What would you do for 30 liters of Fuel?
Just as I have for the last couple days, today I woke up with one agenda on my mind - somehow, somewhere, try to buy some fuel for my car.
It’s hard to believe that fuel would be so scarce in such an oil rich region. With fighting in the south of Iraq continuing and Kurdistan's main provider of refined oil (Petrol) - the Baiji Oil Refinery - still under attack, we are certainly feeling the pinch here in Soran.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Why not just hunker down and ride it out, you say? Good point, Turkey has agreed to begin fulfilling Kurdistan’s fuel needs with shipments arriving as early as the end of the week. The only problem is that we need to urgently travel to Erbil to formally apply for our residency visas ASAP. That means we need enough fuel to get there and back, plus a little extra for driving around the city.
So, after getting word that a gas station had opened up for business in a town 20 minutes away, several of us jumped in our cars and raced through the mountain gorge pass that takes you there as though we were in a presidential convoy.
For some it was a suicide mission, with only enough fuel to make it there - failure to find fuel and their car would be spending the night.
Good news... our communications proved reliable. The line was long, but it was moving ever so slowly. My prediction was a 2 hour wait… a long time in the searing heat, but bearable and well worth it.
Sharing Fuel in a Crisis
During the last few days of fuel shortages the police have begun to introduce a rationing policy of 30 liters of fuel per person. In addition to the fuel limit, an odd/even number plate system was operating… and today was my lucky day. It wasn’t until I was on the line that I found out it was the day for cars ending with an even number on the plates. Today I discovered a new appreciation for the number 4.
The Fuel Line Shuffle
So here’s the deal. Once in line the last thing you want to do is to sit in your car waiting to move because it feels like you're roasting in a furnace. Most people get out and find a cool bit of shade, maybe in a shop across the street or backed up against the side of the cliff we were circumnavigating.
As soon as the line begins to move again, everyone jumps back in the cars and inches up a few car lengths before hastily turning off their engines and retreating back into the shade. This process is then repeated until you finally get to the gas station.
Thankfully today was only 40 degrees, with a balmy breeze, putting an end to the previous week of mid 40 degree dry scorchers.
My First Kurdish Language Lesson
What was an even greater blessing was the company I had today. Loqman is a local Kurdish student at the Soran University. I met him on my second trip to Iraq in 2012 and we have stayed in contact through FB ever since. Not only was it nice to have someone to chat with, it was comforting to have someone who spoke English well along for the ride.
Since he was studying English and linguistics at the university I decided to hit him up for my first official Kurdish language lesson. So here I was on the side of a cliff waiting for gas learning my Kurdish numbers and basic greetings - I had a blast.
The Gas Station Closes!?!
Some commotion began to stir around noon. By this point about 2 hours of steady progress had passed and we were approaching the final bend in the road before the gas station would be in sight... maybe 70m away.
Please don’t tell me they had run out of fuel!??! It was clear that the gas station had closed and was no longer pumping fuel… but why? Now what!? Besides, this line was two cars wide and I was blocked in even if I wanted to limp home unsuccessfully on my quarter tank of fuel.
Turns out they had closed for lunch and would not be open again until 2:30pm. Really!?! I guess not even a national fuel crisis gets in the way of the traditional 3 hour mid-day lunch/heat break most small businesses enjoy.
We had come so far and waited so long, it seemed worth it to hang out for a few more hours and get the fuel we so desperately needed for our trip to Erbil. With only 40 cars now between us and 30 liters of fuel, Loqman and I decide to lock up our cars and trek into town to grab a bite to eat.
Fancy a Hot Meal?
Thankfully the food stores remain open during the mid-day siesta (which only makes sense). With Loqman’s local knowledge we stumbled into a little kebab and sandwich parlor for some lunch.
It’s worth noting that most Kurdish people do not know what it means to eat a cold meal. All meals are served hot, even sandwiches (pita bread style) are made with hot meat (lamb or chicken) carved from rotating pole. In fact, many old men here could count on one hand the number of cold meals they've eaten in their entire life.
Another Valuable Kurdish Cultural Lesson
In any case, the food was delicious and after deciding to resist the temptation to buy another sandwich we settled the bill. Here is where I learned another valuable Kurdish lesson… things aren’t always as they seem.
