Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq

Kurdistan map

Still jet lagging it, I awoke at 2:15 and spent the early morning hours preparing for departure to the North, to Duhok, where I’ll spend the next month.

We followed the coal black asphalt highway unfurling along the softly rolling tawny hills. The morning sky was hazy, and sort of strange greyish hue, but the heat of the sun permeated everything, and the scenery that we were passing only had the occasional sad looking greenery. There were striations on the fields, as though they had been thrashed by giant tractors, maybe harvesting wheat, or hay, Reminding me of childhood long haul trips through Nebraskan plains. Barren fields. Dusty Sheep and goats in tightly gathered herds foraged in groups intermittently along the way. The roads were busy with traffic hurtling both directions. The roadway had space for what looked like two lanes, a wide truck lane, and a narrower inner lane (for cars), but the roadway was crowded with cars and trucks in every possible position, jockeying for space. Our driver was calmly overtaking slower traffic in heroic efforts to speed us along. I could barely bear to watch him gradually picking his way through the densely crowded highway, waiting for a relatively safe chance to overtake slower vehicles. There were an unusual number of white Toyota, Nissan and Deer 4 wheel drive pickup trucks travelling along as well as many petrol tankers.

There seemed to be elaborate construction everywhere, concrete mostly. There were many giant yards of dusty petrol tankers along the highway.

 

The check points had long, long queues awaiting entry into the Duhok region. Our driver continued to say blah, blah, blah…..Francais….blah, blah, blah..Canada…and the heavily armed guards smiled and acquiesced our passage.

 

We arrived in Duhok late morning. There are more than 750 thousand refugees here. More than 500 thousand of them are IDP’s (internally displaced persons)…who came to Duhok in an attempt to flee the conflicts in their regions. The communities here are being incredibly tolerant and patient with this disaster. The schools, hospitals, all public and private buildings that are available are absolutely full of people. Many, many familes live in the unfinished highrises that are just pillared shells, frames with no walls but have the necessary floors where people can rest their weary familes.

 

Duhok

The locals have been quick to react to the crisis by forming small cadres of committees to manage the logistics of each small area. For example…the schools are now functioning (or attempting to) as homeless shelters, and they run volunteer staff managers 24/7. They serve food, hand out vouchers for medical travel, and for the most part seem to have things relatively under control.

 

I have heard that there is a growing resentment toward the refugees, but that isn’t at all what I’ve seen. Last night at a cafeteria style restaurant, I saw a young woman eating at a table adjacent to us, and when she finished, she thanked the owner and left. People are very generous to them. Perhaps it’s because Iraqis can all relate to this situation, many of them having survived similar trials.

 

I awoke this morning looking out across the mountains surrounding the city, and I could see many makeshift shelters on rooftops and around the neighbourhood. After many attempts to get the boiler working to make a cup of tea I was disgruntled and decided to go downstairs to fetch help. But the elevators weren’t working, nor were the lights, nor was there anyone at the desk when I finally arrived the multitude of flights of stairs to the darkened foyer. So I have trudged back upstairs, all the while thinking to myself how spoiled I am to be grumpy about missing my morning tea, when all around me I see people trying to make do, in a situation that they have absolutely no responsibility for, nor any voice in the outcome.

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Arrival in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

Arrival in ErbilAfter more than 30 hours of travelling, with 3 plane changes…we were finally about to land in Erbil. It was 1:02am when the pilot announced that our descent would be delayed “due to airspace problems”. It was difficult to stop myself from staring out the window…watching the blood red moon pass through the small clouds, and the lights below, which hadn’t changed position for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time. Completely silent in the plane, the passengers had been belted up for the past 20 minutes in anticipation of our descent. Time refused to pass, and we were tens of thousands of feet in the air….breathing shallowly, with hearts pounding, trying desperately not to let our fear overwhelm us. I was sharing a row with an interesting (and obviously very hardworking) man from Lafayette, Louisiana who spent 35 days on, and 35 days off his job as a logistician for a big company involved with the oil rigs. He had worked many places, including Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia where he met his wife, and now lived with her and their two teenaged sons. He had much to say about how “European” Erbil city had grown, and how safe it was. That is….until we were stranded at 30 thousand feet, hovering over Erbil with no explanations coming from our captain. We just sat, stony faced, jaws set, and waited for what seemed eternity, but was actually only 45 minutes. We finally landed nearly an hour late. I picked up my bags and headed by bus to the main terminal where I was met by George the driver. We listened to Babylon radio station playing fusion jazz while we sailed through the outskirts of the city and now am settled into a huge and beautiful air conditioned room. Lovely Ankawa, the old Christian part of Erbil where I’ll enjoy for the next couple of days till I head north.

Napoli to Catania Sicily night ferry

We spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to leave a bag at the “left baggage” area at the airport, as Jan had promised to drag back my winter gear back to Canada when she flew from Napoli the following week, which I assumed (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be needing in Sunny Sicily.

After a frustrating hour long hassle, we finally managed to get help from the sleepy, but kind hearted left luggage attendant, who (along with everyone else at the airport) seemed to be in hiding, since it was lunch, then risposo, or siesta time). It was a bit of a wake up call for us, after our early morning flight. We were suddenly faced with the harsh glare of a more complex and much less friendly travel than we’d gotten accustomed to in Turkey and especially in Kurdistan Iraq. Though there was much ambiguity surrounding all our “would be plans” there, things just seemed to be a whole lot easier than when we arrived back in Italy.

