Monday, December 7, 2009

Picture of the week

We've made it to the states safe and sound.   First impressions of the states: What's up with all the leggings and boots? And things really move fast here, people are too busy, and I kind of feel lost in it all.  We spent our first few days at the family cabin and in Leavenworth.  Here's a photo of Joey and our nephew Jaron spending some quality time together:


Friday, November 20, 2009

Picture of the week

Kebabs from our goodbye party:

From Goodbye Party

Yep, I said goodbye party.  Joey and I are leaving Kabul tomorrow evening.  We don't know if it's forever, but it's at least for a year.  I've been working on a post about the why, where, and what's next for awhile.  Some posts are just no fun to write.  But we're excited to spend Thanksgiving in Washington with my family.  It's just very hard to say goodbye to this city we love so much.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travelogue: Flexibility and Tbilisi Georgia

I can't believe this trip was 6 months ago and I'm still writing about it.  Just two more stops and the travelogue will be complete and ready for new adventures.

The best travel advice I can give is BE FLEXIBLE.  You don't know when your minibus is going to break down.  Maybe that super reliable airline you booked on goes under the morning of your trip.  Or maybe you fall in love with some little village in Argentina and decide to stay for an extra week.  There are tons and tons of things that can either go wrong or right that necessitate sudden change in itinerary.  Our time in Georgia was a lesson in flexibility.

We had planned our departure from Sheki around the published bus schedule.  Of course the bus decided not to go to Tbilisi that day.  So we adjusted.  We took a taxi to the main bus station with hopes of taking another bus to a town closer to the Azeri/Georgian border.  But the minibus to Qax only had two people in it and according to the bus schedule, we had to be there by 10:30AM.  Our next best option was a taxi.  We've had bad taxi experiences in the past.  So we worked out a deal with the driver to take us to the otovagzal in Qax before we got in the car.  We even had him write it down so we'd have something more solid when we arrived and paid him (again, no English).  Great plan, we were covered.  You can imagine our fury when he pulled over 15 clicks outside of Qax and demanded more money to take us all the way into town.  I pulled out the sheet of paper we had written the total amount on.  He said that was to the city limit not the actual city.  Sometimes a raised voice is a good thing. . . we ended up in town and paid him about $2 more than the amount on the sheet opposed to the $15 more he was demanding.  But the bus to Tbilisi was cancelled here too.  I'm pretty sure we were there on bus strike day.  Next best option, another taxi.  Lesson learned from the first experience, we meticulously agreed to a price and destination.  This guy did us one better and took us all the way to the border without demanding an extra cent and restored our hope in humanity.

The Azerbaijan/Georgia border was a breeze.  I'm pretty sure they looked at our passports, but I can't quite remember.  It was nice to not need a visa.  And with that we traded the Inshallah of Azerbaijan for the Icons of Georgia.  We repeated the taxi negotiation process.  For fear of sounded repetitious I'll just go ahead and say my next piece of travel advice "Taxis are a rip off all over the world."  Sure they may be cheaper in most of the world than in the US, but there is always a more economical option.  And I'll add to that a personal comment, I love metered taxis.  Yes they're expensive, but at least you know what's coming.  The one good thing about taxis is they're fast.  We arrived in Tbilisi in about half the time it would have taken by bus.

If I had to pick a single word to describe Tbilisi, it would be lovely.  Everything about the city is quite wonderful.  It's easy to walk, there's lots to see, it feels safe, it has great cafes, it has all these little bakeries selling fresh bread, and it has a really fascinating wine culture (Georgia was the birthplace of wine).  We had planned to stay in Tbilisi for two nights before heading down to Yerevan Armenia.  Back to the flexibility theme, we were unexpectedly grounded due to some unforeseen circumstances and we loved having an extra 5 days to explore the city.  It was one of those times when flexibility paid off.  We'll catch Yerevan next time around.  For now, we bask in the loveliness of Tbilisi.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Picture of the week

Joey and I went to a wedding a few weeks ago.  Here's the wedding hall:


From I Heart Fall

And here we are all dolled up:


From I Heart Fall

Monday, November 9, 2009

Name That Show: Season 2

Thanks to everyone who guessed on Name That Show: Season 1.  Unfortunately, you were all wrong.  We recently bought Season 3 of the same show.  While there is no preserving of one's own rice bowl, the description is still good for a laugh.

Relive the second season of the Primetime Emmy Awardwinning comedy 30 Rock, the show that the guy who writes stuff on DVD boxes calls "my current assignment."


According the box, 30 Rock stars Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Tony Danza, Matt Dillon, Eddie J. Fernadez, and a whole host of bollywood stars.  You can find more information on this boxed set of 30 Rock at www.barbie.com and it's a registered trademark of Barbie, Fairytopia.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Travelogue: Hospitality Hostages, Part 2

Find Part 1 HERE

Part 2: So, here we stand, The Hawk and I, thumbs in the air, large backpacks at our side, and a group of Azeri men and women staring at us from across the road.  Another mashtruka with a sign for Sheki pulls up.  It's packed full, but three or four men manage to pile into it.  It takes two men shoving the door from the outside to close it.  I breathe a little sigh of relief.  I have little no experience with hitchhiking, but I assumed it would take awhile.  At 12:04, the second car that passed us screeched to a halt.  The Hawk ran up with his list of town names.  After a brief back and forth we found out they were heading to Ishmalia, a town two towns before Sheki.  Equipped with our one word of Azeri "Otovagzal" (bus station), we decided to go for it.  We also convinced the lady who had been sitting next to us in the van to get in the car with us . . . I still wonder if she regrets that moment.

