Friday, November 23, 2007

Lazy Days

Well the reason I haven’t posted anything in the last few days is that there really isn’t much to tell.

Sunrise over my place
I have been in the base camp all the time, where nothing much happens at all.

I’ve been invited twice to dinners to celebrate a birthday and a departure. That I appreciate as it breaks the monotony of the time here and it was a moment when I could see some of the people unwind a little.

Other than that, I wander around the camp, feeling rather like a Russian dissident consigned to a none too rigorous exile in Siberia. The weather is different of course. But the warm sunny days are becoming cooler; a fresh wind blows from the north west. Dawns are beautiful. Some are a liquid indigo that azures as the sun rises, others are mixed with fine muslin clouds that tingle with a saffron-pink glow as the rays touch them.

The drivers and their workers start their shift at 05:45. Since I now know most of them, and since working hours are equally shifted to the early morning here, I’m often up to say good morning and wave them off. Then its breakfast by 06:15, clean up the room and hit the office by 7 am. When I’m in camp, most of what I need to do here I’ve done by 9 am, the rest of the time being taken up by wandering around and seeing what people are up to. In the evening I watch a movie I downloaded earlier. Tomorrow I’ll go out again to tour the base (thank goodness).

I’m sitting now under the covered patio by the cabin I’m staying in. To my left is a small garden with a green lawn, shaded by a simple cloth canopy. A couple of young palm trees frame my view over the parking lot.

I’ve missed taking fotos of two really beautiful dawns and one good sunset. Time to take out the camera and post a couple of pics!

Sunrise over the perimeter fence

Friday, November 16, 2007

Going shopping

Yesterday I rode with the guys who pick up the large dumpsters of trash, to see how they go about their work. Nothing much in it – drive up, reverse, hook up, haul up, shake it around a bit, dump it back down on the ground, unhook and off to the next.

The nice thing about the route is that it went by way of an annex where you could take a break for morning coffee and biscuits. Even better, the route also went to the PX and commissary area in the camp – ie the on-site shops – where I’ve been desperate to get to ever since I arrived but can’t yet as I don’t have a permanent security badge.

The commissary area is a large quadrangle of containers housing small shops that do everything from selling gold jewellery to tailoring your clothes and serving you pizza. It’s essentially the same as the one I saw in Kandahar last year. Same franchises too: Green Bean, Pizza Hut, Subway and also, if I remember right, the same general operator : Gulf Services.

Here the staff are either Iraqi, Indian or Filipino (in Afghanistan they are Afghans and Nepali). So, into every shop to see what’s on offer and out with my three words of Arabic and ten words of Tagalog. Smiles all around (and I’m sure, their thinking “oh boy, another smartass tourist”).

Bought some much desired beef and chicken jerky. Not anything like the biltong and machaca that I adore (American jerky is too sweet and conditioned for my taste – I like the raw wind dried stuff), but better than nothing. Also bought a large towel that wraps around me better than the one provided.

Now aren’t I getting settled in nicely?

Since I can’t take any fotos in secure areas yet, here’s one I shot in Kandahar last year that gives you the same feel.

Take-away at Pizza Hut

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Saddam’s Lagoon

This base is infinitely bigger than I first thought. I still haven’t figured out its total extent.

Yesterday I rode aboard one of the trucks that delivers fresh drinking water to various locations. In order to get through the security controls early enough, that means leaving the camp at 05:30. It's dark and chilly.

The dawn is much cooler now than it was a week ago. For the first time, I see a light cover of clouds. Some people look up and scowl. They fear the coming of the rains, when everything will turn to thick sloughs of mud. Here it seems the ground is some form of clay. It certainly isn’t earth or sand - the dust is too fine. I hate mud.

The circuit the water truck takes goes by way of a large, artificial lake, built by the famous former leader. The lake is fed by a canal system coming from the Tigris, and itself feeds many canals and inlets throughout the airport complex.

Whether by design or neglect I do not know, but many of these waterways are fringed by tall reeds and bullrushes. Images of Moses in the Nile. Strangely enough, there is a similar story from nearby here. The birth legend of Sargon, first king of Akkadia, also has him set in a basket of reeds, set afloat and recovered from the water - but by a water carrier, not a princess.

Enough trees and palms have been left to create refuges of shadow, of which the soldiers have taken advantage to build small wooden pergolas that overlook the flowing water. One or two look almost like my own pergola at home. What lovely, tranquil places to spend the last moments of a day.

I’m told that there are fish in the lagoon – and sure enough in one corner or another I see some of the off-duty drivers casting with small rods or just hook-and-line. In one shallow canal I catch a glimpse of some trout-sized fish with vermillion tails.

A low-arched bridge spans one broader canal. In the reflected sunlight the water, the shadows and the river plants whose leaves brush the surface look almost as peaceful and gentle as a painting by Monet.

