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September 15, 2008

Blood Red Sky

Yesterday the sky was blood red.  I never saw anything like it.  I thought of taking a picture, but I figured the camera couldn't capture it.  I would just look like I shot a picture through some kind of red filter.  The red dust comes all the way from Syria.  A person who knew enough about dust could probably tell you exactly where every storm started.

I cleaned out my can yesterday.  In anticipation of my imminent departure from Iraq, I swept out the whole place and mopped the floor with Pine Sol.   The red dust storm negated all that effort.  You can shut the door and all the windows and you still cannot keep it out.  This would have bothered me a couple of months ago, but no more.  I have gotten used to it and now that I will not have to experience it much longer, the various textures and types of dust merely amuse me. 

A few days ago we had a real wrath of God storm.  Columns of dust blew toward us, accompanied by a fantastic show of lighting bolts that walked across the sky in all directions.  When the storm arrived it rained mud for around ten minutes.  Then it passed and rumbled away in the other direction.

The day before yesterday was a non-dusty nice day.  I got up early in the morning and went out to run about 0600.  It is already around 80 degrees at that hour. It feels like a warm October afternoon in Virginia; you just have to time shift.   As I walked to the starting point and looked out over the low dirt bluffs, I appreciated the beauty of the sun and shadows on the different shades of khaki.   I was seeing beauty in the dirt that I had not seen before. 

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

 

That, of course, is from the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner,"  for no defensible reason, I once made the effort to memorize it.  These lines have some application to the subject at hand.  The Mariner for the first time can see beauty even of the ghastly water snakes.

Looking is a physical process, but seeing is an act of mental interpretation.   I don't think that I could see these colors and contrasts before.   I still think that this is an unpleasant place, but the brown desert of Al Anbar is not completely devoid of attractions and splendor of its own.  I wonder if I might have been here long enough.   I guess I have seen the elephant.

August 23, 2008

Prospering in Spite of the Politicans' "Best Efforts"

I spoke to merchants and pedestrians along the main street in Hit.  It was encouraging to hear their stories too.  Many of the businesses were new.  The proprietors told me that they had been in business a few months or that they had closed down and reopened recently.  Their complaints were no longer about security, as they had been only a short time before.  Now they had the usual prosaic problems such as traffic congestion, lack of electricity and general difficulty doing business around the dilapidated infrastructure of this city on the Euphrates.   If you sum up the complaints, you could say that their political leaders were failing to provide the basic building blocks of prosperity.

The picture shows a bicycle repair shop in Hit.  The best bikes sell for 85,000 dinar, around $85.  The proprietor told us that he was only 16 years old, but he had a talent for fixing bikes.  It is his labor and skills that he brings into the partnership.  His partner is an older, richer guy who provides the coin to keep the operation going.   Our sixteen-year-old friend said he was happy with the arrangement and hopeful for the future.  He had been in business for around three months and business was good.  Having a business based on the rugged & rubble strewn streets of Hit, he gets to repair lots of bent wheels and flat tires. 

Bike shop in Hit Iraq

We went to see the political leaders and met the problem.   The head of the town council greeted us with a question: "What do you have to give me?"   When I reminded him that we were seeking a sustainable partnership where he would work WITH us, he promised to make a detailed list of all the things he wanted us to give him.  There was an uncomfortable moment as we explained that we had no intention of just filling orders.  It was his town.  We would help; we would not do the job of the local authorities.  

The most frustrating people are those who are both indolent and demanding.

I should not be entirely negative. We are working well with some parts of the city.  Below constructing drainage in Hit with help of USG funds (CSP).  It just could be so much better.

drainage in Hit

Hit is the worst of major towns in my district.    The tragedy of Hit is that the people, the merchants and mechanics I met, were hard working and willing to take on more responsibility, but they were held back by the incompetence, cravenness and sometimes downright dishonesty of their political leaders.   The difference that good (or even just not bad) leadership can make is astonishing.  It is hard to hold back progress.  We see gains in Al Qaim, Anah, Hadithah and now even in Rutbah, which sits in the middle of nowhere getting little in terms of funding.   Hit's satellite city of Kubaysah is even doing well.   I wonder if the people of Hit can trump their leadership and make the transition to prosperity.

In general, this week's meetings (as I mentioned in yesterday's post) and travels provoked both hope and gloom.  I am filled with admiration for the brave Iraqis who stood up against violence and terrorism when there was no guarentee or even probability that they would win.  They have seen enough suffering and death for many lifetimes and yet still they persist.   When I talk to the merchants and businesses people, literally rebuilding Iraq, I cannot help feel joy at the resilience of the human sprit.   Yet they all stumble over the pernicious legacy of dependence and dishonesty left over from the socialism and tyranny of the former regime.    I am confident that these problems will be just be speed bumps on the road to prosperity, but we will certainly suffer a few more jolts.

