Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Tips for Travelers - What to Mail & Pack

If you're going to Baghdad, either on TDY or PCS, here are some tips (in no random order whatsoever).  Some were given to me; some are my original ideas:

1.     Bring lots of small bills ($1) for tips.  Keep your eyes on your bag(s) in Amman because someone will snatch them up and move them a few feet for you and then expect a tip.

2.     Bring a laptop if you can.  The "hootches" all have internet connection.  It's extremely slow (think dial-up - remember that?) but it does help you pass the time in the evening/on the weekends.  Although you have internet connectivity at your desk, it's a good idea to get out of the office and go "home" to your hootch every evening.  Also, you can play DVDs on most laptops.  You can also download all your favorite CDs before you leave home; then you don't have to drag the CDs with you.  One recommendation if you have limited memory on your laptop: removable "flash" memory.  Some people even trade their memory sticks with different music.  With the laptop, you don't need a DVD player or a "boom box" for amusement.

3.     Bring a transformer if you have 110v appliances (hair dryer, curling iron, battery charger, razor, etc.)  Make SURE you set it to "step-down" from 220 to 110.  I didn't set my transformer and managed to blow out my surge protector/power strip and trip the fuses in my hootch.  (Live and learn!)  Talk to someone who knows about electrical "stuff" to find out how powerful the transformer needs to be (anywhere from 50 watts to 1300 watts).  Sometimes they sell them at the PX, which is nice because they will have the proper "plug" to plug it into the wall.

4.     Bring lots of family photos and other "personal" stuff with you to make your hootch more homey.  Bring a few scatter rugs (the floors are yucky).  You can get a small area rug at the PX, but they're not anything fancy.  Also consider bringing bathroom rugs.  Bring your own pillow and TWO sets of sheets (so you have one set while the other is being cleaned).  Bring a blanket and/or bedspread to make it all look nice.  The pillows and sheets issued by the contractor are GROSS!  Note that they do NOT provide towels.  I forgot to pack one (although I had mailed one) and had to dry myself with my clothes the first night.

5     MAIL AS MUCH AS YOU CAN.  Although you are entitled to UAB (air freight) for Baghdad, it's not up and running yet for the PRTs.  At any rate, the UAB does take several weeks to arrive.  You can mail a LOT through the APO, especially things you will want right away (sheets, pillow, towel), etc.  The less you pack, the better.  You will repeat WILL haul your own luggage once you get to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).  Most of the area is gravel/packed dirt, so bring something you can pick up.  I bought a great duffle bag with very wide and sturdy wheels, which worked well, but those cute pieces of luggage with those teeny tiny wheels will not work.  Plus you look like a tourist (ha ha!)  Another plus: if you have a small bag (and it weighs less than 50 pounds), you may be able to get a helicopter ride to the IZ instead of waiting for the Rhino.  Faster for sure.  Although I think everyone should experience the Rhino at least once.

6.   Bring moisturizing sunscreen and insect repellant.  I brought the Avon Skin-so-Soft sunscreen with inspect repellant and also some other sunscreens with moisturizer.  So far, I've only seen a couple of mosquitos, but I hear they can get bad at some times of the year.  Bring a good hat.  I have a great crushable/washable one from Eddie Bauer.  REI, LL Bean, whatever.  But bring one.  The sun is fierce.

7.  Clothes:  Most of the civilian men wear khaki pants, Dockers, etc. with a short-sleeved shirt in the summer.  Some wear polo shirts; some wear dress shirts.  If you expect to work in the Front Office, or you're going to be dealing a lot with Iraqis, you will probably dress more formally (suit and tie).  Women wear a lot of slacks and tops, casual skirts, etc.  Again, if you're going to be dealing with Iraqis or the Front Office, bring stockings and some nice suits.  I find myself dressing up more as time goes by (especially in the winter, when it's nice to have stockings to keep my legs warm).  I strongly recommend you bring all washable clothes.  There is dry cleaning service here, and it's not bad, but it takes a few days longer than the regular laundry.  There is also a laundry service, which I use for my "wash and press" clothes (slacks, skirts, blouses).  It's also not bad, but it depends on how finicky you are.   If you want to wash your own clothes, you can buy Tide here, or you can use the industrial strength detergent that is provided free.  Sometimes you can't get dryer sheets, so send those on down if you think you're going to do your laundry yourself.  I do my "unmentionables" myself, and throw in whatever is dirty at the time (sheets, towels, t-shirts, etc.) to make up a full load about once a week.  But, you have the option of doing all or none of your laundry, which is nice.

