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.

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