When Cruise Ships Get In Trouble

When cruise ships get in trouble anywhere close to the United States, government forces from a variety of agencies spring into action. To make sure those efforts are seamlessly coordinated, they practice, drill and practice again as they did in a complex exercise held this week. At stake could be the lives of thousands traveling via cruise ship.

We’ve seen the media accounts of ships without power for one reason or another, drifting for days at sea. It’s a rare occurrence but when it happens, agencies from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Salvation Army all have a role to play. In Operation Black Swan this week, emergency response teams from the cruise industry along with key Bahamas government agencies joined to test the system in place to handle emergencies.

The three-day exercise was designed to better understand the role each agency plays during a maritime mass rescue event. Testing emergency procedures looked deep into the entire process of a would-be catastrophe at sea starting with the actual abandon ship process and the way ships account for passengers and crew. Stretching search and rescue capabilities as if in an actual emergency along with landing site management and medical surge procedures, the results were good.

Coordinated by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the U.S. Coast Guard runs the show, but other agencies play a critical role in handling an emergency.
“The efforts of the local Red Cross and the Salvation Army at the landing site are to be commended. They were able to provide the passengers and support team refreshments at the site. The efforts of the medical teams from the Rand Memorial and the U.S. FAST Team who came to provide assistance to the injured persons are to also be commendable. I am also pleased with the support of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard air assets, which medically evacuated persons for care and attention,” said Director of NEMA Captain Stephen Russell in a statement.


Just how complicated is the business of rescuing a cruise ship?

The Black Swan exercise included involvement from Royal Caribbean‘s Monarch of the Seas and Norwegian cruise line’s Norwegian Sky, both utilized for an evacuation drill of passengers and tendering to port. Carnival Cruise Line was there providing family guest care facilities and Norwegian provided landing site forward teams.

Coast Guard Cutters Joshua Appleby, Tarpon and Diamondback were fully staffed and on the scene along with crewmembers from the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) and Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) who also participated in the exercise.

While a full blown catastrophe at sea is rare, medical evacuations by the U.S. Coast Guard are not all that uncommon, as we see in this video:

[Photo credit – U.S. Coast Guard]

Beer Run In Basra

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?”

We 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.]

Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

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: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Destinations on the edge: Baghdad

There used to be one way to go to Iraq. You’d go to your local recruiting office, take an oath and sign a contract. Then, you’d subject yourself to a minimum of 16 weeks’ training under the most unpleasant of circumstances. Wearing your snappy new threads (and a Kevlar helmet), you’d be put on a plane. Today, things are a bit different. You don’t have to be a soldier or civilian contractor to go to Baghdad. All you need to do is buy a plane ticket.

If you’re looking to put the winter chill behind you, Iraq is certainly an option. Civilian flights now touch down every day at Baghdad International Airport. But, as you’d expect from airlines operating in a war zone, information’s not easy to come by. Royal Jordanian Airlines operates flights to Iraq. On its website’s route map, several Iraqi cities are listed, including Baghdad, Irbil (also spelled “Erbil” and sometimes “Arbil”) and Basra. When you try to book a flight to these destinations from the website, though, you’ll see that they aren’t available. To book a flight, give them a call to get more information. You can also roll the dice with Iraqi Airways, but I’d stick to known brands.

Play it safe by taking an Austrian Airlines flight to Irbil. Jumping off from JFK (New York) or DCA (Washington, D.C.) makes the most sense, and the latter is a bit less expensive. A round trip for late January will set you back around $2,000 for the cheapest fare available, so keep in mind that this insanity is a form of luxury travel.

Hey, adventure’s the new luxury. Drop the cash on a thrill.

If you really want to live life on the edge, you can be driven into the city by a “bodyguard.” This service provider is pretty much a guy with a car an AK-47 sitting across his lap. He’ll bring you into the country, but you’ll probably be nervous the whole way. Or, maybe the notion of a stranger in a war-torn country with a rifle across his thighs makes you feel comfortable. I don’t judge.


According to several reports from the ground, the Baghdad airport itself is relatively safe. There are plenty guards all over the terminals, and they do take their jobs seriously. Photography is not permitted, a fact that the folks with the guns will make sure you understand (though not in a harassing manner). Once you’re on the outside, the rules change. Iraq is a war zone; there’s no other way to describe it. People shoot at each other. Hostages have been taken. So, you need to be smart when you make this trek. Follow the rules when you see people with weapons.

But, you don’t care. So, it’s time to find a hotel.

The normal means of booking a room do not apply to Baghdad. Scour the traditional travel sites, and you will be disappointed with each click of your mouse. So, dig a little. On RealTravel, you can get a bit of variety. Twelve hotels are listed, with rates varying from the Hotel Ishtar’s painless $67 a night to the Palestine International Hotel’s $150 room rate.

Don’t expect luxury. Howard Cornell, a contractor who served in Iraq, remembers stays at both Hotel Baghdad and the al Rasheed. He recounts in an interview with TraderDaily.com that the al Rasheed was a bit beat up on the outside but wasn’t so bad one you crossed the threshold. Hotel Baghdad? Well, it’s only good for “reporters for civilians with a pistol under the pillow.” In town, you’ll be able to get around on foot or via taxi. The cab drivers are comfortable enough with the tourist economy to quote rates in U.S. dollars.

If you’ve become immune to the safer thrills of skydiving and cave diving, war tourism is the next logical step. There are plenty of danger zones around the world; you have choices. Unfortunately, Afghanistan gets cold. Iraq will get you the adrenaline rush you crave, and you probably won’t need to pack a sweater.

Be careful when you tour Baghdad. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and you’ll have a fulfilling experience. This is a unique opportunity, and few will make this sort of move. When your co-workers brag of their luxurious or unusual travel exploits, having been to Baghdad will equip you to end their tales … quickly.


[Thanks, Brian Sayler, for the galleries and photo of Sadam’s palace above]