31 July 2006

Little Updates

Not much to report lately. It was dreadfully hot yesterday, and not so hot today. It hasn't rained again. I have not started writing another novel.

But I did get mail for the first time yesterday, and made some iced tea. It's very hot and usually sunny, so I figured I'd grab one of our little bottles of water, stuff a teabag inside, and set it in the sun for a couple hours. Worked very well, and I imagine I'm going to need more tea, actually.

As for the package, it was just the box of books I mailed myself and now will get to read. I should like to point out that Sir Apropos of Nothing and The Woad to Wuin was in fact in that box. I guess I had decided to mail it at the last minute. Hooray!

And that's all the news that's new. I'm still pretty stoked about finishing Lauderdale; reckon I will be for some time yet.

29 July 2006

I did it!!!!!

I did it! I finally finished! I finished the book!

Huzzah huzzah! Hooray for me! I'm going to be up for HOURS on this high!


I finished Lauderdale tonight, all 126,781 words of it. Yaaaaaayyyy!!!!!!!

What do I do now?

A Rarity

It rained tonight. Really.

I haven't seen it rain here. Apparently there hasn't been so much as a drop from the sky since early spring, April or so. And it came from nowhere; today was oppressively hot and sunny, without many clouds in the sky or much in the way of a moderating breeze. It was just hot, and unpleasant, and that was all.

And then around 2145 or so, it started to rain.

I was in the library at the time, writing—having finished chapter 85 and started on chapter 86, which will be unpleasant to write—and some folks who were in the video room watching Star Wars came out and stepped outside. I heard them through my music say that it was raining.

I had to get up and see this. I stepped out to the door, and sure enough, there it was. This wasn't exactly a gullywasher, but neither was it some frail light mist. This was rain. I stood and watched it for a while, the packed up the computer and took a book next door to the coffee shop, which has tables set up outside on a covered deck. I sat there and read and listened to the rain, which is a wonderful sound I hadn't counted on hearing much of while I'm out here. There was lightning in the sky, too, though I didn't hear any thunder. Still, I enjoy a nice light show.
It was very hot and humid, as you'd expect, but I sat outside until the rain ended and it didn't look like it was going to come back. And to my surprise, after the rain, a cool breeze started up.

Now, whether this was actually a cool breeze, or just a dry breeze the same temperature as the ambient air, I don't know. But it felt like a cool breeze. In the desert. In July.

Rain is a fairly ordinary thing in Florida. Here in the desert, people came out of their libraries, out of the coffee shop, out of their tents, to watch water fall out of the sky, as if it was an event not to be missed, something that might not happen again for a long time, if ever. I'm sure it occasionally feels that way, especially if it's been dry here for a few months. How funny that something so ordinary to me can become so unique simply by picking up and moving to a different location.

I can't wait for the next storm.

28 July 2006

A Beautiful Day in the Country

What do people talk about when they feel like talking but have nothing to say? The weather, of course!

Today was actually dreary. I mean, it was grey, and cloudy, and the sun never did break through. There was no rain, of course, no storm clouds on the horizon, no constant drizzle, but it was nonetheless about as English as the weather he is likely to get. Mostly it was because of a large amount of dust in the atmosphere, blowing in from the Sahara I suppose. Whatever it was, the temperature stayed below 100 all day and it was frankly almost pleasant outside.

I managed to finish chapter 17 today, which was a very good development. This may sound a little strange, since I've been working in the 80s lately as I've reported. But way back when I started this book, I left chapter 17 blank because I was waiting to get a copy of an old email I'd sent, way back in 1999, the substance of which was to form the bulk of chapter 17.

I keep old emails. I had emails going back several years until, in a fit of stupidity in 2002, I managed to delete like four years worth of emails trying to move them from an old computer to a new one. Then, when the most recent laptop died in 2004, I lost the last two years' worth of emails. I had hoped when I started writing this that someone to whom I sent that email back in 1999 might still have a copy of it--but most people aren't quite the digital packrats I am. I had left the chapter blank awaiting some sort of salvation, but it's clearly not forthcoming.

I remembered that the chapter was still unwritten and thought that, when I finally do manage to finish chapter 100--or wherever it finally ends, which may be somewhat before then--it would be a sort of empty victory if I still had chapter 17 left to write. So I went and wrote it today. And I finished chapter 84 and got more than halfway done with chapter 85. In fact, the top of the page when I start tomorrow will be the climactic scene, there in 85, when the final bit of icing tops our narrator's cake and his little world falls apart. I'm kind of looking forward to it.

26 July 2006

The Ballad of The Lost Green Bag

This morning I met one of my coworkers, Monica Gellar (um, yeah, not her real name), at the chapel. Every morning at 0930 one of the chaplains takes a group of military personnel, whoever volunteers, out to a local orphanage, where they spend a half hour or hour playing with the kids (at the boys orphanage) or just holding and reading to them (at the infants orphanage). They usually need a driver, because you can't drive in town until you pass a driving course, and not many people have a chance to take it. My coworker is one of them; she was going to offer to drive to the orphanage if we could make a stop off at the airport for me to pick up my baggage.

It would have been nice to go to the orphanage--I must do that sometime--but it was probably better that when we met, Monica told me she'd finagled a mission card and vehicle and we could go out there ourselves.

Vehicles come from a vehicle lot, and they sit in the sun all day and bake so that vehicles with two or three thousand kilometers on them have prematurely aged and look like they're one oil change away from the scrapyard. These are mostly Mercedes SUVs, by the way, proof that you can destroy any car, no matter how well made, by leaving it in the desert.

Off we went. The road away from the base is littered with trash and enormous chunks of concrete. It's this part of the drive, actually, that reminds me of Del Rio; the road from town out to the base was littered with giant chunks of concrete, on light brown sand, and frequently there was quite a lot of litter. Throw in the acacias out here that look like mesquite and the resemblence is a little disturbing. I'll try to remember to bring my camera next time I go out.

