Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 4)

With Halloween coming up, I was a bit behind the curve getting my costumes arranged.  A sucker for the classics, though, I decided to go with my usuals - vampire and werewolf - for the two nights of parties I had lined up.

In the case of the werewolf, I needed to find some hair to use.  I had missed my chance to order fake fur online or to get a clump of wool from the vendors at the bazaar, but there was one other option that came to mind.  There is a store on the compound that makes and sells fur coats, and I popped in to see if they had anything I could use.

"Do you have a scrap of fur I could buy?" I asked the man.  "I need to cut it up and glue it on my face."

"I think so," the man answered quizzically.

He walked behind the counter and produced a scrap of mink, about the size of a mouse pad.

"What about this one?" he asked.

Unfortunately, the hair was quite short, and I needed something with longer pile.

I raked my hand across the fluffier coats in the shop - beaver, rabbit, and (ugh!) raccoon.

"Anything like these?" I asked.  "It's needs to be a bit long so I can cut it."

The man was still looking puzzled.

"I'm trying to be a wolf-man for Halloween," I continued.

"Oh," the man said with a twinkle in his eye.  "Maybe this will work!"

He pulled out a whole silver fox tail.  It was roughly 18 inches long (46 cm), and it was beautiful.

"Perfect!" I responded.  "How much?"

"It's on the house," he told me, "for a good cause."

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I thanked the man and left.  As promised, I did indeed cut up the tail, and my costume was well received at the party.

The next morning, I returned to the fur shop, bearing a small token of appreciation.

"Here's a picture from last night," I told him.  "Thanks again for your help."

The man's mouth widened into a Cheshire cat grin.

"I'm gonna put this on my wall!" he told me.

The photo might have since come down, but I guess my werewolf self got its 15 minutes of fame.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Needing to make a fat stack of color copies on short notice and having no suitable equipment for the job in my office, I ventured to a neighboring building on the compound.  I went to the customer support unit, where there was indeed a color copier.  As luck would have it, though, the CSU was transitioning to another space that day, and the copier was unplugged, ready to be moved.

"Can I use this?" I asked one of the guys.

He walked over and had a look.

"We'll need an adapter to make it work," he told me.

I walked away to look for other options, but I was still within earshot as the man rummaged through his desk drawer for an adapter.

A moment later, I heard something peculiar.

"Sir, there's a problem!" he exclaimed.

I walked around the corner, and indeed there was a problem.  Thick curls of gray smoke were flowing from the bottom of the machine.

The sheepish look on the man's face as he experienced his oh-shit moment was priceless.

I broke out laughing, which caused him to break out laughing.

He had unplugged the copier by now, but another colleague came around the corner to see what all the commotion was about.

"Did you just plug the 110 copier into the 220 outlet?" he asked.

I blame it on the fumes, for now there were three of us cracking up.  A good laugh is contagious, you know.

With smoke continuing to billow from the machine, a secondary problem came to mind.

"We need to dissipate this smoke in a hurry," I observed, "or the sprinklers are gonna kick on and flood the place."

The three of us grabbed some papers and started fanning, and still none of us could keep a straight face.  Then, after a minute of determined flapping, the coast was clear.  Only the entire area now smelled like burnt popcorn.

For anyone concerned about the damage to U.S. government property, there are two things to keep in mind:  One, it was an honest mistake.  And, two, the copier seemed OK in the end.  We restarted it, this time using a transformer, and it fired up.  It turned out that the toner unit had burned out, though, so we replaced that, and I finally finished making my copies.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kabul: ANIM Chamber Orchestra Concert

The Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of developing young Afghan musicians.  The institute admits students regardless of gender, ethnicity, and social standing, and they even have outreach for the most vulnerable kids - orphans and street children.  The school hosts students from fourth to 14th grade (for children roughly nine to 20 years old).  Those who complete grade 12 get a high school diploma, and those who complete grade 14 leave with an associate's degree.

The U.S. government has supported ANIM with grants and other assistance, and in 2013, just three years after it opened, ANIM's chamber orchestra went on a U.S. tour and performed to sold-out audiences at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Today, the talented bunch performed for the Embassy community.

Before the music started, there were remarks, about half an hour's worth, and they were tedious.  The remarks themselves were fine, but after every string of words, a Dari translation would follow.  It would seem that presenting a speech with translation would double the time it takes, but it actually more than doubles it.  There are a lot of pauses as the speaker trades time with the translator, and sometimes they end up tripping over each other, wasting even more time.

When the speeches were finally over, the musical portion kicked off with "an afternoon rag," as the violist presented it, that featured two young ladies on sitars and a young man on tablas.

Their performance was nice, but it was marred by the Embassy's sound system.  The speakers were humming loudly and occasionally the feedback would fare up and cause a buzzing noise.  It was distracting and unfortunate.

The second piece was also traditional.  This time, a young man presented a composition of his own making on a rubab - a small lute-like instrument.  He was accompanied by the young man on the tablas and another young man who was laying down beats on a wooden box.

The piece started out at a good clip, but as it progressed, it kept getting faster.  By the end of it, the kid on the rubab was surely on the verge of igniting his fingertips.  It was almost like Afghanistan's answer to "Flight of the Bumblebee" as this kid kept hitting the gas.

As amazing as the performance was in its own right, however, something else made it even more special.  The rubab player was toward the front of the stage, and the rest of the children was sitting behind him in layered crescents, orchestra-style.  As the pace kept increasing, the rubab player's fellow musicians were clearly digging it.  They lapped up the funky rhythms, and they loved the frantic pace.  The faster it got, the bigger the smiles got.  This type of performance changes every time, and the kids were on the edge of their seats waiting to see what their friend could do.

When he finally ended in a flourish, all of the kids were beaming, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.  It didn't feel forced as they sometimes can.

With the small-ensemble performances finished now, the entire orchestra was put into service for the remainder of the show.

They went through a few more Afghan melodies, and while they weren't familiar to me, they were enjoyable.  The last one, "Laili Laili Jaan," was introduced as "the unofficial national anthem of Afghanistan," and my Afghan colleague sitting near me bristled at this.

"No one calls it like this," he muttered. "It's just a pop song."

The violist invited the audience to participate, and I wondered what this might entail.  I thought people might sing along, but clapping seemed to be the crowd's preference.  Hitting every downbeat, the people held steady throughout the entire song, even during lighter segments when boisterous clapping was a bit annoying.

After "Laili Laili Jaan," the violist told us there were a few surprises coming up, and she made a joke about the orchestra showing us their "range" (wink, wink).  The surprise was that the rest of the concert featured American music, and the joke alluded to the first song up, "Home on the Range."

"Home on the Range," while well rendered, was unfortunately a bit dull.

When the next song started, I had it pegged in the first two notes.  It was "What a Wonderful World," and it was pretty wonderful.  The arrangement was interesting with different instruments leading the melody.  I especially liked the exotic sound of the sitar solo.

The show ended with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it was also well done.

The organizers had really picked some low-hanging fruit when they selected the last two songs, but I'm not ashamed to admit that they worked on me, hook, line, and sinker.  Seeing these youngsters playing these two songs - the first about harmony, optimism, and the beauty of life, the second about longing, hope, and escape - packed an emotional punch.

There are some bright spots in the peace and security situation in Afghanistan today, but it's still a very tough place to thrive, especially for a child.  Violence is high and opportunity, low, and to see this group of bright-eyed, talented children playing their hearts out made we wonder how many would manage to beat the odds.

"If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why, oh why, can't I?"

Indeed.

I think I've got something in my eye.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Farewell, David

David was always pushing it.  He drove too fast, partied too hard, and to borrow a phrase from Dad, he let his mouth write too many checks that his ass couldn't cash.  His life was wild, a controlled chaos, but when his first wife died, young and unexpectedly, control began to slip away and only the chaos remained.  He began to unravel.  Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, it's damn near impossible to make lemonade.  Such was the case for David, and he would spend nearly a decade battling addiction and depression, trying to reconcile the loss of his wife and that which remained in the world of the living.

During the years of struggle, there was always some new calamity lurking.  Between the vehicle accidents, medical scares, and other mishaps, David faced grim odds more than once, and time and time again, he managed to prevail like some cat with nine lives.  In late September when he suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma, I was told that he was in bad shape, that this time was different, that death was near.  I was also told there was a slim chance he'd pull through.  The doctors didn't put a number on it like you see on TV, but even if the odds of survival were a mere one percent, I fully expected David to take that and run.  Surely he had one more ace up his sleeve.

His coma had its ups and downs, and every time I received a positive report, no matter how small, I knew it was only a matter of time before he opened his eyes.

It wasn't meant to be.

Once the neurologist confirmed that David had no brain activity, he was disconnected from the machines that kept him alive.  He didn't die right away, though.  He slumbered on twenty-one hours more before he breathed his last dramatic breath, surrounded by family.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I obviously knew David my entire life, but my strongest memories come from childhood.

