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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, 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 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!

Nibbly nibbly, flying piggy...

Pigs doing flying and diving at the 2008 Royal Melbourne show in Australia.

This morning I woke up with puffy eyes; I'd been crying a lot and when that happens, just to make me feel extra glamorous, my eyes get piggy pink and swollen, not only am I dealing with whatever has pissed my off but my piss holes in the snow give me the kind of gyp that a girl could really do without when she's trying to put a brave face on it. It's an up and down existence here and things really do change in an instant; you can be quids in one second and then knee deep in shit the next. All told though I am doing ok and relentlessly busy: one minute you're elbow deep in a bowel repair operation, the next you're in the back of an ISAF military vehicle having your phone jammed and sweating your tits off, the next in a random office talking about designing uniforms for the Afghan Police Force, then caesar salad and espresso in the gardens of a five star hotel before finding back home that your loo doesn't flush and it's back to reality. Can't complain that there isn't enough to keep me busy here. It's probably the absolute randomness of this place that I love so much - from the sublime to the ridiculous is a daily occurence.

My first job of the day was to pick up some clothes and a bag from T's house, I'd been staying there for a few days whilst Richard D was out here with me in Kabul. The room I was staying in belongs to K, a freelance photographer, and I had to collect my things before she arrives back in country. We were greeted by the dogs; Tootsie, Moss and Ghazni. Moss has taken quite a bit of taming but today was friendly and didn't try to bite us. The Afghan cook and house person that takes care of the property had been very kind to us one evening when we arrived at the house and Moss was being an absolute little bastard, biting PM's heel and just generally being a fierce, bad dog. The Cook had come to find us - we were watching TV with Snook (not her real name) and Paw, when Cook called us to come outside; he had some doggie chews and with these we were able to tame Moss; Food as bribery for love!

This morning when we arrived at T's PM had dog food - dried puppy nibbles - in the car and we sat in the garden with Snook and Paw and fed the dogs whilst chatting about potential stories that Snook and I could write. PM was late for work so we didn't stay long and already the heat was rising. Back home at the rose garden house I opted for coffee with a large slug of whisky and plenty of sugar and a gherkin just to get the day started in style. I'd already succumbed to a cigarette first thing in the morning but that was because I had eyes like a pig and was feeling none too pretty.

Now I am sat at my computer in the conservatory looking out on to the rose garden and gently sweating like a fat bloke. There are rabbits frolicking on the lawn and butterflies turning tricks between the petals, a couple of medium sized goldfish languish by rocks in the pond and an ancient tortoise lumbers his way around a fantastic terrarium of grass and trees. This place is an oasis.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Morning! Dubai weirdness and Dubai kindness

My alarm goes off, I snooze it - still dreaming - then the wake up call from reception, and finally I am awake. I'd laid out my bikini and goggles the night before to spur me on. I sip water and eat the rest of the wasabi peanuts I have heart burn from eating them so late last night but I'm upright now so I eat some more and go to look for the pool. I feel strangely conspicuous wondering through this gigantic hotel of pillars and marble, mirrors and glass. I wonder if indeed I am supposed to walk aroun din my bathrobe, whether this is something peculiarly european. I greet a couple of staff,a bell boy, a house keeper. They're all from somewhere else; the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Everyone speaks English, noone bats an eyelid - must be ok. I find the pool, it's frankly hot and humid like the jungle and the water temp is better for my body. The sunlight, even through clouds is making me squint; I'm propped up at the side of the deep end looking out of one eye as this seems to hurt less than using two but there's no sense in that observation.

Later, when I am dressed and ready to go, I argue with the manager at the front desk as they took a commission when they exchanged my $100 usd for the deposit - Now they will give it back to me in Dirhams and I must change it back to dollars and pay yet another commission. I think it's pretty disgusting and I tell him so, it's against the ethical principle of a deposit that they should make a profit like that. He tries to tell me that all hotels do this (probably here in Dubai they do), he tells me that they don't keep dollars at the front desk (yeah - whatever), I say I don't believe you. In the end he agrees that he will refund the commission that they took on the exchange last night - USD to Dirhams, but he can still only give me Dirhams back. I decide to settle for this and at least have the moral high ground if sadly, I still need to pay commission (again) at the airport. My tiny stash gets smaller by the second and I haven't even done anything yet. I decide not to look at the exchange rates and just get myself out of there and to the airport. The hotel are still trying to put me in a Mercedes taxi even though I've specifically said 'ordinary taxi' (I should have said cheap taxi), but one turns up just as the bell boy and I are wheeling down the ramp with my numerous bags. 6.50 Dirhams to the airport beats the 26.50 Dirhams that I paid last night to get to the hotel, but hey ho, I'm a stranger in a foreign land and everyone is just trying to make a buck. This place is the Stepford wives on acid and everyone is working on a feverish commission. Money is king.