 

We never quite understood the how or why of it, but it seemed somehow less fraught with angst and frustration. I chalked it up, partly to being tired and a bit grumpy due to our early morning flight, but in hindsight it was a bit of both, I suppose. Comparisons are always dangerous, but I found myself yearning for the helpful smiles of the Turkish information folks, especially since they usually invited us inside their offices for tea and sweets, and a relaxing, if not fully comprehendible chat.

The Naples airport Info booth was particularly unhelpful, manned by several dark eyed beauties who were obviously not interested in being there, much less providing information. They remained deep, deep, oh so deep in personal conversations with either each other, or on the phone with friends. “a Mappa, Pianta?” No, No!!” That was the full extent of our air time with them, then back to giggling with their friends on their side of the counter. 

We attempted to find the public bus, the Alibus into the centre of Napoli, but again were foiled by the obscure location, and lack of signage. We began to wonder if there was some strange missing gene that wasn’t allowing us to “get” the Italian logic? But even after many attempts to find the bus stop, and many frustrating attempts to flag down and board a passing Alibus, we finally managed to locate the proper bus stop…another hour or so later! By that time, there was a parade of people either leading us or following us, all trying to locate the bus stop, everyone else was Italian, and most from Napoli.

The other Info booth, at the central train station, was manned by a gorgeous, manikin-like blonde, who yawned and reluctantly peeled off a city map from her giant tablet of them, and immediately returned to her deep contemplation of her fashion magazine.

Okay…we were on our way! Or so we thought. After all, Napoli was MY city, I’d lived here for 2 months while I was studying Italian, so it should be easy to find our way to the port, to catch our evening ferry, right?

Wrong! We fumbled our way around the Statione Centrale for a good ten minutes before I finally swallowed my pride and went begging to blondie for help again, at least to help us get out the exit door of the station.

Finally, we were off to find the bus to the port; but nothing looked familiar. Blondie had just tilted her head back in that Italian gesture that meant “just out there”, or did it mean “out behind there”? “Where”? Trolley in hand, we finally found the exit and in high gear, we chased down a young, dark haired woman and I asked her, in my broken Italian how to find the bus stop. She responded rapid fire, and I just stood, speechless until she realized that I didn’t “get it” and gestured for us to follow. We all dashed across a busy intersection, and along the same street front that we’d passed on our way to the station, and finally to an area where many busses were parked, walled off with rusty corrugated steel sheeting. Our new friend ran along the fronts of the buses until she located one that was about to leave and gestured for us to board. We did, and stood, a little bewildered while the bus driver volleyed for his place in the busy traffic, and she yelled “temporaneo”! Everything was in turmoil and under construction, and the busses had been relocated to a new hiding spot. Okay, I felt slightly less stupid.

We nearly missed the port, and only due to the kindness of a large woman seated in front of where we stood, that she screamed at us “Navi? Navi?”, and we saw the large boats and hopped off the bus, quickly…or as quickly as we could, considering there were wall to wall people and we had our bags to tug through the barrage of people at the exit doorway of the overcrowded bus.

After walking for a couple of kilometres, we agreed that we could have remained on the bus for at least one or two more stops, but regardless, we were in the vicinity and could still see the large boats. We kept walking and continued to ask about our ferry company, the TTL lines, and folks continuing to point us onward, until finally a nice woman told us that it was about 100 metres further along. 

 

We’d been walking at a fast pace for about 30 more minutes when we saw the sign for our ferry. We tried to gain access to the boat, but the kindly and very handsome guard sent us to the office instead, and told us to return at 7 thirty. Since it was only 4 o’clock, we found lockers in the admin building and set off, free at last from our bags to explore Napoli.

 

A new subway line had been installed since I’d been here 2 years before, so we hopped aboard (using the old tickets I’d kept since my last Napoli adventure).

It was great to be back in this hectic, loud, gritty city again. We exited the subway at Piazza Dante, and headed up to my old neighbourhood, which is known for being a cacophony of zany, busy food stalls and markets. As we wound our way through the cobblestone streets, we visited some of my old favourites, including the tiny deli where I always found the most interesting and tasty dishes when I was too lazy or tired to cook. The owner, Maria was like a kind auntie to me, sensing my loneliness, and had always been very sweet to me, giving me treats and tastes of her wares, and always tucking a little present into my bag. She wasn’t working that day, but her nephew was there, and he was thrilled that we stopped in. He directed us to the best bufo mozzarella shop (my favourite was closed), so we set off in search of it.

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Our food karma was off that day. The “other” bufo mozzarella shop was closed, as was my favourite pizza place, but a friendly man sitting out front of the restaurant, convinced us that it would open shortly. “at 6 oclock, he yelled several times in Italian, holding up 6 fingers and making the universal *“open” sign with his palms. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHZwYObN264

We ambled up the street, meandering around tables laden with clams, and myriads of shellfish, tubs of octopi, and stumbled along the streets oozing with moisture, dripping from the icy beds. We were hungry, and tempted by every conceivable variety of gorgeous pastries and savoury treats inside the glass cases on the walkway, but I convinced Jan to hold off.

