Monday, June 12, 2017

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 11)

Sometimes you have to develop a friendship, and sometimes you find an insta-friend.

Eitan and I sidled up to the bar at the European Union compound one night, and as we were waiting for our drinks to appear, a Frenchman walked into the room.  I’m not sure what drew his attention to us, but he crossed the room without delay and introduced himself.  For the purposes of this story, I’ll call him Jean-Luc Picard.

“Hi,” he started, “I’m Jean-Luc Picard.”

He spoke with a heavy French accent, and as happens for me with nearly every language, I thought he sounded a bit like a vampire while he was speaking English.

I don’t generally like to “work a room,” so when Jean-Luc started telling stories, I was more than happy to stick around.  We had a lot of laughs as he told me about his exploits outside the fortified walls of the diplomatic quarter.

Eventually, Jean-Luc left to eat pizza with his boss, and I started talking to some German aid workers.  Before long, though, Jean-Luc Picard was back.

“Hey, can you do me a favor?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.  “I just need you to clear everyone away; I’m going to do a trick.”

We were standing by a fire pit, and I agreed to assist.  In a moment, I had everyone standing a meter or two back from the edge.

At that point, Jean-Luc Picard walked up and did his thing.  Taking a sip from his beer bottle and blowing the liquid over the fire, he created a large fireball.

“I couldn’t find any kerosene,” he told me with a laugh, “but cooking oil works too.”

He made four fireballs in total, and the reaction was mixed.  A good many people clapped and cheered, but about a quarter of the crowd was decidedly unamused.

I thought the whole spectacle, including the reaction, was pretty great.

One person who wasn’t amused, however, was the bartender.  He pulled Jean-Luc and me aside and told us we would be banned from the compound if we pulled any more stunts.  I didn’t see how any of this was my problem, though.  The bartender should have been thanking me for maintaining a safe perimeter.

Before he left us, the bartender had one last thing to say to Jean-Luc Picard:  “You can pour your drink on the fire, if you want, but no more blowing.”

Once he was out of earshot, Jean-Luc turned to me, still laughing.

“What an idiot!” he exclaimed. “He thinks this is beer.”

He proceeded to sprinkle his bottle of oil over the fire, creating more flare-ups, but the bartender never returned.

As it happened, Eitan and I would be heading on vacation a few days after the reception, and Jean-Luc would be relocating to France while we were gone.  He invited us to his farewell bash, which he assured us would be insane, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The friendship had quickly sparked, flashed, and vanished, not unlike a cooking-oil fireball.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


“What do you call this?” the young Afghan clerk at our convenience store asked me one day.

He was squeezing his cheek, and I noticed the object of his question.

“That’s a zit,” I told him.

He thanked me.  Then I finished my transaction and left the store.

I didn’t get far, though, before the clerk came running after me.

“Can you come help me?” he asked.

Slightly curious, I followed him back in the store.  He didn’t return to his seat at the register, and headed instead to the personal care aisle.

“I don’t see any for zit,” he told me.  “Which shall I use?”

For such a small shop, the array of facial products was pretty impressive.  And I soon understood the clerk’s confusion.

While there were no “zit” creams, the shelves had many other products flashing all the right keywords:  things like “pimple preventer”, “blackhead reducer”, “blemish control”, “oily skin wash”, “breakout shield”, “clean and clear”, and so on.

“Basically these all do the same thing,” I told him.  “Just pick one and see how it goes.”

“How can I choose?” he pleaded

By this point, I was losing interest rapidly.  I handed him some Clearasil.  “Maybe this one,” I told him.

“Remember,” I told him, “having a zit can be a good thing because it means your face is still producing oils.”

He looked at me dumbfounded.  This was a bit of advice a former Ambassador used to give me whenever I’d have a breakout.  I still think of it when I get a zit, and I still don’t appreciate it.

Then, with my sage advice dispensed, I went about my day.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 10)

During a staff meeting one day, my Afghan colleagues were explaining how Afghan women aren’t without power (as many people perceive) and how inside the home many rule the roost with an iron fist.  They illustrated their point with a story.

My colleague, TJ, joined his wife for lunch one afternoon.

As the meal commenced, the food wasn’t to his liking.  TJ continued eating, not wanting to offend, but he eventually made the mistake of opening his mouth.

“Dear,” he said, “the food is a bit salty today.”

At this point, according to his version of things, a firestorm erupted, and his wife spent the next 20 minutes punching him into submission.

All the Afghans in the room, men and women alike, broke out laughing, and sensing it was OK, the Americans joined in after a moment’s delay.

One of the Afghan men then offered a small clarification.  “This is not the way in the whole country,” he told us, still chuckling.

“If the food is bad in the countryside, the husband beats his wife,” he continued, “but if the food is bad in Kabul, the wife beats her husband.”

