Guy giving thumbs up

Everything that was supposed to happen during my trip to Kurdistan, didn't. But what did happen all the time I couldn't have ever predicted happening at all.

First main non-event: I never got anywhere near the ISIS/Kurdish front.

Ramadan took care of that. Nearly the entire corps of independent guides, interpreters and 'fixers'--which you have to have because there is no official Kurdish government media handlers program--left for vacation back to village life. And absolutely no one was being allowed access to northern Syria, period.

So, no new holes in me – just the same ones I left with. And that's alright with me.

The one journalist I met – a loudmouth anti-American Swede (is that a candidate for the Department of Redundancy Department?) – found one to take him to the front for the day. But he ended up being dumped off in a rear-area Kurdish army rest camp miles from the front lines. And he got charged $400 cash for a few brief hours. Maybe the Kurd couldn't stand him either.

Second problem was technical. Couldn't get phone service and I believe my IPad was damaged during the many flights I took to get over there. A few emails came in, a few got out. But not many. So essentially no Internet.

Drats! And me without my trained carrier pigeon, Mortimer.

Now for the good news: where I was – Erbil, the Kurdish capital city – was amazingly safe. No war, no crime. I went for walks two or three times daily – morning, noon and night. Never a problem, not once. In fact, the opposite was the case.

The Kurds love America – and Americans.  It was a love-fest! Everywhere I went, the moment I spoke English they asked me where I was from. When I answered, "America", the huge smiles instantly appeared accompanied by the positive thumbs-up gesture and the inevitable Kurdish declaration, "Ameddy-kah goot! Ameddy-kah veddy goot!" Often, after prolonged, complimentary conversations, they wouldn't let me pay for my meal. 

I guess saving their bacon from Saddam's henchmen and virtually guaranteeing their independence with the no-fly zones made an impression, you could say. Though the brutal dictator did manage to kill 300,000 of them before we accidentally relieved him of his head-to-body connection while intending only to execute him by hanging.

Essentially what I'm saying is this: for two years, since ISIS's initial murderous, genocidal onslaught, I have anticipated and sought a trip to Kurdistan, to stand with the Kurds. But honestly, deep down, it scared the living hell out of me. When my record store closed and I knew I had to the opportunity to do it, there were days my stomach was so tied up in knots Michael Hutchence could've hung himself autoerotically from any nearby ceiling beam.

Still, I knew I was going to do it. Having been to Afghanistan's bloody Helmand Province, the Taliban's 'Heart of Dixie', my fear of visiting northern Iraq was many times greater.

And then it turns out to have been practically a vacation. The city was safe, the front lines 50 miles away, the people amazingly warm and friendly, the culture interesting, even fascinating. So I relaxed. And walked. And ate. And chatted, and listened, and laughed, and shook hands. It was nice to be that loved. Very, very moving, really. To find such enthusiasm for America – in the Middle East of all places.

So my head stayed on my shoulders. And what's more – and I honestly, 100% truly mean this from the bottom of my Latin-culture-loving-heart – Erbil, Kurdistan is my new San Juan, Puerto Rico--the Kurds are that warm, thatgreat, that excellent a people. There were days I'd be walking down some hot, mildly dirty street pass the many street vendors of fruits, vegetables, nuts, figs, household products, clothes and the stores and shops and awesome little eateries, and I'd just shake my head and laugh to myself: who knew Kurdistan was as funky cool as Puerto Rico? Anthony Bourdayne? The Beat Poets? George Bush senior?

They Kurds are different. They smile easily – and genuinely. They are not an insincere people. They often seemed to have a bit of child-like innocence about them. They hated ISIS – at the mention of the group's name inevitably there'd by a finger-slice across the throat. The Kurds and especially their beloved, tough Pesh Merga fighters obviously will fight to the death if it comes to that. But they didn't dwell on it, even the ones I met who had to flee.

It's the Middle East. They know history because they have a different conception of time. Everything happens, everything changes, time moves like the scirroco desert winds – mysteriously, invisibly but forcefully, inevitably. Plus I think the Kurds think we will help them more in the future. And I think we will. They certainly deserve.

Next to my hotel, there was an Orthodox Christian Church. There were several other denominations in the neighborhood. Religion, amazingly enough, is not an issue with the predominantly Muslim Kurds. Culturally, in the vast sweep of time and historical epochs, they share a bond stretching with the peoples from India to Europe, hence the traditional academic tag of Indo-Aryan.

Whatever it was, I felt completely comfortable, even happy, and especially, safe being among them.

