Monday, September 26, 2011

Procrastination Station

As you may have noticed, it's been a little while since I posted in the blog. I meant to update earlier, I swear! I've just been busy.

No, ok. Really, I've been procrastinating. And there's a fourfold reason I haven't written since the end of August.

First, I actually have been really busy with school and getting settled in NYC. My professors assign A LOT of reading, which I usually try to get out of the way while on the Bolt Bus thereby using up the time I usually dedicate to blog writing. Getting settled in my apartment took a little while; I've discovered that it takes about 10 minutes longer to get an errand done in NYC then it does in DC. It's very strange. But I'm all moved in now (thanks again to Jen for babysitting the truck and to Steve for helping move bookcases!) so I can no longer use that as an excuse for not updating.

On a side note, my apartment has space for an air mattress or two. So friends and family, feel free to hit me up if you need a place to crash in NYC!

Second, the 10 year anniversary of September 11 and the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul just two days later put me in a weird head space for a solid week. I really wanted to write something profound about it all in the blog, but found myself unable to articulate exactly what I was feeling. Which led to not writing in the blog at all.

Third, I've been trying to establish new routines, both daily and weekly. I'm not doing so great with the new daily routine. Without regular job hours around which to organize my life, I'm finding it very difficult to structure my days. All of my classes are at from 6-9pm, meaning that I have a lot of time to get my schoolwork and errands done. Really too much time. I end up wasting a lot of it trying to figure out the best way to organize my day. I find organizing my life much easier to do when I have set work hours. When I know that I have only my lunch break to get errands done and so must prioritize accordingly and then whatever is most important gets done and I can't worry about the rest of it.

The weekly routine is...ok. I'm managing my work fine, but the social life is another issue. I am free during the day but busy at night, which is the exact opposite schedule of all of my friends. And the nights when I am free -- namely the weekend -- I'm in DC. So I very much feel as if I'm juggling two lives, but I'm not really living in either of them. And then Nick (who is doing awesome in Spanish!) and I are trying to find yet another new normal routine, as we try to cram in a week's worth of togetherness into 3.5 days.

Lastly, I procrastinated on writing in the blog because I'm honestly not sure what to do with it right now. As the title and subtitle indicate, I started this blog to share with our families and friends (and current/future diplofamilies) our experience of' living and working overseas as part of the US diplomatic corps. I did not start this blog to share the rather boring details about the life of an NYU graduate student. I could ask Nick to take over posting duties, since he will actually be going global in a few short months. But you can see from the archives that this blog has pretty much been my pet project since day one. I could write about my days, but that'll get old pretty quick ("Today I read a lot. A lot A LOT. And I wrote some. And then I went to class. The end.")

Thus, I procrastinated on writing in the blog because 1)I mostly didn't know to write about, and 2) I didn't know how to write about the few things I did want to write about.

Still with me?

I'm open to receiving suggestions on what this blog should be about for the next two years, until the Liz of "Nick and Liz Go Global" is global once again. Until I join Nick in Cairo, maybe I should rename it "Nick Goes Global, Liz Goes to the Library...again"...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On the road again

Oh Bolt Bus, you and I are going to become fast friends over the next several months, I can tell. Except for when the power outlets in the bus seats aren't working. Like now. Then I will hate you.

Some of you may be wondering what I did to keep myself busy in the weeks between our arrival in the states and the start of my transient NY/DC life. Well, other than unpacking, setting up our DC apartment, and finding NYC housing for myself, I kept myself busy by sorting and organizing all of our digital photos.

This was no easy task. We have literally thousands of photos, stored in a random manner across two laptops, one desktop, one netbook, and an external hard drive. I spent hours installing Picasa on all of those computers, hunting down the files, and sorting them into somewhat organized albums.

So, I now proudly present Nick and Liz's Australia Adventure.

Links to our other vacation albums will be posted as I finish adding captions to the photos. Unfortunately I can't post links to any of our "Life in Kabul" albums, because of security concerns. But if you're a friend or family member whom I see in person, the next time I visit you can ask me to play the slideshow for you.

And with that, my computer is out of juice. It's going to be a long, boring bus ride.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Home Sweet Home, minus one thing

When we last left our intrepid heroine, one week ago, she found herself on a bus bound for New York, full of hope, energy and confidence, and ready to hit the streets to find her very own Big Apple apartment.

Where is she now? Back on the bus -- DC bound this time -- cynical, worn out, a little nauseous, and the proud owner of two very VERY tired feet.

And also the proud tenant of a lovely second floor, 1 bedroom walk up in the East Village.

My new home-ish, slightly edited to protect my privacy. Although knowledgeable New Yorkers who read this blog might be able to find the building based on this picture.

The ink on the lease is still wet.

It took a lot of hitting the pavement, hitting the internets, schlepping around the UES to the LES to Midtown and back again to find this gem. The rent is more than I wanted to spend, but once I walked in the apartment I just couldn't walk away. It had everything I needed: space enough for my bed, a big desk, and a pullout couch for all the guests I expect to crash with me (gotta pay it back for all of the couchsurfing I've done with NYC friends over the years). Space in the apartment to store my bike and stairs wide enough for me to carry it up and down easily. A kitchen with enough counter space for a drying rack and work area. I knew I was home.

Well, home-ish. One thing was missing: Nick. This apartment, as much as I love it, will never really be home because it will never be "our" home. Home is where Nick and I live together. This will just be my NYC basecamp. I won't really be "home" until I join Nick in Cairo in 2013.

Yes, I could have spent less money for a hole in the wall in the East Village, or the same amount for a bigger space elsewhere in the city. But the East Village has been, and I think always will be, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. Although, I haven't lived there yet. One year from now I may be singing a very different tune. But for now, I love it. I love the artists/punks /freaks/ravers/hippies who have long called the neighborhood home, the old Ukrainian immigrants who saw the neighborhood through its rougher days and who sell -- my landlord included -- some of the best meats and baked goods in the city, the small bars and coffee shops that I will soon call my study spots, Tompkins Square park, the relatively low presence of tourists...all of it. The fact that I am only 2 blocks from a subway, a 5 minute bike ride (or 15 minute walk) from my classes, and right in the middle of the downtown theater world (handy for future internships) only sweeten the deal.

So now I'm heading back to DC to spend some quality time with my wonderful, generous, amazing husband -- who, let's be honest, is essentially bankrolling this whole adventure -- and to concentrate on the real reason I'm moving to New York: school. This isn't about fulfilling some teenage dream of living in the Big Apple. This is about getting a graduate degree in field I love from a prestigious university located in the performing arts capitol of the world. I'm going to give it everything I've got.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

End, Middle, Beginning

The End
With our home leave over and done, with the last box unpacked, and with many of our Kabul friends now safely moved on to their next posts, I finally feel like we are officially finished with Kabul.

It's a weird feeling. I look back at photos from our time at post (and I've been looking at A LOT of photos, as one of my summer tasks was to organize all of our digital photo storage. Picasa and I are rather intimately acquainted now.) and I feel a strange sense of disconnect from the Nick and Liz in the pictures. The sensation is very difficult to describe and I can't really do it justice here. Let's just say that I'm still processing how I felt while there, and how I feel about it all now.

The end of our home leave came all too fast. This being our first home leave experience, we learned a few lessons about how to plan future home leaves.

