As I settle back into life in Kabul on this, my fifth visit to Afghanistan since first coming in the fall of 2009, it strikes me how shockingly normal it feels to be here at this point. I remember clearly first time I came here, on the drive from the airport to the guesthouse where I was going to stay, Kabul felt like the strangest, most foreign, and most nervous place I could imagine. Six months before that, I never could have conceived of the fact that I would, at some point in my life, even have a reason to go to Afghanistan. Now, less than five years later, it feels so familiar and comfortable that it’s hard for me to picture not being here in the springtime as the foothills temporarily turn from dusty brown to dark green, not sitting in daily traffic jams stuck between mid-90s Toyota Corollas and wooden donkey carts, not passing men toting AK-47s in the street as if they were briefcases, not having my bedroom rattle every 30 minutes as military helicopters buzz low over the rooftop. Most significantly, though, I can’t fathom not experiencing the genuine friendships of all the people, Afghan and expat, I’ve had the great fortune to meet in this country in my short time coming here.

The feeling of a part of myself increasingly belonging to Afghanistan was strengthened even more when I was greeted at the Kabul airport on Tuesday morning (for the second year in a row) by a cadre of Kabul wheelchair basketball players, armed with giant bouquets of flowers, huge Afghanistan flags, and even a couple news camera crews to commemorate the occasion. Despite barely being mentally functional after nearly 30 hours of travel, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as the players asked for picture after picture, laughing and clowning around until the second each photo was snapped, at which point everybody’s faces (except mine) turned instantly to stone – the classic “Afghan smile.” I love these guys.Image

A royal welcome

The strange thing is that, despite feeling more comfortable and at home here than ever, recent instability around the country has made the security protocols put in place by the ICRC the most restrictive they’ve ever been in in my experience. The deadly attack in mid-January on a Lebanese restaurant frequented by expatriates – I had been there many times, as it was only a few blocks from the ICRC residence compound – pretty much cut off all ability for ICRC staff (none of whom were at the restaurant at the time of the attack, thankfully) to move around outside the compound and work settings. This means all my time here will be spent either in the residence compound or at the Orthopedic Center where the basketball training takes place. It’s a strangely isolating feeling, but at least I get to have daily interaction with the players to keep me from feeling too disconnected from the people here.

My plan for the coming two months includes the following basic agenda:

  1. Train the Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif women’s teams and conduct a national championship competition for the women (this week).
  2. Train the Jalalabad and Kandahar men’s teams – the two newest and least experienced in the country – to help bring them nearer to the knowledge and skill levels of the more experienced teams in Mazar, Kabul, Maimana and Herat.
  3. Hold a three-day men’s national tournament to declare the 2014 national champion.
  4. Conduct a 10-day training camp for the men’s national team, named at the end of my visit last year.
  5. Travel with the national team as its head coach for two competitions in Italy – the first international competitions the team will have ever played in and the first time most of the players will have been outside their  own country.
  6. Following a short holiday in Italy after the games, I will travel to Bethlehem, Palestine to conduct a one-week training clinic for the Palestinian national team and other aspiring players there. This clinic will be in partnership with Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.

I’ve already had two days of coaching the women’s teams. So far they are off to a good start and are trying very hard to learn the more advanced individual skills and team concepts I’m teaching them this time. It’s difficult having such a short time to work with the teams (I’m only in Afghanistan for a month before leaving for Italy, as opposed to the two-month stints I’ve grown accustomed to in recent years) because it means moving through a lot of material fairly quickly without as much time for review as I’d like. They’re doing a great job, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing them put their new skills and knowledge to work in the games we’ll be holding on Sunday to determine the national women’s champion.

The women’s games will be the first official competition played in the brand new gymnasium Alberto had built on the Ortho Center campus. He had the building constructed around the outdoor court we played on the last two years, and it is phenomenal! For the first time, the players can play at any time of day year-round, and we will be holding the competitions with an electronic scoreboard as well as visible shot and game clocks (previously we had a person keeping time with a stop watch and yelling out time remaining every few minutes. We’ve never used a shot clock). These additions may seem mundane on the surface, but they make a huge difference in adding a feeling of legitimacy to the game.

ImageThe new gym!

One other quick shout-out before I head off for a third day of practices: I had a chance to spend my second evening here catching up with two good friends and ICRC colleagues from my trip last year – Verbena Bottini and Henning Krause, whom I stayed with in Jalalabad during my first time training that team last spring. All three of us left Jalalabad just weeks before an attack on the ICRC compound in late May 2013 in which an Afghan guard was killed. Miraculously, the rest of our colleagues who were still stationed there managed to escape, but I think all three of us had similar feelings of conflict about not being there with them during such a traumatic experience. It was wonderful to see them and spend time reminiscing. Henning headed back to his current post in Tajikistan the day after we met up, so I won’t have another chance to see him before I go, but Verbena will be here in Kabul for the latter half of the month, undoubtedly yelling Italian-accented encouragement to the Jalalabad team during the men’s national tournament, as she did last year.

ImageHenning, me, Verbena

Many of you probably saw the news about the shooting of three American doctors and a nurse at a Kabul hospital yesterday. I am ok, but it was a true tragedy. Please keep the families of those lost in your thoughts.