And then Orlando happened.

It was surreal watching the BBC cover it. Even though it was common knowledge the shooter was an Afghan ISIS groupie, the BBC simply would not use the words 'Islamic' or 'terrorist', just like our president. But to watch the aftermath was heartbreaking. I almost wept twice when they showed the grieving gay men holding each other in comfort, mourning the horrible losses of friends and loved ones.

Their humanity never seemed so real. People in sorrow – nothing's more human than that.

I can walk the half-lighted streets of northern Iraq for hours and miles in seemingly complete safety--with 10,000 armed ISIS savages barely 50 miles away? And my fellow countrymen and women can't spend an evening dancing the night away without being slaughtered by some ISIS-loving creep? 

Blame it on the NRA all you want but I believe the reality is far deeper and complex than that. How is that the Kurds experience so little ISIS infiltration? I asked. They had great faith in their fighters preventing that, they said. Several Kurds the morning after Orlando went out of their way to express sorrow at our massive loss of innocent civilian life. That shit doesn't happen in Erbil, trust me. And it's not because of gun control laws.

The Swede made a cynical joke about it being 'a new American mass murder record' to make one more anti-American point. I'd had enough of him. This from a guy whose country stayed neutral against the Nazis while still supplying precious iron ore to the Third Reich. Fuckin' loudmouth.

Getting back to my everyday life in Kurdistan, I didn't know til the end of the first week there literally were no guides available because of Ramadan. I had been told by the American kid running the Kurdish diplomatic outpost's media relations back in Washington D.C. that the process is so loose one must find the one bar journalists frequented in order to find 'handlers' and 'fixers' to get to the front. That one bar was the Deutscherhof, The German Bar.

Except no one – and I mean nobody – knew where it was.

Oh, everybody thought they knew where it was, but they didn't. Taxi drivers, hotel clerks, friends, strangers – I searched Erbil for five days and nights for this place before finally giving up in frustration. Coupled with no phone service and a nearly complete kaput of internet, I found myself in a fit of frustration. So I decided to give up for the time being and I went to the airport to book a flight to Istanbul.

Now that I look back, it was my smartest and perhaps most fortuitous move.

After booking the flight, the taxi I caught back to my hotel was driven by...a 28-year-old national tour guide, Kawan. He explained the Ramadan shortage of fixers, that he'd take me to the front for a hundred bucks but he was leaving with his family in a two days for a vacation outside Iraq, and he spoke perfect English.

We hung out for awhile, made a tentative date for a return visit in November (said he even knows a Pesh Merga general who I could interview), he'll show me Saddam's palaces and then, amazingly, we actually found the goddamned German bar. It was less than a half-mile from my hotel. But I never could've found it on my own. We have blocks and straight streets, the rest of the world has concentric circles of avenues with weird spokes. Quite the maze, Erbil is. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

But I didn't want to go home just quite yet, it was too soon.

So arriving in Istanbul, I decided to then fly to Rome where I intended to immediately rent a motorcycle and ride the countryside. So I did. I went to the Al Italia ticket counter, booked a 8 a.m. flight to Italy, took a train into Rome and was on a BMW S1000 by early afternoon. 

Found myself in Tivoli the next morning, the stunning, sculpted gorge-slash-waterfalls-and-Roman-gardens that the Emperor Hadrian decided to make for his little overnight getaway from the hustle and the bustle of running the Roman empire. Then it was north by the smallest roads possible until mid-day. I stopped off for a coke and a couple of Italian ice cream bars – daily staples of my roaming of the Roman landscapes – where I met a lovely Italian family who invited me to spend the afternoon at their country home.

Which was an incredible two-story log cabin built into the hillside with its own private orchard wandering down into a farmed valley the Italian government had recently declared a no-development zone, it was that scenic and historic. Olga picked herbs for me to take, Benjamin and I discussed politics and the children--three African war orphans who spoke perfect Italian--played soccer and climbed the trees.

Idyllic? Fantasy-esque? Yes, and yes. After leaving them I rode further north into some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains I have ever encountered in Italy (this was my fourth two-wheeled adventure there). I discovered Ascoli-Penconi, an ancient town with access by three bridges – one modern, one medieval and the third, Roman, of course. And yes, there was a Saturday night street festival on the cobblestones. I hung out with eight Italian twenty-somethings until I couldn't drink anymore beer or eat anymore pizza and then I went back to my room.

Believe it or not, this is the truth: I dreamed of Julius Caesar.

It was that kind of trip.

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