Archive for September, 2010

“The Grotto” (Jamestown, CA)

September 29, 2010

Over the weekend my rock climbing partner (Brian) and I decided to drive to Sonora to find “the good rocks.” the drive was about 2 1/2 hours from San Francisco on 580 to 205. The place turned out to be amazing and had some really great climbing! We top rope and sport climb most of the time, but this trip we decided to try our hands at a bit of trad climbing as well. The concept of trad climbing is that you place your own protection as you go up the wall, instead of relying on bolts that someone else has placed. This is a bit sketchier because if the gear is placed wrong, it can pull out and you could fall more than expected. Everything went great except for a nasty lead fall that Brian took that has him hobbling around on his right ankle. We both agreed that the pain that we were both feeling (I was mauled by foliage on the approach to the point where I questioned whether stitches were needed) was absolutely worth it and we will return at a future date. What a beautiful wall!


Things I wish I knew before traveling to Iraq…

September 13, 2010

Before beginning, I have to say that this post is intended to provide information as of today, and please verify updated information before planning your own trip as situations can change. Basically, do not stupidly travel to Iraq based on this post. If you do, please do not come back and blame me, I warned you.

Now, there were several questions I had about traveling to Erbil that I could not find answers to online, and I figured it would be helpful to list a number of tips that I think will reassure and help you along your way. They are in no specific order…

Passport Control/Customs: There are a number of booths to serve you to the right when you are exiting, and one Visa booth on your left for Visas on arrival. This line moves slowly, and is unnecessary for Americans. You simply go to the Passport Control booth and they give you a stamp. You are allowed to stay 10 days with this stamp, otherwise you must report to the immigration office for an extention.

The airport to hotel transit situation: The airport is a giant compound. There are no money changing kiosks (at the time of my visit), and there are just a few cabs out front and a bus. The cabs are “Hello Taxi” and the driver is likely Filipino. These cabs cost $25 to take you to your hotel (the going rate for almost all hotels downtown). The cab driver drives you to the checkpoint, where you must get out of the car and switch to another taxi with a Kurdish driver that does not speak much english. The free bus that is in front of the airport goes to the same checkpoint, and you can get the same service from a regular taxi for $10. This checkpoint is completely safe, and there are plenty of military looking guys with machine guns to make sure all the taxi drivers are honest and legit.

Transit time/safety: Downtown is about 8 kilometers, and takes around 12 minutes. The traffic situation is great with steady, but quick moving traffic. Let me put it this way, the little traffic there is, makes your driver slow down to a safe speed, but you are not delayed by traffic.

Taxi drivers: Any taxi you see on the streets is going to be fine. They are surprisingly honest and offer good rates. All the taxis I got in were nice, airconditioned, with pleasant drivers. Flag one down with confidence. Don’t worry about them stopping to load up on multiple passengers, they passed many people buy and just took we where I asked.

Kurdish words: Handy things to learn (all spelled phonetically, as they are written in Arabic script) – Shpaws (Thank you); Qalat (Citidel); Qaysari Bazaar (Covered bazaar downtown); Hawler (Erbil); Hosha (good); Peshmerga (Kurdish army guarding everything in Iraqi Kurdistan).

Hotels: All of the hotels in Erbil are more than adequate. You have a huge selection to choose from. They vary in price, or course. Don’t think that you need to stay in the expensive hotels for safety. It should be solely a comfort decision.

Meeting Arab Iraqis in Kurdistan: I was a bit apprehensive about the prospect of meeting Baghdadis traveling through that might have some strong feelings about Americans. All the Arab Iraqis I met were very pleasant, and never even discussed politics. My hypothesis is that most of the individuals you would not want to meet, probably aren’t busy traveling, they are probably causing trouble wherever they are from. The Iraqis that are traveling and enjoying Kurdistan generally seemed to have no issue with Americans.

That is everything I can think of. I may add to this list later as I think of things. If there are specific questions, or curiosities, leave a comment and I will update it…

Cut and run…

September 13, 2010

I have had an incredible time in Iraq, but it is time for me to start my slow, stop-over ridden trip home.  To sum up the “withdrawl of all Ryans from Iraq,” I’ll go through the last day.

Realizing that neither of the parks I went to the previous day were not the park I was trying to visit, I took a cab to Martyr Sami Abdulrahman Park.  The park is quite a ways from the city center, near the new airport, but totally worth the cab fare.  First off, this park is huge.  Like, Central Park huge.  At the center of the park is a memorial to the victims of twin suicide bombings that took place in 2004 in Erbil. All throughout the park you can find families picknicking and enjoying the outdoors. My favorite time of day is definitely dusk. The weather cools down and allows for a pleasant experience. I went to the Park Restaurant in the middle of the park.  To be clear, the park restaurant is not exactly a place you come to get food. They do not have a menu, and when asked about food, they said that they had some chicken somewhere in the back that they could make. I met a solo traveler from Finland named Matthew (or, at least that was the closest to his actual name in Finnish). We chatted for a bit, had some water at the park restaurant and parted ways.

