I finally make it out of Baghdad and enjoy deluxe accomodations and comfy sheets.
I’m in my five-star hotel in Amman right now, luxuriating in air conditioning, minibar, room service, and I’m watching Seinfeld on TV (even though it’s the crappy last episode). It feels almost too good to be true. I slept most of the day. Saw a couple bad movies: Daredevil and, please forgive me, Maid in Manhattan. Amman doesn’t have many good movies. Had a great dinner at Amman’s best Italian restaurant last night with a friend. The point I’m making, is that it’s just lovely being here. Though, I am struck by what a boring town Amman is, how little there is to do, how unlovely the place is. I feel kind of in a fog, really.
It does make me realize just how stressful and hard life is in Baghdad. I certainly realized while I was there. But being away, it’s all so clear. I hate to sound like a prima donna, but just having nice sheets and pillows is so pleasant. Somehow, all the laundry I do in Baghdad comes back really stiff and scratchy. There is no air conditioning. It’s so hot and dusty. And I never can just relax. I always feel like I’m missing a story or something or I’m just antsy and buzzed. Being in a place where there is nothing to do, no news to report, oh, it’s nice.
It was hard to get out of Baghdad. I was lying in bed Wednesday night thinking, my god, I’ll be in the Hyatt tomorrow. How nice. I was supposed to be on the first civil flight out. These two cameramen came up with the idea of starting Air Baghdad to let reporters avoid the ten hour dangerous drive. It’s much more expensive, but it’s quick and safe. I even talked them in to giving me a discount. So, I was psyched to get out quickly and easily. I woke up early on Thursday morning, got to the Palestine Hotel where a bus would pick us up to take us to Baghdad (formerly Saddam) International Airport. It’s a completely secure military base now and no civilians, no reporters, are allowed on. So, we had to go in on the official bus. I got there at 10:30, as I was told to. When I arrived, they said the flight was delayed until 6 that evening, because the military took away their early flight. I didn’t have much to do, so I just hung out at the Palestine, talking to different friends. At four, when the bus was supposed to take us, one of the cameramen/airline entrepreneurs showed up and said there’s a problem. The Jordanians won’t allow the plane to take off from Amman to come get us. The cameramen got permission from the Foreign Ministry but apparently never spoke with the Jordanian civil aviation authority and those guys freaked out and wouldn’t let it leave. I should have known then the flight was doomed, but the cameraman kept saying it would work out. I know, very well, how difficult and intransigent Jordanian bureaucracy can be. There were 20 or so of us camped out in the lobby of the hotel. Mostly it was people from the BBC. The BBC won’t allow any of it’s people to drive to Amman, because some reporters had been shot on the road. We looked like a boy scout outing or something, all these people sitting on the floor with our knapsacks around us. Friends would constantly walk by and say, that flight is never leaving. But I refused to believe that. I kept up hope. The next several hours were so annoying. At every moment we were just five minutes away from being told we can leave. The Jordanians seemed to be relenting when the Americans took away the slot. Then the Jordanians were being tough and the Americans gave a slot. On and on. Finally, it was set. We were going to leave at 3 in the morning, but had to get to the airport during daylight, because the streets of Baghdad are still pretty dangerous at night and a big bus of foreigners is a juicy target. The sun was setting, and we’re getting anxious, is this going to happen. Then it was night and the cameraman said he had arranged a military escort to the airport. This whole time, we’re all shifting from annoyed to resigned to hopeful to depressed. The BBC guys were making plans to drive to Kuwait, since they’re not allowed to go to Amman. I had to go to Amman, but was trying to figure out if it’s too dangerous to drive on that road. There have been several reporters shot at, one every other day or so. I didn’t have my bullet-proof vest and helmet, because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight on the plane. One guy waiting for the plane had a bandaged hand. He’s a CNN cameraman who got shot in the hand the day before. But I just didn’t want to drive down to Kuwait (I never want to be in Kuwait again) and then find a hotel and wake up before dawn to catch the early morning flight to Amman. This is supposed to be a vacation. So, I arranged for a backup, a car to Amman. Then we were all but certainly going to leave, everything was set, and the Jordanians decided they need a written letter from the American authorities stating they are prepared to handle civil aircraft. That wasn’t going to happen, so we gave up. There are all sorts of theories about why the Jordanians were being so difficult. Someone wanted a bigger bribe. They want Royal Jordanian to handle the Baghdad-Amman route and don’t want to help a new airline get started. Or they’re just incompetent bureaucratic assholes. I go for all three.