The hard lurch of the water truck as it turns right jostles me out of my memory.

On the way, we pass by the “coastline” of the larger lagoon. The concept is impressive, and I think may find its origins in some of the pleasure gardens of Persia, India or China.

Essentially, a number of small and not-so-small villas have been built, in the same style but at irregular intervals, along the shores of the lagoon. The irregular shape of the shoreline helps give each one an individual feel. With the road we are travelling on behind them, those on the left hand side are built down towards the water, often with a colonnaded terrace extending out far into the lagoon, and so low as to be almost at water’s level.

I can’t describe the architectural style – it’s a pastiche of old and new of course, but not inelegant. All are angles and niches, with large stone-framed windows. The façades are thick tiles of tawny sandstone, with decorative work carved in a rugged manner. War damage has blasted a couple of turrets so I can see the underlying structure is cement, but in pristine condition you could be fooled into thinking they were built of stone.

Now each villa is occupied by a regimental or divisional command. The windows are sandbagged and cemented so high almost no light can brighten the rooms. The doorways are flanked by ubiquitous T-bars. Ornamental hanging lamps are wrapped in fine netting to protect anyone from the glass should they break. Containers with generators are dumped on the terraces or on the open ground behind them. More T-bars and HESCOs huddle around them. Telecoms wires become garlands casually draped between the lamps of an entrance way. A camouflage net, hung over a small plaza between villas, shades some resting soldiers. Others lounge at rough wooden shelters, waiting for the bus to come by.

Oblivous to the rough tramp of history. the canal breaks into a small waterfall as its water crashes into the lagoon. Over on the other side, squats one Saddam’s great palaces, glowering at the villas from a distance, and to which all are turned, like the courtiers they surely once housed.

Who sits in that palace now?

The Lagoon as seen by Google Earth

Note: I don’t yet have a badge to enter this area without escort, so I can’t take any fotos. I suspect even when I do have a badge I probably won’t be allowed to take any either.

A little story about bread

In the canteen you can choose from three types of bread: local, square loaf and soft milk-bread buns. I’ve found the nicest to be the local variety, a hand sized diamond of bread that breaks and tastes a little bit like an Indian naan.

I asked two Iraqis that are working here whether they knew if the bread was made on site or baked in Baghdad and brought in. “Baked in Baghdad” they replied, “and the other Europeans here seem to like it too. But it was not always like what you see now.”

Of course, I asked for the story of this little bread.

"Samoun, the local name for it, was once four times the size, a veritable pizza-sized piece of bread. Thanks to the problems of supply, the size has gotten smaller and smaller. Once it was made of pure white flour, now the flour is less refined, so it looks the beige color of today." one of them recounted.

The little Samoun

"But," I said, "surely before the time wheat was imported into Iraq (before sanctions and during the infamously corrupt UN 'Oil-for-Food' program), the wheat would have been rougher, so what I see now is more original, no?"

“Very true, and now we convince ourselves that the rougher flour is more nutritious for us too, just like you do in Europe.”

"From when was it, then, that Iraq began importing wheat? Was this country not rich in natural produce thanks to the river systems and irrigation? Surely Iraq should be a wheat exporter, not importer?"

Two wry smiles were the response I received.

“Let me tell you about some history. In the 1950s Iraq produced a lot of wheat, mostly in the center and north of the country. After the revolution that overthrew the King, the new government set up a land reform program that transferred property rights from the large landowners to the villages that sat on the land.

"The smaller farmers of course grew principally what they needed for themselves. By the 1970s Iraq found it necessary to import wheat. Fortunately, down by the Gulf in the Shatt-al-Arab there were many silos built some years earlier.

"No longer used, the government sent down engineers to see if they could be restored. 'Yes,' came the reply, 'but there is a problem: the screws go the other way.'"

"‘What do you mean?’ asked the minister. ‘The screws push wheat out of the silos, not in.’ replied the engineers."

"And that is the story of Iraq and its little piece of bread”.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Green Zone

I have to register with the Embassy and since someone was going into the International Zone (still called the Green Zone by everyone) I hitched a ride. The Green Zone lies in the bulge the River Tigris takes as it winds its way through Baghdad and is the site of several palaces and monuments.

To get there we had to go in a convoy of armored cars with security guards, wearing full bullet-proof vests and helmets as we travelled.

The pre-boarding briefing went something like this:

“What is your blood type? If we are hit, stay here until I say what to do. If you are hit, tell me. If we are killed or disabled and you can move, hit this button first to unlock the tailgate.”

First I think I am trusting my life with them. Then I realize I am putting their lives in danger by wanting to go to the Embassy. At that point you learn maximum mutual respect.

Traveling on the most dangerous road in the world is surreal.

