In a cold brown place and thinking

I am back in Kabul. As always, it is brown. Cold too, at present. We had some useful meetings in Phnom Penh. I also took the opportunity to eat some excellent Fish Amok and Lak Loc. Cambodian food is exquisite.

En-route back to Kabul, I spent several hours in the Emirates business class lounge at Bangkok airport. Having flown a bit over recent years, I was able to use points to upgrade to business class for the flight from Bangkok to Dubai, something I appreciated given the flight went though the night, arriving at 0430. Not very restful in spite of the business class leg room.

While in the lounge though, I took a shower in their well appointed facilities. This involved receiving a pack of three towels from the shower mistress. I would have thought one sufficient. On de-cladding and entering the shower, I was faced with a gleaming stainless steel rod set upright in the shower wall. It had a gleaming handpiece, three gleaming nozzles set in the middle, and a large gleaming shower head the size of a dinner plate. It was quite unclear though, how to turn it on. After some chilly fiddling, I was suddenly drenched in cold water. With alacrity, I fiddled a bit more and cleverly worked out the hidden levers and was soon able to calmly manipulate the many functions of this cutting-edge ablution technology. Though the shower head was completely, excessively adequate, I was able to employ the handpiece to further wet my body, and by turning on the nozzles, I could direct spray at my chest, stomach and groin simultaneously. I was nearly delirious with excitement. If only we could get such a shower into the hands of the poor, I thought.

As I towelled myself off with three separate towels, I wondered why it is that a simple shower isn’t enough. How many millions of dollars were spent researching and designing this utterly unnecessary bit of bathroom junk? Why is such a thing on anyone’s ‘to do’ list? If we are clever enough to build such a thing, can’t we do something about water distribution for the 2 billion people who don’t have any?

I know the answers to this idle speculation. Fancy showers make rich people feel privileged and happy, whereas the happiness of poor people is irrelevant. Fancy showers exist only in the elite domain, and so maintain the illusion so necessary for wealthy people that they have entered this domain on their own merits. If hard work were all it took to become rich, most Afghans would be millionaires. But hard work has little to do with it.

Happily, within a day of my elite shower experience, I was back in Kabul, in our bathroom that looks like those found in mental asylums, and I was washing again in a bucket under a trickle. And – that I can do that signals just how removed even I am from the really marginalised people here.


Barbed wire and bags: the arrivals area at Kabul airport.


Like an old man with prostate problems.

Tonight I was trying to prepare our home for winter by getting the bukharis ready. A bukhari is a heater: wood, gas, diesel. We have installed a diesel bukhari already (and I nearly killed myself doing it, but that is another story involving vaporised diesel, matches, explosions, inhalations of gaseous exploding fuel, choking, spewing, being unable to breathe for a good 30 seconds, singeing hair off hands, arms, face and generally feeling pretty annoyed).

But tonight I was getting the good wood bukhari ready. It is well made, nice thick steel and best of all, has a large water canister that sits on top. The fire below boils the water, and you get both hot water and a nice reservoir of heat that keeps a place warm long after the fire has gone out. The canister is soldered together on the seams (can you see where this story is heading?) It sleeves neatly into the top of the wood fuel box – well, quite neatly. The fit was tight, and to get them together needed some gentle persuasion. I was for tapping, bending, sliding and working at it slowly. Our chaokider had his own cunning plan, and went and got the hammer.

Now, you can’t hit soldered seams. They split. This I knew. Wanting to give credit, and knowing that there are a great many things that Afghans know that I don’t, and that there are things they can do blindfold on roller skates that I can’t, I tried to withhold too much instruction. Plus, our chaokidar is older than me and there is a good part of me that respects his age and position, regardless of the fact that he works for us.

So instead, I suggested we tap gently around the lip of the fuel box, not the water canister, to reshape it. We did, and were slowly getting there. ‘Too slow!’ thought our chaokidar and started whacking at the water canister. I urged him patience, and told him that we couldn’t hit the solder as it would split, but we could hit around it, gently.

So he whacked the soldered seam with a good hard blow, and it split. I peered at it, and then at our chaokidar.

‘It’s split’ I said.

‘Nooooo’, said the chaokidar. laughing.

‘Yes, it has. Look, there is the split.’

He looked, and denied it. Then he looked more closely and said, in that tone of bemused surprise that I have heard so often, (and again, as always), worded in the passive voice – ‘Oh.The solder has been split’. Not, ‘I have done it’, but ‘It has happened.’ Sort of like, ‘Gosh. Look at that.’ As though it had happened by magic, as though there were no connection between him belting it, and it splitting open like a ripe melon.

‘It probably won’t leak’, he offered.

We tested it by filling the canister. It leaked like an old man with prostate problems, slow, drippy, and painful.

I looked at our chaokidar, a good, friendly, honest man, who our kids love and who does many things well, and thought, ‘I wouldn’t be half so annoyed here if you just took responsibility, and said, “Sorry. I hit it and it split”.’

We put the tools away and I asked him to take the canister to the bazaar tomorrow and get it soldered. Then I went inside and washed the dishes.


**Julie told me to write a cheerful entry instead of the maudlin stuff I have been writing.


I seem to have lost my watch. Lost, stolen. It is – was – a very good Seiko diving watch – 23 years old, scratched and chipped, but robust and reliable. It was a gift from a long dead great aunt, who bought it for me when I was 15. It has been repaired twice, lovingly, lost and found, accompanied me all over the world. Of late, though I have developed an itchy rash on my wrist, so I have taken to keeping it in my pocket. And I know I had it this morning, as we watched the kids do a jiggly dance for us right after breakfast. Then I spent several hours trying to repair our crazy hot water system. In a miracle of science, water flows Escher-like, both ways in the one pipe at the same time, and hot water turns to cold in the space of two metres. In vain I emptied the tank, filled the bathroom with sprays of water, took things off and put them on again and rapidly reached the unhappy point of utter frustration and perplexment. I even phoned home to ask my Dad for advice.

Some time around 11.00 I went to the bazaar to buy parts – valves, thread tape, T-pieces. It only took half an hour, and I paused to buy mangoes, which are plentiful and excellent at this time. Several Kuchi women stopped to beg from me. The Kuchis are Pashtun nomads and they orbit between the cities, the highland and lowland pastures. While in the cities, the women are quite aggressive at begging, and rarely accept no for an answer. I gave a few Afs to the young girl with them, and I don’t think they picked my pocket – but I guess they may have. It was later during lunch that I realised the watch was missing from my pocket.

I have now spent several hours searching the house, doing that foolish thing you do when something is lost, when you look in ridiculous places that you know there is zero chance it being. So it was that I looked down drains, in washing baskets, in boxes I haven’t opened in weeks, in the fridge, in bins, in jackets I haven’t worn yet, behind huge immovable wardrobes. Stupid, pointless. I went back down the bazaar and of course there was nothing. Came home. Felt irritable and sad. Looked in empty cupboards, twice, then again with a torch. Patted my pockets for the hundredth time. Squeezed my fingers down the back of our comfy chairs, when it was obvious that the only way a large diving watch could get down there was if forced with a hydraulic press. Looked in the toilet. And again. I even got Julie to pray we would find it. But no joy yet. And the evil water heater isn’t fixed either.