Aziz Royesh Named Finalist to Global Teacher of the Year

As many of you may already know, I’ve been a big fan of Marefat High School in Dashti Barchi, Kabul, for several years now. I spent much of my early blogs singing praises of that school, and its headmaster, Aziz Royesh.

There’s more, but that is a sampling.

Seems I’m not the only one who has taken notice. My good friend Aziz Royesh is being recognized for the amazing work he, his supporters, and his talented staff and intelligent students have been doing. He has been nominated and has been named one of ten finalists for the Global Teacher of the Year. The winner will be named March 16, and I look forward and hope he wins.

Trust me when I say he is an amazing man, and a wonderful teacher. I know he has taught me a lot, in my time there.


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Star of “The Buzkashi Boys” Goes To School

Picture courtesy of Fawad Mohammadi's Facebook page

If this were actually Hollywood, Fawad Mohammadi, the accidental star of “The Buzkashi Boys” would be living in some not quite mansion in an idyllic suburb of some generic “nice place” in America and “gets the girl” who is some astonishingly attractive (yet underplayed to be not quite as hot as she is) chaste woman. And he would be living by a not quite detectable means that would inexplicably earn him an upper middle class income.

Enough of Hollywood fantasy, though. This is reality. And the reality is, Fawad Mohammadi, the street kid from Kabul is actually quite brilliant, but still has to work hard to not only get into the Turkish American High School in Kabul, the place he CHOOSES to get his education, but he is managing to not only get top marks in school, but proudly posts them to his friends on FaceBook.

While Fawad was nominated for an Academy Award in 2013, the film didn’t quite win. Hollywood briefly, and in my eyes, not very sincerely, flirted with him. (Now THERE’S a shocker for you!)

Fawad Mohammadi was offered the opportunity to come to the West and get his education there, but he decided to stay in Afghanistan instead. By all accounts, he is a hard working young man who is quite brilliant. He is also very religious, an aspect of him that I admire.

He always wanted to be an airplane pilot, and I hope he gets the chance to be one. Both my wife and I have been involved in aviation at times in our lives and it is a fun, rewarding pursuit.

Fawad Mohammadi is the hope and future of Afghanistan. As the rest of the world appears to burn in radicalism and people willing to kill to make their political point, I wish peace upon those who are strong and smart enough to make it.

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More Archeological Large Scale Theft

In prior posts, I’ve talked about the problems of antiquities and the sale of antiquities in war zones. The good folks over at the Wall Street Journal have written an excellent piece on what a “no win” situation this can be.

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Finished With Engines, Shore Leave For All Hands


So, as you can see by my photo above, my hare-brained, hair-raising adventure to the Southwest United States is over and largely successful. Marjan the Series 80 Land Cruiser is safely ensconced in the garage, and I’m already working off issues caused by 19 years of on-again, off-again maintenance

The last phase of my journey, after being rescued by the great people in Mesa, was extremely anti-climactic. I left in the afternoon and made it to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Completely ironically, I stayed in the exact same hotel where a co-worker and I stayed back in 2012, while we were conducting cultural training to a SEAL team prior to going overseas. As part of our time here, I picked and ate a prickly pear. It tasted so good, I convinced her to eat some as well.



The pain subsequent to this was intense and nearly unbearable. Prickly pear thorns are completely un-noticeable going in, but while they are under the skin, it’s awful. I’m pretty sure she forgave me almost immediately, as we are still friends. I still haven’t forgiven myself, though.

The high point of Lordsburg is Ramona’s Cafe. A cafe that is literally in a junkyard and home to the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten.




The flavors in this food are amazing and completely suck me in. I admit to being indifferent to Mexican food before this. Since that time I’ve made an effort to become more acquainted with the style.

Leaving Lordsburg, my suspension started making bad noises again, and Marjan developed a shimmy. My heart sunk to my feet and I pulled over. I looked everything over, didn’t see anything wrong and started moving again, and it started AGAIN! Frustrated, I pulled off the interstate onto a dirt road beside it, and magically, the noise and shaking stopped. Note to self: if your Land Cruiser ever starts to make a funny sound/vibration in the suspension, make sure to check if you’re driving in New Mexico, because if you are, it’s probably New Mexico roads, not your Land Cruiser.

The sun came up as I crossed the Texas border in the most spectacular way. I’d picked up a Janis Joplin CD the night before, and she started singing about “Me and Bobby McGee” as this came into view:


I pulled over onto another dirt road shortly after that in order to take a break and get a picture in this fantastic light.


Of course, I was there for about 30 seconds before being surrounded by Border Patrol agents. Here I was, near the Mexican border, in a multi-passenger All Wheel Drive vehicle, by myself during the early dawn. After a short conversation, I decided maybe I needed to get moving.

I picked up my sister in Iowa Park, Texas, and after a quick rest, we drove the remaining distance.


