Thursday, 8 May 2014

Istanbul: The Other Side

I was wary of travelling over to the European side of Istanbul because I knew the likelihood of getting lost was high. However, a very kind woman who spoke English kindly helped convey how to get a token to ride the ferry and which ferry to take to Eminönü (Kadıköy). 

I didn't see a language button on the token dispenser, but a young, unkempt girl magically appeared out of thin air, and in almost perfect English explained how to use the machine and how much I needed to pay. I couldn't ignore her or the fact that she'd helped me; smiling and thanking her, I dropped a few 1tl (Turkish liras) coins into her hand. She quickly disappeared and I was on my way to the docking area.

I sat atop the boat where it was freezing (even though it was a beautifully sunny day). I took pictures and reveled in the fact that I was FINALLY going to see some of the historical wonders that I'd been excited to check out! I docked, sat a few minutes to get my bearings and made my way to the other side of the street. I saw the sign for the Grand Bazaar and made my way to the top of a VERY steep hill where I thought I was going to die. Even though I'd been walking up steep hills around Üsküdar, I wasn't prepared for how long the steep climb to the area where the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) are. Once at the top of the hill, I made my way into a tiny restaurant where I decided to have tea (çay)...Let's not kid ourselves though. I was really stopping because my legs were aching, my lungs were screaming and my bladder was none too happy with me.

As I made my way towards the sights, I was taken aback by the grandeur of the Blue Mosque! It's very large, but also had several other structures around it. As I walked through the gates I felt the crowd surrounding me. People were trying to sell everything from flowered crowns to scarves and candy. At that point, I wasn't sure I wanted to go into the mosque. After a man tried to haggle me about taking me through the mosque, I turned and said (more aggressively than I intended to), "No, thank you." and sped past him. I was annoyed that the few moments I had to make a decision were interrupted. Why should it matter, you may ask. Well, I'm not Muslim (I know that according to Islam this doesn't actually impact my allowance into a mosque). More importantly, I didn't want to enter a religious sanctuary where I would be forced to change my physical appearance (still don't). I know many people won't agree with my decision and I understand, but please respect that I have had my share of wearing a hijab, and I won't wear one again. So, instead, I stood outside the Blue Mosque, gazing at the structure and admiring the beauty of it. I eventually left and headed over to Hagia Sophia, not even a two-minute walk away.

 The Blue Mosque: the mosaic inlay under the domed-roof of a fountain where people were washing-up
The splendor isn't captured in this photo...I think I need a new camera

The Blue Mosque had been crowded (perhaps because it's free to enter?), but the queue to gain entrance to Hagia Sophia was sooo long! I couldn't believe how long it was. I stood in shock and thought, "Do I have to wait in line AND pay to get in there???" I ditched the idea of going in for another day when I could get there early to prevent lining up for ages. Although it lacked the initial impact of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia did call to me...Maybe it's because it gave me the impression of a mishmash  and I feel like I'm a mishmash, too (my mixed heritage). To me it represented survival...Maybe that's why I felt a connection with it. The structure is painted several different colours that are faded, and it looks a little worse for wear, but I felt some kind of connection to it while I was there. The architecture makes you think that it was initially a mosque, but it wasn't; It was originally a church and then converted to a mosque, and today it's a museum.

 Where's Hagia Sophia hiding?!?
There it is!!!

Leaving Hagia Sophia I meandered down a side street and ended up at a restaurant where they served Campari (my poison of choice while I was living in Japan). I couldn't resist ordering Campari and orange juice. I felt nostalgia, contentment and comfort sitting in the sun, away from the large crowds and noise. A solitary cat curled up in the sun next to me. It was great!

Mmmm! I took this picture when I'd almost finished the drink, hehehe!

I drank my first Turkish coffee at the same shop I'd gotten tea at earlier and then purchased a rather large box of Turkish delight (when in Rome...), eventually making my way back to the Asian side. The next day my thighs were aching, so I stayed relatively close to the flat, but the day after I ventured back over to the European side to visit Galata Tower and meet a friend's friend.

 Turkish coffee comes with Turkish delight? Seriously?? Awesome!
 Turkish delight=Mik's delight!
 Regular and pomegranate Turkish delight with pistachios (covered in coconut), and nougat with pistachio Turkish delight
 Ahhh, stores FULL of Turkish delight! This isn't even the half of it!!!

