Reporter's Baghdad Diary

Sharyn Alfonsi
CBS
In a reporter's notebook filing exclusively for CBSNews.com, CBS News Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi takes a humorous look at her first assignment in Baghdad. There's a screaming customs agent, and a casualty – her favorite pair of jeans.

When my bosses asked me if I'd like to go to Baghdad, I was, secretly, delighted. These are the type of assignments reporters dream about. I wasn't organized enough to rent a summer house on the beach -- so "summering in Baghdad" seemed like a no-brainer. My parents, being sensible people, of course disagreed.

Prior to my trip, I spoke to a half dozen of the reporters and producer who had been to Iraq about what to expect. I read entirely too many books on the Middle East, scoured a half dozen newspaper every day and then, embarrassingly enough, called one of my old college professors for additional insight. (This is how I earned the nickname "Little Miss Type A" when I was all of six years old. I'm not proud of it.) I thought I was prepared -- and before I even stepped out of the Baghdad airport -- I knew I was dead wrong. I was dealing with an old universal problem -- not the insurgency or changing political landscape -- but travel woes.

My trip started in New York. A dozen hours and one Ambien later, I arrived in Istanbul. Unfortunately, my luggage did not. I was holding out hope as I left Jordan that my bag might find me but I was prepared -- I still had my trusty carry-on! It was loaded with the really important stuff: contact lenses, my computer, my camera, chapstick and my favorite pair of perfectly distressed Levi's 501 Jeans.

As I boarded the plane to Baghdad, a smiling airline employee asked me to hand over my carry-on. I cheerfully explained that it would fit in the overhead compartment. "No problem,' I told him. He explained that there are absolutely NO carry-on's of any kind allowed on the plane for security reasons. I tried to explain to him that it was all that I had. I may have used the word "lifeline" and I may or may not have hugged the bag at that point. I can't exactly remember -- but it wasn't one of my finer moments. I was desperate. He pulled the bag out of my clutched arms, assuring me -- still smiling -- it would be fine. I tried to believe him.

About an hour later, I was listening my iPod, peering out my window, and I could see Baghdad below. It was unbelievable. As we approached the airport, the plane began to "corkscrew" towards the airport to avoid being shot out of the sky. I was warned this would happen. I just never imagined that would be the easy part of the trip.

We landed safely and I went to claim my "lifeline." I watched as bags and travelers were reunited. The belt carrying the bags screeched to a halt. All the bags were out -- except mine. Fortunately, another traveler had also lost his bag and he spoke Arabic and English. Kindly, he helped me navigate my way through the halls of the dark airport (the power was out) and fill out a claim form. What I didn't know -- and what I only found out later -- is that we had somehow skipped going through customs.

Moments later, I was dragged by a customs officer into a small, sparsely-furnished room. A translator followed us in. The door was shut. For what felt like an eternity, but was probably more like 20 minutes, the customs officer screamed at me in Arabic. Occasionally peppering in a few English words like "jail" and "long time" for good measure. I was, to be perfectly honest, scared to death. (This was NOT mentioned in any of the books I read.) The customs officer abruptly left the office and slammed the door. I looked to the translator for clarity. He just shook his head.

For reasons I can't explain and still don't know, the customs officer came back in and let me go. I practically ran to our security team who was waiting for me outside. I think I may have even hugged them -- I'm not sure. They asked me if I needed help with my bags -- I had to laugh.

Sure, I am still mourning the loss of my favorite Levi's. Perfectly fitting jeans -- any woman will tell you -- are truly more valuable than any computer or camera. But in the thick of this new environment, my lost luggage doesn't seem to matter much. I am happy to be covering the story and glad that ultimately, I didn't become it.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.