Spending Time in Kurdistan, Iraq

by Teacher Traveler Dude

I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in Kurdistan, Iraq while I was in the military. Most Americans have a view of the Middle East (and Iraq in particular) as a hot, unending desert that is devoid of beauty. Images come to mind of a harsh sand-colored land plagued by dust storms. Like most things in life, there is so much more to this story. My experiences in Kurdistan brought this truth to light for me and I will share some of my recollections with you. Some pictures will highlight these facts.

Kurdistan, Iraq


I had the opportunity to travel to Kurdistan in 2004. I had been in Mosul until that point. Someone asked me to go to Kurdistan to work with the Peshmerga. While working, I had the chance to travel to Irbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and the surrounding countryside. Having not been in Iraq long, I really did not know what to expect. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I had spent a couple of years in the Middle East beforehand, so I had grown considerably in my ability to adapt, communicate and connect with others from the Middle East. I had never worked with or been around Kurds, so I knew I had some learning to do.

I initially arrived in Sulaymaniyah. Here, I was to meet with the Peshmerga I would be working with. As I’d already spent time in Central Iraq and Mosul, I felt shocked by how different it seemed and how different the people acted. The Kurds were extremely welcoming to me. Bear in mind, that the Kurds have suffered as a people for a long time and are still suffering as a culture.

Their hospitality, kindness, and respect that they displayed is something I will always remember. Their dignity as a people, especially in light of all that they have gone through, speaks to their resolution. They welcomed me, fed me, and quickly helped me settle in. They wanted me to see what Sulaymaniyah was, and I had the chance to go into town and see it with my own eyes. I felt like I stepped into another world compared to Central Iraq or Mosul. The Kurds had largely kept the conflict away and so the experience was akin to being in Aman or Beirut.

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

After Sulaymaniyah, we made our way to Irbil for some additional meetings and training. During our journey to Irbil and Dohuk, I had the chance to see the countryside of Kurdistan. I felt like I was in Switzerland at times: there were rolling hills covered in grain, grazing sheep, mountains, and beautiful lakes. To say that I did not expect this is an understatement. I felt like I was a million miles from the war. I had the chance to let my guard down and relax because the next turn or next day did not feel dangerous. This was such a luxury at the time for me. Having the chance to live side-by-side with the Peshmerga and hear their stories gave me the chance to hear their perspectives on Kurdistan and Iraq.

Irbil, Iraq

These conversations were certainly eye-opening for me and taught me so much. We, as Americans, like to simplify things so we can understand them quickly.  In the case of the Kurds, Kurdistan, and the Middle East in general, this has not served us well. Unfortunately, this was true 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and is still true today. We, as Americans, need to understand that it is wrong to lump people together based on national borders, as the truth about people is very different. Rather than national borders, it comes down to a sense of place and identity.

Canyon in North East Kurdistan, Iraq







A New Perspective to Traveling

by Teacher Traveler Dude

In 2003 I had the chance to visit Petra, Jordan. At the time, I was in the military and I had some time off before my next deployment. Prior to visiting Jordan, I had deployed a couple of times to the Middle East. These deployments were life-altering experiences. But, I will save that for some other time.

I grew up in South Florida, one of the most diverse areas in the country. I was used to diversity and being in a melting pot of Latin Americans and natives from the Caribbean. That being said, nothing really prepared me for the culture of the Middle East. Before I deployed to the Middle East I had never been exposed to this culture, outlook or people in any meaningful way. No movie or newspaper article could have ever prepared me for the culture of the Middle East.

Making The Trip

I decided to make the trip and try to sort out for myself what I was doing and to approach the culture from a different perspective. My previous time in the Middle East was guided by what I had to do for the military. While I was certainly lucky to meet and work with some great people from the Middle East, my entire paradigm and outlook was based on those interactions. While these experiences were certainly unique, it would be like traveling to the US and only interacting regularly with people in the US Military. You would learn a lot, but you would certainly have a limited view, and would miss out on a lot about what makes that culture special.

