Musings about life

Back in the Compound Bubble

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!

Constant air traffic throughout the day and night takes some time to get used to…

24 comments on “Back in the Compound Bubble

  1. Just wanted to say that I’ve recently started reading your blog and I’m amazed! I was born in Kabul, but grew up in the States and I’ve been running for about a year. I’ve only done a 5K so far, but I definitely plan on doing longer distance races soon. You’re such an inspiration!

    • Wow, thanks so much for reading! That’s really interesting that you grew up here – have you ever thought of coming back for a visit? Do you have family here still? Keep it up with the training – don’t say “only” done a 5k…. I still think it is easier to do an ultra than a 5k. Short races happen so quickly that there is no margin for error. You can take all the time in the world in an ultra and enjoy plenty of snacks along the way! 🙂

      • I left when I was about 4 years old, I’m 29 now, and haven’t been back since! I would love to visit one day, it just doesn’t seem like it’ll happen any time soon. Are you able to interact with the people there or are you pretty much confined to your compound?

        You’re right, I shouldn’t say “only” a 5K. I worked really hard to get to that point!

        Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Rebecca Sinclair

    Hi there, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve spent some bouts of time working on a small island, with its one shop, tinned supplies and one tv channel. The simplification of it all I find rather refreshing after all the constant bombardment of advertising out in the ‘real world’. Its sometimes a relief to have some decisions made for you by the lack of choices available. You also come to realise how little you can manage and get by on. Perhaps its a type of detox?
    I recently completed the Polar Circle marathon and met a UN colleague of yours there who works out of Geneva. She knows of you via your charity raising and I know you via your blog entries! But we both had you in common. Small world really.
    I’ve just signed up for my second RTP event – Iceland. Tempted?

    • Y’know, you’re right – it totally is a type of detox. As I was writing the post, I started to think that it sounded like being at a cottage or something… it is nice to lead a simple life for a while, even if it is in the midst of a complex war zone!
      That’s so awesome that you met someone in the UN at the Polar Circle marathon. There was an article on the UN intranet about my running/charity work a few months back, so maybe that’s how she found out about it. The race would have been amazing, I bet! Iceland is going to be spectacular…. They are WAY oversubscribed (I think over 500 people!) so I probably won’t make it, but I will follow the race with envy. Good luck with the training and thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Stephanie! The ‘institutional syndrome’?!? Glad to know it’s officially clinical! 🙂 I’m only coming out of the bubble right now – after three years – and am forcing myself to re-learn all the normal things of life… 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying your running back in the bubble! (and hope to see you for my checking out. Will send you an email!)

  4. Steph! Don’t get too institutionalised….you’ve got 100 miles of mountain to run next year!……sign up starts soon! (don’t worry, you and Stuart will be getting a reminder!). Miss you. Keep the blog posts coming. Love them! B x

    • Miss YOU Belinda! I still crack up when I think of your TDS stories… Oh UTMB – well, y’know we’ll throw our hats in the ring… just in case… 😉

  5. I totally understand your lack of motivation to go out and do things after leaving that type of environment. Not fun. Everyday I wish I could go back to the minimalist lifestyle I lived while in Iraq (minus the constant incoming mortars).
    I’ve followed your blog for a while now and I LOVE your passion for running! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • That’s really kind of you to say – I’m glad you’re reading along! My cousin in is Iraq right now and compared to the living conditions she is under, I know I have a lot of ‘freedom’ here in Afghanistan… Interesting to hear that you miss the minimalist lifestyle. I wonder if I will too come April when I’m outta here? Thanks for following the blog and for commenting! Keep ’em coming 🙂

  6. Please keep these blog updates coming. One day they will inspire me to get back into running. I stopped running after a deployment last year. I had run for years, done a couple ultra’s and loved it. Now I need to get my running juju back, so I can enjoy the fun (an ultra fun? ya sort of) and freedom that running brings. Stay safe over there.

    • YOU CAN DO IT!!! 🙂 I know how hard it can be to get back into running after some time away… One of the tricks I have used in the past is to convince myself just to put on my workout clothes and running shoes. That’s it. Then once I’m wearing all the gear, I start to think, “well, I might as well go out for a little jog if I’m already ready for it…” It gets me out for a run when I never could have convinced myself otherwise. Keep me posted on how you’re doing? I’d love to hear how you get your running juju back (because you will!).
      Thanks for the good wishes. I’ll keep my head down, as they say…

      • I agree! For me it’s a game. The less I think about it the better. An Australian fitness trainer describes it as JFDI (just freaking do it)!

        Having a running buddy, being busy, having all my clothes etc makes it easier!

  7. I can’t even imagine what your life is like, but I loved the peek! Did you ever get out and explore Kuwait?

    • Y’know, I didn’t! I didn’t stray far from my apartment and my office…. shame, as it would have been nice to see more of the country, but I’m happy to be back in Kabul 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  8. Steph you forgot to mention family life, Danae’s fabulous greek/ french kooking and dysfunctional yoga classes (maybe material for the next blog :-))?

