Saturday, December 27, 2008

Our Kabul Christmas

The weeks leading up to Christmas were very busy for us over here in Kabul.  Not only did we have our unexpected trip to Dubai, but the entire month I felt like I was working against the clock.  With several big projects to complete by end-of-the-month payroll and the beginning of 2009, December was a month that needed overtime instead of time off.  But when Karzai passed an edict mandating a week off for Eid e Qorban (the Festival of Sacrifice, celebrating when Abraham showed the faith to sacrifice his son. . . in the Islamic world, Ishmael), I quickly fell behind.  Between Christmas get-togethers, work, and of course preparing for the holiday; I felt like December 25 quickly and quietly crept up on me.  It was very stealth.

Most Afghans have no idea what Christmas is, why we celebrate it or even what day it is on.  I was asked no less than 10 times when Christmas was, how many days it lasted, what it celebrated, who Santa was, who Jesus is. . .  My favorite questions came from our chakador, Habib, who asked me "When do you start partying for Christmas? And how do you tell when it's supposed to start?"  The Islamic world operates on a lunar calendar.  The beginning of holidays are determined by the position, phase, and a sighting of the moon.  School and work calendars always have holidays in parenthesis with people guessing the actual date as it draws closer.  Holidays usually last for several days and include visiting family and friends and eating lots of sweets and food.  Afghans are extremely surprised when they find out we only celebrate Christmas for one day, two if you count Christmas Eve.

Celebrating Christmas in a place like Kabul takes a little bit of creativity and effort.  We already have a few in place traditions (opening pajamas on Christmas Eve, eating chocolate pudding and biscuits for breakfast on Christmas Day, nutmeg logs, to name a few) and these little traditions help us feel at home wherever we are.   We were also blessed to have a whole team working together to make Christmas fun and festive, one of the benefits of sharing a home with two other families.  Between all of us, we were able to pull off a great holiday.

Some things that went into making our Christmas special:
-A 24 inch tree sent from Dynamic with color changing lights.
-Baked goods sent from North Carolina.  Candy Canes sent from Washington.
-Sending Agha Gul to get pecans and getting a jar full of pickles instead.
-Homemade eggnog and apple cider.
-Reading the Christmas Story together.
-Having a full Christmas dinner spread with green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing (if I had time to tell you how difficult it was to find cornmeal in Kabul. . .), punch made from a bottle of Sprite and all different juice boxes in the fridge mixed together, pickles (instead of pecan pie), and chicken pretending to be turkey.
-Skype! So great to see our families on Christmas.
-Making great memories with friends; playing Wii, cooking together, and watching Joey and Steve play with Legos that we got for our 4 yr old housemate.

Although we missed being with family, we'll always have great memories from our first Kabul Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Moments and memories

From J&J Slide Show Pics

I know, it's just a little picture.  But it's the only one I have on our hard drive of me and my mom.  It was taken when I was brand new.

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of my mom's passing.  Yes, it is a day that brings some tears and sorrow.  But more than that, it's a day to celebrate moments and memories of Mom's life.  Of course I am a bit partial, but I think Kathy Pandiani was an incredible lady.  She lived a life that's easy to celebrate.  She was sincere, loving, caring and joyful.  She loved to dance and laugh.  She wanted people to feel involved and important.  And she found great joy in serving others.

My mother taught me to be a woman of faith and prayer.  Throughout her sickness, she always had her eyes focused firmly on our Lord.  I remember her praying for healing but also praying for God's sovereign will to be done.  I believe she was a testimony of God's love in her life and in her death.

A lot has changed in the last ten years; graduations, a wedding, moves all over the country and world.  There is so much of my life that I wish I could share with her, although God has blessed me with many wonderful people to share these moments with.  Of course, I will always miss her.  But I am so blessed to have lived 17 years of my life with Mom.

Two memories: This may be bad parenting.  But to reward me for doing well at my piano lessons each week, Mom would buy me a vanilla latte and a chocolate chip cookie from Shakabra Java on 6th.  This started when I was in 3rd grade.

Every Christmas we would spend Christmas Eve and Day with Mom's family.  Part of the tradition was Family Follies, our annual family talent show.  Mom always planned out a little act for us to do, usually with elaborate choreography.  One of the most memorable Family Follies was when I was almost six and Mom, Melissa and I performed "The 12 Days of Christmas" with interpretive dance.  Sarah recited a poem about her Auntie Flo who gave her underwear every year.  She can probably still say it, you can test her on it.

Caroling in Kabul

Last night I attended a ladies Christmas party.  It was a great chance to spend some time with the women I work with/for and have some Christmas celebration.  Getting into the Christmas spirit is not an easy task over here.  There are no decorated trees, no lights on street lamps, no malls (let alone a decorated Nordstroms), no displays of Christmas foods in the non existent grocery stores.  In the expat community, we all work very hard to make our homes feel Christmassy.  In our house we have a tree and wall decals of Christmas scenes that arrived from Dynamic yesterday (Thank you Dynamic!).  And we feel that we have the corner market on holiday beverages with lots of apple cider, hot chocolate, and my holiday syrups for pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint mochas.  But it takes a lot of work to get in the Christmas spirit.

Last night was definitely an exception.  Our hostess had her house decorated from floor to ceiling.  We enjoyed punch and appetizers and a beautiful formal dinner of lamb.  Everyone contributed to the meal with a holiday favorite.  And all the while we enjoyed Christmas music.  We even had a gift exchange.  I think that everyone felt a little closer to home.

But the icing on the Christmas cake was when there was a knock on the door and one of the small groups from within the Community had decided to go caroling around the neighborhood to expat families.  Caroling in Kabul is something that I did not expect.  And I have to admit that while we all sang "Go Tell it on the Mountain," I got a little teary eyed.  As we sang through a couple songs, I was struck by the fact that with all the work we put into Christmas in Kabul, without all the Jingle Bells and department store Santas, we have the advantage and blessing of being able to embrace Christmas without much distraction.  Celebrating Christmas in Kabul is not easy.  We miss family and friends, traditions and even the dreaded Christmas shopping.  But we're thankful for friends that come to carol in the cold, cold Kabul night.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Some Thankfulness

Well, I have been a little absent from blogging the last few weeks.  I've started a couple of posts.  But each time I sit down with the intention of blogging, I get pulled away.

The last few weeks have been too full to go into much detail at the moment.  In a nutshell, we had a few situations come up culminating in a very sudden and unexpected trip to Dubai for visa renewals and various appointments.  More on that later.

Right now, I'm full of thankfulness.  One of the posts I started about a week ago was about our Thanksgiving experience here, and I feel that the theme of giving thanks has been recurrent for us the last few weeks.

For Thanksgiving, we had a great opportunity to spend time with some great friends and eat some great food.  There were around 70 people at the event; 4 turkeys and countless fixings to keep everyone happy and fed.  It wasn't quite Thanksgiving at home, but it did the trick.  Joey's happy because he got some Pumpkin Roll which he considers an absolute staple.

As I reflect back on the 5 months we've been here, I can't help but think of how the things I am thankful for have changed.  It used to be the basics: friends, family, health, wonderful husband, place to live, general things like that.  And while I'm still thankful for family, friends and Joey (increasingly so), I find that life over here makes me appreciate a whole new set of things.  Here are some of those things:

- Skype!  I am so thankful for Skype and friends and family that use this wonderful, free invention.  Although Afghan internet is not always up to speed, on nights when it works and I get to see my niece Karis whistle or my dad talking about the Christmas tree. . . it can't be beat.

- Keeping with the technology theme; Facebook, emailing friends and regular blog posters, readers and commenters are things that help keep me in the loop.  It's so nice to wake up in the morning to wall posts and email messages from back home.  (So keep wall posting, blogging, emailing. . . and if you aren't doing these things, start!)

- Hot water.  We live a luxurious life here with a generator that works most of the time, hot water from the showers after 3 minutes of warm-up, and space heaters that we can leave on during the night.

- Our APO.  Mail in Afghanistan is unreliable and verging on non-existent.  Any semi-reliable shipping methods cost an arm and a leg and have no guarantee that what your sending/receiving will make it to the final destination.  We are so blessed to have an APO even though we're non-military.  It usually takes letters/packages about 6 days to get here from the states.  It's great for receiving little pieces of home.  (If you want the address, email me!)

