Friday, September 25, 2009

Ramadan in Baghdad (and Amman)

This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ran from mid-August to mid-September, which is a brutal time of the year for desert dwellers to abstain from food and water while the sun is up.

I've lived in Kuwait, Palestine and Afghanistan during Ramadan so I was interested to see how Iraqis do things - every place has it's own flavor during Ramadan (haha, flavor - get it). I missed the first week of Ramadan because I was in Cyprus with my brother on my R&R. I felt its full effect upon my return to Amman (transit to get back to Baghdad). Not only was it Ramadan, it was a Friday when my flight from Cyprus landed. It didn't fully hit me until I checked into my hotel and realized that the market next to the hotel was closed. Everything was closed. I'd started my day at 5am with an hour long drive to the airport, and now I wasn't getting any food until sunset at 7:30. So, I ate the crumbled bits of the granola bar that's been traveling with me in my backpack since god knows when for just this type of situation and waited it out. Thankfully, the hotel had a minibar with water. It's one thing to fast because you're Muslim and you're planning on fasting (aka you've eaten suhour); it's something else entirely to find yourself fasting unexpectedly. It tends to make you (or me at least) grumpy.

When I arrived in our Baghdad office the next day I was expecting to find everyone carefully observing Ramadan. We had adjusted our office hours (shaving an hour off the end since people weren't taking lunch breaks) and after my lesson in Amman I was careful to get up early enough to make coffee and have some cereal before the staff started coming in to the office. You can imagine my surprise to discover that less than half of our staff were even fasting. And the ones that weren't fasting had coffee cups at their desks and were taking their usual number of smoke breaks. That never would have gone over in any of the other Muslim countries I have lived and worked in. Given this office vibe, and the infrequency with which I leave the office, Ramadan didn't really effect my day-to-day life much at all this year. Well, except for my trip to Basrah and the Ramadan soap operas...

Every year during Ramadan there is a line up of special, 28 day long, TV series. They are the juciest, most fascinating television of the year in the Islamic world - hot Bedouin knights fight each other with swords in the desert, neighbors discover shocking secrets about each other, and star-crossed lovers pop up all over the place. The plotting, revenge and young love captivate audiences for a month as they gorge themselves on delicious food after the sun has set. AND this year, they had one of the shows with English subtitles on Dubai 1!! Finally, I was able to fully partake in this Ramadan tradition. So, every night that I was able, I rushed upstairs at 6:30 pm to watch, "Sera'a en al Ramal" or "Struggle in the Sands".

Turns out this Ramadan soap, set way back when everyone still lived in the desert in tents with camels (which could mean anytime after the birth of Islam and before 1930) was written by the leader of the UAE. Who knew that leaders of nations had time to write epic poetry? It was a morality story of two enemy Bedouin tribes that eventually reconcile (and of course a story about star-crossed lovers, the devil incarnate, huge bloody battles, honor, revenge, kidnapped girls, etc...).

What I found really interesting about this soap was how much emphasis was placed on the downsides of violence. There were several characters (young, handsome ones too) who spoke fervently of what you lose in battle instead of the honor and glory that are usually espoused. It was a little heavy handed, but a very interesting approach to the story.

Stay tuned - my next installment will be about how my blogging almost ended in a fiery ball of flame on my way back from Basra. ..

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Baghdad: love it or leave it

Since my last post I have traveled from Baghdad to Sulimaniyah and back to Baghdad by road. I've also been from Suli to Erbil and back. That's about 19 hours total of car time. I also turned 30, and permanently relocated to our Baghdad office. It's been a busy two weeks.

During my most recent drive down to Baghdad I noticed a lot more Iraqi security on the road, both army and police. This had the opposite effect of making me feel more safe. To enterain myself, I watched the dust devils on the road, learned the word for pommegranite in Arabic (Ro-man) and realized that I am the only person I know who admits to wearing a disguise for their job. I do consider wearing the hijab to be a disguise (and if you saw how different I look, you'd agree). I also considered that other people who wear disguises for work get paid far better than I do - but I decided to abandon that line of thought early on.

So, here I am. The airconditioner is broken in my bedroom, which is super unfortunate because it's about a million degrees outside, and I have way more work than I know what to do with. I spent Thursday going to a couple high level meetings with my regional director, and generally trying not to make an ass out of myself.

