One full day in Erbil

I remember writing my first post in Sierra Leone, talking about the collection of first impressions that help me define travel and new experiences. How everything I know about a place and a culture beforehand will almost always clash with what I am immediately exposed to once in a new location.  There’s always some conflict between my prior judgments of a new country and my senses upon actually arriving in it.  This experience, although in its infancy, has been no different.  It is hard to quantify how big that clash of judgment and senses has been so far, even in just a single day.

I don’t need to give people an introduction to Iraq, anyone and everyone who follows current events, even casually over the past decade, is well aware that Iraq has been at the forefront, unfortunately, of much of what has happened.  There’s still so much that could happen over the course of my tenure here, so there’s no need for me to speculate now.

So far, I’ve loved it. Kurds are very friendly people, and if not instantly effusive like Sierra Leoneans, they are very genuine and interested in people. There is a large population of expats, and it surprised both Amanda and I on the flight from Istanbul to Erbil. We were standing in line waiting for our boarding group and turned to each other with the same thought.

“Are you observing what I am?”

Yea, I’ll tell you on the plane”

We were shocked by how many westerners, and clearly how many Americans, were on our flight from Istanbul to Erbil.  In many ways we were heading into uncharted territory for the two of us, yet definitely weren’t going into a situation where we would be unprecedented outsiders. Our flight touched down at 330am, and after a short wait we were driven to our apartments by Khadijah, one of the HR reps with the company we are working for.

To give a brief background, we are both working for SABIS, an international company that runs for-profit schools across the world, but primarily in the Middle East and the United States.  I’ll be working at the Sarwaran International School in Erbil as a 6th and 7th grade English and Humanities teacher.  The Sarawan School has a kindergarten to 7th grade program.  The school started as a kindergarten six years ago, and has expanded every year to keep up with its initial class, the idea being to provide the greatest possible continuity for the students.

We arrived so late into Erbil that by the time we both fell asleep the sun was beginning to rise over the mountains to the east. We went to bed and set our alarms for 9am to give us  just a few hours to catch up on sleep… and didn’t wake up until 3pm.  It was obviously going to take us a few days to catch up to the jet lag.  A short walk through our neighborhood helped us get acquainted with the markets and shops that we knew we’d need.  We are staying in an area called Ankawa, the historically Christian neighborhood of Erbil, on the northern edge of the city. People have been very friendly from the first moment we walked outside, and it seems as though most everyone speaks English.  For what little I’ve seen of the city so far, much of what I have read seems true.  Erbil is very westernized, and has a quickly growing presence regionally.  Massive oil deposits lie beneath the city, believed to be some of the richest deposits on the planet.  With this vast wealth of natural resources the city has seen a massive boom over the last ten years. After talking with my principal briefly during my orientation, she told me to google Erbil in 2004, and Erbil in 2014. The difference in the photos did not disappoint, and the boom in the city’s growth, evident in the construction beginning and continuing EVERYWHERE will seemingly continue for the a good while as the oil reserves are only beginning to be tapped to their potential.

My orientation lasted all of the working day Thursday, which is the last day of the work week on their schedule (a Sunday- to- Thursday schedule).  SABIS has a couple of company buses to transport its teachers to their various campuses within the city.  My bus picked me up at 715am on Thursday, and we arrived at school at 750. Traffic was nuts.  Many of the main thoroughfares are lined with sparkling brand new high rises, and the wide boulevards look like they could have four to five lanes of traffic in any direction. Instead, lanes are not delineated on the roads, and traffic flows like a free form blob in any direction. God forbid you need to make a left turn.

My school, if only a three maybe four mile distance away from my apartment, was a long commute because we picked up several different teachers along the way and were at the mercy of the crunching morning traffic.  I didn’t mind at all, sitting in the back of the bus, happy to take in all of the new sights.  The concrete skeletons of rising buildings lined many of the boulevards, and the buildings that were finished often had extravagant glass exteriors. Many of the neighborhoods we drove through to pick up teachers reminded me of the seaside blocks of Southern California towns such as Santa Monica and Newport Beach, where beautiful two and three story houses are crammed against one another on narrow roads to maximize space.

Our 750 arrival on campus was a little late, and the second I hopped off the bus a teacher, Karl from Australia, introduced himself and told me I would be shadowing him for much of the day.  I sat in the back of his first and second period English grammar classes as twelve year old students would steal glances over their back shoulder to look at me, soon to be their new teacher.

I have seen so very little of the city and these wonderful people, but there is an undeniable feeling that this place is booming and growing by the day.  It is still a raw environment in many ways, with some spaces just open dirt lots filled with mounds of trash not unlike Sierra Leone. But there is a real effervescence here, everyone seemingly aware of the bright future that is already blooming. I look forward to witnessing it for the next half year.

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