By Adriana Páramo
I landed in Kuwait in the summer of 1996. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, a violent searing puff of sand hit my face, fogged up my glasses, and punched me nice and square in my throat. A heavy sandstorm had swept across the country, clouding the sky for days. When the sun came out, Kuwait simmered in a miasma at 120F. This new kind of heat felt red, angry and sharp, like a discordant violin. Like a searing blow to the head breaking the skin all the way to the other side of the skull.
The customs officer looked displeased with my presence, as if something about the combination of: Colombian passport/woman traveling alone/dark skin/unruly curly hair, offended him. What was I doing in Kuwait without a male chaperone? I told him about my job offer as a teacher while he examined my passport suspiciously. He muttered something under his mustache. I wondered if he’d like to share with me useful tidbits of information about his country. You know, mundane tips on how to survive my first Arabian Desert summer, such as:
Do not leave anything locked in your car, the summer heat reduces plastic bottles, toys, and anything malleable into an amorphous mass of twisted polymers. Do not attempt fastening your seat belt as soon as you get in the car. The buckle will sear your fingers before you click the strap. Wear gloves. You’ll feel as ridiculous as you look, but while in Kuwait, do as Kuwaitis do.
Sprinkle your stifling summer with flakes of levity. Don’t take the heat too seriously. It is temporary. Play with it. Cook eggs on the hood of your car. Watch the whites bubble up as they curl like the pages of an old book.
Stare at the fully-clothed Muslim women bobbing in the waters of the Gulf and wonder how they manage to keep their wet scarves on.
Get a box of dust facemasks. You will need to cover your mouth and nose from June to July when the bawarih season brings heavy sandstorms all the way from Saudi Arabia.Tiny dust particles will cover everything, everything. Don’t bother cleaning your house. It’s impractical.
In August, brace yourself for the 90% humidity. Get used to fogged up windows, sunglasses, mirrors, headlights, camera lenses, and windshields. Don’t expect balmy evenings. Muggy days are typically followed by muggy nights.
Don’t think the melanin concentration in your brown skin will protect you from the UV rays. The Arabian sun is an equalizer. Your skin will sizzle, blister, curl, blacken and peel off, just like a white woman’s skin would.
The customer officer stamped my passport. Reluctantly. As though if he could have it his way, he would send my Latino ass back to the USA. I’m here to teach your brothers and sisters, I wanted to say in my defense, but he refused to look at me. Instead, he pushed my passport under the window, turned his back at me, and waited until I disappeared into the crowd.
Adriana Páramo is a cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate. She is the author of “Looking for Esperanza,” and “My Mother’s Funeral.” Her essays have appeared in multiple literary magazines and been noted in The Best American Essays of 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2014, she was named as one of the top ten Latino authors in the USA. She is an adjunct professor in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University and an active member of the travel writing workshop of VONA—Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation—a community of writers of color. She keeps a travel blog at: http://www.paramoadriana.com/travel-blog