So Calvin and I are back in the good ol US of A. It actually feels good to be home and to be able to take the mundane for granted - like toilets that have the full compliment of parts correctly in place for completing a full flush.
The rest of our flight was pretty uneventful except my checked bag has gone missing. Hopefully it’ll show up in the next few days. Calvin took one for the team by enduring 10 hours and 19 minutes of crazy talk and personal space invasion by the alcoholic school teacher that sat to our right. Why does security only focus on jihadists? If we going to get subjected to it everytime we go to an airport you think they could screen out some of the freaks while they’re at it.
So in short Afghanistan was a truly amazing experience and Calvin and I are already scheming ways to go back and make an even bigger impact with their agriculture. One of the participants made a real impression and we’re going to look at bringing him over for his Masters though there are definitely some barriers to be cleared.
Thanks to everyone who followed my blog. I hope it was as much fun reading it as it was writing it. I really had a lot of preconceptions about the region that have been changed by the experience, and I think for the better. In short the media only scratches the surface with how the area is portrayed. Reading only a headline or a few paragraphs on an event or issue can be more misleading than no report at all. This is just how media is, so I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to see Afghanistan up close to some degree. I’m sure I was still a very long way from full immersion, but it helped see the range of possibilities that Afghanistan might be, and could become.
If anything is reported on this trip I’ll post it here, otherwise if you have the opportunity to travel and do work in Afghanistan I strongly you encourage to take on what little risk there is and take the plunge. You’ll be a better person for it.
Thanks again for reading.
Before leaving we finally got to see the Kabul River which we almost mistook for a sewer canal. Notice the construction behind - a common sight on the Kabul skyline.
Waiting, waiting, waiting… In Paris airport before the last big haul to Salt Lake.
Here’s a photo of our man on the ground in Kabul, Nassery. He’s explaining to me that I can have 4 wives in Afghanistan. Of course I need to convert to Islam first and he warns that not converting “in your heart” just to get the extra wives is a dangerous proposition as you’ll have to “burn in the fire” for your deceit. He himself has only one wife. “One is more than enough trouble” he says waving his hands as if to protect himself from the temptation to have more.
Calvin and I were able to relax and navigate the finer points of Kabul life thanks to his diligent and friendly chaperoning. He was a incredibly open, sincere and delightfully mischeivous person (like most of the Afghanis we were fortunate to meet). It was actually quite sad to say good bye to him and will miss him on our return.
Hello from Charles De Gaulle Internationale Airport (that’s EhrrPorrrr in French). Calvin and I are out of Afghanistan and on our way back to the world of air conditioning, slow lanes, and one wife per dude.
So the last day went pretty well. Calvin and I enjoyed the remaining 4 group presentations all presented “In the Name of Allah.” It seems that group dynamics are a challenge no matter what your circumstances and a number of groups wrestled with personality differences and not just gender dynamics. The closing ceremony was short and sweet with some heartfelt certificate presentations. We were included in lots of farewell photos and the obligatory cup of tea. I received lots of comments on my new Jama and waistcoat (I think mostly in good humor). I’ve been testing out a few Dari phrases and I think that and trying the clothing and food goes a long way toward offsetting many cultural faux pas.
We also wrapped up our cash dispersement for our “dealer” Ajay. Ajay is our Man in the ‘Ghan and since the country is still 99% a cash economy he asks everyone coming from the States to mule up on greenbacks so he can keep his project liquified. Everything from food to batteries to farm machinery is paid for in wads of US dollars. I must say after spending a week strolling the avenues of Kabul with 4 Gs of Benjamins strapped to my belly it was a quiet relief to offload what few bills we had left.
We had an interesting take-off in Kabul. As we hit full thrust on the runway the plane started pitching and yawning in a somewhat unsettling manner. It righted itself on clearing the runway and Calvin and I just exchanged relieved glances and reopened our reads. About 15 minutes in the pilot announces that we took off in the middle of an earthquake. Calvin and I exchange glances again - this time with raised eyebrows - before shrugging and returning to our novels. I guess a week in Kabul traffic is a cure for even the most nervous of flyers.
The SAFI airlines flight (Kabul to Moscow coming soon!) was actually pretty good both ways. The dinner we had (beef! that’s like not lamb or chicken right?) was great and both flights ran on time. I can’t say the same for Air France. What a cluster. First the food was a little wierd and not in a French homey way either. The yoghurt was well wierd (in every way) - a little eff-tu to the Americanne insophisticantes no doubt.
Making our way from Kabul towards home I think we’re on track to break some kind of record in airport security screening. There were about four screening points in Kabul alone including one mob of extremely curt no-nonense Afghani women. Then Dubai and now the French are having their turn - of course something as mundane as airport security still needs the French cultural stamp so everything from your laptop to the elastic on your underwear needs to go through the x-ray (bloody frogs).