I'm new to Baghdad, and don't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the city, but there seems to be a feeling of waiting to see what will happen. It started when the Americans pulled out of the cities, and it hasn't gone away. There have been quite a few bombings, largely targeting the Shia population, and alot of rumors of things to come. With the elections coming, the general feeling is that the next few months will make or break Iraq's fledgling democracy. We've been warned to be prepared for evacuation, and we've limited the number of expats in Baghdad to a crazy few.

In spite of that, I'm happy to be here (hence the crazy part). I'm thrilled to finally be able to visit programs that are relevant to my job, and to be working directly with the people who need it the most. I hope to be witness to the truimph of the Iraqi people in overcoming the internal conflict that has plagued them, fed largely by the US occupation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting Joe Biden - in men's pants and safety pins

When I packed for my latest trip to Baghdad, I thought I was coming down to help move our office to a new, more secure location and to write a proposal. So I packed accordingly. If I'd known I was going to meet the Vice President of the United States, I would have brought my suit...

The trip started on Sunday the 28th, with me leaving my apartment in Sulaimaniyah at 5:30 am to catch a plane to Baghdad. Of course, there was a dust storm in Baghdad, so at 9am I found out that my flight (originally scheduled for 7 am departure) was being delayed for at least two additional hours. I had a series of focus group discussions scheduled for the next day with community members in a new town we are working in, which could not be canceled. After some frantic text messaging, it was decided that I would drive down to Baghdad from Sulaimaniyah.

Our driver picked me up from the airport, and we drove about an hour and a half, and then I switched cars. Drove for another few hours, then switched cars again. After the second switch, I was entering relatively new territory for my organization. Only a few of us have made the drive into Baghdad through Diyala, and only recently has the security situation made it a feasible option. I was sitting in the front seat, looking around - excited to be traversing new terrain, and nervous about not wearing my seatbelt. Iraqis don't wear seatbelts, and wearing one immediately labels you as a foreigner. At the same time, more NGO workers die in car accidents than anything else, so it's a catch twenty-two. Sadly, it was too dusty to see very far around - it was like a light snow storm in the Syracuse. The sky was dark, but with an orange haze that you don't get in NY state... You could see the road well enough, but distance viewing wasn't very good. In total, it took me about six hours to make the drive.

I arrived to a chaotic office late that afternoon. Some things had already been moved into the new office, and staff were frantically packing files and office equipment. Now, I was supposed to arrive in the morning, so I was behind schedule. I was simultaneously writing two proposals, and had not completed my focus group discussion questions when I arrived in Baghdad in 4pm. It was a long night. When I went up the room I was staying in, I found a broken air conditioner and a room that was hovering around 90 degrees. I opted to sleep in the downstairs room with no lights, but with AC.

The next day, a small crowd of people arrived at our office for my series of three focus group discussions. Normally, I would travel to the community, but because the US troops were pulling out of the Iraqi cities the next day, I was not allowed to leave the office. After completing three focus group discussion, we moved the rest of the belongings to the new office/staff house. The new place is larger than our old office (we had outgrown it) but it was a mess. The moving people dumped all of the office furniture in one large room, and we had to beg to get our beds set up before everyone left. Luckily, the internet was working, because this was the night I had to finish proposal #1.

The next day, July 1, was a national holiday celebrating the withdrawal of US troops. Most of this day was spent dealing with the chaos of the new office and making final changes to proposal #1. I also got an email from my supervisor telling me that I had to represent my organization at a meeting with the US ambassador on July 3. At this point, I almost lost it. I was swamped with work, had a very difficult proposal to write in an insufficient amount of time, and now had to waste a day at a bureaucratic meeting. I begged to get out of it, but I was told I was the only person in the office qualified to attend. Although I am by no means the senior person in the office, I am the longest employed American, and they wanted an American.

When I called the embassy contact to reluctantly confirm my attendance, Iwas told I would have to be at the embassy several hours in advance. I hemmed and hawed, explained I was working on a deadline, and asked if I could come later. I was told no. I mentioned that I didn't have a suit with me, and that I hoped the meeting was not too formal. The person I was speaking with laughed, and said it would be a bit formal. He said there would be a VIP attending with the Ambassador, but did not elaborate.

After I finished the conversation, I emailed my supervisor again, requesting not to attend - but was given an unequivial no.

