SFL/Kabul, Afghanistan
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Author:  wildiris [ Apr 29, 2005 11:00 am ]
Post subject:  Back in Afghanistan

My cousin is back in Afghanistan for awhile and is sending our family very interesting journal writings again. I will post them here if anyone cares to read them. I find her writing to be incredibly interesting!

Before she left she had to finish some homework to finish up her Masters Degree in Public Administration. She didn't get it finished on time so she had to take it with her and send it in when she was finish. She finished it and will be getting her Master when she returns from Afghanistan.

Here is what she wrote so far:

March 10, 2005
Well, to add to all of my stress of finishing graduate school, I am now scheduled to go to Afghanistan and Tajikistan for most of April! I am trying to not panic, since I have about 50 or so pages to write by April 30 and I will be out of the country for almost five of the eight weeks left between now and then. Still working on booking tickets, but I believe I will be leaving WI on Wed March 30 and then back home Sun April 24. Please pray for my sanity and discipline to get everything done well and on time!
March 10, 2005
I will be training the staff (mostly Afghan staff) on program development procedures and community needs assessment. I am looking forward to seeing some of my Afghan friends and also very excited about going up north to Taluqan to spend time in our office there and visit the rural villages. Then I will cross the border into Tajikistan to spend some time with staff in Kergon-Teppa and maybe to Dushanbe if there is time. The trip will go by quickly, considering that about seven days will be devoted to traveling. Thankfully, my itinerary to Kabul will be not nearly as exhausting as last time. It looks like I will be flying out of Appleton to Chicago then to Frankfurt with an overnight and then the entire next day to adjust. Then late that night I will head to Kabul, to arrive early morning on the 3rd day. Much better than the miserable 5 airports (Appleton, Chicago, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kabul) and 32 hours of straight travel I suffered through last summer, and that was just on the way there! And then of course there were 6 airports on the way back (Kabul, Dubai, Munich, Frankfurt, Chicago, Appleton). Gosh, I'm tired just thinking about it. At least I am starting to really rack up the frequent flyer miles... after this trip I should get my first free ticket. :)


April 12, 2005
Yes I have been so very busy trying to get my school work finished before my departure on Thursday plus packing and getting everything ready for almost a month-long absence. My stress level is through the roof!! I can definitely use your prayers.

April 16, 2005
Hi folks... yes I made it safe and sound and Kabul is wonderful. Lots of reconstruction has happened, it is spring, things are actually green, people are in a good mood, and security is good. Its great to be back.

I must not have had the same plane as Kristina... although Emirates airlines was very nice for coach. Flights were good except for a horrible experience almost missing my plane... made it with only a couple minutes to spare. I will explain later when I have more time.

Gotta run...

April 21, 2005
So sorry I haven't been able to post anything or send out any updates. I have been so busy all day and then at night I am finishing my homework. I am exhausted. Please keep me in your prayers... the last assignment is due on Saturday and I am in the final stretch.

Tomorrow we drive across the border into Tajikistan... should be another interesting trip.

April22, 2005
Today we were to leave Taluqan for Tajikistan. After a few hours of driving on horrible roads, slowly making our way through Afghan "passport control" located in an old bombed out military building, riding a rickety ferry across the river, waiting in line forever at the Tajik post-Communist checkpoint which is notoriously unreliable... they denied me access into the country because of a mistake on my visa. So after waiting even longer in the hopes that their main office would call back granting permission, we ended up having to return to Taluqan... all in all a 10 hour endeavor. It truly was like something out of a movie... you just would not believe it (rusted tanks and boats from the Soviet invasion, barbed wire, machine guns, scary looking guards, land mine warning signs, etc etc).

We are making the drive again tomorrow, as my visa will be valid then. In the meantime this has messed up my schedule for finishing my homework... it is going to be a few hours late. I sent my prof an email explaining things, so I am really hoping he will be understanding of these crazy circumstances.

I promise I will write more within the couple of days... its been an amazing trip so far.

