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Life, the universe and everything

A blog about fun, life, and photography.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My views on love (this one's for you Mark).

Being a deployed journalist means that I'm busy most of the time, too busy in fact to read girlie magazines (e.g. Cosmo, RedBook, Glamor...). In fact, most of my life I've usually had something far more fascinating to do (like picking belly button fuzz or making ear wax statues) than to read such superfluous "trash".

Recently though, I found myself suffering from a pretty bad case of food poisoning (yet again I am amazed at how these people survive here), so bad in fact that I was hospitalized overnight and swore that I left my jejunum in the barf pan they gave me. The effects of this illness are still with me (even though it's been a week since my first attack), so my energy level is not what it could be. I spend most of my spare time "resting quietly" in my room... or at least the room that I am occupying while I am away from my home base in Khowst (I'm in Sharan, Afghanistan right now). I happen to be sharing a room with several other females right now and they have a rather extensive collection of the afore mentioned magazines.

During one of my resting spells I looked up at the stack of magazines and noticed that one said "The Married Girl's Survival Guide" on the binding. With my interest slightly piqued (anything at that point was more interesting than the gnawing and churning in my stomach) I got up and pulled it out.

I think I've made it fairly clear up to now that I have never been one to be interested in this sort of dribble. But I managed to read the whole magazine. Every single word of it. And I actually liked what this magazine had to say. The part that I was most touched by was the discussions on relationships between married couples. It made me more homesick for the arms of my husband, David, than anything else I've gone through here.

Don't get me wrong, I miss my husband immensely, but through the internet, we remain pretty close. The articles in this magazine made me really stop and think about what my husband means to me. I have a tendency to feel like I'm never holding up my end of the relationship because at home I'm a full-time student and stay wrapped up tightly in my studies instead of his arms most nights. I neglect more than just him when I'm studying too. The laundry, vacuuming, cooking... all of it falls by the wayside, or rather, he picks up the slack time and time again. Yet he still has the energy enough to encourage me to study hard and make good grades.

Now that I'm here and not there, he sends me emails every day. They usually aren't that long, but they have little news snippets or jokes (usually the inside kind) or simply messages of love and encouragement. If it weren't for his emails, I would go insane here. It is his constant support that keeps me going.

Reading those articles in the magazine made me realize just how special David is and how lucky I am. I could never have imagined in the 27 years prior to our meeting that I would ever had ended up marrying someone so generous with his love.

I cannot help but think of the old saying, "Opposites attract" when I think of our marriage. Where I am scatter brained and irresponsible, he is consistent and sensible. Growing up, I was a partier, he was a scholar. I'm outgoing and loud, he's reserved and pensive. Yet somehow, we found each other. Somehow we found love. Somehow we made it through the many trials of our early relationship (my deployment and back injury and his experience in SF training) to come out on the other side in love.

Anyone who's ever been deployed can tell you about the loneliness that comes from being separated from the ones that you love, or even the lifestyle you used to lead. The freedom which once enjoyed and are now fighting for others to have is completely stripped away from you. There's a constant, yet dull ache to be back home. Most people try to do their best here, to do their jobs right and to make the most of their time away from home, but the ache is always there. People who have never been deployed will never know this ache.

Just before writing this post, I read David's brother's blog: Quake 'zine (http://quakezine.blogdrive.com/). His Sept. entry just happens to be about love, or rather his lack of faith in it (an excellent read by the way) and his pleas for the world to redefine their understanding of the word these days. It reminded me of my feelings as I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center that fateful day in September, just over four years ago now.