On the way to the Green Zone
The roadsides for the most part are walled off with T-bars. It’s Friday so the traffic is light. I am in the lead car. We are travelling quite fast but every time we pass a local car, taxi or truck the driver switches on the siren and speeds up.

The co-driver is talking constantly into the secure radio-phone, relaying information to the convoy about what he sees ahead. On the seat ahead of me lies a jammer, designed to knock out cellphone coverage in a 200 meter radius so they can't be used set off IEDs. Through the last checkpoint out of the airport and its switched on.

We come in behind another convoy, keeping our distance. We don’t know them, they don’t know us. How do they know we aren’t about to attack? Keep the distance.

Through the last control (there are many) and we are in the super-secure Green Zone. Pulling over to the left side of the road we can stop and take off our body armor.

There, just to the left of me, is the large sloping rotunda that Saddam built to celebrate his non-victory over Iran in the 1980-1989 war. I turn around. Before my eyes, the great arching swords under which Saddam’s all vanquished army once marched in celebration of being able to live one more day.

Saddam's Swords
The swords are dulled, the bronzed hands greened by negligence these last four years. One hand blasted into pieces, a man-sized thumb lying by the sword’s pedestal like a remnant of Nero’s colossal statue. Another vainglorious imperator lies broken on the ground, leaving a more timid mortal to record the moment.

One day the hand will be repaired and remounted on the pedestal. Maybe the mounds of Iranian helmets piled up by the swords will be discretely removed, and the road studs made from other helmets cemented into the ground below them levelled.

Can you believe there is already one stall selling tourist souvenirs under the swords’ great arc?

That, unfortunately, was the only natural activity visible. All around, in this large open area that was once the ministerial district and where those connected to the regime lived, are high concrete walls, barbed wire, roadblocks and checkpoints.

Roll up! Roll up!
Traffic is strictly military and private security. No street is cleaned. A few people walk by, a couple even jog. But there are no women, no children, no animals, no birds.

But for the rapid-fire whir of tank tracks and angry buzz of a humvee, no sound.

I wonder what will become of this area when the country stabilizes one day?

In my lifetime will the people of this city ever be able to stroll down these boulevards and see their children run ahead, laughing as they buy a cool drink from a street stall?

I am standing in the midst of the still warm wreck of a regime.

So it must have felt to those witnessing the end of Babylon, of Rome, of Tenochtitlan. Yet I know that the people are there, breath stopped in their throats, ready for the moment to cry “live!” and truly live again. I know, for I have met a few already.

Body armor back on, I clamber into the back of the lead car and the convoy moves off, heading back to the camp. We travel faster, covering the 12km stretch of highway in just under five minutes. The siren switches gear as we approach a slow moving van, no longer the normal wap-wap but a high pitched growl. I can’t deny a sense of muscular power in it all.

A few minutes later, we sweep back through the main entrance. Tension shreds like a dawn mist caught by the morning sun. Off with the armor, and a deep breath of air. The thank yous are more truly meant than the words themselves can express.

Your correspondent.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Base

I know you are all reading my blog daily :-) so I’m sure you are all disappointed in the three day break. What I’ve been doing these days is meeting with many people and following them on the many tasks and jobs they do.

I have jumped up into a truck with the waste disposal guys, the trash collection guys, the toilet cleaners and, in the next few days I’ll do the same with the several other services that comprise the management of camps. As an exercise in learning process and man management, very interesting. But enough of work. What else have I seen?

The Baghdad International Airport (called BIAP for short) is enormous. The roads go on for miles and miles and miles. I haven’t figured out how many camps there are inside the complex but it feels like hundreds. There’s military and civilian, US, Iraqi and sub-contractors from several countries. The civilian people I see working here are mostly from central and eastern Europe, south Asia and Africa – principally Uganda.

From what I hear, the workers stay for 6-12 months then go home, while managers stay for about two years. They all come for the money of course, which by comparison to their countries of origin is high.

Most of the work they do is manual – from construction to maintenance to cleaning. The hours they work are relatively long – up very early in the morning through to mid afternoon. That is so they can get most of their work done in the cooler part of the day, but also because the security controls take such a long time. I think that out of nine hours work time, the actual work is five hours, with two hours spent driving around and two hours spent in security checks.

Nearly everything is surrounded by great T-bars of cement (imagine a T upside down) anything up to 3,5 meters tall and walls of HESCOs – one meter cubes of earth packed into containers made of heavy paper and wire mesh. In the living quarters there are often double rows of T-bars. All of this of course to protect people from bombs and missiles.

In one area where the soldiers live in tents they have put up a netting over the tents to shade them from strong sunlight, fixing the netting to the T-bars. The end result looks like a bedouin family has settled in a souk built next to the walls of a castle. Some have built wooden porches on the front of their container-cabins, others have planted some bushes, yet others have a barbecue.

