Did you miss me, or you didn’t even notice my absence? Well, either way. I thank you for joining and reading the blog.
In this blog series, I am going to walk you through our adventures and hopefully you enjoy reading about our stories. I will try to be as detailed as possible regarding costs to show that a vacation doesn’t need to be too expensive. One important note is that there is rare usage of ATMs or Credit Card machines. For Iraq, I exchanged $5000 CAD to US Dollar and brought cash to be exchanged using Exchange offices.
The journey started from Canada to Iraq with side trips to Turkey and Greece. In this post, I am covering how we ended up traveling to Iraq and the challenges to get there in the middle of a global pandemic.
The Reasons Behind Traveling to Iraq Adventure During Covid-19 Pandemic
So here comes the story! We needed to visit our family back in Iraq. A long due visit that we kept pushing back every year for different reasons. Honestly, main reason was economical as flying to the Middle East and especially Iraq is always expensive. Then the kids tagged along, and it became even more expensive to fly.
Other reasons were the long distance, the time zone change, and the limited vacation time to justify such a long and expensive trip. Hence, we kept saying next year every year till Covid hit!
Anyway, my father hasn’t been doing well for the past couple months. A mix of Alzheimer and Dementia is causing him to lose his movement, memory, and gradually other senses. It was time to go no matter what as I am not ready to live with regret.
My mother is also having some health issues even though she is only 58 years old. My wife’s parents are doing much better luckily.
What helped us in making the final decision to take the long flight from Canada to Iraq was the insane ticket price by Qatar Airways. This is my number one favourite airline in the world! An airline with the best food service. The real Arab hospitality as they call it. Plus, the amazing staff and their wonderfully clean airplanes. I wish our national airline, Air Canada, could learn one or two lessons from this amazing airline.
I am sure you wonder, how much Montreal – Baghdad flight cost us, don’t you? Well, it might not be as cheap as you think but $708 round trip is an incredible deal to Iraq with only one short stop in Doha, Qatar. This is a 50% discounted price which I’ve never ever seen before.
On top of this, Qatar Airways have a great offer to change the flight for unlimited time without paying any change fees. We still pay or get the difference between the old and new fares.
This luxury benefit, thanks to Covid 19, made me change our flight time 3 times. Initially, I booked it for only 4 weeks. I then thought, why not touring the Balkan while I am there so I extended it to 8 weeks. But then, my wife said, why not throwing in Turkey and Greece and I was like, SURE! Let’s do this. We call it an Iraq trip, but we are going to do much more.
I then changed the flight one more time with no intention to extend. Yup! 2 Months and 23 days! That is almost 12 weeks or triple the initial timeframe.
Working While Traveling & Visiting Family
Honestly though, I booked this without thinking about my work. The luxurious of working remote kind of hit my brain and I didn’t think about the details. I just thought, if I can work from my home in Gatineau, I can work from anywhere with a stable internet access.
I told my manager that I am heading to Iraq for more than 2 months and he initially didn’t disagree if I work as efficiently as I have been doing through the pandemic.
Considering all these facts and challenges, I decided to take 2 weeks off initially and see how things go. However, I worked and was available whenever the team needed me during these 2 weeks. I didn’t want to totally disappear for just in case I needed to take completely off time during my traveling.
Flexibility and mutual understanding without taking advantage is a key to a successful team. This short time outside Canada made me confirm my thoughts and plans to retire early and reach my financial independence to do more like what I have been doing in the past 2 months.
The only disadvantage of working while vacationing is the fact that sometimes I must work instead of visiting friends or relatives. Or as an example, today, I had a Teams meeting and missed the fresh home-made Pizza by my mom.
First Real Stress – Covid PCR Tests & Saving $555
Long story short, we booked and flew to Baghdad within 10 days. First challenge was the PCR tests which are super expensive in Canada. The best price I found was $185 in Ottawa. It wasn’t something I was willing to pay honestly for the 3 of us as Iraq requires PCR tests from all 10+ years old (Much better than Canada which needs a pre-arrival PCR test from all 5+ years old). My daughter just turned 10.
My brain got to work! We booked and completed our Covid PCR tests in the hospital, printed the results. Considering we had online login for verification, I wasn’t worried. We headed to Montreal airport which is 2.5 hours drive away from where we reside.
