Category Archives: Thoughts from Kabul, Afghanistan

These blog posts are observations from my 44-day consulting assignment related to export promotion in Kabul, Afghanistan from May to July 2010.

About the Thoughts from Kabul, Afghanistan Posts

I was in Kabul, Afghanistan from May 20, 2010 to July 2, 2010. My reason for being in Kabul was a consulting assignment to create a plan increase exports by capitalizing on regional free trade agreements and to develop an international marketing concept for a fruit and vegetable processing company that could be used as a template by the Export Promotion Agency.

While I was in Kabul, I sent home periodic emails describing my work, living in a compound and observations about life in Afghanistan. The blog is an edited version of the emails. My purpose is to inform and entertain not to criticize or offend.


Day 44 – Sami’s Story and Kunduz, 2 July 2010

Not much learned from real interaction with Afghans. Just some more stories and observations. The latest …

SAMI’S STORY. Sami is our head driver. Good guy. He has worked on a number of these projects. Some of the projects in very dangerous places. He is the oldest child and bears the responsibility of supporting the family. His youngest brother is very bright. The kid graduated school and applied to be a flight attendant with Ariana Afghan Airlines. The brother was valedictorian at his school and tested so well that the airline invited him to pilot school. So, the kid is going to India to study to be a pilot. Sami sends his brother money every month to make sure this happens. Sami’s dad is my age. Sami said his father was a high-level bodyguard for important government officials, a real tough guy. Sami and his Dad bought a car together. When the Dad went to get the car, it was a hot day. He was offered some juice. He drank the juice but it was spiked. The guys who offered the juice took the car. They left Sami’s father on a pile of trash in the sun for six hours. Someone called Sami and he took a taxi to his father’s location and rushed him to the hospital. Sami’s father went into a coma for 10 hours and he was in the hospital for awhile. Sami says his father’s mind still hasn’t returned to normalcy. The father works periodically as a taxi driver and has the white hair and beard of a man of seventy. Now, Sami takes care of everyone. They still haven’t found the car.

WATER TRUCK. My last trip up the mountain coincided with my first sighting of the water truck. Since there is no running water on the mountain, they do truck up water. Kids come running with water jugs like American kids go running to the ice cream truck. The truck also sprays a jet of water on the ground to wet down the dust. It seems kind of crazy because the mountain is one giant dustball and there is one wet strip about eighteen inches wide along the side of the road. Nonetheless, the kids love it because they run in the water jet like city kids in a fire hydrant.

DONE. That’s it. I hope you enjoyed these emails.  Assuming my plane doesn’t crash and I don’t get killed on the Garden State Parkway, I survived. So, if you know of a software, professional services or consulting company that is looking for a VP/Director of International Business Development/Strategy or International Public Affairs/Government Relations, let me know. I am available.

BTW, I am in Dubai and on my way home now. Departing from Kabul was a trip. Three body searches before I entered the terminal. The body search in the terminal was pretty thorough. Everything except a direct “package grab”. There was a double back pocket squeeze. I gave the security officer my number and said I might be back.

Mike17 aka Barry

WORK. Work went reasonably well.

WAS IT ENJOYABLE? No, but it was better than I expected. Frankly, I had some three-week stays in other places that seemed longer. I would classify it as “tolerable” or “not unpleasant.”

HARDEST PART. The hardest part was the confinement. I forgot my wallet in my room one day. And I had to wait for a driver to go the 3 blocks back to the house to pick it up. There was a nice shop about 40 yards from the office. If you wanted to visit, you needed a ride. There were a number of days where I just wanted to take a walk before or after dinner but couldn’t.

REGRETS. 1.) My trip to Charikar was cancelled. So I didn’t get outside of Kabul. To get the true measure of a country, you need to get away from the capital.

WOULD I DO IT AGAIN? Maybe. It’s not my decision alone. I definitely don’t want to come back for six weeks again. At no time did I feel unsafe. Of course, that’s because of the security bubble.

THANKS. Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing back. Hope you enjoyed. OUT! (MKA: A little Rome-y for you. BTW, I hope you’re doing OK with the Larry King departure.)