Again, I ended up walking up a very steep hill. By the time I'd made it to Galata Tower I felt like I'd ran a marathon. I decided to pay the entrance fee and go to the top of the tower...What a waste. 19tl later (about $10CAD/3.5KWD), I had walked to the very top and if I wasn't exhausted before, well I was now! Although the view was spectacular, the one from the balcony of the flat is still better (in my mind). I was herded along the pathway around the tower (extremely narrow) and managed to capture some OK shots. After leaving Galata Tower, I went to Taksim Square to meet the Irish chef's friend, let's call him Ohio (since that's the American state he's from). That story, however, is for another post :)

 Inside the base of Galata Tower. See the tower carved in the centre of the metal plaque?
 View of the Asian side. Hello Üsküdar!
 The view of Topkapi Palace
 The view of an information board on a landing between flights of stairs
The view at the bottom

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Istanbul: Soul Food

I felt a surge of relief flood through me once the plane landed in Turkey at the end of last week. After leaving Kuwait I decided to take a much needed and long overdue vacation instead of returning immediately to Canada. First up: Istanbul.

I always wonder how people decide on their travel destinations. For me I've always wanted to travel to three places in particular: Egypt, South Africa (actually anywhere in Africa that's safe) and Aruba. I've not made it to any of these places. So the question begs to be asked (that doesn't sound self-obsessed at all, does it???) why choose Turkey? Reasons: a.) It's relatively close to Kuwait (only three hours direct flight) and there's no time difference so you can maximize the actual time you have there; b.) I think that after visiting Lebanon I got a taste of the Middle Eastern culture that's intrigued me since I was very young. Seeing Turkey is an extension of that because of Turkey's historical involvement with Arab and Islamic culture; c.) I love the combination of a diverse population, great food, and nature (especially water). I will definitely talk about all three points as I blog!

So, here I am in Istanbul and I'm so happy! The fresh air, nature, breathtaking scenery, mouth-watering food and obvious culture are food for my shriveled, dried up soul. I'm sorry to say that I've long felt deprived of most of those things while living in Kuwait. I'm staying in Uskudar (next to Kadikoy on the Asian side), which is known for its conservative Muslim community. It's considered to be quite a rural area. Stray dogs and cats happily roam around or lie contentedly in the sun-as they should; they are well looked after. Dogs are neutered or spayed (I believe by the city or an organization) and people leave cat food, milk and water outside for cats in addition to constructing cat "hotels". It's amazing to see animals treated with respect and care! Maybe I'm so obsessed with them because in Kuwait the stray cats (and dogs) were always scrawny and haggard-looking, eating out of the garage bins. Dogs were feared and treated with animosity...It was just sad to see.

 Cat party outside of the flat
This guy sat next to me at a bar on the European side (of Istanbul)

Back to Istanbul...The flat I'm renting has the most gorgeous view from the balcony. The Bosphorus Strait is a hop, skip and a jump from me (in actuality it's a 10-15 minute walk). The various public transportation available is amazing! I've only tried to take the Dolmus so far (I wasn't successful, but that was my fault because no one could understand me). I'll try riding it again though for sure! A dolmus is a minibus and is cheaper than taxis (for more info visit: http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/trans/LocalTransport/Dolmush.html). I'm renting the flat from a woman who advertised on a website named airbnb (think Flipkey, Housetrip, etc...) and she's incredible! If anyone out there is interested in renting this little gem, please go to the following link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/54927?s=LSyB. You'll discover from reading all the praise that the host and the flat are both loved!

The gorgeous view from the balcony! SOOO Green!
The view early on a foggy morning
The bridge lights up different colours at night!

I've ventured out and familiarized myself with the neighbourhood. Most people here don't speak English, so it's pretty interesting doing things on a daily basis. There are virtually NO tourists here, hahaha! Let's be frank, I should have learned some Turkish before visiting. I have used a dictionary a few times and it has helped! I've eaten at a few places in and around the area and they are AMAZING! My top choices thus far are Seratonin (a wonderful eatery in an oasis of plants, hidden away off of the main road with an eclectic choice of furniture, but extremely warm and inviting!). Unfortunately, Seratonin doesn't have an English menu, so I just blindly picked something, lol! I ended up picking a cheese omelet and a platter of olives, vegetables (tomatoes and cucumber), honey, jam, something like a tapenade and bread. It was sooo good! It reminded me of Arabic and Mediterranean food. I'll let the pictures do the talking though.