Then my only problem was that I didn’t have an alarm clock and had to be up at 5:30 for the ride. I thought I would just stay up all night, but a friend lent me his. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was trapped in Baghdad. I figured something would go wrong. The car wouldn’t be there, or there wouldn’t be a convoy, and I wouldn’t want to go alone, or I’d go and get shot at. The whole thing seemed miserable. I really felt trapped there. I even had to sleep in the miserable Sheraton hotel again. It was all depressing and claustrophobic. Then I got up, the car was there. There was a convoy of Fox News and ABC and some Christian missionaries from Scotland. Fox even had a former British special forces security consultant going with them. Though when I asked him if I could tag along the convoy, he said I could do whatever I want but he’s taking no responsibility for me. We took off and the ride was so easy, so uneventful, I slept for most of it. Though I found out that a little while later, an NBC convoy got shot at, no one was hurt.
Most of what I saw of the long road to Jordan is featureless, dull desert. Just boring. We passed a sign for H3′the airbase that saw some very fierce fighting during the war and which people thought . But there was no sign Then we were at the border. Americans are guarding it, which is odd to see. There are still all the Saddam mosaic posters and Iraqi signs. They just kind of wave you through. The Jordanians are hard core, though. They check every inch of your luggage. Some idiot Japanese reporter took out a grenade as a war souvenir when they weren’t checking so hard. At Amman airport, a security guard found the grenade and it went off, killing the guard. I was talking to a friend about that. What if the grenade got on his flight and went off and took down the plane. It would be seen as this terrible terrorist incident, maybe caused by Saddam. The whole world would change a little. Because of this stupid Japanese guy, whose now on trial for a life sentence, I understand, we all have to undergo massive searches. They take forever. Some ABC guy in line before me had bought all these boxes of tiles and the customs guys were taking each tile out, one at a time. It took so long. But then back in the car and asleep. I’d wake up every once in a while. Jordan is filled with this truly shitty little towns. Just cinderblock houses and dirty and horrible. They are completely charmless. I can’t imagine spending a life in one of them.
A friend of mine died in Iraq yesterday in a car accident yesterday. Elizabeth Neuffer of the Boston Globe. I didn’t know her all that well, but we had dinner many times and she was always so friendly and generous and would give me a big hug every time I saw her. Everyone I talked to about her kept using that same word: generous. She’s very experienced as a correspondent and would be so encouraging to those of us who are newer to this. She’d also be very open with information and contacts and stuff. And she was funny and gregarious and a bit loud. I really liked her. I just saw her the other day. I feel so sad about it. Last night, when I heard, I just felt awful. I was hoping it would be like other calls I’ve gotten that friends had been killed who turned out to be fine. But this really did happen. I’ve heard more journalists have died in this war, on a per day basis, than any previous conflict. I was feeling relieved that none of my friends died. It seemed like we were more or less out of the woods. There’s still danger, but it’s nothing like it was a few weeks ago. It seems like this wasn’t an attack of any kind, her driver just drove in to a car rail. Iraqi drivers are really reckless. My driver, without me in the car, got in an accident the other day. Before I left New York, this travel medicine doctor went over all the dangers: malaria, etc. But she said the biggest danger of all is just driving. Far more people succumb to car accidents than any kind of medical problem. Fuck. It’s really sad.