If you are ever getting on a helicopter when the blades are already rotating, make sure to have the pilot give you the signal to board and never approach from the rear. This was one of the many pieces of information provided to me in the Security in the Field Trainings that UN Staff members have to take prior to or upon arrival in their duty station. Other information included pertinent information as to how to use your VHF (very high frequency radio) and how to use your watch as a compass. Other is relative to survival and one would hope to never have to actually use the training for avoiding mine fields, surviving a kidnapping, hostage situation or the correct questions to ask a caller informing you that there’s a bomb in your office.

I remember taking the online course thinking it would be a waste of my time until I actually did encounter mined areas and was told that I would be traveling by helicopter to a remote region in the Central Highland region of the Hindu Kush mountain chain, where my new duty station was located. Outside the main cities in Afghanistan—and often times inside the city themselves--there are terrible roads full of bumps, dirt, concrete and sometimes just an open space with some past tire marks. Highway systems do not exist--dirt paths and windy mountain roads are all that the country has and serves as mother nature's natural protection for anyone who wants to seek shelter in the mountains. In the south, it's vast desert roads--open roads leaving travelers sitting ducks for ambushes, which happen with relative frequency to military convoys.

During the winter, many parts of the country are inaccessible and the rate of suicide attacks and insurgent ambushes drop due to the lack of mobility. Locals in the coldest parts are reduced to walking in order to travel and limits how far they can go. Schools often shut as a result because children are not able to walk the long distances in snow from home to school--gives a whole new perspective to your grandfather's story of walking to school up hill both ways. Due to the logistics involved with Afghan travel, helicopters are the most efficient and effective way for many internationals to travel and access remote areas Afghanistan and I had the chance to travel frequently in them. Most of the NGOs and businesses do not have the chance to travel by them, but ICRC, diplomats, spies, UN staff and military are always jetting around the country.

I’m not sure if it was out of total error or lack of flights, but the first helicopter flight I ever took was VIP. I flew with ten other high level UN officials who were traveling to the region for a series of meetings and a short day visit to the Band-e-Amir lakes. They traveled with a Romanian close protection team—translates into men with big guns—and I had to wait until they safely boarded the flight to then get on. We sat in one line on one of the two metal benches lining the inside of the chopper. All the luggage is put in the middle and then tied down with mesh and rope. It's recommended to have an Ipod and definitely to wear the ear muff headsets to drown out the noise during the flight. As soon as the propellers start up, you can hear nothing but the drone of the engine and then after waiting for some time, doing some test starts, the helicopter ascends vertically in the air and you're on your way.

The helicopters operated by the UN are ironically old Soviet choppers. Markings on the inside of the helicopter are marked in Russian and some words in English. The pilots themselves are Russian and I think their English vocabulary equaled about 10 words. I once tried to engage the one in conversation. He smiled back at me with the majority of his teeth being gold plated. You seriously were in the hands of Allah most of the time in the sky.

After I began in my duty station I commuted twice weekly to a remote province named Daikundi in the town of Nili. I have mastered the art of sleeping in nearly all moving vehicles and helicopters proved to be no different. If I did manage to keep my eyes open for the duration of the 1.5 hour flight over the Hindu Kush, I would admire the sharp peaks and beauty of the mountains that passed by underneath.

The thrill of a helicopter ride beats the hell out of commuting by bus any day.

"It's like a dis Looreen..."

The reputation of my training manager with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan preceded my meeting her. Everyone seemed to know her and they unanimously had the reaction, a worried and sympathetic look in their eye as they asked, “Oh, and how is that going for you?” One Venezuelan man gasped when I told him who my manager was, “De veras? Estas trabajando por la loca??? After a couple beers this more times than not translated into, “como es el trabajo con la bruja?”

My boss, who shall remain nameless, was a Brazilian woman I’m assuming was in her fifties and severely unstable mentally. She did look good for her age, though I believe she secretly loved Botox. She always wore revealing shirts showing off her obviously enhanced chest saying, ‘It’s a like dat Looreen, they’re real! Everyone thinks that they are fake, but it’s a like dat, they’re real!’ Every bizarre thought she had would always be preceded with her waving her hands saying in a think Brazilian accent, “It’s a like dis…or, it’s a like a dat…"
Unfortunately, she suffers from extreme insecurity and takes it out on her subordinates. Your guess is as good as mine as to how she got to be in the post she’s at and making the salary she does—as a senior manager put it best when he was asking me about her, ‘what a f@!*%ing waste of money.’

