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Going On Vacation In Iraq
Who the hell would want to spend their vacation in Iraq?
Lots of people, if they knew the reality behind the media image.
Iraq is the cradle of civilization, with famous sites such as Babylon, Ur, and Uruk. It's also home to stunning Islamic architecture, lively souks and a variety of terrain ranging from snowy mountains to marshland, along with way too much desert.
And then there are the people. Anyone who has traveled in the Middle East can attest to Arab hospitality. Get away from tourism hotspots like Egypt and parts of Morocco, and you'll find the Arabs to be warm, welcoming, and always ready to sit down and chat. It seems the less visited the area, the more interested the locals are in meeting foreigners. Using this logic, I figured Iraq should be a pretty friendly place, besides the occasional terrorist, of course.
Because of security concerns, individual travel in Iraq is forbidden. Luckily, a few hardy adventure travel companies offer group tours. I chose Hinterland Travel, run by Geoff Hann, an old hand in the region who I interviewed a few years ago. He was running tours there even back in the days when a certain pot-bellied tyrant named Saddam was in power.
So I'm traveling in a war-torn region rife with sectarian violence under the care of a man I'd never met? Isn't that a bit stupid? Car bombs, Al Qaeda, people being beheaded on Youtube videos, hello!
Yeah, yeah, I know. But there are 31 million people living in Iraq 365 days a year, so there's got to be a lot more happening there than that. That's what I signed up to see. I've been to so-called dangerous regions before – Palestine, Kurdistan, and Somaliland, to name a few – and every single one of them turned out to be less dangerous than TV wants us to believe. The media thrives on death. When the famine ended in Ethiopia, it dropped off the news. When the civil war ended in Colombia, it dropped off the news. And how often do you hear about Iraq when something isn't blowing up?
The top photo showing a bunch of heavily armed guys is what you might expect from Iraq. But wait, they're smiling, and those two foreigners with them aren't getting capped! That's part of life here – lots of guns and lots of smiles. To get even further away from the image the mass media rams down our throats, jump the cut to see another of my daily experiences in Iraq.
Coming up next: "A Run-in With The Iraqi Police!"
[Top photo by Rob Hammond. Bottom photo by Per Steffensen]