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A couple of my friends have asked about my grandma after seeing her comments to some of my posts.

Today is her birthday so we can wish her happy birthday together.

She and my grandpa took my brother and me to London for a week 16 years ago. She wanted to know if you really can backpack across Europe like Rick Steves promised (I’d say we’ve proven his claims are true). That was my first trip out of the country, navigating city streets, touring famous sites, and staying in hostels. And while I remember feeling very jetlagged at the beginning of the trip and being annoyed that my grandma was freaked out that someone was going to “steal” me, I was hooked on having new adventures.

Since that trip, she has done a lot of traveling nationally and internationally. Her trips are usually around adventure and genealogy. (The latter she has long wished I would get interested in, to no avail.)

While most of my friends knew I was trying to get into international work, I got a lot of different responses when I told people I was going to Afghanistan. My grandma is the only person whose first thought was “Can I come, too?”

I learned recently that the top of the Afghan government is structured in an interesting way. I knew that the government consisted of the same 3 branches (executive, legislative, and judicial). And based on that, I figured that it was set up much like the U.S. system. But in fact there are some interesting nuances.

President Hamid KARZAI (since 7 December 2004)

First Vice President Mohammad FAHIM Khan (since 19 November 2009)

Second Vice President Abdul Karim KHALILI (since 7 December 2004).

Executive branch:

Notice that – Second Vice President? Afghanistan has 2 VPs! And they do not run with the President in the elections (like U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents). Instead, they are appointed by the President, and that appointment can be withdrawn at anytime.

Another interesting thing is that Karzai is Pashtu, Fahim is Tajik, and Khalili is Hazara. While this gives 3 major ethnic groups some sense of representation in the government, in the extremely unlikely event that something would happen to Karzai, there’s a high chance that the country would end up in civil war, again. Neither VP (or ethic group) is going to let the other take power. The various ethnic groups would never be happy with their representation.

It’s very difficult to appease all of the various parties involved in politics here. It’s debatable whether the current system works.

As a child, my dad would often tease me about being spoiled; I denied that my advantages and luck were that extreme. However, I’ve always known that I have it good. I grew up in the U.S., where even living below the poverty line, which I’ve done a couple different times, is much better than billions of people have it. I’ve never gone without food, healthcare, clothing, education, or other basic necessities.

I am a very lucky person.

And, I grew up in a country and with people who encouraged me to think bigger than a farm in Arkansas. I believe, I have worked hard (and am working hard) to turn what I was given into a successful life that I want to live.

This general awareness of how lucky you are is usually something that we feel more strongly while working with the disadvantaged or traveling through or living in developing and third world countries. Those kinds of experiences sort of make you recalibrate the advantages you started with (just knowing English is a huge advantage). They give you a sense of perspective.

The same is definitely true for living and working in Afghanistan. But at the same time, it’s on a completely different scale.*

I have never been given such advantages, privileges, and comforts, while at the same time, being constantly reminded of how darn lucky I am.

Here are just a few of the extra perks I am receiving while in Kabul:

  • laundry, washed, folded, and placed in my room daily
  • fruit, while I was quite sad when mango season ended, it was followed by pears and apricots, followed by watermelon and honeydew (always cut and waiting in the fridge), which it seems is followed by pomegranates (found a bowl of just the seeds in the fridge today)
  • cleaning, done daily
  • cooking, have I mentioned our amazing cooks? while I understand it’s their job, they both go above and beyond to make us delicious food (even if I’m the only one eating at lunch, even during Ramadan)
  • driving, I never have to battle the terrible Kabul traffic or navigate the pot-filled roads; the drivers here are courteous and friendly and always willing to help me learn a little more dari or answer my incessant questions about the places and things we pass
  • APO, while we can find a lot of things in the well-stocked expat stores, easily getting mail and packages from the U.S., whether from friends or our favorite stores, makes life here that much easier

And so, while as a kid I always denied I was “spoiled,” I’m ready to accept that right now I am 100% Spoiled! Sometimes I can’t believe that they are paying me to do this.

*Note: this is not to say that I don’t work hard, that the work isn’t challenging, that it isn’t difficult being in war-torn area, that I don’t miss my friends, that I’m able to dress as I please or go where I want, that I understand much of what is going on in meetings, that my immune system can handle it…

Revised: in my original list, I completely forgot to include healthcare. While I wouldn’t want to be treated for anything complicated here, seeing a doctor and getting medicine for basic ailments is a breeze. I always get an appointment for the same day. I rarely wait to see the doctor. And I’m out, with my medicine in hand, within about 10 minutes. And the time I needed lab work, I went straight to the lab and had my results in my hand in less than 30 minutes. It is an amazing thing to witness (astonishing really). I wish the locals had even a fraction of the access I have to healthcare here.

I’m going to Turkey next month, and I’m really excited to get outside, move around without guards, and breathe some healthier air.

Yesterday, I realized that I could take the train from Istanbul to Ankara, and that made me surprisingly happy. I really enjoy train travel (well, ‘cept for one particular overnight journey in India). And from there, I can either do slower trains or buses to get deeper into the country.

