I'm not suicidal
After an eye-opening trip to Egypt in the summer of 2001, I became interested in learning more about Islamic culture and its impact on the people of the Middle East and Central Asia. Since then I've visited Muslim communities in Turkey and western China. What I've learned is that while Islam is the primary belief system in these parts of the world, the local people do hold on to their own traditions. As you head into Central Asia, Persian and other languages displace Arabic. You'll find Muslims not afraid to make wine.
I wanted to go to Afghanistan for many reasons, some of them personal. Definitely, I wanted to see what was happening in the most important country in Central Asia right now. Afghanistan has been the crossroads of empires for over 2,000 years. The Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, Pakistani and Russians have all tried to tame this land, pitting one ethnic group against another, using the different groups as proxies in their own conflicts. Today, Afghanistan is on the front line of the War on Terror, and Afghan leaders have asked U.S. and NATO forces to remain in the country, to protect them from the Taliban attacking from the south. There is still distrust between the ethnic groups in the north and the dominant Pashtun ethnic group in the south. President Karzai, himself a Pashtun born in the southern city of Kandahar, has warned Canada that his country would become unstable if Canada withdrew its forces.
Even with the fighting in the south, tens of thousands of Western aid workers, investors, foreign service officers, and private security contractors live and work in Afghanistan. I wanted to see a little bit of what life for them was like. I would be lying if I said that the thrill of visiting a dangerous conflict zone did not play a big role in my decision. But I am not crazy or suicidal; if I were, I would have tried going to Kandahar province, not just Kabul.
I started planning for the trip in June, 2007. I knew that Kabul and the north were relatively safe compared to the rest of the country. I wanted to visit in late August or early September. I began by reading the message boards on Lonely Planet's Thorntree discussion forum. The postings were by people working in Afghanistan and travelers looking for advice in getting in and out of the country. Another valuable message board was Kabul Survival Guide. Most of the postings there were by business people and those living and working in Kabul.
Being familiar with the terrain and geography was important to me, so I downloaded dozens of maps of Afghanistan and Kabul. Some of them were from the 80's, most were simple with little detail, showing primarily embassies, others were in Russian or Arabic. I also collected maps that illustrated the different ethnic and language groups. Google Maps and Google Earth were a big help because they provided detailed satellite photos of the streets in Kabul.
For weather information, I researched daily reports and seasonal averages from Weather Underground. Kabul was going to be hot, with highs in the 90's. I started reading all I could about the history of Afghanistan on the web; I ordered some books from Amazon. For daily news, I read articles about Kabul on Google News and Afghan Wire.
For the next three months, I read about ancient Afghan history, the Soviet-Afghan War of the 80's, the Afghan Civil War of the 90's, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan, Waziristan tribal areas, current politics, human rights, womens rights, ethnic conflicts, ethnic cleansing, education, and street orphans. I watched videos on YouTube about Kabul, Operation Enduring Freedom, Malalai Joya, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ISAF and the Taliban. I skimmed through The Kite Runner at the bookstore. To learn the languages, I bought some books and CDs on Farsi, Dari and Pashto. I compared inns and airlines in Kabul and tried to contact some of them to see how they responded.
To "blend in", I grew a slight beard and bought a pakol hat from an online Muslim clothing store. I did not, however, plan to dress in Afghan or Pakistani clothing. I just wanted to keep a low profile, e.g. not wear a backpack or look too much like a traveler since I was only planning on visiting Kabul and maybe the northern part of the country for a few days.
After some initial research, I began posting questions on Lonely Planet's Thorntree and Kabul Survival Guide, on everything from where ATM machines were in Kabul to seating assignments on Kam Airway flights. I also posted on craigslist to inquire if anyone wanted to go with me. I always travel alone, but for Afghanistan, I would make an exception. Some people were interested, but not serious. Others thought I was nuts or just joking. Some gave me good ethical reasons for not going.
As a tourist I would endanger Afghans. If anything were to happen to me, money and resources that could go to the Afghan people would go towards helping me. I would be getting in everyone's way and wasting their time and money. I didn't attempt to argue against this. I felt that as long as there were Afghans creating their own homegrown tourism business, it couldn't be all that bad. I also felt that by not helping the fledgling Afghan tourism industry, we would be surrendering to the Taliban and indirectly helping their cause to isolate Afghanistan.
When July came around, I was becoming more excited about going. I paid for a round trip flight to Dubai on KLM, wired money to a company in Kabul called Afghan Logistics and Tours for a tour of Panjshir Valley, and reserved a room at Safi Landmark Hotel and Suites in Kabul's City Centre building. I received a Letter of Introduction from Afghan Logistics, and mailed that, my passport and visa application to the Afghan Consulate in Los Angeles. In a week, I got my visa. After that, I reserved a flight on Kam Air from Dubai to Kabul.
Situation in Kabul
During this time, the Taliban kidnapped twenty three South Korean aid workers; Kabul was banning all foreigners from leaving the capital without armed escort. This angered me; it made me even more emboldened to go. I was upset with the Taliban for causing this trouble. I was afraid their suicide attacks and hostage taking would prevent me from entering or leaving Kabul and touring Panjshir Valley.
