Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

Corn Flakes, CNN, beer but no plans

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A four-layer security sandwich separates me from the bleached blue sky out my window. The innermost layer is an ill-fitting screen that allows the mosquitoes to squeeze in, then a rickety sliding door of reflective smoked glass that casts my room in shades of state trooper brown and Martian red, then a

The view from my room

The view from my room - larger photos can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/johnwendle/ThePalace#

soldered steel gate of shoebox-sized rectangles and finally a blast grill of 1/8 inch thick steel fencing welded to the outside of my balcony protect me from the outside.

Not that it is that exciting. Probably we need it. This is the kind of place where people routinely die from the cliché of “the wrong place at the wrong time.” The layers do not block out the regular sounds of exploding IEDs and sporadic gunfire, or the call to prayer from the mosque outside our walls.

By contrast, the inside of the compound, known by its nickname “The Palace,” is green with grass and dotted with the bright flowers that thrive in the 100 degree heat. The pink and beige walls reflect the sun and the sandbags absorb it.

My room

My room - yes, that's real faux-marble flooring

Allow your neck to crane back slightly and your sight is immediately arrested by Hescos, barbed wire and the guard towers that are planted in every corner.
I daydream about passing through all those layers, climbing on top of the balcony railing and jumping onto the thick mud roof of the patio below me, then climbing up the sloppily built brick wall topped with barbed wire and slipping into the dusty streets of Lashkar Gah.

The Palace has been rented by many different foreign development NGOs for nearly a decade now. According to early stories, walking in the streets wasn’t always a daydream. According to stories in

The sandwich

The sandwich

the Washington Post and a book called “Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier,” aid workers used to be able to walk in the market and on the streets.

It’s different now. The security sandwich is in. The security contractors are paid to do their security assessments, report that the situation is dangerous and are hired to protect the NGOs’ compounds. But who knows. Wrong place, wrong time.

Instead we live and work inside our compound here in Lashkar Gah. Mostly we work.

The Palace

The Palace - my window in the upper right

The day starts at 7:30. Breakfast is served from 7 to 8. Lunch is from 12 to 1. Dinner is from 5.30 to 6.30. In reality, most people eat in about a half hour and go back to their office or their rooms. There are only 12 foreigners working here. When there are more, people talk more in the dining room – generally the only place where any kind of social life takes place.

Conversation generally revolves around just a few subjects. The men, and it is all men here, all over 40 except for me and one other guy, talk about work. Or they bitch about the Afghan staff and the local government. The other favorite subject is to tell funny or ribald stories about places

The wire

The wire

they’ve been. The amazingly clean beaches of Mozambique. The whorehouses of Thailand. Puking up worms drunk from a Bolivian beer. Shitting their pants on airplanes. Chopping the heads off king cobras. The guys talk about their families. Sometimes there is a lot of talk. Sometimes, when the food is good, there is no talk at all.

The courtyard

The courtyard

And the food can be fantastic. Our Afghan cook and his staff have prepared meals for the foreign clients that have passed through for years. The menu ranges from hamburgers and French fries, to amazing chicken soups, to curries, to Thai shrimp to fried chicken to kebabs. Always there are fresh salads. They bake their own loaves because there is only round and canoe-shaped flatbread here. As any Marine knows, good food is good for morale. It helps us to stop thinking of the security sandwich that presses in from all sides.

The pantry is well stocked in modern expeditionary style. Peanut butter, milk and juice from Pakistan. Cookies, Coka-Cola and Marinda imported from Saudi Arabia. Nothing from Iran. As you’d expect in a house full of men, the refrigerator is stocked with 25 kinds of sauces from Heinz ketchup and French mustard to blue cheese salad dressing, Hershey’s syrup, relish and salsa.

The main gate

The main gate

It would be enough to make KBR proud. I’m not used to the mountains of Pringles and am blown away by the assortment of breakfast cereals: Rice Crispies, Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes and lots of

The chakidar for the main gate

The chakidar for the main gate

bran. After living on little money for a couple of years in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, the onslaught of American plenty still shocks.

If you want, your bedroom is swept, your bed made and your bathroom cleaned by a two man Afghan cleaning crew. Because we only have Friday off for the weekend, the week always seems to be Monday, Monday, Monday, Friday, Sunday, Monday, Monday. “Friday,” actually Thursday, the foreign staff usually is served grilled chicken or lamb or burgers and sausage and eats in the grassy, shady garden. Crickets trill and in the dark, gigantic basil plants fill the air with their smell as we sit around big tables joking in a manly way, talking about helicopters, IEDs and guns and talking about work, a lot of the time, strangely, in a self-glorifying way, even among people who do the same job.

The garden

The garden

The $100-a-case beers flown in from Kabul in people’s backpacks, the talk, the locally made clear “whisky,” the barbeques, the food, the cleaning staff, the soft beds and the constant, ever-present hum of three-ton generators, the air conditioning and the constant high water pressure and perfect hot and cold showers are all designed and meant to compensate us for the one thing we can’t do. Go out. Except for work there is never any point in making a plan for the “weekend.”

A guard tower

A guard tower

Maybe this is what people in prison feel like. It’s not exactly that you lose your freedom of movement that is so ruining, its that you lose any reason to imagine about your near future in any concrete way. A prisoner of the bombs, the walls, the breakfast cereals, the wrong place, but most of all a prisoner of the future.

All photos can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/johnwendle/ThePalace#

All opinions and stories in this blog are my own and do not represent the view point or policies of my employer. None of the written material or photos in this blog may be quoted or used elsewhere.

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Written by johnwendle

October 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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