April 25, 2005
No guards... just the Taluqan project manager and a driver. Made it safely through the second time, but were delayed for a hour and a half once we got out of the ferry. Had to sit on my suitcase, luckily in the shade, and wait with no explanation as to why the bus wasn't there. Very Soviet, very non-western, very long and tiring. So now I am in Tajikistan, which is certainly a few steps up from Afghanistan. My time here is flying by. Last night I finally was able to submit my homework, so that is a relief. Now I will be able to take some time and write up the details of these adventures properly. Its been quite an amazing trip, in a different way than last time. I have very limited internet access here and the connection is archaic and painfully slow. Watch for an email in the next couple of days.

Author:  wildiris [ Apr 29, 2005 11:04 am ]
Post subject:  Afghanistan Revisited

April 19, 2005

Afghanistan, Revisited

Peering out through the tiny airplane window, I experienced that eerie sense of d?j? vu as once again I found myself studying the snow-capped mountain peeks of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The mountain range, which dominates the landscape with peaks soaring up over 20,000 feet, looked distant and small from my high altitude perch. Soon enough, my stomach wobbled and my ears attempted to adjust to the changing cabin pressure. We were beginning our descent into Kabul, Afghanistan.

Just several months ago, my departure from this frustratingly complex and fascinating city had caused a churning of emotions. Leaving new friends and exotic adventures had caused an unexpected level of sadness; however, leaving the rocket attacks and land mines and Taliban threats and machine guns had created a sense of relief which I felt emotionally and even physically. At that time I did not know if I would ever return to Afghanistan. But there I was, again hovering high above the outskirts of Kabul, irritated and struggling with my seat belt in search of that elusive comfortable position in economy class travel.

With the ground rapidly rushing towards us, the jet rocked and bounced downwards towards the Kabul airport. I cringed, thinking about the State Department warnings about flying with Ariana Airlines (the Afghan airline upon whom my life now depended). With a sickening and dramatic lurch in the air, suddenly the wheels loudly slammed into the ground in the hardest landing I have ever experience. The airplane shook. The Afghan woman across the aisle yelped out in fear and pulled her children close. She looked at me in terror as the plane veered left, then right, careening down the runway. I feigned a weak smile in her direction, gripping the armrest and scanning the run-down interior in a preemptive search for the emergency exit. As the plane miraculously straightened out and came to a shuddering halt, a collective and audible sigh rose up from the entire cabin.

Really, it was a surprise to be there in Kabul at all. The morning had unfolded as if in one of my worst travel nightmares. After many, many hours of flying and waiting and flying and waiting, I had arrived in Dubai, United Arab Emirates the night before. Maneuvering through a new airport, especially in a foreign country, is always a stressful challenge. Once the plane lands, it is time to figure out where to (hopefully) pick up luggage, what forms to fill out for customs, whether or not I need an overnight visa, the location of passport control, the currency exchange rate and where to change money, and where to catch a taxi to take me on to the unknown location of the hotel. And all of this in an unknown language while exhausted from jet lag and dragging a hundred or so pounds of baggage behind me. Any one of these steps can turn into a major ordeal and the entire process can take hours. Thankfully, moving through the Dubai airport and checking into the hotel turned out to be relatively uneventful, and with relief I settled into my hotel room, which had even been upgraded to a suite. With a nice hot bubble bath, I managed to scrub off the twenty-four hours worth of travel grit and grime that had accumulated within every pore of my body. I carefully set my alarm and called down to the front desk to arrange for a morning wake up call and ride to the airport. Unfortunately, my morning schedule would involve waking up at 3:00 am in order to make my 6:00 flight into Kabul.

