Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Day in the Life of an ELF

My new weights! And my less-new barbell in the background. Love them!
Teaching in the women's class.

...Not an ELF from the North Pole, an English Language Fellow in Afghanistan!

Tuesday was the kind of day that I never want to forget. I laughed, cried, was surprised, pushed out of my comfort zone, cooked, shopped, had a phone conversation in Dari, welcomed students home from their time as captives of the Taliban, talked about Martin Luther King, taught students very inappropriate slang, then listened to them use it, took a nap, had an allergic reaction to nuts, cooked again, and went to bed early . Yes, Tuesday was close to an ideal day for me; emotional, successful, challenging, relaxing...the only thing that was missing was the ocean and my friends back home!

Woke up earlier than usual to finish my lesson plan for class.
I had done a lesson on Martin Luther King Junior with the women's class the day before and wanted to change some things before I did it with the men's class (this winter I am teaching an American Culture class; I have about 85 students and have split them into two sections--one male and one female--so the female students will feel more comfortable talking).

Before the first call to prayer, I had already fried an egg, eaten a cucumber, then sat down and finished planning. I practiced reading MLK's "I have a dream" speech a couple of times. If I had to read it, I wanted to do him proud.

Off to school.
Morning traffic wasn't too bad, but I could see that all of the puddles were frozen into blocks of ice. Of course I wore inappropriately high heeled boots to school that morning. As soon as I got out of the car I slipped and skidded everywhere. Thanks to my coordination (yay crossfit!) I was able to make it to my office without breaking a hip.

Somehow, before getting to Martin Luther King Jr., I found myself in the most uncomfortable of conversations with the "boys" (I call the men's class the "boys" even though they are 18-45 years old because their questions are so adorable and innocent).

Student: "Miss, what does chicken head mean?"
Me: (surprise immediately followed by hysterical laughter)
Me: (deep breath, more laughter)
The boys: (laughing a little at first, then uncontrollably because I couldn't stop laughing)
Me: "It means...I am too embarrassed to say it!"
Boys: (laughter), "tell us PLEASE."
Me: "It means a couple of, a girl with bad hair. Two, a girl (or a boy) who has a lot of boyfriends (or girlfriends)."
Boys: (More laughter followed by many absurd attempts at using the word in a sentence, which I cannot bring myself to repeat here)

On the heels of the "chicken head" discussion, I had to gather my wits and read the, "I Have a Dream" speech to the boys. Turns out they loved it and clapped when I was finished as if I had written it myself.

I told them MLK did it much better than me.

Now they are working on their own, "I Have a Dream" speeches about Afghanistan.

One of my former students, who was kidnapped by the Taliban at the end of the fall semester, appeared beside me as I was walking out of class.

I almost forgot where I was (Kabul) and moved to hug him. But I didn't. I shook his hand (in the courtyard!) and stopped when I realized people were staring.

My student grinned widely and said, "Miss, I have returned from being captured!"

I swallowed my tears and told him to come to my office to chat. As I poured a bag of raisins and nuts on the table for him to snack on while we talked, I noticed how dark his skin had gotten and that he seemed a little skinnier. He quickly ate ALL of the raisins (about half a pound). My heart broke. But then it immediately sewed itself back together when he smiled so innocently and said, "It is nice to be back, I love raisins."

I called my driver to ask him where he was and to change my plans. In Dari. AND he understood me!

Finally, I was able to withdraw enough money from the bank to buy weight plates for my new barbell. I bought a few different sizes of plates, threw them in the back of the car and excitedly rode home while my driver bemusedly asked me what I was going to do with those weights. I tried to tell him that I was going to lift them, but I didn't know the verb "to lift" so I told him I was going "to put them in the gym and play with them." That seemed to satisfy his curiosity. I could barely wait until my workout a few hours later when I would be able to test them out...

...But first I ate and took a nap. I had an ordinary lunch, chicken, veggies, and a handful of nuts. I went to sleep pretty quickly, but distinctly remember itching my face as I drifted off.