“Only in Kabul is everything reversed.”

Once the “beating protocol” was clarified, the American laughter tapered off, and the Afghans kept going, unapologetically.

Soon an awkward silence settled over the conference room, and I started to wonder if we should have laughed at all.  Sure the story was comical, but at the end of the day, violence is violence, no matter who plays the role of aggressor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is constant construction on the Embassy compound, and one day after work, I was walking by an excavation project.  The area was surrounded by fencing, which was draped in green privacy screening, and three guys were standing just inside the fence.  Night was falling, and the light meant to illuminate the dig site served another purpose as well:  It silhouetted the three gentlemen by the fence perfectly.

Normally this would not have been so entertaining, but as I was walking by, one of the guys flipped the hard hat off his colleague.  This earned him an elbow to the ribs, and soon the three men were jostling around in a routine that would have made the Three Stooges proud.  I only watched for a few seconds, but I left with a smile on my face.

It also reminded me of a similar event from the year before that involved some window-washers.  As they perched on rigging outside our offices, we were instructed to draw the shades, which once again created an interesting silhouette effect.  The men worked with the sun at their backs, and their squeegees and whatnot dangled from their belts between their legs.  The resulting shadows were nothing less than obscene, and office after office, people were in hysterics at the images dancing across the window shades.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first days back at work after a vacation are always the same.   Everyone gives you the old, “welcome back!” and you find yourself repeating your holiday highlights a few dozen times to people who probably only prompted you to be polite.

When I say, “everyone,” of course, I mean my friends and colleagues.  After my recent vacation, though, I was surprised at the people who welcomed me back.  In addition to the usual cast of characters, some of the cafeteria workers welcomed me back as did some of the American guards and even one of our Nepalese Gurkhas.  These are people I see around and say hi to, but I don’t even know their names.

The most touching of all, perhaps, was one of the janitors in my building.  I greet him in the hallways nearly every day, and whenever I ask him how he is doing, he always places his hand on his heart and simply says, “Thank you, sir.”  I found this to be peculiar at first, as he was not answering the question.  I came to appreciate later, though, that he was expressing his gratitude that I took the time to inquire about his well-being.  The answer, it seems, wasn’t important; only the gesture mattered.  He also doesn’t speak English well, so his trademark “Thank you, sir” served to acknowledge the question while simultaneously avoiding further conversation.

In any case, the day after I returned, I saw him in the hallway.

As always, I asked him how he was doing, and for the first time ever, he changed the script.

“How is family?” he asked me in his shaky English.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kabul: The Marine Memorial Wall

"Are you sure you don't want to sponsor anyone in particular?" the Marine at the table asked me.

Committed to building a memorial wall in the Marine House at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, our Marine Security Guards were collecting donations from the community to honor the Marines who had died while serving in Afghanistan.  A donation purchased a name plate for the wall, and many of the people stepping up to the table had a personal tie to someone who had made the ultimate sacrifice.  Some people lined up to support a brother-in-arms they’d known on the battlefield.  Some were supporting a friend from back home.  I didn’t know anyone on the list, however, and I told the Marine as much.

“Not a problem,” he replied.  “I’ll put you down here… for Centanni.”

I would be sponsoring Marine Lance Corporal Rick J. Centanni, and I felt compelled to learn a bit about his life.

Hailing from Yorba Linda, California, he played football at Esperanza High School in Anaheim – donning Aztec jersey #30.  He joined the Marine Corps after graduation and ultimately wanted to be a police officer like his father.  In late 2009, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, he deployed to Afghanistan where his unit was tasked with disrupting the Taliban’s supply lines from Pakistan.   He died on March 24, 2010, when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Marjah, Helmand Province.  He was 19 years old.

A few months after the fundraising had begun at the Embassy, the Marines had secured enough money for the project, and the wall was constructed and installed.  On the day of the unveiling, the house was packed.  Coming late from the office, I stood with the overflow crowd which had spilled out the door.  I could hear the muted sounds of the speeches and the thunderous applause from the audience, but I was too far away to make out the words.  Then the wall was revealed.


When the ceremony concluded, the Marines invited everyone to raise a glass to the fallen, and a happy hour started at the bar at the other end of the room.  There are many military memorials associated with bars, and the Marines were certain that this is just how the fallen would want it.

While the happy hour kicked off, donors were encouraged to find their Marine among the hundreds represented on the wall.  The name plates were arranged by death date, and I found Rick toward the center of the display, four rows from the bottom, along with his fellow Marine, Sergeant Major Robert J. Cottle, who died in the same incident.


