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.
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.
Here, there are times when even the most ordinary of days offers up a surprise. Case in point: I had a minor dalliance at the PX store today. I was standing in line along the candy aisle, waiting my turn at the cash register. A trooper walks in front of me, wanting to cut across the line so he could go to the next aisle. I step to one side, he does the same, I step back, and he steps back too. We do this two-step routine a couple of times, until finally, I stand still and motion for him to pass through.
He looks at me, smiles, and then says, “What? Oh, I thought we were dancing.”
Suddenly, it is way past the middle of November, the days are now quick to descend into darkness. Five o’clock on any given day becomes bathed in the bruised purple of dusk, and the pre-winter cold creeps in to settle quietly into your bones.
I have taken to walking here, attempting to replicate the endorphin high of my two-hour treks around camp in Kabul. At a little past 4pm, I pick up my ipod and jam the buds into my ears, close my office door, and head out into the small space that we claim as ours. I go all the way to the end of camp, then turn left into an abandoned basketball court. This is where I do my walks, like a prison inmate let out in the yard for daily exercise. It is a small rectangular court, with hoops at either ends. Like a prisoner, I walk laps around and around it, 1 hour at the least. Facing south, the flight line is to my right, and I can see all our helicopters and sometimes a wayward plane parked there, with the few mechanics and gunners milling about. They mostly let me be, and I wonder what they think as they see me walking endlessly in a rectangular loop. Crazy little Asian girl, probably, is what they think.
To my left is a long line of wall, constructed from numerous Hesco baskets strung together to form a barrier against assault from armed humans, tanks, or rockets. Hesco baskets are a wartime innovation, fabric baskets shaped like a box, with a wire mesh frame, filled with a dirt-gravel-rocks mixture. They are stacked on top of each other and form an effective defense, much like a concrete wall. Hesco baskets have become widely used in war-torn areas because they are easy to assemble and are low tech enough not to require much engineering–just brawn and plenty of dirt.
On top of these walls I often see a line of gossiping crows, fluttering about like demented acrobats. Actually, I am not sure if they are crows, they are black birds that resemble crows. But then again, this is Afghanistan–nothing is all that it seems. I always think that I must be oriented towards the west, because I see the sunset at the back of the other wall, near where the flight line is. Just the other day, 30 minutes into my walk, I looked up to see that the sky had turned bright purple, with streaks of orange and white. It seemed out of place in this world of grays and browns, so it was startling to see.
I have come to love my daily walks, the solitary pace that I keep for myself, the feel of cold air, the moon dust underfoot. When the initial self-consciousness of being the only girl walking alone in a camp full of men fell away, I found that I actually enjoyed the ritual. Just to be outside and able to see the sky does something good to me–to be able to turn my face to the wind and have my body do what I will it to–it is exhilarating. I miss the two-hour walks I did in Kabul. I remember that day when I was finally brave enough to attempt a short run–how wonderful it felt to fly off and speed past the weeds and the rocks–how even the pain of gasping for breath and the feeling of tightness in my legs felt like welcome sensations.
In this place, you do what you can to keep crazy away. I blast loud rock music most of the time that I go on my walks. It seems fitting, somehow, this crashing musical score amid the backdrop of planes droning constantly overhead, the view of dust-encrusted hummers peeking alongside the fence. When a random slow song comes on, my fingers are quick to press the skip button, I cannot stand the sentimentality and the lethargy of a slow song contrasted against what I know is around me. It makes me hyperventilate, not from the physical exertion, but from a throbbing that starts from my heart and resounds throughout my body. I react swiftly and strongly to sentiment here, it feels like such an excessive act, like a shameless, self-serving gesture.
The walking does me good though, it focuses me and clears my mind. I concentrate on putting one foot after the other, repeating the pattern over and over, turning sharply at corners and then stepping on my shoe prints outlined in the moon dust. Moon dust is what we call the fine, baby powder-like dust that blankets everything here in Kandahar. It is a sneaky, relentless nuisance, it gets into your eyes, your hair, the folds of your clothes, into your shoes, in all the the nooks and crevices of your body. In a dust storm, you inhale it, like it or not. I imagine it lining my lungs and incorporating itself into my blood, turning it murky and viscous.
Still, despite the dust and the cold, I go on walking. I never seem to get tired, even with the monotony of turning a corner four times at exactly the same places. The rectangular loop seems to renew itself at each turn, and I must navigate each loop as if doing so for the first time. The minutes pass, and soon it is close to the time that I have to stop and go back to doing other things, take my place in the routine that involves others in the same prison, er, camp that I live in. I stop only when it’s gotten so dark that my footprints are no longer visible, the walls have melted into the black line of the horizon, and the cold becomes so dense it registers as pain. I walk back slowly to the line of identical buildings huddled in the dusk, pondering how the sameness of things can be so dreary and reassuring at the same time. And I resolve to go walking again, the next day, and the next, and the next, vowing to continue the ritual for as long as I possibly can.
Coming back from lunch today, I closed my door, dumped my hamper of laundry on the floor, and danced to the crashing song on my ipod. Danced with abandon—hair wild, body trashing, arms flailing about, head all a-spin.
Life is good.
Sometimes the bleakness here is shafted by a little ray of sunshine. Just recently, this bearded Latino took me aside and whispered to me, “Hola, la flaca.” He said it means, “Hello, Slim One.” Haha! He’s an old guy, but quite the charmer. He told me I’m much more slimmer than when he last saw me some months ago. It feels good to be noticed and complimented.
This year, I am pushing myself to be healthier, stronger, more brave. I am actually surprised that I have such a strong resolve to see this through. I accept it now, the fact that for years I have been in a deep funk–denying my spirit, not taking good care of my body and my soul. It’s somewhat ironic that I had to be dislocated in such a bleak place to realize that. I think the spareness of this environment focuses me—away from the noise, the colors, and all other distractions you have no choice but to look a little bit longer inward and find the will to change things.
It’s been six months now, and I think I have come a long way. Not just because I lost some weight, although outwardly of course, that is the obvious change. Inside, I’m tougher, stronger. I have always been that, people tell me. But now I am sure of it. I can withstand so much more that I ever thought I could: loneliness, alienation, confinement, the sameness of days. I can contend with the lack of physical contact, a dearth of conversation, the protracted human interaction, hidden and blatant prejudice, the sexual tension, the petty quarrels with small minds, the absence of all the familiar, everyday things one takes for granted.
I know a guy here who gets depressed when the kitchen doesn’t have the juice he usually has with his cereal for breakfast. Such a little thing, but when you are here, the little things get to you. It’s the sensory deprivation that wages war on the self. And I understand that, I get it.
I have survived it all so far, and I will continue to do so.
“I went to the Milan. It is the city that is a stylish and fun. My friends say I change, you know? They say is the lifestyle that is changing in me… it become hard to talk about the same things, you know, because there is less in common with us. I think it is not me that is changing, it is like the different life.”
Ah, me. I really should stop watching World Fashion TV with the volume on.