- I'm thankful that there are daily flights to Dubai.  Generally speaking, I'm not so much a fan of Dubai.  It's a big city with construction everywhere, traffic everywhere, malls everywhere, sand everywhere.  But for visa emergencies, healthcare, and getting our fix of little things like Starbucks or Mexican food . . . it's really a nice place to go for a day or two.  While in Dubai we enjoy little luxuries like eating out, holding hands, bath tubs, being able to walk places (did I mention we're on walking restriction here?), comfortable hotel beds and pillows, grocery shopping, and STARBUCKS!  After our quick little three day visa trip we feel revived and refreshed.

- Neither of us have gotten too terribly ill.  And this despite the fact that we recently found out our "cook" has not been iodining our vegetables.  This may be too much information, but we're thankful to be worm and hepatitis A free!

- And finally: Our prayer partners.  Over the last few weeks the importance and power of prayer has really been stressed in our lives.  We've also realized that we have an incredible network of friends and family all over the world that are partnering with us in prayer.  From here in Kabul all the way back to the US, we're so thankful for praying people.  Your prayers for us are such a blessing, we thank God for you daily.  Thank you!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Summary of India

Ok, so now that our future is settled for the moment, I thought I'd return to the India and Nepal Edition.  But since I've already been back for over a month, I thought that India would best be summed up rather than expounded upon.  Although India was a great experience and I hope to spend more time there, Nepal was much more personal and engaging.   In many ways, India reminded me of a louder, busier, more western Kabul.  India feels like an old country working to enter the 21st century; there is a campaign to be a "modern" city by the Commonwealth games in 2010, they have a lot of work to do.

In India, we visited Delhi and Jaipur.  Delhi is a very large, very bustling city with thousands of sights, millions of people, and a rich and varied past.  As a history lover, it was interesting to see (or drive by, we didn't have much chance to sight see) monuments of British Imperialism next to Islamic minarets and Hindu temples.  There are tombs and temples that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old.  Like Afghanistan, Delhi and most of India has been a part of several different empires throughout its history.  In fact, Delhi was once ruled by Afghans and seems to have more intact tombs, mosques and palaces from the Afghan period than Afghanistan has.

When I pictured India before visiting, Jaipur is what I imagined.  Jaipur's history includes tales of the maharajas and maharanis.  The area has an exotic feel to it.  Elephants and camels pull carts and men wear oversized red turbans.  There are beautiful palaces and forts throughout the city, some still in use, some converted into hotels.  And the whole city is painted a rusty pink, hence the nickname "The Pink City."

There were a few highlights from my time in India.  One was getting to drink great coffee at a real coffee bar.  One of them was eating a fancy dinner with the ladies.  Another was swimming in the hotel swimming pool.  But on a more serious note, we were able to visit Gandhi's Memorial, the platform on which he was cremated, on the Indian holiday celebrating his birth and life.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for Gandhi.  His motto, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," has become one of Joey and my life goals (and one of the reasons we move to places like Kabul!).  It was very inspiring to see people from all over the world and of all different religions honoring this man who promoted peace, love, and positive change.  It reminds me that regardless of creed or personal belief, there are certain things that we should all be committed to working towards together.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Staying Put

News to report, we're staying put!
Looks like it's going to be a Kabul Christmas!

Friday, November 14, 2008


As I write this, a very important meeting is going on in Virginia concerning our future here in Afghanistan. Although I've known that this meeting was coming, I didn't want to say anything about it.  Mainly because all of us here really want to stay.  And we're all very uncertain whether we will be able to or not.  But for some reason, I felt that saying that we might leave Kabul would make it feel more real. . . and it does.

I have to admit that I am nervous about finding out the verdict.  And I think that it's ok to be a little bit nervous.  But at the same time, life is full of uncertainty (I feel like I'm learning a lot about uncertainty these days!).  And in a sense, we always live in the uncertain no matter how "secure" our lives are.  Bottom line, despite my desire to stay here in Kabul, despite the uncertainties that the future holds, and despite this feeling that I have that my life is in constant change. . . I'm not going to worry.

Fittingly, our Book Group studied Matthew 6:25-34 yesterday.  For a group of people that live in a place in constant flux, it was a great reminder to all of us not to worry about tomorrow.  Although we hope and pray that we will be able to stay here in Kabul, we're not going to worry while we wait for the verdict.  Tomorrow will worry about itself.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Afraid of the vacuum. . .

Taking a post break from The India and Nepal Edition.

My work laptop is afraid of the vacuum.  Every morning at around 9:00, the cleaning lady vacuums the hallway outside my office.  At about 9:05 my laptop suddenly shuts off and won't reboot until the vacuum is put away.

When I told the IT guys that I had a suspicion my laptops power problems were connected to the vacuum, they tried not to laugh, said my computer probably had a virus, and rebuilt it.

After the rebuild, the power problems continued.  So, Sami stood in my office while the vacuuming was running. . . and it didn't shut off.  As soon as he walked out the door, it promptly died.

They thought it might be a problem with an electrical circuit.  They bought me a heavy duty surge protector.  And it died.

So, we decided that each day when the vacuum turned on, I would just unplug everything connected to my laptop, everything connected to a power source, and continue working.  Although this would be a bit of a hassle, it would save the cost of buying a new laptop.  Next day, I sit with my laptop completely unplugged as she begins to vacuum.  And it died.

Obviously, my poor computer has had some sort of traumatic experience with vacuum cleaners in the past.

Today I arrived at work to find a shiny new laptop with all my files and work transferred over to it.  And it's not afraid of the vacuum.

Although we had a good laugh about my vacuum-a-phobic computer, this is Afghanistan and situations like this are not that uncommon.  Like the light switch that stops working, or all of a sudden starts to turn on the light in another room, or the shower that randomly loses all water pressure (conveniently right when you're all lathered up).  Dangling wires, faulty electricity, no electricity, no internet. . . all things that we're quickly getting used to here.  For now, I'm just happy that I won't have to be obsessive about hitting control "s" whenever I hear a vacuum.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The India and Nepal Edition: Mendies Haven and Shyam's Place

We live in a big world with big problems.  Living in one of those problem places, I often find myself discouraged by the, "I'm just one person, what can I do?" line of thinking.  But when I remember the Gandhis, Mother Teresas, William Wilberforces, and Greg Mortensons of the world, I have renewed hope in the individual's ability to make positive (and sometimes history altering) change.

Elizabeth "Mummy" Mendies was called the Mother Teresa of Nepal.  A Canandian woman who had moved to the little known kingdom of Nepal with her husband in the 1960's, Elizabeth saw an enormous need to help the many abandoned and poor children wandering the streets of Kathmandu.  Her desire to create a place of safety for children developed into an orphanage called Mendies Haven.  Since it's beginning in the sixties, Mendies Haven has housed countless children.  It's amazing to see the difference that love and care makes in a child's life.  And in the center of all this love and care was this woman, Mummy, who everyone speaks of with huge smiles and admiration.  She was one of those individuals that made a very big difference.  Although Mummy died last August, seeing the smiling faces of 30+ children was an incredible testimony of her ministry to the overlooked of Kathmandu.  And it is clear that Mendies Haven will continue to live on.

Shyam grew up at Mendies Haven.  After going to Pensacola College in Florida and marrying a woman from Washington, he returned to Nepal to open another orphanage, knowing the impact that being taken in and cared for had on his life.  While Mendies Haven feels like an established operation, Shyam's Place feels like a large family home.  Between the boys and girls rooms is a family room where house parents live.  Shyam's ministry includes a Nepali place of worship, a religious school, and the orphanage.  When he speaks, his Hope is evident and his dreams for the future of Nepal seem almost tangible.  As someone who has come from impossible circumstances, it's inspiring to see him provide what Mendies Haven gave him to future generations.