Days 35-36 – 48 Reasons to Spend Your Birthday in Afghanistan, 26 June 2010

Today I turned 48 years old. To mark my birthday, my email is 48 reasons to spend your birthday in Afghanistan. So, a reason to spend your birthday in Afghanistan is to:

48. Understand how people can use religion to try to subjugate the most basic human values.

47. Visit the first country alphabetically. Now, all I need to do is visit Zimbabwe and I will have gone A-to-Z.

46. Learn racism and subtle racism is everywhere after watching dozens of TV commercials for skin lighteners on Afghan, Indian and Pakistani TV.

45. Realize if you’ve had Montezuma’s revenge, Pharaoh’s revenge and Ceausescu’s revenge, there is no sense missing out on Osama’s revenge. (The corollary is: Appreciate modern plumbing.)

43. Gain undeserved respect and sympathy when you return home and say, “I just got back from Afghanistan.” (Side story: I had a friend who managed to get a baseball cap from the USS Cole, the ship that was bombed in Yemen. He never served on the Cole but he wore the cap and spoke of watching his buddies die during the aftermath of the bombing at local watering holes in the hopes of gaining sympathy “liaisons” from young ladies. I was single once but that might be beyond the pale.)

41. Be amazed at the beauty of language. I don’t understand a word of Dari (similar to Farsi) yet enjoy hearing it.

40. Chuckle when I realize that all the Nestle ice cream vendor cart umbrellas are from Israel including the Hebrew inscription of G’lida (ice cream).

39.-11. Hope your family and friends realize that you wouldn’t really bore them with 48 reasons.

10. Continue to be perplexed how people live by rules that they don’t really believe in.

9. Be glad that you’re not spending your 50th birthday in Afghanistan.

7. Gain satisfaction in finding common ground with people with whom you have nothing in common — whether it’s explaining how a sales letter works or talking about the World Cup.

6. Refresh your cocktail party stories.

5. Receive text messages like: “Update: 12:00 PM. Ref. explosion, no casualties reported (all staff accounted for), remember MoFA road is off-limits for movement.” (That is a text message I received today. There was an explosion near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. None of us work there.)

4. Earn a living. Work is work.

3. Have the opportunity to send your family and friends self-indulgent but highly therapeutic emails in which you can share your  experience, political opinions, cultural observations and insane ramblings … and hope that they will still speak to you when you return.

2. Try to have a positive impact that will improve someone’s life.

1. Remind yourself why you married your wife and had your kids.
P.S. USA! USA! Tonight’s the big World Cup match with Ghana..

Days 33-34 – “We live to survive”, 24 June 2010

WE LIVE TO SURVIVE. I was having a conversation with an Afghan colleague, admittedly a bit melodramatic, who nonetheless gave an elegant elegy to life in Afghanistan. He said we don’t live for joy. We live to survive. His portrayal was that Afghanistan was the most dismal place in the world. Even the worst places in Europe and the US were better than Afghanistan. He mentioned there were five main pursuits or objectives in life: health, clothes/shelter, food, education and joy. He said we cannot pursue joy because the other objectives are a constant struggle. He turned his attention to the religious extremists and noted that most suicide bombers were not ideologues but desperate people. The fellow mentioned that the religious extremists were crushing the capacity to have joy. His example was that in his stressful life and struggle, a very normal thing would be to take a walk in the park or travel somewhere with a woman. Men and women spending time together is not a religious value but a human value that is denied to Afghans. When I asked how does Afghanistan solve this, surely there are other people that think like him, he said people are too scared because they worry about their livelihoods. He said if he didn’t work for one month that his family would starve. Until people are not worried about basic survival, changes won’t occur.

THE NEXT GENERATION ISN’T ALWAYS WILDER. I was speaking with an Afghan-German woman who is working for the German Government here in Kabul. She mentioned that she would be going to a cousin’s wedding. She said that she was looking at pictures of her uncle and aunt’s wedding (the cousin’s parents) and it was a big blowout party in Kabul with women in miniskirts, big hair, music, fun, etc. Her cousin’s wedding required separate receptions for the men and women, religiously compliant clothing, etc. We talked about the men and women being separate and I relayed the remarks of the fellow who said that it was a human value for a man and a woman to take a walk in the park. She said that a married couple could take a walk in the park but they don’t. Police are around to harass any unmarried young lovers and essentially, the parks are occupied by men only. There is a women’s park. She said there are also very few Afghan women in restaurants also.

