Day 387: CouchSurf United

22.01.10:

Up early and back to into Jordan, no probs. I really should have left Amman for Damascus this morning, but by the time I had got myself together, it was already 2pm. I still don’t know if I can actually get a visa for Syria on the border (Marc was wrong about Siwa…!) and I don’t fancy being stranded at the frontier for the night, so I gave my Couchsurf contact Simon a call and asked if he fancied meeting up. He told me that there was some sort of CouchSurfing event taking place and that I really should go to it.

Not being one to turn down a party, I took him up on his offer. Syria would just have to wait. So I whiled away a few hours writing up my blog and eating tasty kebabs and that evening, I headed over to The Coffee Station between the 1st and 2nd circles (if you’ve been to Amman, you might just know what I’m on about) to meet with a bunch of CouchSurf affectionardos who had put together a movie about CouchSurfing in Jordan, with interviews with CouchSurfers and their Hosts. Afterwards, we headed out to a bar where the beer was a devastating €4 a pint (or was that a bottle?) so I played the slow show with Simon’s mates; Gabor, Abby and the wonderfully named ‘Bob’ (which, since she’s a girl, must be said in Blackadder voice).

Okay then, ‘Bob’.

Abby hailed from The States and Bob was from Wales (although an Oxford education had spanked any last twang of taff from her voice) they were both working and living in Jordan, and (I guess since they had been here for so long) were not quite as enthusiastic about the place as I was. But Jordan is ace; it’s like a polite version of Egypt – with none of the relentless hustle. I’m sure Abby and Bob still like the place immensely (and will miss it when they leave) but maybe when you’re a western girl, you soon get tired of the way Arab men treat you (Bob introduced herself as hailing from “Slutistan”).

Soon Simon was soon ready to crash and I wasn’t, so I politely couch-hopped to Abby’s instead, ending up with a bunch of people at her flat drinking until the wee small hours. I love CouchSurfing.

Day 388: The Road To Damascus

23.01.10:

Jordan was awesome. I really felt as if I had finally left Africa behind me and was back on the backpacker trail, rather than the backbreaker trial. I was in no hurry to get to Damascus, so after a fairly lazy morning, Abby and I walked to town (it was a nice day, why not?) and then we went to visit the oldest townhouse in Amman. Abby is friends with the caretaker and before I knew it we were being plied with free cups of tea, a delightful experience for a tea-loving Brit like myself and one which I hope will continue throughout the Middle-East.

Around midday, I finally prised myself free of Amman’s seductive grip and, after saying my good-bye-byes to Abby, I was in a service taxi to the border. Would I get a visa? I still didn’t know. I had had my fair share of conflicting information, but now it was do or die – I could always return to Amman if necessary.

I needn’t have worried – Brits can buy Syrian visas on the Jordanian border. As long as you have no evidence that you’ve been to Israel, you’re laughing. So I paid my $52 and soon enough I was in Damascus as in “The Road to…”

I could have pressed on to Beirut in Lebanon, it’s not very far, but the thing is that I’m waiting for these damn visas for Algeria and Central Asia and while they are no forthcoming, I have little reason to hurry. If anyone wants to repeat The Odyssey, they could probably get from Cairo to Istanbul in four days, visiting every country on the way. But I might as well take my merry time, so I checked into a backpackers and had a little mooch around the town before finding a nice little cafe with internet access to while away the evening.

I think Syria was one of the countries labelled as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ by George W Bush, which is a little unfair as Syria, while not being the most liberal state in the world, is hardly in the same league of interference in people’s personal spheres as, say North Korea or Saudi. Even though Saudi is not regarded as a member of this axis (it bought its way out of moral restraint), despite the fact that bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi and it has a terrible habit of burying rape victims up to their hips in sand and then allowing a team of psychotic teenage thugs throw sharpened stones at her face until her skull cracks open or she bleeds to death. Nice.

But I’ve been to Syria a couple of times now and it’s fine – I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any time. If it’s a police state then they keep a low profile. The only thing I don’t get about Syria is the ubiquitous pictures of el presidente which are EVERYWHERE – lamp-posts, restaurants, offices, in taxis, on buses, buildings, bill-boards, any flat surface you care to mention… The reason I don’t get it is this – iconography is forbidden by the Koran. A good Muslim is not allowed to draw a picture of another human (or even animal) lest it be regarded as an icon. That’s why Islamic calligraphy is so terrific – it’s their only outlet for fine art. They’re not really even supposed to make statues, although try telling that to Turkey – hundreds of sculptors would be out of work if there was a ban on carving Ataturks.

