Monday, August 03, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 5 - Work and Shopping

I'm behind several days on posting due to the demanding schedule and lack of sleep. The past few days follow a pattern. Up at 7:30 or 8, shower, eat breakfast, check email, discuss work for the day, driver comes at 9ish, meetings 9 until 12 or 1, enough lunch for twice as many people, afternoon/evening out and about with dinner averaging 10pm, work and blog and facebook until 2 or so, 3:30am the night before I stopped posting. I'm too old for this! That almost sounds like complaining, but don't take it that way, I am enjoying sharing this experience with everyone and don't want to stop writing. On with day 5.

What do you think we had for breakfast? Honey and bread. I sure do miss milk. Haven't seen any around here. The plan for today is to conduct another workshop in the cultural center in the morning getting into the details of the curriculum. We will lunch there at the cultural center and then the plan is unclear. Hopefully the pool will be involved, but as you will see we never made it back to the hotel until late and the pool closes at 8pm so the pool deck can become a restaurant.

Shopping at the bazaar in the market area of downtown Duhok is quite an experience. Ms. Basima told us to take someone with us not for our physical safety, but for the preservation of our cash. Negotiation is part of buying anything in the Bazaar, not like the Mazi Mall, where shopping is boring with fixed prices just like in America. For some reason they have begun constructing western type shopping places. I didn't come all the way to Kurdistan to go to Wal Mart. So after the morning work and another overly indulgent lunch (I am starting to force myself to eat very small portions although it is observed by the hosts and they don’t like it!), Ms. Basima, Ms. Amera, Rahman and myself begin our first bazaar shopping experience. Actually we stopped by a little shop on the way to park the car that had “folk” crafts. Turns out that I saw some of the same things later in the bazaar. We, well Ms. Bassima and Ms. Amera were trying to lower the price on a cool little knitted hat, but the shopkeeper wouldn’t budge so we started to leave. He must have thought we were rich Americans because he went into his shop and came back with a genuine snicker snee for only $500. He said it was really worth $2000. We left and parked the car at the Office of the Deanery of the College of Education.

The College of Education will soon be in a brand new building 30 km north of Duhok in a town called Zakho (Zah ho), but for now the College is housed in what was one of Saddam Hussein’s security buildings (read prison) in Duhok. It is not a very pretty place and they showed us a barred door leading to the prison area below ground, kind of like a dungeon. I was told that really bad things happened here with many people killed in the prison. Would you want your office and classrooms in a place like that?

We strolled down to the bazaar area which takes up several blocks if the city was actually laid out in blocks. It is hard to do justice to the bazaar in words. In this instance, movies like Indiana Jones do a decent job portraying the scene. The bounty of colors, textures, sounds, smells, and people saturate my whole being with the experience. Stall after stall and passage after passage are lined with anything you might want from western looking toys, clothes, and accessories made in China to traditional Kurdish clothes and religious scarves and wedding dresses to ice cream and fruit and nuts and vegetables and spices. Before you start thinking it is so romantic, there were also smells that weren’t so good and water running down a little trough in the middle of the walk and trash scattered about, especially water bottles.

The people in the bazaar are as varied as the merchandise. Not so in most other places like restaurants where the segregation of men and women is quite clear. At the popular Malta restaurant, the lawn on one side of the sidewalk is for men only while the other side is for families. This doesn’t mean that when your family goes out to eat the fathers don’t sit with their families. It is quite the opposite. The husbands and fathers are with the families. The all men side is for groups of men like soldiers or Coalbiters. It is probably a good idea they have their own space. No such separation exists in the market (or in the University now that I think about it) other than the grouping of like merchandise. One would think you would not want your scarf store next to another man’s scarf store, but this is not the case. Similar stuff seems to clump together. Even out on the street where small store fronts line the thoroughfare, all of the tire shops are adjacent to one another. I asked about this and was told you choose the one you have a relationship with. But how do you choose the first time?

Before entering the labyrinth that is the bazaar, we dropped down some steps below street level to a wide hallway with small offices along the wall. The money changers. We chose one of them (I do not know how) gave them $50 and in return got 50 x 1250 = 62,500 dinars or thereabouts. Ms. Amera said it used to be 3 US dollars to 1 dinar. Times have changed. I do not know why Bassima and Amera even bothered to do this because we were not allowed to pay for much of anything. They said we were their guest, so they wanted to pay for everything. Rahman argued with them every time, trying to pay for it himself. I quickly gave up trying and just thanked them for their kindness.

