Bits of conversions and names swirl in my head as I dizzily walk half asleep from one plane to the other.
“Shall I follow you”
Pst pst pst
It’s hard to imagine the fear I felt just 14 days ago. Of leaving my son, of going to a “war zone”. Now, tears fill my eyes as I board my connecting flight back to Los Angeles from Erbil. The ache in my heart and question I keep thinking is… Was it all a dream? Or was this really an adventure of a lifetime where I rekindled my love for adventure travel and the world.
I fell in love with people I never dreamed existed. I have barely left and I already long to be back, wandering through the bazaar, listening to the laughs, watching faces light up as we walk past.
These excerpts from my travel journal as I flew home from Iraq have stayed with me, even months after my return. To be honest it’s been decades since I’ve had a life changing trip, since the reality is that my life as a travel blogger has been filled with one magical life altering trip after another.
An Adventurous Travel Life
My travel career began as a solo traveler adventuring around Europe for a month. It was my first time abroad and my first trip anywhere really. That 4 week trip changed the course of my life. It filled my soul with something I never knew I needed – adventure and the unknown. Travel was nothing like I expected and exactly as I had hoped. I’d spent months reading every Rick Steves book I could get my hands on, attending his live seminars, and scouring his website on the internet (as new as it still was then!). A whole world literally opened up before my eyes as I got lost on the train in Berlin and wondered the hillsides of Switzerland with only the jingling of cow bells as my companion.
I had found a passion that ran through my genes but that I had never experienced. My travel continued to China, to Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Bolivia, Peru, but then I had had enough of the one-off month long trips each year. I needed more. And thus began the saving and planning of a year around the world which quietly turned into a decade of living in India.
After living in India, still traveling, but mostly just in the country itself, I began to loose my adventurousness. I knew the country well and even though it offered plenty of unknowns every day, I had become comfortable and predictable in my travel habits. And then came my son. I was bound and determined to not let having a child stop me from traveling and so it didn’t.
But, it did change the way I traveled. We went for shorter times and to “easier” destinations. And slowly we began going to places that he prefered, focusing on nature and the outdoors. Little by little I lost my solo adventure travel spirit. That is until Iraq.
I didn’t even want to go to Iraq. Growing up in the 80s and 90s my only knowledge of Iraq was war. When my friend begged me to with her a few months before, I balked. Why would I want to go to IRAQ! As I followed her trip on social media, I began to see reasons why I would want to go, but decades of negative media about Iraq kept coming up in my mind. Was it worth going there risking my life when I have a small child at home?
Something lingered within me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I saw a post saying 1 spot was open on my friend Janet’s last tour of Iraq I reached out and told her that Iraq is calling to me! She said “Great, the spot’s yours.” Yet, I still wasn’t sure I even wanted to go. I was scared. Was it really safe?
Adventure in the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq
And it is here that I find myself in the sun drenched water, as we cruise down narrow waterways between strips of grass that isn’t quite stable land in an area called The Marshes. The only other humans in sight outside of our group are the lone fisherman motoring their wooden boats either empty for a day of fishing ahead or filled to the brim with reeds as they come back in to town. I share a boat with the famous Abu Haider, the unofficial ambassador to this area who’s infectious laughter and singing of local folk songs lures tourists – local and foreign to these reviving waterways.
During Saddam’s time, the Marshes and the people who have inhabited this area for centuries were forced out by the purposeful draining of the marshes primarily to punish the locals for their role in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein’s government. After the invasion of Iraq by the US, the removal of concrete walls began, allowing these marshes to again fill with water, attempting to bring life back to this area in all ways – environmentally and economically.
Soon after our departure from the banks of the river, we arrive to a small reed hut that is bustling with activity awaiting our arrival. We are expected guests at a local family’s land this morning to share in their traditional breakfast of bread, date syrup and tahini with fresh buffalo cream. Sitting on the dirt floor of this welcoming home, we laugh as a rooster investigates us and eat until we are full. This is never an image I would associate with Iraq.
