Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Leaving on a Jet Plane

July 17, 2006 - 9:00 p.m. OK; so here I am, at Dulles Airport and beginning my journey/adventure. Leaving home was harder than anything I could have imagined. I cried all those tears that I have been holding back on. It started when my husband came into the bedroom, where I was getting ready to take a shower and he hugged me and started to cry. Then I started to cry.  Then I cried harder and harder. All this past month, with so much on our minds, we havenít had time to take stock of our situation and realize the pain that was coming. Then I cried while saying grace at the dinner table. And I cried when I said goodbye to my kids. And I cried when I saw them standing on the front porch watching me leave, my older son with his arm around my younger son. And I cried again when my husband said goodbye to me at the airport security checkpoint. Oh, my. So many tears.  I am absolutely drained - for now.

There is no doubt that this is the hardest thing I have ever, ever done. My husband and I were separated three days after our wedding for about three weeks; it seemed like an eternity. But this. This is heart wrenching. I feel as if I could cry from now until doomsday.

Instead, I am drowning my sorrows with rum and coke and some cashews at the Air France Executive Lounge. I know, feel sorry for me, right? The one creature comfort we have en route to Baghdad is that we get to fly business class - a first for me! At least for a trans-Atlantic flight. But I would give it up in a heartbeat to have my family with me.

I do hope this year in Baghdad is worth the sacrifice. I hope I am too busy to think of anything;. I hope the time flies by between now and September 11 when I return home (a portentous date!!!) To see my babies and husband again. That will be so sweet.

So, I close this chapter for now, but will return when I am further along in my journey.

The Journey Begins

July 19, 2006 - The journey thus far has been an amazing rollercoaster. The flight from Dulles to Paris was very pleasant. The business class seats are like small La-Z-Boy loungers, so although they were comfortable, it was impossible to really sleep. I watched an in-flight movie ("Failure to Launch") which was fairly amusing and Air France fed us like kings. (The best part, for sure!) I dozed a bit, but didnít really sleep.

Arrival in Paris was amazing. That airport is so huge. Charles de Gaulle Airport is like Dulles on steroids.  We had to take a bus from the airplane to the terminal; then a bus from terminal "C" to terminal "E" which did NOT go C, D, E, but rather went from terminal C to terminal A, then B, then D, F and finally E. Going through (another) security check, I had the rare pleasure of being physically frisked (my bra hooks set off the metal detector for heavenís sake!) And my bags were checked (they were fascinated by my mag light!) In the end, between buses and security checks, I barely had enough time to drop into the Air France lounge for some water to take my daily medicine before boarding (yet another) bus for the airplane. One amusing note, however, there was a place right outside of the gate where one could get a mini-massage and/or a manicure. How French!

The flight from Paris to Amman was also interesting. Air Franceís idea of "business class" on that flight is to take the first few rows of coach seats and put a plastic divider in the middle seat. So you have the same amount of leg room and width of a coach seat, but youíre just guaranteed not to have someone sitting in the middle seat. Plus that great food again.

We arrived safely in Amman and were met by an Embassy expeditor. As we Baghdad-bound USG employees gathered around, I realized that the person who sat (completely silently) next to me from Dulles to Paris was another State employee en route to the Embassy.  I guess the reason I didnít introduce myself on the plane was because I didnít want to get into the whole Iraq thing when I was feeling so worn out, sad, stressed, etc. So, as soon as we realized we were both headed to Baghdad, we started to chat away.

Interesting note:  While in the Amman airport, I had my first experience with a Middle Eastern bathroom - I had a choice of a regular, Western-style toilet, or a very clean and sanitary hole in a white tiled floor, complete with a hand showerhead to clean up afterwards. Hmmm.

The next step was to head out to the hotel. The Embassy driver dropped the other State employee and me at the Intercontinental Hotel,  which was like a three-ring circus. Turns out that many people who were evacuated out of Lebanon were there and there were no more rooms available. After two hours, and plenty of phone calls, we finally got through to the Iraq Support Unit duty officer, who was able to arrange rooms for us at the Le Meridien. While all this was happening, I had the good luck to observe (and hear) a wedding party come through the lobby, with band, chanting, dancing, etc. That was quite a high! Finally, once everyting was arranged, we took a cab to the Meridien.

We headed off to Le Meridien and were upgraded to glorious, gorgeous suites. I was so happy to finally be in a nice room, anxious to phone home and take a shower. We had asked one of the bellboys to buy phone cards for us, but when he brought them to the room, it turns out he bought a phone card for use in a cell phone, which of course I donít have. And the place that sells the phone cards had since closed for the night.  So I bit the bullet and dialed direct to homw. I asked my husband to call me back and in the meantime, tried to set up my laptop to connect to the hotel-provided LAN. No luck. I called for help and a bellboy came by and could do nothing. Then, my room phone went dead. What next?

Finally, at the point of totally losing control, I went to the lobby and tearfully told the front desk clerk and the concierge that I needed to either phone home or use an internet service to send an e-mail. The concierge kindly opened the Business Lounge for me (by now, itís after 11:00 p.m. local time) and as I was writing an e-mail, my husbandís phone call came through.