I wanted to buy something for the ladies in my life back home. I forgot to tell you that they first took us to a very chic western looking store to look for something for the ladies before realizing this is not what we were after, and I certainly wouldn’t try to buy any real clothes for Margaret or Shannon. I decided something for their hair would be good, but soon found that hair clips and such were the same as in the US. What about a head covering? Most women had some sort of head covering though a few did not. The dress of the women was really spectacular and very diverse from the black all over to colorful head scarves and dresses to western clothes. However, I could see a good portion of the women were following the western style of tighter fitting clothes just with a head covering on top to satisfy their rules. I was told by our hosts that Turkish women are the most beautiful. Unless you are of the religious groups that just wore black, it seems to me the women in Kurdistan may have an even more difficult time dressing than women in America because they have to decide on what head covering to wear along with the rest of their clothes and accessories. I ended up getting colorful head scarves for Shannon and Margaret and then a cute dress for Lillian the next day at the market in Zakho.

As for the men, some wear jeans and a polo shirt and others dress pants and dress shirt and maybe a coat and tie. Most wear short sleeve shirts unless they are workers out in the sun in which case they wear long sleeves. However, there is a group of older men wearing the traditional Kurdish clothes which are baggy pants pulled very far above your waist like my friend Neal Sullivan used to do as a joke, a long sleeve shirt and a big piece of cloth wrapped around the waist as a belt. The piece of cloth looks just like a big sheet. I bought one for Israel to add to his costume collection. Ms. Basima said you have to know how to tie it, probably just like learning to tie your tie. The colors of the belt vary a little, but the rest of the outfit is some shade of green or brown which blends in well with the natural landscape.

The bazaar hours run from 10am until dusk, which is 7 or 8. To close for the night, the shopkeeper puts a big sheet or tarp over the front covering any merchandise that is on display. It appears there is nothing to prevent someone from coming along and stealing everything except that doing so is unacceptable in their culture. There are thieves just like everywhere else in the world, but this is not the place where they work. Out on the main street, the businesses have a store front, sometimes it is just like a garage door. They open the door and pull out their merchandise for display or for the tire businesses, bring out their tires and tools for changing tires. The tire changing happens right in front of the store on the side of the street. Ms. Amera said anything dealing with cars is a lucrative business. I should tell my friend Allen Trivette of 194 Tire to come set up shop in Kurdistan!
After a few hours in the bazaar trying to decide what to buy and haggling with the shopkeepers, we made a return visit to the Duhok Dam and hiked up the side of the hill to the top of the waterfall that lands in the pool next to the road. I was disppointed to learn that the waterfall was man made. They pump water up to the top of it! In any case, the hike up the mountain was fun with a good view of the Dam. Pictures will help here.

We finally headed toward dinner at the best restaurant in town called the Malta restaurant. Nothing unusual happened at dinner except that the restaurant was really crowded this night so the service was not particularly good even though they are famous for their service. We ate outside on the lawn on the family side of the yard. No one was inside the restaurant except for the cooks and the wait staff. We did see one group with the women dressed to the nines with sequined dresses and lots of gold and jewelry. Our hosts said if a man wanted to marry one of the single girls in that family you would have to give them lots of money and gold. I’ll tell you more about marriage another day. Our customary ending to the day followed, staying up late on the computer working, blogging and chatting.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 4 - work and play

Today we finally begin in earnest the project we were sent here to do. Our goal is to get a picture of the current state of computer science curriculum in Kurdistan by talking with two computing departments here in Dohuk and advise the Ministry of Education on ways to improve it. After our usual breakfast, honey in the comb every day for me, Dr. Adnan comes by the hotel with a new driver in a BMW sedan. Many of the cars in the hotel lot are Land Cruisers or Corollas. New cars are everywhere. Ms. Amera (one of the computer science faculty) has one and it still has the plastic on the interior and the little foam things on the outside of the doors. Actually this seems to be a common practice as Dr. Adnan's car is new and has some of the plastic still on it. The new driver is good and fast. He added another driving rule to his list: drive as fast as you can until you come within braking distance of something in the path of the car. Seems to work well for him. Lucky me, I got to ride in the front this time.

The morning meetings went from 9-12:30 or so with a break in the middle for tea. We cannot go without tea for more than a few hours. I wonder if this is left over from the British? I'll have to ask. By the way, Dohuk city is actually fairly young in Middle East terms, only 300 years or so years old according to Dr. Adnan, and he should know as his ancestors were among the founders of the city, coming out of Turkey to settle the region. Got to eat some new cookies, one completely covered in sesame seeds. Not bad, but I would prefer one of Margaret's whole wheat oatmeal chocolate chip. The initial meeting went well after I realized I was supposed to be leading it. Got some good information, again relying on much talking and translating among the attendees and me choosing words more carefully to make it easier for them to understand me. The meeting ended and thus ended the bulk of our work for the day. Lunch. I will not repeat what we had for lunch. If you have been following this blog, you can tell me what I had for lunch.