At the Safi desk I read the sign which specifies 20kg in the hold, I've got way more than that, (like probably double that) but I say nothing as my bags go on the scales. The guy at the check-in desk doesn't say anything either and I wonder whether we are both silently complicit in something that we can't talk about. Either way I am grateful to him, more than he will ever know, coz I'm down to my last few notes and I know that my credit cards won't work. No way to get hold of any more cash, it could all be rather embarrassing as I stand red-faced at the excess luggage counter. But I am spared this humiliation by the kind guy at check-in - thank heaven for the kindness of strangers.

Terminal one in Dubai is ok if you have time and money to burn on completely bizarre fripperies. Upstairs by the departure lounge is a Costa Coffee and I park myself there with a caramel latte and a fruit salad. I've no idea why a milky caffeine based drink has to be made molten before it can be served to you, the over enthusiastic use of the milk steamer is one of my pet hates - practically volcanic white stuff does not taste better and I wonder whether there is something strangely satisfying about watching a jug of milk flail and boil, bubbling its submission, why else would baristas flog the damned stuff so much in the belief that they are serving the customer?

I find a camera on the seat next to me and, given that it's Dubai airport (ie massive), handing it in to lost property is probably not going to do the owner any good, I have plan that I'll sit here with it, keep it safe in case the owner comes back for it and then if not I'll take it with me, put it in my blog and hope that by the viral marvels of the internet that someone who is looking for something they have lost will happen upon their pictures, message me, and be able to get their camera back.It's like an episode of Bagpuss and I'm waiting for the mice from the marvellous mechanical mouse organ to heave the camera into the shop window. Maybe it's six degrees of separation; somehow from the hub of Dubai someone will know someone who's niece's sister's uncle will know the people in the pictures and claim it back.

London to Kabul under someone else's fragrant steam

I look for a way to imagine what else I might be doing right now but it actually feels like I'm right here in the moment, carried by the current, slightly to the left of centre, faster flowing water and I'm with it; on the surface at the moment but only just, got to watch my footing, by breathing by brush strokes, I'm here but really, not really. That's how it feels to be flying back to Kabul with about $100 dollars in one pocket and a couple of the proverbial beans in the other. I've got a stack of bills arriving at the end of each month and only a whisper of a plan. I'm going back to Afghanistan but maybe I should stay in England, get a regular doctor's job and nine to five some sensible money. Instead I am dealing with the unusual sensation - reliant on others as never before - of even more elevated risk. I might come home with my tail between my legs but I might just come home in glory and it's that thought of achieving what I set out to do versus never knowing if I could that makes me stay, sitting in the aeroplane seat, facing forward and urging it to go faster.

All of it; I wished for it and then it happened: PM, and him being delightful, the trek, the opportunity to just to sit still with my film material for more than 10 minutes at a time. But I feel nervous that I don't have a title outside of the the one that I give myself. I have to provide my own justification and this is hard, probably one of the hardest things a person can have to do; it's just you and what you think of yourself, and what you say about yourself, and what you can be motivated and daring enough to do when you get up each morning. But I have hope, I have leads and I have the will and the energy. The trek scares the living daylights out of me right now, what if I'm not good enough? Expedition medicine yes , in theory, in some strange ways it's the game I've been playing all my life in various ways. But mother and child care; lets just say there'll be a whole lot of internet knowledge refreshment going on over the next four weeks. That said, it's not like we can perform major operations, so what's left: basic resus, analgesia, antibiotics, antifungals, de worming, nutrition. The suggestion of referral to a bigger centre, may be to Kabul, but probably only the slightest of chances that a person will make the journey from the Nuristani mountains to Kabul for medical treatment.

As I sit and observe those around me I try to still by fears of the as yet unknown and allow myself to be thrilled, as I usually am, at the unfolding adventure. It's a strange process of transition, like one is emerging from a glut of wealth and excess to a much leaner, clearer existence. Today, it feels like that; in four weeks time though I will be dirty and tired of stinking drains and wishing for Starbucks and Zara and Topshop.

In Dubai I stay at La Bustan Rotana, a hotel near to the airport, a pretty good choice as it has a pool, reasonable size, enough to do mini lengths, and opens at 6.30am. Would go there again and ++ close to the airport. It was only later that I found out about the hotel that is actually inside the airport - this one you can pay for by the hour which sounds really dodgy but is actually brilliant for those middle of the night London-Dubai-Kabul transfers.

