Thursday, February 19, 2009
My boss decided the other day that he didn't like being limited to only one driver in the office. Apparently he's concerned that asking for other offices to support us with drivers when needed is going to somehow impair our ability to tour the countryside and waste people's time. More on that later.
The other day I made another trip up to Bagram Air Base. It was a clear day after some heavy snow and made for some interesting scenery. Of course, as always, it also meant that there was no shortage of people just sitting or standing around out in the middle of nowhere.
They weren't all just standing around. Some of them had actually found things to do. For example, there were plenty of kids playing in the middle of the highway:
Many of them were also out there with shovels putting dirt into the potholes in the hopes that some passer-by might toss them a few coins or some drinking water for their efforts.
Then there was this group of industrious Afghan roofers:
And these folks carrying or dragging their wares into town:
Along the way we also passed a few construction sites:
All of which were usually in close proximity to ruins:
And while the drive was uneventful enough, I still say that I am not at all comfortable with driving around in Afghanistan:
For some reason I don't think my few months per year spent driving a tiny sports car around Northern California's wine country are quite enough to prepare me for driving an unarmed, top-heavy, up-armored SUV around in a snow-covered, mine-laden, combat zone. Our drivers are all given months of training behind the wheel of a combat vehicle before being deployed here to do this job.
I am increasingly in the wrong damned place.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine suggested I write this parody of a health pamphlet so that he could "accidentally" leave it someplace conspicuous in his car when he goes to pick up a date.
After we had finished brainstorming, I cranked this out and I'm pretty satisfied with it. After finishing it, I thought it might be useful for more men and I posted it on my old blog for posterity's sake. Since I've decided to neglect the old blog, I'm posting it here too.
I'm posting it as a couple of picture files since that's the only way I can put it here. If you'd like a high resolution version of it for a better printout, let me know and I can email it to you.
Remember, this is a tri-fold brochure, so print it double sided and fold it so that this panel is on the front:
This is the outside of the folded brochure:
And this is the inside:
If you'd like to upload the word file and print out a higher resolution version of the brochure, you can download it BY CLICKING HERE. Just remember to print it in black & white, on brightly colored paper. Then leave it somewhere where it will be noticed and act embarrassed when someone spots it.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Since there's never a time here where there isn't someone awake and walking or driving around, there's never a time when you can actually see the ground covered in pristine new snow. The best you can hope for is trampled, muddy, crap-filled snow framed by pristine new snow. Bummer.
The other morning, after a night of moderate snowfall and heavy traffic, the day broke clear and bright. This was good since it was still coming down pretty heavy the night before when I was tasked with making a trip out to an airfield on the far side of town. The plan was to drop off a handful of colonels at goofy-early in the morning so they could catch a flight out to points wherever the hell. Then we could be safely back in the compound before any suicide bombers woke up and had a chance to look around and think of all their reasons to shuffle off thier mortal coil.*
On the way to the edge of town, we drive through a maze of blast barriers and Hesco barricades. Everything is topped with barbed wire and steel spikes and guard towers, but there are still nice views if you know where to look:
The problem there is that you have to be paying very close attention in order to find the good parts. Usually you just get squalor:
But I digress.
It turns out that we were going to an airfield that neither Greg (the driver) nor I (the vehicle commander) had ever been to. We'd both driven past it and we'd both reviewed the maps and we were confident we knew the way. Then, when we came to a fork in the road planning to go left, one of the colonels (who had been there many times) told us to go right. This started us on a 45-minute ambling tour of the back roads of Kabul where we got to see the last thirty years worth of bombed-out buildings and no airfield.
When we finally decided to ignore the colonel, turn around, and actually get to the airfield, it was plainly obvious to even the most casual observer that there would be nothing taking off from there soon. None of the previous night's snow had been removed from the runway or the various aircraft parked alongside it. Still, when we dropped these colonels off the sent us on our way, certain they'd be flying within half an hour.