The name plates were made of lapis lazuli, Afghanistan’s prized blue semi-precious stone, and sized just smaller than a dollar bill, they had some heft to them.  I removed Rick’s plate from the wall, and as I turned it over in my hands, I couldn’t help but think:  This was his party, and like so many Marines around the world, he wasn’t even old enough to order a beer.

Thank you for your service; R.I.P.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 9)

Taking advantage of the Embassy cinema, Eitan and I caught a screening of Doctor Strange one Friday afternoon.  Eitan had some difficulty seeing over the head of the tall guy in front of him, but all in all, we enjoyed the show.

As we were walking out of the theater, though, I was scratching my head.

“So why do they call him Dr. Strangelove?” I asked Eitan.

“They don’t,” he replied.  “That’s a James Bond movie.”

This wasn’t correct either, of course, but it jogged my memory.

“Actually,” I responded, “I think it’s a Stanley Kubrick film.”

Sometimes you reach your answer by the scenic route.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Not long after I wrote about the post office and stamps, the theme came up again.

I was in the Embassy mail room collecting a package when my colleague Reese approached me at the service window.

“Check this out,” he told me.

In his hand he had a letter addressed to somewhere mundane like Wells Fargo Financial Services, and in the corner there were several old stamps pasted on.

“Aren’t these cool?!?” he asked me.  “They’re all from 1910!”

“And the best part is that the post office has to accept them,” he continued.  “All stamps, no matter how old, are considered legal postage.”

It was a fetching envelope to be sure.

“Nice!” I replied, “but isn’t a collection of hundred-year-old stamps worth more than the 49 cents required to mail a letter?”

“Nah,” Reese answered.  “I got a whole stack of ‘em at a yard sale.  The back of my car was completely filled with all kinds of stamps in glass frames.”

To me it seemed equivalent to using some rare coin like the 1913 Liberty Head nickel to buy a peppermint candy at a gas station counter.  Sure it works, but there are plenty of other, less historic monetary instruments that could be used.

Whether or not Reese’s stamps were worth anything, one thing was certain: an expired philatelist from Sheboygan was no doubt spinning in his grave.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There are always things that go bump in the night.  Occasionally, from the comfort of my bed, I hear drunks talking in the courtyard, a dish shifting in the dish rack, high-heels clicking in the hallway.

One night, however, there was something more dramatic.

I was fast asleep at 2:15 AM when the television turned on.  And not only did it turn on seemingly unprovoked, the volume was also kicked way up.  It switched on to CNN, which can be unsettling at times, but thankfully it isn’t nearly as creepy as say a baby laughing in the darkness.

Bolting upright in the bed, half in a fog, I wondered, “Is someone here?”

Now, I’m no fool.  Having seen both The Conjuring I and II, I knew it was a bad idea to confront a TV with a mind of its own, much like it’s best to ignore a music box playing independently in the attic.  At the same time, though, I knew I couldn’t let it continue.

I made my way out to the living room, and much to my surprise, there was a decomposing corpse in the easy chair with bugs crawling out of his mouth.

As if!  Actually there was nothing untoward.

I turned off the TV and went back to bed, but the nagging question remained: What happened?

Perhaps, I thought, my neighbors were watching TV and the wall separating our units was thin enough that the signal from their remote reached my TV.

Or maybe there was a timer feature on our TV that we had inadvertently activated.

The more I thought about it, however, the more far-fetched these theories seemed.  Obviously we were dealing with a ghost, and there was no need to dress it up in so-called logic.

Now where to find an exorcist in Kabul…

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Kabul: To Mail a Letter

For my annual Christmas card distribution, I always try to use the local post, if possible, instead of the U.S. post to which I also have access.  Not only does it show confidence in the institutions of developing countries, I think it’s also pretty cool to get a card with colorful foreign postage and mysterious markings on it.

From Oslo to Port Moresby, going to the post office is always an interesting experience.  Often times it’s fun, and frequently, it’s frustrating.  In Afghanistan, the process for mailing a letter is further complicated by the security restrictions under which we operate.

Unable to go to the post office myself in Kabul, I turned to the Embassy’s concierge service.  Manned by Afghan employees, the concierge service runs errands for the compound-restricted American staff, for a fee.

I contacted the concierge and discussed my errand.  I wanted enough Afghan stamps to mail my cards to various destinations around the world.  I told the concierge the weight of each letter (18 grams) and provided a list of countries to which I would be mailing them.

“We don’t sell stamps,” the concierge manager told me.  “You can buy them at the KEEA store.”

The KEEA store on compound sells U.S. postage only, which is not what I wanted.

I explained again that I was interested in local stamps, not U.S., and that I was willing to pay the service charge.

The concierge had successfully gotten Afghan stamps for me the year before, so I knew it could be done.  The manager had changed since then, but I mentioned to the current manager that her predecessor had helped me out before.

