Ghafoor is gone

Me with Sayed Ghafoor on his last day at Camp Gibson. And yes, in person he also resembles a large, dark-skinned teddy bear.

Yesterday was a sad day in camp because one of the local nationals that had been working here for over four years, worked his last day and then resigned. His name is Sayed, but most know him by his surname Ghafoor.
I’ll never forget the first pictures that I received when I was hired for this job, months before I would even get to leave the US and travel to Afghanistan. There were many people in the pictures that I now know personally, and there were many that were gone by the time I was finally in-country. But one face caught my attention, and it was Ghafoor. In all the pictures, he was smiling and laughing, and his broad, open face was one that you don’t easily forget.
I was glad, when I arrived to get to meet Ghafoor, and I was immediately impressed with his professionalism and leadership in the office. He knew his way around a computer, and his knowledge of the detail work required to complete the finance mission was impressive. And through all the work and all the details, he would have that same broad smile on his face.
He helped me to learn a lot about Afghan culture and history, not to mention helping me to translate “We represent the Lollipop Guide” into phonetic Dari for one of the crazy blog posts I was writing. To get to work each day, Ghafoor drove his car an hour in conditions, that you can see from pictures posted earlier, were not the best for a 4×4, not to mention a normal car.
Each day, he would leave at about 4 p.m. – an arrangement he had made with management, so that he could get a head start on traffic on his way to school. He is studying to complete a bachelor’s degree here in Kabul.
But in the last few days before he left, I learned more about him and about the kind of person he really is. He has a wife and two children. He has applied for a visa to the United States, to move there and try to give his family a better life. I told him I thought it was sad that he had to move away from his own country to find a better life, but he told all of us that he just doesn’t care about himself or where he needs to live – he wants his children to have a better future.
I asked him if his kids spoke english, and he said that they did, that he had been sending them to a private school in Kabul. The government funded schools do not teach english, he told me. He then told me that it costs over $100 a month to pay for his child’s school. To put this into perspective, the average working person in Afghanistan, can earn between $120-$180 each month. A national police officer or national army officer can make a little bit more, but those salaries range from $150-$200 a month. The controversy in the country is that the well-funded Taliban will pay people $300 a month to plant roadside bombs. Whatever and whoever is paying the Afghans, $120 – $300 a month is peanuts. This is what these people live on, and I know what Ghafoor made while working here at DynCorp, and the cost of putting his kids through school was easily 25% of his income each month.
I’m no Sally Struthers or bearded guy that makes you feel guilty on the TV, but when I think about the fact that I would spend $100 on dinner and a movie in one evening while in the states, and that same $100 could drastically change a person’s life here in Kabul, the realization is sobering.
Ghafoor has moved on to another job with another international organization, and I wish him the best of all things. In the short time I knew him, I believe we became friends, and I hope he is able to someday come to the US so that you all can meet a very extraordinary person who has carved a life out of some of the most difficult circumstances on the planet.

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Kabulbank pictures

Our trip to the bank was fraught with danger and intrigue, and these are the pictures to prove it. Okay, so very little intrigue and not a whole lot of danger.

This is how buildings are built over here - I've seen it in many different places - using what amounts to big sticks to hold up the roof of a building while the concrete cures. Awesome.

Just some of the small local shops.

One of the many hotel and wedding hall combinations we saw on our way. If you are lucky, you can walk outside for a few choice pictures of the wedding party near ... a pile of rubble.

Wedding hall #2

Wedding hall #3

I wish there were something really interesting about this guy with a ladder, but there isn't. It's a guy. With a ladder.

Much like a pizza delivery guy, this is the chicken delivery guy. Call him at 1-800-CHI-CKEN and he'll delver live birds to your door in under 30 minutes or your next chicken is free!

Two things in this photo - first the meat. See it hanging out in the open air? This is tame compared to some of the rows we passed where there were haunches hanging all along the storefronts. The other thing in this picture is the gas station. Do you see it? It's that guy on the far left, sitting next to the fuel cannisters and the oil (which is right next to the hanging meat....) Next time you feel like complaining about gas prices, think about what he's charging.

This guy is ... wait for it ... the ice cream man! No wimpy little van with tinkling music for this guy! He's hard core. Those sticks on his left are what he uses to make a sort of ice cream pop. You can see the kid in the top left eating one of them.

This is a pharmacy. I asked our security detail if I could stop and pick up some cocaine and amphetamines, but turns out, they already had some in the armored vehicle! I joke. I didn't ask to stop.

This is a stand where a guy was making and selling juice. Ian's comment was the best, "I think I saw that guy at Sam's Club!"

A guy riding in one of hundreds of little vans used as taxis. People share them, and it wasn't uncommon to see 9-10 guys packed into one van.

This is the Nike outlet store in Kabul.

This is the Afghani version of a camelback. Not quite as easy to carry, but it does the job.

Just a shot to show that there are trees here. Near downtown, there are more and more trees. Even though they are dusty, it does help to make the place look a little friendlier.

One of the parks, next to one of the mosques we passed. I was glad to see some areas of the city that were a little more green.

The local bank. This is one of many people in the country that will exchange money and sell you phone cards. Locals refer to these guys as "the bank" which is a pretty cool nickname.