The gated entrance to Seratonin
 The place mat...In Turkish. I have no idea what is written.
 An open-roof solarium
 Inside Seratonin #1
 Inside Seratonin #2
 Inside Seratonin #3
 A typical Turkish breakfast (I was told).
 Mmmmmm!!!

I've walked so much since arriving that I could cry. The first day I flew in I walked for about three and a half hours which is a lot considering the longest I walked in Kuwait (on average) was about an hour and forty-five minutes. The second day I went to the grocery store and had a humorous guessing game about ice...No matter what I did, I couldn't convey the meaning of ice to a bunch of guys who couldn't have been older than 18. I laughed it off, said thank you and accepted the defeat: Turkish-1: Mikiko-0. Homemade ice cubes it was! I only needed them to keep my Jack Daniels and diet Coke cold...Yes, I'm enjoying alcohol here! The liquor store opens at 9am!!! Anyhow, I then thought I would test my limited knowledge of Turkish and ask the butcher nearby for bacon. I doubted I'd find it, but thought I would ask anyway (I wanted bacon as a side to my eggs and smoked cheese for breakfast-I haven't stopped eating cheese! LOVE the local cheese!!!). Two butchers somehow understood my horrible pronunciation and shook their heads "no". Okay, so no BLTs for me. Turkish-1: Mikiko-1. Wooohooo!

By the third day here, I was ready to journey over to the European side of Istanbul. However, before I get to that, here are some more pictures of the area I'm staying in:

 A rooster and some hens just casually strolling down the street
 I don't know the name of this wooded area, but at the top of a very steep hill, there's a restaurant...and a squirrel statue
 The view from the forest looking down at the Bosphorus. My camera doesn't do the views here justice
 More food, of course: Pide, salad and liver with barley...Yeah, didn't realize I'd ordered liver
 Waterfront restaurant for an all-you-can-eat brunch (I don't know the name of this spot for sure; I think it's called Pasalimani Beltur Kafe. I'm sorry!)
View of the restaurant #1
 View of the restaurant #2 (it wasn't busy when we first arrived, but after 30 minutes this place was really crowded!)

Only my first round, lol! The food was SOOO delicious!!! LOOK AT THAT CHEESE!
 Thank goodness I was walking DOWN that hill, not up it!
 Down by the water looking towards the European side (of Istanbul)
 Someone's proud of their team! That flag is MASSIVE!
The Bosphorus Bridge

All of these shots of the area where I'm staying reminds me of Mr. Rogers' song "Won't You Be My Neighbour?", lol!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

My Problems with Being an Expat in Kuwait

I have held off on writing a post that focuses primarily on the negative aspects of being an expat in Kuwait because I haven’t wanted to shed an unfavourable light on the place I have called “home” for about two years. However, as a former ex-expat, I feel that people who are considering moving to the Gulf, and to Kuwait in particular, should be well-informed before making the decision of whether or not to relocate there.

I want to pre-empt this post by saying that in spite of what I write, I will be eternally grateful to both companies I worked for for the opportunities that they have given me. Although I would never recommend working at the uni to anyone, the second company I worked for is a corporation that is, albeit marginally at times, a better company to work for. If you are a qualified and experienced EFL instructor seeking employment in the Middle East, it's a very good place to start your journey.

I’m also extremely grateful that Kuwait has allowed me, as a foreigner, to earn an income that, in view of today’s global economic state, is difficult (and freakin’ impossible at times) to find/make in most countries—including mine: Canada and Japan (thank you taxes, the top 1% and wage inequality between men and women).

#1—Firstly, I’d like to state that Filipinos/as, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indonesians and Malaysians (amongst others) are treated despicably here; they are the bottom tier of a clear caste system based on ethnicity and salary. Coming from Canada where citizens are taught to respect and welcome diversity, seeing the abhorrent treatment of people every day left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The second tier of lower class citizens are other Arab nationalities and Muslims: Iraqis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Sudanese, Persians or Iranians (many of whom refuse to even identify themselves as Arabs), Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, etc. These nationals are never seen as equal to Kuwaitis. The next two tiers are almost equal. On one hand you have people from the Gulf States: Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Omanis. On the other hand you have westerners, but specifically Caucasian westerners and even more specifically, the English/British and the Americans. Of course, the top tier is reserved for Kuwaitis. Now who buys into this hierarchy? Well, certainly many Kuwaitis do. By the way, the love/hate relationship between Kuwaitis and Saudis is similar to that of any two neighbouring countries.

