February 24, 2005

the good ol US of f'n A

I got back to the US last week, and I have to say that it is good to be home.

The food is great. The people are great. But the best part of all is that no one is trying to kill me. The slight agoraphobia that I experienced last time I left Iraq didn't appear this time, but I have to say that this whole country looks so incredibly vulnerable. I'm just amazed at how anyone can walk into a crowded room of people without even so much as passing a metal detector.

I know it's normal, and I know that this is how it should be, but somehow I don't think it will be this way for long. We're going to have to tighten our security within our borders, and I think security will a big growth industry over the next decade or two.

In any case, itís great to be back. Since I returned, Iíve been a glutton for all things missed while I was away -- now Iím full and am getting back to work. Hit me up for a slideshow and stories sometimeÖ

Posted by rick at 01:09 PM

February 14, 2005

The Lost City of Petra

Petra has been inhabited since several thousand years BC. At a crossroads between the East and the West, with a local water source, it was a rich trading empire during the Iron Age. The soft sandstone mountains allowed the Nabataeans to carve out elaborate tombs for the richest amongst them to ascend to their afterlifes (note the staircase theme common on many of the tombs). With access to Greek and Egyptian cultures, columns can be seen along with obelisks in the architecture.

Eventually invaded by both the Egyptians and the Romans, the city later fell into obscurity with the fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, a relief in Egypt by Ramses the III says of this land: "I plundered the tents of their people, their possessions, their cattle likewise, without number. They were pinioned and brought as captives, as tribute to Egypt. I gave them to the gods as slaves in their houses." Mankind once took pride in the success of their warfare, for better or worse we play things much more gently now.

In any case, after the fall of far away empires, and because the city was since largely in disuse by any other than nomadic Bedouins, the original structures were not built-over by newer ones so the city was effectively insulated from the progress of time.

In the early 1800's an intrepid western explorer disguised himself as an Arab scholar and braved these xenophobic lands. His approach to the city was through the narrow siq (canyon), where one suddenly emerges before a monument whose presence is so unexpected it almost shocks the viewer (as seen in the picture above). This is the same route the tourist takes today. The amazing artifacts, and the quality of their preserve, were largely the reason it was chosen for the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It is also a hiker's paradise. To see all of it you must not only walk a lot, but you must hike up several peaks. You can see in the following pictures me at the Temple of High Sacrifice, on the sacrificial alter, no less, and at the top of the Monastery Peak (video), a climb of 808 steps with a brisk donkey ride business below.

Although I jogged/hiked the peaks, I was not above taking a ride on a ship of the desert (video) just for fun one time in the lower area. The camels here are exceptionally well looked after, as are the horses and donkeys. There is a very large push by the locals to ensure quality health for their animals -- a refreshing site to see such healthy creatures in a role in which they are sadly often ridden to death.

The views are so large and sweeping, and there is so much to see, there is no way you can fit it all into frame for a picture -- so I panned around in these videos from the amplitheatre and from the temple of high sacrafice above it to help convey the idea. In all, an amazing place.

Posted by rick at 01:05 AM

February 08, 2005

AMERICAN CONVOY AHEAD

PASSING NOT ALLOWED
DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED
(repeat in Arabic)

In the cover of darkness.
"Form a single line here, ID's out I need to see both sides, bags go in the truck and then wait on the bus. ...
R&R or end of tour?"
"end of tour"

sign next to seat: "gun port operation. Slide lever forward, break outside glass. Place barrel through port before firing"

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We've got 5 gun trucks and two OH-58's with us. If anything happens stay in the bus, unless it is on fire, we'll maneuver another bus around to pick you up or take you in our vehicles. Things have been quiet these last couple of nights so we're hoping for a smooth ride. "

"CALLSIGN3, CALLSIGN2, radio check"
"CALLSIGN2, CALLSIGN3, 5 by 5"

"CALLSIGN3, CALLSIGN1 (that's us), moving out"
(callsigns anonymized as comms are monitored and this is the biggest target)

"All Pax, all Pax, headgear on"

15min high speed drive with a view of an armed/armored Humvee only three meters ahead. Clear view of soldier in gun turrent, with helmet and goggles and a .50cal, and the occasional checkpoint but not much else ... other than the occasional rumble and shadow of our gunship escort.

"Welcome to camp Stryker. Get your gear off the gear truck and line up over there for transport to the tents ... sir? Sir? Are you staying in the tents?"
"No, I'm meeting my security detail"
"You're meeting a security detail? (pause, look at my badge) Okay, 2nd tent on the left, talk to the lady inside, someone will come get you"

PSD: "Bentley? Great, come with me."

