So this is my first time to Iraq. I don't think I ever thought those words would come out of my mouth, but after touching down at 3am yesterday morning in Erbil, the reality of my situation can not be denied. I slept on the plane from Amman, but somehow had a terrible time falling asleep in my new surroundings. Let me explain:
The Amman airport is modern by most standards with an excellent duty free selection open 24 hours. Did I mention the Starbucks?
The Royal Jordanian flight was uneventful. The 2 sandwiches and a muffin in the middle of the night were a bit strange, but everything from the seat belts to the "seat back and tray table" discussion were the same as anywhere else. I don't know why I thought that somehow it would be different, but I did.
Jolted awake by the wheels touching down in Erbil, it finally hit me. Welcome to Iraq. I know, I know, Erbil is part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and is much different than, oh say, Baghdad. I have no desire to go to Baghdad - but that's not the point. In my simple mind, Iraq is Iraq is Iraq.
Any possible anxiety I felt about my situation was muffled by the calm demeanor of my fellow passengers. Porters offered to carry my wheeled bag (la shukran) and taxi drivers offered to take me wherever I wished. The pristine airport was simple yet effective, a stark contrast to the massive and security-check heavy Paris Charles de Gaulle I passed through a few short days ago.
Unfortunately no one was waiting for me; at least they weren't there yet. I had been assured that an escort would pick me up and take me to the "compound" where our house and operations center were located. Luckily, after a few tense moments filled with checking to see if either of my phones had service (they didn't) and casually checking the sky for incoming rockets, I was greeted by the large, toothy grin of my new best friend, Hamdija. Originally from Bosnia and sporting a pair of Oakleys even in the middle of the night, Hamdija took no time in pointing out my age. "They told me you were young, but I didn't think you would be that young!" Thanks Hamdi.
The black suburban with tinted windows is pretty much what one would expect out of an armored vehicle. Blast proof doors and a thick metal vault in the back apparently come standard on these things. The driver, a smaller Kurdish man whose name I promptly forgot (clearly not as memorable as my BFF Hamdija), greeted me with an awkward smile and soft hello. Off we went.
Once we breezed by the airport security check point (although this could potentially be chalked up to my active imagination, I'm pretty sure the guard was waving for us to stop), we approached another vehicle waiting on the side of the road. Our car stopped rather suddenly and Hamdija jumped out to greet the 4 Iraqis now outside their white SUV. A brief exchange of words was followed by an exchange of one of the largest weapons I've ever seen. Having also gathered his handgun, Hamdija was now fully Rambo-ed out and we were ready to go. Turns out the white vehicle is our "soft" car where as I was traveling in the "hard" one. Whatever way you spin it, 6 heavily armed men picked me up from the airport.
The ride from the airport was uneventful, characterized by fast and interesting driving patterns, mostly on behalf of the tailing vehicle. It wasn't long before we arrived at the "compound" where I will spend the next 10 days of my life. I must say the accommodations are much nicer than I expected them to be. Unfortunately, even after a comparably uneventful journey and a beautiful house, I still had trouble falling asleep. Maybe I shouldn't have had that last chicken shawarmah in Amman.
More to come on the compound and the quirks of temporary assignment in Iraq...