Oddly enough, I don't actually remember some of my "memories".  Rather, I've heard them second-hand, woven into the family mythology by my parents.  Probably the earliest story of this variety happened when I was still shy of my first birthday.  I was attempting to take my first step, and David famously knocked me down.  I guess he preferred me as a crawler.

About a year later, we had another run-in.  We both had plenty of things to call our own, but David had something special.  Roughly one square meter of soft cotton, his blanket featured puppies on a yellow checkerboard background, and he loved it.  I loved it too, perhaps because it was so treasured, perhaps because that's what babies do.  We fought over that blanket off and on until one day Dad took a very Solomonic approach and ripped it down the center.  I went from having no share of the blanket to owning half, and I was elated.  David was devastated.

Over the course of the rest of our childhoods, he would exact his revenge.  Compared to David, I was a runt, and he rarely passed up an opportunity to dispense a noogie, Indian burn, or headlock, or to practice his favorite move, fart torture.  I, in turn, became a world-class cry-baby and tattle-tale.

There were good times too, of course.  Like many kids of our generation, we'd wake up early for Saturday morning cartoons.  The networks didn't broadcast 24 hours a day back then, so we'd often switch the TV on when it was only static.  This was no problem because with our blankets and sleeping bags, we came prepared to wait.  Eventually the Star-Spangled Banner would play and a flag would wave on the screen, signaling the start of the broadcast day.  While Mom and Dad took the opportunity to sleep a little later, we kids would sit in front of the TV for hours, proudly sporting our Underoos.  Rachel wore Wonder Woman; David, Superman; I was always Spiderman, and eventually Ben would join us as Batman.

I remember the electric fence experiments we conducted in rural Virginia while visiting relatives.  We'd join hands and the person on the end would grab the electrified fence.  We'd all feel the buzz.  Then we'd try other variations, with the last person touching the fence with different things like a broom handle or a clump of straw.  Fun like that ranked up there with playing in the creek!

Then there was the pizza problem.  For some reason, David would often get sick as a child when he'd eat pizza.  A related mystery was why my parents continued to let him eat it, but I suppose they were waiting for him to outgrow his reaction.  David and I slept on bunk beds, and he had the top one.  On pizza nights, he'd get sick in the middle of the night and puke off the side of his bed.  From my prime location, I could watch the vomit ooze down the wall and drip off his sheets.  And nine times out of ten, David would continue sleeping, seemingly unaware that he'd just turned our room into a bio-hazard contamination zone.  Struggling not to vomit myself, I'd have to fetch Dad to clean up the place.  No matter how hard we scrubbed, though, there was a red burst on our otherwise blue bedroom wall that never came out.

I remember camping with David, and the "Lord of the Flies" element he'd bring to the party.  Maybe he'd drop a bottle rocket in the campfire or maybe he'd push someone through a spiderweb.  In any case, he always brought some excitement.

In his teens, David caused a stir by becoming a cheerleader.  At the time, and maybe still to this day, the notion of a male middle-school cheerleader was unheard of in our small Tennessee town.  David did it to meet chicks, and it seemed to work.

I remember riding with him in his beloved Nissan 300ZX, and in particular the time he wedged the gas pedal with a stick, stood up through the t-top, and screamed at the top of his lungs while we careened down the highway at 50 miles per hour with no one at the wheel.  I played that off like it was no big deal, but of course it was terrifying.

I think back on the small things too - his smile, his drawl, his flair, his sentimentality.  We have a family joke that when three or more Calls get together, there will be tears before the night is over.  David was as sappy as anyone, and he would often be the one turning on the waterworks.  He could be a knuckle head at times, but he was our knuckle head.  He loved us, even though he didn't always show it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dreamer, schemer, charmer, snake-oil salesman.

Friend, lover, manipulator, good ole Southern boy.

Boy Scout, gear head, story-teller, addict.

Daredevil, romantic, body-builder, joker.

Son, brother, father of six, grandfather twice over.

David Allan Call

July 23, 1974 - October 1, 2015

Miss you.  Love you... and sorry about the blanket.

Rest in Peace.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Kabul: Hitting and Missing the Mark on 9/11

The relationship between September 11 and Afghanistan is complicated.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in 2001, most countries of the world issued statements supporting the U.S. and condemning the attacks.  Afghanistan was no exception, and the Taliban, who were in charge at the time, denounced the senseless killing of nearly 3,000 people.  At the same time, the Taliban were harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda within their borders, which put Afghanistan squarely in the cross-hairs of President Bush's War on Terror.  The September 11 attacks ushered in the U.S./UK War on Afghanistan, which was absorbed by NATO a few years later.

Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself in Kabul for the 14th anniversary of the attacks.  September 11, 2015, fell on a Friday - our one day off during the week - so I got to sleep later than normal.

At around 10 AM, Eitan and I went to brunch, and we were shocked when we entered the West Dining Facility (DFAC).  For some strange reason, the DFAC's decision-makers had decided to mark 9/11 with a cake.  The cake incorporated all the symbolism - the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, the date, and the flag - and across the middle, the word "remember" was written.  Meanwhile, on all the tables there were bottles of sparkling grape juice.  The DFAC is not allowed to serve alcohol, so on special occasions like New Year's Day (and apparently 9/11), they break out the non-alcoholic bubbly.


This was definitely in poor taste.  September 11 is not an occasion for cake and champagne - at least not for Americans - and everyone in my vicinity was grumbling at the display.

Skipping both the sparkling grape juice and the cake, Eitan and I had our lunch and set out for the official 9/11 commemoration at NATO base Resolute Support (RS).  In addition to many servicemen and -women representing the coalition partners, there were numerous civilians at the ceremony as well.  The program, which included a few speeches, a moment of silence, and a wreath laying, finished in under half an hour but still had the professionalism and decorum that military events so often do.  It was a nice contrast to the DFAC celebration.

After the ceremony, the crowd dispersed, and Eitan and I went to the bazaar.  It was pretty much business as usual as the vendors jockeyed for our attention, but something caught my eye at a carpet stall.  War rugs are popular here, with tanks, missiles, and jets appearing alongside more traditional motifs.  On this day, however, it was the first time I noticed the 9/11 carpets.  These carpets featured representations of the planes flying into the World Trade Center.  Carpets of this ilk had probably been hanging around the market for a while, but for some reason, I had finally noticed them.

The crude, pixelated images of planes and buildings reminded me of my time in Papua New Guinea.  In PNG, artists derive inspiration from current events in a very direct way.  Once I was in the market in Port Moresby a few days after some Australians had died in a helicopter crash, and there were numerous paintings interpreting the event.  It was the same story with wildfires, other vehicle crashes, and calamities in general.  Everything would show up on a canvas in a day or two.  Naturally, September 11 was also a major theme, and there were many paintings of this event, almost always done in the local style.

I viewed the 9/11 carpets with a certain amount of curiosity, but I felt no compulsion to buy one.

Eitan and I continued walking through the bazaar, and then Eitan noticed something altogether different.

"Hey," he remarked, "look at your shoes!"

I looked down, and I immediately got his point.

I had accidentally worn my sandals which was a violation of base policy.  There are a few dress-code rules for people entering RS from the Embassy side, and one of them is that open-toed shoes are prohibited.

As explained during my orientation, if an Embassy civilian gets caught on RS with a dress-code violation, he will be "arrested" by the military police and made to stay in the MP office until his supervisor comes to retrieve him.  Obviously the point of this is to shame people who don't comply, but I'm not even sure it really happens.  In any case, I didn't want to be the first in my circle to have the honor.

I had already been walking around RS for an hour at that point, and my feet had so far escaped notice.  I figured there wasn't any real reason to rush out, so we finished shopping and left about half an hour later.  I tried to play it cool as we walked ever closer to the Embassy gate, but part of me still thought I might get busted.

Back on safe ground, we continued our Friday.  We went to a cocktail party, did some chores, and watched some TV.  Then for dinner, we ventured to the East DFAC, and it was the same story as with brunch.  There was another cake stationed by the surf and turf, and sparkling grape juice graced every table.  All that was missing was a "Happy 9/11" banner.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Kabul: Later, Waiters

A week after my first drama-filled reception, we had another one.  This one included 95 of my office's best contacts, and it would be the premier event to welcome our newly-arrived officers.

We decided to hold this event in the Embassy's courtyard instead of at the Ambassador's residence, giving us much more flexibility.  We were no longer bound by the Ambassador's rigid event checklist.

Working on a tighter budget this time -- and having just had expensive French catering -- we decided to go with an Afghan caterer.  Other than samosas, the lone Afghan item, the rest of our menu was a hodgepodge.  We had egg rolls, sliders, chicken fingers, and black forest cake.  Such things can happen when you select your menu by committee.  In any case, the food is only of secondary importance to many guests, for whom the bar holds more interest.

We had booked the caterer through the Embassy's concierge desk, and when we realized the caterer couldn't provide waitstaff, we turned to the concierge for this as well.  I was familiar with the concierge team, and I was a bit skeptical.