We threw our bags in the trunk and got into the backseat of the car (a really nice Acura Sedan, we were fully prepared for a beater).  In the front sat two men that didn't speak a WORD of English, they didn't even know the word "Hello."  But as Joey and I have traveled the world, we've realized that communication is not limited by common language.  The driver (Rahim) was from Afghanistan, but he hasn't been back in years.  He didn't speak any Dari and the word of the day became “Khube” or “Good.”  His passenger (Khalid) was Iranian, but he only spoke Azeri.  And Khatera, our friend in the back, lived in Sheki and was in Baku on business (we later figured out that she was trying to get her passport so she could visit her children who live in Moscow).  The two guys seemed to be having a great time speeding along the highway, smoking pack after pack of cigarettes, and listening to loud Turkish and Iranian music that they sung with incredible passion.  They pulled out a CD that said "English" on it.  There were two songs on the CD, "This Is Why I'm Hot" by Mims and "Go Girl" by Pitbull.  After the rest of the trip on repeat, we know these songs very, very well.  Side note: We've been continually surprised at how popular Pitbull and Lil Jon are all over the world.  Maybe it's because all Lil Jon says in his songs is "Yeah" and "Ok." Also, Joey would argue that we're not surprised, of course they are popular around the world, because they're awesome.
After about one hour of driving we pulled over at a small chaikhana (tea house).  Khalid and Rahim motioned us over to a cage at the side of the road that had a live bear in it.  We later watched some kids through a liter of Mirinda in the cage that the bear drank.  After our tea stop, we pulled over again a natural spring.  This is when we realized that we weren't just being driven from Point A to Point B; we were hospitality hostages.

When we arrived in Ishmalyia, we met up with a large Azeri guy driving a Lexus SUV.  We ate a three-hour lunch at an incredible garden restaurant.  The Azeri, Tafiq, asked Joey a question that needs no translation, "Vodka?"  In the back of my head, I vaguely remember my 20th Century Russia professor saying some sort of warning about drinking Vodka with Russians.  I think I can safely say that the warning applies to all Russians and former Soviet countries.  Khalid and Rahim weren't drinking because they're Muslim, I don’t do Vodka (bad memories), Khatera seemed pretty against it too.  So, The Hawk and Tafiq proceeded to toss back shot after shot of toasts as Tafiq motioned out different toasts and we guessed their meaning, "Women?"  "WOMEN!!!" "Azerbaijan?" "AZERBAIJAN!!!" "Family?" "FAMILY!!!" . . . you get the point.  Luckily Khalid stepped in before they ran out of things to toast and used the last half of the bottle to wash his hands.  We also figured out sometime that this was a real estate deal.  This was confirmed when our next stop was viewing the land in question.
And then they dropped us off at the bus station and we proceeding on to Sheki, right?  Nope.  Our next stop was Tafiq's house where we met his wife and kids, drank more tea, and looked at some amazing pictures full of non-smiling wedding parties and Russian officials.  We listened to Tafiq's daughter count to 10 in English and watched his son do karate.
As we sped a long the road from Tafiq’s, we realized that we were not heading back to Ishmalyia.  At this point we were resigned to our fate as hostages, maybe a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome had set in.  We smiled and nodded as they continued to make stops.  We just sat back and sang along to the two songs playing over and over and over.  And two hours later we rolled into Sheki.  Khatera motioned for them to pull over, gave us hugs and kisses, and was gone (and relieved).  When we tell this story, people always ask about her about midway through and are shocked to find out that she stayed along the entire way.     

But our story doesn't end here.  After Khatera was dropped off, Khalid and Rahim drove us around to the sites of Sheki, all of which were closed as it was now 8:00 PM.  They banged on the door at an old palace and convinced the guard to let us have a quick look.  When they finally took us to our hotel, we had our first conversation with an English translator.  They wanted to view our room to make sure it was suitable.  They refused any form of payment.  They wouldn't let us buy them dinner.  They said that they were going to head back to Baku.  And they said that they might come back to visit in 3 or 4 hours (or 1:00 AM).  We said our goodbyes and that was it.  After they left, all we could do was stare at each other with mouths agape asking each other over and over, "Did that really just happen?"  
And this is what travel is all about.  Unplanned detours, head aching borders, perfect cafes in towns most people have never heard of (I had the BEST cappuccino of my life in Sheki), and friendly hostage situations.  Sure, we didn’t get to explore Sheki.  Sure, the trip took twice as long as it should have.  But the experience of spending time in the company of real Azeri’s, not tour guides, not taxi drivers, but real Azeri’s who were proud and honored to show us the places and people they love definitely goes down in my top life experiences.  I think next time we take a mini bus, we’ll do a once over to make sure there’s a chance it might kick the bucket 30 miles outside of town.   

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Picture of the Week

There's something unusual about this picture.  Can you spot it?  





















