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.

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