Saturday, February 27, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 6)

I like some pungent foods, and my colleague, Archibald, was happy to indulge my stinky tooth.  Or perhaps he was trying to challenge me.

In any case, when he returned from his first vacation, he came bearing a jar of Cambodian fish paste.  To help ensure there was no accidental leakage on the plane, it was wrapped up tightly in about 15 plastic bags secured with rubber bands, in addition to the plastic jar itself.  When I finally peeled open all the layers and revealed the paste inside, it didn't look like a paste at all.  It was a chunky mess of fermented fish parts, and while it wasn't totally revolting, if it had been drawn as a cartoon, it would definitely merit some stink lines.  When I added it to recipes, however, it did contribute a nice flavor.

A few months later, Archibald returned from another vacation, and this time he brought me another treat - durian candy from Thailand.  Durian fruit is said to taste like heaven and smell like hell, and it's pretty polarizing.  People either love it or hate it, and there's not much middle ground.  I like durian, so the candy was well-received.

Archibald had given me the candy in the office, so I ate a few pieces, sealed the bag with a binder clip, and put it in my desk.  Everyday I would eat a few more pieces, and curiously, the smell seemed to intensify each time.  One afternoon, I cracked open the bag, and the smell wafted around the office.  Archibald could see what I was doing, so he knew what was happening.  The rest were clueless.

"What's that smell?" my other colleagues pondered.

The next day, the smell was more aggressive still.

I cracked open the bag around 2 PM, and outside the door, some workmen caught a whiff.

"Do you smell that?" one asked the other.  "I think there's a gas leak!"

I can't be sure they were smelling the durian, but it wouldn't be a stretch.  I closed it up.

A day later, I pulled out my stash of durian once again.  It was smelling roughly 22% riper than the day before.

Archibald was there as I opened it, along with my colleagues Jeb and Phoenix.

Phoenix and Archibald were laughing about the slightly obnoxious stench, and then something unexpected happened: Jeb ran out of the office dry heaving.

"What was that about?" Phoenix asked.

Opinions were mixed as to whether Jeb was being a drama queen or if the durian smell was truly making him gag.

In any case, I knew the gig was up.  You can't keep doing something in the office that might make your colleagues puke, so I took my toxic candy home and ate the rest in peace.


Language can be difficult, and sometimes, well-meaning expressions can go awry - and comically so.

As I was sitting in my office one morning, someone sneezed in the hallway.

In nearly every language there is a response to a sneeze, and one of our Afghan janitors gave it a try in English:

"Blast you!" he proudly shouted.

An American colleague was in the hall, and he quickly intervened.

"You shouldn't say that," he corrected.  "I think you mean, 'bless you!'"

We've all had some foreign language slips, and it was a good learning opportunity for the janitor.  But mostly, it gave us a good laugh to start the day.


Here at the Embassy, there is an office charged with keeping morale on the compound high, and this office has money.  It organizes events for nearly every holiday.  It hosts movie nights and market days.  And best of all, it will support events conceived by members of the community.  For example, if you want to host a Black History Month party for the community and you need some cash, you can submit a proposal.  If you want to conduct a bedazzling workshop and you need some money for supplies, you can submit a proposal.  I'm not sure of the exact criteria, but I think that most events that are fully inclusive and well organized get serious consideration.

There are a wide variety of events that are hosted or sponsored by this office, but the best by far, in my humble opinion, was my friend Antoinette's cocktail class.  This class was open to the community, but due to logistical constraints, participation was limited to like twenty or thirty people.

Eitan and I made the cut, and we reported for duty, ready to channel our inner bartenders.

Antoinette had arranged the training room with high-top cafe tables, with four people at each table.

The ingredients were all prepped beforehand with enough to make four cocktails on each table.  So, for example, there might be a small dish with 4 or 5 tablespoons of lemon juice if the recipe for a single cocktail called for 1 tablespoon of lemon juice.

Once the crowd assembled, there were a few youngsters on the front row.

"Do we get to drink the cocktails?" one asked.

"Of course!" Antoinette replied.

These two guys were some of our Marine Security Guards, which means they could have been as young as 18 years old.  No one was carding at the cocktail class, though.  Besides that, the old saying certainly holds water, at least for me, that someone willing to die for his country should be allowed to have a drink of alcohol.

By the way the guys smiled and blushed when they learned they could drink, however, I suspect they probably were underage.

Antoinette formally welcomed the Marines and the rest of her eager pupils, and then class was in session.

Our first cocktail of the evening was the Mary Pickford - a delightful combination of white rum, fresh pineapple juice, grenadine, and Maraschino liqueur.  We were each provided with a cleaned-out iced-tea jar from the cafeteria to use as a shaker, and we loaded up our ingredients.  As we did, Antoinette gave us tips on our technique, information on the ingredients, and some history about the cocktail itself.  The Mary Pickford, for example, was named after the Canadian-American film star in the 1920s.

Once we had our ingredients loaded up, Antoinette gave us the order to shake.  She had emphasized the need to shake our cocktails sufficiently and vigorously, and to make sure no one was cutting corners, she timed us.  One minute doesn't sound like much, but sixty seconds of forceful shaking can start to feel like a workout.

After the shaking came our reward.  We poured our drinks into our glasses and tasted our handiwork.

Everyone at my table was pleased.  Well, nearly everyone was.

"It's OK," my friend Harriett said, "but I really don't like Maraschino juice."

We took 15 or 20 minutes to savor our Mary Pickfords, cleaned up our stations, and prepped for the next cocktail: The Bee's Knees.

