October, Then Winter

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It’s the last week of October and it feels as though we are sliding treacherously into an early Kabul winter. Dusk falls faster now, it edges out the last rays of an afternoon sun that slinks away earlier and earlier each day, its warmth swallowed up by the descending cold.

I’m a girl from the tropics, so I like to defy the advances of winter. Off work, I sling my duffel bag of dirty clothes and head to the laundry in the advancing darkness. The pavement is icy now, I can feel the coldness seeping through the flip flops I insist on wearing. The numbness registers as pain on the soles of my feet. A small matter, I think. There is virtue in a little sacrifice.

There are no street lamps here, so I walk by the light of my iPhone, turned down towards the ground. Overhead, I hear the metal whine of our helicopters trying to rise from the ground. Rotor blades whirr, slicing through the night — whack whack whack — metal attacking the cold air. Just over the T-walls I can see the lights of Kabul blinking, the city laid out like a sequined blanket. It looks pretty, yes — but of course, I know better than to trust the sparkle.

I stuff my laundry in the wash, pop in those plump detergent pods. A week’s worth of clothes. I use up two washers for this round. Forty-five minutes to let the machine do its job, then I have to come back, yank my clothes out and transfer them into the dryers. Through the window of the laundry room, the dark outside has become an indigo kind of blue, and the edges of things have turned blurry, like an ink stain.

I know the temperature is going to drop a few more degrees in the next hour. Almost six years in this place, and there’s no getting used to it. The cold still goes straight to my bones.

Skinny Love

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For some time now, I have been dancing the dodgy two-step with this guy — an older man who is by turns charming, irascible, and sometimes, just plain tired. Together, we skim the surface of things, unlikely conspirators in a plot to eke out a little happiness.

I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this bit of a dalliance, this little preoccupation. There was that phone call in the middle of the night. He made me laugh and yell at him until about 2 in the morning. I couldn’t make up my mind then if I liked his gruff manner. But the next night he called again, and it was hours before the phones got turned off. We call or Skype each other most everyday now. Sometimes he just grunts at me over the phone, at a loss for words. I kind of like that.

Details began to emerge, photos were swapped, bits and pieces got shuffled around to make room for us. This little preoccupation, it passes the time. It consumes me just enough to make me feed the fire day by day, to tend to it just so to preserve the spark. It is what urban kids nowadays call a ‘skinny love.’  A love that’s not fleshed out enough to be substantial, not solid enough to be defined as a sure thing, or as anything.

I don’t mind it, I mean not too much. There is a connection here that I can appreciate, no matter how tenuous, no matter how brief. But, the both of us, we’re not bothered too much by it. There are no unreasonable demands on time, no shallow arguments, no intrusions into privacy, no intense moments of feeling as though your heart will explode. None of that nonsense.

No, it does not eat us up. It is, after all, just a skinny love.

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Some Days

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Some days you sit outside and just look.

The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.

You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.

Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.

Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.

Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.

Landscape, With Afghan Sky

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This is my current view, a landscape of blue skies and gray concrete. It’s been set in my mind’s eye, I have been looking at it for close to five years.

The ground is hard, unyielding. We harden it some more, layering it with truckloads of cut rocks, every inch that we can. It is not enough that we already hide behind walls three stories high, we must discipline the earth as well. Imprisoned by rocks, dust, concrete, and steel, I have only the blue skies to remind me of the world that must be still out there. A world where softness is not weakness, where the earth is moist and teeming with life, and where the horizon, unbound, expands freely as far as it pleases.

Reflections on Flannel PJs

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Some nights, you are so very cold. And so you put on those flannel pajamas to keep warm.

Too quickly, the body forgets the memory of another body against it, how skin warms skin and obliterates the need for clothing. It should be as natural as this, when bodies cling together for warmth. We should need nothing more when we are with one another. We were made to lie close, body to body, nestled in a nurturing embrace. This was how our ancestors survived since the beginning of time, when caves were cold and damp, the darkness — absolute.

Now we have the embrace of flannel pajamas, made all pretty with a length of ribbon. We have the heater on. And in one corner, a night lamp burns quietly, trying to keep the darkness from swallowing us whole.

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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?