Live Journal 2005:
David McLoda in Afghanistan

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- History of God, Karen Armstrong
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- A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
- A Free Man's Worship, Bertrand Russell
- The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra
- I Am Right, You Are Wrong, Edward DeBono
- The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead Frank J. Tipler
- The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,Bernard Shaw
- Sufism
- Enlightened Views: A Baha'i Introductory Book

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Monday, October 24, 2005
At Home at Xanadue (Kabul, Afghanistan)

The new Five Star Netcafe on the 4th floor of the Swiss Lounge in Shar-e-Now is a decent place.  It's 60 Afg per hour and they will burn CD's for 50 Afg, which is exactly what I needed to do.  I did some online research on the Caucusus countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia) since I'll most likely fly to Baku, Azerbaijan from Kabul.

In the evening, Fawad and Aamir dropped me off at the Xanadue Guesthouse.  I was the only patron and sat comfortably at the bar with a couple of new girls on each side, imbibing glasses of Fosters.  We watched a Chinese concert on the satellite TV, reminiscing with the girls about the glories of China.  The girl to my right was a sweet, friendly girl with bulging green eyes like jewels.  The girl on my left was round faced with pouty lips and a soft body.  She had a curious, genuine smile and was content to hold my hand, though I paid her little attention.  The bartender was a small, cute, sporty girl with jeans, high white boots, and a pony tail.  She graced the dance floor with some aerobic-like moves, jumping all over the place with Fawad.  She was so thin but kept complaining in English that she was "too fat".  I too, danced a good portion of the night to music that reminded me of the clubs of Ft. Lauderdale in the glory days.

Posted at 05:37 am by dwmcloda
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Sunday, October 23, 2005
Window Shopping in Kabul (Afghanistan)

I was up at 4 AM with the rest of the guys to see what they do for Ramazan.  We sat around a circle and ate some cold, greasy French toast with milk chai.  Then we went back to sleep.

After a visit to the Afghanistan Central Bank to pay for my visa extension, I dropped off my passport at the Interior Central Passport Department.  Across from the Indian Embassy is a little handicraft village, so I went in for look around.  Among the most common items were furskin coats, lapiz boxes, chunky agate and turquoise rings, antiques, and of course carpets.

Next I stopped in to checkout the spankin' new Kabul City Center.  Only a few shops had moved in so far, mostly mobile phone and perfume sellers.  There was a descent coffee shop on the bottom floor, but wasn't serving during the month of Ramazan.  Also of special note were the public toilets on the third floor.

The evening following the same routine as those before: a meat dominated dinner, followed by numerous cups of green tea and raw sugar cane.

Posted at 05:35 am by dwmcloda
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Saturday, October 22, 2005
Dave's 29th Birthday in Kabul (Afghanistan)

There was horrible gridlock on the roads to the Afghanistan Central Bank.  Really it would have been quicker just to walk.  But anyway when I showed up at the crossroads near the bank it was barracaded and no one was allowed to enter.  There was some sort of strike going on.  Supporters of a particular candidate were holding a demonstration to protest the recent parliamentary elections.  Perhaps they were demanding a recount; that has become fashionable nowadays.  There were some half-hearted chanting and overall it looked peaceful.

The bank, of course, was closed.

On my way back to Malik Express, I stumbled across a few pushcarts stacked with some very American goodies.  I couldn't resist the Chocolate Dipped Powerbars, beef jerkey, cappuccino mix,  Gatorade, and peanut butter.  Each item was only 12 cents each.  There was also a stack of MRE's, mostly jambalaya and chili macaroni dishes, put I passed on these.  The Pakistani who bought all the Chips A'Hoy (dammit!) told me the US soldiers trade the food for hash.  But I thought, what will they eat when they get the munchies from smoking the hash?

I dropped few Powerbars off with Nasir at the Roshan Plaza and headed back to the Malik Express office.  Jahan Zeb showed me some of this digital artwork and we flipped through some of my photos of Band-i-Amir.

For dinner this evening we had some delicious mutton keema (minced mutton) with big hunks of spicy green chilis inside.  It's especially nice with the mint chutney that puts out the fire when it gets too much.

After dinner we watched some Bollywood movies.  We sipped on green tea and nibbled on brown chunks of raw sugar cane called "gorla".

Dr. Najeeb pressed my good shirt and I joined the well dressed Fawad and Aamir in the car.  We picked up two other guys who squeezed in the back seat.  We drove around for a while, apparently lost, before making a few phone calls and asking the right security guard for directions. 