For the Bee's Knees, we combined gin, lemon, and honey in our shakers, waited for Antoinette's signal, and got our arms pumping.

Then we filled our glasses again and raised a toast.  Once again, only 75% of our table was satisfied.

"I just don't care for honey," Harriett announced.

This was a bit ironic because honey was a crucial part of the cocktail.  During the Prohibition era, honey and citrus were liberally added to mask the bad taste of "bathtub gin".

Half an hour later, we moved on to our final cocktail, the classic Whisky Sour.

The recipe for this one included bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and fresh egg white.  As we were prepping, the first guy at our table, Jefferson, poured nearly the whole bowl of egg whites into his shaker, far exceeding the recommended dose.  Consequently, the rest of us barely got any.

We carried on as best we could and joined the one-minute chorus of shaking.

When we finished, Jefferson's cocktail looked like a milkshake it was so frothy.  The rest of us had considerably less head on our Whisky Sours.

We toasted and had a sip, and the three of us turned to Harriett to see what her reaction might be this time.

Harriett knew that all eyes were on her, and she didn't disappoint.

"Bourbon isn't my thing," she told us.  "I wish we had made a Gin Fizz instead."

We all had a laugh about it.  Harriett was three for three.

With the formal part of the class completed, we all got the opportunity to make a final cocktail.  Antoinette unveiled a variety of bitters with flavors ranging from chocolate to crawfish boil.  We students were invited to remake any of the drinks we especially liked, to try the cocktails with different bitters added, or to go free-style.

At this point, we mingled with the rest of the students in the class, thanked Antoinette for her initiative, and sipped away on our cocktails.  And for the first time that evening, Harriett found something to her liking.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 5)

In Afghanistan (and probably in other "hot spots" around the world) there is a so-called fighting season.  The Afghanistan fighting season is basically year round, save for the heart of winter.  Terrorists and insurgents are people too, and I suppose nobody wants to trudge through snow to shot someone or place a bomb.  Besides the discomfort involved, there are also less targets available in winter since people tend to hunker down more in bad weather.

This issue came up while we were in a staff meeting one day.  It was December -- at a time when fighting season would normally be over.  This year, winter in Kabul was very mild, with only a dusting of snow on a few different days.  There wasn't much rain either, nor was it especially cold.  In short, fighting season never ended, and December was a particularly bloody month.

"We sure are hoping for some snow soon," one of my Afghan colleagues remarked.

"It must look nice," an American colleague innocently replied.

"To be honest," the Afghan replied, "I only like the snow for the security."

"Look at what's happening in Kabul these days because there's no snow."

I think it's a pretty fascinating example of the interconnectedness of our world.  At least in part because of global warming or El NiƱo or whatever else caused this year's warm winter, there was an increase in conflict deaths in Kabul.


With dinner having concluded one night, some friends and I were sitting around the table talking.  As the night wore on, the topics of conversation danced freely between the serious, the silly, and the mundane.  At one point, we started talking about fitness.

Early on, one friend made an observation.

"Seriously," he told us, "I see so many people in the gym who are just wasting their time."

This prompted a few anecdotes from some of the others about half-assed workouts they had observed.

My friend who had opened this avenue of discussion then went on to outline his vigorous fitness regime and the results he had achieved.

"I've lost 20 pounds in five months," he offered.

There are many fitness high achievers here in Kabul for a few reasons.  People have time on their hands for starters, and there are also less distractions.  For example, most people with family obligations can't afford to workout two hours a day.  In a place like Kabul, however, where you come without your family, that's not a problem.

In contrast to the high achievers, you naturally have some lower achievers as well - the people who use the 3-pound pink weights, the people who walk on the treadmill, the people who barely break a sweat - and these were the ones being mocked.  This didn't sit well with me.  Not everyone goes to the gym to get a six pack or to drop a dress size or to train for a triathlon.  My own motivation for going to the gym is to keep my current wardrobe in play and to keep some of my medical metrics in check.  My workout is pretty low intensity, and, reminiscent of my friend's comment, I was indeed once told that my workout was a joke.

No personal offense had been intended by the conversation, but offense was taken nonetheless.

I should have ignored it and moved on, but instead I took the low road.

"Twenty pounds in five months isn't that amazing," I responded.

My comment was snarky, bitter, and not even true (for losing 20 pounds in five months is actually pretty impressive), and it didn't go unnoticed.

"It's better than you could do!" my friend retorted, his gaze dripping with venom.

An awkwardness now loomed over the table, and the party dissolved soon thereafter.

Instead of taking a stand for the less-driven, overweight, and stiff-jointed, I had made an ass of myself.

Check, please.


There are numerous stray cats on the Embassy compound, and there is a team of employees who offer their time and treasure to feed and look after them.  The team names the cats as well with colorful monikers like Bossypants, Sweetums, and Gordo.

While they are indeed feral, many of the cats have become habituated to humans, and a few are actually somewhat charming.

One evening, Eitan and I walked out of our apartment building to find a cat loudly meowing in the flowerbed.  Maybe it was Winston or perhaps Hank; I have no idea who is who.

I meowed back, and the cat ran over to us like a puppy dog.

We continued walking and I would occasionally meow to the cat.  He followed us over half the compound, walking a respectful pace behind.  He didn't try any of that weaving between the legs nonsense.  He just followed us.

I thought his response was pretty impressive, but Eitan wasn't of the same mind.

"Stop encouraging him," he chided.

The novelty was wearing off in any case, so I complied with Eitan's request and stopped "encouraging" the cat.  This was a smart cat to be sure, though, and as soon as I stopped playing with him, he disappeared.