A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Why I am Going Back to Afghanistan

My only souvenir from Afghanistan is a small postcard from the 1970’s that I bought from a young boy on Chicken Street who drove a hard bargain.  It has a few faded photos of the (now destroyed) Buddhas at Bamyan and Afghanistan’s rugged mountains.  “Greetings from Afghanistan” is written in big bold letters across the center of the postcard.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the complete disconnect between forms (words, photos, media, etc.) and reality.

The funny thing is that this postcard more or less is an accurate depiction of the Afghanistan I saw when I was there in April.  Or, you might say, it is a reminder of what I didn’t see: suicide bombs, beheadings, air strikes, IEDs, etc.

There’s a popular saying amongst aid workers in Kabul: “Everything is normal until the moment it’s not.  And in that second, everything changes.” I took a risk in going, but thankfully I didn’t have that moment (I tend to operate under the assumption of youthful invincibility).  It probably has colored my experience a bit – everything I have to tell is fairly positive.  However,  I am under no misconception that Afghanistan is a land of gummy bears and rainbows.  Life is tough there and the future is far from certain. There is a quiet understanding amongst all Hagar (and NGO) national staff that if any extremist group comes back to power, it is very possible that harm could come to them.  Coming from the relatively jaded NGO community of Phnom Penh (e.g. tons of aid money + little accountability + generally stable country/economy = why are we here?), this passion and dedication to improving their country was humbling.

There is a tension in the air – you feel it every time you step outside a compound.  You feel it when you walk down the street and everyone exchanges glances at each other. But then something strikes you: children playing soccer in the streets, boys AND girls in little uniforms laughing and walking home from primary school, bustling street markets, overflowing multistory restaurants, paved boulevards lined with green trees framed by snow capped mountains, women in gorgeous bright headscarves (not always burqas).  Life goes on.  As a very good man told me: “We have been through a lot.  So long as we can fly our kites and be with our families, that is all we need.”  In the face of immense challenges, happiness appears relatively simple.

From my limited experience, you live as if that “moment” can come at anytime and that state of mind had a profound impact on me.  Trivial things attract a new sense of importance.  Acclimated to staying inside compounds or vehicles all the time, even just taking a small step out into the street in front of our office was like ecstasy.  I remember taking a massive breath of air in the open street and smiling to the heavily armed guard in the adjacent courtyard.  I’ve been in some sublime natural environments in the middle of nowhere and they failed to match the sense of freedom I had in the late afternoon moment on the dusty street in Kabul.  Like I wrote last year in my blog about riding to Mondulkiri, sometimes you have to put yourself in extreme situations to be reminded about the beauty in the tiny aspects of life.

In a place with such deep, complex issues, there is so much opportunity.  One would get the impression from the media that Afghanistan is a lost cause, but the people I met (both Afghan and from elsewhere in the world) are fighting tooth and nail to make a difference.  And they’re succeeding in small steps despite the short and long-term uncertainties.  It is an intoxicating and compelling environment.  At the same time, it’s hard not to feel like an intruder: “What right do I possibly have to even be here?  If I am not working 18 hours a day and giving every last ounce of my strength to helping, what good am I?  People are literally sacrificing their lives – what the hell am I doing?”

No one ever inferred or out rightly said this during my trip, but these questions rolled through my head constantly.  It was a slap in the face to someone who had gotten content in their role and relatively comfy life.  I liked that sense of insecurity; I wanted to be torn apart and see what drives me, what moves me.  I always knew it wasn’t an arbitrary target or quota.  In any capacity that I could honestly be useful, I wanted to work with all the people I met and share their passion for changing the lives of others in the face of incredible challenges.

