Thursday, June 20, 2013

Danger is Relative

Friends, meet jui. (ju-ee)

It is one of the many gutters that line the streets in Kabul. Those located alongside main streets flow high and fast in the winter, while their cousins on the quiet side streets fill with snow. In the summer, they ooze along, filled with trash and mud and and excrement and who knows what else. Every so often, workers shovel out all the accumulated muck and they set it on the streets to dry. The streets smell, far worse than the pigpens we had on the farm when I was a kid, and then, as the products of the jui dry, they get blown away as dust and inhaled all summer long.

I became intimately acquainted with a jui on my way home from work a few days ago. One minute, I was walking, and the next minute, I was up to my thighs in jui juice. Brown, smelly, mucky, jui juice.

I managed to pull my feet out, along with the five pounds worth of muck lining my pants, tunic, and shoes. It took some doing, and I almost lost a shoe and dropped my computer. Once I got my feet out, I propped them on the opposite side and just sat for a minute; it's been a long few weeks.

A jui is by no means the biggest danger here, but it's one of the small annoyances and concerns that I sometimes wonder about. Between the health issue and the falling in issue and the smell issue, I can imagine the outcry that would be raised if there were juis in most places I've lived. And yet, here, no one thinks twice about it.

That's true of other things as well. Medicine is often given intravenously, where the doctor puts a needle in the back of your hand and gives you the medicine to inject yourself for the next few days. When I first saw that, I was horrified. They keep a needle in their hand, for days. Does that not seem dangerous to anyone else?

Open ended wires sticking out right at face level. Sparks flying from the welders who set up in the middle of the sidewalk. Not wearing seatbelts/letting kids ride in the car standing up. Riding carnival rides with not only no seatbelt but also while standing up and sometimes not even holding on. When I mention these, others give me funny looks. What's wrong with adding gas to the car while the motor is running?

I've realized, though, that I don't think about or worry about these things as much as I did when I first came. After I stepped in the jui, it was disgusting, but it mostly made me laugh. Rather hysterical laughter, but laughter nonetheless. The next day, I was going to post something on Facebook about the jui, but just then, a bomb went off down the street from our office. The walls shook, we dropped to the floor. Gunshots fired, smoke went up in a cloud, and phones started ringing as relatives and friends checked in to make sure everyone is still alive.

It was the I've been to a bomb, and it hit home a bit because it went off on a road I walk down, where friends of mine live nearby. It shook us, emotionally as well as physically. How could I post a whine about juis after something like that?

Danger is relative. When you grow up as sheltered as I did and when you like rules as much as I do, little dangers sometimes seem important. They can be dangerous, yes, but I can see now how so many others here don't notice them or worry about them. It's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; when you are accustomed to explosions shaking your windows, you don't worry so much about seatbelts. It's understandable that planning for the future, personal finance, etc are not very commonly practiced; if you might die tomorrow, why not spend your money and go on a thrilling, if dangerous, carnival ride? It's hard to worry about little things when basic survival is such a concern.

That said, definitely have no desire to get acquainted with my friend jui again, no matter how minor that concern may be!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hills and Valleys and Remembering to feel blessed

There are days in Kabul where I get very tired of life here. The days where no matter how hard you try to be positive, you just feel down. It's easy to feel that way sometimes, when upset stomachs are so common that we hand out Cipro like children's vitamins and when giardia is appropriate lunch conversation. When the heat makes everyone irritable, and the open stares and little comments of men on the street make me long for home. When the electricity keeps going out, and the Internet keeps going out, and it seems like every truck in the city has to drive by my window fifteen minutes after I've finally fallen asleep and then every ten minutes thereafter.

All of these are minor irritations, usually chased easily away by the taste of a juicy Kabul watermelon, carefully washed, or a barbecue in the garden, ignoring the barbed wire on the compound walls. But sometimes, the seriousness of life hits, and those concerns aren't so quickly dismissed.

I just heard that a friend was badly injured in a recent attack. She was in the shower when an RPG hit her building, part of a coordinated attack that threatened the lives of several people I know. There were armed men who broke into the compound, guards who fought back, a gurka who died a hero as others fled to safety. My friend escaped with her life but with 3rd degree burns on 99% of her body.

I heard all of these details as I sat on the sidelines of our weekly Frisbee game, beside a guy who is a tough and talented Frisbee player but who broke down a little as we talked. Because Barbara was his friend, because he had other friends in that compound, because he'd been at that compound just before the attack. But also because that attack violated something that we take for granted- the safety of our homes. It was a reminder that the danger here isn't confined to Helmand or Kandahar, isn't avoided simply by using common sense and not driving in the bad areas. Sometimes danger comes to you even when you do nothing wrong. Sometimes even the most heavily guarded compounds come under attack, and although Frisbee games and garden barbecues help us stay sane, sometimes those bits of self care just feel frivolous. It feels wrong to play when Barbara is in critical condition, and it feels wrong to laugh and joke like everything is okay when so many of us are as shaken as my fellow Frisbee player on the sidelines.

