11 November 2007
As my plan for world domination proceeds apace though, I've had some other additions and insights which have enriched my life in the last month. First I have to give props to Arzu and Mitra, my respective Aussie and Kiwi friends. Mitra's definitely proven herself to be one of the coolest people I know and alway down to sit down and humour me by listening to all most hopes and dreams concerning suitors of the opposite sex.
The other interesting occurrence has hit me from halfway across the world, and reaffirms my notion that there is more order in the world than we think. Some friends from DC might remember Jerusha. Every few months or so I've gotten to exchange a few emails with her, and before then in DC she was easily amongst the coolest people I knew, and someone with whom I've always felt a strong connection. Last month a few interesting things happened: I started hanging out with her friend Alison who is in Kabul, and I went to Mazar, where one of the most prominent local family's shared Jerusha's last name and therefore appeared on every other billboard. Just a few days later we ended up getting in touch and staying in touch much more regularly. Since, I've had the enormous pleasure of better getting to know someone who is unlike anyone else I know and a true example and inspiration. On top of all the great friends I have here, in India, in Europe, and in the States some people really stand out, giving you something to look forward to at the end of the day and an ear-to-ear grin. It reminds me how lucky I really am.
Nothing warms my heart and puts me in a good mood like strong personal connections, which leads me to more general (some would say goober-ish) thoughts on life and relationships. For the moment I'm enjoying my job, my life, and the moment.
26 October 2007
More recently Mazar was made famous by the Taliban who took the city despite fierce resistance in 1998. Prior to the Taliban Mazar and its surroundings had been ruled by Rashid Dostum, a local Uzbek (speaking a Turkish dialect) warlord who had been in control since during the Soviet occupation when he was allied with the Soviets and their puppet regime under Najîbollâh in Kabul. Even though the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Dostum’s support helped prop up Najîbollâh until 1992. When Dostum withdrew from the government the regime quickly collapsed precipitating the mujahidin takeover and Afghanistan decent into total anarchy.
Mazar lies in the northern (şomâlî) plains near the border with Uzbekistan and the Amu River, about 400 km north of Kabul. It is separated both culturally and geographically from Kabul by the Hindu Kush mountain range. These mountain have traditionally formed a strong barrier in that they average between 4,000 and 5,000 meters in height. While Kabul faces the Indian subcontinent (the Kabul River drains into the Indus system), Mazar has always had closer ties to Samarqand and Bukhara and it very much a Persian city and part of the Persian heartland. Its climate is also much milder than Kabul’s given its elevation of 380m as opposed to Kabul’s 1,800.
For us the journey took about nine hours on the almost fully reconstructed Salang road. Leaving from Kabul the road ascends quite quickly from the plains above Çârîkâr to its highest point at the Salang tunnel which is at 3,800 m (that’s over 12,000 ft. for you Americans). After that you emerge very far above the tree line and follow and never-ending course of switchbacks until the road comfortably establishes itself in a lush river valley.
I can only imagine that this road and the people unfortunate enough to live along it saw a lot of action during the Soviet occupation, given that this was the main transport road between the USSR and Kabul. The terrain also provides numerous hideouts for potential attackers, who could easily attack Soviet equipment which must have been a sitting duck on the narrow path upon which it could travel. This is witnessed by innumerable shells of tanks, APCs, and parts thereof which litter the entirety of the road. It speaks to the Soviets’ helplessness, demoralisation, or both, that they did not or could not collect their damaged military hardware after attacks. It’s quite amusing see many former APC shells stacked atop and alongside one another to form embankments and tank turrets being used as flower planters.
The architecture and agriculture in view along the way was also quite fascinating. At lower elevations the rivers are surrounded by rice paddies, which are well watered when fed by the rising waters in spring during the melt. In mid summer and fall these field seem to by used for grass and forage for livestock. At higher elevations and in more rocky terrain, the grains are replaced by orchards of fruit and nut trees. These were really beautiful being that we travelled the road in October and their leave were all coloured in bright yellow and red (and this set against the barren mountains in the background). Everywhere a tremendous amount of effort had gone into terracing and irrigation. The terraces reached their greatest complexity for the orchards, many of which were cut out of slopes of up to about seventy degrees. Even on flatter ground every tree had its own little channel that supplies it and runs into a little well immediately around the tree’s base. Furthermore, the each tree is also based on a small rise to provide adequate drainage. In many cases individual trees were supported by complex masonry which exceeds that of any human dwelling. The efficacy of these techniques is apparent when one compares maintained trees to ones which have been abandoned or gone feral. These individuals appeared to be in a much sorrier straight, plus it’s interesting to note how quickly the terraces degrade when not maintain, with tree quickly breaking free and falling below to the river. Some points relating to harvesting: The tractors on hand were all Soviet or FSU in origin, with Belarus’ eponymous tractor making quite a strong showing. Given that the fields were all too small for tractors or used for crops not suitable for mechanical harvesting, the tractors seemed to be used entirely for hauling things such as blocks. Hay is threshed with a scythe (I didn’t see this in action but it was apparent from the patterns in the harvest fields) and left to dry in piles on individuals’ rooftops. This is depending giving that the weather is predictably rain-free until November.