Perhaps sensing my hesitation, the manager with whom I spoke tried to reassure me.

"Don't worry, sir," he told me, "my guys have just been through a waiter training course."  "They know exactly what to do."

Facing a dearth of alternatives, I signed on the dotted line for five of the concierge's finest professionally-trained waiters.

When the big day arrived, the set-up crew arranged our space, and my boss added a personal touch by decorating the cocktail tables with festive scarves and candles.  Then about an hour before showtime, the waiters arrived with the food.

Two things immediately came to mind: First, the sliders we had ordered weren't sliders at all.  They were big-ass burgers.  These substantial, sloppy sandwiches weren't going to be easy to delicately eat in suits and fancy dresses.

The second observation I had was more worrisome:  There was no way the amount of food we had received was going to feed a hundred people.

In ordering the food, we had been asked to provide the number of guests and the food items we wanted.  It was up to the caterer to decide the correct portions.

The concierge was on hand, and he agreed with my assessment in his own way.

"If everyone only takes a little," he offered, "we should be okay."

I was unwilling to ration the food, however, so the concierge placed an order for more samosas from a shop not far from the Embassy compound.

Of the five waiters I had hired, one was designated to work the bar and the others were assigned to work the floor.

As the waiters finished setting up, I went to the main entrance to start escorting the guests.

When the flow of guests began to wane about half an hour later, I relieved myself of escort duty and joined the party.

Of the four servers who were supposed to be working the floor, two were crouched behind the buffet tables devouring heaping plates of food.  The other two seemed to be doing their jobs, but then I noticed they were picking up all sorts of garbage and then handling food -- without ever changing their gloves.

I pulled the team aside and politely explained that break time would be at the end of the party and that the point of the gloves was not solely to protect the wearer.  The gloves were also meant to keep the food uncontaminated.

"Yes, sir!" the guys responded, and they dispersed among the crowd.

Meanwhile, the bartender seemed to be doing a respectable job, but there was something amiss at his station too.

"Sorry, sir," he told me, "but we ran out of white wine."

How we had gone through a case of white in thirty minutes was beyond me, but it looked like there was plenty of red wine and beer remaining.  It was time for the official program to begin, in any case, so I turned my attention to the speeches.

I got a shout-out from my boss for organizing the event, and then the Ambassador gave some meatier remarks.

Once mingling resumed, my waiters were missing in action again.  They were sitting on a bench unsure of what they should be doing.

I directed two to walk around with the chicken fingers and egg rolls and the other two to collect used plates and glasses.

This kept them occupied for the remainder of the event.

At around 7:30, I ushered the last of the guests to the gate, and when I returned to the courtyard to help clean up, the bartender had a bunch of bottles lined up on the table.

"We ended up with 22 beers, 4 bottles of red, and 10 bottles of white," he proudly announced.

Naturally, I recalled the white wine shortage from the beginning of the night, but I didn't mention it.  I suspected his explanation would likely be more annoying than comical at this point.

Despite everything, the event had been a success.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder: The guys might have gone to waiter school, but did any of them actually graduate?!?

Friday, September 04, 2015

Kabul: The Barber Shop

Six weeks on, and my hair was getting unruly.

When it comes to haircuts, I generally lean toward more modest establishments, and thus, I skipped the Green Spa and went to the barber shop on the East Side.  The actual name of the East Side outlet is "The Original Barber Shop," owing to the fact that it was the first barber shop on the compound.  You can see the shop's humble begins in some random photos that pop up from time to time.  It started out as nothing more than a plastic chair under a tin roof - open-air with no walls.  Today it's fully enclosed with a barber pole, two hydraulic barber chairs, two TVs, three barbers, and the full assortment of hairstyle magazines that no one ever seems to read.

Eitan came to the barber shop as well, and when we entered the shop, a man was already there getting his hair cut.  Eitan had another appointment after his haircut, so I let him go before me.

In a few minutes, however, the first man finished, and I too had a seat.

My barber fussed with the broom for a minute, moving clumps of hair around on the floor.  Then he turned his attention to me.

He draped me in the cape and pulled the white strip tight around my neck.

"How do you want it, boss?" he asked.

"Shorter all around," I answered.

Considering my vague instructions, he looked me over for a second.

"Do you want me to make you look good?" he asked.

Compared to the alternative, this seemed like the way to go.

"Yes," I told him, "make me look good!"

Then, having secured my buy-in, he went to work.

My barber and his two associates all had long, black, wavy hair, and I wondered what his idea of good short hair might be.

He trimmed the sides and back with the clippers and went to work on the top with scissors.  He didn't speak to me during the haircut, but he would occasionally step back and comment.

"Yes, that's right," he'd whisper to himself.

After maybe 20 minutes, he did the final edging work on my temples, shaved my neck, slathered my hair with gel, and wheeled me around to the mirror.

"It's fabulous!" he exclaimed.

He was clearly proud of his work, and in fact he had done a decent job.

There was one peculiarity, however.  He left the front of my hair fairly long, and he stood it straight up with gel.  While it wasn't nearly as pronounced, I felt slightly like Cameron Diaz during the famous hair-gel scene in "There's Something About Mary."

"What do you think?" he asked me.

"It looks good," I told him.

He was clearly an artiste, and I didn't want to deflate his enthusiasm by asking him to chop more off the front.  I figured I'd fix it myself later if it got too annoying.

"See," he replied, "I told you I'd make you look good!"

He was happy; I was happy, and I was in the homestretch now.  The barber took away the cape and started giving me a final dusting with his little brush.

He had one more thing on his mind, it turned out.

"Do you know who you look like?" he asked me.

"Oh, Lord," I thought to myself, "this should be good."

I get "recognized" fairly frequently, and it's always ridiculous.

"Who do I look like?" I asked.

"You are Spider-Man 3!" he replied.

"Oh, yeah," I responded.  "Who exactly in Spider-Man 3?"

"Obviously, the Spider Man," he replied.

"I just cut Spider Man's hair!" he continued with a wide smile.

I didn't really see the resemblance, but there's no point in arguing about such things.

Besides, it was just another celebrity doppelgänger to add to the list.

In no particular order, we have:

  • Tobey Maguire, actor (Spider Man, etc)
  • Cesc Fàbregas, football player (Chelsea Football Club)
  • Bradley Cooper, actor (Hangover, etc)
  • Lionel Messi, football player (Futbol Club Barcelona)
  • David Duchovny, actor (X-Files, etc)
  • Andy Garcia, actor (Godfather, etc)
  • Gaspard Ulliel, actor (Hannibal Rising)
  • David Schwimmer, actor (Friends)
  • Jim True-Frost, actor (The Wire)
  • George Hamilton, actor (Where the Boys Are, etc)
  • Ben Stiller, actor (Zoolander, etc)
  • Sam Waterston, actor (Law & Order)

Add to this a host of politicians and other people I've never heard of.

I guess there are worse things than resembling the "sexiest man alive," but of course it's all foolishness.

At least the barber had a bit of fun, though, and my hair was good to go for another six weeks.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Kabul: The Joys of Entertaining

"Hmmm," I thought to myself as I opened the door of the caterer's vintage BMW, "this is unfortunate."

There in the backseat were several trays of wilted canapes - crusty mini quiches and pizzas, deflated tomato-and-mozzarella stacks, and the most pathetic of all: sweaty, discolored smoked-salmon bites.

"I'm really sorry," the driver told me. "Traffic was stopped."

A motorcade from the Palace had disrupted traffic, and as a result, my hors d'oeuvres had been sitting for nearly two hours in the sun.

The reception was starting at five, and the food delivery was scheduled for three.  It was 4:20 by the time it arrived.

A van arrived at the same time, and seven waiters poured out.  Having also been stuck in traffic, they were happy to be free.

After two weeks of preparations, working through a four-page checklist, it was half an hour to showtime, and things were going south.

The day had been hectic even before the caterer debacle.  My morning was spent finalizing the guest list, identifying VIPs, and submitting the details to the security office.  By midday, I was at the Ambassador's residence supervising set-up.  The Embassy's events team is very well rehearsed, so I just stood back and watched as the guys erected the stage and podium, placed cocktail tables and dressed them with tablecloths and ribbons, set up the bar, pitched a few tents for shade, readied the sound system, laid carpets, and handled a dozen other details.  Our flowers arrived at the same time - a bouquet for each cocktail table and an arrangement for the bathroom - so I signed for them.

Everything was looking good.  The glasses were neatly arranged and sparkling in the sun.  The microphone had been tested.  The flags were standing at attention.  The background music - sitar on this occasion - was dancing pleasantly on the air.  With everything checked and double-checked, I shut the equipment down and went to help with another meeting.

At around three, I returned to the venue in anticipation of the food delivery.

My colleague had given me the keys to a Gator, a little John Deere utility vehicle, to haul the food from the gate to the house, but as I hopped behind the wheel, I got two surprises.  For starters, someone had left the lights on and the battery was dead.  The second issue was the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of this particular Gator.  My whole backside was covered in dust from sitting on the seat.

