Sunday, December 24, 2006

Guards and Guns

As I mentioned before, when we moved from our old house, the international staff split into two separate houses, just a block away from each other. Nathan is at the other house, so we take turns going back and forth to feed our Battlestar Galactica addiction. Tonight it was my turn to walk over to his place. Of course, I’m not allowed to walk even a block by myself, so I had to wait for one of the drivers to escort me. I do, however, absolutely refuse to drive the teensy distance, so we walked over together in the snow. It is really beautiful tonight – it’s been snowing since this morning so the ground is covered with fresh whiteness – a perfect Christmas Eve.

After watching a couple of hours of Battlestar (we just made it into season three) I bundled up for the walk home. As I walked to the gate, the guard asked me to wait for a minute and then he re-appeared, with his big gun in hand. We walked down the middle of the quiet, darkly snowy street, the guard several steps ahead of me, and I thought about how much money that gun cost and how many children it could have fed. I am an NGO employee. I work in humanitarian aid and development, why am I being escorted by a man with a gun? Does development work in an environment where we have to be protected by guns? Doesn’t that go against the idea of humanitarian assistance? There was a time when NGO workers were safe because of their role as 'helpers to the community', but I suppose medical workers and journalists were also considered “untouchable” once upon a time. The highest number of injuries and deaths to aid workers used to be car accidents – now it is targeted attacks.

This summer at the DC office I had an incredulous reaction when one of my colleagues told me that our Afghanistan office had armed guards. And now they are escorting me to and from my movie night.

No Eggnog This Year

Nope, not for me. I’ve sunk to new lows. My holiday drink of the season is V8 with Tabasco and fresh garlic, served hot in a holiday mug (okay, it’s not a holiday mug, but it has some red on it). It’s fantastic! Really, you should try it. Okay, maybe not. In fact, it is horrendous. Not even vodka could make it worthwhile. But, some quack website claims that it helps cure/avoid sinus infections, so I’m giving it a go. Don’t try this at home, kids.

As those of you who know me will remember, last year I spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, outside of the Church of the Nativity, in pouring down freezing rain. Then I spent a week working with a nonviolence conference in an unheated school, also in Bethlehem. By New Years Day I was ragingly ill, and it took me two months and 3 rounds of antibiotics to kick it. So, this year I’m taking matters into my own hands. I’ve had my first nasty cold of the season, and I can feel everything settling not-so-comfortably into my sinus passages. Well, screw that! I’m going to drink tomato juice/Tabasco sauce/garlic beverages; I’ll lean over a bowl of steaming water with a chador over my head to keep the humidity in; I’ll take the goddamn vitamin C and Echinacea and extract oil of a newt’s testicles and whatever else those crunchy home-remedy types recommend – just please don’t make me suffer as much as I did last year.

Who needs eggnog anyway, with all its fat calories and alcohol? Or holiday peppermint mocha lattes? Those drinks are for wusses.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I’m writing this entry from my new home, just a few blocks from the old staff house. I’m currently sitting on the floor between two heaters (rotisserie Sahar, anyone?) trying to get warm – it seems like I haven’t been warm in days, although even I know that’s an exaggeration. I haven’t showered in four days, which is NOT an exaggeration, although I wish it was…My personal hygiene has consisted of brushing my teeth and rinsing my face with bottled water.

At first the move really didn’t seem like it was going to be bad. After all, there were at least six men moving the stuff, so I didn’t have to do that, which was nice (the power just went out, btw) and everything seemed to be in order. When we arrived at the new house it was freezing cold, as a concrete house that has been empty for months would be. I spent the morning settling into my new room then my boss and I ate lunch before I headed over to the office. While we were eating, Tashi and Heida (dogs) were hanging out with us, in my new room. Then Heida jumps up onto my bed, stands on top of my pillow, and pees all over it and the bed. Now, I like dogs, and I wasn’t too upset by this because I knew the washer and dryer were being delivered that afternoon, so I just stripped the bed and went to work. I wasn’t too concerned about the lack of power and water because I knew our Admin officer was working on it – that was Sunday.