After a bit of pothole dodging you turn north and parallel the old railroad line (I actually heard a train on it this morning, I think; I'll have to look it up, but around four this morning I distinctly heard the chuffing of a steam locomotive. There is almost no other sound on Earth, apart from a steamship or steam-driven gristmill, which don't exist out here, that could have produced a sound so clearly like a locomotive. But I don't know what sort of rolling stock they have on this railroad to know whether that's even a possibility). This rail line is basically the entire reason for this area's existence. There is a fine natural harbor here, but the country itself produces virtually nothing of any value, apart from qat, so the harbor was sitting around empty until the French came in and built a railroad.

The French rail line was built ostensibly to allow Ethiopia, then an independent monarchy, a ready access to a seaport. But the reality was, if the French hadn't built the line, the British would have built one, either into Egypt or south to Mombasa, at Kenya; the French wanted Ethiopia in their sphere of influence, not the British sphere. And with the railroad in place, France's colony took on a new importance that it would not otherwise have had--and the French earned extra income on port fees.

Nowadays there's truck traffic, but the roads are complete shit all over Africa and I suspect the rail line handles as much freight as trucks do--although in reality Ethiopia today probably produces significantly less saleable goods for world trade than it did in the late 1890s. Apart from coffee, actually, I'm not sure what else they sell, although I understand salt and some cereals transit out through the port. Still, the predominant cereal in this part of the world is millet, which you probably haven't heard of unless you shop at organic food stores. Millet is fairly tasty (one of the Ethiopian officers at work brought in a huge back of toasted millet yesterday and I thought it was terrific), but for whatever reason it's never been successfully marketed in the West.

Anyway. At so-called Qat Corner we turned and headed for the airport--which, I'll point out, actually shares a fenceline with the base here. It's like a three mile drive around the outside, though. Qat Corner is where trucks unload barrels full of qat every afternoon for the local population to chew themselves into a stupor.

It was only nine-fifteen, though, so nobody was high. Yet. We didn't get tagged for an "entry fee" at the airport (it's about a 50/50 shot every time), which was good. I was hoping to just dash in and dash back out, so Monica stayed with the car and I went inside.

To my surprise the Air Kenya agent's office was actually open and staffed. Several people were milling about and it took me a few minutes to figure out who the actual agent was. I showed him my claim ticket and told him I'd been called and told I could pick up my luggage.

I was already feeling pretty hopeless, though, since the agent's anteroom was chock full of unclaimed baggage, at least a dozen pieces of varying sizes, two or three of them military duffel bags. Mine was not among them. But the agent looked at my ticket and assured me my bag would be found. I told him it wasn't in his office, but we still had to examine every piece of baggage individually--him picking it up and holding it like a chicken for me to inspect--before we could move on.

We wandered outside. The assortment of baggage handlers all looked at me with vacant expressions--if I didn't have a bag for them to carry, how could they get money from me?--then turned right around and went back inside through the departure door.

At the departure door the agent walked right through the gate and went around to the other side, where he engaged the security guard in a lengthy shouted conversation that included several vehement gestures in my direction and a good bit of laughter. Eventually the security guard asked me for my ID, which he examined for several moments before ordering me to put my hat and sunglasses through the baggage screener. I walked through the metal detector, picked up my potentially dangerous headgear, and followed the agent--who now had my claim ticket and who I thus could not afford to let out of my sight--into another room, where two very pretty Somali women (Somali as in tribal affiliation, not necessarily nationality; readers unaware of my precise location should be aware that there are Somalis all over Africa, because even poor African countries have more jobs than Somalia) got into a fight with the agent about having to get up out of their air conditioned office (one of two in the airport) to run an errand for him. Eventually they drew straws or something, and one of them instructed me to follow her. The Air Kenya agent took his leave.

I've heard from people who were in Somalia in the 1990s that the Somali women are beautiful, and it's generally true. But they also have a killer accent, so working with them is a very pleasant experience (though in all seriousness, no woman compares with Smittygirl in any way, and I want to be quite sure she knows that). I followed her outside onto the airport tarmac, and then back inside, through the customs area, into the baggage claim area. A few bags were scattered about--she indicated them to ask if any appeared to be mine, but they weren't. Then she took out a huge set of keys that she'd been hiding somewhere in her clothing, opened a grimy metal door, and we went back into the bowels of the luggage area. This corridor had not seen paint since the airport was built.

Finally we came to another grimy metal door, and she produced another key. Inside a dingy room was enough unclaimed luggage to outfit the entire Henry Morton Stanley expedition for two years, my bag thankfully among the mess. Some of the luggage inside had probably been there for a year or two.

This surprised me, I'm sorry to say. This is a very poor country, as I've mentioned, and although we can assume the people working at the airport are among the best paid in the country, the temptation to simply take luggage that has gone unclaimed for weeks or months, as some of this clearly had, must be great. It must be that much greater for the unemployed baggage handlers who seem to live off of tips--and perhaps that's why the baggage is stored behind two locked doors. I don't like to think ill of people, but frankly, after a certain span of time I have to admit I would probably take some of that stuff home and see what I could use or sell. Especially in a place like this. Maybe I'm just a bad person.

There was a little confusion because the ticket on my bag didn't match the ticket on my claim form, but that was apparently because the bag had been left behind at Heathrow (Heathrow--where I had the 8-hour layover; I'd have understood if it had been left behind at Nairobi, with all the plane changes and delays, or at Dulles, but not Heathrow. Remind me not to fly through that airport any more) and had been retagged. Fortunately the old ticket was inside the bag, and everything was squared away.

Then I had to sit around and wait for a policeman to open the glass door back into the arrivals section of the airport--because apparently I couldn't just walk right back out the way I'd come in. Very strange.

All in all though, a successful voyage. It took about twenty minutes to actually get the bag and get back to Monica and the truck, and this afternoon I went through it to make sure everything was inside. Now I have towels, and extra sheets, and a second pillow (which is good because I'm getting tired of the down one I was issued), and tea and other stuff. The only thing missing turns out to be book two of the Sir Apropos of Nothing series, which bothers me, but as I haven't been through the two mobility bags I deployed with it's possible it's in there. Of all the things I can imagine one of the airport workers stealing, English fantasy literature ranks right at the bottom of the list.

