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This afternoon I returned to Kabul after a quick 2-day trip to Delhi. It is just a short 2-hr flight each way, but mentally, it feels lightyears away. Upon landing, the reality of returning to a post-conflict environment hit me as soon as I turned on my cell phone…a text msg immediately came through from my security indicating that a grocery store that is half a block from my house was hit by a suicide attacker. This is a store that I and my colleagues often stop by, especially on a Friday (our day off).

Thankfully, it doesn’t appear that I knew anyone injured, but this small community of expats will be affected. Reports speculate wildly, but right now, they are saying 9 people were killed with others injured. It’s yet another unfortunate tragedy, but it hits a lot closer to (my) home.

When we do different things or interact with different people, it usually impacts our perceptions. The majority of the time this is a good thing (i.e. our perceptions become more accurate), but it may also create mis-perceptions. I have a specific example of this that I’ve been wanting to write about: Thailand. It might seem an odd example of perceptions from Afghanistan, or perhaps you think that I’m planning a trip to Thailand. Quite the contrary.

Before coming to Afghanistan, I thought Thailand was a beautiful country with friendly people, nice beaches, and interesting culture. While I fully acknowledge it’s simply a perception and may be accurate (or completely inaccurate), what is important is that my perception of Thailand has changed entirely. Through travel stories, I had read about the 20-year old guy who went to Thailand for the beautiful women and the story about the middle-aged guy who married married a Thai woman a year after his divorce. I assumed these stories could be from any country.

But like I said, my perception of Thailand has changed dramatically since I have been here. This change has nothing specific to do with Afghanistan. I’d say that it probably would have happened in any post-conflict country or maybe any country with a large US military presence. The men who do these kinds of assignments (speaking entirely in general terms) need the money, have unstable relationships back home, and/or are here to be part of something bigger than themselves (military, religion, etc.). There are a few guys I know who don’t fit these criteria, but they are very few.

What does all of this have to do with Thailand?

Well, while working in Afghanistan among expats, I have come to know at least 5 men (aged 45 – 63 and divorced) who go to Thailand, on average, 1 week 3 times a year to visit their Thai girlfriends. They’ve known each other for 6 – 18 months. They all fully intend to marry their girlfriend (often fiancée) and either bring her back to the US or settle down with a small business in Thailand.

I can clearly see why these men, who I’d rate as fairly average Americans, are so happy and get so much satisfaction from these women. The men, by spending relatively little money in the US, appear to spend lavishly on their Thai girlfriends. These women provide relationships, which are completely string-free, baggage-free (something quite difficult to find in the US at that age). And I can completely understand why young Thai women would be very interested in having an American boyfriend. The women, in turn, fawn over and become devoted to these potential suitors. (Some might say win-win.)

I think this type of relationship could come about in many different countries, but the strange thing is that I only have examples of this from Thailand, not from a single other non-Western country. (While I “know” it happens in post-soviet countries and other island nations, I don’t know anyone in those relationships.)

My new perceptions of Thailand are around massage parlors, too-friendly people, parties, drinking, hotel suites, and of course, beaches.

I don’t know if this new perception is actually more accurate. It feels quite skewed. What are your perceptions and/or stories of Thailand?

Every once in awhile, the news provides new information with relevant and insightful analysis. Normally, however, the news is a lot of regurgitation, scare mongering, and validation of public opinion.

This article I saw recently fits squarely in the last category for me. It has been said before, it points to the half of aid projects with problems in one province, and it validates the public sentiment that money being spent here is a waste. I’m not disagreeing with their analysis. I know plenty of people who worked on projects (such as the Kabul River cleanup) only to return 6 or 9 months later to see things regressed back to their original state.

The problem is that the kind of large scale change that the US wants throughout the country (e.g. end corruption, provide a functional government and private sector, ensure security for citizens while limiting the ability of rogue/terrorists groups to organize, create gender equality, reduce poverty…) are all long-term, large-scale endeavors. The US hasn’t committed to really managing this type of change.

The assumption of the U.S. operating model is that you can fix a problem by throwing money at it. This is rarely the case. More likely, the sudden influx in money makes the situation worse in unanticipated ways.

Happy New Year!

