Posts Tagged 'Afghanistan'

Smoke and mirrors

We picked the worst time of the year to come to this part of the world, according to our AirBNB hosts (but we picked the nicest place and host). He recommends October and November. At that time it might even be cold up north. People wear coats and hats.

We had another kind of Pho breakfast before going to the Temple of Literature which is one of the oldest universities in the region, founded by Confucius. It is a beautiful arrangement of buildings, portals, courtyards and water reservoirs. It is graduation time here and this is clearly the place to go and have your class pictures taken. We saw hundreds of slender young Vietnamese, the women in their long silk and satin dresses with the split on the site and the pants underneath and the men in white shirts and dark creased trousers, graduation robes and caps slung over their arms or dumped on the ground, much too to wear.

Schoolkids also made the trip to the temple, with their white blouses and red handkerchiefs around their necks, reminding me of the Komsomol youth I saw when traveling around the USSR in 1974. They said their prayers and burned josh sticks. Two boys with offerings places them next to the large than life size statues of the Chinese educator and his disciples: cans of Fanta and beer, dragon fruit and Choco Pies. Here too the ancestors like Choco Pies, just like in Mongolia.

Nearly every statue in the compound sat on a turtle, symbol of longevity I learned. I was reminded of there being turtles all the way down.

Afterwards we went to the Hi Chi Minh mausoleum. We were whistled from underneath the covered walkway which was, we assumed, reserved for party officials – of whom we saw none. That too reminded me of my travels behind  the Iron Curtain back in the 70s. The whole area is destined for parades and shows of force and cohesion and didn’t do much for me. The inside was unfortunately closed for the day. I would have liked to see pictures ‘from the other side.’

We escaped to the Hanoi Social Club to take a break from the unbearable heat and humidty. It is a hangout and workplace for hipsters and trekkers. When we traveled eastward from Lebanon, nearly 30 years ago, we didn’t have to worry about power sources (there was nothing in our small luggage that ever needed charging), or internet connections. We were informed by old guidebooks and word of mouth. Now the amount of information about where to go and stay can take days to sort through.

We had a lovely (vegan) lunch and set out for the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Downstairs we learned about the social and cultural life of the women of the various ethnic groups in Vietnam while upstairs we learned about their role in the two colonial wars, first with France and then with the US. Pictures of radiant and beautiful young women, some barely out of their teenage years, holding their klashnikovs or wading through muck and mud. They weredetermined to mow down the enemy and the tally below their pictures showed they had dne so indeed. Few survived.  Display cases held artifacts and pictures from their short lives; handkerchiefs, diaries, and stuff they hid secret documents in. There were pictures of the underground tunnels and lives that went on: babies born, midwives at work, kindergarten, women selling pots and pans.

During downtimes I am reading the backstory of the beginning of the American role in Vietnam in Seymour Hirsh’s ‘Dark side of Camelot.’ It is maddening to see how much of the suffering was caused simply by selfish men (the rules of society did not apply to Jack and Bobby) with too much testosterone for their and our good. I am nearly at the end of the book and this is the only conclusion I can draw; gone up in thin air the ones I thought heroes and statemen. It was all smoke and mirrors.


I lucked out and landed on a beautiful sunny day in Boston. A day later we were in the middle of a snowstorm with traffic, on land and in the air, a complete mess.

We drove, in the snowstorm, to Boston for my three month post-operative appointment. “You are fully fused,” exclaimed the orthopede, looking at my latest X-ray, “congratulations!” of course these congratulations were also for himself as he did a good job screwing the bones together and I, or rather my bones, did a good job fusing. We are all a bit surprised about the amount of flexibility I still have in my ankle. Only in the pointing and flexing of my toes, when done together with my right foot, does the fusion reveal itself.

We ignored the worsening snowstorm and had a nice French lunch (onion soup, pissaladier, croque monsieur) in Chestnut Hill. Of course by the time we left the restaurant the storm blew over our heads which made for a long trip home, three hours at a snail’s pace.

We killed the time listening to the adventures of the Count of Monte Cristo until I discovered Waze, a social networking/navigation app. I raked up several 100 brownie points for Axel as I reported on this and then that hazard or bunching up on the road, including a real car fire near Peabody; very exciting for us but not so for the owner of the car that went up in flames.

