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Traveling Boy: Jim Friend: The Kingdom of Dirt
The Kingdom of Dirt
By Jim Friend

0.50 cal. machine gun mounted on US Army vehicle, Afghanistan

ust last month, much to my satisfaction, I was approved to go to Afghanistan by the Army Public Affairs Office (PAO) for a media embed via Regional Command East at Camp Hughie near Jalalabad. My buddy from bull-riding school, Dave Disi, had sort of casually invited me to come to Afghanistan sometime during the summer, and I had kind of brushed it off, thinking it was probably somewhere in the realm of unlikely. I can't even remember how we got started talking about it again, but over the course of the fall, I applied to the PAO for an embed. I gave it about a 50/50 chance. Even so and sure enough, a merciful and gracious God saw fit to approve yet another amazing adventure for me, which thankfully has become a common occurrence in my life over the last couple of years. This, however, would top them all. This would be the trip of a lifetime: Heading off into an active war zone, a place where people like myself are hated just for the sake of nationality, where the abducted of my ilk have their heads cut off with buck knives because of the reprehensible colors of their country's flag, their religion, the color of their skin, or wearing the wrong style of hat. A land where the Taliban Dirt Pirates were birthed and the big skinny boy Osama bin Laden cut his teeth on international treachery, and mentally whipped himself into a religious psychosis. Excellent, let's roll.

Including layovers, it took about 35 hours to get to Kabul. An interesting thing about going to Afghanistan is that if you don't mind not being under the protection of the military, you don't have to have any special approval to roll over there, you can just go. You'd think if you were going to a war zone, you'd have to get some sort of government sanction or stamp of approval, but no. And it's relatively cheap. Only $1,800 currently separates you from being headhunted in the streets of Kabul three weeks from now if that's what you want. You can buy the tickets tomorrow. Although difficult to find, some ticket agencies (like kayak), will book the whole round trip flight for you. You're just one simple click of a button away from being a war tourist. C'mon dude, let's roll. Buy me a ticket along with yours and I'll show you around.

troops and Chinook helicopters on Bagram Air Base
Getting ready for our night flight to Jalalabad.

After a really interesting couple of days in Kabul, complete with a rather major Taliban assault on several buildings within a mile or so of my hotel the day before I arrived (check the travelingboy archive for that story), I finally made it to Bagram Air Base. Other than the occasional mortar round and constant threat of terrorist attack, life at Bagram seemed rather idyllic. By my estimation in my brief time there, the 22,000 folks working on base generally seemed to be rather stoked. There's even a pizza delivery service if you want it. After a few days of delays in Bagram, I was finally off to Jalalabad via a night flight on a Chinook. The automatic gunfire from the side-door and rear gunner half-way through the ride under the warm light of a nearly full moon didn't hurt the experience at all either. Way cool. The next morning I was picked up by an MRAP and was finally off to Camp Hughie. It took nine days and five flights to get there from Seattle.

Outskirts of Hell

Camp Hughie is a tiny droplet of America that leaked from the screaming fire hose of US military might onto the outskirts of the ghetto dust bowl slum that is Jalalabad. Jalalabad, or J-bad, as the soldiers call it, is a place barely distinguishable from what your mind would conjure up when thinking about an Old Testament heathen village. This is a place where people still collect manure to hand-slap into pancake sized crap patties, place them on their roofs to dry, and then light them up to cook and heat their houses with. Filthy. Some nights on base, the air is so thick with this shit-smoke-soup that the few street lamps standing are visually fuzzy from just a hundred feet away or so. Kabul is so full of this rancid fog that military stationed there in the downtown ISAF headquarters get an automatic 10% pay hike as sort of a pre-emptive disability payment. On the streets of Jalalabad, whole slabs of meat hang out in the open air in front of the bloody store-front slaughterhouses, waiting for the next paying customer to willingly belly up to the bar for another round of salmonella roulette. Known, wanted terrorists roam the streets as well. The Army occasionally prints "Wanted" posters of sets of these villains, with half blurred pictures of severe looking men who appear as if they were born for the killing and maiming of others.

sign at entrance to Camp Hughie, Jalalabad

US Army barracks, Camp Hughie at dawn
Camp Hughie at dawn.

Ever mindful of their fallen comrades, the Army named Camp Hughie posthumously after a South Carolina Army Sergeant and medic, Buddy James "Doc" Hughie. On February 17th, 2007, Hughie was embedded with a contingent of Afghan National Army (ANA), on a joint patrol near Kamdsesh, Afghanistan, in nearby Nuristan province. When Taliban insurgents ambushed their convoy with small arms and RPGs, the ANA dismounted their vehicles and scrambled after them. When two soldiers were wounded in the pursuit, "Doc" left the safety of his Humvee and covered several hundred yards of ground to come to their aid. While providing medical attention, Hughie was shot by a Taliban sniper, the bullet piercing just above his body armor and passing through his heart. Such is the legacy of our brave men. When they perish, their brothers' footsteps fall daily on soil that bears their name.

