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Afghanistan

Kabul

Rebuilding from rubble

Reaching the outskirts of Kabul from the east, my first introduction to the city was of the various international military bases that line the road. This was soon replaced by endless rows of damaged buildings, mostly apartment blocks. It was not at all uncommon to see a building with one end reduced to rubble and the other end still in use.

[Photo right: the shell of a building in the devastated Kart-e-Char neighborhood near Kabul University. Despite the destruction, several families still live inside.]

I was going to spend my first night in Kabul at the Mustafa Hotel, one of the better hotels in Kabul and quite popular with journalists and NGO workers. My driver had no idea where it was and neither did I. Well, I sort of knew, but couldn't quite explain how to get there from here as I wasn't exactly sure where here was. The driver found someone on the street who not only knew where the hotel was but spoke fairly good English as well. He wasted no time in offering his translation services to me for $20 a day plus $10 for a car, which these days is not all that unreasonable. But I figured I could probably do better and as I'm never very trusting of people who accost me on the street I thanked him for his offer and then upon arrival at the hotel, requested of the staff at the Mustafa not to reveal to him or anyone else what room I was staying in or whether I was even there or not.

A basic room in the Mustafa presently costs $35 a night and for that you get a room not much bigger than the minuscule twin-size bed that fills up nearly half of the space. Bath facilities are down the hall and uncharacteristic of lodging in Afghanistan, they are clean and usually have 24-hour hot running water. The rooms, though small, are clean as well. There is an internet cafe on the ground floor with surprisingly fast connections but at the surprising rate of $4 an hour! It's most certainly not a bad hotel, just expensive.

The Mustafa is in the Shahr-e-Naw neighborhood - a peaceful, more prosperous area that's home to embassies, many NGOs, tourist-oriented shops, restaurants, small groceries of imported goods, and expensive guesthouses. As a result of this personality, it does not paint an accurate picture of Kabul. Most of the city is in fact a chaotic, dirty, noisy place.

Lodging in Afghanistan is a bad deal. This really shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, we are talking about a country with no tourist infrastructure and not much more of any other kind of infrastructure barely emerging from more than two decades of war. But if that was the only reason.

The $35 room at the Mustafa would sell for no more than $10 in Southeast Asia. And for $8-10 in Afghanistan you get a room barely worth $1-2 - dirty, no running water, nothing. There are several reasons for this. As I alluded to, there are the infrastructure problems. Afghanistan has neither a steady supply of electricity nor running water (the country has been in a severe drought for four years now), so a hotel that takes on the expense to create a steady reliable water source and to provide the power necessary to make that water available on demand, has no choice but to push up the price of lodging. You want these things, that's what it costs.

However, there is a another factor that's pushed the prices up and is one which I'm not so understanding about - it's the NGOs who have done a splendid job of throwing large sums of money around the country, often paying three and four times the true value of things. The result of these irresponsible fiscal policies is that many locals Afghans, unaccustomed to foreigners in the first place, have a very distorted view of the true wealth we possess. Yes, we are considerably more wealthy but we have limits as well, and should tourism begin to increase in Afghanistan it's going to be a rude surprise to both the budget tourist and the locals when the former are hit with unreasonable requests and the latter, who will have to come to terms that tourists will not and CANNOT pay the kind of money the NGOs have made them accustomed to receiving. I see some problems down the road here.

When ridiculous requests were made in respect to the cost of say, a bottle of water, a taxi ride, a car for the day, my response was either "What? I'm not UN!" or "What? I'm not NGO!" In most cases the local would then laugh and the cost would be immediately reduced by half or more. This scenario played itself out so many times that while the humor of the situation was always enjoyable, the underlying reality is the NGOs and the UN are doing a lot of damage to the expectations of the Afghan people.

Seeing as I was to spend the next twelve days hearing Afghans complain incessantly about the NGOs - the lack of visible results and the visible matters of their, by all appearances, comfy accommodation and comfy vehicles, I'll get back to the topic again later. Meanwhile...

There is one budget option: it is possible to sleep at some of the teahouse (chaikhana) restaurants for free or almost free. As a foreigner, this will attract you some attention and you'll have to decide for yourself whether you can trust the other lodgers to stay out of your bags once you drift into dreamland, but it is an option, nonetheless.

