2012
05.22

SYNOPSIS:  THE OFFICIAL AFGHANISTAN TOUR STARTED TODAY WITH NEIL BUXTON’S ARRIVAL:  KABUL FROM THE TV HILL, THE LANDMINE MUSEUM, AND THE BAZAAR, FOR STARTERS.

I figured it would be a kind gesture to go to the airport with one of ALT’s drivers to pick up Neil Buxton, my travel companion from the UK, about whom I know little more than that he is one of the few people who did not cancel their trip to Afghanistan.  Up at 6 AM, out the door by 7 AM, I was on my way with Javid, a 24 year old guy, and one of the drivers who works for ALT.   He was eager to practice his English which he entirely had picked up through driving around foreigners and I had a good chance to refresh a few more Farsi/Dari phrases.  By the time we had reached the airport, we had bonded, found a place in the shade to wait and worked out our language issues.  Before I knew it, I was surrounded by about 20 people, women young and old and children, who had seen me walking around and who followed me to my shady spot to “check me out”.   We had each grabbed a brick from a nearby pile to sit on and they followed suit.  And so we sat and chatted as much as our language barriers allowed us to.  With so many women around, Javid had to excuse himself.  From a distance he watched this spectacle quite amused.  When I asked, if he could take a picture of us all, the women refused.  Only two brave ones reluctantly agreed to remain seated.  Of course, they all snapped pictures of me with their cell phones…

More than two hours passed fast this way.  We waited and waited at the entrance gate that spat out the passengers from two international flights.  When even the last one had come through, except for our guy, we knew something was wrong.  Long story short – Neil had exited through a different gate…  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.  I had done the same thing just two days earlier.  But eventually, we connected.  Neil is in his forties and works for VW.  He bikes a lot and loves nature.  He travels a lot, usually alone and in strange places – Yemen, last year.  And Afghanistan has been on his list ever since he briefly landed here 26 years ago in transit.  Why not?  We all have our reasons.  This is what I know so far and if that’s all I will ever know it’s OK, too.  We are here to enjoy this unusual trip together and that’s exactly what we will do.

Back at ALT we were met by our tour guide Mubin, one of the four brothers who are the core of ALT.  Mubin only comes in as a tour guide.  He is in his mid-thirties, already has four children, a lot of energy and he talks a lot.  He made me laugh a lot today recalling stories of previous travelers he has been with.  I think we will have a grand time.  He is genuinely interested in presenting a comprehensive picture of his country to us, one that hopefully counters the bad news we are so inundated with.  He fully understood our grave disappointment of potentially not going to Bamiyan and promised to do his best to get us as far as safely possible; that is a good start.

We hit the ground running and were on our way to the so-called TV Hill from where you can overlook Kabul in its full spread; this is if you are lucky – the military controls the crucial top.  But we were lucky.  A dreadfully bumpy unpaved road took us through poor residential neighborhoods.  None of them are old since this area was pretty much leveled so close to a strategic overlook of Kabul.  Some of the most impoverished people live here, ironically with one of the best views anywhere in Kabul.

Kabul has a strange shape.  Picture something like a huge semicircular bean shape.  That would be the city wrapping itself around a central mountain which prevents the connection between the two ends of the bean.  And on top of the mountain you can literally look down on one side and see half of Kabul, step over a few meters and see the other half.  On the half that is South of the rim, there was no photography.  You could still see some rusty old military equipment littering down the hill.  From this breath-taking start we headed down towards the citadel somewhere in the middle of the “bean” from where you could now look back at the hill again.

The next stop was a museum that must be pretty unique in the world; it is dedicated to a display of landmines, shells, rockets, and other weapons and aircraft recovered throughout the country since the war with the Soviets.  I understand so little about weapons, that these were just metal scraps to me; many of them nonetheless very scary looking; some of them provided by the CIA, some of them sent from Egypt (and you know who is financing the Egyptian military)…  Some pictures accompany the artifacts showing people without their limbs.  That is a seriously shocking sight when you see it in reality throughout Kabul and especially near the bazaar area.  Kids are crawling on the ground with missing feet or hands, adults are on crutches, panhandlers sell their wares with missing arms, etc.  It broke my heart.  Mubin strictly instructed us not to stop, not to give money and not to talk to any of these handicapped people or any of the many beggars who approached us in the car and anywhere on foot.  How absolutely cruel this felt!

One of the impressive things at the museum was that one of the aircraft had been converted into a classroom for visiting school children.  A set of photographs is used by the teacher (Mubin mock-enacted this role for us) to instruct you of the many uses of household items (like cooking pots) as improvised weapons of destruction.  A plaque was on display listing all the people who had been killed working in the business of removing land mines.  The country is still full of them.  Believe me; I will not venture from the beaten path!

We had lunch at the most pleasant Herat Restaurant.  It has a garden with the wooden platforms so typical for tea houses in the Middle East and Central Asia.  You sit on them with your legs folded under and have a little raised table in the center.  The garden housed a collection of exotic and not so exotic animals ranging from ordinary geese, to cranes.  What a pleasant environment! I was reminded one dinner I had at the banks of the river in Baghdad which was similarly pleasant and an experience you just cannot imagine watching the news about these two cities.

War does not seem to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind.  It looks like business as usual if you can look away from the many reminders of the war past, the missing limbs, the craters, and the dug-up streets.  But our next stop was another reminder that not all is well:  The British Cemetery.  It’s more than for just British.  It is the foreign cemetery.  It had plaques for a French woman, a Polish man, and Indian national, many Germans and Canadians and two rows of children from a variety of nationalities.  All these were plaques or graves for foreigners who had died giving their lives for Afghanistan while either working for the ISAF (International Security and Aid Forces) or in any other capacity aiding this country.  It was a peaceful, small garden-like cemetery locked behind a big old door, and a sobering spot.

Mubin took us on a race through the bazaar as the clock was fast approaching 6 PM, our assigned curfew.  But I managed to do one of the important purchases on my list:  A signature-blue Afghan burqa.

I had the internet for a nearly uninterrupted 15 minutes, giving me false hopes for the night.  But then it was over.  I will keep writing, and processing photographs, but from here on out I have no idea when they will be posted.

Tomorrow we will be out the door at 4 AM to catch a plane to Herat.  And I’d better start packing now!

Good night.