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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lockdown hampers shopping

So, I'm busily preparing for the trek to Nuristan and also manoeuvring around the chaos that is Kabul. Somehow we had neglected to realise that by bringing the trip forward by a few days we were then slap bang in the middle of the Kabul conference; the massive international meeting of world powers being held here in Kabul to discuss the future of Afghanistan. The whole place is in lockdown and here, where we are in Wasir Akbar Khan, there are tanks, armoured gun vehicles and soldiers on every corner, there are NDS, ANP and ANA all in their different uniforms and nobody is going anywhere - except for to Spinneys, that pinnacle of supermarkets which is staying open despite everything. Rock on those groceries!

Last night I had to be rescued from my place by PM and Tariq who drove across town on a mission to spring me from my place and bring me back here. I was sad to leave my rose garden, the five kittens, two tortoises and multiple rabbits who were out and scampering about on the volley ball court. S and M and Leg Roll were discussing which of the rabbits would be subject to the cull that they were planning; several of the rabbits were pregnant and a veritable bunny population explosion was threatening. It was a shame to leave the tranquility of the garden, a freshly white washed wall was to be used as a screen for showing films and the guys were getting ready to enjoy the lockdown with a film or two, comfy cushions spread out on the lawn, a barbecue and some good wine. I, on the other hand, was headed for the compound and a paddling pool on the roof...

I'd foolishly underestimated what would happen here with nobody travelling and the shops being closed for two days. Being all so very last minute I've got a ball gown being made in Qualaifatullah and some ethnic tops I wanted for the trip. One day I'll learn not to leave things to the last minute.... I hear what you're saying about priorities and seriously, I probably shouldn't be worrying about a ball gown right now, but still, what's a girl to do? It's certainly been an interesting process having a dress made here, as I mentioned before, they just don't do natural fabrics so my cunning find of some raw silk in AWWSOM was a precious one. My first round at the tailors produced a reasonable skirt, it fitted well and my only criticisms were that they'd glued a random panel into the front of it (heaven knows why) this had marked the silk at the front, and from where they had been working there were dusty paw prints all over the white silk and it would need a thorough dry clean. It wasn't bad. The top however was more of a circus with a bust that would have fitted Diana Dors and some handy ruched panels at the sides that they were very proud of but which I could see would need to be instantly unpicked as soon as I got it home. I wondered why they didn't go for the concept of making the item in rough, having a fitting with me and then making the final fitted product. I felt bad that they'd made it all but would now have to unpick and re-sew a lot of it having grossly overestimated the size of my bust, it was either that or the fashion here was totally 1980's bustier - given the dresses that I'd seen displayed (brightly coloured nylon creations that would have had pride of place in a Barbie doll's fairy princess wardrobe - I imagine that this was one of those clashes of style moments that I should have anticipated.

PM told me last night that he had heard several loud bangs in the distance - apparently I was engrossed in the computer and heard neither the bangs nor him telling me about them. Repeated rocket fire on the airport... and us waiting to fly out of there. I'd had several email updates on the progress of the vehicles and thus far all was going well, they'd not had any problems and we were still on target for our rendezvous up North. We found out a couple of days ago that there is still a lot of snow on the pass and the horses won't be able to go all the way over. We had planned for the horses to carry the bulk of our kit (and there's a lot of it) so now, when their little hooves can go no further, we'll be lugging it over the pass ourselves. The image of a straggly band of people labouring through the snow at 16,000 feet comes to mind but seems so very remote and painless as I sit at my desk in Kabul - I know it's going to hurt but I just can't imagine it right now.

In deference to the Kabul Conference, the airport and roads surrounding are completely closed, so many important people arriving, amongst them Hilary Clinton, who, when I saw her on the TV, looked ever so much like a man in drag. PM had horrified me with stories that she was partial to a little reverse action, especially with young men, and I just couldn't get those images out of my head when watching her despite the fact that what she was saying was reasonable and not totally outlandish. Most of the time I listen to politicians on the TV with an autistic head on, you know the kind of head where you can instantly tell when someone is lying through their teeth or is simply delivering a foil of bullshit, liberally peppered with terms designed to disguise that there is absolutely nothing inside the hot air that they are spouting. If you squint your eyes a little and just listen to the words, the child or the dog inside you, the bit that is innocent and can still tell the difference, will raise it's ears and say, "That person is offering me what looks like food but when I go to eat it they will grab me by the paws and squeeze me til it hurts, best I don't listen to them". So I am torn but find myself switching on the TV to listen to various puffy people talking shit.