Today, I’ve been trying to figure out my flights from Dubai* to Istanbul. I checked the prices and schedules of 10 airlines because I want the best deal and am hoping to minimize time in Dubai (a city too expensive for my taste with only a few mildly interesting things, which I can see during one of my following 3 trips through). And I’m reminded of two things about myself.

One, I’m a maximizer. I will move every single variable in an equation until I think it’s perfect. Of course, there is no “perfect,” and moving times and costs has the effect of changing everything else. While I recognize this problem and I try to focus on “good enough,” it’s a constant battle, which is particularly painful during trip planning.

And two, I have never really budgeted for vacations. I always budget my time off from work, but never the cost of the trip. I know a lot of people set money aside and know to the penny what the trip can cost them. They might have an expectation for airfare, housing, food, and incidentals. However, I don’t do any of that. I have tried on a couple trips because people were joining me, and they needed some sense of the price (for their own budgets). But I’m actually fairly bad at setting or determining the price of my vacation in advance of the actual planning. Instead, I just try to get the best deal on each transaction with a couple splurges on items that are super important to me (like the houseboat in Kerala).

I’m sure these traits are interrelated, and maybe someday I will approach trip planning differently…but I’ve got a long way to go.

btw – Feel free to add comments for any places in Turkey that I should be sure to research as I’m planning my trip. So far it’s a couple days in Istanbul, a few days in Cappadocia, and then I have some decisions to make 🙂

*Note: it really is sad that I even have to fly through Dubai. Ariana airlines flies directly to Istanbul from Kabul, but it isn’t approved by the donor supporting my contract so my company won’t pay for the flight (however, they do pay for the leg to Dubai…). With the time and money wasted (especially if I have to stay the night in Dubai), I’d like to just book through Ariana myself. However, I’ve heard just enough bad press about how they maintain their planes to make me wary…so I’ll be traveling through Dubai twice next month en route to/from Istanbul.

from AFP:

Afghanistan marks independence day

Afghanistan marked independence day Thursday as the Taliban-led insurgency drags on, with foreign troop deaths at record highs and the government under pressure to honour pledges on corruption and security.

August 19 commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919, which granted Afghanistan full independence from Britain — though the country was never part of the British empire — after three bloody wars.

The day was traditionally marked by a military parade and other public events, but these were scaled down after a Taliban attack in 2008 that was seen as an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai on Thursday attended a low-profile event in Kabul, placing a floral wreath at the base of the marble independence memorial near his palace.

The ceremony was attended by Western dignitaries including the commander of foreign forces, US General David Petraeus, who watched Karzai inspect a guard of honour.

The Taliban, who were ousted in a 2001 US-led invasion and are the main militant group behind a growing insurgency, also marked the day, vowing to defeat the NATO force and calling them “invaders”.

“The Afghan nation has never tolerated the occupation of their country before and will never tolerate it in the future at all.”

It’s been a quiet day for those of us working from home, as government offices are closed. As the article above mentioned, festivities are scaled way down after the assassination attempt 2 years ago. It doesn’t really feel like Independence Day without food (but we’re in the middle of Ramadan) and fireworks (but we’re in the middle of a war zone).

Yesterday and today, the first days back in the office during Ramadan, were a bit difficult. There was a constant gnawing from my stomach (where’s my snack!?), and my mouth felt dry (waaaater).

I’m trying to be cognizant that my officemates are fasting.

Then we got a notice from security:

“A spokesman for the Supreme Court has been quoted on local television news that anyone eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan will be arrested.  This includes those with exemptions from fasting, (people travelling, the sick and nursing mothers), who are expected to eat and drink in private.  Advisors should avoid eating, drinking or smoking in public during day light hours, including while in vehicles.

While I don’t really think I would be arrested in public, it’s probably best to be careful.  And in the office, I’m trying to be respectful. I still go home and have a huge lunch though!

I want to clearly state that I didn’t sign up to fast, and I think it’s important to eat and drink throughout the day. And while changing your diet and eating times might be healthy (just like changing your workout routine), I find no religious significance to it.

I am very thankful for being able to go home for lunch. And I am also thankful that all of the restaurants in Kabul that I’m allowed to go to are behind heavily fortified gates, which practically means you’re not eating in public.

I do feel sorry for my National staff. Some of these Afghans lived outside the country for many years (one guy lived in CA for the last 15 years), but culturally (and potentially lawfully), they have to fast. And during the summer, sun up to sundown is a long time. I can already see the signs of fatigue and crankiness. It’s going to be a long month for them.

Today is the official first day of Ramadan, based on the viewing of the moon in Saudi Arabia.

The government offices are closed today so I’m working from home.

