Kurdistan – Day 2 – Travel to Dohuk

The day started early when I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. Our driver is supposed to pick us up at 8am to travel to Dohuk, about 2.5 hours north in the mountainous region of Kurdistan near the border with Turkey. We ate a very nice breakfast provided with the room, nothing like the puny food you get at American hotels. Hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, various vegetables (you are guaranteed tomatoes and cucumbers with every meal), some unknown stuff and just what I was looking for, local honey. The owner even said it was local. A big slab of comb honey in a dish. It was very good and made me think my idea of finding beekeepers here is not so far fetched.

Driving to Dohuk involved crossing numerous (6 or more on this trip) security checkpoints with our driver rolling down his window, saying something about me and Rahman, and getting waved through. Most cars are waved through, but there is always someone pulled over and being searched, everyone piling out of the car and pulling papers out of their pockets. Rarely do you see anyone riding alone unless they are in a big truck, which are also numerous, requiring daring passes on so-so roads always obeying the common sense laws mentioned yesterday.

The further north we moved, things became a little bit greener due to a few more trees and at least a little bit of water in a river. Most rivers are dried up completely. Later in the evening in Dohuk we visited a huge Dam right next to the city and saw for ourselves how low the water is due to limited rainfall last winter and spring. It must be really nice in the spring after the rains. Nothig but dried grass everywhere now, which the occasional herd of sheep were trying to survive on under the watchful eye of the burro riding shepherd. I continued to wonder where all of the vegetables come from when everything is so dry, but I did see areas where irrigation is used and saw water trucks dumping water on these small trees the government planted along all of the roads. Water is not visible, but it certainly appears to be available.

The trip was mostly uneventful given that we had been on the roads the day before. That meant we were not scared when there was a giant steamroller crossing the road in our lane while the little bells in the car dinged indicating the car was going more than 120 kph (74 mph for those you only fluent in one measurement language like me). The driver was different today. His name was Herish or something similar. He did not know much English, so soon after the trip began his English lesson and Rahman’s Kurdish lesson began and continued for the rest of the trip. Have I mentioned how good it is that Rahman is on this trip? It turns out that Herish had lived in England for the past three years and learned some Farsi from a friend there. Rahman’s native language is Farsi. The conversations went something like this. Rahman starts with an English word. If Herish did not know it, Rahman went to Farsi. Farsi was then translated to Kurdish by Herish or Rahman if possible. Herish then responded in Kurdish. If Rahman knew it, good. If not, Herish translated to Farsi and then Rahman translated to English. By the end, they were also speaking in Arabic and Rahman’s brain was worn out. Totally fascinating because all I speak is Eden English. I do know a few words now, like bread and water.

As I said before, as we moved north, the landscape became more green with leaves on trees, but a dingy green due to the coating of dust on everything. It has not rained for two months and the entire region is in a 2-3 year drought. The dust is from southern Iraq or even Saudi Arabia. After winding around on some mountain roads, though nothing compared to Todd to Creston on Three Top Road, we descended into a valley of sorts with houses beginning to appear along the base of the ridges. In the distance I could see a Kurdish emblem emblazoned above the city on the side of a hill. It turns out this was just behind our hotel. Rahman asked if I noticed that when we started in Erbil there were both Iraqi and Kurdish flags flying but now there are only Kurdish flags in Dohuk. I could go into a discourse here on the political/military situation as it is quite interesting and more complex than the Yahoo news headlines could ever hope to convey, but I won’t. Suffice it to say the people here are taking care of themselves, but there are at least two groups vying for control here along with the occasional threat from the turks to the north.

Our driver finds the location of our first meeting, Dohuk University Department of Computer Science (there are really two Comptuer Science departments in two different colleges). We enter a smallish office packed with 8-10 people and after hasty introductions, some of the people are shuffled out (turns out they were students). Remaining are Basima and Amera, and Dr. Adnan, our primary computer science colleagues. Thus begins a series of introductory meetings with some of the “important” people like deans and vice presidents, each meeting accompanied by Chai tea and small talk. I quickly picked up some of the culture as well. In our first meetig with the dean, there were several other people in the office when we entered that I thought were part of the program. Turns out they were not. It appears that multiple unrelated things can be going on at the same time. Cell phones are almost always answered. The dean answered a call during our meeting. An assistant came in with papers to sign during our meeting. Additional people came in and others left. This happened again with more tea at a differet location, the office of the Vice President for International Relations. We soon returned to the computer science office and found Amera and Basima sitting where we left them about 45 minutes earlier. More tea and finally a discussion about our itinerary and plans for the work we will be doing. Since tomorrow is Friday, their normal day off, we will not really start work until Saturday. The rest of the day involves food, tea, sightseeing, food, and more tea.