It's worth pointing out that this was not a military airfield. It's an ad-hoc airfield thrown together by a handful of humanitarian aid organizations on the cheap. There was no passenger terminal or restaurant or coffee shop. All of the buildings amounted to a maintenance hangar and a handful of shipping containers which were being used as office space. If they were happy waiting there for a flight that wouldn't happen, I was happy to leave them there.
At that point, this helicopter was the closest thing to being able to fly:
Unfortunately, they were not flying by helicopter.
On the way back to the HQ compound, we noticed dozens upon dozens of Afghan highway workers in their dingy orange jumpsuits shoveling snow ONTO the road:
I'll admit that I never really paid much attention to snow and ice removal operations when I was living in NYC or New England, but I think maybe these guys are a bit unclear on the concept. Of course this is a nation that has had particularly miserable winters every year for the past twenty or so millenia and still manages to be surprised by it every single year.
"What's this? Snow? But we don't have anything ready! We haven't prepared! How could we have known? This hasn't happened in, like, a year..."
While Greg and I were musing over this, we passed this guy:
I don't know how he managed to get his truck stuck in a ditch going the wrong way on a busy highway, but I felt bad for him. In another part of the world we'd've stopped and helped. We were in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a towing harness and all sorts of equipment that would've made a thirty-second chore out of what would instead take him all day (provided he was related to a tow-truck driver) but there was nothing we could do. We wanted to help, but you never know if it's not just a ploy to get you to stop long enough for them to push the button on a truckload of homemade explosives.
We got back to the base just in time to begin the daily litany of meetings and conferences and photo ops and so on. We were knee-deep in the whole mess when Greg got a call from one of the colonels at the airfield. The flight was cancelled and they needed us to go pick them all up again.
At the end of the day I went on another quest to find a decent bit of scenery that I can see from inside the compound. After climbing up onto one of the roofs, this was the best I could do:
I hate this place.
*This doesn't happen very early in the morning usually. I suppose it takes a dude a few minutes to get up, realize he's freezing cold, his roof's caving in under the snow, and he's got something like four wives nagging him about it before he decides, "yeah, I'd like to die now."
Since it wasn't initially clear how many attacks there would be, we went into lockdown. Platoons of armed and armored soldiers took up fighting positions all around the perimeter and patrolled the streets and checked the buildings inside. Nobody was allowed outside without their weapons, armor, and helmet.
I was in the gym at the time and didn't hear any of the warning alarms when they went off. So I was understandably surprised when I walked outside in my shorts and t-shirt to be confronted by no less than four soldiers in full combat rig trying frantically to explain to me in broken English that there was an attack and I must go back inside. For a few minutes it actually seemed like a problem. After running to my barracks where I showered, got back into uniform, and strapped on my sidearm, I snuck back into my office to get into my armor.
One of the guys in the office, our new US Air Force officer, hadnt' actually put on all of the extra parts of his armor before. So we got to kill then next couple of hours by rigging up his body armor with every bit of extra crap we could think to add on. By the time we'd finished, he couldn't stretch his arms far enough across his chest to hold his M4, nor could he reach any of his ammo pouches. Here's a shot of him when we were done:
The spork and the "McLovin" nametape are mine. And no, we did not leave him strapped with all of that crap like some sort of overweight, retarded, teenage mutant ninja turtle.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting in the office with little or nothing to do but wait. We were supposed to be making a trip across town to take care of a bunch of logistical problems I'll talk about later, but that's a subject for another day.
While all of this was going on, we didn't get to go anywhere because there was no vehicle traffic allowed on the base. Since he couldn't drive back to the parking lot, Greg was stuck parking our office's vehicle across the street from our building. When the all-clear was finally sounded, we went out to find it like so:
This amazes me. Even though the base was locked down, the MPs were still able to go out and put a boot on the truck. This easily qualified as the dumbest thing I'd seen all day.
As near as I can figure, the whole point of booting the car is to cause a pain in the ass. Since they can't take away your driver's license (driving is not a privilege here so much as a chore) and trying to seek some sort of disciplinary in the mix of all of the different nations' militaries stationed here is daunting at best, the MPs have decided to settle for making parking violations a nuisance for the violator.
