Day 1 in Kabul, 20 May 2010

NOTE: These blog posts have been edited/redacted from the original emails. My purpose in the blog is to inform and entertain not hurt anyone’s feelings or make public statements.


1. GREETINGS FROM KABUL. Some of you may not know that I am in Kabul, Afghanistan. I arrived on Thursday, May 20th. If I didn’t tell you, sorry. Two things happened. First, the process came together very rapidly at the end. Second, I have become your classic middle-aged ethnic man who is emotional about everything. Thus, I avoided most potential emotional situations.

2. WHY AM I IN KABUL? AKA IS HE INSANE? I am in Kabul to do economic development work for the US Agency for International Development. It is a six-week junket to help build Afghanistan’s export promotion capability. The idea is that if people have decent jobs and a future, then maybe they will be less likely to strap a bomb to themselves or sell opium. I came here for the following reasons: a.) to do a mitzvah (a good deed), b.) have a unique experience and c.) money. I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t the biggest part of it. Am I insane? Perhaps. This is definitely the craziest thing I’ve done since jumping from one terrace to another terrace while eight stories up at a hotel many years ago. (They were only 2-3 feet apart. Sorry, Mom and Dad.) Generally, we are not targets and only 9 Westerners have been kidnapped in Kabul since 2001. They provide a lot of security. Everyone here says it’s not as bad as the media makes it out to be. Is this thinking a coping mechanism? A delusion? I’ll let you know in 6 weeks.

Frankly, the hardest part is being away from Debbie and the kids for six weeks. With all the travel I’ve done over the years, I’ve never been away more than 3 1/2 weeks. They treated me wonderfully my last few days at home.

3. AM I SCARED? A little. If I were really scared, I wouldn’t have come. There’s obviously a little fear. The news of the bombing in the past few days wasn’t too appealing. I had a few teary-eyed moments before I left thinking about the possibility I could never see my kids again. But I spoke to about 10 people who are here or had been here and all of them said they generally felt safe and would consider going back to Afghanistan. My real fears:

a.) My work is related to my specialty but is not “in my wheelhouse” and I did not have the opportunity to prepare as I would have liked. I want to make certain that while I am here that I am effective.
b.) I will be incredibly bored of the routine and confinement over six weeks.
c.) That I will begin to look like a mullah because I forgot my ear and nose hair trimmer. Nail clippers and a razor aren’t the same. Aging sucks.

4. THE JOURNEY. I left Newark Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Debbie and the kids drove me to the airport after Jesse’s performance of Pirates The Musical earlier that day. I am pretty sure I saw Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame at the airport. I didn’t tell him that I took my first blind date to see Fame but it was sold out and we saw the Cheech and Chong movie “Up in Smoke.” Anyway, I flew from Newark to Dulles to Dubai. On the plane, I sat next to a big, beefy fellow with a blond crew cut in his mid-20s. Sure enough, he was headed to Afghanistan as a private security guard at the US Embassy. The flight was 13 hours and he didn’t eat once. This guy was 6-5″ and 260-275. Man, when he feels like eating, stand back.

I overnighted in Dubai but didn’t go out and paint the town red. I arrived late and I was tired. Dubai truly is a crossroads of East and West. You see the all the peoples of Asia and a lot of Westerners too. I had two glasses of red wine and a Romeo y Julieta petit corona at the hotel (RLK and DSS: Thinking of you.) before I departed. I woke up this morning (Thu) and headed to Kabul. Many of the people on my flight to Dubai were also on the flight to Kabul. There were plenty of ex-military types with crew cuts as well as grizzled foreign aid types from the UK and US. There were many more Westerners than locals on the plane. There were a surprising number of single females. A Western female, no matter how young or old, big or small, pretty or not, is popular in these parts. Lots of guys and no fraternization with the locals.

5. A SIDE NOTE: WE’RE ALL PREJUDICED. I travel all over the world and try to help people of all colors and creeds develop their economies. But as I was sitting in the airplane while the others were boarding, I was watching people who originate from one corner of Southeast Asia to the furthest corner of Southwest Asia file into the plane and thought, “I hope one of those really smelly types doesn’t sit next to me.”

6. ARRIVAL. I’ve arrived in worse airports than Kabul but not many. Customs and all that stuff was OK. I was met by one of our security officers. Nice fellow. Ex-UK military. He escorted me to an armored SUV. When we arrived at the car, he said, “I don’t expect any incidents. We haven’t had any incidents. But if we do have an incident, keep your head down below the window and don’t exit the car unless I tell you to.” We drove through the streets of Kabul which reminded me of the poor neighborhoods in Cairo in the 1990s. Lots of dust and dirt.

7. THE COMPOUND. After our trek through town, we stopped at the compound where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks. It is behind concrete walls and has armed guards. We are staying in a 14 room villa. My project colleagues live in the other rooms. I have a basement room which is very similar to the room I had in Reitman basement at Brandeis U from 1980-1982 except I don’t have a roommate who studies organic chemistry and reads Hustler magazine. (DEW: Huge fan in the room. Awesome white noise.) The folks in the compound are very friendly. I had dinner with them and we had a little get-together in someone’s room after dinner. They serve breakfast and dinner at the compound. The food was pretty good. A spicy tomato soup and a chicken curry with rice. The villa has a rooftop deck, small exercise room, TV room and a ping-pong table.

8. UNDER HOUSE ARREST. Except for the ankle bracelet, I feel like one of those prisoners who is under house arrest and is allowed to go to work and come straight home. I am allowed to go to other compounds and specific stores and restaurants cleared by security. I am under no circumstances supposed to walk anywhere. I am to be driven. There is no riding in any vehicles other than our secured vehicles. The social life is visits at the compounds and the occasional dinner out at a cleared restaurant.

9. SIGNING OFF. It’s gettting late. Tomorrow is Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. It is our only official off-day but I need to study up for work and meet a few people. I also want to get to the gym early.

10. EMAIL LIST. If I missed someone, sorry. Just send me his/her name. If you don’t want to receive these emails, again sorry.

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