Hunting the Hummingbird - by David C Hoffman

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

My walk to work

(a glimpse inside David's head...)

I was surprised to find that there is a direct relationship between the temperature of my shower in the morning and how much I sweat on my walk to work. It’s only about a 20 minute walk – not even a mile probably – but it’s almost 90°F as I leave around 6:15am, so if I warm my body up much in the shower, I’m prone to sweat within the first block. So a nice lukewarm shower is often how I start my day, followed by a cup of coffee made from dried crystals and the used electric kettle furnished by my employer. (Even at nice work functions – with nice catering - I’ve been given coffee made from crystals…) Dressed in work-out clothes and lacing up my running shoes, I carefully fold my ironed work clothes into a bag to carry to work, slip into the kids’ room, kiss their sleeping foreheads (sometimes Abbey’s awake “Are you going to work? I love you” she whispers), do the same for Kendra – who’s sleeping soundly – and leave the apartment.

There are only two apartments per floor in our building, and the space between the two elevators outside them is not air-conditioned. The sweating begins. I look out to the south of our building as the car comes up from the ground floor. I hear it say “Seventh floor” from behind the closed doors and walk over to board. The mirrored walls give me a chance to check my teeth, bemoan my puffy eyes, and look over my walking attire before getting out in the lobby. Mustafa’s never in the lobby (as he normally is) as I leave, but there’s evidence he’s been up: the door is unlocked, his shoes are outside his door, and the pile of newspapers on the table bear the day’s date. I pull open the door and step outside.

For the first few blocks, I try to ignore the inner argument I have every morning: “It’s not that hot. It’s fine. Just a short walk. Don’t walk too fast.” The other voice responds: “Damn, it’s hot. It’s just past 6 in the morning and it’s already hotter than most days in Portland. That guy’s not sweating like you are.” The man walks by me, and I nod. At this hour, no one is particularly friendly. “It’s not that bad. Don’t think of it. You knew it would be hot in Kuwait. They say it’ll cool down within the month. Hell, yesterday was only 109. The day before was 115. It’s way hotter when you walk home. Don’t think about it.” The roaming taxis that are ubiquitous even at this hour always seem to spot me. They honk, circle, slow down, as if I’m really quite absurd to be walking. They don’t seem to do it for the darker skinned folks I walk by… “But, damn, it really is hot. You’re already starting to sweat. You’re not even two blocks from your building!” I navigate the broken path that is my sidewalk, zigzagging between dumpsters and dumped food from last night’s dinner, sewer grates, and oddly-parked cars. The rail-thin street cats scatter even though I give them wide berth and say nice words. They gallop a short distance, then lay down to observe me pass, ears switching to other sounds as their eyes remain fixed on me. “It’s not that bad,” I finally decide, “and so what if I sweat? I’m a sweater. This is what Americans do. We walk if we can. We make our own way. We don’t pay for taxis for a five minute ride. Who cares if they stare at me?”

About halfway there and a very friendly fly always seems to want to accompany my face the rest of the way, penetrating my ear, nose, eyes even. “No means no,” I told him once. He didn’t get the joke. I don’t know where he’s been, so I swat at him evenly, trying not to be too bothered.

It’s really quite pretty at this time of the morning. The streets aren’t so busy. It’s not really that hot. If I were just sitting on the low wall that rims the park to my right, it would be a very pleasant way to watch the sun rise and Kuwait wake up. As it is, I walk. And sweat. And try not to think of the sweat. And the flies. And that smell that I get from the open sewer lines every once in a while. And the poor street cats that Abbey would love to give a home. And the diseases they probably have. I’ve only seen one that didn’t look scary thin, near death. He looked like he was just coming out of his home in the morning to gloat over the street cats who don’t have someone to look after them. Didn’t seem to notice me walking by him, accustomed to humans, I supposed.

Near the end of the park block, I cross the street by the international clinic, which is currently ringed with scaffolding of a sort that reminds me of pyramid building, old wood knotted together with what looks like old shirts. It’s the same a block or two later where a palatial white house (or government building of some sort) is being finished. The tools and workers look like they’ve come from ancient Egypt, but the work they complete is pristine. “OSHA would not approve,” I think and laugh, reminding myself that this is how the pyramids were built. And then I think, “And how many people died building the pyramids?” I try not to think of their safety. Safety is relative, I suppose, and they’re professionals, I also suppose. Besides, I’m just a foreigner with foreign ideas.

The next block is my favorite. At the head of the street, an elderly Muslim man in cap and gown (not so blindingly white as the young men at the university wear), sits behind his older Lexus and reads his morning newspaper on a low wooden bench under a metal awning in front of his house. He never looks up at me. He’s the kind of man I want to meet. He’s the kind of man I want to ask about Kuwait, about Islam, about Arabic, about the Iraqi invasion, and about foreign workers and investment. I wonder what he thinks about oil and the wealth it’s brought. Maybe someday I’ll introduce myself. But maybe he’ll wonder what a man in work-out clothes who’s walking and sweating at this time of the morning would want with him.

