Greetings from Kabul
Some of you were a bit wary about me making a trip down to Kabul, but I did it anyway. This has been a goal of mine for months now, and I'm excited to have finally done it. Let me give you a quick background as to why I was so anxious to get down here: Bagram is entirely self-contained and isolated from the rest of the world. One of the most frustrating things about having spent a year in Afghanistan is that I haven't really spent a year in Afghanistan. I've been cooped up inside a US military compound. All I see are US soldiers, US military vehicles, US planes and helicopters, eat US food, watch US television via satellite, and on and on it goes. Now, that's not entirely a bad thing, but the point is that you could take Bagram, move it to South America, then tell me it's Afghanistan and I'd never know the difference. I never see the locals, never visit the towns, never experience life outside of these fortified walls. Sure, I took a day trip to the village of Jegdalek on Christmas eve, and that was truly an amazing visit, but it lasted all of about six hours. I've been here in this country for over 7200 hours, and I've spent a grand total of 6 of those outside of the base. That's pathetic, and it's exactly why I wanted to see Kabul so badly before I left the country. Now that I've (hopefully) justified myself, let's get on with the story... I left Bagram Wednesday morning at roughly 0800. I had managed to track down some military guys who drive down to Kabul and back twice a week, and they had room for me on this particular convoy. I showed up at the meeting point at 0730, and 1/2 hour later we were off. The drive was quite an adventure. It was a two-vehicle convoy, and we were in the rear. All the stories I'd heard about these convoys driving like maniacs were true. We never got going terribly fast -- we stayed below 100 kph (62 mph) -- but it was a whole lot faster than I'd traveled in a vehicle in months. On top of that, the road between Bagram and Kabul is terrible. Potholes and randomly placed speed bumps are common throughout the 70-mile trek. The convoy drivers are taught to go as fast as they can as often as then can, but they're constantly slowing down to dodge holes in the road or negotiate traffic. It's not uncommon to be going 95-100 kph, then abruptly hit the brakes to dodge an obstacle, then immediately speed back up again. Our driver hit the brakes so suddenly at one point that we were literally skidding on the asphalt. The bad road also makes for a really bumpy ride -- I eventually lost count of how many times my head hit the roof of the vehicle. I'm surprised we still had a suspension when we got down to Kabul. The great part of the ride was getting to see all the activity along the way. We drove through the small town of Bagram which sits just outside the military base, and it was wild to see all the shops and storefronts along that main road. I took a few pictures, and I'm hoping to take plenty more on the way back. I also saw several farms and shepherds in the fields along the road, and even a few camels walking around. We also passed several brick-makers, who were easy to spot by the long rows of bricks that were neatly laid out in the sun to dry. Once we reached the city, our first stop was UNO. I had no idea was UNO stood for when the driver announced it as our first stop, but I figured it had something to do with the United Nations. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the building and I read the sign: "University of Nebraska at Omaha Education Press." Sure enough, the University of Nebraska at Omaha has a press office in Kabul, Afghanistan. I looked it up on the web later (read it here), and UNO claims it as the largest and most successful printing enterprise in Afghanistan. The website lists the US base at Bagram as one of its customers and I can vouch for that, because there we were picking up some magazines that had been ordered from Bagram. After taking some pictures and helping load the magazines in our SUV, we were all invited inside for some tea and cookies. The people were unbelievably hospitable, and the tea and cookies were great. After we'd relaxed for about 20 minutes, the Army guys decided it was time to head out. Next stop was Camp Eggers, the main base in Kabul and my destination. On our way there we passed through the busier part of town -- I guess you can think of it as "downtown" Kabul. The city is larger and livelier than I expected, and the highlight was negotiating a rather large traffic circle on our way to the base. This particular traffic circle wasn't quite as large as the one around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it definitely beat the heck out of anything I've seen in Colorado. The best part was that, much like the circle in Paris, there seemed to be no rules or protocols whatsoever for getting around the circle and onto the road you needed (come to think of it, there doesn't seem to be any rules for driving anywhere in this country). It was every car for itself in there, and since I wasn't driving I got to sit back and enjoy the fun without stressing it. We finally made it to the base, where I thanked the soldiers for the ride and then proceeded to track down my Help Desk counterparts. I found Roger and Casey, two guys I know fairly well. Roger is the HD Lead in Kabul, and he and I had met back in January at a HD Lead meeting in K-2. Casey worked with me at the Bagram HD for a few weeks before heading down to Kabul, and we discovered that we also used to work together at the Microsoft Help Desk back in the States. We didn't know each other back then, probably because he worked on a different team and always on night shift. Anyway, the first two guys I ran into at the base in Kabul were Roger and Casey, and they were on their way out. They offered to take me by the "Casino House" to drop of my gear, so I took them up on it. The Casino House is a safehouse just outside of the base, and it's where all the ITT civilians live. Roger and Casey showed me the room where my buddy Jeremy lives, so I walked in to drop off my gear. Jeremy and I said hi, but we didn't talk long because he was on his way to bed. It was roughly 1100 at that point, and Jeremy works nights. Since he was about to crash for the "night" I decided to tag along with Roger and Casey, who were headed out to (what else?) fix some computer issues. Our first stop was the American Embassy, which of course was awesome to see. We weren't inside for long, but at least I can say that I've seen