Monday, 28 May 2012

Chapter 41: Five Days to Love - Day Three


At precisely 9am I stood in front of the leafy, secured grounds of the Russian Embassy located on Tehtaankatu. A large wrought iron gate was opened by a sullen looking official and I was soon inside a drab, sparsely furnished room with teller booths at one end. The atmosphere was sombre and the small group of people who accompanied me through the gates were soon absorbed with their respective business. I found a bunch of bilingual (Russian/English) visa application forms on a small table and I soon busied myself responding to the form’s requests. Then I quickly joined the small queue quietly shuffling towards a bored looking young girl behind the glass partition.

With all my documents present and correct I was soon back out on the street after being dutifully notified that my passport would be available for collection just before lunch.

After lunch found me with an impressive, full page, gold coloured Russian visa added to the interior of my passport. Feeling somewhat elated at this accomplishment I decided to treat myself with an afternoon in Estonia. Catching one of the numerous ferries plying the Gulf of Finland I was soon wandering the exquisite and enchanted streets of “old town” Tallinn.

It was cold and dark by the time returned to my Helsinki hotel, late in the evening. The excitement of the morning passage through to Moscow was beginning to rise within me; the apprehension - the invigorating unknown. I was drawn to the computer in the hotel’s foyer to revisit to re-familiarise myself with the ladies who I hoped to meet in the coming days. I searched through the pages of photos and checked off the half dozen or so girls which I had on my list. They all remained present on the site. They all remained inviting. Already, I felt that I was forging some sort of bond with these meticulously presented faces peering out at me from the computer screen. The girls appeared connected to me on an intangible level which seemed intimate and personal as though they were waiting for me - and for me only. The virtual illusion was, without doubt, encompassing me and empowering me and I resisted little.

It was then I noticed another face; a new face which I had not seen previously. Her name was Olga and her pretty, smiling face with gloriously sparkling eyes stole my attention. Having explored this web site in Iraq to the point of unquestionable familiarity I was able to ascertain with a high degree of confidence that she was a recent addition. She somehow appeared distinct from all the other girls and her energy reached out to me. Her photos were adventurous, exotic and charming. I opened her profile page and read further.

By this stage I had in my mind a clear indication of what I was seeking. Even though I was expecting my liaisons to be short and transient I still sought particular qualities and attributes. They were derived from the necessity of protecting my own wellbeing and to enhance the quality of the engagement.

It was important that any lady I met spoke English fluently without the need for a translator. I wanted a free and uninhibited exchange of dialogue throughout any interaction. I could not understand how a relationship on any level could develop without this. I also considered this attribute important to assist me identify any potential “danger” directed to my person considering I had absolutely no knowledge of the Russian language whatsoever.

I sought a university graduate employed by a western company. This I figured would reduce the cultural divide and contribute to a more meaningful exchange of thoughts and ideas. Also I wanted to meet a woman without children to align with my own self-centred lifestyle. Although at the time I was not considering a long term relationship I was sure my subconscious was paving the way towards the future regardless of my immediate intention.

Olga’s profile checked all these boxes. I continued with renewed interest. I read about Olga’s social life - an extraverted, intense and entertaining life full of friends a fun. Something in my mind sensed an anomaly. I wondered how a union with my own almost introverted lifestyle would work.

There was also the question of age. To keep any form of liaison “real” and more secure my lower limit on age was set at 30, Olga was 28. Conversely she was looking for someone up to 40. I was 43.

I exited her profile page and studied her profile photo locked in thought. Olga looked stunning - she had presence; she had style; she had charisma. My hand held the pen poised over the next empty line at the bottom of my list. Finally, I put the pen down on the table. I decided to exclude Olga from my list and with a little less certainty I returned my attention back to the other ladies.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chapter 40: Five Days to Love - Day Two


The KLM flight to Amsterdam boarded just on sun rise. Bleary eyed I sank back into the airline seat cherishing memories of the warm bed from which I had recently removed myself back at the hotel. The taxi out to the runway took us past the two dilapidated Iraqi Airways’ jets reminding me that there was at some point in time a more convenient and comfortable means of reaching Baghdad.

The routine fight landed at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport 4 hours later and after a short stopover I was on my way to Finland.