– Awesome end to the US World Cup match. USA! USA!
– Flu bug spreading through the house. I caught it yesterday. Bummer. I had been really healthy.
– Lots of work to do. Time to get to it.

Days 29-32 – Sequels and Nights on the Town, 22 June 2010

10 days to go!

SUICIDE BOMBERS 2. Someone was telling me a story of when contractors were allowed more freedom in Afghanistan a few years ago. She was in a crowded marketplace. This woman and a friend noticed a woman shopping next to them. She seemed to be near them an inordinately long amount of time. All of a sudden, she was gone. She was a suicide bomber and blew herself up near a couple of foreign soldiers. She said in all likelihood that she and her friend were being sized up as targets but the soldiers were higher value targets. She said she was immediately evacuated and didn’t know if anything happened to the soldiers.

RENAISSANCE MAN. Our night driver is a college student and a part-time actor. He was recently in a movie about suicide bombers. We asked him if his character was a good guy or a bad guy. He said he was a bad guy. He also remarked that the movie was supposed to be fictitious. After the filming, some events came to pass that were almost identical to the plot of the movie. So, reality imitated art. When we asked how we could get a copy of the film, he didn’t know. He said that the movie would be released in the US not in Afghanistan.

LUNCH IN THE DUDE RANCH 2. In an earlier note, I mentioned that I had lunch at a government agency office and everyone was silent for 5-7 minutes. I went down to the conference room, where only the men eat, a second time for lunch. This time, I was less of a surprise and I arrived in the middle of lunch. All the laughing and talking continued. I sat next to a fellow who spoke English and we chatted a bit. The dish was like a caponata/tomato, eggplant, okra thing over rice. The group even tried to joke with me. Apparently, the Dari translation of okra is “lady finger” but since we were all guys, they joked maybe it should be “gent finger.”

ITALY, UK AND MEXICO IN ONE AFGHAN WEEKEND – ITALY. Even though there is a list of nine approved restaurants, I have been out very little. This weekend, I went out Friday and Saturday night. Friday night, I went to Boccaccio. It was down a non-descript street in Kabul but there were lots of trucks and SUVs with armed guards parked in front. They were the security details for all the Westerners. You walk in through a gate in thick cement walls. You are greeted by an armed guard where you asked to pass through a metal detector and your bags are searched. You then walk through a short hallway with armed guards until you approach the restaurant door. Once you walk inside the restaurant, it looks quite normal. Nice even. It was all foreigners. I noticed that there were uncovered women as waitresses. They were Russians and Ukrainians. There was tuna filet on the menu. It would have been frozen but I didn’t care. When the fish arrived, it was tilapia not tuna. But it was a fish, it began with a T and it tasted OK so I was fine with it.

UK. The next night we decided to take the other Jersey guy out on the town for his last night in Kabul. We went to dinner at the Gandamak Lodge which is a British style hunting lodge with antique rifles on the wall. The best part of the Gandamak is they have tables outside in a pleasant garden where they serve alcohol. Technically, alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan. Period. (“Full stop” for my European friends.) But the Government turns a blind eye to certain establishments that cater to foreigners. They are not allowed to serve any alcohol to Afghans. I assume they pay a ton of money in both fees and bribes. We ordered a $35 bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo that was a $6.99 bottle back in the States. It wasn’t bad. I had a steak au poivre (pepper steak) that wasn’t shoe leather and I didn’t get sick. So I was pretty happy.

MEXICO. After the Gandamak, we headed to an expat bar called La Cantina. It is technically a restaurant but most people don’t go there to eat. It looks likes a poor man’s versions of Chevy’s or Jose Tejas. But not bad. It is also behind a maze of security. It was quite amazing to be there. It was the first place I have been in Kabul where I could have been in the US. (I didn’t check out the restroom.) The crowd was all foreigners, mostly Americans and Brits of all different ethnicities, colors, shapes and creeds but some people from other donor countries too, having a good time. The women wore casual clothing. (Tank tops and jeans – a big no-no out on the street.)  I assume they uncovered when they arrived. There was a live band of British folks playing popular cover tunes. The place is owned by a Canadian fellow. A can of beer was $7. A double gin and tonic was $13. Now, that’s not so much compared to New York City hotspots but when you think where you are, it seems expensive. However, the laws of supply and demand hold true. There aren’t a lot of places to go out in Kabul and have a drink and a good time. Also, there are a lot of single people making a great deal of disposable income so they spend the money and enjoy themselves. I bought the first round and then one of our compatriots got sloppy drunk and was unable to pay/figure out his bar tab. The driver was waiting and we were approaching curfew so I threw in an extra $20. It was $60 for 3 beers. But it was a fun evening.

