Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fine Dining.

My boss had a Christmas party at her house and served honey-baked ham, hummus and chicken shwarma. It was a surprisingly good combination, but I don't think it will catch on anytime soon in this part of the world.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Town.

Last December I was in Iraq, and then again in February. I wrote a bit about it earlier in the year, but just recently came across this story from back then. I have a different job now, but at the time getting to travel around Iraq was a real privilege. If I had stayed with that job I'm sure I would be making more regular visits. Maybe even making more friends.

From February 2009

I sipped Courvoisier out of a Dixie cup while Muhammad chain-smoked his cigarettes. The women danced while the band played into the night and the only indication that a war was being fought were the occasional housing-rattling flyovers by Blackhawks.

Mr. Taha, a wealthy local businessman and childhood friend of Muhammad’s, invited us over for dinner and dancing to celebrate his cousin’s birthday and the upcoming elections. His large new house was tucked in a corner of the green zone and situated behind a gate and wall, both manned by sets of private guards. Having this much security might seem suspicious elsewhere, but in Baghdad it’s pretty routine for anyone who can afford it.

Born and raised in Baghdad, but living in New Zealand for the past 15 years, Muhammad worked with us as an interpreter, fixer and source of local knowledge that none of us could ever hope to gain in the short rotations that we came and left on. Muhammad had served in Saddam's military as a tank driver (“I am short enough to sit inside the tank, so that's why I got this job”) but eventually left his home country to a safer, quieter life in the southern hemisphere. Now he was back in Baghdad, the prodigal son returned to help rebuild; and the pay wasn't half bad either.

We were seated in a large open room filled with couches and chairs, the walls decorated with handmade Persian rugs and ornately designed rifles with inlaid pearl along the stock. Several other Iraqi men and women in their mid 40’s came in, and Muhammad introduced me simply as, “Hoowah min Washington - He’s from Washington.” This was met with a smile and then promptly ignored. I was just another American visiting this country, we would all leave in a few weeks or months or years. This was a celebration and people wanted a chance to have fun, not talk with some kid from America.

By 10pm dinner was served, two full tables of meats and salads and breads. We ate and then drank more, the music barely pausing while the band scarfed down plates of freshly grilled lamb. By midnight the birthday cake came out and we all sang in English as the candles were blown out.

Shortly after, I walked with Muhammad out to the car and we drove back to the confines of the embassy. For one night we both had a chance to forget about blast walls and security protocols, IEDs and snipers and all of the other niggling little details of war that buzz in the background of every conversation and interaction. For one night we were just friends out at a party.

Friday, December 25, 2009

All Relative.

My friend Liz was just saying how, as strange as things are here, it's still so much less weird than when I was living in Micronesia. I agreed with her completely.

And then this appeared outside my house the next morning.

Another piece of animal remains, some 20 feet from my front door. I'm not sure if the photo diminishes the scale, but this leg/hip/knee joint looks like it could have belonged to a goat at one point. I'm pretty sure that this is something my neighbors purchased and later cooked, but it's disturbing to think that they just chucked it over the wall when they were done. I guess at least now the neighborhood cat population had something to eat for a while.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Same Old Thing.

There's a pretty sizable community of stray cats living around here, most of them are feral and keep close to the garbage cans and dumpsters that are liberally spread around. On occasion I can hear them fighting, but for the most part they keep to themselves.

On the way home the other evening I passed by a cat that lost a fight with a car, and it reminded me of seeing something similar back when I was living in Micronesia.

From February 2007

I watched a cat die last night.

It darted straight under the wheels of a quickly approaching car, and with a rolling set of thuds was spit out the back. The black mangy mat of fur twisted and spasmed for a moment before gradually contracting its muscles into a fetal position.

Blood trickled slowly at first out of the eyes and mouth, filling in the cracks of the asphalt until the tiny red rivers converged and pooled together. After almost a full minute of inactivity, the cat went through a series of contortions before one of his eyes erupted and spilled a large viscous pool of blood and ocular fluid.