After flapping about in the courtyard for a moment, my clothes were now only moderately filthy.  It was time to address the other problem.

I flagged down a security agent who happened to be walking by.

"Sure, I can get you up and running," he assured me.

He pulled up nose-to-nose in a different Gator.  There are dozens of these on campus - along with a similar breed, the Kawasaki Mule - so it wasn't hard to locate one.

"What do we do now?" he asked me, perched up on his little tractor.

So much for getting me up and running.  I had no idea how to jump the Gator, and I didn't have time to figure it out.  It was time for Plan B.

This guy wouldn't let me borrow his Gator, so I spotted another one with the keys still in it.  It was a fair bit cleaner than the broke-down one, so I was hoping it was in better working order.

Before I tried to fire it up, I decided to focus on a related matter, namely, identifying the best route from the gate to the house.  There is always construction on the Embassy compound, it seems, and on this particular day, the most direct path to the venue was blocked.  Thinking there might be an alternate route I hadn't considered, I asked some of the guards in the security shack for advice.  In the end, they deduced that the only way for me to get from Point A to Point B would be to load up the food in my "borrowed" Gator, leave the Embassy, and drive three-quarters of the way around the perimeter of the compound to another, better-positioned gate.  Security is very tight at the Embassy, and employees such as myself aren't generally allowed to leave except in an armored car.  Yet, I was being offered the chance to joyride around the block in a Gator.  The offer was tempting for its sheer novelty, if nothing else, but I decided against this course.  It seemed like a waste of time, and I didn't have much to spare.

When the food and waiters arrived, it was a perfect match.  There were 18 trays of food, and between the seven waiters, the driver, and myself, we had just enough hands to manage everything in one trip.

As we set out across the campus, I looked like the pied piper.  I had my two trays hoisted high, and behind me, a line of guys in white shirts and jaunty black vests marched along.

Pretty much everyone we passed with our trays of food made the same joke.

"Ah, thanks," they'd tell us, "you shouldn't have."

I can honestly say, it was just as funny the tenth time as it was the first.

Walking and carrying trays can get a bit tiresome after a while, and I was feeling the burn by the time we reached the building.  I suspect I was suffering more than the others because I had taken the heaviest load.  I figured that was the decent thing to do since it was my idea to hand-carry everything.

As we all crammed in the elevator, it was a tight fit.  The comedy of the situation wasn't lost on the guys, however, and we shared a moment of spontaneous laughter.

Once we got to the Ambassador's house, there were only a few minutes until the reception was set to begin.

prepping the bar

The waiters started arranging the bar and transferring the hors d'oeuvres from the large trays to smaller serving trays.  Since we needed to start service immediately, the waiters loaded the serving trays with the best looking canapes and left the rest in the fridge to hopefully revive a bit.

Guests to the Embassy compound must be escorted at all times, so seven of us employees were designated as escorts.  We all reported to the gate to start shuttling guests to the party, and I got the first batch of people - six of them to be exact.

When we reached the elevator, we ran into a few other colleagues who were also going to the party, and we loaded up.

I hit the button.  The doors closed, and they opened again.  Unfortunately, we hadn't moved.

I tried again, and still the elevator wasn't cooperating.  Some of the guests were nervously laughing to themselves, and some of my colleagues were wringing their hands.  Getting all the guests to the party without the use of an elevator would be tricky.

I pushed the button a third time, and it was then that I noticed something: the doors were about half a centimeter shy from coming together.  This lack of full contact was preventing the elevator from moving.

The fourth time I pushed the button, I physically forced the doors closed.  Now we were cooking with gas!

I dropped off my load of passengers and stayed with the elevator to shepherd a few more loads of people up.  After that, one of the security guys volunteered to be the permanent elevator operator, and I resumed escort duty.

Within half an hour, I had made at least a dozen trips between the gate and the house, and I was ready to join the party.  In any case, the flow of guests had tapered off, so we didn't need seven escorts standing around.

When I entered the party, I had to laugh at what I saw, for there was some serious bumble-bee waitering going on.  The waiters were swarming the guests, shoving three or four trays at once on a single person.  They were so aggressive, it was almost as if they were working on commission.

After I asked them to be a bit more discrete, they took it down a notch, and I sniffed out a glass of Chardonnay.

Despite the elevator and the Gator and the caterer and everything else, it was all working out in the end.

I just wondered if the salmon was going to get the last laugh.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Kabul: Green Spa

Eitan and I were one month into our tour before we tried Green Spa, the Embassy's very own day spa.

It offers all the usual services (hair cutting and coloring, manicures, pedicures, waxing, and so forth), but we were interested in one thing: massage.

The space in which Green Spa operates has been constructed from a few modified shipping containers.  The salon part is in the front; the massage area, in the back.

When Eitan and I entered, we only had to wait a minute before our massage therapists met us and led us to the back.  The massage area has four or five beds, only separated from each other by a curtain, or rather a hanging sheet.  Eitan and I got beds two and four; the person in bed three had just finished and was getting dressed to leave.

The masseuse entered my room.

"Leave these on," she told me, as she gestured toward my underwear.

I guess full nudity is frowned upon.

The lady left the room, and I undressed and laid on the table on my stomach.  Normally there is a towel or a sheet to drape over your body at this point (at least at most of the other spas I've been to), but nothing was provided at Green Spa.

My massage therapist returned after a minute to start my treatment.

"Soft, medium, or hard?" she asked.

I opted for medium pressure, and she began.  She did end up draping me with a sheet, exposing different body parts as she kneaded, but I could have used something a bit more substantial (like an electric blanket!), as it was a little too chilly to be lying around in a state of undress.

My discomfort did not go unnoticed.

"Are you cold?" the masseuse asked.

I'm not sure what gave it away (my chattering teeth? my uniform coverage of goose bumps?), but this lady had figured it out.

"Yes," I answered, and she broke out laughing.

I failed to see what was so funny.

Meanwhile, Eitan was two beds over, and since we were separated only by a few thin pieces of fabric, sound carried perfectly between us.

This convenient fact was not lost on the two massage therapists, and they struck up a conversation.  It must have been a good one because there was a lot of cackling.  Maybe my lady was telling Eitan's about how cold I was.  I couldn't make heads or tails of the language they were speaking, but Eitan later told me it was Kyrgyz.

On top of the incessant yakking, helicopters were continually flying over the spa, giving the building a good shaking and causing even more noise.

The massage itself was also not to my liking.  Forget soft, medium, and hard; this lady was trying to pull the strands of my muscles apart.

When I flinched, of course there was more laughing.  She may have been sadistic, but at least my masseuse enjoyed her work.

Maybe 15 minutes into the ordeal, Eitan's lady asked him if he spoke Russian.

By chance he did speak it, and he admitted as much.

Now we had a three-way conversation going, and I was well and truly over the whole thing.  It's one thing to have a chatty barber, but it's quite another thing to have a chatty masseuse.

I wanted to listen to the orchestral version of "My Heart Will Go On", the saxophone rendition of "Never Gonna Dance Again", and maybe some Enya for good measure.  Is that too much to ask?

Instead, I got half an hour of boisterous banter, a few more helo fly-overs, and several more rounds of "Are you cold?"

When my time was up, I was grateful.

A massage cost $27 for 53 minutes, which at first I thought was a great deal.  After it was over, though, I wasn't so sure.

I settled my bill and tipped 5 bucks.

As I paid, the receptionist flipped open her ledger.

"Shall I put you down for next week?" she asked.

I told her I needed to check my schedule, but I don't think I'll ever go back.

There's nothing like a good massage... and this was nothing like a good massage.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 3)

The Embassy in Kabul is a high priority for the U.S. Government, and many senior diplomats have answered the call to serve here.  In fact, there are multiple ambassadors on the roster.

The compound where we live and work is not a huge place, and I frequently run across the senior leadership.  I see them at work, of course, but I also see them in the cafeteria, in the gym, at the library, randomly on the grounds, at the store, and so forth.

The strangest experience for me, however, was in the laundry mat.  I had a load of wash running and when I came back to move it to the dryer, one of the ambassadors was using the next machine over.  On the awkwardness scale, this seemed about one step better than if the two of us had been using adjacent urinals.  Standing with your underwear in your hand in front of the top brass can have that effect on some people, I suppose.

The encounter was a good reminder, though, that even ambassadors put their pants on one leg at a time.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After a full day of work, I came home and put some Marvin Gaye on the stereo as one does.  Not 20 seconds into "What's Going On?", there was an explosion outside.  My living-room windows were shaking, and for a moment I just stood in place.  The blast sounded close.

"Was the compound hit?" I wondered.

I knew the Marines would be making an announcement soon, and indeed, after a slight delay, the alarms were activated.

"Duck and cover!  Duck and cover!  This is not a drill!  Secure classified information, and seek hardened cover!"

I was already in a reinforced building, so other than getting away from the windows, I didn't need to take any further action.

The sirens and announcements continued for several minutes; Marvin kept it soulful in the background.