I feel bad about not knowing what the exchange rate to Dirhams is so not sure if a 5 Dirham tip is enough or not. I apologise to the porter and then wonder why I feel so bad, why I am apologising; I'm the one who at 3 O'clock in the morning handed her last $100 dollars over as a deposit on the minibar (did they think I would drink it dry? At Dubai prices a $100 would probably get me a cup of orange juice and half a mouldy Toblerone!). In a place where wealth is everything I was only obtaining small solace in my 'freelance' and 'charity worker' status. I wished that I had a sign that said ' my religion forbids me to use credit cards', instead of the fact that all of my cc's are maxed out and just spit forlornly back out of the money machines, lonely and unaccompanied by even the smallest denomination of currency. I feel strangely detached, like a homeless person, outside the system. "Cash only? Sorry madam, you must be a bit strange, only children pay in cash". I was right back at the shop counter, counting the silvers and coppers over for something trivial, stacks of two pence pieces, some tens and then the shiny, beautiful hexagonal twenty pence pieces - five make a pound - always my favourite.

In my hotel room at 4am, I drink (free) water and eat expensive (not free) wasabi peanuts. I open the jar and then wonder why I bothered, I wasn't really what I was looking for but I eat them anyway - such is the persuasive power of the minibar. In the bathroom I play the usual hotel game of guess how not to scald yourself in the shower (a friend had a rather unfortunate accident with the hot and cold taps on a bidet and, with this in mind, I am always careful not to assume foreign plumbing will be straight forward. In fact, the bathroom sink has a curious arrangement, two identical gold plated taps either side but possibly one is temp, the other off and on but but they seem to switch over as I play with them; hot-cold, on-off, perhaps this vice versa arrangement is the height of Emirati sanitary-ware sophistication, but it's all very confusing, or perhaps, its just 4am in the morning and I should be asleep. I shower with caution and a plastic shower cap on and go to bed. Can't sleep immediately, bloody sods law! Fitful but nice, clean, white sheets; won't be having any of those for a while. Eventually I drift off.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Love really is greater than death

It’s pretty difficult watching someone that you care for dealing with something incredibly difficult; Pmonster heard today that two of his friends were killed in the Pamir plane crash just oustside of Kabul in Afghanistan. I’d received an email in the morning via the hash house harriers network and had mentioned it in passing to PM – one of those things, one never knows quite what to believe as there is so much scare mongering and exaggeration. Later in the day we were sat in an internet cafĂ© sorting out our visa application forms when he took a phone call, immediately it was obvious that there was something deeply wrong, everything about his tone of voice, his body language; this was not going to be good news that he was receiving. And indeed it wasn’t, the caller a good friend of PM’s based out in Kabul was calling to say that several Brits were on the plane and two were very good friends. At the time PM said “Well, that’s life”, but I could see him gritting his teeth. It was too soon to see the true reaction, he was here with me in London, he felt it but he didn’t feel it. We carried on with what we had to do, he, with a brave face, saying nothing very much, feeling for the wife, the parents of the friends who had died. How can it not affect you?

We headed for home, he to call the wife of one of the guys to offer his sympathy, to ask if there was anything that he could do. Once home, I think it started to percolate. We went for a run, to try and see something beautiful to off set the unfairness of it all. He wasn’t saying very much about it.

Back home and I worried for him, didn’t want to leave him alone whilst I went out but I knew he needed time to speak to other friends, to tell those that didn’t know, to experience his feelings and to be there for others. To do something, anything in the face of loss, to be making some kind of contribution instead of sitting there helpless to change the circumstance. CC was an old, old friend and colleague, DT a younger man but still a close friend. PM had shown me a picture of DT with the cat from one of the bars, said how much he loved them, a big, macho security guy who loved cats. And CC, I’d heard so much about him, one of the three musketeers, a pal, a colleague, a most dear friend, with so many shared experiences and the hope that there would be many more to come. It was hurting PM a lot and there was nothing that I could say or do to make it different.

PM had said. “It’s all part of the game”, wincing inside at the same time. He’d seen people killed, had lost friends before, gotten used to the idea that this was something that you signed up for somewhere along the line. Here, out of the blue, a confluence of unexpected shit, a few weeks ago CC was best man at JB’s wedding, now CC was dead. The plane crash was nothing to do with terrorist activity; the Taliban didn’t blow the plane out of the sky. The weather, the terrain and a split moment’s decision to go despite being told that the weather was bad led to a momentous shift. Nothing in life is for sure, nothing that you see today will always be here tomorrow. All of these people come to Afghanistan of their own volition, they come knowing that they may pay with their lives, the black humour is rife, a good way to keep the apprehension low, to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national. We count those that matter to us. We say that we are prepared for the loss whatever that may be but is it ever possible to be so? To be so prepared is that at polar opposites to the decision to be there in the first place, that somehow, it will never be me or anyone close to me. What is it that gives us that sense, and how is it that it feels so bloody raw to have to face the reality of loss. We are all there in the plane in those last few moments, terrified and alone, angry and helpless. We are there with those people, experiencing their last time on earth, sharing their fear, there with our friend or our loved one. Who wouldn’t want to take it all away and make the outcome different?