I left Phnom Penh fully prepared that I wouldn’t come back, treating friends to dinners, sending some overdue apologies for poor decisions, finishing my will (which was strangely joyful), and writing a letter to my family.  After living in the moment for those simultaneously uneventful and nerve-wracking ten days in Kabul, it reminded me that there’s no reason not to live similarly everyday.  Why don’t always tell people how I feel or express hesitation to give away (or invest) a few hundred bucks to someone who would benefit greatly from it?  More importantly (maybe for my mother), why can’t I find similar satisfaction in a “less risky” environment?  That’s a good question too – maybe age and declining testosterone levels will resolve that.

This is all disjointed and poor prose – I apologize.  I still struggle to describe my experience in Afghanistan (or even Cambodia) to others.  If I were religious, I might label this a “calling from God” or something of that nature.  For now, I’ll just say that something deep inside me was moved.

Below are some of my notes from my trip.  I wish I had time to spruce them up, but alas time is limited. This is all based on 10 short days in Kabul.  I don’t claim to know anything – this is just what I saw and felt.

Notes from Kabul:

Finished a few readings on AOG (armed opposition groups) and trafficking in Afghanistan.  Still 24 hours of travel until I am on the ground in Kabul Long day of travel. Almost not admitted into Dubai due to dated passport photo from high school (no beard, more weight). Leaving Dubai, immigration asked if I was headed to Kabul.  I said yes and he simply said “Bye.” Felt a little ominous.

Sitting at our gate and waiting for the 330AM Safi Airways flight to Kabul, Giovanna and I glanced around.  Who are the others in the lounge?  It’s an interesting and diverse group: some Afghan diaspora, some UN, perhaps a few military or contractors, and perhaps a few thrill seekers.

The plane is old and doesn’t even have no smoking signs.  The pilot announces that he is from Kentucky and his co-pilot is from Holland.  For some reason that makes me feel a bit better.  I read the in-flight magazine to calm my nerves, which ends up being extremely well done. There’s even a section on how the airplane works with a particular focus on take off (the noises you hear, the process, safeguards, etc.).  I love Safi Airways already.

Just before our descent, the sun rises and we get our first views of the rugged, gorgeous Afghan terrain.  Our plane banks around a few mountains and descends quickly into Kabul International Airport.  We come to a halt next to even more ragged faded orange airplanes owned by Ariana (the national carrier).  UN trucks, planes and helicopters are buzzing around.  Heavily armed guards are around the plane.  The regulars all turn on their mobiles and the plane fills with the sound of text messages being received.

We exit the airport and follow Myriam’s directions: go outside, turn right and walk.  Once we leave the building, you can see how fortified it is.  Pillboxes on the street and hidden on second floor balconies.  We keep waking to a parking lot full of taxis and men.  A kid forcibly takes the cart from me and pushes it.  We keep walking, seemingly out into the street.  Then I see Myriam in her red pasmina headscarf and a kind-looking man with jeans and a suit jacket, who must be the office manager.  Myriam can’t hug me in public, but she smiles.  The manager puts his hand over his heart (the Afghan male form of a handshake) and welcomes me to Afghanistan.  I love this gesture – it feels so warm and sincere.  We walk through the crowd and an impromptu volleyball game to our car and we leave the airport.

We pass through a few checkpoints on the way out of the airport.  I am on edge – most videos I’ve seen of Kabul’s streets involve a typical busy street scene interrupted by a speeding car and an explosion.  Myriam puts my mind at ease.  The roads are paved and huge – 6 lanes.  People walk around everywhere – I imagined more bombed out buildings and people hiding.  Military helicopters buzz around the airport and the carcasses of old buses and planes adorn the no-man’s land between villages and the airport.

We pass through the lion’s gate, the confluence of two large mountains where the road narrows to just two lanes.  It was/is a strategic point for all armies – small buildings and huts follow the contour of the mountain all the way to the top.  The poorest live at the top.  An ancient wall snakes across the mountains, but is cut off by the road and the street side fruit stands.  At night, this is one of my favorite scenes – the mountains are lit up with hundreds of little twinkling stars from the homes.

