Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baghdad - day 4

So this is our last day in Iraq and it was packed with meetings just like every other day. The night before I had slept well so today, I had breakfast at the DFAC. I must say, even breakfast is great! You can get made to order eggs, sausages, hash browns, waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, and so many other things. I could really get used to this food! But I think I'm not as particular as others because some other people from our delegation told me that the eggs didn't really taste much like eggs, but I never noticed it. I actually had a huge mango also for breakfast and frankly, it kind of tasted more like an orange than a mango. But I didn't mind - it was different :)

After breakfast, we headed out to Baghdad University to meet with the administration (president + deans + faculty) and many students. When getting there, we had to take elevators to the 19th floor. Our security detail basically commandeered two elevators and shuttled us up bit by bit and made others wait till we were all up. It's sort of odd being chauffeured everywhere and not having to use any brainpower to go from point A to point B. Every small detail is worked out by the security team. Even basic things as opening doors - as soon as we get to our destination, we aren't allowed to open the door. The security guy in the passenger seat gets out, stands in front of our door, waits for the all clear from the team on the ground, and then opens the door so we can all get out. It's all very very well orchestrated. I have to hand it to them - these guys do their jobs really well!

This meeting took again too long as there was a lot of translation. What was really eye opening was that the school had lost so many students due to the war and lack of infrastructure. The CS dept (masters I believe) had no students for example, yet they still had faculty. They were working on fixing their infrastructure to start to attract students. We discussed the curriculum and some of their challenges. You could get a sense that they were once really proud of the educational system (was one of the best in the middle east) and then you compare it to what they were saying now and you can just tell that they have so much work ahead of them but they're truly trying to reform their ailing education system.

On our way out, there was a party going on for one of the graduating classes:

While we were in the meeting, we'd hear lots of cheering and blasts of a siren. We actually got a little bit worried and one of the deans jokingly said not to worry that it was just a celebration going on :)

We then headed off to a meeting with President Talabani.

At his entrance:

With the president:

From Iraq - day 4

Palace foyer:

From Iraq - day 4

The meeting with the president was as you might expect, high level. The US ambassador was there and had officially announced to the president the appointment of a new US embassador to Iraq. We talked about some of our observations thus far and he gave us more perspective on Iraqi history and to caution us not to expect so much change so quickly in a country that is only 4 yrs old with a lot of very old habits. He was confident that democracy would come to Iraq and that things will not change overnight. We did the requisite exchange of gifts (we gave to him, not to us), and we headed out after an hour.

Still in the red zone, we headed to the University of Technology. I have to admit, this was a tense ride. The helicopters patrolling our convoy were really close to us, and the area we were in was much more run down than others. I also noticed people stopping to look at us and our security guys in our car were fidgeting more than usual.

I was actually surprised we took some of the streets we did. Anyway, we got there safe and sound as usual thanks to our security guys and we proceeded to head up the stairs to the 2nd floor for the meeting. It was a huge meeting with at least 20 University staff from their end and we spent so much time on intros. This group was much more proficient in English and so we avoided translation. By the time we had finished intros, we had gotten in to some of the conversation about their curriculum and their challenges. I then noticed our main security guy walk in and he didn't look too happy. Then I see some notes exchange hands and then our US embassy contact announces that we have to skip lunch with them and leave right away. For details I can't mention, we were quickly escorted to our cars and we headed out.

After getting back to the embassy, we had an impromptu Pizza Hut lunch and groups of us were taken to do various press interviews both for TV and print (some arabic press, some english). After all of this, we all did a press round table with a bunch of reporters from the LA times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Reuters, and others I can't remember.

We then headed out to meet with Barham Saleh, Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. We were really impressed with his progressive views on technology and politics from a conference call 2 days before and were happy to meet him at his home in the area in the green zone they call Little Venice - mainly an area where Iraqi govt people live. We all discussed our views of the trip so far and he was very attentive and even pushing some of the ministers in attendance to take notes and implement some of our suggestions.

Heading back to the compound after that, we had a little bit to relax before a video conference at 10:30pm with reporters in DC that were State department correspondants for various news outlets. We did a quick 30 min round table with them and after that, we were all done!

Photo of us in a yellow 'duck and cover bunker' at the end of the trip. These bunkers are all over the green zone. Any time a siren goes off that warns of an incoming attack, you have about 10-15 secs to get into one of these bunkers.

We all headed to our rooms, changed and hung out next to the club again. Most of us slept around 2 or so and we had to wake up at 4:30 to be out by 5am for our ride back to the airport.

Here are some pics of our digs:

On our way out, I took some pics of the route back:

On the famous road (bomb alley) to the airport:

Jolly ranchers and ammo - what else can you ask for:

More pics:

Pic of all of us and the security team protecting us:

Maybe I have a future in security?

So we had a nice ride down the airport rode at 5:30am. It was pretty short but once we got near the airport, we had to go through a maze of side streets to get to the Sully compound to check in and board our C130 flight back to Amman.

By around noon, we were back in Amman and thankful we were all back safe and sound. Most of us headed to the Marriott hotel at the dead sea and hung out there for the day. Later that night, Jack from Twitter hung out with myself and a friend of mine in Amman. I ended up wearing my suit again (I thought I wouldn't have to be in a suit for a long time!), and noticed that my jacket and pants were frayed from the velcro of the bulletproof vest rubbing against it so often. So the lesson learned for all of you that plan to travel anywhere you need body armor, don't wear a nice suit and especially don't wear your jacket! under the vest! :)

The following morning, we both headed out for the airport - Jack heading to NY, and myself heading to Cairo.

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