Scattered around are the usual concrete bunkers, long upturned Us of cement with a T-bar protecting the ends. Pallets of plastic water bottles stacked everywhere for anyone who wants fresh water to avoid de-hydrating.

I have met some Iraqis here, of course to talk to them of many things. Thanks to the situation there seems to be many fewer local hires than would be in more stable circumstances (I compare with the local hires in Afghanistan) and that was indeed the case earlier in the occupation. Highly qualified, educated men doing jobs no one with the same skills would even dream of doing in other countries.

Such is the result of dictatorship, tyranny and war. Dreams are overthrown, ambitions smashed, lives shattered.

The helicopters keep flying in at night. This camp is on their flight path so the cabin shakes as it would in an earthquake. This last night either not many came in or I’ve learned to sleep with their sound.

I can hear, in the far distance, the occasional sound of explosions. From what I am told, these are controlled explosions by the US Army. But when the helicopters take off, they do throw out the anti-missile flares – so danger isnt so far away.

The weather is cooling – its chillier at night than it used to be and there is a fine veil of clouds in the sky now.

I haven’t taken any photographs of real interest because the security rules for temporary personnel absolutely prohibit it, and in the military camp areas you just can’t take cameras or cellphones of anything inside. Anyway it looks like the base in Kandahar, and you can see those fotos here.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The First Full Day

The bed is definitely comfortable. The temperatre at night is fresh enough to sleep easy, not so cold that you have to hide under the blankets. But you can’t sleep much.

The entire US Air Force takes off and lands, twice, every night. Or that’s how it seems. Try sleeping on the edge of a runway. I dare you. Try. I asked someone later in the morning and sure enough, I’m right. Well, not the entire force. But enough to outgun most everyone else’s. All the provisioning and transports are done in the dark, to make it just that little bit more safe. And I thought sleeping on a farm was bad news. Or in a train carriage with two guys snoring. Or on a plane with a screaming baby. This is right up there with them.

Up bright as a button for 6am, because that’s when operations start, everyone working in the ancient style – dawn to dusk. Saw the dawn rise, downed a coffee and checked out the store. Nothing much on sale that I need, and that which I would like – mango juice, papaya juice, guava juice, doritos – they say they can order in.

Throughout the day the Black Hawks clatter through the air, heading north over the lagoons where Saddam Hussein build some palatial follies (you can see them on Google Earth).

Anyway the day went in processing things, meeting people, asking all the dumb questions all new arrivals ask. Most everyone is out, as they should be. I’ll start in-field observation tomorrow. Was given my army green in-field work gear and finished up the day with half a pizza (and not bad either!) and a couple of episodes of a TV series about a medieval monk who acts as a proto-detective. A “Name of the Rose” spin-off with Derek Jacobi, an excellent actor.

Through the evening the Hawks patrol the perimeter, searchlight beams stark white in the glooming dark as though out of some Spielberg movie.

The Camp

The camp is in the international airport complex, within the perimeter wall but outside the military section. Protected but not overwhelmed. Simple but Spartan, with no real facilities to speak of and, thanks to the fractured nature of the nationalities, from what I can see almost no socializing outside the ethnic groups and no entertainment area in which to mix. I’m going to have to get access to the Army PX and facilities ASAP.

Baghdad International Airport There are three basic areas – office and accommodation, maintenance and servicing, stocking and dumping. The camp is essentially self sufficient. It has its own canteen, work-out area, laundry, energy supply, water potabilization system, store. There’s cable TV (not that I can get it to work) and internet access (which I can and is why you can read what I’m writing – otherwise it’s a bottle down the Tigris).

After unpacking and having a quick lunch (food’s not bad) I wandered around to see who’s doing what. Then met up with the other arrivals and had a more focused tour. The objective of the next couple of weeks is to familiarize myself with the work at all levels – top down and bottom up. Starting Monday I’ll accompany the workers to see how they operate. Today and tomorrow it’s introductions and question time. I’m not going to talk about the work itself, or the company for that matter – this blog isn’t designed for that. Just my adventures and experiences.

Here I am!Managed to send “I’m here” messages to most everyone (well you all know that). Skipped dinner, not intentionally but because the canteen closes at 7pm and no-one told me. Went back to the cabin, wrote up yesterday and watched a Japanese movie I downloaded earlier called “Bird People” – a slightly off-the-wall story of hunting for jade and a mythical people in China.

Camp starts working at 6:30 am, so in bed early. Not that I could sleep much, as it turns out. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

Into the fire!

The flight to Baghdad was uneventful. Almost.