Before I get into it, let me say FAMILIES X AND M WE LOVE YOU AND WE HAD A FANTASTIC TIME VISITING WITH ALL OF YOU. Please don't take any of this personally; it's not you, it's us.

From the time we landed in the US (June 12) to the time Nick started language (July 5) we were BUSY. We did 3 days in DC, then 10 days vising family X in three different cities. We came back to DC on the 27th, moved stuff out of my personal storage locker into our new apartment on the 28th, did our high stress outbrief on the 29th, and family M arrived June 30th to visit for the July 4th holiday. Throw in a healthy dose of jet lag and culture shock mixed with a side of leftover Kabul stress, and you've got the perfect recipe for a very short-tempered Liz. By the time my family arrived in DC, I really wasn't my best self. I was short with them and non-communicative and generally annoyed at the inconvenience of coordinating the movements and meals of 5 people instead of 2. Plus it was stressful trying to balance being a good hostess with my urgent need to GET STUFF DONE before Nick started language training.

The lesson learned for future home leaves -- especially home leaves that see us staying in the states for a while (ie for language training or when Nick is coming back to a post in DC) -- is that it's probably best if we give ourselves a little bit more time to adjust before we head out for family reunions. It's not fair to subject our families to less-than-pleasant versions of ourselves, Taking a bit more time to time to catch our breath, get some sleep, and make at least a little progress on getting settled in our new routine should make it better for everyone.

The other lesson is that it's better if we visit with our families in their towns, rather than bringing them to DC. There were very few items on our "to do" list that I could check off while in Nashville/Naperville/Lansing visiting Family X, which meant that all I really had to do was be on vacation. But once we were back in DC with Family M to entertain, a "to do" list a mile long and not enough time to do it all, my stress levels went through the roof, my patience levels dropped to zero, and I found it difficult to enjoy Family M's visit.

So Parents and Sister M, please accept my sincerest apologies for acting like a whiny, short-tempered ass during your visit. I guess it's just one of those lessons about life in the foreign service that you don't learn until you live it.


The Middle
Nick's smack dab in the middle of Spanish language classes. Well...almost in the middle. Seven weeks down, 17 more to go. But you get my drift.

He's working so hard, doing so well, and I couldn't be more proud of him. If you're reading this blog and speak Spanish, please feel free to post your comments in Spanish. It'll be good practice for him. But please limit the subject of your questions to the following topics: where he works, where his next post is, where the Ambassador wants to sit at the meeting, and what forms one needs to fill out to apply for a tourist visa.

The Beginning
The most common question I've been asked over the past few months is "What are you going to do while Nick's posted in Kabul?" It's a good question, a fair question, and for the most part I tried to dodge the answer. Because the answer was big, and kind of scary, and only recently became a reality.

And that answer is....I'm not going to Cairo.

I'm going to NYU.

I'm actually typing this post while on the Bolt Bus from DC to NY. I have to start looking for a place to live.

Everyone stop panicking! I'll try to answer all of your questions. First, Nick and I are FINE. More than fine. We're great. He is being the most supportive, wonderful husband as I take this giant, EXPENSIVE first step on a new career path.

For the past 5.5 years I've been trying to convince myself that a career in international development is what I want. Because my head tells me it's a smart career to pursue. But my heart was never really in it. My time in Kabul pushed me over the edge and gave me the courage to finally stop trying to make the international development career fit. It just didn't.

So what is the new career path? Well, you're looking at a first year NYU grad student pursuing a masters degree in Performing Arts Administration. It's essentially a business degree (courses in marketing, accounting, leadership in organizations, etc) with a focus on performing arts institutions. It's a 2 year program. Theater has and always will be my number one passion. I've tried to deny that for the past 11 years, and I just can't deny it any more.

Nick and I don't know how this degree will fit in with our life in the foreign service. We'll figure that out as we go. But I do know that for the first time in a long time my head and my heart agree that this is the right move, even as my heart is breaking as I leave Nick behind in DC, and my head is consumed with an overwhelming sense of guilt that I'm being a bad wife.

On my way to the bus station, I texted Nick to say that going to NYU is the most selfish thing I have ever done. His response? "I brought you to Kabul, so we're even." I pointed out that even though I didn't really like being in Kabul, I still got something out of the experience, namely a nice salary and some fantastic trips. He gets nothing out of my going to NYU except an absent wife and the joy of watching me spend our hard earned savings on tuition and rent. His next comment melted my heart.

"You're wrong, I do get something out of you going to NYU: a wife who is happy because she is doing something she actually likes."

What a great guy.

And thus the start of my life as an NYU grad student. More to come soon. After all, this is only the beginning.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Slow news day at the Washington Post

I mean, if the Post really can't find something more important to report...

Cat fight at US Embassy in Kabul

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Final Reveal

While most DC residents were cursing this weekend's record temps, I was praising them.

Due to a series of brownouts, FSI closed early on Thursday and cancelled classes for Friday (A Daring Adventure has a more detailed account if you're interested). Which meant that I had an extra pair of hands to help me unpack. And those extra hands were VERY useful, especially since they're attached to a big strong guy who can move cartons that weigh nearly as much as I do.

After hours of unwrapping and opening and sorting and trashing (and convincing the moving company to haul away the empty cartons to make amends for showing up at the wrong time), we once again have a livable space to call home.....at least for the next 6 months.






Nick and I were very lucky with this move. Since I am not working and we don't have children, I've been able to focus all of my energy on getting us unpacked and settled as quickly as possible. I can't imagine how FS tandem couples manage, with both people jumping immediately into new jobs. Or how FS families with young children manage....although I suppose I'll learn that one firsthand at some point down the line. I get a preview of my future reading Sherwood Family Nonsense, Email from the Embassy and The Perlman Update. Hats off to you ladies...


For now, I'm going to sit back, revel in the relative ease of this move, and enjoy the more reasonable* weather before we head back into the broiler this weekend, when I will no longer have a reason to praise the heat.

*reasonable=temps in the low 90s with less than 50% humidity.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Boxed in

After spending the past week unpacking, sorting, cleaning, washing and stowing away all 2400 lbs of belongings that Nick and I put into storage in DC when we went to Kabul, I was all ready to take today to finally write a nice blog post about what we've been up to since we've been back in the US of A. The house was organized enough for Nick and me to get by, and most of the huge pile of moving detritus had been Freecylced to a new home. I would finally have a little time to write.

And then this happened.



And that's only some of what is now stowed in our apartment.

Yesterday we were contacted by the moving company to tell us that they would deliver our 400 lbs of unaccompanied baggage (UAB, ie mostly clothing) this afternoon.

Today at 9:30 am they showed up with our 2700 lbs of everything (UAB + our 2300 lbs of household effects [HHE for those of you who like acronyms]). Which two guys unloaded from one truck in about 2 hours flat....in 90 F heat that feels like it's 110 F.

Bye bye nice long blog post. Hello box cutters.

Oh, and if you call and I don't pick up my phone......


....please send help. I'm probably trapped at the bottom of a pile of butcher paper, choking on mouthfulls of Kabul dust.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Beep

Hi!

You've reached Nick and Liz's blog.

Liz is too busy visiting family, buying new clothes and shoes, stuffing her face full of fruits and vegetables, and simply just enjoying being home from Kabul to come to the blog right now. Please leave a message at the beep, and she'll write you back just as soon as she tires of the Whole Foods salad bar.