We arrive at Hagar’s office. Our guard, greets me warmly and says “Hello” in English.  He’s lives in a poor village just outside of Kabul and has been relentlessly practicing his English.  Though he is officially the guard, he takes immense pride in tending to the garden.  He takes me around the back to show me the apple trees, grapevines, and the rose bushes (his pride and joy).  Bordered by a tall plaster wall and in the shadow of snow capped mountains, the backyard reminds me of The Secret Garden.  Charlie, Hagar Afghanistan’s puppy, runs around in circles and nibbles at everyone’s heels.

Work starts immediately.  I visit Care International’s vocational training programs for widows, one a sewing workshop and the other a beautician workshop.  We also visit a metal workshop program for young men and a computer training program for young girls.  The trainers are professional and so passionate – more exciting is the fact that there are men involved in and supportive of the program, which at least shows that things aren’t quite as segmented as I thought.  We are invited for to stay for tea and we discuss the program’s challenges and next steps.  We snack on fresh walnuts, almonds, apricots and dried fruits – just like in “Three Cups of Tea”, everything important takes time and is accomplished over tea.  Lots of tea.

I return to the office with Myriam and meet the rest of the Hagar Afghanistan team.  They are exceptional: kind, passionate, driven, smart.  We eat a home cooked meal of beef stew, salsa salad, and fresh delicious naan bread prepared by the staff housekeeper.

I pass out upstairs and awake just as the sun is setting.  I go out to our balcony and sip tea and look at the scene below.  A few men walk down the street in traditional Afghan clothes, some kids play a pickup game of soccer, and somewhere in the distance there is a loud speaker broadcasting the call to prayer.  Across the street is a nondescript building, but the guard looks more heavily armed and professional than normal (our guard is unarmed).  Myriam later tells me that it is a Blackwater guesthouse – I believe their new name is Xe after the Iraq scandals.

That night, we head back into the city to Kabul’s most infamous speakeasy: Gandamack Lodge.  Supposedly the house of Bin Laden’s fourth wife, the lodge and its underground tavern is a throw back to the British colonial empire of the 1800’s.  Afghans aren’t allowed in, since Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol – this causes an unfortunate rift between expats and the wider community.  The lodge’s walls are adorned with old muskets and a giant old cannon guards the entrance to the basement tavern.  You’d never know it exists from the outside – you pull up to a gray gate, knock and a heavily armed man pats you down.  Then you walk around blast walls to a container, where you are buzzed in by another guard who asks you for a passport.  You then exchange cash for some cute Gandamack dollars and get buzzed through another door.

All that security certainly influenced the pricing scheme: $15 six inch pizzas, $10 gin and tonics.  It was a lovely night though – so relaxing.  Amazing for crowd watching too… lots of French men in suits… some people with cigars talking quietly in the corner, a lot of 30-somethings unwinding after a long day.  It sounds cliched, but this is probably where some big deals go down or somethings get “dealt” with.  Or maybe everyone there is just like me and likes to think that so it makes it more exciting.

The next morning we find out that Karzai had decided to continue his crack down on NGO’s and expats, this time targeting restaurants serving alcohol.  Gandamack somehow escaped raids (probably through massive bribes), but six other restaurants were raided and shutdown by the national police with quite a few arrests (including a Frenchman and a number of Russian prostitutes).  Anytime we wanted alcohol at other restaurants during the trip, we’d have to speak a bit more quietly.

I wake up exceptionally early and boil water for coffee.  I am in love with the Hagar house. It’s like a sweet old British cottage.  I sip my coffee on the second floor porch overlooking the garden and the adjacent primary school – the morning is crisp and cold (50 degrees), but the diffused morning sun poking over the mountains promises a warmer afternoon.  The sound of birds is interrupted infrequently by helicopters passing overhead and the guard yelling “Bula!” (go go!) to the puppy.

