Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Camel patrol

There are finally a few birds around! Just today I saw a quail, two great grey shrikes, four isabelline shrikes, five hoopoes, and a desert wheatear. I haven't had a chance to take any pictures yet, but hopefully by the next post I'll have a photo of some neat and unusual animal.

For this post I have some from a patrol where we stopped to check a Bangladeshi herder called Samir, and I ended up arranging some camel rides for the soldiers in the squad. We also got some camel's milk (although most of the soldiers were afraid of drinking something that didn't come with a USDA label), and I exchanged a few words with Samir. Surprisingly, he spoke a little Arabic and even a couple words of English. Most of the herders out here speak only Urdu, Hindi and other Indian subcontinent languages. This photo is of Samir telling the camel to rise up while Cañal hangs on for dear life:

And here is a photo of specialist Bates, who seems to think he is a méhariste (a French soldier specialized in camel warfare):

The French have a lot more experience fighting wars on camels than the Americans do. Whereas the American army never really got the hang of using camels and eventually abandoned or sold all the animals that had been imported, the French have a long history of using them for raids and regular operations. One famous méhariste is the French naturalist and adventurer Théodore Monod, who I really admire. This fun little interlude reminded me of him, and of how pampered we are here. He once crossed 900 kilometers of desert without a single water point! And many people around here think it is a big deal to run the 2 mile standard Army run!

One of my soldiers recently got hurt, and he won't be part of our operations anymore, so here's a photo I took of him on what turned out to be one of his last patrols:

Private Kirkpatrick, from Valdez, has been an infantryman in the Alaska National Guard for almost five years now. He had been trying unsuccessfully to pass the Army physical fitness test for the past year, but he'll probably never take one again. I was really angry when I found out he was too badly hurt to do any kind of work, because our missions are very easy and lacking in physical stress. I even got in a loud argument with the platoon sergeant, but in the end there was nothing I could do about it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Herding camels, and raiding Plywoodtown

We've been here for over ten months without any problems, but it seems we haven't relaxed a bit. In fact, we now work longer hours, and we'll be doing more training too. So sleep will keep being a scarce commodity until October. We've been passing the time by chasing camels out of restricted areas, patrolling, drinking coffee, and talking for hours about how we hate everything about this place and we can't wait to have a cold beer in Alaska.

We did get to raid one of the plywood "training villages" that are scattered out in the desert. My squad, however, got stuck in a support-by-fire position and although we did get to see the enemy (people who get paid to play terrorist with Warsaw pact weapons), we didn't get to shoot. That's to be expected, however. In fact, most people involved in raids never even see the enemy, or if they do they won't be able to engage because we have to respect strict rules of engagement and sectors of fire. Here's my squad leader, a good sergeant who recently got back from Afghanistan, at the position from which he reported village activity to our maneuver element.

And here's my platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Shaw. He joined the Army during Vietnam, and was in the Special Forces. He was also in Iraq as part of the brigade that relieved the one I was with, which means he only got a few months' break between deployments. So why is he skylining himself and leaving a broken night vision bracket on his Kevlar helmet? Well, I guess he must be getting soft. In this picture, he is telling me and my M240B gunner to get ourselves and a ton of equipment up a soft hillside.

Wait... Did I say hillside? Don't be confused: there are no natural hillsides here. That was merely a 15ft high tailing. This place is completely flat, save for a few shallow open-pit mining areas. This is a picture of us exfiltrating trough such an area, using the tailings as cover and smoke as concealment.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Let's go downtown!

I got to go to Kuwait city again, which was a welcome break. The trip's stated purpose was to visit the aquarium, eat lunch, and visit the Kuwait Towers. I did those things and liked them, but by far I was happiest just walking along the seashore in civilian clothes, and looking for birds in the palm trees. Most of the birds were introduced species, such as the common mynah Acridotheres tristis, the domestic sparrow Passer domesticus, the white-cheeked bulbul Pycnotus leucogenys, and the collared dove streptopelia turtur. There were, however, a few laughing doves and hoopoes with the pigeons, and some terns and gulls offshore. Most of the birds were surprisingly skittish for a city. I am guessing that may have something to do with the hundreds of stray cats that live in the rocks along the seafront.
I really enjoyed the aquarium at the Scientific center. Of course, with a typical naturalist's fascination with strange creatures, I absolutely loved the cuttlefish, the bats, and the one lungfish they had stashed in a small tank behind a counter. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were Kuwaiti students (from high school and college) who were volunteering their time as interpreters there. I was even handed a pet long-eared hedgehog by a couple of shy, hijab-wearing high school girls. As for the sharks, cute mammals and tropical fishes, well... They're so heavily promoted that they seemed rather like an extension of the giftshop to me.

