Thursday, December 31, 2009

Droppin balls

Happy New Year from Kabul!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Welcome to Kabul, Part III

Hello again! I am back amongst the living, finally over my cold and recovered from a llloonggg week at work. Today we continue on with Part III of Welcome to Kabul. As always, stop me if you have questions!

Food
Food and clothing….my two biggest concerns about packing for Afghanistan. Actually, when it came to food, concern probably isn’t a strong enough word. Scared, is more like it.

When Nick came home on leave in September, he came armed with horror stories about the food choices I’d soon be facing. Cheese & pepperoni-stuffed fried meatballs. Hash browns and bacon for breakfast every day. A fried food bar at every lunch and dinner. Everything processed and packaged and reheated and sitting on a warmer tray and NO FRESH PRODUCE!

I was pretty sure that I was going to starve.

So I panicked over what to pack in our consumables. Some items were obvious: healthy snacks, because food was only available in the dining facility (hereafter referred to as the D-FAC) during meal times. Low-calorie drink mixes because I don’t like tap water, and I knew that I’d need to drink a lot given Kabul’s altitude and dry climate. Basic items that we could use as a base for a variety of dishes, such as rice, pasta, plain tomato sauce, dried & canned lentils/beans. And of course, enough Kashi Go Lean to get me through at least a few months. Ok, who am I kidding? I packed 13 boxes; if I eat Kashi for breakfast every day, this will only last me about 6 weeks!

But there was no way for me to pack enough food to be able to eat every dinner (and most lunches) at home and not have to face the horror of the D-FAC. So I did my best to pack a variety of foods so that we could take a break from D-FAC food when necessary, and then tried to ready myself to eat some really unappetizing meals.

What I found upon arrival in Kabul is both better and worse than what I expected. First the bad news:
  • Nick wasn’t lying; there really is a fry bar at every lunch and dinner. Onion rings, potato logs, chicken wings, chicken tender, pepperoni-stuffed deep-fried meatballs. I find it pretty easy to resist, because none of it is good (except for the potato logs), but unfortunately fried food – even bad fried food -- is one of Nick’s weaknesses. He’s been pretty good about restraining himself, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to resist a buffet of one’s ideal comfort foods day after day.

  • Wait, yes I can. The D-FAC offers a sundae bar at every lunch and dinner, with soft chocolate chip cookies and caramel brownies making a regular appearance on the dessert menus. I’m clean for the ice cream and cookies; I caved on the brownies once. All I can do is try to avoid making eye contact with any of it, and remind myself that the taste is not worth the waist! And considering that I’m consuming more alcohol than usual (not too much – just more than I do in DC because there’s not much else to do here), I have to be careful of my empty calorie consumption.*

*I know that all this talk about calories makes me sound really vain, but weight gain is a serious concern. It’s not like I can run out to Macy’s if my pants start feeling tight. Going a size up is not an option. I have the clothes that I brought with me, and that’s all. So please excuse me if I seem to be obsessed with calorie intakes and workouts and such.

  • I find the main courses offered at 9 out of 10 lunches and dinners completely inedible. Square salmon fillets in a gelatinous cream sauce. Ick. General Tso’s chicken, with lots of breading, sans the chicken. Gigantic ick. Hamburgers swimming in what I can only imagine is dirty hot dog water flown in from NYC hot dog carts. A starch of some variety of fried potato, or rice and/or pasta with some sort of butter/gravy/cheese sauce. Various “meat in sauce” dishes that rack up an impressive 350+ calories per 4 oz serving. I don’t want to even think about the sodium content. I just can’t stomach it. I can barely even stand to look at it.

  • There are sandwich fixings, but the bread is always stale.

