Getting to Afghanistan / First Impressions of Kabul
March 1, 2007

For six months in 2007, I worked in Kabul, Afghanistan, helping a government ministry there with communications functions. I maintained a blog via a private Yahoo Group for friends and family, and I cleaned up those blogs later for public consumption and published them here in my web site. This is the first blog I wrote about the experience.
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Stefan brought me to the Frankfurt airport on Feb. 28, (thanks to his boss giving him half the day off to do that), and I was a good girl and did not get emotional. Normally, I don't give a flip about being emotional, in public or otherwise -- crying is normal, trying to suppress crying is not -- but I knew that swollen eyes and a racing heart were not the way to navigate the next two days. So, I entered into a state of denial -- like I wasn't really going away. At least not for nine or so weeks. I simply refused to think about not seeing my husband again until May.

Hope you all enjoyed my message from the Frankfurt airport; if all airports offered free Internet access, they could cut tension and stress there by 50 percent. And if it's one thing we really need, it's calmer airports.

I was surprised that I didn't have to pay extra for my bags: the two bags i checked in were HUGE and heavy. But they took them, no questions or comments. As they would not check them through to Dubai, I wondered when I would see them again...

Thanks to Mara Beth, my sister-in-law, for calling me as I sat at the gate waiting for the flight. That was a huge emotional boost. I had become totally nervous while talking to three people also waiting for our flight, one traveling from Spain, two traveling from Germany, because they had had ALL of their luggage stolen. All of it. One was a couple from the USA, traveling to various cities; their luggage, including a passport, was stolen from their rental car in Saarbrücken (the car had an electronic lock, and the police said that the thief or thieves will sit in parking lots with special equipment to read the frequencies of such. You lock your car, and they unlock it a few minutes after you leave. So much for electronic locks). The other was an elderly British woman who lives in Spain: she got out of a car for the airport in Spain, and the thieves came out of no where, grabbed everything, and ran to a waiting car. Both victims had travel insurance, and were surprisingly upbeat -- they both were continuing on with their vacations! Very inspirational. I wouldn't be that upbeat. I'd probably go home depressed and devastated.

The flight, though late both leaving Frankfurt and arriving in Dubai, was fine -- there was a seat between myself, at the window, and the woman on the aisle, so we both had plenty of room, which is always awesome on a long flight (almost 7 hours). The Emirates plane had a camera looking straight down underneath it and another looking straight out, both of which you could watch on your personal entertainment system, as well as movies, TV shows, etc. There was also a camera to tell you which way Mecca was during the flight. The food was good (remember how awful food on airplanes was back in the 1980s?). I watched Walk the Line again. Even though I have that movie at home and have seen it probably four times already. It's like comfort food. And then I tried to watch Prestige , which was a HUGE mistake, as the last crucial five minutes of this long movie were cut off because we were about to land. ARGH!! Oh, well, I think I'd long guessed the big surprise anyway.

After arriving late in Dubai, it took two hours of roaming around the packed, shopping-focused airport, asking the same question again and again and again to find out how to transfer my bags and myself to the UN flight the next day, etc. TWO HOURS. It was a nightmare. It was a joke. The Cairo airport is better run than that ridiculous place. The airport is exactly what you would imagine, based on the commercials, only with a million more people. It's total chaos, focused only on its duty free luxury shops. There are few people there to help and, those that are don't really care and have never heard of the thrice-weekly UN flights. Once I had finally found the one person in the entire airport, tucked away in an obscure corner I would NEVER have found on my own, who knew where my bags were and could tell me what to do the next day, I went to the airport hotel -- which, ofcourse, did not have a reservation for me, and just one working computer to handle check ins and check outs. By the time I went to bed (at 2 in the morning Dubai time), I was so stressed that I couldn't fall asleep. Even the massage chair in the staggeringly expensive airport hotel didn't work to relax me enough to sleep (although, dang, it sure felt good!). I didn't get even four hours sleep that night. And if you know me, you know what I'm like when I'm sleep deprived. It's not pretty. It's scary.