 

We must have real authentic Napolitana pizza, in one of the best places, so instead we went up the street to a corner bar to have fresh lemon sodas and wait the 40 minutes until the restaurant opened. We sat outside, across from the subway and funiculare station, and watched the never-ending hubbub of activity there, as well as the tables adjacent to us. To one side was a group of supersized Napolitanas, women in their sixties. One, who seemed the most vociferous orator was wearing skin tight red velour sports outfit, with matching lipstick and shoes. She had raven black hair that hung to her shoulders and swayed with her movements as she boasted to her friends, her hands and arms moving so swiftly she looked like she was finger-painting in the sky, while holding a cigarette firmly between her shiny, dark red lips. I tried to make myself small and invisible, lest she decided to speak to me, as I was sure whatever I my response was, would make her volatility burst forth and scorch me. And the men on the other side of us, also smoking furiously, but with less venom, seemed curious about us. We kept to ourselves, and our incredibly intense lemon sodas, which seemed like several lemons squeezed, and a teensy bit of soda! (Something lost in the translation again?).

 

When it was nearly 6 we hustled down to the Attila pizzeria, in great anticipation. But our kindly padrone was nowhere in sight, and the door was still locked. I put my face to the glass, and the owner came to the door, and her response nearly broke my heart. She, in that oh so Italian way, gestured that they would open at 7 tonight, and shrugged her shoulders. There had been a time change, and the usual opening hours were delayed for summer hours. We sadly surrendered and sat down at the place next to it and each of us dug into our own margarita pizza, and a glass of white wine. I was told later that there had been a scandal regarding the bufo mozzarella in Napoli. Gossip had it that the Mafioso had somehow contaminated great quantities of it, with what? Something terrible, I could sense from the timbre and the dramatic gestures, but what exactly it was still eludes me.

After our hefty pizzas, Jan was swooning with that heady feeling that came from a stomach that was under great duress and turgor, but I was an experienced Italian overeater, so I assured her that she’d be fine in no time and since it was time to hurry back to the dock again, we scurried off, or in my case, my scurry had more of a waddle to it, in search of the waterfront, and our somewhat elusive ferry boat.

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As we entered the ramp to the boat, baggage in tow, it finally occurred to us…’we were in Italia’, I think we both has a sense of euphoria and excitement as we climbed and finally found the ascensore, the elevator to the 6th floor where we were booked into a tiny cabin with a teensy little window, and a vista of the Napoli harbor at sundown.

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We stood on deck, to enjoy the views, as the sun receded into the sea behind us…..and watched the final glow of Napoli at night, the castle, the beautiful glistening city looked so peaceful as we awaited our departure.

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Last Day in Istanbul

 

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Jan and I were feeling very confident about navigating around Istanbul. I had purchased a Istan-go card, which I kept topping up to ride the tram and the subways, which were very user friendly. I’d managed to familiarize myself with the system within a couple of days of landing, though I always consider myself slightly disoriented, and luckily have conditioned myself to be happily lost much of the time travelling, Istanbul’s layout seemed easy to get lost in, but always easy to reorient oneself.

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Istanbul has endless shopping opportunities, but we felt that we shouldn’t leave until we’d had one last stroll along the famous Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) the mithra or gateway to the mecca of all designer goods possible, that is, possible to purchase at a hefty price. This upscale promenade, where musicians line the streets after dark, is undoubtedly the most popular place to stroll on a Saturday afternoon. We walked up the long steep hill, passing a myriad of musical shops, and at the top we joined the crowd, walking toward Taksim Square, stopping only for a coffee, and an Oo la la Beulah, or was it Betty, in the busiest chocolatier in the city, tucked into a side street just off Istiklal.

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We happily chatted with several young romantic couples while we waited outside for our chance to sit at the tiny antique tables upstairs, overlooking the busy street scenes. When our dessert came, we nearly made ourselves sick finishing it, but looking around, we were the only ones that were sharing them, everyone else that had ordered them had them to savour on their own!

 

Though Sibil, from the hotel Amina had arranged our taxi to the airport, there was still a wee bit of a haggle over the agreed fare when we arrived. We smiled, shrugged our shoulders…shaking our heads in unison…still smiling. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence, and headed off, without his “extra” charge. He was mumbling something about it being a busy rush hour time of day, which it wasn’t. We waved goodbye and wished him well, no hard feelings.

Back in Istanbul for a short stopover

 

Istanbul with Jan was going to be a whole different world, I knew. She is jet propelled, not content to laze around, people watching on a park bench. We’d kept up a very fast pace during the past few weeks since she’d arrived, and although I was ready to wind down, I appreciated her drive and energy, and her urge to explore. While I was on my own for the week that she’d delayed her flight, the attention given to a solo woman traveller was wearing, I was also looking forward to the relative anonymity that travelling with others provides. It seems to be a little less immersion, and somehow a bit like a protective bubble. Perhaps it is because the intense sensations that one feels are buffered by the connection with another, instead of that heady, and sometimes overwhelming stream of impressions coming from the external environs.

 

During my first week in Istanbul, I’d scoped out a new hotel for us, the Almina, and booked it in advance for us after our return from Iraq. I rationalized that we would appreciate a quiet respite in a restful and comfortable hotel. The posted room charge was well above possibility, so I asked them for their best price, and they gave us a whopping discount, nearly 2/3 less than the asking price posted at the front desk. Done deal.