Thursday I conducted another focus group discussion for proposal #2 and started writing the draft. Thursday evening, one of my colleagues was surfing the news and noticed that Joe Biden, VP to the US of A had just arrived in Baghdad. Oh crap. The Ambassador would certainly accompany Biden the entire time he was in Baghdad, which meant there was a high chance that the unnamed VIP was Joe Biden. I was mulling this over as I pulled my only pair of dress pants out of the washing machine, and discovered the towel I had washed them with had shed light brown lint all over them. Now, I'm not talking small amounts - I'm talking lint that gets caught in the pant fibers and never comes off. My black pants looked like they had uneven, yellowish-brown polka dots all over them.

Total panic ensued. I might be meeting the vice president, and the only other pants I had with me were jeans. My female colleague's clothes were too large. There was no time to buy anything new, because the next day was a Friday, and everything is closed in the morning. Thankfully, my male colleage suggested I borrow his pants. He is very slim, but miraculously I managed to squeeze into them. Then we spent an hour trying to figure out the word for safety pin in Arabic, and calling the drivers who were picking me up in the morning to ask them to bring safety pins. Friday morning, thankfully, one of the drivers came with safety pins. So, we safety pinned the pant hems (a good 5 inches) and off I went.

When I met with the embassy rep at the designated meeting point, he told me the meeting had been canceled because the sand storm had prevented the Vice President from flying to the Embassy. The Vice President. We were right! And thank god the meeting was canceled. I felt a distinct sense of relief that I was off the hook (and a little disapppointment - but mostly relief). The meeting was supposed to be a small roundtable discussion with civil society representatives, and the other three participants were all at the meeting point. Two of them left immediately, but I stayed with the embassy representative and a Sheikh who had traveled for the meeting. I was interested in hearing what he had to say about his community and his experiences. While we were having tea, the embassy rep recieved a call that the meeting was still on, and we were to travel to the vice president's location.

After the two participants who had departed returned, we were transported to Camp Victory in the back of a military humvee. Now, these humvees don't sit low to the ground, and I'm short. Plus, I'm wearing super-tight mens pants, which means the crotch sat lower down on my thigh, making it difficult to raise my leg very high, much less to almost waist height. I managed it, praying that the seam wouldn't rip. It didn't, but I think one centimeter higher and I would have had some unfortunate ventilitation.

This was my first (and hopefully last) time riding in a military vehicle. There were two narrow benches in the back, which we crammed into. One of the soldiers made me put on a bullet proof vest before getting in. Now, it is July in Iraq. I'm wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt (I knew a Sheikh was attending) and a super heavy bullet proof vest. There's no AC in the back, and we've got a half hour drive ahead of us. I decided I'd write a letter to my deoderant company if I didn't come out of this experience stinking.

Upon arrival at the meeting place, we were escorted in almost immediately. I managed just enough time to dash into the restroom and try to sort out my frizzy hair and melted make-up before it was time to go. As the the only woman, I was given the honor of leading the group into the meeting room. The Vice President was standing in a receiving line, introducing himself and shaking everyones hands. The first thing I noticed about Joe Biden was that he had very pretty blue eyes. I didn't expect the vice president to have pretty eyes, for some reason.

I was escorted to a long, oval shaped table. An attendent was helping me find my seat (there were slips of paper with people's names at each seat). He assumed I was Iraqi; and because I was a woman, someone's assistant, so he was looking at the far end of the table. Meanwhile, I found my seat on my own. A woman, another handler, asked who I was and when I said I was one of the participants, she moved my seat so that I was next to the acting UN Ambassador and directly across from Biden. Meanwhile, the other handler was still bumbling around.

I took my seat, pulled out my notebook, and said another small prayer. I was in a room full of important people, and I didn't know who anyone was. Somewhere in the room was the US Ambassaor to Iraq, and god knew who else. I was the youngest person in the room by at least ten years (not counting the handlers and coffee pourers) and the only female participant. And, I was wearing men's pants with safety pins. This was clearly a sink or swim situation.

To provide a little backstory, my big boss emailed me when he found out I would be meeting the ambassador. He told me to be opinioned, and not 'nice' as I usually am. Obviously, this man doesn't know me well, but it was clear he wanted me to make an impression...