I tried to not judge her before first meeting her. I even tried not to judge the fact that she wore completely inappropriate low cut shirts in front of Afghans. I even tried not to judge her when I would be stuck in her office listening to endless ramblings of her thoughts which included her berating other staff members, love for her cat, talk of Moses on a hill, theories on life and death, her passion for Portuguese men and her praising herself for how great a manager she is—going as far as to tell me that most of the staff at UNAMA wanted her as their manager. But I did have to judge her after what she put me through during my initial months in Afghanistan.

Also I did judge when she told my colleague to have all the most important items in her grab bag—passport, money, medications and condoms. The logic of including condoms with the other obviously necessary things is understandable unless she was thinking stress sex would inevitably be needed in the case of evacuation. The fact that I can even attempt to analyze the workings of her mind scares me.

After nearly two months into my time in the country, it was finally decided that I would be deployed to Bamyan. Upon my initial acceptance, I was to be deployed to Mazar e Shariff in the north, very close to the Uzbekistan border—after my shoulder surgery I delayed going and that assignment was given to another. I was later told Bamyan and it was Bamyan that I had originally been told I would be based and was the location I had mentally prepared myself to go to; however, upon arrival in country my boss informed me that I would be going elsewhere—to Gardez. If you paid attention to the news and heard of the suicide attack killing seven CIA officers in a place called Khost then you are aware of where my boss intended to send me. She also told me that she did not have a map to show me where it was located—merely waved out the window saying the helicopter went that way—yes, she was in fact crazy.

After Gardez, I was told I was going to remain in Kabul. I was fine with this until I was then told that I would be going to Herat—a beautiful city on the border with Iran. People were calling me from Herat and asking when I was arriving—everyone was asking except my manager. When I went to her office she informed me that I was not going to Herat, oh no, in a very thick Brazilian accent she informed me, “it’s a like dis Looreen—you are going to Kan-da-har.” I honestly think the floor dropped out from underneath me. Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, in the thick of the fighting and is NOT the place to be posted, especially as a female, especially as an American and especially as a UN Volunteer making half the hazard pay of an international employee. And especially since in my interview I was specifically told I would not be sent there—I raised this question to her and she waved her hand, “things change Looreen.” What’s changed? I didn’t change. The situation in Kandahar didn’t change. Obviously it was her decision that changed.

She assured me that we would go together—in her own words, she told me that we would go and stay for a couple days and share the same room-toast each other with wine and then I would realize that Kandahar really isn’t such a bad place to be. Of course she herself having been in the country had never been there for herself. To top it off, she then told me I had to go and if I didn’t want to then I could go to Gardez or if I was still would not go then I could pack my bags and go to the US. Mind you there was another English teacher and friend of mine who, upon arrival in country, told psycho boss she actually wanted to go to these places…crazy pants boss told her, “We don’t send women to places like that.” I guess I was different. Honestly, I think she kind of wanted to kill me in some sick passive-aggressive manner.

I did pack my bags and was about to board a plane the next day, not for Kandahar, but for the USA. My awesome friend and neighbor and emotional rock in Kabul learnt what was happening and had an intervention with me and basically told me to go to every high level UN official who would listen to my case and raise hell. And so I did. First to my sympathetic UNV manager—she got the worst of it because I had kept so much bottled up that it came out in a stream of profanity and tears. She herself had suffered abuse from the boss I had.
She then walked me to the boss of my boss (in retrospect, the bureaucracy of it all was quite funny). He is a very understanding man, American and a converted Muslim. Despite the amount of craziness he encounters in the mission he is able to remain calm and understanding. It drove my boss crazy I’m sure.

I sat and first apologized that I was too upset to be diplomatic and for the next five minutes let out a monologue of all that I had endured with my boss. I’m leaving a lot of the details out, but it was complete abuse of authority and, as I reflect, I realize it was close to harassment in many aspects. At one point he sat rubbing his temples saying he did not know how to professionally respond. What was my response? “Well that’s all understandable, but I just thought it best to let you know why I have packed my bags and am ready to depart Kabul tomorrow morning.”

