Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Adventures in Kabul

I was fortunate enough in June to get to attend one 5 day and one 3 day course in Kabul. When I first arrived I was a little disappointed at the thought of not having the opportunity to travel around the country, so I was very excited to get to the capital for 10 days or so. As always seems to be the case with travel, I met some amazing people from all over the world- Nepal, Germany, Portugal, Australia, Italy, England, Uruguay, Spain, Belgium, France... (I could go on..) I felt like a little kid driving through the city, staring out the windows in awe of everything around me. The international presence is largely felt in the amounts of MRAPs, armored SUVs, and UNDP vehicles driving around town. Traffic is insane, and the Afghans aren't afraid to take risks on the road. Children in their school uniforms walked around freely, and women wore everything from a full burka to skinny jeans, heels, and a simple head scarf. The streets illustrated the clash between traditional and modern, as donkeys carrying goods to market with a man sitting on a wooden cart in back clunked along right alongside toyotas zooming by.

I was so pleased to see some of my friends that I hadn't seen in months and met some others during the course. The course itself was on a base on the far end of town, a rather small and boring base. Luckily we were near enough that we got to tour the "Queen's Palace" and even got to hike up to an old Russian Officer's Club one day, enjoying spectacular views of the city in an eerily peaceful environment. All of this was amazing, and an experience which I won't forget.

One night after the course a few of us went to the only Afghan restaurant on base. They had hookah there, so we decided to try it. I asked the server for a hookah and he wanted to know what flavor we wanted to smoke. I replied, "what do you have?"... he gave a quick response of typical flavors... hmmm, I pondered, "give us your favorite!" A few minutes later he brought out some hookah. It was pretty good! The next time we saw him I asked what flavor it was, unable to put my finger on it. "Pink" he replied... "I'll bring you the box", he continued, noting our confused faces. He brought out the box- sure enough, it was called pink. I flipped the box over, reading the ingredients, looking for some clues as to what it was. Clearly written on the back: Made in the USA, Anaheim, CA. Hahaha, we laughed, glad we came all the way to Kabul to smoke hookah made in the States....

I had the opportunity to interact with an Afghan while I was there- he is about 24 years old, and very bright. He speaks great English (lucky for me, as my Dari is about as good as my father's Spanish) and knows Kabul very well. He told me about his family- he has a brother in school in Canada and a sister who got a scholarship to study in Turkmenistan. He explained how his mother is illiterate and told his sister that she should get the best education possible. When asked more about his family, he revealed that they are living in Islamabad. Why? Because in the past 10 years that the international community has planted itself in Kabul, prices, especially land prices, have sky-rocketed, forcing many families to leave. He spoke fondly of Islamabad, saying it is a great city and his family is able to live well there. He also said that it was a very short flight from Kabul to Islamabad so he is able to visit often. He is a very intelligent, hard-working, and forward thinking man and he was able to teach me a lot about his country, for which I am very grateful.

As we were driving to the airport to drop me off so that I could fly back "home", we were stopped by some ANP. One of the ANP officers came up to the passenger window where I was sitting, scowling. He motioned for me to show him my ID. I quickly flashed my ISAF badge and a slight smile. He started speaking in Dari with the Afghan man with me (who will remain nameless), a conversation which I could barely understand. Finally the driver said "Amerikay, Amerikaay", pointing out to the ANP my nationality. I half expected the ANP to pull us over and cause more problems after finding out I am an American. Instead, his face lit up. Grinning, he questioned me, "Amerikaay??". I nodded in agreement, yes, Amerikaay. He lifted up his hand, made a fist, and stuck it in the window. Hmmm, I wondered, as I lifted up my hand, making a fist as well. Yes. It's true. He proceeded to fist bump me, AND then lock it up (you know, bump fists, then rotate the fist while bumped). You can't make this stuff up....

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sand people

I went on a mission recently to a place where the wind blows constantly and rather strongly for several months, whipping sand at your face at times so much that it stings and the rest of the time remains a nuisance that hinders your ability to do just about anything. This mission was pretty much so miserable that it was HILARIOUS. The great wind and desert swallowed up a few of my possessions including one of the only socks I'd brought with me... good work, I know.

One of the Italians with us would bark to his co-worker (excuse the swear, it's part of a larger story), "Fack", followed by some Italian (which I am getting a little better at!). How strange... why wouldn't he swear in Italian if he was going to swear. As the day wore on the other guys would do the same. By that evening I noticed on his uniform was the name "Fack", which I later realized was his nickname, short for Facciceli or something like that. Ah-ha! Mystery solved.

I ended up getting to see the sunrise in the desert... rather tired and probably not the best company at 4:30am the same Italian poked his head into the vehicle, "do you like the Italian coffee?". "Of course", I replied, wondering what he had in mind. "Okay"..he disappeared and climbed back in with a whole field kit to make espresso. Impressive. Leave it to the Italians to have the ability to make espresso (and some darn good espresso, at that) in the middle of the desert. That espresso got me through the mission, as I still refuse to eat an MRE...

