Friday, August 29, 2008

Has it really been 5 years?

Today I'm taking a little break from the usual topic of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Seven Labor Days ago I found myself filling a shift at the Young Life BBQ/Teriyaki booth at the Puyallup Fair with Kristalyn.  Among her other volunteers was her brother Joey.  Although we had met years before, well as Joey puts it, "I saw her over a vat of steaming rice. . ." Something about this encounter was different.  

(Juan Pedro, Joey, Me)

Today Joey and I are celebrating 5 years as Mr. and Mrs. The Hawk.  When I think back to our wedding, I don't remember a lot of the little details that consumed so much of my six months of planning.   I do remember with vivid clarity standing at the top of the aisle, holding my dad's arm, looking past the many smiling faces and seeing Joey waiting for me, ready to begin our adventure filled life together.

And what an adventure the last five years have been!  We've moved coast to coast, lived in Texas twice, and now find ourselves in Afghanistan of all places.  We've gone through the happys and sads and ups and downs that life has brought our way and grown closer, stronger, and more in love through it all.

We joke that our relationship began with nervous laughter, but I feel like we've haven't stopped laughing since that first moment at the fair seven years ago.  Even through some really sad stuff, Joey can always always always make me smile and this reminds me that there's always room for hope.

And here's the best part. . . the adventure's just the beginning!

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Complete Secondly Series

Buying a video in Kabul is a bit of an adventure and usually good for a laugh.  As far as I know, there are no legitimate movie stores in Afghanistan.  We don't have Best Buys or Targets. . . we don't even have grocery stores.  There is a thriving bootleg market that is popular both with Afghans and foreign nationals.  I don't know where these movies come from, probably China, but anything from new releases to classics can be found.  Areas that sell things that cater to the Western community are usually dotted with DVD shops.

But it's a bit of a gamble buying these DVD's.  As there is no way to tell where the movie came from or how it was procured, it is quite possible to get the wrong movie or pop it in only to find out it's in another language.  There's always the possibility that the video is a recording made in a theater without sound or shaking lens.  But most of the time it seems that the movies have some sort of error in the formatting and couldn't be sold at the Best Buys or Targets of the world and therefore end up in Afghanistan (this happens with A LOT of products, like the football Joey bought that has an stitching error and says "otto" instead of "Lotto.")

DVD cases are expensive so most of the movies come in just the paper sleeve cover or decoupage woodbox that was probably made in Hong Kong with a good printer and Photo Shop.  The sleeve usually includes a description of the movie and some reviews, usually taken from  So, if you live in the states, you should review movies on and I might end up reading your review over here!  Unfortunately, whoever is making the DVD sleeves either A) Doesn't speak English or B) Doesn't use spell check.  We've seen movies that had reviews that said, "This is the worst movie I have ever seen! Don't waste your time watching it!!!" Joe Smith, South Dakota.

A classic example of this editing issue is the DVD of "The Office" that we have.  That would be "BBC: The Complete All Season the office" with a picture of the American cast on the cover.  You know the "mockumentary about life in a mid-sized suboffice paper merchants in a bleak British industrail town, where manager David Brent things he's the coolest, funniest, and most popular boss ever.  He isn't."  According to the times it is "Original and accurate and painfully funny: It will have every office in the country twitching with spasms of recongnition..This is agem."  And it's rated PG-13 for language and violence.  It has three set of discs inside.  The first set features a picture of David Brent from the British office pointing and swearing at camera.  The second set shows David Brent sitting at a drawn desk with pictures of the cast of the American office behind him and states "the complete secondly series."  And the third shows the cast of the American office (from the box cover) and indicates that is is "the complete there season."

