Tuesday, 19 January 2010

First days

A few folks have asked about my start here - this post was written shortly after my arrival at Blessing.

Greetings from Afghanistan and Merry Christmas / Happy New Year wishes as well. Here's a brief run down on what's been going on... Boarded a flight to Dubai, UAE around 11:30 in the evening on Dec. 3and had the "privilege" of a 13 hours flight. Arrived in Dubai around 9PM (their time) and stayed at the Dubai International Hotel which can be accessed directly from the airport, no need to go through customs,etc. Beautiful room complete with marble tile on the walls and floor of the bathroom, marble walk in shower, fresh fruit in the room. Fell into bed but only slept a couple of hours due to internal time clock discrepancies and concerns over whether my luggage was going to make it to A'stan. Boarded a 3 hour flight on Safi Airlines and had a routine trip to Afghanistan. I was amazed at the ruggedness of the country we flew over - nothing but rocks, windswept dirt / sand plains, no signs of vegetation, no signs of water aside from the dried out flood plains, and few signs of human life. Got through the Kabul airport with no problems, the ride to the embassy was another story. All the vehicles on the road seemed to be in a race with each other, no lane markings, traffic basically out of control; all this mixed in with bicycle riders and donkeys meandering down the side of the road. Our driver was determined to finish first and repeatedly gunned the engine to cut in front of other drivers,slammed on the brakes and honked the horn when vehicles didn't get outof the way. I was surprised by the number of overloaded compact vehicles - 6 or 8 people crammed into a little Toyota with a multi -foot high pile of stuff strapped to the top or the truck of the car.It looked like these cars could be tipped over with the slightest push. The surrounding area was a mix of bombed out buildings, plain clay brick shacks, and "shops" one to three stories high that had been added onto and propped up multiple times; Beverly Hills it ain't. The air is permeated with an acrid, brownish particulate smog, a combination of the animal manure and tires they burn for heat and the emissions from the cars and who knows what else. And grey uniformed police bristling with assault rifles. Got to the US Embassy in the late afternoon on Friday and passed the inspection by the bomb sniffing dogs. Then over to our lodging which is a rectangular 32 x 16x8 steel sided "hooch" surrounded by sandbagsand "heskos" (5 foot cloth coated wire cubes filled with sand) to protect from possible incoming. I stay awaked until about 9 PM trying to get my internal clock adjusted - am absolutely exhausted but wake up at 1:30 and can't sleep. This pattern repeats itself for the first 5 nights before I can finally get a good night's sleep. The reality of the situation also hit very hard; I profoundly miss my family and friends back in the states and seriously question why I'm doing this... I'm here with 7 other USDA guys around my age and we've all, more or less, gone through training in DC and Indiana together. Their professional background is in soil conservation, forestry, and range management; one is from an almond farm in California. They're a great bunch of guys and together we help lighten the atmosphere. Two have been here before and share their experiences with us and its good to know the stress I'm going through is typical and temporary. The first 5 days we have orientation classes and a meeting with all the in country USDA staff. We got to meet the ambassadors and the generals in charge and get in depth looks at the overall strategy and how we'll fit in. (Amazingly enough, I meet another USDA employee, Ray Lehn, who works for the Iowa Forestry Department; he is well acquainted with Steve Hamilton of Fairfax, Iowa, the husband of my first cousin Brenda Boland! What an amazing coincidence to travel halfway around the world and meet someone who knows such a close relative!) On Monday we receive all our government issued equipment - two lap top computers, two nice backbacks, a digital camera, thumb drives, a cellphone, a satellite phone, flashlight, sleeping bag, gloves - a bunch of real nice stuff! Then our travel orders start to come but many of us get cancelled for one reason or another - had several days of overcast weather and they don't fly many places unless there are clear lines of sight, had some VIP visits that bumped less important airflights, etc. I was scheduled to leave on Saturday, get all the way to the airport only to have to go back to the embassy after a two hour wait. I get rescheduled for Tuesday to fly to Jalalabad. About 45minutes before I'm due to meet the ride to the airport I'm in the hooch packing and I hear a boom on the door, like someone fell into it. Didn't think much of it until a few minutes later when the PA announced there had been a suicide car bombing about 200 meters west of the embassy compound and to stay tuned for further developments. Great, I thought, there goes my flight, but after 30 minutes or so they announce the Afghan authorities have the situation under control and the embassy should return to normal operations. Fly to J'bad in a helicopter and stay at the Provincial armed forces center, and then fly out on another helicopter at 10:30 PM on Wed. night to my final destination, the District Support Team located at Forward Operating Base Blessing in the Pech River Valley, Kunar Province. There are no outside lights at Blessing (makes it a harder target to hit at night)and its darker than the inside of a cow when we land. Fortunately I've got my flashlight Liz packed along with my government issued flashlight and I'm led to a "B hut" - basically a plywood shed made to house about a dozen guys on cots for my new quarters. The next day I was invited to go out on a mountain climb with a group of about a dozen soldiers - there was a camera at the top of the mountain that needed to be repaired. Once I received assurances that it would be a walk and not a run I agreed to go. What a great experience! This is a pretty substantial mountain as you've seen in the photos, we were walking narrow trails but I never felt unsafe or afraid of the heights. Found out I'm in decent enough shape too, didn't have any trouble while a couple of soldiers were really sucking for air. There's a small outpost at the top of the mountain with a staff a maybe 10 soldiers. Got the camera fixed and then rested for awhile, and drank Afghan green tea - chi as it is commonly called. Then down the west side of the mountain in into the villages of Guru and Nangalam. Kids (boys only of course) are everywhere and they follow along the soldieers and converse in key English phrases - "You my goodfriend" - "Gimme candy" - "Wanna buy ... " and that sort of thing. A couple of them come up to me and start conversing in Pashto, their native language, and are surprised when I don't understand. Then they say "You no 'terp' (interpreter)" so I guess they thought I was an interpretor since I'm not wearing fatigues and carrying arms. After our climb I head to check out the gym - they've got a bunch of weights and couple of state of the art exercise bikes, so I put in 20 miles on the bike. I'm still in the process of getting my bearings, figuring out what to do, getting computers properly configured, and meeting the key people both in the Armed Forces and the Afghan governance, So far I've been out every day in the Afghan countryside for one reason or another(went to the village of Wala Tangay and met with a village elder -they had a street light project there and one of the street lights wound up in a community member's house yard instead of on the street -typical of the issues faced here) - yesterday sat in on a district governance meeting. There are more exciting things to come but I'm not at liberty to divulge things that will happen in the future due to security concerns. So far things seem very safe and secure here on the base and I don't go off the compound unless escorted by the armed forces. Merry Christmas andHappy New Year to all! Tom V

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