Kuwait: The ‘K’ is Silent


How long does it take to get two stamps on a sheet of paper? In Kuwait, that’d be two hours.
For a country that has a whole lot of other people doing most of their work for them, I suppose you have to be a very unfortunate Kuwaiti to be stuck working immigration at the airport. The only sign that said “visa” instructed us to go downstairs “Visa Collection”. So I did and stood in line. Then I got to the front. “No. Upstairs.” Really? OK. Off I go and I find a counter for Visa Issuing where everyone takes a number and waits. And waits again. And some more. I had a lot of time to contemplate what exactly needed to be done. I filled in a form: name, passport number, address.
Two hours later (seriously) I stood at the counter. $12 please. OK done. Now what? Waiting. Waiting. Entering the information, apparently one finger at a time, but still, what could possibly take this long? Even if he were entering it with his nose on the keyboard, and allotting for backspacing to correct the double and triple letters that typing with your nose inevitably produces, I cannot understand what took so long. Two stamps on my form and I was off to the Visa Collection people, three women black-veiled to the eyebrows. They looked at my stamps, judged them for ink uniformity, points for style, application angle and positioning within the passport page, and then passed me on to the standard customs booth people, who assessed the judgment of the visa collection people. Real quality control. Everyone concurred: a visa stamp well applied indeed, and now I was free to go into a large baggage area that was completely empty. Rather uncanny actually. Our luggage had been gathered into a hidden corner on the other side and after finding my bag, I was free of the airport.
Insert a nondescript rundown Middle Eastern city, nearly empty of its native citizens, peopled by foreign laborers driving cars from 15 years ago. No apparent local culture. No sights other than a few towers that overlook this sad excuse for an oil rich nation’s main city. A few buildings were going up and a lot of downtown real estate was simply empty dusty lots or whole city blocks with one high-rise seemingly out of place in the middle of a patch of brown. Oh, and most of the group was bumped from the convention hotel to a Holiday Inn. Good fun.

The big observation tower has photos of the mess the Iraqis made when they invaded in the first Gulf War. A taxi driver (Indian) told me how it took him 8 days to go with his family from Kuwait to India when the war broke out. He saw the soldiers looting and loading everything into cars to drive back to Baghdad. As one fellow traveler put it, No one hates you as much as your neighbors.

I finished my work that following day and the entire group I was with headed to the airport very early, knowing that if it took two hours to put the stamps IN then it may very well take a long time to gather them back again, perhaps to meticulously erase them. Unexpectedly we had no problems, no extra charges for luggage, no delays, no lines. “Too good to be true” I said, eliciting a scowl from a fellow traveler: “Don’t jinx it!” Too late.

We boarded a plane a couple hours later. As we sat on the tarmac, several people jammed into the cockpit while very odd noises like a computerized dog barking, emanated from the wings. Just warming up. Like a car trying to turn over. Oh, the things we tell ourselves in airplanes. We took off and it finally seemed as if Kuwait was just a rotten memory. The plane did a strange lurch about 15 minutes into the flight (just as we were about to leave Kuwaiti airspace I was imagining) and the pilot came on in Arabic. I watched the Arabic speakers around me tense and then throw up their hands and groan with annoyance, but not just that, with genuine looks and postures of fear. The plane had already started to bank for a turnabout to the airport when the voice in English told us they were returning and Sorry for the inconvenience. All I could think is, What a lame thing to hear at the final moment. “You are about to die; I hope that doesn’t spoil your travel plans. Sorry about that.” Ding ding. Please make sure your seatbelt is fastened, your tray table is stowed and your seatback is in the upright position as we prepare for arrival in the afterlife. (Be aware that some of your luggage may have shifted).

A seemingly rushed descent brought us back to where we couldn’t get away from. Seven hours we’d spend trapped in the airport. When we finally arrived in Bahrain, our contact told us how lucky we were not to have had to stay the night at the one-star airport hotel. Lucky?

 

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