11 June, 2010

Border run

Metin is the local Ford dealer. With his friends, a doctor and a lawyer, we're strolling in a park beside the Tigris River. We're in a gym watching an amateur volleyball match. Driving to his place, we pass a cow in the middle of a narrow city street. Except for a few words here and there, and one English-speaking (coalition?) soldier outside Kirkuk, i've been using Turkish all day. Overload.


After two days without water in Suleymaniyah, last night the water came on at last.  To shower was a simple affair (and a chilly one, as the water came direct from a rooftop tank), but a blessing. And in Iraq, clothes dry on the line outdoors overnight; at nine AM they're as hot as if they just came out of the dryer, if a little dusty.

"It's Friday. Just come back if they're not running," Andy said as i headed out the door. But the Muslim holy day proved no obstacle to travel. Dust devils whipped by; at a recent looking rest stop the buildings were tile and glass, and relatively clean for Iraq. Under a canopy of galvanized pipe frames and woven reed mats two young boys washed cars. Beginning at ten AM, six taxi rides for a grand total of 49,000 IQD had me in Zaho by late afternoon (about a 400 km trip). In Dahok i had begun to worry. In need of a sticker visa, logic told me such things would be no problem - but approaching Friday night, i was in no mood to be stuck at the border with Couchsurfing hosts lined up fifty kilometers on the other side.

In the passport office i got my Iraqi Kurdistan exit stamp. A young man approached, asking if i wanted a taxi across the border. We waited and waited. Then, when we reached the car, the trunk was full with cartons of cigarettes in black plastic bags. The driver explained that when we reached customs, each of us should claim six cartons. "Problem yok, problem yok," he repeated in response to my refusals. The young man touting for the taxi service tried to explain, but my Turkish was shot, and already worried about the visa issue i didn't want to develop problems helping to smuggle cigarettes across without duty. Making things worse, the driver tried using my American passport as an excuse to cut in line, creating a chaos of yelling drivers and honking horns - just as the Turkish border officials left for dinner. We could do nothing but wait for another hour. 

Dusk was falling on the Zaho hills as we sat beneath the crossing station - like a massive tollboth, the size of a futbol field. Beside me two other taxi drivers, friends of my own taxici, kept up a lively conversation about the wonders of Antalya (read: women). Orhan, the guy from the backseat, stood silently, while i joked with the drivers. Viskey, pompa….. hayir, Ben iyi musluman…. ama ben musluman degil. Quiet Orhan and i made a dash to the restroom just to escape.

At last we were allowed through, one man's pockets and pants in general stuffed with cigarettes, which were also wedged in every possible cavity of the vehicle. As promised, a sticker visa cost $20 U.S., no questions asked, and just as the driver said, there were no problems. It seems that while in the U.S. people hate rules but follow them, here people love rules and bend (and allow them to be bent) left and right. As long as the car's total cargo, divided among the occupants, fell within the legal limit, all those cigarettes crossed the border duty free.

After we dropped of the cargo at a roadside tarpaulin shack, i found myself in a taxi with Orhan, both heading to Cizre. My companion was a willing helper - since my phone had no charge and his had no credit, we put my SIM card in his phone (you can't do that with American cellphones, but it is an indispensable trick to overcome such problems). Turned out both my CS prospects were out of town, but they arranged an alternate host, their friend - meanwhile Orhan wrote the key phrases of Islam on my battered, sacred scrap of paper full of contacts' names and numbers. He seemed assured if i recited them, i would become one of the faithful. I was disappointed to part ways.

And that brings us to overload. Multiple simultaneous conversations going on in a foreign language. The day was a success though - the trıp from Suleymanıyah to Cizre can be done in a day, and surfing in Cizre is a godsend.