Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Chapter 35: The Walk to a "Village-too-Far"

Finding something to do on the Friday (weekend) always remained a challenge. In a world completely devoid of cinemas, shopping malls, bars, fine dining, cafes, bookshops, sporting facilities, franchises and live entertainment the emphasis was on the individual to create ways to pass the hours on those quiet, dreamy afternoons.

The task was much simpler during the hot summer months when the pool attracted an easy patronage of water revellers. But that source of entertainment abruptly ceased with the advent of winter. The only other sources of entertainment, apart from returning to work, were the UN club or joining a group of predominately my co-patriots on long walks into the surrounding countryside.

At precisely 1pm a half dozen or so people gathered outside the UNDP headquarters, and armed with bottles of water promptly set foot through the streets towards the outskirts of Ankawa. The pace was brisk and I knew from the outset that these guys meant business. I silently assessed my physical condition to gauge my preparedness for such an endurance episode. I drew some reassurance from the fact that some members of the walking party were a little older although I was wary of false hope.

Once away from the streets of the town we emerged onto dirt tracks weaving through open fields and past solitary farm houses. The bare earth laid cold and dormant in readiness for next season’s wheat crop.

As we marched in a steady rhythm across the fields I became aware of the peace and tranquillity of the space, away from honking horns and belching exhaust pipes. Some of the group walked in clusters talking and sharing jokes and others moved ahead or behind preferring to walk in solitary thought. At the much slower pace than in a vehicle I found I could absorb and enjoy the spectacular vistas of the distant mountains, the hills and the far off metropolis of Erbil.

Occasionally we would pass through a small village and the children, with scampering chickens afoot, would swoop out to greet us. One member of our group would take their digital pictures and (as I found out the following week) distribute hard copies to each of them next time we passed.

Suddenly after about one hour at no particular location it was announced that we turn and head back. I noted at this point a large village far off in the distance but relieved that the trek had reached its half way mark I made no comment.

Arriving back in Ankawa I was already looking forward to the following Friday even though the rigours of the first walk were still very much apparent. I had inadvertently stumbled upon desirable companionship and good country exercise encompassing all the therapeutic benefits of placidity.

This Friday activity for me quickly turned into a ritual. The number of participants would swell and ebb as word of this alternate activity spread throughout the community and people joined and left our procession for whatever their reason but I noticed a core group of hardened walkers remained.

As the weeks past I discovered another enjoyable source of entertainment. With each week that transpired the fields across which we walked gradually transformed as the wheat crop was sown and finally the brown/grey earth became tinged with green as the succulent shoots poked through the clods of soil and reached for the sky. As the weather warmed the wheat grew higher until we were walking through a lush ocean of green. Then as the heat intensified the fields turned golden until finally we witnessed the harvesters combing the land to collect the precious yield.

With the coming of the hot summer months the walk became more and more gruelling. Water became a critical component of the endeavour. The number of bottles of the precious liquid each had to carry increased dramatically. However as our collective fitness increased the distance we could cover in the two hours grew and I noticed our reach towards the village was extending further before we turned around.

Our pace, the distance travelled and the heat soon reached levels unacceptable to the social walker who was seeking a stroll and a chat. It was serious walking and not for the faint hearted. The pool culture was a much more attractive recreational option.

On the extremities of one walk I suggested we push ourselves further and try one day to reach the village that shimmered in the heat at the end of the road. I was greeted with a luke-warm exhausted response but in the company of die-hard expats the challenge was upheld.      

And so became the “village-too-far”; and so each week our dedicated troupe of walkers trod across scorching earth, armed with a measured amount of water, in search of our “Everest”.

Each week we would push ourselves closer to our goal before exhaustion and heat turned us around. Some would collapse and break down on the journey home, the pace too quick for their tired bodies. The drawn, sweaty faces of the company sitting on the curb outside the corner store back in Ankawa drinking cold soda reflected the defeat of the day as each withdrew into one’s own thoughts.            

Then just as we thought the challenge impossible and unattainable the weather cooled slightly as the summer months drew to a close and with the weight of water reduced and the threat of heat exhaustion eased a memorable day finally arrived when our quest was resolved. In the individual search for activity and entertainment a small band of hot and tired Friday afternoon walkers, hugging each other with jubilation, finally reached the “village-too-far”.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Chapter 34: Wintering in Kurdistan

I slipped through the border on the 30th November 2001. I had made it back in with just one day to spare. My visa could now be renewed.

A wintering Erbil could not have been in more stark contrast to the hot, sun-baked city which I had left. The faultlessly blue sky was now concealed behind a heavy layer of low sullen clouds stretching to each horizon. The sharp chill in the air suggested snow on the mountain ranges to the north. By the time I arrived in the late afternoon the city looked gloomy, muddy and depressing.

