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As I’ve mentioned in Grease the wheels, the current system here is convoluted and cumbersome. A lot of the efforts put in place by the international community (read Donors and Aid in Afghanistan) are not well coordinated (or simply not coordinated).

I recognize this is a major issue so I’ve been working very hard to seek out other people/teams who are doing similar work within specific areas of the Afghan government. I would like us to coordinate our efforts, leverage our materials, and share lessons learned. (This goes without saying in the West.)

So it was with quite a bit of surprise that my counterpart received a visit from another team from a different high-level of the government. They wanted to know what we are doing. In their hands, they carried with them a Presidential Decree (signed by Kharzai in May) {For those tracking, that’s the month I came here to support the team.} The Decree outlines the duties of this other team. And those duties are essentially the same work that we are currently doing (with only a slightly different focus). Our team mission is their decree.

The only reason they learned about our work is that they visited a ministry that we had gone to only a couple days previously…

So while I’m here to reduce inefficiencies and redundancies, I’ve learned that I (and my team) are a redundancy!

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One of my mentors told me a story about her work in Pakistan. She had been going through various job titles on paper as well as visiting the facility to see what exactly the people were doing. There had been a title of “Water Carrier,” which she wanted to better understand. At the facility, there was a person who would walk outside the facility, down the hill to the well with two empty buckets. He would return with two buckets full of water and empty the water into a container surrounding the generator. Then he would do it all over again. The water was used to ensure that the generators stayed cool (a function of critical importance at an electrical facility). It completely makes sense, but seems weird to employ someone in that way.

Here in Kabul, I work in an office with several Afghan Nationals. One is a translator so periodically we ask him language questions. Sometimes, he asks the other Afghans about words in English and Persian. Today, the other Afghans couldn’t answer his question so he turned to the two American expats in the room.

He was trying to figure out if there is an English word (or title) for someone working in the dormitories. Well, what do they do? This person “puts air in the cotton.”

What is the job title?

I’ll respond to answers in the comments section.

I don’t usually talk about current security concerns for two reasons. One, there’s really no reason to worry you. Two, security and the effects of war are common place to us. As I ride around town, my colleague (who I am using as a translator) tells me of an attack on the palace, where the gunmen were holed up, and how long the shooting went on for. Co-workers talk about a hotel that has been bombed more than once. We get text messages anytime there are confirmed or unconfirmed activities around town, from peaceful demonstrations to anything more.

Today, was my first bomb blast. It was fairly close to my work, and the first explosion I have heard loud and clear. We quickly got information detailing the situation through rumors, security personnel notices, and the internet.

I am relieved that there were no injuries and it was an accidental detonation, based on current accounts.

baksheesh, gratuity, tip, bribe, sweeten the pot, payback, fee, under the table, remuneration…the list goes on.

When a cop pulls you over and you pull out your drivers license, do you reach for anything else from your wallet?

When you go to the DMV, do you slide a $20 bill across the counter?

When you sign up for electricity, do you bring proof of your address or payment for an additional “service fee?”

Probably this hasn’t entered into your mind unless you grew up outside the U.S. But it is the reality in many places if you want to get anything done (legal or illegal, it only matters in the amount/degree).

The international community is trying to change the trajectory of Afghanistan, but  they look they are frustrated by the current system. The Washington Post ran an article, which referenced fatigue of the U.S. troops. While fatigue is definitely a factor, the cause is a much deeper difference in just how things get done.

This is a system developed on a completely different timeline (sometimes I wonder if the concept of time exists), connections (who would you call to make something happen), and money (how much will you pay for a service).

Everyday I hear about how corrupt one or another ministry is. It takes people to make a place corrupt, while the employees say “we are not really ‘corrupt;’ we don’t make enough so we must supplement our income.” I don’t buy this argument on multiple levels.

I’m working to improve the delivery of services to citizens. There is a HUGE need for this work. However, I am learning that many of the government processes have already been reformed. Yet, many citizens wait 2 weeks to get a vehicle license (and when I say wait, I mean standing/sitting around the department everyday for 2 weeks).