But then, what’s the story with President Bashar’s mug on everything (and I mean everything!) is that not iconography? If not, what the hell is it? They tell me that the pictures bring good luck – doesn’t that make it even worse? Isn’t that what an icon (if you worship it) is supposed to do?

I’m just saying…

Day 389: A Blizzard In Beirut

24.01.10:

Before you could say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, I was on the coach heading to the Lebanese border. Again, Lebanon has a bit of a bad rap when it comes to popular opinion. I’m of the age when an untidy bedroom would be described as ‘looking like Beirut’. It’s a sad (and yet achingly familiar) tale of three peaceful religions sporadically showing the world just how peaceful they are by brutally murdering each other. Lebanon’s civil war raged for over a decade, and Israel is more than happy to test out its swanky new rockets and helicopter gunships every now and again at the first sign of trouble.

Lebanon therefore finds itself between a rock and a hard place, which makes it all the more remarkable that it still manages to be an attractive and inviting place to visit. It’s like a hardened guerilla fighter who can also dance like Fred Astaire. And what makes Lebanon such a great place for me? Not the skiing, not the swanky bars or the parade of bling that passes for downtown Beirut these days… but the FOOD. My god, the food. I’m tempted to make another League Table but just in regards to food – as Mandy keeps telling me, it’s all about the food.

Yum yum.

On the way into Lebanon, the guy sitting behind me was possibly the most annoying human being that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. As I typed up my blog, he sat with his head wedged in between my seats, inches from my ear, breathing loudly and totally invading my personal space. If that wasn’t enough to be more irritating than a shampoo made of lice, he insisted on trying to speak to me, not in a friendly let’s-discuss-the-tennis kind of way, but in a I-know-you-don’t-speak-a-word-of-Arabic-but-I’ll-continuously-ask-you-questions-in-Arabic-anyway kind of way. The kind of guy who once he had discovered an approximation of your name, would call it every five seconds, and then when you turned around, he would smile and say ‘hello’. He had the mentality of a hyperactive six-year-old but was nowhere near as entertaining. Then he took out his phone. I rolled my eyes because I knew what was coming next. Crap music, dull photos…oh god, here we go.

I’m not a photo person. I never have been, never will be. I like TV, movies, video… I like my images to mooooooooooove. Yes, I’ll politely flick through your wedding album, but don’t except me to enjoy it – I’d much rather watch the video, even if your choice of wedding song sucked more than a pinhole in a spaceship. And here was this guy tapping me on the goddamn shoulder every thirty seconds to show me another picture on his phone of his goddamn friends who I don’t know and even if I did know, I wouldn’t want to see pictures of. Then he showed me pictures of his house. HE SHOWED ME A PICTURE OF HIS TELLY. He then smiled at me for approval, like I should be excited that he owned a telly or something, I don’t know?

Assuming he had a mental health problem, which is nothing to be ashamed about but I’m not a psychologist and I can’t speak Arabic, so I could do nothing for him (if you’re physically injured, don’t expect me to sit there while you bleed all over me) so I headed to the back of the bus to chat with the gang of Poles who were also on their way to Beirut for the day. Unfortunately for them, they had a malfunctioning Syrian wally annoying the hell out of them too. I guess this kind of behaviour passes for normal around these parts.

One of the Polish girls, Anna, had the misfortune to be utterly gorgeous. While the western way to deal with someone with this problem is to get them drunk and take advantage, the middle-eastern way is to stand over them so they cower like a cat in a corner and tell them in broken English that you love them and that they should kiss you. Over and over and over again. For TWO HOURS. There was no stopping him – he was like Pepe-Le-Pew.

Even when I got his mate to explain to him that Anna was married to the guy she was sitting next to (for all he knew, she might have been), that his behaviour was completely out of order and that she wasn’t a fellow skunk, she was a cat who had accidentally had a white stripe painted down her back, he still refused to bugger off. What I found particularly infuriating was the way these Arabic men seem to think that this behaviour was somehow appropriate, whereas if I pulled 1% of this stuff on an Arabic woman, I’d be lucky to escape the situation with my head still attached.

