The Sudden Death of Stars

A few lines to mark the Lenten season.

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The Sudden Death of Stars

one contemplates
the sudden death of stars
light breaks up, dissipates
and darkness moves in
to become what is missing.

I realise that the sky,
with this one void is not left empty,
other stars blink their brightness
tawdry as whores in sequins
all hours of the day.

death is as cheap, my love.
we shuffle bodies as we utter promises,
and each night we look to the skies
to whisper wishes to the stars
but only the darkness hears.


A Trick of the Light

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I tell no one, but it’s been two, no — three months now — that I haven’t been sleeping straight through the night. My sleep is haunted by random thoughts and images, flashing memories that I can’t seem to control.

It’s better when I am at work, because work, mundane though it be, requires a focus that serves to rein in the random thoughts. But at night, the controls fall away and my consciousness becomes a dark, swirling current that sweeps me, helpless and drowning in the flood of memories. Sometimes I’m not even sure if the memories are real, or if they are only imagined, a trick of the light, the cunning creations of a mind that wants a different ending to the story that was.

Trick of the light or true, I just wish I could stop the thoughts, it would be such a welcome rest.

 


Girl + Gun(s)

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Guns are every day objects here, this being a war zone and all. I see them all day, slung across the chests our Gurkha guards, dangling from belts, holstered at the waist, clasped in hand by men walking along the hallways. It’s inevitable of course, that I will have one put into my hands, eventually.

This is the only job I’ve had where it is a requirement to be familiar with guns. They give us classes on guns. We have Safety Day activities that demonstrate weapons handling, unloading, and dry-firing. The first class I had on weapons familiarization was taught by our lead gunner, a huge guy with a shiny bald head. He taught us how to dismantle, load/unload, and aim guns. I have broken down and put back together again an M4 and an M9, whatever good that skill will do me. My dad was thrilled to hear about the experience though, so it makes for an interesting story. I remember that class, I was the only female there and we were fumbling around with a pistol and a rifle. Those things are heavy, what can I say. There was a point in the class where we were told to get your rifles and lie down on the floor.

Of course I was the only one that asked, “Why?”  The instructor explained that we should learn how to fire from a prone position. I couldn’t resist teasing him, I said, “But the floor is dirty, I don’t want to get myself all dusty.” He went red in the face, trying not to laugh and not to show any reaction. He said that we were all required to do it, the standard answer to everything. One of the guys in the class, my friend since high school who knew what trouble I could be, pleaded with me, “Just get down on the floor, please.” I did, after all, I’ve had my bit of fun.

They all do take their guns seriously here, I must point that out. As they should, these things take away life at the pull of a trigger.

There was a break-in once at the camp, a raggedly band of Taliban launched a rocket that hit right next door to us, rattling my office windows with such force the blinds shook off most of their dust. A few insurgents were able to breach the wall and the ground attack alarm was sounded. We all went into the bunkers to wait it out in relative safety. In a ground attack of such close proximity, everyone on camp that was authorized to carry a gun had to go into the armory to get one. Gunners and medics were patrolling the camp grounds constantly, most everyone had a weapon. Some of the guys that I am friends with dropped by my bunker to see how I was, telling me to stay inside. All of them had weapons, the glint of the metal reflecting the same glint in their eyes. I thought it was excitement, and it disturbed me somewhat.

My radio, in crackling bursts of static, sent out the announcement from the FOB manager that if anyone breached our camp gates and if that person was not recognized as one of us, they were to shoot on sight. Shoot on sight.

I listened to it, I listened as the message was repeated and I sat still, just sat there looking at the radio. That was the moment when it really became real to me that this is a place where people actually get killed, that a gun here was not just for show, it means death to those at the opposite end of the barrel. Most of all, I realized that here, those who hold a gun are ready to kill.

 

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Uga – The New Foe Gras

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Deprivation does strange things to people. Case in point: all the Pinoys here on camp who, plied with DIFAC (dining facility) food day in and day out, crave collectively for uga or dried fish. Yes, dilis and danggit, those humble little bits of dried fish that stink when fried, but are salty-crunchy good. Dried fish hits the spot for us Pinoys after months of greasy, under-seasoned American-style food.

I don’t eat dried fish that often at home, but when I do, I usually have dilis, those small anchovies. I stir-fry them briefly with a little brown sugar and chilli powder, then serve the dilis as a side dish to compliment beef nilaga (beef in a clear soup). Yum.

