The other side of aid work (part III)

You know when Christmas has come in Nicky’s home. The desk-not the neatest of places at the best of times-is suddenly filled with lists of names, envelopes, cards and stamps. …writing fever draws me into its grip as I attempt to write to so many loved ones, friends and family alike, and to tell them how much they have meant to me

For many of those people I don’t even have an entry in my address book-perhaps we have simply lost touch, perhaps they went on to another mission and  never had a postal address, perhaps email is what allows us to remain in communication.

One thing is for certain, however: the colleagues and friends  I made during my overseas stints remain in my thoughts, at Christmas and always. There is something about friendships among aid workers which turns even the seasonal connections into more than just an “out of sight, out of mind” encounter.  At least in my experience.

The more intense the setting where you work, the closer those ties can become. I shared a guest house in Afghanistan with a bunch of ex -military chaps. In many ways we were all like chalk and cheese-perhaps we would never have become friends in “normal” life, had we met in a bar or at a party.

But when your life is divided betweeen a shared guest house and an office, those with whom you live and work become your family. You know more about them than about your own relatives at home: quirky eating habits and who is a fussy eater; how often they polish their shoes;  how they fold their socks;  how paranoid they are about health issues;  how often they exercise; how they react when they are getting tired and ready for their “rest and recuperation travel”; you are also bound to know more about their bowel movements than you would wish to-those shared woes often part and parcel  of breakfast or dinner conversations.

You get adventurous when it comes to making life together meaningful. In our guest house in Eastern Afghanistan, the chaps built a swimming pool and a bar where we would hang out every Thursday and Friday night. Each of us drifted into their own role in running or helping with running the bar (mine was to clean, sand down and polish the bar on Saturday mornings when it looked rather worse for wear); much to the gardener’s annoyance, we dug up this beautifully kept garden several times over to organise a proper New Zealand “hangi”; we set up a TV room and watched the entire   “Rome “series together; we grieved and rejoiced together over rugby matches (even those who had not cared about  rugby before!);  we organised a German beer fest and  mobilised all German NGO workers to bring appel strudel, sausages and real beer-and the chaps even got an Afghan tailor to make them trousers that looked like German Lederhosen ( the tailor made them too tight and the jokes that ensued are too rude to be repeated here); we sat together eating military ration packs, our emergency food stocks in the bunker, pondering and joking about which were the most edible. We would roar with laughter at video clips with the blackest of black humour…..those at home would have been horrified at our lack of political correctness.

I spent  one entire evening with a female friend giggling about the large elasticated trousers that go with the  Afghan/ Pakistani clothing we used  to wear to blend in, the “Shalwar Kameez”. We spent hours seeing how many cushions could be fitted into one of each of the two trouser legs and giggling as if it was the last time we would ever laugh.  With another group of friends we got up early and beavered away for hours trying to make hot cross buns for Good Friday.

And then there were the karaoke nights. I will never forget the lack of enthusiasm in both Jalalabad and Kandahar when I first arrived at the guest house with the karaoke machine I had bought in a Dubai supermarket…..yet two beers later, the lads were practically fighting over the microphone. Almost ten years ago -and yet I still remember what each of them liked to sing, what they sounded like, what jokes they used to crack, who would join in and who would just watch. Sometimes the ghurkas would come to share the fun.  They gave me a ghurka knife as a present. I treasure it to this day.

Outside of our cocoon, poverty and war would continue. Every day we would go out to work and know that there was a risk that someone may not come back. You would not think about it all the time -in fact ever; that awareness just becomes part and parcel of your psyche after a while. But perhaps that is why there was something fun, even comforting,  about doing that radio check together at the end of the day when we were all safely back, as much as we did moan about it.

I am only in touch with a handful of those friends now, yet each of them pops into my thoughts every now and again. My karaoke machine is now lying unused on my cupboard. Somehow it feels wrong to think of a karaoke without them all. Others have come and gone, but the friendships I made overseas have left a special mark. Sometimes I feel a deep sense of loss,  and long for that unnatural, weird atmosphere and each of those people. It is then that I know why I often tried to prevent people getting close to me: because it hurts so badly to say good-bye; and yet the bonds last forever.