Beep!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lasts

I thought I'd have something epic and poetic to say about leaving Kabul. Leaving here is all I've wanted for months. I thought I'd be tap dancing for joy, and that Nick I would go out in a blaze of party glory...just as we've sent off so many friends before.

Instead, I'm just.....kind of numb. And pretty much speechless.

There was no blaze of party glory. Just a regular Thursday night at the D&C, and a Friday night spent tossing our unused consumables into boxes for people to pick through in the morning.

Nick and I cracked open the two bottles of wine we saved from our wedding. We drank, we packed, we watched a little TV. I tried not to think about how much money we're throwing away in unused consumables.

And then tomorrow it's done. Breakfast, lunch, and then we leave. And life in Kabul will go on without us. With the high rate of turnover, pretty soon there won't be anyone here who remembers us ever being at post.

I'm sure the emotion and shock of the change will hit me later, and then the words will come spilling out, whether I want them to or not. But for right now, all I can really thinks or say is....I can't believe it's ending.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Brain, please be quiet

Things about which I am worrying right at this moment:



  • the prospect of signing a short-term lease on an apartment, sight unseen

  • how to keep from going crazy with boredom spending every day by myself while Nick is in language training and all of my friends are at work

  • the fact that come Saturday I am unemployed

  • becoming overwhelmed by being back in the states and overindulging on groceries, new clothing, dinners out at restaurants, going to plays/movies, etc

  • what percentage of our belongings we shipped home from Kabul will arrive in DC intact. The movers already broke one of our big pieces of furniture while packing us out.

  • the horrible guilt over leaving so much work undone, so many goals unaccomplished, and so much additional work on my colleagues' shoulders

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Here We Go Again

Tomorrow is P-day....packout day.

Two years, done and gone. It's gone both excruciatingly slowly and surprisingly quickly, especially these last 30 days.

I wish I could say that everything is on track and we're ready to head out. Unfortunately that's not the case. For those of you that follow fellow FS blogger The Perlman Update, endless HR drama is nothing new. For those of you that don't follow her.....please enjoy our little tale of woe.

In order to get our belongings packed out and our plane tickets purchased, we have to get a Travel Authorization (TA) from HR here in Kabul. Nick filed for our TA one month ago...pretty much as soon as he received his assignment cable clearing him to depart post June 11, take some home leave, and then start language training in DC in July.

Cut to this week, and we still don't have the TA. The movers keep emailing us saying that they can't finalize our packout date until our TA is authorized. HR keeps telling us that the TA is coming any minute now. As late as this morning, HR told us that it was on the desk of the very last person who needed to authorize it, and that we'll be ok to packout tomorrow.

Cut to this afternoon, and we have now learned that our TA is LOST. As in gone. *poof* No more. And we have to start all over with getting it drafted and cleared.

And cut to Liz's brain exploding.

Oh yeah...did I mention that tomorrow morning I'll be serving as the communications officer for an event with Ambassador Eikenberry tomorrow morning? At exactly the same time as I'm supposed to be packing out.

Oh yeah x2.....did I mention that HR Washington just cancelled our mandatory high-stress outbriefing session that we booked for June 13 six weeks ago? The course around which we scheduled our home leave, which involves many expensive plane tickets? Yes indeed. They did suggest alternate dates: A) June 10 (when we're still in Kabul) or B) any time the week of June 20, when we're criss-crossing the midwest visiting Nick's family on our aforementioned home leave on the aforementioned expensive plane tickets.

All I can do at this point is repeat the mantra I stole from the lovely and wise Sister J -- "Everything will work out in the end. If things haven't worked out....it's not the end." I just have to trust that HR will sort itself out, go get the house ready for packout tomorrow, and keep my eye on Saturday as the day we'll fly back to the US.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Still satisfied....

It's insane how happy my Panjshir pictures make me:



Crossing the wobbly bridge to the HLZ (helo landing zone) in Astana. While carrying 40 lbs of gear and facing 25 mph gusts of wind. Photo credit: Katherine Haddon


I think I look like a war correspondent. Please note the wreckage of the Russian chopper in the background....

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Satisfied

You guys, I saw Afghanistan this weekend.

I know what you're thinking. But Liz, you've been in Afghanistan for 18 months. You've been seeing it for the past year and a half. What in the world are you talking about?

I'm talking about this.




This weekend, I went to Panjshir. Picturesque, secure, awe-inspiring. The Province that gave birth to Ahmed Shah Massoud, which resisted both Soviet and Taliban occupation.


The province where my nascent squat toilet skills weren't needed....because I was mostly peeing in holes in the ground over running streams.


It was clean. It was rustic. It wasn't Kabul. It was exactly what I needed in order to make it through these next two weeks.

It was everything I expected Afghanistan to be.

Old Russian Tank

Villagers in Shahr Bland village


Shahr Bland elder


Snack from....and bare feet of...our lovely hosts in Shahr Bland. Yes, the server is walking where the food is served.


Old Russian artillery something or other


Curious kids in Shahr Bland

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kabul Randomness

Things that have happened since we've been back from Australia:


  • a good sized earthquake

  • three Duck & Cover alarms, only one of which was for a real attack (the attack on the military hospital). The other two seem to have been false alarms.....at 12:30am and 1am.

  • I got recruited to join yet another working group, even though I told the chair that I'm only going to be in Kabul for 17 more days

  • I turned 31

  • I "made out" with a man who is not my husband, while my husband watched........I was in a play, people! Get your minds out of the gutter.

  • I walked out of my apartment yesterday morning and ran into Ambassador Todd (one of the five Ambassadors here). He was walking with 3-star General Allyn (A3), P4's replacement. A3 was trailed by a few 1-star generals. I chatted with Ambassador Todd as we walked toward the Embassy, where a squad of Marines was waiting for a meet & greet with A3. Just as we reached the Marines, P4 himself (and his squad of escorts) came running around the corner, out for his morning run. Then Ambassador Wayne came out of the Embassy. To recap, I started my morning yesterday surrounded by a 4-star, a 3-star, a few 1-stars, and two Ambassadors. Quite the nexus of power....and only in Kabul.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

To Elizabeth, on her 31st birthday

I would like to have written a long and reflective -- or at least short and funny -- post on the occasion of my 31st birthday. Alas I am too busy being a communications officer/program officer/program manager (only one of which is actually my job) to eke out more than a few words.

So much for my grand plan of extracting myself from my job in anticipation of departing post (23 sleeps)! I thought I was so smart: Nick and I would go on a nice, long 3-week leave, returning to Kabul with only 30 days left to go in our assignment. We'd already be out of the loop after being away for such a long time, so we would simply make it a point NOT to get back in the loop in order to focus our attention on departing post.

But the best laid plans.....

Anyway, I have pictures and notes galore to share about our Australia trip. I have my fingers crossed that I'll have time to get them up before we depart post. But at this rate, the odds are not good. Right now, I'm just hoping that I'll make it out of the office tonight in time and with enough energy remaining to enjoy my own birthday party.

Off to write my 3,756th email of the day.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Farewell to Oz

I went for a run late yesterday afternoon. This was my view.


Nick and I went for a bike ride on Friday. This was our view.


Nick and I went hiking the other week. This was our view.


