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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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Domestic Bliss - Camel or Rabbit?

The afternoon was fantastically sunny and it was a joy to get out of the clinic and get on the road as we did a doctor's house visit to the EU compound. I was visiting a patient who was holed up in bed needing some strong pain killers. Like all things here activities are usually tinged with a surreal edge, no less this one. As Lyle and I arrived we entered a courtyard with a large area of green upon which a number of rather atrractive young men were playing football. I found my eyes drawn toward their lycra clad figures and as often happens here a sense of exposure and of skimpiness entered my head and thrilled me in a way that it would never do back home. This was the Italian Personal Security Detail for the EU ambassador. It was just terribly exotic all of a sudden to see a man in figure hugging cycling shorts. A small black and white kitty was also there in the garden peeping out from under a tree.

Inside I found my patient prostrate on her bed and feeling rather miserable, luckily I had bought with me suitable meds and shortly after an IV injection she was feeling much more comfortable. Outside we could hear loud shouts, high spirited swearing in Italian as the boys kicked the ball around. I leaned out of the ground floor window and called to the cat, squeaking at it as it sidled up between the wooden benches outside the window. Mercy, that was the wrong noise to make with Italians around! The boys thinking that I was calling them (an obvious conclusion I guess if you're an Italian male and a girl starts squeaking in your line of sight). Seeing that I had accidentally captured their attention, I jumped back from the window, but too late, the Latinos had caught the scent and en masse accumulated just outside on the patio, only to then enter one by one, hopping up on to the sill and crowding out the poor patient's room. Imagine a whole team of rather buff Italian security guards suddenly materialising in your bedroom and you, far from your most glamorous self are there under the duvet wondering what the fuck they want. I was giggling, my patient far more used to the Italians, lay there as they made a fuss of her telling her that all she needed was a really good cappucino, that she looked pale and should have a large glass of chianti. A couple of them had jumped onto the bed, the others berating them for putting their dirty trainers on the duvet, the rest crowding around the end of the bed. So predictably and sweetly Italian, when they found out I was the doc, there were several requests to be examined....! :) I said that I'd been jabbing the patient with a sharp needle and that they probably wouldn't want a turn at that. Then, with equal aplomb, the team filed out of the window, one by one, back into the sunshine of the courtyard garden, promising to invite me to one of their (in)famous pizza parties. You'll probably think I'm being terribly judgemental but that's exactly as it happened, a script writer couldn't have made a better scene for national stereotyping than that which occurred naturally.

Since arriving in Kabul I'd changed rooms and now have Bear's old room. Lyle had kindly given me my hideous floral monstrosity of a bed and the super hard mattress that goes with it. I'd braved it for a couple of nights but by night three of sleeping on a king sized board I was a bit tired and a teeny bit grumpy. Lyle being the super star that he is took pity on me and like a fairy godmother granted me my dearest wish: a squidgy nest of a bed. Mind you we had to work through several experiments first, a doubled over large piece of Chinese nylon, a dodgy fleece blanket from Ikea (pretty sure that they don't have an Ikea in Kabul but you never know), a checkered bedspread that someone had found in the back of a cupboard, but sadly none of these layers made a difference and I was still the princess and the pea.

Next we tried a new foam mattress but the thing that Zabi brought from the shops for me was worse than the original one, hard as a table top and completely unforgiving. Placed atop the first, I needed a ladder simply to get on top of the combined mattress mountain and once there lay like a fish on a brick, largely uncomfortable and somewhat rigid.

Finally then, following our afternoon house call jaunt we took a detour via the Roya Kabul Mattress shop; a nirvana of Afghani bedroom bliss. A showroom of feathers and coverlets, comforters and quilts. Earlier in the day Mateen had brought me back something from this emporium which he said was filled with camel fur; a mattress pad of sorts. A curious item, I wasn't completely sure that it was actually stuffed with camel but it had a little picture of one on the label and it was a nice thing to imagine sleeping on - very desert chic I thought. Even better was the one filled with rabbit fur which Mateen told me was cheaper than the camel fur version. It was sweet watching Mateen ask for the Khar Ghosh version of the mattress pad, I think even he thought that that was what was really was inside it. "Delivery of rabbit fur tomorrow" they told us, "Come back then". Instead we ended up on an entirely pleasurable shopping spree buying feather pillows "Imported from the United Kingdom" but made in China, garishly patterned sheets and pillowcases, and a lovely duvet. Asking the guys which was the softest mattress necessitated me having to test the thing on the floor of the shop, and me, not wanting to spend a fortune on yet another brick of a bed, thought I'd better test it properly, so from hands and knees I stretched out and had a good lie down on the thing and a bit of a bounce. As always I was torn between cultural norms, in their eyes I was a strange women in trousers and a baseball cap cavorting all over a plastic covered mattress in the middle of an upstanding Kabuli bed merchants - in my eyes I was doing what any loyal John Lewis shopper would do and trying the damned thing on for size. The boys were more elegant and using just a knee sunk, as if in prayer, to give the mattress a prong. Asking questions apparently is not the done thing here and as often seems to be the case one is left slightly in the dark about the nature of the purchases but happy nonetheless.

