Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Now Taking Applications for Greeters

Each of the bases out here has a few stores run by the local Afghans. The stores come in two varieties: The first sells a limited array of supposedly Afghan souvenirs, like clunky marble tea sets or wooden trays or carpets. The second sells stuff you might actually want if you were stuck out on a base in the middle of the desert - batteries, small electronics, pirated DVDs galore. This "Wal Mart," being a super-store, may have offered some of both.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Back in Kunar

After a quick stop in Nuristan, your correspondent returned to Kunar. We have a great team of civilians out there, so it's always a pleasure to be there. One feature of the FOB there is a spot with a couple old soviet tanks. Exactly why remains a mystery. Did they move some tanks here to remind the Afghan contingent on the base of their military history? Did they build the base around the tanks, which have been there for years? Did they just put them there so visitors could get a few feet off the ground to improve their cell phone reception?

Oh and while we're talking about stuff that didn't seem to fit on a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, they had a little patch of grass with some donkeys, some dogs, and this ram. I guess the donkeys are for carrying stuff, and the dogs might be guards. I asked what the ram was for: "Fighting," said one of my hosts. I guess some other local group also has a ram, and they get them together every once in a while and let them run into each other.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Of Nuristan

Nuristan is kind of a crazy place. It's a famously remote and mountainous province, home to the Nuristani people, an ethnicity apart from the dominant Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks of the rest of the country. It was the last part of the region to be converted to Islam, and a center of the resistance to the Soviets. Now we're there, but it's hard to tell anyone else is. This is the view form one of our bases in Nuristan. Visible is the district center, where we hope some government is happening, and... well, and nothing else. It's really pretty out there, and I am assured there are actually thousands of people living there, but from what one can see from the base, it's pretty hard to tell.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Out and About in N2KL

Your intrepid correspondent has been on a whirlwind tour of Eastern Afghanistan, the provinces of Nuristan, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Laghman - or N2KL for short. At several different Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), your correspondent was treated to VIP accommodations. At FOB Fenty, at Jalalabad Air Field, we had the pleasure of staying in two different "hotel" rooms on different evenings. These guest accommodations are really quite fabulous in that you get a plywood box all to your self, which is not something everyone gets. So we shouldn't make fun. But it must be pointed out that these austere but still relatively luxurious rooms might be better left unadorned. Instead, each room features a striking diagonal arrangement of three pictures of the military in action - such as airlifting supplies or training Afghan soldiers... or changing a tire... or standing around a volleyball court.

That was a little silly, but more comfortable than the truly bizarre lodging at FOB Connolly, which is inside an old Afghan brick building, sectioned into multiple rooms with plywood, and featuring crib-like wrought-iron beds and the most aggressively patterned mattresses and pillows you can imagine. Again, I shouldn't complain -- the soldiers are putting up with a lot worse than ugly pillows. But I feel like I have a journalistic duty to let you know about these little details.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

We managed to celebrate Thanksgiving here with a fairly complete Thanksgiving meal. We pre-ordered a turkey that turned out to be maybe six or seven pounds - the size of a chicken, really. We ordered cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie ingredients - none of which arrived in time. In response, we had to go potluck style, which resulted in contributions of some less-traditional (for us) Thanksgiving dishes, like matzo-ball soup, but also great mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

The best addition to the evening was when The Lovely Katherine's boss announced that he had been gifted a fresh turkey by the Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs. Said boss, a former CNN correspondent of some renown, showed up at our door Wednesday evening to drop off the box above. It turns out it had taken some convincing to persuade the Minister that we really didn't want live turkeys - we had nowhere to put them and nowhere to slaughter them. So we got this very freshly killed and dressed turkey, which was just a bit scrawny but still certainly bigger than the tiny turkey we had shipped in.

The staff photographer has some pictures of the turkey out of the bag, with it's big creepy neck flopping all over, just beside the knife and scissors your correspondent had been using to hack out all the giblets from the inside. The picture is actually stunningly unattractive, and we've declined to publish it in case any of our loyal readers is reading this just before lunch. In any case, I don't know what professional turkey-cleaners' or hunters' secret is, but I can say with certainty that there must be a better way to remove turkey giblets than the one your correspondent resorted to.

In the end, we got it cooked, and it was, somewhat surprisingly, not more delicious than our American factory-famred Turkeys. But it was fine, and we had plenty of good food and good company, and most precious of all, a holiday that we didn't actually have to work through at the Embassy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More from the Egyptian Field Hospital

The Egyptian Field Hospital is actually a great endeavor. The Egyptian contribution to the Coalition effort, it's a full-service clinic, including primary care, surgery, dentistry, ophthalmology, a pharmacy, and more. It is on the Bagram Air Field base, but it treats the Afghan public from the surrounding area at no cost. As a fellow Muslim nation, the Egyptians are well-placed to be especially aware of the sensitivities of the local population. They've treated hundreds of thousands of patients, presenting a clear good-news story. It was also interesting that most of the guys waiting in line at the hospital seemed totally unfazed by the U.S. Ambassador and his huge entourage passing through and asking them what they were there for.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of Bagram, Take 2, Part 2

This is the Ambassador touring the hospital. In the foreground, that is. Ahem. In the middle ground, in focus and all, is one of the many people lined up seeking medical care that day. I'll admit that I'm not yet inured of the turbans and beards around here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Of Bagram, Take 2

After returning from our R & R, we were dispatched to Bagram Air Field in fairly short order. Mostly it involved the insides of conference rooms. One of them is actually kind of photogenic as conference rooms go, but that's not saying much. The one part of the trip where the staff photographer got to work a little was a visit to the Egyptian Field Hospital. Before the briefing and tour with the Egyptian commander, we were greeted by these guards in what is apparently a salute. Why any army would decide that the salute position is to hold your rifle pointed at your own head is one of the subtleties of military culture that this civilian may never penetrate.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kunar 7