Given the scarcity of arable land in mountain valleys, the towns usually don’t try to compete. They are all clustered on the sides of mountains and stacked on top of one another like the pueblo style in the US. It would have been really interesting to walk around one of these villages and check it out at closer range. All the houses are interconnected by interwoven networks of staircases and paths and interspersed at irregular intervals by individual gardens and fruit trees (which means that there must be an interesting water supply and drainage system at hand to keep all of the watered and then to keep your [rooftop] garden from collapsing into your neighbour’s living room). I was paying special attention to building materials given my current project at Altai, and two things were apparent to me; local materials are amply used to good effect and the local architecture is both practical and dignified. It really makes me disgusted with the compound-style houses favoured by the Afghan middle classes, which are designed at fortresses to protect familial honour from threats which either never have or will exist or actually originate from within such compounds. The traditional architecture consist of baked mud-bricks or fitted and cut stone (more stone at higher elevation since erosion is happening at a faster rate). On top of this they usually have a covering a dried mud-plaster mix. Nothing looked sloppy, with fixtures such as windows carefully fitted at neat angles and carved out of local wood.
We stopped in a town called Douşî for lunch, which was awesome. The menu at this restaurant consisted of lamb kabab, yahni, and dâşi, which we in the West recognise at digi. The digi consists of meat and gravy, with the meat being whatever they have (we ate at this place on the way back too; the first time they had veal, the next they had lamb) and the gravy also consisting of whatever they have. It’s all served in something like Kashmiri style with bread, lots of raw onions, and some masalas which you can add, one being based on dried red chillies and the other of dried green chillies.
The city of Mazar itself is not overly impressive. It’s not that large and not exciting. It is laid out on a rectangular grid with broad avenues, all perfectly centred on the shrine. This sobriety is reflected in the people, who by their own admission are much more focused on religion than having a good time. The city shuts down at sunset and restaurants are not open past eight. Although apparently young people compensate by going buck-wild in Uzbekistan on the weekends. The city of Termez right on the Uzbek side of the border has a disproportionate amount of clubs all disproportionately stocked with hooched out Afghan youth.
We got to eat in a few family homes too. One night we went to the house of Najib, who runs Altai’s Mazar office and the next to the house of Rafi’s family (Rafi being are consultant on this project who comes from Mazar). Our hosts were gracious and the few great, but I was deeply troubled by the intense immorality of a place where you get to meet the male family members but none of the women. Even though they were both very progressive families (one of the families made a great show of serving us beer), my overall impression was one of sadness, incompleteness, and un-Islamic-ness.
Of course no trip would be complete without its dramatic bits. Amongst our group we had the company of one extremely arrogant young man from Jalalabad who managed to embarrass the rest of us at almost every conceivable opportunity. This guy was pretty much a bad caricature of the embarrassment to humanity that is fundamentalism. First off he made a big show of refusing to go to the local franchise of Delhi Darbar because it was Hindu-owned, an action which is forbidden by almost any interpretation of Islam for a huge number of reasons. He also confronted our hosts for dinner on one occasion to inform them of how un-Islamic they were. Out of curiosity on one occasion I engaged him in a discussion of classical Sunni jurisprudence and found that, not surprisingly, he knew nothing (not even heard of classics such at Tabari’s History, Shafi’i’s Risala, or Bukhari’s collection of Hadiths) and gleaned most of his opinions from one Indian Deobandi leader and an intense obsession with originality (which itself fits into the psychology of the Deobandi movement). Anyway it was sad to see someone struggling with the ideas that the rest of humanity has confronted over fifty years ago—basically it reminded me of talking to an American Christian!
The trip back was a bit more intense in that the change in altitude comes as a much greater shock, as does the change in temperature. At one point we also stopped to take a piss and, as we were getting out of the vehicle, realised we didn’t know if the area had been demined. This was solved easily enough by finding a group of sheep. The logic here was that the sheep would have set off the mines had there been any. And it seems to have been right, judging by the lack of explosions. We also stopped at a few point to pick up fruit from the roadside—chiefly pomegranates.
16 October 2007
The basic schematic of the Afghan office is, like many throughout the world, a projection of power. There are typical two rooms. The first will be less lavishly furnished and be occupied by an average of five people at any given moment; a mix of servants and sundry employees. The second room will be the lair of the boss himself. It will contain an enormous desk and the rest of the space will be taken up by obscene plush couches arranged in a salon setting. The meeting will also entail some sort of serving of food. This schematic allows numerous waits for exhibiting and mediating power, so here's how.
The number of people in the anteroom. This shows the power or status of the person you are about to meet. In fact most of them seem to have nothing to do but hang out (there are usually different servants who will bring you your tea later on). The people in the anteroom therefore, not just show how many people the boss can afford to hire, but also that he can afford to have them sitting around not doing much. The more powerful the boss, the more people and the more leisure on hand.
The main reception room. You and the boss will not be the only people in this room. Very often other people have been waiting since before you arrived to conduct their business. They may even have been waiting through multiple previous visitors. Unfortunately (for Afghan society) I never am made to wait, owing to the fact that Western visitors accord status, and those like myself who speak English are at the top of even that pecking order. Being made to wait and seeing the other guests that are brought in will impress upon the other individual the importance of the person they are waiting to see. If the person you are waiting to see cannot speak English themselves, they will frequently produce a foreign-educated son as a measure of social advancement, usually with the excuse of acting as a translator, which is pretty thin when everyone speaks Farsi. The desk is often little used and mostly for show, a fact often compounded by the impractical arrangement of unnecessary electronic gadgets upon it.
The food offered and the method of its offering. Tea can be served either before you sit down or offered just when it becomes clear that you are about to leave. The food will be non-existent or the usual assortment of nuts and raisins or include some specialties as souhan and gaz. Some people, as a result of class or pretension, go for the cornucopia effect, presenting you with a table covered in things like Pringles, Dorritos, and LU cookies. Some also dispense with tea and offer you coffee (perceived as a core indicator of things Western; Westerners are often perceived to dislike tea), soda, or even Red Bull.