But here in Kabul, where the taste buds are much deprived, uga saves the day. Chow hall food tends to lean aggressively towards the bland. Most days it’s either a medley of meat drowned in unrecognizable sauces or fried everything. Fried potatoes with breaded fried fish, fried pork, fried chicken. For variety there’s extra dry turkey breasts with equally wilted broccoli and carrots. The salad bar has all the same stuff I remember seeing there from two years ago. The exact same kind of lettuce, cut exactly the same way. All the same ingredients laid out in exactly the same spot, the handiwork of an obsessive-compulsive chef, probably.

On some days the food offerings are just depressing, so what do we Pinoys do? We turn to uga. One of the guys goes out to that hidden spot behind the water treatment plant to fry up the smuggled dried stuff, fresh from the checked-in luggage of whoever recently came back from break in the PI. We pilfer those little pats of butter from the chow hall and use that to fry the dried fish in. Butter-fried uga, the humble ingredient elevated to lofty invented cuisine. Depending on the variety of our stash, we also usually have dried squid, and sometimes salted red egg to go with it all. You could say we overkill it a little with the salt. But we gobble up the salty, stinky stuff like it’s foe gras.

Deprivation, it does strange things to you.


The Getaway Bag

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When I signed up for this gig, one of the things the powers that be asked of us was to keep a small backpack ready to go in case of an emergency evacuation. They instructed us that the backpack should contain a change of clothes, your passport and IDs, important papers, toiletries, prescription medicines, and some basic rations.

For the longest time (over two years, if I am to confess), I ignored this directive. Too lazy to put together a bag, probably. Or more closer to the truth, I didn’t do it because it seemed to me that to prepare for this kind of event will invariably make it come into being. Superstitious, I know. But lately I have been thinking about packing a small bag for weeks. I don’t know what it is, but now I want to be able to pick up this bag and get out of here, in case I have to.

So I packed. Choosing the bag was easy–I had a camera bag that was roomy and light enough to lug around. It was styled like a sling bag and wraps across the body, the contents made easily accessible, making it more convenient than a backpack that you had to strap to your back.

Into this emergency bag went:

- my two passports, in a ziploc bag

- about $75 in small bills

- cargo pants

- three shirts (sleeveless, regular, quarter sleeves)

- 1 pair of socks

- pashmina

- good underwear in a ziploc bag

- toiletries (mini bottles)

- toothbrush + toothpaste + mouthwash

- spare pair of contact lenses

- small bottle of contact lens solution

- packet of M&Ms peanut

- small folding scalpel

- Gerber multi-tool set

- ballpen + Post It pad

- tissue paper

- Shure flashlight

- roll of mints

I thought, hmm… a book? No, really no time for introspective reading when you need to be on full alert. Maybe one bottle of perfume, less than 100ml? But then I thought that was just giving in to vanity, not crucial to survival. Instead, I added a small bottle of lotion, much more practical. No sense having to suffer dry skin just because I’m a fugitive.

I’ve placed the bag near the door, within grabbing reach. If need be I can get to my room, hoist the bag over my head, grab a bottle of water and a light jacket, then slip quickly out the building.  Hopefully, into a waiting Huey/plane and out of harm’s way.

Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?


To The Bunkers We Go

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There’s been some added excitement to our days these past weeks. Afghanistan is in the news again, and like all the recent salvos in this dusty corner of the world, the excitement was explosive. Like it or not, we are getting more use of those bunkers that line the camp grounds.

Last week there was much ado about that redhead Harry, which resulted in fireworks in camp Bastion, a base that is supposedly super-secure. The damage: two US soldiers dead and several aircraft destroyed. The prince of course, was unharmed. And then just days ago, a bus blew up right next door to us. This time, twelve dead — mostly Russian and South African pilots and some local nationals. The method to this latest madness was a car bomb driven by a young Afghan woman who maneuvered the sedan near a shuttle bus and then blew herself up. I heard the explosion as I lay in bed, half awake in the early hours of morning. My first thought:  that sounded like a close one. And then the camp sirens went off and we were supposed to “Duck and cover.”  I took a shower. One has to have priorities, and mine is to be clean in case we are evacuated. I know that when that happens, the chances for a shower go down exponentially as the danger goes up.