I guess that quality control isn't much of an issue on the bootleg DVD markets of Central Asia.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dust Storms and Basketball

Living on the other side of the world, we got to watch the USA Men's gold winning performance live without loosing sleep today (basketball and volleyball).  The basketball game started at 11:30 AM for us and was just as nerve racking from the all the way in Afghanistan.  There are times in life when we realize that we are like our parents.  As I paced our lounge for the entire 4th quarter, I suddenly realized, "This is just like my dad.  I'm Bill Pandiani."  Not that being like my dad is a bad thing.  I always remember being in the stands, watching Dad coach basketball while pacing the bench or squatting on the floor. . . Apparently some of that's genetic.  And it made me miss that Italian.

But this post isn't about me missing my family, which is setting in more now that I'm realizing we're not visiting Kabul but living here.

We've officially been Kabul residents for over and month now.  I feel like we're both adjusting and that we're starting to feel more at home here.  Right now, Joey is kicking the soccer ball around the yard with Gulrahman and I just finished drinking my latte (very home-like things for both of us).  An hour ago we couldn't have done either of these things.  Right after the games, the power turned off because the generator had run out of water and it suddenly got very, very dark outside.  Our clear blue day was gone in seconds with high winds and dust everywhere.  Then it started to rain.  We quickly shut all the windows which were open because the power was off, although not fast enough to prevent a layer covering on everything in our house.  Fast forward an hour later and the generator is fixed, the power is on, my espresso machine is working, and the skies are blue again.

Here are some during and after pictures from the storm:

It's interesting to look at the things that I miss and the things I'm getting used to after just a month of being gone.  Like sandwiches, every time we watch an American TV show on DVD it seems like people are eating sandwiches and I want one.  Sliced bread is a little hard to find, deli style meat doesn't exist.  I also miss "to go" boxes, cups, etc.  When Afghans go out to eat, they eat a lot and don't leave much on the plate.  I cannot put away a pound of rice in one sitting and wouldn't mind taking some home.  But I suppose in a country where little is wasted or thrown away and what is tossed is usually tossed in the river; it's probably a good thing that they don't have to go boxes.  Joey misses tamales, tortillas and frijoles negros.  And people, we miss people.  There are so many incidents, stories and experiences that I want to tell a specific person right way.  I find myself thinking "Anya would have died laughing if she saw this," "Ailsa would be infuriated by this," "I want to discuss this with Kristalyn," or the most popular "I could really use a hug from Mary, Sarah, Pam, (fill in name here)."

But despite missing people, we are adjusting and really like it here.  Examples of adjustment:

On our way to our favorite coffee shop this weekend (Thursday-Friday), I was shocked to see an Afghan woman driving a car without a chador.  She must have been Afghan-American or something like that because a woman, especially an Afghan, driving a car is unheard of.  Going around without a chador can get you deported.  I wasn't the only one that noticed as every car that passed slowed to stare.

While watching TV, I felt slightly embarrassed when we flipped past a Indian channel with women doing aerobics in tighter pants and sleeveless tops.  Joey and I laughed as we realized that these women would be considered fully dressed in the states and women on TV back home often wear much less.

Although we're getting used to it, sometimes we still can't believe we live here.  We went to a friend's house for dinner tonight and while driving home Joey turned to me and said, "Can you believe we really live in Afghanistan?"  I think we'll be saying that as long as we live here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Home Tour

I've had several people ask me to post pictures of our house.  I think that most people picture Afghanistan and Kabul as being a very desert, dusty place.  As Carlee L. put it, "I've tried to picture it in my mind, but it ends up just looking dusty."  You're right about the dust.  Sneezing seems to be an Afghan national pastime.  But our home is like an oasis from the heat and dust.

This is where we live!

Most houses in Afghanistan have an outer wall and then the house inside.  Even small places will have a mud wall around the edge of the property.  The wall shows ownership.  Our cook, Aga Gul (see photo later), inherited some property outside of Kabul from his father and had to go to the property, build a wall around it and inhabit it for a month to assert his ownership.  When flying over Afghanistan, the landscape is dotted with little, empty looking boxes indicating property lines.  The wall also gives protection and privacy (I don't have to wear my chador inside the walls of our home).

