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.