The follow is an excerpt from Gretchen Berg's new book Iraq in My Shoe: Misadventure of a Soldier of Fashion.
Iraq wasn't my first choice of employment destination, but that is where I ended up a couple of years ago when I accepted a job as an English instructor. My preconceived notions about the country were based on a combination of exotic embellishments from the person who hired me and CNN reports I clicked past while channel surfing my way between the Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.
My first road trip through Northern Iraq cut through the nonsense and showed me what was what.
My coworker Adam, who was new enough he hadn't yet received a nickname, loaded his lone backpack into the back of the SUV along with my hockey bags and suitcases. We climbed into a second car for the three hour drive north to Erbil, the alleged Iraqi wonderland, home of a real German restaurant with real German beer and a five-star hotel. The two of us were to be the lone employees of our university's satellite campus, which meant Baghdad and the tanks and hummers were behind us. There wasn't an H3 in sight.
Warren's idea of a convoy was apparently a Nissan Pathfinder and something called a Prado. I was not excited. By Warren's definition, I had taken a convoy to go skiing in Canada, visit wineries in Oregon and camp out at a Dave Matthews concert at the Gorge.
The drive was visually stunning. Northern Iraq had surprisingly beautiful mountain scenery, which reminded me of Eastern Oregon with its broad expanse of green, rolling up into the craggy, brown mountain range. We passed the odd shepherd tending to his flock and several donkeys pulling large wooden carts of various things. The handful of small farm villages we passed seemed to have been crafted out of brown Play-Doh and straw.
We also passed a vast compound, set a few miles back from the road, which, our gleeful driver Karwan informed us was an infamous prison. Chemical Ali was held there.
Karwan pointed at the prison and laughingly crowed: "Hotel five star! For terrorists! Ha ha ha! Eat, sleeping, hotel!"
The Five-Star Terrorist Hotel passed quickly -- we were going roughly 90 mph. I tried to take photos of the scenery but the images were blurry.
Between Suli and Erbil there were five military checkpoints, complete with gun-toting Iraqi soldiers. The soldiers were mostly bored and young. Many of them joked with each other, ignoring the guns casually slung over their shoulders. Karwan would roll his window down and greeted the checkpoint guard with "Choni, bash, bash, choni" (roughly, "Hello. How are you? Good). Depending on the mood of the guard, we would be waved through or asked for our Iraqi Residency cards, which they would squint at, looking at Adam and me carefully. I had no idea what the card said. It was my smiling photo and a lot of indistinguishable squiggles.
I sat in the backseat, watching each exchange, and curiously wondered what would happen if they wouldn't let us pass. Would we have to sit there, at the remote outpost, until someone from the university called one of the politician or strongmen and demanded our release? Warren had said university employees were "treated like royalty" in and around the region, but he'd said a lot of stuff that wasn't necessarily true.
I really wanted to take pictures at one of these checkpoints, but Adam said, "Nooo, no. You don't want to do that. One of the other teachers took a picture once, and a guard came and yanked his camera out of the car."
Still, I desperately wanted photographic evidence for my friends. The threats felt both immediate and unreal. Amid the beautiful scenery and the local characters, I felt like I was traveling through a Disney simulation: It's a Small Iraq After All.