Sunday, May 08, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 8)

At one of our weekly staff meetings, one of my Afghan colleagues had recently returned to work after an absence of probably ten days.  His father had broken his hip, and my colleague, the son, had taken time off to help him get treatment.

There was considerable interest in the incident among the rest of the staff, so he told us what had happened.

"It was really terrible," he began.  "My father fell in the middle of the night, and he was in so much pain."

"I took him to the hospital by taxi, but actually, it was no use."

"Why not?" we asked.

"Unfortunately," he explained, "there was no one there who could help."

"We waited for hours, and still no one helped us.  My father was really suffering."

"So," we prompted, "what happened?"

"In these situations," he told us, "there is only one thing you can do: Go to Pakistan."

They loaded up his father in an ambulance and began driving to Peshawar by way of Jalalabad.  This is a journey of five hours under the best conditions, but for his father who was jostling around in the back with an untreated broken hip, it must have been hell.

"Did you have visas?" my boss asked.

"Actually, it wasn't necessary," he replied.  "If you are in an ambulance you can cross the border without the visa."

All the Americans in the meeting found this system to be most curious.

"Once we got inside Pakistan," he continued, "a surgeon finally helped my father, thanks God."

After the injury was stabilized and his father was comfortable, they waited several days more in Pakistan for him to regain his strength.  Then they began the drive back to Kabul.

"By the time we left Pakistan," he told us, "my father was feeling pretty good."  "Actually, we could have easily returned by taxi."

"And did you?" we asked.

"Of course not," he replied.  "We still didn't have visas, so we hired an ambulance for the ride back."

Even the Afghans in the room saw the humor in this, and everyone cracked up.  It would seem there was a loophole in Afghanistan-Pakistan border security that you could literally drive a truck through.

Apparently, however, this situation was also on the radars of Afghan and Pakistani officials, and a few months after the great hip caper, the ambulance border exception was closed --- at least officially.


At Embassy Kabul, the American employees (who are typically on one-year assignments) get a reduced shipment of household effects.  Even with this reduced shipment, however, I still managed to bring more than enough cargo to fill my apartment.

That said, I still ended up leaving a few key items behind, and one day, I found myself in need of a Phillips head screwdriver.  A few of my dining room chairs had legs that were so loose, I knew it was only a matter of time before one collapsed and someone (quite possibly me) busted his butt.

Rather than hunt around for a screwdriver, I put in a maintenance work order, explaining the problem.  I also noted on the form that I was happy to handle it myself if it was possible to borrow a screwdriver.

A few hours later, the Embassy's carpenter called me about the work order, and we arranged to meet at my apartment that afternoon.

We meet at the appointed time, and he got to work.  A couple turns of the screwdriver on the four legs of four chairs, and everything was done.  The whole job had taken about two minutes.

"Is that it?" he asked me, with a slight tone in his voice.

But for some reason, all I heard was, "Please turn in your Man Card."


For the Afghan staff at the Embassy, the job is a mixed bag.  Most seem to enjoy the work; the pay and benefits are very competitive; and after two years of service, they can apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S.  On the other hand, it can be dangerous to be affiliated with the Americans, and some of our Afghan colleagues have been targeted in the past.

As such, most Afghan employees try to keep a low profile.  Many have developed cover stories they tell their friends and neighbors, and in some cases, they don't even tell their spouses and immediate family members they are working at the Embassy.  Besides the security angle, it doesn't always pay to spread the news about working at the Embassy because one might end up surrounded by a mob of those less fortunate, hands firmly extended for a piece of the pie.

Part of keeping a low profile is blending in while commuting to and from work.  Employees who wear logo-ed uniforms would naturally want to wear different clothes while on the bus, but even those who generally wear business suits might want to wear other clothes while out in town.  It all depends on the alias a person has assumed.

I've seen several of the Afghan employees coming to work in their traditional clothing, the shalwar kameez, before changing to their work clothes, but one morning, I saw one of my colleagues in a different get-up altogether.

While normally looking smart in a suit and tie, he was coming through the gate with pegged jeans, a varsity jacket, and a baseball cap turned backwards.  His age and beard made the ensemble all the more conspicuous.

When he saw me, he sheepishly grinned, and I was somewhat perplexed.

"What kind of blending was this?" I wondered.  "Did his family think he worked in a 90's boy band?"