When I imagined Camp Hughie in my mind before my trip, I had envisioned a sort of dusty outpost on the edge of the desert, with hot winds blowing and ragged tents flapping in the wind, and indeed, that's about where I ended up. Dave had recently been transferred from Tagab, Afghanistan, where the conditions were just about that, and I had originally applied to visit him there. Even so, as it was, this new environment didn't seem much better than what I had imagined for the other locale, and felt as if it were some sort of a civilized college dorm hell, plopped in the middle of a third world country. Within the thick walls of the small compound, the soldiers live in rows of spartan wooden barracks, with only a few trees to break up the military layout and functionality of the place. The main point of congregation is the dining facility, which they call the D-FAC. Somewhere in the rows of anonymous living sheds, there's a place with a number of very slow computers hooked up to the internet, and also a chapel, but after that, I didn't see many other options for free time. The Afghans have a few shops set up at the entrance of the camps, but it seems that other than work, there is not much else to do at Camp Hughie. To think about spending all of my time there for a few months or a full year there was completely less than an agreeable idea. That's what these guys do, all day long, for up to a year.

a row of MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles) in Camp Hughie
That's what I call rollin' hard. Our MRAP convoy for the hospital site visit.

My first day there, Dave gave me a tour of the camp and we then immediately left the safety of its walls to walk over to another nearby military installation, Finley Shields. Ragged children wandered and played on the dirt streets, looking up at us with surprised, concerned eyes, and then immediately would go about voraciously begging for something. Destroyed buildings from recent and distant conflicts lined the sides of the roads. The vibe as we walked around was tense, like Something Bad was always looming just beyond where we were, trying to make its way to us, and would reach out and touch us if it at all could. Finley Shields was an old Russian base of operations during their years-long vacation amongst the Pashtun. Burned out buildings and large dirt walls loomed, and gunfire was heard from beyond the north side of the compound. Dave took me to an old empty swimming pool where, after the capture of the base by the Afghans, quite a few Russians were massacred. The pool bore testament to that with its many bullet scars from the slaughter, the marks still deeply engraved in the concrete of the pool. At some point, for some reason, someone had taken the time to attempt to fill the divots with white concrete patch.

Col. Oatfield, Dave Disi and George Roemer of USAID
Dave Disi chats with Colonel Oatfield while George Roemer from USAID and an unknown soldier think it through.

Later that night, and safely back at camp, my accommodations consisted of a giant tent that was designed to house about 30 men. As it turned out, I was the only one staying there, which I liked a great deal. Mercifully, the weather was excellent. Warm in the day time and fairly warm at night too, much like Southern California. Before I had turned in for the night, I heard a few stories from various sources about the apparent savagery of the locals, and got a few warnings about where to stay away from and what not to do. It was completely eerie to hear the Muslim calls for prayer break out at the same time from several nearby locations. It struck me as if it were a dirge, daily announcing, several times, a reaffirmation of the long-standing and continually-ongoing death of the nation of Afghanistan.

Ghosts on the Road

The next day, we assembled in a patch of dirt just outside of the camp to roll out in a column of MRAP's (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) on a site visit to a hospital in the Shinwar District about 15 miles south of the camp. Overseeing this trip would be Colonel Oatfield, a medical officer from North Dakota, and George Roemer, from USAID. This was a full-on convoy of Army vehicles, bristling with armor and teeth. What a thrill. Along the way, the landscape was stark and destitute, with barren dirt mountains stretching for miles off into the nothingness, sometimes offering the sight of a small dirt road that led off into the horizon, populated perhaps by a lone horse-drawn cart, heading off-to or arriving-from whatever Abyss lay in the trackless wastes beyond. The road we traveled was lined with poverty-stricken people of all varieties, milling about and going back and forth to the street-side markets and only God knows where else.

A column of MRAPs rolling down the road is Big Interesting Business in Afghanistan, the people there are all about it, one way or the other. From the safety of the back of one of these rolling fortresses, unnoticed through the thick green plate glass covered by anti-RPG grills, I witnessed scores of stoked children waving furiously with the largest of smiles; and also saw many of the disdainful and mistrusting eyes of those whose trust and hope extend only as far as the length of what their fingertips can momentarily clutch. Crude cemeteries with only dirt and rock monuments clung to a hillside. An old burned out Russian tank sat along-side the road. Monstrous jingle trucks passed by heading in the opposite direction, covered with bells and the most ornate of painted decorations, carrying loads that towered over 16 feet tall, apparently arriving from Pakistan. As we traveled along, I was told that out of my view at certain intersection, a man was on the ground being beaten by someone hitting him with a shoe. He sort of reached out, imploring us for help. The soldiers thought that was funny. So did I, sort of. What else can you do but laugh? After about 20 minutes of some of the most purely abject and depressing scenery I could have hoped to have witnessed anywhere, we finally arrived without incident at an intermediate stop known as the Central District, to pay a visit to a local sub-shiek and the chief of police.

the writer with USAID's George Roemer
George Roemer from USAID, and yours truly, getting ready to roll out to the hospital site visit.

As we unloaded from the MRAP's, I had to pee. It was time to go. As I took a look around to see where I could relieve myself, I saw the cutest of puppies lumbering along about 40 yards to the west of us. It was impossibly tiny, barely weened, and had that puffy white fur we've come to adore in our smallest of canine buddies. About 15 yards away from him, as he struggled to make his way along, an Afghan was throwing rocks at him. The man was using rocks about the size of large strawberries, and was aiming carefully and throwing hard. We were headed in the opposite direction. The dog stumbled along under the onslaught and I looked away. I came to find out later that Afghans hate dogs. There was nothing I could do.

