Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Once again, for the second time in 18 months, I am editing my life down to 30 kilos of stuff, the maximum allowed by the airline. It is odd to me that after spending most of my life collecting and hoarding things, I find it incredibly satisfying to let go of things. The first time I did it was terrifying. I was scared that it would feel like cutting off a limb, giving up a part of myself. And the truth is, it was not at all like cutting off a limb, but very much about giving up a part of myself.

It is amazing to look at things, and they are just things, and ask if it is really important, if it really matters in my life or in the whole scheme of things. I find that what I hold onto are not the things of monetary value. For the second time, those are the first to go. The things I hold onto are the ones with memories attached. The chops I bought in China when I was there with Ulco and Ann and the Buddha that Mark gave me as a gift from Thailand. As objects, they are worth very little, but to me, they are priceless. They are a record of my life, where I have been and reminders of my friends.

I think I will make this a yearly ritual. Not moving,  but editing my life and separating what is important and what is just lingering and cluttering. And the weird thing in all of this, is that I find I get so much when I let go…  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Just Another Day In Class...

Have you ever had one of those days when you just “had it up to here?” I had one of those days on Tuesday. I was in class, trying to teach English to a group of people who, for the most part, aren’t that interested. They go because they have to. Universities require students to pass grammar exams, and a lot of companies require some level of English. So, for the most part, they don’t want to learn, but they have to. So they do the minimum to get by and then spend the rest of the time either not coming to class or speaking Turkish in class, which is completely counter-productive to learning a foreign language.

I have also learned that many Turkish people, at least the ones I get in my class, are extremely prejudiced about anything and everything that doesn’t fit into their box of what they consider acceptable and normal. They seem to hate Arabs, Jews, gays, Kurds, black people, and the list goes on. Bring up one of the many things they don’t like, and off the go on a verbal marathon, sometimes in English and sometimes in Turkish.

So, back to Tuesday. We were reading a text from an anonymous source. I asked them to tell me about the person who wrote it, based solely on that piece of text. Was it a man or a woman? Age? What words would they use to describe the person. So during the question and answer period, one of the students, one of my favorites, in fact, who I will call X, suggested the person might be gay. People laughed and I heard a few people go off in Turkish. I didn’t understand what was said, but tone of voice and laughter were enough to clue me in. Later, after they had told me all about the person who wrote it, I came clean. “I wrote it”, I told them. And then X apologized about suggesting I might be gay. Again laughter and a lot of talking. So, in front of the whole class, I said “No problem, because I am gay.” At first people thought it was a joke, but after a few seconds they realized I was serious. Suddenly, they were uncomfortable. And we had two and a half hours of class left. They were silent. I looked around the room and asked “So, is there anything anyone would like to talk about? Anything at all?”

“Yes, there are a lot of questions, but nobody will ask you” was the reply I got from X. So, I sat there and let them marinate in their discomfort. It felt amazing. X kept laughing, not at me, but at the reactions and attitudes of others, and I thought the whole thing was great. I don’t mind if people have something to say about me, but say it to me, not behind my back or in a different language. And I hope that next time they decide to spew out a racial or any type of hateful slur, they will think twice about who might be in the room with them.

I wasn’t pushing an agenda, in fact, after living so many years in countries where it is either not legal or not accepted, I am used to being discreet and keeping my private life private. But sometimes, you just have had enough. And on Tuesday, I had had enough. I am sure it is all over the school by now, but I don’t care. And the other teachers are super supportive and agree with what I did.

So, as a follow-up on Monday, the class and I are going to have a conversation about prejudice, any prejudice, and since we are scheduled to do a lot of writing this week, I will have them write essays about prejudice, the problems they see, what they think should be done about it and what they personally can do in their own lives to reduce it. As Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I am not trying to change them or convert anyone, but I am trying to get them to think, even if just a tiny bit. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Sound of Silence

First, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful comments and emails I received from my last post. They all really mean a lot to me and tell me I made the right decision. I was scared to post it. I am a person who has spent a long time building walls, and posting that last entry meant tearing at least some of them down. Sure, parts of them remain, but now, instead of being like a fortress, they are more like the old ruins or remains seen in places like Istanbul. Portions are definitely still standing strong, but I am no longer living in my fortress. I was scared of what would happen and what people might think, as it is so opposite to how most people know me. Or maybe how I perceive most people know me. But that was exactly the reason I needed to do it. I have been asking myself these types of questions for years, making small changes here and there, but now I feel the time for baby steps is over and it is time to climb my personal Kilimanjaro.

I have done a lot of reading over the decade and one thing that kept coming up, was the need for silence. Not the silence which is an absence of sound, but a silencing of the mind. When I was in Tanzania, the internet connection kept going out, sometimes for a week at a time and I was basically out of touch with the outside world. At first I felt angry. And then I realized it wasn’t really anger, I felt uncomfortable. My world is so full of “noise.” I wake up and before my feet touch the floor, I grab my laptop, check emails, Facebook and news, and then maybe send some text messages and it all just gets more cluttered and noisy from there. Who am I and what do I do without the Internet and Facebook and all the rest of my daily distractions and activities? The break from the Internet was odd and uncomfortable. But only for a couple of days. Then, I started walking on the beach. Normally when I go anywhere, I have my iPod playing my soundtrack of the day, my phone in my pocket in case someone, somewhere should need to get in touch with me (even though only five people had that phone number) and my camera around my neck as I scanned my surroundings looking for photos waiting to be shot. But as I explained in the last post, theft is a problem there and the beach I would walk was notorious for tourists getting robbed. So I took nothing, not even my sunglasses to hide behind.

So on the beach without the normal accessories of life, I had plenty of time to think. When I got back to the house the first day, I realized I had spent the entire walk in the past. My childhood, decisions I had made, things I could have, would have or should have done. I gave myself an eloquent lecture about where I had gone wrong, not just once, but so many times.

The next day, it was the same thing again. After a couple of days, I realized that there I was, on a gorgeous stretch of white beach, palm trees blowing in the wind and the Indian Ocean next to me and I was not even there. I was in the past reliving my failures and shortcomings, mistakes and regrets or the future which was a mix of confusion, fear and the hope of dreams that may or may not true. In reality, I was in a truly beautiful place but realized I was not “there” at all, I was anywhere and everywhere but on that beach.

I had also received a Kindle for my birthday and one of the first books that ended up being added was from Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now.” Normally I fly through books, but I decided to take this one slow. In fact, I have still not finished it.

The idea of Now is so simple and so silly and so obvious that I just never got it or even thought about it. I am sure people who have known me awhile can back me up on the fact that I spent a lot of time in the past and future and very little, if any, in the now. Even when things were great in my life, I dreaded my uncertain future and was scared of what I felt was impending doom.

So I learned to recognize when I am not present. I often catch myself in the future, getting all worked up about something that actually, isn’t even real, and now, instead of dwelling on it, I realize what’s happening and direct myself back to the present moment. I do the same when I start to punish myself about past decisions and mistakes. They are over, finished, and there is nothing I can do to change them, so I stop myself and come back to the present. Maybe it sounds silly. It sounded silly to me when I first read about it, but the more I paid attention, the more I realized what I was doing. And the more I pay attention, the more I see that most people are doing the same thing.

And that for me, was one of the first steps in deciding to live. In order to live, I need to be in the moment in the Now. It isn’t always easy, breaking habits that have gone on for decades, but it is far easier than I imagined. It just takes a little practice.

Walking on the beach, being completely present and not thinking became one of my favorite daily experiences. I became addicted to the sunlight dancing on the water. It was hypnotic. The waves came in a musical rhythm and everything just seemed so, alive. Maybe it was my imagination, but the blues of the ocean seemed just a bit bluer and everything just seemed to be perfect, exactly as it was supposed to be in that moment and I would find myself smiling for no particular reason at all. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Personal Safari

It was against a backdrop of white sand beaches and the Indian Ocean that I spent most of my summer. What was originally planned as an amazing African adventure that would take me through many countries in eastern and southern Africa ended up being a journey of a much more personal nature, one that started a long time ago.

The first few weeks were spent on a road trip which took my friends and I to the mountains of Lushoto, where we hiked through coffee and banana plantations and then onto Marangu, located on a slope of Mount Kilimanjaro where we hiked up through dense and lush forest to the first base camp, one thousand meters higher than our starting point. After Marangu we entered Kenya and spent a few days in Voi, at a wildlife lodge and went on a few safari drives during which we saw many elephants, a few lions, lots of giraffes and scores of other animals. After Voi, we spent a week on the beach just outside Mombasa and then headed back to Dar es Salaam, but not before stopping for a night in gorgeous Pangani, a tiny beach village on the northern coast of Tanzania.