So if you park your car in the wrong place and the MPs notice or, more likely, someone complains, they come around and put the boot on. Which means that while you're currently parked where you don't belong, the only way to make it right is to hike across the compound to the MP office, hope someone is actually in there, then get them to call whoever has the key to come over and pull the boot. In short, the problem would be fixed faster if they did nothing.
The slightly better answer would be to tow the vehicle away somewhere so it's no longer a problem for everyone, just the person with the vehicle.
Unfortunately, I am not in charge of the Making Sense Department here.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Day five started out as a pretty laid-back, quiet day. I spent the bulk of it kicked back in one of the libraries* surfing the web and sipping coffee. At least it started comfortably.
At 1700 I reported in uniform, wearing my armor, and carrying all of my luggage. I'd managed to minimize the amount of stuff I bought while I was in Qatar, so I was down to a backpack (about 45lbs worth of dirty laundry, books, sleeping bag, shower kit, towel,** drinking water, spork, and assorted other trinketry) and my laptop case (about 25lbs worth of laptop, peripherals, books, software, powerbars, and assorted small electronics). In all, I was travelling light.
The 1700 muster didn't happen until about 1740. That turned out not to matter though, since our flight wasn't scheduled to leave from nearby Al Udid(sp?) Air Base until about 2100. By 1800 we were on a bus to the airbase. Coincidentally, this is the exact time that the base clubs are allowed to start serving alcohol. I'm certain that was intentional.
Before we left, base security came through and verified that we each had our military ID cards in hand. Since everyone was wearing their armor and had their luggage sitting on their laps and the bus was filled to capacity and spilling into the aisles, this meant that the security guard had to wrestle and squeeze his way through the crowd to look at all of our cards. It was a huge pain in the ass, but after about 20 minutes we were on our way. 90 minutes later we arrived at the air base.
When we arrived, the first thing that happened was base security boarded the bus to check each of our military IDs. An old Army sergeant seated behind me started grumbling about it:
SERGEANT: Why are they checking our IDs again? We didn't make any stops from one base to the next. Do they think that some of us got out of the the military on the way over?
ME: Well, I thought about it…
We got to line up in the passenger terminal by about 2000 (8pm) and then dropped off our checked luggage.*** Then we ended up with the next three hours to wander the terminal or go to the flightline kitchen to grab a to-go dinner. At 2300-ish (11pm) we were loaded onto a bus that took us about 300 yards to the waiting C-17 we were riding back to Afghanistan. The C-17 is a massive plane and much more comfortable than the C-130 we came in on. Better still, it's a lot faster and the wind would be with us. So the six-hours of misery it took to get into Qatar would be an easy two or three hours on the way back.
So we boarded the plane, took our seats, and strapped in. Sitting there I was staring at the rest of the cargo tied down along the deck was in huge crates. That wasn't unexpected. What was unexpected was that all of these crates were marked for delivery to Iraq! I had to wave down one of the passing aircrew guys just to make sure that they weren't accidentally flying us all back to the wrong war. I guess it wouldn't have been a huge problem, but I hadn't packed any sunscreen.
Either way, here's me on the plane with really bad helmet hair:
The flight itself was just like any other flight I've ever been on. No matter how much I screamed and cried and banged on the window, they still wouldn't let me out
We arrived in Bagram at some unkind hour of the morning and they checked us all back into whatever computer system says we're in town. Then everyone scattered in their various directions for continuing travel to elsewhere in country.
My connecting flight was scheduled to leave at 0445 in the morning, so we would have to muster at 0400 to load up our gear and board the plane. So there would be no real chance to get any rest before heading on to Kabul. Instead I got to sit in the terminal and watch the middle half of an edited for the Armed Forces Network version of Frida**** By 0500 we were on the bus out to the plane on the runway.
By 0600 we were still on the bus out to the plane on the runway. Our 0445 flight didn’t end up taking off until sometime after 0630. This kinda sucks when you consider that the flight time from Bagram to Kabul is about eight minutes. If I'd started walking when we first landed in Bagram, I would've arrived in Kabul at the same time.