From MH and Shyams

From MH and Shyams

As part of a group of people committed to praying for Nepal, Nikki and her crew pray specifically for five "brothers" that grew up at Mendies Haven.  Two of the brothers, Digamber and Bobby, acted as our friends and guides during our time in Nepal.  One of the highlights of the trip was seeing these young men spend time with their younger brothers and sisters at Mendies and Shyams.  We had planned an afternoon VBS for both orphanages.  And while I struggled to channel my inner Kathy Pandiani and lead the games, Bobby took the reins and had all the kids running back and forth across the field playing "Ship to Shore" and freeze tag.  The kids loved having their big brother playing with them.  It was great seeing this family of siblings love on each other.

Through the work of Elizabeth Mendies and Shyam, I am reminded that normal people and people from the humblest beginnings can make a huge difference.  Although the world may not recognize their names, these people have changed the world they live in.  I am inspired and challenged to seek out ways that I can change the world.

(I'll post more pictures when I get them).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

India and Nepal Edition: Dance Party

In my opinion, the best way to get to know a place is to have someone you know show you around.  Nikki knows Nepal, and she knows Nepalis who know Nepal.  Not only did we have some built in friendships waiting for us (as in waiting with marigold necklaces at the airport), we also we had the best tour/culture guides for our time in Kathmandu.

So, we got the guided tour of Monkey Temple, the personal invite to the Newari festival, taxis hailed, drivers sent. . . we felt very taken care of and pretty darn VIP.

From Dance party

But nothing solidifies friendship like a spontaneous dance party.  After a very hot day of VBS at Mendes Haven and Shyam's church, we (a little begrudgingly) accepted an invitation to have dinner with Shyam (different Shyam than above) and his wife Amrita at his family's home.  First thing to note, Shyam and Amrita live in a massive house with his mother, five brothers, five sister-in-laws, and lots of nieces and nephews.  This living arrangement is very common in Nepal.  Second thing to note, dinner with Shyam and Amrita meant dinner with Shyam's family and the rest of our Nepali crew.  And third, Shyam's older brother is not only a former Nepali boxing champion, he's also a Newari singer.  And just like that, we're all standing in a circle being entreated to dance and sing.

From Dance party

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen.  I would first like to say 'Namaste.'"

From Dance party
Sorry Nikki, no other photo displayed the absolute hilarity of the night.

From Dance party

From Dance party

Even the kids got in the circle.

Needless to say, it was a a very fun night.  Out of all my experiences and adventures in Nepal (some I still need to share), this night was special.  It was fun, funny, a little bit awkward, but above all it made me feel very much at home.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The India Nepal Edition: Nepal Leprosy Trust

I met Suryakala at Nepal Leprosy Trust.

From NLT

Through her contagious smile and constant laughter, she tells me about the blessings and hardships she's experienced during her life. As a young girl, she and two of her siblings were brought from their village to Kathmandu.  The city was the best place to receive treatment for their leprosy and escape the negative social stigma placed on lepers in the rural areas of Nepal.  So, at the age of nine, Suryakala left her home, her village, her two healthy siblings, her parents and moved to the leprosy hospital in Kathmandu.  After a misdiagnosis two years early, the disease had progressed enough to do permanent nerve damage and would effect her the rest of her life.

She went on to tell me about meeting her husband, having her two daughters and working at Nepal Leprosy Trust.  Suryakala smiles as she shares her life's hardships.  With a tearful giggle she speaks of complications and nerve damage caused by leprosy, losing her husband after a misdiagnosis of hepatitis A, and living as a single mother with a marginalizing disease.  She tells she smiles because me she doesn't worry about the future.  She misses her husband but knows that he wouldn't want her to be sad.  And she is happy.  She has two beautiful daughters, a great job and safe place to live.

NLT taught Suryakala sewing skills, gave her husband a job, gave her a job, and even gave her and her daughters a place to live.  She now works at NLT producing handbags at a fair trade wage.  Her leprosy has been cured through a multi-drug treatment.  She has had a few surgeries in the past few years to address some of the issues caused by nerve damage.  But for the most part, her biggest worry is caring for her teenage daughters as they approach adulthood.

Since 1972, NLT has provided various services for people who have been socially, emotionally and economically marginalized by leprosy.  Along with access to medical treatment, NLT helps defeat the stigmas associated with leprosy.  It provides job and skills training to people that would otherwise have little hope or oppurtunity for any income.  We were able to visit NLT and see their fair trade handbag production facility.  Our plan was to tour the facility, have a luncheon with the artisans, and get a few interviews.  After meeting and interviewing Suryakala, it became quite clear that one visit wouldn't be enough.  She insisted that we come for tea later in the week and meet her daughters.

From NLT

I am amazed at the joy that emanates from this woman.  While serving us tea and momos (so many momos), she pointed out pictures of her husband and family.  She had each of her girls tell us about their dreams and goals.  And since I have returned to Kabul I have received two emails from Suryakala and her daughters.

From NLT

One of the things I love about fair trade is that it provides avenues for a closer relationship between the consumer and the producer.  I hope that my first visit to NLT was the beginning of a long friendship.  I know that I can count on Suryakala's smiling face waiting for me when I return.

To view the handbags produced at NLT, please visit my friend Nikki at Jubilee Traders.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The India and Nepal Edition: Places: Nepal.

I live in a brown place.

From New Album 10/16/08 2:26 PM

So when I landed here:
I was a little overwhelmed.

Several people warned me that Nepal can be one of those places that captures the heart.  The scenery is striking.  The people are exceedingly friendly.  The food is tasty.  There is a lot to like about Nepal.  After five days in Kathmandu, I feel like I didn't even scratch the surface.  It's such an interesting place filled with trekkers and sherpas, a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism, traffic jams and power outages, old and new, east and west.  With a new Maoist government, Nepal is in a definite and defining time of transition.  And it seems to be thriving.  The tourism industry has taken off.  The country is safe and stable.  Despite the poverty and pollution, people are hopeful for the future.  It's amazing what peace can do.
One of the issues that I have struggled with throughout my blogging career is describing places that have to be experienced.  How can I convey sights, smells, sounds and tastes?  Places like Kathmandu are a complete sensory experience.  To fully understand Nepal, you'll have to see it for yourself.  But some pictures might be a good start.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Behind on blogging and background

The past few weeks have been busy with too much to process and write about and no time.  I've realized that I didn't even touch on Ramazan (Ramadan) or the Iftar meal I attended.  I haven't written about my new job.  I didn't even mention that I was leaving for two weeks on a Fair Trade idea trip with some ladies from Chapel Hill.  Needless to say, I am way behind!  With so much to share, I thought I'd start with the most recent and fresh topic and work my way back to Ramazan and the job.
The reason I didn't write about my trip to India and Nepal beforehand is that there is a certain amount of disbelief that comes with leaving the country.  There are a lot of variables from visas to cancelled flights that can make a trip disappear or delay.  Even buying my tickets was a two week adventure.  I didn't believe I was going until I had made it through Indian customs.
If I had written about the trip before I left, I would have told you all that I was very excited to be included in Chapel Hill's Fair Trade Vision Trip to India and Nepal.  On the trip we planned to visit several fair trade initiatives in both countries and get some ideas on how Chapel Hill can be involved in fair trade.  
For those of you wondering what fair trade is, here's the definition accepted by the four major fair trade associations:
Fair trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.  It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.  Fair Trade Organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional trade.  Fair trade products are produced and traded in accordance with these principles - wherever possible verified by credible, independent assurance systems. 
One of my dreams and goals in Afghanistan is to get involved with a fair trade initiative for women who often have little means of income generation.  This trip was the first step towards that goal.  
That's the basic background.  The trip was filled with many adventures including a Nepali dance party, the longest bicycle rickshaw ride ever, tons and tons of chai and momos, and some of the craziest driving I've ever experienced (and that's saying a lot!).  These stories and many pictures to follow.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back and Tagged

Yes, I am back in Kabul after a wonderful trip to India and Nepal.  I have about 1000 stories that I want to share and even more pictures.  And there's always news from Kabul.  BUT that will have to wait because my bestest Anya tagged me on her blog to do a meme. . . I don't know what a meme is and I've never been tagged before, so I thought I'd go for it.