August 19, 2008

Making a Life In Iraq

Few comments, just pictures.   These are some of the daily life scenes from where our Marines live and work.  You can make a home almost anywhere.

Below - more comfortable than it looks

Couch

As good as Gold's Gym

As good as Gold's Gym

Rules posted for playing cards

pocker rules

 Perdition Road (AKA Road to Rawah)

 Road to Rawah

The best way out

Helicopter in Rawah

Arrival in style

Marine vehicles near Rutbah

August 06, 2008

So Hot It Hurts

You usually think of breezes as cool and refreshing.   This is not always true.  I recently returned via Kuwait, where at the camp we experienced a steady hot wind that was actually painful. It felt like being in the stream of a hair dryer. The wind also sun backed hot dust.  It is really unpleasant.

I just think it is odd that you feel cooler when you protected from the breeze. It is a new and unwelcome experience.  I figured I would cool off with a shower.  The water tanks are outside, so the "cold" water was uncomfortably hot.  On the plus side, there is no need for a towel. You just put on your clothes and walk out.  You feel cool for a few precious minutes; then you are dry and a little dusty.

A guy from Nevada once explained to me that up in the north you don't go out in the cold winter.  It is same in the hot desert, just reversed.  Painfully hot and painfully cold are both dangerous.  In fact, a Minnesota winter will kill you faster. 

"desk" in tent in Kuwait

I took the good advice and hunkered down in my tent.  Unfortunately, the tent is a little on the depressing side, as you can see from the pictures.

john matel feet in tent in Kuwait

Being in Iraq is better than being in Kuwait.  I have my own quarters and my own stuff and- odd as it sounds - Al Asad is just better than Ali Al Salem.   We even enjoy cooler temperatures.  The high reaches only around 110-115 degrees and it is nice in the early mornings.  I know 110 sounds horrible, but it really isn't.  As they say, it is a dry heat and there is a big drop in temperature at night.   It just is not very pretty.  Below is some of the nice parts.

Iraqi desert fields

BTW – it is even nicer in Rutbah and Al Qaim, where you have something closer

A good routine is to be active early in the morning and hunker down inside during the extreme heat of the day.   I went running at dawn, which was around 0500.    The thermometer said it was 86 degrees, so it was a lot like a warm afternoon back home.  Not bad.  Taking advantage of the 0430-0730 time frame changes the impression of Iraq as hell.  This is also the cleanest part of the day.  The dust tends to rise a little after dawn.  It must have something to do with the hot sun warming the ground and changing the wind patterns, but I don't know.

Of course, following this happy routine is not always possible.  Sometimes you have to be out and travelling during hot part of the day.  It is then that you earn that hardship pay.  Most uncomfortable is flying in helicopters.  You get the unpleasant combination of hot air, hot exhaust, sun beating down on metal surfaces and the requirement to wear helmets and body armor.  Humvees and MRAPs have air-conditioning that works reasonably well.  It is still uncomfortably hot, but not so dire.  I pity the Marines who have to stand post during the day. 

Helicopter landing in Al Asad Iraq

A veteran Marine told me that Al Anbar was relatively green back in 2003.  Relatively is the operative word, but it was wetter in 2003.  A little bit of green would also create a different impression.  The general rule is 5-7 dry years and one wet one.  The locals call the wet year "normal" and complain re the drought during the other ones.

I guess the bottom line is that timing is important.   In the summer, you have to be out and active before 0730.  Forget about it after that.   On the other hand, winters have pleasant cool weather, and it is nearly perfect in Novembe-December & February-March, expect for the occasional duster.

July 27, 2008

A Fish Story

Fishermen near Hadithah are pulling bigger fish out of the Euphrates than anybody can remember.   The fish got a chance to be so big because locals had been unable to fish during the late insurgency.  Coalition forces had limited or banned river traffic to prevent terrorists from using the river as transportation and a way to get away.  With the more stable situation, the ban was been lifted, but fishing did not return to its previous levels, despite the size of the fish population.  Why not?

Fishermen on Lake Qadissya

We thought of the obvious reasons, maybe the boats were not in good repair or that people were still afraid to take to the water, but this didn’t seem to be true.  People were fishing, but not so much.  They were fishing for their own or for very local consumption, but not for market.   Then we identified to missing link.  It was not the boats, river, fish, fish markets or fishermen.  The missing link was ice.

Fish are very perishable.  You can catch that big fish, but it is probably not a good idea to buy it or eat it after it has been sitting around in 110 degree heat in the sun all day.  W/o ice, fish mongering is limited to places very near the river where live fish can be maintained.

