Thursday, September 13, 2012

Summertime in Kuwait is about to be over!

Well, it's now been ANOTHER 90 days. I promised myself I wouldn't get behind on my blog, and we see how that went! So much has happened...where shall I begin?

Since my last post in June, we've endured a "typical" Kuwaiti summer with highs in the upper 120s and lows in the upper 90s to low 100s. We did have a few days over 130°, but I survived with little more than a good sweat. Odd thing about the extreme heat--when I'm outside and the temperature is around or above 120°, my hands actually get so hot that it feels like they're on fire. I mean, to the point where I run them under "cold" water. I put that in quotes because, during the summer, the cold water here is around 120°-125°. That's what most households set their water heaters to! The hot water here is truly HOT--they typically set the 50 gallon tanks to 180°, so hot is REALLY hot! You never use the hot water during the summer, and only small amounts during the winter. It's crazy, I tell you!

Album of pictures from the
Mediterranean cruise

I did manage to knock a few things off of my bucket list this summer. Leslie and I went on a Mediterranean cruise, and what an awesome experience! We had 2 stops in France and 3 stops in Italy before returning to our port of debarkation--Barcelona. Although my phone was stolen at the Barcelona airport upon my arrival, everything else went pretty much like clockwork the rest of the week. The Hotel Catalunya was amazing, the cabin on the ship was amazing, and the food--holy shit--the food was AMAZING! There was just SO much of it! If you've never been on a cruise, I highly recommend it. Royal Carribbean isn't the cheapest, but they make up for it with amenities like you wouldn't believe--amazing Broadway-style shows, an ice show like no other, customer service that was second to none, and just an overall A+ experience. I sound like a commercial, but it really was just that damn awesome. We had fun every single day, and saw amazing sights like Pompeii, the leaning tower of Pisa, downtown Florence, the Pantheon, Mt. Vesuvius, the French Riviera, and a host of other sights. I took a lot of pictures, but Leslie tells me that pictures without one of us in them would be "less interesting", so forgive me if my photos are "less interesting" because I was just snapping picture after picture in awe.

Upon my return to Kuwait, I found out that we were moving into different accommodations. Notice I didn't say "better" accommodations--just "different". It's still a CHU, as they're called here (Containerized Housing Unit), which basically amounts to a box with doors. They have air conditioning, but when the dust storms hit, the dust just blows right in through the window units. We had a really bad sandstorm just 24 hours after we had moved in, and I came in after work to find all of my stuff--laptop, Xoom, TV, bed) covered with a very heavy layer of talcum-powder-fine dust. So I spent the next 3 hours cleaning, washing and meticulously dusting my electronics....only to have the storm intensify overnight into a full-blown blackout sandstorm the following day. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE this place?

So that brings us up to now. Nothing much really changes here day-to-day. The temperatures are finally falling to mid-70s at night and lower 100s during the day, and the cold water is now actually not scalding hot. I will be taking pictures and video of everything as soon as I move back to day shift. As much as I prefer the night shift (7p-7a), it is a highly sought-after time slot, and my time was short. I will be back on nights as soon as someone leaves, which shouldn't be long. Turnaround at this place is tremendous. I've been here 6-1/2 months, and we've already lost 1/2 of the staff that was here when I got here in March. That's just a small sign of how much this place sucks.

To answer a few questions I've gotten via email--no, I have not cut my hair yet. It is about down to the middle of my back now. I'll cut it after I am moved back to the states for good and donate it then. Another question--yes, it REALLY DOES get to be 130°+ here during the summer. I have a couple of pictures on my Facebook page of the thermometer on my bicycle reading well over 130°. Although it only got that hot about a dozen times this summer, it was enough to convince me that I don't want to live here on a permanent basis! Another--I plan on being here until August 1, 2013. I don't think I can take much more than that. That will be a year and a half, and that's certainly enough for me. Last one--my "room" is about 12'x22', and it is divided roughly in half. I have the front half (with the door and the tiny window), so my actual space is only about 9' wide and maybe 10' long. A metal bunk bed, 2 wall lockers, and my 'personal stuff" (TV, laptop/desk, small refrigerator, microwave) are the amenities that we have. Entertainment is to download movies and TV shows to watch on days off. That is life in Kuwait!

Until next time....