During the trip I found myself spending more and more time by myself. When we would hike, I would lag behind. At the beach, I would go on walks by myself and just be quiet and listen to the sounds around me, breathing the smells in as deep as I could. I could feel a shift happening, like something inside of me was coming to the surface, but I wasn’t quite ready to let it out. Not just yet.

A few weeks after we arrived back in Dar, Ulco left for his annual holiday and I was alone. His house is located just a couple hundred meters from a beautiful beach, and I soon got into the habit of walking to the ocean and then strolling up the beach to a palm thatched café known as Coco Beach. I would sit, have a few drinks and just look out at the ocean, watching the sunlight dance on the water and the tide slowly come in or go out. No talking, no reading, no camera. Not having my camera with me was a new experience and I left it at home due to the fact that theft is rampant there. I had heard so many stories I was scared to take anything of value with me when I left the house alone. I had heard stories of people being robbed at knife point – and when I say knife, I mean machete. In some stories they had been robbed of everything, including undergarments. At first I found it annoying. How could I go anywhere without my phone or camera? But soon I realized I needed that. I needed to leave that behind, even if only for a few hours a day.

In the beginning, I felt naked without my camera and phone and ipod, but soon I felt free. Instead of listening to music as I usually do when I am walking, I listened to the ocean and the wind. The wind smelled so clean and the rhythm of the waves was hypnotic and created a sense of peace. It was relaxing and safe and suddenly I found myself looking back over my life.

I spent most of my adult life like a lot of people, working hard and collecting the rewards of that hard work. I had the expensive clothes, ate at fantastic restaurants, traveled and made sure everyone was aware of how fantastic and wonderful my life was. But the truth is, I felt empty. And the more stuff I got, the more places I went, the emptier I felt. Just ten years ago, on the outside, my life was perfect. I had a great career, a wonderful marriage, fantastic friends and an enviable life. But, it was all a lie. I was dead inside. I didn’t feel anything. Well, I did feel something, I felt a panic that one day it was all going to come crashing down around me. I was terrified. Without my clothes and house and lifestyle, I had no idea who I was. More importantly, I didn’t want to know. I was scared and couldn’t say anything to anyone, not even my closest friends. Even in this blog, I hid the truth. I talked about how fantastic everything was and how fabulous my life was going. Truth is, I didn’t mean a word of it. It was just important that other people believed it.

Just when I thought things would bottom-out in Amsterdam, I got a call from my office to go to India. I jumped on the opportunity. A new chance to create a new life. But when I got there, I didn’t create a new life, I recreated my old life. Clothes, restaurants and a lifestyle people envied. I would hear how lucky I was from people, how they wished they could live the way I did. And each time I heard that, I would cringe inside. They had no idea what they were saying. I was emptier than ever and desperate for things to change but terrified they would.

And then one day in November 2008, my house of cards started crashing down. At first, I lost my job, but I wasn’t worried. I had an incredible CV with only the top companies in the world on it. But there was a problem, the recession. I went from getting calls from head hunters to not even getting a response from solicitations. After almost half a year, I ran out of money. My savings were gone and I still had no job. I managed to do some freelance work here and there and a few consulting projects on the side, but nothing substantial. I moved from my nice house into a tiny little place that was not too far removed from a slum. In the world I was from, that is exactly what it was, but in India, it was still a step or two above.

Things went downhill from there. I sold everything I owned just to have money for food, money which quickly ran out. All around me, people would say “things happen for a reason” and I wanted to punch them. Others would go one step further and say “it’ll get better” and each time I heard that, I resisted the urge the tell them to go fuck themselves. I have seen enough of the world and life to understand that it doesn’t always get better. For many people, it not only doesn’t get better, it gets worse. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t tell anyone what was really going on. Some people knew I was having a hard time, but nobody knew what was really happening. I wanted to ask for help, but asking for help would mean to show I was weak and needed people and that was something I just could not let myself do.

Then, one day in January 2010, I decided I had had enough. I hadn’t been out of bed for over a week. I hadn’t showered. I hadn’t eaten anything. I kept my phone off and shut myself away from everyone. Then I woke up one morning and decided that I was going to put a stop to it. I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t living, I was existing, and barely that, but I just didn’t want it anymore. Even the simple act of breathing started to seem an impossible chore. And then three friends intervened and even though I was desperate for their help, I still resisted it. I had my pride to protect. I decided to wait a day or so. I realized I could end things any day, so there wasn’t really a rush. Several days later, Ulco flew me to Dubai for a week and I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I would laugh and then start crying for no reason. I had existed on so little food that when we would eat, I would feel ill and often get sick afterwards. I still wanted to end things. I wanted that horrible feeling to go away. I didn’t really want to die, I just didn’t want to live anymore.

About six months later I moved to Istanbul, new city, new job, new beginning, but it was all the same. Inside I was still numb. I could put on a good show, make people laugh and think my life was so together and so fantastically amazing, but I knew it was all crap. I decided I would go to Africa on holiday and lose myself there amid the safaris and nature and beaches. I needed to get away from my life and Africa seemed the perfect destination.

While I did do a few wildlife safaris, the biggest safari was traveling back through the years and everything that had happened to bring me to that point. I realized things about myself I never had before. One of those realizations was that fact that on that day in India, I decided I would not kill myself, but I didn’t make the decision to live. I didn’t know then that there was a difference. Sitting on the beach, watching the light play on the ocean and forcing myself to stay completely present and in the moment, I discovered I still hadn’t made the decision to live. I was existing. And then I asked myself a question; Did I really, truly, want to live? I wasn’t thinking about killing myself or doing any harm, but suddenly there was a shift and I saw that living is a choice.

It is a decision I am still working through. I know it may seem that the obvious answer to the question is “Yes”, but it was something I thought and still think about. And if the answer is “yes”, then what does that mean? For me, it means being honest with myself and truth be told, I am a fantastic liar. So each day, little by little, I look at things. I look at where my life is going and wonder if I am actively going there or just being carried along. And more important, do I want to go where I seem to be headed or do I want to change direction? It also requires I ask the question “Who am I?” and for now, I am not sure what the answer is. But I am looking into it, and that is a really big step for me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Few Questions

A couple of years ago, I was asked by another blogger to answer a few questions about myself. I had forgotten about it, and then today I was going through my documents looking for old things I had written, as I have finally and officially started writing my book, and there it was, the questions I had answered. So, I updated them just a tiny bit and here they are...

Who are you?

My name is Robert, but everyone calls me Robb. I am 43 years old, was born in Orange, California, grew up all over the US, spent 13 years living in Holland, 3 ½ living in New Delhi and the last year in Istanbul.

What do you do?

Before the recession hit, I was an executive in an advertising agency, heading up planning and strategy. Since the recession, I have been doing freelance work which includes plays, writing articles, voice-overs, acting in television pilots, movies and TV commercials. I also try and spend part of each day writing and taking pictures.  I have been teaching English for the past year as the other activities don’t really pay the bills.

What is your true passion?

I have a few of those. Writing, traveling and photography. I am happiest when doing all of those at the same time.

What do you like?

Travel – exploring places I have never been, and even better if nobody I know has ever been either. Scuba diving in the Red Sea. Going to the cinema. Watching entire seasons of television shows on DVD. Cold pizza for breakfast. After clubbing, late night meal consisting of pancakes, onion rings and a chocolate malt – seriously. Snowboarding – especially if I can be the first one down a piste after a night of snowfall. Elephants. Long walks on beaches – I love stormy beaches with rough seas. Spending time with friends. Long conversations ranging from the completely stupid to the stimulatingly intellectual. A great book with strong characters – I love Victor Hugo. A great play – I love musicals. The smell of Christmas. Vin chaud after a long day of snowboarding. Disneyland. Fondue with lots of friends on a snowy night. Champagne for no reason at all. Dancing like a lunatic. Singing in the shower. Going out on my terrace in monsoon rains and just getting soaked. Making people laugh. Being the center of attention.

What do you hate?

Anything and anyone who succeeds or profits in any way at the expense or detriment of others. Selfishness, people who hate, prejudice, war, people with no respect to other people, the earth or themselves. People who can willingly and intentionally cause harm to someone else.

What are you also good at?

I haven’t shown it in the last few years to anyone, but I am pretty good cook. I am also good at making people laugh. Usually.

