Monthly Archives: May 2009

Trapper Ray

I’ve been busily observing the contractors providing various base support services. This morning was my check ride with the animal-control team. There is actually wildlife here! Unfortunately, a good bit of it is rabid, and most of it has teeth. So, the general strategy is to capture with a live-animal trap, give them a vet check, and release the healthy ones in some remote corner near the fenceline.

We had quite a haul this morning: one feral housecat (an orange marmalade job) who was most upset; a larger cat that I would call a bobcat or lynx, maybe 20 or 25 lb, who was taking matters more calmly (was this not her first time?); and a juvenile hedgehog (I’m told it was “standard British” size, about the same as a pocket poodle — heavier than a squirrel but not as long as a ferret) who was quietly curious. The trapper said the hedgehogs grow quite large here, and he had recently come across a porcupine the size of a bear cub (it completely filled the trap).

I have seen two sorts of birds here: one small non-descript spotted brown songbird type, and one striking parrot-green thing that is built like a barnswallow and flies about like one as well.

Four-Way Whats?

There are so many aspects of everyday life, taken for granted as routine at home, that are different over here, either because of the past or because of the present.

Driving, for starters. Everything is stick shift (85% of cars sold in Europe have manual transmissions), and diesel. The vehicles have been obtained from various sources, so some have right-hand drive and some have left-hand drive. One could wish that the people who grew up with right-hand drive were given a right-hand vehicle to drive, but one takes what one can get, often. It appears to me that all the left-hand vehicles have been issued, and only right-hand vehicles are left. At least, that’s my story as to why the right-hand vehicles are being driven so erratically.

Then there are the four-way stops. The British, of course, have never seen such things (how many of us had dealt with roundabouts before we built the one by Bainbridge High?).

Did I mention the asphalting is still an ongoing effort? So there are lots of detours …

All in all, the roads are much more adventurous than the “20 km/hr” speed limits would indicate.

Life as a pedestrian can be equally strange — especially for a Washington-stater accustomed to cars yielding the way. One has to walk defensively; wearing those reflective belts favored by the Army and Marines helps, and there’s a flashing-light switch on the little lithium-powered LED flashlights too.

Hedge Funds

Some readers may be wondering about the money situation over here. It’s not as straightforward as you might think.

Of course, we pay nothing for our lodging or our meals, or the voluminous amount of bottled water we drink every day, or the gym. There are no movie theaters or bars. So, in fact, there’s not a huge volume of money changing hands. None of the local merchants (or tha vendors at the market) take credit cards or checks, for example. So cash is king. There are two ATM machines (and one government ATM-like device for service personnel to access their pay accounts — a real improvement over the old paymaster routine).

However, we don’t have or use coins. Instead we use Pogs (See the Military Uses section).

Shades of the Wild West

Yup, they say this is a war zone. I suspected that, somehow. But for most of my time here so far, I’ve been thinking it looks more like Old Tombstone or perhaps Silver City. I mean, everyone (well, the uniformed everyones, not us slimy contractors) is carrying either a rifle or sidearms, sometimes both. Sometimes it’s an old-style M-16, sometimes the new folding-stock M-4 Carbine, occasionally a higher-firepower Squad Automatic Weapon. There are innumerable ways to carry it: slung up, slung down, right shoulder, left shoulder, front or back. And don’t get me started about the various ways to park one while you are dining (underfoot) or at chapel. Pistols tend to be carried by the more senior personnel, and the holsters vary from the traditional belt holster to the more useful leg rig or ever-popular double shoulder.

Hotel Kandahar

Depending on your organization and your length of stay here, your accommodations may vary just a bit.

The combat troops passing through en route to the “downrange” zones further south, where there is considerable fighting going on, will spend several days here for acclimitization and some local training. These guys are assigned to the largest open-bay berthing I’ve ever seen: think “a bunkroom the size of a K-Mart”. So these are the standard double-high Army bunks, with the washing-up in separate adjacent facilities. The women have identical accommodations, next door, with a “Females only” sign on both the berthing and the washing-up.

If you are here longer, as many of the NATO forces are here for some months, your accommodation is an eight (?)-man tent, sort of a textile version of the WWII-era Quonset huts. These are arranged in orthogonol clusters, making streets and alleys. Picture here. (I don’t know where this shot was taken, but it’s certainly a smaller place than Kandahar today.)

The next step up is a pre-fabricated type of housing the design of which must have originated with the 20-foot shipping containers (CONEX or ISO boxes) used in the States for intermodal freight. Only the design, mind you — these are new pre-fab kits, with steel frames and pre-fab floor, ceiling, and wall (some walls have windows) panels. They can be erected on-site with small crews and a minimum of equipment, usually on a foundation of concrete block or a poured concrete pad. Again the washing-up is in separate but adjacent facilities of the same sort. I believe these are used for 2-man or 4-man (if bunkbeds) accommodations. Picture here.

