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:


    Mediocre ü


    Attentive ü

Overall Experience:

    Enjoyable ü

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.