Monday, March 27, 2006

Afghans 4 Tomorrow Guesthouse (Day 1 Part 3)

Above pic: Sign in front of guesthouse. To learn more about Afghans 4 Tomorrow, visit their website

Above pic: A view of our mornings piling into our vans.

Above pic: The back yard of the guesthouse on a later sunny day.

Above pic: This was the little building that Ceanna and I took a room in.

Above pic: The back yard view from the guesthouse.

Above pic: One of our dining room tables with (l to r) Ceanna, Nancy and Tracy. Notice the little window leading to the kitchen.

Above pic: The little window leading from the dining room to the kitchen and one of our wonderful cooks.

Above pic: The other dining room table with scrumptious food and (l to r) Kristie, Patty and Jen.

Below pic: Naqibullah relaxing in the guesthouse's living room.

Within 25 minutes, we arrived at the Afghans 4 Tomorrow Guesthouse.The neighborhood is modest and consists of local people. I instantly loved this fact (I later find out that because of security issues, many foreign governmental and NGO workers are confined to their compounds and have little access to being among the community). The guesthouse is certainly the nicest building on the unpaved street - in fact, one of the few buildings fully intact. Even the buildings immediately surrounding the guesthouse are either completely in ruin or under reconstruction. The guesthouse is also very secure with high gates and barbed wire. Once inside the gate, it is very comfortable and welcoming. There is a large backyard with fledgling rose bushes planted in neat rows. The inside of the building is simple yet very comfortable - a large living room done up in the Afghan style of cushions and a low table, a dining room and an upstairs with four bedrooms and a bathroom. Around back, there is another small building with two bedrooms and a bathrooom. Ceanna and I took one of these rooms, which was a nice retreat from the crowd. All in all, I was very at ease and felt very at home.

Sunday 3/5/06 Day One (part 2)

The weather was grey, wet and chilly. I believe the dim weather made the first sights of the city look especially dismal as our van traveled along the streets of Kabul toward our guesthouse - crumbled buildings, twisted electrical posts, strong local and international military presence, barricades and soldiers protecting government buildings and embassies. Yet it was evident from this first drive through the city that life went on like normal for the Afghans on the street. The center of town is home to a myriad of small businesses and stalls selling bare essentials - homemade bread (made in very inviting, little bakeries), vegetables, women's clothing, hardware equipment and fresh meat (with entire skinned cows hanging brazenly). Even the humblest of structures donned fairly new, brightly painted signs advertising their businesses - both in Dari and English. Indian movie posters were pasted onto walls. Brightly colored Afghan wedding dresses hung in store windows. It was amazing for me to consider that so many of these things re-emerged only within the past four years since the fall of the Taliban. I was entering territory where the simplest of things were perhaps of extreme significance and value - color, laughter, women wearing nailpolish, posters with images of faces, music floating out of someone's car. The thought brought to me the wonder of a child appreciating life's simple beauties..... The men and women on the street donned big wool shawls to protect themselves from the chilly drizzle. Many men wore the loose shalwar cameez and either white caps, brown woolen "Massoud" caps or material draped into a bit of a turban. Most of the women wore long coats over loose pants and a casual headscarf. I would suggest that only about 1/3 of the women still wear the sky blue burka (though no longer lawfully enforced), some of them in a very casual manner (pulled back over their heads exposing their faces)..... Like I've already mentioned, my first impression of Afghans (an impression that only continued to strengthen throughout my time in Afghanistan) was how amazingly active they are. Even on this rainy day, men and young boys were busy shoveling piles of rubble and hammering away to rebuild destroyed structures. Everyone on the street was busy doing something. You could feel the energy that there was almost a quarter of a century to make up for and people were determined to not waste a single moment. As Jason Elliot observes of Kabul in the 1990's in his book, An Unexpected Light, "Everywhere there was an infectious enthusiasm for life, and we felt richer for it."..... As we had the opportunity to meet with many Afghan people and Afghan organizations engaged in the various reconstruction efforts, I came to compare the people to an ember - a profoundly patient ember that was not extinguished by the endless years of suffering and various wars. This ember seemed just to be waiting for that moment of fresh breath in order to ignite. And it seemed that as soon as Afghans were given that slight breeze of hope and change only a mere 4 1/2 years ago, this ember quickly blazed into a fire that has continued to grow and build into what I can only hope is an unstoppable force of peace and stability....