“I’m on it!” she told me with much enthusiasm.

After four days of dead air, I received a call.

“Sir,” she told me, “I’m having too much trouble with your request.”

“I checked the whole city, and I cannot find the Pakistan post office, the Sweden post office, the Israel post office, or any of the rest on your list.”

Doh!  This was a touch annoying to be sure, but I had to laugh.  Then I went on to explain how international mail works.  Afghanistan is a member of all the major postal unions and a party to the relevant international agreements, so any local post office should be able to consult a chart and tell a customer how much postage is required to ship a letter weighing 18 grams to any country in the world.  I explained that mailing a letter to Sweden did not require one to find a Swedish post office; the Afghan post office should be able to handle it.  I also reiterated once more that the concierge had handled this for me last year.  The manager had changed, as I mentioned, but the previous one was still on compound working in a different job.  I encouraged the current one to consult him if she continued to struggle with the request.

“I think I’ve got it,” she told me.

Three days later, I received a call from one of the guys from the concierge office.  He was at the post office.

“Sir,” he asked me, “do you want the kind of stamps with little pictures?”  “That’s the only kind they have.”

The next day, I met the man, and he produced an envelope.  He sheepishly smiled as he let the contents slide out into his palm.

“Is this the right one?” he asked.

A stamp honoring buzkashi, the local horse sport.

Sure enough, he had a handful of assorted postage stamps.

One of them caught my eye.  It seemed to be for 14000 afghanis (US$210).

“A lot of zeros on this one,” I remarked.

“That’s just how we write 14,” he answered.

“OK,” I replied, “these look good.”

“I thought so,” he told me.  “I’m the one who got them last year.”

“Did you check the rates?” I asked.

“Yes,” he continued, “114 afghanis per letter.”

At about US$1.70, this was much higher than the year before.

“For which countries?” I asked.

“All of them,” he replied.  “Each country is 114.”

The year before, the rate had varied by country, and logically so.  Why would the rate for Pakistan, one hour away, be the same as Canada on the other side of the world?

The man insisted the pricing structure had changed since last year to the current flat-rate scheme (or at least that’s what the postman had told him).  I had my doubts, but with no way to verify, and having already wasted a week getting to this point, I accepted the price the man quoted.

By the time I finally had the full order of stamps in hand, nearly two weeks had passed since I had placed my order.

Each envelope required two or three stamps, and applying them was tedious.  I finished a modest stack each day and brought them to the Embassy mail room for submission to the local postman.  When I brought the first stack, there was confusion.  The clerk in the mail room was about to put the letters in the outgoing U.S. mailbag before I intercepted.

“These are for the Afghan post,” I pointed out.

This really sparked some interest, and seven other clerks gathered around.

Afghans don’t generally use postage stamps, and most have never handled one.  To mail a letter or a package, most Afghans go to the post office and present their parcel.  The postman inspects and meters it, and the customer pays.  After that, the customer leaves, and the postman prepares the parcel with appropriate postage stamps or a printed sticker showing postage paid or perhaps an ink stamp.  Apparently, no one keeps postage stamps at home like people do in the U.S.

The mail-room guys were fascinated with my letters, and they passed them around and admired the stamps.  Among other things, the stamps featured prominent Afghans, fighter jets, and polio eradication.

“I can’t believe you paid 14000 afghanis for this one,” one of the guys commented.

“That’s apparently how you write 14 here,” I replied.

The famous 14000 afghani stamp.

Another guy was doing some calculations as we chatted.

“Even if you count it as 14,” he told me, “that means you put 114 on each letter.”  “That’s way too much!”

“Well, that’s what I was told to put,” I answered.  “I guess it’s better to have too much rather than too little.”

The guys agreed, and I left as they continued reading aloud exotic destinations like Silver Spring, Ethiopia, and Ambunti.

The next morning, I got a call from one of the mail clerks.

“I’m at the post office,” he advised, “and they want to open your letters.”  “What should I do?”

“If that’s the procedure,” I answered, “it’s fine with me.”

The next day, I brought another stack of letters, and the clerk came to see me, clearly disappointed.

“They prefer for you to leave them open,” he told me.  “Now they have to cut each one open to inspect it and then tape it closed.”  “It’s making a lot of extra work for them.”

I didn’t feel much sympathy, though.  Perhaps if they were a little less intrusive they wouldn’t have so much extra work to do.  In any case, all of the letters had been sealed at this point, so there was no way to ease their burden.

After a few days like this, the postmen eventually stopped slicing into every letter and opted instead to open two or three randomly selected letters from the stack.

And despite the delays, the annoyances, and the laughs, Afghan Post came through a second year in a row with the first letters reaching their final destinations in a mere three weeks.

This stamp had apparently been sitting around for 34 years!