Luckily for me, instead of boring politicians, the headline story is of a love sick baby platypus: it's the BBC reporting from Sydney, Australia, where a lonely platypus has swum into a sewage plant, "This duckbilled juvenile had taken refuge in a large pipe attached to a tank and it was feared that this amorous semi aquatic, egg laying mammal might have suffered hypothermia...." but then it's back to the Kabul conference and Hamid Karzai is there swishing by in his distinctive striped chapan. From a hotel room in Kabul, Lyse Doucet is there doing her best to level out the crap and get some straight talking from the various bigwigs. Bernard Kouchner is with Lyse and as ever, she has my admiration for being there, brilliant and professional, I can only hope to follow in her footsteps.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Snippets from the week


G tells me that an Afghan friend was telling him about another Afghan friend whose young son had been 'accidentally' kidnapped. The kidnappers it seems realised their mistake almost immediately and, when they did, rang the father of the kidnapped boy to tell him what had happened, "Really sorry and all that, erm it was an accident, and we'd like to return your son, but we can't just let him go as it will, erm, look a bit funny. Tell you what, we'll only charge you our basic costs for the kidnapping and we'll get him straight back to you....". Apparently, basic costs for a kidnapping out here came in at around $10,000 USD, and this was just to cover the expenses of mobilising all the people involved in the snatch. The boy's father agreed to pay - he wanted his son back - and a relatively straight forward drop was arranged in a desert area far from any town. A convoy of about 20 Landcruisers forged in to view and, just like in the film with Leonardo di Caprio as a foreign agent, the cars started circling faster and faster, raising a circular wall of dust disguising the pick up of the funds and the drop off of the accidental kidnap boy...

I'm in the Gandamak Lodge, it's one in the morning and the world cup final is being played out on the TV, someone mentions the psychic octopus (or Soc-topus as he is also known) and I'm aghast to hear that there is a British born octopus called Paul living in a German sealife centre who has predicted each of the world cup winners throughout the competition - Paul correctly predicted the triumph of Spain over Holland by eating a mollusc from a box with the Spanish flag on. Of course I am delighted and can't wait to get home and google Paul the Octopus. Apparently, such was the passion and fervour of footballing support from the various countries that when Paul predicted a defeat famous chefs retaliated by posting octopus recipes on facebook. A Spanish men's club raised a stack of money to bring him over to Spain for a celebrity visit but the Germans, being Germans refused saying that 'it would be bad for him'. Threats to Paul's safety meant that he had to have a body guard 24/7 at the aquarium to prevent him from coming to harm ....

I'm in Afghan Spinney's supermarket and I'm there being totally girly, lured in by the cosmetics counter I leave PM chatting with one of the police commanders who's in there shopping too. I wonder if I should go over and say hello and be interested and social but decide that it's better that I stay out of the 'men talk' and anyway am having too much fun looking at nail varnish colours. There's not that many to choose from but enough to occupy that portion of my brain which delights in such fripperies and I am absorbed blissfully in this activity for at least 10 minutes. Such tiny pleasures, I'm thrilled to pieces when I find that the store stocks proper nail scissors, an emery board, and a pumice stone, and I go totally wild when they offer me not just one but three choices of facepack. Later PM tells me that the police commander had offered to pay for my purchases, but then again PM didn't think that the police commander actually paid for anything when he visited the shop.

I'm in the shower at home and I'm contemplating the negative impact of taking nail polish on a medical expedition into a remote mountainous area of Afghanistan. Ridiculous I know but several tense minutes were spent thinking through the consequences of bonding with the women of the village over Crimson Lake or Buttercup Baby, only to find that nail polish is considered to be the devil's sporn or at the very least the mark of a harlet and that my actions are punishable by death. I contemplate not wearing any myself but decide that toes a la nude is a mistake and that I should just risk it with a neutral shade.

I'm in the car outside the Attorney General's Office and we're making our way through the complex concrete chicane when I spy Elbo a freelance photographer friend walking in the other direction. Waving at her through the glass, she can't quite make out who I am, she's appears to be with three other men and I don't want to embarrass her if she's on a photographic job. I roll down the window and say a discrete hi, ask her if she's working. She tells me that they're here to try and get a couple of friends out of jail, two Americans and an Afghan arrested with two bottles so whisky in their car....

