Editorials from a Deployed Soldier Convoy to Baghdad Trip to Ancient Biblical City First Trip to Kuwait City
I want everyone to know that I am by no means an expert on the cultures I have observed and am referring to. This is only my interpretation of what I saw, and I mean no offense to anyone by my words. I only wish to share my experiences.
Convoy to Baghdad (OIF 2005-07)
It was a grim start to this trip, high winds had picked up dramatically since early morning and the sand twisted itself to and fro on the road like snow in a howling Minnesota blizzard. The visibility was low and we were held up for awhile at our first stop with nothing to do but watch the sand accumulate on the hood of the HMMWV and wipe the dust from our sweaty brows periodically to keep it from getting into our eyes. After a few hours, dusk rolled in and the wind calmed just enough to get on the road. The vehicles all grunted and creaked as they stretched themselves out from the long sit; the wind and the bumpy road shook off the sand and silt that had settled in the vehicles' crevices as the convoy took off.
The moon was at full illumination, and despite the silty fog of the dwindling storm, one could see all was quiet in the makeshift gunnysack fabric lean-tos and tan canvas tents that nestled in like camouflage to the desert floor. There are quite a few local families in the rural areas to the south that live much like one would imagine their ancestors did in Biblical times. The only difference, perhaps, an old truck parked near the tent. In this vicinity, the rural folks seem to be mostly gatherers, and herders.
The drive this night started slow and all eyes strained to see whatever they could outside to keep the team inside free from danger. The gray line of the road reached way off into the distance, and I knew the ditch line on the left side was what I would be watching for the next several hours. Suddenly, something jumped out from the side of the road, a black and tan, fox- or coyote-like critter cruised from my side past the front of the HMMWV. The sudden movement caught me off guard and I found myself catching my breath – One thinks you are watching pretty attentively, but how easy it was for something to surprise me.
After a few hours, I started to see changes in the dark landscape; an increasing number of various sized black shadows indicated something out there other than the flat desert terrain. Lights also began to appear, first only a few, but then several, until I began to imagine that perhaps we were driving some rural Minnesota road and I was just counting yard lights of the farms we passed. But it wasn't Minnesota farms I was seeing.
Eventually we arrived at our next stop, and after quickly unloading our gear, we trudged our way to a tent where sleeping bags were laid out and we all caught the sleep that had been pushed off the night before. I was the first to wake; hunger being the culprit who stole any extra sleep I may have had. I found my way to the mess hall, and after eating the usual, I headed out to check the place over. I ran into a soldier I knew who invited me to the local market, which was just outside the camp. There I found a long row of huts, all connected, each containing a representation of any sort of thing one might want to buy. There were watches and sunglasses, cigars and cigarettes, jewelry and jewelry boxes, stamps and foreign currency, linens, bright colored clothes and scarves and lots and lots of movies. "Hey you, Minnesota," one called. They recognize the unit patch on our shoulders. "Hey dude, hey good soldier guy," the short sayings kept coming; each one trying out their best sayings to catch your attention so you would come closer. It reminded me a bit of walking through the games section at a carnival back in the states, only these folks seemed even more persistent. I didn't buy anything. I just wanted to look, but they kept trying to sell stuff to me. So, I always kept one window ahead of the soldier who was with me and kept teasing him by telling them that he was the one with the big money and was looking to buy lots of things. The sale stands were a bit unusual as compared to what I was used to. Each stand was like a box on top of a box. There was no place to stand behind a counter, because they only used the top box, which meant that they would either sit or lay in their booth. Some would sit cross legged, while others would have a knee or both knees up in front of them.
I returned to camp just as the others were starting to prepare for the next leg of the trip. We packed our essentials and shortly before sunset, we were off. I was happy we were one of the first convoys out the wire, and in the waning light, I could still get a good view of the surrounding area. It was much different to the north than I imagined. I saw acres of lush vegetation, to include small grazing fields and gardens. I quickly realized why most of the fields were small because I observed most of the farmers tending them with hand tools. I only saw like two tractors along the route while it was light, and they were not in the best of shape. The locals were all out and about, moving along the trails that lead from their homes to the gardens or pushing herds of goats or sheep from one grazing field to the next. Some of the women were carrying tied bundles of dried twigs on their back, which I imagined were used to start fires for cooking.
