A Breath Of Fresh Air

It wasn’t long after stepping off the airplane, even before taking the first steps down the wobbly aluminum airplane stairs that I knew a different kind of air lingered in the capital city of Afghanistan.  Anybody who has ever been to Kandahar, a place I have not been to, will tell you that there is a piercing smell of sewage that plagues that southern city, only second in population size to Kabul.  I expected something similar in Kabul, where up to 3.5 million Afghans live in close quarters with little to show for a proper sewage and waste disposal system(besides the Kabul river).  That’s not exactly the case here.  With only about 15% Oxygen at this high altitude compared to 20 or 21% closer to sea level, there are many other things sharing the space in your lungs here.

There are many things that make the air quality here literally deadly(about 3,000 deaths per year linked to air pollution), the least of which is airborne feces.  There are many rumors and even official government warnings, but the science doesn’t back up that theory, and there is about as much feces in the air as there is in any other place that has birds, insects, and other animals wandering around.  Add to that the incredibly dry climate here that makes you wonder how any trees or birds are able to survive.  I’m slightly more curious that the air will smell like when fall weather comes around and Kabulis use absolutely anything and everything that is flammable for cooking and heating their homes.  One study I read suggests that approximately 1.6 million car tires are burnt annually in Kabul.  So either there are lots of cars here running on their rims (would not surprise me) or this is a viable solution that provides a source of fuel to people.  What’s left of their beautiful mountainous skyline is said to be reduced to a visibility of only a couple hundred meters when the air gets bad.
Never mind the 714 tons of Carbon Monoxide released from tires in addition to tons of other wonderful cancer causing compounds.  A lot of toxic metals come from incinerating used motor oil, which gets burned at a rate of ohhhh……only about 20 million liters a year. That leaves us with about half a ton of chromium, a quarter ton of cadmium, and in conjunction with the use of leaded gasoline, about 240 tons of airborne lead.  If I can get through this, it’ll be just me and the cockroaches after the apocalypse.
In all seriousness, I guess it’s just another part of experiencing Afghanistan.  People here are a long way  from worrying about environmental issues.  To an average family here, any source of fuel will get them through another day.  The odd time I see a patch of green grass growing under an air conditioner that’s dripping condensation and I find it’s very telling of how life is wanting to bloom, but something as simple as water is holding it back.  So many seeds and spores are lying dormant until a bit of water ignites them to life.  I’m very curious to see my first Kabul rainfall, where I imagine plants popping up everywhere, and bugs and birds buzzing around all over.  I imagine a moist freshness that smells like the pine trees just took a deep breath and exhaled their sappy aroma through the streets.  The local street cleaners with their long beards won’t be needing to walk up and down the roads with their watering cans to keep the dust down.  More likely, we will all enjoy a bit of cool rain as it relieves the heat that penetrates and accumulates in the lifeless concrete and gravel around us.

The Awkward Lull and Being Prepared

I’m still a bit hesitant to talk about security and all the bad things that Afghanistan has come to be known for in the western media.  The last thing I want to do is make people back home worried.  But the overall truth is more comforting than the uncertainty of simply counting down the days.  This country has come a long way and the national security forces are light years ahead of where a lot of people think they might be.  That doesn’t mean that things are all happy all the time.  Kabul still makes the news once in a while for attacks attributed to any number of groups trying to gain influence.  Now, that puts me in an awkward position!

I’ve been here for a couple weeks already and all I’ve come to know is the routine that I last wrote about.  I work in an office all day fighting to make MS Office co-operate.  I get to the gym at least once a day (usually twice).  I sit down for a coffee at least once a day and try to get a Skype call through to Kimberly.  And, once a day I lay down in my bed (with huge gel cushion from Costco) and fall asleep.  With no weekends(c’mon, this is war!), this routine has repeated daily, and it’s not bad.  But, in the back of my mind I’m always listening for an out-of-place “boom” or thump to catch my attention and have me either diving for the floor, or running for a bunker. This makes me nervous when I’m in the shower or lying in bed.  It’s different in training because your life is not actually in danger.  But if the alarms go off when I’m literally caught with my pants down, I’m not going to be happy about it.

So, I have a new bit of mental readiness given that I’m literally waiting for chaos to break loose.  If I’m in the shower, I always mentally rehearse running to grab my pants, shirt, and boots.  If I’m going to sleep, I lay things out just right so all I have to do is click on my flashlight, grab stuff, and go.  You might think it’s stressful to be on alert like that all the time, but honestly it’s not that bad.  I’m still more worried about getting some strange lung infection or meeting a scorpion than I am about facing the Taliban.

I hope it’s of some comfort to know this:  It is very unlikely for me to be in downtown Kabul for several months and NOT be very close to a horrible attack of some kind.  I’m OK with knowing that it’s coming at some point.  I just don’t know when.  But like any other situation in life, all you can do is go about your daily routine, work hard, be kind to people, and pray for all good things.  I sincerely hope nobody becomes more worried after reading this.  My message is really that preparedness is better than crossing our fingers and hoping nothing happens.  Be it mental or physical.

