Friday, December 30, 2011

And Now for a Bit of R&R

I'm at home now on an R&R break.  It's been a great time to do pretty much nothing.  Just being at home with my wife, dogs, and friends is enough.  Maybe I'm getting to be an old fart (okay, I already am an old fart), but I don't need to go traipsing off around the world, looking for exciting places to go and things to do.  No, thanks; Kandahar is exciting enough for me.  I just want some normality now.

Getting home was not easy.  I was supposed to leave on Wednesday, Dec 21, on a flight from Kandahar to Dubai, then on to the US.  But a dust storm rolled in on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning it lay thick over all of southern Afghanistan.  Visibility was down to 400-600 meters, well below the 800 meters minimum for the airline to land to pick us up.  They kept pushing the arrival time back, hoping that it would clear just enough to get the plane on the ground.  It was cold, too: sub-zero (Fahrenheit), with ice on the ground.  We milled around all morning, first outside in the freezing cold, then inside an unheated terminal, hoping against hope that the skies would clear a bit, but they didn't.  Finally, at around 4:30, they cancelled the flight.

Now we had a couple hundred people with broken flight connections.  Right at the beginning of the Christmas rush.  And all the flights out of Kandahar for several days were overbooked already.  Not a good scenario.  I got on the phone with our travel agents in Kabul.  These guys worked miracles and quickly got me rescheduled on a flight out of Dubai 24 hours later.  The flight from Kandahar was a different issue: the airline was trying to get a second airplane in to get everybody to Dubai, but that was still in the works.

Thursday morning, we woke to a slightly thinner, but still present, dust storm.  Then we discovered that the airline could not get a second airplane in, due to some issues with the airport and (presumably) Afghan government.  This was a BIG uh-oh.  One of my co-workers suggested that I try getting to Kabul on an embassy-run airplane and then flying to Dubai on an airline.  I made some calls and discovered that (a) an Embassy flight was leaving in about a half hour and (b) the miracle-workers in Kabul could indeed get me on a flight from there to Dubai.  I grabbed my backpack, found the duty driver, and made it to the flight line with minutes to spare.  On the flight to Kabul, I could see just how thick and extensive the dust cloud was: it lay like a thick fog over the ground, making any features such as runways completely invisible, and it extended for miles.

Once in Kabul, I was able to get over to the commercial terminal, again with minutes to spare, and got checked in.  Then it was on to Dubai, a 2 1/2 hour flight.  I couldn't believe it: I was finally on my way!  After landing and going through the passport control, I had a couple of hours to kill.  Dubai is a very modern city, bustling and active, with a huge expatriate presence.  Based on some recommendations, I went to the Irish Village and had my first really good meal in nearly three months, along with a fabulous draft beer.  Heaven!

Back to the airport later and onto Lufthansa for a flight to Frankfurt.  I had been happy with this, thinking that it would be good to break up the flight into two legs vice one long 14-hour marathon.  As it turned out, not so.  Lufthansa was fine, a bit better than United but nothing like, say, Air France.  The problem was Frankfurt.  I've been through this airport in years past, but this time, it was ridiculous.  Security is over-the-top: you have to go through security to get away from your gate, and go through it again to get to your next gate.  "Slow" is the operative word here.  Worse, Frankfurt is a maze without useful guidance.  If the flight you're looking for is Lufthansa, then there are signs everywhere telling you where to go.  If you're looking for another airline (and almost every international airline in the world is in Frankfurt), then you're out of luck.  No signs.  I finally stumbled over an information desk with a grumpy soul who pointed me in the right direction.  Despite a two-hour layover, I got to my gate about 15 minutes before boarding time.  My advice is to stay the hell away from Frankfurt.

After that, though, it was smooth sailing.  I was on United to Chicago, which was a piece of cake after Frankfurt.  Then the final short flight to Asheville.  Janis and the dogs were waiting for me in the terminal.  I was home, 42 hours after leaving Kandahar.  And I'd picked up a cold along the way.

So now I'm sitting here in my favorite chair.  My cold is pretty much gone (not quite).  Janis and the dogs are more or less used to me being here by now.  I've visited with some friends, taken care of some business, and had a wonderfully quiet Christmas.  Life is good.

I head back to Afghanistan next week.  There are things cooking that I need to work on.  But for now, I'm just enjoying being at home.

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