The first thing I did upon arriving for my third CBC News assignment at Kandahar Airfield was to find out what's new. I have to admit that what I found surprised me.
Located in a brand-new, pink-sided building is the Lai Thai Spa, where sore soldiers and civilians can head when they need a massage. Prices at the massage clinic start at $27 for a basic treatment, and although the place has only been open for about 24 hours, the booking sheet is filled.
You may not think getting a rubdown may be top of mind for the thousands of soldiers and civilians based at KAF. But it is in keeping with what has to be the underlying principle of this sprawling airbase southeast of Kandahar City: Make it seem like you're back at home, not in Afghanistan.
Need more proof? Well, just walk around the 'catwalk' (why someone chose to call the boardwalk here that, I'll never understand) to the new ice cream stand right next to the always busy Tim Hortons. And although the Burger King is no longer here (the talk on base is that the flame grilling got a bit out of hand and the trailer almost burned down), McDonald's is building its newest location here on base.
Walk through the gravel to the British end of the base, and you'll find two coffee shops — decked out in modern furnishings — that feel a lot like a posh joint on London's Oxford Street.
Better tents and stronger coffee
Kandahar Airfield is a sprawling complex of temporary tents with more permanent buildings being added every day. It's estimated that as many as 15,000 people — a mix of soldiers and civilians — call KAF home when they're in Afghanistan (the vast majority of Canada's 2,500 soldiers are stationed on the base). And that number keeps growing.
When I first came in the spring of 2006, this base was still quite large, but lacked a lot of the material comforts that have been added in the last two years.
Canadian soldiers were just moving into the 'weatherhavens' tents — a concrete floor covered by a half-dome tent, separated by plastic curtains into eight compartments. (Back in 2006, the Canadian media were still in 'transient' tents, meaning no concrete floors, and a lot of dust).
The weatherhavens remain — a lot of Canadians still bed down in them nightly. But there are more permanent sleeping structures this time around — two floored 'hard shelled' buildings where you had better hope your roommate doesn't snore, because you're stuck with him or her for six months or longer.
Some things have remained exactly the same since my last assignment, in the spring of 2007. The coffee at the U.S.-military-run Greenbeans coffee shop continues to provide my morning fuel. The PX — or general store — still stocks everything from DVDs to beef jerky to foot powder.
'Swim at your own risk'
And then there's the smell that descends every night, right after sundown. It comes from the peculiarly-named Emerald Lake. Even though this large pool of human waste is situated near the edge of the base, when the wind shifts, you cannot escape its existence.
A couple of cheeky Canadians have added their touch, erecting a sign that tries to dissuade those who feel up for a little swim. Perhaps they put it up too late.
The urban legend on base is that years ago, a NATO soldier from eastern Europe wanted to make some quick cash. So, some others offered him $1,000 if he'd swim the 40-or-so metres across the pond. Apparently, he made it to the other side, and then spent a few days in hospital being treated for all kinds of bad bugs.
These days you don't see a lot of people out for a walk around Emerald Lake.
No pampering outside the wire
Whenever I see the latest offering on base, I always think about all the Canadian soldiers stationed in Kandahar province who don't call KAF home. Those are the men and women in uniform who are part of Canada's military battle group, or the OMLT (the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team), the Canadians who are helping mentor Afghan soldiers and police officers.
They certainly have no massage parlour or Pizza Hut at one of the spartan forward operating bases that dot the Afghan countryside. Sure, they do have portable showers and the mess tent cooks up a pretty good supper, but there is no pampering outside the wire.
It seems to me these soldiers wouldn't have it any other way. They must quietly scoff at the cushy life here at Kandahar Airfield — where us residents choose from at least four air-conditioned coffee shops — and shake their heads.
But for those of us 'on KAF,' the various militaries based here have bent over backwards to make life pretty comfortable. I'm not going to complain. I've never been to a gym with such abundant equipment. The haircut I just got was pretty good. And tonight, the biggest choice will be whether to go to the British mess and have curry, or stick closer to the media working area and see how overdone the steak is.
Or maybe it's lobster night.