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Swimming in the Kabubble

Our pool was a (mostly) safe oasis in the middle of a war zone

Heather Eaton | June 23, 2016

They say diplomats who serve in Kabul, Afghanistan become hunks, skunks, drunks, monks, or chunks. I was determined to become the former and not the latter, so when I heard there was a pool on our embassy compound, I made a beeline for it.

After spending several weeks swimming laps alone, I joined the large cadre of volunteer fitness instructors (spinning is especially popular in Kabul and enjoys an almost cult-like following) and advertised twice-weekly Masters swimming practices. I found another former college swimmer who was willing to tag team with me and coach workouts when I was held up at work or on an R&R break.

We started with a small, core group of former high school and college swimmers from agencies on our embassy compound, but we soon expanded to include our military colleagues from the Resolute Support Mission NATO base next door. The military members were mostly triathletes or CrossFit athletes looking for some cross-training. Our skill levels varied greatly; at one point, we were joined by three different generations of swimmers who had all competed in the 100 breaststroke at the Olympic Trials. I made the mistake of asking one of them—a recent Air Force Academy graduate—to organize the workout one day. Not surprisingly, the entire practice was breaststroke; most of us had trouble walking the next day.

Swimming in the Kabubble, as we affectionately called our compound, isolated from the rest of Kabul with HESCO barriers and razor wire, could be intimidating even for the least-modest, experienced swimmers. The DFAC, or dining facility, and the gym above it faced the pool. On warm summer days, huge groups of security guards with bushy beards, tattoo sleeves, tactical shirts, and 5.11s (tactical trousers) ate their meals on the DFAC patio while ogling us; even on the Embassy compound, women are still greatly outnumbered.

It was also a dizzying experience—the altitude combined with the number of flip turns required in our tiny four-lane, 17-meter pool left our heads spinning and caused charley horses that would continue well after practice and sometimes jolt me awake at night.

In the winter, our pool brought truth to the term Kabubble when a large bubble tent was erected over the pool and hot air piped in to keep it warm and inflated. We entered through a zipper door; on occasion when newcomers, unaware of the risk, left the flap partially unzippered, the bubble slowly deflated until it was nearly resting on the surface of the pool. The mist in the bubble was so thick that we had to call out upon entering to see if the other swimmers were already on deck.

Another challenge was knowing when to cancel practice. When we were on heightened alert due to an increased security threat, we worried about getting to a hardened structure in a timely fashion when the duck-and-cover alarm sounded. Our fears weren’t totally unfounded, either. After practice one day, a fellow swimmer suddenly yelled for us to take cover as she saw something fly over the Embassy compound and presumably land on the NATO base next door. Part of our anxiety stemmed from the book Fobbit, a novel passed around our compound in which a character deployed to a Forward Operating Base meets his demise when a mortar lands squarely on him while floating on an inflatable inner tube in the pool.

I think most of us took our little pool for granted. I did, until I met an Afghan woman who had always wanted to learn how to swim. All the swimming pools in Kabul are restricted to men only. When I offered to teach her in our Embassy pool, she sadly declined, saying she couldn’t possibly risk an Afghan male seeing her, even in a full-coverage burqini, the burka version of a bathing suit.

Although I might have been ogled, I’m thankful that I had the freedom and the resources to swim in Kabul. Swimming took our minds off the war and our tremendous workloads for a couple of hours every week.

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About the Author—Heather Eaton

Heather G. Eaton is a foreign service officer with the Department of State. She’s currently serving as the public affairs officer at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome, Italy, where she swims with Aquaniene Masters. Previous assignments have taken her to Afghanistan, Poland, and Japan, where she swam with the Okinawa Dolphins on Camp Foster and Konami Masters team in Nishinomiya. When she's in the US between assignments, Heather trains with Arlington Masters and Lane 4 Swimming Masters, both in Virginia. 

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