Thursday, February 23, 2012


I wasn't aware that anything was amiss as I ran a micro-teaching session and gave feedback. Even when I got a text from a woman who works for another program saying, "Can't leave the house. Can you..." with specific instructions to do something, it did not register that something was wrong. Hmmm. I wonder what's happening with her. I then got another text from a good friend that works at ISAF saying "On lockdown. Will probably last a few days." Oh, I thought. How disappointing. I hoped to see her this weekend. And yet, I still did not relate it to me.

At the end of the day when we packed everything up and were walking to the car I was going slowly so that I could enjoy the sun on my skin. At the house we have blast film covering all of the windows and very little sunlight comes through. The blast film also blocks out certain elements that make it impossible to grow plants and gives you a vitamin D deficiency. I soak up all the sun I can between walks from the car to buildings and back to the car again. We arrived at the car and normally the Afghan staff rides back to the office with us. Today Bella explained to them that it was too dangerous and that they should go by taxi. "Why?" They questioned.

 "There are reports that they are stopping cars and shooting Westerners." The Afghans immediately turned and walked away. My mouth dropped open. "They're doing what?" Fear coiled in the base of my stomach. We got into the car and drove out of the university. Our PSD (private security detail) reloaded and checked his gun. After a tense but uneventful ride home, I stayed outside a little while to play with the dogs. They are street dogs that live in the bombed out ruins of a house next door. The sweetest dogs ever, they let us know when anyone unknown is on the street. When there was just two of them, I used to save bits of meat from my lunch to give them. They have grown to a pack of four adults, 4 puppies and some on the way puppies. After petting the dogs for 10 minutes, one of the PSDs drove up with a housemate and said "Get inside." I followed his orders.

When I walked into the house I passed the white board where we write our name, locations and time in and time out of the house. There were big black letters that said "No movement." It was official. We were on lockdown.The first few hours of lockdown I was very agitated because there is so little that we are allowed to do for security reasons that I always look forward to dinners out at some of the restaurants around town. I was sitting in my room, eating leftovers and on the net when Bella called me and said, "Grab your pillows and get down here." Being one to always obey reasonable orders, I grabbed my pillow and went downstairs to find Bella and Sandra sitting on the bed propped up by loads of pillows with a computer at their feet. The computer had a cartoon desert on the screen and was propped up by a makeshift stand of books.

"Join us." Bella said, patting the space next to her. As I sat down and snuggled under the covers she started the movie from the beginning. "We're watching Pussy Boots."

"Um, OK." Having lived outside the States for many years, I find it hard to keep up with the movies and shows that are coming out or popular. Preferring to be active and social, I always do my movie watching in groups, on airplanes or in odd situations like this one. With the first scene of the cat waking up, stealing and then running off with a ring, I was hooked. We laughed our way through the movie and I happily returned to my room afterwards to get some sleep. 

The next day I woke up excited to walk to the French Bakery (with a PSD) and get my weekly spicy beef pie. Then I remembered it was day two of lockdown. Momentarily annoyed, I let it pass and then got to work before ending up sitting in the kitchen with Sandra for a couple hours as she cooked what turned out to be an amazing dinner for the 6 people living in the house. After the dinner of fried fish, beets, rice and dahl we, the three girls, ended back in Bella's room for Dirty Dancing and crafts night. Turns out that the lockdown has been beneficial in helping me slow down and spend some time good friends.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Travel Tip: Having Things To Do

 On a trip to Paris last year I found myself having feelings of unhappiness. What is this? I thought to myself. Who is unhappy in Paris? Turns out I had forgotten one of the cardinal rules of traveling: Always work something that you do at home (wherever that is) and/or are passionate about into your schedule. I had arrived in Paris to visit someone. The visit was not going well and my found my discontent spilling over into my feelings about Paris. Determined to change this, on my very last day in Paris I went to a Tango class at Tan-Go-In. Having found the class 1 hour before it started, I had to get ready and make an epic dash from one end of the city to another.