Thanks for showing us a good time Australia. We'll be back....as soon as our wallets recover!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Kangaroo Song

No time to write a full post, as we were up early for a tour of the Great Ocean Road. But here are some pics of a few friends we made during our visit to Fremantle.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Livin' in the Land Down Under

G'day mates!

Just a quick note to confirm that Nick and I are 1) alive, and 2) having a grand time in Australia. Tons of good food, lots of good hiking and clean air, some beach time, some desert time, few movies , and some circus kids thrown in for good measure.

We've conquered Fremantle and Uluru, and we're off for Stop #3 -- Melbourne -- Friday morning. Hopefully I'll be able to upload some pictures there.

Lastly, we just heard about the attack at the Kabul airport. First, all of you can relax about us passing through there in early May. The attack was on the military base that sits next to the airport -- not in the passenger terminal. Second......yes, it's very scary and I'm nervous. But I just keep saying....30 days, 30 days, 30 days left.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Home is where you hang your hat

I learned recently my humble little blog has been added to the list of suggested reading for students in the Afghan Familiarization course at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) -- the course that all USG employees coming to Afghanistan have to take before deploying. Of course I learned this just after I wrote the post on my new found ability to use a squat toilet.

Hi everyone at FSI! I'm Liz. With any luck I'll depart post before you get out here so that you don't have the opportunity to meet me face to face to discuss using squat toilets. Because that would be highly embarrassing and I blush easily.

So after learning that this blog had become training material, I started think about what sort of picture my posts paint about life in Kabul. And I realized that this blog is very biased towards apartment dwellers. Odds are if you are reading this blog and are soon to deploy to Kabul, you will not be living in an apartment. As I've mentioned before, Nick and I are very lucky that married couples are given priority and that we get to have a kitchen and a full bathroom. The hooches, while cozy, are far less comfortable. And quarters out in the field are another story all together.

So in order to make this an equal opportunity blog, my plan for posts between now and when Nick and I depart Kabul (June 11) is to gather as many pictures of USG staff quarters throughout Afghanistan as I can. That way I can give as many of you FSI folks as possible an idea of where you'll be living for the next year (or more). Because if you're in FSI right now and are anything like me, what your housing will look like is possibly your number one concern. Although, if you have a different number one concern, add it in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer!

I had planned to start this new mission with photos of the new Kabul hooches, but none of my hooch-dwelling friends sent any pictures by the deadline for this post (more on that below). So we'll start with a picture of some guest quarters out in the field:


My overnight quarters at FOB Finley-Shields. Kind of like summer camp meets a horse stall.




My friend Dave's cot in a storage closet at a PRT that shall remain nameless.

So why the deadline for this post? Well, it pleases me to no end to report that Nick and I are off to the airport in 1.5 hours for our very last R&R, an 18-day jaunt through Australia. It's been 80 days(!) since our last leave; the cabin fever is really getting to me. As mentioned in a previous post, the security office has tightened up restrictions on going out in the city. So other than a few trips to various government offices, I really haven't left the compound since we returned from Hong Kong. I need out, NOW!

It also pleases me to no end to report that the day Nick and I get back to Kabul -- May 11 -- is the day we start our 30 day departure countdown! I cannot even tell you how good it feels to type that. After 18 months in Kabul (24 for Nick) we are more than ready to close this chapter in our lives and move on to the next (Cairo!). Sorry all you FSI people. Not to be overly negative, but living on the compound can really get to you after a while.

As usual, posting will be light as we bounce our way from Kabul to Dubai to Perth to Uluru to Melbourne to Sydney and back. I think we might break down and finally buy a nice camera so that we can capture our adventure with good photos. Because HOT DAMN Australia is expensive, and unless we do another tour through Afghanistan I really don't see another trip to the Land Down Under in our future (thank you danger pay!). So we better do this trip right.

G'day!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why squat toilets will always make me think of Canada

Disclaimer: this post was written specifically for this week's State Department Blog Roundup. I do not intend to make it a habit to publish posts about toilets or my ability to use them properly.

Also, Donna, I hope you saw my comment about checking out Real Post Reports for more info on life in Kabul.

Hi, my name is Liz. I am 30 years old. And I just learned how to use a squat toilet.

Unfamiliar with the term “squat toilet” or what one looks like? It's called by a variety of names, all of which are probably no-longer PC. So here’s a picture, just so you know what I’m talking about.


Photo by Todd Mecklem. Used under Creative Commons license.

I was first faced with the question of how to use a squat toilet while visiting Meteora in Greece in 2005. In the 6 years since, I’ve been to quite a few countries where squat toilets are not uncommon: Afghanistan, of course, and also Israel, Egypt, India, Turkey and Indonesia. And I’ve been doing it wrong THIS ENTIRE TIME.

Insert red face here.

Yes, it turns out I’ve been doing it BACKWARDS this entire time….which I guess is why I was never able to use a squat toilet successfully. Not to go into gory details, but let’s just say I struggled with splashback. I knew my problems couldn’t be just because I didn’t have something to sit on; I have no trouble answering the call of nature when we’re camping in the woods. So I just assumed that something about my anatomy made it so that I couldn’t use a squat toilet, and made every effort to avoid using one. And when I was forced to use one…I would remove all of my bottoms. I know, I KNOW. It’s ridiculous.

So how did I discover that I was doing it wrong? No, I did not Google “how to use a squat toilet”…..and I shudder to think of the types of images such a search would bring up! No, I was, in fact, taught to use a squat toilet by a Canadian Army Major in the women’s bathroom in the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture.

Yes, in the middle of a ministry building, with me in my head scarf, my kind and very un-self-conscious military colleague (yes I just invented a double hyphenated word. Deal with it) listened to my sad tale of how I was unable to use a squat toilet, dropped trou, and gave me a live demonstration. In truth, the demonstration was a hundred times more informative than the meeting we had just finished.

I have not yet had the chance to test my new knowledge, nor am I going to actively seek out the opportunity to do so. But I know that mine and Nick’s global wanderings are sure lead to another encounter with a squat toilet. And every time I use one successfully – with no splashback – I will offer up my gratitude to the Canadian military.

Oh, and in case you’ve never had the pleasure of using a squat toilet and are wondering how to do it, my only piece of advice is to face toward the hole and aim carefully.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Because I don't feel like writing

Today was a bad day. I don't feel like writing. If I did write, I'd probably end up putting in writing things I'll regret later. So to save myself from possible trouble and to save you all from listening to my whining, here's a video from a while back that I neglected to share. See if you can spot the big error!


Monday, March 21, 2011

Q&A 5

Wa-hoo! Another blog reader submitted questions about life in Kabul! I have to say that I love having specific questions to write to. I find answering straightforward questions so much easier than trying to come up with interesting stories to tell about our insanely redundant daily life in Kabul. Also, I've found that working for the government has destroyed my ability to write in full paragraphs. My skills are now limited to thinking and writing in bullet-point format.

Before I get to answering Donna's questions, I have a few from my grandmother that I've been putting off answering because the answers aren't so simple.

Grandma 's Questions

1) I would like to know more about your duties

  • I do a lot of writing. Mostly internal communications stuff that I can't share here, like weekly reports, meeting minutes, memos, etc. I do some writing for external audiences as well. Here are a few examples:
  • I do some event management
  • I also help out with the management of a local governance program. This also involves a lot of writing, but also a lot of editing, some serious work in Microsoft Excel, and a lot of coordinating with military colleagues
  • I know this is a rather vague description. But honestly, giving you a more detailed description would either bore you all to death, or drown you in a sea of acronyms.

