Ten Random Observations About Iraq

While traveling in Iraq I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles in my series. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with the country, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. The traffic police have these cool kiosks that imitate their uniform. Looks like this guy left his tie at home.

2. Spongebob Squarepants is popular here. The best photo I didn’t take was of a woman in an abaya at Kadamiyya shrine, one of the holiest spots for Shia Islam, carrying a Spongebob balloon. No child was in sight!

3. The TV commercial for Vaseline Healthy Soap shows a mother washing her son in the bathtub. In an almost identical version the child in the tub is a girl and she’s wearing a bathing suit.

4. None of the hotels I stayed at had plugs for the sink, but the caps for the mineral water bottles fit perfectly.

5. There were many imitations of Western snacks, such as Mountain Rush soda and Wrinkles potato chips. Oddly, these were made by Western companies and distributed by regional ones. I suppose that was a way to get around copyright infringement.

%Gallery-170776%6. Most restaurants only serve the same half-dozen meals: lamb or chicken kebab, chicken tikka, roast chicken with rice, and roast chicken without rice. They’ll often have a nice long menu listing lots of other meals, but you won’t be able to get them.

7. The various security services have a bewildering variety of uniforms. Nearly all of them are available for anyone to purchase in the various shops in the Baghdad souk.

8. Arabic music videos have credits.

9. Iraq uses three types of outlets. Most are UK style, some are EU style, and there’s a third plug that’s unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. You can see one below.

10. No Iraqi I met thinks Obama is a Muslim.

You might also be interested in my ten random observations about Ethiopia and Greece!

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: “Visiting Iraq: The Practicalities!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Get a mascot! – Road trip tip

The best advice for anyone taking a road trip: get a mascot.

This doesn’t need to be complicated. On one cross-country trip, my friend and I took a small stuffed goat. Over the course of 3000 miles we told many stupid stories about that goat and photographed him with us in places ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Amish Country of Pennsylvania. A family member recently took a small stuffed Sponge Bob on her trip cross-country.

It’s not what the mascot is that counts. It’s that you have one. It will be the glue that holds the trip together.

AAA Great Vacations Expo: Andrew Zimmern, Jack Hanna and travel info galore

Last year I went to a AAA virtual travel show. Although it was very cool indeed, this weekend’s in person travel show opportunity–AAA Great Vacations Expo, is a perfect place to scout out travel options for 2009. The fact that it’s in Columbus makes it a no brainer for me. If you can swing it, come.

First off, Andrew Zimmern is going to be there on Sunday. As a Bizarre Foods fan, it will be a kick to see him in person and hear about his behind the scenes travel experiences.

On Saturday, Jack Hanna will be talking about his work with animals. I’m also interested in hearing what Amy Alipio, the Associate Editor of National Geographic Traveler’s “City Life” department has to say. She’s going to be talking about some of the world’s most interesting destinations.

Also, throughout Saturday, there are several offerings that were developed with kids in mind. In addition to Jack Hanna and his animal friends, the Ohio Wildlife Center and other organizations have kid-friendly activities. Sponge Bob is also making an appearance. Check out the event schedule for details. My son is already chomping to go. Sponge Bob to him is what Andrew Zimmern is to me.

In addition to the talks, I’m looking forward to wandering among the exhibitors. Browsing among tables laden with travel offerings is a chance to wander through possibilities.

As a person who likes to check out model homes and RVs for the voyeuristic pleasure, I imagine this weekend’s travel show will be a chance to peek into the various vacation opportunities. Should we rent a house near a beach in North Carolina–or head to a rafting vacation in West Virginia? What’s close to home? How cheap is luxury?

Although I’m not planning on an Alaskan cruise any time soon, finding out the options from someone who plans such trips is appealing. So is finding out about more adventure travel options or traveling green. Both themes are hot themes this year.

I imagine that going to this travel show will be like trying on different outfits to see which one is the best fit. Although many exhibitors are based in Ohio, several have reaches outside the state. I’m looking for those travel deals that are hard to pass up, as well as the ones I haven’t thought of before. For example, at the virtual show, I found out about a company that specializes in cruises on European rivers. Uniworld Cruises will be among the more than 100 exhibitors. As with many of the exhibitors, booking a vacation this weekend means a discount.

After the weekend, I’ll let you know what tidbits I’ve found out–and what Andrew Zimmern is like in person.

If you are planning on going, the event is at Veterans Memorial from Friday through Sunday. Vets Memorial is located on West Broad St., near COSI, the science museum–also a worthy stop. Make a weekend of it. Check out this post on 10 things there are to do in or near downtown Columbus.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade: a balloon handler’s scoop

Maybe watching the Macy’s Parade is one of your Thanksgiving traditions. Maybe you vaguely know what it is. The gigantic helium balloons manned by volunteers who keep them from whacking down tourists like they are prone to do in the stiff gusts of wind that whistle down the streets of Manhattan, are the most famous features. The idea is to have people enamored by a six-story high Sponge Bob, Mr. Potato Head and Dora the Explorer floating by, not scared to death. Then there’s the Broadway numbers, glitzy floats, rousing marching bands and the TV personalities who yuck it up, often commenting on the shitty weather–or like today, gushing about it’s perfection.

No matter how much commercialism is heaped into the parade, the balloons are amazing. Here’s a video of a woman from Alaska who had a dream of becoming a balloon handler, and she did. There’s tips for how you can become a handler yourself. Also, she explains what is involved in actually doing to the job.

For more parade insider scoop, this You Tube video goes into the background of the Macy’s parade. Watch for the section about a girl who learned to play the tuba in less than a year so she could march in it. It’s another heartwarming Thanksgiving tale.

And still there’s more. For another video that gives up close looks at several balloons, check out this You Tube offering. And, here’s a few more to get you in that parade mood: Seuussical the Musical, the Sesame Street Float, a high school marching band from 1987 and the All Star Drum and Bugle Corps.