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Kuwait--the first 90 days

So I've now been here for about 90 days, and what a time it has been. In those 90 days, I've been through the gamut--from injuries to entertainment to everything in between! Here's the Reader's Digest version:

  • Toby Keith in concert
  • Ambulance ride to Camp Arifjan for what could equate to bad heartburn, thanks to an overzealous co-worker
  • Studying for certification exams
  • Passing the COMPTIA Security+ exam
  • Weekly dust storms of epic proportions--50mph winds with sand and dust so heavy you can't see your feet
  • Thunderstorms that would dwarf a typical thunderstorm in the US--complete with purple lightning!
  • Sprained ankle so bad that it looks like a broken leg
And that's just the first 90 days! I look forward to what Kuwait has for me in the next 90 days!

As far as things go, it's been moving as fast as I had hoped it would. There is very little to do here, so boredom becomes your worst enemy. They have movies every day, all day long...but how many times can you watch the same crummy movies? Because we're 25 miles from the nearest--anything--you have to find a ride anytime you want to do something or go somewhere. It typically takes many months to get a Kuwaiti driver's license, at which point you become everyone else's chauffeur, which is also a curse. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I have been studying for certification tests in order to move from Service Desk to System Admin. That's the whole reason I came to Kuwait in the first place, and if my recruiter with ITT/Exelis hadn't been such a stark raving idiot (that's Shelley Haymaker, in case you were wondering). I just told her to get me on a plane and I would do the rest. At that point, after eight months, I just had to get moving before the window of opportunity closed. So, with the COMPTIA Security+ exam out of the way, next stop is my MCITP: Server Administrator, then finally, the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator. The second is the BIG certification--it's the hardest, but can lead to the most open doors. The first certification takes two tests, and the second takes three. It's fortunate that there is a considerable amount of down time here to allow for studying, as there is a LOT of studying to do! I'll just be glad when that part is done.

The dust storms here are absolutely ridiculous! They come out of nowhere, with the worst one hitting in the middle of the night on May 3. Known as a 'Haboob', these storms are crazy! May 3, the winds were hurricane-force (75+ mph), and carried enough dirt to completely immobilize a vehicle in a matter of minutes. The air conditioners struggled to keep the rooms cool, but required washing over the course of the next few days in order to clear the pounds of sand out of the coils that accumulated in just one night. We have since had several "lesser" storms--but don't let that fool you. Even the lesser storms can get ugly fast! Last week's storm shut down the base for two days--the trucks that haul water in and sewage out couldn't drive, so things turned ugly really quickly. The toilet sources here are typically porta-potties (known as 'the hotbox'), and when they go more than 24 hours without a little maintenance, it becomes quite a mess. But we survived once again.

Summer has arrived, even if the calendar doesn't say so. It's been at least 110º-115º here every day since mid-May, with highs reaching as high as 125º so far. It's early for such temps from what I understand, so this summer looks to be beyond 'extremely hot', more like 'deadly hot'. Predictions by the weather team here, you ask? Looks like 140º or more will be common. I'll never complain about Arkansas summers again!

That's it for now. Time to get back to work. Until next time....

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Is it vacation time yet?

The first month in Kuwait has come and gone, and I don't have a whole lot to say about it. The place is still dull...boring...and very flat. I have made my way into Kuwait City to visit civilization, so that was a welcome break. The 360 Mall is quite a treat--found a nice steak house there, even though there is no alcohol served. Which brings me to my next thought...

Leslie and I have planned a Mediterranean cruise for this summer, and I gotta tell you how excited I am about it. We had spoken many times about visiting Europe during my stint over here, but never could really come up with a good plan. I suggested a cruise just because it seemed like the most affordable method of visiting, eating and sleeping in the shortest amount of time. Ireland and the UK will have to wait until I have completed my rounds over here...but we will be back! As it stands, we'll see places like Rome, Pisa and Barcelona, which we'd otherwise likely never get to see. I will also get to spend time with Leslie...and by that time, being without alcohol and "female companionship" for half a year will ensure that we'll be spending a good bit of quality time together! But that's enough about that...I'm sure she'd appreciate such references on a public forum.

While I'm here, the "computer geek" in me is forcing me to get my certifications updated...not just because I want to, but because it could afford me the opportunity to advance here and make buku dinero, while also making me more marketable when I return to the US to search out a job. Oddly enough, as I browse the classifieds from Kuwait, I find that the job market isn't really just bubbling over with opportunities. What does that mean for me? Depending on the opportunities available in the US when it's time for me to fly, I may or may not be staying here longer (UGH!). As unpleasant as that sounds, the money I'm making here is certainly plentiful enough to make things just a bit more bearable--JUST A BIT. Soldier deployments are typically a year or less in most cases, and as I've always said, if it's good enough for them, it's certainly good enough for me. And I'm making considerably more than most of them do!