I made my way back to check out of my hotel, and store my luggage in their luggage closet while I went out for food. While I was checking out, the entire Iraqi olympic soccer team walked in (in their uniforms!), so everyone at the hotel was going crazy taking pictures and looking starstruck. I just went along with the frenzy and snapped photos as well. Very nice people, and more than happy to let everyone harrass them for their time. After my brush with iraqi fame, I was hungry and made my way to the kebab stand outside the gate of the hotel hoping for some classical sauce. No such luck, there was a run on sauce apparently that resulted in me enjoying a normal meal of meat and onions. Tasty, but a let down. I also searched around at 4 or 5 grocery stores to see if they sold it, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. There has to be some available on the internet somewhere. Maybe I’ll import it.

I grabbed my bags, and took a cab to the airport. I wasn’t aware of this, but the airport only opened on September 1st. So, for an airport that opened within the last 2 weeks, it looked great! I caught my Gulf Air flight to Bahrain and crashed at the hotel for a good 9 hours. Ignore anything you read on the internet about Gulf Air. These were two of the nicest planes I’ve ever been on, and great service. This is not a sketchy airline, despite what people write online…

Now, the photos:

Awe and shock!

September 11, 2010

I am still impressed by the beauty in this city. The parks and monuments that have been built here are amazing. There are fountains at the most seemingly random locations. I spent the day at Minaret Park. The weather cooled down today and it was really pleasant, with a nice breeze. There are so many surprises to be found here, like a Disneyland style tram ride between two parks. I didn’t even know where the other end of the tram was, but I bought a ticket anyways. It looked fun and offered a nice aerial vantage point to help me get my bearings on the city. It was definitely worth the $4.

When I arrived on the other side, it was a beautiful park with tons of people out and about relaxing and eating from the popcorn/kebab stands. Probably 200 people laying out on the grass and enjoying an ice cream, or Pepsi (sorry Coke, Pepsi is dominating Iraqi market share right now). In the middle of the park is an art gallery displaying works from university students from all over Iraq. Really fantastic paintings for cheap as well. I ended up walking out with a piece of pretty abstract Arabic art from an artist from Mosul.

I have found one of the tastiest flavors ever. This makes me happy. “Classical Sauce!” I imagine Beethoven requesting this stuff with his dinner. I don’t know what makes it so classical, but it is an interesting, gluten free sauce made from dates, tomatoes, and has a sweet and salty taste to it. It was really good though. It looks black and has the consistency of teriyaki sauce, but tastes absolutely amazing.

I’m getting sad about leaving back to Bahrain tomorrow night, but happy about the thought of being home in my own bed. The flight here was an Airbus A320, but the flight back is a little Embraer 170, and I really hate flying in little planes.

Here are some pictures of the day…

I discovered the “next level” of Kurdish rap & hip hop music (I’m sure they won’t mind an international plug).

Erik- second to the last one is for you.

Around Erbil…

September 10, 2010

I decided to walk to the citadel instead of hailing a cab. It looked close enough, and cabs can be a pain to flag down. About five minutes after I started walking, I realized that it was really hot. Really really hot! So I told myself that I would flag down the next cab I saw. I ended up walking the entire way.

The citadel was amazing! Fantastic views of the city, and so many narrow alleyways to get lost in. It was really neat to see 8,000 years of city preserved. It’s falling apart currently, but you can see the renovations going on to preserve it. The nice thing is that even though renovations are underway, they are done in a way that does not take away from the visit.

I’m not sure how to put this, but the Kurdish have a very abrasive way of communicating. They are incredibly nice people, and love tourists (everyone I talk to gives me the thumbs up and says “America good!”, but they are just gruff during conversations. I miss the warmth of Arab conversation style. I was walking around near a family in the citadel, and the father kept offering me his water (remember, it’s ridiculously hot). They asked me to take a photo of their family, and we started talking. They were visiting from Baghdad for the weekend. They were the sweetest family. It was so nice to be able to communicate with someone! With my broken Arabic, and their broken English, we had a very nice conversation sitting atop the citadel in the shade. I thanked them for the photo, wished them a happy Eid, told them it was nice to meet them, and made my way down the hill to catch a cab with A/C.

I took the cab to Ainkawa (the Christian neighborhood) next. It was nice, with a few too many liquor ads for my taste (you would think that Chivas Regal sponsored the town!). I grabbed some great cheap kabab, looked around a bit, and did a quick tour of the church, and caught a cab out of Ainkawa. It was neat to see a different ethnic makeup. There is a very large Assyrian population here.