The most interesting story of the day began to develop a little while earlier just before lunch when the schedule for the rest of the day was being discussed. Don't know if I said it already or not, but around here schedules are flexible or fluid might be a better word. Just in time planning. Since my life back home on the farm and at ASU has been operating like this for about 5 years, it doesn't bother me and makes me feel right at home. In passing Rahman mentioned that he liked football and that he usually played three times a week and that his neck was sore because he had not been able to play. One of the teaching assistants named Ari(note that these assistants have completed their undergraduate degree in computer science and are required to teach for two years as an assistant in the labs before they can start the masters program) asked Rahman if he wanted to play while he was in Duhok. Of course Rahman said yes, he cannot say no, and that I used to play with him on a team. With about 5minutes of cell phone calls and vigorous discussion with Dr. Adnan, it was announced that we would play soccer that evening with the students and then have dinner. The plan: students pick us up at 8:30pm, play soccer 9-10pm, eat, return to hotel, blog/chat, collapse.

Rahman and I decided to fill the afternoon and early evening schedule with some work, a nap, the pool, and more work to prepare for tomorrow's meetings. The nap was easy given the full stomach and staying up until 2am the night before chatting with my wife. The pool was very nice too. The water felt cool today and with the breeze (anyone want to invest in wind energy here?) it was actually chilly when leaving the pool. Remember the figs by the pool? We were sitting on the end of the pool with a good view of the fig tree below in the garden. It turns out that one of the hotel staff knew the tree was there and that the figs were getting ripe. We were watching him try to reach some when a couple of other gentlemen walked up, one dressed in army fatigues with a Kalashnikov (also known as AK-47) over his shoulder. Seeing a ripe fig a little higher in the tree, Rahman and I began pointing to it while the hotel staff climbed the tree. The AK-47 fellow saw it, sat his rifle down, picked it, came over to the wall and tossed it up to Rahman. Then he went back and got me one. Never thought I would eat a fig in Northern Iraq from a Kalashnikov wielding man. We ate several more figs as they tossed them to us.

Now for the adventure. Naive or trusting? Could be a theme. Get in a small car at 8:30 at night with some Kurdish students we met for the first time that morning, travel about 30 minutes north over some really bad roads with big trucks and dust everywhere and few street lights, turn up a side street, stop at an enclosed soccer field with lots of little kids running around, play soccer for an hour, get back in the car, return to Dohuk, eat Domer kebab on the street again, return to the hotel at 11:30. At one very busy intersection along the way we turned right onto a big highway to get to Somer, the location of the soccer match. Turning left would take us to Mosul which everyone says is definitely not safe. Years before Amera and Basima both moved from Mosul to Dohuk.

The soccer match was a lot of fun and felt completely safe. Everyone here is very welcoming and very generous. Amera and Basima have offered our families a stay in their houses if I were to bring them. I still had occasional random bad thoughts based on movies or news reports, but I was able to ignore them. Ari had arranged the match by reserving the field and getting enough of his friends to come out and play. The field was like the one I mentioned seeing in Zawita, totally enclosed with mesh over a high fence with an artificial turf surface. I have rug burns on my knees and can hardly walk from soreness. Little boys were scattered about the perimeter of the field with coolers of bottled water, offering it to us each break. Rahman scored a goal. I didn't. We lost 6-5.

Following the match, Ari pointed out his house just up the street. A very nice looking house by the standards I had seen. Ari is one of ten children, the youngest boy. He just finished his undergraduate degree in computer science and wants to pursue his masters degree to become a teacher. His father was a teacher, the first one in Somer. The trip back to town was briefly interuppted when we tried to turn left to get to another road and some bigs rocks in the median began to scrape the nice new underside of the car. We backed up, scraping in the other direction. I was hoping we were not going to stay stuck. Finally, continuing down the road we made our way to town, found a nice little restaurant like the other two we have eaten in, and had a nice meal with the soccer gang. The day ended like all of the others.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 3 - Friday, a free day

In this region, Friday is a day off, much like our Sunday, so Rahman and I planned on not doing much, perhaps going swimming in the pool or wandering over to the Dam, a half mile walk. After going to bed at 2am due in part to catching up with my wife by chatting on facebook, 8am felt a little early, but my body isn't really sure what is going on, so I headed to breakfast with Rahman. This hotel also has a complimentary breakfast with almost identical food to the one yesterday. I guess if a Kurd came to the US and stayed at the hotels with complimentary "breakfast" they might rave about all the good stuff provided, but I doubt it. Breakfast here has a lot of fresh stuff that requires preparation, cutting vegetables and fruit, hard boiling eggs, baking bread. There are again things that I do not recognize, so I avoid them. One of them was a local cheese that Rahman said we should not trust. So, I trusted Rahman. Honey in the comb was again available, but it tasted different than the honey yesterday.