Kansas is one of the most beautiful states to drive through. Breathtaking.

Upon reflection, I realize everything I got from this trip.

I met some amazing people, tied together by their hobby of off-roading Toyota Land Cruisers, and their desire to help others.

I was reunited with a friend, who I had alienated before. As I mentioned briefly, immediately after we had fought, I went into a downward spiral of depression and self-imposed solitude, that took my mind directly to darkness and despair. Meeting her again has reignited my desire to become part of the outside world again.

My friend introduced me to CrossFit. I thought I knew about it earlier, and kind of made fun of CrossFitters when it seemed funny. But during a trip to a couple CrossFit gyms, the coaches there identified that the IT bands in my legs were frozen; a condition that has partially crippled me since I was 6 years old. In only three sessions, they helped me release those muscles, and my legs seem to be straightened, almost overnight. Truth be told, I’d adapted to this deformation, and they now hurt more than ever, but I have full range of motion for the first time in over 45 years.

I’m going to stop there about my disability. I have concealed it for a long time. I hadn’t mentioned it before, and I plan on writing it as one of my next blog entries.

And in the end, I now have the coolest car in the world in my garage. When I was first crippled, I spent all my time reading, especially National Geographic magazine. And ever since I could remember, I wanted a Toyota Land Cruiser, because all of my childhood heroes drove one. When I was issued one in Afghanistan, I was over the moon.

And now I have Marjan.

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What “Good Guys” Look Like

I debated for awhile about making a technical, jargony post about how Marjan was fixed since my last entry, but I’ve changed my mind; This blog post is not about how to fix a Land Cruiser, but about what “Good Guys” look like.

In movies, the Good Guy once wore a white hat, shining armor, or possibly a badge or a fedora. As our tastes become more “sophisticated” the Good Guy is often an anti-hero who is dark and brooding, and possibly felonious. Or maybe our society has become too jaded to even acknowledge/admit that there is such a thing as simplistic as a “Good Guy”.

I’d like to sound off right now and say that’s absolute bullshit.

I know some Good Guys. The Good Guys pull your butt out of depression and help you live life again without becoming a hermit, for instance.


And some Good Guys will open up their shops, tie up their single maintenance bay for four days, work over the weekend, and charge you a pittance for their own parts in order to make sure you will get back on the road. And in the process they will tutor you in a new vehicle to maximize your safety, success and enjoyment. And obtw, all their cool friends will drop in to meet you, tell stories and to lend a hand.

Finishing touches
Kevin and John, busting their butts as I watch on and learn

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“Rosy daDonor”, who sacrificed her front axle assembly so Marjan can live

The new axle assembly
The new axle assembly, looking smart

Yote heaven
All the cool kids showed up in Land Cruisers. Thanks to IH8MUD!

New axle going in
New axle going in

Needless to say, I am humbled at how they all took me in, an uninformed stranger, and went way above and beyond to fix my problem, and then showed me true friendship in the process. Marjan is now one happy Land Cruiser, and my journey goes on.

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Ethics, Competence and the Art of Land Cruiser Maintenance

On the way from SD

As I described in my last piece, Marjan the Toyota Land Cruiser started making horrible noises while climbing the Coronado Bridge.

coronado bridge

For anyone who doesn’t know this bridge, it’s a horrific place to break down. Over 200 feet tall and 4 km long, with very little place to pull over in a break down. So I gritted my teeth and drove through the Armageddon noises coming from the front of the car.

So, we pulled over and waited for AAA to arrive. The AAA driver offered to take me to a friend’s garage, but it was 8 miles away from our hotel and we declined. We decided to go to “Griffin’s Auto Repair” which is located in Little Italy, mere blocks away from where we were staying.

Our mistake.

I am usually the first guy to give businesses second chances and understand that people, even mechanics, make mistakes sometime. But what happened next passes from “mistake” to “criminal negligence” and may even constitute “fraud”.

First of all, the problem with Marjan was a Birfield Joint that exploded. While I’m tempted to get all “science-y” about it, you can Google it if you’d like. Basically Birfield Joints make it so Land Cruisers can both drive and steer with the front wheels as well as the back.

A Birfield joint usually costs about $700 in parts and $300-$500 in labor and 3-5 hours of time to replace. Griffin’s Auto Repair charged me $2400 for the job and took three days to do it.

I understand high property values, customers who are “stuck” and why some mechanics may charge a premium. And I would’ve gladly paid it to escape San Diego with a sound car. But 300 miles out of San Diego, Marjan gave up the ghost again. AAA again came to the rescue, and towed me to Chandler, Arizona, where I have friends and family I can stay with.

This was late Friday night, so Saturday morning I desperately started looking for a shop that was open. The Super Bowl is in Phoenix this weekend, for the few that were open were full of cars.