The "rules" of the game are as follows:
1. Post the rules on your blog
2. Write 6 random things about yourself
3. Tag 6 people at the end of your post
4. If you're tagged, DO IT and pass on the tag

Here are my randoms:

1.  I live on almost the exact opposite side of the world from where I grew up.  This means that any future moves will bring me closer to home.  

2.  My current dream vacation is a trip through all the "-stans:"  Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan (Inshallah).

3.  I started a new job yesterday with  a humanitarian aid organization here in Kabul.  I'm the executive assistant to the country director.  So far, so good.  It's a great place to work.  We provide aviation and communication technologies to the humanitarian aid community.

4.  When I was 9 years old, my mom began rewarding me for practicing piano and doing well at lessons by taking me for a vanilla latte and a chocolate chip cookie at a coffee shop on 6th in Tacoma.  I've been a coffee drinker since 3rd grade.

5.   I attended five colleges: Trinity Western University, Western Washington University, Seattle Central Community College, East Texas Baptist University, and LeTourneau University. 

6.  One of my goals in life has been to travel enough in 10 years that I find it necessary to add more pages to my passport.  I have officially accomplished that goal.

And I think that does it.  According to the rules I have to tag six people.  Emily B, Erin M, Kj G, Celia O, Kelly H and Dara T, go for it. 

Tomorrow the Nepal and India stories will begin.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Nepal and India...

....that's where I am right now.  I'll be back in Kabul next week with loads of fun adventures and stories to share.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kabul Driving Part 2: Public Trasportation

Kabul's estimated population is 4 million and growing.  As fighting and famine continue throughout the country, the capital is a semi-stable alternative to find food, work and some semblance of normalcy (although often without power and running water).  With 4 million people to clog up the roads, how does anyone get around?

There may be some rhyme or reason to the transportation system here, but I don't get it.  I've seen bus stops with people waiting at them.  That's a good indicator that there is some system in place.  But none of the buses are numbered or have routes posted on them.  In fact, the buses in Afghanistan have little uniformity when it comes to condition, size, make, model, and painting.  Most of the buses were imported from Germany years ago and are painted with words like "Super Delux Bus" or "Germany Buses" or "Cool Ride" or our favorite "Love No War."  Each buses decor seems to be unique and it's almost like we collect the different buses saying things like, "Oh, I saw the 'Sultan' bus today.  Have you?"  Maybe we should take pictures of the buses and make trading cards out of them.  Added to my to do list.

But despite the lack of direction or route indication, one thing is certain, these buses are always crowded.  It's a sign of changing times that when we pass a bus we'll see a mixture of turbans and burqas occupying the seats.  Until recently, women had to ride in the back of the bus or get off the bus to give their seat to the men.

If a bus doesn't suit the commuter, there are several other options.  There are the smaller buses, actually Toyota Minivans, that also take you from point A to point B.  These minivans are unmarked and often don't have a door on them to make jumping in and out easier.  And people definitely just jump in and out without any sense of fear of the oncoming traffic racing toward them.  Again, I don't know if they have set routes or not.  And since they are unmarked, it's hard to know if they are open for business or private vehicles.  Our friends have a Toyota Minivan and have people trying to flag them down or run up and open the sliding door.  That's one of the many reasons why we always lock our doors while driving in Kabul.

And then there are little yellow Toyota Corolla taxis.  These come in the wagon and sedan models.  The streets are completely crowded with these cars and these cars are completely crowded with people.  Although taxis are extremely cheap here, most people seem to share the ride with others to make the price even cheaper.  Taxi rides can be a bit of the taking your life into your own hands situation again as often taxis are unregistered and unsafe.  We use a private company whenever we need a taxi.  It's more expensive, but well worth it.  And honestly, compared to US taxi prices, or even Mexico taxi prices, it's very reasonable.

Getting places in Kabul, whether privately or by taxi, is an adventure and can be haphazard.  It's a  very new thing for us to have to think about the to and from of going where we want to be.  Since I can't ride the bus alone as a Western lady or hire a taxi, I find that I am often at the mercy of other drivers to get places further than walking distance or at night.  So far this hasn't been a problem and is just another one of the fun adjustments that come with kicking it in Kabul.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kabul Driving

Driving in a new country is always a little daunting.  When I was 18 and in Scotland, my host family thought it would be a good idea to let me drive their little Renault after visiting the Electric Brae.  So, here I am, on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, trying to maneuver the manual with my left hand instead of right, staring at the upcoming roundabout with much fear and trepidation.  Poor Erin M sitting in the back seat.  What must have been going through her head when our host mother, Christine, leaned over to me and said "Dear, you're driving on the wrong side of the road."  To which I responded, "I know!"  To which she responded, "No, you're driving on the wrong side of the road. . . the American side," as I looked up to see a car heading towards me in my American side of the road lane.  Needless to say, I didn't ever make it to the roundabout.  My driving privileges were quickly revoked.  Like I said, driving in a new country can be a little scary.

Driving in Kabul isn't just scary, it's like taking your life into your own hands.

Disclaimer for all the worriers that read my blog: I have never driven in Kabul.  I have only ridden.  There may be a time that I feel confident enough to drive in our neighborhood, but I will not leave its boundaries.  The reasoning for this will be touched on later.
Let's take a little look at some driving conditions in Afghanistan.

Exhibit A.  The Roads.  Paved roads are a luxury.  Gravel roads, also a luxury.  Dirty and dusty roads, that's the norm.  We have one paved road in our neighborhood.  We have a few semi paved roads.  A few roads have recently been re-graveled.  Our street is dirt.  And then there is the condition of these roads.  Just because a road is paved doesn't mean its drivable.  Potholes, bomb strike holes, giant speed bumps (that only cover half the street), piles of rocks; these are all things that are exceedingly common on our roads.  Drivers have to be very alert and ready to speed up or slow down.  Some roads also have a two ft across, two ft deep drainage ditch that can be dangerous.  These ditches have lots of muck in them and smell awful, but the smells of Afghanistan is a whole other topic.  

Exhibit B.  The Cars.  The three families in our home share a Toyota Surf.  It's like a 4-Runner, but diesel.  Our Surf, like many cars in Afghanistan, used to have the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  At some point, it was moved to the left side.  Therefore, the child window lock and automatic door lock are on the left side of the car.  There is no law about which side of the car the steering should be on.  Both are common.  Due to the conditions of the roads, the conditions of Afghan cars are dismal.  The lifespan of tires, shocks, engines, etc. is brief.  I've seen cars held together with rope driving along main roads at break neck speeds.  Oh, and most cars don't have brake lights or indicators either.  

Which brings me to Exhibit C.  Traffic Laws.  Or should I say, lack thereof.  There is no speed limit.  The limit is as fast as road conditions allow.  There are few rules governing who's turn it is to stop or go.  I have seen one stop light in Kabul that was being largely ignored by drivers racing under its blaring red "STOP!"  We have some traffic cops that direct traffic at roundabouts.  But really, it's survival of the fittest when it comes to traffic regulations.  Have I mentioned there are no lanes?  Well, that's not quite true.  A few roads have a white line down the middle, but that doesn't seem to indicate a lane and is often completely ignored.  The general traffic law seems to be, get where you are going as fast as you can without hitting other drivers, bikers, or pedestrians.  The car horn becomes a drivers closest ally as they dodge and weave through traffic.

Exhibit D.  Traffic.  At certain hours Kabul has awful, awful traffic.  Today it took us an hour to get someplace 20 minutes away.  I'm still a little dizzy from sitting behind an truck spewing exhaust (no emissions testing or laws).  And we're not just competing with cars.  There are cars, bikes, pedestrians, fruit carts, phone card carts, more pedestrians, maybe a herd of goats, maybe a horse and cart, maybe a man on a bike pulling a horse behind him. . . there's a lot of competition for road space.