Yet another reason I fell in love with Sibil and the crew at the Almina!

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After a week at the Side Hotel, I was bored with the all male staff at reception, though I enjoyed the women who made the breakfasts and cleaned the rooms, who always managed to sneak treats into my room while I was out, and came in the late afternoons to teach me a few words of Turkish and provide companionship, which I sorely needed.

Wandering around during the week on my own in Istanbul before Jan arrived, I got completely lost on the seafront one afternoon. It was odd, because the closer I got to the waterfront in the old section of town, the poorer it seemed. There were a few renovated houses, with horizontal wooden siding, but most of the homes were the old style wooden, two storied structures that I saw a lot of in Bulgaria in the countryside. There were women in their courtyards, doing laundry in tubs by hand, and it was serene, almost like I’d stepped back in time, or arrived in a small village.

 

As I crossed an old rusty railroad overpass, I saw a quaint looking building, and that it was a hotel. I went inside and asked to see the rooms, met the house staff, who were very friendly and seemed happy to have me join them for a tour. We went upstairs to the rooftop, and I was sold. It had panoramic views of the Bosphorus sea, with it’s busy thoroughfares crisscrossed with ferries and boats. It was a little chilly, but the vistas were sensational.

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I immediately told Sibil, the desk manager, that we’d stay there when we returned from Iraq.  In fact, I’d already paid for my room at the Side in advance or I would have moved there immediately. Jan had arrived after a long flight from Vancouver, and had been scammed by her taxi driver, who charged 25 Euro from the Taxim centre to the hotel, which should have been about 10 Turkish Lira…about 3 Euro! She’d been sleepy, and it was getting dark, difficult to see which currency was which…..so easy to be taken advantage of when you’re exhausted, and the taxi drivers everywhere in the world seem to be like tigers looking for the easy prey.

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I’d spent my time well in Istanbul prior to Jan’s arrival, buying a museum pass, and passing leisurely days visiting most of the incredible museums that were included in the pass, the Hagia Sofia, the Topkapi, and several smaller ones.

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Jan had been to Istanbul before, and seen most of the sites that she wanted to see, so on our first day back from Iraq, I talked her into the Museum of Modern Art, where we spent most of a very enjoyable day. We had lunch on the balcony, which overhung the seaside, so it was a peaceful, wonderful day spent there, with beautiful scenery, and an astoundingly varied collection of art to see. One of our favourites was an intricate mosaic shark, made from clothing labels. The art ranged from ancient times to modern. The adjacent museum restaurant is worth the admission, just to sit on the balcony and watch the busy seafront activity.

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Luckily, we’d met a lovely couple from Iowa, (whom I’d spent a couple of days wandering the city with) who donated their unused museum vouchers to us, so we spent our day’s budget on a salad from the restaurant menu, which was outrageously pricey, but wonderful and well worth it just to sit and savour the blessed peacefulness.

We wandered through the backstreets afterwards, relaxed and enjoying exploring. Istanbul has so many facets to do that, one could spend years just poking around, seeing the architectural history and slowing imbibing the richness of the culture of this ancient, yet ultra modern city.

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The following day, Jan bought tickets for a boat ride up the Bosphorus, to the mouth of the Black Sea. I was grumpy, and didn’t want to join the tour (I generally detest tours and crowds of tourists), but she thought it would be great to be on the water, which it was. The day before had been rainy until the afternoon (almost the moment we stepped out onto the balcony of the Art museum, the sun came out and warmed us while we ate), so we were expecting a chilly ride. But again the sun surprised us, and we sat aloft, in plastic chairs, slightly protected from the cool breezes.

Ahem…our tour boat

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As we motored along, an elder, very scholarly gentleman, probably the boat owner, lulled us with stories and historical information about what we were gazing at.

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The tourists on this boat were as interesting as the scenery.

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As we jockeyed for the best seats, we found the jewels of our tour; Moipone (pronounced Me Pony) and Angela! Moipone giggled as she squeezed into one of the white plastic seats, “but goodness, I’m afraid I might break this chair!”

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We had seen them board the tour bus en route to the pier, and I watched them as they each chose to sit in their own separate rows on the bus. Later, on the boat, they smiled teasingly as they told us they were from Ireland. But, believe me, we knew they weren’t Irish! One was from Nigeria, and the other from Lesotho, and their husbands were ambassadors in Ireland.

The mouth of the Black Sea

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They’d come to Turkey for a few days holiday. We sat with them, laughing and thoroughly enjoying their company. Especially Moipone, who had this way about her, this beautiful smile and laughter like warm caramel. A glance from her and you felt like those big arms came around you and surrounded you with all the love of a mother for her child. We clung to them throughout the tour, and when we stopped at a village and took a stroll, bumped into them again. The entire trip back was spent teasing and laughing with them.

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Note the friendly waving woman from the top floor. She wished us well and blew us a kiss. We had “escaped from the crowd of tourists from the boat and hiked a short distance into the hilly backdrop of the village where the boat stopped.

 

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Of course, we all promised to meet up, somehow, somewhere in the next while. They were interested in coming to visit Vancouver, and Jan and I immediately after getting into our hotel room were busy looking up the location of Lesthoto, and we both knew that we’d make a silent prayer that night that it could be added to our “go to” places.

