Kabul, Afghanistan | December, 2004
I was digging through old notes and found an excerpt from my July 2004 trip to Bamiyan, the valley that housed the famous giant carved Buddhas that the Taliban destroyed with rockets just a few months before 9/11. At this point, I had been coming and going from Afghanistan for two years and had still not managed to see anything except the capital of Kabul. Whereas all of my friends were being shuttled on official business to every obscure corner of the country, from Zabul to Badakhshan, I remained unhappily trapped in Kabul, still working intently on training the assistants, manning the shop, and overseeing the quality of the work done by the women embroiderers. There was something actually quite UN-liberating about working for oneself – something that if not monitored carefully, could keep one in a state of total enslavement and self-limitation.
By July, I had developed a pretty serious case of cabin fever. The weeks were all the same – eight hours of chaos at the office, checking emails at the guesthouse for a few hours, dinner and maybe a get-together of some sort, then back home to sleep. It doesn’t sound so terrible, but when combined with the constant battle against filth, dust, electricity, water, traffic, and administrative problems, it can be pretty maddening. And my “home”, which was a mere guesthouse, was a tiresome place to be – aesthetically criminal with Pakistani-made furniture and horrible red carpeting. What was supposed to be temporary accommodations most people fled from after a few weeks, I had inadvertently managed to turn into a semi-permanent home. I started to act a little nuts and worried that I was on the verge of “losing it” and would run out onto the street one day and try to hitchhike out of town. I did have the ability to wind myself into quite a frenzy, prodding myself with thoughts of why I was in the middle of my own “paradise” (Central Asia), but had seen NOTHING to date. Unfortunately, this was not Lonely Planet country – you needed a lot more than a guidebook to help you see the “Stans” properly.
Hiromi Yasui, a photographer and bureau chief for Japan’s largest news agency, Kyodo News, had just finished writing about Tarsian & Blinkley for a syndicated column in Japan. She was familiar enough with my situation to kindly invite me along on a trip to Bamiyan where she had to interview some Japanese archeologists about the recent discovery of a sleeping Buddha. Hiromi, also known by her Muslim name of “Morsal”, came to pick me up at 5 am one morning, accompanied by her Afghan husband, her sister and her sister’s friend, both visiting from Japan. Though relieved to finally break my routine, I was still a bit jittery over the security report someone had forwarded me the day before – a car of international NGO workers had been robbed on the Wardak road and the driver badly beaten. As risk-loving as I fancied myself, I had to acclimate to the simple facts of life for a road trip in Afghanistan.
The driving was excessive to stay the least. Nine hours of dirt roads both ways, and the one day that we weren’t driving to Bamiyan, we drove three hours further to Bande-Amir through endless miles of mine-riddled or recently mine-cleared high steppe terrain. Bande Amir, a place seemingly in the middle of nowhere, housed seven exquisite lakes with a mysterious underground water source of incredible purity and a rich blue hue that sat in start contrast to the arid, monochrome landscape around. Aside from the impressive natural surroundings, there wasn’t much there in terms of human habitation. The first lake, the most “developed” of the seven, had a Shiite saint’s burial site, a dilapidated café, and for some odd reason, a series of plastic peddle ducky boats for rent. I peddled across the first lake, wondering at the sparkly freshness of the waters and the remoteness of the place, and when I returned, there was a whole crew of Special Forces (New Zealanders -- part of the "coalition" against evil") hanging out on the other peddle duckies.
Back in Bamiyan, the government-run Roof of Bamiyan Hotel was unspeakably foul and overpriced. I spent all of my time pleading and bribing the underpaid staff to clean things. But for all its dysfunctionality, it was situated in the most wonderfully windswept and dramatic setting, at eye level across the valley from the Buddhas (or the very large holes in the cliffs that used to house the Buddhas). Not being able to eat a thing that they served, I managed to secure a dinner invitation for the following night from Stephan, a crazy French guy I had met in Kabul who ran a Bamiyan-based NGO.
Later in the evening, I wandered down the hill and through the bazaar, walking alongside the creek until I found the house, a pretty adobe complex set in a garden. I thought Stephan had said to come and “have dinner with himself and “Sophie”, but I must have misheard him – the atmospherically-lit living room of the house was populated by nothing but Afghanophile French boys downing cocktails and smoking. For my first trip out of Kabul, I was a bit in shock – so this is how the UN Operations and provincial NGO crowd lived– doped up and wearing scraggly beards in a testosterone-charged setting much wilder and “in-touch” with the country than any posting in Kabul could possibly provide? Stephan, noticing that too many of the boys were trying to chat up the sole female in the house, dragged me into his room where he showed me photographs from the days when he used to be a priest! If I was a journalist, I would just do stories on the unbelievable characters that come to countries like Afghanistan to create lives for themselves. To me, Stephan was a classic French lady’s man who prided himself on the kinds of parties he threw in Kabul, but here he was revealing a past dedicated to celibacy and itchy monastic robes!
On the drive back to Kabul the next day, I continuously gorged myself on roadside nectarine stalls while gloating at the beautiful villagers. But on the last leg, just as we were approaching Kabul, we got caught in a peculiar road rage situation with an SUV that attempted to drive our car off the road! Hiromi’s sister and friend, having spent a grand total of 5 days in Afghanistan, remained firmly planted in their seats, quite petrified at what was to come while rolling up the windows, locking the doors, and nervously clutching their bottle of Evian Mist. Hiromi, who speaks fluent Farsi and is too hot-blooded to be like any Japanese I have ever met, stepped out of the car and started screaming at the driver and passengers of the SUV. So did her husband. And so did I, not even realizing that I was! The other car turned out to be that of a local self-described "commandant" who appeared a bit amused that he had picked a fight with an Afghan but had ended up getting two Farsi-speaking foreign women pouncing on his head. Five minutes into it, there must have been a crowd of fifty surrounding us with lots of government security types in camouflage doing a poor job of maintaining order. But somehow, nothing came of the incident and we all returned to our vehicles. As we drove back, I reflected on how much of a character rift existed between foreigners who spend significant time in Afghanistan and 'go native' in their attitudes versus the newcomers or short-term visitors like the two girls who locked themselves in the back on the car, following their more intelligent instincts not to confront armed Afghan males.