Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Bazaar

This past Saturday Christian and I went to visit the bazaar. There's a little area on base that the people in charge allow Afghans to come into to peddle their wares every Saturday around midday. There are about 4 or 5 rows of shops. At the bazaar they sell a whole bunch of everything. Well, maybe not everything. What they do have is clothes, rugs, jewelry, nick-nacks, raw precious stones, electronics... no food basically, no food or drugs.

I went into the bazaar with the stated goal of not spending a single dollar. I've been terrible at haggling in these settings in the past and I wanted to get a feel for what the prices should be vs. what the initial offer is.

Here are some pictures that I snuck while strolling around:
Rugs and what appear to be belly-dancing outfits... not exactly adherent to sharia law.
Wooden souvenirs, and marble bowls and plates.
That is a rug with Da Vinci's the last supper stitched into it. Awesome.
I didn't get any good shots of the jewelry, but I hear that people can buy raw stones here especially rubies for good prices and sell them back in the states for about three times what they were bought for over here. If only I knew what was real and what was fake. If anyone has any suggestions on that front I'd be glad to take them.
Lots of things made out of some sort of material... can't quite place it.
The most amazing thing that goes on here is the bootleg dvds. Very soon after movies come out in theaters they are available for purchase here at the bazaar. The pictures below are not indicative of that immediacy. The wide selection is truly awe-inspiring.
You're taking a big risk when buying them that your desired content hasn't been dubbed in some other language.
Endless shelves of DVDs.
Most of my souvenir shopping will be done at the bazaar. I'm terrible at haggling, unless I legitimately do not want to buy an item - in those cases, I'll get sucked into haggling because shopkeepers will mistake my dismissal as an invitation to negotiate prices... when it's not.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Driving Around

In my broad and deep two-week experience downrange, I have had some opportunity to see a majority of KAF. There's plenty yet for me to see, but here are some highlights from driving around the base and taking pictures of standard things one might expect to see here.

First thing you see when driving around is the steering wheel. Here it is:
Anything strike you as odd?
The steering wheel is on the right!
Proof - except I easily could've shown the mirror image of this photo. You know what? You'll just have to trust me.
Getting used to driving on the right side of the car was an ordeal. It's all a matter of overpowering the desire for your head to be 43% of the road distance from the right side the road and instead having your head located at around 10% of the road distance from the right side of the road - because we still drive forward on the right here. Was that confusing to read? Because it was confusing to write. When I get back to the states people might want to avoid driving with me for a while because I'll be going through a similar acclimation period - also I'll be windshield wiping instead of turn-signaling.
Our next-door neighbors.
So next door there's a sort of headquarters, but it's not the main headquarters at KAF - I haven't quite figured out what goes on over there, but it's apparently the wing of the Army that we fall under in the overarching hierarchy that is this little world.

Here's what you're definitely most likely to see when driving around here:
Barbed wire, generator flood-lights, and fence.
Another thing you're very likely to see: 
What's your sign? "Speed limit is walking speed"? You must be trustworthy.
Signs are everywhere here. Oh look! here comes another one!
For those who can't convert 20 km/h is like 12 mph.
So we have to go very very slow around here. And for good reason! You don't want to get in an accident with this:
So this is what an mrap looks like up close. There isn't really anything in this picture to compare it to for scale, but imagine an average sized person standing next to the front wheel right there. Their head would be at about the top of the wheel casing above the wheel - these things are massive, and there are all sorts of them driving around here in addition to a myriad other large and useful vehicles.

Spoiler alert: I'm going to be collecting pictures of the different international compound entrances and posting about them because I think they are pretty cool looking, but here's what one of them looks like.
The Slovaks compound.
And there you have it, a little summary of what driving around KAF is like. Invariably we end up back at the Ed. Center:
Work, sweet work.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Take a look at this: 
A Tent.
You wouldn't expect this innocuous looking, beige tent to be a place where people gather to socialize and go for a general morale boost, would you?