Enough distance and time had elapsed between me and the Middle East at that stage for the excitement of this new adventure to begin rising and I eagerly watched the glorious golden forests and sparkling lakes pass underneath the plane as we made our approach into Helsinki.

Shortly after we were touching down at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and after a short taxi ride into the Finnish capital I was checked into a small but comfortable hotel near the heart of the city.

With sleep beckoning and a strong desire to reacquaint myself with a soft bed I was soon drifting off into a surreal slumber to the thoughts of what lay beyond the border which was now as little as 150kms to the east. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Chapter 39: Five Days to Love - Day One

The long road trip to Amman from Erbil was always a day of excitement but also one filled with dread.

As early in the morning as could be arranged a UN vehicle would be dispatched to transfer internationals down to Baghdad to link up with the long haul taxis which would complete the remainder of the journey to Amman. It was an excruciatingly long day.

I would always hope upon hope that I was doing the trip alone as any delays in leaving Erbil would compound as the day wore on. And I quickly learnt that getting to the Iraqi/Jordanian border as early as possible was not simply one of convenience, but literally a matter of life and death. An uneasy and unnecessary tension would develop towards passengers who in anyway delayed the departure.

The five hour drive down to Baghdad was most usually uneventful. The ancient city would be reach around midday and a swift transfer of bags into the GMC would see travellers heading for the motorway which led to the border not many minutes later. The five hundred or so kilometres to the border would also be a routine drive and the arches denoting the presence of the crossing rising from out from the Syrian Desert became a most welcoming site. Even the border crossing with a regulatory bag search was a straight forward process.

Suddenly I would be standing on Jordanian soil but the jubilation of reaching the politically stable Arab state was shrouded by the intense fear of what the next three hours would bring. In the summer months and or when the border was reached early in the evening the nightmare was postponed somewhat but whatever the scenario a certain portion of the road trip to Amman had to be completed in darkness and that was when the terror began.

All factors contributed to a potential disaster. The taxi driver by that stage was tired and eager to complete the journey. The road was undulating with a single lane in each direction and the road was shared with a continuous procession of oil trucks notorious for not using headlights. Once darkness settled upon the land a game of Russian roulette really began. Our vehicle being one of the fastest on the road was continually passing other road users and the driver's determination of when this could be executed safely could only be gauged from the relative distance of oncoming traffic lights. But the trucks without headlights remained invisible. If a passing manoeuvre was undertaken at a time when one of these phantom trucks was present then the consequences were horrifying. The thought left me sickened and fearful to the core. The occasional encounter of burning wreckage on or beside the roadside was graphic testament to when things went horribly wrong. I was forced to accept death as a possible option. Then strangely the rhythmic motions of the powerful GMC alternating from one side of the road to the other became seductively hypnotic. With death so close I became intensely alive and became an integral component of the destiny of the vehicle. I would sense a special and unique bond forming between me and the unknown driver with whom I would share a similar fate. In glow of the dashboard lights the feeling was empowering and strangely thick with solidarity.   

Time after time, drenched with adrenalin, I would find myself witnessing the distance lights of Amman emerge and I would become aware that I had survived yet another journey out.

All the feelings from the past three hours would be replaced with an overwhelming exhaustion as the taxi roared into the entrance of the hotel. Suddenly I would find myself standing at a reception desk swaying to the cumulative movements of over twelve hours driving. Fumbling for a credit card which hadn’t seen daylight for three months I would have to rapidly bring myself into the 21st century all the while longing for sleep.

With all flights to Europe leaving early the following day the comfort of the room could not be fully utilised and a restful night sleep had to be always put on hold but whatever time I would spend in the room was enjoyment without bounds.

A hot shower would quickly put distance between me and the experiences of the past three months. Then after setting the alarm for a cringingly early hour, I would be asleep before my head rested on the pillow.

Chapter 38: The Great Internet Experiment

The work-to-recreation routine as stipulated by the UN for consultants engaged in Northern Iraq was 3 months on, and 1 month off. And it was a specific requirement that personnel leave Iraq for their time off to obtain adequate rest and rehabilitation. Not many people debated this regulation.

