Sunday, September 12, 2010

J-bad to Kabul

I woke up at around 6 am, covered with mosquito bites. The heat was just beginning to break, so this was the first night in J-Bad I had been able to sleep with the fan and not the AC.

Fary, in her seemingly bottomless international navigatory prowess, has secured me a spot on a dipolomatic flight. I depart from FOB Fenty. A new friend from the Taj, a security contracter, escorts me at the base. This morning he's rocking what I like to call "Business on the Bottom - Party on the Top" - He's wearing a pakol hat and the jumper of native Kameez over cargo pants and butt-stomping American boots. Lots of the security dudes do this - I assume it's because a) they only need to look afghan while driving and/or b) the Kameez bottoms are too loose to securely jam a pistol in.

There is a terminal for outgoing flights. It has the standard uncomfortable chairs you're used to in airport waiting bays, a big screen TV playing the Red Sox game, and some fascinating posters depicting "ARACHNIDS OF AFGHANISTAN". A leathery woman helms the desk - her tight jeans and rhinestone earrings somehow compliment her camo shirt, which might be how she gets away with it. She welcomes us enthusiastically. However, she explains, it is not possible to catch USAID flighs from the comfort of this terminal's air-conditioned halls.

I have to wait on - you guessed it - the fucking tarmac.

My buddy drops me off with a high five and a promise to visit Cali (everyone but californians call it cali), leaving me to poke around the razor-wire delineated edge of the airfield.

A fascinating feature of the FOB are the Afghan quarters. There are cookie-cutter beige bungalows for military housing, but many natives live here as well. Their homes are small but gaily painted, with rose gardens and shady patios. The patios all feature a chaise or two for lounging, like their homes outside the wire. And now that Ramadan is over, a teapot is always perched beside them. There is even a brightly colored little mosque, with distinctive domes and megaphones. Just such an installment sat tucked beside the airfield. Beside it was a handpainted sign that read, "MOHAMMEDS STORE: RUGS AND JEWELRY."

I humped my bags around the corner to investigate - perhaps i would have an opportunity to do a little shopping after all! But I was stopped in my tracks by a cranky Afghan in western jeans and t-shirt. "Who are you? Where are you going?" I realize I must have looked strange - In my Afghan garb and American sneakers, short hair uncovered, arms full of luggage. However, this is NOT the welcome I have become accustomed to from Afghans.

Allow me to explain - these are the most hospitable people you will ever meet, with the possible exception of Black Rock Citizens. Everyone is very accommodating, happy to see you, eager to share everything they have and make you feel most welcome. Not the case with the FOB Afghans. Hells to the no.

A nearby Afghan policeman observed this exchange. While clearly kind of embarrassed by the first guy's behavior (he shooed him away with the muzzle of an AK), he was intent upon figuring out where I was headed and sending me that way immediately. He brought me around to the rear of MOHAMMEDS STORE (which never did enjoy my patronage), where there was a tiny cafe with a sign that read, "Cinamin Bread, Sugar Bread, Plain Bread." A cook poked his head out, and exchanged words with the officer, and then with me. "Who are you? Where are you going?"

"I'm on the USAID flight." I explained. The cook nodded. "Yes, yes. You must go around, make a right.." Where do you think he directed me? That's right. Back to the fucking tarmac. No Cinamin Bread for me. No Plain Bread either. And sure as hell no RUGS AND JEWELRY. Leave it to Americans to throttle the most fundamental instinct toward kindness out of a people.

So I humped my gear back and found a shady spot near the fence. I ate a power bar. About 50 feet away from me, a plane took off. I turned my back to it. My hair and ears and buttcrack are now full of Afghan soil. In the distance, after a forklift drove away, a small tent office became visible on the opposite end of the airfield. I lugged my crap over and made small talk with the officer there responsible for shipping and receiving. His name was Mike, from MA. He's been here for 5 years. Again, news that I had been living in the city was met with incredulity and apprehension.

When it was time, he packed me onto a sweet little 6-seater bird, piloted by some handsome South African pilots. I dozed for the 30 minute flight to Kabul.

Kabul! How I wish I could spend more time here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mohammed was a cat lover.

