Photo Update #3

A view of the street near my office.  You can tell it would have been a very nice neighborhood in decades past.  I hope one day soon families can once again walk along these roads.

A view of the street near my office. You can tell it would have been a very nice neighborhood in decades past. I hope one day soon families can once again walk along these roads.

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Photo Update #2

I strongly recommend to anybody deploying anywhere including Afghanistan; get an American room-mate or make friends with one so you can use the US Postal Service.  This package got here almost as fast as ME.

I strongly recommend to anybody deploying anywhere including Afghanistan; get an American room-mate or make friends with one so you can use the US Postal Service. This package got here almost as fast as ME.

Bargains At The Bazaar

From the first time I attempted to make a purchase in Afghanistan, it was clear to me that this was not a country of price takers. That is, sellers don’t have set prices that give customers the option of “take it or leave it.” In Canada, that’s pretty much how the economy works but for a few things like cars. You don’t go to Walmart expecting to negotiate prices (unless you’re one of thooose people).

In Afghanistan, the price you pay for something depends on a whole bunch of variables, and everyone I’ve talked to seems to be figuring out their own strategy for getting a good deal.

Bazaar Carpets

“Please my friend, come look!,” called the Afghan watch seller from behind several dozen Rolexes.  Already knowing that I have a watch addiction and I’m at least curious, I decided to look.  I said right away that “I don’t really need a watch.”  Just to make sure he doesn’t get too excited that he’s going to make an easy sale, I dash his hopes right from the beginning, “I know these are very expensive but thank you anyway.”  “NO NO, these are very good quality,” he reassures me while filling both my hands with different watches to look at, ensuring I can’t get away that easily. I’ve come to realize this more and more, but we “westerners” (the average Canadian, at least) are more interested in price right away.  The Afghan sellers here are more interested in getting you to like something right away before mentioning price.  Whether it’s scarves, carpets, watches, woodwork, or anything else, the negotiation of price comes at the end after you’ve picked what you like.

I’d be naive to go in to this without at least having talked to others about what they paid for watches or at least going with other people and listening to their negotiation first.  Having an idea what these two watches were worth and already having researched a bit about the quality of these knockoff brands, I found what I liked.  I hit him with it, “What’s your best price for these two?”  That’s the most common way of asking for his price and also trying to bring him a bit lower than his already high starting point.  It’s normal for the starting price to be at least double or triple what you end up paying in the end.  It just takes time and a bit of polite argument.  “No, that’s too expensive.  I’ll look again next week,” I tell him as my legs start to fall asleep sitting cross-legged on his carpet across from him.  There’s no way he’d let me go at this point, “wait, OK…” he rubs his beard as he brings his price a little lower.  “I can’t really afford that for these, maybe I’ll just do one today,” I tell him.  Still not wanting to miss out on the sale of two watches, he comes down even lower and we get close to a price I’m OK with.  Just because I know this price range is still a great profit margin for him and I think I can still get a better deal, I offer something just a bit lower and stand my ground.  He says a few different things trying to make me feel guilty and telling me that this is almost the price he pays for them (yeah, right!). But I know since it’s been a short-ish negotiation (some can take a long time) this price is still good for him.  I stand my ground until he just goes for it.  “Sorry, this is the highest I can pay for these,” I tell him.  “OK, Sir.  Thank you so much,” he smiles with excitement.  “Just, please Sir.  Don’t tell anybody the price,”he asks me.  “Of course.  I won’t.  I promise” I tell him.

Going from a disappointed and worried look on his face while we negotiate price to pure happiness with handshakes and full hugs (Yes, Afghans hug a lot!) in a second, I know we both got a good deal.  I’m happy, and he’s happy, and the experience of negotiating is priceless.  They seem to always ask you at the end, “You happy?”  “Yes, Sir.  Thank you so much.  I’m very happy.  Take care!” I tell him.  “You too, my friend!” he says.

I hope to post more about these bargains in the future.  Our bazaar is always interesting with all kinds of neat things for sale.  Do you think you’d be more open to negotiating and bargaining in stores where prices “seem” to be set in stone?  What are your experiences with negotiating?

Happy bargain hunting!

Cravings For Home

It was a warm summer evening….. That’s right, that’s how this starts.  I was sitting outside by a crackling fire-pit.  Sharing time with friends and family surrounded by trees, grass, and cheerful conversation, it couldn’t have been a more perfect evening.  A favorite pastime of mine, I happened to be in possession of a bag of marshmallows.  Nibbling away at a raw one that I decided not to roast for lack of patience, I enjoyed the squishy sugary texture of it.

I continued chewing as it got softer and softer.  But, something wasn’t right.  Within a matter of an instant, I had a strange feeling that something was wrong.  I didn’t know what, yet.  But, the flavor of this marshmallow wasn’t exactly as it was a second before.  It seemed…. different.
Within another instant, I realized that I was in a dream, but had not yet woken up.  Still chewing on a marshmallow, I had a weird image of a foam earplug go through my mind.  Very strange, but now I had a weird dream going on about chewing on a foam earplug.  We use these all the time at shooting ranges and I have a bunch of them in case I need them.  So maybe I was recalling images of earplugs because I had used them recently during training.  In fact, I had just started wearing them to go to sleep about a week ago to block out background noise and people walking through the hall.
As this strange image of me chewing on an earplug continued, it started to feel more and more realistic.  WHAT THE???…  I snapped awake lying on my right side in my ranger blanket (a very thin sleeping bag) and realized that I had one earplug in my left ear, and the other one had been completely chewed and was in my mouth with the rubber string hanging.  With a mixture of emotions including disgust at eating my own used earplug and feeling stupid about what just happened, I jumped out of bed, ran out the door barefoot ignoring the filthy floors to the nearest garbage can in the hallway, and started spitting it out until the chemical rubbery flavor in my mouth faded only a little.
I repeatedly asked myself for the next 15 minutes: “What the hell just happened?!?!”  “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced!”
Have you ever had a rude awakening similar to this?  Please write in the comments below and tell me if I’m either uniquely weird that this happened, or do people once in a while have strange things happen during sleep?
I officially declare this my first nightmare/night terror in Afghanistan.  Please comment and let’s see if we can share some similar stories.  Happy marshmallow roasting this long weekend!  🙂

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.

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.