I just got back from two trips: a week in Kurdistan, followed by a week in New Zealand. Interestingly enough, the two had a lot in common.
Really, Michele? Really. Read on.
Part I: Kurdistan
Kurdistan, in case you haven’t checked your world map recently, is an unacknowledged little statelet in the northern corner of Iraq. Inhabited by the Kurds, who would love their own country, despite the efforts of just about everyone - Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, the Powers That Be - to talk them out of it. They haven’t waited for permission. They’ve secured their borders and armed their Provincial government, and exist in an uneasy half-accepted truce with the government in Baghdad, occupying the territory they believe is theirs, which includes some very nice oilfields.
I went there for work. But never mind that: the interesting part was the place and its people.
You fly into Erbil airport, and the first thing you think is, this is not what I expected. At least, I thought that. The place is humming. And peaceful. Lots of security, for sure. But already at the airport I saw women driving, foreigners and locals mixing easily, guards who seemed to actually want to help, and a skyline full of construction cranes and half-finished buildings. All against a background of wheatfields and blue summer sky.
Erbil has an ambition to be ‘Little Dubai’. From what I saw, they have a chance at it. And I wasn’t that fond of Dubai, so they may actually top the place.
I think it was while I was having dinner at the rooftop sushi restaurant of the new luxury hotel, looking out at the skyline, that I acquired my little crush on Kurdistan. The fish was good, the crowd calm and friendly, the night air warm. Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ was playing. I kept thinking, where am I? It didn’t feel like a town located a short drive away from Baghdad and Fallujah. But it was, and that’s a testimony to the Kurd’s determination to occupy their own space and set their own rules.
Next day we hit the road. Driving from Erbil to Suleimaniyah, I saw more of the kind of thing you expect in Central Asia: harsh landscapes and shepherds, mountain passes and checkpoints. Our security team was alert and conscientious, and also very nice guys. And everywhere we looked we saw something being built: roads and buildings, dams and bridges.
There was even a pharmaceutical factory owned by the South Koreans. How did that get to Kurdistan? Seems the local Ministry went to a development conference in Asia and persuaded the Korean delegation to come and see for themselves, get a feel for who the Kurds are and what they’re building. They liked what they saw. People do. A number of folks said it: if you can get someone to come to Kurdistan, you find they’re willing to come back.
So. That was Kurdistan. Tough little country, had some hard times but not complaining. Full of hard-working, courteous, home-loving people you don’t want to mess with. They’re fixing things up they way they should be. And they’re not going to let anyone stop them, either.
Part II: New Zealand
Summer in Kurdistan is winter in New Zealand.
I flew into Christchurch on the eve of an historic occasion: the 500th test match of the legendary All Blacks, played in a stadium hastily reconstructed after Christchurch’s devastating earthquakes. The weather was cold and sere. The downtown, which I remember in gracious, full-leafed bloom from my last trip thirteen years ago, was largely destroyed. Empty lots and rubble, grey skies and diversion signs. No one seemed to know for sure which buildings were standing, which roads were open. It was a scene from a movie, only this scene was real.
But I kept walking. I’m well enough acquainted with the Kiwi spirit to know there would be more to the story than that. And so, wonderfully, there was.
Someone directed me to a cafe called C1 for breakfast. They’d been kicked out of their old place due to earthquake damage, so they’d taken a new space. I was told they’d have good coffee. I didn’t realize - but it was absolutely true - that I was about to enter the coolest cafe I have been to, in any country.
It wasn’t just the beautiful interior, wooden tables, big windows, clever contraptions (a sewing machine turned into a water fountain, a wall of books which opens on approach to reveal the route to the bathrooms) and, of course, great coffee. It was the people. Everyone - the young baristas, the fleece-clad patrons, little kids running around - exemplified that spirit I was talking about earlier. Kiwis are crafty. They build things and fix things. They’re independently minded. It’s a spirit you can call ‘NZ’ or ‘Southern’ or simply ‘human’.
There was nowhere to go downtown in the months after the quake - there’s still nowhere to go - so the Cantabrians built themselves a container city. It’s called Re:Start. It’s lovely. I spent the afternoon there, hanging out, listening to a local musician who made the rainy afternoon seem almost warm.
There was more to my trip. An amazing few days in the Marlborough Sounds. Wellington, which I know I’ll be returning to and writing about. A trip to the WETA workshop which would fill a blog in itself. But I’ll leave those stories for another time.
Part III: The Lesson
So. That was New Zealand. Tough little country, had some hard times but not complaining. Full of hard-working, courteous, home-loving people you don’t want to mess with. They’re fixing things up they way they should be. And they’re not going to let anyone stop them, either.
And now you see what, in my view, Kurdistan and New Zealand have in common. Three things, actually. Pride. A sense of home. And a future.
When you have that, you don’t need much else, really. The All Blacks victory of 30-0 against France was icing on the cake. Good on you, boys. See you next time.