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Welcome to the Sauna

Location: Kuwait City, Kuwait

Having never been to the underworld before, I was little prepared for the heat that blasted me in the face when I arrived in Kuwait. The air was thick, like I could hold it in my hand, and heavy in my lungs. Wind refused to step in and cool things off, but still the air buffeted my eyes, which dried out almost immediately, save for the constant tears welling in their corners.

“Welcome to the sauna,” Ali told me and flashed me a toothy grin.

Luckily the AC was pumping in his Landcruiser, and we boogied into some cover. Then the sun came up.

Kuwait is, well, yellow. Sparse shrubs cling to life between sand dunes. Anything living has the good sense to bury itself underground and out of the reach of the sun’s rays during the daylight hours. But the sand, the sand is everywhere. It hangs suspended in the air, like a thin quicksand. It slips into your mouth and grinds between your teeth. It settles on buildings, cars, plants until even the most persistent blues and reds suffocate under a drab mustard-yellow.

Underneath all that sand though, not too far down, lies that black, sticky stuff that makes the world go round. Lots of it. Enough of it that every Kuwaiti citizen is paid a monthly stipend by the government simply for being a Kuwaiti citizen. Along one stretch of the coast, oil refineries stretch into the horizon, little tongues of flame shooting up into the sky every half-mile or so. The complexes are essential to the economy, which has no other real industry since abandoning pearl diving in favor of oil. I took out my camera to snap a photo.

As always, Ali was a prepared guide. “Don’t let them catch you doing that,” he said, “They’ll take you to jail.”

In between jaunts in the desert, we ate. And man, we ate good. The family chef knows his stuff. His stuff was well-rounded and included a meat dish (braised chicken, grilled shrimp, lamb shank), heaped mounds of jasmine and saffron rice, complemented by pickled tomatoes, a dry and a wet sauce, salad, and two different types of dates. All washed down by a salty yogurt drink or fresh squeezed orange juice. Did I mention that all the food was cooked using old family recipes?

At lunchtime, Ali’s parents and sometime his brothers and cousins would join us. While his father boomed about the idiots in charge of everything, Ali showed me how to scoop rice with my fingers and use my thumb to shunt it into my mouth. Ali’s mother asked me why I wasn’t eating the marrow from the lamb bones as she delicately slurped hers out. At another meal she asked me if I had finished with my fish bones, then proceeded to munch down the spine.

After a nice digestion period of five minutes or so, the servants brought tea, a special family blend. Stacked up next to the tea cups were petite dishes of creme brulee, mousse, and souflee. A syrupy platter of deep chocolate cupcakes followed, with a Snickers cake shortly on its heels. And always there was the Kuwaiti specialty Tulumba: deep fried dough soaked in sugar water.

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