As is apparently customary for this sort of trip, goodies were brought along to distract all of us from the miseries of rampant Pashtun animal cruelty, in this instance: radios powered by a hand cranking device. Along the way to the meeting a short distance away, Dave looked for a worthy suspect to unhand this distinctly American prize to, and quickly was found an old man crouched on the ground who was certainly just weeks away from his expiration date. Certainly the ownership of a brand new radio would do nothing to shorten this man's grasp of his mortal coil, so a radio indeed he received. He looked up quizzically at the interpreter, as if being gifted a radio was the last thing he could actually comprehend, after perhaps for the previous week internally meditating on the tally of the total number of goats he had beaten to death in his lifetime. He was a long way from being even 10% present with us, but the impromptu Christmas party immediately attracted a whole band of interested locals, who also wanted a radio. One fellow in particular who didn't get a radio began to pester us for one, but we were fresh out.

handing out a radio to an elderly local
Excuse me sir, have you heard of Bose Wave technology?

After taking quite a few pictures of this interaction, I still had to pee, and headed over to the meeting with the local chieftans to see if I could find a can. When I rounded the corner of the dirt wall into the field where the proceedings were to transpire, I was shocked. After all of the dire sights on the road on the way there, we had stumbled into a veritable Garden of Eden. It was as if all the horrors of sight, sound and smell of Afghanistan were briefly washed away in this place and there was finally, somehow, just beauty and peace. Completely amazing, it was almost spiritual. I shook the hands of the local poo-bahs and sat down with the soldiers as they talked to them through an interpreter about intelligence matters and news of potential importance. One of the Georgia National Guardsmen in the crew there had told me that we might be expecting The Most Delicious Chai of All Time to be served, and sure enough, they brought the stuff out in some version of an ancient metal pot, and dang; just as foretold, the stuff was excellent. The chai also clearly emphasized to my spiritual and physical condition the fact that I still had to urinate, so when I finally felt like I'd satisfied enough of the relevant social requirements of that engagement, I asked one of the soldiers with me about a place to go. He shook his head ruefully and pointed to a small dirt structure over in the corner of the compound, and I cautiously made my way over to it. The horrors that flashed through my mind about what I'd see when I opened the rickety wooden door of the outhouse flung themselves well into the category of "severe." Thankfully, all that was there was a dirt hole in the ground.

Once my physical requirements were thus satisfied, I made my way back to the group. Soon after, we went for a walk for some reason around the compound. It was beautiful. There were orange trees and workers farming and people sitting on blankets eating lunch. For some reason, the place was saturated with goats with testicles the size of volleyballs. I am not kidding you. Much levity was rallied back and forth over this fact, and it soon became apparent that these goats were tame. Tame enough to take pictures with. After about 10 minutes of strolling and picture taking and goat posing, we were off. As we loaded up to go to the hospital, the man who previously had not received a radio was still bugging us about it. Sorry amigo.

paying a visit to local officials at the Central District
The Garden of Eden? Naaaaah, I guess not. Central District.

A Bench and Big Stick

Another 10 minutes of driving or so put us near the hospital. The cool part about this excursion was we had to walk a stretch to get onto the actual hospital grounds, so we had to physically hoof it around scores of untrustworthy looking citizenry who would rather, apparently, not have us on their patch of caliphate-destined patch of Islamic earth. When we arrived at the hospital, we were greeted by a party of hospital staff, and then taken up to a room where a meeting was to take place. A few members of the staff were interviewed about the needs of the facility and for some reason there was a really old guy there who just stared off into space, saying nothing and moving in only microscopic increments. I am somehow sure he was chosen to be there strictly because he was so old that he was judged by doctors to be only moments away from death, and that he'd make his eternal exit to his harem of Completely Horrified 70 Virgins right there at the meeting, which would act as an exclamation point of sorts to emphasize the neediness of the institution. Despite their brilliant scheming, the old man survived.

After the meeting, there was given to us a tour of the buildings and grounds, and boy did it last a long time. As an offset to this sort of unusual boredom, many strange sights unveiled themselves. George mentioned that while rummaging through some boxes, he found one that said USAID, the organization he works for. Much to his surprise, he said it was full of USAID condoms. Yum. In one building, there was a small room with small sign above it declaring "Mental Health OPD." In the room was a bench, and a big stick. I am not kidding you. Next to this room was a cartoon-style poster of a disheveled man with wild hair and ripped up clothes, a sort of information guide on how to deal with mentally ill people. In one of the panels, there were people throwing rocks at the mentally ill guy, with a big red "X" over the panel. This made me acutely aware of my own shortcomings, as it made me realize that I regularly engage in this sort of woeful behavior. O, how wisdom tends to overtake us so late in life.

Georgia National Guards troops playing around with a local sheep
Dave looks on while members of the Georgia National Guard throw down with the local wildlife.

three Afghan kids sitting down for a meal as US Army soldier passes by
No time like now to get down on a feast. Hey wait, who's that dude?

As we left the compound, a decision was made to hand out some more radios when we got back to the trucks. Dave jumped up on to the trailer and started passing out radios, and no sooner did he do so than a mob appeared. Kids and teenagers and adults alike appeared out of thin air and a sort of bleak tension filled the air. It was crazy. To keep people away from the vehicles, he threw a few into the crowd. It was mayhem. In America, when a toy or piece of candy is thrown from a float during a parade, for example, whoever gets the treat goes home with it, right? Period. In Afghanistan, they fight to the death for it. A kid would get a radio and hug it for dear life while everyone around him, including those much older than him, would try to brutally pry it out from beneath his arms. During one of the final technology scuffles of the day, one of the radios flew out of someone's grasp and tumbled down the bank into the water of a nearby canal. Scores of kids clambered down the bank and into the water. The radio was no doubt rendered useless, but the fight continued. Much to my surprise, our old Afghan buddy who didn't manage to get a radio back at the Central District had somehow turned up as well. Rewarded for his persistence, he was one of the first to leave with his prize.

