Extract from The Disaster Tourist (in production)
Dateline: Kabul Afghanistan, the early years of the occupation
This place has become as dull and boring a place as Wa’kaw Saskatchewan, or Ottawa, or any rainy Tuesday morning in Vancouver. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We still have the daily threats, the warnings, the alerts, and the roads are still full of menacing men whose beards are just a touch too long and too ragged for fashion’s taste and who drive Toyota Surf’s with every imaginable chrome gewgaw festooned front and back and of course, fully blacked-out windows.
There is the occasional explosion in the distance at night as some terrorist gets his red and white wires mixed up while working through the do-it-yourself bomb making kit, and most nights you can hear the high off scream of US Air Force jets plunging down on the mountains east of here as they continue the bad guy hunt. So all of that is still here. But the trouble is, it has become normal, routine, unremarkable, and boring.
So, just as a story without a plot, or a sentence without a verb, is meaningless, so too has been any rationale I might have had for writing up a Boy’s Own Thrilling Tale of life in the Hindu Kush amid the Panshirs, surrounded by Pashtuns and Tajiks, menaced by Taliban, and bemused by a military bureaucracy which doesn’t seem to realize that there are real people with guns out there.
The other problem is that as this place becomes more psychologically routine, its reality appears increasingly normal to me. The whole lot of the rest of the world is becoming a rather insubstantial, drifting ghosts in another dimension who may or may not exist.
Metaphysics from Kabul, you say. Well, it goes with the territory. There is something about desert countries that triggers alternate views of reality, I cannot imagine the Quran, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or any of Thesiger’s works ever being conceived of, let alone being written, under the rain showers of the British Columbia coast, surrounded by the flames of a Quebec autumn leaf explosion, or beside the shores of a mountain tarn in the Pallisers. I think deserts, whether here or in the High Arctic, or wherever they may be, are a form of physical meditation. The mind travels to strange realms when freed of visual stimuli and that is what happens in Afghanistan.
If the things that go boom in the night are no longer of interest then what is? The oddest things I assure you. One day last week there was a change in the weekly menu at the Global Guesthouse. The Afghan chef introduced scalloped potatoes instead of roasted potatoes to go with the under cooked fatty-tailed sheep. This resulted in equal amounts of violated conservative values from the ex-pat Brits and exuberance from the liberated food adventurers sick to death of roasted potatoes. The discussion went on for two days and we still haven’t restored peace at the table.
Fatty-Tailed Sheep, imitation scotch made in Pakistan and sold in bottles with misspelled labels, jars of Canadian ketchup (fiery chilli sauce only we five Canadians will touch), and cans of Pringles crushed flat in shipping are the highlights of our diets.
I believe that if we did not have access to the Canadian mess hall at Camp Warehouse we would all have come down with those ugly diseases that only ever seem to exist in the pages of medical textbooks, the books that feature photographs of long annelid creatures deep in the body, ugly flaking skin rashes, weeping sores, and refer the reader to the exhibits in the London School of Tropical Diseases Museum, Restricted Section, Special Admission Required.
The only food I have found here to rival the Canadian food is at Camp Souter, the British Camp just down the road by the airport. Most of the troops are Ghurkhas but the food is cosmic international fine cuisine.
I’ve been told that the British Army used to serve food worse than the Germans, (I shudder at the thought), but over the past few years there has been a deliberate effort to improve the food and morale along with it. I would have thought that when Caesar was a young centurion this would have been an aged adage even then but apparently not and quite a number of nations serve their disgruntled troops crappy food. And at the head of that list have to be the unfortunate Germans and the even more unfortunate Americans whose Meals Ready to Eat, known better by their designation MRE, are out and out dogfood.
At Camp Souter there are always three hot meal choices. Each is displayed behind a Red, Yellow, or Green card. If you want the greasy unhealthy vitamin-less but great tasting choice you take it from the Red. If you have a conscience but cannot quite enter into holy orders about your food you can take the Yellow. And of course for the Vegan, dainty eater, k. d. laing, crowd there is the genetically perfect Green choice. And so it goes through the desserts and other food groups. It is amazingly good food no matter what color group you take it from.
Earlier I talked about increasing security problems in the Kabul area. It is getting a little Wild Westish but nothing like most of the other places I have been. Still, I hate having to drive a vehicle around that has NATO ISAF plates and markings on it because of all the attention it draws. We live downtown and the key to a quiet life when there are guys around who don’t like to shave is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Until recently this was not a problem because we simply removed the plates and stickers and only displayed the plates when we entered a camp.
But a directive has come down from some minion or other of Mars and we are forbidden to drive without the markings.
The answer of course is to get civilian vehicles and that is what is going to happen but it has been a long struggle to get approval, in fact it went right up to the Chief of Staff for ISAF. The COS (that’s mil-talk for the likes of you) is a pretty busy guy who really shouldn’t have to bother himself with the doings of people like us.
Anyway, after much to’ing and fro’ing during which I established that precedents had been set by allowing the Spooks (Intel guys — more mil-talk) to drive civilian vehicles, and allowing the Canadian military to take the plates and markings off their white 4×4’s, he changed his policy.
There has been a delay in delivering the three new vehicles because the Transportation Section forgot to order them. How one could forget an approval that came down from the stratospheric heights of the Chief of Staff is beyond me but when a military bureaucracy decides to be inefficient the absurdities can take your breath away.
So you see? It is all rather mundane these days, one sunny Afghan day drifting into another, the afternoons passing with their parade of wind djinns, the evenings sinking into a sick yellow blaze of sunset through the billows of dust, the dawns starting like jewels then tarnishing as the smoke from cooking fires rises, and the mornings brisk and breathless as the temperatures climb astonishingly from below 0 to above 20 or 25.
If I get around to it I’ll get someone to take my picture as I wear my Massoud Tajik hat and with my djellaba across my face. I look quite menacing if I say so myself. All I need is a midnight black Toyota Surf with four extra hi beam headlights, a truck horn, and an arrogant insistence on the right to pass every car on the road on the wrong side and I will fit right in, talk about being unobtrusive.