Posted by: Zoa | February 9, 2012

Helmand Province, southwestern Afghanistan

Greetings from Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium-producing region, and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between Taliban and NATO forces in recent years.  My new location is Camp Leatherneck, which sits in an arid basin with an unobstructed view of the surrounding plain. On most days, there’s not much to see.

Camp Leatherneck was created in 2008 to provide a headquarters for US Marine Expeditionary Forces in southwestern Afghanistan.  The base is in the middle of nowhere and was created from nothing.  Most structures are prefab CONEX boxes such as the housing units to the right.  I live in one of these metal boxes.  It’s 7’x 20’, complete with electricity, a bunk bed, HVAC and a window.  It’s quiet and comfortable.  I even have wifi.
Here’s one of the seven chow halls on the base.  The food is pretty good.  I’m impressed that they can get fresh fruits and vegetables here.  I think they’re flown in from New Jersey.  The cooking staff are from India.  Every Saturday night, we have an excellent Indian buffet with all the trimmings.  It’s a nice change from the American fare that we have the rest of the week.

Here’s the Education Center where classes are held.  The proud gentleman standing here for his photo is Ted — our Education Services Officer.  In addition to Ted, there are field reps from the University of Maryland and Central Texas College, as well as a testing specialist, a counselor and a computer IT guy.  And then, there’s me.  I teach the classes.
This term, I’m teaching geology and computer science.  Shown here are some of my geology students, hard at work.  One of the best benefits that U.S. soldiers have is access to college education – for free.  Both on-line and face-to-face classes are offered at most military bases overseas.  Sadly, many of our soldiers work too many hours to take advantage of these small college classes brought right to their doorstep.

Although the U.S. will begin withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in the next year or so, Camp Leatherneck is still experiencing a major construction boom with new roads and buildings being built all the time.  Living here is like living on a construction site with all the heavy equipment moving around all the time.  In the background of the photo to the right, you’ll see Jordanian soldiers playing soccer.  I was surprised to learn that Jordan provides soldiers to this war effort.
Camp Leatherneck has a total population of about 18,000.  Like any city of this size, it has all the usual issues, including waste disposal.  I’ve included a photo of Camp Leatherneck’s garbage dump because … it’s huge.  It’s the highest elevation of any point in Camp Leatherneck, and perhaps the highest point in this part of Afghanistan.

Camp Leatherneck has a busy feel to it.  There’s air and ground traffic in and out of the base night and day, with activity going on 24/7.  Here’s a typical personnel carrier with an ambush resistant metal cage.

January and February are the rainy months in southern Afghanistan.  In geology class, my students are learning about the drainage problems that are often associated with old deserts.  With a hard desert pan just below the surface, water isn’t quickly absorbed into the soil.  So, after a heavy rain here, puddles last for about a week …
… and with no sidewalks, the dust turns into mud.  Here at Camp Leatherneck, everyone’s boots are the same color — BROWN.

Another common sight at Camp Leatherneck is barbed wire.  There are miles of it, surrounding the base.  For security reasons and for my own safety, I’m not allowed to go outside “the wire.”  I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could.  I have plenty to do to keep me busy inside.  I still have a lot of reading to do.

At the end of the day, we often get brilliant sunsets.  Here’s the same landscape as the first photo — the same flat landscape.  My current teaching term ends on March 10th, and that’s when my contract with Maryland will end.  I’ve already got my e-tickets in hand.  Next stop — Thailand.

Posted by: Zoa | January 22, 2012

Military Travel

My three month assignment with the Army at FOB Sharana is finished, and I’m now transferring to Camp Leatherneck where I’ll be teaching Marines.  This means relocating from Afghanistan’s eastern mountains to its southern desert.  (Click on any image below to zoom in.)

Travel by military air is similar to bus travel in Africa.  First, military air is wonderfully inexpensive.  My status as a civilian contractor allows me to travel for free on a Space Available status, which is great … except when there are outbound medical patients, soldiers returning from R&R. or officers — all of whom outrank me when it comes to getting a seat.  But patience is the key.  In fact, the first two days of my journey, no one went anywhere because snow and ice grounded all flights.

Just as with African buses, boarding a C-130 is fast.  There’s no cleaning of the aircraft or shutting off the engines.  As soon as the previous passengers have disembarked, new passengers hop into the plane and find seats.  Also, military air doesn’t waste time with silly restrictions on carry on luggage or metal detectors.  Whereas in Malawi, passengers often boarded with baskets of fruit or fish; on military flights, most passengers carry at least one weapon.  The only rule, I think, is that the safety must be on.