At around midnight I woke up, checked the clock, and happily snuggled back into the blankets anticipating a couple more hours of sleep. Sometime later I drifted back into consciousness. My brain struggled a few seconds, attempting to recall where I was, what country I was in, what time zone applied, and what I needed to do next. And then that sickening feeling washed over me, you know, the one where you wake up and realize that something is horribly not quite right. I bolted upright in bed and grabbed my alarm clock, staring at the awful numbers that included a four, a five, and a seven. Where was the two as in 2:45 am? Or maybe even a three as in ?I hit my snooze alarm and it was now 3:00 am?? With every ounce of my being, I willed the clock to not read 4:57 am. I grabbed my wristwatch? 4:58 am? (insert your choice of swear word here)! And with that dreadful realization, my body produced a jolt of adrenaline rivaling that of a bungee cord jumper, and I frantically sprinted toward the bathroom, stumbling to pull on clothing and pack up my scattered belongings.

The next sixty-two minutes unfolded at hyper-speed. Anyone watching would have probably shaken their head, frowning at the rude, loud, apparently deranged American woman running through the hotel lobby dragging too much luggage behind her and yelling to the bellhop to find a cab immediately. The bewildered front desk clerk, profusely apologizing for the apparently absent wake up call, scurried behind the desk to gather paperwork and collect the dollars I was wildly throwing at her. After another frenzied race up the stairs for some forgotten items, I climbed into the cab at 5:29. My plane to Kabul left in only thirty-one minutes and I was still parked outside the Sheraton Hotel, alternately mumbling prays and curses under my breath in my near-panicked state.

Finally arriving at the international terminal, I raced ahead as the poor driver stumbled behind me with my luggage in tow. We threw the baggage onto the x-ray machine as I shoved an extremely large tip at him, and then proceeded to set off all of the alarms as I mistakenly ran through security clutching my purse. Amazingly, I could see the sign for Ariana directly ahead, and a young woman wearing a headscarf was actually, miraculously, still sitting there waiting for the last straggling passenger? me. Somehow by the grace of God, I sprinted through ticketing, passport control, and into the gate at 5:55 just as the bus was about to pull away to transport passengers to the plane. I had made it, with just a few minutes to spare. I do not think my nerves calmed down until just before I felt that internal tug as we began our descent into Kabul.

Landing at the Kabul airport, I found a sense of familiarity wash over me. There were the guards with the machine guns, and look, over there were the UN planes and the military helicopters. And off in the other direction was the graveyard of sorts for airplanes, tanks, and assorted weaponry that had seen its final days sometime during the preceding twenty-three years of war. Bombed out buildings lined the perimeter of the airstrip, with bullet holes and caved in roofs puncturing the landscape. As I slowly worked my way through passport control, the staccato and seemingly excited sounds of spoken Dari brought a small smile to my face.

And outside the terminal, it was spring in Kabul! Shockingly, waves of green hugged the dusty foothills and trees proudly displayed leaves and even flowers. Certainly something felt different in the air, maybe the beautiful weather, maybe the bit of rain that had broken the ongoing drought, maybe the reconstruction I could see that had changed the landscape. I asked the Afghan staff who had picked me up at the airport about the recent elections. Did they vote? Had anything changed? How did the Afghan people feel? I grinned as he reported that things were going relatively well in the country. The security situation had improved. People were feeling more confident and optimistic since the election. He explained that during the early morning of the election, many people stayed at home in fear, until later when the news reports were positive and no major violence had erupted. Then people came out in droves to proudly stand in line at the voting polls. Truly, it had been a magnificent day for Afghanistan. ?Life is good in Kabul,? exclaimed Naqib Walli, smiling and sweeping his arms out in front of him as if presenting the urban landscape to me as a glorious gift.

Having had some time to reflect, I can only marvel that a place as exotic and unlikely as Kabul has become, well, familiar to me. This place has given me extraordinary fear and hope, laughter and frustration, beauty wrapped in ugliness, and countless blessings mired in poverty. The extreme dichotomies of this country have changed my life and my view of the world forever. Naqib Walli was right? having been given the opportunity to return to this city has been an exceptional gift, truly a wonderful and amazing privilege. Indeed, life is good in Kabul, even in the face of the heartbreaking challenges the nation faces. And the adventures that lay ahead on this journey, well that is another story soon to come?