"Everyone remain under cover!" the Marine barked.  "RSO [the regional security office] is investigating the blast."

Within minutes, even as the Marine was still talking, details of the explosion appeared on my blackberry.  A suicide bomber had detonated himself 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) from the Embassy.  Twelve lives, including three American, were taken, and nearly 70 people were injured.

After maybe 10 minutes, the all-clear was sounded, and we were instructed to resume normal activity.

To be honest, while it had been startling, I wasn't really shaken by the event.  I was safe in my cocoon.

While I didn't think he was in danger necessarily, I tried to reach Eitan just for peace of mind.

I wouldn't hear back from him for two hours, and he was perfectly fine when we spoke.  From where he was standing when the bomb went off, he was better insulated and it didn't sound very intense to him.  As such, he didn't feel any urgency to call me, and he finished what he was working on before he did.

The explosion itself hadn't jarred me, but the two hours that followed seemed like an eternity.  And this might be the only downside to coming here on assignment with someone else.  Once you realize you yourself haven't been killed or maimed, you still have another person to worry about.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Since my office was running low on paper, I placed an order to get some more.  I logged onto the Embassy's supply catalog and ordered five reams of 8 1/2 x 11 inch white paper - the standard for American offices.  I ordered the magic number of five because that is generally the number of reams in a case.  A few days later, my paper arrived, and it wasn't in a case.  It was five loose reams in a plastic bag.  Not only was the paper not in a case, but each of the reams was a different brand.  Most sizable embassies order copy paper in bulk, probably by the pallet, so I was curious how we came to have a hodgepodge like this.  Besides not matching, the wrapping on each ream was also torn and soiled, leaving me to wonder if perhaps my paper had been wrestled from the Taliban.  While I never did solve the mystery, I found the whole episode fascinating.

Yes, my name is Chris, and I'm a nerd.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 2)

As part of my job, I escort visitors to meetings on the Embassy compound.

One day, I picked up two chaps from the British Embassy, and after we finished the security checks, I led them toward the conference room in which they would be meeting.

"Have you been here before?" I asked.

"Yes, last year," the younger of the two replied.

"Then I think you must have been in the older building," I told him.  "This annex has only been open a few weeks."

"Yes, you must be right," he answered.

"I just remember a very grand atrium," he continued, "and the most amazing assortment of tea and sweets in the political section."

In my experience, a big candy selection is nothing unusual for an American office.  It's not everyday, however, that a Brit is so impressed with the tea assortment that he's still talking about it a year later.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This year, Afghanistan Independence Day, August 19, fell on a Wednesday.

We were sitting in our staff meeting a few days beforehand, half of us American and half Afghan, and the topic of the holiday came up.

The normal workweek at the Embassy is Sunday through Thursday, which gave my boss a thought.

"Are any of you taking off Thursday?" she asked the Afghans.

Staring around at each other, they were clearly confused by the question.

"No, we'll be here," the unofficial leader of the group replied.  "Why do you ask?"

"Well," she answered, "in America, if there is a holiday followed by a workday and then the weekend, people like to take the workday off to have a longer weekend."

She was met by more blank stares.

"That gives you four days off," she continued, "and you only have to use one day of annual leave."

Crickets chirped and tumbleweeds rolled by, and finally one of the Afghans spoke.

"For the weekend, two days is enough," he replied.

To have such little regard for a long weekend was astounding.  Now the Americans were left staring awkwardly around the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Everyone at the Embassy in Kabul must have a job, so many people are forced to leave their spouses and partners behind if they can't get something lined up (or if they aren't interested).  Obviously kids can't come either.  As I've also mentioned a few times, the living quarters here are a lot less comfortable than at most overseas posts.  Many people are living in modified shipping containers.  These two factors - being alone and living in a steel box - account for a lot of grumbling.

I was out at the Duck & Cover one night, and this came up in conversation.

"I feel like people are always trying to give me a guilt trip," I remarked, "because I'm not here alone and because I don't live in a hooch."

I was talking to a colleague with several years of State Department experience under her belt, and she burst out laughing.

"I'm here without my family, and I live in a hooch," she exclaimed, "and I'm having the time of my life!"

As they say about any experience, it's all what you make it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Kabul: Sanitized Chicken

Through the Embassy's "concierge service" it is possible to order fruits, vegetables, meats, and other grocery items for delivery to the Embassy.  Since most employees are not allowed to leave the compound, except periodically for official meetings, this service can be a life saver.

As I was looking over the order form for meat one day, something caught my eye: A product called "sanitized chicken" was available.

I like my chicken juicy... and sanitized.

Naturally, I thought this was curious, and after I posted a picture of the meat list on facebook, it was clear that others were equally interested to know more of this sanitized chicken.

I asked the woman at the concierge desk about it.

"I don't know what it is," she told me.  "It's an American thing."

Being an American myself, I didn't find her explanation to be very helpful.

I kept the chicken question in my mind, however, and whenever I'd pass the desk, I'd glance to see who was on duty.  There was no point in asking the woman again.

A few days after my initial approach, a man was working the counter.

"Can you tell me what sanitized chicken is?" I asked.

"It's your choice, sir," he replied.  "You can have wings, legs..."

"I'm not asking about the cut," I interrupted.  "What makes it sanitized?"

"I don't know," he replied.  "It's an American thing."

Seriously, people?  I was starting to think maybe I'd been overseas too long because I had no clue about this new American craze of sanitized chicken.

Having struck out twice, I noticed a different guy working the concierge desk a few days later.  I was hoping the third time was the charm.

"About this sanitized chicken," I started.  "We don't have that in America. What is it?"

Wisely not wanting to get involved, the clerk passed the buck.

"I think it's best if you talk to my supervisor," he told me.

I was game, so he dialed his boss and handed me the phone.

Still not expecting any resolution, I repeated the same old question yet again: "What is sanitized chicken?"

The man didn't miss a beat.

"It comes from Sri Lanka," he explained. "It's cleaned, cut, frozen, and plastic-wrapped."

In short, sanitized chicken is frozen Sri Lankan supermarket chicken.

Now why didn't I think of that.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 1)

Life on the Embassy compound can be, well, strange.  You are able to live relatively comfortably, but you aren't permitted to venture outside the walls.  Depending on the mood, people sometimes liken it to a college campus, sometimes to a prison.  I've also heard it described as summer camp and as a retirement home, and all of these comparisons somehow work.  Against the fishbowl experience at the Embassy, there is obviously a striking contrast to the rest of the country, a substantial portion of which is an active conflict zone.

It can be easy to lose perspective while living in this bubble, and I got to witness this first-hand one afternoon when one of my colleagues returned to the office slightly miffed.

"Terrible news," he announced.  "The commissary is out of pâté!"

While he seemed genuinely irritated at first, his scowl soon softened into a smirk.  I guess he realized the ridiculousness of the situation.

We all got a laugh over it, but Lord help us if the cocktail onions run out.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Often times, it's the little touches that make the difference.  On my way to the HR annex, one day, I was following one of my Afghan colleagues.  Before he entered the building, he unhooked an air hose from the wall and proceeded to spray the dust off his clothes and shoes.  Kabul in the summertime can be a dusty place, so the air-hose treatment could come in handy for knocking off some grime before a meeting.  Not to mention, the more dust that stays outside the building, the easier everyone inside can breathe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

August 10 was pretty similar to most Mondays here, and with a meeting having just finished, a few people were sitting near my desk chatting.  I wasn't part of the conversation, but I inserted myself.

"Does no one else feel the floor moving?" I asked.

Apparently, no one else did because all I got were some long stares.

"Sometimes the construction outside causes a vibration," someone offered.

For what seemed like a good 10 seconds or so, I felt like I was standing on a massage plate.  Since I was the only one who noticed, I began to wonder if I was imagining things.

I was in fact not going crazy, and soon the office began to shake in its entirety.

No one likes an earthquake, I reckon, but I was happy to be vindicated.

Once it became obvious what was happening, people started scrambling.  The Embassy has contingency plans for all types of scenarios, including earthquakes, but they don't do much good if no one remembers them.

"Do we go outside?" someone asked.

"No, I think we get under the desk," someone else replied.

"Maybe we should go to the hallway!" a third person suggested.

The quake itself, which was centered a few hundred kilometers away near Feyzabad and clocked in with a magnitude between 5.7 and 6.2, only managed to rattle the office for a few seconds.  This was convenient since collectively we were clueless on the emergency procedures.

Once the danger had passed, people went back to chatting almost immediately, but now with a fresh topic: If "The Big One" came, would our first-floor location be our salvation or our doom?

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Kabul: Dining Out: Chang Thai

Following our foray to the cinema, Eitan and I decided to try Chang Thai a few days later.

With high hopes, we walked across the Embassy compound to NATO Base Resolute Support where the restaurant is located.

As we entered the dining room, we weren't exactly sure of the procedures.  Staff were scurrying hither and yon, but no one seemed to pay us any mind.  "Should we seat ourselves?" we wondered.