I managed to get emergency aisle agan, but landed up with the middle seat so couldn’t press my nose up against the window like I wanted to. Still, the window was almost totally opaque thanks to constant sun and sandblasting. Flying over Jordan I could see not a small number of farms, irrigated fields embossed upon the desert. Not really a desert like the tawny Sahara or the awesome Martian-red desert south of Kandahar; this desert is a blotchy patchwork of scabrous colors and, from what I could guess I was seeing, scrawny vegetation.

At one point I could see two widely spaced parallel lines carved into the desert and stretching away into the distance. The border between Jordan and Iraq. Fence and minefield.

The passengers either side of me turned out to be Jordanian agricultural engineers, engaged by the Iraqi government to train local farmers in agricultural techniques. Descendants of wandering pastoralists teaching the succesors of an ancient civilization based on irrigation how to farm again. Such is the wonder of the world.

We came in high over Baghdad, which I expected. Next would be a sharp direct dive like in Afghanistan, or so I thought. Here the plane circled twice to reduce height quickly and then weaved its approach sharply, not because of high winds but, in all likelihood, as a avoiding maneouver just in case someone should fire at it. Moments like these and you know you are out of the world of apparent security and certainty.

And then everything went back to normal again. The stewardess’ welcome was the standard one “Welcome to Baghdad, where the temperature is 34°C… if anyone needs assistance in disembarking, please let the plane staff know…. Thank you for flying .. Hope you enjoy your stay…”. The bright tones of her Australian accent made me feel like I had just landed in Brisbane, not Baghdad. The only thing missing was the joyous sound of clapping!

13h local time, November 3, 2007. I am in Iraq.

The airport – bright, clean, active. Baggage arrived quickly, passport and customs clearance were straightforward. The terminal building is a great curving arc – from the outside it resembles the terminal in Miami. I said as much to my pick-up – a Floridian originally from Puerto Rico. I won’t print his answer …

My cabinThe camp of the company I’m working with lies inside the airport perimeter, north of the air strip. I’m assigned one of the VIP cabins, to myself at least for the moment. Not bad at all. Two single beds, two wardrobes, table, TV with cable, bathroom with shower. Unpacked in 10 minutes, showered in 5 and off to explore the camp in 15.

In my next log I’ll tell you what I discover.

A Tourist in Amman

A very brief history

Amman is ancient. The first settlement goes back to 6500 BCE, without doubt because the folds of the seven hills on which the classical city was built provided both protection and a fertile area thanks to the stream that ran down to the Jordan river below what became the acropolis. Thanks to its location on the main trade route from Syria to the Red Sea, the city flourished.

The Roman Theater and Assembly
Amman, capital of the Ammonites, was occupied by the empires of Assyria, Alexander, Rome, Byzantium, Arab and Ottoman. The Romans built up the acropolis into a fortified castrum and temple complex, as well as constructing the Theater and the Assembly. In the 1200s Amman was wiped out by two events – the arrival of the Mongols and a series of devastating earthquakes. Like so many ancient cities in the Middle East, it never even came close to recovering.

In the centuries of Ottoman rule, Amman was just a village, ignored but for the fact it still remained on the pilgrim route from Anatolia to Mecca. At the end of the 1800s the Sultan in Istanbul ordered the building of a railroad to connect Damascus with Aqaba. Amman was reborn. After the creation of Jordan in 1921 Amman was chosen as its capital. Since then it has boomed, the city of the original seven hills now rolling over nineteen, that stream now covered over by a road and used as a drain.

If you want to know more about Amman, check out wikipedia.

Amman by Night

I arrived in Amman at night, waiting for the connecting flight to Baghdad the day after. I always try to walk around a place when I first visit - and I had spent more than twelve hours flying, so I had to get out of the hotel and stretch my legs. I dumped my bags, pulled out my camera and jumped into a cab. The driver had spent many years working in Los Angeles, so his English was perfect.

Instead of dropping me off in the Old City and letting me walk around for a couple of hours and picking me up later, as I asked him, he drove me round the city to see not only the standard places all tourists see but also the different parts of the city as well – the new, the old, the residential and the commercial. This is what I saw:

Amman by night
At night Amman is a broad carpet of softly lit houses and streets laid over the folds of its many hills. The roads are both broad avenues, bright slashes of neon that outline the ridges and valleys, and narrow, crooked veins that wind around and slide down the hill sides. Most of the houses are freestanding and two-three floors high, their façades generally a soft limestone and each of them made individual by sculpted windows, balconies and porticoes.

Sufyan, my driver, told me that the sense of well-being I see is in part due to the influx of relatively well-off people from Palestine (in 1948 and 1967), the Gulf (after the 1991 war) and Iraq (since 2003). Their money fed the building boom in Amman – and increased house prices considerably, especially in the last few years, a source of frustration locally as some have found themselves unable to buy their own place.