the inside of the place. Our next stop was ISAF, the compound where the ISAF troops live. ISAF stands for International Security Assistance Forces, and they're a branch of NATO. We have a few ISAF troops at Bagram -- mostly Romanian and Polish troops -- but not nearly the presence they have in Kabul. We ate lunch at the ISAF compound, which was awesome. In addition to the good food, it was cool to see such a diverse gathering of international troops. We ate outside on a large patio, and as we passed a table of German soldiers I heard one of them make a comment, in English, about my Colorado Avalanche hat. I got a huge kick out of that because I've had countless American soldiers ask me what the "A" logo on hat is all about, and yet this German soldier in Afghanistan knows exactly what it is. God bless the Europeans for being hockey fans. We went back to the base after lunch, and Roger proceeded to give me a tour of the place. It's a much smaller compound than Bagram, but it was cool to see. I got to say hi to Robby and Becky, who I've mentioned on this blog before. Both were excited to see me make it down -- apparently a lot of people talk about visiting Kabul but never actually follow through. Becky said she'd try to get me hooked up on a trip into the community (i.e. to visit an orphanage or shelter) on Friday (tomorrow), although I haven't heard from her yet so I'm not sure if that will happen. During Roger's tour of the base we also had the unpleasant fortune of bumping into Mike, Dave, Herb, and Jim. These four guys are varying levels of bosses, from the Kabul Site Lead all the way up to the Project Manager, who is the guy that oversees all of the company's government contract work in this region. The PM is the kind of super big boss that works directly under a VP and gets treated like royalty. We're all supposed to love him and respect him and bend over backwards for him, but I'm too close to leaving to really care about any of that. Anyway, there we were making excruciating work-related small talk with all these big bosses, when one of them decides to invite us to join them for dinner. Roger and I kind of looked at each other, but since neither of us could come up with a valid excuse on the spot, we accepted. I'm not so sure we really had a choice, anyway. The cool part of going out to dinner was that it was an excuse to get off of the base and see some of the city again. The restaurant was called The Great Country, and was conveniently located right across from the Mustafa Hotel where all the big bosses were staying (they couldn't get housing on base). I sat in the back as we drove out to the restaurant, and as usual I was completely mesmerized as we drove into town. It's just unbelievable to see a different culture, especially one so vastly different from my own. The dinner was bearable, considering the fact that it was a boring, work-related, "executive dinner" type of thing. The food itself was really good though, and made up for the lack of any social atmosphere. It was a Chinese place, and I mean real, authentic, Chinese food. FYI - when the Chinese dice a chicken, the dice the whole chicken, bones and all. Just something to be aware of if you ever decide to go out for Chinese food in Asia. After dinner we bid farewell to the bigwigs, and the rest of us decided to head out for a nightcap. This is where it got really fun, and I'm not even talking about the bar. It was the drive to the bar that was an adventure. Roger was driving, but Mike (the Site Lead, and Roger's boss) is a terrible backseat driver. Roger reluctantly followed Mike's directions, and before long we were extremely lost. We somehow found ourselves on a very narrow road made of uneven dirt and rock, nowhere near the city lights and paved streets that we should have been on. We drove through alleyway after alleyway, trying desperately to find our way back to the main part of town. In doing so we traversed several roads that should not have passed for roads (it's a good thing we were in an SUV -- we never would have made it down those streets in a car) and saw several parts of town that I'm sure no one in the car had seen before. We passed marketplaces, neighborhoods, huge houses, and much smaller dwellings. We even drove past two separate burned out tanks that I assume have been left abandoned since the USSR invasion of Afghanistan back in the 80s. The houses and shops and neighborhoods just sprung up around them. It was an unplanned but awesome little diversion because I knew that I had gotten to see a taste of what Kabul is really like. We eventually found our way back out to the main part of town, and not long after that we arrived at the Happiness Restaurant. We walked in and discovered that were the only patrons of the Happiness, a small Chinese place that was staffed by a Chinese woman and her daughter. We were all still full from dinner, but we ordered a round of Heinekens to get us started. Mike invited Shalin (I have no idea how her name is spelled, but it sounds like "shah-lynn"), the Chinese girl, to join us. She spoke enough English to get by, and we had fun trying to teach her more English while she taught us some Chinese. We proceeded to hang out for a while and order a few more rounds of beers, and at one point we were served a tray of watermelon slices. I just thought that was worth mentioning because watermelon isn't exactly the kind of "bar food" I'm used to getting in the US. We had a great time at the bar, and although I forgot my camera, I did leave the place with a "souvenir" in the form of a handwritten Chinese phrasebook courtesy of Shalin. We made it back to the Casino house at a little after midnight -- a long and eventful day that for me had begun at 0630 in Bagram. I was exhausted, and after a short phone call to touch base with Jeremy (what was at work back on the base at this point) I crashed. I woke up initially at around 0800, although I fell back asleep and didn't get out of bed until around 1100. I haven't done much of anything today, just relaxed and enjoyed a day of vacation and recovery from the very full day I had yesterday. I'm sitting at the Casino house right now, and Jeremy is finally waking up. He's got the night off tonight, so we'll probably go hit another restaurant this evening, in addition to whatever else we decide to do. I plan to be here for another couple of days -- ideally I'll head back to Bagram on Saturday if I can find a ride. I'll keep you posted, and I'll try to throw up a few pictures of Kabul as soon as I have a chance.