And finally Exhibit E.  Passenger safety laws.  You'll never hear someone question if there is enough room in a car for all passengers in Afghanistan.  There's always room.  And if you can't squeeze every passenger into the cab of the car, some can ride in the trunk, or the truck bed.  If it's a mixed gender crowd, the women usually end up in the trunk.  On that note, women rarely ride in the front seat, and only if their husband, brother, or father is driving.  Women also do not drive.  Western women will drive in their neighborhood but not on the main roads.  In fact, the police will often pull women drivers over for no reason and hassle them.  I have yet to find out if it's actually against the law for women to drive (as it is in Saudi Arabia), but better safe than sorry, I'll stay in the back seat.  It doesn't matter if not everyone is belted in because, to be honest, no one is ever belted in.  Seat belts = another luxury.  Most cars don't have them.  And I sometimes wonder what Afghans would think if they saw Americans strapping their kids of all ages into various sized child seats and boosters.  We don't have those either, a lap seems to do fine. . . even on a motorcycle.   

As I said before, driving in Afghanistan is like taking your life into your own hands.  What with the awful road conditions, beat up cars, lack of regulations, and reckless driving attitude, it's a wonder we make it anywhere in one piece!  

This is one of those posts that just doesn't do the experience justice.  I've thought about trying to record it, but really it wouldn't be effective either.  If you want to simulate the Afghan driving experience, load your card with 20 people, switch the steering wheel to the other side of your car, or try passing someone on the shoulder.  Basically, you can't simulate it and keep your license. 

PS.  Joey thinks driving in Afghanistan totally makes sense.  Tune tomorrow for common traffic practices and public transportation.  

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Finally, a sandwich

A few weeks ago, I posted that two things I've found myself missing were sandwiches and to go cups.  Well, I got my fix of both yesterday.  I had to fly to Kandahar to do it, but if that's what it takes. . .

I don't think I've mentioned before that Joey's dad, Victor, works for a contractor on the base in Kandahar.  I know, I know, small world.  Every few weeks Joey's gets to see him when they have a long layover down there.  Since I was free yesterday I was able to hop on the plane and fly along.

A few things about Kandahar:  The city of Kandahar is one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan.  When the Taliban rolled into Afghanistan in 1994, it was the first city to fall and became their capital.  Since 2001 it has been an area of continual conflict and the situation there has escalated in recent months.

I hope to be able to visit Kandahar City one day.  Before the wars, it was the center of trade.  It is rumored to have the best bazaar, best handicrafts, best textiles, best fruit and best architecture in the country.  And it used to get really green because the river that flows through it actually flows.  As with the rest of the country, Kandahar City has suffered greatly for the past 30 years and many of its beauties and sites have been destroyed or lost.  Because of the security situation, I will have to wait to visit and spent my day on the ISAF base.

The base in Kandahar is outside of the city at the airport.  It is one of the largest ISAF bases in Afghanistan with detachments from several countries.  This was my first "on base" experience here.  I've been to the ISAF market that's right off a base in Kabul (the place where I got all the stares from ladies in shorts), but I haven't been on a base.

When I stepped off the airplane, I felt like I stepped into some strange, different world.  First, it's dusty, really, really dusty.  I've complained about the dust in Kabul.  Our dust is nothing compared to Kandahar dust, which is almost like chalk in consistency and is everywhere (I think the Kabuli dust is fighting back now, the wind just picked up and I can't see the house across the river).  Second, it's hot, really, really hot.  It was 101 degrees when we were there; that's a cool day during this time of the year.  Third, there were kharejis (Dari word for foreigner), lots and lots of kharejis and very few Afghans.  This base is multinational with soldiers, contractors and aid workers from around the world.  And finally, they've all got guns, lots and lots of guns.  People in camo with guns, people wearing workout clothes with a gun strapped to their leg, people carrying a gun with another gun strapped to their leg.  I've never been around guns and always feel a little nervous and queazy around them.

So, here I am, surrounded by dust, kharejis and guns.  Our first order of business (after parking the plane and getting my visitor pass) was finding Victor.  I was prepared to get a severe talking to from my father-in-law when I saw him.  People that live on base think that we're crazy for living off base (and often vice versa).  I got my fill of be careful, keep your eyes opened, and no more riding bikes, in the first five minutes.  It's good to know that people are concerned for us.  And I reassure you all that we are careful, we do keep our eyes open, and I haven't ridden a bike recently.

Another thing that makes a base feel like a different world is that it has a lot of Western places that we don't have elsewhere in Afghanistan like Tim Hortons (for the Canadians), Subway, Pizza Hut, and a coffee shop.  So, I ordered my coffee in a to go cup and got a sandwich at Subway.  I don't think I've been to a Subway in the states in years, but that sandwich yesterday totally took care of my sandwich craving.  We walked through the Dutch PX which has all kinds of fun chocolates, teas, sodas and mineral water but no PG Tips.  And we sat on the boardwalk and watched people playing beach volleyball and field hockey.

I don't think I'll make the trip to Kandahar very often, especially since I start working in October.  But it was great to see not just a familiar face but a family face.  And I'm willing to deal with my issues with the crew cuts and guns for a sandwich and a to go order every couple of months.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Lion of Panjshir

We've all had the conversation, "Where were you on September 11th?"  Throughout the Western World, people remember where they were, what they were doing, how they reacted and how, in many ways, the world changed that day.  I am fairly certain that most Afghans do not recall what they were doing on September 11th, 2001.  Little did they know that events happening a world away from them would soon have a direct effect on their daily lives.  The day that Afghanistan remembers and mourns is September 9th, 2001.  I don't remember what I was doing on 9/9/2001.

On September 9th, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in Northern Afghanistan.  I don't expect many of my readers to be familiar with who Massoud was.  I wasn't before I took an active interest in understanding Afghanistan and its people.  I'll assume since you are reading this, you have a similar interest.

If you ever have the time and a hankering to study an interesting and often overlooked person, start with this guy.  He spoke five languages fluently (including French) and had a working knowledge of even more.  He was devoted to the arts and stated in an interview that one of his biggest regrets was not doing more to protect the priceless treasures and artifacts that were destroyed by the war and Taliban or went missing (Side note: some of these treasures have resurfaced in the last years after being hidden away and protected by the Afghan National Museum.  A large collection is currently on display at the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC).   All of this contributes to the importance of Massoud, but for time and post length sensitivities I'll focus on his importance as a public figure.

From Mazar-a-Sharif

Ahmad Shah Massoud was a fiercely loyal Afghan.  He spent the majority of his adult life fighting the different forces that occupied his country.  He fought the Russians and was considered instrumental in the constant barrage of guerilla warfare that eventually caused the Soviets to leave.  During the civil war he acted as the Defense Minister and sought to unite the warring factions vying for power.  He is also known for his stark resistance to the Taliban invasion.  

While the Taliban controlled 70% of the country, Massoud and the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan controlled a small portion of the country in the North (hence the more Western friendly name "The Northern Alliance").  The Northern Alliance was comprised of various warlords and tribal leaders, often at odds with each other.  Massoud was able to unite them against a common enemy.   He became the rallying point of the movement  and an international spokesman for the cause of Afghanistan.  He traveled to the EU and wrote letters to the US, pleading for the world to turn their eyes to this little country in Central Asia.  He called for the international community to support the Northern Alliance, not with guns and bullets or money.  He called for increased diplomatic pressure on countries supporting the Taliban.  In an interview with Newsweek two weeks before his assassination, he stated, "We hope that the future policy of the U.S. will exert pressure on Pakistan and also help Afghanistan achieve peace.  That would be much more effective than giving [us] weapons or ammunition."

He dreamed of a free, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.  He sought peaceful coexistence between his country and the rest of the world.  In a letter to the American people he called for assistance to ". . . overcome the obstacles that exist on the path to freedom, peace, peace, stability and prosperity."  Massoud openly denounces and fought against the harboring of terrorist groups in Afghanistan.  He feared that if the world did not help him in his stand against the Taliban, the world would feel the effects.  While addressing the European Union in April 2001, Massoud was asked if he had any words for President Bush, "My message to President Bush is the following: If he isn't interested in the peace in Afghanistan, if he doesn't help the Afghan people arrive at their objective of peace, the Americans and the rest of the world will have to face the problems.  If President Bush doesn't help us, these terrorists will damage the US and Europe very soon."  

