06 March 2011

Driving, top down and wind in my hair...or not

Yet again, I found myself turned loose in the eastern-most outreaches of Afghanistan, FOB-hopping through the ever lovely Pech Valley.  If I had to live somewhere other than my own Phoenix, I would without hesitation choose this area.  Even so, I have to fess up to a bit more trepidation this time around, as I was going to some smaller bases and engaging in a bit more ground travel.  The site manager at Jalalabad, which served as my jumping off point, could sense my disquiet and enjoyed harassing me about it.  Indeed, as I was packing up to catch my flight, he queried whether I had a red lens light (rather than the standard white) and the neck guard fixed on my IBA.  Yes, I answered cautiously.  Why?  Because if you don’t use a red light, he answered matter-of-factly, they will shoot you in the neck.  Have a good trip!

In fact, allow me to take this opportunity to reflect a bit more on the joys of black out FOBs.  I’m aware that I have kvetched about them before, but the ante was a bit upped this last week.  There was no moon to speak of and it was rainy for the vast majority of each night.  While I love rain – the sound pattering me to bed, the fresh smell of the mornings, the heavy clouds shrouding the mountains – it was really a bugger in terms of visibility.  Crimson lights were constantly creeping out from behind corners like Cyclops cats, cars and buildings rising up out of the ground to spitefully smack you in the nose.  Moreover, the radius of the red lens is quite restricted, and if you don’t figure out where you’re going during the day, you are more or less SOL.

The truth of this was reaffirmed my first night at Asadabad, when I discovered that the women’s showers had been moved since my last visit.  Not being able, at 11pm in utter darkness, to wander aimlessly until I found them, I followed some new, lovingly handcrafted signs and stumbled around the corner into the narrow alley between the shower cabin and FOB wall.  It turned out the boiler room had been repurposed as a female latrine, and it was there I commenced bathing in the sink.

So it was looking and smelling my best that I set out the next morning for a joy ride through Afghanistan’s most dangerous province.  Actually, ground travel proved not to be so bad.  I wrapped myself cap-a-pie in what I assured my mother was a bullet-proof woolen blanket, probably marking the closest I’ll ever come to sporting a burqa.  It proved successful as personal protective gear, in that it keep the stares to a relative minimum, though I’m still decidedly Western-completed.  That said, I managed to bitch the entire 30 minute drive to FOB Joyce about amping up the air conditioning.  A woolen body sack is not the ideal way to travel, even if the Local National Assistant was a bit scandalized by the whiny woman.  He was kind enough to highlight several points of interest, including the ANA guard station that marked the entrance to the Pakistani border. 

Our stop at Joyce was quiet abrupt.  Really, I only had time to note the fluency with which their ECP unit spoke Pashto and that the bazaar boasted the most intricately stacked sandbags I’d ever seen.  They looked like waves or delicately textured bricks.  I suspect that the Joyce units have altogether too much time on their hands.

The following day, I returned to the skies in my more traditional means of travel and flew well up the valley into the northern boonies.  After I had completed my training, I settled into the MWR, curling up with my Vanity Fair and watching the clouds amass over the mountains.  As the cadence of outgoing munitions picked up throughout the morning, I became increasingly concerned that my flight back would be canceled.  Initially, the howitzer rounds were so loud, I thought they were jets and was shocked at how they were taking off without an air strip.  The Big Voice announcement that the range was running hot was a bit delayed.  Once I became used to them, I appreciated that the rounds did indeed sound like jet engines, but only were the sequence reversed.  They opened with the powerful concussive impact of a take-off, and faded to a sort of idling engine noise as they flew over the mountain.

I am happy to report that my flight did eventually arrive, even if take off was a bit emotionally rockier than those to which I’ve become accustomed.  All of the army folks abruptly began running around as though they actually had something to do, jaws clenched, rifles gripped, and shoulders set with tension.  It transpired that three unidentified Afghan men with some sort of tubing had apparently crested a far ridge.  Someone then started muttering something about a RPG team and taking aim at the helicopter.  I found myself hoping that the OPI snipers were pretty good at their job as I boarded.

Since perceived Afghan enmity seems to be the theme of the day (I didn’t really plan it that way, but I seem to have been fairly stressed this week), it might be relevant to note that even the ANA personnel were more overtly hostile and decidedly less lecherous than I’m used to.  Getting sized up as a meal?  Totally par for the course in Kabul, by soldiers of all nationalities.  As a kill?  Very much less so.  I suppose that both metaphors make me hunting prey, but I found the latter infinitely more disquieting.  Indeed, some of the nicest views at Asadabad can be found at the ANA installation, but I never did muster up the courage to wander over with my camera.  Of course, this is the Pech, were the only burning desire of the locals to be left the hell alone.