In the afternoon, we head over to the shelter.  I can’t write much about it for reasons of security and confidentiality.  It was incredibly moving and powerful.  We have a number of women trafficked to/from Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as victims of rape (which is considered a crime) and abuses.  Many are in hiding.  We also have a number of young boys, another unfortunate victim of sexual abuse.  Finally, there is a young boy who is severely disabled – he looks like he is 2 years old and is unable to walk or talk.  However, we find out that a dental exam put his age at more like 7.  He was abandoned at a mosque, likely by a family who couldn’t afford to take care of him.  All the women in the shelter have been taking care of him and he is making small improvements – a big smile, waving, some noises, and with a bit of assistance some walking.  The staff gave him a new name, which (if I remember correctly) means “the strong one.”  The shelter is very nice with big rooms and a large play room and gym.  During my trip, they were just finishing up the classrooms for the new Career Pathways program.

The next day Myriam and I take a long car ride to the Kabul Health Club.  We leave at 930 because most “incidents” happen between 5 and 8AM.  You can’t schedule more than two meetings a day because traffic is so horrible.  We pass through checkpoint after checkpoint – our driver calls one policeman a donkey since he asks for my passport for no apparent reason other than boredom. We meet with a strong and opinionated Afghan-American who helped start the Afghan Women’s Business Network and a textiles network called Awesome.  She is also a special advisor to the Afghan government on economic matters.  She told us all about how the western donors and in particular the US have no idea about the culture and abilities of women here.  We tend to think that all women just stay indoors and are at high risk – but she likes to talk about the 20,000+ women business owners that the AWBN and AWBF work with.  Yes, the issue is complicated but women do have opportunities.

She notes that Muhammad’s first wife was older and a successful business woman.  On top of that, Muhammad was her first employee. She contends that women run the businesses and farms in Afghanistan – multiple wives are just an excuse for men to sit around while the work gets done. She’s challenging and cuts through the bullshit – she’s good for everyone, but I can see how she might make some enemies.  Her son in law is the owner of the newly opened Kabul Health Club and he gives us a brief tour.  Business doesn’t appear to be bustling – who’d want to drive 3 hours every day to/from the gym?

After lunch we headed to Babur gardens with the Hagar Afghanistan staff. The park is a pleasant retreat and was wonderfully reconstructed to resemble its original state from hundreds of years ago.  It is nice to see the old men drinking tea and hordes of kids (boys and girls) running around playing.  You don’t see is on the news. The 10 hectare park continues up the side of one of the mountains and disappears into houses.  Near the top, we visit the tomb of Babur, where a wonderful old guard runs through a 10 minute English (?) presentation that not a soul understood.  We smile politely and he is pleased with his effort.  He clutches the guestbook with pride and asks me repeatedly to sign it – uninterested I state that I don’t have a pen.  He smiles and produces one from the inside of his uniform.

The facial features of Afghan men are amazing and striking.  The number of ethnicities in Kabul results in a melting pot of traditional clothing and beard styles.  I could people watch all day – the older men just look exquisite.  Women are less visible on the streets – certainly the blue burqa-clad women stand out.  Even though I understand from our staff that sometimes the burqa is worn as a form of protection and not compulsory, it still seems eerie.  Many women wear beautiful pashmina headscarves in bright colors that frame their tan faces, vivid eyes and leave a few strands of silky brown hair falling over their faces.

The next day I meet with an Afghan woman who had been living in the UK for 20+ years.  She’s a wealth of information, particularly about larger opportunities in the Afghan economy (e.g. infrastructure, agrobusiness, etc.).  She provides some excellent contacts and perspectives on challenges for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

On Friday, Myriam and I head to a local house church for their weekly service.  I haven’t been to church in over a year, but I figure this is as good a time as any.  In Afghanistan, everything Christian is underground – this is reflected in the lingo: Christians become “Like-minded people” and Church service becomes “a gathering of like-minded people.”  We walk to the house, which is a few blocks away.  It feels strange to use my legs and I feel very exposed – a group of Afghan men are batting a volleyball.  As we walk by, one of them spikes it into a barbwire fence and it immediately deflates to their amusement.

