Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Ali Baba and the 40 Fleas

Jambo! (Ugandan for hell0-I'm doing my best to make friends with the Ugandan soldiers contracted to guard the DFAC, gym, etc because the Red Cross does not get normal military Common Access Cards. We get held up all the time and made to show our orders verifying we are allowed to use the dining facilities. Do they think I randomly hoped on a plane to Baghdad and thought I'd try my luck for dinner at one of the cafeterias? Baffling :-)

Anyways! The days here are flying by. I was told by many to be prepared to be lonely and bored in my off hours, but that has been far from my experience thus far. I feel like I don't have two seconds to spare. I'm finally settling into somewhat of a routine, with the sleep adjustment coming as the hardest part. I get off of work at 3:00am and usually drive straight to the gym where I can work out relatively uninterrupted by fellows who think I flew halfway around the world to meet them for a date at the Green Bean Coffee. After the gym I drive back to my CHU (hooch/trailer), slip the keys under the next teammate's door and then head to bed. I sleep typically from 5:00am to 2:00pm though lately I have been woken up by the TV set of my apparently deaf next door neighbor-contractor who also never seems to work. I finally left him a note the other day and he promises to keep it down. When I get up I usually have some free time to myself to watch TV, read or play on the computer. I run errands like laundry or get items from the PX, go exploring in the Ford, to the Hodgie shops for pirated movies, or go to the pool.

Other challenges include (and Don I give you full permission to laugh your head off) the sand fleas that seem to find me a particularly attractive bedmate. I went through the whole lovely production of having the bug guys come (he looked like the scientist from Area 51 in Independence Day). They nuked my room with chemicals, decided I didn't have an infestation but just a knack for attracting them. And I am still getting bites from the pesky vermin so I am perpetually washing my sheets and spraying the 30% military Deet around the room which the Area 51 guy told me was illegal in the States. Excellent, cancer before 30. Many of you have asked about the heat. It's basically too hot to sweat. My cheeks sting when I go outside and there's definitely a smoky smell in the air. August could go up to the 130s before the temp starts to fall again in late September. The thing is, since it's the military you are just expected to deal with it so while we all complain about it, in never really stops you from doing anything. Basically, I'm chalking it up to character building.

Meantime, my teammate Greta and I have officially staked a claim at the Australian pool, the pool that I told many of you was reportedly closed. The pool is, in fact, open but alas is far more of a spring break hang out than a fitness pool.  It's shaped like an L, probably 15-20 meters both ways and filled with testosterone overloaded, sexually frustrated, seemingly intoxicated men whose lecherous staring could make a doorknob blush. Nevertheless, I am rather bullheaded when it comes to the pool and consider it MY domain that they are invading so I persist. The location of the pool is actually quite beautiful set on an island in one of Saddam's lakes that can only be accessed by walking across a 50 meter dock. Greta and I dubbed it "the plank" i.e. everyone at the pool gets a runway preview of the newest addition to the pool party. We go to the pool a few times a week and on the weekends as well. It almost feels like being on vacation... except for the BlackHawk Helopad that is right across the water. 

Sundays are turning into our adventure day. Two Sundays ago we were treated to a visit with the Specialized Search Dogs (SSD). These amazing dogs, mostly labs and spaniels, are trained to sniff out bombs and IEDs. They are also big lovers because they are not trained attack dogs so we got to pet and snuggle to our hearts content. We were given a demonstration outside and it took the pup only a few minutes to locate the "IED". This past Sunday we took the Slayer Camp Tour which is the base that contains almost all of Saddam's palaces and important buildings. We happened to come on an extremely crowded day, there must have been close to 100 people on the tour and it was easily 120 degrees. It was an exhausting but incredible day. We started at the Victory Over America Palace which is indeed an ironic name. Saddam built it after Desert Storm the rationale being that even though he was promptly defeated he was still in power and thus, the victor. It must have been a jaw-dropping palace. It is, in fact, connected to the Victory of Iran palace (another example of Saddam's victory in the Iran/Iraq war) but they were both destroyed by the Air Force in 2003. We also saw the palaces built for Saddam's mistresses, mother-in-laws, the brothel for the Ba'ath party members as well as the Ba'ath Party House. The Ba'ath Party House was an enlightening experience for me with some familiarity of Middle Eastern history. The building must have been stunningly beautiful, built out on the water, with a water courtyard and all the surrounding rooms with floor to ceiling windows. Incredible a building so beautiful was used for such evil. We saw the infamous "pool room" where political prisoners i.e. anyone, was tortured and eliminated by Uday, Qusay, Saddam and the party members. Now all the remains is the skeleton of that building, bombed by the Air Force and Navy in 2003. 

Things are great at the office. Soldiers, contractors and generous people are always bringing us stuff to make our lives and the soldier's lives easier. Last week we had a group of Air Force guys bring us a 10 ft inflatable pool and just the other day we got a shipment of Girl Scout cookies that caused general euphoria. We are perpetually asked when we are going to get another shipment of Starbucks coffee or AT & T calling cards, courtesy of our corporate partnerships. By far the hardest part about our work is the connectivity. The phone lines go down, the internet goes offline, the satellites fall out of orbit (?) and meantime the cases roll on in, the office is packed and a nine hour shift goes by in the blink of an eye.

I don't mean to make it sound like a walk in the park here. It is an extremely stressful job with the pressure to deliver the emergency messages as fast a possible, often with ridiculous addresses like "Baghdad, Iraq" (well that narrows it down!) And when you have someone whose father is going to die in 48 hours or a suicide case where the family is counting on you to save their loved one by contacting the command in time, you can feel the gravity of the work we do. We also do not get any days off while we're here so there is no time to recover. This is coupled with living in a war zone and all that you can imagine is associated with that. But I think that dwelling on these aspects over here would make for a torturous 4.5 months so instead you are seeing life as I am looking at it. If you have any questions or are curious about the war part I am happy to talk about it, but for the sake of those who worry, feel free to disregard (MOM!)

Thanks for all the thoughtful emails and letters.  

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