The Kenya Times

Many Americans read publications from overseas, such as the Economist or the Guardian or Le Monde. You can check the BBC, for example, on the internet, or get your news from any of a number of English-language overseas sources, if you want a viewpoint of how the Europeans or Arabs view the United States.

But how often do we get to see how the Kenyans view the United States? I don't know of too many Americans with subscriptions to the Kenya Times. So it was amusing to me to see a copy of that newspaper with an article about U.S. Senator Barack Obama's planned trip to Kenya.

Obama's father is Kenyan, and the Kenyans are apparently quite taken with junior Senator from Illinois. Evidently, according to the article, Obama will be traveling to Africa in mid-August, spending a week in Kenya and another week traveling around. There's some chance he may pay a visit to our fair corner of the Earth to say hello to the troops. I actually quite like Senator Obama and would be keen to see him if he does visit. Funny, considering the lengths I'll go to avoid seeing other politicians (*cough* Dick Cheney).

According to the Times, Obama is "widely expected to become a future President of the United States," and is "perhaps one of the most popular politicians in the country."

My favorite line in the whole article, though, is this: "Old white Americans in Washington DC describe him as 'an incredibly intelligent young man who we think shall one day become President of the United States."

A good rule of thumb in journalism is that if a source isn't actually cited (i.e., "Ted Kennedy, an old, white American, said…" or at least, "a source, who asked not to be named but who was quite old and definitely white, said…"), so it's fairly likely that our intrepid correspondent for the Kenya Times was making this up. Perhaps it's the gist of several conversations he's had with old, white Americans, maybe even with Ted Kennedy (for some reason I think that when foreigners picture old white Americans, they picture the Teddster; I don't know why). In any event I had to laugh when I read that.

Another amusing line indicated that "the press in the mid-west, where coincidentally Obama's mother came from (his mother came from Kansas Missouri State) have highlighted his visit to Africa as a significant event."

This actually says a lot about what the Kenya Times readers are interested in. Does the United States, the biggest, most powerful, most schizophrenic country on Earth, care about Kenya? It's a serious question. We don't often appear to care much about any place in sub-Saharan Africa. So a Kenyan reader might wonder whether this trip to Africa was getting any play in the States, and learning that it does will certainly make Kenyan readers happy. I do wonder, though, if they can locate Kansas Missouri State on a map. I'm not sure I can.

24 July 2006

Me, work? No no, you must have me confused with someone else

So I got up at five-fifteen this morning, had some breakfast, and went to work. There are, as I've mentioned, three SWOs. However, since there are three brand new SWOs, there are in fact more like five or six total. Two of them are leaving next weekend on the rotator, going home after four and six months, respectively. The third is just starting his third month, and will move into a new job once us three new guys are trained.

What this means is that, when I went in to work, there were in fact four people there doing the same job. This was… this was very strange. Military work is all about being a replaceable cog in a very big wheel ("People are fungible," as our esteemed DOD Secretary said some years back), but it's rare that you have this fact presented to you in such stark terms as I saw this morning. Four people. One job. Granted, three of us were in training, and the fourth was only there to see that we got it. But it was a very strange situation. I think I did two things of consequence all morning, and calling them "of consequence" is a stretch of utterly absurd proportions.

Still, I got to see at least a bit of what us SWOs will be doing. It ain't much. Prepping two main powerpoint briefings, and staying on top of aircraft and ground movements; beyond that there don't seem to be a great deal of weighty tasks. Our trainer this morning noted that, while he's been working morning shift, he generally ran out of things to do around 10. That would be the four-hour point in an eight-hour shift. I dearly hope this isn't actually the case, because that's what happens at work normally (actually, normally I do less than four hours of work a day, but that's another matter) and I came out here to do something more… constructive. I don't know. I'm trying not to pre-judge the situation because regardless of what it is I'll have four months of it. We'll see.

And, too, I may not work the morning shift. Perhaps there's more work in the evening and night shifts. The training program for the job consists of stopping in at three morning, three evening, and three night shifts; I did a morning shift today and will go back for an evening shift tonight around six, after going to the gym and having some dinner. I may find the afternoon shift is busier. I sort of hope so.

On the bright side, this afternoon I finished chapter 79 and started on chapter 80. 80! The real climax occurs in the 80s (this is why I plan to cut significant parts of the 90s). I feel like I'm on the home stretch here. If I keep getting an hour or two during the day to write, I may be able to finish this thing in just a couple weeks.

Still no word on the missing bag. I had to take my laundry in this afternoon because I am out of boot socks entirely. I don't feel like buying any more until I know whether the bag has arrived, but then I don't feel like wearing ankle socks in boots any more, either. I want my tea, too, and the lamp. Also, at the risk of offending Lucky Bob, I should point out that Book 2 in the Sir Apropos of Nothing series is also in the missing bag. Since I finished Book 1 this afternoon, I'm hoping the bag arrives but soon.

And now I'm off to the gym, because if I'm only going to be doing four hours of work a day I might as well work out and at least feel like I've exerted some effort during the day. At least being here will probably be good for my health, if nothing else.

23 July 2006

It Burns

Computers have the capacity to frustrate me almost beyond anything else. This evening I took my laptop over the computer help desk people to have them clear it so I could connect it to the base network here at the MWR tent (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation). This is a fairly simple matter; it took them just a few minutes to do it and that was that. And so I came over here to the MWR tent to plug in.

And I've been plugged in, now, for close to half an hour. I still can't get the thing to connect. I plug the cable in. The computer tells me that it is in fact connected to a local network at 100 Mbps. But Firefox can't find a single page. Eudora can't check the mail. Nothing will work. I've tried disconnecting and reconnecting every piece of network hardware this computer has, I've clicked repair connection, I've shut it down and restarted it. Nothing.

This is extremely frustrating. It's the moreso because earlier this evening when I tried to call home I couldn't get through. Every number I tried was either busy or disconnected—even the MacDill number just sent me to the router al Udeid, where a recorded voice told me my connection was not available. Nothing. No way to contact the outside world. Aggravating in the extreme? You bet. The fact that I can't take the computer back to the network guys until tomorrow at 7 pm? Even more aggravating.

Time to go take a shower and go to bed.


