Kabul is an exhausting place to be. At least it is for me and most of the people with whom I work. Sure part of it is the security situation; this is especially true since the supermarket bombing a few weeks ago. Mostly the exhaustion stems from the fact that almost nothing is easy and you can’t take anything for granted. People ask me what life is like here and I suspect they imagine constant threats of violence and fighting in the street. That isn’t the case. Here are some examples of the kinds of frustrations and challenges that do fill my days.
1) Kitchen Headaches — This morning I went to the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee (yuk! but better than nothing), it had, as usual, been trashed by the four, 20-something male interns with whom I have to share the space. The staff who are supposed to bring up water bottles (we can’t drink the tap water) from the basement had not done so. I managed to drain the last of the bottle in the kitchen which was just enough for coffee. I closed the cabinet doors, picked up the trash, and moved the dirty dishes to the sink while waiting on water to heat and toast to finish. The electrical current in the house is weak enough that toast takes 5 minutes or more.
2) Laundry challenges — Laundry requires lugging things down two flights of stairs while hoping that the washer is empty and working. The washers are not working much of the time and 16 people must make do with two washers when each small load takes two to three times what a larger washer in the US would take. So working and available machines happen maybe 25% of the time. Assuming I get lucky and find an open, working machine, I can start the load and hope that the power doesn’t go out for even a moment until the load is done. The washers are digital so any power interruption means you have to start the cycle over. Given that power goes out multiple times on most days, this requires still more luck to successfully wash a load.
3) Adventures in Shopping — Since the supermarket bombing, the university transport will not take us to Finest or Spinney’s on Fridays which is my one day off. They will take us to some of the nearby stores used by Afghans. I make do with that most weeks. However, today there were some things I wanted/needed that I can only get at places that cater to expats. J (the other woman in the house where I live) and I planned to take a taxi from a company that caters to internationals this morning. Neither of our university supplied cell phones would connect for outgoing calls. For some reason this was also true for some but not all of our housemates. Oddly incoming calls are fine and text messages would go out. J finds a someone with a working phone and the taxi was called. After some confusion that takes multiple calls to sort out, the car arrives. We get in the cab but the driver speaks virtually no English and we can’t get him to understand where he needs to go which was another guesthouse to pick up S, the third person going with us. He drives off in the completely wrong direction. So here we are two women (without passports which HR has) in a place where women are less than second class citizens with a driver that doesn’t speak English and almost useless phones. We eventually get a text to S who calls us back. He has a guard at his house explain to the driver where we are going. Given that we are headed to a house next to the compound of the vice-president of the country you wouldn’t think this would be all that hard. We start heading in the correct direction. We stop multiple times for our driver as random people on the street for directions. Eventually we find our destination and pick up S. Next is getting the driver to take us to the supermarket. S manages to guide him to where we need to go. We get to the supermarket and S, being male, is patted down and wanded for weapons. J and I are waved through the door — one advantage to the sexism and norms against male/female physical contact is not getting patted down most places. The lights are out in the market but we start shopping anyway. Thankfully the lights come back on because you have to watch expiration dates very carefully and those are hard to see in the dark. By this point I am exhausted after a week of fighting pneumonia and the adventures of the morning. I grab some random things which total $97 US. We make it home with less hassle. I had hoped for a stop at the bakery but at $5 per stop and the chaos it just wasn’t worth it. So a few overpriced groceries took two hours and cost $30 in cab fare.
3) I come home to put away groceries only to find the kitchen trashed again and that one of the boys had dug through my cabinet and used cookware that I bought for myself because I got tired of the shared cookware always being dirty. This makes me grumpy. It is bad enough that groceries are disappearing and the boys store food in the few pans we share. I gathered up the clean dishes that I have purchased and moved them to my room. I know that sounds petty; it even feels that way to me.
4) I go to my room which is no longer warm as they turn the radiators off during the day which has not been helpful in getting well.
5) I try to download a file I need for work that should have taken a couple of minutes but has now been downloading for 45 minutes thanks to the fact that the university doesn’t pay for sufficient bandwidth.
6) While waiting on the file, I try to figure out the logistics of getting tax related documents to the US. There is no reliable way to get mail from the US to here or back other than expensive shipments through DHL. I spent part of the morning trying to figure out ways to print forms that I could sign and then have them scanned back into electronic form to email to a friend in the US who can print them out and mail them for me. Not sure they will be accepted without an “original” signature but I am going to try.
7) I debate whether to give up on going away for a long weekend in a couple of weeks. Over two weeks ago human resources took my passport to renew my visa which expires on March 19th. I checked yesterday to see if it was back. I was told that they aren’t even going to submit it until the 15th because my visa is still good. The cost of a visa works out to about $3 a day and so they don’t want to renew it until the last possible moment. The irritated questions in mind include: (A) Why take it two weeks ago then? and (B) What are the odds of it being back in time for use during spring break?
While it is true that these sorts of frustrations are small things in the grand scheme of things, they are very, very tiring. On top of the security situation and the isolation from people I love it makes being here a challenge. I am tired. I am physically under the weather and very homesick.
I arrived back in Kabul on January 15. I put up with two weeks of almost no heat because they weren’t willing to run the radiators when the faculty weren’t back. I was one of only a couple people in the house. I am on a twelve-month contract and only get 24 vacation days a year so I had to be back much earlier. So far this semester, we have been under far more security restrictions than last fall. We are all ready for spring and warmer weather. I personally am ready for the interns to go back home. Between six-day work weeks and the fact you never really leave work when living with coworkers where the university controls virtually every aspect of your life, I need break.
I plan to go back to the US in June but the date on which I can leave keeps getting pushed later and later in June and I have to be back to start teaching again on July 10. Mid-June seems very far away and only two weeks in the US does not feel like it will be nearly enough. I had hoped to take a week of unpaid time to stretch the trip out. have tried to keep things mostly positive here but I thought I would share a bit of the darker side this time. I will find a more positive attitude soon. This weekend is extra hard with not feeling well and missing a special event taking place back in Madison. In the meantime, I am allowing myself a couple of hours to wallow in frustration and grumpiness.