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.