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.

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