Soldiers socializing and boosting morale.
Turns out you were wrong! It is a place where people socialize and gather to boost morale! The seemingly standard tent pictured above from the outside is the USO headquarters for KAF. The structure itself offers computers and phones available for use, as well as designated TVs for video gaming available for sign up. There's also comfy furniture, large televisions playing the stuff people over here want to watch (largely sporting events and movies). There's also this little area where soldiers can record a dvd of themselves reading children's books to their children and can send home - it's adorable. There's also my favorite thing so far, a movie theater!
Example of one of the aforementioned TVs.
A very similar example.
Video game area.
Computers available.
I've only visited twice so far, but I would like to spend some more of my limited free time here. They run activities like guitar hero competitions (an opportunity to show off my truly remarkable skills at guitar... hero), and I'm investigating the opportunity of volunteering to run a trivia night event... not sure how receptive the KAF community will be to that idea.

The USO is generally known for bringing morale-raising entertainments to the troops and they've been doing that since 1941 - its history is actually very interesting. Those same sort of entertainments exist here, but I never knew how much more they do. I'm appreciative for myself, but also for the troops serving here at KAF who have this great opportunity to divert their attentions even for a little while with the services that the USO offers.

While I haven't heard any plans yet to resurrect the bones of Bob Hope and bring him here to do a USO show - here are some pictures of the celebrities that entertained KAF last year around Christmas time:
Robin Williams and Lewis Black!
And some others! Some USO crew pose with the USO Holiday Tour as it came through KAF last year.
To learn more about the KAF USO, visit the USO Kandahar Facebook page, where I stole most of the pictures for this post. I'll leave you now with the much-anticipated (I'm sure) pictures of the movie theater at the USO headquarters.
All the seats are La-Z-Boys!
I watched Death Race last Saturday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy Birthday Mike. You're a Champion.

So last week was Michael Champion, the tester here at Kandahar Education Center's, birthday. A plot was schemed to kidnap him by luring him into one of the Ed. Center's classrooms that is under construction and covering his head and ensnaring his hands in one of those zipper handcuff thing all in honor of his birthday.

I was pretty uncomfortable with this plan. After all, there are plenty of people walking around with weapons, and you never know how people are going to react when they see two people with Keffiehs around their heads struggling to force someone into a car..., but it was my first full week, so whatever I agreed to be the getaway car driver. The full plan was for him to go out to the room where Christian and Michael Self (another Michael - this one works for University of Maryland) would attack and subdue Michael and put him in the car where I would be waiting with Afghani music or talk radio blasting. Then we'd drive around for like five minutes until we got to the pizza place on the boardwalk where we'd have a birthday dinner in his honor.

Here are some pictures.
This is Michael Self. You can't tell me he doesn't look like Fidel Castro.
"Let me tell you about the glorious revolution I led..."
Christian helping Mike to appear very intimidating.
So here's what ended up happening. While I diligently waited in the get-away car, Mike (Champion) came out of the Ed. Center... went towards the classroom as planned and instantly saw through the master that was the kidnapping plan.
The game is up.
Let's just do it anyway!
This is what it should've looked like, but with a lot more struggling.
So apparently there are a couple more sit-down restaurants than I originally thought. There's a Dutch restaurant and a pizza place. Pizza was the destination of choice for this occasion.
I'll have the "my co-workers are incompetent at surprising me, please"
Pretty sure they said a big jumble of sounds instead of his name when they sang "happy birthday" and that's what's so funny.
 Happy b-day Mike!

One more picture of Mike Self as Fidel Castro for good measure:
Ok one more:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kandahar Jewish Community

Health Disclaimer: The following account is not for the faint of heart. Learning the shocking truth about an active Jewish community in Kandahar, Afghanistan, once the heartland for Taliban activity, may trigger a life-threatening health situation for readers with heart conditions, or for those who may be pregnant. Continue at your own risk.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been put in touch with Captain Dr. Warren Gross, the unofficial Jewish chaplain here at KAF. Now that I've spent two full Shabbats here in Kandahar I'm ready to spill the beans. I had heard from being in touch with Warren, that the Jewish community here has a weekly Shabbat evening and Havdallah service. I couldn't ask for anything better (and would've had to put up with a lot worse depending on where I was assigned). There was actually a moment in Germany when it looked like I may be assigned to another base and my first thought was "now I won't be able to experience all I had heard about from Warren!" In the end, I was assigned to Kandahar where there is an active Jewish Community. I'm very thankful.

