Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Five Million Things I'll Never Take for Granted Again

1) Sewage systems

I know. That's not really something that most people think about or thank God for. I didn't either, until I moved to Afghanistan. The sewers here are open trenches on the sides of the street. You step over them, walk past them, hopefully don't step in them. You smell them constantly, especially when someone comes in to clean them out and dig them up, releasing the well-composted, ripe piles from below. It makes me regret all the times I rolled my eyes because my apartment toilet was clogged; I wonder what percentage of the world doesn't have that luxury?

This post is not five million items long, I promise. But since I've been here, I've started noticing things every day and realizing just how much I've always taken them for granted. This is not a pity-post; some of these things cause minor annoyances, but most of them just remind me how lucky I am and how seldom I stop to remember that. I hope these photos make you think as much as they did me.

2)Paved Roads

Driving to work sometimes feels like an adventure park ride, and not always in a good way. A lot of roads are unpaved, full of craters and mud and slopes. Add the random concrete blocks in the middle of the road and the drivers who drive on the wrong side of the street, and you can see why our office car has been in at least five accidents since I've been here.

3) Electricity

There was a week last month when we had electricity at home for a total of about twenty minutes in five days. It went off last night while I was washing dishes and had soap suds up to my elbows, and it never fails to die either right before or in the middle of a Skype call home. I'm not going to try to pretend I enjoy it- although I actually prefer nights talking by the wood stove to nights crowded around the tv- but it definitely makes me appreciate electricity when we have it. And on those cold winter nights, when my taxi drives past a pile of rags that is a mother and her little girl sleeping in a doorway, it makes me feel guilty for even the inconsistent electricity we have.

4) Clean drinking water

In the time that I've been here, I've heard so much advice about how to keep from getting sick from the water. Only drink water from bottles. Soak your vegetables in chlorine, or cut off all the skins. Test your eggs- if they float, don't eat them. I was even told I shouldn't sing in the shower, because I might swallow water accidentally! I don't always obey or even know all the guidelines for 'healthy living.' In my house, it's not something my host family or I worry about, and luckily, it hasn't affected me much. It makes me wonder, though. Do us Westerners just have weak stomachs? If the water is so bad, why are all my Afghan friends able to drink it? Will my exposure here make me more immune or cause problems in the future? And if it causes problems for me, what long-term impact does it have on those who have been drinking it their whole lives?

5) Toilet paper
I was reading a book in the Iron Druid series (Kevin Hearne) the other day, and he said that one of the greatest inventions of our world is toilet paper. After living for four months in a country that uses water to clean up as often as tp, I gotta admit, I agree. All those times when public restrooms have squat toilets and no paper, when all that's available is scratchy pink stuff the consistency of cheap paper towels...yup, I will never again take toilet paper for granted.

6) Clean streets

7) Ovens

I've mentioned before that most Afghan homes don't seem to have ovens. Partly because their diet doesn't need it; stovetop meals of fried vegetables, rice, fried or boiled meat, or naan are the norm. Partly because ovens suck up electricity like crazy, and electricity is scarce. But for a girl who has burned just about every stovetop meal she has ever made, the lack of an oven is, well, an adjustment. My host siblings don't think much of my cooking skills, and since we have no oven to stand in my defense... At least the wood stove makes decent cookies!

8) Chocolate chips

I know. Hardly seem to have a place among all these big things, but sometimes you need those luxuries. There's nothing like waking up to the sound of mice chewing through the precious bags of chocolate chips that your friend brought all the way from Dubai. Between that and ovens, I'm having trouble getting my chocolate fix!

9) Nature

I never knew what a farm girl I was until I moved to the city. I spend 95% of my time indoors, since there aren't exactly options for going hiking or running. I'm allowed to walk certain places, but with dusk here by 5, those opportunities are limited. The sun goes down just as early at home, but there, it's safe to bike home at night or go snowboarding on weekends. Here, the mountains taunt me with their unattainable fresh powder. And even when I do get outside, I'm surrounded by reminders; leaning against the garden wall after lunch the other day, I had to watch my head so it didn't catch on the barbed wire.

10) Exercise

For about the last nine years, I've worked out on average six days a week, playing different sports, going running, dancing. In Afghanistan, exercise isn't something that most people spend brain cells on, women especially. You don't see joggers on the streets, and I'm quite curious what would happen if a girl walked into one of the men-only gyms. I've connected with a dance studio here and played soccer once, but it's awfully hard to motivate myself when exercising consists of running circles around my 10 by 12 foot bedroom. Exercise opportunities have always just been available for me, and I think that when I do have those opportunities consistently again, I will appreciate then more than ever.

11) Independence
I'm gonna run out and buy bread. I feel like going for a bike ride. I need some air. It's been years since I had to clear these kinds of little outings with anyone, or even tell others where I was going. Here, I can't go anywhere without getting permission. I can't walk most places by myself, and if I want to walk, I have to ask ahead of time, text when I leave, and text when I arrive. If I want to go somewhere using the office car or even going with a friend, there are so many factors involved. These changes mean I'm a lot less active, a lot less social, and a lot less in control of my own day. For someone who has grown so accustomed to that independence, it's been an adjustment, to say the least.

Still, compared to other expats here, and even compared to many Afghans, I have a lot of freedom. I walked to a dance class a few weeks ago, and when I mentioned that I'd walked, my friend looked so wistful. She said that concept doesn't even exist in her world anymore. Afghans, too, are restricted by lack of transportation, especially at night. Women rarely walk alone, and going out for evening social events, even going to dinner with friends, happens very seldom. Every time I walk somewhere, I am reminded how lucky I am to have that ability. I have a feeling that once I get home, the opportunity to run to the store for a loaf of bread will take on a whole new meaning for me.

Big things or small, Kabul-specific or true of many parts of the world, there are so many pieces to my daily life that I take for granted. I could write a whole other post about all the things that I do have here and still take for granted; hm, maybe I will. Taking these pictures, writing this post, noticing these things has made me more aware of how lucky I am and how much I take for granted.


  1. Rachel, you would include chocolate chips^^
    Great post, if you come to Japan you can have a little break and enjoy some of the things you miss!!

  2. I've complained about cabin fever here with no car. Now I have a car, and I'm still figuring out places that are okay to go with a 17 month old... But I can sit in my driveway at 8pm safe and warm and watch the stars and listen to music. Thanks for the reminder of small things :)