In Kuwait, victories are measured in small doses. What appears basic, mundane, obvious, takes on a life of its own. Did I make it through the week without getting in an accident? Check. Victory. Did I survive the heat without melting into a puddle on the blazing concrete? Check. Victory. Did I make it a whole week without any creepy stalker cars following me on the road? Check. Victory.
In the past few weeks, I've had a few major victories that seem to indicate that I am adapting to life here (after 1.5 years!). I don't know if it's a good thing or if it's a sign that it's time to move on...but I'll take the victories wherever I can get them. So here are a few tales from life in Kuwait. The stories can get a bit long, so I'll start with one, and add a few more in the next few days in new posts.
1. VIVA. Viva is my internet provider. Correction, was my internet provider. When I first moved to Kuwait, the internet in my building was less than reliable. Since I refuse to be in Kuwait without having the ability to connect with family and friends, I decided to spring for the extra internet service- basically it's a USB that plugs into your computer and connects you to the internet. I signed a one-year contract, and dished out about $80/month to have "reliable" internet. Unfortunately, it ended up being less than reliable. Why you ask? Well, that's what I asked them. Answer: well madame, since you live on the 16th floor, you are too high up to catch the internet waves sent off by our tower. So you see, it's not our fault. You should live on a lower floor. Oh really. Fine, I signed a contract so I'll stick to it. I faithfully made my payments, even though I stopped needing that internet months ago. So when my contract was finally set to expire (february), I went into the store, paid the remainder of my bill, and told them that I would not be renewing. The internet was shut off a few weeks later, and I forgot all about it.
Well, about a month ago I decided to go into the store just to make sure my account was clear. To my surprise, I found out that I owed about $300 in unpaid bills. They had never ended my contract, and had been charging me since February. They had shut down my internet for "non-payment" and kept charging me. So I explained the story, and they said "you should have signed an end-of-contract paper." I replied that no one gave me the aforementioned paper, and that's not my fault. They said that there is nothing they can do. I have to pay the full amount. And I am not allowed to sign the paper until I have paid it...which means I would keep wracking up more payments until I paid it. I got a bit upset, and asked to speak to a manager. She told me the same thing, ending with "Habibti, there is nothing we can do. Your only option is to go visit the lawyer's office." (Note: Habibti means "my dear" in Arabic...it can be a term of endearment, but in this context sounds more condescending than anything else.) I told her I would go to the lawyer right then. She informed me that the lawyer only works 8am-noon on Sun-Thurs. I told her, "must be nice." So the next day, I took an hour off work and visited the lawyer. I was a bit apprehensive, to say the least. I knew what to expect...an office full of Kuwaiti men, in full dishdasha, drinking tea all day, and probably not much accustomed to providing customer service...especially not to a pale white american chick. I found the building, and finally made it up to their office. No office sign. No indications that I was in the right place. All doors on the floor locked. I started going up and down the hall knocking on every door. Finally, one of them opened up and I walked in. Sure enough, the room was full of Kuwaiti men, in full dishdasha, drinking tea. Dozens of pairs of eyes turned to stare at me. I guess they don't have single american chicks walking into their office very often. I found the right lawyer, and sat down to tell my story. He was very courteous, and asked me to write out my story on a tiny piece of paper. I did so, and he said that he would present it to the administrative board and I would get my answer in 3 days. I left quickly, relieved to have made it through yet another cultural experience in Kuwait.
Unfortunately, 4 days later he called me to say that my request had been denied. I had to pay the full amount. When I asked who to speak to next, he said there was no one. They were the top dogs, "Habibti, we are the lawyers. There is nothing more you can do. Sorry Habibti." By this point, I was more than a little frustrated. I was also not feeling well, and was in a bit of a spitfire mood. I was actually trying to decrease my daily stress, so I finally decided to just pay the money and be done with it. I would let Kuwait have the victory this time, in the hopes of keeping my sanity. However, I wouldn't go out with a fight. I decided to write a long letter, detailing my experience, the lack of customer service, my frustration, and my displeasure at the completely ridiculous fact that I was being forced to pay for their employees' incompetence (how could I know about a silly piece of paper if they never told me?). I wrote the letter, felt a lot better about things after getting my feelings on paper, and proceeded to my local VIVA store to make the payment and drop off the paper. Oh, and did I forget to mention? In the letter, I informed them that I would be sending that same letter to all of the newspapers in Kuwait, as well as telling all of my friends at the American embassy about the way they treat their customers. Shame has a very powerful effect in eastern cultures. I had tried to play nice, but I was done. Finished. Highly annoyed.
It was at this point that I met my favorite VIVA employee. He had the luck (read: misfortune) to call my number when i got to VIVA. I gave him the letter and told him I would make the payment. It was at this point that the truly miraculous happened. He asked me to tell him my story. He wanted to know why I was so upset. It was the first time anyone had asked for the story. On a side note, just before going into the store, I had been sitting in my car crying. I wasn't feeling well, and the frustration was just overwhelming. So here I was, sitting across from him, wearing sunglasses to hide my red eyes. And he was the first nice person in this entire mess. And I just talked and talked and talked. I told him about my frustration, about how hard it was to be living in Kuwait as a single american girl, about trying to navigate the cultural differences, about how i hadn't been feeling well, and on and on. Poor guy. At the end of it, he took a deep breath, and told me that he wanted me to wait to pay. He wanted to present the letter to his manager, and see if something could be done. I said that would be fine, gave him my cell number, and beat a hasty retreat (thoroughly embarrassed by the fact that I almost had a complete breakdown in front of him).
Over the next 3 days, he stayed in contact via text messages, updating me about his conversations with his boss, telling me that they were checking into various options. And then on the fourth day, the true miracle: he called to say that they had forgiven the payments charged after my end of contract, and were clearing my account. I had won! Victory. I thanked him profusely, wrote a nice email telling his manager that he was the best employee at VIVA, and signed that silly piece of paper. I am now officially free of VIVA. Freedom. Check. Victory.