One of my favorite parts of the mission was in a small village where the Italians asked the elder if I could meet with a female. A few minutes later they started motioning for me to follow one of the men through the village and into a small house. Inside was an older woman, rather surprised to see me but willing to speak with me. Not surprisingly, nothing major in terms of the research I was focusing on surfaced in this conversation, but something this woman said stuck out to me. I'm not exactly sure what we were discussing, though I had asked a little bit about the village. She told me that everyone was happy in the village because they were all the same. The same tribe, I half-assumed, gesturing to the interpreter to clarify if that was what she meant. "Nah"she replied, explaining that everyone in the village was the same economically- there was little inequality among the people. My mind instantly flashed back to my conflict resolution classes in graduate school, learning about relative deprivation and the theory as to how it causes conflicts- in this case, it seems to have created peace within the village.

This woman was a baker- she proudly displayed her hands, covered in flour. What did she bake, I asked, "naan", was the reply. My stomach quickly began to rumble at the thought of some fresh made naan. One more question, I told her..."can I buy some naan?". She smiled, "of course, but I do not accept your money." She took me next door, to her bakery. Inside was a circle shaped hole that had a small fire lit at the bottom. Two other women were slapping circles of dough onto the sides of the hole. Fascinated, I stuck my head inside the bakery, greeting the women. The first woman came out with a HUGE piece of naan, handed it to me...tashakur, thank you, I hugged her in appreciation (this is acceptable between females- in fact, after meeting several times with some of the females here, I've learned that 3 kisses is the norm between females, starting with tilting your head to the left, I awkwardly realized once).

Outside, waiting for some other interviews that were taking place, I interacted some with her children and some of the other children that were running around. These children were the most adorable and playful that I'd seen in a while. However, I was so confused as I noticed that many of the kids had what appeared to be a rock in their mouth. I walked up to the barrels they were climbing on for a closer inspection- they were sucking on this strange rock. Curious, I stopped one of the interpreters- "what on earth are those children putting in their mouths?"... after 15 minutes of confusion the original woman I had spoken to disappeared for a minute, returning with one of the rocks. "Try it", she said. Hmm... I paused for a few seconds before happily obliging and sticking the rock in my mouth. Whew! Salty! This still remains a bit of a mystery, though from what I could gather these rocks were made up of some kind of milk, salt, flour...and were given to children perhaps as a treat?

While it wasn't the most fun I've ever had in my life, I am extremely grateful for this experience for many reasons... :)

Yes, I'm a horrible blogger...

I guess I've had months long writer's block. Yeah, that sounds like as good of an excuse as any...

Anyway, my absence from the blogsphere (did I just make that up, or is that a word?) by no means is indicative of a lack of material to blog about. The past week I have told countless stories to members of the new PRT (we'll get to that soon enough) that have made me realize how much I've done since I arrived. In the past month or so I've gotten to see Kabul, gone up to Herat for some FET (Female Engagement Team) training, had some interesting and hilariously miserable missions, and, most recently, said goodbye to many, many friends that I've grown to love. So aside from posting pictures (which some people seem to love, while another disdainfully scowl at me while claiming that his blog is "vastly superior" to mine) I will start at the beginning with some female engagement posts.

Back in May...

I went up to Herat for a Female Engagement Team training. The best part about this training was merely interacting with other females (I think I miss girls more than a lot of the men here) and getting to see a few of my dear friends from Leavenworth. The training wasn't anything spectacular or earth-shattering but getting a break from Farah was welcome.

A more influential experience that I had related to Female Engagement soon after the conference occurred on the FOB. The head of the Farah FET team arranged to have a women's meeting and luncheon. The idea behind this meeting was to bring together some influential women in the province to give them a gentle push and a venue to start working together. I hadn't realized it much before I came, but many Afghans seemingly, and not surprisingly after 30 years of war, lack trust in one another. The same is true for women here- instead of working together they push to get their projects done and don't seem to mind hindering the efforts of someone else along the way. I've even heard stories about how when one Afghan would find out that they aren't getting funding or a project, they would go out of their way to be sure that no one else would get one. As the PRT focuses mainly on governance (though development, security, and rule of law are also key to the PRT) we strive to get influential leaders in the area to work together for the good of the province, strengthening governance, and hopefully building capacity. Anyway, we had the Director of Women's Affairs, the Director of Social Affairs (who just happens to be a woman), a female labor union representative, some members of the Provincial Council, and members of a local female shura. Both the meeting and the luncheon were huge successes and a lot of fun to boot. Plus whenever we get to have these lunches we get to have Afghan food which means a few things: amazing Afghan rice, naan (Afghan flat bread, along the lines of a pita but better), and my personal favorite, this salad comprised of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and some kind of amazing seasonings. Before the lunch we had the meeting which provided everyone a chance to talk about what they have been doing lately. One woman described a recent seminar her department had hosted that taught women how to make jellies and jams. Another spoke about a class she had attended for women in politics in Herat and the valuable lessons she had learned and contacts she had made. Each woman spoke about different challenges she faces in her line of work and together we discussed ways she can address and hopefully overcome those challenges- stressing a collaborative approach. As the transition approaches the PRT is shifting from a project (aka. money) providing machine to supporting Afghans working together within their system. Yes! Finally it seems that all of these US and coalition agencies that have been working in Afghanistan for 10 years now are getting the picture that instead of coming in and building schools where there is no security or teachers, providing tractors where the people have no way of getting fuel or maintaining them, etc. (I could go into a long rant, and believe me, I have, about development causing more harm/instability/relative deprivation than good) that we should be supporting Afghan capacity to take care of Afghan needs/problems, ensuring Afghan ownership/local buy-in for sustainable development and increased stability, in turn successfully carrying out COIN (our mission here!), or counterinsurgency operations. Whew!