Like everyone else around the world, I went through the whole gamut of emotions and reactions... except for one. Revenge was something that never crossed my mind. Instead, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of compassion for the people whose lives had led them to the point of attacking us. Like many people around the world I turned to the internet to try to find some answers for what had happened. I came across one discussion board, based somewhere in the middle east, where Americans were already posting their threats and messages of hate and impending destruction of that part of the world. One such message was from a student in Greenville, NC, my own home state. I had been to Greenville many times and knew it to be a somewhat progressive college town. I was so disturbed by his posting that I actually emailed him and asked him to try to find some peace in his heart and look for some other solution to this problem. His response was quick and angry and completely missed the point. He told me that he was a doctorate student at ECU studying history and that if I ever wished to challenge him to a match of wits that he would surely stomp me in the ground... gotcha... point completely lost on this guy. Actually I came to find out that my point was completely lost on the greater portion of Americans. Anger and hatred reign(ed) supreme in America, despite its claim to be a Christian nation. I've never heard so many people who wear shirts that read WWJD? and yet spit on the whole idea of forgiveness, reconciliation and finding non-violent solutions to our problems in the world.

Dubya, the country-invading born again Christian, was reelected because he waived his Christianity card the hardest.

So what does this all have to do with love? It is love that gives people the courage to find forgiveness and understanding in their hearts. Love gives people the courage to open up to complete strangers and say, not necessarily in so many words, "We may not be exactly alike, but that is alright. You are a human being, just as I am a human being. You breathe the same air that I do. I may not know what you know, but that does not make either one of us worth more than the other. It is because of our differences, not in spite of them that I love and respect you as a human being and fellow resident of this planet that we call earth."

Does this sound a little hypocritical coming from a soldier deployed to the country that harbored the initiators of the 9/11 attacks? I can honestly say that my life is much richer for having met and made friends with Afghans. This country may be dirty and smelly, but when I consider their history of war and what that has done to the education system here, it absolutely amazes me at the level of hospitality these people are willing to show and their bravery at facing the upcoming elections under the threat of death from insurgents. I have more respect for many of these people than I do for some of the loafing scum bags I've met in America (that sentence did not contain much love, now did it!). Where Americans have been spoiled for many years, these people are tasting freedom for the first time in generations, but even the refugees that I met outside of Khowst during the MedCAP (see the blog entry below), the people who had nothing, absolutely nothing, the people who die during hail storms because they have no shelter under which to hide, they all asked us to sit and drink tea with them.

The irony that I had to come to Afghanistan to learn the true meaning of hospitality is not lost on me. These refugees knew about love in a way that I thought I had never experienced before... until I considered my husband. The love that he shows for me comes from the same place. This love comes from a pure well inside that everyone has, just some people have neglected the path to the well. Like any other neglected path, it has become overgrown with weeds and lost, but it's never to late to break out a sickle and start making a new path back to the well.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Life in Rural Afghanistan

(Boys peeking in through window)

I had the chance recently travel to several small villages in rural Afghanistan to document a MEDCAP (medical civilian assistance program). It absolutely stuns me sometimes how anyone survives out here in these primitive conditions. The local doctors in the villages work out of dirt-floored mud huts and use henna to "cure" everything from infections to cancer. Of course it's not very effective (although many of the locals swear by it), so it's not very surprising to see people with nasty abscesses that have been swabbed with henna. In Spara the Army doctors drained one such abscess on a young man's hand. The poor thing had probably been bit by some insect and the bite got infected, well anyway, below is him with the Army doctor fixing him up. He only received local anesthesia via painful injections into the wound before the slicing took place.

We went to several places over the three-day event. The first day was Spara, where the first two pictures were taken, followed by Qadam and then a refugee camp near Khowst. Probably the most heartbreaking thing I witnessed was the two surviving babies that used to be triplets. One of them looked like they probably wouldn't survive very long anyway because it was so small and dehydrated.

I couldn't even imagine trying to live, much less bring new life into this environment. The demands on these people's bodies are immense, hence the short life-expectancy and inflated death rate. The average male lives to be about 42 and female lives to be about 40.

Probably the most interesting thing I learned on the trip was that neither sheep nor camels have upper teeth. Okay, this is not entirely true, they do have two canine teeth on their upper jaw and probably some grinders in the back, but there are nooooooooooo teeth in the front, which makes a camel's mouth all the more discusting (no, I did not get spit on).