As it was, the whole point of the expedition was to see what the needs of the hospital were and how we as Americans could help. I know that USAID will likely have some input on that equation, and it looks as if there are funds coming from some division of the Army perhaps as well, where exactly they'll be coming from, I'm not sure precisely. What I do know is that America is, as usual, trying to help wherever it can.

Men of Many Hats

Dave Disi joined the US Armed Forces on last day of the last millenium: December 31st, 1999. Along with that memorable entry date, it's not every day you run into someone in the Army who has two Ivy League master's degrees, one from Harvard and the other from Columbia. That's pretty crazy. Even wilder, Dave left his emerging markets trading desk at a major investment bank to sleep on wood sticks thrown hastily onto the hard dirt in the wretched environs of Tagab in Eastern Afghanistan, a place where fatal firefights with the Taliban occurred several times a week. An Army Ranger, Dave showed me some pretty wild pictures from that place, also playing a video taken by a French cameraman of one of their engagements with the Taliban, and I will never forget it. Hostile. This wasn't the first time he left a job most people would dream about, as he also fought for the good 'ole US of A in the the dirty streets of Iraq. Sheesh. Right on. After our sight-seeing foray to the hospital the day before, our next Big Adventure would take place just the next day.

hospital room, Jalalabad
Don't mind the bloodstain on the sheet, we'll take real good care of you.

This was reputed to be a pretty big deal. Apparently, the Afghan Border Police were dedicating a huge facility just north of Jalalabad. NBC, CNN, and The New York Times were planning to roll-up-hard-in-the-hood also if the menacing snowstorm that had been capturing the attention of Kabul over the previous couple of days didn't keep the airport shut down. Ed Vowel, a State Department representative, would be Camp Hughie's leading player there. In addition, this dedication would also include a large shura (tribal meeting), where the local maliks (tribal leaders and elders) would show up and decide what The Deal was gonna be 'til the next shura. I should back up a bit and state that just a few weeks earlier, the 1-108th at Camp Hughie had been instrumental in initiating the first shura that had been held in quite some time, and there was some satisfaction and even excitement expressed concerning the results. At the first shura, the maliks agreed on a few agreeable things. Among them... and quoted directly from the lamb skin parchment written in goats blood....

"The shura proclaims that the Shinwari Tribe stands unified against all insurgent groups, specifically the Taliban, as well as all corruption and illegal activities that threaten the Afghan people and GIRoA." (Btw, if you figure out what "GIRoA" means, please write to me.)

"The shura proclaims the Shinwari Tribe will not provide shleter or support of any kind for members of the Taliban. If members of the tribe are found to have sheltered the Taliban, they will have to pay one million Afghanis." (USD 20,000-23,000)

"The shura authorizes the burning of residences of those found harboring Taliban. The shura authorizes the expulsion of those found harboring Taliban."

"The shura agrees that no poppy will be cultivated or refined in the Shinwari tribal areas. Those found guilty will be subject to the same punishment as those harboring the Taliban."

American soldier passing by fruit stall with local children and elderly man
Let's get out of here. The locals approve.

The shura went on to include things like requiring a male of fighting age from every household in the event of Taliban activity and the like, and also, interestingly, included a provision for a tribe's "own version of reconciliation" in the event a Taliban fighter related to those in an individual tribe wanted to reform himself. Most important of all though, no doubt, was the demand requiring the return of that golden statue from the Indiana Jones movie, which they have long claimed as their own.

On the morning of the building dedication, maliks galore gathered at Camp Hughie to get the party started. They went into a room and got some money apparently, and this time... This Time... it would be different. This time someone would follow these guys around the market as the money was spent, to ensure it was being spent on things like food and supplies for the community. No more Rolexes! Anyway, after that part of the bar crawl adjourned, we were all off to the building dedication in the MRAP's. Somewhere along the way, as we rounded a corner, I saw the coolest and scariest thing ever. As a part of our escort, these black-hooded, muhajideen-looking fellows in pick-up trucks with 50 caliber machine guns were acting as our escort. It was Road Warrior meets jihadi video. It was bad to the bone. Good for them. Whoever they were, these guys have not given up on the shock value of the sight of guys in tiny trucks with black rags wrapped around their faces running around roughshod in the back of Somali-style desert technicals with guns that have a recoil big enough to knock the trigger-puller, weapon and all, straight out the back of the bed at 60 mph. Right on. That's like a cartoon. If I were facing that, I would likely give up without a fight just on the basis of the visual. Burly to the core.

maliks, tribal leaders and US Army soldiers at a dedication of a new building, Jalalabad
Ed Vowel from the State Department greets arriving maliks. How 'bout those hats?

