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7 April 2011
Kuala Lumpur

Sitting at the DOME cafe overlooking the lake and fountains at the base of the Petronas Towers. I have walked from my fantastic 43rd story apartment at Berjaya Times Square – home to the world’s 5th largest mall. It is so large, in fact, that there is a roller coaster INSIDE of it that I hope to ride later.

On my walk here I got myself turned around in relation to the towers and ended up going the wrong way when looking for this park. To my delight, however, I stumbled upon the Ampang Muslim Cemetery. Those of you who have known me a long time will know that I love cemeteries. They are usually the most peaceful place in any city. 20 minutes caught in a rainshower under a big tree in this cemetery was probably the most relaxed and peaceful I’ve been in months. And they always give me a unique perspective on the character of the culture in which I find myself. In many places, the way a city honors its dead reveals the interesting combination of geo-cultural tradition, religion, and personal style – both of the deceased and of the family caretakers of the plots.

The names can reveal the diversity of the community too. This community, for example, included a plot overflowing with white orchids dedicated to one Diane Gail Hamzah nee Gleeson – an obviously Anglo woman, married perhaps to an Arab, living and dying in Malaysia.

This one cemetery plot also symbolizes for me one of the things I love most about Kuala Lumpur in the less than 24 hours that I’ve been here – the stunning diversity. It is overwhelmingly Asian, to be sure, mostly Malay, Chinese and Hindi. But abayas and hijabs and saris and pashtun pajamas are common and live comfortably with skin-tight mini-skirts, high heels and spiked hair-dos. KL is  a truly modern melting pot – more so than any place else I’ve been except possibly New York. NYC has Latinos, Africans and African Americans, all of whom are virtually absent from KL. But rarely in NY do you find yourself in a large popular outdoor cafe seating hundreds with as many hijabs as eye-glasses. Another thing I find amusing about this city is the pervasive scent of clove cigarettes. It brings me back to my youth, smoking Djarums in the woods of Greenwich, CT.

I consider myself a primarily urban woman. And yet there are few modern cities I actually enjoy enough to want to stay in them for long. Until today I might have said that New York and Paris were the only ones. But today Kuala Lumpur has launched itself into their company without reservation. Why? The diversity. The character. It is different than Paris or NYC, but the ancient banyan trees in the middle of a city block and the scooters and hijabs and saris – they all make for a combined charm NYC & Paris can’t match. I don’t know how I could have gone so long without hearing more about Kuala Lumpur. Who knows what the rest of Malaysia will bring…

The view from my sheltering tree. Did I mention that they almost locked me inside?!

 

On this trip out of Baghdad I was honored to share our plane with a fallen soldier and participate in the dignified transfer of that soldier from our C-130 to the next vehicle in the long chain returning the soldier to their family. On a dusty windy tarmac, in our rumpled green camouflage or traveling denim and mismatched body armor, it was one of the most deeply dignified and honorable and moving experiences of my life.

The ceremony included all 50 of us on the flight (civilian, military and flight crew) standing at attention, or with hands on our hearts, facing each other, while six soldiers transferred the casket between us, with solemn, measured dignity, the 50 feet from the rear of the plane to the rear of the receiving vehicle.

I asked the marine leading the ceremony if I could know the soldier’s name. He said he didn’t know. I feel like I need to find out. And yet there is a part of me that makes it more special to not know – as if my participation in this anonymous transfer allows me to honor the thousands who have fallen in Iraq in the past eight years.

If this seems uncharacteristically sentimental of me, watch the movie, “Taking Chance“. It is the story of a marine escorting another fallen marine across America and back to his family. One of the most profound and moving films I’ve ever watched and I strongly recommend it to everyone. It also gave me, months ago, the exact feeling I had yesterday. There is little I can do to help my friends and family understand most of my life in Iraq. But if you watch the movie, you will understand at least this one small piece.