For me the month leave signalled a holiday in Europe. Being single and with no dependants meant there was no reason to fly the long haul back to Australia when the cultural diversity of Europe beckoned only 3 or 4 hours away.

Each journey I delved further east, well into the ex-soviet states experiencing the picturesque beauty of Budapest, the war torn charm of Dubrovnik with its magnificent city wall and the grandiose presence of Warsaw complete with tortured past. For my vacation in October 2002, the only country further east was Russia, so a journey was hatched to include Moscow and St Petersburg via the visa collection point - Helsinki.

For this trip I decided to try something new. Tired of walking past inviting restaurants in exotic cities brimming with happy diners as I searched for a MacDonald’s to eat alone, I thought a prearranged companion in each city could be beneficial. Not only would I have a dinner partner but I imagined many hours strolling the streets and plazas and increasing my cultural knowledge with each and every step.

So in the soft glow of my computer screen at the end of each working day after the local staff had retreated to their homes the search began.

What I quickly discovered was of immense interest. My entire search attempts to hone in on a singles site of virtual notice board where I could place an advertisement resulted in a prolific number of Russian marriage agencies. At first this was not what I thought I needed and I continued my search with boundless optimism, however the more I searched the more Russian marriage agencies appeared.  Then an unexpected transformation occurred. The rows and rows of meticulously manicured, delightfully presented glamorous young girls all photographed in seductive poses began to take effect. Even from my remote location in the north of Iraq all the girls appeared so enticingly available - well only a mouse-click away at least.

I began to revise my ideology. Maybe one of these girls may not be such a bad idea anyway. Maybe marriage was something I should consider especially at my age. I decided to investigate further and began browsing through each of the girl’s profiles. It was then I noticed something peculiar. Non English speaking nineteen and twenty year old girls were seeking husbands up to sixty years of age. Scepticism kicked in and I viewed the promises of instant “love” with a supermodel beauty with increasing dollops of suspicion. I could not see how a gorgeous young girl could obtain from a non-communicative life partner with an older man except for some devious plot which ultimately revolved around large sums of money and possibly not at the girl’s advantage.

With renewed caution I began screening the sites. All were based on the economic presumption of sending money via the website to obtain a postal and/or email address of the girl in question. Flowers could also be sent for extra booty. Whether the addresses were actual or fictitious I had no way of determining. It seemed a punt which the sender of the cash, who was presumably seated in a western country, had to take. As I was actually going to Russia in person I thought I could investigate the promises made by these sites for myself. The hint of an investigation only served to add more excitement to the trip.

I then looked through each site in search of an address both in Moscow and St Petersburg. A disclosure of such a tangible piece of evidence, I presumed, would only serve to strengthen the site’s authenticity as one could compare the profiles on the website with the catalogue in the office. If the photos matched then the prospect of fulfilled promises rose dramatically.     

Methodically sites were crossed off my list as geographic locations were found to be absent. As the list steadily shrunk my optimism faded as I came to consider the whole “Russian Marriage Agency” concept another internet scam.

Only one site remained on my list and as I was about to shut down my computer in defeat I suddenly spied what I was looking for - an actual physical address given for both Moscow and St Petersburg.

The name of the site was

I quickly scribbled the two locations down on some paper and my heart raced. I now had plan. Their $10 fee in exchange for a contact would have to wait until I had secured an actual “date”

Over the remaining weeks before my leave commenced I regularly perused the Angelika site, carefully scrutinising photos and profiles. By the time all my chores were complete and I was busy packing in readiness for the taxi ride to Amman the following day, I had already finalised a list of a half dozen potential companions after careful analysis.

The quest for (internet) love had begun.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Chapter 37: Conversing with a Driver

Mr Swain (name changed to protect identity) became my driver for the entire duration of my time in Northern Iraq.

At a similar age to myself at the time, Mr Swain, or Kak Swain as the Kurdish people prefer to say, was small in stature but large in presence. He was a popular and respected figure amongst all the UN drivers. He approached his job with pride and with a methodical and meticulous precision.

Upon my arrival to Northern Iraq I was to learn that Mr Swain was the driver assigned to the Mini Hydro project and I quickly discovered that his cautious driving skills were a scarcity in the region so I quickly adopted him as my own.