The entrance to Camp Eggers and the US Embassy.

Ghafoor made me take this picture. It's a building site. Near the US Embassy. I find it boring, but he was excited. This will be a hotel where internationals can stay in relative safety.

Posted in Mostly Pictures | 2 Comments


Today was wicked exciting for me, but I kept it together and stayed cool. We had to drive into the heart of Kabul to visit the bank that services our camp. I was being added as a signatory to the accounts we have at the bank, and there were a few other details we were determined to settle while we were visiting the office.

Kabulbank is the largest bank in Kabul and is located just northeast of the hill covered with TV antennas. There’s a picture of this hill in one of my previous entries. But if you look at this picture, you’ll see that it’s a good five or six miles of gridlock to get to the bank area.

Our complex route to get to the bank was designed to keep anyone from following us, and that made me feel better until I realized the route wasn’t designed to keep anyone from following us, but was just too complicated for me to understand and keep track of in my brain. I gave over to looking for major landmarks while trying to take in the sights of the biggest city in the country.

The devastation, terrible roads and piles of rubble in the streets were much much less as we drove deeper into the city, but the sights for a newbie like me were really fun to see. Roadside vendors with stalls full of colorful drinks and a huge selection of cigarettes were everywhere, but other vendors selling sunglasses, computer software and all manner of fake designer goods were thrown in there as well. My favorite stand I saw but wasn’t fast enough to get a picture of was a bike repair stand. It was covered with inner tubes and tires, and looked like a pile of black spaghetti.

As we got closer to downtown, the traffic got pretty bad and we spent about 20 minutes going a short distance down a two-lane road that had become four lanes as people drove up to, and on the sidewalk. We got to see the local chicken deliver guy, and the ice cream man. We went past several butcher shops that had dead animals hanging along the full front of the building in 90 degree heat. Ian’s comment was that the FDA would have a field day here. I agreed, but doubted the FDA would darken this doorstep.

One of the craziest recurring buildings was the hotel/wedding hall. With about as much neon as Winnemucca, these wedding halls would certainly look cool at night, but during the day, they look about as dusty as the rest of the city.

Unlike the edge of the city where our camp is, as you get closer to the downtown area, there are many trees lining the roads. There are several relatively nice looking parks where the trees are so thick that the sun can’t penetrate the thick cover of leaves. The largest park has some open areas, and it’s close to a famous area known as New Kabul City. The shopping areas and hotels in New Kabul City are relatively new, and the main street actually looked nice enough to be a real crappy street in Dubai.

We pulled up to the bank, which was a non-descript building with about 4 stories. I had thrown my camera in my bag, but almost lost it at the security checkpoint inside the bank. To enter Kabulbank, you go through some very thin and difficult to manage turnstiles, get frisked by a couple guys, who I think were frisking for bomb vests only, because they were not very thorough with anyone who came in around us.

The bank manager’s office was crowded, and there seemed to be a policy of people just walking in and talking to whoever was available. So it could be an ancient guy wearing his traditional pajamas, walking in and talking to a bank executive about her passbook account. I have no idea what was going on, but we did have some time to people watch.

It was more obvious than ever the huge variety of ethnicities that have been crushed together here in Afghanistan. Several of the men in the office had very Arabian features with heavy brows and that prominent nose, but then a worker from the bank would walk through and you would swear he was Korean. A woman standing in line near us could have passed as Chinese with no problem. This valley and this area of the country has been conquered so many times, and each time, the conquerors added their contribution to the gene pool.

The bank complex is interesting – there was a courtyard of sorts out the back door of the building, and after crossing the yard, we went to another building where another manager was waiting for us. The main attraction of the exit to the other building was the stairwell we used that had a strange pattern of circles on the wall.

“Bullet holes,” Ian said, and I had to stop and look. If they hadn’t been so stingy about the camera, I would have gotten a picture of the wall.

After our business was done, we actually had to cross the street to get back to our armored vehicle, and that 30 feet of weaving through traffic was probably the most dangerous part of our entire day.

In convoy, they try to make our routes so that we don’t turn around, but make big loops where the destination is at one end and camp is at the other end of the circle. The end of the loop took us through some parts of the city that had me twisting my neck around, trying to see as much as possible. We drove past embassies for Germany and Britain – compounds that made Camp Gibson’s wall look like it was made of Lincoln logs. We drove past Camp Eggers, the home of the American Embassy, and the site of a huge new hotel where internationals will stay and hopefully avoid the danger of suicide bombers.

Suddenly, we were back to a place I recognized – the traffic circle directly outside the airport entrance. I hadn’t seen that area in nearly two months, and it made excited to go back there in another month when I would be going home on leave.

A quick drive through the CIA military compound and down the well-paved road alongside the compound where the Department of State maintains its own fleet of airplanes, and we were back at Gibson.

All along the route it was really interesting to have Ghafoor there to tell us what we were seeing. I would have never identified the ice cream man, or even thought there was an ice cream man in Kabul. He showed us the chicken delivery guy and also the guys on the corner who are the local equivalent of a bank – changing money and selling phone cards.