He then called in a colleague of his, they documented what had occurred and it was agreed that my boss was to be reprimanded harshly. I also added in this meeting the fact that I was being harassed into going to the South of Afghanistan, a place I was not willing to go as a UN Volunteer, but there was a volunteer who did. It was agreed that the solution to this was simple—and I would be swapped with the volunteer who wanted to go to Kandahar.
And so, after being told my duty station would be Mazar-Gardez-Kabul-Herat-Kandahar…I was deployed to Bamyan. The place from the beginning I was to go to. As bad as my boss was to me, I kind of feel impervious to office politics now. I mean, I don’t think it gets much worse than your boss doing a smear campaign on you and attempting to send you into the line of fire because they are on some power trip or in some state of mania. If it does, let me know.
I arrived in Bamyan in September and remained until December. Unfortunately for my colleague sent to Kandahar, she arrived and was then evacuated out of the country five days later due to a horrific Taliban attack that resulted in a large number or UN staff to be relocated outside the country.

Recently I began an internship with another UN agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency, in Beirut, Lebanon. Second day on the job I met the training officer who was asking me of my time in Afghanistan. She then asked me if I knew a Brazilian woman working in training there—I couldn’t help smiling when she gave a perfect description of my ex-boss. “Yes, she was my manager.” My colleague gave me that all too familiar look of people who had encountered my boss, “What’s wrong with her? She’s kind of crazy, isn’t she?”

Yes,she truly is.

Shahr-e-Gholgola (City of Noise)

The ruins of Shahr-e-Gholgola are one of the first things you see when flying into the picturesque Bamyan valley located in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. From Persian (Farsi) it translates into the 'town of noise'. I have heard it referred to as both the Silent City and Screaming City. The hill it sits on has the remains of what was once a prosperous city from the 5th to 7th Century AD. In 1221, Genghis Khan's grandson was killed in the area and Genghis did what any other blood thirsty Mongol ruler would do in an event that a family member was murdered--he sought revenge and by this I mean blood bath.

Genghis Khan invaded the region in 1221 AD and vowed to kill everybody including every man, woman, child, bird and animal in the valley and, true to his word, he did just that. The scream that accompanied the final massacre gave the citadel of the city the name by which it is often referred to today. The Mongols thereafter referred to it as the Mao Balegh or 'cursed city'.

Tourists can visit the ruins, but it is imperative to have a guide for safety reasons. Unmarked landmines are in the area and the threat of stepping on one is very real.

I saw Gholgola daily in the distance when I lived in Bamyan, but I never did make it to the top of the ruins. Once I, along with three others, attempted to visit Gholgola and had a an unexpected experience. As we began our ascent up the hill, we were intercepted by a very rude Afghan tour leader who seemed to appear out of nowhere--his loud voice and angry tone earned him the name Mr. Scream. He yelled at us in Dari that we needed to buy a ticket and told us we should leave the ruins, go to the tourist office--located a fair distance away--and then return. We had no car and asked why we could not just purchase admission there--for some reason he inisted on us going to the tourist office.

The tourist industry is obviously just starting in the Bamyan valley and there are tickets you can purchase at the tourist office just opposite the Buddhas. The idea is that a tourist buys the ticket and then gains entry to all the sites in the Valley including the Buddhas, Red City and Gholgola. However, the Afghans have not put into practice this procedure and there seems to be no cooridination or instructions posted anywhere informing you of this process.

Randomly, a pious man who spoke Arabic just happended to be hanging out on the hill and after seeing Mr. Scream act like a moron came to us to see what was the matter. Given my basic Dari did not convey my frustration created from the Afghan red tape I was facing, I explained to him in Arabic that I merely wanted to pay admission and could not understand why I had to go all the way to the tourist office. He attempted to negotiate with Mr. Scream, but Mr. Scream was adament on following the procedure of going to the ticket office. The end of the argument involved the arrival of three ex-Mujahadeen fighters--really not sure what there job was, but I believe they were guards at the top of the ruins to ensure everyone had a ticket--whatever they were, they had big kalashnikovs and agreed with Mr. Scream that we had to go to the tourist office. At that point, it was obviously futile to continue attempts at entry--angry looking men with guns was Mr. Scream's trump card.

