Friday, May 22, 2009
Food for Thought
It's on the subject of water that we once again find ourselves out on the road. After looking at a project designed to transport it, and another to allow transport over it, we now stand in front of a canal, or more specifically, a ditch. Clearly, this used to work. There are locks and intakes, overflows and outlets. It has the overall v-shape of a canal. But this can hardly be called a canal. Choked with weeds and overgrown with vegetation, strewn with trash, rocks, and debris, there is water here, but is it even fit for the plants to drink, let along people? This is (was) a crop canal. It draws from a large lake nearby. The water that flows down this 8.5 km canal is the lifeline for agricultural towns and villages along its banks supplying up to 40% of the water needed to grow the palms, dates, pomegranates, and oranges the people here rely on for economic stability and sustenance. We are later told by a local sheik that the produce here is some of the best in the world and even in drought all of the tall palms and brush we pass here are green. Our job is to make sure there is still water for the next generation of farmers after we are long gone from here.
We dismount our MRAPs to get a closer look. I take measurements and draw a few rough sketches. It is a strange feeling, walking along a canal in a foreign, holding a rifle, a notepad, and a digital camera. I look up from my notes and realize that our patrol has moved along down the canal from my position. I hurry to catch up. It's not very reassuring to know that while their sole mission here at this canal is to provide for the safety of myself and my partner, they have decided to tell me I am moving too slowly by leaving me there. Still, little things keep holding me up. I notice that the frogs here sound different. It's difficult to explain, but they're croaking clearly is frog-ish, as in, I can tell they're frogs, but the sound doesn't match that of the toads I grew accustomed to hearing while living in Hawaii or elsewhere in my travels in Arizona, Florida, or Alabama.
I look to the left and there are cows and sheep, no more than 10 feet from me, no fence, just animals milling about. They look up at me from the grass and then return to chewing. Again I have fallen behind and hurry to catch up. In all, we don't walk very far, maybe a quarter of a mile, maybe half a mile, just enough to get a feel for what monumental task lies ahead for us to make this canal functional again and reduce some of the infiltration losses. By the time we climb back into our vehicles I am grateful to finally sit down, even if it is in the back seat of an MRAP...
...I learn something new about the Army every day. Today's lesson is that even if you finish your day's mission ahead of schedule, you can't go home until your scheduled return time. Apparently efficiency is not rewarded in the same way that you would expect in most other places back in the states. No. We are short of our return time by several hours, but rather than returning to base early our sergeant tells us he has to stall, having gotten chewed out recently by his leadership after a similar situation. And he knows just the place.
What little I know about Iraqi Police stations comes from the news, and it's not good news. They have often been targets of violence by insurgents, especially during the past several years. When we arrive at this particular station, I am surprised to see what looks more like a large house, than an official building. I suspect that is exactly what it was at some point and people still probably live here. A young man ushers us in to the building, motioning with his A-K. His uniform consists of a blue button-up (un-tucked)shirt, dark slacks, and a pair of sandals. We are led to a room where an officer stands to greet us from behind his desk. We sit in chairs around the perimeter of the room and the sergeant exchanges pleasantries with the man through our interpreter. He has an interesting habit of running play-by-play for us during his conversations with local nationals. He follows up a short string of questions for the police officer about the canal and the people in the area by looking at us and telling us that this guy is crook and that he doesn't trust him. The man is clearly nervous or anxious about something. His face and voice are calm, but he can't keep his hands from fidgeting and looking closer I see that he's shaking. I wonder if he has some sort of medical condition that gives him the shakes. After several more minutes of non-threatening conversation he finally stops shaking. I guess he is convinced we aren't there to arrest him. Actually, we are there to speak with his boss, the captain of the station. He makes a phone call and informs us we will have a fifteen minute wait.
The wait ends up being closer to a half an hour, during which I am served my first glass of Iraqi Chai tea. Having only tasted store-brand Chai back in the states, I don't know what to expect. I am surprised when the tea is brought out in what appear to be small glass beer steins, handle and all (just big enough for my pinkie), with matching mini-spoons and saucers. The tea itself is very dark, almost black and there is a heavy layer of sugar at the bottom, hence the spoons. I don't know where the water came from to make the tea. "They added some goat piss to mine," one of the soldiers cracks. It could be the canal, or the lake. Either way, my tea is very hot and I'm told they boil everything and add iodine tablets like you would on a hiking trip which is good enough for me. It tastes good, the bitterness is counteracted well by the generous serving of sugar but I can't help but consider the irony of a group of men sitting around in a non-air conditioned room, wearing full battle rattle, drinking a scalding liquid and smoking cigarettes when its 115 degrees outside...
...The Police Captain enters the room wearing a beret and an enormous grin. He carries what could most easily be described as a collapsible beating stick and something about his eyes remind me of the cartoon character Droopy. Unlike his counterpart who, upon his arrival quickly rises from the desk and practically runs from the room, he knows a small amount of English and he isn't afraid to show it. He notices my friend and I aren't Army soldiers and he addresses us by rank. We ask him some more questions about the canal, and yesterday's bridge. He and our sergeant have clearly established a rapport and they spend several minutes joking about whiskey and women. The tone becomes more serious when the sergeant asks for the names of some individuals who have been causing trouble in the area and may be causing the delay of several important infrastructure projects. The captain gives us names, but he insists they not be tied back to him. In a land where vendettas are commonplace and grudges are never forgotten, I can understand his concern.
The tension is broken by two police officers entering the room. They each carry a tray of food. I am about to have my first Iraqi meal. We skip some of the formalities of a true Iraqi meal and we are told by the captain to go ahead and dig in to the bread, meat, and vegetables set before us on the small, plastic tables. Kneeling, I follow the example of the other soldiers who have obviously done this before. Breaking the bread (sanoom) in half, we stuff it with cucumber and salted tomatoes, and added pieces of a flat, meat pie, creating what amounts to Iraqi gyros. I am grateful they spared us the sauce. It is rude to refuse to eat when served in Iraq, but I haven't eaten anything since breakfast, so I have no problems digging in. The meat in slightly sweet and resembles ground beef. I try not to look at it or at my hands which I didn't have the time or ability to wash before the meal. Lunch is ended with a second round of Chai, and a final round of questions and jokes from the captain. I visit their restroom before we mount back up. When I enter flies leap from the hole in the ground. Water drains out of a pipe in the wall, trickling into the sunken dish near my feet. I am grateful to be standing...
...The sun is setting as we leave the chow hall later that night. Somewhere nearby the call to prayer begins again, a man's voice quickly rising and falling on what google tells me is the hejaz scale. I see my first camel spider that night. At first, we think it's a scorpion. It's fast, quickly darting out of the bright light of my flashlight, several times heading straight for my sandled feet. My friend takes a few pictures and we finally chase it under some boxes. It isn't much bigger than a pack of cards, smaller than all of the horror shots of camel spiders you'll find online. Then again, when was the last time you saw a spider that you laughed at for being "only" as big as a pack of cards. My friend, who saw it first, tells me it was in a standoff with a cat when he stumbled upon it. One on one I got my money on the cat, but if the spider brings his friends, all bets are off.