Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Afghanistan 2010

Note:  While I had a great Christmas many in Afghanistan did not.  I salute all who have and are serving.  Remember groups like the USO which keep soldiers in touch with their families and spiritual groups like the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA who serve deep needs (a priest just visited forces in Wardak who went over half a year without any chaplain of any faith).

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Afghanistan!

In a time where Palestinian Christians' celebrations are curbed, Indonesian services banned, and a Filipino mass bombed, I do not have much to complain about even though I am in Afghanistan.  In fact, this Christmas was a bit of an adventure and much better than the one in Iraq (which involved a military chaplain inventing his own words for the Lord's prayer).  So let me tell you about my Afghan/Polish/American Christmas.

Starting off Christmas Eve:  Challenging Afghans with Guns

As noted earlier, one of the best ways to make friends in Afghanistan is with a rifle.  I started off Christmas Eve by visiting the local Afghan National Police (ANP) shooting range.  After a short introduction I challenged them to a rifle/pistol contest.  The local Hazara and Tajik ANP take their weapon skills very seriously and eagerly arose to the occasion.  They picked "Bashir" to be their champion against me.  I held my own with the pistol.  However, Bashir scored direct hit after direct hit with the rifle.  In the end he easily pulled ahead and won the challenge.  After congratulating Bashir and Afghan playful teasing against me, I was invited to their evening meal of goat and rice.  Their meal served as sort of a Christmas party as they all wished me a "happy Christmas and good New Year."

Polish Mass:  That Was a Party

Don't let the photo of the chapel fool you.  It got so packed that any fire marshal would have shut down the mass if they knew.
I was able to attend midnight mass on a military base.  However, the only mass within a 100 or so miles was in Polish so I knew I was in for a unique experience.  I arrived early and sat next to another American, an Air Force medic.  She and I quickly realized that we were among the only Americans in a room packed full of Poles.  Another woman joined us, a "Polish Ann Chaplin" (PAC), who will become important soon.

So mass started and I could figure out what is being said because of Roman Catholic masses have the same order around the world.  Or at least that is what I thought.  After the gospel reading the tradition of love bread or oplatek occurred.  PAC instructed me to take a large square wafer that was on a plate being passed around and break the wafer into two.  I gave her one half and I kept the other.  She then told me to break off a little bit of her's and eat it.  I did.  She wished me a Merry Christmas and broke off and ate a bit of my wafer.  I explained to the American next to me what was going on to the best of my abilities.  We then wished each other a Merry Christmas and ate a little bit of each other's wafer.  What occurred next was fifteen minutes of the choir/band doing Polish Christmas songs with enough energy to power a small city while everyone shared their oplatek and wished each other a Merry Christmas.

Communion took over twenty minutes as everyone massed in line for the one priest to hand it out.  Interestingly, all the Poles received it in the mouth (most Americans relieve it in hand and place it in the mouth themselves).  The American medic was the only one to accept it in the hands.  Meanwhile the Polish music group played even more energetic Polish Christmas songs.  The mass marking the birth of Christ was truly a celebratory event.

The Christmas Meal:  Lamb and Goat and Naan, Oh My!

As you can tell I did not suffer this Christmas
I managed to integrate myself and those working with me with some other Americans to make one big Christmas meal.  A military officer managed to acquire a goat, a lamb, and several pounds of naan.  After the goat and lamb were dispatched a barbecue began.  Local Afghan charcoal was used to feed the barbecue fire.  Needless to say the cooking took hours yet proved to be a good boding experience between various military and non-military personnel.  Once the cooking was done I had the best lamb and naan I have ever had in my life.  There was nothing like having hot food, good company, and a fire barrel.

Bringing Americana to Afghanistan:  Carolers!

The eastern part of Afghanistan right now does put one in the Christmas spirit.  The lack of snow, the sound of artillery firing, watching a vehicle burn after it was hit by an IED, and constant threats by the Taliban can put anyone in a funk.  However, when driven into extreme situations people will join together to make life bearable.  Case in point were these carolers who helped bring Christmas cheer to a small corner of Afghanistan.  What a great way to end Christmas in Afghanistan.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Rifle: A Great Way to Make Friends in Afghanistan