2) I would like to know about the dignataries you have met.

  • We've got 5 US Ambassadors roaming around the compound, and I've met them all.
  • I've been introduced to/spoken with: the late Ambassador Holbrooke, Senators Franken and Levin, former Dep. Secretary of State Jack Lew, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, the Afghan Minister of Mines, and the Afghan Minister of Finance.
  • I've been in/at meetings with or escorted: Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Rodriguez, other important Defense officials, lots of Afghan ministers. Gen. Petraus also complimented my friend Go and me on our running.
  • I've seen from afar: Sec. of Defense Gates and Sec. of State Clinton, and a bunch of random senators and representatives.
  • I'm sure I'm forgetting some others. I'll update if I remember.

Donna's questions

1) Could you tell us about clothes washing facilities?

  • It's kind of like college. There are laundry rooms throughout the compound: hooch dwellers have laundry trailers, and the apartment buildings have one laundry room per floor (4 washers, 4 dryers per room). The only difference from college is that the machines are free instead of coin operated.
  • However, it is EXACTLY like college in that if you are not quick enough getting your clothes out of the machines, people waiting to do their laundry will move your clothes for you. This means that you can't just "set it and forget it" -- you have to hang around and be prepared to come back to the laundry room to move your clothes at regular intervals.
  • Also, the number of people living on the compound has kind of exceeded the capacity of the laundry rooms. I find it near impossible to get laundry done on the obvious day (Friday). So Nick and I have designated Tuesday night as laundry night, and usually don't have a problem getting all four washers/dryers to use at once.
  • There are two dry cleaning services on the compound, but I've heard so many horror stories about them washing clothes in water and wrecking expensive suits that I don't even bother. Of course I'm lucky that I work for USAID and don't have to worry about wearing formal business clothes too often.

2) How much space do you and your husband have to put clothes in your quarters?

  • Donna, I'm going to assume that you'll be here with your husband and will be living in an apartment. The answers would be much MUCH different if Nick was here alone and living in a hooch.
  • Nick and I are very lucky to be living in an apartment, which are a jillion times better than a hooch. With that said, our apartment does have the smallest floorplan. You'd think the apartments would all be a standard size, but that's absolutely not the case. Some are small (ours), some are huge. Some have balconies, some don't (ours). Some have windows that open, some don't (ours). Some have bars on the windows so there's only one exit from the apartment (also ours).
  • The smaller floorplan means that our closets are significantly smaller than in other apartments. One friend lucky enough to have a large apartment has a walk-in closet! We have to be judicious in our use of space, so the clothes that we don't wear that often (ie my sundresses and other culturally inappropriate items) are kept in our suitcases, which are piled in a corner in our bedroom.
  • All in all, we have a double-wide closet and a long 6-drawer dresser in our bedroom where we keep most of our clothing. My shoes live in a box under the bed, along with all of the packaging from our more expensive electronics. We have two other closets in the apartment, but we use them for storing linens, cleaning items, and sports gear. I suppose that if I were a clothes horse we could use them for additional clothing storage, but we seem to be doing alright with the current setup.
  • If you're lucky to get one of the larger floorplans and need some more storage space, you could absolutely fit in some additional pieces of furniture.

3) How big are your quarters and how are they "furnished"? Did you bring over any furniture - is there room? (Do you have pictures you can share?)

  • Ask and ye shall receive! Pictures of our apartment are at the end of this post.
  • Like I said, our apartment is the smallest floorplan out of all of the apartments. I would guess that we're looking at about 700 sq ft, at the most. It's actually about the same size as our apartment in DC, so we manage to do pretty well sharing such a small space.
  • Other apartments are much, MUCH bigger. For example, whereas we can comfortably host about 8 people for dinner in our apartment, Nick and I hosted Christmas dinner for 40 people in a friend's apartment (check out the third to last photo in the linked post). The living room in that apartment is about the size of our bedroom and living room COMBINED.
  • Apartments are furnished in your typical US foreign service style -- UGLY. The apartments come with wall-to-wall carpeting, a bed (queen), a dresser, one nightstand, an entertainment/computer cabinet, one large bookcase, a couch, two easy chairs, a coffee table, a bar/entertainment cabinet, a dining room table for 10 with six dining chairs, 2 side tables, several lamps, a mirror, and a desk. You also get a TV and a DVD player.
  • With that said, Nick and I have made the following changes (you'll notice some of these in the photos): we don't have a desk because our apartment is too small; we had GSO remove the bar/entertainment center, and instead have our TV on a cabinet we bought at the bazaar; we have an additional small cabinet that we also bought at the bazaar; we brought our own coffee table from home; we put down some rugs we bought at the bazaar.
  • Obviously, people with bigger apartments have more room to furnish their spaces with additional furniture.
  • Looking back, the only thing I wish we had brought are floor lamps. Well, actually we did bring some cheap Ikea floorlamps but they didn't survive the move. It would have been nice to ditch the table lamps, which take up a lot of room and are super ugly to boot.
  • In the end, how much room you have to bring your own furniture is totally dependent on your luck of the draw in your apartment assignment.

4) Where do you do your grocery shopping?

  • First, remember that there's no reason for you to HAVE to do grocery shopping. All USG personnel can eat for free -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- at the DFACs. Of course, I find the DFAC food to be essentially inedible, and therefore do a lot of cooking at home. Which means we go shopping.
  • If you plan to do a lot of your own cooking, TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF YOUR COSUMABLES SHIPMENT.
  • There's a small store on the USAID side of compound which stocks a very limited selection of staples (pasta, shelf-stable milk, tomato sauce, yogurt, peanut butter, frozen chicken breasts, frozen ground beef, eggs, some personal care items) as well as a limited selection of fresh vegetables (usually small eggplants, tomatoes, green beans, onions, potatoes).
  • The Embassy side of the compound has a small PX that stocks similar items.
  • There are three European PXs at ISAF, but they don't tend to carry anything we really need (except good European chocolates). There's a PX at Camp Eggers that stocks lots of American brand snacks and personal care items.
  • Liquor is available for sale at the KEEA store on the Embassy compound.
  • The Embassy has a "concierge" service that can get things from town and deliver them to the compound. We use them for veggies, bread, and meat on occasion. But be warned that their markup is pretty steep, and the staff might not always understand your order, to hilarious results. For example, Nick ordered 40 dinner rolls for a party we were having....and we ended up with 40 full sized loaves of bread!
  • Netgrocer, DrugStore, Amazon, and other online stores willing to ship via APO are a great resource for when you can't find what you need in Kabul but don't want to burdern your family with doing your shopping. Of course, the friends and family route is always an option.....
  • As a last resort, on occasion we do ask our Afghan colleagues to bring in items for us. Management doesn't exactly encourage this practice, although the Afghans are usually more than happy to help us out. They understand how frustrated we get being locked down on the compound.

5) How concerned are you about the suicide bombers?

