Saturday, 14 May 2011

Chapter 26: Behind the Moustache - On the Road to Baghdad - Iraq

Crossing no man's land towards Iraqi Customs

The GMC darted through one of the arches and past a statue of vague resemblance to the Iraqi leader; arm outstretched in a welcoming pose. My driver became surprisingly more serious. “And don’t say anything - let me do all the talking,” he concluded sternly as we pulled into a small parking lot in front of some dusty buildings.

We entered one of the buildings and found three men dressed in tatty green uniforms lounging against a desk. Upon our entrance the men returned to their efficient duty and many forms appeared amidst a babble of Arabic conversation. As I filled in the forms I noticed that just past the desk was a large room full of comfortable low chairs neatly and symmetrically arranged upon large rugs. Upon three of the walls were pictures of Saddam Hussein in various uniforms and dress looking for the entire world like a lovable caring dictator. The fourth wall near the entrance was entirely covered from floor to ceiling with a mural portrait of a young looking Saddam in traditional Arab dress which totally dominated the room. I could only imagine that the handful of waiting occupants of the room were being completely overwhelmed and intimidated by this dramatic imposition. VIP Room was painted on a small sign above the entrance.

That was where I assumed I would also have to wait but to my surprise I found myself being ushered back outside and into the GMC with the driver and one of the custom officials and driven to another office. At the official’s request I was led into a small room where a fat sweaty man, also in green uniform, sat behind a small untidy desk and motioned me to the seat directly in front of him. I turned to find support from my river but was alarmed to see that he was being detained outside by the official who had quickly left the room.

The man stared straight at me for some moments without speaking. I noticed an old metal bed against the wall to my right. It had torn sheets and blankets thrown over it. I had heard that on some occasions custom officials will seek an aids test which has to be strongly opposed. I really wanted to pee.

Finally the man spoke in Arabic and made a gesture towards the small travel bag I was clutching. I interpreted this as some form of inspection so I placed the bag on the table and the man rose a little from his chair to peer inside. At that moment my body went to jelly and my bowels to soufflĂ©. I suddenly remembered the money belt which was at the bottom of the bag. Iraq was a cash society without the convenience of ATM’s, credit cards or a reliable banking sector so my only option was to bring enough cash in to last the three months until my next leave break. With accommodation, food, refreshments and incidentals to consider I over compensated with the sum of $US5,000. If discovered, most if not all, would be confiscated and it was probable that I would spend time in a prison cell as it was forbidden to cross the border with large sums of money. Lunging at the bag would arouse suspicion so I could do nothing but hold my breath and bladder. My saving grace turned out to be the books, papers and other items I had on top of the money belt as once he flicked them back and forwards a few times he became content with what he saw and sat back down heavily in his chair.

(For future border crossings I purchased a thin belt with a long zipper which I threaded through my jeans. I never had any more problems transferring money.)

“A tip for my friend,” he attempted in broken English nodding at a tall thin man who had been standing motionless behind him. Anticipating a request of this nature I removed a $US5 note I had previously placed in my back pocket for such occasions and plonked it on the table. Having achieved their goals I was then allowed to leave the office and join my driver outside.

We returned to the main customs office to collect our passports considerably more subdued. Once the car was parked a man appeared dressed in civilian clothes and ushered all bags out of the car and onto a bench where they were opened and inspected thoroughly. Then he began a search of the vehicle which included looking under the bonnet. The driver followed him nervously.

Suddenly the man turned and walked away and the driver urgently beckoned me to load the bags back in the car. “Let’s go, quickly,” he said, and we headed out of the car park and onto the highway turning left in the direction of Baghdad.

We stopped almost as suddenly as we began at a fuel depot a few hundred metres down the road. I noticed benzine was being sold for only a few cents per litre in drastic contrast to the price in fossil fuel starved Jordan. My driver was happy and proud to explain that they make the trip from the border to Amman and back on the fuel they purchase at this depot, naturally benefiting the bottom line of the business.

Once fuelled up and on the road again the driver became visibly more relaxed exclaiming happily “Cigarette!” and he lit up a smoke. “Music!” and he proceeded to turn on the radio. “Coffee!” he added turning on the water heater. He sat two cups on the dash without asking.

He laughed loudly with a mix of jubilation and relief then noticing that the water had boiled proceeded to make two strong and sickly sweet black coffees.

Then he picked up his mobile phone off the seat and announced, “Won’t be needing this now,” and promptly threw it in the glove compartment. With Iraq without a mobile phone network he had ensured that all his calls were made well short of the border before losing signal.

Picking up speed he set the cruise control on the vehicle at one hundred and sixty kilometres per hour and then tucked his feet up on the seat under him. From then on I could see the mathematics being simple. The sign just inside the border informed Baghdad was five hundred and fifty kilometres away so I calculated a travel time of almost three and a half hours if the speed could be maintained. And to my later surprise and alarm it was.

The driver’s limited English combined with loud Arabic music coming from the car’s stereo kept conversation limited. I did ask him at one point how many times he had completed this journey and with a determined movement of his head forward he replied, “I know every rock,” which gave me my answer in no uncertain terms.

His family’s long haul taxi company was enjoying the benefits of having sanctions imposed on Iraq. With a total ban on international flights in and out of the country the only means by which internationals could reach the Iraqi capital was by utilising a taxi venture such as this. It was a classic tale of make hay while the sun shines for the moment the sanctions were lifted and flights resumed this lucrative enterprise would abruptly cease. There was only a question mark over the timing of the demise of the sanctions. In the meantime with over two hundred internationals working in northern Iraq for the UN the company’s fleet of GMCs plied the road continuously, day and night, which left me continuously questioning each drivers’ state of preparedness.    