As is normal at all Afghan hotels, checking in requires inspection of your passport. As I'm an American, the man at the Mustafa passed on the information that the US embassy requests all its citizens to register with them their presence in the country. Doing so would of course make it possible for the embassy to issue all their hysterical warnings about the dangers of Afghanistan and all the places to avoid. They would probably tell me to go home.

Seeing as bombs explode and shoot-outs do occur in front of the US embassy more often than say, in a bazaar along the Kabul River, I decided that the US embassy was probably about the most dangerous place in all of Afghanistan (or at least Kabul) so I saw no purpose in bothering to register my presence with people whose opinions I did not respect, whose advice has been consistently inaccurate, and represented the one place in Afghanistan, okay, maybe not the one place (but I wasn't planning to visit the south), where I'd have a chance of having a problem. Curiously, on one of my final days in Afghanistan, a shoot-out did take place in front of the embassy leaving four Afghans dead.

For those reading this not familiar with me or this website, I have been writing about Southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular, for a number of years and I have frequently taken a number of embassies and foreign offices to task for publishing inaccurate and misleading advice regarding regional security situations. I am of the firm belief that embassies, foreign offices, etc are about the worst place to get accurate travel advice. As an embassy employee once told me privately, the warnings are not issued to protect citizens but are issued to cover the embassy's ass if something unpleasant should happen to one of their nationals, which would explain why my embassy never tells me to avoid travel in North Philly.

[Photo left: A view down Chicken Street]

That said, I checked into the Mustafa, then walked over to Chicken Street. A short block away, this is a block-long line of souvenir and craft shops and is about the only place in Afghanistan where as a foreigner you'll have to deal with people trying to drag you into their shops as well as the only place in Kabul with an appreciable number of beggars. While Afghanistan has its fair share of beggars the numbers are far less than in countries like Cambodia, as Afghanistan doesn't yet have the droves of bleeding heart tourists that encourage begging as a profession. Half the beggars along Chicken Street were young boys who'd run after you with one of two pitches, either, "baksheesh" or worse, "$1 dollar". Not even a 'please' or a pleasant introduction, i.e., "Hello, sir, how are you?" but that's Kabul's version of the Backsheesh Boys.

I ducked into one bookshop, Habib's Books, finding a place I suggest avoiding. I had read on the internet that they were a little greedy here so for curiosity's sake I took a peak at a copy of the Nelles map of Afghanistan - a pretty good map and one that carries the price of US $8.95 in most of the world (though I got one in Pakistan for $7). Habib's had conveniently covered this listed price with a sticker bearing the figure of $25!!!!!! I pointed this out to the seller who agreed that okay, maybe $25 is a little bit high. How about $15? That is about what you can expect on Chicken Street so bargain hard if you're planning to pick up some souvenirs.

There's a well-stocked bookshop up on the corner where Chicken Street becomes Flower Street that offers slightly better prices. Flower Street is another cozy road of, hey, flower shops(!) and small groceries that carry a fairly impressive selection of imported goods. Though more limited in selection, the best prices for any reading matter is downtown by the river in front of the Spinzar Hotel. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of Nancy Dupree's An Historical Guide to Afghanistan (see the Links and Resources section for more details on this book) can do so by the river for around $6. The aforementioned bookshop on the corner will set you back around $8 and I don't even want to think what Habib's tries to sell the thing for.

You can get alcohol in Kabul and the Mustafa is one such place where it's available, but beer runs about $3 a can. I decided to continue the one-month wagon ride that a Pakistan-Afghanistan trip was providing me - I didn't really care to spend the $20-30 that a night on the piss would cost, but I did see other folks carrying bags and bags of Heinekens into the hotel.

I had some kebabs and bread at one of the ubiquitous kebab/pulao restaurants, not yet aware of how familiar and tired I would become with this combination.