Our house is split into three separate areas: the main house, the apartment, and the chakador area.  We share the apartment with Steve and Sari.  It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchenette, washer and dryer and a nice lounge.  The office is underneath the apartment.  We eat in the main house because it has a bigger kitchen.  The main house is the right building in the picture and the apartment is the door behind me.  And that's our car, a Toyota Surf (aka diesel 4-Runner).  We don't know Toyota did right, but about 98% of cars on the road are either a Surf, Corolla, Land Cruiser, or Old Toyota Van.  That means they must be reliable, because anything that can survive the streets of Kabul has got to be burly.

Our yard has flowers, trees and a great fire pit.  We have a fire about once a week.  It's great now that the weather is beginning to get cooler.  The rooms behind the yard are the chawkador room and a little workout room.

Our hallway and washer and dryer.  I love these machines!  In the last five years, I have had my own washer and dryer for a total of 5 months.  To be honest, when I found out we'd have these in Afghanistan, it made the decision to move a lot easier!  This picture is taken from our door, Steve and Sari's room is right across from the cat, and our bathroom and the kitchen are at the end of the hallway.

Yes, that's a cat.  It belongs to Steve and Sari.  He's still unsure of what he thinks of me and he really doesn't like Joey.  We call him Kitty, he came with the name Pashak Nau (New Cat).

Our little bathroom.  It has warm to hot water most of the time.

Our little kitchen.  Right now we're working to make it a little nicer, it has a bit of a mold problem.

Definitely the favorite room in the apartment.  This is our lounge, complete with toshaks and matching curtains.  We all spend a lot of time in here reading, playing games, watching movies or TV, or napping.  Our TV gets between 0-68 channels, although the most we've ever seen working at once is 10.  TV in Afghanistan consists of mostly Islamic channels, Bollywood movies/Indian music videos or cricket.  We do have a few sports channels and even get an ESPN every once and awhile.  The amount of football (soccer) played makes Joey very happy, although we have yet to see an entire game without the cable cutting out.  We get some Olympics; weight lifting, boxing, basketball, football and women's field hockey seem to be what the Afghans are watching.  Right now I am watching one of three Afghan Olympians compete in Tae Kwon Do.  Go Afghanistan!

Our bed doesn't look made, but I promise it is!  We only have a twin size bed spread, so it always looks a little unmade.

My wardrobe is pretty sparse.  But my chador collection is growing!

This is where we keep all our winter stuff and where Joey keeps his clothes.

We have a lovely view of the River.  At one time, I'm sure our house was a really nice place to live.  Due to the drought, the water level has gotten very low.  Now the river is a place for goats to graze and trash to be dropped.  It doesn't smell very good either.  A lot of houses don't have septic tanks, they have a pipe or hole that drains into the river or onto the walkway next to it.  It's pretty gross.  Hopefully it will rain a lot this fall.

Here's the main kitchen, complete with Aga Gul!  Don't let the stern appearance fool you, this guys is nothing but smiles and fast "English."  Today he told me to have a "very good night, very good day, very good everyday."  I think that meant "Have a good weekend."

And that's our home!

Afghanistan just one its first Olympic Medal ever!  A bronze medal in Tae Kwon Do for Nikpai Rohullah!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Jesham... I mean, Independence Day!

Today is Afghan Independence Day.  While walking with a friend through our neighborhood, she asked me "Independence from who?"  Afghanistan has been conquered and conquered again throughout history.  Alexander the Great came through here, so did the Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Brits, and Russians (to name a few).  Throughout history, Afghanistan often acted as the battlegrounds for various Indo-European wars and was caught up in the tug-o-war of the fight to control roads going to the East and West.  In modern history, Afghanistan acted as a battleground between the British and Russians during "The Great Game" and the Russians and the West during the Cold War.  For the last 30 years, Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war between different groups with different intervening forces.  So, "Independence from who?" is a great question.  In this case, Afghans celebrate their independence from the British with the signing of a treaty that ended the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919.  To put it in it's simplest terms, Afghanistan has a long and complicated history.