Kabul looked pretty much exactly the way I'd left it:
Once I picked my bags out of the big pile of bags that used to be a tightly packed and stacked pallet, it was time to find a ride back to the headquarters compound. It turns out my cellphone wasn't getting a signal. This happens often around here and it's usually temporary, so I bought a cup of coffee, plugged into the internet, and settled in to wait for my phone to start working. Two and a half hours later I finally got through to the office. About an hour after that, Greg and Major Brinkman (our new Air Force guy in the office) showed up and I piled my gear into the vehicle.
Since my stuff was stowed, we were inside the secure airport compound, and nobody was eager to rush back to the office, we took a quick lap through the shops on the airbase before heading out again. This is where I found the moosehat:
I did not buy the moosehat. I'm holding out for an asshat as worn by the folks who sent me here.
Once we got back to HQ I probably should've just gone straight to sleep, but as soon as the Finnish colonel I work with saw me I got piled up with a list of pointless chores that couldn't wait until the next day and ended up stuck in the office sitting at my desk until 1830.
Since then things have been pretty much exactly the way they've been ever since I got here. I'm still getting plenty of opportunities to drive around outside the base and we've got a handful of projects coming up that promise to actually be interesting. We'll see how that goes.
*The USO libraries in Qatar were pretty cool. They had four different rooms full of bookshelves stocked with paperbacks that were free for the taking. I guess it doesn't make sense to try and run a regular lending library when everyone's only in town for a few days and you can't really expect to see any of your customers again.
**Never travel without your towel.
***"Checked luggage" in this context is a bit misleading. It's the stuff that gets stacked onto a cargo pallet, lashed down, and loaded into the plane in a bit of spare room in the middle of the rest of the cargo. Since the whole plane is open, the passengers get lashed down in the same space as the cargo.
****This version of Frida is the same as any other version of Frida you may have seen, only they'd edited out all of the foul language and all of Salma Hayek's nude lesbian scenes. It is not the version I'd recommend.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
On the one hand it's all pretty awesome. On the other hand, it's kinda sad that this registers as awesome. In fact, on day 2 I found myself sitting in the bathroom and I was so overwhelmed by how clean it was that I almost didn't want to leave. I actually started thinking of ways that I could spend my whole day in the stall, just enjoying the cleanliness. Clearly my head needs to be recalibrated.
But I digress.
Since I arrived at about 0300 on the first day, that day counted as a travel day and not one of my four alloted R&R days. Once we were bussed over to Camp As-Sayliyah from the Air Force base where we landed, we were all briefed on what we can and can't do while we're here. We are allowed to have up to three drinks per day. We are not allowed to take pictures of the base itself. We are allowed to wear civilian clothes. We are not allowed to buy knives out in town. There's more, but it's not important.
While I'm here I'm sharing a room with seven other officers. The most junior is an Army captain and the most senior is a lieutenant colonel, but I don't see much of them. There are a lot of tours that are available for the asking, but mostly I've just been glad that I don't have to wake up early in the morning and go sit in an office for hours on end. It's better doing nothing here than it is doing nothing in a combat zone.
Since I'm not allowed to take pictures while I'm out and about on the base, I've had to settle for pictures indoors as well as out in town. Here's the view inside the "Top Off" club. Essentially it's the back half of a warehouse with bars built inside. There's also a small bowling alley, concert stage, hi-speed wireless internet, and so on.
In the same building they have the USO. It's loaded with high-end home theater setups, a whole host of video game consoles, a Green Bean coffee shop, and dozens of desktop computers and telephones so folks can browse the web or call home. It really is a pretty good deal.
One of the really impressive parts is the DFAC (Dining FACility for those of you who haven't been exposed to Army stupid) which is huge. By huge I mean a building that should be measured in acreage. There's every kind of everything you could choose to eat and lots of it. There's even a Breyer's ice cream bar inside.
I ended up sleeping through most of day zero of my R&R, but I was awake in time to grab my three drinks (they only serve alcohol from 1800 to midnight) and poke around online for a bit.