A majority of restaurants in Afghanistan offer the same menu: beef kebabs, either regular or ground, pulao (a kind of flavored rice served with a block of beef or piece of chicken), and bread. That's it. Kebabs or rice and bread. For two weeks that was my diet. There was a brief respite in Mazar-e-Sharif where a northern dish, a kind of ravioli known as mantu, is available, but otherwise it was kebabs or rice or just as often, both. Occasionally, I'd get daring and try some soup, but that was about as far as the options went. With these meals one would often be served a small bowl of yogurt and a small plate of vegetables which more often than not left me wondering if carbon dating might help determine their origin. I passed on those extras.

Kabul does have a few restaurants offering a handful of international cuisines, but the cost is a bit higher than the $1-2 you can get a meal at a basic kebab restaurant for and I really didn't relish the idea of having an Italian meal in Kabul.

Still, I soon found that to get any kind of variety in my diet I would have to resign myself to examining the size and shape of the skewers the kebabs were served on as well as the shape of the bread as there were sometimes minor differences in the style and flavor of the bread. A slight change in the bread was indeed a highlight of any meal.

I went to bed that night with the false impression that Kabul is a quiet, suburban-like city. But the Shahr-e-Naw neighborhood has that effect on one's perception of the city.

I checked out of the Mustafa first thing in the morning, though I did return regularly to use the ground floor internet cafe. I headed to the main downtown area where four hotels sit in a one-block area, the Spinzar, the Zarnegar, the Jamil, and the Plaza. The Spinzar is $20 and up which was more than I wanted to spend, the Plaza wasn't worth going past the front door, so that left the Jamil and the Zarnegar. The Jamil has received mixed reviews from the few foreigners who have been there and posted their experiences on the internet - one claims to have been tossed out on the street for no reason - so I decided to give the Zarnegar a shot.

The Zarnegar is a little difficult to find - you'll see signs several floors above the street but locating the entrance is another matter. So walk past the tailors into the small plaza, walk up the stairs, wave to the very friendly people running the restaurant (kebabs! pulao! bread!), turn left and walk around the hallway until you find the reception room. The usual guy behind the desk is nice enough but speaks almost no English. The owner's son occasionally hangs around when he's not in Peshawar and can speak English quite well. For foreigners they ask $10 for what they charge Afghans around $3 for. They claim it's because they have to pay an additional tax of about $3-5 to the police (they were a little vague about this). However, they won't tell you what the tax is, I found out through another person later, but in any event, foreigners will always pay more. The police do in fact, check hotel registers nightly and every hotel I stayed at was quite meticulous about taking down my passport details so foreigner tax claims would appear to be the truth.

In any event, I got the room for $8 and it was barely worth $3. Paper thin walls and shared bathrooms with no running water, but as I was to learn, at the budget level in Afghanistan you'd do well just to have access to a toilet, never mind its condition. Well-seasoned China travelers shouldn't experience adjustment problems here. In any event, the bathroom was shabby and another surprise is that while water is available for manually flushing the toilets, actually doing so is an exercise most Afghans can't be bothered with and all the other guests in the hotel were Afghan.

Room sorted, I grabbed the cameras and headed out to the streets. The quiet city I remembered around the Mustafa was replaced with noisy chaos. Along the Kabul River, well, it was a river when there was water in it, is the bazaar area. It is indeed bizarre and as the lone foreigner I was the day's main attraction. If I walked around with an Afghan I was more or less left alone. If I walked around by myself with no visible cameras I was left alone save the usual 'hellos' and 'what country you from?'. If I walked around with my cameras visible I attracted more attention as numerous people (always men and especially teen and preteen boys) would request I take their photo. Once I actually started taking photos I would attract a large crowd which on several occasions brought the attention of the police who would come, watch the proceedings for a moment, disperse the crowd, and then ask that I take their photo and the whole cycle would repeat itself. At one point I had one preteen boy shadow me for about half an hour. I imagine he had nothing better to do, so if following a foreigner around provides some entertainment, so be it.

While the friendliness was enjoyable, and I suppose the reception could be worse, it became difficult to take the photos I wanted, as almost without fail I'd point my camera somewhere only to have a pair of fourteen-year-old boys jump in front of the thing. A digital camera helps as you can then satisfy the photo requests, show the results to the now excited models, and then later delete all the boring shots. As I learned later, though, when I had an Afghan with me working as a translator, many people were under the impression that I would be able to instantly offer a printed photo to them. Word to the wise: a Polaroid would be a huge hit but make sure you can accommodate the large number of requests for photos you will get once you start clicking away.

