And with FRIENDS, too!!!


I feel so lucky, masha’allah.

So I met another English teacher in town, Gwen, and she’s just wonderful. She could be a Whittie. That’s one of the best compliments I can give her. And I’ve recently connected with an Arabic teacher from the school, Sa’ada. She’s from Lebanon, and is also really good-hearted and adventurous.

So I invited them both last Saturday to go to the waterfall today. A lot of people here want lots of notice before taking a trip, so I figured I should plan ahead and determinately go to Ahmed Awa. And it worked out! Finally, no one cancelled the day before, or wimped out because of the rain, or acted wishy-washy and then went all radio-silence on me.

I left the apartment when it was still dark out (6:30am!!), then we all headed to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town. Sa’ada speaks Arabic (Lebanese Arabic, so it’s often difficult for Kurds to understand her), and Gwen speaks Spanish, but I knew the most Kurdish (and that’s not a strong testament to how much Kurdish we knew), so we muddled out which bus we needed to take – the one directly to Khurmal, about a 2 hour drive. The kaka at the terminal kept trying to get us to take a shared taxi to the waterfall, but that would have been more expensive, and the bus is always an experience.

And this time more than ever.

I christened it “Shite Bus.” There were fewer seats than the other buses, the few seats which were there sported holes in their white vinyl covers and wiggled so much I wanted to count the bolts holding them to the floor, the cushions felt like concrete and had some very questionable stains on them, and the ceiling was so low that our heads were in danger every time we went over a speed bump.

But hey, it got us where we wanted to go, and for only 2750 dinar (about $2.50). Wooooot!

The only problem was, Sa’ada forgot to bring her residence card, and Gwen looks very, very American. So as we passed through the two checkpoints on the way to Ahmed Awa, the Asaish officers pulled the entire bus over to check our residency cards and make sure we wouldn’t go to Iran. Ahmed Awa waterfall is on the border of Kurdistan and Iran, and it was the destination of the three American hikers who were arrested and imprisioned in Iran for 3 years. The bottom of the waterfall is in Iraq, but its source is located in Iran – apparently the 3 hikers wanted to hike to the top, and entered Iran.

So for their stupidity, Gwen, Sa’ada and I had to talk to multiple sets of Kurdish officers about how, yes, Sa’ada forgot her residency card, but it’s ok, she’s Lebanese and not an Arab so she is harmless, and how Gwen and I have valid residency cards but we know not to hike to the top of the falls because we’d done our research and we we’re not stupid, everyone knows that those big mountains over there are the border, and yes, I know a little Kurdish and isn’t it funny how I’m trying to communicate, and oh hell let’s just bring in an Arabic-speaking Asaish officer to speak to Sa’ada and while we’re at it let’s bring in the whole Asaish compound – up to 20 officers – to look at the 3 women without a male escort trying to get to the waterfall in December when it’s too cold for any of the Kurds to visit, and isn’t it strange that they’re taking a bus and not a taxi like all the other foreigners do?

So although we though we were taking an innocent trip to a waterfall, I guess to the Asaish we looked pretty suspicious. Not that we looked like terrorists or anything, but I think that we were acting so enigmatic that they didn’t know what to do with us. There was no protocol for dealing with 3 women, one Lebanese, and two Americans (one bleach-blonde – Gwen – and one who apparently looks Persian – me) who were so not acting like typical tourists.

I felt so bad for the other passengers on the bus – they had to wait for us every time the bus stopped. We felt like we were totally giving English-speakers a bad name, holding up 15 other passengers just so we could take a day trip to a waterfall.

So at the second checkpoint (near to Ahmed Awa), the officers took mine and Gwen’s residency cards and told us they’d give them back to us when we returned. I really don’t know what this was supposed to accomplish other than trying to keep us on as tight a leash a possible as a way of preventing us from entering Iran (NARROIN BO IRAN, KAKA!). They kept us so long that the bus left, and two Asaish (one with a rifle) were assigned to drive us to the falls.

Yes, we traded the Shite Bus for an armed escort. We felt very fancy.

Our two officers went with us to the falls, which were BEAUTIFUL and reminded me so much of Oregon, especially with the rain coming down. We drove up a narrow, muddy road past a little village and many skinny cows and pomegranate trees filled with rotting pomegranates. We followed the river, occasionally getting out to take photos. Gorgeous. Really, the hills were lush and terraced for farming, and the mountains loomed steep and craggy above us. Craggy! All of Iraq is not flat and brown. Alhamdalilah! Green everywhere, boulders, rushing water, and rain. Beautiful rain.

And walnut trees. Fahal, our armed guard, kept collecting them and offering them to us. He’s bunch one in his fist, and then somehow hit it with his other hand in a special way that produced a crunch, and he’d hand a smashed walnut to us, easy-peasy. So as we drove up to the falls, we were snacking on walnuts and chucking shells out the window. It was a symphony of crunching, chewing, tires splashing in mud, and Kurdish music playing through the radio. Occasionally we’d all start shrugging our shoulders in a very Kurdish-dance-along-to-the-repetitive-music way, and clapping our hands to the beat.


The falls were gorgeous. We actually climbed up the waterfall as high as we could, getting muddy and soaked in the process. Fahal let us all take pictures holding his rifle at the top (sketch!). He also re-named each of us with Kurdish names he could pronounce. I am now Chinur (Cheenoor) – it’s a type of flower that grows here. Gwen is Bakhan – nature. And Sa’ada is – something I forgot. Sorry, Sa’ada.

So call me Chinur.

After the falls, we bade farewell to our Asaish men. The bus picked us up, and we headed back to Suli. Except not without ANOTHER stop by the Asaish. This time, the driver was  clear on our situation and talked to the officer – Yes, sir, they are English teachers in Slemani, they went to Ahmed Awa, these two are Americans, that woman is Lebanese, etc. etc. But we still had to get off the bus, talk to the head officer, and then get back on the bus.

As much as I love taking the bus, next time we might go by taxi to avoid the inconvenience to the other passengers.

So we went to Ahmed Awa! It was an excellent day, as proven by the three of us simultaneously falling asleep on the bumpy ill-built Shite Bus because we were so tired from the long day of climbing waterfalls and stumbling around in Kurdish and Arabic with Asiash officers.


6 thoughts on “Ahmed Awa, OKHAI (FINALLY)!

  1. I’m looking forward to pictures as well. This reminds me of Jim being christened as a Catholic priest by one of the border guards because he worked for the church in Garba Tula!

    1. I know! It’s really about the journey. If you consider the “getting there” as important as the “there,” it’s so much more fun. And amusing. Gwen and I had to use the WC at the last Asaish office, and this officer led us outside and across a muddy ditch to this concrete hut with a grey, tattered curtain as a “door.” And inside, of course, was an Arab toilet – a hole in the ground. Our whole journey up to that point had been so ridiculous, and here was this toilet in the middle of nowhere – we just couldn’t stop giggling.

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