Now after the security quirks our flight is being continually moved and delayed with minimal explanation (in English at least). Still this has allowed time for Calvin and I to contribure to the Euro Zone debt crisis by being fleeced at the local ehrrrporr cafe with $8 espressos and $10 croissants. We fortunately have a decent layover in Salt Lake City to give us some wiggle room. I’m sure we’ll have more to report then.
So I’m getting up a little early on our last morning to squeeze in my final post from Kabul. Calvin and I have definitely had a special week here with our Afghani hosts. In many ways I feel a little cheated to be leaving so soon, but I’m not afraid to admit I miss some basic western comforts, in particular decent air quality. The dust and smog make for a unique throat-wracking, lung-hacking atmosphere. Even inside you never quite feel like you escape it. I’m also looking forward to shedding the 10 pounds I’m sure I’ve gained since being here.
We’ve beeen helping the workshop participants with their group projects. They’re incredibly motivated and all cranked out their projects early so we started hearing presentations yesterday. The idea of helping farmers adopt a more effiicient irrigation system really excites these folks since water scarcity at the point of diversion is a pervasive issue, especially in the lower valleys. Three of the groups are basing their projects around the adoption of more efficient drip systems so I’m looking forward to seeing how they intend to promote this technology among their local irrigation community.
In between sitting in on groups I’ve been having more discussions with some of the worldier and wiser members of the workshop class. I find myself growing increasingly cynical of the coalition effort to “rebuild” this country. It’s all starting to seem incredibly opportunistic - I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised since it’s hard to pretend that the super powers of this world spend significant money abroad purely altrusitically. I guess such an approach would quickly compromise your status as a super power. The thing that I have found most educational is just examining a map of Afghanistan. Calvin and I broke one out yesterday with the idea of learning more about which agriculture occurs where and what are the major sources of irrigation water in Afghanistan. While a number of the attendants explained agriculture in their home provinces I couldn’t help noticing the convenient proximity of Afghanistan to what a DC beureaucrat might call “nations of interest.”
If you’ve never cracked an atlas to examine where Afghanistan really is (I certainly handn’t before arriving and it wasn’t what I thought) then I encourage to have a gander right now:
From the West in a clockwise direction Afghanistan borders: Iran, The Russian/Mongol states, China, and Pakistan. Considering how helpless Afghanistan is after two decade long wars in 30 years, do you think the US might see some benefit to getting etablished in this country?
Oh and get this Afghanistan has immense Uranium reserves and plenty of oil and gas. Knowing how little credibility Karzai has as a democratically elected president among most of the Afghanis (and ex-pats) we’ve talked to, the $4 bllion/year “nation building” effort (the GDP of Afghanistan is $1 billion) that’s occuring here starts to look like a bit like the special effects on an old sci-fi movie.
Our new friend Rao jokes bitterly that every wealthy nation has a “Taliban” here. The only people who really don’t have a Taliban are the Afghanis themselves (Rao has all the best lines). If my growing suspicions have a shred of truth, I can see why he’s a little jaded about working here. I think there must be some truth as just during the week we’ve been here western media is saturated with alarming stories of islamic extremism and suicide bombers while Pakistan and the US indulge in petty diplomatic tiffs over this month’s pound of Afghani flesh.
Still I would not dare underestimate these people. Their industriousness and their ability to overcome anything with a soulful smile is uncanny. Calvin and I saw evidence of this spirit last night on the way to a fancy dinner with some (American) embassy folks. As we drove past the Kabul River for the first time - as you might expect it has more in common with an poorly maintained canal than a river, but it definitely has more water in it than the Colorado River did when I left Grand Junction - we saw the future suburbs of Kabul being built. There was more rebar and concrete to be seen than pedestrians playing with the traffic. In amongst it wednesday night commerce was thriving. With the evening light refracted by the smog it was a grubby but intoxicating sight (if not so intoxicating on the nose). We also drove past the palace and all I can tell you about is that President Karzai is probably safe since I think he buys his blast walls and razor wire from the same supplier as our hotel.
We had dinner with a couple of obnixious blow-hards from Washington State at the fanciest hotel in Kabul, Hotel Serena. I wouldn’t have posted about their obnoxiousness except they didn’t ask us a single question about our week here and dared to start picking a fight with Calvin, who is Idaho born and bred, over where the best potatoes in the US come from. Still I got to sit next to Liston from the embassy, who was great guy. His last posting was South Africa and it’s where he’s going on vacation in a couple of weeks. It’s definitely a fascinating world when you meet someone taking a vacation in South Africa from Afghanistan. The food was pretty tasty and Calvin and I loaded up on the dessert calories for the plane ride home.
Today I get to wear my jama and waistcoat for the workshop. I’m sure it’ll provide some great entertainment for group. I guess this is it from Kabul. Next posting will probably/hopefully be Dubai.