Just as unusual as the countryside romp we took the day before, Jalalabad was also full of wicked weirdness. It reminded me of Kabul, which was so impoverished that I saw a kid on the sidewalk with a scale, the kind you have on the floor in your bathroom, selling weight measurements. That's all he had, just a scale he rummaged from a dump somewhere. I also saw kids in Kabul picking through garbage piles with sticks looking for stuff to eat. Unreal. Jalalabad offered similarly strange sights: Lots of blue ninjas (what the soldiers call women in blue burkahs, which were quite fashionable in that area apparently), and conversely (or similarly) more slabs of uncovered meat of all varieties hanging on hooks in front of street front butcher shops. A kid climbing a scary ten foot tall fence to get to an orange grove. A guy herding sheep through the middle of town, on a busy street. A school with thousands and thousands of metal chairs stacked up on the roof, tangled and intertwined. Somehow, unbelievably, there was even a sort of small carnival in the middle of town, the culmination of the rides being one of those swinging pirate ships. Dave called it "the amusement park from hell." All of it was strange in a very depressing sort of way. Just gross.

When we arrived at the building dedication, I found out what a big deal it actually was. There next to the rows of the large brand new buildings of the compound were hundreds of neatly parked pick-up trucks and hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers and police. We all made our way into a building where the huge malik gathering and building dedication were to take place. Up the cement path came an endless procession of American and Afghan generals and other military types, who would all greet each other warmly and then head into the building. In the midst of that, tons of maliks and tribal leaders of all varieties rolled up, each somehow wearing a different crazy hat, it was haberdashery mayhem.

NBC crew interviewing General George
NBC interviewing a man who was obviously born to be The Man, General George.

After we all filtered into the building, many, many, many speeches were made, mostly in foreign languages. One American general spoke, but the rest of the time, an endless procession of Big Hat Wearing Tribal Elders made their way up to the podium, starting their speeches quietly while slowly whipping themselves into an angered state, with much finger pointing and other gesticulating occurring all the while. The only entertainment available during the two hour Ramble Fest was counting how many times the cell phones of the attending police and soldiers punctuated the proceedings over and over again. Dave counted 24 separate interruptions. Wow. What a day.

Ed Vowel, our local State Department rep, spent long hours after the meeting talking with the big wigs. Apparently the upshot was that many more maliks got on board with the previous shura proclamations, and of course, the building was dedicated. The local Afghans were now apparently more on board than ever with the Taliban fight, and the military now had a huge facility and many more vehicles by which to prowl the surrounding landscape, looking for bad guys that hopefully we can give up hunting someday. The event was big news, making the front page of the New York Times and getting some big press in a number of other national publications. The shura model, with all of its proclamations and penalties, was something that, it was hoped, would translate well throughout the rest of the country for acquiring the continuing and increasing cooperation of the Afghans. And do I need to mention that that all of this started with the efforts of the 1-108th at Camp Hughie? C'est vrai.

locals at a building dedication
Hey, have you seen the other guy in the brown hat? I've been looking for him all day. ABP building dedication.

Cursed: God bless America

I spent a few more days at Camp Hughie interviewing folks and talking to people. As I left Finley Shields for Kabul via a Molson helicopter flight on the last morning of my stay there, I had a lot of time to think about what I was leaving behind. I was not sad to go. Below our helicopter, shepherds herded their flocks on anonymous hillsides, and farther up the mountains, Shangrila-type villages with Nepal-style terra-farming hugged the upper reaches of the hills. Farther upward, snow encased peaks not far geographically separated from the Himilaya starkly contrasted the blue horizon. Strange depressions in the dirt pock-marked the ground below, perhaps evidence of past artillery or ordinance engagements. Meanwhile, the people below us went about their daily rituals of abject poverty in what I can't imagine as anything other than complete despair. The mountains were like a beautiful stage backdrop to a horrific play taking place below it. Yuck.

Although at times beautiful, Afghanistan is, in my estimation, nothing more than a wretched Kingdom of Dirt, occupied, by and large, by a Godless, rudimentary, and nearly savage people who have scrambled to survive by any means necessary for thousands of years. Their culture is like a woven tapestry that threads back millennia, ruled by effectively indecipherable codes and customs and undercurrents that could only be partially explained by even the most educated native Pashtun. As is well understood by now, major world empires have tried again and again to simply show up and colonialize yet another exotic land for their own purposes, only to be eventually thoroughly overwhelmed by a people who push out by the strength of their ancient cultural weave any group that believes they can merely unthread the first few millimeters of this impossibly long braid.

view of a road in Jalalabad from atop an MRAP
Mmmmmm, smell the air, soak in the sights.

From the multitude of stories I heard while I was in Afghanistan about how the people carry on there that made me literally sick, to the vicious things I personally saw and experienced from the people who live there, what I know is this: Afghanistan is under a curse. The last words I uttered when I left there was, "This place is cursed." Despite this, say what you will about America's involvement in the affairs of wretched little foreign countries overseas, what I also know is this: The heart of America is good. What other nation would thoroughly destroy a wretched little country where its latest enemy was birthed and then attempt rebuild it again from scratch for the good of those who remained? While the Soviets, Afghanistan's most recent colonialist johnny-come-lately, created toy bombs to drop from airplanes to maim kids who happened to joyfully stumble upon them, we're sending out good folks like George Roemer and Colonel Oatfield on site-visits to Afghan hospitals to see what we might be able to supply. While the British, the colonialists who came before that, denied even the existence of their own invasion, creative Americans like Ed Vowel are organizing tribal leaders in an attempt to push out the presence and influence of the most serious of bad guys. To what effect all of these efforts will be is unknown. Whether we as Americans can afford all of this or not is also a virulently suspect quantity. Whether or not we'll have the will to try to continue to steer this ancient culture in a direction that benefits us over the long term can't be said either.

