Afghanistan at First Sight

Hello friend!

It started with being told that I had to cover my head from the airport to car park C. My arms too. I wore all black, for no particular reason but the dirt on my clothes will not be seen after a really long flight. I almost always pack a shawl, socks, cardigan and my statement pink batik wrap slash beach cloth so covering was not really big deal.

Another important point of interest was there not being too many solo female travellers. Hence, an Indian-looking / South Asia woman travelling without an accompanying male in liberal clothing too seemed rebellious, so to speak. Perhaps this might be my debut into my adult-rebellious streak. Always, always a late bloomer. Interestingly there wasn’t much segregation between males and females as I assumed there to be. I mean Indian airports have a sometimes-functioning “male-female queues”. Even the fact that I picked a corner in the bus from the airport to the plane in Dubai, and later found myself surrounded by Afghanis didn’t seem to bother them either. Besides a few odd looks that may have got them thinking about whether I was boarding the correct flight to start with, we were all good to go. I guess the choice of clothing though not robustly appropriate were not as entirely inappropriate as I would’ve feared. Thank bloody Heavens.

The First Afghanis

My first interaction with Afghanis was with the two girls sitting next to me on the plane. I took them for sisters and being in their pre-teen / teenage years. I assumed they too shared the same curiosity the men on the bus had in seeing a solo female traveller who was definitely not from the Middle East, travelling to Kabul. Having been travelling the whole day, I had a strong desire to sleep but trust me that was the last thing I was about to get. Despite the endless string of questions and my throbbing headache, I was not in a foul mood because after all, I was a long way from home and there was not much I could do about it anyway.

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics I observed from these girls, was their lack of physical boundaries. Coming from the background I do and the sort of attributes I’ve imbibed over the past so many years, I did find it mildly invasive. Of course, none of it was done deliberately. The fact that they would ask me both peculiar and personal questions to the fact that their abaya-clad body weight would rest on the left side of my body, seemed completely normal. The first, they saw me scribbling these very notes on my notebook and ask me which language I was writing in. Of course, it’s a given anyone would ask that with my horrendous almost illegible handwriting. I then picked up the book I took with me to read, (because sleep was a dream too far away from the aircraft) and I was asked if it was the Bible. I did silently laugh, not at their ignorance but at the fact that how the red pages of the Bible may have transferred itself to the cover of my red book. Haha. I suppose had I told them of my half-Muslim roots, that may have not gone down too well. Having failed to read, I turned on my laptop to watch a film. It was the only sensible thing to do with my earphones on, as the girl next to me was watching a Hindi film on her phone without any earphones of her own. I was on The Hobbit and LOTR marathon during the time and since I didn’t have a few hours at a time, would watch the film in parts. To say that the girl next to me and her half-sister (or cousin – despite explaining the relationship, I’m not sure what their relationship was) put down everything they were doing and leaned their bodies’ weight on me as I cramped up against my little window seat, to watch the movie with me, despite not hearing anything, is absolutely not an understatement. In hindsight, I wonder had I been watching something raunchy on screen, how that would have played out!

I almost forgot. My plane row-partners opening lines were, “Have you ever had chicken pox?” and then when they went on to say about the almost chicken pox outbreak in their family and how many people were getting the infection. I’ve had an injection earlier as a result of a near chicken pox scare, but I then began thinking of the chicken pox virus circulating in the airplane and wondered whether it would be like the time I fell ridiculously ill in Nepal, almost about the same time last year.

Tranquility at First Sight

I had seen and been in the desert before, but seeing a desert and dry mountainous regions was a whole new experience. Landscapes have always fascinated me and most people and newer landscapes, I learnt that day, were even more enthralling.

The serenity that comes with seeing the Afghani landscape at an aerial view however, stops there.

The larger than life concrete dressing room screens

The roads and barricades of Kabul – I was not fortunate enough to see beyond the streets of Kabul – are anything but serene. It’s interesting to me because as a country that was once at war, there was a sense of what was familiar. Barricades, an unfamiliar stronger kind made entirely of concrete and similar to a larger than life dressing room screen, were everywhere with the forces patrolling the streets and behind vehicles at all times.

Kabul, without war looks like a beautiful place to live. Especially if you like warm, dry weather.

It’s almost surreal at times, knowing that the country is at war, yet the poet in me that died a natural some years back found its way back amidst the dry arid mountains that became a beautiful backdrop to the country that looked almost at peace, from its hilltop.

Spot the balloon if you can. All pictures have been taken inside an armoured vehicle, hence the crappy quality.

In fact, I’m assuming that the surveillance system setup by the Americans (or that’s what I was told) provided an aerial view of Kabul city. When in Kabul, don’t be alarmed by the little aircraft like balloons you see floating about. Also keep in mind that it’s not a brand promotion either.

Despite being at war, no one wants to miss the football highlights.

However, it was business as usual elsewhere in Kabul. We went out for dinner on the third night we were there. Perhaps our hosts thought that we were bored out of our mind with hotel food and my boss being vegetarian didn’t necessarily help with most of the meat-mixed meal options either. Those who were not suffering from war or perhaps because it was important to resume day to day activities (like we did before 2009 living in Colombo), it became important to indulge a bit. Or even watch the football highlights (this was FIFA season).

Afghani musicians also draw a lot from Indian classical music perhaps to cater to a majority Indian tourists?

When in Rome Kabul…

Be an Afghani? Salam to you too!

One of the things I couldn’t help but notice were the ample amount of fizzy drinks being distributed before, during and after meals. I would like to think that some even substituted water – always mineral and always by the monopoly company – with sodas!

This was at the hotel we were at and basically anyone can open the fridge and take however many they wanted. Basically, my sister’s dream.
On an average in July it seemed to be around 38*c and people still preferred carbonated water over bottled water.

Now that we done with the unhealthy bits, is this a good time to talk about nuts? I mean, we cannot not go to Afghanistan and indulge in a bit of nuts, which were, even by Sri Lankan standards, cheap!

Also in Kabul are…

If you think reckless drivers and vehicles that seem to want to leave the road the minute they enter it are among the crazies Kabul has to offer well, no wait, there is more.

Apparently kids who go to school also require extra security because you never know who could enter your classroom. Also, despite being the sarcastic person I am, please know that nothing I say here is meant to be or sound sarcastic. If it does, it’s because that’s what the real situation is with no frills.

Kabul has a not-so-new-normal.

This would also be a good opportunity to speak on child labour, which I saw quite a bit of. Or maybe it wasn’t child labour and they were kids helping out parents during a school break. Maybe they have summer holidays when it’s ruddy 38*c out there. Too many maybes and too little clarifications.

Not an uncommon sight really.

Also, what do you know about romance in Kabul or in Afghanistan? I haven’t read enough and Google seems to show me search results for matrimonial website and other marriage scammers.

* * *

I know, I know. It’s taken me a while to write this one. But hopefully it’s the start of more frequent writing, which hasn’t been happening for a long time. It’s easier to write them as letters because I genuinely do enjoy writing letters.

Until next time,

#ThinkSunny

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