Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life this month

So it was August 5th when I last wrote, and I can hardly believe how the time has flown.

Fall is settling in in Kabul, which makes me shudder thinking of the winter to come. It has been a good, and full month.

August in Kabul flew by with Obama rallies (yes we can still rally in Kabul, but no I didn’t get to meet Obama during his visit to Kabul), new house members (I’ve recently adopted two kittens—oh the fear of becoming an old lady with too many cats), attempts to make Kabul a small-Mexico with little success (you name it…gazpacho, enchiladas, Chile Reyenos) and the most incredible trip to Bamyan, a central and thankfully peaceful province of Afghanistan.

10 minutes into a 25 minute flight to Bamiyan (which by car would take 8-10 hours considering the road conditions) I immediately regretted my decision to board as the plane seemed to fly more like a hummingbird than something with engines. The last minute u-turn, to get the plane in the right direction in the valley to land, didn’t help either. But alas, we landed, in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen.

Our time was spent walking around the small provincial capital (the main-street consisted of a 50-meter smattering of small shops), exploring the famous Buddha status (which the Taliban sadly destroyed), and traveling by road to Bandiamere, a series of turquoise lakes in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. And, if that wasn’t enough, our last morning was spent as a convoy of motorcycles, buzzing around the city to incredible look-out points, old-deserted cities, and really just nowhere.

Life is good.

This may be my favorite photo from Afghanistan. I took the photo from the back of a motorcycle...I think their expression adequately reflects their shock to see 6 people, mostly women, whizzing by on motorcycles.

The small Buddha statue is the background.

Canoing around Bandiamere.

Yes. It was stunning.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

HIV in Afghanistan in the news...

For those interested, a bit on what we're working on here in Kabul...,0,1085545.story

Love to you...

Friday, August 1, 2008

Snapshots of Kabul Life

Painting in Kabul should be considered a sport. Foresight is thrown out the window, preparations are completely neglected, and only the strongest survive. The plan to renovate what was once a bedroom (with pink walls and golden-laced curtains, in true Afghan style) into the main office for the HIV Project started with high hopes. We would tape off corners and light switches; we would cover all furniture with plastic; this would be (in my mind) order and a success! The rumors of the paint escapade started to fly, and soon the room was full of visitors (who soon became paint advisers). The brushes were tossed from hand to hand and expressions of "opinion" were only made with bold stokes on the wall. A bit shell-shocked, I watch the whole thing unfold...and by the end, I joined the crowd...painting over bugs, light switches, and anything that crossed my path.
Surprisingly, though, the outcome was quite a success. "Slate blue" was the chosen color, and we've now been requested to organize similar renovations across the compound.
The photo below is of Dr. Sibghatullah, my colleague, and I glowing with success.

I've had the great fortune of meeting up with current University of Richmond students (where I went for undergrad) who live and are from Afghanistan. The picture below is with Muska and her younger sister at their house in Kabul. It was a lovely afternoon and their hospitality (in true Afghan style) was overwhelming. Their uncle was visiting from Australia (where he has lived for the past 25+ years), and it was fascinating getting his perspective on the changes Afghanistan has seen during these past decades. While driving me back to my office he remarked that when he left Kabul burqas were seldom if ever seen in Kabul, yet now a majority of women in Kabul wear these head-to-toe coverings.

I couldn't exactly tell you what I'm doing in this photo...but just in the slightest chance you think my time is spent only on important matters, clearly it isn't.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Titanic and Traffic

**Driving around Kabul: Check out the Kabul-style skyscraper outside.

It's hard to truly understand the waves of influence of James Cameron's "Titanic" (ok...bad joke.) It could be the Leonardo DiCaprio hair swoop (officially banned under the Taliban after the fad swept through the country) or Afghans' dedicated love of Celine Dion, but for whatever reason the love for Titanic in this country will go on. (Alright...I'm now officially done with the poor jokes.) The newest effect comes in the form of an ice-cream truck. The small carts which stroll around the city selling ice-cream used to play a mix of "Fur Elise" and "Happy Birthday", but have since converted to "My heart will go on."! It took a few versus and a smattering of choruses before I was convinced, but yes the old and hunched Afghan passes his work day to the tune of Celine Dion.