It's 2am and I'm thinking back on the day - I'm thinking about Sean Langhan's comment that his Clinique facial products were the only things keeping him going during his twelve weeks in captivity after he was kidnapped in Pakistan/Afghan border whilst looking for a news story. I'm also thinking about the how butcher street - the aptly named place where you can buy a whole or half a cow if you want to is also home to the Afghan aquarium shop. A sweet if somewhat incongruous shop that's not so very different from one that you might see on the high street in Harrow or Ealing Broadway. The home to several medium sized fish tanks with wavy weeds and brightly coloured stones to keep the fishies happy this little shop also sells budgies and parakeets.

My last two stops of the night before bed are the website www.icanhascheezburger.com, and the weird but wonderful, sushi cooking show on youtube called Cookingwithdog- I need cheering up and my dear friend T has sent me the link to cookingwithdog on facebook. A small grey poodle talks me through how to prepare Temaki Sushi (Japanese hand roll sushi). Apparently, T often gets her cooking inspiration from him :). In the mean time our garden cats are doing their nightly prowling thing and, as I've left the conservatory screen door open, each of them in turn ventures in to my darkened lair where I am working at the computer. On icanhascheezburger.com cats are doing there thing and I find a kitteh who looks like I feel (see pic at top of page).

Back with cookingwithdog and we're making Takoyaki (Japanese sushi octopus), the chopping up the tentacles bit is a bit hardcore as suddenly I'm thinking of Paul in his little tank in Germany but dog seems like he knows what he's talking about and later, when he's finished cooking, I go to bed to dream of sushi.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elizabeth Duke at Argos

I've been experimenting; nothing here comes out quite the way you'd planned it in your head, so it's always kind of exciting as there's inevitably the risk that it'll turn out better than you thought. Here you can buy gemstones wholesale and, not being a gemologist, it would be quite easy for me to make mistakes but I can tell what I like and, when you're talking about a few hundred dollars rather than thousands of dollars, it's fun to just take a punt on what you're buying. I buy for myself and enjoy the process; selecting a stone, bargaining a price, taking it to a crafts man. Once there, struggling to discuss a reasonable design and then leaving it all in the hands of the gods to be made. The aesthetic is different here, although the old fashioned pieces are beautiful, ornate, flowery, the new stuff is frankly ugly and bling-tastic in my eyes. It feels like design and jewellery making have lost their way, here is the evidence of 30 years of instability, of loss of skill and knowledge; the silversmiths are starting over, many of them learning skills for the first time, their produce is rough and lacking in delicacy. I'd bought a beautiful sapphire and had taken it to the workshops close to the Indian Embassy, the place where they manufacture the jewellery for Turquoise Mountain. I'd struggled to describe the design which I thought was simple but obviously was not. Returning the first time, the guys were apologetic but told me that they'd completely forgotten about making it (strike one), I returned a few days later to find that they'd made me something that Danny la Rue would be delighted with. Declining to look like a man in drag I ask them to make it again, "This time for a woman", I say (strike two). Now I go back for the third time and I am presented with a ring fit for a 12 year old. Having saved my pocket money for weeks, I'm sure that Elizabeth Duke at Argos would have had something similar in stock for me, but this was not the early eighties and I was no longer prepubescent and undemanding (strike three). I'm not happy but they tell me they've spent a lot of time on it so, British Guilt Factor (BGF) on high, I hand over the money, smile sweetly and leave with my bauble. It's too big for me too. I wonder if it will grow on me, and at the same time I hope that conversely I won't grow in to it....

Another day on chicken street and I'll try again, it's all good fun and I enjoy it. My other life I call it - where I rush round with my driver, the poor man, doing ridiculous things. I went on a mad hunt for silk which apparently doesn't exist here in Kabul or at least not in the wholesale market in the Kabul Old City bazaar. M and H and I had gone there a few days ago and had asked at every stall only to be shown skeins of velvet and viscose, synthetic lace in every colour imaginable but no natural fibres anywhere, they just weren't the thing. Wearing something from the bazaar was a surely a fire hazard - too close to a flame and you'd be an incendiary ball of white hot nylon. It didn't stop me from buying some additional granny print shalwar kamise sets; here I've reconciled myself to being fat and frumpy, there's no way round it so I'm embracing it and stocking up for old age. An image of me, floral prints, spare tyre and saddle bags, sporting large old lady gemstones on my gnarled fingers rises up in my mind and I play with the idea that someday I and my circle of triad granny comrades will be found playing cut throat marjong in a basement somewhere in China Town....

