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.


  1. Thank you so much for so thoroughly answering my questions (and correcting my verbiage. Sometimes I type before I think!

    This is all extremely helpful when thinking through some of the practical sides of posting to Afghanistan.

    Do you mind if I ask more questions when I get further into the process?

  2. Thanks Liz...I actually just found out that I am no longer being considered for the Afghanistan position. I did, however just get an invitation to the March DLI class. So, I will be starting out as a JO soon. I am sure I will need the information you so painstakingly passed on in the future (as I am pretty sure Afghanistan will be a USAID posting in my future). If I run across anyone with questions, I will also direct them here. Good luck with the rest of your posting!

  3. Thank you so much for posting this blog! Could you tell us about clothes washing facilities? How much space do you and your husband have to put clothes in your quarters?

    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?)

    Where do you do your grocery shopping?

    How concerned are you about the suicide bombers?

    I know I'll have many more questions as my husband and I are giving the jobs there serious consideration.

    Thanks again for sharing all this info!!