A first in Kabul:
I was STOPPED at a traffic light today. I saw not one, but FIVE traffic lights in the 4-way stop (you do the math), three of which were functioning. It was nearly as if time stopped; there was a moment of order on the roads. This, of course, was followed by my driver opting out of the U-turn option after seeing the bank was on the other side of the road, and making a b-line in the wrong lane of traffic for the remaining 1.5 blocks or so. So much for order...

**The first traffic light I saw in Kabul. 4+ have been added within the last month or so (that I'm aware of).

**Around the block from my house. Oh the lovely walls and razor wire of Kabul.

**Just in case you wanted to know where you can buy fried chicken and burgers in Kabul. This shop is just a few blocks away from my house (though for many reasons I haven't tried its cuisine.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Kabul in the news

Hello all...

As many of you may have read, there was a bomb today outside of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The numbers will change, but as of now the reports say 40 died and 100+ were wounded. This entry will be brief, but I wanted you to know that I was home and safe when the explosion occurred.

To be honest, this has not been an encouraging week. The violent deaths experienced (primarily by Afghans) far extend "terrorist" bombs which reach headline news. Just yesterday, an American air strike killed 27 civilians attending a wedding party in Nangahar, a majority of which were women and children. The bride was among the victims.

Comparing deaths and pain is never particularly helpful, and is definitely not my point. But these horrible tragedies do make me wonder that we need to think more creatively about peace in Afghanistan. These issues are difficult and it is easy to point fingers and declare "right and wrong" and proclaim "evil" versus "good." In Afghanistan, the lines are not clear. When talking about peace, a favorite writer of mine Thomas Merton requests the individual first to discover our own tendencies toward evil and destruction and recognize the confusion in that process before racing out to blame and chose evil around us.

When an Afghan friend of mine Cobra heard the news she ran out to me, eyes welled with tears and cried, "This is not my Afghanistan. No, this is not good." My guess is she has been searching for her Afghanistan for a long time. I hope to search for this for her as well, in the small small ways I can.

Peace to you....


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Kabul Embarkation: Take 4

Although it marked the end of my Junication (or June vacation), the day started off well; I was informed my seating assignment for LAX-JFK leg (flight # 2 out of 4 to Kabul) was “Economy Plus.” Well, I now type disgruntled from row 26, which should be more accurately advertised for it’s flavorful whiffs from the bathroom which my ‘economy plus’ seat sits precariously close to.

The past three weeks in the US of A have been good, and a whirlwind. My friends Jen and Aaron had a beautiful wedding overlooking the coast just north of Santa Barbara;

(Photo: My mother and me at the wedding)

Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and grandparents alike convened to celebrate graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries in Northern California. Days later we celebrated my mother’s birthday in style back in Santa Barbara with Wii tennis matches which left me sore for days.

(Photo: My father and me sitting in the Stanford bleachers for Paul's graduation!)

More family flew down from Seattle to part with the rain and connect with great aunts and uncles in town from North Carolina, and I added a trip to Colorado to visit more family as well as my roommate from college, Liz (who just got married…CONGRATULATIONS!).

(Photo: My cousin Becca and me in Estes Park, CO)

The days were full, but good. It was good to be reminded of the love I come from, and how so many people have influenced who I am.

I think I successfully transitioned into vacation-mode, just soon enough for my Kabul return to be quickly approaching. Regardless, I look forward to returning and continuing this season of work. My guess is I’ll be overwhelmed with work over the next few weeks, but things always settle after a while. I left Kabul with Spring defending it’s territory over Summer, but will now likely return to a much hotter Kabul. I’ve been notified that my office is moving to the rooftop (in the same room, ironically, that I lived for part of last year) so I’m guessing the heat will provide a daily combative challenge.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Somewhere over Pakistan

It has been a while.

