06 June, 2010

Welcome to (Iraqi) Kurdistan

This is the raw stuff the world is made of. Where the air smells like petrol, and you can't tell where the dust and smoke end and the haze begins. The sun traces a long, thoughtless arc over a browned landscape. A single road winds among the low rolling hills; there are no lines to speak of, and if there are, no one pays attention to them. Passing, in the taxi drivers' rule book, does not require a clear line of sight, and thank God the road is just wide enough for three vehicles. As the land flattens out, wheat fields stretch to a line of distant hills all but lost in the haze. On occasion there is a field of cotton, green and newly emerging, and even more rarely, squashes and melons. The faintest blue breaks directly overhead.

After a hundred kilometers or so, we stop at a place called Walaat Rest. Inside, tables are set but mostly empty. I stand, looking completely lost, for what seems like way too long. I sit down next to the driver, and a waiter comes. I think he said kofte… or pilav? But i'm not sure. Yes. I'm hungry. Whatever; food. But somehow he thinks i only want a drink, and directs me outside to a small market. I walk out, confused and embarrassed. A dove - white except for her coal-black tail - flies to the roof of the market.

All i have are Turkish lira, so when one of my fellow passengers sees me reaching for a water, he nods in body language it's on me. We find a shady spot - me, the dark, self-assured one from Diyarbakir, and the helpful, pained one in sunglasses who just bailed me out. He asks me questions in Turkish, curious to find out what i'm doing here. He realizes i know nothing. And when i say nothing, i mean it. Aside from that conversation, the 205 kilometers from Zaho to Erbil passed with only the sound of Arabesque music, punctuated by five routine security checkpoints. Roll the window down, exchange a few words with the soldier, and move on.

The 2006 edition of Lonely Planet guide to the middle east, which i pirated shortly before departure, is nearly mute on the subject of Iraq. Under the heading of solo travel, there's a single line: "you'd have to be mad." Iraqi Kurdistan has come a long way since 2006, but silly me didn't pay fifty lira for the updated LP guide (which actually has travel recommendations). Still, for a solo traveler who knows a total of ten words in Kurdish and is traveling without a guidebook, this feels somewhere between ballsy and utterly foolish.