Sunday, April 29, 2007

Baghdad attempt No2: Bingo!

Sunday 29 April. Marka Airport in Amman. Quick check-in and am waiting for the US Air Force flight to Baghdad. About 3 hours later, a c-130 lands. All 41 of us get loaded in a bus and we get into the metal bird from the back. Looks exactly like photos in the press of Marines being moved in and out of combat zones. Four rows of people facing each other in two corridors the length of the plane. There will be no chicken nor beef on this flight. Just earplugs to save your ears. Looking at the wires and tubes I got even more amazed at the science of lifting a heavy thing up in the air with people in it. I still wonder looking at planes standing on the tarmac about the miracle of flying them: they really look clumsy like a chicken and a chicken doesn’t fly!

Another two hours flying but I can’t see anything out this time. Just watching the soldiers getting ready for landing by sitting each at a window and staring down: I wonder if they see anyone getting ready to shoot, do they have the time to do anything about this? Better not think about that!

As soon as we touch down, in the typical middle-eastern tradition (not applause, the other one), a couple of people stand up while the plane is still moving. One shout from a soldier and the two guilty people are terrified into sitting down. We all leave the plane in a semi-circle line moving to the left of the plane. At the same time another line of people waiting on the tarmac start moving in the same shape towards the plane. The whole thing was very surreal: in the middle of a sand storm and through the haze, we were moved to the waiting tents. Less than 20 minutes later, after one question from a US official on how long I will be, my passport is given back to me. My escort is ready to pick me up. The helmet and the bullet proof vest are issued. A team of great South African guys is making sure we get to destination in one piece. Good to have a familiar accent greet me on my first trip to Baghdad (well, second trip). I even get the grand tour (from the vehicle): Camp Victory, Saddam’s Palace, Green Zone, the big mosque. Next stop, the compound which I have now officially baptized “Alicatraz”.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


After three days doing nothing in Amman besides resting and relaxing, I rented a car and drove to Petra. What a difference good service makes: I called Avis which was supposed to be open at 7:30am around 8:30am. A sleepy voice tells me he will be at the office around 9. Good in a way: time for breakfast. The car is there only at 10. It is dirty. The ashtray is full of cigarettes. The tank is empty. Welcome to the Middle-East.

The drive to Petra is fast. I land in the middle of hoards of school children visiting Petra to vote for it to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The place is magical. It is a wonder, but I wonder why it is not being treated as such. Kids are all over the place climbing on the rocks. There are enough cans and empty bottles to move the Dead Sea back to the Mediterranean Sea. Shopkeepers selling ugly souvenirs are squatting different areas in the valley. The signs are not clear and there is no specific circuit to follow! It doesn’t take lots of effort to make this jewel shine! It is truly beautiful.

On the way back from Petra, a police check-point explains to me in sign language that two policeman are looking for a lift to Amman. I was not in a talking mood and decided to pretend I don’t speak Arabic. It was sign language all the way to Amman. The funny part was when one of them explained to the other what I was saying. He never got it right and the stories were always different. I laughed thinking how many times when I really did not speak a language and told a story, what did the person get out of it! We tend to assume that whatever we say is understood: definitely not the case! For example when we were talking about football, I tried to say that the World cup in 2010 will be where I live in South Africa. His eyes shined and he starts explaining to his colleague: “This guy plays for his home team and he is number 10”. The other tells him: “You did not understand. He is saying that he supports African teams not European teams”. Well done boys!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Baghdad attempt No1

Wednesday 24 April. QAIA again. I board on Jessica, an RJ Boeing for the long awaited trip to Baghdad. I was surprised by the mix of people. About half of the passengers were Iraqi, and the rest expats. Most had around their neck tag holders with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” written on. If Iraqis are happy with their new found freedom, am not sure! I won’t venture and get to conclusions. I will have 12 months to chat it up with the locals. Saddam vs Democracy: who do you vote for? Well, at least you can vote for it nowadays. Two hours over the desert before Baghdad appears. The Tigris running through well planned streets and lots of trees. The weirdest landing ever: the plane starts circling around the airport before finally landing. It is not safe for planes to approach the airport in a conventional way. The insurgents are watching and they would love to shoot down a big bird. Ouch! We get off the plane and onboard a bus. Get whisked into the main terminal. I wait in the non-Iraqis line up. I get told that my letter is not enough for a visa. As soon as I found my bag on the belt (about 40 minutes later), I got escorted to the upper floor and had to wait in the departure hall: destination Amman. For the first time in my life I was a deportee. In a country were the average person is dying (literally) to get out, they still look at you with a straight face and tell you “You can’t come in”! Back to Amman I check in the Intercontinental again. I just found out that I will only fly on Sunday on a MilAir flight to Baghdad. Glad for the paid rest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Break in Beirut

In Beirut for a weekend or more: will the city be alive, or will it be in a coma caused by bickering politicians? And Beirut is alive and well. The streets were packed on Friday night, and everyone was out and about. The no-man’s land is back in the downtown area, but it ain’t a green line no more: closer to a yellow and orange line. I was glad to rediscover B-018 which had a needed face-lift. Fifteen years later it is still the best place by far in da city. A bit too cold to go to the beach. As always the stay was too short. Glad I had the chance to ride the big girl and make sure she is in shape.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Another stop

Transit in Amman for 4 hours! Do I really wanna spend 4 hours in dull QAIA* (Queen Alia International Airport)?? The hell no! One phone call and am on the way to meet some friends in Amman for drinks. The city has changed for the better since I last came here. A mix of Iraqi expats (refugees?) and Gulf Arabs investers.

The funniest thing? The taxi Passengers bill of rights! (photo attached, but not clear). Here is the transcript:

Vehicle Information Driver
Passengers bill of rights and responsibilities

1- Loading and unloading are not allowed except in des ignited places
2- Smoking and throwing litter from the vehicle are prphibited (No Spell check in Amman!)
3- Radio and cassette player prohibited with annoying form (What’s a cassette again?)
4- Driver is fully familiar with the rote and Should reach the final destination in each trip

Am glad to know that the taxi should reach the final destination IN each trip. One would think that in most countries it is on every other trip that taxis actually reach their final destination.

En route

First stop in Legoland. Enough time to escape the busy Dubai airport and the floods of transit passengers. Zeina just landed from Geneva and will meet me for breakfast. Every time I leave this airport to the city, the theme park is getting bigger! Biggest man made island, tallest sky scraper, busiest airport…not to mention the hottest climate, the worst traffic, the highest number of malls per capita, the smallest number of pedestrian streets anywhere in the world! Welcome to DBX where everything is a mirage. What would that stop be without Zaatar w Zeit’s good breakfast! Nice to see you Zeina and good luck with your search for a new job… En route for Amman!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ta Ta Suid Afrika…

I have been getting ready for it mentally since I took the decision, but it is still not easy. Abandoning the lekker compound of Killarney Park for the compound of “Ali-Catraz” won’t be as easy as I thought. Bye bye fabulous dinners between 120 and 118. I will miss the magical gatherings of the Who’s who in Johannesburg at 119.

Of course, I only started preparations the night before D-Day, but what’s new? Leaving for a year or leaving for a week, it is all the same after all!

Thanks Deb for assisting in my madness. You are used to it by now. And May for rushing me to O.R. Tambo. Above all: my biological father’s support during the last few years (has it been 6 or 7 years dad?). All set now to go and check die kak in Iraq!