The next leg of my journey was one long day. I have split it into two posts.
The day of the 11th started as any other would. I hopped out of bed, read my daily bible verses, then stepped outside onto the porch to sit in the shade and write. The cool morning was not the stifling 108 degree heat of the day before. Truly the calm before the storm.
Breakfast was at the Cambridge Dining Facility. I’ve often said that you don’t see many fat Brits simply because their food is not the tastiest or the greatest. But my British Breakfast was the best I've had in several days. The eggs were runny but the bacon was thick and chewy. It was almost like a slab of ham.
After finding out the night before that my space available flight was canceled I needed to find another way to Herat. After finding out that the flight is canceled more often than it is flown I was told that they had requested a civilian flight for me. A day full of meetings, briefings, and a Luxembourg lunch and I was given an itinerary that looked challenging. My flight from Kandahar would leave at 2300 and I would get to Camp Bastion in Helmand at 0215. Another flight at 1015 Wednesday would take me the remaining way to Herat. It was some time before I really paid attention to the times and when I realized that was over three hours of flying time something was wrong. Helmand is not three hours by air from Kandahar. Some sleuthing around revealed that my flight would be two legs, back to Bagram and then to Camp Bastion in Helmand.
A pleasant side effect of my travels is that I have seen the width and breadth of Afghanistan. It has taken me the better part of four decades to see 60% of the United States. Over the course of four days I have seen 75% of Afghanistan.
This trip has been unlike any I have made in quite a while. I am familiar with knowing where I am and what I’m doing. I may never have been somewhere, but I know how to navigate the path. Others remain largely unaware of how I accomplish the mission of movement. Here, not so much. Not only have others known more about what I was doing, there have been times when I was completely ignorant of how to navigate the path or what would happen next. This is extremely uncomfortable territory for someone like me.
Remembering Jamal’s words in Dubai, I regained some of my typical travel swagger. As I checked in, I asked the ticketing guy if there was dinner with the flight. His quizzical look told me he didn’t catch the joke. I explained I was kidding and received a half-hearted nod of understanding. Again, typical American, when I don’t fully understand someone talking in a language I don’t understand I sometimes just acknowledge and fake understanding. The typical American part is that I never expect others to do the same to me. One last attempt with the ticket guy brought success. I told him that he had sprung the first joke. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me with quizzically, so I explained, “You have an Apple logo on your Acer computer.” This elicited the desired laugh. Three guys with little common language shared the universal tongue of enjoyment.
There was never a doubt that this entire trip would be anything else but a trip through a Third World country, but the Third World Nation status is readily apparent when flying. Many of these procedures have run together at this point. Sometimes they take my identification, they always look at my passport, I have yet to receive a Visa stamp from Afghanistan. Sometimes they scan my bag, sometimes they scan me, sometimes they let the American skip the metal detectors (was I profiled?), definitely not the TSA here.
Both commercial airlines were well run and well staffed though I couldn’t help but recall a description of Inshallah Air. The planes are predominantly well used craft that have been ridden hard and put away wet before they joined their current fleets. The exteriors have peeling pain on the fuselage and rust on the engine exhausts. The interiors are worn, not torn or shabby, but they show their age like a wrinkled octogenarian.
There is little material handling equipment in evidence. There is no baggage claim in the terminal, no conveyor belts that whisk away your bags after they’re checked or return them to you after you’ve landed. You place them on the oversized scale, wonder what 35 KG means, then haul them either to the loading truck or if you want safety they sometimes screen the bags, too. Not always, there are no frisking TSA Agents, no naked body scanners, and indeed few metal detectors at all. At one point I was halfway through the scanner when an Australian hollered, “Wait!” Being used to TSA Agents who wear the badge as symbols of power I immediately stopped and backtracked while I watched him turn the scanner on. On the other side of the baggage x-ray machine, I again picked up my bags and headed to the next checkpoint. This is a Third World terminal.