Later, I am inspired and remember where I'd seen some silk - AWWSOM had some in stock and so Icks and I went there and he was subjected to a long round of me umming and erring over the grey, the white or the black silk that they had on offer. In the end we bought some of each, and delighted, I bundled back in to the car to go round to the dressmakers. Here there are tailors on every corner, it's extremely hard to tell who is good and who is bad, yet another round of experimentation. The culture clash on the fashion front makes things doubly difficult, they don't see what you see, so interpretation of style is risky. If you don't specify exactly then you've only yourself to blame when a vision of Madonna at the height of the 1980's rears into view in a gaudy puffball number. I wanted the silk as I'm making a dress for a special occasion. Me being me, I've left everything to the last minute and just to add extra pressure I've decided to run the gauntlet of the Afghan dressmaker. There is significant risk that I will end up with something strangely unwearable but the roulette factor spurs me on. Via Icks, I am communicating with the tailor, (if Icks didn't know about women's dressmaking before, he certainly does now), explaining the intricacies of the five panel versus the six panel A-line skirt is tricky, corsetry and boning even more so. So when Icks offers to find the necessary plastic bones that are required I'm thrilled to bits. The very next day he arrives at my guest house with a couple of rather interesting items: a second hand lace basque and a full on corset. We're going to take the plastic out of them but there's a moment where, stood in the doorway to my room, one of the cleaning ladies catches us handling the goods and with great curiosity approaches us. I am sure she is wondering what the hell my driver and I are doing playing with lace underwear, so to dispel the rumour mill, I give them to her to play with too. She looks happy and approves of my choice, but at this point I'm in a catch 22, whatever I do she's still going to think I'm running a brothel from my bedroom.

As an afterthought, if you ever want to stay happy with a man - pay for one - it's brilliant. That way they get to come shopping with you and have to look like they're enjoying it. My driver "Icks" is fantastic, and to my mind provides a great example of a trait of the men here that rarely gets the publicity it deserves. A strange by product of the women in doors mentality and other forms of hierarchy and control is that the guys here are completely used to running errands, to being asked to take you somewhere or find things for you. Unlike a typical British or European man who resents being asked to go shopping, a number of the Afghan guys I've met here consider it there duty to take care of you, to accompany and protect you as their guest. I don't know why I should feel such a sense of surprise to find gentlemanly behaviour but I guess that having grown up in England where men consider it their right to be obstinate and selfish, I am warmed by the existence of patience and the sense that to serve another is a good and rewarding activity.

This is a very different place from England though and family and the social hierarchy are strong. The upsides are the generosity, the subtleties like the terrible driving but the lack of road rage, the lack of food, space and money, but the offer to share nonetheless. The downsides are the rigidity of the system, the safety in conformity and therefore the lack of courage to break the mould by being an individual. It's difficult to explain but to step outside of normal behaviour here results in rapid condemnation either because people believe it is 'dangerous' or have to be seen to be saying that they believe it to be dangerous. Either way, the downside is that attitudes change very slowly.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

US army use yoga as defence...

Last night was yoga - a strange yet welcome concept in this place of dust and Kalashnikovs. I'd popped over to K-Meisters place, not far from mine, and we were taking a taxi. As we arrived it was like stepping through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia, suddenly the bustle of the road disappeared and there was coolness, dark like a cave, and a wonderful smell of lemon and incense. I was calmed immediately - my last experience here had been 'the pedicure from hell' but this time I didn't need to worry as no one was going to attack my feet with sharp objects. In the changing rooms - on the floor a wonderful soft rug with the profile of a mountain dog woven in to it. - I changed into yoga gear and shoved my stuff into a locker. In the practise room, in the semi light, I could see at least one face that I recognised from yesterday, one very large chap with a Chewbacca beard.

