Staying Sane in the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

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When people ask me what a war correspondent's life is like, they're usually expecting tales of high drama and great danger, of intolerable mental strain and how-the-hell-do-you-manage physical stress. After three and a half years in Iraq, I have so many stories of that ilk I may never need to pay for my own drink again. But as difficult as working in Iraq can be, many in the press corps here will tell you that, often, the hardest time is when you're not working. For a journalist, life in Baghdad is about two extremes: risking our lives pursuing stories and battling deadly boredom.

Things have gotten worse on both fronts. Eighteen months ago the insurgency was not quite so well organized, jihadi groups were operating mainly outside Baghdad and Shi'ite militias were smarting from Moqtada al-Sadr's failed insurrection. It was possible to go out in the evening to a restaurant or a private home. My favorite hangout was a café attached to the city's best art gallery, where artists and intellectuals gathered every evening for stale coffee and sparkling conversation. Going out after dark now is out of the question: kidnapping gangs lurk in public places looking for lucrative grabs — and foreigners are the most lucrative of all. Even if I were feeling reckless, there's a 9 p.m. curfew for all Baghdad residents, so I'm pretty much confined to quarters.

In circumstances like these, your elders and betters usually advise you to get a hobby. About a year ago, I picked one: cooking. At the TIME house, photographer Franco Pagetti and I take turns making dinner. He tends to craft simple, but superb, comfort food. I prefer exotic, complicated recipes that take hours to make — the better to while away the time. The cooking bit is easy enough, but shopping for ingredients can be life-threatening. And not just for foreigners: markets are a favorite target of suicide bombers, and hundreds of Iraqis have been killed while buying groceries and vegetables. There are a couple of halfway decent supermarkets, but getting to either requires navigating through some of the most frequently attacked roads in Baghdad. My favorite store is in the Mansour district, once an upscale neighborhood but now the scene of almost daily kidnappings, gun battles and explosions.

In any case, most of the ingredients of our respective cuisines (Italian and Indian) are simply not available here. So every time Franco returns from R'n'R in his native Milan, his suitcase is bursting with an assortment of cheeses, wines, cans of olive oil and dried meats. My last chore before leaving New York City is to stop by the Indian shops in the neighborhood of Murray Hill and fill my bags with spices and herbs. Luckily, Iraqi customs officers are usually sympathetic, allowing us to import the tastes of home duty-free.

There are other ways to keep ourselves amused at the TIME house. Alcohol is readily available in Baghdad, even though extremist Islamic groups have recently bombed some booze shops, forcing others to go underground. Friends and family are always sending care packages full of DVDs, music, books and magazines — even video-game software. Our neighborhood cable guy has hooked us up to dozens of channels, which means I can watch Letterman as I nod off to sleep.

But in truth what I miss most is not home entertainment, it's home life. In the past four years, my wife Bipasha and I have rarely been on the same continent at the same time — she works in Singapore, and I shuttle between Baghdad and New York City. Somehow, the distance feels greater when I'm in Iraq. If it's difficult for me, it's doubly so for her, knowing that I'm constantly in harm's way. Bipasha jokes that her coping mechanism is a voodoo doll bearing a remarkable likeness to my boss, which she pokes with a needle whenever she gets too anxious. (Howard: you know those stabbing pains you sometimes get? Well, that's where it comes from.)

My wife and I spend hours on the phone now, much as we did as love-struck teenagers. It used to be that when a war correspondent heard a loud explosion, his first instinct was to call his editor and bark, "Stop the presses!" When I hear a loud bang, my first call is to Bipasha to let her know that I'm okay. If I don't, there's a chance the explosion will make the news — she'll see it on TV, and worry about me.

We also try to webcam at least twice a day, and it allows us to approximate a home life. We can do "normal" things like have a meal together. She will sit down at the dining table with her laptop and webcam, and I will bring my plate to my work desk. Because of the four-hour time difference, I'm usually having a late lunch at her dinnertime. On special occasions — our wedding anniversary, my birthday last month — she will light a candle at her end, and I will play some appropriately mushy music on iTunes. (Hey, war correspondents can be romantic too.) If I try very hard, I can fool myself into believing that I'm not in the most dangerous place on earth. In Baghdad, a little self-delusion can help keep you sane.