So, that's all for today. I'll update again with some pictures when I have something different to show. Until next time....

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A month at Camp Buehring

It's now been about a month since I flew out of Little Rock, en route to this place they call a "Camp". I've seen plenty of tents, but this isn't what I'd call FUN! The work here is gruelling--it takes a while to adjust to 12 hour days, especially when you spend those hours locked in a windowless room, taking call after call, listening to people drone on about this and that. I guess the best part is, I'm getting paid, and getting paid WELL. It could be worse--I could be one of the soldiers stomping around in that horrid sand, getting paid a fraction of what is deserved. But I digress...

On a good note, Leslie and I have managed to secure our Mediterranean cruise in July. We'll be cruising out of Barcelona, Spain, on Royal Caribbean's "Liberty of the Seas", en route to destinations like Nice and Provence, France, Florence, Rome and Pisa, Italy, and good old Barcelona! It's eight days of sun and cruising, with plenty of fun and food and adventure for anyone. I'll be posting lots of pictures from that trip--bet on that! It may not seem like much, but when you're away from friends and family for such a long time, you really look forward to things like this. Besides, how many people get to see such sites in their lifetime? This is exactly what we had planned when I took this position in Kuwait--to travel and see the world. And so it begins!

On another note, I have made mention of how absolutely trashy this country is. I've been as graphic as I could, but without seeing, you may not be a true believer. So, I took the liberty of recording a little video while we were driving down the highway the other day. It's an HQ video, so you can freeze it at any point and see just how utterly disgusting this place is. I actually shot two videos--you can't see all of the trash properly in a single video!

Welcome to the world of Kuwait and all of its trash!

That's all for today. Until next time....

Thursday, March 29, 2012

We have arrived at Camp Buehring

After the chaos and insanity that got us here, we've finally made our way to Camp Buehring, formerly known as Camp Udairi. Here, we find a whole lot of nothing. A huge air strip that is extremely busy with US Army Apache helicopters flying constant sorties, billeting in the form of "shotgun"-style trailers--a hallway down the center with four rooms on either side. Each room should hold 2-3 people, but because of the troop drawdown in Iraq, some of the rooms are stacked up to 4 and 5 deep. We were one of the fortunate to be assigned to a room with 5 people. Oh, joy.

Look closely and you'll
see several dead camels
on the side of the road
The road to Buehring is anything but scenic. Mile after mile of blowing trash, sand, and dead camels. No, they didn't die naturally--they're just really slow, and the vehicle traffic on this lone highway is very high and very fast. You almost have to chuckle a little thinking about a big, slow camel making its way across the highway--I mean, there isn't a single tree or bush to "hide" them, so exactly how is it that these huge animals are able to surprise you walking across the highway? You can see miles ahead of you, yet there are dozens of dead camels scattered all along this highway.

A bit of trivia for you--the highway we're on (Highway 80) is known as the "Highway of Death". This is the road the Saddam Hussein (no relation to Barack Hussein Obama known at this time) took his Iraqi troops down when he invaded Kuwait's oil fields. Camp Udairi was actually taken over by Iraqi troops for several months, but was riddled by US troops and their "bunker buster" bombs, which penetrated the French-built bunkers that the French guaranteed to be 'impenetrable'. I guess that didn't work out too well for them. But I digress....

Half-way back to the house from the
bathrooms. Loving the landscaping!
Upon arrival at the barracks, I can't say I'm impressed. They're arranged in a sort-of rectangle, with the bathrooms being the center of the rectangle. In other words, some of the housing is a pretty good jaunt to the bathrooms. My house is such a place. It's on the corner, so it's the FURTHEST away. Try making a run for the border at 4:30 in the morning when you've REALLY got to go, but it's 150 yards away! I guess it's not bad, but it makes for an interesting wake up in the morning.

The view just outside the T-walls in
front of my billets. Not a lot to see here.
There are several pods of these portable buildings, each housing anywhere from 25-40 people. They're surrounded by six foot 'T-walls', which are intended to block drive-by bombers or suicide drivers trying to crash into the housing units. These T-walls are usually painted up by the troops who spend a rotation at this God-forsaken hell hole, and some of them get pretty creative. That, coupled with the porta-potties scattered all about the campus, make for a

So, that's about it for this trip. I'll try to get more pictures as I can, but they're very much frowned upon in most places on base. I'm not really sure why, as Google Maps certainly has no problems showing it all...but whatever. Until next time....

