Remembering Afghanistan

In 2007 I went to Afghanistan and Dubai on a goodwill mission with the Stanley Cup and some former NHL players. The chance to meet and personally thank our Canadian soldiers made this a pretty incredible experience so in honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a little bit about that trip.

It started innocently enough. My boss called to get the number of a former player he was trying to convince to go to Afghanistan on a goodwill mission.

I was managing community engagement for the Maple Leafs at the time and as the former Alumni Relations Coordinator, I was often in touch with ex-players too.

“Sounds awesome, wish I could go,” I said offhandedly, the way one would say “nice haircut”, or something similarly innocuous and untrue. But before I knew it I had a spot on the trip and I was left to tell my husband and mother that I’d VOLUNTEERED to travel to a war zone. For work.

The night before we left, I was having major second thoughts. My stomach was in knots, I was queasy and irritable. Daren and I went out for dinner and I ordered fish, figuring it was the menu item most likely to give me food poisoning so I’d be too sick to travel. But I woke up the next morning feeling well and, seeing no other option that wouldn’t get me fired, I boarded the plane to Ottawa to meet up with the rest of the delegation for our 18-hour flight to Dubai.

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Did I mention we took the Prime Minister’s plane? NBD.

On board, I had an entire row of eight seats to myself and eventually I was able to relax and get excited about the week ahead. Travelling with former NHL players means you are in for some great stories, and the musicians kept us entertained.  My seat mate and I spent a lot of time debating foreign policy and talking about who had puked in him and who had left him at the bottom of a pool. Eventually he asked to change seats.

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The first part of the trip included two nights at Camp Mirage just outside Dubai.

Camp Mirage was, at the time, Canada’s forward logistics facility for the war in Afghanistan. When I travelled, its existence and location were heavily guarded secrets and the materials I received leading up to the mission provided only vague details on its purpose and location. Very “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill” type stuff.

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The Canadian Memorial at Camp Mirage

"Snake Control Equipment" at Camp Mirage.

“Snake Control Equipment” at Camp Mirage.

My most vivid memory of Camp Mirage is the heat. When we first deplaned it was late morning local time and already 60 degrees in the shade, which equates to roughly a bazillion degrees on the tarmac, where we stood for an hour.

Camp Mirage included basic dorm-style accommodations with shared bathrooms, a mess hall, a gym, a store and probably a bunch of other secret things we never got to see.

On our first night we took a bus into the city and hit up – what else? – an Irish pub for dinner. As we found out upon returning to base, the Canadian Forces take the “no drinking” rule VERY seriously. When the soldier manning the front gates asked us to get off the bus so he could see us up close and smell our breath I was happy I’d had only one drink with dinner, for once.

First time in the Indian Ocean!

First time in the Indian Ocean!

Dubai is an incredible city, but not one I’m eager to return to. I found it too hot, too busy and too concrete. Everything is man-made and the ostentatiousness is over the top. Of course if you were staying at the Burj Hotel (pictured above) or any of the other luxury ocean-front facilities, you might have a different opinion.

After Dubai it was off to the main event: Kandahar. To say this is when things got freaky is an understatement. Here’s what I remember most about travelling between countries:

  • Before boarding the plane we were each given a sticker with a unique ID that, rumour had it, was to help identify our bodies should things not go well.
  • The soldiers standing at the windows of the plane? They would be on the lookout for anti-aircraft fire.
  • Our flying time would be longer than usual since there were certain countries it was unwise to fly over.
  • Unless hearing loss was on one’s bucket list, wearing ear plugs was recommended.
  • My “seat” was actually about 14 inches of bench where we all sat shoulder-shoulder and knee-knee.
  • The harness, helmet and flak jacket were not optional.
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“Excuse me, could I have a hot towel and water with lemon?”

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I got this.

After three hours of feeling like a human boggle cube stuck in a wind tunnel, we began our descent into Kandahar Airfield. We’d been warned about the tactical or “corkscrew” landing and I’d been dreading it the entire flight.

“All first-timers puke, even experienced soldiers puke”, we’d been told.

The purpose of this manoeuvre is to make it more difficult for insurgents using surface-to-air missiles to shoot down the plane. So when faced with the alternative of not landing at all, the corkscrew didn’t seem so bad.