Toward the end of breakfast, Dr. Adnan found us. Though he is busy preparing for marriage, which includes building a new house, he wanted to make sure we are taken care of. We decided to go with him for a driving tour followed by lunch. Lunch?? I just stuffed myself at breakfast and did not want to see food for a long time. The driving tour was the same as the one with Amera except after the Dohuk dam and the market, which is quieter in the daytime, we left Dohuk city for the country. Along the way out of town, we passed several ice selling spots within a couple of hundred yards of one another on the side of the road. Ice is sitting in long rectangular blocks about 15 cm on a side and 1 meter long, stacked 6 to 8 high with some sort of covering over it, cardboard, cloth, whatever is available. It must be 43-45 Celsius (109-113) at this time, so I'm trying to figure out how these guys are sure they will sell their ice before it literally goes down the drain. They were busy with people pulled over getting chunks of ice for their coolers. Probably for a picnic in the country where we were going. Parking is not a problem here. You just stop your car anywhere on the side of the road and you have a parking space! People go around you.

Driving out of the city we went up some in elevation and found the area to be even a little more green than the lower elevation of the city. Outside the air was a bit cooler as well. Vineyards again dotted the landscape accompanied by parks with gazebo type structures for camping or picnicing. It does snow some in the winter with Dohuk getting 4-6 cm at a time and the area we were in now up to 40 cm. There are a couple of little restaurants right next to the road in a narrow pass in the mountains. Adnan said he would come there for fish, which we had been advised not to eat. I thought we were going to stop there for lunch! A little boy was tending a fire in an open pit with a big log burning in the middle of it. Apparently the fish are cooked on this fire.

We turned around and went toward Dohuk by the scenic route, taking us through a small village named Zawita where we stopped for a little child to cross the road to his mother standing on the other side ... he was maybe 2 years old. The children here, especially in the city, must be pretty street savvy to avoid being run over. Again, I think they learn early on about the common sense rules of the road. In any case, their mothers do not appear to be very concerned about the situation. We also came across a football game inside a fenced in field with artificial turf as the surface. Remember that I am in Kurdistan, so football is not what you think. You did read artificial turf correctly. There are football fields throughout the city, where they are also covered. Not sure who pays for these, I guess the government. Rahman got out to take some pictures and the kids started showing off and waving to us.

Back in Dohuk, the young men are still on the side of the road selling ice, though the piles are smaller. Dr. Adnan takes us to the restaurant where he will have his wedding party. There will be 600 guests at about 15,000 dinars per guest ($1 US = 1,250 dinars). The restaurant has numerous outdoor grassy areas where the party will be as well as a very nice and large interior restaurant. No one is outside at this time of day so we go in for lunch. Soup and salad (not the kind of salad you are thinking of) to start, Syrian Kebabs and Turkish Kebabs for the main course, fruit and Baclava for dessert with water and sode in between. Topped off with Chai tea. I really wasn't hungry to start with, so eating all of this was a challenge. We did the best we could, Rahman faring better than me. In the middle of lunch a strange thing happened. We get a call from a mysterious person asking us exactly what is in our luggage. I talked to him first - I could hardly remember what was in my suitcase much less the brand of the soap which he asked for! Rahman spent some time trying to explain that he had some soccer, er, football shoes in his bag, but then remembered we had put them in my bag to help with his bag being overweight. Everyone was confused by the end, and we figured the call was for security reasons or some such and that anything we did not identify would be gone from our bags. I hope they don't take my granola!

A luxury nap was had once again after returning to the hotel. Then a dip in the pool. Then a shower and excursion into the market area in search of food. Why would we want food again I don't know, but swimming around and walking generated an appetite. We had decided the day before that I would have to try this food that is prepared on a very large rotating vertical stick with fire on one side. The stick is rotated to cook whatever kind of meat is attached. It is called Döner kebab. Google it. Two interesting things happened at dinner. The first is that I am beginning to be able to recognize different ethnic groups like Turkish Kurds, Regular Kurds, and Arabs. I won't give you details here, but Rahman can vouch for me that I can do it. The second thing that happened is that about halfway through dinner the hustle and bustle of the little restaurant (we were eating inside this time ... in fact a man sat at our table to join the next table it was so crowded) halted with complete darkness. No power. Everyone continued to eat, the owner and workers continued to move around, and in about 30 seconds the lights were back and life continued as if nothing happened. I'll tell you more about the power another day.

