Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Sunday, November 26, 2006 14:09:40|
Arabia 2006: 14 - Baghdad, Iraq & home
Thursday, November 23, 2006
I was up at 4 AM, so did a quick email check in the business centre. Very good news from Continental and son Ryan - I've been upgraded on both connecting flights from Paris home. Now all I have to do is to make the connection.
The taxi ride from hotel to airport is only five minutes, so I arrived at Flying Carpet's check in counter well before the 6 AM designated time, however no one showed up until 7 AM. All ten fellow passengers are homeward bound Iraqis, mostly living in Baghdad. The duty free stores do well off these folks! An employee who came by to check names off couldn't find mine. Neither could I, as they were written in Arabic. A nice Iraqi lady who spoke a little English was able to sort it out!
Once checked in and processed through immigration, we couldn't get to the boarding gate. The airport has installed a new security system with remote control electro magnetically locked doors. It was 20 minutes and a lot of back and forth on the radio before some unseen hand finally opened the door. When we descended the stairs to board a bus parked outside the problem was repeated, causing another 15-minute delay.
We were arrived at the twin turbo-prop, 14 seat, Metro 227, Rania, who had sold me the ticket at the downtown office and had done the airport check in, was sitting on the seat right behind the cockpit where there was the most legroom, holding it for me. The plane has one seat down each side of the aisle. She introduced me to "Captain Joe", Joseph Nehme, the Lebanese Canadian pilot.
Once we were underway, Joe sent the co-pilot, Mohammad, to take my seat and invited me to sit up front. In the course of conversation I mentioned that I'd owed a plane in Canada, so was invited to take the controls. It was the first time I'd flown a turbo prop, and it was interesting to note the effect of a passenger moving up and down the aisle in the back as it caused the plane to climb or descend. The plane has no autopilot, so constant attention was needed to maintain course and altitude. I flew it for about half an hour - so have now piloted an aircraft in both Syrian and Iraqi airspace!
When Joe wanted to eat, Mohammad took back his seat and I took over the pilot's seat while Mohammad worked the radios and instruments. Air traffic control is in English, and some of the accents sounded like they were from a 'B' grade movie featuring Iraqi aerial combat!
Iraq has a surprising number of large lakes, rivers and an extensive system of irrigation canals, so desert ended abruptly at green farms in irrigated areas.
When we approached Baghdad I moved back to my seat. The descent was accomplished by spiralling tightly over the airport to avoid a possible missile attack. Mohammad brought us onto the runway in a perfect fighter approach. There were dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles and army trucks parked row upon row on the US side of the airport.
A bus was sent to pick up passengers, and I accompanied Joe to the terminal. He checked in but had forgotten some paperwork in the plane, so I decided to go back to talk to Muhammad rather than wander around the terminal. There was no visible military presence on this side of the airport, but lots of people with machine guns dressed as airport employees. All were very friendly.
Joe flagged down a passing vehicle, and the driver was happy to give us a lift back to the plane. Joe then went to a meeting with the civil aviation authority. This extended our stay from an hour to over two hours, giving Mohammad and I a chance for a long talk in freezing temperatures.
Joe started with Flying Carpet when they had their first plane. They now have two Boeing 737s leased to Air Iraq, plus a fleet of smaller aircraft. All their pilot training is done in Vancouver Canada, and Mohammad lived four years in Calgary. A new Bombardier CRJ jet aircraft will replace the Metro, and both Joe and Mohammad are looking forward to the training as neither has flown jets before. They leave for Vancouver in February.
Near the airport is a blimp type airship, used as a spotting platform, and military helicopters were coming and going frequently. A huge pall of black smoke turned out to be where 160 to 200 people died today when a series of car bombs exploded.
There were only four passengers on the return flight. The take-off strategy was similar to landing - flight level was gained by climbing in a tight spiral over the airport.
Joe and I talked on the way back while Mohammad flew the plane. He knew the Canadian west coast well, having flown for Pacific Coastal Aviation out of Vancouver for five years - so had flown into airports that I regularly used. We discovered he took his float training in Victoria, from the same instructor in the same Cessna 185 that I did 6 years before him. It is indeed a small world!
It is really a shame I'm leaving tomorrow, as Joe invited me to be his guest for an aerial tour of Lebanon. They have a Piper twin Seneca similar to one I used to rent when I needed a twin-engine plane. His idea was that I'd fly and he'd be the tour guide! Unfortunately, after all the effort of so many people to get my tickets arranged it isn't an option. He did a nice sightseeing run over Beirut on the way in, though.
The Beirut airport did not show any signs of damage. The Israelis bombed the runways, but did not harm any buildings or other infrastructure. They forced the airport to remain closed for 8 weeks.
Re-entering Lebanon was no problem. Immigration allows a free 48 hour visa for anyone in transit. If a person does not leave within 48 hours, the $18 visa fee is paid at immigration on the way out of the country. The process didn't take more than two or three minutes. It was a great day, thoroughly enjoyed.
The median age of Lebanon's population is 27.8 years and the life expectancy is 72.9 years. The literacy rate is relatively high, at 93.1% for men and 82.2% for women. It is a small country of 10,400 sq km - about 20% the size of Costa Rica or the size of Jamaica.
Friday, November 24, 2006
After the final taxi ride to the airport I found that Middle East Aviation (MEA) would operate the Air France code share flight. The Airbus 330-200 was configured with two seats up each side and four across the middle. For leg room the helpful agent gave me both seats on one side. It turned out the flight was only half full, after all the drama that Air France put Continental through in getting me booked on it.
Formalities to leave the country were fast. The plane was half and hour late leaving, giving me concerns that my connection time has been reduced from 55 to 25 minutes!
The 4 hour 20 minute flight was comfortable, a good breakfast served and the crew helpful and friendly. We arrived in Paris in dense cloud and very little visibility. As has been the case the other 8 times I've been to Paris, it was raining. The temperature was 12 C and dropping.
We landed far from the terminal, had to wait to cross an active runway, and did a tour of the airport before finding a gate. It was ten minutes until my plane left when I headed for the bus to terminal 2A. We had arrived at terminal 2F, which meant there would be a thorough tour of the airport's airside, with stops at 2E, 2D, 2C and 2B. The driver missed 2A altogether and had to turn around, getting me to 2A ten minutes after my flight had left.
Air France staff was first reluctant to do anything. It was not a legal connection, however once they admitted their flight was late, three people got involved in sorting my problem out. They gave me a hotel and meal vouchers, and arranged business class on Air France to Newark tomorrow, connecting with Continental to Costa Rica.
At customs there was a cluster of military and police, but no one in any of the booths. A soldier motioned me over, looked at the photo in my passport and said, "Away you go!"
The hotel bus came by just before I froze to death, treating me to a tour of the other side of the airport terminals, train stations and remote outlying hangers. There is a massive army presence here, all heavily armed - it was like driving through an African dictatorship. After waiting for the driver to go for coffee at the Novotel we reached the Mercure, where I am to stay.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
One more run around the airport by shuttle bus got me to the departure gate, where the flight left on time for a comfortable ride on the Airbus 340-300. The seats slid down to make a bed, so I caught up on a little missed sleep.
Immigration in Newark was easy - the immigration fellow wanted to talk about the price of real estate in Panama and Costa Rica. I couldn't get away from him, while the line-up behind me grew! Security was a different matter - a horrible dragon lady emptied out my suitcase before declaring me to be neither terrorist nor smuggler. By the time I'd got it sorted out and repacked it was straight to the boarding gate for the flight to Costa Rica.
Marilynn was at the airport waiting, so after we soaked in the hot tub it was delightful to slide into a familiar bed!