We all know exactly where we were when Massoud's prediction came to pass.  Two days before September 11th, Al Qaeda dealt a first staggering blow to the world and to Afghanistan.  Always a lover and supporter of freedom of the press, Massoud was known for granting interviews to journalists from all over the world.  On September 9th, two Belgian journalists of Moroccan origin were granted an interview.  Some reports say that Massoud knew something was wrong the second the interview began.  Others say that the interview lasted for several minutes before one of the journalist detonated the bomb in his belt.  Massoud was rushed to a military hospital in neighboring Tajikistan where he was pronounced dead.  One of the assassins was killed by the detonation of his bomb, the other killed trying to escape the compound.  It was later found that the men had stolen their equipment from a French journalist almost a year earlier and were both Al Qaeda operatives originally from Tunisia.

Some commentators have said that the assassination of Massoud was the last necessary piece for the 9/11 attacks.  In taking care of Massoud, Osama Bin Ladin removed his Taliban host's greatest enemy and helped insure his protected status.  The Northern Alliance lost its rallying point and unifier.  Whatever happened post 9/11 would be much more difficult with Massoud gone.

Ahmad Shah Massoud was known as the Lion of Panjshir (the Northern valley that he continually held and protected) during his lifetime.  After his death he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and given the title of "Our National Hero" by the new Afghan government.  He has gained almost a mythical standing in hearts of the Afghan people.  His picture hangs from buildings and decorates walls throughout the country and especially in the north.  On September 8th, Afghans mourn the loss of their Amer Sahib e Shaheed (Martyred Commander).

We cannot know what Afghanistan would look like today had Massoud not died 7 years ago.  It might not look much different than it currently does.  Perhaps the fight for Afghanistan would still be happening.  But we can know that Massoud would continue to fight for his dream of a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.

"I am ready to serve the people of Afghanistan especially for [the cause of] peace.  I am ready for any mission at the service of my people."  Ahmad Shah Massoud

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is there something wrong with my outfit?

When we got to Afghanistan, I was prepared to get some stares.  I don't look like an Afghan, although there is an ethnic group here with red hair and paler skin.  But staring is acceptable and permissible in Afghan culture, and so men stare at anything of interest (i.e. women, western men, each other).  I've gotten fairly used to it and don't even mind it too much.  We just keep on walking.

Today I got more looks than I have the entire time I have lived here.  The interesting thing is where those stares came from.  We visited the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) market outside one of the military bases where soldiers, diplomats and other westerners shop for typical Afghan items like rugs, scarves, lapis lazuli, hookahs, and bootlegged DVDs.  These are the people that think we're crazy for living in the city and not driving around in armored cars.  I have to admit, I was fairly shocked to see women walking around in shorts and t-shirts.  Apparently, not as shocked as they were to see Sari, Erica and I walking through the market wearing our chadors and fully covering Afghan clothes.  And it wasn't the men either, women would turn around for a second look as they passed by us.  I felt like it was the first day of school and I wore the wrong outfit or something.

Oh well, in the end, I feel like we get the last laugh.  As we worked our way through the stales bargaining prices down to half the original asking price (or less!), one dealer commented on our skills telling us we haggled like Afghans.  He said, "Americans must be so rich, they never ask for a second price.  They just point and pay.  You ask for prices like an Afghan."  I may not fit in at the ISAF market and may get more gawks from American women than I do from Afghan men, but I can talk down a price like an Afghan.  That's an accomplishment.  

Monday, September 1, 2008


It's not a question of if you'll get sick, it's a question of when, how often and how badly.  This place seems loaded with evil bacteria just waiting to get into our intestines.  There's no avoiding it and there's no getting used to it.  In many developing countries, travelers and expats might have a few bouts of what is often called travelers diarrhea (or Moctezuma's Revenge, Delhi Belly, Thai-dal Wave, etc.) but eventually develop an immunity after repeated exposure to bacteria that their system is not used to.  There is no immunity to what's in the water here; even Afghans get afghani-sickness.

The basic symptoms of Afghani-sickness are varied because it can be caused by many different things.  Abdominal cramping, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, bloating, weight loss, infections of the eyes or ears, headaches, fever, body aches . . . any combination of the symptoms.

Some of causes.  Afghanistan is plagued with many, many parasitic diseases.  If it exists, we probably have it here.  Various worms, amoeba, and other fun things like giardia, cholera, e. coli, salmonella, hepatitis are considered "wide spread" in the country.  90% of the water is contaminated due to the non-existent sewage system.  Yep, that's right, our water has human and animal waste in it.  According to the World Health Organization, Afghanistan's water supply and sanitation are among the lowest in the world (along with several sub-saharan African countries and countries in Southeastern Asia).  About 13% of the population has easy access to water (19% in Urban areas, 11% in rural) and only 12% has access to sanitary water (25% urban, 8% rural).  The situation can be very depressing.

Now we'll look at prevention.  We only drink purified water.  We brush our teeth with purified water.  All produce we eat goes through an "iodine bath."  We soak it in an iodine/water solution for 20 minutes and then rinse it with filtered water.  This kills off nasty little things like Hepatitis A and amoebas.  All meat must be bought from a reputable source and then washed, cleaned and thoroughly cooked.  Milk and yogurt needs to be carefully bought and carefully stored.  We buy "Milk-Paks" which are boxes of milk that don't need to be refrigerated until opening.  I never open my mouth in the shower and wash my hands religiously throughout the day.

But even with these methods of prevention, sickness will still happen.  Our housemate was sick for a month after eating rice from a plate with contaminated meat (she's a vegetarian).  Other forms of contracting Afghani-sickness include breathing in contaminated dust, eating after washing your hands and not completely drying them, eating nan (bread) that was sprayed with water to maintain freshness, or  sharing a plate of food with someone who hasn't washed their hands with no cutlery (have we mentioned Afghans don't use silverware?).

There are little sicknesses here and there.  Unfortunately these days happen often enough that most people continue life as usual within proximity to a bathroom.  I've been lucky to have only one seriously sick day (24 hour death virus, I was sure I was on the next med-evac to Dubai but woke up the next day alive, exhausted, but better).  I know I will have more and dread their arrival.

Some final words.  As I mentioned above, Afghans never get used to all the bacteria and parasites in their country.  How awful to think that it could even be possible to get used to drinking fecal matter.  The life expectancy for Afghans is around 42 years old.  1 in 4 children die under the age of 5.  Although issues like continual war, drought, famine, disease, etc. can all be pointed to for these dismal statistics, the fact is that a lot of Afghanistan's problems have to do with the lack of sanitary water and education on hygiene and contamination prevention.  A lot of NGO's focus primarily on water supply, purification and retainment.  In many ways they are fighting a losing battle against time and lack of funding.  A lot of promises that were made to Afghanistan concerning reconstruction have been forgotten or diverted to other locations.  

Friday, August 29, 2008

Has it really been 5 years?

Today I'm taking a little break from the usual topic of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Seven Labor Days ago I found myself filling a shift at the Young Life BBQ/Teriyaki booth at the Puyallup Fair with Kristalyn.  Among her other volunteers was her brother Joey.  Although we had met years before, well as Joey puts it, "I saw her over a vat of steaming rice. . ." Something about this encounter was different.  

(Juan Pedro, Joey, Me)

Today Joey and I are celebrating 5 years as Mr. and Mrs. The Hawk.  When I think back to our wedding, I don't remember a lot of the little details that consumed so much of my six months of planning.   I do remember with vivid clarity standing at the top of the aisle, holding my dad's arm, looking past the many smiling faces and seeing Joey waiting for me, ready to begin our adventure filled life together.

And what an adventure the last five years have been!  We've moved coast to coast, lived in Texas twice, and now find ourselves in Afghanistan of all places.  We've gone through the happys and sads and ups and downs that life has brought our way and grown closer, stronger, and more in love through it all.

We joke that our relationship began with nervous laughter, but I feel like we've haven't stopped laughing since that first moment at the fair seven years ago.  Even through some really sad stuff, Joey can always always always make me smile and this reminds me that there's always room for hope.

And here's the best part. . . the adventure's just the beginning!

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Complete Secondly Series

Buying a video in Kabul is a bit of an adventure and usually good for a laugh.  As far as I know, there are no legitimate movie stores in Afghanistan.  We don't have Best Buys or Targets. . . we don't even have grocery stores.  There is a thriving bootleg market that is popular both with Afghans and foreign nationals.  I don't know where these movies come from, probably China, but anything from new releases to classics can be found.  Areas that sell things that cater to the Western community are usually dotted with DVD shops.