So, I’ve been sticking to a vegetable and starch-heavy diet. My lunches and dinners are pretty consistent: plain rice with whatever’s being offered as a vegetable side -- which is always cooked to death -- on top. Green salad. One potato log. I’m seriously lacking in protein; I try to boost my protein intake at breakfast to compensate. I’ll have cereal with a whole juice box of soy milk and a hard boiled egg. A buttermilk biscuit as a mid-morning snack…..Ok, there’s no protein in that. But it’s super yummy. My Kashi Go Lean cereal, once it arrives, should also help me to compensate.

So, with all that said, it’s hard to imagine how there’s a good side, eh? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s not all gloom and doom. Although that’s hard to write after the lunch I just had. Nick and I both ended up staring glumly at our plates, picking at yet another green salad and sandwich lunch. With reheated marinara sauce as a side of "tomato soup." Tomorrow they'll throw frozen veggies in it and call it "vegetable soup." But I digress.

Right. The good news:

  • The salad bar is open for every lunch and dinner. It’s not a great salad bar; the leafy greens are limited to either iceberg or romaine lettuce (I already have an intense craving for some dark kale!), the choice of toppings is meager and repetitive, and the produce isn’t always particularly fresh or tasty. But at least it’s clean, healthy food. Which is more than I can say for the entrees. There’s also a small selection of whole fruits available for snacking. So although it’s not my ideal diet and eating salads day in and day out gets awfully boring, I’m not going to starve for lack of edible food. And hey, I’m probably doing a good job of getting in my 5 servings of vegetables per day.

  • The food at the locals’ cafĂ©, called Brothers, is pretty good, and makes for a nice alternative to D-FAC lunches. Fresh naan, chicken and beef kabobs and sour yogurt sauce sound like a simple meal, but after a string of salad and marinara sauce lunches, they just about add up to a 5-star dining experience.

  • There is a decent (but expensive) Thai restaurant and a pizza joint over at Camp Eggers, where we can go on Fridays for lunch. And there's a pizza joint over on the ISAF compound, where we can go for a long lunch on work days.

  • There is a grocery store on the compound. It's small and the selection is limited, but one can usually cobble together a decent meal whenever the D-FAC food becomes unbearable. There’s a selection of frozen meats and seafood (although I won’t risk trying the seafood in a land-locked developing country), and a limited selection of produce. We can get some real cheeses – although they’re of rather poor quality, but at least they’re cheese and not “cheese food product” – as well as fresh bread, usually French baguette. Unfortunately it’s all rather expensive. A tiny bag of flour (maybe 5 cups worth) is $6! A tiny round of poor-quality brie, about 3.5” in diameter, is $7. So although it’s nice to get a break from the D-FAC food, cooking all our meals at home is a bit cost-prohibitive.

  • The Americans here have a remarkable ability to procure special items and to improvise with the ingredients they have on hand. Our meals over Christmas are a perfect example.

1. For Christmas Eve dinner, I wanted to give Nick as taste of home for the holidays. That meant putting together a Polish dinner. So I started keeping my eye out for polish foods to pop up at the D-FAC. I lucked out when the D-FAC had sauerkraut out (trying saying that 5 times fast!) on the salad bar for Wednesday lunch. I boxed up a whole container and stuck it in the fridge. I didn’t luck out with polish sausage (D-FAC has it every once in a while), but Nick bought some beef sausage from the grocery. I bought milk, eggs and flour (at great cost) from the grocery store, and using some instant mashed potatoes from our consumables shipment and shredded cheese and onions from the salad bar, made homemade perogies. So, with a little ingenuity and improvisation (a wine bottle makes an excellent rolling pin in a pinch) we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Showing off our perogie fillings

Stuffing the little beauties
Praying that they won't fall apart when boiled

Mostly homemade Polish dinner for two!

2. Every Christmas morning, Nick’s mom makes an egg and cheese casserole for breakfast. Again, with a little improvisation I was able to give Nick at least a taste of home for the holidays. We bought the bread, eggs and milk for the casserole at the store; the meat, cheese and veggies for the filling came courtesy of the D-FAC breakfast and salad bars. I used the leftover bread to make some French toast (topped with syrup from the D-FAC), and again we ended up with a lovely, home-cooked meal.