These Covid tests were about to cancel our whole trip! Of course, Quebec government doesn’t say PCR in the tests so people can’t use them for traveling. In my honest opinion, Government should put a limit on the price of these tests which are so much needed daily (Greece set the price to 60 Euro for PCR and 20 Euro for Antigen tests).
However, no price limit in Canada so you see crazy high prices for such a simple and fast test.
Anyway, we got lucky as the Qatar Airway supervisor felt bad for refusing our boarding because of the lack of the “PCR” word in our tests but ultimately checked us in. It was couple minutes of waiting which felt forever. Well, sorry we can’t just easily throw in $555 for the 3 of us.
Second Challenge – Iraqi Visas & Saving $360
Second challenge was the visa. So yes, we are originally from Iraq, but our Iraqi passports are expired plus our kids don’t have an Iraqi passport. Luckily, Iraq made a huge improvement and is now allowing 35 countries including Canada to get a visa on-arrival for $75 USD ($90 CAD).
However, fortunately, even though we flew to Iraq with our Canadian passports, the immigration officer said: “Welcome back home! You guys are Iraqis and will remain so regardless of the passport you are carrying”. He just stamped us in without any visa or fees but advised to get the Iraqi citizenship for the kids before they are 18 years old. Otherwise, they will be treated like foreigners. I honestly was surprised by the warm welcoming.
Side Story – No Iraqi Passport for Our Kids
Side story here. I knew I wanted to apply for our kids’ Iraqi citizenship and then passport, but everything happened too fast. As our kids are born in Canada, we need to first authenticate their Canadian Birth Certificate in the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We then need to take this authenticated version of the birth certificate to the Iraqi Embassy in Ottawa which takes them a day to generate an Iraqi equivalent birth certificate that we can use in Iraq to get them their Iraqi citizenship.
Unfortunately, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed us like almost all Canadian government offices when we need them. Due to Covid-19, they don’t accept in-person drop off. They also didn’t bother providing a receiving box by the ministry so those like me can efficiently go drop off their papers quickly.
Instead, I had to use a courier. I went to Canada Post office just couple streets away from their office and mailed the documents. This was Friday and it was delivered on Monday.
Processing time showed 13 business days on the ministry web site. At this time, we haven’t had booking yet but only the thought, so I didn’t care. However, when I wanted to book, I calculated the scheduled flight will be 3 weeks after the documents delivery so should be enough to get them back.
Sadly, 3 weeks later and no sign of documents. Return tracking label wasn’t updated which as well means the documents aren’t done. There is no phone number to call only an email with an autoreply advising they will get back to me in 7-10 business days. What a mess.
We were hoping but this didn’t work out before our flight. We flew to Iraq without the required papers to get the Iraqi citizenship for the kids at this time.
The main problem is that Iraq doesn’t process the citizenship application abroad and it can only be done locally in Iraq, so we must return within the next 7 years before my older daughter is 18.
Time to Park & Fly – Saving $700 & Many Negative Thoughts
Sorry for the long side story.
After driving to the airport, which is 2.5 hours away, my friend who lives in Montreal took a ride with his friend to the airport. He drove away with my car to park it by his house. This saved us a good $700+ in airport parking. I considered alternative options like flying out of Ottawa or even taking a bus to Montreal, but nothing really worked out. I am thankful to my friend 😊 This same friend is going to be a first-time father, so I am buying him some good baby stuff as a thank you. Any recommendations?
We checked-in, dropped our baggage, and were on our way to Iraq. Excited and Nervous. We are going there through a global pandemic where Iraq numbers has been going up steadily. Was this a reckless move? Will I put my family’s health in trouble? What if we get Covid while there? How if we catch the virus and then spread it to our family and relatives?
I am still nervous how if we test positive on our final PCR test before flying to Canada! Too many negative thoughts but we are vaccinated, and kids have good immunity so hopefully everything goes peacefully.
Plus, who knows if this pandemic gets better ever. We thought it would have been over by 2021 but we are almost at the end of 2021 and the pandemic is still around and next year might be a new variant or virus.
As they say, there is never a good or perfect time. We just took our chances.