By way of comparison, Amman is a bit like what remains of the old quarters in Rio de Janeiro, but without the degradation or poverty that those areas have fallen into. Or like some parts of European Istanbul, without the exposed cement blocks or anonymity of the buildings. Or like Ankara, rolling over everything in sight, with character but without the decay in Ankara's old city and sense of institutional soullessness in its new.

The fortified acropolis for sure is like that of Ankara (or maybe even Jerusalem, but I haven’t been there yet) - or it would be if not ruined so - a battleship of rock whose prow juts over the heart of the city. I walked around an open area where once there were temples and churches but now is a parking lot for the buses that take the tourists to see some forlorn columns and into the fortress behind. Shot a couple of fotos of the Theater below and the city behind.

The Amman of Today

Walking around the area in front of the Theater, which is the only open space in the city (why is it that in the Middle East there are so few squares that are not simply zones for drivers to wrestle their cars through?), I asked Sufyan about the Amman of today.

Jordan’s business is agriculture and tourism. And phosphates – which the world needs for fertilizer (the Chinese are investing in upgrading the old Ottoman rail link to Aqaba). There’s very little manufacturing industry as the local market is small. Thanks to the nature and economies of today’s neighbors, the historic value of its location no longer helps export and commerce.

So what do Amman’s youth aspire to? Mostly to work somewhere else for a few years – whether it’s in the West or in the Gulf. The education system turns out well trained, well qualified graduates, all of whom see the wealth brought into the country and most of whom aspire to the same material standards.

The average salary is about 450 US$ a month; not enough to achieve the dream of a new house in a nice district, a new car, private education for the kids and a overseas vacation. Now here’s the interesting thing: Ammani men (at least) encourage their wives to work, on the principle that two salaries are better than one.

I asked how the focus on materialism sits with traditional custom and religion (well I had to ask that, didn’t I). The answer: of their nature they don’t contradict each other, but where they overlap, then society is still working its way through a proper understanding and balance. My driver is a sage.

The Abu Darweesh MosqueBalance seems to be the underlying theme of Jordan. It is a new state, artificially constructed by the Brits after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. It has had to find it way in a region wracked by imbalance. In an ancient place, old here means about fifty years old. The oldest townhouse was built in the 1890s (there’s even a banner proclaiming the old greystone so), the oldest usable mosque from about the same time.

There seems to be balance in the city – no part is ostentatiously rich, no part indescribably poor. The king of Jordan does not live as luxuriously as the president of Egypt, but Jordanians earn more than Egyptians. At night the city feels at peace, its lights welcoming, not harsh like those of Dubai.

Next time I’ll see Amman by day. Who knows, I’ll be a good tourist and get to Petra and the Dead Sea too.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Up, up and away!

Up at 3:30 to catch the flight from Nice to Amman by way of Vienna. Goodbye house! See you again one day.

Driving along the coast I passed Monaco, bright with lights as though the stars had fallen down to the shoreline of the dark sea, leaving just a few to sparkle in the heavens.

Nice airport was basically empty – few people fly at 7am in the morning. I managed to get 30kg of luggage accepted wihout paying excess baggage – the company should pay since its work but I don’t know them well enough yet to be confident they would pay. Much more important, I got my back-pack with camera gear and computer okayed as cabin baggage. Two hurdles passed.

Flying over the Alps, glazed ice ridges standing in high relief as the early morning sun spills over chocolate brown valleys.

Over the plains of Austria, autumn tinged forests caught by shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds, green fields stretching away into the blue horizen as though painted by Breughel or Van Eyck.

Totally uneventful flight, landed in Vienna on time. In the airport, during the 5 hour wait for the next flight to Amman in Jordan, I discovered very good, free wireless connection. Surfing the web, chatting with some friends (hi guys!) and dowloading a couple of movies from Veoh kept me busy right up to the next flight.

Royal Jordanian to Amman! Got myself an emergency aisle seat and was able to stretch out in comfort even though the ticket was economy. The flight itself was almost totally full of tourists, mostly German speaking, off to see Petra and the Dead Sea it seems.

By the time we landed in Amman it was dark. I checked into the Queen Alia airport hotel (the one the company had suggested I check into), dumped my bags and took a taxi to see the city at night.

Found myself with a driver who had lived in California for several years, had returned to Jordan to marry and have a family, and who’s business was as driver/guide. So I saw most of the city. I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

Now I’m in the airport again waiting for the flight to Baghdad! I feel like Sinbad !

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday Afternoon

I’m at home in Andora. This place was once a village of fishermen and olive growers, their stonewalled houses lying protectively around the old castle and abbey. Nowadays its one of the many places in which people from Turin and Milan buy two-room apartments as a weekend escape from the bone chilling, soul killing fogs and mists of the Po valley.