What was your childhood dream?

My childhood dream was to be a star, a great big movie star. Then I decided that movies were not real acting, so I decided I should be a star of the stage. Then I decided that opera was the highest form of theatre, so I decided I would be an opera star. My voice didn’t agree.

What is your adult dream?

To travel, write and take pictures. I want to see and document as much as I can about the world around me and the things I experience.

What makes you happy?

Travel. Photography. Spending time with the friends I almost never get to see.

If you could, what would you change?

All my friends would be with me. My dad would still be alive. My family would all get along. I would speak more languages. There would be no borders between countries, the world would be an open place, free and safe to go anywhere.

What are your favorite 3 objects?

I try not to have favorite objects, as I prefer experiences to possessions, but if I must pick, then I will say: My camera, my passport and the teddy bear I bought at the Christmas market in Brussels. If I can pick things that aren’t objects, then my memories, my friends and the life I have had that far exceeds anything I ever imagined for myself.

What is your favorite…?

I can never pick a favorite anything, as most of what I like and how I like it is driven by my mood and the moment. I find having an absolute favorite of anything to be too constricting. I always have lists of favorites and it always annoys people who ask this question looking for one response. There are just so many fabulous options out there, I can’t ever pick just one…  Of anything.

And what about love?

What about it? I am not usually one to kiss and tell… Unless there is a book or movie deal involved… 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Welcome to Africa

After a lifetime of dreaming and almost a year of planning, I finally arrived in Africa for an extended holiday. I have been to Tunisia and Egypt, but those aren’t “Africa” as I had imagined. I grew up with thoughts of wild animals, exotic foods and villages and experiencing different cultures. And those are some of the things I hope to experience before my holiday is finished.

I left Istanbul last Thursday evening on the Egypt Air flight to Cairo, where I would change planes for Dar es Salaam. The airport in Cairo was quite chaotic. Normally, when changing planes, you just go to the gate of the next flight. Not in Cairo. In Cairo, you go to a transfer “desk”, which is basically a tiny table covered in boarding passes and a stamp pad, manned by three people each referring you to the next when you have a question. So I waited and finally got to the front of the line, had my boarding pass stamped with the word “transit” and then went through another passport check and then through security. Again. Once through security, I had just enough time to go through the next security before it was time to board the flight to Dar.

The flight itself was uneventful but their choice in entertainment is questionable. There weren’t any personal entertainment systems on the planes, so we all had to watch the monitors if you wanted to see anything. It wasn’t so bad that nothing was in English, but it got really bad when I looked up and saw a computer animated cow with bleached-blonde hair, wearing a brightly flowered sundress witting and having tea with another cow wearing too much make-up and an equally offensive brightly colored sundress. That was just before the scantily clad yet well coiffed cat in the mid-drift baring shirt started to dance. I decided it was time for my own entertainment so I buried my face in my laptop to catch up on “Game of Thrones.” I tried to sleep, but I was just too excited.

Jambiani Beach
I arrived in Dar at half past five in the morning. Unlike most airports these days, when we got off the plane, we weren’t met by a bus. We walked across the tarmac to the arrivals hall. I miss those days when we could walk across the tarmac to and from the plane. The visa process was quick and within about 15 minutes of landing, I was in the car, heading for Ulco’s house where I had a bit of breakfast, unpacked, repacked and then headed to the airport for a short flight to Zanzibar.

We flew Coast Air, a single prop plane with 12 passenger seats. I have been in (and might I add piloted) a twin seat plane, but this was my first time on a plane like this. We boarded the plane and there was an extra passenger, so somebody had to sit in the front next to the pilot. It should have been me, but some bratty little child scooped up the seat. I shot visual daggers toward the back of her head for sometime and decided then and there that I did not like her. The view was gorgeous and we flew low – about 1300 feet – over the water, which was dotted with little islands and coral reefs. Twenty minutes later, we arrived in Zanzibar, got in a taxi and headed across the island to Jambiani Beach.

The drive from the airport to Jambiani Beach lasts little over an hour and goes through some gorgeous areas, including the Jozani Forest, where we managed to see a tree full of red colobus monkeys. By the time I realized I wanted a picture, it was too late and we were too far. The road seemed to go on forever and finally we arrived at our destination, the Blue Oyster Hotel. It is a charming, quiet and completely relaxing place set on the edge of the Indian Ocean, protected from big waves by the coral reef about a kilometer or so off shore. The water is warm and in every shade of blue imaginable. Palm trees rustle in the breeze and there is nothing more to do than sit in the sun with a book, walk down the beach or nap in the hammock. I did what anyone would do, I ordered myself a Stoney Tangawizi (a ginger cola) and lounged in the sun as the cool breeze blew off the Indian Ocean saying “welcome to Africa!”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 10)

January 1, 2011

Oh what a night! And day...

Yesterday, we arrived in a cold and rainy Dohuk. It was the only day with not perfect weather so no complaints at all… We wandered around town, which was the most uninteresting place we had been on the trip. We strolled through the market which was all around our hotel and made plans for the night. We would go to Dream City, the amusement park we had seen from the taxi and bring in the New Year doing something fun. We lounged around the room, took naps and decided to head to Dream City around 7pm. We were bored. The first time we had been bored the entire trip. We got ourselves a taxi and headed for what we had been told was the Disneyland of Iraq. Lonely Planet, which is getting more and more on my nerves, says “Dohuk’s most popular attraction is Dream City, a large amusement park/resort with a towering Ferris wheel and other thrill rides, plus a video arcade, bowling, swimming, restaurants, hotels and vacation homes. The place really gets cranking (who says “cranking” anymore??) on Thursday and Friday nights, when local women turn out in their colorful traditional dresses.” It sounded perfect. It was Friday night and New Years Eve. We were guaranteed a fun and interesting time.

We arrived at a shopping center with an amusement park behind it. It was raining. We went to go inside and discovered we needed to pay an entry fee. Not much, but enough to make us ask what rides were open. Turns out, there were no rides open, just the arcade and for 1500 Iraqi Dinar (about $1) we could go in and hang out in the arcade. We declined and decided to check out the shopping area where we thought we might find a restaurant or bar.

The shopping area turned out to be nothing more than a watered-down Walmart and uncomfortably full of people buying oversized cans of shaving cream and boxes of cereal. I decided to make the most of it and look for the Iraqi football team shirt I had been looking for since we arrived. There were football jerseys from Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Ajax and others, but not a single one for Iraq. When I would ask for them, people looked at me as though I asked if their mothers were prostitutes. I was just asking for a shirt. Again, I hit the same dead end and I left shirtless. We decided we had had enough and spotted Dophuks only 5-star hotel across the street and made a mad dash across the almost non-existent Friday night traffic and into the hotel. We were stopped at the entrance. I asked for he restaurant and was told it was closed for a private party. I asked if we could just have a drink and was told it was not possible. I asked where we would go and we were given an address on Nohadra Road, which he told us what “THE” place to go for pubs and clubs.

We arrived on Nohandra, and there it was, the one and only bar we saw during our entire trip. We went in and ordered beers. Not just any beer, but super yummy Lebanese beer, Almaaza. We were also told the bar would close at nine. We had one hour. And we made the most of it. We toasted and reflected and talked about the trip while ordering drink after drink before they kicked us out. And all too soon, it was closing time. Yes, we shut down the bar in Iraq at the wild hour of 21:00. There was nothing open except a restaurant and so we went, had some food, our last kebab of the trip and headed back to the hotel for some sleep.

We got to the hotel and met a group of Czech people (three guys and a girl) who were also staying there. They had met “a really cool Iraqi guy upstairs” who had invited them and us (they heard there were other foreigners in the hotel) up to his room for a New Years party. An hour later, we headed up to room 210 and found a seat on one of the twin beds. And that is how we brought in New Years, two Americans, four Czechs and an Iraqi guy named Abdul. It was a great evening. We bibded our time until midnight drinking more Lebanese beer and then it was onto the “Industrial Strength Jordanian Whiskey” which was little more than glorified paint thinner. It was then that we got on the subject of Abdul wating to go to San Diego which resulted in the following exchange between him and I:

“I am planning on going to San Diego”
“San Diego is amazing. I used to live there. And when you go to San Diego, you must go to Tijuana”
“No way, man, Mexico is too dangerous.”
“You do realize you are living in Iraq, right?"
"Yes, but I will get killed if I go to Mexico."

I thought it was funny that someone in what most of us think as one of the most dangerous countries in the world is actually scared of Mexico. I told him those incidents of horrific crimes were confined to certain areas and that Tijuana would be ok.