The Arabic speaking elderly man accompanied us down the hill from Gholgola and he repeatedly apologized for his fellow country men saying all of Afghanistan is a problem. His soothing words and understanding nature soon made me forget the anger I felt from Mr. Scream's ignorance and the mujahadeen's guns. He told me of the countries he had visited while seeking refuge abroad--his beautiful Arabic, which he spoke in a the classic form, was a result of thirty years he had spent living in the Gulf. He eventually separated from our group and walked on, gently counting his prayer beads as he silently reciting a name for Allah for each bead he held between his fingers. Arms folded behind his back, he sauntered off towards his home in the distance. Though he lived near to my guesthouse, I never saw him again. Problems are everywhere in the world, but it's people like him that give you faith that there are good people out there--and can appear unexpectedly when you give up hope of finding them.

The Young British Soldier

In 1895, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled, the Young British Soldier. I came across the following excerpt many times during my time in Afghanistan:

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your God like a soldier."

Recently, a modern-day British soldier re-wrote the famous Kipling poem. I think it's worth sharing as it gives a pretty good account of the war today, which I don't believe Kipling could ever predict.

The original:

When the 'arf-made recruity goes out to the East
'E acts like a babe an' 'e drinks like a beast,
An' 'e wonders because 'e is frequent deceased
Ere 'e's fit for to serve as a soldier.
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

Now all you recruities what's drafted to-day,
You shut up your rag-box an' 'ark to my lay,
An' I'll sing you a soldier as far as I may:
A soldier what's fit for a soldier.
Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

First mind you steer clear o' the grog-sellers' huts,
For they sell you Fixed Bay'nets that rots out your guts --
Ay, drink that 'ud eat the live steel from your butts --
An' it's bad for the young British soldier.
Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

When the cholera comes -- as it will past a doubt --
Keep out of the wet and don't go on the shout,
For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,
An' it crumples the young British soldier.
Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

But the worst o' your foes is the sun over'ead:
You must wear your 'elmet for all that is said:
If 'e finds you uncovered 'e'll knock you down dead,
An' you'll die like a fool of a soldier.
Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

If you're cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,
Don't grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;
Be handy and civil, and then you will find
That it's beer for the young British soldier.
Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

Now, if you must marry, take care she is old --
A troop-sergeant's widow's the nicest I'm told,
For beauty won't help if your rations is cold,
Nor love ain't enough for a soldier.
'Nough, 'nough, 'nough for a soldier . . .

If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath
To shoot when you catch 'em -- you'll swing, on my oath! --
Make 'im take 'er and keep 'er: that's Hell for them both,
An' you're shut o' the curse of a soldier.
Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,
Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,
Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck
And march to your front like a soldier.
Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

When 'arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,
Don't call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;
She's human as you are -- you treat her as sich,
An' she'll fight for the young British soldier.
Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

When shakin' their bustles like ladies so fine,
The guns o' the enemy wheel into line,
Shoot low at the limbers an' don't mind the shine,
For noise never startles the soldier.
Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

"It's not green."

I arrived in Kabul four days later than initially expected. Actually four months later if I want to go back to the delay involved in shoulder rehabilitation. But it was the actual day of my departure that was the most frustrating.

I departed Pittsburgh's airport at an ungodly early hour in the morning and then flew to DC, where my flight was delayed. I had to go onwards to JFK in NYC and the delay got me in just in time for a half hour to transfer terminals, pass security and get to my Emirates flight to Dubai. For the record, I did not make this booking--a travel agent for the UN did and I suppose they thought it would be more convenient to fly my twice inside the US before getting to my international flight--who knows.

From there I would take the UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) flight onwards to Kabul. It only operated on specific days. At that time, I thought it was only these special servers granted access to Afghanistan--but now I know there are commercial airlines such as Safi and Ariana--more often referred to as Scariana and was the airline used by Bin Laden to transport loads of heroine and weapons around the country prior to WTC attacks in the US on September 11, 2001.

I arrived in JFK with just the time to spare. In DC, the airline ticket counter had been kind enough to issue me a Emirates boarding card so I would not have to re-check in at the Emirates counter and, theoretically, save me some time. All looked good, right? Wrong.

