I finally found the fastest internet connection in Iraq, and it belongs to the US Army. I can't say my trip out was uneventful, but I arrived in one piece so all's well that ends well.
The directions out here seemed simple--so simple that I figured my cabbie didn't need to know much English. Cut to around 11 am, in Fallujah (we were supposed to turn off before hitting town):
Cabbie: "Get book, get book." [My Arabic-English dictionary, which I'd helpfully packed in my knapsack and thrown in the trunk.]
Me: "I'm not going to stop in Fallujah and talk about this--turn around and head back towards Baghdad."
Several minutes later, on the way back toward Baghdad, after he's pulled over to the side of the road and again asked me to get my dictionary:
Me: "It's too dangerous for me to get out of the car and go rooting through the trunk."
Him: [Blank stare]
Me: "If I get out of the car, and get the book out of the trunk, somebody will come up and [miming a gun to my head] bang, bang, bang."
Several minutes later, after I've gotten the dictionary out of the trunk and conveyed that we were supposed to go ALMOST to Fallujah, not INTO Fallujah:
Cabbie: "Is good book."
Me: "Well, we survived, so it's good."
Cabbie: "Fallujah, Fallujah, Fallujah. You like Fallujah? [Makes as if to survey the scenery.] Is good?
Me: Yes, it's a beautiful town. And trust me, I was just as happy to be there as you were."
After I asked him not to, the cabbie proceeded to stop random passersby and ask them for directions. I understand enough Arabic to know he was asking people where to find the US military. I sat in the passenger seat with my fair skin and bright blue L.L. Bean jacket, waiting for something horrible to happen.
After asking MPs at Iraq's most notorious prison and an M1 Abrams tank for directions, and convincing the cabbie that sentries wouldn't shoot him if he drove me down the road past military checkpoints, I arrived at my destination. It turns out the cabbie was on an entirely different highway than I'd asked him to be on--this is where written directions would have helped. I don't speak Arabic, but I do know how to write "1" and "0" in Arabic, and thus how to distinguish Highway 1 from Highway 10. Live and learn.
I paid twice as much for the ride as I should have. I was strenuously arguing that I wouldn't pay any more when some GIs came and told the cabbie he had to move his car. He declined to come back to pick me up on Monday.
I made it through a long and winding tour of the Sunni Triangle unscathed, so my luck is still holding. More on military life later, but it's comforting to be around so many Americans.
First of all, thanks to Andrew Satter for setting this up. He says it was easy, but when I think of trying to do it myself I'm reminded of the scene in Zoolander
when Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are trying to get the files hidden in the computer.
It's a little after midnight in Baghdad. Many of you have wondered (mostly in jest) about the karaoke scene over here. It's grim, but I've found a substitute. The restaurant in the Flowersland Hotel features a two-man band called The Queen Band. One guy sings and plays decent guitar; the other guy accompanies (and I use the term loosely) on keyboard. Standards include Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise," John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads," and "Stairway to Heaven." I was in the area seeing about opening an account at the Bank of Baghdad and stopped at te Flowersland for dinner. I wound up singing a pretty decent version of "All My Loving" by the Beatles, followed by a pretty wretched version of "Sultans of Swing."
That got me invited to a table with a Jordanian army captain and a Dutch expat who truck food in from Saudi Arabia and Jordan for US Army mess halls. They hooked me up with a cabbie they trust who'll be driving me out to Fallujah tomorrow morning. They tell me the Flowersland bar is the area's new happening spot; everyone thinks the old happening spot, the al Hamra, is going to be bombed this week.
I'll be moving into this neck of the woods when I get back from Fallujah. There's a building full of furnished apartments that the guy at the desk said went for $40 a night; when we finished bargaining the price was 20,000 dinars a night (a little more than $15). I wish I could say I'm a great haggler, but this guy was just a pushover. It's a great deal--there are plenty of journalists and assorted westerners around, my building's inside al Hamra's security perimeter without being worth targetting, and the price is right.
The Diana, unfortunately, wore out its welcome this morning when the staff took advantage of my being out of dinars to overcharge me for breakfast. It bothered me that they were trying to screw me, and a few minutes later it bothered me that I was upset over getting screwed out of 25 cents. The honeymoon is over.
Tomorrow morning I'm putting my cash in the Bank of Baghdad, buying a kefiya to hide my big Irish mug, and heading out to Fallujah. Steve, my editor in Raleigh, says the Super Bowl story will be on the News & Observer's website. It took me until today to ask how much I'd get paid for the story; as I told Doug Cantor, I was reminded of Homer's lament after Poochie the Dog got axed from Itchy and Scratchy:
"Well, I guess I learned my lesson. The thing is, I lost creative control of the project. And I forgot to ask for any money. Well, live and learn."
I'm leaving for Fallujah tomorrow morning. Every third person I tell about my trip comes back with a Fallujah horror story. An Army sergeant said, "forty percent are planning something, and the other sixty percent won't tell you." One of the mercenaries who guards RTI held up his right hand, encased in a cast, and said, "Fallujah is where things like this happen."
I had dinner last night with Yochi Dreazen, the staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal who spoke to my Medill class last summer, and his friend Howard Lowry. It's kind of nice to be back with people who share my view of risk--that the salient fact about risk is that it's risky, not that it's exciting. When I told Jeff and Ray I was going to Fallujah, the reaction was, "Cool! Can we come?" When I told Yochi and his friend Howard, Yochi made me promise not go go without body armor and Howard agreed to lend me his vest. I guess what I lose in excitement I'll make up for in reduced life insurance premiums.
Hi, this is a test to see if this working. This is only a test, and this isn't even Charlie so don't get all excited. But don't worry, Crain is coming soon...
Test. This is a test. Does this thing actually work?