Eight days, six helos, six fixed wings, seven flight lines, five PRTs, two restaurants, five DFACs, three PXs, one especially flirtatious Ugandan cashier,  one Iraqi feast, 45 provincial reconstruction team officers, eight Italian surgeons, three former British military officers, six gherka guards, one Iraqi general and his two sargeants, dozens of Iraqi children receiving free surgery, one lake, one Ziggurat, one flat tire and fourteen towels.

… and not enough photographs, sorry. But here’s my map of Iraq with all the places I’ve been these past 15 months.   You can follow along geographically from there.

Sunday morning at 0900 I, and my two colleagues, launched ourselves into the Embassy intra-Iraq transportation in the hopes of getting to the PRT (provincial reconstruction team) offices in Salah ad Din province by nightfall (barely 150 kilometers) Shuttle to the first flight to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). Then on to Kirkuk. Then to Speicher base. 9-5.30 to go 150 KM. Welcome to life in Iraq. Everything is like this – takes 4-5 times as long as you’d imagine and requires 4-5 times as many people and 4-5 times as much effort. I’m used to it now though.

Same goes for scheduling. When I first got here I wanted schedules of activities laid out for me. But everything always goes horribly wrong. It also always works out, often better than I would have planned, but never the way it was originally intended. One of my traveling companions was fairly new to Iraq, and I got the feeling she was a little uncomfortable about how wide open our schedules were at the PRTs. I kept saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll show up. We’ll see who’s about, and talk to them. Trust me, you’ll get plenty of good meaty conversations.” I don’t think she did trust me, until the third PRT. In addition to the folks we thought we’d talk to, there were staff available that we didn’t know were going to be around, particularly locals. And we had time that we didn’t think we’d have, due to flight delays from dust storms. It all worked out.

The purpose of our Knowledge Management trip was to ensure that the PRTs knew what to save and where to put it before they closed and to do interviews with as many PRT staff as possible to capture the tacit knowledge of their experience in the province to build out profiles of the political, economic and educational environment.

Notables in Salah ad Din? We had a barbecue with some of the PRT staff outside the CHUs on the second night. Perhaps the most amusing part of Salah ad Din, however, was the fact that when we arrived, we realized that the PRT had provided us sheets for our rooms, but there were no towels (I’d forgotten to ask – most other PRTs have had towels for me). So Sunday night, after dropping our battle rattle (body armor and helmets along with bags)  and touring the base and the PRT and having dinner, we went to the PX (US Army Postal Exchange – basically a little convenience store type place) to find towels. First PX only had hand towels. Second PX had none at all. So we went back to the first PX and we each bought three small brown hand towels to get us through our washing up. By Tuesday morning, when we headed to the flight line for the help back to Kirkuk, we’d been on two helos and one fixed wing. We’d eaten at two separate DFACs, had a dusty, t-wall ensconced barbecue and accumulated nine towels.

Tuesday it was off to Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah, where the offices for the PRTs for Muthanna, Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces were located. First back to Kirkuk then to BIAP then to Tallil. The Dhi Qar PRT is actually run by Italians – residual from the coalition days – and we learned the day before our arrival that the Deputy Director of the Iraq Task Force of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was arriving the same day, along with the US director of the Office of Provincial Affairs and her entourage. We were no longer the priority and when the plane arrived in Tallil, and those other folks were greeted by the Deputy Team Leader of the PRT (American) who would have otherwise been our control officer. No worries, I’m used to changes in plan. 🙂 We were met, instead, by a guy doing security for the PRT. Not an Italian, but in fact a former British military officer – reminiscent of the coalition days in Iraq. Turned out he and his colleagues, who’d been at the PRT for years, were a wealth of information, not to mention being delightfully humorous in their oh so British way. Oh, and this is where the gherkas come in. Rather than Ugandan or Peruvian guards like the US has guarding its bases and the embassy, the Italians have Nepalese gherkas. So delightfully good-natured and friendly.

That night we ordered pizza from a local restaurant on the base which was surprisingly good. But not as good as the pizza that the Italians have cooked themselves, in their own brick oven, at the Italian embassy back in Baghdad (some of you may remember that from last year). We dined with the whole visiting gang and then off to bed.