Chewbacca boy had been there at the poolside with a group of his friends. P-Monster and I had taken a day to relax at the 5star hotel in Kabul and a pleasant breeze by the pool side had thrown a couple of the large umbrellas in to the water, narrowly missing a stout yet determined Chinese man who was studiouly doing laps as the sun disapeared behind the perimeter wall. PM had complained that being there at the pool, he was surrounded by the worst examples of all that was wrong with the worst kinds of people here in Kabul. I just thought he was a bit hot and bothered and slightly over exaggerating - not everyone here is horrible. PM had been miffed at the foolish conversations that he'd been subjected to in the men's locker room, some large and over privileged, contract worker complaining about having to work late and not being able to get to the gym, and how unfair it all was. PM had gritted his teeth but I could tell he probably wanted to give 'Over privileged toss-pot' an opportunity to see unfair - possibly say the loss of a limb, unfair imprisonment in an evil place, massacre of his family - you know something simple like that, even the more common getting up at 4 in the morning, washing your face and arse in cold water from a jug, cycling 8 miles to work for some patronising fat, foreign wanker would be an unfairness that I'd have liked this guy to try, just to get things in to perspective. Anyway, I didn't see the guy so who knows... Back to Chewbacca boy: the wearing of the beard by the foreigner is always a curious item, for a start they look very strange and secondly, if it's an attempt to blend in then you'd have to be a blind idiot not to notice that the 6ft 4, fat, white person wasn't from a local village. I often consider getting myself a beard and moustache set made and then wearing it around town just for the hell of it, to be honest I'd probably look more like and Afghan man than some of these Scandinavian-creature men. Anyway, Chewbacca boy and his slightly smaller goatee wearing friend were there with their mats, relaxing and waiting for the class to start.

I let my mind move off it's usual preoccupations: planning, packing, getting things done. I let myself concentrate on the class, on the stretching, the physical sensation, my legs shaking, leaf like, under the effort. For a second I was transported back to Notting Hill - the demographic was no different; middle class, white people struggling to push there bodies through a physical regime after 8-10 hours at a desk. The room was brutally sticky, no air con and I joked that we were doing Bikkram yoga today. The room was full, our yoga matts tessellated like sardines, the atmosphere convivial and inclusive, the tone set by K-meister, we were all struggling together. I was thinking of Chewbacca boy, his smaller friend, and the lanky chap that looked like a Sikh warrior, I've always had a soft spot for men who do yoga; there are a few who are naturals and for whom the poses look elegant and strong, but for most men yoga is a bigger fight than anything that they could attempt at the gym. Here in the yoga class simply sitting upright with your legs crossed is murderously difficult and the male ego must contend with not being able to do what everyone around them is doing with ease. So, I give credit to the guys that come along and try, after all it's not a competition. What they do for themselves when they try something that is hard for them is the best thing that they could ever do and I respect that enormously.

Later as we ended the class, closing the session with focussed relaxation after working really hard, I was aware of a rumbling noise vibrating the walls. I was torn between dropping out of my Notting hill bubble to take a look from the window and remaining in the quiet bliss that I'd attained. I mentally rein-acted running to the locker room for my trainers as I didn't fancy trying to run down the road in flip flops, my meditation was dispelled by my fight or flight planning, but still I remained in the corpse pose on the practise room floor; I told myself it was the generator. I didn't know whether I'd actually be able to see out of the window and didn't want to worry anyone. It's a canny illusion but nonetheless a welcome one; long oatmeal and rice-paper coloured drapes dangle down in panels across the windows but these merely disguise the sandbags that cover the windows - (paranoid) safety measures cleverly disguised by soft furnishings - I was happy to be temporarily deceived.

The rumbling was being caused by two MRAPs (mine resistant ambushed protected), these tank-like, armoured vehicles with gun turrets on the top were parked directly outside the health club. US army people sat in the vehicles looking sheepish, a young woman in uniform jumped out and came over to apologise that their presence was blocking our mobile phone transmissions. I was quiet and didn't say anything but there was a tangible air of indignation from a couple of the folks from the UN, "Bloody military people, causing unnecessary risk, endangering us all, blah blah blah. I'd heard it all and it was boring. I just felt sorry for the soldiers in their vehicles, lost, they could do nothing but sit and wait for instructions (they'd been there for the last half hour so obviously HQ map reading was a little bit rusty). They would not normally traverse these back streets and now that they were here they did not know how to get back out. I felt sorry for them in their highly conspicuous vehicles and uniforms annoying people wherever they went.