Move in armored SUV's with PSD's to Camp Victory, eat at mess hall, sleep in a group tent for a few hours, with personal bag tied to cot under my head, get up the next morning for the final leg of the transport to the civilian terminal.

"Passport and ticket?", show, repeat several times.
Checked baggage hand check. Pay for weight overage, cash only.
Most thorough body search ever, I'm not sure but I think we might be engaged now.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, sorry for the late departure. We will circle-climb to a safe altitude and then start our flight to Amman. We expect to arrive in 1 hour and 20 minutes."

Sleep.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Amman. Please stay in your seats until we are finished with our taxi".

My personal bag has US$60,000 cash in $100's, I'm the employer's mule this trip ... nothing to declare.

"Adlie, Habibi! AsSalaam Alaikum"
"Hello Mr. Rick! Welcome, welcome. The car is over here"

"Checking in? ... room X ... he will take your bags"
"Shukran"

Close the door, cash in the safe, concealed bullet proof vest off for the last time ... possibly ever. Shower. Food. Gym.

It's not home, but it's a world away from where I was. The pressure is off. I'm safe in Amman.

Posted by rick at 03:50 AM

February 07, 2005

Too much, Magic Bus

Every day I get in the queue (Too much, Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, Magic Bus)
You house is only another mile (Too much, Magic Bus)
...
--The Who

Well, there are no more chopper rides out of here, but there's something that, combined with the procedure, I've decided is even safer: The Rhino Bus

Hey, if it's good enough for Rumsfeld, Myers, and even Saddam Hussein (in shackles), it's got to be good enough for me. I won't go over the procedure here but let's just say that we are so heavily guarded/escorted that it might actually be kinda neat to watch someone try to take us out. I will be going silent this evening before my ride to the airport, taking a flight from BIAP to Amman tomorrow morning, and showing up in Amman tomorrow night (the 8th) local time.

One thing I do know for sure is that ... I'm outta here!

...Every day you'll see the dust (Too much, Magic Bus)
As I drive my baby in my Magic Bus (Too much, Magic Bus)

Posted by rick at 02:09 AM

February 06, 2005

Wrong side of the fence

As I mentioned in the last entry I've been meeting a local hire at one of the checkpoints. We realized the other day that the 14th of July Bridge checkpoint is both closer to our camp and to his house so we figured we'd try it instead.

At the first checkpoint, the procedure is that I walk out the side marked "exit" and about 3/4ths the way (~75 yards) through the checkpoint I meet Mohammed and walk him back in the side marked "entrance".

So I pull up to the new bridge/checkpoint, ask the guard what the procedure is, and he says to park my car here, on the right side of the bridge, and walk across, just follow the signs. No problem. I park the car and start walking across the bridge, on the right hand side, though I can't help feel pretty exposed walking across the Tigris. The signs say "do not leave sidewalk". Pretty much every sign here is followed with "deadly force authorized" so I follow them much more than back home.

I get to the other side of the bridge, walk past a 15' tall guard/gun tower with two guards in it, and past a barricade, and ... I'm in the Red Zone. Shit. I'm outside the GZ. I turn to go back in and the sign says "do not enter or you will be shot" in English and Arabic. K... I'm standing in downtown Baghdad, cars whizzing by, sticking out like a sore thumb.

I look for the entrance, it's on the other side of the traffic circle and there is a barrier running down the median so I have to walk *farther* into the RZ to get to it. Shit. No PSD's. No car. On foot. In downtown Baghdad. There has to be a better way. I look back at the guard tower with the machine guns sticking out of it, and thankfully a soldier inside waves me back. I approach, with my hands in plain view, past the sign that says I will be shot, and tell him the situation. He says to walk behind his tower to the opposite side of the bridge. I do, jogging across a dirt field, this takes me to another tower, again, hands out, explain the situation, told to walk behind his tower too ... and I'm back in the GZ.

What happened was I walked over on the right hand side of the bridge, the side on which I parked, and then the signs said do not leave sidewalk so I never thought of crossing to the left. I should have walked over on the left side of the bridge and this wouldn't have happened. Well, military zones aren't exactly idiot proof and there was no way I could have known which side to walk on ahead of time, so I took the one that I parked on. Also, at each checkpoint, you are intentionally in a maze of barriers that you can't see far past, so no one can see far in, so it's not like you can see the whole thing ahead of time. Quite the morning adrenaline rush.

