Beer Run In Basra

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’d been on the road in Iraq for a week, and after inhaling ten pounds of desert sand each, we really needed a beer. Luckily we were in Basra, and our tour leader Geoff knew a good place to buy liquor under the counter. So after a day of seeing the historic quarter and taking a boat trip along the Shatt al-Arab, a few of us ditched our guards and headed out into town.

Ditched our guards? In Iraq??? Sure. Basra is a pretty safe town and our Muslim guards from the Ministry of Interior wouldn’t have approved of us going on a beer run. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The last time I went off without my guards I nearly got arrested, but that wasn’t so bad. I even got to meet a general.

Geoff led the way. We passed down some quiet back streets flanked by crumbling concrete buildings. The few passersby didn’t seem to take much notice of us. This is common in Iraq. They’re looking at you but don’t make a show of it. If you wave and say hello, though, they’ll respond warmly.

We ended up at a little corner grocery store. A few dusty boxes of tea and some cans of soup with faded, peeling labels sat on the shelves. It didn’t look like this place had sold any groceries for a decade. It was one of the least convincing facades I’ve ever seen.

%Gallery-171530%We walked up to the counter and asked for beer. The two middle-aged men behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelid. They named the price, we handed over the money, and one of them walked out of the store.

“He will be back in one minute,” the owner said. “Where are you from?”

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWe replied and had the usual friendly conversation of “Welcome to Iraq” and “How do you like my country?” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Anyone who has traveled knows these conversations. They quickly get repetitive but they’re good for international relations. Iraqis and Westerners could do with a few more friendly conversations.

“We are Christians,” he told us.

We nodded. The liquor sellers in Iraq tend to be from the Christian or Yazidi minorities. They still suffer harassment, even though they aren’t breaking the rules of their religion. In some places liquor sales are strictly forbidden by self-appointed vice squads. In other places like Basra it happens in a semi-secretive fashion with everyone turning a blind eye, like with the pot dealer at a university dorm. In Baghdad the liquor stores operate out in the open. It all depends on which of Iraq’s countless factions controls that area.

The guy returned with a bulging plastic bag filled with cold cans of Turkish beer. The owner cut the conversation short.

“You go now,” he told us. Having foreigners in the store was attracting attention. People on the sidewalk peered through the glass door as they passed by. A group of guys across the street stood staring. One made a call on his mobile phone. I looked right at him and he looked right back at me, expressionless.

We thanked the shopkeepers and left. I volunteered to carry the bag. I figured if we ran into trouble I could use it as a club. A dozen beer cans upside the head will stop just about anybody.

It was the only weapon I ever carried in Iraq and I never got to use it. Those guys across the street were simply curious. The one with the phone wasn’t calling in a hit squad. We got back to our hotel with no trouble at all – except for getting lost. And what’s the point of traveling if you don’t get to ask for directions in Basra with a bag full of beer in your hand?

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan. This is actually a liquor store in Baghdad that runs much more openly. I didn't get a photo of the Basra folks. They weren't exactly in a photogenic mood.]

Video: Visiting The Pyramids of Sudan


Sudan is near the top of my list of countries I haven’t been to that I want to explore. One of the main things I’m aching to see are the pyramids of Meroë. This site has dozens of pyramids built starting around 720 BC.

Meroë was one of the capitals of the Nubian Empire, which at times rivaled its more famous northern neighbor, Egypt. As archaeologists continue to excavate in the Sudan, they’re finding that it had more influence on ancient Egyptian culture than previously thought. The Nubians even took over Egypt and installed their own dynasty there, ruling from 760-656 BC before the Egyptians kicked them out.

The pyramids at Meroë are a two-and-a-half hour drive north of the modern capital Khartoum. This video takes us on that journey, with a classic soundtrack to get us in the mood. The camel crossing reminds me of a similar holdup I experienced in Ethiopia’s Somali region!

Africa’s Tallest Statue: The Monument To The African Renaissance

The Monument To The African RenaissanceFlying or driving into Dakar, the capital of Senegal, it’s impossible to miss this imposing statue.

That’s deliberate. The Monument to the African Renaissance is supposed to make a statement. At 49 meters (161 feet), it’s the tallest statue in Africa. In fact, it’s one of the tallest statues anywhere, beating the Statue of Liberty by several feet.

When it was completed in 2010, this giant statue caused a giant controversy. Feminists complained about the secondary status given to the female figure. Imams complained about her scanty clothing. Some complained about its Soviet artistic style, seemingly out of place in Africa, and the fact that it was built by a North Korean company. Lots of people, especially in the West, complained about its $27 million price tag.

Yeah, like the West never wastes money.

Sure, it’s brash, it’s bold, and it’s more than a little out of proportion, but it makes its point: Africa has a big future ahead of it. You see it in everything from Africa’s towering skyscrapers to its lively cafe culture, from its newly paved roads to its growing middle class. As a recent editorial by Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina stated, Africa isn’t like its international image, and big projects like this help the world see Africa differently.

Love it or hate it, this statue has become a major tourist site in Dakar. You can take an elevator up to the top of the guy’s head and look out over the city. People are even photographing it as they fly into town, or by flying a camera on a kite like Jeff Attaway did to take the photo below.

Hopefully the next major statement by an African government will be built by an African company.

Top photo courtesy Laurence Thielemans.

The monument to the African Renaissance

Video: Bones And Art In The Paris Catacombs

You’ve probably seen videos or photos of the famous Paris Catacombs, with their miles of ossuaries holding the bones of some six million Parisians. The catacombs were created in the 18th century from existing underground quarries, and these quarries, tunnels, and other mysterious underground spaces create a network under Paris measuring more than 180 miles. It’s truly a city under the city, with its own secret life.

This video, created by some intrepid urban explorers, shows parts of the Paris Catacombs you won’t see on the official tour: rooms filled with graffiti and giant murals, even a large stone model of a castle. Despite their reputation as burial places, the tunnels and rooms beneath Paris seem to have a lot of life in them.

The Parisians who make these works of art, called cataphiles, also sponsor underground parties, meetings, even a cinema. To learn more about these interesting folks, check out this article.

Video: Traffic In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso


I’ve always been intrigued by Burkina Faso. I know very little about this West African nation and that only increases the allure. It also helps that it has a cool name and its capital, Ouagadougou, has probably the coolest city name ever! While my travels have focused on North Africa and the Horn of Africa, I plan to explore West Africa one day and Burkina Faso is high on my list.

This video by Tony, who writes the great Africa Full Circle blog, gives a sneak peak of the street scene in Ouagadougou. He mounted a camera to his helmet and sped around town on his motorcycle, then added a chilled out soundtrack to the video. Tony says that the roads are much nicer than they used to be with many having been paved in the past year.

Tony has plenty more videos from his world travels on his many blogs. Be sure to check them out!