The weather was so bad that it was impossible for anyone to get out there and find the plane and passengers. Later in afternoon the American air force were able to fly close and to confirm using thermal imaging equipment that there was no one alive in the vicinity. This additional information obliterated any last vestige of hope of having escaped fate no matter how ridiculous or slim the chance; miracles do happen. But as the hours passed the absence grows steeper and it’s just a case of dealing with that drowning sensation, the disbelief countered by the knowledge; the two fighting it out – harsh reality winning in the end.

These people are hardened to war, to injury, death and loss but humanity reigns supreme and the love between brothers in arms has a strength all of its own.

The practicalities; the repatriation, who will accompany the body, the funerals, dominate the conversation. Several times I hear PM say, “No I’m not joking mate, I’m serious”, no one can quite believe. He takes it upon himself to let people know, he knows how precious information is; however much people don’t want to know this news they will need to know. He does that work though it must hurt enormously to say those words, to write them, with each iteration, scoring the reality deeper into him. I think he is brave and generous, the energy of his soul is working for his friends who are gone now.

Coming home from dinner I met PM back home, hugged him after he’d downed eight pints of guiness in various pubs , before starting in on the vodka back home, I didn’t blame him, how else do you work your way through losing two of your very good friends. Numb is probably a pretty good way to be.

I heard him talking long in to the night, talking to people in the United States as they woke up and heard the news. “DT, he’d only come for a week, just to fill in for someone else, he’d given up all the security work, wasn’t in Afghanistan full time anymore”. “CC wasn’t even supposed to be on that flight, he’d decided to go up to Kunduz just to get something finished. Later, in the quiet, I heard PM crying in the other room, mournful sobs that asked why is it this way?

I couldn’t sleep, found it difficult to just switch off and leave him out there alone. But I didn’t know these people and in truth I didn’t know what it felt like. I knew that he needed space to mourn alone, to think, contemplate and come to terms. At 2.45am he looked in on me and I got up to comfort him, to be with him. But he didn’t need that, he needed alone time. I got back into bed and recorded here my thoughts on the day. Let him grieve undistracted, without having to worry about how he looked in mine or anyone else’s eyes. Death is a strange and complete entity. In plain sight of death we contemplate our own mortality and that sensation of loss that is so fucking unfair.

Friday, June 4, 2010

As usual I'm late. I've been faffing around eating pickled onion flavoured monster munch and now as the time comes to leave I am finally in a position to select an outfit... I'd planned to wear a white silk taffeta top and get it on with a fight only to find that yes, there is a large sweat stain under one armpit and far from lady like I look somewhat tramp like, I struggle to get it off over my head and, with the clock ticking, go drag out another ballish outfit - this time a slinky brown number, a full length fishtail skirt that clings to every curve, but this time around there just a few too many curves for my liking and my VPL means only one thing: larger pants or smaller ones... Not being a fan of the g-string I can only go larger but where are all my pants? - heaven only knows, and once again it looks as though my cleaning lady has hidden them - Arrrgh!!

The hem of the fishtail skirt has conveniently decided to come down and I am wrestling with staples and safety pins when PM rings me - I am delighted to hear his voice but deep in the depth of wardrobe despair - and of course ... late!! I've got gold shoes and silver jewellery and no bloody pants! My pashmina's got a stain on it and my tassles have stuck to my sticky - what I wouldn't give right now for a roll of double sided sticky tape
- how on earth am i supposed to cope? :)

I shun the brown satin number, rush through the silver ball gown and onto a tried and tested favourite; the maxi black dress that I wore to the last fund raising ball I attended - No matter that I'm going tonight with JP whom I met at the ball and who has obviously seen me in this dress - luckily (and happily, I add) JP is a taken man and so I don't really have to dress to impress anyone except for my perfectionist self. I am super stressed but feel much more comfortable in the maxi - the curves are gently hidden under a mass of material and I can breathe in it which is always a blessing. Taxi's here and I've gotta dash...Wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Happiness comes in gas filled packages

The highlight of yesterday was pulling over to the side of the road where P-monster bought me four sweetly garish giant parrot balloons, as P pulled each one in through the drivers seat window, I was giggling at the absurdity and at how deliriously happy I was. At $5 dollars a piece I think we probably made the street seller's week. With $20 dollars worth of blow up creatures in the back of the car, we headed for the supermarket for my weekly outing to the world outside the walls of the clinic. The brightly lit and immaculately organised shelving system of Finest was blowing my mind - upstairs a plethora of products thronged the aisles and I made merry with the shopping basket. Here I am stocking up on shampoos and shower gel and, even for me, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer number of different L'oreal beautifying potions one can purchase. I'm particularly unattracted to the whitening washes and creams - spending half my time chasing after a sun kissed glow - the idea of a Michael Jackson powder white mask for a face is not exactly ideal. I am reminded of Mazar's wife's photos - he's been showing them to me on his computer - her wedding photos showed her heavily made up in a selection of elaborate, glitter laden costumes, her face pancaked in white, lips and eyes starkly outlined in luminous peacock, absolutely no trace of a smile, the look: Extreme Geisha.
- buying things here is like being at Butlins with some kind of holiday tokens, prices are in Afs and I'm paying in dollars, I can't get my head around what it is I'm spending and hand over a hundred dollar note like monopoly money. I don't really feel the pain like I'm spending real money for real things. I obviously 'need' the stuff I'm buying by the tubful and manage to spend eighty dollars on hair products and jalapenos. We cart out two shopping bags worth of fripperies and nonsense and stick them in the back of the car with our newly purchased air-filled parrot friends.

