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I expect that a variety of things will strike me as odd about CA and particularly L.A. in the first few months of living here. I wrote a long post about a few of these seeming oddities, but rather than waiting to give you one novel-sized post, I’m going to do a series of much shorter posts. This is the first in that series.

Two months ago on a quick trip to check out the city of L.A., I couldn’t understand why there were so many cops on the streets. They were everywhere!  I saw a police vehicle every few minutes while driving around. Perhaps I was in a high enforcement area at the time, although I doubt it. Dallas uses a lot of red light cameras for enforcement. Actually, it’s a full fledged program. That means the city can use their officers in other ways. There’s a big debate about the implications of traffic light cameras. This is a good summary and assessment of the situation. In Dallas (which is clearly a car culture), police are very rare on interstates or major roads. Clearly, enforcement is dealt with differently in L.A.

So I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised that upon reaching the CA border there was an inspection station. (Honestly, I thought it might be a sort of immigration station, especially since it was on the border with AZ.)

The following transpired: An agent glanced in the car and, upon seeing the cooler in the backseat, riffled through it to pull out the remaining apples I bought at the grocery store 2 days earlier. She “confiscated” them and handed us a notice that the car had been “inspected” for the safety of CA agriculture.

Now I am fully aware of what invasive species can do to landscapes. (I did a stint on the Utah Conservation Corps several summers ago where we battled a few of them.) But the process just reminded me of when I returned from a semester abroad (during the Mad Cow scare of 2001) and the customs agent took my orange (that I had picked up in Schiphol airport but not eaten on the plane). Or the more recent example is the entire 3-1-1 liquids inspection to fly, which we all know is meaningless. My guess is that those apples will be burnt in some huge incinerator, just like the mounds of oranges burnt in The Grapes of Wrath (we are in CA after all).

or at least on my subconscious!

Around the time that I left Afghanistan, several of my close friends were also leaving (either because their contract was coming to an end or, like me, the funding for their project was suddenly cut). At the time, it gave us a certain shared experience of leaving within days of each other. But each of us had our own lives and our own circumstances to determine what we would be doing next. My friends ended up all over the world when leaving Kabul.

Since then, rather surprisingly to me, almost all of them have returned or were seriously considering returning to Afghanistan.

Like I said, they have their reasons for returning, but each time I learn of a friend going back, I end up spending some time thinking about whether I would go back. I already met the goals I set for myself in going there last year. Further, the security situation has clearly worsened (as it always does in the summer months), the financial situation has grown tighter, and I have already seen what a tiny impact our projects are having. [Clearly, I don’t write to be politically correct.]

I always come to the conclusion that 1) I have already had that experience, 2) It’s important to focus on my personal relationships and things at home right now, and 3) I’d rather go somewhere else if the opportunity presents itself.

I feel comfortable with this decision. And right now I have a ton of other things related to moving to California on my mind. But while in the middle of moving, almost every night I have a dream about returning to Afghanistan. I haven’t had a dream, that I remember, having anything to do with California. I’m sure that it’s a lot easier for the brain to create stories around the known than around the unknown, but it’s a strange way to wake up.

Yesterday, I got an email from my old translator in Kabul. He has moved to a different position, and the office of guys where the greatest amount of cultural exchange happened for me is no longer anything like when I was there. It’s rather bittersweet that the best parts of my experience no longer exist. (Too bad I can’t tell my subconscious that Afghanistan would indeed hold plenty of unknowns, too.)

I’m having so much fun that I feel like I’m celebrating my birthday all month.

I had a great time visiting with my friends in DC. The real advantage of crashing on a couch or staying in a spare bedroom is that you have so much time to catch up. (Usually, it feels a bit forced when you’re trying to catch up on so many things in a short time.) I really enjoyed getting into the flow of my friends’ lives. I was also supposed to be working while in DC, but since most of the people I wanted to meet with weren’t available, I ended up with more time to hang out with my friends and enjoy the beautiful weather.

I also peeked into my storage unit… That was a strange experience. To start, I was happy to see that a year ago I labeled about 85% of the boxes, which meant I didn’t open too many unnecessary boxes (of dishes or cleaning supplies). I needed to grab some summer clothes and some suits. After a year of wearing clothes from only 2 suitcases, it was pretty exciting to see my clothes. There were so many different colors! It was difficult to decide what to take and what to leave. And, every day that I put on a “new” shirt I feel as if it’s a gift.

The humidity in Dallas is pretty oppressive right now. The people who live here say the weather is nice… Stepping off the plane felt like stepping into a sauna to me. However, it’s perfect for roller blading, eating frozen yogurt, and bbq sandwiches.

And so my adjustment to living in the US continues as I turn one year older.

I’ve been thinking for some time about writing one more post about Spain. There are so many different impressions made and experiences had that I couldn’t pick one topic. There were the incredibly friendly people, hearing people talk about their shopping experiences in the US, suddenly having the ability to use a credit card again, suddenly adjusting from using dari as my second language to speaking in spanish, or my enjoyment of just walking winding streets, hearing the bells from the town church. I was thinking about this as a rounded a corner yesterday, and it hit me that I had to make this post about something that recurred so many times that I stopped counting after around the 9th time, despite my initial surprise and curiosity.

I lived outside Washington, DC for 4 years. Since it is the capital, it’s not surprising that a lot of protests and demonstrations are staged there. People want to have their voice heard by the people setting policy and create visibility. And the range of topics vary from pro peace, anti tobacco, pro tea, anti bankers, to pro abortion. One time I saw a group of people get on the metro with t-shirts indicating that they had just been at a rally to support “grandparents rights when raising their grandchildren.” (It made me think of my parents who did just that.) The topics are just that diverse.

In Kabul, I was always aware of any demonstrations happening in the city, and there were lots of them. Our security team made the area of any demonstration out of bounds, and if there was enough concern, we would be restricted even further. While these seemed a bit excessive, there were plenty of reasons why my security took a hard stance. I still remember the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident with Afghan fatalities in Kabul.

Yet, given all of this, I was so surprised by the people in Spain protesting. At first I would try to figure out from the signs or chants what the issue of contention was, but after seeing 5 different protests about 5 completely different topics within 2 weeks, my tactic switched to avoiding them (the noise of whistle blowing really is obnoxious).

Maybe it’s Spring-Protest-Season, or maybe this is an atypical year, but whatever it is, the people of Spain definitely participate in their right to demonstrate no matter the size of the city or town.

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?

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