Saturday, April 28, 2007

The desert is not as green on the other side of the electrified fence...

We finally started our mission inside Iraq. Kuwait is interesting, of course, but after six months many of us were sick of being restricted to the border and eventless regions of Kuwait. Of course, we were in the desert part of Basra province the entire time, so the landscape was very similar to that of northern Kuwait – just a little more arid and with fewer, poorer people who tend their own livestock instead of hiring south Asians to do it for them. Most of the people we see are either Bedouin herders, or oil workers. At times we only see a single vehicle in an entire hour. This old Iraqi man was stopped at one of our traffic control points, and I gave him a bottle of water.

The most interesting birds were the raptors: I saw a pallid harrier, some black kites, an unidentified eagle, a buzzard that was probably a long-legged buzzard, two unidentified eagles, a marsh harrier, a few kestrels, and one saker falcon. Otherwise the area was largely devoid of bird life. There are beetles, long-legged ants that make long trails on the surface of the desert, and tiny plants. Most of the plants in the driest parts of the desert are species that are common in more fertile areas, except their growth is stunted so that they only reach a size of about two inches in diameter. For example, the plantain and composite flower in this picture are normally about ten inches high in most parts of Kuwait. Other common dwarf plants are three centimeter high Neurada Procumbens, and four centimeter high Haloxylon salicornicum (which is the dominant shrub in northern Kuwait).

We were visited by some high-ranking officers, who were dropped off and picked up at one of our traffic control points by a UH-60 blackhawk helicopter. Our element must have looked rather bizarre from the air: a few heavily armed trucks and soldiers shutting down a small desert road, even though there seems to be no one around. We did get some interesting comments from a senior officer, who mentioned the possibility of a withdrawal mandated by Washington, the tenuous nature of our relationships with the Kuwaiti and Iraqi governments, and other long-term, large-scale concerns. Although such news are always in the media, I cannot really get myself to believe that they are more than empty threats, criticisms and rumors. The sheer scale of the US military apparatus in the Iraqi theater makes any end to this campaign seem like a dim prospect at best. In fact, when I see congressional timelines for troop pullout I cannot help but think of the staggering amount of materiel we would have to abandon there because there weren’t enough containers, planes, trucks, aircraft and ships available.

This blog’s quote is really just a word that I liked. According to the magazine The Economist of April 14, Arab political dissenters who spread their views through blogs call themselves “pyjamahideen.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shrikes, buntings and more

I spoke a little too quickly when I wrote two weeks ago that the migration was almost over. Although the numbers are very low, the diversity is pretty good.

This morning we just did some maintenance on the truck (changed the oil, etc.), and I don’t have duty again until midnight so I have the afternoon off. I took advantage of the time off to go birdwatching for a little while. Although it was quite warm, I saw a great grey shrike, a masked shrike, two red-backed shrikes, several rufous bush-robins, a “feldegg” yellow wagtail, a harrier sp., some pallid swifts, a pair of ortolan buntings, and all sorts of unidentified warblers. Also probably migrating were dozens of tortoiseshell-type butterflies. The ortolan buntings are in this photo. I was hoping that they were cinereous buntings when I saw them, but when I looked at the field guide I learned that: cinereous buntings don’t have red beaks and feet, and the grey-necked and Cretzchmar’s buntings don’t have the yellow throat that is clearly apparent in the male in the picture. Honestly, if the beak hadn’t been pink I would have sworn that the birds were cinereous buntings. I still have a lot to learn about birds. Ortolan buntings are well-known in France because they are hunted and eaten as a bite-sized delicacy in Provence.

I was especially happy to see three species of shrikes. The friendliest one of the three turned out to be one of the two male red-backed shrikes that were sheltering themselves from the wind behind the clump of reeds behind the laundry trailers. Ever since my brothers and I used to organize trips to the forest of Fontainebleau to find shrikes, they have been one of my favorite birds. They are famous for building up “larders,” where they store insects and mice by spearing them unto barbed wire spikes or tree thorns. Although I have seen many shrikes here and there is suitable barbed wire everywhere, I have yet to find a larder. That is probably because they don’t nest here. The raptor-like beak is fairly evident in this picture.