My plan while in Jordan was to spend a couple days in the city of Amman, and then head south to see Petra, Mount Nebo, the Red Sea, the East Bank and the Dead Sea. I had seen some amazing pictures of Petra and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. After finishing up my time in Aman, I headed down to Petra and arrived at sunset. This turned out to be an absolute blessing, as I had the chance to head into the Petra through a canyon entry-way called the Siq, lit with candles, and walk to the “Monastery.”

Photo credit: Arian Zwegers


This was a tremendous experience that I had the chance to share with other people from around the world. This really put me in the right frame of mind to enjoy my time in Jordan, to slow down and truly listen and learn. I took my trip not that long after 9/11 and was it soon after the war in Iraq began. I had viewed an entire culture and population from the context of “conflict.” This trip helped me view these people as individuals with their own stories, hardships, and lives.

Petra Ancient Structures

Petra Jordan caves history ruins temple
Petra, Jordan caves & ruins

What was great about Petra is that it showed me firsthand the remnants of a civilization that significantly predates our own – the United States is a relatively young country. Such a large, gorgeous, and ancient structure is always a great reminder to remember our place in the long history of humankind. Traveling around Jordan after visiting Petra also did a great deal to remind me of this as well. Traveling to the East Bank of the Jordan River and to Mount Nebo shows how close the people of the Middle East are to one another. Looking across the border to Egypt, Israel, and Syria was an enlightening experience for someone used to living in the US. It was an incredible reminder of the pivotal history that took place there, and seeing the physical record of all that history was life-changing.

This trip helped me a lot over the years that followed. I was deployed back to the Middle East a few more times and had to deal with the challenges of being in Iraq during conflict. That being said, I am sure that having this context and experience of Middle Eastern culture helped me navigate the challenges I faced in a much more educated and empathetic way. These experiences, this trip, changed my life in many ways. It created an understanding and respect for people who were very unlike anybody I had ever known. It also helped me see beyond common misconceptions that we, as Americans, suffer from. Traveling is an amazing cure for much the prejudices and of what ails us as individuals and societies. To continue join us for his 2nd part of his story, Travel Tales: Kurdistan Iraq.


Travel Tales: Black Dog Cafe

Black Dog Cafe

I loved Tallahassee, even with that inescapable, awful, and sticky heat. It’s been a year and a half since I left. When I close my eyes and think about my stay, I smile. I learned a lot about myself back there. As I’ve said before, I like to make friends. But what I haven’t said is that when you’re in a different country, you’re constantly imagining living there for good.

Being here, I wanted to behave just like a Tallahassian. They have a beautiful city with ups and downs, just like any other city. There are beautiful landscapes, parks, lakes, and equally some scary neighborhoods where the stores close by 8pm. It is like anywhere else on Earth that’s not home. So, you’re a complete stranger. And when you’re strange, no one remembers your name (said a certain lizard king). I wanted some people to know my name.   

An Offbeat Discovery

It was a Thursday or maybe Friday. I remember because I was in the mood for some noise and a beer. That made me want to explore a little bit – just enough to find a cool place to hang. I am not a fan of crowds. A club is not a place I would be by myself, ever. I’m a bohemian kind of guy. This means I like to walk around while singing to myself. Well, correction, I love singing to myself. And that’s exactly what I was doing that day.

My steps took me down towards Gaines Street. A family played in a fountain; they looked happy. I’m a shy person, so I look a lot at the floor which does have its perks – sometimes I find interesting things just lying there. As I peered down on this occasion, I saw a little green snake in the grass. Naturally, I’m scared of the dangerous ones, but equally I think they’re beautiful too. So, I went after the little snake, conscious of his lack of venom due to his species. I followed him through grass that was large enough to hide it but short enough to walk in without any trouble. But soon, I lost him when the grass receded, and the asphalt reappeared. I looked up, and there it was: a little wooden house, painted in blue with purple details.

The Best Things Are Hardest to Find

It was just lying there so fresh, so unaware of the heat; so joyful with that insolent blue and purple in a sea of neutral colors. With a beautiful porch and a little garden with some tables, a big sign gave this small treasure a name: “Black Dog.”  