Monday, August 22, 2005

Good morning America,

I usually sleep in in the mornings (gotta get my beauty rest you know), but lately I've been getting up earlier to cover-down on some personnel that have been out of the office. This morning I got up extra early and peeked my head out of my door to be pleasantly surprised with this great big ball of orange that was just past the point of rising. I went for my camera and headed out to find an appropriate foreground. I specifically wanted something that would make a great silhouette because I wanted to catch the great warm glow in the sky around the sun instead of blowing the sky out. Above is the result. The low-res version is not as nice as the high res version, but you get the gist of what I was doing.

Tomorrow I want to wake up even earlier and catch the sun just as it's rising. I'd like to try to catch some people doing PT at sunrise. The pictures I've been taking lately have been nice, but I need to get more people in them if I'm going to go for MILPHOG next year.

This will be the first photo competition that I've entered. I've usually been very hesitant and insecure about my abilities as a photographer. I never thought that I was good enough, but I'm tired of that self image. I want to excel and the only way I'm going to do that is to get out there and shoot. This competition has actually given me a goal to work toward, which I think makes me more determined to improve my skills.

I'll have more opportunity to improve in the next few days when I go out on a "Medical Civilian Assistance Program" (MedCAP). This is where Army doctors go out and give free medical aide to the local nationals. This could be a photographic gold mine. These can also turn out to be really boring, but I'm thinking of it as a challenge to find those special shots that will make it all worth while for me.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Photographically inspired...

Last night we had a huge lightning storm here. I just love lightning pics. I've been living in AK for the last few years and I think I've only seen one lightning bolt there during that time. Here in eastern Afghanistan, we get thunderstorms quite often, but I rarely have the chance to actually shoot them. They are usually accompanied by flash flooding which turns the whole area into a raging river of muddy water. When lightning does happen, either I don't have my camera with me or the lightning is quickly covered up by the pouring rain (rain and cameras usually don't mix well).

Last night though, I was lucky. The clouds were massive and dark and the lightning was pretty consistant. The rain did pour down for a little while, but it soon subsided into a sprinkle. I hit the streets with my camera trying to find the best possible foreground for the lightning. Time was running out though because clouds were fast moving to other places, taking the lightning with them.

I settled for some rain-soaked tents as my foreground and set up my camera on a concrete pillar to do some 30 second exposures. Here's the result:

Not the best lightning picture I've taken, but not bad for here. I'm going to scout out some more possible places to take lightning pics for future reference.

I think, as a photographer, I'm so drawn to lightning because it so resembles the essence of photography (in a metaphoric sort of way). You've got flashes of light, electricity and a beauty that is unique to each shot.

Photography is a craft that was recently reawakened in my life by a freelance photographer on assignment for the New York Times. Scott Eells was doing an embed with the Army and I was lucky enough to be his media escort. Watching him work and looking at his pictures made me realize that I had become lazy and complacent with my camera. I've tried to rededicate myself and try to shoot every day. Scott told me, "Even when you don't feel like it, you just have to go out and shoot." Thanks Scott. Good copy. WILCO.

Friday, August 19, 2005

An introduction that branches into a rant about life in Afghanistan vs life in America and how this war is going.

Let me start with a few things about myself. I'm a photojournalist, but I'm more of a photographer than a writer. My job simply requires that I do both.

I lean neither right nor left, that allows me to grow as a person and develop my own ideas about how to live my life. I find it annoying when I express a certain view about something and the most intelligent rejoinder that the other person involved in the conversation can come up with is "You're a liberal aren't you!" No. Nor am I a conservative. Nor am I non-committal. In today's overly politicized climate, I find it stifling to try to narrow my view to one way or another of thinking. I'm a human being for crying out loud who wants what is best for my loved ones and country. What I think is best is not always "mainstream", but at least I think deeply about what I do.