Here is a picture of the Department of Transportation (like the DMV). The inside is even more crowded than what you see outside.

Note: I love the traffic signs posted all along the building wall.

Unfortunately, under the current system, if you don’t want to be turned away for a motorcycle license or if you need your paperwork processed in a timely manner, you’ve got to be ready to “pony up.”

We work 6 days/wk, which doesn’t really leave much time for other things. Combine that with security concerns and the limited number of places we are allowed to go and it would seem that there wouldn’t be much to write in this post.

Surprisingly, I’ve done quite a lot in the past month. Here are a few specific and general down time activities:

  • Marathon Second Annual Kabul Marathon – The marathon was entirely inside the US embassy compound. And the only way to accomplish the distance was a lot of loops!

I love the tshirt we got (click on it for a closeup). A few things to note:

– Yes, it is 1389, according to the Persian calendar.

– The cafeteria reference (#3) is because the overwhelming majority of the runners were from the military.

– Afterward, a band played while we hung out on the grass in front of the embassy. Name of the band: “Danger Pay!”

– No, I didn’t run the full marathon. We did a relay, which is a quarter marathon.

  • Volleyball – One of the guesthouses has a courtyard with a net.
  • Volunteer to clean up Aschiana School – As part of my company’s worldwide volunteer day, we painted rooms and cleaned windows for Blast film application (this is similar to how windshields don’t shatter in a car accident). I think the locals got a kick out of watching us work.
  • Various parties – We will use any excuse to relax, including birthdays, bbqs, and the World Cup (one of the advantages of having people from all of the world is that you get to learn a bit about their culture…I’m specifically talking about South Africa here.)
  • Shopping – Some people make quite a hobby out of shopping. There are grocery stores, a couple bazaars, carpet sellers, jemstone and jewelry sellers, local artisans, and always online shopping.
  • Movies – Watching movies is, by far, the most common thing people do in their spare time (just above emailing and skyping with friends/family). Pirated movies are a dollar (at the grocery store), and you can easily get box sets for less than $10 at the bazaar.
  • Working out – Each guest house has a small gym, and the ubber-athletes go to one of the expat gyms or to the military base to work out.

Other outside activities that are available here: swimming, formal brunch (Friday, not Sunday), coffeeshop, restaurants, organized tours, salsa lessons, and a salon with massage, wraps, pedicures, etc.

Today, I met a colleague for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. I had the chicken teriyaki bento box. It was tasty, although surprisingly didn’t include any wasabi. (You can get some spicy food in Afghanistan, but the focus seems to be on very flavorful food, which I like.) And at the end of the meal, the waiter brought us each a whole, uncut peach.

I’m not sure what to make of that.

It isn’t unusual for restaurants to provide an unordered dessert (one of my favs gives chocolate cake at the end of your meal).

I understand that they wouldn’t give us fresh cut fruit (being that the place serves expats), but there was no sharp knife to remove the skin, which definitely needs to be washed with bottled water before it can be eaten.

We get a lot of apples, bananas, and mangos here so a peach is a treat. Obviously, I took it with me to wash and eat tonight.

Any thoughts on why a whole peach was given at a Japanese restaurant in Afghanistan?

The economy here is totally out of whack. One of the most obvious illustrations of this is housing. The money flooding into the economy through the illicit drug trade, black market (more gray than black for for things like alcohol and pirated dvds), and donor support certainly creates an opportunity for the enterprising land or home owner. However, everything in Kabul is behind a wall, which usually consists of thick concrete and razor wire rolls along the top (definitely should have bought into those companies 5+ years ago).

But the walls don’t hide the tops of the houses, which can often be seen from the street or from the roof/balcony of other houses. And, like an ice berg, what you can see is only the tip of the high life in Kabul. Rooftop bars, green houses, hot tubs, pools, courtyards with waterfalls, rec rooms, and the like make for a great party-scene; one that feels strangely out of place along the unpaved and pockmarked road (with pot holes so large that the sturdiest SUVs bounce like a crazy amusement ride).