What's worse is that I’ve witnessed expats here treat each other just as poorly as Kuwaitis treat them. Yay for perpetuating the cycle! For me, this obvious racism is the most repulsive and unattractive feature of Kuwait. I don’t know how to behave in this society: ignorant—the belief that I’m “better” than others here (but not always, of course! I DO look Filipino), or patronizing—this displayed in my attempt to sympathize and empathize with people who are lower in the social structure than I am.

#2—Secondly, I have no idea why Kuwaitis behave like this, but I feel like there is no pride when it comes to their country. People will go to the park and leave their rubbish on the ground for the garbage men to pick-up. Now, in all fairness, I’ve been told that Kuwaitis do this because they believe that they’re actions result in people having jobs. If you clean-up after yourself, then you won’t need a garbage man and you’re depriving someone of a job. Fair enough, but the irony is, as Kuwait Times (newspaper) frequently reminds me, according to many Kuwaitis expats are annoying, tolerated (only slightly) and most often, unwelcome. Only a bit of a contradiction there, eh? Where I come from, if you have pride in your country, then you show it by respecting the environment, the people, culture, traditions, laws, etc…Which many Kuwaitis don’t. Just look at the amount of traffic accidents, which brings me to my next point: the blame game.

#3—For some reason, almost ALL of the problems in Kuwait tend to be blamed on expats. The obscene amount of car accidents? Blame the expats. The reason money is not being re-invested in Kuwait’s economy? Expats aren’t re-investing it. The overcrowding? Too many expats. Corruption of the Kuwaiti (Islamic) culture? Expats. The illegal smuggling of foreigners into Kuwait? Well that has to be expats even though I don’t know a single expat who has the wasta (influence/power/connections with the government/police force/military/etc.) to smuggle in hundreds workers illegally, but hey, it must be our fault because we’re expats.

#4—That, interestingly, brings me to my next—and paradoxical—point: How can I invest??? When I first came to Kuwait in 2012, I was very enthusiastic about developing a community service program at the uni which was immediately squashed. I tried to get involved with charitable organizations here, but was discouraged. It was only when I was roaming around 360º Mall recently with the Georgian Lady that I encountered Kuwaitis who had developed organizations that supported the environment, community service and monetary donation. It was too late. I was already jaded and demotivated. I wanted to do good here and it was always unappreciated and rejected. I’ve heard that you can volunteer to do clean-ups around the country…Ummm, you mean clean the garbage that Kuwaitis throw on the ground instead of throwing into the waste bin??? Yeah…No. Expats can’t obtain property or ever get Kuwaiti citizenship. So, why should expats invest in a country that so clearly doesn’t offer any perks to people who would like to permanently settle there?

Want me to reinvest in Kuwait? Then Kuwait has to invest in me, too. What does that mean? Well, ironically, another complaint about expats is that they only come to Kuwait to make money and then leave. I would love to see the government invest in expats and then maybe expats would be motivated to invest in Kuwait (think Dubai, which to me is what Kuwait had the potential to be). Treat me like I’m no better than the garbage you throw on the ground (and I was made to feel like that a lot, especially because to many Arabs I look Filipino), and I’ll absolutely bypass any type of investment towards the betterment of the country.

#5—Lastly, Kuwait lacks a strong culture and therefore you will find it difficult to really embrace doing cultural activities. In addition, Kuwait is a very small country and there isn’t a lot to do. Yes, you can go to the Kuwait Towers, but if you’ve gone to the CN Tower (Toronto, Canada), the Sears Building (Chicago, USA) or even the Tokyo Tower (Tokyo, Japan), then this isn’t a thrill. Half the time it’s too dusty to see anything. The aquarium is a place where penguins have been described as depressed-looking. You don’t say. I’d be depressed if I was a penguin and I was captive in a country where summer temperatures can reach 50ºC (122ºF), too. Apparently there is a science centre, but I have been told it’s meant for kids, not adults (You can confirm this for me, folks). You can go to the National Museum, but—sadly—even the Lonely Planet doesn’t rate it highly:

LONELY PLANET REVIEW
Once the pride of Kuwait, the National Museum remains a shadow of its former self. The centrepiece of the museum, the Al-Sabah collection, was one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world. During the Iraqi occupation, however, the exhibition halls were systematically looted, damaged or set fire to.