We are all constantly reminded by Security to heed the warnings and instructions for dealing with any emergencies or threats. I do not take these warnings lightly, of course, but neither am I scared of them. You have to be alert, not scared. Fear clouds one’s judgment, and in the chaos, your best chance at survival is having a clear mind. I reckon when your time is up, it will be up — and I prefer to smell nice and fresh when it’s my turn to go.

Here in Kabul, we’ve only used the bunkers one time in the years that I have been here. And they do have the look of unuse to them, all dusty and empty, unlike in Kandahar where the bunkers are adorned with chairs, boxes of water, cigarette butts. Now, when I pass those blocks of concrete day after day, I am even more aware that they are there, and their presence is both reassurance and grim reminder. Those bunkers are a sign that death is so much more present here.


Kabul: The Box Always Wins


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I’ve been stuck in Kabul since November of last year, and I’m showing the effects of it. I have been consistently short-tempered this year, prone to anger, easily annoyed by the littlest of things. Living on camp in Kabul is like being in prison, you are under a microscope all the time, there is nowhere to escape. Compared to Kandahar, the camp here has about three times as many people. Put all those subcons inside a gray box and you have cabin fever the likes of an overcrowded prison yard. And people here oftentimes behave as though we are all inmates–the intrusion into privacy, the repeated storytelling, the general getting on one another’s nerves–all done on a daily basis.

On my days off, there is the room to hang out in, and after sleep is done and the marathon of crime shows on Fox Crime is over, the walls seem to close in on me. I am left with two choices: gym or walk outside. The walk almost always wins, since the gym with all those grunting testosterones can get a bit much. The walk outside usually takes me 6 rounds on the loop of the camp road, passing offices, warehouses, the DIFAC, security outposts, terminals, the occasional unskilled conversationalist. On clear days I see the ragged mountains slapped against blue skies, looming over the flight line where our flock of Hueys, Phrogs, and 1900s sit quietly, like nesting birds. This sight is something I see every day, but it sure beats staring at the walls.

Sometimes when I take my walks around the camp, I would look at the long line of walls bordered by sniper screens, and imagine the chaos that would ensue if I attempted to climb over them. Not that there’s somewhere to go if you successfully breached that wall. There is only the open road with no one on it for miles, the mounds of garbage piled up on the roadsides, the razor wires that crown yet more walls barricading the other camps. But I still think about doing that climb, if only to cause a little bit of excitement and break the monotony of camp life.

Kabul is really hard on the spirit, that I can say. Two months here and you begin to feel the urge to leave–go somewhere, anywhere–as long as it’s away from this prison. I see it as being inside a series of prisons: you are living in a box within a box within a box within a box. The predominant colors are gray and brown. Vegetation is sparse, trees are stunted, weeds have a strange look to them. Animal life is composed of a few straggly goats, prehistoric looking insects, vicious camel spiders. The usual sounds are the whirring of motors, vehicles going around camp, and that Sunday security alarm drill. Six days of repetitive work, one day off spent inside one’s room, doing laundry, going to the chow hall. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat–all days are the same. There is nowhere to go. Well, there are the ISAF runs next camp that require you to wear a bulletproof vest just to buy shampoo. But when alert levels shoot up, the runs are the first things to be cancelled, and you can go for months without seeing the outside portion of that camp gate. Months staring at the same horizon, eating the same food, seeing the same faces, hearing the same stories, over and over again, like a recurring nightmare.

And so in the end, the box always wins.


Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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During that week-long break I spent in Penang, I casually took up smoking again.

No, I have no excuse–it was break, so I wasn’t stressed. I guess I should own up to it–I went back to nicotine to have some sort of travel companion. I love traveling, and I have been doing it alone for years now, but this time the trip was made a little bit lonesome because I was missing someone. I was wishing I had another set of eyes to look into while drinking that nth bottle of beer, or someone to point out the curiosities of a foreign place to. Cigarette in hand, puffing nonchalantly, one seems less alone.

Cigarettes are sneaky, they do not impose themselves on us much (the ban on advertising takes care of that), and yet when you hold one in your hand, it just feels right. For former smokers, there is nothing to re-learn, you take to it like a fish to water. And when you inhale the smoke and let it go to your lungs, it is both pain and pleasure. Blowing out the smoke, wisps of it that shoot out like a dreamy fog, this is visible catharsis–you can feel your cares going the way of that smoke. I say I don’t miss it, but when I go back to the habit, it just feels good to me, again.

