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 cafĂ© 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


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 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, 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.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Change in Plans

Note: Original post edited to reflect updates to available posts

We're back in Kabul, Sweet Kabul, after a relaxing, filling, and nearly perfect trip to Hong Kong. I'll finish reporting on what we ate, saw, and did during our trip soon. But first, some news.

The morning of our very last day in Hong Kong, Nick received an email from USAID HR informing him that due to the restructuring of USAID missions worldwide, his position in Budapest had been cancelled. So we will not be going there after completing our tour in Afghanistan, and have to re-enter the bidding process. Great way to end the vacation, right?

So we're back in limbo, looking at the positions on the bid list that are still available. We still get priority bidding, but we're bidding on what's left after the list has gone through several cycles and many of the positions have already been filled.

With that said, I'm hoping that some of the Diplo/expat types who read this blog might be able to provide some opinions on the locations that are still available. I've checked Real Post Reports on all of these, but many of the countries haven't been updated in four or more years. And I know that things can change a lot in that time, especially for expat quality of life.

With that said, here's what we're looking at thus far, in no particular order:
  • Ukraine
  • Armenia
  • Kosovo (I would really love to get current info on Pristina!)
  • Sri Lanka
  • West Bank/Gaza (living in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem)
  • Ecuador
  • Kenya
  • Philippines
  • Tanzania (Maryam and Denyse, I know you'll have lots to say about this one!)

So, fellow expat bloggers, any thoughts?