Food: chicken, meat(lamb), onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages, pickles, breads, rice (multiple kinds), soft drinks, water, yogurt. The next two meals involve all of the above in large quantities and in various configurations, kebaab or shish kebaab (know the difference?). Lunch was at a brand new building, the cultural center I think, on the border of a new campus under construction on the edge of town with an amazing view of the city. I’ll post a picture if our bags ever come. The buildings we met in earlier used to be Saddaam’s security buildings. We managed dinner on our own later at about 10:30pm, still a hopping time in the downtown market area, which we walked to from our hotel. We ate at a little restaurant (slightly larger than Wolfies deli in downtown Boone) at a table next to the bustling street. Similar fare as lunch, but shish this time with skewers we could have used to defend ourselves. At this point I am going to make a confession. I can sometimes be a picky eater and in particular I don’t like tomatoes and onions. I have left such childish ways behind, at least for the time being. See, Rahman tells me that his father always told him to eat onions wherever you are traveling to help keep you from getting sick. My father (and mother) have been trying to get me to eat tomatoes all of my life. I figure if both of these foods show up at every meal, I must eventually eat them. So I am now eating onions and tomatoes every meal except for breakfast.

Sights: Dohuk Dam and the market. After lunch we went to the hotel and checked into our rooms after more tea while waiting on room preparations and passport checking. The hotel is called the Jiyan hotel and is top shelf – you have to beep your horn at a military looking guy (at least that is what Mervaan, our driver for the week, did) to open a gate and go up a hill, parking outside concrete barricades to keep you from getting too close to the big marble entrance with another security guy stationed inside the door. The rooms are large with a stocked refrigerator including things not really allowed in the culture. A large swimming pool with dolphins tiled into the bottom and a garden with flowers, grapes (they are just getting ripe here), figs, and some vegetables are out back.

After a short nap, my first one in about 10 years, Amera came by with her nephew Ali to take us sightseeing. Contrary to Amera, I thought Ali was a good driver, aggresive, but always remembering the common sense rules. Being timid here is not good on the road. Little did we know it, but just around the hill from our hotel was a narrow valley with a huge dam on the other end of it. If the dam goes, so does a large part of Dohuk! This was a festive place with a restaurant and parks. Have you ever seen a trampoline park? I have now and my children would have loved it – eight in-ground trampolines next to each other in a 2×4 grid enclosed in a fence. There were lots of families walking around enjoying a spring cascading down a cliff next to the road (pictures to come later!! where are those bags??). We drove across the dam and up the road along the edge of the lake, which is very low due to the drought. No one uses the lake like they would in the US, i.e., no swimming or boating. It turns out we were now in a “village” with small vineyards along the road just beyond the trash. No litter laws here. I spotted some bee equipment on the side of a hill, but the road to it was gated and locked. Smart beekeeper. I’m not sure what a bee would do this time of year with all of the heat, dust, and lack of flowers, although I did see some funny allium looking flowers with big spikey blue blooms on top of them. Some people were stopped along the road enjoying the evening breeze which provided some relief from the 43 C temperature of the day.

Heading back to town, we drove through the market area, which Amera said was the place to buy stuff. The prices were better than at the “malls” which have all prices in US dollars on a lot of items I could buy at Wal Mart in Boone. The market was noisy and bustling with thick traffic and people hanging out in the shops and restaurants. We also passed several enthusiastic wedding parties. It turns out that one of our hosts, Dr. Adnan, is getting married on August 10. It costs about $75,000 US dollars to get married. According to Adnan it is a very complicated and costly process. The market looked like a fun place to visit and we had been told it was safe to walk there, so Rahman and I returned later, as I said, to have dinner. The evening ended as has become our custom on the computers in the lobby of the hotel checking email, facebook, and blogging.

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