surviving

PS Marks The Spot

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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.

 

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?

To The Bunkers We Go

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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.

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.

The Hurting

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Sometimes, when I least expect it, when my mind is not willfully armed against the treacherous onslaught of memories, I suddenly see my boys. Out of nowhere, a series of pictures flashes in my mind’s eye:  my boys’ bright-eyed, smiling faces are always upturned, open and guileless, as only children’s faces can be.

It wrenches my heart and leaves me weak, gasping for breath. They all say it will get better. The pain and the longing? It will fade. The aching desire to reach out and hug them as tight as I can? It will pass, they say. The yearning to smell their warm necks, to hear their laughter? That too will subside.

Well, they all lie. It’s getting close to a year now, and it still hurts the same, every time.

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.