[Photo left: Taken outside a household goods shop along the Kabul River, this photograph was a major challenge as I was standing across the street and not only did I need to wait for a break in both the foot and vehicular traffic but I had countless 10 to 15-year-old boys jumping in front of the lens at every opportunity. In short time a few older locals figured out what I was trying to do and chased all the boys away using language the vocabulary of which is up to one's imagination. Photographing women is almost impossible and a surreptitious approach is the order of the day. Men, on the other hand, are all too happy to have their photographs taken, especially the younger ones.]

More women walk the streets here than I had seen in Peshawar or even Islamabad, but despite the easing of restrictions once placed by the Taliban, many still wear the burqa by choice and of those who don't, they are without exception still covered to some degree. But there are still fashion statements - under the burqas there are some younger women wearing blue jeans.

[Photo right: A young woman makes a purchase of moldy bananas along the Kabul River. I saw a few carts stacked with bananas for sale and all with white mold growing on them. Obviously, they serve some kind of purpose, but eating them 'as is' didn't look like a good idea to me, but perhaps after eating nothing but kebabs!, rice!, and bread!, moldy bananas may not be such a bad choice after all.]

Walking around the riverfront area I was frequently hit with the question, "What country?" I employed the same strategy I had used in Pakistan whereby my first response would be Thailand, as I have an apartment there and it is technically the country I came from. In many cases the answer would be received with a slightly contorted face as the person repeated "Dielan, ahh, good country" and walked away still having no idea where it is I came from. Those with better English skills (few and far between in Afghanistan) and some knowledge of international geography would inevitably respond with, "No, not where you live now, but your nationality?" And then I'd admit to being an American and as in Pakistan it was never a problem. In fact, if anything, it increased people's curiosity and they would ask if I was being treated well here, how did I like Afghanistan, could I take them back to America with me, etc. The next question was usually about what it was I was doing, my response being a travel writer. Once I was safely disassociated with any aid agency, my social standing would increase and as I have media access, people were quick to tell me how displeased they were with all these aid agencies and would I please tell the world about this. People also freely voiced their opinions of America. In general, they have no problems with American people but they no longer see the US government and military as liberators but now see them as occupiers. Few would seem to believe that the continued presence is for Afghanistan's benefit, but they believe that this presence is solely for America's benefit. A number of people asked if I could please explain to them what that benefit is because a lot of them haven't a clue.

Back at the Zarnegar Hotel later that afternoon, the owner's son stopped by my room for a few minutes. He had a lot of ideas and plans for the future of the hotel, all contingent of course, on a stable Afghanistan that can bring back tourists. He wanted to know from me what sort of things I thought would matter to foreign tourists. The number one most important thing I said - bathrooms. You need clean bathrooms with running water. It doesn't even have to be hot water, though an hour or two of it in the mornings and evenings would be a plus, but at least keep the bathrooms CLEAN! I then suggested that the individual rooms be more secure. I also added that there were obvious advantages in having someone at the desk full-time who speaks some English. And finally, could you work some deal with the restaurant downstairs to expand the menu a bit? Of course throughout Asia there are many places in more developed countries that can't offer all of these 'amenities', but it certainly helps.

At this time there are no decent budget hotels in Afghanistan and if a place like the Zarnegar can be the first to offer clean bathrooms, showers, secure rooms, English-speaking staff, travel services, and by the owner's son's own choice - an internet room, at a cheap price, then the mere fact that they would be the first to do this will carry them far so long as they don't slack off once they are basking in the limelight of backpacker folklore. The Mustafa does in fact offer most of these services, but as the rooms start at $35 they are well out of a lot of tourist's price range. This young man was also well aware of the powers of the internet and hoped to exploit this once the hotel is in a better position to grab the budget tourist market. I wish them and Afghanistan the best of all luck on this endeavor.

Meanwhile, the standards of the Zarnegar are low but they'll have to do for now. Budget hotels in Afghanistan haven't had to concern themselves much worth foreigners for the past couple of decades, so let's give them some time to get themselves sorted out.

