I’d been up late because an American military plane crashed south of here. It was well past the 10 p.m. Kabul curfew, but the news couldn’t wait. It was well before deadlines in the United States.
It was logical it should be my story. I’m the only USA Today reporter in Afghanistan right now. But as so often happens, the U.S. military released more information at the Pentagon than here. The main press office at the U.S. headquarters at Bagram Air Base didn’t even answer the phone.
So all I accomplished was to get myself keyed up. Stupidly, I accepted a housemate’s offer of a gin and tonic. I woke up this morning with too little sleep, a headache, and a relapse of the traveler’s malady I call culture lag. Culture lag’s main symptom for me is the same as jet lag: I get off-kilter and grumpy.
Afghanistan is only 2.5 hours time difference from my bureau in Berlin. So I didn’t even have jet lag when I arrived a week ago for my latest stint. But, forgive the cliché, it is a different planet. Everything’s different. The language. The pace. The food. The music. The clothes. The handshakes, which are more like gentle massages. The noises and the smells.
When I’m right, I feel like a spy submarine cruising through it all, almost invisibly.
But today, I became annoyed when beggars surrounded me at the laundry. I snapped angrily at our translator who didn’t listen to a speech I wanted to hear. I didn’t take our driver and translator to lunch, even though I’ll often do that when I keep them away from the house at lunchtime.
I just wanted to push Afghanistan as far away from me as I could. I needed to do something about this culture lag.
Like jet lag, you gradually adjust to the shift. Also like jet lag, there seems to be lots of ways to cope.
Some of my colleagues get centered by embracing the change. They wear local garb (though not burqas!) and talk droolingly of Afghan cuisine. They’ve made great efforts to learn Dari or Pashtu, the two local languages. Their Afghan drivers and translators are like family.
Others have amassed collections of CDs and DVDs and retreat each night into their electronic cocoons.
Yet others have become supersociable. I guess there are 300 foreign journalists here now during the loya jirga, Afghanistan’s national council meeting. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear about a party. Our neighborhood in Kabul has so many Western-occupied houses that it has the feel of a college enclave.
I’m not comfortable wearing the local clothes, and I go only occasionally to a party. I’m guess I’m in the cocoon category. But I’ve been to Afghanistan enough that I need only maintenance doses. I inoculate myself from culture lag with little things. For example, this trip I have in my closet a box of macaroni and cheese. I may even cook it up one day.
What finally brought me around today was my most reliable tonic: work.
Hamid Karzai was being anointed as Afghanistan’s next president. All day I had been annoyed at the loya jirga’s endless delays. But in the evening they announced the vote. So I had a news story to write, and I had to rewrite a feature on women’s politics. I didn’t have time to be upset that the electricity was spiking and that the house security man was playing something awful on the boom box.
When my fingers were finished on the keyboard, I found myself exhausted but my temperament returning to Kabul-normal. Note to self: No more late-night gin and tonics.