Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The drug dealing prince, and the daughter of the barbaric invader

There has been a lot of interesting news items out of Kuwait lately. One involves a Kuwaiti prince who was sentenced to death for drug dealing. He was caught with hashish, handguns and money. Interestingly, the five people he was caught with claimed five different nationalities: one Indian, one Bangladeshi, one Lebanese, one Iraqi, and one stateless Bedouin.

Also in Kuwait, a newspaper was shut down for having published photos of Saddam’s daughter in a bikini without sufficiently blurring her body. The paper had meant to diminish pity for Saddam's daughters by showing them having fun by the pool. The mere memory of Saddam, of course, is still despised here in Kuwait. In the Kuwaiti towers, for example, photos of the Gulf War’s aftermath are prominently displayed. Pictures of broken windows and restrooms have funny labels in Arabic and English like: “The Iraqi innaders [sic] made beautiful oasis a dead land,” and “even the air-conditioning control center was harmed by the barbaric invaders.”

Things were not nearly as exciting for our little freedom-defending contigent, however. Dorn and I competed in the “stepper” competition but did not place very well. We didn’t even know how to use the stepper machine. We spent the first minute or so lumbering in “arthritic brontosaurus in tar pits” mode, while everyone else was bounding in “cheetah on the moon” mode. Thankfully, someone came around and changed the settings on our steppers. I must’ve gotten a good workout out of it in the end, because when I stepped off the machine my legs went out from under me and I almost fell down.

I have spent yet more time fighting the bureaucracy battle – to set up the international relations class I am taking, and to arrange things for my upcoming two-week leave. I am starting to regret having signed up for this class, as it was meant to be a “hobby-class,” but turns out to be a paperwork nightmare.

We had the first sand-storm of the year yesterday. It was a really mild sand-storm, but it reminded me that sand-storm season is coming.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Strended in Kuwait

The strength and endurance competition (or "strend," as they call it) was grueling. It consisted of seven strength events of three minutes each, followed by a two-mile run on a treadmill, all in quick succession. I did not run very fast (13:23), but most of the exhausted competitors had to walk or give up. Three days later, I am still sore from the deadlift and chin-up events.

Otherwise, nothing very new happened to alleviate the boredom. Since I got a couch from the Navy we've been sitting around and watching movies during our time off. We've also been doing extra duty, mostly with the CP and QRF. The patrols were largely uneventful, except for a neat ram's skull that I found.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A week in the rear

The past week has been spent on a border crossing and on the quick reaction force, but I was tasked with command post duty several times, which was dreadfully boring. The upside of CP duty is that I got extra time off to do things on post. I got to compete and win first place in a 5K run and a climbing wall competition (on the "treadwall" that I like to call "the infinite monkey wall"), and I will go to another competition (about six strength and endurance events) tomorrow. I also got to set up for a distance class from the University in Sitka, and I took a defense proficiency language test in French, just to test the waters for the Spanish test. The DLPT turned out to be a very well designed test, which looks for the ability to understand subtleties in the language. The soundbites and sample articles were quite original and interesting as well. I also used my time off on post to catch up on a mountain of army paperwork that needed to be filled and filed.

Outside the wire, on the border, I found several neat pieces of shrapnel, bullets, rounds and cartridges. Another interesting time was talking to a Kuwaiti policeman at a rather isolated outpost. Some of these people are posted to truly perplexing stations, such as that one built to make sure that vehicles do not drive into a restricted but completely empty part of the desert. Never mind that the restricted area is large, wide open, and not fenced or marked in any way... The two police officers we found at that particular post were sleeping, and their .50 cal machine gun and their humvee were left unattended.

Another event this week is that my laptop computer fried for no obvious reason. I am hoping that it can be fixed in some way, but this situation is definitely inconvenient. It hurts to lose my computer right after I replaced my camera. I am just glad to have bought the cheap one.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A little bit of Arab culture

It has been an interesting last few days, with five straight days of Area Reaction Force and recon patrols all over the desert.