I used to smoke menthols, but recently I have developed a liking for Marlboro Reds, the ones in the classic short pack with the flip top. I like it that the Reds are strong, they taste like real cigarettes, none of that bland light stuff for me. My dad smoked this brand, he used to send me to the store to buy it for him. I would return with the pack, but I would keep the change, in what was a child’s effort to make him stop smoking. He did stop eventually after he got sick, and is now smoke-free. I stopped too, in 2002 when I wanted to get pregnant. I stopped smoking for a long time, and companionship was found elsewhere.

And now here just recently, I found myself face to face with the little red pack during a PX run. It was there on the counter, looking up at me, saying, “Hi, Stranger.” Needless to say, I took it home.

 


All Quiet on the Afghan Front

Friday is everyone’s day off, and most of the guys here, exhausted from the 10- to 14-hour-day work week, would shut themselves up in their rooms and sleep it off. I’m the only one that takes the day off on Saturdays, so on most Fridays it’s just me out on the camp and the few gurkha guards that rotate and stay on security duty all days of the week. Fridays are time sheet days, that’s when I spend most of the day going over the hours everyone logged flying planes and choppers, repairing them, or doing other support work that is necessary in getting our birds to fly.
As a brief diversion, I like to take my coffee mug and sit outside at the little gazebo where we have our barbeques and gatherings. On Friday afternoons such as this, at 1400, with no missions, no flights coming in or out, no one else is around. I have the entire sweep of the view to myself. The camp looks abandoned, everything seems at a standstill. The gates are closed, the hangar doors are shut, the helicopters are still. Even the dust seems to have stopped its incessant swirling. I sit still and enjoy the quiet. No one will be in sight for hours, if I am lucky.
After a week of being attentive and tending to people’s needs, I feel relief just sitting here, no one to talk to, no one to listen to. Kandahar is home to such contradictions–a frenetic pace all week, and then suddenly you have this pocket of absolute quiet. The sky above is a cloudless blue, so crisp and clear it makes me think of the hidden island beaches of my hometown. Looking out on the flight line, I can almost believe there is a sliver of blue out there on the horizon, a secret beach with waters warm as milk. Almost.
I think about everything and nothing in particular, letting my mind drift and relax for a few minutes. A lot of times, I hear people complain about the bleakness of this place, how there is not much to do or see, how nothing much happens. At times like this, in the stillness of the moment, I don’t mind the bleakness as much. In fact, it is a welcome respite from all the noise of the week that was. I miss the quiet that allows for a little bit of introspection, sometimes I think I crave it.
This is my second year here, and I admit there are times I curse the luck that has brought me to Afghanistan. But for most times, strangely enough, I am grateful–glad even–to be here.

A Promise of Flowers in the Desert


I’m not sure why guys here feel the need to urge me on with promises of gifts or favors or the moon at my feet. News flash: I work here, if you need something, it’s sort of my responsibility to help you out. Sadly, I think most men do it out of reflex–they are used to offering up something to get something in return.

It’s a very American trait, this insistence on a trade-off. I’m usually offered all manner of edibles (chocolate, candy, muffins, fruit, yoghurt), or drink (Red Bull, Monster, coffee, soda), small items or amusements (a scarf, a DVD movie, go to the boardwalk, and one time – an ipod). I’ve gotten used to graciously accepting the little tokens, sweetly refusing inappropriate ones, ignoring the downright weird.

This morning, I had to come in on my day off to hand out room keys and take care of some paper work for employees that were back from their break. The guys were all apologetic that they woke me up and were really nice about saying thank you. This guy though, was just a little bit different from the rest. All he needed was for me to forward an old email with documents that I sent for him before he went on break. I said I’ll search for that particular email and will send it to him as soon as I find it.

He said ‘thank you’ several times, then gathered his bags and headed for the door. Before he went out though, he turned back and stammered, “Thanks again, okay. I’ll ahh… umm… I’ll buy you flowers.”

I thought I was hearing things. Really, flowers? In this desert wasteland, where would you even get them? I smiled to mask my incredulous expression, and he blinked, turned around quickly, and was out the door.

Flowers. Yeah, right.


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