Abu Haider, accidentally posing with our boats!
Tourism in Iraq Opens Up
It’s experiences like this – unique, authentic and totally non-touristy that make Iraq special. Tourism has barely opened up in this part of the world, and foreign visitors are almost non-existent. Those who do make their way here, are often in the modern cafes of Baghdad working their way north towards Kurdistan, not down in the marshes.
Like most foreign tourists, Baghdad is where our journey begins. Since Iraq started granting visas on arrival for dozens of nationalities in 2021, tourists are starting to come back to this historic part of the world. Eighteen hours after leaving home, I land in Baghdad to the notorious Baghdad Airport sign I had only seen on news reports relating to war. It is so surreal to be here.
There are several of us on the flight, ushered straight to immigration where we hand over $50ish dollars for our visa. (As with most transactions in Iraq – cash only, exact change preferred.)
And just like that, we are exiting the airport, in Iraq!
My first impressions are quite different than I imagined. Baghdad is more developed than I had thought it would be after years of war. It also reminds me quite a bit of India, albeit a very empty, quiet India!
To be truthful I don’t know much about the history of Iraq other than images I’ve seen on the news throughout my life of violence and instability. World History was a brief blip in my educational history that was long forgotten.
So you can imagine how blown away I feel by the amazing history that we explore from the ancient buildings of Mesopotamia to the modern culture of today. Each day as we are bused around the country (in one of only 4 luxury coach buses), I feel like I am on my own homeschool field trip as my education is expanded by my mostly Irish companions who are well versed in Mesopotamia, the Ziggurat of Ur and Babylon.
Seeing sights I had never heard of outside the confines of television news stories – Saddam’s Palace, Hatra and the twisted minaret of Sumara come to life as locals guide us through these historic buildings telling the good, the bad and the ugly histories of each.
However, what stands out above and beyond the significance of the sights we are seeing is the openness and welcoming arms we are embraced with everywhere we go. The absolute kindness expressed to us foreigners day after day is quite surprising. The history and kindness of locals are just a couple of the many reasons Iraq should be on your bucket list!
7 Reasons Iraq Should Be on Your Bucket List
It’s the Cradle of Civilization
Iraq truly is the cradle of civilization. This is where writing began, where civilizations began, where scenes from the Bible played out. The immense amount of history in this country is overwhelming. Some of the greatest inventions in human history were created or perfected here: the wheel, the written word, algebra, and so many more. Arriving with so little knowledge of the significance of this region, I am constantly blown away by how more and more people are not flocking to Iraq already. There is so much ancient history here, even rivaling the pyramids of Egypt.
For those who are religious, Abraham was born here, it is said that the Garden of Eden was most likely along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Here you can feel the immensity of the world, seeing the progression over time right before your eyes. This is the ultimate in homeschool education – Ancient World History 101.
Generous & Welcoming Locals
Having traveled for over 20 years and to over 50 countries, I have never experienced the absolute authentic kindness and generosity that I felt touring around Iraq. From being bought tea on the bustling streets of Karbala by strangers stating that “guests cannot buy their own tea in our country” to shop owners giving items for free just because we are the first visitors of the day.
Being an American, in a country that’s recent history has been impacted so much by our politics, I didn’t expect to receive such a warm welcome. It was not isolated either, every single day on our trip we received outstanding kindness by strangers. I was often brought to tears by how kind the locals were to us. They were so thankful that we were visiting Iraq and sharing what this country really is like in an effort to rebuild the world’s perceptions.
The most heartwarming experience was being invited to share in evening shisha, tea and sweets by the operators of the car park where we pulled up at the break of the daily fast. The owners enthusiastically organized the purchase of a box of sweets for each of us (all 15) to take away as we were departing. I could never imagine anyone in the US ever providing such generosity to a bunch of foreigners visiting their city or country!
