Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - Getting to Baghdad

The trip here was relatively smooth.  I was lucky because the UA check-in person bent over backwards to be helpful when I told her I was on my way to Iraq.  Although one suitcase was overweight, she told me that she could waive the charges up to 70 pounds if I could show a military affiliation and proof of my assignment to Iraq.  I just showed my travel orders for the second requirement and she accepted my Department of Defense (DoD) “Common Access Card” as evidence of my military affiliation.  She said I still had to take out four pounds to get my overweight suitcase down to 70 pounds, which I did by simply transferring my dirty laundry to my second suitcase (which was a garment bag with just my suits and dress shirts.)

The UA person had put me in a bulkhead seat in Economy Plus, so I had plenty of leg room.  The flight was completely full, however, and took off 90 minutes late as we waited for people and luggage to be transferred from an earlier UA flight to London that had been cancelled.  We arrived an hour late to Heathrow, but, never mind, since I originally had a four-hour lay-over.

Heathrow’s Terminal One was quite annoying and designed, I think, to encourage visitors to patronize the stores located in the hub.  We had to walk quite a way to pass through the security screening once again, and, when we did so, we had to hang around the terminal hub with stores and restaurants because the departure gate was not posted until shortly before take-off.  I bought a bottle of water, using dollars, and then, after reading a bit, decided to try to send an e-mail home since internet terminals were available that charged one pound (about $2) for 10 minutes.  Since I didn’t have the coin, I asked to buy a one pound coin at the currency exchange counter.

The clerk told me there would also be a service charge that would be slightly more than one pound, but, when he told me he could sell me a one-pound coin and change for about $3, I decided it would be worth it.  Unfortunately, the internet café had two slots for coins and a stern warning that no change would be provided.  I tried the lower slot first, next to what appeared to be the slot for the one-pound ticket, but, when the coin didn’t seem to drop, I put it in the upper slot.  When the display showed the pound currency sign with a one, I tried pressing the button and nothing emerged.  That was when I realized the slot was for the two-pound tickets and that, in addition to not providing change, the machine would also not return deposited coins.  The only way that I could make use of my one-pound coin would be to drop in another coin, which I didn’t have.  I realized I had just received a $3 lesson on the peculiarities of the British public internet system and, since my flight was due to leave shortly and another customer started peering at the machine as I moved away, feeling unhappy and frustrated.  I traveled quite a way on the moving walkways to get back out to a gate that was probably just a few hundred feet from our arrival gate.

Interestingly, the BMI flight was also delayed about an hour to take on extra passengers.  I was won over, however, by the service.  Although the stewardesses (no men, at least not in economy) looked slightly ridiculous in the blue bowler hat that was part of the uniform, they were quite cheery.  One stewardess even voluntarily stowed the carry-on luggage of a young woman with a baby as we boarded.  I was impressed when the stewardess not only gave me two of the small cans of Pepsi without my asking, but also asked me if I wanted a cup with ice and slice of lemon as well as wine with my lunch!  I also was able to get a lamb ragout with rice, instead of the usual boring combination of meat or fish, and pasta.  The only problem was that the trays were not cleared away immediately, but left for most of the flight as the stewardesses served coffee and tea.  When I realized that the trays would sit for several hours after the mealtime, I had to rearrange trays and climb over others to get to the toilet, since I had a window seat.  The seatback video system provided a choice of only three movies.

We arrived in Amman about a half hour later than our scheduled 9:30 arrival time, but I and another new Embassy Baghdad employee were met by an expediter, who whisked us through immigration.  I was concerned when my heavy suitcase was among the last, or even the very last, to arrive.  The airport ground person asked to see my claim ticket, and then wheeled it out to me from behind the outlet of the baggage carousel.  I pictured nightmare scenarios, wondering how I would get the suitcase delivered if it failed to show, but, on arrival at the hotel, was relieved when a quick check established that everything was still there, including my cuff links and a flask of vodka.  The airport, at 41 kilometers or 25 miles, was quite far from the center of the city, but we finally arrived at the Grand Hyatt Amman after a half-hour drive and were in our rooms by about midnight.

I was surprised when my driver told me that I owed him $46 when he dropped me off, since I had been told that the “Iraq Support Unit” (ISU) located at the U.S. Embassy and which had arranged my hotel reservation, would use the accounting data from my travel orders to pay for the transportation.  It evidently had not, so I paid the money, rounding it to $50 with a tip.  The driver also informed me that I would depart for “Marka” airport (which I had learned was not the usual civilian airport) at 9:15.  I had to ask, because, for security reasons, the military flight between Amman and Baghdad does not fly according to a fixed schedule.  In a possible foretaste of what was to come, I also passed a magnetometer and had my suitcases x-rayed before I entered the hotel, although the check was rather perfunctory.  The hotel was luxurious, but the internet connection cost about $20 in Jordanian currency.  I collapsed into bed.

The breakfast buffet was of the lavish sort that I was familiar with from five-star hotels in Southeast Asia.  I had a nice omelet with potatoes and, surprisingly, bacon.  I also took a healthy portion of fruit and had two glasses of a superb, freshly squeezed orange juice.  I checked out, paid $26 for the departure (Marka is closer to the city center and I didn’t have to pay for the expediter) at the Hertz desk, and joined a half dozen other people.  As might be expected and in a pattern that repeated itself during the day, we assembled around 9:30 for our departure, even though I had followed telephone instructions from the night before to be ready at 9:00.