On day one I took the tour of the local "souqs" or markets. The first stop was at the gold souq, where they sell all manner of jewelry and gemstones. I ended up not buying anything there because I really didn't know what I was looking at and couldn't guess what any of it was worth.
The next stop was at the "old souq" which turned out to be pretty interesting. On the outside it was every bit the exotic, middle-eastern locale:
And on the inside it did not disappoint:
The whole place was an amazingly complex labyrinth, chock full of random knick-knackery, antiquities, and handicrafts. While it was all interesting to look at, none of it turned out to be anything I needed. While we were there, a couple of the guys and I decided to stop at a hookah bar and try some grape-flavored tobacco.
I may be limited to three drinks a day, but nobody said how much hookah smoke I could have:
There was also no limit to how much paint I could huff, but I didn't get around to that.
On day two I woke up in time for breakfast. Then I ended up camping out on base, wandering through the little base exchange and getting caught up on some reading. It was a pretty laid-back day and I had a good time. I also spent some time on one of the USO's XBOX360s and very nearly beat HALO 3 in the morning. While I've been gone the wife bought a Wii, so I may need to get myself a 360. We'll see.
On day 3 I went to the Villagio Mall, easily one of the most ridiculously ostentatious monuments to capitalism I've ever seen. Supposedly it's based on the Venetian in Las Vegas. I've never been there, so I'll have to take their word for it. All I know is that it's been a long time since I've seen such an overwhelmingly flamboyant display of affluence:
I need one.
For the most part, the stores inside are your standard collection of readily recognizable Western stores. Like Louis Vuitton:
The whole place is designed to give you the feeling you're actually walking around Venice. I've never been there either, but I do like the idea of building the outdoors indoors. I'm not sure how, but I plan on using this concept somewhere else sooner or later:
This miniature version of Venice even included canals:
Complete with gondolas:
If that wasn't goofy enough, there's also a full-sized ice-skating rink in one end of the mall. I sat and watched a few minutes of a hockey game there while I had some Coldstone ice cream. It wasn't exactly what I'd've anticipated doing during my vacation in the middle of the desert, but it was a good time all the same.
Just like any mall in the US, they had cars for sale by local dealers on display in the concourses:
Of course, theirs are a little more exotic than ours:
This is a Swedish-made Koenigsegg. I want one of them too.
It's not the 4,172cc, 806hp V8 engine that makes me want it though. Nor is it the 4,450,000 Qatari riyal (about $1.22million) price tag, or the 3.2 second 0-100 km/h accelleration. It's the all carbon fiber body with the visible laminate that really caught my eye. It looks like a really shiny grey color in the above pictures, but the real beauty of the body is only apparent when you look closer:
The down side: carbon fiber composites like this usually turn yellow and look pretty nasty after prolonged exposure to UV radiation. So the car will be gorgeous until it sits in the sun for too long. At that point, the only way to make it pretty again is to replace the entire body. I suppose that's really not a problem though unless you plan on leaving it parked outside for a few years.
There was a lot of other expensive stuff to be had there though. Like this $4,000 mirror:
It didn't take long to decide I didn't need the mirror, but I almost decided to buy this $400 checkers set (probably just because it was shiny):
In the end I settled for a cup of Starbucks coffee (21 Qatari riyals, or about $6 US) and called it good enough:
To be honest, as interesting as the place was, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I stopped in the Carrefour store (essentially Europe's answer to Wal Mart) and was overwhelmed by the crowds. The locals are more of a cologne people than a bath people and they don't seem to have the same regard for personal space that we do in the US. So after squeezing my way through the throng to pick out a few things I decided I needed and waiting in line with a bunch of stinky folks who weren't shy about pushing or leaning against me, it was time to go back to the base. At this point I've got about a hundred dollars worth of Qatari riyals in my pocket and absolutely no desire to go out and spend them.
