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Here are some general updates.

The stay discussed in Not a typical hotel went very well. The place looked just like the pictures, there were clean linens, etc. I even learned that our host worked for my company until a month ago (not exactly a small world because it is a large company, but still a neat connection). I hope to use the site again with a bit more advance planning when traveling to expensive cities.

This week I had the pleasure of seeing a Cirque du Soleil show. This one. It was a really great show. The acrobatics and music were stunning. But I couldn’t help but compare it to the experience of watching the same show on tv*. I’ve always been biased toward watching performances on a screen. The camera angles, focus, zoom, and speakers just create such a perfect combination that I’m so spoiled. I hate it when I can’t see and hear everything that is going on, in perfect clarity. This isn’t an issue with the seats; I could practically touch some of the performers. Click on the link above and watch the video. Even with the energy of the crowd and the newness of everything, when would you prefer a performance in person?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a restaurant pre-run, where they test all of the equipment, staff, food, experience, etc. It was really a lot of fun. The place buzzed with energy. Everyone was excited to be there, the staff were running around in every direction, and the food was, of course, delicious. In exchange for the free meal (if I remember correctly, it included everything for several courses except alcohol), we had to complete surveys about the food, staff, setting, experience, etc. What a deal!

So when my company invited me to a test of a new facility that will be opening soon I jumped at the chance to check it out (that was planned long before the trip above). Yesterday, I drove to the facility, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I was treated to a dizzying number of staff trying to help me. Did I need help with my bags? Do I know where I am going? Is there anything they can do for me? Would I like water? This was all said with extreme cheeriness (the way I assume Disney park employees are). Once I got beyond the hordes of people trying to help me, I checked out the facility. It was well worth the hype I had heard. The building and area were gorgeous, the food was delicious (oh, and there was so much that I just kept eating), the rooms were very nice (with lots of small touches to make them very comfortable), and there were interesting company features throughout the building (to make it both more functional and entertaining). I was so excited about everything that I couldn’t sleep until early this morning (although that might from the myriad of desserts I tried last night:)

Hopefully, there will be more interesting updates to my adventures in the near future. Keep your fingers crossed!

*I don’t actually have a tv, but this is easier than saying a wide-screen tv, computer monitor, or projector in each place.

A lot has been written about expatriates (people working outside their home country, which I’ve been doing) and repatriates (people returning to their home country after working in another country, which I’m about to do) particularly around work. It’s very important to companies to do what they can to make the transition successful.

After 2 months in Spain, I’m not too concerned about transitioning to the US. Transitioning back to a full time job is another matter!

I’ll be returning to the US at the end of this week. During this month, I will spend some time in DC, Dallas, and in my home town. If you’re in one of those locals and want to meet up, drop me a line.

This happened to me and my work, although on even more specific topics, on a couple different occasions in Afghanistan.

The only real difference is that the person/people/donor who tasked us with the assignment was rarely the same and never in the room…

For the 2 months that I’m in Spain, I’m doing some combination of traveling and squatting. I just finished 2 weeks of almost exclusive traveling. And while the time wasn’t what I would call frantic, finally sitting at my computer to work, pay bills, respond to emails, and just generally catch up feels quite welcome. And I’m so glad that I arrived at a hotel with consistent, reliable internet yesterday. (High speed internet is found across Spain, but internet access at the overwhelming majority of hotels is downright crappy, leaving you searching for tapas restaurants, bars, or other attractions with the WiFi sign posted.)

For the next few days, I will be squatting in the amazingly green town of Santiago de Compostela. It’s in Galacia, a region culturally quite different from the rest of Spain, due to the geography (north of Portugal and mountains) and history (Celts settled the region). The region gets a lot of rain, similar to Ireland, so all of the rocks and buildings are covered with moss, grasses, and ivy, giving the whole place a very old, homey feeling.

Most people associate the town with St. James, who lived in the region (although I think all of the other references about his body being returned and found years later were part of a marketing campaign, at the time to convince the christians to kick the Moors out of Spain). And as part of the association with St. James, the town is the end of El Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James). It’s a big pilgrimage for Catholics.

This makes the place perfect for getting some work done while having some small things to see and do.

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.

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.

Third example of learning more about my own culture:


Afghans rarely plan what they will do for the day, much less the week, month, or several months from now. (I touched on this in the first Culture post.) For example, there are a lot of holidays, and different holidays have different implications (think Christmas vs Columbus Day). It is very normal for our contract staff to get an email around 3pm the day before the holiday explaining if the day is a holiday for all, day off for specific staff, work from home, or work as usual.

Here’s an example of an email that went out Monday, the 14th, around 11am:

Dear All,

The Afghan Government will be closed for holidays on 15-17 Feb and in consideration of the fact that the majority of our local staff are embedded at XXX and Ministries, the XXX management has determined Tuesday and Thursday are work from home for all local staff.