Of course, there were a lot of Kuwaitis I met who never behaved in the manner that I’ve discussed. They are brilliant, funny and liberal; they welcome the inevitable changes that are occurring and they were a breath of fresh air to me! They are happy to speak with expats and interact with them. To those amazing people, I thank you personally because you inspired me and made this experience a valuable one. I hope that those people succeed in making Kuwait a better country because it would be a shame if their efforts were for nothing.

I hope that if Kuwaitis ever want to travel to Canada and/or Japan that Canadians and/or the Japanese show them hospitality, kindness and acceptance. Mostly I hope that Kuwait continues to grow and develop in a positive manner.

*Note:
1These are my opinions about the worst things about Kuwait. I know others complain about the lack of alcohol and no nightlife, etc., but these aren’t my major complaints. 

2Please respect the country and protect yourself by doing your homework and reading up about Kuwait’s laws before moving and/or travelling there.

Sayonara, Kuwait!

Leaving Kuwait this past Thursday was difficult. I was leaving behind new friends I'd met since working for my new company and old friends I'd met through the university. This time I had absolutely no qualms regarding leaving Kuwait though. This past year I've gotten so sick (food poisoning, infections and skin problems), that I've actually been looking forward to leaving and getting healthy again.

I would be lying if I said I won't miss anything about Kuwait, so let me tell you what has made a lasting impression on me:

1.) The AMAZING people I found.

It sounds silly, but after living in Kuwait and trying to maintain relationships, you realize that finding good friends is extremely difficult. Without my Polish roomie and my Lebanese roomie, female companionship dwindled. However, the Georgian lady and I have successfully continued our friendship and hers has been the most important (female) one that I've experienced. She's an incredible person.

The Georgian Lady & I in August '13 @TGI Fridays

My co-workers at the most recent company I was at were some of my best friends as others came and went from my life in Kuwait. We laughed, challenged each other, shared stories and supported each other. They became my confidants and I feel like each and every one has a special place in my heart.

Taking selfies to a whole new level!

Just as important were my students. I wasn't allowed to spend time with my students while I was teaching them, so when I had left my jobs or after completing a course/semester/etc., I would hangout with them (female and, SHOCK, male!). These students showed me the culture that I felt was so difficult to find in Kuwait. Talking to them, hearing about their lives, their journeys and their goals/dreams made me see that the cultural divide is great in many ways, but not in others.

There is also the most obvious person who has made my life in Kuwait amazing and that's the Irish chef (and his friends). I would not have survived without him.

2.) The food.

No surprise there. Not sure of what I mean? Just go back to almost ANY previous post and you'll see...Actually, here are shots from dinner I had with a student of mine. He took me into Salmiya where we went to an Arabic (Lebanese) restaurant that had private rooms. It was pretty cool and the food was good, although the highlight for me was the crab soup in a bread bowl. Heaven on earth. The buttery soup permeated the bread it was encased in making the bread soggy. Seriously a piece of heaven on earth. Other local favourites? mint lemonade, cheesy macadamia nuts (from Al Rifai specifically), dates, arabic sweets (baklava, namoorah/basbousa/hareesa, kanafeh, mamoul, etc...) and koshary (not local, but the only place I've ever eaten it).

 HELLO yummy crab soup in a bread bowl. I love you.
My favourites: warak enab, kibbeh, fattoush, arayes
3.) The diversity.

According to many locals, this is the source of most of Kuwait's social problems. I disagree and on top of that, I love the diversity in Kuwait. I enjoy that, like Canada, diversity is obvious. I've met people from all over the world and it's made a lasting impression on me that I'll forever be thankful for.

4.) The sun.

Although the dryness of the Gulf region kills me, I am enamored with the sun and the warmth it gives. I will most definitely struggle with acclimatizing myself to Canadian temperatures when I'm back home.

5.) The malls.

No, I don't love shopping, but I loved that I had access to products that are virtually impossible to get my hands on in Canada, stores I'd never even entered until I went to Kuwait: Kiehl's, Dean & Deluca, Topshop, Boots, Burberry, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Inglot, Bobbi Brown, etc...