With no direct flights from Sharana to Leatherneck, I flew north to Bagram AFB hoping to catch a flight from there to someplace south or west.  Although Bagram has flights to and from Germany, France, Kuwait, Dubai, Pakistan and remote locations all over Afghanistan, there’s no fixed schedule and the flight you need may not be available right away.  So, just as with bus travel in Africa, you should plan to be at the terminal for a while.

Here’s the big screen which shows the continuously updated flight schedule.  It’s essential to watch these flight boards.  Just as in Africa, you never know when something might be going in your direction.

While waiting for your flight, enjoy the amazing views outside.  Another delight in both African and military travel is that transit hubs are often scenic.  Below are a few C-130s on the runway at Bagram.  In the background is the snow-capped Hindu Kushu, rising 5000+ meters, glowing pink with sunset.

The spontaneous and casual nature of military travel continued to remind me of Africa.   On day three, I missed two flights to Kandahar because they weren’t posted on the flight board.  The next day, my flight left without me when it departed an hour ahead of schedule.  By day five, I realized that, just as in Africa, the secret to travel by military air is to know the right people.  Within a few hours, I had a seat on an unlisted flight that went straight to my destination.  I even got a window seat.  Granted, the window was a port hole 15cm in diameter.  But I had a chance to see from the air the beautiful country that our troops are risking their lives for — and your tax dollars are paying to defend.

Central highlands

Southern lowlands

On the night of my arrival, the Marines had their first geology class of the new session.  I’ll be here for eight weeks.  Think of me when you’re watching the Superbowl.  We’ll be eating popcorn and watching it at the USO — sans commercials or beer, of course.

Posted by: Zoa | December 27, 2011

Christmas in Afghanistan

Greetings, blessings, and Merry Christmas.

After Thanksgiving’s magnificent performance, I was curious to see how Christmas would be celebrated here at Forward Operating Base Sharana.

Our chow hall put on a substantial feast, with pot roasts, hams, turkeys, yams and a full range of Christmas deserts.  The pecan pies were excellent.

Just as with Thanksgiving, the kitchen staff demonstrated their artistic skills with Christmas trees and other decorations made from recycled shipping Styrofoam.

The Education Office held an open house and a Christmas party.  Here’s a photo of the friendly team that I’ve been working with for the past two months.  From left to right, starting in the back row:

  • Becca coordinates and proctors placement tests and exams.
  • Frances is the University of Maryland field rep.
  • Michael keeps the computers working.
  • Mel assists students in using the computers to register for classes.
  • Teuta is the Central Texas College field rep.
  • Devon answers soldiers’ questions about educational benefits.
  • Mary is the Education Services Officer — our boss.
  • And me, I teach the classes.

Just after Thanksgiving, I started teaching Astronomy and Computer Sciences.  Shown above are my astronomy students.  On December 10th, we had a lunar eclipse with ideal viewing conditions.  The moon rose brilliant and white into a cloudless sky above the mountains on the Pakistan border.  We took breaks from class every 20 minutes to go outside to watch Earth’s shadow drift across the moon.  A few students had never seen an eclipse before, so they were duly impressed.  When the moon was fully eclipsed, it had a reddish tinge which gave the desert an unearthly glow.

In other news, my geology students returned from a mission to report that they’d killed the local manufacturer of roadside bombs – a man they’d been hunting for months.  They lost a vehicle in the process, but there were no American casualties.  They returned from their mission with some excellent samples of quartz and jasper.  They seemed more satisfied with having found some cool rocks than with having killed someone.  I would be, too.

Soldiers today are different from when I first taught for Maryland 30 years ago.  They’re older now.  Their average age is at least 25.  There are also about four times more women in the Army now than in the early 80s.  One of my math students was featured in her battalion’s newsletter.  Click on the article below to  expand it and make it readable.

Women are essential to the Army’s mission in Afghanistan because male soldiers are forbidden to interact with Afghan women.  This is why Specialist Stewart finds herself playing an essential role on the front lines.  Stewart isn’t a typical soldier.  But then, there doesn’t seem to be a typical soldier any more.  Their backgrounds and origins are all over the map — from Brooklyn to Brazzaville.  Although they all have different reasons for joining the military, the soldiers I work with joined the service in order to get a free college education.

Here are some of the local nationals who greet me every morning.  One of the best things that the U.S. is doing for the people of Afghanistan is providing jobs.  These fellows serve food, do laundry and clean the latrines.  They seem pleased to have these jobs.  I estimate that the Army employs at least 1,000 local nationals full-time.

