Monday, June 28, 2010

Hospitality 101

During my first week in Erbil, I made a grave social faux-pas which caused every Westerner in the room to suck in his/her breath in lurid anticipation of the impending drama: I admired something another person had; namely, her sandals. Now I'm not saying that in and of itself this is a particularly bad thing - but for a Westerner, no good can come of it. Yes, the dictum here is if you have to say something nice about something, don't say anything at all. I'm certain that my mother's head is reeling with that one.

If you admire something - and by admire I mean that you just happen to offer a polite
compliment (sincerity/insincerity notwithstanding) - what a nice bracelet you have - then poof! it's yours. Such is the extent of my ignorance that I don't know if this is an Iraqi thing or a Kurdish thing, but since I am in Kurdistan, we'll make the rash and possibly erroneous assumption that it's a Kurdish thing. I suppose it hardly matters.

Eastern hospitality is notoriously - well - hospitable. Mr. This Cat's (Not Abroad) and I are continually inundated with invitations for dinner, picnics in the mountains, and whatnot. Recently I met a student at the mall in town and, after our obligatory kiss-kiss, I was severely upbraided for not stopping by her house first. My explanation that I didn't know
that she lived near the mall - or where she lived for that matter - or that I had not received a firm invitation to her home withered on my tongue. It seemed churlish to add that I couldn't even remember her name I just wanted to buy my bottles of Ribena syrup and pistachios, and get the hell out of there.

After a mercifully short bout with the flu (for which I had to cancel one class), one of my students cornered Mr. This Cat and demanded to know why he (Mr. This Cat) hadn't contacted said student when I first became ill - he could have arranged a doctor and prescriptions, et al. So in addition to the joy of having to empty the contents of my entrails every 2 hours, I had a heaping helping of guilt added to the mix.

All of this is bearable. I have perfected the art of declining the Terrific Tsunami of Tea that engulfs this country. I now excel at accepting loosey-goosey invitations with equally namby-pamby acceptances. But the complimenting ... that's a horse of a different colour. The other day when I told one of my students that I really liked his eyeglass frames, he took the glasses off and handed them to me. To keep. Fuck. I remonstrated. He insisted. I thanked Allah that were no Westerners in the wings delighting in my discomfiture. When would I learn? Finally, I tried them on and further thanked Allah (not really) that my student was far-sighted rather than near-sighted as I am. The fact that the prescription was woefully out of whack for me was the only reason he accepted his glasses back. He promised to buy me the frames for me to have filled later. I know full well that they will show up any day now. I just hope he selected the right colour.

Seems silly? Behold:

I walked into Mr. This Cat's office a few weeks ago and my nose was assaulted by a most malodourous and sickly-sweet stink. What is that? I cried. He pointed to a plastic bag sitting in the far corner of the room. Knowing that I would regret it, I poked and peered inside the bag, releasing another fetid tide of Crap Cologne from this Pandora's Bag and saw a shirt.

It's a shirt, I say.
Yes, he concedes.
Whose is it and why is it here? I try to seal the bag to staunch the stench, but, as I have neither a flamethrower nor liquid cement on hand, it is to no avail.
It was Muhammed's*. He wore it to class the other day and I said I liked it. He hangs his head in shame.
NOOOOOO! You didn't!!!!! I cry.
I know, I know. He brought it in for me this morning. What was I supposed to do?
, head still hanging in shame.
Couldn't he have at least washed it? I ask.

I would add that Muhammed is 5'2". Mr. This Cat is 6'3".

In the end, the woman whose sandals I coveted admired did offer them to me. Twice. And twice I declined with a duly horrified expression of White Guilt stricken across my face - this was, after all, my first kick at the Hospitality Can. I had no idea how serious this was or that she would feel morally obliged to not only offer them to me, but ensure that I accept them. But there was no third offer. You're lucky, my Western Voyeurs told me afterwards. You really dodged that bullet!