As this young man was leaving, another Afghan stood at my doorway, he was living in the room across the hall and spoke excellent English so I invited him in. Turns out Farid has been living in the San Francisco area for over twenty years. A man of about 50 or so, Farid has been back in Kabul for awhile as the family owned some property here and with the possibility of an improved Afghanistan he's back here deciding what to do with it all. Build a house on one piece, sell another, put a business in, who knows? It wasn't a decision that seemed like it needed to be urgently made and as with most overseas Afghans returning to sort out property matters, he found there were complicated legal issues as well.

We took dinner together at the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel (kebabs! rice! bread!). The restaurant, like the hotel, was full. The majority of the guests were southern Pashtun tribal leaders presently in Kabul at the invitation of the Karzai government. Having been shut out of the present government (hmm, Taliban were mostly Pashtun...), these local leaders were here to work out some arrangement that gave them more control over their own affairs but at the same time allowed them a place in the national political process.

Most of these men were somewhat reserved in my presence. Historically speaking, these Pashtun leaders represent the groups that have shown the least tolerance for outsiders, particularly westerners. Still, there were a few very friendly individuals among them.

Each night they'd crowd around the television in the restaurant for the nightly news broadcasts where at some point they'd see themselves in the official version of whatever may or may not have been accomplished that day. Later in the week a group of them spoke briefly with me, through Farid, and finding out that I was a writer the first thing they wanted me to know was that all those aid agencies weren't doing anything and were they perhaps just keeping the money for themselves?

While most of these men were friendly, albeit reserved, on this first evening there were three individuals sitting at the end of the restaurant on the small dais who looked absolutely frightful. Wearing military green uniforms, dark glasses, turbans, and thick beards they looked like poster children for al-Qaeda. In walking past them one gave me quite a glare. I feigned a smile, which was only reciprocated with another glare. When they finally left, standing up they revealed themselves each to be about 6'3" and 230 pounds, all eyes fell upon them and there were whispers and some laughter. Most of these tribal figures are seen to some extent by other Afghans much as Americans see an uneducated rural southerner (okay, rednecks), but these three individuals apparently took the Afghan version of the stereotype to new heights. I would imagine the bumper stickers on their truck might read: "Allah Guns and Guts Made Afghanistan" and "Protected by Kalishnikov" and maybe "Take my wife? Sure. My camel? Maybe. My Kalishnikov? Never."

It's a bit of a feat to sleep late in Afghanistan. My room faced the southeast where lies a mountain range and the morning sun's first glow is evident at 3:45 and by 4:30 the sun is fully up. I really think they need to, one, try daylight savings time, and two, change time zones or something. Afghanistan is GMT +4:30.

Today was the day to be a tourist and see what remains of Kabul's once famous tourist sites. Farid and I hired a taxi and headed first to the northwest edge of town near the Hotel Intercontinental. There lies the one-time palace turned grand restaurant of Bagh-e-Bala, which dates to the late 19th century. The building is still there and externally in pretty good shape but they aren't exactly serving up gourmet meals to the jet set, the swimming pool is dry, and a few bored staff sit around waiting for the day when Conde Nast comes calling. Meanwhile, the views of the city are nice and locals still come up here to enjoy them.

We then drove through an area of Kabul which suffered some of the worst war damage. Around Kabul University are the neighborhoods of Kart-e-Char and Kart-e-Seh. Here, there is not one single building unscarred. This was once a nice neighborhood, Farid grew up in this area and showed me what was left of his boyhood home. Few buildings still have roofs, and even four walls come at a premium and what walls remain are riddled with bullet holes. John Lennon wondered how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. At least they could count them all. I walked where houses once stood though some of these building shells are still inhabited by their owners or by squatters.

[Photo right: Destroyed homes in the Kart-e-Char neighborhood of southwest Kabul.]

Across the street I observed some boys playing soccer in a large field. Returning to the car, Farid told me there used to be a high school there. I went back for another look. Other than the sports fields, there was nothing to indicate that any kind of school had ever stood there.

[Photo left: The exterior remains of the palace at Darulaman.]