Yesterday morning I returned from a 4-day trip to Jordan. It was a good trip, but there were definitely a couple of setbacks to my plan.

First of all, a filling in my mouth moved or broke a few days before I left. The bright side is that my colleague in Amman was able to get me an appointment with an English-speaking dentist. I was very lucky to be able to take care of it while I was there. And for anyone wondering about the cost, I had one ex-ray, a filling replaced, and a cleaning for $70.

The second setback was the weather. I was completely prepared for it to be cold with the possibility of snow, but in fact the temperature was mild. Unfortunately, it drizzled and was foggy almost the entire trip (very unusual weather for Jordan). This didn’t really bother me (as I was so thankful that it wasn’t freezing or torrential rain), but I didn’t feel inclined to go to the Dead Sea in that weather. However, the real blow was that when I went to the Forest Reserve they wouldn’t let me hike the trails due to the muddy conditions. (I did end up just walking on the road for an hour, but it definitely wasn’t the experience I was hoping for.)

The trip:

After my visit with the dentist, I toured around Amman. Can you tell my smile looks a little lopsided? (Yes, I am strategically turned.)

After seeing the Roman ruins, I walked through the “downtown” streets, which are lined with vendors.

I spent one day in Petra, which is about 3 hours from Amman. The city was created by the Nabataeans, unlike most of the historic sites created by the Romans.

The downside of making the site very accessible, with carriage, horse, donkey, and camel rides is that it’s extremely crowded in the section by the Treasury (yes, extremely crowded even in December on a week day). However, by taking the long hike up to the Monastery, you can avoid the crowds and enjoy the scenery.

Instead of going to the Dead Sea, I went to a very gentrified area of the city and hung out at a bookstore (this felt like quite a treat coming from Kabul). And on the last day with the clouds breaking, I went to Jerash (and then to Ajloun castle and Forest Reserve, but I’ve already told you how that ended…)

Thoughts:

Throughout the trip, I couldn’t help but compare Jordan to Afghanistan and Amman to Kabul. These comparisons continued as I met with my colleague (who, after working in Jordon on and off for a few years, recently moved there with her husband and two children).

Both countries are considered Emerging Markets. The geography and climate are similar, although not the exact same. Both countries have a large majority of the population in their capitals, with nomadic people constituting the majority outside of the capital. The main religion is Islam; however, parts of Jordon are 10-20% Christian (and much, much higher in religious places like Mt. Nebo). They both lack reliable public transportation. It’s easy to get a taxi or bus in the capital, but outside the city people wait by the road for passing vehicles to take pity on them.

Jordon has consistent infrastructure, security, health care, etc. Women in Jordan wear everything from the black hijab, to head scarves, to nothing on their heads (while not as free as Dubai, there was definitely similarity). Jordon is not being propped up by American taxpayers. Amman is relatively clean (buildings are all a natural off white color). Using water to water a lawn and bushes is frowned upon (definitely not the case in Kabul, where it is no easier to make your landscape green). There are almost no beggars (I didn’t see any actually) in Jordan. Lastly, as an English speaker, I found it quite easy to get around, as almost all signs are in both Arabic and English. While cab drivers don’t speak English, it would only take a basic level of Arabic skills to be able to get around quite easily. My colleague mentioned that their daily life is much like the US (she drives to work during rush hour, her children take the bus to school, etc.)

One last comment I want to make about my trip is that it was unexpectedly expensive. There is no public transportation to the sites outside Amman and I wasn’t part of a tour group so I had to pay for a car & driver. All of the sites have increased their fees for non-residents. I had read that Petra increased their fee a few months ago, but since then, it went up again. Just the entrance fee ($70) was 4xs the cost of going into the Taj Mahal. If you aren’t planning on walking the entire time, it’s even more. Lastly, I felt like I was essentially paying a single supplement the entire time, simply because I didn’t have anyone to share the costs with. (This wasn’t the case in Turkey because I was paying for one bed in a hostel or just one bus ticket.) And considering that I wasn’t able to do the extra things I wanted to do (like hiking in the forest), in retrospect, I should have paid to do the entire trip by tour. The tour providers would have cut my in-country costs by more than half. Of course, I would have lost a lot of flexibility, freedom, and free time, but for this short of a trip, it would have made more sense.

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