The big news surrounding Independence Day this year is the 7000 additional police patrolling the city.  Checkpoints are everywhere.  These 7000 police consist of a mixture of national police, city police, presidential guard, all with different uniforms and all carrying their AK's.  It definitely slows travel down.  Several organizations within the city recommended no non-essential travel today; we think that's more to help avoid the hassle that going anywhere would be.  Joey and Steve left for work almost an hour early after it took Joey twice as long to get home yesterday after being stopped by the national police and a detective service.  My only essential travel consisted of a 15 minute walk to a goodbye breakfast I had been invited to.  Don't worry Dad, I didn't walk alone.  It was an uneventful walk with the usual cars slowing down to stare at two western women (and three kids) and a train of children following saying "Hello. How are you? Hello. How are you?"  My least favorite place to walk by in our neighborhood is the police station, they seem more shocked and at liberty to stare at passing women. . . Today they must have been part of the 7000 on duty patrols because they weren't there.  Is it a little strange that I'm glad there were 7000 police on duty because that meant no police bothered me on my walk?  

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why blogging in Afghanistan can be difficult

At times I have trouble knowing what to write about on this blog.  It's not for lack of material.  There is always some new experience, some difference in culture, some adjustment or some piece of news that I itch to share (and sometimes literally itch.  Have I mentioned that I am currently waging a war with bed bugs?  I'm winning).  Afghanistan has a lot going on that I want to write about.  The problem is that it is tough to choose what direction to go in.  I often find myself sitting at my laptop thinking "Where do I even begin?"  Between the new experiences and fun adventures there are a lot of hard topics and frustrating issues.  Moving here has put me into a very new context.  At times I feel like everything here is completely different.  Some of it just takes getting used to (like the call to prayer five times a day) and some of it I don't ever want to get used to (like seeing women ride in the trunk of cars because there isn't room inside the car with the men).  I really want people to get an idea of what life is like here, but somedays it seems that there is too much to even give a glimpse.  And that's where things get difficult.  How do I even begin to show and share this place that is so full of beauty, tragedy, misunderstanding, hopefulness and hopelessness?

My step-lady, Mary, used to make us do this thing at the dinner table to get us to talk about our day.  We had to share something funny, sad, good, bad, and beautiful that had happened that day.  Alison's were always great.  I think that on days when I feel that blogging in Afghanistan is too difficult, f.s.g.b.b. is a good way to share a little about life here.  So here it is for today:

Funny:  Although streets in Afghanistan don't have names, they are often known by what they sell.  Flower Street sells flowers.  Chicken Street used to sell chickens, now it's where you go to buy Afghan tourist items. . . business isn't so good right now.  Stationary Street sells stationary.  Today we ended up on Plumber Street, lots of porcelain and piping.

Sad: There are a lot of beggars in Afghanistan.  It's heartbreaking to see women in torn burqas sitting on the side of the road with a hand outstretched.  It's heartbreaking to see mine victims with missing limbs begging outside the Red Crescent (Red Cross) offices.  It's heartbreaking to see women carrying unconscious children in their arms while they beg and knowing that they probably dropped the child to illicit more sympathy.  These are all things I saw today while driving downtown.

Good: Our housemates are great and we are really enjoying sharing an apartment with them.  Last night we all sat out and enjoyed the cooler weather and tried to solve the problems of the world (we didn't succeed).  Today Sari and I went shopping as we're both in the process of building our Afghan wardrobes.  We are so glad that we live and work with people that are laid back and adaptable, just like us.