The passing landscape was barren and featureless broken only by the occasional sight of a Bedouin shepherd attending a scraggly flock of sheep pitifully trying to extract life from the desert surface.
The road was considerably better on the Iraqi side of the border. Three lanes ran in each direction separated by a guard rail with very little traffic. It crossed the Syrian Desert towards Baghdad in long sweeping curves. The oil trucks which had congested the road in Jordan now appeared to be using a secondary road several kilometres to the south. “Because they don’t want oil spilt on the new bitumen surface,” was the extent of my inquiry.

On the Road to Baghdad
Settling into the rhythm of the journey my driver appeared content to pass the time smoking, drinking coffee and moving to the music.

I watched the extensively damaged guard rail between the lanes rush past with rising suspicion. I began to sense the obvious pitfalls of high speed driving on this stretch of road. I had already grown weary of the Arabic music but found comfort in the thought that it was probably helping to keep the driver awake.

Finally we shot across the Euphrates River flowing heavily beneath us towards the Persian Gulf. At one hundred miles an hour it was only a glimpse but I saw enough of the reed lined banks to bring images of babies in little reed boats to mind. Then as we passed Fallujah the emptiness of the desert gave way to small clusters of mud brick houses, date palms and small areas of agriculture. Donkeys and horses pulled carts and children played in the dust.

It was about then all romantic sentiment for the region evaporated. The harsh reality of sharing more of the road with vehicles from a by gone age at high speed became blatantly apparent. Entering the outskirts of Bagdad became a terrifying ordeal. The driver persistently denied his state of fatigue and became increasingly frustrated with the increasing traffic volumes which threatened to slow his progress. Impatient to end the long drive he refused to slow down instead swept all before him with long blasts from the horn. Slower vehicles and even the occasional horse and cart were found in any of the three lanes and were scattered as we came through. Those that didn’t hear us or stubbornly refused to migrate from their path were simply veered around. My braking foot almost punched its way through the floor and onto the road with the amount of instinctive braking I performed.

From then on Baghdad couldn’t come quick enough and with great relief we reached the first set of traffic lights which forced my driver to finally bring the GMC to a halt. Diagonally opposite was a GMC garage and we thankfully pulled in alongside rows of similar vehicles parked in shade offered by long car ports.

People would often ask me if it was dangerous in Iraq. My reply has always been that the risks from any other threats to my life were minuscule compared to the risk of travelling on the roads. My initial journey into Baghdad was in summer and the long days meant the capital was comfortably reached in daylight. The perils of completing the journey in the winter months when darkness fell with a hundred kilometres or so remaining were startlingly frightening and unexpected. On one such occasion thin wisps of fog appeared across the road impeding the driver’s sight. To my horror no attempt was made to slow down. I implored him to do so but was met with stubborn resistance saying that he knew the road so well it didn’t matter if he could see it or not. This fact I have no doubt but I tried to reason that there were other road users out there some of whom had no taillights or on occasion had no lighting whatsoever. All I received in reply was a shrug. After pleading failed I was reduced to shouting at him to slow down which he reluctantly did to around 120-130kms/ph but then I would notice the speed gradually increasing back up to 160.

After that particular trip I spent the evening with some colleagues, who were based in Baghdad at the time, at a restaurant and I was amazed that one of them observed that I was in shock.

The return trip to Amman I would later discover was on a horror level all on its own and that is another story for a later blog. (Chapter 39: Five Days to Love - Day One)

My belongings and I were instantly bundled into the back of a dilapidated car which had just pulled up and I was told without question that GMC’s were not allowed to enter the centre of Baghdad and that I would be driven to my hotel in this small car.

With his duty completed my driver rested in the passenger seat as, what appeared to be, his Iraqi friend soon had us back out amongst the traffic and headed across the city.
With no air-conditioning and opened windows I had my first breath of stifling hot air.
Baghdad was impressive as well as hot. The car darted through the crowded streets displaying wonderful examples of Arabic architecture and past many highly imaginative statues of the Iraqi leader in various dominating poses. Magnificent fountains played coolly and bustling market places abounded.

As we came past the awe-inspiring hands and crossed blades of the Swords of Qadisiyyah monument I pulled out my camera, but a hand instantly reached over from the front seat and pushed the camera down. “No mister, no pictures,” the Iraqi pleaded.

Later whilst passing a long wall with abundant trees and security cameras the Iraqi caught my eye in the rear view mirror, “Big Brother’s house,” he said.
“Who’s Big Brother?” I queried.
“Saddam,” the man replied with a grin. “One of his palaces…no pictures,” he warned again.

After endless tunnels, flyovers, crowded streets and toots of the horn we crossed the River Tigris and finally turned off the busy streets to pull into a quiet lane beside the Hotel Petra.

The hotel reminded me of something out of an old paperback spy novel. No computers, no eftpos machine; just papers a journal and an old black bakelite phone sitting on the receptionist’s desk. The Arab equivalent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, dressed similarly in pressed black trousers, matching bow tie and a white shirt took my bags and escorted me up a flight of stairs to my room which was musty but clean and the two single beds were neatly made with starched sheets. The beds were a welcome sight after the gruelling days travel from Amman.

After a quick wash I willingly forego exploring Bagdad for the time being instead retreating to the convenience, coolness and calm of the hotel restaurant. Having found a table in the near empty room I took a seat and waited for the waiter to take my order. I heard a phone ring and moments later a man entered the dining area and walked purposefully towards me. “Excuse me Mister,” he waved a hand towards reception, “telephone for you.”

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