Next day was meetings with officers from the Muthanna and Maysan PRTs. The actual operating sites for those PRTs were miles away and extremely small and austere, but they had come to the offices at the Tallil base as a central place to meet with us. Many of them often work there on the way in and out of country as well. And so, as I mentioned, we got to meet up with a bunch of officers we would never have imagined we’d have got to see. It was great.

It was on this day that we went to our third PX. Late in the day, I went to the PX to see if I could find larger towels for us, and was overwhelmed by the ministrations of an overly eager Ugandan cashier who decided that I was to be his new bride and began planning our trip back to Uganda. Found micro-towels, which are very thin shami type material and got two (figured if one of them didn’t want one I’d take it). Then I got two regular towels (50% off – how delightful) for my colleagues in case neither of them wanted the micro towel. So now we are up to 13 towels. 🙂

That night there was a great Iraqi feast planned at the Dhi Qar PRT. One of the locals arranged to bring in all kinds of local food, including an enormous pot of dolma (stuffed grape leaves), my favorite. Also kebob and these potato and rice knish type things and pastries. I can never remember what it is all called. The feast was in honor of the Italian surgeons that had come with “Smile Train” – a global non-profit that provides free surgeries to children with cleft palates. They had been working out of a mobile surgical hospital that had been set up by the Italians and US right outside the base. The feast included a presentation of drawings by a local artist to all the surgeons (and anesthesiologists and nurses, etc.) The artist had been at the hospital all week doing artwork with the children and their siblings while waiting for and/or recovering from their surgeries. It was wonderful. Those surgeons were just amazing. I had conversations with a few and thanked them for their work. I remember one man responding, “Oh no. This is my holiday! This is a gift for me, for my heart.” Beautiful.

Next day we had more conversations with Dhi Qar staff and wrapped up the day with a pasta dinner with the deputy team leader and a couple of the British guys at little “restaurant” on the flight line. Please note that throughout Iraq I use the word “restaurant” loosely. Mostly it means the equivalent of a pizza/sub shop in the US – plastic and paper cutlery and plates, soda cans and molded plastic chairs. Only been in one proper restaurant in Iraq – a Lebanese place in Erbil.

Show time on Friday was 0645 for the helo to Basrah, but the dust was crazy – could barely see 500 metres. Weather hold for two hours. Weather hold for another two hours. Then at around noon, they cancelled completely. Of course within about an hour it was totally clear. Figures. Oh well. This is Iraq. So we had a day to catch up on our work and consolidate our notes and go to the gym (at last!) Even managed a visit out to the hospital to see the children and families being helped by Smile Train – they were all so happy and grateful. And had a drive past a little man-made lake on the base where we were told that Kingfishers often congregated to feed on the little fish. From the lake we had a view of the Ziggurat of Ur (where the biblical Abraham was allegedly born). Couldn’t go to it because it was off the base and would have had to get special security team to drive us out, but took a picture…

Saturday morning catch another flight to Basrah and jam a day and a half’s worth of meetings into one day and take advantage of the tiniest DFAC ever (on the PRT site) and one of the largest (on the US Division – South headquarters site across the base). Amusing event was upon return to the PRT with the Deputy Team Leader (a colonel), we discovered a very mean looking humvee in the DTL’s parking spot with a couple of Iraqi Army officers milling about around it. The colonel didn’t speak much Arabic and the officers didn’t speak much English, but eventually they figured out that they were parked in his spot and moved the humvee. When we got into the office we discovered that they had brought an Iraqi general, who was meeting with the Team Leader.

The following morning, my colleague brought out of her CHU a micro-towel she said she found in the CHU. DTL said she could go ahead and keep it and that brings us up to fourteen towels.

The last adventure of the trip was getting a flat tire on the way out and the amusing experience of having four Iraqis, two US civilians, a major and a colonel working together to change the tire. Talk about international teamwork… 🙂

The wheel was rusted on and they had to pull a piece of the iron grating out of a drainage canal to bang the wheel off.

