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Odiferous Kabul

“Oh My God! Did you shit yourself?” – me to my boss Zeke

“Welcome to Kabul.” – Zeke smiling at my disgust

(originally published 12/1/2012)

There are many things to discuss: the base, the people, the food, the environment, the bathrooms, and the funny names. Let’s start with my location – Kabul. The base is bordered on two sides by mountains, some small with no snow, others very tall with lots of snow. The snow-covered mountains are particularly beautiful in the morning – before the smog sets in. The big ugly brown mountain is nothing special by any stretch, but people built dwellings on parts of that big dirt mound.

Kabul is the capital so naturally there are loads of people. I think most of the returning refugees moved to Kabul when they decided it was safe enough to return. Afghanistan has been at war since the 1979 Soviet invasion, remember? So far, I’ve been off base only once and that was for a drive to a nearby base. I saw some of the same things I saw in other Afghan cities, (dirty kids running around, exhaust-belching jalopies, burkhas on foot, run-down buildings, muddy signs, etc.) but here the dreariness is on a much larger scale. Cars careen all over the road with no sense of order, everything is dirtier, and I pity plants of any kind trying to exist in this dry miserable land. Thankfully there are dividers on the main roads, separating on-coming traffic. I’d hate to witness the chaos of driving without them.

The streets are mainly dirty, filled with grime and garbage. Kabul has no effective municipal sanitation system so heaps of trash clutter most streets. Afghans think nothing of throwing anything on the ground. People dart back and forth everywhere, like cats. Unfortunately for them and unlike cats, the Afghans only get the one miserable life. Thus, pedestrian casualties are common. Back to the Trash (with a capital T) – that’s a very apropos topic and is intimately connected to the smog.

Mornings are usually the cleanest time of the day, with mostly smoke from heating fires in the atmosphere. However, as the day progresses, the air gets dirtier from car exhaust, diesel generators, dust kicked up on the roads, etc. Many people experience “the crud” a couple of weeks after arrival. The crud is an ugly chest cold which is a rite of passage in the shithole of Kabul. Come nighttime when I leave work (usually between 8-9pm) the air is full of wood smoke – Afghans use wood and charcoal to heat their hovels. Kinda reminds me of a huge Boy Scout jamboree in the summer with lots of campfires – minus the angst of adolescence. Not that I’ve ever attended a Boy Scout jamboree in the middle of summer, but I imagine there’s campfire smoke. There’s most definitely angst.

The smoke is just one part of the smell. There are two other hellish components in the night air – sometimes the day air too. At any time we can be attacked by the stench of sewage. That disgusting smell wafts in from the city and from our evaporation ponds, wherever they’re located. Sewage is a “generous” way to describe the stench. The smell is more akin to rotting food mixed with decaying flesh and the colonic emissions of an all-you-can-eat sauerkraut, jalapeno, chili and broccoli contest sloshed down with about a 12 pack of beer. It’s shockingly obscene and can catch you off guard. At times I’ve stopped talking mid-sentence in the futile attempt to keep the smell from my mouth. A coworker told me he’s hurled twice after smelling it – once after a workout at the gym and once after leaving the chow hall. I’m gonna have to learn how to cope. I’m sure it will be especially jolting in the summer heat.

The last thing that makes up the horrific smoke/stench of Kabul at night is the particulate matter from all the trash fires. I just told you of the trash-strewn streets. Well, a lot of the trash gets burned for home heating! It’s the only way a people can dispose of trash in a country with zero public sanitation awareness or preparedness. And everything is game to burn – plastic, rubber, paper, feces, packaging, clothes, etc. No wonder the Afghan life expectancy is so low.

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