We continued to Darulaman. This area was designed in 1923 by King Amanullah with the intention to have it the seat of the nation's government. Included is (err, was) a large palace that must have been something to behold prior to the war. It is now almost completely destroyed. It is possible to walk around inside, but do so carefully. It's pure rubble. Across the street from the palace is the still-closed Kabul Museum (though I have been since informed that progress is being made and they have one room now open for special exhibits). Heavily destroyed, apparently there is little left to put on display anyway.

Our next destination was the Mausoleum of Nadir Shah, a former king. Along the way we passed the Kabul Zoo which is indeed open now, though there is little to see there. At a busy traffic circle, we were stopped by the police. Apparently, taxis are supposed to have the word "Taxi" (in Dari, of course) spray-painted on the hood of their vehicles at both front corners. Those not in compliance are given a small fine and the police then pull out their little stencil and do the painting on the spot. Kabul's traffic police are quite an entity unto themselves and one of their more popular means of traffic enforcement is immediate confiscation of vehicle license plates (and apparently spray paint).

With a freshly painted Dari "taxi" on the car we reached the top of the hill where the Nadir Shah Mausoleum sits. There are good views of Kabul from this hill. A guard let us into the chamber, an action rewarded with a little baksheesh from Farid. Outside sat a few ISAF forces. I was to see these peacekeepers scattered throughout Kabul, sometimes driving the streets but more often sitting in their vehicles parked outside landmarks like the Darulaman Palace or the Mausoleum of Nadir Shah. These folks almost without exception appear to be suffering from the same ailment - that of absolute sheer boredom. And no offense to them, but I'm not sure I felt any more secure for their presence. I then wondered which was the more challenging task: securing Kabul or staying awake?

We paid off the driver and would walk the kilometer or two back to the center of Kabul. We passed one of Kabul's stadiums which I'm told is one that was used for executions under the Taliban, so I wanted to take a look inside. At first the security guard was unwilling to let me in as there was an event planned for the following day and he was afraid I might be aiming to plant a bomb or something. 20 Afghanis (about 40 US cents) persuaded the guard that I was not a terrorist and I went inside and saw what was a perfectly normal football stadium with bleachers for a couple of thousand fans. Inside were maybe two dozen teenage boys who as usual all wanted their pictures taken.

People are quite adaptable here. War has that effect. Walking the streets I noticed how many large metal cargo containers (the kind used on ships and trucks) have been converted into stores and even into homes.

I was reasonably satisfied with some of the street scenes I was able to photograph on my walks around Kabul. I apologize that most of these photos are not on the site, as they were taken with slide film and I do not have a suitable scanner at this time. The photos you see here were all taken with a digital camera. Anyway, said photography came in between attempts not to be run over by vans and taxis, stopping to pick up a few Afghan music CDs (priced at only 30 Afghans per disc - about 60 cents!) and having a little bit of a laugh with a pair of high school girls. I had my cameras out as we walked past two women covered in burqas (nothing unusual). They were thin, and looking at their feet revealed slender legs, blue jeans, and fashionable shoes, obviously they were young. They made some comment in Dari that they and Farid had a laugh over, which in so many words was a benign (maybe) threat that I should not even consider taking their photos. I normally wouldn't have pressed the issue but as they brought it up, I had Farid make a few friendly inquiries as to whether I could photograph them, even in their burqas. Absolutely not! And that was the theme of the trip. Other than a few surreptitious shots with a zoom lens it was not possible to photograph even one woman over the age of about fourteen.

There really is a mystique to the covering of women. Whether it's a burqa completely hiding the face or a veil exposing only the eyes, one's imagination does go for a bit of a ride here. However, there were times I'd see a woman pull the thing off for a moment revealing an elderly weather-beaten face leaving one to wish that she'd promptly go back underneath the thing and let the imagination return.

After lunch (kebabs! pulao! bread!) it was off to the local bathhouse. As the Zarnegar has no running water, a situation no different from what exists in probably 90% or more of people's homes, bathing is done at a hammon - public baths where for a small fee (here - 10 Afghanis - about 20 US cents) one gets a private cubicle where you can sluice warm, sometimes hot water over yourself and give your body and hair a good scrub. It would be the only kind of bathing I would do for two weeks and it's no big deal at all. You get perfectly clean. Well, the men do, I'm not so sure what women do for bathing and even Farid couldn't quite answer the question.