Basically the dress code is business casual for most people, but a lot depends on what your job entails, so you may want to write to the incumbent and ask him/her.  Outside of Baghdad, all bets are off, from what I hear.  The PRTs and REOs are much more casual.  But again, write to your contact person and ask about specifics.  It's hot outside in the summer and can be cold in some parts of the Embassy, so having a light jacket helps.  It gets downright cold in the winter and you need a jacket and a rain coat.  You should avoid dark-colored clothes if possible during the summer/fall/spring.  They really show the dirt and sand.  Black pants especially tend to get dirty very easily.

I do recommend to women to bring clothes with pockets if at all possible.  Women don't carry purses or briefcases here; many places don't allow you in with bags (like the PX) and other places they search all bags (like the dining hall).  You will usually have to carry your keys and the cell phone you will be issued.  Some of the pouch-style lanyards are large enough to tuck away the phone.  You can bring the self-retracting ID badge holders many people in the State Department use, too.  That can be put onto the lanyard and you can hook your keys to it.  Also, most people carry their money and a credit card in their lanyard in case you want to buy something at the PX (remember, no bags/purses) or at the coffee shop in the Embassy.  (There is free coffee, but also a Starbucks-wanna-be coffee shop that sells iced and regular coffee, tea, cookies, muffins, etc.)

8.  Shoes - Bring comfortable ones.  Theoretically you could be running to shelter at any time (although this hasn't happened to me yet).  Also be sure the shoes can be cleaned easily.  There is dirt and sand and gravel everywhere and it's hard on your feet and on your shoes.  Plus the ground gets really hot in the summer and gives off radiant heat, which can trash the soles of your shoes.  At least one pair of sneakers.  Then again, I also mailed myself a pair of red pumps and some purple suede slides.  Every woman needs a pair of red shoes (just like every woman needs a good, bright red lipstick) and sometimes you just gotta put them on!  (Of course, I don't wear them often and I don't wear them far, but I do wear them.)  Bring flip-flops or something similar you can wear in the shower and to/from the pool.  Now, my roomate and I keep the place pretty clean, so it's not an issue "at home," but I do use the shower at the pool changing rooms and I figure it's better to be safe than sorry.  Also, bring some "duck shoes" or other rubber/waterproof shoes you can slip on and off easily during the rainy season.  You can always carry your other shoes with you and change when you get into the Palace.

9.  Mag lights - bring a good, strong one.  It gets dark here fast and you never know.  I used mine the first night I arrived at Baghdad while we were at Camp Sully and later Camp Stryker waiting for the Rhino.  I also bought a smaller one (less bulk and not heavy) at the PX, which is itsy bitsy, but gives off enough light to get by and hangs from my lanyard.  Pen knives/Leatherman are not necessary, but I did bring one and it's been handy because of the scissors and the small knife.

10.  Coffee mug.  This may sound silly, but the styrofoam cups here are small and the tops never fit.  I had my husband send a commuter mug to me and it's been great.  It doesn't spill in the halls and it holds a lot more.

11.  While you're at the hotel in Amman or Kuwait, snatch up the shampoo, conditioner, etc. in the bathroom.  Since you can't travel with liquids/gels on US flights, theoretically you won't have this with you (unless you pack them in your checked luggage).  Hold onto them and bring them with you when you leave on your first R&R.  If you get accomodations at Camp Sully (see "R&R"), they do not provide soap, shampoo or conditioner.  If you have the hotel-sized ones, you can use them up and toss the bottles.  The hotel in Amman should have replacements you can use there and then you don't have anything that will have to be checked for your flight to the US.  Personally, I believe in carry-on only, but if you pack something to check on the flight, ignore this tip!

12.  This may sound silly, but you may want to bring or send things for holidays.  For example, I wish I had a few CDs of Christmas music with me (today is December 5th).  Some people have holiday wear like cute sweaters for Halloween, etc.  Those little touches are nice.  Also, it turns out there are occasionally semi-formal events (such as the Ambassador's upcoming Holiday party), which I did not expect or plan for.  Men are OK with a nice dark suit while women should bring some sort of cocktail dress.  (I got one on-line in time for the event.)