The use of Western artefacts. This is something of a cross-cutting theme. The amount of Western artefacts on hand is inversely proportional with the amount of modernisation of the given boss. This extends from clothing to food to decor. The person educated or brought up the West will great you behind a well used desk in an office tastefully decorated with Afghan objets d'art while wearing a kurta-pijama. On the other extreme, we once spoke with the son of the boss, who had been left in charge. This individual, whilst making an aweful attempt at a Tehrani accent (which is prestigious thanks to the cultural power of Iran and the massive Farsi-language entertainment industry based in Los Angeles which is also given voice in the accent of Tehran), was wear probably one of the most amazing get-ups off all time, consisting of: acid-washed, flared, and incoherently embroidered jeans (Rajastani embroider on one pant, mickey mouse on the other); a collared shirt which had massively oversized cuffs, cufflinks the size of bones, and patterned with oversized neon-hued pieces of cheesecake (the collar was necessarily popped), and to top it off, a leather life-preserver-style vest that was sekwinzed.
It's not just the boss's personality or pretension that factor into this but also those of the clientele. Whatever the individuals preferences, there clients or potential clients will also look for certain signals. Many people have a regal salon-style set up, but will instead take you too a modern and efficient office when given the chance. Another axis is professionalism. The more professional the company, the more familiar its offices will look to someone from the West. People who sat behind a desk where they were visibly at work knew how much they would sell in a given interval, the cost of their inputs, and be full of potential strategies for growth. The biggest divide overall is between businesses that just consist of trading and transporting goods and those that are trying to establish an actual corporate structure, which is necessary to institutionalise the benefits of economic growth.
10 October 2007
My job right now consists of finishing up some market research on construction materials in the place of someone who got sick just before I started. In a sense this is training for a large market survey which I am going to head up for Nestle starting in November. As little as I know about construction materials, the work is really interesting as it involves me going around Kabul and getting to talk to all different sorts of people, plus also getting to know the Afghan economy close up.
Due to my lack of technical know-how, I've been paired up with an Afghan engineer (Aref, long based in Germany) who helps me fill in the gaps in my interviews. While necessary for this project, in general I hope I won't have to take assistants in the future. It makes the interviews more difficult because people don't expect me to speak Farsi when I have an Afghan assistant. It is also problematic because Aref speaks only German and Farsi, and my technical German is crap. He is used to thinking of German as the language of technology where I accord that status to Farsi. As a result, rather than asking a direct question in Farsi, I have to discuss with Aref in German and then have him translate into Farsi. Yes, my German is improving quickly. It also amusing because I have spent so many years devaluing German as just another old European language and now have to treat it with some respect. But Farsi is better, way better.
The living arrangements are okay. Currently I'm in the largest guesthouse out in Taimani. Let's face it, these are dorms. It's great fun. I rarely get to sleep on time and instead spend time drinking Ovaltine with Mitra and Arzu. We have continental breakfast laid out for us every morning and people clean our rooms. I'm not complaining; I've been roughing it for the last year and I'm quite happy for the perks! My living situation will soon get much better as well. Four expats are moving out so Altai held a room auction. I was the only one who placed a bid, so I got my pick :-) My new room will be in the guesthouse directly across from L'Atmosphere (a French restaurant with readily available alcohol which serves as a second office for the Altai staff) and only 50m away from the office. The room is right next to the bathroom and kitchen (yes, at moment my room is unattached, so I have to go outside to get to the bathroom, common room, or kitchen, which will suck come winter) and also has a desk and really soft mattress. I might also spring $120 for a diesel heater. One year of lighting the bokhari (wood stove) by myself has been quite enough, plus with a wood stove it will be cold in the morning unless you keep waking up in the middle of the night.
20 September 2007
The flight to Kabul was relatively normal, by general standards, not those of a typical flight to Kabul. No goats, neem trees, or firearms in sight, nor was anyone carrying much more than twice the allowed amount of baggage with them. Indian served complimentary beer on the flight (I was the only non-taker), and no-one felt compelled to fast, even though the journey is under two hours. The terminal reconstruction is quite evident in Kabul and it's gotten much nicer at the airport.
Having been gone for four month I noticed a lot of changes. For one, things appear to be looking up. There's even more construction than before and a lot of small businesses are being repaired as well. On the hand, people are bitching about increases in the price of flour and oil.
It's nice to be back, the weather is perfect, about 25-30C with no humidity. I've made it a habit to sit out at L'Atmosphere, where no one is bothered by my using the internet, even though I'm not ordering anything due to the fast. In summer, it's an open-air restaurant (any of you who have been to San Diego, think Cafe 976) with lots of fig, pomegranate, and cherry trees, as well as grapes and roses too. I'm a bit annoyed by the constant repetition of the soundtrack from My Best Friend's Wedding (the English version of Mere Yaar Ki Shadi Hai), but oh well.
I found, with Nathan's help, a nice guesthouse behind the Kabul City Centre shopping mall. It's actually a private house run by a nice and mellow Australian guy, and is next to an awesome Lebanese restaurant. Beyond finishing my survey of perceptions of NGO-sector corruption in Afghanistan, I'm trying to rustle up a new job but networking with everyone imaginable. It's much easier to find work hanging out here than going to DC or Cali, just because communication tends to be so poor between Afghanistan and wherever the donors are. Plus you just get a lot of experience in anything you do here.
So, basically, the job search begins, the partying continues!