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Training week in Mahboula, Kuwait

The ABC Towers in Mahboula, Kuwait
When we last spoke, I had just arrived in Kuwait, and we had experienced the wonders of Ali Al Salem. Well, my contractor, ITT/Exelis, has procured apartments in a downtown area in Kuwait City known as Mahboula. So, we are shuttled in a nicer bus (still with curtains drawn) to these apartments, not knowing what to expect. There were 19 of us, all of differing ages, experience levels and job statuses. We arrive at the buildings, and WHOA! There, we find two 18-story towers, with glistening marble floors and all the trimmings. We would be housed on the 2nd and 3rd floors, with our group split mostly in half.

The strip mall in front of the towers

McDonald's, with a Play Place!

Hardee's and Baskin Robbins
The apartments were 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, with plenty of furniture for everyone. The biggest drawback were the bunk beds in each room. The apartment was made to sleep 18, but we were lucky to get by with only 10. So, we each claimed our bunk, then set out to explore. Across the street, there was a strip mall, which housed a McDonald's, a Hardee's, a Baskin Robbins, a Starbucks, and several other American cuisines. We also had a Domino's Pizza next door, as well as a Buffalo Wild Wings directly in front of our building. Down the street, there was Taco Bell, Burger King, TGI Friday's, Chili's and a host of other American delights too numerous to name! It was like I never left home!

Talk about a motley crew!
Every day, we would wake up very early, do our morning routines, and be on a bus by 6:30, headed across town to our training center, which was actually a 3-story home in a residential part of Kuwait City. We would be downstairs, taking tests and filling out the necessary forms to ensure that we could not only stay in Kuwait legally, but work for the US Army legally, as well. Lunches were fish and chicken every day, but in different forms. It was a very deliberate process that concluded on time--surprising, considering we were a day late because of the airplane incident. Our last day in class would be Friday morning, and we would conclude just after lunch, at which time we were divvied up to be shipped to our respective final destination, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar or Kuwait. Some were on their first tour, but several were on their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th tour. Most were headed to Afghanistan, some were off to Iraq, and a handful were headed to Kuwait. All in all, not a bad bunch of guys.

Outside our window at 9:00am
Outside our window at 12:00 noon
Our departure from the villa was delayed by two days due to--you want to guess?--a dust storm. This one blew in so fast that we weren't even able to make adjustments. We woke up to crystal blue skies, but within just a few short hours, visibility was down to nearly zero. It lasted for a day and a half, but we had to get out on Sunday, because the next group was going to be there within just a few minutes. So we made our exit, passing the next incoming group on our way out of the parking lot. What an adventure!

Now, it's off to Camp Buehring...a very remote post located just eight miles south of the Iraq border. It's not close to anything, and it is completely cut off from the outside world. There are no trees, no grass, no bushes...basically, it's just a camp in the middle of hell. More on that in my next posting. Until next time...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Welcome to Kuwait -- the first days

So, it's been several months since I last posted, and there's a reason for that. I've been preparing for my journey to the Middle East--Kuwait. As of March 3, I am officially a resident of that very place. So I figured I would give you a chronology of my trip, as best as I can.

Camp Atterbury
What can you say about Camp Atterbury? It's HELL on a stick! This is where all of the contractors from all of the different companies go to get their medical, dental and other clearances to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Kuwait. There are hundreds of them processed through every week! Some will make it, others will not.

Rows of bunks at Camp Atterbury
So, we arrive on this sprawled out, 36,000 acre post after an oh-so-eventful plane ride, and a bus ride that would rattle the fillings out of a corpse. We're given our billeting, and told to "move out smartly" to our assigned areas. So I pick up my giant duffel bag and my computer bag, and I'm on my way. When I arrive, I'm less than impressed. Row after row of bunk beds, all stripped of character (and linens). Canvas mattresses? Where are we, prison?! We're given sheets to make these bunks, along with a thin wool blanket. We'll make do, right?

My bunk
It snowed the first night. The winds howled in at 25mph. It was 25°. Did I mention that the door latch was broken, so the door wouldn't stay CLOSED? But we made do. My bunk was the first one by the door, so I got to experience the cold winds first hand. Is it really that hard to close a door?