 Obviously, since I had somewhere to be, every single train I got on either stopped for 5 minutes at every other station or in the middle of a tunnel due to some malfunction. Amazingly, I rushed to the street address, 323, rue Saint-Martin, just 5 minutes late. I looked at the number on the building and hesitated. I wasn't sure which doorway the number indicated. The most likely location looked like a studio selling artwork. There were no lights on and I could not see anyone inside. I decided to go through the big black doors to the left. Luckily, someone came out of the doors as I made up my mind and I slipped in behind him. This was not the place. Going back outside I was again standing in front of this art gallery. Why not? I thought and rang the bell.

 A thin man appeared from subterranean depths (this sounds much better than he walked up the stairs. Work with me ;) ). He wore his long dark hair in a ponytail clasped together at the base of his neck, a white v-neck sweater and dark pants. Unlocking the door (I had tried it earlier) he asked, with raised eyebrows, what I wanted. We worked out that I was terribly sorry for being late and I really was desperate to get into the Tango class. He turned and led me down the spiraling staircase and through a curtain into a marvelous dance room. I was able to join the class, had an amazing time and was invited to the weekly Milonga that evening (well, to be honest, everyone was).  Leaving the dance studio feeling extremely euphoric I realized that Paris had a golden hue again (OK, so the sun HAD come out that afternoon, but I was shining from the inside as well). Embraced by these feelings of happiness and goodwill I roamed about the city having a great time and making a mental note to always, always arrange to spend at least one day of a trip doing something that you love. It just might save your relationship, or, in my case, it saved the trip.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Afghanistan National Institute of Music

"I'm tired," he said, "tired of the media's portrayal of Afghanistan as a place without hope." Afghanistan National Institute of Music's (ANIM) director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast began as he introduced "The Second Annual Winter Music Celebration" on Wednesday, February 8th. Those of us in the community that signed up to attend the free concerts had been forewarned to arrive early to go through security at the French Institute where the concert was held. Not to worry about seating because the venue holds 450 people and only 250 people have responded. Dr. Sarmast was addressing an auditorium of over 450 people as he began his introduction. People were standing in the back and against the side rows near the walls of the auditorium.

"The students of our school, some are street kids or orphans with little to look forward to have had their lives transformed." He gestured to the children and teens sitting on the stage around him holding their instruments ready to begin the concert.

"They are productive members of society. They are musicians and professionals and they give back to society. This shows us that Afghanistan IS a place of hope." After the culmination of his speech, the audience broke into an appreciative applause. Those of us that live here and see the day-to-day moments see that there is hope. The people that I work with and coach at the university are committed to improving themselves in their profession. Applying themselves, for the most part, wholeheartedly to this endeavor. The children and students that they teach, some like the ones at Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation are so committed to going to school, they will walk what the average westerner would consider an extraordinary distance for the privilege of an education. But this is not the news the media portrays which is why people probably did not even know that there was a fantastic concert of amazing upcoming musicians trained at ANIM. This article from the Huffington Post has more information on the background of the school and children.

This concert was the last in a season that included guests artists from around the world like: Mashal Arman, Anne LeBozec, Kimball Gallagher and Marc Uys. Students also occasionally performed. I was happily surprised with one performance by a young man who sang "Somewhere" from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I was immediately transported back to the Chicago of my youth and singing along to a record of my father's high school performance as Riff in a production of the musical (the cast sounded pretty good for a high school!). Other favorites included "Ferdinand the Bull, for solo violin and piano" composed by Alan Ridout and performed by Marc Uys and "Dishab Ke Chunay" (arr. William Harvey) which is a traditional Afghan song. The final concert ingeniously mixed Western and Afghan music to create a new and vibrant sound. The last piece that they played, "Bolero" composed by Maurice Ravel, again arranged by William Harvey was played by the Afghan Youth Orchestra and was an amazing rendition of the music, played as if it had always been meant for the rubab.

I am really looking forward to the Third Annual Afghanistan Winter Music Academy next year and seeing the progress of these highly talented young people.

Another write up on the school from the Wall Street Journal in 2010. The words quoted in the first few paragraphs are taken from memory and represent the general expression of what Dr. Sarmast said, not entirely the exact statement.

