One of the strangest things is the strong desire of people to go shopping. American military personnel, in particular, seem to have an unquenchable thirst for it. When we flew from the USA to Kuwait, we were all disoriented and a bit startled at the new environment. The very first day at Camp Buehring, pretty much every single person went to the Post Exchange (PX) and did some shopping, and after that people felt much better. Even the British soldiers were thronging the PX on Buehring.
Here on Balad, we have one of the nicer shopping centers in Iraq. The PX itself is not the largest in Iraq, but it has the essentials. Here is a picture of the East Side PX. “Force Protection” of people who congregate at the PX is a key goal, so note that it is guarded by a Ugandan guard (carrying an M-16 weapon), and covered by a bomb shield:
Once inside, you’ll note that it looks like most any other store, although it is much smaller than any PX or department store you’d find in the US:
In the entranceway, there are several other shops, such as a barber and even an ISP vendor. Some local vendors also are selling trinkets and perfumes.
The thing that amazes me is how useless most of this stuff is. People spend their good money on paintings, rugs, and carved marble camels. Most of this is made in India and shipped here. And the big problem is that once you buy this stuff, you will have a hard time sending it back home due to the weight restrictions and baggage limitations on the return flight. So as a result, you must either pay a high fee to ship the stuff home, or more likely than not discard the stuff at the end of your tour.
Nonetheless, there are always a throng of shoppers in the PX. Balad actually has two PX’s, one on each side of the base. During mid-day, there are long lines stretching throughout the store, and you could wait a half hour to make your purchase. People buy stuff like energy drinks, TV’s and refrigerators, Iraq-themed clothing or mementos, and daily necessities like socks or toothpaste. They have a wide selection of DVD’s and magazines, games, and pretty much anything else that you’d need during your stay. The urge to shop is great, and AAFES (Army & Airforce Exchange Service, the organization that runs this whole racket) has a lock on this market. It is absolutely amazing to see how eager people are to go shopping here. It was once said that you could set up a table with bags of poop in the PX, and someone would eventually buy it. Of course, I frown on all this, because I know the problems with buying junk described above. In fact, I often go weeks, or even months, without spending a penny.
Outside the PX proper, they have several trailers where vendors sell other things, like T-shirts, Iraqi trinkets, jewelry or leather goods, bicycles, and the like. There is even a new-car buying program, so that you can buy a car, and start paying for it while overseas, but you have to wait until you return to the US to get the actual vehicle. Supposedly you get a discount for doing this:
And here is one more amazing thing. The food court. It’s built in a nice looking wooden theme, with picnic tables and a large outdoor seating area. Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway, Cinnabon, and a few other vendors sell food and drink to the military crowd. It’s pretty popular, in part because it also offers free wi-fi, so you often see many soldiers using their laptops here:
I am somewhat proud of the fact that I’ve never spent a penny of my money on any of these food vendors during my four months here. All one need do is take a 2-minute bike ride to the DFAC (dining facility), and you get all the food and drink you want for free.
Balad is so popular that people come from outlying FOB’s and spend there time here just shopping, dining, and going to the movies. I guess if you were at a small FOB with nothing to do, this would all seem very exciting to you. No doubt about it, shopping is one of the big attractions here in Jont Base Balad.
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