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Justin M. Stoddard

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Dispatches From Afghanistan #5
September 13, 2009 — 8:21 am

Subject: Justin’s Travel Tips

I guess it’s been a bit since I’ve sent out a missive.

Here’s a side note: I was going to use the word “awhile” in that previous sentence but I always get confused as to what form to use; eg. “awhile” vs. “a while”. A search on Google only confuses the matter. If you use “awhile”, it means “for a period of time”; as in, “I’ll wait here awhile”. The “for” is implied. “A while” means “a period of time” and the word “for” must be used in the sentence. For example, “I’ll wait here for a while”.

So, unless anyone can correct me (Eric?), I’m assuming that first sentence would be incorrect using either variation. I wouldn’t say, “I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve sent out a missive”, because the implied “for” makes no sense. Likewise, I wouldn’t say, “I guess it’s been for a while since I’ve sent out a missive”. So, I’ll settle for “a bit”, I suppose, until I can think of something better.

Seriously, I agonize over these little pieces of minutia. It’s my cross to bear. Damn you, OCD.

Anyway, onto the subject of the email:

I’ve had the good fortune in my life to visit a hell of a lot of places. I’ve lived on two continents, have a working knowledge of two languages and am always fascinated by other cultures, whether it’s in the States or abroad. Through out my travels, I have come to rest on a couple, tried and true, simple axioms.

  1. Learn a few words of the local language and use them liberally. “Hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “how are you?”, “I’m fine” and “good bye” are a good start. You will not believe how far these phrases will get you if said in a respectful, genuine manner. I have learned, over and over again, that people generally love Americans, especially when they take the time to learn a bit of their culture and language.
  2. Be deferential when needed. This isn’t America. You’re not likely to get your way by shouting at and abusing those in authority. If you need to get an important point across, find someone who can help you translate and be earnest, firm and very polite. Use honorary terms if needed: “Sir” and “Ma’am”.
  3. If you find yourself in a “situation” with the authorities, play stupid. Here’s an example: When I was traveling China about 10 years ago with a friend of mine, we were walking past the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. This was about 2 weeks after the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Serbia. About a week prior to our visit, the Chinese authorities allowed a controlled demonstration at the embassy where students threw rocks and paint at the building. Several windows were broken out and the outside of the building was damaged and discolored. I don’t know why, but I felt I had to get a picture. As soon as I snapped the photo, about 25 People’s Armed Police came out of the wood-work and completely surrounded us. They kept shouting, “That is forbidden!”, and “Give me your camera!”. My friend and I knew perfectly well what they were saying because, well, we speak Chinese. But, in this case, we acted completely dumb. I tucked the camera under my arm and kept saying, “What?” and “I’m an American”, and “I don’t understand” in English. This went on for about 10 minutes until they finally got tired of us and shooed us away.
  4. Pack extra socks.
  5. Be prepared to wash your clothes in the bathtub and either hang-dry them or to use a blow dryer.
  6. Get out of your hotel! I can’t believe how many people travel just to sit at the hotel pool.
  7. Never take the guided tour, if you can help it. Sure, there are cases where you’ll have to, but if you’re able, separate yourself from the group and go explore on your own. This may be the introvert talking in me, but I can’t stand pat tours with a large group of people. I find that they are usually dumbed down and you don’t get to see the really interesting parts. If you find yourself exploring an area where you’re no supposed to be (this rarely happens), again, feign ignorance, apologize and be on your way.
  8. Take pictures! I’m biased. I love to take pictures. But, I often find myself looking at them later and reliving my adventures.
  9. After the trip is over, buy a book about the history of where you just visited. Whenever I find something interesting, I always seek out an expert and ask this one simple question; “If I were to go to the book store right now and could only purchase one book, what should it be?”. I ask that question all the time. I’ve rarely been disappointed.
  10. Carry a small pocket notebook and a pen with you. I have a terrible memory and it helps to write things down that interest me.

That’s about it. 10 simple axioms to live by.

On a side note, everything is going swimmingly here in Afghanistan. I have a young guy down at my other office who sits down with me for about an hour a day to teach me Dari. I’m to the point where the Arabic script doesn’t look like a bunch of scribbling anymore. In fact, I can actually read a few words. I don’t know that I’ll ever be proficient, but I’d like to at least be conversant before I leave.

Today I took my drivers test for Afghanistan so I can drive in country. The roads here are a mess and it feels like you’re off-roading all the time. We have huge, unwieldy “up-armored” vehicles (bullet and small explosion proof). They are hell to drive, but that’s one more experience under my belt.

I’m two weeks into a 16 week deployment. 14 weeks to go!

I hope everyone is doing well. I really enjoy getting every one’s emails and I look forward to seeing you all again when I get home.

Be good to each other!

— Justin M. StoddardComments (0)

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