JFK is crap at signage. Myself and three other passengers thought the air rail would take us directly from Terminal 3 to Terminal 4....instead it took us closer to Manhatten and shaved 15 minutes off the time we so needed to get to our gate, where our flight was in the process of boarding. When we finally hopped trains ran to the security gate and breathlessly handed our cards to the TSA agent in front of the security line, he looked down and handed our cards back saying, 'its' not green'. I was confused and gave the card back. He did not even look this time and again said, 'it's not green'. I then asked what the heck he was referring to. He told me that if it was a real Emirates boarding pass, then there would be a green strip at the top of the card. Instead, mine was white--cardboard, information, name, all the details, but lacking that green strip--he of course did not explain this to me. Only repeated the same three words over and over looking over my head. I was desperate as I could literally see my flight boarding behind him.

I and the others then made a mad dash up a flight of stairs to the counter to get our magic green tickets. The agent made a radio call, then apologetically told us that the gate had closed and we would have to re-book our flight. I was in shock. All I could remember was the 'it's not green man' was missing a front tooth--I wanted to go down and knock them all out.

I was then given two options--take the next flight and wait a two days in Dubai before the next UNHAS flight departed, or fly back to Pittsburgh and take a later flight. I opted for the latter and was re-booked for a direct Pittsburgh-JFK flight. Soooo much better. I even wore green in anticipation of the toothless security guard, but alas he was not there. I can only hope he was fired.

14 hours later I was in Dubai transiting to the UNHAS counter. Honestly, I kind of thought I would be on one of those planes equipped to drop food from the sky. It was not. Rather, I was checked into the flight and sat nervously with a group of UN diplomats flying to Kabul. I surveyed the crowd. Everyone seemed mellow and not really shaken given we were about to fly to a war zone. One in particular stood out as his face and neck were completely tattooed. I later found out he was a Kiwi who worked counter narcotics in Helmand and despite his intimidating appearance, was one of the kindest individuals you'd ever meet. That day I stood clear of him.

After waiting for quite some time, we were herded onto a bus and then took a long ride out to what seemed like another airport where we climbed the stairs of our plane with a big UN painted on the side. Not surprising, the flight was empty. I believe there were about 15 of us. Travel caught up with me and I crashed on the flight to wake up to a view of the Hindu Kush out the window.

Arrival in Kabul. Helicopters were all over the runway. Do I put my veil on or not? I non-nonchalantly tried to observe the three other females on the flight to follow their lead--only one threw a loose veil over her head, so I did the same. I still felt awkward as I stepped out and breathed the air of Kabul--I have gotten into the habit of noticing the smell of a place upon arrival. In Kabul I smelt dirt.

I went through customs and then out to the greeting area, where I was told someone would greet me. Sayed Hamed, an Afghan national and assistant to my Romanian UNV manager, had a sign with my name on it. He quickly greeted me and courteously took my one bag I had brought with me to help me carry it. He then slipped a cigarette into his mouth. Before lighting it, he cocked his head to the side and asked, 'So have you been to Afghanistan before?'. I told him no, first time, and he then lit his cigarette, exhaling and smiling. "Welcome to Afghanistan." Sayed was the first of so many others to repeat that phrase during my time in the Hindu Kush.

Life for the Foreigners

The #1 thing that shocked me when I arrived in Kabul? There's actually places to go and you can actually have a social life outside of where you work. The presence of the international community along with some very savvy restaurant entrpreneurs realized that they could turn a very good profit off these foreigners coming to work. The restaurant owners also realize that the workers are very well paid and the prices in Western establishments reflect this. All is marked in US dollars--Euro and British Sterling will never be refused.

A diner or drinker in Kabul is able to choose from various culinary cuisines ranging from: Lebanese, French--this on complete with a lit up Eiffel tower--, Mexican, Chinese, French, Italian, American, Afghan, Thai and others that I was only learning of when I left. These establishments were well stocked with booze when I left in December 2009, though I have learned that there have been several raids on alcohol in the early period of 2010. A handful of these restaurants are 'cleared' by the UN's MOSS (Minimal Operating Security Standards) and foreigners living under lock and key are able to go without the added stress of violating their security protocol. MOSS standards include buildings having a barricades and checkpoints into the establishment, a safe room to go to in case of attack, armed guards, blast walls, and a minimum of 8 foot walls along the perimeter.

If someone wants to 'risk it' and, and they very well do, their options open up to even more non-MOSS compliant locales.

There is also a five star hotel, the Serena, boasting a weekend brunch with sushi. Swimming pools (clearly only for the summer months), restaurants and bars are scattered in Kabul. In the early days of the US led operation in Afghanistan, you could visit places without the security measures in place today. Since 2005, a steady stream of suicide bombers trained in Pakistan, have been sent over the border succeeding in their missions and, as a result, the situation has steadily deteriorated and doesn't appear to be changing anytime in the near future.

