Our third day in Erbil, Iraq, Caroline and I decided we wanted to see another city, someplace a little smaller, maybe more rural. We had read about a city called Koia, and heard it was a nice little place to explore, so we got up early and headed to the taxi station. In Iraq, taxi’s don’t leave until they are full, unless you want to pay the price for every available seat, as we learned in our journey from Duhok to Erbil. However, when we arrived there were already two people sitting in a car waiting to go to Koia, so we only waited 20 minutes or so for a last person and we were on our way.
I was wedged in the middle of the backseat between Caroline and a middle aged Kurdish woman for a two hour ride heading east through a mountainous country side. When we finally pulled into Koia, my first impression was that it was busier than I expected. I wouldn’t say it was exactly rural, but more of a small city. When asked where we wanted to be dropped off we motioned that wherever we were was fine, and we stepped out onto the sidewalk. When we tried to pay we didn’t have the right change and the taxi driver began running around to the local shops trying to get correct change for us. Meanwhile the Kurdish woman I was sitting next to smiled, and opened up her purse and gave us the change we needed… when we tried to give her the difference she refused. We said “Spas” and she walked off.
When the cab pulled away we picked a direction that looked interesting and just started walking. We walked away from the center through a more residential area with winding alleys that went up a slight slope. There was graffiti, and children running around, and definitely no other tourists. As we turned a corner, to our surprise, there was the woman we had just shared a cab with. She smiled and waved at us to follow her, inviting us through a gate into her home. We shrugged our shoulders and accepted, taking our shoes off and sitting on her living room floor as she began to boil some water for tea. We sat awkwardly, trying to communicate, but with no Kurdish on our end, and no English on hers, there wasn’t much happening.
After a few minutes a man walked in and happily greeted us, then motioned that we should all follow him back out of the house. We put our shoes back on and left the hot water, walking across the street to another house where there were some couches, and a TV in a rather nice, well kept living room. We sat down and once again tried to communicate, but with only limited success. After a few minutes another woman came out and put a large plastic sheet on the middle of the floor. The first woman pulled out her cell phone and called someone, and then began helping the other woman bring tea and food out as we sat on the floor and began to eat. A bit later, a teen age boy showed up who spoke a little english and started translating.
After eating, we walked around the university, met the boys brother, and some other students who were studying English. They were very excited to show us the small green parks that had been built, with little walking bridges, ponds and ducks. I noticed that everywhere we went in Iraq, I wanted to see the really old buildings and historical sites, they were so impressive and amazing to me, but to the people there, these boring stagnant parks in the middle of urban sprawl were the most amazing places around.
We ended up just walking around town taking pictures, visiting some cemeteries, and spending the afternoon seeing the market. At the end of the day the family gave us a big bag of flat bread and said we shouldn’t leave, that we should spend the night and see more of Koia, but alas we had to leave. There is no question the hospitality was beyond what we expected, but there were a few aspects of the visit that made me a bit uncomfortable, including what seemed to be an affection for Adolf Hitler by several of the people we met. They would laugh and say they liked him, and when we stopped and confronted them on it they’d say “oh no, we’re only joking.” This was something we came across with one or two people from eastern Turkey as well. We weren’t the only people to make this observation while visiting this region, and I think this article may shed some light on it. Also came across this article, which is a little more infuriating.
That said, the adventure of arriving in an unknown city, walking around with a camera, and just discovering life somewhere new was an experience worth undertaking.