Part 2 of Hospitality Hostages coming your way tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Festival of Hope Plug

For those of you in the Northwest, I want to encourage you to go to the Festival of Hope at Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor.  It's a great place to get your fair trade Christmas shopping done.  And this year they will be featuring Afghan products from Zardozi, my favorite shop here in Kabul.  Go shop your hearts out November 6, 10AM-8PM and November 7&8, 10 AM-3PM.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taking it to the streets





















You may have been reading about demonstrations in Kabul.  So far they have been peaceful, albeit angry groups.  These were taken by a friend.  The Hawk and I were in a car on the other side of this road attempting to drive into the city.  We made the decision to turn around and go home.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Picture of the Week-ish

Look at this picture carefully.  Notice that all of the signs are for pharmacies and doctor's offices, notice the names of the stores.


From Kabul City Tour

This post is dedicated to my brother-in-law Jeremy who will laugh for days at this photo.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Travelogue: Hospitality Hostages, Part 1

We are definitely Lonely Planet travelers.  Not only do these handy books fit our travel budget, they now have downloaded-able chapters that fit our three trunks a piece lifestyle.  So, when the Azerbaijan chapter of the Lonely Planet Caucasus guide recommended Sheki, Azerbaijan as a "must see," we decided we must see it!

Our trip to Sheki began better than planned.  Our taxi driver not only drove us to the airport, he escorted us into the MASSIVE bus station to help us find our bus.  We would have been hopelessly lost in a sea of cyrillic signs and long, empty corridors if it hadn't been for his help, and he didn't even overcharge us.  Without any English, we were able to gather from him that he suggested a mashtruka over a bus.  A mashtruka is a big van crammed full of people.  They are usually faster than buses, however a bus is on a schedule and a mashtruka leaves when full.  We were told to get in the back of the van, the most undesirable seats.  I mimed car sickness to the driver and he let us move up.

At about 9:30 we were on the road, bumping along the very unpaved way outside of Baku.  According to our LP guide, a mashtruka trip to Sheki should take around 7 hours.  At this rate we'd be there by 4:30.  Our first little hiccup was around 10:00 when the van pulled over and one of the three guys in front hopped out and started pouring water on the engine.  At 10:30 the van was pointing back towards Baku and was no longer moving.  Oh, and Azerbaijan has a striking resemblance to Eastern Washington or Western Texas or, well, Kabul as soon as you get out of Baku.


From Hospitality Hostages

So here we are in the middle of the desert, no one speaks a lick of English, we don't speak a lick of Azeri, and we have no idea what Plan B would be.  After about an hour of looking at a bunch of men staring at a very overheated engine, Joey and I made a pact that if nothing had happened by 12:00 we would cross the street and stick our thumbs in the air.  The Hawk has been lobbying for an IPhone since the things came out.  This moment is his strongest argument to date: In order to look at our PDF pages from Lonely Planet to see what towns were in route to Sheki, he had to pull our MacBook Pro out of our luggage, wait for it to turn on and load, and write the names of the towns on his hand.  Yes, I get it, an IPhone fits in the palm of your hand negating the need to copy down names of cities extracted from your laptop in the middle of nowhere in Azerbaijan.  It might have been useful to see what LP said about hitchhiking in Azerbaijan too, because after an hour and half of this:


From Hospitality Hostages

We crossed the street and stuck our thumbs up in the air.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Picture of the Week-ish

This billboard is all over Kabul:


From Kabul City Tour

Opium bad, wheat good. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I HEART Fall

As my friends in the states blog about Pumpkin Spice Lattes, changing weather, and sweaters; I blog about loving fall for Kabul reasons.  Nope, no PSL here (although we do have pumpkins!).  The weather is cold at night but still quite warm during the day.  And I hope to break out my sweaters before November.  But I heart fall because of these:


From I Heart Fall

Yes, those are pomegranates.  And yes, one of them is the size of a medium pumpkin.  And, my goodness they are delicious.    We get some great produce over here.  Mango season from June-August and pomegranate season from October-December are my favorites.

I've heard someone state that the pomegranate was that infamously forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  I'm convinced that there is truth (and absolutely no legitimate evidence) to this claim.  I base my opinion on how outrageously tasty the pomegranate is and my conviction that God would never make a fruit so sensuously tasty and so frustratingly difficult to eat unless it had been lumped into the curse as part of the whole toiling and laboring for food.

So, while you all sip away at your nutmeg enhanced beverages, I'm over here picking my way through a pomegranate, all those little labyrinths of tasty seeds!  Fall's the best!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Name That Show

We get some high quality DVD's over here (see this post).  Usually the movie description has some misspellings or is for the wrong movie, but I can always figure out what movie or TV show it's for.  Enter the following description:

The chief screen writer is not good does. Must worry the script to be obsolete, must worry that the viewing ratio is not good. If high-level has the little change, under will look like the dominoes equally to have the consecutive reaction along with it, finally will make a snowman likely is the same, evolves bad and the abominable Italian chaotic condition. "I For Comedy Crazy" the leading lady am meeting such life difficult position, although has the magnificent reputation: is works as red comedy Xiu chief screen writer. However was old boss to die of illness recently, takes office newly the new boss seems is not too recognizes her style, in addition in the program these size stars are also troublesome very much, all of a sudden let leading lady Leeds be tired out from the press. However regardless of how the worry, the life can also continue, should bow also to bow. Therefore to preserve own rice bowl, also to defend oneself chief screen writers dignity, in a metropolis the white-collar may meet frequently the scene started. How to maintain own individuality, and can simultaneously maintain the comfortable livelihood, this is not a gate relaxed curriculum, even if is the body is the chief screen writer, the workplace sways back and forth many year Leeds, must graduate also the non-easy matter.  