“That’s a Led Zeppelin reference,” I thought to myself, while my feet forced their way into the house. It was magical, exactly the kind of place where I would like to hang out with my friends or girlfriend. It was a café that offered a bite to eat, a beer, an iced tea or a glass of wine. It had live music, which was great for a bohemian night out. It had amazing soda-pop (avocado pop is heavenly), board games, nice and tasteful decoration, and that great music. They put so much effort into bringing culture to people through their literary nights, concert nights, and open mic nights. It was amazing! 

New Friends and New Experiences

I made some new friends there. My close pal César and I hung out there on my birthday, where we met Justin, a great guy who we talked to about philosophy, poetry, people, and music, and shared a few stories about girlfriends. I hope he’s doing great now, wherever he is!   

At the Black Dog Cafe, I met a group of Tally writers too – a warm collective that supported each other on their journey to being published. I met El Habib Louai, a fantastic poet who reminded me a lot of the Beat Generation. There were awesome strangers, companions in wine who gave me useful advice on life and writing. It’s where I met Jack Levine, another great guy whom I remember with joy. He was so nice to me, and I hope he’s doing well too.  

You’ll find your own Black Dog Cafe on your travels: a place that creates a bond with the city or town you’re visiting.  A locale that creates possibilities, anecdotes, friendships, laughs, and teachings. In Tally, that’s the Black Dog Cafe, in the Industrial District of Railroad Square, between FAMU Way and Gaines Street. And if Justin, Emile or Brittany are in there, taking care of business… tell them Carlos said hi.

by Carlos Balbuena

What I Know Now After Studying Abroad at FSU

We asked fellow Dream Abroad members what they would do differently if they were just starting out on their adventures now. Dalal recently finished studying abroad at FSU (Florida State University). She earned her Master’s of Science from their College of Education.

After studying in Tallahassee, Florida, here are five things that I know now:

1) Technology Can Make Adjusting Easier

During my journey as a graduate studying abroad at FSU, I downloaded several phone apps that helped in getting around. I downloaded Uber, a really useful app which will help you access your location directly from your smartphone.

Booking Flights

I found Kayak another extremely helpful app. Kayak is an app and website which functions as a search engine, comparing the prices across several travel companies for flights, hotels, and even renting cars.

kayak find hotels

Finding Halal Food Around Town

As a Muslim, I only eat poultry and meat/lamb that are halal which means that it is slaughtered according to the Islamic Sharia. Back in Tallahassee, it was really difficult to locate places that sold halal food and I was limited to only four restaurants, tops. So, whenever I wanted to cook something at home, I would order my meat from Midamar Halal. It sells all kinds of halal food including pizza, frankfurters, steaks, ribs, chicken, beef, and turkey. Their high-quality food comes frozen, in great quality, and shipped to my apartment complex. 

Zabinah app also assisted me in locating restaurants that sold halal food. This offered a list of suitable restaurants nearby. What makes this app so great is that it offers reasons why a restaurant is on the halal list. For example, one restaurant is halal because its owners are Muslims. Other places may be on the halal list just because of verbal assurance from staff or the halal sign in the diner. The app also offers several cuisines from which the user can choose.

2) You Need a Car

For about 15 months, I saw the streets of Tallahassee from a back-seat window. I didn’t own a car. The College of Education was only a three-minute walk from where I lived. I didn’t think I needed a car. Whenever I wanted to go grocery shopping or to the mall, I called a cab. For the year I lived in Tally, I spent a lot on taxis to get around.

After relying on cabs, Uber, or friends to get around during most of my time as a graduate student, I went to the airport to rent a car for only a few days. I wanted to explore how it felt driving around in the States. The experience was exciting and joyful! I finally got to see Tallahassee from the front-seat window. Because I lived in Tally for a year, I was familiar with its streets. I recommend having a car because after two years using a cab or Uber to go everywhere it got expensive.

3) There Is so Much to See

Coming from such a small country, Kuwait, the number of places you can actually visit is limited. In comparison, the United States has an almost endless number of areas to explore, have fun, and even hang out. Whenever I had a break from the university, like during Thanksgiving or other events, I made sure to explore a new state. I had the opportunity to visit New York on New Year’s Eve. I also went to Virginia, Washington D.C, and flew to Chicago and California. Plus I also travelled around Florida and took in Tampa and Orlando.