As I offered to pay for our yummy meal, the kind server motioned that the payment was not necessary. How nice I thought, but not wanting to take advantage of my “foreigner status” I insisted and handed him the required dinars.
As we walked on, I turned to Loqman and asked if he was really offering the meal for free. “Yes and no” he responded. You see, it is polite for small business owners to refuse payment as a sign of respect. It is equally respectful to insist that you pay and hand over the money (that is unless they continue to refuse payment). This is most common among friends or special guests, but in some cases a regular occurrence for strangers too.
It just goes to show how much there is to learn in another culture in even the most simple things in life like buying lunch.
Celebrating the Little Things
I have to admit, one thing I am beginning to appreciate since I’ve been here is how cheap some things are. After drinking around 10 bottles of water in just 3 hours it’s nice to know that it only costs me around 20c a bottle - now that's a bargain. In fact, food in general is so much cheaper than the USA or Australia. I was able to pick up a kilo of delicious cherries today for around $3.50.
Hanging with the Guys
We were edging towards 2:30pm and so Loqman and I headed back to the gas station to see if they were really going to open back up. You just never know and it's not worth getting your hopes up too high here.
We saw a small crowd of guys hanging around the station and so we made our way over to find out if there was any update on the situation. Everyone seemed optimistic and so we stayed to join in the social gathering and make the most of the shade.
I decided to put my new Kurdish greetings to the test and had a great time chatting with some of the locals. The Kurdish people are a very warm and hospitable people, and it is great to know that for the most part, Westerners are very welcome in these parts of Iraq.
The Police Arrive
Suddenly several police officers arrived and in the process stir up a little commotion, but it’s a good sign. The police have been posted at most gas stations to ensure that the people obey the rationing rules that are in place.
Back in our cars we go to resume the fuel line shuffle that had come to a jolting halt a couple hours ago. This time things moved very quickly, it’s amazing what a little lunch break can do for work efficiency over here.
We finally made it to the pump and boy did I feel great after getting my fill of fuel. I drove home like a warrior returning valiantly from battle, victorious in my quest to find fuel. What was also rather pleasant was the price tag — only 45 cents/liter. i reckon some people in Australia might just consider waiting in line this long for a $13 fuel stop!
As I raced back through the mountain gorge pass and into the beautiful Soran valley it felt good to be home and with a 3/4 tank of gas to get us to Erbil and back this week.
From the Fuel line to the Propane Line
After picking up a few necessary items in town (diapers & biscuits) I decided to drive past the propane gas tank shop to see if there were open.
You see, the fuel shortage was beginning to affect other supplies with trucks and other vehicles no longer making deliveries of certain things… and propane gas was one of them. Propane bottles are essential here for things like oven cooking and heating etc.
Fortunately there were a few gas bottles lined up outside the closed shop as some men kindly waved me over. I was told that the owner would be back in 5 minutes to open up and exchange the empty bottles for full ones.
I had the propane bottles in the back of my car and so I jumped out and promptly joined the gas bottle line. By now I was feeling lucky with my 4 bottles of gas. That was until the police showed up to say that the limited supply of propane gas meant a 1 bottle per person rationing policy was in place.
Out of nowhere, my friend Billy (who we are staying with until our house is ready) rolled up and so just like that our allotment doubled and we would now be heading home with 2 full bottles of propane gas
Six Hours Well Spent
And so after returning home having spent a total of 6 hours waiting on lines for fuel and propane gas, I was truly thankful that my efforts were fruitful.
Having learned many more lessons along the way, today proved to be a great insight into what life is like when there is a war raging on in your backyard.
The people here are taking things extremely well, there is no real panic or cause for alarm. Of course everyone is desperate to get the tanks filled with fuel, but for the most part they adjust well to hardship here.
An Alarming Comparison
It brings me back to when I was in New York during Hurricane Sandy. Back then we experienced a similar fuel crisis.. I think I waited 3 hours on line at 4am to fill up my car with fuel.
The scene however was much less civil. Maybe it was partly because I was in the Bronx, but from what I saw and heard people would constantly cut lines and arguments and fights were surfacing everywhere. Let's just say I felt a lot less safe that morning than I did today.
It's days like this that certainly make you wonder how people and places are really going to handle it should tougher times come there way.
Well that just about does it for today, I hope you enjoyed the read (if you made it this far), and do spare a thought for me next time you fill up your car with fuel.
Thanks for journeying with us - Tim