Sad Fuck Noodles

My life is becoming increasing like a nursery nightmare; I'm not allowed out and it's driving me crazy. In fairness, I am the only doc in the house, but balance is everything and I can feel myself slowing burning with frustration.

I've spent the last two days doing Afghan medicals - en masse I have been terrifying Afghan men with my femaleness and daring use of the stethoscope. It is mightily disconcerting to be perceived as intimidating or just generally odd. I'm not very big and certainly not particularly scary so it's hard when the reaction that is provoked is either of abject embarrassment or of outright fear. They don't say much but like small children giggle or hold themselves rigid. It's hard not to care about people who are so vulnerable. They say that expat women here are treated like a third race - neither male nor female in their eyes - and I am getting this strongly now. I feel so very alien; in my attitude, in my upbringing.

These patients are off to Malaysia to an Islamic teacher training course. The Afghan ladies are equally as perturbing, virtually Victorian in their attitude to undressing. For a medical which includes examination of the chest and heart I had to endure my ladies squatting miserably in the corner of the room, clutching their clothes to their chests - I all but felt like some kind of bully. It was with great sadness that I sat with a 26 year old who already has five children - we'd run a routine pregnancy test and unfortunately for her hers was positive. She was obviously distressed, crying silently: her trip, her chance to get out, was now in jeopardy but not only this, she would now lose her job teaching boys - apparently a pregnant women is not acceptable in this role. I didn't know what to say. Termination of pregnancy is illegal here. This poor woman did not want another child but she would have no choice. I felt bad for her, bad that both she and I were hoping that for her sake that the pregnancy, currently in it's early stages, wouldn't remain and she would be free.

So after an emotionally exhausting day I'm here at my desk with some spicy super noodles and a cuppa soup, it's not like I haven't eaten it was just that dinner was at 5.30 and now at 10pm I'm hungry (and possibly bored). I've added extra chilli to the brew so it's hardly surprising that I'm burning my mouth off, still it's probably better than random sex which would be easy to come by in this place. I'm thirty five years old and it's just me and packet food (just add boiling water), the saddest of meals when you feel like Bridget Jones: hot, wet chicken flavour crisps in a plastic cup. But enough of feeling sorry for myself; It's been a godsend to discover that chilli is a really good substitute for men. I get just about the same emotional response from a jar of good jalapenos as I have done from my last few dates so what the hell I'd rather eat chilli!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Context, embarrassment and practise

Our new ECG machine arrived today and we decided to have a little play with it down stairs in the resus room, that was all fine til it came to actually trying the bugger out; Pommery not his real name) refused to be experimented on and Rubster and PiggyP (not their real names either) were not volunteering so in the end, for want of a gentleman, I said that I would do it. I'm very much a believer in being prepared and, knowing how easy it is for things to go drastically awry in this place, I thought we'd best try it out. I got up on to the couch and they attached the rather fetish looking leads around my ankles and wrists, the boys were all looking slightly sheepish... Next up were the chest leads, Rubster asked me if I could identify my fourth intercostal space, whilst trying to feel for something without looking - it was like I was suddenly something very strange in their midst. Next came the sticky suction cups - not exactly the most elegant (or indeed up to date) of devices, these little cups are filled with aqueous gel before being suctioned onto the skin, Rubster was still not looking where he was putting the things and looked like he was in a state of apoplectic embarrassment, he'd told me he couldn't apply the suckers properly unless I was " further exposed" and almost withered with embarrassment as I whipped off my under things and said "Well then, you best get on with it then". Even then he was fumbling somewhat as the six chest leads were applied in a very unusual fashion - I think he was afraid to touch me as the leads where nowhere near my costal margin and pretty much right across the left side of my chest - I'm not sure whether Rubster was just confused of paralysed with horror at a topless collegue. He couldn't get way quick enough to start the damned machine - the trace was twitching around all over the place as the left lateral lead kept popping itself off and needing to be reapplied.... My ECG reading, needless to say, was grossly abnormal - apparently I had atrial fibrillation! - I thought this was a summary lesson as to why it is best to apply the chest leads properly first time around and not go all coy and school boy. To set this all in context these guys are experienced paramedics, people who've worked on the roads in South Africa and Australia and in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan - They've seen the worst of days - plenty of claret on the road and possibly up the walls - so why the confusion I wondered? Ladies - if you want to bring an empire down, forget the guns, apparently all you need to do is corner your male work mates and show them a slip of lace... They'll be quivering wrecks before you know it.