Everywhere I visited offered its own wonderful experience. I wish I had had much more time to explore even more of the United States. My advice to you is to take advantage of your time while you’re studying abroad. Embrace your wanderlust and broaden your horizons by seeing as much as you can. After all, according to CNN’s Lisa Ling; “The best education I have ever received was through travel.”. Studying abroad at FSU gave me an opportunity to see new attractions and embrace new cultures.

travel bags

4) Don’t Pack Your Whole Closet to Avoid the Overweight Fees

I still remember the humongous suitcase that I took with me on my journey to study abroad. It actually took two bags to get here: a carry-on and a backpack for my essentials. I felt so overwhelmed with the idea of living abroad for the first time in my life that I practically packed my whole closet. So I took winter clothes, from parkas to scarves, to summer clothes like flip flops, practically everything that you can imagine.

When I arrived at my apartment in Tally that first day and unpacked, I noticed that my closet was almost full before I had even unpacked everything that I had brought along with me! Even when my journey neared its end, half of the clothes I bought had never been used, so I ended up shipping them back to Kuwait.

I advise you to pack light and avoid the overweight fees. It’s true that at some point when you’re packing you’ll feel that you will need to take your whole closet but just try to limit yourself. Anything that you might need is available in the States. If you’re studying in a small town where many brands are unavailable, you can enjoy the luxury of shopping online. Whenever I felt bored, and I needed a new item, I instantly went online and ordered something . So, my advice to you is to focus on the journey itself and to try to avoid packing all of your clothes from your home country.

5) Stereotypes of Studying Abroad at FSU

stereotypesBased on the number of American movies and TV shows that we see every day on TV, many non-Americans would assume that Americans’ favorite foods are pizza, burgers, and hot dogs. For something even as simple as a favorite food, many people tend to have stereotypes based on what they see on TV or what they hear in the news.

My experience living abroad in Tally taught me that television or the news presents only a fraction of reality. Just as people come in all different shapes and colors, they also have different perspectives and interests – and they are all beautiful. Living abroad in Tallahassee made me realize that you will only truly understand a certain culture and its people when you are actually living among them. Always have a welcoming heart and welcome people’s differences as they are all dazzling. It is also important to note that being a Muslim and wearing a Hijab didn’t make me feel like an outcast or different from my non-Muslim friends, despite how that is presented on the news.

Wrap Up

On the contrary, I felt accepted and welcomed by my classmates and professors as if I was one of their own. I am forever grateful for the welcoming hearts of FSU’s faculty members and classmates for making me feel safe. I found those positive and welcoming vibes in every city and state I visited. Although some people are bad and have their own false stereotypes, there is also some good in this world. Therefore, never generalize and assume that all people are the same — block out the prejudice and interact with everyone.

by Dalal Boland

Talk To Somebody

Talk To Somebody

Have you ever seen Pulp Fiction? It’s an entertaining movie, and you should absolutely see it. There’s a special scene in that movie that is relevant to this point. There’s this couple at Jack Rabbit Slims, but the thing is…they’re not really a couple. John Travolta who plays Vincent Vega is a charismatic thug and Uma Thurman who plays Mia Wallace is the big boss’s wife. To him, she being the big boss’s wife and all…she’s out of reach, theoretically at least, but he kind of likes her and she likes him. But they don’t know each other, so there’s a lot of gaps in the conversation and more than a few points of awkward silence. Well as much silence as you can get in a 60s-themed dance bar. Then, in the middle of an awkward silence, she says,  “Don’t you hate that?”  “What?” he says. “Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” She pauses, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the (…) up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”

And that says it all for me. She’s right, I remember the first time I saw that scene and still think the same way today. It is not necessary to be talkative. Most of the time it’s just small talk, people just trying to keep the conversation going, because we don’t tolerate silence well. Being alone with your thoughts it’s hard…and fun, joyful, stressful, all kinds of feelings. Most people will talk to just kill the silence, talking about whatever comes to mind.

