Saturday, December 6, 2008

Part IX: I Hate This Place

In a previous blog entry I wrote at great length about all of the good things that are going on here in Afghanistan. All of that is true when you look at the big picture. Life is slowly getting better for the indigenous people and without the intervention of the international community in the day-to-day goings on in this country, I do believe that it would continue to be prime breeding ground for international terrorism and crime groups.

That said, I need to do a better job of making my role in that effort clear. What specifically do I do here? Not much. I’m one of the 2,000+ staff personnel assigned to a headquarters compound built to accommodate 900 people. In the hierarchy of pain and suffering, especially in this godforsaken place, I don’t have much to complain about. But I’m going to go ahead and complain anyway.

The first thing that really got to me once I’d landed in Afghanistan was the air. Air quality in Afghanistan is shitty. I mean literally shitty. The closest thing to waste management here, in the few areas where the locals even make an attempt at it, is a network of open sewer trenches. On top of that, when the weather starts to cool off that’s when they light up their fireplaces to warm their homes. There’s a shortage of wood to use for fuel, so they substitute one of the few things they have an abundance of: crap. They actually burn human and animal feces to heat their homes. So when I say the air is shitty, I mean it in the very plainest literal sense.

The other key ingredient in the local atmosphere, aside from the feculence, is dust. There is absolutely no way of escaping the dust. It coats everything everywhere. The air is so thickly laced with it that you almost have to chew before you can inhale. I’m particularly sensitive to dust, so even though I’ve been here for over a month I still haven’t gone a day without a nosebleed. When the weather turns dry back home is usually the same time that I head out to sea. Here there is no way for me to escape this particular little hell.

Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so completely confined as I do here inside the compound. I’ve got a window in my living quarters that looks out at a reinforced concrete wall less than four feet away. In my office there’s a window with a clear view of another reinforced concrete wall. A while back I tried to find any place on the base where I could climb up high enough to see over the walls and take a few pictures of the scenery. After two hours of walking the perimeter I found out that aside from the guard towers there’s no vantage points to see over the walls at all. Even when I’ve been stuck on a ship at sea there’s at least been something to look at.

The distinct lack of scenery wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the things I do have to look at. The “building” I live in is essentially a stack of modified 20-foot shipping containers. All told there are something like 38 containers on my floor and another 38 or so on the upper level. There are two containers at one end configured as bathrooms.

Each container houses two or three people. They come from all over the world and they bring their various versions of hygiene and modesty with them. With somewhere between 80 and 120 dudes sharing five shower stalls, there’s not much chance to shut them down long enough to properly clean them. The facilities have been in place for most of seven years, and you can only imagine the buildup of soap scum, foot funk, gelled urine, and saturated dust that has accumulated in that time.

Left to my own devices I tend to lead a fairly isolated life. Since I get to make up my own schedule I manage to avoid people most of the time. Here I can’t get twenty minutes into my day before seeing some overweight, middle-aged, European dude strolling down my hallway in his briefs. The base regulations stipulate that unless you’re in the restroom you have to be covered from neck to knees at all times, but the few times I’ve mentioned this I was just accused of being a prude “like all the Americans,” and ignored. I guess I’ll just have to start shopping for eye bleach.

The morning shower is its own brand of annoying. It’s not uncommon to open the door to the bathroom and be confronted by some chubby, hairy, naked dude standing at the urinal. I guess they’ve got the idea that since they’re in that container to take a shower and they’ll be undressed anyway there’s no reason to wear any clothing at all in there. This is the sort of unpleasant thing that you really wish you could un-see. The image itself is so haunting that I keep wishing there was a way to poke out my mind’s eye.

I can’t mention the shower though without mentioning the water quality. I don’t know where we get water from, but I hear that after it’s piped into the compound it gets treated to make it safer. Even so, it’s still not healthy enough to drink. In fact, we are cautioned against using it to brush our teeth. Moreover, after washing our hands we’re expected to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill off all of the germs on our hands from the tapwater.

The handwashing thing is bothering me a bit too. There are regulations and standing orders and warning signs all over the place reminding us to wash our hands after using the restroom, before eating, after eating, after touching anything outdoors, before touching anything indoors, after touching any of the local people or animals, after shaking hands or any other physical contact with other folks in the compound, and after washing our hands. A while back it had gotten so bad that my skin was starting to split and crack even with regular moisturizing. Rather than suffer any more of that, I just started to scale back on the hand washing regimen. I figure there’s a chance that dysentery will be a good enough reason to rotate me back home, but probably not.

The foul state of the water goes to some length in explaining the local people’s reluctance to participate in any sort of personal cleanliness as well. The few stink-conscious Afghans I’ve met seem to opt for the cologne option over the bathing option. I went to get a haircut a while back and the base barbershop (staffed by locals) was so foul with body odor and the various masking scents that opening the door made my eyes water.

As long as I’m on a roll, I might as well bitch about the food. The dining facilities on base are set up to cater to the wide variety of international cuisine that might appeal to all of the various nationalities represented on the staff here. The problem is to find a way to offer food that will still be palatable for all concerned. To this end, the menu will tend to include everything except flavor. The food is so bland that I’ve taken to skipping at least one, occasionally three, meals a day. I’ve been forcing myself to eat just enough to maintain my weight. Believe me, it’s a challenge.

Again, I know that I’ve still got it pretty good here. Compared to the guys in the south who go out knocking down doors looking for insurgents and waiting for booby traps to explode, I’ve got it pretty easy. The distinction is that when they’ve finished their tour here at least they’ll be able to say that they were doing something that mattered, while my job could be replaced by one competently-managed spreadsheet.

My job is to ask questions about how the reconstruction effort is going. I don’t think up the questions and I don’t analyze the answers, I just ask the questions. So someone in another department will get a wild hair about, say, police training. Then they’ll put together a list of questions about the quality and effectiveness of the training, the number of local police officials who have had said training, the number that still need it, how long it takes, whether it should be longer or shorter, and so on. Then they send the list of questions to me. Then I send them to someone who sends them to someone else who actually answers them. Then I collect the answers that find their way back up the grapevine and forward them to whoever asked the questions. So basically I’m an auxiliary to middle management, an administrative speed bump.

So, if I weren’t here to do my job, the folks who ask the questions would instead have to ask the folks who answer the questions and the folks who answer the questions would instead have to provide answers to the folks who ask the questions. While I know life could be worse, I’m comfortable complaining about being here. Why? Because if I weren’t here, things would be just a bit more efficient.

I’m told that my job will become more significant once I’ve been here for a while longer. By then I’ll have actually gone out and visited a few of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. This will give me a chance to develop personal relationships with the folks in the field and gain insight into the challenges they face which I might be able to streamline through the judicious applications of my connections at headquarters. I don’t think I buy that. Either way, I’ve only got about four and a half months left here, so if they’re going to have me do something useful it’d be nice if they got started.

So it goes.

1 comment:

  1. Guess who got lucky enough to be involuntarily mobilized to Iraq for 350 BOG days. Just call me Mr. Lucky from now on. Hey, at least you get to be one of the good guys. They throw shoes at guys like me over there. I had a good laugh at "I hate this place" with a particular view towards what is to come for me.