Monday, June 28, 2010

Dutch Treat

As you may know, the US Army is not the only national force of NATO's International Security Force (ISAF) operating from Tarin Kowt.

There are also contingents of Afghanis, Australians, Dutch and others. Each living in their respective, somewhat adjoining, compounds; the ultimate in exclusive gated communities with the very best of armed response units.

The Dutch compound is appropriately called "Kamp Holland" although, in addition to the Dutch, also has Australians, Slovakians, etc.

Perhaps it was the speckled desert uniforms, or maybe the accents, or it could have been the numerous, dusty brown tents and the style of the semi-permanent buildings interlaced with hard-packed rocky dirt roads, but when I was visiting Kamp Holland the other day, I kept thinking of the movie "District 9".

Not that I was expecting to see aliens (extraterrestrial ones, I mean) hunched over cans (tins) of cat food, but the vibe I got was more of a town than a military installation.

The reason I was there was to enjoy a congratulatory meal at the Dutch "cafe'" - Echoes - bought for me by my section Warrant Officer for my above 270 score on the recent PT Test; he is real good about recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of his Soldiers - not something all leadership practices.

Echoes is a purposely dimly lit collection of wooden floor rooms inside a large tent where there are several benches, numerous 2/4-seater tables, a couch in front of a decent sized television (tuned to the World Cup), a couple of magazine racks, and bookcases with mostly Dutch paperbacks for trade/borrow.

There are various European/Australian wall hangings and no windows, so it is easy to imagine you are not in a combat zone. Well, except for the military uniforms and people carrying rifles, knives and other weapons. Okay, maybe not so easy, but it is certainly a much different atmosphere than the US Army mess hall (pardon me, "dining facility") and truly a treat to be able to order from a menu with meals singularly prepared versus mass-produced food served from large metal warming trays.

Chief and I placed our order at the counter; I got the chicken schnitzel with mushroom gravy, a side salad and french fries (chips), and he had something similar. Our number was called and we picked-up our actual ceramic plates, not a cardboard TV-dinner-like tray, and plastic flatware along with 20 or so ketchup packets. Chief mixed in mayo with his ketchup for his fries, but I wasn't sure if this was his usual habit or just staying with the quasi-European motif.

The food itself was not really a culinary spectacle, but the whole experience was a nice break from the norm and we had a nice chat for a while before Chief got a call on his mobile reminding him of an obligation he needed to attend so we mopped up the last of our ketchup (and mayo), bussed our dishes and headed "home".

All in all, it was a very nice break from the day-to-day-to-day-etc. routine and something I will try to do every couple of weeks. Of course, I will have to buy my own meal next time, so it will be in all ways a Dutch Treat.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

(Sand) Flea Market

If you Google the word origin of ‘bizarre’, you will find a general consensus of it deriving from the Italian ‘bizzarro’, which meant ‘angry’. Reportedly, it then migrated to Spanish as ‘bizarro’, meaning ‘brave’, and then found its way into French, where its meaning gradually mutated from ‘brave’ to ‘odd’ – and then, as with many other French words, was implemented into English.

I don’t know why, but I always thought the word ‘bizarre’ likely came from Crusaders being exposed to the wide variety of theretofore never seen animals, foods, and goods at Holy Land bazaars. It seems to me a knight converting the noun of 'bazaar' to the adjective 'bizarre' after witnessing such strange oddities would be a much more reasonable genesis than the angry-brave-odd path. But, I am sure there are etymological, historical, and cultural challenges to my hypothesis.

Bazaars are very much a part of the Afghani culture and there is one held here at TK from around 10:00 in the morning until 2ish in the afternoon each Sunday.

Like its American cousin, the flea market, the bazaar has regular vendors who have the same type of goods each week with an established area where they set-up shop by laying out their items on a blanket or rug, and there are vendors who seem to show-up whenever they have acquired enough varied items to display in whatever free space is available.

As you will see from the picture, the available space is full of a variety of items ranging from hookahs, to bootleg DVDs and all sort of random electronics, to rugs (lauded as hand-made), to precious and semi-precious stones.

Lapis lazuli was just another word from my readings of Greek mythologies and the Bible, but here, the speckled semi-precious stone is abundant in both raw and shaped form although the dealers, unlike with other items, are only willing to negotiate to a certain degree.

Haggling seems to be acceptable and somewhat expected (although the dealers are quick to consummate a deal with those who agree to the first asking price) with all sales final and paid in cash – US Dollars being the currency used by all the America, Dutch, Australian, etc. shoppers.