Really wish I could put up the fabulous close up photo of our enthusiastic and very humorous and friendly Iraqi handyman joking around with the colonel, but I don’t want to risk getting him identified as working with Americans and possibly killed. 😦 I love these brave Iraqis who are willing to work with us to make their own country better one project at a time (in this case, the airport in Basrah), even at personal risk. They will be the ones to bring their country out of hatred and into a place of respect in the international community again.

Basrah to BIAP with some stops on the way. Then back to the embassy. Eight days of adventure. Even without trips into the cities to engage directly with Iraqis it was great to be out and about – no matter how many towels.

Dear Kids,

There is no Santa. Those presents are from your parents.

Love,

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks

6-8 November 2010
Attaturk Hawalimani Istanbul to Sydney International Airport

It appears the bad mojo isn’t going down without a fight. My flight to Kuwait was scheduled to depart at 2155, so around 1845 I proceed to Turkish Airlines to check in. The first thing I ask the clerk is whether I can check my bag all the way to Sydney even though I’m changing to Etihad Airways in Kuwait. He takes my itinerary and passport, says, “One moment, please,” and runs off out of sight to the far end of the check-in aisle. After about 10 minutes he comes back to tell me that my flight has been cancelled. I pause. I think of Jody. I think of the face of the bad mojo in the flames of the burning list of crappy things that happened on this trip. I stare at the man.

Somehow I remain calm. “Okay,” I say, “What do we do now?” He brings me down to where he’d been enquiring, which turns out to be the supervisors desk. It’s crammed with people and an especially loud, especially large middle-aged blonde woman screaming at one of the supervisors. I stay on the periphery of the chaos while my little man dives right in and pushes through the crowd, hops the luggage belt, and proceeds to rummage with computers, phones, and other supervisors. After about 15 minutes, the screaming Dutch woman and her entourage (along with a dozen other people who were apparently on the same flight to Amsterdam that appears to also have been cancelled) are escorted off somewhere and I am called to the front as my little man explains my situation to the supervisor: I need to be in Kuwait to catch a 4am Etihad flight to Au Dhabi and then a flight on to Sydney. I raise my eyebrows hopefully at the supervisor who gives me a fleeting but human look.

The supervisor taps away on the computer and shortly tells me that they only are responsible for the Turkish Airlines portion of the ticket and cannot help me get to Sydney. I ask if they can get me to Abu Dhabi and maybe I can pick up that flight. He says there are no flights to Abu Dhabi tonight. I sigh.

I stare at him and my little man in a kind of stunned but semi-amused and baffled silence.
The supervisor prompts me, “Is there somewhere else? I can send you where you want to go”
“Well, I want to go to Sydney, but is there any place in the Gulf you can get me tonight so I can get to Abu Dhabi by 8am?”
He instructs my little man to take me to the office and advises me that one of his colleagues will help me further. I follow.

Well, guess where the angry Dutch woman and her entourage ended up? She’s screaming at about half a dozen female agents at once in a very tiny office. One of the agents, also a large, strong, blonde woman, had clearly reached the end of her prodigious customer service training and was having no more. As I walked in she was saying to the Dutch woman, “Watch yourself. Watch yourself.” A few minutes later I heard the Dutch woman start in again quite vigorously, but the agent cut her off instantly, looking her straight in the eye saying, “I’m not talking to you any more.” and promptly looking away to the man behind her. I stayed quiet and waiting for my little man to explain my plight to another agent.

