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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.

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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 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.

6. ERRATA.
– 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.

ERRATA

* 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.)

ERRATA:
– 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.

Days 14-18: Slow Going, 6 June 2010

Not the most enlightening email. We had three straight days of lockdown. Then we work on compound on Saturdays in order to give the Afghan staff the day off. So, it was four straight days in the house.

1. BOREDOM. The jirga lockdown caused me to finally hit major boredom. The four straight days in the house did me in. I didn’t think I could ever be bored of ping-pong. Andrey, the best ping-pong player here, and I split our first eight games. Now he usually beats me. Part of it is that he’s better than me. Part of it is that after 6-10 games of ping pong per day for ten consecutive days, I can’t even concentrate.

2. AFGHAN MOURNING. An Afghan officemate’s 24 year old younger brother died yesterday.  The Afghan mourning period is forty days. Day 1 is the burial. To prepare for the burial, family members wash the body. If one tear falls on the body, the washing must be restarted. Day 2 is the condolence. Day 3 is the hitam. It is an important day. I think it’s kind of like a somber wake. The whole mourning cycle is one year.

4. FLIES II. The flies in my room were driving me nuts. One of my housemates has an electronic fly swatter/zapper. It’s shaped like a tennis racquet. You swat the fly with the racquet, press the button and ZAP! Over the years, I have stopped killing most bugs. Mosquitos and bees of course. Generally, if the bug is not bothering me, I just toss it outside. But I had enough of these flies. I was like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. I grabbed this zapper and closed the door behind me. Just like Bronson dressing up like an old lady and riding the subway, I opened a banana and waited for these flies and said “Hey, you punk.” Two hours later there were fly carcasses strewn about and my bloodlust sated.

5. ERRATA
– Afghanistan is landlocked. During the old Silk Road days, the Khyber Pass came through Afghanistan and it was a major overland trading route. Unfortunately, it has now seaport and international trade in the modern era is difficult. Any way I had my first fish meal yesterday. Fish is my favorite. It was such a treat.
– Finally watched the Batman movie with Heath Ledger. He was good in it.
– Ping-pong update: Split with Andrey tonight.
– Kids finishing school. Doing Lake Association track and awaiting the start of flag rugby. Visiting with their cousins from out of town.
– More in a couple of days.

Days 12-13 – Jirga Lockdown and Working Blue, 4 June 2010

It’s Friday. The jirga ends today but we are still locked down. Security is awaiting for information that will let us travel. Friday is everyone’s normal shopping and restaurant day. But as they say, discretion is the better part of valor.

1. SUICIDE BOMBERS. I had a conversation with an Afghan about poverty. He mentioned that a relative or a friend was involved in a suicide bombing years ago. The bomber didn’t believe in or support the Taliban. He was desperately poor and the Taliban offered him a great deal of money to do a suicide bombing. It was the only way he could envision taking care of his family. I guess this is why we need to attack poverty.

2. FLIP FLOPS. I use a shared bathroom. I am pretty much the only who uses it but there is often water on the floor and I can’t always trace its origins. So I went to the Finest Supermarket to purchase a pair of flip-flops/sandals. (For you New Yorkers, I was hoping it was an old school Finast but it’s not.) There are various sandals and flip-flops there but nothing in an 11 1/2 or 12. A young clerk came over to help me and said, “This is impossible, sir. You have very big foot.” I bought a size 10.

3. BBQ PARTY. We had a nice TAIT (Thank Allah It’s Thursday) BBQ on the roof last night. The treat was hamburgers and buns. But even better were some outstanding lamb chops. Never mind I that I supposedly gave up lamb. (AJC: You and your family’s influence.) It was also the first time I had lettuce since arriving here. They do a chopped vegetable salad here similar to an Israeli or Lebanese salad. There was good camaraderie and I had my first three beer evening in Kabul. I loaded up some party music on the iPod and one of my colleagues had one of those speaker systems where you can drop your iPod directly into a slot and it plays. All in all, it was a nice time. Back in the gym today.

4. BANNED WEBSITES. As you might expect, any sort of objectionable Internet content is banned in Afghanistan. I was on the Sports Illustrated website. I clicked on the swimsuit issue link. Banned. Hmm… sexual image. OK, I get it. There was a link to a site offering free downloads of Kid Rock music. Banned. The site was sponsored by Jim Beam. OK, I get it. Rock music and alcohol. Then I clicked on a link about former Giant WR Amani Toomer’s father operating the scoreboard in Oakland. Banned. I don’t get it. Football? No, you can click on NFL.com. Scoreboards? Amani Toomer? Diva wide receivers? Technical glitch? Who knows?

5. MANGOES. Mangoes are very popular here. They are imported from India. They don’t slice them here like we do. They knead them until they are very soft, cut off the end, squeeze the mango, and suck out the contents. If you have ever watched an Afghan man work over a mango, it’s like he’s squeezing … well … a part of the female anatomy. The kneading process often takes them quite awhile. Either there’s a lot of satisfaction or pent-up frustration in mango eating.

6. BRINGING A RATED-R PEACE TO AFGHANISTAN. I will preface these remarks by saying that I fully understand that I sound like a sexist. (Debbie might say if I sound like a sexist, then …) Thinking about the extreme poverty, the mangoes and the banned websites, I was chatting with some of my colleagues about the situation here. Over a few drinks, we surmised that maybe what would help here is a little more skin. Life is difficult. Food is hard to come by. Alcohol is banned. There are very few pleasures in life. If I were a Taliban, I’d be angry too. Maybe a few more scantilly clad ladies would make life tolerable. Most men are not angry when enjoying the visage of a woman. Do you really want to go to the Promised Land and meet 72 virgins when there are attractive ladies in the here and now? If every woman was in a burqa, I’d be ready to do something crazy too. When I was getting my medical exam for my trip, my doctor suggested that the US Government buy a couple million iPods, PSPs, etc. and deliver them to the Taliban and the young people. His feeling was that these people need fun in their lives. Diversions. If we take those iPods and load them up with a bunch of FHM and SI swimsuit issues, between the video games and the ladies, these guys would be a lot more chilled out. (-;

7. ERRATA
– So far, my stay has been OK. I am flattered that several of my colleagues who I socialize with have asked me to request a long-term assignment here. When I tell them that I have no interest in a long-term assignment here, they look at me like I am crazy. Good money, limited home responsibilities, no expenses, all the basics of life (food, laundry, housing, etc.) are taken care of, etc. I’m glad they’re happy but it’s not for me.
– We don’t have screens on the windows and the flies are about to drive me insane. They don’t bite but they are buzzing around everywhere. They are the little fast ones too. Not the big, slow ones.
– Weather is beautiful if a bit dusty. Warm but not hot in the day. Cool and breezy at night.
– 8 1/2 hour time difference is great for watching American sports. I woke up at 7:30 AM and watched the second half of Game 1 of the Celtics-Lakers series.