Unwilling to risk it, we corralled a waitress and asked for a table.

She led us to a central table with a good view of our fellow diners.  There was one other group from the Embassy in a corner, and the rest seemed to be military.  As at the cinema, weapons and camouflage were well represented.

Eitan and I selected some appetizers to share - spring rolls and fish cakes - and I ordered tea.  Then we considered the main courses.  There was a surprising dearth of fish and vegetarian dishes, and Eitan ended up with only a handful of choices.  He settled on a vegetarian curry.

Free from dietary restrictions, I had plenty of options at my disposal.  I had too many choices, perhaps, and all the descriptions in the menu started to sound the same.

"What can you recommend?" I asked the waitress.  "I'll looking for something spicy."

"Go for this one," she replied.  "It's a very nice one."

She was pointing to the jungle curry, and the menu description, "a unique hot Thai country style with vegetables no coconut milk," seemed as good as any.

I took her recommendation and requested that it be extra spicy.

My drink arrived in a few minutes, and within five minutes the rest of our order was on the table.  If nothing else, the service was snappy.

The appetizers were hot and tasty, and Eitan's curry looked respectable.

My curry was less impressive.  It didn't look anything like the picture in the menu, but I suppose that's par for the course in most restaurants these days.  The kicker for me was the "extra spice" I had requested.  On top of my pile of soupy vegetables and chicken, there was a sizable portion of ground black pepper sitting there like a perfectly conical, two-inch high volcano.  The mountain of pepper looked as though the chef had asked someone to pass him the pepper back in the kitchen, and the person with the pepper had decided to play a joke and unscrewed the top first.

Black pepper is a spice, of course, but this was not what I had in mind.  Some chili would have been nice.

Despite the pepper situation, the curry wasn't bad.  It also wasn't anything to write home about (although to be fair, I am in fact writing home about it).  It was pretty middle-of-the-road, and I wouldn't be ordering it again any time soon.

When Eitan and I finished eating, there was more confusion as we figured out the procedure for leaving.  Basically, when you are done, you just go to the cashier station near the exit where you get your receipt and pay.

There is a lot of hype about Chang Thai on the Embassy compound, and some people really gush about the place.  My experience left me scratching my head.  "Is the place genuinely good -- or is it Kabul good?" I asked myself.

The answer to that question depends on whom you ask, of course.  In any case, it's a popular choice for get-togethers, and I've been there several more times with different groups of people.  Working my way through the menu, a fair number of dishes still strike me as lackluster.  At the end of the day, though, it's a welcome change from the cafeteria.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The bottom line on Chang Thai:

Food:

    Tasty
    Mediocre ü
    Bad

Service:

    Attentive ü
    Average
    Lacking

Overall Experience:

    Memorable
    Enjoyable ü
    Passable
    Forgettable
    Regrettable

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Kabul: Milano Cinema

With a limited pool of diversions from which to choose, Eitan and I were in agreement: The best course of action was to space out the fun.

It was this line of thinking that led us to change our evening plans.  We downgraded from dinner and a movie to just a movie.  We would save dining out for another day.

This would be our first foray to Milano Cinema at RS NATO Base, and we were pretty stoked.  Ted 2 was playing, and while neither of us had any strong desire to see it, neither of us had any strong objection either.  Three cheers for indifference!

We had been told on our familiarization tour that Milano Cinema was a "proper cinema" that showed first-run movies, but things aren't always as advertised.

We arrived a few minutes before show time and found a seat on the back row.

The cinema was outfitted with cushioned theater seats, but many of them were damaged or missing.  As a result, every row of plush blue seats was peppered with random metal folding chairs.

Eitan had carried in a Coke Zero in his pocket, but before he popped the tab, I pointed out a sign: "No food or beverages allowed, except water."  Taking note, he left his drink unopened and secured it between his leg and his chair.

People continued trickling in, and by the time the lights were dimmed, the theater was half filled.  It was a pretty good turnout, I thought.

The experience was a bit surreal, for there sat Eitan and I, and all around us were soldiers in camouflage uniforms.  Most of them were carrying weapons, and not just sidearms.  There were plenty of assault rifles too. I guess if the shit hit the fan, we'd be covered.

It also struck me that there were no women present.  There were women on the base itself, but I guess Ted 2 was not a big draw.

At the appointed time, the projectionist entered the room -- with his laptop.  After a brief moment of cable connecting and menu navigating, he started the show.  Much to our surprise, he actually played some previews before getting on to the main attraction.

As the show flickered on the screen, under cover of darkness, I could hear some familiar sounds - the pop of a soda can here, the crinkling of a bag of chips there.  Yes, friends, it was the sound of snacking.  I guess everyone else had overlooked the sign banning food and drink.

The film quality waxed and waned, giving us the impression that maybe this was more of an online bootleg than a first-run master copy, but the crowd certainly didn't mind.

Maybe because of the conditions - both the combat outside the gates and the restrictions and boredom within - these guys really seemed eager to enjoy themselves.  The laughs were hearty and abundant, and in many cases, they seemed disproportionate to what was happening on the screen.  Then again, maybe the demographics in the room just suited the movie to a T.

Despite the lowbrow and raunchy humor, I too enjoyed the movie, and like the soldiers, I had some laughs.

There was even one soldier on the left side of the room who seemed to share my sense of humor.  In one scene, for example, the heroes are camping in the wilderness, and the young lady among them starts singing and playing a guitar.  In cheesy Disneyesque fashion, the singing is so captivating that forest animals start to gather around.  A deer stops by.  A raccoon rolls up.  A chipmunk appears.  After five or six other animals mosey in, however, the gag starts to wear thin.  The laughs in the theater pretty much dried up.  Then a trout leaps onto the riverbank to enjoy the music, and there were precisely two laughs in the entire theater - from me and the man on the left.

I guess it's true: There's one in every crowd (or in this case two)!

Monday, August 03, 2015

Kabul: Breaking Bread

A week into my term in Kabul, I had my first taste of Afghan food, or more correctly, I had my first taste of Afghan food inside Afghanistan.  Everyone in my office gets together for lunch once a month, and on this occasion, we had voted for local fare.

Being the experts, the Afghans in our office selected the dishes, and we ended up with a fine assortment of items.  Afghan cuisine is influenced by Iran, Pakistan and India, Central Asia, and even China, so we had the regional palate on our plates.

a nice spread

There was a momentary stalemate because no one wanted to be first in the food line, but that problem was soon resolved.  It was decided that my colleague who would be leaving post a few days later should have the honor.

Naturally, there was some chit-chat while we ate.  It was general office banter at first, but then I changed that with a simple question.

"Did you grow that beard just for Afghanistan?" I asked one of my American colleagues.

"Sort of," he replied.  "I used to have a smaller beard, but I let it go wild when I came out here."

He definitely had a big beard, but the ironic thing was that of all the Afghans present, none had anything even approaching that amount of facial hair.  A couple had small beards; two had rugged stubble, and one was clean-shaven.  It would seem that growing a big beard wouldn't go very far if one was trying to "blend in" - at least not in Kabul city.  A bushy beard might play better in the sticks, though.

My beard question then evolved into something more.

"You know," one Afghan colleague commented, "during the time of the Taliban, men had to have a beard."

"If you didn't have one, they would lock you in jail until you grew one."

"It's funny," another replied.  "They supported very big beards, but that is not even in accordance with Islam.  A proper Muslim beard should only be one fist-length from the chin."

One of the female Afghans shyly joined the conversation.

"I was fortunate," she said. "During Taliban rule, my family relocated to Pakistan. I didn't have to deal with it."

Several others had been in similar situations.  They had spent all or most of their time in Pakistan during the Taliban's tenure.

One colleague, however, had remained in Afghanistan with his family throughout the darkest of days.

"It was such a terrible time," he recounted.  "I remember when I was a small boy, I went with my uncle to the stadium.  We watched the public executions together.  They had taken away all the sports and activities by then, so the executions were our only amusement."

One of the others who only spent sporadic time in Afghanistan under the Taliban added to the narrative.

"I remember when I would come to visit my relatives in Afghanistan, the bodies of those who had been executed would be on display in the town.  It was usually for three days, I think."

"As a warning to others?" I asked.

"No, it was done for entertainment," he replied.  "You could even throw a stone at the body if you liked."

Another colleague added a different perspective.  "They displayed the bodies in case you missed the execution.  It was like recording a TV show to watch later."

The poignant conversation lasted for several minutes, and very soon after it started, every last fork was grounded.  I guess it's hard to eat when you've got a lump in your throat.

The conversation soon changed course, however, to the sad state of affairs in modern Afghanistan.  Violence and poverty were bringing everyone down, and leaving many with the desire to escape.  Hope was in short supply.

While discussing the matter of poverty, one colleague touched on unemployment.

"Most people can't find a job," he explained, "and it puts a big burden on those who do have jobs."

"I am supporting 15 people with my paycheck."

All the Afghans present had similar stories, and in the worst example, one young man was directly supporting 19 family members.