Bad: On Wednesday, three international aid workers and their driver were killed in the Logar province south of Kabul.  The Taliban have claimed responsibility saying they thought it was a military vehicle and that the women were soldiers.  The incident has caused increased tension and security within the international community throughout the country.

Beautiful: The dust has settled, the weather has cooled, the sky is blue, and it's supposed to rain tonight! These are beautiful things.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vocabulary Lesson, Kabul Edition, Issue I.

This is a post that I've been meaning to do for awhile.  Some words that are used very frequently in Afghanistan (and in my blog) need further explanation. Here are a list of common terms/places/words mentioned in my blog and their meanings. 

Kabul: The capital of Afghanistan.  Hopefully you all know that, but we've had people ask.
Dari: A dialect of Persian, spoken in Kabul and most of northern Afghanistan. One of the four official languages
Pashto: The language of the Pashtun tribe, spoken in Kabul and southern Afghanistan, another official language
Shalwar Kameez: The traditional clothing of Pakistan worn in many parts of Afghanistan.  The style worn in Afghanistan consists of a long shirt with long sleeves and long, loose fitting pants.  This is what I usually wear.
Chador, Chadar: The head scarf worn by women when in public.  The Afghanistan style covers the head (not face) and upper body.
Burqa: The complete body covering worn by women in Afghanistan over their clothes.  It covers the face with a small grill or netting material at the eyes that allows for (limited) vision and air.  The burqa was made mandatory by the Taliban and was not used extensively prior to this time.  Although the burqa is no longer required it is still worn by many women.  Often it is worn to protect personal identity and for security.  Burqas are usually light blue, some regions have black or white burqas.
Chakador, chaikador: Doorman/door guard/errand runner.  Chakador literally means "Man who sits in chair."  We have three different chakadors that work at different times of the week.  They are all very nice and we are enjoying getting to know them.
Fixer: Most NGO/Expats have a fixer who does a variety of things for them.  Our fixer helps us with driving, phone cards, and other general questions like "What's the best way to get a visa to India?" Or "What is there to do in Mazar-e-Sharif?"
Salaam: Literally, peace. Shortened form of "Salaam Aleikum" (peace be with you). Used as a greeting in Afghanistan.
Tashakor, tashakur: "Thank you" in Dari. 
Toshak, toushak: Afghans do not sit on couches, they sit (and often sleep) on toshaks.  These are long, flat pillows.  They are very comfy.
Seis: Fine or Ok in Dari.  We can always tell when an Afghan is ready to end a conversation because they begin to say "seis" repeatedly.
Inshallah: "Lord Willing" Afghans say this whenever talking about plans or the future.  Joey and Steve had added it to their pre-flight checklist.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Happy Birthday, Afghan style

First of all, Afghans do not celebrate birthdays.  We asked our chakador, Gulrahman, how Afghans celebrate their birthdays.  He responded, "No, we don't celebrate birthdays.  Only births and weddings.  But maybe now we should start."  This might explain why many Afghans don't know their own age and wrinkle their forehead when you ask and respond, "Hmm...I think....28?"

Yesterday was Joey's birthday.  I won't tell you how old, but it's what my Zia Maria called a circle birthday.  Although Afghans do not celebrate birthdays, we certainly do.  Since I can't drive here and all my options were too far to walk to, I decided to ask our cook, Aga Gul, to bake a cake.

Let me tell you a little about our cook.  We really like his food and we really like him.  He's a precious old man who speaks very fast, very bad English.  I made him a cappuccino last week and he drank it in one giant gulp (Afghans don't drink coffee, Aga Gul has never tasted coffee before) and he proceeded to tell me (I think) that he's really good at sewing buttons on shirts...but then there was something about climbing a hill in the story too, and helicopters...and then he asked if the machine was cheap, from Afghanistan, where coffee came from, and a slew of other questions.  When we talk to Aga Gul, we mostly just smile and nod and say thank you.

