Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in the middle of the desert. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost punched him in the face when he balked at the US$100 fare.
But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself was not the safest thing he could have done with his Christmas vacation. And he didn't even tell his parents.
Hassan's dangerous adventure wound down on Wednesday with the 101st Airborne delivering the Florida teen to the US embassy in Baghdad, which has promised to see him back to the US this weekend.
It began with a high school class on "immersion journalism." As a high-school student at Pine Crest School, a prep academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Hassan read The New Journalism, an introduction to immersion journalism featuring the work of journalists like John McPhee, a writer who lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it.
Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the US for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque. The teen, who says he has no religious affiliation, spent an entire night until 6am talking politics with a group of Muslim men.
The next trimester, his class was assigned to choose an international topic and write editorials about it. Hassan said he chose the Iraq war and decided to practice immersion journalism there, too.
Using money his parents had given him at one point, he bought a US$900 plane ticket and left the country on Dec. 11, one week before the start of his school Christmas break. His destination: Baghdad.
Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi. His father's background helped him secure an entry visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi features and a familiar skin tone. But underneath that Mideast veneer was a full-blooded American teen, a born-and-bred Floridian sporting white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans.
Hassan walked straight into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing five people and wounding more than 40.
Hassan's extra-mile attitude took him east through eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City. His plan was to take a taxi across the border and ultimately to Baghdad -- an unconventional, expensive and dangerous route.
It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents to inform them of his plans and whereabouts.
His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was "shocked and terrified." She had told him she would take him to Iraq, but only after the country stabilizes.
Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from Kuwait City to the border 89km away. He spoke English at the border and was soon surrounded by about 15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee.
"In one day I probably spent like US$250 on taxis," he said. "And they're so evil too, because they ripped me off, and when I wouldn't pay the ripped-off price they started threatening me. It was bad."
As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on Dec. 13, and the border security was extra tight because of Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from a dangerous trip.
He again called his father, who told him to come home. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut, so he flew there and spent 10 days before flying to Baghdad on Christmas.
His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by the family friends in Beirut, dropped him off at an international hotel where Americans were staying.
It was mid-afternoon Tuesday, after his second night in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at The Associated Press and announced he was in Iraq to do research and humanitarian work.
"I would have been less surprised if little green men had walked in," editor Patrick Quinn said.
The AP quickly called the US embassy.
Embassy officials had been on the lookout for Hassan, at the request of his parents, who still weren't sure exactly where he was.
Most of Hassan's wild tale could not be corroborated, but his larger story arc was in line with details provided by friends and family members back home.
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