I wanted to jump into our taxi and say "Follow me, we'll lead you to somewhere that you recognise (probably one of the super expensive supermarkets that westerners frequent), and you can find your way from there", but this was a fantasy; they probably wouldn't have followed and it certainly would have been an unpopular suggestion with UN guys with whom I was sharing a taxi, "Oh, great job Karen, lets get the sitting target to follow us around the town!". I was sad for the divisions between us but in honesty probably glad when our taxi pulled out and away from the MRAPS. My Spidey-sense had been tingling for a while and my realist fought with my idealist and won: there was no reason for them to be there, if there was a reason for them to be there then we should be as far away as possible. Our $3 dollar car was filled with us and our yoga mats and the ridiculous contrast between us and the military convoy did not escape me - I wondered how much damage I could inflict with a yoga mat, and some Jedi mind tricks, it was like 'Men who stare at goats' made flesh - I could see the headline. "Amateur yogics defeat insurgents with Tantric chanting".

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fizzy pop and the prison commander

Today started much as they always do: hot. I am slow to rise, my head fuzzy, dehydrated. I meet hornyculturalist in the corridor as I stumble my way to the kitchen to make a coffee, he mumbles something apologetic about using the bathroom from the bathroom door of his own home and I marvel at the ridulous politeness that afflicts us. I register a flash of his paisley dressing gown as I boil the kettle but it's all still in slow motion.

By twelve O'clock I'm just about ready to head out - I'm going to the women's prison at Badambagh. Iqbal is my driver and already I feel bad having made him wait half the morning whilst I sent emails. I wonder why I find it so difficult to live a life with so many people waiting on me; I turn my back for a second and my delightful cleaning lady who wears floral prints and a neck brace has tidied everything away. My room looks tidy for once but still I can't find anything and run around in frustration trying to find things that she may or not have whisked away to be laundered or may or may not have secreted in a draw or cupboard. It was probably a step too far when I discovered that she'd emptied my grab bag and put everything away in various places - the equivalent of someone going through your handbag, into your purse, sorting your coins and putting your stash of rainy day condoms away safely in your sock draw, finding your vibrator and kindly cleaning it for you. Here they have a different sense of privacy - ie none. Behind closed doors, everything is fair game.

We get to the prison and in my mind I just want to get inside, see if Snook has made it in herself, and get some interview material. Instead I am treated to a very long meeting with the prison commander in which he repeatedly asks me to help him to build a new health clinic. I tell him I'm a doctor not an architect or engineer and it's really not my sphere of expertise, but he's convinced that last time I came I had promised to build a clinic. I'm loathe to disappoint him but I fear that somewhere along the line he's gotten the wrong end of the stick. I get that sense of collective guilt and collective responsibility - I am a foreigner and therefore I must be able to turn water in to wine. Although I say it to the commander, I feel bad to admit that I am only one person, pretty much working on my own and that, much as I would love to be able to deliver a brand new, five roomed clinic building to the commander and the women of the prison, I feel just a tad inadequate to do so. The meeting goes on and I am wishing that I'd just kept it simple. Snook and K, her photographer, arrive and luckily for me the conversation is punctuated by their arrrival and questions. Still, I am sat in the office and I know that time is ticking on. Snook and K get to the end of their questions and prepare to take their leave. As they go we resume our conversation and I can feel Sherparai urging us to finish up. I cut to the chase and ask if I can see the expat women inside the prison, there are five or them: two Ugandans, two Nepalese and a woman from South Africa. Aaah, the commander says, but now it is lunchtime... please would you join us. Since first arriving here in Afghanistan I have barely said no to the offer of a shared meal. Often, these meals eaten simply, have been the best and most tasty food I have had, and touch wood, I have never been made ill as a consequence of eating like this. I have found that the sharing of food is significant, it is the act that binds you to another, once a stranger, in the giving and receiving of the nourishment that they offer. Iqbal and I step out in to the next room with the commander. The lunch is two large plates of rice and two bowls of lamb stew, lumps of meat swimming in a soupy broth, chunks of bread are heaped on another plate and there are two large plates of water melon. A bottle of bright orange pop graces the table and cups are filled for each of us. I am so warmed by the generosity which comes so easily here; there may be many things wrong and difficult here in Afghanistan but by this act of eating together I cannot see the commander as different from me - this is the soft underbelly of the dog - we all eat. I am sure that they've brought spoons and forks for my benefit and Iqbal and I eat together from one plate of rice, he from one side, I from the other. He's been my driver now for three days and this kind of intimacy in the UK would be the domain of someone pretty damned close to you. I make an internal note of my own observations and feel grateful that in my own upbringing the sharing of ones food was considered a natural and positive thing to do for others. I contrasted this with the typical British way of serving food, with each individual's plate arranged with meat and two veg; isolated servings and isolated eating, none of the collective advantage of the shared plate.