Other than the massage chair, the other nice thing about the Dubai hotel was getting to see the end of the Kentucky-Georgia game! I was so excited! That's the first Kentucky game I've seen in more than a year, and only the second I've gotten to see outside the USA. And I had to go to freakin' DUBAI to see it! But, otherwise, the Dubai International Hotel is WAY, WAY overpriced -- a total rip off. I would have been better off getting a visa for Dubai and finding a much cheaper hotel offsite. Next time, I'll know.

Before leaving, I grabbed all the fruit I could from the fruit basket in my room and two water bottles. I wasn't sure I would be allowed to take it on the flight, but I was going to try. I checked out and went looking for breakfast and terminal 2. Getting to terminal 2, for the UN flight, turned out to be another major endeavor -- there were two other people waiting for the transfer bus (right next to that same obscure desk from the previous night), and we were told the bus was coming "in five minutes" for almost 40 minutes. I'm not sure I would have gotten on without my two fellow international travelers: it was a rickety old mini-bus and the other people on it were local employees, not travelers, and had apparently never seen a woman before. It took forever to get to the other terminal. No wonder my briefing packet suggested taking a cab instead. While the main terminal of Dubai is HUGE, completely modern and over-run with tourists from all over the world, terminal 2 is tiny and run down. But I liked it better than the main terminal - it felt so much more manageable. And I was glad to see so many people obviously heading the same way as me. I just wish I knew where they had stayed the night before. There was a flight going to Basra (Iraq) leaving from the gate next to ours. That just made it all the more surreal. There was no audio announcement that our flight was leaving -- just a sudden change on one of the announcement signs. As I picked up my carry-ons, I looked over and noticed a Western woman who was asleep in a chair nearby. I decided to wake her up, just in case she was on our flight. She was.

Walking outside to the plane for Kabul -- that's when it truly hit me what I was doing. I wish I had packed my camera in my carry on so I could have taken a photo. I got a sudden huge rush of adrenaline. There was a really young Western guy taking pictures of everything, and I'm sure a lot of people thought he was being too touristy, but I wish I'd done the same -- this is an amazing experience, and I hope I'm never so jaded as to not value something like this for what it is. He was so friendly with the air stewards and airport staff -- I decided I'd be the same, because that's how I am anywhere else in the world. I know how to set borders and be respectful in the Islamic world and still be a Kentuckian. At least I have so far. I just don't want to be an aid worker snob.

The plane was all white, with simple "UN Humanitarian Air Services" in blue on the side. It was quite run down -- who knows how many previous owners it's had before it was donated to the UN (or sold at way over its value). This plane has seen it all. But we got served a meal! I was shocked. And grateful, since I wanted to save my food stash for later. The plane, which holds just over 100 people, wasn't a third full, so I had the whole row to myself. I tried to sleep -- goodness knows I desperately needed it -- but after a while, curiosity got the best of me and I just had to stare out the window. We were over Afghan airspace in a flash.

At first, Afghanistan looked to be a land of what I called "desert snow": it looked like endless sand dunes, with snow on one side, devoid of any settlements. Then the mountains started -- they are snow-covered, sharp and beautiful and just go on and on and on. I was surprised at how many roads and settlements I started to see along the way, no matter how rugged the landscape, although I could see that many of these roads are currently impassible because of snow. The pilot would come over the PA and announce when we were traveling over a city we might have heard of. Several people on the plane were unashamedly getting out of their seats and looking out various widows, to take pictures or just take it all in. I was one of them taking it all in and not caring if I looked like a tourist.

At last, we were flying over Kabul, which is in a wide valley, surrounded by very tall mountains. It could be a beautiful city, a vacation paradise, given its location. We banked hard after we passed, turned back towards the city and then landed. It all felt so remote -- looking out the window felt like watching a movie.