Eventually, this very pleasant, dark-haired woman about my age called me over and said there was a flight to Dubai at 8pm she could put me on – and Abu Dhabi was only about an hour or so away by taxi. She smiled broadly – clearly pleased that she could help someone so quickly and easily and someone who didn’t yell at her. But it was already 7.30p and I looked worried. Her face fell as I half whispered “But I still have to pay this speeding ticket or they won’t let me out of the country?!” clutching the thin paper covered with Turkish chicken scribble documenting my shameless violation of Turkish traffic laws. I was deeply impressed when my new fixer hesitated only ever so slightly as I watched her brain work at lightening speed. “Okay. It’s okay. I will get someone to help you. We can do it.” She was already typing the last few things on the keyboard to confirm my seat and verify that I could get a visa on arrival in Dubai. In one fluid movement she rose from her desk to escort me around the now steaming but relatively silent Dutch woman and bags back into the buzzing terminal and instructed me to stay there while she went into a back room to fetch another young female agent at whom she talked in rapid and vigorous Turkish as they walked and caught me up in their momentum. As we were all walking she finished talking to the other agent and turned to me and said this woman would take care of me the whole way. My former fixer then peeled off with a smile and headed back to her office while the young woman and I were already making our way at a brisk clip to a special agent’s desk. I just followed.

As we approached the desk, my young woman began talking rapidly to the agent behind the counter while we were still a good 10 metres away and by the time I arrived at the counter a few seconds later, the agent handed me my boarding pass and my new young fixer was helping to load my luggage on the belt. Two seconds later I was handed my baggage claim ticket, whilst my young fixer was already moving us on to the next destination. I took the boarding pass and the claim ticket, thanked the ticket agent, and hurried after my new young fixer.

I thought she was taking me to an ATM machine because I knew the police office was in the opposite direction (something the woman at the immigration fines desk had told me earlier when I asked where to pay the ticket). But to my surprise, we arrived at the desk for immigration fines. I turned to my sweet young fixer, almost embarrassed to tell her that A). I’d been here before and it was the wrong place – I’d been told to go to the police station across the terminal, and B). I need to go to an ATM because I don’t have cash (originally I would have had three hours to take care of this). She looked confused momentarily, and a little panicked. “The ATMs are downstairs,” she confessed, with a worried look. But then she immediately pulled out her phone and started calling people. I stare at her, bewildered.

As soon as she hangs up I say, “How do I get downstairs?” she points to the stairs and says she will go back to the immigration fines counter to verify that I really can pay the fine there. “Okay. I’ll meet you back there in a few minutes!” I holler over my shoulder as I break into a run towards the stairs. She gives me the thumbs up and a smile as she starts dialing again. I run down the stairs and halfway across the terminal to get to the ATMs and run back again and scramble impatiently back up the escalator. Thank goodness there were no problems with the machine. I run up to the immigration fines desk and my young partner with the phone to her ear nods and points to the woman behind the counter. In my fevered state I throw the ticket and the 150 Turkish Lira and my passport through the window at the old woman. I don’t know Turkish but I could tell my young partner was telling someone at the gate that I was on my way and to be sure to hold the flight for me. But the whole thing is taking too long. I panic slightly.

The old woman behind the counter couldn’t seem to find the ticket in the system, according to my fixer. I stare, stunned. “But wait,” I exclaim, “I have a US passport, but an Australian driver’s license. Maybe that’s the problem?” My young partner translates and the old woman finds it. She hands over a receipt and my young partner and I perch apprehensively, like racers, ready to bolt off to passport control. But what about my 20 Turkish Lira change? I wait. One second, two seconds. My partner and I are both visibly antsy. Three seconds. I’m just about ready to let go of the 20 when the old woman hands it over and away we go again. “We will go to the other passport control.” she says. I follow, quickly.

She gets me into a special line and I wait behind only one man. She says she will go around and meet me on the other side. I step up to the passport control agent and hand him my documents through the window. He glances at them quickly and says, “No. You have to go to the passport control at the other end of the terminal.”
I flip. “No. NO. NO! I’m going to miss the flight!”
“No. I cannot take you here!” he shakes his head.
But I cannot leave, because I can’t see my fixer on the other side and I cannot do this alone. I appeal to the female guard at the entrance to this special passport control line, but she can’t help and doesn’t really speak good English anyway. I melt down a little and turn around in circles looking for help in all directions and finding none.