Eventually he disappeared and since the Poles were up for a mooch around Beirut, when we got there, we decided to join forces. We were still all smarting from the border guard refusing to give us our free transit visas and charging us $15 for a month visa (of which we were all planning to use one day).

Crossing the mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria, we passed through a full-on blizzard and I found myself thanking my mum and Lorna Brookes profusely in my head for my new coat. We descended on the capital around 3pm.

After travelling on my own for so long, it was amusing for me to now be hanging around with eight people, all of whom had to be consulted if any group decision was to be made. It was raining out, so I (characteristically) suggested that we go to the pub, but they wanted to go on a walking tour of the city, so that’s what we did. In the rain.

We walked from their backpackers in the east of town, all the way over to the Ras Beirut side in the west. If you can just ignore the refugee camps on the outskirts, Beirut is just like any other European city – give or take the few buildings with big blast holes in them – it’s got a central business district with shiny new buildings, it’s got an old bit which houses the nice bars and it’s got pavements, traffic lights, underpasses, business as usual. If it had been a sunny day, it would have been a nice walk, but the fact it was raining cats and dogs put a bit of a dampener on things.

The Poles were a top bunch – Bart and Matthew kept me entertained as we wandered the city streets, running under verandas whenever the rain went from drizzle to monsoon. Eventually (after a kebab or two), we settled down in a bar for a couple of drinks. Very expensive drinks. If you want to guarantee your position in my overall League of Nations to be high, please don’t overcharge me for my alcohol. I haven’t the heart to tell Mandy that’s the real reason Australia is not in my top 5. But worse things happen at sea, and with the excellent food on offer, there is nothing stopping me coming back here, or recommending it to others (bring your own drinks, though).

My bus back to Syria was leaving at midnight, and later I returned to the backpackers with the Poles to pick up my bag. I was hoping to sit with them in reception until their friends arrived (separate taxis) but the cow at the PENSION AL-NAZIH wouldn’t let me, even though it was dark and lashing down with raining outside. Yeah, I guess I should have expected that from a place called the Nazi Hotel.

So I made my way through the storm to the bus station (eating yet another kebab on the way) and at around 2.30am, I found myself at the Syrian border. I had a day-pass slip in my passport, which I assumed meant that I didn’t have to buy a new visa. FOOL!

God I HATE border guards. So after taking out my re-entry slip (and it disappearing into the ether) the border people demanded another $52 out of me. I almost burst into tears. The swines. I argued the toss, but after half-an-hour they had completely stonewalled me – no visa, no entry. I would be leaving first thing in the morning for Turkey, but there was nothing that I could do. Syria has now dropped a LONG way in my world rankings. Don’t pull this kind of stuff on a tourist in the middle of the night, it’s just not cricket.

I paid up, getting a $2 discount by telling them I was Irish.

Drat and double drat.

I would later discover that as my bus was fighting through the torrential rain, an Ethiopian Airliner crashed into the sea just off the coast of Beirut. What a waste.

Day 390: The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

25.01.10:

It was the wee small hours when we pulled into Aleppo in the top left corner of Syria. Not one to stand on ceremony and after last night’s jiggery-pokery I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough and soon I was over the border and doing a little victory dance in my 140th country of this damn fool idealistic crusade. Although I hear ‘crusade’ isn’t too much of a buzz word around these parts.

So I found myself in Antakya, Turkey. In times long past, it was known as Antioch, which observant members of my congregation will remember from the 1st epistle of St. Graham (Chapman). Talking of Holy Grails, Antakya is not far from Iskenderun, which used to be known as Alexandretta. Those who have been studying the history of archaeology (well, watched the Indiana Jones movies) will know that Alexandretta is where the Valley of the Crescent Moon resides.

But my grail-hunting days are long behind me, and Antakya is a bit of a nowhere town so I found out what time the bus for the Iraqi border was leaving, put my feet up and waited as the hours ticked by. At quarter to seven, I arrived at the coach station only to discover that when the bloke wrote “1900” on my ticket, he meant I had to be there at “1700”. The bus doesn’t come into town, you have to meet it out at the main bus station on the outskirts. Now he tells me! Luckily enough though, there was just time for me to be whisked away in a taxi, get to the station and run like hell… the bus was pulling out of the station when I clambered on board.

Content with a decent day’s Odysseying, but cold as HELL (my socks were still wet from yesterday) I curled up into a ball and fell asleep.