There were no signs on the outside, just an especially tall wall and friendlier armed guards.  Inside was a new restaurant, "Samarquand", only three weeks old.  The restaurant/bar was an all-wood construction with a roughly central asian theme.  A pretty hostess ushered us upstairs to the bar, a room full of Western expats and some provocatively dressed ladies showing generous cleavage.

I had a Stella's, which went down too fast.  I told Fawad it is customary in the Republic of Texas to have at least one shot of Tequila on your birthday.  Fawad had never tried tequila, and he was reluctant at first, but finally decided to join me.  Kate, the Australian barmaid, poured us the silver kind and provided the salt and lime.  Lick (salt), shoot (tequila), suck (lime)...the three step program.  Fawad said his ears were on fire, and I said, "That is a good start."

The other guys were hovering outside on the balcony, probably feeling a little out of place.  Besides they were anxious to get to the Chinese girls at Xanadue.

We spent the rest of the night monopolizing the dance floor of Xanadue.  Aamir sipped orange juice in the corner with his girl.  Fawad was sufficiently drunk and danced like a Hindi moviestar.

All in all, it was a fun and interesting birthday in Kabul.

Posted at 05:33 am by dwmcloda
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Friday, October 21, 2005
Musings (Kabul, Afghanistan)

My new Palm Tungsten E2 was on the fritz again.  The device already stopped working once before and I had to do a hard reset and reload all software.  Now I have to do it all again.  It's really inconvenient when you don't have your own PC to fix these problems.  At least this time I could use a PC at the office at Malik Express.

I put some faith in one little device and it's an incessant pain, bent on wasting my time and adding to my frustration.  It's a sign, and I think I won't return to engineering.  Why contribute to this illusion of progress?  Layer upon layer of abstraction and we lose sight of the reality.  It's time to strip away the layers to see life for what it really is.  Toss aside those trappings that isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters.  More on this later...

With the staff of Malik Express, I walked back to the house before Azan. There was no electricity, so we ate our meal by candlelight, a bowl of gelatinous cow legs, mutton ribs and the usual spinach and salad.  I fielded various questions about the countries I've visited. 

Jahan Zeb was also interested in the sexual culture of the US, and asked about gay marriages.  I told him it was allowed in some states and not others.  He couldn't understand why two men would get married.  I told him that in all the places I have been there have always been gay people.  It is evident in every culture and in every country, and through all of time as far as I can tell.  I've concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt (very rare for me actually) that the vast majority of gays are born with their orientation.  People are born the way they are - and brought up in a particular society - through no fault of their own: It is as natural for them as being straight is for the rest of us.  It is not a choice to become gay.  Furthermore, any religion or God that condemns homosexuality should not be accepted.  It is illogical that God would condemn anything he himself created.  Furthermore I do not believe that God makes some people gay as a kind of test.  This would make God cruel and sadistic.  Imagine, if you are a man, God gave you an intense natural desire for women, but then made all women completely off limits and condemned you to hell if you follow your instincts.  It is neither just nor logical, two attributes I know for sure a God must possess.

Posted at 05:28 am by dwmcloda
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Thursday, October 20, 2005
A New Home and Good Friends (Kabul, Afghanistan)

At least one good thing came out of the ATO office today.  I made a good friend, a great Pakistani guy named Fawad.  He is originally from the Swat Valley in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, but is helping setting up a travel agency in Kabul.

Fawad invited me to stay with him and his friends in their house in Shar-e-Now until I had my visa extension sorted out.  I checked out of the Spinzar Hotel and moved my bags to the Malik Express, a new office nicely appointed with comfy couches.  I was starving so the guys bought me one of those giant nans that are characteristic of Kabul.  I stuffed my face in the back room away from public view (everyone else is fasting).

I was surprised to find that the office pays $300 per month for internet access and it only works on one computer and often cuts off for many hours at a time.  They called in a Western dressed slick-tongued Indian computer guru who successfully talked himself out of blame.

At 5 PM we shut down the office and we walked five minutes to the house behind a wall in a heavily guarded neighborhood.  The house was simply a few heavily windowed rooms facing a small garden.  It's home to a dozen guys working with the new travel agency, two of whom (Fawad and Aamir) are from Pakistan and the others (Mohammad Sher, the elder; Daud Sha, Asad Ullah, Mohammad Hashim, Dr. Najeeb, the cook; Jahan Zeb, and Shoaid, the aspiring artist) are Afghan but lived as refugees in Pakistan and have homes in Peshawar.

