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…

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