All of us feel the need to talk to others about what’s important to us, but often times we don’t know how or to whom we should talk. But every now and then we can find someone to open up to. The life lesson that took me too long to figure out is sometimes these deeper conversations can begin with a little small talk. Philosophy, at least the Greek one, starts with dialogue, which is required in order to discover or achieve knowledge. We are not alone- that we are not islands but rather, are part of a larger community- humanity is a big family of human beings. So then why is it so hard to talk to people sometimes?

Unfortunately, the irony of this post for me is that I am writing this at a point in my own life when I am relatively isolated. I would be totally disconnected from the outside world if it weren’t for my girlfriend. I am thankful for her help and I am glad I was more adventurous when I was in Florida.

What did the trick? I knew that I couldn’t go all the way to Florida just to be quiet all the time. I didn’t want to go there and stay in my dorm. Traveling someplace else new is a chance to improve yourself because no one knows you. They don’t know if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. You have a chance to make a lot of first impressions. A lot of great history lies within strangers all around you. A potential good friend could be in the coffee bar next to you, a good laugh, an interesting idea, topic and/or conversation. Who are we to deprive ourselves from the others? We won’t learn anything from closing ourselves off in our rooms.

In my college there’s the possibility of graduating by just taking classes on the internet. This is intended for people who can’t make it to school for whatever reason, but they are missing the incredible experience of engaging with your classmates. And that happens outside school as well. Engaging people goes beyond those in your peer group. It´s not gratuitous folk wisdom that says one should listen to their elders. Potentially, all the people in the world know something you don’t, and vice versa.

We should take our chances and try to improve ourselves through others, get the most of a trip and talk to the locals, smile and listen. The best thing someone said to me in Tallahassee was that I really listened. He said that most of the people in town didn’t do that anymore. Which is sad. Silent people like me enjoy listening to people: the ones who have something to say, who talk with their soul rather than their brains, that really live and breathe, who scream when they scared and shout when they’re happy, that never get you bored and who make you laugh. Most of all, those who aren’t afraid to say what they really think, who are desirous of living and willing to really live.


Even As I Left Florida…

In a time that feels so far away now, I remember reading a book about a painter obsessed with portraying Paradise. She dreamed about completion, about fulfilling her purpose in life, yet she couldn’t face her own problems. Whenever she encountered serious trouble, she packed up, bought a plane ticket and then was gone. She eventually rediscovered herself through those sudden escapes from her home, her country, herself. Even when the reason behind a trip is just to run away, you can never really not learn anything from a trip. It doesn´t need to be so far, you don´t need to feel a jet lag for a fresh start, a well-deserved rest of your routine, a break from yourself, the version of “you” stacked with duties to fulfill.

Jack and me at the coffee shop. Jack was my conversation partner.
Photo credit: Jack Levine

There’s been only one trip that I could say that I made without a hidden intention of running away. On the contrary, I didn’t wanted to go at first. I didn’t want to jeopardize what I had with my significant other. I went however. She kissed me farewell and then I went. How curious is how life works. I wonder where would my life be if I hadn’t been bored at my place and if I hadn’t gone to school early in order to distract myself from boredom. Long story short: A notice from my school’s humanities department was sent to me.  It offered a chance to win a scholarship to study abroad. I took a chance and I went for it.  Finally, my lonely childhood beside a monitor pushing buttons paid off.  No one from my philosophy department really knew English, so suddenly I became a serious contender for the scholarship. A letter to the governor and several hours waiting in line and I was confirmed as one of the lucky people who got the scholarship to study English in the USA.


My interview with El Consulado de Mexico en Orlando about my scholarship.

American Dreams

I want to learn. I’m curious about everything. But I would be a liar if I told you that I wanted to spend all my time studying in the US. I wanted to know the place! I wanted to talk to people, to walk long distances, to see as much as I could and immerse myself in a brand-new way of seeing and appreciating life. As a Mexican, I’m hopelessly soaked with the fragrance of the American Dream. A place that seemed to me like a place where everyone has a chance, as long as (s)he has the courage to go for it. A place where you´re not entitled to happiness, but rather the country gives you the means to get it for yourself.

