Today was my favorite day in Afghanistan
May 28, 2007

 
A couple of weeks ago, my office mate went with her friends drove to Kargha Lake, just outside of Kabul, to spend their Friday off. It takes about 30 minutes to get to. It was packed, they were the only foreigners there, and my office mate said she heard "khareji" (foreigner) about 100 times (not as an insult, mostly, but as a hey-lookie-thar kind of thing), but otherwise, she really enjoyed the day. She ran into our HR manager, a returned Afghan national who lived in Pakistan most of his life; he was there with some other nationals from work, and was shocked to see her there. He said he had always wondered what international staff does on their day off. She said they would come to this lake if they knew about it! She told me about it later, and I got stars in my eyes. A lake! Outside! With people! And paddle boats! It sounded fantastic. Walter heard the story as well, and we kept teasing our HR manager: "When are you taking us to the Kargha Lake? Let's have the next management meeting at Kargha Lake!"

Today, at around 3 in the afternoon, the HR manager came into my office, closed the door behind him, looked at us and said, "What are you doing after 4 today?" I said I had no plans. And he said, "Want to go to the lake?" I almost jumped out of my chair. I would have run over and hugged him but it wouldn't have been culturally appropriate and would have been completely misinterpreted. So I just said, "YES!!" Unfortunately, Walter and anyone else who might have gone had plans already. But there was no way I was missing this opportunity. So I completely violated UN security in about a dozen ways and went. Two of the drivers came along.

It was the strangest thing ever to be riding in a car in Kabul, especially down Darulaman Road. I've always been in an SUV, high off the ground. I felt so vulnerable, all those big trucks and SUVs barreling down on us and around us. But the HR manager drove along, la la la la, like he does this every day. Well, actually, he does do this every day. We headed west, out past the big old, abandoned Russian silo, which I'd never seen up close, then into a part of Kabul that was entirely new to me.

The western edges of Kabul were devastated during the mujahadeen wars. The guys pointed out all sorts of now barren areas that were once covered in forest. At one point, as we past through just a few pines, one of them said, "This could look like California." He's never been to California, but he's exactly right: it could, if it still had trees. Then another said, "Kabul, California!" And for some reason, it was really, really funny.

There were lots more mud houses than in downtown Kabul (I think they are much prettier than what I call the bling bling houses), and hints of lush gardens behind high mud walls. There were two massive, modern buildings built by the Koreans, one a vocational school and one a civil servant training center. There were destroyed buildings and land that had been bombed "clean." There were refugees living in UNHCR tents, surrounded by their goat herds and filthy water. There was a UNICEF school center, with a modern building and rows of tent classrooms in front of it. I looked down a hill at one point and saw a man living in an abandoned container. Our faces met and he waved the most sincere "hey there!" wave I've ever gotten outside the US.

At last, I saw a large earthen dam in the distance, and then the entrance to the infamous nine-hole Kabul Golf Course. The golf course is right underneath Kargha Dam. The greens are brown, flattened dirt. The fairways are brown and mostly dirt. There's nothing green on the course at all, actually. The flags are red, with hand-painted black numbers. On the green for the seventh hole lounged nine beautiful Afghan stray dogs. The road is high above the course, curving around and over the Kargha Dam, with the lake on the left.

Kargha Lake was created long before the Soviets invaded. Under the Taliban, it was mostly dry. Per the excellent weather this year, it's full and clear right now. Across the lake is Paghman, and the patches of trees here and there on the otherwise barren landscape indicate just how beautiful it could be here again someday. Little seating pavilions and food stalls are packed along the Kabul side of the lake. There are dozens of plastic swan-shaped, brightly-colored paddle boats as well, ready to be rented from the shore. On this Monday afternoon, there were very, very few people there, and, indeed, I was the only woman walking around. And I just FLAT DID NOT CARE. I was outside. I was walking around OUTSIDE.

The four of us took a pavilion right on the water, and had it all to ourselves. We sat cross-legged on the carpets and bedding, eating kebob, drinking Pepsi, and talking about... well, whatever. One of the guys wanted to know the difference in Protestants and Catholics, and I wanted to know what it would take to get Afghans to not throw away plastic bags and bottles everywhere. The HR manager told me he really liked "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "That 70s Show", but that he didn't always get the jokes on the latter. I asked what Afghanistan would be like in 20 years; they said more trees, and women could come to Kargha lake without getting stared at. They also all admitted to not knowing how to swim and being terrified of water. We even dared to talk a little politics. A storm gathered in the distance, which is probably why there were so few people there, and I was glad. Truly, it was the most relaxed I've felt here. I could not have felt more normal. We finished up the food and then three of us strolled back over the dam while the third guy drove just ahead. I asked one of the guys how many children he had (seven - "very small family"), and asked the HR manager when he was going to get married ("When my family finds me someone." His parents and most of his siblings live in Pakistan; he also has brothers in the USA and Canada). Then we got back in the car and came back to Kabul.

I didn't even realize just how great a time I was having until I got back here to the guest house. I've almost started crying. It was just so NORMAL. I felt like I was finally breathing.

I didn't have my camera with me... and while part of me really regrets that, most of me is glad I didn't have it; I concentrated on being in the moment instead of taking pictures of it. I got to just "be." There are plenty of pictures on the web of the golf course, the silo and the lake, and even the UNICEF tent school, if you really want to see what it all looks like.

Today was my favorite day in Afghanistan. It doesn't sound like much. But I'll always cherish this day.

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