The service is full of interesting people – many of which come from IAM, an NGO that has been in Afghanistan for 20+ years.  The aid workers there know the country and have raised their families in Kabul through even the most heinous periods.  Some volunteers address the group – they are a youth group from Hawaii and will be in Kabul for two weeks to pray for people.  At least, I think that is what they are doing – Myriam (who is more religious than I) also struggled to interpret their intentions.  They offer their prayer services in a corner of the room for anyone who is interested – no one partakes, which momentarily makes me feel compelled to do it so they don’t feel like they flew all the way here for naught.  The pastor (a passionate, hilarious Latin man) delivers a wonderful sermon untangling the hidden message behind an altercation between Jesus and a woman preparing dinner for his group.  I could listen to sermons like that for hours (be it Christian, Judaism, Islam, Zen…) – the singing and hand waiving, I would prefer to minimize.

Myriam, Giovanna and I head over to Pelican Cafe, a social enterprise that provides training and employment opportunities for marginalized young men.  Even though it is only around the block, we have to take a car.  The original location was stormed and burnt down a year previously during student riots at a nearby university.  You’d never notice though.  After walking through a thin wall with no barbed wire (you develop a habit of assessing wall strength, security measures, and quick getaway plans whenever you enter a place), we emerge in a quiet, lush garden with a beautifully painted building.  We take a seat in the main floor, listening to Miles Davis on the small stereo and eavesdropping on nearby diners conversing in exotic languages.  We all order the ($10) quiche and a few pastries, which are delicious.

I wake up extremely early every morning in Kabul – it might be cold air or some unconscious anxiety, but I don’t feel tired.  At least this morning I have a reason to be up early.  The night before we visited a supermarket (better stocked than anything in Cambodia or even places back in the US!) near where the UN guesthouse was stormed/bombed by insurgents – seeing that crater in the ground and the jagged leaning trees in the adjacent park shook me to the core.  At the supermarket I secretly bought everything to make apple cinnamon pancakes, so I head downstairs to prepare a batch for the whole team.  Charlie, the Hagar Afghanistan puppy, sits patiently near the kitchen door and musters all of his charm in the hope of a nibble (of course he gets one).

That day, I visit SuperFlour, a social enterprise that employs marginalized women to produce nutritious fortified flour products.  It reminds me of Hagar’s soya milk business in its early days.  While inspiring, I can see that the team is disheartened by the challenges they face in trying to run a business in Afghanistan.  From my perspective, though, the model itself is fundamentally flawed and the opportunities limited.  From a social perspective, the women produce the nutritious flour (good), but also sell it door to door (bad) and are paid primarily on consignment (very bad).  I am not by any means an expert in Afghan culture, but I can’t imagine the women Hagar works with having much success selling door to door.  Even the women at SuperFlour have been beaten or ostracized, since selling door to door is somewhat of an affront to the local culture.  I won’t even go into the finances and the business model.  It’s a tough environment to mix social impact and business…

That afternoon we visit Chicken Street, a famous street lined with shops selling beautiful carpets, embroideries, pots, and carvings.  If you’re lucky, you can find some Sadaam-era Iraqi currency and tasteless 9-11 rugs.  Everything is overpriced and the young merchandise slingers can be a bit overbearing, but it’s a fascinating throwback to the old hippie trail days.  We’re the only foreigners on the street – of course Myriam notes that last year a suicide bomber walked up to a group of foreigners and blew himself up.  That explains the heavily armored Humvees with 50 cal guns stationed on either end of the street.

We all peruse the small stores.  I pick up a few wall hangings for my mom from Mazar Sherif from a kind Uzbek-Afghan man.  For my father, an old tourist map of Afghanistan from the 1970’s.  For Claire, a few old Persian novels – one staring Mullah Nasruddin (a comical Sufi character who gets into all sorts of hilarious adventures).