Honestly, it was very difficult to write this article, I struggled to finish it. The impact of the things I saw there runs deep. The most difficult part of thinking through the experience of having visited Afghanistan is that I left thousands upon thousands of Americans, just like you and me, who have to live there every day and deal with that emotional monstrosity. Unbelievable. It makes me heartsick to remember that so many of our guys and gals are still there having to deal with that intense, sickening vibe and the strange temperament of that unusual land. In summary, what I can tell you about all of this, is that the heart of America has always been good, and remains so. In this pursuit, our treasured men and women of the US Armed Forces like Captain Dave Disi and the rest of 1-108th at Camp Hughie are keeping watch over every last little bit of our expression of it. God bless them all.

another view of a Jalalabad street from inside an MRAP
The view out back, Jalalabad. God bless them all.


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"Namibia" Article

Jim,

I spent several school holidays in Windhoek with family friends. Much later I took each of my kids (U.S. born & raised) on separate trips to my native, Cape Town and "Overlanded" through Namibia into the Kaokoveld. I enjoyed your travelogue immensely. Please advise me if you ever publish a collection of your travel experiences. The apple strudel at Helmeringhausen somewhere after Ai Ais was the best ever. Graciously,

Merv Hayman, Sarasota, FL

Hi Merv, thanks for the correspondence, glad you enjoyed the article. It sounds like that country got into your blood, as it has in mine. I'm looking forward to getting back there someday and seeing much more of the place, Namibia has a peculiar allure. Thanks for the complements and I will certainly put you on the list for a travel stories compendium.

Cheers and happy travels!
Jim

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"Bullriding in Texas" Article

Hey Jim,

I love your website. It has shown me that all this time my boyfriend was lying to me about who he was. On his Facebook page he was using the picture of "Thomas Bosma"... Btw great story and pictures.

MaKayla, Rapid City

Hi MaKayla, glad we could be of assistance in busting your prevaricating suitor! Thanks for the complements as well.

All the best, Jim

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"Canadian Arctic " Article

Hey Jim,

Just wanted to say 'Hello'…love your intro/bio Mr. Boitano, fits the call of excitement/steelo of Mr. Friend. Hope to keep correspondence, and hope all your travels keep you busy but safe, Check my Friend...

Mico Gonz, Seattle, WA

Miiii-coooooooooooooooo!!!

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"Jalalabad, Afghanistan" Article

Hello Jim,

Very interesting, I find it very important for me because my BF is there. Hope he is fine...His name is Sgt.Jason Adams...Thank you and God bless...

Leonila, Guiguinto, Bulacan, Philippines

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Cpt. Disi was at Kutschbach with the guys of 2nd platoon. I was in 4th, we were right up the road at FOB Morales Frazier. I don't think I read anywhere about you being at KB but if you were up there in Kapisa province with us you would have loved it. It was 10x better than Jbad. The air there was so full of smog, and you couldn't really see that far out early in the morning when the sun was rising. But its nice to see someone like you who was out on patrols and documenting all the things we did. Great stories. Keep up the good work...

Kevin Myrick, Calhoun, GA

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Love your writing. Have you read Spike Walker's books by now?

Kerry, Wenatchee, WA

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Nice.

Christian Louboutin, New York City

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I do not believe I've seen this described in such an informative way before. You actually have clarified this for me. Thank you!

Janice Randall, Post Falls, ID

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I like the style you took with this topic. It isn't every day that you just discover a subject so to the point and enlightening.

Charles David, St. Anne, Manitoba

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Hey Jim! LT Singh just checking your site.. looks great… very slow internet here.. will be home in 2 weeks.

Alvin Singh , New York

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Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones. You have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up! And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :) .

Arthur Cox, Next to Paris

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Jim. Take it all in, smother your senses with the culture and people. Watch your top notch and have a once in a lifetime experience. Miss you.

Jeff and Andrea, Los Angeles, CA

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Fascinating photos Jim! Singly they are all fodder for short stories; together they really capture an out-of-body trip! Enjoyed mine, thank you! I'm curious what those compounds contain...mostly businesses? residences? Love that the T-Boy card is making it's way around the globe!

Wendy, Los Angeles, CA

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These are outstanding photos. You capture scenes that I've never seen in the "mainstream media." Haunting images that make me think that there is danger around every corner.

Al Burt, Friday Harbor, WA

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Enjoyed your article immensely! Your title is fun and so is learning about bin Laden skipping out without paying the rent - what a loser! It's great you could meet with Mr. Jouvenal, hear the stories and see the guns. Give our highest regards to T.G. Taylor and the other military personnel serving in Afghanistan. Courage to you all!

Steve, Renton, WA

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Jim, I enjoyed this fascinating article. It reminded me of how sublimely surreal life is. Also, I would like to thank you for your courage, and to express gratitude towards your bringing this piece of the world, with its foreign realities, to my doorstep. I look forward to reading more from you.

Sandra, Seattle, WA

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This is outstanding reporting, Jimmy F! Fascinating stuff. You've taken on a dangerous, important assignment in Afghanistan, and we readers appreciate your work with the military and your unique observations. I look forward to your next post. In fact, I'm going to go through the archives to see your entire body of work on TravelingBoy.

Terry, Los Angeles, CA

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I really enjoyed my entry into Kabul with you and the visit with Peter Jouvenal... look forward to more of that adventure.

Brenda, Richland, WA

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Great story, Jim, a story really "as current as yesterday's news." Now there's a real TravelingBoy!