This morning, there was a knock at the door. It was Abdul. He had promised to go with me to the market to find an Iraqi football shirt. He said he knew where to get one and soon Preston and I were tagging along as he dragged us from store to store, basically reliving the same quest I had been on for the entire trip. Finally, we were directed to a little place on a nondescript alley of the market and found the shirt. It was about five dollars and Abdul bought it for me as a gift. And it came with matching Iraqi football team shorts!

It was soon time for Preston and I to go, so Abdul offered to drive us to the garage for a taxi to the border. We carried our luggage a few blocks to his truck and we were on our way to the taxi stand, which turned out to be just around the corner from our hotel. Abdul negotiated a price for us to the border and a few minutes later, we were speeding towards Turkey. 

Getting into Iraq was easy, calm and relaxed. Getting out was another story. To get out Iraq, you have to take a taxi to the border. When you get out of the taxi, you are bombarded by drivers to take you across the border. Suddenly our bags were being grabbed by countless people, with each person pointing in a different direction. Prices were shouted out and finally we settled on one that we felt was not only giving us the best deal, but made us feel the most secure.

From there, we had to go into the immigration office and push and shove our way to the front of the line. My 3 ½ years in India served me well and I was in front of the window in no time. It took us about thirty minutes or so to get our passports back and then we were loaded into the car and driven to the next part of the border crossing, the car inspection. We got into the line and we sat there. We sat some more. Then a little longer. Finally, we decided to go into the duty free shop to kill some time. And suddenly, there it was, the M&M’s stand. I have been craving them since arriving in Turkey and they are pretty impossible to find. And now it was like the mothership of M&M’s had landed just for me. A bag of each and I was on my way.

By the time we left, the car had reached the inspection site and everything was being unloaded and counted. Extra cartons of cigarettes out driver was trying to smuggle across the border were tossed in the bin. We passed the inspection and drove out of Iraq, across the river and then into Turkey. Now the real wait would begin.

Getting passports taken care of was no problem. What slows everything up, is that every item has to be removed from the car and scanned via an x-ray machine. This took several minutes per car, and longer for trucks. All in all, the border crossing back took us about three or so hours. Not so bad. A little while later we were on the bus to Mardin and tomorrow, we get our flight home.

I can’t believe the trip to Iraq is finished. For now…

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 9)

December 31, 2010

Last night, we had a pretty relaxing evening. We went to Pasha Café for another nargile, but they were out of fresh grapefruit so we had a normal one while watching some Jackie Chan movie in the smoky café. We had a last walk through the empty streets in the early Sulaymaniya evening, my stomach doing tiny flips thanks to too much nargile. Hard to believe that tonight is it, our last night in Iraq.

Today, we left our hotel at about 5:30 this morning and got a taxi to the garage so we could hire a car to Erbil, where we would spend New Years Eve. We decided to do this as Erbil is only a few hours from the border and the bus company office is there. We had tried to email them for information about getting across the border and for the bus schedule, but have so far received no reply, so we decided to go to their office. Our initial goal was to find a taxi that would take us to Erbil without going into Arab controlled Iraq. Yesterday, while walking around in Sulaymaniya, an Iraqi guy started talking to us and warned us not to go to Iraq. I asked him to repeat what he said since I was pretty sure I heard wrong. Again he said “Don’t go to Iraq” to which I replied “I think we are already in Iraq.” Then he said, “Don’t go to Iraq. You die. Iraq very bad” as he drew his finger across his neck which seems to be the universal sign language for death. We told him we had no intention of going to the “bad” part of Iraq and he seemed a bit happy and then went on his way.

So we got a car to Erbil and by 6am we were on our way. It was a drizzly morning and I passed the time looking out the window, snapping pictures here and there while Preston listened to music and tried to sleep. Once again we passed through Kirkuk. I was hoping we would pull into town, stop for gas and we could have a quick peek, but we drove through without the driver even tapping on the brakes.

When we approached the outskirts of Erbil, we had a thorough security check which involved opening luggage and having everything checked. They even made Preston unpack his transparent bag of toiletries and the soldier looked at the toothpaste with obvious suspicion.  I was carrying nothing more interesting than three packages of “Family Sauce” which I got hooked on the first day at Istanbul Café. Since then, I have been eating it on everything.

We arrived in Erbil and took another taxi to the office of the bus company. It was just about 8am and they were still closed. It was drizzling, so we went into the little brick security hut and called the number on the card. We were informed by a cranky man who informed me it was 8am, that the office was closed since it was Friday and he was not sure if a bus would go the next day or not and he wasn’t really sure why I was calling him and what I expected him to do. I told him this was the number on the hard and that I expected him to sort something out or give me some accurate information. I didn’t really get anywhere with him except learning that suddenly we needed to figure out a way across the border. We decided to get a taxi to Dohuk, a town quite close to the border and then figure it out from there. We were just picking up our things when there was a loud bang that to me, sounded like a small explosion and I saw that was left of the bus stand just a few meters away flying through the air in pieces. My first thought was that it had been a bomb. I didn’t see anything else and it seemed the only logical immediate reason as to the flying pieces of a bus stand.

Preston saw the whole thing and began chanting “Did you see that? Did you see that?” A car had lost control, ran off the road and through the bus stand. The bang we heard, we saw a few seconds later, was the car hitting the wall. It hit it so hard, that the car went through the wall and was half-way in the garden of the house on the other side. Then reality sunk in. We had a close call. We were just about 10 meters from the bus stand. If we had started walking 5 seconds earlier, or he had turned a micro-second earlier, we would have been killed. We stopped for a moment to take it in, then we got our things and walked to get a taxi. Again, I wanted to take pictures of the accident, but didn’t. The driver got out of the car and seemed perfectly ok. No blood, he was talking and two other guys took him into a house. We got our taxi and headed to the garage to arrange a car to Dohuk. It was only 8:30am and we already had a near-death experience. The day could only go up from there.

We arranged a shared taxi to Dohuk, were given what we thought was a fair price and soon we were off, near-death experiences behind us. I was a bit sad to be heading towards the border so soon. The trip so far had been excellent and I was and am not yet ready to return to Turkey. Again, I passed the time staring out the window, watching Iraq pass by, unaware that we had gone back into Arab-controlled Iraq.

And then I saw it. The sign of dread. The sign that read “Mosul 10 Kilometers.” Mosul was the place we had been most warned about. The one place every blog and every advisory post and every person in Iraq said we should avoid. When people mention it, they usually include words like “death”, “kidnapping”, “beheading” and several others one never wants to here in a sentence directed at them. According to Lonely Planet, “Mosul and Tal Afar was one of the last strongholds for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups, making it one of the most dangerous cities on earth.” And we were driving right for it, less than 10 kilometers to go.

I was both scared and extremely excited. Preston and I had talked about wanting to go, but we knew it was impossible, absolutely out of the question, and suddenly, there we were. Mosul. We didn’t go into the heart of town, but we did skirt the edge.

It was a forbidding looking place. The whole area looked gray. Small plumes of black smoke rose here and there from what I think were trash fires. Each house and building had black flags flying and several of them had flags with faces I didn’t recognize and text I couldn’t read. I snapped a picture, but only one. I didn’t want to draw attention to us. All the warnings of kidnapping, beheadings and all the other dangers came rushing back. I wasn’t scared as much as full of adrenaline. I felt so alert and aware and alive. Maybe it sounds silly, but I wanted to stay, explore and check it out. I was ready for an adventure. But I stayed in the car, imagining myself a photojournalist, wandering the mean, angry streets of Mosul, snapping Pulitzer prize-winning photos that would ultimately land on the cover of Time or Newsweek.

We arrived at a security check which was far different than any other one we had seen previously. Until that moment, security stops ranged from a bump in the road with a soldier waving people through, to mini, toll-booth like places where cars were stopped and passports checked. The one in Mosul was a whole different animal. Heavily armed soldiers, barbed wire and blast walls lined our route through the check. Heavily armed vehicles waited at the side. We slowly crept our way through. In the middle of the checkpoint, the road bent 90 degrees to the left and there was more of the same. I was desperate to take pictures, but resisted the urge. We needed to head towards the border in about 24 hours and I wasn’t taking any chances.

We made it through the checkpoint and there was a part of me that had hoped for a bit more drama. We could at least have been taken out of the car, searched and questioned. It would have made for a better story, but we made it through safe, which is the important thing.