In honor of Giovanna’s final night, one of the Hagar Afghanistan’s employees invites us to a feast with his family at his house.  Our car passes through crowded streets and bustling street side produce markets.  We wind throw narrow alleyways and the neighborhoods transition from western-style concrete houses to traditional two-story Afghan mud houses.  This is standard view of Afghanistan from military videos, but it seems welcoming and like a community.  We casually ask for directions from a man at a small barber shop and finally find our colleague’s house.

He lives in a modest compound with his wife and children, his parents, and his four brothers and their families.  We ascend to the second floor and his son points out the roof where they fly kites during Eid.  I hope to be here to see it one day – thousands of kites in the sky, sons and fathers making every attempt to cut the lines of other kites.

We enter the room for entertaining guests and sit cross legged on the traditional pillows (toshaks).  His young son walks around the room with a special bowl and pours water over my hands.  Over numerous cups of tea and fresh nuts/fruits, we learn more about our kind hosts and exchange stories.  During the worst years, our host and his brothers fled to Pakistan to work as tailors and open a shop.  They said the Pakistani’s treated them as brothers and they did well there.  At one point they then fled to Iran, where they were treated significantly worse but made due.  One brother notes that he plays classical piano – we agree that a concert must be held when we return in the future.

We don’t see our host’s wife; she is busy preparing the food we’re about to enjoy and will eat separately with the other women in the family.  It makes us all feel slightly uneasy, but it is a part of the culture.  Our eyes widen as, little by little, delicious dishes arrive on the cloth placed on the floor in front of us: dumplings with yogurt sauce, fresh lassi’s, chickpea salad, fresh naan bread.  The latter is growing on me – every 100m on any street there is a shop with big windows where you can see old men sitting in a circle crafting Afghan bread.  It comes in thick triangle blocks and hardens if you don’t eat it within half a day, which typically isn’t an issue.

We feast and the skilled cook makes a brief appearance. We give our thanks and she retreats to another room with the other women.  Stuffed and overwhelmed by the kind hospitality, we give the standard long expressions of gratitude and well-wishes and head back to the Hagar house.

If only to confirm Charlie’s love, I make pancakes again the next morning.  Bright and early, I head out to meet the leader of the Afghan Women’s Business Federation.  The AWBF assists over 20,000 women entrepreneurs throughout Afghanistan and she is extremely helpful in describing the challenges facing women in Afghanistan: lack of finance for business growth/start-up, mobility issues, lack of control over profits/business activities, etc.  More importantly though,, she is a source of hope.  Despite the massive challenges, she talks about the successes they have seen in even the most conservative areas.  Whether it’s the widow who started a small furniture business and now employs 70 other widows and exports to Iran or the groups of women who export embroidery products from their humble camps in Pashtu refugee camps, there is a strong place for women entrepreneurs.  We sit and talk over tea for a few hours until we all realize that the conversation could go on for days.

That afternoon, we bid farewell to Giovanna.  The ride to the airport is full of checkpoints – I endure more than a few frisks in shipping containers.  That night, Myriam and I head to a nice Afghan restaurant called Sufi.  The security is fairly loose, but the guard is an imposing 6 ft. 5in. Afghan man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Fidel Castro and puffs a fat cigar.  He pats us down and points us toward the restaurant entrance with his AK47.  We enjoy some forbidden Heinekken beers while dining on delicious lamb kebabs with a tangy yogurt sauce.  There is nothing better…

I spend the next day catching up on my notes and writing my report.  In the evening we enjoy dinner at the International Assistance Mission (IAM) guesthouse around the corner.  We actually walk there for a change – it’s a pleasant sunny afternoon and we share the street with kids running home from school.  I’ve heard rumors about IAM’s amazing Uzbek chef.  They are not unfounded – we enjoy delicious beef stew and homemade ice cream.  The guesthouse hosts 30+ individuals and families who are in transit to other locations in Afghanistan or just entering/leaving Kabul.  Their stories are amazing and make Kabul sound like Pleasantville.

