Between two worlds

I landed in JFK airport at 7:45 am on Wednesday morning and the sun was shining.  As I waited to get off the plane, I stared at the yellow morning light coming in through the airplane windows, gently coaxing the sleepy passengers out of their 14-hour flight coma.  Without any cognitive thought, I impatiently shuffled down the airplane aisle and into the terminal where I broke free, deftly weaving my way around the stragglers.

When I reached the immigration line and joined my fellow travellers in the queue, I knew I would be there for the next couple of hours.  I found myself staring at things without really seeing them. The overly tanned blond wearing nothing but a tiny tank top, white linen shorts and ugg boots, flaunting her beachified skin for all to see.  The Buddhist monk, whose flowing orange and wine-coloured robes seemed incongruent in the sea of stiff black coats, tight jeans, and of course, tacky vacation wear (think straw hats with the words “Thailand” or “Mexico” emblazoned across the brim…seriously, who thinks this is a good look?). I looked down at the clothes I was wearing, stinking from a couple of days of travel, and wished I had remembered to pack a change of clothes in my carry on bag.

I kept blinking, thinking and hoping that each time I opened my eyes the world would make a bit more sense.  But the same scene kept staring back at me. I felt out of place and out of a touch with a world that was so, so familiar. When I finally reached the immigration official after a couple of hours, he took one look at my arrival card and said, “Afghanistan? You live in Afghanistan? Are you, well, are you planning on returning?” I said yes, without any further explanation. He stamped my passport and simply said “good luck”. No questions about my travels through Syria, Indonesia, or any of the other stamps I have in my passport that often raise suspicion. No fingerprints. No grilling about my work history in the US. Well, I thought, maybe there are some perks to living in Afghanistan after all.

The first few days after leaving Afghanistan are always a little weird. It sounds silly, but when your eyes only see browns and tans for six weeks at a time, it is a little bit of a shock to the senses to suddenly be confronted with a full colour spectrum. Green fields, blue skies, purple clouds – you kind of feel like you’ve entered some strange video game.  Everything looks very new and shiny, and you marvel at how everything just seems to work. Everyone sticks to one side of the road when driving, customers wait patiently in lines when they’re ordering their coffees in the morning, and people try to show up to meetings on time.  It’s weird.

I have discovered this week that New York is a particularly strange place to visit after leaving Afghanistan. So many noises, tall buildings, and fast-moving objects. The rumble of the subway makes me pause for a split second until I shake my head with the realization that it is not an earthquake (not uncommon in Afghanistan), nor is it an attack. It is just a subterranean form of public transport that is causing the slight vibrations under my feet. There is a constant cacophony of sounds, but nothing sticks out in particular (like low-flying planes or military helicopters).  Ironically, it makes it hard to sleep. The streets are filled with people who know where they are going and how to get there quickly, fashionably, and with importance.

The first 24 hours, I did not cope well.  I hated being alone. Tired, confused and overwhelmed, I did the only thing that made sense – shop 😀  Yup, rather than deal with any of the feelings that have welled up the past week, I turned to Soho retail therapy.  Gorgeous knee-high soft leather boots, shiny red lip gloss, black winter leggings and soft woollen ponchos from the new arrivals rack.  Okay, I’m not really being serious here (although I did buy those things). I’m just trying to lighten the mood a bit as I was heading down the rabbit hole for a second there….

I’m making the re-adjustment to the ‘normal’ world sound much more dramatic than it actually is. I know as I’m writing this, that anyone in Afghanistan who reads this will be rolling his or her eyes.  Day-to-day, my life in Afghanistan feels rather normal. I have all sorts of creature comforts – a studio apartment, access to the BBC and Master chef, I have (a very weak stream of) hot water in my shower, and I have a washer/dryer.  That’s more than I can say for most of my previous apartments.  I’m in a major city and don’t suffer from the isolation that many of my colleagues feel out in one of the more remote field offices. And for goodness sake, I’m a civilian. It’s not like I’m involved in combat or anything. I get a break every six weeks, sometimes more often than that.  I really don’t have anything to complain about and most of the time any slight difficulties I have re-adjusting when I come out are barely noticeable – to others and to myself.

At the same time, I know that the daily stresses of Afghanistan have an impact.  Every time I hear a loud or strange noise, I turn off the television, music, or get off the phone and listen for a few seconds to make sure it isn’t an attack. When I’m sitting as a passenger in one of our armoured vehicles travelling around town, I’m subconsciously scanning the roads for any potential hazards (ranging from children darting out in front of the car to angry men with guns).  I receive security updates from our joint operations center at least three times a day, and the number of attacks or threats of attacks accumulate in the back of my mind.  It’s just a part of life and I normally don’t think about it. There isn’t any point – I would drive myself crazy.  I accepted the risks when I chose to come here and ultimately I really don’t believe anything bad will happen.  It’s totally fine, and WAY more sane than what is portrayed on the news.

This past week though, I have to admit, I was affected. Suicide attacks or IED threats are certainly not uncommon – last year 22 IEDs were detonated or discovered every day throughout the country. But usually I don’t see them explode or feel their effects. The threat and the impact is still quite removed from my compound bubble… However, on Monday morning, I felt a nearby explosion – not just heard, but felt – and it has made my readjustment to New York more pronounced than normal.