One more thing about this meeting. One of the women, the Director of Social Affairs, actually said "Here we have an expression- you can't clap with one hand... you have to use both". As this was being translated I couldn't suppress my delight- I whispered to the American Navy Senior Chief sitting next to me- "I love that expression!". I felt the legitimacy of my blog title instantly skyrocket....and this was the perfect example of how important unity of effort is!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The collision of Italy and Afghanistan

Imagine... you find yourself, after a helicopter ride, in the middle of no where, Afghanistan, surrounded by a bunch of Italians. After a few days working in the field, visiting villages, conducting interviews, going to the bazaar, etc. you prepare a briefing, then you head to say goodnight to your new found friends. They are singing karaoke, and 20 of them start chanting your name, with a funny little accent. Christin, Christin.. so there I am, singing karaoke in Italian in Afghanistan. Hilarious.

Unfortunately, I have to tell stories like these, can't talk about specifics. I will say a few things which I found particularly interesting. Not ONE woman did I see. Spoke with plentiful amounts of men, and man alive are there were ton of Afghan children running around... but not one woman, quite a disappointment for me.

Saw lots of poppy growing. But also lots of wheat. It was a lot greener there. Very pretty. And just the most rugged terrain you've ever seen.

The little girls are all made up. It's so funny. They are all covered in dirt, their hair flying about. But the girls have on lipstick, blush, eyeliner, mascara... and pretty glittery clothes. So strange. They were fascinated by me, very sweet, fun to interact with, and you can tell they work well with the local ISAF forces. They come up to you and say either "kalan" which means pen, as in, give me your pen. Or "cheese" which is a take on the dari word for something to eat, they point to their mouth and say cheese, cheese, cheese! So needless to say I gave out some little candies, and tons of pens from Candlewood Suites, haha.

I do find myself a bit more..jaded, or something- ... all of the AMAZING things ISAF troops are doing every day get ignored, all of the progress that IS being made... and one bad thing gets blown into this huge thing. I am, of course, referring to the Florida man who burned the Koran that has (rightfully so), angered many people here and spurred demonstrations throughout the country.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Various photos and thanks for care packages!

Venturing out into the districts...

Yesterday I was able to get out to a meeting with local farmers, veterinarians, and some government agriculture representatives. As much as anyone says otherwise, I can't help but truly believe that all people want the same things- a livelihood, access to basic services, security, and to be treated with respect, just to name a few of the key ones that came up yesterday. The meeting went well, as a good introduction for me to some of the leaders and local farmers. I was able to get some good baseline information for research that my team is conducting, but I won't bore you with my nerdy interests....

After the meeting we got to walk around in some local fields- we saw cucumbers growing, wheat, poppy (and poppy fields that had been eradicated by GIRoA), and goats! A ton of locals were gathering around and children swarmed this strange American woman. At one point, I had about 25 of the little ones surrounding me, and I was asking them their names, in Pashto. They replied, and one cute quirky one asked me mine. Proudly, I said, "Zma noom Christine dey" (meaning my name is Christine, in Pashto). The children proceeded to roar with laughter, much to my confusion and delight. I asked an interpreter if I had said it wrong or something. He giggled and said "No, you are correct. In fact your Pashto accent is really good." I asked what had been so hilarious then? He said simply the fact that an American woman had spoken Pashto to them was amusing. We played around, they showed me their goats and pointed at my sunglasses, as to ask if they could take them. This happened with pretty much every single item that I had with me, which as I'm sure you all agree, is heartbreaking to a sucker like me, who loves children, and people in general. It was quite the fun day, and I'm attempting to post some photos from the trip. Life in Farah lately has gotten quite busy, but has been quite the adventure as always. It still seems so surreal sometimes to go for a run around the base and see helicopters right over head, Italian military vehicles almost running me over (kidding), and many, many other small nuances that have occurred here to my amusement.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A little something for everyone

"The foundation of development I can put it in one word. It's education" Provincial Director of Education for Farah Province, Afghanistan.
Abel, notice the back of the light blue shirt. I took that photo just for you!!
Sandro, the Italian barista, who always has a smile on his face and helps me get through the long days with his amazing espresso-making abilities. And of course, the infamous Long, singing us a little rendition of...Nirvana, was it? We did do a nice tribute to Sinatra with a sub-par singing (on my part) of "My Way".
This doesn't even begin to dip into the adventures of the past few weeks- but at least I got some photos up! :)