Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes: Essential Preparations

February 16, 2009 - I'm halfway through my assignment, and I regret that I haven't been more assiduous about keeping this website updated.  Time has passed amazingly quickly (although my wife might disagree).  There are several more entries that I would like to write, but certainly I should fulfill my commitment to write about the preparations that you might want to make in addition to the packing list that I provided previously.  My recommendations mostly center around how to keep in touch with family and friends.  My suggestions will be obvious, but perhaps there will be someone who might not have thought of one or another of them.

You should definitely bring a laptop computer with you.  You will have use of a computer at work with internet access, but you will not have any privacy to use it.  Without a computer, you can go to the internet cafe next to the PX, but you won't know whether you will be able to find a free computer there, and you still won't have any privacy.  The staff diplomatic apartments (SDA) have an internet connection through a cable that is 100 mega-bauds per second (100 Mbps), which is relatively slow compared to the usual service in the U.S., but will support several critical functions described below.  My family had a laptop, which we generally took with us when traveling, but I bought a second laptop for my Baghdad assignment.

I don't need to provide advice on exactly what laptop computer to buy, since many websites and print media advice exist regarding the pros and cons of various models.  I was considering an Apple, because of its durability, but my wife dissuaded me in the end.  The real issue perhaps is the laptop's size and weight.  I purchased a Hewlett Packard (HP) with a 17-inch screen, because I considered that the laptop would be a substitute for a desk computer, but you might want to consider issues of portability.  You can bring a smaller laptop more easily with you on your breaks from Iraq or even on a TDY to a Provincial Reconstruction Team.  While Sully Compound has an internet center, the laptop could come in handy at a transit airport or at the hotel in Amman while you wait for a connecting flight.  I've always left my laptop in my room.

The laptop that I purchased also came with a digital TV recorder and TV tuner.  I thought it would be neat to record programs off of the U.S. military Armed Forces Network (AFN), especially since the fact that Iraq is one or two hours ahead of Germany often means good programs are on quite late.  I was disappointed to find, however, that, although I found a way to connect the laptop to the cable outlet in my room, the audio tuning on the laptop did not match.  I could record video, but no sound.

You'll probably want to get a Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) internet telephone service, and, if you plan to do so, you should ensure that your laptop has a built-in webcam and microphone, or purchase one.  When I was in Diyala, the person whose quarters I shared used a hands-free headset with a microphone, which seemed to provide some additional privacy, or at least I would have had to intentionally eavesdrop to hear his conversation.  If your family members have the same service, then you'll be able to talk computer-to-computer at no charge.  I at first thought that the video feature would not be particularly significant, but I was surprised to discover how much it added to the telephone conversation to be able to see my wife's facial reactions when speaking to her.  The internet connection at the NEC can handle the telephone and video connections; any problems are general internet problems and not something that arises from limitations in bandwidth or speed.

I had barely heard of or noticed Facebook, when I saw a State Department website which said that there was a "Diplomatic Service in Iraq: Facebook group with useful information.  I signed on to Facebook to access the group, but discovered that it had no significant information (this website is vastly superior).  Since coming here, however, I've discovered that Facebook is an easy way to keep in touch with family and friends.  I am "friends" with all of my kids (although our 14-year-old daughter refuses to be friends with my wife), as well as with my wife.  Although the process is extremely slow, Facebook allows me to share my photos from here and from our joint vacations with my immediate family and to see their photos.

There is also an active Facebook community at Embassy Baghdad, which I'm sure will continue to be true after my departure.  I went out to dinner with an old friend, and learned that three of us in our foursome were on Facebook.  Within a day, we were all Facebook friends.  There are also two women working at the Embassy who frequently write each other on Facebook, even though they not only work in the same office, they share an apartment.  If you're not on Facebook and you're coming here, you definitely should consider getting a Facebook page.  (Excuse my enthusiasm, but Anne, who is quite active on Facebook, will attest to its addictive qualities.  At a place like Baghdad, however, a mild addiction might not be a bad thing.)

An electronic camera, which will allow you to post those photos on Facebook, is another obvious purchasing decision.  I'm usually a troglodyte, so I had a camera that used film until I came to Baghdad.  I decided that I should purchase an electronic camera for its convenient size, and because I didn't want to wait for my film to be developed through the mail.  I saw someone using a newly purchased Olympus Stylus 790 SW during the mandatory training for Iraq service, and purchased the same camera.  It comes in a variety of colors and the camera is waterproof and shockproof.  You can also buy a neoprene covering that prevents the case from scratching and possibly enhances the shockproof qualities.  (The particular model has been subsequently replaced by the Stylus 850.)  An equivalent waterproof camera seems to be the Pentax Optio W60, which has a 5x optical zoom, vice the Olympus 3x.  This could be an advantage, since I found the zoom to be a limitation.  For example, I had a good seat at a dinner but would have liked to have taken a closer-in photo of Prime Minister Maliki when he addressed the audience.  The Amazon reviews also complain about the short storage life of the Olympus model's battery, which is helped if you purchase a second battery.

Finally, in the way of electronics, you should consider bringing an iPod or some other digital audio player.  For those who can't do without music, the iPod will provide portability, since you'll be able to load all your CDs, rather than actually bringing the CDs themselves.  I didn't bring one, but bought one on my latest leave, after a colleague described its advantages as a portable entertainment device.  He noted that we are often in waiting mode whenever we travelled, which is true.  During such times, my colleague noted that he could pull out his iPod and listen to an audio book, a podcast, or watch a video.  I also like to listen to the NPR broadcast, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," when I work out.  While it's actually possible to receive the BBC world service on the radio, the reception tends to cut out indoors.

My last word of advice is to give some consideration to the suitcase that you bring.  I simply grabbed the largest capacity suitcase from my closet, but you might want to buy one especially to travel to Iraq.  I can't locate the reference, but I recall that Anne recommended a duffle.  I would just note that, at Sully and other helicopter landing zones (LZ) in Iraq, the roads and walkways are often unimproved and so covered with gravel.  Most suitcase wheels will not be able to roll over the gravel, but will simply stop spinning and require you to drag the suitcase while scooping an increasingly large load of gravel.  To avoid this problem, you should look for a duffle that has large-diameter wheels (around four inches) and good clearance from the body of the suitcase.  I actually don't think that such a suitcase is sold in the U.S., but the duffles that are sold on websites such as LL Bean, REI, or LA Police Gear seem to come closest.  In addition, if you think that your position will require significant travel in Iraq, you might consider bringing a sleeping bag.  When I was on a provincial election observing mission in Diyala, for example, a sleeping bag would have been quite handy.

And, as an additional piece of advice, I recommend that you pay attention to Anne's "Tips for Travelers" section on this website.  The general situation has changed significantly here, but her suggestions in that section are still quite valid.  Good luck!