Finally I see my young fixer on the other side. “Go through passport control there!” she shouts and points at the guy I just talked to. I yell back at full volume in a panic across the whole of passport control, “He won’t let me in! He won’t let me in! He says I have to go back down there!” I gesture wildly down the endless terminal. She comes up from her side and the guard comes up from my side and the two of them start yammering in Turkish to the passport control agent. But my fixer eventually surrenders and comes out to me saying that we have to go to the combined police/passport control booth because of the speeding ticket. This time we actually run.

It felt like some sort of buddy superhero movie with us running madly together through the terminal. She finally delivers me to the proper folks and says “When you are through, go left and all the way back down to get to gate 223.” As I thank her I try to hand her the 20 Turkish Lira note I got as change for my fine, but she refuses. We share a quick smile and say good-bye. If there’d been time I would have hugged her. I get through passport control. I run – like a madwoman. By that time it was five minutes to eight and the flight was supposed to leave at eight. I run faster.

After interminable hallways and moving walkways that didn’t move, at last I arrived at gate 223 out of breath. “Calm down.” the woman says. I am puzzled until I notice heaps of people sitting in the boarding area. All that running, and the plane wasn’t even boarding yet. I sat. I breathed heavily.

We ended up sitting for another 45 minutes before boarding and another two and a half hours in the plane on the tarmac, waiting to be cleared for take-off. The 8pm flight was due in Dubai at 2.35am – plenty of time for me to contact Etihad before my 4am Kuwait departure to let them know that I wasn’t going to be in Kuwait but wanted to join in Abu Dhabi. But as we sat on the tarmac, the possibility of my reaching Etihad before my Kuwait departure slipped away. Without prior notice, and missing the first leg of the ticket, the chances of them letting me on in Abu Dhabi were greatly reduced. And the longer we waited to take off, the possibility of my even reaching Abu Dhabi in time to make the flight was fast slipping away as well. I sighed. I sat back in my seat that didn’t recline and began to write about the adventure.

Thank goodness I was sitting next to a charming and amusing Cypriot named Tuncay who kept me smiling in spite of myself. He was irrepressible. By the time I sat next to him I was very angry, nervous and anxious. Whenever I tried to explain my story and my apprehensions he just laughed and told me a joke or changed the subject or regaled me with the history of Turkey or Cyprus or said something devilish. It was great because I very well might have made my mojo worse with the mood I was in. And as you will see, I didn’t have many minutes to spare for more bad mojo. So, eventually, he wore down my negativity. I surrendered to Tuncay’s good humor and enjoyed the flight and passport control with the one and only Cypriot I’ve ever met (from Turkish Cyprus, just to be clear).

We arrived in Dubai at 0530 – pretty damn late. Passport control is understaffed by slow-moving agents in the classic Emerati white robes and headscarves and processing takes 45 minutes. I say good-bye to my new friend from the flight and settle in to wait for my luggage – the one thing I’m convinced won’t be a problem now since it is just a one-leg itinerary from Istanbul to Dubai (as they made perfectly clear in Istanbul when they told me they couldn’t help with any other part of my ticket). But the bag never shows up. The workers are pulling the last luggage from the belt but mine is not among them. I try not to freak out and ask for the baggage office.

A lovely, dark-skinned woman about my age tracked down my bag. Apparently the Turkish Airlines staff had put my full itinerary on the baggage – all the way to Sydney. My new fixer was able to verify that the bag was, in fact, in Dubai (just metres away from me no doubt) – but since there is no transfer of bags from Dubai to Abu Dhabi they wouldn’t have known what to do with it. But the fact that it was “in Dubai” did not necessarily mean, the woman cautioned with a  somber face, that I would actually be able to take possession of it any time soon. “I don’t know how long it will take to find it. It’s a huge facility back there.” We agreed that while she went to look for my bag (or get someone on the job), I would try to find the Etihad ticket office to see if I could manage to get on the Abu Dhabi flight. It was a bit of an up and over to find the general ticket office, where I learned that Etihad doesn’t have an office in Dubai because they only fly out of Abu Dhabi. The 60 year old Indian man who helped me at the general ticket desk was very nice, but he couldn’t do much more than call the Etihad call centre. The young gentleman on the other end of the phone said that the policy is that a passenger can’t join a ticket out of sequence. But he advised me to get over to Abu Dhabi and tell the agents there my story and that they might be able to override the policy. I took a deep breath.

