09 July 2011
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
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.
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.
05 July 2011
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.
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?!
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.
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
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.