Some locals also were working in the many potholes that lined the sides of the road, many which were dried out. As the ponds dry, a thick deposit of salt forms. These salt deposits are collected into large piles over a period of time, and I imagine it is sold. In one dry pothole where all of the salt had already been removed, several of the local children had gathered in the grass-free area and were kicking around a soccer ball. Then, of course, there were the family members who sold goods along the highway – each with their own little building. The buildings were either built of clay-cement or by using the trunks of palm trees for the four corners, connecting them with larger branches on the sides and top, and covering that with smaller branches and leaves. The big sells seemed to be things to drink, like water and pops. A few stands had pop cans strung on string to advertise what they were selling. Some locals even provided car washes from their road-side shacks, with the cars being washed right on the side of the highway. One local we passed was really laughing as he sprayed a friend full of water instead of washing his truck.
It seemed these rural families were living an appealing lifestyle compared to their rural southern cousins. Even their living arrangements looked very comfortable in a quaint country-style setting. Many of the clay/cement homes were nestled in groves of huge palm trees. Some homes were larger and by themselves, while others were smaller and seemed to be grouped in extended family-sized elements, 3-5 all nearby each other. As dusk set in, one could see bonfires and identify people gathered around some. It was hard to see if they were using the fires for cooking or to just gather around and socialize after a hard days work. I imagine they were cooking because it would eliminate the additional heat within their houses.
We were entering the outskirts of a larger town, and even though darkness had taken away much of my viewing, I was immediately impressed by the architecture of some of the larger homes and apartment buildings. Some of the larger homes were surrounded by fences or cement walls with railing atop. Most were not colored, but some were designed with a border mid-way to the top, much like one would put a border around the top inside of a room, only these were outside. The three-foot fluorescent light was really popular in both the rural and residential areas, which would be used both horizontally and vertically.
(INSERT: I just returned from the bathroom; the nearest one is a portable one, which is about one-third of a city block away from where I have been writing this. You have to pass between a couple buildings to get there, and I must say there are a lot of geckos out tonight – those little lizard-like creatures that skim quickly across the ground, walls …your boots. There was a pile of them between the two buildings and sometimes those things really freak me out.)
Now back to the story. After a few more hours of driving, we finally reached our destination. The next day, I wrapped up my supply duties, as the others completed any tasks they had, and then it was back on the road again. Back to the part of the country where folks pack their clothes on donkeys to bring to a water hole to clean after a fresh rain, to the herds of camels and goats, to the children who wait alongside the road waiting for hand outs. When no one is driving by, some of the children sit in little mud huts near the road ways keeping cool, waiting for the next vehicle to come along.
The sun was just barely peeking out as we arrived back; some camels lay in a herd near the outer gate, so still, they were barely recognizable. While waiting in a line of vehicles, a call came over the radio: Two young juveniles had snuck through the dark and stole a gas cap off one of the trucks. Our HMMWV was immediately tasked to start circling the convoy that was waiting outside the gate to keep anyone from messing with the trucks. We saw the local kids hiding behind a dune, and one of the soldiers got out and walked toward them. They ran away fast as a rabbit, leaving behind a few things as they did. They dropped a full carton of cigarettes, but no gas cap. We gave the cigarettes to the truck driver, it was the least we could do.
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Trip to Ancient Biblical City (OIF 2005-07)
"There is something to be said to God when you stand upon the birth stones of his creation."
The first two words from my Midwestern tongue were "My Goodness," as I stood and marveled at the huge stairway reaching into the heavens. If this wasn't one of the wonders of the world, I must question who set the parameters for the meaning of "wonder." I stepped out of the HMMWV and the ziggurat of UR was before me. My explanation of a ziggurat is a man-made mountain made of brick with a stairway leading to a small temple at the top.
Other more distinct definitions say: The ziggurat of Ur was completed in the 21st Century BC. It is made of solid brick straight through and is approximately 150 foot by 210 foot at the base and stands 64 feet high. It was used by the Sumerians as a way to get closer to and give offering to the moon god nanna. The ziggurats were generally built atop previous temples, which dated back to even earlier times. How much earlier does it get? I wondered. There are more ziggurats throughout this region, but the one within the ancient city of UR is the most preserved.