Friday, March 24, 2006

First sights of the city

Above Pics: taken from the van...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sunday 3/5/06 Day One (part 1)

Above pic: from left to right: Farid, Ceanna, Naqibullah

Above pic: from left to right: Naqibullah, Farid, Daoud's father, Farid

From left to right: Najib, Naqibullah, Farid......

The reality that I was actually going to Afghanistan didn't really hit me until I finally arrived at the Dubai airport. My flight from Amsterdam arrived at nearly midnight. Ceanna, the coordinator from Global Exchange (who also was to participate in the delegation and was sitting just in front of me on this flight) recognizes me and introduces herself. Being the same age and like-minded, her and I became room-mates and comrades for the ten days spent in Afghanistan. Upon entering the terminal, I meet another two women from the delegation. Via taxi, the four of us made our way from the luxurious Terminal One to the extremely modest Terminal Two where our flight to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines would be departing from. The differences between the two terminals are very interesting - I guess they figure those heading to Afghanistan have little concern for luxury (and no doubt, a challenging time would await those who did have such tastes).

We arrived in Terminal 2 within a half hour of landing and rested ourselves at the small cafeteria. The time (now being closer to 1:00 AM), the strange terminal, and my jetlag created a dreamlike reality as Afghans, Arabs and western NGO workers mill about the old-fashioned terminal. As we waited for the hours to pass until checking in for our 6 AM flight, more of our delegation inquisitively approach our table - what other motley crew would be going to Afghanistan than a Global Exchange delegation? Eventually we met nearly everyone in our delegation - ten American women, one Canadian woman and one man from Italy. Aside from the female majority, our group was very diverse in terms of ages, backgrounds and professions. Though everyone was very nice, I would have to say that my main concern prior to the trip (and main challenge once on the trip) was being apart of such a large group. I really am accustomed to traveling alone. Once in Afghanistan, however, any time I felt claustrophobic or frustrated with anyone, I eased these feelings with the fact that this was the only way I could visit this country at this point of time - despite Lonely Planet's short section on Afghanistan in their new Central Asia guidebook, Afghanistan is a war-torn country that has not hosted a tourist industry in over 25 years. Ultimately, my experience in Afghanistan with meeting so many amazing Afghan organizations compensated for any of my petty issues related to being in a large group.

At 6 AM we boarded our flight to Kabul. Apparently, Ariana Afghan Airlines is jokingly referred to as "Scariana" or "Insha'lla" Airlines. I personally didn't find the flight too nerve-wracking, despite its dated equipment (however, sleep deprivation and jet lag sometimes does wonders to quench fears). Finally, as we descended upon the capital of Kabul, I regreted having been assigned a seat in the middle row, as I could only barely stretch my head enough to see the late morning sun illuminate the snow capped Hindu Kush mountains that enfold the city.

After exiting the plane, the stark airport with its strong military presence was our introduction to Kabul. The landscape leading to the mountains was dry and brown, a slight wind blew around the loose scarf I wore around my head as we walked down the stairway from the plane. We boarded a small bus with a Japanese flag and a "From the people of Japan" painted on the side and it took us to the terminal. A grand sign greeted us, "Welcome to Kabul - Be Kabul Khosh Amadeed." Two billboards sandwich the welcome sign. One displays the face of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, who looks directly into the camera and dons a calm yet confident expression. The other displays the face of General Ahmad Shah Massoud, the country's beloved mujahideen "freedom fighter," who is sometimes referred to as an Afghan "Che Guevera" and was assassinated a few days before September 11th by two alleged al-Qaida agents posing as Moroccan journalists. Massoud's face is turned in his picture on this airport billboard, humbly looking downward, yet still exhibiting dignity and poise - images of roses cascade around the face of Afghanistan's Massoud.