Just before I go, is Christmas a public holiday in Turkey? It should be – after all, good St. Nick was Turkish (as was St. George and St. Paul). Maybe they should have a referendum, I can see the headlines now – “Turkey Votes For Christmas”.

It’d be worth it for that pun alone.

Day 391: The Invasion of Iraq

26.01.10:

I blame Lonely Planet. The nearest town to the border of Iraq according to my guide book is a place called Sirnak, the real closest town is called Silopi. If I had known this in advance, I could have got off my bus in Silopi instead of foolishly staying on it until Sirnak. This meant I had to backtrack somewhat.

Yesterday when I asked for a ticket to Sirnak, a Turkish man said to me “why do you want to go there? It’s very dangerous… [gestures firing a machine gun] Best you go to Cappadocia.” Cappadocia’s fairy-chimney charms aside, this remark annoyed me more than scared me – it’s no secret that the Turks aren’t particularly enamoured with the Kurdish people that live in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Irritating buggers who have their own fancy language and customs – how dare they? Given the recent history of the Middle East, I think it’s fair to say that these guys ain’t too big on multi-culturalism. Which is a shame because if they would stop acting like brain-dead morons for just five minutes, they might discover that they have more in common with each other than they might think.

But while people are so obsessed with building up walls to keep other humans out (stuff like this always reminds me of Jonathan Swift and his big- and little-enders) we’re going to have what we call, er, a breakdown of communication, Doc. But being an outsider I’m happy to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I have to say that the Kurds did not let themselves down. Polite, courteous, helpful, generous… a friendlier bunch I couldn’t hope to meet. For instance, I get off the bus in Sirnak and I ask to go to the border with Iraq. A guy smiles and tells me in Kurdish to come with him and he gives me a lift to where the local minibuses stop. I get to the minibus stop and am invited into a nearby office to drink tea with the people there. It’s freezing cold, I’m up in the mountains and a glass of hot, hot tea with far too much sugar is exactly what I need. I offer to pay but they refuse to take a penny, instead they help me with my bags and soon I’m on a minibus heading back the way I came, it slowly dawning on me that I could have simply got off my coach two hours earlier and been in the same place.

Oh well, it only cost me a couple of quid to go back and at least I got a cup of tea into the bargain. When I finally got (back) to Silopi, I waited with a Kurdish lady who was also going to the border, before getting into a taxi and running the gauntlet.

Brace yourselves people… I was about to invade Iraq.

As things turned out, it couldn’t be easier… apart from the fact the border closed for lunch as soon as we got there. But once it was open, I didn’t have to queue – I got stamped out of Turkey in double-quick time and before I could say what-what, I was on the Iraqi side of the frontier. This was tremendously exciting. When I was planning The Odyssey, getting into Iraq was a bit of a grey science. My Middle East Lonely Planet pretty much said that all the borders were closed to tourists and under the ‘Solo Travellers’ heading it simply stated ‘You’d have to be mad’. But my LP is a little out of date now and anyway, I wasn’t going to Iraq proper – I was going to Kurdistan.

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq was a UN protectorate for years, even before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that’s not to suggest that they weren’t jumping for joy when Saddam was finally toppled. The Kurds were Saddam’s favourite whipping boys and suffered a ton of abuse at his command. Yesterday, ‘Chemical Ali’, the mastermind of the gassing of the Kurds in the town of Halabja, was hanged. To say the Kurds were quite pleased about this is an understatement – they were congratulating each other in the streets.

I don’t personally believe that people should be sentenced to death (it makes lawyers far too rich) but I could never imagine what it must be like to lose all your friends and all your family because some psychopathic nutter in power wants the world to know how much of a psychopathic nutter he really is, and gasses a entire town. I mean, how messed up do you have to be??

From the moment I crossed the border, the Kurds went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was herded to the front of the queue and invited into the office for a cup of tea with the border guards. When they asked me who I was and what I was doing, for the first time in this entire ridiculous journey, I wasn’t made to feel like I was intruding. I felt like they were actually interested – not just for their own gratification, but for my safety.

The chief explained that I was not to go to Mosul or Kirkuk, but anywhere north of there was fine. I nodded. “They will kill you, understand?” I understood. “Good. Welcome to Kurdistan!” and with that they stamped me in – NO VISA, NO FEE, NO PAYMENT, NO BACKHANDER… in I went.

