مرحبة بغداد
Howdy Cowgirls and Cowboys,
As you can guess, I have made it to Embassy Baghdad. The trip out either wasn't that bad, or I'm just getting jaded to the various inconveniences of traveling halfway around the world. After turning in my rental car, I was struck by a story I'd heard on NPR about an ex-homeless man. He said that the worst part of being homeless was the rain. It didn't matter what kind...heavy rain, light rain, cool or cold...being wet sucked. One day he was hunkered down in a light rain, and this really stinky, nasty disheveled bum came stumbling toward him. The narrator was aghast at the walking human misery in front of him. Well, that stinky homeless guy stopped in front of the narrator, dug in his pocket, pulled out a dollar twenty-seven and gave it to him, saying "damn man, I feel sorry for you." The narrator was so shocked that this disheveled bum felt sorry for HIM that he simply hit bottom. He resolved to get some help and eventually worked his way off the street, and into a job and a house. He said that the most reassuring and pleasant feeling was knowing that he had keys in his pocket, because keys meant you had a home and a roof over your head. When I gave up my keys, I was, once again, homeless (albeit in a much more comfortable way,) and I felt a twinge of compassion for those less fortunately inconvenienced.
Royal Jordanian airlines was nothing special, and my flight was trying. My seat broke and wouldn't recline, the food was mediocre and my ipod died when I tried to turn it on. I'm damn entertaining, but even I bore myself on an 11 hour flight.
My 12 hours in Amman were restful and pleasant. Amman is a fairly modern city done entirely in white stone. The whole place matched the dusty desert sky. The hotel was plush, but it was quite a reality check at the entrance. My car couldn't approach the front door, and I had to x-ray my bag and pass through a metal detector to gain entrance. But my room was great, the bed very comfy and room service quite tasty.
The next day we caught a C-17 to Baghdad. It was typical hurry-up and wait, and so I had a good time getting to know some of my fellow travelers. I even ran into an old colleague from Liberia. Small world this one... At BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) I was lucky enough to score a seat on a Blackhawk. That ride was certainly a marked contrast to the UNMIL chopper rides in Liberia. Where the UNMIL crews displayed a casual indifference bordering on apathy, the US military flight crew was 100% professional. Their diligence, and attention to their weapons and the surroundings during the flight betrayed the threat underlying an otherwise unremarkable trip.
Baghdad at night looked surprisingly normal, aside from the giant...and I mean enormous flaming torch in the distance...a refinery burning off excess natural gas. Warehouses, businesses, houses, streetlights, etc...it could have been LA. But after about 10 minutes I noticed something odd. Although it was only around 2000, there were hardly any cars out. When the lights go down, the Iraqis seem to hunker down.
My new home. Ok, first can I just say that I live in a Palace? Well, ok, I live next to the Palace in a poolside cabina. Well, actually, it's a trailer, but it is in a prime spot next to the pool and dining hall. And we have a high-dive board. Tell those stinking lawyers to shove it, we're doing backflips. Horseshoe pit, nightly movies, yoga, a great gym, texas hold-em, board games, etc, etc. Who says there's nothing to do?
I started at work on Monday and I should start doing some passport work tomorrow. We have a great crew at the office, and it should be a really pleasant place to work. More on that as I get into the groove...
And of course you all want to know the ugly details. There are sandbags and t-walls everywhere. All of the IZ that I've seen is pretty much a series of interlocking fortifications. People with guns are everywhere. On Monday night as we were leaving the PX, I had my first introduction to IDF (indirect fire.) The Embassy has a really cool system called CRAM (counter mortar and rocket,) which detects the launch of IDF, triangulates it, and guesses where it's going to land. Then it sets off the alarms in that area. Well, as we were walking home, we heard the CRAM in the distance. Time to run to the duck and cover bunker. A boom in the distance announced our uninvited visitor. After the all clear, some KBR folks near my hooch...er, cabina yanked me back into a bunker. Apparently there are different varieties of all clear. And to top it off, at 0430 there was another CRAM alert. Let me tell you, 4 in the morning is not the time to figure out how to put your flack vest on in the dark, nor is it a good time to figure out that you don't quite fit under your bed. Somebody was also having a busy day today, as there were explosions, gunfire and rocket launches heard but not seen across the river all afternoon.
Tonight after dinner, I had a nice walk around the palace. It's a bit disconcerting in the dark, because you always want to know where the bunkers are in case CRAM starts serenading you, (it sounds like those old WWII submarine movies...ooh ahh ooh aah, ooh aah...dive dive dive!!!) and you're always keeping one eye out for the next bunker. But the palace is truly amazing...about 100 feet high and probably a half mile across, with fountains, carved inlay and tile work, big heavy gold doors and arabic inscribed along the roof facade. I've only seen about 5% of the interior thus far, but some of the rooms are impressive. Not in the Vatican sense...nothing can compare to that level of hypocritical excess, but it's impressive nonetheless.
Well, that's today's word from Baghdad. My stuff shows up tomorrow. Very happy!
Ma Salamma,
Friday, March 14, 2008