John Patten
Photos from Afghanistan

    I finally got both the Afghan and Turkmenistan visas, the latter in case we have to evacuate through
    there. The “embassy” was interesting in the sense that the small room looked strangely like the bedroom
    of three thin sentries, whose job it must have been to guard something that I really don’t want anyway.
    The large ham-fisted official sat in front of a hanging portrait of one large ham-fisted President or
    another (his folded hands looked bigger than his head, maybe a trait valued in Turkmen Presidents. Not
    unlike our valuing hair and height in our Presidents. I knew Tsongas would never get elected, despite
    being a really likable fellow). After he stamped the book I thought he was going to say, “I slap you now for
    no reason.”


    My job is absolutely nuts right now. I had no orientation here and there are so many questions to ask.
    The person that wrote the nutrition surveillance proposal who was supposed to be here to discuss with
    the UN, WFP, and NGO teams is not until next month, and I’m kind of flying blind trying to represent the
    organization at regional and national level meetings. Plus my sat-phone email and computer of course
    does not work. I’m not afraid at all of computers or the technology revolution, but everything above
    typewriter level seems to have barely concealed contempt for me. It’s very interesting to see all the
    problems with humanitarians that we discussed in my Masters program actually applied in my daily life
    now. Everyone runs around like chickens 7 days a week all day and night long, but I don’t think it’s any
    more fruitful than if I had cocktail hour every day, got a full night’s sleep and had weekends off to chat
    with people in the market. They have endless meetings but nobody seems to know what anyone is
    talking about or really doing, and I wonder if they ever even notice a local person. Isn’t that why we are
    supposed to be here in the first place? I know a lot of us really want to do things that mean something,
    but I hope we are here with a sense of service first. Until people can somehow communicate
    telepathically to really know their thoughts, I think we’re in for a few more decades of nobody
    understanding each other. I won’t hold my breath though. They led me to believe back in the 60s we’d all
    be driving air cars now and vacationing on the moon.

    I thought maybe I should sit down and pray to God, but honestly I got sidetracked and put on a Meatloaf
    album from ‘77 instead (“Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” can turn anybody right around. Ain’t no
    doubt about it we were doubly blessed, because we were barely 17 and we were barely dressed). It’s a
    good thing the Taliban are gone because I don’t think they would have understood 70s rock album art. I’
    m glad I’m here because I don’t understand the 2002 boy band concept. I also don’t have to listen to
    people screaming on the TV. I haven’t had a beer in a month and I think it’s playing tricks with my mind. It’
    s kind of like having Dennis Hopper in your head going, “Wow, this is trippy man.” Although, it’s not the
    same as a nice pint of Guinness.


    I found out this laptop can play a DVD when the battery gets charged, and fortunately there are 2-dollar
    bootleg copies in the marketplace. The upside is that they seem slightly better than the VHS copies at my
    friend’s house in Malawi, where a shadow would stand up to go get popcorn at a critical moment; the
    downside is that there is a lot of Sylvester Stallone stuff. The fact that he is not getting a five-dollar cut
    on each disc to put gold faucets in his Miami estate bothers me none in the least. But I can’t believe this
    opulence. I still have 8-tracks at home. I had hoped to read more here, but a new problem is how to get
    over my 4-dollar a day DVD habit. The Indian movies from Bollywood are awful in any language and
    almost always exactly the same. Maybe that’s how they view our Hollywood tripe. But if I want epic
    costume dance numbers in the middle of my military and political intrigue, kidnapping, romance, chase
    and murder mystery movies, they should at least put it on the box. Even the damn general was singing
    and shaking it right after special ops. Why didn’t they just make it complete and put in a monster and a
    maudlin teenage coming of age first kiss? If I were the director I would have put in one lingering 10-
    second shot of the kitchen sink just for effect. Just like that commercial back home, I kept waiting for the
    actors to pause in mid-number and say, “This movie is terrible. Why don’t you go read?”

    The streets are crowded with every type of transport: push carts, pull carts, mules, donkey carts, people
    pulling large heavily loaded donkey carts (donkey not included), horse drawn carts, horses (I thought I
    saw Genghis Khan and his band of merry men), taxis, taxis with a family in the trunk and others standing
    on the bumper, three-wheeled taxis, cars, camels, big trucks, little trucks, 18-wheelers, vans and cars
    piled high with people on the roof, and of course walking, although absolutely nobody looks before going
    into the streets. It’s like the live version of frogger. It is absolute chaos, although there is usually an
    officer on a small podium in the roundabouts blowing his whistle seemingly at the people not driving
    crazy, because after all they are really slowing things down. I’ve been here a week and still don’t know
    what side of the road Afghanistan drives on. The streets are cover in mud, water, dung, dust and haze
    when it’s dry, and pigeons that could kick pigeon ass in lower Manhattan. Actually, I’m kidding about that
    part. The pigeons are all the white peace dove type and look a bit out of place. They look like all of the
    doves released in so many Olympiad opening ceremonies. Maybe it was disorienting for them and they
    all flew here.