13.  Decorations for your hootch.  While you don't want to go overboard, it's nice to have a few personal items.  My kids gave me a couple of tiny stuffed toys they won at Dave & Buster's.  While you can't pound in a nail, if you send yourself some of those peel and stick hooks, you can hang something light.  In fact, I have a bunch of those hooks for my jackets, my lanyard, my cell phone ear piece, etc. You can get them at the PX, but the selection is limited and not always available. 

14.  Another thing that is useful is a doormat.  Preferably washable.  It will pick up the dirt/sand from your shoes and also the mud in the rainy season.  The straw ones tend to get soaked (there is little or no overhang to the doors to most of the hootches), so something rubber or washable is better.  Sometimes you can get them at the PX, sometimes not.

I will post more ideas as they occur to me, so stay tuned!

Tips for When You're Here

Here are some tips on how to survive once you're in Baghdad:

First and foremost, bring your sense of adventure and sense of humor.  Baghdad is like nowhere you have ever been.  Be prepared to think outside of the box.  If you can do that, you'll be just fine.  Here are some more specific ideas as well.

1.   Grab water whenever you can.  It's all over the place.  Yes, much of it is sitting in the sun and is hot, but you need it.  You cannot believe how quickly you can get dehydrated.  And if you see cold water, grab it.  Also, at BIAP I grabbed an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) and was able to break into that one night when I missed dinner and was starving.  If you can, snag a couple and keep them with you in case of emergency or you're stuck for hours in an airport/waiting for the Rhino, etc.  (See "Hurry Up and Wait") 

2.  Wear the hat.  Wear the hat.  Wear the hat.  And sunscreen.  Put it on every morning.  For sure.

3.  Phone home when you can; e-mail, instant message.  Do anything to stay in touch with the people back in the States.  It will keep you - and them - sane.

4.  Be prepared to be jet-lagged.  Give yourself a couple of weeks.  I still have nights where I positively cannot sleep.  But everyone assures me this will last only a couple of weeks (and by then I'm heading on R&R!!!)  Don't feel like you have to do it all right away.  Be good to yourself.

5.  They say you'll come back from Baghdad as a "chunk, a hunk or a drunk."  I have added "or in a funk."  So, be careful what you eat.  Don't go overboard on the alcohol and DO exercise.  Swim, go to the gym, whatever.  You can take belly dancing lessons, kickboxing lessons, salsa dancing lessons, you name it.  But exercise will not only help you come back as a "chunk," it is good for the soul and for keeping stress down.  Your goal should be to return as normal as you left, if not a "hunk" and hopefully not "in a funk."

6.  Be careful what you plug in where.  I plugged a battery charger into a power strip at work and guess what?  Battery chargers are NOT "bi-polar" or whatever you want to call it.  Since it was a 110v, I burned it out immediately and have to replace it.  Also, SOME of the hootches are grounded; some are not.  There are plugs and adapters available here which are grounded, so be very careful about your laptop or other electrical items.  You may need to buy some things locally.  Make friends with someone who understands electricity and ask them to help you; or put in a work request.  Luckily I did not burn out my laptop, but the adapter I had was not grounded and it frizzled.

7.  When you go to the PX, if you see something you like, BUY IT!  It may not be there the next time you get back.  People will be on their cell phones, calling friends and exclaiming excitedly "They have AA batteries!" ar "They have sheets in!" or whatever and taking orders. 

8.  If you didn't bring a pocket lanyard for your ID and building pass, try to buy one at the PX.  I finally found one after a month in country.  (They sell out quickly, see #7 above.)  The lanyard I bought here has a pocket in the back that you can store credit cards, cash, etc.  Mine is dark blue nylon and says "U.S. Embassy Baghdad," with the US and Iraqi flags, and it's pretty cool.  Sometimes I wear the one I bought here; sometimes I wear the black leather one I bought in FARA store in Foggy Bottom at Main State.

9.  There is no cold water in Baghdad in the summer, except in bottles.  Most water is stored in tanks out in the open sun.  It gets up to 120 degress or so in the summer and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means.  So, when the laundry tells you they wash in cold water, it's really warm/hot in the summer.  Be prepared for shrinkage of cotton clothing unless you've pre-shrunk it.  While my pants aren't quite flood pants, they aren't as long as they used to be.  Also, when you get into the shower do NOT use the hot water unless you want to get scalded.  The "cold" water is really warm/hot.  Some people have turned off their hot water heaters - if they are indoors - in the winter and used this as the cold water and then used the outside-stored "cold" water as hot.  But you have to remember to use the opposite water spigots and to switch back in the winter.