Back at the hotel we end the day on the computers again and just before going to bed I have the pleasure of chatting with my lovely wife on facebook. What a crazy world this is. Aren't we supposed to be working here?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 2 - Travel to Dohuk

The day started early when I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. Our driver is supposed to pick us up at 8am to travel to Dohuk, about 2.5 hours north in the mountainous region of Kurdistan near the border with Turkey. We ate a very nice breakfast provided with the room, nothing like the puny food you get at American hotels. Hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, various vegetables (you are guaranteed tomatoes and cucumbers with every meal), some unknown stuff and just what I was looking for, local honey. The owner even said it was local. A big slab of comb honey in a dish. It was very good and made me think my idea of finding beekeepers here is not so far fetched.

Driving to Dohuk involved crossing numerous (6 or more on this trip) security checkpoints with our driver rolling down his window, saying something about me and Rahman, and getting waved through. Most cars are waved through, but there is always someone pulled over and being searched, everyone piling out of the car and pulling papers out of their pockets. Rarely do you see anyone riding alone unless they are in a big truck, which are also numerous, requiring daring passes on so-so roads always obeying the common sense laws mentioned yesterday.

The further north we moved, things became a little bit greener due to a few more trees and at least a little bit of water in a river. Most rivers are dried up completely. Later in the evening in Dohuk we visited a huge Dam right next to the city and saw for ourselves how low the water is due to limited rainfall last winter and spring. It must be really nice in the spring after the rains. Nothig but dried grass everywhere now, which the occasional herd of sheep were trying to survive on under the watchful eye of the burro riding shepherd. I continued to wonder where all of the vegetables come from when everything is so dry, but I did see areas where irrigation is used and saw water trucks dumping water on these small trees the government planted along all of the roads. Water is not visible, but it certainly appears to be available.

The trip was mostly uneventful given that we had been on the roads the day before. That meant we were not scared when there was a giant steamroller crossing the road in our lane while the little bells in the car dinged indicating the car was going more than 120 kph (74 mph for those you only fluent in one measurement language like me). The driver was different today. His name was Herish or something similar. He did not know much English, so soon after the trip began his English lesson and Rahman's Kurdish lesson began and continued for the rest of the trip. Have I mentioned how good it is that Rahman is on this trip? It turns out that Herish had lived in England for the past three years and learned some Farsi from a friend there. Rahman's native language is Farsi. The conversations went something like this. Rahman starts with an English word. If Herish did not know it, Rahman went to Farsi. Farsi was then translated to Kurdish by Herish or Rahman if possible. Herish then responded in Kurdish. If Rahman knew it, good. If not, Herish translated to Farsi and then Rahman translated to English. By the end, they were also speaking in Arabic and Rahman's brain was worn out. Totally fascinating because all I speak is Eden English. I do know a few words now, like bread and water.

As I said before, as we moved north, the landscape became more green with leaves on trees, but a dingy green due to the coating of dust on everything. It has not rained for two months and the entire region is in a 2-3 year drought. The dust is from southern Iraq or even Saudi Arabia. After winding around on some mountain roads, though nothing compared to Todd to Creston on Three Top Road, we descended into a valley of sorts with houses beginning to appear along the base of the ridges. In the distance I could see a Kurdish emblem emblazoned above the city on the side of a hill. It turns out this was just behind our hotel. Rahman asked if I noticed that when we started in Erbil there were both Iraqi and Kurdish flags flying but now there are only Kurdish flags in Dohuk. I could go into a discourse here on the political/military situation as it is quite interesting and more complex than the Yahoo news headlines could ever hope to convey, but I won't. Suffice it to say the people here are taking care of themselves, but there are at least two groups vying for control here along with the occasional threat from the turks to the north.

Our driver finds the location of our first meeting, Dohuk University Department of Computer Science (there are really two Comptuer Science departments in two different colleges). We enter a smallish office packed with 8-10 people and after hasty introductions, some of the people are shuffled out (turns out they were students). Remaining are Basima and Amera, and Dr. Adnan, our primary computer science colleagues. Thus begins a series of introductory meetings with some of the "important" people like deans and vice presidents, each meeting accompanied by Chai tea and small talk. I quickly picked up some of the culture as well. In our first meetig with the dean, there were several other people in the office when we entered that I thought were part of the program. Turns out they were not. It appears that multiple unrelated things can be going on at the same time. Cell phones are almost always answered. The dean answered a call during our meeting. An assistant came in with papers to sign during our meeting. Additional people came in and others left. This happened again with more tea at a differet location, the office of the Vice President for International Relations. We soon returned to the computer science office and found Amera and Basima sitting where we left them about 45 minutes earlier. More tea and finally a discussion about our itinerary and plans for the work we will be doing. Since tomorrow is Friday, their normal day off, we will not really start work until Saturday. The rest of the day involves food, tea, sightseeing, food, and more tea.