Apparently, he cut off the sleeve of one of his robes, rather than rouse the cat sleeping upon it. In Islam, it's totally ok to drink from a vessel after a cat has. Also, you can be condemned to hell for mistreating a cat. But anyone on 4chan could have told you that.

Contrast this with dogs. The angels of Allah will not enter the home of one who owns a dog! Anyone who keeps a dog for any reason other than hunting or farming will lose the benefits of one of his good deeds for the day. And if a dog drinks from one of your utensils, it is necessary to wash that thing *seven times*

Now, dogs are cool. I'd like a dog someday. It's hard to get behind the stringent anti-dog prohibitions. But I'm an avowed cat person. It is very hard for me to find fault with a prophet who, by all historical accounts, loved his kitty very much. Peace be upon him!

Anyway. The whole city is winding down. It's the last few days of Ramadan, and people are preparing for Eid, the festival that will follow. For three days, observants will visit family, attend religious services, and eat a lot of food. Then, effectively, summer vacation is over. Everyone will go back to school.

I don't regret coming, not a bit. However, the combined effects of pregnancy and Ramadan made this trip uncomfortable. I had a hard time keeping up with Fary's busy visiting schedule. I can get along fine in my default state without eating once every couple of hours. Beanface, however, demands frequent and substantial tribute and punishes me with nausea and cramps if I don't comply.

And truth be told, all of our hosts were very accommodating, even if they didn't know about my condition. Frequently we were offered meals or drinks, always with the disclaimer that, "we cannot join you, but you are our guests.." Of course, the polite thing is to turn this down. . So it was hard even to bring small snacks to consume in my bag. I would have had to eat them in front of our hosts. No lunch at the guest house either, unless by special request, and I always feel bad asking the guys to cook while they're fasting.. even though they would. So I stayed home more often than I would have liked. Going out for more than a couple hours was uncomfortable and even worse than the cramps and nausea is the feeling that my pokey ass is compromising our mission somehow. On more than one occasion I was asked by a new Afghan friend, "You look like you're fasting. You don't have to fast. Are you fasting?" No, but I am home to a rapidly growing symbiote who is consuming all of my calories. I might as well be.

At any other time, this would not have been an issue. We would have been obliged to sit and eat lavish meals and drink bladder-bursting quantities of tea for hours over small talk. But then I'd probably be complaining about my bladder. I can hear it now, "OMG, the gallons and gallons of tea! The social and hydrostatic pressure..!" Silly alternative universe Me. You don't know how well you have it.

I will be leaving in the middle of Eid. Hopefully traffic will have died down. In anticipation of the feasting, people have been spilling into the city to buy groceries and new clothes, creating impassible traffic.

I'm looking forward to coming home soon. I feel like I've done well at the hospital, but no school was in session, so there were no opportunities to teach like last time. And while it was delightful to visit the Global Connection Exchange Program participants on various campuses, developing a real relationship with locals was not so much on the menu.

And I didnt leave the house as much as I would have liked. The elections are coming soon, and violence is lately more frequent and less predictable. I didn't get to go shopping at all. And now, it is nearly Eid. Assuming I could manage to wedge myself into the market, it would be very difficult to do so safely. And everything is marked up by 200%. I should have made arrangements to visit the bazaar weeks ago. Totally screwed the pooch on that one.

One thing different about this trip - I spent a lot of time on military bases. I'll be writing more about this in days to come. There's a lot to process. It was strange. At first, I felt like hanging out on the base was a waste of time in Afghanistan. It's basically like a postage stamp of America plunked down in the middle of a foreign country and surrounded by concrete and barbed wire. Moreover, most on the base are effectively stuck there, or unable to leave without 30 soldiers and a convoy. To these folks, military or state department, the thought of living in the city and moving about freely inspires both fear and envy. But I came to see these qualities as fascinating in and of themselves. It's a culture that is precise and yet inefficient, so organized and yet so ineffectual. And because it has the pleasures and comforts of home, it is desperately at odds with the people and environment it is attempting to control. It became a pleasure to accompany my military colleagues for the fun of sightseeing. Besides, where else in Afghanistan can you get a guacamole cheeseburger?