My reception at UNDP was equally transformed. I learnt that during my absence the Iraqi government had turned against the Z70 project and wanted it disbanded. After all they did have the final diplomatic say over how their siphoned (legal) oil revenues were spent in the north.

Line of oil tankers waiting customs clearance into Turkey
Some didn't make It
I walked the short distance through darkening streets to our project’s headquarters. The local staff were preparing to leave for the night. The welcome which they offered was overshadowed by concerns for their own futures. Without making comment I could tell they were fully conversed with the government’s change of heart.

Their brief of the past two months told me that they persevered with data collection and drawing production as best they could  but without international leadership and the deteriorating support from Baghdad they had finally lost their way and solely turned up for work each day waiting for the return of an international to the project. Dealing with my own gathering demons I bid them goodnight.

The project house fell dark and silent as they left so I ventured upstairs. The sight of my hurriedly abandoned office dropped my spirits further. Standing in the dimly lit room looking at the deserted shambles of what once was the thriving hub of the project it became clear what my predicament had become.

For some unknown reason I retreated to the toilet. Possibly seeking comfort from the small space. The cold seeped through the non-insulated concrete walls making me feel vulnerable and exposed. The sounds coming from the street appeared strange and unfamiliar. I had to make a choice.

My decision was essentially simple as there were only two options available to me. One choice was easy. Simply go back home and resume my life there. A life filled with security, familiarity, comfort and support. The other was to stay; a terrifying prospect of uncertainty, insecurity, loneliness, isolation and now cold; a scenario which would place me completely outside my comfort zone.

Sitting on the porcelain bowl in the small upstairs toilet I pondered my position deliberately and thoroughly for some time. Then I drew in a deep breath and made my decision. I would stay.


Initially I moved back into the Chwa Cha hotel. The rooms were small and could be heated to an acceptable degree. I soon discovered that many of the internationals were heading out for Christmas so there were plenty of options for house sitting to be had.

My second task was to restore my office to a functioning state and to catch up on what the national staff had been doing in my absence. With no other international staff working on the project I appointed myself acting project manager.

It was suggested to me the possibility of the project continuing adopting different methods of small stream power generation. With the project reinvented somewhat to appease the Iraqi government I engaged the respective international consultants and the national staff happily busied themselves with their new tasks. The project regained its soul.    

Forays into the hills proved my suspicion regarding the snow. The mountains were spectacularly draped in a white mantle providing many splendid and spectacular vistas. Snowfalls in Sulaymaniyah were quite common and snow almost fell in Erbil on one occasion.

Winters morning - Soran
As Christmas approached and the international population dwindled I moved back to Ankawa into a house generously offered to me by a departing colleague. However, I soon realised that the quest to keep warm would become a continuous occupation. The concrete and stone houses were without any form of insulation. A meagre power supply discounted any form of substantial electrical heating so in the tradition fitting of an oil rich state the most common form of heating were portable oil heaters which were hopelessly inadequate against the intensity of the cold and really only successfully achieved filling the rooms with a nauseous smoky smell.

Showers I soon discovered were to became a minimalist endeavour as the copious amounts of hot water which gushed effortlessly from both the hot AND cold taps during the summer months was now reduced to total dependency on the temperamental whims of mangled and twisted gas bottles which would regularly run out as soon as shampoo lather was in the hair. This meant a freezing journey outside the house covered in just a towel to change the bottles and if no more filled bottles were to be found then the day ended right there and it was off to bed to sulk.

Following the leader through a mine-Field
Mines in there Somewhere
Christmas was spent with the remaining handful of internationals at the UN club and New Year’s Eve was spent with the same handful of people at the same location. Bonds were formed by circumstance. The best way to keep thinking of home over this period was to work.

Finally internationals trickled back in and life returned to the north. Once my house sittings duties were fulfilled I decided to return to the Chwa Cha for the remaining weeks of my three month term. When/if I returned after my break it would be spring and the weather would have warmed sufficiently to consider renting a house again.
Curiously, although nothing was ever said directly to me by the international staff I knew my plight since the 9/11 attacks had not gone unnoticed. People kept the knowledge of my transfer of employment to the UN respectively to themselves. But they all knew that as a result of the chaos which prevailed in the final months of 2001 I had successfully, although mostly unintentionally, eliminated the “middle man”. It was an accepted fact in the close-knit, isolated community that my finances had improved considerably if only for the short term.

Delal bridge - Zakho in Winter
The nearest I had to having this pointed out to me was at a private dinner party held in Sulaymaniyah shortly before I headed out on leave. A co-patriot leant towards me and uttered drolly. “You’d be sending Osama Bin Laden Christmas cards wouldn’t you?”

I smiled as I grasped the meaning of this unexpected quip. “If I had his address,” I replied whimsically, “I most certainly would.”