Thursday, January 08, 2009

What to Bring With You

Thursday 8 January 2009
0700

I recently got a note from someone who reads my blog and is being sent over here next week. He asked me if there was anything I would recommend that he bring or that I wished I had brought. After I sent him my answer via email, it occurred to me that perhaps other people might find this information useful for their own deployments. So I’m sharing it here as well:

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I’m happy to answer your questions. First, though, I’ll say that I deployed here to Qatar directly from two back-to-back one year tours in Kuwait, so I may have lost track of some of the things about deploying directly from the US. But I’ll do the best I can. (Most of this information is equally valid for deployments to Kuwait, at least to Camp Arifjan).

First, regarding internet connectivity – unlike Kuwait, we don’t have it in our rooms here, but the service is very fast and reliable due to the recent upgrade. It is commercial service, provided for free in the USO/MWR building, the main gym, and a club called “the Oasis”. All three are wireless, although you can also use dedicated computers or connect via Ethernet cable in the USO/MWR building. I have used Yahoo IM/webcam and also Skype (VOIP) quite successfully, although sometimes there’s enough traffic to bog down the network and make this not work as well.

Unlike up in Kuwait, housing here actually has linen and blankets (!), but I personally prefer my own. I brought mine and later bought some additional sheets at the PX in Kuwait, and they do have a small selection here as well. If you’re particular you might want to bring your own, as well as a pillow. Also, when transiting through Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, there is no linen. If you get stuck there overnight in the billeting tents you’re on your own. I used one of those inflatable travel pillows (also great for the airplane) and covered up with a towel on a bare mattress for a couple days there one time. A sleeping bag or at least a poncho liner would have been nice. Once I got over here, I bought a chiropractic pillow and a 3” memory-foam mattress pad from Bed Bath and Beyond (online). They have been life savers!

As far as what else to bring, so much depends on personal preference. I will tell you that the PX is pretty good. Between here on Camp As Sayliyah (“CAS”) and Al Udeid Air Base (about 30 minutes away) you can get just about everything you might need. The other thing that is really nice is that we can travel off post to shop at the malls downtown. That is a huge advantage over any other location in theater. There is a large expatriate population here, including many British and Australians, and most people speak English. So it really couldn’t be much more convenient. This off-post privilege can vanish in a heartbeat, however, due to threat and force protection conditions. So you can’t take it for granted. In any case, there are things you’ll probably want to bring with you initially.

If you are at all particular about your personal hygiene items, I’d bring about two months’ worth of whatever you use. That will give you time to see if you can get the same thing at one of the PX’s, at a store downtown at the mall, or by mail order (Amazon, drugstore.com, etc). Or, if you have someone at home to shop for you, that will give them time to gear up to send it to you (and give them something to send you so they can stay connected by helping you). It usually only takes about 5-10 days for packages to arrive by Priority Mail.

Same thing goes for any food items or comfort items. I drink tea, and I have specific preferences. So I brought them from home, and it turned out none of it is available here so that was a good thing.

Same with vitamins and nutritional supplements. Do be aware that some places online won’t send to PO boxes (hence no APO) as they only use UPS. But that’s only been a problem with me a couple of times (Lenovo was a major offender). While on the subject of the APO, I learned something the other day that would have been great to know earlier. Many online vendors do not have “AE” as a state in the pick-list in the shipping address field on their websites. Since you cannot put in your address here, you cannot order from them. It has been a big pain for me with some vendors. I mentioned this to one of the ladies at the Post Office, and she told me that you can just use “NY”. Since all the AE ZIP codes are still New York ZIP codes, the mail will still get here. (In the early 1980s when I was on active duty in Germany, that’s how mail was addressed: APO NY 09xxx). So suddenly my choice of online vendors is expanded!

Almost all the electricity (and *all* of it in the housing units) is 220V, 50Hz. So don’t bother bringing 110V items unless you are prepared to use a transformer. The plug configuration is “UK” style, two collinear flat prongs and one perpendicular flat grounding prong above them. If you want to plug in and charge your laptop or iPod or something at the airport layover, you'll need a European-style adapter (two round prongs). I didn’t know what I’d need, so I bought an adapter set and small travel transformer at REI, as well as a travel surge protector for my computer (also with adapter set) from Magellan Travel (online). They have stuff like lamps, speakers, etc. at the PX, so I got that stuff over here.

One thing I think you will definitely want is a battery-powered alarm clock. So far the electricity here has been reliable (in Kuwait it went out from time to time), but I feel better not having to rely on a plug-in alarm. Also, a 110V alarm clock will not work even with a transformer, because it is set to run at 60Hz and loses time at 50Hz (transformers do not convert the frequency). So don’t bother bringing a plug-in clock from home.

