Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Holiday Season in Afghanistan — No … Azerbaijan? … Moldova?, 3 December 2010

Since some enjoyed my missives from Afghanistan, I have been away in places not as dangerous but nearly as exotic and thought I would write from my latest destinations. I’ll never say never but I have no plans to return to Afghanistan as things are even worse on the ground than last summer. I am currently in Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. For those of Eastern European ancestry who are Bessarabians, Bessarabia is in Moldova. Moldova was the most Western republic in the Soviet Union and is now an independent country. The country is divided in two by the Transdniester river. The Western half is a pro-Europe region that is ethnically and historically linked to Romania. The Eastern half is a pro-Russian, pro-Communist place that hosts Russian military and is a center for human trafficking.

On to the thoughts:

THE ICEMAN COMETH: My job here is to be an independent evaluator of a US Government project designed to stimulate the IT, Wine and Apparel industries. This week we decided to do some site visits outside of the capital city of Chisinau. After our site visits, we were headed to spend the night at a winery which received assistance from the project and also featured a four-star hotel. The roads in Moldova cannot be described. My Moldovan colleague says “We have roads in some places and space for roads in other places.” Entire villages have no roads only spaces between buildings that have been sufficiently trodden to create some sort of path or ersatz road. There were roads built during the Soviet days but they just end. No barrier, no sign. Just end of pavement. There was one road that ended into a ditch. My Moldovan colleague was driving and knew where he was going. I’d have driven in the ditch. The roads that are paved are filled with potholes, have few markings, etc. The roads in rural Romania seem like superhighways by comparison. Anyway, we finished our last appointment and headed toward the hotel for what was supposed to be a 90 minute ride. After 30 minutes, an ice storm started. Our colleague was being pretty careful but the road was really slick. We hit an ice patch and skidded across the road. As we were skidding, I had no fear of serious injury. Fortunately, there were no walls or trees roadside nor were there other cars near us. There was nothing hard to hit nor could we fall too far and we were driving pretty slow. But I was thinking, “Oh Lord, I hope I am not sitting roadside in 20 degree (Fahrenheit) weather with a broken leg or a concussion for six hours awaiting to go to some country hospital where I have to bribe a drunk, unqualified butcher of a doctor to treat me with medical technology from the 1940s.” Fortunately, Slava knew what to do and we eventually straightened out. We drove about 20 miles per hour the rest of the way and made it to our destination in 3 1/2 hours. Safe and sound but exhausted.

THE WINE TASTING: We had pre-arranged a tasting at the winery. After our ride, we were ready. Moldova produces some very good wines for the price but cannot compete with inexpensive wines from Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Italy. I hadn’t realized we were tasting 8 wines that evening. Needless to say, by the end of the evening, the skid was a distant memory. The fellow leading the wine tasting was leading it in a Communist style; meaning rather than leading the wine tasting as an experience to be enjoyed, it was more like a class in didactics. It was all I could do not to punch him after a long day of interviewing people and riding in the car. But after the fourth wine, my mood improved considerably. Because of the ice, we canceled our appointments for the next day and drove slowly back to Chisinau, the capital.

WOOLLY BULLY: One of our site visits was to a wool collection company. Moldova has some carpet making companies. Most of the carpet wool is imported but until recently about 20% of the wool was produced locally. We visited a wool collection company. I can’t begin to describe this place. You couldn’t believe this place was Europe. I have been to nicer production facilities in East Timor. First, after our long journey, we visited the fetid outhouse which made the portajohn at Jesse and Lucy’s rugby field seem like the Plaza Hotel of “cans.” Then, when we went to talk to the Vice President of the company, he invited us into an unheated hut with an unfinished floor, a table covered in newspapers, a bed, and three chairs. There were 3 or 4 very grizzled looking workers and an intimidating dog on a chain. We talked to this gentleman and he said no one will buy the wool they collect any more. There is a plant (Curnutsi) that grows on their pasture that gets stuck on the sheep’s wool. They try to clean the wool and wash it but the plant remains stuck to the wool. They don’t have other land without this plant to raise the sheep. So, now no one buys their wool. He is trying to work as a service provider by collecting wool for a fee in Ukraine. It is difficult to go back and report that an industry is dying and there is little to be done about it. There is little other work for these people. Moldova has the second highest percentage of remittances as a percent of Gross National Product in the world. Remittances are funds sent home from working overseas. There are 3-4 million Moldovans in Moldova and 1-2 million working outside the country.