Breakfast casserole, fresh out of the oven....

...and ready to eat, with a side of french toast


3. The piece de resistance was Christmas Dinner for 17; really, it was a sight to see. One of our friends had the foresight to order some extra turkeys when the call went out for Thanksgiving orders; I think the order went in over the summer. The appetizers and side dishes were all potluck. It was truly amazing to see what people were able to cook up. Here’s the menu:
Hors d’oeuvres
Port wine cheese ball (carried from the States) w/ crackers
Pizza crostini
Pumpkin-cream cheese spread w/ crackers
Nuts and dates
Pretzels
Hot buttered rum and mulled wine

Dinner
Roasted squash soup
Green salad
Turkey, w/gravy and stuffing
Mashed sweet potatoes
Garlicky and cheesy mashed potatoes
Quinoa and black bean salad
Rice and olive casserole
Mixed bean casserole
Corn bread
Cranberry sauce (from a can, my favorite!)
Homemade brown bread
Honey and ginger glazed carrots
Cheese and roasted pears (a Southern dish that I couldn’t quite bring myself to try)
Enough wine and beer to float an aircraft carrier

Dessert
Homemade chocolate-chip muffins
Homemade apple and pumpkin pies
Caramel-pecan torte (insanely delicious, like a gourmet Snickers’ bar)
Homemade chocolate cake
Homemade spice cake
Homemade cookies
More wine, buttered rum, mulled wine, and Irish coffee
We sat at proper dining tables, with proper tablecloths, ate from proper plates and with proper flatware, and drank out of proper glasses, including proper wine and water glasses. Everything was mismatched and cobbled together from various kitchens and it was absolutely perfect.

Seating for 17!

A smorgasbord of deliciousness

Making it work: no gravy boat? Coffee pot of gravy it is!

I need desserts!

So, although one does have to be creative, improvise with limited equipment, take advantage of the food offered at the D-FAC, and plan ahead for any meals requiring special ingredients (like the turkeys), making a homemade meal isn’t entirely impossible.

So, like I said. The food situation is both as bad as and better than I imagined. I’m not going to starve, but I do find myself drooling over cooking blogs and day dreaming about all the good food we’ll eat on our first vacation. We’re looking at two weeks in Singapore and Malaysia in February. We’ve heard that both are foodie paradises, especially for people who like adventurous eating, and now our mouths are watering with thoughts of giant bowls of laksa, fresh seafood on a stick, handmade noodles, rotis of endless variety, and miles of hawker carts offering Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern and Malay food. And to satisfy our Western cravings, maybe we’ll even stop in to a McD’s. But only if Nick is a good boy.

In the mean time, we'll get by with a combination of D-FAC food, Camp Eggers Thai and "cook what ya got" potlucks.

Oh, and to all of our family and friends: please DO NOT read this entry as an appeal for care packages full of delicious goodies. You all sent us such wonderful Christmas/Hanukkah packages that we are fully stocked on snacks and sweets. We're running out of food storage space, and we still have our big consumables shipment coming! So thank you so much for thinking of us, and we'll give a shout if our chocolate and dried sausage supplies start to run low. To Mom X and Mom M: please DO read this entry as an appeal for more lemon soup and dried sweet potato, respectively. Love you!

And I’m spent. It looks like my report on what Nick and I do on our downtime will be pushed back again, saved for yet another (and hopefully final) instalment of Welcome to Kabul. I wish I could say that I’ve saved the best for last, but……really, there’s not much going on here. We work, we eat, we workout, we watch seasons 1-4 of How I Met Your Mother on DVD. I’m sure that living in Kabul sounds exciting and exotic, but really it’s not.

