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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.

In Your Face

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There are days when I do get to turn the tables on these guys, and then it’s pay back time!

We were outside the office, grouped in noisy clumps, trying our hand at socializing. One guy keeps interrupting me, teasing and making what he must think to be funny comments. Now, I can take more than my share of ribbing, and I do take a lot of abuse from these guys, but I also like to dish it out. I decide this is just too good an opportunity to pass up.

So I compose my face into a quiet, somewhat pained expression and interrupt him in the middle of a joke.

Using my formal, I-mean-business voice, I say “You know what, you shouldn’t say those things to me. I’m Asian, and you know we take loss of face very seriously.”

He is taken aback, and begins sputtering and stammering out a string of profuse apologies. I let him stew for a while, and then I was laughing so hard, I could hardly say, “I’m just messing with you, big guy.”

The look on his face was priceless–shock, disbelief, a momentary feeling of faintness, I think.

He blurts out,”Oh my god, you’re a mean, mean woman!”

I smile and get the last word in: “You’d do well to remember that.”

Wha-daaah! Day

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I almost died today. Almost, but not quite. This job is an all day occupational hazard.

Our No. 2 boss, a stately old gentleman, came into the office at around 1500 hours as was his custom, to sign documents. We discussed the paperwork, he asked a few questions, signed all the papers with a flourish. Done with the day’s approvals, he stood up and walked out the door, to go back to his office, I thought.

Apparently not. What he actually did was walk down the hallway, double back quietly and then come back to stand by my door. He made sure I was busy at my desk. I must have been staring intently at the monitor, because I didn’t see him standing there.

All of a sudden, he dashes into the doorway, eyes wide, arms flailing, shouting what sounded like, “Wha-daaah!

I felt my heart stop for a full three seconds. He was red in the face from laughing so hard.

The blonde IT girl at the scanner table chastised him, “Hey, don’t scare the poor girl to death!”

“Sir, I had three mugs of coffee today, please don’t do that to me!” I manage to say as I will my heartbeat to return to normal.

“Just keeping you on your toes, young lady.” He grins at me and walks back, chuckling, to his office. For real this time, I made sure of that.

Trouble Me

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In yet another one of those politically incorrect, sexual harassment-fraught episodes that make my little life here so interesting, one of our gung ho guys comes into my office asking for help. After some Q & A and a bit of explaining, it turns out he wants me to do a creative interpretation of the rules so that he could buck the system, so to speak.

Me:  No, Muscled Guy, you know I can’t do that. Against the rules. You’ll get me into trouble.

MG:  Oh no, I wouldn’t get you into trouble, no Ma’am. I won’t mess with your work [pause]. But…  let’s say I take you out on a date, then that’s when I’ll certainly get you into a whole lotta trouble [big grin].

Me:  [Roll eyes. Shake head.] You should be so lucky.

MG:  Oh, I wish [Shit-eating grin, all the way out the door].

All in a day’s work, my friends.  All in a day’s work.

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.

Turning Turtle

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When I arrived here, a place I have never been, the mountains still had snow. Capped in white, they rose like a jagged wall above a horizon that unfolded into rough, monotonous terrain; a land of dust and dryness. Everything seemed beige, brown, gray. It was a world in camouflage, a place that was in perpetual hiding.

It drizzled the afternoon that I arrived; something, they said, that has not happened for weeks. I was walked by Security down a concrete path that connected several rectangular buildings. Every one of them looked exactly the same from the outside. We went into one building, and I was given a room there.  A box within a box.

In one of the scant briefings for this gig, I was told to pack for a week, to bring sturdy hiking shoes, the bare minimum of luxuries.  I packed just two books. I should have brought more.

I was issued army-style clothes, shoes, a flashlight, a vest, and a helmet. The helmet was a heavy thing. When turned over, it looked like a turtle—all quiet and unmoving—blending right in. Me thinks I should do the same.

Job Stats: Current Count

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bantayan loungeLoafer’s paradise, or mocking photo for the intrepid, yet so far luck-challenged jobseeker? These days, for me, that photo is more of a mockery.

It’s now 21 days since I was last gainfully employed. I was just daydreaming yesterday, as I went about my lack of business, that I could get used to this. I mean, I could go on with this kind of life—the waking up with not much purpose to one’s day. The 2PM lunches. The unmindful dawdling over coffee. The slow descent into madness.

But before plunging into all that, here are my current job search stats:

34 applications sent through JobStreet

9 applications sent through JobsDB

12 new applications (no views as yet)

5 applications under consideration

5 applications in process

5 applications kept for reference

5 applications with no updates

2 applications withdrawn (unsuccessful)

1 interview in person, still no call

1 phone interview that did not push through (who does these things, anyway?)

8 applications sent directly to companies through their career sites

3 networking efforts (sending resumes to kind folks who promise to pass them on)

I still hang out at the mall, go to internet places, seek out networking possibilities, obsess over grocery shopping. Right now, the adverts for cheap passage into Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. get more and more attractive as each day passes. How I wish I am financially set up to be able to just drop everything (kids, rent, responsibilities), and travel aimlessly for 6 months. I could do that. I think I can.