Archive | April, 2010
April 8, 2010

Kabul, Afghanistan

I was in Kabul in 2010 to work on Afghanistan’s energy sector, primarily with the national electric utility, DABS, which the prime contractor I’m working for successfully corporatized in 2009, with shares in the resulting entity evenly divided between the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Water and Energy. Since then efforts shifted to achieving cost-recovery through reengineering of billing, finance & accounting, customer service, HR and IT functions.
kabul mazar
Afghanistan is a strangely beautiful and haunting place. Much of its beauty comes from its barrenness and desolation, similar to Balochistan, where I spent a lot of time growing up. Standing in the wide open plains between mountain and desert, it is easy to feel at peace. You’ll run into interesting and colorfully dressed characters everywhere, all with interesting stories, many of them very tragic. And yet they are quick to smile and laugh with you.

I hope these people get what they want, what they’ve always wanted, an Afghanistan where they can lead normal lives. Where they have food, water, healthcare, education, dignity and above all, peace. I hope the 2014 transition will be relatively peaceful but the potential for another prolonged conflict is still very much present.

I found Kabul to be strikingly similar to Quetta, Pakistan. While my personal security detail didn’t allow me alot of freedom of movement, I took advantage of every opportunity to talk to Afghans about their lives and get their opinions on the war. I had expected some negative treatment for being Pakistani but the opposite wound up happening, I received exceptionally warm treatment because of it. It turns out many Afghans feel Pakistan treated them very well when millions of their refugees streamed across the border during the war with the Soviets. Many received their educations in Pakistan and expressed feelings of gratitude towards a country that treated them like their own to the point they almost forgot they were refugees.

My compound was in the Shash Darak area near the main ISAF base. I went out to dinner to several of the well-known restaurants that cater to international workers like myself. Dinner often ran over $50 per person including one or two drinks, which initially surprised me. But then war profiteering often works out like that. America basically dropped a large container of money on Kabul when it invaded it and it shows. Suitcases of $100 bills make their way around the city in armoured Landcruisers like Dominos pizza deliveries. Guns, contracts, narcotics, political favors – they all have a price.

April 8, 2010

Yucatan, Mexico (November, 2009)

Mexico is at war with its drug cartels which are outfitted like modern armies and are ruthless to Tarantino movie levels.

However, of all the places in the world I’ve visited, just about the only one I’m willing to go back to at the drop of a hat is Cancun, not because I don’t like any other place, but because I don’t like going back to something I’ve already seen when there is so much out there I’ve yet to see and experience.

Cancun gets to be the exception because it combines exceptional service, I mean the hotel staff will bend over backwards for you with a smile, and a smorgasbord of activites on-site or very close. Things to see/do:

- Deep sea fishing - I’ve caught amberjack, barracuda, African pompano and sailfish here.
- Mayan ruins – Tulum is closest and its coastal setting is magnificent, but the big dog without a question is Chichen Itza, a new wonder of the modern world, first settled in 800AD. While not as exciting as Tikal in Guatemala, it’s still very cool.
- Scuba diving and snorkeling – I’ve done some great drift dives here and seen great sealife up close.
- Sailing and kite surfing – Good winds = fun times. Our hotel allowed us to take their sailboats out free of charge whenever we wanted, so Colleen and I got to try our hands sailing Sunfish and Hobie Cats.
-  Supercars – There’s a track in Cancun where I drove a Ferrari F430, Lamborghini Murcielago, Mercedes SLS and Lotus Elise. Shockingly the Elise was my favorite – no electronic meddling!
- Beautiful beaches, great food, great weather, and it’s very easy to check out the resorts towns of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel as they are both nearby.

April 8, 2010

Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, CA

We went skiing at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. Being a novice to intermediate skier, I found the double black diamonds I was able to navigate with relative comfort on the East Coast only equate to easy blues here. Even the harder blues gave me a very hard time. I suppose that’s why Squaw has twice hosted the Winter Olympics.