If you want to butter me up (and who wouldn’t?) make sure I don’t need a visa to pop into your country for a visit, or if I do, make it free. Take a bow South Africa, Rwanda and Madagascar, you rock my world.

I had a quick mooch around the town of Z???, I could have turned around and headed back to Turkey, got my head down for the night and taken the 0800 bus towards Cyprus in the morning, but I was intrigued – here I was in the most dangerous country in the world and it was amazingly pleasant. Zarko was neat and tidy, good roads, trees, fountains, pavements… Londa, a friend of the irrepressible Kendra (Cairo), had offered me her couch to surf – but it was in Suleymania, on the other side of the region.

With no news about my visas for the continuation of The Odyssey after this, I figured what the hell. I texted Londa and said I was on my way.

There’s no public transport from Zarko to Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, so I had to share a taxi with three other people, but it only cost me $10, so I thought what the hell. On the way, we went uncomfortably close to Mosul – I could feel my buttocks clench as the milestones counted down. But then we swung a left and headed away and I breathed a sigh of relief. I doubt I would have got through the roadblocks anyway… my entry stamp is only valid for the Kurdish region.

I have to say though, there were a lot fewer roadblocks than I was expecting.. this is not West Africa by any means. Also, the roadblocks here actually made me feel safer, rather than made me feel like an escaped prisoner of war. And the guys manning the roadblocks seemed to be there for a reason… like our protection, rather than a protection racket – again, unlike West Africa. I can’t put this bluntly enough: the police in over half the states of Africa are just there to line their own pockets while stopping any intra-national or international trade going on, because the most effective way to keep a country on its knees is to keep everybody poor and everything wretched.

Although I have to say, when a guy came out of his little office sporting an AK-47 and wearing a balaclava, I did my best to stay calm… I had just heard about an attack in Afghanistan carried out by insurgents posing as soldiers, but I needn’t have worried, he looked at my passport, flashed me a smile and said “welcome”. It was bitterly cold, so the balaclava was necessary, but it still freaked me out.

When I got to Erbil, I had missed the last bus onwards, so it was another service taxi for the rest of the journey to Suleymania. I arrived at Londa’s around 11pm. She lived in a big new apartment complex, one of those where the block letter is written in neon light on the top (like the cover of The Killer’s Hot Fuss album) in a place called (somewhat bizarrely) German Village. In the distance, the snow-covered hills surrounded me like sentinels.

My word – I was in Iraq. At 11 o’clock at night, walking through a city I had never been to before that isn’t even mentioned in my Lonely Planet.

I was in IRAQ.

My name is Graham Hughes and THIS is The Odyssey.

Day 392: Drunk… with an AK-47

27.01.10:

Londa hails from a place called Colorado in a little out-of-the-way country called America not far from Comoros, Sao Tome and Djibouti. She’s been living in Iraq now for more than six months and seems to quite like the place. I guess it makes a change from fast food, big fat fatty fat fats and weird ball games that nobody else in the world plays. She’s working in the school here in German Village, as (seemingly) are most of the people who live in these apartments.

Funnily enough, I’m not Londa’s only CouchSurfer; she’s also hosting a lovely girl from Amsterdam named Felia, who is interviewing ethnic Kurds for a ‘Uni’ project. Today, I went out for a walk around the town, got my beard trimmed and stuffed my face with kebab (the only food seemingly available round these parts).

If I can just make one teeny-tiny complaint about Iraq? Kebabs need SAUCE! Oi! Egypt – pay attention!! A few lukewarm shreds of lamb in a bit of pitta does not a kebab make! Mayo! Chilli Sauce! Yoghurt! Ketchup! Something! Anything! Come on, you’re killing me over here. Suleymania is a neat little city, very orderly, surrounded by hills peppered with snow. It was tremendously cold, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

I promised I wouldn’t go on about how friendly everybody is any more than I have to, but er, well… you know when you go into a nightclub that you don’t feel comfortable in? One in which the glamour girls pout and the Brylcreem crowd discuss rpms and bpms and you don’t feel you belong? You know when you feel about as welcome as a sausage in a synagogue? Well, Kurdistan is the opposite of that. These guys, shut off from the rest of the world for so long, go out of their way to make you feel appreciated, wanted… and safe.