The process begins innocently enough, with the lowering and locking of the landing gear. But instead of a slow and steady descent from several miles out, a tactical landing begins directly over the runway. Once the landing gear is in place, the plane starts rolling and spiralling down, as though it’s planning to drill itself nose-first into the ground (a visual that is less upsetting than being blown up). Then, after several turns, the pilot pulls out of the spiral, straightens out and lands the plane. I think the whole thing took less than ten minutes and I’m proud to say I did not puke. But it was close.

Once safely on base, it was off to a briefing session. Immediately we began seeing really interesting sights, such as:

Dudes wearing machine guns. Everywhere.

Dudes wearing machine guns. Everywhere.

and,

Tanks. Everywhere.

Tanks. Everywhere.

During our first night there was a rocket attack on the base and we were quickly herded into a concrete shelter. Although they took rocket attacks very seriously, we were assured the risk was minimal because most of the Taliban’s weapons were crude and inaccurate. This was only comforting to a point because I don’t care how cool you are under pressure, that shit is unnerving.

Over the next few days we saw a lot more of the base and its surrounding area, including the old airport, long since abandoned.

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One example of not-so snazzy Afghani architecture.

But the highlight of trip was, without question, the chance to meet and talk with the men and women serving in the Canadian Forces. The craziest part was, they were thanking US for coming. As though giving up a week to essentially be a war tourist was a big deal compared to spending months in a hot, dusty war zone away from children, parents and spouses.

But what impressed me most was the love these men and women had for the Afghan people. Everyone I talked to seem to truly believe that Canada’s presence was needed in order to help the Afghanis live peacefully and self-govern. As opposed to what was happening in Iraq, there seemed to be no dissension in the ranks, no disagreements with the purpose of the mission.

I came to realize that not every country in the world is suited to this type of job. Nation-building is a uniquely Canadian skill. The tolerance, patience, open-mindedness and respect we show one-another on the street in every Canadian city is also what we also bring with us across the world when other countries are in need of leadership and help. Seeing it firsthand was a unique and meaningful experience I won’t soon forget.

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Our crew.

 

Patience is a Virtue. Until you get electrocuted.

Everything was going fine until I got electrocuted.

Yup, that’s how we started a 36-hour east coast solo parenting mission. With electrocution.

Actually, it began with me making a promise to myself that I would be more patient with my children so this story isn’t ALL bad.

We’ve had visitors for two of the last three weeks and while they’ve all been wonderful (no, really) the lack of privacy, mostly cloudy weather and living in an 800-square foot cottage have taken their toll on my mental health rendering me a tad snappy with the little people who call themselves my children.

Full disclosure: patience is not one of my strong suits, even at the best of times. I’m the kind of person who thinks instant coffee takes too long, who wonders why the first car in the advance green lane is so slow off the mark, who has broken more than one appliance by forcing it to stop before its cycle is complete. So when it comes to small children, I tend to get a bit murdery over things like baby talk, rapid-fire “why is that plate blue”-type questions, and hysterics over spiders so small they are invisible to the naked eye.

Maybe it’s because I have zero experience with kids under four and have never learned to love and appreciate the baby stages. Or maybe I’m just an asshole. Either way, I think God knew what she was doing when she gave me two four-year olds instead of infants because I’m a much better mom when my children are not acting like children.

Don’t get me wrong, I think babies and toddlers are amazing. Every time I see a bassinet or a snowsuit with ears my good ovary practically explodes. And I can appreciate how nice it is to have a little tiny being that depends on you for everything and actually gives a rat’s ass about your opinion. But as much as I tell myself I have to appreciate these years where they’re small and impressionable and gentle, I sometimes find it really difficult to step back, summon my zen and live in the “poop” / “vagina” / mind-numbing cartoon / selective-hearing / milk-spilling moment.

But enough about me.

With Daren on his way back to Toronto for a night, I woke up to a picture-perfect day of bright sunshine and calm water – one of those days the maritimes gives you once or twice a month, if you’re lucky. So it felt like the right time to give myself the “today is a new day / cherish the little things / don’t be such an ogre” speech.

