I’m writing this blog post with my Mac on my lap as I ride through the Kuwaiti desert in the big white bus I affectionately call Moby Dick. I’m heading back to Ali Al Salem en route to Afghanistan…again. I’m returning to embed with the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Kandahar Province.

The Kuwaiti people—any Arab—pronounces it Ali al SA-lem, stress on the “a,” like ahhh, in the first syllable. The Americans pronounce it Ali al Sa-LEEM, with the stress on the last syllable with a long “e,” like scream.

And so begins the transition from one culture to another.

Doug, from Fort Wayne, Ind., is serving as tour guide.

“Lots of beach sand. No water. I got to get another travel agent,” he says.

I started my rituals of departure last night. I spent time with my friends, Sarah, Ali and their daughters, Leah and Selma. Sarah and I went shopping yesterday. She bought fresh salmon, mustard and French cheeses for her trip to Baghdad. On our way to the store, she said, let’s check out the shoes at Michael Kors.

A sweet pair of heels called to me from the shelf. Sarah asked the saleswoman, Roxanne, for my size. She had one pair left, in my size, on sale. What does any woman do before an embed in Afghanistan? Buy heels, or course. I have a promise of dancing when I return, so these shoes are just the ticket. And actually, I can’t put a price on the memory of laughing and shopping with a dear friend who has already shared so many adventures with me.

Before dinner, Ali took me to buy an iPod—yes, I’ve managed to live this long without one. He insisted I could not go to Kandahar without music. He spent the evening filling my pink Nano from his amazing eclectic collection: Arabic, French, African, jazz, blues, classic rock, pop. I am wired for sound now.

I asked Selma, 15, to hold my duffel bag while I stuffed my body armor in it. After dinner, Sarah and I mused about the example we were setting for the girls: their mom heading to Baghdad and their friend heading to Kandahar. I like to think it’s a good example.

I hugged Baghdad-bound Sarah before she left in the middle of the night.

This morning I woke and watched the sun rise and paint the clouds over the Gulf a flamingo pink. I watched the girls go off to school and had breakfast with Ali. He made some last-minute additions of Indian music to my iPod. I took a long, hot shower, making a point to enjoy the smell of the coconut shampoo and the girls’ strawberry body scrub. I put on clean clothes. No telling when I’ll be this clean again.

I’m grateful for the ride and the transit at the American base. It’s like an air lock in a space ship, or the decompression chamber after a dive. I leave my friends and family and the luxury of walks on the beach, clean sheets and running water and step into the air lock, Ali Al Salem. When the air lock opens, I’m inside the fortress and yet always an outsider. It’s a new language, new rules—and lots of them—and I mentally shift. It’s the difference between powering myself up the Willamette River in a rowing shell and dropping in with an inner tube and drifting downstream on the current. I power down and go with the flow. I grew up inside the fortress…I know—as with the Borg in Star Trek—resistance is futile.

When it comes to heading to Kandahar though, I’m definitely swimming against the current. The soldiers are looking forward to leaving. I got out and I’m heading back in.

Throughout my career I’ve swum against the current. I run toward the burning building, toward the sound of gunfire. I am the one on the road walking in the opposite direction of the civilians fleeing the mayhem of civil war.

And yet, I am an island girl and I know how to handle a rip current. Earlier in my career, I probably overestimated my endurance and stuck in the rip too long. Now I’d like to believe I know when to shift and swim parallel to shore.

The hardest part of leaving is the leaving. The loneliness of going it alone. It’s the crossing the threshold, entering the air lock. It’s like standing on the high diving board for the first time: it requires a deep breath and a willingness to step away from the solid board under the feet and take the plunge. Once I’m in the water, it’s all good. (and kindly forgive the mixed metaphors…though I imagine entering outer space or a body of water are similar sensations.)

This morning Selma hugged me and said: “Try not to die.”

I said: “Cross my heart, Selma.”

I’ve got a sweet pair of new heels and a date to go dancing.