The vice president opened the conversation and facilitated the conversation himself. He opened with a question about tension between Kurds and Arabs, and between Shias and Sunnis, asking if improved economic development would relieve the tension. I responded immediatley, saying that I did not think that economic development would help to the situation between Kurds and Arabs, because the Kurds are actually doing pretty well economically - except in situations where you have displaced Arabs in poor Kurdish communities. The UN Ambassador agreed with me (this was when I figured out he was the UN ambassador).

After each participant responded othe first quesiton, the VP asked about the reason for why many Iraqis don't have access to basic services - was it a lack of resources, or poor management? I was the second person to respond to this question, and I said it was poor management resulting in a lack of resources, because poor management encourages corruption, which results in a lack of resources to provide assistance. One of the other NGO representatives disagreed with me, saying it was just poor management. Biden responded by saying the number one complaint they get when speaking with Iraqi community members is that corruption is preventing them from accessing basic services. haha!

In his third question, Biden asked how US assistance could be more effective. I was the first participant to speak, and I took a deep breath, and asked if I could speak frankly. I told him that the PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams - military doing humanitarian assistance and developement work) weren't an effective use of resources. I said that while their hearts were in the right places, the civilian population were often afraid of their uniforms. This meant that the military was not speaking with the most vulnerable population a majority of the time, and were relying on information from only one or two people to design projects. I said that this resulted in an environment ripe for corruption, and that as a US taxpayer I was not happy with the results.

There was one final question about security, and then the roundtable ended. It lasted for 90 minutes, although it was only scheduled for one hour. At the end, Biden walked around the table and thanked me for my participation. WOW. Then, General Odierno - THE GENERAL - came up to me and told me he appreciated my comments and agreed with them. Holy shit. Then, one of the other NGO participants came up and told me that I should be more careful about what I say, and that I made the US ambassador nervous with my comments about PRTs, and that I need to show more caution when speaking with VIPs. Typical. I responded by saying that the president of my orgnaization have given a testimony to congress saying exactly what I said, and I was comfortable with my words.

Aside from Biden personally thanking me for my participation, the best part actually happened this morning. My supervisor received an email from the embassy saying that several US Gov representatives who had been observing the roundtable commented on how much they appreciated my organization's comments and particpation. ha! Guess they didn't notice how badly I was shaking.

And that was how I met the Vice President of the United States of America.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Every 9 weeks (63 days to be precise), expats who work with my organization in Iraq are given 10 days of rest and relaxation. My second R&R begins on Saturday. In the last 60 some days I've written two grant proposals, traveled to Baghdad twice and Amman and Erbil once each, designed and delivered a training on Positive Discipline (aka don't beat your children until they bleed), compiled several reports, conducted two trips to communities and one focus group discussion and generally made myself useful around the office. So, I'm ready for a break. This time, I'm traveling back to the US to see my family and attend the wedding of two wonderful friends. I'm in what we call the red zone right now, which means it's less than 10 days before my scheduled R&R and I'm on an emotional rollercoaster that no amount of chocolate can alleviate.

I've got a list going of the food I want to eat, people to see, business to be taken care of (dentist, ugh) and things to bring back with me, which largely consists of books and cooking supplies - can't find vanilla extract ANYWHERE in KRG. I'm fantasizing about bacon and shoe stores and happily counting down the days until I go home. However, I'm also finding the idea of going home strangely intimidating.

My friends have been slowly pairing off for years, and I forsee numerous wedding in my immediate future. I can't wait to see everyone, but I'm dreading the awkward, "So, how IS Iraq" conversations with people who know me. I'm already dreading answering the painful, "What do you do" questions from people I don't know. I love my job, but it is so hard to explain what I do and why I do it. It's also hard to go home and face the fact that while my professional life has been growing in leaps and bounds, my personal life has fallen by the wayside. I also know that the normalcy of home will highlight all the bizarre things about my life here that go unnoticed while you're immersed in the insanity. And thinking about all of this makes me kind of wish I was taking my R&R on a desert island somewhere (preferably with Johnny Dep and a stash of rum nearby).

