Today is the first day I feel seriously caged in. I’ve actually been surprised so far at how easy the transition has been. I thought that it would be really tough coming to Afghanistan, but the truth is that I’m living in a self-contained little bubble that keeps me (almost) completely shielded from whatever is going on outside the compound’s walls. Precisely because our movement is so restricted, everything is brought in for us to try to make life as normal as possible. My office, my home, my corner store, my local cafe, my gym and my friends are all within spitting distance. I have satellite television in my apartment, rice krispies and peanut butter on the shelf and Canada Dry club soda in the fridge. There are outdoor BBQs on the weekends and the occasional party in the social center at night. The other day I was lying on the grass in the sun, diet coke in one hand and ipod in the other, and I almost forgot I was living in a conflict zone.
Up until now, I felt like these reinforced concrete walls outside my window were keeping the ‘bad guys’ out; today, I feel like they are simply keeping me in. Each time I pass by one of the main gates of the compound when I’m on my running route I have to fight the urge not to just keep going and burst through to the other side. I can’t help but stare at the beautiful mountains outside the compound and wish I could just run straight for them. It is an unrealistic fantasy, but one that I entertain in my mind several times a day. Sure, it has only been about two and a half weeks – seriously just a blink of time. Some of my neighbours have been here for YEARS. And I’m out on R&R in less than four weeks. I’m not suffering by any stretch of the imagination… This is supposed to be a hardship posting, but I certainly don’t feel hardship in the day-to-day. I’ve come to the realization that the hardship will be in the week-to-week and the month-to-month.
There have been a few moments over the past few weeks, however, when I’ve been brought back to the reality that I do live in Afghanistan. You may have seen it in the news, but the other week there was a pretty major suicide attack on one of the international compounds up the road. I got up around 6 am to go for a run and I heard a boom, but I thought it was probably just a truck loading or something along those lines. It didn’t even occur to me that it could have been something serious. So, I changed into my running clothes, laced up my shoes, put in my headphones and headed out to do my loops around the compound. Strangely, I noticed that I was joined on my run by a number of our armed security guards running to their posts. We have a number of guard stations around the compound, but I had never seen them ALL manned until that morning. Hmm, something wasn’t normal. Then I saw the smoke rising over the compound walls in the not-so-far distance. After half a loop of my usual circuit I was ordered back inside my apartment and told to stay inside. I texted my ultrarunning friend up the road to see if he was okay and sure enough, there had been an attack on his compound. My bubble wasn’t penetrated that day, but his sure was. Okay, maybe I’m not living in a weird little resort after all.
Random suicide bomb attacks aside, I have happily kept up with my training. Since I arrived 2.5 weeks ago, I have covered 270 km of this compound on foot. I have already memorized where the potholes are in the UNICEF parking lot; how many seconds it takes to run around the helipad; and how many blue chairs have been scrapped behind the new apartment blocks. I have used every trick in the book to keep the route interesting, adding in random loops, running sections in reverse, zigzagging between apartment buildings and hopping over garbage in between containers. Sometimes I make funny faces at the guards to try to make them laugh and other times I salute them to thank them for keeping us safe. I’ve run in the dry midday heat (and almost thrown up) and in the cool nighttime rain. I would be surprised if there was an inch of this compound that my feet hadn’t yet discovered.
My favourite run so far happened a couple of nights ago. I had a long day of work and was feeling pretty tired. I wasn’t really that enthusiastic about heading out to do my hamster-wheel run, but I decided to give it a shot. The sun had just started to set and the breeze was starting to pick up a bit. Usually there are at least a few people out for a walk around the compound in the evenings, but there was hardly anyone out that night so it was pretty much just the guards and me. There was a storm off in the distance, but it never actually reached us. Instead of getting pelted by torrential rain, I was treated to the most amazing light show as I ran up and down the compound roads. The sky glowed with bursts of purple light punctuated by the occasional white lightning bolt… it was beautiful. I even liked the way it lit up the barbed wire on top of the walls, creating crazy shadows on the ground. At one point it almost felt as if the lightning was timed with my footstrikes against the pavement. Instead of running for my planned 30 minutes, I stayed out for two hours until the wind picked up and I couldn’t brave the swirling dust around my face.
It is hard to put into words what it is like here. But I will keep trying. I’m setting my sights on my first R&R… or R&R&R! I have found a race in Madeira, Portugal, where I will be resting, recuperating, but most importantly running. Check it out: Madeira Ultra. Being able to run freely in a straight line for hours on end? Psh. Surely I won’t even notice the 105 kilometres passing underneath my feet.
Until then, it is back to the hamster wheel for me…