Today is Tuesday. Since Sunday we’ve had spotty electricity, no food (no fridge), some water, but no hot (or even not freezing cold) water. To add insult to injury, on Monday I left my cold house and walked across the street to the office, thinking at least there would be heat there. HA. The office generator went down, so I spent the first 3 hours of the day sitting in a freezing concrete office with no heat, no light and a dead laptop battery. (power came back)

Now, I realize that I am working in the field, and this is part of the territory. This lack of heat situation worries me because I have lupus, and any extended exposure to cold can make me very sick. I get symptoms every winter in the US, but they don’t usually get serious until late January or early February. Spring starts in DC in March, so it usually isn’t too big of a deal. Unfortunately, my symptoms are already starting, and it is only December. From what I’ve heard, winter hasn’t even started in Afghanistan, and January and February are brutally cold. I should be okay if I can stay in warm places, but if the house and the office aren’t warm, I’m going to have some serious problems. For now I’m playing the wait and see game, but I will be terribly disappointed if I can’t fulfill my contract because of the weather. I try not to let the lupus control, or even really influence my life – but this may be out of my hands. (power just went out, came back, and went out again)

On a more upbeat note, the water heater has supposedly been fixed, so I’m looking forward to taking a shower in the very near future. We don’t have hot water yet, but it isn’t freezing cold, so hopefully we’ll have enough warm water for showers soon. Of course, the electricity has to stay on for the water to run, and for it to heat up, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

one big happy family

Ho hum. It's Wednesday night and I'm hanging out at home. I didn't do any work after hours for a change - instead I finished reading In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Wiener, which I picked up at Shah books over the weekend. As always, the book is better than the movie. . . Now I'm on my third glass of vodka and tonic, and very bored. I don't drink much here, and certainly not by myself (and never vodka), but tonight I'm kind of enjoying the novelty of it.

Our happy little staff family is splitting up - Ian and Matt went back to the US and the rest of us are moving house on Sunday. Our current staff house is located a main road, just down the street from the Parliament, and it was attacked during the May riots. Nothing to serious, but enough to make us feel insecure in this location. We're splitting up when we move - I'm moving with my boss and her dogs into a little house across the street from our office, and the guys are moving into a bigger staff house down the street.

Nathan has an opportunity to move into a group house with some acquaintances of ours, but he's having a hard time getting permission because of the security situation. We had a house meeting last night to talk about security, security policy and logistics. It lasted for two hours, and I felt like I was listening to my big brother trying to lobby for a later curfew. Nathan wants to move out in hopes a living a somewhat more normal lifestyle, and feeling less like an occupier, but there are a lot of questions of what would happen in a security situation like the May riots. So, it has been tabled until the end of January, when theoretically we will have answers to some of these security questions.

Speaking of security, rumor has it that a truck carrying explosives managed to get inside Camp Eggars, one of the US Military bases in Kabul. It was discovered and disarmed before anything happened. . . Camp Eggars happens to be where I volunteer with the Women of Hope project on Fridays. The creepy part is that I was lying in bed last night after our big security house meeting, thinking morbid thoughts, and one of the scenarios I envisioned was someone bombing the Friday bazaar at Camp Eggars. Now, a military base in an obvious target, but I still think that the coincidence is a little weird. I think I'm still going on Friday, but my boss has already warned me that I may not be permitted to go. The whole living with your co-workers, security situation is a little too parental for my liking. . .

In unrelated news, I received a singing Christmas card via email from a friend in the US. I had forgotten how close Christmas is. . . without the constant bombardment of consumerist holiday madness, it almost slipped my mind. It made me a little sad when I heard the Christmas music - this will my second holiday season in a row away from home. Overall, I'm fine with it, but I will miss my special Christmas stocking hanging by the fireplace at our house in Syracuse, decorating the tree with my brothers and putting all of my favorite ornaments in front (after they leave the room) and my great grandmother's German Christmas cookies. Last year, I spent Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This year I'll probably spend it in the office, finalizing a survey questionnaire for a big research project we're funding. Ah well, it'll be good experience for me.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Great Day

View from the Intercontinental Hotel

Cemetary behind the Intercontinental Hotel

Entrance to the Intercontinental

Shortcut through an old part of the city (from the car)

Traditional Bread Oven

View from the lake

View from the lake

This one is pretty self explanatory. . .

Matt, holding up the golf club building

Nathan, Matt and Ian (wish this wasn't blurry!)

Today was one of the best days that I've had since I arrived in Kabul. It started around 9 am, when I picked up Ian and we headed to the Intercontinental Hotel. I went to the Intercontinental for lunch a few weeks ago and noticed that next to the hotel, which is one of the higher points in the city, there is a path that leads up to a scenic view. So, after a little car haggling (too many staff, not enough cars) we got dropped off at the hotel. Unfortunately, it was cloudy (and smoggy) today, so we didn't have as good of a view as I had hoped, but I still got some great pictures. Oddly, on the path just behind the hotel there is a small graveyard. We didn't stay on the path for too long - the windchill was brutal that high up. So, after about 15 minutes we admitted defeat and had breakfast at the hotel before heading to our next destination - Shah Books.