I have made mistakes in my life, but I would not be who I am today if I had not. How boring life would be if I had always done what was "right" or "legal". The important thing is that I do learn from my mistakes. I would not change the way that I've lived my life, although sometimes I do contemplate what my life would have been like if... But here I am, and no amount of contemplating rearranging my past is going to change that. I can only move forward from here.

My goal in life is to live the best that I can and cause as much joy in this world as possible. I live for making others smile. To get away with this philosophy, a person must be genuine and considerate. These are two traits that I feel are sorely lacking in much of American society. Having lived in Afghanistan and interacting with a culture that is entirely different than my own, I feel that I can justly say this. Does that mean that I want to give up my own life in America to live in Afghanistan? No. Not for the world. But it does make me more critical of how I live my life. I've learned to not be as wasteful and more hospitable to others. The Afghans are truly gracious hosts. Many of them are what Americans would consider "dirt poor," but most of them are very happy people. They understand that you don't have to be rich to know what true happiness is. Family life and bonds are so much more important to them than they are to the average modern American.

Please don't be confused when I talk about Afghans. I do NOT mean the Pakistan-trained Taliban and al Qaida militants that are causing problems for everyone. Those people were raised in religious schools that only taught one very narrow point of view. It's a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that those people are being raised in. If I were trained from a very young age only that Americans and westerners in general were evil infidels, I would probably believe it too. These people are taught this poisonous way of thinking with such conviction and are denied access to all other lines of thought that they come out of the schools convinced to the very marrow of their bones that their lives are solely purposed for killing infidels and spreading the word of fundamentalist thought. Think about this. It is an unfortunate thing for these people. They could have been raised any other way and would have turned out all right, instead their minds are forever poisoned by fundamentalist thought and will most likely face a gruesome death at the end of an M16A2.

In Afghanistan, coalition forces and NGOs are trying hard to help rebuild Afghanistan, but they are faced with many, many roadblocks along the way. Kidnappings, suicide bombs, IEDs, corruption among local officials, and most devastatingly of all, an illiteracy rate of at least 80 percent among the local population. Afghanistan is a country that has been too long forgotten about by the rest of the world. It is sad that it took 9/11 to wake up the world to the poison that was brewing over here, but the Afghans are much better off for us being here now.

Are things going perfectly? No. Are the people better off now than they were under the Taliban? By far, yes.

It is my true feeling that we should not be in Iraq right now (later perhaps, because Saddam really did need to go, but not until we had finished our mission in Afghanistan). This maneuver was poorly timed. We had the chance to prove to the world how successful a democracy in the Middle East could be and we blew it. Afghanistan should be a shining star of success in this region of the world, instead it is overshadowed every day by the bloodshed in Iraq. With U.S. forces spread thin and recruiting and retention numbers down, things are not looking up for Afghanistan. Afghan forces are not yet ready to be left on their own, yet more and more are hurriedly being rushed through their training and pushed out to the front lines. They still shoot from the hip with their AK47s and waste enormous amounts of expensive ammo in the process.

The only way that Afghanistan is going to be truly successful is if we are here for many, many more years to come. This time could have been shortened considerably had we devoted the troops who are currently in Iraq to fighting the insurgents pouring in from Pakistan and giving more training time to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

But this is all just a bunch of dwelling on what could have been. The reality is that four years after we invaded this country, American Soldiers and Marines die every single day in Afghanistan still. And that number is increasing as the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month near.

Not all is doom and gloom in Afghanistan though. U.S. forces have been able to pull out of the western part of the country altogether and most of the fighting is concentrated in the eastern part of the country along the border with Pakistan. Most of the country is doing well and getting back on its feet after 30+ years of war and poverty and a drought that spanned 15+ years. (As I type these words I can hear thunder clouds in the distance announcing the promise of yet another day of rain.) Girls' schools are popping up all over the country. No longer do girls have to attend secret classes led by women who risked their lives under Taliban rule to promote education among the gentler sex.

Things are looking up here, but we still have a long, long road ahead of us.

If you've made it this far, then thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. This is new to me (anyone who's tried anything new understands the hesitancy in taking that first step).