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


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, 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 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.