I haven’t lately been very involved in operations. On the one hand, this gives me a chance to rest, but on the other hand I am anxious to get back out in the desert to see if I can do something worthwhile and interesting. There have been many small things to do here, though, including a physical fitness test which I did pretty well on. I did 96 push-ups in two minutes, 77 sit-ups in two minutes, and I ran two miles in 11 minutes and 14 seconds. I like to shoot for a perfect score of three hundred every time (to top out on the scale in my age group, I have to do at least 77 push-ups in 2 minutes, 81 sit-ups in 2 minutes, and 2 miles in 13 minutes), but I scored a 295 this time because I couldn’t do sit-ups as fast as usual.

Finding good quotes before each blog entry turned out to be quite a bit more difficult than I expected, so I just picked something out of Pablo Neruda. This is from El fantasma del buque de carga:

“Mira el mar el fantasma con su rostro sin ojos:el circulo del día, la tos del buque, un pajaroen la ecuacion redonda y sola del espacio,”

I don’t have a poetic translation handy, but this basically means: “The ghost looks at the sea with his eyeless face: / the circle of the day, the coughing of the ship, a bird / in the rounded and lonely equation of the universe.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Six months down - six more to go!

Two days ago, while updating my calendar, I realized that we were halfway through this deployment. Now it is just a matter of patience and tolerating six months of summer heat, and we will be out of here. Well, some of us will be out of here...

The soldier in this picture is SPC McPhail, one of my roommates and a good friend even though Jad and I like to joke about kicking him out of the room. He has been in the Army National Guard for seven years (out of Petersburg, Alaska), and just signed a contract to extend it by another six. In exchange, the Army will give him an extra $15000.

He will also spend an extra year out here, which will enable him to qualify for even more money. He is not the only one to make a carreer of sorts out of what is meant to be a part-time job responding to contingencies. So many reservists are extending their tours and volunteering for extra deployments that they often make up about a third of the units out here, which makes for very experienced reservist elements. On the other hand, there are many reserve soldiers signing up to spend significant portions of their lives in the National Guard and the Middle East in exchange for money that in the end doesn't amount to very much back in Alaska.

We have been working on improving our equipment and skills for the last two weeks. I got to fire hundreds of rounds on nearly all the weapon systems, and I am learning a lot about a radio system that I am not yet very familiar with. Thankfully, we have been provided with adequate time and resources by our upper chain of command. The talk about US soldiers not being adequately equipped does no in any way apply here; we have everything we need and more.

As for time off, it has been quite hot and birdless outside lately so I spent a lot of time reading. I finished Winter World and a really good book about camels, and read a little in Spanish. I am developping a real appreciation for camels, and I hope I will get to spend more time with the herds in the next six months.

Today's quote also comes from Bernd Heinrich's Winter World. It is about the maggots of an African desert fly:

“The larvae are adapted to survive losing 92 percent of their body water, and such desiccated larvae are essentially immortal and can survive immersion in liquid helium (to -269 degrees C), within 4 degrees or potentially at absolute zero, or zero degrees K, the lowest temperature in the universe. When rehydrated by dropping them into water they become “instant insects.” They then again have only narrow temperature tolerances, surviving only from 10 to 42 degrees C.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Move to Camp Virginia

I volunteered to be attached to a different company, in a camp to the south of where I used to be. My new job is similar to my old one, but so far it has been less stressful and it should become more interesting as time goes by. Among other things, I will be going through a lot of good training in the next few days. I also went swimming (in the pool at the Ali AlSalem Air Force base) for the first time since we left Mississippi. I watched the movies I brought from France, and I am reading Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World. I don’t have easy access to the internet here, which is too bad since it makes even such a simple thing as disseminating my new address much more complicated. Both of my roommates are people I know and like: Jad is a good friend and a floatplane pilot from Juneau, and McPhail works for a cannery in Petersburg.

The birdwatching has been very good so far. There is a water overflow area behind the showers and laundry that a little bit of vegetation grows into. It teems with warblers, along with white-throated robins, masked shrikes, red-throated pipits, feldegg yellow wagtails, grey wagtails, white wagtails, isabelline shrikes, and even a rufous bush-robin. Although it is a bird that I saw many times in France before, I guess that the pied flycatcher I saw here is a local rarity; according to my bird book they aren’t supposed to be found around here. I am putting up a photo of it because although it is not a first for me, it is a truly pretty bird. It is perched on a common plant that I haven’t yet positively identified. I believe it is Cornulaca leucacantha, but it is an annual and all the ones I have seen so far were dried-out, thorny shrubs from last year. It really surprised me that an annual plant would go through all the trouble of manufacturing all those thorns, but according to my plant book they are modified leaves. Cornulaca leucacantha would be a good fit because it isn’t supposed to flower until the end of summer. I am still wondering, though, when they even sprout. I guess it is possible for an annual to start this late in a place where there is hardly ever any frost.

