After an amazing whirlwind honeymoon through Italy, my husband and I hastily parted ways at the Turkish Airways terminal of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Our goodbye was much too fast for my liking, but the traffic police and our driver hurried my husband back into the car to drop him off at American Airlines. He was heading home to Pennsylvania and I was heading off for my second adventure in Iraq.
The circumstances of my first Iraqi adventure were supremely different from this one. I deployed to Iraq in 2009 as an Army officer and helicopter pilot supporting ground soldiers and Iraqi citizens as they transitioned toward a hopeful self-sustainment. I was here for 10 months, living on an enormous Air Force base, which I was never allowed to leave unless on a mission, in the air, and under the cover of darkness. My helicopter was regularly shot at, my base was occasionally rocketed, and I had very little personal contact with Iraqi citizens. While these experiences inspired me to want to do more for the Iraqi people, they also imprinted my psyche a bit. This and the language barrier have made assimilation into Kurdistan a little challenging.
But my current adventure is about experiencing Iraq in a way that I was unable to before. I am here to meet its people, understand its culture, and support its progression toward environmental sustainability; I’ll just have to adapt my inculcated survival skills to do it. I still find peoples’ overt curiosity a little unsettling, but I am frequently assured that Sulaymaniyah is extremely safe and that American citizens (especially US soldiers) are welcomed with hospitality and admiration. This has been my experience so far, and each day I can feel myself easing into the place a little more.
During this first week or so of easing into Kurdistan, I’ve noted 10 observations, vicissitudes, and lessons learned that are hopefully worth sharing:
1. Travel problems can occur when your plane tickets are purchased with someone else’s credit card (i.e., the airline won’t let you on the plane and you have to call and wake the purchaser up at 3:30 in the morning so that she can email the airline enough verifying information to almost certainly guarantee identity theft).
2. Having an international cell phone is crucial to your sanity when said travel problems occur.
3. You just have to roll with it when you find four people living in what was originally described as an empty apartment, especially when one of those unexpected people is lounging in his underwear in “your” room (at 4:00 in the morning, after 20 hours of travel).
4. Traveler’s sickness is no fun at all… go to the Yale travel clinic for Cipro and Imodium before you depart (which I did not do).
5. Language barriers can be frustrating, especially when all you can make out is that everyone around you is talking about you, and then they all walk away.
6. NGO-supplied drivers are the best thing since sliced bread when the flow of traffic relies heavily on near-constant U-turns.
7. You know you are in a land friendly to Americans when the first two figures in the wax museum are George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
8. Some cultures take poetic license with copyrights (see: EKIA Home Store, Chavy Land [featuring Mickey Mouse and his Disney cartoon friends], Hogo Boss, Google Barber Shop, etc).
9. The happy music playing on the streets all day comes from oil trucks driving around selling generator fuel; they sound just like ice cream trucks and operate on the exact same business model.
10. Kurdistan’s traditional tea is so strong you drink it from a tiny glass cup with nearly half an inch of sugar on the bottom, which you stir to taste. This tea is served socially, even when it’s 107° F outside, and it’s so piping-hot that you hold it from a glass saucer instead of the cup. It’s really good, and somehow the heat doesn’t bother much. (Perhaps contrary to tradition, but in keeping with the heat, Nature Iraq has an awesome impromptu international “coffee club” in which my CEO makes Italian coffee so good that I can still see Roma if I close my eyes and our house manager serves Turkish cardamom coffee that is simply beautiful).
Now that these travel woes, rocky transitions, and culture shocks are behind me, I’m going to embrace the hospitality and caffeine and get busy exploring, observing, and immersing. I’m headed to Nature Iraq’s Eco Camp to explore Mt. Peramagroon’s incredible biodiversity, to Chibaish (southern Iraq) to observe Marsh Arab communities and Nature Iraq’s marsh restoration projects, and to Erbil (Kurdistan’s state capital) to explore its 6,000 year old citadel and the giant bazaar below it. I’m told I might even venture to southern Turkey for my work on Nature Iraq’s Tigris River Flotilla outreach program, which will use a traditional boat journey from southeast Turkey (through Iraq) to the Gulf to educate citizens about threats to the Tigris River and the unique cultural heritage of Mesopotamia. At the same time, I’ll be finishing up several articles on Iraq’s southern marshes and starting a new article on transboundary water diplomacy with a colleague here. I’ve also been asked to use my lawyer skills to develop some “house rules” for the apartment… Rule #1: Keep your pants on.