Northern Iraq has not produced many world driver champions, and for very good reason. The wreckage along the roadside is testament to this sporting aberration so although Mr Swain was not a technically exacting driver he was my best chance of leaving the perilous roads of Northern Iraq alive. He also quickly became a very good friend and trusted colleague.

Over the course of two years we developed a very close relationship and our conversations within the privacy of the cabin of the car became a pleasantly anticipated time of knowledge and entertainment. I gained an unprecedented and privileged insight into the Kurdish and Iraqi cultures as a result of his unrestrained confessions. And his quietly droll sense of humour grew on me like a wonderfully comfortable pair of slippers.

Towards the end of my stay in the North as the American and Allied military build-up took place around us and uncertainty, disinformation and nervousness prevailed Mr Swain was to fulfil an unexpected role. Each morning he would provide valuable translations of the Iraqi nightly newsreels from the previous evening which enabled me to gain an insight into the Iraqi President’s thoughts and motivations as the political and military noose tightened on the country. Mr Swain also kept our vehicle continually topped up with fuel and kept a careful vidual on the daily chatter on the radio listening for any sudden deterioration in the political situation. With my passport continually on my person a quick dash to the Turkish border to escape was always an option.

Although extremely patriotic, from his somewhat privileged position as a UN driver he viewed his compatriots with an air of objectivity as though he was not one of them. This sense of detachment was of course heightened from our position of air conditioned comfort in a late model Nissan Patrol looking out at the Kurdish people sweating or freezing, depending on the season, in their batted Toyota pickups. His humour regularly was at their expense.

On one occasion when a car struggled past I was shocked to see a sheep sitting in the front seat and the man’s wife relegated to the back. Mr Swain simply turned to me to acknowledge my disbelief with a grin saying, “the sheep is more valuable.” Whether this snippet of information was accurate or not still remains a mystery as my senses were too overwhelmed to enter into a debate.

Another moment of detached observation came when we took a rest stop in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on a return journey from Dohuk. We sat eating greasy portions of chicken and chips in a restaurant with a view out onto the street. At a moment of emotional vulnerability and the continual sight of dust, decay and deterioration was causing me irritation I asked what would happen if the whole city was replaced with new buildings, paved roads, footpaths, manicured lawns and gardens together with a functioning system of curb and channelling. He carefully wiped his moustache with his napkin, leaned towards me before stating with his trademark preamble, “I say to you Mr Peter…after a week it will be like this again.”

I never had cause to question Mr Swain’s Muslim faith. As with every aspect of his life he approached his belief with a quiet devoted commitment. Regularly our conversations would turn to religion and an informed, inspiring discussion would follow. However, a passing mosque in a rural and isolated setting almost gave me cause to wonder. Mr Swain waved a hand at the little mosque and said with conviction, “a mosque without a mullah…” He paused and I waited with apprehension. Was his objective humour to also encompass his unwavering Islamic faith? It was unthinkable and I waited with a certain amount of disappointment for the “is like a…” to conclude the popular comical statement. But my brief moment of concern was unfounded as he ended his observation with simply, “is useless.”

Fluent in several languages including Arabic, Kurdish and English Mr Swain always retained the communication upper hand. One of the radio channels used by the UN was reserved for conversations in languages other than English and the drivers adopted this channel as their gossip line. The drivers would unashamedly use this facility to discuss international staff without any remorse or discretion. I was also constantly suspicious at the translated information that I was receiving. I suspected it was geared towards the convenience of the drivers whenever the need arose. The information regarding the time of checkpoint closures was a continuing subject of contention. A fictitious early checkpoint closure, particularly in the winter months, meant a convenient return from Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah to the benefit of the drivers. This digression from the truth was confirmed when I discussed the exact closure times with a Jordanian colleague well out of earshot of Mr Swain over lunch in Dohuk. The Jordanian happened to accompany us on our return journey to Erbil and as we approached the checkpoint I suspected the conversation, conducted in Arabic, between my driver and the Jordanian had turned to this subject. I seized the moment and turned to my driver and said with tongue in cheek, “you lying bastard.” Mr Swain, of course, was so startled we almost left the road, not at my expletive but at how I understood the content of their conversation. From that moment forth Mr Swain remained continually suspicious at the depth of my knowledge of the languages being spoken around me and I managed, psychologically at least, to claw back some of the communication upper hand.     

