Friday, November 30, 2007

Down Under

Ahh, R&R. Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan get the opportunity to take a 15 day vacation during their deployment. Most soldiers choose to go back to the US, but I wanted to use the break to visit a place I’d never been before: Australia. Theoretically, I could have gone anywhere in the world—even a place as obscure as Greenland. The soldier simply names the destination and the Army pays for the round trip civilian flight. I convinced my friend Alex to come with me. He’d never been to Australia before either.

There is a catch though—getting out of Iraq is not easy. The plan is for you to get to Balad, then Kuwait, then Germany if you’re going back to the US. Because I’m stationed at Taji, which doesn’t have a runway suitable for larger fixed-wing aircraft like the C-130 or C-17, I first had to fly to Balad via helicopter. We were supposed to fly out of Taji on November 20th but ended up leaving on the 22nd because of cancelled flights. The unfortunate combination of bad weather and higher-priority emergency leaves kept delaying us. There was one instance when we were about 50 yards from a Blackhawk helicopter when the crew chief came out and said he only had room for one more. We didn’t want to split up (how cute), so we opted for a chance at a later flight. Finally, after two days of waiting and wondering, we left beautiful Taji and arrived in Balad. Balad turned out to be a more organized disaster, with us mostly lying around on the airport terminal floor for 15 hours trying to get some sleep. After a nice Thanksgiving meal, we caught a flight to Kuwait. At Kuwait, we in-processed for R&R and were assigned a temporary tent until our flight to Dubia/Sydney the next day. I’m not really in any danger at all on Camp Taji, but it still felt good to be out of Iraq. It must be a big relief to the soldiers who have to go out on the roads in Iraq to finally be out of danger. I overheard one homeward-bound soldier in my tent showing his friend his purple heart and the wound in his leg that got him the “award.”

Next, we flew out of Kuwait City airport the next night on Emirates via Dubai to Sydney on a 15-hour flight. The longest flight I had ever been on was the 7 or 8-hour New York to Frankfurt so the Kuwait-Sydney long haul was definitely a test of patience for me. Luckily, Emirates is a great airline with outstanding food, good leg room, and a lot of things to keep you busy. Each seat had a personal TV with all the newer movies that just came out on DVDs.

I call Dubai the Star Wars bar. At a crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, Dubai is rapidly becoming one of the region’s most important cities. This attracts travelers and businessmen from all over the world. You see Indian men with turbans, Africans in traditional dress, Russians on vacation, Fillipino workers, Arabs in white robes, and Germans on their way to wherever. In short, a layover in Dubai is a bit more interesting than a stop in Pittsburgh.

Sydney: I’ve been to about 30 countries in my life and can say with confidence that Sydney is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Its summer here now so the weather was warm and sunny almost every day we were there. The city is right on the harbor so we got around on ferries to different parts of the city. Got to see the iconic Sydney Opera House with the Sydney skyline in the background. Went to the Taronga zoo and got up close with a koala. Walked through the botanical gardens and saw probably one hundred different trees I’d never seen before. Sydney’s residents are beautiful, in shape, young. Our necks are sore from checking out all the female scenery that is to be seen here. Bondi beach was awesome too. I went swimming there for an hour or two and saw some surfers impressively handling some nice waves.
Sydney Harbor
Sydney Harbor
Sydney Opera House
Me and a koala
Cairns: Today we flew up to Cairns, the major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is about as big as the US, so the flight from Sydney to Cairns covers roughly the same distance as New York to Miami. It feels very South Pacific here, with the humid temperature, turquoise water, and lush rainforest mountains surrounding the city. Had some kangaroo, emu, and crocodile meat today. We enrolled in a SCUBA certfication course so thats what I'll be doing for the next 4 days. We had our first day today and I really liked it. Can't wait to get out on the Reef to see some cool stuff. Next we're off to Melbourne.
Hope everyone is doing well!