It was just then that I understood the powerful psychological weapon of having a petite woman torturer when trying to bust a detainee - I'm told that a bloke can withstand a bitter beating and remain mentally intact when faced by a man but that the absolute loss of power and hope that goes with being interrogated by a woman holding all the power is just too much and they crack.

Later, I head for Karte se - it's the usual scenario - I am with Mazar our driver and we are chatting about stuff - I've a map to guide us but still we are not sure - it's usual here to get close and then to ring your host and get their Afghan guard to describe how to go the last part of the way to the house - nothing is marked here so you could be driving round many a street looking and looking, houses are all behind walls or high metal fences so you can't really peer into windows either. This evening was a novel one as we got as far as Pol e Sarc, a couple of calls later and we were really none the wiser - I am tired so I leave it all to Mazar and am amused when the guard turns up on his bicyle to guide us in - it turns out that we are still quite some way away from the house and it's a comical scene with our bicyle lead escort, a skinny Afghan on the de rigeur bike, wobbling his way through the heavy traffic to guide us in. one and a half hours late; I finally make it to dinner :)

Dinner is with a lovely family from the US who have two kids in school here. The house is full of toys and they even have a really cool McDonald's Happy Meal star wars toy of Wicket the Ewok. there are a number of families who have chosen to bring their kids with them and there are a couple of expat schools here in Kabul for the kids to go to. Some people might consider it a little crazy to bring the kids out here but from what I can see the kids I've met have amazing parents, dedicated and committed to stay for the long term, would not consider it to be right for the family to be apart. The kids are wise and adventurous, speak several languages and, as only children can do, broker a street diplomacy, live and see the real life of the inhabitants playing football in the street hanging out with their Afghan friends.

Later on the way home, Mazar knowing how much I like dogs, slows down whenever we are passing some of the street dogs who stray along on the roads at night - there are plenty of them and it's a slow drive home.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kites and Cuts

My day started with a call from Rob, one of our paramedics; the patient that I saw last night is back and needing some attention - nothing serious, just a little reassurance. The funny thing about this place is that eventually everyone knows everyone and it's no exception in this case, the patient is also a friend - an unavoidable circumstance, so after we get things tidied up he and I decide to go to breakfast at Flower Street cafe. It's a beautiful day, a little cloudy but very bright, it's Nawrous, the Islamic New year and today is a public holiday in Afghanistan so many places are closed. Flower Street cafe is also closed for the celebrations and instead we head to the Gandermack. It really is a beautiful day and it feels incredibly peaceful here in Kabul. We sit outside in the garden, on a picnic bench in the sunshine and have an English cooked breakfast and coffee. The coffee is in a mocha, stove brewed, and I'm excited about having something other than instant nescafe. For some reason the coffee is watery, not at all like the thick treacle that usually pours from a mocha, so later, after we've finished eating, I go with the waiter back to the kitchen to make a round of coffee myself. I spoon in the ground coffee and fill the mocha with water - leaving it with the guys in the kitchen to brew up. I briefly think about staying to see what happens but I don't. A few minutes later and our kind waiter delivers the fresh brew to the table but still it is watery and I'm none the wiser as to why it's coming out like that. To be honest though, I can't complain at all as it's been a wonderful morning with good company - a fascinating french man who has been here since 1998 - and quiet like a sunday morning.

After breakfast I am dropped of at the Serena Hotel - the only five star hotel in Afghanistan. I've never been there before and so I'm excited to see inside. Once inside I am actually quite surprised at how posh it is, I'd grown used to a difference in outlook; there are plenty of places here which have cost a lot of money but are still tacky as hell. The Serena, at least at first glance, seems to be worthy of it's international five stars. I'm here for the clothing sale, I couldn't resist the lure of a bit of shopping on our day off, and I am not disappointed - a number of shops and sales people have organised to bring their wares: carpets, wood carving, jewellery, bags, paintings and calligraphy, and stalls are set up in one of the courtyards. I am very happy pottering for a couple of hours, it's hot in the sun but my shopping stamina prevails and I purchase coasters, some felt animals and a couple of scarves. I'm enjoying myself immensely and it's only 11am.

Shortly, I get chatting to a couple of guys who work at the Serena and who have been pivotal in setting up today's sale. The guys are from Sri Lanka and incredibly friendly and kind, I'm taken on a tour of the hotel and am very impressed by the gym, and swimming pool. The thing about life here is that as long as you can get the balance right then it all becomes bearable, for me, I can't stand being cooped up and not getting to see anything, I also long for a proper swimming pool, cool and serene.

