09 July 2011

Life in a tin can

In Louisiana I lived in a trailer park, and I thought that was hilarious. In retrospect, that might have been a good time to bite my tongue (which in case you didn't realize is not my forte).

In Afghanistan I live in a tin can. It's as small as it looks. On the left side (which you can hardly see) is the world's messiest desk. I'm still trying to get it organized. On the right side is a small excuse for a dresser (again, same lack of organization problem). You can see the walls...aluminum! The good news...they're magnetic, and therefore relatively easy to decorate. The bad news...they are covered with years of neglect, and it's taken me more Lysol wipes than I'd like to admit to make them the awful shade of gray they are now. Believe it or not, that's progress from the black they were when I moved in.

I have all kinds of ideas about how to make my new home a little more, well, homey. As you can see, step one was buying the only pink carpet at the one store on base and promptly laying it on the floor. Step two will be to cover these (paper thin) walls with some type of noise insulation followed by some fabric (to give the impression that maybe I live somewhere slightly more normal).

My wonderful husband has sent me 7 boxes worth of things (he laughed because he is delivering Pottery Barn into the warzone). My mother also sent a few boxes. I'm fairly certain this calls for some before and after shots, and I will happily oblige.

As for my first week, well, it was memorable. I'll talk about that later today when I get back from work. Yes, I work on your Saturday. But I don't work on your Thursday and Friday (that's the Afghan weekend).

Here's an actual conversation I had at the DFAC (dining facility) this morning with one of the Navy Commanders who works with me:

Him: "Looks like you're getting over the jetlag."
Me: "Yes, sir, the jetlag was the easy part. The altitude is killing me."
Him: "It still kills me. I played volleyball last night and I was winded. Playing volleyball!"
Me: "It sort of makes me feel like a wimp."
Him: "Just being here and living in these conditions is the very definition of tough. You are not a wimp."

And really, who am I to argue with that? If you need evidence, please see the holding cell that is my room in it's current state!

07 July 2011

Brave New World

Today we'll switch from song titles to book titles. And this life that I am currently leading is indeed a brave new world, full of incredible new experiences, little dramas, and grand adventures. It's all full of dirt and dust, burning garbage, and men. I think I talked about my new way of fitting in...I wear a head scarf instead of a traditional military hat...but I don't think you've seen me like that yet, so now you have. I've also learned quickly that it's important to wear makeup to my meetings every day, and I also need to start wearing earrings. Anything I can do to help demonstrate to the Afghan males I mentor that women can be both beautiful and intelligent is a very good thing indeed. Those are not values that are inherent in Afghan culture. I mean when you get right down to it, I wonder how inherent in American culture those values really are, and Afghanistan is at least 200 years behind us with absolutely zero desire to catch up.

Make no mistake about it, I think this country is beautiful and fascinating in its own unique way. My interpreter and I have basically the same conversation every day...she wants to invite me to her house for dinner, and I want to go, but this country is way to dangerous for such a thing to ever happen. So instead, we spend our days together helping other Afghan women learn English and trying to make a small difference in our own little way. Frankly, my measure of success in Afghanistan is whether my interpreter, Julia, wants to send me an email when I leave here and I sincerely want to write her back. If I gain one Afghan friend while I'm here, I will call this deployment a success.

But along the way I will, of course, look for other ways to leave my mark. Yesterday I discovered that Julia and I make excellent English teachers. We will spend one hour each Wednesday and Sunday teaching Afghan women how to converse in basic English. The women are so brave and beautiful, and even more so for working on an Afghan military base and studying so hard. They have been studying English for at least one or two years, and can ask me a huge series of questions about my husband, my family, my country, the weather and my favorite color. Considering the color of my new scarf (and the rug in my room, and my towel, and the list is endless...) I'm sure they were not at all surprised when I admitted that my favorite color is pink. Most of them claimed black as their favorite color, which I'm sure has some deep meaning, but I'm frankly too tired for that now.

