Tuesday, September 16, 2008

First Posting




















Introduction

I am in Baghdad, posted in the U.S. Embassy in the "International Zone" (IZ; the term "green" is no longer used) on the Tigris River. My intent is to be as informative as possible for those neither in nor of this region without betraying specifics that compromise security. So I ask your forgiveness in advance should you find my narrative general or obtuse.

Declaration: accept for my apology for the length of time between my departure from the States and this initial posting. You know me: when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. If I was not in touch one month earlier, say, in July, you can bet I was prohibited by technology malfunctions, travel demands or other unnamed preoccupations. Enough grovelling.

You ask: what conditions exist, how is Carol, what the people are like, do I get fresh fruit and vegetables, work 16 hour days, feel threatened, and how’s the coffee. You ponder: what, exactly, does Carol do, how does she dress, and how do her parents feel about her being there. You assume: it’s a dire situation, the food must be awful, she’s probably sleep-deprived, she must be scared (and/or brave), and “I don’t think I could do it.”


Acclimation/Acclimitazation

I have settled in well to my new environment which is much as I’d expected: drily hot, talc-powdery "sand", dusty, brown, olive, tan, sage, beige, rust-colored. Surrounded by T-walls, jersey barriers, and guards. We drink tons of water which is available throughout our compounds in four foot piles of bottled litres. Like home, we have much of the latest technology at our disposal; and, like home, sometimes it works and lots of times it doesn’t! I apply SPF every day, carry an open chartreuse umbrella, and wear Solumbra UV-blocking clothing to protect my skin. Temperatures have been running in the 120s (five to ten degrees hotter in the south) July to September. Inside of buildings – where most of us spend most of our time – I describe the air conditioning is "enthusiastic".




I've included examples of the chefs' artistic food sculptures. Most of the KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root) support staff (food workers, launderers, bus drivers, the like) are third country nationals (TCNs) from Africa (Ethiopia, Ghana, Somalia), Nepal and India. Every day we've new sculptural wonders to admire in the chow halls. Pictured here are a pineapple porcupine, and watermelon peacock and watermelon Freud. I've not yet seen a replication of their artwork.

Excessively bountiful food of decent quality is available three meals daily, plus a late night snack. Prior to leaving the States some of you had asked me what the food would be like, and I told you what I'd been told: that fresh fruits and vegetables were rare to none. Wrong. Fresh fruit (apples, oranges, kiwi, bananas) is available daily; several times weekly, fresh pineapple, watermelon and mango. Salad fixings are quite satisfactory, too. We have green lettuce (not just iceberg) most days, even raw spinach, and crispy sliced yellow, red and green peppers. Most of the time chefs do a good job with steamed broccolli, an impressive feat when cooking for thousands at every meal.

Desserts are enticing and rich, so I look them over more than partake: carrot cakes, German chocolate, cheesecakes of many flavors, extravagant custards, soft serve yogurts and ice creams. My indulgence are the thick ol' cookies that are among the best I've ever had. There's no reason for not eating nutritiously here, and if you slide on your exercise, could easily widen your girth. The food is supplied to us by a joint military and State Department contract, so no one forks out a cent for food here (exception below; read on).

Among many sayings here, one is, "You can go home either a skunk, monk (isolated), a hunk, a chunk or a drunk."

The coffee for the masses is fair. It's labeled "Strong" and "Light" (rather than "Weak"). Close to my office in the Palace is a 24/7 hot and cold beverage station at the confluence of three hallways. Water goes fast around here; sometimes I have the impression that the only job of one of the KBR fellows is to restock the massive water bottle supply in the oversized refrigerator (one of many throughout our living and working spaces) -they're constantly restocking that fridge at the beverage center. There's also no reason for not being well-hydrated here.

Just around the corner from the 24/7 station is a "real" coffee bar, The Green Bean. For a buck sixty a robust cup of coffee can be purchased; I treat myself to one cup of that coffee every week. The shop is very popular and operates about eighteen hours daily. The Palace itself, our "office building", is open twenty-four hours a day. Yes, there are folks in there at all hours, some working very late, others arriving very early (but I'm not one of them; I'm a moderate).

I reside on the New Embassy Compound (NEC), an eight-minute shuttle ride from the Palace compound. I share a nice approximately four-hundred square foot apartment with my roommate. We have a fully-appointed kitchen including nice refrigerator (stocked with juices, soy milks, yoghurts, and water, water, water), microwave, toaster, knife assortment, cutlery, plates and pretty tea cups (will post photo another time) - and nowhere to purchase groceries. Whaddyaknow. Not that we've much time for food prep anyhow (and many of you know how I dislike cooking). I am fairly ecstatic, however, that we have a cool Euro blender which I use for power shakes (I brought whey soy protein along; ambitious residents purchase dry goods from netgrocer.com, but there's no fresh produce to be had).