I personally use a lot of batteries, so I bought a bunch of rechargeable AA batteries and a charger. I didn’t know if there would be a steady supply. As it turns out it is just no problem at all, but it saves me money so I still use them. If you need any specialty batteries (like for a camera or something) I’d buy extras before you come. Definitely get a new battery put in your watch before you come – it’s a lot easier at home than it would be here.

One more thing - make sure that anything electrical that you bring over is clearly marked with either "UL" (Underwriter's Laboratories) or "CE" (Conformité Européenne). These signify that the item meets the design requirements of the relevant standards bodies and (theoretically at least) is safe to use. (Aside from Wikipedia - beware of the fake CE marking that stands for "China Export", and was probably designed intentionally to be confused with the genuine CE marking). Anything not UL or CE marked is considered contraband (at least on CAS) and is subject to confiscation during a fire/safety inspection.

Bring your own reading material – the book selection at the PX here really sucks, although Al Udeid is a bit better. There’s a decent bookstore at the mall, but still if you’re a reader you might want to stock up a bit or be prepared to patronize Amazon. In Kuwait we had a library but we don’t have one here. They do have several shelves full of free donated books at the USO/MWR building, that turn over fairly frequently.

DO NOT BRING ANY MAGAZINES, SCOPES, OR OTHER FIREARM PARTS! I got caught by surprise at the Qatari customs desk and lost almost $300 worth of personally-owned M9 magazines, because firearms are illegal here, and they won’t let you bring in any parts or accessories, either. We are guests of the Qataris and they are very strict at customs. It’s annoying but that’s the way it is. You probably know this already, but the same goes for alcohol and porn (including intimate pictures of your wife on your computer – some people have gotten caught with that kind of stuff and had a really hard time, up to and including being immediately deported).

Let’s see, what else…

One of the very best things I have is a pair of Bose “Quiet Comfort 2” headphones. These are electronic noise-cancelling headphones. They are very high quality, and can be used for computer or music listening but also just to block out background noise. With the internet only being available in public venues, it is almost never quiet. It would drive me nuts without those headphones. They are expensive, but a very worthwhile investment in my opinion.

Another thing you might want to do is go shop for some greeting cards for various occasions, because the selection here is really poor. Even the Hallmark store at the mall just had nothing I wanted. I really wished I’d thought of this in advance, because when you want to send a card there’s just nothing to choose from. Also, if you like to write letters, bring note cards or stationery. There was nothing like that in Kuwait, although now that I think of it I bet you could get something at the mall here.

Civilian clothes. I didn’t bring a single thing when I first came over, because it seemed too strange to take civilian clothes to a war. But during off duty hours you get awfully tired of PT clothes, and civilian clothes are required for going off post. They sell clothing at the PX, but again if you have favorite brands you’re better off bringing them (plus if you buy it at the PX it’s almost like a uniform – everybody wearing the same thing!) Shoes were a special challenge for me – I had to mail order those. A couple of familiar t-shirts are a great comfort. It may seem odd, but bring a sweatshirt and/or light jacket. It’s cold at night and in the morning this time of year, and it’s going to start raining one of these days.

If you don’t want to carry all this junk just put it in boxes or a footlocker and mail it to yourself here. Your unit will know your specific mailing address, but it will basically be: Your Name, Your Unit, APO AE 09898.

Aside from that, all the normal little travel stuff you probably would bring anyway. Be careful how you pack because you’re going to have to dump *everything* out at MP customs in Kuwait. It’s a royal pain, but if you pack with that in mind it’s easier to put it all back together.

Make sure you have some checks and a debit/ATM card. They are really cutting down on the use of cash in theater, and you’ll be pressured to use an “Eagle Cash” card. I have resisted getting one since I prefer to use my debit card or cash. But you’re limited on the cash you can get and if the system is down at the PX you’re out of luck. You also need a second form of photo ID, so make sure you have your US driver’s license or some other kind of government photo ID. I brought my passport just in case.

Oh, one other thing – make sure you have printed-out copies of every paper, order, etc. you might need. I carried all that stuff scanned into a thumb drive, but a recent DOD computer security policy prohibits using those – all the USB ports on all the official computers are disabled now. It’s a *huge* pain, but that’s the way it is. If you have your own computer you could burn them onto CD’s as needed. But it’s not very convenient.

I hope that helps. If I think of anything else I’ll write.

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Like I said – hope that helps.


Mood: Sleepy
Music: Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (Daniel Barenboim)