The drive from the checkpoint to Dohuk was beautiful and uneventful. It was somewhere between Mosul and Dohuk that we realized tomorrow is January 1. Would the border be open? We didn’t know. Should we head to Turkey immediately and get across the border? We weren’t sure. The driver called a friend of his who spoke about 3 words of English and we tried to find out if the border was open or not, but he was no help. All he heard was “border” and that meant extra fare for his friend who then kept asking u if he could take us to the border. We finally decided to put a security check to some informative use and asked a soldier at the next stop. He assured us the border will be open tomorrow and that there will be no problems. Great! Maybe. Maybe he was wrong. We decided to take our chances and stop in Dohuk.

Like the other trips, the taxis left from a designated garage and then dropped us off in what always seemed to be deserted fields or the side of some unknown road, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  The only difference in Dohuk, was that it was raining. We were left on the side of the road, not a restaurant or anything but a park nearby. The entrance of the park provided a bit of shelter from the rain, but it was on the opposite side of the park. Fortunately it was not so large and we were soon out of the rain and digging out the Lonely Planet for possible hotel tips and a map just so we knew where the heck we were.

A policeman came over and took us inside a heated hut so we could sort everything out in warmth and fifteen minutes later, we were heading to Hotel Parleman in the middle of downtown Dohuk. On the way to the hotel, we spotted an amusement park in the distance, and as I am powerless against the gravitational pull of a rollercoaster, we will be going there tonight.

What a day. And it is just noon.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 8)

December 30, 2010 - Continued

We arrived at the garage where we found dozens of taxis and buses heading in various directions. As all the signs were in Arabic, we asked some people for help. I was armed with the Lonely Planet, which had the name of Halabja written in Arabic, which I assumed would be of some help. It wasn’t. The Arabic guys didn’t seem to understand. It turns out there are two towns with almost the same name. Finally we got it sorted and were soon smashed inside the minibus and on our way. A few little security stops and soon we were at the base of the mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. I am sure Preston was thinking the same thing I was, wondering when we would ever get across those mountains in into Iran, a plan we both have.
We stepped off the bus with a plan to take in the local sights. There was nothing that gave away the horrors from 1988. I tried to imagine it in my head, what it must of have been like, but it is so far beyond anything I can conjure up. Within two minutes, we were stopped by armed guards. They asked for our passports and within seconds we were being escorted somewhere. We weren’t sure as nobody spoke English. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. Had we done something wrong? Did we need a special permit to be there? There was nothing to do but go along with what we were told and hope it would sort itself out in a few minutes. We are crossing the border back to Turkey in two days, so as long as we make that, everything is fine.

We were led to a building now serving as an office of sorts for the military. We were escorted in and asked to sit while they found someone who could speak English. Four soldiers came in, all very friendly. They asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Halabja. We told them we were there to see the monument. They asked us if we had any plans to go into the mountains. We assured them we didn’t. They asked us again. It seems that three American tourists wandered into the mountains just a short walk away and accidentally wandered into Iran and, well, you know the rest if you follow the news at all. From what we can make out from the information we got from the soldiers is that they left either from Halabja or an area close by.

We assured them we were just there to see the monument and we would be on our way to Sulaymaniya. One of the soldiers looked through all the pictures of my camera, which at that moment only had photos of Amna Suraka and the drive to Halabja. We were told that we would have a soldier to escort us around town. I thought it was quite unnecessary and I think the other soldiers thought so as well, and within minutes we shook hands with everyone and were released. We were followed from a distance, but I am sure they had no problem keeping tabs on us as we were the only tourists in town.

We walked towards the monument and stopped for some tea and bread on the streets. Like everywhere else, the people were super friendly. Again, I tried to imagine the chaos and terror of 1988 and again it escaped me. It was the middle of the day in the center of the town and it was almost deserted. The life seemed almost vacuumed out of the place. No children played, vegetable stands stood full of vegetables but no customers. Men congregated at tea stalls and women were once again almost non-existent. After tea, we made our was slowly down the main street towards the edge of town and to the memorial.

Halabja is a little town snuggled at the base of the mountains. It is the kind of place people would probably never visit or even hear about. It might have been one of those places where things go on the way that had gone on for centuries. A place where families had known each other for longer then they could remember. And that was probably the case for Halabja until March 16, 1988, the day when Saddam’s regime dropped canisters of gas and chemical weapons on the town. Within thirty minutes, over 5,000 men, women and children were dead. We had come to this town to see the memorial and pay respect to the people that died there. Many of them dropped where they were standing. Mothers still holding their babies. Children holding hands. People in the streets, in their homes, in the garden. These are all captured in pictures by journalists who visited the area a day or two after the attack to document what remained. Many of the images are on display in the memorial. It was hard to look at them and even more difficult to imagine what they must have gone through. In the center, which is round, are names of people who were killed that day. Preston and I walked around in silence. What do say in a place like this? I wasn’t even sure what to think.

I read that there was a local couple that always wanted a son, but had only girls. After years of trying, they finally had a son. During the attack, the father tried to protect him but they both died. The picture of the father and son was turned into a sculpture. It is that sculpture which everyone passes when entering or exiting the memorial.

We decide to visit the graveyard where many of the victims are buried and a local Iraqi woman, who we met at the memorial and is studying the massacre for a university helped us arrange a taxi to take us not only to the graveyard, but back to Sulaymaniya. We arrived at the graveyard and were met by a sign that reads “Baath’s Members Are Not Allowed To Enter.”

The bodies are buried in mass graves in white marble blocks. Each one bearing almost the following inscription (misspellings not corrected): “A prayer for the 1500 bodise in this grave. These are some of the victims of that ruthless attack by chemical weapon on the city of Halabja by Saddam’s regime on 16 March 1988. May God bless them.” There are many others that are not in graves, people who survived but are still suffering from the effects of the attack. I have read that problems have also been passed to children born after the attack to parents who survived. I wish I could have talked to some of the people, but I would not have known what to ask. If I ever go back, I will stay longer and learn more.

We walked around the graveyard for about fifteen minutes before getting in the taxi for the almost silent journey back to Sulaymaniya. It was a heavy day and my mind and heart were quite overwhelmed. 

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. We will head to Erbil and ring in 2011. I have made a friend on the Internet via our blogs and hopefully we can meet tomorrow. He is Iraqi and I am full of questions…

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Temporary End

I woke up this morning to discover that Turkey has banned Blogger and it will go into effect sometime in the next day or two. A few people have posted clips of football matches. Instead of handling the handful of sites, they are blocking the whole thing, which means I may not be able to blog here for the indefinite future. So, if there is sudden silence here, you know why...

For more information, you can read all about it here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 7)

December 30, 2010

Did not get much sleep. There is construction going on right outside the hotel and it went through the night. This morning I woke up to the sounds of birds singing just outside our window. It was about 6am, but I was ready to go. Preston was still sleeping, so I decided to take a shower. No water. Again. I haven’t showered since the hotel in Mardin. Preston got up and we headed out. The square that was so deserted last night was once again crammed with people and the area right outside our hotel was now a book market.

Wanting something different than a sandwich for breakfast, we stopped by one of the street carts for honeycomb and yoghurt. Delicious. We were walking towards Amna Suraka and also half-looking for a new hotel. We were only paying about 20 USD per night per room, but thought maybe we would find something a bit more upscale, but gave it up after stopping into just one hotel. It was full and we decided not to waste our time. Our room was basic and small, but clean and in a good location and we had places we wanted to visit.

Amna Suraka was the Northern headquarter of Iraqi Intelligence Service under Saddam Husseins’ regime. The buildings have been left exactly as they were following the uprising and liberation by the Peshmergas in 1991.The windows are busted out and the entire facade is riddled with countless bullet holes. Before the liberation, thousands of people, mostly Kurds, were imprisoned and tortured and killed there. It is now the country’s first museum of war crimes. Rusted barbed wired and deserted watchtowers give the place an ominous feeling.

Upon entering the compound, we were first escorted to the Hall of Mirrors which is a 50 meter long room with walls covered in shards of mirror. 182,000 shards, one for each Kurdish person killed by Saddam’s regime. On the ceiling are 5000 small, white lights, each one representing a Kurdish village that was destroyed.