So what was Christmas like here in this small city of 10,000 soldiers, contractors and local nationals in the middle of the high desert of eastern Afghanistan?

First, we ate a huge noontime meal.  Then, everyone took the rest of the day off – which is unusual.  Most offices and operations stay open for business 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  However, on Christmas afternoon, even our post office was closed.  Then the festivities began.

The gym hosted a weight-lifting contest that was very well attended.  There were events for all weight classes, both men and women.  Shown above is someone bench pressing about twice his weight.  Impressive.

In the evening, there were parties with music, games, healthy foods, a few sweets … and no alcohol.  Alcohol is forbidden on military bases in Afghanistan.  There’s not much tobacco here either, because the Khyber pass is still closed to NATO supply trucks.  Those who have cigarettes share and smoke them sparingly.  Gambling is prohibited, also.  With all these restrictions, the Christmas parties were rather wholesome events.  The poker players shown below are merely playing to see who can win the most poker chips.  But they’re having fun.

The Learning Center was one of the party venues.  At midnight, after an evening of food, games and music, we folded up the tables and chairs, swept the floors, and returned to our barracks for a good night’s sleep.  By 08:00 the next morning, we were all back at our posts again.

It’s fascinating to live in a place where there’s no alcohol.  Everyone goes to bed at a reasonable hour.  There are no loud parties.  No one is hung over in the mornings.  I don’t sense any tension.  Everyone goes about their business calmly and with pleasant manners, opening doors for each other, etc.  People voluntarily take out their neighbor’s garbage without being asked to do so, and without expecting thanks.  The harshest words I’ve heard in two months were when the wireless router at the education center went down.  There’s a sense of teamwork.  Still, there are some nights, after I’ve finished teaching class, when I wouldn’t mind a nice glass of Malbec.

There’s almost no money here, either.  Food is free, of course.  And although there’s a PX that sells magazines, batteries and basic electronics, the main “shopping” center is the Free Store run by the chapel.  Here’s where donations from folks back home end up.  Yesterday, I dropped in and asked the chaplain if he had any hand lotion.  He rummaged around in some cardboard boxes and pulled out a couple of small bottles and said “How about these?”  “Perfect” I replied.  We chatted a bit and then I walked home.  No money changed hands.  How simple can life be?

Everyone is healthy here, too.  Most folks go to the gym every day.  There are 5k fun runs every month.  In two months, I haven’t heard of anyone having the flu or a cold.  Perhaps the cool, dry air and constant sunshine kill the bacteria?  Of course, outside the wire lurks danger.  One night at about 20:00, the PA system called for all doctors on base to meet at the emergency room immediately.  I don’t know what happened, but several troops must’ve returned from a mission with serious injuries.

There are no animals, children or old people here, of course.  All in all, it’s a little bit like living at monastery.  Although it’s a co-ed environment, sex is not allowed.  I suspect that it happens, but not very often.  The housing arrangements are so restrictive and there’s so little privacy that it’s hard to see how a romance could develop.  It certainly keeps life uncomplicated.

Life here is austere and simple.  My life has settled into a comfortable daily rhythm.  I’ll be here for three more weeks.  Then, I’ll be transferred south to a Marine base named Camp Leatherneck.  Stay tuned for more photos and stories.

Peace and good will to all.  And Happy New Year.

Posted by: Zoa | November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Afghanistan

Thanksgiving diorama in the chow hall

At breakfast in the chow hall on Thanksgiving morning, I was greeted by the seasonal display shown above.  This diorama was constructed out of recycled materials by our cooking staff.  The figurines were ingeniously carved from blocks of Styrofoam used to ship our meats and vegetables from New Jersey.  The other materials were surplus military supplies.

Although the oversized horse (in the rear) — with its harsh eyes and raised mane — looked a bit threatening, and the mannequins had a zombie-like quality, I thought it was a pretty good effort, all in all.  It’s not easy to translate cultural icons and traditions from one side of our planet to the other.  I had a chance to meet one of the artists (a real Indian from Mumbai!) and tell him what a wonderful job he and his fellow sous-chefs did.

Thanksgiving table displays

Our Thanksgiving dinner itself was the real deal, with dozens of huge turkeys, various types of stuffing (including some that were flavored with Afghan spices), cranberry sauce, yams and pumpkin pie for desert.  Again, the cooking staff went all out with their fruit carvings and table displays as shown above.

