2012
06.19

SYNOPSIS:  WHAT DAY IS IT?!  DEPARTURE AND FINAL REFLECTIONS

“But your flight is tomorrow!”   Said the clerk behind the desk after looking and looking at the computer forever, which had already made me wonder what the heck was wrong.  Tomorrow…  I guess, that said it all.  I just had enough of Afghanistan, so much that subconsciously I had departed a day early talking myself into believing it was the right day.  “Man cheli moshkel hastam!” I replied (something like “I am such a problem!” even though it was grammatically completely wrong, of course)  “Moshkel niest”.  The clerk assured me that it was much better to be a day early than a day late.  He asked if I wanted to change my flight, but I was in no mood to throw good money after bad and asked him for a standby.  If there was no room, I could always go back.  But everything worked out very nicely.  The plane had at least 20 empty seats and without any further trouble at the desk, I was able to fly today.

Except that a few minutes before departure another clerk frantically ran from one foreign woman to another in the waiting hall, asking for their names.   When he came to me, he had found what he was looking for:  Trouble with my luggage!  I knew what it was.  I had taken a chance.  I got away with it in Iraq but it looked like I was busted now…  I had picked up several empty ammunition containers here and there, wrapped them nicely into toilet paper, and intended to take them home as classroom-material.  They had passed two checks already.  But now no begging helped.   A report was filed and I had to give them up.  Thankfully, I made the flight.

I had no idea if I could make my two other connections one day early, but I did not care.  I was happy to move on and leave Kabul behind me.  I had no money to afford another day with a driver, and in Kabul I had seen what I wanted.  I took stock:

I think of traveling on three different levels.  Most people travel as tourists.  As a tourist you want to have fun, experience something new, and enjoy yourself on your time off.  Typically, I think of myself as a traveler.  The touristy fun is a nice byproduct, but not the main reason I am going out into the world.  I want to learn, broaden my horizon, and I don’t mind some hardship to get there.  And finally, I travel as a teacher.  When I travel and take pictures, I constantly think of how to use the experience or image in a lecture or in the classroom.   What “point” can I make, what does this exemplify?  How does it help me to make sense of this world; what can I tell my students.

If I assess Afghanistan under these three aspects, I have to say that it was a complete touristic failure.  I cannot even think of another country that would rank this low.  I can’t blame Afghanistan for it.  It has been through so much!  I cannot blame Afghani Logistics & Tours (ALT) either.  They were a professional bunch from the top down; helpful and generous under the circumstances we had, without exception.  But if anyone wants to hear my opinion:  If you think of yourself as a tourist (even an adventurous one like Neil), forget Afghanistan.  Wait and see how the situation will change after 2014.  If things get better, if the roads open up, if the worthwhile sites that are left become accessible again, this country has quite a bit to offer.  For now, it is not ready.  It is not worth your money and your time unless you want to be reckless and risk your life.

From a traveler’s perspective, I saw a lot.  In fact, I met several people who are stationed here and in some cases have been here for several years.  I have seen more than they ever have or will.  I did learn about a part of the world that is inaccessible even more than Iran to most of us, particularly us civilian Americans.  I know that what I saw and learned made me richer as a person.  I am grateful for that.

And from a teacher’s perspective, this trip was at least a partial success.  I come home empty-handed as far as all the major UNESCO or historical sites are concerned, but I come with insights into the daily life of the Afghans, some of their personal stories, some of their hardships.  I know I will put this to good use in the classroom one way or another, sooner or later.

Would I go again?  Only if I have a guarantee to see Guldara, Bamiyan, and the Minaret of Jam.  Would I have booked this tour knowing what I know now?  The answer has to be a categorical “no”.  With the money I had to spend on 20 days in Afghanistan, I could have financed 60-80 days in another country.  I know that the benefit of that (no matter what country I would have visited) would have outweighed the benefits of what I bring back from Afghanistan.

But then…  putting it into a ten year global perspective:  Afghanistan was a “must do”.  It rounded up the picture I now have of the Middle East and Central Asia.  It put the icing on the cake of a ten-year travel mission which I consider for now completed.    Of course, Saudi Arabia is still open…

But for now, I will turn my way to Southeast Asia and the Far East.  Tune in for more travel adventures next May.  I am sure I will be on my way again to somewhere.  In Shahallah.

And so the glass is still half full.

I thank my pantheon which guided me through all of this safely and without any problems.

Good night.

P.S.  Because of my early arrival, I got stuck in Turkey for a day which “forced” me to spend a lovely evening in the Old City of Istanbul.  I had dinner at a beautiful garden restaurant, had a beer, took public transportation, roamed the hippodrome and the bazaar without my head scarf, and realized once again how privileged we are in half of the world.  Life is not fair.