But it's a bit of a gamble buying these DVD's.  As there is no way to tell where the movie came from or how it was procured, it is quite possible to get the wrong movie or pop it in only to find out it's in another language.  There's always the possibility that the video is a recording made in a theater without sound or shaking lens.  But most of the time it seems that the movies have some sort of error in the formatting and couldn't be sold at the Best Buys or Targets of the world and therefore end up in Afghanistan (this happens with A LOT of products, like the football Joey bought that has an stitching error and says "otto" instead of "Lotto.")

DVD cases are expensive so most of the movies come in just the paper sleeve cover or decoupage woodbox that was probably made in Hong Kong with a good printer and Photo Shop.  The sleeve usually includes a description of the movie and some reviews, usually taken from  So, if you live in the states, you should review movies on and I might end up reading your review over here!  Unfortunately, whoever is making the DVD sleeves either A) Doesn't speak English or B) Doesn't use spell check.  We've seen movies that had reviews that said, "This is the worst movie I have ever seen! Don't waste your time watching it!!!" Joe Smith, South Dakota.

A classic example of this editing issue is the DVD of "The Office" that we have.  That would be "BBC: The Complete All Season the office" with a picture of the American cast on the cover.  You know the "mockumentary about life in a mid-sized suboffice paper merchants in a bleak British industrail town, where manager David Brent things he's the coolest, funniest, and most popular boss ever.  He isn't."  According to the times it is "Original and accurate and painfully funny: It will have every office in the country twitching with spasms of recongnition..This is agem."  And it's rated PG-13 for language and violence.  It has three set of discs inside.  The first set features a picture of David Brent from the British office pointing and swearing at camera.  The second set shows David Brent sitting at a drawn desk with pictures of the cast of the American office behind him and states "the complete secondly series."  And the third shows the cast of the American office (from the box cover) and indicates that is is "the complete there season."

I guess that quality control isn't much of an issue on the bootleg DVD markets of Central Asia.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dust Storms and Basketball

Living on the other side of the world, we got to watch the USA Men's gold winning performance live without loosing sleep today (basketball and volleyball).  The basketball game started at 11:30 AM for us and was just as nerve racking from the all the way in Afghanistan.  There are times in life when we realize that we are like our parents.  As I paced our lounge for the entire 4th quarter, I suddenly realized, "This is just like my dad.  I'm Bill Pandiani."  Not that being like my dad is a bad thing.  I always remember being in the stands, watching Dad coach basketball while pacing the bench or squatting on the floor. . . Apparently some of that's genetic.  And it made me miss that Italian.

But this post isn't about me missing my family, which is setting in more now that I'm realizing we're not visiting Kabul but living here.

We've officially been Kabul residents for over and month now.  I feel like we're both adjusting and that we're starting to feel more at home here.  Right now, Joey is kicking the soccer ball around the yard with Gulrahman and I just finished drinking my latte (very home-like things for both of us).  An hour ago we couldn't have done either of these things.  Right after the games, the power turned off because the generator had run out of water and it suddenly got very, very dark outside.  Our clear blue day was gone in seconds with high winds and dust everywhere.  Then it started to rain.  We quickly shut all the windows which were open because the power was off, although not fast enough to prevent a layer covering on everything in our house.  Fast forward an hour later and the generator is fixed, the power is on, my espresso machine is working, and the skies are blue again.

Here are some during and after pictures from the storm:

It's interesting to look at the things that I miss and the things I'm getting used to after just a month of being gone.  Like sandwiches, every time we watch an American TV show on DVD it seems like people are eating sandwiches and I want one.  Sliced bread is a little hard to find, deli style meat doesn't exist.  I also miss "to go" boxes, cups, etc.  When Afghans go out to eat, they eat a lot and don't leave much on the plate.  I cannot put away a pound of rice in one sitting and wouldn't mind taking some home.  But I suppose in a country where little is wasted or thrown away and what is tossed is usually tossed in the river; it's probably a good thing that they don't have to go boxes.  Joey misses tamales, tortillas and frijoles negros.  And people, we miss people.  There are so many incidents, stories and experiences that I want to tell a specific person right way.  I find myself thinking "Anya would have died laughing if she saw this," "Ailsa would be infuriated by this," "I want to discuss this with Kristalyn," or the most popular "I could really use a hug from Mary, Sarah, Pam, (fill in name here)."

But despite missing people, we are adjusting and really like it here.  Examples of adjustment:

On our way to our favorite coffee shop this weekend (Thursday-Friday), I was shocked to see an Afghan woman driving a car without a chador.  She must have been Afghan-American or something like that because a woman, especially an Afghan, driving a car is unheard of.  Going around without a chador can get you deported.  I wasn't the only one that noticed as every car that passed slowed to stare.

While watching TV, I felt slightly embarrassed when we flipped past a Indian channel with women doing aerobics in tighter pants and sleeveless tops.  Joey and I laughed as we realized that these women would be considered fully dressed in the states and women on TV back home often wear much less.

Although we're getting used to it, sometimes we still can't believe we live here.  We went to a friend's house for dinner tonight and while driving home Joey turned to me and said, "Can you believe we really live in Afghanistan?"  I think we'll be saying that as long as we live here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Home Tour

I've had several people ask me to post pictures of our house.  I think that most people picture Afghanistan and Kabul as being a very desert, dusty place.  As Carlee L. put it, "I've tried to picture it in my mind, but it ends up just looking dusty."  You're right about the dust.  Sneezing seems to be an Afghan national pastime.  But our home is like an oasis from the heat and dust.

This is where we live!

Most houses in Afghanistan have an outer wall and then the house inside.  Even small places will have a mud wall around the edge of the property.  The wall shows ownership.  Our cook, Aga Gul (see photo later), inherited some property outside of Kabul from his father and had to go to the property, build a wall around it and inhabit it for a month to assert his ownership.  When flying over Afghanistan, the landscape is dotted with little, empty looking boxes indicating property lines.  The wall also gives protection and privacy (I don't have to wear my chador inside the walls of our home).

Our house is split into three separate areas: the main house, the apartment, and the chakador area.  We share the apartment with Steve and Sari.  It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchenette, washer and dryer and a nice lounge.  The office is underneath the apartment.  We eat in the main house because it has a bigger kitchen.  The main house is the right building in the picture and the apartment is the door behind me.  And that's our car, a Toyota Surf (aka diesel 4-Runner).  We don't know Toyota did right, but about 98% of cars on the road are either a Surf, Corolla, Land Cruiser, or Old Toyota Van.  That means they must be reliable, because anything that can survive the streets of Kabul has got to be burly.

Our yard has flowers, trees and a great fire pit.  We have a fire about once a week.  It's great now that the weather is beginning to get cooler.  The rooms behind the yard are the chawkador room and a little workout room.

Our hallway and washer and dryer.  I love these machines!  In the last five years, I have had my own washer and dryer for a total of 5 months.  To be honest, when I found out we'd have these in Afghanistan, it made the decision to move a lot easier!  This picture is taken from our door, Steve and Sari's room is right across from the cat, and our bathroom and the kitchen are at the end of the hallway.

Yes, that's a cat.  It belongs to Steve and Sari.  He's still unsure of what he thinks of me and he really doesn't like Joey.  We call him Kitty, he came with the name Pashak Nau (New Cat).

Our little bathroom.  It has warm to hot water most of the time.

Our little kitchen.  Right now we're working to make it a little nicer, it has a bit of a mold problem.

Definitely the favorite room in the apartment.  This is our lounge, complete with toshaks and matching curtains.  We all spend a lot of time in here reading, playing games, watching movies or TV, or napping.  Our TV gets between 0-68 channels, although the most we've ever seen working at once is 10.  TV in Afghanistan consists of mostly Islamic channels, Bollywood movies/Indian music videos or cricket.  We do have a few sports channels and even get an ESPN every once and awhile.  The amount of football (soccer) played makes Joey very happy, although we have yet to see an entire game without the cable cutting out.  We get some Olympics; weight lifting, boxing, basketball, football and women's field hockey seem to be what the Afghans are watching.  Right now I am watching one of three Afghan Olympians compete in Tae Kwon Do.  Go Afghanistan!