The Hertz manager was non-plussed when, after assuring us that he had a 17-seat mini-bus that would hold all 17 of us, someone pointed out that the arrangement would leave no room for our luggage.  He provided another car, or perhaps two, and the rest of us crammed into the mini-bus.

Once we arrived at Marka, I lagged behind since I figured out that I needed to have a cart and finding one free took a few minutes.  I was bringing up the rear when I queued up for what look like a security check.  Others from my group entered another line (which I avoided because there was a sign that seemed to indicate it was for women only) and, after a while, seemed to disappear while the line that I was in didn’t move even a foot.  Finally, suspicious that everyone standing around seemed to be Arab, I walked up to the screening equipment and asked a small cluster of Americans where everyone else had gone.  A young lady told me that direct-hire State Department employees could get through, but no one else.  (Later, I heard that Marka is not an exclusively military airport, but a secondary airport from which charter flights leave, which explained the numerous Jordanians standing around.)  As I placed my suitcase on the x-ray conveyor, which was not moving nor had any attendant, someone emerged and made the exact announcement, American citizens could pass through security.  As he flapped his hands to separate out the Americans and motion people into a line, the x-ray conveyor finally started moving and I passed into the interior of the airport.

Past security, which was again rather perfunctory, I found myself in a fairly compact area with a glassed in terminal area where I saw Americans sitting and standing around.  I stopped at a counter for issuing exit visas, but, when the immigration clerk saw that I had a diplomatic passport, he impatiently waved me away.  I then spied what appeared to be a check-in counter where people were placing their suitcases and I lined up.  As I waited, someone came up and asked for my name.  He looked at his list and said that, when I got to the counter, I should tell the checker that I was number 62 on the roster.  When the announcement was again made that the flight was only boarding direct-hire employees for the moment and no contractors, I scooted around a couple of men and deposited my suitcase on the scale.  The counter person took a look at my passport and returned it with a boarding pass.  I then proceeded to one of two immigration counters, which had only one or two people waiting.  The immigration clerk addressed me first in Arabic, then told me in English that I needed a form.  I went back to the counter by the check-in desk, and saw that there were entry/exit forms.  The expediter had gotten me into Jordan without filling one out, and now I needed to fill it in, although the immigration clerk immediately tore off and discarded the top of the form with my entry information, kept the departure section, and stamped my passport.

As we waited in the departure area, I chatted with my future colleagues, sharing background details and our future positions at Embassy Baghdad.  As we stood around, I found out why there had been such a crush of people at the airport.  There are two U.S. military flights from Amman to Baghdad per week, one on Sunday and another on Thursday.  The flight on the past Sunday had been canceled due to a dust storm in Baghdad, so all of the passengers had been wait-listed on the day’s flight.  Someone said he had heard our airplane was due to take off either at noon or at 3:00 p.m., so he thought the actual departure time might split the difference.  (I had entered the departure area about 10:30.)  After about an hour, a man made an announcement that the aircraft had landed and that we might expect to leave shortly, after the plane had dropped its cargo and prepared to turn around.  (I heard that the plane flies from Kuwait to Baghdad to Amman, and then back to Baghdad.)  After about another hour, we queued up in anticipation of departure, but then were asked to sit down again so that the passengers of a charter flight could exit.  (I had wondered why there were so many women and children in the waiting area.)  Right after they left, we boarded our bus and finally took our seats on a U.S. Military Airlift Command C-17, which took off about 1:00.

The C-17 is a capacious cargo aircraft, and all 100 of us were seated in four, longitudinal rows of seats, two along the walls of the airplane and two in the center.  We entered the rear of the airplane, through a drop-down loading platform.  I had expected to be strapped in by a combination shoulder harness and lap belt, but we had standard lap belts.  Since we had a lot of leg room, the flight was probably more comfortable than a commercial flight, although our seats were made of nylon canvas, rather than cushioned.  The aircraft had no windows to speak of, but we were allowed to walk around for the hour we were at cruising altitude.  We were issued ear plugs, but the airplane was fairly quiet even so.  We landed at Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP and pronounced as a single word, after an hour and 45 minutes.  I hadn’t even been aware that we had landed until the rear gate started to drop.

We were at the State Department-operated Sully Compound.  My memory is hazy now, but I think that, rather than immediately taking our luggage, we were led to an air-conditioned reception building that was filled to capacity.  Someone took our military-issued “Common Access Cards,” and the ones who were arriving for the first time had to wait for the card data to be entered manually.  We then passed through another room, and picked up our suitcases and dropped them off in a holding area.  We then proceeded to another building across the street where we had our Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, issued.  With so many of us, there was a lot of waiting around in lines.

After receiving our PPE, we waited probably another hour, watching TV in a lounge or using computers at an internet center.  Finally, a Sully Compound employee announced that the Embassy’s Regional Security Office would be sending what turned out to be a flight of four helicopters which would ferry back and forth until we were all transported to the Embassy.  We picked up our suitcases again and half dragged them to the airfield.  Since we were passing through loose gravel, the suitcase wheels tended either to lock up or get dug into the gravel.  Those of us with heavy suitcases ended up in the last of the three flights.  I ended up at the Embassy about 6:00, where I was met by my sponsor and bundled into a waiting mini-bus.  My sponsor gave me my apartment key, I met my “roommate,” who occupied the other bedroom, and I unpacked.  My sponsor and I then caught the shuttle to the main dining facility at 7:40.  (The dining facility ends dinner at 8:00.)