Now in my last several days in-country, I'll be tying up loose ends at the Taj, ordering parts for the broken ultrasound, floating in the scintillating pool, and counting the kicks and punches of my now mango-sized passenger. The Bean has become a Jumping Bean! Mostly active right after dinner, and right before I drift off to sleep. Woke me up once, with a hearty THWAP to the pelvic region...Mighty Kung Fu Bean!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pro Tips:

1. The answer to the question, "What smells like burning plastic?" is almost certainly, "Burning plastic"

2. An Afghani is a unit of currency. Afghans are people.

3. This is not Iraq. Security, military: please leave your preconceptions on the plane. Iraqis are modern urbanites who will fuck with you on purpose. Afghans are ignorant farmers. They have no idea why you're so pissed.

4. You will get sick. Brush your teeth with the local water and git it over with quickly.

5. If you find yourself shitting liquid for 24 hours straight, however, this is probably normal and nothing to worry about.

6. Hand sanitizer is your friend.

7. Afghan National Police are *not* your friends. They will ask for your passport at check points. Do NOT give them your passport. Give them a business card instead.

8. Remember to Smile!

9. Bring your own booze. There is scant to be found here. Dubai is a good place to stock up (duty free!) on the way in. If you don't source your own, expect to pay up to 120$ for a case of beer. Sorry to say, it's not going to be good beer, either.

10. Dont pay anyone to carry your bags. Leave no bags unattended.

11. If you are an infidel, dont bother to come during Ramadan. It's brutally hot, there's nothing to eat, and everyone is in a shit mood.

12. Dont wear black boots. Everything you own will eventually be covered in goatshit.

13. Do not distribute -anything- to people knocking on the windows of your car. A mob will form, rendering you immobilized.

14. Try the goat! It's delicious.

15. In the event that you accidentally hit a kid with your car - first, offer 20$. If the 20$ is insufficient to satisfy his family, offer 100$. If this still doesnt work, drive to the airport as fast as you can. Do not return for at least 1 year.

16. The pharmacies do not require prescriptions. Use caution when self-medicating.

17. Opium and hashish are abundant, easier to get than you'd think, and probably safer than the valium at the pharmacy. But in the name of Most Compassionate Allah, do not take that shit to the airport.

18. Make no promises unless you are fully prepared to satisfy them. All business is conducted on handshakes here. To renege on even a casual agreement will at worst destroy your reputation and make it impossible to get anything done. At best it will result in your Afghan companions ragging on you forever until you follow through.

19. A convenient three syllable loophole exists however: "inshallah" - it means, "If it is the will of god." It's a nice way to explain that the outcome in question is to some degree outside of your control, and your milage may vary.

20. You will hear everyone from dentists to airline pilots bookend their expositions with, "inshallah." At first it's quaint: "The weather will be pleasant for Eid, inshallah." Then it becomes alarming: "This will not hurt a bit, inshallah." Eventually your anxiety will mellow, and the phrase becomes part and parcel of the uncertain experience of living in a country where electricity is still kind of a novelty, donkeys are still kind of a useful vehicle, and Americans are still kind of fucking everything up: "We will be touching down at 2:30 pm local time, inshallah."

BONUS PROTIP: The peaches in Jalalabad are the best in the world, and the mangoes from neighboring Pakistan are exquisite, very special indeed. If you can get your immune system to a point where it will accept local fruits and vegetables, that is. Good luck, and enjoy!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Would you like some cancer with your giardia?

Me: Good news, Dr. Shakur! I have diagnosed the issue with your Ob/Gyn ultrasound, and it's a much easier fix than I thought. Only the probe needs to be replaced. The CPU and monitor work fine.

Dr. Shakur (Medical Director, Jalalabad Public Health Hospital): That is excellent news! Would you like to take a look at the X-ray machine now? Also it is broken.

Me: Uh...

Dr. Shakur: We have about thirty, forty machines in the hospital that are not working.

Me: ................ok. Let's take a look.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Womb with a view!

Fary is an action hero. In the time I've been here, I think she's visited 12 schools. I am still shaking off jet lag, puttering around the guest house, and she is shaking hands and kissing babies, literally.