April 7, 2010

Dubai, UAE

Dubai is a city I visit almost every year, sometimes more than once a year, and I’ve been going there for over two decades. During this time, the city has gone from a place to go to buy electronics cheaply to a place where the word cheap seems out of place.

In any case, the rapid infrastructure development and successful capture of the high-end tourism market has been impressive to watch. For a while it appeared the global financial crisis would make Dubai topple like a house of cards, and I thought I sensed some in the Western press relishing it based on the tone of some of the articles. But after 2008-2010 and a small bailout by Abu Dhabi, it seems Dubai is going to be fine. It’s probably stronger for the crisis because the excessive irrational exuberance of the old Dubai has been put in check because of it.

However, something new has emerged since 2012. It seems “black money” from Eastern Europe is increasingly coming to Dubai to be laundered. The size of the Eastern European contingent in the city has visibly grown, and I don’t know if it’s related, but I also saw prostitutes in virtually every hotel bar I visited, many of them Eastern European.

April 7, 2010

Charlottesville, Virginia

Home to UVA, Charlottesville is a large-ish college town surrounded by a multitude of smaller towns with their own personalities and good bed and breakfast options. Nearby Staunton boasts the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse. Colleen and I have come here three times now, watching Titus Andronicus, Othello and Hamlet in that order. Staunton also hosts outdoor concerts, one of which we caught on our last visit, and features good dining options with an emphasis on organic and locally sourced foods.

Two other excursions we took near Charlottesville was watching a movie in a drive-in theatre, a first for me, and driving through Virginia Safari Park where we hand fed free-ranging camels, ostrich, llama, goats and deer as we drove through the 3-mile long safari park. The park also had a zoo-type section where the coolest animals were Bengal tigers, cheetahs, giraffe and several types of monkeys. Both experiences were thoroughly enjoyable, although an ostrich made a mess inside our car when it stuck its head through the window and tried to wrestle the animal food away from me with its beak. Ostrich necks aren’t very strong but what they lack in torque, they make up for in speed. Those beaks strike fast! You’ve been warned!

The drive-in theatre experience made a convert out of me. Car seats are far more comfortable than theatre seats. I doubt I’ll ever see a cinema with reclining, heated, ventilated seats with adjustable lumbar. The audio also exceeded my expectations. The theatre tells you what radio frequency to tune in to and you get audio through your car stereo, 13 speakers for two people in our case, which sounded quite nice. If you get a chance to see a movie at a drive-in theatre, jump at it. We saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and ducked out before “Captain America” started because it was getting late and also because it hadn’t received good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

April 7, 2010

Savannah, GA + Charleston & Hilton Head, SC

We drove down from DC and spent a week between these three scenic cities. I have to say each of these three cities was pretty cool in its own right. Savannah was the most impressive with all its history and character. Charleston had much of the same but was larger and more modern. Hilton Head wound up offering some fun fishing (we caught 6 sharks), reasonably-priced golf on great courses, and good shopping.

We toured a number of historic houses, took long walks on the beach on Hilton Head, visited America’s oldest standing plantation house, toured the Navy aircraft carrier in Charleston and thoroughly enjoyed the delicious Southern cuisine throughout the trip.

Given that we drove down from Washington (~7 hour trip each way), it wound up being a very reasonably-priced vacation.

April 7, 2010


We went to the big island of Hawaii for a little over a week in December, 2008. The weather was fantastic. I got to snorkel up close with a large Manta Ray, touch a green sea turtle, relax on some unbelievably beautiful and deep beaches (Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea), charter a boat to hit all the top snorkeling spots around the Island, play some golf, go to a luau and check out some volcanoes. All in all, a nice trip. I got in some nice photography too.

Now for the bad – Hawaii is f**king expensive! Sure, it’s beautiful and everything but seriously, its a long-ass and expensive flight followed by being stuck on islands where everything is super-expensive.

If you ask me, hit up Cancun instead (as we did in Nov, 2009). The service is better, its half the price, and half the flight.