Author:  wildiris [ May 2, 2005 7:52 pm ]
Post subject:  Overland Adventure

April 21, 2005

Overland Adventure

My homecoming of sorts to the SFL office in Kabul was bittersweet. The welcoming and genuine smiles of my dear Afghan friends filled me with a sense of belonging, reminiscent of those days of returning to my hometown after several months away at college. There is that connection, that feeling of history and familiarity which lends confidence to ones step and demeanor. Last summer when I arrived at the SFL office, it was a far different feeling, one of insecurity and fear of the unknown, barely overshadowed by a mixture of determination and purposefulness focused on successfully meeting the challenges ahead. Sadly though, certain things have changed, most unfortunately the departure of a few dear colleagues whom I am dearly missing. Eric and Tanya (who is now happily malaria, kidney stone, and parasite free), who many of you may remember from journals past, have moved back to the United States to attempt a life of ?normalcy? after their many years of third world living. They are in the process of starting a new business, buying a new home, and giving birth to a baby girl who will undoubtedly challenge them as much as any mullah or missile here in Kabul. Mary Asha, my good friend with whom I fondly share the memory of being forced to dance center stage in front of a hot, sweaty, and crowded audience at an Afghan circumcision party (yes, you read that right), is newly married and also living in the United States. She is adjusting to life as a traditional Indian wife, a far different reality than the strange existence in a post-war country.

But my stay in Kabul was to be brief, with only one day to adjust to the ten and a half hour time zone difference and the mile high altitude. For the following day I was anticipating a journey like no other I have ever taken. Several days earlier, the Afghan Country Director had e-mailed the final trip itinerary. Quickly skimming over the dates and locations, my brain had flickered at registering something unfamiliar. My eyes jumped back up the list to focus on the sentence that now read ?Kabul to Taluqan, overland? instead of ?Kabul to Taluqan, UN Flight.? To my dismay, we would be traveling overland, as in, driving by truck across a country strewn with landmines, the rusted remains of fiercely fought battles, and perhaps even the elusive bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda clan of 9/11 infamy. If you are unfamiliar with the landscape of Afghanistan, now is the time to pull out your trusty world atlas and take a look at a topography map so you will have a better appreciation of this tale.

So our small caravan departed from Kabul around 7:00 am, with myself, Gary (the Taluqan Project Director), and his driver in the truck, and Jawid (an Afghan staff member) and Muqeem (a Tajik staff member who works in Kabul) driving a second car. This second vehicle had come as a surprise, as Gary?s driver had personally purchased the car during his brief stay at Kabul. I raised an eyebrow and asked, ?So what you are saying is that we are going attempt to drive a vehicle of unknown quality through the Hindu Kush Mountains today?? I do not recall Gary?s response, but I do remember that his voice did not reflect much confidence in the success of the journey ahead.

Despite our reservations, we worked our way through the heavy Kabul traffic, which is unlike anything you could possibly imagine, but let me help to paint the picture in your mind?s eye. First, envision the most poorly paved street in your city. Then, fill it?s entire width and length with trucks, cars, SUV?s, horse drawn wagons, decrepit taxis, overflowing buses, donkey carts, bicycles, burka-clad women, small children, wild dogs, tuk tuks, various militia and police bearing machine guns, a herd of sheep, desperate looking beggars, a couple of tanks, a few random goats, and an excess of toxic exhaust fumes and dust. Now dismiss everything you know about driving safety, rules of the road, and common sense. Finally, imagine that instead of driving defensively, your goal is to drive offensively. In other words, drive at the highest speed you possibly can through the smallest space available into which the vehicle could fit. If anyone is in your way or you are about to, say, intentionally veer into oncoming traffic or onto the sidewalk, beep your horn loudly and repeatedly. There are no traffic laws in Afghanistan? it is truly a free-for-all. Last summer, they had installed the only traffic light in the entire city of Kabul, with a population well over two million. It makes a lovely decorative addition to the street, as no one, and I mean no one, has ever actually stopped the forward motion of a vehicle in response to it changing color.

