Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Travels of 2014: Kurdistan, Part 3

November - Iraq: Day Two

The very important question in the van on the way to the hospital was what the hashtag of our trip should be. Which is hilarious because only one of the six of us even have a twitter account. It was a debate that lasted for days, but it was agreed that Jeff, Tim, and I were the #AllTheFun portion of the team. The reason was twofold: one, none of us had medical degrees (still don't), which led to two, we got to do something outside the hospital while our good doctors were stuck inside all day!

We left Dr. Kirk, Allison, and Anita at the hospital and went to the KSC headquarters. We were ushered to an office with a large desk, wood floors, and couches on both sides of the room. One of the administrators came in and made pleasant small talk with us at one point, but it was about 45 minutes before we left. In that time, they brought us my favorite Kurdish tea yet. They're all the same basic idea: extremely strong black tea with sugar, but each maker's tea tasted different, and the tea made by a lady at the KSC office was my favorite. I remember telling her "Good morning" in Kurdish, and upon finding out she's Persian, said "Merci" for the tea. 

Soon after we climbed into a van that was followed by one or two others, loaded with large cardboard boxes. They are filled with clothing for refugee families who have fled here from conflict-torn cities like Mosul, and our task of the day is to deliver the boxes to local churches where the refugees are staying. Our guide and translator for the majority of the day was a smart young woman named Nawras in her mid-twenties who worked for KSC. Her English made me slightly embarrassed for even attempting Kurdish because she was so fluent, but we all enjoyed her company very much. She was kind enough to answer all of our questions and tell us about the city as we drove through various parts, and brought some well-timed humor. (I asked if there were many road accidents considering the....adventurous and flexible nature of the drivers. I then said I hadn't seen one since we arrived, and her response was, "Would you like to see one?")

We pulled into a cobblestoned alley flanked by two tan-stoned buildings. The wall on the right gives way to a long arch of a doorway, the doorway to a church, and there is a grass-covered courtyard beyond it. The other three walls supported two floors of rooms. Tim walked in and a handful of children flocked to him, and within seconds there were enough of them that he backed out into the alley to make room for those bringing in boxes. Tim is truly something of a pied piper, because in a blink the number of children around him did something like quadruple - or more.

Eventually we were ushered into the courtyard with the gaggle of kids, and my eyes bugged seeing the throng surrounding our balloonologist. There were toddling little ones to youngsters taller than myself, and parents holding babies, too. I can't decide if a crowd of people all talking at once is less or more chaotic if you can't understand the majority of what is being said. At any rate, seeing as Tim was swamped, I laughingly remarked on how his hands were full. He returned by telling me he had a second pump, if I'd like to start making balloons too. I'd never made a balloon animal in my life, but there was no way I could say no.

In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in a church housing refugees, and I'm holding a brightly colored pump about to make an inflated animal out of a green balloon. I had many an incredulous private laugh. 

I made a balloon animal alongside him while he made one, then he moved a distance away, talking half of the crowd with him. I stood on one of the stepping stones that lined the courtyard so I could feel slightly taller than the adolescents who stood eye to eye with me. 

"Animal? Flower?" These words, a few of them know. 

"He wants an elephant."

"And he wants a bicycle."

I'd made only one balloon animal in my life and I was being asked to make an elephant and a bicycle. 

Let's just say I did my best. 

Jeff, Tim, and I were having so much fun with the kids that we didn't realize the trucks were getting packed up and leaving. The van that we arrived in was the last to leave, as the kids didn't want the novelty balloon man to leave. 

But with a few parting tokens, we climbed into the van and drove off to the next mini adventure of the day. 

(to be continued)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Travels of 2014: Kurdistan, Part 2

November - Iraq: Day One Continued

It is Saturday afternoon and I am halfway across the world from my family, my home, and my country. It is a beautiful, sunny day, and while tired and still dealing with vertigo if I stay still for too long, I'm excited to go to the hospital and meet people and feel this new city, this new place, beneath my feet. 

"Baeyani bash!" I tell the clerk at the front desk. "Good morning" in Sorani Kurdish, which I had devoted some time to learning before the trip (made easy because I have a Kurdish classmate and a Kurdish coworker). Some of the others found a bread shop down the street, and the workers were kind enough to give them five loaves for free because they hadn't had a chance to convert their Turkish currency, and the bills they had were very large. Flatbread with some cheese that Anita brought in her luggage is breakfast, then the KSC drivers who picked us up only hours before pulled up in front of the hotel to take us to the hospital. There are two hospitals across the street from each other -- one is a children's hospital and the other is for all ages and where our doctors will perform catheterizations later on in the week. 