I always wear a "wax" or shawl around my shoulders when I travel, mostly to cover my boobs but also to use in case I get cold, or to have something to sit on, as needed. This time, it would have the eventual purpose of being a head cover, though I wasn't sure when I should put it on. I ended up putting it on in the bus from the plane to the tiny Kabul terminal, when I noticed that all the other women had already done so (they didn't on the plane nor in Dubai). I felt totally self-conscious doing it, but once I stepped out of the bus, I knew that to not have worn it would have been a really bad thing to do -- EVERY woman had her head covered. That surreal feeling stayed with me as I followed the crowd from the plane to the terminal, with small groups of Afghan military guys staring intently at us (to be fair, if a bunch of Afghanis de-planed at the Evansville airport, they'd get stared at intently too).

The Kabul UN terminal is very *dark.* It's a cinder block building with maybe one pane-less window, and most of the light coming from two doorways. It's funded by the Germans - I saw a couple of signs saying so. There were all these very short men at the airport terminal -- my first impression was that Afghanis, at least at the airport, were all short, like a lot of Indians and Pakistanis I've known. They were all in street clothes, and I had no idea if anyone was official or not. A UN agency representative was there at the entrance waiting for me and a couple of others. He had me fill out a form and then give him photos and my Afghan passport for my Afghan visa. Then he told one of the little guys running around to take my luggage out to the parking lot -- at least that's what I think he said. Then, just as we left the building, my luggage guy got fired right in front of me - I'm not kidding. All at once, this guy came up and said, "This is not your porter anymore. He is not a porter anymore. Here's your new one." He gave the guy a dirty look and stormed off. Very strange. Both my new porter and the fired one walked me to the parking lot. It took a while to find my ride -- there was more than one UN vehicle in the parking lot. I finally found the right guy -- he had a sign with his spelling for my name: Gain. Before I left, the porter asked me for baksheesh. He used that very word. I guess there isn't a word in Dari or Pashto for it -- or that baksheesh is now a universal term. I came to my guest house in a small run down white pickup truck with "UN" on the side, just like in the movies. We had to put my bags in the back of the truck, and the driver was scared someone was going to take them as we drove through town -- and then I got scared. But if anyone had tried, they would have seriously hurt themselves. Did I mention how heavy they were?

Anne, a woman from Kenya, shared my ride from the airport in the pickup, and turned out to be a co-worker. Her sister is getting her Master's in computer science in... Kentucky! Lexington, to be exact. My new friend said it was really supposed to really warm up in Kabul, so I was glad I had brought such a variety of clothes. Very glad I brought my hiking boots and hiking shoes -- it's all mud, mud and more mud here.

I had no idea what guest house I was being taken to. It turned out to be the Assa 2. I went straight to my room, and then found I couldn't access the free Internet access in my room -- my old iBook is lacking something to make the final connection. I hope to get some help from various Mac online groups on Saturday, my first day at work - I work six days a week, Saturdays through Thursdays. I guess that's for the best -- what else have I got to do?

Kabul. Well, so far, it reminds me of a dirtier, bigger, more crowded Wadi Musa (the town in Southern Jordan we visited last year) combined with a similarly run down Amman (the shops, the houses behind walls, the layout of the roads, the houses running up the side of hills and cliffs, etc.), but with nothing but dirt roads in my neighborhood (actually, mud roads pocked with massive holes), much, much more traffic, and, if you can believe it, less mosques. If you haven't been to Wadi Musa or Amman, that's not really a helpful description, I know... But if there's a Petra near Kabul, I doubt I will ever see it, given how hard it is to get transportation anywhere, and the ever-changing security situation.

I have seen women on the sidewalks and "street", about half of them in burkas/burqas/burqqas/whatever, the rest with just a head cover. The burka style is much shorter than what we've seen on TV (just below the knee) and is made of a much lighter material (looks synthetic instead of cotton). If the burka will allow me to see more of the city, I'll buy one. I won't like it, but I'll do it.

And what, I so wonder, will my first day of work bring? I won't know for another day, since Friday is the holy day here.

I miss my husband. I miss my dog. Can't think about that now...

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If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me to keep writing --
without comments, I start to think I'm talking to cyberair.
 

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