The issue of family support was a key consideration for those thinking about relocating to the States under the SIV program.  Most realized they would face a difficult time starting from scratch in the U.S. and this would have a direct impact on the amount of support they would be able to provide to family back home.

This had really turned into a heavy lunch.

People had gradually begun eating again after we moved past the discussion of executions, and a few people were ready for seconds.  I soon joined the clean-plate club myself.

For dessert, we had fresh mangoes and the American contribution, brownies.

A few of us Yanks began skinning and slicing our mangoes on our plates.

The Afghans have a different method, however.  They simply run a knife around the equator of the mango, as deep as the seed.  Then hold each end and twist.  When the mango separates in two, one half will have the seed projecting from it, and the other will form a little cup, ready to be spooned out.

Several of the Americans embraced this "novel" approach, but I wasn't so quick to jump on the band wagon.

Using the Afghan method, a lot of flesh clings to the seed, which either requires gnawing or cutting it off if you don't want to waste it.  Therein lies the problem for me: I don't enjoy sucking on mango seeds.

After dessert, we started cleaning up.  Some of the food for our feast had arrived in small clay pots, and a handful of these pots were sitting on the table.

Afghan take-away food

"Does anyone want these?" one of the Afghans asked.  "They are included with the food, and I already have plenty at home."

"What a novel concept!" I thought to myself.

In my travels around the world, I had paid good money for pots like these, and here in Afghanistan they were free like a styrofoam box.  I used one as a doggie bag and loaded it with mantu and stewed okra for later.

There had been plenty of cross-cultural exchange during this lunch, and for me the little clay pot was the perfect parting shot.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Kabul: The Grand Compound Tour

Once a week at the Embassy, at least during the transfer season, the morale office organizes a familiarization tour of the compound and the neighboring NATO base, Resolute Support (RS).

The tour takes about two hours and covers more than three miles, and Eitan and I joined the first one that came up.

The rally point was just outside our apartment, near one of the Embassy's cafes, so we didn't have far to go.  There were maybe a dozen other people on our tour.

Since the tour had only just begun, we didn't stop for refreshments at the cafe.  Looking in the windows, however, you could definitely tell that we were on a compound with a lot of military and law-enforcement types.  There were way more jugs of protein powder than you'd find at your average Starbucks.

Once the tour kicked off, we checked out all that the West Side had to offer - two gyms, the cafeteria, the cafe, the beach volleyball pit (which is surprising popular with our Afghan employees), the fire pit, the pool, and the office buildings.  Then we crossed over to the East Side.

There is some east/west overlap going on with both sides sporting a cafeteria, a fire pit, and some gyms, but the East Side has several unique offerings of its own.  The East Side, for example, has a bar, a kebab stand, and a little shopping mall.  Inside the mall, there is a barber shop, a jeweler, an antiques store, and an Italian commissary.

The East Side also has a pizzeria, for which everyone on the tour was excited.

Having been constructed from a shipping container, most of the space in the pizzeria is occupied by the kitchen.  Because of this, only walk-up counter service is possible.

The wall of the pizzeria is plexiglas, allowing a view into the kitchen, and when we walked up, I wished there had been an opaque wall instead.

There stood the pizza chef, right in front of the window, engaged in a prolonged and hearty below-the-belt scratching session.  I can only assume he was dealing with a very serious itch.

If this was his reaction to a crowd of people walking up, I couldn't help but wonder what happened in the booth when no one was watching.  Sometimes an open kitchen is not a good thing.

With my appetite thoroughly quelled, we continued our tour.  We had seen all that the Embassy had to offer, and now it was time to behold the wonders of RS.

Before we entered the RS compound, our tour guide gave us handy dandy maps as well as a quick once-over to make sure our outfits were up to standards. There are several dress code rules at RS - no open-toed shoes, no short skirts, no athletic gear unless you are actively engaged in sport, no sheer clothing, etc - but none of us were in violation.

There are many nationalities represented at RS, and I rather enjoyed trying to identify all the different flags.  Many of the different groups have their own mini-compounds on the base, and some have some real flair.  The Dutch building, for example, has a nice seating area with a mural and a wooden windmill.  The Nordic states joined forces, and their building is named The Nordic Palace.  It has a tree growing through the porch.  The Italians have a lot of influence on the base, I'd say, as evidenced by things like the Italian PX, Milano Street, and the Coliseum Gym.

According to the list on the RS website (updated May 31, 2015), the full list of participating nations includes the following:

Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States.  Of those nations, the top troop contributors at RS (in descending order) are the U.S., Georgia, Germany, Romania, Turkey, Italy, the UK, and Australia.  The award for smallest contingent goes to Luxembourg, represented by a single serviceman.

In short, it's a pretty diverse crowd.

In addition to the aforementioned Italian PX, there is also an American PX.  (PX, by the way, stands for "post exchange", which is military talk for general store.)

Before we popped into the American PX to have a look, our guide gave us a brief introduction.

"Basically, all they have in here is junk food," she told us.  "If we're lucky today, they'll have Tostitos; those are a hot item."

We filed into the PX, and our guide's assessment had been right on the money.  Other than a few bath towels, some toiletries, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco, the shelves were predominantly filled with junk food, sodas, and Red Bull.

Holding onto hope, our guide rushed over the chip section and started moving Doritos out of the way.

"There might be some Tostitos buried in the back!" she exclaimed.

Everyone has certain things they miss overseas, and apparently for her, one such thing was the humble tortilla chip.  Unfortunately, on this occasion the cupboard was bare.

In addition to the two PXs, RS has a few more highlights - a chapel, a spa, a pizzeria, a cafe with sheesha, a Thai restaurant, a modest cinema, a tranquil garden area, a video-gaming room, different sports facilities (including a stadium), a permanent row of souvenir shops, and a temporary market every Friday.

Once we finished at RS, the tour concluded, and the crowd dispersed.

It had been a great orientation, and with RS now added to the mix, my universe in Kabul had pretty much doubled in size.

For some reason, though, I was really craving Tostitos.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Kabul: Moving In

A mere three days after I arrived to Kabul, my household effects were ready for delivery.  As a point of reference, my delivery of household effects took two and a half months when I arrived to Ethiopia from Norway.  Usually the wait time is somewhere between these two examples, but, in any case, three days is pretty darn impressive.

A big part of the reason for the quick delivery is the fact that U.S. Embassy shipments to Kabul go by air.  For most other countries you have a combination of land and sea transportation.  In addition, the customs clearance process in Kabul is pretty expeditious.  In some places, this step is a major bottleneck.

To avoid warehousing fees as much as possible, the Embassy's shipping office arranged for me to receive my shipment as soon as it was released by the Afghan government.  Having lived out of a suitcase for two months while in between assignments, I was more than happy to receive my belongings as soon as possible.

At the appointed time, I met the movers and inspected the seals on my crates.  Everything seemed to be in order, except there was one crate I didn't recognize.  It stuck out because it was a big blue blog.  Apparently the owner of this package had loaded things into a plastic tarp and then wrapped the whole mess in shrink wrap.

As it turned out, the mystery blog belonged to a colleague who had also transferred from Addis to Kabul at roughly the same time as I had.  So, it was in the right place at least.

Once we sorted out that little detail, the movers busted open my crates and stacked all the cardboard boxes that were inside on the sidewalk outside my apartment building.

"You've got too much stuff!" the Embassy's move coordinator told me.  Let's call him Jackson.

Jackson was absolutely correct about my glut of boxes, but there was nothing to be done about it.  The sad part was that my shipment only represented half the total for the apartment.  Eitan's equally loaded shipment was soon to follow.

In case I was feeling self-conscious about my situation, which I wasn't, Jackson attempted to put it into perspective.

"We had a delivery last week for people on the 5th floor," he told me, "and they had even more boxes than you!"

"Do you know Mr. Samson?" and continued.  "I think he's with USAID."

In fact I did know Samson, but I didn't admit it.  I was just thinking about how next week, Jackson would probably be reassuring people who packed too much that at least they weren't as bad off as Mr. Chris.  Ha ha.

As Jackson chatted and my boxes were assembled like the Great Wall of China along the sidewalk, an ominous thunderhead was darkening the sky.

"Shall we go ahead and take these inside?" I asked.

Not wanting to bring a pile of soaking wet boxes into my apartment, I was trying to move things along.

Jackson was the supervisor, so he deftly manned the clipboard.  His two sidekicks were the brawn, and they started loading the boxes onto a cart.

Their cart had seen better days, and one wheel in particular was really suffering.  When the cart was fully loaded, the bum wheel curled inward and gave the appearance it was ready to snap off completely.  With this unfortunate situation, the only way the cart could be used was for one of the men to stoop down and hold the wheel in place for the entire time the cart was in use.

It took five trips to transfer my boxes upstairs, and during this time, Jackson continued to fill the silence.

"Where are you from in the U.S.?" he asked me.

"Tennessee," I answered.

"Tennessee?" he replied, rolling through the syllables so slowly that the word was barely recognizable.