I’m fixing up the last things in the house and preparing for the voyage to Baghdad. I’m told I leave on November 2nd, which gives me an extra day. The weather is still warm here. On Saturday it was 25°C – enough for me to sunbathe on the top terrace. Today was a good day to prune my fruit trees - I have plum, nectarine, cherry, pomegranate, lemon and almond – and a vine of course.

What will the next months bring me? Such things shall I see! Over morning coffee I look out up the valley, past the old mansion and to the snow capped mountains. Will the next white-topped mountain I see be the Hindu Kush?

Into my library to pull out books on the Sumerians, Arabic and Persian. I knew I’d need them one day ! Everything else I’ll download from Wikipedia. Will I get to stand in Ur? On the ruined ziggurats of Babylon? Under the arch in Ctesiphon? In the House of Wisdom in Baghdad? I sure hope so!

Looking at my house and the work I have put into to it to make it more beautiful, wondering when – and if – I’ll ever see it again. This summer I totally rebuilt the top terrace, including designing and building a wooden pergola which essentially gives me another room 5 x 4 meters square. Spent all my evenings up there, and days too, when I worked from home. These past years all I’ve wanted to do is get out of Italy. Now I have to leave my home, I look at it with longing - and renewed plans to finish this and that when I get back again. If I could find such a place somewhere else ….

OK, I’ll pack everything into the large green Samsonite. Backpack for the cameras and computer. Tote bag for the cabin – they wont let me take the backpack on board, I’m sure. Last minute things bought. All back-ups done. Papers sorted out. And all that stuff can stay filed...

Last week of work in Italy coming up.

Ready to go!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Be careful what you wish for!

I'm sitting in the Panorama Restaurant overlooking the runway at Bratislava Airport. It's cold and rainblown outside; an ever denser greying mist rises from the tips of the trees that mark the perimeter.

My second trip through Slovakia, but just that - passing through to Budapest. This trip has got me what I wanted: a contract with a company that pays me more than I'm currently earning and also gets me out of Italy. But how I got here and where I'm going would make anyone doubt my sanity.

This part of my life started in April 2005 when I got a phone call that led to a job with a US company. What happened there isn't part of this story, only to say that, as a consequence, late in 2006 I found myself working with an Italian company who wanted to see if its products could also be sold internationally.

For me both jobs were an opportunity to get out of Italy. Don't get me wrong: I like the Italian style of living, the cooking, the language, the Mediterranean climate - and as a photographer the locations are marvellous! Its just that doing business there is so unrewarding - both financially and operationally.

Both opportunities didn't materialize, so I went looking for a third. And found it - with a German/Hungarian company that works in the Middle East.

I had met them first in December 2006, when I traveled to Kandahar with my Italian client to attend a bid for water purifying systems (that's what they sell). While waiting for the airplane to arrive (it was a day late, which was great for me because that meant I could take some more photos) we chatted about things, including what they were doing.

We stayed in touch and back in July I asked them about job opportunities in the Middle East. Their first question was "would you work in Afghanistan?" Well, I've been to Kandahar and I've lived in camps - and I knew that would be on the list of questions to ask me. "Yes" was my answer.

Between July and this pass-through of Bratislava to sign my contract in Budapest we talked about other locations, other possibilities, other challenges. "I'm up for anything" I said. Which I am. So of course I got it.

Be careful what you wish for, the old saying goes. You may be granted your wish.

On November 1st I fly out to their operations in Baghdad, where I will live and work during a three month evaluation period. If I survive that, then I get to do something else. I could be there for less; I could be there for more.

Locked into the airport, like Tom Hanks. In a base surrounded by 40,000 guys with guns and things. On the inside looking out, that is. Several thousand more on the outside looking in - but I'm not supposed to worry about them. Working 12 hours a day, 13 days a fortnight. Boy am I going to be stretched!

So here I am, in Bratislava airport thinking about Baghdad airport, traveling home to back my bags, sort out last minute affairs, finish off things with my Italian client. Its dark outside now. Ryanair is on time anyway. Had a good lunch in the restaurant, so no need to eat dinner. Anyway my credit card isn't working. Again.

Yep, I took this job 'coz I need the money. I like challenges. And I love adventure.

I'm mad.

Work Work Work !

I started my work career in 1976 with the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, working on material requisitions planning for projects in the Gulf and in Indonesia.

After gaining my MBA in 1984 I moved to PriceWaterhouse in Norway as its expert in advising on tax issues and developing financial models stimulating returns for the petrochemical industry.

For more than thirteen years I then worked for specialist software companies that provided financial and marketing information systems for leading multinational companies. In these roles I successfully turned around failing operations and opened up new sales channels in a number of countries, principally in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and in Latin America.

Bored with the sector, in 1998 I switched industry by moving into the hospitality business. As a general manager for the world's leading provider of furnished offices, I was responsible for turning around operations in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Austria.