Woke up an hour later with my eyes swollen shut. Did I suddenly become allergic to something?
Even though I could barely open my eyes, there was no way I was going to NOT do crossfit (with a new barbell and plates waiting, who could resist?!). I washed my face, took some Benadryl, put my glasses on, and rushed down to my gym.

The doorman was startled by the sight of my face.

He asked if I was okay. I told him I ate too many almonds. He laughed. I told him I was going to the gym now. He laughed even harder.

Baked some more chicken and veggies.
Listened to Garth Brooks.
The swelling subsided and I could open my eyes again.

Practiced Dari, worked on a lesson plan for the next day.

Went to bed in my new leg-warmers (thanks Heather!). Snuggled up with a good book, Eat, Pray, Love, thanked God for another fun-filled and (relatively) safe day in Kabul, then fell asleep reading and itching my eyes (I know this because I woke up for school the next morning with my book under the covers and my eyes swollen again!)

Another day in the life of an ELF.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Opening the Second Act

Wintry walk with a friend.
The second-hand store; calm before the storm.
A light sheen of snow's first visit to my neighborhood.
A friend's son anxiously stares out the window as the snow falls.

It blew in swiftly and playfully. Tiny flecks dotted the morning sky and then disappeared like shooting starts fleetingly lighting the night. Burqas billowed in the wind and then relaxed on women's frames; droopy curtains covering aching hearts. Dog's howling ceased; silence dominated as the storm gathered its strength. Then, all at once, the snow poured from the sky. I pressed my face to the window, along with the children in the room, and excitedly shouted, "It's barfing!" Winter has finally found Kabul.

If my time here were an opera, this would be the opening to the second act. The close to the first act would be my return from the land of holiness and intoxicating Middle Eastern love swiftly followed by the echoing blasts of IEDs haunting a temporary oasis in war. The name of the opera would be Tangled Contradictions because the tumult here has never been strong enough to enshrine the grace of this place.

As the snow of the second act begins to fall, lovely ladies would be dancing around the stage flinging their chadars in the air, singing of the winter fluff blanketing mountain's craggy slopes. The aria would sound like my own breath filling a basement gym, weights clanking on the floor, a melodic, yet intrusive mullah blasting through loud speakers, beckoning the people to come and pray, oil popping in a too-hot pan ready to fry the next couple of eggs, horns honking rhythmically, students sweetly calling, "teacher, teacher," a Chopin piano solo bursting out of a phone, Farhad Dariya accompanying me through the congested streets, a nervous heartbeat filling my chest as I choose my next Dari words, cold seeping into my bones slyly yet gradually.

Ever so suddenly, snow has fluttered in to Kabul; the second act has begun.


Friday, January 07, 2011

The Good Things about Being Back in Kabul...

Hadi and his adorable sisters.
Where the magic of language acquisition takes place...the closer to the wood stove I am, the more Dari I can speak.
The view of Kabul from inside of my lungs...Really, Kabul on a rather dust-filled afternoon (Darulaman Palace in the background).

There are a few good things about being back in Kabul...

First, the best thing about being back in Kabul is seeing my students again. As soon as I returned to the city, a few of my students visited me at my house and brought over a Christmas tree! Better than a real tree, I will have this plastic reminder of their love for the duration of my stay here. At the ELF house it'll be Christmas until our fellowship is over. Sparkling lights and a stocking dangling form our space heater will remind us of the spirit of the season even after it passes.

Today, the thoughtfulness of my students continued. In the morning they, along with their uncle, picked me up at my apartment. We drove past Darulaman Palace and bumped along some new (but unpaved) roads towards one of their family's homes. Upon arrival in the "suburbs" we sat around drinking tea and talking about school and life. I noticed that there were no mud-brick structures in this part of town. My student told me that the building codes said that there could be no such construction in this neighborhood; they were trying to keep it nicer-looking than other parts of town.