 

Goodbye to Kurdistan, Iraq, our last night in Suleymaniyah

 Arkan and the Millenium!

It was a little tricky exiting Iraq, as the only possibilities ended up being night bus rides of 20+hours across the eastern Turkish border, so we splurged and bought a one-way ticket back to Istanbul! Except that the flight left at 4am, which meant that we had to be at the crazy (I mean CRRRRRAZY) airport by 2am.

We had bizarre and intensive security searches by sleepy young female guards, who took us into private rooms and gently, respectfully body searched us. (4 body searches, no cars or taxis were allowed to go on airport premises without extra, extra security clearances). There seemed many, too many procedures, and of course, Jan and I were “cutting it as close as possible”), trying to get in the last few shut eyes.

 

We didn’t realize that taxis couldn’t actually take you to the departure gate, they weren’t allowed; that you had to take a bus from the security sector, which is quite a distance from the airport, to the departure area.

The night before we left Suleymanyah, we met Arkan, who was sauntering up the sidewalk, across from our hotel. We stopped him and asked him about the newly built hotel, the Millenium.

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We’d seen it towering above all the other buildings as we first entered the city. It was the tallest, and most outrageous architecture that we’d seen, and wanted to get up closer, maybe even go inside. Arkan knew of it, but wasn’t sure, so asked another man passing, who was also aware of it’s existence, but nothing more.

We then tried to flag down a taxi, but after several tries, we finally found a driver who seemed to be familiar with the name at least. Arkan asked if he could join us on our search, and of course, we were happy to have him along.

En route to the hotel, we found out that Arkan was recently back from the UK, where he had studied computer engineering. He spoke English, I mean, proper English with a northern British accent. We immediately took to him, and he to us. He had a particularly soft manner, and very polite, yet his eyes sparkled with mischief as we all we sped along anticipating having a closer gander at this huge monstrosity which seemed so out of place in Suleymaniyah.

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It looked more like it belonged in, perhaps, the Jetsons, but definitely not here in Northern Iraq. As we approached, it became apparent that it was absolutely brand new, and surrounded by construction rubble. The driver had difficulty finding the actual access to the hotel, so we drove round it searching and finally located it. As we ascended the perfectly smooth, black roadway up, there were two security check points, with men dressed in black suit and ties. They seemed satisfied with whatever Arkan told and ushered us onward.

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We were dropped in front of the fantasy structure, and proceeded to the front desk in order to find our way upstairs, as we had fancied having dinner in the revolving restaurant as a departure gift to ourselves. But we were told that it was fully booked. A few minutes later, we were approached by a dark haired, buxom young woman, also wearing a black business suit who was very curious about us, where we’d come from, why we were here. She was in charge of hotel public relations and had been recruited from Columbia to come to Kurdistan to manage the opening of this hotel. She welcomed us and invited us for a complete tour of the hotel, and hand wrote our names for the 6 oclock seating in the revolving restaurant.

Since we had nearly an hour to spare, we were lead through all the facilities by a young man from Goa, India, who was newly recruited from another Millenium hotel in Oman, he was scheduled for an orientation the following morning, so he was happy to explore with us. He was an absolute delight, and was as fascinated by his new place of employment as we were. As we strolled from place to place, we learned that it had only been open for 2 weeks, and that they had offered a promo deal for not much more than we were paying at our “palace”. Well, actually it was 3 times the price, but it seemed like a bargain to us, and we giddily floated through the tour. Everything seemed magical, and possible in this atmosphere! What a world away from where we’d been only hours before.

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This hotel certainly was state of the art, from every perspective. We were paraded through two beautifully designed (yet to be opened) restaurants, as well as the hotel restaurant in the main lobby. We visited their abundantly outfitted fitness training rooms, where we met the Turkish trainer, who was also very, very warm and hospitable. We saw the spas, with high-low plinths, and exotic décor that made you feel relaxed just resting your eyes on it. We tried not to feel too terribly bad that we’d missed the opportunity to stay here, with two heated pools, that were situated among the stars; and rooms with vistas that were more similar to those of an airplane above the city. The opulence was staggering, we were drunk on it, well before we ever touched our wine with dinner.

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By the time that our reservation time was looming, we were absolutely overwhelmed with the Millenium and its ambiance. I think by the time we were escorted up to the 32nd floor in a high speed elevator, and seated at a large round table, we were feeling glad that we hadn’t stayed in the Millenium. I don’t think either of us could have stood the interminable euphoria.

 

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The restaurant gently turned as the sun set upon the city, and we toasted ourselves and Arkan with a bottle of chilled white Viognier, from Lebanon, at an immaculately set white table lit with candles. However, shortly after our toast, the entire electrical system shut down, as did our spin of the city…and we spent most of the rest of the evening in total candlelight, enjoying our “shared” dinners…..(as the prices were as extravagant as the elevation!). The dinner was nothing special, as the chef and his staff scrambled to put together a meal, in the dark, with who knows what equipment that was still functional.