I cabbed it to the Jalil Khayat Mosque to snap some photos. It is the biggest mosque in Kurdistan and looks a lot like Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It was prayer time when I arrived, so out of respect I took pictures from the outside. It a really beautiful building!

A great thing about the taxis here, is that they are really cheap! Usually $2-$4 for a ten to fifteen minute ride. You have to watch your hydration here, because you don’t sweat. It just evaporates off of your skin. Before you know it, you’ve lost a couple pounds!

I hate the WordPress iPad and iPhone app!

September 10, 2010

This has to be the fourth or fifth time I have written a post, only to have WordPress make it disappear when I click “save.”


Hawler (Erbil, Iraq)

September 9, 2010

I arrived this afternoon in Erbil. All is well. The flight was a quick A320 ride from Manama. Arriving into Erbil International Airport is a strange experience. The airport is beautiful! It’s just empty. Even the advertising space has not been filled. Imagine only using 10% of San Francisco International Airport, and leaving the rest empty. As far as infrastructure is concerned, it’s ready for business. The presence of security is everywhere. The taxi ride from the airport was 3 minutes, until we got to a parking lot/checkpoint, where I had to switch cabs from a Filipino driver, to a Kurdish one, and he took me the rest of the way to the hotel. Police stand at every intersection and watch traffic, but I haven’t encountered any checkpoints within Erbil itself. The citadel looms large over the city and is lit up beautifully at night. Tomorrow is Eid Al Fitr and there will hopefully be celebrations going on everywhere. There are plenty of foreigners walking around, but may either live here or are visiting on oil related work. So far, I’m enjoying myself, and reading the Lonely Planet to see what I want to check out tomorrow…

Manama during Ramadan…

September 8, 2010

Manama has been very quiet the last day that I have been here.  At sundown life starts coming back to the city, and restaurants (and internet cafes) start to open.  I was out pretty late last night wandering around.  The souqs are pretty standard, but always nice to walk through.  I feel really invisible here.  The population must be either really used to seeing foreigners, or they just truly don’t care.  The city is very modern and friendly.  The food has been great, but most places are abstaining from kebab due to Ramadan unfortunately.  One thing to note, it has a dangerous currency conversion.  At 2.6 dollars to dinar, you can lose your wallet and not even notice.  Everything seems so cheap :).  For being the debaucherous nightlife city of the peninsula, it is surprisingly relaxing right now.  From everything I’ve read online about the noise, and annoying aspects of being in a “party city” I would definitely suggest coming to visit during Ramadan.  It’s been quite a nice time so far.  Tomorrow I catch my flight to Iraq, so I will go visit some of the tourist sites of Bahrain this evening…

On my way to Bahrain and Iraq!

September 5, 2010

Sitting in the airport lounge. About to visit a friend in D.C. On my way to Iraq. This being the first international trip since March, I’m super excited. Unfortunately the trip is very short due to time constraints, but a trip is a trip.

I have three days in Manama, Bahrain, and from there I fly to Erbil, Iraq (the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq) for four days. In preparation for the heat of the desert, I spent a week working down in Arizona. It was a pleasant 108 degrees in Phoenix and Tucson. During the drive to Tucson, I did see one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while: Pinal Air Field. It is a desert graveyard for airplanes. Big airplanes! There are probably 100 747’s sitting out in the desert sunbathing. I pulled off at the exit and drove a few miles to the west off of the freeway, and arrived at the gate. Nobody is allowed to enter apparently. I quickly googles this strange place and read up on the history of the airfield. Apparently they park the planes here due to the dry climate in hopes that the dry air will keep the planes preserved, in the event that they bring them into service. According to the Internet, several cargo companies based at this airport were CIA front companies over the past few decades dating back to Vietnam era operations. We all know, if it is on the internet, it has to be true!

One really great thing about Arizona is the speed limit. Most of the freeways outside of major cities are 75 MPH. This is fantastic, because you can set your cruise control at 80 and relax. Fantastic. But I suppose the worst thing you are going to hit is a cactus anyways…

I’ll have the ability to give a quick rundown of my day in D.C. Tomorrow before my flight over to Bahrain. An annoying thing that I have learned over and over (although I never seem to remember this) is the fact that “direct flight” and “nonstop flight” are NOT the same! I just learned that I will get an hour and a half courtesy stop in the Kuwait airport. That brings a total transit time from Dulles to Bahrain to 14 hours. I can fly (not that I ever want to do this again) straight from San Francisco to Dubai (which is geographically further) in 16 1/2 hours. I think it seems like a long time due the excitement that is waiting on the other side…