After playing a couple of games of cards, we made our way to another room for lunch. The food consisted of the steadfast qabali palaw (rice with raisins and carrots), naan bread, and a variety of meats and vegetables. Absent of family members other than children, an uncle, and a cousin, I asked where the rest of the family was. My students told me that there were other guests in a different part of the house. I was both impressed by the mother's ability to host two "sets" of guest at the same time, and honored that I was invited during another family event. This just goes to show how utterly amazing Afghans are. Being hospitable and welcoming is definitely one of their strong suits.

The second good thing about being back in Kabul is learning Dari. Although, upon returning to Dari class I realized that I had forgotten most of what I had learned in the last 4 months, I was still happy to be back in the humble school. I sat next to the wood-burning stove with my teacher and constructed a sentence about how much I didn't like potatoes. I used the Arabic word for potato, "batata," and when my teacher corrected me with the proper word in Dari, "kechalu," I thanked her and assured her that, "lo," I would not make that mistake again. She laughed and asked what "lo" meant. I realized I had told her no in Hebrew.

The last good thing about being back in Kabul is that I am returning healthier (minus my lung infection) and to a relatively cleaner city. I think there was some mass trash pick-up while I was gone. Each day last week as I drove through the newly clean streets, I wondered where all of the trash went...then I saw the river. The Kabul River doubles as the dump. Unfortunately. Also, the air is much thicker with pollution, so I can't help but think that the trash has been burned somewhere and it is all actually particles in the air now. But I am digressing from my optimism.

So, you see, there are some good things about being back in Kabul. In a few days I will start my winter class. Yes, I actually do teach here. More on that soon...


Sunday, January 02, 2011

Middle East Part 2: Good Luck or Nice People?

Dinner with my nice friends, Sam, Hannah, Walter, Elad, and Emily at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.
My super nice gal pal, Urieb at work at the Welfare Association in Ramallah, Palestine.
The nicest Medicine Man ever, at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.

I often wonder how I always manage to get to where I intend to go. For one, I have a terrible sense of direction. When using a map for navigation, I must turn it in the actual direction that I am traveling. If I ask people for directions, I need to write down every word that they say or I won't remember. And forget about telling me something like, "head east at the intersection." I know which direction I am heading in a city only if there is a mountain range or an ocean that I can see at all times. So, it comes as a shock when, traveling in countries where I don't know the language beyond, "Hello, where is the bathroom?" I manage to make it to my destination every time. I wonder, is it good luck or nice people? You be the judge...

East Jerusalem

It was my last day in Jerusalem, so I decided to take my time. Only a few days before I had gone to the hospital and discovered I had a sweet lung infection, so I had been taking it easy. I figured that catching the bus back to Amman could wait until later in the morning. I packed slowly, drank some coffee and sat in the sun on Hannah and Ben's balcony.

Around 12:30, Ben drove me to East Jerusalem. Little did I know, it was too late. My friend Mahmoud walked me over to the bus station (he owns a store close to there) and we noticed that there were no more buses to the border. He spoke with the bus company owner and the owner said that I had missed the last bus which had left at 1:00pm (it was 1:15), but I could take a taxi for 200 shekels. Being as I had saved 30 shekels for a bus and 160 shekels for the exit tax, the taxi wasn't an option.

Mahmoud spoke with the bus company owner and then told me I could wait and see if more people showed up late for the bus. If enough people came to fill a bus, I would be in luck, otherwise I'd have to take a taxi. I decided to wait for other stragglers.

While waiting, the bus company owner brought me Arab coffee, entertained me with all sorts of fun Arab pop music and told me stories about buses. And from what I could understand, he kept on calling his friends and asking if they knew anyone that needed to take a bus to the border. He was rounding up people for my bus!

A couple of hours later, there were enough people to fill the bus and go to the border. But there was a catch. The owner told me that since it was a special bus, the fare would be 50 shekels. As I said before, I had specifically saved just enough for the original fare and the exit tax, so I didn't have the money.