While I was wrapping up the call, my Indian grandpa started whispering “Ask him the schedule for the shuttle.” When I did, the guy on the phone asked when my flight was. “10am” I said. “Okay… then the last shuttle you can take to make the flight would be the 7am one.” “What time is it now?” I look at grandpa… He looks at his watch. “6.53” he says reluctantly. “Okay,” I sigh. “So that’s not really an option then is it?” We all know it is a rhetorical question. I thank the guy at the Etihad call centre and hang up. My Indian grandpa says, “Look, just take a taxi over there and see what the shuttle folks can do for you. Sheikh Zayed Drive, at the Chelsea Tower. All the taxi drivers know where it is.” I sigh. I breathe. I wonder if Mahilia found my bag. I thank him and dash out the door back over and down to get back into baggage claim.

Mahilia had said to go to the baggage office behind the taxi rank to get someone to escort me back into baggage claim. My level of urgency was of no consequence to the folks in the exterior baggage office and it took me a good five minutes of begging, pleading and ultimately foot-stomping and name-dropping (I think Mahilia was a supervisor) to get them to finally escort me back to Mahilia. When she saw me, she gave me that half smile that says, “I can’t tell you what you want to hear.” She said she’d talked to the folks out back a couple of times but they still had not been able to locate my bag. I told her what Etihad had said and she advised me to go to Abu Dhabi and try to get on the flight. “When you get to Sydney you can file a baggage claim report and we’ll put the bag on a plane to Sydney.” Although the screw up of the Turkish Airlines staff by putting Sydney on the claim in the first place is what kept me from being able to collect my bag in Dubai, it ensured that the global agreement about baggage would be honored and they would ultimately deliver the bag to the final destination on the tag (if the proper paperwork were filled out in the proper place and order of course). I reflected bemusedly on my choice the previous morning to pack extra clothes in my carry-on bag in case my luggage was lost. Was it intuitive or did my action somehow cause this? But I didn’t have time for reflection. I had a decision to make – leave my bag and maybe, big maybe, get to Sydney on time, or wait for the bag and possibly not get there for at least another day. I closed my eyes for a split second.

“Okay. I’ll leave the bag here in Dubai and go to Abu Dhabi.” knowing that my chances of getting to Abu Dhabi in time, nevermind convincing them to let me on the flight, were very slim and getting slimmer by the minute. “Thank you.” She was kind enough to give me her email address to follow up with and I ran out (again) to the taxis. But first I had to find an ATM (again) because Mahilia said the taxis didn’t take credit cards and I had no dirhams. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for a taxi. To the driver I said, “Sheikh Zayed Drive, please. Chelsea Tower.”
He looked at me kind of funny so I said, “For the shuttle to Abu Dhabi airport.”
“Abu Dhabi airport?”
“No. Sheikh Zayed Drive, the tower, for the shuttle.”
“Shuttle?”
I started to get a bad feeling. He drove. I sat quietly and nervously.

Until 20 minutes later when he drove right past the signs for Sheikh Zayed Drive.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Where are you going?” knowing full well where he was going. “Are you going to Abu Dhabi Airport?”
“Yes.”
“Aaaaaghh!!” (yes, I did actually scream – my first in this whole ordeal). I pointed at the signs for Sheikh Zayed Drive six lanes over yelling, “But that’s Sheikh Zayed Drive where I asked you to take me!!” They told me you’d know where it fucking was!! Aaaaaggghhhh!!!” (yes, I did scream again, loudly and unashamedly, and cursed). He looked surprised that he’d made a mistake and feigned an apologetic face, but I had no doubt that he did it on purpose to get more money out of me. But I told him I was very mad at him and that besides I only had enough cash on me to cover the trip to Sheikh Zayed Drive. He said okay he would find an ATM. I sulked.