For a capital of a country, the airport is extremely small, dark and run down. It was the first example of how so many years of war has stunted most modernization of the country. Upon entering, we were swept along chaotic lines of customs and baggage claim. Old men relentlessly approached everyone with pushcarts, insisting to carry luggage for a small baksheesh. My luggage, as well as those belonging to three other women in the delegation, never arrive. Good thing I was wearing my favorite, most sturdy shalwar cameez, for I would end up wearing it for 5 days waiting for my luggage. Also, the weather was quite cold the first few days, and I was grateful that I happened to have some warm layers as well.

Some random man in charge assured me and the others that the luggage would come in 2-3 days. There are no computer tracking systems - only a stack of books with handwritten baggage claim numbers and a ragged piece of paper with pictures of different luggage styles that you can point to in order to help describe your missing luggage. Not much you can do in a situation like this but go with the flow and attempt to keep a sense of humor - which I did my best to do. In the midst of the luggage drama, we meet Najib, our delegation guide. He is a very gentle man in his mid-thirties, with a beard and thick glasses, slightly taller than I. The luggage drama was only the first of the group drama this poor guy was to deal with - but he always proved to handle everything with such patience and kindness.

After Najib does what he can in regards to our lost luggage (which really isn't much), we all head out of the terminal to the outside parking lots. After a military point, we were greeted by Naqibullah, Najib's assistant - a polite, kind, somewhat shy 19 year old - and he assists us to our two small, humble vans . I appreciated the vans' modest aesthetic for the sake of subtlety and inconspicuousness. Once at the vans, we meet our drivers - Farid and Daoud. They, too, are polite and warm, and they were quick to cram our luggage into the trusty vehicles. We proceed to squeeze ourselves in as well and then embark through the city toward the Afghans 4 Tomorrow guesthouse in west Kabul....

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Thus begins my reflections of Afghanistan...

I have now returned from Afghanistan. I am left copletely in awe, speechless and inspired. My intentions were to update my blog on a regular basis while in Kabul. I was challenged by this for a few reasons. First of all, the jetlag really took ahold of me, as well as my writing and processing abilities. Second of all, we had a limited amount of time at the internet cafe. Lastly, I was so blown away and emotionally moved by what I was experiencing and seeing that no words seemed to give justice to these most inspiring people and organizations that I was so honored to meet. Afghans are so incredibly active in the reconstruction efforts. It was evident in every moment I was there - from the work of the organizations to the humble man, woman, or child within the community who are relentlessly cleaning and rebuilding neighborhoods. Thus begins my reflections of Afghanistan, for both myself, my friends, and for those who were so generous to support this trip. As the rebuilding of Afghanistan is a slow process, so are the unfolding memories of this short time I spent in Kabul. Throughout the upcoming weeks, I will write and describe as best I can my experience in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Whirlwind of Leaving

This trip to Afghanistan has been a true test of how hard I am willing to work for something. From gaining my professors' permission to complete the winter quarter 2 weeks early, to taking on the difficult task of fundraising $3500 in less than eight weeks, to keeping ahead in all of my 16 credits of studies ... and now today, the day before I leave, was quite the climax. It began at 5:00 AM (after going to sleep at 2:00). I hadn't crammed enough studies; I hadn't rehearsed my dance composition that I had to present in Dance 101; I had a TV interview to get ready for!!! In the 2 and a half hours I had before needing to get to school, I crammed in as many Farsi words as I could, and repeated the names of Sufi Scholars until it became like a mantra. Two final exams were mere hours away (one in Farsi, one in Islam).... oh, my heart pounded. I get to school at 8:00, present my dance composition at 8:45, get to the KOMO 4 news interview (regarding the trip to Afghanistan) by 10:00, complete that by 10:50, get back to school to take my Islam final exam at 11:30, complete that by 1:30, take my Farsi final exam at 2:30, complete that by 4:30..... and now I sit here 5:30 PM Thursday evening, zoning on this screen like a sleep deprived zombie and realize - oh man! I have to start packing! I leave tomorrow!