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!

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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Liz: I will be headed to Kabul this summer and have been enjoying your blog. I'd love to email with you (if that's ok and you have time!) to ask you a couple questions. I'm hesitant to post my "real" email/name here but if you're available to chat, could you drop me a line at mabillon.nest AT gmail?

    Good luck with the transition!