Travel is a powerful force for peace. An engaged, open-minded traveler can be an ambassador of empathy and an antidote to terror.
The day American and Iraqi travelers can travel freely in each others country will be a great day. On that day, we will know for certain that war has at long last given way to peace.
Is it reasonable for you to consider traveling to Iraq now?
I don’t know. It depends on who you are and when you read this. If you do go to Iraq, however, keep these tips in mind – and tell us about your travels when you come home!
Do your research
You can’t book a trip to Iraq in the same way you might book a Caribbean cruise. Do not even consider visiting Iraq until you have thoroughly researched the country, including recent political events.
Stay abreast of current news for months before your trip and while you are in Iraq. The best source of quality English-language journalism in Iraq is probably the Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times.
Stick to safe zones
Last year, an Italian tourist named Luca Marchio was found wandering around Falluja.
“I am a tourist. I want to see the most important cities in the country. That is the reason why I am here now,” he was quoted as saying.
“I want to see and understand the reality because I have never been here before, and I think every country in the world must be seen.”
As admirable as Luca’s sentiment might have been, he was lucky to get out of Falluja alive.
The truth is that some regions of Iraq are much safer than others. I would have no qualms about visiting much of Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, which Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler explored way back in 2006.
Generally speaking, southern Iraq is safer than the Sunni Triangle, and a traveler must be particularly careful in Baghdad, where the line between relatively safe and highly dangerous neighborhoods is sometimes unclear.
Don’t go gonzo
Iraq is the sort of destination that can attract adrenaline seekers with a talent for getting into trouble. Especially in the heady days of early occupation, Iraq was a green playground for dangerously naive foreigners drawn by money and war.
Most of these Quiet Americans are either jaded or gone. Some of them are dead.
You are advised to be extraordinarily cautious, respectful, and unobtrusive while in Iraq. The idea of going gonzo in a slow-burning war-zone might be exhilarating, but it can get very real very fast in this part of the world.
Consider a guided tour
A handful of specialty tour companies offer itineraries in Iraq. Hinterland Travel is a well regarded company with regularly scheduled tours in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A pioneering 17-day Hinterland of Baghdad, Babylon, and Basra was recently written up in the New York Times under the headline “Travelers, Your Tour Bus For Basra Is Boarding.”
Go through Amman, Jordan
Amman is a safe, modern, vibrant city only 500 miles from Baghdad and linked by frequent buses and flights. Many Iraqi refugees live in Amman or travel there for health care.
Amman is a good place to cool your heels for a few days while absorbing all the latest information about current events in Iraq.
There are hundreds of Couchsurfers in Amman who can host you, in addition to all sorts of guesthouses and hotels.
Try to blend in
There are basically two ways to stay safe in Iraq. The American Way, brought to you by Blackwater and Halliburton, is to drive fast, surrounded by soldiers and bodyguards.
If you aren’t traveling on the taxpayer’s dime, a better strategy is to blend in as much as possible. Women should dress in local fashion and men should grow out their facial hair.
Learning a bit of Arabic before you go couldn’t hurt.
Join the Army?
Many of the American soldiers in Iraq are trying hard to build peace, and joining up with this effort can be a noble decision.
Practically speaking, the army pays fairly well, offering good benefits and a route out of poverty for some Americans.
However, life as a soldier can be difficult and risky, and there are moral questions inherent in being part of a violent occupation.
For more information check out:
Talk to someone who has been to Iraq
Iraq might seem as distant as another planet, but chances are you know someone who has been there recently. A trickle of Iraqi refugees are starting to settle in the states, and thousands of soldiers are coming home from deployment.
Reach out to these people. Invite them in and listen to their stories.
Matador members who have been to Iraq include:
Dustin is a native Texan who loves his canoe and his camera. Dustin studied at Texas State University and graduated with a BS in digital imaging. He also served 4 years in the US Army and is currently deployed to Iraq with the National Guard in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I have always enjoyed traveling around the U.S. but now have a job and money to travel internationally. I plan to use this to explore the world. I have dabbled in a lot of different sports, but plan to get back into para-gliding, kiting, dirt-biking, four-wheeling, and fun when I return from Iraq.
I’m a U.S. Marine…and a hippy.