  • Honestly, I try not think about it. Denial is more than just a river in Egypt.
  • Of course, there are times when I get nervous, usually when I get stuck in traffic. I mean, compared to the military US Embassy staff keep a pretty low profile when traveling. And there's nothing on the car that marks it as a diplomatic vehicle (unlike the UN!). But I guess anything can happen at any time.
  • I'm actually more scared of being shot at while in the car than blown up. There's foot traffic everywhere in Kabul. So when I get stuck in a traffic jam, the car is always swarmed by Afghan men (and a few women) weaving their way through the stalled cars to get across the street. And the windows on the SUVs aren't tinted, so the pedestrians can clearly see me, an expat woman, in the car. I feel like this makes me an easy target for being shot at, although I know the odds of this happening are slim (also the windows are bulletproof). But still....this is the type of situation that makes me feel vulnerable.
  • What I'm really REALLY scared of is earthquakes. Afghanistan is in an earthquake prone area, thanks to the crazy Indian continental plate, which millions of years (after the breakup of Pangea) ago flew north at a pretty good clip through what's now the Indian ocean (after the breakup of Pangea) and crashed into the Eurasian plate. This is how the Himalayas were formed. The Indian plate is still moving, which makes the whole area subject to earthquakes (like the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake). Becuase our apartment is on the ground floor, I'm actually really scared that we'll get hit with a big quake in the middle of the night (we had a little one yesterday afternoon -- didn't even feel it) and Nick and I will end up pancacked under the 4 floors of apartments above us. Or that we'll survive getting pancaked, but won't be able to escape from our apartment given the aforementioned lack of a second exit.
  • Also, fires. Fires are very scary when there's not a second exit.
  • Of course, if you're really nervous about bombings, it's entirely possible to make it so you never leave the compound ... depending on the nature of your job, of course. Many jobs require the you leave the compound at least once in a while, for meetings with government officials or implementing partners, site visits, etc. But I also know several people whose duties are completely internal to the US Embassy compound, who have no official reason to leave the compound, and who figure they are safer and better off if they keep it that way. The only part of Afghanistan they see is the road between the Embassy and the airport.
  • And there are others (like me) who would pretty much sell their souls to get off the compound to see some of the "real Afghanistan". Or any part of Afghanistan that isn't surrounded by a 10 ft wall and armed guards.

Lastly, I offer a quick photo tour of our place. There's not a lot of concealed storage, so it's a little cluttered.

View of the living room from the front door

Opposite view of the front door from the living room

Our TV cabinet and USG-owned TV

Our kitchen, just inside the front door.

Hallway, with the bedroom on the left, linen closet at the end, and the bathroom off to the right just before the linen closet.

Cluttered bedroom (I was in the middle of putting away laundry)

TV/computer cabinet and big cluttered bookcase

Cluttered double-wide closet

Bathroom, just after my shower.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Next stop II: the second time is the charm

Let's try this again, shall we?

هل تعرف الطريق إلى أبو الهول؟

That translates to (I hope) "Do you know the way to the Sphynx?" in Arabic.

Next stop (and fingers crossed this one sticks): Cairo! Coming some time in 2011 or 2012....

And for those of you who have asked to know our whole bid list, here ya go:
  1. Egypt
  2. Egypt
  3. Kosovo
  4. Ecuador
  5. Sri Lanka
  6. Armenia
  7. Philippines

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Milestones

This past Friday, Nick and I passed an important milestone in our relationship. I can't believe I forgot to blog about it on the day of. Can you guess what it was?

It wasn't our wedding anniversary.

It wasn't the anniversary of the day we met.

It wasn't the anniversary of the day we got engaged.

Give up?

As of Friday, March 4th......we have less than 100 days until we leave post and depart Afghanistan. Today is 97 days and counting. And with another three-week leave yet to go, we're down to about 76 days of work, give or take a few Fridays.

Not that I'm counting or anything........

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When thundersnow isn't cool

Compared to last year, winter in Kabul 2011 has been...wintry. We've had lots of snowy days, although accumulation has been pretty scarce. We did get one good snowstorm a few weeks ago, with some pretty decent accumulation building overnight. And then somewhat warmer temperatures the next day, which turned Kabul into a giant pit of mud. Of course that did happen to be the day that I went to visit Turquoise Mountain's new facilities. I was very glad I wore my Timberlands!

The wintry weather continues, even as we roll into March. Today we experienced the exciting meteorological phenomenon of thundersnow. Now, thundersnow is usually cool. It's freaky. I mean, snow happens when it's cold outside. Thunder happens when it's hot. By all reasonable logic, the two should NOT happen together.

The only time that thundersnow is not cool is when you're in a war zone, and you don't happen to see the flash.

I don't usually talk about this stuff on the blog because I don't want to worry any of our friends or family. But Kabul has been a little...um, unstable recently. Suicide bombers attacked a local grocery store popular with expats on January 28. Friends of ours were there 15 minutes before the attack. There was an attack on the Safi Landmark Hotel -- the second in a year -- on February 14. And last Saturday we were woken up at 6:30AM by three rocket attacks and a 15 minute Duck & Cover alarm. The rockets didn't hit close to the Embassy; luckily the bad guys don't really have the ability to aim. But they were close enough to make a loud boom, and it was a rather rude awakening.

So it's easy to understand why everyone has been a little jumpier than usual. The thundersnow strike that spooked everyone hit very close by. There was only about 1 second pause between the flash and the boom. And given that it was daylight, the flash wasn't easy to see. When the thunder hit, a lot of people jumped and held their breath for the alarm.

Our movements off compound have been restricted -- meetings are ok, but dinners meetings out at night are hard to come by. I understand why, and although I'm going a little stir crazy I can know the RSO has to put safety first. What gets me really worked up with worry are my Afghan colleagues who travel from their homes to the Embassy every day. Suicide attackers like to strike during the morning and afternoon commutes, when the streets are at their busiest. There are a few expats out and about at those times. But the majority of the people on the street -- and therefore the majority of the victims -- are Afghan. I worry it's only a matter of time before one of our FSNs -- out on their daily commute or running errands or taking their children out for the afternoon -- ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And on that cheerful note.....in conclusion: Thundersnow = cool. Thundersnow in a city that's seen a few bombings in recent weeks = not cool.

And being an FSN = your safety and the safety of your families are always in my thoughts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Q&A 4, with more Kabul content

Well, it seems that my feelings of guilt for not writing a lot about life in Kabul are unfounded. Seeing as only two people responded to my call for questions, either I'm already telling you readers everything you want to know about our lives in Kabul, or else you're really not all that interested and only stop by the blog for the sake of being polite because you're either my family or one of my friends (I kid, I kid).

Melissa, you're up first!

1) What do you wish you had brought with you that you didn't?
  • Nothing, actually. I guess we did a really good job packing. Also we were lucky in that: 1) Nick came out here first, so he was able to get an idea of what we should have with us here before I packed out the house, and; 2) because we’re here for two years, we got a second consumables and HHE shipment, so we had a second chance to ship anything we missed the first time and to restock our consumables.
  • With that said, if I had known that we’d be cooking so much (because I find the DFAC food inedible) I would have brought more of our kitchen stuff. But that’s only useful advice if you’re going to be in an apartment in Kabul.
  • Hold a gun to my head, I probably would say that I wish I had brought more business casual work pants. I brought a lot of pairs of work pants (like suit material) with me, and they really only go with heels. After I got here I found that wearing heels is a pain and for the most part unnecessary. Everyone on the compound thinks USAIDers are tree-hugging hippies already -- I just decided to start dressing the part! So I switched to wearing flats and my Chucks, but that left me with only two pairs of business casual pants to wear.
  • If you’re going to be out in the field, bring lots of brown cargo pants.