As per the instructions I got, I arrived at the CMC building at about 6:30. The center is just past the compound of the Slovakian forces' compound.  It's a multi-purpose building for religious services. It's got a TV, and nice couches, and a kitchen, and a little alcove for bible-study. They've also got Kosher crock pots, a kosher pantry, little kosher refrigerator, and a wide array of Jewish texts! The average Kandahar resident would be surprised at what the 13 (on average) actively practicing Jews in Kandahar need for their religious practices! 
Kinda reminds me of the Dharma village in Lost
So I get to the CMC building and I'm greeted with this sign:
That's what I'm here for!
There are a bunch of people there milling around getting ready for Shabbos. The kosher crock pots are all at capacity because the last week and this past week saw the highest turnout for the KAF Shabbat service so far! 14 and 15 people respectively!
Shabbat Candles ready to be lit - I came early this past Friday in order to take pictures before Shabbat started.
Males don Yarmulkes from the bin:
Prayer Shawls, Yarmulkes.
Then we do a little service. It's pretty bare-bones. Nothing like I'm used to, but for the community utilizing the service Warren seems to have struck a happy medium of Hebrew, English, not too short, and not too long. He gives a short little dvar of some kind and it's time to eat!
Shabbat dinner table. That's Warren on the right. He's wearing a camo Kippa.
 The food consists of challah, prepackaged gefilte fish (then we switch plates - gotta keep it kosher around here) chicken soup, some sort of dish made from easily shipped turkey meatballs, rice, salad, there was kugel this past week... it's not bad considering where we are!

Kosher MREs - akin to those that Bikur Cholim provide at the Cleveland Clinic
More of the Kosher pantry's contents.

Saturday early evenings we meet for Havdallah in the same building, but in the little alcove meant for bible-study. We have a little snack for our seudah shlishi and we make Havdallah. Then we hang around, chat, and solve some of the world's problems, if only everyone would listen...
This is me with Warren at Havdallah last week. Beard is coming along nicely...
Havdallah crew last week.
Siddurim/machzorim. This is about a fifth of what they've got there. They'll come in handy by the time High Holidays roll around.
I was really thrilled to find that there would be some way for me to stay connected to Judaism while I was here. In fact, I'm not positive I'd even agree to take this job if there wasn't some sort of Jewish presence. Warren went on R&R today for two weeks and we got assignments to fill in for him. I've been charged with leading motzi, kiddush, and birkat hamazon while he's gone.

For High Holidays we're supposed to be getting an official chaplain. It would be very hard to try to estimate how many people we could expect to show up for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, but I'm looking forward to the experience. They even have a Sukkah here! I will be missing the Park Synagogue choir terribly though...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Monopoly Money

Finding things to write about when my days are mostly filled with work at the Education Center is proving a bit harder than I expected. I mean there are plenty of little things to write about, but it's not like I'm having life-changing experiences on a day-to-day basis. Instead I'll write some posts about the little things.

Let's talk about the money here. Have I made it clear yet, that this is a NATO base with mostly Americans, but there are plenty of people from lots of other places? Yeah. French, British, Australia, Canadian, and various contingents from a smattering of other countries all coexist on this one base. Many of these contingents have their own stores, DFACs (Dining Facilities), living quarters, etc.

As far as I can tell American money is the way to go here. I haven't been to a PX (Post Exchange - it's basically just army for: "store that the army sets up on a base") that lists prices in any other currency. The Kandahar American PX is relatively large for Afghanistan for good reason as this is a very large base. That's if you compare it to other PXs - in Germany we were at one that was literally the size of a Walmart or a Target.

Anyway, the PX is normally pretty busy. I hear they're the only place on the base that accepts $100 dollar bills which is ironic because the only ATMs available here dispense only $100 bills. They also accept Eagle Cash which is sort of a debit card for the army.

