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I’ve now been in Baghdad for 3 days. I like to write about the culture shocks when I first visit a place because after a while, the culture shocks become normal and then I can’t explain to other travellers what it’s really like.
I’ve outlined culture shocks in Taiwan before, but a month later, I was immune to it. It was just another city.
Baghdad on the other hand is like nothing I’ve seen or visited before. I can try and make comparisons but except my trip to North Korea, this is the first time I have been to a perceived “dangerous place”.
Arriving at Baghdad airport
I knew I had to get a visa on arrival at Baghdad airport. What I didn’t know was how long it may take. It turns out that filling in a photocopied piece of A4 paper, then giving that and you passport to a man who then walks away with both can take a while.
I had a driver waiting for me. I managed to message him, who then messaged an immigration guy and I got my visa back within 30 minutes. It was organised chaos but all very trusting as well.
I met my driver and we left the airport, driving through Baghdad at 10pm in the dark, the glow of yellow street lamps guiding us. There were lots of security check points with armed police looking inside the boot of the car. A quick glance and nothing more.
There were armed traffic police at all major intersections although they were more to control the flow of cars than anything else. Military vehicles were also parked frequently along the route.
I got to my hotel and my senses that had been heightened relaxed slightly. But strangely I was still taking extra precautions I wouldn’t normally take when travelling in other parts of the world. I double checked my lock. I put my wallet and passport next to bed and not in my bag. The tiredness meant I slept well regardless.
First morning in Baghdad
I asked at reception if I could walk to my Coworking space which is the best way. She looked dismayed when she realised it was a 30 minute walk. Was I made to walk this far on the streets of Baghdad?
I started walking down the empty and dusty streets. Some very nice buildings interrupted by derelict lots with broken concrete blocks. Rubbish on the streets like I’ve seen in other cities around the world.
Again my sense were heighten for the walk there. I got a taxi back but still walked around the local area looking for food in the evening.
A military convoy drove past me. Three large armoured trucks with guys dressed in tactical gear behind machine guns on the back. I’m not used to seeing that.
Later on, those same trucks were stopped on the road ahead. Cars were blocking their way and lots of shouting was going on. A crowd formed to look on. I hung back. The guys watching around me were calm and laughing at these military guys shouting with guns a hundred metres away. My heart rate was a few beats above normal. I ate at my hotel that night.
First day exploring Baghdad
With my work done, I finally had a day to explore the city. I got a taxi to the old town and wandered around markets selling everything by from men’s jeans, to fuse boxes to kitchen knives.
At one of the covered markets, I saw my first non Iraqi, a group of Asian women obviously part of a tour with matching fans with a logo on to keep them cool
A bit further on, I was now on Mutanabbi Street, the closest thing Baghdad was a tourist street. And for the first time, I fully relaxed.
I felt comfortable taking my phone out to take pictures.
There were tourists around, more people laughing and joking and street vendors selling fruits and juices.
It all just seemed…. normal.
From that point on, Baghdad didn’t seem the big scary dangerous city that it had been for most of the first 30 years of my life. It was just another city that had families and tourists and young men trying to make a business buying and selling. My perceptions were changed in an instant.
Yes there were dangers and downsides, the military police proved that. But they also strangely made me feel safer.
Yes the streets were dusty and dirty, but other cities I’ve been to have been as well such as Cairo and Delhi.
I will travel around Iraq for two weeks and see many different sides of the country which I’ll write about in due course.
But for now, it’s just time to relax and enjoy Baghdad.
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.