After our slow crawl through traffic, we finally reached the outskirts of Kabul and I could see the foothills and snow capped mountain peeks looming up ahead. Our driver pulled over to the side of the road just at the city limits and quickly got out of the truck, followed immediately by Gary. I sat for a few minutes alone and soon enough Gary came back, announcing that our second car had been in an accident. Gasping, I peered out the window to see a group of Afghan men arguing and animatedly pointing near the scene of the collision. The passenger side of the vehicle had been rather smashed by a driver who had decided to make a u-turn at high speed in the middle of heavy traffic. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, except of course for the newly purchased vehicle, which was looking a little worse for wear at this point. After a half hour or so both parties came to some agreement of sorts, and once again we were on our way.

Earlier I had asked Gary about what to expect on this journey. He had explained that it was a very long drive, maybe twelve hours, and that we would travel from around 6,000 feet to 12,720 feet at the Salang Pass tunnel. Without a hint of amusement, Gary said ?But don?t worry, the incident of landslides, banditry, and kidnapping have gone way down as of late.? Really. For some reason, his comments were not very reassuring! So it was with visions of Taliban firing rocket launchers from hidden strongholds in the mountainside at our truck that we began our ascent. And we drove, and drove, and drove until the air began to cool and muddy snow started to appear along the road. After a few hours of uphill driving, once again, our driver pulled over to the side. He had noticed that our companion vehicle was no longer behind us. After waiting for about ten minutes, we turned around and drove back to find the car. Several miles back, we located the second half of our convoy, now not only with a smashed in side, but now sporting a deflated and flat tire.

After sitting and waiting for my poor colleagues to patch the tire, we reassembled and again drove onward. Our little caravan wound its way up the mountainside, passing through dark, icy tunnels and clouds of exhaust fumes belching out from the passing trucks. By this time it was after noon, and we were all very hungry and the wheel still needed to be repaired. We stopped at a small mountainside village situated next to a beautiful mountain stream. Along the river were several old, rusty military vehicles and a variety of weaponry which all seemed to have taken permanent root into the ground. Several young boys were playing on the machines, the closest thing to an Afghan playground anywhere on this mountain. So Gary and I took some photos of the children, who posed fiercely on top of the tanks as if they were miniature mujahideen preparing for battle. After snapping a picture of two boys standing nearby, I glanced down and noticed a large rocket head lying at our feet. I nudged Gary, pointing downward with some trepidation, as land mines and unexploded ordnance are commonplace in Afghanistan. The boys chattered in Dari, and we all stared down at this remnant of war, mentally trying to reassure ourselves that of course it had been exploded long age. We carefully, and let me emphasize carefully, made our way back to the road and over to the small roadside market.

Considering that I was the only woman in sight, and I was very likely the only woman within 50 miles who was not wearing a burka (and thus with an exposed face), my appearance in the market and dingy restaurant became quite a spectacle. I do not think I will ever get used to the blatant staring, as if I am some sort of freak show parading past. Whether the men stare because they are offended, or because they are curious, or what? I don?t know, but it is very unsettling and disturbing. I reluctantly entered the dark and dirty restaurant, where we were seated on the ground next to some unhappy chickens that also seemed to be peering at me from inside their cramped, makeshift cages. The handful of men and boys in the building stopped eating and turned to gaze silently in our direction. I sighed, recalling my first experience eating in the bazaar in Kabul last summer. This place, I am afraid to say, was definitely a step down from that unforgettable meal.