I am also dreading telling my family that I am slated to move to Baghdad in July. In spite of my last blog post, I'm feeling okay about making the move. Things have calmed down a lot, and at this point I think the biggest risk is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm looking forward to moving out of the burbs (Kurdistan) and into a real field post. I am NOT looking forward to the joys of compound living, but the challenge of helping to move and grow the office will be great experience for me. My job will still require that I travel to the south and north frequently, so I won't be trapped in the Baghdad office like some of colleagues. I'm looking forward to it - hell, I volunteered to be in the first wave moving back to Baghdad - but it's not going to be a pleasant conversation with my mother.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Duck and Cover

I’ve been in Iraq for about 4 months now, and while you never forget that you’re in Iraq, you do become acclimatized to the situation. I live in the relatively quiet northern part of the country at the moment, but I’ve been traveling to Baghdad for work recently. There is no denying Baghdad is a scary place, but I’ve never had as many heart stopping moments (including in Afghanistan) as I did on my most recent trip. Interestingly, I felt much more unsafe in the Green Zone than I did in our office, which is in the ‘red’ zone.

Heart Stopping Moment #1
It was my second night at our office/staff house in Baghdad. Two of my colleagues and I had pulled a few chairs onto the roof and were hanging out drinking G&Ts under the overly watchful eyes of the armed guards next door. It was a few weeks ago, and Baghdad was already sweltering during the day, especially in the amount of clothes I have to wear to be ‘appropriately’ attired.

So, the three of us are on the roof, talking about work when we hear a helicopter. Nothing unusual about helicopters in Baghdad, but this one was flying really low. My seat was facing the building, so I couldn’t see the sky behind me – but when my coworker gasped, I looked over my shoulder in time to see red lights with smoke trails heading straight for our roof. My coworkers had started moving towards the door, but stopped to look at the incoming lights. I yelled, “GO, GO, GO” and shoved them through the doorway and starting running for the…well, just running really. Not sure there was a clear destination in mind. All of the above happened in seconds. A couple seconds later, after nothing had gone boom, we realized the helicopters were just shooting flares – some kind of messaging system – which just happened to occur directly over our roof in an ominous shade of red. Once we had started breathing and stopped laughing in relief, we returned to our rooftop – this time I sat with my back to the building.

Heart Stopping Moment #2
I was attending a conference in the Green Zone, which is generally considered to be very safe, although two Americans were killed there this week (after my visit). I was invited to visit the American Embassy in the evening, and very happily went in order to take full advantage of the PX (store with lots of American goodies including Pop Tarts and chewy Chips Ahoy cookies). After our shopping spree, we decided to eat dinner at the mess hall (it has a different name, but can’t remember what it is now – think dormitory cafeteria with slightly better food). As we were walking up to the cafeteria door a siren started blaring and a voice on a loud speaker yelled “Incoming, incoming”. We were literally at the entrance to the mess hall, which doubles as a bunker, so we just high tailed it inside. In the mess hall, everyone sat very calmly (I guess this is a common occurrence) while a recorded voice yelled over the sirens, “DUCK AND COVER, DUCK AND COVER” and everyone calmly ate their Rueben sandwiches and wandered over to the ice cream bar - with real hot fudge. Eventually the sirens stopped, but the ice cream bar was endless.

Heart Stopping Moment #3
After that little incident, my conference colleague and I walked back to the hotel we were staying in, keeping an eye out for bomb shelters along the way (just in case). It was a long walk, and after watching a pick-up truck crash into a median (it really was a bizarre night) we caught a taxi to take us the rest of the way to the hotel, through numerous check points (I was still in the Green Zone – it’s huge).

The taxi took us to the hotel, and we got out and walked inside, carrying our PX goodies. As we were walking in, I realized that I’d left my purse in the taxi when I was pulling out my ID card. The purse with my passport, my cell phone and all forms of ID that proved I was an American citizen. Luckily, my colleague was thinking on his feet because while I was hyperventilating for the first time in my life he ran to the hotel check point and convinced the security guy to radio up to the next check point and stop the taxi there. Now, I have done a lot of traveling – and most of it alone in the last few years – and I’ve never done anything that stupid. Thankfully, the checkpoint guard caught the taxi, who hadn’t even realized my bag was in the back seat. I would have been trapped in the Green Zone with no ID and no way to leave Baghdad. Talk about a professionally embarrassing situation. I will be eternally grateful to the conference colleague who helped me, the security guy who helped us and the taxi driver.