There was an ice factory nearby, but it was not in operation.  CF helped get it up and running and now fishing is returning.  All this makes our plans to help with fish hatcheries in Anah and Hadithah more urgent, but the hatcheries would have been ineffective and maybe even harmful if the ice problem had not been solved.

The lesson for me was a reminder of bottlenecks and how well the free market works if it is allowed to do so.    We (in this case essentially bureaucratic planners) didn’t think through the whole system.  No planners really can.  That is why the market works so well.  Individuals or groups identify a need and they fill it – IF they can.  The authorities’ role is not to do, but to enable. I think we did the right thing in enabling rather than providing.  Independently, CF are contracting with local firms for ice, rather than making it ourselves, which we are more than capable of doing.   This is helping build an ice infrastructure, which will be in place after we leave.  Ice is a big deal in this hot climate. 

I am glad that we caught on in time.   You accomplish big goals by a combination of applying pushing energy and removing obstacles.  It is tempting just to push harder because you have more ostensible control, but often the obstacle removal is the way to go.  Buying boats & nets, training fishermen etc would have looked good on our reports, but removing the obstacle and letting them do it themselves was the true key to success.

As the old Taoist wisdom advises, the best way to accomplish a task is when the people say, "we did it all by ourselves."

lake thar thar

FYI - In case anybody notices, I am still in the U.S. and this post is out of sequence.  I wrote it a couple weeks ago.  I just forgot to post.  The pictures are old ones too. The top one is fishermen on Lake Qadissya and the one above is Lake Thar-Thar.

June 05, 2008

Tour de Iraq

Flag and map at Al Asad 

I did catch that flight to Kuwait, but it was diverted to Ballad, where we all got off as the plane did some kind of medivac.   In Ballad, I heard that there was a flight to Al Asad with a 0325 show time, so I went to try to get on that flight.   I got on the waiting list, but at show time they told us that this flight would be for freight only.  No passengers.

The next flight to AA was on Wednesday, but I thought that was the best I could do, so I decided to look for some temporary billeting.   Unfortunately, the guy I asked, although very nice, directed me to general camp billeting.   It was a long way off, but I found it with the help of a guy in a pickup truck.  When I got there, they told me that I could not get that sort of billeting and that I needed to return to the air terminal and get temporary quarters. 

I asked the woman at billeting how to get back to the terminal.  She very helpfully pointed out the door toward a light shimmering in the pre-dawn gloom through the dust.  She told me to go toward the light and I did.

The Texas barrier below are at AA, but they look the same everywhere.

 Texas barriers in al Asad iraq

It is very depressing to walk around these places.  There are lots of sandbags and Texas barriers.  A Texas barrier is one of those concrete free standing walls.  It is like the smaller Jersey barrier you see along roads at airports, but it is around ten feet high.  In the gloom of night, they make you feel very constrained.  I wondered if I would ever get back and mentally kicked myself in the keister for just not staying put.

It was longer walk back w/o the help of the pickup truck guy, but I found my way through the dark and got to the building at about the time it started to get light.

To my surprise, the guys I had come in with still had not left.  They had evidently been having even a more frustrating experience than I had.  While I was walking around Ballad, they were going to the flight line on buses and then coming back.  I was able to get in line again, just as though I had never left, and get on the plane for Kuwait. 

The people at the terminal were very helpful in this bad situation.  Of course, they had taken me off the list when I told them I was going to AA, but they put me back on when I explained my sad story.  I notice the woman suppressed a smile.  I didn’t really mind.  It was kind of funny and I am sure I looked comical.   I had been just about everywhere around the base and in the end I finished exactly where I would have been if I never left.   To me, that was a victory. I was  back on the  bus.

The flight to Kuwait was uneventful.  I arrived and finished processing through just in time to miss the chow hall, which closes at 8 am.  I put myself on the waiting list for a flight to AA.   The next flight had show time of 2035.   I got on w/o incident.  We finally were off at a little past midnight and got to AA around 0200. 

I knew we were back in AA as the back of the C130 opened allowing a cloud of dust to come into the plane.  I caught the shuttle bus back to Camp Ripper.  It is funny how much the old can feels like home. 

Below is our new office space.

ePRT office Al Asad Iraq

We are also out of the tents and back in the offices.  My office is actually very nice now.  They put in central air and plugged up a lot of holes, so the dust doesn’t get in as easily.   The office where my colleagues sit now has a couple of Plexiglas windows, so they have some natural light.

Below is my new office - sweet.

ePRT leader office al Asad Iraq 

Well, back to the old routine with somewhat better surroundings