Eating Delicious Local Food
Our visit to Iraq coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. While not all the restaurants are open during the day, and we definitely missed out on some great local favorites, the food on offer was outstanding. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting (falafel and hummus?), but what I received greatly exceeding all my hopes! From our daily kebabs with pita and a selection of side dishes to supplement to kubba, which is ground meat and rice to delicious dolma, we were always well fed!
My two favorites were the local fish of the Mesopotamian Marshes that fell off the tiny bones and melted in my mouth with ease and my first try of lamb with the Mosul speciality labajun. A delicious flatbread type pizza smeared with ground lamb and baked in an pizza oven.
Of course, no meal can end without a sample of the delicious Iraqi desserts on offer like kanafeh. This was one of my favorites throughout the country.
One of the most amazing things about visiting Iraq is how new tourism is here. The experiences we had and the places we were allowed to go I know are unique to the time we were visiting. Being one of the first few group tours in the country means we got special treatment in most places we visited. This plays itself out in ways so unexpected like holding a piece of Babylon, walking behind the scenes of UNESCO archeology digs, exploring the hidden staircases of ancient buildings and so much more.
I credit some of the openness and welcoming generosity of the locals to this newness factor as well. People here in Iraq are so excited to see tourists, that you are revered as you walk through markets, not hounded like you might be in other countries.
It’s Economical to Visit
One of the many things I learned in my 2 weeks in Iraq is that the country is still under significant sanctions dating back to 1991. Their economy continues to struggle to really take off due to this and because of years of war and ISIS occupation, tourism has been almost non-existent. Without access to the world credit card systems or world ATM networks, tourists will have to rely completely on the cash they bring with them. Due to these and so many other factors often found in countries recovering from decades of strife, Iraq is still quite economical to visit.
My 2 week trip cost around 2500 Euro and included almost everything except the few touristy trinkets I purchased in Mosul and Erbil. While no SE Asia on budget prices, considering the amazing offerings of this country, it is still quite a bargain in this part of the world.
Visiting Iraq is like visiting multiple countries all at once. One aspect of Iraq many may not recognize is that it has always been a rich mosaic of cultures. While not always a point of pride, after learning and seeing how much the land has offered to its people and world culture, it is my hope that Iraqis will embrace the immense beauty that comes with celebrating the various groups of people that inhabit this land.
We revelled in experiencing the diversity of cultures in Kurdistan, meeting the Yazidi people and learning about their religion to learning about the different religious practices of the Shia and Sunni people as well as visiting churches and former Jewish estates in Basra. This was an unexpected part of my trip. It was truly eye opening to learn about the history of who once inhabited this area and who continued to coexist here.
See the Real Life Effects of War
One of the most powerful and lasting images was our visit to Mosul. Mosul was occupied by ISIS, called Daesh in Arabic, until 2017. It has been only a short 5 years since their expulsion from the city. It is “easy” to sit at home seeing images of war torn countries through your television set, not really grasping the real life human factors involved, which is why I felt this visit to Mosul was even more important. As the world watches Ukraine move into war, it really hit home how lives, cities and communities are forever altered by the decisions of a few.
Rather than looking at Mosul through voyeuristic eyes, we met with UNESCO who is working to rebuild the Old City, the mosque and more. We were taken on a walking tour by a member of the community, Ayoob Thanoon, a civil society activist, who has worked tirelessly through the years to help revive and rebuild Mosul from the initial fundraising efforts to purchase rubble movers to clear roadways to continued efforts now to educate visitors on his and others experiences during the ISIS occupation.
These first hand accounts in surviving war in Mosul, but even more on how those survivors are rebuilding as a community are heartwarming and emotional. This visit left an indelible mark on my soul that I hope will never be erased.
While I have many more stories to share from this adventure in Mesopotamia, for now I will leave you here contemplating your own views on a country that I personally am hopeful will recover from its reputation for war and terrorism to make a new name for itself as the new up and coming tourist destination.
Questions about what it’s like to visit Iraq? Want more info? Feel free to message me here or on Instagram.
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