Anyway, I met my guy and we walked back. All's well that ends well. I leave tomorrow; I'm seriously considering not going outside between now and then.

Posted by rick at 02:11 AM

February 05, 2005

Sometimes it just hits you

I've only got a couple of days left before I withdraw to Amman, I'll be heading to BIAP soon on the Rhino Convoy (more in another post, I'm now convinced that it's safer than by helicopter).

Currently the most dangerous part of my day is meeting a local I recently hired at one of the checkpoints. This involves me having to go most of the way through the checkpoint and escorting him back in. In theory, if a bomber hits while I was out there, and checkpoints are favorite targets, I could get hit. On the flip side, there are plenty of military guys out there too, who spend whole shifts out there every day for an entire tour of duty --- so I still have it cush in comparison.

Walking back to my car, knowing I'm on a plane soon, and doing the routine check for bombs before I get in it, or touch it, it suddenly hit me how strange it would be to check my car like this at home -- but, it's such a habit now, that I can't imagine *not* doing it.

That's when it hits you: This place is nuts. And it makes *you* nuts.

I'm way more "agro" than when I left, I can feel it in my IM/e-mail or phone calls with friends and family back home. A psychologist who teaches the 1 week anti-terrorism training course, which many of the people here attended (but not me), said that this place really does make you nuts. Then he gave a great personal example: he got in a fender-bender shortly after getting back from Iraq. The other driver said "hey, we gotta exchange info" and the psychologist said "the fu** we do!" and drove off. The police picked him up later on hit and run charges. Now, this is a professional with a PhD, has a steady job, pays his taxes, etc. and is a professionl shrink and he was nuts when he got back and didn't even know it.

Anyway, if you see me spend a couple of minutes looking around/under my car before I get in it, just kick me in the head or something.

Posted by rick at 12:48 PM

February 02, 2005

"Sharp increase seen in deaths of U.S. Civilians"

This from yesterday's Stars and Stripes, via Associated Press.

The article is a little weak, in that it doesn't count for any increase in the number of contractors in country, but neither does the original report from which it draws: note this is the same report that slams the CPA for spending money in Iraq to improve the infrastructure before there was in infrastructure in place to account for the money being spent (yes, it is a chicken and egg argument; thus a poor one).

In any case, not a bad time to be going.

Posted by rick at 09:10 AM

BAM ... something hit the roof

As is usual for me, I'm sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when BAM! something hits the roof of the work trailer I'm in ... hard. It was really loud. Then we hear whatever it is bounce around and fall off the side.

Wtf? Sit still for while, to see if there's anything more coming. Nothing. So go outside and start looking around. We figure it was a stray bullet. One of the local guards is looking around, he heard the gun fire then heard it hit the trailer and he thinks it's a stray bullet too. I even stood up on the sandbags to look on the roof, er, with my Kevlar helmet on, looking for it. No luck.

I spent some time playing Physics 101, and a little web research, and figured that a rifle bullet shot straight up (with a muzzle velocity of 2000-3000 fps) comes down at only a few hundred fps (due to wind resistance), it might be going faster in a shallower arc but it's still much slowed by the time it's lobbed over the walls of the camp, given the height of our walls, and a rifle bullet is light compared to a handgun bullet ... so the short story is that I think our roof is "bullet proof" (when the bullets are lobbed, not from direct fire) and I think that was empirically demonstrated too.

...oh goodie...

Posted by rick at 04:38 AM

February 01, 2005

Press Effects

The press is increasingly the tool of the "insurgents". In fact, look at the article and photo run by several news agencies and tell me what you think: a very special effect

Aiding and abetting or just pure incompetence? I think it's more like corruption: they make money by showing things blowing up ... and to spin the story to make it sound as significant as possible. Showing all the cars that didn't blow up doesn't sell their papers.

So, here's the real question: why do we pay for news? It used to be that it took a lot of money to send people around the world with cameras, send the film/photos back home with a story, print it on paper, and deliver the papers back out around the world. Then it took a lot of money to run a news station and broadcast nationwide, or internationally, to everyone's living room. But now? If you pay for news, the news is already spun to be a tempest ... with no mention made that it resides in a teapot.

Welcome to the new millennium where you can trust the internet and your own intelligence more than the big news agencies. Let me be the first to predict the demise of, and coin the term, "old stream media".

(update: I just googled "old stream media" and there were 9 hits; so I guess I was only one of the first).

Posted by rick at 04:30 AM