As I get ready to actually do my job in Afghanistan I noticed that military personnel have doubts about whether geographers have the necessary skills to survive in Afghanistan (which is understandable).  To put fears of incompetence to rest I decided to "battle zero" the rifle I was issued and show them how capable a shot I am.  The BZ test adjusts a rifle's sights to each user so a shooter can actually hit the target.  I went outside to a local range where I was all alone.  In the process of battle zeroing the rifle fired off a magazine of thirty rounds.  By the time I was finished another American showed up.  Apparently it was a slow day for him and the sound of rifle fire at the range attracted him.  We chatted about weapons when two Afghan National Police (ANP) officers appeared.  They also heard the sound of the rifle and wanted to join me in shooting off rounds.  I politely decline because I only brought one magazine with me.  They presented another clip to me and told me to "put the rifle on fun."  Taking that to mean fully automatic I reloaded and fired off thirty rounds in a series of burst at the target.  The ANP then took turns pointing out targets on the range and trying their best to one up with each other.  Another ANP officer appeared and joined in on the fun.  After a few more rounds of this I had to head back.  However, I made several new friends in the process and have been invited to shoot off more rounds whenever I want.  I in turn promised to bring snacks as gifts to whoever wants to join me in a shooting competition.  The rifle has proven to be a great way to make friends in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Afghanistan from Above

I recently completed a tour of a section of Afghanistan while aboard a helicopter.  The experience certainly was one of the most memorable of my life.  It was also one of the coldest times of my life, too.

The cultural landscape itself demonstrates a sort of siege-mindset that has not been expressed in Europe since the Medieval-era and in the Americas since the early days of European colonization.  The cultural landscape also reflect the strong bonds of family that exist in Afghanistan.

Every farm house I saw from the air was in its own walled compound.  The mud buildings were along the inside of the wall leaving the center of the compound as an open air courtyard.  In numerous courtyards I saw families mingling about going about their lives.  Every village I saw was a collection of the these compounds placed close together.  The locations of villages were mixed, some where on flat plains, otherwise near water, and still others were placed on hills overlooking the plains.  Regardless of location, each compound/compound village felt like it was an island of safety in a sea of threats.

Only in cities did everyone not have a compound.  The cities were packed with everything from mansions to shanties.

The trip was probably the coldest trip of my life.  An Afghan winter is cold, especially when one factors in looking out an open window with the blades forcing a strong draft into the face.

My time in the air was tense, cold, but most of all fascinating.  Sometimes one has to see the geography from above to know what is on the land.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quick Afghanistan Note: The Sand is Everywhere

The dust and sand is everywhere, including the air.  I have yet to start work but already am coughing up a storm.  There are mountains nearby but I can barely make them out through the haze.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

United States of (Google) Autocomplete

Very Small Array has created a map of Google autocomplete searches for each state.  For example: typing in "South Dakota" will have Google recommend "South Dakota State University."

Click to enlarge.

Sports and universities dominate the Google autocomplete search landscape.   Twelve states have universities as the first result and fourteen are sports related (counting Nevada).  It is clear that gridiron football truly is America's modern-day pastime.  Even the media-dominating New York Yankees baseball team lose out to the New York Times newspaper.

Interestingly the states of Washington and Montana are losers.  "Washington Post," a national newspaper published in the city of Washington in the District of Columbia is the first recommended search result.  "Montana Fisburne," a pornographic "actress" is the top recommended result for the state of Montana.  Of the losers, I rather be Washington. (Hat tip: Torgo Jr.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Does Not Like America's Geography Standards (But His Own Are Not as Good as Believed)

The long-running, stereotype of Americans not being geographically literate has been discussed on this blog before.  Many Americans do lack critical knowledge of not only the world but also spatial reasoning.  This has been the point of many jokes both within America and around the world.  Now it has become a (albeit minor) part of global diplomacy.  While on a trip to Central Asia, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, is quoted to have told foreign businessmen that Americans do not know geography while Britain had the best geography teachers in the world.

While I too have been impressed by geography in education it may not be as good as Andrew believes.  For example, a 2008 ESRI (UK) geographic literacy survey of British found
A study to raise awareness of geography found that two thirds of people (65%) mistakenly believe Britain is made up of four countries, rather than the correct three: England, Scotland and Wales.