I am starting physical therapy tomorrow for the next 4 to 6 weeks. I am to wean myself out of the orthopedic boot in the next few days. I already started liberating my foot from the boot in Kabul and now have the doctor’s permission to do more of that. Except I need to wear an air brace when I do that, a small cushioned contraption that fits within a sturdy shoe. Yeah, I can wear a shoe again!


Before my departure for the airport I was called to a debriefing at USAID. I had not seen the US compound since I left nearly two and a half years ago. The sight (and site) was astonishing. We are building a city inside a city, more city than it was before. Several enormous buildings have gone up to house God knows who and what. Maybe the short termers will finally get proper rooms rather than the hooches they sometimes had to share with several others.

Once inside the section across from the embassy, the place had turned into a city with lanes, balconies on the two-story hooches gave the place a flavor of New Orleans if you imagined the balconies to be wrought iron rather than plain metal. Enormous 16 x 32 feet (?) photographs of the most beautiful places in America adorned the (now painted) concrete walls and you could pretend you were looking out over a misty coast of Maine or sunny Hawaii. I wonder whose idea that had been; whoever it was had recognized that some things of beauty were badly needed to save the souls of our compatriots making difficult decisions from a place that was steeped in ugliness, having little to do with the inherent beauty of the country that hosted them.

The entrance to the US compound was thick with melting snow mixed with mud, the famous Kabul khak. By the time I arrived at my seat in the airplane I had left a thick trail of chunks of mud and my shoes, boot and pants had taken on the color of khaki (named after the Dari word of mud, indeed). I cleaned them up with kleenex in the plane’s bathroom, a messy affair which had to be repeated in another bathroom in Dubai.

I managed on my own the trail through various security checks (none as stringent as getting into the US compound) until we arrived in Dubai where I had requested assistance as the walks can get rather long. A young Nepali man wheeled me through backstage doors, with security waving me through without having to take my boot off. I felt a little undeserving of the sympathy but it was nice nevertheless to transit so painlessly.

And now I am in Amsterdam waiting for the homestretch to start. I hope to outrun the snow storms that are raging around the east coast as I am not interested in any further delay to my homecoming.


I am in my fifth day of a miserable cold, laryngitis, sore throat, cough, sinus pains and what not, hence the absence of posts. Having another inflammation in my arm (a tendinitis that probably came from being on crutches) makes for nights as miserable as the days.

I spent this last week in Afghanistan voiceless. Still I ran a full day event on Sunday, which probably set me back a few days as I thought I was on the mend but then relapsed. My co-facilitator did fine with me whispering on the sidelines. It was actually a good test because he will run the next event, six months from now, on his own, passing his new skills on to another. That’s how it should go.

Being voiceless is a terrible experience because it is only then that you realize how much you have to say. May be if you have always been voiceless you don’t know any better and assume you have nothing to say.

I am under the wonderful nursing care of a colleague who was much better equipped with medicine than I was. I left my entire medicine kit at home; it must have gotten moved out of the routine somehow. And obviously getting sick was not part of the plan.

I am imagining the wars that are going on inside me at a cellular level; now so much better informed about how that takes place from reading The Great Influenza.

I had to skip some fun stuff towards the end of my visit, such as a Friday lunch at M’s new apartment, a visit from my wool supplier who had wanted to bring me a sweater, no doubt knitted by one of his wool widows, seeing my friend F from Pakistan who happened to be in town and saying goodbye to other dear friends. I also had to cancel a last visit to S’ family and the girls’ school. Hopefully I can make up for this a next time as there are some signs that I may be asked to come back, so I consider these simply postponements.

And now I am preparing for my departure; suitcase packed, a last morning in the office to say my goodbyes, departing after lunch for a debrief at USAID and then to the airport and on my way home, still sick as a dog but buoyed by the prospect of home and family.


With the bulk of my work done I promptly got sick; as soon as I had said goodbye to my guests on Wednesday night I could feel the laryngitis coming. When I woke up I was voiceless.

I went to the office for two meetings, weathering a snowstorm that left about 8 inches on the ground. I had promised to show up at lunch time for our ladies lunch which would have been a reunion of sorts. But I probably should have stayed in bed.