The snarling what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here? of other countries that it would be remiss of me to mention, was swept away, and here I was in a land in which the poor man, who has slogged his guts out over land and sea just to visit, to see you, to hear what you have to say, is welcomed with open arms as opposed to cool indifference or outright hostility. Thank you, Kurdistan, thank you Iraq… you have made me want to continue this quest to its bitter end. You’ve reminded me of the common humanity we all share, the journey we took to be where we are today and the future so delicate in our hands…

When I was in Cape Verde I got messages off people who seemed to think that I deserved to spend six days sharing a tiny, unlit jail cell with ten other people because “I turned up uninvited” (a fax from the UK representative of Cape Verde was apparently not enough notice). This upset me at the time, but now it just infuriates me – what is going through these moron’s heads? Do they not see that we’re all in this together and that the hapless wayfarer they invite in might one day turn out to be themselves? Or is that not the way it works anymore?

I may as well put my cards on the table right now – I don’t believe in many things, and I certainly don’t believe in karma (sorry, Earl) – too many villains have died a peaceful death in their beds (Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Stalin…) for me to buy it. But there is a balance sheet in life (the only people who raise statues to despots are despots themselves) and that balance sheet should be in the black – the positive things you’ve done in your life, the times you’ve been there for your friends and family, the times you’ve welcomed a stranger, the times you’ve spread happiness instead of spitting in the face of another… it should be in the black. That’s all I’m saying, and if the good folks of northern Iraq have the right attitude, then so should you.

Anyways, later Londa returned to the flat and we headed out to the market together with Felia. Downtown Suleymania! We popped into a tea shop… man, these guys take their tea SERIOUSLY! It was more like a fast food joint; over a hundred happy tea-drinking customers – the teamaker-in-chief filling the little hourglass glasses like a man possessed. We were invited to take a seat. Londa tried to get me to drink my tea out of a saucer, but as I explained to her, I’m an Englishman, not a cat.

After drinkies, we rose to leave and attempted to pay our hosts… did they overcharge? Did they hell. They didn’t even want paying. Thank you for coming, the tea is on the house.

My word, this is what makes it all worthwhile. You might scoff at this and wonder what they hell I’m on about, it’s only a cup of tea – but it’s more than that, it’s what that cup of tea represents. In my country (I love it, but it does spin me out on occasion), they think it’s acceptable for you to pay £60 for a two-and-a-half hour trip on the train to London. That’s a little under two days wages if you’re on minimum wage. Upon this train, not only are they happy to charge you £5 an hour to use their Wi-Fi (in Turkey, it’s free), they will also blithely charge you £2.10 for a cup of tea.

This situation disgusts me, not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of business – what possible good can come of pricing 95% of the population out of using your product? Unless you happen to be Rolls Royce, of course.

Where’s the service? Where’s the brand loyalty? Where’s the love? Do you think if Virgin Trains went bankrupt tomorrow anyone would be crying in the streets? Not a chance. They might even do a little dance. Such is the ‘public’ transport in the UK, to paraphrase Jim Bob; the public get the transport that no public would deserve… but how much would we love those trains, how quintessentially English would they be if they gave out free cups of tea. I can see it in the Lonely Planet now… “the trains in England are a bit of a rip, but the free cups of tea make up for it”.

Am I the only one thinking this? Am I the only one left who can give you twelve reasons why the customer matters?

Well, given the current state of British Cinema and the cattle-herding culture of our supermarkets, magazines, television and nightclubs, I think I’m alone on this one. What a difference a cup of tea could make. It could change the world.

After tea, I got chatting with a Kurdish guy who had been living in London for the past few years, but had now returned to his homeland (as we all will do one day). Had things got better since the invasion? His, and many other Kurds, answer was an unequivocal YES, something that should give Tony Blair a bit of an umph when he comes to give testimony to the Iraq Inquiry on Friday.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I debated the issue with my mate Glenn – he was, like all right-thinking individuals, against it. So was I – up to a point. What was the point? Well, simply this: I don’t think that any criminal in the world should be allowed to get away with it. There is a strange but quintessentially British concept that people should be given a sporting chance to not have to account for their crimes, but that doesn’t hold much water with me, I’m sorry.