But I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Until next time, here's wishing all of you lots of health and happiness in 2010!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Post"ponement

I am sad to announce that "Welcome to Kabul Part III" has been postponed due to author illness. I'm suffering from a major cold of the runny nose/watering eyes variety, and can't even keep my hands out of the tissue box long enough to type this sentence. In fact, I've sneezed 3 times and used up 4 tissues since I started typing.

I'll be back once I'm no longer surgically attached to the tissue box and I've come down off of my antihistamine-induced high.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Things that make you go boom

This morning a suicide car bomb detonated near the Heetal Hotel, in the same neighborhood as the US Embassy. But not particularly close by. Nick and I are fine. All US government personnel are fine.
I have to say that I'm kind of glad that's over with. The waiting for my first bombing, I mean. For me, the worrying about unknown events is usually worse than the events themselves (see: Kabul packout). Now I just have to experience an earthquake and my two biggest "unknown" Kabul fears will both be "knowns."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Welcome to Kabul: Part II

Seeing as no one suggested any specific topics they wanted to see addressed in Part II, I’ll just plunge right in. Feel free to stop me at any time for questions!

Clothing
When I was getting ready to leave for post, one of the most common questions that people asked of me was about what I would have to wear. Would I have to wear a burka? Keep my head covered at all times? Wear a suit every day?

I too, was very worried about my wardrobe and packing the proper clothing. Nick was nice enough to connect me with a female colleague to whom I could direct all of my clothing-related questions. Of course, this was after I asked him to find out what sort of dresses I needed to bring -- would I need a black-tie gown, or would nice cocktail dresses be ok? -- and he responded with “Yes, you need nice dresses.” Great, very helpful! I definitely needed a woman’s help to answer all of my “lady questions.”

Heather was kind enough to fill me in on how many suits I would need (no more than two), the office dress code (pants or long skirts, ¾ to full length sleeves, no cleavage – HA! Like I’d ever have trouble with that!), the deal with head covering (not necessary inside the compound; polite to do it when traveling in Kabul or meeting with Afghans), etc. She also told me that I would need to get a few long tunic tops to wear when I leave the compound, but that I could get them from one of the markets here. I haven’t purchased any yet, but neither have I had the need for them. Thus far my only off-compound experience was for a meeting with one of our implementing partners, and they’re staffed by Americans.

So, what do I wear every day? Well, I’m still waiting for my UAB shipment to arrive, so all I’ve got to choose from at the moment are the clothes that I carried with me on the plane. My standard outfit for the office is heeled boots, black pants, long cardigan or other sweater over a long sleeve shirt (lots of layering; it’s starting to feel like winter) maybe a scarf, earrings and tada! I’m dressed. When I’m hanging out at home I wear whatever I want; same goes for when Nick and I venture over to friends’ homes on our days off. Like I said, it’s getting cold here, meaning I’m wearing lots of layers. So dressing modestly isn’t really something to which I have to pay conscious attention. The only time I wear anything “revealing” is when I’m at the gym. But the Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs, i.e. Afghan staff), all leave the compound by 6 PM or so (many leave much earlier); I’m not usually in the gym before 8 PM, so exposure’s not really a problem.

My job
As previously reported, I was hired as a communications officer for USAID’s Office of Economic Growth. So what I should be doing is preparing reports, briefing materials, success stories, etc. about USAID’s economic growth programs. If you’re interested, you can learn about our work on the USAID Afghanistan website.

However, that’s not what I’m actually doing at the moment. My current tasks are calendar management, document management and answering the phone. Why? Well, it turns about that the Mission Director’s assistant would be going on leave for 6 weeks just as I arrived, and I was the only person available to cover for her.

So, here I sit, in central command; the new girl, who has no clue what’s going on or how things work or who people are or even how to place a simple phone call. Luckily I’m not completely new to the task of being an administrative assistant; I spent quite a bit of time at the World Bank providing support to Bank staffers of various levels. Had I not, I’d be completely in the weeds here. Wait, no that’s not quite right. What’s beyond the weeds? Maybe the highway….yeah, that’s about right.

