life skills

October, Then Winter

Posted on Updated on

IMG_6640

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.

Passing 40

Posted on Updated on

IMG_4491I didn’t die at age 40, much to my dismay. You know how it is — at age 22, 27, even 30 — you think you know so much, you think the world has become so tiresome. You think that you’ve seen it all, experienced everything life has to offer, and that 40 is a good age at which to end it.

I used to think that at 40, I would have accomplished a lot. I’d be at the top of the career pile, have a couple of grown kids, done some charity work for the conscience, cultivated lifelong friends. As a know-it-all in my 20s I thought, my god 40 is so old, I don’t want to live through that.

How little did I know. I’ve known all along that grown ups do not have all the answers, that was obvious to me even at a young age. You see the adult mouth agape and lacking the words, the eyes tinged with fear of the unknown. So I didn’t really put that much expectation or anticipation to growing older or wiser.

And age proved me right, today at age 40-something I’ve learned that the more you know, the more you realize there is a whole other lot you don’t. I’ve passed the big 40 a few years ago, and I’m seeing there is life beyond it. We’ll see how the rest of it goes.

Rough Men

Posted on Updated on

 .
I’ve sat at a table and eaten with ‘rough men who stand ready to do violence on my behalf’ — and I am all the better for it.

.

Some Days

Posted on Updated on

IMG_3006

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.

The Secret to Invisibility

Posted on Updated on

 
One way to be lost is to back pedal 
over tracks. Reverse step into each footprint, 
match heel and toe exactly so you become 
invisible, erased as cleanly as 
that puff of breath exhaled into fog.
 
Another way, much more subtle 
but just as easy, is to insert oneself into crowds. 
Follow the pace of the horde, shuffle quietly
shoulder to shoulder, sidle in sideways 
and become absolutely hidden. 
 
This is the true double-cross.  
We are so alike we render ourselves translucent, 
float like tiny fish under the current, 
become white noise, indistinguishable 
from the rest of the confusion.
 
The real secret to disappearing though, 
is to live out in the open, back to the sun —
faceless, and acquiescing. The camouflage
of so many single weeds blanketing an empty lot, 
verdant, sweeping, and ultimately, unseen.

 

Wander on: Airport Secrets

Posted on Updated on

picture-pretty window, Siem Reap airport, Cambodia
Picture-pretty window at Siem Reap airport, Cambodia

Every three months or so, it never fails, I end up in an airport somewhere with hours to kill until the next flight. I have mastered the many rituals of the plane passenger, for instance, how to get to your gate at just the right moment so you don’t have to wait too long to board. I’ve killed time at bars, coffee shops, souvenir stalls, bookshops, massage spas. There is a little secret to it, you need to remember your alcohol and credit card limit, else there will be missed flights and a whole mess of trouble ahead.

From traveling so often, I have collected quite a few insider tips. These little airport secrets are good things to keep in mind. I’ve learned firsthand to avoid the cheaper route through Delhi because I know how they detain passengers in that dead end side of the airport until it’s closer to their departure time, no matter how long the layover is. You’re stuck in an empty hallway for hours, no shops, no bars, just a broken vendo machine in the corner. In Singapore, I’ve found a corner where they have these ergonomic lounge chairs that you can lie down in and sleep undisturbed, amid lush greenery.  In Cambodia, the prettiest spot at the airport to do a selfie are any of those picture windows that look out the gardens. My frequent hub, expensive Dubai airport harbors a twilight zone where you can get free wi-fi, it’s near gate C17. Liquids, gels, and waxes are frowned upon at London Heathrow, and anything that overflows a little baggie will have to go into the trash. They don’t care if it’s your special $300 face cream, into the bin it goes. Also, most of the security personnel at this airport are notoriously rude, for no fathomable reason. At Chicago’s Midway I learned that if you rub your fingers on your forehead you will have an easier time getting your fingerprints scanned. The oil makes your prints more visible to the machine, or so the immigration officer tells me, smiling at my horrified expression upon realizing that my face is oily.

Guys, avoid being profiled at LAX in Los Angeles by shaving off, or at least neatly trimming, your beard. A friend and I arrived at this conclusion after he was detained and interviewed for close to an hour in a small room, his suitcases turned upside down, his credentials scrutinized to the last detail. Next time he passes thru clean-shaven, nothing happens. At Kathmandu airport, any and all knives found in your carry on (why would you have a knife there to begin with) will be confiscated and dumped into a little wicker basket. They let lighters go through, but the knives, they take. In Kuala Lumpur, there’s a roast duck that tastes as fantastic as it looks, and if you eat only one thing at this airport, that duck is it. In Manila, walk briskly past the old guys in shirt jacks who smile sweetly and ask if you need help with your luggage. Yes, they may look like everyone’s favorite uncle, but ten times out of ten, they will rip you off. At Japan’s Narita airport, identical looking women in knee socks will direct you to your gate, whisk you briskly through scanners and go through your carry on with ruthless efficiency. You will look on quietly and let them.

And lastly, at Kabul airport — should you have the misfortune of finding yourself there — if you are a woman, X-ray scans are easier when you ‘accidentally’ show the female security person photos of your children. She will blabber at you in rapid Pashto or Dari and nod and smile endlessly, but no matter. Suddenly, the scan will be forgotten, and you will be waved through as though you paid dearly for secret passage.

Girl + Gun(s)

Posted on Updated on

.

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.

 

.