Half of the 2,000 people surveyed (51%) wrongly believe English is the most spoken language in the world, as opposed to Mandarin Chinese. And one in 10 think Everest is Britain's highest mountain.
Struggling with the "how many countries" question, 6% said Britain was made up of five countries, 3% thought one and 2% chose two.
Yet asked what profession they would most like to be out of list of six, 23% of respondents said explorer, compared with doctor (22%), painter (16%), teacher (15%), journalist (14%) and banker (11%).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

December 2010 Travel Photo: Ruins of Immaculata Chapel

The Virgin Mary looks down and away from the ruins of her Immaculata Chapel.  The photos are from my travels to St Marys in 2006 and 2007.
St Marys, Kansas is a very unique place.  It was originally settled by Potawatomi Indians in 1848 forced out of Michigan by the United States.  The Potawatomis were a deeply Catholic tribe and were accompanied by Jesuit missionaries who had been with them for over one hundred years.  While a minority of Potawatomis adopted Great Plains Indian culture the one's at St Marys set out to learn from the oncoming white culture.  During the Oregon Trail, many wagon train diary remark how "civilized" the Indians of St Marys were: they had brick homes, farms, a nice church, doctors, blacksmiths, and even their own toll bridge.  Another removal in the 1860s split the tribe but a large number chose to stay and accept American citizenship.  The Potawatomi became a rare example of Indian assimilation.  Even today the St Marys region is full of people with Potawatomi blood and French last names (acquired from French fur trappers intermarrying into the nation).

The Catholic presence was and is still strong in St Marys.  It had the first non-Spanish/Mexican bishop west of the Missouri River.  The Jesuits had a school and seminary there since 1848.  In 1909 the Immaculata Chapel was completed and was called the "Mother of Priests" because of its many seminarians. 

The Jesuits left in 1967.  The population of St Marys began to dwindle with the loss of the school and slow but steady economic turn against small-scale agriculture.  However, in late 1978 the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) acquired the old Jesuit campus and established their own school.  The town quickly regrew with up to 1,500 SSPX supporters moving from across the country to be located in the new SSPX prairie capital.

(SSPX is known as the Latin Mass-only, radical, anti-Semetic Catholic breakaway group who celebrated the lifting of their bishops' excommunication by saying things like "we were never excommunicated" and "the Holocaust never happened."  But the painful breakaway did not occur until 1988, well after the initial St Marys land transfer.)

Depending on who ask something strange, divine, or demonic happened as the SSPX was moving into St Marys.  Immaculata Chapel was going to be the prize American icon of the SSPX.  SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre visited St Marys in May 1978 and Immaculata's beauty persuaded him to acquire St Marys.  In November, though, a massive fire erupted in the church and gutted the inside before the SSPX could celebrate mass in it.  In August 1979 Lefebvre visited the ruins to bless upcoming reconstruction work.  Then on May 31, 1980, random luck/God/dark forces responded with a massive wind storm which further damaged the chapel.

Today the chapel stands in ruins.  Walking up to chapel one can look through the places where stained glass windows were and look into the grass field that was once the interior of the church.  Look further back it is hard for one not to get a sense of loss.

A ghost of a church.  I thought about the ruins of monasteries in England destroyed during the Reformation.
SSPX has plans for rebuilding the chapel but these come and go.  Right now there is a website for the reconstruction but no news has been published since 2009 (the last news said check back "this afternoon" for another update).

View Larger Map

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Dwarf Star Tyche Might Be Out There

Imagine yourself flying away from the surface of the Sun.  The first four rocky planets pass by quickly enough.  However, the gaps between gas giants are bigger than the Sun to Mars and only progressively grow larger.  When one passes by Neptune one will eventually go through the monsterly thick Kuiper belt full of asteroids.  Once one is past that they will eventually encounter the Oort cloud, home of comets.  It is as "close" as 11 lights day from the Sun (Pluto is about 5.5 light hours away from the Sun) and ends about 1 light year away from the Sun.

The Oort cloud is much, much more larger than the solar system.  Image from Wikipedia.
Traditional understanding of nearby space has all but a rare few comets staying in the Oort cloud.  However, since the 1980s some astronomers noticed a casual cycle between comets entering the solar system and mass extinctions.  Some theorized that a dwarf star, a dying star that produces little light but has a powerful gravitational sway, in the Oort cloud was throwing life-destroying comets towards Earth.  The theoritical dwarf was named after the life killing goddess, Nemesis.

Scientific models were created to see if a dwarf star was throwing comets towards Earth.  It now seems unlikely that a dwarf planet would be responsible for mass extinctions due to the timing of comets entering the solar system.  However, further research and models suggest up to twenty percent visible from Earth were sent by a dwarf star.  The possible dwarf is now being called by Tyche, named after a sister of Nemesis and not a vengeful goddess, by some astronmers.

It could be out there.  Nemesis/Tyche in the midst of the Oort cloud.  The Sun is the small light in the middle of the image.  Image from Wikipedia

If there is a Tyche out there then it would be the closest star to the Earth (it would be one-fourth the distance between Earth and the current closest star: Proxima Centauri).