This lasted through breakfast and even into the late morning, as we headed to the barn for Harmony’s riding lesson. As Harmony was tacking up, Leila asked if she could go and see the horses out in the field. At this point, two things happened. First, I thanked heaven for blessing me with ONE child who bothers to ask my opinion. Second, I made the curious decision to touch the fence myself deciding, apparently, that this would be better than simply staying away from it.

Needless to say there was a rather strong electrical current running through said fence and upon touching it I received a nice little morning pick me up, along with a mild heart attack. The entire incident resulted in a minor setback in my Kumbaya attitude but the presence of my eyebrows helped get things back on track.

And tomorrow is another day.

 

 

The Terminal, starring Daren

She's going to kill me.

She’s going to kill me.

Question: Let’s say you were on your way home from a short, romantic getaway with your husband and between flights he lost his photo ID, meaning he could not carry on with the trip home rendering him a virtual airport prisoner and catapulting you into another solo parenting mission of indeterminate length. Would you:

A) Respect his privacy and not mock him in his time of need

B) Start making jokes about Tom Hanks and The Terminal.

C) Blog about it because eventually it will be funny (like in 2017).

Option C it is!!

So there we were, in Saskatoon, partying like underage Disney child stars with the Stanley Cup and a couple hundred close friends. It was supposed to be a quick one-night getaway, a holiday within our holiday, a chance to spend a couple of days together without the kids. (Quick pause for context: I drive a 5-year old Volkswagen and buy my underwear at Costco. These facts, though fascinating, prove that we are far from a jet-setting couple. We rarely go gallivanting off to exotic locales like Saskatoon. Nor do we have an abundance of friends who win Stanley Cups. This was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing which makes my tale of woe all the more poignant. Or ridiculous.)

It all started just fine. We spent Sunday flying from Charlottetown to Toronto, then on to Saskatoon. (It’s only fair that I pause here to confess that I left my ID on the plane and only got it back because WestJet paged me about 30 seconds before we walked out of the airport. But that’s hardly relevant so let’s carry on).

After a great night having fun and catching up with old friends it was back to the hotel for a few hours sleep before starting the long trek back to PEI.

Bright and early we boarded the first of three legs that would take us back home to the girls. The plan was: Saskatoon-Calgary, Calgary-Toronto then Toronto-Charlottetown. (Perhaps my first clue that we were destined for disaster should have been when we started by flying in the EXACT OPPOSITE DIRECTION of our final destination. Or perhaps it was the gentleman who boarded in front of us wearing beer underwear and carrying a cooler that surely contained human organs).

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If you’re counting, that’s four provinces in 36 hours. But we were kidless and on vacation so it didn’t seem so bad. I actually got to finish an entire magazine article in one sitting, and Daren got to enjoy some in-flight entertainment.

"Dangit. I've seen this one."

“Dangit. I’ve seen this one.”

Everything was going well until my husband got off the Saskatoon-Calgary leg and promptly lost his photo ID. Somewhere between Gate 44 and Gate 46, it vanished. Apparently they are pretty strict on that “no one over 18 flies without photo ID” rule, so I boarded the Calgary-Toronto flight not knowing when I would see my husband again and having no idea how I was going to get him home.

But by the time I landed in Toronto he’d managed to sweet talk WestJet (who were AMAZING through the entire ordeal) into letting him fly using a photo of his driver’s license provided by our babysitter back home. And by midnight he was home, just six hours after our originally scheduled arrival time. Now I can’t wait until he wakes up and reads this. He’ll be so happy!!

Solo Mission, Day 5

Back from a quick overnight to Muskoka where I spent the night with some good friends, some of them humans, some of them liquids. You’ll be pleased to know that I had the foresight to put myself to bed when I took it upon myself to use a BBQ lighter to light my host’s electric candles. Oops. Took my time getting home with a few stops at some old haunts including the Muskoka Store where I purchased nothing.* Batteries recharged, head pounding slightly, I returned home to a somewhat less green pool and NO ONE WORKING ON THE BASEMENT. Grrrrr….. Now enjoying a mommy and Harmony night with toe painting, hair braiding and chicken finger eating. Perfection. I miss L like crazy but Harmony is confused as to “why she has to come back.” Perhaps she thinks we are renting Leila part time for her amusement?? Must deal with that in short order. And in other sibling rivalry news, this is happening right now.

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I guess this is Austin’s way of saying she would prefer Sam find another place to sit.

*Total lie.