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Well sated, we strolled through the lobby, listening to piano music and singing along gaily as we departed our mystical tour, arm in arm through the security apparatus and the smiles of the cheery guards, happy that we’d pursued this strange but wonderful adventure for our last evening in Iraq.Image

 

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As we returned to our hotel, Arkan offered to drive us to the airport the following morning. “At 2:30 am?!” we cried! He promised to TRY to borrow his brother’s car and pick us up the following morning at our hotel. And sure enough, while I was sleepily tugging on my clothes the next morning, the phone rang, and true to his word, it was Arkan. He was waiting in the lobby.

 

His brother, who was some sort of high ranking police officer, had lent Arkan his vehicle to drive us to the airport. This was auspicious, because, he had also arranged for the vehicle and Arkan to be granted access to the actual airport, and not just to the outskirts at the security area, where we would have landed if Arkan hadn’t rescued us and driven us right to our departure gate.

We hugged him goodbye as we entered the airport…it was still only 3:00 am and we had that dreamlike state that is somewhere between wearing those heavy metal, deep seat diving apparatus, and that floating sensation, as though we were somewhere on the moon. Though I was sleepy, I was intensely curious about our fellow passengers, wondering if they were Iraqi, or Turkish, and if there were any other Europeans or North Americans on board this plane. We hadn’t met any since leaving Mark and his crew in Erbil. Though I studied them intently, I couldn’t tell if there were any among them who might be willing to have a conversation with me, in English. It was too early in the morning, so I sat alone and sipped from the water bottle I’d been allowed to keep.

I think both Jan and I were sad to leave Iraq, and probably best that we left early morning, so that we didn’t, couldn’t really process all our mixed feelings about our departure.

 

Suley Children’s Rehabilitation Centre TCRC

We met Naska *Khan, (arrangements made by our hosts at Handicap International back in Erbil) at precisely the time we had agreed upon the night before. She was the public relations person for TCRC, the national childrens’ referral centre for rehabilitation. Although she wore a brilliant green headscarf, a long skirt, a bright green sweater to match, it was immediately apparent to both Jan and I that this woman was no pious pushover. She was intelligent, quick witted, with a wicked sense of humour and terribly efficient as she lead us through the streets to the TCRC building while describing to us the game plan for the following days. Her eyes sparkled with a kind of confidence that you rarely see, anywhere. While walking to the centre, I asked if she was married, and she shrugged, saying “no, it’s complicated”. She was close to 40, which is well past marrying age in Kurdistan, but she explained that it was difficult to commit to someone that was open enough to accept her independent lifestyle, and who also would be “approved” by her brothers and father, who rigorously investigated would be suitors. 

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We were to introduced to the director, *Kak Saman, served water (in these strange little peel apart soft plastic cups, which was always embarrassing, as we learned how to open them and drink from the squared off tops without looking foolish; and of course, tea.

While we sipped our drinks, Kak Saman told us about the history of the centre, and mentioned an Australian physio named Kathy who was in Kurdistan in the early 90’s and who was the visionary for this project. What we realized as we spent time there and especially with the therapists, was that much of what she had kick-started was a certain open minded, clear headed attitude toward rehabilitation, particularly with regard to learning and professional development.

I asked for her email, as I really wanted to contact her, and wondered if she realized what an impact she had made on disability in this country. She responded immediately, grateful for the feedback. It was interesting to see how someone as visionary as she must have been in the early 90’s to have pulled together the strong team that was to become the board of directors for the centre. They consisted of a Paediatrician from the Children’s hospital, whom she had admitted her concerns and asked how they might be able to serve the needs of families with disabilities. From there he invited 3 others to participate. That was the beginning.

They were an Orthopedic surgeon, a Rehab specialist, and a Psychiatrist, (whom I believe are still involved).

As she explained to me, these 4 doctors met with her many times to plan, divide tasks, implement and revise strategies. … “those same 4 faithful Kurdish doctors became known as the CRC Medical Board  and they met every 6 -12 months until the CRC was 100% handed over to the Suly Min. of Health in 2003.”

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During that 1st 10 years, more than 10,000 children were seen on an ongoing basis at the centre, which was, from its inception an integrated services centre. Kathy had been an advocate of Community Based Rehabilitation and had been influenced by Dr *David Morley, particularly by his book “My name is Today”. And used the books of *David Werner “Where there is no Doctor, and later “Disabled Village Children” as resources and inspiration. And what an inspiration that was!

Currently TCRC have 27 thousand children on their files, from 0-12 yrs old. They have 15 physiotherapists, (1 of whom is a specialist in casting for club feet, and 1 is primarily an instructor), 5 Paediatricians, 1 Orthopaedic consult, 5 prosthetic/orthotic technicians and are the referral centre for 85 outlying clinics and health centres.

Avan Khan, who assists Kak Izzat, deputy of PT Department

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Kak Izzat, teaching physiotherapist, who also remembered meeting a university friend of ours, Mary M from Canada.

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We visited all the areas and met everyone, and within a few hours our heads were spinning with more questions and more enthusiasm.     

Our day ended in the treatment area, spending the last few hours with several PT’s who were very keen to host us and interact with their patients.

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Naska(who we nicknamed Naz) then offered to give us a tour, if we didn’t mind a short wait while she did some work at her other job, where she also served as a public relations person for a private company. She drove us through the maze of traffic to a kebap restaurant where we shared a late lunch with Kok Saman. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite “get” the ordering system, and managed, even with the help of Kok Saman and Naska Kahn ended up with double plates of food, which we nearly made ourselves sick eating, pretending to be ravenously hungry and smiling throughout. Honestly, they must have laughed themselves silly afterwards, either ending up believing that Canadians have monstrous appetites, or that we were incredibly stupid. A little of both I suppose.