Shortly thereafter he pulled over at the single most crowded petrol stop I have ever been to in my whole life. I got more dirhams and actually ended up at Abu Dhabi airport at around 8.30am somehow. The driver decided to try to rub it in by saying I never would have made it by the shuttle, but I decided not to argue that this truth did not excuse the gross moral violation of his hustling me but I didn’t want to talk to him. After running to Terminal 3 from where he dropped me at Terminal 1, I finally found a lovely Etihad supervisor named Shivanthi who seemed to take my dilemma to heart and she began making calls. But the situation seemed to get more and more complicated as she called one person after another on the landline and three mobile phones, while simultaneously solving other passenger and agent problems. I stood silently and prayed to be willing to accept the things I could not change.

At 0910 she said they were closing the check-in counters. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I was on the flight or off the flight. I didn’t say anything. But then she made one more phone call and then tapped a few keys and I heard the most beautiful sound of a boarding pass being printed. She said I couldn’t get a refund for the unused portion from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi, but at least she could get me on the flight to Sydney. I nearly kissed her. I stared at my boarding pass in near disbelief, then looked at the clock in disbelief… 0925. The flight was already boarding and I hadn’t even got through passport control! I ran off once again.

I got to the gate with only enough time to stop in the WC to brush my teeth and throw water on my face. I am now on the plane at 1015 local time, sitting next to two 9-month old infants and absolutely thrilled and grateful to be here. Away we go… At this very moment that I write this we are starting down the runway – how perfect! And…. wheels up!

I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Helen Keller: “The world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.” I am deeply indebted to many wonderful human beings who made it possible (with barely minutes to spare) for me to arrive in Sydney on time: my little man, my lovely agent and my superhero buddy from Turkish Airlines in Istanbul; Mahilia and my Indian grandpa of Dnanta Airport Services in Dubai; the Etihad call centre guy; and Shivanthi from Etihad in Abu Dhabi. I suppose I even have to thank my taxi driver.

I will never ever forget this journey. More than anything I suppose I re-learned the value of pressing on in spite of overwhelming odds, of being willing to re-prioritize constantly, and of jettisoning extra weight quickly and without remorse. I also re-learned that I am indeed a skilled problem-solver and operate at my best in crisis situations, especially when I have sole decision-making authority. I am reminded of a quote from the movie Brazil. I believe it was DiNiro’s character who said “Travel light. Live fast. Work alone.”

… 14 hours later…

I will be landing in Sydney within the hour. I can only believe that it has been God’s will. Insha’allah.

Sorry for not writing in so long, but I’ve been working really hard and not much of interest had happened. I’m now on R&R again and met up with my sister Jody in Turkey.

Jo and Caryn at lunch in Kas, Turkey

We had this horrible bad luck/mojo/juju following us the whole time, but it was still great to see her.

You can see the photos here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=292164&id=645442789&l=e203c72631

And here is Turkey, the short version:
Istanbul: cold, rainy, crowded, bad hotel, bewildering and great Turkish scrub and rub with 50 of our nearest and dearest half-naked strangers, good dinner, brekky with kitty, spyrographs

Drive to Gallipoli: Bad sig…nage, grumpy locals, endless empty fruitless roads, lost, dark
Eceabat: Good hotel, fireworks for Turkey Republic Day, nice ferry, no people

Drive to Pamukkale: long
Pamukkale arrival: crap hotels, crap food, crap internet, Crapital One (credit card problems)

Pamukkale travertines: quiet, peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, stunning, calming
Drive to Kalkan: good views, winding roads through colorado-like scenery

Kalkan: sunning, sitting, reading, eating, swimming, sleeping RINSE, REPEAT, great views, cute town, good food, football, ruins, Patara beach, scenic drive, fish sandwich from fat man who threw out incumbent customer to seat us at best table and then ran across the street to buy our fish

Drive north: laughing, gritching, farting, belching, speeding (130 turkish lira ticket)

Kutahya: crowded, bad signage, traffic fustercluck, overpriced crap hotels

Roadside Petrol Motel: cheap, clean, very very friendly, relief

Then back to Istanbul airport…