So today was so uneventful I’m almost disappointed. We did get a a lecture from Deputy General Manager Rick for attempting to walk from the hotel reception to the street (rather than wait behind the gates) to meet our driver. Without being silly he was right. Unecessary risks are foolish in Kabul and while it was at the request of our driver so he didn’t have to deal with the hassle of security, it’s obviously a necessary hassle for him even if it means a delay for us. Still I think Rick actually presses (irons) his set of seven grey wife beaters (singlets) and I do enjoy it when he “tells me where he’s coming from” since it always ends with an example of ”mas cal” and an apology for his unapologetic approach to security. Rick, if for some bizzare reason you happen to read this - which I highly doubt since it could subtract life saving minutes from a security briefing - I’m already giving you twenty.
So today was a really productive day at the workshop. We made some really encouraging connections with our counterpart Extension personnel. It was helped by a visit to the demonstration plots which seeded some really fruitful discussion. What has been unsurprising about Afghnaistan has been the chaotic and seat-of-the-pants approach to just about everything. While it does provide it’s bizarre and entertaining moments, I’m sure it’s borne of generations worth of conflict and the unavoidable and overriding instinct of simply getting from one end of the day to the other without losing something you care about i.e. your life.
Many of these people are highly educated, and able to problem solve and absorb new information at a very high level (much higher than me for what that’s worth). For the majority of the day Calvin and I were the ones getting educated as well as revising our presentations to incorporate material more relevant to their particular challenges. The epiphany we did have was that their problem is not that of a knowledge gap. Most of these people are smarter than me, work harder than me, have more farmers dependant on them, have more mouths to feed and get paid a lot less. Their problem is one of foundational experience. They’ve never had to design and implement technology or technique demonstrations/research nor even been exposed to it. They need mentorship from someone like Calvin to lead them through the process of designing appropriate experiments and managing them successfully to completion. It just sounds as if the funding and political will is simply not present right now to make that happen. Without it I suspect that this workshop will unfortunately risk lowering morale among these highly capable people. It may only succeed in highlighting resource defiiciencies rather than providing new tools.
One thing that I took encouragement from was success they were having building trust with ag the community and their ability to find multiple partners willing to try out new technology on-farm. Again without ongoing support these efforts may lose steam if the cost for this equipment doesn’t become affordable for a larger portion of the farming community and tech support doesn’t improve. This is problem solving of a scope well out of my league.
In spite of these bumps in the road, Calvin and I returned to the hotel feeling like we were building a positive rapport with our Afghani colleagues and really enjoying that aspect of it. Tomorrow we’ll be doing more field demonstrations and classroom work, and will be breaking the workshop up into teams for their visits with farmers and group project.
The food continues to be excellent, today at lunch we had a tandoori style chicken kabob with lemon that was just well… bomber (sorry Rick, I’m already giving you another twenty).
I think Calvin and I have weathered the initial storm that Kabul has thrown at us. I feel comfortable saying we’ve stopped being surprised by surprises.
First this morning Calvin and I were all ready for our driver to arrive and take us to the first day of our train the trainer workshop when our cell phone started ringing off the wall.
Ajay: “Good Morning Denis, where are you and Calvin?..
Denis: “Ahh same place as when you called 10 minutes ago… here at the hotel waiting for our driver.”
Ajay: “Denis, can you do me a favor and call Nassarey and find out where the driver is?”
Denis: “Ahhh I just got off the phone with him… he says you are with the driver…”
Ajay: “No no Denis, that is my driver. Your driver should be with Nassarey. Please call Nasseray and tell him…”
Needless to say we learnt a lot about President Karzai waiting for our driver to arrive. “Karzai?” you say. Well as it turns out Karzai had a date with NATO in Chicago, and presidents are presidents wherever they are. Apart from pretty girls and jacknifed semi’s they are always going to stop traffic given the opportunity. Smart Kabulers spent the morning inside waiting for the mayhem to subside. The rest spent it hurling every which kind of Pashtu curse at their fellow automobilists among the instant parking lot that formed accross Kabul for about 3 hours. All this while the president’s cavalcade motored calmy behind road blocks towards the airport. It’s a good thing we weren’t flying out today because it was VIPs only at the airport. While I’ve very recently been promoted to a professor it probably doesn’t qualify me to share the same building as Karazai.
After finally getting picked up and answering another 5 calls wanting to know where Calvin and I were (I can’t imagine where we got to), we arrived at the UN Food & Ag Organization (FAO) campus. The facility has a large research and demonstration farm (about 150 acres) with all kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, and even some cereals and oilseeds. A large ”Secretariat” building in the middle and where the workshop is being held. Calvin and I rush up the stairs into a room full of well groomed Afghani extension and ministry of ag staff. As we unpack our laptops and flash drives in record time we’re told to relax it’s time for a coffee break. Of course.