Seriously, preserve own rice bowl?  What does that mean? Any guesses what popular TV show goes along with this description?  

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Eid Visits

Last Eid-al-Fitr I was in India, so I missed out on all the festivities (like The Hawk eating a cow's eyeball . . .my husband is so burly).  I was really excited to be here since everyone talks about how awesome and festive Eid time is.  And I have to say, Eid lives up to the hype.

Eid-al-Fitr means "The Festival of the breaking of the fast."  It celebrates the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which Muslims fast during daylight hours.  And as it's a fast breaking celebration, it's implied that there is a lot of eating involved, I mean a lot.  Afghans can put a serious hurting on a plate of rice.  Imagine what they can do after a month of fasting.

From Eid Visits

From Eid Visits

From Eid Visits

From Eid Visits

Another key ingredient of Eid is visiting friends and family.  The holiday is 3 days long to give one day for family and two days for visiting.  Visits can be planned or unplanned, so everyone is prepared with a room full of sweets, fruit, and tea.  The idea behind the sweets is that it is a sweet reward for keeping the fast.  We did some visiting, had some visits, and drank enough tea that I am now on an unofficial tea fast.  And we were so busy with our visits, we actually had one spill over to this weekend.

From Eid Visits

From Eid Visits

Another fun part of Eid is the Eid-ees (or Eidies or Eideys, not sure how to spell it).  Kids are given crisp new Afs (Afghan currency) to buy Eid treats with.  Some kids rake it in as they collect from all the places their parents drag them along to.  I'm pretty sure all of them buy toy guns or kites with them.  Although when our 3 year old neighbor was given 50 Afs ($1), she held it up in the air and screamed "CHEWING GUM!!!" in her little Swiss German accent.

From Eid Visits

From Eid Visits

I think a large part of why Eid is so fun is that everyone is relaxed and happy.  As you can imagine, a nation full of fasting people means a nation full of people on edge.  I want to see a study of how many car accidents happen during Ramadan.  Everyone is a little grumpy and a little tired (and they do things like show you their tongue or point out how dry their lips are to prove their fasting).  So when that's all over, everyone is full of food and generally cheery.  It makes for a happy Afghanistan.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Picture(s) of the Week-ish

The Olympic Stadium.  If you've ever read anything about Kabul, you've probably read about the infamous Olympic Stadium.  It was the sight of applause free soccer matches and public executions.  It is now a place for buzkashi matches and Afghanistan's few olympians' training ground.


From Kabul City Tour

No, the Olympics have never been in Kabul.  No, Kabul has never had an olympic bid.  And yes, there are many copyright infringements in Kabul (like KFC or Kabul Fried Chicken).  Just another one of those things about Kabul that makes me smile.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Baku, Azerbaijan: We could TOTALLY live here

Sitting at the Cafe Mozart in Baku, I turned to Joey and exclaimed, "We could TOTALLY live here!"  Ahh, Baku. . . it's a little bit Persian, it's a little bit European, it's suprisingly lacking in the stereotypical Soviet Bloc architectural blocks, it's bustling with newness, it has some ancient history, it has great coffee shops (seriously, best cappuccino ever), amazing food, and being the first stop on our vacation it was, well fantastic!  I could imagine myself strolling down it's tree lined avenues or eating breakfast on our very own Baku balcony (all of the houses have these amazing balconies).  And I think I actually said "Awesome!" out loud when we walked past a group of stylish Muslim girls rocking their hijab;  they made conservative look cool.  After months of burqa vision, it was a little bit refreshing to see some hip hijab.  Really, Baku was an all around breath of fresh air, which is saying something about air quality in Kabul since Baku is nestled up to the Caspian Sea and about 1000 oil rigs.

Side note about the Caspian Sea: You know how when your out on a boat in a lake or the Sound and the boat leaves a little rainbow of oil behind it?  That's what the Caspian Sea looks like all the time.  It has such a high oil content.  It's not really considered an ideal swimming locale (although I suppose some people take the plunge).  But after months of being land locked, we sat for hours on the bulvar (the park by the sea) and people/wave watched.

After the tension that is living in Kabul, it was nice to kick back and relax in the many shaded squares and cafes of Baku.  By the way, has anyone noticed that the rest of the world seems way laid back compared to the states?  Seriously, Joey and I kept asking each other if it was a holiday or something because no one seemed in a hurry, all of the cafes were full, people were so leisurely.  It made me a little jealous.

So, to any of my readers looking for a vacation spot, I highly recommend Baku.  I will admit that towards the end of our trip, both of us realized that the "We could TOTALLY live here" comment was heard at every one of our destinations.  And realistically, we see ourselves settling in Istanbul before Baku.  But Baku was my first of many loves on this trip.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Picture(s) of the Week-ish

Eid Mubarak!  Has Starbucks come out with the holiday cups in the states yet?  When we were in Dubai, we were pleasantly surprised to see how culturally relevant Starbucks was attempting to be with their Islamic Holiday Cup.  They even had dates on counter for those breaking the daily Ramadan fast.