Bitch. I really wanted those sandals.

*Requisite name change.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Change Is Gonna Come

I think Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad is in heaven. No more do his pockets sag with ponderous coins. No more are rusty heaps of useless Turkish kuruş, Moroccan dirhams, Euro-cents and pennies gathering sticky tacky dust on his night-table for me to clean. Yes, he's in heaven because Iraq is coin-free.

Personally, I miss the unadulterated joy of finding spare change hidden deep within the inner sanctum of the sofa cushions, but that's just me ... and I do understand that it's not always all about me.

But I digress.

But at one time pennies did rain down from heaven here. Until recently, the Iraqi dinar was subdivided into coins - known as fils - but shortly after the deposition of Saddam Hussein passing of The Former Regime, coins were made obsolete. Now the only thing that falls from the skies is mud.

In fact, during the 2nd Gulf War, Kurdish exiles had Great Expectations that the U.S. would liberate Kurdistan, making it an independent state.
In anticipation of this historic moment in Kurdish history, they had coins struck - complete with an ascendant Kurdish sun and the country's name misspelled in Arabic. No matter - the U.S. didn't make provisions for a free Kurdistan anyway, so the coins have become collectors' items, and Mr. This Cat's night-table remains mercifully coin free.

In truth, Iraq has two currencies: the dinar and the U.S. dollar. Dollars are happily accepted pretty much everywhere,
and the larger the denomination the better. Case in point: twenty dollar bills are frowned upon while one hundreds seem to be the bill of favour. No change in the till? - no problem, a boy will be sent to a nearby shop to make change. A typical visit to the corner market for us involves a lengthy shopping list of juice, halloumi cheese, and pistachio nuts, all paid with a $100 bill. Typically, the change is in dinars, so this particular purchase would see us receiving 110,000 IQD in change - making us feel that somehow, we're walking out of the door wealthier than when we walked in.

The problem lies in the fact that prices don't always reflect a bill-based system. It's common for the total at the grocery store to be uneven, but without coins, what's a shopkeeper to do? The Turks have a similar problem (in spite of the fact that their currency is bloated with too much coinage): rather than deal with coins of the most minuscule denomination (the fact that it is legal tender, and your just and due change notwithstanding), change to customers is rounded up - by which I mean rounded down
- making us feel that somehow, we're walking out of the door a tad poorer than when we walked in.

Here in Kurdistan, they have a far more ingenious method: ch
ange in kind. So when we're owed anything less than 250 dinars (the smallest bill = @ 20 cents), we're handed change in any of these forms:

* a pack of gum

* chocolates
* Eti Popkeks- the Turkish answer to the Hostess DingDong (or for my Canadian reader[s], the Vachon cake) with, if possible, even more fat, calories, chemicals and preservatives
* crackers
* mints
... and, as of yesterday, a
cigarette lighter (see above). Shame we don't smoke.

And I foresee more Popkeks and lighters coming our way. Change is in the air. Recently, Our Place of Gainful Employment stopped accepting 250, 500, and 1000 dinar bills. In truth
, these bills seem to be inordinately worn ripped and/or filthy, but more importantly, moneychangers here are becoming reluctant to accept them, as making change is irksome. Apparently, unlike our shopkeepers here, these "Independent Bankers" don't keep big bowls of candies by the cash register to make change.

Perhaps they should.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Little Elbow Greece

It is a constant truism in my life - and for those with insomnia and/or nothing better to do an insatiable curiosity regarding my past exploits, you need only meander through the back pages of this blog - that leaving a place is always far more difficult for me than reaching it. I have waxed rather poetically about it ad nauseam, so with such a preamble, it should come as no surprise that I'm at it again. Or rather, my particularly nasty strain of travel-karma is at it again.

Case in point: Erbil. To come to Erbil, all which was required was a few moments tippy-tapping on a keyboard and
voilà! - an e-ticket. Of course, leaving Turkey was another matter but one that still bears out my point. It's easier to arrive than leave.