It blew me away when I saw an ancient dude driving a Toyota corolla, reach down to the seat next to him and pull up an iPhone 4 and take a call in the middle of that traffic. There were all kinds of examples of technology crashing into what seemed to be completely rural life. Some women were walking around in conservative clothing, but with huge glam sunglasses, alongside women in the burkha, completely shrouded from head to foot.

We made it back to the base, and a look back to the south showed how far we’d gone. I feel like an idiot for thinking that a 2-hour trip into the city is a big deal compared to the work that my little brother is doing, but it was still a great experience.

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The music that gets me through

When I leave my room each morning to head to breakfast, it’s a ritual now to make sure I have everything. Watch – check. Bracelet I made from parachord – check. Cell phone – check. Keys – check. Dining hall card – check. Cash to bribe locals in event of emergency – check. Extremely sharp knife and willingness to use it to kill terrorists – check and check. I pretty much even have places in my pockets for all of these items, and for each of the few outfits I brought with me.

But the last thing that goes with me is my iPhone, which is in airplane mode and is more or less an iPod Touch while I’m here. My headphones go in the left pocket of my pants and I’m ready for work. When I finally get to work, there are several people who walk around with white iPod headphones in their ears all day. A couple IT guys have as part of their ritual each day, the threading of their headphone cords up the inside of their shirt, so they always have music playing.

Right away, as I started doing macro and database coding, I started listening to music, and now my boss is doing the same (but he has fancy black headphones.) Like pretty much everyone I know, there are chapters in my life that are structured around music. As I’ve been listening, I’ve had to switch tracks on some tunes because the memories associated with them are so strong that I stop typing for a minute as the music takes me back to Garden Valley or Seafoam road or the Oregon Coast. Sometimes though, I take the time to listen all the way through, because some of the thoughts that come flooding back are not super good, and I’m determined to take that song back – to put a new memory to it, and make it my own again.

I’m always getting asked by friends what music is on my most played lists, and I’ve asked the same question of friends like Tim Bryant, Dave Coles and Eric Knape. So if you came here today and just happened to be in the market for some new music, and these albums are new to you, then it’s your lucky day. It really is your lucky day. These albums are helping me to keep going, to keep working, and to stay focused on my job. All of them are wicked good and worth the $10 for the album (some are not even that much.) Ten albums at $10 each is only $100 – the sum of what you probably spent on going to movies in the last two weeks. These tunes keep giving though, and I’ve been listening to some of them for years and still come back to them over and over again.

This is going to be a freaking long post, so I’ve inserted some pictures to organize it, and you can browse around and read if you like. But give this music a listen. I don’t think you’ll regret it (as long as you are exactly like me, like the same things I like, and have the same taste in music as I have. And if you don’t and want to disagree – save it.)

Before I get going though, I want to confess that I’m not a very good liker of music. There are quite a few songs and albums that I like and have found on my own, but for the most part, the music I love the most has been given to me by other people. The songs I like the best from albums that I may have had skipped over because they just didn’t do anything for me, are songs that friends have said that they love. There is something about knowing that a song is not only good, but important to someone who is important to me, that makes it important to me. I resigned myself to this a long time ago – that I’ll never be a music columnist – but I’m grateful to some people for these songs and I’ll try to remember to give them the credit they deserve.

In no particular order:

Ryan Adams – Gold

I got this album because of the song Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard which I heard for the first time as a Jamie Cullum cover. Ryan Adams, not be confused with Canadian Pop Superstar Bryan Adams, is a soulful musician who sounds like he lives in New York City most of the year, but spends the rest of his time cruising Route 66, singing the blues. He has several albums out, and I have most of them, but this one is my favorite so far. Best songs on this album: New York, New York; La Cienega Just Smiled; The Rescue Blues; Touch, Feel & Lose; Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd; and Rosalie Come and Go.

His lyrics aren’t for everybody, and I’m sure that I’m missing the point of most of them, but his range of styles and the way he seems to be completely at home with himself and his talents, makes his music seem like a force, not just an expression. Again, not a music critic.

Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart

When Layne and I were first dating, she would play music all the time, and I had heard very little of it. On various road trips to go camping and fishing, we’d be listening to this female vocalist and I’d ask who she was. I probably asked about 20 times and got the same answer – Sara Bareilles. By the way, Layne was really patient with that, even after I turned it into a joke.

Sara B is an amazing vocalist. We saw her in concert and though she’s just little, she has a big voice with a huge range. In an era of female singers who are singing in an octave better suited to a tenor (and most male singers are pinching it to sing a few thirds above that range) Sara is actually singing in a soprano’s range and really making it work. Doesn’t hurt that she plays piano really really well and dabbles in the ukulele.

With all that in mind, Sara and I would not be friends. Her attitude is such that I don’t think we would get along personally. Just throwing it out there.

Bluebird and Machine Gun are my favorite songs off this album, but at the risk of my reputation as a straight man, I’ll say that I really like the songs Uncharted; The Light; Basket Case; and Breathe Again as well. This album is introspective, stubborn and at some points, very angry, so it’s a little more professional sounding compared to her first attempt. But I have to admit that I like it, and bring up the volume a few notches when Machine Gun comes up on shuffle.