The only redeeming quality--the All Ranks Club. We could walk there and have a few cold beers, a great steak, and play a little pool. The club was where you'd go after you got evening chow, simply because you were headed to a country where alcohol, pork and fun were all illegal. May as well get it in while you can!

As our time at Camp Atterbury drew to a close, we were quickly herded into buses and carried to a large concrete and steel building on the outskirts of the post, where we were to wait for our "Chalk" (another name for "bus ride shift") to depart. However, upon getting all 300+ of us into this building, we were informed that our plane had a problem with the air recirculating system, and that the parts had to be flown in from Baltimore. What did that mean for us? You guessed it--14 hours sitting in this aforementioned concrete and steel building. There were no padded chairs, and the floors were terribly dirty from the mud that had dried from all of the boots and feet that had plodded in.

Where we stayed for 14 hours
So, as we spent the entire night in this building, we were informed that our "Chalks" would begin departing at 4:00am. Yes, we'd spent the entire night in this building. We were exhausted, hungry, and by this time, pissed. I managed to snap a picture of the pleasant conditions we were kept in--plastic tables, folding chairs and concrete floors. Awesome job, Atterbury!

So, here came 4:00am. We were herded onto the buses like cattle for the hour-or-so-long drive to the Indianapolis International Airport, where we would be queued up like cattle (notice a theme here?) to have our bags checked in and our passports validated. This process would take upwards of two hours. Then, we would head to our gate and proceed to wait another three hours before our plane was ready to fly.

Beef tips and mashed potatoes--dinner
We boarded our plane, a World Airways MD-11, which was 10 seats wide in the middle. Comfort was adequate, considering it was a 12 hour flight. Movies played on screens that were green and out of focus from age, and everything rattled and squeaked. The meals were "OK"...with the customary, "Chicken or pasta?" question coming several hundred times over the course of our flight from Indy to Leipzig, Germany. The meals weren't bad...a little bit institutional, but not bad. By this point, we were nearly famished, so we scarfed it down, like it or not. It was survival food by now.

Leipzig came and went in a blur, with the customary 'bier' purchases coming fast and furious, as it was the last imbibings that we'd be getting for quite some time. We were there for about two hours, then it was back on the plane, headed for Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Ali Al Salem

Our arrival was uneventful, as expected. However, there was a dust storm underway, which became painfully evident as we flew in--everything was blurred by the dust and the strong winds, and the dust was unrelenting. The best part of the whole trip was, upon our deplaning, some Army guy came on the plane and got on the loudspeaker, proclaiming that they needed "40 people" to help with the bags. To those not paying attention, this was quite unexpected. We were to unload our own baggage? What kind of place is this? Then I remembered--we're on a "Mil Air" flight, which is synonymous with "no frills". I was unable to take photos, as they were strictly forbidden in and around the airport. Not really sure why...but whatever.

We were then loaded on to buses with carefully-closed curtains, so as to keep the "Hadjis"--the name given to native Middle-easterners--from getting a bead on passengers, just in case they weren't American-friendly. We were driven quite some distance over numerous speed bumps and near-hit traffic incidents to Ali Al Salem, the camp designated as the transient distribution center for Kuwait. Nearly everyone processing in or out of Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan typically will process thru Ali Al Salem. Here, we're met with row after row after row of tents. Not just tents, but AIR CONDITIONED tents. My best count is that there were 216 of these fine tents, each with a 5-ton AC unit. We would be assigned a tent at the very back of the pod, with only three people bunking in a tent big enough to house 24.
Tents at Ali Al Salem

Dropoff point at Ali Al Salem
Rows of generators for the tents

Off in the distance, you can see
rockets aimed directly at Iraq from
Ali Al Salem

More of the tents at Ali Al Salem
We would find water to be plentiful, as there are 'water stations' sprinkled throughout all of the camps in Kuwait due to the extreme heat and very low humidity. There are also smoking stations nearby, and everything is surrounded by 'T-walls', which are 6' high cement walls meant to deflect a blast from a bomb, or to prevent suicide bombers from driving a vehicle into heavily occupied areas.

As we met with our ITT contacts, we discovered we would be leaving this canvas paradise for a "villa" in downtown Mahboula. This turned out to be a nice place...where we would spend yet another week. We would be bussed to training during the day, then we would fend for ourselves to get dinner and ensconce ourselves in the Kuwaiti culture. But that's for my next blog entry.

Until next time....