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Published: April 6th 2017
So, the smooth sailing had to stop at some point, yah?
Not that anything bad happened. At all. I have had far greater travel woes. We flew into Kuwait instead of Basrah because it was about half the price. Probably will splurge next time. It started great. We land in Kuwait City and we obtain our visas and skate through customs. We meet with Dr. Rick Wilkerson and Professor Thamer Hamdan. Rick is a sports surgeon in Iowa and Thamer is the Chancellor of the University of Basrah, where he also works as a spine surgeon. He is dressed sharply in a suit and speaks English very well. He is gracious and kind and makes it clear he hopes that I find a second home in Basrah. He is a charmer and carries an air of confidence and importance. He studied in London and is well travelled. He was the Dean of the medical school for 10 years before he became the chancellor. He has a lot of clout in Basrah, but less so in Kuwait, so he is anxious to get us to Iraq. Hence begins our journey of more passport checks and border stops
than I could have ever fathomed.
We are picked up at the aiport and Thamer informs us a new Kuwait law requires us to make another stop and file more paperwork to ensure smooth passage back to Kuwait. From the airport we drive to another building. Thamer takes control and with about 45 minutes of phone calls and emails our Iraqi visas are sent over and we obtain clearance. Everyone was pleasant, but there’s no rush about anything. Thamer looks relieved because since Friday is the weekend, if we weren’t able to get this handled, it could have taken days. We get back into the car and we head towards the Iraqi border. We stop first at a flower shop and Thamer purchases a ridiculously large floral arrangement for a “celebration” we will see later. He also purchases me a beautiful, yet heavy, vase of flowers. I will proceed to awkwardly carry this floral arrangement for the next 5 hours in the car and in and out all border crossings.
Kuwait is interesting. Most signs are in Arabic and English. There are even a few signs for liposuction and face lifts. Thamer informs me
there is a lot of money in Kuwait, and also that it’s a safe city. Once we exit Kuwait City we enter a long stretch of desert. There is just nothing. The roads are bumpy and the drivers drive fast and, as is typical in third world countries, there doesn’t seem to be a traffic pattern, just drive wherever in the road that pleases you and pass anyone slower than you. I saw some camels just chilling and occasionally there would be some large camps of tents in the middle of the desert of nothingness. I didn’t know if these were squatters or oil workers or what. I ask Thamer and he tells me this is actually the chosen vacation of rich Kuwaitians who come and camp with their families, bringing their own water and supplies. Glamping in the middle of a flat desert bordering a highway. I love it.
I get to know the other passengers in the car. Rick is an amazing human being and I feel so fortunate to be in his presence. Former military, he has extensive experience with Health Volunteers Overseas and Orthopaedics Overseas. He also began his own foundation with his
church in Haiti. He has 9 children, 4 biologic and 5 adopted, ages 14-36. His son Daniel he adopted from an orphanage in 1997 during a mission trip to Cambodia and his son Junior was adopted from Haiti. You feel like an old friend of his from the beginning, and he just magnetizes all that meet him, be it his patients or the gun slinging border control. You also feel safe having him around and on your side.
We hit the Kuwait border called the “grey zone”. Nothing special, full of old trucks and random concrete. There’s no formal signage, lots of small shacks and small men with large guns. In 100 yards, we are stopped 7 times. Sometimes out of the car, sometimes just handing over passports, sometimes with bag checks. I can’t describe how comedic it is – well, comedy in the backdrop of Kuwaitians in camo with rifles. We would travel 10 feet and have to get out and do the exact same thing we did in the shack previous. The men could easily just shout to each other, maybe even say in a normal speaking voice, “Hey, they’re cool! I just checked them
out” because we are that close. I hope they were punking us. But of course, we stay quiet and Thamer does his best to take control. In/out up/down. We tried to jump the line of cars once and cross the border via the other lane, and a man with an AK47 made it very clear we needed to get back in line. Just in case you forgot, I am still holding my vase of flowers.
We finally make it to Iraq, and do this song and dance about 5 more times, but Thamer obviously feels more comfortable. One of the docs finally breaks and jumps out of the car with a box of Kleenex to do his business in one of the roadside toilets. Thamer informs us that Iraqi’s don’t use toilet paper. Huh. I have so many questions. We finally get to what seems to be the last stop and we get out of the car and we are ushered into the back office. Thamer gives a lot of hugs and you can tell he’s a big deal. We sit in the office with 4 border patrol men and we are served very sugary Chai tea.
Thamer shoots the shit for about an hour while our papers are processed and Rick, Scott and I smile and pretend we aren’t tired and hungry. Thamer starts examining a guard’s elbow, and then his suitcase is presented to him and he opens it up and doles out a large supply of anti-inflammatories. We are then offered a “tourist trip” by one of the guards. They are extremely grateful for our service and want to show us their thanks. We decline and head on our way.
We then have another 2 hours of driving on very horrible roads while I attempt to take a nap and hold the flowers upright. We reach Basrah and it’s very busy. We hit rush hour at 2pm (turns out people work from 7:30 – 2pm, and then will sometimes work another shift from 4-8pm). Weekends are Friday/Saturdays, not Saturday/Sundays. We drive by the university and I am struck by how similar it is to highschool in the States. Girls in groups together giggling, young boys strut their stuff looking cool. Girls are all in hijabs, but often quite stylish with matching pumps and full, full make-up. I like how some things are not lost in translation. Rick and Scott say Basrah has changed a lot – new bulidings, new satellite campuses, and a bridge is being built which extends to the Iranian border. We drop Thamer off at the Chancellors’ office which is secured by guards and a gate with a very fancy exterior. The rest of us head to the hotel where we will be staying. We thought we were going to stay with Ali and his family, but I have learned that in Iraq, you go with the flow.
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