Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Destination IRAQ

It's often a struggle for me to avoid politics in my writing, but I want to keep Sleeping in the Mountains from slipping into the great blogosphere muck-heap of fetid, bubbling rants and "this-world-is-going-straight-to-hell" cynicism. Part of the reason I love running along ridgelines, sleeping in cabins and cooking on a camp-stove is that the world shrinks down in the backcountry as hard reality squeezes out the shades of spin that define the political game. Experience and emotion are boiled down to their essential core and a single cloud can become the most important thing in the world. The same thing happens when traveling, especially in out of the way places, where something as simple as a tree or a bowl of noodles can overwhelm one's senses simply because it's something different and new. It'll be a sad day when a quote from Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken shows up here. As Jack Johnson sings, "I wanna be where the talk of the town is about last night when the sun went down."

But there are places where politics are so critical that they creep over the highest mountain peaks and suffocate the river valleys. In areas where tension is ratcheted to the max by the horrors of war, even the people who live there can become so caught up in the insanity and consumed by hate that they forget to notice the color of the clouds. Likewise, when the only foreigners in the region are there to blow things up and kill people, it's no wonder that xenophobic neuroses and extremism flourish, feeding into the vicious cycle. To my mind, these are exactly the kinds of places it's most important for travelers to visit, arriving as ambassadors from their culture with no agenda beyond a search for beauty in a ravaged land.

Of course, there are places where travel is simply not feasible, but these are actually few and far between. I'm looking forward to seeing Kashmir and Nepal (where war has climbed into the highest Himalayas.) Iran is another destination I've been eagerly waiting to visit since taking a class in contemporary Iranian society back in college. Beautiful mountains, hospitable people and few travelers with whom to share the trails - what's not to like? It's a terribly sad thing when people make the mistake of confusing a nation with its government - and that goes for Persians and Americans alike.

Iraq is one place even the most intrepid wayfarer should think twice about adding to an itinerary, but I'm encouraged to note that the first faint glimmers of interest are emerging from the traveler community. Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, recently took a trip through Iraqi Kurdistan, and posted reports from that journey along with a some practical tips for travel to Iraq on his blog, which you can find here.. Wheeler makes the important point that going to Northern Iraq is a far different proposition from travel in the rest of the country. Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively safe since the Gulf War, when it became independent from Iraq in everything but name.

Even the staid old New York Times recently published an article about tourist attractions in the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon. The piece focuses on potential, and clearly no tourists are visiting what remains of the Hanging Gardens these days. But some day the bombings will taper off, talk radio will find something else to yammer about - and that's the day when I hope to start writing about Iraq.


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