changes it’s a pretty big deal. Yesterday was incredibly windy. And then it was DUSTY. Probably one of the dustiest days we’ve seen since moving here (it hasn’t actually been very dusty in our 2+ years here). I was in a classroom for 30 minutes and when I came out the dust had come. It was gross – all in your mouth and nose and the weather turned orange. It kind of looks like when it’s snowing a super fine light snow in MI. We didn’t take any pictures. But check these out from Kuwait UpToDate:

This morning we woke up and it was still super windy. Then we walked outside. It was GORGEOUS! It was in the low 70s with a cool breeze. I wore fall colors and loved every minute of it. We got back to our apartment and realized it was one of the clearest days we’ve ever seen. And the water was a DEEP blue. And the sunset was beautiful. The weather here is static for so long it’s refreshing to have something a little different.

 

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Four days in Ethiopia

We have a lot of updating to do. But right now I’m inspired to write about my trip last week. I used my PD money from school (and some of my own) to go to Learning2 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As I wrote about on my professional blog, it still seems surreal!

Since direct flights only go to Addis Ababa every couple of days, I arrived EARLY Wednesday morning (about 30 hours before the conference officially started). I ended up being the only non-Ethiopian on the flight that was staying in the country (a lot of Ethiopian women work in Kuwait). I was a little surprised at how small the airport was…until I realized that we flew into the domestic terminal! An Italian pilot for Ethiopian Airlines helped me find the shuttle for my hotel and thus began my trip of helpful & kind people!

I shared the shuttle with two women (one from Boston, the other from Quebec) who were in Addis for a UN conference on human rights. We ended up chatting, seeing each other around the hotel and taking a 15-minute excursion in a taxi to the souvenir area of the city on Thursday. We didn’t buy anything but it was totally worth it. Traveling alone is something I haven’t done in many years but I was able to step outside my comfort zone and meet lots of amazing people!

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Shortly after arriving to my hotel on Wednesday, I realized that I had booked at the WRONG hotel! There are two Jupiter International Hotels in Addis…the only difference is the location. The rest of the people at my conference were staying at the other one. Wednesday was also the epic day that I lost my voice for the first time in my entire life. Laughing at my luck and staying positive were what kept me going during my stay in Ethiopia! There were no available rooms at the correct hotel, so I jumped in a taxi to go hangout at the school. It was incredibly interesting to talk to the taxi driver – he spoke pretty good English and we talked about Ethiopia, traveling, open-mindedness and perspective on the world. It would be the first of many great conversations while in Addis.

Thursday morning started a little later than I would have liked…but I got to switch hotels! When I woke up there was one hotel room left at the correct hotel. However the internet was out at my hotel and I needed to call Agoda so that they would approve a switch to the other hotel. It was my initiation into Africa – unreliable internet and power. When I was checking in at the correct hotel I realized that I had left my passport in the safebox in my room at the first hotel! But I got it all worked out with the help of the great staff at the hotel. That left me time to explore the city a little (see above) and make it on the 11am bus to the school. That put me at school just in time to have lunch! ICS’s cafeteria is awesome – super cheap, super yummy Ethiopian food! I had the Tegamino Shiro. 20 birr = $1. And I couldn’t eat it all!

IMG_5625Because I was at the conference early, I got to meet and hangout with people that I’ve been communicating with for years on Twitter and through blogs. One of my favorite parts of the conference was that it was all inclusive (a surprise!). The only meal I paid for was the one above. And I never had to pay for drinks (they flowed freely every night!). Best $400 I’ve ever spent!

The conference was intense – pick up at 7am and back to the hotels around 9pm. It was like no conference I’ve ever been to before and I’d go back to every single one in the future (they also have them in Asia and they’re coming soon to Europe & the Middle East…and Mars?). The conference is build around the concept of being social and it didn’t disappoint.

Since we didn’t have any time to explore the city, the conference organizers brought Ethiopia to us. There were traditional dancers at the opening session and we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant on Friday. There were also vendors at the school on Friday & Saturday and I made sure they got my money ;). I bought an Ethiopian opal for a friend (did you know that they’re famous for opals?! AND they’re so different!), a painting for us and a couple other small gifts. Unfortunately I didn’t buy any coffee on Friday and they didn’t come back on Saturday. So the owner of the art gallery let me “borrow” his driver and we went to Tomoca to stock up on coffee. I made it back to the school alive!

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The collaboration was inspiring, the school was beautiful and the RAIN was divine! The cool weather was a beautiful break from Kuwait. I even got to speak some French! I met teachers from la Cote d’Ivoire at the conference and some people from the Congo in line at the airport. I can’t wait to go back to Ethiopia to explore with Jeff (and Abby?). My only regret – I was in where coffee originated and I don’t like it!

Check out all my pictures from Ethiopia (all taken with my iPhone)!