OOMPAH: Near our our hotel is Beer Platz, a German beer hall with the requisite schnitzel and sausages, waiters and waitresses in Germanic costumes (shockingly the waitresses were not in dirndls – exploitation of female pulchritude is big in these parts), beer hall style decor and a band. This part of the world had a large ethnic German community before the Second World War. When I asked if the place was founded by members of the ethnic German community, I was told that the place used to be a disco and someone just had the idea for a German beer hall. So much for history. My favorite part, besides the Weissbier on tap, was the band. Three guys who mainly played over pre-recorded music. They wore the green hats with the feathers but couldn’t be bothered to wear the rest of the outfits. The ultimate cheesy faux oompah band.
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Before I came to Moldova, I spent a week in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a fascinating place. When I tell people I was in Azerbaijan, the usual reaction is “Where?” or “I never heard of it.” Azerbaijan is on the Caspian Sea and is an oil producer. So, economic times are pretty good there relative to the rest of the world. What makes the place so fascinating is that is a former Soviet republic, near Iran and Turkey and trying to link with the US and Europe. It is a blend of the exotic and the modern, the Communist and rapid capitalist expansion — a real juxtaposition of Oriental and Occidental ways.

FAME: My purpose in Azerbaijan was to give a series of lectures. The main lecture being a two-day seminar to students from the State Economic University of Baku. After the lectures, the students came up and asked if they could take pictures with me as if I were some sort of celebrity. At first, I sort of looked over my shoulder, and thought, “You mean me?” But the young folks wanted to take their pictures with me since I was a “famous” visiting lecturer. I must have taken thirty pictures. One of the students sketched a picture of me and gave it to me as a present. I was taken aback. Other than he sketched me with an enormous double chin. Great. I lectured in Azerbaijan in 2009 at a University out in the countryside. And one young man was so appreciative that a foreigner came all the way out to the sticks, he offered me his watch. I declined and told him I couldn’t take his watch. I settled for three boxes of tea that he was selling for his MBA marketing project. When I left the University in the countryside on the last visit, the Rector of the University insisted I have dinner with him. I explained I had a flight back to Baku and I was leaving for the US early the next morning. My diplomatic colleagues told me it would be a great insult if I didn’t have dinner with the Rector. The Rector is one of the most important men in this republic. So, we agreed to have a cocktail reception at 6:00 at a restaurant near the airport. I would be able to check in for my 8:00 flight with no problem. We arrive at the restaurant at 6:00 and no Rector. 6:30 … 7:00 … still no Rector. I am starting to get nervous. Finally at 7:15, I ask my Azeri colleague if we can go. He calmly explained to me that the Rector called the airport and held the plane. The plane doesn’t leave until I arrive. It’s that simple. At 7:20, the Rector calls and asks me to meet him at the airport for tea. I meet the Rector for tea at 7:30. At 7:59, I walk to the plane — no checkin, security, anything. One of the Rector’s staff handed me a boarding pass. Amazing what goes on in an isolated, autonomous Central Asian republic.

ALL THAT JAZZ. One night in Baku, the capital city, I went to a jazz club with a colleague. There was a band that played fusion music with three young guys and two older guys. As the guitarist, one of the older guys, was ripping through Santana’s Soul Sacrifice as the final number, I couldn’t help but imagine him thirty years ago being in the basement of some Communist conservatory illegally trading Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin tapes and jamming with his buddies when the party apparatchiks were away.

LEAVING AZERBAIJAN: As I was checking in for my flight, the airline staffer looked at my ticket to Newark Airport and asked if I was from New Jersey. When I replied Yes, he said his uncle was living in Freehold and he had been to New Jersey. Small world.

Well, that’s all. I’ll be home in about 10 days. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Xmas, and Happy New Year.

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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.

Cheers,
Mike17 aka Barry
—–
END OF MISSION SUMMARY

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.
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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.

ERRATA:
– 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.

ERRATA
– 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.