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 blob.  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 blob 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.