16 August 2007
Before we can move on to the Afghans, we need to look at the situation from the point of the NGO community itself. First and foremost there is a general failure to be practical--this means a relevant combination of theoretical and specific, not one or the other. The NGO community would do well to recognise the realities defined in political science and economics (which is often disdained in itself). You'll observe my point as I continue, the grand scales bears heavily on the specific analyses. Here are some ground rules for understanding the situation in Afghanistan:
- States are geographically delimited public goods monopolies. As such, they try to build, maintain, and enforce monopolies over the production, distribution, and consumption of public goods, such as the rule of law, justice, freedoms, etc. The state is also the principle agent in the state system, which, thanks to a huge body of treaties and common law, has been growing since at least 1648. There global political arena is composed of states, bodies composed of states, organisations which operate under the auspices of the state, and those who define themselves in response to states and the state system (the last two need not be mutually exclusive).
- Political actors are any person, group, organisation, body, multilateral institution, reptile, or platypus which has an effect on the any political economy or ecology. Yep, every conscious being is pretty much a political actor.
- Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are just that. Your local sewing circle is any NGO, as is McDonalds, Bearing Point, Louis Berger, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, Counterpart International, and the Foundation to Protect Swedish Underwear Models. For the purpose if this spiel, I'm talking about NGOs as organisations that distribute aid.
- While a given organisation is either part of the state or it is not, it's relation to the state could be discribed on a continuum. At one end of the continuum you have the organisation being completely inside the government, basically the Man's bitch. An example would be the Department of State in the US. At the other extreme would be an organisation that has nothing to do with the government (like the secrecy-shrouded PLF--Platypus Liberation Front; holed up in an undisclosed location). Yes, the reality is that every organisation falls somewhere in between, and there's a handy adjective for this, official. The more anything is sanctioned by anything else, the more official it is, with regards to point of reference for definition.
- Legitimacy is how much support something has. It doesn't matter what it is or how official it is.
So, in Afghanistan we have a lot of political actors, all with varying degrees of officialdom. On the official side we have the internationally recognised government of Afghanistan and bodies (militaries, embassies, development agencies) of other sovereign states. On the unofficial end we have the Taliban (boo!), warlords, clan, kin, and tribal structures. None of the above are necessarily good or bad, and all have varying degrees of legitimacy.
The state can not distribute the amount of public goods necessary for all the citizens of Afghanistan, so other organisations fill the vacuum. Some organisations are official; the Afghan government and other states acknowledging its lack of capacity open bids, sign contracts, and invite other organisations to provide [public] goods. Along with the actual provision of public goods, said organisation also often help to strength the Afghan state's ability to do so (capacity building).
Uninvited are the Talban and other traditional power structures. The Taliban want control over the state and hence the monopoly, warlords want the added prestige and wealth associated with the ability to distribute public goods, and maybe a monopoly over an area as well. Tribal or clan institutions may or may not compete with the state, but given different discourses of legitimacy, traditional institutions may serve as an arbiter between the average citizen and larger actors. Actors that can best tap into and influence the discourse of legitimacy gain the most power.
Most actors lie somewhere between official and unofficial. Non-official actors such as warlords or local jirgas may be coopted into the state in exchange for improved legitimacy and interest aggregation and adjudication. NGOs also lie on this continuum. USAID is a highly official arm of the US government. It contracts out a project to an independent NGO, say, Counterpart, which then becomes a more official player in so doing. The individuals and organisations who then work with Counterpart have varying degrees of officialdom within the resulting structure. Notice that whether the NGO is for- or non-profit is of only tangential importance. Legitimacy is often misconstrued, by those within and with the NGO community to be a function the profit motive. In reality, an NGO is a business and a corporation, and it's profit status doesn't necessarily relate to its transparency, accountability, efficacy, or legitimacy.
The point of IWA's recent survey is that, while Afghans are more aware of NGOs than, say, the average American (they deal with them more), they are still quite confused. Some provinces where people rate official power structures as most influential are unlikely to ever have experienced proper governance by the national government. In other places, political actors blur together, with local government, NGOs, and warlords being identified with each other in important ways. Aid delivery must be thought out and organised, yet there is a paradox because we know that command economies don't work. This means that not only do NGOs have to coordinate, they have have to coordinate in structuring and regulating the market to increase the demand for [certain kinds of] aid and integrity in their consumption and distribution.
One of the most important points in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness is that harmonised aid is important, but it does not go so far as to recognise the necessity of adapting to market forces. Along with economic markets, there exist also ideological markets, requiring marketing and PR. The branding, marketing, and packaging of aid are as important as the product itself (of course the product also needs to be good, as the makers of US foreign policy would do well to understand). We've all made fun of the 60-odd page brand identification manual that USAID puts out, but there's a logic there.
To go beyond what the results of survey, or even what a trough of phenomenological interviews can suss out, the problems faced in the reconstruction of Afghanistan are at least as much a result of structural factors in the aid distribution regime as they are the result of specific factors in the Afghan beneficiaries. These include the problem of dual accountability, whereby aid distributes are supposed to be accountable to both their beneficiaries and their donors (who are often nation-states whose interests may conflict with those of the intended beneficiaries), and the problem of the orientation of NGOs themselves. But just as important is the notion amongst many non-profits that they are superior or more rashid than for-profits.
The tendency of non-profits to fully grasp the reality of the situation makes them overall less confident and less effective in aid distribution. Non-profits should strive to internalise the principles of integrity and accountability as deeply as they advocate them. They also need to realise that there is no magic bullet for accountability and hence to stop wringing their hands about it. The consequences are immediate. Afghans are confused over non-profits/ intentions as well as their identity, often not being aware of who is supposed to benefit or why.
