Heading to Baghdad I: A step at a time

This is the third time in the last 4 months that I have done the NY-Amman leg. I have been to Jordan several times since 2003. But this was the first time I was coming to Jordan to take off the following day to another country. The original plan, designed many weeks ago, was to arrive at 4pm, go to the hotel, rest a bit and then take the UN charter flight to Baghdad the next morning. Needless to say, things do not always go as planned.

The direct flight from NY arrived on time. As I exited the customs area, I noticed that the airport was surprisingly empty. On the left, I recognized the driver that had either picked me up or dropped me off at the airport the last few times I have traveled here. He also smiled when he saw me. He then said something to another driver that was next to him and they both laughed. As I approached I asked him if it was a holiday. He responded negatively. And then added that he was as surprised as I was about the airport not having the usual crowd and noise levels. And the traffic is also very light, he promptly concluded.

We reached the hotel a little bit after 5pm. The people at the reception also recognized me and immediately proceeded to upgrade my room to an executive suite. I did not have to utter a single word. I just grinned. I collected my small and light bag, took the elevator to the 11th floor, entered the suite room and quickly proceeded to unpack a few things. I was supposed to check on a staff meeting that our division in NY was having at that very moment. I promptly hooked up my notebook to the wired Internet connection and did just that.

At the same time, I was checking my email. I saw that the so-called “showtime” for taking off to Baghdad was going to be either at 1am or 5am the next day. This was a bit of a surprise to me. It was soon confirmed that the final showtime was indeed 1am. I then got a call from the UNDP Iraq office informing me that I was going to be collected by 12:30am at the latest. This was all very unexpected to me as I had always imagined that the flight to Baghdad would be between 8am and 12pm the following day.

At 12:10am I had already checked out of the hotel. This was probably the first time I spent 7 hours in a hotel, paid for the full night and could not sleep at the place. The car that was bringing us to the airport arrived at 12:20am along with two of my travel mates. As we loaded my luggage into the car I noticed that it was getting cold. And the wind was really picking up. We quickly took off to the airport. Not to Queen Alia International but to Marka Civil Airport which is located in East Amman and used to be the main airport until 1983.

We arrived at Marka 15 minutes before 1am in the morning. A few people also traveling to Baghdad were already there. This was the only flight that was taking off at such daunting hour. Half an hour later we were told by security to go through the X-ray and metal detector machines and proceed to check-in. Women go through a separate line as they need to be body searched by female inspectors. This is done in a squared space delimited by long colorful curtains located to the right of the X-ray machine. When we started to clear security, our female colleagues were still waiting for the female inspectors to show up.

I was probably fifth in a very informal check-in line. When I finally got to speak to the attendant, he quickly told me my name was not on the list. My last chance to escape had just emerged, I thought. He demanded to see my UN travel papers which, by the way, I had never seen as UNDP Iraq had kindly processed all this for me. This just meant that I had to wait for my female colleagues that were still outside the security area. In the end, I was the last one to check-in. The papers were solid gold. And when I finally got my boarding pass I noticed that the boarding time as 2:40am. So we had one more hour or so to go.

Charter PIC
UN Charter Flight

A small bus took us from the terminal to the airplane which turned out to be an Embraer 120, a small propeller-driven plane that can accommodate a maximum of 25 people or so. The UN has apparently outsourced the contract for the charter flights to South African pilots. We finally took off at 3:05am. The heavy winds made the plane dance with heavy cadences in the air. I have not flown a small plane in many years and have forgotten how one does feel more intensively about external environmental conditions. Plus the plane feels so light, really…

Most of my travel mates soon fell asleep. The pilot had announced that flying time to Baghdad would be 2 hours. I could not fall asleep as my body was still in a New York state of mind and my inner clock loudly said it was around 8pm – time for dinner. The French stewardess offered only water, big bottles of water. I had taken a window seat but was unable to see much. I took a bottle of water to distract my hunger and patiently waited for the flight to come to an end.

70 minutes later the pilot announced that we would be landing in Baghdad in 20 minutes. Thanks to the heavy and favorable winds we have been able to shave almost 30 minutes off the scheduled time. The plane landed at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport; this is an odd acronym as the word airport is one word, not two!) at 4:35am Jordan time.

For some reason, my son’s birth time came to my brain. He was born at 4:21am on a warm Monday morning. I was soon reminded by the stewardess that Baghdad is one hour ahead of Amman…

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