While no Western equivalent of a fast food chain exists, there are the local versions of AFC (Afghan Fried Chicken) and KFC (Kabul Fried Chicken)--this one even has the Colonel on display though Kentucky no longer exists for KFC Kabul style.

I never tried them so I can't comment on the quality!


Kabul is the main artery into the country. It's a crossroads of Afghan tribes and I heard a statistic once in passing that it's the most heavily armed city in the world--I would believe it. This is not surprising given the amount of US and NATO forces that are based in the Afghan capital. It is a flat city sitting at the base of the Hindu Kush and it is the mountains bordering the city along with the thick layer of brown haze that you first see upon descent into Kabul International airport.

Kabul was once lined with green trees with orchards on the outside of the city full of delicious fruits, juicy apples and plump almonds. Then the Russians came and decided it was more important to use those trees as firewood. Kabul today is a dust bowl of urban sprawl in an arid and dry climate. Respiratory illness from the dirt and pollution is common.

Kabul International Airport is located near downtown and its entry way is decorated with a fighter jets and the remnants of a rocket attack. From my time that I spent there, the amount of security at the checkpoints continually increased and you are now greeted far from the airport by men with guns and a tank.

After you leave the secure barricades of the city it's a patchwork of life. Bikes dodge through lanes of traffic that change in number and direction quickly. Streets are lined with shops selling goods and many shoes always seem to be for sale on the sidewalks. Women in burkha walk by as do women with only veils--both seem to like to wear heels. Men and boys run through traffic and play in dirt piles and all seem to be wearing the chalwar kamiz dress. And there are several men wearing sylish, pointy Italian shoes with shiny polyester shirts complete with uber amounts of hair gel.

Stalls of fruits and vegetables are on the sides of the road--when I was there there were always melons. Big melons that never seemed to go down in quantity. Go out at 2am and you'll find a guy selling a hundred melons--that or big hunks of naan bread. Naan is round flat breads baked fresh and can vary in sizes from 6 inches to 2 feet of goodness. Bread shops always have a man furiously kneading dough and taking the breads out of the oven...they are stacked in the windows to be sold or hung around the windows of the shop. The going cost of a 2 foot piece of naan will cost you roughly .50 cents.

Afghan cars are unique in that I believe it to be the one place in the world where you find cars with with steering wheels on both the left and right. That's not to say that a car has two steering wheels, but you will see some cars going by with one or the other. I suppose it's whatever they can get into the country. Given that there's barely a functioning government, I think that the placement of a steering wheel is the least of the country's worries.

After passing the shops you begin to see very high concrete walls lining both sides of the street. These are blast walls, built to withstand bomb detonations. Often the top of these walls will be complete with large loops of barbed wire and the rule is for the walls to be a minimum of 8 feet in height--making it difficult for anyone to jump them.

Upon entry into buildings frequented by Westerners you also have to pass through several security checkpoints. If driving, you may be stopped far outside a building in a little garage surrounded by sandbags while your ID is scrutinized, the bottom of your car is evaluated for any bombs along with under the hood of your car. If you pass that, then you go through several barricades before going through another two sets of security screenings complete with men with guns watching you from above in guard towers, just in case.

Mind you, these are the places where 'hard targets' work and live. For the rest of Kabul, you can enter with relative ease and if it's an Afghan establishment, the security restrictions do not apply.

Why on earth would someone travel to Afghanistan?

Despite what is shown on virtually every media outlet, tourists are visiting Afghanistan. Let me repeat myself in case the first line is not fully understood--tourists are visiting Afghanistan and it's not to see grisly battles or dodge suicide bombers. Adventure tour companies will arrange for short one day tours to week long ventures into the various areas of Afghanistan.

What about the war? Yep, there's fighting, but it's mainly isolated in the Southern regions of Helmand, Kandahar and along the Eastern border with Pakistan--listen closer to the news reports when they announce where incidents take place and you'll notice a trend. All these places are where the Pashtun tribe is dominant. The lines of Afghanistan are drawn by outsiders in order to contain and govern the country. Afghanistan itself is tribal. That line between Afghanistan may as well be drawn with chalk or invisible ink for that matter given that the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are the same as the ones in Pakistan. But they are aware that by crossing the borders they are exempt from the governance 'laws' of the country. It's a tribal system that exists and always will.