How I got so fortunate to be paired up with with my roommate is no end of puzzlement for me. Our similar habits, lifestyles and temperaments make us highly compatible: similar food-likings, regular exercise, quiet, and, like me, she's a yoga practitioner and has even been to one of my favorite yoga ashrams (we both initially went there in 1990), Satchidananda Yoga Ashram, in Yogaville, http://www.yogaville.org/ a short distance south of Charlottesville, Virginia, on the James River.


How I Do What I Do

My job, as one of the two folks to comprise the State Dept’s mental health team in Iraq, is to monitor, support and guide the morale and welfare of the work force. The “work force” includes all (numerous federal agencies here) but the military (they have their own crew); we do not work with the local population or the third-country nationals who provide support services. In the tradition of the State Dept’s diplomatic missions, we do a good deal of meeting-and-greeting: hi, I’m so and so, and I do this kind of thing, and you can find me in this or that location. With an ever-revolving work force we also provide group newcomers’ orientations and mandatory individual out briefs (a means for screening for symptoms of stress).

Ours is not the private practice model of traditional psychotherapy, sitting in an office waiting for a customer to track us down for a 50-minute session. Ah, no. Ours is the little-known mental-health-in-an-embassy-in-Baghdad style: friendly, out and about, talking with folks in offices, hallways, coffee lounges, fitness centers, dining halls. Being known as the face of mental health so when/if someone needs us they know who to look for and where to find us. We write articles for the community newspaper and will be offering casual gatherings to bring folks together in the months ahead.

In addition to the Baghdad embassy staff, we support the foreign service officers (FSOs) in the field on the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) throughout the country. My perception is that the FSOs on the PRTs are the guts of the State’s mission in Iraq, as they labor directly with the local Iraqis under extremely difficult conditions (environment, housing, technology, mobility, danger). In that effort, I travel frequently to the field: north, south, east and west.

Through the media you hear and read primarily about the military presence and movement(s) in theater; you have to be curious and have a hunger for in-depth information to know more about the PRTs. Hundreds of PRT staffers work on thirty plus PRTs throughout Iraq. This link is a good start: http://iraq.usembassy.gov/prt_information_2008.html


See my friend, Aaron Snipe's, blog: http://www.wingtipsontheground.com/
He's a Public Diplomacy officer serving in Muthanna province. Muthanna, all the way south on the border with Saudi Arabia, is the poorest of Iraq's eighteen provinces. Aaron's site is fancier than mine, with cool graphics and lots o' clicky-things.


In upcomping postings to this blog I'll include more detailed descriptions of what's going on in the field, as well aerial photographs of the Iraqi landscape.


Aikido Baghdad

In a curious evolution of inspiration and opportunity I’ve begun teaching aikido to embassy staffers. Within two weeks of my arrival, I’d queried for interest (lots), booked space, and set a training schedule. I lead class one and a half hours each night, three evenings per week. We have a core of ten or twelve committed students. I ordered gis (martial arts uniforms) and had the carpentry shop make up wooden jos (staffs) and bokens (swords); grappling mats are on order. One of our training venues is the new, full-sized basketball court in the New Embassy Complex (NEC). We do not have a shomen (the front of the dojo where calligraphy, an ikebana arrangement and a photograph of O Sensei – “Great Teacher” – are traditionally placed) so we bow in to a photograph of O Sensei propped on a gymnasium bench in front of a basketball hoop.



Most of the students have a background in other martial arts and “always wanted to study aikido.” Other martial arts are offered, such as jujitsu (Brazilian and “regular”), tae kwon do, muay Thai, and kung fu, MMA (mixed martial arts), which attract the youngest, high testosterone and adrenaline-junkie fellows. Aikido practitioners, however, tend - how do you say

it? – toward the more thoughtful, less aggressive, beat-their-bodies-into-the-mats-when-they-were-young-and-stupid individuals. The students are a fair representation of the professions in the embassy: economics and political FSOs, communications, information technology, personal security details (PSD), military, and an Arabic translator. I am growing into the role of instructor and have yet to feel at ease with being addressed as “sensei.” Teaching aikido is another way to “market mental health” because people have a chance to know me in a setting other than as “the person who decides if I’m crazy or not.” How I have the good fortune to be able to offer instruction in this impossibly beautiful art is a mystery. A mystery I'm having to live with.
