Washington Post had a decent article on this subject. I’ve seen the red brick house in the pictures.

For the most part, I think I had a fairly good set of expectations about living and working in Afghanistan. I understood some of the security procedures, I knew the basics of the housing and living situation, and I knew that the work would be by far the most challenging thing I have done in my career for a variety of reasons. Of course, there’s no way to be completely prepared for this kind of adventure.

And at this point (2.5 weeks), I know there are two subjects that I didn’t fully comprehend when I got here. Worse still, I’m still coming to grips with them.

This post is about one of those subjects: illness. To be completely honest with you, I was told, “everyone gets sick here,” and I fully expected to get traveler’s diarrhea or a cold, possibly both in my time here. Between not preparing your own food and living and working in such close quarters, I knew my time would come. I also know that I don’t have the most stellar immune system so I shouldn’t rely too much on that. So before leaving the US, I bought multi-vitamins, iron supplements (now that I see how much meat is eaten here this seems overkill), Emergen-C, Zicam, and a variety of medicines to take when the inevitable happened.

My first night here I met a co-worker who had been here for about 2 weeks. She lives in my house, works in the same location, and had already met my counterpart. She was excited to give me a lot of background documents as well as contextual information the next day at work. However, a full 4 days after my arrival, I finally saw her again at dinner (need I say looking terrible). And it was a full 7 days before she was actually at work. Initially, she had a debilitating kidney infection, which when treated moved to her bladder, which left her with terrible back pain.

Then a day ago, a mentor emailed me relaying the following about her work with two other gals in Egypt, “we had pneumonia to bronchitis to giarrdea to scabies to every possible infection you name!  Do everything you can to keep your immune system up given the change in habits, diet, and surroundings.” Wow, seriously?! That many illnesses for 3 people in probably 6-8 months time. It doesn’t make sense.

Not only do underdeveloped countries have a lot of diseases and viruses that have been eradicated in first-world countries (hence the multiple vaccinations before coming), but there are other problems, which become clearer once you look over our balcony.

From Wikipedia: “Urban dumpsites are used in lieu of managed landfills in KabulKandahar and Herat, often without protection of nearby rivers and groundwater supplies. Medical waste from hospitals is disposed in the dumpsites with the rest of the cities’ waste, contaminating water and air with bacteria and viruses.”

I would add to this that having flies indoors is way more common and generally accepted than in the US, again, adding to the spread of germs.

So I have learned that the reason “everyone gets sick” is because, unlike in the US where its mostly about washing hands, the air itself is full of bacteria. We know not to drink the water, but how do you avoid breathing? Our bodies are constantly fighting off things unseen, which in turn makes us more susceptible to those bizarre illnesses we rarely hear of.

I can now add one final reason that expats get so sick. Antibiotics are amazing in fighting off bacteria, but they don’t necessarily fight only the bad bacteria in your body. They also affect beneficial bacteria, making one, again (are you tired of this yet?), more prone to get sick with something else.

This is where I come in. I took a round of antibiotics, and now I have, what I’m hoping is only, a cold.

For anyone wondering about what can be bought in Kabul (for a price)…

As part of my time here, I can go on one regional trip (and I may tack on another in the beginning of February before flying home). My time away from work has to be requested way in advance so (even though I have only been here 2 weeks tomorrow) I am already coming to the question of where will I go for my vacation.

When you live on the other side of the world, vacation options are suddenly very different.

My current requirements for my vacation are pretty easy: 1) must be able to walk around safely without escort, and 2) hiking and other outdoor activities are available.

Here are a few specific places I’ve thought of so far:

  • Petra, Jordan (but then what?)
  • Istanbul, Turkey (and then to Eastern Turkey)

What do you think? What haven’t I thought of?

Leave me comments with your suggestions and thoughts for about a 2-week vacation away from the security confines of Afghanistan. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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