We walked out and into the courtyard which houses old and rusted military vehicles. We walked past them and into the first of the actual prison buildings. There was quite a bit of debris. Pieces of rock and broken tiles from the walls were scattered on the floor. We walked from cell to cell. There were drawing and carvings in some of the walls, not sure if they are from vandals or prisoners. There was such heavy sadness in the air and as I stood inside one of the cells and looked out at the nice, middle-class houses just across the street, I wondered what must have gone on in those rooms and what the people who lived just across the street thought about it. The view from the roof also struck me. It was surprising to suddenly walk onto the sun-drenched roof after experiencing the sadness and depression inside. The view of the gorgeous mountains and a deep blue sky from the roof of this place of torture and murder seemed out of place and almost inappropriate. But now, thinking about it a bit later, perhaps that is what hope is, the vision or promise of something beautiful while in the midst of something terrible and unimaginable.

We went to the next building and on one floor, there are walls covered in hand prints in red paint. There is nothing or anyone to explain what they mean, but it is pretty easy to come up with your own interpretations. To me, they represented the blood of people who had died there, many of which are perhaps no longer remembered by anyone, their memories exist only in those hand prints.

Preston and I didn’t speak much to each other while we walked around, each of us in our own thoughts. We knew where we were going, but I think we were both a somewhat overwhelmed by the impact of it all. We stayed there for just over an hour before deciding it was time to leave and head to Halabja, about 60 kilometers of so away.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 6)

December 29, 2010 – Continued

After a morning exploring a very small part of Erbil, we decided we should head to Sulaymaniya, a city just a couple hours drive away towards the Iranian border and also towards Halabja, where we will go tomorrow. The journey started out easy enough. We got a taxi to the Sulaymaniya garage and once there we quickly secured a car to take us. We agreed a price of 15,000 Dinars, or about 12 USD, loaded our things into the trunk of the car, got inside and then the problems began. Suddenly, they wanted 45,000 Dinar, but they could not explain why. We got out of the car and decided to find an alternative. It wasn’t so much the money, it was the fact that we hadn’t even left yet and were already having problems. I was scared we would get half-way there and then they would try to get even more money out of us. We saw some minibuses a few meters away and within a couple of minutes, we were loaded up and crammed inside. I was stuffed in the front seat between the driver and another passenger, which was great as a I had a great view and Preston was a few seats behind me on a little stool in the aisle of the bus. And all for the price of 8,000 Dinar per person. We were soon on our way.

The landscape on the drive was beautiful with rolling hills covered in golden grass, the occasional trees and small herds of goats and sheep in the distance. It was all so calm and peaceful and I just wanted to get out of the bus and go for a long walk. The sky was the most perfect blue and sun was warm and gentle. It was a perfect day. I watched the land roll by, wondering what adventures lay ahead of us and already wishing I had more time to explore. It was then that we passed a sign that said “Welcome to Kirkuk.”

The visas in our passports were only for Iraqi Kurdistan, which was fine with us as we had and have no intention (although I do admit a lot of curiosity) about going into the more dangerous Arab controlled part of Iraq. We went through a few security checks, two of which required us to get out of the bus, which due to the seating arrangements, required others to get out and then I would have to climb over people to the door. The soldiers were all very friendly, checking our passports and asking us where we were from and where we were going.  It never took long, it was just always a bit exciting not knowing if we would be let through or detained. So far, so good. Well, sort of. With the passing of the sign welcoming us to Kirkuk, we realized we were not in Kurdistan anymore.

Kirkuk is described by Lonely Planet as an oil-rich city, a “kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and a tinderbox waiting to happen.” It goes on to say “Apart from oil, Kirkuk has little to offer. Bombings and shootings are common, giving this dismal city a feeling of the old ‘Wild West’.” And it was in this area where we stopped for a break. We got out of the bus and some people had food while Preston and I had out-of-date fruit drinks and some candy he had bought earlier this morning at Qaysari Bazaar in Erbil, which I forgot to mention in my last post, is one of the oldest in the world. The combination of Lemon soda, candy and diet cola had my stomach doing little flips and I was just hoping I would not have any urgent requirements on the rest of the journey. Before long, we left Kirkuk, went though another checkpoint and there was Sulaymaniya in the valley below us. It looked a lot larger than Erbil.

The taxi dropped us and everyone else off in a field which was empty save for several taxis to take us to our destinations. As we had no hotel rooms, we scanned the Lonely Planet info, picked one and were soon on our way. Close to our hotel, which was on the main street, we ended up stopped in traffic and so got out of the taxi and started walking. We saw our hotel and decided to take a chance at another one we read about a short distance away in the middle of the Grand Bazaar. We decided it would be a more happening than staying in the in what seemed a pretty dull area off a main street. We walked up a bit and as we got into Malawi street the place was buzzing. People, stores, kebab stalls, stores selling clothes, spices, nuts, and electronics. Yes, we made the right decision. We were heading to Malawi Hotel, at the end of Malawi street, on a square in what seemed like the middle of everything. Lonely Planet described it as “ageing but clean… with Western toilets. We walked in and were welcomed by a sign declaring “no guns” and they were busy repainting. Or actually, re-splattering paint. We took a room, which is about as basic as they come, dropped our stuff and headed out to the bazaar. It was about :18:30 and we were ready to soak up some local culture. We left the hotel and the place was deserted. What had been crowded and happening just thirty or so minutes before was shut and empty. We walked down the streets looking for food, and all the places were either closed and locked tight, or told us they were closing the second we walked in. All we wanted was something simple, but there was nothing around.

We walked further down Malawi street, back towards the main boulevard and discovered a little places named “Pasha Café.” We were in the mood for a beer and or nargile, so we went inside. The place was small and a bit smoky, with small groups of guys all huddled around water pipes, drinking cola or tea and eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds. We sat down and immediately a small group of young guys strike up conversation. They were Iraqi but had grown up in London and spoke perfect English. They told us to get a “fresh” nargile.

Nargile, sheesha or hookah – depending on where you are in the world – is a water pipe through which flavored tobacco is smoked. The tobacco is put into a bowl, which is covered with aluminum foil upon which hot coals are placed. The pipe is shared and one will last from an hour to several hours. The tobacco flavors range from apple and mint (my favorites) to grape, rose and watermelon, which I have not yet had the desire to try. I had heard before that in some parts of the Middle East, they do not use flavored tobacco, but real fruit to add the taste. I had never seen it before. Not until tonight. We took the guys up on their suggestion. The nargile we ordered would have regular tobacco stuffed into half a fresh grapefruit and then put on top of the pipe, covered in aluminum foil and hot coals. We knew it was either going to be great or disgusting and so we dove in. It was by far the best nargile I have ever had. Not only was it tasty and fresh, but we did not get the weird buzzed feeling or slightly queasy stomach that can happen sometimes. So now we have a goal to figure out how to do it ourselves when we get back home.

After the nargile, we decided it was time to eat and the guys we met suggested an Italian restaurant up the street, near where our originally hotel was going to be. We walked and walked and while we didn’t find the restaurant they suggested, we did find an amazing little place and had piles and piles of salads, humus, olives, meat, chicken and bread, all for about 10 dollars for the both of us. It was amazing and we stopped just short of licking the plates clean.

It was time to head back to the hotel. It was barely 9pm and it was like a ghost town. A bit creepy and odd, but we didn’t feel in danger or scared, it was just the whole desolation of a place that we imagine would be a beehive of activity. Not sure why everything is shut and so deserted at this hour, but it was the same last night in Erbil. Yes, there were a few people out, but nothing at all compared to what you would expect in the middle of the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now it is time for bed. Tomorrow, we will be up early to explore Amna Suraka and visit Halabja. It promises to be a pretty heavy day.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 5)

December 29, 2010

After a night of barely sleeping due to the excitement of it all, I decided it was time to get out of bed and start exploring. I could hear the people in the market below getting stores and restaurants ready. It was just before seven and I was ready for action! Preston decided to sleep in a bit longer so I went for a walk alone. In spite of all the noise coming from the market, which turned out to be actually coming from the one or two restaurants across from our hotel prepping for the day, it was pretty deserted, so I took a long stroll along the empty streets of the still sleeping city and wound up walking around the base of the citadel, snapping pictures every three or four steps.

After walking around the base, which took me about 30 minutes given all the pauses, I decided to take a peek inside. I was going to wait for Preston before actually walking around inside, but it isn’t often that I find myself standing outside a seven or eight thousand year old town. I couldn’t wait. But it turns out I was a bit too hasty as it was only 7:30 or so and it doesn’t open until 9:00. I contented myself with wandering around a bit more.

