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.
(BEST LOUNGE IN THE WORLD BTW, YOU COULD LIVE THERE. SHOWERS, COUCHES, AND FREE FOOD. YOU'RE SET.)
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.