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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Hitting the road

We benefit when the trip doesn't turn out quite as planned

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

The first time I traveled to Iraq, I stepped into an outboard motorboat and, with a suitcase wedged awkwardly beside me, crossed the Tigris River. To get into the boat I had to present a number, which I wrote on the palm of my hand so I would not lose it. I read it off to a Syrian security officer sitting inside a hut made of plywood at a checkpoint baking in the late morning sun. He had an oversized leather ledger and wrote down my number in pen beside my name, which he already had. It was the only border open to Westerners apart from checkpoints posted by Saddam's Republican Guard just downstream. It had taken months of phone calls, meetings, and networking to step into that boat.

The next time I traveled to Iraq, I took a humanitarian flight from Jordan to Baghdad. I sat up by the cockpit to talk with the two South African pilots, who'd landed planes in Angola and Afghanistan and weren't bothered by the corkscrew they had to fly over Iraq's newly liberated capital to land safely while avoiding the surface-to-air missiles. Baathist holdouts and others were firing at flights in and out of Baghdad International in those early months of war. Circling into the airport permitted a truly dizzying view of all of Saddam's palaces that ringed the capital, at least six of them, moats, man-made lakes, swimming pools, and all.

Other flights have followed, and this time (and hopefully as you're reading this) when I fly into Iraq again, it will be aboard a low-fare Turkish airline with newly opened routes to northern Iraq. It joins a growing number of commercial outfits with direct flights into Iraq from Austria, Germany, Sweden, Dubai, Jordan, and elsewhere.

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Travel to Iraq in six years' time has entered the 21st century, but it remains unpredictable and in some ways hardship duty. Schedules change rapidly, airports shut down temporarily, flights are canceled as security wobbles, lights go out, and there's always someone who shows up to take advantage of an American and her money.

And these, you see, are just the beginning of all the reasons to go. If there were no surprises awaiting me in Iraq, there'd be nothing to tell you. And we know there are stories to tell, enough to but pity those with tightly wound itineraries: Barack Obama's 2008 helicopter tour or John McCain's 2007 stroll through al-Shorja market with a couple dozen U.S. soldiers in tow come to mind.

Better to be out on the open road, like the Israelites with their tent of witness in the wilderness, Peter heading over to Solomon's Portico, Philip going down to Samaria, or Paul taking his letters to the synagogues and hieing himself to Damascus. In every case these travelers got a surprise, things unfolding not quite as planned-and we reaped the benefit.

When I was a girl going to school in Virginia, autumn was always the time of year that a teacher announced the upcoming field trip to Jamestown. And every autumn I was eager to return to the old Fort James, eager to see the posts jutting from tidewater, which the guides would say marked what was left of the original site of the first permanent settlement in America. I loved to use those posts to dream the rest of the story: the walled garrisons with sentries in flocked tunics, the girls and boys stacking hay in a field beyond and the sweat-soaked craftsmen pounding out iron implements or chipping at burning tree trunks to build canoes, America in the making.

But funny things can happen to your marker posts. In 1994 a team of excavators began work at Jamestown. They uncovered over 250 feet of palisade wall lines, a bulwark, and three cellars. They figured out that the settlement had not washed into the river as everyone for 200 years had believed. Just this summer they found helmets and pipe stems and wine bottles and remnants of a building they estimate was burned during Bacon's Rebellion. Every good discovery, whether on the banks of the James or the Tigris, is redrawing the map and changing the old story with a new and truer one.

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