– Enjoying the World Cup. Everyone is into it. We need a US win over Algeria to move on.
– We have a dog on the compound named Dutch whose two favorite activities seem to be terrorizing Afghan house staff and taking a dump on the basement floor between my room and my floormate’s room. He never craps near our rooms. He likes us and knows us. We have three empty rooms between us. Maybe he is marking the territory of the vacant space between us.
– Today (Monday) is the kids’ last day of school.
– My incredibly wonderful family provided me a manila envelope with a Father’s Day gift to open on Father’s Day.
– Sorry I missed the family get-togethers this past weekend. I was thinking of everyone.
– Once again, I didn’t intend to leave anyone off the list. If someone wants to receive these emails, please have him/her let me know.

Days 21-22: Halfway Home and Quick Hits, 10 June 2010

Just a few quick hits before the weekend. I am looking forward to the BBQ tonite and maybe a night out over the weekend.

The big news is that I am halfway done. I am looking forward to seeing Debbie and the kids in a few weeks.

Other quick hits: I’ll preface this one by saying that I’ve seen people pray in the streets during the Muslim call to prayer but not in our office. Yesterday, the officemate who is mourning his brother returned to work. A group of six people gathered around a table and prayed together. The nice young fellow who gave me the apple led the prayer. The mourning fellow made some comments after the prayer.  I had lots of questions but it was a somber occasion so I just watched silently.

I had mantuh yesterday for lunch. All my Afghan colleagues were excited. It’s kind of like food Mom used to make. It was a dumpling not unlike a ravioli but closer to a kreplach.

If you feel like writing, please feel free. Mundane ramblings from NJ, MD, Bucharest or parts unknown are interesting to me.

More in a few days.

Days 19-20 – Running off at the mouth, NJ Turnpike and HBM, 8 June 2010

I got lots to say today. Nearly all of it puerile. (SAT word!)  I have been back out on the streets of Kabul, well by car anyway, and my demeanor has improved.

1. THE MOUNTAIN. Many of my colleagues enjoy the shortcut route over the mountain to avoid the city traffic. It is like a rollercoaster ride. I don’t like it. The poverty is too depressing. There is no running water. Little kids are carrying water jugs as heavy as they are. Kids Lucy’s age are carrying around their three year old brothers and sisters. Few of them are in school. There is garbage everywhere. There is no garbage pickup or dumps. People just throw their refuse in vacant lots. It’s pretty breezy so there’s trash strewn everywhere.

2. SMALL WORLD/JERSEY RULES. We have a new guy. I ask him where he’s from and he says “Ridgewood, NJ.” Sonofabi—, a homeboy. Ridgewood is where my Dad used to buy his suits in the 1970s and where I stayed out all night for the first time at a 1979->1980 New Year’s Eve party. (AJC: You were ‘da man’ that night!) What’s better is the Jersey guy gets it. We were talking with work colleagues about the negative impact of tariffs on international trade, he walks right by me and says, “I got your tariffs right here.” He didn’t do the ‘package adjustment’ out of respect to our Afghan colleagues.

4. SWOT. One of the first things they teach you in strategy development is SWOT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I conducted a SWOT facilitation session with some of the staff of the Afghan Export Agency. It was interesting. People were not afraid to speak up and share their opinions. They were very good on strengths and weaknesses. Thinking ahead on opportunities will take some work. Considering the style of education they received, it’s understandable.