While a bathhouse is a perfectly acceptable place to get clean, staying clean in Afghanistan is another issue. This is simply not a clean country and no matter how well intentioned I was to start a day with a bath and clean clothes, by three in the afternoon I'd be carrying a crust of dirt.

And laundry? The Zarnegar has not yet grasped the notion that tourists will pay money to have someone do their laundry for them. They did agree to do mine anyway and fortunately they did not charge me, for upon returning my clothes I found that by all appearances, it seemed that my clothes had been dipped in some sort of water for a few seconds and then left to dry and called done. Farid pointed the way to a laundry service across the river where this little shop, cubicle really, as it was all of maybe two meters by two meters in size, did a far better job. With the lack of electricity, ironing is done with a large coal iron that looks like it's at least a hundred years old but is probably less than five.

The following morning we left shortly after dawn for Bamiyan to see where giant Buddhas once stood as well as a number of other attractions in this most attractive of areas. Read about Bamiyan here.

Returning several days later to the Zarnegar, I was offered a different room which provided yet another example of how some businesses here still haven't figured out foreign quirks. The walls, which were nothing but a piece of plywood, had a couple of holes in them - like someone had cut the holes with the intent of spying on the room next door. There was one hole between myself and my neighbors, more of the tribal fellows I talked about - but friendly ones, and another hole between my room and the hallway. I taped some paper over them and then made a comment to the manager that peepholes in the rooms were not a very good thing, though I don't think he grasped the significance of this even though my comments were translated into Dari for him. Another habit of Afghan hotels, which the Zarnegar was not unique in exhibiting, was the tendency for staff to walk into a guest's room without knocking, for any reason - money for the room, to find out if your staying another night, sit and chat, whatever.

Walking from the bathhouse to the laundry shop one afternoon we took a shortcut through a back alley that afforded another glimpse at the reality of life in Kabul. No one has bathrooms in their homes so in a small lot off this busy walkway seven or eight men were squatting over the dirt in full of view of everyone. The stench was enormous. I wondered what the women did.

Laundry delivered, I was walking over to the Mustafa to check my e-mail when I chanced upon a German ISAF vehicle at a major intersection. There was a group of perhaps half a dozen kids, likely street kids, grabbing at a half-full bottle of water a soldier was offering. A simple gift to a needy child? Well, the kids were squabbling over who would get the thing when finally one of the larger kids, a girl, grabbed it. She was then instantly pummeled by a boy to which she returned his punch with two of her own and the scuffle came to a quick end. All for a half-full bottle of water.

Yes, there are soldiers everywhere here - American, ISAF, and Afghan. Overall I found the Afghan police and soldiers to have somewhat more discipline than what I'm used to seeing in Cambodia, which kind of surprised me. I considered the likelihood that the reason for this is the absence of alcohol in the lives of these soldiers. Still, I don't like how some of them handle their guns.

I'm not a gun expert, but I know an automatic rifle when I see one and everyone in a uniform and a few more in civvies, seems to carry one. While most of the Afghan soldiers kept their guns over their shoulders, usually pointing upward, I did see on a few occasions soldiers sitting on a wall or chair, rifles on their laps pointed at, well, anyone.

One time, it was actually in Bamiyan, there was an Afghan soldier sitting on a wall, his rifle across his lap, pointed at *ME*. I ducked behind a van. Farid noticed this and laughed and pointed out my actions to several other Afghans who thought I was rather silly. I considered suggesting that perhaps they consider why it is that the US forces all hold their guns pointed at the ground as opposed to pointed directly at civilians, but chose to keep my mouth shut instead, resolute to continue ducking away from guns that are pointed at me no matter how the locals might snicker. Gun accidents do happen.

The following morning it was necessary to change a little money. Moneychangers by the dozen stand around by the river holding large wads of cash, sometimes several hundred dollars clearly visible - their confidence in doing so should say something about the security of Afghanistan. Farid chose an honest looking guy and I swapped some money. There were no problems and while certain precautions should always be exercised when changing money on the street I did walk away with the feeling that by and large the moneychangers were there to change money for their measly commissions and not run scams on unsuspecting foreigners.