Whale Sharks

After a very heavy training schedule this winter, I'm off (in a few weeks) for a vacation to see whale sharks at Donsol. I will be using Donsol Eco Tours to book and plan my trip. The itinerary includes two days snorkeling with whale sharks, daily horse riding, scuba diving, a scuba EMF course, and a firefly tour. More to come after the trip...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pink Dolphins

Who knew that the sailing lessons in Macau would provide a wealth of experiences from entering foreign territories to exciting boat mishaps. In our first day crew lesson we made it down the river, out of the shipping canal and into the Macau-Hong Kong ferry lanes before all boats, except one, lost their engines. It feels like we are frequently almost run over by the Hong Kong -Macau ferries like Turbo Jet and Cotai Strip which are high speed jetfoils and cattamarans that provide service between Hong Kong and Macau.Turbo Jet has massive red red boats and Cotai Strip has big blue boats that lift out of the water onto what looks like skis when they reach their cruising speeds. As we neared the Macau airport tacking in and out of the ferry lanes and shipping lanes the engines on several boats failed. We then, much to the chagrin of the Macau Coast Guard, had to tack all the way back to the yacht club. They were annoyed because we had to tack through the shipping lanes that have heavy traffic coming from China. Also, in order to go up the river into the docks at the marina we had to tack into Chinese waters. We were all worried that the Chinese Coast Guard would come over and demand papers. I hadn't brought my passport so that would have been bad. I imagined the email home: Eva Taken to Chinese Jail for Sailing.

Or next trip out had a storm that snuck up on the forecasters and sailors alike. Morning forcast was: small to medium wavelets, clear, wind 5 knots. About the middle of the trip the northern sky darkened and moved steadily towards us. There was no rain smudge from the sky to the water so we knew that we were not going to get wet. Just as we storm sail up we got killer wind. This wonderful flirt of a wind left us after ten minutes with massive waves and no wind. Not even a breath to lift our flags hanging limp on the mast. Everyone (including the skipper who was below decks making friends with the head) was sick. I felt fine stomach wise but my lack of sleep from all-night sessions grading essays was catching up with me as I was steering. I had to stand up so that I would not fall asleep. That would have been another disaster email heading: Eva in Jail (again) After Running Yacht into the Macau airport runway.

Midway through the course my dreams came true. We went around the Macau airport on Taipa and sailed to the second island called Coloane where we put the anchor down and got picked up by a tiny black rubber boat which shuttled us to lunch at Miramar. Miramar is a Portuguese restaurant nestled next to the Westin Resort on Hac Sa (black sand beach). Our crew shared a ton of tasty Portuguese food including pig ears chopped into fine pieces doused in vinegar and served with cucumbers. Very tasty. After lunch we took the little black boat (getting totally soaked in the process) out to our yacht and started motoring back to the marina. I was at the rudder when I noticed smoke coming out of the cabin. Electrical fire! Our skipper, Jon, rushed into the cabin after turning the motor off. Gray black smoke was still billowing out of the cabin and we opened the front hatch so there was enough airflow that he did not suffocate. Once the power went off the smoke thinned by itself and Jon checked to see what the problem was. Turned out we had an electrical short and after fixing we were able to sail again. As we calmed down and got underway Rui called out that there were pink dolphins off starboard side. I was steering at the time and totally set us off coarse I was so excited to see them. A pod of 12. Pink dolphins (Chinese white dolphins) are endangered and, from what I understand, this type is found only in Hong Kong and Macau shared Pearl River delta. They look like a cross between a grey dolphin with the long snout and a Beluga whale with its shorter dorsal fin and forehead. I righted the course and Jon took control so that I could also watch them. They swam near the boat for some time then disappeared. I like to think that they felt we were in trouble and came to help. Wishful thinking, I know, but it makes for a good story. We saw one again as we entered the shipping lanes leading to the marina. Dolphins avoid the shipping lanes so I like to think that s/he was making sure we were OK till we got near other boats. My real email home: Pink Dolphins!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Razia's Ray of Hope

Le Jardin, the restaurant where the fashion show was to take place, is a new restaurant. To me, it is slightly similar to an old favorite, Le Bistro. Walking into the restaurant (after passing through a series of check points, purse search and a body scan with a hand held metal detector--the airport isn't so bad) you come across the low dark wood coffee/display tables with glass tops that allow you to peak in to see a about a cup full of assorted cut gems laid out in white bowls. Afghanistan is famous for its Lapis Lazuli, Emeralds, Azure, Rubies, Kunzite, etc. (see NPR for more info) and they are for sale everywhere popular on the expat circuit cut, uncut, as individual stones and imbedded in jewelry. The walls of the dinning room are covered in rugs for sale though the selection is limited.