Steve Miller Band – Greatest Hits

Everybody likes Steve Miller Band, right? The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle, Jet Airliner, Abracadabra, Jungle Love, Take the Money and Run, Rock’n Me - these are classics that just can’t be left out of any serious music collection if you were alive in the early 70′s to mid 80′s. I started listening to a lot of Steve Miller when I bought a 1983 Mazda 280ZX Turbo with red leather interior and T-tops. I made a special mix that included a lot of Steve Miller, drove around in that car with the t-tops off while wearing aviators and a polo shirt with a popped collar. It was spectacular.

So everyone has heard those songs, but some of my favorites while I’ve been over here have been: Heart Like a Wheel and Cry, Cry, Cry. These two get stuck in my head all the time. It may be time to rummage around your old record collection and pull out these albums again.

Gabe Dixon Band

I’ve posted this before on Facebook, but I think that Gabe Dixon just may be responsible for my current healthy mental state. I’ve been listening to this album nonstop since a few weeks before I left Boise. And like a lot of the music I’ve found in the last 18 months, it has been because of Layne. We were watching the movie The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, and Gabe Dixon’s song Far From Home is the opening tune. The band is a piano, bass and drums, so the sound may be surprising in this day where the acoustic guitar is so pervasive (“I’m the guitar guy/At the Party/I’m going to sleep with your girlfriend . . . “)

And to be on a movie soundtrack like this one, I’ve got to admit that I thought this song was cheesy. And it is cheesy. But the rest of the album is not. Gabe Dixon is channeling the young Billy Joel and making the style his own. Sometimes the shuffle of my iPhone will go from Gabe Dixon to Billy Joel and the similarities become very very apparent. The piano is just perfect, and Gabe goes from uberpop teen sensation to storytelling balladeer to rollicking piano man in the course of just three songs. Billy Joel and Elton John would be proud to claim this guy as their musical offspring, but they might have to battle with James Taylor for some of the credit because a few of Gabe’s tracks are lyrical poetry that only Taylor can rival.

This is an album that I have to say I like every single track. For the stunning visuals in his lyrics, I have to go with And the World Turned as my favorite story song, All Will be Well as the winner for the album, and Till You’re Gone as the best fast track.

Get this album. Get it now. You will feel good very very soon.

Eric Hutchinson – Sounds Like This (Live)

Eric and I have a long history, and he’s one of the artists I discovered completely on my own. He is also the only artist to which I have ever written a fan letter. Why? Because unlike Sara B, Eric and I would be good friends. I JUST KNOW IT! Yeah, I’m not a crazy person like that, but I do sincerely believe that Eric’s sense of humor would blend well with my low-level celebrity status and we could hang out, have a few drinks and then trash the place.

I first saw Eric on the Tonight Show, performing Rock and Roll, a song that took him from obscurity to sensation in about the time it took people to listen to the first verse. Hutchinson plays piano but also rocks the acoustic guitar, playing some pretty intricate chords while singing in a range that is just about perfect for a guy – not too high, as if he’s trying to compete with Maroon 5 (and Maroon 5 singer guy – stop making the randy videos and cover art – YOU’RE A GAY MAN! It’s okay to admit it. I know you sleep like a baby on your huge piles of money with many beautiful ladies, but just go out and find yourself a nice man okay?)

I’ve been listening to this album for nearly four years, and it doesn’t get old. Hutchison looks like Bill Gates, but sings like Stevie Wonder. It was that contradiction that first got me interested in the music, and I’ve not stopped listening since.

Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

If you are not on the bandwagon of Mumford and Sons yet, just go ahead and get this album. You don’t have to listen to it first, just buy it. It’s that good, and it’s like nothing out there right now. Show me another mainstream group that features a banjo and I’ll be impressed. These guys make it work, and lyrically, you will get a mélange of inspiration, including Shakespeare. Not for the faint of heart, the words of this album are raw and in the worlds of Canadian Pop Superstar Bryan Adams, are “comin’ straight from the heart.”

Again, Layne introduced me to this band, having herself heard of them when Sugarland and Little Big Town covered Sigh No More. She was so excited by this song that she called me right then. This is one of the things I love about Layne is how passionate she is about her music. If you’ve not had the privilege of getting a phone call like this, start making them to others and maybe you’ll get one yourself someday.

Thistle and Weeds, Awake My Soul, Sigh No More, and Little Lion Man are my favorite tracks on this record. Fair warning: there is cursing. But it’s not gratuitous.

The Black Keys – Brothers

This is a story of love, and loss, and the foresight to maintain international copyrights – this is the story, of the Black Keys.

The Black Keys are not my favorite band, but this album just keeps getting better and better. With a sound like the White Stripes, the Black Keys don’t really sound like a two piece band, but that’s what they have. A lead guitarist and a drummer from Akron, these guys have a great sound and an even greater story.

But I think that I like the name the best. The Black Keys is what a crazy friend of theirs would call their dads when he would call and leave incoherent messages on their answering machine. He’d call them “D Flat” if he was unhappy with them. This is the way to find a name for your band. THIS IS THE WAY TO FIND A NAME FOR YOUR BAND! Internet surveys or randomly pulling words from the online dictionary is not the way.