We rushed home to await the delivery of my new bed....

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

$100 dollars for this creature

During my trip to Ischashem we stopped off in a village on our way back to Faisabad. I'd climbed out of the car to photograph a cows head I spotted just sitting there propped up against a ladder and had caught a glimpse of some rather fine furry creatures hanging from the wall inside a small shop. I went inside, as always creating quite a stir simply by being there (there is no way to be inconspicuous as a foreigner). Everything about me was a curiousity to them particularly as I looked up at the hanging furs and asked if I could look more closely at one of them. The old man in the shop was very happy to oblige and his sons or young helpers look on in from the doorway giggling and self conscious at my presence.

I am face to face with a creature, white furred and longer than me as i hold him up, just his skin, his dangling legs and poor sorrowful head. I hug him and I want to take him home with me. I am sad that he is just a sad skin, all dangly. We have a little chat in the doorway, he and I, a little dance with a left over mountain lion, I hold him up for a photograph " Me and my new pal", and then out of curiousity I ask how much he costs, "$100 dollars", the shop keeper tells me. I'm horrified at the thought of promoting such a trade. I'd like to rescue him and take him away from here but I cannot and I hand him back and he is re-hung next to his furry comrades.

SHEWEE does Afghanistan with Dr Karen Woo

In honour of International Women's Day: 8th March 2010, I'd like to share with you one of my most recent discoveries....:)

I was delighted when early one morning I received my bright pink Shewee Extreme through the post. As a frequent traveller I had been looking for the ultimate in feminine travel accessories and jumped at the chance to order one on Shewee’s excellent website

Within a few days of ordering I was the proud owner of a device that would allow me to roam off the beaten track and enable me to avoid the usual indignity and hassle of squatting behind a bush with a bare bottom and splash marks on my shoes. Resembling a small rubberised funnel, using the Shewee required a bit of confidence at first but I soon got the hang of it and after that it was easy to use. The Shewee fitted easily into a trouser pocket and the plastic case made it simple to tuck into a rucksack or a handbag.

As a surgeon I had trained myself to stand for several hours and ignore my bladder but my upcoming trip was a little different; I was off to Afghanistan to make a documentary about access to healthcare facilities for woman and children. I knew that we would be spending hours on the road travelling between rural villages in places where the off road areas might be heavily mined. There would be absolutely no nipping off into a field to find a convenient bit of covering shrubbery. The thought of accidentally getting blown up whilst squatting for a pee was a comical yet sobering thought! Wearing heavy body armour and lots of outdoor clothing presented additional challenges when having to disrobe conveniently and maintain a touch of dignity. In a Muslim country where the modesty of women is very important there were additional reasons not to have to squat in the road behind the wheel of the four by four.

I had my first opportunity to put the Shewee to the test whilst travelling to a small village in the North of Afghanistan; we were miles from anywhere and it was just too dangerous to leave the vehicle, a brief moment with my Shewee and absorbent pouch and I was back in action, no need even for the driver to stop the car.

Having had the pleasure of numerous styles of loo around the world I was determined this time to go in style! The Shewee gave me the freedom to be discrete whilst working in the field in rural areas of Afghanistan with scant suitable facilities. Where toilets did exist, being able to avoid having to squat in rather unsavoury surroundings was a joy.

For any woman who values the freedom to get on with life whether it is under hostile conditions, adventurous terrain or just a long car journey, I would recommend a Shewee!

Bushkazi is the national sport and a "passion" in Afghanistan where it is often played on Fridays and matches draw thousands of fans (male only and the odd expat female). During the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, Buzkashi was banned, as the Taliban considered the game to be immoral. Since the ousting of the Taliban regime the game is being played again. American anthropologist G. Whitney Azoy described it as being a metaphor for Afghan life: "Brutal, chaotic, a continual fight for control".

Serious Buzkashi players train intensively for years, and many of the masters (called chapandaz) are over forty years old. Playing well also requires specially trained horses that know to stop still when a rider is thrown and to gallop forcefully when their rider gets hold of the calf. These horses can sell today for as much as US$10,000-15,000.

Buzkashi is often compared to polo. Both games are played between people on horseback, both involve propelling an object toward a goal, and both get fairly rough. However, polo is played with a ball, while Buzkashi is played with a dead animal. Polo matches are played for fixed periods totaling about an hour; traditional Buzkashi may continue for days, but in its more regulated tournament version also has a limited match time.

The calf in a Buzkashi game is normally beheaded and disemboweled and has its limbs cut off at the knees. It is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before play to toughen it. Occasionally sand is packed into the carcass to give it extra weight. Players may not strap the calf to their bodies or saddles. Though a goat is used when no calf is available, a calf is less likely to disintegrate during the game.