Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Great Lemon SNAFU

Things in Kurdistan that are only funny if you speak English:

1. The local Communist party has translated their name into the "Kurdish Toilers' Party." We think they meant "labor" or "workers," but hey, maybe they're just trying to one-up all the other labor parties.
2. In the grocery store the other day, there were all these big metal containers marked "semen" in big capital letters. It took me a good 30 seconds of horror to realize it's a brand of olive oil. Then, of course, I was the tall redheaded girl giggling to herself in the middle of the store. Ah, well.

3. There's a local used car dealership that's actually called "Shady Used Car Dealers." Again, probably more true than they wanted!

So, to rapidly change the subject, today I decided, "hey, we have lemons, we have eggs - I'm going to make a lemon meringue pie!" All was going well, the ingredients were mixed, I apparently have a talent for making meringue, when I looked down and thought, "huh, this sugar isn't really melting all that well." I stuck my finger in to taste it, and found out that, contrary to my assumption, the unmarked tupperware container in the kitchen was NOT sugar. Oh, no. I had put 1 and 1/3 cups of SALT in my pie.

In case you were wondering, lemon custard filling is NOT something to which one can add salt and still have an edible end product. I have never tasted anything worse in my life, as far as I can remember. Imagine drinking a combination of seawater and lemonade, but in a semi-solid form. Revolting.

I wrote a note to our cook's assistant, asking if he'd bring eggs tomorrow (actually, since my arabic is limited, it said, "tomorrow, eggs we have? thank you.") so I can try again. Maybe I can redeem myself and make something that tastes good. On the plus side, I also made rattatouie and roast beef, and those were quite good.

This is what you do when you're all stuck in the house all day long - we couldn't even go to work today, we just sat around the dining room table with our laptops. Meanwhile, despite all the drama on the news, it was silent up here. Not even any sporadic gunfire, which isn't all that uncommon.

Also, if you've emailed me in the last few days, and are wondering why I haven't emailed you back, it's because my email is doing this lovely thing where I can receive mail, but can't seem to send it. Stellar.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Hunkering Down

I got to go to the grocery store yesterday - my first time out, albeit with a small man with a kalashnikov, but still. OUT. Sigh. It's hard to be cooped up, gym or no gym. When I go up on the roof, it's almost like being free. I don't have to cover my head here (even if I did, I'd still be at least 6" taller than everyone else, and wearing western clothing), but sometimes I think it might be nice - it's HOT here. Keeping the sun off my head and face would be welcome.

For the next four days, we're all under curfew and lockdown, because of the referendum. No one's allowed to go out between 6pm and 4am, and the only place we can even think about going is the office. There will also be checkpoints everywhere. The silver lining is that we somehow wheedled a reprieve out of the powers that be, and we don't have to go to work until 10am.

It's funny, because I don't really go anywhere else, anyway, but having it written in stone makes it a little harder to swallow. I'd far rather it was written in strawberry syrup, or something.

I decided not to take a full-time position here, at least not right now. There are too many loose ends back in the US that I'd rather not leave dangling. And besides, I don't think I can spend my days doing USAID approvals - I'd keel over from sheer boredom. I'd think about coming back for a longer stint, sometime, though. Keep all my options open? I suppose that'll put a damper on my boss' diabolical plan to marry me off. Ah, well.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

At least someone finally bothered to report this...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Continental Tupperware

On the 13th, they'll be sealing the Iraqi border in preparation for the referendum. Can't say I'll be thrilled at the prospect of being sealed on the inside, but... It does raise one question - how on earth do you seal the border of a country? I mean, sure, you can keep all traffic on the roads from passing through, but what about the miles and miles of uninhabited places? You can close a border, officially, but who has the manpower to actually enforce that? What it means for us, though, is that we'll be sealed in our house, which will be sealed in our governorate, which will be sealed in the country, with sealed borders. It's like the nesting sets of tupperware you can buy for $5 at Ikea. Here's hoping the tops don't pop off.

It's actually quite relevant to all the discussions that are going on at the WHO about bird flu - the other woman in our house was at a WHO conference a week and a half ago, and they were talking about methods of quarrantining entire countries. I don't know how effective that would be, but it sounds like a herculean effort. It also seems like the countries that have the most effective means of sealing their borders are also the ones that would have the most effective means of containing an internal outbreak. Mom, any thoughts on that one?

I don't really have many stories to tell today - I suppose that's a good thing, quite frankly. I'm enjoying the work out here - it's a lot more writing than I would normally have a chance to do, and I think I've learned more in a week and a half than I have in the last 6 months. It's exhausting, but it's nice to finally stretch my brain a little after doing the same thing for a year and a half. I've gotten so used to my job at home that I hardly need to think about it any more (or, at least not in a challenging sort of way). Doing something new, that I've just barely managed to get my head around, is a luxury.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

It Takes a Village

Life here is beginning to feel more normal - I'm living "The Real World: Erbil" in a house with 5 men over the age of 50 (one is 72), and one 65 year old woman. It's like being with a set of grandparents and several uncles. We all eat dinner together, and then watch movies, play cards, or sit up on the roof. One of the guys, Claudio, brought back two bags of gummy bears, so I'm a happy camper.

It's Ramadan now, which means life here has slowed down, a lot. We still work the normal hours, but all of our local staff leave at 3. It gives me a good chance to sit down and organize my life without anyone asking anything of me. I think I'm starting to find my footing re: actually doing my work, which is good, since I was a bit out of my depth for the first few days. I can't wait for tomorrow - it's our day off (we work a 6-day week here, which amounts to about 60 hours/week, because there's so much to do) - I can sleep in! And I hear that tomorrow someone is going to make pancakes.

It's poker night tonight - I need to get me a cheat-sheet, I think. I can't remember what trumps what. I need someone else (or 3 someone elses) who want to play spades!

It's funny how much smaller my world has gotten, while at the same time I'm exploring such a larger one. I only interact with the same 50 people, and live with six. It's almost as though I live in a tiny village in the middle of a big city. We sit up on the roof at night, and as the sun sets, it reflects off the mountains to the East. I realized I don't even know what the mountains are called! I've moved back in time, apart from the wireless internet and satellite tv, to where my existence is local. Washington makes you feel as though you can open your eyes and see the rest of the world right in front of you. From this vantage point, I've suddenly become nearsighted. I'm thinking only of what my little tribe of agricultural economists, cartographers, agronomists, and veterinarians are doing. If I expand my horizons, I see the guards and the cooks and the drivers*

Even the war feels remote, here. There are occasional gunshots, but they're usually so far away that they sound like popcorn popping. Speaking of which, we have bags of popcorn (the old kind, not the microwave kind) - I'm tempted to try my hand at poping it in a pot, and see what happens.

I've been told I need to learn to be more flexible, to take things as they come, and stop trying to make so many plans. If ever I needed to learn that lesson, this is the way. I don't think that, two years ago, I could have come here and done this. Good grief, maybe I'm growing up.

*in case you're curious, we have the cooks and drivers as part of creating jobs, not because we so like to have someone make us noodles and cheese and spirit us around in armored cars... also, since we can't go out, really, it'd be pretty hard to go grocery shopping without them.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Can you do my taxes, Mr. Kalashnikov?

War defines Iraq. Here in Irbil, gunfire is rare, sporadic. Suicide bombers find fallow land for sympathy. But every morning, when we get a security update, we hear about the rest of the country. How half of Baghdad is being held by the insurgency, how many people were killed or captured (or set free), what our own little threat level is for the day. If we go anywhere (which is rare), we are guarded.

But the definition of our guards is fuzzy. Our accountant, who is known colloquially as "Ahmed Kalashnikov," was a guard, until someone found out that he was a CPA, in another life. I can't help but wonder who else's identity has been altered by the need to carry a gun.

The weirdest part is not that our guys carry guns, but that no one seems to think it's strange. Like Ahmed Kalashnikov, the Kurdish provinces have defined themselves in a context of defense. And the people my age, here - how many of them were lost during the genocide? One of our guards looks like he could have been my year in college - what does he think of the fact that he's still here, when his cohort was decimated? I don't think it's a question I could ask, even if I spoke Kurdish.

My Arabic skills, limited though they are, do come in a bit handy here. People don't generally speak it, but if you're talking about food, or need to get a simple point across with someone who doesn't speak English, it works okay. And everyone seems delighted that I speak it. My little bit of Spanish is coming in handy, too, as quite a few of our staff are Bolivian. One of them asked me today how long I had been taking Spanish classes. Since the answer is "never," I'll take that as a compliment.

Now, if only I could learn some more Kurdish and talk to that cute guard. Apparently, my type is not, as we had thought "tall, dark, and arrogant," but "tall, dark, and arrogant oppressed people who carry guns." Right.

Oh, and by the way, don't bother watching CNN. We come home every day and heckle whoever's talking and getting the facts wrong. Last night, they even got the TIME wrong in Iraq. That doesn't inspire much confidence in their powers of investigative journalism.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


I've arrived. No worse for the wear, although my travel high has started to wear off, and I'll be falling asleep shortly, I expect (only to wake up, of course, at some ungodly, jetlagged hour). We begin the day at 4 am in Amman. Four AM?? Oh, yes. You see, I happened to arrive in Amman on the night that the clocks change back from daylight savings time. Except I missed the memo. So, rather than sleeping through until 5 am, I was up and, if not perky, at least conscious. Until I realized that I had an entire hour left to sleep.

So, without much drama, I eventually headed down to check out, where I met 5 defense contractors in the lobby. This bunch is a wildly different crew than we AID cohort, and I must admit I had quite a lot of fun having a bunch of large, marine-y men treat me like a princess on the way over to Iraq. Heh. Not quite what I was expecting, frankly.

We all stumbled into the airport in Amman, where we lined up to be weighed and measured (my baggage was not found wanting), and then stood around (there weren't many chairs, let alone water or coffee) for about an hour, when we all piled onto a bus. To go across Amman to the other airport. The one I landed at last night. Right.

Our airline is an NGO, that runs in and out of Iraq - there is only one woman working tickets, check-in, baggage, acting as tour guide, and dealing with the security guards. Through immigration again, passport re-stamped, visa noted, and up to the gate, where out of the darkness of exhaustion, behold! Starbucks has metastacized into the Queen Alia Airport. Ahhh.

Coffee in hand, we trundle down onto the tarmac and board our miniature prop plane. It just about fit all 19 of us, plus the stewardess (sorry, flight attendant) and the pilot (who was, I think, my age). Squinching down into our seats, me next to a man who is about 3 times my size. Now I know why I'm a "small" in body armor. Up steps our flight attendant.

"Excuse me, would any passengers going to Irbil please raise your hands?" Everyone does. "Oh, dear. Well, this plane is going to Baghdad." Um, what?

Off we go, back onto the tarmac, over to another plane about 200 yards away. There, we load our baggage (which has, thankfully, made it this far) onto the conveyor belt. At least I know it's on board, since I put it there myself.... And re-board ourselves. All is quiet until we reach Irbil airspace. The large defense contractor man (Josh), who is now behind me, taps me on the shoulder.

"Did anyone warn you about the landing?" Um. Huh. Oh, crap. I know exactly what he's talking about. When you land in Iraq, you don't come swooping in at a 5 degree angle like you do when you fly into Boston. Oh, no. To mitigate any risk, your plane will approach the airport in the following manner:

1. Point nose to ground at 30 degree angle.
2. Initiate spiral over target airport.
3. Plummet, in said spiral, until nearly at ground level.
4. Cut up sharply, and land, almost like a helicopter (but with runoff) on the runway.

Whew. It's a darn good thing I'm not afraid of flying.

I made it out of the airport, found my way to the driver, and moved uneventfully to the office. I started work about half an hour later, thankfully keeping myself awake. I have not, however, managed to remember more than about 5 of the names of my new co-workers. That's the task for tomorrow, insh'allah.

And after this whirlwind, I end the night sitting up on the roof of our compound, glass of champagne in hand, celebrating the delivery of 169 Turkish seed cleaners to NGOs all over Iraq.