With August (and our self-appointed summer holiday) seven weeks away, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I decided to be a tidge proactive and, after perusing the Viking Hellas airlines (whose name evokes images of Nana Mouskouri wearing a bronze winged Viking helmet and bearing a spear aloft) website for two months, book our flights now. As in this morning. Our decision to return to Greece (after all, we were only there last November) was a bit of a no-brainer: a return ticket to Athens turns out to be the cheapest direct flight to anywhere in the world leaving Dodge. Yes, it's cheaper to fly to Greece from Erbil than, say, neighbouring Turkey or neighbouring Jordan - and by cheaper, I of course mean less exorbitantly expensive.

But there'd be no few
moments tippy-tapping on a keyboard and voilà! - an e-ticket. No, it seems that one cannot book a ticket online (and take advantage of those nifty little web prices) in Erbil, but must go to a travel agent. And talk to someone. Balls.

So, still in my tidge proactive-mode - for I have no clue what level of English our soon-to-be Favourite Travel Agent will possess (and I know what level of Kurdish I possess) - I go to the Viking Hellas website, and write down our departure times, the dates, and the flight numbers. We are advised by Those Who Know, that the travel agency at the Sheraton Hotel is the best in town, and if this praise isn't high enough, they will also serve you a cappuccino while you wait.

A word on the Sheraton. It isn't one. In fact, it's the Erbil International Hotel, but the story goes that the owners' intention was to build a luxury hotel which the Sheraton chain would immediately want to buy and smack their big "S" on. They didn't. But every cab driver knows it as the Sheraton. And at $260 US a night, it might as well be.

But I digress. Because there are a handful of travel agents in our neighbourhood, Mr. This Cat and I decide to pocket the cab fare and walk around the corner to the first agent. Alas! - the one and only agent is busy with a clutch of clients, so rather than waiting 15 minutes, we decide to enjoy Erbil's 51 °C springtime sunshine and walk to an authorized Viking Hellas agency several blocks away with me grumbling about the stultifying heat the entire way. It is closed.

Off to the Sham-Sheraton.

We see a taxi approaching and hail it. Alas! - our driver has not heard of any place called the Sheraton or the Erbil International Hotel, nor does he recognize the hotel's street name (the third biggest in the city).
And at $260 US a night, it might as well be. It turns out that he does not speak English. No matter: he calls an English-speaking friend and hands his mobile over to Mr. This Cat. Moments later we are on our way.

Time passes. We pull up to the side of the road. We see a checkpoint (not exactly unknown in Iraq) and a security wall of pre-stressed vertical cantilever concrete panels, and are told we are here. Or rather, our taxi driver nods his head and says "okay". I am unsure, but Mr. This Cat says that he sees a hand-painted sign indicating that the Sham-Sheraton is around the corner, so off we go. In order to access the Sham-Sheraton's grounds, we must pass through security (not exactly unknown in Iraq), and my purse is decorated with an approved Sham-Sheraton sticker. We head up the gently sloping drive and enter the hotel where another security clearance awaits us. The security officer discourteously takes my purse and removes my sticker, instantly depriving me of my blog photo for today's post.

Crossing the lobby, we head towards the travel agency. I can almost taste my cappuccino now - when was the last time I had one? which country was I in? We enter the agency where we find three travel agents and no clients. Huzzah! - this should take no time, I think. No one makes eye contact with us. We look at each other. Finally, the lone woman working - our Possibly Soon-to-Be Favourite Travel Agent - looks up and finds herself in the unenviable position of not being able to ignore us any longer.

We'd like to book flights to Athens, we tell her.

Direct Flights? she asks.
Well yes. Are we being too demanding, I wonder.
She shakes her head.
Don't you sell tickets for Viking Hellas?