Note that every soldier here is required to carry a loaded weapon at all times because it’s part of their uniform.  On the walls of the mess hall hangs a sign saying “WEAPONS ON YOUR LAP.”

I had hoped that our dinner would be served by a notable celebrity from Washington DC, such as Hillary or Joe.  It would also have been exciting to have seen someone like Tom Hanks carving up our big bird.  Instead, an Army general (with one star) flew in from Germany to take a shift with the carving knife serving his troops for about an hour.  He was later replaced by a Saddam Hussein lookalike … complete with chef’s hat, white jacket, full beard and beard net.  This added a nice touch to the event.

Enlisted housing

Several folks have emailed questions about what a FOB in Afghanistan looks like. So I took a few of photos, where permitted.  Shown above are insulated tents used for the enlisted troops.

I’m the only professor here, so I have VIP status.  I’m housed in one of the Russian-built structures near headquarters.  Still, I’m subject to all the safety drills and procedures of the soldiers.  One morning I was awakened at dawn by a commanding male voice on the public address system saying “DO NOT EVACUATE THE BUILDING.  THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM.”  It’s good to know that the Army is taking such good care of me.

Our safety precautions are impressive.  Every building is surrounded by high berms of dirt and rocks.  Windows — where they exist — are filled with sand bags.  No one goes out at night without wearing a reflective sash and being accompanied by a “battle buddy”.  The speed limit for all vehicles is 15 mph.  Eye protection is required at all times.  The fact that there is no alcohol here is also a factor in creating a calm and businesslike atmosphere on this FOB.

One of our fitness gyms

Fitness is big here.  This FOB has at least three fitness tents like the one above.  Here you’ll find a wide variety of weights, floor mats, punching bags, jogging machines, stationary bicycles, stairmasters and ellipticals.  There are big TVs above the exercise areas where we can watch endlessly rebroadcast professional sports.  The fact that the gym is housed inside an open air tent makes for a very comfortable place to work out.  And of course, there’s no membership fee.  It’s all free.

Besides eating and exercising, the 3rd most popular activity here is sleeping.  It’s been explained to me that, by sleeping 12 hours a day, a soldier can cut his/her 14 month deployment to 7.

MRAPs ready to roll

Here are the typical vehicles seen driving around the base.  They’re called MRAPs, which stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.  I had hoped that we would be driving in one of these for our geology field trip.  Instead, we traveled in Toyota SUVs.

Geology field trip

For security reasons, I’m not allowed to go “outside the wire”.  So, last Friday, I took my geology class took on a field trip to a quarry that’s inside the wire. FOB Sharana contains a small canyon where material for filling sandbags and Hescos is quarried.  So, my GEOL 110 students had an applied learning experience involving about 10,000 years of strata, which included ancient sand dunes overlaid by glacial outwash from the last ice age.  Bashing around in the glacial till with sledge hammers was good fun.  We found some nice chunks of jasper — almost gem quality.

One last note:  There’s a newspaper here that everyone reads called Stars & Stripes.  It’s the standard news source on all US installations worldwide.  Last week, there was an astute article about cooperation between Americans and Afghans which quoted Lawrence of Arabia and his 27 Articles of T.E.Lawrence dated 1917, saying …

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands.  Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.  It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.  Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

From what I’ve seen so far, this seems like rather good advice.

Posted by: Zoa | November 6, 2011

Week #2 in Afghanistan

This is the end of the second week of my eight week teaching assignment at FOB Sharana.  FOB stands for Forward Operating Base.  FOB Sharana is a staging area for humanitarian and anti-insurgent operations in the mountain provinces of Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.

So, how big is the base?  It has a 10 mile circumference.  There are more than 9000 people here – mostly soldiers and mostly men.  There’s a large air strip that accommodates military aircraft.  Planes take off and land at all hours of the day and night.  Tethered to one of the hills within the base is a blimp with long-range observational equipment installed in it.  Helicopters and drones buzz like bees in the sky all day long.  There are 4 local headquarters, each with their own chow halls.  This place is much bigger and busier than I had guessed from the google photos that I looked at before I came here.

The photo below shows where I live.  This is “Town Square” — the center of the base.  Headquarters, the chapel, the post office, the PX, the main USO lounge, the gym, and the education center are all located within 200 meters of these flagpoles.

FOB Sharana Town Square, Chinooks overhead

Many of the structures near Town Square are leftovers from the Russian occupation of the ‘80s.  The Americans retrofitted them for use as offices and VIP housing.  As a professor, I’m granted a private room inside one of these buildings.