5. LUNCH: GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN. After the SWOT, the folks at the Export Agency invited me to lunch. They eat lunch together everyday at the office. They call it Shahan or Shatan. Not sure which. It comes from the Arabic. The idea is that you shouldn’t eat alone and should come together for a meal. When lunch time came, the ladies hightailed it upstairs. Even though the ladies in my SWOT session outranked the men. Men and women eat lunch separately there. There is an Afghan-German woman who works in the Agency. When I asked her about it, she said that there was no law against men and women eating together. Offices decide their own custom. She thought it was a pain in the butt but the women in the office requested to eat separately. They didn’t want to worry about being appropriately covered or what they said. They wanted, “Ladies do lunch.” Since I am foreign, old and esteemed, they asked me if I wanted to eat in my office but I decided to go for the full experience and lunch at the “dude ranch.” So I went down to the conference room where lunch was laid out, it was Kabulli pullao (like biryani), yogurt with cucumber, and watermelon chunks. I walked in and most of the guys had no idea I was coming. I sat down and the room was completely silent. I didn’t know if it was because I was there or these guys were really hungry and were just chowing down. After about 5-7 minutes, the conversations started and it seemed normal. They all spoke in Dari. At the end of the meal, one fellow turned to me and asked, “I hope you can accommodate the Afghan food?” I replied I could and all seemed OK. The food was pretty good.

6. WOMEN’S WEAR DAILY. In addition to covering their heads, the women in our office have to wear appropriate clothing. So, they wear long dresses or normal blouses and slacks but cover their clothes with these long tunics designed to hide any sort of curve. I haven’t seen any of the Western women wear skirts yet.

7. DRIVING MISTER BARRY. The guys who drive me to the Export Agency or other off-site location have to wait for me. They often sit in the car for three hours or more waiting for me. I thought about giving my iPod as a gift to my driver when I left. But I don’t have a steady driver, so it would be silly. They are well-paid for what they do but nonetheless it is pretty boring. We all know the drill.

8. THE PRICE YOU PAY. (DC: Your Bruce shout-out.) The next item should not be taken as a whine but as describing the personal stuff that happens when you do these assignments. As the kids say, “It is what it is.” While I was home, I started looking for full-time jobs rather than consulting gigs. Sometime in March, I became involved in the recruitment process for Vice President of International Development for Realogy Franchise Group. I made the cut to 20. I went through the phone interview process with the Head of the Division that narrowed the field down to five people. I made the five cut and phone interviewed with two other VPs. The top three would be invited in for a full day of interviews. My day was June 3rd. I explained my situation in advance by email and phone. No response. On the bright side, there’s plenty more work in Kabul if I want it …

– There is sanity. Some schools allow boys and girls to go to class together until 3rd grade.
– The Minister of the Interior and the Director of the Internal Security Department were sacked because of the attacks during the peace jirga.
– My US mobile phone rang. A ticket rep from the NY Giants wants to know if I want to buy season tickets with a $5000 PSL. I told the fellow calling that not only would I not pay the PSL but the roaming charge was costing me a fortune. Good-bye!
– Debbie starts her first day at her new job today. You go girl!
10. BONUS: Happy Birthday Mom! I won’t divulge Mom’s age. (I just lie about my age saying I am older than I am. I say I’m 55 and everyone says, “Wow, you look great for 55.” … Just kidding.) But many Happy Birthday wishes from Afghanistan.

Days 27-28 – Much Ado About Nothing, 17 June 2010

Howdy. Two weeks to go. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The emails will probably be coming less frequently. I am in report writing phase which means that I will be in front of the PC instead of out and about. Not to mention stressed to meet deadlines.

1. THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME. I’ve encountered an Afghan gentleman here in his 70s with perfect English. When we asked him how his English was so good, he responded, “University of Michigan, Class of ’58.” He has a house in Mission Viejo, California. Yet he spends his time here. I can’t even contemplate it. But it’s home to him. I remember traveling to Belfast to check out a business opportunity. (Glad, I didn’t do it. The company went belly-up less than a year later.) I met an energetic, young man in his mid-20s. He told me he had a great job in the US with one of the automotive manufacturers. He was working in a much less responsible, lower paying job in Belfast. When I asked him why he returned to Belfast, he looked up with an expression that was 25% a look of resignation and 75% a wink and a smile, and he said, “Home is home.”

2. THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION. (SWW: Mr. Mojo Risin’). One of the interesting customs here is that everyone closes their office door but anyone who wants to enter knocks on the door and walks right in. They don’t wait for a response. What’s the point of knocking? I guess you have three seconds to stop whatever you were doing. A warning shot. I have had many meetings where I arrive at an office and an assistant knocks on the door of my appointment and escorts me right in to whatever previous meeting may be happening. There could be four people talking. I sit there for awhile. When they finish, we start. Eventually, someone will walk in on me and wait until I am finished. Kind of like being at the deli counter.