Here's my favorite conversation in Dari (which I have at least once a day...maybe more)...

Me: "Hello, how are you?"
Any Afghan: "I am well, and how are you?"
Me: "I am also well. How is your family?"
Any Afghan: "My family is great. How is your family?"
Me: "They are fine, thank you."
Any Afghan: "Do you have children?"
Me: "No, not yet."
Any Afghan: "Why not?"

In my (still limited) experience, the average Afghan family has at least six children. Generations of families live together in the same house, and (arranged) marriage occurs sometime between the ages of 14 and 16. So as you can imagine, the average Afghan woman of my age has already given birth to many more children than the average Western woman.

I know that you're eager to see pictures of what life is like here, and I will deliver said pictures some time next week. But for now, the best explanation of what it feels like to live here is a cross between Thailand (extremely poor and distinctly Asian) and Morocco (also extremely poor and Muslim). The only pictures I have of the "outside" so far are images shot through a dirty truck window...but this one sums it up nicely. Things here are as to be expected for a developing country. There is so much we as Americans take for granted...running water, flushing toilets, clean clothes and living space, available health care...that is just not available in many parts of the world. Thinking about that really helps me keep perspective as I sit in my tin coffin of a room. It's air conditioned and I have a bed (and as a bonus I have nearly reliable electricity). And that, for the next six months, is an excellent start.

05 July 2011

She's leaving home

These are all out of order...and I could make a million excuses, or I could just tell you that I live in Afghanistan now and things here move, well, slowly. Very slowly. It took until today for me to get internet in my room (and we won't discuss how much that costs per month). I still don't have a government email account here. I've been here nearly a week.

And because of my lack of connectivity, I haven't been able to tell the story of leaving Louisiana to head to the far corners of the Earth...and it's surely a story worth telling. So we'll start here with a picture of me with my parents...and with my "Dad," all of whom came to BWI a little over a week ago to see me off. It was a bit harrowing, to be honest. It was really easy to be in training to go to combat, but it was an entirely different thing to say goodbye, to go through security, and to board the first of a series of airplanes that would actually deliver me into the combat zone. I was just brave enough to make it through, and five of my closest (incredible) guys from training met me on the other side of security with a huge group hug. And that was the first sign that everything would be just fine.

We made it onto the airplane, I slept for the entire almost 8 hour flight, and we landed at Ramstein. When the powers that be said that we could have a 10 minute smoke break I dutifully pretended to be a smoker (just this once), so that I could go kiss my husband. To the left is evidence of two things...number one, I need a hat that fits my head, and number two, Rob and I were together for literally 10 minutes. I didn't get evidence of the kiss...that was private! Actually, it wasn't. And that was actually a great prelude to what was to come...because on a deployment, there is no such thing as private. So my 10 minutes with Rob (and introducing him to some of my favorite guys) were entirely in public. Military intimacy. Thrilling.

From Germany we went through a few other countries (I slept the entire way) and we finally ended up in a Stan that wasn't Afghanistan. We stayed there (in the surreal world) for a few days waiting for another airplane to take us into the proper Stan. We could drink alcohol in the wrong Stan, so I had a glass of the world's worst wine. Why not?!

I was in really good spirits to get out of that place, as you can see to the left. The picture here was taken at about 8am, after we'd been awake since about, oh, 11pm the night before. And little did we know at that time, but our journey was just about to get harrowing.

We went from Wrong-a-stan into Afghanistan on a military airplane. That part was normal. The part that I will never forget is when the flight engineer came onto the speaker and announced "We have now entered the combat zone." That memory will always give me chills. I was still with my guys at that point, and I remember Juicebox looking at me right after that announcement. I'm sure he was checking to see what shade of crazy I turned. He might have been disappointed when I forgot to panic, but I guarantee he was not surprised. He knows me way to well after the past 10 weeks.