Had I not had my Bank experience, covering the USAID Mission front office would have been like strolling into traffic on the NY State Thruway while blindfolded and being squished by a semi.

So, I’m managing to hold my own. I ask lots of stupid questions about how to work the phones, how to use Outlook (the Bank uses Lotus Notes, and the switch has been tricky), where I can find office supplies, what printer should I use, which ambassador to call to schedule a meeting on water projects……you know, the typical questions you ask when starting a new job.

The Security Situation
I know that everyone is worried about mine and Nick's safety. My little story about being stranded at the airport temporarily probably didn’t make you feel any better.

First, let me reassure you that as long as Nick and I are on the Embassy compound, we are safe. Or rather, we’re about as safe as we are when we’re in DC. On any given day in DC, there’s always the risk that we could get run over by a bus (increased by our reckless bike riding habits, I’m sure), or mugged, or what have you. But as long as we’re doing routine activities, we don’t think about the danger too much.

It’s the same way here. There’s always a chance that a rocket could fall on the compound (lessened by the terrorists’ lack of targeting systems), or that we could be squished in a building collapse during an earthquake (lessened by the fact that the USAID office building is made up of a connected series of pre-fab containers). But for the most part we go about our routine inside the bubble of the US Embassy compound and don’t register the dangers on a conscious level.

It’s only when we change up our routine – travelling in Kabul, making site visits, taking a helicopter trip to Bagram, etc. – that we really feel at risk. And even then we’re well protected by the security teams.

So I hope that none of you – and I'm looking at YOU, friends and family – are lying awake at night worrying about Nick and me, fretting about us wandering around Afghanistan, with danger and bad guys stalking our every move. We’re safe. And we kindly ask that you redirect all of those worries and prayers and good wishes to thoughts of the USAID/government staff in the field, and our military personnel on the front lines. They need your positive energy more than we do.

Wow, that’s a lot of writing. Looks like there will be an unexpected sequel to fill you all in on the food situation and on how Nick and I spend our downtime. I think I shall call it Welcome to Kabul Part III, or It's a Greasy & Repetitive Life. Maybe – if I’m in the mood to live dangerously – I’ll throw in a few pictures to give you all a peek into our lives here. And if I feel the need to be really dangerous, I'll attempt to wrangle Nick into writing an entry in the near future.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Welcome to Kabul, Part I

I know I know. You’re all mad at me for not providing daily posts about my transition into life in Afghanistan. Please accept my most sincere apologies for the media blackout. However, the delay was intentional. I was waiting until I had:
  1. made some progress on overcoming my jet lag, at least to the point where I stopped napping at 4PM and getting a burst of energy at midnight. I'm still getting hungry at random times, but it's manageable.
  2. gained both some perspective on and a broad view of life here in Kabul
  3. managed to clear my thoughts of the alphabet soup that comes with trying to learn a whole new set of bureaucratic acronyms. Really, it’s like learning a whole new language!

After just about a week at post, I think I’ve managed to accomplish items 1 & 2. Item 3 is going to take a while. A VERY LONG WHILE. But I feel I've reached the point where I can give you all that update* you’ve all been waiting for. I have a lot to cover, so I’m just going to organize this topic by topic – apologies for the lack of a cohesive narrative.

*A quick disclaimer: due to security risks, I have to be careful about how much information I share about life on the US Embassy in Kabul. Topics like layout of the Embassy compound and daily movements are particularly sensitive. I will provide as much general information as I can, but I won’t be able to go into a lot of detail on many subjects.

I’m also not going to be able to share many pictures, as photography is not allowed inside the compound. However, a quick search on google shows that this rule is not exactly enforced. I’ll try to post photos when I can, but this is just a warning photographic evidence of our life in Kabul will likely be sparse. I'll try to make up for it with links to photos that are already out on the Internets, as well as lots of photos of any trips Nick and I take.