For your information:

?         Tuesday, 15 Feb is  Liberation Day

?         Wednesday 16 February is Miladul Nabi (S) –  a national paid holiday for XXX local staff in Afghanistan

?         Thursday, 17 Feb is a national holiday

Please note that:


Enjoy a safe and long weekend.



Human Resources Manager

Since Fridays are the weekend, this email effectively informs the staff that they have a 4-day weekend. Each time I see these emails, I balk at the fact that they are only informed of this the day before. I wonder how do they plan, how do they take advantage of their holidays, and why don’t they complain about getting such short notice? But the reality is that they really don’t plan, they don’t have a need to “take advantage” of holidays because they don’t take trips to see family in other parts of the country*, and they don’t see anything to complain about (they are getting holidays after all).

The US is so focused on planning and maximizing that something as great as a 4-day weekend could be frustrating if we aren’t given the time needed to be organized (think sudden snow days).

Note: you may have noticed that the email actually says that 2 days are “work from home” days and I said that they have “a 4-day weekend.” This is because almost no Afghans do office work in their homes. They do not have internet access at their homes. Those who have laptops usually leave them locked in an office at work or they take them home for their kids to play on them (I know because I sit in an IT office, which has to deal with all of the problems that result on the computers). It is a common mindset that if you are not in the office you are not working (it is completely beside the point whether work gets done in the office).

*The majority of Afghans live with extended families in their homes, and it’s rare that they would need to travel to see other parts of their family (because they are in the same city). However, the big exception to this is men who have moved to Kabul to make money for their families, who live in one of the provinces. These men do travel to their home province about once every 2 months, usually around government holidays. If they are flying, it is quite easy to get tickets the day of or the day before because this is such a small group of people.

Bonus Material – We have a guy in our office who changed roles and was provided a new office in another building probably about 2 months ago. He continues to come to our office for part of each day. When people are looking for him, they look in both offices. While I was writing this post, he came into the office for 2 minutes, and as he was walking back out, we teased him that he couldn’t live without seeing us. He responded,

“Change in Afghanistan is usually very slow. You cannot just change jobs or offices suddenly. You must do it slowly. There is only one exception to this kind of change, and that is marriage, where suddenly the girl is no longer in one house and is now in another house.”

The interesting cultural feature is that in the US, most change can be very fast (i.e., change of offices, jobs, or homes), but generally relationships/marriages are a slow change.

Much of my job feels like a game. It’s a problem solving game similar to chess where you try to think several moves ahead for different pieces. The difference in this game is that there are a lot of squares that are actually bogs or quicksand and extra pieces that appear out of thin air.

This morning our team was scheduled to conduct an interview at 10am.

Thursday, I met with the members of the team who are working with me to prep for the interview. I learned that one of the guys is about to leave for vacation/marriage and will be out for 5 weeks. So then I went about getting one of the other staff members assigned to our work. It took several discussions (and running after my counterpart when he would say “1 minute” and walk out) to get another staff member assigned. Then we tried to have the prep meeting, only to find that the newly assigned staff member had already left for the day. I did the prep with the other two. Then I arranged for another translator to attend the interview today because my translator had a prior commitment. I also made sure that another vehicle would be available for the group of us attending the interview.

This morning, I learned that the translator wasn’t available, but luckily, there was another one who could substitute in. I talked with the new staff member to try to get him up to speed for the meeting since he missed the prep Thursday. Then I learned that someone from management had taken the car that was arranged. So I went about trying to get another vehicle. Once that was secured, I tried to get everyone gathered and ready to go (always the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind). Some of us loaded up into my vehicle and left for the interview. We actually arrived at the ministry early (bc traffic was lighter than usual). But we couldn’t find the staff from the other car. Then we learned that the guy we were there to interview was gone to another ministry and might be back soon. We waited. After 25 minutes, I called the guys in the other car. They were stuck in traffic, still far away. Then we learned that the guy we were going to interview would in fact not be back soon. I decided we would interview another person in the office. I started the interview, and after 15 minutes, the guys from the other car showed up. But there were enough chairs. Apparently, there are no extra chairs in this ministry. So after some back and forth, we ended up moving to another office with a conference table. After about 10 minutes, the guys from the other car stopped taking notes or paying attention to the interview (despite the fact that this is very important information and they will have to lead interviews later this week). It’s Ramadan (so they aren’t eating or drinking during the day) and their normally short attention span has reduced to practically non-existent. I continue the interview, trying to keep up with the circles that the process is taking and make sure the new translator understands what I’m trying to ask. And at the end of the interview, one of the guys says to everyone in dari that the whole hour was practically a waste of time.

So while I came away feeling I got some good information (despite all of the numerous setbacks), none of that matters if I haven’t built their capacity far enough for them to recognize good information when they see it.


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!

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