4. CASTLING. Apparently, there’s this show on ABC called Castle. It’s about a murder mystery writer (man) who tags along with an attractive female homicide detective. I never heard of it. I have no idea what’s on TV these days. Anyway, this show is somewhere between Remington Steele (better than) and Moonlighting (worse than). They show it on Star TV here and I find myself looking forward to it. I am worried if I stay here much longer that my brain will turn to mush and I will start watching Glee, The Hills, Ugly Betty and all this other stuff that I’ve never watched. By the way, speaking of castling, a few of the guys play chess. I am not very good but I played once. I left my bishop exposed and one of the guys kept calling me Kasparov because he couldn’t see the trap I had laid for him. What he didn’t realize was that I had no idea my bishop was exposed, there was no trap, and I was simply an idiot.

5. US EMBASSY. I visited the US Embassy here today. The entry to the Embassy was a maze of concrete barriers, checkpoints, blast walls and armed guards. It was OK once you were on the Embassy grounds. But entering the compound is really depressing.

– It will probably get worse here before it gets better. Violence is escalating in some parts of the country. I still feel quite safe here.
– I must say Afghan apples are good. The cherries too.
– The marketing concept I prepared for the fruit and vegetable company that my clients asked me to prepare even though it wasn’t really in my scope of work was very well-received. Even if our project is not supposed to help individual companies, I am glad I did it. With the morass of politics and bureaucracy here, I can leave knowing that I helped a real business that is hiring people to work real jobs.
– Debbie is a working gal. Over a week at the job.
– Kids are starting flag rugby season and school is almost over.
– It’s not unique to Afghanistan but they use tissues at mealtime here instead of paper napkins. My kingdom for a Marcal 2-ply dinner napkin!

Days 25-26: Errata, 15 June 2010

Not much to report.


* You may have read that 90 girls in Afghan schools were hospitalized because extremists poisoned them with gasoline. The girls were ages 9-14. I get that people have different beliefs that I may not understand nor have the cultural capacity to understand. But if your tactics are poisoning children, then you are the lowest pieces of excrement.
* I brought my 3 worst suits here thinking that I would just leave them here. The combination of aged materials and rough conditions has caused me to tear one jacket from one suit and the pants from a different suit. So, now I am sporting the suit jacket with the khaki pants and mismatched suits. It’s a good look for me. I am now a fashion trendsetter.
* Lots of report writing ahead.

Days 23-24: Rocky Mountain High and Funky Chicken, 12 June 2010

1. CHICKEN STREET. I visited Chicken Street. Chicken Street is the only street in Kabul where we are allowed to walk semi-freely. It is closed to auto traffic so the chances of a car bomb are low and there are more policemen and soldiers than other streets. We went on Friday, which is the Muslim Sabbath, and it was a bit of a disappointment. There were very few people about. Instead of being like a bazaar or souk, it was a bunch of stores along one street. Not to mention that the security wasn’t all that impenetrable. What I found interesting was that there was some bargaining but not a great deal. I went into a scarf store. First of all, there was a little kid hanging out inside asking me to come visit his store across the street. I assume he was related to the owner of this store. Otherwise, he’d have gotten his as- beat. Anyhow, I asked how much for the scarves and the price was $10 apiece. I said 2 for $15 and you have a deal. The shop owner said No. I walked out the door expecting the fellow to chase me down the street like at the Khan-el-Khalili in Cairo. Nope. Didn’t even shout. I bought a few knick-knacks while I was there. Nothing special.

2. BEGGARS: There were beggars on Chicken Street. I was in East Timor last year and was amazed by the lack of beggars in Dili, the capital city, despite the abject poverty. It’s not the case here. There are plenty of beggars in Kabul — male, female, young, old, infirm, healthy.

3. RUSSIAN SHOP. We have Kyrgyz and Kazakh guys on our project. They are great guys. They frequent the “Russian Shop.” The proprietors speak Russian and peddle some paraphernalia from the Soviet occupation days. Although truth be told, they sell a lot more US and NATO t-shirt kind of stuff now. I decided to go the Russian shop. I bought a couple of T-shirts for the kids. I really didn’t bargain hard. I thought the prices were OK. So, the proprietor gave me one of those Pashtu Osama style hats. So, now I am stylin’ and profilin’. When I grow the beard back this winter, I will be sure to attract lots of FBI attention.

