Trip to Pansjir (with photos!)
May 20, 2007

A big group of us from the office went to Pansjir province, North of Kabul, to visit some of the projects our program has funded. The main purpose was to allow donors to see the work first hand. But Lionel decided that this would be a good staff team-building experience as well, and would give many of us a chance to be in the field for the first time - our Afghani counterparts go into the field, but most of us are stuck here in the office the whole time. One staff member, who I usually really liked, complained to high heaven about the staff "holiday" being taken, saying it was wasteful and that there was no need for us all to go. I got really ticked off. Seeing rural Afghanistan firsthand, in-person, was hugely inspirational to me. There's no substitute for seeing for yourself just how important a bridge over the Pansjir river is to villages who would be ENTIRELY cut off otherwise, or having the entire village leadership turn out to tell you how a covered canal has changed the health and well-being of a community. And I feel I'll be much better now at writing and editing materials because I've been out there - even just once.

The highlight of the trip for me was sitting with Afghani women, sharing a meal. Everything we did was for the two female donors accompanying us, including this gathering, so I didn't get to jump in and ask the questions or interact the way I really wanted to, but to just be there, to shake the hands of each of them, to hear the forcefulness with which they spoke about their needs (healthcare, healthcare, healthcare), to see and hear their shock and appreciation when Gunda introduced herself in Dari, to look at how beautiful their hair, clothes, makeup and jewelry were - all those things hidden by the burka - it gave new depth and meaning to my work. And, ofcourse, to walk outside, to breath fresh air, to see green, lush farm fields, to wave at children on the side of the road, to see the surprised, pleased faces of young girls when they looked into the car and saw my uncovered face - it's the experience I'd been craving my whole time here. If I could do this once a month, my whole perspective on this job and my time in Afghanistan would be entirely altered. The downside was the looks of disappointment when they learned I'm married but don't have kids - they wondered why my husband did not divorce me or take another wife.

I got to sit in the front seat of our SUV on the way down, and once we were far away from large towns and off the paved road, and little boys realized a convoy was coming, they would stand on the side of the dirt road and wave frantically. Or give the thumbs-up sign, which actually means something sexual here. But at one point, I looked up and saw in the distance about five young women on the roof of a mud brick building. So I made sure they could see me and I started waving. And the look on their faces - first surprise, then happiness. Pure happiness. They began to wave too, and smile so warmly. I saw them on the way back and we waved and smiled like old friends. I wish I could have met them.

It was rather surreal to see all the rusting Russian tanks and anti-tank personnel carriers in various farm fields and the Pansjir river - and sometimes even used as part of makeshift bridges, retaining walls or homes...

The road was paved for most of the way there, and the Pansjir river is full of rapids, sometimes raging. The twists and turns of the road are just what Stefan loves on a motorcycle trip, as are the amazing views, but I think I'm going to discourage such a trip for about 20 years...

The travel arrangements were interesting: the Norwegian donor had her own driver and an armored car, and was happy to share it with two from our program's staff. The Canadian had her armored car, her driver, and two armed guards; they insisted on driving behind our convoy, even distancing themselves a bit, and no one else was allowed to ride with them. The Japanese and Americans refused to come entirely. The rest of us - we were all in normal UNDP SUVs.

Funniest moment: as we were heading back to Kabul, we took a detour and stopped at the Ministry's offices in Parwan, to eat ice cream and look at some local crafts being made and sold in the area. All of the men of the office were standing out front to greet us as our entourage approached, and as we walked up, I ask loudly to Feda, an Afghan national who I hope is President here some day, "Hey, what are you going to buy me?" And he yelled, smiling, "Nothing!" And I yelled back, "You sound just like my husband!!" And then we both burst out laughing loudly and shook hands (the Afghan version of a high five), and all of the guys looked on in wonder and amusement.

I'm so going to get shot.

Pictures here. Be sure to click on the DETAILED VIEW to read the photo descriptions!


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