It was 110 degrees today. Tomorrow it's supposed to be 112. I went in to the office today, such as it is, and sat at a computer for about an hour, and was able to witness the 1700 briefing, although I basically didn't understand anything that was going on at the briefing. Lots of people said things, though. This would be about the first briefing I've attended in the military was called a briefing and yet did not include Powerpoint. Refreshing.

I had gone in after spending almost all day doing nothing at all because I wanted to make sure my computer login was all settled. I also took the opportunity to prefile a travel voucher for the over $4000 it cost me to get over here, between the plane ticket and excess baggage fees.

I also checked the climate reports. Evidently, the hottest it's been all year so far is 116, which was earlier this month. July is in fact the hottest month; the average high is 102, while in August it's only 101. The max recorded temperature in all three months is 116, though, so I imagine things will stay pretty toasty for a while. By November, though, the highs are only around 90, which will no doubt feel positively chilly to me by then. The winds switch around to the east by then, though, so the humidity will be a lot higher. Joy!

In other news, I've started Chapter 79. The end is close! And that really is a source of joy.

22 July 2006


The base has fifty-some insulated plywood boxes scattered about, which are full of ice and bottled water and refilled throughout the day. There are at least four different kinds of bottled water available, including reliable standby Masafi, which is the one usually found at Al Udeid and Al Dhafra.

A new brand here is called Oasis. One bottle of Oasis proclaims its contents are a "Love Potion." Really. "You're loved ones are 65% water," it says. "Make sure they stay topped up."

Another bottle of Oasis says "Cool Workout." It adds that "Drinking cool water causes your body to burn extra calories to heat it up." Amusingly, this bottle of water came from a cooler in the chow hall, which does not keep things cool at all, or even tepid. I thought it was an interesting point. It's certainly true, I guess, though one wouldn't want to extrapolate. Your body burns more calories when you eat ice cream than when you don't eat ice cream, but eating ice cream to burn calories would be a bit silly. Still, there is ice cream here, in the chow hall, available 24 hours a day. Mmm.


I am a SWO. This stands for Senior Watch Officer, and is pronounced just as you would pronounce "swo" if it were a regular word. Swo. Sort of funny, really.
There are three of us swos here at the base, and we work 8-hour shifts. At least, the three who are already here do. They're all leaving next week sometime, and I report to work on Monday morning to shadow a swo for the day and learn the job. I've asked this question--what is my job--several times already, though, and thus far have learned nothing. It's not that the nature of what a swo does is secret in any way. It's that it defies meaningful description. That should make it fun to describe to you. Bob Booker—-who arrived here with all his luggage, lucky bastard—-is not a swo. I don't know what he does, either, but I think he might already have started work.

I mention this now not because I have anything profound to say about it, but because if you are reading this you are probably wondering, what exactly is Smitty doing out there. The answer, of course, is, keep reading. Whatever it is that I do for my eight hours a day here will surely be interesting in the extreme—and if it isn't, I'll make something up.

The amusing thing about this is that, when I inquired as to whether I should go to work on Sunday, I was told, no. I know you're chomping at the bit to get started, said the guy I've been talking to, but you should take advantage of the lull while you have it.

I'm not really chomping at the bit to get started (is it chomping or champing? Or chafing?). I didn't say anything, but I was thinking about it later as I wandered back to my tent to read for a bit this afternoon. I don't really have any particular desire to start work. I'd be happy not to work at all here, but I'd feel bad about it. I was hit with the realization this afternoon that I don't actually work to make a living. If the AF didn't pay me I wouldn't work. I don't work in order to get paid; I work because I'm getting paid. This explains why I'm not usually the first volunteer for any particular additional duty at work. This may explain why I'm not keen on looking for a new job when I get out of the service. If I don't get a job, nobody will pay me. And if nobody's paying me, I'll have no guilt at all about sleeping until noon and not doing anything.

Which is precisely what I plan to do tomorrow.

Don't Kiss The Sweet Ground (You'll Burn Your Tongue)

It is sweet, though. The ground. At last I've arrived in country. Much else is not sweet, though, in particular the heat.

Actually, this is no worse than the heat at Al Udeid air base in Qatar, to which I've made more than enough visits for one lifetime. Possibly this is because the wind—and there is quite a stiff breeze here most of the time—is blowing down from the mountains, and not in from the sea. When the wind turns—and it most certainly will, as it does frequently and without warning—the humidity rises by seventy percent or more and the not-unbearable 110 dry degrees become 110 very humid ones.
Vech. It will grow cooler as I am here. There's that to look forward to.

The last leg of the journey here, from Jomo Kenyatta Int'l, was instructive, as was the drive to base from the commercial side of the airport. As, indeed, was the airport itself. I would guess this was constructed in the early 1960s and has not been maintained. I could be wrong, as this climate may make things degrade faster than I'd expect. Tough to say. There are no gates, as such. Instead the jet simply parks on the ramp and disgorges its cargo. You walk into the customs area, are processed with dispatch (not a lot of illegal immigrants try to sneak into this country), and then walk about ten feet to await your luggage, if it comes. ¾ of mine actually made it, which was a pleasant surprise, although the bag that didn't make it contained all my bedding and towels, my lamp, and several other items I'd quite like to have. It also had most of my brown boot socks, of which I'm wearing my last pair right now.

I filed a lost luggage claim, and the gentleman there assured me the luggage would arrive, no question. He was high on qat, though, and probably would have assured me my luggage would arrive eventually even if he himself had personally stolen it.

The baggage handlers were also high on qat. As, I suspect, were the customs agents. It was after two p.m. when we drove to the base from the airport; every male we saw on the way was high on qat. Many of them had leaves sticking out of the sides of their mouths. Others had brown stains. I don't know whether the women are permitted to chew qat; it being a muslim country I wouldn't be surprised to find women are banned from the practice (one of the benefits of Islam's conservative posture toward the fairer sex); still, several of the old women at the plywood stands set up by the roadside to sell… well, presumably they were selling something. At any rate, several of the women were asleep.

