out here

What Am I?

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taxi colombo

 

Touchdown: 3 July in Sri Lanka. I arrive near midnight in Colombo, and get into a Kangaroo taxi to go to my hotel. Not even 5 minutes on the road, the driver looks back at me and says:

Driver: Madam, ah… what are you?

Me: (goes into immediate existentialist crisis) Uh, um… what am I?

Driver: (smiling indulgently) I mean, you are Japanese? Malaysian? Chinese? What are you?

Me: (relieved, whew!) Oh no no no to all that. I’m Filipino.

Driver: I see, from Philippines.

Me: Yes. Don’t I look Filipino?

Driver: Look Japanese.

Me: Hhhmmmm.

 

 

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.

Doing The Two-Step

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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.”

What I Am Is Brave

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“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”  ~ Lucille Ball

It feels as though I braved a lot of airports just to get back here. I barely made it through two airports in the Philippines (oh the horror!), slept on stiff chairs in Singapore, suffered disorientation in Chennai, then rushed madly out of Dubai into crazy Kabul, and finally, this last sunrise ride to Kandahar. After 6 plane rides in 5 days, I am back in my little dust bowl. That long break already seems like a vague memory.

In Kabul, I woke up early to catch this 6th flight, and I was glad to find out that there would only be two of us on board the B1900. I’m so over the rock star feeling of being one of the few on board our B1900, I was just happy because it meant I could get some sleep. The guy on the same flight as me, blond and blue eyed with one of those painful-looking Caucasian tans, chats amiably for a few minutes, and then turns away to read a book when the plane is at cruise speed. Good man, I think, as I slump my head to the side, adjust my headphones, and drift off to much-needed sleep.

It was a smooth ride for most of the hour, until the pilots decide to swoop the plane’s nose sharply down as we make the descent into Kandahar Air Field (KAF). I think they do it on purpose, have a little fun in a day’s work, why not? I wake up to the sight of jagged mountains glinting in the sunlight. I still find it all strangely beautiful, the sharp edges and the deeply carved valleys of this Afghan landscape. Eventually, the horizon levels out and morphs into row upon row of military planes, helicopters, trucks, hummers, and other war transport arranged precisely on the ramps. Soon enough, our little corner of the flight line comes into view–I see the Logistics warehouse, a few of our helos, the little fuel truck. My sleepy heart skips, a little thump of excitement to see home and all that it holds for me.

This is a happy return, in more ways than one. I would be coming back to a life that I have developed a liking for, despite the unusual circumstances. I would be coming back to something other than just my self.

Kandahar is a place I want to come back to, imagine that. A year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing that line, and now I am amazed by the simple truth in it. We make our home in the strangest places, when we carry home in our hearts. And God help me, I do put my battered heart out there on the line–again and again. My heart has found a home here, in a place of grays and browns, amid the swirl of dust, desperation, and death.

Dark thoughts to begin another year, yes. But I am not being pessimistic, I just see things more clearly now. With one year under my belt, I think I understand life here better than I did when I first arrived. It has been a most interesting year, to say the least.

Marking the end of this year, I understand that bravery is defined as beyond being able to endure the sound of blasts day or night, when you’ve never heard that awful sound before in your life. It is keeping calm in the midst of unfolding turmoil, even as the men around you arm themselves and get that tight-eyed look to their faces, their minds clicking back to terrible memories of combat you know nothing about, but can sense from the gleam in their eyes. It is bravery to befriend solitude, to embrace the bleakness that permeates everywhere, to be able to live with the terrible stillness that descends at the end of certain days. It is also bravery to be able to withstand the endless loop of days that seem exactly like the ones before, the sameness that can slowly but surely drive you mad.