Finally after a lunch of 7-Up in a can, flatbread, and rice (I declined the mystery meat this time), we continued our climb up the mountain. After a couple more hours of bumpy roads and choking exhaust fumes, we made it to the Salang Pass, the very long, very dark, very scary looking tunnel that punched its way through the mountain. Several hundred feet in, our driver again pulled to the side of the road. Again, our second vehicle was no longer behind us. We waited, and waited, sitting in the dark, dank tunnel deep inside the mountain. To my dismay, the driver began what amounted to a twenty-point turn in the middle of the tunnel. There we were, completely sideways in both lanes of traffic, with wheels spinning in the grime and ice attempting to incrementally maneuver a 180-degree rotation. I held my breath, waiting for a giant Kamaz truck to come racing around the corner and crash into the side of our tiny truck. Gary and I looked at each other and he mumbled ?can you believe this?? I closed my eyes until finally the truck straightened out and we headed back out of the tunnel, soon finding the car again on the side of the road. Unbelievably, we had flat tire number two.

After yet more waiting and another tire patch, we drove through the creepy tunnel, finally heading down the other side of the mountain and to the next village where, again, we had to get a tire replaced. So we sat and drank cherry juice and uncomfortably waited some more. After sucking down two cans of juice and a half bottle of water, a feeling of regret slowly washed over me. I realized that very, very soon I was going to have to go to the bathroom. With great remorse I inquired, ?Ummmm? Gary, how much farther do we have until we make it to Taluqan?? I cringed when he said about four or five more hours of driving. Now let me tell you, there was no way, NO WAY I was going to the bathroom anywhere on this mountain. First, the sanitary condition of any public latrine would be undoubtedly filthy and result in a very, very bad experience. The last time I attempted to use an eastern style toilet (fondly referred to as a ?squatty potty? because you basically hunker down and aim into a hole in the ground), I actually somehow managed to face the wrong way and pee on my foot while swatting at malaria-stricken mosquitoes and clutching my excessively baggy clothes around my midsection. The second option was to go on the side of the road next to the truck, which would create such a mortifying exhibition that it was most definitely not a realistic choice. The last possibility would be to wander off the road, somehow avoiding all of the land mines which were randomly scattered across the landscape, and pee behind a snow bank or small alpine shrub. Obviously, the risk of taking my last potty break EVER on the side of this mountain was certainly not a good alternative either.

The worst part about this ultimate test of physical endurance was that the last four hours of the trip were mostly on unpaved roads, some of the nastiest roads in the world I imagine. We bounced over potholes that I am certain were created by missiles, jolted across bone-jarring, washboard bumps, and maneuvered over rocks and gullies and ditches and any sort of obstacle you could imagine. I was jostled, shaken, knocked, wiggled, and twisted into every conceivable uncomfortable position possible. And to top it all off, I had a raging headache which would not diminish despite the overdoses of ibuprofen I repeatedly consumed. At some point, I began to wonder if a person could actually die by not going to the bathroom, or if I would simply lose consciousness, resulting in a humiliating bladder failure and medical emergency.

At about hour four of refusing to go to the bathroom, we stopped and posed for pictures on a rusted tank planted in the ditch at the side of the road. By this time, I could actually barely walk? but I knew that we were very, very close to Taluqan so I climbed on top of the tank and managed a grimacing smile at the camera. Finally, one car accident, two flat tires, two tire repairs, and thirteen hours of driving later (five of which I fended off a complete organ breakdown), we pulled into the Taluqan office. ?Gary? I whispered hoarsely, ?please? please take me to your bathroom.? With a regretful look he hesitated, and finally responded with ?I hate to tell you this Amy, but we really don?t have a bathroom. We only have a hole in the ground.? Almost with tears in my eyes, I whispered ?Please, please, then just lead me to your hole in the ground.? Never before and probably never again will I be so happy to see a squatty potty, which I successfully used even with only the aid of a dim flashlight and some toilet paper strikingly similar to the course-grit sandpaper I recently purchased at Home Depot. Thoroughly relieved but utterly exhausted, I dragged my luggage into my new room, collapsed onto the bed, and immediately passed out into a deep and dreamless slumber. So thus was the glorious conclusion to our unforgettable overland adventure across northeastern Afghanistan and the Salang Pass. I am happy to say that as the next few days unfolded in Taluqan, it became clearly evident to me that the trip had been well worth it.

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