Child labor in Afghanistan is a reality, no reason why it wouldn't be, find me a third world country where it isn't? Back at the restaurant (kebabs! pulao! bread!) at the Zarnegar there works a boy of maybe 12. He sleeps at the restaurant and spends his waking hours running his tail off from 6 am to 10 pm serving the customers. He comes from some rural village which he is allowed to return to for a few days each month to take home his monthly earnings of about 500 Afghanis (a little over $10). Assuming a 27-day work month (I'm probably giving him an extra day off!), 16 hours a day we get an hourly wage of 1.15 Afghanis, or about two US cents. Oh yes, he gets free meals and a place to stay, but this 12-year-old is still working for about 2 US cents an hour. He's a pleasant, outgoing kid who knows one and one thing only in English, "thank you", which he would say every time he saw me or served me a dish regardless of whether it was actually the appropriate thing to say (it usually wasn't but hey, who's counting?).

Next, another early morning departure, this time for a three-day trip to Mazar-e-Sharif. Read about Mazar here.

Our arrival in Kabul from Mazar was near midnight, but after that most harrowing drive we were thankful to have made it at all. At the outskirts of the city is a large police/military checkpoint and this was one checkpoint where the attention fell on me rather than the Afghan occupants as is usually the case. It was a simple inspection of my passport and to their satisfaction we continued onward.

Farid wasn't convinced we'd be able to get into the Zarnegar as around 10:30 pm they shut the place down, but fortunately upon arrival there was another group making a ruckus outside, trying to get in, so we got in as well. With no reception I had no other option but to sleep on the extra bed in Farid's room.

The following morning I came downstairs to sort myself out a room, walking into reception to the visible shock of the manager, wondering where I came from and how I got in. Well, they had no rooms available anyway. Okay, I can sleep another night in Farid's room. That agreed upon, the manager still wants the full $8 from me. Farid and I both pointed out to him that to charge me a full room rate it would be expected that he actually provides me with a room! "But I get taxed!" he protested. So I gave him a couple of dollars for the foreigner tax and an extra dollar for his troubles and he appeared satisfied with this.

While I was in Mazar-e-Sharif, there had been a shooting in front of the US embassy leaving four Afghan soldiers dead and a city angry. As I said, the US embassy must be one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan and the more incidents like this occur, the worse it will get.

After a relaxing day in Kabul it was another early start - off to the share taxi stand for a ride back to Pakistan. About a hundred share taxis to Jalalabad and Torkham line up in an organized(!) queue (now there's something the Cambodia long-distance drivers can learn!) and they fill up in minutes.

We reached the border in about four hours and fifteen minutes. I made my way through the chaos and into Pakistan, which now seemed modern by comparison.

Afghanistan is a rough and troubled land. There's no doubt the majority of the residents want peace and they would welcome tourists openly if only they could attract a few. Regrettably, extremist elements, based largely in the south, are doing their own part to prevent the arrival of either peace or foreign visitors.

In respect to cost, Afghanistan is comparatively expensive. Standards are low. Infrastructure minimal. Curious and friendly locals are unaccustomed to dealing with the whims of foreigners and confusion is the norm. Extreme patience is in order at all times. Of course some of these problems I do blame on the NGOs who are largely visible only in their flashy Landcruisers circling Kabul like flies around shit.

Yes, I've harped on the NGOs but this did not originate from me, it originated from the scores of Afghan people who expressed extreme displeasure with the aid agencies. In my time in Afghanistan not one single Afghan not employed by an NGO expressed any satisfaction with the international aid community. NOT ONE!

If anyone reading this is presently affiliated with an aid organization in Afghanistan or is thinking of working for one please keep in mind the image you have created for yourself and try doing something to correct it.

Oh, if you are an aid worker in Afghanistan and you want to send me an e-mail telling me how wonderful your organization is and how full of it I am, please do. I'll print it. Really. E-mail me.

Plan to visit Afghanistan? Bring an open mind, a lot of patience, and a sense of humor. Come to think of it, that's not bad advice for any destination. See the Practical Matters section for more useful information.

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Introduction - over the Khyber

Kabul

Bamiyan

Mazar-e-Sharif/Balkh

Practical matters for visiting Afghanistan

Links & resources

Afghanistan main page

HOME

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2010 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.