Flying home.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kunar 3

I have been asked to remind readers that this is a historical trip that happened a month ago. Nobody shot an RPG at us when we were there.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kunar 2

This was our purpose for being in H.K. Kunar. This is a scene from the governor's office, which like all Afghan offices, is ringed with couches where various hangers on can sit while the VIPs pontificate and various people with cameras document the scene.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kunar 1

As promised yesterday, a picture from Asadabad, H.K. Kunar, obscured by RPG cage.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Week of Kunar

Remember this image, from way back, before we left for a few weeks in Tanzania? It was from a quick spin through Highly Kinetic Kunar province. Judging from any number of discussions on the topic, the US Government has unilaterally renamed "Kunar" to "Highly Kinetic Kunar." For those of you who don't know your military lingo, "kinetic" in this context means, "filled with active battle" or "violent" or "dangerous."

The truly devoted may also recall when we declared our adherence to the budding aesthetic of photography-through-bulletproof-glass-in-motion. Well, Highly Kinetic Kunar pushed it to the next level because the MRAPs have these special cages all around them to make RPGs detonate before they actually hit the MRAP. So you get pictures like the one above, which both shows you the kind of vehicle the staff photographer was in, and the photographic challenges of shooting from one. Despite this, we'll be presenting a week's worth of pictures from Highly Kinetic Kunar this week... at times without further comment.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

November Again

As we say each year: Another November, another Marine Ball. And yet again, The Lovely Katherine pouted and cried until I took her picture with the Marine Security Guard detachment here. One difference from previous years, which is kind of evident in the picture, is that rather than an embassy of 30 or 100, we're at a mission of 1,000. Unfortunate result: We barely know these guys. It's really our fault, we get kind of lazy and don't always go to the Marine House parties. Sorry, guys.

In any case, the Ball was a good time, as every year. Noteworthy this time for having a Major General as the keynote speaker rather than a Lieutenant Colonel (no offense to Lt. Colonels), the Ambassador's address interrupted by Blackhawks flying overhead, and a musical playlist apparently tailored to the tastes of the over-60 set. Fortunately, despite a location not conducive to alcoholism, there was an open bar, so we struggled through and had a fine time. Thanks, Marines!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Of Dubai, Again

So on our way back "home" to Kabul, we had to go through Dubai again. We had planned to stop for a night this direction (unlike on the way out of Kabul) -- it's pretty hard to avoid, and therefore Uncle Sugar was paying for a night of hotel for us. Since the Government has a ridiculous system of official rates that they'll pay for hotel in each city, we had no incentive to pay any less than the maximum the government would shell out. In the case of Dubai, that gets you a pretty nice hotel. We were staying at Raffles, which came recommended by colleagues. We arrived and found we had been upgraded to a completely ridiculous suite - the above is the living room, there were also two balconies and two bathrooms in addition to the bedroom, which was in itself what you would get at a normal hotel. It was the poshest, biggest hotel we've ever stayed at.

The only downside? Due to our friends at Ethiopian Airlines cancelling/delaying flights again, we arrived at 3:00 in the morning, and had to leave at 10:00 to catch our flight. So we didn't get to lounge around in all the chairs in our huge room. You'll no doubt be relieved to know that I took care to use both bathrooms, to make sure taxpayers got their money's worth.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Of Stone Town, Continued

So our plan to bust through our vacation stuff quickly and get back to the Afghan stuff failed both because we couldn't edit aggressively enough and because then we got too busy with work to post for a few days.

But we're pretty much at the end now. Our vacation ended with a few days in Stone Town, the olden part of Zanzibar's capital. It's historic. It's charming. It has lots of crooked narrow streets that put old European cities' streets to shame in the narrowness and crookedness departments. And all the buildings have this moldy motley appearance that is very atmospheric.

Due to all the above factors, it was easy to take a lot of pictures we quite like, but we'll save most of them for some other time.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Of Zanzibar

Our next stop in Tanzania was Zanzibar, completing the Kilimanjaro/Safari/Zanzibar trifecta that we only realized once we were there is the official routine tourist trail in Tanzania. Sometimes, the tourist trail exists because that's where the good stuff is, and we certainly endorse that theory as it regards Tanzania.

We stayed at a beautiful, small beach-front hotel on the east side of Zanzibar island. It was run by a friendly Italian couple, and our fellow guests were 80% Italians. And we went scuba diving with an Italian guide (and some dolphins, who I think were local but may have been Italian) for two days. Your correspondents never knew that the Indian Ocean coast of Zanzibar was an Italian colony, but that's why one travels: to learn about new places. Or to sip fruity drinks by an insanely white-sandy beach. The other noteworthy local denizens were the native Africans, dressed in blankets and carrying sticks a la the Masai from the post a couple days ago, but hanging out on the beach and wearing wayfarer shades. No photographic evidence of them exists -- only photos of the local fisherman, such as this gentleman carrying a reed basket out to go fishing, or of the traditional canoe-with-a-sail dhows that other fishermen use.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Of Mto w Mbu

Also not far from one of the national parks we visited was a more ordinary market. Still colorful, but the same piles of fruit and assortments of dry goods as you find in developing-world markets anywhere. This one however, is in a town with the unfortunate name "Mto w Mbu," which means "River of Mosquitoes." Hopefully the market keeps doing well, because I doubt the tourist trade is ever going to flock to River of Mosquitoes, for some reason.