Home Front

My sisters, Alice and Robin (the DVM), and friend-neighbor, Karen, have been Number One Caregivers for my cats, Billson and Tapper. Between them they’ve pieced together a complex (to me) rotating schedule of cat care. They even had the graciousness to indulge me in reading the Comprehensive Cat Care Manual I’d written (in keeping with my character, overly-detailed).

The sad news is that Mr. Tapper died three weeks ago. I knew he was not doing well in the months prior to my departure and think on some level I knew I wouldn’t see him alive when I returned on R&R. He was thirteen years old and died of a variety of ailments, collectively what we call “old cat syndrome.” Alice, Robin and my brother-in-law, Bruce, buried him in our animal graveyard in the woods on mother's farm, Woodwind.

Though I’d given Robin the go-ahead to make life-or-death decisions over Tapper's condition, I regret she was actually in the position of having to act on the decision. Most of you are animal lovers and know how heart breaking it is to say goodbye to a fursome friend. Anyone else who pitched in that I didn’t mention in the preceding sentences, please chastise me privately and forgive me publicly. I’ve been unable to keep up with who helped out with the cats and when. I will identify a cat needing a home when home on R&R. Just the other day I got a heartfelt card in the mail from Robin. Included was a piece of gray silk with Tapper's white paw prints on the fabric, hand-embroidered in red, "Tappr wuz heer."

Gratitudes

Deerfield, you The Man. The heavy-duty shea lotion is protecting my skins from the harsh, dry elements; thank you.

Jennie, the G.I. Mary Jane tactical shoes are the bomb; as expected, they blend into the arid color scheme. The Carmex is good stuff: lips on the mend.

Martin, if you’d like to read the Comprehensive Cat Care Manual, I’ll send you a copy. Maybe see you at BSR in October.

Abbie, the flags are around my office.

Fredericksburgers and the Fine Folks at Laszlo's Weenie World, print this out for those Luddites - Tom and Shannon - who refuse to get with the '90s. (Tom, welcome home. Shannon, I'm down the rabbit hole.)


Jimmy, you were right about the firearms. ‘Nough said.

Jane, those individually packaged flavored drink mixes were on target. Only guess what? They not only have not run out of them here, but they’re available in a multitude of flavors.

Felix, you were a pal to send me the shampoo and conditioner! What a sorry selection of items the PX carries. My locks are grateful for your action.

Karen, the sage green linen blouse is a favorite; I frequently receive compliments on it.

Brother-in-law, Lynn, the laptop worked for me all the way to last week when the wire connections gave out. I have milked that machine for all it’s worth (not much to begin with). Wanna sell the parts on eBay?

Mom, the FIMO clay green leaf pin was the only green “thing” I saw for two months. The gardeners have been watering like mad here the last ten days so some of the vegetation is finally turning green. Almost reminds me of home (not quite).

Sis, I use the Camelbak almost every day. It’s been grand for my weekly travel to the PRTs, and plenty useful during my 10-day regional rest break (RRB) in Jordan and Israel. The pockets and zippers and clips entertain me when I’m inside hangars waiting on a flight.

And to Dad, my most faithful correspondent, your messages consistently bring me cheer – no matter the content. Your affection is contagious.


~ Carol
Would you like notification of further postings? Drop me a line at above email address.









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2 Comments:

At September 19, 2008 at 2:19 AM , Blogger Carol E. Altstatt said...

from Queen Julia ~ ~ ~

Golly, Carol, what a great update! I have a much better sense of what you're up to over there - heretofore i just couldn't picture you over there. I love the photo of you and the green umbrella! You know, that reminds of the Ant & Bee story where Bee loses his beautiful new umbrella. They travel the world in search of it, and finally find it in the British Albert Museum.

I am very grateful for Sis, Robin, and the rest of the Kat Krew for taking care of your critters. That's a lot of work and planning. How thoughtful of Robin to send you that sweet keepsake. And that gift of Sis' - the cameleback etc... - i can just picture you in the hangar zipping and unzipping, clipping, sorting - and I'm sure it makes you think of her whenever you sling it or drink.

keep writing when you can!!

 
At September 21, 2008 at 8:06 AM , Blogger Ellie said...

Carol - what a great way to let ALL of us hear from you. Thank you for your eloquent writing (Ann Garrels!) about what you are experiencing - keep it up!
Ellie

 

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