I’m somewhere over Pakistan, en route to Delhi, but the clouds are persistent and the layers up layers of dust make me shrug, thinking I haven’t quite left Kabul.

Perhaps it’s my incurable fear of flying, or the fact that I insist on listening to melancholy music, but flights often provide needed time for reflection. It’s not an obvious formula, however, as the man behind me hasn’t stopped belting Bollywood songs since we departed (and yes, he appears tone-deaf), the flight attendant is on her second round of spraying “federally approved”, though precariously pungent aerosol with a hint of jasmine down the isles, and the safety instructions branded on equipment is, disconcertingly, written in Spanish, or perhaps even Portuguese…but regardless, I sit with time for reflection.

It has been a while.

Winter in Kabul was long. In the absence of central heating and I guess more importantly, electricity, we sat through the winter months close to bukharis (or wood burning stoves). In the first weeks of winter, mornings presented an impossible challenge to get out of my sleeping bag, placed under a down comforter, topped with an enormous fur pelt, patched together with more animals than I like to admit (puts my “vegetarianism” into question, no?) and attempt the dash to Anna’s room where coffee would await. Security declined in winter as well, which is unusual. The Taliban increased their offense, but things quieted after a while.

Anna and Steve (my dear friends from years ago, who both live in Kabul) decided to marry…so we all toppled to South Africa to participate in their covenant. It was a needed break, on many accounts. The couple wed in Cape Town, and the combination of the physical beauty of the place with the recognition of authentic love between people was truly a gift. I extended my time in South Africa to travel…I made it to Drakensburg, a mountain range which borders Lesotho, and was silenced by its beauty. It was good to spend time outside, to walk freely, and to see women carry about their daily lives with a sense of autonomy and independence.

The wedding vacation took nearly four weeks in total, and I returned to Kabul only briefly before moving to Pakistan for a short spell. I spent the following six weeks working for a fabulous organization that aims to reestablish the healthcare system in two earthquake affected districts in northern Pakistan. My job was primarily to help them write a policy paper, which looked at rethinking the government’s plan for facility reconstruction in a way that would better improve the availability of quality healthcare. My time in Pakistan allowed for a bit of travel, up north to Mansehra, and down south to the vastness of rural Punjab. It was a fascinating time to be there, with the newly reelected government. All had an opinion to share, and the country rushed with anticipation.

While in Pakistan, I decided to take another position with Johns Hopkins in Kabul. I’m consequently now working on a project with the National AIDS Control Program which attempts to set up a national HIV surveillance system that the government can use for years to come. We are only at preliminary stages, but the process has been absolutely fascinating. I have been struck by the dedication of NGOs whom have devoted their time to marginalized groups such as injecting drug users and sex workers, before it has officially hit the government’s radar. This process will be challenging, but I’m honored to be a part of it.

Back to the plane…I am on my way home. A dear friend, Jen Higa for those of you who know her, is marrying Aaron Corey in a few short days. They are phenomenal people, and even better together, so I am more than thankful to be able to stand with them in a few days in celebration. I look forward to this break, and to spend time with so many people I love.

It’s funny flying home, nearly a year after I departed for Afghanistan. I fly home with similar questions that I held when I left. I continue to aspire to participate in issues I believe in; I continue to seek relationships that are meaningful and that refine our character; and I continue to seek to maintain a childlike wonder and hope for the world. And through this, in many ways, life, and our participation in it, seems increasingly confusing. But the questions continue to be worthwhile.

I was asked to read a Sabbath prayer at Steve and Anna’s wedding, whose meaning grows with time.

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.
Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing.
Let there be moments when your presence, like lightening, illuminates the darkness in which we walk.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and proclaim,
How filled with holiness is this place, yet we did not know it!
Blessed be the holy one, the eternal god.

In search of seeing and knowing….

Till soon (I promise this time)

P.S. I may have the words for the prayer a bit off, so I ask for forgiveness from the unknown author if I've remembered it wrong.