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Tuesday
Feb132007

Baavar nakardani-st!

It's about 11pm on Tuesday, and yes, I'm in the office. In between slogging through a report about the disappointingly un-corrupt copper industry, I edited an awesome paper that Lorenzo wrote. It was a study of corruption in relief efforts in the Maslakh camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Herat. The findings were both fascinating and shocking. The camp (which at its height had 180k people, was quickly taken over by it's own mafia, mafia in the form of local NGOs, and the traditional mafia of Herat. Donors engaged in things the like providing educational services because they look good but were at cross purposes with the nature of the camp, which is to get people resettled eventually. People would go back to their own villages and have no access to education, school materials were usually diverted for profit, and educated refugees were deterred from teaching so that the Herati network would rent out the positions to its own people. "Block leaders" in the camp would keep certain children malnurished so that they could rent them out to families so that they could get more rations. The purpose behind them getting more rations of course was that the block leader would retake yet more supplies so that he could redistribute them for profit and patronage. In an especially ironic result of illiteracy mixed with profiteering, people decided to scam the vaccination programme just like they had the food. The outcome was that NGOs actually had to run anti-vaccination campaign because people were getting sick as a result of over vaccinating themselves.

Next amusing story. Yesterday I get an email from Tilly (Nathan's boss at Counterpart) asking me to translate a letter one of their servants had received. The letter is from the German government printed on official stationary (yes, they have one format that they use for everything) in annoying unbelievable pretentious formal German (again, the norm). The letter is clearing addressed to this person (yes, they got an exact address in Kabul). It is a letter informing her that she has received a temporary German driver's licence enclosed and that she should proceed to the German consulate in a week with a passport photo and pick up her official copy. Now this person has never been to German, speaks no German, and moreover does not know how to drive. It couldn't be a scam--who would make money if she goes to the consulate? Also a German driver's licence costs thousands of dollars and entails many hours of training and a four hour driving test. It is the only country in Europe where I cannot drive with my American licence. Hilarious on so many levels.

The other good news is that we have acquired a new cook for the evenings. None other than the amazing Matin who until just this week cooked for Ali Azimi (Waise's father, who is leaving Afghanistan). We're splitting him between me, Lorenzo, Khwaga (we are all usually in the office here anyway) and Jerome. This guy is a true artiste, and makes the best Afghan and Iranian food I've ever tasted.

Monday
Jan292007

Foods I Don't Like!

As usual I'm lazy and the last month has been at turns eventful and uneventful. I got to meet with the warlord from Kunar province, Malik Zarin, who had some clever proposals about reigning in the illegal timber industry. My copper project is progressing too and I really feel like I'm starting to know how to do things.

One of the latest challenges I've been facing is developing a questionnaire aimed at a report we're going to do on perceptions of NGOs. It's shot through with holes and I'm going to go over to Counterpart and work with Sahar on Wednesday, it turns out they're facing similar problems. It is fun doing the questionnaire in Farsi though.

I have also adjusted to the altitude here, especially as it concerns my ability to take in alcohol. I've been able to get properly drunk a few times here and I had a nice evening drinking with Nathan, Sahar, and Marina at the Gandomack last night.

And yes, I have discovered here that there are a lot of foods which can be just plain nasty. Chief amongst them are the feet of any hooved animal and kidneys. Cows' feet are nothing but pure rubbery gelatin cooked in an especially nasty gravy which rather hard chickpeas which give you the notion of chewing on bits of bone. Kidneys taste like warm, soft, metal. No furthern description necessary.

The last cool thing that comes to mind at the moment is Ashura. I've never been in a place where the Shiis really come out of the closet and celebrate but here you see all the black banners with red lettering lamenting Yazid's victory of Husayn at Karbala in Iraq. People even attach the banners to cars, which I think is bold given that Shiis are only 20% of the population. And you can see the results of the increasing anti-Shiism on the part of Sunnis. They say utterly stupid things and show a profound lack of understanding. It seems as if the ascension of Shiis in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran itself are bit too much for some people to bear.

Saturday
Jan062007

Hindustan Ki Masti

My week-long vacation in India was frankly awesome. It was amazing how smoothly the whole thing went; God was definitely on our side.

To start out with keep in mind the number of miracles, which it took for us to get out of Kabul in the first place. We had to get to the airport, the airport and its employees and parts had to be functional, the weather had to cooperate, and the plane had to come. Traffic getting to the airport was an absolute nightmare. Every road was packed as millions of people flooded into the city for their holiday shopping (for Eid-e Qorban, that's Id al-Adha to you Arabs and Passover to the rest of you--along with cars the roads were clogged with sheep for slaughter). It took nearly 1.5 hours to get to the airport. Then there was the problem of electricity at the airport. Out airline, Indian Airways, was all fancy and dependent on computers and such, so of course they had to wait till the power came back to process customers (Kam Air, the Afghan airline, had no such problem, as they seem to issue mud-tablet boarding passes with cuneiform). And finally the airlplane did actually take off.