So just to recap, the reason Calvin and I are here in Kabul is to do what is essentially an irrigation workshop for provincial and federal Extension personnel from around Afghanistan. We will attempt to share our knowledge and experiences on irrigation and irrigated agriculture and hopefully learn a lot about our new colleagues experiences in return, taking som new ideas back to Colorado with us.
After the coffee break Calvin and I start our presentations and I must say for being as jetlagged as we were, in the same clothes for the fourth day running (we’re still waiting for our bags from Dubai), we did pretty well. We had some great discussions about the structure of irrigation companies and management of irrigation infrastructure. An interesting distinction was that in Afghanistan water is considered a gift from god so no-one is charged for water. In America I think a lot of folks would consider irrigation water divine providence as well, but that would be the exact reason they’d also want a fair market price for it.
After lunch we had some great discussions on measuring and estimating crop water use. It was again surprising but at the same time not surprising that these folks were wrestling with the similar issues to what we deal with in Colorado: how to get meaningful crop water use estimates into farmers hands in a cost effective manner. In Colorado we may have a nice network of ag weather stations for helping for producers schedule irrigations but convincing them to use it consistently and effectively takes time and persistence and can clearly be frustrating - something that was plainly mirrored in the anecdotes of our afghani counterparts.
As we were winding down Day 1 of the workshop down Calvin went with Nasserey to collect our bags from the Airport. While I was waiting I got to chat with some of the workshop participants. Talking with Mohammed from the World Bank on-farm water use project I learned plenty about World Bank work but also some more about Afghani life. Apparently his mother is about 9 hours drive away negotiating for his future wife. He’s never met her but based on his feelings about his ex-girlfriends he’s confident his mother will do a better job selecting his life partner than he will. Immediate thought: No matter how insightful this approach proves to be, it’s not a paradigm I’ll be testing anytime soon.
He goes on to explain that the father negotiates marriages on behalf of his daugher(s) and the mother for the son(s). There may be a dowery paid for daughters (assuming a marriage is agreed to) but an equivalent gift will also be returned. A maximum of four wives are allowed but he wasn’t going past one. He explained how hard it was to manage two or more wives (oh really? it sounds like at least twice the fun). He was clearly a devout moslem but by traditional Afghani standards my sense was he was fairly progressive. He wanted his wife to have a career and for them to both travel and be of service in other countries.
When Nasserey and Calvin showed up, Calvin was awe of Nasserey’s skills of persuasion getting into the airport and finding our bags. Apparently he is fearless with the local police that screen everyone entering the airport. I’m just relevied I can finally wear clean underwear after my next shower.
On the way home we passed through the market district, which on a Saturday (first day of the moslem week) was really hopping. Witnessing the freewheeling close-miss prone chaos of Kabul commerce, dodging tweakers racing their shopping trolleys down the meat aisle at City Market seemed pretty tame. We picked up some more bread and a couple of ams (mangos) for desert.
After dinner and enjoying smoothest mango I’ve tasted in a while for dessert Calvin and I learned Hilary Clinton might be coming to Kabul soon. Let me guess it’ll be Thursday when we’re due to get on the plane home. Can’t wait!
So after checking in we had our second breakfast with hosts Ajay (CSU) and Habib (Ministry of Ag, Afghanistan). Habib is a smiling cheerful guy with a deep belly chuckle that makes you smile even when you’re jet lagged out to wazoo. I ask him about his family: 1 wife, 20 kids. “!!??” Well actually 6 kids (3 boys, 2 girls) but it feels like 20 he says.
Calvin and I finished preparing our presentations and handouts for a printed manual for the attendents. We discussed the workshop approach with Ajay a number of times and think we’re slowly getting clear on how it should be delivered. Calvin and I are really looking forward to meeting our Extension counterparts for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We just need our bags to be at the airport first thing as promised so we can provide handouts and do our demonstrations. Apparently Dubai’s baggage handling computer dropped a cog last night and sent about 20 different plane’s baggage to the wrong plane. Fortunately our bags aren’t in Nairobi or Yemen but stuck in Dubai. Fingers crossed they are on tomorrow’s morning flight.
We had a “10 minute” security briefing with Mr. Rick Taylor, the Hotel Deputy Manager. if there’s one thing Rick likes more than tattoos and managing security, it’s military jargon and acronyms. My favorite was “Mas Cal” which I guess is short for a bomb just turned you all into bolognaise. Actually it was very informative and quite interesting and Rick assured us that we were in one of the safest facilities in the country. I believed him - I wouldn’t dare not believe him - and don’t doubt I sleep soundly and safely tonight.
This afternoon we got to drive around a bit and saw a bit of Kabul proper. Calvin and I were impressed with how much fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and bread were for sale in stores and by street vendors. People looked poor in certain neighborhoods, but they didn’t look hungry. We stopped and grabbed the two ubiquitous forms of flatbread, a pancakey round bread and a light wheaty long bread. Both were warm, light, and just flat out scrumptious.