Beneath the main entrance of the citadel, there is a sort of town square, dominated by fountains which had been running the night before, but like everything else in the city, were sleeping at that time of the morning. I wandered around to see what interesting places I would discover and soon found myself lost in narrow, run down streets with old buildings and crumbling walls semi-covered in graffiti. It was at once exciting and scary. I realized I was in Iraq, and while what I was seeing and experiencing had nothing to do with the imagery on TV or the things that I had been “taught” about the country for decades, I realized that nobody on the planet had a clue where I was. There was also nobody around to tell me anything, and there were no signs warning of danger. At least none that I could read. Everything is in Arabic. I wandered around the streets, turning this way and that, getting lost and hoping that nobody was going to come out and rob me, or worse.

After about 10 minutes of walking around, I was almost back at the main square when I came across a man with a little tea stand and the biggest smile you have ever seen. He asked me to take a picture and have some tea. I love those kinds of unexpected moments.

Then it was time to meet Preston, have breakfast and do some serious exploring of the citadel. I got Preston out of bed and as there was no water and no towels, we headed out without showers. As the citadel was still closed, we had some breakfast and headed to Minare Park, a medium sized park dominated on one end by the slightly leaning Mudhafaria Minaret, which was built in around 1190 AD and the top part of which had broken off long ago. The park was still closed, but we asked the guards if we could go in and they opened the gates for us. While I can imagine the park must be beautiful in the spring and summer, with all the rose bushes, today it was a bit brown and sad looking. We saw there was an aerial tramway going from Minare Park to an unknown destination off in the distance, but when we got to the ticket counter, we discovered it only opens at 3:00 and so we were out of luck. Done with the park, we headed to the citadel at last.

The Citadel of Erbil rests about 30 meters above the rest of the city and it is arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, with evidence dating back to at least the 5th millennium BC. In recent years it has been inhabited by refugees who fled the violence in other parts of Iraq (at least from what I have read). It is in a horrible state of disrepair, but is currently undergoing extensive restoration and renovation in partnership with Unesco.

Due to the renovation work which began in June 2010, most of the area was closed off, but we managed to spend an hour or so walking through the old town. While it was run down and crumbling in many places, there were also some gorgeous areas and pieces of buildings and residences lingering here and there. Walking through the twisting and confusing lanes, it was easy to imagine what it must have looked like so long ago. I hope to visit it again after the restoration.

After the citadel, we walked to the big bazaar that lies just off the town square. It was amazing. Like being back in India, only everything was in Kurdish or Arabic. Stores crammed with everything imaginable. Carts carrying eggs, toys, candy, sweets, clothes and anything else you could want. We walked along the market while everyone asked for photos to be taken. People waved and smiled and sometimes asked us where we were from. It was amazing. Nobody asked us for money or tried to hassle us at all. It was busy and chaotic, but we were not bothered at all. After about thirty or so minutes of walking around and taking pictures, I was approached by a group of men who told me not to take pictures. I didn’t know who they were, so I asked why. From what I could make out, one of the men was the manager of the market. Fortunately for me, I had basically al the images I wanted and we were pretty much done by the time he came around.

It is early afternoon and time to head to Sulaymaniya.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 4)

28 December, 2010

Yesterday we went to the agency to book the bus and were told it left at 6:30. At 5:50 this morning my phone rang, a frantic guy speaking Turkish sounding panicked on the phone, I spoke what Turkish I know back a hitm and told him we would be there in 5 minutes. What they didn’t tell us, is that we would be getting the bus about 30 or so kilometers from where we were staying and that we would need to be driven from the office to the actual pick-up location. We were soon heading down the mountain while the driver in his very limited English began a conversation with Preston about Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and other assorted celebrities and then, in the middle of nowhere with a great view towards the old city of Mardin, we waited for the bus and I enjoyed the sunrise.

The bus came, we loaded up and settled in, books close at hand and iPods fully charged. Then it hit. We were going to Iraq. We were on our way. It was finally happening and each second took us closer. I felt nervous, excited, and full of anticipation. I was also a bit scared that perhaps I expected too much? But I didn’t and don’t really expect anything.

The question that always gets asked when people hear you are going to Iraq, is “why?” For me, the “why” of it all is simple. I want to see this country that is so often in the news, and I want to see a different side. I am sure there is a side that is not about war, killing, bombings, machine guns and all of the other horrible things that go with war and that dominate the news every time Iraq is mentioned. What little information I have been able to find suggests a place of friendly people, beautiful landscape and tons of history. Yes, war is a part of the past and present, and unfortunately at least for now, the future, but I want to find something else, something different and I just want to experience it for myself.

Meanwhile, back on the bus…  The route we took between Mardin and the border crossing followed the border between Turkey and Syria. To my left was Turkey, and to my right, Turkey, barbed wire, 100 meters of dirt field, security tower, barbed wire, Syria. Preston read his book, I stared out the window trying to get pictures that did not also have my reflection in them. Then we stopped so passengers could have a bit of breakfast and the bus, a little wash. Now, I had a problem. Since I was a little kid, I have always been just a little impatient when it comes to travel. Not impatient in a bad way, I just want to get there and get there now. When I fasten my seatbelt in the airplane, that means we should be taxiing down the runway, not waiting for others to board. Delays for any reason are not acceptable and always unforgiven. Thirty minutes later and we were on our way and before long we came across a line of lorries that stretched for a few kilometers. Cargo trucks waiting to cross the border. Finally, after 3 hours, we were there, ready to leave Turkey and enter into Iraq.

Leaving Turkey is pretty simple, it just means waiting in the car or bus queue for one or two hours. We would get off the bus, get on the bus, get off the bus, get on the bus, just following what everyone else was doing, but not understanding the what or why. Once we were out of Turkey, the next part was getting into Iraq. We drove about half a kilometer or so and stopped at the gate, where we all got off the bus and went into the passport control office. And what a place it was. Black leather seats and flat screen TV. Our passports were taken and we sat down and a waiter of sorts brought us hot tea. Once we were done with the tea, our passports were done and we got back on the bus. Best border crossing ever! And best part of all? We were officially in Iraq.

We were not far into the country when we had our first security stop, which consisted of little more than the bus coming to a stop and a soldier waving us one. There were lots of little outposts along the road, which ran through beautiful hills. Most of the little outposts were often just a little hut or shed, some sandbags, and soldiers with their AK-47s.

For three hours, we watched Iraq go by from a bus, but had yet to step out, the feel it and touch it and then suddenly we were in Erbil, getting off the bus on a non-descript road and being taken into the office of the bus company. First order of business, find a place to sleep. We had our trusty Lonely Planet printout and decided on the Bekhal Hotel, described as “impeccably clean with Western toilets” – two things we were eager for. W got the room that was not so impeccably clean and a squat toilet. No problem for me, I am used to them after India. I am not sure Preston was so keen, and I had to give him a lesson how to use one… Where the feet go, making sure clothes are out of the way, and equally as important, maintaining balance while in a squatted position.

Checked in and having answered the call of nature, it was time to explore the city. Our hotel was in the bazaar and we were in the mood for some good food, shopping and walking around as we had basically been sitting most of the last 12 hours. It was only 7pm and we were ready for anything…

But we were not ready for everything to be closed. Shutter after shutter in the market was pulled down and locked. There were a few street places to eat, but after such a long trip, we were in the mood for something more like a restaurant. The first place we saw? A sandwich place named Istanbul which we decided to skip. We wanted something a bit more local, although we weren’t sure what that was or where to get it. Finally, we spotted a poster with pictures of food dishes and went upstairs. We asked for the menu using a variety of sign language, pointing, grunts and speaking very slowly, and after a few minutes, we were escorted out of the restaurant, across the walkway and into the kitchen, were we pointed at what we wanted (kebaps) and held up the correct number of fingers to indicate how many. We pointed to the bread we wanted and then headed back upstairs. Helped ourselves drinks and soon the soups and everything else were delivered and we dug in. Not only were we hungry travelers, we were also the entertainment for the rest of the restaurant. It was like being back in India all over again, people watching how the foreigner eats, what he drink, what he does. But unlike India, Iraq doesn’t really see a lot of tourists, and the people in Iraq were are much less intrusive about it.

We finished our delicious dinner, paid the bill and left. With our knowledge that the city was all closed, we decided to head someplace for a beer. We decided to go to the Deutscher Hof (gotta love the Germans and their beer gardens) but it was on the other side of the city. Lucky for us, we met a guy who offered to take us to a beer shop. We tried to get out of it, but he seemed insulted and so we went with him. Walking around for what seemed like ages on dark and empty streets. 8pm and there were almost no people out, the city was like a ghost town. For a place that is supposed to be one of the most modern and developed cities in Iraq (according again to Lonely Planet, which describes Erbil as a Dubai in the making) it seemed amazingly deserted and lifeless.