    I’m supposed to be coordinating the nutrition surveillance project, but now the big boss (what an ugly
    word!) is gone for awhile, and I’m the ex-pat based in Mazar-i-Sharif, so now I seem to be the security
    person and the person people go to with other issues. There really should be a program manager and
    logistics person here if they plan on this being a viable office. A lot of my time is spent having other non-
    related meetings in which I don’t have any information to contribute, or asking why someone unplugged
    my laptop to let the battery bleed dry now that the generator is broken. I’m sure staff will come out next
    month wondering why things have not moved yet on the nutrition project. Since the useful information in
    meetings is in the form of 30-second sound-bites in the hallway while people are on the way to some
    other meeting, I should be able to cover that time-span. I’m sure I’ll eventually be happy with my job and
    life here, although I could have been kicking lime footballs through Corona bottle goalposts somewhere
    in Belize.

    The hand-held radio communication is both hilarious and ridiculous. Everyone talks in military speak: this
    is Mike-Foxtrot-Alpha to Mike-Zulu-Bravo-Sierra, etc. It sounds like every afternoon playing outside when
    I was in the fourth grade, only without the kindling wood guns that say pow-pow. Everyone’s designation
    is almost exactly the same except for the last number, and people mostly repeat call signs in the
    confusion and can’t get the radios to work properly. I’ve never actually heard anyone talk about anything.
    I don’t think it’s any more secure than if they just said “Hey Phil, this is Bob, are you there?” Do you think
    that soft, paunchy humanitarians are going to outsmart Mujahadeen commandos that have twenty years
    experience in the trenches? They probably had the same list of code names the same day we all did.
    The guys circling overhead in the AWACS planes must be laughing their ass off. One guy called me on
    the telephone and kept saying “over” when it was my turn to talk. Are you serious? Maybe I’ll start
    answering the phone “yello!” because that’s pretty annoying. I also plan to walk around in the
    summertime saying “how about this heat?” I want to get on the radio and declare an emergency just so
    they’ll all go home and I can get some sleep. If there’s civil breakdown I’ll just stay home and watch the
    latest DVD offering from Oriom Pictures.

    There are photo opportunities at every turn here. The kids are really cute and have gotten back to
    playing. The Afghans are very good about letting their kids be kids and the children are the first to get
    fed, unlike other crisis areas. Now there are always five or six kites flying in the sky at any one time
    everywhere you look. But it’s really rude to take out the camera and start snapping away, so I don’t have
    any pictures yet. One foreign disaster tourist who is here ostensibly to do an education project was
    snapping away photos in the pediatric ward (?) at the central hospital, right in the mother’s faces, without
    so much as asking. I wanted to slap him. But he’ll have nice adventure stories to try to pick up chicks with
    in the lounge back in Indianapolis (it happens). I wouldn’t want my picture taken without permission, let
    alone while I’m sick in bed with another family that is sick at the other end of the bed (seriously). Some
    beds have four unrelated children and mothers in the same bed, not always with the same disease.
    There are no resources or medicines to treat them anyway. The lights are always out and in the dark
    hallways water runs over the cement floor. The central hospital is pretty rough. Everybody including the
    doctors latched onto me like there was something I could do about the whole mess, and I had nothing I
    could tell them, so it’s difficult. Things can’t just be donated however, because they will not go to what is
    intended. That is directly from the various staff here.

    I’m still trying to get used to the English here, and by that I mean the Afghani English, Pakistani English,
    Continental English, Bangladeshi English, the French (insert gravelly Krusty the Clown voiceover, “uuh,
    the Frogs!” One guy looked and sounded like what Napoleon’s nephew might in another life, and while
    attempting to explain food security linkages I thought he might try to put down the royalists and storm the
    Bastille). I speak better African English, as it has been very good to have been seeing you today.
    Someone on the satellite phone trying to tell you to press control-alt-delete sounds vaguely like console
    RL, a piece of equipment I could not find, so things are moving slowly. The English translations on
    products in the market don’t always correspond in the language, just like in Africa, Japan, and other
    places. I half expect to find candy in the marketplace called “Suck This.” My Dari is no better though. I’m
    afraid I’ll try to say, “Please pass the salt,” and it will come out, “For God’s sake man! There are women
    and children down here!”

    There are not many Americans here currently, and the ones that are make the other European NGOs
    look at me like it’s my fault. Even the Canadians give me a hard time, despite that I can name all the
    provinces, including Nunavut now, and their Prime Minister, Cretin (kidding). There are lessons to be
    learned if practically everyone says, “Oh, you’re American” with an equivocal face. A guy from
    Czechoslovakia looked at me today like he’s heard stories of us but never actually saw one in person.
    You’re welcome for being on the front line of “why we’re not actually that bad.” Although they did have
    Jerry Springer on TV in Pakistan and I almost lost my salad. The guy that came to clean the hotel room
    said, “Oh, that’s your country?” What the hell am I supposed to say to that?

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