So today was notable for some mind widening exchanges. This morning seems long time ago: I think there was a delay getting picked up and an exchange with Mr. Rick Deputy GM about security but I can’t remember… let me check yesterday’s post… yeah I think today was something about the driver brushing his hair the wrong way and triggering about 16 alerts at the gate. Either way we dealt with it and made it to the workshop ontime for the first time since arriving. Calvin and I decided to sport our new scares only to find out the shop owner had lied to us and we’d bought womens scarves. Well if it provided some cheap entertainment we were willing to roll with it.
We’re really starting to connect with some of these folks. There’s Sabul who’s about to do his Masters in Japan; Ibrahim, his boss who has this knowing way of smiling and nodding at you no matter what you say; Rao, who is Indian but his here working for the World Bank and one of the most fascinating people one could ever hope to meet; Javad a young guy who is on fire for agriculture and the recovery of his country.
I’ve been learning a bit about Islam from our new friends. These are clearly educated people and as you might expect have a progressive view of a life in service of Allah. As the younger generation becomes more educated than community elders who have now weathered two wars, the tension continues to grow between the clerical community and the emerging technical talent within the country. The Quaran has three parts. In layman terms: history, rules to life by, and helpful information. As you’d expect the hard-liners thump on the rules and tend to overlook the more human aspects described by the other sections. That said these guys (and gals) are seriously dedicated to their faith. They pray 5 times a day starting at around 4am. I can’t even get up that early to watch premier league so I guess I’m not about to get a season pass to the Montrose Mosque. Probably a good thing as it’d just be a matter of time before I’d upset someone.
Rao was telling me his observations on Afghnistan and I can say quite confidently that I doubt there’d be many more qualified than he. Hailing from Hyderabad previous to his posting in Kabul he’s spent a number of years in Africa where he first started working for the World Bank. Zambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea are some of the countries where he’s been involved. He now works on empowering Afghani farmers with affordable soil testing and irrigation scheduling tools. He gets 2 weeks every two months to go home, where he farms mangoes and cashews (he says his work in Afghanistan is his vacation). His assessment of Afghanistan is definitely the most profound thing I’ve heard since arriving here: the cheapest thing in Afghanistan is human life, nothing is valued lower; where-as there are more people in India than teenagers at the mall yet life at least has some value (the teenagers at the mall bit was my little flourish - you get the drift).
We had some great exchanges with a group of farmers that came for most of the day. In the field Calvin and I heard some surprising differences to the U.S. such as how to address an aging alfalfa stand [by the way as I type this “I’m watching He’s Just Not That Into To You” on Dubai Cable TV that’s shipped in to the Hotel somehow and it is definitely the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen… but somehow I just can’t stop watching]. On our return to the classroom the participants and farmers really got into breaking down on-farm issues. My favorite exchange was when one farmer requested some help with poor germination in his eggplant. Via a translator another farmer suggested his well water was too cold for germinating egglplant. No, said the eggplant farmer this is surface water. Well said the second farmer, you better get right with Allah because he’s clearly unhappy with you. Another farmer complained that American planes were flying too close to the ground and polluting the air causing human and crop health problems. It seems both Colorado and Afghani farmers both have issues with the US Government.
Speaking of complaints both Calvin and I have been surprised to hear how much distrust Afghanis have for the Pakistani administration. If the stories we hear are to be believed, the Pakistanis have taken been exploiting Afghanistan’s weaknesses for a while. The most common complaint was buying onions when they were cheap since Afghanistan has little if any food storage and then sell them back to Afghanis a month later at three times the price. It’s probably not anything wealthier, stronger countries all around the world don’t do without a second thought, but it wasn’t something I even considered. Being all doped up on CNN I tend to see the Middle East and South Asia as shades of Islamic grey. It’s clearly not that way and hearing about some of the differences between Aghanistan and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Afghanistans and the Russian/Mongol states it’s not really surprising that about a quarter of Asia is far from a monoculture of Moslems.
We also got to meet a Myrob (water master) of a regional irrigation association for about 6,000 hectares of farmland (15,000 acres). Myrobs are appointed by the farmers from within the association to resolve water disputes. They’re part of the ancient Mongol system for community leadership, know as the three Ms: in addition to the Myrob there is the Malik for resolving land issues, and the Mullah for religious matters. This Myrob also farmed and was flanked by a number of farmers whose body language suggested they held him in pretty high regard. Unlike some Myrobs this guy says he wasn’t paid, and did it for Allah. I asked him if bribery offers were a problem. He said yes but he was proud of the fact he didn’t accept them. Of course you’d tell us if you were Mr. Myrob, right?