Afghanistan is, in fact, one of the most breathtaking places a traveler can ever imagine. The hospitality of the Afghan people and readily available, potent hashish brought long haired hippies in droves back in the 70's while they wanderlust took them on a path for their Shangri La in nearby India and Nepal. For the record, the hotels from the past are still operational and waiting for the day when visitors return once again.

The Band-e-Amir Lakes are one of the hidden gems in this country. Local folklore gives a history as to why these lakes exist in the middle of the mountainous desert they are found. The lakes are inaccessible during the winter months. Band-e-Amir translates into the the Lakes of Commander--a reference to Ali, the first Imam for the Shia sect of Islam. The six lakes roughly translate in to the following:
  • Band-e Gholaman (slaves)
  • Band-e Qambar (Caliph Ali's slave)
  • Band-e Haibat (grandiose)
  • Band-e Panir (cheese)
  • Band-e Pudina (wild mint)
  • Band-e Zulfiqar (the sword of Ali)
The were created by the carbon dioxide rich water oozing out fo the faults and fractures in the surrounding rocks; however, the Afghans have much more romantic explanations as to why the eerie blue waters exist that include divine intervention and swords being struck in the ground.

This is not to say that there are not limitations or difficulties to traveling in Afghanistan--there most definitely are. But there also is a possibility of visiting a fascinating part of the world known to the West only as war.

The Bukhari

I've been told the one good thing about the Afghan South is that it is warm in the winter. For the rest of the country it's cold. Damn cold.
The difference between damn cold and next to unbearable cold is the fact that Afghanistan also lacks indoor heating...or good insulation. Plus, there's power cuts. A recipe for some intense shivering especially at night.
And if you're in the Central Highland region up in the mountains in the center of the country, then you are guaranteed to freeze. It's acknowledged and accepted that -30C is the norm during the winter.

And that's when you need to meet the bukhari. A rudimentary heating system conisising of a metal stove, a piping to let the exhaust out--preferably a chimney, but an open window will do as well--saw dust, oil and a match. You light the bottom of big pile of saw dust and it burns thru the night. Surprisingly, it kicks some heat, or rather the one I had in my bedroom did. A friend of mine said she could have straddled hers and still would have chattering teeth.

It's a major fire hazard, environmentally unsafe and a saving grace for the hundreds stranded in the freeze of Afghanistan. The second would definitley have to be Vodka--Russians were truly on to something and is probably the only good thing they left in their wake of withdrawl back in 1989. Of course, copious amounts of Stolichnaya do not even begin to compensate the number of trees cut down by the Russians for firewood that has left Kabul the virtual dust bowl it is today.

The bukhari is not illegal or able to be confiscated by Afghan police raids, too--so, its you most reliable method for staying warm in the dreaded winter months of Afghan Nation.

International Day of Peace: September 21, 2009

A series of peace activities were scheduled in Kabul in response to the International Day of Peace. Even the Taliban acknowledged the day and promised a cease fire in respect to the day's intentions to bring a hault to violence. UN vehicles proudly drove the streets of Kabul with blue and white doves symbolizing the event and loads of preparation went into preparation for the event. I'm sure the money could not have been spent in any other well deserving capacity. Nevertheless, a series of events ensued including a kite flying event at the UN's compound on Jalabad Road. Oh how proud Khaled Hosseini would be in that the title of his well-known book, the Kite Runner, did indeed live up to its expectations. Of course there was no kite fights or cutting involved.
It did leave us with a good feeling after the event, maybe just in that it lifted the monotony of our daily lives on the compound. As I walked back to my office a very large explosion could be heard. Usually this is followed by a SMS text informing you that it was only a test--what exactly they were testing I was always curious of. Sometimes at 11pm I would hear machine gun fire and explosions and these sounds would always fall into the background with the reassurance of receiving that beloved SMS telling you it was only a test.
But that day it was not a test. Rather it was a suicide attack on a NATO convoy led by the Italians. I believe 9 total were killed. One, as we later learned, was the brother of a dear colleague of mine. He was on holiday from Pakistan visiting his family in Kabul.
We initally learned the news over lunch. The head of engineering and a security officer I was with began received text messages informing them to do a head count on staff--to track any UN victims. I was always amazed by the poise of the security officer. He very calmly finished his sandwich, stood up and steadily excused himself telling us he was going to go freak out.
I returned to the office and my manager was nowhere to be found--not surprising--so we had to account for all on our own. All were there except for one colleague who we knew was to be going to the Indian Embassy that day to get a visa. That being the location near to where the bombing took place. I called her number to check if she was okay--no answer. I tried to reassure myself that she was okay--that she did not answer because they had cut the telephone lines. IED (Improvised Exploding Devices) are often set off by mobile phones. If there is an attack, a nearby military convoy or threat of explosion the lines are cut to prevent detonation.
We all sat in our office tensely for what seemed forever and we then heard the click clack of our colleagues heels. She had missed the blast entirely and we carried on with our day as we always did. Put that event on the back burner. No time to think about it as another event would come. This was our reality.
As an addendum, this did not happen on the scheduled International Day of Peace--but did occur during Peace Week. The Taliban held true to their promise and no such event occurred on 9/21/2009.

