By Gavin John
“What… the… f^%*” I mouthed to Chris as I slowly turned around and pointed to the rifle. “Oh yes. I saw that….” Chris said with a slightly uncomfortable smile. To which our driver looked at me with a huge grin and said in broken English “ Hello! Where you go?!!”. And we explained that we were heading to Erbil to which he merely smiled, nodded and continued to drive. No big, just packin heat. This seems very normal for Iraq but still a bit… surprising to say the least.
For speaking very minimal English our rifle toting friend seemed quite pleasant and personable. Once again really pumped when we would show off our “Iraq Good” in Kurdish, but part of him seemed distracted. Every now and then he would slow down and stare out the windows with an intense stare. I didn’t think much of it until he quickly pulled over and then urgently pointed to the rifle. I was stunned so naturally I just stared at him like a baby deer. Which seemed liked the best choice when an Iraqi man asks you for a gun. He continued to urgently point at his gun and I reluctantly fumbled to grab the gun and hand it to him. He then franticly pointed to a box of bullets near my feet while trying to keep his eye on something outside. I grabbed the box, spilling half the bullets on my lap and handed him a fist full of rounds that he quickly loaded into his rifle. He then took aim… and… BANG!
“What…. The… F%$&” once again found its way out of my mouth as I whipped around to look at Chris who was lost for words as well and just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in awe.
“GOOD!!! GOOD!! GOOOOOD!!” Our rifle-shooting friend exclaimed and handed me the gun back. Loaded at that. “Good!!! Gooood!” he kept on repeating as he jumped out of the car, ran across the road and up the hill. I sat in the passenger side seat with a loaded rifle in awe. Oh god this is loaded… and my practical gun knowledge kicked in and I fumbled to find the safety. I then heard Chris from the back seat mutter the same words I had only been saying for the past few minutes.
“What… The…. F@^%” and pointed up the hill. And there was our friend. With the biggest smile on his face and an even bigger Raven in his right hand, dead might I add. He managed to stop halfway down so I could take a photo of this bizarre moment in my life. He was beaming, I’ve never seen anyone so proud that they just shot the face off a Raven. He then got to the car and threw the bloody corpse in the back seat with Chris, much to his displeasure. He managed to squeak out another slew of profanity at the very dead and very smelly Raven that he was now sharing a back seat with. I however found this hilarious. This guy is officially awesome! Naturally I had to know why he randomly shot a bird out of the sky and through many hand motions we figured out he was fishing.
“Who fishes using Ravens as bait…” Chris said echoing what I was thinking. But I was in no place to judge. And once on our way the “Bad life choice Gavin” reared his head. Still holding the gun I pointed to me, pointed to the gun and smiled. He got it right away. And smiled.
“Yes Yes!! You shoot!!” He said excitedly. Great success!! Probably one of my best ideas ever. So when he pulled over next to a tree full of ravens I leaned over him, and loaded a round into the chamber.
“You better get a video of this Chris” I said while trying to keep the gun steady. “Oh and let me know if any cars are coming. I don’t want to shoot them” I warned as I WAS shooting across a road. Sadly after pulling the trigger my aim seemed to be quite terrible and our friend just laughed and said “No good! No good!” Either way I was happy. It’s not everyday that you get to shoot a gun in Iraq at random carrion birds.
After 20 min of getting to know our friend we pulled up to another military checkpoint. No problem I thought. We’ve done this many times and we’ll be on our way shortly. He’ll just come over and wave us through. No problem right? Wait. I have a loaded rifle between my legs. Oh. No. The solider came over leaned into the window and snapped his finger at me. Once again I countered his angry sounding Kurdish with my best Bambi in headlights face. Well I guess Bambi with a rifle face.
“Delete… the… video… Chris….” I whispered through my teeth. Not too sure why I asked him that but I figured that the video of me shooting would make me more guilty. The solider pointed to the gun, which I quickly handed over. He then opened the breach to find a still hot spent round. This was the point where his beret-wearing counterpart motioned at me to get out of the car with the driver.
“Um.. Gavin?” Chris said from the back seat as I walked over to the man clearly in charge. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. I had no clue what to do. The driver and the solider were having a conversation that I understood only through the hand motions, probably why two white guys were shooting guns in this remote part in Iraq. Once approached by the man in charge he asked for our papers and I practically threw our passports at him yelling “IM CANADIAN”. Real smooth Gavin. He then walked away with our passport and then returned with a cell phone.
“For you.” He said gruffly and handed me a small black Motorola cell from the 1999. Confused I looked back at Chris for direction. He shrugged.
“Hello?” I nervously said into the phone. To which I was immediately met with a stern voice.
