A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Friday, March 31, 2006

Mosquito hawks and other oddities

While this was going to be a post about Jalalabad Airfield, strange creatures have invaded my office and begun spastically bouncing all over the place the past few nights, hovering straight into computer screens and eye sockets. Consequently, I must now inform all of the bizzaro insect known (mistakenly) as the mosquito hawk. I was told (again, mistakenly) that the long-legged, lunar-landing-looking hoppers actually eat mosquitos, but had to investigate for myself. I'll let the experts at the Sutter-Yuba Mosquito and Vector Control District explain...

Crane Flies
What people often call "Mosquito-hawks" or "Mosquito-eaters" are actually Crane Flies. Crane Flies do not prey on mosquitoes as many people believe. Crane Flies lay their eggs on the soil. As they hatch and their larvae feed on the bases of grasses. As adults, Crane Flies do not feed. After mating they soon die.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle!

And I must wish a very happy birthday to my sister Weezy. She is moving on up, once again, but I'm still the one with the apartment on the East know, when I need a change of pace from a tent in J-bad.

Agam High School

From a distance, it doesn't seem like too many have made it to the opening of Agam High School, a project paid for by the Marine battalion's commander's emergency reconstruction project (CERP) funds...
Then you get closer. Ah, they're all sitting on the ground, that's why.

Q: How do you keep a crowd of adolescent boys this large quiet, and paying attention?
A: Break out the switches, that's how! (I should write Afghan proverbs)

Seriously, here and there in the crowd, instructors are patrolling with switches (the leafy ends of tree branches), with which they threaten and occasionally use on the kids. I've mentioned it before--it's no longer surprising to see, just their preferred cultural method of keeping crowds in line. Like the Italian smack to the head, the Japanese samurai sword to the neck, or the American prescription for Ritalin, if you will.

"Now how many of these kids are mine?"
Headmasters mill about with the Coalition representatives, as we all wonder when the district subgovernor will grace us with his presence so we can start the ceremony.

As I said, lots of milling...

For some, it was killing...

And for some, just chilling. Staff Sgt Hadzic, one of the great life stories out here (he fought Serbs in the Balkans as a teenage Bosnian), inspires quizzical looks from youngsters.

Check out the expression on the little bugger in the lower left!

Finally, we were underway. Mohammed Sadiq, one of the headmasters, will be your emcee today, folks. A young mullah then sang a beautiful was totally unlike the calls to prayer that we hear each day.

Then it was time for the subphonic stylings of the Subgovernor of Pachir wa Agam, Sayeed Rahman. He echoed the headmaster's appreciation for all we've done, then spent 75% of his speech telling us what they still want. It's kind of a typical Afghan thank you.

"You can get with this, or you can get with that." He may as well have said that, for all the kids cared...they were much more preoccupied with my little camera.

Capt Battista (Sheriff Bart, as I call him) spoke for the Coalition, and reminded the people that the improvements they still seek are only possible if NGOs return, and NGOs will only return if they're not getting blown up...which is probably the most honest assessment they've ever heard.

But the boys, they're still not impressed. They're just wondering when the torment will be over, and they can harass us again.

The ribbon is cut, and Agam High School is open for learnin.' The subgovernor's speeches could use some work, but just as I was thinking that day what kind of guts it takes to be head of a lawless district, another one got whacked yesterday. So it is still one incredibly dangerous job.

Maj Edwards presents certificates to the school president and the chief engineer, who is my new Afghan hero. He spoke for about 15 seconds, as opposed to the average speech of say, two hours. His words of wisdom? Take care of the school, and make it last. Beautiful.

Hanging with my new friend Abdul, who works both as an engineer and an English teacher. Some of the more industrious young Afghans are incredible in all they take on. But I only like this picture for the guy about to pop that cookie into his mouth.

Outside, meanwhile, our vehicles attracted the usual crowds of curious locals looking for whatever treats we bring. Some relatively orderly...

And some rapscalions not so orderly. I wrote, "Total chaos when trying to leave. Teachers throw rocks and use sticks, but kids still swarm humvees left and right."

I leave you with the sentiment expressed by an esteemed American figure of educational achievement...
"Hooray for school!" -Billy Madison

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Jbad to Agam, Part II

The continuation of my jaunt into southern Nangahar province...

There is always a strong chance that one or more vehicles will struggle to start back up when the convoy pauses for any reason. These Marines are bringing up the always-essential tow bar...

While our interpreter Rocky (they all have great nicknames, like callsigns) greets a friend of his, and local boys run up to the scene.

The boys are always the most excited ones in town when our convoys stop, or even just pass through (and they all want pens and radios, every single one of them)...

While the men of the village are no less interested in what's going on. We wound up towing the HMMWV to our destination, where some engine-smart Marines and soldiers found the problem and fixed it.

From this site, we could see one newly-begun construction project, which the sign up above was explaining...

And a recently completed one, with those oh-so-tempting slopes in the background. Then we hit the road again...