The problem with accountability for non-profit NGOs is the lack of incentives. While for-profits are certainly involved in many abuses, their model theoretically creates a more efficient model for integrity. The same profit model that can cater to a baser instinct also introduces more checks and balances by which the for-profit should be more transparent and accountable, at least to its shareholders. Following the theory, a for-profit will lose money if it doesn't do the job and do it well, and furthermore it will face internal punishment if it loses out on revenue or future contracts (being unethical costs money!). In too many non-profits, this business ethnic is non-existent. No one gets fired when a product fails or doesn't get produced in a timely fashion. Donors sympathise with the non-profit NGO that can't balance its budget and don't cut off its funding right away. It is considered tolerable for a non-profit not to pay its employees (who work just as hard as employees of for-profits) well or be insolvent, whereas a for-profit would become a laughing stock for this. Most non-profits are accountable or at least genuinely try, but the non-profit model has serious flaws and strains which should be better addressed.
For the situation to change, NGOs have to grow up. (Some place are ahead--NGO discourse is much more advanced in the US and Iran than in Europe for example) In order to become truly effective, non-profits need to realise that they are just one of many political and economic actors, and that they are political and economic actors themselves. They also have to be as conversant and comfortable with economics as with the discourses of justice and public health. Non-profits also need to embrace markets, and embrace the hard game of politics with all the clever PR of Shell and Unilever. Economics is the moral science, explaining how humans satisfy their wants and needs and theirin explaining how we can help them be satisfied more often. The market for public goods in Afghanistan will be filled, the question is how we are going to structure the market.
19 June 2007
As hinted at by my lack of AC, my NGO still remains insolvent, hence I have not gotten paid and have instead received quite a bit of kindness from friends. I, however, am now thoroughly on board with the job search. I have learned that Monster and Jobster both suck. For Monster, I didn't exactly have a narrow search--about ten different kinds of proffessions in about 20 countries. Got back one result. I mean what the hell? I guess things have not changed much since the old Monster which would respect to my interest in, say, non-profits, by returning search results for IT workers for such companies. Jobster is also strange in that the social networking phenomenon doesn't apply well to job-searching in that most people are not in a state of constant search. When they find a job, they forget about their profiles. A better thing would be to offer these services with Facebook or Friendster, since people would still be logging in even when happily employed. Of course this would require more people to grow up and use social networking sites.
All of my experiences with my current NGO just encourage me ever more to get into my own business and simply run things myself. And India's a positive environment for that in that there are plenty of opportunities to be had here.
Another upshot of my insolvency is that it's led me to try eating at more cheap places here. One, an Andhra restaurant near where I live, produces a lamb-nugget that is awesome. Consisting of a manlier meat, it even beats the chicken nugget from the roadside dhaba in Tamilnadu. Crispy and batterfried in a spicy batter with all sort of chillies and garlic, these lamb-nuggets are mighty. Serve them with cheese sauce and white people would kill for them too. This Andhra restaurant also makes a fish curry that is no joke. Being good Andhra food it's the first properly spicy thing I've found during this stint in India. In general this country suffers from one pepper, the green/red chillie, which is often not that hot. The first step to good hot food is to supplement that heat with black pepper, which is different and complementary. But more importantly, more kinds of chillies could be used like in Mexico or the US. Of course I still haven't found a good Christian or Zoroastrian (Parsi) restaurant. Having brough the chili to India in the first place, Christians are the most reliable connoisseurs of spice in India.
01 June 2007
It's an interesting experience finally getting to live in Delhi, and here are the biggest insights I have into Indian society so far.
-Some things are universal. The guy from AirTel who's supposed to set up my internet has so far managed to miss two appointments.
-You litterally cannot build stores and fill them with products fast enough here. People have a desire to spend their money but few places to do it. In the upscale suburb of Gurgaon there are countless megamalls and hypermarkets under construct to complement the 15 already completed. Delhi only really has a few decent shopping areas--Ansel Plaza, SouthEx, Khan Market, and Priya Complex, the rest are all out in Noida or Gurgaon. Now before you realise my bias, I'm not saying this as a snobby Californian so much as a consumer who just wants to be able to get stuff in an enjoyable and navigable environment. The old bazaars, say in Shahjahanabad, are now mostly wholesalers and not practical for the consumer, and the rest are crowded, dirty, and annoying (or tourist traps), even if they do have good food. Overall Delhi makes Los Angeles look pedestrian-friendly, which means not that it doesn't have public space, but that those spaces are too superhuman in size and hence too alienating. Whoever can fill demands more decent public/commercial space will make a lot of money. (this relates to my theory on how any good public space needs to be comercially oriented, this is why the National Mall in Washington DC is such a dramatic failure; it's not fun and it's not social)
-There is a serious lack of entrepreneurialism here and this has serious implications when coupled with the need to feed this growing economy. I'll give an example of how this plays out. At the tea house where I work they have a music playlist that basically consists of Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson, which the odd bit of Shaggy thrown in. All day long they will play the same Backstreet Boys songs over and over again and this doesn't change ever, I've been here almost every day for two weeks now and I've stopped in before as well. Now it's interesting that this never drives the staff crazy and that they don't think that they can say something to their manager about changing it. Trust me, nobody likes Backstreet Boys that much. Ever. The next point goes to why I don't ask them to change it. My reason is simple--the music will switch to whatever I ask them to change it to and then probably remain on that in perpetuity. In other words, it wouldn't get any better. This may be a bit presumptuous on my part, but I think as an example it captures something of the picture. I remember seeing a newspaper ad that has the shocking title of "World's Most Reliable Career!". Think about that for a minute.