So, in a country whose airport serves a sum total of eleven freaking carriers, the travel agent at Erbil's most expensive hotel has chosen to follow a more exclusive route. And rather than offering us a cappuccino telling us where we can find the closest Viking Hellas ticket issuer (and thereby losing any chance of becoming our Favourite Travel Agent), we just stare at each other until Mr. This Cat and I metaphorically blink first, and we take our leave. Had we stayed we think that she might have gone the extra mile and offered us a cappuccino non-direct route via Frankfurt for $3000. But we're not really sure.

We retrace our steps back to the street and flag a taxi. As we return to our neighbourhood, Mr. This Cat suggests that we try the first travel agent we had passed by this morning. Although we have no clue whether it sells tickets for Viking Hellas, at least it's open and, in all likelihood, air-conditioned.

The agency is open and air-conditioned, and huzzah! sells tickets for Viking Hellas. We take our seats and I hand
our Possibly Soon-to-Be Favourite Travel Agent - who speaks a fair smattering of English - the itinerary I had scribbled earlier that morning. She picks up the phone and calls someone - possibly the agent at the closed authorized Viking Hellas agency a few blocks away. Of the four words of Kurdish I have thus far learned, I catch only Erbil and Athens. I consider this encouraging. She points at my notes:

July? she asks, pointing to the word August.
August, I reply.
She nods.

I find this less encouraging.

Time passes. The next 55 minutes pass as follows:

* we sit
* she makes and receives about 3 dozen phone calls
* she offers us cappuccinos two cans of
Mirinda - the Middle East's answer to Orange Crush.
* she offers us fruit-filled toffees
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she makes and receives about 2 dozen more phone calls
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she receives one more phone call and announces, the e-mail comes soon!
* an e-mail comes (not soon), which she prints
* she advises us that she's almost finished
* she takes out a host of coloured highlighters and highlights all the pertinent information (mirroring the information on my original note) on the e-mail - which is, in fact, our ticket

And there you have it: two tickets in two and a half hours. True, we didn't exactly get the travel dates we wanted: it turns out that our departure date was fully booked even though the airline's website assured us that there were seats still available. But we have tickets nonetheless. It just took a little elbow grease, our natural sunny dispositions, and a cold Mirinda. And as we leave, multi-coloured e-mail in hand, our now Favourite Travel Agent calls out:

Go airport 10:00.

Ten o'clock? Our flight leaves just before 2 a.m.! Balls.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Swamp Thing

I give you Swamp Thing, with a Lengthy Preamble.

Lengthy Preamble:

Indeed, I am reminded that when I left
Canada, I admonished my friends that if I were to ever complain about the heat, that they were to shoot me, without ceremony, between the eyes.

... such did I write on July 14th, 2006.

Friends, take aim.

It's hot. Stinking hot. So hot that I am on the very cusp of breaking a 5-year self-imposed vow of non-complaint. Yes, I know that most of you are thinking that my ability to not complain about the heat for 5 years is laudable if not absolutely miraculous, but my run is over.

I can't stand it any more.

It's hot. Stinking hot. So hot - daily temperatures have now hit and surpassed 50°C - that I have had to struggle wit
h what heat really means. In terms of my tiny family of two bipedals and one quadruped, heat means that ...

1) Everything that shouldn't be hot, is. Not as obvious as one might think. Toothpaste is hot; liquid soap is hot; shampoo is hot; my hair goop is liquid; my moisturizer is too hot to put on my face. The toilet seat burns. Ice no longer cools down drinks. Tap handles are hot, and since our water comes from a tank on our rooftop, the cold water is hot. We are now taking 'cold' water-only showers, but they are so hot that we are sweating during our ablutions. The towels are hot. Clothes in our closets and drawers come out hot. I am hot. Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad is hot. The dog is very hot.