Food: chicken, meat(lamb), onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages, pickles, breads, rice (multiple kinds), soft drinks, water, yogurt. The next two meals involve all of the above in large quantities and in various configurations, kebaab or shish kebaab (know the difference?). Lunch was at a brand new building, the cultural center I think, on the border of a new campus under construction on the edge of town with an amazing view of the city. I'll post a picture if our bags ever come. The buildings we met in earlier used to be Saddaam's security buildings. We managed dinner on our own later at about 10:30pm, still a hopping time in the downtown market area, which we walked to from our hotel. We ate at a little restaurant (slightly larger than Wolfies deli in downtown Boone) at a table next to the bustling street. Similar fare as lunch, but shish this time with skewers we could have used to defend ourselves. At this point I am going to make a confession. I can sometimes be a picky eater and in particular I don't like tomatoes and onions. I have left such childish ways behind, at least for the time being. See, Rahman tells me that his father always told him to eat onions wherever you are traveling to help keep you from getting sick. My father (and mother) have been trying to get me to eat tomatoes all of my life. I figure if both of these foods show up at every meal, I must eventually eat them. So I am now eating onions and tomatoes every meal except for breakfast.

Sights: Dohuk Dam and the market. After lunch we went to the hotel and checked into our rooms after more tea while waiting on room preparations and passport checking. The hotel is called the Jiyan hotel and is top shelf - you have to beep your horn at a military looking guy (at least that is what Mervaan, our driver for the week, did) to open a gate and go up a hill, parking outside concrete barricades to keep you from getting too close to the big marble entrance with another security guy stationed inside the door. The rooms are large with a stocked refrigerator including things not really allowed in the culture. A large swimming pool with dolphins tiled into the bottom and a garden with flowers, grapes (they are just getting ripe here), figs, and some vegetables are out back.

After a short nap, my first one in about 10 years, Amera came by with her nephew Ali to take us sightseeing. Contrary to Amera, I thought Ali was a good driver, aggresive, but always remembering the common sense rules. Being timid here is not good on the road. Little did we know it, but just around the hill from our hotel was a narrow valley with a huge dam on the other end of it. If the dam goes, so does a large part of Dohuk! This was a festive place with a restaurant and parks. Have you ever seen a trampoline park? I have now and my children would have loved it - eight in-ground trampolines next to each other in a 2x4 grid enclosed in a fence. There were lots of families walking around enjoying a spring cascading down a cliff next to the road (pictures to come later!! where are those bags??). We drove across the dam and up the road along the edge of the lake, which is very low due to the drought. No one uses the lake like they would in the US, i.e., no swimming or boating. It turns out we were now in a "village" with small vineyards along the road just beyond the trash. No litter laws here. I spotted some bee equipment on the side of a hill, but the road to it was gated and locked. Smart beekeeper. I'm not sure what a bee would do this time of year with all of the heat, dust, and lack of flowers, although I did see some funny allium looking flowers with big spikey blue blooms on top of them. Some people were stopped along the road enjoying the evening breeze which provided some relief from the 43 C temperature of the day.

Heading back to town, we drove through the market area, which Amera said was the place to buy stuff. The prices were better than at the "malls" which have all prices in US dollars on a lot of items I could buy at Wal Mart in Boone. The market was noisy and bustling with thick traffic and people hanging out in the shops and restaurants. We also passed several enthusiastic wedding parties. It turns out that one of our hosts, Dr. Adnan, is getting married on August 10. It costs about $75,000 US dollars to get married. According to Adnan it is a very complicated and costly process. The market looked like a fun place to visit and we had been told it was safe to walk there, so Rahman and I returned later, as I said, to have dinner. The evening ended as has become our custom on the computers in the lobby of the hotel checking email, facebook, and blogging.

Kurdistan - Day 1 complete

Now we are on the plane with a rather loud little boy behind us, and after the two hour delay, the plane lifts off, leaving the setting sun behind and heading into the darkness over the Atlantic. Travel time to Vienna: 8 hours, 11 minutes. Estimated arrival time 9:48am. Our flight to Erbil is scheduled to depart at 10:20am. So much for a relaxed two hour layover in Vienna. Missing the flight from Vienna would mean an extra day layover because there are only two flights per week to Erbil. Maybe missing the next flight would not be such a bad thing! Following the next 8 hours and 11 minutes or so, I wish we had not made the world record sprint through Dulles to catch this flight.

Each seat has its own video screen with the default channel showing a graphic of the plane location on a map along with various statistics such as altitude, speed, time in Vienna, and remaining flight time. We were also issued a pillow, a blanket, and earphones. I was hoping to need the blanket after the sweaty run followed by the heated wait on the tarmac. The pillow was sure to provide comfort while peacefully sleeping. The earphones turned out to be the lifesaver.

