TOKYO, July 19 (Reuters Life!) - At first, she noticed Afghan children hauling brush. Then, in Afghan family compounds, she noticed women tending small fires and trying to cook over them.
But it wasn't until U.S. diplomat Patricia McArdle realized how often it was sunny in Afghanistan that she put it together with a youthful memory of cooking with solar ovens and realized this was a low-tech option offering long-term hope to the war-torn nation, which is preparing for a draw-down of U.S. troops.
"My concern is that it (renewable energy) really hasn't been part of our talk of reconstruction," said the now-retired McArdle, who spent a year in northern Afghanistan from 2005 at the end of a diplomatic career, in a telephone conversation.
"My hope is that we will focus a bit more on renewable energy as we start to pull out."
The solar ovens -- basically a box covered in aluminum foil that can cook food by concentrating the sun's heat, which McArdle now promotes as inexpensive, renewable energy -- fits neatly into what she sees as a long tradition of sustainable living in Afghanistan.
One example is "cob," an age-old Afghan style of building that uses mud, chopped straw, sand and dung to build thick-walled structures that are naturally warm in winter and cool in summer. Yet U.S. aid money can't be used to fund buildings like this due to requirements that all construction must follow international building codes.
"They're remarkable farmers, remarkable builders. I've seen satellite dishes built by Afghan craftsmen out of old salad oil cans," she said.
"These people are creative, they're resourceful."
Solar ovens make an appearance in "Farishta," a novel about an American woman stationed in northern Afghanistan based on McArdle's own experiences, with the main character wrapping herself in a burqa and sneaking out of the military base where she lives to bring the new technology into Afghan homes.
That is one of the few incidents in the book that is not true. Most of the others are, including several ambushes and the time when the main character, Angela, took part in buzkashi, the Afghan national game in which horsemen try to snatch a beheaded goat or calf carcass.
"I thought more people would read a fictionalized account, but I also met and worked with a lot of people whose names I couldn't reveal publicly," she said, noting that she had originally thought of writing a memoir.
"I wasn't there as a spook or anything -- I was a State Department diplomat -- but I still couldn't name a lot of names without compromising people. So for those reasons I decided to write a novel."
Despite Afghanistan's decades-long history of troubles, McArdle, who surprised herself by falling in love with it, said she still clung to hope that the future would prove better, a feeling represented in the book by a pair of intelligent, educated young lovers.
"Those two characters are composites of young people I met in Afghanistan who were challenging the system. They're not religious fanatics, they don't want to be violent," she said.
"They respect their culture, their religion and their country, but they do want to move into the 21st century." (Reporting by Elaine Lies)