Naz then drove to her office, and completed her work while we waited in the car, dizzy from the intense day we’d spent, but anticipating a  short tour before we got back to our hotel to rest.

Naz’s no nonsense, second-hand car, which she told us her brothers had found for her.

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After finishing up her work, we stopped by her home, where we were joined by her sister and drove into the countryside. Naz’s mother insisted that we return there after our drive for dinner (which we later heard from Naz that she had gone ahead and prepared a Kurdish feast that the family enjoyed nevertheless, on the odd chance that we might change our minds), but we just couldn’t, though we would have loved to. We drove and drove around the hills surrounding Suly… Naz stopped the car once, and ran inside, where she bought apples and ice creams, and a knife! We had an impromptu ice cream picnic while she peeled our apples and fed us, and after hiking around a little, we relaxed on a grassy hillside.

Views of Suly foothills from a few angles:

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The shop where Naz bought apples, a knife to peel them, and ice cream cakes and bars

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Needless to say, by the time the sun was setting, both Jan and I were completely exhausted, but agreed to return to the centre the following day to spend more time with the physios. This really was the first “hands on” opportunity to see and experience the treatment facility, so we were greedy for the experience, we were thrilled to have some hands on with the babes. I suppose it’s a little like a painter, when he sees the tubes of rich colours, or a potter, who is tempted by the smooth alabaster white china clay, we loved spending time with the mothers and their babies, caressing them while checking their balance and strength, and tone….yeah, I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt if you’re a physiotherapist?

Suly Sunset

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The next day, we were up early and made our way, with a few accidental deviations, to the centre. We spent the morning in the treatment area, seeing a wide variety of babies and children and when 2 oclock came, one of the staff gestured for us to join them sitting around a plastic tablecloth on the floor, where there was a large platter of fava beans and dolmas, and two large platters of naan.

Parsley and wild herbs, Airan (a yoghurt drink popular in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran)…the photo makes it look “gooey” but it wasn’t!

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The bread was passed around, and we all used it as scoops to ladle up the delicious fava/dolma mixture. The favas were steamed, with onions and spices in their shells? I’d never seen this done. But afterwards I have vowed that I’ll never toss the shells again, and have since done a less than perfect version of this dish in my tiny flat in Sicily!

The dolmas were grape leaves, made into small square packets, stuffed with rice, yoghurt, and spices, then put into the fava pot, which had sautéed onions and garlic, and already partially steamed favas, and all steamed together for more than an hour (I think?). Several of the mothers and their children came over to join us, and it was a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, sitting around chatting and smiling and sharing food together. With great sadness, we bid our hosts farewell, and hoped to be able to come back and see them again, another time.

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*Kak (M) and Kahn (F) are the respectful prefixes for men and women…I suppose it is similar to Sir/Madame, though I was so busy with other information, I never really got it clarified thoroughly.

 

*http://www.talcuk.org/about/professor-david-morley.htm

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Werner

 

*With regard to the photos in this blog, we did ask permission from everyone, especially the parents, but in Kurdistan there doesn’t seem to be as much emphasis on patient confidentiality and legal issues as in N.America, so thankfully I’ve included photos that I don’t actually have written permission to print.

Suley

Nearly everywhere we went in much of Turkey and all of Kurdistan, the men outnumber the women about a hundred to one in all the restaurants, shops, and on the streets.

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One night, we walked for miles and miles along the boulevard where our hotel was located, searching for a recommended restaurant, which we finally found, (on the second floor of an upscale “brand gallery” mall). Mildly depressed, but ravenously hungry, we had enjoyed our “15 minute walk” which had turned into over an hour of high paced run-walking through the main street of Suleimanyah.

The street scenes were lively, with small stall-type of restaurants with tables on the sidewalks in a jumble of unevenly paved surfaces. There were coloured lights strung everywhere, suspended across the large thoroughfares in celebration of Newroz. The entire area had a festive air, but we were too hungry to enjoy the ambiance, threading our way through the crowds as quickly as we could, we pressed on to our destination.

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We finally found the restaurant, which to our disappointment turned out to be inside an elaborate, black glass building, and a mall that was named “Brand Mall Gallery”. We were famished by this time, so we weren’t deterred when it became apparent to us that the “wonderful” place, was sadly similar to many food courts at home, which mostly serve generic food and for the most part are to be avoided. This was an Italian restaurant, owned by a Kurdistani, who had spent time in Australia? “Nevermind”; we quickly agreed, ordered sodas and a green salad, and decided to share a lasagna. Who knew we’d end up in a pizza joint, inside a fancy mall, in Iraq, ordering lasagna from young men dressed in black, who were more interested in our music tastes than our appetite?

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The waiters were solicitous, and brought us sparkling water, with beautiful chilled glasses, and served our sodas over ice. We had a great salad, blanketed with parmesan (?) cheese, and delicious lasagna. As per our expectations, the single serving could have easily fed three. We had come to realize that when Kurdistanis feed you, they make sure you don’t leave their tables hungry, whether in homes or restaurants.