Relieved to talk to my husband and after getting an e-mail off, I went back to my luxury room and found one of those showers with multiple heads that spray you from all angles. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did take a nice, long shower. It was great! (Of course, half the water ended up outside of the glass doors, so I ended up using all the available towels!)

My phone was back in order. I took a sleeping pill and read until about midnight, then got an excellent eight hours of sleep. A light continental breakfast this morning, followed my check-out and then were picked up by a rental car agency and whipped out to the military airport. And here we are, awaiting our military flight to Baghdad.

So far, I am pleasantly surprised by the cool weather (here in Jordan, anyhow). It doesnít seem terribly foreign to me yet. All the signs are in Arabic and English; everyone seems to speak English. So far, so good. Other than the major stress Iím feeling due to the hassle of moving and the pain of leaving my children, things are OK.

Tip number one, though. Bring LOTS of single dollar bills. EVERYONE here expects a tip. I had to tip the guys who brought my bags in at the Intercontinental; again, I had to tip the guys who took my bags from the lobby out to the cab; had to pay the cab to Le Meridien; tip the guy who brought my bags to the room in Le Meridien; tip in the morning as we left and even the guys who ran up and grabbed our bags in the military airport wanted a tip! The absolute worst, however, was the guy who (unbidden) carried my bags from the security checkpoint to the line where I had to wait to check in.  I'd say it was about 10 feet.  My fellow traveler and I ended up running out of singles and giving huge tips due to lack of smaller bills. Bring at least $20 in one dollar bills, just to be on the safe side.

Hurry Up and Wait

July 20, 2006 - Finally, we are in Baghdad. My colleague and I were picked up mid-morning yesterday to go to the military airport in Amman. First, we went to the outer waiting room, where we spent about 30 minutes.  Then once they opened the security checkpoint, we had our bags checked through X-ray and got in line to check in. We checked in and then moved into the outer waiting room.

After many hours of waiting, we went and made a line to go through Immigration. Then, we moved into the inner waiting room (see a pattern here???) Within 15 minutes, we boarded a bus and it drove us about 50 feet to the C-130. We finally boarded the military flight around mid afternoon and took off shortly thereafter.  The flights leave at different times every day for security reasons, so your wait may be longer or shorter than ours.  The flight was about two hours in very cramped situation. There are no real plane seats, just four long rows of canvas "benches" with seat belts. You are facing another row and thereís about 8 inches in between the seats. The plane is loud, so everyone wears ear plugs and no one talks. But itís an experience!  Many people slept; I dozed off and on.

We landed in Baghdad at the airport a little over two hours later, in the early evening local time, got off the flight and walked about 100 yards to a gate where our luggage was waiting. Someone from the Embassy was there to greet the State Department people and they collected our CAC (military access/ID cards) and checked us in while we waited in an open, but covered area. Since it was already evening, it was not as hot as I had expected. Iíd say about 90 degrees Farenheit. But it is dry. I could almost feel all the moisture getting sucked out of my face. But it wasnít unbearable. And there were plenty of Port-a-Potties. Honestly, they were the cleanest port-a-potties I had ever seen! Youíve got to love the military for that!

At the airport, there were cases of bottled water sitting in the sun (how refreshing! Hot water!), and there were MREs if you were hungry. I picked one up (grilled chicken and minnestrone soup!), but didnít eat it. We waited there for about a half an hour, and once we were checked in, we grabbed our bags and crossed the street to another camp (Camp Sully). There, we got our PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), meaning our bulletproof vest and our helmets.

By then, it was getting a bit late. We got a quick briefing by the General Services Officer about the PPEs and what to do until it was time to move to our next stop and then headed down to (I kid you not) Subway for a sandwich dinner. In the same area, there was a barber shop, a coffee shop, a jewelry store and a gift store in addition to the PX/BX (Post Exchange for you non-military types).

After dinner, we were free to phone home and use the internet cafť for about an hour. Then we boarded yet ANOTHER bus and headed to Camp Styker, where we (you guessed it) waited to board the Rhino (the armored personnel carrier that drives people from the Airport to the International a/k/a Green Zone).  During the briefing we were told that "show time" would be anywhere between 1:00 and 3:30 a.m.  Nothing like narrowing it down.

By now, all the travelers were getting to know each other.  We went for some chow at the dining hall (midnight snack!) and I had my first experience with the food (more about that later).  Luckily, we got back in time for "show time" which was fairly early.  The ride on the Rhino was uneventful.  Basically it is a strange-looking armored personnel carrier that reminded me of the transports that the sand bandits used in Star Wars.  (Remember the ones who sold R2D2 and C3PO to Luke Skywalker?)  Only the Rhino is smaller and there aren't any funny small creatures with shiny eyes on it.  But I did make my first trip down "the most dangerous road in the world" - Route Irish.

Once we arrived at the International Zone, I was met by my sponsor, who loaded me, my luggage and PPE into a vehicle and drove me to my "hootch."  By now, it was about 3:00 in the morning.  I unpacked, showered, read and hit the sack.  I was in Baghdad at last!