Of course, invading a country to take down one mad dictator is akin to cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, and that’s where mine and Tony Blair’s views differ – I would have been much more sneaky, but the result would have been the same – the downfall of a tyrant. If you want to destroy my sweater, pull this thread while I walk away…

Although with my plan there would have been no Guantanemo, no Abu Grabe, no ‘crusade’, no open invitation to every coked-up and horny teenager in the region to blow themselves up in a vain effort to get laid.

But there is no place for my James Bond Supervillain scheming in this adventure, I’ve just got to get on with the job in hand. But if you want the opinion of the guys up here in Kurdistan, it’s thanks Tony and the British Army, you did the right thing.

After our mooch, we were invited around to Londa’s neighbour’s flat for a bit of a shindig. Sam and Jenny, my word, what a pair of superstars. Sam is half Spanish, half Lebanese (with a handle-bar moustache that almost puts Stan’s to shame) and Jenny is from the Philippines. Actually, looking around the room, it was like the UN had dropped by for some booze and delicious food… although as I looked around the room I found it beginning to spin…

I had already drank a bottle of whisky when Sam suggested we pop out and get some more… something you should know about Iraq: the booze is remarkably cheap. By 11pm, I was sitting in Sam’s flat wearing a crash helmet and sporting a (real) AK-47 explaining why England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty.

To cut a long story short, I got gloriously (and dementedly) wasted and did a few things that I would totally regret could I remember doing them. Luckily for me, Sam and Londa were on hand to look after me, so I didn’t end up face down in the snow believing I was in a wonderful world made of icing sugar.

One thing I do remember though: me and Sam arm-in-arm doing our best Satchmo impressions on a kick-ass rendition of Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, I’ve already used that for a tune of the day.

Day 394: Chav and Chav-Nots

29.01.10:

You know what though – all these dangerous places I’ve been to, I haven’t seen one gang of horrible teenage lads hanging around on a street corner with their hoods up threatening passers-by for no better reason than they’re too stupid to think of anything else to do. (Plus nobody stops them.) When I lived in Orrell Park in Liverpool, I wouldn’t let them interfere with my wish to go to the shops at night, but even I had to admit that their presence made me much more anxious (in terms of fearing of injury or death) than my time in Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Iraq put together.

So next time somebody tells you not to go to such-and-such dangerous place, might I suggest you take them by the arm and go for a stroll to your go see your friendly neighbourhood scallies hanging around outside Blockbuster on a Friday night. Then tell them there ain’t no chavs in Sierra Leone, baby… happy days.

Today, I (reluctantly) left Sam and Jenny’s flat and plomped myself on a bus back towards Turkey. Sam reckons he’ll see me in Melbourne for Christmas, and you know what, I believe him. The bus took me as far as Erbil (or Arbil or Irbil, whatever) and as soon as I was off it, I was stuffed into a shared taxi to Zarko. The guy in the passenger seat spoke English and we discussed many things, including the fact that Tony Blair was being interviewed by the Iraq Inquiry today – it’s bizarre when your silly little life and important international events converge. What did he think of it all? He didn’t understand why there was an inquiry in the first place. I guess that says everything as far as the Kurds are concerned. I’m sure that other people in this country (and ours) have very differing options, but I’m offering this as a non-professional piece of journalistic intrigue.

Once we arrived in Zarko, it was cold. REALLY cold, and the last thing that I wanted was to be held at the border for five hours. But that’s exactly what happened. It would appear that getting into Iraq is a lot easier than getting out. I knew it was a hopeless cause once I was told that I needed the signatures of not one, not two but THREE different military-types in order to not have my camcorder tapes impounded. The whole process took over an hour, and that was just one step on our arduous journey covering the half-mile that constituted the border. It was one in the morning before long, I was in the town of Silopi on the other side.

Something I found hilarious, though – the lengths my service taxi-driver went through to hide the duty-free ciggies he and the other passengers had bought. You’ve seen that bit in The French Connection? It was a bit like that. I haven’t seen so many hidden compartments since I last played Wolfenstein. Roll with it, people… roll with it.

I just spent the last three days in Iraq… what did you do this week?

Day 395: The Silopi Slope

30.01.10:

I had checked in to a local hotel in Silopi, sharing a room with a few other guys to get the price down to $10 (which was pretty extortionate if I stopped to think about it). I worried that I had mucked up the time difference between Iraq and Turkey and would find that my bus to Silifke had left half an hour ago, but that didn’t entice me to rush and I squeezed every last bit of sleep out of the situation that Chronos would allow. The bus station was just across the road.

