‘The Middle East is an extremely hospitable place. People can’t do enough to show you hospitality and show you a good time.’

As heard on liveline

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There’s all kinds of tourism on offer these days. We seem to have moved so far from the traditional sun, sea and sand tourism, into areas like ecotourism, cultural, religious, or heritage tourism. Accessible, extreme, and medical tourism. The list goes on. Even space tourism, if you have the money.

“Experiential travelling” is how Liveline caller Will Meara describes his choice of tourism, as he and his friend, Craig, have travelled through the world over the last 13 months. That journey has now taken them to the Middle East. And today, he spoke to Joe Duffy from the town of Erbil, in northern Iraq.

“It’s been the experience of a lifetime and we have learned more in the last two or three months than we have from reading any paper, any news reports.”

Will decided he wanted to travel to the Middle East to get a sense of what the place was really like, feeling it would be a different experience from the image portrayed in harrowing television reports and newspaper analysis. And so far, to him at least, that has proven to be the case.

Will and Craig began their tour of the region in Pakistan, backpacking and couch surfing through Lahore and Islamabad, where he found the people to be extraordinarily nice, and keen to demonstrate to Westerners that their country wasn’t all about “war and violence”.

“All we were met with was kindness and perfect hospitality. People were trying to introduce you to their friends, feed you, pay for things, show you that their country and their land is a perfectly safe place, the people are kind, and not to believe everything the Western media always portrays.”

From there, they moved to Iran, to learn about the people, the culture, and how they live with their regime, and that friendliness was evident once again. Now, having landed in northern Iraq, the warmth of the local population continues.

“It’s actually extremely nice. People are hosting us, giving us tea, bringing us around to their friends, going out of their way to drive us to their very favourite locations and show us the landscape, and how stunning it is.”

Of course, says Will, it is necessary to do your homework. He is sensible enough to know that there are pockets of territory, areas of violence, where you just should not venture. The guys are hitchhiking their way through the country and, so far, have not run into any difficulties. In general, says Will, “it’s actually a very safe place to travel.”

“The Middle East is an extremely hospitable place. People can’t do enough to show hospitality, to show you a good time.”

The area of northern Iraq appears in the news regularly as one of the most dangerous and volatile areas of the world. To the west of Erbil, the city of Mosul fell under the control of so-called ISIS in 2014, before a battle waged by Iraqi army forces to retake the city began in October of this year. Further west, you cross the border into Syria.

Having made some friends and contacts in Erbil, an offer was made to take Will and Craig to the frontline, where they met Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who they describe, once again, as amongst “the nicest people you could meet on the face of the Earth.”

Although both young Irishmen seem to be reveling in the experience, Joe Duffy reminded listeners that this choice of “experiential tourism” has been described as “reckless” by security commentator, Tom Clonan. Westerners, he says, are actually valued as hostages and “trophies” of sorts, by many combatants in the region.

But as of now, it seems, the two have no regrets, and they are documenting their experiences on a blog called readyforroad.com

Will insists they have done their research, that they are not foolhardy, and that the people they have met, even at the frontline, confirm that the Western view of the region as inherently dangerous and violent is misplaced.

Will they be returning home soon?

“We will be coming back in the next few days, I’m looking forward to seeing family and working more on our travels. We are going to visit a refugee camp in the next few days to get a fair and accurate reflection of what’s going on on the ground.”

And, needless to say, they’re also looking forward to their turkey and ham. Tea on the Middle Eastern frontline might be sweet, but there are some comforts you can only get at home.

To listen to the full interview, click here.

Photo Credit: Will Meara readyforroad.com

© The Listener 2016

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