"Yes," I told him.

Then I offered my usual landmark.

"I'm not sure if this will mean anything to you," I continued, "but it's famous for a whiskey called Jack Daniels."

I had decided to qualify my remark as such because Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, and alcohol is officially prohibited.  This turned out not to be an issue, however.

"Amazing!" Jackson responded.  "I love Jack Daniels, but it's very expensive on the black market."

This kid was alright!

"We are also famous for music," I told him.  "Country, jazz, blues, gospel, Elvis Presley."

Jackson was enchanted by this magical place, Tennessee, and he wanted to know more.

"Can you show me where it's located?" he asked.

Happy to oblige, I drew a crude map of the U.S. and inserted Tennessee in the southeast roughly where it resides.

Studying the map for a moment, Jackson pointed to the Pacific Northwest.

"Here," he said.  "When I get my SIV, I will go here."

Recognizing that Afghanistan is a dangerous place in general and that being affiliated with the U.S. Government can put locals in a really tough spot, the State Department has a program in place whereby Afghans who serve the USG honorably for at least one year can apply for a special immigrant visa which allows them to relocate to the States.  So many Afghans aspire for the SIV -- from U.S. Military translators to U.S. Embassy drivers -- there is a backlog of applications.  The program also results in considerable turnover at the Embassy.

In any case, like so many others, Jackson had fallen under the spell of the SIV.

"What would you do there?" I asked him.

"To be honest," he replied, "I'm not really sure."

"My brother lives in Portland, so I can stay with him for a while."

"I don't know much about the place," he admitted.

"Me neither," I told him, "except that it's famous for books and beer, and a bit of rain."

In the meantime, the other two guys were clowning around with my boxes.  One was lifting an odd-shaped package (that contained a wood carving) over his head like a strong man, and the other was playing a wrapped up broom like it was a guitar.  It was nice to see the enjoyment they got from their work.

Once all the boxes were safely inside, I signed my name thrice on the shipping documents, and the movers departed.

Then I began the task - equally exciting and exhausting - of unpacking my treasures.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Kabul: First Impressions

Despite my forced overnight layover in Dubai, I was tired by the time I got to the airport to catch my flight to Kabul.  My hotel had been nice enough, but I just couldn’t get comfortable.

Eitan would be following me to Kabul in three days, so for the time being, I was on my own.

As I sat at the gate waiting for the boarding announcement for my flight, I had picked a terrible spot indeed.  There were three ladies sitting in my vicinity, and not five minutes after I had joined them, all of their toddlers erupted.  Clearly it was nap time as each of these tykes tried to out-scream the others.  The girl in the cow-spotted dress was winning by a nose.

In hindsight, I should have relocated, but I kept telling myself that this ruckus couldn’t persist indefinitely.  I stand corrected.  Well played, kids.  Well played.

When boarding finally commenced, I squeezed on the bus with the heaving masses and we lumbered toward the plane.  The bus stopped planeside after a few minutes, and the crush of people gradually shifted toward the doors.  Twenty minutes later, we were still held captive, and the A/C on the bus had long since expired.  The humane thing to do would have been to leave us in the terminal until the plane was fully prepped, but what’s the fun in that?

When we were finally released, everyone staggered into the breeze, blinking at the midday sun.  Free at last!

As I found my place on the plane, I got a bit of good news.  I had an aisle seat, and the middle seat to my left was empty.  What luck!

I was out like a light before the safety briefing even started, and I dozed through take-off.

I was fully prepared to sleep for the entire three-hour journey, but I ended up waking after 30 minutes.  This was mostly due to hypothermia.

You could practically see your breath on this plane, and no one seemed to be enjoying it very much.  Ladies were pulling their head scarves close, and some of the gents who were wearing keffiyehs, turbans, and other specialized headdresses unwound them and used them as wraps – either for themselves or for their seatmates.  Everyone was fiddling with the air nozzles in the ceiling, but it was for naught.  The Arctic air was flowing from the main vents, and there was seemingly no stopping it.

“Can I have a blanket?” I asked a flight attendant.

“Sorry, bro,” he responded.  “We don’t have any.”

His informality was refreshing, I suppose, but a blanket would have been nice.  This was yet another selling point for flying on a budget airline.

This steward, by the way, looked more like a bartender than a flight attendant.

As we neared Kabul, the pilot gave us a warning.  Kabul city is ringed by mountains, and when there is any significant wind, it tends to bounce around the basin and give planes a good shaking.  This is precisely what transpired.

Everyone strapped in, and we prepared for final descent.  Then we circled the city for half an hour waiting for a chance to land.

From elevation, Kabul looked as scenic and manicured as any city, the mountains majestic and the communities orderly.  I lamented that I would never get to see either up close.

When the pilot eventually found his sweet spot, we rattled our way down to a perfect landing.

Once we reached the gate, I was struck by something: This was the first flight I could recall where everyone waited for the seatbelt sign to fade before leaping out of their seats.

After a short bus ride, we reached the terminal, complete with all the typical arrival formalities.

Passport control and customs were a breeze, and my bags arrived no worse for the wear.

I caught a chopper over to the Embassy, and a few hours after my plane had landed, I got my first glimpse of the compound.

My sponsor met me at the main gate and showed me to my apartment.

As we walked, she explained things about the Embassy.  The way the compound is laid out, there is a logical east-west divide.  Owing to this virtue, my sponsor was going on and on about east-this and west-that.

"All this talk reminds me of New York," I told her.  "You've got your East Side and your West Side."

"Is there an Upper East Side?" I asked.

"Ha!" she replied.  "It's more like the west side of the compound is Manhattan, and the east side is Jersey."

She was taking a bit of a risk to Jersey-bash in front of a stranger, but having no dog in the fight myself, I didn't mind.

Her jab at the east side wasn't isolated either.  Other colleagues have referred to it as "the ghetto" and other colorful names.  Similarly, I've been ribbed by some (who are jealous, of course) for landing a (relatively) posh apartment on the west side.

My first evening, I wasn't hungry, but I went to the dining hall just to have a look.

I've since eaten in the cafeteria every day, and I personally think it's pretty good - or as good as you might expect given the circumstances.  That said, trash-talking about the cafeteria seems to be a favorite pastime around here.

To me, eating at the cafeteria is about like eating at Golden Corral.  While people tend to get tired of it over time, the food is generally recognizable, varied, tasty, and tailored to the American palate.  It's not like a grade-school cafeteria with chili mac and mystery meat.

For lunches and dinners, there are usually 4 or 5 hot entrees and several hot sides.  Everyday, there is also a sandwich station, a salad bar, a grill station with burgers and the like, a dessert counter, and a beverage cooler with sodas, sports drinks, juices, and milk.  The juices and milk are in single-serve boxes, and I always feel like there should be some Capri Sun there as well.  Ha ha.

Breakfast is similar with hot entrees and sides, cereals, a fruit bar, an omelet station, and more.

There are also theme events at the cafeteria like, for example, Mongolian barbeque night, seafood night, and Taco Tuesday.

The beauty of the system is that you can tailor your diet as you like -- and people do.  You might see someone walking out of the cafeteria with a mountain of desserts that would make Augustus Gloop blush, followed by someone toting carrot shavings and non-fat yogurt.

For those in need of guidance, the cafeteria even provides useful signs to help customers distinguish between “high performance” and “low performance” foods.  In case you were wondering, macaroni salad is a low performer.

use with caution! :)

Sometimes in the cafeteria, there can be a language barrier.  Once I was ordering a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.  I could sense that the server was confused, and, sure enough, he handed me a bowl of chunky sausage gravy.  I decided this was a sign from above, though, and I had him toss a biscuit on top and scrapped the oatmeal completely.

On another occasion, there was an even bigger language problem going on at the dessert case.  Eitan had since arrived to Kabul, and he and I watched the shenanigans with much delight.

The first customer walked up.

“I’ll have a slice of PEE-can pie!” he shouted.  He seemed to be channeling Yosemite Sam.

The server went to work behind the counter and emerged with the order.  As he handed it over, Yosemite Sam bristled.

“This ain’t PEE-can pie,” he told him.  “This is pumpkin!”

The server was willing to make amends, but Yosemite took the pumpkin pie and left.

About three minutes later, customer number 2 entered the fray.

“What cookies do you have today?” he asked.

The server was fumbling around, so the customer decided to help him out.

“The round things on the bottom self,” he told him.

Eitan and I were cracking up.

The next guy was in need of ice cream.

“Two scoops of vanilla,” he said with a smile.  He also held up two fingers for good measure.

Making up in courtesy for what he lacked in efficiency, the server responded with a flourish.  “Yes, sir,” he replied, “right away!”

Then he went to work in the cooler and handed the ice cream to the man.

“I think this is praline,” he grumbled.

Strike one, strike two, strike three for the dessert guy.

As much as we were enjoying the show, Eitan and I had finished eating by now, and we headed for the door.

An apple pie dispute was brewing as we passed into the balmy night.