away from home

Talk Talk

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I lament the demise of the art of good conversation. I’ve been working abroad for close to 8 years now, and in that time, I realize my conversation skills have deteriorated to the level of Neanderthal. How can one regress that bad? I’ll tell you how — years of brain-mushing, soul-crushing, vocabulary-shrinking non-talking to people here.

I’ll call it as I see it: No one here makes the effort to keep up a decent conversation anymore. And I don’t even look for witty banter; I just want a minimum amount of articulation, a world view, an informed opinion. Believe me, I’ve tried. Countless times. Standing in line at chow, opening with, how bad does that chicken look, do you really like asparagus, did the Talibans win today? Not much in reply. Mostly a grunt or two, some vague syllables running together, maybe a stupefied look on their faces. Yes, you — I am talking to you, make an effort to answer coherently.

It’s so sad — no — it’s downright miserable to have to sit with people that appear animated, but stay mute. It’s like watching TV with the sound off. Pointless, like an admission of defeat.

I miss being engaged in a good discussion. I miss having my brain cells stimulated, sitting with other people around a table full of wine and tapas, arguing over world events, the impending nukes from NK, guerrilla art taking over the streets, the deadly politics of drugs, heck, even what new fashion trends are popping up in the streets NY and elsewhere. I miss being asked to think for myself, having to cultivate an informed opinion, or being corrected for an erroneous one. I miss the civilized discourse that is the exclusive province of all humans, the thing that sets us apart from the animal. Conversation skill is the equivalent of having an opposable thumb in one’s brain, able to touch all lobes and bring forth an engaging discourse.

But instead, we sit mute in separate chairs and look down on our hands, when we should have had evolved so far as to look up and say something to each other.

Fellow human, talk to me.

 

 

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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.