Fear and Loathing in Iraq: October 24, 2004

Africa and Iraq

Hello everyone!

Here is part II of my trip to Kenya, followed by the happenings here in Failureland.


We were woken up around six a.m. and I stumbled out of my tent to brush my teeth and get rid of a gallon of soda and beer. Breakfast was just as good as dinner, and plentiful. There were fried eggs, toast with jelly, tea, coffee, and as always fresh fruit. We were all famished and again fought over who gets to lick the cooking pots.

Just as breakfast started a troop of about 20 baboons ambled into the campsite. It was funny to watch as these baboons, all lined up, just mosey on in like they owned the place and start climbing trees, looking into waste bins, jump on the tents like they were trampolines, run around, have sex, and make all kinds of noises. It was a great way to start the day, watching these goofy simians act like… well… like we do on our days off here in Iraq.

We headed out around 6:30 and we were told earlier that the sights are best in the mornings and evenings when the animals hunt. During the day they rest, play and get out of the heat. We entered the park and all began to crane our necks and look around with binoculars looking for anything interesting. The main we looked for was gatherings of white safari vans. If there is a gaggle of vans that means they are there watching something interesting. Many of the vans communicate via CB radio and let each other know if they have seen anything interesting and where.

The trails that cover the park zigzag every-which-way and it was hopeless to try and remember where you were a minute ago. We drove behind trees, through ditches, through bush, up and over hills and along and in-between valleys. I kept jumping up and down looking through the opening in the roof for anything. Whenever we saw something we all pointed and OOOHED and AHHHHED and raced to get closer for photos. It was tiring but very fun. Whenever we came across a bunch of lions or a nice herd of zebra we all bent around each other to take bad photos. Lens protruded under armpits, between legs, held up over our heads, outstretched of the truck windows, and I even thought about setting the timer and then throwing the camera into the air to get a close up of a giraffe eating from an acacia tree. I have not developed my 25 rolls of film I took during my whole Kenya trip, but I am looking forward to throwing away about 20 rolls worth of blurry pictures.

During our morning and afternoon rides we ended up seeing 23 lions (seven of them just after they killed a cape buffalo), one rhino, two leopards, one cheetah, a few ostriches, various birds, hippos, giraffes, hyenas, and countless wildebeests and zebra. We saw just about every animal the park had to offer; and to watch lions just after a kill was a real treat indeed. It was nice for me to finally see something dead that was not wearing some kind of uniform.

My days in Masai Mara were just awesome, and as this was my first safari I don’t think I could have had a more interesting safari unless a lion leaped into the truck and ate one of us. I was glad to be out amongst the wild and watching nature in the open. I was really looking forward to this safari because I needed reminding that life is still there, that it is going on, that there is still beauty out there. I watched as creatures died the right way: as part of the great circle of life. I saw mountains and land that stretch as far as the eye can see, not as far as the chain link fence allows. I heard nothing but the wind, of tree limbs swaying and in the breeze, not engines revving and helicopters flying by. I smelled the cleanest air, the ozone before the rains, not diesel fuel burning or garbage pits on fire.

I thought of what the lions were thinking as they lay around playing and climbing over each other, not when will the next rocket hit or am I convoy tomorrow. I walked along a creek bed and looked at the beautiful root structures and intertwining trees; listened to gurgling water flow over rocks and watched as local kids swam in the water. I had deep conversation with worldly, intelligent people and learned much. I made friends and opened my mind to new ideas, shared stories and laughed, and shared an experience that was new to most of us and I will never forget the whole experience. The days in Masai Mara were perfect in every sense of the word. Though the drive there and back was arduous, it in a sense added to the perfection because as it here in Iraq, you sometimes have to go through hell to really appreciate the good stuff that is always there.

When I got back to Linda and Tom’s house I was told by Linda that I was booked for the next day to fly to Malindi so that I could stay at a beach resort in Watamu and go scuba diving. Yes, that’s right, I was a spoiled little shit the entire time I was there and I was shuttled around like Ritchie Rich from one adventure to another. So there!

I was taken to the airport and I got a ticket to Malindi, and while I waited in the airport lounge drinking coffee I befriended an English couple on their honeymoon. We sat and drank coffee and took turns making fun of our nations’ leaders. We had a roundtable discussion about terrorism and we all agreed that it is bad, was made worse by the war, and our leaders are morons. They were surprised that an American soldier felt this way and knew so much about what was going on around world. They were very impressed when I asked if the Tories would be using the failed war to try and reclaim power in Parliament, and they looked at each other in mock amazement. I told them that some soldiers are very smart, many are educated, many are well read and many have a real opinion about what is going on around the world. And then they asked me if I thought Bush will get reelected and I said that I hope not, but he probably will. They felt the same way about Blair as I did about Bush, and vice versa. It was a great way to wait for a plane.

The plane was a tiny prop plane that coughed and farted us to Malindi in about an hour and we were tossed around in strong winds as we tried to land in Malindi. It was a creepy landing but when we arrived we were welcomed with an amazing display of dancers, lion costumes, natives making human pyramids, loud drums and singing and lovely women giving us hand made key chains and coconuts with straws in them. What a welcome! I felt like the plane was diverted and they accidentally landed on Fantasy Island.