Individual rooms are separated by unfinished plywood partitions.  My room is 7’ by 10’.  For protection against bombings, sleeping quarters have no windows.  Exterior walls are reinforced concrete, two feet thick.  I have a desk, a chair, a bed, two reading lamps, and plastic cabinetry.  The showers and latrines are a short walk to another building.  Considering where I am, I feel quite safe and I have all I could ask for.  I do a lot of reading here.  Thank goodness for my Kindle.  When I get tired of reading, preparing for my night classes, or napping, I wander over to the USO lounge where I can get free wireless internet.

My quarters

In addition to American soldiers and contractors, there are troops here from Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey.  There are also many Afghan National Army and service personnel.  The education center is mostly manned by Albanians.  Fijians run part of the communications network.  Soldiers from Uganda are responsible for supervising the Afghan workers.  In this mix of languages and cultures, there can be comic moments.  Yesterday, I watched a young Ugandan explain to an elderly Afghan gentleman how to paint the window trim of a building.  Neither of them could speak fluent English – but, in a very good-natured way, they tried.  Everyone eats in the same chow halls, family style, at long tables with folding chairs.  It’s remarkable to hear all the different languages, and see all the different uniforms and weapons.  It feels a little bit like being in a Star Wars movie … Tatooine maybe?

Italian sausage and scallops

The DFAC (Dining FACility) serves fabulous food.  Open 24 hours a day, and serving 3 hot meals every day, there’s no shortage of excellent chow here.  I’m impressed by the fresh cut pineapples and melons every morning for breakfast.  The fast order cooks will make any kind of omelet you like, plus there are multiple buffets of sausages, bacon, hash browns, oatmeal and grits.  The Italian sausage and scallops shown above is a typical lunch item.  The variety of restaurant quality meals is amazing — so are the salad bars full of fresh vegetables.  Occasionally we have a buffet of Afghan food, which is superb.  Friday nights are Surf’n’Turf night.  See below.

Fresh Alaskan King Crab, Top Sirloin and non-alcoholic beer

Good food is important for health and morale, of course.  And it’s said that an army marches on its stomach.  But I can’t help but wonder how many elementary school lunches could be purchased for what it costs to provide a meal like this for 6000 hungry men … in the middle of one of the most remote and hostile corners of our planet.

On the walls of almost every public space at FOB Sharana — including the DFAC, the barber shop, the MWR, the USO, the passenger air terminal, and the housing office — are large flat screen televisions.  During the recent World Series, the televised games seemed to go on forever.  Because of the time zone differences between the US and Afghanistan, every game was rebroadcast four times throughout every day.  The result was 28 games.  The visual monotony of seeing the same two teams, larger than life, on the walls of all the common areas was like animated wallpaper.  Now, we’re back to football.

For fun, there was a 5k run on Halloween.  Runners were encouraged to come in costume.  I ran the 5k in an unimpressive 31 minutes.  Considering how little I’ve run in the last six months, and that the elevation here is above 2000 meters, this isn’t too bad.  Shown below are a few of my students.

A Maryland professor and The Village People

A final note about the weather:  It’s great!  It doesn’t rain this time of year.  The days are cool and sunny – ideal for taking walks along the perimeter fence.  The nights are crisp and clear – perfect for star-gazing.  I’ve been told that it snows here and gets cold in December, but so far this is a lovely climate.  Too bad I can’t get off base and take a hike in the surrounding hills.

Posted by: Zoa | October 26, 2011

The start of a new adventure

For the past three years, I’ve visited tourist destinations, explored natural wonders, seen exotic animals, encountered vibrant cultures and met welcoming people.  In August, I contacted the University of Maryland and volunteered to teach “downrange.”  A week ago, I arrived in eastern Afghanistan.  It’s time for something completely different.

Getting to Afghanistan was half the fun.  The journey started in Heidelberg, Germany, which is headquarters for Maryland’s European Division, as well as the US Army.  The Army and the University have been in Heidelberg since World War II.  The Army chose this charming city as its headquarters because it was one of the few places in Germany that still had roads, buildings and bridges in 1945.

Heidelberg, Germany

Heidelberg has much of its medieval structures still intact.  The old city, the bridges, the castle, the taverns and the cobblestone streets are delightful places to wander.  Did you know that ancestors of the Neanderthals lived in this valley between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago?  Did you know that General George Patton died here in 1945, as a result of a auto accident?

