What’s the Password?
I kept going back to my teenage years, when an older co-worker at the radio station I worked for used to tell me that the secret word was “Afghanistan Banana Stand.” I always thought that was funny, and never in a million years could I have ever imagined that I would actually be visiting Afghanistan. Yet, here I was, at country #142!
The most common question people asked me about this trip: “Were you scared?”
My stop in Kabul was at the very end of a 24-day, nine-country, end-of-year mega trip! I’d been on 15 planes in three weeks, tweaked my foot in Myanmar, threw out my back in Pakistan, slept crappy almost every night and was just absolutely mentally and physically exhausted by the time I hit Kabul. So truth be told, I simply didn’t have the energy to be scared! This is not a complaint, just a fact: all this travel had officially kicked my ass.
I should’ve probably been at least a little worried, but I just wasn’t. I’ve traipsed in and out of places like Libya, South Sudan, Iraq, Venezuela and Somalia with no issues. I was having lunch in Yemen just five days ago. I’d actually come to adore those countries that were designated with the State Department’s “Level 4 – Do Not Travel” warning, so Afghanistan to me was no big whoop. Of course I was wise enough to hire a company that would provide me with a professional guide and security detail. I was brave but not stupid.
It had taken a few weeks to get the visa, but thankfully after landing I breezed through Afghanistan immigration with ease. My guide Hakim was waiting for me in the airport parking lot. Soon we were heading off into the city with driver Nagyali behind the wheel of our SUV and guard in the front passenger seat. Hamdullah was an older man donning fatigues and a big gun. I kind of felt like a rock star with this whole entourage moving me around.
I stared out the car window with the awe and curiosity of a three-year old, studying every detail I saw on the streets of Kabul. We passed kids in the median selling balloons that said “I Love You,” wooden stands on the side of the road with big bags of water housing goldfish hanging, and carts of apples with old fashioned hand-juicers lined up along the sidewalks. The mountains and trees were topped with brilliant white snow and the skies were abnormally clear for Kabul. It was…beautiful. And certainly not the Afghanistan I grew up seeing on the news. Soon we pulled into the “safehouse;” a nondescript, fortified compound, tucked away on a little residential street secured by tall metal gates. This would be my home for the next two nights. It was no Holiday Inn, but here in Afghanistan, safety was the priority, not luxury.
Outfit of the Day
I arrived in Kabul wearing the local garb: a shalwar kameez along with a wool pakol hat; I’d grabbed the dashing ensemble just the day before in Islamabad. When I was checking out of the Islamabad Marriott earlier that morning, the clerk at the desk greeted me in Urdu. I had tricked him! Of course I didn’t speak one lick of Urdu, so the jig was up in a matter of seconds. He soon realized I was a foreigner, but the point was, my appearance passed for a local! “You had me fooled,” he jested. I was elated!
It wasn’t that I was going undercover, or taking part in some covert operation where I couldn’t be identified as an American. But I did want to blend in. I was told that “bad guys” are still present, and lurking all around Afghanistan; so my goal in dressing like a Afghan was, at most, to help myself not stick out as a tourist. Hakim told me he was impressed too. I did it!
The lightweight pants and matching top were comfy, but a little awkward. The waist of the shalwar (pants) must have been a size 70! It was supposed to be that way: super wide at the top, narrowing at the bottom. The circus tent-like pants were held up with a cloth cord; it was quite the ordeal to pee. And while very thin and breezy, the heavy scarf and wool hat was able to keep most of my body warm. It was chilly here.
Because of a flight change by the airline, I’d only have two nights Kabul. I was pretty bummed about that–I lost one full day because of the change–but what could I do? It was after noon by the time we started the day’s city tour; Kabul was humming.
In all of my travels, I can’t remember more fascinating city street life than what I witnessed here…maybe Dhaka. My eyes were glued to all the action around me; this was one busy city. Maybe it was the fashion: The Afghans’ traditional dress is very old school and really hasn’t changed much in 200 years. And it seemed everyone was working: If it wasn’t vendors on the street, it was men moving wheelbarrows, loading trucks or carrying big sacks. It looked like a movie scene from the 1920s. I wanted to take a stroll on foot and get lost in the city by myself. That probably wouldn’t have been the safest idea, but I wished for it. The street scene here was bananas; so much I wanted to capture photos of…so much tradition, so much beauty. Reminiscent of a simpler time.
