There is a bit of a lull at the end of the day, and she sits and writes.
PS: The grass is mowed, front and back yards are done. Laundry is off the line and put away. Trees are trimmed, trash all gone. Kids are fed and taking a nap on this cold, rainy day. I am the man, the woman, the whoever — and I rock this life.
The key is under that big brown rock by the gate, the one you struggle to move. Get to it.
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
– 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?
There’s been some added excitement to our days these past weeks. Afghanistan is in the news again, and like all the recent salvos in this dusty corner of the world, the excitement was explosive. Like it or not, we are getting more use of those bunkers that line the camp grounds.
Last week there was much ado about that redhead Harry, which resulted in fireworks in camp Bastion, a base that is supposedly super-secure. The damage: two US soldiers dead and several aircraft destroyed. The prince of course, was unharmed. And then just days ago, a bus blew up right next door to us. This time, twelve dead — mostly Russian and South African pilots and some local nationals. The method to this latest madness was a car bomb driven by a young Afghan woman who maneuvered the sedan near a shuttle bus and then blew herself up. I heard the explosion as I lay in bed, half awake in the early hours of morning. My first thought: that sounded like a close one. And then the camp sirens went off and we were supposed to “Duck and cover.” I took a shower. One has to have priorities, and mine is to be clean in case we are evacuated. I know that when that happens, the chances for a shower go down exponentially as the danger goes up.
We are all constantly reminded by Security to heed the warnings and instructions for dealing with any emergencies or threats. I do not take these warnings lightly, of course, but neither am I scared of them. You have to be alert, not scared. Fear clouds one’s judgment, and in the chaos, your best chance at survival is having a clear mind. I reckon when your time is up, it will be up — and I prefer to smell nice and fresh when it’s my turn to go.
Here in Kabul, we’ve only used the bunkers one time in the years that I have been here. And they do have the look of unuse to them, all dusty and empty, unlike in Kandahar where the bunkers are adorned with chairs, boxes of water, cigarette butts. Now, when I pass those blocks of concrete day after day, I am even more aware that they are there, and their presence is both reassurance and grim reminder. Those bunkers are a sign that death is so much more present here.
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.”
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.