I wanted a seat on the 8pm bus to Silifke, the town from which I could get the boat to Cyprus and therefore tick off that last remaining country on my list of European Nations. However, the bus was sold out and so I found myself hanging around for a couple of hours for the next one and what followed was a day so mired in confusion and conflicting information, I don’t know where to begin.

It was as though nobody knew how the hell I was to get to Silifke, least of all me. I therefore ended up getting off the bus no less than four times before clambering back on board the same bus again and again. It wasn’t until late afternoon when I finally got on a separate bus, assured that this was the right one. Funnily enough, when we stopped for dinner, my fellow diners were my friends that I had made on the first bus… weird.

After a minibus ride, another bus and finally another minibus, I arrived in Sillifke in the wee small hours feeling very much like a pinball with a ticket to go somewhere. I checked into the first hotel that would accept my $10 and got my head down for the night. Tomorrow: Cyprus.

Day 396: The Slow Boat to Cyprus

31.01.10:

It was one of those mornings upon which it’s far too cold, gravity seems to conspire against you and the snooze alarm makes it far, far too tempting… all too easy… to fall… back zzzzzzzzzzzz.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP BE BEEP!!

Groan.

Okay okay! I’m getting up! After a decent shower, I headed out to get the daily fast ferry to Cyprus, Nation 142 on my list. Suddenly stuck by a crisis of confidence – the boat didn’t leave from Silifke itself, it left from the nearby town of Tasucu. How nearby? Well, I had absolutely no idea, did I? So instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the bus, I did the stupid thing and took a taxi.

In the event, it was only ten minutes down the road, but in my not-quite-wiped-the-sleep-from-my-eyes state, I forgot to remember the golden rule: all taxi drivers are swines. Having not turned on the meter, I really should have refused to pay him anything – the law would be on my side, but in the event, he managed (by following me into the ticket place and causing a scene) to wangle a tenner out of me. It wouldn’t have been that much in London. What an idiot.

Anyways, I bought my ticket and ran the daily gauntlet of passport control, customs, more passport control, more customs blah blah blah, found myself a seat near a nice Cypriot family from Britain and settled in for the journey. But, oh cruel fate, remember the big storm in Lebanon? The one that downed the aircraft? It was still raging in the Med and they didn’t want to risk it. So after an hour of sitting on the boat like a lemon, I got off the boat having gone precisely nowhere.

The good news (for me) was that the boats had not run for four days now, so my extended stay in Iraq made no difference to my country tally – I would have just been waiting in this one horse town instead not having half as good a time. The other bit of good news (kinda) was that the slow ferry to Cyprus would definitely be leaving at midnight. It looked like I had a day to waste.

I befriended a French musician from Lyon named Sylvan, who had been living in India for the past four years. I hoped he wouldn’t be one of those western nutcases who think that India is the be-all and end-all, and to my great relief, he wasn’t. He was just as cynical about that wonderful-but-utterly-bananas sub-continent as I am. We headed to the local kebab cafe, I hooked myself up to the internet and before I knew it, I was enjoying download speeds of 361kbps – that’s 361 times faster than I’ve had since I left Europe. Needless to say, I downloaded all the 24s that I still had to watch, as well as the leaked cam copy of Lost.

Hurrah for the internet! Although did you know YouTube is banned in Turkey…? But YouPorn isn’t. Go figure.

So I whiled away the day, getting a lot less done than I should have done and eating far too many kebabs (although I did have to show them how to make them – when I suggested the addition of chips, chilli peppers and mayo they thought I had dropped in from Mars). It was raining off and on all day, so my lack of umbrellage meant gallivanting was not on the agenda. Eventually, night fell and I met a bunch of Dutch students who were also making their own TV show – one in which they were trying to see how far they could get around Turkey without spending any money. It was their third day and they had been doing quite well until they reached Tasucu… which, given the state of the weather was not good news. Although, when the cute girl who was presenting explained that there were nine of them doing this thing, I wished them luck – they were going to need it.

Minibuses whizzed us around to the other side of the dock from where the slow boat departed and once again, the seemingly endless process of queuing, bag checks, stamp outs, more bag checks, more queues became a blur that didn’t snap into focus until I was on board the ship, the appropriately-named Calypso. I found a power socket, plugged in my laptop and settled in for the night.

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