  9. After having lived in a small village of less than 200 people overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey for 4 years I have found that to be about the maximum size place I ever want to live in again. There is a great deal to be said about living simply and having little to distract you. Now I live in an even smaller village in northern France and cannot imagine ever living in large urban area ever again. Before I left the US I lived in Phoenix, Denver and Laguna Beach and would have thought I would go stark-raving mad from boredom living in such small isolated places, but now it would be those places that would drive me crazy. It will be interesting to see where you gravitate to when your time in Afghanistan are over.

    Best of fortune, Stephanie and enjoy the journey.
    Ken Curtis

    • Hi Ken! I can totally relate… I guess I’m kind of an extremes person. I love the buzz of NYC or other large cities, but I can’t live in them long-term. They exhaust me. There is something to be said for the more ‘quaint’ type of lifestyle…. it sounds like heaven where you are now! Thanks for commenting and for following the blog. Have a glass of nice french wine (or better yet, champagne) on my behalf!

  10. I am fascinated by this totally counter intuitive institutionalised response you’ve had. I wonder if it was Kabul as opposed to a more familiar location in Canada or the US? Or maybe it’s the need to retreat after the amazing adventures you undertake Ultrarunner Girl? I love your intelligent, thought provoking and witty accounts of your ultra running so please don’t stop!

  11. Hi Stephanie

    I read this post with great interest. Full disclosure – I work for UNTV (mostly) and have been an independent filmmaker (some of the time). I made my own doc about UN staffers (including Iraqis and Iraqis living outside) in the weird, strange world of the UNAMI bubble – I was very interested in the psychology of it all. I’d been in the blast of 2003 and was luckily uninjured – but felt I wanted to know more about the people who go to these kinds of missions. Maybe you’d be interested to see it. I’m also interested in that I run marathons – or at least try to – done three but last two years have been ill (shingles and Lyme) that have prevented me running – but on again for next year (NYC) of course the poor people who trained were gutted this year – not that there weren’t reasons to cancel it- btw some people I know ran their own marathon anyway, and then volunteered on Staten Island – good or them!. I’m really impressed with your work, your insights – and of course your running. I also looked you up, fyi, since I know OCHA are looking to profile interesting people working for the UN in an upcoming TV project – they may not follow my tip – but just to let you know! I hope that’s all right.
    Francis Mead (currently in UK on work break)

    • Hi Francis! Thanks so much for commenting (and huge thanks for your donation to Women for Afghan Women!). Of course that’s alright – it would be great to be involved in any TV project, although I suspect there are a plethora of interesting people to choose from! I would definitely be interested to see your documentary – how can I get a hold of it? I visited your website too… very impressive! So sorry to hear you’ve been ill, but you’ll come back stronger than ever next year. Please let me know if there is anything I can help with and stay in touch!

      • Hey there – thanks for the good running vibes. On my website on the menu on the right just go to ‘my film on Iraq’. thanks for being open about the potential filming – I’m certain you’d be a great subject, though I think they would need to do it when – or if ever – you’re in New York (or Geneva) but hey, they might be able to arrange something with the video guys on your mission. Do you know someone called Dorn Townsend? not sure if he’s still there – but I know him from UNICE. Yes, let’s stay in touch – my email’s


  12. Tim Lichtenstein

    Your story resonates in more ways than one. On the one hand you have the incredible achievement of your runs (I have seen your videos and read your run stories) and on the other, you dwell in the very narrow confines of your compound – this must surely be the greatest of ironies? Running out on the trails in wide open spaces with the only boundaries being the horizon line yet living and training in a 1 sq mile razor fenced shelter! I understand how you become used to what you have but can’t reconcile how you must feel trapped at the same time. I’m a recent newcomer to ultras – a total non runner until about 5 yrs ago and having started with a few Half marathons, stepped up to a few full M’s and now a fully fledged ultra! The thing I love most about long distance trail running, aside from the self challenge aspect, is the places we get to explore and see. I live in total freedom in the sense that there are no physical boundaries around me (other than those self imposed) and cannot imagine what it must be like to train in your “Kompound Kilometers” environment. I suppose it must make the time you have on a trail that much more of an intense experience?
    I guess this is a roundabout way of my recognizing the amazing way you live your life – it’s inspiring, motivating and I for one appreciate you sharing it with the rest of us …. Thanks
    And for a light entertainment change from the BBC here’s a link to my last ultra 2012 Oxfam 100 (video made by my son)

    Next outing for me is the Kepler Challenge in 2 weeks. Stay safe and keep running

  13. Greetings! This is my fijrst visit to your blog!

    We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same
    niche. Your blog providdd us useful information to wlrk on. You have done a outstanding job!

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