A other cool thing is that I've already managed to have some visitors here. Shareena came to stay with me here and Liz and Sahar, both of Kabul, are also in town for short periods. Sahar actually will be here for about four hours tomorrow on a layover, during which I plan to take her to the famous Bukhara restaurant.
11 May 2007
In Delhi we did end up going to Chitra to Elevate and then the three of us (me, Chitra, and Sanaa) hung out the next day and went to an excellent R&B club in Vasant Vihar, and me and Chitra decided we were a couple. Soon I found myself extending my stay by another week.
Upon arriving back in Kabul we tried to work out my visa paperwork, but it was more complicated than before. In order to get a working permit, we have to conven our board of directors to clarify that we can hire foreigners in our charter. This isn't very difficult or unreasonable--it's simply a matter of following the steps--but there's no way it would have been done before my one month tourist visa (which I got in Delhi) expired. So we came up with the decision that I will work from Delhi for the next two months while this gets straightened out, which also conveniently allows me to spend some time with Chitra!
With housing prices in Delhi being what they are, I should be able to get a very nice place with all the amenities. One amenity which I will be getting for the first time in my life will be air conditioning, which is essential now that the temperatures are consistently topping 40 degrees there.
My last weekend in Kabul is proving to be very pleasant as well. One of the higher-ups from Nathan's NGO, the COO, came to town and we spent the day touring various attractions. First we went to the OMAR (an organisation which clears landmines) mine museum, which has a collection of old military hardware. All of this was illuminated by Azim, Nathan's driver, who was conscripted out of high school by the communist government to fight the mujahidin. Azim also pointed out who controlled which hilltop during the worst of the fighting (from 1992-96). Basically all the warlords in Kabul (Dostum, Hekmatyaar, and Mas'ud were the main players) controlled various hilltops and spent the four years before the Taliban took over trying to dislodge each other from them (to give you an idea, Kabul consists of two big plains, with about three huge mountain peaks in the middle, and the northern plain also has about five major mesas interspersed upon it). With warlords such as Hekmatyaar firing up to 2,500 poorly guided, Pakistani-supplied rockets a day, one can see how the city emptied quickly and got to its current state.
After the museum, we went to Babur's tomb (Babur was the descendent of Timur who founded the Mughal state in India), which is surrounded by pleasant gardens filled with picknicking families. It has been restored by the Agha Khan Foundation, which has faithfully planted the garden with Babur's favourite trees like fruit trees and sycamores. After that we drove around the bombed- and burnt-out hulk of Darulaman Palace. All and all it was a very nice tour on a very nice day.
07 April 2007
But here I am in Delhi, and it's nice and warm, as well as clean, green and fresh. I was dismayed to get off the plane and find that alcohol wasn't being sold for two days due to the municipal elections. Oddly enough, alcohol was also supposed to be forbidden today and yesterday too, because of vote counting and Good Friday, but no one seems to be heeding it now. The first night I contented myself with going to Karim's and getting some nice Shami kabab and karahi. The man who sat down next to me at the table goaded me into trying his brain masala, which was indeed tasty, except for the brain part.
As expected, I have been a lot more efficient here than in Kabul. I generally spend my time circulating between an internet cafe and one of the many coffee shops here. The coffee shops are a bit nicer and cooler than their American counterparts, usually full of businessppl like myself staring at their laptops with the addition of an above-average number of ridiculously hot girls.
In the evenings I've been having fun with some people Saurabh put me in contact. It's kind of like a refined version of my old crew from DC, with people who work in the World Bank, local Think-tanks, and some journalists. Also in the mix is Sanna, from Denmark, whose purpose here is doing research on middle-class drinking habits. Everyone is happy to provide her with material.
Yesterday the Indian end of the crew was too tired, so me and Sanna met up in Defence Colony (where I got some awesome Mangalorean fish fry for dinner!) and decided to go to TC. Now TC (Turquoise Cottage) is a random-looking Irish-style pub near Hauz Khaas Village. We wanted to go separate because Mohit, Kaushik, etc, usually don't like these sorts of places (they're loud and annoying, which I would agree with too, except that I'm curious). It was hilarious, the part played nothing but 'uncle music', some of which is very good like REM and U2, but would never fit into a 'cool setting' that I could imagine. In any case, we met a girl there name Chitra and hung out with her for a while. It turns out her goal for tonight was the same as ours, to go to Elevate in Noida. Elevate is prolly one of the largest and most important clubs in the world, with best and newest in music, so this truly should be an experience. This city is cool, and it's actually making me cool, if such a thing were ever possible!
02 April 2007
My attempt on Sunday at leaving the country failed. Yesterday, all in all, I had a fascinating day and it gives me a little hope for this country. So I went to the airport, and lo and behold they would not let me get out with my expired visa by paying a fine (or a "fine"). Nope, they've clamped down on that, but they don't have expedited procedures, so despite my whining I had to go back to the Foreign Ministry and get an exit visa. They did make my ticket refundable though. I found out today that I do better going to the ministries by myself--when one of my coworkers comes with they seem just like my servant and I like some other ignorant international. When I go myself I get to blab away in Farsi and everyone finds me adorable, plus in Kabul it's next to unheard of for an American to do things unaided. So the foreign ministry sends me to the Interior Ministry, where the deputy minister just gives me my exit visa straight away, there were no fees and he didn't even ask for a bribe (that's where I think the combo of being foreign and Farsi-speaking is especially endearing). I then went down to Indian Airlines for one of my flights--the manager recognised me from the airport and just changed the date, no questions asked. Then I went to Kam Air for my return flight and no problems. I spent 0 cents yesterday getting this straightened out. Then I went back to work and made the best spreadsheet ever!