My participation in the meetings was stressful as I couldn’t really express myself other than in a croaky or whispering voice. At 1 PM was back at the guesthouse and in bed with a warm water bottle, wishing I was home.

I slept for 16 hours, waking up every few hours, and starting Friday still without a voice. On Sunday I am on again for a one day event which will be rather challenging without a voice.

I spent the day between the couch and my bed, too good to be in bed, not good enough to do anything meaningful. Finally at 3 PM, fever abated, cabin fever up, I went with one of my house mates on a drive by tour of Kabul to see Kabul under half a foot of snow under blue skies. The snow softens Kabul’s hard edges except where it has turned into mud.

Afterwards, back at the guesthouse, I watched the movie Kandahar, to stay with the theme of voiceless. It depressed me and got me back into bed.

Straight lines

We finished the last day of the leadership and advanced facilitation workshop which ended with each provincial team preparing how they will roll out the program once back home. They used particular templates which they copy out of a book; everyone was scrambling for a ruler to make straight lines. Even though I told them this was not some architectural drawing contest, the lines have to be straight. May be we should print the templates on plastic next time so they can simply fill in the blanks; it would save some time of the preparation for show time – the time for a gallery walk where each team can both show and comment on the other teams’ products.

The time estimates I had received from my colleagues yesterday for the pieces they were to run were off; this happens everywhere in the world and it puzzles me. These facilitators are experienced, they have done many sessions, and going over time is quite common. So why can they not estimate how long something will take? Is it because they calculate the time they think they need but do not include the time needed to engage others in conversation. Maybe at the root is the lecturer mindset. Lectures are predictable; they start when the prof walks in and are over when the prof walks out, whether on time or not.

Sometimes the trust fall finds me falling, and what was designed goes into another direction; I discover I had assumed something about my co-facilitators, that they understood the rationale for having a gallery walk instead of plenary presentations. In those instances I get a little bossy, especially on last days when there is a hard stop. When lunch comes at 1 we need to be done; after lunch are the closing words and the certificates.

The certificates threatened to pose a problem; a workshop can go entirely south when there are no certificates at the end – it’s the first response we get when we ask about expectations. Certificates are hugely important for reasons I don’t quite understand – after all these people are doctors and have academic certificates on their walls – more valuable I would imagine than the ones handed out for attendance at this or that workshop.

In the middle of the morning I was told that the certificates were stuck at the ministry where the official who has to sign them had closed his door and didn’t want to be disturbed. Anyone higher up in the hierarchy doesn’t have to respect this, but my colleagues are lower and therefore stuck. Somehow it got resolved, like so many issues here get somehow resolved.

We all got what we wanted, except a few people who wanted more money for their lodging, hoping I could resolve this (I could not); then they got on the plane and went home, hopefully not too disappointed about that money and happy because of the certificate. Nothing is a straight line here despite everyone’s best efforts.


I am now walking around without crutches, or sticks as the Afghans say, a literal translation from Dari where crutches are called ‘sticks of wood,’ which is what they usually are, if that.

In the morning when I get up my ankle feels great. I can even walk without my orthopedic boot on, nearly normal two-legged again. But by the time I come home from a day of facilitation my ankle is sore. My improvised icing device is a small bottle of water that I put in the freezer in the morning and bind around my ankle when I come home.

The nerves are still in disarray – touching some part of my ankle produces small electric shocks while other parts remain without sensation. I am beginning to suspect that some of the three deck screws damaged the nervous system – hopefully not permanently but I know that nerve damage heals very slowly, if at all. For now both of my feet have compromised nerves – a daily reminder of the crash.

At night I prop my foot up on a pillow next to the ice bottle and that is how I fall asleep. The sore ankle urges me to go to bed early, sometimes as early as 7:30 PM. This means I am making very long nights, 9 hours sometimes. I follow my body’s instructions, assuming it knows best.

At the guesthouse the cast of characters changes nearly daily – some Johns Hopkins professors arrived to teach hospital administrators while our TB team is on its way out; the DHS reconnoitering team will leave after the weekend and a batch of pharmacists will take their rooms. I am the constant, at least for another week when my 5 weeks are up. A week from now I should be making my way to Dubai, incha’allah.

April 2019
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