2) Do you have to pay for the cafeteria food?

  • No, thankfully. It wouldn't be worth the money, no matter how cheap. At one point in time it was a pay system, but that system went out before I got to post.
  • If you tire of DFAC food for lunch, you can buy kabobs and some Afghan dishes at the locals’ cafeteria. Also a local café sets up shop on the compound during lunch, where they sell panini and pizza. There’s also a terrible restaurant (pub food) and a pizza joint on the ISAF compound next door. Neither is particularly good, but they do offer a bit of respite from the DFAC.

3) What is internet access like? How does it work, how much does it cost?

  • Access is free, although you do need to bring your own wireless router (or internet cable if you're hooking up a desktop). Speeds are good for the most part, although it gets a little spotty at peak times when everyone on the compound is Skyping with their families, and when it rains (which isn’t often).
  • I may be wrong on this, but I believe that the hooches on the CAFE side of the compound are on a different server than the Embassy side (where the apartments are). The CAFE side server has an international IP address, which means that websites that require a US IP address (like Hulu) won’t work. We don’t seem to have that problem on the Embassy side.
  • If you’re out in the field, internet access can range from good to terrible. But it’s still free!

4) What is housing like for those who can't bring their partners along? Is there any private space at all?

  • How long will you be here? If you’re in Kabul for a year or longer, you’ll either be in a hooch or (if you’re lucky) a shared apartment. However, management has to convert a bunch of the split apartments back to singles to accommodate all the married couples, so I'm not sure how many shared apartments will be available in the future.
  • The hooches aren’t anyone’s idea of paradise, but they’re also not terrible – kind of like a small dorm room with a private bathroom. There’s not a lot of space to have people over or anything, but it’s cozy and private enough. If you’re unlucky you may have to share a hooch with another woman for a while when you first get here until a single hooch opens up.
  • Unfortunately the hooches (and even the apartments) get claustrophobic after a while. But then there’s no anonymity once you leave the confines of your hooch/apartment. There are people everywhere you go, and everyone knows who you are. That’s one of the facts of life at the US Embassy Kabul that I find most difficult – I get really really tired of my apartment, but then there’s no where else to go.
  • If you’re here for 6 months or less, then you might be in a T-hooch, sharing a tiny room with up to 5 other girls and having to go outside to get to the bathroom. And I will feel very, very sorry for you!
  • If you’re posted out the field, you might have a private connex, or you might have to share. Either way, you’re almost guaranteed not to have a private bathroom.
5) What kind of facilities are available for recreation?
  • In Kabul, for sports: a tennis court, lap pool, 2.5 gyms, sand volleyball court, and a medium sized dirt field where people play frisbee or football on occasion. There’s also a field at ISAF where the international community sometimes plays soccer and softball. One staffer leads yoga classes 3x/week.
  • In Kabul, for leisure: a bar (the Duck & Cover, aka D&C), two firepits, a grill or two, and the Kabul Community Center with a TV, Wii, DVD, and a ping pong table. And that’s about it. There’s a movie theater over at ISAF, but I don’t know anyone who’s actually gone to see a movie there.
  • In Kabul, the CLO, KEEA, and various staff organize occasional events (like quiz night, game night, movie night) a few times per month.
  • But honestly? There’s not much to do. Nick and I spend most of our free time sitting in our apartment with friends or watching TV. Many folks spend a good amount of time drinking at one of the firepits or at the D&C, but since I’m not a big drinker that scene got old pretty quickly.
  • In the field: it depends on where you’re posted. You’ll likely have access to a gym, and some basic military MWR facilities. But that's not guaranteed.

6) Are you allowed to go out in the cities at all? (ie. for shopping or interacting with native local citizens)

  • USAID's Kabul office has many Afghan staffers, so you’ll be working closely with locals but still within the context of the USG. You'll only get bits and pieces of information about what their lives outside of the office are like. After 14.5 months in Kabul, I have yet to see the inside of an Afghan home. I really have no idea what Afghans or Afghanistan are like.
  • If you’re in Kabul: We used to be allowed out to a few restaurants for dinners meetings and special events (going away parties, etc) or shopping at a few local NGO shops for going away gifts. But recently the RSO has been denying these requests.
  • If you’re posted in a secure province: a few provinces are secure enough to be deemed self-drive (meaning you can drive yourself around in an armored SUV). If you’re lucky enough to get posted to one of those provinces, you’ll have much more freedom to get out and meet real Afghans.
  • If you’re posted in an insecure province: you will be mostly reliant on the military for your movements. You’ll still get opportunities to get out into the villages to meet locals, but in a completely different way than if you’re in a self-drive province.

7) What is the community like? Are people all crazy about working all the time because there is nothing else to do?

  • Yes and no. Many people do work all the time because there’s not much else to do. But many people also work all of the time because there is just so much work to be done.
  • If you're posted in the field, your community is going to be made up of mostly military folks. Learn to like them and speak their lingo.

8) How easy is it to get packages/mail from the US?

  • If you’re in Kabul, it’s moderately easy. APO (military mail) is the fastest, and there are APO offices on the ISAF compound and at Camp Eggers. Delivery times vary widely. We’ve had packages arrive in as little as 8 days, and as long as 6 weeks. Obviously mail times are slower around the holidays.
  • You can also use the DPO, but it’s much slower.
  • I have no idea what mail service is like for staff in the field. I’d guess that if you’re posted at one of the regional platforms (Bagram, Mazar, Herat, Kandahar) it’s probably mediocre. If you’re out at a remote PRT or DST….I’m guessing it’s pretty bad.
9) How does the health bureau work? Do officers mainly stay in Kabul, or are they spread throughout the country? Do they stay in place with occasional trips out or are they pretty much constantly out there overseeing sites and projects?
  • Yes to all. We have officers in Kabul; we have officers in the field. Some stay put behind their desks, and some are out meeting with implementing partners in the field. It’s highly variable from position to position. Sorry I can’t clear this up for you!
10) How much have you been able/not able to share events of your life with family that are not in the country? Is skype or other internet modalities for calling home something that works or is it horrendously annoying to try and use it?
  • Skype works pretty well in Kabul. The picture quality isn’t always great, and the audio delay is pretty severe. But I Skype with my parents about once a week, and it’s worked out pretty well. I actually would prefer to use G-chat (I think the quality is better) but I have yet to convince my folks to actually sign up for a GMail account!
  • If you’re in Kabul, you can call any US number from an Embassy land line. I call my Grandma every month or so, and the connection is fine.
  • Once again, I don’t really know what the phone situation is like for staff in the field, and it’s of course variable from location to location. I do have a colleague here whose husband is working out of Herat, and they’re able to Skype. But that’s a regional platform, where the living conditions and amenities are a little more plush than a remote PRT or DST.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Obsessing

I'm obsessing over two things right now:
  1. Bidding: Nick submitted his bids this week. I'll let you all know the seven countries we bid on once we know where we're going.

