Noel Novelties

Oh, for the warm and fuzzy. The familiar texture of a flowery canvas couch with the cushions all chewed up by the family dog. The thinning oriental rug under sock feet. The sinus-widening scent of fresh pine broiling under plastic lights. A new book read in an old LL Bean vest, made back when they still used goose down for the filling.

Such are the familiar comforts of a New England Christmas, as shown in the picture my mother cruelly sent from our living room earlier today. I’m sitting in my new apartment, watching a thunderstorm over Asia, and worrying about the rain seeping in from under the door to the balcony, which is rotting the floorboards. Is this what they call growing up?

Two consolations: my brother Robert will be coming over to join me for the holidays, assuming he escapes the Snowpocalypse which has shut down the mid-Atlantic coast of the US; and I received my first Christmas present. A friend, back from Kabul, brought over the rather unique Bottle Burqa. Cheeky symbol of women’s liberation? You could call it that. Culturally insensitive? Probably. Sitting in pride of place on the living room table? Check.

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Kars

It snowed yesterday morning. Since I moved away from Boston in part to escape winter, this was a discouraging development. To make matters worse, I live in a beautiful high-ceilinged old apartment with gorgeous picture windows that retains about as much heat as a ventilation shaft. I’m too cheap to turn on the gas, which can run to about $200 a month (to give a sense of scale, that’s just under the amount I pay for rent), and the only clothes I have were packed with China’s tropical heat in mind. I wrote my roommate, who’s currently in Kabul, to see if she had any suggestions for avoiding hypothermia.

‘Let’s look into electric heaters? Isn’t that what other poor people do?’

And, in a separate email: ‘its so hot here. im so glad i brought that sleepingbag.’

Kabul: temptation rears its ugly head, yet again (see ‘The Detroit-Kabul Connection‘).

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The Detroit-Kabul connection

I’m beginning to settle into the school where I’ll be teaching for the next month. It feels very remote, so naturally my first instinct is to get online. I find I can open very few of the pages that result from my search for ‘Uighur uprising.’ Facebook and Blogspot have been completely blocked (as have YouTube and Myspace). For the foreseeable future, then, I’m going to be exploiting friends’ good will to post these thoughts.
But more on China later. In a trend I foresee continuing, I want to backtrack a few days and an ocean.
On Tuesday, I drove from northern Michigan to Detroit with Jon, a friend of my brother’s who spent four months teaching accounting at Kabul University. (He too kept a blog, and I’m hoping I manage to keep this one as interesting as his).

Like any delusional idealist who studied post-conflict development in college, I’ve thought it might be interesting to look for work in Afghanistan. I heartily agree with the new philosophy governing (at least in theory) the latest troop surge. The language (Dari, a dialect of Farsi) is nowhere near as intimidating as Arabic. Three other friends who have worked there as civilians rave about the beauty and dynamism of the country. And, cheesy as it seems, I like to think that I could help build things there, and that I could put my education to good use.

I pestered Jon with questions for most of the four hour drive to Detroit. The news isn’t good. 

Kabul is, unsurprisingly, a disaster after thirty-odd years of intense conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bombed-out buildings, no underground sewage, the kind of poverty that makes you ashamed to be human and not devoting all your efforts to changing things… To top it off, plants not far outside the city process sewage by burning it, giving the air high fecal content. I never thought I would hear about something that made the smog in China sound appealing.
Towards the end of our drive, we passed a gigantic factory on the outskirts of Detroit. Rivers of rust trickled down the side of the building as if it were the victim of a drive-by shooting. With the sun catching the edges of glass in the broken windows, it looked somehow splendid in all its catastrophe.
‘That,’ said Jon, ‘that is what Kabul looks like.’

I guess the news isn’t good in Detroit either.

Still, I think I might like Kabul. Feces notwishtanding.
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