We listened for the Hazan, the call from the local mosque to end the day's fasting.  Then after the prayer it was time to eat.

We rolled out a big vinyl sheet on the floor of the empty middle room and produced our instant dining room.  Dr. Najeeb brought in the mutton stew, potatoes, spinach, salad, mint chutney, and yummy, yummy goat brains.  We sat cross-legged around the spread.  Everyone gets their very own big-ass nan and digs in.  Super time is no time for discussion; it's all about stuffing your face.

After dinner we moved to the next room, the edges of the walls rimmed with big golden cushions and a few smaller pillows to lean on.  A Van Damme movie was on the Star Channel.  We were having some milk tea and cookies when a few guests arrived.  They had been expected to dinner and Mohammad Sher fined them a couple goats for not keeping the promise.  Then it was decided that my presence for dinner would be required at the penalty of nine goats.  And thus are disputes resolved and punishments metted out the Pashtun way, by jirga (council) or elder decree.

After a while, Fawad and his sidekick Aamir called me outside and I was ushered into the car.  They were all dressed up and ready to go, but I had no idea where.  Fawad assured me with a big smile and mischievous laugh that it was "for enjoyment".

Not five minutes away by car, we pulled up to the Xanadue Guesthouse.  From the outside it looked like nothing special as it had all the normal characteristics of a Kabul house: inpenetrable wall, metal gate, wooden cubicle with a security guard.  The only thing different was the line of red lights strung casually across the top of their sign.

On the other side of the gate was a large, lovely courtyard and a normal looking house.  I was made to walk inside first, followed more confidently by Fawad and Aamir.  Inside clustered around a small bar where half dozen or so Chinese girls.  Damn, tricked again!  It's a Chinese message parlour!  But forget any notions you might have about such a place.  There is a kind of reality behind these places where categories and prejudice have no place.

The place itself had a projection screen for videos, a room ringed with colored lights and a modest stereo system made a dance floor, a small bar with stools, another room with comfy low chairs big enough for two, and a pool table.  The girls stay in rooms upstairs.

There was only one other guy there, a Nigerian in a baseball camp sitting across the table from a girl, talking business style.

The girls were mostly from Shanghai and Beijing and spoke little English.  Fawad and Aamir had their favorites each of whom had their girls immediately in their arms.  Apparently I had been assigned one of the girls beforehand and had not the luxury of choice in the matter.  I felt compelled to asked her name but what she told me was just a jumble of unrecognizable sounds.  She wasn't the most attractive girl and seemed devoid of personality, though it could have been the lack of a mutual language that led me to this conclusion.

In fact none of the girls were all that beautiful nor particularly shapely.  There was nothing provocative in their clothing either.  They wore blue jeans and turtlenecks.  What struck me most was the outward normalcy of the situation; there was nothing seedy or uncomfortable about it.  Some guys come here for drinks at the bar, others take a girl upstairs for sex, and others, particularly soldiers, take them home for the night.  From what I understand, out of the $50 that is paid, half goes to the agency and half goes to the girl.  I learned that the girls normally come to work in Kabul for only two months before going back home. 

I remained relatively aloof to the girl sitting next to me and still she insisted on massaging my leg and arms, quite mechanically.  Greased up by a couple of Fosters and inspired by a descent techno track, I got off my ass to dance - and boy, she was a baaaad dancer.  She was also really bad at pool.

Helen, Fawad's good friend and the best English speaker of the bunch, tried coaxing me upstairs with one of the girls using all the normal lines like "she's new" and "she's really good".  I declined.  I've had "good" and "new" before and I didn't have to pay.

I was amused by the novelty of visiting a brothel in Kabul but was otherwise unmoved by the experience.  As crazy as it may sound, I considered that maybe it would have even been more fun without the girls there.

Posted at 05:27 am by dwmcloda
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Wasted (Kabul, Afghanistan)

My whole day was wasted running around from office to office trying to get my visa extension in order.  The Minister of Tourism was not in his office today.  I thought I was clever enough to go directly to the Passport office but this turned out to be for locals only and I was turned away.  I was sent to the Foreign Affairs office, but they can't help tourists here; it's only for those expats working in Afghanistan.

I was supposed to go to the ATO (Afghanistan Tourism Organization), so I took a taxi to the main entrance of the airport.  I asked around for the place and was sent in a few different directions.  I wandered up to the checkpoint of the military airport, but was turned around with an "It's not here."  I finally just went inside the terminal of the airport itself where there actually is a branch of the ATO.  They were all very eager to sell me an expensive 4WD tour, so I had to kill that aspiration immediately.  They pointed me in the direction of the area I had been walking around the last half hour.  I was told to turn right at the green sign.  Well, I finally found the ATO main office but not because of the sign.  It had been knocked down by construction workers.