A few houses down is the little boy and his sister and nanny. Glasses too big and pants pulled up too far, he’s dressed for school like his sister is. But unlike his sister, who’s too busy dancing or fussing to ever notice me, and unlike his nanny, who always seems to be looking away when I glance to say good morning, the boy stares at me as soon as I come in sight. His look belies a sense of wonderment at seeing me, as if this is his daily visit from his delightful imaginary friend. I’m always sure to wave, which only doubles his grin. He once adjusted his glasses, but he’s yet to wave. I wonder if he’s still trying to decide if I’m real.

I’m getting close now. I can see the large mosque by the school. There’s no denying it now: I’m in full sweat. Depending on the shirt, it can be more or less obvious. I really don’t know why I’m so obsessed with measuring how much sweat can be seen on me. Maybe it’s because it’s a mark of my “foreign-ness” – like I’m just not used to the weather here, like I just don’t belong here. Maybe it’s because I’m the only one I know who walks to work, and it seems a bit odd to other folks. Maybe it’s because walking is considered too low for people of modest wealth, and I’m breaking some kind of mold. More likely is that I’m just self-conscious – not about most things – but damn, I am a sweater. The internal argument resumes: “It doesn’t matter. So what if you sweat? You’re walking to work. That’s commendable. Saves you money, helps with the fitness. Who cares if you sweat? You’re bringing you to Kuwait. Don’t let the norms of Kuwait change you.” This street is always a bit busier as some sort of delivery truck always seems to have some business at the mosque, parked in back. “But it is hot,” my inner voice argues, “and maybe they don’t walk here because they know something you don’t. Isn’t that the first rule of cross-cultural communication: watch what other people do, and do the same?” I come to my first busy street along this walk, and look across it to the entrance gate I always pass through at the university. Most mornings, I have to wait a bit to time my passage across the street. Not exactly Frogger at this time in the morning, but there’s still some strategy to it. As I reach the other side, the other voice argues back, “But I’m bringing David to Kuwait, man. I don’t care what they do or think of me.”

Being a teacher here is a bit different than back home. The man at the gate says, “Good morning, sir.” The dozen maids and janitorial staff who are busy cleaning the university grounds that I pass by all stop to say the same. They make a point to call me “sir,” or “good sir.” The look on most of their faces is not feigned respect – there really is something to it. They look up to me in some way. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re instructed (demanded) to treat each instructor with respect – to say good morning – upon pain of losing of their job or something. From some stories I’ve heard, that may not be too far from the truth. But with the few that I’ve met and had some kind of interaction with, I get the feeling that they’re really surprised I’m talking with them – as if I shouldn’t, as if other teachers normally don’t – and that doing so really brightens their day. It pains me a bit to say that...

I don’t want to recognize that just because I’m white, and a man, and a teacher, and an American working at an American university, walking in with my work bag, walking up to my office, that that should confer on me any distinct advantage over these people who are mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal, or the Philippines – here to earn some money for their families just like I am. I don’t really want to know how much more I make for how much less I work. So I have a different skillset. Should I really have such an advantage? What can I do in return but try to look them in the eyes and talk to them like the unique individuals they are? It would be wrong, I think, to do anything else.

Riding the elevator to the fifth floor always bothers me. I always, ALWAYS, get dizzy for a minute or two after getting off elevators. But I’m not about to climb five flights of stairs in this kind of sweat. Luckily, the AC has already halted my sweating, and soon I’ll be dry and cold in my office, ready to head to the john with my work clothes to change in a bathroom stall. I’m normally the first to reach the office in the morning, and I’ve got a brightly-lit little room off the copy room all to myself – the first time I’ve ever had my own office, with my own key, my own cabinets and bookshelf. It’s all empty, and I can’t think of how on earth I’ll ever fill up this office. Not in my two years. Everyone keeps saying, “That’s what they all say,” when we say we’re here for two years, citing person after person who ends up staying closer to a decade. “But it’s too damn hot,” the inner voice says. And the other one agrees, “Yes, and we love the rain in Oregon.”


  1. "I don’t really want to know how much more I make for how much less I work. So I have a different skillset. Should I really have such an advantage?"

    I've had that exact thought so many times. I don't have an answer yet. And if the answer is no - if we shouldn't have this advantage - then what?

  2. David, it is so good to hear your voice in your writing, and I enjoyed your post so much. It brought back so many memories. I don't think it ever occurred to me to take a cool or cold shower until I lived in a hot country, and then I started taking them multiple times a day (no AC). I remember writing a letter to my mom about the heat, and having sweat drip off the tip of my nose onto the paper. I love the green of Oregon, but I wouldn't have traded those experiences for anything. Enjoy it all!

  3. Hijack more often! I loved hearing your voice and perspective!

  4. Great to hear how you see things in your new home. We miss you and are envious of the adventure you are on! Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

    Steve Todd

  5. Thanks for the walk. That was a vivid and neat window into daily life.

  6. OH MY... I wouldn't even last waiting for the elevator! How much is the cab???? You are a true hero walking so the family can enjoy donuts! Love you!