Later, when I am stuffed full of rice, meat and fizzy orange pop, we go to the prison block. The commander walks us over there himself and immediately, as we come through the door i am greeted by the head of the guards, a woman who herself refuses to wear a head scarf. She recognises me and we greet each other warmly. She takes us first to one of the classrooms but as usual the women are reluctant to be photographed and I'm too tired today to try to convince them only to snap a few shots of the backs of their heads, so we leave and I ask to see the new baby. One of the inmates gave birth a couple of days ago and there we go to say hello; a small dark haired creature lies in a cradle on the floor. Wrapped entirely in swaddling clothes, this tiny bundle is obviously the pride of her mothers eye. The mother lies beside the cradle on the lower bunk of a bunk bed, she looks obviously tired. There are plenty of other women in the room with her but none of them wish to be photographed and so we head on out to the room where the expats stay. Room five, we knock and go inside. I see the two Nepalese women and ask where Margaret is. Margaret is one of the woman from Uganda, inside for seven years for drug smuggling, she and the other Ugandan (Sarah) had body packed heroin. I greet these women, who remember me from last time and we chat, catching up on what has happened since I last saw them a couple of months ago. Margaret has had her second appeal - she'd hoped that her sentence would be decreased in light of the fact that she is HIV positive, but it seems that she's lucky that her sentence wasn't increased at the second court - here in Afghanistan, they are very strict when it comes to drug trafficking and might well have given her additional years rather than less. Margaret tells me that her lawyer does not speak English and she has no idea whether her lawyer has argued for her release on health grounds. Inside the prison, these expat woman have no consular representation, they have no friends and family here. Sundays is visiting day but they will see noone. There are no phones, all of their personal possessions and passports were taken away when they were arrested, there is no internet and they cannot write letters; there is noone to send them for them (plus no decent postal service in Afghanistan). They have no books, no clothes of their own and no money - effectively they are completely cut off. I think about my friend Jammer and his close call with the drugs police at Kabul airport and swallow hard at the thought that he might have ended up in some really hot soup.

Interestingly the two Nepalese woman have apparently converted to Islam as has Sarah the Ugandan, Sarah tells me that she has changed her name to Maryam, she comments on the kindess that she has been shown by many of the women here and by the wardens of the prison, she complains however that because she is fat none of the donated clothes ever fit her. I don't really know what to say to these women, I don't have anything to offer them. I say that I don't want to promise anything that I can't deliver, but I listen to the list of the things that they don't have and in my head I wonder which of them I might be able to make an impact upon -maybe I can find Sarah a skirt that fits her, some novels to read. Sarah complains about the food that they are given saying that Ugandans don't eat rice but here it's bread and water for breakfast, rice and potatoes for lunch and again for dinner. I think of my lunch of lamb and orangeade. I resolve to stay out of prison.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pedicure from hell

