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....

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