The US invasion of Iraq destroyed an entire swath of fragile Iraqi desert ecosystem. Apparently driving multi-ton armored vehicles and dropping bombs, missiles, other explosives and depleted uranium all over the desert completely kills the desert soil structure, turning the entire system into a (more) desolate dust bowl which blows away. At least in the summer, there are strong winds from the north west which sweep across Iraq and into Kuwait to the south east, bringing literally countless tons of the Iraqi desert with them. So locals wear respirators and landowners talk up the soil fertility benefits of the orange dust. Too bad most of it goes out to sea, or into our eyes, ears, and lungs.
Our plane touched down yesterday evening in an orange desert in the midst of a dust storm (supersize me: now with 50% more dust than pre-invasion storms, or your tax money back!). The landscape fades into the dust and the sun is obscured almost completely from view. It reminds me of a foggy morning in the Willamette River Valley, where temperatures are around 40-50F, visibility is low and everything is covered in a cool, moist gray mist. There are some key differences here: It is around 105F outside, and the “cool moist gray mist” of the river valley is in reality the hot, dry orange dust of the desert whipping viciously across the landscapes with the help of high speed winds that I swear are hotter than the ambient temperature. The dust actually shields the ground form the sun with a cooling effect — otherwise it would ordinarily be 120F with no winds and clear skies. Unfortunately, the winds that carry the dust across the featureless landscape have quite the opposite effect: each gust is like a blast from a furnace heat pump. Iraq is full of hot air disrespectful of the arbitrary political boundaries we (the royal, global Amero-European “we”) casually drew in the wake of our Quixotic colonialist meanderings.
I grew up in what I would consider the spoiling environment of a stable (and shrinking) middle class American economic bubble, with collective access to and command over a vast amount of the world’s material wealth. I always got what I wanted…(well, almost always, barring a Power Wheels, which my parents denied me over the course of several years of yearning, and for which I am now eternally grateful). It often wasn’t easy — for me or my parents…in oh so many ways…but in the end, I still (usually) got what I wanted: a computer game addiction, toys galore, and a Disneyland disaster: I used to have a little green hat when I was five or so, which read, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Many grownups thought it was adorable, but I look back upon my seriousness with fond disgust…I lost the hat on Space Mountain in Disneyland, and gained instead a deep-seeded sense of guilt for abandoning our dog during his last days alive…one of my many reasons for not liking Disneyland…anymore.
As I’ve grown and matured, so has my understanding of the dynamics of inequitable resource distribution creating Haves and Have Nots. I now consider my life one of immense privilege leading to “spoilage” (you know, the opposite of that equally-mythical hard life that “builds character” and “puts hair on your chest”). By spoilage, I basically mean a relative lack of social responsibility compared to (or perhaps, because of…?) the [immense] amount of socioeconomic power one wields. Me, spoiled? Apparently, I didn’t know the meaning of the word.
People say travel is hard and scary. Or at least they work hard to give that impression when I tell them I am taking a solo trip to the middle east (oooh, how exotic…). But it is in no way hard when you are traveling to Kuwait (a 10 hr time difference from West Coast US) as the esteemed guests of a business man who is wealthy beyond your (ok, fine… “my”) ability to comprehend, and doing so because one of your brothers is getting married to one of his daughters (disclaimer: she doesn’t act spoiled at all).
It’s been mere hours into the morning after the day we stepped off the luxurious business class section of our plane (plane tickets complements of our host), and already I’ve never felt so coddled before: Flying first class (I’ve never felt so comfortable on a 13 hour flight!) where attendants served complementary gourmet meals and offered drinks every few minutes. Room to stretch out, lie down. Off the plane, a hired hand (a south-east Asian guest worker…of which there are many…) was waiting with a forced beaming smile to escort us through customs and deliver us — safe and sound — into the arms of our hosts. We aggressively refused help from eager airport workers swarming around us to fetch and ferry our bags in what appeared a desperate attempt to look useful and busy. The guest workers here fill mostly blue collar jobs, and many of the men wear solid navy blue jumpsuits with orange highlights. Coupled with their tendency to be on the short side of tall, the suits, their size and eager/fearful work demeaner lend them more than a passing resemblance to Oompa-Loompas.
Our hosts have servants to wait on them and us (mostly them…) and anticipate every need or respond to each new “request” at a moment’s notice. We are staying at a “chalet” at the Hilton seaside resort. Our hosts lease one chalet year-round, and have rented an extra, as well as several luxury hotel rooms in the main compound for other guests. As for the chalet…think of the most expensive, classy and elaborate hotel accommodations you can. The chalet is a notch or two above that (I sure of it!): a full two-story (with 3rd story roof access) seafront four bedroom, three bathroom seafront house. Stocked with juices both exotic and familiar, organic produce, and fruits…in particular, granny smith apples from God knows where. Nowhere and never before has the two-sided coin of class privilege and oppression been so apparent to me, nor have I ever been so engulfed in it. I would feel much more comfortable doing dishes in the kitchen with the servants than I do at the table feigning blissful ignorance…but the servants wouldn’t have it. Their usefulness (and thus continued employment) is inversely related to our ability and willingness to do things for ourselves. The servants are initially uncomfortable with offered help from guests, perhaps viewing it as an employment threat.
The material and energetic (oil) wealth of the urban Kuwaiti merchant caste lends itself to a peculiar and ironic brand of thermodynamic bipolar disorder, where every building is air-conditioned to the point of being uncomfortably cold as if to overcompensate for the 120 degree heat outside on a sunny day. The irony is, the 24-hour citywide indoor air-conditioning systems only add more heat to the outdoor environment in two ways: 1) working on the same principles as refrigerators, they “create” cool air by removing the hot air from an area. Since it has to go somewhere…it goes outdoors. 2) Furthermore, the inevitable thermodynamic inefficiency of the equipment means the production of additional heat, which also finds its way outdoors. In the mean time, I’m finding it awkward having to bundle up when planning to stay indoors: “Are we heading inside for a while? Let me throw on a pair of long pants and grab my coat…”