Reflection on Afghanistan

I did not blog in Afghanistan. I should have, but I did not. You could blame it on many reasons, but in retrospect I believe most of my mental energy was consumed by stress. That combined with the fact that the Internet was repeatedly down, websites were repeatedly blocked--or the recurrence of power cuts made it quite the task.

Decompressing from life in a war zone is not easy. I truly believe if you are to survive, then you have to mentally remove yourself from reality. If you don't, then you risk breakdown and all too often you see your colleagues go through it.You see hear and feel the reality of how fleeting life can be from the bombs exploding and land mines that are marked. You see the flares set off by planes to divert rocket launches and wake to your windows shaking from a suicide blast that was clearly not far from your home. Text messages assuring you that 'the machine gun fire you are currently hearing is only a test'--and this becomes your reality. You joke of always having your grab bag ready--15 kilos of your most important items in case you have to evacuate immediately--and sometimes you actually use it. I did and actually re-enacted the opening scene of MASH by running for a helicopter to get out of a remote area due to a colleague who had lost his marbles--he was not able to remove himself from the reality like I mention above.

The worst of it is when you go to someone for comfort, more like search for someone who can be a source of it. But alas you never find that person. They too need someone to assure them that it will be okay, but in a fluid environment that changes without warning assurance is a luxury that no one can afford. Everyone is scared and if they say they're not then they're a trying to be proud.

The most chilling is when you receive the warning that an attack is imminent or that a vehicle known to have a bomb in it is on the loose in your city. Or when you hear your colleague's home has been attacked--knowing you had been in that area only an evening or week earlier having dinner and you could have been victim. Your only crime? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think the worst of it is that hope has left the country. Everyone you speak to has the same reaction when you inquire as to the future of the country. Often they shrug their shoulders and tell you Afghanistan is war. That's all they know at this point. 30 years of it and it won't end any time soon. I hope for the peron who can bring that hope and faith so desperately needed by the people--I can assure you that Karzai is not that person. His opponent in last August's election, Abdullah Abdullah, did give many a flicker of hope in their eyes. But alas, corruption won once again and Karzai is still in his posh palace assuring Western leaders they have his full support.

Many ask me what the solution is to it all and my response would be the same as all the policy makers--not a clue.

That being said, Afghanistan is also a place of beauty and hospitality that does not exist elsewhere. The whole of the country is not at war. You can literally draw a line in the country between the north and south and determine where problems will arise. It is the south where the fighting exists the most--centered around the Pashtun tribe and poppy fields. In the north, it is quite calm. You can see some of the most spectacular scenery from the mountains and also see the eerie blue waters of the BandAmir lakes.

Hotels do exist and the owners wait endlessly for the return of the travelers who in the '70s used to come following their wanderlust on the 'hippie trail' leading on into nearby India and Nepal. Adventure tour companies cater to the intrepid tourists, though there is a hefty cost.

I leave with one last clarification--not all the women are wearing the burkha and I for sure did not have to do so. As a non-Muslim female you do not even have to wear a veil--though it is the de rigeur of nearly every female you encounter.

I'm sifting through my notes and journals and will write more of my days in Afghanistan--though it will be in reflections. I'm still trying to understand things that I saw and forget some of the feelings that I felt--though I understand that I never will.