25 August 2011

They say it's your birthday

As it turns out, deployed birthdays are quite special. I woke up to this text from Julia, sent at 4:30am yesterday morning to make sure she was the very first to send a greeting, which indeed she was:

"Happy birthday to you my sweet friend. I wish this year will be best for you. Wish you all the best. Love you."

Birthdays away from home (and reality) are a great reminder of what, but more accurately who, is really important. Rob and I have a birthday (and Christmas, and anniversary) truce. No presents, just a card and a great adventure where we can create more memories together. It's perfect.

My team here is onto my adventurous spirit, so they planned a trip for my birthday which included spending time at an Afghan kindergarten at the Ministry of Defense, having coffee at the British Cantina, and eating lunch at our favorite dining facility in Kabul. When I opened the truck before our adventure, piles of pink and purple balloons came tumbling out at my feet. Foiled again! Most of the truck is classified, so I can only show you the remaining balloons on the floorboard, but it was just about as sweet as things can be here in Afghanistan.

I spent the day with the people here who make me the happiest, and hearing from friends from all over the world wishing me happy birthday and thanking me for my service, which was touching. If there is only one day to have a Facebook account, it's on a birthday. I'm sure of my favorite people in the world won't mind if I share some of their birthday wishes, not attributed, of course:

"I hope you've had a fabulous birthday and that you remembered to make a bona fide birthday wish...you're never to old to do that!! I'm sure this year is a celebration you won't soon forget!!"

"Happy birthday Lisa! I suppose this will be a very unique birthday for you :) Thanks for your dedication and sacrifice and I hope someone finds you a cake over there!""

"Thank you so much for what you are doing for us and our country, you are a true hero!"

"It's my 6th grade best friend's birthday today. Did I mention she's a badass and serves our country so that I can freely and securely write stupid FB status messages whenever I want, which is obviously the only reason she serves? Love you, Lisa!"

"You. Are. My. Hero."

I'm not a hero. Not by any stretch. But I am here, and happy, and very thankful for the incredible people in my life who helped make yesterday my favorite birthday of all time.

22 August 2011

But I'm growing hungry

There's something unique and simple about the advice people give to a friend or loved one in a war zone. In my case, the words of advice seem to come in pairs, beginning with an imperative, and they seem to consistently be the last two words in emails addressed to me in Afghanistan:

Be brave. (Hoss)
Be amazing. (Johnny Cash)
Be yourself. (Rangerboy)
Be alert. (Dad)

My advice to myself and everyone around me is also consistently doled out in the form of an imperative: be human. And this week, it's a culmination of all of that advice from some amazing people in my life that seems to me making all the difference.

Julia called me on Saturday afternoon. We usually work on Saturdays, but during Ramazan, the Afghan base where we work has morning staff meetings all morning and then leaves around noon, so we don't go to work. I hadn't seen her since Wednesday's grand adventure to the Uniform Shop, and the first thing she said was "ma'am, I miss you." She didn't need anything or want anything. Just wanted to say hello. (Be human.)

Yesterday I was in a meeting with one of the male Afghan Colonels I advise, and the conversation went a way I wasn't expecting. We were talking about all kinds of professional things, and he apologized once again that he couldn't offer me the traditional Afghan tea on account of it being Ramazan. He then mentioned that he had only 9 days of fasting left before the celebration at the end of the month. And of course from there he suggested that I, the American girl, could survive even a day of the Ramazan fast.

I took that as a challenge, and an opportunity to better appreciate Afghan life during this holy celebration. (Be brave.) Early this morning I went to eat my last meal (at about half past midnight) and between then and 7pm this evening fasting prohibited me from eating or drinking anything, including water (though I did brush my teeth this morning, which is probably against the rules somehow). Honestly, it was a much more interesting and zen-like experience than I had imagined.

There is a huge segment of the Muslim population here who participates in the fast (though no one can even guesstimate a number), so I had plenty of company in experiencing my hunger pangs, though we don't share a similar language or culture. And second, wow, our interpreters told us that Ramazan gives them a feeling of tranquility and cleansing, but I really had no idea until I tried it (for one day...which I think may be my limit).

From the time I woke up at about 7am until the time we left work around noon, I didn't really notice that anything was missing, and I mysteriously never experienced the wild mood swings that usually correspond with several hours of not eating. I got back to my room at about 1pm and my mind just somehow felt sharper than usual. I breezed through a bunch of work tasks, created a great going away certificate for someone who departs tomorrow (while indulging in my in-room spa to include a facial and painting my toenails), watched two TV shows, then just relaxed and waited for the clock to strike seven. (Be yourself).

My Ramazan fast gave me more introspection and clarity of mind than I've had in years. Maybe more like a decade. And the zen moments came as a direct result of my conscious effort not to overexert myself today, because frankly, August in Afghanistan is hot. No food and water for almost 19 hours can be dangerous if not executed carefully. So I was careful...much moreso than usual. (Be alert).

I can't say that my dining facility meal of grilled chicken, rice, and Afghan-style vegetables was worth waiting for, but knowing that my body is capable of handling that type of stress was a good reassurance that I can handle much more than I give myself credit for. In a way, I followed everyone's two great words of advice...which will be most helpful now that I have a new role as the team leader for a multi-service team that travels outside-the-wire almost every single day. Didn't see that coming!

And while growing hungry was initially a way to demonstrate my respect of the culture to my Afghan counterpart, it turned out in the end to be one of my favorite, most peaceful experiences in Afghanistan yet.