In the distance, a fellow with a white and blue checkered shirt, grey dress slacks and a red and white turban upon his head, was vigorously explaining things with his hands. We guessed he was the one showing people around, so we headed in that direction. Perhaps in his 40s, this gentleman's grandfather assisted in excavating the site in the 1920s. His father also had worked at the site, and he has since been the self proclaimed tour guide of the site. 'What you are walking through now is the residence of a high priestess,' he said as we walked up, speaking fair English. It wasn't a building, but merely walls, crumbled to perhaps half their height. A lot of desert silt had blown in over the years, so it was possible that some of the wall was below foot level. My analysis was near correct, for our guide mentioned shortly after that much of the city is still buried and no one really knows how far its borders extend.
Next we entered the tombs. There were tombs of two kings, which were excavated and fairly accessible. The stairs heading down started in one direction, then turned and went down, turn and down, turn and down, etc. The walls were of layered bricks, and there were ancient writings on some of them. The guide was quick to correct the first one who called them hieroglyphics, since there are many types of wall pictures as writing, he said. Hieroglyphics is just one type, and there are several types of wall writing that have been aged to earlier times.The wall pictures I took a snapshot of, he commented, actually explain a little about the life of the king who was buried in that tomb. I was the third person in line to enter the second king's tomb, which by the time you get down into it, you were having flashbacks to the Sudan Iron Mine Tour in Northern Minnesota. It was dark, and unfortunately for us first few, we had the wits scared out of us. I thought we had run into the protector of the tomb – as I have seen too many times in recent movies. In this case, it was a juvenile owl who was spending a quiet day in the cool underground air until about 40 of us human-types came clamoring down into his abode. It was in the corner trying to climb the wall, which didn't seem like normal behavior, so we just took a quick look and headed out.
The most inquisitive tomb on the site was that of Queen Paubi, which was no longer accessible. The guide said the queen's tomb was made of a different type of mud brick which weathered quickly once it was uncovered, and had since fallen into itself. But one could tell by the length of time he talked about it, that it was either something meaningful to his culture or he thought it would be pretty interesting to us. The Queen had died at age 40. She was buried with an exquisite headdress made of gold, and other beads and jewelry made of prized metals and stones adorned her body. I understood him to say that a golden lyre, one of the earliest preserved instruments known to mankind, was found within her tomb. Also buried with her were her guards, personal attendants and servants, to include drivers for a wooden sled and caretakers for the oxen which would pull the sled. Her two closest attendants were buried in the chamber with her, while the others were buried in the pit next to it.
Being an attendant or servant to a queen or king must have had its perks while they were alive, but if they died, you were buried with them. In some instances, a king could have as many as 50 to 100 attendants buried with him. My understanding was that the servants would wait a certain amount of time before partaking in some type of poison perhaps. Then they would go back to their position within the tomb, and then they would die too.
We passed beyond the inner city wall which surrounded the sacred part of the city and its buildings which included the ziggurat, the temple, and other places of sacred or high importance. The most curious spot to me was a short walk away.We passed a few crumbling foundations before we came upon one that had been somewhat restored. There was no ceiling, but all of the walls were fully intact, supposedly just as they were when people had lived there long ago. It is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham. I tried to imagine it as it would have been, probably with a roof of palms. I walked within it, outside it and atop its thick walls to look down inside of it. It was one of the largest dwellings we had seen, with a lot of rooms. The guide said the larger dwellings were a sign of wealth or higher standings. That was an obvious parallel to today's world, I thought.
We also checked a nearby unfinished dig site, used for aging soils and artifacts, before circling back to the main temple near the ziggurat. Some other interesting facts that are claimed of this area: It is the birthplace of the written word, the wheel and is the cradle of civilization within the Mesopotamian River Valley. A tip was collected for the guide who we thanked many times, for the walk would have meant only half as much without his words and wisdom. He reminded us that it was against the law to take anything with us – the ground was literally covered with broken bits of pottery and bricks.
After touring the site, the words in the Bible have taken on a much stronger meaning than "a story I have read." I did not sense anything from beyond my reality, but it did add another dimension to my ever growing faith to know that perhaps I had walked in the same footsteps as Abraham.
