Lashkar Gah 2004
Poppy fields line the Helmand River beneath the Qala-e Bost. In 2004, the medieval fortress was home to a band of armed men and boys. Probably to impress, their bejeweled leader led me scrambling up to his machine gun mounted on the decaying battlements. He casually fired a long burst of rounds at the horizon. I peered down to see an encampment of Kochi nomads watering their camels.
As we made our way back to the car, several of the militia circled. One of them closed the gate. Clink. Ajmal gave me a nervous "I told you so" look.
One of the boys produced a chipped clay figurine the size of my thumb. “Old, old,” he told me in Persian. “200 afghani,” said another. I began haggling. I had thought they wanted to kidnap me; instead we were arguing over what was, to me, loose change. For three dollars and a half bottle of Tylenol, a boy reopened the gate. Smiles and handshakes.
A woman sitting in the unlit street behind Bishkek’s circus is yelling at two policemen standing above her. She’s been hit by a car, she says, and they should leave her alone.
An ambulance arrives. The paramedic, cigarette dangling from thin lips, hops out to yell at her, angry that she had misstated her location: “This is not Frunze Street.”
He and his colleague carry the woman into the back of the ambulance, but a few minutes later push her out. They were looking for money.
"What about the oath of Hippocrates?"
“Of hippopotamus,” spits the driver.
The cops return and take an interest in me.
"American," one says. It's not clear if that's a question or a statement. To my surprise, he smiles and gives a thumbs up at the results of the recent American election: “Barack Obama, yeah?”
Solovetsky Monastery 2014
Outside our apartment on Moscow's 10-lane Garden Ring, between the iPhone repairman and the discount sushi place, a woman with no arms sits on a folding stool. She is there many days, even when it's 25 below, her sleeves neatly tied up in knots. Whenever she smokes, which is often, there’s a young man there to tip her cigarette. In winter, he holds a plastic cup of tea, offering sips. (What the relationship was I chose not to ponder.) Her bucket does well and sometimes I toss in some rubles. Perhaps because she’s the only person with a smile on my walk to the metro.
The train to Kyzylorda left at 3 a.m. The four-hour ride would be my only chance to rest.
Inside my compartment, three burly oil men heading home from the Caspian were well into their nth bottle of vodka.
After a second round of toasts, it all kicked in at once: the vodka and the Ambien I had swallowed back on the deserted platform while calculating how to maximize sleep. The last thing I remember is them lifting me into my bunk.
The provodnitsa woke me as we approached Kyzylorda. The men were snoring. The cabin was moist with smoked fish and salami.
Northern Afghanistan 2004
White Sea 2014
Each room in my house is heated with a diesel-burning tin stove. The chimney pipes, black at the joints, twist toward a hole in the window. Lighting the bukhari takes more patience than skill: A crude spigot controls the flow of diesel from a rectangular tank; too much douses the match; too little and the fire dies while a puddle fills the bottom.
In my second winter here, I went through four fire extinguishers and a pair of curtains.
There is one blessing of winter mornings in Kabul, however, even when the diesel has run out and I can see my breath from bed: The sun doesn't rise over the mountains until almost 7, keeping the roosters cooped and the singing mullahs in bed a little longer. In summer, the hubbub starts around 4.
Shomali Plain 2004
St Petersburg 2013