12.5 hours later and we landed in Doha, Qatar. We walked around the airport for 2 hours before catching our next flight to Baghdad which was another 2 hours with the same fantastic Qatar Airways airline.
We Landed in Baghdad International Airport – Welcome to Iraq
It was a smooth but long journey. We landed! Oh my! I couldn’t believe the moment. It was Summer and hot. Airport wasn’t too busy. We got stamped in quickly, picked our luggage and took a shuttle outside the airport secure zone.
The process of landing is pretty standard and smooth. Land, get into the airport, go through immigration, scan your carry-ons in the X-ray machine, pick up your luggage, take a shuttle or taxi. The only thing is that there is only 1 store in Baghdad airport upon arrival with no seats anywhere for waiting. There is also no WiFi.
I only exchanged $50 USD using someone walking around with USD at hand (Random) for 70,000 Iraqi Dinar (IQD). He also tried to give me 5,000 IQD less (Scam) but as soon as I pointed out the mistake he gave me the missing money. 5,000 IQD is about $4 CAD.
Due to the security concerns, only licensed cars can drop off and pick up passengers from the airport. All others need to wait 7 km out of the airport area. This very short 7 min shuttle ride costs us 30,000 IQD (Iraqi Dinar) which is about $24 CAD. A super expensive 7 minutes ride but there is no other choice.
My sister and her husband were waiting for us outside. We hugged and cried! My sister was my childhood’s best friend! We used to play and keep secrets.
Talking about secrets, we just had a new secret which was my trip to Iraq! Nobody except her knew about this. I honestly didn’t want to disappoint everyone in case of whatever reason cancelling our flights. Plus, I wanted the element of surprise.
It took us 45 minutes without any traffic (It was after midnight) to make it to my parents’ home. Everyone was waiting for us outside except my mother. My younger sister and father were the first! It was a very emotional moment full of tears and smiles. It has been a long time. Everyone is older now. I have nieces and nephews who I met for the first time. So grateful to be meeting everyone.
Coincidentally, my mother had their semi-annual siblings gathering that night and she was there. She didn’t know about my arrival. When we got there, my sister drove there and made a WhatsApp call with me. My mom was in disbelief and kind of shocked. She came and more emotional moments after 11 years of separation.
This reunion helped me seeing my aunts who live outside Baghdad.
The first 3 weeks, we never stopped meeting our family and extended relatives. I have 11 aunts and uncles and met them all but one who sadly passed away couple years ago.
I also met my father’s village and some of my cousins. I still have some more cousins to visit which I am hoping to see in these last 2.5 weeks.
My wife’s family live about 1.5 hours away from Baghdad so we decided that she can go there for 2 weeks with the kids to spend time with her family.
The kids have been having a blast. They are being spoiled. They finally tried the words “Grandma”, “Grandpa”, “Uncle”, “Aunt”, “Cousin”. Happy moments we all know will come to an end by choice soon.
This for a start! There will be next chapters where I show you more of Iraq which is different than what you have seen in most western media.
Yes, there are challenges. There are security checks and armed police and army around, but people are living their normal life with its own challenges. Main challenge isn’t really the Covid but the 50 – 60 Celsius degrees heat in Summer without electricity. The oil rich Iraq couldn’t manage to have its power lines sorted out sadly. National power which is the only one that can run Air Conditioning works only 1 hour every 8-12 hours in Summer. This means 4 hours of AC every 24 hours.
Gladly, there is huge private generator in every neighbourhood which people pay for by Ampere. Yes, you heard me right. For example, my parent’s house has 6 Amperes which is enough to power on lights, fans, fridge, freezer, and a TV.
However, internet works fine. Mobile plans are super cheap comparing with Canada. For example, I got an unlimited data Sim card for 40,000 IQD ($35 CAD) a month. The speed is LTE (30 Mbps) up to the first 20 GB usage in the 4 weeks but then they throttle it at 5 Mbps. I then got another plan which is 6 GB for 7,000 IQD or $6 CAD for 30 days.
Hopefully I didn’t bore you with this first chapter! Stay tuned for the next post of our unique adventure exploring Iraq, Turkey, and Greece! Thanks for reading.