On the way home we negotiated another Kabul traffic jam so I could get measured for the traditional Afghani shirt (jama) and waistcoat. Nasserey has a tailor friend in what is clearly a wealthier area of Kabul. After being shown how to try on Afghani waistcoats (it’s all in the shoulders) I was able to select a nice ensemble. Tomorrow I’ll get to pick it up in time for dinner with the workshop sponsors from the USDA. I’m sure that’ll make a great posting for our last night in Kabul.
So I’m learning that it’s all about “the guy” here. You want to dig a hole in the ground, you need “the guy with the shovel,” to go anywhere “the guy who drives your car,” to go home, “the guy who locks the door.” Invariably “the guy” appears between 15 mins and 2 days after the window for the required task has closed. I don’t blame “the guy” for this. Without meaning to sound culturally insensitive (clearly not my strong suit) I’m just amazed that these tasks depend on what seems to be one person. I hate to tihnk how many secrets are lost every time an Afghani dies, not mention what happens when the “guy with the keys to bathroom” goes on vacation.
Today I was waiting for “the guy,” specifically the one with the shovel as I was doing a demo for soil moisture sensors that I was hoping to bury next to a rose bush out the front of the classroom before the day’s agenda started. It was while waiting I realized that “the guy with the sensors” actually had brought a broken display with him. I guess that’s the price you pay for being ”that guy.” Incompetent and insensitive… quite a combination for a caucasian in jeans wandering the war torn Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Let’s see if I can stay employed and alive until Thursday.
So anyways Calvin and I had just a brilliant day. The highlight has been getting to know our Afghani colleagues better and enjoying some laughs together. We even shared some “American” jokes in return for some Afghani humor. Calvin was forced to represent for about 15 minutes while I remembered one clean enough to share.
We enjoyed a few hours in the morning in the peach orchards at the demonstration farm discussing soil moisture measurement techniques. At one point I completely forgot I was in Afghanistan we were so in the thick of some great back-n-forth. Surrounded by ripening nectarines in the high desert heat I could have so easily been back in Western Colorado. This group isn’t content with just absorbing every little detail you share with them either. After I share a Colorado experience it’s rare not to be met with politely furrowed brows followed by “I’m not so sure this is correct for Afghanistan…” and invariably Calvin and I learn something that exposes how insulated we of the Colorado irrigation community are. There’s so little consistency and legal protection for allocating water in Afghanistan. The little infrastructure there is for water delivery guarantees nothing other than extreme adversity for most irrigators. How they manage to produce what they do would put many Western Colorado farmers to shame.
We broke the larger group up into 5 smaller groups after lunch. Calvin and I picked five natural leaders who have been driving a lot of the conversation and asking the best questions. We deliberately included one woman, which wasn’t easy to facilitate since it is hard for them culturally to speak directly with european men, especially if the man isn’t speaking dari or pashtu. With help from our man-of-four-cell phones Nasserey (he keeps losing them through the holes in his pockets and out his trouser legs) we were able to break the ice and it quickly became obvious which lady was most confident with leading a group.
On the way back to the hotel Nasserey took us to a well policed shopping district and we found a great rug and scarf shop. The owner showed us the loom out the back where they make a number of the scarves and shawls. On the way there we had the privelidge of being pulled over at a check point and having our passports checked. I think it p-o’ed “the guy that drives our car” more than anyone else. Having police doesn’t seem to sit well with Afghanis. I think they’d rather just get on with it and not have to deal with all the security b.s. that has clearly become necessary. I think policing and being policed puts them in an overbearing position that they’d just rather not be in. My impression has been that they are a gentle warm people that look awkward and uncomfortable wearing a uniform and carrying AK-47s. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I was in the more violent southern provinces or if a bomb went off in the street on our way to the classroom tomorrow, actually I’m sure I would, but it wouldn’t change my primary perception that generally speaking these are a deeply genuine and humble people.
I’ve also worked out a running route in the hotel grounds. it’s about a 1/4 mile loop around the outer perimeter of the compound past “the guy who waters the lawn” and “the guy taping up all the leaks in the hose” and “the guy with a napkin in the muzzle of his machine gun” (no joke). I run around a bit and do some power jumps up some stairwells and after about 30 mins of this at 6,000 ft I’m ready for something to eat, which is a routine I’m learning to enjoy :) You simply can’t run in the street here because of the security risk, or at least the risk that Rick Dep GM would invariably have to give me a stern and talking to. Anyways I went to find the hotel on Google Earth so I could show you all where I run and it’s not there. We don’t exist. We’re just a vacant lot next to the airport. This is really wierd since the Hotel has apparently been around for about 4 years. I checked the farm, it looks completely different. The size and shape were clearly the same but the plots and buildings were all different. Again strange since the building we’re teaching in is about 6 years old. I can only guess this is some kind of security restriction from the US governemnt not releasing sensitive satellite info to the public. I’d ask Rick but knowing that he’s “the guy who needs me to know where he’s coming from…” I’m think I’ll pass.