The migration should be over soon. Yesterday the temperature hit 114 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius), and most of the flowers are in bloom or seed. Also, I haven’t seen any high-flying raptors or waders in the last few days.

I thought I’d try to find an interesting quote for each blog post I put up. This first one is from Bernd Heinrich’s book Winter World. It is not poetic and contains no revolutionary ideas, but it is an unusually good description of the red squirrel – Sitka’s most conspicuous rodent:

“The cheeky little chikoree (still another name for Tamasciurus hudsonicus) will let loose with a loud sputtering chatter or a churrrrr that resounds through the forest. This will usually be sequenced to a long series of staccato chatter, accompanied by flicks of its fluffy tail over its head and thumping of its hind feet for emphasis. Red squirrels are emphatically active at any months of winter.”

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Camel camp activities

Cistanche tubulosa is a parasitic plant that grows in the desert of Northwestern Kuwait. It is related to the Orobanche, or broomrape. When I run across one, I never fail to take a look inside the flowers into which beetles are usually lodged, busy gorging temselves. It is common and most of them are already starting to wither, but I had not had a chance to take a picture of it so I volunteered to take someone else’s place on a 2-man mission to the Iraqi border. The understanding was that we’d take some time on the way back to look at flowers.

It turned out that the sergeant in charge of the mission was also interested in experiencing desert life and wildlife, so we filled our morning with interesting activities. First, we stopped by some camel herders (and Indian and a Sudanese), and persuaded them to let us go for short rides on the camel that they use for herding the young ones. That was something that had been bothering me for awhile: It would be a shame to have spent a year in Kuwait without having ridden a camel at least once. So here is the obligatory picture:

We then went by a nomadic camel camp and spent a few fascinating hours with the owner. The owner, Bashir, is the general manager of a company in Jahra. His camel camp of about fifty camels and five South Asian employees is a hobby, but also a social setting for tribal and business relation-building. Building and maintaining relations here is crucial because Wasta (the system of “who you know and who you are related to”) factors heavily into all Kuwaiti affairs. Such a camp in the desert is called a Diwaniyah, and we were lucky enough to be cordially invited into Bashir’s Diwaniyah. Although Bashir did not speak any English and my Arabic is marginal at best, his infinite patience enabled us to talk quite a bit. Bashir is a Mutairi – a member of the numerous but not very powerful Mutayr tribe. According to Bashir, there are half a million Mutairi in Saudi Arabia, and seventy thousand in Kuwait.

Whereas most Diwaniyah consist mainly of a large tent with a few recreational vehicles, Bashir’s is more functional and comfortable. His Diwaniyah is a furnished trailer that can be easily moved along with the camels, the water truck, the camel corral, a tool and camel-tending trailer, and a few employees. One of his employees is a Bangladeshi servant (I tried to think of a better word, but this one fits best). The adjoining picture is of the inside of his Diwaniyah trailer, along with his servant. We sat on the floor, using the little carpeted cubes as armrests, and drank tea and coffee while eating dates and talking. The television was on the entire time.

Probably the best part of the morning came when we went out to Bashir’s herd to drink camel’s milk. One of the herders pulled a large stainless steel bowl from the Sadu (a Bedouin textile like the saddle bags in my camel riding picture) saddle bags of a riding camel and he and Bashir milked a nursing mother camel right then and there for us. Camel’s milk is delicious, with a nice froth that can be scooped out and eaten separately. Sergeant Caulum, who grew up on a dairy farm, loved the milk even more than I did; we drank a lot of it and when we were done we were completely sated.

The easiest way to describe the camel herd is to divide it between brown and white camels, and cows, bulls and young ones. Out of a herd of fifty two were bulls (they are kept separate, with the smaller one isolated most of the time), about twelve were born this year, and the majority was composed of cows. Most of the young camels were between one and three months old. The young camels are very friendly and fun, whereas the cows a bit aloof and the bulls almost dangerous. One thing that the handlers are always doing is exhaling through their half-closed lips so that it produces a fluttering sound that soothes the camels. Bashir really likes his camels, and his enthusiasm for them is contagious. He pets them, milks them, and even kisses them. The idea of kissing a camel sounds very strange and somewhat disgusting, but I kissed a three months old camel to see what it was like anyways. It turns out that camels have furry lips, so kissing one doesn’t at all feel like an intimate kiss. Rather, it is like kissing a teddy bear, or kissing someone on the head.