31 January 2011

Pass the kleenex and leaches, please

I know that I’ve mentioned this before and doubtless will again, but the air quality here is really suspect.  More than suspect, actually.  It was caught red-handed, gave a tearful confession, and only escaped a life sentence through some very skillful plea bargaining.  There are a bevy of reasons for this lamentable state of affairs.  On top of being an inherently dusty area, much like the Great Sand Dunes or Tatooine, the Kabul valley is in the midst of a decade-long drought; years of shelling have almost completely eradicated any natural foliage; and in the absence of any sort of formal waste management plan, the vogue means of trash disposal is to burn it.  Moreover, rapid urbanization and the odd invading army have resulted in terrific pollution, due in no small part to the lack of emissions standards.  In other areas of the country, particularly higher in the mountains, the air is gloriously clear.  Even in Kabul we have some really stunning sunrises.  Usually by about noon, however, the mountains have all but been lost in an opaque mud-coloured cloud. 

The view from my door at 6am

The same view at noon.  And it's not a terrible day - you can still see some blue sky and a bit of mountain.

One tangible effect of the air quality, aside from icky skylines, is that everyone is sick.  Almost every international you come across is stricken with a cough, the sniffles, or some other iteration of near-constant state of low grade cold or asthma attack.  The army considers it enough of a concern that it is noted in the troops’ medical files they were stationed in Kabul.  It’s edifying to know that at least the service members will be eligible for treatment if some day in the near future they contract black lung. 

Most of us accept the reality of illness fairly quickly.  We attempt to combat the inevitable by main-lining Airborne and keeping our desks well-stocked with Theraflu.  One of my co-workers, however, has taken the unusual step of becoming a vicarious hypochondriac.  He seems to imagine that he can keep himself well by convincing the rest of us that we’re getting sick.  I was particularly amused (sort of) when he claimed victory for predicting my own recent illness.  Personally, I seriously doubt that he can count it a win when, rather than a virus he claimed to see coming weeks ago, I think I contracted food poisoning from the DFAC.  Still, I did get sick, so point to BK I suppose.

Meanwhile, our resident MD is frequently inspired to ease the suffering of his non-Afghani co-workers.  Mind you, he’s an OBGYN and the degree is from Kabul University, but he is still arguably more qualified than the rest of us.  I find the Doc’s advice falling somewhere between progressively holistic and bewilderingly mystical: an odd bled of modern medicine and balancing the humors.  In all things treatment-related, foods play a substantial role.  Lemons in particular seem to be a cure-all, as is cardamom in tea and, curiously, eye liner.  Recommended for both sexes, this powdered kohl-based liner is applied to the inside of the bottom lid and said to help the eyes breathe though the dust.  No word yet on whether it still contains lead, though I was cautioned not to use it every day.  Thanks, Doc. 

Actually, the complexion is often invoked during the office diagnostic process, while various stones are prescribed as critical RX elements.  A few months ago, I was having a problem with my skin breaking out (the dust again!), prompting the doctor to ask if I was alright.  I was wearing my stress on my face, he explained.  Ignoring my mortification at this pronouncement, he suggested that I: (a) drink some green tea, as it is rich with antioxidants and the steam would help my skin; (b) get some more sleep; and (c) wear more lapis lazuli.  The blue stone does wonders for elevating the mood and has the serendipitous side-effect of attracting true love.  He was rather shocked that I unfamiliar with this last treatment.
But if I’m a bit skeptical of the Doc, he is equally suspicious of my home-remedies.  For example, he vehemently denies the cardiac health benefits of red wine, or that soy milk could possibly have any redeeming qualities at all (though he heartily accepted that dark chocolate can be used in conjunction with his beloved green tea to relieve stress).  I did finally convince him that caffeine was not carcinogenic, inducing him to have a small cup with me.  Of course, that might well have been a failed experiment.  It bothered his stomach so much that, after work, he cruised in to the nearest pharmacy, showed his license, and took whatever drugs they would give him.  While striking me as a somewhat less than holistic solution, it did also lead me to reflect that the pharm parties here must be rockin’.