A driver was waiting for me holding a big sign with my name spelled incorrectly and off we went to the drive to Watamu . Just after leaving the airport I was looking at palm trees, grass huts, happy kids wearing their school uniforms, cute villages and little shopping kiosks. It was paradise, and I never thought about what it was going to be like. I never imagined a beautiful resort area in Africa, and here I was driving around a coastline that would put the Caribbean to shame. It was just gorgeous and I hadn’t even arrived at the hotel yet.

When I did arrive at Ocean Sports Hotel I, again, never imagined it would be like this. I guess I just never really thought about, but the hotel was a real resort, right on the beach, cute little bungalows nestled amongst beautiful flowers and palm trees. A crystal clear pool and bar and restaurant and plenty of chairs to sit and relax while listening to the surf. It was just perfect and when I got to my room I really felt like crying. There was a four poster bed, a bathtub I could actually fit into to, room to really lounge around and a front porch to watch the trees. Each morning I was there a tray of hot tea and scones was waiting for me on the porch. Perfect.

The first thing I did was to order a beer and sit in a chair and watch the water. I just stared for hours. I listened to the crashing surf and watched waves. I watched people play and swim and make sand castles and sleep. I absolutely could not believe I had come from such a shit hole to such luxury. I didn’t have to pay for anything up front, just sign it to my room. I had never been in a hotel like this before and I felt like a real country bumpkin. “You mean I just sign this-a-here piece o’ paper? You don’t need no muney? Garsh!”

I later swam in the pool and floated on my back with my ears below the water and watched the trees sway. It was like sensory deprivation and it was just what the doctor ordered. I floated and let the tension melt away. Masai Mara was incredible, but this was relaxing! It was in this pool, alone, floating in the water that I finally cried. I released some of the tension that had built up. I wanted to scream, cry harder, flail about and yell and punch the water. I wanted to curse and find an outlet for all I have seen, for all I have endured, for all the people I have grown to hate and for what the war has done to me. I wanted to apologize for the people I have been mean to, and kick myself for the ones I helped and could have helped more. There was so much inside me, so much anger, so much disappointment, so much sadness; I wanted to get it all out. But I couldn’t. I just cried. It was a weak, sad cry and it was all I could get. But it was better than nothing and I felt better afterwards. I can see now why so many people enjoy being ignorant, because it truly is bliss. The ones who dig deeper and look for the truth have to deal with the burden of carrying around a lot of emotional baggage, a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. I can see why ignorance is bliss — it is so much easier!

The next day I began my discover scuba class with a young instructor named Dan. We went over all the basics, watched a classic video that spent most of it’s time hinting I should buy scuba gear, and eventually entered the pool to do practical training in the water. I learned how to breathe, not hold my breath, how to do underwater hand signals and the most troubling thing for me, getting water out of my mask underwater. I just could not grasp the concept of holding my breath and blowing out all the water with my nose. I kept taking water back in through my nose and coughing my brains out. I would freak out and come to the surface and cough myself into whiplash. I kept trying and trying and trying, each time rising up and coughing water out of my nose. It was a pain the in the ass but I kept on trying and eventually figured it out. When I did get the hang of it I practiced some 20 times before I felt comfortable. Let me tell you know, if you have never dived before, get a mask that fits! I would not have air than a mask that doesn’t leak!

I spent the rest of the day walking up and down the beach fending off pushy, annoying salesmen and watching the water. I walked over to the next cove and along the lava rock formations. It watched the water crash into the rocks and shoot through holes that have been carved out from centuries of crashing waves. The view was spectacular and I could see the curvature of the earth out there.

I walked into the town of Watamu and was immediately surrounded by dozens of pushy, annoying salesmen, all vying for my business and telling me to visit their shop. I told the all I just arrived and that I would be back later on to really shop, that I was just taking a walk. They didn’t care. They followed and told me if I just visit their shop I would be given “a very good price.” A phrase I had come to realize must be the first 4 words a young Kenyan learns in school. I eventually left the town and walked a couple of miles back to the hotel, looking at all the houses and people milling around. It was so nice to be surrounded by people that were all so nice. I felt so safe. I don’t see why people would ever go to Jamaica for a vacation: you can get mugged, robbed, car jacked, arrested, and buy cheap crap for expensive prices. Where in Watamu you are totally safe, in better surroundings, everything is cheaper and the people really are just so nice. I just never knew that places like this existed in Africa, and now I really think twice before I ever travel to a cliché resort again.

Throughout the day and night I met the owner of the hotel, the owner of the scuba center, Helen, the manager of the hotel, and bunch of expats and locals and an English couple, Lee and Colleen. I had diner with Lee and Colleen and we talked and talked and talked. Again the conversation was great and we had a great time. We ate well, drank well, and discussed everything under the sun. Colleen was a doctor and Lee an engineer. They are in the middle of traveling the world and work when they have to. It sounded like heaven. I hope one day I can get the courage together to try such a life. I envy them greatly.

After dinner we bid each other good night and went off the bed. I was totally exhausted and I could not wait for tomorrow and my fist real dive!

Part III next week.

So now we leave Africa and return to Iraq. This has been a busy week, both for good reasons and bad. Good because we have begun to pack things up and are slowly looking at what we leaving and what we are taking back with us. It is really looking like we are going to be going home. I have packed up most of my room and put things into plastic footlockers. I packed up my arms room and put things away. Lunde began to empty out his medical connex and throw away all the crap that has built up. We even got Iraqi workers for a couple of days to do menial labor like move boxes around and coil up barbed wire. We can see the end in sight and it is making us all jumpy.

On the bad side, things are still fucked up because of Ramadan and vehicles are dropping like flies. The worst thing now is Vehicle Born IED’s. They are up 70%. For some reason it is better for a Muslim to die during Ramadan than otherwise so all the suicide bombers are on a rampage! They are driving directly into a military vehicle and blowing themselves up. There is nothing you can really do about it, just hope it doesn’t happen to you. But one thing they are doing is making sure no vehicles come near the convoy. One way of doing this is to shoot at anything and everything. Unless it is on the other side of the highway, if you come near our convoys we shoot first and ask questions later. This has increased the number of civilian deaths, but the soldiers are doing what they have to to survive.

I went on a convoy to Mosul last week and it was really, really creepy. I was much more tense than usual and you can easily tell things are worse out there. There are more IED holes along the road, more damaged vehicles on the side of the road filled with bullet holes, more things on fire, just more of everything. On those certain overpasses we used to fear they have placed tanks and Bradley have been patrolling the roads more. We have seen Special Forces driving around more and helicopters everywhere.

When we passed Summerall (Bayji) we saw an Army truck that had been hit by a land mine and was on fire. As we drove on the rear gunner shot out a vehicle that ignored his signal to back off from the convoy, and this happened again later on as well. When we were entering the Mosul base (Diamondback) later on we had to stop short because they spotted three IEDs right near the entrance, all daisy-chained together. We had to get out and pull security while EOD was called in. And we were pulling security right by the turning circle in front of the base entrance, a place where dozens of IEDs have gone off in the past few days. I was really nervous and there were hundreds of people and cars around. As we were waiting for EOD all of a sudden the IEDs went off! The ground shook and it was the loudest sound I ever heard; it hurt my ears. We were some 300 yards away and it nearly knocked us off our feet. Dirt and gravel hit the vehicles and the dust cloud covered the whole area. Whoever it was had set them off just for the hell of it, I guess he got tired of us waiting and knew we knew where they were. One was obvious: looking through the binoculars we could see an artillery shell lying on the curb!

We took the opportunity to get on the base, thinking there were probably no more around. We zoomed in first and made the Turkish trucks go last, we were not about to stay out there any longer. When we got in and settled down I was a nervous wreck. The next day was just as bad and had more of the same on the way home. We got hit with an IED about an hour outside of the base, but the truck was able to continue on. We passed more IED holes and when we go near Summerall I saw pure Hell. Two LMTV (big army trucks) were on their sides on fire, and next to them was the biggest hole I had ever seen an IED make. It was easily 25 feet across. There was no road, just a huge hole. The IED must have been hundreds of pounds! We drove by and watched the commotion and were thankful no one was killed. (We found out later that many were wounded but luckily none were killed.) The medics on site were none of ours but we didn’t envy what they were going through.

We entered Summerall and came out the other end to see that a car bomb had gone off and the whole exit was a mess. People walking around covered in blood, cars on fire and across the street was an oil fire. Another car bomber had slammed into a pumping station and blew himself up. The fire was monstrous and black smoke the size of a building was flowing out. It looked like a scene from a movie; this was too crazy to be real. It was just pandemonium. And here were: driving through it all just watching this shit. There were Bradley’s and troops everywhere, confused Iraqi policemen yelling, cars trying to drive around it all, sheep running around, and oil all over the place, just incredible. And this was my first convoy since coming back.

The U.S. has increased attacks trying to get them before they get us, at the same time the Iraqis have increased attacks because of Ramadan. It is just crazy out there! We are pulling an entire platoon out of Al-Asad to help out with convoys and help get the company ready to leave. We are beginning to circle the wagons and bring everyone back to Tikrit to regroup and prepare to leave. We could really use the help, we are the only ones doing convoys, all the others are just pulling hospital and firehouse coverage. It will be nice to have some extra bodies to get out there.

We still get hit everyday with rockets; the Iraqis have not lightened up on that note. We get them in the morning and at dusk. Almost like clockwork. We even joke that we should be getting hit any minute now, and then a half hour later we do.

I saw on the news that the head of CARE has been kidnapped. She has lived in Iraq for years, is married to an Iraqi, was committed to helping the Iraqi people, and look now. CARE is pulling out, another help organization leaving, and we await news of when she will be beheaded. When people who the Iraqis know, people who have committed their lives to helping the Iraqi people are kidnapped, you know things are screwed up.

Well, I am off; I have school work to do. I hope everyone is well and I miss you all.

See you next week.

--Chris Sachs