I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Kuwait City, Kuwait…September 1994. My first trip to the Middle East was to a country just three years removed from the ravages of the Iraqi invasion and Saddam Hussein’s attempted annexation of its oil fields. While Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait lasted just six months, before “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf and company sent Saddam’s “elite troops” packing, Kuwait remained a badly scarred city when I arrived for, of all things, a series of meetings about fast food…essentially the mother’s milk of public social life in the Muslim world. This was just one of the anomalies of Middle Eastern life that I would encounter over the coming years; Kuwait serving as my introduction to the contradictions and land mines, both real and perceived, of doing business in a very foreign land.

“You don’t need to talk to her,” the Lebanese businessman said to me, as I sat across the table from him and his Jordanian wife, attempting to make small talk in a Kuwaiti restaurant because, well, because that’s what I’d always done in business situations where my counterpart brought his other half. Of course, what I learned that night is that the wife doesn’t quite count for a half. In fact, she doesn’t much count, period. And this was Kuwait—where sheria law is rather liberally defined, certainly when compared to other Muslim strongholds, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, this husband/wife dinner package was the one and only time I would even meet a “wife” in my Middle Eastern travels. Anyway, the businessman’s don’t talk to her reprimand got my attention and didn’t seem to bother the wife, so I spent the rest of the evening doing my best to treat her like a coat rack. Weird.

Also weird was the view from my hotel. To the left, I looked out on a heavily fortified Army compound that conjured images of the previous year’s foiled Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush via car bomb as he visited the liberated country.  While directly in front of both the hotel and the Army compound stood the largest, glitziest, and unquestionably most popular McDonald’s (cars literally circled the block, waiting to get in) that I ever saw…before or since!

Sadly, I was not there to celebrate McDonald’s but rather to invigorate my client, Arby’s…an assignment that was put into stark perspective by both the spectacle of the Micky D’s across from my hotel and the fact that the considerably more modest Arby’s flagship store was perched alongside a beach that might have otherwise been enticing Persian Gulf bathers but, thanks to the Iraqis, was still being cleared of land mines.

Simultaneously, I was meeting with Kuwaiti ad agencies, which trumped weird with surreal. One agency was located on the top floor of a six-story building, the elevator of which had no front or back doors, again thanks to Iraqi redecorating. So, when the elevator passed above the ground floor, you not only could see outside, you effectively were one misstep away from falling outside. Another agency was located on the outskirts of town and looked like it had been dropped onto a lunar landscape.  Surrounded largely by desert, it was void of signage or any sense that it was a commercial venue. The inside foyer was no better…a large oak paneled (also odd) room with nobody in it. I was about to turn heel and leave, assuming I’d been deposited at the wrong address, when the guy with whom I was to meet suddenly materialized. By the end of that day, I could have used a drink…but, of course, that wasn’t really an option, which is one of the reasons fast food places are such a popular drawing card…giving a whole new meaning to the term, social drinker.

Driving is also different there. Imagine driving in a city with all the normal safety governors—traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits and such—absolutely none of which are adhered to. Kuwaitis are so relaxed about driving that I actually saw dishdasha-robed men tooling along with their seats tilted back and their feet propped up on the dashboard.

Speaking of dishdasha-robed Kuwaitis, I never met any of them because the only way they work at all is as part of the ministerial government. Business executives are largely imported from Beirut and maybe Jordan, and service staff from India and Indonesia.

For all of its cultural uniqueness, however, there was one aspect of my first trip to Kuwait that actually transported me back in time…believe it or not, to ‘60s Baltimore and the Beatles.

On my final night in Kuwait, I was hosted by one of my ad agency contacts at the Kuwait Towers—imposing “needles” rising high above the city and adorned with spherical globes, the larger of which was a restaurant and the smaller, a revolving viewing platform that made a full revolution every thirty minutes. The Towers offered magnificent views of the Arabian Gulf and Kuwait itself, and were dramatically lit icons by day or night, thanks to their bejeweled exteriors.  First, my host took me for a spin in the observation sphere, then we proceeded to the restaurant to enjoy a Middle Eastern buffet of foods that were largely unrecognizable to me and, of course, no booze.

As we descended the Kuwait Towers that night, I found myself rewinding my life some thirty years to another city’s iconic novelty—the revolving Circle One Restaurant atop the Holiday Inn in my hometown of Baltimore.  In the mid-60s, it was the place to go on a special date, for both its view (it made a full revolution every hour) and its celebrity. The Beatles stayed at that Holiday Inn during their 1964 tour that changed the world and hosted an after party at Circle One.  No, it was not the inspiration for their song “Ticket to Ride” which had a much more colorful genesis, something to do with Hamburg prostitutes.

Anyhow, so it was that Kuwait in 1994 channeled thoughts of Baltimore in 1964! Like I said earlier, weird.

T H E  E N D

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