Enough with the warnings. On with the show!

The Compound
The Embassy compound has two sides, with a road running between them: the Embassy side, and the CAFE side. CAFE stands for “Compound Across from the Embassy.” Catchy, eh? The Embassy side has the Embassy buildings, obviously, and also the apartments, the tennis court, the pool, a small store, and some hooches. The CAFE side has the USAID offices, the small grocery/supply store, and some more hooches. ISAF headquarters (International Security Assistance Force, i.e. NATO), some other embassies, and the Presidential Palace are also in the neighborhood.

Kabul City
Thus far I really haven't traveled beyond the Embassy walls, so I don’t have much to say about the city itself. I can, however, comment on the weather and the quality of the air.

The air here is bad. BAD BAD BAD. There’s a kind of haze that hangs over the city at all times; at first glance it looks like the mist that hangs over the lakes and forests in the Adirondacks in the summer. But unlike the Adirondack mist, the pollution mist never burns off. It’s just there. ALL. THE. TIME. On good days the mist clears enough so that the ring of mountains that surround Kabul is visible. On really good days one might even catch a glimpse of some snow-capped peaks. On bad days, the mist makes it impossible to see the buildings across the street.

"What is in this mist", you ask? I don’t think you want to know the answer. But here’s a link to a photo from Afghan Magazine that will give you some visual evidence so as to inform your guesses. And for those of you who want a somewhat scientific discussion of the problem, here’s a nice NPR article.

The weather at the moment is not unlike DC weather. Chilly, but not freezing (although it feels winter-cold today), with lots of rain that has arrived in temporary showers of various lengths and intensities. It snowed a little yesterday, although it didn’t stick.

Our Apartment
Nick and I are lucky enough to be living in one of the apartments on the Embassy side of the compound. The apartment is quite cozy, and given that it’s about the same size as our condo in DC, we have little trouble sharing the space. It’s a one bedroom apartment, with living room and kitchen, and it even has space for a small dining table. The bathroom is much larger than in our condo, so that’s certainly an upgrade! The apartment comes mostly furnished, with a couch, arm chairs, dining table, queen size bed, dressers, major kitchen appliances, lamps, TV/DVD player, various side tables etc. The only furniture we’ve brought from home is our coffee table. Other items brought from home include some small kitchen appliances, floor lamps, folding chairs for extra seating, linens and towels, cookware, place settings, computers and stereo. Compared to life in the hooches, we're living in modest luxury. Compared to the living conditions out in the field, we might as well be living at the Plaza!

On a sad note (those of you who are friends with me on Facebook will already know this story), we are sans TV at the moment. Quick backstory: Nick arranged the TV setup so that the cable ran through his mega-desktop computer and displayed on the mega-LCD, HD, 26” monitor we bought just for this assignment. Ok, back to the sad part. On Friday afternoon Nick and I were watching a DVD, when all of the sudden smoke started billowing out from the back of the computer monitor. The monitor went kaput, and now we’re left without the pleasures of TV or Nick’s video games. We’ve called Vizio tech support, and fingers crossed they’ll just send us a new monitor without too much fuss.

Living in the apartment block is kind of like being back in a college dorm. Except with private bathrooms and more guns. Case in point: some of the apartment doors are decorated with white boards. There’s a laundry room on each floor, and people will move your laundry aside if you’re not quick on draw getting it out of the washer or dryer. It’s kind of loud in the hallways on the night before the start of the weekend (Thursday nights here, given that we have Fridays off based on the Muslim calendar). And the food in the dining hall is of questionable quality and provenance.

Ok ,that’s all for Part I of my overview of life at the US Embassy, Kabul. I’m hard at work on Part II; topics for that post will be my job, what Nick and I do on our down time, the safety situation, the food situation, and my sartorial habits. I may also include a "Day in the Life" section. If you have any specific questions you want answered, post them in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them in Part II.

Back to trying to sort out the acronym soup....