Day 16 The Marshes, Qurnah and Basra
B tells us that while he was in the lobby area using his i-pad last night, our floor concierge approached him and offered sex. When B politely declined, two soldiers walked by, so the concierge followed them into their room instead. It’s a strangely hypercritical country. There’s no alcohol allowed in your room but the staff are allowed to proposition the guests.
Our latest police escorts have been very cheerful and we were impressed when their General turned up to say goodbye. He popped his head into the coach and beamed at us all, so at least someone seemed to like us. Maybe it’s just because he’s seeing the back of us?
The drive to the Marshes was predictably grey, dusty, with horrendous litter everywhere.We see several popular lay-bys full of “pre loved” equipment, mainly medical and ex military. I wonder where this comes from.
As we entered into the Marshes it got a lot more interesting. The area is being re-flooded after being drained by Saddam to punish the Marsh Arabs. It will take decades to bring them completely back to life but this is a very good start. The water is still heavily salinized due to the excess salt in the soil (a natural occurrence) and it’s difficult to grow crops or keep livestock. There’s an abundance of happy water buffalo and some lovely birds, especially dozens of large pied kingfishers fishing from the reeds and overhead power lines.
There are a lot of Arabs here and the dispossessed Marsh Arabs are slowly moving back, so it’s a mixture of the black clad burka and the more colourfully dressed women. We see fewer small girls in burkas (thank goodness) and those we see are all happily playing in mixed groups of children.
We took a boat trip through the replanted reed beds in terrifyingly small boats which lie low in the water and rock side to side whenever one of us moved slightly. Once clear of the bank, our boatmen started outboard motors and we sped through the channels at an alarming rate.
Our police escorts had amazing fun and looked impressively relaxed, trailing sticks in the water and blowing on bright plastic whistles. Locals in boats were everywhere, carrying cargo or acting as taxis. We had glimpses of houses built atop islands formed from reeds. Water buffalo loomed out at us from hairpin bends.
Back on land, we visited a reed hospitality house, a central hall where the local headsman is honor bound to feed and offer beds to travellers. The local sheikh had just died but his son gave permission for us to enter but no other hospitality was offered. The local children excitedly peeped at us through the reed walls and shyly gathered outside the hall to watch us leave after our escorts made it plain they were now too bored to hang around any longer.
After being passed into the care of the Basra police we stopped in Qurnah at Adam’s tree, a dead tree stump in a concrete park at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Legend has it that it’s the original site of the Garden of Eden. Not anymore.
The local hotel has been bombed out several times and it remained a scruffy, odd place. The upside was 3 pet sheep on the patio who we fed with acacia leaves.
We then drove to Basra. It’s shocking. A hell hole. Granted we were staying in one of the poorest quarters but it’s a disgrace and I’m shocked. There are open sewers in the back streets, with broken or no pavements or lighting. This is a wealthy oil town. Millions of dollars have been given to this town to rebuild it, yet the Iraqi people are living in squalor. What’s happening here?
Our hotel wasn’t expecting us until tomorrow and we were left in the lobby for 2 hours while G and the escort Captain tried to find us somewhere to stay. We eventually found ourselves in an appallingly shabby place with grubby, electro-static nylon sheets on the bed, no loo paper, no handle on the toilet, no soap, no towels and sited next to a generator. We unpacked our emergency stash of pillows, bed bug proof sheets and towels and made the best of it.