In any case, these guys recorded their first album on an 8-track recorder from the 80′s. Their second album was made on a Tascam 388 and the whole thing was laid down in 14 hours. They have really made it in music due to their strong beliefs and hard work, and not from the vote of the American people. They weren’t packaged together by a Los Angeles talent organization – they worked their way up from nothing in Akron, Ohio. That is the sort of story that makes listening to their music a totally different experience for me.

Listen to these tracks: Everlasting Light, Next Girl, Howlin’ for You, and I’m Not the One. If you don’t care for extremely distorted guitar, you may want to try some other artists from this list. After listening to them, put the album away for three weeks and then listen again. Repeat until addicted.

Paolo Nutini – These Streets

This is a really rare case for me – where I heard an album by an artist, didn’t like it, but went back to an earlier album and liked it. Normally, under these circumstances, I wouldn’t have a lot of respect for the first album – especially since the second one was very raw and honest, while the first one is more of a pre-packaged pop album where Paolo is singing in a way that covers up his unique voice. On his next album, he let that voice out, and as a consequence, that album was staggeringly unsuccessful.

So I feel a little twinge of guilt when I listen to These Streets and get as much enjoyment as I do, but at the same time, I just really like it. It feels sometimes like the strange feeling you get when you realize that at 36 years old, you really like a song that is also very popular among junior high girls.

But I really don’t care anymore and I’ve really enjoyed listening to this album over and over again. I’d say my favorite tracks are Jenny Don’t Be Hasty, Rewind, New Shoes (that’s the one that the young girls like,) Loving You, and Autumn.

Ingrid Micahelson – Everybody

I had heard three songs by this girl before seeing her in concert last summer. Be OK was featured on several commercials, and her song Keep Breathing was the emotional climax of an episode of Gray’s Anatomy that despite my cynicism, actually was very moving. Her song Girls and Boys has been widely acclaimed by critics and other songwriters alike.

My favorite thing about this girl is her personality. She was one of the most entertaining small-concert performers I’d ever seen – so funny and at the same time completely genuine. When she announced that after a song she was singing, the band was going to hide behind the piano instead of leaving stage like a bunch of “a**holes,” waiting for the crowd to scream long enough to bring them back, I was sold. They were going to come out from behind the piano and sing a few more songs and that was it.

And the fact that she came out on stage to deafening playback of Led Zepplin’s Immigrant Song didn’t hurt anything at all. It was a great concert, but several of us were very surprised at her New York City sarcasm and dry wit, since most of her songs have a vocal styling that is very simple, and often times sounds, frankly, like a little girl singing.

As the night progressed, and also as I’ve listened to her songs over and over, I was able to see (this is my opinion only) that Ingrid is a very sensitive person that uses sarcasm and jokes as a thin cover for her deep emotions about life and love. But we don’t get the facade on this album – we get the songs that are packed full of meaning and seem to easily touch that nerve that we may try to keep hidden.

But the night was very special to me when she came out on stage alone, and with nothing but a loop pedal, performed REM’s tune Nightswimming. She had done this song at a tribute concert to REM, and was by far one of the most obscure artists to be on the stage, but when the night was over, the critics were calling her performance the best of the event, and she had walked out to the middle of a huge stage with nothing but a microphone and a loop pedal. In a completely objective way, about the music and about the passion it takes to make it, I fell in love.

Favorite songs on the album: Maybe (which Layne covers and sounds better on), Men of Snow, Are We There Yet, The Chain, Mountain and the Sea, and Sort Of. That’s pretty much the whole album, but one more – my favorite is called Locked Up.

Jamie Cullum – Twentysomething

If you don’t have a Jamie Cullum album, now may be the time to go and pick one up. From his first to last recordings, Jamie is consistently excellent. Twentysomething is his first album picked up by a label, but his first is also very good. My brother Kyle gave me this cd for my birthday in 2003 and told me that his favorite song on it was Jamie’s cover of Radiohead’s High and Dry. I listened to the album for the first time while laying on my couch, staring at the ceiling half-awake. It may have been the fact that I was almost asleep, or that the tracks were just that good, or something else, but these songs have been imprinted in my brain. I’ve gotten every album that Cullum has ever done, but the reason I list this album is because of the best song on it, called All at Sea.

People that I know who have heard this song almost always quietly put it in the top 10 or 20 songs that they have ever heard.

I love it and hate it at the same time. I listen to it all the time and I can tell you every word, but the message of the song has been contrary to the course of my life for some time.

I’m all at sea
Where no one can bother me
Forgot my roots
If only for a day

Just me and my thoughts
Sailing far away

Like a warm drink that seeps into my soul
Please just leave me right here on my own
Later on you can spend some time with me
If you want to
All at sea

Who doesn’t desire sometimes to get away from everything? Up until 2005, I had been living my life like this, not letting anyone close. As I either listen to this song, or as I skip it when it comes up on shuffle, it always reminds me to enjoy what I can, but to keep myself fully in the present, in the moment. That is what I deserve, and what my loved ones deserve from me.

So there you have it. Some new music for you, or a reminder of some great music to add back to your playlists. Whatever associations you have with this music, go ahead and add the idea that it was these tunes that helped get me through a year in the third world.

Posted in Entertaining, More or Less | 3 Comments

Rise and shine – the world is ending!

