Sunday, January 27, 2013


I just got back from two weeks on my first temporary duty trip: Kabul! It was fascinating on many levels, as you'd imagine.

Getting from DC to Kabul takes quite a while, but at least I was able to score a window seat for my flight into Kabul. The landscape was beautiful, with sharp mountain crests everywhere:

The ~$700M embassy upgrade project has many components, including five new buildings, so there was a lot to see. On my third day, the contractor placed 300 cubic meters of concrete for the first part of a building foundation. The contractor did a good job of managing his workforce to install the rebar and prepare for cold weather concrete placement. The Overseas Buildings Operations staff did a great job of keeping the contractor in line and providing feedback on the work.

Probably the strangest thing about Kabul was the scent. I noticed it as soon as I stepped off the plane, but I couldn't quite place it. Someone finally explained it was soot. Kabul residents burn wood and anything they can to keep warm in the winter. The result from the fires is an almost continual soot cloud. Sometimes it thins out in the afternoon if the winds pick up, but it looks like a fog at night. Not surprisingly, some people experience respiratory problems from the combination of the 6000-foot elevation and the soot. Of course, you get used to it - except for me there was one time daily: when I got out of the shower, pulled my towel up to my clean face...and it smelled like soot. I would've burned my clothes when I got home if I didn't feel like I would just be enabling the cycle somehow. Coincidentally, while I was there, the NY Times ran an interesting article about how crappy the Kabul air quality is.

Speaking of my clothes, another OBO visitor before me bought some laundry detergent from the embassy's convenience store and gave me the rest. Unfortunately the packaging only had a total of seven English words: Comfort, Sense of Pleasure, Airflow, Laos, and Cambodia.

Was the liquid detergent or was it actually fabric softener? Which would be more likely to improve Airflow? And don't get me started on the Sense of Pleasure. It didn't really matter anyway, I was a lost cause even WITH instructions I could read because the washing machine I was trying to use appeared to be Turkish. (I later realized it appeared to be Turkish because the wifi connection I was using was routing through Turkey.) I couldn't figure out where to put the detergent for the life of me. Being an engineer, I was not going to let this washing machine beat me - it was a matter of pride, you see. So I found the model number of the Beko DCU9330 and looked up its user manual on the internet. It took a while to find one in english, but the cover page told me what I needed to know: Dryer. The washing machines were in another container also named "Laundry". Chalk up a win for the "Measure Twice Cut Once" philosophy since I didn't pour the Comfort into the dryer somewhere (like the condensation collector), but the laundry facilities clearly weren't engineer-proofed.

There were a lot of things to do on the compound, and the embassy appeared to have a pretty active night life. One night the CLO hosted a film event for a short collection of interviews called Kabul at Work presented by the director. I haven’t watched them all – the film I saw included only about 8 of the 81 currently on the website – but I highly recommend a few in particular: The Film Producer, The Postman (not on YouTube yet), and The Golf Pro. The director wanted to illustrate that Kabul is a much more ordinary city with interesting people than most people probably realize. Kabul typically only ends up in American news because of acts of violence (or air quality, evidently), but of course the minority doesn't have to define the majority. I found it very interesting – I hope you do too!

It was a great trip; I learned a LOT about running an OBO construction project as well as embassy life. I'd like to go back for a tour, and my wife would like to join me (it looks like there are openings for jobs she could do), our only constraint is what we would do with our two dogs. Hmmm...

(This post written while listening to Nick Drake Road.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Man Card: Suspended

Today we decided to go visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore, so we drove from DC to check it out. I was extremely embarrassed when I realized both the Ravens' and the Redskins' playoff games were home games today, and the route I picked went right past both stadiums. We were lucky that we didn't get stuck in traffic, but I can't believe I lost track of the playoff games - bad Mark, very bad.

The aquarium was cool. My wife and I were trying to pick our favorite parts. She liked the dolphins the best: not exactly a shocker. In fact, she said she'd like to be a dolphin trainer some day, BUT she doesn't have a degree in a biology-related field, and apparently employers can be sortof picky about that background check stuff. I think my favorite part was when we were watching an animal handler describe a blue-tongued skink (lizard) and the handler asked the children an arm's length away what the skink eats. I mumbled, "Children?" but I'm pretty sure none of the kids heard me. The odd and impressive variety of poisonous frogs they had were cool too.

Work's good.

(This post written while listening to R.E.M. South Central Rain.)