Eric, San Diego, CA

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Jim you have probably revealed more about Bin Laden than anyone...his rage on the world has to be linked to his limp handshake. Be careful over there!

Janet, Caldwell, ID

Thanks Janet! I get the distinct impression that his handshake isn't the end story to all that's limp with bin Laden's physiology!

Jim

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What a fantastic piece. You're a modern-day Hemingway. Your writing is compelling and fascinating. I look forward to much more of this great adventure.

Roger, Puyallup, WA

Wow, Roger, what an awesome set of complements. Thanks a lot. My first journal entry of 2010 was: "The stories will tell themselves. I just need to show up." So far, so good! Thanks again!

Jim

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Jim, first time reading your stuff. Very cool. I hope to read about our units and life in eastern Afghanistan very soon since you will be coming to our area as an embed. BTW, I'm the PAO here in Jalalabad and will be coordinating your visit with CPT Disi.

T.G. Taylor, US Army, Jalalabad, Afghanistan

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Hello T.G.!

I saw your email address included on a couple of correspondences, and I cannot wait to spend some time with you, and even yet more of our honorable fighting forces over there in that bleak neck of the woods in Afghanistan in January, including CPT Disi. This is truly a trip of a lifetime for me, and I'm completely looking forward to absorbing the experiences there and recording the sufferings and sacrifices of so many of those of you who continue to strain and press to make Our Country Great, those of you who daily labor to assist those in other countries whose lives had once withered under the burden of tyrants, and whose hopes can now flicker again with the help of those like yourself. Thanks so much for putting it all out there for us every day. My fervent hope is to honorably document the expenditures of each of your individual lives in the midst of this conflict, those of you who "anonymously" struggle daily to make what We Hold As Good prevail in what, at times, is a dark and wicked world.

Thanks so much, man. Great to hear from you... See you soon!

Jim

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Sad to say, this is the first time I've read one of your articles Jim. What have I been missing!? Thanks for the funny, informative, and just plain awesome read! Take care and have a great Turkey day!

Jeff, Pasco, WA

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Jim, I just loving reading your blogs. As I've dreamt about going to Costa Rica for at least 20 years, this was a very insightful and fun read for me. You always make me laugh.

Deborah - Burbank, CA

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Wow, what a HILARIOUS guy!!!!! I really really enjoyed the article. The Village Artist is my 'uncle Boyd" as I call him. He is closing his shop next year. That made my day and thank you for letting me know of this on the world's BEST travel information source.

Sandy - Sitka, Alaska

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Hi Sandy!

Comments like those that you wrote make all the hassles and travails of writing resoundingly worthwhile, thank you! I am so sorry to hear that Boyd is closing his shop! The Alaskan State legislature should immediately intervene to make his shop an Alaskan cultural heritage site of some variety (not kidding). Meanwhile, from the sound of the conversation Boyd and I had, it's the federal government that's confused and harassed the poor guy with inconsistent and random applications of federal law to the point where it's probably not worth it anymore. I hope that's not the case, but I wouldn't be surprised. Whatever the reason, I am really sorry to hear that he's closing shop. I'm privileged to have seen it... once in a lifetime. Thanks again for reading and thanks a lot for your comments!

Jim

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Hi Jim,

Now I know what you were doing on the Alaska cruise when I wasn't around. Besides playing cribbage. I'm glad that you, a younger, more slender and fit person, also saw the value in cruising. I didn't come back with a tan, but I did lose 3 pounds while sleeping every night and eating every meal but one. Jade and I are looking forward to three weeks exploring Mediterranean ports in May. We put down our deposit for it on our last night on board and have starting our training. Sleeping in the same wonderful bed every night makes such a break-neck pace completely possible for a grandma like me. I'm looking forward to reading your Afghanistan piece WHEN you have returned.

Janice - Seattle

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Hi Janice!

Yes that was a blast! I would do all of that again any day of the week. Have fun on your Mediterranean cruise, that sounds like great fun!

Jim

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Love your expeditions. Keep writing.

Karen Cummings - Yakima, WA

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Jim can't tell you how much I am enjoying your writing. One other commenter mentioned you are living the life we all dream of, ain't that the truth. As far as looking for a place to live that will challenge you to be able to make a real living and supplying a steady flow of women looking for the bbd (bigger better deal) then you should try the Yakima Valley here in Washington State (inside joke). Look forward to reading more from you.

Huston Turcott (hooter) - Yakima, WA

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Awesome!!! I love Japan!

Maja - Chur, Switzerland

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Jimmy my love,

I totally thought you were kidding when you told me you went bullriding. OH MY GOSH you actually did it. (SIGH) Am I going to have to smack you around a bit?? heheheheee Seriously, come see us!

Leah, Richland, WA

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Jim,

Rock on Friend! Living it up... inspiring us all to do the same!

Celeste, Seattle


Jim,

Are you for real? You're living the life many people only dream about. You're obviously not yet married. What wife would allow her husband to do all the crazy things you do? This Virginia skydiving adventure is probably the scariest yet. Your writing style helps bring the exhilaration out. Great photos too. Loved the caption about you striking that "gangsta rap" pose. Come to think of it, why do we do that in front of the camera?

Thanks also for the tips. $250 for a few minutes with nothing between you and mother earth is a bit costly but I guess if you have a death wish, this is definitely the way to go.

You mentioned that 25 people a year lose their lives doing this. With my luck I will be among that number if and when I decide to do this.

Enjoyed it very much. Can't wait for your next adventure.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

Jeem!