It's nice to meet native students, and Jenn has championed right alongside her for every outing. but I'm reserving my energy for an actual class I might teach, or that Jenn and I might teach together. There is great interest here in learning how to find scholarships, how to apply to study abroad, and how to improve one's study skills generally. I don't feel qualified to teach about these matters in the way I feel qualified to teach, say, algebra. But if there's sufficient interest and I can be of some help in elucidating matters I'll do my best.

I also learned that UCSD offers a credential program in exactly the course I had planned to teach a workshop in - english for medicine and science. And many of the students and teachers I have met so far have already received their certificate! So, bonus points for accurately identifying a need in the community. Demerits for coming late to the party.

In the meantime, I have been troubleshooting the portable ultrasound device here in the comm room, left by MedWeb. This has been a fun project - I finally feel like my BME education is paying off. I wish I'd discovered earlier in life how much I like computers. At any rate, I was able to diagnose and patch a software issue in Windows XP, and now I'm up and running with the field sonogram... except the resolution is not so good. Meeting planned with the MedWeb honchos for sometime tomorrow, hopefully we'll get this sorted, maybe even in time to loan it out to the Ob/Gyn dept at the National Hospital.

We visited the day before yesterday. One of the ironies round these parts is that healthcare is paradoxically more available in Afghanistan than in the USA. Anyone in Afghanistan can walk into the National Hospital and expect to be treated. No insurance necessary. That is why I actually received my first prenatal exam from the distinguished faculty here.

We started with a quick tour of the sonography department in the main hospital. Two broken machines (old, dusty) which I photographed, kicked the tires, so forth. The main hospital also has one newer machine, a Honda, that works. And a full schedule. I did not wish to embarrass the doctor by asking pressing questions about diagnostics, but Fary has mentioned that her goal is to train a suitable technician.

I wish I could have taken more pictures of the hospital. People gathered outside to wait on the grass in the courtyard, sometimes hanging IV bags from trees. The interior of the buildings are not air conditioned, and reek of bodies and disease. At home, I find hospitals a little unsettling in their sterility - the bracing, chemical aroma of disinfectants, the threat of the superbugs left after the 99.99% kill rate advertised on their bottles. The opposite is true here. Nothing about this hospital seems even remotely sterile. It is not scary in the abstract - it is concretely the stuff of nightmares. Yes, it's free to visit, but if you end up here the feeling is that it may be your last visit anywhere. I actually wish I had worn the burqa, it might have been possible to stealth some more photos. In my alien western garb, it would have been poor form to just start snapping pics randomly.

Making our way into the Ob/Gyn building was a relief. It didnt smell so bad. Women and children only.

We spoke first with two lady doctors who gave us a sense of their load - 1400 patients per month. They took us to see the dedicated Ob/Gyn ultrasound - broken. Recently. Power here is unreliable, and surges. It's possible this machine was fried.

They took us to meet the department head, a sweet middle aged lady whom her students proudly proclaim to be the best doctor in all of Nangarhar. And the rest of the entire department! About ten doctors, all young women, all married save a single widow. Everyone crowded into one room, tried some english on us, told us about their studies. I sprawled on the exam table as the department head gave me an abdominal exam - the first time a doctor has laid hands on me during this entire process.

"Congratulations," she says. "16 weeks." She prodded me further, checked my eyeballs, and wrote me a presecription for iron and folic acid. And told me to eat. Thank god, she also told me I was completely normal.

This is an enormous relief. I have been haunted by stories of women who show up to their 16 week checkup, only to find a dead 12 week old floater in there. But everything is the right size and all I have to do is make sure I don't become anemic. Excellent! After 4 months it's such a relief to have a doctor look at me and say, "you and your baby are fine"

Fary asked the department head some questions about working during Taliban rule. They were in charge for 12 years, and in that time, she said, it was possible for women to work in medicine, but not to train.

They asked us if we would be able to fix the sonogram - I think it more likely to be replaced than repaired. But no promises. Inshallah.

It was truly an honor to have met and interacted with these women - for sure the smartest in Nangarhar and doubtless among the hardest working. They deserve technology that works. I would like very much to help in any way.