In 2000 I wanted to put all my learned skills together and jump into the internet boom by providing start-up services for companies expanding in southern Europe. Great fun while the boom lasted. I also co-launched two online businesses - one for for e-books, the other for event management. Both a bit too ahead of the curve and anyway not sufficiently funded.

In 2002 I launched a project to create a business center division for Italy’s second largest hotel chain. I oversaw the fit-out of the first property, and led the team to deliver profitable results within the timeframe set. I also helped several clients in the fashion, cosmetics and film distribution sectors define and develop their business models as well as assisting them acquire additional financing.

In April 2005 I was engaged by a US security technology company to do the same thing and to solve its problems with two European acquisitions. Unfortunately circumstances prevented full execution of these goals so I moved within the security/defense industry to assist an Italian supplier of life support systems define its market position and open up international market opportunities.

Starting November 1st 2007 my latest project is with a German/Hungarian life support services company. At first I will be based in Iraq, essentially to learn their business. Thereafter, who knows?

Since 2005 I am a freelance photographer and somtime freelance journalist for an Asian newspaper.

I also design and develop web sites for friends and the various activities in which I have participated.

A little background

I'm Norwegian-Irish in origin and a real voyaging Viking to boot with discovery and adventure in my blood. My father is the Norwegian half and through him I'm descended from a long line of roving wayfarers. My mother is the Irish half (though she was born in Wales) and through her I get my misty-eyed Celtic romanticism. Fatal combination.

I was raised and have lived in so many places around the world that in reality I am a true world citizen and feel at home in almost every country I happen to land in. I'm thoroughly in love with life, with exploring new places, meeting people and making new friends.

Right now I'm resident in Brasil and have a house by the sea in Italy. As of November 1st 2007 I work in the Middle East (see Work Work Work! above). I've been married twice; don't have any children.

My principal hobby is photography. In fact I do freelance work (some of my photos have been published!) and I occasionally write travel articles for a Philippines newspaper. My dream is to get a photo essay published in book form. I've lots of ideas for projects - just need 6-12 months of free time to put a couple together ...

I should have been an archaeologist or anthropologist or something similar, since I'm profoundly interested in the origins, histories, languages and migrations of humanity. But I wanted to live in the present looking forward to the future, so I went for something different.

What will I do in the future? When I daydream I see me running a really friendly hotel in a tropical seaside location. Just don't see where it is yet - Caribbean, SE Asia, Brasil, Greece. All are good candidates, no?

Personal stats (for those who want to know)
I'm born on May 17th 1956 (Norwegian Independence Day!), so that makes me 51 years old by the calendar. I have absolutely no idea what 51 is supposed to feel like - I feel like 25-30. I'm still having way too much fun discovering the world to think about age. Oh yeah, and I'm 185cm tall, 74kg, with fair hair cut short and green eyes. No mustache, beard, tattoos or anything like that (yuk!). I don't exercise that much but I'm relatively trim. What flab there is will go when I work out for real these next few months (one upside of being in a military camp!).

My hot buttons
Travel, adventure, challenge. I'm a sucker for anything that has those words in them.

Things I promised to do that I haven't done yet
  • Raft the Colorado river
  • Take the Trans-Siberian express
  • Travel across India
  • Visit Japan
  • Visit Korea
  • Live in China
  • Stand in the ruins of Ur, Bablyon and Nineveh
  • Ride in a hot air balloon
  • Sail to the Spice Islands
  • See West Africa

People I admire
Nelson Mandela, John Paul II, Mother Teresa. OK that sounds platitudinous I know - the usual batch of the virtuous. But for me it isn't. and it's not because I agree with (all of) their views. I don't agree with Mandela's views on the role of the state in an economy, I disagree profoundly with John Paul's position on many issues and I don't think devout proselytizing is the right thing. What I admire is how they lived their lives - honest dedication to a reasoned principle based on peace and giving. And by doing so they helped transform the world we live in. By way of counterpoint I have no time at all for celebrities - unless I find they are doing something useful with their lives. Most aren't - they are just 15 vacuous minutes of media events or (worse) longer run media campaigns.

People I despise
Anyone who promotes and profits from racism, intolerance, fear and exclusion. Particularly and specifically European politicians who use such tactics to influence people, win votes and gain power. You know who they are. I've seen the damage these policies do to people and societies. They are beneath contempt.

My tear-jerkers
Stories of freedom and liberation. Homecomings, reconciliations and reunions of people split by fate, circumstance and time. Much to do with my childhood I guess, when I was often away from home (I was a boarder from the age of 10), as well as the consequences of the actions my parents took when they saw how I decided how I wanted my life to be.

Politics and religion
I'm fascinated by both - the subject of many an interesting conversation.