I think I just had the most god awful pedicure in the entire universe! Believe me, I did not grow up being pampered but since reaching my thirties (some years ago, I might add) I have indulged in the odd salon or two but this time, I swear, I just had a six year, old axe murderer sawing at my feet. I don't wish to be mean but a nail file really isn't that hard to use... but lets start at the beginning: a lovely, slim Philipinna lady welcomed me and, as I'd had the facials recommended by a friend, I was certain that I was going to do better here than I would do at home on my bathroom floor with a pumice stone and a bit of elbow grease. Upstairs, I was welcomed into the ladies changing rooms which was also the pedi room, and, perched on a banquette in the corner, I was dismayed that the confident lady from the Philippines was not also the pedicurist. I was faced by two cartoon figure washing up bowels and a sponge; my lady, a smaller fatter one, though very sweet, was I have to say, just awful. As a Brit I could only hold my tongue and grin through gritted teeth as I was sponged, half heartedly, then rubbed...a bit... in an equally tepid manner...I was peturbed. My lady was squatting and I worried that given the lack of light in the room, that she might be going blind. My paws were pulled out of water, one by one, to be brushed at at worryingly ineffective angles with the pedi egg. I was in need of some serious therapy but I certainly wasn't getting it here. I wasn't quite sure how someone could fail to use a pedi egg - one of those completely fool proof devices that they sell to old people on the shopping channel - but several misplaced strokes later and my poor cracked heels were none the wiser. I said nothing. She brandished the pusher - a pointy ended stick thing that jabbed me several times (where it wasn't supposed to), then came the nibbling... the nibbler as many women will know is a sharp-ended scissory object that should only be placed in the hands of an expert, and she, with both nibbler and pusher in hand, a fairly lethal combination, was pushing even my patient boundaries. The word cack-handed sprang to mind, but I was quick to push the thought away as I was here to relax and be pampered not be tortured and potentially maimed. But sat as I was, quasimodo styley in the corner, the relaxation part was going to be difficult (if nigh on impossible) and I'd ruled out the pampering a long time ago. She produced a pair of plastic booties that, wired to the electrical supply, resembled nothing so much as some kind of evil torture device which in fact they were, designed as they were simply to make your feet sweat (foot sauna she claimed) a curious beauty treatment in the 40degree C sweltering heat, it was all I could do to keep her from thrusting me in to them. Tired I certainly was but I was loathe to take my beady eye off the woman with the pointy instruments who was doing something dubious with bits of my dead skin. Apparently there weren't nail scissors and the best that she had were some manly nail clippers, I didn't want to end up with a serious injury so I commandeered them for myself and clippered away a bit in the hope that perhaps she'd let me finish off the pedicure I was paying for myself. Next up was the nail buffer, I think she'd been using that to try to file initially, then a random bit of filing (this time with the nail file) in various directions in a ham-fisted fashion, she was making it painfully difficult, I was almost relieved when we moved on to the painting of the nails. I was ceremoniously handed a tray of polishes - I'd been promised earlier that all of them came from Finland, that cool, icelandic country of professional nail polish, but no, they all looked like something you'd get at Hitchin market. Given the choice between hooker red and old lady pink I found my heart sinking, there were even a couple of bottles that looked liked they'd escaped from a Christmas cracker. I opted for a shade of blood red hoping that it might just disguise the digital injuries I'd sustained. I sat with clenched buttock cheeks as the ritual painting began; Parkinsonian brush strokes were followed by smudges and smudges were wiped away with copious acteone and with them most of the newly applied polish. My teeth (as well as my butt cheeks) were tightly clenched as the second coat went on and I just prayed for it all to be over so that I could run home take it all off and start again. There's nothing quite as tortuous as wishing that you'd just said stop instead of patiently waiting through something that you're hating. What can I say; I'm sure she's a very sweet person but there was nothing redeemable about her pedi performance. I thanked her and limped next door for my facial, she blissfully unaware, me seething and my paws more farmer Giles than than the pretty twinkle toes I'd hoped for.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Alien abduction and evil crepes as cat food

We'd been at L'Atmosphere for dinner and I had had a rather dubious crepe; some kind of processed liquid cheese combined with what appeared to be luncheon meat and a fried egg, French haute cuisine it was not but luckily my feline friends were on hand to help out and I launched chunks of ham, cheese and egg through the air to land on the grass where a series of moggies were patiently waiting for tid bits. Rangy little afghan cats, they knew where best to catch the crumbs and were delighted by the random lumps of fine fare that were raining down upon them, seemingly from the sky; "Thank you Sky Cat", I heard them saying to each other as another lump of ham appeared out of the darkness and landed at their paws. PM and I hypothesised about what it must be like to be a cat - or any other animal for that matter - interacting with humans and their stange ways. When a cat receives 'manna from heaven' does he believe that god is sending him food? At least if I didn't enjoy eating greasy tinned muck in a pancake the cats certainly did.

One afternoon I spied the tortoise in the garden and in my general enthusiasm whipped him up from the grass and brought him inside to have his picture taken. I had all but performed an alien abduction on him I thought as I pictured how it must feel to have big, pink hands descend upon you and suddenly levitate you effortlessly, transporting you up in to the sky. A large, gangly, alien being with no shell peering at you in the face and talking in strange tongues. A strange habitat filled with garish colours and patterns and machines with lights on that beep and whirr, some bright, bright flashes of light (no pain) and then suddenly, flying through the air again and landing, as if all was a dream, back on the grass, "White light, hazy memory. Roswell..., area 51... then nothing". Alien anal probe - my arse - that tortoise will have sold his story to the National Enquirer quicker than Elvis can down a burger on the toilet whilst flying a jumbo jet to the moon!