“Who are you, why you here, what’s your nationality”
“Um… My name is Gavin John and I’m a Canadian citizen with Passport number ##### and I’m just passing through.” Was all I could manage to blurt out in one breath.
“You contractor?” the angry Iraqi voice said.
“No. Im a tourist” I replied. And surprise, surprise the magic T word saves the day.
“OH TOURIST!?!? How you like Iraq? Very nice right? Where you go now? You go see Amadiyah! Very nice!!” was his very enthusiastic response. Once again the Bambi face appeared and I didn’t know what to say besides…
“Uh… yeah. I… love.. Iraq…”. How could such a simple word be so helpful?
“Put your gun in the trunk. And hope you have a good stay in Iraq my friend! Now give phone back.” Was the last thing he said to me as I handed the phone back to the solider. Who then handed the gun to the driver and he put it in the trunk and we were waved through the gate.
“Well that was… interesting…” was all I could say once we were back on the road. Our driver seemed quite ok with the whole ordeal and continued to smile and drive us deeper into Iraq.
After about 20 more minutes of driving we had notseen a single other soul on the road or anywhere to be honest. Of course this would be a perfect place to drop us off. He stopped at a fork in the road and said “I go back from here”. The guy had apparently driven us over 50km past where he was supposed to go to what he told us was to get us through the military checkpoint because “Man my friend”. He pointed down an ominously barren road and said that down there was Erbil… give or take another 75k or so. We thanked our bird-shooting friend and he went on his way. Oddly enough there was a roadside shack that sold bottled water and Lays potato chips. So we took the opportunity to sit down amd make a game plan. It was at this point when we realized that the map in the Iraq Lonely planet was woefully inadequate for finding your way. We determined that we were in a vacant white patch in the map with the closest point of reference besides the Iranian border was Erbil itself. Great.
More walking. There comes a time where you just have to walk. We hardly saw any vehicles going in our direction and even fewer people. We did pass a small group of people on the road but they didn’t seem too interested in us which was surprising. By this time it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and my concerns on the amount of daylight left in the mountains started creeping up on me. Just get to Erbil before dark, was all that I was thinking. Hell I did not want to find a place to sleep up here. We had many vehicles pass us and wave but no one came even close to stopping. And after about 30 min of walking we decided to plant our butts down again. A couple children from nearby houses came to hang out with us and provided us with a little entertainment but the concern of getting a ride was still the thing on our minds.
“Don’t even try.” I said to Chris “That car is packed” referring to the car coming up the road that by the looks of things was holding an entire circus. And on top of that it sounded like a dance club inside judging by the rhythmic bass coming from the car. I turned my back and sat back down, once again rejected by a car. Then Chris laughed and said “There stopping!!” No way. Yup. Sure enough the small yellow compact car pulled over and a mid 20s guy got out. At the same time releasing some obnoxiously loud Arab pop dace music.
“Come Come!” he motioned to Chris to go in the front seat. And opened the back door for me. Inside there were four people already in the back five including me. I crammed next to him and smiled at the 3 year old sitting on the lap of whom I assumed was the mother next to him. All the driver asked Chris was “Where to?” and upon learning Erbil he smiled. Cranked the music and started driving.
Iraqi Dance Party Family as they would be known to us spoke very little on our ride up the mountains. Mostly because they were all too busy dancing or honking the horn at every person and waving. It was only natural for us to join in the party, and within no time Chris and I were bumping our heads to the beats of Iraq’s finest pop dance hits. Come to think of it I do recall Chris trying to put on his seat belt and the driver quickly prevented him from doing that said.
“Iraqi driver good!! No problem!! No Problem!!” Well I guess if we hit an IED a seatbelt isn’t going to do much for us so…… DANCE PARTY!!!!!! DANCE PARTY!!!! The party continued for a while until we reached the Iran border junction, where we got out in a surprisingly busy intersection in the middle of nowhere. And like our first transition earlier in the day, no sooner had Chris got his bag out of the trunk, a giant white pick up truck pulled up and two men got out to talk to our dance party family. We said our thanks to the family and they closed their doors, cranked the music and drove away. Their bass clearly audible for a while.
And then enter Shohip and Mokshi, these two men would be our 6th and last of our Iraqi hitchhiking adventure. The two middle aged Kurdish men quickly grabbed our bags and put them in the bed of the truck and opened the door for us. The truck had a very spacious interior and compared to our others was quite amazing. No guns, no Saddam Hussain, no Army men, No lady mannequins and no dead birds. Great success! Off in the distance they pointed out a faint grouping of lights on the horizon.
