This is the continuation of the next leg of my journey from Kandahar to Herat. It was a very long day.
Since I needed to return to the terminal in a mere four hours, I told my escort that the MWR Day Room was plenty sufficient for me rather than a bedroom. The Morale Welfare and Recreation area has phones, computers, pool table, large screen televisions, books, movies, etc. The kitchen has soft drinks, juice, snacks of all kinds and the ever-present water bottles. Lying on the couch dozing and scrounging for snacks to eat reminds me of my early college days. Being unable to find a spoon I ate a bowl of cereal with a fork and had flashbacks of my days at the University of South Alabama.
There was no sleep and I proclaim Helmand to be the fly capital of Afghanistan. I’m sure others may offer up other potential contestants, but there were more flies in Helmand than I would have ever imagined. At one point I wondered if they were my connecting flight.
Similar to my air path crisscrossing the country, I traveled from the west side of the runway back to the east side of the runway to check in at the terminal. After a passport and baggage check, I headed for the waiting area alone. As I sat down I noticed a football game on, clearly it’s a rerun, but from when I don’t know. The Rams and the Patriots Super Bowl edited in such a way that the commercials and extemporaneous commenting and fumbling between plays is eliminated. This is followed by an entire soccer match from 1999 that was a tie between Liverpool and Manchester United (David Beckham in his prime) in a mere 10 minutes. If all soccer games cut to the chase like that it would be more popular in the US.
Eventually a guy comes into the room and in a thick Arabian accent says, “Herat.” Maybe it was Persian accent, I can’t tell a difference yet. Anyway, I didn’t catch it at first, but I stumbled to my feet and grabbed my bag. He said something else with Herat in it and I blindly nodded my head yes then followed him out to a bus.
It was a big bus, but there was no one aboard. Except for me. I found myself sitting alone in a vehicle in a combat zone.Before I could fear anything else the driver and another employee boarded and we were underway. It isn’t far before I began to think that I didn’t know these dark-skinned people of unknown country origin. I was aboard a non-military vehicle en route to somewhere blindly hoping that these are the guys I was supposed to be with.
We approached a 100% ID Checkpoint along the same road that leads back to the west side of the runway I had recently departed. Doubling back my path, again, again. I felt safer having shown the guard my CAC, because while he may not remember me, someone knows where I’ve gone to. Another stop on the tarmac and another wait. This time I started talking to the Sri Lankan driver. We only understood parts of what we each were saying, but I got that he is trying to reach America. And also that he loves George Bush for his role in what is happening all around us. A non-American loving George Bush.
We spoke about the Indian vehicles all around us, Tata is the make. He showed disrespect for India. Some things always come through no matter what the language. Also showing was his hatred of the British. I’ve noticed that most former colonies cannot stand the British. His view is that the United States gives Great Britain all its power and authority. So now I have gone from fear of having been kidnapped to discussing politics in a few short minutes.
Eventually the other four passengers showed up for a quick trip across the taxiway and we boarded the small plane. It was a small plane.
In addition to having gotten spoiled traveling in America, it has been some time since I have been on a puddle jumper. This 20 passenger plane had no bathroom and every seat is both an aisle and window seat. In fact, it wasn’t difficult to reach out and touch both sides of the plane when standing in the narrow aisle. Each time the twin turbo props are revved higher the plane shakes more and you swear that you are moving. Only to find out you aren’t.
Afghanistan is a beautiful ugly place. There is more vegetation than I imagined, though it isn’t plush by any means. Traveling the width and breadth of the country has revealed that it is incredibly similar no matter where you are.
The mountains are brown. Not green, granite gray, or snow-covered like mountains everywhere else. Brown. Accentuated by shades of brown and dots of brown that sometimes grow in number to become green. Wadis sometimes filled with a brownish-white sand scar the landscape. Boulders show where torrential downpour shifted great quantities of material downhill.Intermittent streams can be seen, but how long has there been water in them cannot be determined. At a minimum it has been a long while.
The valleys and mountains are filled with mountains and valleys. Sheer cliffs appear, deserted desert. Where the wadis turn into intermittent streams you can see some small areas of civilization but not many. Large pockets of brown elevation changes abound.