Remember the two children behind us? There are actually three along with a mom and dad in the three seats behind us and the two side seats adjacent to our row. The youngest child must have been about 2 and had a pacifier in his mouth, which would do no good to dampen the noises from his mouth for the next 8 hours and 11 minutes. The only relief from his constant yelling/crying/squealing were the headphones turned up so loud as to risk damaging my hearing, two meals (dinner and then breakfast), and a two hour or so break around 4 am when he must have passed out. There were a few times when the child was happy, but these coincided with yells from his sister because he had done something to irritate her. This child's presence along with very little room to move, heat, and not much on the TV made for a very long night. I wasn't so sure we could contain ourselves around hour 4 or 5, especially the german lady on our row, but somehow we exercised all of the self control and patience possible and survived along with the little boy to sunrise.

Ok, I am making things sound worse than it really was. We did have good food, yes, even on an airplane, though we did not get to have our food prepared especially for us by the chef who was on board for business class. The headphones turned up really loud on the meditation music channel allowed for a couple of short naps. Walks up and down the aisle provided relief for stiffness along with following the lady on the video screen doing exercises in an airplane seat - make sure you pay attention to her, the exercises really work. For the first time it also dawned on me that I wasn't in Kansas anymore when announcements were in multiple languages and most conversations around me were not in English. This will take some getting used to.

Upon arriving in Vienna, we have only 20 minutes to get on the flight to Erbil. Luckily we just have to walk across the circular terminal to the Erbil gate. No one is waiting to get on because they are already on the plane. As I walked to the gate, passing through another luggage scan, I noticed a "Policia" van pull up to the base of the gate and several people get out including two uniformed officers. After getting my ticket checked, I stood and watched the police officers hand off a sullen looking gentleman to the other men along with some papers. Rahman suggested the man was being deported. It did not increase my comfort level, which was almost nonexistent. This plane is almost as full as the one to Vienna, but our seats are a little better, the first row behind business class with an empty seat between us. I suddenly realize that I was supposed to change clothes during the layover to get rid of the shorts (not worn in the Middle East that I can see except by little kids) and t-shirt. Changing clothes in an airplane bathroom is a little challenging, but I was up to the task. I feel a little weird when I come out with old clothes in hand knowing everyone on the plane saw me go down the aisle in different clothes. Was I the one they should be worried about on the plane?

This flight is much better. A couple of good naps. Another meal. I didn't eat much. We have eaten five meals in the past 18 hours. The country we are flying over is desolate looking and only various shades of brown. We arrive at the Erbil airport 3pm Erbil time, no Erbil city in sight, circling the airport before landing. It looks like a strip of concrete in the desert ... I guess that is what it is. We have arrived about 20 hours after leaving Boone the day before. We do not know the name of the hotel at which we are staying. We do not know the name of the person we are to meet at the airport. We do have some cell phone numbers for Ministry of Education officials. I guess you could label us trusting souls or extremely naive, take your pick.

The airplane stops a few hundred yards from the terminal. We get off under the watchful eye of people with guns and board buses to the terminal. It is very hot, but is bearable. Dry heat, you know. Not that humid stuff I had at Cherry Grove Beach two weeks ago. Once in the terminal we line up and get our temperature taken on our foreheads (Rahman thinks it is swine flu induced) and have our passports checked and stamped and our pictures taken. We are now in the country legally and move a few steps to the baggage claim to await our fate. You already know what happens next. We watch the bags go around on the carousel until they turn it off. Four of us have lost luggage. At least one of the other two was on our flight from Greensboro to Dulles. Paperwork must be filled out. We do not know much of anything except where we live in the US. Where will we be in Kurdistan? We don't know. Who are we going to see? We don't know that either. Rahman is sent out past the security people to see if someone is there to meet us. Maqsood to the rescue. He is there to meet us, helping us with the information for the paperwork and making arrangements for our luggage to come to the hotel. The only problem is we will not be at the hotel then because we leave for Dohuk the next day before the next plane arrives from Vienna. Rahman and I both packed one change of clothes and necessary items in our carry on, so we are okay for a day or two, but not a week.

The rest of day 1 is full of new sights and sounds and smells, and I don't have time to write them all down. Driving is quite interesting just as Lori said in our travel brief. I was never really scared. They seemed to have a pretty common sense system worked out with horns used frequently to communicate to neighboring drivers, sometimes meaning stop, sometimes meaning go, sometimes meaning thank you. The context determined the meaning and they all seemed to understand some simple laws of physics. Larger objects will smash smaller objects unless the smaller object is fast enough to squeeze through which is a judgement call. Those with poor judgement must get culled out.