I know another kind of bravery now–the kind that goes beyond facing one’s mortality. This year found me in a place where shedding all sorts of baggage was necessary. It spurred me to leave behind the wounds of the past and turn to face a new possibility. It required a measure of bravery I always knew I had, but have not quite put to the test. It was scarier than IEDs, ground attacks, rocket blasts, even the threat of Taliban invasion. But I am nothing if not brave, I always tell myself, and so I plunged in head first.

Do I get rewarded for this act of bravery? I’m not sure. I don’t know if there is a prize for falling head first into something, but I think the little bursts of happiness I get is more than enough reward for bravery. Whatever the outcome, whether or not I win this battle (or the entire war), the feat alone of going into it the way I did–open-faced, heart in hand–is an exhilarating experience, a powerful rush not soon to be forgotten.

And so I am back.

Loving, Leaving

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Lately, I have been re-visiting Vagabonding, the travel site that I have liked for years now. I chanced upon this entry that is about loving and leaving: the perils of falling in love while on the road, or while temporarily ensconced in some place. I can truly relate, and left a comment on the post, something I rarely do.

“For commitment-phobics, this could be a sweet deal, knowing that the relationship already comes with a built-in way out. For me though, while I am not strictly traveling 3-4 months a year, I am a temporary resident in another country and I go home every 3-4 months. It effectively puts relationships in limbo status — you can’t expect to form fully committed relationships where you are currently in country, and yet you can’t keep up a steady one at home because you’re away for most of the year. It does not mean you can’t have any relationships, though, it just means (well for me, at least) that you have to set more realistic expectations. That, and you better be prepared for a lot of goodbyes.”

I wonder if this will be true for me anytime soon.

Girl, Up In The Air

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I’ve never spent so many hours in the sky until I got here. Early this year, I began working for a company that flies US government missions–oftentimes people, sometimes just cargo, sometimes I don’t care to know what–all over Afghanistan.  I did expect to do my fair share of flying, but not as often as I have been doing lately.

There was that hectic week where I flew in to Kandahar in the morning, dumped my clothes and what-not in a gorilla box, and was rushed to the waiting plane less than 20 minutes later via a Gator, to fly back to Kabul. I flew back and forth, Kabul to Kandahar twice in a week! I saw the mountains change from bare to snow-capped. I flew on four different types of planes, most often the only female in a planeload of men. I have gotten used to all the curious glances and the bug-eyed stares.

Kabul to Kandahar by plane takes at the most, two hours. On the B1900, it’s close to an hour and a half, on the AN-26, probably 1 hour and forty-five minutes, the DC-3: two hours, practically. I love the Dash-8 best, since it takes less than an hour. I have flown on all our aircraft, and was among the first passengers to go on the maiden mission of the Dash-8, our newest plane. I didn’t know my job would entail this much flying, but I’m certainly not complaining. I’ve flown so many times the load masters working our flights tease that I must be accumulating a lot of reward miles.

All flight durations depend on the weather, of course. You would think that in this place, which is mostly plains, desert, and mountains, weather would be a constant thing—but no, the strong winds and resulting dust storms play havoc with flight schedules. A plane set to take off on a bright, sunshiny morning can get grounded by a sudden dust storm. Or one that’s already up in the air will need to turn back, unable to land in the zero visibility of swirling, brown-orange dust.

Flying has always been a thrill for me. I actually enjoy the sensation of getting off the ground, and I’m never anxious during take offs. My excitement would rise as the plane taxies down the runway. I would watch, smiling unabashedly from the window and get a palpable rush the exact moment when the plane makes that breakaway push from the tarmac. I love that feeling of sudden lightness, of being free from the earth. I think it is so heroic, that act of defying gravity to surge up the skies in one thrust.  My rational mind scoffs, it’s all just physics. I know that, of course, and yet for me, there remains a certain romance to flying, how one’s feet are finally unfettered, how we all become just bodies floating in the air.