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As we were basking in the luxury of the neon surroundings and our delicious meal, a man entered the restaurant and began chatting with us; in English. I was taken aback to hear someone speaking English, and to us. Though I didn’t initially recognize him, I soon realized that he was the same man that had recommended the Erbil yoghurt at our hotel previously.

He and his friend sat down beside us and patiently explained that the unique flavour of Erbil yoghurt, that was so popular among people from the middle East, was indeed a burnt taste, as they intentionally scorched the milk prior to fermentation of the yoghurt. Voila! Another food mystery solved. Thank goodness for serendipity on this journey. I was getting curiously obsessive about the burnt yoghurt issue, and Jan was beginning to get impatient with my discussion of it. “How could Iraq (which I considered one of the “Yogurt-stans) be famous for their nasty tasting burnt yoghurt I continued to rant?” So that seemed to put an end to my fretting about as least one aspect of our trip.

 

 

The Road South to Suleimanyah

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Our last morning in Erbil was spent with ICRC (International Committee of Red Cross) where we met and were hosted to a tour of the prosthetics workshop and amputee clinics by Kok Saman, the country manager, who provided us with a detailed description of their services throughout in Iraq. First we had tea (of course) and was briefed by Kok (Mr.) Saman, then met and spent time with the workshop staff, as well as the physios and specialists. Though the training for prosthetists and orthotists in Iraq was limited (by European and North American standards), the caliber of the workmanship seemed surprisingly high, and the variety of what was being produced was impressive.  Image Image 

One of my favourites were the elbow crutches made from recycled plastics. Made completely onsite.

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The wheelchair below is an imported, all terrain model that is popular in this region.

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Tariq, the logistician from Handicap International had arranged for a car to drive us down South to Suleimanyah after our morning in with ICRC. We phoned him and arranged a pick up around noon and met Hassan, our driver who would be driving us through the mountains, avoiding the shorter route through areas that were deemed “unsafe”. The drive took us through a staggeringly diverse terrain, from rolling green hills, whose grass provided fodder for herds of cattle to craggy, rocky terrain that looked much more like what we had imagined Iraq to be.

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When Hassan stopped for his lunch (almost exactly at 1:30 pm), the petrol station that we stopped at had a huge patio restaurant and an adjacent rustic fountain, which on closer scrutiny we saw that it was an interesting technique of chilling milk. This rest stop appeared to be a milk station, too. Men would arrive from the surrounding mountain villages with large plastic jugs of milk, or big blue plastic buckets (much like our ice cream buckets) of curd (yoghurt) and deposit buckets of kurd into large chest-type refrigerated boxes or milk jugs into the basin of the “fountain” where cold water was continuously sprayed on them.

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This typical toilet was to become the culprit (can a loo have ulterior motives) of Diane’s knee pain.

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This station had it all, pit stop, small shop for goodies (with most popular children’s toys), powder room, and prayer spot.

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We entered Suleimanyah via a broad boulevard which was congested with traffic. Hassan drove us around to the Suleimayah Palace (which it certainly wasn’t), the hotel that H/I had recommended and we began to unload the trunk.

Hassan pointed to a bag near the wheelwell, and out of it pulled a bottle of whiskey, a local brand that I didn’t recognize. He pretended to tip it up to his lips and grinned slyly, speaking quickly, though uninterpretable to me.

We laughed about the incident later. Was it an invitation, or was it to explain to us that though he wore the traditional khaki coloured ali baba looking trousers, that he was indeed a liberated sort? Was that a look of disappointment on his face when we shook our heads in acknowledgement, but continued to hustle our gear out of his trunk and into the security gate of the hotel, through the large pictographic signs that read NO AUTOMATIC WEAPONS, OR KNIVES? We didn’t look back after waving him off and thanking him.  

Erbil Kurdistan Iraq continued

I was told at breakfast that Erbil yoghurt was famous throughout the Middle East for being the “best”. Okay, great. I absolutely love yoghurt, so I found the serving bowl of it, and helped myself to heaping ladles of the beautiful, fluffy, alabaster white yoghurt. There were so many choices at the breakfast bar, including “grape molasses, pomegranate syrup, black cherries in honey, plain honey (the wild stuff harvested from trees), plums, and apricots in honey, walnuts, assorted dried fruits, tahini (both plain and honeyed), chocolate syrup (several types, some with white chocolate, some with hazelnuts, some dark and also milk chocolate). I think these toppings were meant to go on the bread, or maybe the yoghurt? There were scrambled eggs and the usual boiled eggs with large platters of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and of course, a variety of olives. There was also soup, the standard breakfast fare of many middle Eastern countries, in Egypt they call it “ful”(pronounced fooool). Sometimes the eggs were scrambled with tomatoes, served from a large heated tray that was lined with naan, which soaked up the delicious flavours and extra moisture, and sometimes scrambled with beef sausage.

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 The yoghurt had a strange burnt taste to it. At first I thought maybe it had somehow gotten tainted with one of the strange honeys, or molasses…but I was sure that it was burnt. It certainly wasn’t my favourite yoghurt of all time; in fact, I reluctantly had to leave nearly half of it uneaten, I found it repulsive.

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A few days later, by happenstance or destiny, the mystery of the charcoal flavoured yoghurt was unveiled.

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 In the meantime, we enjoyed our time in Erbil.

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