About a week ago, I returned to Afghanistan after a six-week temporary deployment to Kuwait (with the Grand2Grand race and Vegas celebrations mixed in the middle). From the outside, one might think that I would have been excited to spend a month and a half liberated from the confines of the Kabul compound. Sure, in Kuwait, I was able to live in an apartment, take taxis around town, spend more than 20 minutes inside a grocery store, and stay out past ‘curfew’ if i wanted… I had all of the freedoms that I’m denied here in Afghanistan. You’d think that I would have taken advantage of every moment…. but the truth is, I didn’t. It is amazing how much compound life can affect you, even in just a few short months. I have gotten so used to living in my little compound bubble that suddenly having to deal with ‘normal’ life again, with all of its variety and choice, seemed completely overwhelming.
You see, what can seem mind-numbingly boring about the compound at times can also be strangely calming at others. There is a constant familiarity about life here, and you get used to the regular routine of things. I wake up, get my two morning diet cokes (okay, sometimes three) from the Italian cafe next door, and walk about 50 paces to my office. At lunch, about 30 paces back to my little studio apartment for some kind of canned concoction. Mondays and Wednesdays, the vegetable man comes into the compound to sell his goods at 4pm sharp – one can’t be late or all of the cucumbers and broccoli will surely be gone. Shut down the computer at 5pm, walk the 30 paces back to my office and change into my running gear. Commence Kompound Kilometers and wave at the Nepalese soldiers at every guard station as I complete my loops around the parking lots, helipad and apartment blocks. Return to the apartment, call into the joint operations center for nightly security check, eat another canned concoction (or veggies if it is Monday or Wednesday), watch the BBC and go to sleep…
There isn’t change, there isn’t variety… but there is comfort in the predictability. Everyone here is a familiar face. On weekends if I go to the social center (the one bar ‘on campus’), it is like stepping into a smoky, retro, war-time version of Cheers: everybody knows your name. I don’t have to think about where I’m going to run my errands because there is only one shop to choose from. I don’t have to worry about traffic because I can see my office door from my apartment window.
In Kuwait, I suddenly had to deal with all of the daily tasks involved in normal life again… and it was exhausting! My first weekend, I just shut the door of my apartment and stayed inside. There was a whole new country out there to explore, but I simply sat inside with my laptop and let life go on without me. I didn’t even go out on my balcony for the first week. It is really strange to think about, but I was happy staying put where things were familiar. My life in Afghanistan is about one square mile. Anything larger than that just seemed too much…
(Honestly, I know it sounds pathetic, but it surprised me too! It is actually a real phenomenon, although it occurs in individuals who have been in controlled environments for years, not just six months like me… obviously I’m just a bit sensitive! Prison syndrome or institutional syndrome is used to describe a certain ‘learned helplessness’ that people experience after living in environments in which their independence and responsibility has been taken away for long periods of time. I’ve only caught a small glimpse, but I can definitely see how this would happen!)
So, here I am, back in Afghanistan and I really couldn’t be happier. I know it’ll start to seem boring and overly restrictive again at some point, but for the moment, I am relieved to be back ‘home’. It is starting to get quite cold in the evenings and early mornings here, so there are less people out running around the compound ‘streets’. I’m actually really enjoying running in the evenings now as it gets dark around 5 or 5:15 pm – watching the sun set in the distance through the barbed wire with my friendly gurkhas standing guard nearby, I realize what a unique experience I am having here. I don’t even mind the dust and pollution for the moment as it makes the sunsets more romantic.
I may have heard cracks of random gunfire outside the compound walls tonight, but inside, it is a cozy little bubble of familiarity and warmth. Here are a few shots I took around the compound today after my morning run. Would love any messages or comments from you blog readers out there!