August 20, 2006 - OK, so what's there to do after hours? Besides working and working out? Well, there are so many activities I couldn't begin to list them all. There are board game tournaments, ping pong tournaments, salsa and country western dance nights, middle eastern dance nights. You can take belly dancing lessons. You can go to the movies!
The past couple of weeks I've seen three movies in the private screening room in the basement of the Palace. The room is fairly small, with a lot of plus leather armchairs and - free popcorn!!! The movies are shown on the wall, so they are a bit washed-out, but the price is right (free) and it's fun to do something different. Sometimes we get a group of people, plop ourselves down and just enjoy a good comedy or action flick.
People exchange books, DVDs, CDs, etc. You can hang around the pool. And the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation Association) sets up different activities. This weekend, they held the 2nd annual Baghdad Regatta - boats made completely of empty water bottles (that's ONE way to recycle!) I watched several heats - the Pirate ship won. They were dressed and even talked like pirates. One boat (Budweiser) was "manned" by a small blow-up doll. (The rules said you had to have a captain on the ship. She didn't count, so a real live person was on the ship as well.) People cheered and had a great time. This upcoming (Labor Day) weekend, there will be a team competition doing all sorts of silly things around the pool.
For those of you who would like to relax with a drink in your hand, there are couple of informal bars where you can listen to music, play darts, talk with your co-workers. (Unfortunately, military not under Chief of Mission authority cannot imbibe!) But for civilians, it's one possibility.
You also spend your off hours doing laundry, cleaning your hootch, surfing the internet ("hootchnet") and calling home. I spend a lot of time working on my website (does it show?) It's hard to be bored. I suppose at some point I will scream that I need something different, but that's what R&Rs are for.
October 28, 2006 - Today a bunch of women stationed here in Baghdad decided to get some stress relief. We headed out to the shooting range and spent a couple of hours with a group of instructors there. They helped us shoot various weapons: a Glock 9 mm, two kinds of AK-47s, two kinds of machine guns (the kind where you have to lie down on the ground!!!), some shotguns, and some other semi-automatic weapons. The official list is as follows:
Glock - 19 9MM
M4 Carbine, 5.56
Sterling Grease Gun 9MM
M 249 Saw, Light Machine Gun 5.56 Linked Ammo
M 240 B Medium Machine Gun 7.62 Linked Ammo
AK 47 Assault Rifle 762 X 39
12 Gauge Pump Shot Gun 00 Buck, and Rifle Slug
It was such fun! Nothing like the smell of gunpowder in the morning. . . We all felt like Dirty Harriettes and had a great time. The instructors were patient and kept their sense of humor in spite of the fact that we were all novices, or had had minimal exposure to guns.
The ladies also get together for other activities: birthday parties, Wine & Cheese and coming up "Girls' Night" which is basicaly a pajama party. Imagine me - at my age - at a "sleep-over." It should be fun. Basically as time goes on, I am making good friends with a lot of people here, but am especially glad to see women ready to get together and do stuff so we're not bored stiff.
November 17, 2006 - Today, for the first time, I saw someone praying to Allah. For the longest time, I hadn't heard the call to prayer - I'm either asleep or at work. But when I started going to the gym, I heard the call for the first time. It's very lovely, and even though I don't understand what they're saying, it's very moving. There is an area in the Palace for the Muslims to pray, but we are not allowed to go there unless we are with a Muslim. So I have never actually seen anyone praying to Allah until today. I was walking around the back of the compound, taking the long route from the gym to my hootch. I was actually walking by the Tigris River, but it's impossible to see past the T-walls. As I walked, I heard the call to prayer and then I looked over, and there was one of the local workers, praying. And it brought me back to reality.
Being in the compound is like being in a different world. Some say it's like Disney; some say it's like a minimum-security prison. We are very isolated from the realities of life in Iraq. In Baghdad, you cannot just go out and go shopping at the local market. There are no malls. The local employees in my office have brought me scarves, brass ornaments and have helped me get some jewelry repaired in the Red Zone. But you cannot take in the local culture. Sometimes, if you're lucky, culture comes to you. We're supposed to have a bazaar on Thanksgiving Day with local artists. I hope to do some Christmas shopping at that time.
As for religion, well, we do have many services here on the compound - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, in English, in Spanish. There are Bible study groups, religious choruses, etc. A lot of people attend religious services here. There is something about being surrounded by a war zone that makes believers of us all. We live in an enclave of our own religion and culture, but around us there is a different world, a different religion and culture. What a shame we cannot enjoy learning about it, face-to-face. Someday, inshallah (God willing)!