While a very small number of the shoppers are female, all of the vendors are male. Mostly young men in their 20’s with a scattering of boys who look they are around 8 to 10ish and are not shy at all in hawking their goods in a bit of an aggressive manner, but with shining eyes and smiles so it is easy to forgive their forwardness.

No female vendors, nor any vendors at all of food. I have heard the bazaars at other bases have kebab stands, gyro booths, and other edibles, but, for some reason, absent from the TK market.

So, being the curious fellow I am, I began wondering about the market value of, say, a jar of peanut butter. Or, how about a bag of beef jerky? Perhaps a pack or two of Big Red.

Not that I would look to become a vendor or violate any contraband regulations, but I am curious; perhaps there is a bartering and cultural exchange opportunity at the sand flea market.

When I am Able

Thank you to all who read my posts and a double-helping to those who have followed the link and sent care packages; they are very much appreciated. If you do send a letter or package, please let me know if it is alright to thank you by name in this forum.

My goal is to post a note at least once a week, typically on Sunday, but due to sporadic internet connectivity and other issues which interrupt service, it may be more than a week between posts. Such as this past week.

If you are not a follower, please check back regularly and I promise I will post when I am able.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

PT - Good for you, good for me

All the US Armed Forces regularly asses the physical fitness of their members with a physical training (PT) test conducted on at least an annual, if not semi-annual, or quarterly, basis. Each of the services’ PT test is different from the others and reflects their respective traditions and standards.

For example, the Marines have three events consisting of pull-ups, abdominal crunches, and a three-mile timed run; the Army’s three events are push-ups, sit-ups, and a timed two-mile run; and the Air Force’s are TiVo programming, popcorn microwaving, and napping.*

In the Army, the passing score in each category for Soldiers is 60 points. As you will note by following the above links to the respective standards, the number of points earned in each event is based upon a sliding scale taking into account the Soldier’s respective sex and age – this recognizes the physiological differences between males and females as well as the impact of aging.

When I was a 19 or 20-something year old stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, I regularly maxed out on the two-mile run with times under 13-minutes, and on a few occasions, under 12-minutes. I distinctly remember teasing and taunting some of the older soldiers about how the sliding scale allowed them minutes more time to achieve a passing, let alone a maxing, score. The response was invariably something along the lines of, “Just you wait until reach my age – if you live that long.”

Well, the see-saw as tipped to the other side and find myself a wee bit grateful that being in the 42-46 year old category meant that when we took our record PT test this week, I only needed 30 push-ups to achieve the passing score of 60 points – although I still cranked out a count of 60-some repetitions (some were not counted when my form was less than perfect) for a near max score.

On the run, my age scored me almost 100 points, but I also smoked everyone in my section, except for one Soldier who is 17-years younger than me (my roommate!), with a time of 14:18.

Considering the physical condition I was in just a year ago, I was quite pleased to see these results of my PT efforts.

In any case, I could not help but laugh to myself at the poetic justice when some of those smoked disgruntled younger soldiers made comments that the only reason I got the second highest total PT score in our section was my age – it was like hearing myself echoing down through the years.

Now, at 44 years old, I am glad I came back into the Army to appreciate how my perspective has changed, but also to see how PT is still good for you, and good for me.

*Just teasing.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Island

The other day I was reading a book and came across the phrase “an island is a world of its own.” The book touched on the idea of the island people, while in communication with the mainland, lived following the island’s unique internal patterns.

Meaning that because of its isolation, the islander is somewhat disconnected from the sway of the outer world; behavior and attitudes on the island having a different paradigm being much more internally focused.

This internal focus, and being in the closed environment of the island, can sometimes allow minor irritants to grow out of proportion, causing a person to stress over matters which would not be an issue if they were in the more open world of the mainland.

It should be no surprise that here at TK, this island in the archipelago of the Afghanistan mountains, it can be challenging to communicate with mainlanders about frustrations unique to our deployed life here without sounding unduly downbeat and for the mainlanders, it can be difficult to understand and appreciate our islander viewpoint.

To those mainlanders out there, please be patient with your islander if their communications are sometimes seemingly negative. Like it might say on the side mirror of your car, “things are closer than they appear” - it is all a matter of perspective.

To those with me here at TK, aim to remain positive in thoughts, attitude, and communications. Keep in mind our time, and sometimes our perspective, is limited here on the island.