4. CEMETERY. I noticed a cemetery on the way up the mountain. I asked the driver if Afghans buried their dead in boxes or directly in the ground. He said both. What I found interesting was that very few graves were marked with an inscribed headstone. Most graves were marked by a plain thin stone. Something like a piece of flag stone with a triangular shape. The density of the graves was not the Prague cemetery but it was pretty close. Very dense. Picture a small plot of arid land, hundreds of pointy stones planted in dirt with a mountain of poor houses directly behind it, separated by a dirt road and a ring of garbage.

5. FOOD POISONING PLUS BROKEN BATHROOM=BAD COMBO. (NOTE: NOT GRAPHIC BUT YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ.) I have been shocked that since I arrived I haven’t had a cold, Osama’s revenge, jet lag, nothing. Well, our cooks made a British dinner the other night — roast, Yorkshire pudding, veggies, etc. Four of us got sick. Afterwards, several folks said it looked really bad and they didn’t eat it. Thanks for the warning, buddy. I just assume British food looks bad. (JT: You are the exception.) Compounding the issue, our bathrooms in the basement stopped working on Thursday night in time for the weekend. So, I have been hiking up to the bathroom on the roof deck. All the other bathrooms in the house are private. So, it’s not a lot of fun knocking on someone’s door at midnight and saying, “Hey, mind if I lighten my load.” Finish. And then say, “If I were you, I’d try not to go in there for the next 5-10 minutes.” There is a small public facility on the roof deck. Kabul is a mile-high city. Almost 6000 feet altitude. So, running up four flights of stairs to the roof, high altitude and a case of the trots = not a lot of fun. When I fantasized about joining the mile-high club, this wasn’t it. Maybe all the up and down the stairs to the bathroom in the altitude will improve my wind. (-;

6. JAMES BOND I’M NOT. There was a movie, I think it was a Bond movie, where someone opens a bottle of expensive wine with a long probe or needle. The sommelier just jabbed the needle in the wine bottle and pulled out the cork. I wanted to open a bottle of wine and there was no corkscrew about so I decided I would use this method. My implement: the punch on my pocket knife. I wasn’t so successful and pushed the cork halfway into the wine. So I decided to push the cork into the wine. Too bad I never took physics. Well, a geyser erupted and my pale yellow walls painted only four weeks ago were splattered permanently with red wine in a pattern Kandinsky would be proud of.

7. MUGGED IN LONDON. There’s a new Yahoo spam thing where the spammers get ahold of your Yahoo address book and send spam to all the email addresses. The email says that you have been mugged in London and you have no cash or credit cards and are in tears. It comes from your email address as opposed to Nigeria or one of the other scam locations. When Yahoo discovers the problem, they lock down your account for 24 hours. Thus, you can’t send out a general note telling everyone to disregard the spam. So, I received all kinds of emails from people including a few offers to help. When I responded, I wrote, “Ironically, I survived Kabul, Afghanistan only to be mugged in London!”

8. WORLD CUP. World Cup is a really big deal on the project. Even the Americans are international types, so they all know and love soccer. No one gives a rat’s rear about the NBA finals except the other guy from Jersey. One of our colleagues is taking her R&R in South Africa to go to the World Cup matches. Tonight is US v. UK. There are six folks from the UK on our project plus a few from the Commonwealth. Trouble’s abrewin’. USA! USA! (Most of our security guys are British and they are heavily armed. So, I will be sure to be a gracious winner if the US comes out on top.)

– The Thursday night BBQ was outstanding. One of our colleagues, for his birthday, made fantastic tandoori chicken on the grill and there was a garbage can full of Tuborg beer. Although the most interesting beverage was pomegranate wine. There were some guys from an agricultural support project. They took some of their farmers’ pomegranates and fermented their own wine. Like that old SNL sketch, you could use the wine as a pancake syrup or a disinfectant. Only bad part of the BBQ: I met some really nice guys from the US, big fans of music like Booker T. and the MGs but they were from Dallas and they were … you guessed it … Cowboys fans. Everyone has their faults.
– Bathroom update: The plumber just finished. Wahoo!
– Apologies. I forgot to take the camera. And my camera phone is horrendous.
– Thanks for the emails. Much appreciated. I haven’t responded to all of them yet but they were thoroughly enjoyed.