P.S. It's snowing! For the second day of spring, we're enjoying a rare snowy day in London. Unfortunately it's not sticking.
From Mr. Crab:
Five years ago today, the U.S.-led war on Iraq began with a massive bombing campaign dubbed "Shock & Awe." The war -- known as Operation Iraqi Freedom by coalition forces -- was supposed to be a lightning quick, in-and-out battle. But nobody anticipated the long insurrection or the simultaneous Shiite vs. Sunni sectarian civil war that has now dragged on for five long years.
As of today, the war has claimed 3,992 U.S. soldiers, 175 British troops, 133 other coalition troops, 6,737 Iraqi military and police and 40,869 Iraqi civilians, according to icasualties.org.
For us journalists, the Iraq War has become the most dangerous assignments of the last century. More than 177 journalists and media employees have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
My own connection as a journalist to Iraq began in early 2003. When it became clear we were going to war, I was assigned to my newspaper's "War Team" and deployed to the Persian Gulf. I spent a month on the USS Constellation aircraft carrier, floating around the gulf, waiting for the war to begin. I covered the "Shock & Awe" phase for a few weeks then flew to the tiny country of Qater, home of the military headquarters where the war was being run. After a week of covering dog-and-pony show press conferences. On April 9, 2003, Baghdad fell. I quickly flew to Kuwait and hooked up with other journalists for a convoy to Basra. From there, me and a journalist from The Washington Post hired a taxi to take us to Baghdad. Yes, a taxi. No armed guards, no security convoys. Just Two Journs in a Taxi to Baghdad (that sounds like a sitcom title!). I spent a few weeks in Baghdad before returning to the Land of the Big PX -- military slang for the United States.
Since then, I've returned to Iraq eight times and will soon be departing on my ninth tour of duty. All told, I've spent more than a year of the past five years of my life in Iraq. I am repeatedly asked odd questions like "Have you ever been shot at?" "Have you seen dead bodies?" "Have you seen anybody get killed?" "Aren't you ever scared?" The answer to all of the above is 'yes.' I've only once come close to going to the Big PX in the Sky (i.e. killed). That happened on Nov. 18, 2005, when our media compound was attacked by two suicide bombers. I walked away with just bumps and bruises but six local Iraqis weren't so lucky. The sound, sight, smell and taste of the explosions is burned into my mind, and replayed continually like a TiVO gone haywire.
So why do I keep going back? I guess I'm an eternal optimist. I'm not going to get into a debate about whether going to war was right or wrong or whether U.S. troops should stay or go. But I will say that everywhere in Iraq I see increasing signs of life in hope, whether in the eyes of a Baghdad schoolchild or in those of an Army grunt. For "war correspondents" there is no other story. Iraq is a magnet. I'll be back.
Note: All of the above photos were taken by yours truly in Iraq. Click on the Flickr icon to see more Iraq images.
This new work by famous (or infamous) British grafitti artist Banksy appeared last week on the wall of a pharmacy on Essex Road, London, about five blocks from our flat. The pharmacist has been forced to cover it with plastic sheeting to prevent it from being defaced by an anti-Banksy vandal who has been destroying Banksy works around London. The reclusive Banksy is known as an anti-capitalist anarchist but by some estimates, this work could be worth $400,000 U.S. dollars.
Note to my fellow Americans: Tesco is the UK equivalent of Wal-Mart, a dirt-cheap, mega chain supermarket that has taken over the British landscape and pushed out Mom & Pop shops wherever it opens. Tesco also recently expanded into the U.S. West Coast, opening a chain of convenience stores called Fresh & Easy. Incidentally, we do have Wal-Mart in the UK but it's called Asda here, and is a distant second to Tesco.
The meaning of this artwork is open to interpretation. Notice the kids' are pledging allegiance backwards, with their left hand over the right side of their chest. British schoolchildren do not pledge allegiance to the Union Jack the way American kids pledge to the Stars & Stripes every morning, perhaps suggesting that the UK is falling prey to American consumerism? The plastic Tesco bag on the flagpole here may also have anti-littering, pro-environment connotations; several UK organizations have recently launched efforts to ban plastic bags.
So much for the "Storm of the Century." After three days of wall-to-wall television coverage, live news reports and nonstop weather forecasts and advisory bulletins, our storm was but as exciting as watching paint dry. We had a little rain, a little wind, and that's it. A few people on the English coast lost their power. But nothing serious. I tell ya, nothing gets Brits worked up more than the weather. Sheesh! Although on the flip side, the British media reaction to this storm reminded me of how the local media in my hometown of Washington, D.C. ran around like chickens with their heads cut off at the first whisper of the word, "snow!"
A huge storm with hurricane-strength wind gales is expected to hit the British Isles tonight. Supposedly it could be the strongest storm to hit Great Britain in 20 years! Right now, as of noon on Sunday, it's pretty nice outside with partly cloudy skies, calm wind and temperature about 50 Fahrenheit! Stay tuned!
P.S. The US clocks sprung forward last night, but for some odd reason Europe we will not "spring forward" until March 30. That means for the next three weeks, UK GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) is only four hours ahead of US EST (Eastern Standard Time).
Next month, the Two Crabs will be traveling to Turkey. This will be the 46th country I have visited.
My UK travel writer mates and I have something of a rivalry going on. We brag about nation notches on our bedposts the way some people might count sex partners or concerts attended. One buddy has been to over 60 countries; another pal is well into the 70s. I was quite jealous, until I learned about their dubious counting method!
Turns out, many frequent travelers are basing their country counts on a website called the Traveler's Century Club. As the name suggests, the TCC is a club for people who have been to at least 100 countries. But here's where things get murky. According to the club's official list of countries, there are 317 countries on Earth! Kinda ridiculous, when you consider that there are really only 195 independent countries in the world! According to TCC, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are separate countries! And the United Kingdom is broken down into a bunch of little bits including England, Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Jersey. Turkey is broken down into two countries: European Turkey and Asian Turkey. The seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates are also broken down as separate countries; by that rationale, the 50 states of the United States of America should be separate states! Yet oddly enough, they list Hawaii and Alaska as countries. WTF!?!
Based on the TCC list, I have been to 56 countries. While it may look good on paper, and as much as I'd like to brag that I finally passed the #50 mark, I consider it number-fudging. In reality, there are 195 independent countries in the world (click here to see the rationale for that figure). That includes Kosovo, which only just became an independent country on Feb. 17, 2008.
I have even stricter criteria for counting countries. I do not count countries unless I've spent a significant amount of time there. Changing planes in a new country does NOT count as visiting that country! I do not count countries in which I never left the airport or train station. Two Crabs rule: you must have been in a country at least long enough to have enjoyed a meal there, and not at the airport food court!
For the record, Mr. Crab has been to 45 countries, or 28% of the world according to Facebook's "Where I've Been" map: Afghanistan, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Belize, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, India, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America and Vatican City.
Mrs. Crab has been to 29 countries, including one that no longer exists: Yugoslavia. (Based on the TCC count, can she count the seven new countries that were created out of Yugoslavia!?!)
The count and controversy continues!