Mr Swain would come to my aid on many occasions sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Stopping for a drink in a town high in the mountains behind Erbil a beggar approached me on the sidewalk. Instinctively I put my hand in my pocket to pull out some loose change. Mr Swain placed his hand on my arm to stop my action. “No Mr Peter. Don’t give money.” Seeing the confusion on my face he continued to explain. “The man has more money than you.” And then he proceeded to explain that the beggars, having nothing else to do, beg for recreation. It’s what they do. I then learnt from Mr Swain that one had died recently and when they searched his house they found astonishing amounts of the local currency. This extraordinary confession simply added to the complex and bewildering tapestry of that part of the world.

The irony of Australia’s commitment the Alliance was not lost on Mr Swain either. Arriving at work one morning with a broad grin on his face he exclaimed, “Your stupid “President” is sending two thousand troops to Iraq.” He burst into a mocking laughter before continuing. “What difference is that going to make?” With America’s military build up in the region reaching suffocating proportions I had to agree.

Mr Swain also possessed a sense of theatre. Passing a group of people huddled together on the outskirts of Kirkuk I queried their purpose. Mr Swain turned and leaned towards me as if conveying a well-guarded secret. In a quiet carefully contrived voice, which sent shivers down my spine, he divulged, “it is for the death.”

Local politics didn’t escape Mr Swain’s wit either. Elite members of the governing party mostly lived in a town just to the north of Erbil high in the hills to enjoy breathtaking views and cooling breezes in the hot summer months. To enable the daily commute into parliament to be more comfortable they decided, at considerable expense, to upgrade the road linking the two centres. This meant new bridges, considerable earthworks to straighten the road, extra lanes and, bizarrely, a flyover within Erbil to negotiate a particularly busy, and disruptive - as seen through the eyes of the ruling elite, intersection. The flyover, which was the first of its kind in the North, provided Mr Swain with a constant source of mirth. He considered the term flyover to be particularly apt as this is what he felt the Kurdish drivers, inexperienced with such an engineering structure, would be doing upon completion; flying off the flyover.  

On the day of my evacuation I specifically requested Mr Swain to drive me down to Baghdad. Not only did I want a safe and uncomplicated final drive to the country’s capital but I wanted to spend a few more hours in the company of this extraordinary individual. As the GMC taxi pulled out of the garage compound for the long haul run through to Amman I looked back to give Mr Swain a final wave but he was already consumed by the company of his fellow Kurdish drivers. I was left wondering if I had already been relegated to the ranks of just another international he had driven through his country.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Chapter 36: The Du Kakas

The scarcity of entertainment in Northern Iraq gave rise to some unexpected and unusual surprises. Members of the small international community would often come forward to offer whatever talent or knowledge they had to inject some form of normality into the daily lives of each individual. Karate lessons became available, weekly aerobic sessions and even Thai cooking classes for the gastronomic enthusiasts amongst the populace.

My forte was music having played piano for pleasure for most of my life. I was aware that my manager had an acoustic guitar in his possession so I put the idea to him about forming a band.

Upon receipt of his enthusiasm towards the idea I instructed my driver to take me into the markets of Erbil to search out a keyboard. It wasn’t long before we pulled up outside a dusty shopfront which looked no different from its neighbours. My concerned look was greeted with a reassuring nod from my driver and we ventured inside to be greeted by a cluttered collection of worn, broken instruments. My heart sank although buoyed on by my driver’s limitless optimism we went in search of the shopkeeper.

In a side room we found a young, overweight shop attendant hunched over the most respectable keyboard I had seen in the shop thus far, skilfully belting out elaborate Arabic music with massive doses of enthusiasm and energy.

My interest suddenly waned at the limited supply of quality instruments on offer and I moved towards the door to retreat but my driver persisted and conveyed my request. The music stopped abruptly and within a few brief moments a tired looking keyboard with an unfamiliar brand name, Alesis, appeared and was presented to me for inspection.

The shabbiness concealed an instrument which I soon discovered retained its full functionality intact and after learning it had journeyed from Iran under dubious circumstances I decided to give the little keyboard a go.