I stood and stared, unable to move. Like most things here, I had no idea what to do. I am used to cats as pets, almost human in their treatment. I was not used to a cat as a pile of twitching and leaking meat. So I stood and I stared, unable to move.

As the now sizable pool of blood cooled and congealed, a man walking down the street approached us. He looked at me, and looked at the former cat. Without even breaking his pace, the man picked up the cat by its tail and carried it unceremoniously out to the beach. With one easy swing to build momentum, he tossed the carcass into the approaching tide.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Matter of Time.

Four days before Christmas and it finally happened. What was it that pushed me over the edge you ask?

"Leroy the Redneck Reindeer."

He's just a down home party animal
Two Steppin all across the sky
He makes jingle bells with the rebel yell
And made history that night

That's right, it's a song about saving Christmas and being Country. I only wish I was joking.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Well yeah, obviously if you were wearing your ninja cloak and high heels at the mall you would want to be careful exiting the escalator. That seems like something they would have taught back in ninja school.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nowhere Near the Left of the Dial.

I only get three English language radio stations on the alarm clock next to my bed, so every morning I wake up to top 40 country music, beamed out of military base in Europe and somehow bounced around off satellites and into my bedroom.

Perhaps I should mention that I don't like top 40 country music? But this is really nothing more than a daily irritant, something to force me out of bed in the morning. On occasion a song is just so stupid or corny that it actually makes me smile. But it's also very effective, no matter how comfortable my bed may seem, when I am forced to listen to a song called Honky Tonk Badonka Donk, I will get out of bed to turn it off.

And I figured that would be the worst of it. But I hadn't counted on something so vile, so repulsive, so unbearable that I cannot fathom being startled from sleep by it; top 40 country music Christmas songs. A whole month's worth.

I think perhaps it's time to change the station.

Monday, December 14, 2009

We Already Know.

I guess it's not that surprising that my telling of the Hanukkah story involved the phrases 'insurgent forces' and 'guerrilla warfare.'

Sunday, December 13, 2009


High ceilings and a smoke detector running out of batteries do not make for a good night's sleep.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Uh, is 'Washroom' Canadian for Restroom?

"It sure is, eh."

Okay, thanks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Underground.

The last time I was in a bar that was literally underground, I was in Israel and it was an old bunker where they hadn't even bothered to take down the camouflage netting. Just throw a strobe light in there, play some loud euro-dance and turn on the fog machine. No one will think twice about it. But I suppose when you're 16, you don't need a whole lot more.

Now that I'm back in the region, but in a very different country, the concept of an underground bar holds a different meaning. And while this one was also physically located beneath the earth, the camo nets and artificial fog were replaced with funny stories about camping out in public parks and a quick tour of the trampoline located on the second story rooftop.

I wasn't invited to jump on the trampoline during the evening, but I have a feeling I will invite myself over to do just that soon enough.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Don't Go There.

A bit of fortune cookie advice: Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Just Like in the Cartoons.

While back in DC over Thanksgiving, we drove the four hours south and west to Bath County, Virginia. The forests there are beautiful and we were looking forward to a chance to get out and hike a bit. At the Lake Moomaw (actual name) Resevoir we stopped in at the ranger station just to grab a map. The park ranger, actually an Army Corps of Engineers tour guide (long story), asked us if we were going for a hike. We told him that we were and just as I was about to ask for any trail suggestions he cut us off.

"I wouldn't go out hiking. It's the last day of hunting season and it's anything goes today; bucks, does, whatever. They're going to be shooting at pretty much anything out there. You'll be alright if you stick to the parking area, but other than that I wouldn't recommend it."

So, we quickly got back in the car and took a driving tour of the area, which was still quite nice.

And out there in all that natural beauty, the thing that most captivated me? A giant industrial paper factory right along the West Virginia state line. It smelled bad and I'm sure they were dumping all kinds of horrible chemicals into the river that it sat directly on top of; but I do love a good factory when I see one.