Our first stop was a quick glance at Abdul Rahman Great Mosque from the other side of the street; and I emphasize the word quick. We hopped out of the truck from across the road to take a look. I was a little surprised and even disappointed that we didn’t go in, or even enter the property, but I was on my guide’s schedule. Maybe there was a security risk? Maybe he was just in a hurry. Next it was over to the Gardens of Babur, where we did enter, and enjoy a leisurely stroll.
Dee Plane, Dee Plane!
There were a couple disappointments on this particular tour. Nothing major, but a few small things that rubbed me the wrong way. First, I really wanted to stop and see the airliner-turned-restaurant. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the sight of that Kam Air MD87 jumbo jet plopped down in the middle of the busy city! I was only able to catch a quick glimpse of it between the trees as we drove past. I asked Hakim a couple times if we could visit the plane but my request fell on deaf ears. Our tour ended early that day, too. Hakim explained we’d be heading in before dark, but we actually arrived back at the compound at least an hour before sunset. I didn’t know why the day was cut so short. I really wanted to see that plane!
Wrong Place Wrong Time?
It was just my luck that I was traveling in the Middle East when my country decided to assassinate Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani. Right or wrong, and whatever your political beliefs are (I don’t discuss politics on this website), a killing of any predominate figure in the Middle East has repercussions and I didn’t know what to expect. Would the region go full on jihad on any foreigners caught wandering the streets? I’d checked with the tour company the night before arriving and they assured me everything was calm on the ground in Kabul. Nonetheless, countless messages of concern from folks back home only caused me to worry.
As I Walk Through the Valley…
Day two included over eight hours in the car as we drove into Panjshir Valley and back. Though both the drive and our destination were beautiful, in hindsight–having such a short amount of time in Afghanistan–I would’ve insisted we skip this excursion. I’d been on fifteen planes in three weeks and was absolutely physically and mentally exhausted at this point in my trip–it was the very end of my journey–and the last thing I wanted to do was ride in the back seat of a car (at times in the middle) for eight hours. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great trip to and from Panjshir Valley; just the worst time to be stuck in a cramped backseat of a car for an eight-hour road trip. I was in bad shape. That didn’t keep me from enjoying the day though; it was indeed special.
Luckily, the only weapons I saw in use while in Afghanistan were snowball slingshots. I was super-impressed on how far these small boys could whip a snowball. It was fun seeing kids enjoying the simple things in life. These “little” things I stumble upon while traveling are what I live for! You don’t see this in the guidebooks.
We stopped for lunch on the way back to town and the meal was pretty incredible. We ate at a local restaurant where they brought out giant plates of meat served on metal skewers, complimented with enormous sheets of bread. This was also the third time I’d seen food wrapped in newspaper…Korean newspaper…and I still wonder what that was about. How…and why??? Regardless, the food was indeed awesome. I ate like it was my last meal.
Ke-Babs, then Ka-Back to Ka-Bul
Back in the capital, the sun was already setting. I was taken by some shops to look at souvenirs. I still would have rather seen that plane-restaurant, but whatever. I enjoyed walking the city streets immensely; they were buzzing with action as we neared rush-hour. I’ll never forget the little kids who approached me selling pens. I slipped them a few dollars and soon I was being followed closely by more children. I wish I could’ve given them all money; it always breaks my heart to see the street kids, anywhere. I enjoyed a nice, cold, fresh pomegranate juice that may or may not have been responsible for giving me a three-day case of the rumbles. Who knows what did me in, but whatever it was ended up getting me good!
Kay Bye, Kabul!
I was up at 5AM the next morning to begin my long journey home. I was amazed at how fortified the airport was, obviously for good reason. I passed through multiple giant walls of concrete and a handful of screenings, x-rays and pat downs before even getting near the airport building itself. Crowds of impatient Afghan men pushed and shoved their way through, plopping down big, old-fashioned sacks of something onto the conveyor belt of the x-ray machine. I only breathed a big sigh of relief once wheels were up and I was nestled in that cushy Turkish Airlines business class seat. It had been an amazing but long 22 days. I enjoyed almost every moment and had made some incredible memories, but I was glad to be going home.
As for Afghanistan, I loved it…there was just so much more I wanted to see. It was my fault (and the airline’s) that this stop was so rushed. I wanted more time in the city, I wanted to wander more, take more pictures, meet more people and see more things…like the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif among other things (like the airplane-restaurant!) And while I had a couple small complaints about my tour, I was thankful that, above everything, that Hakim and his team kept me safe. They were pros. It was no one’s but my own fault that my stop was so rushed, and I was thankful for I did get to see and experience while I was in Afghanistan. I have a feeling I’ll be back.
And Now…the REST of the (Insta)Story: