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’.