This is a poor country. I say that not to belittle the place, but rather as a comparison against other places I've been, poor and not-so-poor. I've related the story of the acquaintance of mine in the 2000 campaign season who insisted Spain was a dreadfully poor country. Spain is nothing of the sort. The poor parts of Spain are not poor. Kyrgyzstan, for example, is poorer. It's not poor, not like this country, but it isn't economically all well, either. There is public transportation. There are, in fact, public services. Trash does not litter the ground and cover every available surface. Although many people have roadside stands, they are actually selling something (usually motor oil and other things the decrepit Kyrgyz vehicle fleet might need at a moment's notice), and the people staffing them are well turned-out. Certainly not asleep or dead. Children buzz around with standard childish energy, rather than lying slack on the ground in the middle of the day (of course this might a result of the climate).

No, Kyrgyzstan is relatively well off compared to this place. Yet this place is somewhat reminiscent of places I've been before—specifically, Del Rio, Texas. Although Del Rio is clean and well-off, the landscape is very similar—hard white rock in sandy brown soil, dusted with mesquite and sagebrush. There's no sage here, and no mesquite, but there is an acacia of some sort that looks just like mesquite, and also something that I have to guess is a eucalyptus of some sort. How any tree can live in this climate I don't know, but it lends this country a much more pleasing aspect than Qatar or the UAE, which are devoid of natural vegetation.

I live in a tent. Not a surprise, really. The tent is far away from the showers and bathrooms. It's also far away from most other things, except the chow hall. The chow hall is called a DFAC, although I don't know what that means. At least they don't call it the galley; they do, however, say "Welcome Aboard" on friendly signs all over the base, which amuses me because last time I checked we were very definitely on solid ground and not aboard a ship at all. The Navy runs this place, more or less, and the Navy is very special.

I haven't actually been to work yet. I've been to the office, but I haven't been to work. I don't have to go to work until Monday morning, and don't plan to. I do plan to go to the office on Sunday, though, to see if my lost luggage has been found. I'm quite keen to get it back, not least because I want to see if the power adapter I plugged in in my tent space is working or not. My small bedside fan won't turn on, and I want to check the lamp to see whether it's the fan itself that's dead or whether I just burned up the motor because the adapter isn't working. For obvious reasons I'd rather check this out with a four buck shop light than with my computer charger.

But apart from those few inconveniences—all of which are, of course, highly regretted—this is not a bad place.

Any Inconvenience Is Highly Regretted

Not that regrets can do anything. I suppose, on balance, everything worked out well enough—-or it has so far, at any rate. I'm still in the air, and my luggage could very well still be floating around Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. And we'll be quite late in landing, quite late.

At first, I thought it was all going to be my fault. Or more specifically, the fault of a certain ferrous metal object locked in a box in one of my checked bags. I don't want to have said object, and traveling with it is a tremendous burden. But travel with it I must. Checking it in at the airport in Tampa took significantly more time than checking in any other bag, and the bag required a special tag and I had to place a special card inside. And sign some things. And take the bag to a special screening area (which is interesting because by this time everyone at United knew what was in the bag. It's the people who don't tell you they have stuff in their bags that should go through extra screening, right?). I felt this was probably sufficient warning for any and all air carriers that this piece of luggage had something inside not to be trifled with.

Evidently, however, different airlines don't speak the same language to one another, as United failed to inform Kenya Airways about the bag. How Kenya Air didn't notice on their own, given the different luggage tag, I won't contemplate. Nonetheless, after sitting in Heathrow for an entire day and being bored out of my skull, I finally boarded the airplane for the next leg of my journey. Once most of the passengers were on board, a girl from the airline finds me in the aisle and asks, in a not-at-all quiet voice that people throughout the aircraft, possibly in other airplanes nearby, could hear, "Excuse me, sir, is there a firearm in your luggage?"
Hooray for discretion!

I had to get off the airplane. They had found the lockbox in the bag, and presumably also the card indicating what was in there, while scanning luggage, and apparently this was the first they'd heard about it. Why hadn't I said anything? Well, see, I did say something. In Tampa. Where I went through the whole rigamarole...

Eventually it was explained that there was no way the luggage could go. They'd have to refile the flight plan and so forth. I could go, but my luggage would stay behind.

Would all four pieces stay behind? I wouldn't feel too bad about leaving just the bag with the weapon in it behind, if I had to. No, all four pieces would have to stay behind. This surely must have been out of spite. I decided I better go get my carry-ons and plan to spend the night much as I'd passed the day.

Fortunately, Bob Not-His-Real-Name Booker was in exactly the same predicament as I. Not that this was fortunate where Bob was concerned, but it's always nice, if you're going to be stuck on a sinking ship, to have someone along with you.

They wanted to see some sort of documentation that covered why we were allowed to have firearms. No problem. I have a concealed weapons permit, my orders, all manner of things. Military orders? You're on military orders?

It's amazing how quickly attitudes change. In fact, one of the people dealing with our 'problem' quite plainly stated, "Well, that you're military changes rather a lot." I suppose it's nice to know that.

Calls are made, flight plans are suddenly refiled (something that two minutes earlier I'd been told couldn't possibly happen), and it isn't but a few more minutes and we're back in our seats in the plane. If all goes well this flight might still take off no more than ten minutes late, based on the takeoff slot we've been given.

This brings to mind a separate point. Not knowing we were pilots the people trying to convince us not to stay on this flight threw around a lot of jargon about flight plans and slot times and so forth, like an auto mechanic trying to tell you there's something wrong with your car when there really isn't. Our official takeoff time, listed on our tickets, was 2000, eight pm. On the nose. Our slot time was 23 minutes after. All jargon aside, 23 minutes is a damn thick bit of padding for an airline schedule, don't you think? Had we managed to get off the ground at 23 minutes after, or even within a few minutes of that time, we'd have been all right.

But it took rather longer than that to refile the flight plan. Bob and I were now both feeling rather conspicuous, as we were sitting in different areas of the plane and by now probably two dozen people in our vicinity were aware that we were the cause for the holdup—worse, one dozen people thought I was the only cause, and another dozen thought Bob was. Not fun.

