Getting a visa to enter Iraq is not easy. It is easier to travel to Turkey or Iran and then from there try to cross the border.
That’s what I did. I went to Iran and in the capital, Tehran, I bought a bus trip to the nearest Iraqui town expecting to be able to get into Iraq without any visa. The trip is relatively quiet, but when approaching the country the number of passport controls made by the military increases.
Being the only tourist in the bus meant that I was immediately asked where I came from and being Portuguese meant that everyone in the bus (mainly Iranians and Iraqui) decided to change my name and baptised me with the name – you guessed well – Ronaldo!
At each stop we had, my new friends in the bus would tell me with a smile. “Ronaldo, leave the bus … it’s a passport control … Ronaldo, come on get in the bus now…”
When we arrived at the border I followed everyone to a small office where we had to fill in a form. But that alone was a problem. The forms were all in Arabic. I looked at them and could not understand a thing until a young Iraqi took my passport and filled in the form himself.
The police officers at the border asked me (once more) what was my business in Iraq. I explained that it was tourism and they looked incredulous. I had to wait another couple of hours before they allowed me in their country – and here comes the good news – without having to pay any visa.
Once on Iraqui soil my first goal was to reach the city of Erbil and from there I would try to visit as many places as possible. That would not turn out an easy task as there was no public means of transport except for the taxi.
The ancient Mesopotamia, as it was formerly known, is a country full of history, unfortunately many of its treasures have been destroyed. The north of the country – also known as Kurdistan – is the only safe part to be visited. While driving to the north through the desert I was surprised by the contrast and colours that some towns and villages offered.
The Iraquis are a friendly people but their faces express the deep expression of those who suffered the horrors of the war. Unlike Pakistan where no one knew about Portugal, here in Iraq I cannot say the same. It seems that on every corner there was a child wearing Cristiano Ronaldo’s jersey.
I felt the population had a mix of attitudes towards me. Many looked suspicious and looked at me with coldness. These would usually ask me whether I was American. When I answered that I was Portuguese their faces turned into an open smile and they would say “Ronaldo”.
After a few days in this country and after having talked to so many Iraqis who I met in the streets and in cafes, I realised that it would be impossible to travel to the south. They all told me it was too dangerous and that I would be killed as it happened to members of their families.
I decided to keep heading north and go to the turkish kurdistan. But in order to do so, I had to wait a couple of days for a bus to go in that direction. The bus was full with Iraqis so I had plenty of time to observe and to communicate with them. They all wanted to talk to the stranger. They were very friendly despite the trauma they experienced with war. I realised that although they laughed easily, their conversation always ended up recalling one or the other family member who they had lost in the war…
Photos: © Rui Daniel da Silva