A lifetime ago in my career I made several circuits of professional conferences speaking about the Genesis of Transportation Development. The main point was that as engineers we do not design and build for man. We design and build for vehicles. Our cities were founded on the banks of rivers and coasts. To move away we built canals. That being insufficient we began railroads and developed along the steel rails. As the interstate came through we again shifted our focus to developing at interchanges. Bigger, faster, more efficient systems continue to fail the micro view of the transportation system that the user has. We increase our street width and complain about speeders. We eliminate sidewalks and long for neighbor interaction, we make huge cul de sacs because our garbage trucks can’t turn around in smaller areas. layman user who doesn’t understand levels of service, setback, width restrictions, or limitations except for the fact that they do. While the layman cannot put their fingers on why they like one development over another, proper attention placed on these areas makes it so that the layman doesn’t know why he feels at home, he just does.
Without a doubt, Afghanistan clearly shows signs of my former thesis. Confluences of rivers, real or imaginary, are the source of developed cities. It will be quite some time before they have to worry about the rest of it. A point that is not appreciated in Afghanistan by most almost the same as the fact that few recognize the significance of having fountains in Las Vegas.
Eventually the plane landed and another confusing game of “where should I be” is played at the terminal in Herat. This is complicated by the fact that I am lugging around a duffel bag and a carry on bag as well as body armor that weighs close to 40 kilograms combined. I happily do not make the conversion because it would only be heavier if I knew it in pounds. Shortly, the guy I last asked where should I go approached me and asked if I had found my way. By this time he had another American in tow helping him find his way, only his way was leading to me. My ride had arrived.
We had landed at Camp Arenas. I will live at Camp Stone. They are not connected. As I donned the 18 kilogram armor I am again glad I didn’t convert to pounds I asked how far Stone was but my driver thankfully didn’t bother with kilometers. Approximately 2 miles buffer them. The two guys tasked with safely moving me from point A to point B and they are imposing. Former military service and hired by a private security firm, they are good at what they do.
As we left the compound in our Kevlar helmets and I shrank into the seat as much as I could. Since I could barely reach the seatbelt behind me, I quickly gave up on my connector and buckled it into the connector for the other side of the car. As my head inside the Kevlar brushes the roof, I realize my shrinking isn’t effective. It is more like when I try to open my eyes wider but really only move my eyebrows further away. The driver began cussing someone standing in the middle of the street. Not because he was begging for water, but because it is a security threat and that is what he tracks. The passenger was talking on a radio and as another vehicle passes I realized we are not alone. Watching the street on the left we are about to turn onto I saw cars coming from both directions and pedestrians not moving on both sides. Now I was seeing security threats, but the “not alone” part was our second vehicle. They took the lead and despite updates of the situational background, the trip was uneventful.
As we approach the Afghanistan National Army compound that does adjoin ours, the driver cussed the need to be searched. Some time back a DEA vehicle went for maintenance off-post and returned only to blow up due to a bomb planted at the oil change location. Our vehicles are never left alone and have maintenance done on the FOB so it is not the same, however, procedure is procedure sometimes. As we exited the vehicle I noticed the map pocket of the door contains two grenades. I felt comfortable.
They introduced me to the other team, one is a medic. The guy you want to have but don’t want to see in action. He and my driver are armed to the teeth with no fewer than six 30-round magazines strapped just to their chests. The other guys are optimists with a mere three. I suspect that there are more, just not visible. I have never in my life seen a medic so well fortified with weaponry.
After the search we got back in and I noticed, the door of this vehicle is heavy. Heavier than any Toyota door I’ve ever felt. Heavier than most Ford truck doors. I commented to them and was told it is an up-armored SUV. Shortly after while waving my hands to talk I hit the glass. It doesn’t roll down, and it ain’t safety glass. A warm glow emanated from the window. Not hot so much as devoid of coolness. Reminding me of when asked how the body armor felt after I tried it on, I said uncomfortable, but safe.
Finally, after six days of flying, six flights, multiple bus, van and both armored and un-armored SUVs, lugging around 40 kilos of gear and not much sleep I have arrived.
Camp Stone, Herat, Afghanistan. My temporary home.