Now, I’m looking forward to my morning coffee in several hours and hearing Kimberly’s voice.  Good-night, good-morning, or good-afternoon depending when you read this.

Settling In and Re-Creating Normalcy

Well, where do I begin?  I guess I finally made it to Afghanistan and it has been nothing short of a roller-coaster to get to this point.  At least for today, I just don’t feel like talking about car-bombs, suicide-bombs, IEDs, Taliban, blah blah blah.  It is exhausting, and  even though it’s very important to be ready for any “bad things” if I keep my mind on high alert for days on end, I might not come back with my sanity.

Still, there is so much to comprehend in the first few days of deployment and it’s a challenge to think back and put the pieces together.  From Edmonton to Kabul, there were many hours of flying, what felt like just as many hours of waiting for flights, and then waiting some more to just get settled into a new routine. In total, there were probably around 2 straight days worth of flying, and this time I changed my sleep strategy.  Normally, I set my watch forward or backward to the time of my destination, and do my best to follow that schedule from the start.  If it’s 9 am at my destination, I’ll refuse to sleep, if It’s 11 pm, I’ll try to force myself to sleep. It usually works, but it always takes a couple days to adjust.  This time, it was so much different.  We had no idea where we would be in the coming days, and what kind of work schedule we might be on.  I was just as prepared to go straight to my camp and take a few days to relax as I was to sit around in a transient warehouse-type building and sleep on floors while waiting for the next stage of the “trip”.  The latter was closer to what actually happened, and so my new plan was to sleep at every possible moment throughout the trip.  It was definitely a smart move.  On every flight, while waiting at airports, and even in vehicles between places.

Now, the difficulty is getting into a healthy and normal routine.  Life in general is so so so much different.  Going from having my car to drive around, house to hang out in, wife to be with, grass and trees to look at etc, to being in a heavily secured environment with concrete barriers, guns, dust/dirt/grime everywhere is a change.  It’s an easy routine, but it’s important to set one early.  With Kimberly, I’m hoping we can talk at the same time on most days so she can prepare for it, and I am not fighting to get the deplorable internet service to work during peak hours. At the same time, I know that she is doing the same in re-settling with me gone.  It’s saddening not to be there to help her through it.  But, the way I see it is that this is OUR deployment and it’s not just me that had to serve on this tour.  She’s facing just as much challenge as I am and we have to get through it together.

At the very least, I hope to make this a very personally enlightening experience for us.  This kind of thing is usually a once in a lifetime experience, and the memories will last a lifetime.  This is just the beginning though, and I hope to be able to tell you more about my quest for normalcy in this abnormal environment.  Now that my sleep times are getting back to normal, I think it’s time for bed.

Pre-Deployment Canada Day

This past Canada Day, Kimberly and I were able to enjoy one of the last chances we’ll have in a long time to just relax, sit around the house together, and enjoy each other’s company without distractions.  The following morning, we received our storage POD, and have been hectically tearing the house apart and making it fit into cardboard boxes, where our stuff will sit for months until we can get to it again.

Only two years ago, we spent Canada Day on the front lawn of Parliament in Ottawa when Kate Middleton and Prince William were in town.  What is normally a huge event anyway in the capital was especially packed with thousands of people from all over Canada and the US to see the young royal couple.  That was one of the weekend trips Kimberly was able to make to see me while I was posted to Kingston, Ontario.  Since then, Canada Day has been just a little more special to us and adds to the happiness of celebrating our awesome country.

This Canada Day falls only a short time before I will be deploying to Afghanistan on the final Canadian mission in that country.  As daunting and difficult as this this next challenge feels, we feel more empowered than ever given how we’ve prepared ourselves for it.  From planning a perfect pre-deployment vacation, preparing the house for new renters, storing my car, storing our stuff, freezing the dozen or so phone/TV/internet/mail/etc. accounts that are easy to lose track of, and just finding time to enjoy each other’s company, this kind of pace might turn most people into a ball of stress; and I can’t imagine adding children to the mix.  We have just felt like it puts us on a roll and can get so much done together.  Still, I just wish there was more time.

Time is so valuable, especially when spent on such a priceless thing: each other.  Kimberly has been more supportive than I could ever expect her to be with the near-heartbreak she must be feeling.  We spent a large portion of our early relationship apart, and it really doesn’t get much easier over time.  She knows how hard it will be, and even so, she doesn’t want to make it more difficult for me.  So, she puts on a tough face and tells me that we’re doing great.  And, we are.  We really are.

Sure there will be dangers and the unknown can bring all kinds of surprises.  But, we have been able to retain the appreciation for everything that we’ve been able to do, and for the kind of life that we’ve been given in this world.  Living in Edmonton has been wonderful, spending time with our families is a blessing, and we are so thankful that we can enjoy all the little things that life has to offer.  I couldn’t have been more content sitting on the grass with my wife, watching the Canada Day fireworks in Edmonton, and wondering how lucky we are to be here.  I look forward to next Canada Day, wherever we might be spending it, and to think back at how Afghanistan made our little family a bit more worldly, and how thankful we should be to have been a part of it; whatever it turns out to be.