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Springtime in Iraq: Tips from travel writers for a 'safe' visit

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

I was going through some recent files of submissions from travel writers and I came across the following story. Now, I realize that many travel writers are members of the Society of American Travel Writers, which defines a travel story as any story that "encourages travel," but still I thought this was going a little too far.

Here it is, in its entirety:

By Mary Mouthpiece, Travel Writer

BAGHDAD - Iraq is a wonderful place to visit, especially this time of year when the spring shrapnel blossoms across the ancient, crimson sky.

This writer found Iraq to be truly a land of mystery and intrigue, with people of all races and creeds coming together in a vibrant display of pride for their country and cause.

It's also a great time in history to visit, with all the friendly Americans in their sporty, camouflaged uniforms joining with spunky insurgents in a colorful contest of games and activities. To the outsider, they may look a little rough at times, but we musn't judge other cultures. And, oh, those beautiful fireworks!

A note of caution here: The prudent tourist should remember to bring his or her own body armor. Body armor stores are difficult to find here and you may find yourself paying more than you do in the States. I find lightweight titanium works best in this climate, especially with a pair of matching, comfortable walking shoes.

If you go to this wild and historic land, be sure to hire a good guide. I recommend Akbar, who we found cowering in an empty, shell-scarred building in downtown Baghdad. Akbar offered to give us a tour of his wonderful country and, after a bit of haggling (we settled on paying Akbar with food scraps and antibiotics), I must say he did a bang-up job!

For example, Akbar gave me and my small group of travel writers an enlightening and informative tour of Iraq's many interesting mass burial sites. We saw whole groups of families buried together, which prompted a fellow travel writer to remark how close-knit Iraqi families must be. We Americans could sure learn a lesson from that!

A personal guide can also take you beyond all the usual tourist spots to see the real Iraq from a native's point of view. Akbar led us to the homes of several suicide bombers, who welcomed us with smiles and open arms.

Beware, they have a different sense of humor there, brandishing long knives and grenades and chanting "death to the American infidels!" Oh, they are such kidders. But, it's all in fun and they are so sincere and truly want to see their fascinating country grow.

As far as accommodations, there are many great deals going on now for American and European travelers. Many of the country's hotels have been ripped to shreds, leaving airy breezeways, great for viewing battlefield scenes. There may not be any food, water or concierge service, but you may truly enjoy "roughing it."

Another way to cut costs for the adventurous is to be held hostage. This can drastically cut lodging costs. One member of our group, Sherry Shill, said she had many intriguing conversations with her kidnappers, despite being bound and gagged and periodically beaten. She saved a bundle!

Just go to one of the charming, open-air markets and loudly ask any vendor there for change for a $100 bill. Or, you can simply walk the streets of downtown Baghdad at night and you're sure to meet a friendly local kidnapper, more than willing to help you.

Some Americans and Europeans may be wary of security in Iraq. To that, I say balderdash! Iraq is a very safe place to travel. Just be sure to take the normal precautions you would in any foreign country. Make sure your passport is up to date, drink lots of water, use sunscreen, and pack plenty of cartridges for your AK-47.

The newly formed Iraqi government and police also provide excellent security for tourists. Experts at camouflage, I never actually saw one face-to-face, but I must say the emblems on the backs of their shirts are very impressive, as they run away from explosions in a very amusing manner. The lengths these people will go to impress tourists!

As for you golfers, you'll find plenty of world-class courses, challenging for all levels. Most of Iraq's courses are very playable, with wide, generous landing areas and large, receptive — though land-mined — greens. If it's exercise you want, many courses allow running and ducking, but some do charge for use of steel-reinforced Humvees.

The hazards are interesting, too, and blend in with the natural landscape. You'll find most courses here advertise themselves as being the home of the "world's largest, man-made bunker," and you may have to side-step uranium-enriched plutonium in some of the rough, but you can reach most of the par 5s in two easily.

The Iraqi Golf Association (IGA) provides for relief on some occasions. For example, you're allowed to take a two-club drop if you come under sniper fire, as long as the shelter you're hiding behind is not closer to the hole. Barbed wire is out of bounds and mulligans are allowed in the case of poisonous gas attacks.

Still, the highlight for this writer were the many, splendid fireworks displays, which can be seen almost anywhere, at any time of day — even in the cafes and restaurants, hotels, office buildings or even in the bustling streets.

If you go, be sure to check with the local, American military commander about any upcoming offensives and plan accordingly. Bring lawn chairs.

Editor's note: Mary Mouthpiece is the recipient of such prestigious travel writing awards as the "Write Real Good Things About Us and Be Invited Back" award, the George W. Bush "Skirt the Truth" trophy and the "Who Cares About the Readers, I Want to Travel" award.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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