When you are owed change from the PX checkout that is not in denominations of just whole dollars (nearly every time you check out), you aren't given it in coins. Instead, AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange System) came up with a different solution for Iraq and Afghanistan PXs. What we get are pogs. Remember pogs? Little cardboard coin-shaped collectibles? Fad from the mid-90s? I've got about 500 of them sitting in a drawer in my bedroom in Cleveland? Ringing any bells? There's even a webpage of the different series of AAFES pogs issues over the last 10 years on this numismatics website.
Here's what they look like
If feels a lot like paying for things with monopoly money - or at least I imagine it will, I've been saving them up for a big purchase. So far I've got about enough to buy an Arizona Iced Tea - still only 99¢!!! They don't even bother with pennies and just round up or down. Yesterday they gave me an actual quarter and I was confused... looks like I've acclimated a bit.
Excuse me, may I please pay for my new Nintendo DS with this orange 500?
If I had the old pog-maker I got for Channukah at age 9 or so, I'd have a pretty sweet counterfeiting racket going on here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Heat

No, not that basketball team I can pretend to know a little bit about... I'm talking about the temperature! I'm recently discovering that the first week I was here was a little deviation from the norm temperature-wise here. Normally August is the hottest month here... So I arrived just before the hump. Unseasonably cool weather last week made me feel as though it was going to be manageable.

It's still unseasonably cool here, and now the heat is starting to get to me. This morning I stopped at two different stores between my room and work in order to get in from the heat for a couple minutes in each store. Going to lunch was an ordeal. Now I'm safely sheltered by work's nearly adequate cooling systems (the computer lab heats up when it's full of soldiers running the heat-producing computers) until dinner-time when the sun will be nearly out of sight.

Check out this article about the heat: Article. For most of you who don't convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in your head very easily (me included), the temperatures referred to in the article come damned close to 140 degrees F.
It would be unappetizing because of the dust, but we're talking fry an egg on cement heat.
Thankfully we'll be over the hump soon. With September on the way, I'll be here during the moderate months. I pray to Ganesh that we don't get an Indian summer... get it? Because we're really close to India India... and indian summer... get it? Never mind...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

One Week Contract-versary

Today marks the end of my first week downrange. So far things have been pretty manageable. Quick shout-out to Captain Dr. Warren Gross (more on him later), and Sarah Kemp for helping me to adjust to life here. Sarah deserves a plug here on my blog for hers: A Blogworthy Life

I found her blog through a bit of stupendous facebook stalkery. By searching people's names in google that I found in pictures posted on the USO Kandahar facebook page I stumbled upon her blog and it's really helped me prepare for life here and adjust to it. Her blog is more weighty and deals with more serious issues and is better than mine... so far... just thought people should know that going in. Also, she doesn't know it yet, but I plan on stealing some of her pictures to illustrate some things here - I think she can get away with taking pictures of cooler things than I can considering she works with the USO and is a girl.

Anyway, I've gotten into sort of a rhythm here of work, eat, sleep, and exercise. I've neglected working out since I last wrote about working out in Germany, I didn't go again. So now I went nearly a month without running (and I'm used to going every day). So far I've gone only to the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) gym which means it's the American gym. Generally it's considered dirtier than the NATO one where you need to bring a pair of non-dusty shoes with you if you want to even get in.
Didn't take this picture - I work out alll the way on the left on those cardio machines.
Maybe later on down the road I'll get more into weight training. Some people have been suggesting I get really buff because that is the more common work-out style here...  In general I've been adjusting to life in the desert and to one surrounded by a multitude of extremely large vehicles meant for war and for lifting/digging/carrying.
Don't even take sides against the family.
I've been slowly working my way through Curb Your Enthusiasm. I've watched many of the episodes in the past but by no means all of them, it's really hilarious. I'm almost finished with Season 6 right now. The number of guest stars is crazy! If anyone has a suggestion regarding what my next show/movie endeavor should be don't hesitate to suggest.