Kevin's Shop
Kevin’s Shop – Real Land Cruiser territory!

So, then, just when it looked darkest, the internet came to my rescue. A terrific group of Land Cruiser enthusiasts on an forum called IH8Mud responded to my plaintive calls for help and hooked me up with a wonderful pair of gentlemen, Kevin and John, who are also known as “Tools R Us” and “inkpot” on the forum. These guys gave up their Saturday to tear the botched repair job apart, and not only fixed it, but documented the negligence of the Griffin’s Auto Repair shop and taught me what “right” looked like.

The first thing we found was that many bolts were too small, and were merely put into the holes to make it look like there was a bolt in it. They came right out by pulling them.

Of course, some bolts were just missing completely and one was broken off inside the assembly.

Griffins work1

The above picture shows broken off/missing stud. One of four that holds the front wheel on the car.

Griffins work_2
The above picture shows the part Griffin’s replaced. He charged me $1400, which is roughly twice the retail price of a premium part; what it is is a cheap, Chinese knockoff that I could buy on ebay for $200. This is also supposed to be full of grease. The only grease in it is the small, toothpaste sized dab you see near the hole in the hub. He charged me $32 for that dab of grease, which is apparently accidently placed there, since it doesn’t actually affect the joint. The bronze looking bit was supposed to be driven into the spindle. You’ll notice it’s just sitting there, since it was too small for the spindle.

Griffins work_5
This piece is supposed to be perfectly smooth. It’s not smooth because the “mechanic” at Griffin’s put it in a metal vice and destroyed it while working on it. The marks are 1/8″ deep and it destroyed the seal behind it while I drove it.

Griffins work_4
Here’s the “new” bronze bushing, all torn up from being run dry and not being installed correctly. We ended up epoxying into the spindle just to get it going.

Griffins work_3

My next step was to dispute the charge on my credit card. After that, I shared a depressive Chianti and pizza with Janiece and then sat in the hot tub until it was all better.

Monday I’ll have Kevin and John check it out again, and order more parts so hopefully I can get heading back to Iowa by mid-week. I’d ask you to wish me luck, but after these guys help me out I doubt I’ll need luck. I’ll have a competent Land Cruiser, maintained correctly, instead.

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The Road to San Diego… And Bust

San Diego

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After a week of working in Phoenix and shaking down the Land Cruiser for reliability, we were ready to head to San Diego. Just like in Afghanistan, I was wheel man and my work partner was on line. When we were in Kabul or other major city, we’d use commercial “dongles” which would pick up the 3G that was somewhat available there. Outside of cities, I had a portable satellite dish that looked like a small brief case, but opened up to provide pretty solid connectivity.

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Our first stop was some unnamed garden spot, which frankly, kind of spooked both of us. Some homeless guy was walking across the Arizona desert and arrived about the time I was walking back to the truck. There was a half consumed bottle of orange soda sitting on the ground in front of the run down gas station, which he took a hit on before heading into the gas station. The smell of him was a physical thing as I passed him. I recorded Janiece’s reaction to his appearance.

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Our next stop was for fuel. A word about Toyota Land Cruisers; They are not designed for fuel economy. We got the advertised 14 mpg or possibly better on the trip, but it is what it is. At the fuel stop, we saw one of the many Mexican restaurants you see in the Southwest, and it was amazing.

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I used to manage restaurants. I was completely impressed by the fresh ingredients and the excellent preparation of our meal. The only prior prepared item in our meals was the refried beans. And we shared a date shake which knocked both of our socks off.

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The trip from Phoenix to San Diego covers about every type of landscape possible. From scrub to desert, to verdant fields of fresh fruit and vegetables.

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I was really worried about crossing the Mojave, but it was cold and rainy the whole way.

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The pass immediately before entering the San Diego Valley is not of anything earthly. It’s reminiscent of pictures sent back from Mars, frankly.

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After the required 5 hours or so, we finally arrived in San Diego. The hotel is in the “Little Italy” portion of downtown, just off the waterfront. Funny thing; just diagonal from the hotel was a tall office building surrounding a house that looked uncannily like the little house from the movie “Up!”.

San Diego2

Once we’d finished some work, we headed out to Coronado Beach for some sun, and unfortunately, a small disaster. Just as we drove over the towering Coronado bridge, all hell broke loose from our front end. We parked the car and called a mechanic. Turns out we’d broken something called a “Birfeld Joint”. That’s the thing that makes a Land Cruiser a Land Cruiser and not some other lesser form of Trek vehicle. Basically it’s a ball with gears inside it in the front axle which allows the front wheels to both steer and have power.

San Diego1

It’s good that we found the problem near the hotel, but bad in that getting a competent mechanic in a large city tends to be an expensive affair. We are now stuck here for an additional day, but there is lots of work to do, and San Diego is a pleasant place to do it.

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