And so the rehearsals began. Every Friday afternoon following the marathon walk I would carry my new found companion the short distance to my manager’s house and we practiced ten popular songs whose chords were downloaded off the internet. We continued until the songs were completely memorised. As well, in the privacy of my bedroom, I composed a solo instrumental piece to lead into the first song.

After several weeks we thought we were ready for an initial gig at the UN club in Ankawa. The club’s management was consulted and our half hour performance was booked into a slot before the commencement of recorded dance music on the ever popular Thursday night.

News of the gig spread quickly and whilst sitting in my office on the Thursday afternoon prior to our debut performance a colleague stopped by to ask if I was going to the concert at the club that night. After he left I crossed the corridor to my manager’s office with weakened knees and informed him that I was going home to practice.

The gig proved a disaster. My keyboard could not be heard over the din of the club and we barely drew anyone’s attention. It was clear we lacked one vital piece of equipment - an amp.

Another trip to the music store in Erbil produced one together with some leads and we booked another gig for the following Thursday evening. By now word had spread throughout the entertainment deprived expat community of our revamped band and anticipation rose exponentially throughout the week.

On the night, the club filled to capacity with expectant patrons eager to experience what was probably the first ever concert by a western band in the north, as we set up our equipment. A quick sound check adequately confirmed our presence and the atmosphere tightened. I noticed people who would normally retreat to the quiet privacy of their houses on a Thursday night were amongst the revellers and seated directly in front of our stand was the Programme Director - a highly unusual and rare visitor to the club. All this expectation and we didn’t even have a name.

Just as I was about to put nervous fingers to keys to perform my introductory composition an audience member seized the moment and stood in front of us to provide an impromptu introduction to our band. He finished by referring to us as the Du Kakas (Kurdish for Two Men). We finally had a name and the band was born.

For half an hour the club rocked liked never before. Our faithful amp pumped song after song out to a grateful audience eager to sing and dance to the music. We captured their hearts and their passion. For half an hour live western music burst forth from the club and rang out through the streets of Ankawa. For half an hour we were rock stars.

By the time the gig ended we had become Ankawa’s first celebrities. Drinks appeared in our hands, accolades flowed from each and every direction and “high fives” were executed at every turn in the crowded club. A young local boy working at the club volunteered to be our “roadie” and dutifully packed away our equipment.

As the night turned into the early hours of the morning the club gradually emptied. Finally I walked home with our “roadie” and as he retreated back into the night I was left standing alone in the kitchen pumped full of adrenalin and wondering when I had ever been more awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. The feeling was euphoric and indescribable. We had pulled off a unique event in spectacular fashion. The Du Kakas had become an integral part of the community.

In the months that followed, the Du Kakas became a regular fixture at the UN Club in Ankawa performing a live show every Thursday night to a packed house. During the week when our work called us away to Sulaymaniyah we took our show on the road there also. We even attracted a small gathering at each rehearsal.
As word of the band spread across the Kurdistan governorates, Dohuk was also added to our touring schedule.

The band was set to expand. We were approached by a drummer who began scouring Erbil for anything that resembled a drum kit and an avid electric guitarist promised to bring an instrument in with him when he next returned from leave.

But the fate of the Du Kakas slowly fell into the hands of George W Bush as the darks clouds of war loomed on the horizon.

Inevitably the evacuation order came and we were withdrawn from the region with heavy hearts. I left my precious keyboard and amp with my driver - maybe we would return. And the highly anticipated tour to Dohuk was cancelled. The future of the Du Kakas looked uncertain.

The Du Kakas played a final gig in Amman, Jordan, to a dwindling group of Kurdistan veterans. A venue was selected and I was lent a keyboard by a fellow expat. But the vibrancy was gone. The audience was subdued and the songs didn’t quite sound the same.

At the close of our set a taxi was waiting to take me to the airport for my final flight to Moscow. As we negotiated the darkened streets with the feeling of rock stardom slowly retreating I sat quietly and reflected on the Du Kakas. We would probably never play again but in the short space of the band’s existence I found comfort in the thought that the Du Kakas achieved something not even the Beatles had. We toured Northern Iraq.