The transfer to our Bangalore flight in Delhi was as normal as could be, meaning chaotic. I should interject here that we're not talking about long flights, the Kabul-Delhi one is 1:40 and Delhi-B'lore is 2:05. The Delhi airport is a great achievement in failed socialist planning. The airport was not intended for expansion, with the result being that most passengers are ferried by bus to their plane far out on the tarmac. The airport only has about 10 gates proper and no real procedure to international transfer. This means that you can't check your luggage through. According to Nathan, a group of people sit around confused in the passport control room, knowing that they can't go through customs--an official eventually takes a herd of people through a door and sits the down in the departures lounges, then they herd you around to get your luggage and connecting boarding pass (both of which are on the other side of customs). For we simply had to get to the domestic terminal. Of course this is not in the same building. It is in two rather small buildings some kilometres away. In other words the transfer involves getting to sit in traffic on the N8 freeway for a while. The airport does kindly provide shuttles, but they only leave once an hour so they are hardly useful if your transfer time has been squeezed down to about 50 minutes.

We did get into Bangalore around 10.30 in the evening though and had no trouble finding a room at the place I stayed at this summer, right in the middle of downtown on Brigade Road. It's nice to be in a normal country without the NGO price-bubble. A fine room can be had for only about USD 30 per night--a self catered meal for three from an Andhra restaurant cost Rs 250 altogether-the same amount would buy a crappy vegitarian dish in Afghanistan. Bangalore has little history and like most cities in India is relatively new, at least in relation to those in America. That's fine though--I'm generally bored by historical sight because they only amount to things and drawn rather to commercial culture. And Bangalore has great shopping.

The next day we (me and Nathan) managed to find Neda, hit up several malls, and then close down a bar. The weather was also perfect, warm and dry. This with some of the world's restaurants makes me so thankful I'm not in a place like Europe. After the bar had closed Nathan managed to fulfill his grand desire to play beer pong. All the while we were debriefed by Neda who is trying to sell to a friend of hers at Columbia, Vivian, who seems eligible on all counts. The day after that involved more shopping!

Finally we went over to Livio's place (Lorenzo's brother) in Indiranagar. It was a beautiful three-story place with a lovely roof deck. Livio works in Bangalore as an architect, which is pretty cool considering all the opportunities it offers given the construction everywhere. Saurabh and Lorenzo were both there from Kabul and we all went to a great Mughlai restaurant (it's called Tandoor if any of you come through there). Finally the next day was the big new years party. We all brought the year in in style with non-veg catering and lots of booze. It was a real mix of people, with all the Indians being especially impressive in that they were intelligent and articulate--not to mention that they all have beautiful accents which make you feel stupid. The only slight drawback was that me and Saurabh had not taken control of the music and hence the selection was below par. Nathan disappeared on the roof with a girl named Leila (from Tunesia, but living in Dubai!) where they "made friends". Meanwhile me and a girl from Nellore were totally loaded and sang (and tried to sing) old Telugu and Hindi songs.

Alas, due to our limited timeframe we did have to leave the party at a reasonnable hour. We decided to get our beach time in in Mahabalipuram, a town about 40 km south of Chennai (Madras) which is famous for its stunning temples and rock carvings. We didn't really have time to take the train, so I hired a driver who was to come on the morning of the 1st. Meaning that at least I had to get some sleep so as not to miss the drive. One thing I learned is that the roads are quite decent, well marked, and well paved, so it would be a lot more fun to rent a car in India--especially in the south. Of course car rental is kinda a new concept in a place where it's cheaper to hire someone to do almost anything than to do it yourself.

The drive was indeed beautiful, Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state of which Madras is the capital, was really like a foreign country. It's flat and interspersed by the occasional huge mountain. The saris were amazing too. Tamilian saris get truly bright and and out of control which colour schemes unheard of anywhere else. Plus, like anywhere in India, the sheer variety of styles is amazing. I guess it's like looking into the future but in fashion. When you see the tremendous diversity of India, you understand where the South Asian pop-culture juggernauth gets its power from. There's an amount of strength, diversity, and plurality there that Western countries can only dream of if they're willing to open they're doors fully to immigration.

In Mahabalipuram we made for the nicest resort we could find an crashed there for two nights. The temperature was perfect--about 30 during the day and 25 at night, all the while with a nice breeze coming off the Bay of Bengal. Yep, we just veged.

On the way back we stopped for some awesome chicken manchuri and a "Kerala Chicken Fry" that rocked Nathan's world and redefined what the chicken nugget should be. It was excellent chicken breaded and fried in tandoori masala with spring onions and cilantro. Awesome. That night it was back to Livio's house to hang out with them and Saurabh until it was time to leave for the airport. Amazingly there were no difficulties in returning to Kabul either. So all in all it was a pretty stunning trip.

Of course I came back to be suprised by -25 night and the realisation that my water tank will be frozen for the near future, but that is another adventure!