To prepare for downrange assignments, everyone is required to be trained on essential survival skills, such as:  How to put on IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) in 30 seconds or less, how to treat punctured lungs and arterial bleeding, what to do when one encounters a land mine or an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and how to extract oneself from an overturned MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle.  I also learned lots of military acronyms.

Yours truly in his IBA

From Germany, I flew to Dubai.  This is the third time I’ve been here in 2011.  Dubai is a natural hub for air travel in the Middle East, southern Asia or southeastern Africa.  But, to quote Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.  Dubai has tall, glass buildings, women dressed in burkas, shopping malls and a lot of dust.  I was content to spend only one day there.

A day at the beach in Dubai

Dubai has a special airport terminal that serves destinations that aren’t on most tourist itineraries.  The  departures board offers destinations like Abu Dhabi, Khartoum, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul, Islamabad, Peshawar, Tashkent, and Kandahar.  I flew non-stop from Dubai to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Bagram AB is about 45 kilometers north of Kabul.  It’s the staging area for military operations in Afghanistan.  Most personnel and equipment go through here en route to other locations in Afghanistan.  I have no idea how big the base is … except that it takes an hour to drive from one side of the airfield to the other.

That night, although I had only an inflatable pillow, a thin blanket and a foam mat, I got a great night’s sleep … oblivious to the F16’s taking off and landing, the thunderstorms that blew through, the occasional slamming of doors and revving of engines, the snoring of 7 other guys in the bunkhouse, and the sounds of platoons of soldiers marching to and from their assignments.  Thank goodness for earplugs.

In the morning, the air was crystal clear.  The dust of the previous day was replaced by large puddles — made deeper by tanks and hummers splashing through them.  Towering above Quonset huts, canvas tents and jets parked on the runway, the Hindu Kush rose like a fortress.  Bagram sits in a valley, surrounded by an imposing wall of black mountains with white tops.

The Hindu Kush, with the chow hall in foreground

I had a day to look around Bagram AB.  There’s free wifi at the education center.  Each classroom has gun racks, where the students can lean their rifles during class.  Food is available 24 hours a day, for free.  The troops have reasonable supplies of fresh fruit, but there’s usually a crowd around the freezer filled with raspberry sherbet popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.  On the walls of every mess hall are large flat-screen TVs which, depending on the time of day, show either a football game or a late night TV host.

Bagram AB provides lots of jobs for Afghans, who clean toilets, drive shuttle buses, empty garbage and prepare food.  It’s interesting to see that the food servers must wear mesh nets over their beards, in accordance with US health standards.  There are no Afghan women here.  The barber shop seems to be run entirely by Filipinas.

I heard French and German being spoken by soldiers here.  At the terminal, a French unit boarded a non-stop flight to Charles de Gaulle.  The other language I heard a lot was Albanian.  The administrative staff for the education center, the U of Maryland and Central Texas College are all from Bosnia or Kosovo.  Apparently, when our military pulled out of the Balkans, they moved the folks who ran the education centers to Afghanistan.

From Bagram, I caught a space available military flight to FOB Sharana.  FOB stands for Forward Operating Base.  A FOB is near the front lines, where our soldiers make contact with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other similar groups.

Military air transport to Sharana reminded me of one of the scenes from the movie Avatar.  About 100 soldiers were strapped into a C-130 in parallel rows of webbed seats.  Everyone wore body armor and a helmet.  There was no heat in the plane.  I didn’t mind being geared up and squeezed between two soldiers twice my size.  The armor, helmet, and body heat kept me warm.

In addition to being unheated, the plane was noisy and completely dark.  The only light came from gauges and instrument panels.  There was no sense of altitude or the passage of time.  Needless to say, there was no in-flight food service or lavatory breaks.

Without windows, it was hard to know where we were in the air.  Although our landing was very smooth, it came as something as a surprise.  On exiting the plane, we all shuffled towards the rear with our weapons — except that I didn’t have any weapons.  Then we descended the broad loading ramp under a starry sky and into a biting wind.

The next day, I started organizing classes, enrolling students, and preparing lesson plans.  Here’s the building where classes are held.

FOB Sharana Learning Center

I’ll be here at FOB Sharana for 8 weeks to teach geology, statistics and college math.  This is one of the more remote places I’ve been.  The high desert of eastern Afghanistan is beautiful, in a stark and desolate sort of way.  I’m at about 2000 meters elevation so the skies are very clear.  The people I work with are enthusiastic and hospitable.  To the east, we can see the Pakistan border.

The eastern front and the Pakistan border

I’ll try to update this blog about twice a month or as news develops.    Thanks for reading my stories and for any comments you’d like to post.