The guys in the office are always speaking to each other in Dari, but often, they all speak English and we chat about things. Rhohani and I were talking about the shamsi calendar the other day, and ended up talking about religion a little bit.

As I’ve posted before, the shamsi is a solar calendar that is of identical length to ours, but year zero is marked by the journey of Muhammad to Medina (where, I believe he discovered, among other things, a great place to purchase balsamic vinegar.) And the beginning of the year is on March 20th, which is the day that normally marks the spring equinox.

And if you didn’t get my reference in the first article, most of you probably know that the Christian celebration of Easter is based on the vernal equinox, taking place on the first Sunday that follows the first full moon that follows the first day of spring. That date, along with most in the Christian calendar, are arbitrary, and not literal dates or times mentioned in the bible.

So I was telling Rhohani that if I had my choice, I would like New Year’s to be celebrated in the spring, when it feels as if things are renewing and changing to become something else entirely. In December it is too cold, Rhohani pointed out, and I quickly agreed. In talking with Layne, she also thought it was a good idea to move to a spring new year, mentioning the fact that the slutty dresses worn for the new year’s celebration would be much more suited to March than December, and I quickly agreed.

I said something to Rhohani about the fact that we base our calendar on the birth of Christ.

“Christ?” He asked.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he replied, and then suddenly smiled and said, “By the way, how old is Jesus?”

I really didn’t understand what he was saying or asking, and Rhohani was giving me a hard time so he let me off the hook and said,

“I ask many people how old Jesus is, like a riddle. They say, ‘He is dead!’ I tell them, ‘No, according to the Christians, he is still alive!’”

“So he’s …,” I began.

“2011 years old!” Rhohani finished for me and laughed.

I don’t think he was being disrespectful at all. You needed to be there to hear his tone.

In any case, this morning (a Saturday) after waking up to the distinct lack of an apocalypse, I let the guys know that it was a good day because the world had not ended as Family Radio had predicted. They had not heard about this prediction, and since they use a different calendar anyway, it didn’t surprise me.

As a side note, the guy behind this prediction also said the sky was going to fall down on September 6, 1994. Given the abomination that was pegged jeans that had been running rampant for a few years before that, I could have accepted ’94 as a bit more plausible.

Rhohani and the rest of the workers laughed at the prediction, but in a strange sort of knowing way. When I asked why, Rhohani told me that according to the Islamic faith, he could have disputed the claim of May 21st right away. According to the Qur’an, the world is going to end on . . . wait for it . . .

       a Friday.

What? A Friday? That’s bogus! Friday is the good day! But he went on to explain the reason, which in light of the mathematical nonsense used by the Family Radio guy, seemed pretty logical. The fact is that Adam was created on a Friday, and since he was created from the earth, the symbolism will take a full turn and the earth will come to an end on a Friday. I thought that was slightly poetic, and a little easier to swallow than an equation – no matter how much I really really like equations.

But poetic or intentionally vague interpretations of the end times are frustrating right? Those Christians who are dying to get off this rock must be antsy to find a solid formula for the day that they finally get rescued.

Personally, I’d rather keep it vague and focus on the task at hand, which is spending about 100 years on a gorgeous God-soaked planet, getting myself ready to have even more exciting adventures when God brings heaven down here. On Friday.

Posted in Entertaining, More or Less | 2 Comments

And now for something completely different

This is my new baby. No, if you are reading this as a teaser on Facebook, I did not purchase a child here in Kabul.

I’m referring to the camera of my dreams, the one that has haunted me since I was too small to even understand anything about it.

His name is Edgar and he’s in a box, on the way to Kabul as I write this. I bought him off a guy from Green Bay. Ed’s almost 60 years old, and as you can see, made by Hasselblad. Victor Hasselblad. There’s something very James Bond-like about this camera. Note the logo on the top. One of my favorite logos in existence (followed closely by Leica’s.)

Here’s a better picture from E-bay of what he looks like:

This exact camera sells for about double what it took to get Edgar shipped to me. It looks like it's in better shape, sure, but it's no Ed. I'm just saying.

So in about ten days, I’ll be back to shooting film – something I haven’t done since I got rid of my Pentax ZX-30, nearly ten years ago.

Ed’s real good at shooting big slides and I’m excited to start a portrait project here. There are people here with faces that you’ll never forget, and some have already expressed an interest to have a portrait taken, so it’s going to be fun. Some of the most unique faces in the camp are on the workers who do the crap jobs though. I try to be very polite to these people, but most of the time, they just look frightened if you talk to them. Plus, many of them don’t speak any English at all, so I’m going to have to have some of the guys in my office help me out, but I think they’ll be okay with it.

So this is it – this is a step I’ve always wanted to take and I’ll be frank with you, I have no idea what’s going to happen. Will I like it after shooting digital for so long? I just don’t know, but the idea of looking down through this box and seeing something like this just gets me very excited about the possibilities of a slide that is nearly 2 1/2 inches square. I’m a nerd.

This is how you compose on the camera - a large viewfinder on the top has a hood around it to keep glare off the image. There's a huge mirror inside the camera body that reflect the image onto the focussing screen. When the shutter release is pressed - the mirror hinges out of the way, just like in any other SLR.

