Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Day Out, Part One

Things have been more-than-usually nutty around here lately (more on that later), so I haven't been posting like I should. To catch up, here's the first of two posts about the trip south into Indian Country:

After a 24 hour delay due to weather, we returned to the "auxiliary airfield" and caught a flight south for the site recon. The second time through I noticed that several of the aircraft parked on the flight line didn't have any markings. No logos, no tail numbers, nothing. Professionally maintained and flight-ready aircraft (fixed wing and rotary) with no visible IDs at a separate, secure airfield. Wonder who might be using those......?

Surprisingly close to on-time, we boarded an ancient Mi-17 for the flight. Like the helicopter, the crew was Russian, although thankfully younger than the bird.*

*The fact that the crew was young was actually a good thing, because the older Russians who fly a lot of the aircraft out of Kabul are veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. It's a commonly-accepted axiom that these older pilots prefer to consume a half a liter of vodka before they fly, a legacy of the war when every flight was likely to be your last.

I'd be willing to be that the helicopter was older than I am. Proof of that was the fact that, once on board and strapped in, it took another twenty minutes of fiddling and swearing (in Russian) to get the thing to start. Best I can tell, the pilot and flight engineer were performing some sort of avionics trial-and-error with the switches in the cockpit, accompanied by various unreassuring electric whines and the click of solenoids from the engine. Lots of muttering and arguing (also in Russian) and the occasional banging on the instrument panel. At one point, somebody hit a switch and the clamshell doors at the back of the chopper started to open. I was beginning to wonder if we wouldn't be better off with chimpanzees banging randomly on the controls when the engine finally caught. Of course, it took another five minutes of revving up and down to burn off the avgas and oil that had accumulated in the nacells. Only thirty minutes behind schedule, we were airborne.

The odd thing about the flight was the complete change that came over most of the passengers as soon as we were airborne. The clients, men who have lived and worked in very rough parts of the world, building bases and facilities in Iraq, North Africa, West Africa, and Central Asia, immediately transformed into a bunch of giggling Japanese schoolgirls. Out come the mobile phones and digital cameras, everyone snapping pictures and taking video, of the terrain, the city, each other. Maybe it was just the release of tension after our nearly-aborted takeoff, but I was very surprised that adult professionals would behave that way. Not even my guys were immune, except for the lone expat operator and my local team leader. Both of them had spent more time on helicopters than all the rest of us combined. They were coolly unimpressed and professional. Myself, I was somewhere in between, probably closer to "Japanese schoolgirl," not that I would show it. It has been fifteen years since I was on a chopper.

Once airborne, one gets a very different view of this country than is usual from the ground. The mud, dust, grime, sewage and rubble that are the overriding theme of ground-level life in Afghanistan dissappear, replaced by an intriguing, almost inviting, patchwork maze of angled streets and alleys, walled compounds and the occasional industrial or military facility. The predominant color is still brownish tan, but from a helicopter the differences are more pronounced. Fields actually appear green(ish), and some of the hills are golden or red. The mountains, always visibile in this part of Afghanistan, are black and gray with near-permanent snowcaps. If I hadn't loaned my camera to the advance party, I would have snapped a couple of photos.

But here's the thing. From altitude, its easy to forget what it looks like on the ground. The colors are more pronounced, the landscape is dramatic, the fields seem verdant and bountiful, even the compounds look like pleasant rural homesteads. But I know that up close, on the ground, those colors all fade into the standard brown/tan (with highlights of grey), the hills are treacherous and rocky, the fields are actually little-more than subsistence dirt farming. And those charming compounds? Like little mud-walled forts, surrounded by packs of semi-wild dogs, visibly-diseased children and steely-eyed bandidos.

With the exception of the occasional strking vista (morning sun on the Hindu Kush, etc.), this country is really quite ugly up close. I don't mean that it lacks the rural charm of Switzerland or the calm pleasantness of England or the vibrant energy of Vienna. I mean it's ugly. Just plain unappealing to the eye. There are (allegedly) parts of A-stan that are quite nice (Badakshan province up north, Bamiyan in the center), but from what I've seen so far, this place is a nearly uninterrupted display of monotonous colors layered over filth and decay.

But from a helicopter, it looks rather pleasant. One wonders if that's why the various aid agencies who populate this place seem so naively optimistic. Perhaps its because they spend too much time looking down from 10,000 feet.

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