I had an ungodly amunt of Lebanese food for lunch, and I had still had enough leftovers for an entire dinner after we returned to the camp. Then we went to the Kuwait Towers - again! It's a lot like the Space Needle, but smaller and surprisingly dirty for a national landmark in a country where labor is very cheap. The only advantage it has over the Space Needle is that it's by the Gulf, so I went beachcombing and found dozens of Dentalia shells. Dentalia are strange little mollusks that live in a shell like a hollow tusk, which is buried in the sediment. Contrary to what I long thought, they live with the pointy end out, and the wide end is where the "foot" (more of an anchor, really) comes out. In this photo, there is a small Dentalium at the bottom right.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Not much new under the sun

The sun is still mercilessly beating down upon us, but it seems that we have largely gotten used to it. It seems wonderfully cool at 5:30 in the morning when the sun rises and it’s a mere 95º F. This is rather worrying, because we’re going to be miserable in Southeast Alaska in late October when the typical weather is cold, horizontal rain.

When on duty I've been having hours and hours of "jail time," where I just have to be around, ready for a war to start. I now routinely spend twelve to fourteen hours a day doing very little beyond just cooking in the heat while listening to radio trafic and watching the desert.

So I read. I just got done reading La Reina del Sur by Arturo Perez Reverte, and La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - two Spanish writers I had never heard of before, but I guess they are famous. I really liked La Sombra del Viento, a literary mistery that takes place in post civil war Barcelona. It really reminds me of Jacques Tardi (a French cartoonist who tells stories set in the underworld of Paris), who also fills his stories with bizarre male characters, beautiful women, corrupt cops, empty streets where little-known landmarks are visited during misty nights and turn out to house evil creatures.

As for La Reina del Sur, I had high expectations for it because the author had great reviews on the internet and the book is about drug traffickers in Mexico and the Straits of Gibraltar. I loved the Mexican slang and drug world he evoked, but for a "thriller," it turned out to be rather run-of-the-mill stuff.

The migration is still picking up, very slowly. I saw a desert wheatear, and a dozen hoopoes (the Kuwaitis know the hoopoe well; they call it Hudhud). Right around 10:00 in the morning, the hoopoes started looking really distressed. I found this one in a small patch of shade at the foot of a border police building, where it kept wedging itself against the somewhat cooler wall and sticking its beak into the dirt. The hoopoe is still one of my favorite bird.

I feel that I don’t give enough credit to the people who are out here with me; it’s mostly because I have a hard time mentioning them without running into opsec problems (basically, I’d have to get vetted by military intelligence even for relatively mundane information). This guy is SPC Cagle, a Tlingit Indian who is in the same squad as me. Cagle is a really hard worker who has no fear of saying what he thinks. For that reason, he’ll probably never get promoted so I guess he’ll just keep being one of those under-recognized “grunts” who run the army from the only position that is truly indispensable – that of infantry rifleman.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Pratincoly nothing to report

We just got through a pretty bad heat wave. Although the high and low temperatures today are still a respectable 88 and 116 degrees Fahrenheit (about 30 and 47 degrees C), it feels quite a bit cooler than last week when the wind was really hot.

I ran the weekly early morning five kilometer race twice recently, with much tougher competition than before. I finished in the low 18 minute range as usual, while a couple of runners made it in under 17:30. I was glad these guys showed up, because otherwise I never would have mustered the motivation to run fast in 90 degree weather.

Upon finishing today's run, I was rewarded with a great bird: at first, I thought it was another white-winged tern, but it got closer and I realized it was a collared pratincole Glareola pratincola! What a beatiful bird! I thought about running after it to get a longer look, but I was already tired and it was flying fast.

More hints that birds are starting to move: I saw two hoopoes, several brown warblers that I couldn't positively identify, two barn swallows, and a few high-flying unidentified laridae.

I got three Economist magazines in a week, and since it takes me about six hours to read one issue, most of my reading time was taken up by those and the daily Sitka and Military newspapers.

I haven't taken a single picture in the last ten days but I feel somehow obligated to post one so here's an old one, of the common bush Astragalus spinosus. Its thorns are actually longer than its leaves!