Iraq: Week 1 / by Janet Eckles


It’s Friday here in Suli (the start of the weekend), so technically I’m done with my first week! Already, a lot has happened!

I flew out of Des Moines on Monday, the 25th, at 6am. I then had an eight hour layover in the lovely Newark airport (if you’ve ever been to Newark, you’ll actually know it’s anything but lovely). I met the other intern there right before we took off for Vienna in the afternoon. Didn’t get much sleep on the plane, naturally, even though there were no screaming babies on board to blame.

We arrived in Vienna around 9:30am, had an hour-ish layover there, and then flew into Erbil. The flight there was a little longer than I expected, but uneventful. I was nervous about customs, but it ended up being much easier than I anticipated. As we were leaving, they asked to search my carryon bag, which involved a lot of pointing, talking loudly (and quickly) in Kurdish, and me standing there with a confused look on my face. Turns out that my camera bag looked a bit suspicious, but they were happy to send me on my way when they discovered that I only had gear in there.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped outside was the heat. Not humid, thankfully, but dry and intense. Especially when you’re wearing a maxi dress and long sleeved shirt, while dragging two ridiculously heavy duffles (why did I have to pack so many shoes?!). Some staff members were waiting at the arrivals building to pick us up and thankfully had brought plenty of water to share. They drove us to Suli, which is about three hours away from Erbil. After dinner, introductions, and a quick house tour, we collapsed into bed. The house is very beautiful, with a lush front yard, and I immediately became friends with the adorable Shih-Tzu puppy named Ninja who also lives here.

We were expected to be at the office, which is only a few streets away from the house, at 9am. As I was going through my luggage to find clothes, my stomach dropped as I realized that I left my noise canceling headphones on one of my flights over here. Good thing I stole the crappy headphones from the plane, since my Apple earbuds were stolen by a classmate last semester and I forgot to retrieve them.

After another quick round of introductions and expectations, they sent the interns off to the Baazar for a “challenge”. We had a list of essential tasks to complete (exchange money, get new SIM cards for the phones they gave us, drink a fruit smoothie, make it back to the office by a certain time), as well as some optional ones (take pictures with live animals, buy a notebook, etc.). We completed all of the essential tasks (except we were over half an hour late getting back to the office), and we bought new notebooks for 3,000D each (about 3 dollars). It was quite the adventure and I’d love to go again soon! Most of the shopkeepers were so friendly and patient despite the language barrier, and one of them even said that if we ever needed anything, we should go to his shop, the name of which I immediately forgot. I got to practice some Kurdish, and I already think I’m picking some up (not really, basically just one phrase–Salaam halakum, which is a more appropriate greeting for strangers than the informal “choni” I’d been using at the Baazar. Whoops!).

After the Baazar, we went back to the office and started getting to work on our first assignments. Mine is a wrap up video that sums up their recent trip to Libya for a Remedy Mission (a really cool program! They bring a team of their best international doctors to an area for a few weeks and they perform about a million surgeries during that time). I’m not entirely confident in my editing skills, but this will be a great opportunity to improve!

I slept better that night, which is good. But I randomly woke up absolutely drenched in sweat. Suppose I should get used to that!

A Kurdish employee picked us up and drove us to get our blood drawn. The government requires a record of that before they’ll give us our extended visas. We were told before we left, “don’t expect it to be quick…or sterile”. It wasn’t that bad, though. He is such a cool guy! He works as a translator, who’s lived in Suli all his life. He has an appreciation for American culture and knows a lot about our country. He knew all about the Islamic centers in Des Moines, and even told us that Nashville has the highest Kurdish population in the States, which still seems so interesting to me.

Back at the office, I started working on the Libya video until the power went out (electricity is notoriously unreliable here). We ended up walking to a nearby cafe for A/C, Internet, and charging capabilities. We were expected at the Youth Center at 6 for a conversation night with locals trying to improve their English. Our plan was to run home from the cafe, drop off our computers, eat a quick meal, and make it to the Center on time. In hindsight, I’m not sure how we thought we could do all of that.

Needless to say, the interns got lost on the way home, and didn’t end up making it to the conversation night. We hadn’t walked home from the office by ourselves yet, because we usually just got rides from people, or went to a staff member’s house for dinner, so we weren’t entirely sure where to go. After walking around unsuccessfully for about 45 minutes (and getting hotter, sweatier, and more irritable by the second), we decided to go back to the office and call our supervisor to pick us up. He did, and just took us home, which we were fine with. I’m sure we’ll have at least one or two other opportunities for this before they end it for the season in June.

Friday is equitable to the Sabbath day here, so most of the shops are closed until late afternoon/early evening. Today has been a nice, lazy, bum around day for us. I attempted to sort through my clothes, and got caught up on emails. Apparently, I have a million things to say always, so that took longer than expected.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to head to the Baazar again to pick up some things, like better earbuds (the airplane ones are usable but already falling apart) and a messenger bag (so far, I’ve been carrying my computer, charger, hard drives, etc. in this weird plastic bag I got at the Newark airport), since nobody wears backpacks here. Then Sunday, we’re hopefully doing our visas in the morning and then spending the rest of the day at the office.

Before I forget!
Misc. things!
-You can’t flush toilet paper! Anywhere. I forgot yesterday, naturally, and had to dig it out by hand
-There’s rarely toilet paper provided for you in public and private restrooms, so you have to bring your own and a ziplock bag to keep it in until you can throw it away later. This will take some getting used to!
-You have to be cautious about how you interact with the opposite gender. I can already tell this is going to be hard for me, because I’m a naturally smiley person who makes eye contact a lot, and I smile and laugh even more when I’m nervous or uncomfortable. Responding to men that way is typically inappropriate. I caught myself doing that at the Baazar, and thankfully nobody took that to mean anything more, but that’s something I need to be more aware of. Oops.
-For all of you who are wondering: the heat isn’t that bad yet, but it will be by the end. I haven’t done a ton of walking outside that much (except for the Baazar and getting lost), so I guess I can’t make a good judgment of it yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super hot, but not unbearable yet. Wearing more conservative clothing makes it hotter, I think, plus I keep tripping on my skirts, which I suppose is typical for me.

Thanks for making it through this ridiculously long post!

- May 29, 2015