We sit for a bit longer. About 15 minutes after the hour the girl from the airline comes back and says the captain wants to see my papers. My papers? What, to prove whether I'm purebred or something? Off I go to the front of the plane. I hand over every paper that could conceivably be of use to the captain in determining whether I ought to be trusted to fly on his airplane with a partially disassembled firearm without ammunition locked in a metal box in a checked bag. And I wait.

The stewardesses up at the front of the plane, where I was standing awaiting news of my fate, were very flirty, which was fun. They said they all wanted me to stay on the flight and would vouch for me. They also offered that I would be much better off getting stuck in Nairobi than in London, and in fact I should stay with one of the girls if indeed I did have to stay in Nairobi. This was great fun.

In the end the captain deigned me unlikely to pose a significant threat to anything but our timeline, and I resumed my seat. We took off about forty minutes late. The captain, as we were being pushed back from the gate, announced that the delay was caused by a paperwork problem, and that the airline sincerely regretted any inconvenience it may have caused. Immediately the people seated around me knew that I was sole cause of this now very late flight. When we finally got off the ground, people applauded.

I tried to sleep for as much of the flight as possible.

As we approached Nairobi, the captain announced when he expected we would land, and again noted that any inconvenience caused by our late arrival was highly regretted. I tried not to make eye contact.

We landed at 0710 local time. It took another twelve minutes to taxi, and, this being a 777 and quite full, eight more minutes before we were off the airplane, making it 7:30. Our connecting flight to our final destination was due to depart at 7:40. I figured there was no way we'd make it.

We didn't make it. Fortunately, neither did the airplane on which we were to depart, which was having mechanical problems. We got to the plane, and sat, and waited. Power flickered on and off. The captain announced that there was a problem and noted that any inconvenience was highly regretted.

Eventually we were herded back into the airport terminal, because it didn't seem like that airplane was going to be fixed soon. This would be a blessing, were the terminal air conditioned, but as it was the plane was no hotter than the terminal. We waited two hours and then some.

Finally we got underway in a new aircraft, after further regrets and apologies from the captain (who really isn't at fault and shouldn't have to apologize). We are inbound as I write this to City A, where we'll stop and exchange some passengers before heading on to our destination. We will land at city A a few minutes after we were to have reached our ultimate destination, and it will be a further 90 minutes or more before we land there. Whether there will still be anyone at the airport terminal to meet us remains to be seen.

Any inconvenience this causes will, however, be highly regretted.

20 July 2006


My word Heathrow is a noisy airport. They are generally, of course, but the little backing-up noise from the electric carts, and some sort of alarm that's been going off for ten minutes now... I mean, it's enough to drive a man insane. Not me, of course, I'm already insane, no need to be driven. But still.

I can't wait to see how exciting Jomo Kenyatta is!

Shite, pure shite

I arrive at Heathrow at just after 10 am local time, expecting to be able to leave the airport for at least a few hours. My connecting flight doesn't depart until 2000. Ten hours. But first, I must go get a boarding pass. I cannot leave the airport until I get a boarding pass.

This means changing terminals, from 3 to 4. Terminal 4 is a 20-minute bus ride away, and when I arrive I have to go through security again, then take a ten minute walk to the KLM Service Desk to get a boarding pass for my paper ticket. Frankly I think a paper ticket ought to be what it says it is—a ticket to get on the damn airplane. But clearly I don't think like an airline.

Trouble is, because my connecting flight isn't for nine hours (it's taken an hour to get to the service desk), they can't print me a boarding pass yet. I'm reminded that I'm not to leave the airport, even if I have a boarding pass, for security reasons. Of course, says the woman at the KLM desk, she can't stop me leaving the airport. But I do have to get a boarding pass first or I can't get back in. It will be at least three hours before they can print a boarding pass for my flight—2 pm.

Of course, even if they do print me a boarding pass spot on at 2 pm, it will be an hour before I can get out of this terminal, lock up my luggage, get through customs, get a train, and make it to Paddington Station, which is still a fifteen minute ride on the tube from where I actually want to be. Perhaps if I'm lucky I could be waiting on the queue at the London Eye by, say, 3:15. And I'd have to turn round by 4:30 and head right back to the airport to go through customs and security again, retrieve my luggage, and get back to the terminal in time to get something to eat and make my flight.

Not for the first time, I consider simply going out through customs and fleeing into the English countryside. They don't need me that badly in Africa, surely.
I'm hungry. I stop at Garfunkel's and pay the equivalent of fourteen dollars for breakfast. I have a beer. I need a beer.

There's no free wireless access. Tampa International Airport has free wireless access. Here it costs one pound per ten minutes. That's $1.80 for ten minutes of internet access—and it must be purchased in one hour blocks. (That you're reading this at all is testament that the airport is a VERY boring place and after long enough wandering around W.H. Smith's most anyone, no matter how cheap, will eventually pay the $11 and get an hour of internet access.)

I've been traveling for 12 hours and I already want to go home.

Actually, though, I never wanted to leave. And the worst bit of it is that I didn't let myself cry at the terminal when I was leaving. So instead, after being frustrated by the late arrival into Dulles (I know my luggage didn't make the connection there, but sometime in the last few hours I'm quite sure it's arrived at Heathrow and will make it's way to my jet for Nairobi. Why I have this hope I don't know as it wouldn't make sense, given how lousy the trip has gone so far, for my luggage to arrive in country with me), frustrated again by the KLM ticket agent (who was only doing her job), distressed by the high cost of everything, and caught in this horrible catch-22, I sit in Garfunkel's and cry into my napkins. Terrible, really.

The beer isn't enough, so I also order a double screwdriver, and when the bill comes I think this is actually reasonably priced—three pounds thirty, which seems cheap except that it's actually seven dollars. I don't order another one.

I go back to the KLM desk. It's only just after one. A short black man in a three-piece suit with an Anglican priest's collar is asleep on his carry-on luggage across from me. How he has managed this I do not know, as I spend the next hour trying to get comfortable enough of these molded formica seats with their metal arms to take a nap. Failing at this, I finally go to the KLM desk just after 2:00 to pick up my boarding pass. At least, with that, I can reconsider the idea of going downtown, right?