Permanent party base and support personnel are in newly constructed masonry buildings, with the washing-up in the building proper. My E-3 USAF roommate didn’t quite believe me when I told her that onboard ship, there would be 12 living in the space allotted to the 2 of us.

Everything is air-conditioned, of course.

A Hard Week for the UK

Wrapping up my fourth week here – and there’s been a lot going on. Since some of the operational events, which I’m not at liberty to discuss, have made it to the mainstream media, so I can post links.

The Brits have lost six brave lads in the past eight days, in the fighting in Helmand province (southern Afghanistan, southwest of here). You can track casualty figures at the link here.  And the RAF pilot survived a Harrier crash on the runway here at Kandahar, pictures and discussion here and here.  Although, with a zero-elevation ejection, there are frequently back injuries.

It has been beastly hot – 108 Fahrenheit earlier in the week, but has cooled off to 100 today. Winds are about 20-30 mph. With the continued progress of the paving projects, the dust situation has improved dubstantially. I’ve gone from living in a can of talcum powder to living in a hair dryer.

How to Have Fun at Kandahar

Ummm … are you sure you don’t have work to do? Or laundry? How about catching up on your sleep?

Well then, we’ll have to try harder. Each national compound has recreation for their own troops, which includes some fairly dense forests of treadmills/crosstrainers, resistance training machines of manifold persuasions, and the occasional bicycle. The Canadians, for good measure, have built a hocky rink (they also have a totem pole in front of their PX, in case anyone gets disoriented). Most also have something resembling a lounge/dayroom, with board games, cards, and computer access. The smokers (remember those?) tend to congregate near the dorm stairwells on makeshift picnic tables.

The Dutch have opened a sort of disco tent that seems to be very popular on Wednesday nights, and there was some sort of dance/party going on in front of the French PX last night as I was walking back from doing laundry.

Most of the permanent party here seem to have personal laptops along, and knockoff DVDs are very popular items at the Saturday market.

One will be doing all these things sober, though. This is a dry camp in more ways than one.

The End of Dusty Roads?

Something miraculous has been happening around here. And it’s dramatically reducing all that horrid dust.

Asphalt.

Yes, the lowly asphalt pavers are hard at work on the main drags around here, and it has really had a favorable impact. Even when they get started, with spraying oil on the packed sand and gravel, that alone has a huge reduction in the dust.

I never thought I would be singing psalms of praise to pavement, but here I am doing just that!

Go Directly to … Boardwalk!

Boadwalk - Looking at Tim Horton'sThe Boardwalk is the town commons here, or the local shopping mall, if you will. It’s actually a board walk, broad and sturdy, with a tin roof and some seating benches scattered about. It’s laid out as a hollow square, with enough room inside for four softball diamonds (home plate would be in each corner). Got the picture?

Of course, we don’t actually have softball diamonds – the near left corner has the hockey rink, and the near right corner has been converted into a performance stage, but there’s enough open dirt for two games of softball – or volleyball, which is also popular here.

Around the outer periphery of the boardwalk are situated, at intervals, a number of 20-foot shipping containers that have been converted into shops of various sorts. Some are food service: Tim Hortons, Pizza Hut, Subway, Burger King, Igloo ( a Canadian soft-serve ice cream shop), Green Beans (serves coffee to soldiers, get it?).

There are Thai and Italian restaraunts under construction, but the pace seems so leisurely, I doubt I’ll have anything substantive to report on them unless I come back next year.

Others are services or other retail: cell phones and cards, haircuts, tailoring (suits), alterations (who needs long sleeves?), embroidery (must personalize everything!), bank ATMs, Tshirts/hats, rugs, regional crafts, Canadian specialty items, and fur hats.

The Boardwalk is really the place where everyone goes to hang out and chat with friends, at any hour of the day or night.

Where the Girls Are

I’m astonished at the number of uniformed NATO women I’m seeing here (they seem to be as fond of the “gym shorts plus M-16” ensemble as the guys are). Lots of Canadians, Brits, and Dutch. A few French, and some Danes started appearing this week. I don’t believe I’ve seen any in the Bulgarian, Romanian, or Slovak units, and there are only a very few Germans here anyhow. They range in age from youngsters fresh out of high school to some who look older than I am (you’d think they would have learned by now, eh?).

Of course there are a considerable number of women civilians here, both NATO-organization associated and contractors like me. All the food service, laundry, fire protection — in fact most municipal services except police — are provided by contractors. In the office where I work, we have a French-Canadian, an American, and Italian, a Canadian and a Frenchwoman.

