coping with the Baghdad blues


I’ve been here for only a little over a month, and I think I’m getting a serious case of the Baghdad blues.

There was definitely a romantic notion to this whole chapter in my life when the idea was first proposed to me. (well, not actually proposed, when I first heard it through the company rumor mills). Omg! I’ll be a 21-year-old college graduate living in Baghdad? As a middle eastern studies major, I figured it would be the holy grail of study-abroad-esque experiences.

Also, I’ve lived/studied/traveled through the Middle East before (Jordan, Syria, Egypt), so I was itching to get back to immersing myself in the exotic cultures, cheap foods, and enchanting juxtapositions of religion and modern life.

(sorry…that last one was a bit much, but I do love the call to prayer)

Since my initial arrival in Baghdad, it has become apparent in many ways that I am not living in the Middle East… Being confined to a compound, living in a converted shipping container, Peruvian guards regulating my entrance and exit to all buildings, set meal times, long work hours, and only a faint, far away call to prayer if I happen to be outside at the right time. Retaining some of my teenage immaturity, I’ve managed to complain about these things way more than necessary to friends and coworkers (and they have obviously been kind enough to allow me to constantly vent).

It can’t be as bad as it seems sometimes though, right? There are people who have worked here for years and they get along just fine. I’ve noticed a few things that my fellow compound dwellers do to avoid going completely nuts. (Note: alcohol and excessive gym time are popular ones, but far too obvious, so I’m skipping those)

1. Creative meal-planning.

As I’ve said (complained about) before, I don’t have a kitchen. I’m limited to the whims of the DFAC. Where I see the same cycle of dishes, others see opportunity, creating unique and impressive salads and dishes, topping a heap of fresh (umm, relatively fresh) spinach with whatever protein is available, mixing sauces on top, throwing on spices and condiments, and suddenly it’s all new and delicious looking. For those with access to a kitchen, the one store on the compound has such a small food selection that it would leave your average college freshman wanting. There are a few refrigerated cases of frozen meals, plus plenty of meat for going-away barbecues. Anything that isn’t refrigerated requires a microwave (though I did spot a lonely bag of flour at the bottom of one shelf, maybe baking is in my future?). People with kitchens are also forced to get creative with the DFAC offerings, because going “down the street” for groceries is (technically) not allowed. Example? I heard rumors of a tomato sauce attempt, using some of the fresh (again, relative term) tomato slices available at the salad bar.

Limitations still exist: This was meant to be a tomato basil sauce, made with the leaves of a windowsill basil plant, but alas, the basil plant did not make it.

2. Hometown traditions

Americans haven’t really caught onto it much, but the Peruvian security guards certainly do love their soccer (football, whatever). How much do they love their soccer? They’ve organized themselves into teams, acquired uniforms for the teams, and play regular matches against each other most mornings (when it’s not so hot out yet, but still plenty of light). But this is Baghdad, limitations are there, and the Peruvians have successfully (well, sorta) adapted to the harsh conditions.

Like, there’s no soccer field, only a basketball court.

But…a basketball field is a lot smaller than a soccer field True. They deal with it, mostly by keeping enough extra soccer balls nearby and designating people to run after ones that are (inevitably) kicked way way over the nets. One of these days, I plan on situating myself on the bleachers (yes, there are bleachers) with my morning coffee and my Rebel XS and seeing how rusty my sports photography skills have become over the years.

3. mingling with local wildlife

This isn’t actually the best option for coping, but there are several cat roaming around the compound, and certainly a lot of people who are comforted by their presence. In addition to the lush areas of grass to laze around on, these kitties also get to enjoy food and affection from a few kinds souls. I heard about someone who tried to organize other people into a schedule to care for a litter of kittens she found. (I also heard that most of the people she was trying to recruit were not into it).

The limitations here are obvious though. Baghdad cats, who knows where they’ve been or what they’ve gotten themselves into? I love love love cats, but I can’t bring myself to do anything other than photograph them. I appreciate my personal hygiene too much.

So what keeps me going? Good question. Hovering student loans, occasional escapes to the rest of the IZ, good friends, and an occasional smile from General Odierno. (It happened once, he totally said hi to me!) I’m still searching for a friend with (kitchen) benefits, but for now, I have a small trip to the states to quell my cabin fever. More on that later.