This week, a week after my trip to Baghdad, a mortar hit the Green Zone, just north of the embassy and killed an American civilian working for the US Dept of Defense.

My new goal is to stay as far away from the Green Zone as possible.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Outskirts of Sadr City

Today I went to an outlying neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad to meet with women from the community. We were meeting with a small group of women to gather information about the community’s needs from the women’s perspectives. We had already met with the head of the community, but oftentimes the women identify different needs and priorities than the community leaders, who tend to be men.

To prepare for the trip, my colleague and I had to dress appropriately. This consisted of black pants, a long tunic top and a head scarf. It is already HOT in Baghdad, and I was sweating before we even left our office. There was a minor crisis in our southern office regarding visa paperwork for a trainer who was coming in from another country which the Baghdad office had to help with, so we got off to a late start. We drove out to the area where we are planning on working, following our transport security procedures – which I won’t detail here for obvious reasons.

Driving into the neighborhood, it was hard to believe that we were still technically in the city of Baghdad. The streets were unpaved and open sewers ran along the main street. There was trash everywhere and small square cement homes were crowded together along the almost overflowing sewers and the dusty road. We turned down a narrow alley and arrived at the home of our hosts.

The house was an unimposing cement square situated inside a cement perimeter. A donkey was standing outside the cement wall, calming observing our approach. Inside we found a dusty courtyard with about 7 children ranging from 11 to 3 years old, a toy car for children to ride on and two small buildings. A man, his wife (the hosts) and two other women were waiting for us. We were led into a smallish rectangular room with a television, carpets, several pillows to sit on and a fan. The children weren’t at all shy, and stared at us from one side of the rectangle. One of the girls had animated brown eyes and was wearing a lime green training hijab – a head scarf with elastic around the part that frames her face (I could use one of those).

We arrayed ourselves among the cushions, drank soda (instead of the traditional tea) and talked about the community’s needs. Because our translator was a man, the host stayed with us, even though the women were the focus of the meeting.

The biggest problems they identified were unemployment, lack of safe play area for the children and poor local healthcare. Apparently the local midwives cost more than traveling to the closest hospital, which is far away if you need immediate assistance – like if you are in labor and the kid isn’t going to wait for you to drive to the hospital…Of the women interviewed, one had never attended school, one had completed the 4th grade, and one had finished 6th grade. The community has intermittent electricity, terrible public waste disposal and questionable water quality. They say the quality of the schooling is poor, and that girls tend to stop attending between 6th-8th grades. The woman who had never attended school had difficulty telling us how many members there were in her household because she could not count high enough. Unemployment was estimated to be around 40%.

As we were leaving (we had stayed longer than intended) we heard the pop-pop-pop of gunshots. We got into the car and waved goodbye to the children. On our way out of the neighborhood we passed a big convoy of cars celebrating a wedding – and probably the source of the gunfire. Everyone in the cars were playing music and dancing, with men hanging out of passenger seat windows with video cameras and music blaring.

It was a good day.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Trying to leave

I’m still secretly amazed by how quickly I become accustomed to living in new places. If I think about the amount of travel I’ve done in the last five months, and the number of different hotels and beds I’ve slept in, it makes my head spin. I’ve been remiss about blogging, which is too bad because I’ve done and seen some interesting things, and I doubt I’ll be able to recapture the moments in hindsight, but I will try.

I am a humanitarian aid worker, and after about 9 months of working in Afghanistan I decided it was time for a year at home. So, I spent all of 2008 living on the west coast of the US and working for an international relief and development organization from their headquarters. Well, in theory I was living in the US – I actually spent about 4 months out of the country; two in Palestine and two in Iraq. In my classic style, by the time I hit month 8 on the west coast (4 of which I had already spent in the Middle East) I was getting itchy feet to travel again. When my organization offered me a job in Jordan acting as a liaison with the United Nations traveling through the region to design new programs I was thrilled. Living in Jordan meant I would have a lot of opportunity to improve my Arabic and regional travel meant my itchy feet might be kept at bay for a while.

About two weeks after I was offered the position, I was asked to switch to a post in Iraq, working as a gender specialist. Now, gender programming is actually my technical specialty and more in-line with my long term career goals, but Iraq is definitely a hardship post (Jordan is not). I didn’t really have much choice in the matter as the position in Jordan was eliminated, and my HQ job had already been posted for public consumption. So, I “decided” to go to Iraq. For a year. At this point, I’m already 4 months into my Iraq adventure, but I’ve decided to start trying to keep track of it for posterity. I will need something for my niece to laugh at when she’s older, after all.