After my tour we join some of the hotel staff who are playing with kites in the garden, there are various people in different uniforms; green with highly embroidered lapels and belts, shirt and tie for front of house, and Chef in his kitchen whites and tall hat. Chef has the most amazing deep aqua coloured eyes, set in his tanned skin, he is an intelligent and perceptive man. The staff all help me with my kite flying. At first there is a lot of crashing into the trees and shrubs in the garden, quite a few of our kites get stuck and we have to cut the string and leave the kites stuck high up in the branches. One of mine flies high up over the top of the hotel building and crashes upon the roof and gets stuck there. Luckily there are armed guards on the roof and after a bit of tugging on the string to dislodge the kite, a face pops up over the parapapet smiling and throws down my kite. Sadly it's mangled, the paper torn and unfixable, and the kite dangles by it's string, caught in a tree on the way down from the roof. No matter we take another one, fix it to the reel of string and off we go again. It's an amazing feeling, once the kite catches on a thermal and lifts way, way up in to the air, once free from the surrounding buildings and their vortices, the kite stays aloft with virtually no effort. I am flying one reasonably close and I can see it, sometimes silhouetted by the sun, it tugs gently against the string, leaping and pulling. I am controlling it with just finger and thumb, I feel like a bird, my feet planted on the ground but my body transported along the string to the dancing, weaving kite, riding the updraft... It's meditative, transcendental. As the kite rises higher it disappears from sight and only the intensely strong sun fills my visual fields, a thin but sturdy kite string arising from my finger tips disappears in to the sky and I feel like I am connected directly to god, that if I pull hard enough on the string that something strange and beautiful might return to me attached to the end instead of my kite.

The guys who are helping me to fly the kite, warn me to be careful with my fingers, I do what I usually do which is to nod and grin and wonder what the fuss is about until I get the kite tugging fast and hard and the string flies across my fingers, whipping like wire and I am left notched and bleeding in seconds. A fierce sort of paper cut, stings like hell and I get another one not long after right across my thumb, scoring the nail as well as my finger tip; this sport is dangerous :)

After my second injury and with blood all over the place I decide to stop and go and mingle back in the courtyard with the fair, I stop inside with some NGO guys for a juice and then get a taxi back home.

Back home the guys are watching a movie and I hang out with them for a while before feeling like I need to sleep. Later Lyle tells me that I look a little sunburned and it then makes sense; the kite flying in the hot sun (doing the very thing your mother told you never to do - looking up into the solar haze). I get into bed and fall asleep, dreaming wild and wonderful things. When i wake up is to the sound of my phone, P-monster telling me that he's finally reached a nearby bar but sadly the karaoke is not tonight it's tomorrow, so not to worry about getting myself over there. Instead I go to find my house mates, in search of food and not wanting to go yet another second-hand round with yesterday's lasagne which is still sitting in the fridge. We try Afghan Fried Chicken but it's closed and instead opt for our local Indian, Namaste. I'm still in my pyjamas but really it doesn't matter as they look like what I'd probably be wearing anyway except for that they are pink. We step out in to the night and our security team ensure that we make it safely the few hundred yards we need to go to get the restaurant.

It’s been a really good day and I am at peace, the people that I met today want things to be good for their businesses to thrive and to have and share good things. Back in the UK I’m online helping a friend with his business proposal and simultaneously chatting on skype to someone else here in Kabul. The illusion of peace is gone when B tells me of the rocket attacks down on the Jalalabad road, aimed at Camp Phoenix the American Military Base. He says it’s been a bit annoying listening to the sound of the air raid sirens going for the last two hours, but he’s getting used to it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

fat and fatter

Just got back from Corner Shop - I went to see if Tiger the kitten was still there, but now that she is bigger, she is not allowed to come into the shop anymore, I was a bit sad coz she was the best thing about going there. I say to Lyle that it's a bit fucked up when a trip to the local supermarket constitutes 'a day out', and even worse that I am enjoying it so much. I have to buy new towels, the ones I bought last time have mysteriously been imbibed by the house never to be seen again. Things here have a finite lifetime, some of them leave in your laundry basket only to return a flattering shade of Kabul grey, other items leave and are never seen again. On the towel front I went for clean white, baby chick yellow and of course, girly pink. A couple of friends from the UK are due to visit shortly and I'm determined to offer them a few home comforts to make up for the fact that they'll be suffering the delights of Kabul and my electrocution shower. I manage to steal away from Lyle and Mazar into the linen aisle, I have a couple of minutes of peaceful browsing (consumer grazing it feels like to me) before my shadows catch up with me - where's the short Chinese chick? Lyle says. I was rather hoping that I'd be mistaken for a boy in my baseball cap but my kittenish excitement over the furry toy dog in a furry kennel that's sat on one of the shelves clearly gives me away. We don't find Tiger but I do get my towels and some cheerful penguin stick on hooks - such small pleasures ;)

I am also watching animal planet, non stop animal wank for those that love the furry creatures - A man was watching a red squirrel as the squirrel ran up into the branches and started licking the sap oozing from the bark of the tree. Later, the man tried the stuff that the squirrel was eating and discovered a sugary substance with which he could sweeten his food.