No dice. New girl at the desk, she gets the boarding pass printed but needs to see my visa.

Visa? Not the credit card, mind you, the visa to allow me entry into the coutry of my ultimate destination. Um. I don't have one of those. I give her a copy of my orders, she looks at my ID, and finally decides I can probably board the aircraft but she needs to check with someone at Kenya Airways to make sure. Come back in a half hour or so.

Time to wander this glorious expanse of duty-free shopping and look for… well, look for a nice easy chair to curl up in for a while. Which it will come as no surprise I do not manage to find. I do find a caviar bar, and a toy shop with dozens of barking and chirping little stuffed animals all trying to walk off a platform in the center of the store. There's even a giraffe, which bobs its head up and down. No rubber chickens, though, which I find disappointing. I should have brought a rubber chicken with me.

Heathrow Terminal Four is clearly designed to look very nice and fine, and it probably managed that a couple of decades ago. The floor tiles are the sort you choose to disguise filth, and they work quite well as I discover when I come upon some actual filth blending in quite nicely with the random quartzite blobs in the tile and nearly step in it. One disadvantage of this filth-hiding feature is that the airport maintenance staff doesn't notice filth right away.

I've always thought the best way to give the impression of cleanliness was to actually, you know, be clean. This is why nurses wear white. Heathrow wishes to give us the impression of cleanliness by hiding dirt, which nearly always fails eventually.

Around three or so I wander back to the KLM desk, where I spy someone I've not seen in three years, not since pilot training. We'll call him Bob Booker, which is not his real name, and we graduated from T-1 training in 2003. He's been off flying C-5s since then.

Of course the odds of running in to someone like this at the KLM desk at Heathrow Terminal 4 are so slim that we both immediately knew where the other was going, and why we were at the KLM desk. As of four thirty we are still at the KLM desk awaiting some sort of final blessing, possibly from Archbishop Tutu himself, before we can go off to board our plane. Our flight boards in two and a half hours and we haven't eaten anything. I'm beginning to wonder exactly when we might actually get our passes.

What strikes me as odd is this can't be the only time the military has processed people on commercial flights to this location through Heathrow. If we needed visas, we'd have them. We don't have them, and at the risk of making a logical fallacy it's quite plain to me we don't need them, either.

Oh well.

Another few hours of waiting, and then we'll be off on our next adventure—Kenya Airways, and the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. For now, farewell.

17 July 2006

Counting Down

I've got the mail taken care of. My bills are all prepaid or on hold. My magazine subscriptions have been forwarded.
I've got a power converter. I've copied most of my CDs to my hard drive. I've made backup copies of all my writing, and multiple backups of Lauderdale.
The uniforms are pressed, folded, and ready to go. I'm mostly packed--just a handful of last-minute items.
I've outprocessed the hospital. I've picked up all my required gear from the base. I know a little about what to expect over there, and I have a contact out there.
I have the tickets. I have my orders.

I've never wanted to leave less in my entire life.

Smittygirl mentioned the other day that I should write a book about how to leave. I'm pretty good at it, generally. I've left a lot of things--jobs, towns, schools, friends--and even though I don't think it's possible to get to be an expert in such a thing, I could probably write a book like that. It's something to think about. Except... I don't want to leave.

I guess it was inevitable; I had to reach a point eventually from which I wouldn't want to leave. Funny thing, though--I actually want to leave. But I want to leave my job, not the rest of my life. Going to Africa gets me away from my current job without really getting me away from my job. It's the rest of my life--Smittygirl especially--that I don't want to leave right now. I suppose this experience makes the book about leaving that much better.

But I still don't want to leave.

13 July 2006

Untitled Religious Rant

Evidently I need a serious faith checkup. I'm so embarassed by some of my fellow Christians I'm almost afraid to discuss my faith with non-Christians. That's not right; not right at all. If our mission is to bring new people to Christ, I fail to see--and I imagine will never see--how such things as are described in this article accomplish that. Doubly true of the protests at soldier's funerals by those wretched shitbags from Wichita.

I don't read the Bible literally. If you read the Bible literally, it seems to be apparent from Revelation that only 144,000 people will be saved at the end times. I have not lived a life worthy of being one of that small number and so should perhaps stop trying. Nah.

Of course, very very few people (apart from the Jehovah's Witnesses) read the Revelation literally, and it is generally understood that 144, as the square of 12, is a meaningful number, and generally when numbers in the thousands are presented they are merely a way of describing an uncounted multitude. That it should be 144 uncounted multitudes might mean that all sorts of people may yet earn forgiveness by truly repenting of their sins and seeking salvation through Christ. Yeah, it's just so hard to square that whole forgiveness-and-salvation thing with the self-esteem you can gain by calling everyone around you a sinner.

But that only goes as far as the Revelation. Apparently many people--the damn-everyone-not-like-me-to-hell crowd--pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to read symbolically and the parts they want to use for bashing people over the head. I guess it's more fun that way, and easier, too.

Finally, in reference to the article that prompted this whole post, I am disturbed and alienated by the attempts to conflate patriotism with Christianity. They are not the same thing. The Founders were not all explicitly Christian, and in any event did not explicitly cite Christianity in their founding documents:
in the Declaration, a single mention each of God, the Creator, the Supreme Judge of the World, and Providence--and another mention that government derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed."
In the Constitution, a single mention of religion, in the first amendment.
In the Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton writes that "in politics, as in RELIGION, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." Hardly a ringing endorsement of the modern burn-the-witches brand of Christianity.

In Federalist #69 Hamilton notes that the President "has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction."

Throughout the rest of the Federalist the references to religion generally discuss it in historical terms or as something that should be separated from government decisions. The exceptions are in Federalist #2 and #5, in which John Jay notes that the Americans all profess the same religion, and that a decent government will secure your religion. Only Jay makes note of this, and does so without claiming that the government is based upon religious doctrine, or that it should be.

All I'm saying is, faith and patriotism are both fine things. But they are not the same thing. Hurricane Katrina was not the wrath of God on a sinful burg (ever notice how these lunatics never say that Hugo was God's revenge on Charleston, or Ivan was God's revenge on Grenada?), and God is not killing off our soldiers because we don't stone homosexuals. Yet this is the public face of Christianity. These people will destroy our faith before they ever save this country.