2) Everything that should be hot, is. A bit of a no-brainer, but I was striving for symmetry in this post. The sun is hot; the pavement is hot; tempers are hot. I imagine that the black-sheathed cocooned women in their
abayas/niqābs/burqas are hotter than usual. I swoon just looking at them. We can no longer drink coffee (should be hot) as it's too hot. After we discovered pots of barely-touched coffee left at the end of three consecutive breakfasts, we made the unprecedented decision to bail on our brewed Brazilian Dark and switch to Greek-style cold frappés.

3) Everything that should work, doesn't. Since just about everyone and his dog - well since this is Erbil, let's make that
everyone and his crimson-winged finch - has that Energy Vampire known as the split air conditioner (the wall mounted thingy) running every goddamn minute of the day, the power is continually going out (for minutes or hours at a stretch), rendering Our One Floor Fan - and every other electrical appliance - completely useless. Having said that, it's too hot to use Our One Floor Fan now as the air flow it generates is unbearably hot. Fun fun fun.

End of Lengthy Preamble.

So, what are our coping m
echanisms? you ask. Well, we're thinking of putting a bar fridge in the bathroom to keep toiletries & cosmetics cold. We've also upped our intake of liquids to about 137 litres of anything a day (= 3 trips to the bathroom/24 hours). But because the whole concept of chilling drinks in this heat has been a big disappointment (the ice melts too quickly and we keep losing electricity which makes the actual freezing process a tad challenging), we have discovered that local shops carry German Weißbier. Yup, a German wheat beer sure helps to take the sting out of 50°+ temperatures. Too bad a bottle only stays cold for about 3 1/2 minutes.

Peachy, but what about Swamp Thing? you cry.

Unable to afford a real air conditioner, Mr. This Cat and I have gone native and introduced Swamp Thing - what our American friends call a swamp cooler - into our home. Our Swamp Thing came direct from Iran, which means that a) there were no instructions in English, and b) our American friends will be prohibited from bringing it back to the States with them. Or so say the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Whatever. If people have a budget for moving, I say bring everything with you.

As I had never heard of
a Swamp Thing swamp cooler before - and I'm certain that I'm not alone in my ignorance - allow me to explain how it works. As seen in the photo (left, with Celeste hogging the camera), they look like pet carriers on wheely-legs. The observant reader might remark that the wheels are missing - and s/he would be correct - but that's only because when we assembled the stand, the weight of the Swamp Thing caused the legs to buckle and shot the wheels out across the floor. We have decided that our Swamp Thing will be content to stay in our living room and will not wander from room to room, as it was intended to do. Besides, we can no longer sleep in our second-floor bedroom because it is too hot and are now sharing the living room with Swamp Thing. We are a happy (or happier) family of two bipedals and two quadrupeds (none of which has wheels).

Anyhoo, starting at about $100 (price being determined by ethnicity of purchaser and temperature outside), this straw-stuffed box will emit cool blasts of air when a)
filled with water from the top, and b) turned on. Working on the principle of evaporation, one motor pumps water into wads of hay while another motor powers a fan that pushes air through said hay which must be replenished with fresh water. The result is moist, non-recycled air which can be up to 30% cooler than non Swamp-Thinged air.

I haven't noticed a 30% decrease in temperature, but I will own up to it being cooler and it has allowed us to get a better night's sleep. The fly in the ointment is the bit about "
said hay which must be replenished with fresh water" which translates into us refilling the reservoir every few hours with about 15 litres of water. This hasn't been so much fun in the middle of the night. Of course, since the power keeps going off, we don't actually get to use it all night along: this morning it crapped out at 5 a.m. for four hours.

I asked my students recently what the Dog Days of summer are like in Iraq. They had no clue what I was talking about, and when I explained it as much as my metereologically-challenged brain could do, they told me they don't suffer under the igneous influence of that fiery Dog Star. Which tells me that they had no clue what I was talking about. Or that they probably aren't able to register the difference in temperature because it's already so freaking hot.

There! I think I got it out of my system. No more complaining about the heat. Boy oh boy, I can't wait for summer.