Found ur Glacier trek (I will Destroy You Glacier Peak) to be serious kick ass. To be honest, I’m such a lightweight, I’ve never been more than a day tripper. When u really get out there on one of those long solo treks, and the water runs short … can u drink from local streams? I’ve heard that pollution is so bad that even places untouched by man are now off-limits.

VitoZee

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Howdy VitoZee,

Great to hear from you and thanks for the complement and question. That is a seriously cool name, by the way: VitoZee. Just from the phonetics of it, I get the impression that you might be a very friendly and mild-mannered hitman working out of North Jersey. Really cool.

As for your drinking water from streams question, there are a lot of answers for it. The simple answer is that, no, you can almost never implicitly trust stream water sources, unless they are flowing straight out of the ground (via an aquafer or spring) bubbling up right there in front of you. That's your best bet, but you rarely see that in the wild unless you're looking for it, and even so, I have actually gotten sick from drinking spring water straight from the source at Panther Springs on Mount Shasta. You never know what you're going to get drinking untreated water from the wilds.

Most of the time the pollution you'll be dealing with out in the wilderness is not man-made, it usually comes from bacteria and parasites that inhabit the bodies of wilderness animals. For example, on this Glacier Peak trip, I drank from a stream I was confident was trustworthy. In the immediate vicinity were living quite a few marmots. A number of days after I got home I fell ill, and had to wonder if I hadn't picked up something from the water I drank, as there was not much of any other explanation for my symptoms. I knew a trip to the doctor would probably result in them sending me back home with a plastic cup that was required to be filled with my own poo, which would need to be delivered back to the lab steaming hot so they could figure out exactly what kind of bacteria or parasite they were dealing with. (Not a joke, remember Panther Springs?) After this diagnosis, I would then have to go back to the doctor and get a prescription, but by then, my body would have probably fought off the tiny invaders completely on its own. Not worth the trouble, and all of this would certainly = Jim minus $280. So I suffered it out, and whatever happened to be bothering me left my system in about 7 days or so. Yuck. No fun.

Anyway, I don't recommend drinking straight from the streams of the wild, but in a pinch, I do it everytime, unless I see a bear or a moose straight upstream from me pooping in the river, which has only happened about ten times. (Or zero times.) Anyway, sometimes I get sick, sometimes I don't. If I'm exhausted and thirsty, to heck with it, I'm drinking it.

All this notwithstanding, or withstanding, or notwithoutstanding, whatever, they just recently invented the coolest thing in the world though, so you might want to check it out. Previously, for treating your water in the wild, you'd always have to put a pellet of iodine or a congregate of other evil ingredients into your jug of stream water and let it sit there for an hour before you drink it while the chemical cocktail thoroughly treats your water. That is ridonkulous because when you're hiking and thirsty, you aren't going to wait a full hour for that pill to dissolve and work properly, you are going to guzzle. Anyway, they just invented this magic wand of sorts that you can find at any decent backpacking or outdoors store. You turn it on and dip it in your stream filled water jug, and the ultraviolet light it produces irradiates everything to death on the spot, after about 30 seconds or so. Kind of like my pinky finger, which I keep forgetting to treat my stream water with, because I'm always so dang thirsty.

Jim

Keep it comin' Jim. Sounds awesome.

Matt Langley, Duvall, WA

Hey Jim,

Enjoyed your Victoria article. It was an intersting slant on a city that is generally just promoted as a destination for tea rooms, gardens and double-decker buses. Now let's get serious ... are the Canadian women there really that attractive, good-natured and open-minded? Maybe I won't get married either and just move up there. It sure sounds refreshing after having to deal with the smugness of all those LA starlets, trying to make it in Hollywood.

Gary, Santa Monica

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Gary,

Thanks so much for the communique. I can honestly tell you that there was little exagerration involved in my description of the girls there in Victoria. God, in his infinite wisdom, has thankfully granted American mankind a few other places than the great old U.S. of A. to relieve our hearts of the burden of the eternally-self-absorbed, career-tracked, Bill-Gates-as-a-husband seeking beastly variety of female. I know, after living here in the States forever (especially in Seattle), how it is. I was recently researching a trip to Columbia, and heard the same news implicitly spoken about the women there, they are apparently of the same caliber of those that live in British Columbia. I invite you, before relocating, to take a trip up to Victoria, to see for yourself. I'll never forget it.

And my brotha', if you think you have it bad in the Los Angeles area (I lived there for six years), try Seattle (where I have lived for the last laborious three). Seattle seems to be crammed with nothing other than Ice Princesses, who live their lives completely within the confines of darkened cerebral domains, mental attentions locked firmly onto the goal of marrying the next Bill Gates, hoping to live in one of those big houses smooshed up against Lake Washington, hearts available only to the ultimate goal, the dream of all dreams ... being on Oprah someday...absorbing the jealous attentions of the millions of suburbanite women watching, all hoping to sit right there across from Ms. Winfrey someday, too, while regaling her with the tales of the good life, closets full of the savvy and smarmy garb purloined at Nordstrom's, their husband a virtual "Prince Charming," their family-owned barnacle encrusted yacht anchored firmly in some northern fjord. Oprah smiles back approvingly amidst a cacophony of applause, screen fades to commercials, all conduits nourishing The Beast.

You're my kind of guy, Gary. Hang in there, amigo. I look forward to meeting your smokin' hot wife someday.

Jim

Stay tuned.


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