Day four (today) started whenever I woke up (around 1400). It's been pretty low-key so far. I'm halfway through my third glass of wine and I've just found out that I will be flying out tomorrow evening. This gives me most of the day to putter around, get packed, and so on. It also means that I can stay up late tonight with no concern for when I need to wake up.
Since I flew here on a jam-packed C-130 and the whole crowd of us are flying back at the same time, tomorrow will be another opportunity for a really jacked-up air travel story. Fun.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
The plan was to take off at 0700 for the Kabul airport so I could hitch a ride on a flight to Bagram Airfield where I'd find my way off and away and out of Afghanistan for a bit. The new major would be joining me so I could run him around Bagram and introduce him to all of the personalities that he'd have to work with in the course of his time at the HQ. DJ was along for the ride so that Greg wouldn't have to drive back from the airport alone. In Afghanistan, driving alone is a dangerous proposition.
We got to the Kabul International Airport at about 0740, just in time to learn that a flight had left for Bagram at 0736. Then we got put on the standby list for a flight that was leaving at 1400. The flight only had seven manifested passengers, but it also only had eight seats. We were in place seven and eight on the standby list.
As luck would have it, almost none of the manifested passengers showed up for the flight. We handed off our baggage, armor, and helmets to an Air Force NCO so he could load them onto the plane and then followed a civilian out to our aircraft. The plane looked like it was probably state-of-the-art in 1969 and the pilot looked like he might have been a veteran of the CIAs "Air America" network in Southeast Asia in about the same timeframe. In his words, "you'll want to wear your earplugs, because the aircraft's pretty loud. But fortunately, it makes up for it by being slow."
The flight time from Kabul to Bagram was about ten minutes. Along the way I snapped a few pictures of the Afghan countryside from the air, complete with smog:
Although I didn't have any reason to doubt the pilot's abilities, the view through the cockpit windows was a tiny bit unsettling:
Once we landed in Bagram I checked in with the reception desk and found out that folks like me going to Qatar had to attend a brief the following morning at 0830 and then it'd be an unknown number of hours or days until I'd catch a flight out from there.
Having checked in, it was time to grab our luggage. This is when we found out that the new major's body armor didn't get loaded onto the plane. Hopefully it will turn up somewhere. I was told that if I lost mine I'm liable to pay for it (somewhere around $4,000), so it could really suck for him.
Once we found a place to stay (a cot in a tent with 120 other random dudes) we spent the rest of the afternoon with me showing him around the regional command headquarters. After dinner, I ended up poking around online for a few minutes and then it was time to turn in early.
The 0830 brief the next day turned out to be quick and painless. We were warned about all the things that wouldn't make it through customs in Qatar. This included guns, knives, human body parts, drugs, alcohol, and porn. Porn apparently includes things like swimsuit magazines. Who knew?
Anyway, we were able to catch a flight to Qatar the same day. Muster time at 1600 for a departure around sunset on a C-130. So after dicking around for the bulk of the day, I returned to the passenger terminal with all of my crap, set my luggage on top of a pallet of luggage to be loaded onto the plane, and squished myself into the plane along with about fifty other folks bound for leave or R&R, complete with our body armor:
The flight was six hours long, the seat made my butt numb in the first ten minutes, and there was no bathroom (hence the water bottle stuck to my laptop case, just in case). I couldn't find a way to fall asleep, so I had to feel every minute of that six hours. I felt like this guy:
Needless to say, I was pretty damned glad to get back off of that aircraft once we landed in Qatar.
After landing we had to go through customs and about a dozen more warnings about the consequences of bringing weapons, ammo, alcohol, porn, or whatever else into the country. Then it was time to wait for the busses that would cart us over to the R&R compound. While we were waiting, we got to go over to the "grab-n-go" flightline kitchen and get something to eat. I snagged the first salad I've seen in three months that actually included green lettuce. It was awesome.
Then it was a quick two-hour bus trip before we got to sit through a couple more briefs on what was available in Qatar as well as what to do and what not to do. I'm not allowed to take pictures inside the base, but hopefully I'll see a few worthwhile sights when I get out on the organized tours of the nearby areas. We'll see.