*Disclaimer – This post has some mild(ish) swearing, especially as this author is writing through some pretty nasty jet-lag*

I made it – I’m in Suleimaniah! As I’m severely sleep-deprived, I’m not sure the totality of my situation has hit me, and so things are seeming quite surreal. But despite my jet-lag, moments crash through where I think – and I mean this in every way possible, on the entire spectrum from negative to positive –


Because, let’s face it, I am in this place, this totally weird, fantastic, backwards, forwards, Kurdish-speaking place, FOR A YEAR. For better or worse, I’ll be here for a solid effing YEAR. I won’t see Eugene again for at least a year, or my family, or my friends, unless they decide to fly to Iraq. Which is to say, it’s pretty damn unlikely that for a year I’ll see anyone I’ve met before today. I’ve really, really, really committed myself to this, and I don’t think I realized how big of a journey I’ve undertaken until I walked out of the airport. The magnitude of my decision hasn’t quite hit me yet, and I’m both excited and very nervous for the coming year.

OK, let me backtrack a bit and briefly outline my journey here. I took 3 flights to Kurdistan (Eugene-Newark, Newark-Istanbul, Istanbul-Suleimaniah) and had 2 incredibly long layovers (I explored Istanbul a bit during a 12-hour-long-layover. Maybe I’ll post about it later). All in all, it amounted to a 40-hour long journey, assuming we count only pure traveling. It was certainly the most grueling airport experience I’ve ever had. I left on August 16th, and got here on August 18th. And what with nerves, and the constant jostling of an airplane, I’ve slept only 7 hours in the past 4 days.

Note on traveling: Don’t forget to eat when you travel. If you get nerves, whether due to airplane anxiety or excitement for your destination (both applied to me), STILL EAT EVEN THOUGH YOUR STOMACH IS FULL OF BUTTERFLIES. Otherwise, when you start falling asleep at a totally inconvenient time to maintain your jet-lag-prevention schedule, you’ll drink 2 shots of espresso on an empty stomach. And then, when you’re still falling asleep because you’ve been up for nearly a day and two shots just ain’t gonna cut it, you’ll drink 2 more shots. And THEN the espresso will seep into your bloodstream and start gnawing at your sanity, preying upon your pre-existing nervousness and increasing it EXPONENTIALLY, and the nervousness will in turn multiply the butterflies into a swarm, which will then make you queasy and thus utterly incapable of eating, even though eating happens to be the one thing which will help to quell the caffeine raging throughout your body, until you’re lying on a bench in the airport taking huge yoga breaths, trying your damndest to CALM THE F*** DOWN.

(Travelling alone to a new country where you’re intending to set up a new life – this can be very intimidating.)

I finally got into my apartment in Sulei this morning at 5 am.

View from my apartment at dawn as I was going to bed.

I proceeded to sleep for an hour, until I had to wake up for an all-day teacher training. It sucked, but at least we get 3 days of vacation starting tomorrow! Today is the last day of Ramadan, and then it’s eid, a 3-day celebration where Muslims spend time with loved ones and eat lots and lots of food. (Also, tomorrow’s my 22nd birthday. Really, everything’s happening at once. It’s overwhelming.)

So, we got up, found the school, and went in to meet the school director. It was extremely strange to meet the man with whom I’ve been corresponding and Skyping these past 3 months. As one teacher put it, “he’s a lot shorter than I thought he’d be.”

We also met some of the other teachers, many of which are local women teaching Kurdish and Arabic. They all wore headscarves and very modest dresses, but that definitely didn’t mean they were demure (as I somewhat assumed)! Zeno was born in Sulei, but moved to Norway at age 8. She recently moved back to Sulei with her 3 kids and husband, and is working for an affiliated international school across town. She is loud, her English is excellent, and she’s got a wicked sense of humor. Sarah, who will be a kindergarten aide (hopefully with me!) is teaching me some Kurdish, warning me about Kurdish men, and says that she can’t wait to take off her headscarf tomorrow once Ramadan’s over so she can show me her crazy curly hair. She’s also divorced and has a young daughter. We talked briefly on Kurdish vs. American views on marriage, something I am fascinated to talk with her about further.

Kurdish words/phrases I’ve learned so far (spelled phonetically, kinda):

  • chOni: hi
  • spas: thank you
  • bAYnit bash: good morning

I don’t remember much of training, as I was falling asleep through most of it, but let me tell you, this curriculum is rigid. Joshua, one of the English-speakers, who’s from New Orleans, described it fondly as “Soviet-like.” I’m a bit skeptical – on the one hand, it could be nice to not have to create lesson plans each day. On the other hand, it could get very restrictive. We’ll see. 

As for Suli – we’re at the base of the foothills (I’ll upload more pics tomorrow, for now they’re uploading really slowly and I’ve used up my patience), but it’s still incredibly dusty and hot. A few days ago it was 43C. I am astonished how the women manage to stay completely covered, sometimes in black abayas, and survive this heat. It’s frustrating to wear a cardigan when all I want to do is run around in shorts and a tank top. This is one of the moments where I think: “I signed up for this?” before reminding myself that eventually someday I will grow into a better, more culturally adept woman thanks to this experience. But right now it kinda sucks.

After work, I came back to my flat and started exploring it. It’s cool, with some definite oddities. Such as this gem:

This is a toilet. No, seriously. It is.

It’s a toilet. No TP, no lid. Just squat and rinse. And yes, that is a floor squeegee. To squeegee the floor.

I’ll try and go out into town more tomorrow, but for now I’m exhausted and I need to make dinner before crashing. And then tomorrow I’ll wake up and I’ll be 22!

My life is particularly weird right now.

4 thoughts on “I’m HERE!

  1. Rachel, What an amazing incredible adventure! Of course of all that you shared, I am most impressed by the toilet (no surprise there, I’m sure)! It brings me back to the time that I was an exchange student in Turkey, I remember after squatting for 9 weeks I discovered a porcelain toilet in a friend’s house. All I can remember is how appreciative I was to sit for a change.

    I think I have a connection for you of a fellow teacher there in Sulei. More to follow…
    I’m so proud of you!
    Luv ya,

  2. Can’t say we didn’t try to warn you! As well as, hopefully, encourage you. Yes, it is a big commitment, but I’m willing to bet you will get way more out of your experiences than you put in, regardless of how much you contribute. Things will seem less surreal once you’re through jet-lag and get your bearings. I have utter and complete faith in your ability to live your time there to its fullest!

  3. They had the same kind of toilets in Japan when I lived there. Big surprise to me at age 15! I’m glad that you’re writing it all down when it’s fresh and different.

  4. Hey Rachel! I am reading your blog through your mom’s sign in. Could you email me a request so I could follow along? I am enjoying the read so far!!! my email is sforrestall@hotmail.com. Thanks, and Happy Belated Birthday!!1

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