Why I'm quitting my job to go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia

Why I’m quitting my job to go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia

On March 26, 2014, I will quit my job as a management consultant in San Francisco.

The very next day, I’m going to board a plane to Pakistan.

The Long Journey To Pakistan

My family decided that last summer was a great opportunity to go overseas together. We picked Turkey. While researching the region, I chanced upon a destination that I didn’t realize was on the tourist map: Erbil, Iraq.

The New York Times called Erbil a “tourist boom town”. Surely not. Perhaps they meant before 2003? No, this was 2013.

The US State Department Iraq Travel Warning indicated Iraq was anything but safe: the words terrorism, kidnapping, and IED stood out prominently. It did state Erbil, part of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region,  was safer, but still strongly advised against all travel. A Google search for Iraq also returned only stories of car bombings and sectarian violence.

Two competing narratives

But I was left wondering about which of the two narratives were true. These were two very different stories about the same place — surely one of them must be right?

Much to the horror of my parents, I decided to find out myself.

I flew into the sleepy Erbil airport late at night with a friend from college who was as brave — or foolish — as I was. The immigration officer raised an eyebrow when I stated tourism as my reason for visiting — but smiled, issued a visa, and wished me a pleasant trip. We caught a Land Cruiser taxi from the airport and rolled down the windows to catch the warm evening breeze. The driver turned up a local Kurdish radio station.

It oddly felt like spring break in the desert.

The next morning, we left our hotel to explore town. The front desk advised us that it was safe to venture out unaccompanied. A pleasant fifteen minute stroll later, we arrived downtown. Almost immediately, two nervous-looking local teenagers made their way towards us.

As much as it shames me to admit it in retrospect, my adrenaline kicked into high gear. What were their intentions? What were they concealing under those bulky jackets? And why were they not making eye contact?

As they approached, the explanation quickly became clear. They wanted to take a photo with us. This interaction would repeat itself everywhere. We were a novelty. New York Times hype aside, we were the only tourists we saw during our time in Kurdistan. When it comes to travel advice, it seems more people heed the State Department than a NYT blog.

We proceeded to play Indiana Jones around the Erbil Citadel, supposedly the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. It was exhilarating to freely explore such a historic site completely alone.

Wandering through the Erbil Citadel

Wandering through the Erbil Citadel

Afterward we visited a local kiosk to procure cold drinks. A man approached us and started to chat. He had lived in Michigan for a bit. Ultimately, he refused to let us pay for our drinks, drove us to our next destination, and invited us to dinner with his family.

This type of hospitality would continue to repeat itself over the course of our visit.

Dinner with another new friend, Nevsal. He refused to let us pay for dinner.

Dinner with another new friend, Nevsal. He refused to let us pay for dinner.

Our next day was even more surprising. We went to an “amusement park” four hours north of Erbil. The drive was stunning —  think Grand Canyon in Iraq. The park itself was no different from what you would find in America: unhealthy food and screaming children everywhere. The highlight was an extremely fun (and perhaps slightly dangerous) luge ride through the valley. More photos with locals. A Ferris wheel. Soft-serve. Again, not what I would have ever imagined any part of Iraq to feel like.

On our way back home, we could not find a taxi to take us back to the bus stop. Eventually, four young Iraqi army officers on vacation from Baghdad offered us a ride in their Toyota Corolla.

I would never hitch-hike in California, but somehow felt perfectly safe doing so in Kurdistan. Sadly, no video exists of this clown-car-esque ride: four Iraqi troops and two American tourists driving through the desert with windows down and Arabic pop music blaring.

Our hitch-hiking crew. Our hosts decided to put on their serious faces for this photo.

Our hitch-hiking crew. Our hosts decided to put on their serious faces for this photo.

Taking Stock

Parts of Iraq are decidedly dangerous and many terrible things are undeniably occurring.

But why do we only ever hear about car bombings in Baghdad?

Yes, there was an attack in Erbil soon after we left. That said, not a single foreigner has been killed or kidnapped in all of Kurdistan since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The thriving Kurdish economy and Kurdish amusement parks receive very little press. 

Focusing on the negative is not unique to conflict zones and developing countries. One study found 17:1 ratio of negative to positive news articles. Some psychologists believe evolution wired us to seek news of dramatic, negative events as they pose a greater threat to survival than normal and positive ones.

This negativity bias is more pronounced when it comes to developing countries. The Middle East and Africa are particularly maligned. As one official notes: “American media provide misguided and unbalanced accounts of Africa motivated by the pursuit of the sensational — coups, corruption, crocodile attacks, and quaint tribal rites.”

So what?

Fortunately, when watching the local evening news, we intuitively know that it is one-sided. We experience life in our city and country every day. This gives us context to counterbalance the violence and despair depicted in the media.

Conversely, in places like the Middle East and Africa, few of us have direct experience to serve as a counterbalance. The trap is that we believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the news forms a representative sample of life in these countries. We depend on the media to help us develop a view on people and places. When it comes to far away places, the news is often our primary source — and therefore instrumental in shaping our perceptions, actions and policy.

What would the rest of the world think of America if they only relied on headlines? An average day in America would begin with a drive to school over a collapsing bridge only to arrive at the school in the midst of a shooting.  Drug dealers would crowd the streets on the drive home.  Sleep only happens next to an automatic weapon —  to protect against a government that, if not shut down, was constantly spying on you. 

A hypothesis and plan

My hypothesis: even countries largely maligned by the media have a more nuanced, more everyday — and perhaps even more normal — story, one that is largely missed by the media.

Humans are humans, everywhere. They range from saints to sinners. The headlines primarily devote their attention to the bad actors, while ignoring the decent ones who comprise the majority of day-to-day existence almost everywhere.

The plan is to take ~3 months to explore some of these “scary” places to seek out  a glimpse of the everyday — and share a few stories that go “beyond the headlines”. This is hypothesis driven: I will ultimately share whatever I encounter, good or bad.

The tentative itinerary includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Mali, Eritrea, Burundi, and the Congos.

And yes, the plan is to seek out the calmer parts of each country. I will not visit the tribal lands of Pakistan or Darfur. Those stories garner enough attention as it is.

Please follow along

The plan to publish as I go — and share a glimpse of everyday life in these places that from our part of the world, seem so much less than everyday. Please sign up for occasional email updates (a few times a month, at most) and follow along on Instagram.

What do you think? Will I be pleasantly surprised? Or are the headlines more accurate than I believe?