Delhi will be nice. Relaxation and modern conveniences, plus lots of good food. I'll probably find a nice cafe with wireless and up my productivity. I also miss driving. Maybe I'll rent a car and enjoy not only paved roads but multi-laned freeways.
22 March 2007
Today we had a lovely outing to the Hotel Intercontinental and Bagh-e Bala. The Intercon is an old building which dominates a hill west of the city. It was built in 1969 and this is evident in its exterior. You feel like on the set of Spielberg's Munich (an awesome movie which captures the political ambiance 70s excellently as well as questioning Israel's right to exist by making the protagonist choose between being Jewish and Israeli) or one of the 'before' pictures of Beirut dating to 1973 hung up by a nostalgic Lebanese restauranteur. Rather unfortunately, the interior seems to have been recently renovated, making it less than shocking. I've still seen a big hulking hotel in Damascus where even the furniture is absolutely unchanged. We walked around Bagh-e Bala which is the big park next the hotel and filled with thousands of picknickers. There was lots of good snacks around too, including masala french fries and fresh sugar cane and sugar cane juice.
Otherwise it's a quiet new year's, with me and Saurabh more or less left to our own devices. The various components of my gang/family are out of town, including Nathan, Sahar, Lorenzo, and Khwaga. My productivity is up in any rate, so I can work on my own regular schedule--that despite even the latest bout of diarrhoea. The press conference seems to have gone well--We got an interview with one of the top journalists at Le Monde, and BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP etc. came out to hear us. I participated in a radio discussion--in Farsi (yikes) and gave an interview to Radio Netherlands myself.
Also exciting is that Neda is now adding herself to the list of people interested in Kabul. It looks like I just might bring DC here. All I need now is Angelo and a franchise of Mixtec with their excellent Margaritas.
09 March 2007
It's been a busy week, and there's been a slight promise of summer (one day it may it up to 14C!). The second Bollywood party turned out pretty well last night. Like the last party this was a joint effort between Saurabh (DJ Mariz-e-Mohabbat 'lovesick'), myself (DJ Elaj 'the cure') and Mudasser (Khauf 'fear'). There was a good mix of both people and music.
I finally managed to meet up with my friend James, who's doing his PhD research here. He was dressed in fine Peshawari style with a white kurta and black vest. Also appearing last night was my friend from high school, Etai. It really is a trip to see fellow high school people here. In any event it was really fun chatting with him again and seeing that some people from high school are leading normal lives.
Other activities lately have included a budgetary analysis workshop put on by ActionAid at the Kabul City Centre, which got me a lot of good contacts for my NGO accountability project. Then it's just been back to the office to vet my questionnaires yet again.
13 February 2007
Next amusing story. Yesterday I get an email from Tilly (Nathan's boss at Counterpart) asking me to translate a letter one of their servants had received. The letter is from the German government printed on official stationary (yes, they have one format that they use for everything) in annoying unbelievable pretentious formal German (again, the norm). The letter is clearing addressed to this person (yes, they got an exact address in Kabul). It is a letter informing her that she has received a temporary German driver's licence enclosed and that she should proceed to the German consulate in a week with a passport photo and pick up her official copy. Now this person has never been to German, speaks no German, and moreover does not know how to drive. It couldn't be a scam--who would make money if she goes to the consulate? Also a German driver's licence costs thousands of dollars and entails many hours of training and a four hour driving test. It is the only country in Europe where I cannot drive with my American licence. Hilarious on so many levels.
The other good news is that we have acquired a new cook for the evenings. None other than the amazing Matin who until just this week cooked for Ali Azimi (Waise's father, who is leaving Afghanistan). We're splitting him between me, Lorenzo, Khwaga (we are all usually in the office here anyway) and Jerome. This guy is a true artiste, and makes the best Afghan and Iranian food I've ever tasted.
29 January 2007
One of the latest challenges I've been facing is developing a questionnaire aimed at a report we're going to do on perceptions of NGOs. It's shot through with holes and I'm going to go over to Counterpart and work with Sahar on Wednesday, it turns out they're facing similar problems. It is fun doing the questionnaire in Farsi though.
I have also adjusted to the altitude here, especially as it concerns my ability to take in alcohol. I've been able to get properly drunk a few times here and I had a nice evening drinking with Nathan, Sahar, and Marina at the Gandomack last night.
And yes, I have discovered here that there are a lot of foods which can be just plain nasty. Chief amongst them are the feet of any hooved animal and kidneys. Cows' feet are nothing but pure rubbery gelatin cooked in an especially nasty gravy which rather hard chickpeas which give you the notion of chewing on bits of bone. Kidneys taste like warm, soft, metal. No furthern description necessary.
The last cool thing that comes to mind at the moment is Ashura. I've never been in a place where the Shiis really come out of the closet and celebrate but here you see all the black banners with red lettering lamenting Yazid's victory of Husayn at Karbala in Iraq. People even attach the banners to cars, which I think is bold given that Shiis are only 20% of the population. And you can see the results of the increasing anti-Shiism on the part of Sunnis. They say utterly stupid things and show a profound lack of understanding. It seems as if the ascension of Shiis in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran itself are bit too much for some people to bear.
