27 November 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Less the Trains

I know I talk about travel a lot, but it’s consistently interesting.  I was going through withdrawal, not having left the KBC lately, and feeling claustrophobic trapped on dear Phoenix.  To both my delight and exhaustion, there was then a glut of travel.  It’s 3 am as I write this, and I just left one plane to get on another in a few hours.  When it rains, it pours!

Most often, I tool around Kabul in a ‘soft-side’ or non-tactical SUV.  I love driving around the city, I really do.  One sees the strangest things.  Case in point: there is a sever water shortage in Afghanistan, and has been for decades.  The desert conditions and utter lack of foliage result in a dust cloud that is so dense it actually can completely obscure the mountains surrounding Phoenix.  Honestly, you could be forgiven for assuming Kabul is a barren wasteland rather than a valley in the Hindu Kush.  To their credit, the municipal authorities are attempting to remedy this problem.  To do so, they’ve tasked the fire brigade with watering the trees in the median.  Who cares about house fires – there are saplings to save!
Street Statues in MeS
 In a parallel incongruity, Afghanistan’s identity as an overt Islamic state does not prevent a proliferation of human representation.  For one, there is a variety of statuary floating around (especially in MeS).   More surprisingly, though, are the gym advertisements chockablock with glistening, muscle-bound Afghans.  Honestly, these ads seem something one is more likely to find in a WWE billboard record or vintage SNL skit.  They amuse me every time I catch one out the corner of my eye, not least because I’ve also never ever seen an Afghan that buff.  This includes the commandos and our self-described ‘combat terps’ who are placed with (and frequently train with) the Special Forces. 
Out of focus, but I think it gets the point across
 The October elections saw their own road-side oddities.  I have worked on several US campaigns and I must say, Afghani campaign posters put the traditional American yard signs to shame.  Mazer-e-Sharif, where I passed the election, was cap-a-pie blanketed with appeals to the voters.  Admittedly, I don’t think they’re constrained by the same rules about permission and public property as campaigns in the States.  It appears that if you can affix your sign, you’re good to go.  The elections mirrored the general lack of regulation or even law, something we frequently bemoan while driving.  There are no traffic lights, no rights of way, the numerous military convoys invariably operate under their own set of rules, and the ANP only serves to confuse matters further.  And still, Corporate policy dictates that we must at all times obey the traffic laws.  If only they existed.
Campaign posters everywhere!
 From the bedlam of the streets, let’s turn our eyes to the sky and the perennial joy that is flying in Afghanistan.  I much prefer traveling by helicopter, but still take some pleasure in flying out of KAIA on fixed wing.  Rotary is often a smoother trip with a better view, but fixed wing offers some really delightful moments of not inconsiderable surrealism, including flairs fired as a part of the landing sequence (I think the pilots must have been bored) and the most interesting air port security experience of my life.  A soldier was asked to take the extra ammo out of his checked luggage and simply carry it on.  This certainly seemed a strange precaution.  I also had to question why there are metal detectors when fully 90% of the passengers were armed.  The culmination of a recent trip found me watching Polish MTV while sitting in the terminal at a German base after having flown in with the Swedish air force, waiting for a Fijian to come pick me up.

On my return, I got back into my familiar Chinook, although not in matter to which I have become accustomed.   Generally, Chinooks are loaded from the back, through the tail hatch.  This time, however, the cargo (a massive fuel tank – maybe they were nervous about all the combustibles, and their paranoia caused the crew to nix iPods?) was blocking that route rather decisively, and we had to side-load, wriggling in under the mounted gun.  I felt like the one-eyed pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean, shoving the cannon out of the way.  I slung my bags through the chest-high hatch and slithered in after with the extra 40-some-odd pounds of IBA weighing me down, all while the crew chief screamed at me to hurry up.  Hurry up?  You were the ones who were five hours late…

Once we were actually airborne, I was dismayed to discover how cold Chinooks are, especially when traveling at night.  I spent much of my late-night flight huddled in my body armour, wishing GO1 didn’t prohibit two Wacioodles in a blanket…  When we paused to refuel, and everyone had to clamor our of the helicopter, I was actually grateful.  I stood under the downdraft of the blades in order to warm up.  For the first time ever, were prohibited from listening to iPods.  Apparently they’re too bright for night flights and somehow made the helicopter more of a target.  I’m not sure if I bought that rationale, but it’s not my call to make.    

When I finally arrived at my destination FOB, I was asked to sign a memorandum from the CO, decreeing that no-one was to walk unescorted after sundown.  Apparently, so many female soldiers have been assaulted by, as the specialist at base ops said, some fools and I don’t know what, that the powers that be decided they require a battle buddy at all times.  On a US base.  Nothing quite like restricting the victim!  To their credit, though, the military demands equality in all things.  Guys have to be escorted there, as well.  

All of this, and Corporate originally promised me I would never go past the wire.  Lying like rugs, they were.