top of page

Chapter 12: Foreign Aid

Dokan to Erbil. April 16-17

From the shabby cellar in the Kebab joint by the road off Dokan, I had three options of where to go next: Ranya, Shaqlawa or Erbil. My initial plan was Ranya as it felt like a natural step from Dokan, but it would mean another area for tourists and more tricky to find hosts through hospitality. From there it would technically be possible to go to Choman next, but realising that I would have to go over a mountain for that, I considered other options. Shaqlawa was a tip from a local, supposedly beautiful but with similar qualities as Ranya. It would leave many options open for the next step, but it was a good climb to get there. Erbil on the other hand was on lower altitude and felt like a question of when rather than if I was to go there. As I came to the crossroads where the westward route read Erbil, that felt like the right thing. And so I took the turn and headed for the capital of Kurdistan.

I learned that the Kurdish name is Hawler, and that the International Erbil comes from the Arabic version. The city lies south of the mountains so my journey had some tough climbs but finished with the longest downhill slope I had ever seen - 15 kilometers of steady descension leading right into the heart of the radial city. Physically, it was relieving for the legs but tiring for the arms with constant tension for 20 minutes straight. Mentally, I was just glad that I was not going in the opposite direction. Steep can be tough, but throwing a glance over my shoulder, I'd rather climb the same altitude over half the distance or less. Here, there was no end in sight, no light to hint of hope in the dark tunnel. The horizon took over not by roundness of the road but by curvature of the earth.

Erbil felt to me American in its design. A city mostly built after the introduction of cars, the multi-lane radials and "spokes" support the flow of personal vehicles. Whereas the older center built around the fort is smaller in stature, the buildings grow larger and more luxurious in the recent additions in the periphery of the circular city. But for all this, it is "just" another big, modern metropolis, and I wasn't there for sights. As the most international city in Kurdistan, and I believe in Iraq, this was a place where I was sure to find people on the hospitality platforms, and expats are plentiful if you know where to look.

After spreading requests with the winds of the web, I was accepted by german humanitarian aid worker Theresa. It was refreshing to exchange experiences with a woman from the west after weeks of exclusively dealing with Middle Eastern men. Though there is much I appreciate about the local cultures in this part of the world, I always miss the diversity and dynamics of a mixed society.

While our time spent together was brief, it brought joyful hangouts with friends that would lead to important connections going forward. As I write this a week later, I have already had unforgettable memories thanks to one of those folks - Krista from Canada - and have good chance to later have my story enrichened by Hannah who lives in Bulgaria. Herein lies perhaps the most powerful aspect of hospitality communities such as Couchsurfing: the ripples on the water, the meetings of meaning created not only upon connecting at first, but when introduced to friends of friends. When opening oneself to share and to let share and when coming back for seconds and more.

Like the infrastructure of Iraq, the online application that is Couchsurfing is lacking to say the least, but where there is goodwill, curiosity, initiative and drive, people find ways to make beauty together. In one way or another, directly or indirectly, every single story you read about here; every moment, every meeting and every experience can be traced back to Couchsurfing. It is how I met the man that inspired me to make a long cycling trip with a clear goal and share from it in a raw way. It is how I met the man that made me come to Iraq in the first place. Hell, it is even how I met the woman who became my first true love and remains my only relationship as i write this chapter. She will not appear in person in this story, but her impact on me as a human being, and thus as a writer, is beyond words. Couchsurfing enabled it all. I cannot overstate the extent to which it has shaped my life.

And I gladly continue to let it.


bottom of page