The CEO of Afghan Logistics informed me that the ban was only enforced on roads going south of Kabul. Since Panjshir Valley is north, this was not a problem. In any case, the ban was lifted after a couple of weeks. In August, a German woman was kidnapped in a Kabul restaurant, then released. Suicide attacks on the outskirts of Kabul seemed to occur every week or two. By then, I had spent so much time and money preparing for the trip, nothing was going to stop me from going, nothing short of an all out Taliban and Al Qaeda attack on the city.
One decision I had to make before going was whether to register with the U.S. State Department, to let them know I would be in Afghanistan. I decided not to. I would have if I were staying longer than a week. I wasn't and I didn't want anyone in the U.S. government knowing where I was going. Also, I wanted no connection with the government, nor any possibility of anyone interfering with my trip. There are times when you need to be an American with a U.S. passport; other times when, for your own personal security, you don't want that to be known. That was why I also brought my Irish passport along – just in case. This was Afghanistan, after all.
On the morning I left San Francisco, I read that there was a suicide attack at Kabul airport's military gate; one Afghan soldier was killed. This was for real now.
On the way to Kabul
Leaving San Francisco was easy, no hassles. Since my flights were going to Amsterdam and Dubai, I didn't need to tell airport officials I was going to Afghanistan. Obviously, I didn't want to do that, and invite opportunities for questioning by TSA and airport security. I stayed at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam for only a few hours; I had little time to rest and read the news. I went to the gate for my flight to Dubai. Most of the passengers were Westerners; many of them were U.S. troops, maybe visiting Dubai, or going to Iraq or Afghanistan.
My flight arrived in Terminal 1 of Dubai's International Airport on a late Monday night. I had to be at Terminal 2 the following morning, but I didn't know how to get there. I spent a few minutes milling around a transfers counter trying to make sense of where I was. There was a crowd of people there, mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and others from the region. It sounded like they were having transfer problems. Soon, I noticed some were simply walking through a bag scanner and checkpoint to get downstairs. Since I didn't have any transfer problems, I thought I'd just go through the checkpoint also.
I waved my U.S. passport and Kam Air reservation, told the guard I was trying to find Terminal 2. He let me through. I went downstairs, into the duty-free shopping center of Terminal 1. What a busy place! Hundreds of people were sleeping on the carpeted floor. There was a Quiet Area lounge, but all the reclining seats were taken. I found some information desks, and confirmed I needed to go to downstairs to the transfer desk at 4:00 a.m., when the shuttle would be available to take people to Terminal 2. After buying a few items, I napped under the plastic chairs with my jacket for a pillow. The chair shielded me from the bright lights, and I tied the straps of my bags around my arm so they would be harder to steal without waking me up.
After my first nap, I found a police office and took another nap near there. When I woke up at 4:00 a.m., the terminal was quiet. There were hundreds of people sleeping on the floor all around me. I quietly got up, packed my things and headed downstairs to the transfer lounge. The transfer lounge was my first step to Kabul. The agent at the counter verified what city I came from, the exact flight I arrived on, and where I was going. "Going to Afghanistan?", he asked, looking at me curiously. I just smiled and shrugged. I didn't feel like explaining. I saw some Americans and Europeans arriving in the waiting area. I guessed they were going to Terminal 2, probably heading off to Kabul or Baghdad. When the bus arrived, the agent at the counter gave us our boarding passes. The bus took several minutes crossing the airport to get to Terminal 2.
Terminal 2 was a duty-free shop with a waiting lounge and a cafe. The lounge was packed with Pakistanis waiting for a flight to Islamabad. The departure board listed such cities as Kabul, Baghdad, Tehran and Islamabad. Most of the women wore burqas or hijabs, and most of the men wore white robes, turbans, kufi caps, and had long bushy beards. I was definitely heading deep into the more conservative part of the Islamic world. At the store, I bought an Etisalat SIM card; I hoped to use this phone in Afghanistan.
At Gate 2, passengers for the Ariana Airlines flight to Kabul lined up. I noticed a few Westerners in the line, but mostly Afghans, Arabs, Pakistanis and others from the region. A little later, at Gate 1, all the Kam Air passengers gathered. We were about 70% foreigners and 30% Afghan, Pakistan and others. Most of us were from America, Canada, Europe, a few from East Asia, like China, Japan or South Korea. Seeing so many foreigners made me more relaxed. I was surprised at the large number of Americans, particular older people over fifty, going to Kabul. Many of them were women, probably aid workers or other experienced professionals.
The sun rose – another hot and steamy morning in Dubai. At 7:00 a.m., a bus took us from Terminal 2 to the Kam Air Boeing 767 that was waiting on the runway. Some of the men on the bus were either U.S. military or private security. They spoke, with a thick Southern accent, of the fighting going on and the contracts they'd signed. They wore T-shirts that had "Tennessee, Duke, and Operation Enduring Freedom" on them. They were upbeat, but weren't talking about victory or anything conclusive. We got aboard the plane and readied for takeoff. I sat next to a middle-age Afghan gentlemen with a long beard and dark glasses. He didn't speak English, but we exchanged a few words in Dari. He seemed nervous about flying and prayed several times during the two-hour flight. The flight was uneventful.
See Part II for the continuation of this story.