I meet a former British solider who fought in Afghanistan a few years back.  Upon seeing the natural beauty of the country and its people, he decided to come back with his wife and two young children (both under 10) to establish a community-based tourism project in Wakhan Corridor of Northeast Afghanistan called Mountain Unity. Check out the YouTube video here for a better overview than I can possibly give. I hope to visit him one day soon.

My time drawing to a close, I scramble to finish my report and catch a few last tourist sights.  I meet with the Afghanistan office of the Business Council for Peace, which also supports promising young male and female entrepreneurs.  They have their share of success stories, but are realistic about the challenges facing their stakeholders.  Access to credit and capital is their number one issue; businesses grow to a point then stagnate unless the women can borrow informally or from family members (both of which can result in cultural issues).  She shows me samples of some businesses’ products: FIFA-certified soccer balls, furniture, canned tomatoes.  We talk for a few hours and learn more about each other’s efforts and possibilities for collaboration.  This is my last meeting and couldn’t have been better – I am glad to leave on a high note.

Later in the day, we head out to Lake Qargha.  Nestled in the mountains at the outskirts of the city, the lake is a popular picnicking destination for Afghan families.  We do a bit of hiking and get an admittedly tiny flavor of the country’s rugged but beautiful terrain.  At the peak, we can see the valley leading to Kabul and watch the Afghan military helicopters stream.  Our colleague points out destinations in the distance: Panshjir Valley (where the Russians resolve was crushed), Jalalabad, Bamiyan.  Myriam negotiates a ride on a Kuchi nomad’s horse, though our friend tells us later that he is not actually a Kuchi but just a shrewd businessman.  As we depart, I notice the Kabul Golf Club – 9 holes, look out for UXO.

For my last night in Kabul, Myriam and I return to Gandamack Lodge, as it is the most likely to have red wine. It is freezing outside, but we endure and take comfort in a poor quality house red.  We enjoy some expensive (but delicious) pizza and reflect on our respective experiences in Cambodia and Afghanistan.  I have no doubt in my mind that I want to return – my work seems far from complete and I only got a taste.  It’s revitalizing to be passionate about something again – not just interested.  In just 10 days, I felt like I got to know some people better than others I’ve known for years.  Or maybe this is all an exaggeration caused by the environment.  Either way, I want to go deeper.

Before heading to the airport, Myriam and I stop at the ruins of the Royal Palace of Darulaman.  Standing on a slight hill at the end of town near an ISAF base, it isn’t necessarily the best place for a stroll but relatively safe nonetheless.  We wander around the ruins and try to reconstruct its original beauty before the muj shelled it in the 1990’s.

As I am leaving, the staff assemble to give me a few gifts: a Massoud hat (named after the Lion of Panjshir, who was largely responsible for the Soviet’s ouster) and a traditional Afghan scarf.

The ride to the airport is solemn – I am sad to leave new friends, but excited to be back with good friends in Phnom Penh.  Our Office Manager’s son pushes my luggage cart to the gate and I give an awkward pantomime hug to Myriam (since contact isn’t allowed) and a long handshake to the other men.

The plane taxis to the end of the runway, past decrepit Pamir and Ariani planes.  It turns and gently stops.  The engines roar and we gain speed.  I look at the nearby mountain and all the houses on its steep slope.  We ascend in a corkscrew to gain altitude quickly to avoid stinger missiles (so I am told).  The sun is setting over the mountains and I soak in the final views of dusty, brown Kabul.

~ by responsiblenomad on October 19, 2010.

One Response to “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Why I am Going Back to Afghanistan”

  1. […] boss posted this photo of a pomegranate seller from his recent trip to Kandahar.  As I noticed during my time in Kabul, from afar we often aren’t aware of the small signs of normalcy and progress in conflict […]

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