Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pajamas to Dinner

You know how we have curbs on the side of the road? You go a little too far and your tires hit, a nice gentle tap reminding you to stop, and protecting you from what’s beyond? Well, here there are wide, deep ditches lining the streets. Go a little too far, and you’re stuck.

And that’s what life is like in Afghanistan. It’s like everyone has fallen in a deep ditch, and is trying to escape. Some are climbing, some are clawing, some are content getting high and sitting at the bottom, waiting for the walls to cave in. Few ever actually make it out.

Things are so difficult and take so long here it’s mind-boggling. We went to the Ministry of Interior General Directorate of Foreigners Affairs Consideration Recording of Population Data Foreigners Registration Office (try turning that into an acronym) to make ourselves “official.” The first time we went in the middle of the workday, but the office had already closed. This time, we had trouble getting in because the skeleton key wouldn’t work. Why bother with the key? I thought. There’s a big hole in the window that’s been patched with a notebook cover – let’s just go in through there.

To hook up to the internet, you have to go to the Ministry of Information with about $200 and your computer in hand, and they’ll set it up. But today they were out of the wireless USB ports and told us to come back. When? They couldn’t say.

And then there’s the electricity. Or rather, the lack of electricity. The power situation is much better than it was – up from one to three hours a day two years ago to twenty hours a day now. But what happens on any given day is always a surprise. Yesterday, the power was out all day. Today, it was on all day. Even the poorest of the poor often have generators to power one light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling and more than 50 TV channels (cable is only $5 dollars a month and soap operas and music videos from India are Afghan favorites).

Over dinner tonight the 87-year-old royal family member who is also staying at our house (by the way—is it inappropriate to wear your pajamas to dine with royalty? If the answer is yes, too late) had the answer: solar and wind power. “Why are we getting our electricity from Turkmenistan?” he asked rhetorically. “Then we will always be dependent on them, and they can shut us off anytime they want,” just like Russia did with gas to the Ukraine this winter.

The idea that electricity lines are traveling through the mountains from Turkmenistan to Kabul –and that Americans and other expats are getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to install them—seemed to baffle everyone at the table. Inefficient doesn’t begin to describe it. But then again, inefficient is just about the perfect way to describe almost everything here.

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