Before the bookstore, we made a small detour to pick up two of our consultants who were heading to the office for work. Because traffic was horrendous, we took a detour through one of the oldest parts of the city. The street that we drove down was full of old, crumbling buildings with stores on the bottom level. Most of the stores were bakeries, and they had traditional bread ovens in the front area, facing the street. The ovens look a lot like kilns. Then we stopped on Chicken Street, the infamously overpriced tourist shopping area, so that one of our consultants could pay off the carpet seller she'd bought several rugs from. Chicken St. was off limits when I arrived in September because of all the bombings that were happening in Kabul at the time. There was a bomb that went off on Chicken St. this year, killing one international (American, I think) and one Afghan. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of the flamboyantly colorful street, but I'm sure I'll get another chance. . .

Some of you may have read The Bookseller of Kabul, well, today I met him (he's the owner of Shah Books). I also spent about an hour and half drooling over all of his books. . . He also totally ripped us off, charging full price for obviously used books, but since English books are something of a commodity I wasn't complaining. I was very restrained and only bought 4 books, including The Clockwork Orange, which I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read previously. Mr. Shah speaks wonderful English, but he was far more interested in talking to Ian than myself, which is fine because I was far more interested in his books!

After the bookstore we headed home for lunch and picked up Nathan and Matt. Then we drove out to a lake and golf course about 20 minutes outside of the city. This is the first time that I've been out of the city since my trip to Jalalabad. The entire area was covered with about 3-4 inches of crusted over snow, and Tashi (Tilly's dog) and I had a great time crunching through it to get down to the lake. The area was cleared of mines a year or so ago, but we were careful to stay in areas where we could see other people's tracks. I don't think I can describe how wonderful it felt to be outside, walking around, away from the smog and city traffic. . . Tashi had a good time too, although I had to keep her on a short leash because of all the stray dogs around. It was especially nice because it was cold enough that there weren't too many people around. I'm sure it is beautiful in the warmer weather, and I'm equally sure that it is thronged. . . Half the fun was not having to worry about behaving inappropriately because there was hardly anyone around. . .

After we got home we all huddled around the fireplace and drank tea before watching a movie.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Unfortunately, the weather is the most interesting thing that has happened in my life this week. It started snowing late morning on Saturday and didn't stop until this morning. Now, being from Syracuse, it takes a lot to impress me as far as snow is concerned. That said, I can't remember the first snow of the season lasting for three straight days - and I'm from the snowiest city in the continental US.

The Salang pass was officially closed for about 36 hours after an avalanche killed 3 people and wounded 8 others. Now traffic is only allowed to pass in one direction - North to South at the moment. As the winter continues the direction will vary, one day northbound traffic can pass, and the next day southbound. Except, of course, when the pass is totally closed. People die on that treacherous road every year from the cold, the icy roads, avalanches and from exhaust fumes in the tunnel. . .

Betsy and one of our consultants were both supposed to leave Kabul for the US Saturday afternoon. They are both still here because the weather shut down the airport. Betsy re-booked her flight for Sunday and poor John is going to have to drive from Kabul to Peshawar, then fly to Lahore and then fly to Delhi to pick up his flight home. Ugh. The airport has become a total nightmare because most of the flights leaving Kabul are pretty booked because of the holiday season - this means that people who's flights were cancelled are stuck on long standby lists. Ariana and Kam Air don't really have the extra planes available to schedule extra flights, so everyone is stuck. Speaking of Ariana, I heard a funny story about their airline:

Betsy was flying from Kabul to Dubai, and as the plane was taking off she noticed that passengers were talking on their cell phones. Now, Betsy worked in the airline industry for 20+ years, so she called the flight attendant over and said something along the lines of, "Um, I'm pretty sure that cell phones and other electronic equipment disturb the plane's radar system. Isn't this a problem?"

To which the flight attendant replied, "Oh no, it's no problem - we don't have that technology on these planes."

So basically, if the pilots can't physically see the mountains (which completely surround Kabul) they can't fly. . .

On a more personal note, this week has been full of ups and downs. I'm still waiting for my contract to be approved by headquarters, so I'm not 100% sure that I'm staying. Everyone is stressed at work, which is tiring when you live and work with the same people. The snow has been beautiful, but the office is COLD, and I hate the cold. I've also been feeling lonely lately. I don't have any female friends here around my age, and while the guys are great, a little variety would be nice. . . I did finish a big project that I've been working on for the last two months, which feels awesome! I have a big deadline for USAID tomorrow, but I feel confident I'll get it done on time. And, my relationship with the Gender Advisor seems to be on the upswing, which certainly makes my life easier.