06 January 2007
To start out with keep in mind the number of miracles, which it took for us to get out of Kabul in the first place. We had to get to the airport, the airport and its employees and parts had to be functional, the weather had to cooperate, and the plane had to come. Traffic getting to the airport was an absolute nightmare. Every road was packed as millions of people flooded into the city for their holiday shopping (for Eid-e Qorban, that's Id al-Adha to you Arabs and Passover to the rest of you--along with cars the roads were clogged with sheep for slaughter). It took nearly 1.5 hours to get to the airport. Then there was the problem of electricity at the airport. Out airline, Indian Airways, was all fancy and dependent on computers and such, so of course they had to wait till the power came back to process customers (Kam Air, the Afghan airline, had no such problem, as they seem to issue mud-tablet boarding passes with cuneiform). And finally the airlplane did actually take off.
The transfer to our Bangalore flight in Delhi was as normal as could be, meaning chaotic. I should interject here that we're not talking about long flights, the Kabul-Delhi one is 1:40 and Delhi-B'lore is 2:05. The Delhi airport is a great achievement in failed socialist planning. The airport was not intended for expansion, with the result being that most passengers are ferried by bus to their plane far out on the tarmac. The airport only has about 10 gates proper and no real procedure to international transfer. This means that you can't check your luggage through. According to Nathan, a group of people sit around confused in the passport control room, knowing that they can't go through customs--an official eventually takes a herd of people through a door and sits the down in the departures lounges, then they herd you around to get your luggage and connecting boarding pass (both of which are on the other side of customs). For we simply had to get to the domestic terminal. Of course this is not in the same building. It is in two rather small buildings some kilometres away. In other words the transfer involves getting to sit in traffic on the N8 freeway for a while. The airport does kindly provide shuttles, but they only leave once an hour so they are hardly useful if your transfer time has been squeezed down to about 50 minutes.
We did get into Bangalore around 10.30 in the evening though and had no trouble finding a room at the place I stayed at this summer, right in the middle of downtown on Brigade Road. It's nice to be in a normal country without the NGO price-bubble. A fine room can be had for only about USD 30 per night--a self catered meal for three from an Andhra restaurant cost Rs 250 altogether-the same amount would buy a crappy vegitarian dish in Afghanistan. Bangalore has little history and like most cities in India is relatively new, at least in relation to those in America. That's fine though--I'm generally bored by historical sight because they only amount to things and drawn rather to commercial culture. And Bangalore has great shopping.
The next day we (me and Nathan) managed to find Neda, hit up several malls, and then close down a bar. The weather was also perfect, warm and dry. This with some of the world's restaurants makes me so thankful I'm not in a place like Europe. After the bar had closed Nathan managed to fulfill his grand desire to play beer pong. All the while we were debriefed by Neda who is trying to sell to a friend of hers at Columbia, Vivian, who seems eligible on all counts. The day after that involved more shopping!
Finally we went over to Livio's place (Lorenzo's brother) in Indiranagar. It was a beautiful three-story place with a lovely roof deck. Livio works in Bangalore as an architect, which is pretty cool considering all the opportunities it offers given the construction everywhere. Saurabh and Lorenzo were both there from Kabul and we all went to a great Mughlai restaurant (it's called Tandoor if any of you come through there). Finally the next day was the big new years party. We all brought the year in in style with non-veg catering and lots of booze. It was a real mix of people, with all the Indians being especially impressive in that they were intelligent and articulate--not to mention that they all have beautiful accents which make you feel stupid. The only slight drawback was that me and Saurabh had not taken control of the music and hence the selection was below par. Nathan disappeared on the roof with a girl named Leila (from Tunesia, but living in Dubai!) where they "made friends". Meanwhile me and a girl from Nellore were totally loaded and sang (and tried to sing) old Telugu and Hindi songs.
Alas, due to our limited timeframe we did have to leave the party at a reasonnable hour. We decided to get our beach time in in Mahabalipuram, a town about 40 km south of Chennai (Madras) which is famous for its stunning temples and rock carvings. We didn't really have time to take the train, so I hired a driver who was to come on the morning of the 1st. Meaning that at least I had to get some sleep so as not to miss the drive. One thing I learned is that the roads are quite decent, well marked, and well paved, so it would be a lot more fun to rent a car in India--especially in the south. Of course car rental is kinda a new concept in a place where it's cheaper to hire someone to do almost anything than to do it yourself.
The drive was indeed beautiful, Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state of which Madras is the capital, was really like a foreign country. It's flat and interspersed by the occasional huge mountain. The saris were amazing too. Tamilian saris get truly bright and and out of control which colour schemes unheard of anywhere else. Plus, like anywhere in India, the sheer variety of styles is amazing. I guess it's like looking into the future but in fashion. When you see the tremendous diversity of India, you understand where the South Asian pop-culture juggernauth gets its power from. There's an amount of strength, diversity, and plurality there that Western countries can only dream of if they're willing to open they're doors fully to immigration.
In Mahabalipuram we made for the nicest resort we could find an crashed there for two nights. The temperature was perfect--about 30 during the day and 25 at night, all the while with a nice breeze coming off the Bay of Bengal. Yep, we just veged.
On the way back we stopped for some awesome chicken manchuri and a "Kerala Chicken Fry" that rocked Nathan's world and redefined what the chicken nugget should be. It was excellent chicken breaded and fried in tandoori masala with spring onions and cilantro. Awesome. That night it was back to Livio's house to hang out with them and Saurabh until it was time to leave for the airport. Amazingly there were no difficulties in returning to Kabul either. So all in all it was a pretty stunning trip.
Of course I came back to be suprised by -25 night and the realisation that my water tank will be frozen for the near future, but that is another adventure!