My departure from the US had two parts: leaving the west coast and spending the holidays with my family on the east coast, and then heading out to the region. Oh, with a little road trip to Virginia thrown in to visit my niece. Leaving the west coast was an absolute disaster. There was a massive snowstorm the weekend I was supposed to move, which meant that U-Haul canceled my truck reservation. I had planned on moving my belongings into storage and then catching a flight to Syracuse. Lets just say there was no moving of belongings that weekend – and I barely made it to the airport. I packed up my stuff and left it for my lovely friends who moved it into storage for me on New Years Eve. A saint who is the friend of a friend drove me to the airport a 8pm on a Sunday evening in the middle of the snowstorm, because public transport and taxis were not running. My flight wasn’t until 6am the following day, but there was no way I would make it to the airport in time to catch the flight if the weather cleared enough for take off because the entire city was shut down.

So, I began my long trek to the Middle East (via Syracuse) by voluntarily spending a night on the floor of PDX, with two huge suitcases, a backpack and a laptop bag. And of course you can’t check your bags that early for a flight – and there are no locker services because of bomb threats. It was a long night, with very few bathroom trips.

Miraculously, the weather cleared that morning and my flight was actually scheduled for on-time departure. I knew that if I missed this flight I wouldn’t make it home before Christmas because all flights had been canceled from PDX for 3 days becuse of the snow. There was a huge backlog of people trying to travel, and with Christmas 2 days away it was going to be ugly. So – you can imagine my shocked pleasure when my flight was listed on time. So, I waited, and waited. Then I got a Bloody Mary and waited some more. Turns out the flight crew couldn’t get from their hotel to the airport, so even though the weather had cleared we weren’t going anywhere. By the time the flight crew arrived we’d miss our flight window. Then we had to wait for our turn with the plane de-icer because our plane had turned into a popsicle while we waited for our turn. All told, we got on the plane around 2pm and departed around 4pm – 10 hours after the scheduled departure time.

By the time I arrived at O’Hare airport I’d missed the last flight to Syracuse. So, I got into the customer service line (which looked like the line for the coolest roller coaster ride at an amusement park on the 4th of July) and stood there for about an hour. My cell phone had died at this point, and although I had my charger with me, there weren’t an outlets nearby, and I WAS NOT giving up my place in line. Eventually, I spoke with a customer service rep (poor people, it was hell) who told me the best they could do was fly me to Boston and to Syracuse from there – getting me home at 4pm on Tuesday. Or, I could try and fly standby to Syracuse on the 6am flight. Obviously, I was going for standby, although it meant I was sleeping at O’Hare.

At this point, I’d like to make a comparative study of PDX and O’Hare, from the overnight occupant perspective. O’Hare (if you go to the international terminal) has a food court that stays open all night. PDX, however, has wall to wall carpeting. Believe me, when you’re spending hours on the floor, carpeting is damn important. PDX wins hands down.

Around 4 am my cell phone alarm went off. I shuffled into the bathroom and washed up (thank god I listened to my mother’s advice f or once and packed clean socks and underwear) got some coffee and wandered down to the airport tram. Although I was flying domestic, I had overnighted at the international terminal (more stuff open and people around – and they’re used to crazed, sleep-deprived people). As I blearily walked down to the tracks I noticed a lone, middle-aged woman already waiting there. She was wearing a hijab and was clearly Middle Eastern, and surrounded by about 6 suitcases. I smiled at her, and taking a chance, said good morning in Arabic.

Her face was completely shocked. I asked her if she was alone (in Arabic) and she said the train had left with her family before they got the bags on. Clearly, this was my opportunity to pay back the good travel Karma I had when leaving the west coast (the ride to the airport, not the delays, missed flights, etc.). So, when the tram pulled up I told her to get on and threw the suitcases on. I even managed to get my suitcases, myself and my coffee onto the same tram. When we arrived at her terminal, her family was standing there, clearly relieved to see her turn up.

To wrap up an overly long story, I caught the stand-by flight by the skin of my teeth and made it home that morning. And promptly went to sleep. In an uncarpteted bed.