From Eid Cup

From Eid Cup

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Eid Mubarak! Right?

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Eid-ul-Fitr, the three day holiday at the end of Ramadan.  Or at least I think it is.  The thing is that the Islamic Calendar can be a little confusing.  It's kind of like the lunar calendar, but it's not.  Like the lunar calendar, the Islamic month has 29 or 30 days.  Unlike the lunar calendar, the Islamic month begins when the rescent moon is sighted .  This means that if it's cloudy on the 29th day of the month, welp, the month is 30 days instead.  So, Eid might start tonight/tomorrow since it's the 29th day of the month of Ramadan.  But if the moon isn't sighted, it will start tomorrow night/Monday.  This means that it's impossible to plan when a holiday will be, and holidays fall at different times of the year (last year Eid was 10 days later than this year).

I've always been pretty confused by this, maybe even had a bit of a superiority complex about it.  I mean, doesn't the Gregorian calendar just make so much more sense?  But then today I was discussing all of this with an Afghan friend.  I said, "Yeah, all of our holidays are always on the same date. . . like Christmas and Martin Luther King Junior Day.  Well, except the holidays that are on the same day of the week a certain week of the month . . . like Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or Memorial Day.  But then there's Easter which is always on a Sunday but is anywhere between March and May."  At this point, I realized that I don't really know why Easter is on a different day each year.  I'll wikipedia it.  But really, our holiday calendar is pretty confusing too.  It makes for easy scheduling for work and things, but it's a little complex!

So, I might have the rest of the week off of work.  I don't really know how I'll find that out since I didn't stand outside waiting to sight the moon.  Hmm, complicated.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Home Improvements

The other day my washer exploded.  Well, technically the outlet blew a fuse in its adaptor and said fuse caught on fire.  And it wasn't a huge deal.  My neighbor Ruth and I stripped the wire and put a new outlet on it.  Being a Kabul housewife can be a dangerous profession!  Admittedly, I didn't trust my own electric work and made Joey plug it in when he got home!  He's still alive, so apparently I know what I'm doing.  Here are some photos of the ordeal.  And I went over the outlet with more tap than is shown in the final photo.

From Election Day

From Election Day

From Election Day

From Election Day

And our downstairs neighbor found a rat in her bedroom with her husband out of town.  Joey took care of it.  He swears he didn't mean to kill it.

From Election Day

Friday, September 11, 2009

Picture of the Week-ish: The City Wall

From Kabul City Tour

Here's something interesting: Joey and I didn't realize it was September 11th until I read it on someone's facebook status at 7:00 PM.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Flashback: The Caucuses

It seems like ages ago, but earlier this summer we went on vacation to the Caucuses.  You may be thinking, "The where?"  The Caucuses, this little area of land sandwiched between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Central Asia.  You may have heard of Georgia recently in the news, Russian occupation, civil (and not so civil) protests, etc..  Or you may have heard of Azerbaijan, oil boom, new money, etc.  But let's be honest, most of us haven't heard of these little countries.  Here's a map for reference:


View Larger Map


After months and months of CNN International commercials for Azerbaijan, we just couldn't take it anymore!  So, off we went.  Our initial plan was to go from Azerbaijan to Georgia to Armenia to the Black Sea Coast of Turkey to Istanbul.  Unforeseen circumstances caused us to take out Armenia and the Black Sea Coast and spend more time in Tbilisi, Georgia and Istanbul, Turkey.  We'll get there next time.  And there will definitely be a next time.  These countries were amazing!  Beautiful scenery, unique cultures and languages, incredible foods, incredibly old history . . . what's not to love!

So, along with my Picture of the Week-ish and Election Updates, I will also be featuring some flashback travelogues of our fantastic adventure.  Stay tuned and keep reading!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Afghan Embassy Anniversary

There is nothing quite so romantic as spending an anniversary in an overcrowded consulate filled with fasting Afghans and irritated journalist, right?

Last Thursday we found out that we had to leave the country to renew our visas.  Visas and the developing world are an extremely frustrating combination.  In December, we got six month multiple entry visas in about 15 minutes at the Dubai consulate.  In July, we got one month single entry visit visas with the explanation that these were the only visas being issued now.  We were also assured that we would be able to renew these visas once we arrived in Kabul.  Fast forward three weeks and we're on our way back to Dubai.  Visit visas cannot be renewed in country.

Our plan was to get there on Friday, renew our visas Saturday, hop on a plane back to Kabul on Sunday.  Of course, the consulate in Dubai has no website, an outdated phone number, and a PO box address listed in the phone book.  Therefore, we had no way of knowing that although they used to be closed on Thursday-Friday, they are now closed on Friday-Saturday.

I have to admit that I wasn't severely disappointed when we had to extend our trip by one more day.  Sunday August 30th was our 6th wedding anniversary.  In our six blissful years of marriage, we've celebrated anniversaries on the first day of school, during a move to El Paso, on lockdown in Kabul.  I was excited to actually be someplace to celebrate, even if it was unplanned.  We just had to quickly get those pesky little visas out of the way and then spend the rest of the day being in love.  It would be easy. Run by the consulate, pay to get a number, wait for the number to be called, turn in our applications, pay for our visas, go find a lunch place open during Ramadan, run back to pick up our visas. . . so easy.

