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After being confined by security for so long, I have really come to appreciate just walking around. Here are some pics from my walks around town and the surrounding countryside.

The best chocolate-filled croissants! (Not to mention the crazy streets)

Flowers and other decorations fill almost every window.

Beautiful view.

Wild flowers fill the spaces between rows of grapevines.

Orange trees (and lemon and almond) line the roads. The fruit is a little sour but so fresh.

Beautiful water off the coast of Moraira, and what I didn’t take a picture of is all the families out enjoying the beach. This place is Kid Central.

It took 3 planes, 2 subways, 1 train, 2 trams, and a lot of walking to get to my current destination.

I looked into quite a few different options, but with only 4 days to buy tix out of Kabul, I had to go with my back-up plan. Don’t feel bad; it’s a highly ranked back-up plan.

It just so happens that my buddy owns a condo in Spain, where he and his family vacation. He was kind enough to offer it to me as soon as he heard about my situation. So I am located in a rather quaint Spanish town about 10 kilometers from the beach. I’m decompressing entirely – reading, journaling and doing other writing, watching tv, researching, walking around town, getting to know some of the friendly shopkeepers, trying to figure out what I used to do in the kitchen, taking walks in the countryside, doing a little work and training for my company, and just spending time thinking and planning. I’ll hang out here for 3 weeks and then travel around a bit of Spain for 2 more weeks. This is my first visit to Spain so I’d love to hear suggestions for where to go.

 

Amusing fact – I tried to get some friends to go to Spain with me last Spring when I saw some particularly cheap plane tix (this was well before Afghanistan was on my radar). That never came together, but here I am only a year later how a much longer visit.

 

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego??

 

Yes, I am teasing you…

I don’t want my negativity (over my job, project mismanagement, or lack of a coherent US strategy) to imply that I was unhappy living in Afghanistan or that I think poorly of the Afghans.

On the whole, my time in Afghanistan was very easy. My post Spoiled never stopped being true. Living outside the US was one of my goals, and I’m really proud to have accomplished it, especially through my job. And while I often felt like I was in a bubble, isolated from the average people of Afghanistan, I had the advantage of living and working with people from around the world (including Irish, British, South African, Australian, Afghan, Indian, Pakistani, Pilipino, Sri Lankan, Iranian, French, and German). This increased the cultural exchanges exponentially.

I really came to enjoy the Afghan people on a social level. This is by far their strength. I understand a lot about their work norms, but I can’t say that working with them ever became easy. There is just too great a divide between the expectations I came with, at least for white collar work. (Here I’m strictly talking about Afghans who have never lived outside Afghanistan.) By far, my biggest complaint about Afghans (which is completely justified considering their history) is their tendency to just wait things out (process, system, government, etc. will fall eventually) rather than thinking strategically about what they want to become and how they can get there with existing resources. Way too much time is spent trying to figure out how to get flat screen tvs or video conferencing equipment, which aren’t needed or used for work purposes, rather than how to make their departments actually effective. Of course, I know this happens everywhere, but it is much more blatant here.

And since this is my farewell post, I have to include a few of the things that I will truly miss:

  • I really came to appreciate living in a guesthouse with other expats. It was like being put into a place where everyone is instantly part of the same club (knowing the same people, speaking the same lingo, struggling with many of the same issues, etc.). Usually when you move to a new place, you have to slowly meet people, try to get to know them better, become friends, but all of this can happen in the course of 2 or 3 days when you’re living and working together.
  • Within a few months, I had created a good situation with friends, exercising, classes, work, and get-togethers that fell into an easy routine. This will take a lot more time to create in a new place, but on the up side, I will get to incorporate outdoor activities!
  • Travel facilitates cultural exchange. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot by getting to know people on your street. But it’s much more in-your-face and people are way more open to talking about differences and similarities when you’re a visitor. You’re allowed to asked questions without offending anyone (for the most part). I’m going to miss the guys in my office, who were always so open to explaining things that I noticed, asking me questions, and comparing and contrasting situations.
  • Lunches. Have you ever wanted to entertain friends at home without the headache of planning, cooking, and cleaning up? Do you need a break in the middle of the day to just unwind, maybe vent about your job or maybe talk about what you would do if you ruled the world? Do you wish you ate delicious food made from scratch more often? If I had to pick the top thing that I will miss from these past 10 months, it is going home for a delicious lunch (5 minutes away from work) and chatting with my best buddies or hosting friends, and no planning involved.
  • In my last week, I said a lot of goodbyes, but it was actually saying goodbye to Housain, our cook, that left a lump in my throat. Of anyone in Afghanistan, he was the one who worried and fretted over me. He always knew if I was sick. He always made my favorite foods. I wouldn’t say it was a deep friendship; our limited language skills wouldn’t allow for that. But when he had a headache, he would come to me for an ibuprofen, and when he got hit by a car on his way to work (did I mention he rides his bike 1 hr each way to come to work), I was the one to send him home to rest. I am going to miss him, and I worry that others will not appreciate him. And what really bothers me is that due to the large cuts in our project, my company will need to close some of the houses that it has been renting/managing. In the process, I think it’s extremely likely that he will lose his job in the next few weeks.
  • As you know from Changing Roles, I was really looking forward to working in a different role, one that would create tangible results that my colleagues could use to improve a very important government process. I’m going to miss the opportunity to complete that work as well as working closely with some of my friends.
  • I got to know 2 Afghan women in my counterpart’s staff. I enjoyed getting to know them and learning about their families. However, our relationships didn’t really move much beyond this because I worked more closely with several of the men on the team. And then just 2 weeks before I left, I had the chance to meet and work with another Afghan woman. She is 23 yrs old and had fairly recently returned from the US, where she studied for almost 3 years. Our friendship blossomed immediately. She is from a conservative family who never wanted her to go to the US in the first place, and now she is having a very difficult time adjusting to living with her family again after so much independence. Further, even many of her friends feel she has turned her back on her culture. She no longer fits in where she once did, and I’m really going to miss the opportunity to be her friend and mentor.

Today is International Women’s Day! And if you have no idea what that means, you’re definitely not alone. You might think it was another holiday created by hallmark…

Actually, it was created to celebrate the political and social achievements of women. And each year has a different theme. I think of the day as a celebration of empowerment – women recognizing that they can create the changes they want to see. However, not particularly surprising, the spirit of the day is lost on a lot of people.

On the ground in Afghanistan, it seems to be all about women getting gifts from their employers. (And pretty significant gifts, I might add. I know some government employees got $100 in local currency, which has a lot of buying power here.) Of course, there are also speeches and time away from jobs for tea and lunch (this is Afghanistan after all).

In the US, I might have questioned the need to have a special day for women, but living in a place where women are clearly not equals has definitely adjusted my mindset.

Consider for a moment – when is a girl no longer a child? Is it at around 13 when she starts menstruating? Is it when the government recognizes her right to vote? Is it when the government says she is responsible enough to buy alcohol? Or, is it when she gets married? Here, in Afghanistan, girls are children until they get married. They move from being dependent on their fathers to being dependent on their husbands. This is reflected in the language; the same word is used for all unmarried girls.

 

And if you’re wondering what this particular international woman is doing these days, stay tuned…

Change is in the air. I thought it was just a role change as I discussed in my last post. But, in fact, it’s much bigger.

If you’ve been reading the news lately, specifically about the budget that Congress can not agree on, you probably have heard about massive cuts in USAID. I know several projects that have suddenly started sending people home because they can’t assume that they will have funding next quarter or next year. (These large projects often require a ramp down period for finishing work, leaving houses, and closing the books.)

Several of my friends are leaving due to these cuts. And, yesterday, I learned that I am another person being cut. The project management is quick to say that the cuts are unrelated to performance, which is true, but the further truth is that, like the nepotism of the Afghans, there is some clear favoritism in the people remaining on the project. That’s just a reality of work.

And so:

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

It looks like, instead of my new exciting role, I will be hitting the skies in about a week. There is a slight chance I could find another project or even another job in that time. But most likely I will find myself with quite a bit of unexpected time on my hands.

So my question to you (my few faithful readers) is: where would you go or what would you do if you could do just about anything?

 

For the past 9 months, I have been working in the same role, embedded in a government unit. In consulting, that’s a long time to be doing the same thing. My role has been to build the capacity of a group of Afghans by advising them as they do work, which I’m experienced with. The past 3 months have been quite difficult for me, and I have complained about being bored, not having enough work to occupy my time, and not having any real impact. I have been bummed to think that my remaining time in Afghanistan would be more of the same work-wise.

Luckily, there is a short-term role within the project available for me to move into. This new role will be quite different. Instead of being mostly an adviser, I will be doing the work myself. That means I set the agenda, the pace, and much of the results, without having to convince a team (of guys who don’t want to listen to me) to follow my suggested approach. This work cuts across different departments and ministries so I will be going around and gathering information. Again, it’s a very independent role. This is the kind of work I really enjoy so I have high hopes for my remaining couple of months in Afghanistan.

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