It was only around 12:20 PM but some kids standing outside assured me that I was "too late".  I was ready to make heads roll at this point, and my demands for action were not fruitless.  I got the lousy form I needed.  The guys told me I'd need a signature from the Tourism Minister and I'd have to come back to the ATO tomorrow.

Posted at 05:25 am by dwmcloda
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Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Tourist Visa Extension: A Masterpiece of Inefficiency (Kabul, Afghanistan)

Today was the beginning of the most supremely convoluted bureaucrat wild goose-chase I've ever suffered: the process of getting a tourist visa extension. It took a while before I resigned myself to acceptance, but then I began to relish the opportunity to document the process, looking forward to the next senseless hoop to jump through. Here is a description of the process that stretches over a period of seven days visiting various offices multiple times:

The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism seems like a reasonable place to start an enquiry about getting a visa extension. It's located at Pul-e-Bagh-e-Omomi, near the Spinzar Hotel. However, the Minister is rarely in the office because he also teaches at Kabul University. If you think you're smart and go instead directly to the "Passport Office" near the police headquarters, you will stand in a long body search queue before being told that the office is for locals only.

The officials will send you to the "Foreign Affairs Office". But if you are a tourist, they can't help you there either, since they only handle visas for those working in Afghanistan.

When you do catch the Tourism Minister in his office, he will say he can help, but only after you pick up a form at the ATO (Afghanistan Tourism Organization) main office near the airport. Take a taxi to the main gate of the airport. You can ask around for the ATO, but no one will know what you're talking about. There was once a green sign for the ATO on the road but has been knocked down by construction workers. You are probably better off going to the ATO branch inside the terminal of the airport and getting an English speaking escort to show you the main office. Also, make sure you show-up between 10:30 and 11:30 AM.

Once you get the tourist visa request form from the ATO, take it all the way back to the Ministry of Tourism. By now it will probably be closed so you'll have to came back tomorrow.

The Ministry will sign the form, then you will have to go back to the main ATO office. The ATO will give you a new form and a letter. When you request a one month extention, you will also have to pay $20 ($10 for the letter and $10 tourist tax).

Do you have a visa yet? Not quite!

Now you have to take the letter to the Interior Central Passport Department, near the Indian Embassy. Wait in a queue to see the Foreign Nationality Passport Director who will trade your letter for another form to fill out. Make sure you have a passport photo or you will be turned away. The Director will give you a slip that requires you to deposit an additional $10 in an account of the Afghanistan Central Bank.

The bank is located near the Serena Hotel and is a favorite spot for demonstrations and the streets are often barracaded. If there are any strikes you might have to wait a day or two before the bank opens.

Go inside the central bank with your voucher and give it to someone behind the counter in the far northeast corner. A lady will fill out two additional forms in between giggly mobile phone calls. Take the original voucher plus the two new forms and wave it around in the air until someone takes it from you for a signature.

Take the signed forms to the Foreign Currency Cash Pay In window and pay $10. Then, take the forms to the Control Section window and push it through the small wooden window. After another signature, the forms will be passed to the next window. Take the forms again to the window in the opposite corner to the Cash Pay In window where the forms will be stamped and you will be given two yellow receipts.

Take your receipts, visa application forms, and passport back to the Interior Central Passport Department. Get a signature from the police department on the second floor of the building opposite the Director's office.

Take the signed papers back to the Director. He will take all your forms and passport and give you a yellow Post-it note as a receipt with a date and time written on it.

You will have to wait one or two days, then come back the office at the prescribed time. Find your passport among the others in a plastic tray and turn in the Post-it note. Your new visa should be posted inside.

For the first few days this process may test your patience and threaten your sanity. But after a while you will begin to appreciate this masterpiece of inefficiency for the joke that it is.