I smiled and told the bus company owner of my situation. Although he didn't look too happy, he seemed amused. I decided to go through my huge (cute!) purse and see if there were any stray shekels. It turned out that I had 39 shekels to give him. He accepted the money and sent me away with some ground Arab coffee, which is ironic because the amount of coffee that he gave me probably would cost more than 39 shekels anyway. Basically, I was off to the border only a couple of hours later than I had planned with a kilo of free coffee. Success.

Tel Aviv

It was my second night in Tel Aviv and the plan was to meet Elad at the Israel Museum for a photo exhibit after he got off of work. He had already told me which bus to take from his house, how long the ride should be, and where to get off. It sounded like a hassle-free jaunt, so I put on my high heeled boots (I wouldn't be walking much, right?) and headed out into the warm Tel Aviv night.

Standing at the bus stop, looking at the time table (which I couldn't read anyway since it was in Hebrew), I started to get butterflies. Just as I was questioning Elad's advice, the #25 bus pulled up. I stepped on to the bus and asked the driver if this bus went to the Israel Museum. He shouted, "No! Get on the #41 (or some other number I don't remember at this point)." And thrust my shiny shekels back into my hand. I pleaded, "But my friend told me this is the right bus." He laughed, "Your friend was wrong. Good luck." I was standing at the bus stop again.

I waited a few minutes for the #41 to come around. When it did, I got on and sat next to the nicest looking Israeli soldier girl I could find. She moved her gun aside and smiled. I asked her if this bus would go by the Israel Museum. She told me that it indeed, did not, but she would take me to the correct bus. At the next stop she walked me to another bus stop and told me to wait for the #75 (or some other number that I, again, don't remember at this point).

I waited alone for 30 minutes. My feet started to hurt. A dog almost urinated on me. The bus came.

I got on the bus and asked the driver where the bus was going. He quickly shut the bus door, took my shekels and yelled in my face, "NO ENGLISH!" I sat down and hoped to see the Israel Museum at some point in the next week.

As luck (or a nice person?) would have it, I sat next to a Filipino English-speaking girl who was going to the museum as well.

Only a few minutes later, a short walk and a map turned just the right way, I had made it to my destination!

Amman, Jordan

I somehow made it back to Jordan so that I could catch my plane to Dubai, then on to Kabul. It was a rainy morning and Abeer's little brother was supposed to drop me at the airport, or so I thought. As we pulled into a parking lot which was most definitely not the airport I realized was another bus stop. Amer assured me that the bus was fast and I had nothing to worry about.

I got on the bus, paid my fare, and waved goodbye to Amer. Then I sat on the bus and waited for it to fill with people (of course). When the bus was full we started to move through the city towards the airport road. I didn't figure for the severe city traffic though, and I found myself stuck on the bus for over an hour.

At about 9:20am, the bus left me off at the terminal. My plane was scheduled to leave at 10:00am and I still had to go through security, check-in, and customs. I got to the security line which was about a mile long. Standing there, I felt hopeless. Just then, a ticket agent started to shout, "Dubai! Anyone going to Dubai?" Thankfully, I waved my hand and he came right to get me. I shot to the front of the security line, then I was on to the ticket counter.

At the ticket counter, the agent frowned and told me they had sold my seat. My heart sank. At that point I realized that I really wanted to get back to Kabul, but I may not EVER get there. Then the same ticket agent who had ushered me through security said something to the other agent in Arabic. They spoke to each other for a second and then the female agent said, "Sorry, but the last seat available is in first class. Will you forgive us and let us seat you there at no extra cost?"

I stomped my foot and shouted, "No! I will not take a seat in your bourgeois first class cabin with all of the good food and wonderful service!" Actually, I smiled and took the ticket.

So it turns out I didn't miss my flight. First class on the way to Dubai was a great end to a nice trip. And the food was good too!

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