However, today we were not there to shop for rugs and gems, but for handmade clothing, jewelry, bags and scarves by the woman who runs Razia's Ray of Hope, Razia Jan. We finally sat down around 11 am and ordered the brunch. Waiting for the food, I went to check out the silent auction which contained several types of necklaces, a painting, a rug, a water set, a bronze vase and drum looking thing. Loved one necklace and earring set but did not bid. Went to the area they called the "bizarre" that was full of amazing things and got so overwhelmed I had to go back to the brunch table. I looked at the nicely printed brochure describing the foundation and made a commitment to buy a few things that day.

The fashion show and entire event was to raise money for the Zabuli Education Center. This school provides free education for girls in the village of Deh'Sabz which is right outside of Kabul. The school provides education for more than 300 girls who would not otherwise get an education. Some of these girls walk 45 minutes each way to get to school.

Several hours and two hundred and some dollars later I had joined and won the silent auction for a necklace and earring set entitled "Kissing Rainbows" from Herat which, according to the sign, was "an exquisite silver-wear comprising of a sun-shaped necklace and earrings that hang like an upside down rainbow. From Herat, this refined adornment is a gentle addition to an evening wear."

We all left hundreds of dollars lighter, but having had great food, shopping, conversation, and an interesting fashion show. The excitement and several pots of tea worked perfectly and I left thrilled to have met Razia and some of the girls from the school. I also had a personal ray of hope shine through in that I have been looking for projects to volunteer with while in Kabul and this might be one of them...

Unisex Toilets in Kabul

Unisex toilets in Kabul were not something I would have thought possible. The problem is that when they built the school where I work (I suppose they did not expect females to attend or, perhaps, the men designing it forgot that women have needs as well) they only put in the toilets for men. This means that we females have to share the toilet with them.While that doesn't bother me too much with the doors on the stalls and all in the U.S. or other places, I feel extremely timid here in Kabul. Entering the bathroom I most frequently use is like walking into a long hallway. You pass two sinks on your right hand side, a tiny separating wall that juts out to cover the two urinals and then the end of the hall where are two stalls. One contains a squatter (think Thailand, China, Malaysia, etc.) and the other a sitter (western sit down style toilet). Actually, if I am honest, the whole idea of walking past the urinals is traumatizing. Not because I'm nervous about sharing the bathroom if there are stalls (as previously stated), whatever, but, given the cultural context, I don't want to upset anyone by walking in on them.

One time, I knocked and knocked on the door with no response. I figured, empty. I opened the door and nearly ran into a man in the middle of absolution for prayer. I'm sure the almost contact set him back a bit and he had to redo everything because after I left the bathroom offering profuse apologies, it took him almost a half an hour to leave. I was practically doubled over in front of the bathroom contracted in pain when he left. Passed by me without a second glance.

Another time, I sent a young man in to check the bathroom for me. I watched him check the entire room and then report back "all clear". I thanked him as I entered the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I walked past the sinks, urinals and got into the squat toilet at the end of the corridor. I closed the door to the stall, started lowering my pants and suddenly heard a male voice saying,
"I'm here."
"AHHHH! Why didn't you answer when we asked if anyone was in here (in both Dari and English!)? Are you finished?" I pull up my pants ready to run out of the bathroom.
"Then get out, get out, get out." I heard him leave the stall, wash his hands, unlock the door and leave the bathroom. I take one or two seconds to contemplate whether or not to run out and re-lock the door but nature calls and I drop my pants. I figured I'll hear someone if they came in the bathroom and could wait quietly till they left again. Quiet as a mute mouse, the person would not have even known I was there--no harm done.  

I now knock, call out and then listen very closely. If I hear a cough, sneeze, the tinkling of a small water flow, or anything that would alert me to another person I step outside, close the door and wait.Good listening is an asset for all involved.