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.


Anonymous said...

Another good read!! Hope your time in Afghanistan is safe and boring as all get out...Don't need too much excitement over in that part of the world...Aunt Angela

Justin Black said...

I'm glad the gift bottles made it safely. I was holding my breath reading about all those security checks!

Ollie and Floyd said...

Wonderful to hear about your latest adventure! Good luck and stay safe!

Anonymous said...

Nice story Chris!!
Keep your head down!

Anonymous said...

Chris, you're a great writer! Glad you made it safely to Kabul. Looking forward to reading more adventures. Jen B (remember Oslo...?)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant as usual but what about the 2 bottles - wasn't there some "sharing" of your gift....miss you bunches - Big hugs sm

Don said...

Loved the account of your arrival in Kabul. Glad to see you writing again. Missed your blogs. Its been a long time between them. Good luck on this tour.
Cheers, Don

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris! So great to hear you have landed and are well into your tour! Please look up Antonette and Jeff Schroeder -- good friends from Kathmandu. We also are big fans of Ambassador McKinley, from our Kampala days. Thanks for your service and stay safe throughout. We would be happy to hear that the biggest danger you might face would be an excess of the cafeteria's macaroni and cheese! Come see us again in St. Pete when you are home.
Cheers, Karen and Tom

Unknown said...

Hi, Chris,

It is so much fun to read the story....
Be safe and best wishes from Sook and Edwin!
God speed!

I am already waiting for your next story...
Thank you for sharing your great adventure!

Ray P. said...


Loved your Agustus Gloop reference. "Stop, wait, come back."

Be safe.

Ray P.

LeeAnn said...

Chris-So glad you are still enjoying your grand adventure! Good to know you are well! Blessings to you from TN.