Lunch today was chips, baked beans and chicken cordon bleu (an interesting excuse for eating processed, freeze-dried chicken wrapped in bacon and cheese and deep fried in greasy breadcrumbs). Dinner was lasagne (double cheese), chips and baked beans. Lets just say that I was feeling both lardy and British as I joined Lyle, Rommel and Rob for chow. It's times like these that I am reminded of school dinners; I never wanted to eat like a soldier or a guest of Her Majesty and here I am up to my armpits in Brit canteen food.

I've been quite good though and with Lyle's encouragement have managed to get my arse into the gym most mornings. The last few days have been a bit rough as they've straddled a sequence of St Paddy's day celebrations, all of which involved vast amounts of booze, bad Irish music followed by bad British disco music and embarrassingly bad British dancing. Slightly the worse for wear I have waddled through the days only to end up this morning bemoaning my love handles; Lyle tells me that they'll be difficult to rid of coz they're not muscle.... Later in Corner Shop he reminds me that m&ms are what love handles are made of and I have to quickly steer the shopping trolley away from the chocolate and towards the muesli.

Fuck me! Now I'm watching a tiny little bird (on the TV) as he catches an unsuspecting lizard, flies up into the branches of a thorn tree and makes himself a lizard kebab - impaled on a sharp thorn the diminutive (rather cute) bird rips the poor little lizard to bits! Yum...

Oh yeah, a new word for the day: Locationship - A friend told me this word, something I'd never heard of before, and, as you might imagine, it's one of those fling things that happens purely coz you're both in the same place at the same time and neither of you are at home. The concept slightly fills me with dread as it smacks of the kind of relationship that are ten a penny out here - convenient, corrosive and ultimately bad for the soul. I feel rather naive most of the time, having grown up in a rather innocent family, I am sometimes shocked by the hard edges people acquire here.

Dream smoking...

So I’m here again and as always my first few days here have been eventful; I came up this morning and my room (stinky as it is) was decidedly more pungent, and this time with a distinct smell of burning. I entered the bathroom which is ensuite to my room and puzzled as to where the dreadful acrid smell was coming from. In the corner the plug which powers the water heater for the shower was sparking furiously; slightly perturbed I thought “ best not touch it” and went downstairs to tell Lyle that there was a bit of a problem. Downstairs I found Saabi who trotted upstairs with me and promptly switched it off at the wall. Saabi then tried to pull the plug from the socket but was surprised when the plug came apart in his hand; the top coming cleanly off to reveal a burnt out interior, smoking and badly charred.

Later, I am here in my room drying my hair with the hairdryer when all the lights go out, strangely though the hairdryer continues to work and I blithely carry on with my beautification, with just a side thought to the fact that I probably ought to turn off the hairdryer in case we are in a ‘siege situation’ and the boys are shouting for me to hide or escape. I carry on…. The room stays black, my hair gets drier and nothing else happens…. So I write my blog. The computer is still on too and I sit at my desk in the pitch black, too lazy even to light a candle or to grab my head torch from my back pack.

Earlier, we ventured out on to Tapa hill, a low rise hill compared to the mountains surrounding Kabul. The hill is the home of the crazy swimming pool that was used by the Taliban for executions. The swimming pool; empty of water, it is used by the various youth of Kabul as a hang-out joint. Of course there are no girls but loads of children and young Afghan men milling, walking, chatting. The swimming pool is a nice one, but it seems like an odd thing to find on a hill high above Kabul, like it was lifted and dropped from outer space. It has three diving platforms and would have been perfect for swimming laps. It is a spooky entity – knowing that many people died here in truly horrid circumstances. There is talk of reopening the pool but I’m not sure I’d want to swim in it, like swimming in the memory of someone else’s suffering. We take pictures and film the kids, they love seeing themselves on the digital camera. There is a big and impressive Sag Jangi (Afghan fighting dog) sat with his owners. This fierce creature sits regally surveying the lands below from his vantage point on the hillside.

...Aaah the lights return and I am thrust back into the light, my rather smart flick knife lies beside the computer, also on the table are my juicy tubes lipbalm and a butterfly candle holder, a tactical dry bag full of DV tapes next to my makeup bag full of eyeshadow and mascara. Just for a moment I am struck by my curious boy/girl existence; I've a wardrobe full of someone else's (large) military beige clothing, a massive broken TV set, a precarious and possibly lethal bathroom, and enough shaving foam to last me for months.