Our bed doesn't look made, but I promise it is!  We only have a twin size bed spread, so it always looks a little unmade.

My wardrobe is pretty sparse.  But my chador collection is growing!

This is where we keep all our winter stuff and where Joey keeps his clothes.

We have a lovely view of the River.  At one time, I'm sure our house was a really nice place to live.  Due to the drought, the water level has gotten very low.  Now the river is a place for goats to graze and trash to be dropped.  It doesn't smell very good either.  A lot of houses don't have septic tanks, they have a pipe or hole that drains into the river or onto the walkway next to it.  It's pretty gross.  Hopefully it will rain a lot this fall.

Here's the main kitchen, complete with Aga Gul!  Don't let the stern appearance fool you, this guys is nothing but smiles and fast "English."  Today he told me to have a "very good night, very good day, very good everyday."  I think that meant "Have a good weekend."

And that's our home!

Afghanistan just one its first Olympic Medal ever!  A bronze medal in Tae Kwon Do for Nikpai Rohullah!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Jesham... I mean, Independence Day!

Today is Afghan Independence Day.  While walking with a friend through our neighborhood, she asked me "Independence from who?"  Afghanistan has been conquered and conquered again throughout history.  Alexander the Great came through here, so did the Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Brits, and Russians (to name a few).  Throughout history, Afghanistan often acted as the battlegrounds for various Indo-European wars and was caught up in the tug-o-war of the fight to control roads going to the East and West.  In modern history, Afghanistan acted as a battleground between the British and Russians during "The Great Game" and the Russians and the West during the Cold War.  For the last 30 years, Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war between different groups with different intervening forces.  So, "Independence from who?" is a great question.  In this case, Afghans celebrate their independence from the British with the signing of a treaty that ended the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919.  To put it in it's simplest terms, Afghanistan has a long and complicated history.

The big news surrounding Independence Day this year is the 7000 additional police patrolling the city.  Checkpoints are everywhere.  These 7000 police consist of a mixture of national police, city police, presidential guard, all with different uniforms and all carrying their AK's.  It definitely slows travel down.  Several organizations within the city recommended no non-essential travel today; we think that's more to help avoid the hassle that going anywhere would be.  Joey and Steve left for work almost an hour early after it took Joey twice as long to get home yesterday after being stopped by the national police and a detective service.  My only essential travel consisted of a 15 minute walk to a goodbye breakfast I had been invited to.  Don't worry Dad, I didn't walk alone.  It was an uneventful walk with the usual cars slowing down to stare at two western women (and three kids) and a train of children following saying "Hello. How are you? Hello. How are you?"  My least favorite place to walk by in our neighborhood is the police station, they seem more shocked and at liberty to stare at passing women. . . Today they must have been part of the 7000 on duty patrols because they weren't there.  Is it a little strange that I'm glad there were 7000 police on duty because that meant no police bothered me on my walk?  

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why blogging in Afghanistan can be difficult

At times I have trouble knowing what to write about on this blog.  It's not for lack of material.  There is always some new experience, some difference in culture, some adjustment or some piece of news that I itch to share (and sometimes literally itch.  Have I mentioned that I am currently waging a war with bed bugs?  I'm winning).  Afghanistan has a lot going on that I want to write about.  The problem is that it is tough to choose what direction to go in.  I often find myself sitting at my laptop thinking "Where do I even begin?"  Between the new experiences and fun adventures there are a lot of hard topics and frustrating issues.  Moving here has put me into a very new context.  At times I feel like everything here is completely different.  Some of it just takes getting used to (like the call to prayer five times a day) and some of it I don't ever want to get used to (like seeing women ride in the trunk of cars because there isn't room inside the car with the men).  I really want people to get an idea of what life is like here, but somedays it seems that there is too much to even give a glimpse.  And that's where things get difficult.  How do I even begin to show and share this place that is so full of beauty, tragedy, misunderstanding, hopefulness and hopelessness?

My step-lady, Mary, used to make us do this thing at the dinner table to get us to talk about our day.  We had to share something funny, sad, good, bad, and beautiful that had happened that day.  Alison's were always great.  I think that on days when I feel that blogging in Afghanistan is too difficult, f.s.g.b.b. is a good way to share a little about life here.  So here it is for today:

Funny:  Although streets in Afghanistan don't have names, they are often known by what they sell.  Flower Street sells flowers.  Chicken Street used to sell chickens, now it's where you go to buy Afghan tourist items. . . business isn't so good right now.  Stationary Street sells stationary.  Today we ended up on Plumber Street, lots of porcelain and piping.

Sad: There are a lot of beggars in Afghanistan.  It's heartbreaking to see women in torn burqas sitting on the side of the road with a hand outstretched.  It's heartbreaking to see mine victims with missing limbs begging outside the Red Crescent (Red Cross) offices.  It's heartbreaking to see women carrying unconscious children in their arms while they beg and knowing that they probably dropped the child to illicit more sympathy.  These are all things I saw today while driving downtown.

Good: Our housemates are great and we are really enjoying sharing an apartment with them.  Last night we all sat out and enjoyed the cooler weather and tried to solve the problems of the world (we didn't succeed).  Today Sari and I went shopping as we're both in the process of building our Afghan wardrobes.  We are so glad that we live and work with people that are laid back and adaptable, just like us.

Bad: On Wednesday, three international aid workers and their driver were killed in the Logar province south of Kabul.  The Taliban have claimed responsibility saying they thought it was a military vehicle and that the women were soldiers.  The incident has caused increased tension and security within the international community throughout the country.

Beautiful: The dust has settled, the weather has cooled, the sky is blue, and it's supposed to rain tonight! These are beautiful things.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vocabulary Lesson, Kabul Edition, Issue I.

This is a post that I've been meaning to do for awhile.  Some words that are used very frequently in Afghanistan (and in my blog) need further explanation. Here are a list of common terms/places/words mentioned in my blog and their meanings. 

Kabul: The capital of Afghanistan.  Hopefully you all know that, but we've had people ask.
Dari: A dialect of Persian, spoken in Kabul and most of northern Afghanistan. One of the four official languages
Pashto: The language of the Pashtun tribe, spoken in Kabul and southern Afghanistan, another official language
Shalwar Kameez: The traditional clothing of Pakistan worn in many parts of Afghanistan.  The style worn in Afghanistan consists of a long shirt with long sleeves and long, loose fitting pants.  This is what I usually wear.
Chador, Chadar: The head scarf worn by women when in public.  The Afghanistan style covers the head (not face) and upper body.
Burqa: The complete body covering worn by women in Afghanistan over their clothes.  It covers the face with a small grill or netting material at the eyes that allows for (limited) vision and air.  The burqa was made mandatory by the Taliban and was not used extensively prior to this time.  Although the burqa is no longer required it is still worn by many women.  Often it is worn to protect personal identity and for security.  Burqas are usually light blue, some regions have black or white burqas.
Chakador, chaikador: Doorman/door guard/errand runner.  Chakador literally means "Man who sits in chair."  We have three different chakadors that work at different times of the week.  They are all very nice and we are enjoying getting to know them.
Fixer: Most NGO/Expats have a fixer who does a variety of things for them.  Our fixer helps us with driving, phone cards, and other general questions like "What's the best way to get a visa to India?" Or "What is there to do in Mazar-e-Sharif?"
Salaam: Literally, peace. Shortened form of "Salaam Aleikum" (peace be with you). Used as a greeting in Afghanistan.
Tashakor, tashakur: "Thank you" in Dari. 
Toshak, toushak: Afghans do not sit on couches, they sit (and often sleep) on toshaks.  These are long, flat pillows.  They are very comfy.
Seis: Fine or Ok in Dari.  We can always tell when an Afghan is ready to end a conversation because they begin to say "seis" repeatedly.
Inshallah: "Lord Willing" Afghans say this whenever talking about plans or the future.  Joey and Steve had added it to their pre-flight checklist.