I wrote here something illegible, but believe it said "not a road, but a dirt bobsled run," which is pretty much what this downhill resembled, if bobsleds had to worry about other sleds coming around the turns at them.

This boulder-covered riverbed is where the "road" continued for a little while. Not bouncy, not at all...

As we got close to our destination and were finding the right 45-degree grade to climb, we had to reverse the convoy a bit. Naturally, that's the signal for Afghans to pile out of their vehicles and walk right up to our front bumpers...

Or scramble up next to the vehicle doors and angle for a good look inside...

They just kept coming! It was like "The Birds," only with kids. I was truly hoping we could stop without plastering one on our engine block (thankfully, we were).

The descent on the way back from the event now, with that same riverbed waiting ahead. You have to stop for livestock a lot, since they don't really feel much like getting out of your way.

Some scenes from an Afghan hill village on the return drive...

Then came another vehicle adventure, as the HMMWV behind mine was forced off the road by a maniacal passing minibus...
Though since we managed to stay on the road, our driver chalked it up to the Army's lack of combat driving skills.

As you can see, it off-roaded in a pretty precarious spot...

Despite our warnings to clear out of the way, should the multi-ton vehicle flip, the locals decided that the front porch would be a good spot to congregate. As I predicted at the time, the homeowner was scheming, "How can I make money from this?"

So the tow bar came out again, and was put to use...

And once again, a crowd gathered in amusement. My call was correct about the homeowner--now understand, we dole out compensation any time property is destroyed--but for a tire track on a road embankment that you don't own? Sorry, pal!

Thus concludes the photo journey. Stay tuned for a recap of the event itself.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jbad to Agam, Part I

I got outside the wire this past weekend, a couple hours' drive away, and attempted to scribble a running diary of sorts (no easy task on Afghan "roads") as the convoy transited areas that were all new for me, starting with Jalalabad itself.

This little city is incredibly poor, but to the villagers who pour in each morning, it's likely the center of wealth. The place is teeming with activity at 7 a.m. Ramshackle shops (I actually wrote "ramshackle" in my little book) crowd each other alongside the road, forming a sort of ancient strip mall, a mix of uneven timber and scrap metal holding them together.

Carts pulled by donkeys and horses are everywhere approaching and in town. They jostle with bicycles, jingle trucks, "tongas" (3-wheeled, brightly colored, bubble-shaped meter-maid vehicles, pictured above), tractors with carts, and boys leading farm animals. The horns they love to play are hysterical medleys, like Rodney Dangerfield's golf cart in Caddyshack.

Total chaos in town: chokepoints are everywhere, there are no boundaries whatsoever to the roads (aside from the one divided stretch above), and at random points, roads simply end and you must cut over to where another one started up, even in the center of the city. I wrote "Paved portions INCREDIBLY haphazard!" to describe the way in which they allocate their paving funds.

The donkeys are tiny and very comical when they run, but they pull such heavy loads! They're worked hard, as are horses, which always look skeletal. It really throws your sense of time and place into a tailspin seeing these everywhere in the region's capital city.

One of the city's gates. For all we know, the banner could be saying "Go away, American pig-dogs", but I would hope the interpreter sitting next to me in the HMMWV would say something if that was the case.

Palms near the city's gates show how desert-tropical the weather is here. Check out the roadside repair on the car--a constant sight here. But my favorite part of this photo is the two adorable girls at bottom left, cheering us on our drive.

Taking one road to a destination in Afghanistan literally means going straight until a dead end blocks you, then figuring out which direction is the likeliest way the "road" continues, over and over again on your route. The desert right outside Jalalabad is a stark, rocky place for many miles.

An Afghan grave hill. Right about here, I wrote: "Roads are beyond terrible outside city. Like driving through a quarry...a Flinstones quarry. I have newfound respect for drivers and their backs." Any sort of paving had long since ended by this point, and the potholes put NYC to shame.

The road took us into some insanely tight villages, which wouldn't be as nerve-wracking if the stone walls on each side were more than a foot or two from the sides of our vehicles. But that's not the worst part...

The Afghan drivers are! At this moment, I wrote: "Almost bad accident as road dips in culvert, walled in tight, with oncoming traffic whip around bend of 90 degrees." I tried yelling "Go back to Jersey!" at them, but they didn't catch my drift.

Pardon us, for interrupting your day of...doing nothing. I'm sorry, but it gets a little hard to understand the Afghan daily life when leisure time is plentiful for the men, but the few women we see are carrying loads or toiling at some labor (the others we don't see are surely doing the same).

Ah, a paved stretch of road again! In an inexplicable place of course, except that the district subgovernor may live maybe it's not so random. See if you can make out the snow-covered mountains through the morning haze.

Damn it, back to rocks! But excited to be up in some mountains, on our way to a school opening...that's why I was headed to Agam on this excursion. More to follow.

A note to the family and friends of Lt. Powell: thank you for writing in! It was great to see such a huge response. The bagpiper story was picked up by Fort Drum's paper (and I hear some other media outlets), so others out there are reading about your boy.