We got our beer and since there is no Iraqi beer, we settled for Chang, from Thailand and walked back to the hotel and now we are drinking our beer and discussing the fact that we are here, really here.

Tomorrow I will get up early to take pictures, explore the Citadel and have a walk around the city.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 3)

27 December, 2010

We flew from Istanbul to Mardin and landed at what is probably one of the smallest airports I have ever been to. It has one runway, room for 2 planes and a building with a maximum capacity of about 300 people. Mardin itself is a gorgeous town built along the sides of a  low, rocky mountain, with buildings that date back 4000 years or more. There are a couple of roads, but most navigation through the town involves walking up and down uneven ancient staircases, the view changing with each step. Because of the amount of stairs, which in many ways reminded me of Santorini or Neemrana in India, donkeys are used to transport good though the old town. It is not tourist season, so apart from the locals, we pretty much have the place to ourselves. But, as there are not many tourists, a lot of the historical places are being renovated and repaired, so there were several places we just could not get into. We stopped for a great lunch the middle of the old bazaar that extends about half way around the city and you can buy everything from brooms to pans to groceries and pretty much anything you can think of.  At the restaurant, which was large enough to fit about 5 people, we met a local with a café and before long, we were sitting in the sun, having a cold beer, looking over the plains toward northern Syria. I saw Syria today! And of course, we talked about going to Damascus in the near future. Travel is like heroin. Not that I ever tried heroin, but the more I do, the more I want.

As beautiful as Mardin is, it seems equally boring at night. We walked and walked to find a single restaurant for dinner and finally we came across one just around the corner from our hotel. The adventure has already started and in a most un-Robb-like action I ate what seemed to be a local delicacy, stomach stuffed with rice, veggies and herbs. I didn’t want to do it, but hey, I am starting a big adventure, so what’s a little stomach in the stomach?

Out hotel is next door from the bus company that will be taking us to and across the border tomorrow morning and instead of the high costs I had been getting from blogs and other limited information on crossing the border, it is costing us a mere $50 per person to go from Mardin to Erbil – Our information told us it would be double that, so we are already under budget! Time for sleep as the alarm goes off at 5:15. The water has been out in parts of Istanbul for 2 days, and I am in need of a shower and good scrub down.

Tomorrow Iraq! It’s finally going to happen!!!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 2)

December 26, 2010

Finally got my hands on some Lonely Planet info on Iraq, which is about a 35 or so page chapter from a much bigger book on the Middle East. The chapter begins with a few paragraphs about the glorious past, being home to the Garden of Eden,, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Then come the warnings. “Iraq is a war zone” is how the next page starts, before going into the risks of terrorist attacks, military combat operations, suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), land mines, sectarian violence, kidnappings, highway robberies and petty crime. It also explains how foreigners are primary targets of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and that attacks can occur anywhere, at anytime. Of course, it is speaking of the Iraq we all hear about, the one in the news and on the front pages of magazines. We are going to a different part, the “safe” part. Mountains, lakes and vistas. Ancient towns and developing cities, the past and the future merging together.

And tomorrow, the big adventure starts. We leave my house at about 4am. The original  plan has changed a bit. We will be spending the first day in Mardin and then head into Iraq first thing on Tuesday morning. All the information I could find told us we needed to take a complex series of buses, taxis and other transport to get from Mardin across the border. As it turns out, we can take a single bus from Mardin to Erbil, in Iraq in just about 6 hours which means we should be there in time for a late lunch. That is all thanks to one of Preston’s student. And while the Lonely Planet and other sources suggest we take private taxis, we were told by relatives of Preston’s student not to take the private taxis due to the risk of kidnapping and being turned over to Al-Qaeda or perhaps worse. He told us it was fine in the cities, but should be avoided otherwise. But from what I have been reading, it seems safe enough and we will have to take one for at least a part of our journey from what I can work out so far…

I have also received information from a blogger I discovered in Iraq who has provided tons of great information for us, and hopefully we will all be able to meet up and have a face-to-face conversation and hopefully some tips on some great local cuisine and a chance to experience new customs. Of course, I will be armed with my camera and so excited about all the pictures waiting to be discovered.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part One)

December 18, 2010

In just over a week, Preston and I are leaving for our New Year’s trip. The idea for the trip started in August, in Istanbul, while having a few drinks outside our favorite cafe in the summer heat. Somehow, we quickly came to the same conclusion that we wanted to do the same trip by the end of the year and within minutes, we made a commitment and since then there has been no turning back. Now, finally it is less than 10 days away. Our destination: Iraq. Or to be more precise, Iraqi Kurdistan, a “safe” area of Iraq in the north of the country.

I love adventure travel, but this trip is beyond anything I have ever done. And of course, everyone is telling us we are crazy, but at the same time, they are waiting for all the stories when I return. Planning a trip to Iraq is not so simple, There aren’t really that many guide books filling up shelves in bookstores, in fact, I have yet to find one, and travel agents have no clue. They, as well as anybody who happens to find out, look at us as if we should be put in straightjackets and sent to the nearest mental institute and then try to steer us in other directions. And we did look a bit: Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel., Egypt. But we kept coming back to Iraq.

So planning the trip has meant scouring blogs and internet pages of those that have gone before and come back in one piece to tell about it. We have some current information – There are ATM’s in Iraq, but we should not plan on them working as many of them only accept Iraqi issued bank cards. There are internet cafés, so we will be able to stay in touch and let people know we are alright. We have decided to keep it a secret from most people so they wouldn’t worry, but a few are in the know, just ın case. There are supposedly daily power outages ranging from 20 minutes to over 10 hours, so we will need flashlights and extra batteries for essentials like cameras. Hot water in hotels is supposedly hard to come by, so I will have a good long shower and proper scrub down before we leave, cleaning behind the ears and in all those hard to reach places and then we will hope for the best for the week.

Getting into Iraq is also easier than we imagined it would be, at least what I have read. Getting to the border has proven to be a bit complicated, but we now have that sorted. We leave on the 27th from Istanbul and go via plane to Mardin, near the Iraqi border. From there, we take a bus to Silopi and then either another bus or a taxi to the border. Once we cross the border, we get on another bus or taxi that will take us to Dohuk, from where we can arrange further taxi transport. We are also hearing from one of Preston’s students, that his uncle runs a bus from Mardin into Iraq, going perhaps as far as Erbil, one of the cities we will be visiting. So, we will get across the border, just not yet sure how. At the border, we will be given a 10 day visa that is good for Iraqi Kudistan, but not for Arab Iraq, where all the violence and war is happening. The closest we will get to Baghdad is about 300 kilometers. I have heard of people trying to sneak down into Baghdad and other places, but we will not be doing that. Taking a risk is one thing, asking for problems is something else, and I am not interested in being a news story. At least not a war story.

I have been looking at places to go and I am a bit disappointed that two of the places I really want to visit are just inside the Arab part of Iraq. I really want to go to Nineveh, a town from about 1800BC, mentioned in the Bible and there are still good remains of the walls and the city. From the information I am getting online, we will drop into Arab Iraq on the way between Dohuk and Erbil. Nineveh is just across the river from Mosul, arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world, making it just a bit inconvenient and a lot too dangerous. Not sure if that info is at all outdated, but we will check that out once we can speak to someone who knows the current day situation. Again, as much as I would like to see it and explore, I am more keen on keeping my head attached to my shoulders. Another place I would love to go is Hatra, an even older city that is definitely out of our reach as it means getting quite close to Baghdad and even further into Arab Iraq. I have heard there are guards every few kilometers on the road, turning people back that don’t have the proper visas or no business there.

So, it looks like our cities will be Dohuk, Erbil, Sulayimaniye and Halabja, a small town just a few miles from the Iranian border. The rest, we will figure out. As of now, it looks like New Years will be spent in Erbil, coming back into Turkey on January 1, as we have a flight on the 2nd in the afternoon.

There is a lot of information about road travel as well, not to follow too close to a military convoy as they are targets for suicide bomb attacks and IED’s, not to overtake any military transport no matter how slow it is moving. And of course, paying attention, being very careful and just making sure we keep our wits about us in the event anything should happen.

For now I am excited. A bit nervous, but more than anything, excited. I can’t wait to just be there and see it all for myself. It is supposed to be amazingly beautiful, the people beyond friendly and of course, it is the adventure of a lifetime. In my opinion, at least.