So we headed to the consulate, got in the extremely long line to get our number, went into the waiting room, had to sit separately, waited for our number to be called, waiting for ANY number to be called, watched Afghans yell at the man behind the window, watched expats yell at the man behind the window, talked to the marketing guy for the cell phone company we use (he asked if we had any complaints, we told him we get too many marketing text messages), talked to a Fox News guy, talked to an LA Times reporter, shared stories of places we've been and visa offices we've frequented, finally got called up to the window, were told the visa laws had changed again, pleaded for a little grace, were told to pick up our visas in an hour, waited three hours, walked out with 3 month visit visas.  All told, we were there for 7 hours.  Not exactly how I had envisioned celebrating our 6 years of marriage.

When relating this story to my boss, he commented, "Nothing's as easy as it is, and everything takes longer than it does."  That could very well be my new "living in the developing world" motto.  I'm not claiming that the western way of doing things is right, I'm simply stating it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 7 hours to get a visa.  It's better to be geared up for 7 hours and pleasantly surprised on those times it takes 15 minutes.

The day wasn't a complete bust.  Joey finished Kitchen Confidential, I have a new appreciation for the DMV and it's orderly ways, we involuntarily practiced the Ramadan fast, and I found out that I don't want to be a full time journalist (although I do love writing).

The day was salvaged with coffee at Cafe Nero, fabulous French cuisine, a great bottle of wine, and lots of moments that reminded me how glad I am that I'm married to my best friend.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Picture of the week-ish

We went on a city tour a few weeks ago.  We took a ton of pictures, way too many for one post.  So, here's one for starters.

From Kabul City Tour

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mmm...Sacrelicious

We assumed that the consumer juggernaut that is Dubai would not be strictly observing the Ramadan fast while we were there this weekend.  We were wrong.  Every cafe, restaurant, coffee shop, and fast food chain is closed until 6:30 PM during the holy month.  Well, almost.  There are a few places that are open, but it all feels a little sneaky and shady.  Walking to the back alley entrance of the severely overcrowded Lime Street Cafe, following signs reading "Open during Ramadan!" that took us down flights of stairs and behind a dividing wall into a cute French cafe; as Anna L. would say, dark.  

Strangely, a few places in mall food courts were open.  We bought a shawarma at a Turkish place, handed over in a stapled shut to go bag.  Our options were to get a $10 taxi back to our hotel, eat in the bathroom at the mall, or sneak our food into matinee of Funny People.  The movie was good, the food was sinfully delicious. 

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Election Day!

We were all psyched up for election day.  To be honest, we weren't really worried.  Everyone expected that there would be some explosions and unrest in different parts of the country, and regrettably this was true.  However, in our neighborhood it was extremely quiet.  We enjoyed a relax weekend of sleeping in and drinking lattes on the porch.

From Election Day

The question was asked, "If the majority of Afghans cannot read, how do they read the ballots?"  Great question Dynamic ladies!  It is quite true that the literacy rate in Afghanistan is very low, making voting very difficult for the majority of the country.  To solve this issue, each candidate is assigned a logo which is advertised on all of their campaign posters.  Logos are simple and recognizable; teapots, wheat, motorcycles.  When voters went to the poll, their ballots had the name of the candidates with corresponding logos.  Thus solving the illiteracy issue.

From Election Day

We are still awaiting the results of the elections.  With over 40 candidates, no winner will be declared unless a candidate wins over 50% of the vote.  If there is no majority winner, a run off election will be held in October.  And in the midst of all the claims of fraud, it's predicted that a clear and valid winner won't be determined for quiet awhile.  An initial pronouncement stated that Karzai (the incumbent) was leading by a hair in the 10% of the votes that have been counted.  Both Karzai and the other lead contender, Abdullah Abdullah (nope, not a typo), have already declared themselves winners with the majority of the vote.  But for now, we'll just have to wait and see.

From Election Day

For me, one of the greatest things about election day was seeing the indelible ink on the fingers of friends.  I was encouraged that all the Afghan women I have talked to in the last two weeks had purple finger nails they showed off with pride.

From Election Day

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Back from Break

We are back from our vacation and our time in the States. It was good to have a bit of a break and great to see family and friends. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to work on making my blog more reader friendly. Namely, I'm over my limit of readers for a password protected blog and want to be able to add more, so I'm taking steps to make the blog public. I've always been a little nervous about the possibility of complete strangers reading about my life, but I'm working through those fears. Watch out blog world, here I come.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let us out!

We really, really like it here.  But now that we have a vacation all planned, we're ready to get out!  Enter visa problems.  I mentioned in my last post that our visas problems caused us to change our destination from Central Asia to the Caucasus.  Well, the visas problems have continued.

Problem 1:
Visa Expiration Date: June 2
Day we found out the company that usually does our visas won't do them this time: June 1
Time it takes to get an expedited Afghan Visa: 15 days
Estimated departure date for vacation: June 8

As you can see, it would be impossible to get our visas in time for our departure.  And you can't depart Afghanistan without a valid visa.

The solution the visa guy at my office came up with was to get exit visas which are good for 6 days and we planned to get out visas for reentry in Dubai on the way back to Kabul.

