Sometimes I wake up with no recollection of where I am. The blinds are closed, the earplugs are in, and the hotel room looks just like every other hotel room. I go through the routine of retracing my steps and work it out after a few minutes. This particular morning, I woke up in Kuwait. I had flown in the night before after working a military charter. Now that the war in Iraq has become a more permanent fixture, airline crews are ending up in Kuwait more often. I was on a five-day layover in a very foreign land.
The night before I left, I looked at the world map to see exactly where in the world I was off to. Kuwait is nestled in between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and lies across the Persian Gulf from Iran. It is an alcohol-free country, has temperatures that range between 60 and 150 degrees, and embraces many different cultures and beliefs. Luckily it was February, and the temperature held between 70 and 80 degrees. I had no intention of being cooped up in a hotel for five days and was eager to venture out and explore.
Kuwait is by no means a tourist destination, but why not treat it like one while I was there? My crewmates and I haggled at the Iranian marketplace, walked along the Persian Gulf, and ate cuisine ranging from Indian to Afghan. I love hummus, and since it is one of the region's specialties, I had it with every meal.
I now know what movie stars feel like in the public eye. We weren't harassed, but we were constantly stared at, even though we were observing the proper social etiquettes, like not wearing shorts and showing no public affection between a man and a woman (ironically, affection between two men is considered fine and is frequently expressed). Other traditions are that women should cover as much of their skin as possible and walk behind the men. While this does not sit well with many in the United States, we weren't there to argue beliefs; we were there to experience and respect the ways of the world where we found ourselves.
We were staying in the capital, Kuwait City, where everyone was friendly. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, appreciation for America's involvement in the Middle East took hold here, and it is generally considered a pro-American country. Before long, I found a group of local people who had some basic English, and I picked up a few of their words and phrases.
From my new friends I learned that approximately 70 percent of the people living in Kuwait are from Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, India, Qatar and places beyond. It is a fascinating and remarkably vibrant mix of people. At sunset, prayer chants echoed throughout the city and wonderment filled my mind. I was in a new land, discovering a remote part of the world. I felt giddy, like a young traveler — the way I felt many years ago, when I started this flight attendant job.
On this trip I picked up a few tips that may help you make the best of your trip in any foreign destination:
1. Avoid room service whenever possible. It's costly, anti-social and anti-cultural. It's just too easy, and it prevents you from getting out and seeing the real destinations.
2. Respect and honor all local customs and cultural beliefs. You are a guest, not a judge.
3. Stay away from fast-food conveniences. You can find a McDonald's just about everywhere in the world. But save the Big Mac for home. While you are in some exotic foreign land, go to an authentic local restaurant instead. (Curiously, KFC is very popular in Kuwait. After services at the mosques, the lines at this fast-food establishment are very long.)
4. Don't be afraid to explore. You are as interesting to the local people as they are to you. Be adventurous; some of the best experiences are unplanned or unexpected.
5. Try to blend in a bit. Don't broadcast the fact that you're a tourist. You won't get hassled as much if your attire doesn't scream "foreigner," and it's a lot safer.
6. Raise a glass with the locals. Unless you are in an alcohol-free country (as I was), ask the hotel concierge where the nice bars are. In Kuwait, I went to a local coffee house and smoked shisha (flavored tobacco)out of a hookah — a bagpipe-looking contraption with hoses.
7. Use the buddy system. There is safety in numbers, and you should try to go out with at least one other person. Be safety conscious, but don't assume everyone is out to rip you off.
8. Learn a little of the language. Even if everyone understands English, the locals generally appreciate your effort.
9. Look on the bright side. OK, so none of us could partake of alcoholic drinks for five days, and the crew party with blended smoothies was more boring than usual, but I felt great in the morning and slept better than ever.
10. Enjoy yourself. Don't be afraid to be a tourist — and don't be overly proud of it either. Instead, be yourself. Go on a tour. Take pictures. Ask silly questions. It's nothing to be ashamed of. How many times are you going to visit this place in your lifetime?
Unfortunately, my crewmates and I were in Kuwait because of the war, but we managed to have a great time and learn a lot about a very different land. I got a new appreciation for my job, and I gained respect for the diversity of beliefs, customs and peoples of the world.
I vow to return to Kuwait in August, when the temperature hits 140 degrees. Then I will write a column called "Feeling the Heat." Stay tuned.