“Erbil! Hawler!” Shohip said happily. Hawler is the Kurdish name for Erbil, which confused the crap out of me as some people only know it as one or the other. After going through the typical “Who are you where are you from OMG TOURIST?!?!” questions they then seemed very intent on knowing about us. Every 10 min or so they would stop whatever conversation we were having and then point to themselves and say “My name is…..” to which for the first couple times we kept forgetting, and one would think it would be awkward but they would just yell “AHHHH ITS SHOHIP AND MOKSHI!!! AHHHH” laugh and then continue their conversation. And every so often they would stop the conversation and say “ Ahh It’s a Kah-Ris and Gavinah!!!!!” cheer and then continue talking. Every time they would get lost for an English work Mokshi would get on his cell phone and call his brother who spoke better English. These calls would consist of a man saying on the other end “He wants to know what city you’re from” and then we would tell the phone man and give it back to Mokshi. To which he would usually reply “Ahhh Vancooovur!!! Ahhh”.
About 20 minutes into our drive they pulled over at a store and I assumed they were just getting a few things for themselves. But they in fact bought us each a drink and snacks despite our repetitive requests that it was all right and that we didn’t need cookies. Too bad, YOU’RE GOING TO EAT THE COOKIES AND LIKE IT. I thought things couldn’t get any better when Shohip turned around and said “ In Kanada do you drink ah beerah?” To which we both enthusiastically replied yes. Iraq wasn’t the easiest place to get booze. We managed to find the only bar in Dohuk that sold beer in the basement of a seedy hotel. We were positive that it was mafia run and the “Don’t bring your guns” sign on the front door didn’t make us feel any better.
Upon hearing this Mokshi pulled a U turn in the middle of the highway we were on and within 5 minutes we were in a liquor store… in Iraq. We were both in awe. There was everything from Smirnoff Ice coolers for the Iraqi high school girls to Mexican Tequila. All in an unmarked building in an unmarked village in the middle of nowhere, Iraq. Both Chris and I chose our poison, which was a litre of Chang beer from Thailand. And Shohip and Mokshi both got a can of Old Milwaukee (oddly enough). We all piled back in the truck and drove off towards our goal. I asked him if drinking and driving was a problem and he replied.
“Beerah no problem. Whisky…uuuh… proooblllemm.. HAHAH BEERAH TIME!!! YAY!!” Man I love these guys. And as we came up to our first checkpoint they got a bit serious and said “shhh no.. beerah. Hide.. shhh”. So Chris and I tried our best to hide a giant litre bottle of Thai beer inbetween our feet and look as inconspicuous as possible, which is hard being the only white person on the road. And after we drove past the checkpoint Shohip and Mokshi would break out their beers and cheer “ YAAAA BEERAH TIME!!! YAAAAA!!!” and continue to drink.
This process of hiding beer and then cheering “Beerah time!!” repeated several times until before we knew it the barren mountain landscape gave way to paved divided roads and suburbs. We made it.
Shohip pulled over just about a km after the “Welcome to Erbil” sign and Chris and I got out. We grabbed our bags and talked between us on where to go to sleep for the night. Mokshi asked if we knew where we were staying to which we said no but we would find our way. Apparently this wasn’t acceptable for him as he was soon on his phone and hailed a cab off the street for us. Even before we could talk to the cabbie Shohip and Mokshi had talked to the cabbie, agreed on a good hotel for us and he then paid the taxi driver to take us there. Chris immediately tried to stop them from paying as they had done so much for us already. Mokshi then stepped in a summed up what our entire Iraqi experience was all about.
“I do this for you because it is my duty. I wish you to have a good time in Iraq and Kurdistan. We are brothers now, you are my Canadian brothers and we are your Iraqi brothers from Kurdistan! And this is what family does for each other. Please my brother you have a good time in Kurdistan. And don’t forget your Kurdish brothers……. SHOHIP AND MOKSHI!! Yeahh Beerah time!!!”
As we drove off into Erbil Chris and I had a lot to think about. What a day, and I knew even then that it would be next to impossible to top it. I initially thought that we had the good luck and fortune of meeting the best this country had to offer, but after thinking more on it I realized that this is how people are here. Generous, friendly, genuine and most of all welcoming. Iraqis and the Kurds put us to shame in all of those departments. Being Canadian we like to think ourselves as friendly people. But compared to the men and women of this country we are put to shame. Whether you’re white or brown a man or women they treat guests to their country like gold. Iraq is a country that has gone through hell over the past 40 years and there is no doubt that the people have suffered, most of all the Kurds. I still don’t know how such people can still smile and be optimistic for their future. But with such national pride and hospitality their future is looking brighter and brighter with each year.
I know one thing for sure. Hitchhiking in Iraq has so far been the best thing I have done in a very long time.