Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Long Strange Trip

(note artistic license to backdate)
As I finish my final leave (aka vacation in the US) and begin a  slightly tortuous series of flights, I am again struck by the different worlds that I am now equally at ease in – and each of which remain just beyond the realm of true integration.
My route brings me through Atlanta airport – and as I’m mentally contrasting the mud construction that still typifies much of Afghanistan with the airport metro that people cram into with mounds of luggage whose contents would mystify the average villager, and whose value would likely horrify them.  Having plenty of time, and only a backpack to deal with I decide to walk the tunnel instead, wondering why I seem to be almost the only one to make this decision.  Are we really running late for our flight?  Do we take the car/train/bus out of simple habit?
Anyhow, as I stroll along I am treated to a very nicely done exhibit on the history of Atlanta, and was reminded that even if we are train-riding, Gucci-bag-toting, gotta-be-there-yesterday people who seem a world removed from the long-walking, pack-a-hat-and-a-prayer-rug, take-time-for-some-Chai world of Afghan culture, we’re not.The first exhibit that caught my eye was admittedly slightly dated, from our civil war, when our human-rights loving Union Army decided to teach the Confederacy a lesson by burning Atlanta to the ground. An event that still simmers even in a country which, in comparison to most of the world, seems hell-bent on forgetting our own history – let alone that of any other nation whose path we have crossed in the past two-plus centuries.
So as I was reflecting on our own nasty internecine war, I fast forwarded to the Atlanta Olympics, which I am afraid are memorable not for the athletic milestones, but for the unsolved bombing which took place…  Admittedly, the circumstances are different, but we are both unfair to others and dishonest with ourselves when we judge our “way of life” to be impervious to the narrow-minded barbarity that we mentally confine to “fundamentalists”, while turning a blind eye to our own citizens who feel compelled to burn what a sizable chunk of the world believes to be the literal word of god (the Koran).
Having come to the end of the tunnel (less than a 10 minute walk) I decided to ponder these and other cosmic mysteries in the American fashion, over a beer and chips (that’s nacho chips, not freedom fries if any of my commonwealth mates are reading).  So I settled down and made my order, and was blown away when the waiter asked me for identification. I suppose it might have been the fact that the beard I have been sporting in Afghanistan made it through US customs on the way home, but not much further than that, being in no way compliant with more stringent domestic regulations/preferences. Nonetheless, having been “legal” for some two decades I was amused, and a bit saddened that we have come to a point where our fear of litigation has motivated to spend time and energy in such a low-probability verification of what is both obvious and of such little importance. Perhaps I’ve “gone native” – although that would actually imply a zero-tolerance policy – but if some 20 year-old has the money to pump into the economy by buying a four dollar beer in the airport, then I say let it ride. If they are average, they have already been drinking illegally for several years in places and ways that are totally unregulated – so my personal belief is that they are unlikely to get hooked, or even be able to afford to get blasted, at the airport bar, and if they do, they’ll learn a good life lesson.
Anyhow – the remainder of the trip was less “eventful” or maybe my reservoir of deep thoughts just doesn’t run very deep – and I found myself back on the tarmac a Bagram suddenly facing a small crisis.
Not being subject to “General Order #1” – which forbids US military personnel from drinking alcohol while in Afghanistan, I had decided to violate General Order #1, and made a small purchase at the duty free store, in the interest of repaying a friend who shall remain unidentified – but who is likewise not subject to the General Order.  Now there is the small matter of Afghan law, but I would be flying into a military base, and then there is the question of diplomatic immunity which isn’t remotely clear. I wasn’t exactly comfortable in this grey area, but had certainly never been told I couldn’t do so, and certainly knew of others who had done so.
At any rate, it was a VERY unpleasant surprise when we landed and they made the announcement that any contraband should be deposited in a bag by the entrance…  This put me in a bind, because my contraband was in my checked bags – so I couldn’t turn myself in.
However, I took solace in the fact that my lodging was very close to where we disembarked, so I had simply grabbed my bag and walked off without boarding a bus to go to the “terminal” where most passengers got picked up.
Procedural change #2 was that everybody had to get on the bus, and reclaim their bags at that point.  My palms were getting very slick by now, and I started looking for my bag to see if they were going to call me into the military customs police.  Now my diplomatic immunity seemed like a huge liability. It was an honest, even defensible mistake, but I could just see my boss saying to me “it’s not that I’m mad, I’m just disappointed”.
Finally I see my bag come off the plane, and then see the bag handler call the   supervisor over, pointing at the bag, tapping the sides, and after some consultation putting it BACK IN THE PLANE.  Now I’m certain that my true worst fear has been realized, and that not only am I smuggling, I’m doing a bad job of it and didn’t pack it well, so the cargo bay now reeks of vodka and I’m to blame. (Plus I have no clean underwear).
I decide that I need to do some damage control, and as we’re loading up the bus I sheepishly confess that my contraband is in my checked bag.  This heartfelt confession is shrugged off, but I still don’t see my bag as we pull out.  Fifteen minutes later we are finished processing at the “terminal” and the baggage is waiting for us.  I don’t see my bag in the main pile, and am not surprised as I wait for the public humiliation I feel certain is imminent and will happen when they drag out a liquor soaked bag (with my initials embroidered on it thankyouverymuch) and make a loudspeaker announcement for me to go to the principals office.
To my astonishment though, my bag is in the pile, and with no visible stain marks. I gingerly lift it out, still waiting for the newly formed BAF customs enforcement team to move in. Finding a quiet corner, I verify the obvious, newly thankful that my gift is both intact, and that apparently,  it will not result in my ejection from the country. It took some restraint not to use it to immediately calm my nerves, but the recipient was properly appreciative, and the story of its journey made for extra enjoyment.


  1. What wonderful writing and a great story, too!

  2. "...but if some 20 year-old has the money to pump into the economy by buying a four dollar beer in the airport, then I say let it ride.."

    great line.