I was so excited, but I was also terrified. You don’t pause your life when you travel, you can´t get away from yourself when you go far. A friend of mine has a catch phrase that goes: “Wherever you go, there you will be”. The first time I heard it I thought he went crazy. But as years go by, now I see the wisdom in that phrase: I was putting my life on pause for two months, just to see what life could be like someplace else. The amazing person that I had the fortune to call my teacher during my time in Tallahassee said to us that we were brave. Now I think we were.

Isn’t she beautiful?

Photo credit: Jack Levine

Florida looks so beautiful from up high. The moss so green swarming the earth, sprinkled with lots of blues here and there. But oh, my god, the heat! It’s like being in an oven. In all my delightful staying I never really got used to the heat. Thank God for AC. The people were so nice, everyone was so up front, not friendly but definitely not cranky, gloomy or moody. That´s how I like strangers, a little skeptical of strangers, but willing to help a person in need. Everyone was so nice to me. I promised myself that I would try to be more talkative with people, since I´m really comfortable with silence, but it was ridiculous to go all this way just to be quiet. You learn a lot from travels, talking to people and reading a lot. I´m not the brightest guy in the land, so I can’t spare the chance to learn something. And I learned a lot. From classes, obviously, but I learned the most from the people in Tallahassee, walking in those peaceful streets and parks.

Opening your senses and enjoying the moment. I think most of our concerns about past and future come from not really being “in the moment”.  Worrying about your problems instead of enjoying the fact that you’re in a foreign land, where no one knows your name, where you can be anything you want to be. So, I tried to enjoy the moment as much as I could.

Walk the walk

There’s several ways to get to know a culture, a town. First of all, don’t Uber yourself to elsewhere. Walk. Enjoy the view. Forget about your life as much as you can. Feel the breeze, the heat in your forehead, the sun way up high. Talk to people, be as friendly as you can, take interest in what they do, where they come from and what they think about life. I ask a lot of people what they think the American Dream represents, for instance. Something that works for me is imagining myself as a reporter interviewing everybody. Don´t push, but be curious. Another way to do it is visiting retail stores or even garage sales.  Where one person might see a bunch of meaningless stuff at a garage sale, another knows that there is a life represented by all those things.  There are stories about the house, the people, the past. As I said, be curious whether you´re at the mall or you´re in an art shop. Another way is going to restaurants. I wanted to eat at a waffle house at two in the morning like an American movie cliché, a pizza at night on Gaines Street where you can find out why they keep open the place at night, perhaps grab a beer at a bar while listening to some really good live jazz. Check. Check. Check.

By forcing myself to go out and interact I met a lot of interesting people. It’s fascinating how much you can accomplish when you talk to people. I was invited to perform at a coffee shop, I read some of my short stories and they were very well received. I discussed philosophy and poetry in the middle of the night, I covered a duo version of Wish You Were Here with a friend. I crashed at a friend´s place, I played pool with a coquette woman named Casey and I met a smart and beautiful model at a blues concert (Hi, Victoria).  I also visited some pubs, I sang with strangers to the rhythms of Neil Diamond and I met some very talented musicians from the jazz scene from Tallahassee. One of them now lives in New Orleans and he´s going to make it big. Cheers to all of them.

My certificate of completion and last day of class.

To all the people who showed me stereotypes are just ridiculous assumptions, thank you. No one judged me, I judged no one. We just live life as we can, as best as we can, in a way that brings us joy and we share it with the people we care about. Maybe it’s all about perspective. Like the perspective this trip gave me. The notions that I felt. The feel that I could really make it someplace else, that I´m not trapped in a city, in a way of living, in a career severely discredited by current academic thought. Not that I wanted to, but it was good to know that I could get a job at a coffee shop, live with some friends, save money to get a car or pay for classes and potentially build a new life. It’s nice to know things can work out. That you can make the best from even the worst-case scenario, like sleeping in a rented bed in a rented room, with summer friends near you, and the AC going silently in the night whispering a lullaby.

The experience I had in Tallahassee left a great taste in my mouth. Looking to the future I know I will travel again.  I will visit another country and I will also come back to Florida.  I could live in a place like Tallahassee because it’s something between a small city or a big town. It filled my mind with memories and anecdotes that will dance within me as long as I live.