A ratty bus or beat up van takes us directly onto the taxiway where we climb aboard the old-fashioned gantryway to enter the plane. I say old-fashioned because while you see one from time to time in the States you rarely ever see one in use. For the flight to Bagram there is one other gentleman and I getting on the plane. Without thinking, I walk past the curtain and take a seat only to have a flight attendant tell me that I can sit up front. “First Class” on Inshallah Air is not much different from Economy. The seats are about the same size though there is a bit more legroom. The middle seats of both sets of seats have the lower pads pulled down to reveal a small tray table. The headrests are covered with colorful and durable vinyl slip covers velcroed to the top of the seat cushion emblazoned with the company logo. Those in Economy have a similar monochromed white covering of a hybrid paper product similar to the paper they put on the tables of doctor offices.
The drink service is before the flight when an attendant offers room temperature water or if lucky juice. Some interesting bitter crackers packaged in Dubai were offered me in “First Class” that were surprisingly good. Or perhaps it was just that I was hungry and this was my in flight meal. The flight attendant came to me personally and covered the seat belt, the oxygen mask and the location of my life-vest. The seat pocket contained no Sky Mall or airline magazine. Only a safety card for the 737-400 on which we were travelling. I take the lack of barf bag to be a sign of optimism on the part of the airline, but the reality is that it is probably the most Inshallah part of the travel experience.
We left Kandahar late, which in turn meant that we were able to leave Bagram at the same time we were scheduled to land in Helmand. There is no simple way to call ahead or text mostly because I don’t know who will be at the terminal to meet me. Make no mistake, this is why airports are called terminals.
Upon landing we proceed to taxi past hangars, some permanent but mostly temporary. C130s, F16s, and drones of various sizes are silhouetted outside or beautifully lit inside canvas backed huts. There are rows of helicopters of all makes, models, and nationalities American and Soviet craft sit together like James Meredith after his first week of classes. No fanfare or cameras, no media swarm, just a pairing that seems odd only to the person who notices differences.
After de-planing, about two dozen of us line up beside the plane just off the gantry and wait for our corporate host. He leads us into a hangar and calls for CAC Card holders to one side. This redundant phrase is more oft-repeated than the ear-grating irregardless. It bothers me that my computer’s spell check does not view that as a misspelling, but the use has become so widespread that it is believed to be correct in some circles. I once joked of the triple whammy, “Put your PIN Number to your CAC Card into the ATM Machine” but had to stop when I received stares because others simply didn’t get the joke. The Common Access Card is the ID card of the modern American military, serviceman, civilian employees, and contractors at times. It is a treasure trove of information both physically visible, magnetically and UPC labeled on the card and for added layers of security there is also a smart chip embedded. This is a device which is to be constantly under our control.
Except when traveling Inshallah Air.
It seems that I am the only one arriving in for the first time, everyone else is returning from R&R and seem to be Marines. As the lone wolf, the guy who has collected our CACs sends me inside where I am directed to avoid the careful screening process and find myself on the other side of the line. Cleared. Free to depart. With no clue where.
A second employee appears and asks where I’m headed, about which time LTC Conklin appears from nowhere. I can’t say familiar face because I’ve never met him, but familiar name. The unknown employee says that the CAC Holding Guy will return in a minute, but that he isn’t someone known to him. The first time I left my CAC with the airline I was nervous. We aren’t supposed to leave these in our computers when we leave the room and we aren’t supposed to leave them hanging on our lanyards when we go downtown for lunch or business. It is to be under our control at all times, yet it has been frequently in others hands while I’ve traveled the Afghan Skies.
After a brief search he turns up and my card is returned followed by a brisk jaunt to an SUV for the ride to the compound. Along the way I see triple rolls of concertina wire on both sides of the street as well as ditches and embankments that are clearly there to frustrate potential enemies. I’m reminded of fortresses of old and of my welcome upon landing in Bagram.