The land looks like a desert, dry, dusty, brown, hazy, but there is activity buzzing all along the road. Construction is everywhere. Many buildings have shops on the first floor while the upper floors are still being constructed with 1000 year old construction techniques. New car lots dot the side of the road with dust covered brand new cars out front. New cars are prevelant, lots of Toyotas and Chevrolets. We were about an inch from the rear bumper of a very nice Lexus SUV. Occupants of Small hut looking structures dot the roadside with occupants selling drinks and other items often with an air conditioner about the size of the hut itself attached to its side.

The hotel in Erbil has been open only two months. The owner has returned from 30 years in Hollad and various other places. He has 5 children, the youngest is 18, and has a new grandbaby. At the hotel we realize two of our colleagues from ASU are also there, so they give us some advice as we walk along the street visiting a nearby "mall" for me to buy a belt. Rahman buys some local sweets for later. The ladies from ASU tell us not to drink the nice sounding watermelon drink sold outside the market. One of them drank it and was very sick, probably from the melting ice in it. The remainder of the afternoon and evening was fairly uneventful. We had a late dinner at the hotel with lots of food that I did not recognize except being told I was eating lamb, which was pretty good. The two day journey ended with bed at about 12:30am, which is 7pm Boone time. I doubt I can keep this writing up, but will at least give some highlights! Pictures will accompany posts once the luggage arrives.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 0/1

I am not sure where day 0 ended and day 1 started. Rahman and I left Boone yesterday morning at about 10:30 am. We arrived in Erbil, Kurdistan at 8:15 am Boone time and 3:15 pm Kurdistan time (seven hours ahead).

The trip began with a 2 hour delay in our original 2:45pm departure time from Greensboro waiting on our plane to fly from Dulles down to Greensboro and then take us back before a 5:40pm departure to Vienna from Dulles. We held out little hope for making this connection and already made back up arrangements to stay overnight in DC and fly to Vienna the next. We left Greensboro at about 4:45 dodging some really cool clouds on the way to DC. As we taxied to the gate in Dulles we passed an Austrian Air plane at gate A47. I told Rahman that was our plane.

The time was 5:39pm when we pulled up to gate B something; actually stairs since we were flying in such a small plane. I had to put my carry on in the belly of the plane from GSO, so Rahman went toward gate A47 to get info on the connection while I waited for my bag. Gate A47 is at the other end of a very long concourse from the B something at which we arrived. As soon as my bag was available, I grabbed it and started to run, actually sprint, up the concourse with my bag in tow on its skinny little wheels. As I dodged and weaved through the people, went up and down an escalator between concourse A and B, and caught up with Rahman (in fairness to him his bag did not have wheels!), I failed to hear the public announcement stating "last call for passengers Rahman Tashakkori and James Wilkes for Austrian Air flight to Vienna." I did come across an official looking young Asian fellow with a walkie talkie in his hand and he yelled at me as I whisked past asking if I was running for the Vienna flight. I said yes and asked if I should keep running. He yelled back "Yes!" as I was now 30 yards past him. As I passed Rahman, who was walking very fast, he picked up his bag and ran with me, A35, A37, A39, A41, I could see it ahead, A47. Four attendants in red outfits, the official dress of Austrian Airlines I assume, greeted us at the gate and told us we made it and gave us our seat assignments. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if our checked bags could run as fast as we did. I surmised that the little tractor things that pull luggage could drive faster than we could run.

Upon entering the plane, it was completely packed, 2 rows on each side with 3 seats in the middle. I felt like everyone was staring at us, not with loving looks either. We ended up about halfway back in the plane with me in the very middle seat and Rahman on one side and a not so friendly german (I think) lady on the other. I noticed lots of children as I wandered around looking for our seats, two right behind our seats. We then waited for two hours in a line of planes on the tarmac getting rather hot, smelling burning jet fuel, and listening to whining children and adults. Apparently those cool clouds we dodged earlier had become a major problem.

So we had another two hour delay. The rest of day 1 in the next post!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 0

Frantic last minute preparations have come to an end ... will be leaving shortly by car to Greensboro, then by plane to Dulles/Vienna/Erbil ... arriving there at 3 PM their time, 8 AM Creston/Boone time on Wednesday, July 29.

Hopefully will be able to post along the way. TTFN.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

For CS 1410 Students

Hey Class!

For the blogging part of this assignment, you need to create a blog for yourself. (You can use any blogging site you want, is an easy one to use). You also have to "reply" or "comment" to this posting on MY blog. Being able to create your own blog and add comments to other people's blogs is an essential 21st century information skill. There are lots of applications to do it, but do it we should (and you MUST - at least this one time).

Here is a picture from last summer at the farmers market: