Now we are on the plane with a rather loud little boy behind us, and after the two hour delay, the plane lifts off, leaving the setting sun behind and heading into the darkness over the Atlantic. Travel time to Vienna: 8 hours, 11 minutes. Estimated arrival time 9:48am. Our flight to Erbil is scheduled to depart at 10:20am. So much for a relaxed two hour layover in Vienna. Missing the flight from Vienna would mean an extra day layover because there are only two flights per week to Erbil. Maybe missing the next flight would not be such a bad thing! Following the next 8 hours and 11 minutes or so, I wish we had not made the world record sprint through Dulles to catch this flight.
Each seat has its own video screen with the default channel showing a graphic of the plane location on a map along with various statistics such as altitude, speed, time in Vienna, and remaining flight time. We were also issued a pillow, a blanket, and earphones. I was hoping to need the blanket after the sweaty run followed by the heated wait on the tarmac. The pillow was sure to provide comfort while peacefully sleeping. The earphones turned out to be the lifesaver.
Remember the two children behind us? There are actually three along with a mom and dad in the three seats behind us and the two side seats adjacent to our row. The youngest child must have been about 2 and had a pacifier in his mouth, which would do no good to dampen the noises from his mouth for the next 8 hours and 11 minutes. The only relief from his constant yelling/crying/squealing were the headphones turned up so loud as to risk damaging my hearing, two meals (dinner and then breakfast), and a two hour or so break around 4 am when he must have passed out. There were a few times when the child was happy, but these coincided with yells from his sister because he had done something to irritate her. This child’s presence along with very little room to move, heat, and not much on the TV made for a very long night. I wasn’t so sure we could contain ourselves around hour 4 or 5, especially the german lady on our row, but somehow we exercised all of the self control and patience possible and survived along with the little boy to sunrise.
Ok, I am making things sound worse than it really was. We did have good food, yes, even on an airplane, though we did not get to have our food prepared especially for us by the chef who was on board for business class. The headphones turned up really loud on the meditation music channel allowed for a couple of short naps. Walks up and down the aisle provided relief for stiffness along with following the lady on the video screen doing exercises in an airplane seat – make sure you pay attention to her, the exercises really work. For the first time it also dawned on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when announcements were in multiple languages and most conversations around me were not in English. This will take some getting used to.
Upon arriving in Vienna, we have only 20 minutes to get on the flight to Erbil. Luckily we just have to walk across the circular terminal to the Erbil gate. No one is waiting to get on because they are already on the plane. As I walked to the gate, passing through another luggage scan, I noticed a “Policia” van pull up to the base of the gate and several people get out including two uniformed officers. After getting my ticket checked, I stood and watched the police officers hand off a sullen looking gentleman to the other men along with some papers. Rahman suggested the man was being deported. It did not increase my comfort level, which was almost nonexistent. This plane is almost as full as the one to Vienna, but our seats are a little better, the first row behind business class with an empty seat between us. I suddenly realize that I was supposed to change clothes during the layover to get rid of the shorts (not worn in the Middle East that I can see except by little kids) and t-shirt. Changing clothes in an airplane bathroom is a little challenging, but I was up to the task. I feel a little weird when I come out with old clothes in hand knowing everyone on the plane saw me go down the aisle in different clothes. Was I the one they should be worried about on the plane?
This flight is much better. A couple of good naps. Another meal. I didn’t eat much. We have eaten five meals in the past 18 hours. The country we are flying over is desolate looking and only various shades of brown. We arrive at the Erbil airport 3pm Erbil time, no Erbil city in sight, circling the airport before landing. It looks like a strip of concrete in the desert … I guess that is what it is. We have arrived about 20 hours after leaving Boone the day before. We do not know the name of the hotel at which we are staying. We do not know the name of the person we are to meet at the airport. We do have some cell phone numbers for Ministry of Education officials. I guess you could label us trusting souls or extremely naive, take your pick.
The airplane stops a few hundred yards from the terminal. We get off under the watchful eye of people with guns and board buses to the terminal. It is very hot, but is bearable. Dry heat, you know. Not that humid stuff I had at Cherry Grove Beach two weeks ago. Once in the terminal we line up and get our temperature taken on our foreheads (Rahman thinks it is swine flu induced) and have our passports checked and stamped and our pictures taken. We are now in the country legally and move a few steps to the baggage claim to await our fate. You already know what happens next. We watch the bags go around on the carousel until they turn it off. Four of us have lost luggage. At least one of the other two was on our flight from Greensboro to Dulles. Paperwork must be filled out. We do not know much of anything except where we live in the US. Where will we be in Kurdistan? We don’t know. Who are we going to see? We don’t know that either. Rahman is sent out past the security people to see if someone is there to meet us. Maqsood to the rescue. He is there to meet us, helping us with the information for the paperwork and making arrangements for our luggage to come to the hotel. The only problem is we will not be at the hotel then because we leave for Dohuk the next day before the next plane arrives from Vienna. Rahman and I both packed one change of clothes and necessary items in our carry on, so we are okay for a day or two, but not a week.
The rest of day 1 is full of new sights and sounds and smells, and I don’t have time to write them all down. Driving is quite interesting just as Lori said in our travel brief. I was never really scared. They seemed to have a pretty common sense system worked out with horns used frequently to communicate to neighboring drivers, sometimes meaning stop, sometimes meaning go, sometimes meaning thank you. The context determined the meaning and they all seemed to understand some simple laws of physics. Larger objects will smash smaller objects unless the smaller object is fast enough to squeeze through which is a judgement call. Those with poor judgement must get culled out.
The land looks like a desert, dry, dusty, brown, hazy, but there is activity buzzing all along the road. Construction is everywhere. Many buildings have shops on the first floor while the upper floors are still being constructed with 1000 year old construction techniques. New car lots dot the side of the road with dust covered brand new cars out front. New cars are prevelant, lots of Toyotas and Chevrolets. We were about an inch from the rear bumper of a very nice Lexus SUV. Occupants of Small hut looking structures dot the roadside with occupants selling drinks and other items often with an air conditioner about the size of the hut itself attached to its side.
The hotel in Erbil has been open only two months. The owner has returned from 30 years in Hollad and various other places. He has 5 children, the youngest is 18, and has a new grandbaby. At the hotel we realize two of our colleagues from ASU are also there, so they give us some advice as we walk along the street visiting a nearby “mall” for me to buy a belt. Rahman buys some local sweets for later. The ladies from ASU tell us not to drink the nice sounding watermelon drink sold outside the market. One of them drank it and was very sick, probably from the melting ice in it. The remainder of the afternoon and evening was fairly uneventful. We had a late dinner at the hotel with lots of food that I did not recognize except being told I was eating lamb, which was pretty good. The two day journey ended with bed at about 12:30am, which is 7pm Boone time. I doubt I can keep this writing up, but will at least give some highlights! Pictures will accompany posts once the luggage arrives.