  2. Mumford & Sons: Nick's been into this band for about a year now. I'd listened to a few of their songs since then, and thought they were good. I mean, at least it was real music, instead of auto-tuned, over-produced, repetative crap (I'm looking at you Justin Bieber.) And then I saw them perform on this year's Grammys.....and now I'm obsessed. They're the first band to play in the video embedded below (yes it's mirrored for copyright. They're not all left-handed). I mean, seriously, look at how much fun they're having! (especially around the 1:53 minute mark). I've watched this video about a hundred times. I've watched their Grammys red carpet interview. I've watched YouTube videos of their late night talk show performances. I've loaded their CD onto my iPod. We've set up a Mumford & Sons Pandora station.

    I've obviously started to cross over the line of appropriate fandom here.

I hope you watch the video below and become a fan. I also hope you know to stay behind the line of obsession.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gray skies are gonna clear up

It rained for two days straight last week (the higher altitudes got snow), and when the precipitation finally stopped we were treated to a day full of lovely blue skies and blissfully clean air! Very kindly, the Embassy gave USG personnel permission to take pictures of Kabul and the surrounding mountains from the roof of one of the compound's buildings.

So here's what the view looks like from a roof at the US Embassy Kabul...at least on the very rare occasion of a pollution-free day! Credit for all of the photos (except the one of Nick and me) goes to my colleague Robert, whose camera kicks my camera's butt.








This is the infamous high-dive pool at the top of Bibi Mahru hill,
which the Taliban once used for executions.



This is one of the many wedding halls in Kabul. Weddings are big business here, and at night the neon lights from the wedding halls glow like the Vegas strip (although we rarely see them due to the pollution).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New and improved, with more Kabul content

My office recently hosted a TDYer (short-term visitor from USAID in DC) who was very excited to learn that I've been keeping a blog about my time in Afghanistan. He said that USAID staff back in DC -- especially those soon to be posted to Kabul -- are always asking for information on what life is like here. And that with my permission, he was going to start directing them to my blog.

Of course I gave him permission to share the blog, but then realized that most of this blog's content is about getting away from Kabul, or at least the Embassy. Bidding, vacations, excursions to Kabul restaurants, etc. I feel that in the history of this blog, I've actually said very little about what life is like here. Except for complaining about the food.

So I'd like to ask for some assistance from those of you who read this post: what do YOU want to know about what life is like for USG civilians in Afghanistan? Feel free to put any and all questions that you've been dying to ask in the comments section of this post, and I'll do my best to answer them.

Ready, set....go!

What I learned about Hong Kong

First things first. There's no news on the bidding front.

Second things second. All of our Hong Kong pictures are up on Facebook -- links are below. And no, you do not need an account to view them:

Third things third. Here's a rough account of what we did during our trip:

  • Wake up around 10am. Maybe 11am. Watch Nat Geo Explorer (the only English language channel). Shower. Maybe leave the hotel around noon. Or later.
  • Grab a hot dog and an eggy waffle to sustain us while we hunt for real food
  • Find real food. And coffee.
  • Walk. People watch. Walk some more.
  • Find more food. And more coffee
  • Walk some more. Admire all of the pretties that we can't afford and don't really want anyway but hey they're super nice to look at in the store windows. Watches and electronics for Nick. Clothes and digital cameras for me.
  • Get dinner around 9pm. Or later.
  • Get drinks. And maybe a late night snack.
  • Back to the hotel and in bed around 2am. Maybe

We've found that people here in Kabul are generally surprised to hear that we spent 8 days in Hong Kong. I guess it's not a place people think to go as a final destination; only as part of a grand tour through China. And people really don't think to go there from Kabul. Most of our colleagues seem to head for home (or wherever their families are safe-havened), the beach (Thailand), India, or Europe.

But as I probably said in my posts about our time in Bali --we're not really beach people. Nick doesn't like sand, I get bored just sitting around all day, and neither of us are much for water sports. And as much as we love the outdoors -- hiking, camping, etc. -- the bottom line is we are city people. We love living in DC, with all of the people, restaurants, and stuff to do. We really miss that life; Kabul is the exact opposite. Nowhere to go, no one new to see, nothing to do (especially now that we're not allowed to go out to restaurants for "meetings." This has intensified the feeling of being cut off from normal life). Hong Kong offered lots of everything we miss about normal life -- restaurants, shopping. movies, people watching, hustle and bustle. Plus, Nick and I are different in that he likes to sleep and take naps while on vacation, and I prefer to go, go, go. With Hong Kong, if Nick wanted to take a nap, I could quite easily head out to do something on my own instead of sitting around waiting for him.

So, as strange a choice as it may have seemed to others, Hong Kong was really quite perfect for us!

Fourth things fourth. Here's some stuff I learned about Hong Kong:

  • Sleep is for the weak. The city is open day and night -- even more so than NYC. We were out every night past midnight, and invariably all of the restaurants on our walks home were PACKED with late night eaters.
  • Style is in the eye of the beholder. Hong Kongers wear what they like, and like what they wear. We saw some very...interesting fashions on parade. Although as with every other major city in the world right now, riding boots over tights are de riguer for women. Also, Hong Kong women don't seem to wear jeans. Maybe jeggings. With boots, of course.

  • Maybe sticking out is a good thing. Usually when travelling in exotic lands, it's easy to spot other tourists. They're the other lost looking white people. They notice that you look lost. And then you bond over being lost together. But in Hong Kong, the expat community is so large there's always tons of white people around. So we didn't stick out as being tourists -- we were just another expat couple. So neither the expats nor the Asians reached out to us as travelers. I did kind of miss the random conversations with fellow travelers.

  • A girl for every guy. Attention all middle-aged, divorced expat men. Go to Hong Kong. You're sure to find someone attractive (and Asian) to keep you company. Not judging; just saying!

  • If you drink beer in a bar, everyone will know what you're drinking. Bars in Hong Kong serve beer in brand glasses. If you drink Carlsberg, you get a Carlsberg glass. Drink Stella Artois? You get a Stella glass. Hell, I was even served Strongbow in a Strongbow glass!

  • In Hong Kong people drive on the left, and walk...wherever the hell they want. Nick and I consider ourselves to be experienced city walkers. We know how to look up to admire tall buildings while not crashing into anything. We know how to pass slow walkers and merge into a surging throng when getting back on a sidewalk. But in Hong Kong....man, something about the way people walk there. We just couldn't get into the rhythm. Nick said it was because the locals don't walk in a straight line; they kind of drift side to side. So it's nearly impossible to get the timing right to pass a slow walker-- they're drifting, the oncoming pedestrians (and it's such a busy city that there's always oncoming pedestrians) are drifting. Everyone is drifting and all we could do was drift along with them.

All in all we had a great trip, and returned to Kabul much more energized than after our Turkey trip. Our friends here even noticed the difference.

I'm not sure when we'll get out again. We had planned to go on our last RRB in early March and our last R&R in late April. However, we found out this week that I'm only entitled to one RRB and one R&R during my last 6 months at post, because I'm not doing a full two years (even though Nick is doing two years and I'm on his orders). I finished the first year of my tour at th end of November, and I just used my one RRB to go to Hong Kong. So I have just one more vacation between now and when we depart post in June. Nick, however, has 2 more leaves. This news, on top of the bidding mess, Nick's new tablet breaking, his expensive headphones breaking, and my beloved Chuck Taylors (Converse All Star sneakers, for the unhip) being stolen from outside our apartment (update: my Chucks were returned!) pretty much killed whatever glow we had left from Hong Kong.

But I can still look at the pictures, and marvel at the fun we had, the food we ate, and just marvel at the simple fact that I've been to Hong Kong.