Having spent the last 2.5 months around people who love their tea, coffee, cigarettes (some Afghans), sweets, and food in general, I am quite curious to see what the next month of fasting during daylight hours will look like. I also haven’t really decided what I will do about it personally. Will I eat my morning snack in the office? Will I keep my bottle (or two) of water on my desk and drink from it throughout the day? Will I tell my officemates about my scrumptious Afghan lunches? (Note: some time ago office arrangements changed, and now I am the only expat, and woman, in an office with 7 Afghan guys. I get along great with “the guys,” but I expect some crankiness to ensue in the next couple weeks…)

On an unrelated note, Afghanistan tragedies, which happen all the time, have recently come to the world stage because they affected expats. If you’re curious about some of the events, here is some commentary in the news:

10 Aid Workers Killed

Attack on Guesthouse Revised: this second article only got a few hours of airtime. It was originally released that 2 expats were killed, but as soon as it was determined that only Afghan guards died in the attack, there was nothing more written about in international news. This is typical.

6:30am Get up, brush teeth, dress, check email

6:50 Have cereal, greet morning cook, and chat with housemates

7:00 Gym

8:00 Drink fresh squeezed OJ, and then return to room for forgotten scarf

8:15 Ride to work with co-worker, shooter, driver

8:25 Greet various people in office

8:35 Check email, send followed-ups to unresponded emails, look through notebook at current task list

9:00 Counterpart discusses potential training his team would like with me. I have consistently said analysis can be taught through practical examples. The team wants a tool or methodology for something that is simply using logical thinking skills. (Head-butting continues)

9:35 Meet with colleague, who was out sick yesterday, about the events of yesterday

9:45 Send text to another adviser to give him heads-up that his “working session” has become a “presentation” with multiple extraneous people invited to increase self-promotion (of middle management guy who heads team) and show busy-ness

10:00 Greet each member of team; sit with translator in a working session about something completely unrelated to my work

11:15 Slip out of meeting during tea break. Check email. Prep for afternoon meeting.

11:50 Greet driver. Take car home for Afghan meal of Qabli Palow with 2 co-workers. Much enjoyment of food. Chat about non-work topics.

12:55pm Greet driver. Return to office. Try not to get concerned that my translator is MIA. Speak with team member. Decline tea. Try to get my counterpart and team organized for afternoon meeting (“who will be attending?” “yes, we should leave now because traffic is unreliable.” “did you organize the car for the team?”)

1:30 Take armored vehicle to another part of town. Hope other car actually leaves the office.

1:55 Greet Administrative Assistant with my team. Learn that the Deputy Minister had an emergency (sudden meeting with the Minister). Try to reschedule (tomorrow is booked, Wednesday is likely holiday for Ramadam (assuming sighting of moon), Thursday will likely be another no work day, Friday is day off, set meeting for Saturday). Congratulate Assistant on his recent nuptials.

2:15 Find guards eating lunch while waiting (thankfully they didn’t leave) and head back to office

2:45 Check email. Draft responses. Arrange vehicle for Saturdays meeting. Think through current lack of progress on tasks.

3:30 Meet with colleague to strategize how to deal with training issue and how to influence counterpart to provide information to his boss weekly about team activities

3:45 Decline tea. Colleague and I begin lengthy discussion with counterpart. Circles, stories, repeated comments, lost in translation, review of schedule for tomorrow, jokes, repeat.

4:40 Agree on 2 action items.

4:45 Colleague and I discuss how to ensure counterpart makes good on his 2 action items while climbing stairwell. Call for car. Work while waiting anywhere from 5-60 minutes for car to go home.

Run through the Kabul dirt roads in shorts and tank top while helicopters fly overhead. Just kidding!

My evenings are as different as my days are typical. But shorts and tank tops are only for the gym. Walking or running outside any compound is strictly forbidden for security reasons. And helicopters never get old for boys irrespective of their age!

The past few days in Kabul have been cool and cloudy with showers on and off all day and evening. This is unusual weather for August, and the Afghans keep making comments about what nice weather we are having. They say that the air is cleaner and the people are healthier. (Even my driver, who has his windshield wipers on, comments on what great weather this is.) This sentiment is a reflection of living in a desert, where rain means that the typical Kabul dust and mid-day summer sun are alleviated.

But it seems strange to me after living in DC, where rain in the summer usually means an increase in humidity and in the fall means the onset of flu-season. And irrespective of the season, it always means terrible traffic.

I typically think of good weather as sunny with a nice breeze. And that has been the weather for the majority of the days I’ve been here (although the breeze often becomes a huge dust cloud). Typically, cloudy, rainy weather makes me want to stay inside, preferably in bed 🙂 But for me here, the rain means getting an introduction to the mud (mud season is officially during winter after the snow melts) and canceling of our weekly volleyball game.

Even after you’ve re-calibrated to the working environment, there are times when expats get frustrated. It’s usually the result of work setbacks, annoyances with housemates, personal issues going on back home, and sometimes health issues. I’ve been feeling that way for the past couple days. While I haven’t hit “the wall” yet, I’m definitely getting a sense for what it generally feels like. (Note: I said “yet” because everyone I’ve talked to has been there at one point or another.) I’m very lucky to have a couple great friends and some outside activities to focus on while I silently start counting the days until my vacation because I know that “this too shall pass.”

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