Yes, there is something to be said to God when you stand upon the birthstones of his creation. I say these two words, Thank you.
It is not my intention to portray this piece even as a novice historian of the Sumerian Period, the city of UR or the lands of the Mesopotamian River Valley. It is just a description of a historic and culture-bound city that I and other soldiers had the opportunity to see, and my interpretations and understanding of what I saw. To learn more, a wealth of information is on the internet. It even goes as far as to state that the Garden of Eden was nearby. Many of the artifacts, especially those of Queen Paubi, are part of a traveling museum.
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First Trip to the City, Kuwait City, Kuwait, 2011
I am a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Kuwait. Some of my duties include purchasing and contracting. I would have never guessed that my first purchasing trip would be to an Ace Hardware. We dressed down to a covert set of civilian clothing to "fit in," but the high and tight haircuts did little to blend us in.
Speed limits on Kuwait highways are not highly enforced. The Mitsubishi we drove beeped a mild warning anytime the speedometer teased over 120 KPH (75 MPH). And at that speed, several vehicles passed us as if we were standing still.
In the outlying suburbs of the capital, Kuwait City, there were many three- and four-story extended-family dwellings about the size of small apartments. Each with large water storage tanks on the roof. If continuous operational electricity is a problem, downward flow comes in handy I imagine. But I also heard that the tanks act as water heaters. Another interesting adaption to life in this area is the exterior blinds over the windows, which I assume are used to block the sun and keep the sand storms from scratching up the glass.
One interesting thing is how, from a distance (especially from a plane), the city is the color of the soil that it sits upon. Every building appears to be the shade of sand, of course some are lighter, some darker, but in a good sand storm I truly believe the city would disappear. Was that a defensive tactic in the past? At ground level, more colors emerged: Some overpasses are a washed out pink, the windows in the taller buildings give off shades of blue, downtown stores had plenty of colors and even some of the housing units contained shades of orange or pink.
There is only one Ace Hardware in Kuwait and it is hard to find, hence the necessity of being brought there to find it. The in-ramp was closed that day because someone was cleaning the rough looking metal garage door, so we drove in the out ramp and then parked backwards. If that makes any sense? The ramp was undercover, but only one level and one circle around. All of the ACE ladders were leaning up against the far wall of the parking ramp. The store is much larger than the ones I am familiar with in Minnesota. It reminded me of Kmart in size and product, but with an excellent hardware section. Ace, along with the other stores I was able to check out on this trip have been influenced by western culture. Many of the items you would find in America, you would find in a Kuwait store.
The first mall we visited was called The Avenues. The parking ramp was incredible to me. Every parking spot in the large multi-story ramp had its own sensor to identify whether there was a vehicle parked in it or not. At the lot entrance, a digital monitor then told you how many spots were available. Once inside, each row also had a digital sign which said how many spaces were available in it. And if that wasn't enough, each parking spot had a light above it: green for vacant, red for full or blue for handicapped. Perhaps there are parking ramps like this in the States, but I've never experienced it.
The dress observed was mixed, although there were many in traditional clothing, the females in their aba, a head-to-toe black cloak; the men in a dishdasha, floor length robe, with a gutra upon their head. Others wore a mix of traditional, while others wore slacks and shirts.
Throughout the trip, we did not drink or eat openly in respect of the locals and their observance of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of fasting where Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual intimacy during the daylight hours. And even if you did want to eat or drink, good luck finding a place that was open. The mall food courts were deserted. But, come dusk, all would be re-opened for business. One restaurant advertised that its doors would open at six, with its first meal to be served around six thirty. In case you are wondering, at this time of year, sunset is at six thirty and by seven it nearly dark.
On the way back we scooted across the city, right under four or five of their sky scrapers, to Arabian Gulf Road. We were able to see the famed Kuwait towers and ships on the gulf.
I want everyone to know that I am by no means an expert on the cultures I have observed. This is only my interpretation of what I saw, and I mean no offense to anyone by my words; I only wish to share my experience, a visual experience which is shared by many soldiers. Some details I was ignorant on, I looked up on the internet in hopes I would keep from offending anyone.
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