At a forward location, I spent some more time with Egyptian guest workers. The main socializing areas for them are the bunkers where they keep the Narguile pipes, and the television. Most of what they watch on television is Egyptian drama and music. An interesting and rather annoying feature is that people from all over the Arab world e-mail each other over the television. So while a music video is playing, messages in Arabic interspersed with red hearts scroll over the screen. As for the narguile, they showed me an interesting fermented tobacco. It is placed in a hermetically sealed container full of sugar cane juice. That concoction ferments in a warm place for two weeks, and the juice (called "black honey") is drained. The resulting tobacco is called "shisha." It is sweet and fragrant, and probably low in nicotine because of the drained juice.

Most of the Egyptians tell me they do not like the Kuwaiti people. I was told, among other things, that the Kuwaiti people are lazy, and consider the guest workers who make up the majority of the population here to be another form of property. According to one Egyptian, the Kuwaitis are also scared of the guest workers, who form very tight communities. The Kuwaiti police (KMOD?) is unpopular, and feared because they can expel guest workers from Kuwait. That would be a huge loss, because a two-year work visa to Kuwait costs them two thousand Kuwaiti Dinars (almost $7.000 - enough to start a business in Egypt).

The other guest workers we saw were Indian and Sudanese sheep and goat herders. Apparently, there are also Bedouin herders out here who have their own animals. However, I haven't seen them except at the ranges, scrounging for leftover brass. I was told that most of the Bedouins live around Jahra, that they are stateless, and that if they need to travel (to perform the Hajj, mainly), they are issued a two-week provisionary passport that they have to surrender upon returning to Kuwait.

As for citizens, who are few and far-between out here, at first we only met a couple of soldiers doing their military service obligation at checkpoints. However, on the fourth day we got lucky and ran into a group of recreational falconers.

The falconers were very friendly, very rich Kuwaiti brothers and two kids who loved us after we gave them patches and took pictures of them. One of their falcons was new and in training, so we stayed away from it, but another one was shown to us. Some of us were even lucky enough to get to hold that falcon. The saker falcon looks large from far away (I had seen two wild ones a day earlier), but on the fist it is a very light and not too large bird.

Although I have been told by the Egyptians that saker falcons are bought here for about two thousand dinars, this falconer told us that he traps his falcons by placing a snare onto a live pigeon whenever he sees a falcon fly by (saker falcons do not nest here, but they pass through and sometimes winter). He then trains the falcon to hunt for the rather rare houbara bustard. He had a decoy made from leather, twine and houbara bustard feathers that he would tie to a live pigeon and fling out. The falcon would strike the whole setup and partially eat the pigeon. They also practice on pigeons that they buy and release, and smaller birds that they find because they only find a couple or three houbara bustards every year. The Houbara bustards are tracked through the desert in trucks, then once the hunters reach the birds they get out, release the falcons and get the birds. The bustards are then eaten as a rare delicacy (a dark red meat, apparently, better than pheasant), and the feet are kept as little trophies tied with twine. As for the feathers, they are used to replenish the beat-up decoys.

Interestingly, both houbara and saker turn out to be Arabic words. Saker, however, might be more correctly written "Saqr," with a strong S and the Q of "Qatar." I was told that eagles are also used.

As for wildlife, aside from the falcons, a few insects, gerbils and lizards, I found few animals. I did find a dead black kite, a dead desert hedgehog, and a dead desert fox, but not their living relatives.

On our roaming around near the old border one day (Kuwait seems to have helped itself to some contested Iraqi territory after the Gulf War), I found heaps of junk, including an old, rusty object that is probably an anti-personel mine, and an artillery cartridge.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

New Year

SSG Charnley, Dorn and me started off the New Year with a 5Km race. That may not seem like a festive way to celebrate the New Year, but it was the best thing to do in light of the paucity of women and the total absence of family, civilian friends, and alcohol.

In spite of the cold, there were quite a few runners in the race. A couple of us who had our watches set to a GPS system synchronized the clock and the race started at exactly midnight. We took off, yelling "Happy New Year!" I sped up, broke away from the crowd, and was passed after about a quarter mile by an Air Force officer. We wished each other a merry New Year, and he left me in the dust. The remaing three miles or so consisted in trying to finish second, which I did although I was far behind the overall winner. The race organizers gave us medals and T-shirts, and took our picture. Not much of an achievement, but I take comfort in the fact that it takes most partying revelers back in Sitka much more than eighteen minutes and fifty seconds just to stagger past one homeward mile of puke-stained sidewalk.