At a high point on the edge of downtown next to the Intercontinental Hotel we were able to stop and take some photos. Taking photos in Kabul isn’t common and it’s easy to feel over scrutinised for trying. Nassarey, our escort told the guards we were in “the wedding party” to get us onto the hotel ground. It must of been some wedding as we hadn’t shaved or changed for 3 days. Got some great evening shots though looking down on the city.
Now it’s bedtime and I am pretty beat. Tomorrow we start the workshop and I’m really looking forward to it.
So here we are and Calvin and I are slowly coming to grips with our new surroundings. In some ways Kabul is everything we expected, but in other ways it couldn’t be further from our expectations. There’s barb-wire everywhere and camo’d soldiers with AK-47s behind checkpoints at every corner, but it’s surprisingly unintimidating. It appears as if these guys are pretty relaxed and haven’t been tested for a long time, if at all. We are hoping of course, that has no reason to change.
After arriving, our bags… well didn’t. An airport official stood up on the baggage belt and yelled out a phone number that was about 4 digits too long to call for help. Someone obviously tried it and before he could sneak back to his office was aske rather curtly to give us the right number. Instead he said to come back tomorrow when our bags would be here. “How do we get past the guards at the checkpoint?” someone asked. “You show your bag tags to the guard and he will let you in,” is the reply. Mmmm it’s that easy to get past the guards? The Aussie OxFam lady we stood behind in the customs queue turned to me and said “Welcome to Afghanistan.”
That couldn’t ruin the flight down from Dubai, which was spectacular. About half way in out of the dusty desert emerged some spectacular scenery. Jagged peaks and plunging valleys. Sloping plains and finey chiseled washes. The fields of irrigated agriculture became denser and more organized until we hit - what we found out later - was the legendary Indus Valley. What a sight. Comparable to if not more breath-taking than anything Colorado or the American West has to offer. As we landed the legacy of Russian occupation was evident with rusty Soviet style aircraft littering the edges of the airfield.
Calvin and I are now doing our best to become accustomed to our surroundings at the Hotel Baron and it’s peculiar security system and eclectic clientiele. We’ve started fine tuning our strategy for the workshop with Extension workers from we’ve learned will be 10 of the 34 Afghani provinces and some Pakistini specialists. We’re a little clearer on how the workshop should run, but clearly there are some delicate politics between USDA Foreign Ag Service, the State Dept., and the local agencies. Money/funding, as always, seems to be the fly in the ointment. More to come…
Into the back of the obligatory Land Cruiser - Arrived in Afghanistan! (No this is not the last pic recovered from my camera after being carjacked by the guy coming in the door).
So after what was actually a pretty smooth if long flight Calvin and I are now enjoying Baskins and Robbins (“Love Potion”: raspberries and chocolate chunks in vanilla ice cream - not bad) while we await boarding for our SAFI Air leg to Kabul (pron Kah-bool, not Kah-ble apparently). We’ve had great luck with people so far. We sat next to a guy who trains teams of sniffer dogs and their handlers for detecting explosives and drugs in South West Afghanistan. Waiting for our passport check we met the senior agent for the american ambassador to Afghanistan. He was a little guarded at first, but when he found out we were “Professors” (hey Calvin’s words not mine) he really opened up and gave his card and all but invited us over for dinner.
Dubai (pron. Doo-bae not Dub-eye) appears pretty cosmopolitan (Mos Eisley wasn’t far off as comparison) and crazy hot. We about melted the couple of minutes we walked between buildings and it’s 10 o’clock at night. I sat behind what looked to be a South Asian man watching 2001: A Space Odessey who kept giving the stout arab women next to him dirty looks for laughing too hard at Malcolm in the Middle (with German subtitles).
Well Calvin and I are about ready to be done with planes and airports, but fortunately this next flight is pretty short (3:20 hrs). Something tells me it will be the most colorful though.
A Dubai Dilemma: Chowpatty or Chowking?
Calvin and I have arrived safely in Atlanta after the first two domestic legs on our air epic to Kabul. Calvin impressed the check-in attendant by blowing out Delta’s luggage scale with an whopping 72lbs worth of show and tell. After our $75 luggage charge we connected smoothly with our flight in Salt Lake. Calvin enjoyed telling the lady next to us that I’m his bodyguard in Kabul and have been trained to dive in front of him should we come under fire. She thought this was a lot more hilarious than I did. Here in the uber plush new Int’l terminal we now await 14+ hours of Atlantic and Continental crossing into Dubai. For some reason I envision Dubai as the Mos Eisley of air travel (for the Lucas geeks among you). We’ll see if my intuition is on target in about 3/4 of a day.
Random thought I have developed about air travel: there must be no money in boarding/deboarding from the starboard side of the plane or else someone would of tried of it by now.