It’s going to take about 10 days to get the camera and I’ve got film flying in as well. After that, it’ll be another month at least before I shoot, process and get scans back. That’s definitely a drawback – the time it takes – but there’s something special and, dare I say, romantic about shooting a camera like this.

“Hey wait,” you think, “I didn’t know I was reading the gay blog.”

And to that I say, shut your mind’s mouth hole. If you haven’t figured out by now that I’m not your typical accountant, outdoorsman, singer, photographer, traveler, writer and programmer, then you may want to find a different blog to read.

Plus, some of my best friends are gay and they read this all the time, so you may want keep your thoughts to yourself as well.

Posted in Mostly Pictures | 3 Comments


Kahliq, one of the nationals working in my office, has been out for a few days and may be gone for a week. When I asked why, his friends told me that he was going home to his village to be with his family. I asked what village he’s from and they told me he was from Bamyan. Bamyan is familiar to me, because at one time, our company had a Remote Training Center (RTC) in the town.

I had heard that the place was beautiful, but I couldn’t not really imagine what they meant by “beautiful” since this country is so different. So I have turned once again to Wikipedia to answer all of my questions. And Wikipedia, I don’t know how you do it, but once again, you have not disappointed.

The Bamyan (sometimes spelled 'Bamian') Valley. The tall gaps in the cliff were home to huge carved statues.

This is a picture of Bamyan. I actually said, “You have got to be kidding me,” when I saw this picture come up on the screen.

I want to go to there.

I have not been to Egypt or seen large-scale statues like this before, but Bamyan is famous for the three colossal carvings of the Buddha in the cliff face visible in this picture. Sadly, in 2001, the Taliban destroyed the representations because, suddenly, after 1,500 years of peaceful coexistence, they thought Allah would be offended by the statues. Really Taliban?! You think Allah doesn’t like these statues? Come on guys, admit it, you were just pissed off because the US had just kicked the crap out of you, and like a thwarted bully, you took it out on Buddha. What did Buddha ever do to you? His quest for enlightenment cramping your style? He was all enlightened and stuff and you kicked him to the curb. Oh well, maybe some other peace-loving monks will come along and do some more carving someday. Not likely Taliban! Not likely. Way to go. Way to blow it for the rest of us.

Sorry. I don’t really care for the Taliban. No offense to their religion, but do they have to tear down the Buddha? Or subjugate women? My concerns aren’t in that order of course, but still, this lifestyle can’t be bringing them much joy.

Back to Bamyan. There are caves all over that cliff – as seen in this photo, and Wikipedia informs me that people still live in them, and there are ancient oil paintings on the walls that have been identified as some of the oldest oil paintings in the world. More recently, some of the people who were hiding from the Taliban in those caves, discovered a huge repository of ancient Buddhist manuscripts and artifacts, and the discovery has been compared to the founding of the Dead Sea scrolls by Christians. Given the Buddhist tendency to deny that anything really exists that is “I” or “mine”, their reaction to this discovery was a subdued, “Mmmm?” sound. To each his own.

A closer view of the now-empty places where statues of the Buddha were located.

The reason there was such a diversity of people and an influx of Buddhists here is because Bamyan is on the ancient silk route from China to the rest of the world. As an ancient city, it was conquered over and over by dynasty after dynasty, and several made Bamyan their capital because of its location and beauty.

See, now I’m angry! Why? Because I’ll never see this place. I can’t go there without the danger of getting shot by some Taliban member. Again, I don’t care for them very much. Have I made that clear? I really do want to visit, and now that I know that I could probably crash at Khaliq’s place, it makes planning a trip a little easier.

Posted in Encyclopedic, yet Mildly Entertaining | 2 Comments


Fair warning – this is a throw-away post. I phoned it in. But one thing that I’ve always felt about writing is that you’ve got to do it every day if you want to get good at it. Obviously, with my use of “get good” in the last sentence, I have many days of writing to go before I write gooder, but I’m stubborn, so here it is. (Wow, is it possible that I’m making it worse?)

Anyway. . . .

The local nationals that work here in the office are really great people to know. It sucks sometimes that I have always to keep in mind that each and every one of them could be bribed, tortured or have their families kidnapped because they are working for us. It also floors me that they get paid in a month what I get paid in a day. That’s the way the world works and the way this mission is financially successful, but in the morning, when they greet me warmly like a brother, I try to do whatever I can to make them understand that not only are they valuable, but they are just as valuable as I am. A few times when I was talking to them and insinuated that they were better at something than I was, they just laughed.

Finally though, several of them have volunteered information about their culture because I’ve been consistent in asking them about things – nearly every day.

I’m not sure how many of my friends have experience in a country where the alphabet is different – so Asia, the Middle East, etc. It’s hard! I want to write about what I hear them saying, but making phonetic representations of what they are saying feels like it’s almost insulting, especially when they start to write in their own alphabet, drawing the forms from right to left and filling up the page with what looks more like artwork. But they are patient with me.

We are starting to train in Visual Basic for Apps and Access Database design. I’ve created both of these things for this program already, and based on the impact those new programs are having, I think I could sit back and relax for the rest of the year. But if I can help any one of these locals to gain some new skills, get a leg up and make a better life for his family . . . . That is what wakes me up in the morning.