29 January 2011

Fun while it lasted

My deepest apologies for having been incommunicado for much of the month; I was home on leave, and it was too wonderful (and short) to pass any time writing.  Even now, I have just a few quick thoughts as I settle back in to the Afghan grind.  First, I highly, highly suggest not reading sappy books while traveling.  I read two worthy books that were both tear-jerkers, both about Afghanistan, and both elicited some seriously concerned/confused/mildly pitying looks in various airport terminals throughout the world.  One, Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, recounted a tragic SEAL mission outside of Asadabad in which nearly a dozen servicemen were killed.  Happily, well perhaps it was less happy than fortuitous for me, the author’s overt disdain for the troop-hating liberal media (exemplified, of course, by this story from the bra-burning feminists at Jezebel or either of these from the unrepentant arugula-eaters at the NYT) and the ROE specifically crafted to hamstring the troops by such damnable hippie politicians as Gen. Petraeus often had an ameliorating effect on my tears and allowed me to hold my composure somewhat.  Politics aside, it is a commendable book.

That said, lefties might want to follow it up with my other read, Kabul in Winter, written by the reliably liberal journalist Ann Jones.  Predominately focusing on the trials and tribulations of Afghan women in Kabul, it is decidedly less masculine that then first, though requires an equal amount of tissues.  Jones also includes a reasonably engaging if somewhat convoluted history of Afghanistan thrown in for good measure.  Be warned, however: she seems to be able to pin the incessant suffering of Afghan women on ‘Bush the Lesser’, the admittedly shady DynCorps, and same-sex ‘boinking’ among the mujahideen.  Conversely, conservatives might want to start with this one and use Luttrell’s book as a palate cleanser.  Either way, unless you have no heart or remarkably strong tear ducts, don’t read either on a plane, on a train…or basically anywhere you would also want to avoid eating green eggs and ham. 

Beyond literary criticism, I was as ever tickled by the travails of travel (I’m really jet-lagged, so please forgive the alliteration).  In the roughly 38 hours of flying/terminal sitting it took me to get from Bagram to the States, I was pleased to note that Westernized Qataris dress like extras from 21 Jump Street and that one of my boarding passes listed me as CA: World Traveler.  Rarely have I felt so urbane after not having showered for two days. 

I’ve also come to the conclusion that the US needs more cyber cafes.  I loved it in Heathrow, as I was able to let my family (and ride home from the airport) know that I was alive, if in entirely the wrong country from where they thought I would be (I missed my connecting flight three times.  No joke).  Incidentally, it appears that my Mac account freezes time, as the meter 30 minutes of internet I purchased never ran down for the nearly two hours I was online.  Apple is magic!  I only wish I would have known that before I shelled out five pounds.

Finally, it turns out there is nothing to make you long for Afghanistan quite like Qatar.  Hot, muggy, noisy, dusty, flat…where is my glorious Hindu Kush?!  Even the air quality was nearly as bad as Kabul, and that is saying something.  I never thought that I would praise the clear skies of Washington, DC.  Honestly, I suspect my company sends us through that port just so that we’re almost glad to be back in a war zone.  Though I do have to admit that Qatari road signs are most excellent.  Even the cross walk stick figures are modestly attired in a thawb and shemagh.  And now, having spent the better part of a month traversing globe and country, hoping from city to city and family to friends, and having eaten way too much deliciously fattening foods, I’m ready for the next seven(ish) months.  Welcome back to Paradise!

04 January 2011

Bathroom Reader

In a less than ideal start to 2011, my first shower of the year was cold.  And when I say cold, I mean brass monkey, three dog, heart-stoppingly frigid.  It was also pitch black.  We lost power for a bit in that part of camp, and the water didn’t heat – I’m mildly surprised that it even made it out of the faucet.  Anyway, it got me thinking about the state of our restrooms here in theatre.  Please indulge me – this post is more uncouth than normal.  I promise to up the intellectual quotient in next post.

One would think, living with communal bathrooms, that etiquette would dictate a live and let live policy.  Yes, we’re showering in the same room, but I’m not going to look at you, you’re not going to look at me, and everything will be just fine.  Much to my chagrin, this is not how it works in practice.  Shower connexes are rife places for over-sharing, and I don’t mean just hair-care rituals – displaying new tattoos, inquiring about family, even commenting on bathroom habits are all apparently fair game.  One friend, formerly of the SF and whose old habits die hard, was informed by a fellow bather that he didn’t need to take combat showers.  Intrusive and creepy are the by-words of shared bathrooms, I guess.

That said, not all of the washroom norms are abrasive; some are simply bizarre.  Is not uncommon for women to play music in the bathroom, setting up some speakers and rocking out, whether for the duration of their pre-bed shower or just while putting on mascara in the morning.  I like to think of it as Club Female Only (all women’s restrooms have large signs proclaiming they are just that.  There are never any signs on the men’s rooms, though).  I think it ranks as possibly the second strangest music-related experience I’ve ever had in a restroom.  The first, of course, being in a club in Barcelona which boasted its own DJ.  Two guys evidently preferred this DJ to the one on the main floor and were kind of bopping along, never mind that they were in the way of the paper towel dispenser.

The ladies restroom nearest my B-Hut does duty not only as the occasional club, but also as the local book-and-movie exchange.  Whenever someone either rips out, she usually can be counted on to leave certain goodies behind.  Romance novels and chick flicks are particularly popular, though I did pick up a Grisham to leaf through at one point.  Although I don’t feel inclined to leave the books I’ve finished, generally holding on to them for a re-read, I do pass on my New Yorkers and Vanity Fair.  They seem to be popular reads.

Where the bath-connex by my hut is passable, I can’t really say the same for that by my office.  No bathrooms by the gate – we have port-a-potties.  During my first week at Phoenix, I just used the first that was open.  It was (a) a squat port-a-potty and (b) smelled so foul, I decided then and there that I would neither eat nor relieve myself ever again.  Happily, one of my co-workers noticed my look of revolution when I left, and pointed out that the women of our building have a personal portable toilet that is kept padlocked at all times.  We all pitch in for hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and air freshener.  While I would prefer running water, no question, it’s become possibly the nicest hole in the ground I’ve ever used.

It will not surprise my regular readers to learn that each of my travels brought their own restroom-related hijinks, as they have in so many other areas.  The spate of sexual assaults at one camp resulted in rather odd measure of combination locks being placed on the doors of the women’s conexes.  I am, obviously, fully supportive of assault prevention.  However, when the majority of the assaults have been committed by members of the civilian cleaning crew who require the combinations to successfully performs their jobs, it is a solution that bears a bit more thinking about.  Meanwhile, if something nefarious were to transpire in the bathroom, one’s mandated armed escort could not come to her aid, as he would not have the combination. 

Travelling has also given me a perverse appreciation for plumbing.  I not appall myself somewhat by rating a FOB by the water pressure in its showers or how well the toilets flush rather than by the cleanliness of the tent I sleep it.  Deciding that something is a ‘good flusher’ is honestly not an observation I ever anticipated having to make outside of eventually potty training my own children.  It must be noted, though, that even the most effectively constructed toilet in Afghanistan cannon make up for the single ply toilet paper found on the bases.  I feel like one of those insipid Charmin bears, using handfuls of paper.  Sheryl Crow would be so disappointed.

No matter what I go, there is one constant: bases are forever trying to convince us to save water.  The sign in my bathroom urges me to only take 5 minute showers and turn off the water when I brush my teeth (oddly, the same sign urges me to brush my teeth for ten minutes.  I don’t know why camp management is so concerned with oral hygiene, but there you go).  A slightly more effective version is the one that warns me about the dramatic water shortage in Afghanistan.  Apparently, we do need to be taking combat showers.  Take that, intrusive bathroom man!