On the third of January I got to go to a MK-19 and M203 range. The M203 (pronounced "em two-o-three") is the standard US army rifle-mounted 40mm grenade launcher, and the MK19 (pronounced "mark nineteen") is the 40mm grenade machine gun. Each one of us got to shoot 176 MK19 TP (Target Practice) grenade rounds, and 50 M203 TP grenade rounds. I was done shooting quickly, and I spent a couple of hours behind the berms looking for scorpions to catch. I only found a few beetles and lizards hiding amid large quantities of empty 35mm cartridges, small arms brass, 7.62mm links, and 5.56mm rounds.

I returned from the range to find that the platoon had been reorganized to accomodate new senior personel and give a chance at leadership to some able lower enlisted. On the upside, Yeager was made a team leader and Charnley is still my squad leader. On the downside, certain assignments seem to be designed with maximum antagonization in mind. I think most of us will simply get over whatever problems appear as a result of the new assignments.

I compiled a somewhat complete yearlist this year. I do not feel like tallying up a total right now, so it follows without numbers. Overall, it has been a rather poor year for birding because I did not do enough bird-related travel. Also, I hardly ever carried binoculars. There are only three "coches dures:" The bobwhite, seen in Mississippi, and the blue rockthrush and the Hoopoe lark, both seen in Kuwait.

Common raven
Glaucous-winged gull
Great-blue heron
American wigeon
Greater scaup
Ring-necked duck
Hooded merganser
Oregon Junco
Song Sparrow
Domestic pigeon
Bohemian waxwing
European starling
Long-tailed duck
Pelagic cormorant
Common merganser
Common loon
Barrow's goldeneye
Harlequin duck
Red-breasted merganser
Common goldeneye
Bald eagle
Black turnstone
Hermit thrush
Winter wren
Black scoter
Herring gull
Thayer's gull
Northwestern crow
Red-necked grebe
Lesser scaup
Greater scaup
Common snipe
American pipit
Belted kingfisher
Common loon
Horned grebe
Varied thrush
Golden-crowned kinglet
Green-winged teal
Rhinoceros auklet
Mew gull
Black oystercatcher
Northern flicker
American robin
Trumpeter swan
Cassin's auklet
Sharp-shinned hawk
Common snipe
Red crossbill
Red-breasted sapsucker
Pine grosbeak
White-crowned sparrow
Gray jay
Black-billed magpie
Rough-legged hawk
Snow bunting
Marsh harrier
White-winged scoter
Pigeon guillemot
Marbled murrelet
Red-necked phalarope
Pine siskin
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser yellowlegs
Marbled godwit
Northern shoveler
Hairy woodpecker
White-winged scoter
Tundra swan
Canada goose
Semipalmated plover
Rock sandpiper
Fork-tailed storm-petrel
Horned puffin
Peregrine falcon
Sooty shearwater
Yellow-rumped warbler
Tree swallow
American crow
Ruby-throated hummingbird
Mississippi kite
House sparrow
Eastern kingbird
Carolina chickadee
White-breasted nuthatch
Green heron
Red cardinal
Barn swallow
Red-winged blackbird
Turkey vulture
House finch
Red-bellied woodpecker
Indigo bunting
Pileated woodpecker
Blue jay
Common grackle
Northern oriole
Gray catbird
Brown thrasher
Eastern bluebird
Northern mockingbird
Black-crowned night-heron
Eastern towhee
Mourning dove
White ibis
Wood stork
Northern bobwhite
House sparrow
Chipping sparrow
royal tern
sandhill crane
brown pelican
Common crow
Laughing dove
Blue rockthrush
Crested lark
Black redstart
European bee eater
Hoopoe lark
European robin
White wagtail
Isabelline shrike
Red kite
Ring-necked parakeet