We walk up two flights of stairs, the walls decorated with faded images of childhood icons like Spongebob and Minnie Mouse, and are shown an office at the end of the hall where Dr. Kirk and the others are going to do screenings for the rest of the day. The hall outside isn't exactly bare, but the florescent lights sap a bit of cheer from linoleum-floored space. Dr. Kirk, Allison, and Anita  get set up in the office, and I go out with Jeff and Renas to run a few errands in town. I snap a photo of the street and get more of my U.S. cash converted to the Iraqi dinar.  

I've brought my violin, and when we get back to the hospital, the 3rd floor hall is full with families. Some will wait for hours - practically the whole day, in fact. I stand next to the wall at the end of a row of chairs, take out my violin, and play a few songs that I know well. After a while I catch the eye of a little girl who's watching me, and I hold out my violin to her. It is incredibly difficult trying to demonstrate how to play a very technical instrument without speaking the language, but I try, eventually poking my head into the screening room for some translation help.

"Betchenago shanebikra" I say, gesturing with my hand. "Hold it with your chin and shoulder." She eeks out a note and I grin excitedly and say "Bash! Zohr jwan!" enthusiastically, as I've done so often before when I've let kids try out my instrument, only I've never told them it's good and sounds beautiful in Kurdish before. 

Pretty soon there's a small line of children, and I pass my violin around. It's likely the first time they've ever seen let alone played a violin, and I feel like a celebrity as the parents have us pose for picture after picture. Later on while I was playing, some of the parents even recorded some video on their smartphone or tablet. (Something else that surprised and amused me: nigh everyone had such advanced technology -- more advanced than my four year old phone and six, or more, year old laptop. It was something I hadn't expected.)

When there is a English and Kurdish speaking person around, I leap at the opportunity to converse and shamelessly use them as translator as I mingle and try to get to know the many families waiting in that hallway. By now the hall is filled with colorful balloon animals and hats courtesy of Tim, our balloonologist, and we have to keep a sharp eye out for the rainbow-colored soft plastic soccer ball that Jeff purchased and is kicking around with the children. What could be a hushed and painfully boring place looks more like a child's birthday party. 

The day ends around 6pm if my memory serves; we are driven back to the hotel and have some down time before we meet on the top floor for dinner.

This hotel restaurant provided the greatest unanswered question of the trip. 

On the back wall there was a large TV screen, and as we talked, conversation gradually continued to drift to the subjects on the screen. I shall endeavor to describe: there was a bright green stage and backdrop and there was an Muslim man standing in a corner singing or chanting. There were also two women completely covered in black robes -- couldn't even see their faces, with a bright green headband that went around. They were bowing or doing some sort of dance. At some point of the headbands got taken off. We persisted in speculating, though our only conclusion was, "It's unclear." We asked one of the restaurant staff what was going on, but he didn't understand us and our gesturing to the TV, as was made clear when he changed the channel and instead of dancing black-robed women we were treated to an elephant with a paintbrush painting on an easel in the African savannah. 

I guess we'll never know. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Travels of 2014: Kurdistan, Pt. 1

Dang, this year ended with a blast. 

During the last two months I've made two trips, my first international and my first alone. They were both amazing and so, so special in their own ways. 

So to conclude 2014, I'm starting a journal-like narrative of my recent travels: a testament to how good God is, and this splendid world He has created. 

November - Iraq: Day One

 I step off the plane that took me from the Portland International Airport to Washington, D.C., and sigh in relief as I see a tall, light-haired figure, inches over 6 feet, standing by the gate. It's Dr. Kirk, the pediatric cardiologist who has let me join this missions trip to Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan region, Iraq, and my biggest concern about this trip was finding him before making the connection to Munich. My first international flight. He's upgraded to business class, so I  sit in economy with a space between myself and the lady sharing the center row of seats. It is a huge flight: two aisles, seven seats to a row in total. I record a sound clip of the German being spoken on the PA system and send it to my best friend before the plane begins to taxi. 

"Au revoir," I whisper to the ground as the plane lifts me off the surface of the continental U.S., not to return to it for over a week. The flight is long, eight hours, and I read letters from my best friend, eat, and doze intermittently for the first six, resisting the glowing interactive screen on the back of the seat in front of me until the final lap, choosing to watch Million Dollar Arm,  which was a suitable choice considering the common theme of different cultures.  