Between all of that, and feeling really sick for the last four days, and saying final goodbyes to some very close friends, it's been not such a good weekend. And since I'm so close to going home, there's a part of me that wants to cling to that departure date, to dream of the day when the frustrations of life here will be gone.

I was at a meeting yesterday, though, where someone told us to feel blessed in being allowed to live in Afghanistan. Not to act like a martyr and struggle through, but to wake every morning and thank God for sending me here. It reminds me of all those times I've been told to live in the moment and to not worry about tomorrow and to just rejoice in today... and how I'm I'm better at feeling like a martyr, even when it's rarely justified.

So I'm working on that. There's a part of me that remembers all the rougher days throughout this year, but also remembers the fact that they passed, as these days will too. I remember that the next few weeks are my last ones in Afghanistan, and if I wish them away, I don't get them back. There are so many things I love about being here, so many things I will incredibly miss about this country. Yes, there's dangers, and annoyances, and frustrations, but on the whole, it's been a wonderful year. During the rough times, we have to cling to the good times, remember the beautiful moments that give us strength. It's the rough times that make good times that much better, because without the valleys, there would be no peaks. And even within the rough times, there are blessings and reasons to be thankful. It just takes the right attitude to find them.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The beauty of little dancers

I laugh when I tell people that Afghanistan is beautiful and their response is a confused, "Huh?"

In the international media, perhaps, it's not a place you would describe as beautiful. There's nothing beautiful about explosions and attacks on governmental and NGO compounds or in photos of sobbing mothers holding their dying children. Yes, it's hot and dusty in the summer, and yes, our roof leaked all winter even as the pipes froze and the electricity left for two weeks at a time.

But Afghanistan has a beauty all its own, a beauty that the media seldom shows you. It isn't just the beauty of the landscape, a beauty that is different but equally incredible during all four seasons.
It isn't just the sunsets that leave nothing to be desired
 or the feeling of timelessness that you get at its historical sites
or the colorful fruits and even more colorful voices at the bazaar.

It's this.
And this.
And these.

Last week, the Kabul Dance Studio ( held its annual spring recital, and I was privileged to be a part of it. About 100 little girls waited anxiously backstage for their turn to dance, to show off the moves they've spent a year learning and the dance they've been practicing nonstop for the last month. Despite security and rain and costume troubles and everything else that Murphy's Law could produce, it was five o'clock on a gorgeous Sunday evening, and they were about to show the world just how beautiful Afghanistan is.

The beauty in this recital was in the sun reflecting off the outdoor stage as the school principal requested that the audience not take pictures, so as to adhere to the wishes of families who don't want their daughters' honor spoiled.

It was in the tiny dancers representing Mexico, who shook maracas to the music, and in the little one whose maraca broke and who paused in the middle of the dance and spent a good thirty seconds staring at it to try and put it back together. It was in the audience who laughed and clapped for her when she finally succeeded and rejoined the dance with a joyful smile.

 The beauty was in the girls from the local orphanage and from a domestic violence shelter who use dance as an escape from life. In the orphans who whirled across the stage to Indian music but never grew dizzy enough to fall, and in the four sisters from the shelter who wore pristine white dresses and said they felt like the King's daughters as they gently touched their reflection in the mirror before the show.
It was in the Mommy and Me dancers, who wore kangaroo suits and hopped around a circle as the song declared, "Aus-tralia, Aus-tralia. Land of sun and sea!" It was in the little blond kangaroo with the infectious smile, the little black-haired kangaroos who grinned delightedly at the audience, in the little boy in a kangaroo suit who didn't hop even once. Not because he had stage fright, but because he just doesn't do that.

There was beauty in every single one of the faces on that stage last week, from the tap class who dressed as cowgirls and line-danced across the stage, to the dancers in the traditional Afghan attan dance, who flourished their scarves and jingled as they danced on bare feet. The confident dancers who led their fellows with smiles from the front of the stage, the scared ones who hid behind a partner and focused far more on steps than on crowd appeal, the aloof ones who did the very least they could and just looked bored all the time. The little blond who broke her ankle a few weeks before the show, was heartbroken about not being able to dance but stood onstage in her costume and smiled along with the music anyway.

And it was even more than that. It was in the fathers who watched with pride in their eyes as their scarf-less daughters skipped across the stage, and in the costumed dancers who had to stay backstage but who crouched as close as they could to the backdrop in order to the watch the other dancers. In the myriad people who gave their time to help, in the busy high schoolers who put in extra hours to learn their dances in the midst of sickness and exams and everything else. It was in the little ones whose eyes shone as they watched the older ones dance, who came up to me after the show and told me they want to dance en pointe someday too. It was in that moment onstage when I was balancing on toe shoes with my arms lifted to the sky and the sun shining down and it seemed like even God was glorying in the beauty of this place.

Yes, Afghanistan is beautiful.