When I am on a plane, I am neither here nor there. Not yet in the destination, and yet no longer in the place of origin—suspended in the sky with reality and all its travails left far, far below. From this vantage point, I am free to imagine what lives the miniaturized world continues to live down there. Flying over Afghanistan, I see the lay of the land, the expansive plains and valleys that unfold in the cradle of jagged mountains. It is a terrain that will never be conquered, I think, and looking down, one can see why. The logic of it is simple; this place’s defense is rooted in terra firma. Even if you bomb everything–for instance, the vast expanse of plain populated by civilians–the mountains on the fringe of all that space will remain a steadfast refuge. Good luck finding the Taliban or any other declared enemy in the myriad nooks and crevices of the Hindu Kush. I keep this opinion to myself, though, since this is not my war.

When I look down at villages (cities, perhaps), the series of walled compounds and concrete barriers that define the maze-like spread of Afghan civilization makes me wonder how, for centuries life in this place has gone on, mostly unchanged. Various legions of invaders have plowed through these cities time and time again, and yet they spring back up to reclaim the same kind of life, even as the last war-weary soldier leaves.

The dreamer in me imagines how, as we fly overhead, we pass over houses that sit peacefully on meandering streets that echo with the noise of children running and playing. We arc over backyards a-bloom with pomegranate trees, see women flinging colorful bed sheets and clothes on the line. The plane drifts by and I glimpse open doorways where bearded men squat, a few of them talking, their hands making emphatic gestures. It is a sleepy world filtered through the window of the plane, a world that appears complete in itself, oblivious to the drone of the beast in the sky.

As we glide from up high, I imagine that for the world down there, there is only the blue sky above, the endless horizon as far as the eye can see, and the ever-present dust, descending softly everywhere.

Sirens With Your Coffee?

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The rocket attack alarm sounds while a friend and I are having coffee and smokes at this outdoor French-style cafe on the boardwalk. A blaring siren wails, and then the grim pronouncement, “Rok-it, at-tack. Rok-it, at-tack.” The voice that accompanies the siren is female–dry, accent-neutral, and a little robotic–like the tinny voice prompts you hear on automated answering services. The standard operating procedure (SOP) for rocket attacks is to get small and seek cover, or find the nearest bunker and stay there until the All Clear is sounded. When a rocket hits, it explodes and shrapnel fly out, so you need to expose as little of yourself as possible.

In seconds, all of us cafe patrons grab coffees, sandwiches, cigarettes, and other stuff, then duck sheepishly under our tables. The first thing I notice is that all the Romanian troopers remain seated comfortably on their benches, unmindful of everyone else doing the sudden dry dive. I look inquiringly over at my friend Tata Su, and he says, “Ignore them, they are used to it.” We exchange grins.

I feel cramped and self-conscious under the table, mainly because crouching that low wasn’t very comfortable and I see that up close, the floor is very dirty. I question the wisdom of having only the thin wooden slats of the table for protection against rockets, and my friend says it is better than nothing. I don’t quite agree with that, but don’t really feel like arguing the finer points of rocket attack etiquette while bent in such an unladylike position. We puff away and make more morbid jokes for a few minutes.

An ambulance siren wails, loud enough for us to know that one is speeding nearby. Silently, I reassure myself that the ambulance is just ISAF being hyper-prepared, and not an actual necessity. It is much too nice an afternoon to contemplate the need for ambulances.

An uneasy little silence follows, as though everyone just ceased talking at the same exact moment. Not even five seconds later, as if on cue, we all stand up and go back to our seats, even though the All Clear siren has not sounded yet. The two heavily mascaraed women next to our table pounce on their sandwiches; the men in dust-streaked blazers across from us resume their cross-legged poses and take small sips from their coffee cups. The Romanians, still wondrously unperturbed, converse even louder in their guttural, hard-rolling consonants.

My friend and I place our  props back on the table: cellphones, coffee cups, stirrers, and the shared Marlboro reds pack. We light up and resume sipping our cafe Americanos, behaving as the others do, in casual (not even brave) denial of this brief dalliance with death.