I went down to the kitchen on Tuesday and found Aga Gul wearing an apron, humming to himself as he wiped down the counters.  Here is the conversation that followed:

Julie: Salaam, Aga Gul. How are you today?
Aga Gul: Salaam. Very good. Very nice. Very good. (X5)
Julie: Tomorrow is Joey's birthday. Could you make a cake for him?
Aga Gul: (Long pause, turns and stares at the pantry) I buy vegetables, some spices, (opens freezer) chicken, meat, meat. Tonight I make boulanee (an Afghan pierogie). For tomorrow? Something different?
Julie: Oh, just the cake for tomorrow.
Aga Gul: (Long pause, looks at pantry) Very good. Very nice.
Julie: (Not sure if he understands what I'm saying, but at least I tried) Tashakur, Aga Gul.

At 5:00 on Wednesday, Habib (another chakador) found me and said that Aga Gul had left me a message, "The cake is hidden in the cabinet."

Going out to eat in Kabul is definitely different than going out to eat anywhere else I have been.  You don't just walk into any restaurant and sit down.  There are three questions asked before going to eat. 1) Is the food safe to eat?  As we have mentioned before,  it is very easy to get sick here.  There are no food sanitation laws in Afghanistan. 2) Is it still open?  Due to the situation here, restaurants open, close, move, reopen, etc.  3) Is it secure?  This involves not only the security at the restaurant itself, but of the surrounding area and neighborhood. There is a fine balance between going someplace that is too high profile and not secure enough.

We went to a Mexican restaurant called La Cantina.  Yes, that's right, there is one Mexican restaurant in Kabul.  After three security checks in three separate rooms and finally getting into the restaurant, our time was quite enjoyable.  The food wouldn't be termed authentic, more like an interpretation.  The beans were delicious, but almost tasted more Indian than Mexican.  But it was great to sit outside and laugh and relax with our housemates.

When we returned home, I searched the cabinets to find the hidden cake.  Sure enough, Aga Gul had come through with a cake glazed, frosted, and decorated with marshmallows.

The times that I miss friends and family most are the days that are meant to be spent with friends and family.  Weddings, important events, birthdays, holidays; these are the times when I know I will feel far away.  But last night, sitting around the table with Steve and Sari and Gulrahman, eating cake that was ridiculously sweet and celebrating Joey's circle birthday; I realized that slowly but surely, we're building friends and family here too.  I love the line from the Kimya Dawson song, My Rollercoaster, "And if home is really where the heart is, than we're the smartest kids I know.  Because wherever we are in this great big world, we'll never be more than a few hours from home."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Giving directions in Afghanistan

One thing that Kabul lacks is street names. There are a few main drags that have a name. And the names are usually to the point; Airport Road, River Road, 40 Meter Road (guess how wide that one is). All major intersections have a name and are usually sponsored (KabulBank, Ariana Airlines, KAM Airlines, etc), except Massoud Circle which is named after Afghanstan's national hero and Goats Head Circle. . . there aren't any goat heads at it. But most street names have either been forgotten or never existed. This makes giving directions a bit of a challenge. Addressing a letter is practically impossible. Business cards are laughable. People get used to describing their location using landmarks, nearby billboards, important streets, or other familiar bits of information. "Turn left at the Iranian mosque," "The street before the USAID billboard," "Three streets past this NGO office;" these are all phrases I have heard used for direction giving. I saw a business card that said which mosque it was closest too, the two stores it was in between and the color of the door. No one mentions street names and no one gives an address. Google maps would be very ineffective here. In a city with over 4 million inhabitants, it can get a little confusing. I have yet to get lost though, so apparently the system works.

But Afghanistan is changing. The streets in our neighborhood have been numbered and are getting signs. Maybe they'll start paving these streets next. I doubt I'll hear anyone telling me to turn right on 15th and look for this addressed house. I'm sure I'll continue to turn right three streets before the bazaar and to ring the doorbell of the home with the green and pink walls next to the women's education center.