I know airports aren't supposed to count, but I would like it to be known that the first country I have visited outside the United States is lovely Germany. 

There is just time to visit the bathroom, freshen up, and stuff the front page of some local newspapers into my luggage before the flight to Istanbul. It's a smaller plane and a shorter flight; and I find myself seated next to a middle-aged couple. This is being a flight out of Europe, I knew there was a large chance I could practice my mid-201-level French on the flight. "Est-ce que vous parlez le français?" I venture to the wife, who is closest to me. I struck gold: they are from France and on their way to Istanbul for a short vacation with some of their children.

International flights are the best, by the by. You get fed a decent meal on those, and the coffee is perfectly timed. 

Customs was long and tiring, just all of the walking really, but the online visitor's visa I printed out beforehand made it a little bit easier. First stamp in my passport: Istanbul, Turkey. 

Dr. Kirk and I met up with a missionary who has been living there for about three years, if my memory serves. We go down into the city and talk over lunch and tea at a café, sitting at a table along the side of the street, across from the building. The owner kept drifting over to talk because the missionary with us is fluent in Turkish, and Kurdish. After we eat, Dr. Kirk and I walk down through the streets to the Hagia Sofia. Dr. Kirk tells me some about the history of the church, and I get to see the beginning of the restoration of the original mosaics that were covered over by the Muslims previously. 

Funny thing, there are roasted chestnut vendors on nearly every street corner, and by the end of the day I was singing the "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" line from the Christmas song every time we passed one. 

After the Hagia Sofia, we walked down to the spice market, where I buy cumin and mint and other spices and teas for my mother and friends back home. By then it's getting dark, and we take the metro back to the airport and wait out the evening in the United Airlines lounge courtesy of Dr. Kirk's frequent flyer status. 


They have a row of computers and free wifi, and I send a few emails, thankful I can considering I didn't bring my laptop, not expecting to be somewhere with an internet connection the entire trip. I had, however, fully developed jet-lag induced vertigo by this point, and a gigantic desktop screen combined with a Turkish keyboard made it extremely hard to concentrate. The only solution was walking, for me. Once I stopped walking I felt like I was in a turbulent airplane. Something like having sea legs on land, I imagine. 

We met up with the rest of the team about an hour before our flight took off. Anita, Allison, Jeff, and Tim were the other members I had not yet traveled with, and while they were all old enough to at least be my parents, some even grandparents, I liked them all at once and could tell they were a great group of people to be around: funny, full of energy, and joy and sweetness that comes from Christ. 

The flight mainly consisted of Kurdish men, likely coming home to aid the fighting. It was quite hilarious - once the plane touched the ground, as it was still taxiing down the runway towards the gate, all of the Kurds were up out of their seats getting their luggage down from the overhead compartments. The rest of us exchanged amused glances, waiting for a disastrous accident. It thankfully never came, and we all made it through security and customs safely. It's 3:30am on Saturday morning, local time. 

We spend some time waiting for the checked baggage to arrive. Jeff and Allison share clementines from Ethiopia while we wait. I was already totally warmed up to all of them, including Anita whom I was to share a room with, but when Jeff pulled a large luggage off the carousel and said "It's full of lemon heads," I was sold. I'm sure laughter at that unholy hour was something the airport staff was not accustomed to. 

As we exit the baggage claim I see a young lady likely in her early twenties holding a piece of paper that says "Dr. Kirk Milhoan." I stop and let her know this is the group. Her name is Renas and she works for the organization in Kurdistan that invited the team out here. There are two vans that we load our luggage into and take us to the hotel. 

I had no idea what to expect. And apparently, on the last trip the accommodations weren't exactly the best. However, we were all pleasantly surprised, slightly shocked maybe, to see our rooms at the Areen Hotel. The one Anita and I shared had two twin size beds and a queen between, a clean and Western style bathroom, a flat screen T.V., and a one wall that was a huge window offering a view of the city from our fourth floor vantage point. It was lovely. 

We were not expected anywhere until 11am or noon. Once we got settled Anita went to sleep, and I stayed up recording the journey up until that point in a navy-blue travel journal, custom made for me by a dear friend. It was about 6am when I finally drifted off, and I got to watch the light begin to creep up over the hills and touch the skyscrapers.