When they answer the phone, they say, “Ballae,” emphasis on the hard “B”. Seemed like a stupid question, but I didn’t know what “Ballae” meant. I assumed it meant hello, and it turned out I was right. These guys answer the phone about 30-40 times each day, and I hear them shout “Ballae” all the time. If you call me anytime and I say “Ballae,” just go with it.

Ringtones – oh my the variety around here. The locals have rings that sound like the soundtrack to a movie about belly dancers (currently in production). The Filipinos have rings that are either pop songs or even more entertaining joke-type ones. If you haven’t heard the ringtone with the guy shouting, “HELLO!” you need to find it on-line because it’s annoying to hear it 20 times a day but even then it never gets not-funny. Then there’s the outgoing Christian from Zimbabwe whose ringtones are every track from the first Sonic Flood CD. Takes me back.

So TGIW! Today is the Afghani equivalent of Friday, so there’s a festive atmosphere to enjoy. Nothing like developing vendor tax database queries to get you ready for a wicked weekend!

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When I first flew into Kabul, I noticed something from the air that I couldn’t explain. Driving through the city, I saw it from the ground and I still couldn’t see the reason for what I was looking at.

It’s very common to see large parcels of land enclosed in high brick walls. In the city, the pieces of land are smaller, but the walls tend to be even higher. As I flew to Herat and back, I saw this all over the country. Wherever there were small towns or collections of homes, there were lots of land surrounded by brick walls with absolutely nothing inside. In the desert, it was slightly depressing to see a 20 meter by 20 meter square of dirt and rock carefully surrounded by a well-laid brick wall. I felt sorry for the people tending these empty plots and wondered how they could afford bricks and mortar and the time to build a wall, but couldn’t afford to build a small home or some other structure. Why a wall and nothing else?

You can see the walls built around nothing in the edges of this picture.

At lunch today, I spoke with Khaliq and Ghafoor and asked them about it. They were keen on telling me about some of the other things that are unusual here in Afghanistan, namely the roadside money exchange. There are so many different kinds of money floating around this country. Dollars are everywhere, Afghani’s of course, AED’s from Dubai, Italian (beepity, boopity) money from the ISAF forces, and many others. Apparently, the custom here is to get money changed from one currency to another by walking up to one of the several people that hang out at intersections and ask them if they’ve got change for a twenty. Instead of hawking some sort of goods, they are trying to turn a profit with arbitrage.

I was fascinated by this, wondering how these guys stay safe from people with guns who offer to trade their money for not shooting stuff. But I really wanted to know why people would build walls with nothing in the middle.

After a quick Dari conversation, they let me know that people who build the walls do it because they are staking their claim. That made sense to me and I told them that in the US, we mostly build fences. They told me that fences are not that common because the wall is solid and tells others “this is mine.”

But also, the wall is something they build to indicate that they will build more there someday. A home with a courtyard in the middle may be built there in the next few years. They build the wall as a sign of the future, and what it will be someday.

I’ve been reminded many times to distrust the Afghani people, and for the most part, I try to stay alert with all of the locals. It’s not their fault that there are so many conflicting priorities in this country, and I can imagine that after so many years of scraping to get by, personal integrity takes a back seat to survival. Not to mention that my idea of personal integrity is a concept that may not apply to people of other cultures.

But I have a respect for these people when I see something like acres and acres of walls – skeletal frameworks for the dreams of the poorest of the poor. It makes me think about what it means to hope for the future. I think about the people I know that are too afraid to build a wall around the place of their dreams. I think about myself and how I lack even a tenth of the purpose that these wall builders have, yet have ten thousand times the resources. I think of the focussing power of sectioning off that part of the world that you would tell everyone, “this is mine.”

All of these thoughts are available in my new book, “Build a Freaking Wall Around It!” And you can catch me on my book and motivational speaking tour, coming to your city early in 2012!

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We the people . . .

I’ve been reading the Afghanistan Constitution that was adopted in the last few years. Granted, I don’t think they are adhering to many of the responsibilites that should be accruing to the government, but I found these two articles interesting.

Article 53
The state guarantees the rights and privileges of pensioners and disabled and handicapped individuals and as well renders necessary assistance to needy elders, women without caretakers, and needy orphans in accordance with the law.

Article 54
Family is a fundamental unit of society and is supported by the state.

The state adopts necessary measures to ensure physical and psychological well being of family, especially of child and mother, upbringing of children and the elimination of traditions contrary to the principles of sacred religion of Islam.

I may not know my own consititution very well, but I don’t think there is anything like these two articles in there. That’s the result of a religious-based law system I guess, and I don’t know how much that article 54 would even benefit people if the sacred religion of Islam didn’t protect the rights of women, minorities, etc.

Article 53 is interesting in the way they treat the families of people who were killed in war. There are entire communities set aside where the handicapped and their families are allowed to live, along with the families of those martyred in the war with the Soviet Union.

I’m sure there are no lessons for America to learn from the Afghans, but maybe a look at the practices here might just freshen our perspective on Veteran’s affairs; caring for widows, orphans and the elderly; and child care.

I’m still reading . . .

Posted in Encyclopedic, yet Mildly Entertaining | Comments Off