The 17 of us arrived in the wrong city in Afghanistan and I had to negotiate our way out of there, which was, well, an adventure. By the time we arrived there, we'd already been on the move for 12 hours. And this was the best part...we were all ready to get on an airplane and go to the correct city. But low and behold the very nice young Airman at the passenger terminal (airport) managed to book us all onto a flight, got our luggage all ready to go, and mysteriously forgot to schedule an airplane. Small detail.

So for the next 5 hours, I followed his sorry rear end around every single place he went until I think I finally annoyed him so much that he begged any crew to get us out of his hair. We boarded our last airplane for the sixth leg of the epic adventure that delivered us to the correct Afghan city after a 24 hour day, and journey that took us nearly five days. We spent that last leg on a military airplane as well, and as you can see here, by the end of that day we were all completely wiped out.

Come to think of it, that journey to here, the far corner of the Earth, should have been a good indication of what is to come. Life in Afghanistan moves at a pace that is frankly unlike anything I have ever experienced. Slow is an understatement. And since you know me, you know that slowing down is not really something that comes naturally for me...so here's to trying. And to a memorable six months of living in this incredible country where every challenge is starting to look like a great new opportunity...

03 July 2011

We are now entering the combat zone

Lesson #1 in Afghanistan...time to reset the expectations bar. Instead of disappointment, focus on opportunities. Absolutely perfect concept, isn't it? The reality is a lot more difficult.

I've been here in my new home for about 36 hours. I've already run on my first convoy. I've met my translator. I've met the Afghan Colonel who I will mentor for the next 7 or so months. And right now I am sitting in a courtyard on a FOB (think base) that isn't mine being incredibly thankful for an iPhone (which doubles as the world's smallest computer).

My dorm room for the next few months is a 12' x 10' aluminum hut that could also be described as a jail cell...says the American in me. But the optimistic part of me has spent about 6 hours scrubbing the floors, walls and ceilings and is thinking of ways to make it feel at least a little bit like home. It's rustic. And not yet photo-worthy.

The country is, well, stunningly beautiful. I'm at about 3,500 feet elevation, so the combination of jetlag, altitude and adrenaline is keeping me on my toes. In other words, I'm up at the crack of dawn and crashing some time around 3pm. Wait, that's now...sigh...

There are a million stories to tell, but the most interesting is my new job. I am the senior mentor to a Colonel in the Afghan National Army. I advise him on manning, women's integration, education and basically anything else he wants to talk about. He's been in the ANA for 31 years and has been a Colonel for 21 years. He has six children...three daughters and three sons. I think he was a little stunned that some skinny, blonde-ish American girl will be his mentor. I will meet with him each day from Saturday through Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are the Afghan weekend. I'm still working on a call-sign for him. I'm also practicing my 8 word sentences...how am I doing so far?!

The most incredible part of today was the brave Afghan woman I met. My interpreter, who we will call Julia, is probably a few years younger than me. She's been speaking and writing English for two years, and though she's still speaking with a thick accent, her English is astonishingly good. Her self taught English, I should mention. I haven't tried my Dari on her yet, but she's promised that each afternoon I will have lessons. I love this plan.

Julia is technically married and has a five year old daughter, though when her daughter was one, Julia's husband fell in love with another woman, as she called it. Apparently men are pigs in all cultures...and that is somehow reassuring.

When I meet Julia again tomorrow she will bring me a head scarf, which though not required for Western women, will probably make my job a lot easier. It's fascinating to watch her translate, and to watch the impact her culture has on her willingness to interact in the man's world that is Afghanistan.

She will make eye contact with the men when she's translating my words, but as the men speak she won't let herself look directly at them. As we walked around the compound where I met her, she always stayed a few steps behind me, always called me "ma'am" and always asked permission before she left my side for any reason.

Tomorrow's a new day with a whole new set of challenges. For today, the challenge is expectation management. My day was productive because I met Julia. And now I'll go back to sitting. And waiting.