Posted at 06:30 am by dwmcloda
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Monday, October 17, 2005
The Kabul Police Stole My Booze! (Afghan)

Two weeks had passed since I applied for my Iranian visa, so I walked to the embassy to check on its status. The guy behind the window made a quick phone call and simply told me I was rejected. No official reason was given and they kept the $85 fee. It's too bad I can't go through Iran, it would have been an interesting overland trip towards Europe. Perhaps when I get some better contacts inside the country I will apply again. Or maybe I could join the US Marines before we invade. Anyway, so much for my grand delusions of brokering peace between the "Great Satan" and the "Axis of Evil". In fact I was hoping to develop some Iranian contacts to work with me in establishing some sort of student and cultural exchange program between the two be cont'd

My next mission was to buy some booze for my friend at the Roshan Plaza, Nasir, and for the my less Islamically inclined Turkomen friends. For five bucks a got a taxi from the town center to take me to the Supreme Supermarket, out towards the airport in a heavily guarded industrial section. It's duty-free shopping for foreigners only and everyone's passport is checked. Inside is like those duty-free shops you'd see in an airport: lots of alcohol, perfumes, and Swiss army knives for sale. Throngs of US soldiers and expat contractors roamed around. The staff were all very well-mannered Filipino ladies.

I picked up a case of Heineken ($18), two bottles of Absolut ($13.50 each), a bottle of Smirnoff ($10), a bottle of tequila ($13) and two cans of Guiness ($2 each).

I thought I could negotiate the crowded streets unnoticed back to Wahid's place. Fat chance. Some corrupt police officers had followed me inside the flat. They confiscated the old man's opium and started to make a big fuss. I insisted that the alcohol was only for me and one other American friend. Wahid tried to use his charm and diplomatic skills to drive them off. I was afraid for my friends, so I ended up giving the two pigs one of the bottles of vodka so they'd piss-off.

Wahid was afraid they'd send their friends to take the rest of the alcohol so he immediately hid the rest in the back room. Later in the day, after I had left, the Afghan CIA came snooping around looking for me and the booze. They stole the rest of the alcohol and Wahid had to pay the police a $100 bribe.

I had already stuffed the remaining bottle of Absolut in my daypack and skooted off to see Nasir at the Roshan Plaza. We drank the Guiness in a back room and I helped them fix a couple of Chinese steaming machines.

It wasn't safe to go back to Wahid's place yet, so I stayed at Nasir's place. We watched a half dozen or so of "Friend's" episodes on DVD before the power cut off.

Posted at 06:28 am by dwmcloda
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Sunday, October 16, 2005
Of Earthquakes and E-Mails (Kabul, Afghan)

I was surprised to find two of the biggest and most frequented internet cafes had closed in the short time I had been away (Aghan Cart and the Basement of Roshan Plaza). However, Sky Net was still open on Shar-e-Now. There I spent some time responding to 100 e-mails. There was a serious earthquake in the Kashmir region of Pakistan that I had no idea about. At the time it was estimated that 40,000 people died but a few days later would see the number rise to more than double.

We had a relaxed evening of kebabs and baklava at Wahid's place before crashing.

Posted at 06:20 am by dwmcloda
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Saturday, October 15, 2005
A Dust Veil Over Kabul (Afghan)

Saying goodbye to Brami and my Hazara friends, I boarded an early morning minivan heading back to Kabul. This time I could barely tolerate the jostling around and dust choked air which gave me a headache and put me in a foul mood. We arrived in Kabul city around 4:30 PM. A dull sadness hung with the veil of grey dust that had descended upon the land.

I took a taxi immediately to Wahid and the Turkomen's flat, not really interested in spending the night alone in a shitty hotel. We shared some spinach parathas and a few rounds of vodka shots, which loosened me up and made me feel a lot better.

Wahid and I stayed in a different room this time. He was trying to avoid the Afghan CIA who were pestering him about a kidnapping case. His friend was already arrested and being interrogated incessantly. When in Peshawar, Wahid discovered the truth of the matter, and he related it to me. It seems an unscrupulous trickster had collected $1000 each from over 200 people to whom he promised to arrange travel to perform Haj in Saudi Arabia. Instead he ran away with the money and had his brother claim he was kidnapped by Wahid's friend. Now Wahid is trying to deflect implications of his involvement and to somehow secure the release of his innocent friend from the Afghan authorities.

So Wahid and his friends smoked the opium in each of his favorite way. Then we walked down to the dark, deserted street along the Kabul River to visit his carpet shop. On the second floor of a labyrinthine concrete block market we sat in a tiny room with two old men with gray flowing beards. The walls were lined with rolled up carpets from Andkhoy, all deep red colors characteristic of Turkomen design. We shared a honey melon, then returned to Wahid's flat.

I lay behind Wahid on some cushions while he gambled in a poker-like game with the others, fueled by cigarettes and chai. I drifted off, staring through the haze at Wahid's growing stack of dingy Afghani notes.

Posted at 06:10 am by dwmcloda
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