Pearls of Sun

I had a very interesting conversation with someone who was here years ago – and she painted an astounding picture of the old days in Afghanistan.

This used to be the breadbasket of the country, before the Russians started sprinkling defoliant everywhere. The soil is very fertile, if there is water. They raised grain, and corn for silage. And vineyards …  well now, you can’t make wine from those grapes, it being a Muslim country. So what else can you do with them? Hmmm … grapes … sun … raisins! She had seen mounds of gourmet raisins in the market at Kabul — all different sorts of grapes: golden, pink, red, and dark.

I was astounded. Surely there is a future for specialty agriculture there – that could be a real cash crop if the distribution logistics get solved.

There was an economic development effort started in 2004, described here. The current situation and future plans are reported here.

Austria Plans

My itenerary for the mid-term break in Austria is beginning to gel. My flight gets into Vienna Monday morning early, and I’ll take the train over to Salzberg for two nights. Then Wednesday, a day-stop in Hallstadt en route back to Vienna for 3 nights. The Vienna Philharmonic has a free evening summer concert on the grounds on the Schonnbrunn palace Thursday night, and I’m hoping for tickets to see the Lippizaners at their show on Friday night. Opera will have to wait for the November trip. And I’ll fly out Saturday morning.

Cool!

Last evening we had unseasonable thunderstorms, with the sort of lightning display I hadn’t seen in years (since spending summers in South Carolina). This big black squall line came through, and, to coin a phrase, the heavens opened up. While I was at Chapel, of course! Waves of downpours came along for about two hours.

Now, dear readers, this place is a desert. The soil has virtually no organic matter, and it’s mostly clay strata I think. Nothing gets absorbed, it all runs off. And drainage is not the long suit hereabouts. So we have … puddles? Nay, lakes! I’m sure Nessie is hiding around here (surely the Scots brought her along with them?) in one of these – she would have lots of elbow room.

This morning when I came out for breakfast, it was cool enough I almost wish I’d had my windbreaker. Then, when I had momentary thoughts of heading over to DFac 4 for breakfast, it only took one look at the wall-to-wall lake to induce a change of plans.

At any rate, the weatherguessers are predicting cooler weather this week, so I’ll gladly take it.

Tea With Tim

The most popular establishment here at Kandahar, bar none, is the local Tim Horton’s (a Canadian chain similar to Krispy Kreme and equally beloved). There is a perpetual queue – sometimes even two queues (when they open a second window).  And it’s a short walk across the street from our offices, so we endeavour to keep them in business. All sorts of coffee drinks (iced cappacino seems to be very popular) and assorts teas, not to mention doughnuts. Yes! Fresh Donuts! Now, that’s civilization for you!

Need Planning Input for Vienna Trip, Please

I’m in the thick of planning my mid-term break, and I’d like input from my devoted reading public. My flight gets into Vienna about 0700 Monday morning 1 June, and I will fly out Saturday morning, 6 June. I’m considering two options:
A) Spend the entire week in Vienna. Solve the early morning hotel check-in problem somehow. (I have a book of day-trips from Vienna, which, when mixed with in-town activities, is more than enough to keep me occupied, I suspect.)
B) Take Monday morning train to Salzburg, spend 2 nights, then return to Vienna and spend 3 nights.

Remember, I will be in Vienna for 3 nights at the end of November and Munich for 4 nights the first week of December, in conjunction with the Christmas Markets river trip.

Peanut Gallery – what say you?

Raindrops

You can follow the daily forecast here. Although, they didn’t predict the brief shower we had late this afternoon. You have to try hard to imagine this, now. It’s been over three weeks since the monsoon rainy season ended. The traffic churns up dust from the gravel roads in thick and choking clouds. The sky grows unusually dark, and we can see thunderheads (seeing clouds at all is unusual). There is a brief spatter of raindrops. Someone calls out, “Rain!” and we all dash outside.

A bit like a sun break in Seattle.

Mornings are quite nice, as I walk to breakfast. The sky is blue, the sun is warm but not hot yet, and there is often a gentle breeze. Before the vehicles start moving around, there is no dust. It is a bit bright though, so sunglasses are much more comfortable. Some days, the birds are chirping — making things seem … almost normal. After breakfast, when the incinerator fires up and the truck traffic starts, the air becomes thick, and the sky yellow. The dust here is special stuff … like living in a can of talcum powder — very fine, sifts into everywhere and everything.

It’s never perfectly quiet here. Even at first light, there is the constant thrum of diesels from the power generator farm. At night, there are lots of airfield noises from the operations there. And the odd, occasional rocket attack, followed by warning sirens and the all clear.