We then visited the school of midwifery, which is where I had assumed I would receive my checkup. This is an amazing progam - young women in rural villages are selected by tribal elders to come to the city and participate in a 4 year midwifery program, promising to return home when their training is complete. This is a very beautiful building, and it even has a kindergarten attached for the girls who have babies of their own.

I am touched and inspired by the professionals I'm meeting here, their dedication and their bravery, men and women alike. The feeling of helplessness is still there.

And I'm anxious to get this portable ultrasound working. How fun, to have one here in my bedroom... a womb with a view!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


When I was a little girl, among my favorite books were The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. In my visits to Afghanistan, I recall The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, wherein Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent end up stranded on prehistoric Earth with a shipful of exiled middle-management from the planet Golgafrincham. It's not really fair to analogize the proud and storied Afghan people with Adams' pre-lingual native hominids. However, the US occupiers bear more than a passing resemblance to the bureaucratic, preening, incompetent, process-obsessed, blustering Golgafrinchans. The kind of people who will hold a series of meetings about how and when to discover the wheel. Who declare leaves to be currency, then decide to burn down forests to prevent inflation. And then make documentaries about it.
I'm also reminded of another favorite childhood fable - Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court. A late 19th century engineer bumps himself on the head, awakens in Camelot, and quickly puts his superior knowledge to work becoming the most powerful man in the country save only the king. Appalled by the (literally) medieval conditions, he makes it his mission to introduce technology and modernize England. His chief opposition? The Church of course. The intersection of ancient and modern is frustrating on both ends. Ultimately, the Yankee ("The Boss" as he is known) is put to sleep by the King's old tutor Merlin - whose magic The Boss mocked, but which is nevertheless the native and reigning technology.
And then, of course, there's Kipling's The Man who Would be King. He wrote about this part of the world a hundred years ago, and even then it was the graveyard of empires. I loved Kim and Just-So Stories as a Tot, but I didn't read this until after my first visit here. There's no satire. Just straightforward, brutal allegory.
So many people live here, have lived here, have passed through on their way somewhere else. And by that token, so many have attempted to conquer, or passed through on their way to conquer somewhere else. The natives routinely dispatch all comers, without even the benefit of shoes. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the world's most ambitious warriors have cut across Afghanistan on their way from Europe to Asia (or vice versa), depositing their genes along the way. These are the toughest people on the planet.
As for our current venture: what will serve to distinguish us from those who have come before? Our president has declared a 2011 pull-out date. I listen to Fary and Dave complaining about the intractability of the government, and I think, good. Let them get out of the way. The ones who remain to do the work of reconstruction will be the private organizations who are truly interested and motivated - not pencil pushers or empire-builders. Ah, but Dave says, if there is no security private groups will not come here. And security is costly.
The president (the Afghan president) has made a declaration that all private security companies should be disbanded in Afghanistan. And this is quite something, because a large percentage of our presence here is contracted out.

What will be our legacy? I have seen entire parking lots of abandoned earth movers, left to rust by the Russians who bailed twenty years ago. Our CIA effectively hand-picked the extremist psychopaths who comprise our chief complaint against the nation, our reason for coming. How much of the current situation is our fault? How much can we fix? Is it any of our business?

Ours as much as any other empire, I guess. There is a long tradition of diversity here. Many nations, many tribes have made this land their home, have left their art and their culture. It is a beautiful city, Jalalabad. It was once a jewel. Best oranges in the world, some say. And gardens built by kings. Buddhists used to run the show here, did you know? The shameful thing is, you can tell where americans have been by the trail of destruction. Not, say, by the trail of clean water and reliable power. We can be such jerks.

I suppose my personal goal is the same here as it is at home: help people, especially young people, to obtain knowledge for themselves. Support people in their endeavor to live healthy and safe lives. To do whatever I can to reinforce the twin values of creativity and curiosity.
These are just rambling thoughts, really. Today was a big day and it will take a minute to organize it all for consumption. And I have a bit of homework, too. I am still feeling the effects of jet lag, barely.

Maybe tomorrow I will swim in the scintillating pool...