Cam and I had our first taste of Iraq at the departure gate in Abu Dhabi. Being the only westerners on the plane it was not hard to notice the inquisitive looks from some of our fellow passengers although everyone was very pleasant and polite. As we attempted to locate our seats on the plane, we quickly learned that despite having allocated seats, seating by ticket was entirely optional and both Cam and I found ourselves at the back of the plane waiting for some seats to come available.

Before long, the cabin crew invited us to sit in the exit row – the reason being that we were the only English speakers on the plane. This did not please one Farsi speaking gentleman who initially refused to acquiesce to the requests of the cabin staff but after some persuasion managed to see reason. This left us both a little confused – why, on an Arabic airline were a couple of Aussies being asked to sit in the exit row simply because we spoke English? After the flight was over we found out that the cabin crew had mistaken us for flight marshals. Really don’t think we would have been much cop as flight marshals on an Abu Dhabi to Erbil flight. I mean, it’s not as if we were very good at blending in!

Erbil came along very quickly and before we knew it we were on the ground. Approaching Erbil it was interesting to see the desert and the sandy landscape – a clear reminder of Central Australia! Upon arrival at the passport control we both got our standard 10 day visa stamped into our passport and were on our way to reclaim our baggage. The customs police were extremely interested in all the recording gear, inspecting all the cases, the boom and recorder very closely. His curiosity was not satisfied until he had inspected the cables. Once he knew we carried cables, everything was right with the world. We were then able to pack our bags and proceed on.

Outside the terminal we jockeyed for position on the airport shuttle bus with our pile of gear and made our way with our fellow passengers to the airport gates which appeared to be the de-facto outdoors arrivals lounge. As promised, Hassan was there to meet us, and very quickly we transferred or gear into his bus and were on our way to the hotel.

On the way out of the airport an Antonov transport aircraft was observed on the tarmac unloading cargo.

Travelling through Erbil towards the hotel we passed a women’s and youths correctional facility. Lots of barbed wire, as you would expect for most jails, but the walls were much lower than you would normally expect.

Driving in Erbil is pretty chaotic – can be likened to driving through Sydney at peak hour on the wrong side of the road with little regard for traffic signals. I am fairly sure we would have passed through a number of traffic lights although I an just a little too jet-lagged to recall them.

The afternoon was spent listening to sectional and tutti rehearsals in the hotel. The orchestra is without exception the most enthusiastic bunch of players I have met in a very long while. They are all so very positive about the orchestra and the course. Dinner this evening was down at a local food court. We travelled there in some small minibuses. Cam has some great footage of the impromptu party that was held on the minibus. This seems to be a common feature of bus travel with the orchestra here in Iraq.

I’m pretty much at the point where I am losing the ability to communicate coherently and need to go to bed. So, off I go for an awesome nights sleep. It’s 10:15pm and we have just come back from dinner. From across the corridor I can hear someone practicing a Mozart horn concerto. Practising for the students will most likely continue into the small hours. In the words of Carl, the CEO of the Friends of NYOI, theirs is motivation that money cannot buy.