So, all was well and good in visa land.  We were leaving on the 8th and our visas expired on the 9th, perfect.

Problem 2:
Estimated departure date: Pushed back to June 15 due to some problems stateside for the new pilot.
Visa expiration date: Still June 9th.
The sticky part: You're only allowed to get one exit visa.

When I asked our visa guy what our options were, he said either you leave early (can't do), get a hospital to write a letter saying one of us was deathly ill and couldn't leave (can't do, plus if one of us was deathly ill I'm pretty sure we would have already left), or go to the airport on the 15th with expired visas and get turned away to the visa office and wait a few days to get valid visas (can't do).  I kept telling him that there had to be another option.  I mean, this is Afghanistan; flights get cancelled and missed, people run into problems coming and going all the time.  There is no way the only way to get a second visa is to lie about being deathly ill.

 So, he went back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke with a friend, got in touch with someone higher up, explained our situation.  The higher up gave him the three same options that wouldn't work.  Najibullah asked if he could give an alternative option.  He asked if we could pay the $2 per day fine that is given to those with expired visas from June 3-June 10, and get another exit visa good through June 16.  When he relayed the story to me, he said the official said, "It is strange that this idea has never occurred to me before," or "Why didn't I think of that?"  Najibullah suggested that he pass the idea along to the Minister of the Interior.  He's swelling with pride right now thinking a new law might be enacted because of him.  We're just really thankful that it looks like we'll get to go on vacation!

Here's our new itinerary:

June 15th: Fly to Azerbaijan.
June 15-27: Travel through Caucasus and Turkey.
June 27th: Fly from Turkey to Washington DC.
July 10th: Fly from DC to Washington State.
Around July 25th: Fly back this way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Vacation Planning

We're going on vacation in a week and a half (I hope). This vacation was originally planned for the first two weeks of April and was going to be a leisurely stroll through the other stans (expect Pakistan, even we have some sense).  It got pushed back and pushed back.  And we added a trip to the states at the end for Joey's captain upgrade and to see family.  Then, after we had solidified our dates, we had problems with our Afghan visas and all the visas we needed to get.  So, Central Asia is out and the Caucasus are in.  Our new plan was to spend about 18 days traveling through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and spend some time on a beach in Turkey before heading back to the states.  Today we found out that we've been pushed back a week.  So, here's the new vacation itinerary:

Azerbaijan
Georgia
Armenia
Turkey and the Black Sea Coast
Virginia
Washington

We're hoping this itinerary makes it through the night.  Honestly, I won't believe we're going until we're on the ground in Baku soaking up the sun.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grace - Confidence - Poise

The Kabul Dance Studio is in its inaugural year.  As you can well imagine, there hasn't been a high demand for ballet, tap, or the arts in general in the last few decades.  But with a growing (and then shrinking, and then growing, and now shrinking again) expat community, two ladies from the international school saw a void that needed to be filled.  Many of these families have children, many of them have little girls.  And while expat boys play soccer at school and fly kites in the street, these little girls (and us bigger girls too) don't have a lot of extracurricular activities available.  Afghanistan is a man's world.  Kabul Dance Studio is helping to change that.  Over the last year, classes were held as the studio was built.  Both teachers laugh that at the beginning of the year, they were teaching girls to pliĆ© without a roof.  The floor was shipped from the states, the mirrors were added just a few months ago, and now it's a full-on dance studio.

Last Friday we attended "Let's Go Fly a Kite," Kabul Dance Studio's spring performance at the Serena Hotel.  We had quite a few little friends dancing to "A Spoonful of Sugar" and "It's a Jolly Holiday with Mary;" and we had some grown up friends tap dance to "Sister Suffragette" and "Vote for Women."  Listening to a few of the girls read papers on why dance is important to them was enough to draw tears from the crowd, and being at the Serena (Kabul's only 5 star hotel) with little girls running around in tutus was enough to make me feel like I wasn't even in Kabul.  After the show there was kite flying and ice cream in the gardens of the Serena.  It was a lovely afternoon.

Someone recently asked me if it was hard being a woman in Afghanistan.  To be perfectly honest, my answer is yes it is hard.  But I do think we're taking steps in the right direction (see example above).  And I think whether life is hard or not has a lot to do with perspective.  Sure I have to wear a chador, long pants, long sleeves, long shirts; but it is possible to embrace the cultural restrictions and make my Kabul style my own.  And yeah, everything seems to take longer here, from iodining vegetables to doing laundry; but I get to enjoy the juiciest mangoes, the tastiest tomatoes, and at least I have a washer (no dryer anymore, we nixed that when we moved last weekend and gave up generator living).  And yes, women do not have the rights they deserve here and are often treated horribly, but rather than sit around a lament this, I join in the growing crowd of women that stand up and say this must change.  And it is true that there are few outlets for entertainment or expression for women; but we make our own fun with movie nights, in house coffee dates, shopping trips, and the occasional ladies night.

At our last organizational ladies night we had Lebanese food, chocolate fondue, Joey and our country director (my boss) acted as baristas and made everyone cappuccinos and lattes, we had a speaker, and everyone got a reusable shopping bag filled with chocolate, tea, a magazine, and spa kit.  I was privileged to get to plan the night and it was so much fun!  I spent weeks ordering things from the states to make the ladies feel a little bit pampered.  I was given a larger than normal budget to play with since we didn't have a ladies retreat.  And at the end of the night, we all walked away feeling refreshed and encouraged.