It was about 10:45 am and I had come back to my apartment from the office to grab my bags before heading out to the airport. My laundry was still in the dryer though, so I decided to wait until it was done. I was checking my emails when all of a sudden I hear a loud, low boom and my windows flew open, overcoming the latch and knocking over the heavy objects I had placed on the window ledge to keep it shut… I knew instantly it was a bomb that had gone off, and one that was quite close.  The vibrations seemed to go right through me – I actually felt the explosion reverberate deep in my stomach.

And then it was silent and still.

I walked outside carrying my garbage bags in my hands. The snowing was falling. My colleagues were coming out of their offices and we gathered by the dumpsters as I threw the bags in the bin. We stood and watched the black smoke rising over the compound walls, wondering if there was more to come. One of the Afghan staff members smiled at me and touched my shoulder saying, “don’t worry! Are you scared? That was a large boom.”

For the next hour, my colleagues and I listened to our radios and sat in our offices, waiting for instructions from the operations centre and wondering if we had to go to the bunkers.

Of course, everything was fine (I mean for us – a couple of people died in the attack and 15 were wounded… a terrible tragedy).  UN staff who were in one of the other UN compounds in town didn’t hear or feel anything, and life went on as normal. We did a staff count and everyone was okay, so it was back to work. But for some reason, I was really affected by this one and a few days later, it is still in my mind.

I didn’t panic and I didn’t get upset. But I think it had a noticeable effect on me, both in a positive and a negative sense.  The thing that is hardest to understand is not why or how these attacks happen, but how they have become just a part of normal life.   Afghanistan is a place where a bomb can go off and just a few hours later, traffic resumes and no one mentions it again.  I know, I’ve been in Afghanistan eight months now so this really shouldn’t be a revelation – but frankly I never want to get to the point where this kind of stuff doesn’t affect me to some degree.

However, on the positive side, there’s nothing like a nearby attack to give you perspective and make you appreciate what you do have.  This past week, more than ever, I have felt the incredible strength, kindness and generosity of my Afghan colleagues.   Bombs may capture the media’s attention, but the spirit of the Afghan people is really what needs to be showcased.  Before the bomb went off, I was having the toughest week I’ve had in Afghanistan so far, for reasons I won’t bother to splash across this webpage. Without having to explain what was wrong, my colleagues offered their immediate support – Kleenex, tea, Afghan parables, and tangible kindness. “Oh my strong, strong Stephanie Jan. Look – the sun is shining now!”

Afghanistan might not make sense… it might exhaust me at times, confuse me, and drain me of all my good intentions to make a difference… but in these days leading up to Christmas, the frustration and the sadness has melted away to pure gratitude for the people I’ve met over these past eight months and the experiences I’ve had. There is so much good to build upon in this country and I only hope I will be able to contribute in some very small way before it is time for me to leave.  It is a fascinating time to be in Afghanistan and despite the difficulties, I’m so glad that I’m having this experience.

More on the positive side of life in Afghanistan in my next post. Apologies for this rather cathartic post… Nothing but sunshine on the horizon. Thanks for reading and following along. I love getting your comments and feedback!

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Categories: Musings about life

8 Comments »

  1. Gorgeous piece….I can totally relate. I did just that when I got out of Libya – it was so weird. Took a while. Am on Syrian/TUrkish border hoping over and going through that same process all over again. It’s bizarre but I feel more ‘normal’ here than anywhere else. That was a a well needed beautifully written piece. Enjoy your break and how tempted am I for a pari of black boots and red lipgloss.
    xxx

  2. You have an amazing and balanced perspective … I understand now, why you have the drive and motivation to take on the challenges you do. Thanks for painting a picture of the world we don’t always see. Writing this piece may have been cathartic for you but it is inspiring for those of us who appreciate the way you provide a glimpse through an otherwise closed window, to another part of this strange and fascinating world we occupy. Don’t stop writing!

  3. Stephanie, I am not rolling my eyes- in fact you described exactly what some/ most of us go through when we reach the real world. This is why I always spend a night in Dubai before continuing on to my destination. In Dubai I have a regular schedule- go to the mall- shopping therapy- I usually grab whatever shiny/ glittery clothes I see (sometimes without trying them on- I have a bit of a leprechaun thing going on…), then I go for a manicure. This is where I usually break down- sitting in the spa- my body is relaxed but this is when my brain reaches overload: everything I have seen, everywhere I have been crashes inside my head, and results in a rather public meltdown. The ladies in the spa are understanding- they have seen us all before so they just say: “Afghanistan?” I say yes and calm down a little. Then I pick myself up and continue to the real world.

    Steph- have a great leave and recharge your batteries- we need you here (and I need you!). Love you.

  4. amazing. Thank you for this. I hail from NYC and live and run in the Middle East too, though Dubai is a far cry from what you experience every day. UAE and Afghanistan are only a couple hrs by plane, but worlds apart in just about every other way. Can’t even compare it really. Nonetheless, you are an inspiration. Enjoy NYC. Rock on. Merry Christmas.

  5. Steph – you did a great job describing the feeling of transition – perspective, if you will – where we go from a mindset of survival and things that really matter to seeing the triviality of the world around us… it’s tough, and often those we love the most don’ – or can’t- understand the melancholy that we feel. It’s strange, but the easy day to day life sometimes repels us and we are pulled back to the edge… keep your chin up and your mind clear. Merry Christmas kiddo.

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