11 July 2006

Smitty's World Is Shipping Out

Well, it's not like I've been posting as regularly as I like recently, but surely you must admit my beautiful girlfriend deserves my time more than the internet. Right? Right. Especially given that I'm only going to be in Tampa for a few more days.

That's right, Smitty is deploying to go fight the war on terror from someplace other than a drab 60-year-old office building in Tampa. The new location is a temporary one, and I'll be home sometime in early December.

Most of my readers probably know the location already. Please keep it to yourselves in the comments, and for the rest of you, it's in Africa. Here's the thing: because the location has entered the wireless age, I'll be able to use my laptop in the coffee shop/cantina they have there for a half hour at a go. That means that perhaps as often as every day, I'll be able to send a few personal emails and update the blog, without using government computers on the government's time! How awesome is that?

Of course, having said that it will probably turn out that they've figured out some way to block Blogspot from the wireless servers, or something. I don't know for sure and, to be honest, won't until I get out there. But if something goes awry I'll find a way to let you all know about it, and perhaps even to move the blog to a new location, if only temporarily.

The thing is, I don't want to draw the military censors' attention to the blog; other people have had great blogs while in Iraq and elsewhere, but just the same I'd prefer to keep it all anonymous and genteel. Obviously I plan to make updates about what it is we're doing over there and so forth, but the less specific I am about locations and such the better, so let's all agree to let my generalities remain general as much as possible, okay? Okay. See, that was easy.

As for me, I'm leaving next week, so I'll be here a few more days before anything too exciting happens. There are so many little wee errands to run and things to take care of before I go... it's kept me busy. For example, today I cancelled my telephone and cable, put a hold on my cell phone, submitted a forwarding address for my mail (I'm sending it all home to Mom and Dad for a while in case anything really exciting like an overdue bill shows up in it), and changed the subscription addresses for the magazines I get (might as well get something to read in the mail over there, right?). I also picked up my uniforms with all the right patches and stuff on them (they're in the wash with some fabric softener now so they won't be so awfully scratchy and uncomfortable), two thumbdrives, earphones, and a few brown UnderArmour shirts (it's a mite hot out there and cotton just doesn't cut it).

Tomorrow I have a doctor's appointment, I'm applying for my absentee ballots, and about a dozen other things on my list that have slipped my mind at the moment (that's why I made a list). It's tough; there are very few really big things I have to do (getting my orders and flight over there being the main ones, and those are already done), but there are so many small ones (setting up an automatic deduction for my home equity line of credit, for example) that it's easy for things to fall through the cracks. I started making the list last Thursday, but I'm still adding things to it even today, as I think of them. My goal is to be done with everything except packing by Sunday, and then to have the whole day Sunday to pack. And then I'll have a few days of blissful relaxation before I depart. How nice!

And the betting is now open on whether or not I'll actually meet that goal...

07 July 2006

u r 2 stupid!

Politicians are no smarter than the rest of us, which is why they hire campaign staff, to keep them from doing stupid or, at any rate, unintentionally funny things. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum might need to find new staff.
Santorum, among the most conservative members of the Senate, is in a tight (not really; he's down by 15) race to hold on to his seat. He has evidently decided that he needs more women to vote for him (the fact that he just plain needs anybody to vote for him seems to have escaped his campaign staff). So how does he decide to start targetting women? By text message! Of course! On his website, you can sign up for text message updates about what Rick is doing for women. Or is it four women?

I ask, because this is the text of his first text message:
"From keeping women's docs in PA to allowing parents the freedom to work from home, Rick Santorum is leading 4 women."
Now, I don't do much texting because I'd rather speak and I hate the modified l33t-speak texters use, such as switching the word "for" with the number "4". What strikes me as funny here is that the rest of the message is completely free of text-isms--he even included the apostrophe in "women's." Get real; it takes like two minutes to find an apostrophe on the phone. No, they included the 4 because they wanted to seem hip in some horribly square way; if they'd been trying to save time, the message would have looked more like this:
"Rick Santorum rulz 4 wmns issues don8 now."
Or something similar.

So when I saw this message, I was thinking: Rick Santorum is leading 4 women? Really? Where is he taking them? Better not be his bedroom; politicians get in a lot of trouble for things like that.

A New Libertarian Party?

Very interesting news came in this week from the Libertarian Party, where a caucus of "moderate" libertarians took over at the party conference this week, ousting the party's long-standing rather extremist leadership. As a moderate libertarian myself, this can only be good news; as it is the Libertarian Party has always attracted candidates who exist on the far fringe of political life and turn off the average voter.

I've reported a few times that there are rumblings that 2008 may be a golden opportunity for third party or major independent candidates in a number of big races, not least the presidency. Perhaps the Libertarian Party is trying to take advantage of that opportunity.

Here's a quote from the Libertarian Reform Caucus' website:
Fringe politics does not work in the United States. A political party must appeal to a plurality of voters (effectively, at least 40%) in some districts in order to win elections .. In other words, for the Libertarian Party to be effective, it must appeal to the top 20-30% of freedom-lovers. Appealing to the tiny minority of freedom-lovers who want no government at all, or something very close to that, is a recipe for failure. The platform and message of the Libertarian Party is extreme, sacrificing practicality and political appeal in favor of philosophical consistency with a single axiom. As such, the party currently appeals only to a tiny fraction of the voting public ... We, the members of the Libertarian Reform Caucus believe that America needs a real libertarian party, a party that promotes liberty while being conscious of political reality, a party designed to win elections and begin rolling back excess government now. In particular, the party needs: A platform that proposes a realistic vision for the next few years, as opposed to an idealistic vision of a libertarian future ... A platform based on the realization that there are other important values in addition to the non-initiation of force. Freedom is extremely valuable, but it is not the only value.

The website appears rather out of date. More recent news came in yesterday from Politics 1, which notes that the reformers managed to take hold of the convention, throw out most of the old party platform, and in the process piss off and drive away the fringe. Read Ron Gunzberger's article at Politics1 for more; this could be a very interesting development.