The Kabul Dance Studio's motto is "Grace - Confidence - Poise."  While watching the High School Class dance to "Step in Time," I realized so much of surviving in Kabul as a woman is wrapped up in those three little words: grace to let the long list of annoyances and difficulties slid off your back, confidence to stand up to the stares and stereotypes placed on all women, and poise to handle it all in a dignified manner.  It's easy to feel frayed and worn out here; many women I know sink into a cycle of complaining, frustration and unhappiness.  But, as Mary Poppins so eloquently said, "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun," the key is finding that fun whether it be tap dancing to a song about women's rights or spending an afternoon on drugstore.com dreaming of the perfect gift basket.


From Ladies Night
You may notice none of use are smiling in this one, very Afghan.  Doesn't really go with our BRIGHT bags!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

High School Drama

This post could be a "You know you're in Kabul when . . .", but the high school drama class at the international school deserves something a bit more.  So, to start, you know you're in Kabul when the topic of the high school play is the effects of the opium trade on rural Afghan life.

Last Wednesday, Joey and I attended the International School of Kabul Spring Drama Night at the French Cultural Center.  We all know that high schoolers can be teeny bit on the dramatic side.  Having been a high schooler once myself and having 15 year old sister that is a high schooler now, I know this to be true. But the high schoolers of ISK have a unique situation.  Many of the usual high school experiences are unavailable to them because, well, they live in Afghanistan.  There is no prom, no dances, no place to hangout after school, no driver's ed, no cheerleading squad, and few other typical high school things (although I will say that my high school experience had few of these things either).  And the students come from such vastly different backgrounds (70% Afghan and the other 30% made up of 20 different countries), there is a much different vibe coming from the student body.  With 21 different cultural backgrounds, it makes sense.  So, to some extent, I think the dramatics of these high schoolers is understandable.

The drama night consisted of two plays written by students and one 1 act.  The theme of the night was "Sins of the Father."

In play #1, a son deals with his father's decision to turn the family wheat farm into a poppy farm thinking it will provide them with financial stability.  In the end, the whole family is in prison, one son addicted to opium and going through withdrawals, the other son lamenting his father didn't listen to him, and the father screaming, "Enough! Enough! Enough!"

Play #2 featured a man interviewing for a job as a editor for a well known author.  As they get to know each other, it is revealed that Jose's family was killed during the Cuban Revolution in a strike ordered by a certain general who retired and became a well known author.  For years, Jose planned his revenge and was prepared to enact it at this interview.  The author pleads with him that it won't solve anything if he kills him and takes him away from his family repeating, "My family is all I have. It's the most important thing."  Jose leaves the office with his bomb laden suitcase sitting beneath his chair.  In the end, he decides not to use his cell phone to activate the bomb and runs off stage.

The 1 Act was a little abstract, mostly because there was confusion over whether it was the end of Play #2 or something completely new.  It was about a village's decision to fight back against the oppression of General Despair.  They did this through, what else, song and dance. . . I guess it could be compared to Stomp.

The evening ended with about 10 minutes of bows from the 10 student class and lot's of flowers from parents and peers.  The acting was alright, about what can be expected from a high school drama class (apparently the drama club is much more accomplished).  Some of the younger kids came out with very wide eyes asking questions like, "What's opium?" and "Who is Castro?"  The subject matters were pretty grim, but it is Afghanistan after all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Our Life in Photos

Wow!  We were busy last week, and the week before and the week before.  Basically, life in Kabul is busy!  We've said lots of goodbyes to lots of close friends who were departing Kabul for the summer, furlough, or forever.  We've both been busy at work.  We had a Cinco de Mayo Party with our Afghan staff!  Really, we are just trucking right along.  Here are some photo highlights of our last few weeks:

From Last Import
The Maintenance guys who came to help out.  Always nice to see a familiar face in Kabul

From Last Import

From our trip to Dubai.  Do you see the camels on the beach?

From Last Import
The Walk in Dubai.  Joey's all about the candid photo, so none of us are looking in any of these.

From Last Import
Our good friends were in Dubai with us on their way back to the states for a year.  We miss them so much!

From Last Import
Looking for a Starbucks and a Cinnabon.  Dubai has everything!

From Last Import
Our Swiss Friends an fondue night.  That's our living room.

From Last Import
We went to a carnival that day, hence all the face paint.  Oh, and we're moving in with these hooligans in July!


From Last Import
Cinco de Mayo! That's the kids table (or dest-e-khan).

From Last Import
Everyone loved Joey's mexican food.  Ali couldn't believe there was no oil in it.  He said, "How can it taste so good without oil?"

From Last Import
Habib and his kids.

From Last Import
Rafi and his kids.  Horace is too cute and has the best handshake and little raspy voice when he says, "Salaam!"

From Last Import
Tea and campfire.

From Last Import

From Last Import


My good friend and I after a family lunch.




And that's some of our goings on!  We keep busy and have lots of fun hanging out with all our Afghan and Expat friends.  And it's sunny and beautiful right now.  Kabul's pretty great!